Mystery and adventure, now with books! Twilight Sparkle's weekly book shipment arrives one book too big. Among the others, there's a handbook about pony genetics. Curiosity leads her to an interesting discovery.
While comparing ourselves to other intelligent species inhabiting this world, it is hard to overlook one distinctive attribute. Ponies exist in four basic races: earth ponies, pegasi, unicorns and alicorns. If we exclude rare and godlike alicorns, we still have three basic types that the whole society consists of. Each race has their features and flaws that make them different, and from an objective scientist point of view we have to say unicorns and pegasi are more likely to survive and provide development to their communities. The interesting fact is that even with this, we still manage to live in a non-caste society, where everyone is equal and free of extreme economical or social disproportions. Professor Jade, Equestrian Collective MUSP, 998 SE, Manehattan
“Why do you even keep doing that?!”
“Because I wanna finally learn how to do it!”
“But you never learn anything from your mistakes!”
“What is there even to learn? I just have to keep trying.”
“No. This is not just some experimental science. This is true art… It’s something that comes from within. You have to picture the result in your head and-”
Twilight Sparkle stood by the door with her hoof half-raised to knock. This was one of the infamous social situations she wasn’t comfortable with yet and she wasn’t sure what to do. Maybe I’ll try some other time…
“Yadda yadda yadda, it’s always like this. You complicate what’s meant to be simple.”
“Nothing is simple, dear. Only fools assume-”
“Oh, give me a break!”
“And where do you think you’re going? If you think I’m going to clean up your mess again, you’re highly mistaken!”
Twilight was just about to turn around and leave, when the ornate door slammed open, and a huge cloud of black smoke poured outside.
“I will clean it up myself once you stop being overly obsessed with- oh hi, Twilight!”
A pony shaped frazzle of smoke finally dissipated, and a little silhouette of a filly stepped outside. She was entirely covered with some gluey yellow substance, and her coat was singed in several spots.
“Hello, Sweetie Belle.” The purple unicorn did her best to not look shocked and terrified with what she just saw. “Trying to learn cooking again I presume?”
“Yep! Scrambled eggs.” A frown returned to white filly’s face. “Rarity says I should give it up and that it’s a lost cause but I really think this might be my special talent… Well, sorry, Twilight.” she brightened up again. “But I gotta go clean myself up a bit and meet with Scootaloo and Applebloom. We’ve got a lot of crusading scheduled for today. See ya!”
Twilight waited for the remains of the cloud to fade, as she watched Sweetie trot away.
“Apple pie my flank,” grumbled Rarity as she stood beside Twilight, shaking her head. “Can you believe it? She used all of my kitchen gear to make scrambled eggs, managed to get some of it on the ceiling, and left me with the whole mess. I wonder how mom and dad put up with her on daily basis…”
“So, what brings you here on Saturday morning, darling?” asked the white unicorn ten minutes later in clean and shiny dining room, putting two cups of coffee on the table for a box of Pinkie’s muffins which Twilight luckily grabbed on her way to the Boutique.
“Like every Friday,” Twilight started, leaning forward. “Derpy and Raindrops brought me my weekly portion of books to the library, since I order them from basically every corner of Equestria. For this week I had no more and no less but five books ordered. However…” Her horn lit up and one quite heavy tome flew out of her saddlebags. “This time I apparently got something extra. You see, I’ve got this… agreement with our post office, so they put everything addressed to me together, and send it further to me via postmares in one big package. I naturally asked Derpy if she knew anything about it, since it’s obviously a mistake, but she said no. I wanted to return the book as soon as possible, since they should have all the addresses of all the mail – at least I hope so – but the office is closed on weekends.”
“And I thought,” she continued, after having a sip of coffee. “That if the book is stuck in my hooves for at least two days, what’s wrong with me checking what it’s about? Turns out it’s a pretty old copy of study on pony genetics.”
Rarity gave her a long stare as she expected her friend to continue. “… and?”
“Oh well, I didn’t expect that, because the remaining five were just fiction books, so it immediately gained my attention. And it turns out it contains some interesting hypothesis… not even really a hypothesis if I may say, since it has quite a lot of substantial data to back it up. It’s about some genetic phenomenon that I’ve never personally paid attention to. It can be pretty meaningful, while being totally neglected in all school handbooks I encountered…”
“Let me guess,” the fashion pony interrupted. “The stuff you found keeps pestering you, and you have to get to the bottom of it.”
Twilight gave her a smile. “Exactly.”
“And you want me to… to what? Help you find the author? I don’t think I qualify, you know way more than me when it comes to books, especially the science ones”
“That’s the problem.” The purple unicorn bit her lip. “There is no author. At first I thought that the author page might have been torn away, but I see no signs of it. It’s almost like it was written anonymously.”
Rarity chuckled. “And of course, it makes it less legit.”
“You know me too well.” Twilight nodded with another smile.
“Then again, why me?”
“Well… Remember that time when you mentioned something about your uncle?”
Rarity’s face slightly froze. “Yes. Yes I do.”
“He’s an equinologist, right?”
“Can you maybe… help me get in contact with him?” Twilight asked timidly, watching smile slowly fade from her friend’s face.
“We haven’t talked for quite a while.”
“Oh… Well, if it’s a problem…”
“No no no!” Rarity waggled her hoof. “It’s not that much of a problem. It’s just that my uncle sees me as, let’s say, a black sheep of the family. You see, we’re almost exclusively unicorns, and pretty high magical talent runs in the family. And it happens that being scientists is kind of a home business. It’s just what we do.”
“You never told us about it.”
“What’s there to talk about?” The white unicorn sighed. “From what my dad told me, Uncle was so happy to have a niece. He has two sons, but he believes that boys, while generally having bigger potential, lack the finesse that we have to properly control it. He wanted me to be the head successor of his work. Too bad I turned out to be a disappointment.”
Twilight didn’t say anything, just nodded.
“When he learned I wanted to become a fashionista, he refused to give up. He kept giving me books about astronomy and mysterious creatures of this world, anything that a little pony could find interesting. My parents didn’t interfere. Sure they wanted me to have multiple interests, but I know they always wanted me to be who I wanted to be.
“The day I finally got my cutie mark,” she continued after a short pause, “he finally surrendered. And he lost all interest in my growing up. We still meet from time to time, on family meetings and such, but he doesn’t talk to me. He’s given up hope for me. Well… maybe it’s for the best of both of us. I don’t even know where he lives right now. I think somewhere in Manehattan.”
For a while both unicorns sat in silence disturbed only by chirping birds. Twilight slowly finished her coffee.
“Rarity,” she started, “I don’t want to reopen your wounds. If it’s hard for you, I can really look for-”
“No,” the white pony cut in. “What kind of Element of Generosity would I be if I turned down my dear friend because of such trivial matter? Drop by in two days. I should have all necessary information by then.”
“Then I can’t do anything but sincerely thank you.” Twilight stood up.
“It’s always my pleasure, darling. And by the way… Twilight?”
“Is there a n y science field you’re not interested with?”
“Yes. They freak me the hay out.”
* * *
Ponyville’s Post Office was a small building with a shape of a low cylinder and whole overgrown with ivy. It was made of stone and was one of the first government buildings in the whole town, remembering times when Ponyville was nothing but a farmers’ village.
It didn’t hire many ponies. As far as Twilight knew, there were just two ponies managing all the letters and packages, plus two diligent postmares and best friends forever, who were of course Raindrops and Derpy.
Despite having so little staff, the office was always tidy and in the best possible shape. Twilight was always pleased with the place’s organization.
As she stepped into the hall, she was at once greeted by the shiny smile of the agency’s senior, elder earth pony, Mr. Stamper. He was an ever lively old man that was never spotted sad or gloomy. He could be Pinkie’s grandpa, Twilight stated not once.
“Ahh, Miss Sparkle, what a nice surprise for a Monday morning! How may I be of your service today?”
“Good morning. I am, in fact, here to report a tiny mistake that has been made. It seems you’ve packed me one book too much last week.”
“Miss Sparkle!” The Stallion pretended affliction. “You know there is no place for things like mistakes in our agency. I even have the full history of last month’s letters and packages here. Take a look.” He pointed to a huge sheet of paper hanging on the wall. It was filled with nicely arranged tables and numbers. “Six books arrived.” he placed his forehooves on the desk. “Six books re-packed and sent to library.”
“That’s the point. I only ordered five. The sixth one must have been misaddressed. Can I see the return addresses?”
“Why of course! The original packaging is yours after all.” He dived between the crates and took out a little bundle. “Hmmm… three from Fillydelphia, one from Canterlot, one from Hoofington… and one without a return address, unfortunately.”
“That’s what I was afraid of.” The purple unicorn sighed. “The first five match towns from which I ordered them. What does the postmark say?”
“City of Canterlot. Do you want the envelope?”
“Yes, please.” Twilight took the parcel from the stallion and threw it to her saddlebags. Is this strange or is it just me, she thought to herself as she thanked Mr. Stamper and left the office.
* * *
“Dad was rather surprised when I asked about Uncle’s whereabouts.” Rarity threw a leaf off a chair, sitting herself by her garden table. “Turns out I was right. He lives in Manehattan. I haven’t managed to talk to him, but I sent him a note that you might be interested in seeing him. I didn’t try to appoint you, because I couldn’t get his job address, only the home one. If you want to talk to the man, you’re going to have to catch him after work.”
“Wouldn’t it be rude?” Twilight asked, uncomfortable with the vision of another uneasy situation to deal with. “I haven’t met him ever in my life, and I would be invading privacy of his home…”
“Oh I don’t know.” The fashion pony shrugged. “You have your inborn charm, it’s impossible to be angry at you. Besides-”
“I have WHAT?” Twilight’s stomach froze for a moment.
“Besides,” Rarity continued, unmoved, “you are a female magic scientist. He’ll be delighted to meet you no matter what.”
“By the way,” she spoke again while Twilight was mulling over strategies, “why don’t you just write him? Is it so important that you have to see him in person?”
“Not really, no. Quite the contrary, I would say. But I’d prefer him to see all the data. And since the book isn’t technically mine, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sending it to somepony else, if you know what I mean. Also, Manehattan isn’t far away. I can arrange everything and return the same day.”
“What is this interesting thing anyway?”
“I don’t want to jump into any conclusions before I consult my thoughts with some specialist.” Twilight winked playfully. “Call it… the scientist’s curiosity.”
* * *
The Friendship Express wasn’t exactly an express train. It was more of a cruise train, a tourist attraction of this area of Equestria. The locomotive was retro-style, equipped with a steam engine, and it moved rather slowly. However, it was the only train that shuttled between Ponyville and Manehattan, so it was still the best possible option.
Spike was, like always, more than happy to become the library headmaster for a short period of time. Proud of his responsibility, he walked around with his head up high, especially within reach of Owlowiscious, and overly sensitive about anything that was even slightly against the rules. If only he was so eager to keep everything in order every day…
Twilight had been to Manehattan a couple times before but she always found it hard to adapt to the big city atmosphere. Sure, she spent most of her life in the City of Canterlot, but even there she rarely stepped outside the castle’s walls, where she had everything she wanted – libraries, labs and peace of mind. Moving to Ponyville turned out to be even better. The peace of the little town (except for things like parasprite infestations, ursa assaults or dragon threats), combined with easy access to her closest friends made life and work really enjoyable and convenient.
Given this, the first step in Manehattan was always somewhat a cultural shock for Twilight. Ponies streaming on the streets, tall skyscrapers, street performers, the overwhelming noise of so much life condensed on so little space. Not wanting to waste any time, she grabbed a map to locate her destination and waved at a passing taxi.
Rarity’s uncle, Professor Jade, lived in an elegant tenement near the river. It was one of the most sophisticated districts, inhabited mostly by celebrities and businessponies. The neighborhood was really well maintained, full of flower patches and shaded alleys. Inside of the building was no worse with an oakwood stairwell and colorful floor tiles. Every door had the same design, differing only in apartment numbers. Twilight checked the time – it was definitely late enough for most ponies to have finished their daily work. After a short hesitation she decided to knock on the door.
If there was a sight she was expecting, it would be a rather short and floppy grayish pony with tired eyes behind strong glasses. What she didn’t expect was a buff stallion, reminding her rather of Big Macintosh, but with ice-blue coat and black hair on mane and tail. He also wore a loose and chaotically hanging tie and smoked a scrap of a cigar. They stared at each other for a couple of seconds before he finally spoke.
“I…” Twilight cleared her throat “Good afternoon, professor-”
“I would rather call it evening.” He furrowed his brow. His voice was as cold as his coat.
“Yes… evening. My name is Twi-”
“I know who you are,” he cut in again, not letting his eye off her. “My niece sent me a note about someone wanting to pay me a visit. And I didn’t expect it to be this late.”
Twilight felt that she was starting to sweat, but forced herself to regain posture. She had dealt with many professors before and she knew how they ticked.
“I just wanted to take a few minutes of your time. It won’t be long.”
“My time is very valuable if you don’t know it yet. And this applies to my rest as well, so I don’t really think-”
“Just for the moment, please?” She tried to flutter her eyelids like Rarity often did when she wanted something, but it came out horrible.
The stallion sighed. “Come in.”
Seeing the interior of Professor’s apartment left no doubt that he was related to Rarity. While it wasn’t ‘marvelous’, Twilight could clearly see that the stallion had to put quite some effort into creating his nest. The style was rather minimalistic: beige painted walls, half built-up with dark brown wooden panels, deep monochromatic carpet and matching leather armchairs. Deep in the guest room lurked a small fireplace, and here and there hung a few collage paintings. Nothing to add, nothing to take. Rarity would be proud.
“What is it?” he asked immediately as he closed the door behind her.
“I’ve got this book and…”
“Show it to me.”
“So you’re going to help me?” Twilight lit up, her voice beaming with hope.
The stallion burst with sincere laugh. When he looked back at her, he was smiling for the first time.
“Of course I will help you. How could I say no to Twilight Sparkle?”
Twilight budged, surprised. “Have you heard of me?”
“Have I heard of you? Are you serious?” Jade tilted his head a bit. “Who hasn’t heard of Twilight Sparkle? Not only are you the god princess’ personal protégée, but, let me remind you, you are one of the wielders of the legendary Elements of Harmony and you saved Equestria twice. Being too modest doesn’t pay off, especially if you’re planning any serious scientific career in the future.”
“No, I have really never thought of it this way. Am I really so recognized?” She scratched her head with voice full of concern.
“I’m afraid so,” he chuckled again. “Would you like something to drink? Oh, and sorry about the little scene. I’m so tired of these cowardly pests that flinch whenever a professor looks at them. Let’s say you passed my first impression test.”
* * *
“Thus far all this sounds like a beginning of some detective story, miss Sparkle. Or someone devoted some of their time to treat you with a bit of entertainment. However, although I haven’t seen this book before, it looks like a real thing to me.” Professor Jade sat back in his armchair and took a sip of apple brandy. “But I’m dying of curiosity what was the thing you found in it, so you decided to contact a specialist.”
“I was just about to get to it.” Twilight dropped two sugar cubes to her tea. “I got to the chapter about color inheritance. It looks like it’s a way more complicated issue than I thought.”
“Oh yes, colors, of course. Indeed it is quite complicated and after all these years still not entirely examined and explained. The current theory says that there are multiple genes involved in determining the color, and there was no gene distinguished so far that would be considered either dominant or recessive. What’s more, some studies have proven that some of them remain dormant for many generations before sprouting again. Even the monozygotic twins often hold completely different colors. Actually some of my colleagues state that genetic influence is a secondary factor, while the magical aura is the actual agent that determines the final hue of the foal.”
“Yes.” Twilight nodded slowly. “The book says pretty much the same. However, I meant some other thing. It says here,” she opened the book on the proper page and pointed to a line of text, “that the presumed genes cross over in a complex way, creating shades of countless combinations. The thesis says that it’s virtually impossible to get the same coat color anytime in the known history of ponykind. We do have cognitive restrictions,” she continued quickly as she saw the professor opened his mouth to say something. “Coats may be so similar that we can’t tell the difference that exists between them. But combine it with also chaotically inherited manes, and the probability of finding a matching set tends to zero.”
“Correct,” Jade agreed, putting the glass on a table before him. “The same thing goes to cutie marks, which is out of my field, but I read a couple of papers about them too. Special talents are repetitive and so are the cutie mark themes. Mine is rather popular.” He pointed to an image of a quill on his flank. “But I’ve never seen an identical one. And most probably I never will. There are always some differences. But it’s a thing that a skilled and inquisitive enough observer would have no bigger problem to notice. So, where are we headed with this topic?”
“Professor Jade…” Twilight sparkle put her forehooves on the table and looked the stallion in the eyes. “What about the Royal Guard?”
The Stars know everything, nothing hides from the Stars. You can fight, you can run, you can lie down and not move. Your every decision has already been foreseen by Them. The very essence of you is nothing but the effect of Their clairvoyance. Your every step is Their game, your work is Their vision, your coat and hair is a shard in Their mosaic, your Mark is Their seal. Look up, the Night will be here soon. Peg the Wise
Crickets and cicadas busily accompanied the sun’s setting. The switch between the two royal sisters’ daily responsibilities was a specific ritual for most of Equestria’s life. Not only did it apply to the wild creatures. Even ponies in cities like Manehattan subconsciously celebrated the breaking point of every celestial cycle by quieting down a bit and slowing in the never ending rush of trying to be everywhere in the same time.
The great fiery ball falling on the west was magically hypnotizing. Not many ponies knew that it was nothing compared to every morning’s moon setting, especially since Princess Luna was back. The silver disk’s spectacle on the violet sky was art for the few who didn’t sleep at night.
The river frogs one after another started to add up to the evening performance.
Professor Jade put hooves behind his head and stared at the ceiling. “That’s a real good question, miss Sparkle. I wonder why I never asked it myself. And let me say that it hurts my pride a little bit that someone who isn’t that interested in genetics found something I should have long time ago.”
“Oh, I don’t think you should give me credit for this. It’s not exactly my discovery.” Twilight looked away with a weak smile.
“And here we go with the modesty again. I know you found the information in the book, but-”
“It’s not just that.” She lifted the book again before his face. “I got a hint, a rather big one to be honest. Look at the top of the page.”
“Well, I see a couple of small letters, pencil-written on the margin. It says SnF. I don’t see how this could be helpful though.”
“Where did you graduate, professor?”
The stallion narrowed his eyes a bit, not sure if the mare in front of him wanted to insult him for his lack of knowledge, which was a typical argument starter in the academic community. It was surprising how immature science geniuses could be when a university difference was mentioned. Sometimes a small insult coming from department of gastronomic magic from University of Bardingham against the Fillydelphia’s Institute of Medicine could turn a sophisticated lecture into a juvenile school squabble.
“Well, I finished this town’s university, but how is this relevant to the case?”
“Quite.” Twilight made a gesture like she was adjusting glasses on her nose. “I graduated from Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. As you probably know, the school is a part of Canterlot’s castle. We were seeing guards every day, marching, changing shifts, performing drills… They were often made fun of because of how they acted. Always deadly serious, never smiling, hardly ever talking at all.
“When I first saw these letters,” she continued, “I got this feeling I’d seen them somewhere before. I tried to focus on the book’s content, but it kept pestering me. And then I remembered. This is what we called them in the school. Sparks n’ Feathers, respectively unicorn and pegasus guards.”
“I see…” Jade mused. “But before we go further, I’d like to note that maybe we’re starting to dig too deep at the very beginning? Maybe it’s not the case after all? What if, let’s say, there is some spell that changes their appearance when they’re in public?”
Twilight shook her head. “Highly improbable. It is possible to change how a pony looks like for a short period of time, but it requires a lot of magic and it’s very inefficient. I once tried to make a fake cutie mark for my friend’s little sister, but it would always vanish after a few seconds. I don’t claim to be an extremely powerful mage, but I think even the Princess wouldn’t bother to waste so much energy on just aesthetics. I definitely don’t buy the spell explanation.”
“What is your theory then?”
“I don’t have one,” she sighed. “And it really bothers me. I don’t even have a hypothesis. All I have is a discovery that my mind wants to investigate further. But I can’t just go and write 'Dear Princess Celestia, what’s up with the guards?' No, I can’t rest till I get to the bottom of this.”
Professor Jade laughed again. “And it’ll be a pleasure for me to help you.”
“Wouldn’t it interfere with your work?”
“I’m a professor.” He shrugged. “If I’m not around it’s their problem, not mine. But now we have a more important problem to solve. What do you think of pizza for dinner?”
* * *
“We need a foothold for all this first,” stated professor Jade, circling around the room. “My theory is the following: shades of white are the most popular in the ponykind. And the… quality of Pegasus guards depends mostly on their training. I don’t see a reason to focus on them. The unicorn guards is another thing. Not only grey coats are less common, but the inborn talent would be essential for them to get the job. That leads to a simple conclusion – it must be somehow connected. One thing results from another. I say it’s a rare mutation that causes strong magic potential in the foal.
“This would make perfect sense,” he continued, lighting up the fireplace. “Magical prodigies are… problematic, if you know what I mean. Their talent can show up literally days after they’re born. They can set your house on fire or spawn a little thunderstorm in their bedroom. As they get older, their power gets stronger but they can’t control it yet. This is the worst. And suddenly, when a child is old enough, a royal messenger knocks on your door, offers to tame the wild abilities and set the kid for life in a prestigious and well paid job, without really taking it from the mother, they’re free ponies after all. Who would say no?”
“I agree.” Twilight nodded energetically. Such divagations always gave her butterflies. Finally someone who shared her passion for science! “Even if it’s a miss, we have something to start with. But we also need to answer at least two other questions: why is this kept a secret and why someone cared so much about it to find out basic information in some old dusty book and specifically send it to me. There is still a chance that this is a coincidence, maybe even a prank, but the odds are melting, especially when we think of that SnF note. It’s almost impossible for someone outside the CSGU community to get it. I’m pretty sure it was meant to get in my hooves after all. But why me? I’m just a simple scholar living in a small town, not working for any specific academy and on top of it, specializing in astronomy!”
“I think that for every question there is an answer. And these answers are waiting for us. But again, before we step into more interesting studies, there is a more recent problem – do you have a hotel room booked for tonight?”
“Not really.” Twilight bit her lip. “I… didn’t expect you to be so eager to help me with the potential research, so I wanted to catch the late Friendship Express home…”
“Great!” The stallion clapped his hooves. “It’s been so long since I last had an excuse for my guilty pleasure of sleeping on couch. I’ll go make a bed for you.”
“Thank you, but I really don’t want to be a problem…” Twilight laid her ears back.
“Rarity mentioned you’re a bit… socially disabled.” He smirked and raised his hoof. “You need to rest well, because tomorrow… will you let me be pretentious for a while?”
Twilight nodded, confused.
“… Because tomorrow the Operation Grey Factor begins!”
* * *
It’s been quite a while since I last sent you a letter, hasn’t it. A not entirely expected turn of events made me stay in Manehattan for a couple of days. It seems you’ll have to be the head librarian for the time, I’m sorry. If you’re afraid you can’t handle it, ask Dash for some help, she spends quite a lot of her time there lately anyway.
If you need anything, or if there’s anything you think is important for me to know, don’t hesitate to write me. I’ll be available at this address. Remember to feed Owlowiscious and water my ferns. Thanks in advance,
Your faithful roommate Twilight Sparkle
* * *
“There are two libraries in Manehattan which I personally would take into consideration. One is of course the University’s, and the second one would be the Public Library near the town square.”
Twilight Sparkle and Professor Jade were strolling down the Birch Avenue. It was one of the most beautiful times of the year, when the leaves started to slowly change their colors to red and orange, but the weather still suggested summer. A few fluffy clouds could be spotted on the morning sky, but they served no more and no less but aesthetic purposes. The sun shone strong and warm, painting mosaics on sidewalks as it trickled through the branches. It was almost a bad idea to spend most of the day locked up between stone walls with a bunch of books.
“Since I have full access to all of the Uni’s sets and collections of books and articles, I’ll try to look for something there.” The stallion scribbled something in his notepad. “You should take the public library, so we don’t bump into each other while scouring the literature. Don’t ignore any clues, even if you think I’d find them irrelevant. And I’ll try to do the same.”
“Sure.” Twilight liked the idea. Books were her element, and when she was studying there weren’t many things possible that annoyed her more than interruptions. She often wondered how her life would be possible without her number one assistant. Whenever she had an assignment, she used to lock herself up in her room and leave the whole library to Spike. For some time after she had settled in Ponyville, she had to deal with problems like Pinkie Pie bursting through the door despite Spike’s desperate attempts to stop her. But even Pinkie eventually learned not to do such things. Not once and not twice different ponies told Twilight that she looked terrifying when angry. And the anger reserved for interruptions seemed to be top-tier. “It’s rather early now, a couple of hours before lunchtime. How about we meet at the square at some hour for a break?”
“I’ll use it as an excuse to show you my favourite restaurant. You’re going to love it, everypony does. Let’s make it 2PM by the fountain. Meanwhile”- he pointed to a small alley -“I’m taking my turn here. We’ll see each other later.”
As she walked further down the avenue, Twilight continued to look around the city scenery. In the sunny morning everything looked different. Taxi carriages easily rolling on the streets, ponies seeming to be actually in good mood, elder stallions reading newspapers or playing chess in the trees’ shade… Maybe the city doesn’t really have to be as intimidating as she had suspected? It was still loud and fast, but maybe there was something… pleasant in the atmosphere?
Taken by the sudden attitude change, she made a decision to take a short walk around the town square, for something she had never done before: city sightseeing. She always loved to take long walks, especially as breaks in studying, but they almost exclusively meant strolling through parks or other means of contact with nature. She realized that although she spent most of her life in City of Canterlot, she barely remembered any of it. Libraries were all that mattered.
The town square, of course, was swarming. There were street musicians in every corner, with old, shabby hats in front of them Each was playing different music, but they kept the necessary distance to not create cacophony. One side was filled with lots of stands selling souvenirs and baked goods, with the shopkeepers tirelessly shouting superlatives about their merchandise. The fountain was hard to notice through herds of little fillies and colts playing by it (or even in it); shaded arcades gave shelter from the sun for the foals’ mothers, who relaxed with their morning coffee, while exchanging stories from their everyday lives.
“Ma’am! Excuse me, ma’am!” Twilight didn’t realize it was her who was called by a young voice, until she felt a polite tap to her shoulder.
“Excuse me, could you please take our picture for us?” The pony speaking was a young girl, accompanied by a group of other youngsters. Judging from hats and saddlebags, probably tourists.
“Oh, me? Well, um… yeah, yes, of course!” Twilight slightly blushed, as she was given a small simple camera, and the filly trotted to her friends.
The city. Thousands of ponies. You meet them and never see them again. A drop in the ocean. You walk unnoticed, interact unnoticed, leave unnoticed. Nopony to remember you, nopony to make acquaintances with… It’s like you’re invisible. What a strange feeling.
For a while, she wanted to join the city’s life, order a coffee with a muffin in some random café and simply inhale the atmosphere. She shook her head. No, things to do, later, lunchtime.
The Manehattan’s Public Library was huge. It was a wide, snow white, 3-floor building crowned with a large gilded dome and its famous gigantic windows. It was an architectural pearl and one of the landmarks of the city. Two large curved sets of stairs led to a massive ornate portal marking the entrance. The halls and corridors inside were almost as stunning as those inside the Canterlot Castle and even more overwhelming with the silence, so deep that it felt like pressing one’s ears. The library sets were no less astonishing. The amount of fiction books in their collections was probably the biggest in the whole Equestria. Rainbow Dash would call it an egghead heaven for sure.
As Twilight stepped into the reading room, she rubbed her hooves. Let’s do this.
* * *
She found Professor Jade lost in thought, stirring the water in the fountain with his hoof. All the little ponies disappeared due to lunchtime, and it was suddenly unnaturally quiet.
“Anything?” she asked standing next to him and watching her own reflection in the flickering tract.
“Not yet.” He sighed and turned to her. “You?”
“Nothing. I started looking for some other copy of this, but of course I failed. Then I focused on the topic. If there are any other handbooks or articles there mentioning the uniqueness of a pony’s hue but there’s nothing. I’m starting to question the authenticity of this. Maybe the content is falsified and that’s why the book was withdrawn?”
“Miss Sparkle, we’ve only just begun. I’d be surprised if we managed to find anything important after such short time. But before we continue on our quest, I promised to take you somewhere.”
The ‘somewhere’ lay on the river’s bend. It was a restaurant and a garden at the same time. The kitchen was placed inside a gazebo at the very center of the whole place, and the tables were scattered around in artistic disorder between old but beautifully groomed oaks. The tall trees served their purpose also as homes for countless squirrels, and the owners installed lots of nests and boxes for birds. It felt like a little fragment of a forest in the middle of the large city. Except for the smell. It didn’t smell like moss and mushrooms, but instead the air was filled with scent of fried eggplants, fresh celery stalks, baked tomatoes and full variety of herbs and spices.
“Welcome to The Harbor, miss Sparkle. I assure you that the food here is no worse than the décor.” Professor Jade proudly led to a free table on the terrace. It provided with a beautiful view on the riverside, where a bunch of ducks and swans were lazily soaking up in the sunlight of the little sanctuary far from the city’s turmoil. The Harbor’s birds showed their gratitude for shelter with soothing chirp.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you before,” the stallion started started after they’ve placed their orders. “But we were too busy talking about the guard issue. How is Rarity doing? If we don’t count the small note about your arrival, I haven’t heard from her in a very long time. And if I’m not mistaken, your adventures with the Elements of Harmony made you pretty close friends.”
“Oh yes, Rarity is like a sister to me.” Twilight stopped admiring the garden and smiled. “Just like the rest of our little group: Pinkie, Rainbow, AJ and Fluttershy. We really have to have a lot of work in our hooves to keep us from hanging out at least a few times a week. And Rarity? She’s doing great. I dare say she’s living the dream. Her work got recognized by some of the most important ponies in the fashion community, and Hoity Toity already has a contract with her for some of her designs. She’s quite famous. And I think she loves it.”
“I haven’t really spoken to my niece for such a long time…” A shade of sadness crawled into his smile. “I don’t blame her for hating me. I’m the one who almost destroyed her dreams with my stupid ambition when she was still a filly. I cringe when I think she could have followed the lifestyle that I tried to force on her for years.”
“Hating you?” Twilight’s eyes widened. “Professor, Rarity most definitely does not hate you. She admires you as a person devoted to his work, and I personally think you’re the one she learned her diligence from as I look at both of you. Actually, it seems that she misses you real bad, but she’s afraid you despise the life path she chose.”
“But…” The stallion suddenly seemed very confused. “How could I dislike it if it’s her true passion? She assumed that if she’s not a scientist, I don’t approve of her own choices? Do I really make such bad impressions?”
“Well, you did scare me a bit when I knocked on your door…”
“Horseapples.” Jade scratched his head, embarrassed. “I should really work on my social skills, you know?”
Twilight didn’t say anything.
* * *
After lunch Twilight returned to her research with doubled energy. Professor asked to borrow the book, because he ‘wanted to try a new strategy’, whatever that was supposed to mean. She didn’t need it anyway, because she managed to already memorize the more interesting parts of it. She still focused on finding any information about entangled color genes. The equinology and genetic sciences shelf was surprisingly big, and after some time she caught herself a few times skipping through lines.
There was nothing. Most of the books were academic compilations, often drawing from each other and they had already created a web of recurrent information in Twilight’s head. I’ll be able to do a PhD after this, she thought to herself. She eventually managed to find her pace again and lost track of passing minutes and hours. She didn’t notice ponies slowly leaving the reading room one after another or the setting sun’s fading light, painting the whole chamber in deep orange as it poured through the massive windows.
When she felt a poke on her arm, she was sure it was the librarian that couldn’t wait to call it a day and finally go home. Instead, she saw Jade, grinning from ear to ear.
There is much to be learned about even the ponies’ morphology. For example – why do our coats differ so much? Studying other life forms has shown me that the offspring’s characteristics are the resultant of their parents’. Here, I can’t find any relevance. Some day we will know, but I see a long road ahead of us. Maybe it is connected to our destiny? Like our cutie marks – do they exist invisible until we find the special talent that we are designed for? Or do we develop our talents and something or someone blesses us with a seal? I know of at least two ponies, whose cutie marks and colors have been known before they were born. But Luna and I are not like any other pony. Princess Celestia, The Path
Generally, Twilight wasn’t much for alcohol. Back in the senior school days wild drinking parties were pretty much a standard. The talented students of CSGU getting wasted and acting in a way that made “inappropriate” sound just silly. It was one of the reasons she avoided any company of her peers. However once, out of scientific curiosity, nothing more, she bought herself a bottle of booze to try for herself. After all, empiric cognition is much more valuable than dry knowledge written on paper. The next day she swore to herself and all the stars that she would never try any alcoholic beverage again. Never, ever. Of course the stars had to once again prove their forgiveness, but she told to herself that they’re used to broken promises since the beginning of time and especially since ponies discovered alcoholic fermentation. Nevertheless, Twilight rarely drank anything more than an occasional glass of punch on Pinkie’s parties.
Because of this little aversion, she had never tried beer before. She read and heard quite a lot about it, knew how it’s made and even remembered a few names of different brands but she had never tasted it before. She knew that they all shared one common feature – bitterness.
When Professor Jade, without any asking whatsoever, put a big foamy mug in front of her, at first she wanted to protest but quickly changed her mind. The taproom they stepped into after having left the library was quite famous for their fresh beer they made themselves on the spot. It was neither light nor dark, a deep ruby color, a little cloudy thanks to remains of yeast suspended in the liquid due to skipping the filtration process.
To Twilight’s surprise the beer wasn’t that bitter after all. It had the little aftertaste, but it only emphasized the whole spectrum of tastes. Bubbly, sweet first impression, a little touch of sour, strong hop smell attacking the nostrils, a delicate warmth in the throat… Oh gosh, this is good!
“Another good thing about it is that it’s not that strong despite the high amount of malt.” Professor Jade blew a hole in the thick foam crowning his own pitcher. “So it’s not that easy to get drunk with it.”
“This beer is really good. Or maybe I’m just thirsty,” Twilight giggled while looking around the pub. It was rather unimpressive, considering its fame. The only interesting thing about it was a surprisingly long bar for ponies to sit by, with four different bartenders. The rest of the local was filled with little square tables. All the walls were arc-shaped and reinforced with simple wooden beams. “When I get lost in studying, I so often forget to stay hydrated. So… as much as I am enjoying the beverage, I’m also dying of curiosity. What’s the said big news, professor? What have you found?”
“Oh, I was just about to get to it.” Jade took a big gulp from his mug. “You see, at first my approach was similar to what you said earlier today, to look for any other books mentioning the subject, and of course any clues to our one. But, as you can probably guess, there was nothing. And then I realized the meaning of another thing which you said. So obvious and yet so hard to get! That the book could have been simply withdrawn.
“Of course I considered it from the very beginning,” he continued, spinning the pitcher in his hooves. “But I didn’t realize it could be actually helpful. And I got an idea, and that’s why I asked you to borrow me the book. Let me ask you one thing – does it happen to you that the basic information provided by a book or article is insufficient for your needs?”
“If it didn’t, I wouldn’t dare to call myself a good scientist.” Twilight chuckled. “It happens to me all the time. Sometimes it is really frustrating to have such a small library.”
“Right, so what do you do then?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.” The lavender unicorn furrowed her brow. “Of course I seek for more literature.”
“Yes, that’s obvious, but h o w do you do it?” The stallion smirked.
“Well, usually I look into…” Twilight suddenly smacked her forehead. “Of course! Professor, that’s actually brilliant! Now I see what you meant by ‘new strategy’.”
“Exactly. If our book had any references, it would be easier. But it’s really old, and it seems they didn’t use bibliographies back then yet. So I thought that maybe I could turn this around. Maybe there are some books out there that refer to this baby?” Once again the professor started to beam like a little colt on his birthday. “I didn’t expect much, but I told myself that even if someone cared to retract every tome, it’s still virtually impossible to get rid of the references, right? My strategy was the following: we know that there is probably no literature describing the coat color case, but there is much more in our book that could be used in further research. So I noted in my head the more interesting chapters and paragraphs and started my hunt. I’m not going to lie, it was a tough task to pull off. Everything I got there could be easily paraphrased and thus made a lot harder to spot, but it seems I got lucky. Relatively soon, after only a few strikes of hope and immediate disappointments… I made it! I found some connection.”
“Awesome!” Twilight, normally extremely composed in such situations, suddenly found it somehow hard to withhold her enthusiasm. “This could be worth calling it a breakthrough. What exactly do we have?”
“We have the author’s name and the title. At first I thought that maybe back in the time it wasn’t necessary to name the releases, but it turns out we just have… I don’t know, a blank cover of something of sort. The author was a stallion by the name of Duskwind, and our mysterious tome is called The Heredity Phenomenon or so it seems. Before I left the library I decided to search for some information about Duskwind, but no encyclopedia had any record of him and the mentioned reference didn’t include the year of the release. However, I had another tiny success: there’s another quote in some other handbook. To Duskwind’s Philosophy of Biology. Looks like our hero has written at least two books.”
“We’re still in the dark but at least now we begin to see the daylight,” Twilight muttered, staring at the ceiling. Suddenly she sat straight and pointed her hoof at the stallion. “This calls for a tiny celebration. The next round is on me.”
* * *
“Ooh dear…” Professor Jade froze with a teaspoon half-raised in the air. The look on his face clearly meant he was doing his best to keep a serious countenance, though he seemed to slowly lose the battle against his own face muscles.
“What?” Twilight’s world was still spinning a little, so she decided to casually rest on the kitchen wall.
“Nothing, just… If I were you, I would rather not look in the mirror right now. Here.” He handed her a glass of some liquid. She didn’t waste any time wondering what it might be. The only thing that mattered was that it was apparently based on water. And water is wet.
“It’s grapefruit juice.” The stallion politely offered a chair. “According to my experience it’s the best choice for your current state. I mean, there are better ways, but I really don’t think you’d appreciate them as much as a glass of juice.”
Twilight closed her eyes and tried to remember how she had ended up in bed. The second round, unfortunately for her, wasn’t the last one. The realization that it was her who insisted on drinking more only made everything worse.
At some point, when it was really late, the remains of the pub’s customers joined all the tables together, and everything got even louder than before. They all started to drink more, talk more and sing. A sudden shiver came down her spine. They were singing and… Oh dear Celestia, I sang along with them!
But there was more. Through the mist she recalled a scene of accosting a handsome stallion – or so it had seemed then – and boasting about vanquishing an ursa minor. And then, oh Celestia, why, when they were finally getting back, she insisted to swim in the river, because she had never swum under the stars… She was really lucky that Jade was relatively sober back then.
Home arrival was lost deep in the hazy oblivion. Did… did Professor let me ride on his back or was it just a dream? Oh please, let it be just a dream…
“You had quite some fun last night, Miss Sparkle.” The blue unicorn didn’t try to withhold his enjoyment anymore. “Still waters run deep, huh? I wonder what other ideas would come to your mind if I wasn’t there to control your behavior.”
“You call letting me embarrass myself in front of dozens of ponies control?” Twilight grunted from under a wet towel which she covered her face with. “You should have stopped me right after that second beer. Or did you want to have some fun as well, watching me slowly turn into a drunk savage?”
“That’s a horrible accusation,” Jade affected an offended tone. “Besides, it wasn’t that bad. I think everyone enjoyed your company, and to be honest, I’m pretty sure the majority of them won’t remember a thing today. Do you like pancakes?”
“No, no food please…”
The stallion sighed. “You haven’t had many hangovers in your life, have you?”
* * *
An hour later Twilight’s state still didn’t show much improvement. Jade used this opportunity to pay his university a visit and check how his work piled up. Leaving, he told her she was ‘free to feel like home’. Though she thought she wouldn’t be leaving the couch for the rest of the day, the overwhelming feeling of her body wanting to just die already began to slowly fade. At some point she even managed to get up and squeeze some more grapefruits.
An unexpected knock on the door startled her so much that she dropped the fruit on the floor. She grumbled reaching down for it, as her head spun again. Professor hadn’t said anything about any potential guests or deliveries.
The elderly lady was no less startled when she saw Twilight opening the door.
“Oh! Please forgive me,” she mumbled, taking a step back. “I thought this was 42, not the memory or eyes of my youth anymore…”
“But um…” Twilight shot a look to the engraved apartment number. “This actually is 42.”
“You must be miss Rarity then!” The old mare’s eyes sparkled with joy. “Your uncle has told me so much about you. And it seems he wasn’t exaggerating at all – you really are a pretty!”
“No no.” Twilight felt she started to blush. “I am not Rarity. I am definitely not Rarity. I’m… her friend though, and…” She regained her posture. “My name is Twilight Sparkle and I’m visiting Professor Jade due to a small research we’re doing together. He had to leave for a couple of hours and left me here to… regain my strength. Would you like to come in? I don’t think that Professor would have anything against it.”
“Yes, right. The reason I came by is that I wanted to borrow some sugar. A glass would be enough if you could, dear. My granddaughter is paying me a visit tomorrow and I wanted to bake something sweet for her.” She slowly made her way to the apartment. Seeing her walk made Twilight realize that the lady was really old, maybe even older than Granny Smith, although after some point it became really difficult to guess a pony’s age. Her coat probably used to be strong yellow, but now it was mostly grey, like her mane, in which there was a memory of probably fiery orange. Many years ago she could have looked similar to Spitfire, the star of The Wonderbolts. Was it Spitfire? Twilight didn’t pay much attention to sports. Still, beyond the thick layer of heavy years on her back, shaking legs and faltering voice, there was still grace and strength in her. The body might be old, but the spirit was still strong. The eyes vividly confirmed that. Those deep blue, bright eyes.
“I almost forgot my manners, Miss Twilight Sparkle.” She slowly nodded her head. “My name is Flame Pearl, back in the days called just Pearl, my somewhat stage name of the theatre.”
“You’re an actress then?” Twilight smiled.
Pearl chuckled in response. “I used to, darling. The stage is not a place for old ponies like me. I’m retired now, of course, but back then… the lights, the flowers thrown under my hooves, the crowds… The magic of theatre flowing in my veins, watering my eyes, dancing in my voice…” Her eyes became blurry as she smiled to her memories. “Let’s say I had my moment of fame. And I’m happy with my past, the life I lived before this terrible illness called old age got me.”
“That sounds wonderful, actually. Not many ponies your age would look back and recall much more than regrets.” Twilight started to roister between countless cupboards in search for sugar. “Although, I’m afraid I haven’t seen you performing, even when I lived in Canterlot.”
“Oh I wouldn’t expect a little filly you must have been then to be interested in theatre performances, really.” Madame Pearl took a sit by the kitchen table. “You say that you used to live in Canterlot. You’re not from Manehattan then?”
“No. Like I said before, I’m just visiting the city in search for help from the Professor. I currently live in Ponyville but I grew up in Canterlot. Would you like some tea?” She raised two cups which she managed to find in the maze.
“I’d love to have a few sips. You know, Professor Jade also always treats me with a cup of tea each time I visit him. He seems so lonely since he got divorced with his wife. I swear he looks like he’s happy to see even me, an old hag who lives for her memories. Good that he hasn’t totally turned away from any female companionship.”
Twilight blushed. “It’s not like… we are no more than a science team-“
“I didn’t imply anything, Miss Sparkle.” Madame Pearl smiled to herself. “I’m just happy that he has someone to talk to, even if it’s just for a couple of days.”
“And what about the family?” The purple unicorn magically lit up a stove and put a kettle on. “Doesn’t he keep in touch with any of them?”
“I think from time to time, yes. One of his sons is still a kid. He lives in Manehattan with Jade’s ex-wife. The rest is scattered around the whole Equestria, and – knowing the family – I wouldn’t be surprised if even beyond Equestria. But even if he kept in touch with his family on daily basis, it’s far from enough. Life without friends is empty, and it hurts to see our professor slowly devoured by that emptiness. This reminds me. You said you’re a friend of his niece, Rarity. He so often talks about her. He always smiles while mentioning her, but I can always see this strange sadness in his eyes…”
“Yes, Rarity.” Twilight nodded. “They have kind of a problem with each other, but it’s a matter of misunderstanding. I think there might be at least one useful outcome of my visit-”
The door opened suddenly.
“Hi again, I hope you’re feeling a bit bet- Madame Pearl! How nice to see you.” Professor Jade energetically burst into the apartment and frantically tried to adjust his always messy tie. The mare answered him with a warm smile.
“I’ll make one more.” Twilight reached for another cup.
* * *
Madame Pearl left about half an hour later and she immediately came back for the glass of sugar she originally visited for. Twilight and Jade stayed in the kitchen sipping on tea and watching colts playing hoofball outside the window.
“I’ve got some news,” said the professor when one of the teams scored after a long fight by the goal. “I asked a few of my colleagues if any of them had ever heard of Duskwind, but, as I predicted, no one had. However, when I presented your book to one of the oldest professors and told him what it is about, he literally told me to shut up for a moment. He did remember something, a book he read many many years ago that mentioned something about the color matter. Unfortunately, it wasn’t anything by Duskwind, he was quite certain about it. But he remembered the author, someone called Glass Coat.”
Twilight felt a sudden shiver down her spine.
“Glass Coat?” She looked at the professor. “Isn’t it-"
“The only researcher Duskwind refers to in your book, yes. So you noticed it too.”
“Oh Celestia, where is this book? Does he have it? I want to see it!” Twilight jumped off her chair and started to walk in circles.
“Calm down.” Jade laughed and pointed to her chair for her to have a sit again. “It’s not that simple. We don’t have it here. The guy I mentioned hasn’t even read it in Manehattan.”
“Where then? Did he remember that too?”
“Try to guess. There is only one town that has more to offer to scientists than Manehattan. And it is called…?”
Twilight Sparkle’s eyes widened.
* * *
“Are you sure about this?”
“Look, technically, it’s still summer-“
“Sure doesn’t feel like it.”
It didn’t. Long and twisted braids of rain poured from the sky, soaking all the streets and alleys with water. It was an emergency thunderstorm arranged by the Pegasus Weather Debugging Team. Since the weather in general was rather unpredictable, all the calculations made in Head Weather Agency in Cloudsdale were always bound to be based on predictions and deterministic chaos, always burdened with some bigger or smaller errors. Daily control was relatively easy, but sometimes unpredicted factors could build up the tension that could form a hurricane. And that’s when the Weather Debugging Team’s job started. They often formed thunderstorms under a strict control in some desolated lands, where the risks of harm being done to anypony or anything were as small as they could get. But in some instances – the critical ones – it was safer to spread the storm over the entire region to make it way bigger, but also way less intense.
If that was less intense, Twilight prayed never to encounter the real crisis storm. Without her practical rain shield spell she would have gotten soaked at the very moment she stepped outside, even with an umbrella.
“Technically it’s still summer.” Professor Jade tried to focus on channeling his magical energy to Twilight’s spell. The bubble was elastic and it was hard to maintain it in the desired shape on the gusty wind. “And I still have time… before my classes start… And without it it’s just… some work to doARGH MY TAIL! … eventually.”
“You still forget about your right rear side of the sphere. Focus on it, I should be able to handle the rest!” Twilight screamed through the wind. It’s high time for somepony to come up with a spell that combined the anti-rain and anti-wind formulas, she thought to herself. “And maybe you shouldn’t let the work pile up so much!”
“Don’t you want me to go?”
“Well of course I do want. I just thought-“
“So stop complaining and let me worry about it, I’ve been in much worse situations before. Come on, we’re here.”
A huge line to the cashier barely let them catch the afternoon train to City of Canterlot. Surprisingly enough, they had the whole compartment for themselves.
“So, have you ever heard of that Glass Coat before?” Twilight gently unpacked The Heredity Phenomenon and placed it on the table between them.
“Even if I had, I must have forgotten, cause it doesn’t ring any bells.” Jade jumped on the seat and looked outside the window. “Do you think this storm reaches Canterlot? I’ve heard they try to avoid setting the storm clouds there because it’s too high and it would shroud the city.”
“I wonder if they were a stallion or a mare. And when did they live. That could help us determine how old this book could be.”
“When it comes to basic but neglected studies, the gap can be centuries long. And you know what bothers me?” The stallion sat up straight. “This is the second scientist and book author that seems to have been deleted from the scientist world. The second I’ve heard of and both of them wrote about the same issue. A pretty elementary one, if you asked me. Why would someone do that?”
“Now you are jumping to conclusions too quickly,” Twilight murmured from behind the opened book. “It’s definitely not an uncommon thing. Ponies write scientific essays all the time and many of them are wrong. And thus, they get rejected. Sometimes even the whole books go to trash.”
“If a theory is considered correct for a long time, and then it gets undermined, you still keep it as a part of history and evolution of science. You don’t just throw all of this away.”
Twilight closed the book with a quiet slam. “That’s why, my dear professor, we are going to investigate this thing. That’s why we a r e investigating it now. And thanks to you we have a clue. Time to get more of them.”
* * *
Canterlot, also known as the City of Dreams, was a magnificent citadel situated on a ledge prominent from the highest mountain of Equestria. It wasn’t a typical town. Instead of being just a village slowly growing and making its way to a metropolis status, it was originally designed as the land’s capital and it served its purpose from the very beginning. Not really that big for a capital city, all the buildings were located within the citadel walls. The most important and compelling part was the Canterlot Castle, the residence of the two royal god sisters: Celestia and Luna. The soaring shapes of multiple towers rose high above the city and were visible from even farther away placed towns like Ponyville. With springs and waterfalls surrounding the walls the sight of Canterlot looked like a picture from a fairy tale.
The reality wasn’t that much of a fairy tale though. While the city inside the walls was as beautiful as one could hope for, along with the capital elites’ high life, Canterlot was home to the most vital organizations and agencies of the whole kingdom, most of the military forces, administration, crisis management and, of course, the princesses themselves.
Canterlot, above all, was deadly serious.
Nevertheless, the first breath Twilight took after her first step in the city was filled with the smell of memories that she felt each time she visited the place. It was a scent of old books, fresh baked goods, expensive perfumes, sophistication and… magic. Home.
Of course her new home in Ponyville was something she would never give away, but Canterlot was the original one, where she grew up and spent most of her filly days.
“You don’t want to hit the books right after the ride I hope.” Professor Jade fixed his tie. “I don’t know Canterlot very well. Let’s go sightseeing for a while.”
“Sightseeing, right.” Twilight smirked. “You just want to find some place to eat.”
“We DO make a good team!” He raised a hoof to his mouth. “After such a short time you can already read my mind.”
“You don’t have to be psychic to read a guy’s mind, really. I have an older brother, I know how you tick.”
“That’s sexism, and you should feel bad.”
“Was I wrong? And look, food!” She pushed a door open before he even looked around.
“Twilight Sparkle! I would say long time no see, but this time it wouldn’t be accurate.”
Some things in the universe don’t change no matter what. Centuries pass, kingdoms rise and fall, but certain places remain untouched and continue their existence unaffected by any exterior disturbances. Pony Joe’s Donut Heaven was one of such places. Always the same décor, the same furniture, the same jovial stallion behind the counter.
“Greetings Joe.” Twilight looked around the local. It was surprisingly crowded. “I see our shared first prize served you as a nice advertisement. Professor Jade, this is Pony Joe, the finest donut baker in all of Equestria.”
The stallions shook hooves.
“By the look on your face I can tell you want to order the specialty for your friend, am I right?” the baker pony asked. Twilight stared critically at the professor for a moment. “Yes. And a banana double for me.”
* * *
“Well that was something, Professor. You managed to defeat the Specialty, it’s a rare thing to see.”
“I’m not feeling too good…”
“Maybe you’ll feel better once we gather some data about Duskwind,” Twilight chirped. “We’re here.”
The Canterlot’s main public library wasn’t as monumental as its equivalent from Manehattan, but it was incomparable when it came to diversity of tomes inside. Most of the science books were inside the branch in the castle, but they had a mutual catalogue to make the search a lot easier.
All the bookshelves inside had a clever magical mechanism allowing the user to switch between different levels without the necessity to use ladders. This, combined with semi-intelligent catalogue magical browser, made this library one of Twilight’s favorite places ever.
Sadly, it lost a few points that day.
“Nothing,” sighed Twilight resigned, falling heavily on her haunches. “Not a shade of any of them in the richest library in all of Equestria.”
“What about the castle’s sets?” Professor Jade looked uptight as well.
“The catalogues are connected. If it’s not here”- she pointed to the countless drawers -“It can’t be found in the castle either.”
“Aren’t there any things unavailable for the common users?”
Twilight shook her head. “I would know about something like this. There are some wings available only to those who have special permissions – like me – but everything, every single book or article is carefully and publically catalogued. I can ask the head librarian, because I know her pretty well, but don’t set your hopes high.”
Bookworm, the head librarian, against the common stereotype that they are all old and emaciated, was a long-legged, blond-maned and green-coated mare that could still be considered young. She also wore half glasses with thick red frames, but Twilight had always suspected their only purpose was to complete her style, not to correct any sight problems. She always moved slow, talked slow, lived slow.
“Twilight. That’s surprising,” she said, closing a thick volume. Her voice was devoid of almost any emotion. “I think we haven’t seen each other since you moved to your new town and left Canterlot. How are you? I’ve heard you’re a librarian yourself now.”
“I’m doing great, thanks. Since I moved to Ponyville my life has been as far from boring as possible. But I have no time for stories now, I’m afraid. This is Professor Jade and…” she stopped as the stallion kissed Bookworm’s hoof.
“… and we’re chasing an apparently non-existent genetics handbook author. We’re running out of ideas. Is there any chance that his books exist in this or castle’s library, but they’re not mentioned in the catalogue?”
“According to my knowledge, there was not a single case of any overlooked book in this library’s history and we don’t have any hidden or secret sets, which is rather disappointing if you asked me. Secrets are… cool.”
“We’re in a dead end then.” Jade sighed.
“I have an idea, though…” Bookworm mused, scratching her head. “Do you expect it to be something old?”
“Really old, yes. Centuries maybe.” Twilight piped up a little.
“I don’t think it’ll provide you with any actual help, but you seem to be craving for basically any clue. So… follow me.” She almost mechanically stood up and walked to the hallway.
“Have you heard of the big fire?” She turned to Twilight with her golden eyes.
“The big fire?”
“Yes. 126 years ago, in 876, this building was almost destroyed by flames. Many books burned to ashes, but luckily we managed to save most of them.” Bookworm stopped and opened a small door with a key. There were stairs behind it, leading to a dry rock-hewn cellar. “What remained technically untouched was the old catalogue which my predecessors treasured to rebuild the collection. As I already said, this probably won’t help you, but if the book or books you’re looking for were here before the fire, you should be able to find them. Take your time. If you want something, you know where to find me.”
She left them in a narrow but long cellar, lit up by two naked flashbulbs. Along the walls ran countless sets of drawers, carefully tagged with letters of the alphabet.
The search didn’t last long.
“I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” Twilight almost yelled, jumping out of excitement. “There’s Duskwind! Both Philosophy of Biology and The Heredity Phenomenon. They were here, they were both here, but they must have burnt. So. Close. We. Were. So. Close!” Last words she spat one by one, counterpointing each with a smack of her hoof to the ground.
“Not only Duskwind.” Jade waved with a single chit. “Here’s our Glass Coat as well. And look, even some information. A book by the title of Advanced Genetics, released in Fillydelphia, year 531. Advanced genetics almost five hundred years ago, what do you know. Oh and it seems Glass Coat was a mare.”
“It’s no use anyway.” Twilight stared at the ceiling, where a spider laboriously weaved its web. “The books are gone.”
“Yes, but at least there’s a proof they did exist and maybe-“
The door opened. Through the gap slowly leaned in a waterfall of blond hair and a pair of red framed glasses.
“Sorry to interrupt but I remembered one more thing.”
* * *
“So, once again, where are we going now?” Jade sipped on a cup of takeaway coffee. They were strolling down the Buffaloford street, the main artery of Canterlot. It was the street that literally never rested. No matter what time of day, week or year, it was always buzzing with life like a stirred anthill. For a pony unfamiliar with the specific etiquette (no etiquette whatsoever) of walking there it was a tough task not to get swept by the unstoppable crowd. Professor had a hard time to keep the cup without spilling its contents on random passersby.
“When the library was burning, many books were lost to flames, because there wasn’t enough firefighters there to focus on anything else than putting out the fire.” Twilight hedged between streams of ponies, easily finding holes for them to fit in. “But there also was a brave earth pony who charged into the flames a few times, saving many priceless books. It turned out he was a member of a family of bibliophiles, and he was rewarded for his act with some of the books he had saved.”
“And you hope something by Duskwind or Glass Coat will be amongst them?”
“That, or the the family simply had something in their collection before the fire. Even if you’re withdrawing something from bookstores and libraries, you'd not rather take it away from ponies’ private collections, right?”
“I think it’s worth a try.”
They finally turned from Buffaloford into a side street filled with magnificent manors. It seemed the owners raced each other in making them more splendid than anypony else’s. Huge, extensive buildings were accompanied by large flower gardens, sculptures and fountains.
“It’s here,” said Jade, pointing to a towered, slightly grim – compared to others – estate made of stone. “Morning Avenue 8, as your friend Bookworm said.”
They passed the gate and walked down a gravel path towards the ornate main entrance to the manor. Twilight pulled a rope, which triggered a long melodic bell sequence.
Suddenly a door slammed open and a multi-colored tornado spilled out at them. It were four foals, two pegasi and two earth ponies. They bounced together at random directions and almost knocked down Twilight who luckily fell on protective rail.
“Easy, easy there!” shouted a male voice from inside the house. As the pony came closer to the entrance, he turned out to be a middle-aged grey pegasus with a chestnut mane combed backwards. “How can I help you, Madame? Sir?”
Professor Jade cleared his throat. “We’re looking for the head of house Hazel, if you forgive our unannounced intrusion.”
“Well then you have found him.” He nodded and stepped aside. “Please come in, my name is Riverdaze the Third of House Hazel. And please forgive the kids. They just can’t learn to look where they’re going.”
“My name is Jade and I am a professor of equinology on the University of Manehattan. This is miss Twilight Sparkle, Ponyville’s head librarian and Princess Celestia’s personal protégée. We’re here to ask if you could be so kind and let us use your famous vast collection for research purposes.
The pegasus lightened up a lot. "Of course! Maybe those dusty old tomes will finally serve some purpose. I’ll be happy to provide you with any book I have in this house.”
“You don’t like reading then?” asked Twilight, following Riverdaze along the hall. “I mean, the Hazels are supposed to be known for being, well, bibliophiles.”
The stallion laughed. “This is mostly accurate but I don’t share the family’s passion. You may call me a black sheep. I don’t enjoy reading myself and I’m keeping the library as a family tradition. Maybe one of my sons will be more into it when I pass it to him some day.” He pushed, not without effort, a heavy oakwood door and turned the lights on.
The sight was stunning. Large spiral shelves climbed up high to the ceiling along with the iron stairs that met at the top, connected by forged bridges with more bookshelves parallel to the railings.
The chamber was lit by a few crystal candelabras and in the very centre stood a wide desk carved into legendary scenes and creatures.
Professor Jade let out a long whistle.
“I’d love to stay and help, but my work is calling me. Maybe we’ll talk in the evening if you’re still here at the time.” Riverdaze slowly walked towards the exit. "My wife will bring you tea and coffee soon. I’m leaving the door open. If you need anything or want to leave, please look for me in my office. Have fun with your research.”
After mumbling a ‘thank you’ in unison, Twilight Sparkle and Professor Jade were left in the gigantic library alone, accompanied only by a few lost flies.
“This place is huge…” half-whispered Twilight.
“Yes,” Jade agreed. “Let’s hope it is sorted in some way. Otherwise it’ll be a torment.”
They split to the left and right and started searching. To their relief, the books indeed were divided into different sections. Unfortunately, the idea wasn’t the most clever one. Each section had originally limited space and when it ended, it had to start again somewhere else.
After about fifteen minutes the door opened, and a young looking pegasus mare stepped in with a plateful of temperature saving pots, cups and cookies. The unicorns thanked her from below the ceiling, and in response she also offered them help whenever they needed it.
They searched for a long time, literally high and low, losing track of passing hours. Every now and then they stepped down the stairs for a break and to replenish caffeine in their veins.
Suddenly, a shout of disbelief broke the perfect silence of the library.
“I found it! Miss Sparkle, it’s a miracle, I’ve got it!”
Twilight almost broke her legs running down the stairs. She found the professor grinning and caressing a thick book with golden letters Advanced Genetics engraved on the cover.
“Everything matches. The title, the author, the year! We did it! We found a treasure!”
Twilight read the big letters arranged in words GLASS COAT and felt a twitch near her heart, like she’d seen a long missed friend.
“Read it.” Jade handed her the book and pointed to the desk.
“Me? What about you?”
“As you can see, miracles happen. There might be Philosophy of Biology somewhere here as well. I’ll look for it.” He started climbing the stairs again.
“Don’t you want to see what’s written here?”
“I’m sure you’re better in extracting data than me. Just tell me if you find anything interesting.”
That said, he vanished between the bookshelves. Once again he found his mechanical rhythm of skimming through the backs and covers. Every time he saw ‘philosophy’ or ‘biology’ his heart skipped a beat, but Duskwind’s book was nowhere to be found. He got so lost in his element that he didn’t even notice that Twilight had appeared next to him. She threw the book under his hooves. He looked at her, surprised. She was pale and seemed terrified.
“What?” he asked with his voice full of concern.
“Page 142,” she said, barely moving muscles on her face.
He raised the book with his hooves and opened it.
… The time has come to say it out loud – Duskwind wasn’t right. Continuous research that has been made since his release shows that such operation is practical. My assistants and myself have proven that it is possible to distinguish part of a subject’s genetic code and copy it into incomplete further subjects. So far we have successfully modified a few plant species and simple organisms…
The book slipped through Professor’s hooves and hit the bridge with a loud thud.
“We were wrong… we were wrong all the time. They’re not gifted children raised to be guardsmen. They’re… they’re…” He raised his head and looked Twilight in the eyes.
All the source of information about our bodies must be stored somewhere inside us. Possibly, every cell has some core in which every bit of genetic material lies and tells the rest of the organism how to live, respond and develop. Our knowledge may be insufficient now, but maybe in the future we will be able to distinguish the source and examine it. Who knows what answers lie behind this mystery? Duskwind, Philosophy of Biology
“Is something wrong, Miss Sparkle? You have barely touched your food.” Swanheart, Riverdaze’s wife looked seriously concerned.
After hours of exhausting search and then a horrifying discovery, the unicorns were visited in the library by their host. It turned out it was already late evening and they spent most of the day between the shelves. Now they were sitting in the dining room, invited for a dinner but Twilight, despite the burning hunger, could barely swallow a few bites. The children pretended to be interested only in plates in front of them but once every while they would exchange knowing glances or peek towards Twilight or Jade.
“I’m sorry,” the purple unicorn replied. “This is really delicious but I wasn’t expecting a dinner and I’m afraid I ate too many of your cookies.”
“The food is wonderful, I concur.” Jade, on the other hand, was cheerful. And he ate everything so fast he almost fell off the boundaries of good manners. Each time he met eyes with one of the foals, he would wink and disconcert them.
“Guessing you haven’t booked any place to stay for the night. We have prepared beds for both of you,” Riverdaze spoke eventually, for the first time since they had started the dinner. “Please feel free to use the room even if you want to stay for a couple of days. I hope my wife and I can provide you with everything a Canterlot’s top class hotel would have to offer.”
The unicorns unwittingly exchanged looks.
“I guess,” Jade started, “we really haven’t thought about a place to spend the night. I hope we won’t outstay our welcome.”
“Stay, stay!” shouted a little pink filly, the only girl in the little herd of Hazels’ children.
“We rarely have any guests. It seems casual visits are not so trendy in high class societies as much as those boring receptions. It will be our pleasure, trust me.”
After the dinner Lady Swanheart took the foals to prepare them to sleep and Riverdaze walked the scientist ponies to their room.
Jade immediately grabbed a towel and went searching for a bathroom to take a shower. Twilight fell on her bed and stared at the snow-white, unfamiliar ceiling. She closed her eyes and focused on cicadas quietly chirping under the night sky. Somewhere away the never ending rush of Buffaloford Street was giving a background noise.
A gentle knock on the door picked her out from pensiveness. She opened it and met face to face with a serious-looking Riverdaze.
“I won’t be coming in,” he said quickly. “I just wanted to tell you something. I know who you are, Twilight Sparkle. I know a few stories about you and I am sure you wouldn’t be here without a serious reason, be it some investigation or just scientific research. And I’m not a fool, I can tell you found something, probably the thing you were looking for, and you didn’t like what you found. I want you to know that I am not intending to dig into it in any way. This is your private business, and we all, meaning my wife and myself, and even the kids, respect it. Stay for as long as you need. And I really mean it. I owe you something personally, but I would appreciate it if you didn’t ask what I mean. Have a good night, it looks like you could use some rest.”
That said, he turned and slowly walked away.
Twilight didn’t say a word; she waited for a while until the stallion walked away and closed the door.
A while later, Professor Jade returned with his mane and tail wet and a towel hung around his neck. He sat on the edge of his bed and stared for a while at Twilight, who lay still, looking out the window.
“Your gloom makes the air heavy to breathe.” He hung his tie on a chair. “I know our discovery was a bit… shocking, but it doesn’t mean you need to act like it’s the end of the world.”
“And how can you be so calm about it?” she asked with hoarse voice. “Our trusted princess performs genetic experiments on her subjects. Our military force is a bunch of artificially created ponies that serve who knows what purposes and who are possibly devoid of free will. And you act like it doesn’t matter.”
“Are you one hundred percent sure they actually are clones? No. It’s just something we suspect, basing on incomplete data and our own speculations. This is still a hypothesis, Miss Sparkle, and you look at it as if it was a fact. This is not how a scientist does her job. Until we don’t have a proof, we can’t jump to any conclusions. Also…” He stood up and sat beside her. “You’re thinking too much. Who told you that clones are unable to have their own will?”
“If they’re able to copy ponies, who knows what else can they do…”
Professor Jade gently touched her shoulder. “We don’t. And now, we have to ask ourselves if we really want to know anything more. This case doesn’t look healthy or safe, if you know what I mean. Maybe it’d be safer to consider our research over.”
Twilight pulled herself to a sitting position. When she looked at the stallion, her eyes burned with a purple flame. “Over? No, Professor, this is far from over, as far as it can be. I said I was going to get to the bottom of this, but I can feel I am still barely floating below the surface in the ocean of lies. I will find the proof, with or without any help. And I will expose those sick schemes if I have to, whatever they are.”
“It sounds like you’re directly accusing the Princess, and-”
“Of course I am!” she exclaimed, jumping down on the floor. “Do you think all this would be possible without her knowledge and permission?”
The stallion didn’t answer.
“There must be a reason” – she smacked her hoof to the floor – “that somepony sent me this Heredity Phenomenon with SnF scribbled on the margin. They must have known I’d search for the truth and probably find it somehow. And they must have known I’d be able to do something with the knowledge.”
For a while all that could be heard was Twilight’s heavy breathing.
Jade smiled. “What is life without a little risk to spice it up?” He looked her in the eyes. “At the very beginning of our adventure I told you I’d be happy to help you with your research. For now, it seems there’s still much to be done before it’s over and I’m still offering my services. But before we make even one step forward, we need one thing – a plan.”
“I know.” The purple unicorn sank a bit. “My brother is the captain of the Royal Guard, but you probably already know that. I can’t believe there is any possibility he has anything to do with it and I don’t want him to get involved. Besides, if I talked with him, Celestia would know and I want to avoid it. I think maybe-” she stopped, silenced by Jade’s sign. Someone was at the door.
“It’s here,” a voice whispered.
“No, you knock.”
“Okay, but you’ll do the talking.”
“No way, he’ll do it.”
“Me? Why me?”
The unicorns looked at each other.
“Come in,” Jade commanded.
The door half-opened and four little heads popped in one above the other.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in beds by now?” the stallion asked with stern tone.
“You read books,” said one of the colts.
“Yeah, books!” parroted another one.
“You must know stories!” squeaked the filly.
The professor laughed loudly. “Come on in, I’ll tell you one, but you’ll have to promise me that you’ll go straight to bed afterwards.”
“We promise!” the foals said in unison and streamed into the room. The stallion seated them on his bed.
“Listen closely, little ones, for the story I’m about to tell you is not an old mare’s tale, it’s the truest of all truths…” He raised one hoof and described a circle. “Once upon a time, in a magical land of Equestria…”
Twilight didn’t hear anything more. She fell asleep.
* * *
If there was a list of peculiar feelings with no names, those few seconds of transition between sleep and reality would probably be somewhere on top of it. When all you can feel is warm sunlight falling on your face and your body wants to be one with the mattress. A short moment of conscious non-existence, perfect harmony with the whole universe…
And then the reality flows on top. Every problem you postponed with your sleep strikes again and you realize you’re more helpless than before going to bed the previous night.
Twilight cursed silently and dug herself back between the soft pillows. It wasn’t a dream. We found out the truth about the guards yesterday.
She opened her eyes. Professor Jade stood by the window, looking outside. In the bright morning sunlight, standing there lost in thought, he finally looked like… like a professor. Without his everyday smile, without the unfailing vigor, he shared with everypony. A playful colt on an adventure had become a worried stallion on a mission. A mission for what? she asked herself. What do we want to achieve? What is the purpose?
The truth, said Celestia’s voice in her head. It’s always the basic and ultimate reason of every search. You don’t have to know what the truth may serve. Every lie you see through makes the world a better place. Every veil you tear down makes a day brighter. Never forget that, my faithful student. How ironic, the voice added, how very ironic…
Jade budged. He noticed Twilight was awake and staring at him. Immediately his face turned back to its normal, energetic countenance.
“Good morning!” he exclaimed cheerfully. “A beautiful day in a beautiful city. I hope it’s going to be as good as it looks like.”
“I wish I could share your optimism. It’s tomorrow already and we still don’t have a plan.” Twilight hid under her quilt.
“Everything has to have its starting point. First of all, we have to ask three fundamental questions. Do you remember them?”
“Are you kidding?” Twilight leered from between the pillows. “This was probably the first thing they taught us in CSGU. Let’s go, children, after me: What, why, how, what, why, how…”
The stallion chuckled. “Precisely. Yesterday we hit the first milestone: what. We probably know what’s going on. I don’t see a point in wasting our time on answering how. We don’t need this knowledge unless we want to do some cloning too.” He sat on the edge of his bed. “What we do need to know is why. What’s the reason? Let’s say we are right – Celestia is making an army. Is she afraid of something? Maybe she needs it to strengthen her authority? Maybe she wants to conquer and needs a big, obedient army?”
“I don’t know anymore.” Twilight sat up straight as well. “If you asked me a week ago if I thought Celestia would want to invade some faraway lands, I would laugh. But now… how can I be sure?”
“The biggest lies often hide behind the most subtle veils. We can tell ourselves that we know our princess but we never care to think how ridiculous this sounds. She is thousands years old, she has seen more than we can imagine, and she has knowledge we can never dream of.”
“But I trusted her.” Twilight felt her eyes began to fill up with tears. “Not only with myself, I trusted her with the whole Equestria and every pony who lives here. And what does she do? Experiments on live ponies, genetic manipulations to create soldiers…” The rest of the words got stuck in her throat. Her body shivered and a few drops fell on the snow white bed sheets.
“I realize how it must hurt to find out such a thing,” Jade said after a long pause. “But trust is rewarded with trust, and maybe... we can turn it into our favor?”
The purple unicorn wiped her tears. “What do you mean? I won’t just go to her and demand more details.”
“No, of course not. But how about using your status to get closer to the truth without the risk of suspicion?”
Twilight took a deep breath. “I can think of one way. I feel awful for even thinking about it but this might be the only way.” She looked at him sheepishly. “Breaking in.”
“Breaking in,” Jade repeated after her. “But where?”
“Into Celestia’s private room.”
The professor rolled his eyes. “Really? That has to be the most heavily guarded room in all of Equestria. How are you going to pass the guards?”
The purple unicorn rubbed her chin for a while. And then she explained her little plan.
* * *
The express delivery system was one of the best practical features of friendship with a dragon. Spike, indispensable Spike once again had shown his diligence, and Twilight had the little package in less than half an hour. They had the whole day left for preparations, but they started as soon as possible so Jade could have enough time to practice the new spells. Once again Riverdaze gave them access to the library but this time they didn’t need it for the books. They just needed space. Luckily, the professor turned out to be a sharp student, and his magic capacity was well above the average.
After the early dinner all they had to do was wait.
They left the villa about half an hour before sunset. The castle’s walls and towers looked even taller while seen directly from below them, especially one tower. Jade swallowed nervously.
As planned, they passed the main gate without any trouble. After all, Twilight Sparkle was well known and recognized. No one was ever surprised to see her around. All they were worried about was avoiding the princesses and hoping that nopony would talk to Celestia about her faithful student visiting the castle. A cloaking spell would surely make everything easier, but the selected counterspells were always on and the True Vision was amongst them. Through one short hallway and a cloister they quickly made it to the castle’s gardens. And the one tall tower.
They hid in the bushes behind a hedge and waited. Eventually the trumpets would sound and two alicorns walked through portals on top of the eastern and western tower. The spectacle had begun.
Both princesses’ horns shone simultaneously and brightly. And while Luna spread her wings and flew into the air with her mane swirling on the rapidly dimming sky, Celestia bowed her head deeply, letting the sun rest beyond the western plains.
The night had started.
“Now we have no more than thirty minutes before they’re done with their dinner and Celestia comes back to her room.” Twilight looked up at the tower rising above them. “Can you do it?”
“I sure hope so.” Jade bit his lip.
“Let’s not waste any time then. And let’s pray no one sees that.”
Twilight’s horn started to glow and she began to shrink. Despite what it looked like, it was a hard and draining spell, like most of those which affected a pony’s body. She clenched her eyelids, holding herself from groaning and finally she achieved a size of a coffee cup. It was the sign for Jade to cast his spell. It was simple levitation magic but he had to split the weave between it and a masking sequence. Normally, every spell that affected another object made it glow with the caster’s aura but they had to limit every detail that could draw attention to absolute minimum. Without the magical light around her, shrunk Twilight was much less likely to get noticed. She was able to give him some of her own energy but keeping herself tiny was absorbing almost all of it.
Moving very fast at first, around half the way she felt she started to slow down. It was harder to levitate an object when the distance got bigger. Just before the balcony, she stopped. She could feel Jade was trying as hard as he could but he wasn’t able to lift her any more. Twilight focused all her strength and channeled another portion of her magic into the spell. Jade strained his horn to the limit.
With a short flash of weak light, Twilight felt a tug and she landed hard on the balcony surface. She immediately jumped on four hooves and looked down.
Do you think anyone noticed? she asked telepathically.
I think no, and even if they did, they would probably take it as a hallucination. Don’t worry, Jade replied inside her head.
Twilight nodded to herself and slowly dispelled the shrinking effect. She reached her saddlebags and took out a silver key – one of the treasures from her childhood, the spare key to Princess Celestia’s private chamber. The question was: did she or didn’t she change the lock? This key was the only way to open both doors leading to the room. One could ram them, burn them, blow them up with explosives or magic, but they wouldn’t budge a bit. Using the key was the only way. Luckily, it clicked quietly and the door opened. In her mind she thanked Spike again for the delivery.
I’m in, she sent a message to Jade. She could feel his relief like it was her own.
Magical light was out of the question. Luckily, practical magic was always her favorite class in school and she remembered a few alternatives like the always handy night vision. She used it at least once a week, when after staying up late she had to find her bed without the risk of waking up her dragon roommate.
Seeing the Princess’ chamber again stung her the heart. She would have never thought she’d be there in such circumstances. The cushions they used to sit on during private lessons, the fireplace helping against cold winds in winter. Would she ever be able to look at them the same way?
She slowly made her way across the room, soft carpet suppressing her hoofsteps. In the night vision everything was bathed in a silver glimmer similar to moonlight. Princess Celestia’s chamber was quite big and she managed to fill it with bookshelves rather tightly. But Twilight knew where to look. She was never told not to touch it but it was the only one her mentor wouldn’t share with her on their private meetings. It was entirely filled with manuscript books, binders and scrolls. Even as a foal, Twilight would feel a strange emotional aura coming from these shelves; now it was even more vivid.
Suddenly, she felt a shiver. She looked again at one of the binders. The letters on its back said TWILGHT SPARKLE. With shaking hooves she reached for it and opened. It was filled with her letters, every single one put in a transparent jacket:
(…)While friendship is about giving of ourselves to friends, it's also about accepting what our friends have to offer.
(…) Being a good friend means being able to keep a secret, but you should never be afraid to share your true feelings with a good friend.
(…) A good friend always has your best interests at heart.
Your faithful student, Twilight Sparkle
She could feel tears filling her eyes again. What am I doing? she thought. I’m spying on my teacher, my princess, one of the ponies I love the most…
What’s going on? Jade asked. He must have felt a rebound of her sorrow.
Nothing, she replied, putting the binder back in its place. It wasn’t the best time for second-guessing her decisions. She had already crossed the line. It was time for action. She returned to her search. Some of the titles were hard to read even with the night vision spell, and most of them had blank covers. And then her eyes saw a thick book titled “Project Orphan”. She took a deep breath. She knew that this was it. Carefully, she grabbed the tome and opened to a random page.
It was all tables, every sheet of paper inside was filled with tiny text and numbers, mostly incomprehensible codes, but the one note recurred at the end of every row. Twilight was sure, it was Celestia’s style of writing.
U453/11 nu A13 T83 subject deceased U453/12 nu A13 T14 subject deceased P454/01 nu K05 T10 subject deceased
subject deceased subject deceased
It was everywhere. She tried to pick different pages from the book but ‘subject deceased’ closed every row in the long tables. Suddenly, the writing ended with a big note:
Cont. MMSU4 E. 25.07.794 SE
The rest of the book was empty.
Twilight stood there for a while, trying to sort out the information, when a mental strike hit her brain. She staggered, dropping the book. The back of her mind exploded with dull pain and for a short while everything sank in white void. When she opened her eyes, she realized that Celestia’s chamber disappeared and she stood in the middle of infinite darkness, in the spotlight coming out of nowhere. She tried to move and made a few steps forward without an effort but the light followed her movement perfectly.
Professor? she sent a mental signal. No answer.
“Professor?” she repeated loud and cringed at the impression that the word got sucked away by the darkness.
“Jade?” Twilight shouted, trying to fight the panic which was slowly taking over her nervous system. “Hello! Anypony?”
She started to run, although the steady smudge of light made it feel like she wasn’t moving at all.
What was that? Did she hear something?
Yes, through the static, on the auditory threshold, something could be heard.
Twi-t do-ead me?
Professor? she tried to shout back through the telepathic link.
Miss Spa- Thank –ness I found you! You’ve been tr-d! I sent you a hacking dro- -ocus, you should see a tiny blue -ght dot!
Twilight squinted in search for any irregularity in the blackness. After a while she managed to make out a single, microscopic point of light.
I see it! she exclaimed in her mind. What now?
Run towards it and try to make it bigger with your energy. Professor’s voice pierced through the static and she could finally hear him normally. I can’t do anything more. Give it all you’ve got. You have to break through!
Twilight blew out towards the blue spot, lighting up her horn. She had no idea what she was doing. She tried to unleash magic in its pure form, hoping it would work.
And it did. The spot budged and started to grow. It was a size of a pea, a plum, an apple, a pumpkin… Twilight’s horn burned from the voltage but she overcame the pain and kept sending the energy. The blue stain was almost as big as a pony…
Jump! Her skull resonated with Jade’s suddenly loud voice. She jumped.
The light blinded her as she passed the hole. She felt a hard blow to her shoulder, strong as Applejack’s buck. At first she tried to stand on her own hooves but she quickly realized there was no ground to stand on. She was falling down.
Not only was she falling, she was falling fast and constantly gaining momentum. She tried to scream but the wind pushed the voice back to her throat. No, nonononono…
Suddenly she felt her heart pulled downwards as she slowed down and started to float easily. When she opened her eyes, she could see a glowing horn between the bushes.
“Quickly, here!” It was Jade, whispering nervously. He was pointing to some hole in the ground. A sewer entrance?
“Hurry!” He pulled her by her hoof.
“You saved my life…” she barely muttered.
“You’ll thank me later.” The professor pushed her down and jumped down himself, pulling the lid back. “They’ll come here after us. Everyone must have seen you falling down from the tower. We need to hide. Go, go!”
Twilight wasn’t in the state of mind that could let her argue. She followed the stallion, trying to ignore the pain.
They ran through darkness and the choking stench of the sewers. After a few turns they could hear echo of the lid being drawn aside. Someone was chasing them. Twilight felt a twist in her stomach. The pain in her arm filled the world with red mist. She barely saw a spot of faint glowing they passed by.
“Wait!” Her voice was so weak that Jade couldn’t hear her. She pulled his tail.
“Wait,” she gasped, taking a few steps back, despite his silent protest. In response, she pointed to a small hole just above the sewer floor, from which a subtle stain of pink light poured out.
Before Jade could say anything, the purple unicorn started to shrink again. He ran towards her but she already jumped inside. With a moan of disappointment he fell on the floor and tried to peer inside the hole. On the other side of a short tunnel, probably eluted by the water, normal-sized Twilight was shaking her head.
“What about me?” he whined, terrified.
“Close your eyes!” commanded Twilight, grimacing from the pain.
“Do it! If you don’t, your brain will turn into pudding for hours!”
She used her last reserves to perform the spell again. She realized she was playing with the stallion’s life. If the pool ran dry in the middle of his way through the hole… she shuffled the thought off. Action, not thinking!
A few seconds later both unicorns sat on the same side, panting heavily and covering the hole with their hooves while the pursuit’s gallop slowly faded away.
On the fifth day, another pony entered the town, and all the voices silenced at once. His coat was as grey as clouds on a rainy day, and his mane silver as mercury. He would shout for the wayfarers to come out, but they only silently trembled inside the tavern. He knew where they were and he shouted again, but the terrified ponies did not comply. And that’s when the bad things started. Equestrian legends: Dawnstrike
It took them a long while before they dared to move, and even longer before either of them spoke.
“What is this place?” Jade rubbed his forehead. The decompression after the spell dissipation had caught him off guard, and he still had problems with understanding things. His vision blurred, and both eyes perceived different colors.
Twilight was still breathing heavily. She hadn’t been so exhausted in her entire life. And never had she encountered a situation in which she would have to use all the reserves of her magical power. For the first time, she felt utterly helpless. Pegasi could always count on their wings, and earth ponies on their physical strength. She felt like a little foal.
She took a look around. They were in a small, dome-shaped cavern. Long, sharp crystals grew densely on the walls, filling the chamber with a delicate pink glow, giving the whole place a bit of an ethereal impression. Everything was so quiet that she could hear the beating of her own heart.
“I think I’ve been here before…” she said faintly.
“I had no idea a place like this existed below Canterlot.” The professor stood up and approached one of the crystal clusters. He poked it with his hoof and it responded with a resonating low sound. Also, for a short while, it shone a bit stronger, sending a cascading impulse to its neighbors. He reached to one larger crystal and, without any bigger effort, broke it away from the rest. Unfortunately, it crumbled into glittering dust in a moment. “So much for a torch,” he muttered to himself.
Meanwhile, Twilight tried to stand up. After a few minutes of rest, her bad shoulder’s pain answered with double strength. She hissed reflexively.
That drew Jade’s attention. “You’re hurt!” he exclaimed, trotting towards her.
“I’m out of my magic. I can’t do anything with it” Twilight looked critically at her swollen shoulder and poked it a couple times with her other hoof. The bone didn’t seem to be cracked, but it was at least bruised very hard.
“What if I shared some of mine with you?” Jade asked, offering his horn by bowing down his head towards her.
“I’m not the best in healing magic. I’m not sure if I could even start a weave by channeling.” She bit her lip. “I can try, but there’s a risk that a lot of your energy will go to waste if the spell fails, and we don’t even know what’s ahead of us.”
The blue unicorn shook his head. “If you’re unable to walk, we won’t be able to do anything, basically. You have to try.”
Their horns lit up at the same time. Blue and purple streams of magic swirled together above their heads. The flow was chaotic, though. Some of the trails went into different directions and dissipated into the air. They didn’t mix perfectly before meeting the wounded spot either, but the swelling seemed to be getting a little bit smaller. Eventually, the energy cloud faded. Twilight hung her head down, breathing heavily.
“That’s all I could do,” she said. “It’s not healed but at least partly desensitized. Let me catch my breath for a while, then let’s get going before the effect wears off.”
“What happened anyway?” Jade sat beside her. “What hurt you? Or who?”
“We’ll get to that.” She tried to make some complex moves with her hurt foreleg, and with a relief she decided she would be able to walk without having to spare it too much. “What in the world was the thing that surprised me back there in Celestia’s room? One second I was just standing there, and then suddenly everything went dark and our connection broke.”
The professor scratched his head for a while. “Honestly? I think that was a simple dimensional trap. Not a very fancy thing and sometimes dangerous, but well… if someone sets up a trap, they rarely care about the target’s safety.”
“What’s a dimensional trap? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it before.”
“I bet you haven’t.” Jade smirked. “If you had, maybe you would be able to figure a way out.
“The idea is simple,” he started after a while. “I think you know how higher dimensions of hyperspace work. When you imagine a potential two-dimensional being and put it on a spherical, three-dimensional object, it will still perceive it as a two-dimensional world. And if you don’t provide it with any kind of marker to place anywhere, the being will think that it’s on an infinite plane. You were sent into a small… pocket of four-dimensional hyperspace. I can tell it, because you saw my helper as a two-dimensional circle.”
“So let me guess: it was, in fact, a sphere?” The purple unicorn described a ball in the air. “By the way, I think we can get going.” She pointed to a narrow, irregular corridor between the crystals.
“Correct.” Jade stood up. “It was something I call a hacking drone. Since I have no control over the trap spell, I can’t influence anything that is inside. That’s why our telepathic link got destroyed too. For a while I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Luckily, my guess was correct and the hacking drone worked. You see, the dimensional trap always has its boundaries in our three-dimensional world. Logically, it would be no more and no less than the room. What my spell does is find an optimal exit and form a…” He stopped, trying to find a proper word. “Let’s call it a bridge.”
They squeezed through the forest of crystalline stalagmites and eventually entered a large cave. Its walls were also made of glassy and colorful stones, but they wouldn’t glow anymore. Jade lit his horn up with a light spell. The ceiling flickered high with a few weak reflections.
“Didn’t you say you’d been here before?” The blue unicorn looked around.
“I think so…” Twilight took a few steps forward. “Not so long ago I got trapped in some caves below Canterlot by the Changeling Queen. My sister-in-law spent a lot of time being imprisoned somewhere behind these jeweled walls, but together we managed to find a way out. I think these corridors are connected to those.”
Jade walked towards a cave wall and poked the gems a couple times. They didn’t respond this time. “Why isn’t it developed?”
“The Queen told me it used to be a mine of some sort, but someone or something must have made the miners abandon it. I hope there aren’t any deadly surprises on our way.”
They started walking again. At the end of the cavern they found three different corridors. They chose the left one, following the universal rule of labyrinths.
“What keeps bugging me,” Twilight spoke, jumping over a stone threshold, “is this: how did you manage that interdimensional bridge? It’s not something I’ve ever heard of either.”
The stallion laughed. “It doesn’t surprise me at all. I am the author of the spell. You see,” he said, stopping and turning towards her, “I need to tell you something. While my major is equinology, it’s not my… only field of interest. After hours I prefer to develop a slightly different kind of magic. Security breaking.”
“I have never thought something like that even existed. Now that you mention it, though…”
“It’s not entirely… legal, you know. It’s not a thing they teach foals in schools. I’m not an expert, but the hacking drone was a discovery that established my position among my colleagues, if you know what I mean.”
“But what happens to ponies that move through that bridge?” Twilight looked at her hurt shoulder. “Something bucked me hard back there. Really hard. It’s a miracle that the bone isn’t broken.”
“To be honest, I don’t think anything hit you at all.” The blue pony rubbed his chin. “As I said before, the first thing a drone does is look for a convenient exit in the three-dimensional world. In our case it had to be the balcony door, since all the windows and the main entrance to the room were closed. Jumping out, you probably materialized in a spot near the balcony railing. Luckily, you only hooked it with your shoulder.”
“So I just jumped out of the tallest tower of Canterlot?” She felt cold crawling into her stomach. “If you weren’t there…”
“And if you weren’t there afterwards, we would have been caught by the guards in the sewers, so we are even. Speaking of which, you really scared me back there. For a while I was sure you’d left me…”
“I’m sorry,” Twilight chuckled. “I had to check if there’s space for us to hide on the other side. There was no time for explanations.”
As they walked ahead, the corridors slowly began to get more regular. The higher ones even had reinforcements and the floors were flatter. The biggest problem was guessing whether they were moving higher or lower. The slopes were insignificant, but they changed all the time. Eventually, the amount of naked crystals on the walls dropped to zero, and soon they were walking through simple stone corridors. Somewhere further away, water was flowing with a quiet whisper.
“Too bad everything was for nothing,” Jade sighed. “We risked a lot to get any information, but we return with empty hooves.”
“Not exactly,” Twilight said. “I did manage to find some evidence just before the spell hit me.”
“And now you’re telling me?!”
“I’m still not sure what some of those things meant though. But the info I did get wasn’t good news at all.” She took a deep breath. “What I’ve found was a big book filled with tables. It looked like a research journal, in which Celestia carefully noted some information about every clone she created, or at least that’s what I think it was. And…” She slowly shook her head. “It’s not just the fact that she made those clones. The journal… it must have carried data of tens, maybe a hundred years! And from what I saw there, none of the clones made it. Thousands of lives thrown into trash… it hurts to even think about it…”
“But if all the subjects died,” Jade mused, “how do we have the clone guards all around us?”
“The record stopped at some point. The last filled page was closed with a note that said that something – I’m not sure what – continued somewhere else since the year 794. It said MMSU4, if I recall it correctly.”
The stallion’s pace froze. “MMSU4? MMSU? That rings a bell.”
“Do you have any idea what it might mean?” Twilight brightened up.
“I’m pretty sure I have heard about it. It’s an abbreviation, so it might mean something completely different, but still…”
Eventually, the unicorns found what seemed to be a main tunnel. In the middle of it there run a rusty old railway. The rippling of water was louder, but it was still impossible to locate which direction it came from. They agreed to follow the railway, since it had to lead somewhere.
“I’m pretty sure we’re getting closer to the place where Cadance and I found the exit. Although, that one led to the castle, and I wouldn’t want to end up in the castle’s courtyard after all this.” The adrenaline just then began to run out and Twilight suddenly felt how extremely tired she was. She was hungry, thirsty, exhausted, magically depleted and hurt. The pain in her shoulder was very mild thanks to the spell, but the knowledge about its state was irritating like a papercut. All in all, she just wanted to go home.
“What’s this?” Jade stopped by a little lever sticking out of the ground by the rail.
“Looks like a simple point switch to me.” Twilight shrugged.
“It would look like one if there was any point in sight, don’t you think?”
“I think we sh-” She stopped when the stallion pulled the lever. Something grated slowly and loudly. Before their eyes a solid part of the wall slowly moved aside, forming a narrow but tall entrance.
The unicorns looked at each other.
Twilight sighed. “Why not…”
A delicate wind swept their faces as they stepped in. The corridor was straight as an arrow, and both ends disappeared in the far darkness. As Professor Jade passed the entrance, it suddenly shut, almost slamming on his tail. He turned around, startled. “I hope this was a good idea,” he said, feeling the solid rock, where a second ago there was a hole. Resigned, he took a step back. A stone yielded softly under his hoof with a quiet click. From the depths of the tunnel they could hear a muffled rumble. The blue pony’s eyes widened.
“Have you read Daring Do, Professor?" Twilight stared at the little hole in the ground.
“You’ve got to be kidding me…”
They both turned tail and fled into the darkness, too scared to look back. The sinister, silent echo of the rolling boulder curdled blood in their veins. The corridor had no turns; it felt like it was going to infinity. Twilight’s brain, for the first time in her life, was filled with pure panic. All her thoughts faded away, leaving space for only one, primal instinct – to run for her life. Her legs moved on her own, her lungs desperately caught air. Faster, faster! the voice in her head screamed. She could feel the huge stone ball getting closer and closer; the terrifying sound louder and more vivid with each passing second.
It’s over. I’ll die here, she thought. She could almost feel the rock brushing against her tail.
Her consciousness didn’t notice the edge. Her body moved on its own. Twilight jumped into the darkness. Her front leg burned with pain and she already knew that she wouldn’t make it. Jade easily flew beside her, as she slowly lost her momentum. The gravity started to ruthlessly pull her down. She stretched her front legs to prevent herself from crashing into a wall and immediately felt another strike of pain when they absorbed the hit.
After a few incredibly long split seconds she realized she was hanging in the air. She opened her eyes and saw a light, ice-blue aura surrounding her body. Jade kneeled above, reaching his hoof towards her. She grabbed him and, finding an inset in the rock, used it to push herself upwards as strong as she could.
A second later the heavy stone boulder hit the spot where she had hung and splashed loudly in the water below, sprinkling both ponies with tiny drops.
Professor Jade raised his head. The mare before him was shaking, her irises slowly turning from lavender to orange.
“What… the… FUCK!” she screamed.
The stallion took a step back. Twilight exploded, literally. With a flash of light, her coat drained of color, and her mane and tail turned into flames. “First, dimensional traps. Then, pursuits in the sewers. But this! This…” She staggered. The fire expired and her coat turned purple again. Her knees bent under her weight.
Twilight fell on the ground and fainted.
* * *
She was woken up by a quiet buzz. Her consciousness returned with slow, accumulating waves. And along with it came pain. Every muscle on her body screamed, even if she wasn’t moving. Her horn tingled. As long as she didn’t provide herself with anything to gain physical energy from, her magic pool would also remain dry. The lack of any magical strength for longer than a few hours wasn’t healthy for a unicorn.
Fighting down the headache, Twilight Sparkle opened her eyes. She was still in the strange cave. Her head rested on something soft – her saddlebags. It must have been Jade who had put her in this relatively comfortable position. Now, he was doing… something. He sat still, turned sideways to her, his horn slightly lit up. His eyes were blurry, and he noiselessly murmured something to himself.
She tried to stand up, but her legs protested midway through and she fell, cursing quietly.
“Lay still, Miss Sparkle.” Jade remained in the same position, not even looking towards her. “I’ll talk to you in a sec.”
Twilight obeyed. She hadn’t the slightest idea what the stallion was doing. The weak glow of his aura fell on solid stone walls surrounding the dead end they were in. She hoped there was some exit back in the direction they came from. Otherwise, they had a problem.
Eventually, the professor’s horn faded and he stood up, groaning. He had to be tired and sore as well. “I’ve got some good news and bad news.” He approached her in the darkness. “Forgive me for not giving us light but I want to preserve all the magic I have left. Anyway, the good news is that this cave is not a dead end as you probably thought. There are at least two hidden doors there. The bad news is I have some problems opening them. More good news is I remembered what MMSU stands for.”
“Okay,” Twilight replied with a weak voice. “So first, tell me what MMSU means. It’s been niggling at me.”
“If my deduction is correct, the note in the book you read wasn’t information about any change in the research after all. It meant Celestia had decided to keep the data someplace else. In a Magical Mass Storage unit.”
“A what now?”
“It’s a luxurious device,” Jade explained. “We have one at our university. It lets you record the data inside it instead of writing it on paper. It also makes it easier to access and to keep it organized.”
“Great. Maybe if we make it out of here alive, we will find it someday.” She buried her face back in the soft saddlebags.
The stallion chuckled. “That would be a waste of a big opportunity, Miss Sparkle. What if I told you one of these secret doors has small, almost impossible to notice, letters MMSU engraved just above the floor?”
“… You’re kidding.”
“I’m totally serious. It seems that by accident we’ve found a thing we didn’t even know we were looking for.” For a long time none of them said anything. The only thing that could be heard was the whisper of a river flowing below them.
“You’ve managed to burn all your physical and magical energy,” the professor said in the darkness. “Also, I bet the after-adrenaline hangover must have kicked in already as well. Rest for now. You should be able to move again soon. I’m not sure about your shoulder though. I’m afraid I don’t have much magic to spare.”
“What are you going to do?” Twilight tried to find a comfortable position.
“The thing I do best. Hack the door.”
“Oh, there is a password. Shouldn’t be a problem if I don’t run out of magic. Too bad we haven’t packed any snacks.” Whistling, he walked away.
The blue glow once again lit up the darkness. After a few minutes it faded again.
“It doesn’t seem too hard.” The stallion sighed. “But I have to be extremely thrifty. So far I know it consists of two words, one trisyllabic, the second disyllabic. I know the first one starts with a voiced consonant and the other with its voiceless equivalent. Probably B and P. Also, I’m pretty sure the second one is plural.”
Twilight furrowed her brow. “If someone put a password on this door, it shouldn’t be anyone else than Celestia herself, don’t you think?”
“Yes, why do you ask?”
“I wonder…” she hesitated for a while. “How about… blueberry pancakes?”
“What do you mean-” Jade’s voice was suddenly drowned out by a hollow buzz. Instinctively, the stallion activated a light spell. Before their eyes, the stone wall became translucent and eventually vanished, leaving a circular hole.
Jade’s jaw dropped.
“What do you know.” Twilight shrugged. “I’m not the only one who uses her favorite food as password.”
“Really?” Professor Jade trotted towards the purple unicorn and helped her stand up. “The royal deepest secrets are guarded by blueberry pancakes? The princess sure has a sense of humor.”
Slowly, the unicorns passed through the hole. The pain in Twilight’s shoulder didn’t let her move her leg, so she had to rely on the stallion. The space they stepped in was filled with still, warm air and lit up by a few stains of dark red light here and there. As the professor put more energy into his magic light, it turned out they were in an elliptic room with a few niches, each curtained with thick and heavy black veils. They didn’t cover the entire holes so some of the red light escaped through, falling on the walls and floor.
“You mentioned the MMSU number was four, right?” Jade asked, pointing to one of the numbers drawn by the niches. “I guess this is the one that will give us the answers we seek.”
He helped her across the room and put the curtain away. What they found inside the hole was something that looked like a holographic image. It looked like a tetrahedron, though it floated upside down and glowed red. The device spun slowly and released a very quiet and very low whirr.
“How do you use it?” Twilight was awestruck. She had never seen anything like it before. She wanted to touch it, but the unit looked so fragile that she was afraid it would shatter to pieces if she did.
“It might be difficult for a beginner.” Jade sent a magical impulse towards the device. “Luckily, I’ve played with one like this before. I’m afraid you’ll have to rely on me to extract the data from this thing. Oh, how nice,” he added, when the impulse returned to his horn. “It’s not even protected. Now let’s go.”
In a short while the tetrahedron shone with strong red light, and the professor’s eyes filled with the same color.
“It says ‘Project Orphan’. Does that mean anything?”
“Yes, the book was titled with the exact same words.” She sat by the wall, watching the red device spin faster.
“The starting date is the year 794… The data charts create a long list. Every subject deceased thus far…” The stallion was making lots of strange moves with his hoof as he spoke. “Oh, there’s a note! First success is U936/05 with nu. CV15. Subject complete. There’s a reference link, I’ll check it in a while.” He went silent for some time.
“From there,” he continued, “we get a mix of deceased and complete, and… hmm, the U1015/01 is strange. Bolded text and a few reference lin-”
“Shh!” Twilight hissed suddenly. She heard something.
Jade closed his mouth and turned the device off. His eyes went back to normal.
From outside the entrance, slow hoofsteps could be heard.
“Quick!” Twilight whispered. “Where’s the exit?”
The professor looked at her, terrified. “There is no exit. The only way out…”
The hoofsteps became louder.
Twilight slowly turned her head to the stallion. “… is the entrance we came in.”
The steps stopped. Someone was just outside the hole.
“We’re screwed,” the professor moaned. “We’re so, so screwed.”
Slowly, a gently swirling waterfall of pastel colors flowed into the chamber. And along with it, a tall, white alicorn stepped inside. The long, twisted horn almost reached the ceiling and the sun image on the pony’s flank seemed to shine in the dimness.
Princess Celestia opened her lavender eyes.
“Twilight Sparkle, my faithful student. It seems I was right to suspect you. I have not met many ponies that could compete with your tenaciousness.”
The unicorns stood silent, not daring to speak.
“I’m impressed how far you were able to reach in this. Breaking into my room, escaping my trap, escaping my guards, and finally, finding my data base. Who would have guessed?”
“I can’t believe it…” Twilight whispered.
“What was that?” Celestia craned her neck.
“I can’t believe it!” The purple unicorn shouted. “All of this, the experiments, secrets and lies… And I trusted you… you monster!” She spat venomously.
“Don’t cross the line, Twilight. It’s easy to jump into conclusions when you have evidence like this.” The alicorn raised her hoof. “You think you know everything but all you can see is the tip of the iceberg.”
“We know enough.” Twilight felt the adrenaline filling up her veins again and burning in her heart. She could feel flames forming on tips of her hair. “We’ve seen through your Project Orphan. We know the results of your terrible experiments!”
The princess sighed. “I can’t even be sure how much you have actually found out. In fact, you can ask. You already know too much anyway.”
“And then what?” The purple unicorn’s eyes narrowed. “You’re going to kill us?”
Celestia took a step back like she was just hit in the face. “Kill you? Kill you? How… how could you!” She spread her wings and stepped forward again. “I am your princess. I am the protector of this land who took care of ponies for thousands of years! I bring the sun out every morning. I give ponies peace and safety. I took you under my wings and raised you like a daughter. I taught you everything you know…” Her eyes flickered with tears. “I set you up with a new home with your friends and gave everything in my power to make you happy… And you’re accusing me of will to kill you?”
Twilight stood by the wall with her mouth open, unable to say a word.
“Is that what you think of your princess? Is one secret enough to picture me as a tyrant who gets rid of inconvenient witnesses?” The alicorn hung her head.
“Be that as it may,” Twilight spoke eventually, “all this doesn’t change the fact that you played with the lives of thousands of unborn ponies. You can’t say what you did was compatible with any moral standards, and you can’t expect me to act like nothing happened!”
“You’re right, I can’t. But I never claimed it was morally correct.” Celestia’s voice was soft and quiet. “Over the hundreds of years I’ve grown almost indifferent, but… trust me, it wasn’t easy for me either.”
“But why?” Professor Jade spoke for the first time. “What made you do something as horrifying as this kind of a genetic experiment on such a large scale?”
“I will answer your questions.” The alicorn raised her head. “But first, you have to answer one. How did you even find out about this?”
Twilight opened her mouth, but she immediately closed it. She nodded at the stallion; his horn lit up and he magically lifted the book out of her saddlebags. He passed it to Celestia.
“Open to page 76,” Twilight said.
“Duskwind, I see…” the princess nodded. “I thought I got rid of all of his books. Sparks and Feathers? I’m guessing this is not your note, is it?”
The purple mare shook her head.
“Then someone must have found the truth before you.”
“The book was sent to me anonymously.” Twilight did not let her eyes off the princess.
“I see…” Celestia mused. “But who could have done it?”
Suddenly, a new pony stepped through the entrance. Her eyes shone with a deep teal in the dim light, and her mane sparkled with the stars of the midnight sky.
A low pitch on a future scale It is a sunless winter day's tale It suits you well
I wish this would be your color I wish this would be your color I wish this would be your color Your color, I wish
Castlewrecker, The Ode*
The navy blue alicorn slowly approached Celestia and stood beside her.
“Princess Luna?” Twilight’s eyes wandered from one princess to another as she tried to comprehend what was going on. “You sent the book to me? But why?”
“I would like to ask the same question, sister.” Celestia furled her wings. “I thought we agreed this project is top secret. Why did you compromise it so foolishly?”
The moon princess’ eyes narrowed. “Don’t call me a fool, sister. I didn’t give the secret away on accident. I wanted her to know the truth.”
“Then why? What was your goal?”
“I will explain everything.” Luna turned to the unicorns. “But not here and not now.” She raised her hoof when Professor Jade opened his mouth. “You’re tired, hurt and probably starving. Also, you don’t smell too good after your… trip to the sewers. Will you accept the offer of being our guests?”
“Guests?” The purple unicorn looked at her in disbelief. “Now wait just a minute-”
“No one is standing between you and the answers, Twilight Sparkle,” the moon princess interrupted. “I offer our hospitality as an act of good will. You can ask now, or you can ask clean, healed and rested. The choice is yours.”
“Come on, Miss Sparkle,” Jade whispered to her ear. “There is no rush, and she has a point.”
Twilight stood silent, looking deep into the princess’ eyes. “Okay,” she spoke, “lead the way.”
* * *
A hot bath had never felt that good before in her life. The steaming water filled with ethereal oils, the thick foam smelling of soap and flowers, the relaxing sound effects coming from holes in the walls… Twilight felt her painfully strained muscles finally loosen up. The exhaustion turned into bliss. For a while, the problems didn’t seem to matter. The guards were just monochromatic ponies, and the royal secrets were just a distant problem for someone else. The incidents of the past few hours felt like a fictional story she had read years ago. She could have stayed like that for the rest of her days.
After the bath, both unicorns were treated with an elegant, distinguished dinner. But Twilight could hardly notice the quality. She barely even recognized any taste. Only when the first symptoms of sugar in her veins reached her brain, she let herself slow up a bit and enjoy the food. Her horn thanked her with soothing warmth. Jade seemed to be having the same problem with holding back his primal instincts. Neither of them talked. They both silently agreed the conversation could wait.
The doctor who was sent to her private room afterwards diagnosed her with a cracked bone after all. But before she started to panic, he assured her, that fixing the problem would be painless and easy and that she shouldn’t have any problems with it in the future. He casted a few spells which Twilight didn’t know, and left, letting her rest. She suddenly wanted to have a word with the professor, but she realized that she was too tired to even get up from bed. She laughed at her helplessness. Quickly after, she fell asleep.
* * *
“Good evening, Miss Sparkle,” Professor Jade spoke indistinctly with his mouth full. “Did you sleep well?”
Twilight couldn’t believe that she had spent over twenty hours in bed. She remembered waking up a few times and falling right back asleep, but she wouldn’t have guessed that overall it had taken so long. The doctor from the previous night had to be a good one, because after waking up she felt like a new pony.
Not sure what to do with herself, since it was already long after dark, she left her room and walked down the stairs to the guests’ dining room, where she met Professor Jade, as cheerful as ever, gorging a carrot tart.
“These royal chefs are amazing.” He cut himself another huge portion of the cake. “We should let ourselves get captured more often. Come on, sit down. Princess Luna visited earlier and said that we should inform this young gentlecolt”- he pointed to a young page -“whenever we wanted to speak with them.”
Twilight sighed, and grabbed a slice of the tart for herself. “I wonder what Princess Luna wants with us…”
“With you,” Jade corrected. “It was you she sent the book to. I’m just a guy who tagged along, remember?”
“I’m sorry I mixed you up into this.”
“Oh come on, lighten up! I’m really grateful for all this, especially since Celestia made it clear she has no intention of killing us.” The stallion grinned. His smile had something strange about it. It was hard not to get infected.
Twilight snorted with laughter. “Whatever. Even if the sky was falling, you would drag everypony out to admire the unique scenery.”
* * *
The meeting was far less formal than she expected. The two princesses sat on cushions by a low table with nothing but four glasses and a jug of wine on it.
As the two unicorn scientists stepped in, a Pegasus guard closed the door behind them.
“Please sit down.” Celestia nodded.
“We are sorry it took so long,” Jade said with a weak smile. “The castle beds are so comfortable.”
“Not a problem.” The sun princess smiled too. “In fact, these hours are usually the calmest in the castle’s day cycle. By the way, I apologize for yesterday. We haven’t had the opportunity to properly introduce ourselves. Pleased to meet you, Professor Jade. I must say I enjoyed all your work that I have had the pleasure to encounter.”
“It’s an honor, Princess Celestia, Princess Luna.” He bowed his head towards both of them. “And I can only hope that I will be able to write more to please your tastes.”
“Okay, enough small talk,” Twilight interrupted. “If I recall correctly, the purpose of this meeting was to explain some things to each other.”
“That is true,” Princess Luna spoke for the first time. “And before we get to the heart of the matter, I want to deeply apologize for all the danger I put you both in with my carelessness. To be honest, when I sent you The Heredity Phenomenon, I was sure you would just storm the castle, demanding answers. I had no idea that you would be able to get this far, and it relieves me that the worst thing that happened was no more than a crack of a bone.”
“Speaking of which”- Twilight hit the table with her hoof -“who uses rolling boulder traps to secure the data? Without the professor’s help, I would be dead by now!”
“I’m sorry.” Celestia’s voice was quiet and soft. “That precaution exists because it was already there when I discovered that secret corridor.”
“What do you mean: ‘discovered’?” Jade couldn’t withhold his curiosity.
“Those tunnels had been there long before Canterlot was built,” Luna explained. “We used them as mines for valuable resources, but after one magical epidemic, we decided to abandon them. But that’s a long and irrelevant story. We are here to answer your questions, Twilight Sparkle. Ask them.”
“All right,” Twilight started hesitantly. “First of all, if you wanted me to know the truth, why did you send me this obscure information by Duskwind, and not the more straightforward book by Glass Coat?”
“Two reasons. One: Because I didn’t know anything by Glass Coat still existed.” The moon princess smiled. “Two: More importantly – in fact I am… more emotionally attached to Duskwind’s publications.”
“Emotionally attached?” Twilight raised her eyebrow. “But you couldn’t even have known him!”
“Quite the contrary, my faithful student.” Celestia filled her glass with wine.
Twilight Sparkle…” Princess Luna put her hooves on the table. “I a m Duskwind.”
A long silence hung over the room. The unicorns’ jaws dropped.
“Scientific work is too important to let any potential bias spoil the judgment of the community. That’s why I decided to use the pseudonym.”
“But…” Twilight tried to collect her thoughts. “Wasn’t Duskwind supposed to be a stallion?”
“If you create a fake identity, why not make it a male one?” Luna shrugged.
“It’s impossible.” Professor Jade leaned forward. “During our research I found that Advanced Genetics was published after the year 500, and Duskwind mentioned Glass Coat more than once in The Heredity Phenomenon. Forgive the indelicacy, but did you write that book on the moon? That just doesn’t add up, unless…” He stopped.
“Unless…” Twilight looked at Celestia. “Glass Coat also lived over a thousand years ago.”
“Well done.” The white alicorn clapped her hooves. “It is true. Glass Coat is my pseudonym. It was Luna who first discovered the biological patterns on which the genetic studies were built. After the… Nightmare Moon incident, I continued the research on my own. To be honest, at first I had no idea I would be successful in developing the knowledge so far.”
“And that leads us to the most important question: Why, Princess? Why would you do such a thing?” The purple unicorn stared into the deep red of wine and tried not to picture all the blood on the ruler’s hooves.
The princess sighed. “Tell me, my faithful student, what do you know about the history of Equestria? And I specifically mean the founding of the kingdom.”
“Well…” Twilight hesitated. “There is the legend about the Hearth’s Warming Eve, right?”
“Correct. And you used a right word: ‘legend’. Do you know when a legend is formed? When the truth about an important event is too prosaic to keep it in its original state for the next generations. The folk loves mysticism, so they create their own version of the story. However, there is always some truth in every legend. You just have to know how to separate the wheat from the chaff.”
“What is the truth then?” Jade asked. “If there was anyone that knows, who would it be if not the two immortal princesses?”
“It’s not that simple,” Luna took the floor. “We may not age, but we haven’t been on this world since the very beginning. As a matter of fact, Celestia and I were born after the founding of Equestria. It had been foretold that we would come, but we will explain that later.”
“Now who’s playing with mysticism?” Twilight grimaced.
The sun princess smirked. “I was lucky to have found you. Your skepticism makes you a much better scientist than many of my other students. Our birth was foretold like a few other things. You may not believe us now, but I hope we will be able to convince you that they are true.
“And to answer the professor’s question: the most basic truth in this legend is winter. What’s false is that it was caused by the hatred between the pony tribes and the mythical Windigos. And until we have heard the prophecies for ourselves, my sister and I had no idea what the cause of that terrible, deadly cold was…”
Princess Celestia hung her voice.
“Well?” Twilight couldn’t help her heart pounding in her chest. “What was it?”
The white alicorn took a nervous sip from her glass. “Draconequi.”
“What?!” Both unicorns exclaimed simultaneously.
“May I?” Princess Luna raised her hoof. “It is hard to believe, but this world knows more than one draconequus. In fact, there used to be a lot of them. My studies have almost clearly shown that they are not creatures of this world. If they had evolved here, they would have turned all the flora and fauna into ruins. Not to mention evolutional competition with other intelligent species like us.
“A draconequus is a creature which loves chaos more than any other thing. And it wields powerful magic that lets it make that chaos reality. Wherever they roamed, the land was turned upside down. Ponies, who lived a colonization lifestyle, suddenly had to turn into nomads; especially since the monsters found out about the most destructive method against farming-based life: winter.”
“If there was any bright side,” Celestia followed, “it was that to survive, all three tribes had to learn to work together. And as a result, they even managed to form a semi-stable society. We could say that it was how Equestria was made, but technically it was founded when they discovered this land. The land, to which, surprisingly, the winter wouldn’t come after them. Relieved, ponies finally settled after decades of exile, not even aware that they were saved by someone.”
“By whom?” Twilight conquered her feelings, and poured some wine for herself. “I’ve never heard of anyone meddling in Equestria’s history.”
“Of course you haven’t.” Luna smiled triumphantly. “It was Discord.”
Twilight almost sprayed her with wine. “Discord? The Discord?”
“The same you met about a year ago.”
“But how? Why?” The longer the story went, the more confused Twilight became. The maniac that almost destroyed Equestria and turned Ponyville into a fever hallucination was the savior of the ponykind?
“I’ll explain.” Celestia leaned forward. “The ponies didn’t know that the draconequi had a leader, who was much more powerful than the rest. And, as it turned out, that leader had a slightly different philosophy of life. You see, we can safely say that the draconequi were, well… evil. With their actions all they achieved was suffering of others. They wanted to slowly destroy us. Starve us to death. Discord was different. You have met him personally, Twilight. He is not evil in a typical way. He is just… crazy.”
Twilight replied with a nod.
“Seeing the actions of his subjects, he eventually said no,” Celestia continued. “He wanted to rule and adjust harmony to chaos, not destroy. It’s not hard to guess that they rebelled against him. In response, he got rid of them.” She spread her arms. “How? We don’t know. My theory is that he sent them back to where they had come from – some other world.
“As for himself, he stayed here. But without his subjects he found himself lost. He lost track of us and went his way, probably to harass some other lands. Before he found Equestria, decades had already passed. And during that time, two prophecies had come true. Two alicorn princesses were born, and the ponies found some extremely powerful objects called the Elements of Harmony. The rest of the story you already know. We used the magic of the Elements to imprison Discord in stone. The history would say that the ponies lived happily ever after, at least until Nightmare Moon took control over Princess Luna. But there is another prophecy that only a few know about. “
“The draconequi will return.” The moon princess closed her eyes. “And we have to be prepared.”
“What about the Elements then?” Twilight asked. “If they were able to defeat Discord, who turned out to be much more powerful than the rest of his kind, maybe they could save us from them as well?”
“Would you base your defense strategies on guesses?” Luna shook her head. “The effect of the Elements is unpredictable, and it usually lets you focus on one target. We had to look for another solution.”
“The loss of my sister for a thousand years,” Celestia sighed, breaking the silence, “was not just a personal blow, and not just a blow to Equestria’s stability. We lost a wonderful researcher that day. Preparing ourselves for the attack was our top priority. I searched for answers in magic, she in engineering and biology. With Duskwind gone, Glass Coat had to take care of everything. I published a lot under that pseudonym, trying to get help from the academic community’s responses. That’s how, after hundreds of years, I discovered the ability of… of cloning. I had no idea when the draconequi would return and I still don’t know when it’s going to happen. I made this research top priority, because I might not get another chance.
“For pegasus guards I used the DNA of Cloudfist. He was an absolute prodigy in flying, like your friend Rainbow Dash. Finding a model for the unicorn guards was harder. There were many good unicorns back then, but I couldn’t specify any that would be ideal. Except…” She swallowed nervously. “Except Dawnstrike.”
“No way…” Professor Jade’s eyes widened. “You’re telling me that the order in Equestria is kept by the copies of the most dangerous rogue mage in pony history?”
“There is no evil written in genes, Professor. Everypony is the master of their own destiny.” Luna turned to the stallion. “I understand your worries, but there was no better choice.”
“Unfortunately,” Celestia said, “the problems had just started then. On paper it looks easy, but to actually clone a pony, you have to try thousands of different approaches. It took years…” Her voice waned. “Years of failed attempts with different sequences and nutrients to achieve anything. I often can’t sleep at night when I think of how many lives disappeared before my eyes.” The princess’ eyes glistened with tears. “Every time a… a subject died, I felt like I had lost a foal. Another colt, I could watch growing, died in my tanks day after day. But I had to keep going. I had to do everything I could to protect my subjects…”
A few tears dropped on the table. Nopony dared to break the silence that fell in the room. Princess Celestia sat still on her cushion with her head bent down.
“The first breakthrough occurred in 812,” she spoke eventually.” It was subject U936/05, a unicorn that not only survived the prenatal state, but developed like a normal pony. After that, successful outcomes became regular. But the real successes were only pegasi. Even if alive and healthy, the unicorns were still incomplete. They resembled Dawnstrike physically, but their magic potential rarely exceeded the average for a unicorn. It kept happening until-”
“Until U1015/01, right?” Jade interrupted.
“Yes. In 824 the first real successor of Dawnstrike was born.” Celestia bit her lip. “But, unfortunately, the last one.”
“What do you mean?” Twilight frowned. “What about the guards all around Canterlot?”
The princess shook her head. “They’re incomplete as well. You see, to fully unveil the magical pattern, a unicorn must mature first. Until then, everything is unreadable. And U1015/01, well…”
“Fled,” Princess Luna finished for her. “The only subject that was a hundred percent success, escaped from the castle, never to be found. The only one to have the Grey Factor.”
“What’s the Grey Factor?” the professor asked.
“It’s what we call the unique gene sequence of Dawnstrike,” Luna replied. “His magical power was genetically coupled with his coat hue, as it turned out.”
“So the experiments still continue?” Jade scratched his head.
“Yes.” Celestia nodded. “Some time ago I even managed to create a batch of white unicorn guards, but they’re weaker and we rarely use them if we don’t have to. Twilight, you could have seen them during your brother’s wedding. We mobilized all our forces to protect Canterlot then.
“But there was another problem. I had to erase all the traces leading to the secret. I devoted a lot of time to get rid of all of Duskwind’s and Glass Coat’s publications, so nopony could ever know that I had performed the experiments and that the guards are copies. You’ve proven that I didn’t do well enough. But there is always some way for truth to come out on top. Either way, that’s all I can think of what might be interesting to you. Now it’s time for me to ask.” She turned to her sister. “Why did you think all this was necessary? Why did you mix my protégée up into this?”
“Yes, this is a good moment to explain.” Princess Luna stood up. “When the Elements of Harmony freed me from the Nightmare Moon curse, I had a lot to catch up on with the project. But also I had a clear head, which allowed me to notice more possibilities. The Element of Magic couldn’t have chosen just any pony to be its wielder. I knew Twilight Sparkle was not just a regular unicorn. So, during my visit to Ponyville on Nightmare Night, I decided to grab some genetic material for study. I wouldn’t dare assuming that I had found a connection, but the research has proven it.”
“Proven what?” Twilight felt like her heart slowly turned into a lump of ice. She already knew the answer.
“You are the descendant of U1015/01.” The moon princess pointed her hoof at her. “You are the missing link.”
Twilight vision became blurry. This is not happening, this is not happening, she repeated in her mind.
“Are you sure about this…?” Princess Celestia was no less shocked.
“Believe me, sister.” Luna frowned. “If I wasn’t sure, I wouldn’t care to organize all this.”
“But my coat isn’t even grey,” Twilight said, looking at her hooves. “It’s bright purple.”
“Your coat color is irrelevant,” the older princess spoke softly. “I made a sub-experiment some time ago, and the results show that the gene we are looking for doesn’t pass normally. I let a few guards have normal families, and tracked the outcomes. Their children’s coats didn’t match the fathers’. And sons of their sons also never wielded the Grey Factor. Only male foals of their daughters sometimes had the gene.”
“In other words…” Princess Luna sat down again. “You don’t have the Grey Factor that we need. But your son will have it.”
“My… my son? But…”
Princess Celestia turned her head away, and looked through a window at the night sky.
“I see what you mean, sister.” She walked towards the window, not looking at anyone. “But would it be too much to ask?”
Luna sighed. “This may be our only hope. We might not get another chance. I know it’s much to ask, Twilight Sparkle.” She turned to the unicorn, nervously looking her in the eyes. “Will you help us?”
“What if…” Twilight hesitated. “What if I said no?”
Princess Celestia took a deep breath. “In every ruler’s life, sooner or later, comes that time, when they have to make an uneasy choice. Do I want to sacrifice something important for the good of my subjects? Or do I prefer to take a bigger risk, but not get my hooves dirty? My biggest problem is that my hooves have been dirty for years now…”
She stepped away from the window, and took her seat by the table again. “A ruler must remember that the good of her subjects comes first. The needs of the many are the greater ideal. The ideal, for which the ruler sometimes has to make sacrifices.” She looked deep into Twilight’s eyes. “And that’s how tyrants are born. Those, who forget that what they love is as important as anything else that the kingdom consists of. One sacrifice leads to another, and suddenly there is nothing worth fighting for. Twilight, you have your parents, and even if I’m not a mother to you, you are a daughter to me. And I would never, ever force anything on my daughter. If you say no, we have other options. An army of incomplete clones is still an army, and we have the Elements of Harmony. And maybe in the future we will be able to discover the Grey Factor again. All I can promise is that, with your son, there will be no need for further experiments. Project Orphan will be complete.
It has been such a long time since my last entry, hasn’t it?
Life is an unpredictable thing. One day I read a book under the blue summer sky, and a few hours later I am thrown into a quest that changes the world around me like it was nothing. Just like that time when we fought Nightmare Moon. After that, I thought nothing crazier could happen, but the reality surprised me not once, and not twice again.
I know I will say yes to the princesses. I can’t let Equestria down, especially since it would also mean the end of those horrible, even if necessary experiments. But that’s going to happen when the time is right. First I have to meet the right stallion anyway, right? This may be a great service for Equestria, but my son will still be my son, and I always wanted to have one anyway. Still, no artificial methods for me, oh no.
When I talked to Madame Pearl back then in Manehattan, I told her: “There might be at least one useful outcome of my visit”. At least that turned out to be true. I have never seen Rarity happier than when she and her uncle finally reconciled and explained what was on their minds for all those years.
Speaking of Professor Jade, the princesses offered him a new job in the security department, due to his amazing hacking abilities, but he respectfully declined. He said that work is work, and a hobby should stay a hobby. Also, he persisted that he didn’t know anyone else who would be interested in that sort of magic.
Well, I think that’s all for now. I would go into more details, but Pinkie is waiting for me at Sugarcube Corner and I don’t want to keep her waiting. Till next time!
Your faithful author,
Special thanks to AlicornPriest for pre-reading the story and making it readable, and to my dear friends Quaz and Yeld for moral support. xoxo