My name is Star Caster. Star for short. I'm a unicorn whose home is in Trottingham, but I live in Canterlot while I study. I've been described as mousy, humble, quiet, and plain. My mane is... Well, it's not luxurious, but it is long. I tell ya, it's a pain to deal with. I keep it braided, but even then the damn braid gets knotted or trips me up... The damn thing hangs to my hooves. Sure, I've thought of cutting it, but it seems as soon as I do, it just grows right back out to the same length. My tail's no better, and let me tell you, if I weren't a unicorn I'd just as soon not have a tail.
... I'm getting side-tracked, aren't I? Where was I? Right... Canterlot. All that jazz.
Oh! I'm white, with a black mane... My cutie mark is three shooting stars. I'm not sure why that's important, but it is.
Canterlot. Focus, girl.
I've always been an unskilled magician. My parents were awfully proud of my so-called talents, enough to send me off to Canterlot to study. But I think I'm helpless. Even the smallest bits of telekinesis usually go wrong for me. And don't get me started on any spells I might try to cast. Those explode in my face more often than not, and when they don't, the side-effects are usually pretty catastrophic anyways.
Like the jelly incident.
We don't talk about the jelly incident... Well, I'll just say that I won't be hosting any cutecineras anymore.
Anyways, I'm in Canterlot studying magic now. My spare time is spent volunteering at the library in exchange for a meal a day. I catalog books, though I tend to get distracted by one particularly juicy novel or another.
Hey, don't blame me, it's Bookend's fault. He keeps making me sort the fantasy novels. Nevertheless, I'm constantly getting yelled at for lollygagging, daydreaming, or slacking. I really am trying, though... And it's hard for me. My parents think I'm their perfect little miracle, a bundle of potential all wrapped up in a black mane. Why they spend the bits on my housing is beyond me. I thank them every day for their contributions to my studies, but it all feels like it's going nowhere.
At least, it felt like it was going nowhere.
Until I met Princess Twilight Sparkle, A.K.A. The Archmage.
It all started... Well, I guess I'll start with me getting my cutie mark. I was a pretty awkward little filly growing up in Trottingham. The city's old, and so is our education system. Fillies were in one class, colts in the other. We all went to the same school, but we seldom saw the other kids of the opposite sex. All of our lessons were taught on blackboard with chalk, and if we didn't pay attention we got swatted across the hooves with a ruler. Disciplinary issues were dealt with harshly and swiftly. Rumor had it way back in the olden days, before Nightmare Moon, students would go to a dungeon for their punishments.
We didn't have anything quite that traditional, but it certainly felt like it when you came out of the headmistress' office with sore flanks. She was awfully accurate with that paddle of hers. Maybe it was because my schooling was so strict, but I came out of it none the better for all the attention I was supposed to be paying. I still had a penchant for daydreaming and lollygagging, enough to have me removed from school. Ever since then, I studied at home with my mother and father.
Being home-schooled wasn't the most ideal, but I actually loved it. My mother (A pegasus) fully understood my desire to go play, while my father (An earth pony) kept me grounded in my studies enough to help me learn what I actually needed to know. More than that, he fostered my love of reading. My mother said I struck a delicate balance between 'free-willed spirit and studiousness.' It was under the shade of my favorite tree with one of my first Daring Do books that I got my cutie mark. None of us knew what the three shooting stars meant, but it was exciting nevertheless. I loved reading, and learning new things excited me, but I was also adventurous and eager to explore. If my nose wasn't in a book, it was poking into every nook and cranny in the old city that I could find. Daring Do was my idol, and I spent a lot of my time trying to embody the spirit of discovery and excitement I always read about.
To me, the dusty old ramparts of Trottingham became the walls of the fortress housing my rival's forces. The undersides of stairwells and dirty hallways became spooky caves and troves of treasure. Old mouse bones and dustballs fascinated me, as I thought they were jewels and artifacts.
My delusions seem to perpetuate into today. I find myself in the library, perched atop some secluded bookshelf or another, reading about tales of old where magical heroes and daring valkyries explore the long-lost mysteries of the world; my head filled with dreams of grandeur and recognition...
All to be grounded in reality as Bookend throws another... Well, another bookend at me. Those things hurt.
I stayed in Trottingham until I matured, but my magic was still very unrefined. My parents loved me and thought I had so much talent, but they weren't unicorns. They didn't understand that spells aren't supposed to explode in your face, singe your mane, and unceremoniously remove your eyebrows. They don't know that you aren't supposed to slam the item you're levitating into the wall, or not even be able to lift a pebble.
Outside of my home, I was a menace. Everywhere I went, every bit of magic I tried to do, it ended in failure.
Like the jelly incident.
It came to the point that the guard in Trottingham began fining me for my accidents. Whenever I'd try to help somepony in the street and instead smashed their belongings to pieces on the cobblestones, fifty bits. Whenever I'd try to retrieve a frisbee from the tree for the little fillies down the street and instead do some impromptu landscaping, seventy-five bits.
You get the point.
So my parents sent me to Canterlot. Here, magical accidents were not just allowed, but prevalent. I wouldn't say they're disastrous by any means, but you see unicorns fail spells or drop telekinetic items all over the place. I thought I'd be welcomed with open hooves. But the ponies who make those mistakes are taught and corrected. They improve, and don't make them again. If anything, my own shortcomings became worse. I still dropped items, or smashed them into wherever it was I was trying to send them. My spells still erupted in my face, or had some rather unforseen consequences. (I won't tell you about the time I tried to be a barista at the cafe... That poor stallion.)
And that brings us to today. Or rather, yesterday. I was doing some work in the library (Actual work, mind you. I had already been snapped at for reading that day,) when she just... Appeared. I won't say she teleported, but I was checking items off of the most recent acquisitions list when bam. I looked up, and there she was.
Twilight Sparkle. By the stars, she looked beautiful. I always loved her mane, and just like the other princesses, she had that mysterious 'I'm way older and much more powerful than you'll ever hope to imagine' sort of appeal to her. I glanced at her horn, her wings, and her head that was way taller than mine.
"Hello," She said to me. "I'm looking for Star Caster?"
"That'd be me." I had to re-adjust my glasses (Damn things kept slipping down my muzzle.) "Wh-what can I do for you?"
"One small favor," Twilight smiled and handed me this slip of paper. On it was a list of books I'd never heard of before. "Bring these to my office day after tomorrow, and some stationery."
"Wh-what? Why?" I took the paper from her, glad I didn't scorch it right in front of the most powerful magician in all of Equestria.
"Because," she winked at me. "You're taking your lessons from me now."
So here I am. Canterlot Castle. I've been here a grand total of four times. Three times to report some of my more noticable magical errors, and a fourth to pay the fine for giving a thirsty stallion second-degree coffee burns. I've got my saddlebags, the books the princess asked me to get, and what little stationery I had that hadn't been doodled on or used for notes. The books were thick and heavy, and I am not the strongest unicorn. Just hiking to the castle from my tiny little house at the edge of the city had turned me into a sweaty, frumpy mess. I blew the stray strands of my mane that had come free from my braid out of my face and ascended the steps to the grand double doors. Two guards stepped in my way, looking rather imposing with their spears and gleaming armor.
"Pr-princess Twilight Sparkle sent f-for me..." I had always been intimidated by the guards, as they tended to jump on any magical disturbances rather quickly. Not to mention the stories I read were riddled with tales of corrupt and cruel guards who'd just as soon stick a spear in a pony than give them directions.
Maybe I was biased, but given my previous interactions with the guard in Canterlot, I had reason to believe they weren't terribly pleased with me.
"Oh, you're Star Caster." The guards smiled and stepped aside, opening the doors for me. I blinked in shock. The guards were being nice to me? What in the name of all things in the sky was happening? I hesitantly stepped forwards, my eyes gone wide in wonder at the sight of the grand hall. I paused on the threshold for a moment before turning to the guard.
"East wing, third floor. You'll recognize her cutie mark on the signs." He cut me off with a kind, patient smile.
"Right. Thank you." I blushed furiously and made my way into the grand hall, turning towards the stairwell on my right.
"East wing!" One of the guards called out to me. Flushing brighter, I turned to the opposite end of the hall and mounted that staircase. A million questions ran through my mind, and I didn't have an answer for a single one of them. When the Archmage asks you to her office, you go. No ifs, ands, or buts. I felt trepidation and doubt build up in my throat as I made my way up to the third floor. Sure enough, Twilight's cutie mark emblazoned several signs on the foyer, pointing me on my way. Thankfully enough, as the hall was cluttered with a million other signs that could just as easily have been misinterpreted.
When I found the warm, oaken door with the plaque reading 'Archmage Twilight' on it, I hesitantly knocked.
"Come in!" A cheery voice greeted me, and I pushed the door open.
"Fuck me running." The words espaced me before I could stop them. I shoved my hoof into my mouth hastily, though the damage was done. I expected Twilight to chide me on my language or appear displeased, but she just beckoned me over the threshold with a smile.
"Not the first time I've heard those words." Twilight stood at the edge of a well-worn table piled high with books. Her 'office' was actually a library, warmly lit and decked out in comfortable-looking furniture. There was even a fireplace here, crackling merrily. Why Twilight wanted a fire in the middle of June was beyond me, but it wasn't unwelcome. As I stepped onto the lush red carpet, I had to look around in awe. The library was two-tiered, with a second balcony level circling the first. I could see up to the level above ours, and the multitude of shelves lining the walls there. The ground floor was a mirror to the top one; every wall was covered with books. There were two windows set opposite each other to my right and left, but aside from there there was no other source of light save the multitude of candles and the crackling fireplace.
"Come on over here," Twilight chuckled. I shut my mouth and trotted to her, my blush rising even more. I stopped at the edge of the table, still rather unsure of what I was supposed to be doing here. Twilight's horn began to glow as she cleared the table of books, smoothly levitating the dozen or so volumes back to their respective shelves. I found myself envious of the easy way she handled so many small things. For me, trying to do the same task would have taken a half an hour and more than a few damaged bindings.
"Did you bring the books I asked?" She smiled at me. I scrambled to take off my saddlebags as I unceremoniously dumped the books out on the table, though much to my dismay the stationery joined it.
"Damnit." I watched with dismay as the ink well splattered all over one of the books Twilight had asked me to bring, darkening the pages. Twilight just smiled and wrapped the whole mess in her magic. I was mystified as the ink peeled off of the pages, floating harmlessly back into its bottle. "Th-thank you... I'm sorry."
"Relax, Star Caster." Twilight continued to smile at me, even as the books neatly stacked and the stationery arranged itself on the table. "I know you're probably nervous, but let me tell you now that you needn't be. I only called you here because I heard of your struggles." To hear that Twilight had learned of my shortcomings as a unicorn was embarassing to say the least. There were plenty of other unicorns in and around Canterlot who knew they couldn't trust me to levitate a feather, but I had hoped to escape the interest of the most powerful being in existence. I could have lit a fire with my cheeks, but Twilight cupped my chin, drawing my eyes up to hers.
I could have died. Twilight Sparkle was touching me! She was every bit as much my idol as Daring Do was. I had heard hundreds of stories about Twilight, both from her time as the Archmage (before the title had become hers and hers alone,) and when she had become a Princess. Since then, Twilight had fostered several Archmages, but almost seventeen hundred years ago, had discontinued the position, to be filled solely by herself. Rumor had it she still trained skilled magicians, further developing and empowering them...
But I was anything but skilled. If anything, I needed therapy, not advanced lessons. It was that concern I addressed now.
"Pr-princess, I-I don't think I'm qualified to-"
"Relax, Star Caster. I called you here to help, not to worsen your workload."
"O-okay." I was cowed into silence, staring helplessly at the table's worn finish. I nearly started when Twilight cupped my chin once more, drawing my eyes up to hers.
"I want to start mentoring more ponies, Star Caster."
"Please, just Star..." I offered meekly. Twilight smiled and nodded warmly.
"Star. Well, I want to expand my repretoire, as it were. There are only a few ponies who could have aspired to call themselves Archmage way back when, and those standards are still in place today - even for my own students... Personally, I don't like them." Twilight stood and padded a short distance away to stop in front of one of the bookshelves. She pulled a few tomes out before settling on one. "I want magic to be available to every unicorn, young and old, skilled or not." She returned to the table with the book, setting it before me. The cover was incredibly worn, and the pages cracked with age.
"So what does this have to do with me?" I asked quietly.
"I want you to be my first student." Twilight smiled as she carefully opened the book to the first page. "Just like Celestia did with me long, long ago, I wish to do for you." My eyes widened at the text on the page. It was Twilight's diary from when she was just a filly.
“Focus, Star.” Twilight’s voice penetrated through my senses, smashing what hopes I had of focusing. The feather I was attempting to levitate promptly fell back to the table. I sighed and let the magic leave my horn and the regular glow of the few dozen candles returned to the library.
“I can’t focus.” I shook my head in defeat, even as Twilight laid her hoof on my back.
“Sure you can. Your focus is just easily interrupted. There’s a difference between not focusing and not focusing well. Tell me, Star, how often have you been reading only to find yourself, I don’t know, under your favorite tree, or in some other secluded place?”
“Uuh, that actually happens quite often.” I admitted with a blush. “Bookend hates me for it.”
“Bookend doesn’t hate you for anything.” Twilight chuckled, crossing the distance to the table with the feather. She smoothly swept it aside and hovered a thick ball of granite onto the table, plopping it down with an audible *thunk*. “Let’s try this.”
“Okay…” I eyed the heavy-looking ball suspiciously. Twilight stepped aside, smiling warmly at me. She was always smiling. Then again, knowing the amount of power she commanded, I’d be terrified out of my coat if she did anything else. I closed my eyes and felt for the ball. My horn began to glow as I wrapped my magic around it, testing for weight. As soon as I applied the littlest bit of pressure, Twilight gasped.
“What?” I opened my eyes again, and the ball was right in front of my face. If I weren’t already white, I’d have gone pale. Twilight’s lavender magic enveloped the granite ball, stopping it a half an inch from my nose. My eyes went wide and my heart started beating fast enough to make the fastest pegasus in Equestria jealous. “F-fuck me.”
“Yeah.” Twilight breathed a sigh of relief. “My sentiments exactly… You’re okay? Did it hit you?”
“Just my pride.” I side-stepped the ball and let my magic die down. Twilight gingerly set the ball back on the table and let out a breath she didn’t seem to know she was holding. I plopped on my haunches and set a hoof on my breast, feeling my throbbing heart begin to slow down.
“You mustn’t be discouraged, Star.” Twilight crossed over to me, laying a hoof on my back. “Though you may want to keep your eyes open next time.”
“Right.” I frowned even more intently at the ball. It wouldn’t have been the first time I’d hurt myself with magic, but it very well might have been my last. The thing was heavy. Or, at least I guessed it was heavy. I couldn’t quite tell, considering I had barely put any effort into lifting it, and the next thing I knew the damn thing almost beamed me in the face.
“Let’s try again, alright? Just take it easy this time.”
“Right. Nice and easy. Don’t even think about it, right?”
“Right. Just act natural. You just feel for the ball and lift it-“
“Right into the ceiling.” Twilight and I both looked up at the gaping hole in the ceiling, where the granite ball had just rocketed through. I let my horn die down, and the ball fell straight back through the hole, where Twilight smartly caught it.
“Well, I think that’s enough for today.” Twilight lifted both the ball and the feather, even as the hole began to patch itself bit by bit. I watched as whatever dust had sifted down from the ceiling trickled back up in a reverse motion, going straight back into the joint of the stonework. Twilight’s power always mystified me, and she hardly ever seemed to bat an eyelash at the complex and amazing spells she cast. That was to be expected, of course, but I could still be jealous.
Yeah, yeah, I know, being jealous of a princess is like wishing for a star. It just isn’t going to happen, no matter how hard you flap or how powerful you are. Still, I knew many of the things she did with ease were within the realm of possibility for a unicorn. At least, one who wasn’t a threat to the masonry.
“Let’s take a day to relax, alright? Come back this weekend. I think I’ll have some reading for you to do.”
“Reading is good.” I nodded. I could do books. Heck, I spent all my time with books. I turned to leave, but Twilight shut the door on me.
“One last thing, Star.” She turned to me, staring straight into my eyes. “You’re my student now. I’m going to take an interest in certain aspects of your life, including your welfare. I understand your parents are paying for your home?”
“Eer, yeah.” I blinked in disbelief. How could she have known that? Were there some records somewhere about who I got the monthly shipment of bits from?
“You can write them and tell them to save their money. The crown will pay for your home and your food from here out, including a small budget for entertainment. I will send a delivery to your home tomorrow.”
“Huhwha?” I blinked again, even as my rump dropped straight to the floor. “P-pay for my home… AND my food?”
“Did I stutter?” Twilight winked at me with a warm grin. “I take care of my own, Star. As long as you exhibit progress, or at the very least a desire to progress, I’ll continue to pay for your home. Who knows? If you advance enough, you might even be able to be my aide some day.”
“Y-your aide? I-I couldn’t! I-I’m not nearly strong enough!” I rose to my hooves and advanced towards her, stuttering helplessly. “Th-that’s way too much!” The Archmage’s aide, or the aide to any princess for that matter, had to be a very skilled unicorn. It was a new position, or at least new by Equestrian standards. (Six thousand years is a long time for a kingdom to exist.) The aides had been appointed to help assist the princesses with their daily schedules, though I heard rumor that Princess Twilight’s aide was just a glorified student, one who was sent away to distant lands for extended periods of time to do research or discover new things.
As I was about to voice further concern for my ability to conduct any research, let alone the kind her aide was required to do, Twilight just shrugged and turned to the nearest book case. She withdrew a few tomes and spread them open on the table.
“We’ll just have to see, Star. For now, I’m going to see if I can pinpoint why it is a feather might as well be a mountain, yet you can propel a seventy-five pound granite slab faster than an arrow… I’ll see you this weekend, alright?”
“O-okay…” Twilight immediately began scanning the books, leaving me standing in the relative silence of the library. I awkwardly shuffled my way out, feeling rather downtrodden. I had made a fool of myself in front of the most powerful magician in the world, and what’s worse; I had given her a workload. I felt like such a damn burden. That feeling intensified as I realized I had left all of my reference material and stationery in the library. With a resigned sigh, I turned back to the room I’d just left, cautiously pushing the door open.
“Omigawsh!” My hooves shot to my mouth in shock. Twilight and Princess mother-fucking Luna had just been kissing! I had just stumbled upon something shared between two royal members of the crown that ought not to be seen by anypony less than a close, personal friend. Or maybe a marriage counselor. I mean, of course I knew the two were married… They were a paragon of love and triumph, second only to Princess Cadance.
Still, I should never have seen them kissing. I turned tail and ran, making it all of three steps before an iron grip of magic wrapped around me and hauled me back into the library. I gasped as the door slammed shut behind me, locking me in with both princesses.
“I’m sorry!” I squeaked, looking up at them fearfully. “I didn’t mean to just barge in, I forgot my-“
“Books.” Luna hovered my saddlebags forth, already packed with my belongings. She looked down her muzzle at me, her eyes cold and calculating.
“I-I’m sorry, I really am.” I cautiously took my bags, shaking. This was THE Princess Luna! She had been Nightmare Moon long, long ago! All the memories of stories about that dark and mysterious menace to the daylight came back as I stared up at this magnificently threatening being. She was so dark and ephemeral, almost like she didn’t belong on this plane of existence, and as such the laws forbidding such things as murder or mutilation didn’t apply to her.
“Luna, my love,” Twilight interjected, like a ray of light into a dark abyss. “This is Star Caster. My newest student.”
“Oh, so this is the one you’ve been talking about.” The mood shifted like a light switching on. Luna smiled warmly at me, and her threatening presence seemed completely gone, evaporated like a morning mist. I found I could breathe again. “Forgive me, Star – may I call you Star?”
“Y-yeah.” My heart began to slow as I finally got a good, long look at Luna. She was actually smaller than Twilight, but only by a short bit. Her mane wafted about her head mysteriously, and I could pick out the stars and constellations in it. She had a soft, kind face and a ready smile. She was slender and fit and I’d hate to admit, not a bad mare to look at.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you so.” Luna bowed her head at me. Bowed her fucking head at ME! “I’ve had a lot on my mind with the recent threats, and your sudden departure startled me.”
“N-no! Not at all! My mistake, really!” I waved my hooves frantically, my cheeks heating up further still. Bowed her head to me! Luna raised her head once more, smiling down at me.
“Nevertheless, apprehending you like that was a mistake. I hope you’ll forgive me for acting so suddenly.”
“Forgiven!” I blurted out. Not that I wouldn’t forgive her, she was fucking beautiful! I had more than one reason to be envious of Twilight now, in the form of the mysterious and drop-dead gorgeous princess to call her own. I had only ever seen Luna from a great distance, during last year’s Summer Sun festival. She seemed to suck all the light out of the square during the night, and during the day she almost seemed like she would just fade away at any moment. Celestia was, of course, her direct counterpart. She seemed to flicker weakly in the night, but as soon as the sun came up her radiance matched the sun’s.
“Allow me to make it up to you.” Luna waved a hoof at me, beckoning me closer. “How would you like to have dinner with Twilight and I tonight?”
“D-dinner? W-w-with you two?!” I could have died. In fact, I’m pretty sure a part of me did. It had to have been whatever last vestige of hope I had for living a normal life, because I hastily ducked my head in a low bow… Low enough to face-plant the ground.
“Ow, fuck! Eerm, I mean, yes! I’d be honored!” Both princesses blinked at me as I flustered, rubbing the red mark on my muzzle. I paused for half a moment before kicking the door open.
As I jetted from the castle, trailing papers and whatever shreds of dignity I had left, I couldn’t stop gushing. Princess Twilight and Princess Luna invited me to DINNER!
THE HELPLESS BASKET CASE FROM TROTTINGHAM.
What was that she said about threats?
FUCK IT I’M HAVING DINNER WITH THE PRINCESSES!
And then came the worst part of this little ordeal. I had, quite literally, nothing to wear. The winters in Canterlot were rather temperate (and I spent all of my time indoors anyways) so I had no clothing of my own. My hair sufficed for any decency problems I might have had. Even braided, it covered everything. I had a scarf and boots just in case I needed to go out in whatever snow we got, but it was June. We wouldn’t have snow for another six months or so, if we were lucky.
Yeah, I’m totally gonna show up at the castle wearing snow boots and a scarf.
Well, nothing left to do but go and buy something to wear. I padded to my currency chest, kicking it open with a fair bit of dread.
Fuck me running.
I literally had no choice. I couldn’t exactly decline an invitation from the princesses, and even if I could I missed my chance. It’d be rude to cancel last-minute. (Not like I had anything better to do, and besides, they’d probably have me tailed to see I followed through with whatever cock-and-bull plans I’d formulated.) So, with a heavy heart and a fair bit of dread, I made my way across town to the castle. Despite my lack of formal attire, I couldn’t help but feel excited.
The guards smiled at me as I arrived, and directed me to the West wing, fifth floor. The directions this time around were quite a bit more specific, and I prayed I wouldn’t forget any of them.
Of course, I promptly forgot my right hoof from my left and ended up bumbling into a hoofservant carrying a mop bucket.
“I’m sorry!” I gasped, my horn leaping to life as the bucket began to tip over. It quickly righted itself, smartly catching a small stream of water that had sloshed out before it hit the carpet. Both the hoofservant and I blinked at the bucket for a few long moments before I cautiously and carefully set it down.
“Thanks.” He shot me a wary look and left, taking the bucket with him. I just stood on the spot, staring at the bit of carpet I had just inadvertently saved from being soaked.
I’ve never done that before, reacted on the reflex like that. Nothing so quick and easy like that, anyways… I usually blow something up… What the fuck WAS that?
“Oh, hello, Star!” I snapped out of my reverie as Twilight spoke to me. She had appeared seemingly from nowhere. Either that, or I had been spacing out again. I had a knack for doing that. I shook my head and smiled back up at her.
“Hello, Twilight! Sorry, I was-“
“Spacing, I could tell.” Twilight chuckled. She had a knack for finishing my sentences like that. If I were a smarter pony, I’d have been annoyed, but some small part of my brain kept going ’AIIIIIIIIEE SHE’S A PRINCESS AND SHE’S TALKING TO YOU!’ “I’m glad you could make it for dinner.”
“Th-thank you! Me too. I’m starved.” I blushed again as Twilight beckoned me to follow her up the stairs.
“I hope you like crumb bake. Luna should be nearly finished with it. I just had to go see Commander Heartland for a moment.” At Twilight’s mention of the commander of the guard, a memory came back to me, of Luna mentioning something just earlier that day.
“Is it about the threats?” I quipped. Twilight looked at me for a moment. Her face was always difficult to read. She was either this strange, pensive sort of rock-solid platonic look, or she was smiling. As I watched, her smile returned and she shook her head.
“No, not about any threats. We haven’t been threatened in a long, long time. Equestria is a peace.”
“Oh. Okay.” I furrowed my brow. Had I mis-remembered? Probably. My memory was abysmal sometimes. Rather than bring it up again, I fell into silence and followed Twilight upstairs. Aside from earlier that day, I’d never been this far into the castle before. The whole thing was massive, taking up a good quarter of the mountainside Canterlot rested on. I’d heard dignitaries and officials all either lived or kept offices here, and if my previous trip to the East wing had been any indication, they could certainly fit them all. The only time I had been there aside from today was to visit the court, and they were on the first floor in the East wing.
Twilight leveled out into the fifth floor and began making her way through the halls, remaining surprisingly quiet. Now and then I thought I might have heard a mutter or a whisper from her, but each time I glanced at her, she just smiled back at me. After about fifteen minutes of walking, Twilight led me into a warmly-worn wooden door. The first thing that hit me was the smell. Something had been fried and smelled absolutely amazing.
“Oh wow.” I inhaled the scent deeply, trying hard to avoid letting my stomach grumbles be heard. I hadn’t eaten all day, since there was no more food in my home and I didn’t go work for Bookend. Given the fact Twilight smiled knowingly at me, I had failed. I offered a sheepish smile in return as Twilight gestured to a table in the middle of the main room, already set for three.
“Feel free to have a seat or look around. I’ll help Luna finish up.”
“W-wait, look around?” I asked. Twilight nodded and pointed to one of the three doors visible.
“Our library is through there. You’re welcome to go have a look, if you’d like.”
I was moving before Twilight had finished saying ‘library.’ I pushed through the door and into what could very easily have been described as my wet dream. The library here was even more comfortable and expansive than the one I had met Twilight in earlier that day. A massive set of double windows opened up to Canterlot, giving me a beautiful view of the city at night time. The streets were lit and ponies were out enjoying an evening stroll or finishing up dinner. The night sky was clear and filled with millions of stars.
Furthermore, the three walls that didn’t have windows were completely covered in even more books. Twilight’s office was double-tiered, but this one sported just one huge column of books after another. I guessed when you had wings, browsing spines thirty feet above the ground didn’t matter much. I began to make the circuit of books, scanning titles one by one as far up as I could read. She had such an extensive collection, from books on history to advanced spell manuals, recipe books, and even fantasy novels. The last caught my attention, as I spotted the name of an author I adored, but had only seen three of their books. Twilight had one I hadn’t read just yet.
I gingerly plucked the book from its place and flipped it open, reading from chapter one. I was hooked immediately, lost in my own little world of fantasy. The characters and plot were gripping, and damn it all if I wasn’t jealous of the main heroine for having that hunky stallion for a travelling partner. Not to mention the way levitation was just a unicorn’s way of interacting with the world, kind of like how pegasi could fly and earth ponies had their natural strength.
When the villain was revealed, I already hated him. Each new triumph that the heroes had over him made me nearly cheer with glee. I took a smooth drink of water and munched on some bread even while I flipped another page. I thought it was pretty cool that levitation was best imagined as you trying to physically lift the object, and picturing yourself underneath whatever it was you were trying to carry, lifting it with your weight, but sending those thoughts through your horn was the best way to achieve results.
Before I knew it, I had finished the book.
Wait a tick, what fucking time is it?
“That was in interesting read, wasn’t it?” Twilight’s voice literally made me jump. My heart pounded as I glanced out of the nearby window. The streets below were dark, and nothing but the half-full moon and the stars lit the city. I could see the faintest edge of dawn on the horizon, staining the black sky just the slightest shade of dark purple.
“Twilight! I-I-I don’t know what happened!”
“Easy, Star.” Twilight calmed me down with a gentle hoof and yet another smile. “Relax, okay? Take a closer look at the book.” She levitated the recently-finished story up to me, and I opened it about halfway. It was a part of the story where the heroine was engaged in an epic struggle with the forces of the evil overlord, and the text suddenly went into depth with how her levitation worked as she swung her sword.
“What? WOAH!” I looked up from the text as a massive granite ball sailed across the room at me. My horn leapt to life, grasping the ball and smoothly setting it on the ground at my hooves. “What in the name of Tartarus has gotten into you?!” I stared at Twilight, who was still just smiling at me. “Throwing rocks all of a sudden?! I could have been hurt! And after today, when I nearly beamed myself in the face, I-“
It hit me like the granite ball had failed to do. I looked up at Twilight with wide eyes. She held the book between us, and wiggled it teasingly.
“Some of us learn better when we read between the lines, Star. I modified this story so you’d already be invested in it by the time you hit the dry, boring text about how magic worked.”
“So you’re saying…”
“Try lifting the ball again, Star.” Twilight set the book down and gestured to the granite ball. I turned to it, still in disbelief. Yet, as I called my magic to me and focused on the ball, I could remember the words from the story. Imagine it’s your own body lifting the ball up, then just project that thought through your horn.
I lifted the ball two feet off of the ground. I had to flex my muscles to do it, but I did it. It didn’t shoot through the ceiling or beam me in the face. It didn’t sit unmoving on the ground. It followed my command. Cautiously, I floated the ball towards me, watching with awe as it glided through the air to slowly circle me where I stood.
When I set the ball back down, I was crying. Twilight wrapped her hooves around me, and I collapsed against her. I could feel her stroking my mane. I’ve never been able to do that before… I… I did it. I can do it. Twilight’s already showed me how to levitate. What else can she show me?
I sniffled pathetically and dried my tears on a hoofkerchief she offered me. When I looked back up at her, she was smiling warmly.
“Alright,” I mirrored her smile. “When’s our next lesson? I want to learn some more.”
“Easy, Star.” Twilight chuckled as she lifted the granite ball. I watched as she tossed it my way. Reflexively, my magic caught the heavy ball, keeping it from hitting the floor too hard.
“F-four?” I stuttered, my body already quivering. “We’ve never even done more than two! I-I don’t think I can do it!”
“Really? That’s a shame.” Twilight grinned at me as she hefted the fourth granite ball. “We’re just going to have to ding up the floor now, won’t we?” She tossed the ball through the air at me, and my eyes went wide. My horn blazed brighter, and the other three balls quivered mid-air. I watched, horrified, as my magic wrapped around the fourth ball, slowing it, but not stopping it…
“RRAH!” I grunted with force as my horn shined loud enough to be heard. My magic wrapped around the fourth ball even brighter. It shuddered mid-air, coming to a stop just before touching the tile. “HNNGR!” Gritting my teeth hard enough to hurt my jaw, I pictured myself under that ball, just like I was underneath the other three. I could feel the muscles in my legs burning from being clenched so hard. Slowly, the fourth ball lifted into the air, joining the other three in their circle around me.
“Fantastic.” Twilight smiled at me, stepping forth. Her horn barely took on the slightest of glows as she took the four balls from me. I exhaled explosively, feeling my legs turn to jelly and dump me on the floor. “That was quite good, Star.”
“Haah… haah… Fuck me running.” I panted, feeling the sweat run down my face in rivulets. My glasses had slipped down my muzzle making the whole room look skewed and fractured. “That was hard…”
“And yet you did it magnificently.” Twilight beamed at me as she carried the four granite balls across the room to one of the tables set out. “I’m proud of you, Star. You’re advancing rather quickly.”
“Am I?” Twilight’s praise could have made me cry. I pushed myself up from the floor, still feeling rather light-headed from such an ordeal. I’d never in a million years expected to lift even one granite ball regularly, let alone four. Twilight had pushed my boundaries, just enough that I was able to accomplish something I’d never done before. I blushed when I realized she was throwing balls at me, not to be mean, but to test me. If she had tried to pass that fourth one off to me regularly, I might not have been able to do it. By throwing the ball at me, she spurred me into action.
It was mean, but damn it all, it was effective.
“I think that’s enough for this week. You’re due for a break.” Twilight crossed the floor to ruffle my mane playfully. “Take the rest of the week, and come back on Monday. We’re going to move on to spells next.”
“Really?” I looked up at her with wide eyes. “You really think I’m ready to cast spells?”
“Well your telekinesis seems to be functioning just fine.” Twilight looked around at the undamaged tile floor. “One would assume casting spells would be the next step in the equation, no?”
“Y-yeah, I guess so.” I flushed brightly and looked down at the floor. “Thanks, Twilight. You’ve really helped me out.”
“Well maybe now I’ll stop running across damaged book reports from our library. Bookend will thank you.”
“Oh my gosh, I forgot about Bookend.” I had been studying with Twilight the entire past week. We’d either meet in her office or outside of her quarters, chat for a little while, and then move here, to the basement. Down here, I could throw seventy-five pound granite balls around all I’d like, and the damage would be mitigated by thick walls and dirt. Furthermore, nopony really came down here that often, so I stood even less of a chance injuring innocent bystanders.
All of that was for nothing, of course, because Twilight’s instruction was spot-on. Under her guidance, I never messed anything up, be it levitating four heavy balls, or a light feather. She was such a supportive and kind mentor, I found myself thanking the stars I had her in my life. And she wasn’t that bad to look at, either. Granted, Luna had sole ownership over that particularly luscious plot, but I couldn’t be blamed for looking, right?
“I’ll see you on Monday, Star.” Twilight drew me out of my reverie with a gentle touch. “You did well today. I’m proud of how quickly you’re advancing. Like I said, keep at it and you might just become my aide someday.”
“Yeah right.” I scoffed at the idea I’d ever be able to study under Twilight in such a serious capacity. But her praise still had me blushing. “Have a good week, Twilight. And thank you.”
“Farewell.” She waved at me as she left the basement room we had been using for practice. I ran over the calendar in my head, finding myself rather shocked that it was Thursday. I had a whole three days to do absolutely nothing. Between volunteering at the library for meals and reading what I could about magic as part of my independent studies, I seldom if ever got days off.
But now here I was with three of them.
“Oh I am going to sleep so hard.” Grinning to myself, I extinguished the candles and made my way out of the basement.
Following my acceptance of Twilight’s offer, I’d started receiving payments from the crown. They were meant to be spent on things like housing and food, with just a little bit leftover for entertainment, but three years of frugal living had taught me to be careful with my money. The first shipment of bits I’d received from Twilight had…
Well, I still had orgasms dreaming about it.
It more than doubled what my parents were sending me. With their contribution, I had afforded the payment on my home and enough food to see myself through the month, with maybe a dozen bits leftover; which all went towards stationery or the wayward guilty purchase of one particularly juicy novel or another.
Now, with Twilight’s contribution, I found myself stuck with a rather large entertainment budget and the world to spend it on. Despite my exhaustion after that day’s rather difficult lesson, I couldn’t quite get to sleep without setting the proper mood. So, with a few bits in my saddlebags, I guiltily made my way into a slightly shady part of Canterlot, and through the door of a store that boasted no windows.
“Why hello there.” A comely mare stood behind the counter, smiling at me. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.”
“No money,” I blushed, trying hard not to look at the walls. “I, uuh… Just recently came across some, though… So I figured why not?”
“Well you’ve come to the right place. What can I do for you today?” She propped her chin on one hoof and smiled warmly at me. I fought my hardest to avoid looking her in the eyes; she was awfully beautiful, in a open-ended sort of way.
“I, uuh… The latest issue of Mare’s Delight?”
“Aww, you’re no fun.” The mare winked at me. “Here I thought you’d want something a little more substantial than that drivel. Ah well, here you go.” Her horn glowed and she hovered me a magazine, which I hastily tucked into my saddlebags. “Two bits.”
“Hereyougothanksbye.” I practically threw the bits at her and departed the store fast enough to ruffle the pages of some magazines near the front, praying to everything above nopony saw me dash for my home. Sex shops aren’t the most rare thing in Equestria, but being the student of Princess Twilight was bound to draw some questions from somepony somewhere if they saw me in such a place. Panting heavily, I slammed the door to my home closed behind me and stood there, my chest heaving with each new breath.
“Right. Three days off.” I panted, puffing some stray strands of my mane out of my face. “Three days off to spend however I want. Three days to… To read, or… Or to cook something nice.” I slowly walked across my small den, moving for the stairs. “I could sleep in, or maybe go for a walk… I should definitely check in with Bookend, of course… Cute mare like me goes missing from his library, he’d probably have the guard in an uproar…” I rolled my eyes and mounted the stairs.
“Please, he’s probably just glad I’m not whining about his sandwiches. Still, three whole days… Three days to do whatever I please.” I entered my cluttered bedroom, shrugging out of my saddlebags. “Three days to relax, unwind, and do nothing…” I opened the flap and fished the magazine out.
“Or three days to masturbate myself into a coma…”
I stared at the cover of the magazine, and the very tastefully-covered mare laying spread out on the bed. I had three days. Three days to enjoy myself. Three days to get around to the magazine…
All of the restraint in the world couldn’t have kept me from hopping on my bed immediately. Using my newly-perfected telekinesis, I opened the magazine above me, my hooves trailing idle circles down my stomach. I smiled to myself, even as the memory of teenage nights spent blushing over the erotic images in this very same magazine came back to me.
Mare’s Delight and I had somewhat of a history. I enjoyed the rather trashy articles, and many of the mares truly were beautiful, even if all you really got to see was the faintest hints of their marehoods. There was the stray issue or two where a model would fully expose herself, but never to the extent you saw in other, more explicit magazines.
Mare’s Delight was halfway between a porno mag and a smut article, and I loved it. It’d been quite some time since I’d purchased an issue, and I was happy to see nothing had changed. The pictures were still tastefully erotic without being outright explicit, and the articles still put a blush on my cheeks that could light a fire.
As my hooves finally found their way between my thighs, I drew my lip between my teeth.
It was going to be a long three days.
“Hello Star! Good to see you aga- are you okay?” Twilight’s face went straight from jovial to concerned in half a second flat. I limped into her office with a sheepish grin, favoring my back left leg.
“I’m fine.” I smiled at her. “Just, uuh… Twisted my hoof on the staircase.”
“Uh huh.” Twilight deadpanned, giving me that ‘I know you’re bullshitting’ look. Still, I’m a stubborn mare, so I just bit my lip and nodded.
“Yeah, I’m fine, though. We can do our lesson today.”
“Thankfully enough, we’re just studying spell-forms.” Twilight continued to look at me in a way I’d hate to admit was making me blush like a schoolfilly. She totally knew what I’d done to hurt my leg… Either that or she suspected I was lying about twisting my hoof on the stairs. Which I was. Lying straight through my damned teeth. Twilight just beckoned me over, indicating a series of three open books.
“I’m guessing you don’t know much about traditional spells?”
“Next to nothing.” I shook my head. “I’ve tried casting a few in the past, but they never go well.”
“So I’ve heard. Well, here’s hoping we can root out whatever problem you have and give you a stronger base with which to cast spells in the future. After all, levitation’s only fifty percent of our power; and the lesser half at that. Our real strength comes from these.” Twilight tapped the page before us, indicating a complex diagram. “Spells. They come in many different varieties, and are as complex or as simple as can be. Let’s start at the beginning and work our way up, starting with what a spell consists of.”
“Alright.” I already knew the basics, but Twilight might just cover something I missed – or even better – teach me something I didn’t know just yet. Nevertheless, the soreness in my leg was forgotten (damnable shower, why did it have to be so cramped?) as Twilight flipped back a few pages to the beginning of the book.
“A spell consists of ‘arches,’” She waved a hoof over the diagram, showing off a collection of curved and jagged lines. “The arches, when arranged in certain ways, can form spells in and of themselves. But for them to be more powerful, or have particular properties, an arch has to be embedded with a node.”
Twilight lifted the three books and pulled a sheaf of paper from elsewhere on the table. She dipped a quill in ink and began etching a pattern on the paper, not dissimilar to the ones on the page. “Nodes are just receptacles for magical energy. That energy can be our own power, the force we exert to lift and maneuver items. Our telekinesis, for lack of a better word. Or they can be filled with others. Elemental energy, for one. Shadow energy for another. And other things, like love, hatred, or even time itself.”
“Wow, really?” I looked up at her with wide eyes. “Time? Can you like, rewind time and go back?”
“It’s a possibility.” Twilight frowned at me. “But we don’t trifle with time, Star. That power lies solely within Chronos’ claws, and we’re not to touch it without his express permission. Chronos is somewhat of a friend, so I’ve personally taken it upon myself to ensure unicorns don’t use his power.”
“I see.” I lowered my gaze, a little defeated. Turning back time to reverse some of my mistakes would have been rather nice…
Like the jelly incident.
“Let’s focus, okay? Look.” Twilight pointed to the nodes on the arch of the spell. “Half-moon arches are the most common and easiest to use. But arches can take many different forms, allowing for multiple outcomes to a spell. They can be straight lines, pyramids, or any manner of shapes. But there’s something important to remember here.” Twilight began etching out a spell-form. I watched as she used four simple arches, each of them pointing outwards. On them, she drew a circle each, at the apex.
“This is just a rough spell-form, but it works for showing you how balance works.”
“Balance?” I furrowed my brow at Twilight. “What do you mean by balance?”
“Well…” Twilight smiled as she put another node on one of the arches, leaving a fifth randomly there. “Watch what happens when I try to cast this spell.”
“Woah!” I gasped as a pillar of flame erupted into existence, crumbling the paper to nothing and singing the table. “What in the name of Tartarus was that?!” I panted, watching as the smoke curled up towards the ceiling. Twilight chuckled and opened one of the two windows, fanning the smoke towards it with her wings.
“I tried to cast a bread spell, something that would conjure a loaf of freshly-baked bread for us. It’s a relatively simple spell with few practical applications, since the bread is conjured energy and would just fade. But the way I invoked the nodes and placed the arches caused the spell to fail. Violently so.” Twilight pulled a fresh sheaf of paper out and replicated the spell, minus the fifth, odd node. Her horn glowed faintly, and my eyes went wide.
“Neat!” I smiled as a loaf of bread popped into existence, steaming faintly. “That’s really cool!”
“Isn’t it?” Twilight lifted the bread and took a bite, smiling as she offered it to me. I gladly tore a chunk off and chewed the fluffy, delicious bread. But as I chewed, it faded into nothing, leaving behind a faint tingling sensation on my tongue. The bread in my hooves faded away as well, leaving me with nothing. Something nagged me, though, and I frowned at my mentor.
“So why did the spell erupt like that? Before?”
“Well, there’s power in symbols and words, Star.” Twilight pulled the books back out, indicating the first page. “Arches and nodes are the basis of our entire world. It’s the system by which we use magic, and cast our spells. The incumbent energies all around us recognize the symbols when they’re placed. You’ll find some spells actually require a physical copy of their arches etched into something or drawn on paper to actually work. In some cases, placing the arches and nodes improperly makes an imbalance in the magic all around us. That imbalance must be corrected, and so the magic fills the gap. It’s not unlike lightning, then. There’s a displacement of pressure. Anything from thunderclaps to fires and even explosions can occur.”
“Wow.” I smiled at the book. I knew all about spell-forms, and the way arches and nodes could come together to make spells. But I never knew the damned things had to be balanced. That’s probably why I’d never been able to cast a spell in my life.
“So you know how to envision arches and nodes, right?”
“Uh huh.” I nodded my head. What few spells I had tried to cast before were done so by bringing to mind a spell-form, and putting the nodes all around them. Before, I’d done so in a random fashion, going with what I thought would work. Now, I knew there was a structured way to approach it.
“Alright, let’s try casting something then. Simple and easy. Just two arches and two nodes. Make one node your own magical energy, but try to picture earth in the other. Rocks. Dirt. Solid and immobile.”
“Really?” I scrunched my nose. “Rocks and dirt?”
“The elements have properties, Star. We’ll go over them later. But right now, just think about rocks. Or even better, just one rock. How about those granite balls we were using? Think about how heavy and solid they were, how they never moved, never broke form. They were solid. Steady. Immobile.”
“Alright.” I pictured a circle in my mind, which were just two arches that touched. Then, at either end, I pictured two nodes. The first was filled with my own arcane energy, and in the other I just pictured a rock.
“Cast it.” Twilight gestured with a smile. I thought about the elements, two arches, two nodes, one magic, one earth, and…
“Woah!” I gasped as a rock suddenly appeared before me. Just your standard rock, flecked with a bit of dark brown dirt. “Did I… Did I just…?”
“You cast a spell.” Twilight smiled at me, taking the rock in her hoof. “Specifically, you summoned a rock.”
“I can see that.” I took the rock from her, feeling the weight of it. “It’s… That’s most definitely a rock.”
“Two arches and two nodes filled and arranged the way I told you to, makes a very simple invocation spell.” Twilight took the rock from me and placed it between her forehooves. I watched as she put pressure on it, her horn glowing as well. The rock cracked and split, crumbling into bits. The bits then faded away, disappearing into nothingness, just like the bread had. “But they’re not permanent. It’s just energy. Energy you pulled from yourself, and from the world around you. Once the spell is de-stabilized, it goes back to the regular form of energy it once had.”
“You can do the same thing; just replace that earth node with, say, water. Don’t try it now; I rather like this carpet and it takes ages to dry. But you get the point.”
“Yeah… Yeah I get it now.” I had to chuckle at Twilight’s explanation.
“Arches and nodes, Star. Here,” Twilight shifted to the second book, smiling at me. “These are some very basic spells that all unicorns should know. Stuff like cleaning and alarms for waking yourself up. For now, focus on using the pre-established methods of arranging arches and nodes, and filling them with those specific energies. Later on, we’ll move on to critically thinking about spells you want to cast, and the best way to get those changes to manifest.”
“You mean… Making my own magic?”
“Precisely.” Twilight nodded and patted my back. “Not every spell is documented. There are too many energies and too many spell-forms for every spell in existence to be documented. Even more than that, some spells and spell-forms simply don’t work. There are plenty of equations that by all means should be balanced, yet they simply don’t take effect. Some of those are reliant on factors like how well your own personal energy integrates with that of the world around you, or even your relationship with the night or day. Others still just plain don’t work.” Twilight floated the third book out.
“This is a reference manual. In it, you’ll find explanations of what different arches do, the importance of the number and type of nodes, and a few other spells to be cast for practice. This one here,” She indicated the second book. “Is more of a catalogue of useful spells. Knowing what you know now, go ahead and study both of the-“
Spells were hard. Abysmally hard. Oh, by the stars, how I hated them… I wasn’t sure which was more difficult; keeping tracks of the arches or trying to remember which nodes were filled with which energy. What’s worse, there were quite a few spells that required energies I had no clue how to use. Things like shadow magic and more specific elemental discrepancies than simple rocks. For the next five days, I slaved over the books, trying my absolute hardest to learn the material Twilight had given me in her library.
Well, that and enjoying a certain array of dirty magazines. And napping. Ooh and exploring Canterlot. And reading fantasy novels.
Okay, so maybe I wasn’t trying my absolute hardest to learn, but it’s hard for me to focus on stuff that doesn’t interest me. Twilight tried just yesterday to give me a book that had a few spells inside the rather interesting story, but unlike the levitation manual, I couldn’t absorb the information the way that I used to. She asked me to cast the spell she had put in the text, but it had fizzled in a rather spectacular display of transparent beads cascading from my horn. Twilight explained why to me shortly after.
“Spells aren’t exactly like premises, in that you can absorb them second-hand.” She had smiled down at me. “They’re actually rather specific, and require a very structured, hoofs-on approach. There aren’t any spells you can cast that are dangerous, but they can have some interesting side-effects. Like this one.” She levitated the multitude of beads I had magically conjured and dispelled them all, leaving our practice chamber clean once more. “I’m sorry, Star, but I’m afraid there’s no easy way for you to learn specific spells… It has to be done this way.”
And that’s why I find myself crying for the umpteenth time over my shortcomings as a unicorn. It had been a while since I’d had an actually good cry, and this one was long overdue. Sobbing pathetically into my pillow began to leech away my self-pity, and instead filled me up with a righteous sense of anger. Not necessarily at myself, but rather at the nature of spells for being so confusing. I sat up and set my pillow aside, looking down at my hooves with a fire in my gut.
“I’m not going to let this beat me.” I growled, rolling swiftly out of bed. I trotted to my bathroom and settled in for a nice shower, taking plenty of time to care and style both my mane and tail. They could be a hoof-full at times, but rather soothing at others. It was a nice reminder to slow down and focus on the little things. After running the gamut of morning routines, I dried and braided them both, and then made straight for the castle.
The guards smiled at me as I mounted the steps, and lifted their spears to let me in. I smiled back, finding it rather ironic that I would have avoided those same two stallions not two weeks prior, and now I was greeting them like friends on my way to study. Maybe in another two weeks I’d learn their names.
Twilight’s office was where I walked to, taking it nice and slow to enjoy the myriad of paintings and the wondrous view out of the castle windows. I really did feel blessed that Twilight would stoop so low as to help a measly unicorn like myself, but at the same time I knew her time could just as well be spent doing other things… Like saving Equestria, as she had been known to do in the past. Granted, there probably wasn’t anything to be saving Equestria from, but one could never tell.
I made it to Twilight’s library and timidly knocked, waiting for a response from within. Twilight opened the door in short order, smiling down at me.
“Hello, Star. I wasn’t expecting you today. Is everything okay?”
“Truth be told, Twilight, it isn’t…” I glanced around her withers, swallowing a little. “Could I talk with you?”
“To be honest, I thought you’d want a break from all this.” Twilight chuckled, sweeping me inside with a gesture of her wings. “I wasn’t expecting you to come in, but I hadn’t planned anything else.”
“I’m sorry,” I muttered faintly, plodding into the library. “I just… Well, I kind of had a self-realization this morning.”
“Those are always good. But don’t think that I wanted a break from you, Star. To be honest, I thought you’d want a break from me. Nevertheless, I’m here to help. What was this realization?” Twilight closed the door and went to sit at her usual table, which I could see was decorated with a moderate stack of boring-looking graphs and what I could guess were reports. I had probably just saved Twilight from a morning of boring paperwork.
“Well,” I sighed, thinking back to that morning’s crying session and the adamant denial of being beaten by a tried and tested thousands-of-years-old system. It seemed silly in hindsight. But I closed my eyes and turned to face Twilight nevertheless. “I’ve decided I’m going to devote myself to my studies more. I’m tired of being a failure at every bit of magic I try and do. I want to make something of myself, and just five days ago we broke a barrier that I thought was unbreakable. I cast a spell, and I can still cast that spell.” I opened my eyes and looked into Twilight’s feeling that righteous fire inside my stomach once more.
“I want to cast more spells. I want to be competent. I want to help ponies, not make their days worse every time my horn lights up.” I stepped forward, looking up into Twilight’s eyes pleadingly. “And I want you to help me.”
Twilight and I stood like that for a long while, looking into one another’s eyes. Twilight seemed to be thinking of something; something very serious and life-changing. At least, for one of us. After what felt like an eternity, Twilight gave me a smile.
“That’s what I’ve been looking for.”
“What?” I blinked. “Looking for? Looking for what?”
“Determination.” Twilight turned towards one of her book shelves, scanning the titles slowly. “It seemed almost like you were not entirely invested in your studies… Or rather, they were becoming tedious. That’s understandable, given your wanderlust and short attention span. Those things aren’t necessarily bad, but they aren’t conducive towards learning either. At least, not learning at a fast pace like you want.” She pulled a few thick, dusty tomes from the shelves, scanning their titles before replacing or setting them aside.
“Thus, I needed you to exhibit some sort of grit; some determination, before I increased your workload. After all, I don’t want you to get too burned out and be unable to continued studying. But now…” She chuckled, pulling another two books onto her stack. “Now, dear Star… We can take the next step.” She turned back to me, hovering a full arrangement of books onto the table.
“The next step?” I glanced over the titles of each book with a slight frown. “And that would be…?”
“Well, not so much the next step as it is the first.” Twilight lifted one book to my face, the cover emblazoned with four different symbols. “The first step in a few different fields. You see, Star, my own development was rather… Sectioned.” My eyes went wide as I surveyed the cover, marveling at the four symbols. They were a small flame, what appeared to be a rock, a drop of water, and a few wisps that I was certain embodied air. Twilight continued speaking.
“I started studying the magic of friendship first, and almost solely that, for over seven years when I was your age. Well before I was named Archmage. Because I had studied the magic of friendship and the daylight – Celestia’s magic – I didn’t fully understand other branches. Thus, once I was named Archmage, I was more-or-less forced to learn others. And doing so was troublesome, because I couldn’t step into any other field than shadow magic – Luna’s own magic. Then, once I had those two under my belt, I could finally move on to things like shielding and love… All of the other fields of magic that were equally as important as those two.
This isn’t true with yourself. You see, Star, I’ve just given you your base. Granted, you came into it a few years older than I did, but we can’t exactly hold that against you, can we?” She winked teasingly before gesturing to the book in front of me. “You’ve just taken your first step into the wide world of magic, Star. You can go anywhere from here, and we have all the time in the world for you to go there. You can study the magic of the night, or elements, or even hatred and anger. In time, you can be the most skilled botanist in Canterlot, or an elemental savant. Or any one of those things. Or all of them.” Twilight hovered another book forward, this one emblazoned with a very large leaf on the front.
“Just because I studied magic in one particular way does not mean you have to. Study what interests you, Star. I’ll do my damndest to make sure you have all of the tools at your disposal to do so. Study the magic of nature. Study the night. Study the day. Study shielding, love, or elemental magic… Or study them all. Don’t corner yourself into one field if it disinterests you. Set it aside and move on to something else, then come back to it when you’re once more fascinated. That’s the way you study, Star.” Twilight set the books down in a stack, chuckling faintly.
“Your mind is unfettered, and cannot be contained by traditional means of studying and development. You cannot learn things that do not interest you. But you’re easily interested in a wide variety of subjects as well. That’s what I envy about you, is your open-mindedness. Back when I was just a unicorn, I resigned myself to one field at a time, sloughing through it until I knew what I needed. Then I’d move on to the next step.”
“So, wait, hang on…” I blinked several times. “You want me to… Just go at it? Any way I please?”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Twilight nodded warmly. “Tell me what you like, and I’ll see if I can’t point you in the right direction.”
I could hardly believe it. The whole world at my hooves, and Twilight to help me explore it. A million different possibilities ran through my mind at once, all of them more exciting than the last. I settled on one course of action with a determined grin.
“Tell me about the magic of the day.” I’d read hundreds of stories about valiant unicorns seizing the power of the daylight and overthrowing the shadowy, evil forces of the world, using spells that made them stronger than earth ponies, or quicker than pegasi, all through sheer force of will and magic. I wanted to be like those heroines in the stories who blasted apart whole legions with a blinding ray of light, or who destroyed a whole keep with one mighty blast of energy.
“Very good, Star.” Twilight lifted a book from among the others. “Let’s start here.”
And so it went for the next two weeks. Twilight would turn me on to one more new and interesting bit of magic after another. We’d glean over some of the boring details, and instead launch straight into the hooves-on approach. Twilight was amazing. Right in the middle of the spell, she’d tell me one important detail or another, and I was so wrapped up with casting the damn thing that I’d just absorb the material immediately. Afterwards, she’d have me explain it, and then cast it again.
Before I knew it, I had expanded my repertoire by over twenty spells. But the magic of the day was surprisingly uninteresting and boring. It was all about using your own strength to alter the world around you. Changing and modifying things to your liking. Which was cool and all, but I had been expecting to destroy legions of fiendish changelings in one fell swoop, or leveling entire castle keeps with nary a thought.
An unrealistic expectation, sure, but I could still be disappointed.
So next came the night. This was an entirely different brand of magic, and one that I thought was absolutely fantastic. I didn’t have to do a thing, I just had to open myself and ask. I was always open and willing, as Twilight’s surprisingly evasive questions had exposed.
“So, you mean to tell me you’re bi?” Twilight arched an eyebrow. I flushed a little and nodded.
“I, uuh… Yeah. For lack of a better word.”
“That’s interesting. But… not a virgin?”
“No.” I chuckled, still blushing. “Most definitely not… It’s been about two years since I last, aah… indulged. But no. I’m a far cry from a virgin.” Twilight’s questions had surfaced a rather painful old memory of mine, but some rather nice ones as well. Twilight seemed to sense my trepidation at sharing any more, but in typical Twilight fashion, she went ahead and asked anyways.
“Who were they?”
“Well…” I sighed and pulled my braid over my shoulder, stroking it with both my hooves as I recalled the story. “They were a couple, a rather open one at that… They were regulars at the library, and we kind of just hit it off. We started as friends, you know, talking about books, going to the park, just hanging out together… But I came to learn they wanted a little more spice in the bedroom.” The memory had me flushed, as it was one of the most prevalent in my entire history.
“I was, of course, inexperienced and clumsy. Almost painfully so. But they were patient and kind and understanding, and they taught me a lot of things.” I closed my eyes and sighed. “Oh the things those two taught me…” I opened my eyes and glanced at Twilight, my cheeks darkening all the more. “Stop me if this gets to be too much.”
“No, please.” Twilight gestured with a hoof. “Continue… And I’d hope you’re not too shy to share these things with me in the future.”
“Yeah, but… Aren’t you married?”
“You’ll come to find, Star, I’m a teacher first, a friend second, and a wife third. Luna and I love one another fiercely, but… Well, there’s nothing wrong with listening to a story or even offering some advice now and then, is there?”
“So… We’re friends?”
“I’d like to think so.” Twilight nodded. “We might not spend our free days together, and I certainly won’t be inviting you into my bed as long as Luna or I draw breath, but we’re friends nevertheless.” What she said could have stopped my heart.
’Me, the helpless basket case from Trottingham, a friend with a Princess… Oh, this is going to make for an interesting letter to the parents.’
“Well,” I cleared my throat and continued. “I, uuh… We… We did a lot together. You know, I’d do her while he watched, he’d do me while she watched, or I’d watch them… Or all three of us.” I remembered those nights, laying splayed out on a bed, my head on Blazer’s stomach, with my legs tangled through Mint’s, covered in any manner of unspeakable and erotic-smelling fluids… I found myself squirming on the floor, praying I could make it home before completely breaking down.
“That’s very nice, Star.” Twilight smiled. “But, if you don’t mind my asking, what happened?”
“The same thing that happens to all three-way relationships over time.” I hung my head with a soft sigh. “Jealousy.”
“Oh. That’s unfortunate…” Twilight frowned slightly. “Did you start making love to one another without the third’s knowing?”
“Of course we did… She started working at the hospital, and I took up a steady spot with Bookend. Our hours were strange, and I thought it’d be fine to just, you know… Pop in for a quickie. I never knew I’d drive a wedge between the two of them.” The blush left my cheeks and the melancholy returned as I remembered that whole week.
“Her name was Mint Leaf, and he was Blazer.”
“I remember Mint Leaf.” Twilight smiled. “I sat on her examination board. She scored well.”
“Yeah, she was always good at whatever she did.” I chuckled. “Be it cunnilingus or healing… But her work took precedence over us. Blazer was restless, so we’d start fucking-“ I blushed and glanced up at Twilight. She just waved a hoof dismissively, so I continued. “Eer, after work… I never thought she’d have an issue with it, you know, she’s seen us go at it more often than not… But when she walked in on us, she suddenly flipped out and went nuts… Started screaming at him for betraying her and… I don’t know.” I sighed and closed my eyes.
“I always felt that Blazer loved Mint… And I understood that. The two of them loved one another, and I was always just there to kinda… I dunno… Mix things up a little. But she’d been all but ignoring him, so I was, you know… Helping a friend out. Neither of us expected her to take it so personally. When she left after that, things were never the same. Blazer was distraught, and I felt terrible. I thought I was the one who had come between them…”
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Star… But think about it objectively for a moment, if you could.” Twilight ruffled her wings as she spoke. “The three of you shared sexual relations, and many times without the third party being involved. It’s not a far cry to think the third would be okay with two of you being together in the same way. I’d assume Blazer and Mint did things with one another without you there?”
“And you had sex with Mint?”
“More times than I’d care to count.”
“He he…” Twilight chuckled but continued. “Did Blazer ever take issue with the two of you making love?”
“Never.” I furrowed my brow. “But he was always watching, or he at least knew about it.”
“Imagine if he had discovered you two were doing it without him there. Do you think he’d have been angry?”
“Well… Probably not. Blazer was always kinda cool like that. Things didn’t seem to faze him that much… Except Mint leaving. That broke him.”
“Well, that’s just the way it goes, Star… But to be perfectly frank here,” Twilight stood and padded over, laying a hoof on my shoulder. “It sounds like an honest mistake to me. One that Mint took too personally, and one that Blaze wasn’t quite prepared to handle. Anyways.” Twilight nudged me playfully. “I got the answer to my question. You see, the magic of the night is that of creation and life. Only ponies who understand that special bond between another can use all of the night’s might.” She chuckled and shook her head a bit, smiling as if in remembrance.
“I was still a virgin when I tried to learn the magic of the night. I couldn’t have access to her power without doing the deed first, so it was quite the hassle getting around to it. I wasn’t unlike yourself back then. Quiet, humble, not exactly the best-looking.”
“But it all turned out for the best.” Twilight continued on despite the playful teasing. “It helped Luna and I cross a line, and while the road after that was bumpy and at times almost lethal, we worked it out in the end. Now it’s been over three thousand years, and we’re just as happy as ever.”
“Lethal?” I swallowed. “How so?”
“Well, the night doesn’t exactly like it when her magic is taken from her.” Twilight shrugged. “That’s how Nightmare Moon came to be. Luna made the mistake long, long ago of trying to control the night, rather than let her magic be used as she saw fit. For Luna’s grave error, the night very nearly killed her. I almost made the same mistake myself during some of our… Disagreements. Thankfully, I avoided doing so, and the relationship between myself, the night, and Luna is stronger than ever.
“That’s a very important point, Star, and I want you to promise me,” Twilight pointed straight at me, her gaze suddenly very strict and hard. I swallowed. “Don’t ever try to control the night. Her power is mysterious and raw, and can do so many amazing and wondrous things. But we cannot… No, we will not ever take it from her.”
“Okay.” I nodded fearfully. “Duly noted.”
“No, Star.” Twilight laid her hooves on my shoulders, locking our eyes. “Promise me. Promise me on everything you hold sacred that you will never do that. Do you understand?” She gave me a gentle shake. I could hardly even breathe. This was Twilight Sparkle and she was telling me to never do something. I couldn’t be some wide-eyed young filly promising out of fear. I had to show determination and resolve. My eyes took on a hard set of their own as I drew myself up to my full height.
“Twilight, I promise you, by the stars and the sun and the moon, I will never… Ever… Try to use the night’s power for my own.”
“Good.” Twilight released me, her face still rather serious. “Don’t ever forget that promise, Star. You didn’t make it just to me, but to the night as well.”
“Did I?” I asked, glancing around. “Is she… Is she here?”
”I am indeed, child.” The voice made me freeze. I could feel her presence at my back, not unlike that feeling you get when somepony’s watching you. It made the hairs on my neck stand on-end. Twilight looked behind me, and I could tell she was looking at the night, at the thing that stood behind me. There was something about its voice, though… Something that made me feel safe. It wasn’t a warm sort of safety, like one got from being wrapped in a blanket on a cold night, but rather a protected sort of safety. Like somepony was watching over me. Looking out for me. There for me.
I suddenly knew that I would never be alone again. As long as I never violated her trust, this mysterious creature I couldn’t see would be at my side. Something to talk to, to confide in and share my secrets with.
Someone to be there for me when I woke up, and to wish me a good night when I fell asleep.
It was a good feeling.
”You’re very respectful, Star Caster… You’re destined to do great things in this world. You may be young and unlearned, but stay on the path of knowledge, my love… You love to learn, and that passion will save your life.” I felt a shiver run down my spine. Warmth and caution both mixed inside of me, making for a very confusing feeling. I swallowed my doubt and closed my eyes. This was advice given to me, not by Twilight, who was powerful in her own right…
But by the night. A goddess. Sovereign and powerful. I’d have embroidered those words on my forehead so I saw them in the mirror every morning if I had half a mind. Instead, I closed my eyes and nodded.
“Thank you. I’ll never forget these words.”
And just like that she was gone. I felt strength and lucidity return to my muscles once more. Twilight was smiling down at me, even as I began to shake.
“What did she say to you?”
“Th-that… I should keep learning.” I managed to whimper. I wasn’t shaking out of fear or anxiety…
I was excited.
“Let’s do it. Let’s get right to it. Right now.” I beamed up at Twilight, who met my eyes firmly. Her smile slowly faded into a serious expression.
“Easy, Star.” She cautioned. “We have all the time in the world for you to advance. You need to step into these things gradually. I know you’re excited and passionate, but relax. Take it easy.” She laid another hoof on my shoulder. “You gotta walk before you can run.”
True to Twilight’s word, I did need to relax. And not in the ‘go home and masturbate myself into a coma’ sort of way, either. I needed a breather. Something to get me away from the tedium of sleep, study, masturbate, eat… Something new. Something exciting.
Something like a spa trip.
Ooh, the girls at the spa back in Trottingham used to love me. My mane was always the talk of the staff whenever my mother would take me. It was a wonderful experience, and one that I hadn’t realized I’d been missing lately. Not to mention I had more bits than I knew what to do with. The idea of lounging about for a day, being waited on hoof and horn appealed to me in a way I’d hate to admit had me practically dancing with excitement. I called ahead and made a reservation for later that afternoon, and found myself in front of the spa just as the sun was reaching its zenith. Perfect timing, too, since I had just broken out in a thin layer of sweat.
Canterlot summers were abysmally hot, and the spa ponies seemed to know that. I stepped across the threshold and into the lobby with a sigh, feeling the cool embrace of magical air conditioning wash over my flanks. It was like stepping into a cooler, but without the shivering. Instead, I found myself sauntering up to the counter, enjoying the leisurely feel of cool air and nice, floral decorations. The pony behind the counter smiled at me as I approached.
“Hello, and welcome! Do you have an appointment?”
“I do,” I smiled at her. She was an awfully cute pink earth pony, with a mole right underneath her left eye and a beautiful, straight white mane. “My name is Star Caster.”
“You’re right on time.” She winked at me, lifting a folder from a small rack of similar-looking ones just to her left. “Which package would you like?” She opened the folder and slid it across the counter to me. I glanced over the packages and what they offered, alongside the rather steep prices. Sadly, the deluxe was just outside of my price range. I sighed and handed the folder back to her.
“Just the standard package, please.”
“Aah.” I nearly jumped as a soft voice sounded out right behind me. I whirled around and found myself nose-to-nose with another unicorn, her face split in a wide smile. “Not on my watch, you aren’t.”
“E-excuse me?” I panted, backing away a little. My heart was thundering in my chest as I looked the new mare up and down. She was slender and tall, standing maybe a head under Twilight’s height. Her coat was a pearly sort of white, not unlike my own though perhaps a little bit brighter. Her mane, though, was a deep, vibrant purple. I spotted her cutie mark, a lotus flower sitting afloat in a pool of blue water. She was beautiful, if a little skinny for my tastes.
“Give this beautiful young mare the deluxe treatment, on the house.” The mysterious mare looked over the counter at the pink earth pony, smiling warmly. “I’ll not have a mane such as yours be neglected. Why, I’ve never seen such luxurious, long strands… And you keep it braided, how criminal!”
“E-excuse me,” I whimpered, peeping up a little. “I… I can’t afford the deluxe-“
“Didn’t I just tell you?” The mare winked at me. “On the house.”
“Yes, ma’am!” The pony behind the counter mock saluted before taking my hoof and dragging me away.
“Aah- hey!” I looked back at the mysterious tall mare. “What’s your name?”
“Lotus, my love! I’ll see you in a moment!”
“L-lotus?” I arched my eyebrow at her, but was promptly pulled around the corner and into a locker room of sorts.
“Off.” The earth pony insisted, laying her hooves on my saddlebags. I had little choice but to shimmy out of them as she pulled them off, lest I break one of the buckles with my less-than-perfectly slender flanks. I was just about to voice my concern when the glasses were swiped off my face, and a firm tug at my tail rendered me helpless.
“She’s right, you know. It’s a shame you keep such a beautiful tail braided.”
“I-I have to!” I panted, my thighs twitching as the earth pony pulled at the tie keeping my tail in its signature braid. “Otherwise I trip over it…”
“Tsk tsk.” The earth pony just continued pulling at my tail in a way I’d hate to admit wasn’t entirely unwelcome. “Why don’t you cut it, then? It’d still be just as beautiful without such length.”
“I tried,” My complaints were beginning to fall short as she continued tugging. “It just keeps growing out.”
“So cut it regularly.”
“Like once a week?”
“You’d be surprised.” She grinned at me, moving higher as the braid began to loosen. This close to the base of my tail, the tugs were beginning to grow even more debilitating, almost to the point I felt the need to cry out in ecstasy.
My tail is my one true weakness. There’s one reason I tend to keep it braided so tight, is so it won’t get caught up or snagged by stray hooves or objects. Usually, having my tail pulled reduces me to a bubbling pile of pony flesh, and most anypony could have their way with me. Blazer was really good at it, second only to Mint, who’d managed to make me climax with a simple tail massage before. Though she was quickly being usurped by this spa pony, who had finally made it to the base of my tail, giving the whole thing several long, firm strokes. Each one of those made my legs go weak.
“There we go. That’s better now, isn’t it?”
“I-If you say so.” I exhaled a breath I didn’t realized I’d been holding. Some small part of me wanted her to keep going, but the larger, more reasonable part of my brain told me it was good she had stopped. I was probably seconds away from cumming on the locker room floor. At least my mane wasn’t the same ordeal. If anything, the firm tugs on my scalp helped allay the rising fire in my core, if only a little. When all the ties had finally been removed, I felt somewhat normal again, if a little embarrassed that the spa pony had seen my marehood with all the firm tugging. Then again, such a thing was normal in this industry.
After all my things were deposited in a basket for safekeeping, I was led into the next room, which seemed to sport several mud baths.
“I never got your name,” I turned to my attendant, who just smiled at me.
“Bubblegum. It’s nice to meet you.” She shook my hoof before waving towards one of the mud baths. “Go ahead and get in. We’ll come get you in fifteen minutes.”
“Fifteen minutes? That long?” I’d only ever been in a mud bath for five minutes at a time. Then again, my parents could never hope to afford any deluxe packages.
“Just relax and enjoy yourself.” She winked at me. “Lotus will be taking care of you today.”
“Uh huh.” I remembered the rather insistent pony from the lobby. She seemed to out-rank Bubblegum, enough to order on-the-house treatments with ease. Something else about her seemed hauntingly familiar, though… I couldn’t quite place it. Instead of focus on it, I slipped into the mud bath. This was probably one of the things I missed the most about spa trips.
Mud baths used to gross me out when I was a young filly, but I came to like the cool sensation of the wet, sticky earth sliding over my body inch by slow, agonizing inch. The way it seemed to shift and settle around you made me feel queasy at first, but I began to equate it to somepony giving you a really long, warm hug. They shifted and moved and adjusted until it was just right. When you settled into a mud bath, you felt like you could stay there for ages.
I hardly even noticed when Lotus laid a hoof on my neck, drawing me out of my reverie. She smiled down at me warmly. “Your fifteen minutes are up, darling. You’re mine now.”
“In a good way, I’d hope.” I chuckled despite the rather ominous implication behind her words. Lotus struck me as the sort of pony who wasn’t mean, though she did tease a lot. I’m not sure how or why I got that impression after meeting her just fifteen minutes prior, but here we were. As I emerged from the mud bath, trailing thick clumps of wet earth, Lotus led me across the room to a tiled-off area set with several showerheads, hoses, and various faucets. I stood still as she began hosing me off, using a large hose to get the larger chunks before switching to a high-pressure showerhead to get the tiny bits out. Meanwhile, she started chatting.
“You’re Twilight Sparkle’s student, aren’t you?”
“I am…” I led into it cautiously. The reason behind the deluxe treatment began to grow clearer. “How did you know?”
“Twilight’s something of a friend of mine.” Lotus purred, focusing on my hooves with the showerhead. “She has been for… Well, generations now. She comes in for spa treatments now and then. Her and Luna.”
“That’s neat.” I smiled. So she wasn’t some devious mare with questionable connections. She was just a friend of Twilight’s. Not unlike myself. “How did you come to know her?”
“Funnily enough, my family’s known Twilight for over three thousand years.” Lotus focused on my forelegs, but she was smiling warmly. “We trace our roots all the way back to Rarity, the original element of generosity.”
“That’s it!” I clopped a hoof down on the tile, finally realizing what struck me about Lotus. “You look just like Rarity!”
“You know about my great, great, great… Well, many greats worth of grandmother?”
“I do.” I smiled warmly. “I’ve read extensively about the elements of harmony, how they vanquished Discord and then reformed him, how they helped turn Nightmare Moon back into Luna… Rarity, Twilight, and all the others… They’re heroes of Equestria.” I sighed wistfully. “Oh what I’d give to see the elements…”
“What happened to them?” Lotus paused, though she still held the running showerhead against my leg.
“No one knows.” I shrugged. “Rumor has it they were sent somewhere in the Everfree Forest. Others say the princesses keep them in the caverns beneath Canterlot, while others say they’re in some secret library somewhere else.”
“I see…” Lotus gave a soft ‘hmm’ and shrugged nonchalantly. “That’s a shame; I always wanted to see my distant grandmother’s claim to fame… I’ve never heard any of her stories, though. Twilight always wants to know what’s going on with me and my family, and she never shares much about herself. Understandably so, I mean, I’m such a chatterbox when I get going. Some of the girls here in the spa can hardly get me to shut up!” We giggled a little, though I had to shudder as Lotus directed the stream of water up under my haunches. The cool stream sent a shudder through my stomach, and I quivered as it went lower, just enough to tease the very edge of my core. Granted, she didn’t mean anything by it, but I was already halfway riled up by Bubblegum.
Still, it was better than letting the mud sit there. I swallowed my apprehension and let Lotus lift up my tail, rinsing off my hindquarters in their entirety. To distract myself from the mildly arousing situation, I continued talking.
“I could tell you more stories about the elements of harmony,” I muttered. “If you’d like?”
“There’s no pressure, darling.” Lotus bubbled. “Just relax. We have the rest of the evening to chat to our heart’s content.”
“Wait, the whole evening?” I paused a little. “As in… Like… Into the night?”
“Of course, dear.” Lotus chuckled, moving on to my tail. She didn’t pull or tug at it, but the way the water sifted through the strands, buffing out all of the minerals that had accumulated made for an interesting, if mildly arousing bit of weight. “The deluxe treatment takes almost six hours to handle. We’ll be here until well after we close.”
“I-I can’t ask that of you!” I flustered. “Don’t you have to go home, or… Or something?”
“Home can wait, love.” Lotus smiled. “I’ve a cute mare that needs my help.”
I blushed even deeper as Lotus turned back to my tail. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could endure this sort of torture.
In short, my day off to relax was steadily becoming more and more stressful.
Turns out the spa trip wasn’t as torturous as I’d imagined. Shortly after the mud bath and moderately debilitating shower, Lotus showed me into a dimly-lit room where relaxing music and alluring scents mingled into a heavenly atmosphere of quiet tranquility and peacefulness. There was a large, puffy sort of…
Well it was a blob, for lack of a better word. Lotus directed me up onto it, where I promptly closed my eyes and zoned out for a good half an hour. When my escort retrieved me, I was beyond relaxed. We followed up with an hour-long deep muscle massage (Let me tell you, masseuse unicorns are few and far between, and holy fuck can they get some knots out.)
After that was a long, luxurious soak in an oil-scented bath, followed by facials, a hooficure, a much-needed horn grinding, and the very last and most-needed bit… A trip to the salon. Lotus was a grade-A mane stylist, and proclaimed to the stars above she was now my designated go-to pony for trims. Free of charge, of course. I was actually excited at the prospect of having somepony to keep my mane and tail reigned in. I’d tripped over them more often than usual in the past few weeks, much to Twilight’s delight.
But after I stepped out of the salon that evening, I felt clean, relaxed, and dare I say, a little… Sexy. Lotus led me to the front desk, where we chatted for a few.
“Thank you so much, Lotus, but… I can’t accept all that for free. Please, let me pay you back. If not in bits, then at least let me buy you dinner.”
“Darling!” Lotus chuckled, covering her mouth with a hoof. “I’m married.”
Like the world had just crashed down on me. And here I thought Lotus had been coming on to me earlier. The teasing, the gracious offer of a free deluxe spa treatment… Granted, she hadn’t taken as many liberties with the goo-pony I’d become underneath her skilled hooves and magic, but I wouldn’t have been upset if she had.
I was, of course, completely devastated at the loss. Lotus may have been a few years older than me, but she was such a beautiful mare. Part of her reminded me of Mint, in that she was calm and poised, never flustered and always careful, precise, and calculated. The other half was her luscious body. By the stars, she was a delight to look at. Even now, I found it difficult to maintain eye contact with her. Still… She was off-limits now.
“I-I’m sorry.” I stuttered, blushing furiously. “The free spa trip, and… and… You know, the… The showerhead and all that. I assumed.”
“Trust me, Star,” Lotus was fighting laughter now. “You’re not the first.” Her giggles eventually escaped, and I found them infectious. We both laughed together, and the awkwardness seemed to pass. She waved a hoof at me nonchalantly. “No, my dear, Twilight had spoken of you on her last trip here, albeit briefly. I’ve gotten her to open up just a little about her life over the past few years, but… I don’t know, she seems a little reserved, that one. I can only imagine why.” Lotus rolled her eyes before leaning across the counter with a warm smile.
“She told me how stressed you seemed, and that should you make an appointment, she’d appreciate it if I gave you one of the free visits I always give her. So I did, and here we are. Don’t get me wrong, darling.” Lotus winked. “I expect you to pay for the next one. And I certainly enjoyed chatting with you.”
We did talk about quite a few things; though Lotus had me talking about myself more than she shared anything important. I guessed it was either because it helped the recipient of the massage stay relaxed and distracted while the magic did its work deep in the muscle tissue, or because Lotus was genuinely interested in me. I decided to stick with the latter, considering Lotus was taken.
“So,” I mused, pulling my freshly-braided, shorter mane through my hooves. “Who’s the lucky colt?”
“I think you mean filly,” Lotus chuckled once more. “I’m married to a pegasus on the local weather team. Her name’s Fair Breeze, though she prefers just Breeze. Breezie if I’m feeling bold.”
“Oh I see.” I smiled at Lotus. At least I wasn’t alone in my appreciation for the fairer sex. “That’s very good. Though I hear pegasi can be awfully… Flighty. You’re young; how did you manage to get her to commit at such an age?”
“We go back a long, long time.” Lotus sighed wistfully. “Our families have known each other for a very, very long time… Back to the Elements of Harmony once more. My great-great… You get the idea. Rarity was my long-lost relative, and Rainbow Dash hers. We grew up together in Trottingham, but when I expressed my wishes to open a spa in Canterlot, she followed without a second thought. Shortly after moving out here and opening the spa, she proposed to me. We’ve been married four years now.”
“That’s amazing.” I breathed. “You’re descendants of the Elements of Harmony… I’m surprised I haven’t heard more about you two.”
“Truth be told,” Lotus sighed, albeit with a little more exasperation than previously. “We don’t care much for it. The elements are lost to us, so why should they matter? We’re just two mares against the world. Our ancestors shouldn’t have any bearing on that.”
“You make a good point.” I mused, blushing a little. “I’m sorry, I just… I really liked those old stories. The elements and what they did… What I would give to see them in Equestria today.”
“Why don’t you go and seek them out?” Lotus quipped. “You seem passionate enough, and Twilight has faith in you.”
“That’d sure be lovely.” I dropped my chin in my hooves with a warm sigh of desire. I shook myself out of it promptly. “And would never happen. Just two months ago, I could hardly bring a book to its place on a shelf without wrecking something valuable; I doubt I’m cut out to go on some epic journey like that.”
“Well if you keep up your studies, I’m sure you’ll get there.” Lotus winked at me. “All things in time.”
I had stars in my eyes as I made my way home. Lotus and Fair Breeze, two descendants of the Elements of Harmony. Twilight was still alive, meaning half of the elements were in Canterlot. As I made my way home through the lamp-lit Canterlot streets, I entertained the idea of running into another descendant of the Elements.
Yeah right. I’d sooner be struck by lightning than find another Element.
My home was quiet when I arrived… Then again, it had no reason to be noisy… Not unless my vibrator mysteriously turned on in the drawer again. Still, it was a warm feeling to come home to a quiet den. The muted moonlight poured in through the kitchen window, painting a solid square on the floor, which I stepped into on my way to the fridge. I retrieved a bottle of cider and popped it open, looking out of the window to appreciate the beautiful night sky and delicious apple cider.
It had been a good day. Tomorrow, I’d get back on track. The night had just conversed with me, and I wanted to get to know it better. I wanted our relationship to be strong, so I could allow her to help other ponies through me. But right now, I needed sleep. Finishing the cold cider, I slipped into bed and nodded off, dreaming peacefully of my studies.
My mood was not exactly mirrored by the early-morning ponies of Canterlot. As soon as I made my way from the suburban edges of the city and into the heart of Canterlot, just a few blocks from the palace, I was surprised to find everypony grim and dour. My jaunty step and bright expression actually earned me a few glares. I wasn’t unused to the upper-crust ponies looking down their nose at me, but everypony seemed to be meaner than usual today. I quickly slowed my pace and painted my face in a frown to match everypony else.
I found out why they were in such a foul mood at the first news stand I came across. The headline for the ‘Canterlot Observer’ nearly made my heart stop.
’Mysterious magic strikes again! Timberwolves showing organization and planning!’
“Give me one of those.” I nearly threw my bit at the pony tending the stand as I swiped a copy off of the stack, hastily reading it.
’Reports from Northern Trottingham say a large-scale attack by unusually-organized Timberwolves assaulted the castle keep late last night. Thankfully, no lives were taken, but over two dozen ponies were injured in the initial fighting. The guards reacted quickly and drove the attackers back into their territory, but not before two houses were very nearly destroyed. Four ponies are in critical condition in the aftermath of the attack.
“It’s the largest attack on Trottingham by any force in any amount of history.” General Fireflare comments from the Trottingham command post. “Timberwolves normally aren’t very organized outside of some large packs, but this was larger and more coordinated than any pack the guard has ever encountered. Furthermore, the few timberwolves we managed to subdue show traces of some strange magic our mages haven’t been able to place. We’ve requested the Archmage’s assistance on this matter, so we can hopefully nip the problem in the bud, so to speak.”
As of midnight last night, all ponies involved in the attack had been stabilized, and their homes and businesses are already under repair. While it’s no doubt that Trottingham will recover from this attack, speculative ponies say the timberwolves will return; in larger numbers and with more force.
Meanwhile, an order for all logging and farming operations outside of the keep’s limits has been put into place for the safety of outlying ponies. Nearby Stalliongrad and the crystal kingdom’s outlying villages have been placed on high alert, and told to prepare for future attacks.’
“Thank the stars.” I breathed as I finished the article. My parents lived on the southern edge of the city, right up against the keep’s wall. They hadn’t been effected, but I did know a few ponies near the north edge of town. I prayed they were okay as I made for the castle, renewed vigor in my step.
Much to my surprise, there were five guards this morning. As I approached the front door, four of them lowered their spears at me while the fifth pulled a list from his saddlebags.
“S-star Caster. I’m here to see Princess Twilight…” I whimpered.
“Princess Twilight is in Trottingham,” the guard responded, even as he waved the other four off. They raised their spears and went back to watching the drive leading up to the stairs. “But I’ve orders you’re to report to Princess Luna this morning. Good thing you came, I was about to dispatch an escort to your home.”
“Pr-Princess Luna?” I stumbled on my way towards the door. “Okay…”
“You’ll find her office in the South wing, second floor.” The guard pointed me on my way, even as he stopped the next pony behind me. Security was much tighter, and I found myself wondering why as I made my way to the far end of the hall, where the South wing’s staircase sat guarded by another two ponies. These two looked at me as I passed, but didn’t stop me.
’Seven guards thus far, where I’d normally only see two… Is this because of the report from Trottingham about the timberwolves, or something else? And why am I supposed to go see Luna?’ My dark thoughts followed me up the shadowed staircase and into the South wing, where I soon found Luna’s office, indicated by her moon cutie mark on a placard next to a banded wooden door. I timidly knocked and waited for the door to open.
“Hello Star,” Luna waved me in with a surprisingly warm smile. “I’m glad you made it here so soon. Did the escort fly you here?”
“Eer, no, I… I woke up early and made it here ahead of my usual time.” I slipped inside, and found this office was yet another library. Twilight’s was always warmly-lit and smelled of old paper and knowledge. Luna’s library was just one floor, with a few more tables and less furniture, and no fireplace. It was still lit by candles, though maybe only half of what Twilight’s was. This library struck me as dark and mysterious, not unlike the princess of the night herself.
“That’s good.” Luna trotted to a nearby table and swept it free of materials. “I assume you’ve read the headlines this morning?” She nodded to the paper sticking out of my saddlebags, and I nodded.
“Yeah, I did… Is Trottingham okay?”
“It is indeed. Twilight left very early this morning to go investigate. If anypony knows what’s happening, it’ll be her.” Luna smiled warmly at me. “The extra security is just a precaution. Twilight’s orders.”
“Oh, okay.” I nodded, some of my fears put to rest. Twilight would figure out what happened. She was the most powerful unicorn in Equestria. She had to figure it out. Still, a thought nagged at me. “Is… Is there a list? Of ponies who were injured?”
“Not publicly, no.” Luna chuckled, as if she understood the reason I was asking. “But I have one here. You’re welcome to see if anypony you know is there.” She hovered a small sheet of paper over to me, and I hastily scanned the dozen or so names there. Thankfully, neither of my parents nor anypony I recognized was there.
“Thank you.” I sighed, handing the list back to her. “I’m glad nopony died.” ’And I’m glad mom and dad are okay.’ I added as an afterthought.
“Well, I suppose we ought to get down to business.” Luna clopped her hooves together and smiled at me. “Twilight asked me to oversee your education while she’s away. It could be anywhere from a day to a month before she gets returns, so you’re squarely in my hooves, as it were.” She grinned at me, though not in a wicked or evil way. It was more of a ‘what sort of neat things can I teach this young filly?’ sort of way. I rather liked it, and returned with a smile of my own.
“What do you think?” She arched an eyebrow at me.
“Not you, Star.” Luna purred, gesturing with a hoof. I spun around…
And found myself face-to-face with eternity.
”Hmm, she has an eager mind… And determination. I like that.” The night stood before me in all of her shadowy, mysterious glory. I looked straight into her eyes, and saw the galaxy there. Stars swirled and pooled in her eyes, and the longer I watched, the more of them were laid bare to me. Her mane was much the same way, looking not unlike the night sky in a portal through to the evening. Her coat was dusky-black, almost like smoke in that she wasn’t entirely there, but not completely gone either.
”And she’s certainly reverent. Look at her, she can hardly speak.” The night chuckled, pulling back a little. I had to remind myself to close my jaw in shock. My knees felt weak. This was a god right in front of my eyes! If I could have died, it’d have been a release. Luna was dark and mysterious, but she was a mare. This figure, this… thing. It was there, that much was certain. But it wasn’t, either. It seemed to shift and fade in and out of existence. One moment, I might as well have just been looking at a shadowy corner underneath a stairwell, and the next she was defined and clear in front of me.
”Desperate times call for desperate measures, young one.” The night whispered to me. ”Twilight’s told me of your devotion to your studies, and how quick you are to advance. I admire a studious pony, one who’s eager to explore their power, and learn more. Your name carries weight in the words of prophecy, Star Caster.”
“Wait, it does?” Luna and I both asked at the same time. We shared a look before Luna stood from the table, her brow suddenly drawn in curiosity.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of Star mentioned in prophecy. Please, tell me… What is she destined to do?”
”You shall see, my love.” The night cooed to Luna, even as she turned her gaze back to me. ”Both of you shall see…” She melted away, dwindling until almost nothing remained of her shadowy, ephemeral form.
”All things in time.”
She was gone, only to be replaced by a very insistent pounding at the door.
“Honestly.” Luna growled, tromping towards the door with an indignant scowl on her lips. “I hate it when she does that.”
“Sh-she?” I inquired, watching as Luna threw the door open, squaring off with the pony there.
“What? I’m busy.”
“Sorry, Princess, but an urgent missive from the Farseer’s tower.” Whoever was at the door meekly offered Luna something in their hooves. Luna took it and shut the door, scoffing in impatience.
“What do those dottering old fools want now?” She turned back my way, carrying a scroll. “Yes, she… While many ponies believe the night is an incorporeal being, and as such has no definable sex, Twilight and I both believe she is a mare, more often than not.”
“Oh.” I frowned. I could see where they got that impression. The night’s voice was low, but husky. Certainly not masculine, though it couldn’t exactly be called feminine either. Her form was too transient for me to tell much, but I could identify with the speculation. “What’s this missive?”
“Well,” Luna sighed, unraveling the scroll slowly. “We normally keep our communication with the Farseer’s tower a secret, considering it almost always applies to one prophecy or another… But considering that bomb that was just dropped, I’m sure it’s something to do with you…” She held the scroll up and began scanning it.
I saw it the moment her eyes froze, glued to the page. Her whole body seemed to go rigid.
“No.” She whispered softly. “Not this. Anything but this.”
“What?” I asked, cautiously creeping forwards. “What’s wrong?”
“Star.” Luna rolled up the scroll, looking to me with a serious expression. “I… I cannot show you this.”
“What? Why?” I drew back, frowning at her. “It’s about me, isn’t it?”
“It is indeed.” Luna’s horn sparked, and I watched with horror as the scroll began to burn. “And that’s why I cannot show you.”
“Hey!” I lunged for the scroll, but Luna swung it out of my reach, even as the last bits of parchment crumpled into ash. “Princess! Please!”
“QUIET.” Luna’s voice stopped me short, washing over me with such force that I skidded across the carpet a few inches. I looked up at her with wide eyes, even as she towered over me. Her voice thrummed with power as she spoke. ”Prophecy is not to be trifled with. Showing you what’s on that scroll could have ended disastrously. For you to have foreknowledge of your actions may very well have impacted them, and the prophecy would have failed. I cannot risk anypony or anything around you by allowing such an imbalance to occur.” When she had said her piece, I had nearly wet myself. What she said made sense, but damn it all, I didn’t have to like it. Twilight had explained to me about balance, and how it had to have been observed.
Prophetic balance was one of the trickier branches of magic, in that actions and events could cause prophecy to fail. She gave me an example of her own prophecy, revolving around her ascendance to Princess-hood. If she had chosen instead to die and join the night and day, her prophecy would have failed, and the magical imbalance would have been catastrophic. It wasn’t unlike a spell equation, which I knew from experience were just as prone to explosions and… Jelly.
I didn’t have to bloody like it, though. I frowned up at Luna, feeling my anger rising.
“Fine. You can’t tell me, or rather you won’t. Who can I see that will?”
“Nopony with half a brain in their head would tell you this prophecy, Star.” Luna frowned down at me. “Thankfully, the only ponies who know about it are myself and the Farseers. They know how to keep their mouths shut, and so do I. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go ask a certain bearded old cripple why it is you’re suddenly the focal point of the largest prophecy in almost three thousand years.” She turned away from me, her tail brushing the ashes aside in her wake. I watched them flutter across the carpet, even as Luna stopped at the door.
“Star, I am sorry… Please, understand that if I had a choice, I’d tell you in a heartbeat. Once I know more about this prophecy, I’ll hopefully be able to tell you more.”
“Hey.” A thought crossed my mind as I looked up to Luna, just before she slipped out of the door. I frowned at her, indignation heavy in my voice. “Twilight told you that I’m in your hooves before she left, right?”
“… Right…” Luna slid back into the room, casting me one of those ‘and just where do you think you’re going with this argument’ looks.
“Well, I’m in your hooves then.” I surmised, sitting calmly beside the ashes of my destiny. “You’re just going to leave me here, uneducated and unoccupied, against your wife’s orders?”
I could see the twitch in her eye from twenty feet.
“Very well, Star.” Luna gave me a teasing, devious grin. “You’re so eager to learn, I’ll leave you in the capable hooves of my aide. Spearhead, she’s yours.”
“Thank you, milady.”
“GAH!” I gasped as another voice came from just behind me, making me jump nearly out of my coat. I whirled around to find myself face-to-face with a tall, slender stallion. My heart hammered loud enough in my ears, mostly from shock.
Yup, definitely from shock. Voices behind me I could stand, to an extent.
Cute stallions are another matter.
“Sorry to startle you, Star Caster.” Spearhead bowed gracefully, righting himself with a warm smile. “My name is Spearhead. I’m Princess Luna’s personal aide, and I’ll be instructing you until she deems fit.”
“O-okay.” Despite my anger and the very obvious danger this prophecy posed, I couldn’t help but blush. ’Focus, you dumbass. There’s something important happening here. Don’t get distracted by some piece of pony-flesh. Remember, you’re Twilight’s student. This hunky colt can’t keep you distracted. Yeah. Fuck him and his amber eyes… And that beautiful mane…’
“Star.” Spearhead snapped me out of my reverie with a grin. “You’re staring.”
“No I’m not.” I puffed up, even as my eyes followed the point of his horn down to his face. He wasn’t just cute, by the heavens he was gorgeous. Spearhead’s mane framed his face perfectly, hanging in highlighted black-and-grey strands down a sleek neck. His coat was milky-white, not entirely unlike Lotus’, save the different mane color… And, you know, extra baggage underneath.
“Uh huh.” He chuckled, turning towards a nearby book case. I glimpsed his cutie mark, finding it to be his namesake. The very tip of a spear pointed upwards on his flanks, framed by two olive branches. Why someone who was clearly cut out to be a guardpony wanted to be Luna’s aide escaped me. And you know what else escaped me? My own stars-damned decency. I forced a frown onto my face as I called out to him.
“Look, Spear, I’m not terribly keen on being dumped off like this.”
“And I’m not that keen on my invisibility practice being interrupted either, yet here we are.” Spear didn’t even turn to face me as he started scanning the books. “Let’s just make the best of our time, alright? I’m certain Princess Luna had a perfectly good reason to leave you in my hooves, and she usually keeps her promises. If she discovers anything important, she’ll tell you about it.”
“Well.” I puffed up again. “Well that’s just stupid.”
“Careful, now.” Spear chuckled. “My princess doesn’t take kindly to being insulted.”
“But it is!” I insisted. “What kind of backwards system tells a pony their future, then keeps it from them?! It’s stupid!”
“Oh, so you’re insulting prophecy. Not my princess. That’s an entirely different matter.” He was patronizing me and I could tell. Curse him for being cute enough to avoid me throttling him on the spot. These deadpan responses and the way he was ignoring me weren’t getting him very many brownie points.
Not that there were any brownie points to be had, mind you! I just…
You know what? Fuck hormones. They do terrible things to a mare’s mind. I re-asserted myself, stomping across the library until I was at his back. I tapped his flank, enough to get my message across. He glanced back at me with a half-interested expression.
“Look. I've just been shunted out of my own future. A little empathy would be nice.”
“What is it you expect me to do?” Spearhead furrowed his brow at me, even as he leisurely turned around with a couple of books in his magic. “Do you want me to tell you the prophecy? My talent lies in spell casting, not divination. Do you want me to appeal to the Farseers for a consultation? I could do that, but they’d probably get back to you in, oh, I dunno… Fifty years or so.” He brushed past me with a roll of his eyes, going to set the two books down on the table.
“Here’s an idea,” He continued, flipping both books open. “We do as our princess told us to, and hold out hope that there’s something she can tell you when she returns. If all else fails, you can re-assert yourself with Twilight when she gets back from Trottingham.”
Damn it all, he had a point. I huffed a breath and turned to the table, joining him meekly.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered. “Yesterday everything’s fine, and today we’re under attack. You’ll have to forgive me for being upset about it.”
“You have family in Trottingham?” Spearhead asked, in a surprising display of tenderness.
“My parents,” I nodded. “I know nopony died in the attack, and I’m thankful for that, but I’m still worried about them.”
“Twilight’s out there. She’ll keep everypony safe.” Spearhead laid a hoof on my shoulder, giving me a warm smile. “Relax. Stick around. Learn a few things. I’m sure all will be made clear in time.”
“Yeah…” I sighed, looking at the books with a renewed interest. “All things in time.”
Spearhead, despite his gorgeous countenance, was about as cold and unforgiving as the metal his namesake was made out of. I found myself plunged headfirst into some rather confusing and advanced studies about the magic of the night. There was a clear-cut line between what an innocent pony could do with the night’s power, and what I could accomplish. That line was set at about ten percent of the skills available to me, but Spearhead seemed rather intent on shoving the other ninety percent down my throat.
From that fateful day in Luna’s library to today - a whole two weeks later – Spearhead and I had spent every day together. I’d come to resent that gorgeous stallion for his teaching process. He assured me it was the quickest and most efficient way to learn, but I found myself growing more flustered than knowledgeable. Maybe it was just the different way that the magic of the night worked. I was used to using my own strength (limited as it was) to cast the few spells I could.
But the night’s power didn’t come from practice and skill. It came from reverence and openness. While I was pretty damn good at humbling myself, I wasn’t the most open of mares. Stepping back and letting somepony (or something) else take the reins didn’t exactly sit well with me. So while I understood the concept, it was in the practice that I failed.
“Honestly,” Spearhead sighed at me as I failed to cast the seventh shield in about fifteen minutes. “You need to be more open. Relax. Take a breath. Let her in.”
“Easier said than done.” I grumbled at him with a glare, my chest heaving not with exhaustion, but with exasperation. Spearhead was incorrigible in his determination to make me some sort of indomitable expert at shadow magic.
“Well, let’s move on to snares.”
“Again?” I groaned, rolling my eyes. “We covered snares just an hour ago.”
“And you still haven’t cast one that could hold down a feather, let alone some manticore with its sights on your flanks.” Spearhead frowned at me. “Cast it. Now.”
“Fine!” I growled at him, my horn thrumming with dark energy. I watched in defeat as a single tendril of shadow magic wrapped feebly around Spearhead’s hoof, fading away almost as soon as it showed up.
“RRGH.” I grunted with effort, watching as a single shadow pulsed underneath him before fading away.
“You know what?!” I glared at him angrily. “Fuck you. I’m done.” I spun on my hoof, turning towards the door with an indignant flick of my tail.
“Star, get back here.” Spear called after me. I could hear him trotting up to my side, but I ignored him. “Hey, Luna tasked me with teaching you, so I’m teaching you!”
“All you’ve taught me is how to be even more upset with myself than I already am!” I whirled on him, an anger in my eyes the likes of which I hadn’t felt in a long while. He faltered in his steps, but I didn’t. “Something’s clearly wrong with me, in that I can hardly let something else even do my work for me!”
“O-okay. Alright.” Spearhead stopped at last, raising his hooves defensively. “Relax.”
“Rrgh. Just leave me be.” I snarled at him, turning around to the door once more. He didn’t follow this time, and I left unmolested.
Until I bumped into Twilight.
“Well hello there, Star.” Twilight chuckled. I looked up at her with wide eyes, my heart racing all of a sudden. “Having a tough time?”
“You’re back!” I bubbled as I threw my hooves around her neck. Twilight laughed as she returned my exuberant embrace.
“It’s good to be back. I’d missed you in Trottingham.”
“Oh you haven’t the slightest.” I groaned, casting a glance over my shoulder at the room I’d just left.
“Spearhead giving you trouble?” Twilight asked with a slight grin. She nodded back the way she had come, inviting me to walk beside her.
“I don’t know what it is,” I sighed. “I just can’t open up and let her take control… It feels so wrong.”
“Well, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.” Twilight offered, turning us away from the castle proper and out towards the grounds. It seemed she wanted to walk through the hedge maze, as she was sometimes wont to do. I could go for a bit of wandering myself, and there was nopony better to wander with than Twilight. “We just have to overcome this obstacle, one hoof in front of the other like we always have.”
“Right.” I nodded my approval, finding a sense of determination and excitement I’d found lacking in Spear’s presence. He seemed a cruel taskmaster, while Twilight was a kind and compassionate mentor. The contrast between the two was a refreshing change of pace, and I found myself rather giddy at Twilight’s return.
“So how was your time in Trottingham?” I asked, more out of curiosity than anything.
“Later, Star. Right now we need to focus on your shadow magic.” Twilight chided, nudging my flank with hers. I blushed a little, nodding as the hedge maze’s entrance neared.
“Right… Well, I just… I feel some difficulty in opening up to her. The night, that is…”
“That’s curious.” Twilight tapped her lower lip in thought. “I had you pegged as an air-type, and I figured loosing yourself to the whims of another would come as almost second nature to you by now.”
“Air type?” I frowned up at her. “What do you mean by air-type?”
“Well,” Twilight smiled as we entered the hedge maze proper. I felt a sense of security in the leafy hedges, especially with Twilight back by my side. It was nice to know she was back from Trottingham. It meant I wouldn’t have to suffer through Spear’s tutelage any more. “Everypony has an element they identify with. For instance, Spear is an earth-type. He’s very rooted in tradition, and having anything done other than his way is like… Well, it’s like pulling a tree from the ground.”
“Oh I see.” I had heard of the elements and their attributes in passing before, most specifically when dealing with spell-forms. “So you mean everypony’s personality aligns itself with an element?”
“Or an element is easiest identified by a pony’s personality, yes.” Twilight nodded. “Take for instance myself. I’m a water-type. Can you guess why?”
“Umm…” I thought on it for a few moments, thinking about how Twilight best identified with water. “Well, you’re logical. You take the easiest route, step by step.”
“It seems you wear your problems down little by little, searching for weaknesses, or in some cases, your own strengths in order to overcome an obstacle.”
“And… You don’t seem to sweat the details. You kind of let things run their course.”
“Good. That’s a good observation, Star. Now can you see how Spear’s an earth-type?” Twilight and I were now thoroughly lost in the hedge maze, having turned too many times for me to keep track of where we were. But that was half the fun, was getting so lost you had to think to find your way back.
“Well,” I furrowed my brow once more in thought. “He’s awfully damn stubborn, for one.”
“And he can’t seem to understand me when I explain my problems to him.”
“He just does things on his own terms, without asking or consulting me, or how I feel.”
“Perfect. You see, the elements in and of themselves are opposed to one another. I had you pegged for an air type, and while I might not have been entirely wrong, I don’t think I got it right either.” She turned another corner before coming to a pause. I looked up at her curiously, but her horn was already glowing.
“Woah!” I gasped, feeling the earth beneath my hooves shift and move. Twilight just laid a wing across my back, keeping me close to her side. The hedges all around us began to shift and move, rumbling over the ground with a grating, intense sound. If I wasn’t with Twilight, I’d have thought the world was coming to an end. Instead, Twilight just kept me close until she finished doing whatever it was she was doing.
“You see,” Twilight smiled as the hedges came to a stop once more. We stood at an intersection of four corridors, each of them looking wildly unfamiliar to me. “I think you’re an air type because of your scatterbrained personality. But you can get tripped up on minor details, and you have your quirks, for the better or the worse.” Twilight spread her wings, flapping up above the level of the hedge maze.
“See if you can loose yourself into the greater flow of things, Star. Let go, and you’ll find yourself home before you know it.”
“Twilight?” I looked up at her, but she just shot me another wink before flapping off.
I was alone.
And oh holy fuck was I lost. Panic and vertigo began to set in as I spun about, looking down each corridor of leaves and grass. None of these looked like the way we had came, and to make matters worse, I wasn’t paying much attention to our route in the first place. This wasn’t like our usual hedge maze walks, where we’d get lost and find our way back. Whenever we did that, there was always the thought that ‘yeah, we got here, so there’s a way to get back.’
But for all I knew, I was trapped in a loop with no way out. Twilight had obviously re-arranged the hedge maze. She could have trapped me.
No, Twilight would never do that…
Only one way to find out. I ground an X into the grass at my hooves, tearing up enough to expose the dark dirt underneath. Then, keeping one wall to my left, I used the tried and tested trick of getting out of mazes. If I followed the left edge, I would eventually find my way out of the maze, no matter how long it took me. So I focused on the left edge, taking every available left turn, following it without fail. Every twist, turn, and bend brought a new corridor of leaves to me, but that didn’t matter. I just had to find my way out of the maze.
Okay, what in Tartarus was the deal? There was no way the maze was this big before. It just filled about a quarter of the entire Canterlot Castle lawns. It was a small thing compared to the wheat mazes they used to make outside of Trottingham. Those things were huge, intricate pieces of agricultural prowess that could take hours to complete. This thing could be walked around in twenty minutes if one were going slow.
One hour had passed, and I had made no headway. What’s worse, I hadn’t come across my mark either. Each new intersection and long stretch made me worry more and more that I had gotten truly, miserably lost. It also made me certain that the exit was just around the next bend, just one more turn, one more long stretch…
I almost tripped over the damn thing. My X sat on the ground, just at the intersection of four different paths. I frowned at it intensely. It was mocking me.
“Fine. If the left won’t work, let’s do the right.” I looked up to the sky once more, frowning at the steadily-darkening horizon. I kept to the right side this time, following each turn.
At least, I would have, if the second turn didn’t deposit me right at the same intersection I had marked. “Oh what the fuck.” I groaned, frowning at the mark in the grass. I turned around, and there it was again. The same intersection, same mark.
“Twilight, I fucking hate you sometimes.” I sighed, looking to my left and right as another two intersections appeared seemingly out of nowhere, both of them marked with my X. Each way I turned, there was a mark on the ground, another intersection. I sat on my haunches, my mind whirling at the spatial implications. Twilight had to have done more than just re-arrange the maze. She must have enchanted the damn thing. Or she was actively changing it while I sat here, frustrated and angry.
I remembered her words.
’See if you can loose yourself into the greater flow of things, Star. Let go, and you’ll find yourself home before you know it.’
“Haah…” I drew a deep breath in through my nose and let it out of my mouth before stepping forwards. I stepped over my X and turned right, and then left again. I took three rights followed by a left, one more right, two lefts, another right…
And I was at the exit. The fountain that sat at the entrance bubbled happily, and I could see the entrance of the castle just across the twilit castle lawn. And Twilight, sitting on a stone bench with her back turned to me.
“Okay,” I joined her on the bench. “So if I learn to just let go, I can get out of most any situation.”
“But you’re also awfully logical when you need to be, and level-headed to boot.” Twilight closed the book she had been reading and gestured towards another nearby fountain. “You’ve got characteristics of two different elements, both air and water.”
“Is that unusual?”
“Uncommon, but not rare.” Twilight smiled and slid off the bench, indicating I should follow with a tilt of her head. “I’ve taught several unicorns in the past who are mixtures. Ooh, I remember one; he was both an earth and fire type. He was so headstrong and stubborn he’d argue with anyone who didn’t agree with his point of view. That being said, he was adamant when he needed to be, and passionate about what he believed in.” Twilight slowed her pace, her gaze going off somewhere else. I recognized it from our time together as her recalling a memory. She did it quite often. When you were over three thousand years old, I supposed you had a lot to remember.
“He made a fine commander of the guard.” Twilight surmised, picking the pace back up. “But anyways. I’m saying there are ponies out there who embody several elements at once. For instance, you’re calm and level-headed like a water-type, though you can be caught up in the details, which tends to throw you off of your flow. Furthermore, you’re prone to spacing out, and you can very easily get distracted. But that’s kind of your forte. When you let go and stop focusing, you tend to get things done one way or another.”
“I follow.” I sighed, plodding up the steps to the castle. “I must be a hoof-full to teach.”
“Not nearly as much as some.” Twilight chuckled. “Just different. I’ve never had the pleasure of teaching one like yourself.”
“So I guess you could say I’m your first?” I grinned up at Twilight. She returned the look and nudged my flank.
“I missed you, Star. You always know how to make me smile.” At Twilight’s admittance of longing, I blushed. Just knowing anypony had missed me was enough, but this was Twilight. A princess. I felt more entitled than I deserved. But a dark though crossed my mind, quickly putting a damper on my mood. Rather than let it stretch on, I decided to voice my concern.
“… What was going on in Trottingham?” Ever since emerging from the maze, I’d been dying to ask Twilight this all-important question. I had suffered quite a bit in the two weeks she’d been gone, and I was worried for my hometown. Twilight closed her eyes with a soft sigh, slowing her walk quite a bit. I mirrored her, knowing that this meant we’d be in for a long discussion. Twilight seldom shared much about her life or obligations with me, so the fact that she was about to open up had me excited.
“It’s an awfully complicated matter of magic, I’m afraid… I’m scared to reduce it to simple terms you could understand.” Twilight started, choosing her words carefully. “Let’s just say a very old and dangerous magic has resurfaced. It’s one that I’ve only met once, when I was very, very young. It was such a blast from the past, I found myself stumped for about an entire week.”
Twilight? Stumped? There was something new. She was always so calm and collected. Whenever I had a question about anything magic-related, she had the answer in a heartbeat. The fact that she’d be caught up on anything for a week had me worried.
“But everything’s safe, isn’t it?”
“It ought to be.” Twilight nodded. “Though I did have to resort to some… Extreme measures.”
“Well, I had to put a shield up blocking the entire timberwolf territory from Equestria and the Crystal Kingdom.”
I stopped, my jaw hanging open.
“What?” Twilight teased.
“That’s… That border is like, a hundred miles long!”
“You wonder why I was gone for two weeks.” Twilight winked at me, turning to continue our slow walk. I trotted a bit to catch up, still trying to comprehend a shield even a mile wide, let alone a hundred. “I don’t know the cause or the source of the magic, so I took the high road and locked the entire forest off. We’re safe from whatever threat is in those woods, but that threat is still there, behind that barrier.” Twilight’s expression turned dark. “I’d like to know what it is exactly. It’s got me more worried than I’d care to admit.”
“So, Trottingham is safe?”
“Yes it is.” Twilight nodded to me, with yet another smile. “And your parents say hello.”
“You spoke to mom and dad?” I perked up, a helpless smile crossing my lips.
“I did indeed. They’re very proud of you, Star. And truth be told, so am I.”
“Of course I am.” Twilight ruffled my mane playfully. “You’ve advanced admirably since becoming my student. What’s more, you give me something to do. I’ve been a little bored lately, so making books for you and thinking out solutions to your problems keeps me occupied. Thankfully so.”
“Well I don’t want to be a burden.” I blushed, feeling quite a bit more self-conscious.
“You’re not a burden, Star.” Twilight nudged me again. “And don’t let anypony tell you otherwise. You’re a blessing. And a good friend to have.”
The praise was making me melt. I felt like a stuttering young schoolfilly being proposed by her first awkward high school coltfriend. Twilight laid a wing over my back as we came to a stop in front of her quarters.
“I’m proud of how far you’ve come, Star. And I know you’re destined to do great things.” At the mention of the word destiny, I regained my sanity. I frowned up at Twilight.
“About destiny… Did you hear that prophecy about me?”
“I did indeed.” Twilight’s face turned from a smile to a frown in half a moment and she leaned in to me. “Star, I promise you, we’re going to have a nice, long discussion about this prophecy. But not right now. I’ve been away from Luna for far too long, and I’m in dire need of… Well, to put it bluntly, a skilled tongue and a few dozen orgasms.” She blushed as we devolved into a small fit of giggles. My fears were allayed as Twilight straightened up, ruffling her wings a little.
“I will read into this prophecy some more, and then I promise I’ll do everything in my power to either tell you about it, or prepare you for what’s to come.” She laid a hoof on her breast, catching my eyes with hers. “This I swear to you.”
“Thank you.” I knew a promise from a princess was nothing to be taken lightly. I smiled up at Twilight, feeling radiant for all the praise and attention she’d given me today. “I do appreciate it.”
“Good night, Star. I’ll see you tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow morning.” I nodded to Twilight firmly. “Good night, Twilight.” At that, she slipped into her quarters, leaving me alone in the castle. I stood there for a few moments, trying hard to reconcile all that had happened in the past six hours. Twilight’s return from Trottingham, learning what sort of element I was, getting out of the maze, and oh bucking stars the praise!
I didn’t walk so much as floated home, up the stairs, and into my bed. When I laid my tired muscles down, they responded in kind by carrying me off to a deep, peaceful sleep. I didn’t dream that night.
The following morning was overcast and dreary, but I rather liked those days. They usually meant heavy rains, which were perfect for staying in and getting plenty of reading done. Even if I didn’t feel like staying in, the rain was always cool and fresh in Canterlot, and I did love taking long, wet walks followed by a warm shower and a good, hard mug of cider. Today, though, I opted for an umbrella and galoshes to make my way to the castle. I had promised Twilight I would meet her that morning.
Thankfully, the rain had only just begun to fall as I arrived at the castle. The first few substantial drops chased me up the steps and into the castle, where I was told Twilight would meet me after her meeting with the captain of the guard was over. I wasn’t unused to waiting for Twilight to finish her meetings, or even leaving me in the middle of a lesson for one important matter or another. There had been several days our lessons had been cancelled outright because of important goings on. This was no different.
So as I found myself outside of the council chamber, waiting patiently for Twilight to emerge, I couldn’t help but catch the faintest whisper of conversation. The council chamber doors were both heavy banded oak, and enchanted so as not to let any sound out. Yet here I was, hearing whispers of some conversation being carried to my ears.
Upon closer inspection of the doors, I realized one of them had been left cracked open by the slightest amount. ’The doors aren’t engaged, so neither is the spell! I can eavesdrop!’ I hated myself for it, but eavesdropping was one of my nasty habits. I’d gotten in trouble with the parents for spoiling a few birthday surprises as well as one particularly important gift of a book collection when I was younger, and what few friends I had in Trottingham quickly learned not to share any gossip about me while I was anywhere nearby.
This was juicy, though. I could get an insight into Twilight’s life outside of her instructing me for once! I surreptitiously made my way to the crack, placing my ear almost against it to listen as best I could. I could only catch stray words and portions of sentences.
“… -reat is real! They’re gr-… Never in all my years have I-“
“-elax, it’s fine. Sh-“
“That’s not right at- … -vry bit as much a right as we do to-“
“…-ater. I have to-“
“Fine. Just don’t expect me to-…” I gasped as hooffalls came closer to the door. Backing away, I tried my best to appear innocent and bored, looking disinterestedly at one of the myriad of paintings adorning the walls of the castle. As soon as I took up my position, the doors opened, and everypony froze.
Twilight, Luna, and Celestia stood at the fore, and behind them I thought I saw quite a few other ponies, chiefly guards and a few other unicorns that looked rather important.
“Star. Good morning.” Twilight forced a smile onto her face as she and the rest of her entourage paused between the heavy oak doors. “Have you been waiting long?”
“I just arrived.” I managed a smile of my own, praying the lie took. “I’m sorry; I hope I’m not interrupting anything…?”
“Not at all.” Luna shot a quick glance at everypony else in the chamber behind her. I tried hard to ignore the fact that all three mother-bucking princesses stood right in front of me. I’d like to think I succeeded, but the way everypony was looking at me like I were some sort of zombie had me worried. I shuffled my hooves, hoping against hope somepony said something soon.
“Well. That was a good budget meeting.” Twilight cleared her throat, glancing at the group behind her. “We’ll meet again next week?”
“Certainly.” Celestia nodded with a smile. “Have a good day, Twilight. Sister.”
“Good day, Celestia.” Twilight gave Celestia a brief hug before smiling down at me. “Come on, Star. We have a lot of ground to cover today.”
“We do?” I blinked at Twilight as I was hastily and rather unceremoniously shuttled down the hall and away from the most powerful figures in Equestrian politics. I looked back at Celestia and Luna, and indeed everypony else. They were watching me go.
It felt not unlike I was trailing a shadow. Twilight was silent, and the snips of conversation I’d heard had me worried. When we were well out of earshot of the others, I found my voice. Slipping up to Twilight’s side, I spoke softly.
“That wasn’t a budget meeting, was it?”
“You don’t miss a thing, do you?” Twilight chuckled, nudging me gently. “Let’s chat when we get to my office.” At least she wasn’t denying me, and it sounded almost as if I was about to get some answers. Rather than fret over it, I followed Twilight to the East wing, and her office. “Tea?”
“No, thanks…” I shook my head, though I gestured with a hoof. “Don’t let me stop you, though.”
“It’s been a trying morning, so you’ll have to forgive me.” Twilight set about preparing some tea, and I patiently waited for my chance to speak. When Twilight had poured herself a steaming cup and sat at the table, I was finally able to speak.
“So what were you talking about? It involved me, didn’t it?”
“It did indeed.” Twilight nodded, sipping her tea calmly. “But allow me to assure you, it’s not immediately important. There will come a time when the Farseers and the princesses, myself included, may very well need your help. But that’s day will not come for a while now. We have a long time to prepare you.”
“Prepare me?” I swallowed. “Prepare me for what?”
“For your destiny.” Twilight looked to me with a serious expression. She held my eyes in hers, both of us locked in an iron staring contest. When she spoke next, it was with all the seriousness I felt she could muster. “I’ve never cared much for the words of prophecy, as they’ve influenced my life for the worse. If I’d have paid less heed to the whispers of the future, my life would have been quite a bit more ideal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful for what I have, but I still dislike that prophecy laid my path out for me before I had walked it.
“You understand the dangers of a prophecy that goes unfulfilled. Indeed, the prophecy centered around you is very pivotal; it could easily destroy many things. But I urge you, Star. Do not fret about it. The more you know about your future, the more you’re going to impact it. You might even deny yourself a happy future by learning even the slightest bit about it. So I hope you won’t hold it against me, and indeed everypony else, when we deny you your own prophecy.”
“But…” I felt the heat of anger rise up inside of me. “But I can’t just deny my future. Twilight, I have to know what it says about me…”
“I know how you feel.” Twilight’s frown intensified. “It’s a very complex matter, though. I don’t expect you to fully understand, either. But take it from somepony who’s been down that road, Star. It’s better that you don’t know.”
“How did you deal with it?” I asked, feeling the tears well up in my eyes. “Your prophecy, the one about you becoming a princess…”
“I had a lot of help.” Twilight said quietly. “And I had the love of somepony wonderful. But trust me, this prophecy isn’t about you becoming a princess, or living forever, or uncovering a library…” Twilight shook her head and sighed. “It’s a great deal more important than that.”
“What? How?” I was shocked. More important than the Valley of Knowledge and Twilight herself? “Twilight, you can’t just tell me my prophecy is more important than… Than… Than you! What is it?”
“I already told you, Star.” Twilight met my eyes again. “I’m not going to tell you your prophecy. Doing so puts us all at risk. This isn’t just for your benefit; it’s for mine and Luna’s as well. Celestia and Cadance as well.”
“WHAT?!” I sputtered. “How does my prophecy revolve around you? Am I a threat to you?”
“I’ve already said too much, Star!” Twilight snapped, glowering at me as she rose to all four hooves. I felt flattened under her gaze, forced to cower underneath her. She was even more intimidating than Luna in that moment, and that was saying something. “Continue pressing the matter, and I’ll have no choice but to remove you from my presence!”
“Okay.” I squeaked, my eyes wide. “I just… I just want to know more.”
“And you will.” Twilight calmed down, her face changing from stone cold to compassionate smoothly. “In time. I promise you, Star, all will be made clear. We just need to put one hoof in front of the other. Meanwhile, Celestia, Luna and I are going to do everything we can to prepare you for what’s to come.”
“How?” I felt the tears break free, streaming down my face. “What do I need to do?”
“Nothing that you haven’t been already.” Twilight smiled, reaching out to gingerly cup my chin. “Do you remember what the night said to you the first night you met? That your thirst for knowledge would be your saving grace?”
“She was correct.” Twilight released my chin, hovering a small selection of books forward. “Continue learning, Star. Develop yourself. Before you know it, your destiny will become clear.”
I wiped my eyes and looked to the books. I did enjoy learning immensely, and I’d been more happy under Twilight’s diligence than I could ever remember. While not knowing my own future was infuriating to no degree, I was glad that all I had to do to reach that point was continue learning. I glanced up at Twilight before taking a book on elemental theory. Given yesterday’s lesson, I figured it’d be as good a place as any to start.
Not to mention I was feeling a fire in my gut right then. I wasn’t sure if it was possibly to embody three elements, but I certainly felt like I could burn something to ashes just about then.
“One hoof in front of the other, eh?” I flipped the book open, giving Twilight a brave smile. “In we go.”
Nopony learns as fast as one of Twilight’s students. Following her return from Trottingham and the rather concerning revelation of my mysterious destiny, I began advancing by leaps and bounds. I came to find that Twilight’s instruction had laid a very firm foundation for me to build upon. I knew the basics of every branch of magic; even Nature and love. Under her tutelage, I began to grow.
At a scary rate.
Six months later, I found myself on the castle grounds, with Twilight standing opposite me. A chill wind swept across the lawn, sending a shiver down my spine. The sky was overcast and grey. The weather team would probably be dropping snow on our heads in a few minutes. Not that Twilight cared, she was too busy strapping her wings against her body with several thick-looking belts.
“Remind me again why you’re doing that?” I asked, frowning a little. Twilight grinned up at me as she slid the tongue of the last belt through its loop, effectively locking her wings away.
“I honestly doubt there will come a day when you’re going to have to fight one of us, Star. SO I’m becoming a regular unicorn for the purpose of your test today.”
“Right.” I blushed a little at the thought of Twilight ‘becoming’ anything other than the tall, winged beauty I’d come to admire and care for over the past eight months or so. Still, there was another factor I was more worried about. “So… What about your magic?”
“Hmm?” Twilight cocked her head to the side a little. “What do you mean?”
“You’re… Well, with or without wings, you’re still the most powerful mage in existence. Even if I were a million years down the road in my development, I’d still be way under your power level…”
“You’re just going to have to find a way to overcome that, Star.” Twilight smiled once more before spreading her hooves a little. “I have faith in you. Are you ready?”
“No.” I groaned, but I spread my stance anyways.
“Woah!” The first shot of energy streaked across the grass, burning foliage in its wake. I rolled to the side, wincing as the screaming bolt passed right between my hind legs, shearing more than a little hair off my tail. The second bolt was on its way before I had righted myself, and I watched it come with horror in my eyes.
”I am here, child.”
A dark bubble of energy erupted into existence, and the bolt impacted it with the force of the moon itself falling to Equestria. I felt the ground shake beneath my hooves as the night’s barrier deflected Twilight’s bolt. Another shock of energy shook me, but I was safe in here. The night kept me protected as I closed my eyes and focused my energy.
”Oh now that’s just mean.”
“Huh?” I glanced down as the tendrils of shadow energy began creeping up my hooves. “Thank you!”
The night was gone, and I stood before Twilight, my horn glowing brightly. The tendrils shrunk before the light, and I saw a look of admiration pass Twilight’s face…
Right before I blasted it. The long bolt of light streaked forth, screaming with intensity as it made for Twilight. I lost track of her behind the intense glare, and as my spell ran its course, nothing but a smoldering line of grass remained where Twilight once stood.
’You’re not gone… You either shielded yourself with a transparency arc, or…’
“Aha!” I wheeled about, grinning as I saw Twilight appear from thin air. With a cry of triumph, I charged her, my horn blazing as I shot several rapid-fire streaks of daylight straight at her. Twilight teleported away from the first two and deflected the third, but the fourth caught her full in the face. I grinned with giddy triumph as she stumbled about, delirious and dazed.
“RRAH!” Growling with emotion, I aimed the next spell at her hoof. Twilight stumbled and tripped as the radiant band of energy gripped her legs, spilling her on the ground. And she, quite literally, spilled. Like water. I watched in horror as her form melted and dripped until a thin puddle of purple-ish liquid covered the grass. Then, with a slight amount of primal survival instinct, I wheeled back to where I had last seen Twilight. She loomed up in my view, grinning deviously as her horn lit up brightly.
“Shit!” I rolled away as a pillar of purple energy slammed into the ground where I had just been a moment ago. Another followed me, taking a decent chunk of my mane and a small bit of my shoulder with it. I cried out as the intense pain lanced straight through my body and into my mind. I could feel the bones in my shoulder breaking, shifting against one another as I tried to limp away. To no avail, as I slumped onto the ground helplessly just a few feet away. Chest heaving, my eyes wide, I watched as Twilight advanced on me.
“Not bad for your first time.” She chuckled as her horn lit up once more. I flinched for a moment, half-expecting the finishing blow to slam into me any moment. Instead, a gentle caress wound around my shoulder, knitting the shattered bones together one-by-one. The pain faded away into memory as Twilight finished healing me. “You just need to remember transparency arcs.”
“I did,” I sighed as Twilight helped me up. I put my weight on my right foreleg tentatively, but found it to be strong and able. “Your clone just surprised me.”
“Water’s tricky like that.” Twilight nodded back to the purple puddle, which had faded in color until regular water sat on the lawn, glistening faintly in the dull light overhead. “Throw a little bit of changeling magic into the mix, and you’ve got a convincing clone.”
“You even made it act like you.” I tore my gaze away from the puddle to smile up at Twilight. “I’m impressed.”
“Well, not to boast or anything…” Twilight’s horn leapt to life once more as she pulled the buckles off of her wings, stretching them languorously.
“Still, you could just as easily have blasted me – and the whole palace – into oblivion. Instead you used the easiest way to achieve the best results with the least amount of energy.” I sighed and hung my head. “I always feel like I’m over-stretching myself.”
“Relax,” Twilight smiled as she laid a wing over my back. “We’ve only just taken our first step into combat. You’ll learn things like conservation and finesse in time.”
“Yeah.” I smiled up at her. “In time.”
“So,” Twilight ushered me back towards the castle, her magic already winding into the scorched and torn-up grass we’d left behind. I glanced back as the grass grew green and whole once more, and all evidence of our sparring session was erased. “How are things with you and Lotus?”
“Good,” I trailed off when I realized Twilight had healed my shoulder, but not my tail or mane. “Though she might just murder you.”
“If only I could fix it,” Twilight chuckled. “I can make new hair grow, but I can’t replace damaged hair.”
“Could you?” I asked. “I had planned on seeing her today anyways. She’ll jump at the chance to take a little more off the top.”
“Sure thing. Let’s get warmed up first, though. Growing hair with cold follicles makes it curly.”
“… That makes more sense than I’d care to think about.” I shook my head with a grin and followed Twilight into the castle proper. The guards hardly cast us a second glance as we walked, though I did take note that there were just as many today as there had been the past six months. Their presence had faded away to the realm of ordinary by now, but now and then I could be caught sneaking glances at the cuter ones.
Twilight led me straight to her and Luna’s quarters, a place I was happy to admit I’d grown more and more familiar with as the months went on. Twilight invited me over for dinner, lunch, or even a candlelit study session now and then. Luna chipped in quite often with some valuable lessons on shadow magic now and then, and I’d found that under her tutelage, I’d come to accept the night as a constant companion, one who was readily available to assist and always there. Always watching.
Masturbation had become a little bit more awkward in light of that fact, but still…
Twilight ushered me inside and made straight for the kitchen, and soon enough I could smell the delicious scent of hot cocoa. “You’re spoiling me,” I called to her with a slight grin. Twilight’s cocoa was bar-none the most amazing thing I’d ever tasted in my life. I swear, she put caramel in it or something. It was always so creamy and rich, and the perfect temperature for sipping. I strode to the fireplace and hastily sparked the tinder, smiling as the logs caught and a healthy blaze sprung up in the hearth. I began stomping the numbing coldness out of my legs as the fire began to grow warmer, and Twilight joined me with the cocoa.
“Bottom’s up.” I clinked our mugs together and took the first sip, moaning faintly. “A mare could get used to this…”
“How do you think I managed to keep Luna interested all these years?” Twilight and I laughed as we sat before the fire. As per usual, Twilight pulled a book out and began quizzing me. “Alright, what were we discussing yesterday?”
“Bi-fractured and compound nodes.” I answered off-hoofedly. Twilight nodded and flipped the book open to a random page, scanning the contents before seemingly settling on something.
“Alright, let’s see… Common misconceptions about bi-fractured nodes include…?”
“That they need two separate energies imbued to function. Bi-fractured nodes can be filled with two of the same energy, which usually has the effect of amplifying a spell’s effect, or in some cases doubling the product.” I sipped at my cocoa disinterestedly. Twilight was taking it easy.
“Difference between a bi-fractured and compound node?”
“Bi-fractured nodes are created when two arches overlap at the same point a node would be, resulting in two nodes at the same place. A compound node is a place where two intersecting spell-forms meet that have a same node. The difference being bi-fractured nodes exist in one spell-form, while compound nodes exist in multiple spells simultaneously.” She was REALLY going easy on me today.
“Can a bi-fractured node be a compound node?”
“And who discovered that?”
“Ooh…” Curveball. I frowned as my brain began chugging. Twilight was also really good at throwing me for a loop with our quizzes. “Uum… Archmage Blue Moon?”
“And the name of the study…?”
“Oh come on.” I sighed, rubbing my temples. “By the heavens, I read it just three days ago… It was, uum… Oh… Shit.”
“-Inverted and duplicate arches! Circa 2459!” I raised my hooves in triumph as the knowledge came to me in a flash. Twilight nodded warmly, her lips curled in an appreciative smile as she flipped the page.
“Alright, then. What about…”
“Woah!” I gasped as a tingling sensation overcame my scalp, making my whole head crawl with the sensation; not unlike millions of tiny spiders all over my head.
“You wanted me to grow your hair out, didn’t you?” Twilight chuckled as I looked up to her faintly-glowing horn. “Keep answering the questions; it’ll distract you from the feeling.”
“Right.” I shuddered a little as my scalp continued to tingle. Twilight kept me distracted while the magic worked its wonder, and by the time she had finished, my hair was probably twice as long as I had remembered. And that was a lot of hair. As I sat on the floor, it pooled around my hooves and hung all the way down my front. I could have – quite literally – wrapped myself in my mane and gone to a fancy ball. Granted, I’d probably have been removed, but we really didn’t have any need to wear clothes outside of important social interactions.
Point being I had a lot of hair.
Like, a lot of fucking hair.
So much hair.
“Twilight, how do you expect me to walk home with my mane like this?”
“You’re not walking home.” Twilight turned to her desk and began penning a letter. “You’re going to see Lotus.”
“What? I just saw Lotus two days ago… And besides, do you really want me to go see the one mare who would legitimately hate you for what you did to my mane?”
“I really do. Besides,” Twilight pulled a drawer open and withdrew a small sack of bits, dumping a fair bit of them into a large envelope she had nearby. She then tucked the letter into it and sent the thing through the window with a glimmer of magic. “This one’s on me, considering I’m the one who did that to your mane.”
“Twilight, you didn’t have to…” I blushed deeply, raising a hoof to discourage her. “I mean, I can always just braid it tighter… Maybe wear it around my neck like some of those Manehattan models have been doing…”
“Trust me, Star. Just go see Lotus and then go home. It’s going to be a chilly night, and I don’t want you getting caught out there. Now go.” She shooed me towards the door. As soon as I stood, though, I caught the edge of my extended mane, wrenching my head to the side and sending me off-balance. I sprawled onto my face, and through the curtain of hair, I could see Twilight fighting laughter.
In the end, we both lost.
“Star! What in the name of all things beneath the sky did you do to your mane?!” Lotus was livid, as I expected her to be. I walked into her spa and was almost immediately beset by a full contingent of spa technicians. Lotus was among them, running her hooves through my mane with scrutiny.
She let out a mighty gasp, enough to hurt my ears, in fact. I winced as she came across the damaged portions of my tail and mane, her eyes tearing up like it was some great tragedy.
Than again, Lotus’ devotion to my mane and tail was monumental (and borderline insane) so I could understand her rage. I was shuttled into the salon with haste, thrust into the shower, and surrounded by Lotus and two of her employees. Thus began the most intense and uncomfortable shower of my life, where I was scrubbed, shampooed, conditioned, and scrubbed again for good measure before they restarted the process. Nevertheless, when I was pulled out of the shower and blast-dried by a spell Lotus happened to know, my mane was probably in the best shape I’d ever seen it; ratty burn strands and all.
I really didn’t have much say in the matter. For as many times as Lotus cried ‘WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR MANE?!’ I never really got the chance to answer that question. Instead, I sat in silence as the damaged starnds were cut out, and my whole mane was given a fresh cut. Lotus alternated between grumbling over what a travesty the damage to my hair was and asking me what happened. Which I still couldn’t answer.
Nevertheless, two hours and two ends of my body later, Lotus had finished repairing and styling. I had always enjoyed my hair in a simple braid, but Lotus seemed to take it a step further than what I was used to. There was something about the way she cut my mane that made braiding it not only easy, but stylish as well. The extra growth Twilight had given me was just long enough that I could still keep my style, and the damage done had been snipped off the end.
“Honestly,” Lotus stood behind me, fretting over the way my braid fell down my neck. “What DID happen to your mane?”
“Oh, Twilight and I have… Well, we’ve started sparring.”
“You mean she’s teaching you combat magic?” Lotus pulled back a bit, looking shocked. “That’s… Good, I suppose, but awfully risky. Aren’t you afraid she’s going to hurt you?”
“She already did,” I rolled my shoulder, sighing a little. “She broke my shoulder, and a good part of my leg too.”
“Star!” Lotus’s hooves shot to her mouth. “Did it hurt?”
“Of course it did.” I shuddered at the memory of that pain, and how it had so suddenly and viciously taken hold of my mind. “I was out after that. Twilight healed me, of course, and I’m fine… But holy stars, that hurt.”
“You might not be cut out for combat…” Lotus mused, moving on to my tail now.
“That’s the thing, though…” I sighed wistfully, closing my eyes and looking up to the ceiling. “I loved it.”
“No, really!” I looked back at Lotus with a stupid grin on my face. I’d been holding it in since the end of the fight, but I couldn’t any longer. “I was so COOL! You should have seen me, I was rolling out of the way of her spells, and I could think so fast. Oh Lotus you should have seen it, you’d have thought I had her dead to rights! I blasted her with a beam spell and I heard her teleport behind me, so I just charged right at her, and WHAM!” I stomped a hoof, my giddiness peaking. “I hit her right in the face!”
“You… Struck the princess… In the face…” Lotus looked pale (an accomplishment for we light-coated ponies.)
“No, it wasn’t actually her… She’d made a clone of herself using changeling magic and a big blob of water. Ingenious, really… Gosh, I love learning things like that. I want to try it!”
“Sounds like you actually enjoyed yourself…” Lotus chuckled, shaking her head. I knew her to be a very non-confrontational pony at heart, so hearing about fights and such dangerous activities as casting spells at another pony specifically designed to do harm was not only different, but uncomfortable for her. I blushed and quieted down, shuffling my hooves out of embarrassment.
“Yeah… Yeah I kinda did…”
“Well anyways,” Lotus stepped back with a smile. “You look divine, Star. You really ought to consider yourself lucky. Such a beautiful mane and tail…” She ran a hoof through both of them one more time, and my blush intensified.
“Thanks, Lotus. It means a lot that I have somepony so invested in… Well, me.”
“Are you implying you aren’t invested in yourself?” Lotus quipped, nudging me playfully. I gave her a nervous chuckle and awkwardly rubbed my leg with the opposite hoof.
“No, I am… But, you know… I’m invested in my education. It’s nice to have somepony that cares about how I look, not just how I study.”
“Star,” Lotus’ voice turned surprisingly soft as she laid a hoof on my back. “You’re a beautiful mare. I’m sure you’ll find somepony soon.”
“PFFT WHAT?!” I could have died. “Where did that come from?!”
“Mare’s intuition,” Lotus winked at me as she sat back. “It’s been on your mind, has it not?”
“Well, now that you mention it…” I pulled my braid between my hooves, stroking it slowly. “I have missed the presence of someone else, yeah…”
“Told you.” Lotus chuckled and fell back into silence, gesturing for me to continue.
“Well, you know, I have my parents, who are invested in my education… Twilight and Luna, who are invested in my education… Me, who’s… Heck, I’m married to my education.” I closed my eyes and sighed once more. “I just… don’t have anyone who’s invested in me. You know… As a mare.”
“I think…” Lotus stood and smiled at me, laying a hoof on my back once more. “I may have a solution to your problem.”
“Really?” I perked up a little. Lotus, as often as I had visited her, had never really struck me as the sort of pony who’d go so far to do a thing like that. I’m not sure if it was because she was married or because every time I visited it was always straight to business with my hair, but she never struck me as a matchmaker. At least, not outwardly. That is, if she were making a match for me at all. She might just be-
“You see, Breeze and I have a mutual friend who helps out cleaning at the spa now and then,”
Yup. She’s a matchmaker.
“And I think you two might get along. She’s a little shy and kind of awkward, but once you get her to open up, she’s just a whole bundle of wonder. Are you free later on this week?”
“Yeah, actually.” I ran over my schedule in my head. The past six months had been a blitz of learning and reading; I was surprised to find myself in the dead of winter with very little recollection of how I got there, save a whole slew of new spells and enchantments. One of which came in handy on the cold nights. I was excited to give it another whirl when I got home that evening; especially since I’d have to take a long shower with my new haircut.
“Brilliant!” Lotus drew me out of my reverie with a warm hug. “Just come here Friday night. We’ll introduce you to our friend and you two can get to know one another!”
“It’s a date.” I chuckled as Lotus pulled back. “I’ll be excited to meet Fair Breeze as well. She sounds like a nice mare.”
“Once you get to know her,” Lotus rolled a hoof. “She tends to be a little… Aah… Brash.”
“Well that’s fine.” I mulled the thought over in my head. “I think I could use a little volatility in my life.”
“As long as none of that ‘volatility’ ruins your mane. Honestly!” Lotus brushed her hooves across my bangs, fretting even more. “Combat magic! Really?!”
The short trot home was bracing and had me shivering by the time I arrived. I stepped through the door remembering how much I loathed the cold Trottingham winters, which could quite literally freeze a pony if they stayed out too long. Compared to those, Canterlot’s winters were a cool breeze on an autumn evening. Which I was very thankful for.
Nevertheless, I felt light as a feather. Lugging my extended and damaged mane from the castle to the spa had made me realize how much of a hindrance my hair really was, but coming home after the spa was a liberating experience. The wind played across my scalp when it gusted heavily enough, and I could feel the ends of the long strands against the lower parts of my neck. My braid was frayed and useless as I made for the bathroom, which was perfectly fine because I needed to take a nice, long shower to remove the stray strands that weren’t caught by Lotus’ masterful manestyling technique.
Not to undermine Lotus and her skill, but nopony knew my mane quite like me. As my horn cranked the water on hot, I began running my hooves through my braid, starting from the bottom and working my way up. The tie came loose, and I sighed with relief as the pressure on my scalp was released at long last. Steam billowed into the bathroom, tantalizing me with the promise of a hot embrace as soon as I stepped into the tiled embrace of my comfy little haven.
And oh how divine it felt. The chill of winter fled as soon as I slid under the stream, closing my eyes like a mare experiencing her first orgasm in a month. It felt divine, that wonderful mixture of pain and warmth that inundated me. I felt my head spin a little as I leaned against the cool shower wall, following the sensation of water running over my coat from the back of my neck to my hooves.
My hair unwound slowly, matted down with water until it hung to about the start of my legs. Even that was unnaturally short for me, but the change felt nice. I felt tighter. Faster.
Given the ridiculous amount of shampoo and conditioner Lotus had used, I didn’t feel the need to do anything but sit there and soak up the heat. Well, that and brush my mane. I levitated the brush from my sink and into the shower, running it through my mane one long, slow stroke at a time. It felt good to sit there and just pay attention to the smaller details, using my sense of touch and my magic to run the brush through every last inch of my mane.
Soon enough, my haunches ached for the tender kiss of heat, so I turned about to pay my back end some much-needed love. The brush found its way to my tail, which grew equally wet as the shower worked its own magic. The slow, smooth pulls along my tail were every bit as nice as my mane. For me, I always loved paying more attention to my mane than my tail. I mean, come on, in pony culture, it might as well have been an ankle-length skirt. I saw a lot of high-class ponies on the streets with tail styles far more liberal and revealing than mine.
But sitting there, pulling on it, feeling the muscles at the dock of my tail contract and flex each time I pulled the brush up close to it…
Yup. Nothing in the world could have stopped me.
“Aahn…” The first tentative touch the handle of the brush made against my swollen clitoris was like a tidal wave of pleasure rolling through my veins. I sighed happily, gingerly rubbing the rounded end of the brush’s handle up and down my lips to accumulate a different sort of wetness than the shower’s water. Other than a few brief dalliances in bed, I hadn’t really done anything to assuage the ever-present blaze in my gut. To have even a short while to devote to masturbation for the sake of masturbation had me as giddy as a school filly on prom night.
I’m paraphrasing; I never went to prom.
Shut up. I can dream, alright?
And my dreams just then consisted of somepony else inside that shower with me, taking ahold of that brush and doing some downright devious things to me. My magic would have to do for that, but I knew a spell that was just up to the task.
“Thank you ‘Studies in Animation’ by Archmage Kindle…” I moaned, formulating the arches and nodes in my mind. As soon as I cast the spell, my magic slipped out of my control a little, taking hold of the brush. I had given it a set of parameters, and now my magic took over to fulfill those parameters. I groaned as the brush pressed a little more firmly against my entrance, peeling my lips aside smoothly. I leaned against the shower once more, closing my eyes and turning my face up to the ceiling.
“There we go…” I groaned as the brush’s handle finally took over, sliding between my parted lips and gliding into me with an almost shocking amount of ease. Then again, this was my go-to handle for stress relief, so one could say I was ‘accustomed’ to it. Not that that was a bad thing, just that I might have to stop spending my money on dirty magazines and actually save up for a new player in my bedroom.
I’d seen several of the newer vibrators on my last trip to my favorite sex shop, ones that were permanently enchanted with the animation spell I was using now. A unicorn could alter the parameters themselves, or regular ponies could stick to one of three settings. They were unique little contraptions that moved and acted all on their own. The store owner had raved for all of the thirty seconds I was in the store about how amazing they were and how I should buy one.
As the brush handle slid inside of me, picking up in pace, I began to seriously consider stretching my funds for a new purchase. Or maybe I could just wait a few more weeks for the next batch of bits from the castle.
As the brush handle angled inside of me, I tensed up, drawing a hissing breath through my teeth even as my core muscles flexed around the adventurous intruder.
“Yeah, I can wait… You never know what you can do with magic these days.” The handle began gliding into me at an angle that pressed against my g-spot with every smooth, even thrust. I knew it was my g-spot because my brain decided to take a leave of absence every time it slid in. One moment I’m thinking about pleasurable pony vibrators, and the next I’m reduced to a drooling, panting slob of a pony. My thighs twitched and I heard my own moans echoing off the tile walls to come back to me. I thanked small miracles that my tiny home sat relatively alone near the edge of the city, backed up to the mountain on one side and a café’ on the other, which wouldn’t even open until six in the morning.
My moans became a little more daring in light of the fact there was nopony within hearing distance. Each new exhalation brought an ever-louder cry from my throat, drowning out the ever-present hiss of water on hide and tile. I felt my tongue loll out of my mouth, dripping saliva onto the swirling puddle of water and arousal sliding down the drain.
It happened in a flash. My whole body seemed to tense up as the brush slid in deeper than ever, passing over my g-spot and laying the base of its shaft on the hard bump inside me. I flexed nice and hard, bending the handle even more until it felt like my hindquarters would explode. The waves of bliss rolled through me, robbing all sense of decency for a few wonderful, transcendental moments.
And then it was gone. I was left weak-legged with a hairbrush inside my marehood, and the musky scent of cum in the air. With a sigh, I dispelled the animation and pulled my hairbrush out of me. After rinsing off and spending a little more time under the slightly-cooler stream of water, I cranked the shower off and stepped out.
’Animation spells are nice and all,’ I thought to myself as the towel wrapped itself around my form. ’But why waste the effort when I could have somepony else do it for me? … Yeah right, not in a million years…’ I stepped into my room, shuffling the towel through my mane as I glanced at my calendar. I paused, my hair hanging half around my eyes as I rested my gaze on Friday.
“Then again, maybe I don’t have to wait a million years.”
“Star! So glad you could make it!” I smiled as Lotus cheerily greeted me, though I didn’t get a very good look at her home before she wrapped me in an exuberant hug.
“Oof! Hiya, Lotus.” I returned the embrace readily, despite my scarf threatening to choke me to death. When she pulled away, I felt breath rush back into my lungs and a blush rise to my cheeks – mostly thanks to the cold. “Thanks for having me over.”
“Happy to have you, dear! Breeze has wanted to meet you for a while now. Nugget hasn’t quite shown up yet, but she should be along soon.”
“Nugget?” I asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Gold Nugget. She’s the one I invited you over to meet.” Lotus winked as she turned to lead me into her home. Her horn glowed as she unwound my scarf and took it for me. I left my boots by the door and followed her into their rather well-appointed home.
“Wow.” I looked over the comfortable den with a fire crackling healthily in the hearth, and opposite that was what appeared to be an office of sorts. Lotus led me past that and into a more intimate living room, where Breeze was waiting for us.
“So you must be Star.” She grinned at me before offering a hoof. “Lotus won’t shut up about you somedays.” Breeze was a sleek and slender pegasus, almost a full head taller than myself. I’m not that tall, but I’m not very short either. Decidedly average. Finding another pony who stood taller than me – at least by such a large margin – was a rarity. She wasn’t quite as tall as Twilight, and perhaps a little less stocky, but she certainly seemed imposing – though not in a threatening way.
Or maybe it was her gigantic wings that did the trick. Seriously, like, huge wings. If I had to guess, she had a wingspan that rivaled any of the princesses, if not beat them by a fair bit. Even tucked up against her back as they were, they were an impressive display. Half of me wanted to see her fly, just to watch those massive beauties unfurl and flap.
Okay, so maybe I have a thing for pegasi. Her coat was a deep, dusky blue and her mane a light yellow. I glanced her cutie mark, and it looked like four wisps of air curling back upon themselves. She was a striking figure, very large and commanding despite her slender frame. She might have been tall, but her torso and legs were much smaller than my own. When she tucked her legs and spread her wings, she could probably fly like a bullet.
“Heh,” I took her hoof gently, but she shook it vigorously. “Th-thanks, I guess.”
“She was right though,” Breeze winked at me. “You do have a cute mane.”
Now I was blushing. Furiously.
“Be nice to our guest.” Lotus chided Breeze. “And besides, I thought we agreed; no more threesomes.”
If I had a drink, I’d have spit it out.
“Well I’ll give Star the evening to change your mind.” Breeze winked at me again before turning towards what looked like a drink cabinet. “Can I get you anything?”
“Just water, please… Or coffee if you have it. I-I don’t drink.” Being as ‘intellectually inclined’ as I was (I thank my parents for attributing that phrase to me,) I tended to dislike things that made it more difficult to read… Let alone walk. I’d had my foray with alcohol in the past, and it didn’t end well. Plus, having a long mane means there’s more of it to catch the vomit. Which is a pain in the flank to wash out. Breeze cast me a sideways glare of ‘don’t you dare tell me you don’t drink’ but Lotus drew my attention with a soft touch.
“I could use some help with dinner if you’re willing. Breeze is a terrible cook.”
“Shush, darling, you are.” Lotus winked at her wife before leading me into the kitchen. Many years of frugal single life had taught me how to cook well. Lotus and I gossiped for a little while as I helped slice and sear veggies, mix the salad, and prepare the sauce to go with our Portobello steaks. As per usual, I found myself sharing more about myself than Lotus did, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I was sure I’d be sharing more about myself before the night was out anyways; and a warmup was due.
Breeze poked her head in now and then to sample the smells or ask how things were going, or to refill my coffee. I had had another sparring session with Twilight that morning, and I was running on fumes by now. At least I had avoided any more broken bones this time.
Breeze re-entered the kitchen for probably the fifth time, but not to ask for food or top me off. She instead nudged my flank, smiling deviously.
“What? Who?” I flustered, leading Breeze as she herded me out of the kitchen.
“Date?! I don’t- eep.” Right in front of me was probably the cutest damn pegasi I’ve ever seen. Gold Nugget’s mane glimmered like her namesake, and hung in entrancing ringlets around her face. She hid behind half of it, but I could see one beautiful amber eye peeking up at me widely. Her coat was a bright yellow, and her cutie mark was similar to her mane in color, looking like a brick of gold bullion.
“Hi.” I managed, blushing once more. “I’m Star Caster. I assume you’re Gold Nugget?”
“Just Gold please… Or Goldy.” She gave me a shy smile, her eyes lighting up a little. “I’ve heard a lot about you. You’re Princess Twilight’s student, aren’t you?”
“Uuh, yeah.” I felt my blush intensify to all-new levels. Throw me in front of two drop-dead gorgeous pegasi and I was reduced to naught but blushes and terrible, terrible thoughts.
Okay, maybe I had a huge thing for pegasi.
“It’s nice to meet you, Star.” Gold flipped her hair aside so I could see her entire face (and oh what a face it was) before offering a hoof. I tentatively shook it, hoping against hope that my own hooves weren’t dry or cracked. Maybe they were, or maybe Gold was just my dream mare, but she had the softest, most gentle touch I’d ever felt. I could have died a happy pony there. Instead, Lotus poked her head out of the kitchen.
“Nugget! Glad you could make it, love!”
“I told you to stop calling me that,” Gold complained, albeit in the cutest possible manner. Lotus just laughed and swept forth for a warm hug.
“And why would I want to stop calling you that, my little golden nugget?”
“Lotus!” Gold blushed, casting a furtive glance my way as she fought to squirm out of the white unicorn’s exuberant hug. “Leggo, pleaseeeee…” She finally managed to break out, though she looked a little flustered. Lotus just laughed it off, and even Breeze seemed to be enjoying the show. Gold went to stand beside me, if only to escape Lotus’ grasp.
“Well, dinner’s ready.” Lotus calmed herself with a breath, though she still smiled warmly at Gold. “It is good to see you again, love.”
“You too. And you as well, Breeze. How are things with the weather team?”
“Ugh.” Breeze led us into the dining room, taking her seat at the head of the table. Lotus sat to her left, with Gold and I side-by-side at her right. “I swear, this weather is murder. It feels like Ironsides is running us into the ground.”
“I was actually gonna ask about that,” I interjected, trying hard to avoid tearing into my food immediately. “There’s been a ton of snow and wind lately. What’s going on?”
“None of us know.” Breeze shook her head. “Ironsides gets his orders straight from Tradewind, who controls weather teams across Equestria. She’s so secretive she just throws the work at us and expects it to get done. Don’t get me wrong,” Breeze waved a hoof. “I love my work; I just wish I knew Tradewind’s reasoning. Maybe then I wouldn’t dream of running her into a cloud next time I see her flying home.”
“Huh.” My stomach was growling, but I couldn’t forget proper decorum. “So, you see popular ponies like Tradewind flying around every day?”
“I wouldn’t call her ‘popular,’ but yeah. I spot quite a few in this line of work.” Breeze settled into her ‘conversation’ pose, clearing me to take a small bite of my mushroom steak. It was delicious, as I knew it would be. “I see Princess Twilight and Princess Celestia flying to and from different towers at the castle now and then, and Snapshot jetted by me the other day on his way to another photo shoot, I think. He was carrying a lot of gear… But yeah, I do see quite a few popular faces now and then.”
“That’s pretty cool-“
“Like yourself.” Breeze winked at me. I paused, feeling the heat rise to my cheeks once again.
“I know you live in that charming little house at the corner of Hay Road and forty-eighth. You always follow forty-eighth to Castle Road and then the palace.”
“Though you do stop off at that one shop behind the department store on Yarborough Lane…”
“Okay!” I cut her off, feeling even more flustered. “What, have you been spying on me?”
“No, I just tend to notice these things.” Breeze shrugged. “I follow a lot of ponies’ movements on their way home. Sometimes you can kinda pick up on folks. Like two days ago, you seemed to be in a foul mood on your way back from the castle, so I lowered that headlong wind down Castle Road.”
“Hey, yeah.” I frowned at her. “I remember that wind is always kinda brutal, but it wasn’t as bad Wednesday. You did that?”
“I do stuff like that now and then,” Breeze blushed a little. “You know, to help out…”
“She’s really nice like that.” Gold chimed in, drawing my attention once more. “So is Lotus, though.”
“Oh hush, darling. I’m not that nice.”
“She really isn’t.” Breeze muttered with a mouthful of food. “You remember what she’s like between the sheets, Gold.”
“Boy do I ever.” Gold rolled her eyes, and I suddenly felt very out-of-place. In fact, Lotus’ words came back to me. ’And besides, I thought we agreed; no more threesomes.’
Heavens help me, this is just like me, Blazer, and Mint Leaf…
“Wow, I uuh…” Lotus and Breeze just laughed, while Gold retreated behind her mane once more. “I dunno what to say.”
“Relax, darling.” Lotus waved her wine glass at me. “We don’t do any of that anymore, I promise you.”
“So, you three…?”
“We used to,” Breeze nodded. “Up until about a year ago or so. I guess Lotus and I just got old enough that we could settle down and be content with one another.” Breeze smiled at her wife, winding their hooves together. “Thankfully, Goldy decided to stay our friend. We’ve been trying to make it up to her since then.”
“… Make it up to her?” I quipped, glancing at the brilliant pegasus to my right. My blush could probably have lit a fire right about then. Lotus affirmed with a nod.
“I’ll admit we have more than one reason for bringing you here tonight. You see, Gold’s been a good friend to us ever since we used to all sleep together, and she never stopped being our friend once we ended our little… Bedroom forays. Breeze and I love one another fiercely, and we were sad to see that our little nugget-“
“-Wasn’t receiving any more attention.”
“Oh. Oh! Oh boy.” I connected the dots then. “I’m a hookup, aren’t I?”
“Well,” Breeze rolled her eyes. “We’re not forcing you or anything, but…”
“It has been a long time for Nugget-“
“Shut up still.”
“-And I know you’re missing some companionship yourself, are you not?”
“Y-yeah,” I looked down at the table, trying hard to avoid combusting on the spot.
“See? Problem solved.” Lotus swirled her wine and took another sip, smiling at the two of us. For the life of me, I couldn’t look at Gold. I could feel her eyes on me, and I knew that if I took one look my judgment would be clouded quicker than I could blink.
’Think, girlie. You’re dying to have somepony to come home to. You even broke your hairbrush earlier this week. Furthermore, you want to buy vibrators and a proper dildo… Why do that when you can just hook up with this absolutely gorgeous little filly here?
‘But it’s all so sudden. Am I really the type to just fuck anypony the first day I meet them?
‘Who says you have to fuck her tonight? Just talk to her, get to know her a little. Maybe invite her over to your place-
‘There’s the fucking again!
‘Doesn’t have to be fucking. Let her know you’re not comfortable taking that step just yet. Ask her to start off slow, with some conversation, or maybe a movie… And then take it from there.’
When I looked up at her, I couldn’t help but grin.
“Alright. I’m down.”
I felt the wall slam into my back, and Gold’s luscious form press against me tightly. And truth be told, I could care less. The night at Lotus’ had gone wonderfully after I had agreed to their little proposal. I told stories about studying with the princess, and Gold had listened with rapt attention. We chatted late into the night, until it was well after dark and a heavy snowfall was starting.
I invited Gold to my place, since it was actually kind of close by. She agreed, and together we trudged through the snow. Granted, our ‘chat’ had devolved into innuendo and sultry looks by then, so we pressed close to keep warm against the chill snow. Even while walking, Gold’s hooves tended to wander, and I found myself riled up tighter than a spring by the time we made it to my place.
As soon as we stepped in the door, it was a rush to kick off our boots. We didn’t even remove our scarves. Gold just laid her hooves on my shoulders, lifted me up onto my hind legs, and slammed me back against the wall. Her mouth fell on mine like a hammer, our tongues lashing against one another’s with a hunger I hadn’t felt in ages.
She was like a fire in my hooves. Alive and passionate, burning away at whatever inhibitions I’d had earlier that night. To hell with decency, I needed a rut and I needed it now. When Gold pulled away, we looked at one another with half-lidded, sultry eyes. It felt like riding a bike. I was an awkward, blushing young filly on our way over here, but the memories of all my times with Mint Leaf and Blazer were coming back.
I looped my forelegs around Gold’s hips, pulling her tight against me. She pressed close, and I could feel the heat of her core against my coat. She leaned in, moaning into my ear.
“Take me to bed right. Now.”
“Why settle for bed,” I squeezed her hindquarters. “When we can do it right here?”
“Eep!” She squeaked as I pushed her down, slowing our fall with magic. We laid on the floor, with Gold underneath me, her eyes wide and eager. I kissed her again, deep and slow. She wound her hooves around me, pulling me down against her insistently. I could feel her wetness against my thigh, egging me on as our tongues joined the fray once more.
We went back-and-forth several times before breaking apart for a few breathy, eager pants. Her breath smelled of wine and passion, and I found the scent was irresistible. I cast one quick glance down, my lips curling in a soft smile. “May I?”
“Please.” Gold nodded, gnawing on her lip. I gave her neck one deep kiss before slowly making my way down her body. I stopped now and then to give her a quick, teasing kiss, but soon enough I found myself exactly where I wanted to be. Gold’s legs spread wide open before me, her petite marehood glistening in the low light of my living room. The scent of her arousal hit me like a ton of bricks, my own haunches squirming in anticipation.
“Hmm,” I moaned, spending no time in laying my tongue against her and licking upwards. She quivered under the first lick, and the second made her give a thin, breathy groan. The taste of another mare flooded my senses, bringing back the most wonderful memories of my time spent between Mint Leaf’s thighs. All my techniques and experience were put to good use.
Gold was alive underneath me, her wings flared out flat on the floor, her spine arching with each new succinct flick of her clitoris. Her hooves shot into my mane, giving it a firm tug. My mouth was plastered against her crotch, and I gave her a few long, sloppy licks in return.
“Star!” Gold panted, her stomach twitching as I closed my eyes. “I’m gonna… I’m gonna… AHN!” She bucked her hips straight up into mine as she came, flooding my mouth with a musky, delightful taste. I groaned in response, lapping up every delicious bit of liquid she gave me. I didn’t stop until I was certain she had come down from her orgasmic height, but I felt her quickly ramp up to the next one. I remembered that pegasi were quick on the draw and had a lot in the tanks; they could keep going for longer than most ponies gave them credit for.
So I kept licking until she begged me to stop; which was a cute display in and of itself. She dug her hooves into my mane, pulling me away with a hot exhalation. “Stop! Star, please…” She pleaded, looking up at me with lusty eyes. “Give… Give me a chance to breathe… Holy shit.”
“Too much?” I teased, licking my lips to catch the last bits of her release.
“No, darlin’… You’re just fine… I just… Wow, it’s been a while.”
“For me too,” I admitted. “How about we move to bed now?”
“Yeah.” Gold nodded warmly, rolling to her hooves as I rose up off of her. She smiled and flicked her tail, swatting at my face playfully. I responded by biting that luscious bit of hair, giving her a firm yank towards the stairs.
“C’mon,” I muttered. “You owe me.”
“Hehe.” Gold let herself be pulled by the tail, and I could tell from the look in her eyes she was enjoying it. I let her go at the stairs and she fell into step behind me, following me up and to my messy bedroom. I hadn’t even taken the time to pull my comforter across my bed this morning. I did so now, lighting my room with a brilliant aura of magic.
“Nice place.” Gold chuckled. I shot her an indignant glare before hopping up onto my bed.
“C’mere.” I beckoned her up, even as I rolled onto my back. “By my count, you’re four ahead of me. You’re a pegasus, though, so I gotta give you a little lee way. Still, I think you owe me at least one.” I spread my haunches, exposing myself to Gold. “Get to it.”
“Good morning, Star. You look… Well, for lack of a better word, frumpy.”
“’Mornin, Twilight.” I grumbled at my teacher, following up with a wide yawn. “Didn’t sleep much…”
“Ah huh.” Twilight grinned at me. “Have some company last night?”
“Yeah…” I rubbed my eyes. I really hadn’t slept that much since Gold’s visit. Last I checked, she was still slumbering peacefully. I had left her a note before making my way to the castle.
“Do you want to take a day off?” Twilight asked, though I could hear in her voice she wanted me to do anything but accept. I shook my head and sighed.
“No, let’s just… Avoid sparring today, okay?”
“Shame.” Twilight sighed. “I was looking forward to whipping your flank again today.”
“Har har.” I stuck my tongue out at her before smiling faintly. “Did you have something specific in mind?”
“Not particularly,” Twilight shrugged, gesturing with a wing that I should follow her. “I just wanted to drill you on your combatives a little more. You were kind of sloppy yesterday.”
“Sorry,” I muttered.
“Nothing to apologize for, Star. You’re just not in my league… If only there were somepony else you could spar with. Perhaps Spear-“
“No!” I cut her off, blushing furiously. “Anypony but him.”
“Aww, you’re no fun.” Now it was Twilight’s turn to stick her tongue out at me. “Well, Basil is on his way back from the Gryphon Territories, and he should be here in another day or two. Perhaps you can spar with him.”
“Basil’s your aide, isn’t he?”
“He is indeed.” Twilight smiled. “I’ve had him studying the Gryphon’s knowledge cache for the past two years, and he’s finally found what he’s been looking for. He’ll be here soon enough, and I can introduce you two. I dare say you’d get along perfectly with him.”
“Maybe…” I mused. “I haven’t even met the guy yet. What kind of name is Basil, anyways?”
“Oh Star,” Twilight chuckled. “You’ve no idea how well that stallion can cook…”
“Well here’s hoping I’ll find out in a few days. Still, the question stands. What can we do without sparring today?”
“I dunno,” Twilight shrugged once more. “I really want to keep you on sparring and combatives. I guess we can look at some of the old form scrolls?”
“I suppose…” I frowned a little as Twilight turned down the hall leading to her office library. “But… Why?”
“Well, they’re a visual aide-“
“No, I meant why are you drilling me so hard on combatives?” I stopped in the middle of the hallway, frowning up at Twilight. “I like fighting and all, but… There are other things I want to learn too.” I spoke my mind, as I knew Twilight liked. We stopped in the hallway as she looked down at me. Her face was rather pensive just then, and I found myself blushing a little.
“It’s about my prophecy, isn’t it?”
“That wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate.” Twilight nodded. “Do you remember when I told you that your thirst for knowledge would save your life?”
“Yeah…” I frowned at her. “I figured that’d mean learning many different things…”
“It does.” Twilight drew the word out, leaning a little closer. “I just… Want to cover the important bits first. For your protection.”
“But I thought I was safe here?” I remembered back to six months ago with Luna and Twilight. “I thought there weren’t any threats against Equestria?” Aside from Twilight’s journey to Trottingham, of course, but I figured Twilight had it well in-hoof, so there wasn’t anything to worry about on that front. Besides, Trottingham and Canterlot were rather well-removed from one another. I frowned up at her intently. “Twilight…”
She frowned at me.
“Just how safe am I?”
“Here? Perfectly safe.” Twilight sighed. “But where I’m sending you? I honestly don’t know, Star.”
“Wait, you’re sending me somewhere? What’s going on?” I felt my heart beating wildly.
“I’m sorry, Star, but I can’t deny this request from the Seers, or from Princess Celestia.” She leveled her gaze at me, and I could almost see the tears in her eyes. “Your train leaves for Trottingham and the Timberwolf territories in one week.”
“WHAT?!” I took a step back as my eyes went wide. “I’m going WHERE?!”
“Star, Relax.” Twilight lifted a hoof, but I batted it away, tears in my eyes.
“You’re sending me away?”
“No, that’s not it at all-“
“B-but, you just s-said I’m going back to Trottingham… D-did I mess up?”
“Star, relax. Allow me to explain myself.” Twilight took one step forward, but I retreated two. I could feel the hurt and betrayal welling up in my chest.
“Answer me!” I stomped a hoof. “Why are you sending me away?!”
“I’m not sending you away!” Twilight snapped, stomping right back at me, only hers carried a little more weight. Literally. I could feel the tremor from her impact through my hooves, and her voice stunned me into silence. “I’m sending you on an assignment. You wonder why I’ve been drilling you so hard on combat magic, Star, it’s because I don’t want you to be injured.” Twilight took a steady breath, lowering herself to her haunches. “I’m sending you to Trottingham to study the timberwolf territories. Which means you’ll be going through the barrier I’ve erected at some point in the near future.”
“Twilight, I… I’m not nearly ready-“
“Yes you are.” Twilight smiled at me. I could see tears building in her eyes. “You are one of the most rapidly-progressing, gifted, brilliant minds I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching. Look at you, Star. Six months ago you could hardly handle four granite balls. Just two weeks ago I saw you lift five boulders while opening a lock with a key. Six months ago, you couldn’t tell me the difference between an Anterior and an Exterior arch. Just yesterday you implemented a transparency arc into your Fireflash spell, and damn near singed my flank.” Twilight shook her head softly, even as a single tear slipped from the corner of her eye.
“You’re more prepared than any unicorn I know, Star.”
“Furthermore,” She looked up with a sniffle. “You won’t be alone. Basil is going with you.”
“Basil?” I blinked in shock. “Why?”
“To continue your education, of course. And also to be your sparring partner.” Twilight smiled warmly, standing on all four hooves once more. “He’s a very skilled magician, and I’d hate to send him off the moment he returned to Canterlot, but I’m sure he’ll understand.”
“So… I’m not being punished…?”
“Not at all!” Twilight scrunched her nose. “I’m not sending you off as punishment, Star. This is a serious matter involving Equestrian security; one that I wouldn’t trust to anypony else. You’re to travel to Trottingham and take up residence in the Northern Library, a place I’m sure you’re familiar with.”
“Only all too much.” I breathed a sigh of nostalgia, remembering back to my days perusing the volumes in all of Trottingham’s libraries.
“Basil will continue your education, but during your time there, I want you to study the timberwolves behind the barrier I’ve erected. Be cautious, Star.” Twilight’s expression turned dark as she lifted a hoof towards me. “There are mysterious magics at work behind that barrier, ones that I’ve never seen or heard of before.”
“Hang on,” I frowned in return. “If you’ve never heard of them, what makes you think I stand a chance of understanding them? I’m no Princess, Twilight; I haven’t been around nearly as long as you have.”
“Sometimes, Star,” Twilight sighed patronizingly. “Sending a fresh mind into an unknown situation might grant new insight. Because of my foreknowledge, I very well may be biased in my observations, trying to attribute this unknown source to magic I already understand and know. But this magic doesn’t fall into any known field. It cannot be categorized, and as such, I struggle to understand it. Sending a new mind into the Timberwolf Territories is the only solution I can think of right now. I promise you,
“If I find a new approach to this dilemma, I will take it immediately, and you can return home to continue your studies at my side.” Twilight laid a hoof over her breast. “On my honor as a Princess and a Unicorn.”
“Okay…” I swallowed my doubt and apprehension, wiping the tears from my eyes. “I’ll do it. I’ll go back to Trottingham.”
“Thank you, Star.” Twilight breathed a sigh of relief. “It means the world to me that you agree.” She looked down at me with another faint smile, her wings ruffling as she turned down the hall. “And are you certain that I can’t coerce you into sparring?”
“You know what?” I glowered, falling into step beside her. “I think I ought to take you up on that.”
The next two days were spent drilling combatives as much as possible. I enjoyed the thrill of battle, of magic going off all around me, and my adrenaline-fueled mind processing all of that information bit-by-bit. Seconds felt like minutes. Minutes felt like years. Every movement I made in the midst of fighting Twilight was precise, calculated, and efficient. What’s more, I began to improve. Even in two short days.
Granted, my body paid the price, but I was improving. One dislocated shoulder, a shattered rib, and two strained hamstrings later, I was able to hold my own against Twilight for a full fifteen minutes before exhaustion won out and I collapsed.
“That’s incredible, Star.” Twilight nudged my flank on the evening of our third straight day of sparring. “You’ve advanced so much in two short weeks. I’m impressed.”
“I’m impressed Lotus hasn’t murdered you yet.” I returned, favoring my right font leg. Twilight had trapped it in a snare spell when I was sprinting towards cover, and I had probably sprained the damn thing. Furthermore, my mane stuck out at wild angles, the product of a glancing lightning spell. “I need to go see her again today…”
“I’m sure she’ll understand. And you ought to tell her about your little trip coming up.”
“Oh yeah…” I sighed, remembering that particularly painful little conversation I had yet to have with any of my pseudo-friends. Lotus and I weren’t all that close. At least, not yet. And I hadn’t seen Golden Nugget in three days either. She was gone when I had returned home.
“Let me take a look at your leg.” Twilight leaned in, her horn glowing as her magic wrapped around my injured foreleg. “Aah, I thought so. A mild sprain. One moment.” She cast a spell on my leg, and I felt the throbbing pain subside immediately. “There you go.” She straightened once more before nudging my side. “Go see Lotus, and tell her I’m sorry. Oh, and try to come early tomorrow morning. Basil is cooking breakfast.”
“It’s about time I meet up with him.” I grumbled, plodding towards the door leading out of our practice chamber. “You’ve been talking about him nonstop the past two days.”
“What? He’s an exceptional cook. You’ll see, Star. Have a good night.”
“You too.” I waved at Twilight before making my way out into the hall. Much to my dismay, one of the guards passed by just then. Normally, they were stoic and calm, but this particular guard stopped in his tracks and stared at my frazzled, almost comically-inflated hair. I shot him a glare before plodding down the hall, my magic working to reign in the frizzy strands so I at least didn’t look like Frankenhoof’s monster.
As I suspected, my reception at the Canterlot Day Spa was monumental.
“Shower! Now!” Lotus barked the moment I stepped through the door. Gone was her friendly demeanor, replaced instead with a very strict, almost motherly sort of dominance. “What did she do this time?!” Lotus was right on my haunches, giving me quick nips and shoves down the corridor.
“Lightning,” I responded with a blush. Lotus’ hooves were right on the base of my tail, egging me on with ever-increasing urgency. “You can fix this, right?”
“Oh can I ever. I’ve half a mind to go and fix her.” Lotus growled, stripping my saddlebags off as we passed through the locker room. There were two other mares there, and they watched with wide eyes as I was herded past the lockers and straight into the shower area. “Close your eyes. This is gonna hurt.”
“YOW!” I jumped as hot water lanced straight into my side, setting my nerves aflame. “Too hot! Lotus!”
“Shush. I told you it would hurt. Now sit still.” She chided, swatting my flank as the scalding stream of water found its way towards my mane. Her horn glowed, gingerly pulling the shredded and fried remains of my hair ties out one by one. I grit my teeth and bore it in silence, thankful in some small part of my mind that Twilight had dulled my nerves to pain over the past few weeks.
“In all seriousness, Star, you cannot continue this training. It’s all I can do to keep your mane from falling out on a good day.”
“You’re exaggerating.” I growled.
“Hardly! You take good enough care of it on your own, sure, but this…” I could hear Lotus tsk-ing at me. “This is murder on anypony. Keep up this abuse, Star, and you won’t have a mane to call your own anymore. It’ll be right back to square one, growing it from the roots out.”
“I’d rather avoid that,” I grimaced. “All things considered, I do like my mane.”
“And so does Goldy.” Lotus’ voice shifted straight from murderous to scandalous in half a second flat. The mention of my newest pegasus crush made me stiffen on the spot.
“D-does she now?” I squirmed a little, feeling a blush rise to my cheeks, thanks only in part to the scalding water.
“Mmhmm. She came to me just the other day, thanking me for introducing you two. I’ve never played matchmaker before, so that was rather new and exciting.” Lotus began massaging my scalp in conjunction with the water, and I could feel my mane soak through, draping down my neck calmingly. “She wanted another date.”
“That… That’d be nice. I’m just going to be awfully busy for…” It all came back to me as I thought on it, and a frown crossed my lips. “For a long time.”
“Oh? What’s happening?” Lotus quipped. “Some new training regiment to run you into the ground even harder-“
“I’m moving to Trottingham.”
The showerhead hit the floor. I opened one eye to peer at Lotus, whose hooves were over her mouth in shock.
“Star, you can’t be serious.” She whispered.
“I am,” I sighed, turning away from Lotus a little. “Twilight asked me to go out there to study the Timberwolf Territories.”
“Is this to do with the attack six months ago?”
“It is.” I nodded. “She says a new and uninfluenced mind might lend some insight to the problem out there. She needs my help on this matter. And besides, it’s not like I’m going alone-“
“I should think not!” Lotus puffed up spinning me around to face her directly. “I’m coming with you.”
“What?!” I reared my head, looking at her incredulously. “Lotus, no! I’ll not allow it.”
“Like you’re going to stop me.” Lotus chuckled. “I don’t care what you say, darling, I’m coming with. You need somepony to look after you out there.”
“Basil’s going with me.”
“Oh.” Lotus flagged a little, her posture slumping ever so slightly. “Can he cook?”
“I’ll find out tomorrow morning.”
“Can he take care of your mane?”
“I…” I shook my head a bit. “Wait, how is that important?”
“Darling, come on.” Lotus laid a hoof on my shoulder with a smile. “You’re hardly able to keep your hair on your head here in Canterlot. What makes you think you’ll be able to keep it all when fighting Timberwolves?”
“Nopony said I’d be fighting them,” I muttered. “Just studying.”
“Yeah, well, my point stands.” Lotus spun me around again, picking the showerhead up and guiding it over my mane. “I’m coming with, and you can’t stop me. I’m sure there’s a spa somewhere out there that needs a skilled technician.”
“But what about here? Aren’t you the manager of this place or something?”
“Bamboo can handle the place while I’m gone.” Lotus shrugged.
“What about Breeze?”
“Weather team transfers are about as easy as shaking hooves.” Lotus waved me off with a soft chuckle. “She’ll go where I go; of that I have no doubt.”
“Lotus, I don’t want to impose like this… You don’t need to follow me-“
“Oh yes I do.” Lotus chuckled, nudging my flank. “You’re helpless without me. You’d be bald in a week. Besides, I’m not doing it entirely for your benefit.”
“Oh you aren’t.” I deadpanned. “Who, then?”
“Why, my little Nugget of course.”
“W-wait, what?” I flushed again. “How does she play into this?”
“I’m assuming you’re going to tell her about your trip soon, are you not?”
“Of course!” I flustered. “I planned on talking to her tomorrow, if I got the time…”
“Well, she’s smitten with you. I honestly doubt you’d be able to go anywhere without her following after.”
“Great.” I groaned, hanging my head. “Three mares lives I’ve irrevocably changed.”
“Oh come on, don’t be so dramatic. It’ll be like a vacation, I’m sure.”
“That’s what you’re not seeing,” I shrugged out of Lotus’ magic, turning to her with a serious expression. “This isn’t some vacation, Lotus. This is a serious matter, one that Princess Twilight and Princess Celestia have tasked me with. I’m not going to Trottingham to visit my parents, or even to sit in some dusty library and read some books. I’m going to study these Timberwolves and see what’s going on. They’re dangerous creatures, capable of tearing a pony to pieces.” I raised a hoof to emphasize my point.
“This is not a vacation. This is a mission.”
“For you.” Lotus countered, turning me back around with a firm touch. “I sincerely doubt I’m going to be following you on your studying, Star. You just need somepony who can fix your mane when you come limping back.”
“Whatever.” I grumbled, resigning myself to a fresh wave of hot water. Though, in some small part of my brain, I was thankful I had a friend to follow me. Lotus actually cared, and while we weren’t the closest of friends, this spoke volumes about her devotion.
I just prayed I’d be able to pay her back.
“No freebies today,” Lotus led me out of the spa and towards the reception desk with a teasing frown on her face. “It’ll be twenty bits.”
“Sheesh.” I frowned, opening my saddlebags and peering inside. “I don’t have that much on me… Can I run home real quick?”
“Only if I can come with.”
“EEP!” Gold’s voice made me jump and spin about, a flush rising to my cheeks already. “H-hey Goldy!”
“Hello yourself.” Gold chuckled, sneaking a quick kiss in. Lotus sighed happily behind us, and I shot her a quick glare. “Good to see you again. You mentioned home?”
“I-I did, actually. I’m short on bits…”
“Here, I’ll pay Lotus now, and you can get me when we get to your place.” Gold flipped open her own saddlebags and fished out a small pouch jingling with coins. She counted out twenty of them on the counter, which gave me a chance to stare at her haunches for a few moments. When she finished, Lotus waved the two of us off with a shooing motion.
“Get going, you two! And have fun!”
“Yeah, yeah.” I waved at Lotus as Gold led me out of the front door and onto the chilly street. “It really is good to see you again, Goldy.”
“You too, Star.” She smiled at me, draping one of her wings over my back. “I’m sorry to have bailed on you like that three days ago, but I had to check in.”
“I figured as much.” I nudged her playfully. “I was pretty busy that day too.”
“Getting your flank kicked by Princess Twilight?”
“Like you’d do any better.”
“Oh please! I’d fly circles around her, then hiya!” She chopped her hoof through the air dramatically, holding that pose like some karate star. I just shook my head and walked on, waiting until she fell back in step to speak again.
“Which reminds me, we have some talking to do.”
“Yeah, actually, I was gonna say the same.” Gold resigned herself to a moderate silence as we turned down Castle Road, and the vicious headlong wind hit us in our faces. We huddled close down the street until we made it to my home, shuddering a little as we stepped through the door. Gold unwound her scarf as I made for the fireplace to start a warming blaze. When I had the fire going, she was already seated on my couch, smiling faintly at me.
“So who goes first?” I asked, curling up beside her. She sighed softly and laid a wing over my back.
“I think I should start. Star, I… I dunno, I’ve got this thing for you.”
“Lotus told me.” I nudged Gold’s cheek playfully.
“Curse that mare.” Gold growled. “Well, she’s right. For lack of a better word, I’m smitten. You’re just so… Cool.” That word made my heart leap up into my throat. “You’re studying under the princess, and you talk about combat practice and sparring with her like it’s nothing. Not to mention between the sheets you’re a fiend.”
“What can I say,” I sighed, nuzzling into her neck gently. “It’s been a while.”
“For me too.” She went on, leaning into my soft gesture. “So, I dunno, I wanted to ask if you… Wanted to make this… Official?”
I paused for a while after that. My heart and my mind were at war inside, both of them screaming at one another to deny her so I could go to Trottingham guilt-free, or accepting her offer and breaking her heart in four short days. In the end, my mind won out.
“Gold, I think I should tell you what I have to say now before I answer.”
“You’re shooting me down, huh?” Gold sighed. I could hear the tears in her voice. “It’s okay. I’m used to it by now…”
“No, hear me out… I’ve got a good reason.”
“… Okay.” She turned to look at me. Our eyes met, and I sighed softly.
“Princess Twilight and Princess Celestia want me to go to Trottingham. My train leaves in four days.”
“Oh… Oh! So, wait, you’re saying no because you’re leaving for Trottingham?”
“Yeah…” I sighed, feeling tears of my own build up. “I’m sorry, Gold, I really am… You’re so beautiful, and the first mare to really pay any attention to me in… Gosh, in three years. I’m so glad I met you and that night was so incredible… I want to say yes, but I’m leaving for who-knows-how-long-“
“I’m coming with.”
“-And I’ll be… Wait, what?” Gold’s response stopped me dead. “You… You want to come with me to Trottingham?”
“Of course.” Gold shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s not like I’m doing anything important around here. And there’s probably a lot of prime digging up in Trottingham’s area, anyways. I’ve been wanting to at least visit up there for… Heck, about five years now.”
“Wait a second…” I frowned. “What do you do around here?”
“Well, you know the Apple Family Mines? Where Ponyville used to be?”
“Eer… Yeah…” I frowned slightly. The Apple family didn’t exactly have the most reputable of names.
“Well I work for them. I’m their chief geologist. My talent,” She lifted her flanks to rub mine teasingly. “Is excavation and prospecting. Seed Spitter’s had me here in Canterlot surveying geological maps for potential new mine locations.” She leaned in with a frown on her face. “For five years.”
“Five years?! That’s ridiculous!”
“I know! So I want a change of pace. One letter to the Apple Family Mines, and I’ll be on my way.” Golden Nugget smiled warmly at me, a hint of a blush on her cheeks. “I… I want to follow you, Star. So we can explore how we feel for one another, and so I can get a change of scenery under my wings. Look at some different maps for once, you know?”
I had to think about this. The greater part of my mind was saying ‘sure, why the fuck not? Lotus is already following you, and Breeze is probably hot on her tail. Basil will be along, too. What’s one more to join the party?’
But it wasn’t that simple. I didn’t even know exactly what researching this new magic entailed. For all I knew, I’d be shredded the moment I stepped past that barrier and into unknown territory. Did I really want to involve anypony else in this fallacy? Let alone somepony who cared for me, and who I might very well come to care for?
“Star, you’re spacing.”
“Huh? Oh.” I realized I had been staring at the fire for the past who-knew-how-many minutes. I shook my head and sighed softly. “I’m not saying I don’t want you to, Gold. Heavens know I want you by my side. That night was so wonderful, and I want a lot more like it… But this isn’t some field trip.” I looked back to her seriously. “This is dangerous. If my training with Princess Twilight is hard enough to break bones, then an actual fight will be lethal. I might die.” Saying those words made my heart leap into my throat, and a sudden realization of my own mortality descended on me.
’Holy fuck I might ACTUALLY die doing this…’
“B-but that’s okay. I… I’m okay with taking that risk. The question is, are you willing to let me take that risk?”
“Star,” Gold sighed, leaning in to hug me softly. “I don’t know you nearly well enough to make any decisions for or about you. Nor will I be entitled to for a long, long time… But I do want to follow you, to get to know you better. And, to get my rocks off.” She kissed my ear, eliciting a delightful shudder from me. The larger half of my consciousness was beginning to make a resurgence, and I felt more than a little inclined to take her up on her offer.
“Let me think about it, okay?” I managed. “I promise, I’ll give you an answer by tomorrow. But right now… I’ve got a lot on my mind.”
“Okay.” Gold smiled and nipped my ear. “Think about it, but don’t kick me out.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” I grinned as my lips introduced themselves to her neck. She groaned deeply, rolling onto her side to hold me properly. “Besides, I still owe you twenty bits.”
“You’re not going to make me earn those twenty bits, are you?” Gold asked innocently. I just grinned and rolled atop her, leaning in so my lips brushed the very edge of her ear.
“Maybe I am.”
“Good morning, Star! You’re looking surprisingly well-collected this morning.” Twilight beamed as I meekly made my way into her quarters.
“Thanks, I guess…” I smiled at her, my head on a swivel in case somepony else decided to introduce themselves to me in a quick and unexpected manner. I was expecting an introduction that morning, after all. Best to not make it a shocking one.
“So, does Lotus want to murder me?” Twilight teased, turning her attention back to the book before her.
“Well, yes and no…” I replied, still searching for Basil. “She wants to follow me to Trottingham.”
“Oh?” Twilight looked back up from her book and arched an eyebrow at me. “That’s unexpected. Why did she want to come along?”
“She claims it’s to help me with my mane,” I pulled my braid through my hooves again, giving a soft sigh. “But I don’t know what her actual reasoning is. I can assume it’s because she’s worried about me.”
“That’s curious, because I have right here…” Twilight pulled a folder from a nearby table, passing it off to me easily. “A weather team transfer request from Fair Breeze.”
“Already?” I opened the folder to scan the official-looking document inside. “That’s awfully quick… I’m surprised.”
“So your party of four will leave in three days.” Twilight turned back to her book with a nonchalant shrug. “That’s fine. Just so you know, though, I can vouch for Basil’s safety. Your friends… Not so much.”
“I know.” I sighed, hanging my head. That particular part had been wearing on my consciousness since I’d left the spa just yesterday. “I don’t want them to be hurt either… But maybe the drive to protect them will help fuel my magic?”
“Possibly.” Twilight shrugged again. “It couldn’t hurt to have them along. I’m just shocked you’ve fostered such a strong friendship in such a short time.”
“Yeah, me too…” I sighed, looking around one more time. “Though it won’t be a party of four…”
“Are you saying Basil won’t be along?”
“No, there’s a fifth…” I sighed again. “Golden Nugget.”
“The geologist?” Twilight shut her book fully and turned to me, her expression drawn. “I thought she was the liaison between Canterlot and the Apple Family Mines.”
“She says she’s their chief geologist, in charge of excavation and prospecting…” I frowned in return. “She’s just a liaison?”
“I ought to know,” Twilight’s frown intensified. “She works with the Canterlot Preservation Society almost weekly. The preservation society and the apple family have been at each other’s throats ever since Ponyville was leveled.” Her eyes misted over then, and she gave a soft sigh. “That was a sad day… But still, lots of gems and metal come from those mines. Equestria’s industry has boomed since its inception. I just wish the town could have been spared.”
“What happened to Ponyville?” I asked. The foundation of the Apple Family Mines had happened well before I was born; almost eight hundred years ago.
“Well, it’s no small secret that I spent some years of my youth living in Ponyville; before I became a Princess. That’s where I met the other Elements of Harmony. The six of us had quite a few adventures together. Ponyville was a place of sentiment for me. To see it leveled to make way for mining operations made me awfully sad. Thankfully, one of the Canterlot Preservation Society heads cultivated the Appaloosian desert, making it into what it is today. Apple Fields.”
“That’s neat.” I surmised. “I mean, a whole town destroyed… That’s kind of rude, just for a mine…”
“It was an old farm town. When one of the Apple Family members explained the wealth of gems and ore beneath the town in conjunction with the C.P.S. head’s plan for cultivating a desert, a lot of the farm ponies were excited to help with the monumental undertaking. In fifteen short years, the arid desert had been cultivated into our greatest ecological asset. We lost Ponyville’s produce, but gained twice as much from cultivating the desert, as well as a massive amount of wealth from the mines. To be frank, I owe our solidified trade agreement with the Gryphons to the former Apple Family head.
“We’re getting distracted, Star. Learning that Golden Nugget isn’t just a liaison but the head geologist for the Apple Family means they were planning on excavating around Canterlot.” She raised a hoof at me, her expression serious. “If she’s offering to follow you to Trottingham, I have to ask you to allow her. If the preservation society learns this, they’ll be up in arms.”
“I didn’t realize it was that serious.” I sighed, shaking my head softly. “I’ll ask her to come along… But won’t we run into the same issue with the Trottingham Preservation Society?”
“Maybe we will, maybe we won’t.” Twilight returned with a slight shrug. “All I know is I don’t want Golden Nugget in Canterlot, where she has potential to upset a very delicate and hard-won political balance. I’m going to have a talk with the Apple Family’s head, to see if they really were planning on excavating around Canterlot. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”
“Sure, no problem.” I felt a little bad that I had all but exposed Gold to Twilight and her Apple Family contacts, but she shouldn’t have lied to them in the first place. And I got my answer for taking her along to Trottingham. My hormones won out over my reason, and I found myself excited to have her by my side. “Hey, aren’t we supposed to be meeting Basil this morning?”
“He ought to be here any minute.” Twilight gestured towards the door. “He’s running a bit late. I can’t blame him, he’s been… ‘unwinding’ since his return.”
“Ah huh.” I blushed a little. “Does that mean what I think it means?”
“What do you think it means?” Twilight returned, her lips turning up in a positively scandalous grin.
“Question answered. May I help myself to some water?” I quickly changed the subject, glancing back towards Twilight’s kitchen.
“Go right ahead. There’s some juice in the fridge if you’re so inclined. It’s early, so I won’t offer any alcohol, unless you drank last night and you need some hair of the dog that bit you.”
“No thanks,” I shuddered and made my way towards the kitchen. “You know I don’t drink.”
“You really ought to.” Twilight called after me. “It helps, aah… loosen you up a bit.”
Basil arrived promptly after I had poured myself a tall glass of tomato juice, garnished with some celery I found. He pushed a cart into Twilight’s quarters, beaming as bright as day.
“Good morning, my beautiful Princess!” His voice was bright and cheery, and I found myself smiling at him.
“Stop it Basil, you old flatterer.” Twilight covered her mouth with a hoof as she blushed. “You’re running late.”
“Forgive me, my princess.” Basil stepped out from behind the cart and bowed low. He was a yellow unicorn with a vibrant green mane. His mark was, unsurprisingly, a sprig of basil leaves. “You two lovely mares aren’t the only ponies I had to cook for this morning. Speaking of, I presume this is Star Caster?” He turned to me with a smile and a hoof, which I took readily.
“Nice to meet you, Basil. You’re welcome to call me Star.”
“I get it now!” Basil lit up once more as he glanced between me and Twilight. “She’s your Star pupil!”
I could have face-hoofed myself into a broken nose. Twilight seemed to beat me to the sentiment, but the situation ended with both of us covering our faces.
“I’ll get started on breakfast, then.” Basil winked at me before hauling his cart into the kitchen, humming to himself.
“He’s… Eccentric.” I mused, turning to Twilight. She just gave me a forced smile.
“If only you knew, Star. If only you knew…”
Breakfast truly was, as Twilight said it’d be, incredible. Basil whipped up some of the most delicious dishes I’d ever had the pleasure of passing over my tongue, and they filled me up to perfect capacity. Basil had a way of eliciting sensations from me I never knew were even possible.
“Honestly, Basil,” I swallowed my eggs (garnished with cilantro and the perfect amount of pepper) and smiled at him. “I would not be opposed to paying you for this.”
“Haha! I’m always glad to see ponies enjoy my cooking.” Basil waved me off. “I have plans on opening my own restaurant as soon as Twilight’s done slaving me out to the gryphons.”
“Hey, I needed some very important information from them!”
“No complaints here!” Basil raised his hooves defensively, albeit with a warm smile. “None at all. I tell you, some of those gryphons pack heat…”
“Basil!” Twilight flushed, glancing my way. “Is that really an appropriate topic of conversation for breakfast?”
“Hon,” Basil waved Twilight off. “You know you missed me and my corny jokes.”
“You slick bastard.” Twilight shook her head before turning to me. “You’ll have to forgive him. Basil’s an incorrigible poon hound… Or would you call it tail hound?”
“I don’t know what to call it, but it’s enjoyable.” Basil fanned himself dramatically. “Why, there was this one gryphon with a dick so big I-“
“AAHP!” Twilight’s horn glimmered as her magic sealed his mouth shut, her cheeks flushing ever brighter. “Save it for later, loverboy.”
“No promises, Princess.” Basil worked his lips free of Twilight’s magic before shooting me another grin. “I hope you’re not some shy little filly who can’t handle this sort of thing?”
“I… Well…” I blushed about as brightly as Twilight just then, looking down at my plate. “I-it’ll take me a bit to get warmed up-“
“Like that gryphon.”
“-But I come around eventually.” I glanced up at him once more, feeling rather foalish just then. I had just spent the night wrapped up in another mare’s legs, doing some truly erotic things. I ought not to be reduced to blushes and stammers when confronted with the opposite end of my bi-curious spectrum. “You’re not… One hundred percent gay, are you?”
“Only mostly.” Basil shrugged one shoulder. “I can have sex with mares, I just fail to see the appeal in it. Not to say I haven’t, just that it’s been a while, and I have my preferences.”
“Good. I’m guessing Gold can breathe easy now.”
“Wait a moment,” Twilight frowned at me. “You’re sleeping with Golden Nugget?”
“Eer, did I forget to mention that?” I flushed as Twilight’s frown intensified. “S-sorry.”
“Tread cautiously, Star. The Apple Family keep a close eye on their assets.”
“What do you mean?” I asked softly, feeling a slight bit of apprehension in my gut.
“She means you might find yourself indebted to the Apple Family for spending too much time between the legs of one of their employees.” Basil cut in. “Their contractors sign their life to the Apple family – every facet of it.”
“That can’t be right…” I felt anger build up inside of me. “They can do that?”
“Technically, yes.” Twilight sighed. “Prostitution is perfectly legal, even if it’s by proxy. Should Golden Nugget have half a mind, Star, she could retroactively charge you for her ‘services.’”
“Retroactively?!” I sputtered. “That’s insane! Don’t you have to, I dunno, agree to that sort of thing? Sign a form or something?”
Basil and Twilight both erupted into laughter, pounding the table with their hooves. I retreated into seething silence until they collected themselves.
“N-no, Star, my love. You don’t have to ‘sign a paper’ to have sex with a whore. And they can charge you after the fact. It’s how the Apple Family got half of their contracts anyways. Bunch of filthy liars and cheats.”
“Easy, Basil.” Twilight calmed him with a soft expression before turning back to me once more. “Just tread cautiously, Star. If you’ve already done the deed, then she’s got you in her hooves. If you trust her, then go right ahead. Not all of the Apple Family are crooks and thieves. You may have found a-“
“Golden Nugget amongst the shit?!” Basil cut in.
Twilight and I facehoofed in sync this time.
After breakfast had been cleaned up, we quickly moved down into the training chamber Twilight and I had been using for our sparring practice the past few weeks. Basil and I chatted a little more, and I found him easily relatable. He hinted at some sort of history with the Apple Family, one that didn’t end too happily for the parties involved. I wasn’t able to coax any more out of him before we arrived at the chamber, but I was glad he’d be along with me to Trottingham. He seemed an interesting – if comically unbearable – travelling partner.
“As you know, Star, we’ve been training you on combatives and sparring lately. You’ve been going against me, whom you have no hope of defeating, of course. But now we’re going to do something a little different.” Twilight stood between Basil and I as we squared off. “Basil is skilled and powerful, but not as much as I. You’re resourceful and intelligent, but not as much as me… So, with that in mind, you two will be dueling under my careful eye. I’m here to ensure you do not injure one another seriously. The duel is over when I say so, or one of you concedes. If I sense the danger is too much, I will intervene immediately. Do you understand?”
“I do.” I nodded to Basil.
“Just like the good old days with Spearhead, huh?”
“If only without the vicious revenge sex afterwards, yes.” Twilight rolled her eyes with a sigh. “Alright, get ready you two. Begin on my mark.”
I lowered my stance, looking across the way at Basil, who was doing the same. Our eyes met, and I knew I’d be in for another hard fight. Just because he wasn’t Twilight didn’t mean he wasn’t powerful. I only had a few short weeks of dueling practice under my belt, as it were. Basil probably had ten or fifteen years, plus some practical application if he was lucky.
“Three, two, one…”
I took a breath.
The room erupted in light. Basil and I both cast the same spell at one another, our horns glowing brilliantly as the spell-forms took shape. Twin beams of bright light shot straight outwards from our horns, colliding in the middle of the room. The tile cracked and the floor shook, kicking up a massive cloud of dust. I watched in awe as Basil charged through the dust, appearing a few short feet in front of me.
His eyes were alive, dancing gleefully as he ignited another spell between us.
And then he vanished.
*paff* He appeared behind me in a flash of teleportation, and I wheeled about, a shield constructing before me. His next spell rocked forth, spraying off of and around my shield. The skittering lines of arcane energy danced around my hooves and above my head, but none of them touched me. I began preparing my own spell, and as soon as Basil’s assault was over, I unleashed it.
“Woah!” He gasped, dancing aside as a pillar of blue flame erupted beneath his hooves. I followed up with a shadow spell meant to snare attackers, the same one Twilight had used to snare me and sprain my leg just yesterday. Basil was caught, but his lips spread in a grin. My next spell surged forth, a crackling bolt of violent energy.
It erupted against his shield, lancing off and into the ceiling, raining dust and mortar on our heads. Basil was inside of a shadow shield, one conjured from the night. My snare spell would have no influence inside. I prepared my next two spells, laying one rune on the ground behind him, and another on the ground at my hooves. As soon as Basil emerged, I detonated them both.
Only to be overwhelmed as six tendrils of shadow magic shot out at me. My spell fizzled pathetically, the shadow magic wrapping around all four of my legs, my neck, and my torso. A desperate thought crossed my mind, and I closed my eyes. ’Help me!’
”Sorry, child.” The night whispered in my ear. ”I favor him more…” I felt the tendrils tighten, even as Basil grinned up at me. The night wouldn’t help me here, I wasn’t as favorable to her as Basil was. Thus, I had to rely on my own strength. Confidence and desire burned inside of me. I gripped the power of the day, forcing a bright ray of light into the room.
The tendrils evaporated like mist, and I fell on my hooves heavily, coughing as breath rushed back to my lungs. Basil was stunned for a half a moment, and I acted.
“RRAH!” Charging forth, I shot three rapid-fire bolts of blue energy at him, watching as he dodged two but the third hit him in his foreleg. The force of the blow snatched his leg out from underneath him, and his impromptu spell shot into the ceiling, missing my mane by a scant inch. I pressed the advantage, looming over him as bright chains of light wrapped around his body.
“I surrender!” Basil gasped, even as he was roughly shoved into the floor. The chains evaporated instantly, and Twilight’s magic gripped my whole body.
“Well done, Star!” She pulled me back and away from Basil, setting me on the floor a good distance away. “I’m impressed. You beat Basil, and his devotion to the night is phenomenal.”
“I… I won?” The whole situation seemed like it took half a moment, maybe less. The adrenaline thundered through my veins, and I felt myself quiver with pent-up energy. “I beat him?”
“Like a red-maned stepchild.” Basil winced as he stood up, favoring the leg I’d hit with my spell. “Well done, Star. You’re really good.”
“I… Wait, what? I won?”
“And broke his leg, seems like.” Twilight was standing next to Basil, her horn glowing densely. “That was masterful, Star. You very nearly had him with the two runes, but his devotion to the night allowed for a nullification arc… You reacted brilliantly.”
“Wow.” I plopped down on my haunches, blinking from shock. “I won.”
“Good job.” Basil smiled as he trotted over to me, clapping my shoulder. “But I’m just rusty from having my head buried in a book for the past two years. Once we get to Trottingham, I’ll give you a better run for your money. I promise.”
“Heh.” I flushed and pulled my braid through my hooves. “I… Thanks, I guess.”
“Come on, Basil.” Twilight nudged him aside. “I have some more things to discuss about your notes. Star, you’re free for the day. I’d suggest you go have a chat with Golden Nugget about her motives, be they sincere or otherwise.”
“Y-yeah, thanks…” I sighed and watched Basil follow Twilight out of the practice chamber. Once the door closed behind them, I stared at it for a long while.
Following my duel with Basil, I was given the rest of the day off. It was still relatively early, so I made for home as quickly as possible in the hope of catching Golden Nugget. It seemed I needed to have a long discussion with my new partner; and I had to let her know she’d be coming with me to Trottingham. Some small part of my psyche was freaking out, praying that she’d agree to come with even after the discussion we were about to have, and the other half was worried she’d figure out it was Twilight who asked me to let her come along, and not my own desire to have her by my side.
Granted, I did want her by my side, it just felt like there was more than a few reasons now. I arrived home, shrugging out of my scarf with a faint blush. The winds were growing more and more vicious as December plodded onwards. I realized with a faint smile that I would actually be home for Hearths Warming Eve, to celebrate with my parents.
And maybe a few friends.
Nevertheless, Golden Nugget wasn’t anywhere I could readily see. I stood in my living room for a few moments, looking down at the couch where last night’s endeavours had taken place with a bit of a wistful smile. Then the sound came to me - a faint hissing, almost like water flowing through a pipe.
As my hearing adjusted, I realized my shower was running. ’Aha, so you didn’t go home yet.’ I grinned as I stealthily snuck my way upstairs, the sound of running water growing louder and louder as I went. Using it and a surreptitious spell to mask my hoof-falls, I slipped into the door.
Goldy was standing in my shower, her eyes closed as she turned her face up into the stream of water. She didn’t even see me. Grinning, I deposited my saddlebags inside the door and snuck across the tile floor, inching closer and closer. She didn’t even know I was there until my hooves rested on her back, right at the joint of her wings.
“H-heya, Star.” She gasped, almost as if expecting me. I began massaging the tight muscles where her wings met her back, an erogenous zone for any pegasus. She plopped onto her haunches almost immediately, her mouth open as she began panting.
“Hey yourself.” I teased, leaning in to nip at her ear. She quivered at that, her tail thrashing the floor of the shower.
“I th-thought you’d be busy all day…?”
“I got the afternoon off,” I continued massaging, my lips moving down to her neck now. “Basil and I sparred once, and I actually won. He and Twilight had some things to discuss, so I got the day off…”
“Well I can’t say I’m not excited.” Gold turned her head back to me with a grin, her eyes dancing with excitement - or was it arousal? I honestly didn’t care.
“You’ve got me for the night, my little nugget.” I teased, squeezing and rubbing her wings some more. I watched as her tendons flexed, spreading her wings wide open in the steamy air. My own core began to heat at the sight of the traditional pegasus mating sign, and I licked my lips.
’We can talk about her Apple Family ties later… And I don’t care if she charges me a leg and a horn, I’m having this mare again.’
“D-d’you wanna move to bed?” She stuttered, panting again. I shook my head, leaning in to kiss the corded muscles gently.
“I think we’d best start off here, then see where we end up…”
After our bathroom (and kitchen) romp, Gold and I shared one more shower, just to rinse off the sweat and… other fluids. Wrapped up in towels with a pot of pasta boiling on the stove, we curled up on the couch together. Now that I had gotten that particularly nasty bit of business out of the way, I wanted a few answers. I pulled back to look Goldy in her eyes, my expression as serious as I could make it.
“I want to talk more about your relation with the Apple Family.”
“Aah.” Gold’s expression sobered immediately, and she shifted so that we could talk properly. “Ask away, Star. I’m an open book.”
“I know the Apple Family doesn’t have the most reputable of names, and several of them have been accused of… Charging for services.”
“You think I’m a whore?” Gold looked shocked. I waved a hoof frantically.
“N-no! But, you know… I heard when you work with them, you sign your life off… All of it.”
“Hardly.” Gold snorted derisively, her eyes closing for a moment. “The Apple Family isn’t bad, Star-”
“Said the lone advocate.”
“They’re just businessponies. They do what’s best for the family first, the business second, and themselves third. Granted, I wasn’t born into it, but I’m every bit as much a family member as any of Seed Spitter’s brothers, sisters, or extended family… Look,” She leveled a serious gaze at me. “Others are okay with signing contracts that allow them to basically become whores. I’m not okay with selling my body like that, let alone in the way they do.”
“Yeah, but Twilight said they could retroactively charge for-”
“Only if they sign that particular part of the contract. Look,” She shed her towel and flapped off of the couch, lighting by her own saddlebags at the door. I watched as she shuffled around a bit, but she emerged with a folder in her teeth. “Here.” She opened it on the coffee table, exposing what looked to be a rather official bit of paper. “This is the contract I’ve signed.”
“Do you carry this with you all the time?”
“I have to,” she grimaced. “whenever I conduct business with the Preservation Society or the other prospectors, our contracts are checked. Honestly, Twilight’s looked over my contract enough herself that she ought to know I’m not a glorified Apple Family hooker.”
“Oh. I see…” I frowned at the paper, noting that there were only two of them in the whole folder. One pledging her loyalty to the Apple Family, and another detailing the extent of her job and what clearances she needed. There was nothing about the Apple Family owning her body or what she did with it. I gave a soft sigh of relief before shutting the folder. Still, there was one other point that was bugging at me.
“Twilight also told me you were just a liaison between the Apple Family and Canterlot… She never knew you were the Apple Family’s chief geologist.”
“Aah… Well…” Gold blushed, rubbing the back of her neck. “I, uuh… May have lied about that much. I mean, yeah, I’m a liaison first and foremost… But I’m also their chief geologist…”
“Ah huh.” I deadpanned. “And I’m guessing your work hasn’t consisted chiefly of liaising the past five years.”
“Yeah, well… You know.” Her blush intensified. “We’re always looking for more potential mining operations…”
I stayed silent for a long while, staring at Golden Nugget as I mulled things over. ’I’m not very pleased she lied to Twilight, and the fact that she’s looking for more area to mine in Canterlot isn’t good, either. It seems like the balance between the Preservation Society and her contacts is tenuous at best… Twilight’s right, if they learned she was looking for more places to dig up, it’d be a mess. Now… She knows I’m upset with her… How can I convince her to follow me to Trottingham?’
“Gold,” I sighed, shutting my eyes to focus on what I had to say. “I don’t like that you’ve been lying to Twilight and the Preservation Society… But at least you told me the truth, and what’s more, you owned up to it immediately.” I opened my eyes again, a thin smile on my lips. “I appreciate your honesty, with me if not with everypony else.”
“Oh thank the stars,” Gold let a breath go, laying a hoof on her breast. “I was afraid you’d be angry at me.”
“Well, I’m certainly not pleased, that much is for certain.” I shook a hoof at her, as if I were scolding a filly half my age. “I’m not going to eject you from my life for it, either.” ’Easy, girlie… Walking a fine line here.’ I took a breath to steady myself. ’Moment of truth. Too much and she might suspect something. Too little and she’ll stay behind… I don’t want that, and neither does Twilight.’
“I want you to come with me to Trottingham, but I’m not going to make that a… a… I dunno, a requirement for us to stay together. If you want to stay behind, you’re welcome to…”
“No, no!” Gold perked up. “I want to come! Really, I do!”
“Are you sure…?” I arched an eyebrow. “I mean, I’ll be awfully busy… Who knows if we’ll even have any time together?”
“I don’t care,” She shook her head. “I’ll stay busy myself. And I’m sure I’ll at least see you around.” Her smile was genuine, enough that I was convinced she was telling the truth. “That’s more than enough reason to go…”
“Alright, then.” I sighed, opening a hoof towards her. “If you really want, you’re welcome to come to Trottingham with me.”
“Awwright!” She rushed into my hug, giggling like a schoolfilly. I mirrored her exuberance, our lips meeting for several deep, passionate kisses. “I promise,” She gasped between kissing me. “I won’t let you down… This is gonna be… Awesome!”
“Easy now,” I chuckled, lifting a hoof to press to her lips, if only to stem the tide of kissing before I lost all reason and took her on the couch then and there. “I’m still upset with you.”
“Aww,” She kissed my hoof, a teasing smile on her lips. “You’re not putting me in the doghouse, are you?”
’Fuck me, I’m a terrible mare...’
“Hardly,” With a groan, I pulled her up and onto the couch, straddling her with a grin. “I just think you’re due for some ‘punishment.’”
The last two days passed in the blink of an eye. Gold had to leave the morning after our latest discussion, as she had to report to her Apple Family contacts and begin packing her things. Basil sent a letter requesting more time with me, so he could learn where I was in my education and combat prowess. In the duels that followed, we reached two stalemates, I defeated him once, and he put me on the ground three times. The three defeats humbled me, letting me know I had a lot more to learn at his hooves than I’d originally thought.
Nevertheless, between my own packing, sparring, and catching up, I was standing on the train platform with hardly a thought about how I’d gotten there.
“Hey there, miss grim-and-dour.” Gold’s voice shook me from my reverie, and I smiled as she hauled a cart stacked with several suitcases towards me.
“Hey yourself. Sheesh, how much stuff are you bringing?”
“Most of it is prospecting gear.” She explained with a shrug. “Cartography equipment, shovels, picks, all that sort of stuff.”
“Ah huh. None of those, aah… ‘extra toys’ I’ve heard you mention?”
“Well…” Gold blushed, kicking the ground self-consciously. “Maybe one or two.”
“Oh you naughty thing.”
“Well hello, Basil.” I smiled as my new mentor entered the train platform. “You have a nasty habit of showing up at the most inopportune times.”
“Yeah, well, you say that when you catch Twilight and Luna with a stra-”
“Stray cat!” I cut him off, blushing furiously. “They’re all over the palace, and the two of them like to foster one now and then. Yeah.”
“Ah huh.” Basil winked at me before turning to Golden Nugget, his expression darkening a little. “And you must be Golden Nugget, liaison with the Apple Family.”
“I am indeed.” Gold lifted her head and offered a hoof. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“A pleasure.” Basil deadpanned, turning back to me with a dark look. He left her hoof hanging between them, and I didn’t miss the wounded look on Goldy’s face. I very nearly scolded him, but another two members arrived at the far end of the platform.
“Lotus! Breeze, over here!” I waved them down, smiling as they turned their own carts our way. I was about to comment on the small amount of luggage between the two of them when another two carts appeared behind the first two, being pulled along by Lotus’ magic. “Need some help?” I abandoned Gold and Basil together to go help haul Lotus’ hefty load along.
“Thanks, darling.” Lotus released the carts with a gasp, fanning her face with a hoof. “Sixteen blocks with all of that… I’m bushed.”
“Well, it’s a long train ride.” I chuckled, looking over our party with careful eyes. Four mares, an eccentric stallion, eight carts of luggage, and no small amount of tension between the two ponies I felt closest to. “A really long train ride…”
“How are you, Star?” Breeze nudged my flank with a concerned look. I glanced at our little entourage as Basil and Lotus began chatting, and Gold went to go check her luggage.
“To be honest,” I leaned in. “I’m very nervous…”
“I can imagine. And it doesn’t look like your teacher and Goldy get along very well…”
“He has a thing against the Apple Family.” I sighed. “I hope it doesn’t develop any more than it already has… Gold’s actually really nice.”
“You don’t need to convince me,” Breeze chuckled. “She’s been a good friend to Lotus and I for a long while now.”
“Just don’t take her side immediately if there’s an argument between the two of them, okay?” I leaned in, glancing between Basil and Gold worriedly. “I’d really like to not alienate my one teacher.”
“No promises, love.” Breeze nudged me again. “But I’ll try.”
“So, are you excited to work with a new weather team?”
“Yeah, it’ll be pretty cool.” Breeze shifted into the new topic with a flap of her wings. “Trottingham’s air is pretty humid being so close to the sea, but it’s supposed to be really cold this time of year. I love the cold-weather flying, it really makes you feel like you’re moving fast. Things seem to stagnate a little in the heat.” She glanced towards Lotus with a slight frown. “Not so sure about her, though… Rumor has it there’s not much work for a spa pony in Trottingham.”
“I’m sure she’ll be just fine… Worst-case scenario, she can just open up her own spa, right?”
“For what, four months? Five? A year?” Breeze looked to me seriously. “How long are we going to be in Trottingham? For all we know, you’re going to take one step on the other side of that barrier and disappear forever.”
“Wow, okay, thanks for the vote of confidence.” I deadpanned at Breeze, narrowing my eyes. “Glad to know I’ve got such good friends at my side.”
“Hey, come on, you know I didn’t mean it like that.” Breeze frowned, sighing as she laid a hoof on my back. “I know you’re going to be fine, Star… But like Twilight said, even she doesn’t know what’s beyond that barrier. You might not stand a chance, or you could fix it in an instant.” She shrugged, glancing towards the train tracks. “Or you could take a century to figure out what it is.”
“Yeah, well,” I glowered at Breeze. “Nopony’s saying you had to come along…”
“I did.” Breeze responded soberly. “Because I want to be by Lotus. And you.”
“And nopony’s saying you have to stay, either.”
“Ah huh.” Breeze frowned at me before turning to Lotus. “Keep telling yourself that, Star. You’ll see someday that there’s a few good friends who’ve got your back.” She flapped over to her wife, leaving me alone with brooding thoughts. I was about to go over to Goldy when the train pulled into the station, whistling and steaming.
“All aboard for Manehattan, Baltimare, and Trottingham!” The conductor cried out as he slipped onto the train platform. I sighed and fetched my cart, loading my things onto the train somberly.
To my left, Basil and Gold started loading their own things, and I caught the first strains of an argument.
“Move your case.”
“You move yours, there’s plenty of room over on that side.”
“I meant move it further away from my stuff; I don’t want you anywhere near me. Who knows what you have in there. Probably a cannon or a flamethrower.”
The train rattled along, and while I enjoyed the first half hour or so, the rocking motion soon got to me. I developed a case of motion sickness once we descended out of the mountains surrounding Canterlot. Basil, of course, could care less. He forced me to focus on the books before us, pointing out key passages and equations.
Staring at a book like that was not the best thing for me. I dashed to the bathroom, emptying my stomach several times.
“You okay?” Goldy was waiting for me when I emerged. I could tell my coat was probably as green as Basil’s at that point.
“I forgot how much I hated trains…” I gave a thin whimper and let Goldy lead me to the nearest seat, curling up atop it pathetically.
“Makes me wonder how you ever made it from Trottingham to Canterlot in the first place.”
“I was fine back then, but now…” I laid a hoof over my muzzle, groaning again. “Its the damn books…”
“Yeah, well, those ‘damn books’ might just save your life. You, move.” Basil barged in, hopping up onto the seat opposite mine. “As we were saying before you dashed off, the inverted fifth arch on a-”
“Basil,” I groaned weakly. “I just threw up. Give me a moment.”
“Well excuse me.” He huffed, snapping the book shut. “Twilight asked me to come along to teach you. I can’t teach you if you don’t look at the book.”
“I don’t need to be teached right now. Go ‘way.”
“What, so you can dig yourself further into the hole?” He shot a glare at Goldy, who puffed up defensively.
“Y’know, Basil you ought to-”
“Stop it. Both of you.” I snapped, raising my head. “Goldy, give me some space so I don’t vomit on your mane, alright? Basil.” He opened his mouth, but I shut it with a quick glimmer of magic. “Shut the fuck up and leave me alone so I don’t purposefully vomit on your face. Oh stars,” I hardly got the last out before another wave of nausea passed over me. I might have voided lunch, but breakfast was intent on making a comeback. I dashed into the toilet just in time.
“Seriously,” I coughed, wiping my muzzle. “I hate trains.”
When I emerged from the bathroom, Goldy sat next to the bathroom. I offered her a weak, apologetic smile before curling up across the aisle from her. Basil was seated at the far end of the cabin, and I saw him shoot a withering glare my way before he returned his attention to the book on his lap.
“He seems… Angry.” Gold quipped.
“He’s fine, really.” I sighed and looked out of the window at the rolling hills. “He just… Hates the Apple Family.”
“Any particular reason?”
“I don’t know.” I admitted, shaking my head before looking back at Gold. “I wish I did, but I don’t. I really don’t. It seems he’s not alone, though. Twilight isn’t very keen on them either.”
“Well duh.” Gold rolled her eyes patronizingly. “We practically forced everypony out of Ponyville when we wanted to expand our mines. The Apple Family isn’t high on many ponies’ lists, but I’m okay with that.” She looked across the train cabin towards Basil. “I wonder why he isn’t…”
“Why don’t you go ask him?”
“I’d rather not get my head blasted off, thank you.” Goldy sighed, curling up on her seat. She looked across the aisle at me, her eyes glimmering a little. “Are you excited to get back home?”
“A little.” I admitted. There wasn’t much there for me as far as the past was concerned. My mom and dad, sure, but I didn’t have any childhood friends. There were a few acquaintances, and a few teachers at my old school, but none of them were so important to me that I’d be dancing with delight when I met them again. Mostly, I was just excited to get to work for Twilight. Investigating the new magic beyond the barrier she had erected was first on my list of priorities, and the first thing I’d be doing when I got to Trottingham was to visit the massive wall of magic keeping Trottingham safe from these Timberwolf attacks.
“Uh oh.” Gold snapped me out of my reverie, and I blinked at her before looking up the aisle. Basil approached, his face determined. “If you’ll excuse me, then.” My pegasus friend slipped off of her bench and through the door separating train cars. I was loathe to see her go, since it meant I was alone with Basil and his nauseating books.
“Good riddance.” Basil sniffed as Goldy transferred between cars, the sliding door closing out the sound of rushing wind and rattling chains in her wake. I glared up at Basil as he took the bench opposite me. He didn’t have any books, but his remark wasn’t exactly appreciated.
“What’s your problem with Goldy?” I asked, fighting another wave of vomit. I began to wonder if I had anything left.
“Oh, nothing! Nothing at all! Unless you take into account the fact she’s a backstabbing, lying whore, then no, I’ve got no issue with her at all.”
“Basil,” I inhaled through my nose, feeling a headache come on. I tried to attribute it to the vomiting and not Basil’s incorrigible hatred, but I found that difficult. “This whole trip is going to be much more easier if you’ll tell me what your problem with her- and indeed the whole Apple Family - is before I strangle you.”
“That’s not a story I’m going to share any time soon.” Basil sighed. “Just know that I’m not terribly keen on having the Apple Family’s lead geologist following us to Trottingham. Heavens forbid they’ve already excavated Ponyville into nothing, now they’re going to mine your home town out from underneath itself.”
“They aren’t going to do any such thing, Basil, I assure you.”
“How would you know? You weren’t there for Ponyville.”
“And neither were you!” I snapped at him. “That was, what, over eight hundred years ago?!” We were drawing heads, so I lowered my tone, but I still glared at him. I spoke through clenched teeth. “Tell me what your issue is. Is it really because of what they did in Ponyville? Or is there something else stuck up your ass?”
“Oh hon,” He chuckled. “If only you knew the amount of things I’ve had in my ass… But that’s besides the point.” He glared at me, his eyes flashing dangerously. “My quarrel with the Apple Family is none of your business.”
“You’re making it my business when it’s my marefriend you’re mad-dogging every chance you get. Basil, I care for Goldy. And I’ll not have you two at each other’s throats the entire time we’re in Trottingham.”
“Fine.” He snarled. “Just keep her away from me, and I’ll stay away from her. You can have your time to go snuggle up with that snake, but I’ll not have anything to do with her. And heavens help her if I spot her on the street.”
“Basil! Fuck’s sake, man!” I stood up, glaring down at him. Forget the heads turning our way now, I wanted to get to the bottom of this. “You’re being ridiculous! It’s clear you hate Gold and her affiliation with the Apple Family, but you won’t tell me why! Don’t you think that’s just a little unreasonable?!”
“Unreasonable?!” Basil stood as well, the two of us squaring off. “What’s unreasonable is the Apple Family’s inherent back-stabbing! I don’t want her or anypony who’s pledged their loyalty to that family of traitors and thieves anywhere near me! My reasons are my own, and I’m not about to share them. You’re just going to have to deal with that!”
“And you’re just going to have to deal with her!” I stomped a hoof. “Goldy left everything behind to follow me to Trottingham, not unlike you did! Some empathy is due!”
“Hah!” Basil barked, baring his teeth at me. “There’s a joke; me, empathizing with someone from the Apple Family. Listen here, kiddo.” He stepped forwards, looming up in my vision. “I’m not going to stoop to that level. You keep Goldy and her family away from me, or I won’t be held accountable for my actions. Meanwhile, you need to buck up and learn what I’ve got to teach you. She might be here to play between your legs, but I’m here to keep those legs from being ripped apart. You tell me which one of those seems more important right now.”
“RRGH.” I saw red. Half of me almost blasted Basil right then and there. The other half stormed out of the cabin, following Gold further up the train. At least, I would have if she wasn’t waiting for me just inside the sliding doors.
“Oh. Goldy.” I stopped short, the haze of anger fading away. I felt weak in its absence. “Did, uuh… Did you hear any of that?”
“I did.” Goldy whimpered. I saw tears in her eyes. “He really hates me, doesn’t he?”
“Afraid so.” I sighed. “Well, maybe not you specifically, as a pony… But he does hate the Apple Family. I wish I knew why…”
“You and me both.” Goldy sighed, and I couldn’t help but step forward. We met in a hug, and I felt her shake in my hooves. I wanted to join her, to cry out my frustration, but some bigger part of me knew that wouldn’t accomplish anything. Instead, I stroked her mane until she calmed down enough to wipe away her tears.
“You’re not… You don’t agree with him, do you?”
“Hardly!” I barked a laugh, brushing her mane off of her face. “He’s obviously got something personal against the Apple Family. I have no reason to believe you or any of them are bad. Granted, what they did in the past seems kind of rude, but the Appaloosa Desert was cultivated shortly after Ponyville was excavated, wasn’t it? In the end, we got one of the most productive mines in Equestria’s history, and doubled what used to be Ponyville’s agricultural output.” I sighed softly.
“There are two sides to every situation, Goldy. This one is no exception. I can see why ponies think the Apple Family are evil for what they did in the past, but none of us can really know the whole situation, can we? It was over eight hundred years ago. Today, the Apple Mines produce the metal and gems we use to trade with the Griffons, and the old Appaloosa Desert grows just about all the food equestria needs. Maybe I can help Basil see all the good that’s come from this, instead of focusing on the negativity surrounding the mine’s inception.”
“Good luck with that.” Gold sighed, sniffing slightly. “I really want to know why he hates us so much… I know there are a lot of ponies who aren’t happy with what we did back then, but none of them are so… Forthcoming with their disapproval.”
“Just try not to be discouraged with him, okay?” I lifted Goldy’s eyes up to mine. “He’s a dick, and mean, and likely isn’t going to change any time soon.”
“Alright.” She smiled faintly. “I’ll let you do your thing. Meanwhile, I guess I’ll just have to… What’d he say, ‘play between your legs?’”
We both laughed together, and I couldn’t help but hug her again.
“Alright, Basil.” I slid up onto the bench opposite him. “Let’s pick up where we left off.”
“... Telling me to get over my grudge?”
“No, with the reading.” I gestured to the small stack of books he had on the seat. “I think I can stomach them now. The ride seems to have evened out, for now.”
“Alright then.” Basil pulled one book off of the stack and flipped it open. “Timberwolves are strange constructs of branches and leaves from their native forests. Typically, this would make them vulnerable to fire spells. But this forest between the griffon territories and Trottingham is a pine forest with an interesting characteristic. Have you ever heard about the Dragon Purge?”
“I… Can’t say I have…” I muttered, frowning down at the pages. “What was it?”
“Long, long ago, there was a massive threat to Equestria and the other lands in the form of these hulking behemoths called Wyrms. They emerged from the sea and burned down just about everything in their path. Including the area where Horseshoe Bay currently resides. Now, you might not have known this either, but the Princesses were responsible for the creation of Horseshoe Bay.”
“Was that because of the Wyrms?”
“Precisely.” Basil flipped his book around and turned a page, revealing a map. I frowned down at the landmass, wondering what it was, until Basil’s magic began tracing small, glowing lines across it. First was a U-shaped indent, leading in from the southern ocean.
“This area was once called the Blood Fields, home to the age-old conflicts between Equestria and the Griffons. Multiple territory wars were waged here until the land was barren and decimated. The extended conflicts had turned the whole area into pockets of destructive magic, mass graves, and wide swaths of burned and leveled forests. Historians speculate it was the bloodshed over the years that drew the Wyrms there. They emerged from the ocean and began burning everything. There were three of them, named Jormangund, Io, and Tiamat. Each dragon was larger than the whole of Canterlot, and resistant to magic. They walked across the landscape, burning wide swaths of land before them. Stunned, the griffons and Equestria stopped their quarreling in an attempt to stop the dragon’s destructive advance.
In doing so, the princesses devised the best solution. They couldn’t cast spells on the dragons themselves. They had lost many skilled unicorns in trying to do so. Instead, they created Horseshoe Bay.” Basil’s magic sparked as the U-shaped indent turned blue, wiping out the Blood Fields. I gasped as Equestria and the rest of the known world was thrown into relief. “The griffons were spared their home here, at the Eyrie, and in return, they cultivated these pine trees in the remaining area between here and Equestria, and used their own brand of magic to make the Timberwolves, ensuring nopony and no griffon could cross the forest uncontested.”
“I see.” I breathed. “That’s incredible… So, the princesses created Horsehoe Bay… But why is this important to the trees and the Timberwolf Territory?”
“Well, the fires from the dragons had reached far and wide, and they couldn’t be extinguished by normal means. Since the collapsing of Horseshoe bay - which plunged the three Wyrms into the sea - the fires were still burning. Rather than fight them, the griffons let them burn. But their enchanted fire sunk into the soil. Here,” He tapped the area north of the blue U-indent. “... was all burned away. But the new trees that grew did so being remarkably resistant to fire. Even a dried Timberwolf Pine will not burn, at least, not easily. It’s another reason why tracking through the forest is all but impossible. All of the firewood doesn’t burn, and visitors freeze in the night.”
“Wow.” I looked up from the map. “So we’re not going to use fire spells against these Timberwolves?”
“No. We’re not. The Timberwolves native to the Everfree are easily flammable, and were we headed that way we could easily dispatch them with a few Firestorm spells. But not these ones. So I’m going to teach you Force and Dispulsion spells. Instead of burning them, we’ll blast them apart, or dispel the magic that holds them together.”
“Sounds like a plan.” I grinned. “Where do we begin?”
Five hours and a few more dashing trips to the bathroom later, the train began its approach into Horsehoe Bay. I looked out over the sea, glimmering faintly in the late-evening sun. “Wow.” I had to admire its beauty. Furthermore, I had a greater appreciation for the massive expanse of water now that I knew the story behind its creation. I could hardly imagine such a massive wall of seawater rushing to fill in the gap created by the princesses. Large enough to engulf a dragon the size of Canterlot. Not just the castle, but the whole city. I began to wonder if the Wyrms were still in there, just beneath the frosty-white waves and deep blue expanses.
“It’s pretty.” Gold drew my from my reverie by sliding up onto the bench at my side.
“Yeah it is.” I glanced at her with a slight blush before returning my attention to the sea. “I wish I could stay, just to look at this for a while longer.”
“Would that we could. We’re transferring straight to Trottingham tonight.”
“Ugh. Another two hours of this ahead of us.” I grimaced as the train rocked again, picking up speed on its way down into the industrial city.
“But then you’ll be home.”
“Yeah, yeah…” I groaned. “Home sweet home.” Nevermind that my home was back in my small house in Canterlot, within walking distance from all the good libraries and… Yeah, libraries. I grimaced as the sea disappeared behind some trees, and I probably wouldn’t get a chance to see it again before the train arrived in the city proper. Instead, I turned to Goldy. “What have you been up to?”
“Nothing really, just chatting with Lotus and Breeze. Walked up and down the train a few times. I wish I could stretch my wings for a bit, but I don’t think I’d be able to catch up. This thing goes awfully fast downhill.”
“Well, the ride into Trottingham is all uphill, so no need to worry.” I smiled at her. “We’ll probably have a long break in the city before transferring trains anyways. Want to get something to eat?”
“That sounds nice. Want to invite Lotus and Breeze along, or make it a private affair?” Her smoldering look made me squirm a little, a blush rising to my cheeks.
“Let’s… See if they want to join us.” As much as I wanted to get some alone time with Goldy, I didn’t want to miss my train when we lost track of time. Gold just pouted and nudged me towards the next car up. “They’re near the front. C’mon.” We transferred between three more cars before arriving at the one with Lotus and Fair Breeze. They brightened as soon as they saw me, waving to beckon us over.
“There you are, Star! We were beginning to worry Basil had thrown you off.”
“If anything, it’d be me throwing him off.” I sighed. “But I didn’t want to get too far from that bathroom… I hate trains, and it seems they hate me equally as much.”
“Oh dear! That’s unfortunate. Are you okay?” Lotus laid a hoof on my knee with a concerned look.
“I’m fine, I assure you. Just motion sickness. Too much time on solid ground with my nose in a book, I suppose.” I looked between the two of them with a faint smile. “What have you two been up to?”
“Regretting not getting a sleeper car.” Lotus ‘harrumped’ and glared at Breeze.
“She’s frisky,” Breeze explained in a low tone. “Can’t keep it in until we reach Trottingham and find a place to stay.”
“I am not!”
“Your hooves have been wandering the whole ride.” Breeze rolled her eyes.
“Can you blame me?” Lotus pouted and ran her hooves down Breeze’s withers. “Having to sit next to this for five hours.”
“Easy there.” Breeze lifted both hooves off of her sides, setting them back in Lotus’ lap. “There are other ponies here.”
“Two of them. Right across from you.” I coughed. “We were going to ask if you two wanted to join us for dinner, but it seems you’re going to want to rent a room for an hour or two, huh?”
“Afraid so.” Breeze batted Lotus’ hoof away again. “She’s incorrigible when she gets like this. I hope we can find some place close to the station.”
“And you won’t miss the train to Trottingham. It’s the last one tonight, and the next one won’t run until after the weekend.” I frowned between them. “Just take it easy, you two, okay?”
“I promise, just a quickie.” Lotus winked. “Or five. Breeze can crank them out like no other.”
“Right then.” I glanced at Gold with a giddy grin. “Looks like we’re on our own for dinner.”
“Sure we can’t join them?” Gold met my eyes pleadingly. I just grinned deviously, watching as her blush crept up her cheeks. “Not join them, join them! Just… You know… Get a room ourselves?”
“Yeah well, I doubt you want to be making out with me when I’ve been… You know. Besides, if I don’t get something in me soon, I’m gonna pass out.”
“Fine.” Goldy sighed and rolled her eyes. “How long is the layover, anyways?”
“I’m not sure, we might not even have time.” I grimaced, looking across the way at Lotus, who had devolved into a girlish fit of giggles. “Is she… Okay?”
“She’s in heat.” Breeze grimaced, shoving Lotus away forcibly. That didn’t seem to dissuade her, though, as the other unicorn leaned in to nip at Breeze’s cutie mark. “She gets like this when it comes around, and I tell you it’s hard to say no. When are we pulling in?”
“Soon.” Gold gestured out of the window as a small smattering of buildings emerged from hills. “We’re on the outskirts, so ten, maybe fifteen minutes?”
“Too long.” Lotus panted, crawling on top of Breeze. “Can’t wait.”
“Easy there.” I lifted Lotus off and set her back in her seat. “I’ve never seen her like this. Then again, I only ever see her at the spa…”
“It doesn’t happen often. She chose a damn good time to do it. I might just get her liquored up so she can’t walk straight.”
“Does that work?” I mused, tapping my lip. I pushed Lotus back as her hooves began to wander again.
“It’s like, doubly effective when she gets like this. She’ll have one drink, start getting grabby. Two drinks, she’ll slur her words. By three, she’s on the floor, and by four she’s gone. Hey!”
“Whoops, sorry.” I grasped Lotus’ hoof and shoved it back against her side, since she’d managed to slide it between Breeze’s thighs. “Might be a more viable option than missing our train. We’ll see how long our layover is.”
“Here’s hoping it’s at least an hour or two.” Breeze grimaced as she shoved Lotus into the corner, keeping her mouth off of her flank.
“THREE DAYS?!” I blinked at the attendant in disbelief. “Why aren’t there any trains for three days?!”
“Th-the pass is snowed-in.” The attendant muttered. “We aren’t running any trains to Trottingham over the weekend, so we can’t take anypony. I-I’m sorry.”
“Star, relax.” Basil laid a hoof on my side. “We can’t do anything about it. Looks like we’re taking a bit of a detour, eh?”
“Ugh. Fine.” I turned from the counter with a sigh, tromping towards our veritable mountain of luggage. Lotus was busy trying to hop on Breeze, who seemed to have been cowed into a seething, rock-like silence.
“Any news? How long are we here?”
“Three days.” I grimaced, watching as everypony but Lotus gasped, their hooves shooting to their mouths. “The pass is snowed in, and no trains are going through until after the weekend. So we have three days to kill. please tell me you brought enough bits to afford hotel rooms?”
“Maybe…” Breeze grimaced, shrugging Lotus off to go shuffle through their bags. “I didn’t think we’d need that much. I can afford a room for Lotus and myself for maybe three days… Not sure about the rest of you.”
“Oh for the love of… Come on.” Gold grasped her luggage cart and trudged towards the attendants counter. I followed after, making sure Basil stayed behind with the feely Lotus and Breeze, who seemed about ready to clobber the touchy unicorn. As Gold approached the desk, she fished a sheet from one of her packs and slid it across the counter to him. “Please point us to the closest hotel.”
“Y-yes, Ma’am!” The attendant blustered for a moment before pulling a folded map from behind the desk. He unfolded it and began dictating directions. “We’re here, by the train tracks. The closest hotel is here, just up the street two blocks. There’s another one three blocks away, South of here.”
“The closer one is fine, thanks.”
“B-but, that’s the Hayton…”
“That’s fine. Thank you! Come on, Star. Go get the others. Oh, and we’re borrowing your luggage carts.”
“F-fine!” The attendant waved his hooves frantically. “Take them if you want! A-anything for the Apple Family!”
“What did you do?” I muttered to Goldy as she dragged her luggage towards the door.
“Let’s just say I might have a solution to our problem. I’d hate to do it, but we’ll see. Oh, and don’t let Basil know. He’ll throw a fit if he hears otherwise. I’ll head there now, you get Lotus under control and keep Basil in the dark.”
“Right.” I frowned as Goldy shoved out into the chill night, ushering in a blast of cold wind. I turned towards the rest of our entourage, still a little curious on what it was Goldy had planned specifically. Basil came along without much of a fight, but Lotus was intent on savaging Breeze right then and there. It took both Basil and I to reign her in, levitating the fussy unicorn ahead of us, and our luggage behind. We followed Gold’s shadow, about a block ahead of us, until it turned into what looked like a rather ritzy lobby.
When we arrived maybe five minutes behind her (thanks mostly in part to Lotus breaking free and pouncing on her wife,) we were greeted by four beaming stallions, each with a cart.
“We’ll take your things for you. Right this way, come on in.” They ushered us through the lobby, upstairs, and down a hallway.
“Hang on,” I managed to stop one of them. “Did Gold Nugget do all this?”
“She did indeed. We’re always glad to play host to the-”
“You say that name and I’ll break your neck.” I growled, shutting the stallion’s mouth with a firm field of magic. Basil was on the other side of the carts from me and being shown into his room by a markedly flirty stallion, but I didn’t want to risk it.
“Anyways…” The stallion muttered as I let him go. “We have three rooms. One for you and Miss Nugget, one for those two…” He glanced to the side as Lotus and Breeze disappeared into another room with a slammed door. “And one for… him.” The last door closed, locking Basil and one of the bellhops inside. I furrowed my brow before turning to the attendant with a serious look.
“That particular stallion hates the Apple Family with a passion. Please, do all that you can to keep any mention of them away from him. He’ll make things much more difficult if he finds out we’re here on their dime.”
“Aah, understood.” The attendant winked at me before pulling the cart with my luggage down the hall. “Your room is right here.” He stopped at the end, smiling warmly at me. “Miss Nugget is waiting inside.”
“Is she now…” I muttered, slipping inside. The moment I did, the door closed, and the lights flicked off. “What the… Okay, Goldy, you’d better not be-YOW!”
“Why hello there, beautiful.” Gold’s voice came from right around my hindquarters, where I was certain I’d just been licked. “Come here often?”
“Oh shut up.” I panted, trying to look at her over my withers. “You’re just as bad as Lotus.” As if on queue, I heard a very girlish and loud scream come from somewhere down the hall. “Well, okay, maybe not that bad…”
As it turns out, having Apple Family contacts wasn’t exactly a bad thing. All Goldy had to do to get us three rooms for three nights was promise to send a letter the morning after we arrived. Sure enough, as I awoke from my orgasm-induced coma, she was sitting at one of the room’s desks just across from the bed, a quill in her teeth.
“I could have written that for you.” I muttered, yawning as I slipped out of bed.
“I gotta practice anyways.” She set the quill in the inkwell and lifted the letter with a slight smile. “Looks good to me.”
“Lemme see.” I took the sheaf of parchment in my magic, looking over the written letter with a critical eye.
I’m re-locating to Trottingham to prospect some more lucrative excavations. The Canterlot Preservation Society has been on my tail for five years, I think it’s time I move on to finding something more promising. Meanwhile, I’m stuck in Horseshoe Bay between trains, thanks to a snowed-in pass.
Please send compensation for three night’s stay and three rooms to the Hayton at 7800 Wheel Well RD. Be sure to include enough for room service, and an extra thanks for their help. I’ll mail you from Trottingham with my new address.
“Huh. So you can do this sort of thing?” I passed the letter off, scratching my mane wearily.
“One of the perks.” Gold chuckled, rolling the parchment into a scroll, securing it with a small bit of twine from the desk. “I might get some flak for it, but it’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“Well, thank you.” I smiled, nuzzling her neck lovingly. “I guess we have two more days to relax, huh?”
“I dunno about you.” Gold growled, clamping her lips down on my ear. “But I’m gonna make you work.”
“Gold,” I whimpered, squirming as she began gnawing at me. “I’m exhausted… At least let me shower first.”
“Only if I can join. Then we ought to go see if Lotus and Breeze haven’t fucked one another into the hospital yet.”
Following the hot shower and another rough roll between the sheets (and another shower after that) Gold and I made our way down the hall. Once we knocked, Breeze answered promptly.
“Good morning, girls!” She beamed, ushering us inside. “Glad you came to visit. How are you?”
“Okay, it doesn’t SMELL like an all-night fuckfest in here.” I sniffed the air tentatively. “How did you two do last night?”
“We had a little fun, but before she could really get going, I discovered the minibar.” Breeze pointed to the bedstand with several bottles of empty liquor littered on it. “She’s been out like a light since.” Next to the bedstand was the bed, with one very asleep Lotus sprawled out atop it.
“Huh. Alright then. Well, we’re going to be staying here for a few days, it seems. You have Goldy to thanks.”
“I knew you’d pull through for us.” Breeze rubbed Goldy’s head with a hoof, grinning warmly. “Thanks a bunch, kiddo.”
“I’m only three years younger than you.” Goldy grumbled, punching Breeze playfully. “But you’re welcome.”
“So I assume we’re keeping Basil in the dark about all this?”
“Naturally.” I nodded, glancing back towards the door. “Then again, if we’re lucky he’ll be too busy with the wait staff to care who’s paying for his room.”
“With any luck. You two have any plans for breakfast?”
“Actually, no.” Gold and I shared a look before glancing at Lotus. “Can you leave her?”
“She’ll be out for at least another four hours.” Breeze chuckled. “Let’s go get something to eat.”
The next two and a half days spent in Horsehoe Bay were wonderful. Basil stayed cooped up in his room, only emerging to come fetch me so we could study for a few hours. Breeze and Lotus were much the same, though they did invite Goldy and I to go sightseeing a few times. The weather was clear, if remarkably cold, so we joined the two for a few dinner dates and one visit to the market. But the majority of the time was spent with Gold and I in bed, cuddling, talking, and doing unspeakable things to one another.
I came to learn a lot about my partner in our time together. She had a certain passion for books, especially trashy romances and fantasy novels. I had a certain affinity for those sorts of stories myself, but I also enjoyed things like spell manuals and histories. My tastes were a bit broader than Goldy’s, it would seem.
But more than that, I came to find that Gold was interested in writing her own stories. She had a hundred fanciful tales in that head of hers, and as we lay in bed, she told me her ideas for many of them. I began to like nothing more than laying by her side as she told me the latest story about the valiant hero overcoming adversaries, discovering ancient and old magics, and of course, getting the girl at the end.
She could also play the fiddle. If her word was to be believed, she was actually quite good at it, too. I wanted to hear her play, and maybe to have her teach me.
But I came to learn her fears, too. On our last night, Gold curled up to my chest, and she admitted the thing she was most afraid of.
“I don’t want to be ignored, Star. My parents hardly ever paid any attention to me. It didn’t matter what I did. Whether I excelled at school or I got into trouble, they couldn’t be bothered with me. Sure, they cooked me meals and gave me a room and furnished it and clothes when I needed them… But they hardly ever spoke to me. If they did, it was only to tell me they would be gone for another week, or something like that. My friends, too. I was kinda quiet in school, but no matter where I went, I was nothing more than a shadow to them.” She looked up at me, the tears spilling out of her eyes.
“Maybe it’s because I’m desperate for attention that I followed you to Trottingham, or maybe because I was afraid you’d forget about me, but… but I don’t want to be ignored, Star.”
“Goldy,” I whispered, kissing her tears away. “I don’t think I could ignore you if I tried.”
We made love again after that. But it was different from our usual affair. It was slow, and deliberate. Gone was the ravenous hunger from before, where we’d do everything we could to give and take from each other as we possibly could. Instead, it was replaced with an appreciation for the pony in my hooves. I came to a realization afterwards, with Gold slumbering on my chest, our legs tangled until I wasn’t sure whose was whose.
“I think I’m falling in love with you…”
“I hate trains.” I grumbled as we boarded the hissing behemoth in Horseshoe Bay.
“It’s only two hours, Star. We’ll be fine.” Goldy nudged my flank warmly. I grimaced back at her as I slid up onto a bench, close to the restroom. “I’ll see you when we get there.”
“For sure.” I snuck a quick kiss before she went to find a different seat. I needed to be near the bathroom for motion sickness, and Basil was intent on torturing me with more books on our short two-hour trip. Considering how many other travellers were intent on Trottingham after 3 days of no trains, we’d be packed in rather tight. Having Basil and Gold in the same room, let alone across from one another, was dangerous at best.
“Hey there.” Basil seemed happy as he sidled up next to me. “You look excited.”
“Yeah, staring at complex spell-forms while jostling myself up a mountain pass. I’m enthused.” Already, my stomach was feeling bad. Basil just chuckled and slid into the seat next to the window.
“Well I’ll be sure to give you a break every half-hour so you can look out the window.”
“Thanks.” I rubbed the bridge of my nose and nodded to him. “Let’s get started…”
“Two hours to Trottingham. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”
Trottingham. Oh how I’d forgotten my own hometown. Being a city thousands of years old, I couldn’t say things had changed. Things tended to stay the same when they were millennia old, not to mention the former capitol of Equestria. The way I understood it, Trottingham was one of the first towns made when the ponies descended from the frozen northern kingdom, chased here by the wendigos. Back then, the Blood Fields were home to the Buffalo, a peaceful race whom ponies got along with magnificently…
Until the gryphons took issue with another hooved race on the ground. Trottingham was built to withstand griffon attack, and we ponies excelled in defending the castle-bound homes. It was our capitol, and had been besieged several times in the history of those wars long, long ago. As a nation of Earth Ponies, Unicorns, and Pegasi standing united, we needn’t fear the wrath of the Wendigos, but we did have to ally with the buffalo against the gryphons. That was the start of the multitude of wars between the two races, and the Buffalo homeland lost its old name, adapting the new handle of ‘The Blood Fields.’
Trottingham was the first city to be formed, thanks mostly to its safety. Ponies fled South and then West, finding safety in distancing themselves from the slowly-emerging frontlines of the wars, but Trottingham was a haven for buffalo and ponykind alike. Back then, it sat backed up to a small range of mild mountains that marked the edge of the Blood Fields. But following the siege of the Wyrms and the princess’ intervention, it sat on a rocky cliff high above the waters of Horseshoe Bay.
Now, Trottingham was one of the few clifftop cities that offered a magnificent view of the crashing waves and rocks far, far below its battle-tested walls.It sat just outside of the Timberwolf Territory by a few dozen miles, skirting the very north-eastern border of Equestria proper. For all its reclusiveness, Trottingham remained a bastion of a city, the last grim reminder that Ponies and Griffons were once mortal enemies, well over five thousand years ago. The only way into or out of the city these days was a long hike over the misty fields surrounding the high walls, or the train South to Horseshoe Bay.
As the train passed under the magnificently-high wall, we were plunged into a momentary darkness. The walls were not guarded anymore, but they hadn’t been torn down, either. Instead, we passed underneath the thick monolithic structure, finding ourselves in the very south-western edge of my hometown.
“Good to be back?” Goldy met with me outside on the train platform, where I hastily collapsed onto the floor and kissed the dirty cobblestone.
“Good to be off that train. Ugh.” My stomach was still roiling with the last extended study session, which had focused on the intricacies of a particularly effective Force spell, one that would blast apart a being from the inside. I wasn’t sure if I remembered all of it, considering Basil had droned on in that monotone of his while I was fighting the urge to paint my own diagram on the book.
“Come on, we have to find lodgings.” Goldy was already shivering, and I joined her shortly after. For all its archaic beauty, Trottingham was deathly cold. It was the highest city in Equestria, only fifty-eight short miles from Horseshoe Bay, but all of them uphill. The two-hour train ride could have been cut perhaps half an hour short by a skilled flier, but as it was, only two of us had wings.
Nevertheless, Lotus and Fair Breeze joined us a few moments later, and Basil was on their tail, having had to pack away our study books. He still shot Goldy a mean look, standing on the opposite end of our entourage from her. Considering myself, Lotus, and Fair Breeze separated them, I felt more confident in advancing than I had the past three days.
“Where was it Twilight wanted you to go?” Lotus inquired, taking a moment to pull a scarf from her bag.
“Well,” I pushed my glasses up my nose and mirrored her, though I retrieved a small map instead. The memory of my hometown was spotty at best. “She said the northern library… And we’re in the South-West part of the city, so we’ve got a bit of a hike ahead of us.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it!” A booming voice nearly made me jump. My head snapped up as I witnessed what could easily have been described as a pony-shaped boulder loom ahead of us on the train platform. I could swear my chest shook with the intensity of his voice. “I received a missive from the Archmage three days ago. Name’s Cobalt,” He offered a massive hoof to me with a grin. “I take it you’re Star Caster, little one?”
Cobalt was, simply put, massive. I’ve seen a few large ponies in my lifetime, but they were all large in the middle. Cobalt was large everywhere. His coat took to his namesake well (or perhaps vice-versa,) in that it kept a dark, nearly midnight-blue tone. His mane, however, was a very striking and deep jade, with a few streaks of darker malachite streaming from his temples. It hung about his face and neck freely, partially obscuring his eyes. But from what I could see between the luxurious locks, they held intelligence, and he was very well-spoken.
“Y-yeah.” I stuttered, taking his hoof warily. He shook it vigorously, which was enough to perhaps upend a produce cart, and enough to drop me on my flank.
“Haha! Sorry, little one. I don’t know my own strength sometimes.” His accent was thick and unmistakably Stalliongradish, but he didn’t clip words out of his sentences as they often did. One thing was for certain: He wasn’t from around here. And if he was, not recently. I’m certain I’d have read in some newspaper about somepony who had about as much destructive force going through a doorway as I did trying to retrieve a kitten from a tree. He was easily twice my size, with another half of Goldy thrown in for good measure.
“What did this letter from the Archmage say?” Basil asked as I got my hooves underneath me once more.
“Only that two of her students would be arriving, and that I’d be showing them their new abode. Sadly, that was three days ago. I’m sorry to hear about the trains having difficulty. I hope you found a place to stay in Horseshoe Bay?”
“We did.” I dusted myself off and smiled at Goldy. “Had a good time, actually. So you’re here to show us to the northern library?”
“I am indeed, little one. Come with me.” He turned to leave and I found myself glancing over the wide expanse of his flanks. There, the five of us stopped. Cobalt might have been twice our size, but it seemed he wasn’t as much of a pony as we’d thought he was. Over those dusky-blue thighs of his, there was no marking. Cobalt, for all his immediate and obvious personality, did not have a cutie mark.
“What’s the matter?” He glanced back at us. “Come, it’s cold, and I do not want the little one to get sick.”
“R-right.” I followed Cobalt, hauling my luggage, trying hard to not look at his flanks.
Losing a cutie mark is a rare occurrence in Equestria. Sometimes, they’re removed by injury. Other times… Well, it’s not entirely undocumented that a pony simply loses their way in life. There were stories of the wars long ago when ponies whose talent was exploration or cartography, or even pegasi whose talent was flight, being captured and held prisoner for years.
When they were released at the end of the war, they returned to Equestria with no marks on their flanks. Being kept from doing what your destiny told you to do usually had some severe consequences. Insanity, dementia, or even paranoid schizophrenia ensued. History says those ponies went mad and either ran from home, turned violent and were imprisoned, or killed themselves.
These days, ponies without cutie marks are extraordinarily rare. I remember one lesson in school when I was but a foal without my own mark, where the teacher told us there were adult ponies who had received their cutie marks, but lost it. Talking about it or staring was considered rude, almost like staring at a pegasus who’d lost a wing. Thus, the five of us were cowed into silence as we followed Cobalt off of the train platform and down a short street.
Before us was a massive cart, comparable in size to a stagecoach that had once taken ponies across the Appaloosian desert. Typically, those were pulled by teams of four to six ponies. Cobalt seemed to manage this one alone.
“I’m sorry for the lack of space back there, but this is all we have. Huddle close, it’s a long way down open streets.” Cobalt shrugged into the harness for the cart, even as the five of us began loading our luggage and huddling close. It was tight, and I’m sure Basil mumbled a death threat to Goldy somewhere along the way, but we settled down. Lotus, Basil and I kept us all warm with a bit of controlled magic, and the lurching cart moved slowly down the street.
Cobalt remained silent during the trip, only giving an occasional grunt as somepony cut him off or he had to reluctantly take us over a bumpy portion of the road. During those dodgy parts of our journey, I felt my stomach churn. Thankfully, having Goldy pressed against my side seemed to help. That, and I could look at the city pass by over the rim of the cart.
My old hometown was an ancient city, but not without its own personality. The homes were tall and slender, sometimes consisting of four or more stories, all packed closely together. When a city with walls like Trottingham was built, ponies didn’t have much of an opportunity to build outwards. Not unless they wanted to expand outside of the walls, that is. Instead, they built upwards.
Nevertheless, some ponies weren’t meant to be that far off of the ground. Pegasi cloud homes occupied some of the upper reaches of the walls, and even in the thousands of years since its inception, pegasi were scared of taking their homes too far away from the comfortable stone edifice. The result was an almost constant, dreary overcast inside of the walls, thanks mostly in part to the high shadows cast at any given hour of the day by the monolithic walls, but also to the semi-permanent cloud cover inside the upper reaches of the city.
Other pegasi had opted to build their homes attached to the walls, using long stilted legs and plenty of support beams to hold them up. Outside, Trottingham’s walls were smooth and worn down by millennia of wind and storms. Inside, it looked like a bad case of acne.
The other two thirds of the species inhabiting the interior of Trottingham had to make do and squeeze tight. Thus, the homes were taller than most, and much more packed. Still, Trottingham was a trading city, and the streets were wide to facilitate the multitude of markets that played host on its streets. Cobalt led us down these wide avenues, and the places of my youth were beginning to come back to me.
My family lived on the southern edge of the city, not terribly far from the train platform. But I spent a lot of my time attending the school near the central part of Trottingham, and the rest of it in the eastern and northern libraries. Both of them were built into the walls, and had long ago been part of the defenses against Griffon attacks. Since then, they had been re-purposed as educational institutes and museums, an archaic reminder of times when we had to fight the airborne menace that had been the griffons.
The safest and most secure creation of ponykind back then had been the massive, monolithic barrier itself. Thusly, the mayor of Trottingham, the prison, the legislature chambers, and all manner of important governmental ruling bodies were in the walls themselves.
The North wall was, traditionally, one of the fewest-utilized in those days. It was mainly used for storage and auxiliary forces, particularly the training brigades for their militia. The main bulk of the judicial bodies lived in the West wall, far away from the frontlines back then. The East wall was where the standing military resided, and made up the guard quarters for modern-day Trottingham. The South wall was where the majority of the trade took place, and was reserved for visiting merchants, important dignitaries, or other notable visitors.
Some of those remained true to this day. The Mayor’s office and all other important government buildings were in the West side of the city, residing in chambers set inside the very walls themselves. The South was where most of the markets and trading took place, and was traditionally the wealthiest and most densely-populated part of Trottingham. The guard remained in the East, and the North housed the library, archives, and a fair amount of the schools where Trottingham foals earned their education.
Cobalt steered us down a familiar street, and I left the relative comfort and warmth of my friends to peek over the edge. “Oh man,” I breathed, feeling that old twinge of nostalgia in my chest.
“You remember this place?” Lotus asked.
“Yeah, I… My old school is just two streets up. I used to come this way whenever I wanted to visit the northern library… That old stallion, there,” I pointed as Cobalt trundled past another, smaller cart. “He sells treats to ponies. See?” As I watched, a couple of bright-eyed young fillies scampered up to his cart, and he passed them two delicious-looking, steaming sweetrolls for a bit apiece.
“And there,” I continued. “My mother would meet me there, so she could look at that jewelry store before walking me home from the library.” The jewelry store was the same, its windows packed with glimmering and beautiful pieces. “She bought my first jeweled beret from that store… I… I left it here when I left for Canterlot…”
“Home sweet home, huh?” Basil chuckled from behind me. I blushed and sat down, watching the familiar sights glide past. A store that sold coffee, where I’d become partial to sitting for a nice brew on my way for an extended reading session. A few streets down was an old toy store I’d marveled at, since they had all the greatest Daring Do action figures. And after that, closer to the library, a bookstore where I’d gotten the advanced books I needed to complete my homeschooling, and they had a good selection of morally-questionable romance stories too.
After another five minutes or so, the street narrowed and Cobalt pulled up to a stop. “We’re here,” He called back to us. I swear I could feel the vibrations of his voice carry through the cart, into my hooves. “Looks like snow, so let’s get you all inside quickly.”
There was a bustle of activity as we all hopped down off of the cart and began unloading, Cobalt assisting with some of Goldy’s heavier luggage by propping it across his massive shoulders and balancing it in. Basil, Lotus and I managed the rest, our horns blazing as we carried the hefty load towards a wide staircase and the inviting sight of two familiar, wide oaken doors.
The interior of the library’s foyer wrapped around me like the embrace of an old, long-lost lover. I actually had to close my eyes for a few seconds while the double doors groaned closed behind us. Cobalt hefted the luggage towards the receptionist’s desk, though the friendly middle-aged mare I remembered was absent. Instead, Cobalt gingerly fished around behind the desk, moving with a surprising amount of care for a stallion his size. He emerged with a ring of keys, jingling merrily.
“Here,” I took them from him with a glimmer of magic. “No sense drooling all over our room keys.”
“We have spares waiting for you in your rooms.” Cobalt chuckled, indicating one of the side halls with a nod of his head. “There are, unfortunately, only four rooms available.”
“That’s fine.” Goldy piped up. “Star and I can share one, and I’m sure Lotus and Breeze will be upset if they didn’t get to share a room.” I glanced at Goldy for a moment, a smile playing across my lips before I nodded to Cobalt.
“Looks like we’ll have one extra. Basil, I presume you don’t mind having a room to yourself?”
“As long as it’s far from you-know-who.” Basil sniffed, though his eyes glazed over into a different look as he turned to Cobalt. “And as close as it can get to you.” A change seemed to come over our behemoth escort, and he looked down at Basil with a serious expression.
“Little pony want to be close to me?” His Stalliongrad accent came out in full force, his speech growing much thicker and deep. I watched as Cobalt leaned down, his face close to Basil’s. “I vould hurt little pony.”
“Oh darlin’.” Basil fanned himself with a hoof, his cheeks darkening. “It’d take a lot to hurt me…”
“Eerm, excuse me…” I piped up between the two of them, my voice feeling remarkably quiet next to Cobalt’s chest-rattling reverberations. “Our rooms…?”
“Da I vill show you rooms.” Cobalt grumbled, giving Basil another look before shuffling off down the hall. Gone was his well-spoken mannerisms and surprising amount of grace. Instead, he shouldered through the door frame, splintering the edges with his shoulders. I brushed dust out of my mane and off my glasses in his wake, casting a quick glare Basil’s way that said ‘keep it in your pants or else he’s going to bring the wall down on our heads.’ It was clear Cobalt had a switch inside of him, and Basil had just flipped it expertly. I really didn’t want Goldy and I’s room anywhere near Basil and whatever doorway-splintering guests he may or may not have in the near future.
Thankfully, we didn’t have far to go. The North Library’s main floor and archives were through a set of double doors on either side of the receptionist’s desk, while the hallway Colbalt led us down had previously been off-limits to visitors such as myself when I was younger. I came to discover these were private quarters, probably belonging to officers of the standing militia that had defended Trottingham from the griffons long, long ago.
Cobalt led us a good portion of the way down a long, straight hallway with several smaller ones branching off here and there. I caught sight of a few signs reading ‘Private Quarters – No Library Patrons Without Escort!’
“This is the first and closest room,” Cobalt pulled up at one of the intersecting hallways. “Star Caster, you and the golden one-“
“Gold Nugget. Most call me Goldy.”
“Right. You should stay here, so you’re closest to the library.”
“Fair enough.” I mused, trying hard not to stare at Cobalt’s blank sides as he unlocked our quarters. “Where can I find the others?”
“These two can stay one hall over, in room two. Our bookbinder keeps quarters there, and it’s relatively quiet.” He seemed to be back to usual now, though I was scared to see a twinkle in his eyes, disguised behind the jade locks of his mane as he rested his gaze on Basil. “But you can stay near me, six halls down. The servant’s quarters. Room four.” He licked his lips, making my stomach churn. I pushed the door open and ushered Goldy inside, thankful I remembered to grab her trunk off of Cobalt’s massive back before we closed the door behind us.
“Home sweet home.” Goldy sighed, smiling at the warm interior. Outside, we could hear Cobalt’s hoof falls as he led the rest of our group to their own rooms. We waited until he was out of earshot before releasing a sigh of relief. “He was… Interesting. What do you think his deal was?”
“What, with the way he switched accents talking to Basil like that?” I pulled my glasses off and rubbed my eyes. It had been a trying day, thanks largely in part to the withering cold and another packed train ride. “I honestly don’t know…”
“And his cutie mark!”
“Shh,” I urged, waving at Goldy with a slight frown. “It’s not polite.”
“I know, but still… Ya gotta wonder…” Goldy sighed and hung her head, grasping the heavy trunk in her teeth to drag at least part of the way away from the door. I followed suit, hovering the rest of our luggage into the room.
I was surprised to find our quarters were actually rather well-appointed. We had four rooms in total. A bathroom, a living room, a joined kitchen and dining room, and a rather large bedroom complete with two desks and two dressers. It seemed Goldy and I would actually have all the space we needed. I claimed the larger of the two desks, which Goldy sniffed at me for but let me off with a teasing nip. We began the preliminary unpacking, mostly just cold-weather clothes and perishables. The kitchen was fully-stocked, though the fruit on the counter looked a little ripe.
“Because we’re three days late.” I surmised, sniffing tentatively at one of the bananas. It had a relatively large brown spot, so I tossed it. But the cupboards were stuffed and I heard tell of a larger kitchen with more supplies elsewhere in the long series of hallways off of the library’s main thoroughfare. The living room sported three comfortable-looking couches and a fireplace with an already-lit blaze roaring healthily. I banked a few more logs from the wall-borne stack and poked my head into the bathroom.
“Oh wow, they have a shower here.”
“Is that rare?” Goldy brushed past, carrying a box of toiletries with her wings.
“In Trottingham, yeah. It’s usually baths. I guess they modernized these not too long ago. We should count our blessings.”
“Aah. Blessings. Sure.” Goldy rolled her eyes, and I pouted at her.
“What, you not happy about having to share a room with me?”
“No, it’s not that…” She sighed and shoved her toiletries onto the counter with the sink. “It’s Basil.”
“Aah.” I leaned against the doorway with a faint smile. Goldy shot me a quick glare before starting on what felt like it’d be a well-rehearsed speech.
“You two are going to be working together a lot while you’re here, and I know he’d just as soon blast my head off than have to look at me. I just want you to know that the two of us living together like this for… however long we’re here is going to be difficult with him around.”
“How about this, then:” I walked forward and laid my chin across the back of her neck, a gesture I’d discovered she rather liked. “I’ll only go study in his quarters. He’ll never set foot in here without your express permission.”
“That sounds like a fair compromise…” Goldy sighed, nuzzling into my neck affectionately. “Still, I get the feeling things are only going to get more tense between the two of us…”
“As long as he doesn’t actually blow your head off, that’d only result in you two settling whatever dispute he has with you, won’t it?”
“Sure.” Goldy shrugged, chewing the inside of her cheek. “If he doesn’t blow my head off…”
“Speaking of head…” I muttered, nibbling on her ear gently. She gave a full-body shudder and moaned just the way I liked.
“Shower then bed?” She offered weakly.
“Shower then bed.”
The next day dawned overcast and bleary with a dusting of snow on the ground, though I didn’t know that until I took a short walk outside. Our quarters, cozy as they were, didn’t have any windows and I wasn’t about to crawl up the chimney to get a look at the weather. Thankfully enough, I spotted Cobalt half a street down, backing his cart up towards a large set of doors.
“Cobalt!” I called out to him with a wave, my horn glimmering to pull my scarf more tightly around my neck.
“Star Caster, little one.” He smiled at me as he shrugged out of the harness. “Good to see you awake, I was afraid you’d sleep through the day. How is your new home?”
“Fantastic, thank you.” I beamed up at the massive stallion as he moved towards the double doors and the back of his wagon. “I had a few questions about my research, though. When can I go see the barrier?”
“Any time you’d like, little one.” Cobalt grunted. “I am a caretaker here, not your escort. I’ll gladly bring you supplies, but what you do with them is your own. I’m not even entirely sure why you came to Trottingham, only that the Archmage wants our full cooperation.”
“Oh.” If I sounded crestfallen, it’s because I was. I had been hoping for a little more direction, and Basil wasn’t answering his door when I went to pound on it earlier that morning. A thought struck me then, and I peered up at Cobalt as he began maneuvering a series of crates from the wagon and into what I guessed was the library’s storage. “How did the others settle into their rooms?”
That gave him pause. Cobalt looked down at me with two crates mid-transfer, his glimmering eyes boring into me even from behind the strands of his mane. After a long pause, he finished the journey and shrugged. “Lotus and Fair Breeze are fine. Basil, though… He’s…”
“Gay.” I finished for him, lifting a shoulder. “I’d apologize for him, but-“
“No, don’t apologize. He’s fine.” Cobalt, this massive boulder of a pony, blushed at me. Blushed! “I, just, aah… Well, you see…” He cleared his throat and leaned in a little, speaking lower. The effect was a low, gravelly rumble that made my ears twitch. “Not many ponies can appreciate me for me, considering my… Disposition. It’s been some time that somepony – anypony – has looked at me like Basil did. I guess you could say I, aah…” He cleared his throat again. “Lost control a little.”
“I suddenly understand why Basil wasn’t answering his door this morning.”
Cobalt and I chatted a little while he finished unloading, though he assured me he had other tasks to tend to that day. In the end, it was really up to me to get started on the research. Rather than dive right in, I decided to familiarize myself with the city again. First stop was the wall, where I could look out around the surrounding lands, and down at the city if the pegasi homes were being cooperative. Down the other hallway opposite our quarters was a lift that hoisted me up to the wall with a small bit of magic.
Back when I was younger, I’d have to have the receptionist let me up. But now, with my magic fixed and well in-hoof, I could get up to the top without sending the whole lift careening two hundred feet down the shaft. Arriving in one of the multitude of guard towers atop the wall, I wrapped my scarf tighter around my neck and stepped out into the blustery air.
It was just like my first time.
Trottingham’s city walls were traditionally terrifying. Standing atop the massive edifice was an experience the first time around. The walls rose three hundred and fifty feet above the city proper, towering well above even the tallest building inside its protective hold. The width was where they excelled, though. These walls had withstood griffon spears, arrows, primal enchantments, and even rogue pony spells during the long encounter thousands of years ago. The magic imbued in the stone kept it strong, and no storm or wind had chipped away at that armor.
Seventy feet wide at its widest, thirty at the narrowest, the walls could hold a column of ponies standing shoulder-to-shoulder with enough room to spare on the sides for the archers to continue unimpeded. I lost track of the world below me as I moved from one side to the other, and if I lay on my back as I had in the summer months, I would see nothing but the sky. Looking down was a dizzying experience, but one I still enjoyed.
On one side was pegasi homes and the stilt-houses fixed to the inside edge of the city. And far, far below them was the spider web of streets leading up to the wall itself. On the other side was a smattering of houses huddled up against the walls, and then nothing but wilderness. A few farms dotted the landscape here and there, but what homes I saw had boarded windows and doors. They had been evacuated after the first Timberwolf attack.
And then there was the barrier.
Heavens help me, I hadn’t been prepared for that. Looking over the wall and down at the city was comforting. Looking over the wall and at the Timberwolf territories reminded me just how far out of my league I was.
A gigantic glittering wall of purple magic soared up into the heavens, lost among the clouds that hung high overhead. It looked as if someone had capped off the world, and beyond that glittering purple wall was nothing but the infinite beyond. I couldn’t see through it, and there was no shifting or variance in its surface. Even from this distance, I could see that the wall extended out into the sea, breaching the shore right where the pine trees of the Timberwolf territory started, and extended out of sight to the North. Somewhere along the way, this wall would have intersected the crystal kingdom as well, splitting it from the age-old enemies we ponies had found in the Timberwolves.
Something struck me in that moment, looking at this monument to Twilight’s magical prowess. Standing on the wall, my rump hit the floor, and I felt the tears begin.
My chest felt tight. I could feel my breath as it rushed into and out of my lungs, and my head began to swim. I found myself, very displeasingly, slumped over between two crenellations atop the wall. The long, smooth surface of Trottingham’s premier defense stretched down and away from me, where it met the ground three hundred and fifty feet below.
That was not helping my situation.
I was certain I was about to pass out when something hit me. Something from outside of the wall.
“Star! Sheesh!” Goldy and I tumbled backwards, her landing atop me, her eyes wide and fearful. “What were you thinking?! Were you going to throw yourself off?!”
“Goldy.” I looked up at her, tears welling in my eyes. “I… I can’t do it!”
“What?!” Goldy reared back, furrowing her brow down at me. “What do you mean, you can’t do it? Can’t do what? Jump off? I should think not, you’re-”
“I CAN’T DO WHAT TWILIGHT ASKED.” I cut her off, halfway screaming it. The tears came in earnest then, streaming down my face as the first chest-wracking sob shook me from head to tail. I clenched my eyes and cried long and hard.
Being an emotionally-frustrated little unicorn like me, one tends to put these bouts of tears and snot into categories. There were four that I had encountered in my life, some with familiarity and one with a bone-shaking fear.
There was the ‘happy-sad’ cry. It’s the one I got whenever I finished a good book, and consisted of a few watery eyes and a big, goofy smile. The kind that makes your cheeks hurt. After that was the ‘upset’ cry. It’s the sort that young foals and frustrated (or jaded) lovers do when something doesn’t go their way. These days, I typically didn’t cry like that unless I found out I had messed something up for someone.
After that was the ‘oh stars, I can’t stop laughing’ cry. I didn’t get that one often.
But this… This was the sort of bawling, sniveling, wreck-of-a-pony crying that completely shut a filly down. I collapsed underneath Goldy, curling up into as tight a ball as I could manage. I quivered with the force my muscles were clenched together, and I bit my lip hard enough to taste blood. All the while, tears streamed from my puffy eyes, and I was sure I had a fair bit of snot going for me as well.
I didn’t know how, or even why, but I wasn’t on the wall anymore. The comparatively warm interior of the wall wrapped around me, and I felt like I was falling very slowly. Somepony was holding me, at least until I was inside, Then they began working the crank that brought us down to the ground level of the wall. After that, I was carried to my room. I heard other ponies asking ‘what happened?’ and ‘what’s wrong?’ but Goldy paid them no mind, and I was in no state to listen to them anyways.
There are only two things that pull me out of a crying fit like that, and only one right after the other. Goldy brought me to our room, deposited me in the shower, and held me under the hot stream until my shaking stopped and the tears abated. Her hooves worked into my mane, undoing the braid until the long strands hung down and around my neck. She worked on my tail next, which allowed me to turn my face up into the stream and cleanse my face.
After the shower, we didn’t even dry off. Goldy led me to the couch and left me curled up, and soon enough the tantalizing scent of a strong pot of coffee wafted past my nose. Just a few moments later, Goldy carried a mug of steaming coffee to me. I wasn’t aware how badly I needed it until that first scalding sip, which sent a wave of relief through me as soon as it hit my stomach.
“Thanks, Goldy.” I managed to mutter. My voice was thick with the congestion in my nose, but the coffee was helping to break that up.
“We’re gonna have to talk about this, you know that, right?” Goldy took the chair opposite the couch, her expression drawn with concern. I drew a deep breath in, still contemplating what exactly had happened. It had hit me like a hammer, taking my breath right out of my chest. I don’t remember feeling like I wanted to jump off the wall, but that looked to be Goldy’s primary concern.
“I don’t know what to say, Goldy…” I muttered, swirling the remaining half of my coffee around the mug. “I just… lost it.”
“You looked like you were about to jump.”
“I swear, I wasn’t going to-”
“Star, if I hadn’t gone for a fly around the city, I wouldn’t have been there.” Goldy cut me off, drawing my gaze to hers with words alone. “You would have died. That’s a long fall, and last I checked you hadn’t learned to teleport or levitate yourself.”
“I’m sorry.” I hung my head. “I really hadn’t meant it to look like I was going to jump, I just…”
“Felt overwhelmed?” She offered, coming to curl up beside me. I buried my face into her neck, clenching my eyes as the world seemed to bear down on me once again.
“That’s putting it lightly.”
“Star, come on.” Goldy nuzzled my ear tenderly. “Yesterday you were fine, and the day before that. What’s so different from today that you didn’t freak out this badly any given day the past two weeks?”
“I don’t know, maybe the gigantic purple barrier big enough to encompass any given Equestrian city and then some?” I spat, trying for teasing sarcasm but I’m sure I came across as just insulting. Goldy glared at me and fluffed her wings before going to sit opposite me again. “I’m sorry,” I lowered my head, feeling tears of a different sort come on now. “I just… Goldy, you had to have seen that thing…”
“Oh I saw it alright…” Goldy muttered. “I don’t see what the big deal is… It’s just a big, dumb, purple wall.”
“Yeah, but that ‘big, dumb, purple wall’ is all that’s keeping the timberwolves from ripping us apart. Even if I could - and I don’t think that I can - why would I want to bring it down? That’d just unleash whatever’s behind the barrier on Equestria, and maybe even the Griffon Territories…”
“Well, who says you have to bring it down?” Goldy mused. I blinked at her. “Maybe you just have to slip between the cracks. That’s how we look for gems and ore in my line of work. Some of the best quarries started from small fissures in the earth. And who knows?” Goldy winked at me. “Maybe Twilight left you a back door.” She slid off her seat and approached me, laying a hoof over mine tenderly. “There’s no point in feeling defeated before you’ve even begun, Star. You haven’t even spoken to Basil since you came to Trottingham. Maybe he has some insight that’ll help you.”
“Maybe…” Despite my feeling of utter defeat just a half-hour prior, Goldy’s words were beginning to strike a chord within me. I smiled at her before downing the last of my coffee. “I’ll go see if Basil has anything to say.”
“And I’ll go pick us up some more coffee. Sad to say, that’s the last of it in our cupboards.” Goldy jerked her head back towards the kitchen. “There’s about half the pot left. That ought to last you, what-”
“An hour at best.” I tossed back the last of my original cup and slid off the couch to go get another. “Here’s hoping Basil has something for me.”
“Star! Good morning! I have something for you…” Basil greeted me cheerily, despite having been as good as catatonic earlier that morning. I guess two hours does wonders for what could equate to a literal case of ‘butthurt.’
“Morning, Basil.” I smiled at his enthusiasm. Any time Basil wasn’t making death threats against my first love was a good time. He was a genuinely enjoyable pony, just with some mysterious grudge against the Apple Family. Personally, I thought of them as a sort of ‘greater good.’ They’d done some pretty bad things, sure, but the revenue their mines brought was astronomically beneficial for Equestria as a whole.
Nevertheless, my attention was on the ‘here and now,’ and that consisted of a slightly-limping Basil and some monumental walls of magic we were supposed to overcome. Basil led me into his quaint apartment, which was laid out almost exactly like Goldy and I’s, save his bedroom had a single desk and a slightly smaller bed. I began to wonder if he would make better use of a larger sleeping surface than Goldy and I.
“So I was doing something last night-”
“-That I’m assuming was between Cobalt’s thighs…”
“-and I… Shut up, you. And I came across this.” He made for the small living room, which I saw already had a healthy amount of books and charts piled upon it. Most prominently amongst them was a complex diagram that appeared to have been recently rendered. Basil lifted it up and passed it to me for examination.
“I see,” I struggled through some of the complex formulas, and Basil had to point out a few specifics, but in the end I came to one jaw-dropping, eye-widening conclusion. “A tunneling spell.”
“This will allow us to make a ‘gap’ in a shield, but preserve the overall integrity. It’s brilliant!”
“How did you find this?” I asked, going over the spell once more.
“Surprisingly enough - though I guess you could say it’s par for the course with Twilight - I found it in among the books and scrolls she recommended I take along. Look.” He tapped one place of the parchment near the bottom-right.
“It’s her design.” I muttered, noting the signature. Any unicorn worth their salt that made publicly-available spells signed their work with an image of their cutie mark. I’d come to recognize familiar unicorns such as Starswirl and Twilight Sparkle throughout the various other diagrams I’d studied.
“Twilight sent us more than a little help.” Basil chuckled. “If we conceal this diagram with, say, a transparency arc-”
“Only we’ll know where the gap in the shield is.”
“Fantastic.” Basil beamed at me. “Twilight would be proud of you, Star.”
“Th-thanks…” I mused, looking back at the complex diagram, though a faint blush had worked its way onto my milky cheeks. I pushed my glasses up and squinted at a particularly advanced diagram near the center of the third arc. “I don’t know if I’d be able to cast this as I am, though.”
“I told you,” Basil lowered the parchment so his eyes met mine. “Twilight sent more than a little help. I’m here to develop you, Star. You’re going to be able to cast this in no time. I promise you.”
There was a few moments between us before I broke out in a wide grin and threw my forelegs around his neck. “Thank you, Basil!”
“Oof, easy kid!” Basil grunted as I flung my weight against him, staggering a little. “Some of us had a rough night.”
“Oh come off it.” I slid off of him and shook my head. “You’re not the only one.”
“Yeah, well, you didn’t fuck a boulder last night.”
“No, but I did have the most ravenous filly this side of Canterlot between my thighs.” I nudged his hip with mine, shooting a devious look over my flank. “Let’s take a day or two. To… Recuperate.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Basil nodded, though a dark expression crossed his face. He opened his mouth to say something else, but all I had to do to silence him was arch an eyebrow. He let it go with a slight grumble, turning back to the table piled high with other books and scrolls. “See you in a few days.”
It was time I re-familiarized myself with the city. Retrieving Goldy as she came back from running her quick errand, we slipped into cold-weather coats and scarves and made our way out onto the gusty streets of Equestria’s oldest city.
Trottingham may once have been the greatest defense against all manner of invading forces, but the past few thousand years had been remarkably peaceful. Ponies certainly built things to last, but part of that meant the massive stone edifice had to adapt a little. I had heard stories from the war about sieges that lasted years at a time, and gouts of month-long dragon fire that had made the skies above the walls deathtraps for any winged being, pony or otherwise. Nowadays, the sky above the walls was clear and there was a constant stream of traffic to and from the southern edge of the city. It was towards the ever-present markets that Goldy and I turned our hooves.
It was a long hike through a cold city, but the brisk walk was pleasant with Goldy by my side. We chatted about nonsensical things, like cute mares we passed on the street or what colts we’d entertain the brief thought of a threesome with. There were innocent topics as well, but those weren’t as fun, and Goldy took to the more devious discussions with more gusto anyways. We stopped at my favorite little cafe on our way out of the library for an early lunch, and made the rest of the trip through the central part of the city so we could see my old school.
The monolithic thing hadn’t changed a bit, and as we passed, curious young ponies pressed their noses to the glass, and promptly got a swat across the muzzle with a ruler. I’d been on the receiving end of more than enough of those, so I grimaced as they reluctantly turned their attention back to the lesson.
“You really went here?” Goldy sniffed at the display of discipline. “No wonder you like spanking so much.”
“Still have the uniform, too. Socks and everything.” I teased, winking at Goldy as we left my archaic alma-mater behind.
“Please tell me you’ve been keeping that a secret from me for a good reason…” She moaned, pressing against my side as we turned down an abandoned side-street.
“Of course! What good is a surprise like that if we spoil all our fun first thing?” I gave her a quick, passionate kiss in the shadows. “And, they’re still at my parent’s place.”
“Aah.” Goldy sighed but pulled away, looking towards the South. “I presume we’re going there now?”
“Of course. My father’s a trade supervisor. If I don’t come see him after he reviews the logs and finds my name on them from just yesterday, he’d throw a conniption fit.”
“How good does your mom cook?” Goldy asked, patting her stomach with a slight frown. “That bagel hardly put a dent in me.” I rolled my eyes at her before turning back towards our route.
“My mom’s a terrible cook. But daddy’s wonderful behind the stove. At least it’s Tuesday, and he’ll be home.”
“Oh. Well, good!” Goldy trotted to catch up with me as we turned down another windswept boulevard, turning to head straight South. It took us a little longer than I would have liked, but the blame lay on myself for that one. The market was in full-swing by the time we arrived, with ponies hawking wares and shouting at passersby to take a look at the goods. There were several stalls I couldn’t have avoided if I had blinders and earmuffs on. Goldy indulged me, but only because she knew I’d be upset if she didn’t let me at least look at ‘the oldest jewelry from the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters!’
Reserving a full trip to the multitude of markets for a later date, we hustled past the bulk of them as best we could before making straight for the southern wall.
“This the place?” Goldy asked as I pulled up before a three-story house huddled in the shadow of two other four-story residences.
“Home sweet home.” I chuckled, smiling back at her as I went to knock on the front door. Nopony answered. I looked through the tiny window set in the old mahogany door, but the front hall was dark. “Hmm… Might be that she’s-”
“GERONIMO!” Like a streak out of the sky, a pegasus came barreling at me, all feathers and smiles.
“OOF.” I took the tackle like a champ, having grown accustomed to them over many long years. We rolled on the dirty street until I ended up on top, grinning down at the offending party. “Hi, mom.”
“Starry! So glad you made it!” Olive Breeze, my mother, threw her hooves around me once more for a warm hug. She was, as her name suggested, an olive pony with a mane every bit as thick and black as my own, though she kept hers remarkably short-cut and styled in a spiky, oddly barbaric ‘do.’ She was a smaller pony, but most of the pegasi in our family were. We were all Trottingham-born, and the strong winds above the walls were easier to cut through with a slight frame. Thus, my mother stood half a head shorter than me with an enviably skinny torso and flanks. Her cutie mark was an olive branch with wings. Her talent was, unsurprisingly, picking olives from the trees south of the city.
“Where’s Dad? I thought he was in on Tuesdays…”
“Oh, he is…” Olive chuckled and fished a key from her miniature saddlebags. I took it from her and unlocked the front door while she busied herself batting dirt off my coat with her wings. “He’s just upstairs. He spends more time in his office these days.”
“Aah.” I ushered Goldy and my mother inside before shutting the door against the wind behind us. A clomping gait down the stairs signaled the arrival of my father.
If I was ‘mousy,’ he was doubly so. Audit was a slender pony with spectacles that made his eyes look far too big for his own head, and his mane was always ruffled one way or another. A smile broke out on his thin lips, however, as he saw the small entourage in his hallway.
“Star Caster. By the stars, it’s good to see you again.”
“Hi, daddy.” I greeted him at the bottom of the stairs with a warm hug. He was a skinny earth pony with a milky-white coat and dull, brown hair. He wasn’t remarkable to look at, but it wasn’t his body that attracted my mother to him. It was his mind, and his wit. As far as I understood it, his talent was incredibly dull. I glanced over his flanks at the boring tax-form there, complete with red marker highlights and miniature numbers. He was an accountant and bookkeeper, but was just as bored by his talent as any of his family members were listening to him talk about it.
He made up for this boredom with some of the most thought-provoking and brilliant conversations I’d ever had to date; he’d have given Twilight some food for thought. He was an open-minded pony who was quick to pun and even quicker to listen. I’d never been struck in my household, and had always been positively reinforced. After the discipline from my school, it had been such a welcome change that I excelled through my studies with Audit’s careful guidance.
Nevertheless, we broke from the hug and he looked over my flank at Goldy, smiling at the reunion before her. “And who, might I ask, is this attractive young filly?”
“Mommy, daddy,” I went to go stand at Goldy’s side, a helpless smile on my lips. “This is Golden Nugget…” I glanced at her, a blush rising to my cheeks. “My marefriend.”
Simultaneous reactions burst forth.
“Pay up!” My dad thrust his hooves out towards the cursing pegasus, rendering both Goldy and I silent from shock. As we watched, Olive rooted around in her bags for a few moments before coming up with a small, jingling sack of bits. She passed it to my dad, who hefted the pouch before giving my mom a very un-sportsmanlike raspberry.
“And here I thought she’d be traditional…”
“I knew it.” Audit tucked the pouch into the pocket of his sweater before smiling at Goldy, his forelegs open. “Our Star would bring home a mare first thing. Welcome to our home, Golden Nugget.”
“Just Goldy.” My partner smiled and hugged my father, moving on to my mother next.
“At least you picked a cute one.” Olive grinned, giving Goldy’s flank a quick pinch. She yelped and blushed, glancing back at me. I shrugged as if to say ‘family is as family does.’
Nothing had changed since I’d last been here. They even kept my room the way it was. Our three-story home was small, but most homes in Trottingham were. The first floor consisted almost completely of the hall, with a small dining room and kitchen taking up the rest of the space. The stairway in the hall had a small closet on the landing, but led up to the second floor. Here was my bedroom and our living room, and the small half-bath that had been scrunched into the space beneath the stairs. The top floor was a little more open, allowing for a full bedroom and a master bathroom.
It was a small home even by Trottingham standards, but it was home. Olive and Audit remained on the ground floor to start preparing us lunch, giving me time to show Goldy the rest of the house. She glanced quickly over my parent’s room, most of which was cluttered with my father’s ‘office.’ It was just a heap of papers and books piled on top of, around, and in a questionably-stable desk.
Where she got most excited was, not unsurprisingly, my room. Much to my chagrin, nothing had changed. “You actually used books as your supports for your bed?!”
“We were running out of space…” I blushed. “So my dad removed the old arms and used the books I wasn’t reading to prop it up…”
“That’s… Surprisingly economic.”
“Things usually are around here…” I grimaced, remembering the cluttered desk. “Usually. Ahem.” Shaking my head, I looked at my old bedroom with a wistful sigh. “They kept everything as it was…”
Other fillies my age had deigned to put famous singers and hunky movie actor posters on the walls of their room. In fact, posters and decorations had taken up enough surface area among Trottingham youths that could probably cover the entirety of the massive city walls themselves. I did not subscribe to that foalish delight. Instead, my walls were lined with books and magazines, action figures and the stray treasure I’d stumbled upon crawling around the walls.
Goldy stared with wide-eyed wonder at all of the books I had, stacked in columns from floor-to-ceiling. They ranged in topic from romance to action and sci-fi, all the way through to textbooks about magical theory and biology, or any number of subjects. I got a little lost as well, browsing the spines of many long-loved tomes. Whenever a stack of books came up short of the ceiling, I used it as an impromptu shelf, which held numerous trinkets of my childhood life. The majority of them were Daring Do action figures, with a few other prominent action/adventure movie stars interspersed.
“Umm, Star?” Goldy’s voice drew my attention from a wonderful figure of my idol pegasus mid-flight with a band of skeletons hot on her tail. As I turned to look at her, my blood ran cold.
“Mind telling me what this picture of Justice Hayber is doing under your bed?”
“Gimme that!” I tried to nab the picture with my hoof, but Goldy danced away in the confined space easily. I growled and grasped at it with magic next, but she tucked it under her wing. I couldn’t get at it with the magical interference her feathers were throwing off. We squared off, me trying to protect what shreds of dignity I had left, and Goldy intent on embarrassing me to no end. Justice Hayber was the stuff of teenage heartthrobs, and I was loathe to admit I ever fancied him. Let alone with a hoof between my thighs.
“Give it here, Goldy.” I pawed the hardwood floor, snorting at her.
“Not a chance, lover.” She winked, lowering her stance.
As luck would have it, my bed was just behind her, and we tumbled back onto the sheets with a laugh. The picture fell by the wayside in favor of wrestling and playful kisses. Those kisses were beginning to devolve into something more wet and sloppy when the door opened.
“Oh.” Olive Breeze froze in the doorway, and I froze halfway down Goldy’s stomach. “Eerm…” We held that pose for a while before my mother found her tongue again. “Dinner’s ready.”
“That’s incredible.” My father leaned back, having listened to me share my exploits in Canterlot. “So you went from mousy librarian’s assistant to the student of Princess Twilight herself in, what, two years’ time?”
“I… Well, when you put it like that…” I couldn’t fight the blush that rose to my cheeks. My father’s Cucumber Cake remained in nothing but crumbs before us, having been devoured just a few moments prior. “I guess it is kind of incredible.”
“We’re so proud of you, Star.” My mom laid her hoof atop mine, smiling genuinely. “You’ve come a long way from impromptu landscaping.”
“Or the jelly incident.”
“You said you’d never talk about it again!” I wailed, collapsing onto the table. My parents laughed while Goldy looked confused. I caught her eye and shook my head as if to say ‘you don’t want to know.’ Had I the choice, I wish I didn’t have to know about it anymore. Alas, my klutzy history seemed intent on following me.
“Still, Star, you’ve advanced magnificently. We’re amazed.” Audit and Olive Breeze cupped their own hooves, smiling down at me. Under that look, I felt my courage return. They both made a very good point. My history was, admittedly, less-than-stellar. I’d been deemed a nuisance (not improperly) on more than one occasion. But lately, I’d accomplished quite a lot.
There was a time when my parents would pale with horror at the thought of me helping them clean up the dishes. Now, I levitated all our utensils and flatware into the kitchen sink with nary a thought. Even Goldy let out a low whistle of appreciation at the technical display. Once the table had been cleared, my father went and retrieved a bottle of brandy he had apparently been saving for such an occasion. We divvied out glasses and drank a toast. The warm liquid bit going down, but quickly turned warm.
“Okay, so, I don’t normally drink,” I set my glass down with a grimace. “But I could see how ponies fall for it…”
“Uh oh.” My dad chuckled, swirling the remainder of his own brandy around his glass. “Looks like I gave Star the bite of the creature. Careful, darling… It’s got a powerful hold.”
“No, I know…” I took another tentative sip. “I’ve had my falling out with it in the past… But considering how unstable my magic is on any given day, I tend to avoid things that make me more lax in my control. Still, you have to treat yourself now and then, right?”
“Right.” My mom lifted her glass before taking another small sip. Her portion and Goldy’s were smaller than my father and I. Pegasi were notorious for being featherweights.
“So what’s on the agenda now?” Audit asked casually. Goldy and I shared a look before I took a deep, steadying breath. Thus far, we hadn’t discussed why I was in Trottingham or what I had to do. Now, it seemed, I’d be addressing the monumental task before me sooner than I’d have hoped.
“Well, you remember the Timberwolf attacks, right?”
“Yeah, the Hayton’s nearly lost their son in the attack…” My father knew just about everyone in town. He spent his time staring at their ledgers, after all. Glad that he knew, and by extension my mother, I took another deep breath.
“Well… Twilight sent me here to investigate them.”
“She… Wants me to go through the barrier, to see what’s causing the Timberwolves to act this way, and if there’s a way we can stop them.”
Silenced reigned for a full minute, each of the ponies at the table seriously contemplating my words; myself included. I hated to place this sort of worry on them, but I couldn’t have lied to my parents. And besides, part of me needed some input from them anyways. My father spoke after a long while, his tone even and measured.
“I don’t suppose I need to tell you how dangerous they are…”
“No.” I affirmed.
“And that Twilight Sparkle herself has already visited Trottingham to investigate the matter…”
“That’s part of the reason she wanted me to come out here. She knows so much that she thinks it’s clouding her judgement. This might very well be a new branch of magic, unseen by anypony before now. She needs a new mind, somepony who’s not trying to categorize and inspect this new magic…”
“Hmm.” Silence again. My father spoke, but not until he had downed the last of his glass and poured another. “That’s admirable that she’s willing to step back, provided she doesn’t know what this is… I’m just unsure if she’s wise for sending somepony like you into such a dangerous area…”
“Well, I’m not the pony I was two years ago, daddy…” I spoke quietly, trying my hardest not to contradict him. I loved and respected my father fiercely. Opposing him was the last thing I wished to do. “I’ve been training a lot in the past few weeks, and Twilight’s student is here with me. He’s going to show me everything I need to know.”
“Hmm.” He replied once more. Instead of staring at his glass, my father stared at me. There were times when I thought his glasses made him seem like a changeling, an overgrown pony-bug. But now that I was under his keen gaze, I realized him for what he was.
Audit may have been a boring accountant and bookkeeper, but when it came to matters involving his family, he was observant and keen, almost to a fault. Under his gaze, I felt like a foal again.
“Alright, Star.” He sighed. “If Twilight has faith enough in your abilities to send you out here, then I don’t exactly have a reason to oppose her. I don’t have to like it, but I’m not going to stop you.”
“Please, Star…” My mom chimed in, sounding much older than she looked. “Be careful?”
“I always am, mom.” I smiled genuinely at her as we slid back from the table and embraced. She was quivering, but as my father joined into the hug, she calmed down.
When we broke apart, it seemed much darker outside of the window than I recalled it being. Olive took note, her brow furrowed with a different sort of worry. “You can stay here tonight if you want…”
“We should probably go back to the North wall.” I muttered, dreading the cold I knew lurked outside of our warm home. “Besides, I don’t think you could sleep Goldy and I under the same roof.”
“I don’t think we’d want to, you’d keep us up all night.” Audit winked at us before ruffling my mane. “Promise to come visit again before you leave?”
“I promise.” I nodded, wrapping both of them in another hug. “Oh, before I forget!” I dashed back upstairs to my room, grabbing a small package from the back of my closet. Coming back down the stairs, I was met with curious gazes from all three parties. Blushing, I waved the package in the air beside my head. “Socks.”
As it turned out, Goldy had an insatiable hunger for anything in socks. I could identify, as plenty of tasteful cutouts in my magazines back home featured mares wearing the clingy things, but I had never been reduced to a snorting, crazy monster upon seeing somepony in them. Goldy, it seemed, could hardly control herself around ponies wearing socks. When we made our way back to the northern wall and our quarters, Goldy insisted I try on the package I had retrieved from my bedroom straightaway. The moment I slid into the over-the-knee-high socks, she jumped on me and we...
Well, I'm sure even Cobalt could hear us from his quarters. And consequently, Basil. That last bit of information found its way to the back of my head in favor of Goldy's insistent tongue, for which I was both thankful and slightly scared. She could be awfully insistent when she wanted to be; and I was beginning to fear for my physical integrity.
At least she knew when to slow down and stop. I'm sure it was somewhere between orgasm seven and twelve, but definitely after my fifth. Things tended to get hazy when we moved from bed to shower to kitchen and back to the bed again.
Laying in the aftermath of one of the most incredible nights of sex I'd ever had the pleasure of experiencing, with Goldy laying half on top of me, half off, I came to a realization. The past few months of learning and crazily busy work I'd found myself wrapped up in, I hadn't really taken the time to let my relationship with Goldy develop. Truth be told, we were thrust into things rather quickly. She and I had only known eachother for under two weeks before she decided to follow me to Trottingham. Where I had been alone in my home three weeks ago, I was now in the company of five other ponies, each of them as wildly different and wonderfully diverse as the next.
Basil, for all his gruff attitude concerning things he disliked, was actually a very funny and competent spellcaster. He was strangely knowledgeable about obscure branches of magic, and always ready with a pun or seventeen. Fair Breeze, lieutenant of the Canterlot Weather Team, second only to the Captain, and above him the national director of weather. I hadn't taken any time to realize it, but Lotus' wife was actually only three spots removed from the top spot in the entirety of Equestria. Knowing that, why did she decide to switch out here at the last minute? Was it just for Lotus?
And Lotus... Spa ponies (as far as I could understand) were incredibly particular about their schedules. Even more so in Canterlot, the city of appointments and rendezvous that had to be planned weeks or even months in advance. For her to leave the spa in two week's notice was nothing short of baffling. Baffling like Cobalt, that mysterious colt who somehow had ties to Twilight. At least, I had to think he had ties to the Archmage, considering the correspondence she sent him. Typically, those sorts of things would go through an office or a secretary of sorts. Basil may have been the one handling it, now that I thought hard enough about it.
But none of them could compare to this wonderful little filly laying in my hooves. Golden Nugget had already drifted off to sleep in my embrace, one socked hoof stroking her brilliant mane tenderly. She was an important pony in her own right. Certainly nowhere as important of Lieutenant of the Canterlot Weather Team or even the personal student of Archmage Twilight, but the Apple Family had many holdings and a lot of money across the whole of Equestria. If she boasted the title of 'Head Geologist,' I had to believe she'd earned it. Which wouldn't exactly explain how or why she had been able to outright leave a post in Canterlot in favor of chasing her new marefriend to Trottingham. I had difficulty believing a simple letter could explain everything.
Whatever the cause, I now had five friends with me in Trottingham. Together with me, that made six ponies. Six of us against the world.
Six Elements of Harmony.
Somehow, I began to think that the 'cause' for these ponies' journey to Trottingham wasn't as coincidental as I had imagined. In fact, I began to see how they were all connected. The day I had visited Twilight, she said she already had Breeze's transfer papers on her desk. To top it off, she seemed to be grasping for a reason to get Goldy out of Canterlot, and the recent debacle with the Canterlot Preservation Society seemed only all too convenient an excuse. I couldn't see any reason behind Lotus' leaving the spa, but Basil was another matter altogether.
Being a student of Twilight, I could identify with Basil on a different level than most others. Twilight was a forgiving and understanding teacher. It might have been different with him, but she almost never pressured me to learn or do anything I wasn't inherently comfortable with or ready for. How could she ask Basil, who had just come home from a year-long journey to the Gryphons, to turn around and head right back out? He had been in Canterlot for less than a week before he was right back on the train headed out to Trottingham.
As my eyes closed, the post-coital warmth did little to allay my fears or quiet my thoughts. I drifted off to sleep with many concerns on my mind.
My dreams that night were troubled.
"Rough night?" Basil found me in the northern library's reference section, my nose in a book. I blinked at the text before looking up at him, a curious frown on my lips.
"Yeah, how could you tell?"
"Well first off," He smiled warmly as his horn leapt to life, grasping my mane. "You didn't braid your hair." Truthfully enough, my hair was hanging haphazardly about my head. The braid I'd worn yesterday had come undone during our shenanigans, and I hadn't taken the time to redo it following the brief shower Goldy had indulged me in before jetting off to go handle some business. What that business was had me mystified, but I wasn't about to pry. Instead, I glowered at Basil as he began sorting the long, black strands into three separate sections and winding them together. When he finished, I tied it off with a band from my saddlebags, and went right back to reading intently. My cold demeanor did little to put Basil off. He peered over my shoulder at the text, and I could have heard his frown.
"Why are you looking up weather position appointments?"
"Just curiosity," I lied, and Basil could tell it. He harrumphed, nudging my shoulder with a soft touch.
"You're a curious pony, Star, but you're not that curious. Spill, girlie. What's on your mind?"
"It's nothing." I grunted, trying hard to focus on the boring text before me. "Just wanted to see something."
"Ah huh. And it doesn't have anything to do with Miss Fair Breeze's recent transfer to the weather team here?"
"Not even a little." Another lie. I was beginning to make a habit out of doing that... Basil was undeterred by my attitude. He sat opposite me, whickering loud enough to break the solemn silence often attributed to libraries. I looked at him over the rim of my glasses with a frown.
"Talk to me, Star. I'm not going to pry if you don't want me to, but I'm your friend. At least, I'd like to think so. Tell me what's on your mind." There was a look of genuine concern on his face, but in his eyes, I saw something else. There was a twinkle, a devious mixture of knowing something I didn't and fearing I'd figure out what it was he knew that I didn't. Slowly, I closed the book and leaned back.
"How is it the Archmage's student, the Apple Family's head geologist, Lieutenant for the Canterlot Weather Team and a busy spa pony suddenly find time out of their busy lives to follow a young filly out to Trottingham?"
It's a shame my calling wasn't in carpentry, because I had just hit the nail on the head. Basil's expression turned from hopeful to fearful in half a second before shifting back into a complacent, flat look. He glanced away before meeting my gaze once more, a sigh building just behind his chest. When he released it, I could hear the defeat. He gave a sad smile and shook his head.
"Nothing gets by you, does it, Star?"
"I'm sure plenty gets by me. But come on, now, Basil. Three weeks ago I was alone against the world with nopony but a busy Archmage by my side. Now I've got five ponies here just for me." I lifted a hoof to cut him off as he opened his mouth. "Whatever hollow platitudes they've made about taking a break or a vacation aside, I know they came here for my benefit." He grimaced and fell silent.
"Basil, what's going on out here? I didn't call much attention to it on the way out here because, admittedly, I was a little lovestruck with Goldy at my side. But now that we're here, I can't help but feel a little... Well, a little smothered." I heaved a soft sigh before continuing, leaning in to emphasize my point. "How is it five ponies come together over the course of three weeks to suddenly be there for this mousy, pathetic little mare?"
"You're hardly 'pathetic-'"
"You get my meaning."
"Well..." Basil harrumphed again, searching for the right words. When he finally spoke, it was with no small amount of reluctance. Like a little colt caught with his hoof in the cookie jar. "Twilight's spoken to each of your friends. Even Goldy." He answered my unasked question, making the words die before they passed my teeth. "The way I understand it, she's trying to do everything she can to foster a healthy environment for the Elements of Harmony to resurface."
"I knew it!" It was my turn to break the silence, slamming a hoof onto the table. The books shuddered, and I drew a harsh 'SHH!' from a few aisles over, but that didn't diminish my victory. More quietly, I leaned in. "I knew there was something to do with the Elements of Harmony!"
"Sheesh, you really don't miss a beat." Basil sighed, hanging his head as he spoke. "I'm just hypothesizing here, since the heavens know I couldn't ever deign to understand Twilight's reasoning, but the way she made it sound when she spoke to me, the six of us are ideal candidates to fulfill the positions she and her friends did over three thousand years ago."
"What do you know about them?" I asked intently. "The Elements of Harmony?"
"Me? Not much. I mean, sure, I've studied them a little more in-depth than your average unicorn student, but I assure you I haven't discovered anything major." He sighed again, as if collecting his thoughts. I waited by with a giddy fidget. When he spoke again, it was in a much more slow and measured tone.
"We all know the stories about the Elements of Harmony and everything Twilight and her friends accomplished long, long ago. The return of Nightmare Moon and reforming her into the old Luna, fighting Discord and the powers of chaos incarnate, yadda yadda yadda..." He rolled a hoof. "But nopony knows what happened to the Elements after Twilight became the Archmage. Well, I shouldn't say nopony. Twilight knows, and she told me once, when I first became her student. She said: 'I honestly don't remember. The last I recall, the necklaces and the crown were stored in Canterlot somewhere. But when my friends began passing away, as they inevitably would, we lost track of them all. It was a busy time for us, and before I'd become Archmage, there were seven whole years where the Elements sat idle. I recently went to go look for them, but any trace of them was gone.'" Basil's voice was intense and low, making me lean in as he quoted our mutual teacher. He leaned back a little, gesturing vaguely to the side.
"That's what she told me. Out of curiosity, I spent a few weeks tracking them. Sure enough, there was the ledger from their storage, but where they were last documented was empty. I did a little more digging, and it seems Celestia had some input on the creation of the Elements of Harmony. She told me that they were transient things, especially as they grew older. When they were first made, they were hard stones imbued with great magical energy. She and her sister were able to use them to turn Discord to stone for over a thousand years. Celestia alone could use them to banish a pony to the moon for the same thousand years. But the next time they were used? A thousand years after that?" He whispered intently.
"Six ponies could hardly muster enough strength to banish a part of Luna. It's by luck alone Twilight and her friends didn't send all of Luna back to her prison. The time after that? All six of them could barely muster enough strength to hold Discord for a short while. Celestia says it might have lasted a little longer, but they had to unfreeze him for something or other long ago. Look, my point is this:" He leaned across the table, his eyes meeting mine intently.
"The Elements of Harmony lost their power over just one thousand years. It's been over three thousand since they were last seen. Who's to say they haven't completely faded away? Furthermore, their manifestation had changed in that initial thousand years. They went from dense, heavy stones to necklaces; regalia. It stands to reason in another thousand years after that, they changed to, I don't know, a ring or something smaller; a brooch or pendant, maybe. Another thousand years, a single gemstone. After that? They could have been swept up by the cleaning crew for all we know."
"Wow." Basil's line of reasoning made perfect sense to me. It might have been a little out there, but the line of reasoning wasn't entirely unsound. He made a good point. But he hadn't come back to the reason why the six of us were in Trottingham together. "And about us...?"
"Right." Basil shook himself. "Twilight confided in me that she needed the six of us together out of the hope that our friendship would re-manifest the Elements of Harmony." I grimaced at that, but let him continue. "You see, Celestia's original creation of the Elements was based on six pillars of her relationship with her sister. Laughter, Kindness, Honesty, Loyalty, Generosity, and Magic. Twilight and her friends were the same embodiments of these principles. Now, for whatever reason, Twilight sees the same six principles in us."
I frowned at him.
"Us? A filly who only just two months ago learned how to not blow up everything around her when she casts a spell, a smart-aleck, a spa pony, a weather team official, a geologist and a hulk?"
"Talk about a long shot, eh?" Basil seemed to share my skepticism. His deadpan smile matched my glower, to say nothing of our joined grumble.
"I'm guessing you're not terribly pleased with her line of reasoning either?" I decided to take a leap, and pray I landed on solid ground. Basil's look confirmed my suspicions.
"I can't say I am. It's nothing against you or Lotus or... Well, even Golden Nugget, I suppose. I hardly got home from a year-long trip to the Gryphons, and here she is asking me to follow you to what's arguably the hottest conflict Equestria's seen in two millennia." He rubbed the back of his neck with a groan. "I'm not terribly happy at having to leave hearth and home, no. Nor can I really see the logic behind her choice in friends. Again, nothing against Breeze or the others, but I don't see the six of us saving Equestria from anything, chiefly because there really isn't much of anything to save it from. Yeah, the timberwolf attack is worrying. But we've lost more ponies to household accidents and domestic violence in the past month than we did to this attack. Granted, it's worrying, but not to this extent.
"I'm not saying the six of us are over-qualified to be here, but we'd be just as well-served on the council for the next peace talks with the Gryphons. Twilight herself came out here to insure everything is going okay. She erected the barrier. How can six ponies who hardly know each other accomplish what the Archmage could not?" Basil hung his head with another sigh, and I mirrored him. What he said was one hundred percent true. I could hardly see how any of us related to any of the Elements of Harmony, let alone be the end-all embodiment of any one of them. I could sit there for hours coming up with inconsistencies where any one of us related to the six elements. To think any one of us could embody those pillars of friendship when there were two of us who would just as soon rip the other's throat out was beyond asinine. It was blasphemous.
"So why in the blue blazes would she send us out here with that in mind?" I finally asked after a full minute's silence. My question seemed to catch Basil off-guard, but not by much. He looked at me seriously for a few moments before lifting a shoulder indifferently.
"Who knows? It stands to reason that we're not the only ponies Twilight has tried to get together like this. The way I understand it, Twilight's been fostering friendships between groups of six ponies quite a bit over the last two thousand years or so. Hell, one of the councils in Canterlot used to be made up of a group of six friends, each of them as close to one another and the Elements as could be. To no avail." He tapped his lower lip with another soft sigh.
"It stands to reason she's just reaching for the stars here. If we get together and somehow, miraculously, it works out, all for the better. At the very least, sending the six of us out here helps to flesh out our lives more. Before yesterday, I'd never been to Trottingham. I don't think Lotus or Fair Breeze have been here either. The three of us know Twilight by either by extension or directly. It could be that she's just looking to help us broaden our horizons, and if we miraculously reforge the Elements of Harmony, all the better."
"Okay, but why task us with getting through the shield and researching the Timberwolves?" I gestured empathetically towards the North-East. "She can't expect us to succeed where she herself failed, can she?"
"Au contraire'!" Basil exclaimed, getting another 'Shh!' from a few aisles over. He lowered his voice with a self-conscious blush and leaned in. "Twilight was speaking the truth when she said sending somepony who's not already knowledgeable into the fray. You stand as good a chance at understanding a new branch of magic than either Twilight or I. She wouldn't have sent you if she didn't believe in you. If nothing else, Star, you'll be able to lend an outside perspective to this whole situation. I'd think that as long as we go back to Canterlot with any new information, that'd be a success in Twilight's book."
There was a certain hopefulness in Basil's voice that spoke to me. I found myself feeling excited. Eager. Just like I had felt when first learning magic under Twilight's tutelage. Grinning giddily, I nodded to Basil.
"Alright, then. What are we waiting for? Let's get cracking."
We took to the new study with gusto. Well, when I say 'we' I mean 'I,' since Basil was the one teaching me. We began spending our time studying Twilight's tunneling spell, and if I ever hit a dead end on that, we'd go spar for a few hours before hitting the books anew. Between cozy library sessions and intense conversations in Basil's quarters (interrupted only sporadically by an eager Basil,) and long, panting fights on the fields outside of Trottingham's walls, I began learning more and more. A thought struck me as we were two weeks into the new study schedule. By then, I almost had a grip on the new tunneling spell, but Basil was still drilling me on it.
"Why don't you just cast the tunneling spell?"
"A good question. Heads up!"
"Gah!" A snare erupted into the air right where I had been standing half a second before, the shadowy tendrils snaking over my side, but not gripping me as they had been so close to doing. 'I really need to stop having serious discussions during our sparring matches.'
"You see, Star, if we cast the tunneling spell, who's to say one of the timberwolves won't accidentally discover it? For all we know, there's a full contingent of those things on the inside of the shield, passing over it, searching for a way to get out. If we go through and they discover our tunnel, even if it's concealed with a transparency arc, that's it. The whole pack will be through and we wouldn't be able to stop them. Woah!" My counter-attack cut him off at the end, impacting the snow at his hooves and throwing up a blinding cloud of crystallized ice. He dodged around the edge of the jagged cloud, his horn still glowing.
"Woooaaahh-SHIT!" I gasped as Basil tore up and entire section of the ground beneath my hooves, throwing me into the air expertly. The biting wind buffeted me, but I maintained my cool (at least, as cool as I could be flying through the air in below-freezing weather and snow.) My own horn lit with a blinding light, casting a spell at Basil even as I landed on the snow, skidding a good four feet with my momentum.
"Shit!" Basil dodged aside, supplementing the evasive maneuver with a shield to deflect the glancing blow. He skidded backwards as well, the two of us over fifty feet apart, our chests heaving and sweat pouring down our brows as we squared off. "Thus," He panted, talking just loud enough to be heard over the echoing blasts coming back to us from Trottingham's walls. "We're both going to cast our own tunneling spells, and key them to our own magic with an Essence Chain."
"An Essence Chain?" I quirked an eyebrow, even as I surreptitiously dispelled the next snare trap moving its way through the ground beneath my hooves. "Never heard of that before."
"It's a complex bit of magic, I'm afraid." Basil's frown reflected his failure at catching me with another snare. "But it allows a spell, such as Twilight's tunneling spell or even an offensive one to be keyed to a specific pony."
"Kind of like Threading?"
"Similar, yes." Basil faked right and dashed left, causing me to lead him the wrong way with my next bolt. Cursing, I re-adjusted, too late, as he threw blinding, glowing chains my way. "Hah! Gotchya!"
"SSSSSSSHIT." Growling, my horn blasted to life, ripping through my skull with the intense magic I was trying to control. My own light dwarfed his own, drowning out the chains hurtling my way until they dissipated.
"... Not good. Woah!" Basil gasped as the wave of light continued onwards, cascading over him and throwing him to the ground, where it proceeded to push him through the snow and dirt like a plow. When my wave of light dissipated, it was right on top of a snare that I had been placing, the tendrils of shadowy energy wrapping around him, and solidifying into hard, earthen bindings. He squirmed in the grasp, but I was already over him, my horn pressed against his neck.
"I yield." He croaked, shivering and soaked from the ordeal. I laughed playfully and instead dispelled the snare, letting him stand up. "Good duel."
"That's my fifth win in Trottingham!"
"... To my seventeen." Basil chuckled.
"Oh shush and let me have this moment." I helped brush him off, even as a smattering of applause reached our ears. I lifted my eyes back to Trottingham, and the small contingent of guards that had gathered to watch our duels. We tended to draw a crowd (and even a few bets, if I heard correctly) whenever we dueled. Warming Basil with a quick fire spell, we made our way back to the wall, back on the subject of Essence Chains.
"So it's similar to Threading. See, the difference between the two is this: Threading can be undone. It's hinges on a pony's specific energy, but only loosely, and can easily be sniffed out. Twilight told me of a story long ago where she had been fighting three ponies at once using Threads to track her with their spells. She threw the Threads off and turned the offensive in the confused aftermath. An Essence Chain is like Threading, but solidified. An Essence Chain is more-or-less permanent, and certainly wouldn't be able to be undone in the middle of combat. At least, not by you or I.
"Essence Chains are highly risky, at least when used against somepony. Equestrian law forbids the use of Essence Chains without the owner's outright and written consent, and filing with Twilight's office themselves. Ponies can use their own magic to make Essence Chains keyed to themselves without having to do so, but they tend to draw eyebrows from the guard. To avoid the paperwork, we'll both be casting our own tunneling spells, each with their own transparency arcs, and their own Essence Chains. Thus, we'll be the only two ponies who can go through our own tunnels, and only our own. I can't go through yours, you can't go through mine."
"I see. So we're still a few weeks away from being able to cast these tunnels, huh?"
"I had plans on teaching you about Essence Chains just tomorrow, as it were." Basil chuckled. "You beat me to the punch." We were approaching the monolithic wall of Trottingham, and the guarded tunnel on the South edge of the city. The guards that had been watching our duel had already dissipated, though one or two could be seen between the crenellations, keeping a vigilant watch on the train traffic and any other ponies out and about on the fields. Basil and I were alone in that regard today, but far to our left, a train wound out of the mountain pass, chugging its way up to the city. We would arrive at about the same time, it would seem.
"So we're going to cast this tunnel on Twilight's barrier, disguise it with a transparency arc, and key it to ourselves with this Essence Chain?" I surmised.
"Eeyup. With any luck, that'll leave the tunnel invisible, and even if they did happen to stumble across it, they won't be able to move through it."
"Okay, but..." I frowned. "What if their magic is just incompatible with ours?"
"Meaning what if the Essence Chain doesn't work on them? If they're as diligent at sweeping the inside of the shield as you claim they might be, then it stands to reason that they're going to discover at least one of our tunnels. Since this is a completely new and unexplored branch of magic, as Twilight claims it is, then they might be able to use our tunnels anyways?"
"Alas, that is also a possiblity." Basil sighed. "But we're taking every step we can to prevent that from happening. Either we conceal and key these tunnels, or we'd have been able to punch through with an undisguised tunneling spell a week ago. That'd have meant every Timberwolf on the other side could have rushed through, but we'd have been able to do it anyways." Basil shrugged. "It's the important things like safety we have to take into consideration. We need to safely cross the barrier to study this magic."
"... And if our plans fail?"
"Then the guard is prepared." Basil pointed up to the top of the wall, where the one guard from earlier leaned over to watch us disappear into the tunnel, even while the two guards posted outside saluted us with their spears. "If the timberwolves find the tunnels, and if their magic lets them pass the Essence Chain, the guard will defend Canterlot to the last."
"Well, here's hoping that doesn't happen. Say, do you mind if we swing by your parents' place? I could use some cocoa."
"Aww, nursing your injuries." I blew a playful raspberry at him, even as I shivered as a gust followed the two of us into the tunnel burrowing its way into Trottingham proper. "We can stop by. I just want to get back to the library as soon as we can. I had plans tonight."
"Oh yeah, it's Thursday... Date Night." Basil blanched, but I just gave him a playful nudge. Thankfully enough, his vehemence towards Goldy had somewhat abated over the past two weeks of our continued deployment. I had seen the two pass each other in the halls with little more than a passing grimace; which was leaps and bounds compared to the death threats. Basil still remained tight-lipped on his hatred, but I couldn't exactly blame him. There was a reason I wouldn't eat bean sprouts, and Goldy herself knew better than to pry on that matter. It wasn't an entirely different situation with Basil and his aversion to the Apple Family.
"Where are you two headed?"
"We're not sure yet." I shrugged, thinking about the limited selection in restaurants in Northern Trottingham. We usually frequented the small cafe halfway between my old school and the North wall, but every now and then we found ourselves wanting a little more extravagant dining situation. "Maybe that Neightalian place off of Mortar Road..."
"Neightalian? In Trottingham? Come on, you might as well go to Stalliongrad to get tropical food."
"Well I don't see you coming up with any bright ideas." I rolled my eyes.
"I'm not the one taking Miss Nugget on a date tonight." He came right back, sticking his tongue out at me. "If I were you two, just cook something nice at home. And soundproof the damn room before you start, you threw off Cobalt's rhythm last time."
We both shared a laugh as we emerged from the gusty tunnel and into Trottingham proper. The hoof-path through the wall was on the other side of the city from where the train entered, with my parent's house between the two. We took the first available left, and ahead of us about a mile and a half, I could see the short house at the far end of the gently-curved road. Just a few minutes later, we were ushered inside by my father, all smiles and sunshine despite our dirty, wet coats.
"Sparring again today, eh?" He quipped, taking our scarves and hanging them near the door. "Who won?"
"I did." I puffed up with pride, throwing my mane back with a slight whicker. Basil just laughed and shook his head.
"Oh good! Your mother owes me two bits, then."
"So you have been betting on me!" I tried to sound hurt, but just succeeded in making both stallions laugh. "Where is mommy, by the way?"
"She ought to be back from work late tonight, she said she had to haul three whole loads to the guard station at the East gate. Cocoa?"
"The only reason we come here." Basil quipped, happily prancing his way towards the kitchen.
"Don't lie to me, Basil, you come here to check out my flank as well."
That froze my friend. He looked back at Audit with wide eyes, as my dad gave him a teasing little wiggle. I burst out laughing as Basil's mouth dropped open and his cheeks heated enough to warm the water for our drinks.
"I swear, you two are going to be the death of me." Basil groaned, trying hard to not look at my father as he squeezed past. He failed, of course, which only made me laugh harder.
"So you still have a few weeks until you're going through the barrier, then?" Audit surmised. We had shared our advances in my studies since the last time we had visited, just three short days ago. I had introduced Basil to my parents two days after Goldy, and they were estatic to speak with another of the Archmage's students. At least Basil didn't want to see my room (or molest me on my own bed, as it were.)
"We've still got two components of our magic to factor into the spell." Basil nodded. "We need to disguise it with what's called a 'Transparency Arc,' and then key each of our spells to our own magic using an 'Essence Chain.' That way, the tunnels through the shield will be invisible, and only Star Caster and I will be able to go through them."
"That's a very smart contingency. Even if the timberwolves discover your tunnels, I'm guessing they won't be able to come through?"
"Precisely." Basil nodded at my father, who had demonstrated a shocking understand of magic.
"Well good. That's another few weeks I won't have to worry about my daughter. Say, how are you and Goldy getting along? Worn out those socks yet?"
"Da~ad!" I groaned, flushing as Basil shot me a smoldering look.
"Socks, eh?" He teased, waggling his eyebrows at me comically. "You and Cobalt are alike in that regard."
"OH SHUT THE F-"
"AUDIT!" The front door slammed open, my mother and - much to my surprise - Goldy were standing in the blustery street. The three of us at the table stared at them in shock as Olive Breeze swept inside. "Oh thank the heavens, Star, you're here! Goldy, she's here!" Only then did I realize that, behind my mother, a contingent of guards dashed past, their armor and weapons clattering loud enough to break the sound of rushing wind.
"What's going on?" Basil asked cautiously, rising from his seat. My mom just brushed past him, laying her hooves on my shoulders.
"The barrier. It's under attack!"
"... WHAT?!" I blinked in shock at her. "What do you mean, 'under attack'?!"
"I mean there's something on the other side trying to get through!" She whirled around towards the door, pulling me along. "Come on!"
"Wh-woah, hey!" I stumbled after her, even as Goldy began fidgeting at the door, her wings ruffling restlessly. "What's going on?"
"Basil, come on!" Olive Breeze growled at him. Basil abandoned his cocoa, leaving Audit at the table with a shocked look on his face. We left my childhood home, entering the blustery streets with guards rushing past us, moving North and East. "Goldy, you take her. I'll carry Basil. Can you two lighten yourselves?"
"I got it." Basil grunted, turning to me with his horn ablaze. I could feel his magic take hold of me, casting a modified cloud-walking spell that would lighten my weight, enough for Goldy to carry me more easily. He did the same for himself before nodding at Olive, who unceremoniously wrapped all four of her hooves around his barrel, flapping hard to pick them up off of the ground. Goldy did the same, and the four of us were airborne. I had never flown like this, but seeing the panic in my mother's eyes and the reaction from the guards, I swallowed my fear as the tall roofs of Trottingham shrunk to miniature size beneath my hooves.
"What did you mean 'under attack?'" I heard Basil's voice carry to use over the cutting wind.
"I meant what I said!" Olive Breeze roared loud enough to be heard. "There's something on the other side of the barrier, and it's trying to break through!"
"That's impossible!" I called out. "That barrier was cast by Twilight herself! Nothing could break it!"
"Well, whatever it is, it's certainly trying!" Olive's response came back, even as she and Goldy doubled their efforts to carry us North. We stayed beneath the level of the wall, steadily gaining height on our trek across the city. About halfway there, around the central district, I heard the first one.
It was a low impact, like somepony dropped something heavy elsewhere in the house. I almost didn't think anything of it at first.
The second one was certainly audible, and unless I was mistaken, there was a distinct crackling sound that came after it.
The third one rippled over our coats, louder than before. It came maybe a minute after the first two, but was twice as loud, making me cover my ears out of fear. Goldy and Olive Breeze faltered in their flapping, but struggled ever-harder to carry us up over the threshold of the wall. Thankfully, we breached the top before the next one came. We had just laid our hooves on the cobblestones, adjusting our vision to peer through the snow towards the massive, purple barrier just a short two miles outside of the city walls.
"I don't see-"
The largest impact yet rocked the shield. I watched as the world before me distorted, a shockwave of kinetic energy rocketing outwards from the base of the barrier, lifting snow and dirt from the ground. The few homes outside of the city that sat closest to the barrier were rent asunder, turned to naught but kindling in the aftermath of whatever that blow had been. Our hooves skidded across the cobblestones, our eyes gone wide with fear.
I watched in horror as a single hairline fracture emerged at the top of the shield, close to where it disappeared into the clouds. That crack widened, falling further and further down the barrier, sounding not unlike the ice cover on a lake breaking underneath our hooves, the last defense keeping us from plunging into certain doom.
The barrier fell, and from behind the shattered magic, a nightmare arose.
The frontlines had been breached, and I could tell immediately, this was war. Between the guard's reaction, the massive thing behind the shield, and everything that had happened in the past few weeks, war had come to Equestria, and it came in the form of the beast before us.
"Io." Basil's soft, breathed exhalation sent a shiver down my spine. The aftermath of the shield shattering still resounded to us, massive plates of arcane energy splintering and breaking apart, sounding not unlike glass as they tinkled and crashed against one another. Miniature shockwaves of energy rocked the wall beneath our hooves, product of the massive deposits of solidified arcane energy Twilight had cast breaking up as they fell to the ground. From behind that monstrous barrier emerged a dragon the likes of which I knew the world had not seen in thousands of years.
"No way." My mother paled as we watched the hulking beast take the first step through the broken remnants of Twilight's defense. "One of the Great Serpents? That's Io?"
"The Ram of the Heavens." Basil swallowed. "The dragon that could level a mountain. Heavens help us, we're doomed."
Io was indeed a massive dragon, and even as far away as the four of us were from the barrier, I could see the size of him. It made sense that this beast would be the one to level Twilight's barrier. Unlike other dragons I had seen in diagrams (and one very fortunate dragon migration viewing held not far from Canterlot,) this one was easily ten times even the largest serpent's size. His head was where the greatest variation had been made; where a regular dragon boasted a massive mouth for breathing fire, spines, and bright, intelligent eyes, Io was all bone and muscle.
He looked not unlike a goat with his horns, only that the two curved protrusions from his skull were probably the size of one of Trottingham's gates. From their dull tips down the sweeping, ridged length of them, they met what appeared to be a massive, pale, bony mass on his head. The large protrusion gave him the other half of his earned name, in that he looked like a massive, winged battering ram. If I had to guess, his skull would be as thick as the wall beneath her hooves; thicker in some sections.
Beneath that massive ram of his horns was a thickly-muscled neck. His eyes sat a good fifty feet back from the bony plate on his head, looking beady and small from this distance. But if the history books were to be believed, Io was one of the most intelligent of the great serpents. Combined with his brute, ground-shaking force, he was arguably the most dangerous of the three that had terrorized the Blood Fields thousands of years ago.
From the top of his ramming bone and down his spine ran thick, flat spines, completely different from a regular dragon's. Those were pointed. His were wide, flat, and as I watched, interlocked when he crouched low. From beneath the bony plate of his head, his mouth opened, wide enough to swallow an entire tower without flinching.
The primal scream ripped through the air towards us. I could see the snow pulsing and moving in time, the shockwave of sound kicking up a blizzard of ice.
I ducked beneath the surface of the wall just as the first keening blast reached us. Snow and ice flew through the air over my head, and I felt like my ears were trying their best to rip themselves from my head. The sound pierced straight through my head, like a needle, thin and high and excruciatingly painful. I saw rather than heard Goldy's scream, her mouth open wide and her eyes pouring tears, unable to close with the shock of how loud Io's scream was.
The scream died in intensity, just as I thought I was about to lose my sanity. Feeling woozy and disoriented, I stumbled to my hooves, watching as Io lowered his massive, hulking head. From behind those flat spines, his massive wings unfurled, easily tripling his size.
I could only watch in horror as he began to advance on Trottingham. One rocking, tremor-inducing step after another. As I looked down to the base of his hulking, tower-wide legs, I saw something else that made my blood freeze in my veins.
"He's bringing the Timberwolves with him."
"What?!" Basil swept up to my side, throwing his forelegs over the wall to get a closer look. True enough, through the cleared air between Trottingham and the barrier, the ground was laden with Timberwolves. As Io began to push through the gap left between Horseshoe Bay and whatever was left of the shield Twilight had cast, an entire horde of Timberwolves came with him. The writhing sea of black, green, and brown spilled out onto the snowy plains North of Trottingham, and began their slow crawl towards the city. They were not as immediately pressing as the dragon, who could cover an eight of a mile in a stride. Io's lumbering pace carried him ever-closer towards the walls of Trottingham, his massive form looming over the ground beneath him. I could see Timberwolves, thousands of them, in the shadow cast by his hulking form.
"What... I don't... What's even happening?" Goldy's voice reached me through the ever-present high-pitched hum that permeated through my ears in the aftermath of that first horrific scream. Some small part of me was infinitely glad that Goldy wasn't deaf or worse, but the larger part of me sympathized with her words on an almost primal level.
'Io's been presumed dead or missing for, what, five thousand years? Longer? How could he be here now? And if he's here, then where are the other two, if they're even alive? Why would he even be coming here now? What is his motive?' These questions and a thousand more filled my mind, making me quake with dread. It seemed all I could do was stare in awe as the hulking, black dragon before me began picking up speed. He was already halfway between the former barrier and Trottingham.
'Oh holy SHIT HE'S ALREADY HERE.'
With another ear-splitting scream, Io planted all four gargantuan limbs, the muscles underneath the thick, plated scales of his form bulging grotesquely before he brought his wings down. I could hear the wind hissing around the edge of his wings, his bones creaking in protest, and his mouth open in yet another world-ending scream of defiance.
I was frozen in place, watching with my jaw wide open as Io's charge led him less than a quarter of a mile outside of the walls. The gigantic dragon stood almost to the top of the city, even with his head lowered for another charge. If the last one could shatter Twilight's barrier, the one he was lining up with Trottingham would surely level the walls. No amount of millenia-old enchantments, no matter how tried and true they were, could withstand this.
Io planted all four of his gargantuan legs, coiling himself up not unlike a massive, scaled cat. When he sprung forth, his wings came down, the sounds all mixing together into a hellish cacophany. His ear-splitting scream, the rush of wind around his wings, the tremors of his lumbering charge...
Io lowered his head, the Ram of the Heavens, and leapt at Trottingham with all of his weight.
'So this is how I die.' I felt an odd sense of calm wash over me. Just beneath my hooves, one of the Great Serpents, the three dragons that could have allegedly ended the world as we knew it, was charging the wall I now stood upon. He was less than two thousand feet away from us now, the contrails of air rushing over his bony skull evidence of just how fast his massive hulking beast of bone and muscle was travelling.
'I never even got to ask Goldy to marry me.'
The world exploded into purple and yellow. Fire and energy erupted into existence, washing over my face, blowing me back from the wall. The sight of Io and his charge was rent from me as the shockwave of energy crashed against Trottingham's walls, ripping my hooves from underneath me, sending me sprawling onto the cobblestone.
The cobblestone. Wall.
Trottingham's wall was still standing!
"What?!" Scrambling back to my hooves, I threw my forelegs over the edge of the walls, looking for the devastation I knew was about to be wrought on us.
Io was gone.
No, not gone...
"TWILIGHT!" Basil's hoof shot into the air, his voice thundering into my consciousness loud enough to break my funk. From the South-West, a massive purple contrail cut through the sky. Directly in front of us, where Io had been, was a puff of black smoke and crackling purple energy, still lancing into the walls and onto the snowy fields below. The residual energy scintillated through the air, dissipating in a massive shockwave of sound that left a small crater just outside of Trottingham's walls.
Off to our right, past the cliff-face and into Horseshoe Bay, Io sprawled into the waters. I watched in half-horror, half-joy as the gigantic dragon's limbs flailed comically, his entire body turning end-over-end through the deep surf. He kicked up gigantic sprays of water, the frothy white discharge covering swaths of his massive, black body.
And above it all, the arcing purple contrail of Twilight Sparkle, cutting hard to turn back to the city.
"TWILIGHT!" Basil waved his hooves frantically beside me, trying hard to signal the princess in the aftermath of what had just happened. Olive and Goldy were still stunned. I was halfway between awestruck and pissing myself. But Basil, for all his glorious intelligence, was lighting the area above us with a bright golden light. Twilight veered towards that light, and I saw the purple streak grow wings as she flapped to slow herself.
"Basil! Thank the stars, are you all alright?!"
"A little hard of hearing, but we're okay! What- how did you-"
"Come on, Basil." Twilight grinned at us, crackling purple energy still arcing off of her hooves. "You don't think I'd notice if my own barrier was broken? I flew from Canterlot. Looks like I made it just in time."
"You..." I stuttered, eyes wide. I wasn't entirely sure what had happened to my glasses. "You just..."
"You just tackled mother-fucking Io."
"Looks like I'm going to have to do much more than that." Twilight looked over her shoulder, out into the surf of Horseshoe Bay. Io had righted himself, his gargantuan legs allowing him to stand tall enough that the relatively shallow depths of the bay barely reached his chest. He began another charge, kicking up tidal waves of water.
"Alright, here's the plan." Twilight grimaced at the hulking dragon rushing the city. "I'll keep Io tied up. I don't know if I can stop him outright, but I can at least keep him from levelling the city. Your four, coordinate with the guard and start culling the numbers of the Timberwolves. Celestia, Luna, and Cadance are on their way and will be here in minutes. Keep them from breaching the gates. Understood?"
"Yes, My Princess!" Basil answered for the four of us, saluting smartly. Twilight just gave a stoic nod at us before turning and jetting towards Io's second charge. I watched in awe as a massive aura of purple energy enveloped his front leg, tripping him up so that his top-heavy head buried itself into the cliff-face beneath Trottingham. The city trembled, but did not face the brunt of the charge.
"Alright, you heard the lady! Let's go!" Basil shook Olive, snapping her out of her funk. "Get us down to the North tunnel!" He hollered, breaking even Goldy out of her own reverie. "We have to stop the Timberwolves!"
"R-right! Let's go!" Olive wrapped her legs around Basil, diving over the edge of the wall.
"Goldy, you okay?" I asked, laying a hoof on my lover's flank.
"F-fine, I just..." She looked at me with wide eyes. "She just tackled mother-fucking Io."
"I know." I smiled, looking over my shoulder at the purple streak diving into the surf where Io had fallen. "That's our Archmage. Now let's go."
What followed was the most intense day in my entire life. Olive and Goldy carried Basil and I to the Northern Tunnel, where a large contingent of guards was already gathering. There were wings of Pegasi intent on peaking the walls, armed with bows and massive slings. Down below, a whole column of Earth Pony guards wielding shields and unicorns prepared to enter the tunnel through the wall. Their orders were to hold the gate, and we were going to help them any way we could.
"Goldy, take my mom, and go to my parent's house." I urged the shocked pegasus. She deposited us near the captain, still quivering in the aftermath of the near-death experience. I couldn't blame her, it was hard for me to keep from panicking or collapsing on the spot. Only adrenaline and Twilight's last command kept me going.
"Wh-what about you?" Goldy whimpered, tears streaming from her eyes; whether from shock, fear, or otherwise, I couldn't tell.
"I have my orders. Twilight wants me to hold off the Timberwolves until the other princesses arrive. That's exactly what I'm going to do. I need you to keep my parents safe, okay?"
"I will. I promise." I stroked a hoof through her mane before pulling her into a crushing hug. She wrapped her own hooves around me, squeezing until it hurt. Into that hug, I poured all the stress and worry I had. Goldy had to have been doing the same, because when we parted, I could see the iron cast to her eyes; the steely determination to keep herself safe so we could see each other once again.
"I love you."
"I love you too. Now go."
With that, she and Olive Branch were gone. Basil and I turned to the captain, who was busy barking orders at a corps of earth ponies and unicorns wearing what looked like medical saddle-bags. They each wore a small white coat with a cross emblazoned on the front. As soon as he finished with them, he turned to us.
"Who are you two?" He snapped. Basil spoke immediately.
"We are Archmage Twilight's students. We're here to help you defend that gate any way we can." His voice seemed so sure. I began to wonder if Twilight's training regimen involved crisis response and how to keep your heart from trying to beat its way out of your ribcage forcibly. And why she hadn't decided to teach me those things first.
"Perfect. I want you two on the frontlines. If the Timberwolves make the gate, they might break it down and overwhelm us with sheer numbers. We need to stop them on the field. The gate is a secondary priority."
"Got it. We'll lead the charge. Star, with me!" Basil dashed towards the corps of Earth Ponies sporting shields. There were only about forty of them, two of us, and thousands of Timberwolves bearing down on the wall. Near the mouth of the tunnel, an entire unit of unicorns was busy interacting with a massive formula. From what I could glean of the archaic design, it was a defensive spell meant to trigger the incumbent enchantments in the stone walls. The books I had read on the wall indicated ancient defenses that had been implemented ages ago. Lately, they had been disabled, allowing for unhindered travel through any of the gates in Trottingham's walls. Equestria didn't have any enemies to defend from; let alone any that required such drastic measures that these enchantments called for.
"We're to hold off the Timberwolves until that spell is ready to go!" Basil explained to both me and the guards gathering around us. That forty-two was steadily growing as the medics joined us, and another small group of unicorn guards. "We defend the gate to the last until that spell is in-place. Then we make a break inside, and if any Timberwolves follow us, they'll be cut off. Once the enchantment is triggered, we'll be safe, even from Io! Understood?!"
"SIR!" The guards all saluted Basil, and he turned to the opening in the wall with a grim expression.
I was swept up in the flurry as we charged through the wall, into the heart of darkness itself. Io's charge had extinguished all of the lights inside the wall, leaving only a sliver of white light at the far end to orient ourselves. Beyond that white light, I knew the Timberwolves were waiting for us. Our lessons on the train and any other supplementary ones came rushing back to me as we ran. Basil shouted over the beating in my heart and the thundering, echoing sound of fifty-some-odd hooves rushing through the tunnel.
"Fire will do nothing to them! Blast them apart, or break them up, but don't set them on fire!" He was hollering. I remembered how these Timberwolves were made from the same wood beyond that barrier, the same forests that had been burned by Jormangundr and Tiamat ages ago, and had regrown to be more-or-less fireproof. Running headlong towards that light, I brought to mind all the force spells and dispelling auras I could remember.
"Here we go! Don't give them an inch of this tunnel!" Basil hollered encouragement as we neared the end. The white sliver had grown larger, more dominant, until it was all I could see.
We erupted into pandemonium.
The wolves were right there at the wall as we emerged onto the snowy fields. I saw the Earth Ponies get maybe fifteen seconds to set up their shield wall before the writhing mass of Timberwolves crashed into it. Twigs and sticks flew into the air, snarling, jagged teeth snapping at the ponies making up the wall, interspersed with sporadic cracks of energy.
"STAR!" Basil's voice snapped me out of it, right as a Timberwolf leapt over the shield right in front of me. I saw a maw of jagged, wooden teeth open before me, the fetid smell of pine rot and death spilling forth.
"Aah!" On reflex, my horn blasted through the twigs, rendering the slavering wolf a mass of flying kindling, tumbling end-over-end as it was sent back to its brethren in pieces.
"Good job! There's another!" Basil called out, turning my attention to a wolf that roughly shouldered through two guards that were tangled up with two more wolves apiece. I wheeled on him, my horn blazing to life as I dispelled the magic holding it together. The sticks and twigs fell apart into a misshapen lump, the animation gone from those malevolent green eyes.
The battle was in full tilt. The Earth Ponies with shields did all they could to keep the massive horde from spilling over and into the tunnel, protecting the core of unicorns and spear-wielding Earth Ponies casting force and dispersion spells out into the fray. Ponies were injured. Yet for every one that fell and was hauled back by a medic, we took out ten more wolves. Still, there were too many of them, and not enough of us.
In the distance, I could hear the resounding blasts of energy and pained cries as Twilight fought with Io. Through the random glances I could sneak, off to the East, there would be flashes of light coming from the bay over the cliff side, or the stray sight of one of Io's limbs flailing helplessly. He had to have been roughly the size of a small town, yet Twilight was throwing him all over the bay like a ragdoll. His pained screams mixing with the scintillating blasts of arcane energy highlighted the slavering yips and howls of the Timberwolves, peppered with an occasional mortal scream from one of the guards.
It seemed to be never-ending. The tide of wolves would surge back and forth against the shields, more and more breaking through, giving our forces the fight of a lifetime. I watched as an Earth Pony wielding a spear stabbed one Timberwolf, only to have another sweep it and wrap its teeth around his neck. All he got off was a choked cry of surprise before he was dragged through the line and ripped apart. More wolves surged into the gap leftover, but I blew them side to make room for a massive ray Basil had been cooking up. The green wave of energy washed over the front line of wolves, making them collapse into jagged bundles of tinder.
It bought us only a few seconds as another wave of wolves rushed forward, crashing into the shields. It seemed for a moment as if they would buckle under the force, but Earth Pony tenacity was a legendary thing. The line held, allowing only a few wolves to bleed through, only to have them blasted apart by our fellow unicorns.
I was panting, feeling ragged, as we continued to fight. Another wolf snapped at my hind leg, earning a quick buck to the face and a blast of arcane energy that splintered his foreleg from his shoulder. Yipping in pain, I tossed him over the shield wall and into the mass of wolves surrounding us, only to have another latch onto my mane a few inches away. Giving a clipped cry of surprise, I shoved him away, feeling my braid tug painfully at my scalp before another blast from Basil showered me with twigs and sap. The fetid stench of rot washed into my face, making me retch on the spot.
"They got it!" The triumphant cry reached my ears as my eyes swam, my entire body feeling light after emptying my stomach onto the battlefield. "Let's go! Fall back into the city!" The guards surged backwards, carrying us towards the hole in the wall. I stumbled after them, half-shoved, half-carried by the retreating wall of shield-bearing Earth Ponies. I saw retreating tails before me, guards throwing their shields into the fray, turning and running. Behind me, there were only four ponies.
Make that none. The Timberwolves surged over our retreating defenses, a wall of snapping fangs spurring me into frenzied action. Ahead of me, all I could see were pony tails in retreat, flapping as they sprinted through the tunnel. As I entered that black maw, chased by the keening howls of Timberwolves, there was nothing between me and them.
I could hear the teeth snapping at my tail. In some small part of my mind, I thanked the powers that be I had braided it extra-tight that day, and there were no stray strands for them to grab onto. Each frenzied glance over my shoulders showed a wall of surging greenery, glowing eyes, and a tidal wave of rotting stench that made my throat close up. I was flagging. The morning of sparring, watching a legend tear down a wall of magic, seeing Twilight tackle one of the Great Serpents of old, and the frenzied fight had worn on me.
Ahead, the gap began to grow. Behind me, I could almost feel the currents of air as Timberwolves swiped at me, missing by a hair's width.
"STAR!" I saw Basil's face in that square of light before me. Two guards were holding him back, keeping him from charging into the tunnel with me. A low, dull thud behind me signalled the defenses triggering. Screaming howls tumbled down the tunnel; Timberwolves who had been caught and repelled by the ancient enchantments embedded in the walls. But immediately behind me were those that were trapped in the tunnel, and all they saw was my succulent pony flesh, mere inches away.
Fifty feet to the end of the tunnel.
The first set of claws sunk into my flank, sending white-hot flashes of pain into my psyche.
I poured the last effort I had into my legs.
The stink of rot chased me.
Something hit me, sending me sprawling.
I was skidding across the cobblestone, pain erupting into my body as I felt worn wooden teeth sink into my neck, close to my shoulder.
I burst from the tunnel, trailing blood and sticks in a whirlwind of frenzied cries and pain.
Lying in a pool of my own blood, I watched the world go dark around me.
The world revealed itself to me in degrees. The first sensation that returned to my consciousness was feel. And I felt terrible. Pain radiated through me, coming and going in aching waves, like the push and pull of the tide. I couldn’t exactly feel my legs, though I was relatively certain there was some sort of comfortable numbness compared to what was happening in my torso.
’Well at least I can still feel things. At least I’m not dead. Unless this is Tartarus, and this is all I’m supposed to feel. That would suck.’
The next sense I remember acquiring was taste. My mouth was fuzzy, and tasted like dirt and roots. It wasn’t very pleasant. Now and then, between crippling waves of pain, I’d feel a sort of liquid glide over my tongue, furthering the disgusting taste and making me want to wash my mouth out with anything that didn’t come directly from the ground.
Then came smell. Nothing major there, though I do remember smelling fresh laundry and blood. It was a strange combination to be smelling, for certain. But I didn’t pay much attention to it between the pain still wracking my body. But after smell came the largest and most important one of all. Sight. My eyes flickered open, and at first I had thought I went blind.
Then I realized there was something over my head. Which might account for the fact that I hadn’t heard anything either. I tried to move, to twitch something, but all I managed was a faint flick of my tail. I think. But shortly after that, a warm golden glow appeared in the darkness. It looked strangely pixelated, almost like a motion picture out-of-focus. But it steadily grew brighter and brighter until it was right before me, taking up all of my sight.
I realized then I was looking at a candle through a layer of fabric, and that there had to be somepony carrying that candle. I tried to speak, and managed a strange, gurgling sound.
“Oh. You’re awake. I just came to check on your I.V. Well, let’s get this off of you.” The voice was tender and low, unmistakably male, and welcome after what had felt, to me, like years awash on a sea of pain. The dark fabric slid off, and I was momentarily blinded by the candle. It took some time for my vision to regulate itself, but I was finally able to make sense of my surroundings.
For lack of a better word, ‘hospital’ came to mind. Considering my predicament and the excruciating pain I felt even then, it made sense. I worked my tongue in my mouth, pleading with the candle-bearer.
“Water.” I managed to croak.
“Hmm, I guess so. You seem healthy enough.” I felt something impact my lip, a faint glimmer of magic holding a cup to my mouth. I tried to move my head up, but something stopped me. Something solid. I tried again, but the pain intensified to all-new levels, and I stopped before I passed out. Instead, I poked my tongue at the thing, and found sweet, blessed water waiting for me. I lapped at it like a dog, sloppily, feeling the cool trickles course down my chin and neck. But more importantly, the majority of it went down my throat, cleansing the disgusting taste of dirt off of my tongue.
“I bet you’re wondering why you can’t move your head.” The voice said warmly, a hint of amusement in the tone. “I assure you, everything is fine. Your spine was damaged severely by the Timberwolves attacking you. We’ve enchanted your muscles to lock themselves in place so that you don’t move and hurt the healing process. Unfortunately, this comes with severe cramps and an almost abnormal amount of lactic acid buildup. As soon as the spell has finished reconstructing your vertebrae, we will release the enchantment and allow you to rest properly.”
“Ow.” I grimaced at hearing the description. It must have been a serious injury if my vertebrae had to be reconstructed, though I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the procedure. I had read about it once when studying medicine a long, long time ago when I was just a filly. I never knew just how excruciating this would be, or how debilitating. My panic abated at the explanation, and I was feeling remarkably more lucid now that I had a little water in me.
“The city?Io?” I managed again, finding a little more strength in my voice.
“Io has been defeated. Or at least run off.” The voice set the candle aside, casting an illumination onto his face. I tried to smile at him, but apparently the enchantment had disabled those muscles as well. He was a good-looking stallion, light-coated with a cobalt mane and warm, brown eyes. He certainly struck me as a doctor. “It has been two days since Twilight and the other princesses managed to run Io off, though they still struggle to keep the Timberwolves in their territory. From what I hear, there are many of them, and the residual energy from the previous shield is interfering with the casting of another one. At least, in the immediate area, and there are homes that would be left to the wolves - heh - if they cast another one closer.”
“Good.” I wanted to nod, but another wave of pain shook me. Tears leaked from my eyes, and I felt rather than heard the thin whimper pulse from my throat.
“How bad is it, on a scale of ten?”
“Cataclysmic.” I panted, wanting to curl up, to cry some more. Instead, I was stuck with the pain.
“We’ll give you more poppy milk. It doesn’t taste the best, but I think that’s secondary. Here you are, swallow it all now.” The vile taste returned to assault my tongue, but with it came blessed relief. The pain abated until I felt I could close my eyes without dying, and I fell back into another troubled sleep, though this one came with much more than just darkness.
I dreamt of blood and fire, sticks and a sickening smell of rot that cut to the back of my throat so hard I gagged on in. Timberwolves writhed and pulsed around me, howling and snapping at me as I tried to run, only to be cut off and herded back the way I had came. It was a terrifying dream, and it lasted for longer than I could count.
When next I awoke, the room was warm and I was hot, a little sweaty, but curled up and no longer in pain. Slowly, I moved my head, feeling the tightness in my muscles. I opened my eyes to look around, finding myself in an old-fashioned hospital room with warm wooden floors, and even a radiator against the far wall. There were two windows letting in golden sunlight; either in the morning or the evening I couldn’t tell.
“Hello?” I tested my voice, finding it working well enough to speak regularly. “Anyone there?” The bed I lay upon sat against the same wall with the door, and from that door emerged a pudgy Earth Pony mare in a crisp white uniform. She beamed warmly at me, and I found myself happy that I could return the smile.
“You’re awake! Goodness, I was afraid you’d sleep through the year! How are you feeling, love?” She had a cheery, alto voice that I found remarkably relaxing. I shifted my legs and head a little, feeling fatigued but no longer in pain. I knew if I tried to get up and walk, I’d likely suffer from more cramps. I grimaced and looked at the mare.
“Fatigued, I think. Like if I move too much I’ll die.”
“Aah, the doctor said you’d feel that-a-way. Here, let’s get you some water and some rest. I’ll ask and see iffen it’s okay for visitors to come an’ see you then. You’ve sure got a lot of them, Miss Caster.”
“Goldy?” I asked, drinking eagerly from the glass she offered me.
“There’s a golden-colored young filly out there, yes. She and this other feller, a green unicorn, almost had a spat just yesterday. The green one, I forget his name, seemed the most unruly of the two so we asked him to step out. Though I told him I’d come and fetch him once you were awake.”
“Basil. Yeah, I’d like to see him too… later. After Goldy.”
“I’ll go see if she can come in.” The mare winked at me, leaving with the cup in my grasp. I sipped at it, feeling sweet relief flood into me once more. I looked out of the window intently, trying to grasp at what was outside or which of the two Trottingham hospitals I was in, but I couldn’t quite see enough to tell me which. Instead, I did what any pony does when stuck in the hospital.
Thankfully, it wasn’t very long at all. The nurse returned, beaming warmly, with a certain energetic young pegasus on her tail.
“Now, no hugging or anythi-“
“Star!”Goldy shoved past the mare with little regard for her implied command, instead launching herself onto the bed. Thankfully, she had enough sense to straddle me rather than fall on me, but she pressed her neck up against mine, and I felt a wave of relief not dissimilar to the water flood through me just then.
“I’m okay, Goldy. It’s okay now.”
“Star, oh by the heavens, I’m so glad you’re okay.” She looked like Tartarus had chewed her up and spat her out. Her golden mane was frayed and looked a little dirty, and she had certainly smelled better. I could tell from the strange cowlicks and tufts on her coat that she had been sleeping on hospital chairs for the past two or three days.
“Did you stay the whole time?”
“She never left.” The nurse grumbled, taking a mouth-full of Goldy’s tail and hauling her off of me. I was sad to see her go, but I knew now there would be time for a tearful, physical reunion later. Goldy glared at the nurse, but resigned to sitting at my bedside on the doctor’s stool. The nurse didn’t look ready to debate that much, and instead went on to take my blood pressure and other vitals while Goldy and I chatted.
“So, what all happened? After the enchantments were triggered, I mean.”
“Well, I don’t know many of the specifics.” Goldy waved nonchalantly. “They came to get me and your parents a few hours after I dropped you off at the foot of the wall, saying you were in the hospital and it was critical. We came as soon as we could, and we’ve been waiting ever since. Basil, Lotus, and Breeze checked in and updated us every couple of hours. Apparently Io wasn’t the only dragon who’s come back.”
“No.” I felt the blood rush out of my face, leaving me with a chill. “The other Great Serpents are back, too?”
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard it either, but not too long after we’d learned that, this huge fireball went up in the bay. It was… colossal.”
“Tiamat.” I whispered, thinking back to all the stories and history books I had read. “The Maw of the Sun.”
“That’s what Twilight said it was. There were two more just like it, and everypony in the city got really scared. Some of the flames were so hot you could feel it, even just standing outside on the street; miles away from the blast.”
“Tiamat was renown for being the most incendiary of the Great Serpents.” I muttered. Goldy blinked at me invitingly, so I continued. “They’re called the ‘Maw of the Sun’ because the mages of old hypothesized their flames were hot enough to rival that of the sun’s. They say Tiamat’s fire was hot enough to melt stone to glass, vaporize steel, and even hurt the Great Serpent themselves. They say the Fields of Blood had wide swaths, miles long, of land that had been scorched down to the bedrock, everything above it vaporized into gas.”
“Well it seems that way.” Goldy fidgeted, hugging herself on the side of the bed. “We were so scared, but right around then Celestia and Luna showed up, I think. I guess Tiamat ran when they arrived, because there wasn’t another one after that. But there's this other one, I don't know its name, flying around out there."
"Jormangundr." I nodded, swallowing against the dry sensation in my mouth. "The Wings of the Aether. They say he flies so fast that his wake shaped the mountains and set the waves in motion, giving us the tides. Not much other than that is known, only that every now and then a streak of light can be seen, and in its wake, a thunderous roar is all that's heard."
"That's..." Goldy scrunched her nose at me. "Awfully wordy, even for you."
"I was quoting the books." I muttered, blushing faintly. "But that's what they said about them... Io, the ram; Tiamat, the fires; and Jormangundr, the winds. Those three plagued the Fields of Blood so long ago. Before Horseshoe Bay was made."
"Hmm. I'd believe it." Goldy stood from the stool, reaching out to lay her hoof on my foreleg. "I have to go, Star. There are a lot of ponies who want to see you, and they only allow one of us at a time. I promised your parents I wouldn't be long."
"Alright. Goldy, I love you." I clutched at that hoof for a desperate moment, realizing how badly I had missed her touch in the dark abyss of my unconsciousness. If a pony ever could feel the touch of death and live to tell about it, I think I'd be as close as any. Now that I was back, I had some things to talk to Goldy about, and I planned on spilling my heart before long. But she needed rest - real rest - and I needed to talk to some other ponies before that.
"I love you too, Star. I'm gonna go back and shower and stuff, but I'll be back right after that, okay?"
"I'll see you then." I smiled as she leaned in, sneaking a quick kiss. The nurse opened her mouth to complain, but she knew the finer points of keeping one's mouth shut. When Goldy pulled away, she held a faint blush and a warm smile. Despite her frumpy appearance and the bags under her eyes, that smile made her seem like the most beautiful mare in the world at that moment. Some small part of me wondered if I deserved a wonderful mare like that to call my own. The larger part saved the mental snapshot of that look forever.
"I'll see myself out now." The nurse followed after Goldy. "Your vitals look fine and you're resting well. We'll get you up and walking tomorrow, and the day after that you should be able to leave. I'll send the rest of your visitors in one at a time."
"Thank you, miss..."
"Just call me Candi." The nurse winked at me before leaving. In her wake, a welcome face came in.
"Oh Star!" She fluttered to my bedside, laying both hooves on one of mine. She looked just as distraught as Goldy did, but at least she had the common sense to get some restorative sleep. The bags under her eyes seemed to come from just crying, and not restless nights on hospital benches. "Thank the heavens you're okay; we were scared to death."
"I'm fine, mom. How are you and Dad?"
"We're alright, darling." Olive sniffed, nuzzling into my hoof lovingly. She moved her own to my neck, pulling me close tenderly. I didn't feel any pain, so I tucked into her embrace like a little foal. After coming face-to-face with whatever fate had been mine at the receiving end of a Timberwolf pack, I felt like I needed to be a foal; if only for a little while. The tears came then, the ones I'd been too afraid to cry in front of Goldy.
"Shh, shh, it's okay." My mother's voice was a soothing tincture that relaxed me beyond measure. I felt her parental reassurance do wonders for my nerves, and true relief flooded into my veins once more. In that moment, I wasn't Twilight's student tasked with a nearly-impossible task, I wasn't a unicorn who had just had a brush with death, I wasn't a cowering pony beneath the shadow of three dragons that hadn't walked the land for thousands of years...
I was just a scared little filly. And I needed to be that filly for a minute longer.
"I'm okay." I pulled away from my mom after a while, smiling bravely at her as I wiped the tears away. "Thank you, mom."
"I'm so glad you're okay, Star. But I promised I wouldn't take long. Your father is waiting."
"Okay." I sobered a little, wondering what it was my father would have to say to me. One of his last warnings to me was 'be safe.' Having failed him, I wondered what sort of ire I would be facing. "The nurse said I'll be out of here in about two days."
"That's good. Goldy will be happy to hear that." Olive smiled at me and made for the door, though she stopped at the threshold. "We're proud of you, Star. Rumor has it you and Basil did a great thing holding those Timberwolves at bay while they worked on the wall. Don't let anything anyone else says make you think otherwise."
"O... Okay. Why, what are others saying...?" I asked, but my mother just closed her eyes and shook her head.
"It's not my place to say. Just know that we're proud of you, Star." And with that, she was gone. I was left on the bed, my mind racing a million miles an hour. I hardly got a chance to reconcile them before Audit walked in.
Now there was a pony who had seen hell. I froze as the phantom image of my father took the doctor's stool, sitting close by the side of my bed. If Goldy looked bad, Audit looked a dozen times worse. His eyes were bloodshot, and there were coffee stains on his sweater. His mane was completely matted on one side, and stood up at odd angles on the other. The bags under his eyes could have weighed hundreds of pounds, and his head hung low enough to give him the most defeated, tired posture I've ever seen. I opened my mouth to speak, but he fixed me with an intent look.
"No father should have to bury his daughter."
He left. Without another word, without even looking at me, he turned and walked out of the room. The door shut softly, with an almost-inaudible *click* and I found myself secretly hoping he had slammed it instead.
I curled up in a ball on the bed, tears of guilt and fear flowing fast and free now.
The border between crying and sleep was blurred for me. Guilt weighed heavily on my mind, plaguing me with nagging doubts and belittling comments that seemed to wear down on me, like a stone at the bed of a rushing river being slowly eaten away over the ages. I sobbed, I shed tears, and I whimpered until sleep took me away, blending so smoothly into consciousness that I wasn’t sure if my tears were falling on my hooves in the dreamscape or in the musty hospital room.
Rest was fitful. Then again, I had difficulty sleeping without Goldy in the bed beside me of late, and given she couldn’t be with me, that compounded the problem. My muscles were still weak, and rolling over took great effort. Each time I felt the need to re-adjust, my strength was pushed to its limit, and I fell into sleep all the quicker for my exhaustion.
I must not have received any more visitors. Or if I had, they didn’t wake me. The rare moments of lucidity between rolling over and wracking bouts of sobbing told me that night had come and gone, and the light of a new dawn poured in through the windows. Still, I didn’t find solace in the honey-colored rays of light, nor the prospect of my friends. My thoughts were plagued with one thing and one thing only:
Audit was right. No father should have to bury his daughter. No mother should have to say goodbye to her precious filly. No teacher should have to stand at the grave of her student.
No lover should have to sleep in an empty bed.
I slept fitfully all throughout that day, and only found true rest when the doctor wordlessly came with another vial of poppy milk. I drank the entire thing and fell into a deep, restorative sleep. My dreams were strange and troublesome, though never truly horrifying enough to wake me. Something just felt off in each of them. For one, Goldy was a stallion. For another, Twilight kept her physique, but appeared to be constructed of the same twigs, leaves, and logs that the timberwolves were.
The dreamscape was a terrifying thing to me; one that I had difficulty reconciling. It whirled around me, changing and shifting rapidly like some maelstrom of doubt and anxiety. One moment I found myself running from Twilight, the next I was savaged by the stallion that was Goldy, and on through the mystifying landscape of my dreams until I plunged into a lake of molten gold. The searing metal burned at me, but didn’t consume or eat away at my body. I just thrashed about in it, screaming helplessly, feeling completely at a loss for myself.
I breached the surface with a mighty gasp, shuddering from pain as my back arched up towards the sky. The night wheeled above me, infinite and mysterious, consuming all of my sight and sound. I was enraptured by the stars and the moon, looking impossibly large for a normal night. Then again, this was anything but a normal dream. The molten gold sluiced away from me, and I found myself leaving the searing pool.
I was afloat among the stars, my pains and anxieties gone for the moment. It felt like a soothing balm, this calming night sky wrapping me in its embrace like some long-lost lover. I was not surprised to find I wasn’t alone anymore. Nor was it the terrifying visages of my tortured mind that populated this soothing place. My eyes went wide and I felt compelled to bow as Princess Luna emerged from among the stars, like shedding a celestial shroud. She spoke to me, her voice kind and low.
“Hello, Star Caster.”
“Princess Luna. I… I’m honored. That you would come visit me, that is.”
“Your dreams have been a delight to behold the past few days; that much is for certain.” Luna smiled down at me, offering a hoof. I tenuously accepted it, and she pulled me to my haunches. At least, as close to it as I could be, seeing as we were floating aimlessly in the midst of the night sky, with nothing but stars all around us. I gave a soft breath of wonder as Luna spread her wings and began to fly a slow, lazy loop around me.
“Do you know why I’m here to speak with you now?”
“I do not.” I had to admit, watching her roll lazily while circling me in the infinite sky. “I can guess that it’s to do with the timberwolves and the Elder Serpents.”
“Well, you’re not wrong. But it’s much bigger than that. I sense a great amount of turmoil in you, and your dreams mirror that. Normally, my duties in the dreamscape lie with quieting young foals’ nightmares, and helping them find their way to the truth of things. Very seldom do I interfere with grown ponies’ dreams, and it’s even more rare that I confront them directly.
“Take for instance the lake I just rescued you from. Do you know what it means when a pony is lost in a liquid, specifically molten metal?”
“I’d imagine it’s a torturous experience, one way or another.”
“Again, you’re not wrong. But it has a lot to do with the material in which they find themselves. Gold is a rare commodity, and signifies both wealth and preciousness. To find yourself drowning in the midst of a lake of molten gold means you find yourself surrounded by love and adoration, but feel smothered for it. Helpless, even.”
“That doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.” Luna’s words didn’t make much sense to me. How could anypony be smothered by affection? There were ponies who could take emotional connections too far, but Goldy was anything but clingy and I could certainly see the logic in my parents’ turmoil.
“Well, I never said it was.” Luna mused, coming to hover in front of me. “It could be a very beneficial thing, but unless that love and adoration is appreciated then it only weighs us down. But let’s move on. You saw Twilight, your mentor, fashioned of the same materials as the dreaded timberwolves, correct?”
“Yeah…” I shivered. That particular dream was terrifying in its own right.
“To see a trusted pony, be they a family member or beloved advisor, fashioned of the thing you fear most tends to signify an intense feeling of distrust. Do you not trust Twilight?”
“I…” Luna’s question took me off-guard. I had to think for several long moments, staring pensively at a constellation in the distance. Did I trust Twilight? Her motivations weren’t exactly transparent, and I’d felt more than my fair share of turmoil over following her requests. Ever since my prophecy had been made, Twilight had been making decisions that I found suspect. In the end, I had to arrive at the only logical conclusion.
“I can’t say that I do. In her defense, everything she’s tasked me with has been logically sound, but I find myself unable to trust her.”
“I suspected as much.” Luna’s soft smile betrayed an understanding beyond my years. Then again, she was millennia old herself. I found myself wondering how many ponies Luna had confronted like this, and what sorts of changes their lives took after they awoke from her blessed dream world. “Well, allow me to allay some of your fears. Twilight acts solely out of the best interest of Equestria. I’ll be the first to admit that this has come at the cost of several individual lives in the past, but this is - very thankfully - not one of them. Twilight is doing everything she can to ensure not just your safety, but the safety of Equestria at large.”
“I find that difficult to believe.” A frown found its way to my lips. “Why would Twilight send me out here, and presumably through a barrier, if she wanted to protect me? Wouldn’t I be more safe in Canterlot, under the protection of all three of you?”
“Perhaps.” Luna pursed her lips, rolling onto her back and floating lazily away. She crossed her hooves behind her head, looking upwards into the infinite void of the night sky around us. “Maybe you’d have been more safe in Canterlot, but what of the ponies in Trottingham? How many would have suffered without your efforts in protecting the walls?”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow…” I frowned at her, watching her ephemeral mane billow around her head. “There were dozens of guards protecting the walls. Would one pony… me, of all the unicorns in Trottingham, have made all that difference?”
“Such is the way of prophecy.” Luna rolled back over, facing me directly. “The first leg of your own prophecy has come to pass, Star Caster. ’The blood and bone of the bane of stars buys the safety of the ancient city, and by her turmoil are the Great Serpents called.’ Congratulations, Star. You’ve survived the first portion of the most influential prophecy in over three millennia.”
I awoke to the gentle light of a pre-dawn sun, creeping over the top of Trottingham’s massive walls. Luna’s words chased me into consciousness, sending a haunting chill through my body. I felt heavy and sluggish, but my muscles no longer screamed in protest at the slightest movement, and I could think more clearly than I had been able to in what felt like an eternity. I raised my head to peer out of the window, feeling only the slightest tightness in my body. After stretching cautiously, I slipped off of the bed and made my way to the connected bathroom. Some small part of my psyche celebrated that victory, that I was finally able to at least handle myself on my own.
The larger part of my mind was mulling Luna’s conversation over, thinking hard on what she had said to me. The words of the prophecy were strange and convoluted, but I could guess that it was my effort that had saved Trottingham. My injuries were intended, long before I had suffered them. Either that, or the failure. And considering how pivotal this prophecy seemed to be, that would have been even more catastrophic than letting the timberwolves breach the walls. Or even allowing Io to do the same.
I splashed cold water on my face, looking at my haggard expression in the bathroom mirror. It was then that I received a larger shock than my prophecy had given me.
“Lotus is going to fucking kill me.” I turned my head to the side, grimacing as my hooves ran over the sheared strands of my mane. Gone were the long, flowing black locks of hair, replaced by an almost tomcoltish short style. A series of red bumps along the base of my skull signaled the end of my mane, leaving the long coat of my neck bare of any long strands of hair. That must have been where my spine had been damaged, and the doctors had cut away the hair to better get at the source of the problem. Then, it seemed, one of them had made the executive decision to make the rest of my mane match. Where I could have braided the entire thing maybe two dozen times over, I’d now struggle to fit three simple braids before reaching the end of the strands.
In short, I was down to maybe a quarter of the hair I had previously had. I felt bald, despite still sporting more hair than either my mother or my father. Goldy and Lotus certainly had me beat, but Fair Breeze and Basil would find a companion in short mane styles. I looked like a different pony altogether, and coupled with the bags under my eyes, it looked like a ghost was staring at me through the mirror.
“Miss Caster?” A familiar voice reached my ears, tearing my gaze away from the phantom in the glass.
“Oh wow, you’re up on your own! Feeling well, then?”
“Yeah, actually.” I emerged from the bathroom to a smiling Candi, the comely earth pony nurse beaming at me warmly. “I feel rotten, but I can at least take care of myself now.”
“Well that’s good news. There’s a whole slew o’ ponies just waitin’ to see you, hon. We’ve held them off since you needed your rest after the visitors yesterday, but if you’re feeling well enough, do you want to see some more of them today?”
“That would be nice.” I smiled at her, though the expression quickly turned sour. “Eer, that is, if I can take a shower first.”
“Well of course! Would you like some help, or-“
“I think I can manage.” I smiled at her, turning back into the bathroom.
I came to realize that my mane may have been sheared, but my tail still retained its full volume. Compared to the relatively austere hairstyle I’d been saddled with, the weight of all that hair on my backside seemed oppressive. Indeed, just maneuvering my head around in the shower, scrubbing it with my hooves and rinsing off under the spout of water, felt rather liberating in a way. I felt lighter, more capable and certainly more streamlined. While scrubbing the long strands of my tail, what had once seemed like a comforting ritual now struck me as more of a burden than anything else.
I toweled myself dry in the steamy air and emerged into the hospital room to a fresh set of linens. The curtains had all been drawn aside, letting even more brilliant morning light filter in. It felt almost like a new room after the dark days I had spent sleeping and crying in here. The haunting memory of the intense pain still hovered over my mind, but it was nothing more than that anymore. I could move past it, and I felt a small bit of hope after having survived such a horrific ordeal.
’My spine had been shattered. I had almost died. If I can survive that…’
The thought died as Candi emerged from the hallway, escorting my next guest. I simultaneously felt a surge of joy and a cloud of dread descend on me as Lotus stepped into the room. Her eyes immediately flickered to my mane, and her already-pale coloration faded even more.
“Oh Star…” She breathed, raising a hoof to her mouth.
“H-hey, Lotus…” I muttered weakly, blushing intensely. “I, uuh… I guess what you said came true, huh? I can’t be trusted to take care of my own mane.”
“Well I should think not!” Lotus’s coloration returned as she rushed forth, shooing me towards the rolling doctor’s stool. “Candi, dear, could you be a darling and go tell Fair Breeze to get my go-to bag from our home? While I wait for my supplies, I can tell Star how right I was.”
“Sure thing, darlin’. Star? You gonna be okay?”
“As okay as anypony can be with this psycho on their tail.” I grimaced. Candi just chuckled and exited into the hallway. As soon as she left, Lotus wrapped me in a tight embrace.
“I’m glad you’re okay, Star. We were worried about you.”
“I’m so sorry, Lotus.” I nuzzled into her neck, returning the embrace with a soft whimper. “I never wanted to worry you all so much. And I know how much you loved my mane-“
“Oh shut up about your mane. I might give you a hard time about it, but in all sincerity it’s just humorous. Remember all the times I told you ‘oh, your mane would fall off without me there to take care of it?’ I almost didn’t believe Goldy when she told me they had to cut it off to… to get at your, uum, spine…”
“True.” I sniffled and pulled back to smile at her. “Still, I’m sorry I had you all worried. There’s… There’s a lot I have to talk about with you and the others, with Twilight, and my parents… Ugh.” I felt the beginning of a headache come on as I recalled all the thoughts that had crossed my mind since waking from my dream.
“There’s a time and a place for that. Let’s at least wait until you’re out of the hospital, okay? Now, tell me about everything that happened.”
I recollected everything that had happened from the morning of the attack, when I had last seen Lotus. Basil and I had gone to spar, and on our return stopped at my parents’ place for hot cocoa. Then Goldy and my mom had told us of the tremors, and the barrier. We flew there, the four of us, and witnessed Io shattering Twilight’s barrier. I told her about watching Twilight and Io clash, and Twilight instructing us what to do. I skimmed a fair few details, especially the ones that gave me shudders at recollecting them.
“So when we got word, we fell back into the wall. I’m guessing they just couldn’t hold off on activating any longer, and when they kicked it on I got thrown out of the wall…”
“Yes, the captain told us that was what happened. He said he watched you get blasted out of the tunnel, a wave of sticks and twigs behind you.”
“I figured as much.” A grimace passed my face as I sighed. “Timberwolves, for all their ferociousness, don’t weigh that much. Not enough to shatter my spine. It’d have to have been the enchantments. I’m lucky I wasn’t crushed outright, or worse, shredded.”
“Shredded?” Lotus blanched.
“Yeah, it’s… Well, the Southern and Western walls are different. Their enchantments actually shred anything caught inside, or that tries to get inside. Way back when, the East and North walls saw the most wear and tear, being on the frontlines of the fighting. So if anything tried to come into the other two ways, they were infiltrating purposefully. The original designers must have wanted to show no mercy to whatever tried to make their way in that way.”
“Barbaric.” Lotus sighed, turning away from me to go to the door. She poked her head out, but stepped back almost immediately. Fair Breeze stepped inside, clutching a smallish bag in her teeth. Lotus took it, freeing the fleet pegasus to smile at me properly.
“Hey yourself.” I smiled at her, opening my hooves for a warm hug. She stepped into it warmly, throwing her forelegs around me and squeezing for all she was worth. Being as small a pegasus as she was, it still felt like a vice gripping me. Still, I held her for as long as I dared. Both Lotus and Fair Breeze had been good friends to me ever since our introduction. It was thanks to them that I knew Goldy, and had two travelling companions with me here in Trottingham. In a way, they reminded me of Canterlot, and of my home in Equestria’s capitol.
“We’re glad you’re okay, Star. There’s a lot of other ponies waiting to see you, so I won’t stay long. Lotus, keep it short will you? There’ll be plenty of time to drag Star through a full spa treatment when she’s out of here.”
“One cannot rush perfection.” Lotus waved at Breeze dismissively, her horn glimmering as she picked through the myriad of tools in the bag. It seemed to be an impromptu mane styling kit, complete with curlers and what I could guess were several bottles of dye. “But others can visit her while I work. You just can’t expect me to let her go with a short mane and a long tail. This isn’t Horseshoe Bay, and she isn’t a sailor.”
“What?” I blinked at her.
“Short mane, long tail is a sailor fashion adopted by social radicals in Horseshoe Bay.” Lotus waved me off, settling on a large pair of shears and a few smaller clippers. “Just shush up and let me square you away. They didn’t seem to mind savaging your mane in here, so they ought not to mind me fixing their mistakes. Go on, Breeze, send the others in. I’ll be out as soon as I’m done.”
“See you back at home.” Breeze chuckled before giving me one last, quick hug. “Good luck, Star.”
“I’m gonna need it.” I grimaced as Lotus pushed me back onto the doctor’s stool, her hooves raking through my short mane and the clippers setting to their work. Breeze stepped out as the first strands of my mane fell away under Lotus’ clippers, and in her wake came an unfamiliar pony.
“Star Caster,” He kept a stoic, rock-hard expression, not unlike his physique. He wore guard armor, but underneath it I could tell he was as solid an Earth Pony as they came. His brilliant white complexion seemed to glimmer in the morning light coming through the windows, and were it not for Lotus snipping at my mane, I’d have taken a good long look at him. “Pardon the interruption, but the Guard has been waiting to debrief you since you awoke yesterday. I hope you’ll forgive me for taking my visit before other friends and family members.”
“I understand. Might I have your name?” I asked, trying to duck around Lotus, but getting a reprimanding swat and a tsk from the stylist.
“I’m Dawn Gleam, commander of the guard forces in Trottingham.”
“Oh! Commander, forgive me, I… I thought you were an aide or something else, I… I’m sorry. Lotus, buzz off for half a moment, would you?”
“Style cannot wait. The Commander can. Or he can speak while I work. Just keep your head still.” Lotus muttered off-hoofedly, obviously focused on my mane.
“Excuse her.” I blushed. “She’s an idiot. Ow!”
“I heard that.” She tugged at my ear playfully, but I caught a glimpse of her smile. Dawn Gleam just cleared his throat and began speaking.
“We wanted to speak with you about your valorous actions at the battle of the North Tunnel. Between Io’s return and the timberwolves moving on Trottingham, we’ve seen the first open act of aggression against Equestria in a long while. We are at war, though we know not who our enemy is or how strong they are. Nevertheless, you and Basil stepped into the duty commanded of you by our Princess in such an admirable fashion that we owe the safety of Trottingham and her citizens to you both. Before we begin with the debriefing, I’d like to inform you that the Guard has seen fit to award you both with our highest civilian honor, the Platinum Star.”
“I… Wow.” Dawn Gleam’s words took my surprise. I blinked at him a few times, feeling a rush of heat to my face. I’d read a dozen stories about valorous ponies who had won the Platinum Star in wars past, and they had always won it at great personal cost. Then again, they had almost always won it at great personal cost. Second to the Morning Star, which was awarded only to ponies in the guard, it was the highest honor the Equestrian military could award. I felt my cheeks heat and my vision waver faintly.
“I understand this is a lot to take in at once, ma’am. But still, I must ask you a few questions about the attack.”
“O-of course.” I shook myself mentally, focusing on the Commander. “Ask away.”
“I’d like to begin by asking you to recount exactly what happened. Again, I know this might be painful, but please try not to leave anything out. Any and all details, no matter how small or inconsequential, may help us in our duty to the fallen.”
“Right.” I inhaled deeply and began my tale. It was much the same that I had told Lotus, but with much more details once I got to the part where we engaged the Timberwolves outside of the wall. There were a few times where Lotus’ clippers paused in their movement, and I could have sworn I heard her sniffle once or twice, but aside from my voice and the soft sound of snipping, the room was quiet. The Commander listened to me intently, his brilliant grey eyes never once leaving mine, save when Lotus moved between us. By the time I had finished, Lotus was finished with my mane and had moved on to my tail. The insistent tugs and pulling were countered by the sober mood, as I got into telling some of the more grisly details.
Every now and then, the Commander would cut in and ask me to clarify something, but other than that he remained quiet. It took almost fifteen whole minutes to tell the entire story from beginning to end, and when I finished he nodded solemnly.
“Was there anything else you remember?”
“… I don’t. After the tunnel, it’s all blank.”
“Very well. Thank you, Star Caster, for your contributions. Between your story and the statements of Guard ponies fighting alongside you, I can tell that you did a great service in defending the wall. Were it not for you, I don’t think they’d have held out against the assault. The ponies of Trottingham thank you. Miss Lotus, Miss Caster… I’ll take my leave.” Dawn Gleam gave the two of us a military salute before turning and leaving. In his wake, the silence was broken only by the soft sound of snipping.
“I didn’t know it was that… violent.” She whispered, the scissors pausing in their incessant snipping. “You didn’t tell me how many of them died.”
“Well…” I swallowed past the lump in my throat, remembering the sight of ponies dragged off into the mass of howling, snarling branches and twigs. Coats rent asunder, limbs and torsos ripped to pieces, the dying screams of good, honest guards.
“Can you blame me?”
Lotus remained silent, resuming her solemn clipping.
Another minute or so passed before my next visitor arrived. Cobalt shouldered through the door, smiling down at me like some sort of gentle giant.
“Is good to see little pony okay again.” His deep voice vibrated into me, and I couldn’t help but smile up at the big lug.
“Glad to see you’re safe too, Cobalt. How’s the library been in my absence?”
“Books and shelves are fine. Is ponies I’m worried about. Little golden one is worried about you still. She has eaten again, but I have hardly seen her around. She agreed to let other ponies come see you, but is impatient. Like little sparrow, wanting to be free. Instead, she wants to come in here, to kiss you.”
“W-well, thanks. I guess.” I blushed at the blunt description, and Cobalt gave a deep, gut-rolling laugh at my colored cheeks.
“You look even littler with short mane. I like it. Makes you seem like little fairy pony.”
“Yeah, thanks.” I stuck my tongue out at him, though a smile played across my lips. “Seriously, though. Thank you for stopping by, Cobalt. It means a lot to me.”
“Is no issue.” Cobalt shrugged. “Princess Twilight asked me to help you. If I had known you would fight timberwolves, I’d have helped beat them at your side. Carried tiny pony through wall. Keep you safe.”
“Cobalt…” I blinked up at him. “You’d have fought by my side?”
“I’d have helped.” Cobalt said again, fixing me with a serious look. “For Twilight.”
“I get the feeling there’s something between you and Twilight I’m not privy to.” I surmised, though a warm feeling permeated my breast at hearing the hulking pony would have fought with me. He hardly knew me, and yet he’d have waded into the fires at my side without a second thought. His devotion to Twilight had to have been unparalleled.
“Some day, when we drink together, I vill tell you of Cobalt and the Archmage. But that day is not today. There are other tiny ponies waiting to see you. I vill leave, and have your room cleaned by the time you come home. Good bye, little pony. I’m glad you are okay.”
“Good bye, Cobalt. I’ll see you soon.” I would have hugged him goodbye, but I still feared for the well-being of my bones. Instead, he gave my head a rough pat, enough to make my grimace and buckle underneath the weight. Grinning widely, he ducked out of the door once more.
“I’m just about finished here.” Lotus quipped, tugging at my tail still. “I really do like this short style, mind you. It’s very… Spring.”
“If anypony could make me look good with short hair, it’d be you.” I chuckled, glancing over my shoulder at the changes. My tail certainly was much shorter, and seemed to twist in on itself as it fell over my haunches. It was long enough to cover me still, but wouldn’t hang nearly far enough for me to trip on it as it had just a few short days ago. Given the feeling of weightlessness on my head, I wondered what it’d feel like to be free the long strands on my backside as well.
“And we’re done.” Lotus stepped back, walking a slow circle around me with a critical eye. “Aah… Manefique. I seem to have out-done myself.”
“Let me see.” I trotted into the bathroom, feeling like a new pony all over again. The mirror was just large enough that I could see all of myself in it. My mane framed my face in a pixie-like style, with long bangs but a much shorter back side, leading out to a nicely-stylized rim that blended the longer and short strands wonderfully. It wasn’t quite as feminine as my old manestyle had been, but there was still a sense of pixie-like grace to it that made me seem like less of a tomcolt than the doctors had left me with. My tail, however, was almost completely different. Gone was the waterfall of hair that would hang down my legs and tangle with my hooves, replaced instead by a short spray of hair that twisted in on itself in a strange, if alluring, pseudo-braid. I waved it back and forth a few times, testing the light weight of it against memory, and found it to be awfully liberating. It did just about as good a job as my old tail did in covering me, but was much easier to move aside, should I feel the need.
Goldy would certainly like it.
“Wow.” Her voice came to me, making me stand up a little straighter. I looked past myself in the mirror, and found her standing at the door. My heart climbed up into my throat, and my cheeks grew hot. “I mean… wow.”
“Hey yourself, Star.” She looked much better than she did yesterday. A full night’s rest and a shower had done her well. She trotted to my side, looking at me in the mirror. We stood side-by-side, and a gentle sound told us Lotus had finished cleaning and packing. We were alone in the bathroom of the hospital, and while I’d have to admit a few untoward thoughts crossed my mind, they were silenced by decency. Instead, I looked at Goldy and she looked at me. We stood like that for what felt like a full minute before she finally spoke.
“Lotus did a really good job. You look different, but… Well, I don’t want to say ‘better’ but it’s different. Still good.As good. As you were, I mean. I… Oh, brother…” She stuttered awkwardly, a crimson blush rising to her cheeks. I couldn’t help it. I leaned in and cemented our lips together, closing my eyes.
In that one simple, beautiful moment, it all melted away. The fear and the pain, the doubt and anger, the exasperation and helplessness. Gone was my trepidation, fled had my fears, and the ghosts that haunted my every thought moved on to new haunts.
In that moment, pressed against Goldy like that, I was Home.
“Oh wow, honey, you look so good!” Olive Breeze bubbled as she rushed forward, running her hooves through my newly-styled mane and tail. “Ooh, that Lotus, she is good. Do you think I could…?”
“I’ll see what I can do about getting you an appointment with her.” I chuckled, pulling my mother away from my tail and into a warm embrace. Behind her, Audit entered the hospital room. He wasn’t nearly as haggard as he had been yesterday. The phantom of that pony still hung over him, though, and the bags under his eyes had receded only a little. At least he looked clean and showered, with a different sweater on and his eyes were no longer bloodshot. For that, I was immediately thankful.
Wordlessly, I slipped away from my mom and strode over to him. Our eyes met, and for one moment, I felt like a filly in front of him once more. His words echoed back to me, and the memory of that guilt reared its ugly head for a half a moment. He looked at me, and I looked at him. In that moment, I wasn't a valorous pony soon to be awarded the highest honor by the Guard. I wasn't Twilight Sparkle's personal student. I wasn't even a grown pony.
I was just a little foal, and I had upset the one pony that meant the most to me. I loved my father, and knowing how upset he was with me was worse than having my spine shattered. Wordlessly, he wrapped his hooves around me, pulling me into a tight embrace. I collapsed against him, feeling the tears come on once more. They spilled out of my eyes and onto his coat, soaking into the sweater. His hooves wrapped around me and began stroking my mane tenderly.
"Shh, shh, it's okay, Star." He whispered. I was aware of another pair of hooves wrapping around the two of us as Olive Breeze joined us. We sat there, our humble little family nearly shattered by my reckless actions. The guilt came back, carrying me away on waves of pathetic sympathy.
Until enlightenment came from the most unlikely of sources.
"I'm proud of you, Star." My father whispered. His words put a stopper in my tears, cutting them off with one last hiccup. I leaned back to look at him, at the sad smile he gave me. "The Platinum Star is a very important honor. They wouldn't be giving it to you if you didn't do something right."
"What I said still stands." He sighed, stepping back so that our embrace was broken. I could feel him settling into 'lecture' mode once more, and I knew he was about to speak some inevitable, universal truth. I had been in this position dozens of times before, and each time I walked away feeling all the better for it.
"No father - no parent - should have to bury their child. Had you died, I fear it'd have broken your mother and I. But you didn't perish. The reaper certainly knocked on your door, but like your grandfather always said-"
"If the reaper pony comes for you, don't go quietly. Go kicking and screaming, punching him in the throat." I chuckled, and the smile proved infectious.
"You fought death and won, Star. What's more, you saved a lot of ponies from certain doom. Far be it from me to doubt Princess Twilight and the others when their decisions saved so many." He inhaled a soft breath, as if collecting his thoughts. "I cannot control you or your decisions. If I had my way, you'd still be living at home, and where would that put us? You without having known Goldy, and us without a brilliant, beautiful daughter so full of life and passion.
"As much as any parent would like to, I cannot tell you how to live your life. I may fret, and worry, and lose control of myself when you're in danger, but I cannot tell you where to go or what to do. In just a few short years on your own, you've gone from a bumbling young filly to a beautiful and capable young mare. So I'm putting my faith in you, and in our Princesses. I am proud of what you've accomplished, and I would like to see you continue on in helping ponies."
"B-but, I... Daddy, I..."
"You what?" He arched an eyebrow at me, a faint smile playing across his lips. "You saved Trottingham? You stopped the Timberwolves from ripping us all apart? You helped Twilight in defending us from Io, and Tiamat, and Jormangundr? You survived?"
"But the other guards..." I shuddered, remembering the guards that had fallen beside me. "They... they died."
"I know," Audit hung his head. "And that is terrible. Truly, I'm unable to express just how horrible their loss is. We knew many of the families who lost sons and daughters in the attack. They mourn the lost, even now, a whole week later. It was a tragedy."
He raised his head to me, his eyes flashing.
"Which is why I'm not going to have you sully their memory by moping. Their deaths will not be meaningless, Star Caster. They died serving Equestria. And if that's the way you are destined to pass, then I will accept it. But I'll not have you fall into inaction, sitting in this hospital, mourning those who are already moved on." He stood up, laying a hoof under my chin. I gasped, my own eyes gone wide and fearful as he wrenched them up to his, staring at me intently. My father had never raised a hoof to me in anger, and the sudden motion from him, so resolute and hard, took me by surprise. The next words he spoke bored into my very being, carved onto my psyche.
Another blast of fire erupted into the sky, blocking out the mid-day sun as it billowed over the tops of the walls. The flames licked at the glimmering wall of magic above Trottingham, roiling and furious. But the enchantment held, defending the countless ponies inside the city from being vaporized to nothingness. The flames continued on, dwarfing the sun and lighting the streets below in an eerie, baleful daylight. That was not Celestia's sun bearing down on us, but the flames of Tiamat, who still bathed Trottingham in fire from time to time. It seemed the Elder Serpent was intent on breaking through the enchantments and finally destroying the city that had stood in defiance for so long.
I put the hospital to my tail, a new sense of purpose welling inside of me. I made my way to the Northern wall, but not to go home and finally celebrate my reunion with Goldy. I had a specific pony to meet, and the information provided by the guards pointed me to the North. There was a small entourage behind me, several guards tasked with escorting me, Fair Breeze and Lotus, Cobalt, Commander Dawn Gleam, and a few others. They followed me wordlessly, the cacophony of hooves echoing back from the archaic brick buildings all around us. We were given a wide berth by fearful, wide-eyed ponies. Guards we passed recognized me, and saluted. Whether for me or their Commander, I wasn't sure. Some small part of me liked to think it was me earning that honor. The larger part of me was intent on finding Twilight.
Half of the ponies who had came with us stopped at the entrance to the Northern library, taking up posts or waiting patiently while the rest of us went inside. Lotus and Fair Breeze were with me, and having two friends at my back felt like all the world supporting me. Long, long ago, the Northern wall had held the forefront of Equestria's military. This was where all of the commander's quarters and important war rooms had been, the nerve center of Equestria's defense force. Since those days, it had been re-appropriated time and again, but once more found itself host to the Princesses, and the fore front of a war.
The guards were expecting me. The double doors into what was once a war room, then turned into a conference room, and was now once more a war room opened to me, and inside sat the Equestrian Triarchy.
Twilight Sparkle, Celestia, and Luna. The three Princesses turned their gazes to me. Under those eternal stares, I felt my strength flag a little, like I would be just as better served going through with my original plan. That I could walk out of there and retire, to live my life with Goldy back in Canterlot or here in Trottingham. That I'd retire from being a student, and maybe pick up a job curating a library somewhere.
The guilt and anguish of the past few days almost won.
But Goldy appeared at my side, her wing laying over my back. In her touch, I found all the strength I needed, and the shadows of doubt plaguing my mind fled to the darkest depths inside of me. Maybe some day they would return, and I'd find myself cowering and fearful before that monolith.
That day was not today. I squared myself opposite the three Princesses, even as another massive fireball erupted into existence outside. The windows into the interior of the city glowed with that unnatural light, and I found my shadow cast across the princesses. They looked at me, and I looked at them with confidence and resolution.
I stared at nothing again, but couldn't seem to do a thing to stop the spinning in my head. The near-death experience, hospital stay, and emergency mane styling still had me reeling... but asking that of me? Now? After everything else I'd been through?
Needless to say, I had my complaints, and had requested a private audience of them shortly afterwards, away from the prying eyes and ears of both my friends and the multitude of officers roaming the area.
”What do you MEAN you still need me to go into the Timberwolf territory?” My eyes flitted about the well furnished but small conference room, though with three princesses standing before me, the room felt more like the tiniest of closets. Cadance, Luna, and Celestia looked back with worried looks of their own. I could tell part of their worry was with Twilight, who was still outside the shield fighting off Io in one skirmish after another. At least the city didn’t have to deal with his massive bulk smashing itself into the ancient enchantments. Tiamat’s prolonged fire blasts were taxing the spells as it were.
“We mean—” Celestia let out an exasperated sigh “—that we need you to carry on with your original mission. It's clear that Io and the others were hiding in the Timberwolves' territory, waiting for the right time to strike. Twilight’s barrier threw a wrench in their plans for a short while, but as you can tell, Io managed to supersede that with… well, brute force. We still need to know what it is that’s going on up there, and why.”
“We understand you just went through a lot...” Luna spoke next, her tone concerned. “Truly, it pains us to ask anything more of you. But you and Basil are the most capable unicorns we have at the moment. Every other one is tasked with maintaining the enchantments protecting the city, and Twilight is too busy to leave to Canterlot for reinforcements. To be perfectly honest, I doubt any reinforcements could even reach the city without being destroyed by one of the Great Serpents.”
"Well, with options like those..." I looked at the three of them, their faces conveying concern and sympathy equally. “So, right back into the jaws of the wolf then?”
Cadance had been the next one to speak. "Your friends and family are still terribly worried about you, as are we. If we must send you out into danger once more, it will not be without a chance to rest and recuperate. Luna, Celestia, and I can handle the serpents if they attempt to break in again. Twilight is keeping them occupied and away from the city for now, and we know from experience she can go for weeks – months, even – without tiring.”
I let my eyes flicker to Luna at that, but Cadance continued.
“So, Star Caster, please take as much time as you feel you need. Three days, five—"
“One.” I had cut her off, squaring my shoulders opposite the three. “Give me one day. And I have a condition:”
The princesses blinked at me expectantly, and I had to remind myself to breathe.
“Goldy comes with me."
Now, I found myself on the far side of a ‘recuperation’ session with the same golden-colored pegasus, who was snoring peacefully in the other room. I stood in the bathroom, looking at my haggard expression. Maybe it had been the few days I’d spent in the hospital (or week, or however long it had been,) or maybe it was even the aftermath of the hoof-full of orgasms I’d suffered at the hooves and tongue of an overly-eager partner, but I felt…
I was still a young unicorn. In many ways, I felt like a filly trying to wear my daddy's shoes on my hooves... and yet, looking into the eyes of the mare in the mirror, I saw somepony else. I had a new mane, new scars, and even a few new bags under my eyes. The Star Caster in the mirror looked like a mare well into her forties, if not older. And she looked tired, worn out, depleted.
That notion did not sit well with me. I ran the faucet and splashed water on my face, relishing the chill that came with it. After the hospital and its stuffy warmth, a little bit of cool felt good. If nothing else, the splash of cold made me a bit more eager to jump in the shower and indulge in a more thorough cool down. Maybe it was the faucet that woke her, but Goldy’s snoring stopped, and she slipped into the bathroom behind me.
“Can’t sleep?” She asked, nudging my flank.
“Something like that. Though after the hospital, I think I can survive one sleepless night.”
“Maybe...” She chuckled, nuzzling into my cutie mark lovingly. “...or maybe I just didn’t tire you out enough.”
“Oh trust me, there was plenty of that.” I groaned, slowly pushing my haunches back a little. Goldy's touch made me hunger for another helping of her gorgeous body, but the wafting scent of last carnal romp hit my nose like a hammer, reminding me how badly the both of us needed that shower.
But even more than that, a niggling doubt had taken hold in the back of my mind, a persistent reminder that I wasn’t the only one putting myself in harm’s way again. Basil was going with me, and I didn’t feel the desire to leave Goldy behind while I waded face-first into danger once more.
’So what if she weighs you down, Star? She has every right to stand beside you as Basil does; perhaps even more. Basil means a lot to you, but the love of your life is right behind you, and you know she won't want to let you go alone either. Yes, you’re young; yes, you’re foolish. But even if she puts herself at risk to stand beside you, that’s her call and not yours, is it not?’
Whatever heated passions had boiled to a head died almost immediately. I turned to Goldy, seeking her eyes with my own. It seemed she sensed the seriousness of the situation, as her lips stopped caressing my flank, and instead pressed into a thin line.
“They asked you to go back out there.”
I flinched and let my ears droop. “There really isn’t slipping anything past you, is there?”
“You’re easier to read than Daring Do, Star.” Goldy smiled and kissed my cheek. “You realize I’m coming with you this time, right?”
“I had halfway hoped you wouldn’t say that.” I sighed and slowly wrapped my hooves around her. “This isn’t going to be some picnic in the woods, Goldy. We’re walking into real danger here, the kind that most ponies don’t come home from.”
“All the more reason to take me with you.” Goldy’s voice was somber, her tone serious, but her words reminded me of something cliché, out of a novel or something. “Home is where the heart is, and if my heart’s with you, then there too is home. I don’t care if it’s right here in this bathroom or caught in the middle of a million timberwolves.” She wrapped her own hooves around me, returning the embrace. She squeezed me like a drowning pony clings to flotsam, as if I were her last hope in the tumultuous sea of our crazy lives.
“I’m not going to emerge from hiding only to find you nearly dead. Not again. Not ever.” She choked, her chest trembling. “If you go out, I’m going right by your side.”
I couldn’t say anything to her. Who possibly could? Maybe one of the princesses, with thousands of years of knowledge, could have found some wisdom; some infinitesimal parcel of knowledge to impart to a loved one that would give them hope…
But I am a hopeless mare, in love with somepony equally so.
So I held her, and together we cried.
“Heavens help me, Star, I canNOT allow this!” Basil stalked back and forth, alternately glaring at the sky and us, snorting and grumbling in between outbursts like the one he just finished.
So far, this had gone just about how I expected it to, and if I wanted it to end at some point, I would have to get a word in edge-wise.
“It’s just too dangerous! She has no means of defending herself—“
“Aside from the wings.” Goldy muttered defensively.
“—shut up, and Star, you KNOW what we’re walking into!”
“I know, I do.” I sighed, standing between the two of them like a mediator. “But this is neither the time nor the place for an in-depth analysis of pegasi and unicorn combat capabilities… Goldy is coming with us, and the sooner you realize that, the sooner we can resolve this dissonance between the two of you.”
“Ah uh.” Basil lifted his hooves, balking immediately. “That ‘dissonance’ isn’t anything that can be resolved in a fucking afternoon, Star! Sure, given a few years and more alcohol than any retail store provides, I might be able to come to grips with what happened. Maybe.” He pointed a hoof at her, quivering visibly. “But I am not walking into the heart of Timberwolf territory with a whore of an Apple family member clinging to my tail the whole way.”
“For the last time, my contract didn’t—”
“Say what you want, it ain’t the first time an Apple has lied to me.” Basil shot back, a snarl curling the corner of his lip upwards. “He told me he didn’t have that part in his contract either. And yet, there I was, with a fifteen hundred bit debt hanging over my head and Apple enforcers breathing down my neck.”
“And you really think—”
“That you’re gonna do the same thing to Star?” Basil snarled, stepping forward. I felt my defenses rise, almost on their own. I didn't know how deadly Basil could be in a real fight, but we had traded more than enough blows in sparring runs that I knew I could at least hold him off if things got out of control. Basil seemed to sense my tension, since he backed off a little, but the anger was still in his voice.
“Look, Goldy, I know you feel you need to come with us, that leaving Star and I alone outside of the city without you is just plain unacceptable. But you need to be rational, Goldy… I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how dangerous these creatures are; you saw for yourself what they did to Star, not to mention the dozens of guards and civilians who lost their lives out there.”
He opened his eyes and leveled them at Goldy. Gone was the anger, the rage, the contempt. Now his was a face of calm, cool calculation.
It was the sort of look only a pupil of Twilight could wear that smoothly.
“Call me foolish, call me an idiot—” I started, only to be interrupted by Basil.
“You’re an idiot.”
“… har har. I understand the risks, Basil. I’m well aware that my life is forfeit the moment we set hoof outside of that wall.” Goldy stepped forwards, not threateningly, but with a confidence borne of an acute sense of self-worth. “Have you ever been in love, Basil?”
The question threw Basil off-guard. I saw him blink once, twice, three times, evaporating the cool pretense he’d had just a moment prior. She had disarmed him with a single question; simple yet profound, and heavy enough to break his mental masks in one stroke. I could see the war raging behind his eyes already. A war that, if I were a smart mare, would have me abandon whatever line of questioning I’d been pursuing and seek shelter behind the nearest solid obstacle. Preferably a mountain. Anger, envy, fear, desire, nostalgia, and everything in between washed over his face like a storm, but in its wake, only one thing was left.
Basil hung his head with a sigh, his voice quivering as he answered. “Once.”
“Then you know—”
“That you’d go to the very ends of Equestria for Star. That'd you'd readily face even impossible odds, in the hope that you'd see her smile, or feel her touch, one last time. I know that you’d climb mountains, dive to the deepest sea, take a million arrows, and do it all with a grin on your face because you’re helplessly, hopelessly, maybe even finally in love. I get it. I do.”
He pulled in a deep breath, but it wasn’t like any other. With it came magic, a kind that I hadn’t felt before. I watched, mystified (and a little threatened) as Basil’s coat– no, his entire body began to change. It started at his hooves, slowly building up as it consumed more and more of his legs. Goldy and I both took a step back, our eyes wide at the sudden and mystifying transition happening before us.
It was a flame, green in hue, almost unmistakable from the color of his coat. But I saw it gain definition as it washed over him, leaving in its wake a shiny, black carapace.
Basil wasn’t Basil at all.
He was a changeling.
I had only seen them in pictures and diagrams, and heard one mystifying story from Twilight while she and I had dabbled in love magic. Basil was a member of the parasitic race of bug-like doppelgangers that hadn’t been seen in Equestria for years upon years; millennia, even. Not since their queen had been banished long, long ago.
Needless to say, both Goldy and I were stunned. Basil’s insect eyes shifted from one of us to the other, and he slowly lowered himself to his haunches. Everything, from the diaphanous wings to the holes in his legs, was as I had pictured it in my head. But he didn’t have an expression of malice, as they had been depicted in comics and novels, or even the dead, vacant expression of the medical textbooks and their grotesque dissection attempts. His expression was almost blank, as if the transformation of his skin had also stripped him of all but the tears still welling in his eyes.
“I think I, of all creatures in Equestria, would know what it is to love somepony.”
“But…” Goldy’s eyes were wide, and I could see her quivering. “Changelings just… feed off of love, right? You guys don’t—”
“A regular changeling would, yes.. But, I’m no ‘regular’ changeling. Sure, I still need love to live, and I get it. Just ask Cobalt. But let me ask you this,” Basil stood, stepping towards us carefully. To my shame, I did nothing to stop the chill of paranoia from crawling up and down my spine, chilling me to the bone for a moment.
“What happens when a changeling feels love? And I don’t mean the misplaced, misguided love we used to feed off of, where you impersonate somepony beloved, and feed off of that… I mean, what happens when a pony loves you not for the pony you’re disguised as...” Basil flashed back in a whoosh of green flame. “but as the pony you actually are.” With another whoosh, the changeling came back, the tears still clinging to his eyes.
“Wait, you mean that—”
“Haybale actually loved me for me. Not Jetstream, or Glister, or any other pony I’ve impersonated or created over the years. No, Haybale actually loved me.” The tears came in force then, streaming down the changeling’s face. He sniffled, dropping back to his haunches and lowering his face. “I know he did,” Basil choked. “It felt so real. I wasn’t a normal changeling after him, I really wasn’t… I had magic – real magic – and you know I do. Even disguised, I can cast any spell a unicorn can. I… I was as close to a pony as any one of us had ever been. What else could it have been?”
“I don’t doubt he loved you, Basil.” I said softly, taking a tentative step towards him. “But… I get the feeling you’re not telling us everything.”
“I’m not.” Basil sniffled, shaking his head. “Honestly, it was never his fault at all. It was his controller. They found us together one day, called him into their office. The very next day, six goons were after me with a bill for 'past-due dalliances'."
“Don’t tell me.” Goldy cut in then, her face pale. “They sent Bronco Bullwhip after you?”
“And the whole Acquisitions division.”
“So that was you!” Goldy shot up, her jaw hanging open. She backed away from him, her wings spread wide and twitching. I knew that was a bad sign, that she was ready to fly away at a moment’s notice. “You did that, twelve years ago! You were the one who—”
“Goldy,” I stepped towards her, concern on my face. “Goldy, what happened?”
“Star, he… he…”
“Tell her.” Basil choked. He sobbed several times, drawing a shaky breath before re-asserting himself. “Tell her what I did.”
“Star, he murdered the entire acquisitions division!”
“It’s true.” Celestia sighed, slowly letting the scroll she had been reading roll shut. I stood at the threshold of her office, having just burst in with three guards and Cadance on my tail. Celestia waved them off and ushered me inside. Still breathing heavily, I let the door close behind me and took the lone chair opposite Celestia’s desk in her makeshift office. “I’m guessing Twilight never told you the story, did she?”
“What story?” I asked, still reeling from Basil's revelation. "From what I've seen so far, this seems more nightmare than story."
“Well, I suppose it would, given that you don’t know the whole ordeal. Have a seat, Star Caster, this may take a while.” Celestia waited for me to get comfortable before beginning.
"It starts hundreds of years ago, when Equestria looked almost entirely different than it does now. Back then, Appleoosa was little more than a settlement surrounded by desert and nomadic Buffaloes, and the city you know as Ponyville was a small, quiet farm community. Twilight made her home there, but Ponyville was also the ancestral home of the Apple family, and one of Twilight's closest friends, Applejack. She was an honest, upstanding mare, and as you know, an element of harmony."
Celestia let out a sigh that fell into a small chuckle. "Honestly, she'd buck a few heads backwards if she saw what happened top her family, her farm, her town." She shook her head before continuing.
“Times changed. We soon found ourselves on the brink of a famine. Mind you, this was several hundred years after Twilight’s ascension, and well after any member of the Apple family could call themselves her friend. One of the first lessons we princesses learn is that times change, even in as little as a decade, let alone a few centuries. As luck would have it, a very intelligent pair of twins was born to the Apple family. One, by the name of Appleseed, was a brilliant unicorn with a hoof for greenery and all things floral. The other, a devious Earth Pony named Gold Digger, had a penchant for under-hoofed schemes and get-rich-quick shticks.
“We were fortunate enough that both siblings were alive at the same time. Gold Digger had discovered his own namesake in the creek bed, and wanted to excavate to see if he could find more ore underneath the family’s farm. At the same time, Appleseed had found a way to cultivate arid deserts, using a rather unique brand of nature magic. The family and the four of us came to an agreement, that for the betterment of Equestria, Appleseed would be given all the support and funding he needed to begin cultivating the Appleoosan desert. In exchange, Gold Digger agreed to excavate his family's farm in Ponyville in order to speed the repayment process and ensure we didn't entirely run out of funds to keep food flowing.
“As luck would have it, both brothers struck a relative gold mine. Well, one was more literal, but still… Appleseed's spell worked incredibly fast and was easy to replicate; in four years we had not only avoided a crippling famine, but we had turned a desert into the richest source of food we had ever seen. For his part, Gold Digger struck a massive vein of gold and seemingly endless amounts of gems and other valuable ores. Between the incredible crops and the trading windfall, Equestria was more well-off than either myself or Luna can ever recall.
A ghost of a frown passed Celestia’s features.
“I should have stopped him when I had the chance. If I’d have known that Gold Digger’s legacy would have compounded on itself, I’d have called an end to it long, long ago.” She heaved a world-weary sigh, pinching the bridge of her muzzle as her eyes clenched shut
“Gold Digger’s children weren’t satisfied with what they had. Once they inherited the farm upon their father's death, they began to siphon valuables off of their income, and use those to leverage favors and land from their neighbors. It began with the Carrots’ farm, then soon after the Rose’s plantation, the Berry’s vineyard, and even the outlying houses in and around Ponyville. Before we could really stop them, they had managed to convince the mayor to resign the deed for the city to them and retire to Horseshoe Bay a wealthy stallion. In a short ten years’ time, Ponyville had been literally bought out from beneath its residents.
“Soon after, they began demolishing the entire town to make way for further mining, and the market was flooded with their gold and gems. Twilight reverse-engineered a dragon digestion spell to make some types of gems useful as a edible garnish, but that did little to stem the tide of riches coming from the ground. But they were making more and more gold and jewelry, and soon began to expand their operations. They began building banks, taking out contracts for work across Equestria. There were even rumors of them hiring killers to murder influential business competitors. All of it was baseless slander and completely untraceable, mind you, but still…
“Within fifty years, the Apple family had displaced both the Fancy Pants Conglomerate and Filthy Rich himself as the most powerful and influential family in Equestria. Their legacy lasts on today, even though the crown had to intervene to prevent them from an all-out monopoly. They’ve been limited to their rock farm in Ponyville, the strip mine, and whatever labor and management contracts they can get. They lease prospectors like Golden Nugget to their competitors for a small retainer, all on command of the crown. If we didn’t keep a close eye on their business dealings, I have no doubt in my mind that they'd be ripping this castle from the mountainside this very moment, searching for yet more gold.”
“… And the prostitution?” I honestly thought I’d have more questions at the end of the story, but Celestia had covered most of it rather well. I could see how a big, heartless company like that could do the things they did. Being as new to Equestrian law as any first-year paralegal student, though, I’d need a little more clarification. “How is that legal under any circumstance, especially in a contract?”
“That’s… a touchy subject.” Celestia sighed. "When the Apples began their rise to prominence, the idea of binding contracts was still new to Equestria. One of their lawyers, a pegasus by the name of Loophole, found ways to jam any nefarious terms desired into a contract packed with jargon and prose far more complex than anypony could hope to understand. It took a decade for her ruse to be discovered, and Twilight very nearly banished her to Tartarus for the damage she had wrought on countless ponies' lives. It was out of this injustice that the Clarity Mandate was born."
“I’ve read about this before.” I interjected, suddenly struck with understanding. “Any contract made between any two parties needs to be written in terms perfectly understandable by even a child.”
“Correct.” Celestia beamed at me. “And to this day, the Apples have abided by that mandate, if only to avoid incurring the wrath of Twilight once more. Yet when one door closed on them, the Apples bucked open another one. They simplified their contracts, but they also made them confidential. Only the parties involved saw them, which meant they could go back to putting anything they wanted in there, just in simpler terms than before.
By including a clause about prostitution and all sexual activities being retroactively billable, they could still garner favor, albeit through more… under-hoofed means. Now they could keep the bits flowing by twisting the legs of every one-night stand, devoted relationship, and star-crossed lover who ever took one of their contractors between the sheets.
And the Acquisitions Bureau became their enforcers.
“And this was allowed?” I gaped, bewildered that such an act hadn’t been stopped ages ago.
“It’s all in the paperwork.” Celestia snorted and rubbed her temples with her hooves. I could tell the Apples had been a headache for a long, long while. “It’s not uncommon practice for many ponies to ask their partners if they’re contractors for the Apple family, right alongside the first drinks bought or the first rug cut. Even then, the Acquisitions Bureau still gets a few dozen cases a year, with either voluntary payment or involuntary garnishment. They’re usually civil about it, wrapping their victims in red tape and court dates, but every so often a more firm touch is needed for them to get their bits. Enter Heather’s predecessor, Bronco Bullwhip.”
“He wasn’t Basil when that happened, but yes, Bullwhip ran afoul of Twilight’s student… Him and six of his operatives, in a Stalliongrad bar. Twilight heard of the disturbance first, and upon investigation, had a rather eye-opening revelation about the Apple family’s tactics. She took the changeling under her wing, curious about his development from a mindless, love-sucking drone into a heartbroken and potent mage. Today, ‘Basil’ stays as he is, and has found a new love in cooking. Not to say he isn’t good at what he does, he wouldn’t be here in Trottingham if he weren’t. But I trust in Twilight completely, and I’m willing to vouch for Basil. He may hate the Apple family, but he is not as violent as he was that night.” Celestia smiled at me genuinely, lifting her hooves and letting them drop.
“Does that answer your questions?”
“And then some. Thank you, princess.” I stood and bowed to her, moving towards the door. I had to have another long talk with Basil and Goldy after this, and I had a feeling I knew how to get them to trust one another. Or at least tolerate the other long enough to make it through whatever challenge awaited us out there.
“Star Caster?” Celestia stopped me just as I began to open the door.
“Yes, Princess?” I turned back to her.
“You said you would only need one day, and your time is waning. I understand if you need to take another day to prepare, but I am curious how your preparations for the mission are coming along?”
“Aah, I’m sorry, but I do think I’m going to need one more day before we’re ready to leave.” I opened the door, determination on my face. “I’m going to need a spa pony.”