I Can Read Names in Clouds

by Yuu

First published

In the aftermath of the confusion with replacing the newest princess, a human arrives to learn about pony society.

Some ponies still remember when the newest princess and her fiancée were replaced by members of an unknown species. For those of you close to the affected, these memories remain fresh in the mind. And many of you are still looking for answers.

But what happens if a human knocks on your door during this time? She claims it is a visit by chance, but she has something in common with these previously unknown shapeshifters.


“Gore” tag is for maximum 800 words of PG-13 rated violence. “Crossovers” tag is for the things related to World of Darkness setting.

Based on the television show “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,” property of Hasbro, Inc.

Edited by PseudoBob Delightus and JBL. Preread by my precious wife. Many thanks to them!

For more information about the story please check the blog here. Also feel free to ask questions in comments.

P.S. I noticed that this story has a number of attributes of a rational fic as it stated on TV Tropes. I intended to make characters not dumb, so it might lead to other things.

Across the Universe

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Scents of meadow flowers filled the air around me, replacing the strong flavour of tree bark and leaves. I quickly headed into the light that heralded the exit from the forest, and I had to squint my eyes from the sharp sunlight that contrasted with the general gloom of the forest. Once my eyes adjusted, I carefully looked around, spotting a town nearby. It seemed similar to one the spirit had shown me, but he hadn’t told me what to look for. Was it a person or a place? Most likely a person, one who was capable of sending a messenger spirit.

The streets were filled with small colourful equines, again matching the spirit's vision.

The setting around me could be mistaken for Earth: the sole, yellow, morning sun shined in the electric blue sky. The clouds also looked quite normal—formless white puffs. Though the town was more colourful compared to cities on Earth, befitting its inhabitants. Houses, trees, even roads in the town were bright and saturated. And the forest behind me appeared very familiar, though a botanist still might notice something alien.

I sat on the roof of a small house, observing the equines and listening in on their conversations. Almost all of them had small images on their haunches, with only the smaller equines being the exceptions. What should I do in regards to a first contact situation? Well, perhaps it was time to apply the training I had.

One couple discussed a recent holiday; another talked about furthering their education in the near future. Having observed the beings for a while, I decided it would be better to refer to them as ponies. It was certainly easier than calling them ‘small equine creatures’ every time.

None of them had anything on their hooves. I could only assume their hooves were very strong, or this town had a pavement suitable for ponies. Of course, they might need to use hoof boots outside of town.

Several buildings had small signboards with different symbols or images. These signboards seemed to be made of wood and had small holes in them, enabling them to be attached to walls. I was even able to recognise some of the symbols and their significance, such as the one on the burgundy building nearby. There was a flower on its signboard, so the building was likely a flower shop.

I noticed only a few ponies with hues that were familiar to me. Their manes and coats sometimes bordered on the bizarre in their colour combination. Mane length and style also varied greatly: long and short, curled and straight. Some of the curls looked too perfect, so I suspected they were created artificially.

A pony with a light cyan-grey mane styled in a mohawk, of all things, walked out of a nearby building. He had a dark grey coat, bordering on black, and a mark which looked like a cloud with a lightning bolt. A cheerful-looking mare with light-brown mane and twin braids trotted on the street, her tail fashioned into another braid.

I cursed myself, for I had missed her mark symbol; she had quickly turned around the corner. At most, I had barely glimpsed what seemed to be geometrical shapes on her light grey flank. In any case, I noticed a mare with light grey curly mane who was close to me, turning her head to the right, then to the left, possibly looking for something. She had a light purplish-grey coat and something white and fluffy on her flank—maybe a cloud? Unfortunately she didn’t speak to any other ponies before going off in her own direction.

Comparing with manes, the coats looked more or less uniform in texture. Also some ponies had jewellery, mostly in form of necklaces and hairpins.

All ponies looked pretty healthy except a mare with a cerise shag cut and a pale yellow coat. She had a bandaged leg and walked slower than the others, limping slightly.

I had assumed, from the physiology of the ponies I had seen so far, that they were mostly mares, but after several minutes of ponies passing by, I began to doubt the accuracy of guessing their gender. With a flap of my wings, I returned to the ground to gain a lower vantage point. After ten minutes of observation, I realised that this town had at least two mares to a stallion. I wasn’t mistaken before—they didn’t wear clothing, except for saddlebags and hats, so their gender was determined rather easily.

I spotted another mare with a shag cut with familiar colours. Her mane and tail were pale yellow and she had a light steel-blue coat. She walked down the street with large saddlebags attached to her. When she trotted near three smaller ponies, possibly fillies, they noticed her.

“How does she do that?” asked one of them, light olive with an amaranth side fringe.

The mare in question noticed the three fillies and turned an eye on them, still looking at the road with her other eye.

Really, how could she control her eyes like that?

A white-coated filly with mulberry and rose-striped, curled bangs turned to the others. “She had a pet lizard when she was young and she learned from it, somehow. My sister told me so.”

The third filly, amber-coated with a cerise shag cut, sat with a slightly opened mouth, possibly an expression of awe, then turned to her friends.

“I heard she can see invisible creatures. Maybe she can teach us?”

“Nah, somepony told me she writes books in her free time, and those are ideas for a story,” the filly with the mulberry and rose bangs said.

“Hey, maybe she can teach me, too!” a pony with a curly raspberry mane exclaimed, suddenly appearing behind the three fillies. How did she manage to sneak over?

The fillies screamed and scattered in different directions, a cloud of dust the only evidence of their congregation.

“Hehe, sorry,” the mare with the raspberry mane said. She had a pink coat, and three ovals of different colours on her flank. She sat down, looking at the mare with the yellow shag cut, and said to no one, “Maybe somepony can still teach me...”

In that moment, I realised that I could lose the entire day listening to random conversations. No-one around me was talking about spirits or sending messages, or anything else of note.

I needed to find traces of magic if I was going to find out who had sent that message. Even with my limited capability to detect magic, I could manage it, and I could fly around town to cover more ground.

I leapt off the ground and flapped my wings, the noise attracting some glances from nearby ponies. The town was more or less rectangular in its layout, so I began to fly from one edge to another in a zigzag pattern. Regular use of magic would leave some imprint on the surroundings, an imprint I could hopefully identify.

It took me more than an hour to cover the whole town, but I located three places with a magical residue. I found a rectangular house, a cylindrical house, and a house inside a tree. Unfortunately, none of them had any trace of spirit magic, but at least there were some kinds of magic I couldn’t recognize.

I had seen mages grow and meld trees in different shapes. This tree house also looked like a result of some manipulations, not just a big tree with a hollowed interior. Considering this was a different world, it was an interesting coincidence. What would be next, a home carved out from a giant mushroom?

Oak, Blackthorn, and Ash

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This must have be the building I was searching for: a large tree with windows poking through the wood, and a signboard that stood on the ground near the door. The board had several books drawn on it. I remembered at once parts of the message: there was a room with many books, and the windows looked similar to those in the tree-house in front of me.

A spark in the window drew my attention, but it was too dark inside to see anything else. I hopped close and tapped the glass with my beak, hoping to get someone's attention. As I strained to see past the bright reflections of the sky, I heard the opening and closing of a door nearby. I flew from the window to the door and tapped once again, this time more forcefully.

Before I began tapping again to attract the attention of the slow dwellers, the door finally opened. A pony with a sapphire blue, blunt fringe emerged from the door. She was mulberry-coated and had a pink streak in her mane.

She looked at me and said something. That was the moment I remembered that I had turned off my translator while I was flying around the town, and that I should activate it again. Before that, since I wasn’t certain that the messenger spirit had shown me this tree-building, I decided I should check to ensure it was the right one.

I quickly flew through the open door and circled inside the room. It was definitely a library: numerous bookshelves recessed in every wall, several tables with books packed on top of them, along with a couple of doors to other rooms. I noticed a bust of an equine, and perched on it. The mare with the sapphire fringe closed the door and trotted closer to me, eyeing me carefully. I concentrated and activated my translator.

“Hello,” she said. “What’s a nice young bird like you doing in my library? What’s your name?”

Did she really expect that I would answer? Perhaps some birds around here could actually speak. Next time I see one, I should try making a conversation. Or perhaps her words were a greeting specifically for birds? In any case, I decided to use the translator gift on the mare and introduce myself. I concentrated on the meaning of my name, as it would be unrealistic to expect ponies to repeat words from a foreign language.

“Good day. My name is Snowy Clothes.”

The mare with the sapphire fringe took several steps backwards and her eyes widened. The good thing was she didn't charge at me.

“You can talk!” she exclaimed.

“And you're pretty good at stating the obvious.”

“Well, yes.” She shook her head as if to clear her mind and came closer again. “Sorry, I forgot to introduce myself. My name is...” It was an atmospheric effect that seemed to occur when the sun was close to the horizon. I didn’t even know the term in my own language for the phenomenon she was named after.

I waved a white wing at her. “I will try something in my own language. Please tell me if I get something close enough.”

“I will,” she said, nodding. I was glad to see a familiar gesture in this alien world. When she turned, she displayed a large starburst on both of her flanks, or whatever ponies called it. I should ask about it later.

“So.” A phenomenon on the horizon... “How about Dusk Shine?”

“It is close,” she acknowledged, “but maybe you can find something else?”

“Maybe Horizon Gloaming?”

“That's better. I think you can just call me Gloaming.”

“Excellent. Nice to meet you, Gloaming.” I ducked my head slightly.

“What type of bird are you?” she asked after a short pause. “I know some birds can repeat words, but you’re responding to my words, not just repeating them. Are you from some distant place? There are some birds I know that resemble you, but they have darker crests...”

I sensed the rising excitement from the pony and instinctively took a step back. “Wait a moment, one question a time please.” I waved a wing at her to emphasise my words. As to her question, I thought it would be wise to keep matters simple for now. “I believe I am a crow. I’ve seen birds like me around town, but their feathers are darker than mine.”

“And why...” Gloaming began asking. “Sorry, please continue.”

She was almost as bad at questioning as some crazy scientists I knew.

“The reason for my unusual colouring is a lack of pigmentation, caused by albinism.”

“I see.” She moved to the closest table. “I would like to write down this, if you don't mind.”

“Fine.”

Gloaming looked at a journal lying on the table, and I saw a dim violet light illuminated on her forehead. A similar coloured light enveloped the journal, and it flipped open. Then a light illuminated a page of the journal and several unfamiliar symbols appeared on it.

Whatever it was, a mystical power or an implanted device in her head, it was very convenient. I wished I could just concentrate and transfer my thoughts to a paper.

“So, if I understand correctly, your lack of colouration is somehow connected to your eyes? I’ve seen several ponies with similar colour schemes, so they might have a similar condition. Then again, it may just be a natural trait.” She seemed to be murmuring more to herself than me.

“My eyesight could be worse than it is now. My condition was called oculocutaneous albinism for a reason. Fortunately, my parents brought me to a healer who prevented most of the vision problems.”

“Your kind has healers?” Her voice sounded incredulous. “You really aren’t from around here. I’ve never heard about healer crows.”

I wondered if I should tell her that the healer wasn't a crow. Despite her amazement, she continued to make notes in the journal.

“I wasn't born a crow.”

“Really?” At this, the glow on paper ceased to exist, and her eyebrows shot up. “Somepony turned you into a crow?”

“No.” Having reached this level of civil discourse with Gloaming, I decided to trust her with the truth. “I can change my shape to that of another species.”

“Can you really do that? Can I see you in another form?” Her head darted from side to side, her eyes moving furtively for some reason.

I considered her request. I had two options: to shift to a human form or to a hybrid. Both of them should be alien to ponies, but my hybrid form at least had some resemblance to a bird. That would be the one I would go with, I decided.

“It won’t be too difficult for me. Still…” I hesitated for a moment. “I have to ask, but I noticed you seemed a bit nervous just now.”

She exhaled loudly, looking at me directly. “You see, there was an… incident, recently.”

Her visible scrutiny made me reconsider immediately transforming myself. “Could you please tell me what happened?”

“It's a rather personal story, for me at least.” She continued to study me for a few more moments before she nodded resolutely to herself once. “Still, everypony knows about it, so there’s no reason not to tell you, too. We have legends about creatures that can impersonate other ponies. They replace common ponies with doubles, for some time or forever, for unknown reasons.”

That certainly explained her uneasiness at my declaration.

“You should know that I can't impersonate specific people,” I said.

“If you say so,” Gloaming said, sounding uncertain. “They were considered a myth until recent events, when at least two of them impersonated two ponies who were very close to me.”

“Don’t you have any protocols to check someone’s identity?”

“Yes, we do, but these...” She gave a name that the translator failed to interpret. Doppelgänger seemed to be the best word to fit the creatures she had described. “...doppelgängers hadn't done anything that required their identities to be checked. They went on to replace my brother's fiancée.”

“I'm sorry. I hope it ended well.” Her story brought to mind several of my own failed romances in the past.

“More or less,” Gloaming said, looking at her journal. “One of them fled when I finally persuaded my friends and guards to check the mare I suspected. My brother was shocked that he had been fooled like that. It was afterwards that we found that another doppelgänger had imitated my brother with his real fiancée in another part of the city.”

“That was very cunning.”

“Well, I can’t disagree.” She briefly looked at me, than turned her gaze back to the journal. “The two doppelgängers somehow communicated with each other to fill the gaps in each other’s knowledge. That's why it took me several hours to prove...”

I mentally raised my non-existent eyebrows. I certainly hadn’t seen this discussion veering off into this direction when I had first knocked on library’s door.

“...That she was a fake!” Gloaming’s jaw seemed tight, and her eyes reminded me lifeless eyes of a plush doll for a moment. She inhaled deeply several times. “I'm sorry for that.”

She gave an apologetic smile. I remained silent, waiting for her to continue.

“Now I can only hope these doppelgängers haven’t replaced anypony else in town,” Gloaming added. “I’m trying to think about it logically, but it pains me even to imagine that some of my friends could be replaced.”

She appeared calmer now, but I noticed that her right ear twitched slightly every two seconds or so.

“I can tell you for sure that I don't want to replace anyone,” I said, respecting the shift in tone and mood that she had brought on. “I actually can't do that. My other forms aren’t ponies.”

“Really?” She quickly became more animated than a second ago. “What are they?”

“It’s an entirely different species than ponies,” I said. “It’s bipedal with two hands. If you have any apes around, my species is very close to them. We call ourselves humans.”

“I know about apes, but they aren’t native inhabitants of our region,” Gloaming said. This shift away from murkier emotional waters seemed to pick up her spirits. “Is this form affected by your albinism?”

“Yes, it is,” I said. Maybe if I described myself in my human form, I could better prepare her for my change of appearance. “So, I don’t have any fur or noticeable amount of hair on my body, and my skin is light pink.”

“And I assume that if you have hair it would be white.” Gloaming returned to her journal and made some notes.

I nodded, and examined Gloaming’s hairstyle.

“I actually have some hair at the top of my head, and I usually let it fall down to the middle of my body.” I almost mentioned waist, but who knows which part of their body ponies consider their own waist.

“You can also tell me about the differences between your race and ponies, if you like.” She pointed on herself with her forehoof, than on me.

“So, my face is flatter, compared to yours. If you stand on your hind legs you may be only a bit shorter than me, and in this position you will more or less resemble a human.” I imagined this in my mind, but I didn’t know for sure if they could they stand upright or not. “Still, without fur on our bodies we can’t withstand cold weather, so humans wear clothes almost all the time.”

“That’s reasonable, but ponies also wear clothing during very cold winters and formal events,” Gloaming said, still writing.

“Humans also have five digits on their hands and feet. We can grab and use tools with our hands, but the digits on our feet are short and pretty useless. And we don’t have claws.”

“And do you look like an average human?” Gloaming asked. “I mean, I, for example, have a physique of an average pony mare, but other mares could be a head taller or shorter than me.”

“I see. My height should be pretty average for a female, but my weight is about one tenth smaller that the average, I think.” I still remembered my last visit to the doctor, who advised me to gather some mass.

“Can you show me you other form, please?”

She looked more relaxed right now, so I decided to go on.

“Sure, why not.”

I jumped from the bust to the floor and concentrated on my shifting abilities. The world around me began to blur, and I felt something new, as if my transformation had deviated to another route previously unknown. I suddenly felt cold in my chest, my mind feverish. Immediately I stopped, to investigate what had happened.

The thought came to me that perhaps the properties of this world prevented my transformation to take the shape it always had. Was my hybrid form really too alien for ponies? For some reason, I was left with the sense that this alteration wouldn’t be irreversible. Therefore, I released the mental hold I had on the transformation and allowed my body to assume a new form.

The world around me stabilised, and I saw Gloaming opening and closing her mouth without any sound emerging. While she did that, I took in the appearance of my new look.

The first I noticed was that my point of perspective seemed shorter than it was in my hybrid form. I was now currently the same height as Gloaming. Looking at what should have been my hands, I saw they had become stout limbs that ended with talons. I looked back and realised that I had become a quadruped, with my hind legs not resembling the talons of my forelimbs but had taken on the look of hooves. Despite all that, I still retained my backpack.

“What in the name of sun and the moon are you?” Gloaming finally found her voice, and it was rather loud.

Her tail swished several times and an intense purplish light began to glow before her forehead. Despite the strange nature of the situation I was in, my brain served to remind me that, on Earth, we had mentions of unicorns in our lore, and the form of this light reminded me of a unicorn’s horn. I hadn’t met one before now, but there was no telling where else they might have popped up. Perhaps unicorns weren’t as mystical as humans tended to think.

“I'm not a guardspony,” Gloaming said, swishing her tail rapidly, “but I know a lot of spells. Some of which are lethal.”

Her ears flicked back and forth several times, her gaze still glued at me, “So you better prove you aren’t working with doppelgängers. And you aren’t one of them. Or else...”

Living in the Sunlight

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Gloaming stood five meters away from me, which put me too far away to charge but too close to dodge. I had to distract her somehow, then I could escape or hide.

“Well, you can check my body somehow,” I said. “Like, making a magic scan...”

“It may work,” Gloaming said. Her eyes narrowed, and her stance relaxed, but the magic glow didn't dim or disperse. “Are you willing to submit yourself for such an examination?”

“Of course...” As I answered, I heard a knock on the entrance door.

Gloaming turned her muzzle to the door, and I immediately changed back to the crow and took wing. Gloaming sent an almost-transparent purple beam to me, but missed by maybe a metre or so, hitting the wall with no apparent effect. I made several sharp turns in the air, in an attempt to avoid more attacks. Nothing else came; Gloaming just stared at me, following my evasive flight with her gaze.

There was another knock, and she snorted in frustration before running to the door. I used the distraction to find a place on the bookshelves where I could hide. I hoped Gloaming liked to align books on the front line of shelves, so if books were smaller, there was plenty of space to hide a fifty centimetre long bird like me. It took several seconds to find a space, but I managed to squeeze in behind the books just as she opened the door. After hiding I walked behind the books to another end of the shelf until I found a gap between books, wide enough to watch and listen to the Gloaming and her guests.

“How are you doing?” One of the guests said.

They were about to say something else, but Gloaming interrupted.

“Where is this bird?” She moved from the door to the centre of the room.

“What bird?” Another voice said.

I could finally see the newcomers, as they followed Gloaming from the door and stood next to her. One had a rather long, straight, pink mane with a similarly long tail. She had a very light yellow coat and an image of something small and pink on her flank. The mare with a pink mane was a bit shorter than Gloaming and had a slim build, and had two rather big bags on her sides. The other one had a mane with an explosion of colour, I counted at least five shades in her tousle. She had a light cerulean coat.

Gloaming looked around her once more and turned to other ponies. “Anyway, the doors are closed and she can’t escape this room right now. What can I do for you?”

“Sorry if we disrupted anything,” the one with the pink mane said, her face mostly hidden behind it. “But I would like to return the books I took earlier.”

“Of course...” Gloaming said, mentioning her name. “Just put them on the table, I’ll sort them later.”

So, the name could be... Shimmering something? The images on her haunches seemed to depict some small winged creatures, most likely butterflies. I couldn't say for sure, because she had turned in such a way that I couldn’t examine them. And unfortunately I couldn't relate these images to her name.

While the other mare's most distinctive feature was her mane and tail, she also had a rainbow-coloured streak and a cloud as her haunch-mark. Until I learned her real name, I could call her the rainbow mane. Or just Rainbow. She was a bit shorter than Shimmering, but I noticed that she was rather muscled despite her wiry frame. She also looked a bit worn out, judging from tangles in her tail and an uneven texture of her coat. Had she gone running recently?

“And you haven’t interrupted anything; I just had an unusual visitor before you both came,” Gloaming added.

Shimmering nodded, then sat and let her bags slide to the floor. She took one of the bags with her mouth and moved it on the table. Then she took the bag from another side and lifted, that made books slide from the bag to the table. After that she repeated the same procedure with the second bag, and began to arrange the books in two piles.

Gloaming didn’t ask for the names of her guests, so I assumed she knew them.

“What kind of visitor?” Rainbow asked. “You said something about a bird.”

“As a matter of fact I did,” Gloaming said. She turned to her guests. “You see, a white bird came to the library and talked to me. At first I thought it was just a strange talking animal, but soon she told me she could change her form and become a member of a different species. She also asked about doppelgängers, and then transformed into a strange creature, similar to a griffin.”

Didn’t she remember that I hadn’t asked about the doppelgängers, but about the incident in the capital? But I suppose that wouldn’t prove anything, since even a doppelgänger could ask about recent news.

“Oh,” Shimmering shivered and brushed her forehoof against the pile of books she made. “I’m sorry, but I haven’t seen anything like this. But what kind of bird it was?” she asked, and started arranging books again.

“I think she was a crow.” Gloaming absently looked at the books on the table.

“Well, doppelgängers can mimic different ponies, so why they can’t change to birds?” Rainbow asked.

“I think I doubted it myself, before I saw this transformation with my own eyes. I asked her how she can prove she doesn’t work with doppelgängers, but before I could learn anything you knocked and she hid.”

Shimmering finished with her books and turned to Gloaming. “But how could she hide here?”

“She changed back to her bird form,” Gloaming said, “and hid somewhere when I opened the door for you. I didn’t get a chance to look around thoroughly.”

“Well, we should look for it, if this thing is a doppelgänger,” Rainbow said, who then made a small circle around the other ponies as she looked for me.

“I’m sorry, but are you sure?” Shimmering asked. “I mean when we found about doppelgängers in the capital and tried to catch them, they didn’t become birds and fly away. But it would have helped them to escape more easily, don’t you think?”

“Good point.” Gloaming waved her muzzle up and down several times. “If they really could change to birds and fly away, they could escape before we captured one of them. Though, even that didn’t help us, since another one of them became a guard and freed the captured one. But even in this case they could help each other without difficulties if they could fly or just change to a smaller animal...”

Shimmering appeared smart enough despite her shy nature. And not so aggressive as her rainbow-coloured friend. Of course, if the doppelgängers are changing breeds like me, maybe they can change only to non-flying animals, but I hadn’t heard of a whole species who can change both their appearance and body size. But still, it doesn’t mean that there are no such creatures in this world.

“I think we should find this bird and interrogate her,” Rainbow said.

“But please think about what are you going to do,” Shimmering said, almost as loud as other ponies. For her it sounded as if she nearly screamed. “If she represents some other species, it may cause problems with future relations with them.”

“You’re right,” Gloaming said, nodding vigorously. “We should consider both alternatives, that she may be with doppelgängers or that she may not, and choose the best course of action.”

She started pacing back and forth near the other two ponies.

“I also remembered that some other pony has told me before, sorry, I’m not sure who exactly,” Shimmering said. “I mean, the doppelgängers who appeared in the capital may not represent the whole species of them. So even if this bird is one of them, she may be from another group.”

“You’re right, we really should work it out as diplomatically as possible,” Gloaming said.

I haven’t thought about that, that there may be different kinds of doppelgängers. If they have equine-type doppelgängers who mimic ponies, there may be doppelgängers who mimic other species. Also they may have different cultures and ways of life.

Suddenly Shimmering jumped and looked around.

“I'm very sorry, I need to go to my animals,” she said, walking backward to the entrance door. “I hope you will tell me about everything later. Until next time.”

She bumped into the wall near the door, made a small smile to the remaining ponies, and walked out of the library.

“I also have something to do,” Rainbow said to Gloaming, “but I want to sort out this situation, so I will stay for now.”

Gloaming gazed at her, a bit disapprovingly, if I understood correctly.

“We need to find her and get some answers.” Gloaming paused for a moment, looking around the room at all her bookshelves. “But I just finished reorganizing...”

“Don’t you know any spells that’ll scan the whole room, like to find living beings?” Rainbow asked. “I’ve heard guards can do something like that.”

“They can for sure,” Gloaming said. “I know some of the effects and their structures, but I haven’t trained to make them quickly. I can try it only as a last resort.”

“Before removing the books, I guess,” Rainbow said, smirking.

I wondered, could she use some effect or device to see in the infrared spectrum? In that case ponies could find me pretty easily, looking for heat trails on my shelf.

Gloaming looked around the room. “Let’s call her first, maybe we can talk without any more, um, undiplomatic measures. Snowy Clothes, I suppose you can hear me.”

“That’s her name?” Rainbow asked. “Not bad, actually...”

“I can blast all the books from the shelves, and possibly you, too,” Gloaming said, slightly louder, “but as Shimmering said, we haven't seen doppelgängers transform like you do. So maybe we can get along. I only need some more evidence to support your story.”

She didn’t sound angry or agitated anymore, so maybe it was a good idea to show myself. But I should discuss some terms first; I have some time before they can find me by my voice, I think.

“I can hear you,” I said. “I will stick what I said about medical examination. Can you do that?”

Both ponies turned their ears to me, then turned their heads, looking for me in the shelf.

Rainbow pointed her foreleg to my general direction. “She’s somewhere in this shelf.”

“I know, but don’t rush ahead,” Gloaming said to Rainbow, before turning to me. “I know some anatomy, but I would prefer to call for a doctor. I can say that we would like to check you after a long journey, to confirm that everything is fine.”

“Fine, I will come out and I’m not going to run until a doctor can check me,” I said. “One of you can stand near the entrance, if you wish.”

“I can do that,” Rainbow said.

Gloaming walked to a wall with two buttons, red and yellow. “I can call a doctor from here,” she said. “These buttons are designed to call for help in case of any emergency. The red one is for critical events, for example if somepony is dying, and the yellow one is for anything else.”

“So I’ll come out, then you call for a doctor, then I will transform.”

“Sounds good. Rainbow, please go to the door,” Gloaming said to her.

As she said Rainbow’s name, she confirmed my suspicions. It had a second meaning, though, something that I couldn't put into just one or two words.

Maybe Gloaming also wanted to create some distance between me and Rainbow, because Rainbow appeared to be more impulsive than other ponies.

I decided to fly quickly from my hiding place to the same bust I had sat on before. It stood almost in the centre of the room, so I could have a good vantage point.

With this plan in mind I walked from behind the books and immediately took wing to get to the bust. The ponies followed me with their eyes, but I noticed Gloaming’s ears twitched several times. Maybe she became slightly nervous again, as my appearance possibly reminded her of the unpleasant experience in the capital.

I focused my attention at Gloaming, as Rainbow hadn't shown any magic capability.

“Now it’s your turn.”

Gloaming looked at me, then at the buttons on the wall. She slowly moved her foreleg to the yellow one and pushed it, the button emitted several beeps and blinked once.

“Done.” She returned to a standing position on all four legs. “You can come down, the doctor will be here very soon.”

She tapped one of her forelegs several times on the floor. I took wing and made a couple of small circles, looking for a place on the floor to land.

“Come down already,” she said. “I want a doctor to be impartial, so we aren’t going to show how you transform.” And her forehead glowed again.

Suddenly, I felt like I had flown into water. My wing movements became slower, but I didn’t drop on the floor immediately. Gloaming’s magic held me in the air and slowly moved me down. Well, if she wanted to make things faster I could transform immediately, so she might lose her grip on me. So I remembered my new half-equine form and concentrated on it. I felt I could move more freely, but I also accelerated towards the floor.

Endangered Species

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The second transformation was faster than the first: everything appeared blurry for a second and became smaller. I hit the floor with my talons and felt a sharp pain. Rainbow looked at me with a weird expression; that could have made me laugh if I hadn’t sprained my left talon. I decided to sit on the floor, supporting myself with my uninjured talon. Then I quickly checked for my backpack, fortunately it appeared with my new form on my back.

“Are you alright?” Gloaming asked, examining my body, without moving closer.

“I can say that doctor may have another reason to check me and my talon, I had an unlucky landing.” I shrugged. “It doesn’t feel like a fracture, so I should be fine anyway.”

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have tried to catch you in the air,” Gloaming said, as she scratched the back of her neck with a forehoof.

“Nevermind, you have called a doctor already.” I tried to smile, forgetting that I didn’t have lips in this form, only the beak.

“By the way, I should introduce you to my friend, her name is Rainbow...”

Rainbow something, yes. I turned to face her.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t get the second part of your name, so I will call you Rainbow. And my name is Snowy Clothes, nice to meet you.”

Rainbow just looked at me for several seconds, then turned to Gloaming.

“Are you sure she didn’t charm you somehow? You suddenly sound very friendly with her.”

“Well, you see—” Gloaming began to answer, but was interrupted by knocking. She quickly went to the door and opened it.

“Hello, I was told there was a medical emergency here,” a pony with a tangelo slanted fringe said, his fur shaded amber.

“Yes, please, come in,” Gloaming said. She directed the doctor to me, then turned to Rainbow. “You see, I decided to be as diplomatic as possible. Thinking of her as of an ally until I can prove otherwise.”

The doctor levitated several items from his saddlebags, like Gloaming did. But the colour of the light on his forehead and around the items was different from Gloaming’s, kind of reddish.

“Doctor Steel Hooves,” he said. “So, what happened?”

It was the first pony name I understood fully. It was another alloy, actually, but close enough to steel.

The doctor produced a cylindrical device, without any visible indicators, and began to pass it over my body. Meanwhile I couldn't identify what he had on his haunch-mark. Maybe some symbol of medicine for ponies.

I stretched out my left talon for the doctor, to answer his question. “I dropped on the floor when Gloaming showed me some magic. I’ve had some injuries in the past, and I’ve also had basic medical training, so I suspect I got a sprain.”

As he worked, I wondered what this device did. He didn’t have any receiver on another side of my body, so this device could work as a passive scanner, which detects some kind of radiation from me. Or it could also work on reflected signals, like an advanced ultrasonic scanner, which doesn’t require physical contact with a body.

“My initial examination confirms it,” the doctor said after several seconds, still scanning me. “You have a mild sprain. Still, to find the best treatment I need to make a full scan of your body, especially considering you aren’t a pony.”

Rainbow frowned at me and took several steps closer, but Gloaming made a swinging motion with her extended forehoof, stopping Rainbow.

“I agree, and doctor, please tell all of us if you find anything,” I said.

Steel Hooves took a bigger, disc-shaped device from his bag, then his forehead glowed and he lifted the device in the air with his telekinesis and moved it above my head. Two tubes extended from the disk with a click, then another pair of tubes spread down from each protrusion and the whole construction began to resemble the letter U turned upside down. It silently moved around me, making a full circle in about two seconds.

“Try not to move much,” the doctor said, as he stared somewhere in space to my right.

I had to ask about this device too, later. It looked like a compact x-ray scanner or, maybe, it worked in another wavelength.

After a minute the device stopped, and the doctor folded it back into the disk shape.

“Anything good or bad, doctor?” Gloaming asked.

“I haven’t seen people like you before, but I’m familiar with similar species, so I understand how your talons work.”

Gloaming tensed for a moment as the doctor began to speak, but visibly relaxed after listening to his observation.

“When I have seen her, I thought she is a griffin,” Rainbow said.

Steel Hooves looked at her and Rainbow closed her mouth, stopping whatever she wanted to add.

“You are correct, miss,” he said. The he turned to me. “But your backside clearly belongs to a horse, and I can even say, to a winged horse.”

Winged horse? That kind of horse is called a pegasus in mythology, I think. And Rainbow possibly meant mythological griffins. Well, if I became a horse-bird hybrid, maybe they really had lion-bird hybrids here, not so mythological as on Earth.

“And regarding you talon,” he said to me, “even if you aren't fully a pony, I can use a radiation treatment suitable for ponies to speed up the regeneration of your tissues, then I can apply a compression wrap. You also need to drink more water today, and increase your protein intake. And you’re better to sit or lie for a while, elevating your forelimb at least to your head level.”

“Thank you doctor, I will see to it,” Gloaming said.

“I’ll also need your name for the record, and I will register you as a guest of miss Gloaming, if that’s correct?”

Steel Hooves turned to Gloaming and she nodded, then I introduced myself.

He took a rectangular device from his bag and held it near me, about a centimetre from my skin. It emitted a red light on my talon. Steel Hooves illuminated my limb from different angles, but I suspected the red light just showed the affected area and the actual treatment was done by an invisible emission.

After several seconds of treatment I felt a warmth inside my talon. As I didn’t get any directions not to move, I decided to ask about instruments doctor had used.

“I haven’t seen devices like this before, could you please tell me how they work? For example, the device you’re using right now.”

“I’m not an engineer, so I can’t tell you much about the mechanics and such.” Steel Hooves briefly looked at me, then turned to the device again. “But, in essence, it emits a very low frequency electromagnetic field. It has separate parts to produce a magnetic field and an electrostatic field. It can’t replace certain invasive treatment methods, but for injuries like yours it is very effective.”

He looked at Rainbow, but she was staring so hard at me she didn’t notice.

“Thank you, and what about the devices you used for diagnostics?”

“The smaller one is a multifunctional scanner, it is used by most doctors,” Steel Hooves said. “It detects thermal radiation, and it also emits and detects more high frequency radiation to get some useful information about internal tissues and organs. The bigger device also uses a penetrating radiation, scanning deeper into the body and making more detailed images.”

The doctor finished with the therapy and took a roll of bandage from his bag. He quickly wrapped my talon levitating the roll, then made a clean cut with his magic from the rest of the bandage. The edge of the wrap attached itself to my talon; either it was sticky or the doctor had used an unnoticed magic effect to affix it.

“I see.” I could imagine they used microwave frequencies and, possibly, x-ray radiation. “But how do you know the results? I haven’t seen any displays on your devices.”

“Most doctors use external displays, in the form of special spectacles. I have a virtual display produced by a small implant in my head, which sends an image directly to the optic nerve.” He tapped on the side of his head, near the right eye. “Any scanner I use will transfer information to this imaging implant.”

That was astonishing. Some guys from the Coalition used implants, too, but technology like this wasn’t used in a common medical practice. But I hadn’t noticed any other advanced technology here. I should probably look around the library.

“I believe I have finished with you,” he said. “Does anypony else have any complaints about their health?”

“No, we are fine, thank you,” Gloaming said, after a short pause. It seemed she also listened to the doctor with interest. “Though, the last question, have you noticed any other issues with her? Even small ones? I’m asking because she traveled from far away, and it may have affected her health.”

“I don’t think so,” the doctor said, packing his instruments back. “Comparing to healthy ponies and griffins, she is in good shape.”

“Thank you.” I didn’t know how these doppelgängers would appear on medicinal scanners, but I suspected he would find something unusual.

The doctor left the library, and for about a minute the ponies remained silent. I mentally accounted my equipment, trying to think of something that could confirm I wasn’t a native of this world. I also looked around the room, but I couldn’t find anything that looked like a computer.

“Now I’m pretty much convinced that you aren’t one of the doppelgängers,” Gloaming said, smiling for the first time since our small confrontation, and she turned to Rainbow. “You don’t need to guard the door anymore.”

“Well, fine,” Rainbow said, and she slowly walked back to us.

Gloaming sat near the table on a pillow, moved her journal closer, and looked at me.

“And it's a good thing I called a doctor anyway, after you fell down. I’m sorry about that. You also don’t have medical sensors like we do.”

“Actually we have medical sensors in the Coalition. Common medical devices use sensors with cables, but there are also wireless ones, not so widely used. Doctors from the Coalition use them during treatment to gather data from patients—”

“We also have them,” Gloaming interrupted, “but I mean sensors for daily use.” She pointed on her neck with her hoof. “All ponies have an implanted sensor here, which monitors biological parameters and sends a distress signal if something happens, usually in case of emergency.”

“Regarding sensors and other devices, why don’t you use something more efficient to make notes?”

“I can project letters to paper very fast,” Gloaming said, “and almost all of my journals are made from special paper which allow quick transfer of their contents to a computer.”

She took another journal with her telekinesis from a shelf and opened it. Under the cover I saw a rectangular screen with several symbols on it. Gloaming put her paper journal under the device, then lit some of the symbols on the screen with her magic glow. In a moment a page from her journal appeared on the screen.

Rainbow silently observed us all this time. Gloaming noticed it and turned to her.

“Do you want to ask me anything?” she asked.

“No, I still don't trust her,” Rainbow said, narrowing her eyes at me.

“I think if you can tell us more about yourself, it will help to establish trust with Rainbow,” Gloaming said. “For example, why have you come here?”

I shifted my weight from one leg to another. “I came here because I met a messenger spirit who told me about a library in a tree, and kind of asked me to come.”

Gloaming started writing in her journal. “Messenger spirit? What is that?”

“A spirit who delivers messages.” I tried to gesture with my wing, momentarily forgetting that I didn’t have them in this form. “Well, do you know about spirits, in general?”

The ponies shook their heads. They really had many gestures that were similar to ours.

“I’ll try to simplify it,” I said. “Spirits are creatures who lives around us. They're usually invisible. I know about them because I can interact with my spirit nature, and therefore interact with them. Actually, almost every object and living being has a spirit side, but only some people can interact with them.”

“What is the nature of the spirit world?” Gloaming made some notes, again without taking any writing tools. “So far it sounds like a parallel world.”

“There are several theories, I can check in more detail when I go back home. Sorry, I don’t remember anything substantial right now. But, yes, it really is a kind of parallel world.”

“I see. But how could somepony here send you a spirit, if we don't know about spirits?” Gloaming came closer to me as she said this, and looked directly in my eyes. Her eyes also opened a bit wider.

“When I came here, I noticed that you have a very low barrier between this side of your world and the spirit side of it.” I decided to watch her without blinking too. I hoped this didn't count as flirting for ponies. “So you could send a spirit without knowing it. Gloaming, have you tried any new magic today, or yesterday?”

Gloaming blinked several times, and quickly glanced at her friend, then returned to the table with her journal. “As a matter of fact, I found travelling notes from an explorer who travelled to ponies with black and grey stripes.”

Stripes? Did zebras also live here? Or, not exactly here, but somewhere else in the world?

“These zebras have some interesting rites.” Gloaming looked somewhere at bookshelves, possibly looking for the notes she mentioned. “I wasn't sure if there was any magical component, so I tried a rite or two. And I remember now, one of them described...” She levitated a book, which hovered before her snout, and quickly leafed through. “...how to call small helpers to do something, and I decided to call one. But nopony appeared, so I became frustrated, because I surely did something wrong. And I can't easily travel to these zebras and ask for some advice...”

“Hm, maybe you actually called for a messenger spirit.” I thought of walking to the table to look at the notebook, but I still needed to rest my arms. “This spirit understood your desire to ask someone, and went to seek for a suitable person.”

“Yes, and then it found you,” Gloaming said with a smile. “It was unexpected, anyway. These zebras have a lot of strange things in their myths, which science and magic as we know it can’t explain.”

“Like what?” I asked.

Her smile slowly disappeared as she continued. “Many of them are related to spirits. It is said that somepony could bring the dead back to life, if they asked the right spirit. But nopony asks for that, because the price is too high.”

I didn’t know about any spirits who could do that. Even the most powerful ones didn’t do things like that. But zebras may have some special spirits...

“But where are you from, actually?” Gloaming asked. “I haven't read about your kind, and I read a lot.”

And she lived in a library. I would never have guessed about her reading habits from that fact.

“I came from another world,” I said. Now take me to your leader!

Moonlight Shadow

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“How is that even possible?” Gloaming cried.

I didn’t answer right away, looking for a suitable explanation, and she stomped her forehoof and scowled at me. What an impatient pony...

“Well, the short version is that some worlds are located closer to each other in the spirit world,” I said, “so I can travel there and reach these worlds.”

“I need to see this spirit world somehow,” Gloaming said, looking around herself, as if a door might suddenly appear and take her there. “I hope you don't mind if I send a message about your visit to the queen.”

“Fine,” I said.

“Actually,” she said, “I have to send her a report anyway, as it is a standard procedure after establishing relations with foreign representatives.” She gave me a proud smile. “How convenient that I'm studying foreign relations now, maybe I can write a paper on you...”

“I can tell you a bit more about myself. You asked about my occupation, didn't you?”

Gloaming nodded to me and opened the journal with her telekinesis once more. I noticed that she also had several pens on the table, inside a glass with water, possibly for ponies who couldn't just project letters onto the paper with magic. Though I wasn’t sure why they were in water.

“I work as an operative in the Coalition, an international organisation of people with special abilities. I used to work as a singer before, and I still perform from time to time.”

“What do you do as an operative?” Gloaming asked, already writing something.

“While regular people have police, the Coalition has operatives, because regular police are usually ineffective against people with special powers.”

“So you're sort of like a town guard?” she asked.

“I think it is a good analogy. Though we aren’t assigned to specific places. We work wherever our superiors send us.”

Rainbow stopped gazing on bookshelves in a distant part of the room and turned back to me. It looked like I had interested her.

“What kind of singer are you?” Rainbow asked.

“Well, I mostly perform popular and traditional songs, and I can play a couple of musical instruments, too, but I prefer to ask some musicians to play with me, or just use a recording.”

And it was good I had my backpack here, as it came back with the last transformation. I removed my spear and bow.

“Regarding my other occupation,” I said, putting both weapons on the table, “I investigate unusual phenomena around the world with a small group of operatives. But I don’t have to do that all the time, so I still can arrange performances several times a year.”

Gloaming swiftly wrote in her journal, then turned to examine my weapons. In exchange I took a pen from the glass on the table and looked inside its transparent case. The pen looked like a regular felt-tip one, but it had two colours inside: pale green and magenta, the latter was closer to its tip. It didn’t have a lid.

Gloaming noticed the pen in my talon. “I can tell you how it works,” she said.

“Yes, please. We have similar pens in my world, but they only use ink.”

“I see.” Gloaming levitated another one from the glass. “These are mostly the same. But they don’t need a refill, because special algae inside produce a dye. They only require water. They also have a small valve to close flow of ink when its tip turned up, when it isn't used.”

“So why’d you decide to change your career?” Rainbow asked, when Gloaming put the pen back.

“When I found out about the Coalition I was intrigued. In my world there aren’t many big organisations like this, ones that get together different people with special powers. If you become a member, you get access to a huge library of useful information. You can also meet many interesting people.”

I remembered how I forced myself not to say yes in the very moment I got a proposal to join. I had to wait for some time, to compose myself and not to rush the decision.

“But you can meet people during your performances, can’t you?” Gloaming didn’t even raise her head from the journal as she spoke. Her written language should have very long words if she wrote that much, or she just added her own thoughts to the facts.

“Sure I can. And in the Coalition I can do the same. You see, I don’t have the necessary education to become a researcher, as I wanted, but the Coalition is always looking for new operatives, so I decided to try.” I sighed and flexed the digits on my injured talon to try to exercise them a bit. “You should know about my childhood: my parents insisted that I should be able to defend myself. So I studied some hand to hand combat, and also traditional combat with spear and bow. Now I wish I was more proficient with firearms...”

“And these skills helped you, when working for the Coalition,” Gloaming said.

“Yes, I had an introductory course,” I said, “to evaluate my abilities, then I was assigned to work with two mages. Recently a fourth member was added to our little group, but I’m not sure if that will be permanent.”

“Maybe I will ask about your group later,” Gloaming said. “I know what this is. I’ve seen griffins use bows. But what is the rod?”

I remembered that Gloaming mentioned griffins before, and the doctor also compared me to them. If they really had forelegs with claws that could hold things, they could surely use bows.

I took the spear with my beak, because my left talon still didn't work well, made several steps back, and shook it. It elongated quickly, and a blade slid out from one side.

“Wow,” Rainbow said, her gaze stuck to the spear, even as I put it back on the table.

“That’s really awesome,” she added, after a moment. “I like the compound bow. Many griffins still use composite ones, even if they aren’t very convenient to use on the ground. But have you considered upgrading the spear to a spetum, or halberd?”

“I will consider that, this is an interesting idea.”

“I agree that it is a practical tool,” Gloaming said, sketching my weapons and backpack in the journal. “But it still looks good. I mean, I can even imagine somepony might put it on a wall to show to others, and take down later to use again. By the way, how can you transform with your backpack?”

“Basically, I can use a magic rite to connect my spirit side to an object. After that it can disappear when I change from one form to another, and reappear when I change back.”

Gloaming nodded. “I see. It must be stored somewhere in the spirit world, then.”

“Yes, people who study this kind of magic have a similar idea.”

I was impressed how she could make this kind of conclusion so fast. Even my parents would just use the rite without thinking about how it worked.

“By the way, can you store something without changing your form?” she asked. “If you can hide something during the change, maybe you can do the same without it.”

“I had heard of this possibility, and it looked too complicated for me. But from this point of view it shouldn’t be very hard. Thank you, I will try.”

Rainbow sat down near the table and took the spear with both her forelegs, looking at it from different angles. Her hooves weren’t always flat, I noticed; they became concave sometimes, like a small dish. But it didn’t explain why the spear stuck to her hooves like a metal bar to a magnet.

“Please be careful with the blade,” I said to Rainbow. “It was created with spirit magic and it is very sharp. But how can you fold your hoof like that?”

“Fold my hoof?” Rainbow turned to me, her muzzle wrinkled between her eyes and her nostrils. Confusion?

“Well, you see...” I tried to remember how the equine hoof was built, and I looked at my own claw.

“I believe Snowy Clothes would like to know,” Gloaming said, “how we can hold things without separate talons.”

“There are some animals similar to you, in my world,” I said, “but their hooves are very tough and inflexible.”

“We can adhere our hoofs to different objects thanks to our magic abilities,” she said. “We also evolved from a species who had five separate digits. One had atrophied, while the four others united into one hoof.”

Gloaming showed me the bottom part of her hoof and made a wavy movement with its surface.

“There are four bones inside. Well, actually twelve, but four of them end on this surface.” Gloaming illuminated the bottom surface of the hoof with her magic.

I studied her hoof for a minute or so, while Gloaming showed me how she could move and turn it. Then she turned back to the table.

“If you have no questions about ponies, I would like to ask about your equipment,” Gloaming said. “Do you need to carry all of this, even when you aren’t on a mission?”

“I have to. Sometimes bad people try to find me,” I said, sighing. “I have had several encounters that ended in a fight, even though I wasn’t on the Coalition business.”

“I understand.” Gloaming turned from me and looked at Rainbow. “Please remember that Rainbow, I know you like to prank ponies.”

“Don't strain your big head.” Rainbow smirked. “I'm the fastest flier in our country, and possibly the whole world. And I think I can handle a bow and arrow, let alone a spear.”

Rainbow was bringing out my competitive side. "Well, I also have some flying experience and training," I told her. "I knew the fastest flyer in one world I visited, and she taught me several tricks."

“Really?” She quickly came very close to me, and stared into my eyes. “Maybe we should race, to find out who’s the fastest?”

Her breath had an interesting smell, something similar to meadow flowers, but with a tinge of an old hay. Maybe it was a result of some cereals or legumes brewing inside her.

“Girls, please, it isn't a good time.” Gloaming edged herself between us. “Snowy Clothes needs to rest and regain her health.” She turned to me and smiled. “And we need to feed you, my treat.”

“I'm going with you,” Rainbow said, while I packed my spear and bow and put on the backpack.

“What kind of food do you like?” Gloaming asked, taking to the journal again.

“Well, I'm an omnivore, but I prefer fish,” I said, noticing how she immediately wrote it down.

“That's fine, we have a special restaurant in the town, where you can find food for non-ponies species.” Gloaming levitated a bag from another part of the room, which also had the same star symbol as Gloaming had on her flanks, maybe to show to whom it belonged. She put the bag on the table and put the journal inside.

I looked at gloomy Rainbow, and I came closer to her.

“Rainbow, you know you have beautiful eyes,” I said.

Rainbow folded her ears a bit. Unfortunately I couldn't lick my lips in this form. That would have been even better.

“They look delicious.”

“Don't tell me you eat ponies,” Gloaming said, her voice was unsteady. The bag she levitated over her back stopped moving for a second.

“Actually.” I smiled at Rainbow. “I do not. But I consider eyes a delicacy. Fish eyes, for example.”

Rainbow didn’t answer, and just looked at me for several seconds. Then she looked at Gloaming, and their ears twitched in a strange synchronicity.

Just before we came to the door, someone knocked. Gloaming reached to open it, but a new pony burst open the door and rushed in first. She had a bushy raspberry mane and a pink coat; I remembered that I had seen her in the town before I flew to look for traces of magic. She quickly looked around the library, stopped her gaze at me and jumped closer, jabbering.

“Nice to meet you! I felt there was a new pony in town so I came here, but you aren't a pony, but it doesn't matter, so I welcome you and I want to make a proper reception for you, and sorry, I forgot to introduce myself, my name is...”

No, another pony with a hard name. At least her name wasn't associated with her colour, I could congratulate her smart and original parents. So I got an impression of different things, mixed together in a fun way. Maybe Mixer? No, too many associations with kitchen. Oh, I knew just a term, one that was also about music, not just food.

“Nice to meet you, my name is Snowy Clothes. I can't repeat your name in my language, so could I call you Medley?”

“Medley.” She paused for a moment. “I like it.”

“Good,” Gloaming said. “We were just about to grab lunch, you can come with us.”

Money for Nothing

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We left the library and Gloaming led us through the town. Medley went next to me, telling me about the great parties she could arrange and proposing different celebrations to mark my coming to the town. She described such grand-scale events that I began to suspect she knew I was from another world. Rainbow brought up the rear. When I looked around each time I saw her gaze on me.

I slowed everyone down, but fortunately nobody commented on my vain attempts to walk like a normal pony. I couldn’t even study the buildings and ponies around us because I had to watch my legs as I walked. I only noticed other ponies around from time to time, fortunately they didn’t stare too much. Maybe I really didn’t look so different from griffins, as the doctor told me.

The road surface was slightly springy. It didn’t feel like asphalt, and it also didn’t have a petroleum smell, so I couldn't recognise the material.

As I saw more of the town, it gave me an impression of being part of the forest. At first I couldn't understand this impression, but suddenly it struck me: I could smell the dry warm ground of roads and withered wood from the buildings.

Gloaming entered into a building, which had a signboard with the images of some non-pony figure and a fish skeleton. We followed her and sat on the pillows around one of the tables inside. The establishment actually looked good, it was clean, quiet and without many visitors. A waiter, a brown stallion with a yellow crew cut and a haunch-mark I couldn't recognise, brought us several menus, and after a short discussion with Gloaming and Medley I chose two fish dishes. I noticed that the ponies selected dishes with different fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts; basically a diverse vegetarian menu. I wasn’t sure about all the ingredients, but judging from the names I could probably eat most of the dishes they ordered.

“Thank you,” he said, “I will bring your food soon.”

After about ten minutes the waiter brought me a baked fish fillet. It was very soft and had a nice creamy taste. Rainbow continued to stare at me while I ate. I suspected she was trying to peek inside my mouth, or even farther, as she looked at my beak...

After we had made the last order, the waiter told Gloaming the final price and offered her a small device with a screen. Gloaming touched the device on the screen with her hoof, waited several seconds, and thanked the waiter pony. The waiter nodded and left.

I examined her hoof. “Gloaming, I assume you somehow paid for our meals. How did you do that?”

“You're correct. I used a tiny device inside my hoof, which confirms that I want to pay the bill.” She showed the bottom side of her hoof to me. “Then the owner of this place sends a message to my bank, and the necessary amount is moved.”

I looked at the other ponies around the table. “Does every pony have this kind of device?”

“Not everypony, but many. Some prefer to use actual coins, especially for small purchases. Most of my friends prefer the devices.” She looked at Rainbow, then at Medley. “Does anypony here have any coins to show to Snowy Clothes?”

Rainbow bit from her sandwich, and spoke around the food, “I don't have any.”

“Well, maybe I can find a coin or two.” Medley put one of her hooves into her mane and looked somewhere above our heads. She moved her foreleg a bit and took two round coins out. They were bi-metallic, about two centimetres in diameter, and they had images and inscriptions on either side. The designs were different from each other, though, so maybe they had different face values.

“Oh, thank you, Medley.” I took some Earth coins out of my backpack and laid them on the table. “These are precious metal coins from from my world. I don't think I need any of them here, thanks to your hospitality. Well, I can also hunt in a forest or a river, if I need to.”

Gloaming took a journal from her saddlebags and started writing. Medley smiled and Rainbow watched me with a more-or-less neutral expression.

“Please take them as a souvenirs.” I moved the coins to the centre of the table. “So you can remember me when I return home.”

Medley took two and examined them. “Oh, shiny! You can also take mine, I have lots of them.”

I inspected the coins Medley gave me a little more closely. I noticed long lines of very small symbols on the outer ring of the each coin. The symbols gave me an impression of numbers, not words, and if they really were numbers, pony minting was more advanced than any on Earth, as they had managed to put serials on coins. The two alloys had a gradient between them, about two millimetres in width, not a sharp line. I couldn’t even imagine how these coins could be counterfeited.

“Thank you, Medley. We also have coins from common metals, as well as paper money,” I checked my purse. “I have some of them too, if you are interested. Coins from precious metals are used mostly for investments, and as souvenirs.”

“I would like to see them, please.” Gloaming looked inside my purse, which was left open on the table. “We only have money in coins, though you can also put them on a bank account and make transactions with them. But if you have paper money, how do you justify its value?”

I took some money, both notes and coins, from my purse and put it on the table before Gloaming.

“I'm not sure, I believe the government of a country guarantees it.” I was never good at economics so I only guessed. “And people just agree with each other that it has a certain value.”

“We have similar situation in some other countries around the world.” Gloaming looked at the different coins and currency notes from Earth. “But the value of their money is unstable. Our own coins have a special alloy of rare earth metals, protected by an alloy of noble metals.”

“Yes, the values of our currencies are volatile too,” I said, “but how do you check that coins are genuine?”

“It's easy, they have special electromagnetic properties,” Medley said, “which depends on the amount of rare earth metals in the alloy. And this alloy isn’t cheap.”

This was reminding me of high-school chemistry class. Rare earth metals? Special properties? You don't say....

“What Medley wants to say is this alloy has zero electrical resistance,” Gloaming said, “so it is used in many machines, but its production is limited. That's why these coins have a real value.”

High temperature superconductor in coins? They surely have some mad scientists here.

“By the way, how is your talon feeling?” Gloaming asked me.

I moved it a bit. As far as I could feel, it was mostly normal again.

“It's much better, I can move it without any difficulties,” I said, “but sensations are still muted.”

“Great, we can race now!” Rainbow announced with a smile. It was the happiest I'd ever seen her.

Do You Believe in Magic?

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“No, she needs more rest.” Gloaming glared directly at Rainbow. “I propose we return to the library, where we can talk some more.”

Rainbow made a grumbling sound, but didn't bring it up again.

Before we reached the library, I noticed one pony who went directly to our group. She had a curly indigo mane, a similar looking tail, and a white coat. It looked like she took some time to form her mane into specific shapes; I couldn’t see a single wild strand. She slowed a bit when her gaze fell on me, but then continued at the initial speed.

“Good morning,” she said. “Gloaming, would you introduce me to your friend?”

“Of course, please meet Snowy Clothes.” Gloaming stopped before the mare with the indigo mane. “She came from far away, we were going to talk with her at the library.”

“How marvellous. Let home be where your heart lies,” the mare with the indigo mane said, “and my name is...”

I didn’t get it. Was her name a feeling of some kind, an object, or both? What could I associate with this meaning—maybe a goal to find something which is different or new? I had a couple ideas for that.... Also I needed to remember her greeting, it sounded good.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, “I can't exactly repeat your name, so I would propose a word with similar meaning. May I call you Curiosity?”

“I don't mind,” she said.

Curiosity asked Gloaming to come along with us, and we entered the library only a minute later. Gloaming brought out pillows and offered seats around a table.

I turned to my new acquaintance. “Curiosity, when Gloaming said that I'm from far away, she really meant that. I'm from another planet.”

I repeated for Curiosity what humans looked like, and about my different forms. I also told her about my conversation with the doctor.

As I spoke, Gloaming made several small movements with her lips, like she was chewing something. Curiosity tensed her forelegs. Both of them had had an unpleasant experience with doppelgängers, I concluded.

“It's good that you're not one of them,” Curiosity said. Then she turned to Gloaming, as if she noticed something.

I also looked at Gloaming. She turned her eyes down so I couldn't see her face, but I noticed a slight tremor of her forelegs. Curiosity came to Gloaming and hugged her.

“I'm sorry, that Snowy Clothes had to remind you again about doppelgängers,” Curiosity said. “I know how you feel—”

“No,” Gloaming interrupted. “You don't know. Your little sister wasn't replaced by them. You don't have nightmares about them replacing other ponies, like my parents and my friends.”

Medley also stood up and came to hug Gloaming after these words. Rainbow twitched in Gloaming’s direction too, but for some reason remained on her pillow.

“You can ask us about personal things, to make sure we are who we are.” Curiosity slowly stroked Gloaming on her mane.

“But what if they can read our thoughts? How can I know for sure?” Gloaming began to sob.

“Then you can use some spell or device for medical diagnostics,” I said, “to check whether someone is a pony.”

I decided to remain on my place too. I didn’t know how Gloaming would react to physical contact, after our recent confrontation.

Gloaming was silent for some time. I remembered the short one-sided fight with Gloaming. What would have happened if she had hit me that one time? I was still in an unknown world, and my first impression with these ponies was not exactly stellar. Maybe I should have left when I had the chance. Maybe I still should, at the next opportunity?

On the other hand, they didn't look very aggressive, and if I stayed I might find something interesting. But, recollecting my previous travels, I knew that tomorrow could bring rain, and people—or ponies—could be thieves. Well, I had to wait.

“You're right, I can always check,” Gloaming said. “Thank you, girls, for your support.”

“Gloaming,” I said, changing the subject, “I would like tell you some more about my world, are you still interested?”

“Yes, of course,” she said smiling.

The ponies took their places around the table again. I told them that Earth has many countries and cultures, and that humans are the only known sapient species on the planet. I also explained that only a small amount of humans have special abilities like mine. Gloaming made a lot of notes in her journal.

“Can you do any magic, besides your transformations?” Medley asked.

“Not much, actually.” I mentally counted a limited number of spiritual tricks I knew. “I can't study or invent magical effects, like mages can. I can only study a particular effect from a teacher, who does it with her spiritual nature.”

Gloaming turned her muzzle from the journal to me. “Correct me if I'm wrong, your spiritual nature is a part of your body, which give you access to magic?”

“Correct, more or less,” I said. “A person can train to improve the connection to their spiritual side.”

“Do you have any other forms of magic?” Gloaming asked, as she made some more notes.

“Good question, and we do,” I said. “Mages have something similar, but they do things differently. They can concentrate on achieving some effect, and after practice it can be done. As if their magic organ is harder to communicate with. For example, they can imagine levitating an object, and after trying for a day, a week, a month or a year, they can do it.”

“That's very interesting,” Curiosity said, as she looked at Gloaming’s notes, “our magic is entirely different. I believe Gloaming can tell you about it, because she is very knowledgeable in this area.”

“Well, you could say that,” Gloaming said. Her snout changed colour slightly and became more magenta-like. “We produce our magic with special organelles, located in specialized nerve cells. These magical organelles can create a special form of matter: uniform magic particles.”

“Do you know how these magical particles are constructed?” I asked.

“Unfortunately, we don't,” Gloaming said. “I suspect we will need an understanding of regular matter at least two levels deeper than subatomic particles before we can find link between magic particles and regular matter.”

“So you have only one type of particle to create different magical effects?” If we only had one chemical element, I couldn’t imagine how regular matter would be composed. “How can you make different effects?”

“Yes, only one, and here comes an interesting part,” Gloaming said. “Magic particles do nothing by themselves. They only decay after some time, emitting photons. But when a pony with her magical organelles composes these particles into structures, these structures start to produce magical effects, and different structures produce different effects.”

It was my turn to take a notebook from my backpack.

“These structures don’t only influence regular matter, but they may also evolve into more complex structures. That's why we call them pseudo-crystalline cellular automata.” Gloaming made several gestures with her forelegs, possibly marking structures she talked about. “They are similar to crystals because they have to be arranged into repeated patterns to produce most of their effects.”

“That's actually very interesting mechanism.” I set aside my pen. “I haven't heard of anything similar.”

“Here are the differences between three pony races: each race has an increased concentration of magical organelles in different parts of a body. Unicorns like me and Curiosity have more in the frontal lobes of our brains.” She gently tapped on her forehead with her hoof.

That explained why I saw light emanating from her forehead. It also explained why they had a complicated name for unicorns in their language, which actually had nothing to do with horns.

“Land ponies like Medley here have an increased amount of neurons with organelles in the lower legs and hooves, and also slightly increased amount in peripheral neural system.”

I hadn't seen anything unusual with Medley so far, except storing money in her mane. That might have just been a personal quirk. And comparing with unicorns and pegasi, the name for the third pony race was a very close translation.

“There are also pegasi like Rainbow, with an increased amount in their spinal cord.” Gloaming nodded to Rainbow. “It helps them to produce wings and fly. But, actually, all races can learn different effects, just some of them come instinctively.”

I hoped my new form was a half-pegasus, or I wouldn’t be able to fly. Well, maybe Rainbow wouldn’t mind if I change my form before racing....

“Do you know how these three races evolved?” I asked.

“There is no hard evidence, because it happened many years ago, and magical organelles haven't left any marks on bones of our ancestors,” Curiosity said, and she paused for a moment. “But there is a legend about this.”

She had actually said ‘hundreds of thousands years ago’, once I converted the number to Earth years.

“Yes,” Medley added immediately, as Curiosity stopped speaking. “Some ponies wanted to fly, and magic gave them wings. Other ponies wanted to control magic with more precision and they got this control. And other ponies just wanted to work on the land and grow crops, so magic gave them increased strength and affinity with plants.”

“Thank you for the story. Do you think something like this actually happened?”

“Yes,” Medley said, just as Gloaming said, “No.” They looked at each other.

“Okay,” Medley said, “maybe that never happened. But it's certainly a nice story!”

I nodded. “Do you want to know more about my world?”

“Yes, please tell us more,” Curiosity said.

“So I told you about humans in general, but there are also many kinds of people with special abilities.” It was an easy topic to tell about. “First, mages—they come in different varieties, because they all have their own ideas how to make magic.”

“But then how do they teach each other?” Gloaming prepared her journal.

“For that they created nine aspects, to divide up the magical effects and organise things. There are also different levels of mastery in each aspect.”

“And what about people like yourself?” Curiosity said to me smiling. “You aren’t one of the mages, are you?”

“We call ourselves changing breeds, because different clans and groups can become different animals. And some have even greater number of forms than me: not only a human, an animal and a hybrid. Some have an intermediate form between a hybrid and a human too. Actually I can tell you a number of stories about each species, and also about different groups and organisations within each species.”

“Are there any more major groups besides mages and changing breeds?” Gloaming asked, not looking away from her notebook.

She was making a sketch of me, possibly as an illustration for the current topic.

“Yes, there are several kinds of people who have returned after experiencing death,” I said. “These people still are a mystery to me, so I can't explain them very well, but traditionally we call them vampires, because they live kind of a parasitic life and use other people to supply them with substances which their own bodies don't produce.”

Curiosity shuddered. "They sound surprisingly like doppelgangers," she said in an unsteady voice. "According to legends about them, they need a pony's emotions to survive, and their magic depends on it."

“But it was proven numerous times that emotions affect neurons with magical organelles no more than regular cognitive functions,” Gloaming snapped at Curiosity.

“It's only a legend, and it may be wrong,” Rainbow said, distracted from staring at me for a moment. Every other pony looked at her, as if they had forgotten she was there.

“Well, the recent studies at the Coalitions show that vampires have some differences in their spiritual side,” I said. “So they need to obtain the thing they lack, whatever it is, from regular humans. And they can’t mimic others, like doppelgängers can.”

“You told me that the Coalition you work for has united different people with special abilities.” Gloaming looked at other ponies. “Could you tell us about this organisation?”

“I would like to begin from the founding, but as an ordinary operative I don’t know very much. About ten years ago strange new wizards appeared, they could produce powerful and destructive effects and they saw regular mages as a threat to them. Soon they found out about changing breeds and other people who can use magic, and began hunting them.”

“And all the magic users decided to work together, didn't they?” Curiosity said.

“Yes. Someone intermediated negotiations between mages and others, so the Coalition also included vampires and changing breeds from the very beginning.”

“You mentioned years, but how long is a year where you come from?” Gloaming checked her journal. “You haven’t told me before.”

“I don't know how to explain it, but we can calculate it,” I said.

I didn't remembered any of the atomic clock standards, so after some discussion I took my phone from my backpack and used the timer. Gloaming used her own clock and we compared our time measurement systems.

We found that one Earth year consisted of 369.9 pony days. But each day here was slightly shorter, only 23.7 Earth hours. And a year here was shorter too, having only 247.4 pony days. And finally, a year here was only 66.2% as long as an Earth year.

After that I found that ponies used hexadecimal numeral system. Some time ago they used system with base four, but their numbers often became too long and they switched to base sixteen.

Рonies also had sixteen months in a year, twelve of them with sixteen days. The fourth, the eighth and the twelfth months have only fourteen days, and the last month has thirteen and sometimes fourteen days, similar to February. The first month begins at vernal equinox.

“I assume this isn't the first time that you’ve traveled to another world,” Gloaming said, sounding very proud after helping me understand their time and numeral systems. “How do you communicate with other people from the Coalition?”

“Well, you see, this visit wasn't planned ahead,” I said, “so I don't have any special communication device with me. But I believe I can send a messenger to my parents, or to my Coalition colleagues, if I need to.”

“I know a way too!” Medley jumped on her pillows. “You should write a letter.”

“Medley, dear,” Curiosity said, “her parents live in another world, that means another planet and another star system.”

I imagined she might talk to younger ponies like this.

“I know, silly.” Medley just smiled even wider. “But I know a special mail pony who can deliver anywhere, even there.”

“How is that even possible?” Gloaming cried, and she threw both her forelegs up in the air. “And why don't I know about a pony who can send messages to other planets?”

"Because we've never needed to send a letter to another planet before, so Bright Eyes hasn't delivered any," Medley said.

Good, another simple pony name.

“Ah! Then how do you know she can do that?” Gloaming gazed intently at Medley.

“Well, I just sense it,” Medley said.

She stopped smiling and focused her attention on Gloaming, whose eyes began to twitch.

Thank You for the Music

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“Don't tell me it's your special sense again...” Gloaming said, scoffing.

Medley sighed and looked at her forelegs, saying nothing.

“Darling, I don't see any harm,” Curiosity said. “If Snowy Clothes writes a letter and Medley asks her friend to deliver it....” She looked at me, than at Gloaming.

Gloaming glanced away from Medley. “Fine, go ahead.”

I got a sheet of paper from my notebook and began writing. I decided to tell my parents a short story about coming here after meeting a messenger spirit, and meeting talking ponies. I hadn't finished the first sentence when Gloaming abruptly excused herself and went to another room for a minute. She returned with a medium sized journal in her telekinetic grip.

“We should send it with the letter.” She put the journal next to me on the table. “This journal has a second issue, and it uses the same technology as our medical sensors. It can transfer writings from one issue to another. I'm not sure if it will work between worlds, but it’s worth trying.”

“That's marvellous!” Curiosity said, smiling. “Snowy Clothes can write to her parents and they can write back.”

“Thank you, I will mention the journal in my letter. So they should only write in it?” I asked Gloaming, and she nodded.

When I finished, Gloaming brought an envelope big enough for the journal. I wrote the full address to my parents' house and added “Earth, Sun” just to be sure. Medley took it with her forehoof, placed on her back, and went off to the post office. Gloaming brought out the second journal and put it on the table.

“Can you tell me how this journal transfers information to the other one?” I asked Gloaming, who most likely would know the answer.

“It was very old invention, actually,” she said. “The paper for the journal was made from a special plant, which also has cells that produces magical organelles. But we only recently developed a theory on how it really works. Our scientists believe that some of the matter in the two journals becomes connected in such a way that they change their states after each other.”

“I see, thank you.” Unfortunately, I didn’t know physics very well, but I had heard something like this in the Coalition laboratories.

Curiosity gazed after Medley as she left, then turned to me. “Could you tell us about your career as a singer?”

“Hey, maybe she can tell us something more interesting,” intervened Rainbow before I could answer.

“Why wouldn't that be interesting?” Curiosity turned to Rainbow. “I know that you also have a nice voice, and like to sing from time to—”

“Fine,” Rainbow interrupted. Her muzzle changed colour slightly and became more sapphire. She was blushing?

“Well, I became interested in music and singing in high school, and I got some additional tutoring later on,” I said. “After I graduated, my parents arranged different kinds of promotions for me, so I could work for little or no money to get experience and exposure.”

There was a knock on the door, followed immediately by Medley bursting through it. “Anypony miss me?” she asked, out of breath. “Did I miss anything?”

“Not much,” Gloaming said, though she suddenly stopped mid-sentence. “I mean, we missed you, but we haven’t discussed anything substantial. Snowy Clothes just started telling us about her singing career.”

“That's good.” Medley sat on the pillows with us. “I have sent the letter.”

“Thank you,” I said to her. “So, at the beginning I sang popular songs from other singers. When I became more popular I hired a good composer and a songwriter to prepare some songs of my own. I knew I wasn’t very good at those things... And I continued to expand my repertoire, because it helped me a lot in smaller concerts, when guests asked for a particular song.”

“Could you sing for us?” Medley asked.

That was unexpected. Well, maybe not.

“Sure, why not,” I said. “As I said before, I know many songs, so I can sing songs from different countries and time periods, and you can become familiar with various musical styles.”

“Do you mean we can even ask you for some specific songs?” Curiosity asked. “Or, rather, about specific topics these songs are about?”

“Yes, of course,” I said, “I can even find a song with a given phrase and sing it. Or, at least, a part of it. You only should take any misunderstanding due to translation between languages into account.”

“It would be nice to get some impressions about songs from your world.” Curiosity said.

“I’m ready.” I would have liked to say I was born ready, but it would be a cliché and a lie too. But a fun thing to say anyway.

“Let the fun begin!” Medley proclaimed. “My mind's made up.”

“You know I love you, I always will,” I sang after some thinking, “My mind's made up by the way that I feel.”

“Oh, nice,” Curiosity said, smiling. “Life is peaceful there...”

“In the open air,” I sang. “Where the skies are blue, this is what we're gonna do.”

“I also would like to try,” Gloaming said, “right here to stay?”

“I’m right here to stay, when I’m old and grey, I’ll be right in my prime.”

Other ponies looked at Rainbow. “What?” she asked. “Fine, my turn. Find a friend.”

“Seems the hardest thing to do, is to find a friend or two.”

“Hurray!” Medley jumped from her pillows and landed on the table. She was immediately asked to go down by Curiosity. Gloaming clopped her hooves on the table several times and smiled broadly, soon Curiosity joined her. Only Rainbow diligently trained her poker face.

“Rainbow, why are you still sad?” Medley asked her.

“I’m not sad. I just silently approve of a good job when I see it,” Rainbow said after a pause.

“Yeah, sure.” Gloaming nodded, but she didn’t look like she agreed.

“Unlike you,” Rainbow said, turning to her, “I still remember the important lessons from school. Choosing a goal, working on it without any distractions. That’s how I became who I am now.”

For some reason, I suspected she was actually thinking about something else, and only mentioned school to avoid talking about it. Maybe the other ponies reminded her about something sad.

“We know, you surely fly very fast.” Gloaming nodded several times without smiling.

“Girls.” Curiosity stood from her pillow and went between Rainbow and Gloaming. “Don’t do this again. Gloaming, you surely don’t think that Rainbow can be only a good athlete or only a smart mare, and not both?”

She turned to Rainbow.

“And you, do you really think that only you are good enough to follow your plan and achieve your foalhood dream?”

Both Rainbow and Gloaming turned theirs muzzles down on the table. Curiosity appeared more mature than other ponies here—why? Maybe she had some experience with children, like working in a school?

“I love both of you, but you can behave like small fillies sometimes.” Curiosity sighed.

“I’m sorry,” Rainbow said, still looking on the table.

“Me too, I shouldn't fight against you,” Gloaming said and turned to Curiosity. “And you guessed correctly. I behaved like a small filly, thinking only about extremes...”

“So, do you really think I can sing before an audience around here?” I asked, trying to change topic.

“There are several musicians in town,” Gloaming said to me. “We can ask them to come and play music for some of your songs.”

“Let me, let me!” Medley said. “I wanna invite the musicians!”

“Fine, you can do that,” Gloaming said.

“I can play many songs from this device,” I pointed on the phone.

“Marvellous,” Curiosity said, smiling. “That would be a great support for musicians.”

“Medley, please ask them to come in two hours,” Gloaming said, and turned to me, “if that’s convenient for you.”

“That's good, thank you for your help, Medley,” I said.

She joyfully jumped to the door and left.

So, each hour here was longer than an hour on Earth—it had 89 minutes, I reminded myself. Two hours here were almost three on Earth. And ponies didn't have an analogue for a minute, they just divided the hours into sixteen parts, then divided again and again.

“By the way, can you tell me about these pictures?” I pointed at my own haunch.

Gloaming looked at me for several seconds, then suddenly answered.

“You mean our flank-marks? They usually appear when a pony is between ten and twenty two years old.”

So in Earth years, that would be from seven to fifteen years old.

“The marks represent some aspect of pony personality: her aspirations, her talents or dreams. Unfortunately, we don't really know how or why they appear,” she made a little smile to me and looked at Curiosity.

“Really.” I was impressed. Though the Coalition also knew about many as yet unexplained phenomena, so maybe it wasn’t that unusual.

“They have a significant place in our culture,” Curiosity continued after Gloaming. “For example, foals often use these marks, or more specifically, sketches of marks instead of the written names of ponies. And speaking of foals, some of them overrate the importance of its appearance.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have personal experience with my little sister, who still hasn’t gotten her mark,” Curiosity said. “She and her two friends constantly attempt crazy stunts hoping to get them....”

“Is your sister similar to you in appearance?”

“Yes, you might say so.” Curiosity adjusted curls on her mane.

I described the three fillies I met in my first hour in the town.

“Yes, that’s the three of them.” She smiled to me. “Please be careful, they can drop on your head in any moment.”

“By the way, do you have any means to detect magic?” I asked.

“We can detect magical particles and structures made from them.” Gloaming pulled a book from a shelf and showed me several diagrams of magical structures. “But not the actual medium for magical interaction. Unfortunately, we still don’t know many things about our magic. There are also kinds of magic that don’t involve cellular automata and we know about them even less.”

“Could you tell me about some of them?” I asked.

“Well,” Gloaming paused.

I waited but Gloaming didn’t continue. Curiosity moved her ears several times and gazed on Gloaming, who bit her lower lip.

“It isn't a secret, really.” Gloaming inclined her ears backwards. “I just don't feel comfortable talking about it right now.”

Something else, connected to doppelgängers?

“If you're not sure, you don't have to tell me,” I said to her.

“Thank you, I think we can talk about it later,” Gloaming said, and turned her gaze to her journal.

“By the way, Snowy Clothes, how is your talon?” Curiosity asked.

Rainbow came to me from her pillow and poked my talon with her hoof.

“I don't feel any differences between the two of them,” I said and looked at Rainbow. “I believe we can fly around a bit, if you want.”

Fly Me to the Moon

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We went towards the outskirts of town. I was still walking slowly because of my injury, but I suspected I could at least fly normally.

“Alright girls, we should let Snowy Clothes fly around a bit first, to adapt to her new form,” Gloaming said to everyone, then turned and gazed intently at Rainbow.

“Agreed,” I said, and I watched Rainbow to see her reaction.

Finally she nodded to Gloaming.

“Wait a moment,” Medley said, suddenly appearing before my beak, “if you aren’t from our would, you might not have a flying helmet. Do you have one?”

“Well, we use head protection in the Coalition operations, but I don’t have anything like a helmet with me.”

“That’s too bad,” Medley said, frowning.

“You should use one,” Gloaming said. She turned to Rainbow. “And you too, don’t forget.”

“Sure, mom.” Rainbow grinned. “I’ll get a helmet from a friend who lives nearby. You go ahead, I’ll catch up soon.” She turned to the right and split up from us.

Curiosity gazed after her as she left. “I’m positively sure she can get another helmet from one friend or another, Snowy,” she said.

“I can get a spare one for you,” Medley stopped and put one of her hooves into her mane.

After some digging she took out a blue helmet. It looked similar to a motorcycle helmet, with a plate of a transparent material covering the eyes.

“Please try it,” she said, extending her foreleg with the helmet to me.

I stopped, took the helmet from Medley, and sat on the ground. But I couldn't put it on, possibly because it wasn’t designed for creatures with beaks.

“Oh, we need to adjust it.” Medley took it back.

She put the helmet on the ground. Switching her gaze several times between my head and the helmet, she eventually put her hooves on the visor. The bottom part of her hoof glowed like the telekinetic grip of Gloaming. But Gloaming’s was a purplish glow, and Medley’s was azure.

With her hoof, she touched and pushed the helmet in different directions, and its form changed slightly after each touch. Then she took a couple of steps back and examined it some more.

She gave the helmet to me. “Snowy Clothes, try it again.”

I tried it. The helmet almost fit on my head; the only obstacle was a sharp part of the visor sticking into my cheek. I showed it to Medley and she began sculpting the helmet again. She enlarged the part I showed her and slightly modified other parts. Then she put it on my head.

“How does it feel now?” she stood before me and watched for my reaction.

“Much better,” I told her, turning my head in different directions to check if the helmet obstructed any movements. “Let me wear it from now on, and I will tell you if I notice anything.”

“Great!” she said to me, nodding several times.

“But is it any less durable after your modifications?” I asked, after we started walking again.

“That is possible, but it should be within the bounds of the original parameters,” Medley said. “I also know this kind of composite, so I’ve weakened bonds only in one component of it to make it softer, it should be as good as new now. And it wouldn’t revert to the original shape any time soon.”

“That’s good, thank you.” Even a bad helmet was better than nothing at all, but it was good that she knew what she was doing.

Soon we reached outskirts of the town, and in a minute or so Rainbow came back to us. She had a similar helmet, but coloured with red and orange. It hung around her neck on a wide ribbon.

“You can make a few rounds around the town to warm up.” Gloaming looked at me intently. “And please be careful with your wings, we don't know how big your wingspan can be.”

“Yeah, our wings are dangerous.” Rainbow nodded to Gloaming and turned her muzzle to me. “Don't touch other ponies with them.”

That was interesting, I decided to ask them about it after the race. So I took several steps back and tried to produce wings. A strange sensation spread from my neck to my waist. I turned my head and saw two semi-transparent, wing-like appendages protruding from my back. I concentrated a bit more and commanded them to change to a more common bird's shape.

I also decided to lift them up to prevent collisions with ponies around me, before I could walk away a bit from others. The wings looked big enough for me, so I made several flaps to test them and jumped in the air.

They actually worked almost identically to the regular wings I used to have. And I didn't even have to contract muscles to fly, only to imagine the movements. Rainbow also took wing and circled around me. She now had nice cerulean wings, with approximately the same wingspan as mine. My wings appeared grey at first; only after watching them for a while, to compare my imagination with the real movements, could I distinguish a blue tint.

What if a pony had wings too small for her? I imagined she might fly like a hummingbird or a bumble-bee.

“Rainbow,” I said, moving closer to her, “fly ahead, I will follow you around the town.”

She did that, slowly at first and gradually gathering more speed. Other ponies looked at us from time to time, but didn't focus much attention on us. I didn't try to match my speed with Rainbow, I only wanted to practice different manoeuvres in the new form, like increasing and decreasing speed, and different kinds of turns.

Soon we flew back to Curiosity, Gloaming, and Medley.

“How do you feel?” Gloaming came closer to me and looked at my talon.

“Great,” I said. “Wings work fine. I can race now, I think.”

“Finally!” Rainbow exclaimed, and she pointed at something far away with her hoof. “We can fly to that hill and back, what do you think?”

I noticed a middle-sized hill in the distance, about twenty kilometres away.

“Sure,” I nodded. “Gloaming, could you command us to start and watch how we finish?”

“Fine, please stand here.” Gloaming showed us positions. “Ready?”

Rainbow and I nodded.

“Go!”

Rainbow started very fast, and I saw her flying like a blue blur past me. I pushed my wings to increase my speed, but Rainbow also accelerated and she was still ahead of me. I felt as my feathers were smoothed by the building air pressure around me, so it was time to form a smooth barrier around myself to reduce drag.

I called to my spiritual side and imagined an appropriate subsonic cocoon. It gradually formed around me and I felt wonderful when the drag reduced. I finally began to catch up with Rainbow. I also corrected my wings' strokes, which gave me another speed boost. We were almost above the hill.

I stopped flapping and extended my wings to negotiate the corner. Rainbow also slowed down, but she possibly miscalculated, and the radius of her turn was too big. So when I turned back towards the town, Rainbow was two or three hundred meters behind me.

I was in the lead for several seconds. Then I heard loud humming and Rainbow outran me at a great speed. I felt an unusual kind of turbulence—she had become supersonic.

I concentrated once more on my cocoon and altered it to speed up adjacent layers of air. And I began to change its shape gradually, to adapt to the increasing speed.

Could I change my new wings so they also sped up the air around them? I decided to try.

In only seconds I felt my drag drop and I quickly reduced the distance between us and then passed Rainbow. Soon I felt Rainbow catch up to me again, so I added more speed. We quickly approached the town.

I decreased the acceleration effect on the cocoon’s surface. Then I changed its shape to increase the drag and return to subsonic speed. Rainbow again passed me, but she also slowed down. In several seconds I would land near Gloaming, Medley and other ponies who came to watch, but I wondered how Rainbow was going to land. She was still flying too fast.

I made my cocoon smoother again, and flapped my wings several times. I looked at Rainbow as I flew nearby. She was clenching her teeth. I also felt too much turbulence around her. And the finish was less than two seconds away.

I manoeuvred to fly over Rainbow's head. I should catch her by her shoulders or hips and do something, before she dug a trench or crashed into the audience. I moved closer to her and grabbed her on the hips. Rainbow shuddered and tried to look at me, her right wing twitched and brushed on my right talon.

I felt a sharp pain. Rainbow turned her head towards me, but I wasn't sure that she saw and understood my manoeuvre. I grabbed her again, but my right talon was already numb, so she slipped away. Rainbow turned a bit and her wing brushed on my side. Pain came again and my left wing started to shake. Everything began turning around me. I tried to brake and saw as Rainbow collided with the ground, then—

Would You Know My Name?

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I heard someone talking. I snapped my eyes open and saw three fillies in the library. One of them was the sister of Curiosity, the filly with the curled, mulberry and rose bangs.

“We should match her with Gloaming,” she said. “This surely got us marks.”

The sleeping Rainbow next to me only turned on the other side.

“No, that’s a bad match,” another one said. That one had an amaranth side fringe and a light olive coat. “She should date Shimmering.”

“Why?” a third filly asked. I couldn’t see her, but I started to remember the group. This one was… cerise, and amber?

“Don’t know. It just feels right. She is part bird, anyway.”

“No, I still propose Curiosity,” cerise said. “They are both white.”

If they have logic like this, it isn’t a surprise they still haven’t found their marks....

“Well, we can also make a practical test,” mulberry said. “Let her kiss every candidate and check their reactions.”

At this point I had to interject. “Hey, what about what I want?” And how would they arrange that, anyway, while I still have a beak in this form?

“Hm, that may work,” cerise said, as if she didn’t hear me.

“No, girls,” Rainbow said, who turned her head to me and slowly opened her eyes. “She should kiss me first.” Was she still asleep?

I suddenly felt like I was standing and lying at the same time. Then the fillies disappeared into darkness, which enveloped everything around me. I also heard someone talking. It sounded very strange, I couldn't get anything similar to the languages I knew.

Wait, that meant I was still in the land of ponies. Great, I needed to turn on my translator again. Or try to open my eyes? No, translator first. And let them be someone else and not those three little fillies...

“...thank you, doctor,” a familiar voice said. Sounded like I just missed something important.

“Hm, I believe she woke up,” another, male voice said. But how did he know?

I slowly opened my eyes and focused on the surroundings. I saw a mulberry snout with a sapphire fringe looking at me... oh, yes, that should be Gloaming. And that doctor from before, Steel Hooves, was next to her.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“Well.” I moved all of my limbs a bit. “I’m not in pain and I can move around, so I can say I feel not bad.”

“Do you remember what happened?” Gloaming asked.

“I had a race with Rainbow, and she flew too fast to the finish.” I paused. “Is she alright? I believe we crashed when I failed to change her course.”

“She is fine, still sleeping,” the doctor said. “Both of you are in the hospital now. We repaired all internal damage for the both of you, so she should also wake up soon.”

“Good, I'm sorry, I messed with her manoeuvring, and—”

“Don't say that,” Gloaming said. “I also saw that her course was dangerous. At least you tried to divert her from a crash landing. Maybe you really did prevent something worse, it is hard to say for sure as I’m not a flying specialist.”

“Well, maybe,” I said, “but I still feel I need more time to get accustomed to flying in this new form. Anyway, can I see Rainbow when she wakes up?”

“Yes,” the doctor said. “You may feel weakened, but you can walk now, so I will let you know.”

Gloaming seemed to believe Rainbow was responsible for all of this, did that mean...

“Does Rainbow crash often?” I asked.

“We have to treat her for minor injuries every one or two months,” the doctor said.

“I see. I hope she won't be too angry at me.” I turned and looked on a light pink ceiling of the room.

Meanwhile the doctor looked at the only machine in the room, which displayed several symbols on its screen. It was, presumably, my health monitor, but I couldn't see any cables connecting it to me. Possibly it worked like the doctor’s hoof-held scanner, reflecting signals off my body and also detecting natural emissions, like infrared.

“And please be more careful with your wings,” Gloaming said. “You have already experienced how dangerous they can be.”

“But why?” I turned my head back to her.

“Pegasi wings are layers of magic particles, which don’t let air pass through,” Gloaming said. “They also have a side effect of creating electric charges on different sides of the layer. If the wing goes through your body, it’s like a severe static shock. Your muscles suddenly contract, and your regular organ functions are disrupted, because all of them depend on specific charges in cells.”

I shivered, remembering the pain.

“Also, the electric charges induce nerve impulses, causing intense pain,” the doctor added. “Because of these effects, wings have been used as weapons. They may not have the same physical effects as hoof-blows, but they have longer range and can be moved much faster.”

“I promise to be careful,” I finally said.

Gloaming and Steel Hooves didn't comment on that and just left. I remained on the couch, maybe sleeping for some time, maybe not. Both returned in an hour. The doctor checked me once more with his small scanner and looked at the health monitor, then confirmed that I could stand from the couch. I felt a bit weaker than usual, but we made our way to another ward without any issues.

Rainbow rested on a similar couch, surrounded by Shimmering, Curiosity, Medley and another mare I was unacquainted with—she had a yellow side fringe and a gamboge coat. When she turned to look at me, I notices her mark had three vegetables of some sort. Or fruits, maybe.

“Rainbow, how do you feel?” I asked as I came closer.

“I’ve had worse.” She even smiled. “By the way, do I know you? You look a bit familiar to one griffin I knew... Well, actually all of them are very much alike to me.”

Curiosity gasped. Doctor Steel Hooves took his device and began to move it around her head.

“We raced, and we both crashed at the finish line,” I said, then I looked on the mare with the yellow fringe, “And my name is Snowy Clothes, nice to meet you.”

“You must be pretty awesome, if you managed to tie a race against me.” Rainbow made a skewed smile.

The room lurched several times and I sat on the floor to avoid falling. Looked like I still needed some more rest. The ponies around me stood just fine, but they stared intently at me or Rainbow. The doctor finished his scanning and turned to Rainbow.

“Miss Rainbow, what is the last event you can remember?”

“I ran a marathon with...” she pointed on the mare with the yellow fringe, “yesterday.”

Her name was surely a derivative from “apple”, but which one? I couldn't just call her Applesomething. Maybe just Apple? Or Triple Apple, taking her mark into consideration. While I thought about her, the mare in question turned her head down and made strange movements with her right foreleg. Like she was digging something.

The other ponies silently stared at Rainbow. Except Shimmering, who hid behind her mane. Gloaming was the first to speak.

“Do you mean the autumn one?” she asked Rainbow, who nodded. “I'm sorry, that was seven months ago. It's spring now.”

“Good joke, Gloaming,” Rainbow said, giggling.

Doctor Steel Hooves surely overestimated his healing abilities, because I felt sudden constrictions in my stomach. Maybe I can lie around here for a while, even if there is no pillows on the floor?

“Drop it, Rainbow.” Triple Apple stamped loudly. “We aren't joking.”

“She is correct.” The doctor paused and sighed. “You have sustained severe head trauma. We repaired damage to your soft tissues and bones, but we can't repair amnesia like this.”

“Doc, I’ve hit my head many times,” Rainbow said, staring at Steel Hooves, “and I never got amnesia before.”

Then she turned to mares around her and made the same skewed smile.

Gloaming lifted her left foreleg and closed her eyes with it. Curiosity shook her head.

“That may be the case.” Steel Hooves looked at the health monitor, then waved his cylindrical scanner around Rainbow's muzzle. “The effects of repetitive trauma can be cumulative. The good news is you should stay here only until this evening.”

“Yes, that's good, I hate to waste time like this,” Rainbow said, frowning at the doctor. “And thanks for coming anyway, girls.” She turned to me. “We should have a rematch some time. You can teach me some new tricks, can't you?”

The doctor nodded to others, and left the room.

“Sure,” I said, and turned to Gloaming. “I'm feeling dizzy, can we return to the library? Maybe we got an answer from my family.”

“Of course,” Gloaming said.

Before leaving I looked at Rainbow. She noticed it, but her gaze defocused without changing its direction.

“Anypony want to come with us?” Gloaming turned at other ponies.

“I would love to, if I wouldn't be a burden,” Curiosity said, and she also glanced at Rainbow.

“Me too!” exclaimed Medley.

“Sorry girls, I should get back to work,” Triple Apple said. Before she left, she turned to me and said, “Nice to meet you.”

I nodded to her. Shimmering mumbled something inaudible and went after Triple Apple.

Gloaming came closer to Rainbow and hugged her with one foreleg, saying, “See you later,” then guided us from the room.

That was good because I felt funny in hospitals. Doctors in hospitals were only doing their job, but they still reminded me of injuries and mutilations. As we left, Gloaming looked at me and folded her ears for a moment. Maybe she wanted to say something, but we walked for a while without any word.

I suddenly realised that the ponies had treated my injuries and hadn’t asked for any payment. Maybe Gloaming paid for it, but I had to find out for sure.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

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“Gloaming, do I owe you anything for the medical treatment?” I asked. “I don’t know how your health care system is organised.”

“The clinic is financed by the government, so you don’t have to pay.” Gloaming turned to me. “I also said that you are my guest, because the government doesn’t want to provide free medicine for people from other countries. They make exceptions for guests of ponies, for example, and for emergencies that happen on our territory.”

“I see, thank you for that.”

Then I realised I didn’t know much about their government. “And how is your government organised?” I asked. “For example, is this clinic a government organisation?”

“That topic is very broad, so I will give you a summary.” Gloaming slowly inhaled. “Basically we have several institutes, which are coordinated by ministers. Two queens advise the ministers and their institutes if needed. The queens also command the military forces.”

Gloaming paused for a moment, possibly waiting for a question.

“Regarding this clinic, it is financed by the Institute of Medicine,” she said. “And its doctors follow the guidelines from the Institute—for convenience sake all government organisations are called institutes. For example, city guards are members of the Institute of Defence.”

We reached the library and Gloaming led us inside.

“Do you have big taxes, to support the government?” I asked, when we sat around the table.

“Taxes?” Gloaming looked at me, then got some book from the nearest shelf. After quick looking through she said, “Well, other countries have taxes, but we don't.”

“But how are the institutes financed?”

“I think the government as a whole is self sufficient” Gloaming said, putting a new book on the table.

“Yes, I helped my little sister learn about it recently,” Curiosity said. “Several institutes, like the Institute of Medicine, generate enough income to share with the others.”

“That must be nice,” I said. “I have to file taxes for my singing career, and there is too much paperwork.”

Gloaming nodded and checked the journal for received messages, but there was nothing. Maybe my parents hadn’t gotten it yet.

“By the way, don't you have a cat, Curiosity?” I turned to her, as a stray thought came to me.

“Why, I do have one,” she said. “A big white one. How did you know?”

She mentioned the name of a breed, not “big white one”, but I didn’t get any associations with cat breeds from Earth.

“Just a lucky guess, he-he. Does it have a name?”

“Yes, I call her Opal,” Curiosity said.

At least the cats had simple names here....

She possibly wanted to add something else, but the communication journal started to shimmer with the colours of the rainbow. Gloaming opened it immediately. I also leaned forward, to look inside. We saw a vortex of colours on the first page. Gloaming also created a magical effect around the journal, or maybe even several effects, as the light from her forehead pulsed several times and slightly changed its tint.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” she said, “but this kind of journal has never been used to correspond between worlds before. It is unusual, but I have checked for all harmful radiation I can detect, and I believe it is safe, so let's wait and see what happens next.

After several minutes the vortex of colours disappeared and the pages became their usual light-grey colour. Then several grey blobs appeared on the first page, and gradually transformed into letters.

“What is that?” Curiosity asked.

“These are letters of a language I'm familiar with, I think.” I looked closer to confirm my suspicion. “Looks like the journal can't translate, it just sends words as they are.”

“Unfortunately, it can’t. So, could you please...” Gloaming asked.

I only nodded, and began to read.

Greetings to everyone who reads this journal. We had to wait for experts to stabilize a connection between the two issues, so we are sorry if you had to wait. Let me introduce everyone on our side:

Andrew, an operative from the Coalition. I’m writing in the book right now.

Snowy Clothes' mother and father, we believe she can introduce them herself.

Doctor Castorov, a scientist from the Coalition.

Mr. Smith, a director from the Coalition.

“I propose to introduce ourselves and greet them.” I turned to ponies.

They nodded and I wrote in the journal about everyone in the room. After several minutes an answer appeared.

It is nice to meet you all. Before we continue, everyone here is very curious: How have you managed to send this book to Earth?

They were quick to spot the fact that only some high-level spirits can deliver things, and fewer still can cross from the spiritual world to the physical. I could hardly have found the necessary spirit and made it work for me so fast, so they concluded that I had someone’s help.

“You know already.” Medley chimed in, making a circular motion with her foreleg in the air. “Just write it down.”

“Indeed,” I said, and I began writing.

One of the natives, Medley, has a number of unusual abilities. These abilities aren't really understood by mages and scientists here. As I can understand, there are no other natives with similar abilities in recorded history. That's why it is very hard to make any theories. According to her friends she can appear suddenly near other ponies, produce specific items from random places, and feel what is happening to other ponies at a distance.

According to her, one of the postal workers here could send mail to Earth somehow, although Medley can't explain how she knows that. We decided to send this special journal with the letter. We haven't asked the mail pony how she did that, but we can ask later today.

Soon an answer came.

Thank you for the detailed account of events. We didn’t know about these kinds of abilities in the Coalition until very recently. In short, there are a small number of users of these abilities on Earth, one per ten million at most, and they call these abilities Invisible Magic. There are several varieties of this magic, though most of them are similar to very high-level regular magic. Most of the users we know agree that someone can't just study Invisible Magic, he or she has to have a gift.

And one more thing. We have a special directive in the Coalition: in case of discovery of a potential Invisible Magic user, we should immediately report to the expert in this field, who is an ally of the Coalition. So as we write this to you, we are preparing another message for said expert.

We will let you know about any developments. Meanwhile, could you please tell us more about this world?

Follow the Heart Sign

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Everyone in the room was silent.

“Well, that was most unusual,” Curiosity said, eventually.

“Hey, I finally know what it is called!” Medley said. Suddenly she had a frown, and she added quietly, “And it is not just Medley being Medley.”

Everyone looked at her. Gloaming laid back her ears, her forelegs slightly trembling. Curiosity flung her eyes between ponies in the room and me.

“We are very sorry,” Gloaming cried and hugged Medley. “We... You... Sorry, we shouldn't have used this circular argument.”

“That was very ignorant of us,” Curiosity said, hugging Medley too.

When they finished hugging, they looked very thoughtful, even Medley.

“Snowy Clothes, do you know this expert?” Gloaming asked. “Why do you think they need this agreement, to report immediately?”

“Unfortunately, I don't know. I only just remembered that Director Smith is a member of the Coalition Council. As for the reporting, they may want to make sure that all new users of this kind of magic would be careful. Or they want a trusted expert to teach them, to prevent possible misuse, I think. Anyway, can you tell me about your world, so I can learn myself and also write in the journal?”

“Yes, of course.” Curiosity said, “Let Gloaming think, I will tell you the basics.”

She started telling me about three races of ponies, about the differences in magic and constitution, things I knew already or had concluded from my observations. Curiosity had just finished describing unicorns and their magic when Medley cried “Look!” and pointed at the journal. We all looked. There were big blobs of grey on new pages, forming letters and words:

Hello there! My name is Gracia and I just got a message about your adventures in this distant world, dear Snowy Clothes. Oh, this little guy here continues to ask me to stick to the protocol and to give him this little book, but I believe he needs a short break. Anyway, I'm very glad to know there are more Invisible Magic users and I would like to meet them as soon as possible. Please tell your friends around you that I would very much like to meet them all, not just dear Medley and the postal mare.

I remembered that Andrew was at least twenty centimetres taller than me. Was this Gracia even taller than him, or did she mean something else?

“Wait, did you write that she is a mare?” Gloaming exclaimed. She started to look through the previous pages of the journal, but then looked at me, possibly realising she couldn’t read it.

“I don’t think so,” I answered, looking through the pages with Gloaming.

“Then how can she know that?” Gloaming asked a bit louder.

“Lucky guess?” Medley said, smiling.

“Not now, please,” Gloaming said.

Maybe she just had a lot of experience. If she had guys from the Coalition reporting to her, she must be very smart, and good at planning, too.

“Look, there’s more!” Medley pointed to the journal again.

As everyone looked at the journal, more words appeared.

Now that you’re all wondering how I know some tiny little details Snowy Clothes may or may not have written to me, I can tell that it would be easier to answer your questions in person. And regarding my journey to your land, I can travel by myself or ask Medley to guide me.

“I can do that?” Medley widened her eyes.

Letters continued to appear in the journal.

The girl has the gift. Although it may take time, because Medley hasn't done it before, so she will need to follow my exact instructions. And I understand there may be some translation issues, so the method may not work the first time.

“Medley, don't be so sad, she can teach you after she comes here.” Gloaming took her journal with notes and wrote something. “You can learn a lot from studying texts and books, but I also know that teaching in-person is much better.”

“If you say so.” Medley smiled again. “I still want to do some new magic.”

“Great, so does everypony agree to invite Lady Gracia?” Gloaming asked.

Medley said “yes”, Curiosity just nodded.

“Snowy Clothes, please write that we’ve agreed.” Gloaming asked me.

Shortly after I finished, more words from Gracia appeared.

Thank you. I will check with the guys from the Coalition if I should bring anything with me. Oh, they just told me that they need 15 or 20 minutes to prepare a communication device, so see you soon. By the way, they ask, which communication channel do you use to transfer information over distance?

“We use optical transmission, mainly in the visible spectrum, and in shorter wavelength range,” Gloaming said. “And, Snowy Clothes, how fast did you travel to our land?”

She prepared to make notes in her journal and turned to me. I wrote down her answer about their communications.

“It’s hard to keep track of time in interdimensional corridors, but I think I flew for about an hour,” I said, “and I wasn't very close to Earth when I started travelling here.”

“Good, let's see how fast Gracia will be.” Gloaming looked at the bookshelf, where she put a small clock she used to compare our time systems. “Communication using this journal is almost instantaneous, but I believe moving physical objects, let alone a living body, would take more time and effort.”

At that very moment, as if on cue, we heard three distinct taps on the door.

“I'm coming!” Gloaming turned and trotted to the entrance door.

Gloaming opened the door wide and another mare came in. The newcomer had a white coat, a black mane with a tint of purple that touched the floor, and a similarly long tail. She was taller by a head than the other mares in the room and had a muscled and broad frame, but still looked quite feminine on the stallion-mare scale. I wondered, would she be considered a beauty by pony standards? Or would she scare most stallions, especially ones who were not so tall?

“Hello, my little ponies,” she said, in some Romance language I didn't know—maybe Italian. Nevertheless I understood the meaning perfectly, so she was using some form of translation magic, like me.

“I wrote you in the journal. My name is Gracia Sa... Well, just call me Gracia,” she said, smiling widely. “I don't quite look like my original body here, and I usually walk on my hind legs. You should know what I mean.”

Gloaming nodded. Other ponies just stared.

“But when I reached your world, it tried to change my appearance and I agreed with it,” she continued.

Interesting, I wasn’t the only victim of a sudden transformation.

“Nice to meet you Gracia, my name is Snowy Clothes.” I decided to start the introduction. I named all the other ponies in the room and added that what I gave her were only rough translations of the real names.

“So, this is our Medley. Nice to meet you.” Gracia made just a couple of steps and somehow reached the pony in question. “Would you like to be my student?” she said, standing on her hind legs and hugging Medley, raising her in the air like she weighed nothing.

Medley snapped out of trance, raised her own forelegs in the air and hugged Gracia.

“Yes, I do! And nice to meet you Gracia!”

“Oh, where are my manners? Nice to meet you, Lady Gracia.” Curiosity readjusted her mane and bowed.

“There’s no need to call me Lady, let alone bow. I have no authority over you.” Gracia turned her head to Curiosity, still hugging Medley.

Seeing that made me feel a sudden urge to hug someone, too.

“If you say so, Gracia,” Curiosity said, smiling.

“Nice to meet you,” Gloaming said.

“So, could you introduce me to the wonderful mare who delivered that message to Earth?” Gracia asked, finally placing Medley on the floor. “I believe she has the same gift, and I would like to teach her to use it as well.”

“I don’t believe that would be a problem,” Gloaming said, looking at Medley, “Could you please go and find Bright Eyes?”

“Sure I can!” Medley nodded and went out.

“Wait, I should write a letter to the queen,” Gloaming said, before fixing her gaze on Gracia, as if waiting for some advice. “Should I do that now?”

“If she is the highest authority here, you should definitely let her know. And remember to mention that we come in peace,” I said, raising my talons and trying to make the Vulcan salute.

“Is that some form of greeting from your world?” Gloaming wrinkled her muzzle a bit as she stared at my talons. “You know, this looks ambiguous with your claws.”

After about ten minutes, as I told Gloaming and other ponies about different Earth customs, someone knocked and Gloaming went to open the door. Immediately Medley came in, and after a moment another mare stepped inside—she had a pale yellow shag cut and a light steel-blue coat. I had seen her in town before, carrying some bags, maybe delivering something.

She stopped after a few steps inside, looking around at all the ponies here, and finally at me.

“I don’t know everypony here.” She made a small smile and looked at her hooves. “So I should introduce myself. Hi, my name is Bright Eyes.”

It was a fitting name, she really had beautiful eyes. Gracia and I told her our names, and I mentioned my issues with name translation.

“Bright Eyes, my dear, do you know that you’re very special?” Gracia suddenly sounded very similar to Curiosity.

“Me?” She blinked several times. “I’m just a regular pony.”

“She is also very modest,” Curiosity said to me.

“You may well have lived your whole life believing that,” Gracia said. “But you have a gift that possibly only Medley shares, out of all ponies.”

“Really?” Bright Eyes folded her ears backwards.

“Don’t worry.” Gracia slowly came closer and hugged Bright Eyes with one foreleg.

Well, actually it only looked like she walked slowly. Gracia reached her target very fast, but so fluidly that I registered it only after she hugged Bright Eyes. As Gracia was most likely a mage, I begun to suspect she was augmenting herself with magic.

“Only my mother ever told me I was special,” Bright Eyes said, looking on her hooves again.

Princes of the Universe

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“Of course you’re special,” Gracia said, guiding Bright Eyes to come closer to the other ponies. “And not just because every pony is special, but because your talent really is unique.”

Medley moved closer to me to make more space for Bright Eyes near the table.

“But I don’t know anything, really.”

“That’s why I’m here to teach you,” Gracia said. “I can tell you about your gifts, but it’s better to show. Please, sit here.”

Gracia let go of Bright Eyes and nudged her to the nearest pillow, then sat next to her.

“Do you have anything you would like to show us, but don’t have with you?”

“Well, I like to show pictures of my daughters to ponies I know.” Bright Eyes looked on the table before her. “But I don’t have any right now.”

Gracia took another pillow and put it next to one Bright Eyes sat on.

“I will take your forehoof and guide it under this pillow. Please close your eyes.”

Bright Eyes looked at me and at ponies around her for several seconds, but soon did what Gracia asked. Gracia slowly took her right foreleg and moved it under the pillow.

“Now you should wait some time, until you feel an empty space around your hoof.” Gracia seemingly stopped moving her foreleg under the pillow.

Ponies looked attentively at Bright Eyes, Medley even began to jump up and down, fortunately she did it quietly and didn’t distract the others. But her hooves were hard, weren’t they? Maybe she was just very good at jumping, as she did that very often.

I wasn’t sure how long it took, but finally Gracia disturbed the silence.

“And now imagine the picture you want to take. It’s somewhere close. Move your hoof, if you need to, and take it.”

Bright Eyes sit still for several seconds then stirred her foreleg under the pillow a bit. Gracia slowly removed her our foreleg and remained staying next to Bright Eyes.

“When you take the picture, just remove the hoof from under the pillow.” Gracia didn’t moved her gaze away from Bright Eyes.

Bright Eyes nodded without opening her eyes. We waited a minute more, then she pulled her foreleg out. Bright Eyes didn’t have a picture in her hoof, but a cylindrical cake of some kind.

“Oh, sorry, I couldn't get the picture.”

“Don’t worry,” Gracia said, smiling, “you already used your talent when you took this cake from another world.”

“Really?” Bright Eyes looked on the cake. “It doesn’t seem very special. I think I just wanted to eat something, and then I got this instead of the picture.”

She bit the cake.

“Please, let me taste it!” Medley cried. Everyone looked at her and she added, “I’ve never eaten food from another world before!”

Bright Eyes smiled and broke the cake in half, then offered the half she didn’t bite. Medley moved closer with her pillow and took the piece of the cake. Medley looked at it for several seconds, then whispered something inaudible and bit the piece.

When she finished chewing, her eyes glimmered and several drops of tears felt on the floor. Medley paused for a second, then bit the cake again. Other ponies just stood around and silently watched.

“I can’t say it was the best cake I’ve tasted,” she said. “But it’s still good and it has a unique taste. Thank you.” Medley moved closer to Bright Eyes and hugged her.

“Anyway, please try once more to fetch the picture,” Gracia said. “Now that you know how it feels.”

Bright Eyes nodded and put her foreleg under the pillow. After a minute or two she stirred her foreleg a bit.

“I think I got something,” she said, looking at the pillow.

“Did you imagined the picture?” Gracia asked.

“Yes, I did,” Bright Eyes said. “And I just ate the cake, so I’m not hungry.”

“Good, then pull it out.” Gracia made pulling movement with her own foreleg.

Bright Eyes stirred her foreleg some more and pulled it out with a rectangular piece of paper. She turned it to us; it was a photo of two mares with shag cuts: a grown mare with an amethyst mane and a light lavender coat, and a filly with a pale golden mane and a lilac coat. The one with the amethyst mane didn’t look much younger than Bright Eyes, and the filly was about the same height and possibly the same age as Curiosity’s younger sister.

For the next few minutes the other ponies closely examined the photo, and it appeared more interesting to them than the fact that Bright Eyes could create wormholes through space.

Finally, Gracia turned from the photo to Bright Eyes. “You see now, this is your gift. And I can teach you how to improve it, and how to do even more than pull things out of pillows.”

“Well, I will try to study it.” Bright Eyes made a small smile.

I suddenly remembered a quote that had helped me, especially in the beginning of my musical career: ‘There is no try’. I had an impulse to say it to Bright Eyes, but quickly decided that Gracia was a better teacher than me.

“Don’t worry, I will help you, along with Medley,” Gracia said, smiling. “I also propose for us to meet your family with you and tell them about it.”

“Sure,” Bright Eyes said. “Let’s go. See you.”

Medley and Gracia followed her outside. I remembered that I had to prepare to meet with musicians, and that I had to hurry, because of the time I spent in the clinic.

“Gloaming, do you have any books about music theory?” I asked, hoping my translator could help me to read pony language. Or I could ask some of ponies to read for me....

“I think I have some.” She came to one of the shelves and checked the books there.

“I believe Gloaming and the musicians can help you,” Curiosity said, “I know a bit of musical theory, but I’m only an amateur. So I will leave you for now.”

She nodded to me and Gloaming, and left the library.

“Please look for books about fundamentals.” I turned to Gloaming. “Maybe also about novice music lessons, so I can compare music here and on Earth.”

“Good idea, I would also like to know about differences and similarities,” Gloaming said. “Could you share your findings with me?”

“Of course.” I took the first offered book.

I didn’t get a chance to read it, because someone knocked on the door, and Gloaming opened it. A mare with a powder blue shag cut and a light aquamarine coat came in. She wasn’t very broad or muscular, so she would have been a unicorn, or less likely a pegasus. She had a rather large saddlebag with her and two spiral-like sea-green boots on her forelegs. When she came closer I saw she had a string instrument on her mark. This instrument resembled a zither, or maybe a modern konghou.

“You should be Snowy Clothes,” she said to me, “Nice to meet you. My name is...”

Some string instrument, played with magic? How could I translate that, if we didn’t have that kind of instrument on Earth?

“Nice to meet you too.” I nodded to her. “Do you have any instruments with you?”

“Of course I do.” She opened her saddlebag with an orange magic field and levitated the instrument similar to one on her mark. Well, it was closer to konghou. But, still, what could I call her? If this instrument was played with magic, ponies needed to touch several strings at once, I thought. On Earth an instrument like that would be played with fingers, so I could call it a small hand harp, actually.

“It’s a nice one, I know instruments like this.” I compared the actual instrument with her mark once more. “But I’m still thinking about your name—”

“Medley told me about your translation problem,” she interrupted.

“Yes, so as you are named after this kind of instrument, can I call you Harpy?” I asked. “That’s what we call them in my world.”

“I think you can,” she said, smiling. “I understand that it’s something very similar.”

“Thank you. So I already understand with Gloaming’s help you have a different scale here.” I pointed my talon on the unread books. “As we have seven or twelve, you have sixteen tones.”

“Yes, we also use different temperaments, but mostly the equal temperament.” Harpy checked her instrument from different sides. “And often we use only a subset of these tones, not all of them. Do you also have different ones?”

“We do. Anyway, I propose you to listen to several music pieces, then we decide how can we arrange a performance.”

“Great, I can’t wait.”

I took my phone and played several melodic compositions to her. Gloaming also stopped whatever she was reading and listened too. When the sixth and the last one was finished, ponies were silent for nearly a minute.

“Well,” Harpy was the first to speak, “That was nice, but unusual.”

“I can even say it had some alien sounds,” Gloaming said. “I heard some familiar parts in it, but the rest was so extraneous, outlandish, extrinsic—”

“What are you, a thesaurus?” Harpy interrupted.

Gloaming twitched her lips, but said nothing.

“And can you also sing something a cappella?” Harpy asked. “I want to get some impression of your voice alone.”

I nodded. As for what song to sing, I needed something melodic, and not so long…

“I have something in mind, I think. It is a song which I used to master pronunciation of some difficult sounds from foreign languages.”

And I sang them “Ievan polkka”.

“For some reason it doesn’t sound too alien for me,” Harpy said when I finished.

“Well, there may be two reasons for that,” Gloaming said, smirking. “You may become familiar with the music you already listened before. Or you just like this song and your impression and emotions diffused to the musical key. So this effect can cloud your judgement—”

“Oh, you still can’t forget how I did better than you in grade school, can you?” Harpy said, turning to Gloaming and grinning.

“I mainly can’t forget how annoying you were.” Gloaming stood up from her pillow and turned to Harpy. “And you still are now. Do you really have to interrupt me so often?”

Maybe these two should never be in the same room...

Synchronicity

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Gloaming and Harpy began to annoy me with their school rivalry, or whatever it was.

“I just feel you’re speaking some nonsense, and I can help you avoid that,” Harpy said, smiling.

Maybe I could try one old trick, but would it work with ponies? If not, I could apologise later.

“I’m speaking nonsense?” Gloaming almost cried. “You—”

“Both of you!” I said. “Shut up and kiss already! Sorry.”

“What? How would that...” Gloaming trailed off.

Harpy looked at Gloaming with a funny face, but remained silent.

“Good, now we can go back to music.” I moved between them to block their line of vision and turned to Harpy. “Because we still need to decide how you will support me on stage. Maybe you can listen to my music and play something similar with your tone system.”

“Well.” Harpy paused for several seconds, then looked to me. “I can play on my konghou to accompany your songs. I hope other musicians can do the same.”

Gloaming didn’t comment, but went back to her books. Harpy followed her with her gaze then turned back to me.

“Let’s try something, do you have in mind what you are going to sing?”

“I have some ideas.” I played one song of medium difficulty to her.

Harpy sat on the pillow near me and lifted her forelegs. What I thought was her boots unwrapped themselves, and each become four greenish tentacles. They grew from a ring of the same colour on her hoof. Harpy took the konghou with left foreleg and begun to finger the strings with the right one. The music was very close to what I played from my phone. Maybe I needed only slight adjustments in singing tonality to make it sound natural.

“You can play with magic, I think,” I said, and she nodded. “But why do you use these manipulators?”

She put the konghou on the nearest table. “You see, I have problems with the magic in my hooves. While a common unicorn has about twelve sixteenths in her brain, and about two sixteenths in her hooves and spine, I have much less in mine. Maybe less than one sixteenth. I can barely hold objects with both hooves.”

“Oh, is it some kind of health problem?” I asked.

“No, just a biased development of the nervous system.” Harpy sat on the pillow next to me. “So my parents proposed that I use manipulators instead. It required some training, but I managed it, and I like the new abilities they grant.”

“So you don't use your telekinesis to play?”

“I do, actually,” she said, smiling. “I just prefer to use manipulators.”

“That's interesting, can you tell me how they work?”

“Basically I have special implant, connected to my nerve system in the forehooves.” She put both her forehooves to table to show me. “Actually, two of them, one in each foreleg. They convert nerve impulses to signals necessary for movement, and I can replace the manipulators at any time, since they receive the signals remotely. The manipulators themselves are engineered organisms; basically just muscles, nerves and some skin assembled together.”

“But how do they get energy to move?” I asked.

“The previous generation used a special solution, kind of a liquid food for them.” Harpy moved the tentacles a bit. “These work on batteries, and I find it more convenient.”

“But do they need a supplement of chemicals, for their metabolism?”

“No, they can do the same process as plants,” Harpy said, briefly gazing on Gloaming, “to produce necessary compounds from the air. They also take some water and minerals from a perspiration.”

I glanced at Gloaming as well. She seems to be engrossed in one of her books, or maybe in several books in the same time.

“I see, thank you. Do you want to listen to another song or the same one once more?”

“Please play another one, I want to try adapting different kinds of music to the instrument.” Harpy sat near her konghou again.

I played one, then another one after her request. After I finished another musician came, a mare with an asphalt thick fringe and a silk-grey coat. She was taller than Harpy and Gloaming, and had a build similar to Medley, so she most likely was a land pony. She had a big suitcase with her, which was attached to her back on one side and had two wheels on the other side. Harpy introduced me to her, and her name was related to music in general, so I proposed “Melodic Song” after some thinking and she agreed. Just as we decided it, someone else knocked.

Gloaming let in another pony, who had a spiky, cobalt blue shag cut with lighter streaks and a yellowish, light-beige coat. Her hairstyle was much shorter than those of the other ponies in the room. She was about the same height as Harpy, and had a similar constitution, so at my first guess she was a unicorn. She probably was another musician, because she came at a time when musicians were invited here and she also had a saddlebag of a medium size.

For some reason she didn’t have a musical theme in her name, one part was about grapes and another about an idea of incompleteness. But I couldn’t just call her Incomplete Grape... Maybe incompleteness could also mean youth? Fortunately she agreed to be called Juvenile Grape.

She put her saddlebag on the floor and immediately began unpacking it. Inside was a device which looked like a laptop at first. She opened it and revealed several controls. On the bottom part it had four groups of four bigger buttons, arranged in squares. On the top it had a number of linear potentiometers, two horizontal lines of smaller buttons and several buttons around a palm-sized screen.

After that she took another device from her saddlebag, kind of similar to headphones. It hid most of her ears, but the upper parts of her ears remained outside. When I asked to try it, she told me she didn’t use her headgear to listen, but to control her synthesizer with ears movements.

“I’m ready,” she said, as she put her device on the table and sat near it.

Melodic Song looked around at the other instruments. “Well, looks like I should unpack my instrument too.”

She opened the case; it was similar to a nyckelharpa but as twice as big. Perhaps I could call it a baritone nyckelharpa. Next she pulled out three legs of different length and put the instrument on the floor next to one of the pillows. It had a number of buttons to serve as frets, and also a hoof-sized disk closer to the pegbox. The disk was connected to button levers with some mechanism. Finally she took a bow from the case and put it on a holder on a side of the instrument.

“I have already played the recordings of some music from my world, so I can repeat them to you.” I checked that every musician was listening. “But I also would like to know a bit more about your instrument. For example, we have a string one similar to this, but I haven’t seen this mechanism before.” I pointed at the part near the pegbox.

“Oh, it’s actually a modern invention.” Melodic Song circumscribed her hoof around the part of the instrument she talked about. “I can control effective string length with one hoof using this device. Comparing to separate buttons I can choose a wider range of tones, since only unicorns can press non-adjacent buttons.”

“That’s good,” I said and turned to Juvenile Grape. “And you have some kind of synthesizer?”

“Yeah, this baby can produce lots of sounds, it can also record and play music,” she said. “So I can cover the tone range of any other instrument, and even more.”

“We all know about the advantages of your little device.” Harpy plunked several strings with her manipulators.

“By the way, I noticed only two of you have a name related to music.”

“Do you think our parents just named us like this, and sealed our destiny?” Harpy said, smiling. “Actually, many ponies change names after getting their marks. So did we.”

“If I may.” Gloaming stepped around the table and came closer to us. “I also changed my name, many of my friends did. Our ancestors even thought a pony had to change their name, so it was actually a law for much of our history. But many ponies wanted to keep it, so the law become a tradition.”

“Could you tell me your old name, please?” I asked, and she told me.

The name had two meanings. One was the Moon, and another one was related to dancing. Maybe Dancing Moon? No, that didn’t seem right. Moon Dancer, then.

I needed to ask ponies about laws, later on; for some reason I had totally forgotten to do that before. For all I knew I had already violated some of them unknowingly. But, actually, why should I postpone? They could make a short summary in only a few minutes, I hoped.

“That’s good that you mention it, I would like to know about your laws a bit, to be sure I can avoid breaking them.”

“Oh, don’t worry.” Harpy made a movement with her foreleg from me to her left. “We don’t really have laws, so you can’t break something that doesn’t exist.”

“And your behaviour is quite reasonable,” Gloaming added, “so don’t expect any punishment.”

“But how do you decide if someone should be arrested, for example?” I wondered, did they have some form of anarchy here?

“If I’m not mistaken,” Melodic Song said, “guards use local guidelines and common sense. Generally, they only arrest somepony for doing harm to others.”

“Thank you, you helped me remember some things about laws,” Gloaming said to Melodic Song, then turned to me. “I used to compare different systems, in our country and in others. Other countries have a system of rules, created and enforced by the government. In contrast we have personal contracts for the same situations.”

“Yes, I recently agreed on a contract about my performance,” Harpy said.

“The contracts are very common and we don’t consider them anything special,” Gloaming said. “For example, when you buy something you also agree upon a contract, which covers topics like how you can return a purchase.”

“I see, but how do you regulate relations with other countries?” I asked.

“In essence our government agrees only to treaties that will benefit us,” Gloaming said. “And if a pony travels abroad, she usually becomes subject to the laws of that country.”

“I have met musicians from other countries, so I can add a bit,” Melodic Song said. “If they come from a peaceful nation, there is no special requirements. Else they should agree on a special contract with residents of our country and be prepared for any consequences for harming others.”

“Thank you, that’s good to know,” I said. The social contract system appeared more like a reminder for them to behave, because the guards could probably catch them anyway. They could also consider these contracts and guidelines a special form of laws.

“If we’re finished with that, let’s make some music.” Juvenile Grape played a chord on her instrument.

“Yes, back to the music,” Harpy said.

I told Melodic Song and Juvenile Grape what I knew about music on Earth compared to pony music. Then I played some recorded music from my phone, and sang the same polka to demonstrate my voice.

Both Juvenile Grape and Melodic Song agreed to accompany me. Juvenile Grape was especially excited, because she could quickly tune her synthesizer to play in Earth tone scale. Harpy added that her instrument could also be easily tuned.

The scale on the nyckelharpa couldn't be changed easily, but Melodic Song considered this a challenge, and wondered how she would play when some notes would be tuned perfectly while others would be off-tune. She proposed the other musicians play in the new scale, while she would quietly experiment.

I sang maybe fifteen songs, some of them several times, while the musicians became accustomed to the music. Several times ponies came in looking for the source of music they heard outside and Harpy told them they should come to the performance tomorrow, where they could hear the same songs, only better played. Gloaming also listened to us, judging by the position of her ears. She even raised her snout from her book from time to time, but, fortunately, made no attempt to interrupt us.

After about two hours of playing and singing we decided to finish for the day and continue the rehearsal tomorrow, before the actual performance. By the time the musicians were packing their instruments, Medley had come back to the library.

I was thinking some more about my repertoire for the next night, until I noticed Medley was looking at me, like she was waiting for something.

“What do you think, can we produce something good together?” I asked.

“Sure, silly filly,” she said, smiling. “You can even sing a cappella, or just amplify sound from your little music player.”

“Thank you, I almost forgot about that,” I said. “But I still want to sing with live music, if it can be arranged.”

“All the musicians who came today want to perform with you,” Medley said.

I started wondering why. Of course, playing music from another world wasn't an everyday occurrence.

“But how did you get so many?” I asked. “This town isn't very big, and all of them looked pretty experienced, not like amateur musicians.”

“That was easy.” Medley smiled wider. “I just went to every good musician in town and asked them to come. And almost all decided to come.”

“I suspected something like that... Anyway, how are we going to organise the concert?”

“I think a lot of ponies will come, because you’re good at singing and ponies are very interested in new things. So I can arrange a place on the outskirts of the town. For example, near one of the hills, so everypony can see and hear you.”

“Will you spread word about the event?”

“Of course, I would be honoured to organise the first concert for the singer from another world, the first one for the singing crow, the first one—”

“Yes, I got it, thank you,” I interrupted. “We can try several songs tomorrow before the concert, then have a break, and then perform before the audience.”

“Good thinking, I will notify everypony.” Medley nodded and ran out of the library.

After a minute someone knocked on the door. Gloaming went to it and opened, and outside the library stood Rainbow. She followed Gloaming inside without saying anything. Rainbow didn’t look much better now than when I saw her in the hospital. With a blank expression she just sat on one of the pillows in the room.

“Missed me?” she asked.

“Of course,” Gloaming said. “And your other friends missed you, too.”

“I hope my co-workers don’t miss me too much.” Rainbow made a small smile. “Because I can’t fly to work for two days. And I can’t fly at all before tomorrow’s check-up in the hospital.”

I felt an impulse to imitate the ponies, to go to her and hug her and say something silly. But Gloaming beat me to it. Maybe I was still under the influence of that nightmare with the unmarked fillies.

When You Awake

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Rainbow looked at me, as Gloaming released her from the hug. “By the way, you never told me why we raced.”

I looked at Gloaming. If Rainbow was asking this, that meant Gloaming hadn't told her about doppelgängers. I still didn't understand pony expressions very well, but Gloaming twitched her ears and switched her gaze several times between me and Rainbow. If that meant she was nervous, it supported my current suspicion.

“Well, I told you that I had studied flying under the fastest flier in another world,” I said, “And you asked for evidence, and proposed a race.”

Rainbow looked at me without blinking for some time. Then turned to Gloaming.

“You’re hiding something from me,” Rainbow said.

“Of course I’m hiding something,” I said.

Gloaming pricked her ears and looked narrowly at me.

“You forgot a lot,” I added, “so you may not know what to ask.”

“And we just can’t think of all of the things you forgot because we don’t know,” Gloaming said.

Rainbow gazed for a minute at Gloaming and swished her tail several times.

“Fine,” Rainbow said.

I had to talk with Gloaming about what and how we should tell Rainbow about the latest events, like doppelgängers and my arrival. Well, Gloaming could cover the doppelgängers herself, and my arrival wasn’t a secret anyway.

“Gloaming, is there anyplace where I can sleep for tonight?” Ideally free of charge, I hoped, as I had only two coins of unknown value. “But it wouldn't be a problem, if you don't find one, I can also sleep in the forest—”

“No,” Gloaming said, “you can stay with me. Even if the forest isn't dangerous now, the library is much more comfortable.”

“It was dangerous?”

“Yes, pretty much,” Gloaming said. “Before the town was founded, the forest was full of dangerous creatures and animals.”

Rainbow looked at us, but still said nothing. Gloaming looked at Rainbow before continuing.

“Rainbow may say that it’s awesome to live next to this kind of forest, but the ancestors of the townsponies thought otherwise. They decided to drive all the big and dangerous creatures deeper into the forest, and built special fences inside the forest to prevent them from coming back.”

“I see. But why you speak about both creatures and animals?”

“Animals don't have any magic, but creatures do,” Gloaming said.

“Snowy Clothes can stay in my home for the night,” Rainbow said. She briefly looked at me, then turned her muzzle to her forelegs.

“Why?” Gloaming looked at her and blinked several times.

“You see, we both crashed today, so we can look after each other just in case....” Rainbow said.

Now Rainbow was also hiding something; she said that without her usual overconfidence. But the idea to look after each other was still reasonable.

“Good thinking,” Gloaming said, smiling. “But I have an even better idea. You both should stay here in the guest room. In this case you don't need to fly to Rainbow's home. I can look after both of you. Just in case.”

It was nice that both of them wanted me in their homes. Still, there was something strange with Rainbow’s proposition.

“And have you already forgotten?” Gloaming turned to Rainbow. “You shouldn't fly at all today.”

“Well, fine.” Rainbow turned to look at a distant bookshelf. “I don't feel like flying anyway.”

“Great.” Gloaming was still smiling, but not as widely as before. “Let's go upstairs, I will show you the room.”

Gloaming led us to a corridor on the second floor, which had several doors. Through one of the doors there was a small room with a bed, a table, some pillows and a bookshelf.

Gloaming pointed on the bed with her foreleg. “Unfortunately there is only one bed, as you can see—”

“Snowy Clothes can sleep there,” Rainbow interrupted. “I will sleep on the floor.”

“No, you crashed harder than me,” I said to her, “so you should sleep in the bed.”

Rainbow only pushed me in the direction of the bed with her head.

“Not again,” Gloaming said.

Well, if Rainbow was just going to be stubborn, I could do it my way.

I glanced at her. “Let's toss a coin. It can make the decision for us.”

Both mares looked at me and pricked up their ears. I took a coin from my purse in the backpack.

“This coin has two different sides.” I showed both of them to the ponies. “This is the head, and this is the tail. I will toss it, and if the head comes up on top, Rainbow sleeps in the bed. If the tail comes up—I sleep in the bed.”

“Good idea,” Gloaming said.

“Fine.” Rainbow was studying coin in my talon.

I tossed the coin up and followed it with my eyes. When the coin was at the highest point of its trajectory, I concentrated all my attention on it. The coin slowly turned one time and moved down a bit. I saw the head of the coin. Another turn, the head again, a bit faster now. I slowly moved my talon to catch it. One more turn. My talon moved a tad lower. Three turns to catch. Two more. One.

I turned my talon up and opened it.

“Oh, there is the head.” Gloaming looked at coin, then turned to Rainbow. “It means—”

“I get it,” Rainbow said. “But please get a good mattress for Snowy Clothes.”

“Of course.” Gloaming turned to me. “You can choose the one you prefer. Let me show you the storage room.”

She walked out to the corridor and went to another door. Gloaming opened the door, there were several shelves inside the small room.

“Actually, I used to sleep on the floor. It’s considered a tradition in my country. So please don't be worried about it.”

“And ponies usually sleep in beds.” Gloaming closed the door and looked at me. “I know you cheated, it wasn't a fair toss. But I approve. Rainbow needs some comfort this night, after that horrible crash.”

“I agree. But how do you know that I cheated?”

“Well, actually, I'm unsure of it.” Gloaming lowered her voice. “And it perturbs me. I just saw something strange in your movements, and in the next moment I knew.”

“You may understand it someday, I believe.”

Gloaming sighed. “I hope so. Alright, let's find you a mattress.”

When we returned, Rainbow didn't say anything as she helped us to move things from the floor where Gloaming put the mattress.

“By the way, where was Gracia staying tonight, do you know?” I turned to Gloaming.

“I think Medley asked Gracia to stay with her,” Gloaming said.

“Yeah, she also has a guest room,” Rainbow added.

“Alright. Good night, girls,” Gloaming said and left the room.

Rainbow lay on the bed and I rested on my mattress, preparing to sleep.

What's Up

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I knocked on the door, but no one answered for a minute or two. Then the door opened by only two centimetres. I opened the door wider and came in, and next to the door stood a white furry cat. It looked at me and went from the door to the centre of the hall.

I sighed. “It’s too bad Curiosity isn’t here.”

“But Opal is here,” the cat said.

“Sorry, I didn’t think about you.” I turned to the cat. “But what can you do for me?”

“Opal has wares, if you have coin.”

“Really? Don’t you only trade with ponies? Or other cats?”

“Opal does not discriminate.”

The interior scene with the cat morphed into another. I could still hear Opal’s voice, but it faded away quickly. I turned to the wooden ceiling. It didn't look like one at my home. Or in a hotel. Right, I was still in the world inhabited by colourful ponies. At least this time I woke up in the normal room and not in a hospital.

Judging by the sunlight from the window, it was morning already. A regular, unharmed pony was sleeping next to my mattress. And not a talking cat in sight...

Wait, why was Rainbow here? We agreed that she would sleep in the bed. I stood up and walked closer to her. Rainbow laid between my mattress and the bed, her head turned to me. She was lying on her side. I wouldn't feel comfortable lying like that, but maybe ponies liked to sleep this way.

I remembered Rainbow was still awake when I decided to finally lie down and close my eyes. Had she watched me while I slept? Well, there was one way to find out.

I grabbed two pillows and put them under the blanket on my mattress, arranging them to look more or less like my body. Then I took my phone, set up a timer for one minute and put it in the backpack. I left the backpack near the mattress and hid behind the bed. I also called for my translator gift, just in case Rainbow said anything after waking up.

When the phone started beeping, Rainbow’s ears turned towards it. I waited for a minute or two. Rainbow yawned and raised her head. I couldn’t see her eyes, but she turned her snout to my mattress.

Rainbow remained silent, but laid her head on her forelegs, without turning away from my mattress. I began slowly crawling closer to her, making as little noise as possible.

Finally I stopped two meters behind Rainbow, and decided to wait for some time in the hopes that she would do something funny even without my intervention. But after about ten minutes of waiting I had only heard some unintelligible grumbles.

I was getting bored, so I inhaled fully and started singing. Rainbow jumped and turned to me, her eyes were very big. I stopped before the refrain and waited for her reaction.

“Where is that song from?” Rainbow asked, after a long pause.

“From an animated series, I recorded the intro and ending songs, I also provided my voice for one of the character.”

“Good song,” Rainbow said.

“By the way, how long have you watched me sleeping?”

“Maybe two...” Rainbow began, but suddenly halted. In a second her snout became sapphire and she turned away from me.

“It actually doesn't matter.” I couldn’t help but to giggle. “You just confirmed my observation from your sleeping pose. I'm more interested in why you did this.”

Rainbow still looked away. I walked around her and looked at her still sapphire face.

“Well?”

“I still don't trust you,” she said and looked down. “I watched you, to make sure you wouldn’t do anything unusual.”

“I see. You didn't trust me after our first meeting, either.”

Rainbow lifted her head up and looked at me. Her snout returned to the usual colour.

“Do you know why?” she asked, then added after a moment. “Sorry, silly question.”

It was a good question, actually. Gloaming most likely hadn’t told her about the doppelgängers yet. So it would be better to avoid this topic for a while.

“I don't know much about the recent events here, but I reminded you of some bad ponies you’d met. And my being from another world probably helps.”

Rainbow didn't say anything, but relaxed slightly after my words.

“Maybe I’ll ask something else, but I don't know what to ask now,” Rainbow said.

I winced for some reason. I didn't know how I would react if I lost half a year of my life, but it seemed Rainbow was enduring this rather well. Looking at it another way, it might feel like travelling half a year into the future, so maybe it wasn't too hard for her.

Neither of us said anything else, and we went down to find Gloaming. We found her next to the table with numerous books and notes scattered across it.

She smiled to us. “Good morning, girls. I arranged a meeting with the queen later today. She will be coming to town.”

“Oh,” Rainbow said. “Can I meet her too?”

“Should I prepare in any way for the meeting?” I asked.

“She will meet all of us, including Gracia and Snowy Clothes,” Gloaming said. “And Curiosity is coming soon, to tell you about etiquette.”

“You can't teach me?” I asked her.

“I know the basics, but Curiosity knows more,” Gloaming said. “And she can also tell you reasons behind specific actions. And Rainbow, please stay for that, too.”

“Why?” Rainbow asked.

“I know most of the rules are not required for us, because we all know the queen personally, but I feel you should still learn some of it.”

Rainbow only grumbled something in response.

“You told me you have two queens,” I said to Gloaming, “but which one we are going to meet?”

“We will meet the older sister, Her Majesty Queen Azure Sky,” she said.

Fortunately the queen’s name was easy to understand and translate, though I had some doubts about the exact colour shade her name represented.

“Why her and not her sister, or both? Sorry, if it’s a silly question.”

“Azure Sky knows me and my friends personally,” Gloaming said, “and she usually makes first contact with foreign dignitaries. Her sister mostly deals with internal affairs. By the way, I'm going to arrange breakfast for you. We can go to the same restaurant as yesterday.”

“If you have nuts and grain, I can eat that,” I said. “I don't need animal protein every day.”

“I see.” Gloaming quickly made a note in one of the journals on the table. “I think I have that kind of food here.”

“I can help with preparing the food,” I said.

“Me too,” Rainbow added.

“Thank you girls,” Gloaming said, and she led us to the kitchen.

There were two tables, a sink with taps and several cabinets. One of them seemed to be a refrigerator, because I felt a wave of cold air when Gloaming opened it. She got some leaves and a few kinds of fruit, then several bowls from another cabinet.

Gloaming put everything on the table and used a magical effect to, apparently, cut the food into pieces. She basically summoned that glow on her forehead, and the food was cut. Then she levitated the pieces into bowls and gave us spoons, which had wide handles, I presumed so a pony could hold it with a hoof. Unfortunately, all our help consisted of arranging utensils on the table. In the end I proposed to clean the dishes after we ate, because I had talons, and Gloaming agreed.

When I finished with the cleaning I went to the guest room to check that I didn’t forget anything there. Rainbow followed me and watched me as I searched the room. After concluding everything I needed was inside the backpack, I turned to Rainbow.

“Do you want to go to Medley's place, if you haven't seen it yet?” she asked.

“Well, we have some time before Curiosity is coming, I think. Let’s ask Gloaming how much time we have. And I haven’t seen her house yet, so I would like to go there.”

Rainbow nodded. I went back to Gloaming, and according to her we had at least one pony hour. It was funny, that an hour here was only one sixteenth part of the day, so I needed to remind myself more often that an hour was longer here.

Rainbow and I left the library. She quickly went ahead and I had to rush to catch up with her. Fortunately, after sleeping the legs of my new form worked much better, and I could walk fairly quickly. I needed to check how fast I could run in this form, but until then I could just stick to flying if I needed to get somewhere fast.

“Rainbow, where does Medley live?”

“You will see,” she said, smiling for the first time since the crash. “She works there, too.”

In a few minutes we came to a three-story building. Its roof was decorated with colourful, more or less regular patterns of something... Was it some kind of sealant?

“Rainbow, what is that?”

“Well, according to the owners, it should be icing, like on a cake,” she said, after a short pause. “But now that you ask I'm not so sure anymore.”

I looked over the building, the roof, the walls. Well, maybe. I hadn’t seen any cakes in this world yet. I turned to Rainbow, who quickly shifted her glance from me to her forelegs. I looked at her forelegs too, but they appeared fine.

Suddenly she turned and entered the building. I followed her in.

The building turned out to be a confectionery. It also had several tables, so patrons could buy and eat something right there. We had come in as a confectioner-mare was serving a customer, and another one waited for her turn.

“Do you have strawberry-flavoured?” said the mare in front. She had a light purplish grey coat and a light grey curly mane. It felt like I had seen her in the town before.

“Of course,” the confectioner said. “Here you are.”

“Only orange and blue topping?” The mare with the light grey mane examined the cakes and moved her lips a bit to the right. “Well, let me think for a moment.”

“That's alright. You don't mind if I talk to the patron after you, do you? Next order, please.”

I sensed someone touched my shoulder, or whatever ponies called it. Rainbow removed her hoof and pointed at a free table. I nodded and walked there with her.

She sat on the pillow next to the table, and I sat on another pillow on the left side of her. Rainbow turned her head to the counter, where the second patron was getting a bag of some cakes.

“I know that you have to return to your world very soon,” she said, looking somewhere behind me.

“Yes. Your world is so interesting, but this is an unplanned visit.” At least I didn't see any obstacles for my leaving. “So I have to go back soon.”

“I see,” Rainbow said. “Wait, let me get us something to eat.”

She quickly stood up and walked to the counter. I began to think over the past few minutes with Rainbow, since she wasn’t behaving as assertively as she had been before the race. I could only hope that this head trauma hadn’t affected her personality.

Rainbow returned with a dish in her mouth with several small cakes. She put it on the table and sat down.

“Medley went somewhere else, so she won't disturb us,” she said after a pause, “and I got a treat on the house when I said you're from far far away.”

Maybe Gracia had started teaching her already.

“So, I want to talk to you exactly because you're from another world.” She briefly looked on me and turned her gaze on the cakes. “It is a very sens... No, a very personal topic for me.”

That was interesting. I liked personal topics. There were little or no ties between me and these ponies, but I was still intrigued. It might not have been useful for the Coalition, but their relations could help me to understand them better.

Rainbow nibbled a bit of mulberry-coloured cake and slowly chewed. I waited patiently.

“When Gloaming embr...” She coughed suddenly. “Hugged me when you were there, I remembered my foalhood.”

She looked in my eyes and switched her gaze between each of them several times before speaking again.

“But before I tell you.” She screwed up her eyes and slowly added, “I ask that you not to tell anyone about this. Especially in my world.”

“I won't,” I said, as serious as I could. Then a silly thought came to me. “I hope you don't want me to make some oath, like I have to poison myself with a blowfish if I lie?”

“Nah,” she said, waving her foreleg sideways, “we aren't foals anymore. You word will suffice for me.”

“Good, so what do you want to talk about?”

Rainbow abruptly toughen muscles on her forelegs. She opened her mouth as if she wanted to say something, but no sound escaped her lips. I waited patiently.

She looked around the confectionery hall, I also looked around too, following her gaze. All customers got their orders and left. The counter was also empty.

Rainbow moved a bit closer to me.

She closed her eyes, and breathed out. “Okay.”

Listen to Your Heart

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“This is going to be embarrassing,” Rainbow continued, “so if you don't want to hear this, just stop me anytime.” She would have to try very hard to embarrass me, I think. Especially if this is about other people who aren’t related to me. Or maybe she...

“You know, I’m actually tired of all this.” She sighed and made a circular movement with her foreleg. “I’ve worked so hard to achieve what I can do. I wanted to fly faster and higher when I was at school. I imitated great fliers of the past, I was bold and self-assured...”

Someone opened the entrance door and Rainbow immediately stopped talking. She looked at me.

“Maybe you know some trick,” she almost whispered, “to muffle what we’re saying?”

Muffle? Well, I didn't know any technique for that...

“Rainbow, sorry...”

Was she about to cry? Wait, sound was carried by air, and I could control air!

“Actually, I'm not sorry,” I said.

Rainbow's pupils dilated and she almost stood up.

“No, no, I didn't mean that. I am sorry, maybe I know a way. Just let me think for a minute.”

To calm her I laid my talon on her foreleg. Rainbow jerked up her head at first, but her muscles visibly relaxed in a moment. But I still nearly jumped from my pillow when she did that. I still wasn’t sure how much physical contact was appropriate for ponies who have met only recently. Let alone between ponies and alien species from alien worlds.

At the same time I noticed that her eyes began fast movements right and left. I hoped it was because of these sensitive topics.

So, what I could do? I could reflect sound somewhere, or absorb it. To reflect I would need to make some gradient in the air: speed, temperature or density. But that would be hard without moving masses of air. And the owner of this place would hardly like a strong wind inside. So I’d have to absorb sound.

I couldn't create a resonance absorber, it needed a good sound reflection surface, which returned me to the gradients. Porous absorbers, maybe—but air doesn't have pores without additional materials... Wait, turbulence! A zone of turbulence would have many gradients and it could be contained in a small volume. So, I needed to summon a spirit of turbulence.

“Rainbow, I found a method that can muffle our conversation, I think.”

She stopped eating the cake and smiled at me.

“I will create a spherical layer of turbulence around us,” I said. “This should work like a sponge for sound.”

I closed my eyes and concentrated on the surface of the imaginary sphere, and pictured a number of small toroidal vortices. I heard a low humming and realised that turbulence itself created some noise. I hoped that it wouldn't become too loud before it began to absorb enough sound.

Now I needed to make more vortices, which create more speed and density gradients. I concentrated on points of contacts between the vortices. Surfaces of vortices moved in opposite directions, so it was a good place to create smaller swirls.

The good thing was that the noise didn't become louder. I assumed the bigger vortices absorbed the noise from smaller ones, or vice versa. Next I needed some more iterations. I already had such a complicated structure in my mind, I couldn't make it more complex. But I could imagine a fractal structure, self-similarity on smaller scales.

I concentrated on a small part of the sphere and imagined some more levels of similarity. Then I made myself feel that the same pattern of similarity repeated itself on smaller levels. And the pattern spread on the whole sphere. As a test, I tried to listen to the sounds from outside.

“Rainbow,” I said, without opening my eyes, “could you step outside the sphere and say something? I would like to check if it really absorbs sound.”

For several second she was silent, that I felt her remove her foreleg from my talon.

“Yeah, sure.” I heard, then she softly clattered from our table. Was she speaking much slower than before?

“Hey,” Rainbow said again, coming closer, “I'm talking now.”

“Yes,” I said immediately, “now I can hear you.”

“Looks like your muffling actually works,” she added.

“Good, let me hold it in my mind for a minute, to remember it better in a future, then we can continue.”

“You know,” Rainbow said, when I had almost memorised the structure of the sphere, “it’s beautiful.”

“What?”

“See for yourself.”

I opened my eyes, blinking away the internal image of the sphere. Well, that was unexpected.

We were inside a shimmering, humming blue sphere. At first the sphere looked like it had no details, but when I looked closer I noticed surfaces of individual vortices. And the sphere was connected on opposite sides to my back through two translucent blue appendages.

“Of course!” I turned to Rainbow. “I subconsciously activated pegasus magic. It helped me to build this sphere.”

“Good, maybe you can teach me later.”

“Why not. So, shall we continue our conversation?”

Rainbow folded her ears back, but at least she was still smiling.

“You know, I wasn't always so brave and bold.” She turned her eyes down to the table. Again. “My mother taught me to be tender and considerate to others. But someday I decided it couldn't help me to fly faster. Neither could my parents.”

I remembered my own parents. I didn’t see them as often as I could, and I hoped I hadn’t distanced myself. Should I have done more? It was my life, after all. I suddenly couldn't decide what to do.

“I'm already one of the fastest fliers.” She paused and sighed. “But now I'm afraid of...”

Rainbow stopped abruptly and looked at me.

“No! I can do this! I can't be afraid of these silly things.”

She stomped both her forelegs on the table. It was good that ponies didn't use metallic horseshoes here, or she would have damaged the table.

Rainbow took several deep breaths, sat down on her pillow, and blinked the tears out of her eyes. Under her eyes I noticed matted bunches of her short and otherwise smooth fur.

“Is anypony else here?” she whispered. “Can they see my face?”

I looked around. Two mares sat around table in the distant part of the hall, talking to each other. A mare with a powder blue shag cut and a light aquamarine coat—it was Harpy, if I wasn’t mistaken, though I couldn’t see her mark. Another one had fuchsia and cobalt-blue striped curled bangs and a pale yellow coat. They looked at me and Rainbow a couple of times.

“Actually, we have two spectators, but as long as you don't turn your face to them, they can see only your back.”

“That's good,” Rainbow said. “I’m actually afraid. That they might see me like this. But I can't hold these things... These feelings inside me forever.”

She turned her gaze from her hoofs to me. Several drops of water from her eyes hit the table. Her lips and eyelids began twitching.

“Why! Why am I like this! I don't want to be such crybaby.”

“Rainbow.” I paused.

What I could tell her? I was always taught how to conceal emotions, not how to show them or discuss. And my singing exercises, even if they helped me to express my feelings, could hardly help her now.

But I had to at least try.

“Rainbow, I'm sorry, I don't know how to help you with that. But you can tell me anything, and I wouldn't reveal it to anyone.”

“Fine,” she said, nodding. “Talking’s good already, because I haven't talked about this topic to other ponies since, I don't know, forever.”

“Maybe you could talk to some of your friends?” I asked. “Especially to someone who’s known you for a long time.”

“Don't know. I met most of my friends only a couple of years ago.”

She was beginning to calm down. At least she had stopped twitching, and her voice was becoming more tranquil.

“Most of your friends? Does that mean you have someone...”

“Well, yeah.” She looked on the table again. “Shimmering. I’ve known her since flight school.”

“Did she know about...”

“No! Well, I'm not sure, actually.”

No, she began sobbing again...

“You know,” she said, her voice breaking, “Shimmering behaves very similar to... to my mother. Both are caring, considerate, courteous. When my other friends hug me, I know, it's a common gesture between friends. But when Shimmering does, it's like I suddenly went home. And met mom.”

“Rainbow.” I briefly looked on the pastries, but they didn’t appear very tasty right now. “What do you think or feel about that?”

“I don't know.” She paused. “Shimmering may suspect something. She possibly saw that I behave differently with her than with our other friends.”

“If she knows, maybe you can finally tell her about it?”

“But what if she doesn't know? What if she thinks I have a crush on her?”

“If she really cares, she will listen to you in any case.” I wasn't totally sure about that, actually, but it seemed very likely.

“I hope so. But I’m still afraid that other ponies will find out. That they will see me like this.” She looked at me intently. “Tell me; am I repulsive when I'm whining like this?”

“You're not repulsive, and don't listen if someone tell you otherwise. You're actually very pretty.”

Wait, what was that all about? Did I really think she was pretty?

“Do you really think so?” she asked, her voice caught.

Yeah, I guess I did....

“Of course. And when you cry I actually want to hug you and tell you not to worry.”

What did I just say? It sounded like my voice, but...

“But I feel so weak!” she cried. “I can't get hugs my whole life. I need to fly higher, faster—”

“Stop that!”

Did I actually just interrupt her? But yes, she stopped and looked at me with the biggest eyes I'd ever seen in this world. She even stopped breathing

I continued, “Rainbow, I'm sorry. You may feel weak but actually...”

“Yes?” she breathed out.

I realized what I should say.

“Actually, you are not weak, because if you can expose this part of your personality, you are really brave. I know that, because I'm not like this.” Something ached inside my chest, as I said that.

“You...” Was she still looking at me? Everything became unpleasantly unclear.

“Rainbow, I can fly fast, and fight quite well, but for some reason I'm afraid of naming what I might be feeling right now. I keep telling myself that I just don't know.”

Something touched my cheek.

“You're crying...”

Human Behaviour

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When I grasped what she had just said, I was eternally grateful that the humming sphere still worked.

I looked at her, trying to see her eyes through all this blur. She suddenly removed her hoof from my cheek, and turned her head down.

“Looks like we have more similarities than I thought,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Let me collect myself after this... rant.”

So, what now? Well, she asked for this, so I would listen to what she had to say.

“Rainbow, what do you think? I hope you feel less weak now.” I forced a smile.

“I don't know yet.” She also smiled. “I should think this over for some time.”

“Sounds good.”

“And thank you,” she said, “now I have somepony I can talk to.”

I tried to focus on her face. “Rainbow, please don't forget about Shimmering. Or your family.”

“Well, yeah. I understand I can't have you here forever. So, finally I will go to one of them.”

Fortunately this place had a lavatory. Soon we visited it and then returned to the library.

We didn’t have to wait long before Curiosity came. She greeted us and we waited for Gracia and Medley. Both of them came in only a few minutes after Curiosity.

“You don't have to show knowledge of our traditions,” Curiosity said to me, “but if you don't know etiquette, that could mean we couldn't teach you, or we didn't get along with you.”

I nodded.

“So let's begin with things you should not do. I think you should follow the rules for pegasi. Then I can talk about land pony etiquette for Gracia.”

“Can you tell us about etiquette for unicorns?” I asked.

“Of course, you better know all of them,” Curiosity said. “So, regarding pegasi, you shouldn't turn sideways to a pony you're speaking to. If you have to turn around, you should keep a distance of at least sixteen body-lengths between you and your interlocutor. The reason is your wings.”

“Yes, I understand pegasi wings are quite dangerous.” I mentally calculated the necessary distance.

Curiosity looked at Gracia. “As for land ponies, you only need to keep a distance of eight body-lengths. There is also a greeting gesture for you.”

Curiosity lifted each of her legs and showed the bottom side of her hooves to us.

“That's reasonable,” Gracia said. “I believe land ponies are considered to be a formidable threat, mainly in close combat.”

“Correct,” Curiosity said. “You should show your hooves to confirm you have no hidden weapons. As for pegasi, you only have to bow, but without bending any legs.”

“I will remember that, but why without legs?” I asked.

“If you incline your body considerably, you can attack with your wings without turning sideways. Not many pegasi can do that, but the tradition still exists.”

“Interesting, and what about unicorns?” Gracia asked.

“They should not bow or bend their neck forward, because that is the first movement when a unicorn prepares to attack. They should greet others by slowly turning their head sideways to the left, then to the right.” Curiosity demonstrated the gesture. “Or vice versa, it doesn't matter.”

“Are there any general rules for all races we should know?” I asked.

“Yes, there are some,” Curiosity said. “The main one: you shouldn't look directly in the eyes of another pony during the introduction, and for some time after that. It is considered rude, because it can be a display of exerting dominance or considering a pony as prey. You should also avoid looking with both eyes at your interlocutor, because binocular vision greatly increases your chance of a successful attack.”

“And regarding the behaviour of unicorns, it should show you aren't preparing any magical effect,” Gloaming added. “The different gestures show which race you belong to.”

Right, because if you don't know a pony, you may determine the race incorrectly. But I could already tell the difference in most cases. Land ponies were the broadest, and usually taller than two other races. Unicorns had longer bodies that pegasi, and a slender build compared to land ponies. Pegasi were the shortest, and most of them were lighter than ponies from other races.

I compared Gloaming and her friends with each other. The tallest one was Triple Apple, and she also had the broadest frame. Gracia might have been slightly taller than Triple Apple, and somewhat more slender, but she had the same broad frame. Curiosity, Medley and Gloaming were of almost the same height. But the unicorns were notably slimmer than Medley. Shimmering was taller than Rainbow, but still a bit shorter than Gloaming. Shimmering was also the leanest, and Rainbow looked quite muscular for a pegasus. But both of them had thinner limbs than other ponies.

“One more question, how should we address the queen?” Gracia asked.

“In the first time during the meeting, you should call her ‘Your Majesty,’” Curiosity said. “After that you can use a shorter name—Ma'am.”

Then she turned to Gracia, looking thoughtful. “Medley told me you are a doctor of medicine, would you like to be addressed as a doctor or as a lady on a meeting?”

“I like the second option more,” Gracia said.

Curiosity gave us some more advice about etiquette, and left afterwards, promising to meet us at the reception with the queen. Gloaming immediately began questioning me again.

“Can you tell me about administration on your world, like how a society is governed?” she asked.

“Well, there are many countries and states on Earth,” I said. “So there are a lot of different forms of government.”

“But maybe some of them are more widespread?”

“Let me think.” I walked around the table to help recalling things. “As far as I know, most countries have some form of democracy. That means the people choose their rulers, as a single person or as a group of people. But sometimes a group of people attempt a seizure of power. In that case, the resulting government won’t be democratic.”

“I see.” Gloaming wrote in her journal. “We have similar systems in other countries. But most of them are hereditary monarchies.”

“We also have some monarchies on Earth,” I said, “but in most of them the sovereign has limited power, and these states still have a form of democracy. But how is your government organised?”

“Quite simple,” Gloaming said, smiling. “Our government consist of two queens, the High Council and several institutes. The High Council is assembled from ministers, who are heads of the institutes, and from individual advisers. For example, we have the Institute of Defence and the Institute of Education. All government workers are chosen by the Institute of Staff, except the queens.”

“So you don't have any form of democracy here?” I asked. “And how is your local government organised?”

“Well.” She quickly checked one of the books. “Common ponies can make a complaint against any member of the government, which may lead to her losing her job. But common ponies usually don't have necessary expertise for choosing a good candidate. So this system can also be considered a form of democracy because a citizen has power to influence government decisions, at least bad ones.”

“That's good, I think.”

“There is a local governor or a governing council in each city and town,” Gloaming said. “Like the ponies at other levels, they are appointed by the Institute of Staff, and they solve local problems. The number of ponies depends on the complexity of the region. If needed, they can ask for assistance on a national level.”

“But what about the queens?”

“They don't age, and they’re considered wise enough not to be replaced with somepony else,” Gloaming said. “Could you tell me about the structure of the Coalition?”

“The members of the Council create rules and issues acts on what to do. The very first Council was formed from the heads of operations against wizards I told you about. After that the Council found itself new people for vacant positions.”

“Are they powerful by themselves or do they only have ruling power?” Gloaming asked.

“Councillors usually have great personal power and influence, due to their magic proficiency and their respect in the Coalition. There is also the president, who acts if there is no time to gather the Council. He is also the commander-in-chief of the Coalition forces.”

I told her a bit more about Earth’s regional governments in comparison to the Coalition government. Soon Gloaming announced that we needed to go to the meeting with the queen. I took with me the communication device that Gracia brought.

We arrived at a big, circular building after only a couple of minutes walking from the library, which Gloaming identified as the town hall. On both sides of the entrance door stood two armoured guards. They had helmets with a transparent material covering their eyes, full body armour, and a kind of armored metallic shoes. As we came inside, the guards followed us with only a slight turns of their heads.

Inside the hall two more guards stood near the door to another room. They opened this door and entered inside, and Gloaming followed them. I and the other ponies went after her. It was a smaller room, without any furniture, and on the opposite side of the room stood the queen. Two guards closed the door and stood next to it.

The queen was the tallest pony in the room, at least a head taller than Gracia. She had an alabaster coat and a long, tri-coloured mane and tail, with heliotrope, cobalt and turquoise strands. The queen wore a metal band on her head, a wide band on her neck, metal shoes similar to ones the guards had, and yet another band on her waist.

She had a frame most similar to the unicorns, despite her height. At the same time she was more muscular than most unicorns I had seen so far.

In a minute other ponies came: Curiosity, Shimmering, and Triple Apple.

“Her Majesty The Queen Azure Sky,” announced one of the guards.

“Greetings, Your Majesty.” Gloaming bowed. “I present you Lady Snowy Clothes and Lady Gracia.”

“Please remember the sound of my trot and my smell,” I repeated a formal greeting. Gracia said the same after me.

The queen observed us for several seconds, then repeated the same formula.

“Can I consider any of you an ambassador from your world?” she asked.

“I cannot represent the whole world or any countries, Your Majesty,” I said.

“Neither can I, Your Majesty,” Gracia added. “But may I convey a message from the Coalition Council?”

Azure Sky nodded.

“The Coalition Council wishes to appoint Snowy Clothes as an acting consul general in the court of Her Majesty The Queen Azure Sky and Her Majesty The Queen Veiling Glare.”

“I see,” the queen said, smiling. “We recognise consul general Snowy Clothes.”

That was news for me. But, at the same time, it was a logical move. The Council couldn’t give Gracia this role, because she was an ally, not a member. Sly sorceress, she waited until the audience to tell everyone about it... But it didn’t change much, because I was always told that I should act as a representative of the Coalition at all times, especially while dealing with foreigners and aliens.

“So, Lady Snowy Clothes, what do you think about cooperation between our worlds?” the queen asked.

“My world is very diverse, and the common people still haven't made any contact with inhabitants of other worlds,” I said. “Only the Coalition and some other organisations have the means to travel to other inhabited planets. The Council believes that it wouldn't be wise to expose worlds like yours to the governments of our countries, because of overall xenophobic and predatory position.”

“Actually, we have a similar situation here,” the queen said. “We can visit other countries, but some of their residents don't like aliens, including ponies. So, as I understand, the Coalition has some exclusive contact with other worlds?”

“That's correct, Ma'am.” I said. “The Coalition can share its developments and knowledge in exchange for similar information from your side. We collaborate in this way with some other organisations.”

“Can I also send representatives to your world, to speak with the Coalition and study your people?”

“It could be done, I think. The Coalition may also assist ponies to avoid increased attention if they can't become humans in our world, as they would appear too different to an average human.”

“It is good that you would help,” the queen said.

“By the way, may I present a communication device to you, which could be used to contact the Coalition representative?”

“Thank you Lady Snowy Clothes, that would be useful.” She nodded to a guard, who came and took the device from me.

Gracia told the ponies how to make a call using the device. It was basically a rectangular screen with two buttons, for voice call and video call. The buttons could initiate a call or answer to an incoming call.

“And Lady Gracia, what is your interest in our world?” the queen asked.

“Ma'am, I have two main objectives here,” Gracia said. “The first is to teach two mares Invisible Magic. The second is to improve your healthcare system.”

As I listened to this conversation and watched the queen, I noticed a strange glimmer around her body. I immediately wanted to look at her through the spirit world, but that would not be polite, as my attention would be shifted and ponies might notice that. Despite how much it itched me, I had to wait for a better chance.

Over the Rainbow

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“Why do you prioritise your objectives in this way?” the queen asked.

“Good skill in Invisible Magic may save many lives,” Gracia said, “maybe not right now, but very soon. So it will have a bigger impact on your society then my help with healthcare.”

“That is reasonable,” the queen said, nodding as she turned to me. “Do you have any questions for me, Lady Snowy Clothes?”

“Yes, I have some, Ma'am. But I hope not to waste your time. Would you please let me know if any questions would be best answered by someone else?”

“Of course,” the queen said. “But keep in mind that we don't receive guests from other worlds very often, so I am prepared to spend some time here. And if Lady Gracia also want to ask something, please don't hesitate to do so. In fact, I shall apply that courtesy to the whole court.”

“Ma'am,” I said, “how have you managed to stop ageing? My people have been trying to do that for centuries. The best the Coalition can do requires repeated procedures and high-level magic, but we're nowhere close to a one-time cure.”

“I was born as a unicorn, but I have found a way to integrate the magic of all three pony races into one being. I did this to have more power to help other ponies, but as a side effect I stopped ageing.”

“Have you repeated this process on any other ponies, Ma'am?” Gracia asked.

“Yes, my own sister decided to try first. She transformed successfully, but the changes to her brain negatively affected her personality. I managed to deal with it, but my sister exiled herself for many years.”

“I don’t think I have heard of this fact, Your Majesty,” Curiosity said.

“You can find it in some historical texts, but it isn't widely known, just because it is ancient history by now. Most people in other countries and some ponies these days believe in the legendary version of that story. Supposedly, my sister wanted to usurp my power, but I defeated and exiled her. Then I sent her to the moon, of all places.”

The queen smiled, but it looked forced.

“People of the past even began to see an image of a pony on the moon’s surface, during my sister's exile,” she continued. “The Mare in the Moon, they called it. Some of you may have learned about this in school, where a pony sees patterns where none actually exists.”

“Why the moon, Ma'am?” Curiosity asked.

“Do you remember the old myths, that were created by inhabitants of neighbouring countries?” the queen asked. “About me and my sister being godlike beings, who move the sun and the moon? Later they created even more myths to explain the sun’s movement before my birth. Like some other magical people, with less power individually, collectively moving the sun. They even considered my flank-mark as evidence of my magical connection with the sun.”

She turned slightly to show her mark to me and Gracia. It was a small, stylized image of a sun.

“So, answering your question: possibly because of this imaginary magical connection with the moon, or because of the imaginary picture of a mare in the moon.”

Well, even I could conclude something like this, if I had only so much information, and if I lived in the Middle Ages. But still, moving the sun—how powerful would they be? Even if the sun was a small one and it was orbiting the planet for some reason, it would need to be potent enough to heat the whole planet. Considering the distance it could be much smaller than the Earth’s sun, but still...

“And your sister’s mark is in the shape of the moon, Ma'am,” Gloaming said. “But you never told me how you got these mark.”

“Oh, that was simple, really,” the queen said, smiling. “I was very fond of astronomy during my foalhood. And my sister too. I also have a question for you, Lady Snowy Clothes. Why does the Coalition want to cooperate with other organisations, and even countries, from other worlds? It isn't the only way to get something useful from others.”

“What do you mean, not the only way, Ma'am?” I asked.

“For example, some of our neighboring countries may officially cooperate with us, but groups of their citizens prefer to rob our ponies. Of course, the guards watch for potential robbers, and try to catch them.”

“I see.” So, why didn’t the Coalition rob other worlds, like extracting resources without any dialogue with the natives? “There are two reasons, I think. First, the Council was founded by people who prefer peaceful and cooperative solutions. Second, they analysed possible outcomes and decided that it would be a very efficient strategy to cooperate whenever possible.”

“Our High Council came to a similar conclusion,” the queen said. “Our foals even study the cooperation dilemma in schools now, as a part of decision theory.”

“Ma'am, you talk like people from the Coalition Council,” I said.

“I second that, Ma'am,” Gracia said. “If you were an Earth resident, I believe they would ask you to join the Council.”

“I'm flattered, Ladies,” the queen said. “This is yet more evidence that we can work together. I understand that we can quite easily exchange information, but how might we transport people and cargo between our worlds?”

“I think practitioners of Invisible Magic can help,” Gracia said. “You have at least two, Ma'am, and the Coalition also has some. We can transport even large amounts of cargo.”

“And we can also investigate other means of transportation,” I added.

“That's good. But could these travels be dangerous?” the queen asked. “Could you bring lethal bacteria from your planet, or something harmless from our world that would become lethal in yours?”

“When a person travels through the spirit world or uses Invisible magic, the process of travel also works as a barrier,” Gracia said, “which usually removes potential vectors. Even so, on my arrival I checked myself and Lady Snowy Clothes for anything dangerous, and found nothing.”

“I can add that the Coalition could arrange a special travelling point to check everyone for potential infections,” I said.

“We can do the same,” the queen said. “Lady Gracia, how do you wish to proceed with studying our healthcare system?”

“When I arrived, Ma'am, I started scanning the health of every pony around using my magic to get information,” Gracia said. “I would also like to get some medical literature soon, and to visit a hospital or two. After I gather more information, I can make some suggestions to your doctors here, based on standards of Earth medicine.”

“In that case I will find a doctor to assist you in this undertaking,” the queen said. “I understand that I can't directly detect the magic you use, neither Invisible nor your regular magic. But can you detect our magic?”

“Yes, Ma'am. My abilities allow me to perceive your magic.”

“In that case I would ask you to assist us with one more thing,” the queen said. “A long time ago, my sister and I confronted a creature who used another form of magic. Despite my power and support from my sister, we couldn't fight him, and we couldn't persuade him to leave ponies to their own devices. While looking for a solution, we found a legend about six mystical elements, which can be used by six ponies. After comparing the legends we finally found these ponies and a method to activate the power of the elements, then we managed to defeat our foe. But unfortunately we are still not sure how it all works.”

Was that what Gloaming decided not to tell me about? I remembered that the Coalition also knew about many unexplained phenomena, and these elements were surely similar phenomena for ponies.

“I will look at these elements, and your foe, Ma'am,” Gracia said. “I believe Lady Snowy Clothes should also look, because she has her own unique expertise. What can you tell me about these elements?”

“We called them the elements of harmony, because they require a great deal of understanding and trust between the six bearers,” the queen said. “They should want to achieve the same goal with the elements, or just trust one of them enough to command the elements for the rest.”

“Could you show us these elements, Ma'am?” I asked.

“The elements themselves are pieces of enchanted jewellery, but we can't identify the enchantments with our magic,” the queen said. “They are stored in a secured location now, but you can have a look at the element bearers. All of them are present here, they are Lady Gloaming and her five friends.”

Oh, that's why she invited Gloaming and company too... Sly queen.

Gracia nodded and looked at Gloaming for several seconds, then to each of her friends.

“Lady Gloaming, could you please recollect what you thought and felt, when you used the elements for the last time?” Gracia asked.

“Well, I felt my friends agree with me, and I thought together we could do something incredible,” Gloaming said.

Gracia studied Gloaming for about a minute, then turned to the queen.

“I haven't seen anything like this before,” Gracia said, “but I believe that each of the six mares is connected to the same magical genius. And as far as I can tell, this genius is the same as mine, so their magic should be the same as the magic of Earth’s mages.”

“The genius is an invisible entity that is responsible for manipulating matter and energy, correct?” the queen said.

“Yes, it is the source of a mage's magic,” Gracia said. “Most mages believe it is a kind of machine, or even a living organism, possibly created artificially. The better you understand your genius, the more complicated and powerful magic you can cast. That means these mares have two kinds of magic. Well, except Lady Medley, she has three.”

“Actually, they may have one more,” I said.

Everyone looked at me.

“You see, ponies may have a powerful spirit-side due to the nature of the spirit world here,” I said. “There are also several effects that you can't explain with regular pony magic. Lady Gracia, do other ponies in the town have mage's genii?”

Gracia looked around for a minute.

“No, I don't detect any others.”

“So spirit magic might produce some of this unexplained phenomena,” I said.

“Interesting idea,” the queen said. “Can we test it?”

“I believe so, Ma'am” Gracia said. “First, we choose some effects that can manifest with the help of spirit magic. I can suppress effects from a specific area of magic, so we can see if it suppresses or disrupts pony magic. I haven't noticed any evident effects of spirit magic, but it can be very weak, and may manifest only in certain cases.”

“I can also look for manifestations of any spirit magic,” I said. “I have a theory that spirit magic can help with instinctive effects, and with effects that require ordered fields of magical structures.”

“Please do, Ladies,” the queen said. “I also ask you to check the remains of our old foe. When we used the elements on him, he was transformed into stone. I hope it wasn't permanent, as pony magic can't do anything with him now.”

“I can check him when we finish here, Ma'am,” Gracia said. “If anyone would like to accompany me, please let me know.”

“Thank you, Lady Gracia,” the queen said. “The statue can be found in the gardens next to our castle in the capital. Lady Gloaming can show you the exact location.”

The queen asked Gracia to show her how she was going to travel to the castle gardens, after Gracia told her she didn't need to take the train. Gracia simply opened a door to an adjacent room, and asked everyone who wanted to go with her to close their eyes before stepping into the door frame, and to follow her. Triple Apple went back to work, Shimmering decided to go home, but Gloaming, Curiosity and Medley went with me and Gracia. And, of course, Rainbow followed me too.

I opened my eyes after four steps and found a beautiful garden around me. Every plant looked healthy and I didn’t see a single dead branch. Gloaming quickly found her bearings, and led us to the statue.

“The queen told us about her old foe,” I said while walking, “but does he have a name? She didn’t mention one.”

“Good question.” Gloaming looked at me, then ahead of her. She walked for some time silently. “The last time he was seen alive was ages ago. Our language has changed much since then, we even changed the alphabet. So I can't even pronounce his original name. But if I remember correctly, in some books he is called Disaccord.”

“It would be sad, if we find a way to make him alive again, and we can't even understand each other,” Medley said.

“You are correct,” Gloaming said. “We don't have records of any speech from that time. And even if one of the queens remembers some words from this era, her memory might be biased by the contemporary language.”

In less than a minute we came to a grey, stone statue of some kind of chimera. He had a more or less equine head, but his four legs and two wings were all from different creatures. I could only conclude that one foreleg looked like it was took from a bird of prey, and another foreleg from some kind of feline.

“That is the embodiment of chaos,” Curiosity said, stopping before the statue.

“Disaccord,” Gloaming said.

Medley nodded to the statue. “Yep, that's him.”

For the first time since I'd met her in this world, Gracia looked confused.

“It's empty,” she said.

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“What?” Gloaming asked, turning to Gracia.

“It is a stone copy of the original,” Gracia said. “If a living tissue becomes stone, it has a distinctive structure. I would know if it was real. ”

“Do you mean he is somewhere else around here?” Curiosity asked, as she looked at the trees surrounding us.

“That is likely,” Gracia said. “But if he hasn’t done anything bad for all this time, after replacing himself with a decoy, I don't believe we have much to fear.”

“But this is still an emergency!” Gloaming said, almost shouting. “We need to tell somepony immediately!”

“Gloaming.” I walked in front of her and looked in her eyes. “Let’s wait for a minute. He was away for a long time, so why panic right now? Let Gracia check the stone once more to be sure, then you can send a message to the queen.”

Curiosity also came and stood next to me. “It wouldn't be bad if you ran to the palace right now, but it's better to gather some more information. Gracia was correct, consider the probability of him making his move now.”

“Well.” Gloaming inhaled deeply several times. “We have prior knowledge that he behaved well for many years. That means the odds are very low. Even if he monitors his statue somehow, he seems to be absent right now. So I agree we may have some time, but we just don’t know how much.”

“Yes, he is hard to predict,” Curiosity said. “Maybe the queen can make a guess, since she knew him personally.”

Gracia continued to examine the statue. “I’m still thinking about different kinds of transformation into stone, but all of them would leave traces I’m not finding here. I believe the odds are at least fifteen-to-one that he evaded the elements and left a decoy.”

“I see. In that case let's return to the library,” Gloaming said. ”Maybe I can catch the queen in town.”

“Very well,” Gracia said, and she looked around at the rest of us. “Everyone, please touch me with your forelegs, then close your eyes.”

I did as she asked, and heard Curiosity’s voice.

“Do we need to go somewhere? We can easily stumble over each other like this.”

“No, just open eyes. We're already in the library.”

I looked around, and saw that she really transported us here from the garden. Gloaming immediately went out to look for the queen.

“What do we do now?” Curiosity asked, her voice unsteady. “If he returns, it would be a catastrophe!”

“You still have the elements, so you can prepare,” I said. “Maybe the Coalition will help you.”

“Really?” Medley asked.

“Yes,” Gracia said. ”From what I can see, cooperation between your country and the Coalition would be advantageous for both sides.”

Maybe they could even manage without any help from the Coalition. But it was unusual for me, that these mares could only produce greater magical effects when they worked together. As far as I knew, mages should get some basic understanding of magic when they find they are magical. New mages can even do some spontaneous magic, when they awaken.

“Gracia, when mages find out what they are, they can operate magic on some basic level, can't they?” I asked.

She nodded.

“So maybe our element bearers could do some magic separately?” I said. “I mean, at least something small, equivalent of a novice level.”

“Hm, I see no reason why they can't,” Gracia said after a short pause.

“Are you saying that we can use the magic of the elements without assistance from other bearers?” Curiosity asked.

“Maybe you already use it,” I said. “Do you remember doing anything related to magic, which is unusual for a pony of your race?”

The three of them looked at each other.

“I already discussed with Medley Invisible Magic, so it should be something else,” Gracia said.

“Well, I can fly really fast,” Rainbow said.

“If you don't know what aspect of magic you can use, you can just fly around and I will look for any manifestations,” Gracia said.

“I can't say for sure, because unicorns can master different magical effects,” Curiosity said. “I make clothes, but I only use a few effects most of the time. And my creative process could hardly be magic...”

“That can be magic, actually,” I said. “One of the aspects is the aspect of Mind, it includes working with thoughts and emotions.”

“That is correct,” Gracia said.

“In this case,” Curiosity said, though she paused for a moment. “I don't think I sense the thoughts or emotions of my customers. Occasionally they don't like my designs and want to change something.”

“Maybe this magic first appeared when we got our marks?” Medley asked, who had been quiet until now.

“I worked on costumes, but I was never satisfied with my work,” Curiosity said. “Then I found a druse of beautiful crystals and used them to decorate dresses.”

“That sounds like the aspect of Matter,” Gracia said. “At the novice level you can tell different substances apart and locate them around you. Good, now we only have two possibilities to check.”

Rainbow smiled. “I just had to break the sound barrier to get my mark.”

I mentally listed the aspects of magic.

“Not many aspects can help you fly that much faster, on the novice level of expertise,” I said.

“Yes, you can feel the air around you with the aspect of Force, which is basically a perception of energy in different forms, or it could be the aspect of Matter,” Gracia said. “That can also be possible with the aspect of Spirit, but I believe Snowy Clothes would have noticed that.”

“So we have two or three possibilities for you so far,” I said, “and regarding Medley....”

The entrance door suddenly opened and Gloaming entered.

“I'm home,” she announced. “And I found the queen and told her about the statue. She will investigate any unusual phenomena in other countries, which may help locate Disaccord. So what are you girls doing, anything interesting?”

“We have a theory that each element bearer can do some magic via genius, at the novice level of mastery,” I said. “So we are looking for possible aspects that each of you can use.”

“Yes, it may have manifested when you got your mark,” Medley said, “and it should be something that a common pony of your race can hardly do.”

“Well, I got my mark when I had great outburst of magic,” Gloaming said. “I suddenly created a number of cellular automata, which evolved around me, and I saw them in better detail than illustrations in a book. Or, at least I remember seeing all of that in my mind.”

“That could be Mind magic, which can help you better control your own mind and improve cognitive processes,” Gracia said. “Or the Prime aspect, which is actually a kind of magic which manipulates magic.”

“What about me?” Medley asked. “I made a really fun party, when I got my mark, even though it was small.”

“It’s hard to say which kind of magic can help entertain ponies.” All I knew about entertainment was that it clearly didn’t involve magic, only a lot of hard work. “Gracia, can we make some practical tests?”

“Sure, I actually just thought something,” Gracia said. “I have studied magic for a while, and I can make some effects in every aspect. If you have a matching aspect, you should feel something.”

“Great, let's do that.” Gloaming went to the nearest table. “I only need to take my journal.”

“Everyone, please sit and make yourselves comfortable,” Gracia said. “Then close your eyes and cover your ears. When you feel something unusual, please let me know.”

The ponies settled down on the pillows and did as Gracia instructed, though Gloaming was reluctant to leave her journal for a while. After a minute Medley suddenly spoke.

“I can feel somepony staring at my flank!”

“That would be me,” I said, giggling. “You were not moving so I decided to study your flank-marks a bit. Sorry if I made you uncomfortable.”

“That could be considered rude at a formal event,” Curiosity said, “but we aren't at one, so I don't mind.”

“I'm beginning now,” Gracia said.

I looked at the ponies. For a minute or so they sat quietly, almost unmoving. Gloaming moved her eyeballs under her eyelids, maybe she was thinking about something. Medley slightly wagged her head.

“I feel something else,” Medley said, “like something is changing around us. Like, right in the air.”

“Thank you Medley,” Gracia said. “I will tell you the results when I finish going through all the aspects.”

I looked at Gracia, who nodded. We both continued to watch them.

“Hey, could somepony close the door?” Rainbow asked after another minute. “I feel a draft here.”

I went to a closed door to another room, opened it a bit and closed again. Before Rainbow could say anything else Curiosity interjected.

“I hear some strange sound,” she said and twisted her ears several times. “I haven’t heard anything like this before.”

“Do you hear anything right now, except for my voice?” Gracia asked.

“No, it is quiet now,” Curiosity said.

“Good, I’ve tested all the aspects,” Gracia said.

“But what about me?” Gloaming asked, opening her eyes. “I haven’t felt anything unusual.”

“Well,” I said, “could you please describe what did you feel? Even if it was something usual.”

“When I closed my eyes and folded my ears, I heard my heartbeat,” she said. “I haven’t felt anything like the draft Rainbow told us about. I did see some colours with my eyes closed, but I have read in a book that this is a common occurrence due to lack of light.”

“Some colours, you say?” Gracia looked at Gloaming. “Please close your eyes once more, but don't fold your ears. Do you see any colours?”

“Yes, I see emerald now.”

“I see,” Gracia waited about ten seconds. “Do you see any colours now?”

Gloaming turned her head around, as if looking for something. “Everything is grey, it is very hard to distinguish any hue now.”

“Very well. You should see emerald now, then some other colour.”

Gloaming turned her ears, then her head, to Gracia.

“Yes!” she cried after several seconds. “It was emerald, then orchid. Can I open my eyes now?”

“Please do so,” Gracia said.

While Gloaming blinked several times and focused on Gracia, I recollected the aspects of magic, looking for clues which of the aspects these ponies could have.

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Gracia looked around at all the ponies. “I tried weak magical effects near you, and each of you detected some of them. Looks like all of you have one aspect of at least a novice level, which allows you to perceive corresponding phenomena.”

“Do tell us about these aspects,” Curiosity said.

I felt a strong impatience in her voice. In her situation I would feel the same, I think. She was waiting to hear about an ability that might be very useful for her country.

“Your aspect is Matter; what you heard was the air around you being manipulated,” Gracia said. “But you can shift this perception to any other sense, if you practice.”

Medley jumped into the air, shouting, “Oh, me! What about me?”

“Your aspect is called Correspondence, it is perception and manipulation of space around you. You can also expand your physical senses with this aspect.”

“What about me and Gloaming?” Rainbow asked. “We haven’t felt anything unusual.”

“Both of you are accustomed to your abilities, and therefore it seems a natural product of your mind,” Gracia said. “But you have sensed no wind. What you felt was pure force, applied magically without any actual air movements. And Gloaming, what you saw as colours were different aspects of magic. So your aspect is Prime. That may also be a reason why you can see cellular automata in your mind so well—you are not only imagining them, but perceiving them.”

“That’s awesome,” Rainbow said. “Do you think it helps me fly fast?”

“Yes, it should,” I said. “Your wings give you some feedback, but the aspect of Force can give you more information. And maybe even some instinctive knowledge about air movements at supersonic speeds.”

“That actually explains a lot,” Gloaming said. “Many ponies tell me I’m a magic prodigy, and now I have a reason why it comes so easily to me. Can the aspect of Prime help me if I want to create a new automata I haven’t tried before, for example?”

“Even at the novice level it would help,” Gracia said. “Because you will perceive a difference between actual and imaginary automata, so you can correct your magic in real time.”

“I thought so,” Gloaming said. “So, you can detect magic produced with the aspects on other ponies?”

“Yes, and you can detect it yourself when you have some practice. I will tell you when I use some magic, so you can study my example. Later you can even perform a wide area detection effect, using all the elements.”

“I can do that?” Gloaming asked. “Sorry, silly question. With all the elements I believe I can. I will also invite Shimmering and Triple Apple over in the evening, so could you also check them, please?”

“Of course, I want to study your relations to your common genius, so I will help them to determine their aspects, too,” Gracia said.

“And about these aspects.” Medley turned to Gracia. “Can we tell them about cheating?”

“These ponies are your friends,” Gracia said, looking around at them. “We don’t need to keep it secret.”

“Keep what secret?” Curiosity asked.

“Well,” Medley said. “Please don’t be angry at me, but Gracia told me that every practitioner of Invisible Magic finds a way to cheat death sooner or later, in one way or another. I don’t understand how to do that, but it should only be matter of time...”

I hadn’t known about that. I'd suspected that Gracia was older than she looked, but I assumed she could have achieved that with her great proficiency in life magic.

“Medley, my dear,” Curiosity came to her and hugged her. “You know that no sane pony wants to die. And personally I’m glad that you won’t pass away.”

“I agree,” Gloaming said. “And I can only hope science will help us too, before we die.”

She looked at Rainbow, who nodded then suddenly turned her snout away.

“Thank you, girls,” Medley said.

She sat quietly for a minute, then turned to Gracia.

“Can we use our connections to the same genius to transfer my cheating ability to others?”

“No, unfortunately.” Gracia said. “Our genii can’t manipulate Invisible Magic. But you or another element bearer can study the aspect of life.”

“Of course, thank you.” Medley jumped and hugged Gracia.

“So how can we progress with this aspect magic?” Curiosity asked. “Feeling or hearing different substances is nice, in my case, but you said mages could manipulate substances with my aspect.”

“You can try manipulation after you study perception with your aspect,” Gracia said. “If you feel like it is beyond your limit, you may need to strengthen the link between you and the genius. That is another complicated topic, but in general you may simply need more experience with magic.”

“Yes, like going to the spirit world,” I said. “But you would do better to reach your limit with your current level of mastery.”

“Whenever Disaccord comes back,” Curiosity said, “we should be prepared to do our best.”

“Me too,” Medley said.

“I agree,” Gloaming said. “Shimmering and Triple Apple will support us, I’m sure.”

Yes, girl-power in action! Or, considering that they are small horses, should it be called horse-power?

“We already have a problem with doppelgängers, now another potential threat,” Gloaming said.

“Why are doppelgängers a problem?” Gracia asked with a smile. “They look pretty harmless to me, according to your stories.”

“Because they easily replaced my brother and his fiancée,” Gloaming said, lifting her hind leg and turning her ears backward. Couldn’t anypony could be replaced?”

Rainbow turned to Gloaming, but didn’t ask anything. Probably Gloaming or someone else had told her about doppelgängers already.

“Gloaming, are you sure you aren’t coming to a conclusion based on your emotions?” Medley asked.

“Yes, darling,” Curiosity said. “And aren’t you being too broad?”

“Et tu, Medley?” Gloaming said.

“Please wait a moment to calm yourself,” Medley said. “Now ask yourself, how likely is it that all of us could be replaced?”

Gloaming looked at her, then at Curiosity. “Well, on second thought, not likely. Sorry.”

“I would like to add that I haven't found any of them in the town, though I haven’t scanned every inhabitant here,” Gracia said. “And there are none in the castle. You can use some of your medical diagnostics methods to spot them if you need to. After that you can just talk to them and ask why they do that.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t think I quite follow you,” Curiosity said. “We may have means to find them, but we will have to check a great many ponies to discover even one doppelgänger.”

“Maybe Gracia can find them?” Medley asked.

“I should be able to,” Gracia said. “I can send a group of ponies to them, as a diplomatic mission of some sort.”

“Really?” Gloaming said. “I can go, then, and finally talk to them—”

“No, darling, you shouldn't,” Curiosity interrupted. “You can't be unprejudiced.”

Gloaming looked at her. “Right, you are correct. Maybe some of you can go?”

Gloaming turned to the other ponies.

“I may be partial too,” Curiosity said.

“I can go,” I said. It would be interesting to talk to another intelligent species here.

“Hm, that is a good idea,” Gloaming said. “You aren't a pony, so they may be less aggressive towards you, even if they expect problems from our side.”

Rainbow looked at me for a moment. “I should go too,” she said, looking back to Gloaming. “I don't remember this incident with your brother, so I have no hard feelings towards them.”

“Take me, take me,” Medley said, jumping again.

“I see an advantage here,” I said. “Rainbow and I can fly away in case of any problems. Medley can retreat using Invisible Magic.”

“Wait, Snowy Clothes, haven’t you forgotten about your performance later today?” Curiosity asked.

“Oh!” I reached for my phone to check the time. “Thank you, I should go to the rehearsal soon. Can we meet the doppelgängers afterwards?”

“I think so,” Gloaming said. “It would be only late evening.”

“Good, so let’s go after my concert.”

“In that case I will return home,” Curiosity said, “If you need me, you know where to find me.” She nodded and left the library.

“I’ll be back soon, once I tell my employers I'll be gone for a while,” Medley said.

“I also need to check when the weather service is expecting me back,” Rainbow said. “See you soon.”

Medley and Rainbow left, leaving me with Gloaming and Gracia.

“By the way,” Gracia said, “I can translate your songs for the audience with magic.”

“Oh, that would be great!” I said.

“Then I will come by before it starts,” she said, on her way out. “Until then I will be visiting the town clinic, if you need me.”

After Gracia left the library, I thought about the songs we had tried the day before. I would have to start practicing some of them before singing them to the ponies.

But what would I sing? Something about love, definitely. Besides that, perhaps some songs about traveling, also some about mysterious things like magic.

By the time I checked my phone, it was time to leave.

“Don’t forget to come to the concert,” I said.

“I won’t, I asked Curiosity to fetch me to be sure,” Gloaming said. “I heard that ponies from the capital would be coming, too.”

“Really? How far it is from here?”

“About forty kilometers,” she said.

“Isn’t that a long way to go for just a concert?”

“Not at all, our trains are quite fast,” Gloaming said.

“That's good. So, see you there.”

I left the library and went to the outskirts of town, where the stage was located. It seemed like there were more ponies than the day before, but it might have been my imagination. I slowed down and looked around. I would have to ask Medley, she should know how many ponies from other cities we had.

The stage was visible from a distance, located at the foot of a hill. I could recognise lighting and sound equipment on the stage, and when I came closer I noticed Medley. She told me that the musicians would come soon, so I began my voice exercises.

Naturally, Melodic Song and Juvenile Grape came very soon and we began rehearsals. Melodic Song had really done her homework; her instrument complemented my voice very well, even though she still used sixteen tones. Harpy was a bit late, so she got involved in the middle of our third song.

Some spectators had gathered by then. Most of them I didn’t recognize, but in the middle of our rehearsal Curiosity and Gloaming came by. By the end I counted around fifty ponies.

We finished only a bit later than planned, and I agreed with the musicians on a twenty minute break before the actual performance. I walked down to the grounds around the scene. Some of the ponies waved their forelegs to me, so I waved back.

I looked around from a new perspective, glad to be out of the stage-lights for a moment. It was good that the natural form of the valley allowed all ponies to see the scene. Also the green plane with occasional small bushes was a good surrounding for a performance.

After the break I went backstage and waited with the musicians. Medley came to me from the front and helped to attach a wireless microphone to my head. The musicians already had microphones on their instruments.

“Don’t worry, we still have time until the beginning,” Medley said. “And if we start earlier, you can say something to the crowd. So, please come out when I call your names.”

It didn’t help me to calm down, because I had no idea what I could say. But Medley went to announce us anyway.

In a minute I heard her amplified voice calling me. Then I noticed a strange roaring from the audience. When I came closer I tried to discern what was happening despite the bright lighting. As my eyes adjusted, I could see many ponies stomped their hooves on the ground creating this sound.

Medley announced Melodic Song, Juvenile Grape and Harpy. They stood around me, and I turned to the audience once more. As Medley didn’t say anything about welcoming remarks, I assumed it was time. The illumination still hindered my vision and even induced some tears, but I didn’t care. I just sang.

Imaginations from the Other Side

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After the last note was played I heard the familiar ringing in my ears, then ponies begun their stomping again. Many ponies even asked for an encore, and we repeated one song and played a new one.

When the music finally stopped and the stage lights dimmed, I found something pink before me.

“How do you feel?” Medley asked. She sounded somewhat serious.

“I’m not sure. At one point I felt like my thoughts were burned out, and my memory was frozen. You know, I still have these dark spots from the lights.” I looked around for a handkerchief, then I remembered I had one in my bag backstage. “Did… did you like it?”

“Are you joking?” She smiled. “I loved it! Everypony did!”

I noticed the musicians also came and stood next to me.

“I can quote the song you have performed,” Harpy said. “Without a song or a dance what are we? Ponies love music, singing and dancing.”

“Oh, yes.” It made me smile too. “I am the girl with white hair, I wanna sing it out to everybody.”

“And you did,” Melodic Song said. “Was it like a performance in your world?”

“It was a bit similar. At first I felt anxious, I had only sung before humans. But soon after I begun, it was like I dissolved in the music.”

“Was it good?” Juvenile Grape asked.

“I think so, I felt something positive from the audience. The strange thing is that for some reason I feel conflicted now.”

“Don’t worry.” Medley came closer and suddenly hugged me. “If you want, then start to laugh; if you must, then start to cry.”

I closed my eyes to centre myself. Soon a thought came to me.

I raised my head and blinked several times. “Is it possible I missed something?”

“You can always sing here again,” Medley said without letting me go. “And, as you have sung to us, sometimes quietness is stronger than motion and silence is stronger than sound.”

She finally released me and offered me a handkerchief in her hoof.

“Maybe you should walk around a bit, to feel the earth under your hooves again,” Melodic Song said. “It should help you to turn your attention from the performance to the world around you.”

“Thank you, thanks everyone. I will do this.”

“And by the way,” Harpy said, “if you feel hungry, ask Gloaming when you get back to her, she should have some food.”

I nodded to her. Fortunately, Medley arranged the post-concert activities, like recovering the stage and cleaning everything, so I didn't have to stick around for long. I took my backpack and left the stage to walk for a while.

After ten minutes or so, Gracia found me and proposed we go to the library. Medley and Curiosity decided to stay behind and catch up with us later.

When we arrived, Gracia knocked on the door and Gloaming let us in. I looked on the table and noticed some of the books Gloaming had read when we were discussing doppelgängers before.

“So what about these doppelgänger ponies?” I asked. “Why are your friends so sensitive about them?”

“You see, there are a number of issues.” Gloaming looked down at her forelegs. “We know almost nothing about them, but they know a lot about us. Many of us are feeling very vulnerable because it seems anypony might not be a pony.”

Gracia looked around at Gloaming’s books and only turned her ears to us from time to time. Gloaming sat down on a pillow, moving her flank a bit to the left, then a bit backwards, before speaking again. With these small random movements she didn’t look confident, more likely she was nervous or upset.

“I know it sounds silly,” she said, “but I fear that I could be talking to the real Curiosity one moment, then we part ways, and next time I see her it would be a doppelgänger.”

I didn't know what I could say. Was it inappropriate to hug her, because we barely knew each other? I could just remind her about the methods of checking a pony’s identity, to reassure her. After some thinking I decided to sit next to her to begin with.

“I believe you and your friends will find a solution...” I began, but my dilemma was suddenly solved by Gloaming, embracing me with her forelegs.

“I'm sorry,” she said, her speaking interrupted by quiet sobs. “I can't talk about this with my friends, I can't talk with the queen. I understand it is an irrational fear, but...”

I turned to her and carefully hugged her in return. Gracia remained quiet in another part of the room.

“But I feel like I can speak with a complete stranger like you, for some reason,” she continued, her voice steady now. “I guess I thought you could help us with this issue, what a silly filly.” Smiling, she feebly kicked herself in the head.

Could I help her? Could I promise anything, when I knew even less about these shape-shifting creatures than the ponies did?

“I can try, just don't give me too much credit,” I said.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” She sprang on her feet and hugged me firmly.

Did this mare have an off-switch somewhere? Would she start jumping around me next?

“Hey, have you seen Curiosity?” somebody asked. The entrance door was open and Rainbow was looking inside the room. “Oh, sorry if I'm interrupting something, but I can see she isn't here, so see you later.”

The door was closed in silence.

“Let's find the others and discuss what we can do,” Gloaming said as she stood up, now with a broad smile and wet trails under her glimmering eyes.

She opened the door and retrieved Rainbow. Curiosity and Medley also came to the library after a minute or so.

“So, everyone’s ready to go?” Gracia asked, once all the members of the expedition were gathered. “I will send you to the group that disturbed the wedding.”

“Are there more of them?” Curiosity asked, wincing.

“Of course, but you should contact one of them first.”

“And how do you know that?” Rainbow stretched herself in Gracia's direction. “Maybe you’re one of them, luring us into a trap.”

“I can send you there. Only two ponies except me can do that,” Gracia said. “And no doppelgänger can. I’m going to demonstrate it very soon.”

“Well, I could believe that,” Rainbow said.

“So, you can arrange a party—” Gracia said.

Medley threw her forelegs in the air, but Gracia shook her head with a small smile.

“Sorry, not that kind of party. I’m going to send you to the doppelgängers. I will open a door for you.” Gracia nodded to the entrance of the library.

“I see,” Gloaming said. “I propose that Medley goes with Rainbow and Snowy Clothes. You should take some food and water, you can use it yourself or share it with the doppelgängers, if needed.”

“Just give me a couple of minutes to prepare,” Medley said.

After she finished speaking, she left the library.

“As a precaution, I will report to the queen if it takes you too long,” Gloaming said. “Wait, how soon will you return? If it takes several days...”

“Don't worry,” Gracia said, “Medley can return everyone in a minute. If something happens, Snowy Clothes can fly them back in an hour.”

“Both of them?” Curiosity asked.

“I could try,” I said.

“In that case I will start to worry in sixteen hours.” Gloaming turned to me and Rainbow. “Please send a message, if you are going to be late.”

Medley came to the room with three sets of saddle bags, giving one to me and one to Rainbow. I still had my backpack, so I rearranged it slightly to make myself comfortable with both.

“We’re ready!” she said.

Gloaming nodded. “Please remember to let me know if anything happens. And in case of danger, come back immediately! We don't need any more fights with them.”

“No fights, got it,” Rainbow said.

Gracia pointed on the entrance to the library. “When you go through this door, you will find yourself within a ten minute walk from their camp.”

I nodded. Gracia opened the door. Beyond it was the same street I had seen before. I went through anyway, after Medley, and the world around me changed instantly. Around us was a sparse plain, dotted by bushes and surrounded by small hills.

“Wow,” Rainbow said.

I looked around and noticed an open fire half a kilometer from us on the plain. Rainbow noticed it too, and quietly showed Medley the direction. We nodded to each other and went towards it.

Soon I saw several tents around the fire, lit further by the occasional torch on the periphery, and later a cart with something dark. We were still too far away to distinguish smaller objects.

Something was being cooked, but not just cereal or hay. It smelled like meat, these shape-shifters probably cooked it recently. Someone sat behind the bonfire, someone with dark features and equine proportions.

Medley suddenly stopped and pointed ahead. Someone else was outside the tents. We slowed down to look there and I studied the body. The creature was dark grey, certainly equine in proportion as well. I couldn’t tell if it was a grey coat or gray skin, without fur.

I waited probably a full minute, but I didn't see it move at all, not even to breathe. I shifted my gaze and noticed one of the legs was bent unnaturally, and there were several black wounds on the body. It was the source of the cooked meat.

Rainbow finally snapped from her trance-like state and moved her gaze away from the body. She nodded and we followed her to the camp. There were two more bodies, one of them piercing its fangs into leg of another one. Suddenly I felt cold around me.

Someone gently pushed me to the cart. Had I gazed for too long? I didn't think I wanted to explore this camp further, but I heard a small whisper from Rainbow.

“Look!”

And I looked at the cart: there were ten or so bodies, laid one on another. And a pile of branches with hay under the cart. And two flaming torches stuck nearby.

The smell was filling my head, overwhelming my senses. I couldn't breathe.

Someone else sobbed next to me. Oh, that was Medley, I remembered then. Rainbow hugged her for some reason and looked aside, at the moon, that had risen already. We stood together for a couple of minutes, then went to the central bonfire.

There was a taller than average, dark grey mare with a tangled greenish mane, sitting near the fire. Flames danced silently in her green eyes. How could these creatures make such quiet bonfires? I hadn't heard a single crackle.

She also had something at her lap, it was another shape-shifter. Was it sleeping or...

Or...

Why were my eyes wet?

She turned her head to us, quivering. Was it sorrow on her face? Her eyes were fireless, like she had lost all reason to live.

Eternal Glory

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“What do you want?” asked the mare with the greenish mane.

She spoke the same language as ponies, but it sounded raspy, like she was suppressing a cough. Medley flinched at the sound of the voice.

“Well,” Rainbow said, “we’re looking for doppelgängers, to talk with them.”

The mare with the greenish mane fixed Rainbow with an unblinking gaze. Then she pointed her foreleg at the body on her lap. On a closer look I saw several cuts and bite marks.

“Then talk to him,” she said. “Though he can’t answer.”

Medley began sobbing again and fell to her haunches. Rainbow opened her mouth several times but said nothing.

“You can also kill us, if you want.”

Rainbow turned her head from me and Medley, and folded her ears backward.

“I didn't...” I said. “We didn't come for this.”

“And you.” She looked at me. “You aren't a pony. What do you want from us?”

“The same.” I stopped and breathed in several times. “To talk.”

She just looked at me for a minute or so. Were there small green dots floating before her eyes? Or was I just tired, and seeing things?

“Promise to hear my story about the dawn of the night,” she said, “then we may talk.”

If she wanted our promise, maybe she was interested in a peaceful meeting as well.

“I promise,” I said, and Medley and Rainbow also promised after me. “But why do you need to pose as a pony?”

“We need to feel the emotions of others,” the mare with the greenish mane said. Her voice sounded more pleasant than before. “Without them we encounter problems with mental functions.”

“Do you steal emotions?” Rainbow asked.

“No, it’s more like we copy them.”

“That's good, I don't want my emotions stealed,” Medley said. “And what is your name? We still don't know what to call you.”

“Golden Beryl...” she said, trailing off. The name may have originally been one word, but it corresponded with two simple concepts.

She looked around, gesturing to the bodies, and continued, “...Queen of what remains of these doppelgängers.”

The smell of burned flesh hit me again—I'd almost gotten used to it. The silence grew until Medley finally introduced us. I also told her about my difficulties with names.

Once I was finished, I suddenly realized she used a word for “Queen” that the ponies did not. The ponies’ Queen had a meaning closer to “queen-counsellor”, while the doppelgängers’ Queen was more like “queen-mother”.

“You speak an alien language, yet still I understand,” the queen said. “I would like to hear your story later.”

“And what is the real reason you need ponies’ emotions?” Medley asked. “Some myths about doppelgängers say...”

“That we somehow convert emotions to magic,” the queen finished for her. “I also know about your studies that emotions can influence magic no more than other cognitive processes. The real reason is what happened to our species centuries ago.”

She was actually using the pony definition of century, sixteen years squared, but it was still several centuries either way.

“It feels like something bad happened,” Medley said, shuddering.

The queen nodded. “Long ago, we weren't so different from you ponies.”

Her eyes began glowing again, and small green dots appeared from her eyes’ cornea. They floated closer to us like small fireflies, then momentarily grew bigger, then combined into an equine figure. The figure solidified and changed colour, becoming a grey equine with a green mane and tail. Its build was similar to a unicorn’s.

“We could use illusions to change our appearance,” the queen said. “Ponies didn’t like us for that, even though we rarely contacted ponies and lived in an isolated valley.”

I noticed movements around us: some more doppelgängers came to the bonfire.

“Ah! Dead doppelgängers are moving!” Medley cried. Then she stopped and looked around. “Or... maybe they're not dead?”

“Hush now,” the queen said, frowning. “They weren’t dead, they only pretended to be.”

“But why?” Rainbow asked.

“I asked them to. So we wouldn’t look threatening,” the queen said.

“And so we would feel guilty?” I asked, as soon as I realised.

“It worked, didn’t it?”

“Are you going to hurt us?” Medley asked.

“We've had several opportunities to do so already,” the queen said with a smile. “But no, we depend on ponies, so your well-being is beneficial for us.” She looked around at each of the ponies and doppelgängers. “No more of this chatter, we should get back to the story.”

The doppelgängers around us nodded, and their eyes also began to glow. Magical mist flew from their eyes and formed a landscape before us. There were several mountains and a valley between them, dotted with a number of small houses and with many trees. The mist that made up the ground remained green, but in the mountains it became brown and grey, and the houses also changed colour to look like regular wooden buildings. Rainbow and Medley seemed to forget their stress and stared at the illusion with wide eyes. How could these doppelgängers coordinate their efforts so well, to make as big and detailed an image as this without any kind of technical aid?

“As I said, our ancestors used illusions to pose as ponies, because they didn’t have the ability to transform their bodies at that time,” the queen said.

She showed an image of her ancestor again, but the mare’s appearance changed slightly as she took on the shape of a pony.

She gestured to the town. “This was our sole settlement. If we were more spread out, we might have avoided the catastrophe.”

The illusion of the land vibrated and the top of one of the mountains exploded. Gray ash covered the valley and soon lava followed, too. Small dots of illusory doppelgängers tried to escape, but only some of them could. I even expected to hear screams of pain, because it looked so real, but the only sound was the crackling of a bonfire.

“Most doppelgängers received severe burns, and many became sick from the poisonous water and air. Many of our ancestors thought it would be the end of our species.”

I looked over the illusory land. The town was destroyed by lava, the valley had turned dark grey, and almost all trees were burnt or burning. Lost in the realism again, I could almost smell the smoke.

“Still, the first queen decided to do anything she could to save us,” Golden Beryl said.

The name was of some yellow mineral, possibly quartz. But if I remembered correctly, the yellow variety had a separate name, something with a fruit theme... Yes, Citrine.

“So Queen Citrine used her magical knowledge to help our ancestors heal their injuries,” Golden Beryl continued. “She experimented with samples of our skin tissue to create cultures that could be deformed without cell destruction. Eventually, she managed to develop a mechanism which allowed cells to slide on or stick to each other when necessary.”

Another illusion appeared above the valley, a matrix of magnified cells and a space between them, filled with many fibers. These fibers detached from cell membranes and connected in other places, allowing the membranes to move within the matrix. Some of them moved in layers, some moved independently, some stayed adhered to each other.

“But even with the help of some uninjured doppelgängers, she couldn't force the cells to replicate fast enough to cover all burns,” the queen said. “So many of us died.”

I used the pause to look at the others. Medley's eyes were red and she had stripes of wet fur under her eyes. Rainbow looked at the ground immediately when I turned to her, but I still noticed her body convulse several times.

“The solution came from the same source as the death,” continued Golden Beryl. “Our ancestors now stood beneath hills of volcanic ash, and some of Queen Citrine’s advisers proposed to add small ash particles into the cells to increase cell volume. It was a comparatively easy operation, and the volume of the new cell cultures increased by an order of magnitude. She worked without sleep for several days, until all in need could be treated.”

The magnified cells disappeared and were replaced by an illusory image of a burned doppelgänger. Another, more healthy doppelgänger applied a dark grey paste on the injuries, then enveloped it in green magic. It gradually changed shape and coated the injuries completely.

“As a side effect, the cell culture changed colour and became somewhat heavier,” Golden Beryl said. “But it prevented the likely extinction of our species. After days working without sleep Queen Citrine fell unconscious and never woke up. She died after being in coma for about a year. We still remember her, because we still rely on her invention. And her blood still flows in our veins.”

An illusory crowd of doppelgängers appeared, standing in circles around a grey monolith.

“We raised an obelisk from obsidian, taken from the same volcano that changed our fate. On the winter solstice many of us make a journey there to pay our respects.

“You may wonder why we are still covered with this modified skin,” Golden Beryl said, with a smile. “As an unexpected side effect, these cultured cells integrated themselves into our skin, and eventually replaced it. The cells even transferred themselves to the next generation when some of them travelled inside the womb during conception and grew with the embryo. The second generation grew up with these changes, and regained the sensitivity in their skin that their parents lost.”

Illusion showed us hairless, newborn foals, their skin quickly darkening after birth.

“Our new skin adapted to get its necessary minerals directly from the soil we step on,” the queen said. “Also, a generation without tactile sensations opened our minds to the possibility of direct communication—or, telepathy. But in exchange we became dependent on the emotions of other species, especially ponies, as we were once like you.”

Slowly the images disappeared. The queen sat silent for a minute. We also didn't say anything.

“Well,” she began again, “maybe not in exchange, but as a result of a species-wide post traumatic stress. This dependence was moderate in the first generations, and became more pronounced later, but it is slowly weakening in recent generations. I hope this means we can live on our own, some day.”

I looked at the ponies. Rainbow appeared almost like her usual confident self, but Medley scowled for some reason.

Shadowtime

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“Why did you sabotage the wedding?” Medley asked.

“Do you mean our latest expedition?” the queen asked. Medley nodded, and Golden Beryl continued. “I wanted to know more about your newest princess, especially her emotional profile. She was more accessible than the queens. By the way, I am detecting almost no emotions from you.”

The queen looked at me as she spoke. Maybe she could reliably detect emotions only in natives.

“Could you please turn around?” she asked me.

I wasn’t sure why she needed that, but she hadn’t done anything bad yet. I turned slowly…

She slapped me on my butt!

“Hey, what are you doing?” I whirled around to see a mischievous smile on her face.

“I can feel something now, but not much,” Golden Beryl said. “You aren't a pony, so your emotions are hard to recognize, for me.”

Medley smiled, looking between me and the queen. Rainbow quickly turned away from me.

“So what can you tell me about yourself?” the queen asked.

I inhaled and exhaled several times to compose myself. Really, what could I say? Should I tell her I was from another world? Queen Azure Sky didn't ask me to keep it secret. And the doppelgängers lived among ponies, so they could probably find out anyway, if they hadn’t already.

So I told her that I came from Earth, about my singing career and my work as an operative in the Coalition. I also told her a bit about the structure of the Coalition and its goals. Finally I mentioned my ability to change shape.

“There are legends about us, in which we can transform into animals,” the queen said, “but we can only mimic intelligent beings of similar shapes and sizes. You have only a few forms, but they are very different both in terms of shape and mass.”

“We thought Snowy Clothes would be a good ambassador,” Medley added, “because she isn't so different from you. She can also easily understand foreign languages.”

“Yes, I forgot about that,” the queen said, nodding to her, then turned to me. “Please tell me, how is that possible?”

“Well, it started when a powerful mage or spirit made a deal with me,” I said. “For some work I was given a translation device, which was integrated into my spirit side. It works by scanning my brain, as well as the brain of the people I'm speaking to. I assume it’s a passive scan, because I don’t emit any rays or beams of particles when I use it.

“But how can you be sure it works?” Medley asked.

“Scientists from the Coalition examined me. They were very interested in this gift of mine. The translator supposedly correlates my brain activity with objects around me as I notice them, which allows it to translate patterns of different brains. So when I say something, it stimulates the corresponding pattern of the person I’m talking to, or vice versa.”

“That sounds like an advanced technology, even for the Coalition,” the queen said.

“In this form, yes. They might be able to create something similar, but it would be a big and bulky device.”

I didn’t have anything more to say, so I waited for someone else to speak.

“You know, we appreciate versatility and adjustment to changes even more than ponies,” Golden Beryl said. “But it looks like we should use these principles more and adapt to live among the ponies undisguised.”

Medley smiled. “I think that wouldn't be so bad.”

“Even queens before me thought that would happen someday,” Golden Beryl said.

“What we should do now?” Rainbow asked after a pause. “These doppelgängers doesn't look so bad to me.”

“Well, we need to leave soon,” I said, turning to the queen. “If we ever need to find you again, Medley can guide our way.”

“How she can do that?”

“She has special abilities that common ponies don't have,” I said. “A different kind of magic. She can locate known individuals and come to them.”

“That would be beneficial for all ponies,” the queen said. “Please come, if you have something to talk about.”

“Thank you,” I said. “But could I ask you something before we go?”

“Ask away.”

“What are the differences between your magic and ponies’ magic?”

“I believe you already know about the three pony races,” the queen said.

I nodded.

“I can compare our magic with that of the unicorns and land-ponies. Like unicorns, we produce most of our magical effects from the brain, more specifically, from a region behind the eyes.”

“Wouldn't that make it hard to see?” Medley asked.

“We actually don't see the glow if we don't focus on it,” the queen said. “And we are similar to land ponies, because we have more cells that produce magic in our bodies. We can produce wings similar to pegasi ones, but we are very bad fliers. So we usually only pose as unicorns or land ponies.”

“I see. Can you do anything else with your skin, other than change your appearance?” I asked.

“A number of things,” the queen said. “We can use it to make tools.”

She raised a foreleg, and in a green flash the hoof transformed into a short blade.

“That's awesome,” Rainbow said.

“Does it glow because of your magic?” I asked.

“Yes. Normally we can only transform the skin tissue slowly, but we developed a magical effect that helps break the connection between cells, before restoring them. The blade is hard enough for practical use, because the cells have mineral particles inside.”

In another flash of green the blade disappeared, reforming into a small wheel with several thick spokes. She turned it with another foreleg.

Medley and Rainbow stared at Golden Beryl. Well, considering doppelgängers сould mimic the appearance of different ponies, a wheel instead of a hoof may be not so great achievement, but still. Could they make a working machine gun mechanism? No, that train of thought would only give me nightmares. I had to focus on something else...

“We can also manipulate our skin for medical purposes,” the queen said, after making her hoof normal again. “For example, I can open a window to provide access to my internal organs. Do you want to see my bones and muscles, or maybe my intestines—”

“No, no, we trust you can do that,” Rainbow interrupted. “But that's also very awesome.”

“If you say so.” Was she smiling a little?

“But if a doppelgänger lost consciousness,” I asked, “how would you reach her insides?”

“A doppelgänger can force another’s skin tissue to comply and change shape with a physical contact,” the queen said. “Another application in medicine is using it to patch internal organs. We can produce a suture and lace any ruptures. The sutures even dissolve over time, and new tissue grows in its place.”

“I see, you can treat each other quite well,” Medley said.

“Yes, we can,” the queen said. “I have estimated that this ability could heal me even after a fall at terminal velocity.”

“Well I hope that never happens to you anyway!” Medley said.

“I hope so too, but it's better to know one’s own abilities,” the queen said.

“I see, thank you. Are you the only ruler of doppelgängers?” I asked.

“No, there are other queens who lead their own groups,” Golden Beryl said. “We contact each other from time to time.”

“Why do they lead separate groups?” Rainbow asked.

“We do it this way because queens sometimes have more than one daughter, and it can be difficult to negotiate the joint leadership of the same group. All queens are related to each other to some degree. If a queen doesn't have any descendants, her doppelgängers just go to her closest relative after her death or just to the closest group.”

“So you have a royal bloodline?”

“Kind of,” Golden Beryl said. “The first queens were just the smartest and strongest doppelgängers. The current bloodline started when the late queen's oldest daughter was chosen as the new queen. And the trend continued unbroken for several generations. If the bloodline ends, all doppelgängers will choose the most qualified mare to lead them. Though that is very unlikely, as we currently have more than twelve queens and their daughters.”

“Do you not have any kings?” Medley asked.

“No, because magical ability only descends the female line,” Golden Beryl said. “So my male offspring would likely have only average abilities.”

“Interesting,” I said. “Is it difficult to live among ponies, as a doppelgänger?”

“Not at all,” the queen said. “We can retain our form without any conscious effort. Some of my children have lived with ponies for years.”

“You have children?” Rainbow asked.

“Well, queens traditionally call other doppelgängers their children, because we have a very close connection with each other. But we have a family structure similar to what ponies have. And I have three children of my own.”

“Oh,” Rainbow said.

“So, back to my children among ponies,” the queen said, after gathering her thoughts, “only some of them have problems fitting in. It usually happens if anypony finds out they aren’t real ponies. They usually change cities after that, and take on another identity. Some stay, but they may become subject to blackmail.”

Medley looked sad. “Really? Aren't ponies good at heart?”

“Most are, but some are still biased,” the queen said.

Medley sighed. “Poor doppelgängers.”

The queen nodded. “Even though we can exchange thoughts and emotions, I can't read minds, so even if I suspect one of my children is being manipulated or hurt, it is still hard to know.”

“I hope, once you have official relations with ponies, we can help you solve this problem,” I said.

“Yes, I hope so too,” the queen said. After a brief pause she added, “If you don't have any more questions, then I won't keep you.”

“Oh, well, how will we get home from here?” Medley wondered. “I can use Invisible Magic, but I’m not sure I can take you both. I still don't have the same skill as Gracia.”

“I can fly with Rainbow,” I said. “It shouldn’t take us long.”

“Good, off we go,” Medley said, then she turned to the queen. “Wait, do you know how to find us?”

“Of course. You are the bearers of the elements, are you not?,” Golden Beryl said, smiling.

“Um, okay bye!” Medley waved her foreleg.

“In a world far away, we may meet again,” the queen said.

When we walked out of earshot, I turned to Medley.

“In a world far away?” I asked. “What did she mean?”

“I think it's a doppelgänger goodbye,” Medley said, making a circular motion with her tail.

I had noticed other ponies making the same movement before; it might have been the pony equivalent of a shrug.

After we left the camp, Medley decided she was going to find a good place to go back to the town and turned left. I just kept walking straight, with Rainbow following me.

“So,” Rainbow said, glancing up at the sky. “Yeah, we can both fly pretty fast, but it'll still take a couple of hours to get back.”

“We’ll fly in the spirit world,” I said. “Usually I can't bring others there, but your spirit world is very close, so...”

“And how fast we can fly there?”

“As fast as you can imagine.”

Rainbow laughed. “Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go.”

What a hasty horse.... Well, Medley and the doppelgängers were out of sight. Now I could take her into air to make the crossing simpler. Or I could just ask her to follow me on the ground. No, that wouldn't be much fun...

“You need to close your eyes and relax,” I said. “Then I will lift you a little and step into the spirit world. I'll tell you when you can open your eyes.”

“Fine,” Rainbow said, and she did as I instructed.

I jumped and opened my wings, coming to a hover over Rainbow. I hooked my forelegs under her armpits, careful that my wings didn’t touch her. I lifted her only a meter in the air, to avoid any injuries in case of falling.

I checked my position once more and closed my eyes, imagining we were going through the barrier into the spirit world. After a few seconds I suddenly dropped down a little, as if I had moved into a zone of turbulence, so I opened my eyes.

The first thing I noticed was the moon. It hung over the horizon, occupying a third of the sky. Around it were millions of stars, bright and densely packed, almost as if a silver river had spilled right on top of us. There were no trees around us, but there were many bushes, bearing leaves of vibrant green.

That was a good sign, so I lowered Rainbow to the ground and released her.

Rainbow also looked slightly different, she became a head taller than before and also got translucent folded wings on her sides.

“You can open your eyes now,” I said.

She did, and looked around. “Awesome.”

Rainbows are Back in Style

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“What are these, I don't know, coloured shadows behind you?” she asked, looking at me.

“Those would be my other forms,” I said. “In this world you can see them.”

“Oh,” she said. “So, how do you find the way back?”

“First we need to fly higher so I can navigate,” I said, “then we move, once I find the right direction.”

Rainbow nodded. “Lead on.”

I flew up and gained some altitude, high enough that I could see past the nearest hills. From here I could see several towns, which were illuminated due to the number of ponies there—their spiritual forms glowed faintly in the spirit world. I looked at each of them and one soon become familiar to me. It was the town I was looking for. I pointed in the right direction for Rainbow and flew forth.

As she followed me, she also left a multicoloured trail after her, which looked similar to her tail. I slowly gathered speed until I estimated our arrival in thirty to forty minutes, and Rainbow followed me without visible effort. Her trail remained in the air as far as I could see.

When we reached the town I slowed down, and Rainbow caught up with me.

“We’re almost there?” she asked.

“Yes, I'm just looking for a better place to return to the normal world.”

“Have you seen my trail?” She pointed behind her. “This is so awesome! Too bad I can't do that in the normal world.”

Yes, that would be fun if she could. She was able to use the same magic as our Earth mages, but she was only at a novice level. I did bring her to the spirit world, and that kind of trip often helps mages to better understand their magic, but she needed to push herself beyond her limits. If she could use spirit magic I could force her to cross the barrier between worlds on her own. But she had an aspect of force, so...

If Gracia was correct, her next level would be manipulating forces in small amounts. I could only manipulate forces indirectly, by creating elements. So I had one option: create fire and do something with it to Rainbow.

I could also call for a spirit which governs forces, like a fire spirit, I guess. Despite its nature, it could be counteracted with force magic.

“Rainbow, do you know any magical effects?”

“Nah, I'm just a good flyer.”

“I can show you something that may increase your magical ability,” I said. “It could help you, in case of conflict with the embodiment of chaos.”

“Sounds good, what should I do?”

“I will call for a spirit of fire,” I said. “It will heat the air around you a bit. “Your task would be to cool it by force of will.”

“Do you think I can do that kind of stuff?”

I needed to increase her confidence somehow, or she would surely fail. Maybe the trick with fire wasn't a particularly good idea.

Gracia believed I had more control in the spirit world than in Earth. Maybe I could disrupt her regular flying abilities and make her fly with a mage’s variety of levitation?

“Well, change of plans. Let's use your abilities to control forces to fly in another way,” I said. “First, let's fly up.”

She nodded, and we ascended several kilometres higher.

“So a bit of theory first,” I said. “On the second level of force mastery you can control forces. For example, you can control gravity and make yourself much lighter. You can also increase or decrease your speed or the speed of other objects.”

“That's interesting, if I can change my weight while I’m flying then I can do some awesome tricks,” she said, smiling.

“You are already in the spirit world, and you have made this trail, which means you have potential,” I said. “So please do your best. If you don’t, I will catch you.”

“What do you mean you’ll catch me?”

I looked at her wings, imagined ordered layers of magical molecules around them. Then I commanded them to move chaotically. She immediately dropped, losing ten meters in a second.

“Hey, what are you doing?” she yelped, starting to panic. Her wings flapped frantically in the air to no effect.

“See you closer to the ground,” I said, smiling as I willed the air around Rainbow to pass freely through her wings, making her fall even faster.

She cried something to me, possibly something obscene, and accelerated to the ground. I followed her with my gaze, noticing that she didn't have a rainbow trail this time, and flew after her.

“Reduce your weight,” I shouted at her, when I was close enough, “or your speed!”

She had almost reached terminal velocity. She stopped revolving and kept her position with her head and face down, legs spread to the sides.

I reminded her several times what she should do, but she couldn't slow down herself. The surface was approaching, I had maybe twenty seconds before I had to catch her.... Maybe I had to remind her about possible dangers?

“Rainbow, imagine this chaotic guy came and took your ability to fly,” I shouted again. “And you can't help your friends because very soon you will hit the ground and die.”

Was she actually slowing down now? No time to lose, she could crash because of me again if I didn’t stop her.

I grabbed her with maybe ten seconds to spare and slowed down our descent. I also stopped meddling with the air so she could fly normally again.

“I'm sorry, I wanted to help you but I nearly messed up again,” I said after putting her on the ground.

Rainbow just stared at me as she caught her breath. After a minute or two, she rolled her head back, sighing.

“I don't blame you,” she said. “Some parents of pegasi use similar methods to teach their foals to fly. I still don't like that I couldn't do that, though.”

“Unfortunately I can't force it into you,” I said. I still wasn’t sure that she did anything, so I tried not to give her any false hope. “I was trying to create conditions that have helped others in the past.”

“I understand. But let's go home now.”

I repeated the same method that got us here, and transported us back to the normal world. We appeared near the stage I sang at before, and quickly found our way to the library. When we were about fifty meters away from our destination I heard someone crying inside. Rainbow ran ahead and opened the door without knocking.

Give a Reason

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“Why? It isn't fair!” someone said from inside the library.

I came in and found Medley, Gloaming and Curiosity. Medley was screaming and swinging her hooves around.

“I can travel between locations in our world, but I can't even go to the spirit world!” she continued.

“Maybe it's a different skill,” Gloaming said.

“No, it's all the same.” Medley stomped both forehooves. “Gracia showed me what travelling to another world is like. I can even go from one alien world to another! But I can’t leave or enter the physical world on my own.”

Medley stopped her rant and panted quietly. I turned to Curiosity.

“How long has she been like this?”

“She came back about an hour ago, said everything was fine and you and Rainbow would tell us what happened,” Curiosity said. “Then she announced she needs to find Gracia and train a bit. And just before you two arrived, she came back saying... well, this.”

“That's unusual.” I remembered what I knew about this way of travelling. “This ability is hard to block, especially for a single person, without blocking all transportation magic in the area. Another user of this kind of magic should be involved, someone like Gracia.”

“Yes, Gracia told me something similar,” Medley said. “She went to her world to check something, and said she’d be back later.”

“Could the embodiment of chaos do that?” Gloaming asked. “Or, maybe, doppelgängers?”

She looked around her as if a doppelgänger might be hiding in the bookshelves.

“Doppelgängers use the same magic as you,” I said, “so it shouldn't be possible for them. Remember, we just visited them. And this chaos person, we shouldn’t rule him out either. But we should look for other reasons first.”

“Wait a moment, how can we verify you aren’t doppelgängers?” Gloaming asked.

“Silly mare, just use a diagnostic spell on us, if you want,” Medley said. “Meanwhile, can anypony think of a reason why someone might have done this to me? I’ve got no clue.”

No one answered this. Gloaming quietly did her magic scans.

“I can't think of anything,” Curiosity said. “I don't believe somepony blocked your transportation powers because they considered you a threat. As I understand, it couldn't be more dangerous than scientific work inside the polar circles, when they find and unfreeze some prehistoric life forms.” She possibly noticed my opened beak and decided to continue. “I mean, they can accidentally dig out old viruses and bacteria, then bring them back home.”

“Yes, Gracia told me people have done that for ages, travelling from one world to another. So why me?” Medley asked no one in particular.

“Well, let's look from a different angle,” I said. “Is anyone we know powerful enough to do something like this? Or knowledgeable or resourceful enough to help us find an answer?”

“Let me think,” Gloaming said, as she grabbed several books with telekinesis and looked into them.

I remained silent while Gloaming checked her books and Medley quietly discussed some old legends with Curiosity.

“Well, there aren’t many legends that could really help us right now,” Gloaming said, frowning. “But, well… when I was studying zebra magic I also learned a few things about their folk tales. Zebras have stories about somepony they call the mistress of the dark river. This pony can be called by zebras. This pony can be called on, apparently, or even summoned... Maybe she's actually spirit, not a pony.” Gloaming looked at me.

“What else do these legends say?” Curiosity asked.

“This mistress could supposedly answer some questions, or do something for you,” Gloaming added after some reading. “She requires some form of payment, but these books don't give any details as to what kind.”

“Do you think she really exists?” Curiosity asked.

“I'm not finding any direct evidence,” Gloaming said. “Although there are some stories about what happened after her help. For example, she helped one of the zebra tribes to locate a small vein of semiprecious gems, which helped them to establish trading relations with our country.”

We could check the existence of these gems, but not how the zebras really found them. But it was still an interesting catch.

“I just remembered a story I heard from griffins,” Medley said. “It was about a strange pony, who they actually call an evil spirit.”

“But why?” Gloaming asked.

“They never told me why, exactly,” Medley said, “but I suspect they wanted something from her and couldn't get it. It gave the ponies what they wanted, though, the griffins knew that much.”

“She may be not the same person, but it is another lead, albeit a weak one,” Gloaming said.

“Wait a minute,” I said to Gloaming, “didn’t you tell me that some spirit could bring the dead back to life? In zebra legends, I mean.”

“Well, I think I did,” she said. “Yes, I remember this legend now.”

“Could the spirit who can do that be the mistress of the dark river?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” Gloaming said. “Let me cross-reference some texts about zebra culture.”

She took several books from shelves, put them on the table with her journal and began skimming through pages.

“I’m sorry, I should head back home,” Curiosity said. “Can we continue tomorrow?”

“Of course,” Gloaming turned her head from a book, yawning. “It’s quite late.”

“Well, I’m also going home,” Medley said. “Maybe I will feel better tomorrow...”

We bid farewell to Curiosity and Medley as they left. Rainbow looked at me, then at Gloaming, and turned her gaze to the floor. We sat in a silence for several minutes.

“Gloaming, you know,” Rainbow said, “I... Well...”

“If you’re tired, you can sleep here again,” Gloaming said.

Rainbow cocked her head. “Really?”

“Of course, you can use the guest room.”

“Well, thank you,” Rainbow said. “I’ll prepare my bed then.”

Rainbow glanced at me and went to the guest room. Strange, she didn’t even try to argue over who would sleep in the bed. I waited until she left the room, and turned to Gloaming.

“I will also check my mattress,” I said. “And maybe go to sleep after that...”

“Good night then,” Gloaming said. “I’m going to finish soon too, I’m already feeling sleepy.”

When I came to the guest room, Rainbow was sitting on the bed and looking out the window. I couldn’t see anything outside, just some distant lights of another houses’ windows. Abruptly, she turned to me.

“I... want to talk to you again. You know, continue the same topic...”

“Oh, I see,” I said.

“I’m still pretty tired after our trip, but I think I could manage to fly home if I wanted,” she said.

I waited maybe a minute, before she continued.

“You know, I still haven’t talked with Shimmering,” she said. “Maybe tomorrow.”

“You can talk to me,” I said.

She nodded. “I have a crazy idea... Maybe I can hug you?”

“Sure.”

“But it wouldn't just be a hug between friends,” Rainbow added.

I felt my face became warm.

“No no no, it isn’t what you think.” Her face tinged with sapphire. “We can hug like friends, I’m just trying to be more open and think about stuff, I told you before.”

“I understand, I think,” I climbed on the bed and sat next to her.

Rainbow inhaled deeply several times and slowly wrapped her forelegs around me. I mirrored her actions and hugged her in response.

A few minutes later, Rainbow stroked me on the back. She also whispered something very faintly, but I didn’t understand a word. She repeated it several times, then we sat in silence for maybe ten minutes.

Suddenly I felt Rainbow tumble down onto the bed, pulling me along. We remained almost in the same pose, but lying horizontally. I waited some time for an explanation from Rainbow, but she said nothing.

“Hey, Rainbow,” I quietly asked, after another minute of silence.

She still said nothing. I slowly unwrapped myself from her and moved back a bit to see her face. Her eyes were closed.

“I see, you used me as a hugging pillow to fall asleep.”

Rainbow said nothing.

I covered her with a blanket and went back to my own mattress. “Well, good night then.”

Falling off the Edge of the World

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“Rainbow, why are you wearing panties on your head?”

“Panties?” Rainbow tried to look at her own forehead. “What are those?”

“Well, underwear,” I said. “Things you wear on your skin, under your clothes.”

“But I don’t wear things on my skin.” Rainbow twitched her ears, which were stuck out from the panties’ leg holes. “I have fur.”

I giggled, looking on her ears. I checked my backpack, finding all extra pairs of underwear still inside.

“Okay, I will ask another way. Where did you get this thing on your head?”

“Curiosity made this hat for me,” Rainbow said. “I wear it if my head feels cold.”

Her fur disappeared, followed by Rainbow herself, then by the pant—er, the hat. The blurry scenery reassembled itself into Gloaming’s guest room as I gradually woke up.

Rainbow had already gotten up, it seemed. Once I was standing I went to find Rainbow and Gloaming.

Gloaming was in the main library hall, working on several books and making notes in the journal. For a moment I imagined her with a pair of panties on her head, like in that stupid dream.

“Good morning,” she said, not looking away from her work, “I already ate, and prepared breakfast for you and Rainbow.

“Thank you. I assume Rainbow is in the kitchen?”

“Yes, she woke up just before you.”

I nodded and went to the kitchen. Rainbow sat at a low table, slowly eating some dried fruits.

“Good morning, did you sleep well?” I asked.

“I can’t complain,” she said. “I even had a nice dream about what we talked about yesterday, you know...”

“Something about us hugging?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “But wait, how did you know?”

“That part wasn’t a dream.” I checked the door, but Gloaming remained in the other room. “We hugged, then you fell asleep. You also whispered something to me, but it was too quiet to understand.”

“Oh, I see.” Her snout became deep sapphire.

For a moment I wondered what she had whispered to me, but I decided not to ask. Maybe she would tell me later. We ate in silence, and then returned to the main room. Medley was already there.

“Hi girls, Curiosity will come by in a minute,” she said, then turned to Gloaming. “Have you found anything?”

“I found something about the spirits I mentioned yesterday,” Gloaming said.

“Well, it sounds familiar,” Medley said, “but I can’t remember where I heard it before. And I know I can easily make a mistake and choose the wrong book, so I’ll let you know if I remember anything else.”

“There are two mentions of this spirit,” Gloaming said. “The first one doesn’t have a name, while the second one says zebras shouldn't speak the name of the spirit. But it may be a precaution, to avoid calling on her unintentionally.”

“That’s funny,” Medley said, “I remember a mare like that. Some ponies are afraid of speaking her name.”

I was about to say something, but a knock at the door interrupted me. Gloaming went to the door and let Curiosity in.

“Why they are afraid?” I asked, once I had Medley’s attention again.

“Let me show you,” she said, smiling. “Dispersion!”

I was pleased to hear a name of pony I could understand on the first try but—

“Don't speak her name!” Rainbow exclaimed.

“Don't be silly, you can't summon a pony just by saying her name.” Gloaming rolled her eyes. “She isn't some kind of she-demon, ready to conquer ponies with her unholy knowledge of statistics and probability. Oh, now I'm talking nonsense too. It’s contagious.”

“You know our town is like a magnet to strange events, and people.” Curiosity gave Gloaming a pat on the back. “Maybe the queen secretly sends her in case other ponies can't solve some problems, like back-up.”

At this point I realized why I understood the name. I still remembered some things from my math classes in high school, and I recognized the term from probability theory.

“Back to our main topic,” Curiosity said to Gloaming, “have you found anything?”

“I’m not sure,” Gloaming said, “Curiosity, could you please have a look here?”

Gloaming illuminated part of the text with her magic, and Curiosity came to the table to read it over her shoulder.

“Looks like the mistress of the dark river is the same as the spirit who can bring the dead back to life,” Curiosity said, and glanced over at Gloaming, who suddenly looked depressed. “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t you understand?” Gloaming asked. “She can bring back the ponies we lost! Why didn’t she do that?”

“You told me you had to offer something in exchange,” I said. “It may be something very valuable or difficult to obtain, and because of that the mistress can’t bring back all dead ponies.”

“Then why would she ask for compensation in the first place?” Gloaming asked. “I don’t think ponies or zebras could really offer anything equivalent in exchange. That means she doesn’t actually need the exchange in the first place, so she just can do that for free. So why doesn’t she?”

“Maybe she expects problems with that, like overpopulation,” I said.

“Don’t you get it?” Gloaming said, as if she hadn’t heard me. “If she doesn’t want to restore the dead, it’s the same as killing all of them! You see, she is responsible for genocide in every country in the world! If any of you have any deceased ancestors, she is responsible—”

“That’s enough,” Curiosity said, cutting her off. She stood right before Gloaming and looked directly in her eyes.

“The mistress may not be able to do so at a large scale,” Curiosity said. “Or she may have other reasons not to do that. I partly agree with you, but you can’t blame somepony for inaction without knowing more.”

Gloaming make a sound, similar to snarling. Medley giggled.

“Fine,” Gloaming said. “I... Maybe you’re right. But I still don’t like it.”

Gloaming decided to make a break in her research as she became too agitated with the topic. Instead she tried to tell me more about ponies magic, but the explanations in her overexcited state of mind were hard to understand. I excused myself and went out to look around the town, giving her a chance to do something else. In the same time I tried to comprehend her explanation of the teleportation process. So far I understood that a pony needed to send a mark to a desired place, and only then start the main spell.

I noticed a pony with a cerise shag cut and a bandaged leg walking on the street. Wait a minute, wasn't she the same pony I saw on my first day here? The one with a flower on her flank and a daffodil coat. But medical treatment should have been sufficient to heal her in the last three days. She even looked strained, maybe she was in pain? That was even more unusual. I had to find out more... from a distance.

I walked where I intended to go, turned into an alley between two houses and stopped there. The mare with the cerise shag went on the street about twenty meters in front of me without noticing my attention. I waited a minute before following her.

She walked and walked. It felt like she should have already reached her destination several times, but instead she just walked some more. Eventually I realized we were heading towards the outskirts of town.

If she was going into the forest... Well, I decided I should follow her there, too. Though I wondered whether I should talk to her once we’d entered the forest, or wait until something happened. It felt better to wait, because she could only escape with teleportation, and few ponies could do it as fast as Gloaming.

The mare with the cerise shag did, in time, enter the forest. I followed her one street over, checking for any ponies nearby before I transformed into my crow-form. I flew to the forest, making several rounds over the tree-tops until I located her. As she walked further into the forest, I moved ahead of her and sat on a tree so I could monitor while she walked beneath me. When nothing interesting happened, I just repeated the manoeuvre.

On the third repeat she stopped and looked around. It was funny, how almost no one looked up, even around trees where an adversary could climb up and hide. She didn’t even look above the ground level, as I hid myself in the canopy.

After apparently deciding she was safe, she sat on her haunches and began to remove her bandage. I didn't see what was under it, because in the next moment her eyes glowed green, her fur disappeared and she became a doppelgänger.

It's a Sin

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For some reason she still had the cerise shag and the tail of the same colour, even as she became a doppelgänger. I dived, pulled up just before hitting the ground, and changed into my hybrid form. She turned to me and jumped backwards.

“Who did that to you?” I pointed at mare’s partially bandaged leg.

“Well...” She mumbled something quietly.

“I don't want to hurt you, and as you can see, I'm not even a pony,” I said, showing off my claws and beak as I hovered before her. “I even met your queen recently, so I know some of your people live with ponies.”

“If you’ve met the queen, you should know her name,” she said after a pause.

“Yes, as close as I can get it, her name is Golden Beryl,” I said. “Unfortunately I rely on translation magic to speak your language, so I can't repeat exact names.”

She gazed at me and nodded. I decided to ask some questions I had already guessed the answers to, to make her say something. I landed before her and made my wings disappear.

“Did you do it to yourself?”

“No,” she said.

“By the way,” I began, having forgotten to introduce myself. Well, better late than never… “My name is Snowy Clothes, what’s yours?”

“Well, my name is...”

Some flower, it sounded like. I didn't know many flowers, but she had a flower mark on her flank, so... Was it Daisy? Possibly wrong colour. Maybe Lily? No, those had the wrong kind of petals.

“I don't know many flowers, so could I call you Agrimony?”

“You know, it isn't exactly my name, but it’s still close,” she said after a minute.

“I also remembered the sound of your real name, so if someone mentions you I would most likely recognize it,” I said. She was noticeably calmer now, but still looking on-edge. “Back to the main topic, who did that to you?”

“Why should I tell you?”

“You intrigued me,” I said. “I haven't seen other ponies with health problems, even if you aren’t really a pony. This seems wrong to me, so I want to know the truth.”

“You can't force me to say anything,” she said.

“Actually, I can.” I took off my backpack without removing my eyes from her. Then I took my spear out and extended it. “I'm not going to harm you, but I can bring you to your queen or to the queen of ponies. They should be interested in your injuries, I think.”

Agrimony opened her mouth and silently gazed at the spear.

“I also know that doppelgängers aren't very good flyers,” I said, smiling, “and I can fly very fast.”

“Fine, you win,” she said. “A doctor did this to me.”

“Isn't a doctor expected to heal injuries?”

“Well, yes,” Agrimony said. “I let him take samples of my skin. It's no big deal, really.”

“And why do you let him do this?”

“He helps other ponies.”

“But, in doing so, he harms you,” I added. “No, I want to know why you really do this. It didn't start with your wish to help ponies, I don’t think.”

She paused for a long time before she spoke again. “He found out I wasn’t a pony, and promised to tell my friends about me if I didn’t help him. First he examined my anatomy, then he found some properties of my skin and decided to make me a donor.”

“Why didn't you run?”

“I can’t just leave everypony behind,” she said. “Of course, the other doppelgängers would accept me back, but still... And at least I'm helping other ponies with my donations.”

“I hate to repeat myself, but he’s hurting you.”

“Actually, my tissues regenerate pretty quickly—”

“Are you completely sure you can donate your tissues this often? And are you sure this doctor doesn't harm you in other ways?”

“Well, I...” she started, but trailed off. Her ears rotated nervously, and her expression changed several times.

“I know a doctor in town who isn’t biased towards non-pony species,” I said, after a pause. “He or your queen should examine you, make sure you’re healthy. I also want you to meet some ponies I know here.”

“Why?”

“They thought I was a doppelgänger, but trusted me anyway,” I said. “Two of them also met your queen with me, so together I think we can help you.”

“I don't feel comfortable showing ponies who I am,” she said. “What if my friends find out?”

“If they really are your friends, they won’t abandon you if they find out,” I said, thinking about my companions during our trip to the queen. “And at least one of my friends wants to become acquainted with more doppelgängers.”

“If I don't go willingly, will you take me by force?”

“I prefer not to, but I will if I need to.” I folded my spear and put it in my backpack. “And don't think I can't do anything without a spear.”

“Fine, let's go.”

“I can carry you, if you have trouble using your leg,” I said. “Let’s show it to ponies before you can heal it.”

“I see. I can walk, just not very fast,” Agrimony said. “I don't think my muscles or bones are injured.”

“Well, if you have any difficulties walking, please tell me immediately. I want to restore your health, not make it worse.”

She nodded and changed back to her pony form. I helped her apply a new bandage, then we went back to the town.

When we were halfway to the library I noticed Curiosity, she was headed in the same direction as us. She stopped and waved when she noticed me.

“Made a new friend already, darling?” Then she turned to Agrimony. “Oh, I don't think we've met. Curiosity, pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise. I'm Agrimony.” She stopped.

“We found something interesting,” I said, nodding to Agrimony. “I think we should tell you and other girls about it.”

“Good to hear let's head over,” Curiosity said, taking the lead. She knocked excitedly on the door when we arrived.

A voice soon called us in, and Curiosity opened the door, holding it for Agrimony and me. Inside the library I saw Gracia, who stood on three legs, lifting one foreleg horizontally. Under the foreleg sat Rainbow, her mouth wide open, catching drops of blood from an incision on Gracia's foreleg. Near them Gloaming sat close to the table and wrote something in a journal.

Curiosity inhaled loudly and dropped on the floor, when she saw what was happening. Agrimony only widened her eyes

“Rainbow asked me if my abilities could be transferred with blood,” Gracia said. “I think it is highly improbable, but I haven't tried it on ponies before. So we arranged a small test. By the way, Rainbow, that should be enough.”

Gracia lowered her leg and the incision disappeared in a second. Her gaze settled on Agrimony. Gloaming casually levitated Curiosity onto a pillow nearby, while still writing.

“Do you want me to heal you, or you want to do something else first?” Gracia asked.

“Well, yes,” Agrimony said. “I mean, we need to do something else.”

She and other ponies introduced themselves, but Agrimony fell silent after that.

“Thank you for your offer, Gracia. I would like to show everyone her injury first,” I said. “Agrimony, please remove the bandage.”

She nodded and, with Gloaming’s help, did as I asked.

“We came to you because I suspect one of the doctors in town abuses Agrimony,” I continued. “This isn't the first time I’ve seen her with a similar injury.”

“Why would a doctor do that?” Gloaming asked.

Agrimony began saying something, but I interrupted her.

“I suspect due to his prejudices.” I looked at Curiosity, who begun to wake up. “He knows something about Agrimony, and he’s been blackmailing her.”

“Who in the world would blackmail this nice mare?” Curiosity asked.

“I don't know his name, Agrimony can tell you later.” I said. “I only hope he isn't Steel Hooves. She thinks she may actually be helping other patients by agreeing with his demands. But I don't feel comfortable with her being used like some kind of herb.”

“What do you mean?” Gloaming asked. “I don't understand.”

“I'm terribly sorry, for deceiving the whole town,” Agrimony said. “I'm not a pony.”

She lowered her head and transformed into her original form. Curiosity groaned, Rainbow remained silent, Gloaming widened her eyes, and Gracia smiled.

“And her doctor decided to gather her tissues regularly and make some medicine from it,” I added.

After that, Curiosity covered her mouth with her left foreleg, looking as if she was going to vomit. Rainbow looked only slightly better. Gloaming suddenly sat on the floor and folded her ears backward. Gracia squinted her eyes and made a neutral face. Considering I always saw her cheerfully smiling and hugging ponies, I could only hope she wasn't going to kill the doctor.

“I don't detect any permanent damage in your body, at least ,” Gracia said, after the moment passed. “So that’s… good. And I can testify later about the state of your body, if need be. Anyway, I’ve already increased the regeneration speed of your damaged tissues, so I believe you can redistribute it yourself now.”

Agrimony nodded to Gracia, who was smiling again, and looked at her foreleg. The injury was covered in a familiar green glow, and closed itself in a few seconds.

“You see, I can close these wounds myself, but I can't do that in my pony-form,” Agrimony said.

“It doesn't matter if you aren’t a pony,” Curiosity said. “I see now that you have good intentions, while the doctor's behaviour is reprehensible.”

“Yes,” Gloaming said, “he should have at least asked your permission, not forced that on you through blackmail. But the good thing is that you don't need to donate your tissues anymore.”

Gracia nodded. “From what I know about her anatomy, as it relates to pony medicine, her tissues wouldn’t have made a revolution anyway.”

“Wait a minute, how do you know about my anatomy?” Agrimony asked. “I know we’ve hidden very well, until recent events...”

“Well, I'm good at healing magic, so I have a special understanding of living things,” Gracia said, smiling. “I'm also not a pony, so I use another kind of magic, which works without any light effects.”

“Do not worry,” Curiosity said. “Gracia is a good alien.”

Someone knocked on the door, and after a second Medley came in.

“Girls, have I missed anything?” she said. She wasn’t smiling, but she didn’t look sad, at least.

“Not much,” I said, “I just found a doppelgänger, who was being abused by her doctor, but we solved what we could and we plan to do more.”

I nodded to Agrimony, who quickly returned to her pony form.

“So nothing much, actually,” I added.

“Sweet, now I can have a doppelgänger friend right here in town.” Medley smiled and hugged Agrimony.

“Thank you all for what you have done,” Agrimony said. “I hope you can do something to the doctor.”

“If we can’t, the queen surely can,” Gloaming said.

“And if you need anything, you can come to any of us,” Curiosity said. “Please, don’t forget that.”

Other ponies nodded. Finally after more thanks and hugs Agrimony took leave, because she wanted to meet her friends and possibly tell them her secret.

The Culture of Night

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“So, what have you found while I was out?” I asked.

“Unfortunately, not much,” Gloaming said. “We skimmed through some books about myths and legends. There are several hints about powerful beings who could have an influence on Medleys abilities, but I think we should talk with the queen first. She probably knows something I'd never find in any book.”

“I also sent a request to the Coalition,” Gracia said, “and did some research myself. Unfortunately most of my findings only apply to Earth, and it's rare for anyone with that kind of power to bother themselves with other worlds.”

“I agree, at least I don't hear much about that,” I said. “But it’s possible that if someone like that lives on Earth, someone similar could live here. You know, like how they both have people like you and Medley.”

“You can make a list of people from Earth who have sufficient powers,” Gloaming said, “and look for similarities in our lists.”

“Yes, we do have some time before our audience with the queen.” Curiosity said.

“Let's make two lists,” Gracia suggested, “then we can compare them, and combine them into one.”

I nodded and got out my pen and notebook. I'm not sure if someone from the Coalition would be responsible for this, let alone anyone from the Council. More likely the mysterious girl who helped to organize the Coalition, maybe Gracia knew about her. There were also at least two people who helped the Coalition from time to time, and who could possibly do something like that.

After several minutes I went with my list to Gracia. She offered me her list.

“I can't say I know many of them,” I said. “And I put almost everyone I know in my list.”

“I see,” Gracia said. “So I will add people from your list to mine. What do you think, who may have a counterpart here?”

“Well, possibly all of them, but we should tell everyone about their main abilities, then we can correlate it with what the ponies know,” I said. “And speaking of counterparts, I met someone in another world, where I got the most interesting flying lesson. Sorry, I don’t remember the name of this world. She’s some kind of lead guardian of the world, and controls its borders.”

Some of the ponies were listening to our conversation with interest. Medley even looked over the lists, but unfortunately she couldn't read Earth languages.

“She asked for some favours in return for leading us back to Earth,” I said. “And this reminded me of Leja. I also know a guy from another world, he made deals too, but he offered chances to win different prizes. Some were physical things, some were abilities. For example, I bet some clothes and I got a ball, which glowed in the dark. After I bet a gemstone I got an amulet with unknown powers. Also, he called himself a prince of chaos, so he might be a counterpart of the embodiment of chaos here.”

“And who is this Leja person?” Rainbow asked.

“It's kind of a mystery.” I tried to shrug my shoulders, but it wasn't easy on four legs. “She can exchange one thing for another, and these things could even be your abilities. She must be a powerful mage, if she can do that.”

“What kind of things and abilities?” Gloaming said. She even took her journal and prepared to write.

“She can give you knowledge, but I don’t think she’s interested in receiving it,” I said.

“She doesn't give away artifacts often, preferring to provide knowledge on how to find them,” Gracia said. “So she mostly provides others with abilities and knowledge.”

“According to the legends, the mistress of the dark river did something similar,” Medley said. “Can Leja be called, if somepony knows her in person, or even just her name?”

“She can be, yes,” Gracia said. “Not many people know about her anyway.”

“Good, so the mistress of the dark river would be our first candidate,” Gloaming said. “Even if she can't help Medley directly, she could provide some valuable information. But I don’t know if I want to meet her or not.”

“Do you still think she’s responsible for genocide?” Curiosity asked.

Gloaming looked at her forelegs, saying nothing.

“Anyway, who else do you have in this list?” Medley asked.

Gracia and I told the ponies about each person in the list and what we knew about them. Together we chose three candidates who might have known something about Invisible Magic and how it worked. Gracia proposed two persons, one of whom was a vampire from the Yunnan province of China, and also a warlock and an ally of the Coalition. Another was an American mage I knew nothing about.

“Girls, it's time to go to our audience,” Gloaming said. “We may have found something interesting, but we can continue our research later.”

As Curiosity had told us, this meeting would be less official. We went to the town hall anyway, because it was created especially for those kinds of events.

A single guard met us at the entrance and showed us to a banquet hall. There was a long table with pillows on both sides. The guard stood next to the door, while another guard in the room announced that he was going to tell the queen about our visit.

We stood in the hall until Queen Azure Sky came and greeted us. We waited until the queen sat, and followed her example.

“Please tell me about your recent exploits,” she began, smiling.

“Your Majesty, we have found several possibilities for what we can do about the embodiment of chaos, including new information about the elements,” Gloaming said. “We also found a problem with Medley's learning, and a possible solution can also help us against Disaccord.”

The queen nodded. Gloaming got her journal out of her saddlebag and put it on the table. A pony came to the room and put a cup of some beverage in front of each of us.

“Lady Gracia also proposed we find doppelgängers and talk to them,” Gloaming said. “So Ladies Snowy Clothes, Rainbow and Medley went to them and learned some things, including an account of their history. Lady Snowy Clothes later found a doppelgänger in town, and we learned that they could easily become victims to some biased ponies.”

“You’ve really done a lot, since we last spoke,” the queen said. “Please tell me what you found about the elements.”

“Thanks to Ladies Snowy Clothes and Gracia, we found that each element bearer has a basic understanding of one of nine aspects of magic,” Gloaming said. She mentioned what we had found together, including what she’d learned about the ponies absent from the first test. “Later we found, that Lady Triple Apple has the aspect of life, and Lady Shimmering has the aspect of mind.”

“How hard is it to improve these aspects?” the queen asked. “And is it possible to study more aspects?”

“Improving them depends on the strength of the connection between a person and their genius, Your Majesty,” Gracia said. “It is relatively easy if you understand your genius enough to go to the next level. If you don't, you need to improve the connection, usually by reaching your current limits and pushing past them.”

Gracia made a pause and looked at me.

“You can also travel to the spirit world, Your Majesty,” I said. “It often brings new experiences, and improves the connection. I can help with that, as well as Lady Gracia.”

Azure Sky nodded.

I thought for a moment about what I had just said. If anyone in this world could master traveling to the spirit world or other spirit-related magic, Azure Sky would be the most likely candidate. The next would be Gloaming.

“If the bearers of the elements want to study magic the same way Earth mages do, they will study other aspects,” Gracia said. “I can personally teach several aspects, and they can also teach each other. But it would be better to study their own aspect more before teaching it. It is more efficient when a mage teaches not the maximum level of her aspect, but a lower one.”

“Thank you, Ladies, for your help,” the queen said. “It is good to know more about the elements, and to have ponies who can operate the same magic as the embodiment of chaos.”

“And regarding my problems,” Medley said, “Gracia and I found that I can't travel to other worlds myself, but somepony else could transport me. So we looked for anypony powerful enough to block my Invisible Magic. And the girls...” she giggled. “Sorry, the Ladies found several candidates.”

“Right,” Gloaming said, “we’ve created a list of beings in our world who can possibly block Invisible Magic, or provide us with information about it. We made a separate list of powerful beings from Earth, and correlated the two lists. We found only one correlation, somepony called the mistress of the dark river. We also found two beings on Earth who might be able to help us.”

“We can also look for their counterparts here, Your Majesty,” Curiosity said, “but it is very unlikely we would find them, as one of them is a mage like Gracia, and the other is a vampire.”

“So we can use our best chance first and look for the mistress of the dark river,” Gloaming said. She paused for a moment, keeping her face relaxed. “Her possible counterpart on Earth could exchange things and abilities for knowledge and other abilities, so she could help with Disaccord.”

“I also believe, Ma'am,” Gracia said, “that our numerical superiority would help us.”

“Why, Lady Gracia?” the queen asked.

“Because we have the whole state of ponies to propose something to the mistress of the dark river,” Gracia said, “and our opponent is only one person, albeit powerful.”

“That is reasonable,” the queen said. “I would also like to solve that peacefully. Please tell me about doppelgängers, then we will discuss how we might find the mistress of the dark river.”

I told the queen the history of doppelgängers and how their queen deceived us. Then I told how I noticed the injured pony and found that she was a doppelgänger.

“And this doctor is blackmailing her, forcing her to donate parts of her body for research.” I finished my story.

Queen Azure Sky stopped smiling and only nodded. She looked similar to Gracia, when I told her about the doctor.

“If I were younger, I would personally arrest this doctor and organise a public trial,” the queen said. “One of my favourite punishments, back in the day, was castration, but I'm not sure this doctor caused enough harm to justify that.”

Curiosity squeaked, before covering her mouth with a hoof. Other ponies around the table looked at each other nervously. Even the guards flinched a little.

“We lived in a different milieu, I suppose, and we didn't have reeducation and rehabilitation programs like we have today,” the queen said. “But that kind of punishment helped to make future generations better, as sterilised ponies couldn't leave descendants. But we stopped practicing it a long time ago, so I will send a counsellor to investigate this case.”

“Ma'am, could you tell Lady Gracia and me how you prevent crimes?” I asked.

“We eliminated poverty and the scarcity of many goods in the beginning of my reign, because I motivated scientists to create more nutritious crops and ways to build houses more efficiently. We also have very good education compared to other countries. These factors already remove many reasons for crimes. And if something happens, we have counsellors to help ponies solve their problems, and we do not isolate them from society, like other states do. We mostly use fines instead, to compensate for any harm.”

“Yes,” Gloaming said, “we have special centres for criminals who need more attention. In the most severe cases, for example, we put them in a deep sleep and they study how to live normal lives in their dreams. We can compress weeks of rehabilitation in one day of sleep, and they couldn't harm real ponies in case of any latent malice.”

“We even import criminals from other countries,” the queen said, smiling, “because it is cheaper for them to send their citizens to us for a month or two than to put them in their own prisons, not to mention the risk of escape or recidivism.

“Anyway, I'm glad you found so much about doppelgängers. I would like some of you to meet Queen Golden Beryl once more, as representatives of our state. We should arrange civilized relations and spread correct information about them, so ponies won't continue to fear them.”

“We would gladly go, Ma'am,” Curiosity said. Other ponies nodded.

“That was very interesting information about criminals, Ma'am,” I said. “But are there other unusual import and export products in your country?”

“A good question Lady Snowy Clothes. Not everypony remembers this from their school courses, but we also export exotic food. Not only products of agriculture, but also different kinds of meat. Including pony meat.”

The Paradigm Shift

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“Excuse me, Ma'am,” Curiosity said, “Did you just say we export the meat of ponies?”

“That is correct, Lady Curiosity.” Her smile grew even wider.

Curiosity’s eyes rolled, and she promptly fell onto her pillow, unconscious. Gloaming’s forehead lit up with magic, and a similar glow enveloped Curiosity.

“She is alright, should wake up soon,” Gloaming said.

“Drama queen,” Rainbow said.

“To be clear, we don't butcher ponies to sell them abroad,” the queen said, “as Lady Curiosity may think. We grow a lot of tissues for different medicinal purposes, and sell some of them. Some of our neighbours are carnivores, so they gladly buy the meat. We also export some protein-rich products of fermentation. It isn't meat, but griffins, for example, can eat these products instead of meat and remain perfectly healthy.”

“Great, I would like to taste these products too,” I said. “I'm very fond of fermented food, in my country it is very popular.”

Curiosity woke up, and I smiled at her as I continued.

“You know,” I added, “fermented beans, tainted meat, carrion, especially eyes of small animals...”

Curiosity shuddered but didn't faint, contrary to my expectations, only glaring at me. Gloaming rolled her eyes and Rainbow stuck her tongue out.

“I think we can find some fermented food after the meeting,” the queen said. “So how do you want to look for the mistress of the dark river?”

“I or Lady Medley could transport us to her,” Gracia said. “But I think we should first discuss what we know about her and what we can give to her. I also propose we plan our discussion with her ahead of time.”

“I can sum up everything Ladies Gracia and Snowy Clothes told us,” Gloaming said. “When the mistress makes her exchanges with somepony, the other party usually perceive it as a fair deal. I also suspect that she only asks for services that ponies or zebras could complete, not for anything impossible.”

“I would like to add, that some of errands she wants to do for her could be tacit,” Curiosity said. “She may monitor the actions of ponies who speak to her, and take them into consideration.”

“I see,” the queen said. “And regarding the threat of Disaccord, is it possible to ask the Coalition for help?”

“Ma'am, I believe the Coalition would send several mages capable of counteracting his high level magic,” Gracia said. “In exchange, they might ask for some ponies to help in research or even operative missions, to compensate for the lack of manpower.”

“I agree with Lady Gracia, our operative groups could work well with ponies,” I said. “The Coalition could provide the necessary support to hide them from the baseline human population, to make things simpler.”

“I was hoping for something like that,” the queen said. “A solution that benefits both sides. I can also go to Earth myself, if this action would help protect our country.”

Several ponies cried out at once.

“Your Majesty, you can’t!” Gloaming said, rising above the rest. “How would we live without you?”

“Don’t you remember that I serve mostly as an adviser these days?” the queen asked. “We don’t even have any big military conflicts, that would require my participation. Plus, my sister will be with you, and she is as capable as I.”

“In this case, Ma'am, the Coalition could possibly dispatch some very powerful mages,” I said. “Are you really the most capable fighter here?”

“I am.” she said. “Only now are we able to live in peace. Before unification of the state we had many internal and external conflicts, and after unification many of our neighbours considered us a threat, so war continued. I had to excel in the battlefield for the sake of other ponies, giving me centuries of military experience.”

Every pony went silent for a minute after this announcement.

“That explains the proverb about the Royal Sisters,” Curiosity said to me. “One is a company, two is a battalion.”

A military company? In that case I’d need support from Gracia or from some high-level Coalition operative, if I wanted to engage the queen in some sparring. And that heavy metal regalia of hers, maybe it was more functional than a mere symbol of status.

“So that is an option, if we can't negotiate something better with the mistress,” the queen said.

“I hope we won’t need to do anything so drastic, Ma'am,” Gloaming said. “Anyway, what can we give to the mistress? I think it could be a service from ponies, even from the element bearers.”

“Do we need to sacrifice some abilities of anypony?” Medley asked.

“Based on what I know about her Earth counterpart, that may be not necessary,” I said. “Someone may need to give up her abilities in one of two cases, I think. The first is if she requires an immediate exchange. I know our Leja could give something first and ask for a service later.”

“That would be great, if the mistress operates on the same principle,” Curiosity said.

“The second case is to balance new abilities,” I said, “if they give a person too much power. I hope we don’t need any of that, considering how Disaccord disappeared the last time without any retaliation.”

“I believe many ponies would still be glad to lose something, in exchange for increasing the odds of a peaceful solution,” Gloaming said, lowering her ears and looking down at her forehooves. “I also understand that I can’t do that, nor other element bearers.”.

“Yes, Ladies,” the queen said, “you must keep all your abilities, as losing them may compromise your connection to your genius. I propose we contact the mistress after we conclude our meeting here. Do you have any other matters to discuss?”

“Ma'am, I would like to suggest a punishment for the doctor who blackmailed Agrimony,” Gracia said. “I’m sure the Coalition would love to study your medicine, and they would most certainly ask for someone to demonstrate it by treating real injuries on humans.”

“And this doctor will be made to work with other species, even if he doesn’t like them,” the queen said. “I will consider it. Thank you, Lady Gracia.”

“Also, I went to Earth recently and found that I can use pony magic in this form on Earth,” Gracia said. “I only used a couple of simple effects, but I believe the principle holds true.”

“So anypony who travels to Earth will preserve her abilities? That is good news. Would you or Lady Medley help us to contact the mistress?”

“I believe Lady Medley can do that,” Gracia said. “I will support her in case of something unexpected. I would also ask Lady Snowy Clothes for support.”

“What kind of support?” I asked.

“You can strengthen our connection, due to your ability to call spirits,” Gracia said. “You also know Leja, so you can imagine who we are going to meet.”

“So it would be like a normal summoning, but we will be summoned to the spirit, not she to us,” I said. “Let me check the surroundings in this room first, to be sure there are no obstacles for that.”

The queen nodded, so I closed my eyes and concentrated on the spirit world. Then I opened it and looked at the spirit world in this room. There were familiar, semi-transparent ponies, but nothing interesting in the room besides that.

Actually the spirit side of the queen looked strange, like two ponies of different sizes superimposed on each other. I had only seen that kind of spirit side on…

“Ma'am.” My vision returned to the normal world. “I have found no obstacles, but I noticed that you may have some proficiency in spirit magic, even more so than Lady Gloaming.”

The queen didn’t react, but Gracia smiled at my words. So, the sly sorceress actually knew it all along, but decided not to tell anyone. Of course, with her ability to evaluate bodies of ponies around her…

“Do tell me about your findings,” the queen said.

“You have two images that represent you, Ma'am,” I said. “One is similar to your current body, while the other one is smaller. Usually I see these things on changing breeds like me, indicating you have another physical form.”

All ponies except the guard and Gracia, who wasn’t really a pony, gaped at me and at the queen, who remained as calm as before.

“It isn’t some kind of state secret, just not common knowledge,” the queen said, then sighed. “I planned to tell the element bearers soon, and today isn’t a bad time.”

“Can you really change your body?” Curiosity asked, who was the first to brace herself. She even forgot to mention the title.

“I can, and do, out of necessity,” the queen said. “Soon after I integrated the magic of the three pony races, I started to look younger. I understand now that the magic adjusted my body, so I could use it properly. I had no issues with that, until I began to look like this.”

She closed her eyes and her form blurred for a second. The effect faded, and in her place stood a young mare or a grown filly, looking even younger than the element bearers. She was now the shortest pony in the room. This new form of Azure Sky had the same coat colour, but the mane and tail had turned to a flat shade of light fuchsia. Her jewellery had also changed, to accommodate a slightly thinner neck, legs and trunk. The element bearers gaped again, though Medley smiled broadly.

“You look so adorable, Ma'am!” Curiosity cried.

“And that was the problem, Ladies,” she said, wrinkling her snout. “I couldn't be adorable and imposing at the same time. So I decided to change my appearance. I used illusions at first, but that wasn’t convenient at all. I had to look for another method.”

“But how did you do that?” Gloaming asked.

“I found some legends about a species who could change their appearance,” the queen said. “Now I think they could have been the ancestors of doppelgängers. But the only method I could extract was to use willpower, to wish the change to take place. I began to create a detailed model of myself, but larger and older. It took me several years.”

I hadn’t heard about anyone who could willingly become a changing breed, but I also hadn’t heard about a world inhabited by colourful ponies before, either.

“I thought about my new body all the time,” she continued. “Soon I started to see it in my dreams. It took several decades, but eventually it became my second nature. In the meantime I had mastered some illusion effects, and I used special clothing to change my appearance, but it was never enough. Finally after fifty years and fourteen months I noticed one morning that I had succeeded — my new body was real, and I had changed into it without noticing. In the next several days I learned how to change back and forth at will, and so I assumed my new image.”

“There must be other ponies in the court who know about this, Ma'am,” Gloaming said.

“Of course. The key members of the government know, so they would recognise me if I appeared in this form.”

“Have you used this form in combat, Ma'am?” I asked.

“Yes, several times. It helps surprise opponents, but I normally can’t change forms as fast as I would like. Only if I use time compression effects.”

“Maybe I can share my knowledge in this area, Ma'am,” I said. “I was trained to change forms very quickly, even during battle.”

“We can arrange for it, some day,” she said. “I think I will stay in this form for a while. I suspect that my appearance doesn’t matter much for the mistress.”

“Ma'am, did Her Majesty Veiling Glare have the same problem?” Gracia asked.

“She became younger, like me,” Azure Sky said, “but for some reason this process stopped earlier. She ended up looking old enough, so she didn’t create a second form.”

“Ma'am, you are the only known ruler of a state who is also a changing breed.” I paused, thinking how could I politely tell her about possible consequence.

“Are you saying I should prepare for an influx of immigration requests, from the changing breeds on Earth?” she asked, smiling.

“There are many of them, and some may want to settle here. And not only them I think. Many humans may be interested, if they can find a way here.”

“I think we can organize an embassy here soon,” the queen said. “So if a human from the Coalition wants to come here, she may work as an ambassador.”

I nodded. Ponies could also send a delegation to Earth. Some ponies could work as diplomats, some as scientists with the Coalition researchers.

“Ladies, do you have anything more to discuss before we meet the mistress?” the queen asked.

After no-one spoke for some time the queen asked me, Gracia and Medley to proceed. Medley decided that she would open the door to the next room and use it to transport all of us to the mistress. I would make a reverse summoning, to help us come to the mistress, and Gracia would monitor the whole process.

I remembered Leja and imagined her in pony form, then used this image as a beacon for our destination. I nodded to Medley, who closed her eyes and sat motionless for about a minute. After that she stood up and went to the door.

“Everypony, please come here,” she said. “I’m about to open the door to the place we’re looking for. It’s… indoors, some kind of room. I’ll come through last.”

I decided to go second-last, just before Medley, and let everyone pass through the door ahead of me. Before crossing the threshold I noticed it was more of a common room, not the living room I was expecting.

“Lady Medley, are you sure you’ve lead us to the right place?” the queen asked. “This room looks very similar to another meeting room in the town hall.”

“I agree, Your Majesty,” Curiosity said. “I remember this room from my sister’s talent show. This is indeed our town hall, or else a very accurate copy of it.”

“Hey,” Medley cried, “I know you!” In an instant she pounced onto a pony with a light gray curly mane, who had been sitting on a pillow in another part of the hall.

She had a purplish-grey coat. Her mark was some white blob, maybe cotton candy or a cloud. I recognized her, too, I had surely seen her several times in town. She was a pegasi, judging by her build, though I had never seen her flying—

“You're Violet Cloud!” Medley said. “You’ve lived near my house for years. But what are you doing here?”

“I believe you want to meet me,” Violet Cloud said.

I came closer to Violet Cloud. She had a saddlebag with her. I looked under the lid, but the only thing I could see was some small furry things of different colours. And some coloured threads?

“But we wanted the mistress of—” Gloaming said, before Medley thrust her foreleg into Gloaming's mouth.

“She is the mistress!” Medley hissed, loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Should I introduce everypony?” Curiosity asked.

The queen nodded. “Please, Lady Curiosity.”

Curiosity told Violet Cloud who we were, but it seemed a bit pointless, if she was really the mistress.

“Thank you for your decision to meet us,” Curiosity said. “We have several questions to discuss, and we hope you can help us.”

“Please, go ahead.”

“Wait a moment,” Gloaming said, making several steps to Violet Cloud. “How can we be sure you are really the mistress we need?”

“Well, your pink friend, who is having trouble traveling to other worlds, opened a door to another place to find me,” Violet Cloud said, smiling. “I decided to make it easy for you, and came here in advance.”

“Supposing you’re the mistress,” Gloaming said, slightly louder, “is it true you can bring dead ponies back to life?”

“Yes, I can do that,” she said.

“But how?”

“In simple terms, I know where to look for reserve copies of ponies’ minds,” she said. “Creating a new body is relatively easy.”

Gloaming’s eyes dilated, and her ears started twitching.

“So you really are responsible for everypony’s death?” Gloaming cried. “Don’t answer that, you already said so. But why can’t you bring back the dead without an exchange? Or maybe just prolong our lives?”

“You are quite efficient at creating foals,” Violet Cloud said, “and from my point of view, birth isn't so different from resurrection.”

“We have much to think about, and other matters to discuss, so let’s return to the main reason we came to this meeting,” the queen said.

“Your freezing project works fine, by the way,” Violet Cloud said to the queen. “You even have the correct estimation of when you could restore frozen minds in some form or another.”

“No, I can’t let it continue,” Gloaming said. “You have to restore all dead ponies.”

“I can make a deal to restore some dead ones,” Violet Cloud said. “But you can't force me to do anything.”

Rainbow moved closer to Gloaming after these words. The queen went to Gracia and quietly told her something. Gracia only nodded.

“I will see to it,” Gloaming said.

She inclined her forehead to Violet Cloud and a glow appeared before her head. A similar glow, only yellowish, appeared around the hooves of the queen. In the next second something shined in the air before Violet Cloud, and Azure Sky disappeared in a blur.

Several ponies shrieked. The queen stood before Violet Cloud and gazed at Gloaming. Everyone stood still for a second or two, then the queen moved one of her forelegs, revealing a deep cut on her left shoulder. Scarlet blood flowed freely onto the floor.

Return to Innocence

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“Ma'am, you are hurt,” Curiosity said, her voice tight, “we need to...”

“Please wait, Lady Curiosity,” the queen said, as if she hadn't even noticed the injury. “I’m waiting for Lady Gloaming to speak.”

Rainbow came closer and put her forelegs on Gloaming’s back. Gloaming just sat on the floor, staring at the queen. Rainbow sat down next to her, slowly wrapped her forelegs around in a hug, speaking to her quietly. I came a bit closer to hear.

“...fine, Gloaming. The queen’s fine, everypony else is fine too,” Rainbow whispered. “You made a mistake, but Gracia can heal her. I know you don’t really want to cut ponies with magic. It's going to be okay.”

“I’m so sorry, Ma'am,” Gloaming said, “I went too far.”

The queen nodded. “Don’t do that again.”

“I’m...” Gloaming started to say, but her voice stopped in her throat. She cried, silently.

“It’s alright,” Rainbow said, “everypony will be fine, including you. Look, the queen already forgave you.”

Azure Sky nodded to Gracia, and the pool of blood beneath her stopped growing, started shrinking, then disappeared completely. The cut on her shoulder closed itself. Even the blood on her coat disappeared.

“What happened to Rainbow?” Curiosity asked Medley, then turned to me. “I can’t say it’s a bad thing, but it is very unusual.”

“She will tell you herself soon, I think,” I said. “She's not a doppelganger, if that's what you're thinking.”

“Yes, Lady Gracia would have noticed that immediately,” Curiosity said, smiling.

Gloaming wrapped her legs around Rainbow in return, and sobbed into her shoulder. Rainbow stroked Gloaming’s head tenderly, though she caught my eye and nodded once, subtly

Azure Sky sighed and sat down next to Gloaming and Rainbow, hugging them both. Rainbow smiled when she noticed. Gloaming’s response was between a gasp and a laugh, but then she became inconsolable.

“Poor Gloaming,” Curiosity said. “I can only imagine how it would feel to harm the pony you most respect. Even by accident...” She turned to Gracia. “Is the queen all right?”

“It was a very deep cut, even going through bone,” Gracia said. “But it was also very thin, so I just connected the tissues back together. Your doctors could do the same, though it would take more time.”

Curiosity folded her ears and lurched slightly.

“I’m glad you are with us now, Lady Gracia,” she said.

Gracia nodded. “Well, even if Lady Curiosity managed to sever the leg, I’m sure I could have reattached it quickly,” she said, talking more to herself than to Curiosity.

After a few minutes, Gloaming finally stopped crying and just sat quietly next to Rainbow. The queen left her and came back to us.

“Your Majesty, I’m sorry, but will Lady Gloaming be punished?” Curiosity asked.

“She already punished herself enough, when she cut me,” the queen said. “I believe it was the fastest way to make her understand, compared to consultation with a psychologist. Though she will still need to work through her conflicts with somepony.”

“But she may harm you even more, Ma'am,” Curiosity said. “As Lady Gracia told us, Lady Gloaming could have cut off your leg.”

“I hardly think so,” the queen replied. “It was a calculated risk. Lady Gloaming is an inexperienced fighter, so she aimed exactly where she looked. I decided to take the attack myself to prevent this from escalating any further. I know, I could have moved and exposed my regalia, which are designed to absorb these kinds of attacks, but it would be less effective in the long run.”

“So you knew Lady Gloaming didn’t want to kill Lady Violet Cloud?” Medley asked.

“Yes, because she still wanted answers,” the queen said. “Lady Violet Cloud would have gotten similar cut, nothing life threatening.”

“Actually, you shouldn’t have worried about me,” Violet Cloud said, walking closer to our group. “This body is not my sole vessel.”

“Regardless, I would like to apologize for the behaviour of Lady Gloaming,” the queen said.

“Yes, I understand, she has had a rough time recently.” Violet Cloud took a plush toy, which had a striking similarity to Gloaming, from her saddlebag. “But this body for me is like this toy for you. You may have some attachments, but it can be easily replaced.”

Violet Cloud laid the toy down on the table and covered it with a small piece of cloth. Then she took another toy from her bag, this one similar to Rainbow.

“Aren’t those toys from abroad?” Medley asked. “I’ve heard they make toys of the element bearers, because some people think they bring good luck, but I’ve never seen one myself.”

“I just brought them today to illustrate my point,” Violet Cloud said. “You can take them if you like, I don’t need them anymore.”

“Oh, thank you very much.” Medley smiled and immediately took the Rainbow toy. “I’m the fastest pony, vroom, vroom...”

“I can even make you an autograph,” Rainbow said, who came to us with Gloaming behind her.

Gloaming stopped next to Rainbow for a second, then made several steps closer.

“I’m sorry for my attack,” Gloaming said, without raising her gaze from the floor. “It won't happen again.”

Violet Cloud simply nodded.

“And as I said before, I’m not angry at you, Lady Gloaming,” the queen said.

Gloaming nodded as well, saying nothing.

“And before I forgot, thank you, Rainbow.” Medley hugged her. “I mean Lady Rainbow. I couldn't have done any better.”

“I...” Rainbow’s cheeks became sapphire. “I just did what I thought was right.”

“Anyway, we came to you to ask you something, Lady Violet Cloud,” the queen said.

Gloaming sighed. Azure Sky waited several seconds, but no one else wanted to take the initiative.

“We recently discovered that Disaccord, the embodiment of chaos, escaped a long time ago,” the queen said, “even though I, my sister, and the elements of harmony thought we had defeated and contained him.”

“I know,” Violet Cloud said, grinning.

Gloaming opened her mouth, but closed it a second later.

“So we want to ask you, Lady Violet Cloud. Could you help us counter him?” the queen asked. “Maybe we can make a deal, a trade for something useful against him?”

“Sure,” Violet Cloud said. “As you correctly guess, he is only a person, and even if he tries to make a deal with me, many ponies could do the same and he would be outmatched.”

“Thank you.” Curiosity sighed. “I suppose we shouldn’t fear him so much. We understand that you can give us some information in exchange for something else. But can you answer some questions without any deals?”

“I'm sure she can answer a question for free, if it increases the odds of a deal,” Rainbow said.

“Your multicoloured friend is correct, actually,” Violet Cloud said. “I can also answer a question if the answer has little value for you. Usually it happens when a pony can deduce the answer herself. I just save her some time.”

“That is good,” Gloaming said. “Maybe you can tell us how long until the embodiment of chaos decides to visit us?”

Gloaming still didn’t sound very confident, but she could speak normally now, more or less. It seemed like she had moved aside her own problems, in order to concentrate on the well-being of other ponies. Or her inquisitiveness simply outweighed her other concerns.

“He doesn't check his statue often,” Violet Cloud said. “I expect him to do that next in two or three months. In approximately the same time-frame he should know you have found out about him, and he will then wait for some chaotic event, in order to make his appearance.”

Gloaming stood motionless for a short time, gazing at Violet Cloud. “So he would try to convince us that he was in the statue all along? I'm wondering, why? To hide the fact that we couldn't catch him?”

“Yes, he has done similar things in the past,” the queen said. “That was one of the reasons why we couldn't do anything with him for a long time. He was good at misleading us in different areas, including his abilities.”

“This is correct,” Violet Cloud said.

“By the way, have you ever served in the Royal Guard, Lady Violet Cloud?” the queen asked. “I remember somepony similar to you in their ranks.”

“I thought it would be an interesting experience, to train as a guard and to work with them for some time,” Violet Cloud said. “So I did, and it was.”

“That is really interesting,” Gloaming said. “But why go through training? I mean, if you can give abilities to other ponies, you can make yourself capable enough to join Royal Guard.”

“That wouldn't be interesting enough for me,” Violet Cloud said. “I use my abilities on myself from time to time, like today, when I just came here, but I prefer to live the life of a regular pony.”

“But why live here?” Curiosity asked.

Violet Cloud looked to the queen, who nodded.

“I think I may know the answer,” the queen said. “Lady Violet Cloud prefers to see for herself the main events of modern history, and right now the element bearers live here.”

“Yes, it is more interesting to live through the events surrounding you than it is to read about them in history books,” Violet Cloud said, smiling.

“Alright then. Are we all in agreement, as to how to handle Disaccord?” Gloaming asked, looking around.

Most ponies nodded. An agreements with Violet Cloud should work, and the Coalition would also help. So I nodded too.

“Don’t worry about him too much,” Violet Cloud said. “Any value the Coalition see in cooperation with you would be ruined by his meddling. They will respond, if it comes to that. And if one of the Royal Sisters agrees to visit Earth, the Council could arrange for some of their best operatives to visit you, in kind.”

“Thank you, I will consider it,” the queen said. “I know my subjects wouldn't like that, but they should understand.”

“For your information, the Coalition scientists could make a copy of you,” Violet Cloud said. “They don't do that very often with mages, because the procedure can't reliably copy a connection to genius. But your magic depends on your physical body, so this they can copy.”

“That sounds like a good plan,” the queen said, smiling.

“Do you really want to make a copy of yourself,” Rainbow said, and quickly added, “Ma'am?”

“I’ve considered it myself, actually. Unfortunately we don't have the means to copy a conscious mind,” she said. “Another me would be so helpful for diplomacy, but it could also serve as a backup, if anything happened...”

“Yes, and the Coalition could simply make another copy, in that case,” Violet Cloud said after a pause.

“Thank you, I will discuss it with the Coalition representatives,” the queen said. “Both of me could even share experiences with the same method we use to re-educate criminals. Now, let’s talk about Lady Medley.”

“Yes,” Medley said, “I also have a teeny tiny problem. Unfortunately only you, Lady Violet Cloud, could possibly help me.”

“I’m aware of your problem,” Violet Cloud said. “Do you have any idea what may have caused it?”

“Well, I’m not sure,” Medley said. “Disaccord may target me because my abilities can potentially harm him. But in reality I don’t want to harm anypony. And we haven’t found any traces of his magic.”

“Still, that is a valid assumption,” Violet Cloud said.

“But what can I do to travel to other worlds myself?” Medley asked. “I can do something, in return for—”

“You don’t have to,” Violet Cloud said. “You have shown you’re mature enough to travel to another inhabited world. Or I can say you needed this restriction to grow up a bit.”

“You mean I could go to uninhabited ones?” Medley looked wide-eyed at Gracia, who shrugged. “Too bad we never tried that.”

“Maybe it wasn’t bad actually,” Gracia said, “because we would have more theories, and needed more time to test them. And finally we would possibly come to the same conclusion later.”

“Fine,” Medley said. “But what now?”

“Now you can travel to other worlds,” Violet Cloud said, but Medley disappeared in the middle of her sentence.

Curiosity sighed. “What an impatient girl.”

Before we had even changed the subject, Medley appeared again, smiling.

“I just went to Lady Gracia’s mansion! I can travel by myself now!”

While Gracia and the ponies congratulated Medley, I turned to Violet Cloud.

“I have one request,” I said, “but, for obvious reasons, I don’t want to voice it before we can make a deal.

She nodded.

Gracia turned her ears to me, but didn’t say anything and continued to look at Medley.

“Would one service be enough?” I asked.

“Yes, that would suffice,” Violet Cloud said.

“Darling, what are you talking about?” Curiosity turned to me. “A service?”

I ignored Curiosity for a moment and nodded to Violet Cloud.

“Deal,” I said.

She nodded too. I turned to Curiosity.

“I think I was partly responsible for Rainbow's amnesia,” I said. “Yes, it was an accident, but I still feel bad about it.”

“You know our medicine can't restore memories, and asked Lady Violet Cloud,” the queen said.

I nodded. Because she confirmed she has necessary back ups for that.

“But you have to do something for her in return,” Gloaming said, “and you don’t even know what.”

“I’ve made a deal like this before, and I don’t regret it,” I said.

“But I don’t feel any different,” Rainbow said.

“You won’t,” Violet Cloud said. “You will need some cue to remember something you couldn't before. And even if you remember, you may not notice it was something from the period you had forgotten.”

“But why I can’t get all my memories right now?” Rainbow asked. “Or, at least, the most important ones?”

“Lady Rainbow, if you see your life from half a year period during the short amount of time, that wouldn’t do you any good,” the queen said. “I have studied this area, and my sister has, too, so I know that what Lady Violet Cloud did is a much better solution. Over time she will recall these memories naturally, as if she had never lost them.”

Violet Cloud nodded.

“I believe we discussed everything we need for this moment, didn’t we?” the queen asked.

Everyone remained silent, some ponies nodded.

“So, Ladies, if any of you wants something to drink or to have a snack, we can arrange it,” she added.

“Yes,” Medley said, smiling, “the town hall has a kitchen which we can use.”

Curiosity and Rainbow asked for a beverage, I volunteered to help Medley bring everything here. I also wanted to see more of the rooms here.

“Does anyone else want something?” I asked before going through a door to another room.

I waited several seconds and already turned to the door, when I heard Violet Cloud.

“Could you bring me a glass of water?”

“Sure, I will,” I said and went after Medley.

We came to a big kitchen, but there wasn’t much food. I only saw some dried fruits and jars with water—maybe the ponies weren’t planning anything right now. Medley took out some glasses and I filled them with water. Then she put a tray on her back and asked me to put the glasses on the tray.

“Are you sure you won't drop them?” I asked.

“Of course not, silly,” Medley said. “Many land ponies carry things like this, and they become quite proficient with that.”

I nodded and carefully put glasses on the tray. When I went back to the other ponies, Medley followed me. I gave a glass to those who wanted to drink. Everyone had been waiting for us, and hadn’t started any new conversations.

“By the way, Lady Violet Cloud, how old are you?” Gloaming asked.

“Do you really want to know?” Violet Cloud asked in her turn. “This information has very little value for you.”

“Oh… Well, I would still like to know,” Gloaming said.

“Very well,” Violet Cloud said. “Consider me older than dirt.”

“What?” Rainbow said. “Is that a joke?”

“You will understand after some thinking,” Violet Cloud said.

“Another question, how did you get your mark, Lady Violet Cloud?” Medley asked.

“I found a song that represented my abilities quite well,” Violet Cloud said. “Metaphorically, of course.”

“Oh, could you please tell us, Lady Violet Cloud?” Curiosity asked. “Maybe not the whole song, but at least the relevant part.”

Violet Cloud nodded. “I can read names in clouds of ones able to fly.”

“Wait a minute, I know this song,” I said. “I even performed it several times. How do you know songs from Earth?”

“I know many things about other worlds,” she said. “After I got this cloud mark, I chose my current name.”

“You don’t say,” Medley said.

“But why this song?” I remembered more of the lyrics now. “It is about social problems. While we still have a lot of problems on Earth, I can hardly say the same about ponies.”

“You are correct. Still, other sapient inhabitants of this world have similar problems.”

Right, I had forgotten that. Griffins lived here, and some other species too...

“How can we find you in the future, if somepony wants to make a deal with you?” Gloaming asked.

“Well, I believe Medley knows where I live,” Violet Cloud said.

“Hm, I hadn’t thought of that,” Gloaming mumbled.

Gloaming appeared thoughtful and remained silent. I looked at others and noticed Curiosity’s gaze. She slightly nodded and came closer to me.

“I’m still concerned about you,” she said.

“Why?”

“It is about the deal you have made with Lady Violet Cloud. We have our theories, but we really don’t know her. She could ask you to do anything, it could be dangerous.”

“I made a deal like this before, and it was beneficial to me,” I said, “and the service wasn’t too difficult.”

“And the curing of amnesia doesn’t change much in your lives,” Violet Cloud said, coming closer. “So you have already fulfilled your part of the deal.”

“How?” And when?

“A glass of water,” she said, then drank some more.

“But why do you follow rules like these?” Curiosity asked.

“I like to see when ponies do something in exchange for my services,” Violet Cloud said. “It’s more entertaining than to just grant wishes for free.”

“I can assume you aren’t actually a pony, especially after your words about replaceable bodies,” Gloaming said. “No pony has abilities like yours.”

“You are right and you are wrong,” Violet Cloud said. “My current body is a genuine pony body. But this body isn’t the whole me.”

“So you created your current body to live among ponies, Lady Violet Cloud?” the queen asked.

“That is correct.”

“Is that the only reason?” Gloaming asked.

“It would be less convenient to live as another race here,” Violet Cloud said.

“Well, how do we know you’re telling the truth?” Gloaming asked.

“If I’m not mistaken, you should be taught how to do that,” Violet Cloud said. “I can only say that I don’t like lying, and I usually just omit something in a conversation.”

Gloaming opened her mouth to say something but Curiosity was faster.

“Lady Violet Cloud is correct. Please consider what we know about her and her reasons. The idea that she doesn’t speak the truth is supported by very few pieces of evidence.”

Just then I realized one of the main reasons why ponies lived better than people on Earth. The queen had told me about improving education here. The ponies around me had shown great respect for reason and evidence, and they always seem to take new information into account and correct their own errors and biases.

“Excuse me, Ma'am, was education one of the first things you decided to improve?” I asked.

“Yes, it was,” she said. “I wanted ponies to have as good a conception of the world as our science can provide. I also saw how a poor education could make citizens obedient, and decided to do otherwise, to allow ponies to think for themselves.”

“So schools teach ponies not only about world, but...”

“...also about using their minds as a tool,” Azure Sky said, finishing for me.

“I’m wondering now, if maybe the Coalition could ask to send some people to study teaching here,” I smiled, “or request that some teachers be sent to Earth. Even if they only teach about decision making.”

“I think it could be arranged,” the queen said.

I Bet You They Won't Play This Song on the Radio

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“Well, maybe these creatures aren't ponies at all,” thought Snowy Clothes, better known on Earth as Yui Tanaka.

She put aside her phone with her collection of horror stories. “There are tales that grandfather told me — that a distant world can change you into something inhuman, to adapt to the environment when you appear there. And when you return to Earth, you will change back and you don't notice the change. You will also remember things were perfectly normal, that this world was even inhabited by humans. But your memories were changed with your body.

“It would be fun if ponies were actually beings like Nyarlathotep or Shoggoth, but I was changed to see them as equines, just because I like horses.” Yui yawned and looked at the clock. “Oh, time to sleep.

“I always wondered why there are so many worlds, all inhabited by humans,” she thought, drifting into sleep. “Too many humans...”

Yui smiled and suddenly sung in her slumber. “My little Nyarly, my little Nyarly...”

I'm Gonna Be

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Yui proved with the help of Gracia her theory that ponies subconsciously use their spirit sides to arrange magical molecules into ordered structures. She did it just before her return to Earth.

She also became a sort of celebrity, as she would tell any of her fellow tengu who would listen about her discovery of the new world. She wasn’t the first to make such a discovery, but it didn’t happen very often. Many of her kin decided to meet with her to learn more about this alien land. Yui hadn't given out many specifics, but a few details here and there were enough to spark curiosity.

Of course, she had to write a detailed report to the Coalition, but that was a necessary precaution to prevent information leaks and possible misuse. She got a verbose response, mainly about what she could tell others and what she should keep secret. And her kin were very good at keeping secrets.

Her parents gave her the magical journal Medley had sent them, and with it she wrote letters to them. Of course, the Coalition staff had their own device, and they exchanged some useful information for the mutual benefit. Yui only wrote about personal stuff to the ponies she knew well, especially Rainbow and Gloaming. Yui hoped that, after comparing Earth languages and the pony language, the Coalition linguists could arrange a more exact translation of ponies' names someday.

Rainbow soon wrote that she finally spoke to Shimmering about her issues. Shimmering said she had suspected something like this, watching Rainbow’s behaviour. Rainbow also progressed to the next level of force magic while she was in the spirit world. Now she could fly anywhere, even in a vacuum.

Curiosity asked about things like clothing, furniture, and designs of buildings, so Yui sent her several books aimed for children, which had a lot of pictures and not many words. Curiosity could understand most of it without translation, and then could use a handheld device to translate the difficult parts.

A week ago, Gracia told Yui that Medley had made great progress in her studies. Soon, Medley would come to Earth to meet her first friend from another world. Yui also wanted to meet the pink pony in person once more. Maybe she could even bring other ponies, for example Rainbow or Curiosity.

Bright Eyes perfected her ability to grab random things from other worlds, though she still had difficulties using Invisible Magic to travel. Possibly her talents were in other areas.

Gloaming was very enthusiastic about meeting the first delegation from the Coalition. So enthusiastic that the humans soon learned to avoid her. Fortunately not everyone, though, so Gloaming still got her share of information about Earth. Yui hoped that Gloaming would be the first pony to get a computer with encyclopedias and other books, once the linguists finished the translator.

The humans were very interested in pony magic, and experimented with transferring magical organelles into Earth life forms with some success. Ponies had already done this with some animals and plants, so the Coalition scientists aimed to transfer the organelles to humans. Most plants, and even some animals, could not use magic, so the humans were more promising subjects for experimentation. The nature of organelles and magical atoms were still debated, though most human and pony scientists agreed that the atoms were simple automata, or maybe even a form of life, and that the magic effects appeared due to the design of the atoms, either intrinsically or due to emergent properties.

Also, several humans began participating in educational programs to get a first hand impression of how the pony education system worked.