Dear Faithful Student

by Muramasa

First published

Celestia has been alive for thousands upon thousands of years, and as a result, has had more than one student who have studied under her. When her long dead students appear in modern day Equestria in their youth, Twilight must discover why.

Twilight Sparkle and Sunset Shimmer are the only two living ponies in the world that can lay claim to one of Equestria's most prestigious titles: the protege of Princess Celestia, ruler of the land of Equestria and perhaps one of the most powerful magic users to ever walk the face of the planet.

However, they are not the first: since Equestria's medieval ages, Celestia has always held a pupil under her tutelage. Some of these pupils went on to do great things, while others fell prey to their own ambition and power, but even though those students have been dead for years, Celestia still remembers every name that came before.

Her reminiscing becomes more than memories, however, when her very first pupil shows up on the castle steps. One by one, Celestia's former students begin to appear in the prime of their youth, their minds seemingly leaving off right after their deaths. It's up to Twilight Sparkle and Sunset Shimmer to find out why these ponies have risen from the dead, and what they're being drawn to...


Rated T for sexual references, profanity and violence.

Featured on 4/14! Thanks everyone!

BOOK ONE

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CHAPTER ONE

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CHAPTER ONE:
KINGDOM COME


Canterlot was my home.

Sure, I'd come to love Ponyville. I met my five best friends there, and learned so much about friendship and the power it has. I can still smell the Saturday Morning Market in the center of town, and the distinct aroma of every food, drink, pet, and handcrafted amenities blending together seamlessly in the heat. I can feel the grass beneath my hooves, every step sinking ever so slightly into the earth, and most vividly of all, I can see the sunset swallowing the farmland in a rural scene that has to be seen to be appreciated.

I loved Ponyville, but it wasn't my home.

It wasn't the cobbled streets I'd run up and down on when I'd chase my brother in a game of tag. It wasn't the towering buildings that I always felt safer under when I was a filly or the tsunami of ponies that would swallow me whole in the city's beating heart. I was born in Canterlot, I was raised in Canterlot, and whenever the universe finally tires of me, I'll probably be buried there, too.

It was nice to be back, and it was even nicer to be back with a pony who I know felt the very same way.

Sunset Shimmer had spent a very long time in the human world, but sometime last week, she'd decided she was ready to return. There was no fanfare for her arrival: no trumpets coursing through the great hall and no velvet carpet laid out across the floor. She arrived through the mirror today, and that was that. Celestia had long forgiven her for her crimes, though that didn't stop the both of them from tearing up.

"Twilight, can you pass the salt?" came a disembodied voice. My eyes jumped upward and my neck jolted to the left to see Sunset, a warm smile gracing her face from end to end. The actual sunset was just beginning to make its downward descent behind her, the light refracting off the window for its last precious moments.

"Uhh, yeah, sure. Sorry," I said, quickly using my magic to float the salt over to her. Sunset took it with ease, but not with a chuckle escaping her as she began to gently move the shaker across her hay fries.

"Spacing out there, Twi?" she asked, turning back to me. I sighed, feeling a slight grin escape the left side of my face as I replied.

"Yeah, just thinking about everything. I'm really glad to be back, and it's kinda surreal to see you here with us, you know? I'm really happy you're here." Celestia, sitting across from the two of us at the dining table, swallowed the food she was chewing before she nodded curtly.

"I am over the moon that you two are here. I thought I'd never see my faithful student again, and now to think I have two of my pupils here in front of me... " Now it appeared to be Celestia's turn to space out, and I watched her eyes get lost in the world around her. Celestia had a lot more to think about than me or Sunset, so I quickly spoke to snap her out of her hypnosis.

"So Sunset," I began, turning to face her. "I'm glad you're back, but if I may ask, what made you think it was time?" It was an obvious question, but it was one that, surprisingly, Sunset had yet to answer. She'd only just gotten here, of course, but I was curious to know, and by the way Celestia's eyes quickly snapped from their daze and were locked on to Sunset, I could tell that she was equally interested.

"This gonna sound really weird, but... I just kinda felt it. Like I had these weird feelings in my chest, and I suddenly didn't feel comfortable in the human world. I don't know if it was like, urgent or anything, but I just really felt like I needed to be back here. Does that makes sense?" I began to nod, and I saw Celestia mimicking me in the corner of my eye. She looked like she had something to say first, so I leaned back in my chair and let her say her peace.

"I think so," she began. "Home is where the heart is. You can be used to some place, and have lived there for quite some time, but you never really outgrow where you came from. I'm sure your heart was just pulling you here because you've been homesick since you turned a new leaf." I turned to Sunset to gauge her reaction, and though I could see just a hint of confusion still lingering in her eyes, she slowly began to bob her head as she looked out one of the massive windowpanes that surrounded us.

"Yeah, I... guess that's it," she said, hurriedly changing the subject. "Regardless, it feels so good to be back. Thank you so much for the dinner, Celestia, and for letting me have my own room back. I... didn't know you never touched it."

I found the hesitance in Sunset's voice rather strange, so I made a mental note of it and reminded myself to ask about it as soon as I was able; she wasn't entirely alone in her feelings. Regardless, I didn't come back to Canterlot to worry, so I took another bite of my hay fries before glancing up to see out the window wall facing towards me.

The sun was over halfway below the vine wall that made the border of the royal gardens of Canterlot, a slivering crescent the only part revealed. The sky was still lit a brilliant orange, however, giving the dining room that pleasant warm glow I remembered from my years studying under the Princess directly. It was beautiful, and at that moment, an idea materialized in my head.

"Do you guys want to take a walk in the gardens?" I asked, looking over at Sunset specifically. "I'm sure they aren't the same since you've been gone, and they really are beautiful. Luna's going to put the moon up soon, so we should go while we have the chance!" Celestia was smiling before I'd even finished the last sentence, and though Sunset began to open her mouth, Celestia didn't let a word escape it.

"I think that's a great idea, Twilight," she said. "Hang on, let me take off all my regalia really quick and then we'll head out." Celestia rose from her chair, the screeching noise from its movement extra audible on the tile floor, and exited the room, walking slowly but unable to conceal her excitement with an ever-so-slight spring in her step.

"Man, it's great to be back, huh? I know I've said it a billion times, but still," Sunset said, turning to me after she watched Celestia's last leg disappear behind the doorframe. I smiled back at her and nodded, leaning a little further back into my chair.

"Yeah, it really is... so, uh, about what you said earlier. About wanting to come here. There's something I need to tell you." Sunset turned towards me and cocked her head to the side in confusion, her eyes eyelids drawing in ever-so-slightly.

"What is it?" she asked. I looked up at her, and while I didn't know exactly what expression I had on my face, I knew I probably looked somewhat like Sunset did only moments ago.

"I feel the same way," I began. "It's... weird, isn't it? And like you said, it wasn't urgent or anything, and I suppose I really didn't have anything particularly important going on at the time, but I don't know. When Celestia told me you were coming, I definitely wanted to come see you, of course, so I jumped at the chance. I may just be paranoid, but I felt like there was something else, and with you saying all of this, I have this uneasy feeling... do you get what I'm saying?" I realized I was looking down at the table when I started to talk, so I looked back up at Sunset, who was already nodding her head.

"I don't know, Twilight," she told me, looking back at me with a suddenly stern countenance. It didn't last very long, however, because she immediately let out a frustrated sigh and looked at the ceiling. "You know, it really is probably nothing. We've both missed this place, and it probably just so happened that we wanted to visit at the same time. I'm sure it's nothing, yeah." Sunset beamed at me before taking her hoof and giving me a light shove. Her grin was infectious, and I couldn't help but match it.

"Hey," she said. "Let's just have fun, okay? I've always loved the gardens, you know. Whenever I was pissed at Celestia, I'd always run out there and pace around for hours. I wonder how it's changed."

"I think you'll still find it familiar," came a voice from behind us. I turned with a jump, and Celestia, sans any of her regalia, stood waiting in the doorway. Her mane seemed to flow much easier without the crown, and without the rest of her royal decor, her posture wasn't nearly so tight like she usually carried herself. She must not have heard us talking, as she currently wore one of the largest smiles I'd ever seen from her.

Or maybe she did hear, and she just wanted nothing to be wrong for once.

"Are we ready? We'll get to see it right while the sun is coming down, I'll make sure of it," she said, her hoofs moving ever so slightly in excitement. Sunset and I looked at each other, and I was certain we could see the twinkle in each other's eyes; this was something I knew we both needed.

"I think so," Sunset replied.


Every time I visit the gardens, I convince myself that they're never going to be as spectacular as they were the last time I visited them.

Every time, I'm wrong.

To call the gardens a maze would be technically incorrect, but it really did seem that way. To either side of anypony going through the gardens was a wall of green, somehow looking brighter than any plant or leaf I'd ever seen in my life. I've asked numerous times whether they were enhanced with magic: once to get the answer, and many more times because I simply didn't believe it. Across the green wall were sparse instances of exotic flowers from places all across the globe, from Saddle Arabia to Griffonia. The Royal Gardens were open once a year to the public, and everypony was allowed to take them home whenever they visited. Thus, the gardens typically remained new and fresh, and brilliant yellow flower speckled with blue I was currently looking at seemed as if it'd just bloomed yesterday.

Every few feet was a sculpture crafted every twenty years by an artist hoof-chosen by Celestia (and now Luna once again). It was a huge honor, and its results were quite incredible: sculptures dating as far back as ancient times graced the gardens, and their most recent addition was from a sculpture just two years ago, commemorating Luna's return to Equestria. We'd stopped to look at one that was crafted by a sculptor named Iron Shaper whose sculpture depicted Equestria's industrial revolution at about the time it happened, the piece a towering mix of gears and parts that, when assembled, created Celestia's cutie mark.

"Wow," whispered Sunset, admiring the gleaming metal creation. "Can you imagine? The world changing before your eyes?"

"I certainly couldn't," began Celestia from behind us. She was observing the sculpture as well, but there was a reminiscing glint in her eyes that neither Sunset nor I would likely ever understand.

"Really?" I asked her. "I'd think you'd seen plenty of crazy things by then." Celestia looked down from the sculpture back to us before shaking her head.

"As you know, the industrial revolution didn't come from the court. Our scientists and engineers certainly contributed, but it really came from the root of the citizens. This world is still dominated by the use of ponies' natural magic, to be certain, but back in those times, it was all anypony had. Once ponies began to create these contraptions and machines, I really had no idea what to do." She moved between us and approached the sculpture from another area, looking directly at its side.

"I was very hesitant to the changes," she began. "What was lifetimes to the ponies of Equestria were merely blinks of an eye to me. It was happening so fast... production had changed forever, medicine was advancing and our world was bathed in coal. There were a few members of our court that warmed me to the process, though," she turned to us, probably seeing both our eyes locked upon her intently.

"Wow," I said, mimicking Sunset's exclamation moments earlier. "I've asked you about a lot of Equestrian history, but never anything about its industrialization. We should have a talk about that sometime." Celestia chuckled a little bit, and I couldn't help but smile back at her: I knew I'd said that very same phrase about a thousand different topics.

"We will, Twilight. I promise. Sunset, do you remember this part over here? One time we were walking through and--" her voice immediately became washed out in a sea of steps, and we all turned around to see four guards come to a screeching halt. Celestia had explained to her personal guard, dubbed the Sunspears, that we were going for a walk in the gardens and to only interrupt us if there was an emergency, which meant that whatever they were about to say must have been important.

"Princess, there's an intruder in the castle! She just walked into the throne room, but we have her surrounded. She is not being hostile, but we've been unable to aprehend her. She's a unicorn, and she's countered all of our binding spells." Celestia's worried expression immediately flipped to a stone cold glare as she addressed the group.

"Have you notified my sister? And what has this mare said?" The guard, clearly nervous and not expecting anything out of the sort to occur on such a quiet evening, stammered the words out immediately.

"We have, Princess, and she's coming down now, though I am certain we'll get there first. The mare has refused to speak, though the one thing she said was that you knew her." Princess Celestia has already begun walking, and Sunset and I hurridly quickened our pace to meet her. The gardens which had seemed so beautiful and serene only moments ago, now felt uncomfortably claustrophobic, as I didn't want to be in any sort of maze when something appeared to be seriously wrong.

"There's one more thing, Princess," said the guard, his armor awkwardly clanking as Celestia's steps began to hasten slightly faster. "Her voice... it was strange. A bit like Princess Luna's, but a little different." With those words, Celestia's face gently twisted in confusion, and her voice was tinged with curiosity as we rounded a corner of the garden.

"Well, Luna's accent is still Canterlotian from when she was banished a thousand years ago," she mentioned. "But that doesn't make any sense..."

Sunset tapped me on the shoulder as we rounded another corner and began to make our way to the back of the palace where we entered the gardens. She had a worried look plastered all over her face, though she was engaged in her best effort to hide it.

"What do you think this is? Sounds like it actually might be serious," she said. It was tough to concentrate on anything but walking with the pace Celestia and her guards were moving, but I managed to get a side glance at Sunset before I answered her.

"I have no idea," I began, "But a binding spell isn't easy to counter, and especially one coming from the Sunspears. The version they cast is made specifically for apprehending magical beings, so whoever this is, they aren't just a mare from the street." The words did nothing to assure Sunset, who's mouth twisted slightly in frustration as she turned her head to the side.

"I just wanted everything to be normal today," she muttered as we passed through the doorframe and the cold palace air assaulted us all at once. I couldn't help but laugh at that, as ever since I became a Princess, I began to miss those days in Golden Oaks where I could kick back and read a book more than anything in the world. Sunset let out a chuckle as well at my reaction, though I had a feeling hers was more to alleviate some stress she had built up since the guards came to meet us.

We were getting close to the throne room now. I could feel the maroon velvet carpet suddenly take its place under my hooves, and the hallways I had often wondered when I was a student were all too familiar. The royal palace was a relic in itself that first began its construction shortly before Luna had been banished, and with the passing ages had only become more modernized and beautiful. It hadn't changed all too much since I first saw it as a filly, save for some of the art pieces and updated tapestries, but it managed to dazzle me every time I visited.

"Here we go," I heard Sunset mutter beside me. I snapped out of my trace and looked ahead, and sure enough, we were here: the throne room of the palace. It was where Celestia sat and watched her kingdom and where Nightmare Moon floated gently above the ground and declared the night would last forever. It was where history, for generation upon generation, had been forged.

I sincerely hoped whoever was waiting in the throne room would not add to its pages.

When we emerged through the ornate doorframe, the scene became apparent rather quickly. The Sunspears, with the stained glass light glistening perfectly off their golden armor, had something surrounded in the dead middle of the throne room. Luna had not made it here yet, as she had to come all the way down from the top of the palace. I crept up on my hooves in an attempt to get a closer look, but it was all in vain, as I couldn't quite make out the figure they were surrounding. A quick brush on my back gave me the indication that Sunset was attempting to do the same, but Celestia made sure we wouldn't have to wait for long.

"CLEAR!" shouted Celestia, her voice booming with intensity. The Sunspears looked back at her nervously, but with a direct order from Celestia they scurried to the side.

The mystery mare in question, who had been finally revealed, had to be perhaps one of, if not the most beautiful mare I had ever seen. Her fur was dark black, but not quite dark enough to be unpleasant. Her mane and tail was a mix of purple and blue like Rarity's mane, but whereas Rarity's mane was more blue than purple, hers was far more purple than blue, and it was an electric purple that seemed to almost shine. Her manestyle was very similar to Fluttershy's, in which she wore the large majority of it on one side and wrapped the back of it around, but hers was pushed to her right instead, resting gently on her horn. Her eyes were perhaps the deepest blue I'd ever seen, perfectly muted yet shimmering in her gaze.

Her cutie mark, however, was the most important feature, as it beared a symbol I instantly recognized. Much like Starlight and myself, she had a star with a smaller white star behind it as the central theme of her mark, indicating that her talents lie in magic. Hers, as was every magic user who earned the mark, was slightly different than ours, however: her star was eight-pointed, and where I had more stars and Starlight had a ribbon, her star was accompanied by what appeared to be a bolt of magical energy piercing through its center.

"Celestia, I'd be careful," I said, turning to her. "She is clearly skilled in--"

When I saw her face, I stopped dead.

Her jaw was agape, looking as if it could fall to the floor at any moment. Her head was tilted back ever-so-slightly in a defensive position, but the biggest tell that something was wrong was in her eyes. Her pupils had constricted to resemble pinpricks, and her eyes were opened uncomfortably wide.

I had seen Celestia scared plenty of times, but this was something entirely different. She wasn't just horrified, she was downright shocked.

"Princess," said the mare. Her voice was gentle and soothing, but I could immediately understand what the guard said earlier. It was slightly reminiscent of Luna's accent, but the similarities were very small and it was unlike anything I'd ever heard before. I looked over to Celestia to see that she had taken a step back.

"You sound just like her," muttered Celestia in a half-whisper. I glanced over to Sunset, who, at the sight of a trembling Celestia, stepped out in front of her.

"Celestia, who is this? Why are you so afraid?" she asked. There was an edge to her voice, but even that couldn't mask the fact that Sunset was getting more and more frightened every time she looked at Celestia's face. Celestia appeared to be trying to form an answer, but the reply came from the mystery mare.

"I am called Violet," she said simply. "I am Celestia's apprentice... former apprentice, in truth."

CHAPTER TWO

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CHAPTER TWO:
ÆREST


"Again."

How I loathed the word.

Moving was a chore beyond my means. Every inch of my being throbbed with a twinge that pierced me to my bones, and the dust rising from the ground and coursing through my lungs did naught to ease my suffering. The blazing heat would be soon over, I knew, but before I could escape this insufferable field, I needed to complete the task at hand.

Another bolt of magic coursed from the Princess, with a haste just slow enough that I could track it.

With all of my might, I channeled the deepest depths of my magic. I could feel my body violently rebel, begging I lie where I stand and sleep for eternity, but I simply could not allow such a thing: I would succeed. Seconds slowed to centuries as I could envision the bolt in front of me, and while I still held it within my sight, I expelled my energy headstrong to the projectile. With a terrible, beautiful impact, our magic collided, and the sheer force of my counter strike cleaved the bolt in twain.

Yes! I thought, internally relieved with jubilation. The bolt was one of eight I had conquered in a row, and with such precision, it was likely Celestia would finally acknowledge my mastery--

"Again."

I know not what my countenance was when I gazed up from the dust, but I could imagine the shock of my visage.

Suddenly, I felt an overwhelming pain course through my side, and I wailed to the sky as I fell to the earth. I made an attempt to recover with a start, but forsooth, my body would not allow it: I fell to the ground again before I finally pulled myself from the dust. When I looked to Celestia once more, her piercing gaze had intensified tenfold.

"Thou art unprepared even still?" she questioned, motioning to the wound she'd just inflicted. I tried all I could to hide my gritted teeth, but I even I knew 'twas not of any use.

"Have I not mastered this craft?" I asked. I could feel my voice rise beyond my power as I spoke. "Eight bolts thou hath fired and eight I hath cast away. I beseech thee, Celestia--"

"Mastered? If truly thou knew the spell as thou say, thou wouldst have countered that bolt as thy did the others," she interrupted. "And here thy stand with a gash in thy side. There is still work to be done. Again." I merely shook my head in denial at those words, and I could feel the wound smarting with every movement of my body.

"I shall not partake again. I refuse," I stated, looking back up to my mentor, whose stone face had yet to change. "I have done all thou hath required of me. We must still practice transfiguration and the night draws closer." I was in hopes my words would be enough to sway her, but the Princess appeared unmoved.

"We will continue until thou hast become proficient. Thou art not yet proficient, Violet. Again." I took a step forward now, facing down my mentor with a gaze of iron, but Celestia refused to yield as always, matching my glare with a calm ease.

"By what standards is proficient? Ten times? Twentyfold? How much longer must I pay penance?" That had done it: Celestia's lips began to curl into the glimpse of a sneer, and as she replied her voice rose furiously calm like the eye of a raging storm.

"By the standards of a Princess," she spat, leaning forward ever slightly. "Until it is naught but an afterthought in thy mind."

By the standards of a Princess.

Time and time again, Celestia had often compared me to her late sister. Whenever I would fail a charm or spell, she often commented on Luna's precision in the spell, rather than mine own. If I did not succeed at a drill, I was never told to keep going or that I had even done well in my shortcomings, but instead that it did not meet the benchmark her sister had so conveniently provided. Here, as in countless days past, I could not escape her sister's ghost.

I'd rather have heard "Again" a thousandfold over than that.

"I am not a Princess," I began. I found myself walking to the Celestia now like a sort of automation, but it troubled me not. I thought I saw a hint of worry begin to wash over her face, but at the moment, my adrenaline had surely muddled my thoughts.

"I am not immortal. I am not a replacement. I am not thy sister. I am not Luna," Celestia seemed uneasy now, and her gaze turned from my body to the top of my head. She took a step back, her eyes wide with shock and horror, and she stared back into my eyes with a plea.

"Violet," she said, almost in a whisper. I did not heed her words as I continued my creeping charge.

"I am not Luna," I said again, my voice louder with every step. I know not whether it was her or myself I was attempting to convince, but I continued nonetheless. The world around me twisted and turned, with only the Princess of the Sun clear in my vision; I began to feel faint, but I staved the weakness off as I advanced.

"Violet, thou must listen to me," said Celestia, her voice instilled with the confidence of a fleeing fox. She did not move any longer, however, and planted her hoofs firmly in the dust below her. It took but a few moments for me to reach her, and I pressed my snout to hers as I stared her in the eyes.

"I. AM. NOT. LUNA!"

I cannot remember how I spoke it. Conviction, anger, desperation: it could have been one, or two, or all of them. I can recollect, however, that as soon as I completed my outburst, I felt a charge release from my horn. It was powerful, to be certain, and with my head so close to the Princess, I had immediately feared for the worst when the bolt set to fly.

Suddenly, I felt the energy course through Celestia as well, and her own magic discharged mere moments after my own. I closed my eyes shut, awaiting an impact that would surely be the last of me.

It was an impact that would not come.

The dust took quite some time to settle, and I could feel it infiltrating my senses. I attempted to open my eyes, but I quickly learned of my mistake, and I backed away from Celestia as I began a fit of coughing. When the dust fell back to the earth, I was greeted with the sight of the Princess entirely unmoved, and while I expected a visage of anger and rage, I instead found worry and fear washed upon her face.

"Careful with thine emotions, Violet, they are connected to thy magic. Art thou in good health?" she asked, a soft inflection coursing through her voice. I should have liked to laugh at that, had my lungs allowed me; after the Tartarus she had put me through, she had the gall to be concerned. Once I finished my hacking I looked back to her, panting heavily from the rapid turn of events.

"Good health," I replied, slowly gaining back the air that had been stripped from my lungs. "I am in good health, yes. Perchance thy might have asked such a thing earlier when a bolt collided with my side." I knew not how much bite my words held, but Celestia no longer seemed interested in butting heads: she merely turned her gaze to the ground in surrender as she answered my words.

"Violet, I am sorry," she began. "But thou must remember to control thine emotions. Thy magic is directly connected--" I held a hoof to my face, indicating her words merely passed through me, and upon this gesture, Celestia halted her speech and began to listen intently.

"Prithee, spare me," I began. I knew now for sure that my words carried venom. "Day after day as we train, I assure myself that it will one day be different, that anon thou would realize I have no desire to replace thy sister." I turned at those words, as I felt I had not much else to say at the moment, and I began to walk back to the city's center. 'Twas a long walk, to be certain, but my mind needed clearing and time among the bustling streets of Canterlot would surely do it well.

"I shall be here again at daybreak on the morrow," I spoke, though I found my voice to be softer this time. I knew I would not stay angered at Celestia for long, but I would not back down from my feelings now. As I began to walk back to the city, I heard Celestia speak from behind.

"Would thou like to watch the sun fall? Thou hast yet to miss it."

I stopped my pace at those words. 'Twas true: I adored watching her put to rest the sun and raise the moon to the night sky, and I stood beside her every night to watch the event, trying and failing to count the stars that hung so gently in the void. Throughout our bickering, it always seemed as if it were the one thing that, at day's end, we could unite upon and put our quarrels to rest.

Not tonight.

"Leave it hanging in the sky," I replied, continuing my steps. "Mayhap then I shall be free of thy sister's shadow."


With every visit to Canterlot's hectic core, I always found myself thinking of home.

I was born in a very small hamlet called Hourton. There was nothing inherently special about it, other than its distinction of being located just south of the Crystal Mountains and Rainbow Falls. With its towering rock formations and close proximity to the mountains, mining was the main trade for the ponies of Hourton, and it is what my mother and father tirelessly devoted their life to in order to take care of me. When I came of age, they always said, I'd take up the pickaxe and join the ranks myself.

They never saw the day.

When Celestia swept me away from Hourton and declared me her new protégé, I knew not what to expect from the outside world as, quite understandably, I had never seen it. Equestria as I knew it had been the humid air and the desolate desert of my home, and thus when I first saw Canterlot I thought myself to be within what could only be described as a storybook.

News did not reach Hourton quick, as we were located in an isolated plain right on the edge of a neighboring kingdom we hardly interacted with, but I had heard whispers of Equestria's capital as I grew older in the village. None of it, however, prepared me for the sight when I first set hoof upon its expanse.

I remember stopping to look at every marketplace stall, as merchants from lands I'd never heard of sold wares I'd never seen. I remembered the fortified walls and the soldiers that stood atop them, their armor gleaming gold and their watchful eyes gleaming brighter still. I remembered the castle, how despite only just built only years ago seemed to tower over the rest of the city, watching over it much as Celestia watched over her subjects.

I remember feeling safe in a place I had only just arrived.

As I pranced through its charming streets now, I still felt safe in Canterlot. To be certain, pickpockets and conniving thieves ran abundant in Equestria's capital, but for an odd reason, this never deterred me. When I peered at the stark white walls and the castle looming over the city, I never felt a moment of danger, and that included this one. The sun was falling in the sky--Celestia had indeed commanded it to begin its slow march to oblivion--and soon the moon would rise.

Luna was up there, somewhere.

I began to round another corner in the city's maze when I felt a hoof brush against my side. It had been some time since a cutpurse had attempted to rummage through my bag, as the last pony to try such a thing did not leave unscathed, but I always remained prepared nonetheless. Violently I turned, igniting my horn as I did so to confront the thief.

"I give thee one choice--"

I was greeted instead with a pair of striking green eyes. The stallion's fur, mane and tail were a dark, rooted brown, and as soon as he grinned from ear to ear upon meeting my gaze I knew instantly the identity of the would be "thief".

"Slate, thou musn't keep startling me!" I exclaimed, my magic fading and a beam beginning to form. "Fortnights from now I may mistake thee for a cutpurse." Slate merely stepped backward and mockingly bowed, gazing into my eyes as he did so.

"M'lady, would a cutpurse look so striking?" I was never one for excessive laughter, though Slate was a master at his craft: I found the chuckling emerge from me beyond my means. After smugly reveling in his camaraderie as my laughter died down, he retracted from his bow and trotted over to me, planting a buss upon my forehead as he always did upon our greeting.

"I trust thy lesson with Celestia went well?" he inquired, looking back to me. I could not help but look away, and I could feel his gaze shift as he peered upon my reaction.

"I am afraid not," I began. "I traveled hither to free my mind. We quarreled, and I let my temper slip from me. I... I feel guilt for what I hath said." Slate nodded as I spoke.

"Did she compare thee to her sister anew?" he asked, his brow furrowing. I gave to him a gentle smile in return, informing him 'twas not quite the case.

"Not directly, no," I replied. "We were in training for a new counterspell, and I was struck in the side unwary. She remarked she held me to the standards of a Princess, and... I know not what came over me." Slate began to walk to the edge of the pathway, leading us astray from the crowd of pedestrians passing quickly by us before he replied.

"Violet, thou hast every right to be angered at her constant comparisons," he began. "But she holds thee to a high standard due to thou being of a high standard." I merely nodded at those words, though I could feel a red flush washing over me: no matter how many times Slate showered me with praise, I never took it without embarrassment.

"I know," I replied. "I just tire of it, Slate. I know how much she misses her sister, more than anything in this world, and I know I was not chosen to merely fill a void... I cannot help but feel this way occasionally. Am I a fool to think so?" Slate chuckled a bit at my words before gently resting a hoof upon my shoulder.

"No, Violet," he assured. "I understand. I believe if thou are to calmly assert this to Celestia, mayhap thee can repair thy differences." Slate looked up to the sky, which had noticeably dimmed during our conversation, and turned back to me with a devious twinkle in his eyes.

"I fear I must be off, as the stonemasons are to meet soon, but after thou hast spoken to the Princess--really spoken to her--" he began, "perhaps we can steal away to the barns once more? There may yet still be time for fun as the witching hour approaches." He delivered the last line with a suave only Slate could ever manage, and I found myself rolling my eyes as I looked back to him.

"I fear I cannot tonight, Slate," I began, playfully shoving him. "By the time Celestia and I are finished in our words, I fear it may be morning on the morrow at such a rate." Regardless, I began to eye him with the same flirtatious nature he exhibited towards me.

"However, were thou to wait by the barns tomorrow at midday, there is quite the chance I will show." I quickly ran up to him and placed a quick peck upon his lips before steadily beginning to withdraw to the castle.

"I love thee, Slate. Please be safe." Before I turned, Slate nodded gently and looked back at me with that beaming, precious smile I had come to know all too well over the past years.

"Of course, m'lady," he replied. "I love thee also, and to thine as well."

I do not remember much of Slate fading away into the mass of the crowd, nor the long walk back to the castle itself and all of its twisting and turning. When I walked through those castle doors, climbing the seemingly endless staircases and turning corner upon corner in the castle's vast expanse, there was one place I always went to at night, and it was a place that I knew Celestia would waiting for me.


My mother gave birth to me outdoors in the dead of night, my father watching over her with his mining axe ready to defend her against any would-be bandits. My mother always liked to tell me that from the moment I arrived in Equestria, I was watching Luna's stars. It appeared to stick with me all my life, and whenever I found myself perturbed or vexed I always looked to the night to ease my nerves. Now, I was heading to the castle balcony, which would give me the greatest view of the heavens Equestria could offer.

'Twas a tinge of irony in this event, I supposed, how often I looked to the mare I despised.

When I walked out to the balcony and peered just beyond the doorframe, Celestia was indeed waiting. She had her back to the door, peering out at the stars as she knew I often did.

I said naught at first. Instead, I merely approached her from the side and sat next to her. I looked up to her, but she seemingly ignored me, opting instead to gaze at the night. I followed suit, beginning to count every star I saw hang above me, and it wasn't until the numbers slowly began to blur that I spoke to my mentor.

"I swore upon thee once I would count all the stars in the sky. Doth thou remember it?" I asked her. She nodded slowly, seemingly attempting to do the same herself as her head gently floated from dot to dot.

"Thoust told me that I could do whatever I thought of. And so there I would sit, on the grass, in the carriage, on this balcony, and I would count. I still do, to this very day, But not once have I ever counted them all. I am in doubt I ever will." I turned to her now, who I found to be looking at me as well. There was a somber air about her gaze, but as always, she kept her composure, staring steadfast as I forced the words out I had been looking to say all along.

"I apologize, Celestia," I said. "For so long I have grown to detest a mare I will never meet, and I have not been considerate of thy feelings for Luna. I am sure she was a wonderful mare, and my outbursts of violence are inconsiderate and dangerous. I swear to thee it will not happen again."

The moon looked as beautiful as ever tonight. I was not yet born when Luna was banished, as it had occurred seven years prior, so I had often wondered what ponies around Equestria thought as they looked to the moon.

"How often dost thou think of her?" I asked her. Despite being her apprentice for nigh on two years, I hadn't ever yet asked the question, likely due to my growing hatred of the mare I'd never met.

Celestia did not speak for quite some time, but after a heavy sigh, she began to formulate her somber reply. I could have sworn her gaze turned slightly to the moon as she spoke.

"Every day, Violet," she began. "Every hour, every minute, every second. 'Twas the only thing racing through me on that carriage ride to Hourton. 'Tis the only thing racing through me now." Celestia turned to me now, a grave expression flooding through her countenance.

"I had heard tales of thy magic from here, Violet. A young mare from Hourton whose bursts and bolts could shake the mountains." She chuckled only fleetingly before she continued. "But then I saw thee, studying thy mother and father work the mines. I saw how thou watched the stars, and I saw the twinkle in thine eyes as I showed thee only mere party tricks." Celestia sighed for what had to be the thousandth time that night, and I could detect only the faintest hint of tears begin to materialize in her eyes. As she gazed at the moon once more, I wondered if she was looking for a spec or a dot that would tell her her sister was safe and sound.

"There was naught thou couldst do that did not remind me of Luna. There is naught thou can do, even still. Luna was a firebrand, to be certain, but her thirst for knowledge and her care for those of lesser birth and fortune were unrivaled, just as thine exhibited. That purple in thy fur, Violet, those deep blue eyes... 'Twas if she were by my side once again.

"Luna loved everything, Violet, and then one day she only loved most things. I... I apologize as well, from the bottom of my heart. I knew not how much I had compared thee to Luna, and I swear on her name that I do not love thee because of thy similarities. I love thee, Violet, because of the mare that thine are, and I have failed thee greatly in showing this."

I moved closer to her and, as carefully as I could, wrapped my arms around her. I felt the soft and gentle touch of her wings return the embrace, and together we stayed there and thought of the stars for what seemed to be an eternity. Once we finally unraveled, Celestia looked at me with a smile I will admit I had missed since our quarrel.

"How show we train on the morrow, my little pony? Transfiguration? Illusion?" I looked to the side for a brief second, considering my options, before I turned back to her with what I knew had been a glint in my eyes.

"The counterspell," I replied. "Again."

CHAPTER THREE

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CHAPTER THREE:
FIREWORK


I didn't know a whole ton about Violet.

My younger self had, of course, once asked Celestia about her former apprentices. It was never something she liked to talk about, but she always gave a few names, and there was one that had truly stuck in my mind.

Violet.

Celestia was never very talkative about the matter. She always said that after Luna was banished, she decided she needed to teach other ponies the power of friendship in the hopeful event that they could fill the void that Luna had left. The only thing I knew was that I was the only apprentice to complete this task (Cadence was a pegasus and never studied magic under Celestia) and that the first apprentice Celestia ever had went by the name of Violet.

That was always about it. I didn't even know who Sunset Shimmer was before she stole my crown, because there came a point in my studies where I stopped asking the question. I never ran into any of Sunset's former belongings (or at least knowingly) and I never read any books that mentioned former apprentices. It just wasn't something she was wont to discuss, and so I really didn't push it. I didn't know what Violet looked like, who she was, where she was born, what happened during her time, or how she died.

And yet, here she was. Or so she claimed to be.

Celestia slowly drifted towards her, her steps shakey yet firm, and stopped just in front of her. She stared for a few seconds, although to Sunset and I, it seemed like an eternity. Violet didn't say anything, but she locked eyes with Celestia, and the two stared and stared until Celestia's horn began to glow.

I looked to Sunset immediately, who nodded with a stern expression. We both knew what this was: an identification spell that can tell a magic user if the pony or being she casts it on is really the person they claim to be. It isn't as useful as it seemed, however, as it was a fairly advanced spell that would only work if you had a strong bond with the person you were casting it on. Thankfully, in this case, Celestia did know Violet, and a wave of her light gold aura began to slowly wash down the unicorn.

"You know it to be I," Violet whispered, with a voice just loud enough to hear. The conviction in her words was so fierce that I already knew the reading Celestia received far before the spell had ended, and the sliver of a gasp from Celestia's lips only confirmed my suspicions.

Once the last of the magic died out, the throne room could have been a painting. Everypony stood still as a stone, waiting for the reaction from the Princess of the Sun, and after what seemed like yet another eternity, they embraced with a resounding thud.

The guards looked at each other, clearly baffled by the sudden turn of events, and, as was their protocol, they turned to the next highest authority figure in the room which, unfortunately, happened to be me. With all eyes burning into my skull, I quickly identified the captain of the guard and spoke to him directly.

"You all are, uhh, dismissed. I think we're good here, but I'll let you know if that changes?" My laughably unconvincing demeanor made them even more confused, but thankfully, Celestia stepped in for me.

"You're dismissed, yes," she said with an emotional chuckle, breaking away from her hug with tears gently flowing from her eyes. Violet looked to be the same boat, and Celestia began to speak with a bit more clarity as the guards began to slowly file out of the room.

"Violet, I never... what are you doing here? This is unbelievable, I remember... " I had a feeling I knew the words that would come next, but thankfully, Violet did as well, and the beaming grin she'd had during the embrace with her former mentor slowly melted away.

"My perishing? Yes, I too recall it well," she began. "'Tis an event I feel only occurred moments ago, it seems. But I came to my senses outside of the city, in the prime of mine own youth no less, and I journeyed here. I had no clue what had become of thee, and so I only hoped thou still held reign o'er the land." Violet leaned slightly to the side to look directly at me, and her eyes began to widen. It took a second, but I finally understood why she was so shocked, and so I awkwardly raised a hoof and waved at the new arrival.

"Oh, you must be confused by the wings! I'm Princess Twilight. I was Celestia's most recent protege." Those words seemed to fill her with an understanding, and she quickly turned to Celestia with an excited whisper.

"She hath created magic?" she asked. Celestia nodded slowly, but I had to raise an eyebrow at those words: for a pony that should be close to one thousand years old, Violet appeared to know a lot, along with numerous things Celestia had never told me until I'd actually happened upon them. I turned to Sunset, who had a similar expression of disbelief on her face.

"You died a millennium ago. You shouldn't be here," she said. Sunset had always been straight to the point in the time I had come to know her, though I admit it was certainly a detail of note. Violet's stern visage she had worn during her introduction returned, and she nodded firmly. Celestia looked back down at her at Sunset's declaration, and there was still a look of disbelief on her face. Equestria's ruler was confused but clearly jubilant, and upon recognizing this, Sunset's glare softened just a bit.

"...but we can figure that out later. I'm Sunset Shimmer. I was also an apprentice of--"

Before she could finish her sentence, we heard some steps behind us, and the faint ghost of a voice that became more and more prominent as the hoofsteps got closer.

"--already resolved? Well, I shall talk to 'Tia at any rate. This seemed like quite the scare."

Luna.

I looked back to Violet, who was now leaning her head towards the doorway to see who was about to enter. Celestia's reaction was far more telling, however, as an immediate mix or worry and horror quickly flooded across her face. With that I understood: Violet knew very well who Nightmare Moon was, and I had a very bad feeling the upcoming meeting would be a major problem.

When the Princess of the Night emerged, she quickly scanned the room, gazing first at Sunset and I before looking over to Celestia and Violet, the latter of which was clearly processing something she simply didn't understand. The color had drained from face entirely, and her bewildered expression began to slowly change to a grimace with every second she stared at Luna.

Luna turned to her sister, who had already stepped in front of Violet in what appeared to be an attempt to diffuse a situation that had yet to even occur.

"Celestia, who is this?" Luna asked, glancing towards the figure that was now obscured by her sister's body. She leaned to the side a bit, likely giving her a full view of Violet's increasingly aggressive demeanor.

"You... " whispered Violet, just loud enough to hear.

Violet appeared to be thinking at the speed of light, processing Luna's arrival with a rapid intensity. It didn't take long for a well of emotions to flood across her face at the sight of Celestia's sister, and a snarl began to slowly creep across her visage. She took a step forward, and Celestia strafed to meet her.

I looked to Sunset, who was already making her way to the scene. I followed her as quickly as I could, and while Sunset attended to Celestia and Violet, I trotted carefully over to an increasingly bewildered Luna.

"Violet, please, there is so much you don't know!" Celestia pleaded, though Sunset and I knew her words fell on empty ears. Violet advanced forward even still, and Luna turned to me as I approached her. Her confused look was gone, and a stern expression quickly asserted itself on her countenance as she addressed me.

"Twilight, what is the meaning of this? Who is this mare?" She asked me. I looked back over to Celestia and Sunset, but I could tell their hold over the returned apprentice was quickly slipping as every second gave way to a better glimpse of her.

"THAT is Celestia's first apprentice and YOU should probably leave," I asserted. I attempted to push her backward, but I merely struggled in vain: Luna stood steadfast, though the color in her face had drained entirely to match Violet's as she gazed upon the mare whose identity was no longer a mystery.

"What?" Luna whispered. She took a slight step back, the clacking of her hoof louder than her words, and her face became flooded with a mix of emotions attempting to comprehend the situation. It was at that moment, however, that Violet broke through Celestia and Sunset's barricade, marching straight to the Lunar Princess.

"Dost thou know how much pain you hath brought to her? To me?" She asked, her words becoming louder and grittier with each passing syllable.

Her horn ignited like a match across cardboard, raw energy bursting from its seems. To call it organized chaos may have been giving it too much credit, as sparks of magic flew from the core of her horn with every passing second. In the simplest of terms, it looked like a black market firework ready to explode at any second.

It was at that point I realized that, without a quick intervention, an unfortunate misunderstanding could become an unraveling. Violet had to have been a deadly cocktail of confused, lost, afraid and angry, and I had a feeling that she could put out some sizeable damage if the situation wasn't defused.

Luna had turned her head at Violet's confrontation, though as the time passed and Violet seemed far from cooling down, the Princess of the Night finally spoke.

"I do," she said simply. "And I will forever live with it. But you need to calm down." Luna's inflection had that soft and hypnotic flair she was always so good with, but her words did nothing to calm the angered Violet. There was a sudden burst from her horn that, while not extraordinarily dangerous, was enough to make Sunset and I jump back a step. Celestia and Luna didn't move a step, however, and Luna's resilience seemed to only make Violet more and more irate.

"Calm down," Violet muttered. "I will not be calm, and especially not by the likes of a nightmare such as thee. How dare thy walk in this castle after thy crimes!" Violet took a step closer, and I knew then that it was enough.

I did the only thing I could think of at the moment. I took a deep breath and, mustering absolutely all the magical energy I could gather, shouted as loud as I could across the throne room.

"VIOLET!"

The ability to amplify noise was a unique one amongst unicorns. Technically, a unicorn's voice could be amplified as loud and long as they wanted so long as they had the energy to do it: because of this, it was often used to scare others or say things in brief, as the louder and longer one wanted to amplify their voice, the more energy it drained at an exponentially quick rate.

I, however, only needed a word, and I was significantly more powerful than most unicorns.

As I hadn't really ever used the spell except for training before I became an alicorn, I entirely forgot this, and the results were nigh catastrophic.

The first thing I heard immediately after the wrathful wave of sound was a shatter of what I assumed to be the pottery and decor surrounding the throne room. It was hundreds of years old, so I could feel my heart palpitate at the very thought of destroying multiple items so valuable, but one quick glance around me reminded myself that pottery wasn't the only thing in the room.

Sunset and Violet were on their knees, clenching their ears with their free hooves. Celestia and Luna, standing proudly a moment before, had reeled back from their respective positions: Luna was clenching her head, while Celestia seemed to be in the middle of an attempt to blink away the sudden shockwave of confusion from her skull.

It seemed as if eternities were passing by before everypony came to, and the only thing I could do was watch helplessly. Sunset was the first to completely recover, slowly rising to her knees and, with a glare that'd murder us all if looks could kill, she spoke directly to me.

"Could you run that by me again, Twi?" she asked, her voice dripping with a scathing facetiousness. "I didn't quite catch that."

My blush was probably visible from space, and when Violet looked up to me with a blistering ire and anger that had come to define her in the five minutes I had known her I knew I had to speak fast.

"Sorry," I said sheepishly, addressing Sunset with an embarrassed grin. She gave a half smile that seemed to indicate she approved the method of getting Violet's attention whilst being simultaneously furious with the execution, so I turned to Celestia's seething former apprentice with my next declaration.

"Violet, I know you have to be scared, and angry, confused, and a whole bunch of other stuff," I began. "I know I would be too if I were in your situation: if it were me, it'd probably be worse. But I'm going to need you to calm down, and I promise we're going to explain everything later to you. We're going to figure out what happened."

Violet, her head still ringing from my spell, took a scan of the throne room again. She was greeted by a sea of uneasy eyes, akin to a group of hyenas surrounding a lion. Violet's longest gaze came to me, and I gave her the most reassuring smile I could muster: I'd dealt with hotheads before, but none that had been displaced from their own time.

After what seemed like a lifetime, Violet gave a deep, resounding sigh. She immediately fell to the floor where she stood, panting and sweating as the magical exhaustion she had built up hit her like a train.

"I apologize," she said meekly. "I... I must lie down."

I felt a pulse of calm shoot through my muscles as I turned to Sunset, who had taken a few steps back from the scene.

"Sunset, can she stay in your room? Until we figure things out? I think it would be good for her to have a roommate." Without hesitation, Sunset nodded, walking to over to where Violet had collapsed. Sunset began to speak to her as she helped lift her from the tile, and while I couldn't make out all of it, it seemed as if Sunset was asking Violet if she was okay after using up such a large portion of her magic pool. Satisfied, I turned to Celestia, who already had a knowing grin upon her face.

"You have a plan," she sang. I couldn't help but return her beam, as it never ceased to amaze me how well my former mentor could read me.

"I do, but Spike isn't here, so I'll need you to take a letter." Celestia's eyebrows rose to the ceiling with those words, her grin twisting slyly.

"That's a bit below my pay grade," she quipped teasingly. With a flash of her horn, a roll of parchment and a fine quill appeared in front of her, gently bobbing in the air.

"To whom?" She asked, the quill turned to the parchment and ready to write. I looked behind me to watch Sunset take Violet towards the stairs, and answered her question without turning back.

"I don't know a whole lot about time travel and time displacement," I began, now turning to face Celestia again.

"But I know a mare who does."


"So run it by me again. The whole thing, one more time."

Starlight Glimmer had studied time travel and all of its intricacies for months after my friends and I had bested her. While I cannot say my experience of her knowledge first hand was remotely pleasant, she had since become my pupil and, most importantly, one of my closest friends. Now, she sat in one of the many castle bedrooms among Violet, Sunset, and I, with her best friend Trixie Lulamoon seated in a chair beside her.

Violet was propped up against the far wall with pillows, lounging on the bed. She looked up to the ceiling as she began to give us what I assumed would be the final retelling of her story before Starlight came to a conclusion.

"I was dying," she began bluntly. "I rested on a bed not too different from this one, I surmise. Celestia was beside me, comforting me, talking to me... and there came a point where I closed my eyes and faded." She nodded her head down to Starlight, who was studying her with a fierce intensity.

"The very next thing I can recall was my awakening in a field not too far from Canterlot. I felt... young. Empowered. I figured I had reached heaven, truthfully." Violet chuckled to herself before continuing. "Until I saw Canterlot in the distance. I started for it, and the rest you witnessed for yourselves."

Starlight took a minute, staring at Violet all the while. Violet appeared a tad uncomfortable when Starlight finally spoke to her again.

"There was no in-between when it comes to your memories?" she asked. "You died, and then you woke up outside of the city?" Violet nodded in the affirmative immediately.

"There is no gap. 'Tis immediate from one recollection to the next." Starlight sighed heavily, and I could feel my eyebrows raising.

"Well?" I asked her. She turned to me with a countenance of pure confusion, the likes of which I don't think I had ever seen on Starlight.

"I'm stumped, Twi," she said. "And here's what's really tripping me up. I think this is absolutely, one hundred percent the real Violet. She's not a fragment, or an apparition, or a copy: this is the absolute real her, and Celestia's spell all but confirms that." Before I could ask where she was going with her thoughts, Sunset interjected: she appeared to be thinking right alongside my former pupil.

"That would indicate that she was ripped from her own time and brought here," Sunset began. "But that simultaneously can't be true, because--"

"--she died," Starlight finished. "Violet isn't missing from any point in the past, she's just here. But because she's dead, it's almost as if she's been revived from death in an entirely different time period. The problem with that is--" This time it was Violet herself that butted into the conversation.

"I am in the prime of my youth," she explained. "I was not when I perished." A light bulb seemed to go off above Starlight's head at those words, and she turned back to Violet.

"How old were you when you died, by the way? Sixty? Seventy?" she asked. Violet recoiled in surprise, her eyes wide and her mouth slightly agape as she shook her head in the negative.

"Forty-eight years of age," she replied. "Do... do ponies live until seventy years of age in these times?"

That certainly got the room silent. As the blanket of uncomfortableness slowly draped itself across the room, with most of use modern day ponies electing to stare at the bright pink wallpaper rather than Violet, it was I who decided to finally break the tension.

"We've come quite a long way, Violet," I began. Deciding that explaining how long ponies lived wasn't the best culture shock to give her right now, I looked to Starlight, who was currently engaged in a staring contest with the ground. When she felt my gaze she jumped with a start and turned to face me.

"I'm sorry, Twi," she said to me. "There's no way to really confirm my suspicions I can think of. I can't really help unless I know what type of displacement this is."

I could immediately see the dejection flow across Violet's face. I was about talk faster than I was thinking in an effort to comfort her, but to my surprise, it was Trixie Lulamoon that spoke next.

"So what we are confused about is whether Violet was ripped from her own time, or revived and placed in her youth via some crazy magic?" she asked. Everypony looked around the room before beginning to nod slowly, confirming Trixie's understandings. With a devilish grin only Trixie could ever manage, she hopped out of her seat with vigor and dramatically turned to the room.

"Come on, my little ponies! Trixie is taking the class on a field trip!" Sunset's face coiled in confusion, and with a tilt of her head, she spoke for the rest of us.

"A field trip? Where?" she asked. Trixie, clearly anticipating the question, turned to Violet.

"Do you know where you're buried?" she asked her. Although my eyes initially widened in shock at the morbid question, an understanding quickly dawned on me: one look around the room showed that everypony else (except for Violet, though that was to be expected) began to catch on as well. The room's eyes switched to Celestia's first apprentice, and she immediately turned red as a tomato as she glanced down to the bed.

"I know not for certain, of course," she began. "But I requested I be laid to rest in my hometown, a hamlet called Hourton. It may cease to exist in these times, for all I know."

Having received the answer, everypony slowly began to rise from their seats: Starlight, however, stayed put, and she spoke out before I could ask her what was bothering her.

"I'm sorry," she began, a bewildered twinkle in her eyes. "Did you say... Hourton?"

CHAPTER FOUR

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CHAPTER FOUR:
CLANG


One night, Starlight Glimmer dreamed of utopia.

It haunted her mind to the point of obsession. She'd go to sleep with memories of her childhood and the cutie marks that were burned in her conscious. She'd awaken having tasted a world where ponies were not defined by fate or bound by destiny.

One morning, Starlight Glimmer grew sick of dreams. She yearned for reality.

Finding a place for her bastion of equality would prove to be difficult. Because of her unorthodox plan to rid ponies of their cutie marks, the town could not be too close to any other village or city, lest the local authorities of any jurisdiction get involved--at the same time, however, it could not be too far away, as she needed to be able to sustain her village even if it meant traveling to a nearby locale.

She searched through the Macintosh Hills, the Galloping Gorge, and Neighagra Falls, but just south of the Crystal Mountains and northwest of Manehatten, she found what she was looking for.

"It was rocky and dusty, but not unbearably so," Starlight explained. She had been telling us her story during the carriage ride to her former village, the occasional bump and jolt doing nothing to break the pace of her tale. She looked out the window now, taking a peek at the Equestrian grassland slowly turning to barren dirt.

"It was everything I needed, but there was just one problem," she said. Sunset, who I knew had never gotten the specifics of Starlight's villainy, finished her thoughts.

"There was already something there," she replied. Starlight nodded her head in the affirmative, though I detected a somber air around her when she began to speak next. I had a distinct feeling that we were getting into the darker pieces of Starlight's past, but she seemed to be lifting a weight off her chest as she spoke to us.

"A little hamlet called Hourton," she began, chuckling as she recalled the name. "You know I was originally gonna call the place 'Utopia'? I knew it was dumb, but I couldn't think of anything else until I heard a local elder call the place by name." Starlight looked to the ceiling of the luxury carriage, a reminiscent smirk building faster on her face as she spoke.

"Hourton would be Our Town. A place where the stigma, pressure and role of a cutie mark would be a relic of an inferior age. It was meant to be." Before she could finish, Violet, her eyebrows raised in suspicious confusion, butted into the story with a question.

"Pardon me," she began, "How did thou convince the townspeople of Hourton to abandon it?"

With those words, Starlight's face immediately flipped to a grimace. I had never heard this story myself, but I knew well from her visage that whatever she was about to say wouldn't be pretty.

"I couldn't have anypony finding out about this town. Aside from a trusted messenger to get supplies when absolutely needed, Our Town had to be isolated. At the same time, I wasn't entirely sure my cutie mark spell was going to work, and I needed a few test subjects. So... I didn't convince them to leave at first, Violet--"

"You forced them to stay," I finished curtly. It was the first time I had spoken in a while, and so the carriage's eyes locked on to me immediately. I could feel my face soften as I said my next words.

"Starlight, you don't have to talk about this if you don't want to." She adamantly shook her head with a countenance of conviction, however.

"No, this is important. Violet deserves to know what happened to her home," she began. "And... I really should have told you all of this before, Twilight. I'm just not proud of it." With another heavy sigh, Starlight began her tale again, only this time softly gazing to Violet as she continued.

"I tested my spell, and it worked better than I could have ever imagined. I had erased their cutie marks, and with it, their destiny had been shattered. I remember trying to go to bed that night, but pure adrenaline had kept me awake." She looked up to the ceiling of the carriage now, tapping her hooves idly.

"I... I used those ponies as an advertisement, if you will," she began. Her voice broke up ever so slightly, but she quickly recomposed herself as she continued. "They turned Our Town into an urban legend of sorts. The lost ponies of Hourton would find themselves in bars, telling the tale of how they lost their life's meaning. Many told them there was no way it was possible and didn't think of it further--"

"But some ponies did," Sunset interjected. Starlight nodded grimly, turning back to me with a worn and knowing glance.

"You know the rest. I did the same damn routine every time," she began. "We welcomed our visitors, I showed them to the cutie mark vault. Believe it or not, quite a few ponies were willing: pour souls who thought they were missing something in their lives or wanted to change something. But if they didn't--like you all--I did it anyway, and I made them stay." She turned back to Violet, who had a countenance of intense thought as she listened to Starlight's tale. Starlight gently rested a hoof on her shoulder as she finished up her story.

"Violet, the weight of what I did in this place haunts me every day, even still. I had a chance to make up for it a while ago, but, uh, it didn't work out so well." Starlight looked to Trixie with a sly smile, and Trixie began a faint chuckle as the two briefly reminisced about their previous visit to Starlight's village.

"I'm sorry, Violet," she began quickly. "For what I did to your village. And I hope you can forgive me and I entirely understand if you do not, but I do have something I want to tell you." Everypony's ears perked up at that, and Starlight began to shake her head as she continued.

"I never saw a graveyard or cemetery anywhere in that village. And I was very thorough because I wanted to destroy any last semblance of Hourton." Violet had already begun shaking her head in the middle of Starlight's sentence, and she looked out the window as she spoke next.

"Our ancestors were not buried in the village," she began. "'Twas better to have them near the sky than in the dirt, closer to the world after death." Everypony glanced to violet with a confused look, but a memory of Starlight and I came flooding back to me as I finished her answer.

"It isn't a graveyard, it's a tomb," I began. "And it's in the mountain pass."


To Steel Sentinel, the silence was not golden.

He'd just finished his guard route around the outside of the Crystal Palace. There wasn't much to it: the underneath section of the palace, lavishly adorned with a snowflake at the center of the floor, looked the same as it always did, but with four entrances on each side of the castle's underbelly, it was a guard's job to ensure that no thieves, bandits or otherwise unsavory ponies don't find their way inside. There never was, of course, and if any would-be assassin did make it through this time around they'd be sorely disappointed: Shining Armor and Princess Cadance were out of town, and so the castle's guards and servants were sanctioned to protect an empty nest.

Today should have been like any other day in the down week. He'd been patrolling the grounds under the palace for close to two hours, but his shift had established itself as offputting right from the get-go: where there was almost always a guard to greet him for a change of shift when he arrived at the palace, he found the grounds unsettlingly barren upon arrival. While he chalked it up to one of the guards leaving their shift early, it still left him disturbed for the remainder of his time at the castle's base.

That was going to end, however, as it was now time to enter the castle itself in order to begin making rounds near the throne room. Steel looked around the empty underbelly one final time before he opened one of the corner doors and began his ascent.

Everything is fine, Steel thought to himself as he began to clamber the steps that led to the castle's main floor. Nothing ever happens here. I'm sure the other ponies just are doing work as usual.

Upon reaching the last step, Steel Sentinel rose to meet the ground floor of the palace, the crystalline walls and glimmering marble floor bursting across the landscape as bright as ever, the bad feeling he'd held in his gut was immediately vindicated upon a simple scan of the room.

There wasn't a soul in sight.

Steel stood there for a moment. The guards absolutely should have been there: there was always close to fifteen patrolling the first floor of the palace alone, so to hear and see nothing upon arriving up the stairs was a red flag waving fiercely in the wind. Looking around one more time in an effort of surreal verification before calling out to the void.

"Hello?" he shouted. The only response was his own words echoing across the palace, the silence in the room now deafening as it faded away.

"This some kind of prank?" he shouted again. A few seconds passed as the echo returned to him, confirming his hopeful suspicion was incorrect. Gripping his spear considerably tighter, Steel began a slow but alert walk down the hall immediately in front of him, the gentle clack of his own hooves reverberating across the palace.

In no time, Steel found himself in the throne room, the two chairs meant for Cadance and Shining Armor empty and barren: what disturbed Steel more was that the room was barren as well. Even if the guards had miraculously disappeared, the servants still tended to the castle while the Royals were gone, and many of them would exclusively touch up the throne room to have it spotless before the monarchs returned from their political business. While the servants' absence added even more to the unsettling vibe of the castle, what Steel believed more disturbing was the fact that the room was spotless: the floors were shining brighter than they ever had been and the ornate stained glass seemed to glow with an eerie perfection.

"What in Celestia's name... " muttered Steel as he looked around the room once more. Although a sense of approaching dread began to crawl down his spine, he laid the castle blueprint out in his mind and tried his hardest to think of the best place to go in a situation like this. After a moment of mulling it over, a lightbulb went off in his head as he began to move before he could fully process his thoughts.

The guard bunks, he thought as he could feel his pace quickening. There were always guards sleeping to prepare for their night shifts, and unless they all collectively disappeared with the rest of the planet they'd be resting ever still. Steel had worked the night shift himself two years ago, so the path to the bunks has been long engraved in his mind.

Turning another corner, Steel quickly exhaled when he realized he'd been holding his breath: it was right as he did this, however, that he tripped over a large object that crashed into his hoof with a clang. Coughing wildly as he stumbled, he stopped for a moment to reposition himself before advancing forward. He took two steps before he stopped dead in his tracks, the sudden realization of what had just occurred hitting him like a freight train.

Clang.

Turning around slowly, Steel laid his eyes on what he fully expected to see: a guard with black fur and a white mane and tail slumped across the ground haphazardly, his spear resting a few feet away. Steel called out loudly, but his internal radar that had been violently going off all day knew well enough that his efforts were in vain.

"Hello?" he called, his voice a mere shell of the power he'd intended. His words fell flat, the figure hunched upon the ground still as a stone. Cautiously, Steel walked towards him, and when he reached the prone body, he turned it over to his side to observe the guard's face.

The guard's fur showed an immense amount of struggle, with pieces of it mottled and frayed if it wasn't entirely gone, but it took everything in Steel's power not to scream when his gaze drifted to the guard's eyes. There was quite literally nothing there: where the sclera, pupil and iris should have been was merely a black void, not a reflection or hint of existence to be seen. It was so dark that Steel brought his hoof to the eye just to be sure there was anything there, and the cold and dead film that met his hoof was more than enough confirmation.

Staring a second longer at the horror that lie beneath him, Steel quickly stood up from his crouched position and began to rapidly pace back and forth, doing everything within his power not to hyperventilate.

"No, no, no, no, no, no, no... " he began, forcing himself to stop and take deep breaths. While he hadn't expected to step into a scenario that made any horror movie or novel pale in comparison, he was trained for it, and so he closed his eyes and quickly began to move in the direction of the guard bunks, gripping his spear tighter than he ever had before.

There is something here, he thought to himself as he rounded another corner. I need to get to the guard bunks if it has not already. Everything is going to be fine. Everything is going to be fine. Everything is going to be fine.

Steel quickly reached a large, crystalline dining hall that signified his destination was close. The next hall, Steel knew, was the path to the guard bunks, and with an exasperated breath, he prepared himself for the worst. Sure enough, he was immediately greeted with the sight of two bodies strewn about on the floor beneath him as he approached the hallway, both within about five or six feet away from each other. The farthest one was turned away like the last guard, but the closest to him was unfortunately not: it was a mare, her fur an arctic white and her mane and tail matching, whose nightmarish voided eyes were on full display like the previous victim he saw. Unlike the previous victim, however, her mouth was wide open in what appeared to be an attempted scream, the vain effort fossilized upon her visage.

With a panic-stricken slowness, Steel looked up to the doorframe of the guard bunks, knowing well he'd have a full few of the center of the room. Only a quick glimpse revealed a prone figure lying on one of the beds, giving him all the information he needed to know. He gripped his spear tighter, quelling the shake he began to develop across his body.

I need to leave this place. Tell the townsfolk they aren't safe and write to the monarchs as fast as I can, though Steel. He whipped around and took a step forward only to screech to a grinding halt as the dining room came into view.

There was a pony a few feet away standing eerily still: Steel hadn't heard any movement behind him at all, but this was certainly no illusion. The upper half of its face was obscured by a black cloak, its mouth barely visible through the shadow. It didn't take long to identify its features, though: the pony was a unicorn, as its horn poked through the top of its hood, and it appeared to be male based on its stock and build. He had a pleasant, arctic white coat, and his mane and tail appeared to be a muted shade of amber. He wasn't using a spell at the moment, but he also wasn't moving a muscle, so Steel quickly brought his spear back to his side. After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, Steel broke his silence.

"Hello?" he asked. His echo bounced around the room as it had all day, but Steel now truly wished it was his only company. After a few moments, the pony replied.

"Hello." The voice was oddly normal, a tiny bit higher than average: the cadence could have belonged to any stallion in Equestria. "You are Steel Sentinel, yes? I was wondering where you were. I triple checked the list." Steel could feel his eyes widen at that remark, but he did all he could to keep his composure: tilting his spear forward and crouching in a battle position, he began to bark at the stallion with an added ferocity.

"Don't move. Flip your hood up and get on the ground. Now." Steel had no idea how menacing he sounded, but nonetheless, the stallion complied, if only partially. He slowly drew back his hood, revealing the face he'd been hiding.

His face was extremely well defined, and he was a clearly handsome stallion, but it wasn't his face that drew Steel's gaze. His sclera was a bright and sickly green, both simultaneously blinding and lifeless. The irises were bright red while the pupils were colored of blood, seemingly flowing and pulsing like a vein. From his eyes seeped a dark purple mist, flowing constantly with no sign of stopping.

Steel had seen the very same eyes in the mad King Sombra, and it took much more than a spear to fell him.

"It took me some time to find you," the stallion said, seemingly ignoring Steel's commands. "But you're here now. I take it you've noticed the fate of your compatriots?" The calmness and steadiness in his voice were chilling, but Steel wasn't about to back down: taking a step forward, gritted his teeth as he spoke next.

"The guards... m-my friends... you killed them," he said, the cocktail of fear and anger slowly rising in his voice. The stallion merely raised his eyebrows at his words.

"Dead? I think you're mistaken, Steel Sentinel. Your friends are more alive than they ever have been." Steel leaned back in surprise at the comment before quickly reverting to anger at his words.

"Alive? What do you mean, they--"

Upon turning around, Steel was greeted with the sight of the two guards he had just seen lifeless standing in their spots. They were as still as statues, and their heads were cocked ever so slightly to the left, both guards perfect mirrors of one another. Their eyes were still an empty, black void, and upon leaning over slightly Steel could see that a pony was now very clearly standing on the bed in the exact same pose with its eyes locked upon him. If he hadn't seen them dead only moments ago, he could have easily believed they were wax figures.

The ponies did not move. They did not breathe. They did not blink.

They stared.

When Steel turned back around, he was greeted with the sight of the stallion mere inches from his face, his dead an emotionless expression burning right through him. Silently screaming in terror, Steel lept backward only to be more horrified to feel fur behind him. Not daring move a muscle any longer, Steel watched in dread, but not before he let out a whisper barely loud enough to be heard.

"What are you?" he asked, the whisper not enough to hide the shaking in his voice. The stallion chuckled quaintly as he began a slow walk towards Steel.

"I am a vessel of the void," the stallion said simply. "A priest of the shadows." His horn lit up black, with the green and red touches of darkness dancing slightly around it. The stallion began a carefree advance towards Steel, who attempted to thrust his spear forward: the "ponies" behind him quickly wrapped their front legs around his own, disarming him and locking him tightly. He attempted a struggle, but it was of no use, as the strength in the beings holding him seemed nigh supernatural. The only thing Steel could do was look up in horror.

"I am suffragan to the darkness. I believe it my sacred duty to spread its word." The stallion leaned down slowly to meet Steel's gaze, placing his horn within an inch of his forehead. With a dripping malice, the stallion whispered to Steel as he placed his horn between his eyes.

"And I will make you believe."

To Steel Sentinel, the silence was not golden, but once the horn touched his fur and the darkness flowed through him, it was all he'd ever know.

CHAPTER FIVE

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CHAPTER FIVE:
MEMENTO MORI


The wind gently whispered in my ears, coursing in and out like a melancholy song. Little droplets of snow floated down upon my scarf and, as soon as they hit its plaid cotton, melted into tiny droplets.

It was cold.

I remember it as if it had just happened. Our marks soaring back to us, the identities and talents that made us who we were restored. I remember chasing Starlight Glimmer, the mare who had stripped the destiny from so many, across the mountainside.

I remember her face when we'd finally drew her from hiding. Cold, loathsome fury twitching every-which-way through her visage, sneering to me that my "sentimental nonsense" would do her no good.

I remember how biting the cold was, numbing every inch of my body with a sinister steadiness, but I remember more distinctly her words that evening biting harder.

In the very spot where we all stood now, I had given up on Starlight Glimmer. When she ran to the caverns in disgust and defeat, I had turned my back on her--literally and figuratively--and I'd walked away from that mountain pass expecting to never see her again. Starlight Glimmer had been filled with a burning fervor that I didn't entirely understand, and her vicious words made it clear to me, at the time, that I likely never would.

Now, I stood beside a best friend and a mare that I had not only taught, but who had taught so much to me. It seemed so long ago that Starlight Glimmer was the latest antagonist in my never-ending friendship crusade, and now I don't think I could imagine my life without her in it.

When I turned to Starlight, her mouth slightly creaked and her eyes a gateway to the gears in her head spinning at a thousand miles an hour, I knew she remembered it, too.

She turned to me, a wistful glint speckled in her eyes, and she stared. I stared back--for comfort maybe, or something else--but surprisingly, it was Violet who decided to break the silence.

"Twilight?" she asked. Both of us turned to her, and I quickly smiled to break the tension: the corner of my eye revealed that Starlight had done it at the exact same time.

"I'm sorry, guys. We're ready to go now, it's just... Starlight and I were remembering something that happened right here." I turned to the mare in question, who merely nodded in agreement. Violet cocked her head to the side in curiosity, her gaze floating back and forth between us.

"Bethinking oneselves of this spot? Were these memories pleasant?" I looked to Starlight again, who shook her head and drew her gaze to the ground as a reminiscent smile slowly spread across her face.

"Not really, no," she answered after a pause, a chuckle escaping her lips. She looked back to Violet, the embarrassed and recollecting smirk quickly erased by an eager warm beam.

"But we're not here for my memories, Violet... we're here for yours." She said the last part much softer, knowing all too well what Violet was about to go through.

Violet was about to take a trek through the history of Hourton, its parchment the mountain walls that made up the cave and its ink the remains of the dead. She would likely see friends, family, and many other ponies who she would come to know across her life, as well as those who sat by her bedside when she took her last breath (or so she had assumed). The trip, however, would end with a casket far more familiar than any other.

Her own.

"Are you sure you're ready for this?" Sunset interjected, leaning across the line of ponies we had formed. Sunset had taken Violet under her wing in adapting her to the new world she had found herself in: a task I had thought to be a bit ironic, seeing as how Sunset also had just come back to Equestria after a long period of absence, but she had done a great job of settling Violet into a world she couldn't possibly comprehend.

Violet paused for a few seconds before merely nodding and taking the first steps into the mountain pass, the muffled echo of her hooves across the rock reverberating through the cavern.

"Let us go," she began, not stopping to look bad at the rest of the group. "My sepulture is likely far into the cavern."

We all turned to look at each other one more time, unsure if Violet's confidence was truly genuine or a cloak over her nervousness, but we carried on nonetheless. We made sure to stick close to Violet, as Starlight only knew the basic paths of the mountain pass and would likely get lost if she strayed too far from where she had escaped from so long ago.

Trixie Lulamoon, who had stayed quiet for most of the trip--an instance most in Violet's time would consider one of Celestia's many miracles--walked up to my left side before speaking softly as we traveled.

"Did you get that letter back from Spike?" she asked, a rushed and nervous inflection in her voice. I shook my head in the negative: I had asked Spike to gather the all the girls in Canterlot and to report back to me as soon as he could, but I didn't get any word from him yet.

"No, which is strange because he usually--" At that moment, I heard a rumbling in the leather messenger bag strapped over my shoulder. I quickly opened it with my magic and pulled out a neatly tied scroll, looking to Trixie with a shocked amusement. I could feel Sunset imitating my glance from behind me when Trixie's eyes went wide.

"Abracadabra?" the magician jokingly stated, shrugging her shoulders with a sheepish grin. That one caused a riot among the three of us, the smug look slowly I'd come to love from Trixie Lulamoon washing over her as we continued to walk. I opened the letter and read it aloud, the echo on my voice getting more and more intense as Violet led on ahead of us.

Hi, Twilight!

As it turned out, Rainbow and Rarity were already here! They're in the castle with me now and we're having lunch with Celestia and Luna. The other girls told me they were all gonna get here as quickly as they could, so hopefully they're all here by the time you guys come back!

P.S: I gave the old tower a once over before we move back in. It's gonna be real weird living there again...

P.P.S: I almost forgot! Celestia wanted me to tell you to take care of Violet in there. She's really worried about her.

Your favorite dragon,

Spike

I decided to omit the post scriptums aloud, though did take note of them all the same. Celestia and I had figured it a good idea to stay in Canterlot for a few weeks in order to discover the reasoning behind Violet's sudden appearance, and that old tower I used to live in had remained virtually untouched since I left it. It was nice to know Spike had thought to tidy it up, and I mentally reminded myself that I had to thank him whenever we got back.

We kept walking after that for a few minutes, the silence in the cave deafening, until Violet stopped at the left side wall. We watched her from a distance, and when I truly took in the surroundings I immediately noticed the defining features of the area.

There were three rows carved into the cave walls, each harboring coffins of various types. Many of them looked exactly the same--a nice, brown wood with gold latches--but a few them were oddballs, made from a different material or completely coated in flowers or cloth. Each coffin had a plaque beneath it, designating the pony who was buried there: Violet had been dusting one off, and she read the plaque aloud as we watched a few feet away.

"Golden Comet," she said softly. "This stallion was the bottler's son." She quietly read over the rest of the description, which likely displayed the date of his death and possibly how he died. We all looked to each other, unsure what to do, until Starlight carefully walked from the rest of the group and knelt down to Violet's side.

"Was... was this pony your friend, Violet?" She asked, a somber tone bleeding through her voice. Violet stayed silent for a few precious seconds, only answering when she had finished reading the plaque.

"Celestia, no. He was a nithing," she answered, a deep and wistful tone to her voice. I could feel my eyes widen in surprise, and as emotional as she sounded, it took everything in my power not to start laughing: upon looking to my right I could see both Sunset and Trixie vehemently fighting off grins that had slipped through their visage. Violet quickly got up from the cavern floor, turning to face Starlight with a glowing grin.

"I truly thank you for thy worries, Starlight Glimmer," she said warmly. She turned the Golden's coffin once more, observing it one final time as she spoke. "I do not imagine this trek will be facile... memories return even for those froward and loathly."

She continued onwards, contantly scanning to the left and right in search of somepony she knew. We walked forward to Starlight, and she fell right in line with the rest of us as we delved deeper into the cave.

"That was very nice of you, Starlight," I said, resting a hoof on her shoulder. "Even if that, uh, wasn't exactly what we were expecting." We all got out the laughs we had been burying a minute earlier, but they quickly silenced when Starlight shook her head and began to speak.

"I couldn't even imagine. It's very brave of Violet to do this for us. We should do something really nice for her after this." We all nodded in agreement, silently thinking of something cool we could all do to relieve her stress when we arrived back in Canterlot. The silence continued for quite some time with only our steps to listen to until Violet stopped again, this time on the right side.

She didn't kneel down, instead staying to look to the middle row. This coffin was adorned with daisies, tied together all across it over a single white sheet. Tears began to stream down Violet's face, faster and more plentiful by the second, and we all knew then that whoever this pony was clearly wasn't a "nithing" as Golden Comet had been.

All of us quickly walked over to Violet, who was feeling the daisies over with her hoof. I took a look at the plaque in the center of the wall, displaying clearly who had been laid to rest in the cavern.

Daisy Midnight
Loved laughter and all it brought
Succumbed to the pestilence

"I aided in weaving these," Violet stated, her voice hoarse and shaking. "I was in Canterlot when news reached me. Daisy was my lifelong friend. I returned to Hourton just to see her pass on to the next world." All three of us brought Violet in for a hug, letting her remember her long lost friend in silence for what seemed to be an eternity. Eventually, she shrugged us all off, a nervous laughter escaping her lips.

"I cannot repay ye for this kindness," she began, wiping her eyes. "I am in grief beyond words, but I am glad I have returned to this place." We all nodded, and it was Sunset who spoke this time as she trotted to Violet and held on to her shoulder.

"It's alright, Violet. If you ever want to talk for a while, we have time." We all nodded in agreement, but Violet quickly shook her head in the negative as she brushed Sunset's hoof away.

"I will be fine, I promise," she said, doing her absolute best to muster a smile beneath her red and teary face. "We should be very close to my sepulture--Hourton was no Canterlot, I assure you." Although her remark wasn't strenuously funny, we laughed along with her anyways, giving her just a little taste of the gift her friend Daisy had clearly given to others so generously.

The rest of the walk wasn't pleasant for any of us, but I had something greater on my mind.

I couldn't help but think about what Violet had been doing, viewing the plaques adorned with names and faces she used to know, and how one day I would likely do the same. I would be lying if I said I didn't think about it often--I still had nightmares occasionally of ruling over an Equestria that had long passed my greatest friends by--but the emotions, sorrows and joys of Violet seeing her friends' caskets was likely a preview of my own future one day. I shook my head quickly, bringing the world back into view as we continued onwards.

That day would not be for quite some time.

Trixie had seen the small gesture, I knew, but elected not to say anything as we trudged onwards. The torches that lined the walls of the tomb, clearly propelled by some kind of magic, almost seemed to glow just a bit brighter as we walked, engulfing the caskets in a blanket of flickering amber.

Eventually, we hit a slight curve in the path, and it was where Violet stopped dead in her tracks. We quickly followed suit, staying a few feet behind her as usual while she slowly crept towards the wall.

What Violet first turned to was the middle row once more. It held a double-wide casket, the first one I had seen during the trip, with nothing but a single, dried up rose resting gently on top of it. In relation to the casket above it, I immediately knew the ponies it held, and I found a tear of my own quickly sliding across my cheek as Violet recited the plaque to the rest of the group.

"Lilac and Shining Meadow," she said sternly, the unsteadiness returning to her voice. She shed no tears, however, instead beginning to chuckle as she looked to the rose on their coffin. "My parents were inseparable, even in expiry." She rested a hoof on their coffin for a second before bringing it down and placing the opposite hoof on her chest, moving it in a pattern and whispering something to herself. I assumed it was a prayer of some sort, but I didn't recognize it: it wasn't very long, however, and she quickly looked to the top row with a smile on her face.

"It's nice to see my wishes in death were obeyed," she said simply.

The coffin on the top row was just like all the other normal ones, but it was the plaque that stood out. This one appeared to be made of solid gold, glimmering greatly as the light touched it, and was bound around the sides with what appeared to be mother-of-pearl. The royal emblem of Equestria, Celestia and Luna circled around the sun and moon, was emblazoned fabulously in the bottom left corner below the inscription. We all trotted to where Violet was standing as she read her own epitaph aloud.

Violet
Celestia's chosen
Returned home at last

"It was the very last thing we discussed," Violet said suddenly, gazing to her place of rest. "She wanted my coffin adorned in gold and topped with the finest gems and jewelry. I wanted not to overshadow the others in this hallowed place. In the end, we compromised neatly."

"The plaque," Trixie said assuredly. Violet nodded in confirmation, her grin growing even wider.

"Yes. She wanted something to display just how much she loved me. She was fortunate I was in no strength to argue... shall we do it, then?" she asked, the heaviness of the question overshadowing her wit. I nodded grimly and turned to the other girls, backing up and forming a semi-circle at the base of the wall.

Slowly, with all our magic, we grabbed hold of the coffin and brought it outwards, dust and rock tumbling down from a thousand years of rest. As carefully as we could, we set the coffin down gently on the floor around us, holding just a bit longer than we needed to in an effort to ensure it was safely balanced. When it was done, we all turned to Violet for the thousandth time that day, with Sunset speaking the words we had all been thinking on the way here.

"Would you like to do the honors?" she asked, both a soft concern and strong conviction coming through her voice. Silently, Violet nodded, and with her magic broke the latch on the coffin and carefully removed the lid in one fell swoop.

Once the lid was completely off, we were greeted with the sight of absolutely nothing.

The coffin was as empty as it could be. There were no bones, strands of hair or anything else indicative that a body had even been placed there: the only thing it held was dust.

"Unbelievable," Starlight whispered, moving forward to take a closer look. After a few seconds of staring, she turned back to Violet, whose mouth was slightly creaked open in confusion and surprise.

"Your bones aren't in here. They're in there," she said wildly, pointing to Violet. She looked down in shock, only just understanding what Starlight was implying, but didn't say a word as Starlight turned to us with a face of giddy discovery I know I'd held many times throughout my life.

"She isn't displaced from her time period, she was revived. I don't know how or why, but there are no bones in this coffin because they're in her body: you were absolutely right, Trixie, this isn't time travel, she's back from the dead!" I nodded silently as she spoke, bewildered right along with everypony else. After a moment of thinking, I turned to my former student and began to talk faster than I was thinking.

"So she was revived this young? She just woke up in her twenties in a field outside Canterlot after being dead for a thousand years? This answers one thing, but gives us thousands of more questions." Starlight nodded, her excited expression quickly turning grim as she spoke to me with new conviction.

"I know it does. We need to get back to Celestia and figure out what in Tartarus is happening here." I was about to nod, but a chorus of rather odd-sounding footsteps echoing from further down the cave quickly caught my attention. I saw a figure step out from the shadows and instinctively ignited my horn, a stun spell pulsing and at the ready. The other mares didn't even hesitate, turning around with their own magic prepared to face whatever it was I was pointed at.

"Perhaps I could be of assistance?" the figure asked, fully emerging from the darkness. It was a unicorn stallion, his accent distinctly Canterlotian with a rough edge to it. He had a navy blue mane and tail with a light grey coat, and his eyes matched the orange in the burning torches exactly. The most notable feature about the mystery stallion, however, was that most of his right leg appeared to be made of bronze, cut off unevenly with the very little natural part of it left.

Sunset quickly stepped forward, her horn glowing more aggressively as she spoke to the intruder.

"Hold on there, buddy. Tell us who you are. Now." The stallion had a smug look on his face, seemingly unphased by Sunset's threats, and turned his gaze to Violet.

"My name is Cobalt Aegis, though you can just call me Cobalt," he replied. "I was drawn here, and I think it was because of this lass right here." Before Sunset could do anything rash, I stepped forward as well, my head cocked in confusion as I spoke with narrowed eyes.

"Drawn here? Why would you be drawn here?" I asked, making sure to bring forward my conviction. He pointed with his bronze leg to Violet's plaque on the wall, and I realized quickly he was motioning to the bottom left corner.

"Because I couldn't help but overhear your conversation," he began calmly. "And I think we have something in common."

CHAPTER SIX

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CHAPTER SIX:
REVOLUTION


"Cobalt! You know I can't keep up with you!"

Princess Celestia had said a variation on that phrase just about every time she tried to follow me, and I relished in it constantly. Knowing there was some kind of advantage I held over my mentor--even in something as silly as galloping speed--gave me a margin of confidence I will admit was likely far too great for what it was. Nonetheless, I slowed down immediately, allowing Celestia to catch up and walk easily by my side.

"Sorry 'bout that," I said, a sly grin unable to hide from my face. "I'm just very, very excited, Princess. I know you're going to love this." Celestia chuckled, nodding in her head in reminiscence.

"Yes, I know. You've been working on this for over a year and a half." Suddenly, her face dropped, and she looked over to the prosthetic leg that softly clanged with each passing step.

"You lost your leg for this, Cobalt. Before we see this, I want to ask you something." I stopped in the hallway, causing Celestia to take a few extra steps forward. She reeled back a bit and, with that serious, brooding expression only she could have, turned to me. She let out a small sigh before she spoke, a soft regret weaved into her fierce tone.

"I want you to tell me that it this was worth it. Worth... that. I am still beside myself every day that I couldn't help you." despite the heavy emotional undertones of the question, I merely shook my head in affirmation, pointing with my prosthetic down the hallway

"Celestia, I have three of these," I began, bumping the leg on my head to let the little ping of the alloy ring out. I pointed back down the hallway again, and I could feel my face settling into that eager grin Celestia always teased me for whenever I got excited about a project I was working on.

"But that, Princess? Waiting in that garage? There's only one. I'd do this again in a heartbeat."

She seemed taken aback at first with my conviction and motivation, but I truly doubt she was really surprised: I'd been working on the development of this project for a long, long time, and I had managed to keep a secret from the Princess of the Sun for its entirety. The only ponies who were in on it were the guards: the lads had to make sure I wasn't building some crazy doomsday device, and of course, I didn't blame them. I was just worried that one of the bastards would snitch on me, but they had either done a fantastic job or she was keeping it from me to feel better.

A warm smile crept onto Celestia's face, and she nodded much like I did only seconds ago.

"Then let us go on, Cobalt Aegis. I'm very excited to see your project come to fruition." Eagerly, I returned her smile, ever infectious from the likes of the Princess, and I started in a light jog towards our destination. Celestia followed suit and began humming a tune I didn't recognize, though it was certainly filled with beautiful, cascading harmonies.

As we turned the corner in our trek to the back of the castle, a pony in armor immediately entered my vision, coming towards us from the opposite direction. I recognized the mono-colored light blue pegasus immediately: it was Soaring Valor, one of the guards assigned to my project, as well as one of the very first ponies to experience it first hand.

The Royal Guard was taught with a very specific set of rules--my father had followed them and upheld them for close to twenty-five years--and one of its most basic tenants was its upholding of stoicism. The iron, emotionless gaze of the Royal Guard was legendary all across the world, and it was to be upheld especially in front of Princess Celestia, Equestria's monarch.

So I had to look to her face the moment Soaring stopped and spoke to me with a wide beam burning through his gaze.

"Are you showing her the invention?" He asked me. I got exactly the look I wanted from Celestia: her eyes were wide and jaw dropped ever so slightly in amusement, mildly surprised at the guard's words. I turned back to Soaring with a slyness I could feel on my countenance, nodding assuredly before I spoke.

"Indeed I am, sir. We shouldn't be gone long." Soaring nodded with a chuckle, patting me on the back before shifting his sight back up to his ultimate commander. He had a glint in his eyes as he addressed her next, his tone firm but mischievous.

"He took me on a test run last night," he told her. "My princess, it's incredible. What your lad here has done is nothing short of revolutionary." Without another word, he carried on with his shift, marching perfectly in time as he disappeared around the corner behind us. Celestia watched him leave before looking to me, a stunned and impressed look plastered on her face.

"Soaring has been among my personal guard for close to ten years now," she told me, "And I've never seen him praise anypony that highly. You must have truly outdone yourself, my little pony." I shrugged arrogantly, looking around the glass-stained hallway to an audience I didn't have.

"Well, princess, it's all to be expected from a stallion such as myself. Now come: I want to make sure the city lights are at their brightest." Celestia's face twisted in a very slight confusion at the last hint, but she nonetheless followed once I continued down the path to the garage my mentor so graciously had built for my project.

There were slices of small talk for the rest of the route, with myself mainly asking about Celestia's day and Celestia asking me how the rest of the royal guards had reacted to my creation. I didn't take long at all the reach the very simple wooden door to the garage, entirely out of place with the fabulous trimmings and stained glass of the hallways we had been walking through.

I stopped her right at the door, holding up my prosthetic leg in an effort to halt her. She complied, and with a curious expression listened intently as I launched into my preliminary tirade.

"Do you remember when we went to Liverpony for that ambassador's meeting three years ago?" I asked. Celestia nodded quickly, and so I leaned back into the wall as I continued.

"Well, I saw two things that caught my attention that day. The first came from all the steamboats that were traveling upstream in the River Maresey. I'm sure you remember that I sat by the shore and watched them for hours." Celestia giggled for the thousandth time that evening, recalling my jubilance upon my first viewing of the landmark invention.

"I do, yes," she answered. "Pulling you away from them at the end of the night was a greater trial than any." I smiled sheepishly at that remark, but didn't relive the embarrassment for long as I continued my tale.

"The second thing was the hot air balloons in the fields near the center of town. They had these brilliant patterns on them and the blokes were taking tourists up by the dozen." Celestia nodded once more, though I wasn't entirely sure she'd remember the few precious moments we'd seen the balloons during the trip. Nonetheless, I finally put my hoof on the door handle, looking up to my mentor with wild eyes.

"So for a year and a half, I thought of a way to bring out the best in both of them--" I swung the door open with extravagance and bowed mockingly, motioning my left hoof out to the large invention Celestia now had complete eyes on.

"--and it came out more spectacularly than I could have possibly imagined."

It was a sleek but simple design. The body looked very similar to the hull of a boat, and a very basic one at that: it was made almost entirely with wood, but I couldn't help adding an outline of bronze around the edges for a much cleaner look. The first thing I knew Celestia would notice was the clam-shaped wings, three on each side made and coated in various alloys for a nice rippling effect. Finally, its pitch black steam engine contrasted strikingly with the rest of the body, sitting atop it with a glimmering sheen.

That, of course, wasn't what made it special. An abundance of cables sprouted from each side of the ship, running across it for now as the main attraction--the balloon slightly bigger than the ship itself--lying gently on the floor to the side.

Celestia was speechless for a moment, but once she came to her senses, she spoke slowly while she continued to scan my creation.

"It's an... airship?" she asked, walking closer to it now. I gladly walked with her before parting ways quickly as I trotted to the other side to start it up.

"That's what I called it as well! Wonder how we both came to that conclusion." I quickly hopped up the small stairs and onto the deck, the familiar smell of the engine nothing short of blissful. I walked over to the port side and leaned over the railing to see Celestia continually admiring it, occasionally leaning left or right to get a closer look at the machine.

"Cobalt, this... this can fly?" she asked, the incredulous look she had upon first viewing it still plastered on her face. I nodded a bit more hubristic than I intended, and instead of speaking up again I merely waited for her to finish inspecting the craft. After a minute or two passed by, she looked to me again, this time with a dumbfounded smile from ear to ear.

"I have no words for this, my faithful student. How much of this is magically powered?" she asked, looking to the steam engine on my left. I had been waiting for this moment all night, and I suavely leaned up against the engine as I made a slicing motion with my hoof.

"Zero," I said, causing her to immediately turn back to me in a state of shock that far surpassed her countenance a few seconds ago. "I used lots of magic to make it, of course, but everything on this airship is entirely technological: there is no magic powering anything or replacing anything. One-hundred percent organic."

Celestia was clearly at a loss for words, and she backed up slightly from the ship's body to admire my craftsmanship one last time. She was at a total loss for words, and I could feel my sense of pride swelling higher than I knew it ever had before at the sight of my lifelong mentor mesmerized by my work. As she wouldn't speak, I leaned over the railing just a bit more and spoke for her.

"There's a whole new Equestria out there, Celestia," I said softly, gesturing behind me to the currently closed garage door. She stared back at me with pride, fear, and amazement all in shambles across her visage, letting out a very nervous chuckle. I motioned to the deck, pointing particularly to one of the many chairs I'd installed on the airship.

"Do you want to go see it?"


It took the help of Celestia and her guards to bring the airship out of the garage and into the vast open field behind Canterlot's castle, but it was labor she was more than willing to do: she looked like a filly on Hearth's Warming Day as I fired the engine up and the balloon began to float above us. It wasn't long until the ship began to slowly ascend in the air, and I quickly manned the controls as the ground--which was now barely visible in the dark--appeared farther and farther away.

"How high does this go?" she asked, turned back to me after watching her castle become smaller and smaller. I answered without turning back, keeping a steady and watchful eye on the controls and manipulating them with my magic as I spoke.

"I am not entirely sure," I admitted, steering a course for a Canterlot fly-by. "I've been very conservative with it in my testing, but I've gotten considerable altitude from it. I'm gonna try to take it higher than it's ever been here tonight, though." I could practically feel my mentor's concern from behind me, and as I expected she quickly spoke in a worried tone.

"Be careful, Cobalt! Are you sure we'll be alright?" Getting every setting exactly where I wanted it, I hopped away from the pilot's controls and walked down to where she was standing.

"Well, Princess, we're already at that height." I stood on my hind legs and waved my forelegs in the air to demonstrate before quickly falling back on all fours. "And we're cruising just fine, so I'm sure it can go even higher than this without a problem. BUT, I've saved the best part of it all for last." I gestured for her to follow me, and I briskly walked to the starboard side of the airship with her in tow. Stepping aside, I gestured for her to look over the edge, and she brought a hoof to her mouth almost immediately upon seeing the view below.

It was her city.

In times past, Canterlot would have only been lit by torches and bonfires, likely appearing as pinpricks to a pony that was flying this high in the air. Equestria had entered a new age, however, and the city was lit up bright and powerful, the streetlights and rooms creating a mini galaxy across the city below. It was what had stripped the breath from Soaring Valor and his men, and it was what I knew had captivated Celestia's heart in this moment now.

I let her look at it for what seemed like an eternity. She stared and stared and stared at the city come alive in light, the hoof never leaving her face, but there came a point when I saw something I had never expected to see from the Princess of the Sun.

Tears.

Gently trickling down her cheeks like morning dew across the leaves, it came slow but steady. I quickly ran up to her and placed my forearm around her, but I realized it had been my prosthetic: sheepishly, I switched sides and wrapped my very attached left forearm around her as I did my best to counsel her.

"Princess, is something wrong?" I asked, looking towards her face. She let out an emotionally charged fit of laughter, a nod of her head assuring me she was fine despite the rapidly increasing tears across her face.

"I am more than fine, Cobalt. I shed tears of joy," she said, still looking out to her city below her. "I'm unbelievably proud of you and all of my little ponies for what they've accomplished in such little time. A hundred years ago, my faithful student, I couldn't even to begin to imagine seeing what I'm seeing now." She sighed--possibly out of nervousness, happiness, or both--and finally turned to me, her face bright red but the widest smile I'd ever seen from her spread from ear to ear.

"I'm overwhelmed right now," she said simply. "I'm not entirely sure of what my place in all of this will be as this technology becomes greater and greater... but you've made me beyond excited to find out tonight, Cobalt. Thank you."

I could have gone for a sly remark as I typically did, but I shook my head instead.

"Thank you, Princess," I began. "None of this would have happened without your guidance for me--" I motioned to the airship we were standing on. "--and none of this would have happened without your guidance for everypony in your kingdom."

There, hundreds of feet upon the breathing machine that was Canterlot, she brought me into an embrace. I can't remember how long we stayed like that, but I do remember one thing in particular: I could see her out of the corner of my eye, longingly staring at the full moon that hung so graciously in the night sky. I didn't know if she was remembering something or merely appreciating its, beauty, but I certainly didn't question her at the moment: after some period of silent thought, we broke apart, my mentor quickly wiping the tears from her eyes as she spoke with heavy breathing.

"This has been a very emotional day for me, Cobalt," she said, laughing slightly. "I could stare at the view forever, but we really should be heading down." I nodded curtly, making a note of our current location based on the landmarks I could see before waltzing over to control panel and igniting my horn.

I made short work of it, but I'd been tirelessly studying the mechanisms of the airship for a long, long time. I had set the course to descend, and after what I imagined was close to forty-five minutes Canterlot's towering castle came back into view. The lights on the street were shut off now, with the stragglers and shady figures roaming the streets at this hour left to the darkness. Doing the best I could, I landed the ship relatively close to the garage entrance, but I mentally cursed myself when we touched down: I could have gotten it just a bit closer to make everypony's night that much easier.

Nonetheless, I helped Celestia down from the stairs--not that she really needed it--and walked out in the field to greet the guards who had waited on our arrival. Even in the darkness, Soaring Valor's familiar face couldn't hide from me, nor could his thrilled smile as he led his equally-impressed guardponies behind him.

"Isn't it incredible? I got excited just watching it from down here!" He exclaimed, doing nothing to hide the childish excitement in his voice. She nodded eagerly, turning to me with a twinkle of pride in her eyes.

"It's amazing. Historical, even," she commented, looking back to the ship. "I don't suppose you've given thought to a name?" The question was a very easy one, but it hadn't even occurred to me until the second she'd said it. I shook my head in the negative, also shifting my gaze to the airship.

"No, I haven't. Have anything for me, Soaring?" The question was asked teasingly, and Soaring held a hoof in the air in a gesture of denial.

"Me? I'm not one to ask about that, lad. How about our Princess here?" All eyes turned to Celestia, who instead of shying away from the challenge seemed to embrace the opportunity. Thinking for a few seconds, she turned back to ship and admired it from afar as she gave her answer.

"Revolution," she said, the conviction in her voice glaringly apparent. "For a ship that brings a new age." It rolled off the tongue quite nicely, I thought, and I found myself nodding in agreement along with Soaring and the rest of the guards. Wistfully observing the ship for a few more precious seconds, Celestia turned back to us with satisfaction in her smile.

"Thank you for sticking with my faithful student for so long, and for your service in staying guard until we returned. You are all dismissed." Their faces immediately reverted to the empty gaze they had long been known for, and with a perfect salute, the guards marched in unison across the field to the back side of the castle.

Celestia and I stayed for a moment and watched them go before she began walking back towards the garage. I quickly followed suit, and she began to speak to me when we were about halfway there.

"I cannot understate how proud and amazed I am at your invention. This will go down as one of Equestria's finest achievements, Cobalt." she mused idly, staring out to the grass. "I couldn't ask for a better student." I chuckled a bit, causing the Princess to look at me: with a look on my face I knew well was smug, I looked directly into her eyes as I gave my reply.

"Well, it damn better be. Cost me a hoof and a leg."

CHAPTER SEVEN

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CHAPTER SEVEN:
DEAD LETTER


"YOU INVENTED THE AIRSHIP!?"

Cobalt Aegis gently took a sip from the cup of water beside him as our carriage rumbled onward, entirely unable--and possibly uninterested---in hiding the growing grin on his face. I had imagined that both Violet and now Cobalt, having gotten years more experience in the worlds they lived in, would be a bit more mellow when returned from the dead: it truly seemed, however, that Cobalt Aegis always had a braggadocious pride when it came to his work.

"I did, yes," he replied to the chorus, though it didn't come out as arrogant as I thought it would. "I am assuming by that response my invention is still going strong in today's age? I didn't see any in Our Town when I awoke, but the village did seem rather small." All of us (except for Violet, who was still in disbelief at the prospect of a "flying machine") nodded our heads in the affirmative, but I was the one to explain its current state in Equestria. I found a smile of my own forming and reveled slightly in telling him how far his creation had come.

"Cobalt, we use airships all the time. It's our primary means of traveling long distances," I explained. "I was on a cruiser a little while ago that was just about as big as Our Town." Cobalt reeled back at those words, his jaw dropping slightly: Violet joined him, still trying to understand the basic concept behind what Cobalt had invented. He was lost in thought for a second, thinking over what I'd said, but Sunset didn't give him a lot of time.

"So here's what I don't understand," she said quickly. "I read countless history books when I was Celestia's student, and quite a few of them mentioned the airship as a seminal piece of Equestria's Industrial Revolution. However, I distinctly remember every book stating that nopony knew exactly who created it."

As she said it, the lightbulb went off in my head as well. Equestrian textbooks often stated that nopony had any concrete evidence of who invented the airship, only guessing that it had come out of Canterlot based on early manuscripts. I eyed Cobalt questioningly, indicating I had the same question, but it merely caused him to chuckle slightly as he leaned back in the carriage chair.

"Goodness, Celestia and I fought about this for months," he mused before beginning his tale. "I told her that I wanted to remain anonymous as the inventor of the technology." Almost immediately after he finished the sentence, Trixie, who had been listening intently with the rest of us, recoiled a bit in shock.

"What?" she asked incredulously. "If I had created something so spectacular, I'd take great pride in my invention!" Starlight snorted, rolling her eyes and putting an arm around her best friend.

"Trust me, Trix, we know." Everypony (even Violet and Cobalt) erupted into laughter at the ribbing, with Trixie perhaps laughing the hardest: whenever the laughter died down, Cobalt sighed deeply before settling into his seat to tell what I assumed would be a long story.

"I don't know how this is looked at from a contemporary view, since I kicked the ol' bucket around 200 years ago," he began, "But what you call Equestria's "Industrial Revolution" originated mostly from pegasi and earth ponies who had to find way to make work, travel and life easier without the aid of unicorn magic. Eventually, these would benefit the unicorns as well, and in my lifetime they ended up contributing greatly to the industrialization in my time. Now, before all this happened, advancement in technology didn't come from the regular citizens of Equestria." Violet, who had held her tongue for a considerable amount of time, quietly spoke up.

"In my time, much innovation and research had come from Celestia's court." Cobalt nodded in agreement.

"Precisely. Court wizards, researchers and blacksmiths were often the very best Equestria had to offer at the time, and so new technologies and knowledge originated from there." He took a sip from his water again, finishing the glass, and set it gently to his side.

"That, though, wasn't the case when I was growing up. It was everyday lads and lasses, not people like me, that came up with technology like the steam engine, the mechanical loom, and things of that nature. All of their technology--and most of their technique, I reckon--are what I used to create my airship." I began to catch on to what Cobalt was saying at this point, but I let him continue talking the carriage had hit a few bumps in the road.

"So I create this airship, yes? And it's going to be one of Equestria's most important so far. I knew it, Celestia knew it, the damn castle chef knew it, and so when she wanted to put my name on the patent, I told her no." I was about to speak up and take a guess at his intentions, but Sunset spoke up faster right next to me.

"You didn't want one of the seminal inventions of the era to come from the courts. You wanted it to come from the citizens," she said. Cobalt nodded, confirming my own suspicions.

"I had built it using the citizen's technology and methods," he explained. "I knew how proud everypony was that they alone had helped develop a new age in Equestria. I... I didn't want to ruin that. This industrial revolution gave the ordinary ponies all around Equestria a feeling in their hearts that for the first time in a long time, they were carving their own path, so I remained anonymous. Celestia had introduced it to the world by hosting an event and claimed that a builder from Baltimare had flown in to present it to her." There was a silence after that, all of us contemplating what he'd said: it was a large sacrifice, and how Cobalt had denied the legend of creating the airship to uphold the pride of common Equestria was nothing short of incredible. It was Trixie who broke the silence among us, speaking for everypony in a soft admiration.

"That... that's incredibly noble of you, Cobalt." For the first time since I'd met him, I saw a sheepish smile spread across his face in slight embarrassment. He waved a hoof at the notion, once more leaning back in his chair.

"Oh, it's really nothing," he began. "The important part is that it existed to help everypony, from the Princesses to the common pony. Besides, the builders in Canterlot created tremendous improvements to my design even while I was alive: I'm very excited to see what they look like now." The group nodded thoughtfully, though it wasn't long until Starlight Glimmer quickly broke the silence.

"There's one other thing, Cobalt," she began. His face quickly washed in stoicism, knowing from the tone of her voice the that her inquiry was no laughing matter. "You said you were drawn to Violet's casket back there. What exactly did you mean by that?"

Cobalt sighed again, even deeper than last time, and I could read him like a book before he even said a word: he had the look of stallion who simply had no answers.

"I... I just don't know, Starlight. I woke up a fair distance away from Our Town, but I could see it in the distance, so I went there. And the ponies were so kind and friendly to me, and I stayed in their inn for two nights, but I just kept looking at that mountain pass." He stopped for a second, attempting to formulate his next words verbally.

"Have any of you ever had a gut feeling? As in you saw a place and knew you had to go there or saw something you just had to have? I couldn't tell you why I wanted to go into the pass, but I just really, really did. It drove me insane until I decided to finally make the trip. And look who I found."

Sunset and I glanced at each other worriedly, remembering the conversation we'd had over dinner at the castle. We didn't get to mull on it for long, however, as moments after he finished our carriage driver opened the window behind him and leaned through it, looking to us all with a smile.

"We're approaching Canterlot, everypony. I'd start getting your things together."

Cobalt, who had insisted we not contact Celestia in regards to his appearance to keep the "surprise", breathed a long sigh of relief at what I knew was the thought of him returning to the place that so defined him.


When we entered the wide open throne room of Canterlot Castle, I could almost feel the anticipation in the room.

Celestia had been in what appeared to be a light conversation with Luna, though I couldn't make out what they had been saying before they stopped to look up at us. Rarity and Rainbow Dash--who I was unbelievably glad to have here--appeared to be locked in a rather intense game of go fish, and based on the substantial amount of cards on Rarity's side of the table it looked like she had it firmly in the bag. They, too, looked to greet us when we entered, though all of them showed slight signs of confusion when they saw I was only followed by Violet and Sunset.

"Where's everypony else?" Rainbow asked with a sly grin as she approached us. Rarity and the Princesses followed close behind, and after embracing Rainbow for a few seconds I found myself returning her smile.

"I could say the same to you guys. They're still getting some stuff out of the carraige." I turned back and held out a hoof to the two ponies behind me.

"This is Sunset, who I don't think you two have technically met yet, and this is Violet, Celestia's first apprentice." Sunset waved affectionately at the two ponies, but Violet was inclined to give a very deep bow in greeting: both Rainbow and Rarity began to laugh, causing Violet to bounce back up in confusion as Rainbow reassured her.

"We don't do that anymore, Violet! We're all pretty chill here!" This sentence only made Violet's face twist in a deeper misunderstanding, and Sunset quickly whispered in her ear what I assumed was a translation. Violet nodded slowly as a sheepish glow spread across her countance, opting now to wave just as Sunset did.

"Oh, Rainbow, don't confuse the poor mare! Why, you both look so beautiful, I simply must have you both in my shop to try some dresses!" It was enough to turn both Sunset and Violet red, but Sunset recovered quickly as she replied.

"I think I'll take you up on that offer! Rarity designs clothes, Violet: maybe you could give tell her about some of the clothes you saw back in your time?" Violet nodded eagerly, giving a warm smile in Rarity's direction.

"I still remember the dress I wore at the Grand Galloping Gala vividly as ever. I would take much delight in describing to thee what I hath seen." Rarity jumped up and down excitedly, and I could tell she was already planning her next collection. I rolled my eyes happily, glad to see her take such joy in her work.

The princesses came in to view behind them, Celestia and Luna listening to our conversation in amusement. When she noticed we had finished our introductions, she spoke up, looking particularly at Violet.

"So? What did you all find out?" I looked to Sunset, deciding to let her take this question: taking up a co-leadership role with her felt much better than I'd ever admit.

"Violet isn't displaced from her time period: she was revived magically, somehow ending up as young as she is. It really presents more questions than answers, but... we brought somepony else back." Celestia's head tilted in confusion at that remark, her eyebrows rising.

"From Our Town? Why would you do that? Who is it?"

Suddenly, we all heard a commotion coming from outside the hall. It was Starlight and Trixie, who appeared to be talking about carraiges: particularly, the one that we had just arrived in. They were talking with another voice, though, and when I looked into Celestia's eyes I saw them widen only just enough to notice.

She recognized it. She knew it. But she didn't comprehend it yet.

The three quieted once they had reached the large hallway, and Trixie and Starlight filed in first, coupled together. With them, however, was a Cobalt Aegis, a pony who I knew hadn't stepped into the throne room in a very long time.

It took a second for Celestia to understand what had just occured, but her draw dropped to the floor as she finally realized who had stepped into her throne room. The tears we had all come to expect began to well in her eyes, the rush of emotions and memories flooding to her much in the way they did when she saw Violet. It was different this time, though: where she was shocked and in disbelief when she saw her very first student appear in her castle, she knew very well now that this was no imposter, fake or illusion. There was a single emotion coursing through the Princess of the Sun that I had only seldom seen in her.

She was entirely overwhelmed with pure, unadulterated happiness.

Cobalt took a look around the room, viewing the brilliant banners and tapestries, before stepping forward and looking his former mentor in the eye.

"You didn't change it one bit since I was gone?" he asked. Without a single word, Celestia came rushing to him, wrapping him in the tightest embrace she could manage. He laughed, his voice cracking ever so slightly from the crushing weight of the hug before she finally released after what felt like a lifetime.

"Cobalt!" she exclaimed, the tears coursing down strong as ever. She looked to me now, an involuntary laugh escaping her lips.

"Why didn't you write?" she asked, playfully upset. The four of us from the trip all rolled our eyes at just about the same time, but it was Starlight who answered.

"This one wanted to surprise you. We filled him in on everything, though." Celestia said nothing, merely looking back at her former student in a gaze of disbelief.

There were very few moments I had seen Celestia in the state she was in now. She cried tears of joy the day I graduated from college, walking across the stage at CSGU. She was beside herself with a cocktail of pride and sadness when I had earned my wings (quite literally). She had almost broken down in front of my friends and I when we had returned her sister to her, though she powered through and presented herself as regal as she ever was.

I had a feeling now, though, in the presence of two ponies she had loved deeply returned in the flesh, that she was ready to simply release: as she spoke her next words with a voice shaking and hollow, I knew my intuition had been proved correct.

"I... I'm truly sorry, but I think I need a moment alone. This is far too much for me... can I join you all in the dining hall in around half an hour?" We all nodded in the affirmative, but surprisingly it was Cobalt that verbally answered for the group.

"Of course, Princess."

There weren't really any words after that. The rest of us shuffled away silently, leaving Celestia to her thoughts as she wished. The rest of the group wafted through the doorframe in silence, myself the last among them: I had only just begun to exit the room when Celestia called out to me, the returning scratchiness in her voice wildly evident.

"Twilight?"

I turned around, bracing myself for the emotions I was absolutely sure were about to break through the dam. When she opened her mouth to speak, however, it became clear to me it there would be nothing of the sort.

"Spike is here, and he's been anxiously waiting for your return. He told me he had something very important to tell you."

That was interesting, as I couldn't possibly think of something that Spike would implore the Princess to remind me about. I gave her a smile--the best one I could manage, hoping to let it stay with her as she retreated--and I warmly nodded as I gave her my response.

"Thank you. I'll be sure to look around for him."

It didn't take long to catch up with the group, who appeared to be walking to nowhere in particular. Cobalt was merely happy to be back in the castle, explaining to everypony that most of the decorations, artifacts and windows that lined the halls had been there when he was an apprentice. Quietly, I slipped close to Sunset, who had a concerned look on her face as she addressed me quietly.

"Is she okay?" She asked me. I nodded solemnly and gave a small sigh before elaborating.

"She will be, this is just... quite a shock, I would imagine. A happy one, though, if that makes sense." I turned to face her now, motioning my head in the direction of the revived students that currently led the pack of ponies.

"What's the plan for them?" Sunset returned my earlier nod, though this one told me that she'd had everything planned out for the both of them for quite some time. It was something I really admired in Sunset: not only was she incredibly smart, but she always had a plan to implement her knowledge far before anypony else did.

"I'm going to schedule them physicals from the castle doctor before we eat. If there's something inherently wrong, we might be able to catch it and get a lead on what in Tartarus is happening. And if there isn't and they appear entirely normal, at least they'll be healthy." She got a giggle out of me for that, and I could see my smile taking hold and infecting her. Before she could say anything else, I made sure to quickly tell her something I'd wanted to ever since we'd hopped back on the carriage from Hourton.

"Sunset, I want to let you know how grateful I am for your help." Her eyes widened and she made an attempt to interject, but I cut her off with a shake of my head.

"I've gone through quite a bit as the Element of Magic and now as a Princess, but... I'm just really glad I don't have to take charge of this one all by myself. So thank you." Sunset turned red at those remarks, turning away sheepishly before responding.

"It's nothing, Twilight, really. I'm here to stay and I don't think I'll ever be able to repay you for all you've helped me." I was going through my mind in an attempt to formulate a response when I heard a very familiar voice call out from behind us.

"Hey, Twi!" I whipped around to see the very dragon I'd been expecting: Spike, who had appeared to be running from further down the hall, slowed down the best he could until he reached me, panting all the while. The whole group turned to face him, causing him to sport an embarrassed smile upon his scanning of the environment. I could see Sunset's brows raised in amusement in the corner of my eye, and she addressed Spike before he had any chance to talk.

"Everyone's getting wings around here, huh?" she asked playfully, gesturing to his sides. Spike quickly looked down, forgetting that Sunset had yet to see his new limbs.

"Oh, yeah! They're pretty neat, huh?" He flapped them a little bit to show off before stopping abruptly, staring into empty space. I had remembered Celestia saying there had been something on his mind, and his frantic speech moments later was my final indicator that something was really wrong.

"Twilight, do you mind if I pull you aside for a quick sec? It won't be long." He didn't even look to the new arrival in Cobalt, though I supposed he hadn't heard that another one of Celestia's apprentices had cheated death. I looked back to the rest of the group, who shared my concerned look: save for Violet and Cobalt, who appeared to be absolutely astonished that a dragon had just run up and spoken to them. Violet, in particular, had taken a step back in nervousness, so I made sure to address them specifically with my gaze as I excused myself.

"This is my assistant, Spike: I'll explain later. I'll meet you guys in the dining hall?" The group nodded, with Violet relaxing her muscles at my clarification, and they continued onwards and Spike and I stood in the middle of the hallway.

I opened my mouth to ask what was wrong, but I was surprised to instead see him rush over to hug me. I let him stay there for a moment before gently bringing my head down to return the embrace: I had honestly forgotten how long we'd seen each other in the chaos of the last week, and I gladly held on to him for just a tiny bit longer before we broke apart.

"I'm really glad you're back! I know we're gonna have lots of fun here and figure out what's going on!" His face grimaced after the introduction, however, and he quickly stood upright. "But I have some possibly unrelated news I think you're going to want to hear." I leaned back slightly at that, and I could feel my eyes narrow ever-so-slightly in worry.

"What's wrong, Spike? Is everypony okay?" instead of answering verbally at first, he bent his head back and breathed fire, the green wave of heat dispensing a neat scroll that he quickly caught in midair. I thought it was a letter for me at first, but upon further inspection, I noticed the wax seal that brought the paper together: it was my own.

"Do you remember that letter you had me send to your brother at the Crystal Palace about Violet? It came right back to me. Dead letter."

That wasn't something I was expecting to hear, and I found that I'd taken a step back upon hearing Spike say it. Shining Armor never failed to reply to a letter of mine, and I to him: it may have taken a while, sure, but we always got around to it. It was one thing for him to fail to respond, but sending it back? I hadn't ever gotten a dead letter from him, much less sent to the very Crystal Palace itself.

"They were on a diplomatic trip to Yakyakistan for the past two weeks. Are you sure they just aren't running late?" The question was a shot in the dark, I knew, and a vigorous shaking of Spike's head confirmed it.

"I wrote to Prince Rutherford immediately after I got it back. He said they'd left for Equestria six days ago and that they should've arrived at the palace by now. But it gets worse." My eyes widened in shock at the word "worse", though I didn't get time to think about it: Spike quickly conjured up three more letters, all of which bore my seal as well.

"I wrote to the Captain of the Crystal Guard, the Crystal Palace's head maid on the service staff and Cadance. All three got rerouted right back."

I stared idly for what likely was quite a while, the gears in my head spinning as I tried to comprehend what Spike had told me. Something had to be very wrong: even if Shining and Cadance were unavailable, both the Captain of the Guard, Silver Spear, and the head maid, Emerald Dream, would absolutely be available at any time. The fact that the letters weren't just unanswered, but rerouted was very concerning.

"Ugh, I really don't wanna travel anymore," I said, the fatigue bleeding slightly in my tone. "But we have to go see what's up. Words cannot tell you how much I want this to be nothing, but I have a feeling that it's quite the opposite." Spike nodded thoughtfully, looking around at the stained glass above him.

"Do you think it has anything to do with Violet?" he asked me quizzically. I nodded almost immediately in response, laughing anxiously just a bit as I did so.

"I'd be my life on it. We brought back another one of Celestia's old students named Cobalt from Hourton." Spike's eyes widened quickly, and I saw an emotion his face that I'd been hiding for quite a while during the course of the situation at hand.

Fear.

"W-What does this all mean?" Spike asked me. I forced myself to think for a few moments, running fruitless and empty possibilities through my mind, but in the end, I merely shrugged in defeat.

"I just don't know, Spike," I told him. "We need more information to understand this, uh, phenomenon. I think going to the Crystal Empire is going to help out with that tremendously, but I wish my gut feeling wasn't telling me that it may be dangerous." Spike stood still once more, thinking over my words ten times over before he looked up to me again, an amusingly surprised look displayed in his countenance.

"I've never known you as one to take up gut feelings, Twi." I looked at the window directly in front of me--a stained glass depiction of Celestia and Luna guiding Equestria from the clouds--for a few precious seconds, going through everything that had happened in the past week before finally answering my assistant.

"Things have been a lot different lately," I said, finally looking back down to him. "Sunset said she was taking Violet in for a physical. I'm gonna go see how that's going. I'll meet you for dinner!" I gave my warmest smile, making an attempt to lighten up the situation for both Spike and myself. Thankfully, he returned it in spades before nodding curtly and heading off in the opposite direction.

From the moment I started heading to the medical ward, a single word coursed through my mind and branded itself into my skull.

Why?

Why were Sunset and I drawn to Canterlot? Why was Violet, when she woke up after being dead for a thousand years?

Why did Cobalt wake up in Our Town, as if the universe knew we would be coming? Why was he drawn to the mountain pass, as if the universe had told him something was waiting for him?

Why wasn't my brother answering my letters? Why wasn't anypony at the Crystal Palace?

Why did more questions appear with every passing day? Why did it seem like with every revelation, we knew even less?

Why?

Why?

WHY?

I loved mysteries. I loved curling up late at night and reading through the grittiest and darkest noir books, profusely turning page after page as I analyzed the evidence and tried my absolute best to unveil the killer before the hero or heroine did. I loved flipping through the text of history books and non-fiction accounts, discovering Equestria's many real life mysteries and coming up with my own theories.

I loved mysteries.

I didn't love this one.

It seemed like just a blink before I came across Sunset leaning up against the wall right next to the entrance of the castle's medical ward. The doctor, Scarlett, was one of the very few ponies in the world who had earned a doctorate in Alicorn Medicine, Anatomy and Physiology, along with the privilege of joining a long line of castle doctors. She had studied very hard to get there, however, and thus was more than qualified to take on unicorns, pegasi and earth ponies.

Sunset, upon seeing me approach, hopped down from the wall and gave me a glowing grin as I approached.

"Hey Twi! What's up?" she said in greeting. I nodded my head towards the door.

"I was just dropping in to make sure the physicals were going well. Who's in first?" I asked. Sunset chuckled a little bit before responding.

"Violet, believe it or not. I'm standing close by, but she's seemed to have adapted to the modern technology very well! It's been smooth sailing so far, at least." Her face dropped immediately after she finished, and I was about to ask why before she interjected on my behalf.

"Is something wrong, Twilight? You seem worried." I couldn't help but laugh out loud: no matter how hard I tried, I always seemed to wear my emotions on my sleeve one way or another.

"Yeah," I said simply. "I think something's going on at the Crystal Palace. Spike and I sent letters and they're just coming right back. I think I have to check it out to see if it has anything to do with Violet and Cobalt, but I just really don't wanna travel again. It's all I've been doing lately, and I know that it's wrong of me to think that when my brother and Cadance could be in danger--" I was apt to continue, but Sunset quickly held her hoof up to stop me from going any further. She rested it on my shoulder and looked me straight in the eyes before she spoke.

"It's totally okay," she began. "I know my nerves are utterly shot right now, and you have every right to be tired of going back and forth. Unfortunately, it looks like we're going to be doing a lot of it if we want to find out what in Tartarus is happening." I didn't say anything in reply, but I could feel myself smiling back at her in reassurance. Sunset nodded her head down the hall in what I knew was the direction of the dining hall.

"I know you probably want to head out as soon as you can, and by the sounds of it that's probably a good idea... why don't we go and grab something to eat first? We'll talk with the others and relax for just a bit before we figure all of this out. That sound good?"

For the first time in the past week, I could feel myself breathing a heavy sigh of relief. With an exhausted smile I couldn't hold back, I gently brushed her hoof off my shoulder before nodding enthusiastically in agreement.

"That sounds great."

CHAPTER EIGHT

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CHAPTER EIGHT:
SALVATION


When the carraige began its agonizing ride to the Crystal Empire, it held only Rainbow Dash and I.

I didn't need an entire crew to come with me on what may very well have been a hunch, so I had to go over my options. I needed Sunset to stay with Violet and continue to help her adjust to the modern world. Cobalt had already gotten busy reading just about the entire library in an attempt to better understand Equestria's current technology, and I certainly didn't want to break him away from that. Trixie had to leave Canterlot the morning after to begin a small little tour of Equestria, and Starlight decided she wanted to help her out with her first show in Ponyville before she came back up to Canterlot. Finally, as much as she protested, I wanted Rarity to be at the castle when the other girls showed up: if she was there, I thought, they might not get as worried with a dear friend of ours present to reassure them.

That just left me with the world's fastest mare.

Rainbow was down for any adventure, but there were two reasons I wanted her to join me on my trip. The first was that she was an excellent fighter: having survived numerous scraps in her youth and eventually earning a black belt in martial arts, Rainbow's speed and combative prowess made her a nightmare for just about every villain we'd ever fought, sometimes becoming priority one even while I was in the mix.

I didn't like to think about the other reason. If something truly was wrong like I had a distinct feeling there was and I ended up captured, incapacitated, or killed, Rainbow could get to Canterlot very, very quickly. She'd be able to notify everypony in the castle exactly what had happened with a haste nopony else could manage, which certainly made me feel a lot better.

When I looked to my left to see what Rainbow was up to, I was met with a sight I had fully expected to see: the Element of Loyalty staring blankly out the window as our carriage rumbled on.

Rainbow liked to pretend that she wasn't a smart pony. She'd make her fair share of self-depreciating jokes--remarking often that she "wasn't the brainy one"--and teasingly called me an "egghead" from time to time, but I knew much better than that: she was very much among us and was far more intelligent than anypony ever gave her credit for. I knew for a fact that at this moment (and every other time we were headed straight for danger) she was running scenarios through her head at a rapid-fire speed, plotting out possibilities and theories. She may have been worried as I was, she may have been entirely confident, but there was no way to tell with her: 'Danger' was her middle name, and her nerves remained still as the calmest waters.

I heavily admired Rainbow Dash for countless reasons, and her ability to remain tranquil in what I had a distinct feeling was the face of hazard was well near the top of the list.

"Hey, egghead," I asked her teasingly. "Whatcha thinkin about?" My voice sounded weary and dull, but my mind had been racing at a thousand miles per minute: it was quite the odd combination, what with the body tiring and the mind never more awake. Rainbow shook out of her daze, it being the first time she'd heard me speak for quite a while, and she whipped back to me with a bit of a sly grin.

"The Crystal Palace," she answered curtly. "Just trying to see if I remembered the place, you know? Just in case." She leaned back in her seat, not hesitating to relax.

"Twi, you're really worked up over this. If this ends up being a waste of our time--and trust me, really hope it is--then you need to hit the hay on the ride back, sis. You deserve a good sleep." I laughed at that one, rolling my eyes to the ceiling before inexplicitly finding myself mimicking Rainbow and staring at my own window.

"I don't get bad feelings often, Rainbow," I told her, sighing loud and long. "I hope I'm wrong, but... I've been getting these weird gut feelings ever since I got to Canterlot last week. Something just doesn't seem right about this." I couldn't see what Rainbow was doing, but she didn't say anything for a moment. She thought my words over before finally responding after a silence.

"You're a fancy-schmancy Princess now, Twi. I'd trust your gut with my life... well, as long as it isn't your birthday party." I immediately turned around at that remark, my eyebrows playfully raised in an unamused glare as the slyest grin I'd ever seen grew faster and faster on Rainbow's lips.

"Are we still talking about this?" I asked her facetiously, helpless in my attempts to hid a smile from my face. "It was one night." Rainbow had already burst out laughing before I even finished and she shook her head violently at my last suggestion.

"It was not one night, Twilight. Don't even get me started on Fluttershy's garden party last year." I threw up a hoof to stop her, laughing just as hard as Rainbow and struggling just as well when I spoke.

"I have absolutely no intention to," I told her between giggling fits. I had a feeling that Rainbow had dug up my rare--uncommon--misgivings with alcohol in an order to calm my nerves: If I could tell that I was on edge, I knew well that she could too.

I couldn't be mad. It worked.

I don't remember much of the banter that followed before we got to the Crystal Empire. We talked about typical things: work, stallions, Daring Do, the weather--and time seemed to become a blur as the carriage chugged onward. Eventually, after what seemed to be the two of us trapped in an eternity of small talk, the carriage stopped firmly in its place and one of the two ponies pulling it opened the window behind them and peaked inside.

"We've arrived at the Palace, Princess."

I looked at Rainbow. I think I gulped, but she waved a hoof in dismissal before popping the latch on the carriage door and hopping out into the sun.

"It's probably nothin', Twi," she said when her hoof touched the ground. I sighed--I'd been doing that a lot today--and hopped out of the opposite side. Quickly, I skipped over to where the two ponies who had pulled the carriage were waiting, idly discussing something I couldn't decipher before I butted in.

"We should be back soon. Be ready to go at a moments notice, but if you feel like you're in danger leave the premise as quickly as you can." The two stallions nodded aggressively: satisfied, I went back around to meet Rainbow right in front of the Crystal Palace.

We were greeted with a familiar sight. The massive crystal arches that made up the palace's base were as extravagant as ever, and it still amazed me just how far off the ground the palace was before it truly began to form. The purple marble beneath us glimmered brilliantly in the sunlight, and the snowflake directly underneath the arches somehow glowed bright white even underneath the shade.

It was unbelievable, as always.

When I turned to Rainbow, however, she seemed entirely lost in thought. I'd immediately recognized the look in her eyes, and I spoke up to break her from her trance as soon as I could.

"Is something wrong?" I asked her, my words coming out far quicker than I'd like. She turned to me with her head cocked to the side in confusion.

"So you remember that one time we all visited the Crystal Empire about a month after the Crystalling because you had some sort of summit with the Princesses?" I nodded, my eyes steadily narrowing in confusion: I wasn't entirely sure where she was getting at. She turned away from me and pointed towards the giant snowflake in the center of the arches.

"While you were at the summit, the five of us wanted to visit Flurry Heart. We tried to enter the castle here, but the guard outside stopped us from entering. Dude was new on the job and had no idea who we were."

Suddenly, Rainbow's thought process clicked. I distinctly remembered it then: the girls had been waiting outside for over an hour before I got to them, and they were lucky I had already been through most of the summit. The guard's name was Steel Sentinel, and I had to tell him specifically to let us through so we could see Flurry. I'd talked to him quite a few times since then, and we'd always exchanged banter in regards to that incident: he was here just a month ago when I'd traveled to the Crystal Empire for Cadance's birthday.

There was no guard there now. The entire base of the palace was devoid and empty, and the longer I thought back--all the way to the first time I'd ever seen the Crystal Empire after its long disappearance--the more persistent a deeply disturbing thought echoed through my skull.

"There's always a guard here," I said aloud, the words ringing quiet and feeble. Rainbow didn't say anything at first, but after a few moments of silence she quickly stepped forward and made her way to one of the doors neatly embedded in the crystalline spires.

"Well, there ain't now," she said simply as I picked up my pace to follow. "I'm thinkin' you and Spike were maybe right to have a hunch." Before I knew it, we were at the door, and Rainbow immediately pressed down on the handle latch and pushed. It took no effort at all: the door, which for certain would be locked in daylight hours to complement the guard on patrol, easily opened at the slightest touch. Rainbow recoiled a bit at that, and she turned to me with a raised eyebrow.

We said nothing to each other before we finally trudged upwards, but our stares conveyed a novel's worth of words: both of our postures tightened, the alarms in our head frantically blaring at deafening volumes. The stairs might as well have been a mountain, and when we finally conquered its steep and daunting slope we emerged into the main hallway of the palace, where everything appeared to be unnervingly normal.

Everything was how I'd remembered it. The maroon carpet spanning for what must have been an eternity, the gorgeous crystalline walls and chandeliers, the moving paintings that lined the walls. It was all perfectly normal, except for one jarring instance.

It was dead quiet.

There was nopony here.

In a castle such as the Crystal Palace, there was always somepony to be heard. There were numerous servants that lived in the castle, as well as an entire garrison of guards, so the bustling of carts and the clanging of spears was all too common within the palace. The chefs could usually be heard shouting from the kitchen in any place you stood in, and there was always a messenger or two scampering about the hallways.

Not now. The silence almost made my ears hurt.

"Stay close," I said, looking over to Rainbow. She nodded immediately, and we gingerly walked down the hall together in silence.

We passed through the throne room first. The moment we stepped in, I could smell a nice lavender scent coursing through the room, and it didn't take Rainbow Dash a long time to say what I was thinking.

"This place is spotless," she mused, glancing around the room. The floor looked to have been very recently polished, and the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling looked as if they'd been bought yesterday. The throne itself, a strikingly beautiful crystalline chair emblazoned with Cadance's cutie mark in pure diamond, almost hurt to look at if I glanced at it right. It certainly looked as if the servants had done their best work in the room.

But they hadn't. They were gone.

"Oooooh, I'm getting the creeps," said Dash nervously. She nodded her head to the next hallway, and, despite not really having a choice in the matter, followed her lead. I remembered easily what the next doorway would bring: it was the beginnings of the large system of hallways that made up the castle's first floor, and it was a place I didn't particularly want to be at the moment.

The maze was fine at first. We didn't see anything particularly notable along the way, but the sheer emptiness in the air and the nothingness in the castle was grating heavily on both of us. It was like the worst kind of horror novel, waiting in suspense for a thing that may never come. The longer we walked, the worse it became, and I could feel my body convulsing internally with every step: Rainbow, too, seemed disturbed, as the mare who talked a mile a minute hadn't so much as whispered during our eldritch trek.

It wasn't until we rounded the hallway near the guard barracks that we saw it.

In the center of the hallway was a single, prone figure, slumped gently on the ground. It was a crystal guard, it's gleaming skin extinguished long, long ago. It lay idle in its heavy armor, the plate piling up uncomfortably whilst the prone soldier lie awkwardly. I couldn't tell how long it had been there, but the stallion hadn't just been felled recently, that was for certain.

I heard Rainbow gasp. She tried to keep it under her breath, but failed miserably: we had been staring at the figure for what seemed like an eternity, and when I finally broke my gaze and turned to her she held a look I had only very scarcely seen from the Element of Loyalty.

She was utterly petrified.

"Do you think h-he, he's... dead?" she asked me. The question was obvious--I'd been thinking it, too--but it was nonetheless a very good one, and with a very audible gulp I carefully walked to the downed guard.

The very first thing I noticed when I got close was the mane and fur: it was mottled and torn beyond belief. Some kind of massive struggle had to have occurred, as some parts of it had been tied together and others ripped from the body entirely. The face had been turned over recently, I figured, as some of the hair still remained in the spot directly behind the prone figure's head, but I wasn't at all expecting what I got when I carefully turned its head back towards me.

"AAAAH!" I shrieked, violently recoiling at the sight before me. Rainbow came running over immediately, and couldn't help but look down when she saw my hoof firmly glued to my mouth in horror.

Its eyes.

Or rather, its complete lack of them. The stallion's eyes were entirely pitch black, the sockets filled with a void that I couldn't really comprehend. The eyes were still present, but the eyeballs themselves were blacker than anything I'd ever seen. It took a slight shifting of my head to see only the barest glint of light upon the film, and I took a step back and forced myself to look away from what I was now one thousand percent certain was a body.

"What in Tartarus is that?" I said, exasperated and out of breath. Rainbow was still looking at the body, but had backed away a good two or three steps to stay right next to me. We both looked at each other at just about the exact same time, and the meaning in our gazes came through loud and clear: this had progressed far beyond a mere checkup.

Both of us made multiple attempts to speak, but Rainbow got her words out first, the franticness in her tone making her just barely understandable.

"S-Should we leave? Call f-for help?" she asked hurriedly. While the suggestion was very valid--Rainbow and I had been through a lot as Elements, but we hadn't seen anything like this--I immediately shook my head, pointing further down the hall.

"Celestia knows how much I want to," I began, doing my absolute best to recompose myself. "But... ponies could be in danger. If we find m-more of these bodies, we might be able to find what did it and put a stop to it." Rainbow's face looked entirely devoid of the confidence and bravado that had calmed me only hours ago, and so I quickly rested my hoof on her shoulder before I spoke to her next.

"I'm an alicorn princess, and you're a great fighter. Whatever this thing is... it hasn't fought us." Rainbow seemed to like those words, nodding slowly as they bounced around her head. She was lost in thought for a few moments, the thousand-mile stare she'd had not entirely gone yet, but she looked towards me again and pointed to the body: I made a quick business decision not to follow her hoof.

"We need to find the guard barracks. They're close, right? Do you know where they are?" I nodded confidently, both asserting that I did, in fact, know where they were while also agreeing with the suggestion at hand: we had to see if there were any guards left in the castle or at least a semblance of where they went if they weren't here.

The walk to those barracks was filled with a paranoia that chewed away at me slowly like a vulture on carrion. With every hallway corner we turned, I fully expected to find another body laying there or another horror in the middle of the hallway. My nerves had been entirely shot, and the occasional glance at Rainbow Dash showed that she wasn't holding up well herself.

We passed through the dining hall, precisely maneuvering around the massive table and many chairs that blocked the center of the room, and I was greeted with a very familiar sight when the two of us converged again on the other side.

Steel Sentinel, the guard that had roamed the base of the Crystal Palace, lied prone just like the last body we had seen. He was lying next to two other bodies, one a mare with a black coat and turquoise mane and the other a stallion with a white coat and navy blue mane, but the orange across the entirety of Sentinel's body gave him away. Unlike the other ponies I'd seen, Sentinel's body didn't show any heavy signs of struggle, and he looked as if he'd been there only quite recently. Rainbow's mouth was agape, and she looked to me with eyes that had slightly begun to water.

"T-That's the guy! That stopped us..." I nodded solemnly before pointing down the hallway again. It was a gesture the both of us had repeated numerous times today, and it was an action our bodies violently rebelled against, but with a deep breath I walked on: after a few seconds, I could hear the uneven hoofsteps from Rainbow following suit.

As soon as we began to walk down the relatively short hall to the entrance of the barracks, it came clear my worst fear had already been realized.

I could see in view a lone mare with a snowy coat lying sprawled on one of the beds, the void in her eyes contrasting far too clear for comfort with her fur. I stopped dead in the middle of the hallway and could feel myself begin to hyperventilate, my heart pounding furiously as if it were attempting to break out of my chest. Rainbow saw it too, of course, and she immediately let out a noise that I could only determine was a mix of revulsion and frustration. I turned to her with a look I couldn't decipher myself.

"We... we have to check, Rainbow," I told her, my voice sounding as thoroughly unconvincing as it could have. She didn't reply for a few moments, looking back behind her only to be greeted by the sight of more bodies. She quickly turned away and looked at me, gesturing towards the barrack doors with feeble faux confidence.

"Lead the way," she said simply, her voice cracking at the height of her sentence. Closing my eyes, I turned and walked straight into the room, mentally preparing myself for what my eyes would see when I ripped off the band-aid and opened them.

It didn't work in the slightest.

No amount of preparation could prepare me for the harrowing scene of the room. I couldn't even count how many guards there were, but there had to be just over twenty, some lying on their beds and other strewn about carelessly in a heap: all, however, had the horrific black eyes I'd come to see in the palace. A few beds were tipped over, and the desks in the corner of the room were in shambles across the entirety of the area. As I absolutely forced myself to look at the guards, my hoof covering my mouth again in sheer terror, I saw that there was clearly combative magic used in the area, with evidence of bolts both imprinted in the walls and seared into some of the guards' fur.

Rainbow, who had hung around just outside the doorframe, didn't get sick behind me, but I could absolutely hear every bit of the effort to stem it down. I took a single look around the room for one last time before my thoughts forced themselves into the air.

"What is this?" I spoke, my eyes wide as the moon and my voice empty and dull.

"Salvation."

The voice that answered was loud, and It certainly wasn't Rainbow's.

I whipped around and saw that Rainbow had done the very same. There was a pony I could only barely make out in front of her, so I quickly scampered to her side to get a better look.

The figure that had revealed himself was a unicorn stallion, slightly taller than the average male but very slim and fit. He had an artic white coat and his mane and tail was a pleasant shade of amber, and he wore what appeared to be a dark black cloak over the majority of his body. His face was uncovered, however, and for the millionth time that day I quickly became jarred at the sight of his eyes.

The purple mist bleeding into the air surrounded his gaze. His sclera was a sickly lime green, the veins in his eyes brought out by the shade. His iris was the color of blood, and his pupils dark as a moonless night.

I'd seen those eyes in King Sombra. I'd seen them in Celestia when she taught me a very important lesson, and I'd felt them in myself when I'd opened the secret passageway in this very castle's throne room long ago.

This pony had been entirely consumed by dark magic, and it didn't take me a whole lot of time to figure out that he had almost assuredly committed the travesty Rainbow and I had seen before us.

"Princess Twilight Sparkle," the stallion said. His voice was uninspiringly normal, devoid of any accent and maybe a little higher than usual: for whatever reason, it only made me more nervous. "I got your letters."

Letters.

Cadance.

Shining.

The grisly images of my step-sister and brother left in the states I had seen flashed through my mind, but they didn't fill me with fear. Instead, I felt a blazing boil rise through me, and I could feel my countenance twist in anger as I violently stepped forward and looked to the stallion.

"Where are Cadance and Shining?" I asked through gritted teeth, my voice piercing through strong and loud for the first time in quite a while. The stallion merely chuckled at the sight of my fury, nonchalantly shaking his head before he replied.

"No time for formalities, hmm? I don't know where Shining and Cadance are. I expected this Empire's sovereigns to be present, but from the information I've gathered, they're currently on a diplomatic mission to Yakyakistan. A shame," he mused, looking around the environment around him. "I cannot bring them the salvation the ponies of this castle have received."

In hindsight, I was very thankful this pony had shown up, as his personality had erased all the fear and dread we'd had inside us moments ago. I could tell that Rainbow, too, was enraged, and she quickly leaned backward in a combat stance before she barked out to the stallion.

"Salvation? You... you killed these ponies! We're gonna make you pay for this!" The stallion laughed again, but it wasn't harmless this time: it was deeply sinister, and every cackle was filled with malice.

"How that mare has misled the both of you," he began. "These ponies have found a greater purpose. A purpose you two shall find in yourselves."

The stallion gestured behind us with his hoof, pointing directly between Rainbow and I. When we turned around, we immediately stumbled backward: I didn't believe it was possible after what I had seen, but the sight before me had left me petrified.

The guards in the room, moments ago lifeless and limp, stood where they had fallen. Rainbow and I hadn't heard them rise from their positions at all: it was almost as if they'd been that way the entire time. Their armor hung loosely from their body, some of it strewn across incorrectly, but they didn't particularly seem to care. They stood disturbingly still, to the point where I could have mistaken them for mannequins had I not only just seem them in the state they'd been in moments ago. They didn't make a sound, they didn't move an inch, and they didn't say a word.

They merely stared emptily with the void in their gaze.

"These ponies have found the darkness," the stallion explained calmly. "Join them."

I didn't know who this pony was. I didn't know how he was doing what he was doing, or what his motive was for doing so. I did know one thing, though: I was surrounded by dark magic corruptions that I figured weren't looking to exchange pleasantries and that whoever it was that had been speaking to us very much wanted Rainbow and I to become one of them.

So naturally, I did the first thing I could think of: I shot a bolt of magic at his face.

I was well aware at this point how powerful this pony was, and I had been gravely afraid that he'd dodge out of the way with reflexes I couldn't see with the naked eye or stare it down and laughed as it harmlessly bounced off him. Thankfully, neither of those things happened, and the bolt sent him careening backward as it collided with his skull. The blast was concussive, but I had a feeling it wouldn't keep the stallion down for long, so I quickly whipped around to see a massive sea of ponies slowly advancing towards us.

"We can't fight all of these things!" Rainbow shouted. Her words bounced around the room, as the ponies still made absolutely no noise as they walked. I scanned the room quickly before an idea popped into my head: I grabbed Rainbow by the hoof and dragged her through the doorframe, using my magic to shut the door to the barracks tight.

"No, but we don't have to," I replied frantically. Using every seal and bind spell I knew, I ran my magic around the edges of the doorframe to firmly anchor the edges of the door itself. The ponies inside made noise now, banging loudly from the other side, but there was simply no use. My magic prevented them from even budging the door, so I turned back around as quickly as I could before I spoke to Rainbow again.

"We should be good for a while, but I don't know exactly how long that will hold. Stay sharp." She nodded firmly, and we both looked down the hall to see the stallion I'd just blasted seconds ago had vanished.

"Oh, come on!" Rainbow exclaimed, the tired frustration in her voice glaringly apparent. We both wanted to leave, but we had to fight our way out first, and I wasn't going to bank on this mystery stallion letting us waltz out the door. Regardless, I wasn't too thrilled with the prospect of letting whoever this was continue to do... this, and so if we had an opportunity to incapacitate him we absolutely had to take it.

We took a few steps forward, but my trained ears perked up immediately at a rapidly rising sound behind us. I'd come to know what magic sounded like on the charge from my youth around my entirely unicorn family and my many, many days spent under the tutelage of Celestia. As such, when I heard it behind the two of us, I immediately shoved Rainbow into the wall and used the momentum to push myself to the opposite one.

The stallion's draw was much faster than I anticipated, and while I managed to take Rainbow completely out of harm's way I felt a very painful beam of energy scrape across my face. It was only a graze, but I recognized the spell merely from the feeling: it was a laceration spell, though the dark magic behind it made it far more powerful than any I'd ever encountered. If I hadn't moved when I did, it was very likely the bolt would have pierced straight through me.

I hit the wall with a thud, though I was able to catch myself and prevent any chance I had of hitting the ground. When I looked up, I saw Rainbow had flown as fast as she could towards the stallion and was currently engaging him in combat, standing on her back legs and assaulting the stallion with her front hooves.

Rainbow knew how to fight unicorns--really, anything with a horn--in the sense that distraction is a magic user's greatest disadvantage. We needed to concentrate to use magic, and I don't think there's another mare in the world who can disrupt that as well as Rainbow Dash could. Her speed was blinding and she hit hard as Tartarus, so I was genuinely surprised to see that while our new stallion friend wasn't entirely unphased by her style, he was still holding up fairly well.

"My my, aren't you a fast one?" he quipped, sending off bolts of magic as hastily as he could. Rainbow was dodging just about every one of them, but she herself was only getting in a precious few punches, and it didn't take long before one of the stallion's bolts finally connected. The spell was blunt, and the impact to Rainbow's side was enough to send her flying through the air.

Ever quick to react, her wings opened immediately, and the Wonderbolt gracefully floated to the ground as soon as she righted herself in the air. I ran to where she'd landed, and as soon as she saw me her eyes grew wide in shock.

"Twilight! Your face!" she said, almost in a scream. I ran a hoof over it and quickly remembered that I'd been hit with a laceration spell: there was a LOT of blood, but I waved my hoof in dismissal before turning to our opponent, who this time had opted to stay where he was.

"Looks much worse than it is. I'll be fine," I told her, facing our opponent. "What do you want?" The pony stayed silent at first, opting to listen to the chorus of pounding hoofs at the door behind him before finally responding.

"To show you the light that is the darkness," he answered. "To show everypony."

Suddenly, he activated his magic, the sickly green aura engrossing his horn. Rainbow and I stood fast, awaiting whatever magic it was he was preparing, but it never came: despite his aura pulsating continuously, there appeared to be nothing actually happening.

That is until I looked behind him.

The magic barrier I had created was slowly slipping away, the stallion erasing my binding spells with his dark magic. I debated for a split second firing at him, but it would be no use, as he'd already done more than enough damage: the pounding of the guard ponies violently rocked the door more and more, and it would be a matter of seconds until it burst down entirely. Rainbow caught on as well, and she looked to me with a frantic expression as the pounding got louder and louder. I didn't look back at her.

There was only one option left.

"RUN!" I shouted, whipping around and galloping the fastest I could, but I immediately stopped to a grinding halt.

Some of the ponies I had seen lying on the floor earlier, including Steel Sentinel, had silently blocked the hallway while we were fighting the stallion. That wasn't all, though: they were joined by a multitude of other ponies, some of which I'd recognized as donning servant uniforms. The mass of black eyes' piercing gazes were enough to jolt my body into action, but Rainbow verbalized it before it actually occurred.

"FLY!" She yelled, taking to the air with a strong push. Once I joined her, I had a feeling that the silent terrors below us would follow if they had wings, and my suspicions were confirmed when a handful of the ponies rose up to meet us. I wasn't too worried about that, though, as Rainbow and I charged through the crowd with my magic blasting anything I could see take to the air.

Unfortunately, this didn't last long either, as the unicorns who this stallion had corrupted quickly fired their magic in a volley. Although they weren't strenuously accurate, they didn't need to be, and one bolt clipped the upper part of my wing and sent me sprawling to the ground. My yelp alerted Rainbow Dash, and she quickly flew to the side in an attempt to catch me, but she was too late: I hit the ground hard, which in itself caused a rather large problem.

My freefall would have merely been a bit painful if not for the way I had landed on my front right hoof. It touched the ground first and my momentum put my entire body weight on top of it, causing it to fold in on itself. I knew right away it was bad, but when I hopped up fast to start running I was met with a blindingly painful jolt up to my knee. I cried out again, but didn't stop running, using my three good hooves and holding my bad one up to my chest.

Rainbow noticed, but didn't say anything, instead opting to run ahead of me. I had only taken a few steps before a horrible realization had hit me.

They're going to be faster than me.

Though I couldn't hear them, I knew at least one would catch up. Rainbow was already outpacing me, and because their hoofsteps were silent I had no way to know if one was close or not. I looked down quickly at my hoof as I ran, and a primal thought came to my head.

I couldn't heal the hoof. There was absolutely ligament damage, and as powerful as I was I didn't know any spells that could mend it without seriously altering its structure. I did, however, know a spell that could stop the pain, and I quickly jolted the injured hoof area before letting it down again and running with all my might.

It would cause much more damage to the ligament, but this was a matter of life and a fate worse than death.

We rounded a corner, though we had to keep looking back to make sure they weren't getting any ground. I had a magical shield up behind us to block any magic that would come our way, and it wasn't much of a strain to continue as we aimlessly ran through the halls: although it was large in volume, the magic from the unicorns appeared severely neutered, which I chalked up to the effort of sustaining their reanimation (though it was still enough to shoot me down, it seemed).

Eventually, the things became distant, and Rainbow and I found ourselves alone. I looked around the hallways we'd been running in and found what I was looking for: one of the palace's many small utility closets. I ran over to it and opened it, silently gesturing for Rainbow to hop in. She looked around before following me, and we closed the door shut and flipped the light switch on before sitting down.

The both of us were entirely exhausted, and though it seemed I had taken the brunt of our injuries, it looked as if Rainbow was beginning to develop some severe bruising on her sides. I quickly grabbed a rag from the vast array of cleaning supplies and wiped my face with it, revealing that I still had a considerable amount of blood originating from my earlier cut. When we caught our breath, she looked down at my hoof and began to whisper.

"I'm surprised you can still walk on that," she told me, nodding to it. I shook my head and responded as quietly as I could.

"I can't. I numbed it so I could run. Listen, I'm going to teleport us out of here, but I need to make sure that--"

I stopped dead in the middle of my sentence, holding a hoof up and pressing my ear to the door. There were footsteps coming from the hallway, and I suspected it was the stallion. A few moments later, he spoke loudly through the corridor, confirming my suspicion: I knew he had to ability to mask his hoofsteps, but he didn't even bother as he called out.

"Come on out, Twilight!" He called, a creeping arrogance carrying through his tone. He was playing games with us now, clearly inspired by his overwhelming advantage, and it pleased me that he was that type of pony. I began to develop an idea, and I made sure to reiterate with my good hoof that Rainbow needed to stay absolutely silent.

Performing two spells at the same time was never easy. Depending on the spell, doing so for even a short amount of time could physically drain a unicorn for a few good minutes, but this opportunity was simply too good to pass up. I prepared two spells: the first was a bolt of magic, and the second was a quieting spell to prevent the continuous charging of said bolt to give away where we were or what we were up to. Blissfully unaware, the stallion continued walking forward.

"You know you can't hide from me," he mused, my heartbeats timed to the steps in his gait. I couldn't help but smirk as he waltzed right where I wanted him, and with all my might I removed the quieting spell and blasted off the bolt I'd been charging straight through the door in front of us.

I knew I would obliterate the door, but what was most important was the pony standing on the other side of it. The stallion promptly got thrust into the wall, and I knew very well he wouldn't easily be getting up from that one: he was a very powerful stallion, but I was an alicorn princess, and that may have been one of the biggest damn bolts of magic I'd ever unleashed.

Rainbow rushed forward, but I needed a few seconds to recuperate after the power I'd put forth. Thankfully, due to my experience and general level of power, it didn't take long, and I quickly ran to the scene to find the stallion pinned to the ground with Rainbow standing on top of him.

"I wouldn't move, pal!" she shouted. Thankfully, there didn't seem to be any of the corrupted ponies around us, so I advanced forward and stood by Rainbow's side to take a look at the stallion.

He was clearly dazed, the hit bringing him a healthy dosage of pain, but he didn't look too affected otherwise. He was tough to crack, that much was certain, and so I made sure to take advantage of the opportunity as I leaned down to face him.

"Who are you? And why are you here?" I asked assertively, making sure to step down on him hard for emphasis. I realized a moment later that it was with my bad hoof, but I didn't particularly care at the time: it didn't hurt yet.

The stallion looked up to me, and I saw something that almost made me step back.

He was amused.

He had been hit by a locomotive of a magic bolt, and careened hard into the wall. None of us were doing so hot in regards to injuries, but this pony that I knew had to have still been in an agonizing amount of pain had a nonchalant look on his face, as if he wasn't in any sort of danger. He looked up to me, though his visage wasn't worried: instead, it his glare was serious, and he raised his eyebrows as he spoke with conviction.

"Ask your master."

I opened my mouth to respond, but the sudden ignition of his horn caused both Rainbow and I to jump back. We stood prepared for anything, our weary bodies revolting at the thought of engaging in yet another extend brawl, but it soon became clear that we wouldn't have to. In a flash, he disappeared, leaving only the marble floor and the pieces of the door at our hooves.

Rainbow and I stood there for what seemed like forever. We were both thinking about what had just happened, and the entirety of the day played through my head on loop. Never had I seen anything as terrifying and surreal as I had seen in the last hour or so, but I quickly snapped out of my trance: we didn't have time to think.

I was certain he'd teleported away from the castle, but I didn't know whether that action would revert the ponies he had enthralled to their previous states or whether they would still be... activated, per say. Whatever it was, I wasn't going to stick around and find out, and so I ran over to Rainbow and quickly wrapped my wing around her.

"Hold on!" I said loudly, making sure to grip her as tight as I could.

I could feel the familiar magical wave wash over the both us, and it didn't take long before we had left the horrors of the Crystal Palace behind.

CHAPTER NINE

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CHAPTER NINE:
CHRYSANTHEMUM


We did four things when we ended up outside the castle.

The first--and by far the most important--was to notify the next-in-command that close to thirty thralls currently resided inside the castle. The only problem was that we didn't know exactly who that was supposed to be, as the first three ponies to talk to were still (thankfully) on their way back from Yakyakistan and the fourth in command, the Captain of the Guard, wasn't particularly feeling like himself at the moment.

After talking it over for quite some time, we decided that the hospital would be the best place to go. The Crystal Heart Hospital had connections all over Equestria, and they could not only easily spread the news to the citizens of the town but also notify the guards from other nearby cities to help take care of the situation now that the mysterious stallion was gone.

The second thing was at Rainbow and the hospital's behest. I had subconsciously begun walking on my very hurt hoof again, and I was limping when we pulled into the hospital. On top of the dried blood that had almost entirely covered my face, the nurses took note of my hoof and demanded I come in to get it looked at. I told them I would have excellent care back in Canterlot and that we needed to leave quickly, but Rainbow insisted that I at least get it wrapped up. The nurses stabilized it by placing it firmly on my chest with bandages for the ride back, leaving me thoroughly wrapped in gauze on my upper body.

Next, I wrote two letters that I had the hospital send out. The first was to Celestia explaining the basis of the situation, that I was injured and likely needed to be attended to when we got back, and that we were on our way and would be there in the by nightfall.

The second was to Shining, Cadance, and Sunburst, which I told the hospital to send only if they could get a messenger to their exact location as it seemed like they had been somehow delayed on their way back from Yakyakistan. I told them--much more in-depth--what had occurred, and to most importantly be careful on their way back.

Finally, when Rainbow and I hopped back in our carriage, I lied down on the long cushioned bench and fell asleep almost immediately.

My sleep was a dreamless bliss: I hardly ever got to nap, but whenever I was afforded the luxury there wasn't anything in Equestria that could wake me. The last time I'd passed out entirely was before the Grand Equestria Pony Summit, and after that debacle I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't go too long without sleeping again.

After what had happened, however, I was more tired than I'd ever been in my life. My face hurt, my sides hurt, and the painkilling spell on my hoof and knee area was slowly wearing off, so it didn't take long before I was out like a light.

I didn't wake up naturally: Rainbow shook me awake once the carriage had arrived at Canterlot's castle. I had expected her to mock me in her general fashion, but she was instead very ginger once my eyes slowly opened.

"Good morning, egghead. Be careful getting up, you don't wanna roll on your hoof." Nodding wearily, I slowly twisted my way to my good three legs, stretching a bit as we stepped outside. Thankfully, it was getting dark out, so my eyes didn't have to adjust to any brightness. I nodded thankfully to the guards with a smile before we began the short walk to the castle doors.

"How are you holding up?" I asked Rainbow when we got to the steps. Her gestures gave away the answer before she could say anything, as she very visibly winced when she opened the large double doors: she had very bad bruising on her right side where she'd been hit by the stallion's spell, and a bit of bruising on the other side from smaller hits.

"Not great," she began, "Though much better than you. I was supposed to perform at the Wonderbolts Canterlot show next week, but I'm thinking that may be a stretch. I'm gonna see what the doctor says." I nodded in encouragement, internally sighing in relief that I wasn't going to have to convince Rainbow to see the doctor.

When we entered the castle, the both of us were surprised to see that everypony was already waiting for us. Sunset, Violet, Cobalt, and Rarity were sitting on the benches to both sides of the main entry hall, having a conversation we came in late for. Starlight still wasn't back from Ponyville quite yet, but she was quickly replaced in the mix two-fold, as Applejack and Pinkie Pie were now present among the group. When they saw us, their eyes lit up one by one like a string of lights on Hearth's Warming Day and the group simultaneously arose to greet us.

"Girls!" said Applejack loudly, running up to me first. I couldn't hold up a hoof to make her slow down, so I quickly spoke just as she was reaching me.

"Not too rough!" I exclaimed, though I couldn't help but let a chuckle escape my lips as she suddenly slowed the best she could and gingerly wrapped her arm around me. I felt bad that I couldn't return it, but AJ didn't seem to mind, and she held on for what seemed like forever before she finally relented.

"Ahm so glad yer back in one piece, sugar," she told me as she withdrew from the embrace. I nodded with a weak smile and figured I would need to get some more sleep sooner than later.

"Yeah, I am too," I said curtly. The other ponies had been busy hugging Rainbow Dash, but they eventually came over to embrace me the best they could as well. I'd be lying if I said that some overly excited ponies--namely Pinkie and Rarity--didn't accidentally hurt me a bit with their hugs, but I didn't say anything. I couldn't hug them back, but after the entire ordeal I'd gone through I was more than happy to be embraced by my friends.

Once the pleasantries were over, I started walking towards the medical wing, though I stopped and turned around before I got too far.

"I have to go see Doctor Scarlet," I told the group loudly so everypony could hear. "But once I'm done... we have to talk."


I never liked the going to the doctor's office.

There was always so many tests and paperwork, and the boring and bland white on the walls made me want to be anywhere else. It was why I had been elated when I walked into Doctor Scarlet's room in the medical wing the first time, as she made sure it was painted colorfully for a nice change of pace. She was an incredibly nice pony, and as the personal doctor of the Royal Sisters and one of the very few ponies licensed to see alicorns, she was very good at her job.

She'd done most of the bulk work already--hitting my hoof with her best mending spell and looking over my face--and she had been in the back room for quite a bit looking over the results. I'd been observing one of the colorful patterns on the ceiling when she walked back in, a clipboard hanging gently by her side in the air as her horn lit up with a hot pink aura. She also had a large bag slung over her shoulder that I assumed contained an assortment of things I needed to get better.

"Alright, Twilight," she began, walking over to where I had been sitting on the exam table. "I have good news and some goodish bad news." I laughed, finding Scarlet's choice of words rather strange, but I was still certainly happy that there was at least some good in the bad.

"I'll take the fully good news first," I told her with a sly smile. She returned with a short chuckle before she looked over the clipboard.

"The good news is that the scar running across your face is hypertrophic. It isn't ever going to completely go away, but I accelerated the healing process and after a few months or so I seriously doubt it will be noticeable to the everyday pony." I nodded in acknowledgment: I'd rather have a scar that lasted forever as opposed to having been killed on the spot by that laceration spell, so I was perfectly happy with that outcome.

"Now, for the bad news." She nodded towards the hoof I'd let gingerly hang by side while she inspected it. It was swollen very badly and I suffered extreme pain from even barely moving it: a mend spell from the doctor alleviated the swelling and pain a little bit, but it was only a minute improvement.

"I don't know how bad the injury initially was, but what you came to me with was one of the worst grade three sprains I think I've ever seen on anypony. The ligament was entirely torn, and it's really a miracle that the numbing spell actually allowed you to stand on it, let alone walk and run." She pulled out from her bag what I knew to be a sling of some sort and what looked to be a walking boot.

"I was able to mend some of it back together with my magic, but I could only do so much. It's officially a grade two sprain now, but it's a very bad one. I'm still not entirely sure you can walk on it yet, but I wouldn't want you to even if you could, so I'm gonna have you in this sling for a week or two. Once that's done, I'll put you in this boot and you'll be completely recovered in about ten weeks or so. And before you say anything--" I had already opened my mouth to object, but the doctor held up a hoof to stay my words.

"--I know what's happening is very strange, and I know that ponies are in danger," she began. "But I--we--can't have you getting seriously hurt. You need to stay out of any combative situation for until that hoof is fully healed. Do you understand?"

I thought about it for a minute. In a time like this, I desperately wanted to be able to fight, because I knew very well that this mystery wasn't going to be solved without any confrontation.

At the same time, though, I knew I had numerous ponies around me that could do just fine. Rainbow was a very proficient combatant, Starlight had nearly beat me at the height of my power when we were enemies, and Sunset Shimmer had trained under Celestia for almost as long as I had. Violet and Cobalt were no slouches, either, not to mention that I'd be joined by my five best friends to boot.

We were gonna be just fine.

"I understand," I told her firmly nodding my head as I did so. Scarlet nodded before setting the clipboard down and grabbing the sling with her magic before walking over to my side. She undid the sling and put the strap over my shoulder before she looked me in the eyes.

"This might hurt a bit, but I'm going to be as ginger as I can," she told me. I gulped far more audibly than I wanted to, closing my eyes in preparation for the pain of adjusting the hoof.

It hurt.

A lot.

After that, though, I was free to go. I was instructed to hit it with my numbing spell whenever it got too painful, but not to over-do it to keep some feeling in it while the injury healed. I thanked her profusely, but like always, Scarlet merely laughed and brushed the compliment aside, only wishing me well on a fast recovery. With a smile, I nodded and headed out of the room and I was immediately greeted by the sight of Rainbow Dash.

She quickly looked to my arm in the sling before looking back at me, a sense of worry and fear in her eyes.

"How long?" she asked simply. I sighed, still greatly unsatisfied with the answer I gave her.

"Doctor says around ten weeks. I wanna get out there," I told her, a hint of frustration in carrying through my voice. Rainbow shook her head in the negative before gently walking over and giving me the best hug she could manage. She tactfully avoided the sling, but the embrace was still tight.

"I know how it feels, Twi," she replied, still holding on. "But you'll be better soon. And don't get lazy now that you're hurt, you hear me? We'll need you to coach us from the sidelines, you know." I couldn't help but laugh as we broke apart, rolling my eyes as I looked back to Rainbow.

"I think Celestia's the coach around here," I replied. I looked down the hall, going through the twists and turns in my head that I knew led to the throne room.

"You go on ahead, Rainbow," I said absently, still locked in my stare. "And when you're finished, we're gonna go over our gameplan."


I waited until Rainbow Dash had finished her exam before we got together as a group.

She was bruised fairly badly on both sides, but that was about the worst of it. She had two large packs of ice strapped to both sides of her body with a long line of gauze, which she was instructed to frequently replace, and much to my chagrin Rainbow had already asserted me of her intention to defy the doctor's orders and fly with the Wonderbolts next week if everything here was taken care of. Although I was upset with her on the outside, I couldn't help but be glad that she was in such good spirits after what we had seen.

I'd gotten a letter back from the hospital. Help had arrived to the Crystal Palace, and they saw what we'd seen, the ponies lying motionless with pitch black eyes. The guards called in from neighboring shifts didn't want to mess with anything until Shining, Cadance, and Starburst got back, and they were considering trying to use the magic in the Crystal Heart to revive the fallen guards and servants. Until then, though, the hospital informed me the staff would assume the worst.

In the meantime, however, we needed answers, and so I gathered everypony in the throne room to get them.

When we all walked into the throne room, I didn't need any confirmation that Celestia had received my letter.

Her eyes looked empty and weary. She had been so elated to see Cobalt and Violet return to her these past few weeks, but with the news of what Rainbow and I had experienced, it seemed as if the life had been entirely sucked out of her. She sat on her throne with a serious posture--she never slouched or sulked in all the years I'd known her--but there was a somber air about her that suffocated the room. Luna had a gaze of worry and anxiousness, and it was her that spoke first when everypony was properly gathered.

"Sister, if this is hard for you, do not fret and take your time." Celestia shook her head immediately, sighing deeply as she looked to the small crowd before her.

"No, I am fine. And I wanted to start out by giving an apology," she began. "The possibility that my less-than-savory students could appear crossed my mind, but I was so happy to see Violet and Cobalt that I didn't want to let myself think of the possibility. That included not talking about it, and I put Twilight and Rainbow Dash in grave danger because of my foolishness, and got one of my faithful students seriously injured." I wanted to hold up a hoof to wave away her worries, but I couldn't: instead, I spoke up as quickly as I could.

"I'll be okay, Princess." I began. "We just want to know what we're dealing with, because I have a feeling that this stallion will be back again." The Princess of the Sun nodded somberly before beginning her long awaited explanation.

"I've only had three other students," she replied. "The student I had before Sunset was a mare named Silver Jubilee, and when--if--she comes back to us, she'll be a wonderful addition to our group. She had a bit of a rough edge to her, but she was a mare who was incredibly gifted and compassionate. She died untimely, and I didn't have another apprentice for years because of it until I met Sunset." Her face brightened with the mention of Silver, but it dropped just as fast, and I had a growing feeling the next name didn't evoke any pleasant memories.

"The second, an apprentice sometime after Violet died, was a stallion named Zephyr. That was the stallion you fought at the Crystal Palace." She leaned back in her chair, waiting for a question she knew would come. Sure enough, Rainbow called out with an inquiry we had all been thinking.

"This pony had the Sombra eyes goin'," she said. "Dark magic, right? What happened?"

Celestia looked down at the floor for a moment, attempting to find the right words to begin her tale. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out, and it took a few seconds for her to start her story."

"Zephyr was very bright. Staggeringly, in fact," she began hesitantly. "He was always full of joy and he was very inquisitive. He had a strong set of values and beliefs, and we fought very often about a lot of things despite our love for each other. Zephyr was unsatisfied with the way life around him was perceived, and he constantly yearned for something more. No matter how much I tried to explain to him what I knew of our world, he believed that there was something else going on in the universe that we did not understand yet.

"He had a mare he loved very much, a girl named Chrysanthemum, whom we often called Chrys. She was a beautiful mare with a beautiful soul, and the two had connected the very moment they'd met. Chrys and Zephyr were inseparable, and when he had reached his very late twenties they wed. Zephyr lived happily with her as he continued his studies with me, but there came a day that changed his life." Pinkie Pie quickly rose her hoof, and Celestia had a quick laugh as she nodded and gave her permission to speak.

"Did something happen to Chrys?" she asked. Her tone wasn't hyper and frenetic as it often was, but respectful, and Celestia grimly nodded once more as she continued her story.

"Yes. She had gone to the doctors for a routine checkup when they discovered she had developed a respiratory disease that, at the time, was incurable. She was dying, and she had come to accept her fate and cherish the time she had left with her friends and family. Zephyr, however, was crushed beyond repair and refused to do so, and he obsessively stayed awake for days on end looking for a cure.

"It was in the Starswirl the Bearded wing of the archives, about a month or so until the doctors had assumed she would succumb to her illness, that he had found his perceived answer. It was a book dated back a hundred years or so before I had banished Luna, and in it was a spell that claimed it could cure any affliction or illness." I was beginning to catch on to it now, and I was about to make a guess when, in what seemed to be an increasingly common occurrence during our time together, Sunset beat me to it.

"It was a dark magic tome," She interjected firmly. Celestia nodded again, though this time I saw the faintest hint of a tear drop from her eye. When she spoke next, there were the beginnings of a crack in her inflection as she got more and more emotional with each word.

"I told him that I refused to allow him to use the spell on Chrys. I knew she wouldn't want him to use the darkness to save her, and I didn't want my student to succumb to it, but my words fell on deaf ears. He became enraged and accused me of letting Chrys die, and no matter how much I pleaded with him he would only yell louder. For a few days, he disappeared, and I assumed he was dealing with the grief of losing his beloved and was preparing for her death in his own way, wherever he was. I sent out a search party to find him, but it was no use." She paused for a moment, sniffling and looking around the room's decor, and she once again leaned backward in her chair: I knew then that she had much more of the story to tell.

"One day, as her illness grew worse, I arrived back at the castle from a delegate meeting..."

CHAPTER TEN

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CHAPTER TEN:
WIDOWER


I remember the day my sister blotted out the sun.

I had walked into the castle and felt my stomach drop immediately. Nothing bad had occurred that day in particular--I had attended a meeting with the farmers in Canterlot as they discussed the current agricultural climate and what to expect for the coming season, if I recall correctly--but the mundane (yet important) cloud in my mind cleared immediately as my spine began to tingle.

I knew something was very, very wrong, and the moment I walked into that throne room and saw my sister slowly turn to me with a burning hatred in her eyes the likes of which I had never seen before, my fight-or-flight response shook me to my very core.

I remember what it felt like very vividly, and I could not even replicate it when it crossed my mind. I often wondered if there was some sort of innate magic I had that warned me of the coming danger that day, but I did not think about it much longer: after I had banished Luna to the moon, I never felt it again.

Not until I had taken my first step into the castle after returning from a delegate meeting.

I remember how deafening the silence was. Silence was a strange thing, as one traditionally blocks out all the noise and banter they hear in a place they have been so many times, but it immediately becomes noticeable when it has gone. The castle just felt barren and empty, and I got that exact same pit in my stomach I remembered from the very worst day of my long, long life.

My first instinct was to call out. I knew I would not get an answer, but desperation prevailed, taking a hold of me before I could make any effort to combat it.

"Hello?" I asked. My words echoed off the walls, bouncing back to my ears with reverberation. I took a few steps forward before I called out to the two ponies I knew were in the castle when I had left it.

"Zephyr? Chrysanthemum?" I heard nothing still, and the feeling in my stomach only grew worse.

When I walked into the palace on the day my sister left me, I somehow knew that the pit in my stomach had something to do with her. I could not explain it--there were many things I could not explain with the powers I had been given so long ago--but I knew.

And so the moment I felt it again, I knew precisely who had triggered it and I knew exactly where to go.

Zephyr and Chrysanthemum lived at the very far end of Canterlot Castle, in a single-bed room with plenty of space and decor. It was going to be a long walk, and so I braved it with a sigh as I took my first steps down the long and winding hallways. The artifacts and paintings that hung on the wall blurred to unrecognizable objects as I passed, and I could see my vision tunnel forward as I got closer and closer to what I just knew was a disaster.

As the sound of my own heartbeat pounded through my skull, I had a singular thought dancing furiously through my mind.

Has it finally happened?


Nopony knew how she got it. Chrysanthemum had been coughing for quite some time, but she insisted it was likely just a simple cold that would go away with time. It was not until she began to cough up blood one morning, however, that we knew something was seriously wrong, and when she passed out in the middle of a hallway while attempting to go to the doctor we picked her up and carried her there as fast as we could.

They did not know what it was at first, but after leaving her in the infirmary overnight led to her struggling with night sweats and she began to lose weight alarmingly fast, they gave us the grim diagnosis: Chrys had been stricken with consumption, and her days were certainly numbered.

Chrysanthemum handled it well. The girl was perhaps one of the most compassionate and kind mares I had ever met in my very long life, but she had a heart of steel. She had been married to Zephyr for close to seven or eight years at this point, and she made sure to remind him how fortunate she was to have spent her happiest moments with her best friend. Chrysanthemum was going to die, but amidst the turmoil running through her body, she had made peace with her mortality.

Zephyr had not.

Chrys was his everything. I had done my best to teach him the lessons of friendship, but it became clear to me that Chrys was the only friend he ever truly cared about. She was the reason he woke up in the morning, the very catalyst of his soul. They had been married and nigh unseperable, and he had suddenly been faced with the jarring reality that the love of his life and his very best friend would leave him sooner than later.

It destroyed him.

He begged me to do something and help her. I told him that although I was powerful, there is only so much magic can do: even so, I was not a doctor, so I would not know how to save her even if my magic could heal her fully.

I think he never forgave me for that answer, but he at least made an effort to tolerate me as we searched through the many libraries of the Royal Palace for a cure. Every day our search was fruitless, and Chrys and I attempted many times to get him to end his aimless crusade. It was to no avail, unfortunately, and he would go numerous nights on end without sleeping in desperate hopes of finding anything that could save his purpose.

Until one day, he found a book.

It was a book filled to the brim with dark magic. Spells, tomes, rituals, cantrips: it held everything that lay claim to the vile and perverse, but to Zephyr it held a single spell he needed. It was a spell the book claimed could cure any illness that ravaged the body. He was overjoyed when he found it, but I quickly informed him that he would not be using any dark magic while he was my student and that the book was in the library (and heavily guarded) solely for historical reasons.

He may have merely tolerated me for some time, but once I had denied him the right to use the spell, the toleration became hatred. I sat and listened while he unloaded his worst words upon me that night, screaming that I was murdering his love by banning him from the tome. I let him--he was always an emotional one--but I was in hopes that he, so bright as he was, would calm down in the coming days.

He did not. He stood by Chrys' side for hours of the day, refusing to speak to me as he scribbled away in his journal. I told him to return the book, and I made sure to check frequently to make sure it was still in the library. I tried to get him to talk on numerous occasions, but Chrys had become too weak for words and Zephyr would have none of my attempts to reconcile. He just sat at her bedside.

Scribbling. And scribbling. And scribbling.


Perhaps my feeling was a signal that Chrys had finally succumbed to the consumption. Perhaps her death would drive Zephyr further into the bubble he had constricted himself with, or perhaps her passing would allow him to be free of her chains upon his psyche.

Regardless, I had already made a decision at that delegate meeting.

There were some things within Zephyr that reminded me of the stallion I had raised and loved. He still had that inquisitive mind, constantly researching and feverishly studying, but it was what he had been applying his will to that frightened me. He had truly thrown everything else in his life away for Chrys, a mare on the brink of death that, as far as I knew, could not be saved without corruption. I loved Zephyr--I still loved Zephyr, after all we had been through in the past months--but it became clear to me that he needed serious help.

Help I could not offer him.

And so I had decided at that delegate meeting that I was going to kindly inform Zephyr I wished to relieve him of his duties. His animosity towards me had grown to new heights in the past few days, and he had quite literally reached the point where he had refused to even speak to me. It had been my goal with Violet to teach her the gift of friendship and to better her as a pony and a magician, and I had hoped to do the very same with a pony as bright as Zephyr.

Maybe I had failed him. Maybe he had failed me.

Before I knew it, I had reached their door. It was inconspicuous, but it was theirs, and they had lived there for almost ten years. I raised my hoof to knock, knowing well that I would get no answer, but my motions were automatic regardless. The three knocks on the door were hollow, and I let them hang in the air for what seemed like an eternity before I called out once more.

"Zephyr? Chrysanthemum?"

Nothing, still. I waited a few moments, staring at the wood grain and following its pattern along with my eyes before gently grasping the door handle and slowly pushing it forward.

The room was how I had always known it. It was impeccably clean, the light yellow wallpaper and dark purple curtains spotless as usual. There was not much in the room, save for a small desk, a large dresser, and queen-sized bed, the bedding matching the color of the walls perfectly. Lying on her side was Chrysanthemum with her back to me, her light purple coat and deep red mane and tail recognizable from miles away. She was eerily still, and the pit in my stomach dropped ever so slightly when I saw her: I knew then and there that she was gone.

Zephyr had pulled the desk chair up to the bed and was sitting just as steady with his back to the doorway. He appeared to be staring at her, and it was not until I saw the back of his head that I noticed the aura, dark purple and flowing stronger by the second.

It was a telltale sign of the darkness. It looked powerful, too, so he clearly had not dabbled in it sparingly. My eyes turned to the desk almost immediately, and sure enough, the book I had forbidden him to continue research was wide open next to his journal. I slowly turned back to him and took a loud step forward. It was muffled over the carpeted floor, but it was loud enough for Zephyr to absolutely know I had arrived. When I got no response once again, my stomach took a freefall, and I spoke softly in his direction as a straightened my posture.

"Zephyr," I said cautiously. "What have you done?"

For what felt like eons, he merely ignored me, staring steadily at Chrys as my words hung in the air. I let the silence persist, making sure all my wits were about me, as I had no idea just how much dark magic he had used or if it had corrupted him in some way. Finally, he slowly turned from his chair to face me, and I had to stifle a gasp when I saw his face.

His pupils were reduced to the size of pinpricks, tiny black dots on a field of sickly green. The purple aura coming from his eyes burned bright and full, rippling violently in a strong wind that was not there. I could feel my eyes widen in horror, and he looked to me with a cold hatred in his own gaze before he spoke.

"What you would not," he said simply. "I have saved her." I looked back to Chrys, unmoving on her side lying prone on the bed.

"Chrys?" I called out to her. There was no response or movement, and I took a step back before addressing my former-faithful student once more.

"Zephyr," I began slowly. "I do not know what you read, or what you did to Chrysanthemum, but I need you to get out of that chair and step away from her. Now." I made sure to put plenty of emphasis on that last word, but Zephyr merely snarled back at me as he rolled his eyes.

"Or what?" he spat, turning to me directly now. I narrowed my eyes, letting only the slightest bit of anger push my words as I replied.

"Or I am about to make a mistake," I said calmly, feeling my horn glow gold involuntarily. Zephyr merely laughed in response and stood from his chair to face me fully on all fours.

"You have already done your share of that," he began, cynicism dripping from his inflection. "Not using this magic is your greatest mistake of all. I have read that book front to back, Celestia, and it holds the keys that unlock so many of life's mysteries. And you... you have hidden it from me all this time." I immediately shook my head before using it to motion to the open book lying open on the desk.

"That book has the power to corrupt, and it has clearly done its work on you," I began in retaliation. "I am not going to repeat myself, Zephyr. I do not know what you have done to Chrysanthemum, but I am commanding you to step away from her."

He laughed once again--each chuckle more unhinged than the last--and he pointed with his hoof to the book at his side, wearing a ferocious countenance as he spoke.

"That book allowed me to bring her salvation, Celestia, just like it has brought me. After reading that book, it has become clear to me why you have locked it away, and why you banished your own sister to the moon--"

"Do not speak of Luna," I muttered angrily through gritted teeth. Zephyr ignored me, opting to continue his tirade at an even louder volume.

"You were afraid of her power!" He shouted. "And Tirek before her, and Sombra before him. That is why you cast them out, and that is why you were planning on casting me out as well." It was his turn to ignite his horn, but his aura was not the traditional amber that almost matched mine: it was dark purple and green, the two colors endlessly vying for control under the power of darkness.

I could feel his anger rising by the second, and I knew then and there just how this was going to end. Nonetheless, I sighed--and felt only the slightest well of tears--and looked him straight in the eyes one last time.

"Zephyr," I said simply, unable to mask the helpless plea with my voice. "I have already lost my sister. Please do not make me lose you."

It all happened in an instant. Zephyr's anger had reached its height, and with a yell, he unleashed the bolt of magic he had been holding back.

I had trained Zephyr very well. He was adept at almost every form of magic, and that included combat magic. The spell he had fired off was a considerably more powerful variation of a laceration spell, which acted essentially like a flying sword with a blade on sides it did not have. I had taught it to him some time ago, with the caveat that it mainly to be used as a tool and only in extreme emergencies, as it would run clean through virtually anything, much less another pony.

The dark magic flowing through him had certainly enhanced his abilities, and he was already very fast on the draw.

I was faster.

I had already begun moving to my right when he had fired, and I could feel the heat of the spell pass by me in a flash. I let fly my own charge, and once my own laceration spell had connected with my former student, it was all over in an instant.

My Zephyr--my faithful student who I had so loved and cherished since he was a colt--made no noise when he hit the ground. I watched him there for a moment, the aura around his eyes snuffed out deftly, and it took but a few moments for me to hang my head low, fall to the floor, and let loose the tears I been withholding for months.

I do not know how long I wept there. I do not know how long I thought of our best moments and replayed each moment Zephyr mastered a lesson or his lovely wedding with his best friend. I do not remember how long I hated myself for what I had done, replaying the moment in my head searching for a way it could have ended differently. I do not know how many tears had soaked the carpet when the guards barged into the room after hearing two bolts fly, only to see me prone and weeping across from the body of my former student. The head guard said nothing for a moment, but he eventually stammered together a sentence.

"Princess, we... we heard bolts of magic, and we came as fast as we could. Is... is..." I rose from the floor before he had a chance to finish and turned to face him. I knew my complexion was read from the crying, but I was not embarrassed: the guards had seen me in this state before, and they would see me in this state again plenty of times within the next few days.

"Zephyr is dead, yes," I said, sniffling louder than I would have liked to. "He tried to kill me, and I fired back. There was probably more I could have done to help him, but... it is over now." The guard nodded silently, struggling to find the words once again, but his face went grim when his eyes shifted past me to the bed across from him.

"And what of Chrysanthemum, Princess?"

I could not see myself, but I imagined a dawning washed over my face as my mouth hung open ever slightly. I turned to the bed as well to see the same sight that greeted me when I walked in: Chrysanthemum lying motionless, not a sound coming out of her. I squinted my eyes, but I could not see any evidence of breathing on her part, and I suddenly remembered Zephyr's words only moments ago.

This book allowed me to bring her salvation.

Salvation?

"Chrysanthemum?" I called out. I waited for an answer--any form of acknowledgment, truly--that never came. The silence that hung in the air was sickening, and with an audible gulp, I slowly moved over to her.

I reached the edge of the bed and laid a hoof on her, checking for any sign of breathing. When there was not one, I turned her over.

"Chrys?" I called again.

For a blissful half a second, everything seemed normal.

And then I saw her eyes.

BOOK TWO

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

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CHAPTER ELEVEN:
COLOSSUS


The room had gone silent.

I'd known a little bit about what Celestia had been forced to do in the past, but as the general rule about her former apprentices applied, I hadn't heard about this one. I couldn't even imagine having to kill a pony she loved so much, and I hadn't even seen what those... things in the Crystal Palace had looked like and I still got chills when she told us that Chrysanthemum had become one of them: Twilight and Rainbow, who'd just come back from that horror show, currently had their mouths and eyes wide open in shock.

It was horrible. It was heartbreaking. But it left me wanting an answer, along with another thing she had yet to address.

"I'm sorry, Princess," I began, breaking the silence. Everypony turned to me at once, curious as to where I was going. "I couldn't imagine what you were going through after that, and I know it has to be worse with what's happened to those ponies in the Crystal Empire." Celestia nodded solemnly at first, but then, with a wit she rarely brought out from behind her ever-wise glance, she spoke to me with a soft grin.

"You have questions, Sunset Shimmer," she stated slyly. Naturally, this caused the room to break out in laughter, but it wasn't all relieving: I could feel the nervousness from where I stood, and I knew well that my cross-examination would do nothing to quell it.

"You mentioned earlier about something to do with Zephyr not be satisfied with your answers of how the world worked. It seems like this is a revenge plot for killing him, but you seem to be implying there's more to it than that." Celestia nodded grimly almost immediately before looking down to me with a piercing fierceness.

"Do you remember that journal I spoke of? The one he constantly scribbled in?" The room nodded in the affirmative, and it took a heavy sigh before she continued.

"I don't know exactly what happened, but I assume that he went mad after his attempt to revive Chrysanthemum went so awry. But before this all happened, he was never happy with my explanations of how our world itself worked. He always thought there was something more, and when he discovered the "power" that eventually turned his wife into an empty thrall--"

"--he thought he found it." That was Applejack, of all ponies, and Celestia nodded yet again to confirm her suspicions.

"He wrote much of Sombra, Tirek, the Pony of Shadows, and Nightmare Moon. He referred to them in his notes consistently as "The Dark Quartet": a group of individuals who had truly unlocked the secrets of the universe. In shorter terms, he didn't... doesn't only use the darkness, he worships it and believes it his duty to spread it to others. You may have heard him refer to it as his 'salvation'." Once again there was a contemplative silence, and I looked to the ceiling in thought.

Awesome. So he isn't just revenge-hungry, he's a revenge-hungry zealot who worships dark magic. Welcome back to Equestria, Sunny!

That wasn't the worst of it, though. See, there was something Celestia said earlier that hadn't really left my mind since she began talking about Zephyr, and I had a distinct feeling that it wasn't going to make me feel any better once I got my answer.

"Celestia, there's something else," I said quickly. I looked to Twilight only to see her nodding towards me knowingly: it seemed as if she and I had been on the same page. Celestia looked to me with her eyebrows raised, and I found myself sighing deeply before I began.

"Before you started talking about Zephyr, you said you only had three other apprentices," I explained. "So we have me, Twilight, Violet, Cobalt, Zephyr, and Silver Jubilee, who we haven't seen pop up yet. That's six... but that doesn't add up. You had one more, didn't you?"

Celestia's eye had twitched ever so slightly when I mentioned Silver--I had forgotten Celestia's vague and hurried explanation that she'd "died untimely"--but her eyes dropped to the floor in a defeated manner when I mentioned the student she hadn't accounted for. She closed her eyes for a second, thoughts almost visibly dancing around in her head before she finally looked up, looking to the entire crowd of ponies before her.

"I was going to address that next," she began. "I did have one more apprentice, sometime before Silver. She told me her name was Melody Waltz, but that was not her real one, I'd come to find. Melody was not who I thought she was, and she was devoted to a very different Chrys."

I could feel my jaw drop at those words, and a quick look around the room saw much of the same. Luna had remained silent and contemplative during Celestia's entire explanation, but she was looking to Celestia now with her eyes wide in horror. It appeared that there were even some things that Celestia wasn't wont to discuss with her sister, and it was the Princess of the Night who spoke next.

"And you never knew?" She asked quizzically. Celestia shook her head violently before answering.

"Twilight, why do changelings get caught when they attempt to impersonate ponies?" It was a question that certainly had no black and white answer, but I knew well that the mare I admired so often would prove deftly why she earned her former status as Celestia's pupil.

"Because they aren't ponies," she answered simply. "They can mimic personality very well, but at the end of the day, they're pretending to be an entirely different species." It made sense: there were aspects of a changeling that was simply in their nature that was bound to bleed over, and there were aspects of a pony that a changeling simply could not emulate. Celestia didn't nod or commend Twilight, merely continue her lecture with the knowledge that the answer was correct.

"Melody was very, very gifted in many respects. She was extremely intelligent and remarkably cunning, both of which allowed her to mimic a unicorn almost perfectly, and I do not use that word lightly. I had fought Chrysalis and her changelings thousands upon thousands of times whenever they caused trouble, and I never even thought that Melody could have been one of them. She did not feel emotions very well, but she understood them like no other." Rarity spoke up next, raising her hoof much in the same way Pinkie Pie had done earlier. Celestia smiled for what had to have been the first time in quite a while before waving the gesture away.

"You all aren't quite my little ponies anymore, you don't have to raise your hooves. What is your question, Rarity?" Rarity had been glowing red from the slight embarrassment, but she got over it quickly enough as she posed her inquiry.

"You mentioned that she was almost perfect. What happened?" That was a very good question, and the room turned to the Princess of the Sun for an answer.

"She was perfect when she played the character of Melody Waltz, since she created her. She could mimic the subtle things a pony does flawlessly, unlike other changelings, but when it came to mimicking real ponies, there were simply quirks she could not replicate and information she couldn't know. I eventually caught her when she attempted to impersonate somepony who I'd known far too long to be fooled by an imposter." Before anypony could speak this time, however, Celestia raised her hoof to the crowd. She looked down for a few seconds, mulling over her next words before speaking.

"I know you all still have lots of questions," she began. "I don't know where Silver is, and yes, Melody could be here among us for all I know. Cobalt, Violet: I've been over the moon to see you return to me, and it fills me with a joy that I cannot possibly describe to you all. But with Zephyr doing such horrible things in the Crystal Empire and the possibility that Melody and Silver are roaming around somewhere... I'm very tired, and I have much to think about. I say we all get some rest before we proceed any further." I nodded in agreement, along with the rest of the ponies, but there was plenty of concern that I wasn't willing to voice out loud.

Yeah guys, just rest up. There might be a shapeshifting sociopath in this very room, but we'll be all good.

I certainly wasn't planning on letting myself get too comfortable, but I could see the logic in Celestia's words. There were ponies long dead who were returning to Equestria at the prime of their youth, and we still didn't know why. It was a tense time, and though everypony was set on edge, thinking about how to approach a problem with a clear mind was much better than attempting to solve it in a panic. Once we settled down and thought about our next move, I was certain we could get the ball rolling.

Everypony in the throne room seemed to be breaking up, and I quickly scanned the area for Violet before I found her on the other side of the room. I trotted over to her and saw that she was in the midst of a conversation with Cobalt, though I couldn't quite make out what it entailed when I got to the pair and spoke up.

"Hey, Violet. You wanna go back up to the room and put on some more records?" One of the bigger things that enthralled Violet from the modern world was the music, and for the past few nights, we'd been listening to tons of records from all sorts of periods in Equestria's history.

She smiled in response, but nodded her head over to the right where Cobalt was standing.

"In sooth, Cobalt has invited me on a perambulate through the castle garden. I trust you accede to such leisure?" I couldn't help but chuckle almost immediately, waving my hoof in dismissal. I may have been overseeing her, but I certainly didn't have any say in what she did or who she did it with.

"You don't have to ask me for permission to go for a walk, Violet. Have fun!" The two nodded eagerly before heading off to the gardens, chatting away as they'd been moments before. I watched them go off, eying Violet's gait in relation to Cobalt's.

Well that's an interesting development, I thought, feeling a sly smile curl across my lips. I watched them walk until they disappeared behind the wall before truly taking a moment to take in my surroundings: it seemed now as if I were the only one here.

"Sunset."

I instinctively turned around. I remembered that voice summoning me countless times in years past, and I almost hated that even after all that happened I jumped at the chance to heed my former teacher's call.

Almost.

Celestia's smile was warm as her sun, even through the hurricane of emotions she'd been going through in the past few days. Luna, on the other hand, seemed to be deep in thought, her eyes drifting to the other side of the throne room as her lips barely mumbled her inner dialogue.

"I'm immeasurably grateful that you're looking after Violet," she began. "Luna's been talking to her at nights to clear the air between the two of them, and she tells me that Violet is doing alright. I wanted to ask you if that was the case, though, because you've been so close to her these past few weeks." Luna had snapped out of her trance sometime during the middle of her sister's request, nodding along silently before following up.

"She's a wonderful mare, and I'm glad I've eased her mind," she began. "But she seems scared." It was my turn to nod, and I made it curt before replying.

"Violet is a crazy smart pony, Celestia. But she's been thrown into a world beyond what she could possibly imagine where almost nothing makes sense to her. She feels dumb, especially since every conversation is filled with slang and topics that she doesn't have a chance to keep up with, but... she's a trooper. We've been listening to records lately, and she loves all the new music she's been listening to. I've been trying to teach her some modern Equestrian, but I think she's too afraid to use it so far." That garnered a few laughs, as expected, and during a time where my nerves were almost entirely shot I couldn't help but laugh along with them.

Once we were done, Celestia looked towards me with that curious glare I'd seen on her face many times throughout my tenure as her student, her single-raised eyebrow always a giveaway that she had a question that she wanted answersing.

"And what of you, Sunset?" she asked me. I had a short-term plan mapped out every since Twilight left for the Crystal Empire, so I didn't skip a beat when I responded.

"I'm going to make a trip back to the human world tomorrow. Cobalt told me he wanted some blueprints and parts for their technology once I told him about my experiences there." That drew a sly smile and a playful roll of her eyes from the Princess of the Sun, but I wasn't quite finished yet.

"But first," I began, drawing that curious single-eyebrow raise from Celestia and Luna. "I'm gonna go see a friend of mine who might need somepony to talk to."


Her presence wasn't something that was put simply, but put simply, Twilight Sparkle was extraordinary.

Nightmare Moon, Discord, Chrysalis, Tirek, Sombra, the Pony of Shadows, Starlight Glimmer, the Storm King, Cozy Glow, and, of course, myself: I've lost count of how many times Twilight Sparkle has either saved the world herself or led Equestria's premier friendship-powered strike team in the process. She'd created her magic and ascended to princesshood, and she'd made it her absolute life's goal to spread her message of peace across the entirety of Equestria.

Some days, Twilight Sparkle didn't seem like the mare prone to a nervous breakdown or the mare that drank too much at pretty much every party or gathering she'd ever been to. She didn't seem like the dorky girl who liked trashy romance novels and classic rock music, who liked board games and watching hoofball.

Some days, Princess Twilight Sparkle seemed like a goddess. She was a pony that history couldn't forget if it tried, an individual so remarkable and influential that she'd become a household name in a matter of years. She was the pony everypony strove to be, and in a world of ancient magic, immeasurably powerful artifacts and beings as old as time itself, Twilight was a colossus amongst its denizens.

And right now, she was scared.

When I walked into her room, Twilight Sparkle did not exactly shimmer royal radiance as she sat calmly on her bed in the midst of brushing her mane. Her hoof, which she'd badly injured during her encounter with Zephyr in the Crystal Empire, was wrapped intently at her side atop a white cast, ensuring it wouldn't move for quite some time. Her face was marred by a large scar running all the way across it, another memento from the horrors she'd seen, but she ensured me during our short walk to the throne room that the now-pronounced scar would fade to obscurity in due time.

The magic danced through the strands of her hair, brushing out the knots and straightening it deftly. She brought a handheld mirror up to her face that had been resting on her wooden dresser, and she turned her head at every angle before setting it back down again with a satisfied nod. I sat down right next to her at the bedside, and she turned to me immediately with a sly smile.

"What's my favorite color?" she asked jokingly. I couldn't help but roll my eyes as I returned the grin, though if that was all I needed to do to prove I wasn't a changeling, I wasn't going to complain.

"Blue," I answered immediately. "And nachos are your favorite food." Twilight raised her eyebrows in feigning impressiveness before letting a light chuckle escape her lips.

"The ones Spike makes, if I'm being pedantic," she started. "Something on your mind?" I shook my head in the negative before playfully bumping her on the shoulder.

"I came here to see what was on yours," I told her. "You've had a rough couple of hours. I just wanted to make sure you were doing okay." In response, a warm smile washed over Twilight's face, the kind of glowing beam that made you feel like everything was gonna be just alright.

"The girls came by just now, actually. Guess I'm not so good at hiding anything, huh." She picked up the mirror with her magic again, and I could tell that this time she wasn't looking at her mane: she focused it on her scar, bobbing her head ever-so-slightly in every direction to fully take the protruding cicatrix in.

"Everything always works in the end," she started. "That's what I've been telling myself. That's what I told AJ and Rainbow and Rares and Pinkie. But I don't think I believe it." She turned her face back to me, and I saw something wash over her countenance that I'd seldom ever witnessed: genuine fear.

"All of Celestia's students are rising from their graves, and young, no less," she explained. "Supposedly, three of them are on our side, though Celestia doesn't seem too thrilled at the prospect of reuniting with Silver despite claiming she's a good pony. And then you have Zephyr, who almost killed me, and now there's apparently a changeling who can mimic ponies far better than the rest of her species. On top of that, we were both weirdly drawn to Canterlot, and I'm sure that has something to do with all of this." She let out a large sigh that I could almost hear the defeat in, and she gently put the mirror back down on her dresser before she continued.

"Every time we have a problem, I get on a trail to fix it. Whether it's a book, or a pony, or an artifact, whatever. But right now... I feel like I'm even more damn clueless than I was when this whole mess started, and I'm certainly worse for wear." She hung her head down low, watching her back hooves swing from side to side. I wrapped a hoof around her, making sure to mind her injury.

"Everything always works in the end," I mimicked, drawing a short laugh from the Princess. "Sure, things are really weird right now. But Fluttershy is going to be here soon, and Starlight is coming back once she's done helping Trixie, right?" Twilight nodded knowingly, and the slight relaxing of her face let me know that the thought of her two friends arriving made her feel a little bit better, at least.

"So there you go. We're gonna figure out why this is all happening, and we're going to go do it together. You hear me?" She nodded yes, and I could tell by her expression that my little pep talk--simple as it may have been--did at least a little to calm her down after the hell she'd been through.

"Yeah. We will," she replied, though she didn't sound like she was trying to convince herself this time. "Are you still heading to the human world tomorrow? What are you going to get for Cobalt?" That wasn't an easy question, but thankfully, I had this all planned out quite swimmingly. I wasn't anything if not a mare of mystery, though, so I could almost feel the glint in my eyes and my lips curl into a devilish smirk as I responded.

"Oh, don't you worry," I began. "He tells me he can build anything, and I have a few ideas."

CHAPTER TWELVE

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CHAPTER TWELVE:
WANT


What do you want, Sunset Shimmer?

In my life, I've wanted a lot of things.

When Celestia took me under her wing, I wanted to be the best student I could be. I wanted to do Equestria proud in my studies, and I wanted to learn the true power of magic and its place in the world. When I was relieved of my duties, to put it kindly, I wanted revenge, to show Celestia that I wasn't the failure she--and I as well, of course--knew myself to be. When I got to the human world, I wanted nothing more than to bring down the wrath I thought Celestia had brought down on me to everyone around me, and I wanted to rise to the top from scratch like I did in Equestria: just to prove to myself that I could.

When I got knocked down a peg and I truly got to know my six best friends, I wanted to leave the past behind. I wanted to start all over again, and I wanted to feel that warmth forever and ever that I never felt when I was in Equestria. For the longest time, in the human world, I had everything I could ever want.

And then I woke up one morning, rubbed my eyes, and wanted something else.

When I sat the girls down and explained my feelings, the first thing I did was assure them that my decision had nothing to do with them, the student body, Anon-a-Miss: any of that. It was so hard to explain partly because I didn't really know why my heart started hurting like it did.

Suddenly, the scenery around me felt wrong. Empty. I'd walk to school in the mornings and think about Equestria's rolling hills and snowcapped mountains, and every car that passed me was a carriage loudly rumbling by. I'd lay awake at night with the thought that the moon I was looking at wasn't the one I was used to. It was this creeping feeling everywhere I went, and I decided one morning that I couldn't stay in this world anymore.

I told the girls, and naturally, they were devastated. But it was Fluttershy who asked me the question that had been bouncing around my head since I returned to Equestria.

What do you want, Sunset Shimmer?

When I stepped through the portal to come home for the first time, I had that question burning through my mind like wildfire. I wanted to go home, but I didn't know how long that feeling would last or how much I would miss the human world that I had spent so much time in. I was nervous, but I found that those nerves subsided not long after I had sat down at that table to have dinner with Twilight and Celestia the night Violet showed up in the throne room.

It was strange, really. Even through the crazy revival of the dead and petrification of the Crystal Empire's denizens, I'd found my answer far quicker than I imagined I would.

Canterlot was my home. And I was so glad to be back.

As my boots clicked with every step and the wind coursed gently through my hair, I felt the memories of the human world fly back and forth through my mind. Playing with the Rainbooms, hanging out with my best friends after school, unlocking our magical potential: although I felt entirely at peace in Equestria, a day didn't go by where I wondered what they were doing.

I loved my friends. I wanted to visit them so, so bad.

But I couldn't. Not right now.

I would visit them when Equestria wasn't on the cusp of a silent disaster as it was at the moment (a silent disaster that, with the horror show Twilight and Rainbow went through in the Crystal Empire, was becoming worryingly louder amongst Equestria's citizens). If I saw them now, my paranoia would eat me alive and I wouldn't be able to enjoy our time together like I really wanted to.

I'd been walking on autopilot down the sidewalk towards the nearest tech store for quite some time, aware of the scenery but not invested in it. It was a ways away from Canterlot High, but that didn't really matter to me: I was gonna try and make this as quick as possible, and by the time I was done, Cobalt would have a few blueprints to play with that could hopefully give us the edge in our little battle. As a bonus, I needed to buy a laptop from the store to find and download the blueprints for them to print, so I planned to give him that as well for reverse-engineering purposes. He couldn't connect online, obviously, but I had a feeling the advanced tech would still make him very, very happy, and who knows: maybe he'd make something cool out of it or even become Equestria's very first web developer.

Suddenly, I felt myself trip on the sidewalk, and before I knew it I was stumbling forward haphazardly. I hadn't walked in a human body for quite some time now, and so the muscle memory that would normally have saved me failed to activate as I careened to the ground. I looked back immediately to see a rather large stick sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, and I chastised myself silently before hopping to my feet once more. As I got up and looked around, dusting my leather jacket off and craning my neck side to side, a very familiar sight caught the corner of my vision.

It was my little red house I'd worked so hard to own. I could have questioned how cheesy and perfect it was that I quite literally stumbled into it, but at that moment, I didn't really care: I had entirely forgotten the route to the tech store passed by it, and I was just glad to see it again. It was two stories, but that was deceiving: the bedroom was the entire top floor, and the living room, kitchen, and bathroom were all downstairs. I'd sold it not long before I left for good (I'd brought the money back with me for spending funds during my inevitable future trips) so I couldn't exactly walk in, but I certainly could stare at it longingly as for however long I wanted to.

So I did.

I sold everything, really. The hardest was my guitars, my amps, and my pedalboard. I could get all of those back in Equestria, of course (I'd been meaning to do it first thing until Violet showed up), but there was one guitar I didn't sell: I gave my Flying V, my very favorite guitar, to Rainbow Dash before I left. I knew she was taking good care of it, but seeing my old house made me think of it nonetheless.

She better not have smashed the damn thing.

I took a few steps forward, looking more stringently at the tiny house. The person I'd sold it to--a single man just moving into town in his mid-thirties--appeared to be taking good care of the place, though it didn't seem like he was home at the moment. It had been repainted recently, and though I had no control over what the guy did to it, it made me happy that he elected to keep it the same color.

I couldn't help but feel a smile form on my lips as I scanned the place one last time. After my final inspection, I quickly turned my heels to continue on my way towards the tech store, but I don't think I even took a step and a half before I heard a voice call out behind me.

"Sunset?"

Oh, I'd know that voice anywhere.

If any of my friends had happened upon me, I was secretly happy it had been Fluttershy. Her Equestrian counterpart was the only Element of Harmony that hadn't made it to Canterlot yet (though I suspected she'd be there or very close whenever I returned) and so it'd been a little while since I heard that soft tamber.

I missed it.

"Hey, Flutters," I said, turning around slowly. I still had that grin on my face, and when I got a full sight of hers I knew it'd only be seconds before I'd be crushed by an embrace. Sure enough, she ran as fast as she could and collided with me with a strength that would probably surprise anyone who met her.

I let her hold on to me for what seemed like a lifetime before she let go, and she still had that glow on her visage when she finally spoke.

"I didn't know you were coming! And so soon!" She began, pulling out her phone. "Should I text the girls?" I gently put a hand on it, causing her countenance to twist up in confusion.

"I... I can't stay long," I told her. "A lot of stuff happened over in Equestria, and it's kind of an emergency. I'm here to get some plans and blueprints to make some technology that could help us." I could immediately see her face drop, and it was a sight I always hated: years of tormenting Fluttershy only made her sorrowful gazes that much worse whenever I saw it happen.

"I understand," she said after a while. "You will come visit though, right?" I couldn't help but laugh a little at that one, and before I knew it I had nodded my head down the direction I was about to walk in to get to the tech store.

"Of course I will," I told her. "You got anywhere you're supposed to be at the moment? Let me fill you in."


"You really think he can build that?"

I'd told her exactly the blueprints I planned on bringing Cobalt on that flash drive. It was something I knew he'd likely take liberties with, especially since the machine was going to be designed for ponies and not humans--not to mention the fact that I couldn't give him anything too advanced, since all of the crazy stuff was beyond Equestria's current technological means--but I found a confident smirk build slowly across my face as I nodded in confirmation.

"I know he can," I began. "He already built an airship, and I looked over some of his equations for a few new ideas he had. He's the real deal." Fluttershy had seemed enamored with the whole situation since I outlined it to her, but the thought of Cobalt building what I'd described had entirely fascinated her.

"That's incredible," she began. "And Violet seems to get along with him well? It'd be a shame if some of her apprentices had to work together if they didn't like each other." I chuckled a little bit at that question, and I raised my eyebrows as we stopped to wait for the light to change at a crosswalk.

"That definitely isn't a problem. I think Violet's getting along with Cobalt very well," I replied. I could instantly see a sparkle in Fluttershy's eye as her facial expression matched mine exactly.

"Oooooh," she hummed teasingly, laughing a bit as we began to cross. She stayed silent for a moment, seemingly reflecting on what I'd told her as our shoes hit the road in a steady rhythm, but she spoke up softly after a few seconds of stillness.

"Will they all still be there?" she asked. Once we reached the end of the crosswalk, I let myself process her words again before looking over to her with confusion.

"Hmm?" I asked, looking to her for clarification. She had a bit of gloomy look on her face, and she seemed to think about her own words before responding.

"I was thinking about Violet and Cobalt, but really everyone," she began. "Let's say you defeat Zenith--"

"Zephyr," I corrected, unable to hold a teasing grin from my face.

"Zephyr, like my brother. I'm sorry," she said apologetically. I was going to let her know she didn't need to apologize for such a simple mistake, but she never gave me the chance.

"Let's say you defeat Zephyr, or whoever else is causing these ponies to come back," she began. "What if... what if the students go away, too, once whatever went wrong becomes right? What if they don't go? Will all of them want to live their lives over again?"

I hadn't admitted it to anyone else back home, but I had thought about that. There was a chance that the new relationships all of us had built would come tumbling down once we solved this mystery, and it seemed so far that every returning apprentice regained consciousness right after they died. I didn't know how they would react if they died yet again, but there was also the matter of them not dying, and if they would want to live life all over again if they still remained after whatever magic brought them back was taken care of.

I'd thought about it for a long time, and I was certain another purple mare had, too. But after all the thinking I'd done, I didn't really have any answers.

"We'll have to cross that bridge when we get there," I said simply. "I just don't know. Violet and I have become really close lately... I don't wanna think about it right now if that makes sense. I just wanna figure out what happened, and I think what I'm doing now can help get that done faster." Fluttershy nodded knowingly, deep in thought with the analysis of my answer, It was like that for some time, the people behind us slowly brushing past as I slowed down in a subconscious effort to make my time with Fluttershy last only just a bit longer, but she eventually spoke up again with a very simple question.

"Is it still what you wanted?" she asked.

I'd been expecting an inquiry like that one for the entire walk, and it had honestly taken a bit longer than I expect it to. I knew she was likely secretly hoping for a different answer, but Fluttershy was one of my best friends, and I was always gonna be honest with her when it counted.

"Yeah," I said simply. "Yeah, it is. I'm very happy."

It wasn't a very complicated answer, but I was glad about that, for once. I had a very complicated relationship with Equestria for the longest time, but I also had a very complicated relationship with the world I was currently in: I'd hit my absolute lowest of lows here right after I'd turned into that demon, but the friends I'd come to have brought me out of that and into some of the best moments of my life. But Equestria was a blank slate to me now, and for the first time in a very long time, I felt like I truly belonged somewhere and wasn't someone who didn't belong constantly trying to do so.

I expected a sad reaction of some sort from Fluttershy, but I got quite the opposite: she had that warm glow on her face she held when she first saw me earlier.

"I'm glad," she said softly. "That's what we all want for you, you know. And if you ever change your mind or just want to visit for a few days, we're always here." I nodded slowly, doing my absolute best not to break out into tears in the middle of a crowded sidewalk.

"I know you are," I said simply.

And that was that. We talked about a few basic things in the remaining short time there, stuff about school and how excited the girls were for college. It was small talk, but it still felt good, and it wasn't long before the tech store loomed high above us and we turned to each other.

"So, uh... this is goodbye, then," Fluttershy said. I sighed heavily and nodded, gesturing towards the door with my hands.

"Yeah. I think I'll be back pretty late, but I don't know if Cobalt sleeps anyways." The joke went without any laughter, and there was a moment of silence between us as a few people shuffled past where we were standing with grumbles. The day's pattern seemingly continued, however, as Fluttershy broke the long streak of silence.

"When are we gonna see you again?" she asked. I shrugged my shoulders in defeat, and I knew well my face had to look downright clueless when I responded.

"When this is all over. And I don't know when that's gonna be," I replied. "But I'll do it as soon as I can. I promise." I held out my arms for another hug, and she gladly accepted it: I was willing to let her stay there as long as she wanted, but she thankfully didn't stay too long as she unlocked herself from my arms with a wide smile.

"Say hello to the girls for me," I told her, and she nodded vigorously before slowly drifting backward.

"Of course," she said. "Have fun back home! We'll be waiting for you!"

I watched her walk back until she disappeared around the corner of the parking lot. I had no idea what time it was, but I knew Fluttershy's diversion had cost me a bit: it didn't really matter, though, as Cobalt and Celestia could hash out the logistics and economics of the upcoming build tomorrow when they got into his hooves. For now, though, I had to get everything, and so I turned myself around and walked into the store.

The store was very large, but its laptops were among the very first thing that one could see when their shoes hit the stark white tile. I walked over to the row of computers and began combing through the labels and aesthetics of the units, trying to see what would be best for Cobalt to mess around on. Slowly walking down the aisle, I found myself thinking out loud as I began to move the trackpad on one of the more expensive models.

"Now, what do I want... "

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN:
JUBILEE


Going through that portal was never fun.

It kinda felt like being swallowed by a really large wave at the beach. You get jostled around for what feels like an eternity, and you can't really do anything about it: you just have to desperately hold your breath as it beats you into submission before you finally have a chance to move your limbs and break to the surface.

That's what it felt like, and every time I surfaced from the portal with shortness of breath I always wondered why I go back and forth through it as casually as I often did. There was time enough for me to lie awake at night and ponder of every bad decision I've ever made, though: I had to get to Cobalt.

Unlike Violet, Cobalt had requested his own room for what I assumed served as a basis for his nefarious purposes. I knew where it was, though, having checked in on some of his early projects with Equestria's current technology, and so handing off the tech was the very first thing I planned to do when I got to Canterlot. I knew it would be late, of course--I had to take the train from Ponyville back to Canterlot, and so it was around 8ish when I got there--but as I'd mentioned to Fluttershy before I left the human world, I wasn't entirely sure if Cobalt ever really slept.

Even pushing open the double doors took strength I'd rather not have used, and I could hear my hoofsteps echo through the now mostly-empty palace. I wasn't expecting anyone to be in the throne room, so I was surprised to see Celestia and one of her guards chatting by her throne in the palace.

I hadn't seen the guard before, but I immediately knew her rank based on the color of her armor. While traditional guards were donned in gold, this pony wore a very muted orange, which denoted her as the Equestrian Guard's very highest rank: the Commanding Officer of the Sunspears. There were a few different ponies who held the title during my tenure as Celestia's student, but Twilight had informed me a while back that her brother took up the position for a considerable tenure not long after I'd escaped through the portal. She had a dark red coat and a golden mane and tail, from the looks of it, and there was a sword sheathed by her side that looked a bit different than the ones I'd seen most guards wear.

She bowed very deeply to Celestia before accepting what appeared to be a wrapped present from the monarch and turning away. As soon as she walked by me, and I got a good look at her face, I immediately knew what made that sword look different, and I waited until she was certainly out of the room before I turned to my former mentor to question her.

"The head of the guard is from Nippony?" I asked her, able to hear the interested shock carrying through my voice. I knew there were a few Equestrian guards from different places, but I had never heard of a foreigner making their way up to the top. Celestia nodded with a warm smile before looking back to the hallway the pony had exited from.

"Yes. Her name is Sakura, and she's been head of the Sunspears for about a year and a half now. They don't really do birthdays in Nippony, but it's hers today and I thought I would give her a gift for her service. Unless there is an emergency, she shouldn't bother you." She said the last part slyly, and I couldn't help but imagine the fierce persona the head of the Sunspears put on as I laughed along with her. When it died down, however, I quickly motioned to my saddlebag.

"Is Cobalt here? I have some goodies for him I know he's gonna love." If Celestia's smile was sly before, the new grin she wore upon her face was downright sadistic: I didn't think I'd ever seen such an evil genius look from Celestia, but the words that came out of her mouth shortly afterward gave it all the justification it needed.

"Cobalt has decided to go with Violet to a cafe downtown," she said simply. My jaw immediately dropped, and I rolled my eyes in annoyance as the laughter Celestia had been withholding began to break out in spades.

"I've been gone for a day!" I complained, throwing a hoof up in the air. That caused the Princess to laugh even harder, and we carried on in the fit for what seemed like forever before it finally died down. Eventually, Celestia waved her hoof in dismissal before speaking once more.

"I don't know if it's like that yet, exactly," she began. "Cobalt's always been a bit oblivious and I'd find it hard to believe that Violet is over her love from so long ago." My ears perked up at that last bit, and I found my mouth open ever-so-slightly, for real this time, at the revelation.

"Violet had a husband?" I asked, astonished. She hadn't mentioned anything about the subject during our time rooming together, and that was certainly an important detail about her life. Celestia shook her head in the negative, however, leaving me more confused before she cleared it all up.

"They never wed, or had children. They wanted to--and believe me, Sunset, they wanted to--but Violet was unable. His name was Slate, and he was a stone mason in Canterlot. He was a wonderful stallion, and they were inseparable." I looked to the ceiling in thought, trying to remember a time when Violet may have mentioned the name, but I simply could not.

"Did she outlive him?" I asked her simply. Again, she shook her head, and I nodded silently in acknowledgment.

"Slate was beside me at her bedside as she died. He passed on ten or so years later, but he made sure to visit her resting place in Hourton every year until he died. She... she does not know any of that, though. She hasn't said a word about him since she's been here, so I haven't had the opportunity to tell her." I could feel my face scrunch up in confusion, but before I could reply, Celestia spoke again in a softer voice.

"Of course, you're free to ask her about all of this yourself, as aside from me, you've gotten to know her best. I would recommend, though, that you approach it tactfully. She adored Slate, and she may not be speaking of him in an effort to be rid of him from her mind."

I nodded slowly at her words, taking in everything I'd heard. I certainly would ask her about it, but I'd make sure the time was right: Violet's love life was far from a pressing issue. Once again, though, Celestia interrupted my reflections, having done a bit of her own in the brief period of silence.

"You know, they're the only two people in this building that have the shared experience of what's happening to them," she began. "This could all just be a friendship out of common circumstance. I don't know." For the first time in a bit, I found myself giving off a short chuckle before raising my eyebrows to address the Princess.

"I'll be on the lookout and report back with any developments," I stated jokingly. We had another laugh--I dwelled a bit on how much I missed our banter, but not for too long--and before I knew it, the tiredness from dimensional traveling and city traveling began to weigh down on me all at once.

"Well, I'm gonna head up to my room," I began. Celestia nodded in agreement and slid off her throne, indicating that she planned on doing the very same thing. As we walked out of the throne room together, I decided very spontaneously that I had one last point of inquiry for the princess.

"Do you remember what cafe they went to?" I began. "I haven't gone out to eat yet downtown yet."


When I awoke, Violet wasn't there. I didn't know where she was, but when I looked to the counter to see my saddlebag empty, I gave a sigh of relief: it appeared the Violet didn't have too much fun last night, as she at least returned to the room and saw my note about giving the contents of the satchel to Cobalt.

I went through my traditional morning routine: I showered, brushed my teeth, straightened my mane to the best of my ability. I was already hungry, and so I grabbed my saddlebag and made sure the adequate amount of bits were in it before I headed downstairs.

The place was apparently called "The Bannermare", and it was a traditional Equestrian cafe. I was actually pretty excited: I hadn't eaten Equestrian food as a pony in quite some time, and Celestia had told me that the food was delicious and that she'd heard the decor was very charming (she'd never been able to eat out at a restaurant for years and she wasn't a fan of preventing other ponies by eating through renting a place out). As I headed downstairs, though, I saw a crowd began to gather by the door, and I assumed that either Fluttershy or Starlight Glimmer had arrived.

As it turns out, it was the both of them. They had only just begun to walk towards the rest of the crowd as I joined in, but everyone managed to go in for a hug with the two of them.

"Alright, alright!" I heard Starlight chirp from below the pile. It eventually cleared, and I was able to get a good look at the Equestrian counterpart to the person I'd just been talking to in another dimension yesterday.

She looked towards me almost immediately and gave me a sheepish smile. I walked up to her and held out my hoof, trying my best to match it.

"Hey there, Fluttershy," I greeted. "I'm Sunset Shimmer. I don't think we've technically met yet." Fluttershy took the hoofshake, but she leaned backward and began to mumble as she did so.

"I've heard a lot about you," she said, very softly. I heard her, but I'd already gone through this whole bit with a Fluttershy from a different dimension, and so I narrowed my eyes in an exaggerated manner and cupped a hoof to my ear as I leaned in.

"I'm sorry?" I replied, unable to hide my devilsh grin. At this point, I was teasing her, and a voice that called out behind me decided to give away the joke early.

"She knows what you said. Knock it off, Sunny." I turned around to find none other than the Princess of Friendship approaching, the grin on her visage very much matching mine. I rolled my eyes in fake annoyance as she passed me by, leaning her neck out for her friend to hug. Fluttershy obliged, and the two began to discuss Twilight's injury as Starlight turned to the rest of the group.

"Well howdy, everyone!" she said, waving her hoof frantically. "I assume nothing's changed while I've been gone?" I, always very much excited to give Starlight Glimmer a hard time, raised my eyebrows as I approached her.

"Funny you mention it, I woke up this morning and found that my cutie mark was missing. You have anything to do with that?" That drew a quick laugh from the group, and Starlight playfully shoved me on the shoulder as I walked on past her. I turned around quickly and gave her hug, of course, and she returned it gladly with a bit of chuckle. I waited for a retort, but in vein: in a bit of an unusual circumstance for Starlight in the brief time I'd known her, she opted to take the higher road and say nothing. I was dissapointed, but that made me no less happy to see Starlight come back to the castle, and I began to head for the door as the others grouped up to chat.

"Glad to see you again," she said softly after we broke up our embrace. Before I left for good, I turned to the rest of the group and, while waving, spoke a final request.

"I'm gonna go get some food. If anypony sees Cobalt, tell him he needs to come talk to me when I'm back." They all nodded affirmatively before going back to their respective conversations, and I adjusted my saddlebag one last time before spltting the castle's double doors and heading into the beast of downtown Canterlot.


Celestia was right. The place was really nice.

It wasn't fancy or anything, but the atmosphere was very comfortable. Various pieces of scrap art hung on the walls and ceiling, and the tables were made to look like metal bolted together. There were some pieces of regular art dotted here and there, too, and the menus had that fancy script writing that all those hipster restaurants have. It looked like the standard artsy cafe, but I missed those in the human world, and so I welcomed the opprotunity to eat here with open... uh, hooves? Forelegs?

I guess one thing doesn't change across dimensions.

It wasn't long before the waitress, a tall pegasus mare with a light blue coat and a yellow mane and tail, came over to my table and set a menu down in front of me.

"Hello, welcome to the Bannermare! I'm Lily, and I'll be your server this afternoon. Have you been here before?" I shook my head in the negative, and her fake smile got a little more genuine as she continued.

"Well, it's always nice to see some new faces. We have our menu here and the sides are on the back. Can I start you off with something to drink?" After glancing over the menu for a second, I leaned back in my chair and turned to face her.

"Do you have any GPAs?" The waitress immediately nodded her head in the affirmative, and she flipped the menu over to show me a drink list that I had missed on my first overview of the sheet.

"We have quite a few GPAs, actually. I'm not really a fan of pale ale myself, but I know Griffonian Coastal is the favorite amongst all the employees here, and most of our customers." I immediately nodded in response--Griffonian Coastal had always been my favorite, and I'd really asked the question in an effort to not embarrass myself if the brand longer existed for whatever reason.

"It's earned its reputation. I'll do that." Lily nodded in understanding as she jotted it down very quickly with a pen in her wing.

"Alright, then! I'll be back with that soon and give you some time to look over the menu." I nodded absentmindedly as she walked away, leaving myself alone with the decor once more.

I leaned back in my chair and began to think. It was very nice to have this time to myself, but it wouldn't be long before I walked out of here and back to the palace to discuss Cobalt and I's little project (well, mostly his). I also wanted to catch up with Starlight now that she was back, and I made it a goal that I was going to at least try and become the best friends I could be with the other girls. I didn't know if it would be the same as it was back in the human world, but it was worth a shot, as I never really felt better than when I was with my six best friends.

I decided on my meal fairly quickly, and it was in the middle of my thoughts whilst waiting for Lily to return when I suddenly saw her.

Two tables down from me, through a veil of ponies chatting away with their food, was a very peculiar unicorn mare. She had a silver coat that seemingly glinted in the light and a long light black mane that was styled in a similar controlled-chaos like Rainbow Dash's, but there were two features that immediately stuck out about her.

The first was her tattoos, which were likely magically administered. Tattoos were relatively uncommon in Equestria, but this mare had sleeves running up all four of her legs, it seemed, though from what I could see her legs were the only place she had them. The tattoos were black like her mane, and they were very cool and unique ornate patterns that sometimes changed shape and thickness until they curled off faintly right where her torso met her legs. She probably attracted odd stares wherever she went, I'm sure, but it seemed like the ponies around her had already done so.

The second thing was her eyes. She truly was gorgeous, but her eyes were particularly striking: they were bright red, and like her coat, they seemed to glint and gleam with the light. It was almost hypnotic, really, and I was only getting a bit of a look due to the fact that they were currently buried in a book that she levitated not far from her face with a golden aura. The only thing beside her was a single cup of what appeared to be coffee, and it looked as if she hadn't even touched it.

I had never seen this mare in my entire life, and yet I somehow knew exactly who she was.

"Did you decide on what you wanted?" came a voice from my side. I jumped from my seat almost immediately, and I could feel my face begin to wash with red as I quickly spoke to the waitress before she could apologize.

"I'm sorry, you just scared me a little. I'd like the double hayburger with everything on it, extra pickles, and a side of sunflowers." Lily nodded attentively before gesturing beside me, and I turned to find the pale ale I'd requested resting neatly on a coaster.

"I, uh, put your drink right there for you. Will that be all?" I nodded quickly before leaning in and lowering my voice to almost a whisper, gesturing over to the mare at the middle of the room.

"Yeah, it will, but I think I'm gonna move over to where that mare is sitting. She's a friend of mine from CSGU, and I haven't seen her in a while, so I'm gonna surprise her." Lying was perhaps one of my greater talents, and so the waitress's smile widened to reach her ears as she immediately bought my story.

"Aww, that's so cool! I'll bring it over to that table when it's ready for you." She closed her notepad and walked away swiftly, and I watched her blend into the crowd before quickly grabbing the pale ale with magic and shuffling over to where she was.

When I quickly pulled out the chair in front of her and sat down recklessly, making sure to set my drink down a bit more carefully, she immediately pulled her book down to reveal an angrily confused look spread across her countenance.

"Uh, excuse me--"

"Silver Jubilee?" I asked, staring her directly in the eyes. The anger slowly seeped out from her gaze once I spoke her name, but the confusion lasted just a bit longer before her visage turned grave as she pulled a bookmark from a place I couldn't see and slipped it in between the pages.

"You must be with Celestia," she said simply as she set the book down. Her voice was in about the same pitch as mine was, but it sounded far more mature. When she turned to me, I saw a sternness in her eyes that immediately told me loads about her personality: she didn't seem to be the outgoing and abrasive type like I first imagined she'd be when Celestia called her "rough around the edges", but rather calm and collected, a serene air surrounding her every motion. In this case, though, she made one thing apparent just from her facial expressions, and that was the fact she wanted nothing to do with me.

"I doubt she wants to talk to me, so you're wasting your time. Go away." She went to reach for her book again, but I was faster, grabbing it with my aura and putting it in my saddlebag that I'd hung on the chair behind me. Her mouth fell open slightly as I closed the latch, staring her down all the while.

I was Sunset Shimmer, and this mare was coming back to the palace whether she liked it or not.

"She does want to see you, very much so. She told us specifically you were 'incredibly gifted and compassionate'," In truth, I wasn't so sure about that first part--Celestia was very dodgy about what happened to Silver and she visibly winced at almost every drop of her name--but she did say the second verbatim, and those words were enough to cause Silver to drop her head to the side and slowly begin to flush red with embarrassment.

"So she hasn't told you," she began cryptically. I narrowed my eyebrows at those words, but she didn't give me a chance to react as she turned back to me with the same resolve as before.

"Look, I don't know why you know who I am, or how Celestia knows I'm alive again, but I suggest you leave. There'd be nothing but trouble if I walked back into that palace. Leave me alone." I had started to shake my head in the negative before she ended her sentence, and I could see her eyebrows slowly but surely slant into anger.

"We know who you are and that you're alive because you aren't the only apprentice it's happening to." That was enough to get her into shock, and all the anger and stoicism she'd held in her gaze moments prior evaporated pretty quickly into dumbstruck disbelief.

"All of Celestia's dead apprentices have returned from the grave, yourself included. And the current ones alive, myself and the Princess of Friendship, Twilight Sparkle, were drawn here to Canterlot by means we can't explain. We need your help, Silver. We need to figure out what's happening." For a second, I thought I had her, but my little persuasion check failed: she mimicked my headshake from moments ago, and that embarrassed flush and her inability to look me in the eye returned as she replied.

"No, you don't understand. I... I did something, a while ago. And I regretted it from the moment I did it, and Celestia probably thinks it's her fault and she probably won't forgive me for it, and so I can't see her. I can't go back." Celestia's words echoed in my brain at that moment, that Silver had "died untimely", but I raised my eyebrows and rose my hoof in a bewildered gesture before shot back.

"Are we talking about the same Celestia here? I stole the Element of Magic, turned into a she-demon and almost enslaved an entire dimension. I sat down for dinner with her and a stroll in the garden the other week. Whatever you did, I'm know she's forgiven you by now." Silver smiled for the first time in her conversation, though it was a small grin indicating that I'd piqued her interest with the tale.

"I'm impressed. 'Almost', though?" I leaned back in my chair and shrugged.

"Everypony has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, and I got punched in the mouth pretty damn hard." Being hit directly in the everywhere by the Elements of Harmony was still by far the most painful thing I had ever experienced in my lifetime (enough to prevent me from merely thinking about something mildly immoral) , but I wasn't about to tell her that: I had to act tough at the moment. Regardless, her amused glance dropped as she sighed deeply and looked down to the floor in a defeated manner.

"This is different," she began. "I, uh..." She trailed off, and before had a chance to defend herself, I let fly one last pitch.

"Celestia is perhaps the most forgiving and compassionate mare I know," I began. "Again, I don't know what you did, exactly, but you seem far from a bad mare, Silver. I've done some really bad things. A mare named Starlight Glimmer did some really bad things, and she just graduated from being the protege of the Princess of Friendship, who she used to despise. Both of us don't deserve any good in our lives for what we've done, but Celestia and her sister Luna have accepted us wholeheartedly for who we are and turned us into better mares as a result. We really need you, Silver, to figure out what in Tartarus is going on, and I know for a fact that Celestia needs you, too."

I began to hear a faint tapping noise from under the table, and I realized quickly that it was Silver's nervousness manifesting itself. It was the start of a long silence, and I could see her mind racing as she decided what to do with herself. I, on the other hand, was doing some thinking of my own, as I was being tripped up by the fact that Silver was keeping her past so close to the hip. She seemed very reserved, sure, but I didn't get the vibe that she was some evil mastermind in her past, and I am absolutely sure Celestia would have warned us if Silver was a danger to us and the people around her, just as she did with Melody Waltz and, eventually, Zephyr.

It begged a very simple question.

What did you do, Silver Jubilee? Something that... Celestia might think is her fault?

It took her what felt like forever. I could see her living in her own little world, staring downward at nothing in particular. Eventually, after I'd taken a few sips of my ale, she looked up to me with that fierce determination that had so defined her in the five minutes I'd known her.

"Something is happening, and it looks like, want it or not, I'm a part of it. So... I guess I'll--"

"Aaaaaannnnddd here's your hayburger!" Came a voice that was far too excited for the action it was performing. Lily swept down with my plate, placing the food directly in front of me. Silver's mouth was still open from when she had been talking, and the waitress looked between us with the smile she'd held the entire time I'd seen her.

"Do you want ketchup?" she asked me. I shook my head in the negative, and she nodded in acknowledgment before telling me to holler if I needed anything else. I watched her once more as she disappeared before turning back to Silver.

"I'm, uh, sorry about that. You were saying?" Silver chuckled--I could tell just by the sound that she didn't do it that often--and nodded in the affirmative as she spoke.

"Yeah, I guess I am." She said it in a way that still seemed conflicted, and although I was in the midst of biting my hayburger (it was fantastic, by the way), I made sure to grab one of her hoofs and speak from my heart once I was done.

"I didn't see Celestia for about two years after I had some sense knocked into me. I know it's hard, but she can help. Nopony knows us better." Silver said nothing in response, instead opting to lean back in her chair. She was right: whatever it was, it was different than what had happened to Zephyr and I (from what I understood, Melody Waltz never really had a grace to fall from). I planned to fill her in on that whole situation on the walk back.

Eventually, she did speak up, nodding her head idly as she began.

"...maybe you're right. I don't know, but it's at least worth a shot." She looked forward to me, her face entirely stoic and unreadable. "There is one more thing, though."

I finished the swig of my drink I'd been taking before leaning back in my chair, cocking my head to the side in confusion.

"What's up?" I asked her. I saw the corner of her mouth curl into a slight grin as she used a hoof to gesture to my saddlebag hanging on the chair.

"Can I, uh, have my book back?"

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN:
MOAT


Canterlot Castle's moat was the stuff of legend.

It had driven back the Griffonian Empire. It had swallowed the warriors of Zebrica. It had drowned the slave army of King Sombra and stopped the almuharibun of Saddle Arabia dead in their tracks.

The long wooden bridge that marked a fleeting time of peace was now rested sturdily over the moat at Canterlot castle, and yet a unicorn mare stood at its base still unable to cross.

Silver Jubilee had stopped walking when we came to the castle gate. It would only be about forty steps until she returned to the castle she'd grown up in and lived in. Maybe she died here--I didn't want to push the subject of her timidness until she was willing to do so--or maybe the mere thought of seeing Celestia again paralyzed her entirely. She had barely spoken on the way up to the castle, commenting on the beauty of the flowers and trees and giving subtle commentary on the looming Mount Canter, but her lips had turned to a prison and her words had been given a life sentence.

I stood next to her, watching her as if admiring a sculpture in a museum. Silver was a sculpture, in many ways: her eyes were still uncannily prepossessing, the bright red almost appearing to swirl when the light hit it a certain way, and her leg tattoos completed a look that could only be described as gorgeously rugged. She stared straight forward at the large double door, and the guards posted up there stared right back unwaveringly. They knew who I was, of course, but they kept a highly trained eye on the stranger to my left as she peered into her own personal oblivion.

I'd been in her exact headspace more times than I could count, and so I simply watched the door with her until she finally spoke up, her iron gaze unwavering.

"How recently has the bridge gone up?" She asked me softly. The wind was blowing harder now, and her question was almost swept away by the gale. I stood silent for just a few more precious seconds before I turned to her and answered.

"I wasn't here for it," I began. "But there was a changeling invasion of Canterlot a few years ago, led by a hive monarch named Queen Chrysalis. They managed to get passed this moat, actually, but it swallowed up hundreds of her soldiers." Twilight Sparkle had told me the tale of the Changeling Invasion of Canterlot so vividly that I might as well have been there. She'd told me once in our friendship journal that she'd had recurring night terrors for weeks on end (that still occasionally surface to this day) after helping remove the dead bodies of pony and changeling alike the day after the invasion, and she had cited it more than once as one of the very worst days of her life.

Silver, once again, elected to remain quiet. Even with her determination to hide the nature of her past, I could tell she was never a mare of many words, but I knew very well that she was talking to herself in her own mind a mile a minute. After what appeared to be a lifetime of silence, I decided to speak up first, making sure to be gentle with her while still raising the volume over the blowing wind.

"Are you okay, Silver?"

I'm not entirely sure why I asked. I knew the answer, she knew the answer, and the guards across the moat staring us down probably knew it, too. The reply from Silver came much quicker this time, and even though her words were whispered I could hear them crystal clear.

"I can't do this, Sunset," she croaked, a shakiness clearly evident in her tone. "I can't do this. I can't do this... "

I sat down on the grass below us, and I motioned for her to sit across from me. She looked confused more a moment, but seeing as how there wasn't really anything else to do, she accepted my invitation. The grass was impeccably maintained by the castle groundskeeper, and it was so perfectly cut that the ground was almost exceedingly comfortable to sit on.

I let some of the tiny blades fall down my hooves before I looked her straight in the eyes. I talked to her without breaking my gaze, but with Silver, that was far from a difficult task.

"I cannot stress enough that I was in this exact situation even a few weeks ago," I began. "And I'd already made up with Celestia before then. She, uh... you just want to impress her, you know? You want her to look at you and give you that warm smile, and I just sat awake at night for hours thinking about coming back because, as much as I love her, I was so afraid of her. Not really that she'd be angry, but that she'd be disappointed, I guess." Silver had been staring at the grass the entire time, and but she looked up to me as I launched into the next part of my pep talk.

"I don't know what you did or didn't do, Silver, and you don't have to tell me unless you wanna," I started. "But if there's one thing we both know about Celestia, it's that she remembers, but she always forgives. Always." The word hung in the air and carried through the wind, and I could tell it sparked a little bit of hope in Silver as she let it ring through her ears.

With a simple question, however, it seemed as if it melted away in front of me.

"What if I don't want her to forgive me?"

Suddenly, the part of my life I had so tried to bury flared up violently in my mind. I'd spent countless nights wonder why Twilight Sparkle had extended her hand to me after a direct blast from the Elements of Harmony instead of putting me down like I should have been, and her generosity had tormented me endlessly. When Celestia wrapped me in a hug upon my first visit, I found myself grateful but confused.

Silver Jubilee was feeling a flurry of all these emotions at once, and for the first time in a while, I was glad I'd felt them, too.

"You don't have to," I told her. "But she's going to anyway, you know. Forgive yourself, Silver, and it'll get a little easier. I can promise you that." Thankfully, my words seemed to have an impact. After a moment of reflection, Silver nodded slowly with a sigh, but I had one final thing to say in an effort to get her going. I pointed to the moat at our right, and her head turned to look.

"That moat has stopped some of the most powerful forces in history," I stated. When I turned to her, I could almost feel the passion in my voice as I looked her in the eyes.

"Don't let it stop you."

When Silver stayed silent for a few precious moments, I thought I might have failed: it didn't take long, though, for her spring up with fervor and hold a hoof out to me. Her face still had that worn and stressed look I'd come to know since I'd met her, but there was a fire in her scarlet eyes now that burned far greater than ever before.

"I'm gonna regret this," she said. I couldn't help but give a goofy grin as I accepted it, and she pulled me up to all fours before she turned back to the door.

"Yeah, you will," I replied, maybe a little more chipper than I intended. We crossed over the moat confidently, and every step we took seemed to surrender a soft knock. It didn't take long at all before we got to the door, and the two guards quickly shifted their spears upright as they addressed me.

"This is the last one. Voluntarily, at least." The guard on the left grimly nodded, and with one motion the two of them pulled the doors outward to reveal the front of the palace. Even through her worries, I could still feel that sense of wonder the palace was always guaranteed to give off whenever one viewed it. I couldn't help but chuckle as I watched her face soften.

"You ready?" I asked her, motioning forward with my hoof. For the first time in a while, I saw the corners of her mouth bend upward.

"No," she answered simply, but she trudged along down the hallway nonetheless. I tailed close behind her, keeping a subtle eye on her body language as she set foot into a place that was still fresh in her mind yet likely changed considerably.

I didn't get to revel in the moment, though, because an unmistakable voice from around the hallways quickly shot through the air.

"Hey, guys, Sunny's back!" Rainbow Dash, as usual, had to speak as loud as possible in every situation, and the decibels were almost enough to make Silver jump. She was already talking as she rounded the corner to meet us, though she quickly stopped herself when she saw the mare beside me.

"Yo, you aren't gonna believe this. I was talking to Starlight just now and she told me she doesn't even remember when--" Rainbow quickly skidded to a halt, but it didn't take long for her to deduce who was beside me as she studied the newcomer. The ice had been taken off her ribs, but the pitch-black massive bruises from her battle with Zephyr were still very clearly visible. "Is this--"

"Silver Jubilee," the mare in question replied. "It's a pleasure to meet you." Rainbow raised her eyebrows with an impressive smirk.

"Diggin' the tats. Don't see those much." Silver acknowledged the compliment, though she didn't reply: instead, she sighed deeply and asked Rainbow a question.

"Is... is Celestia here?" She tried her best to sound confident, but it didn't come out that way at all. Rainbow didn't seem phased in the slightest, though, and she vemently shook her head in the negative.

"Nah, she's been meeting with a diplomat from Nippony pretty much the entire day with Luna. Twi's been here, though. They just put her in a boot and got rid of that sling, and I think it's put her in a pretty good mood. You probably wanna go see her, I'd imagine." I nodded firmly in agreement, ignoring Silver's confused looks at the moment and responding with my own inquiry.

"Are Violet and Cobalt here?" I wanted to make sure Violet had given those plans to Cobalt, and I quickly got my answer upon Rainbow's reply.

"Yep. Cobalt's been working on something for hours in the back area and Violet's just been up in your room. I think she's getting a little overstimulated, you know." I nodded once again in understanding: Violet was an enthusiastic pony, but she was just as reserved. I would have to go talk to her, but we had a bit more important task at hoof.

"Thanks, Rainbow. Down to do something fun with the girls tonight?" Rainbow nodded enthusiastically as we began to walk away towards Twilight.

"For sure! 'Bout time we've kicked back and relaxed. I'll talk to you soon!" I waved my hoof goodbye as we rounded the corner, and when we got a fair distance away, Silver spoke up once more.

"Is she okay?" she asked, pointing to her ribs with a hoof. I could feel my face turn grim as I answered with a slight shake of my head.

"She got in a big fight with Zephyr, that pony I told you about. He got her pretty good and she's been in a lot of pain, though she probably won't admit it exists." Silver merely continued along in silence, absorbing the information.

It was quite a walk through the castle to get to the tower Twilight had been calling home for a few weeks now, and Silver seemed to silently enjoy the walk. Celestia had always picked the finest art pieces and decor for the entire palace, and I found her marveling at the works of art that clearly hadn't been there the last time she was in the castle.

We rounded a corner to the final hallway, and not too far away from us was another pony I wanted Silver to meet, silently observing a painting hanging gently on the wall. I couldn't help but give off a Cheshire grin as I introduced her from afar, making sure to be loud and clear so she heard every word.

"Speaking of things we won't admit exists, this is Starlight Glimmer." I could practically feel her eyes roll with a grin before she even turned around.

"Truly, you flatter me," she said sarcastically. Her eyes quickly widened when she saw Silver, however, and she studied her curiously as she introduced herself.

"Oh, hello! I'm Starlight Glimmer, though you'd think I was Lord Tirek the way this one talks about me." I gave her an aggressively sarcastic who, me? smile before switching to a more serious countenance as I gave my second introduction of the day.

"This is Silver Jubilee. Silver, this is Starlight, one of my best friends, if you couldn't tell." Starlight's eyes widened even further when I said her name, but Silver spoke up just as she was about to respond.

"What's that painting you're looking at?" She asked, pointing a hoof towards it. I'd never seen the painting before until now, and it almost took my breath away when I first looked over it. The painting was virtually photorealistic, and it depicted a beautiful mare with a light purple coat and deep red mane and tail smiling towards the observer amongst autumn leaves. If I didn't know any better, I'd think it was a photograph. Starlight drew her attention back to the work of art, and she studied it over for what was probably the thousandth time before answering.

"It just kinda startled me. I was on my way to the kitchen area and it caught the corner of my eye. It looks so real, yet fantastical kinda all at once, you know?" Silver and I both nodded in agreement, staring it down for just a bit longer. The mare in the painting felt... familiar, somehow, but I decided to keep my thoughts to myself. It wasn't long before Starlight spoke up again, breaking the both of us out of our trance.

"Twilight's still up in her tower if that's who you're looking for. Oh, and by the way, Cobalt wants to see you: he ordered a ton of parts from the local factory and just retreated to the back of the castle." I couldn't help but let a smile slip across my face as I heard that, and I made a mental note to have a chat with him later tonight.

"Yeah, we're on our way. Oh yeah, do you know if Trix is coming back here once she's done with her tour?" Starlight nodded in the affirmative almost immediately.

"She's gonna hit Manehatten and then come back in the next few days or so." Silver and I were on the way out the door, but I stopped for a second in confusion and whipped my head back around.

"Manehatten? I thought she was only doing a short trip to the towns around Ponyville. Wouldn't that be, like, crazy out of the way?" Starlight's eyes seemed to widen for a nanosecond before she shook her head apologetically and cleared up her error.

"Oh, uh, that's my bad. I was thinking of a different tour." Before any of us could respond, she quickly smiled and pointed to the throne room behind us. "Rainbow was just telling me about hanging out tonight, that'll be fun! It was nice meeting you, Silver, say hi to Twi for me!" She quickly retreated and waved her goodbye that I returned, and before we knew it we were just outside the castle on the way to Twilight's Tower. After adjusting our eyes to the sunlight, Silver turned to me with her eyebrows raised.

"I hope your friend Twilight knows her geography."


The world didn't stop for Twilight Sparkle.

She may have badly injured her hoof and the world may have been faced with two silent threats, but none of that could save her from her mortal nemesis: being a Princess. There were permits that needed approving and legislation that needed passing, and so when Silver and I finally made the trek up to her library, she appeared hard at work writing something I was one thousand percent sure she would rather not be writing.

While I traditonally said the first word so ponies could be suprised when they turned around, Silver decided to intiate the process early.

"You didn't tell me your friend was a Princess," she said calmly as we approached.

On a dime, Twilight's horn ignited and she whipped around furiously with a tranquil glare on her face. Once she saw me, however, it died almost just as fast, and I saw the understanding slowly dawn on her when she looked to the pony right next to me.

"Silver Jubilee," she stated as her face flushed red with embaressment. "I'm, uh, sorry about that. Can never be too careful these days." She rose up to meet us, and both Silver and I's eyes were immediately drawn to the boot she wore on her front right forleg. It was a welcome chamge to see her walking somewhat normally again (the scar on her face had already healed up to where it was virtually unnoticable), but I would certainly be counting down the days until we had our greatest ally fully back in the fold. As Twilight went to hug me, Silver spoke once again.

"I'm assuming this Zephyr did this to you?" she asked. Twilight nodded grimly upon letting me go, turning to Silver with a far more serious countanance.

"Yes. I'm very glad you're here, Silver, because we have a lot to talk about. Celestia and Luna will be back shortly, and I know she'll be so happy to see you, but I have a few questions to ask you first." Silver's head had drooped low at the mention of her former mentor, but she quickly narrowed her eyes in confusion and whipped her head upward.

"Luna's back? I don't even think I was gone for that long... " Before I knew it, Twilight had pulled up three chairs for all of us, and Silver and I sat down out of habit before we even knew what had happened.

"That's my big question," Twilight told her. Silver audibly sighed, and I knew she was well aware that she would have to answer the incoming question sooner or later. "Celestia told us that you were her apprentice right before the both of us. She mentioned you "died untimely". What happened to you?" Silver's eyes widened at that revelation, but she quickly buried her face in her hooves. Twilight and I merely waiting, allowing her to collect her thoughts, and when she looked up to answer us with a timid expression, I could see the faintest hint of tears glinting in the light.

"Have you guys ever been to the Everfree Forest?"

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN:
SEVENTY-TWO HOURS


Every drop was torture.

With each labored step, my blood hit the ground below me with a soft plop. There was no point in a bandage, as the wound in my side was far too large to cover. I supposed that I could have at least wrapped something around my side to stop it, but that would take time: I was fortunate enough to even be able to walk at the moment, but I knew that I'd eventually collapse and be absorbed into the earth.

Celestia had likely already sent Equestria's very best after me. I was always taught that the first seventy-two hours were crucial in finding a missing pony. All those little breadcrumbs you leave will start to disappear after that, and it was assumed that the missing individual is likely in grave danger. After a few weeks, the investigation likely stops being centered around finding a pony and starts to be centered around finding a body.

They wouldn't even find that.

I was going to die very, very soon. When I expired, one of the trillion deadly animals in this forsaken place would probably deem me a wonderful meal, and just like that, Silver Jubilee would disappear. Assuming whoever Celestia hired to find me knew where to look -- and they wouldn't -- they'd still come back to her with empty hooves.

Thankfully, the Everfree was not pitch black at night. On top of bright moonlight, the fireflies of the forest did well to light it up, and so I generally knew where I was going as I traversed it. If it weren't for the forest's everything that was attempting to end my life, I'd almost call it beautiful: the ancient trees that hung above me gave me deceptively protective feeling amongst the hostility of the forest.

Despite its beauty, I shouldn't have come here. Any fool knew that: the Everfree Forest had a reputation as a death trap for a very good reason. I justified it by telling myself that I wanted to go to a place where nopony would ever find me and the bald-faced lie that I could handle myself in this place.

All of me knew that I may well meet my end in the Everfree Forest. A part of me didn't care.

I'd fended off parasprites, I'd bested countless Timberwolves and I'd dealt with two cockatrices, but by the time I turned the corner and butted heads with a fully grown manticore, my prowess and luck had run dry. My exhausted body had managed to kill it out of sheer necessity, but a massive swipe to my side that connected all too well ensured that it would get the last laugh.

I could feel my breath growing shallower by the second as I rounded yet another corner to nowhere. It was dark out, that was for sure, but I could still make my way around, and anything that wanted to finally finish me off probably would make that intention rather clear with me. At least the Everfree had that going for it: nothing here was going to lie to you.

I'd just been attacked, so my adrenaline rush had only just begun. My forelegs were all shaking involuntarily, making it a bit harder to walk, and that shallowness in my breath was getting worse and worse by the second. There would be a point where it would fade and the pain from my gash would begin to set in, but I knew I had at least a few moments until that happened.

I came to a long, wooden rope bridge after a short while. It looked relatively unstable and I knew I'd have trouble walking over it, so onward I went: if I tumbled down into the ravine it was crossing, I'd only ensure the inevitable was delivered just a bit quicker than expected.

It reminded me of home.

There was a wooden bridge that stood across the moat at Canterlot Castle. I used to run up and down it as a kid, letting Celestia watch me zoom back and forth with glee. I'd pretend I was a tyrannical foreign invader, and she'd let me conquer the castle and eventually slay her to claim it as my own. She was a horrible actress -- Celestia was far too genuine to be anypony else -- but she was certainly good enough for me.

I missed those days.

Those were the days of summer, and summer was always my favorite time of the year. It was when the school fillies and colts were only focused on fun and when the ice cold drinks tasted that much better, but most importantly, it was when the sun burned the hottest. I used to stand outside and lie on the grass for hours, letting the blades tickle me gently and the sun beat down upon me, basking in its warmth. And when my long days were over and I'd completed another lesson or learned another spell, Celestia would wrap me in a loving embrace, and it felt just the same.

Until one day came when it didn't.

The bridge was shaky as I took my first steps, but that didn't matter: I'd overcome tougher trials while I was here, and there was even a trial that I couldn't. My legs were already unstable, but with the rope to my right as support, I slowly began to crawl my way across.

When I blinked, I saw her.

A few yards ahead of me stood Princess Celestia, a stoic look on her face. She stared me directly in the eyes, piercing through to my very soul as she gazed. The bridge was wobbling back and forth ever so slightly, but she stood steadfast, moving not an inch as my already-lacking walking speed slowed to a crawl. It looked as if she had been waiting for me all this time, longing for me to stop and confront her, but I simply couldn't afford that. I couldn't stop moving -- the moment I did, I'd never move again -- but she'd reduced me to a weakened stagger as I clumsily advanced towards her.

"I'm dying," I shouted weakly, hearing my hollow voice carry ever slightly across the canyon below. "You're not real."

What I knew to be a hallucination said nothing, staring me down all the same. Celestia looked as vivid as she ever had, and I could even see her coat blowing softly in the midnight wind, but I wasn't fooled: I was bleeding out, and as a cruel, sadistic joke, my mind began to play tricks on me. As I passed by her at the middle of the bridge, she turned her head to face me, and our eyes met ever briefly as I stumbled along towards the homestretch.

I'd left her behind as I trudged along, but when I was just about to put my front hooves across the other side, the ghost spoke.

"You shouldn't be here."

I whipped around (still walking backward) only to find that Celestia was gone. I didn't have to look too far for her, however, as her voice quickly spoke up from behind me once more.

"You came here to die."

She was actually there when I turned back around again. This time, however, her visage was stern, and she had a knowing fire in her eyes. I found myself shaking my head as I walked towards her and when I answered, I could hear just how shallow my voice had become.

"No. No," I began, using slightly more effort to pick my hooves up. "No, that's not true." Even I knew how unconvincing I sounded, and Celestia sneered, clearly not impressed by my answer.

"Then what is it you tell yourself?" she asked me. I blinked, and she had moved from a spot on the side of the path close to where I was to the middle of it some feet away, right at the top of an uphill climb. "What are you running from?" I don't know why I was answering to something that clearly wasn't there (and likely only inviting another animal to finish me off), but I answered her nonetheless, the pleading in my tone evident even to me.

"Everything," I started. "The castle, my studies, my feelings, you. All of it." The guardian of the pathway shook her head again, and she walked backward to disappear over the hill. I quickly gritted my teeth and grunted as I slowly trudged my way up the incline, knowing well that the effort was only speeding up the bleeding out process. When I emerged over the hill, panting and coughing as I forced my legs to keep moving, I could feel my own eyes widen as I saw what greeted me.

It was once a beautiful castle, I knew. I could almost see it in its heyday, with gleaming pearl spires and steadfast fence to guard them, but that was nothing more than a dream now. The structure was dilapidated and crumbled, and only the brilliant double doors appeared to remain in one piece. Even they, though, were worse for wear, and I knew that it wouldn't take long before the Everfree claimed it as yet another prize in its vast collection of forgotten memories.

I'd never seen it before, but I knew what it was.

"This was yours," I muttered as I limped, watching the castle's structure grow bigger and bigger. Celestia began to walk alongside me with perfect pace, though her hooves made no noise as they hit the dirt path.

"The Castle of the Two Sisters, as they called it," she said. I tried to nod knowingly, but the action was interrupted by an involuntary wince: the pain in my side was slowly building, and I knew that it would only be a few minutes before it became unbearable.

The path to the front of the castle might as well have been a lifetime. Every step began to shoot pain through my body, and the bountiful air around me put out by the millions of trees began to feel not enough. It took absolutely everything in my power to keep my eyes open, and when I looked down at the ground as I reeled forward, I could see I'd made a path of my own in my still-dripping blood.

I was worried I wouldn't have the force to enter the castle, but when I reached its front steps, I was relieved to find that wouldn't be the case. The massive doors were already open a crack, and thankfully, it was large enough that I could slip through them with very little effort.

The castle must have been rotting for a thousand years or more, but for it looked surprisingly steady for its condition (and unfortunate location). The outer walls were pretty much crumbled, but the base of the castle and some of the stairs and arches that made up its decor was were very much there, and I was certain that I could envision the servants and guards moving to and fro if I closed my eyes.

I didn't dare to.

Celestia, who had been standing beside me when I walked in, once again disappeared. She wouldn't have traveled far, and the next time I blinked, I saw her leaning by an archway that presumably led to a bigger room from where we were.

"I could die in worse places," I croaked, advancing towards her the best that I could. She didn't seem to want to hear it, though, and for the thousandth time in the last few minutes, she stared me down with a scathing sternness.

"No, you couldn't," she began. "Nopony will find you. You know I'm probably crying myself to sleep right now like I have been every night. Like your parents and your sister and your friends. And even when the crying stops and they move on with their lives, they'll spend the rest of it wondering in vain what happened to Silver Jubilee." I found myself shaking my head again, but it was no use: even when I replied to her, my words came out hollow.

"No," I began. "T-That's not what I--"

"That's not what you meant?" spat Celestia, watching me as I passed under the arch she'd been sitting by. "Not what you intended? Not what you wanted?" The arch had led to the castle's throne room, and once again, she disappeared. In another flash, I saw her sitting upon what I knew had been the seat of her power in days long past: the sun emblem above her chair was decaying and fading, but it was just brilliant enough to make out.

I stumbled towards her, and I could see my vision beginning to tunnel. I simply didn't have the steps left in me, and so I headed towards the throne to the right of her that formerly belonged to her sister, Princess Luna. The pain in my side began to sear, but it hardly compared to the pain in my heart as Celestia continued to talk to me from her throne.

"You knew just what would happen by coming here," Celestia said. "The souls you'd crush. The torment you'd cause. And you ran away anyways. You didn't even leave a note." I could feel her gaze burning into me as I sharply inhaled with every step of the stairs, taking liberal pauses with every level. "Why?"

"Because I'm a coward," I spoke. My own voice was unrecognizable, and I could physically feel myself deteriorating as I limped to Luna's throne. I was about to sit down, but I quickly noticed a slew of strange objects that had apparently been placed upon the seat.

There were candles burning brightly on the throne's handles. A pattern had been inscribed on the seat -- I couldn't quite tell what it was and I didn't want to give the effort to try -- and it appeared to glow faintly red with a magical influence. There appeared to be hair on the seat, an array of amber and stark white locks, and a half-full vial of what looked to be slightly discolored water tucked away in the corner.

While I would normally be very adverse to be sitting on what appeared to be strange magic and hair, I didn't particularly have a choice, and the jar of what looked to be either tears or sweat wouldn't have impeded on my ability to take a seat. It certainly was extremely disturbing that something or someone could have been here moments before I arrived, but I was far more than half-dead at this point and didn't care about the means to which that end would be reached. I plopped down on the chair, and though my body instantly thanked me, I knew the gesture was fatally deceiving.

"Because I couldn't bring myself to face them. Because I thought it would be better for them to never know what happened to me than to find out why I left." The blood from my side had slowed a bit, but it was still dripping steadily onto the chair, and so I pressed the right side of my body against the armrest in an unsuccessful attempt to stop it.

"You've been lying to yourself," Celestia said. "Why did you leave?"

Maybe this apparition had appeared to force me to make peace with myself before I expired. Maybe it was nothing more than delirium from blood loss. Maybe I had created it for some other weird purpose.

But as much as I thought I was ready to, I did not want to die alone, and so I gave my reply with all the strength I could muster.

"Because I was unhappy," I said softly. I could feel tears running down my eyes as I spoke, and I was almost surprised that I even had the strength to cry at the moment. "Because I was being taught friendship and I just couldn't feel it anymore. Because I no longer wanted to be your apprentice, but because I still wanted to just as much. Because... because... "

The show was over, and I was being ushered off the stage. I was beginning to lose feeling in my limbs, and that tunneling in my vision was twisting narrower and narrower by the second. I turned my head to Celestia, who had entirely disappeared from her throne: I knew she wouldn't come back. There were a thousand more things I could have said as to why I'd snuck out in the middle of the night and abandoned all that I had built and lived my entire life, but as the very last of my lifeline was fading and my tears and blood dropped to the seat below me, I managed to croak out a final string of words before my eyes forced themselves to close.

"Because I loved you," I whispered, letting them shut for the final time. "And I couldn't bring myself to disappoint you."

In my final moments, I dreamt of Canterlot summers.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN:
BLOOD


"Oh, my god."

There was nothing else to say. I had vastly underestimated the severity of Silver's problem, and I knew she hadn't even disclosed the majority of her struggles. A silence hung in the air for what felt like lifetimes, and if I had my way, the room would stay suspended forever.

Silver looked to both of us with tears now flooding in her eyes. I knew the look well, as I'd given it many times myself: she was looking for anything, and in the spur of the moment, I gave it to her.

I wrapped her in the tightest embrace I could manage. She didn't return the hug at first, letting her forelegs hang limply by her side, but after a few seconds, she slowly wrapped them around me. I didn't know how long we stayed there -- it could have been seconds, it could have been minutes -- but however long it was, I made sure it was enough. I could hear a long sigh of what I hoped was relief come from the former apprentice, and carefully, I unlatched myself from the embrace.

"Thank you," she said through sniffles. I was about to reply, but it suddenly occurred to me that Twilight had been strangely quiet: when I turned to her, I was greeted with a face I'd become all too familiar with in the time that I'd become her friend.

She was staring off into space, presumably at one of the trillion books that lined the shelves around us. She was muttering something to herself, and I knew well that the gears in her head were soon to fly off from the speed they were turning. I could see Silver tilt her head to the side in confusion out of the corner of my eye, and it took only a moment before Twilight whipped her head towards Silver and began a rapid-fire cross-examination.

"You saw hair," Twilight spat quickly. "You mentioned the colors. White and amber?" she questioned. Still attempting to fully process what she said, Silver nodded, and it was only then that I began to realize where Twilight was going with her line of reasoning. I could feel my eyes widen as I replied.

"Wait, you don't think it was--"

"A ritual," Twilight finished, springing out of her seat. "With hair and either sweat or tears as the catalyst along with some sort of rune. I'm willing to guarantee the location had something to do with it, too. He may have needed a high concentration of dark magic."

Silver's face grew more and more confused as Twilight bolted from her seat and shifted rapidly from bookshelf to bookshelf. She'd pull out books, flip through them at the speed of light and then casually toss them aside, likely leaving Spike with some chores he would rather not have as she chanted with every turn of the page.

"No, no, no, no, no..." Silver's began a slow change from befuddlement to amusement, and I could feel a matching smile of relief flood across my face: after the tale Silver had told us, seeing her grin made me feel much, much better.

"Is she always like this?" she asked with a twinkle in her eye. I was about to answer her, but a voice from behind us did it for me.

"I'm told she occasionally sleeps."


I had never met Prince Shining Armor in any form. I'd certainly heard a lot about him, though.

I knew who I was looking at when I turned to face him. He had been Commander of the Sunspears for a considerable tenure and headed the entire royal guard for just as long, and the presence he carried when he stood in the doorway was almost enough to earn my respect then and there. It's very hard to match up to the posture and guise of Twilight Sparkle, but the Prince of the Crystal Empire certainly competed.

Twilight immediately dropped the book she was reading to the floor, her eyes wider than the moon outside, and she ran as fast as she could to where her brother was standing.

"Shining!" she called out, a mixture of excitement and desperation lingering through her tone. She slammed into her brother in an immediate embrace (I winced at the potential impact to the hoof in her boot, but it didn't seem to bother her), but he held his ground rather easily, laughing all the while as he returned it. When he looked to where the boot was, however, his smile quickly faded, and he looked to his sister with grave concern.

"How is that healing? Are you okay?" he asked her. I assumed she'd likely written to him about the injury, and Twilight nodded her head carefully at the question.

"Yeah, it's fine," she answered quickly. "But I know you didn't come here just to check on me." I couldn't see her face, but I could feel her eyes widen in realization as she turned to the two of us sitting down behind her.

"But before that, let me introduce you to some friends of mine! The mare on the right is Sunset Shimmer. She lived in the human world for a while, but now she's here to stay!" I waved at him cheerfully, but his eyes narrowed in suspicion as he addressed me.

"Didn't you steal the Element of Magic from Twilight a while back?" Twilight bared her teeth at the question, and I could feel myself grow even more sheepish as I replied.

"That is certainly a thing I did, yes," I said awkwardly. "But I gave it back!"

"No, you didn't," Twilight said quickly, her eyebrows raised in amusement and a Cheshire grin plastered across her face.

"I sure didn't!" I exclaimed, leaning back in my chair. "But she did get it back and now we're best friends. And that's the real magic, don't you think?" I held my hooves out towards him in a gesture I assumed was my attempt at an Equestrian equivalent to finger guns, and the piercing gaze Shining had entrapped me with fell to pieces with a chuckle as revealed his facade.

"Eh, I don't think so," he began. "But Twilight has told me lots about you, and I'm glad to have you back home. Especially in a crazy time like this." I felt a wave of relief wash over me, and the only thing I could think to do was nod in silent thanks as he turned his gaze to the mare next to me.

"And who might this be?" Shining asked, nodding his head to Silver. It was impossible to hide the redness in her face from the crying she'd done recently, but Silver managed a to put on a very weak smile as she introduced herself.

"I'm Silver Jubilee," she said. "I'm, uh, new here." Shining nodded grimly, and he followed up with a question that was growing all too familiar lately.

"Are there any others?" All of us nodded our heads, but Twilight was the one to verbalize it.

"Just one," she replied. I had a feeling Shining knew the answer to his next question from the nervous tone of Twilight's voice, but he asked it anyway.

"They aren't like Zephyr, are they?" Twilight and I let the silence hang in the air for what seemed like eternity, and I knew that neither of us wanted to answer him (Silver, of course, didn't know). It was I who spoke up eventually, though, and I, too, failed almost entirely to hide the nervousness in my voice.

"She might be worse."

Shining stared at me blankly for quite a while, eventually changing his target to the ceiling above him. I knew he'd seen the work Zephyr had done at the Crystal Empire first hoof, and so hearing that sentence probably put a bit of a damper on his mood. Eventually, he sighed loudly, and he looked back to all of us with a sternness in his eyes as he spoke.

"Well, there's your answer," he began. "The Crystal Palace incident is about to break and, uh... we still haven't fixed them. We don't know if we can. We've tried the Crystal Heart, we've got the best doctors. Nothing's working."

"About to break? What do you mean?" Silver asked suddenly. I'd told her about what happened to Twilight and Rainbow in the Crystal Empire during the walk back to castle, so she was at least somewhat informed on the chaos surrounding us when she got here. That being said, I knew then and there that the severity of the situation was lost on her, but she started to understand real quick once Shining gave his reply.

"We've kept it a secret so far, but I don't know how long that's going to last," he began. "There were a lot of ponies Zephyr turned, and by some miracle, their next of kin we notified have been actually obeying their nondisclosure edicts. I haven't heard any word around the city that something crazy might have happened." Shining gave another sigh, leaning against the doorframe as he continued.

"And we're gonna announce it to the public before that happens. I was hoping we could get these ponies fixed before that, but it, uh, isn't looking good. That all ties back to the main reason I'm here: Zephyr is still out there somewhere, and Cady and I agreed that Flurry Heart isn't safe in the Crystal Empire. I couldn't imagine what would have happened if we'd come back from that trip early like we'd planned... " It seemed as if Shining was about to take a trip inside his own mind in regards to that possibility, but a wide-eyed Twilight quickly interrupted any hopes of it happening.

"Flurry's here?" she asked quickly. I leaned back in my chair in surprise, but Silver, who had no idea who Flurry Heart was, cocked her head to the side in confusion.

"She is. We aren't going to stay here for more than a night in the event he comes knocking on this door, but I thought we would drop by and say hello. By the way, the girls sent me up here to get you all. They wanna hang out in the common room and they brought out some games." Twilight immediately looked back to the book she was reading lying gently on the floor before turning to me just as fast. It was massively important -- the first breakthrough we'd had since the apprentices started appearing, really -- but we had also made a promise.

"It can wait," I told her, a hint of a soft smile across my face. "Let's go have some fun for once." Twilight made a faux pouty-face at the suggestion, but her even brighter glow in return that followed seconds later let me know she was in agreement.

"Yeah, you're right," she began. "Come on, Shining! I'll introduce you to Violet and Cobalt." The two began to walk out of the room and down the absurdly long flight of stairs, but when Silver went to follow, I rested a hoof on her shoulder and brought her down to her seat again. Twilight looked back to me moments before she disappeared, and when she realized what I was doing, she nodded her head sagely before she vanished down the steps. I turned to Silver immediately, keeping my hoof on her shoulder as I spoke: for the thousandth time that night, her face scrunched in confusion, but it was quickly alleviated once my first words came out.

"Hey, um, that was, uh... pretty intense," I began. "I don't know what it's like to feel the way you did, but know that all of us are here for you, Silver. I know this whole thing is still fresh in your mind, and you don't have to answer this if you don't want to, but... are you feeling okay? Like, now?"

It took Silver a while to answer. She sat back in her chair and stared at the doorframe in front of us, letting words race through her head at a million miles per hour for what felt like decades. When I was just about to speak again to break the silence, she answered, not bothering to turn and look at me as she did so.

"...I was brought back for a reason," she started. "I'm here for a reason. I don't know why and I don't know how, but I am. Second chances like this just don't happen, but since this one did, I'm gonna try to make the most of it." She paused for a moment before turning to me with a reluctance swirling in her gaze.

"I... I might need your help, though. And Celestia's." I found a warm smile creeping on my face involuntarily, and I wrapped my hooves around her for another hug. I could tell she didn't like to be touched, though, and I knew the first one was a luxury: I made sure to make it short, and when I detached from her, I nodded my head in the direction of the door frame and slowly rose from my seat.

"You'll always have it," I said. "Now let's go drink."


I was, of course, coming down to the common room to have fun. I know we all needed it after the whirlwind of the past few weeks, and I was very much looking forward to truly getting to know the equine counterparts to my friends across the portal and get some real down time with my roommate of the past few months.

But there was somepony I needed to talk to first.

It didn't take long to find him, because I knew that if I found Violet, he wouldn't be far behind. Sure enough, when Silver and I entered the maroon washed common room of Canterlot Castle, Cobalt and Violet were seated together on a long red couch, seemingly locked in conversation and discussing something I couldn't quite make out. When the two of us approached, the both of them quickly waved in greeting but reeled their heads back upon spotting the pony tailing me. I sat down next to them and motioned for Silver to do the same, and after a moment of hesitation, she slid across the couch to join me.

"Hey, guys! This is Silver Jubilee, the one Celestia told us about earlier. Silver, this is Cobalt, Celestia's third apprentice, and Violet, Celestia's first." Silver merely waved awkwardly with a meek smile, but Violet and Cobalt were far more overjoyed.

"Huzzah!" Violet exclaimed, eagerly clapping her hooves together with a warm beam across her face. "We hath had much appetency for thine arrival. If thou would have questions for any of us, do not hesitate to ask!" Silver nodded before turning to Cobalt, who looked back to her with curiosity.

"What happened there?" She asked, nodding to his prosthetic. I immediately remembered back to one of the plans I'd given him, and I was delighted to see he had, in fact, replaced the stiff alloy leg he had made in the past. I'd given him the plans to a human prosthetic leg in hopes that he could design something around it, as I certainly wasn't about to attempt and design something myself. It looked as if he'd come up with something crazy, as he was now wearing a sleek black prosthetic in the shape of a leg with a joint in the middle that looked like a sphere of some sort. It was resting on the couch in a natural pose, and I began to suspect that there was more to the new prosthetic than just physical parts.

"Fought off a sleuth of Ursa Majors. You should have seen the bloody lot of them." That drew chuckles from the three rest of us, but Cobalt waved his hoof in dismissal shortly afterward.

"I'll tell you later tonight if you're keen. Do you like it?" He turned to me with that sly grin I'd come to know Cobalt for, and I figured he must have seen me looking at it when Silver mentioned it. I was about to answer with a warm grin, but that smile quickly dropped wide open as I saw the prosthetic move: he appeared to be bending it back and forth of his own volition, and I could see the faintest glow of magic emanating from the joint as he did so.

"How did you do that?" I asked, entirely unable to hide the amazement in my inflection. Silver, too, seemed bewildered, and I could only watch Cobalt's face grow even more confident as he explained it.

"Right after I blew the bugger off, I experimented with infusing prosthetics with magic to make it so I was able to control it like my real legs. There was a failure on two ends back then, though, because Celestia and I were having trouble devising a true enchantment to make it freeform and the gears and joints I was trying to use to make it happen couldn't quite move the way I wanted them to. Back then, I settled on a limp. I don't actually need a prosthetic, of course, but I didn't want to walk around with a missing leg." Cobalt stood up from the couch, moving the prosthetic in multiple directions: if it were colored like his coat, I would have never guessed it was fake.

"That plan you gave me was very helpful. It got me thinking of how I could make a joint that could move in any direction like a real leg with considerably less effort. Once I made the leg from plastic and used alloys for the socket, we had to figure out how to put a spell on it that could link my thoughts to the movement. It took Sparkle all but a day to figure out how to enchant it. That mare is something, I tell you." I was certainly impressed, and I could see Silver's eyebrows raised as well as she nodded and examined the new prosthetic a little bit closer.

"She really is," I began, turning back to look Cobalt in the eyes. "And have you started on the other plan I gave you?" I could practically see the excited twinkle in his eye as he nodded enthusiastically, giving off a long whistled before he answered.

"It's absolutely brilliant, Shimmer," he started. "But it's a quite the task. Celestia and I secured the materials through a contractor and I've been working as hard as I can. I'll let you know how I progress." I once again sensed confusion from Silver, but I decided it would be best to tell her as much as I could tomorrow once everything got settled in.

For now, though, I wanted her to feel more comfortable with the gang, so I looked over the room. Pinkie and Fluttershy were engaged in a game of Dragon Pit (by the looks of it, Fluttershy was losing), while Rarity and Rainbow were locked in a conversation with Shining and Twilight. Finally, Applejack and Luna appeared to be playing some sort of card game, but I couldn't explicitly tell who was winning or what game they were even playing based on their reactions.

"I'm gonna go get some wine for the table from the kitchen," I began, turning back to the three of them now. "Do any of you want anything?" Silver waved the request off with her hoof, but Violet seemed much more inclined.

"I would savor some mead, if 'twas available," she said. I raised my eyebrows and looked to the ceiling at that request: it was a bit odd for the times, but it made plenty of sense that Violet would have enjoyed it a thousand years ago. I simply shrugged before beginning to walk back to the doorway, nodding my head quickly as I replied.

"Hang tight. I'll see what I can do." The group nodded, and I was happy to see that Silver began to talk with the two a bit as I was walking away. With a bit of a dumb smile on my face, I whipped around and headed out of the common room to make the relatively short walk to the kitchen.

It was natural, of course, that the kitchen would be close to the common rooms: there were often guests that needed to be fed, after all, and the nobility of Equestria (everywhere, really) didn't like to be kept waiting. It wasn't long before I slipped into the kitchen, the stark white walls, the row of refrigerators and the large table in the center all too familiar from when I'd sneak into it during my days living in the castle as a filly. I was surprised to find that I had some company, though: Starlight Glimmer entered my line of sight beneath the kitchen sink, seemingly looking for something in the cabinet below.

"Whatcha looking for?" I asked her, appearing behind her. I'd hoped to make her jump, but she remained still as a statue as she continued to rummage through the cabinet.

"A bottle opener. I'm picking Trixie up from the station tomorrow and I want to make sure I know where one is... aha!" Triumphantly, she ducked out of the cabinet and held up what appeared to be a kitchen multi-tool of some sort, but it certainly had the bottle opener she was looking for.

"I'm gonna rinse it off real quick. What brings you here?" She turned to the sink and hit the lever to start running the water, and I quickly stepped towards one of the many refrigerators in the kitchen and popped one open.

"Violet wants mead. You wouldn't happen to know if we have any, would you?" To my surprise, Starlight answered almost, immediately, speaking up over the sound of the sink.

"Yeah, the third fridge from the wall you're facing. Violet wanted some earlier when you went out to go--"

Suddenly, Starlight inhaled sharply, and I heard the water turn off abruptly and the bottle opener clank into the sink. I whipped around to find her holding her right hoof over the sink, the multi-tool now neatly placed to the side. There were plenty of sharp objects that went along with the bottle opener, and it didn't take long for me to deduce what had happened.

"Did you cut yourself?" I asked her worriedly. Starlight immediately nodded, taking her left hoof off her right for a very brief moment to wave off my concern.

"Uh, yeah. No big deal." She turned the faucet back on with her magic and levitated a roll of paper towels towards her, letting me know that there had to have been some bleeding to go along with the nick.

"Is there blood? Here, let me--"

"No, no, no!" Starlight muttered loudly, furiously beginning to wrap some paper towels around the hoof in question. I'd reeled back a little bit at the urgency of her tone, and it wasn't long before she'd created a makeshift bandage that had covered almost the entirety of her foreleg, much less the hoof in question. She held it up very briefly, but she put it down to the ground just as quick, lieaving it out of my sight behind the large table in the center of the room.

"All taken care of for now. I'll go to the nurse and get a proper bandage on it right after I'm done here. No biggie!" I eyed her with a single eyebrow raised before looking back down to the hoof I could no longer see.

"Are you sure?" I asked her, an unconvincing inflection carrying through my tone. Starlight used her non-injured hoof to wave me off once again.

"Positive, Shimmy," she said, looking back to me with a grin. "Go get Violet her mead. Celestia knows the mare deserves it." I eyed her for a few seconds longer, but it didn't take too long for me to sigh in defeat. As timid as Starlight often was, she was more than capable of asserting herself when she wanted to: I thought this was a bit of a strange reason to do so, sure, but I wasn't going to question it.

Not tonight, at least.

"As you wish, Princess," I mocked, bowing slightly to sell it. I turned around to the fridge Starlight mentioned, and sure enough, there were quite a few brands of mead waiting for me inside. I wasn't entirely sure why Celestia had stocked so much -- perhaps Luna still had a taste for the finer days -- so I picked the two bottles that looked the most intriguing before slamming it shut. I began to speak to Starlight as I did so, turning around to meet her.

"I'm not sure if you saw, but Shining--"

I stopped dead. Starlight was gone: in fact, if I hadn't just spoken to her and watched her patch up her cut, the kitchen almost looked liked she'd never even been there. The bottle opener was gone, the paper towels had been returned to their previous location, and I couldn't even see any drops of water in the sink.

I looked around one more time as if I would maybe somehow find her before shaking my head violently and beginning to walk out of the room.

"I haven't even started drinking yet," I muttered, rounding the corner of the doorway.

Thankfully, the hallway didn't leave me contemplating in silence for too long, and I quickly passed through the doorframe of the common room I'd left a few minutes earlier.

It looked like everypony was still engrossed in their prior activities, and sure enough, Cobalt and Violet were still talking on the couch in the corner of the room. I trotted over to where they were sitting and levitated the bottles onto the small round table next to them. Another look around the immediate area gave away that a certain pony was missing, and I looked to the pair with confused eyes as I put the bottles down.

"I brought two just to make sure you weren't left out, Cobalt. Where's Silver?" Violet had already begun pouring the mead into a glass that had seemingly materialized out of nowhere, but Cobalt pointed his hoof at the doorway I'd just come in through.

"She left after talking for a bit. Said parties make her nervous." I could feel a disappointed sigh escape my lips, but I was very glad that Silver had it in her to talk with some ponies before retreating. I would figure out where she was later, I reasoned, but I would let her have her alone time for the moment so she could ease into everything.

I scanned the room for any sign of Starlight, but it appears she intended to do as she said. She wasn't here, so I assumed that she had, in fact, gone to see Doctor Scarlet to get that cut checked out. I sat down on the couch next to Violet in defeat, and she could easily hear the sigh I gave off the moment I hit the seat.

"Art thou perturbed?" she asked, looking to me with concern. I quickly shook my head to dismiss her.

"No, I'm fine," I told her. "I just had this strange encounter with Starlight. Has she been acting... strange at all lately?" I knew Violet didn't really know Starlight, but I was at least curious to see if even she had noticed any odd behavior. She shook her head in the negative before answering, though.

"Starlight does not appear bewitched in my eyes, no," Violet began. "Peradventure she is merely overtaxed from the chaos? Gods know that I am." I looked to the ceiling unconvincingly, but in my head, I agreed that it was a definite possibility: she was known for being very frantic with her emotions, and this may have just been her own strange way of releasing the tension that all of us have held for so long now.

Or there's something wrong with her.

"Yeah, maybe you're right." With another sigh, I grabbed the bottle of mead and a glass in front of me (it appeared somepony had laid out a few them for us) and began to pour, letting it fill just below the brim before I started sipping. I wasn't exactly a huge mead drinker, but even I could tell that it was very good. I expected no less from the sisters' personal collection, but it was still nice to enjoy it.

I was about to say something to Violet and Cobalt, but I could barely open my mouth before an unmistakable cadence called out from behind us.

"Hello, everypony! Sorry I'm late!" My eyes widened at the voice, and I whipped around to see Princess Celestia only just waltzing through the doorway. She had stripped herself of her regalia, and it looked like she was looking forward to relaxation after being exhausted from the meeting she had been in the entire day.

Unfortunately, I had to rob her of it.

As I put my drink down and began a power walk over to her, it became apparent that I wasn't going to be the only one to do so. Twilight had rushed Shining over to greet her as well, and we met with the Princess at the same time. She appeared shocked that Shining was in the castle, but I managed to speak up before any of them could explain.

"Princess, there's been quite the development," I said. Twilight and Shining nodded sternly -- Twilight must have informed Shining of her intent to speak with the Princess -- and she looked to the three of us with narrowed eyes.

"What development? Is everypony okay?" We all quickly nodded our heads, but it was Twilight who answered her.

"Yes, we are. There's, uh... a new friend of ours that you probably want to talk to."

Celestia couldn't be fooled. There was no way to soften to blow, no way to try and put it gently when she asked us who our "new friend" was. She knew, and I could see the color drain from her face and her eyes widened as large as her sister's moon at the mere insinuation of her former apprentice. We let her take her time, watching her stare at the wall behind us as the gears raced through her head until she finally posed a question without breaking her gaze.

"Where is she?" She asked softly. Twilight looked to me with a questioning glance, but I quickly shook my head to indicate I didn't have an answer for her before I replied.

"She was here, but she apparently left a few minutes ago. I have no idea where she could have run off to." Celestia stared for a bit longer, letting my words register again and again before, to the surprise of us all, she turned her gaze to Shining.

"Did you bring Flurry?" she asked simply.


I don't know how Silver had found Flurry Heart. Shining had certainly not told her where she was, and there was an approximately infinite number of rooms on the second floor of the castle, but Celestia had seemed confident that she'd achieved the task nonetheless. She must have been quite the savant with children, I reasoned, but Celestia didn't explain how she knew where her former student would be.

She just did.

I could hear Silver talking before we'd even entered the room. She was asking Flurry questions she knew would go without an answer, praising her for something that none of us could see. Celestia was silent the entire walk upstairs, and Twilight, Shining and I didn't dare say a word where she wouldn't. It was always going to be hard for Celestia to go back to her apprentices, but after hearing Silver's story, I tried to brace myself for any number of scenarios that could occur.

When we walked in, the first thing we saw was Silver's back to us. She was sitting down with Flurry watching her play with some blocks that Shining must have stored in the room. Where she had been talking and playing with Flurry before we came in, she was now entirely unmoving her muscles tensed and her limbs locked to her side.

We said nothing, Silver hadn't turned around and she didn't hear anypony's voice as we approached her: there was no way she could have known that her former mentor was standing behind her.

She just did.

Flurry's questioning noises when she picked up the blocks were the only sound that coursed through the room for a lifetime before anypony spoke: it was Twilight who broke the silence as she took a step forward.

"Do you want us to go?" she asked softly. I supposed that the silence grew tiresome after a while, because she answered almost immediately.

"No," she said simply. She turned around to look Celestia in the eye, and the tears started as soon as she made the contact. They flowed softly at first, but with each passing second, it grew worse and worse. Flurry seemed to notice before it got too bad, though, and she began to call out in distress at the sight of her new friend beginning to cry. That forced a sob-filled laugh from Silver, and she turned her head around slightly to levitate Flurry right into her lap.

"Come here," she said. She rocked her slowly, and the worried visage Flurry displayed a few seconds ago quickly faded to an obliviously upbeat grin before too long.

Silver didn't speak for a little bit, attempting to gather herself, but it was no use. The tears kept on flowing, and there came a point when she abandoned any hope of talking to Celestia with a dry face.

"I... I messed up," she started slowly, still rocking Flurry back and forth. "Really, really badly. I know I must have tortured you every night, and my parents, and my friends but I... I needed help. I needed help, and I was too scared and too prideful and too angry and too depressed to ask for it." She paused for a second, opting to simply lose herself in Celestia's gaze, but she picked herself up sooner than later.

"I went to the Everfree Forest that night, Celestia, because I knew deep down that I wouldn't come back out. I don't have an apology that would be enough, and you have every right to be furious and you have every right to not forgive me--"

Suddenly, Celestia stepped forward from where she was, taking two or three steps before she kneeled down in front of Silver. Slowly, she wrapped herself around her, including Flurry Heart in the deep embrace. Flurry was merely happy for the affection, giggling wildly as her aunt embraced her, but Silver had an empty look on her face as she let her front legs hang limp to the side for the second time that night. Celestia whispered to her, but it was just loud enough for the rest of us to hear.

"I'm here now," she stated, wrapping around her just tight enough to accommodate the both of them. "I'm here now."

When I had hugged her earlier in Twilight's tower, it'd taken her about a minute to finally return it.

She was quicker this time around.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN:
HEY THERE, EVERYPONY!


When I woke up, Violet was gone.

It wasn't exactly an uncommon occurrence. Violet came from a time where waking up very early was the cultural norm (as was going to bed just so), and so there were quite a few days over the past few weeks where she would instinctively beat me to breakfast by a considerable margin. I had told, her, however, that it was okay to sleep in a bit nowadays, and there were a few times where she took that advice to heart. I had expected this morning to be one of those times, what with the wine and mead involved in last night's festivities (I had fallen asleep the night before excited to see how Twilight would suffer the next morning), but it appears I had been wrong.

I made sure to quickly make my bed after I hopped out of it, the process only taking a few precious seconds with magic. Once I was satisfied, I quickly waltzed over to the bathroom and hit the lever to start the shower, letting it warm up as I looked in the mirror.

I moved my head back and forth, scanning over every little bit of my face as I did so. I had expected to relax for a bit when I came back home, to feel out the place I'd been away from for so long and to get ready to live the rest of my life here, but I'd gotten something entirely different instead. I could see only the faintest hints of stress seeping into my complexion, but they were certainly there, and I gave a loud sigh as I inched closer to the mirror.

"We're gonna win," I told my reflection. "We always do."

I didn't want to shower for too long -- I could feel my stomach rumbling as I got in -- so I hopped out after a short while and quickly dried myself off before beginning to head down the stairs towards the dining hall.

We'd been having community breakfast for a few weeks now, and I was elated that we were able to talk about nothing and eat some delicious food (courtesy of Spike) before going off to discover some ancient rituals or battle enemies returned from the dead. This would be the first one that Silver got to experience, and I was really hoping she would actually show up.

As I hopped off the stairs and began my walk down the long hallway, remembered that we would be missing Starlight. She had made arrangements to pick up Trixie Lulamoon from the train station and bring her back here, and she would likely be gone for a bit. I was glad to have Trixie back to help (she had already contributed to greatly to the search for Celestia's apprentices before she left), and I was also hoping that she could ease Starlight's mind and help her relax with all the chaos going on.

Starlight has always been a bit timid and neurotic in high-pressure situations. From darting out of Our Town almost immediately to apparently "bottling up" all of her anger (Twilight had sent me that letter a long time ago and I still wasn't entirely sure what that entailed), she had a bit of a reputation for losing the levelheadedness that made her such a natural leader of ponies when she was faced with a lot of stress. As such, it made sense that she would be acting a bit strange, but I was never able to ask her how she was doing whenever these things would happen: she'd just disappear for practically the entire night.

I'm gonna talk to her right when she gets back, I reasoned as I walked into the dining hall. I'm sure she'll be just fine.

The dining hall was certainly populated, and it looked as if I'd gotten there just as breakfast was being served. Spike had placed all the food he'd made at the center of the table, and everypony was grabbing all the food their plates could hold.

There were a few notable absences, however. Strangely, Violet and Cobalt were nowhere to be seen, and it was very unlike them to skip out on breakfast here. Silver Jubilee was absent, as was Twilight Sparkle (Twilight had gone a little... excessive on the wine and mead the night prior, so I wasn't too surprised about that one). Finally, Shining had left early in the morning to visit his parents before leaving the city and had taken Flurry with him, of course. With the missing ponies came an extra addition, however, as Rainbow Dash was sitting at the end of the table with another Wonderbolt with a fiery mane and tail and a yellow coat that I didn't recognize. They were both wearing their flight jackets, and I quickly recalled that Rainbow was supposed to fly with the Wonderbolts tonight. She'd given all of us tickets well in advance, and I could feel my eyes light up at the thought of going to the show soon.

I plopped down towards the edge of the table next to Pinkie Pie and grabbed a plate as fast as I could, taking a combination of hay bacon and sunflowers with a glass of orange juice as Pinkie turned to me.

"Hiya, Sunset!" she sang, taking a bite of hay bacon and gulping it down almost comically quick before she spoke again. "Where's Violet and Cobalt? We figured they'd definitely be awake by now!" I swallowed the piece of hay bacon I'd been eating before I turned to the group at the table with a puzzled look.

"You all haven't seen them? I thought she'd just woken up before me like always." The rest of the elements shook their heads, but it was Rainbow Dash who spoke.

"Nope. Wonder where they ran off to?" I shrugged, but I quickly nodded my head to unbelievably cool flight jacket she was wearing.

"You flying tonight?" I asked her. Rainbow raised her eyebrows with an unknowing smile before she answered, and I saw her sneak a tiny glance towards her heavily bruised sides as she did so.

"I'm gonna try," she started. "I met with a team doctor last night as she said I was good to go if I was up to it. I'm technically still on indefinite leave, but we're gonna do some flying in the gardens after breakfast and see how it feels. I miss the lights." She smirked as she said the last line, and she pointed to the mare next to her with a hoof as she continued.

"This is Spitfire, the Captain of the Wonderbolts. She's just stopping by for breakfast and to see how I'm feeling." Spitfire gave me a wave before glancing down to my coat.

"How many red, yellow, and orange friends you got, Crash?" she asked loudly. That drew a laugh from Rainbow, and I was momentarily confused about the name until I spied "Rainbow Crash" written across her flight jacket. I chalked it off as a Wonderbolt thing before turning to the captain.

"It's nice to meet you, Spitfire," I told her, taking a sip of the orange juice. "I'm very excited to see you guys perform. How many shows have you done on your tour so far?" Spitfire leaned back in her chair and looked to the ceiling, presumably counting in her head until she answered.

"Six," she finally replied. "Ponyville, Manehatten, Los Pegasus, San Palomino, Baltimare and Fillydelphia. We hit Canterlot tonight and finish in Cloudsdale." I nodded thoughtfully, opting to take another bite of hay bacon before responding. I knew that Cloudsdale was gonna be the big show, and it was disappointing that Rainbow was likely going to miss it. It was nice that she was able to kick the tour off in Ponyville, though, and I was certainly hoping I would get to see her in action tonight.

Just as I was about to reply, however, I heard some footsteps coming from the doorway, and I looked up to see Violet and Cobalt waltz in. They were just finishing up a conversation, and the two of them took some empty seats to the left of me. Violet sat closest to where I was, and while she gathered her plates and utensils, I made sure to be the first pony to greet her.

"Hey, you," I said, giving her a warm smile. "I didn't see you when I woke up this morning. Where did you two go?" Strangely, I saw a flood of red slowly overtake her, and she refused to look at me with a flush in her face as she answered.

"Ah, yes. Regarding that," she said, entirely unable to hide a sheepish smile. "Cobalt and I have not traveled anywhere. We have just awoken." Cobalt was uncharacteristically silent, but before I could piece together what she was saying, I heard a stern voice call out from where the two had just come in.

"Sunset Shimmer," it called sternly. I looked up to see a member of the Royal Guard standing by the table: I hadn't even heard him approach. Once he had my attention, he continued to speak before I could reply.

"Princess Twilight is up in her tower," he said. "She's sent me to fetch you."


When Twilight Sparkle was on a roll, Tartarus itself could not stop her. We made her pause last night, but she would not be contained for long.

When I trotted up the stairs and pushed the door open, I found yet another missing pony: Silver Jubilee was seated across the table from Twilight, her eyes scanning what appeared to be a very hefty book. Twilight herself was engaged in the same activity, but she looked much worse for wear, and my suspicion that she would suffer the consequences of last night's indulgence was proven to be true. She held her booted hoof up to her head as she scanned the book she was reading, and she read it on the table in front of her with a slight squint of her eyes.

On any other day, she might have shirked her duties to stay in bed just a little bit longer, but not today. Twilight Sparkle was on to something, and she would not be denied.

I admired her resilience and passion for the truth immensely, but that didn't mean I was going to pass up the opportunity to mess with her. She hadn't noticed me walking up, and so I took the deepest breath I could before sitting down next to Silver.

"HEY, TWILIGHT!" I yelled, making sure to even plop down on the seat below me as hard as I possibly could. Silver jumped in surprise, but I wasn't looking at her: Twilight merely stopped reading her book and looked to the ceiling with closed eyes, scrunching her face up as she did so. She took a series of deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling as she let the pain reverberate through her head until it finally subsided to a tolerable level. I was entirely unable to hide an excited Cheshire grin from my face, and after a long, long pause, she finally spoke to me in a rasped voice.

"We should have hit you with the elements one more time," she scathed, her eyes still not ready to open. That drew a fit of laughter from both Silver and I, and after a few seconds, Twilight let the faintest hint of a smile creep on to her face as it finally died down.

"Yeah, but then you couldn't have called me up here," I teased. She raised her eyebrows for a split second, indicating that was precisely the point, and when she finally opened her eyes again I motioned to the books they were reading. There was yet another massive stack of tomes at the very edge of the table, and it appeared as if they had already gone through quite a few of them before I even got here.

"Why did you call me up here?" I asked. I knew the answer, but I let Twilight say it herself while she continued to read whatever page she was opened to.

"Because you're smarter than me," she started. "These are the most forbidden dark magic tomes I could pull from the Starswirl the Bearded wing of the Canterlot Archives, a lot of which Zephyr took quite the inspiration from. I think it's clear that he's the reason all the apprentices are here, but I want to know what that ritual was that Silver stumbled across. We haven't found anything that she recognizes." While I could certainly argue against her first point, I sat back and nodded thoughtfully at the description of her process. It made sense to go where Zephyr started to find out just what he had done, but from the looks of it, they weren't having too much success.

Twilight flipped to a page in the book and held it up to Silver. There was a giant rune sprawled across the pages, and the pattern looked to be made up of colliding circles.

"Did it look like this?" she asked. Silver shook her head in the negative, and with a quick sigh, Twilight put the book down and began searching through the pages once more.

"No, it didn't have any other circles," she began. "It was all inside of one, but the pattern was made up entirely of lines." Twilight nodded in understanding as she continued, fervently flipping pages and scanning over their words.

I didn't pick up a book or read along with the two of them. I just started thinking.

Zephyr had descended into madness during his plunge into dark magic, but his instability didn't take away from his intelligence. From what I understood, everything he did was particular: he held a diary and recorded all of his dabblings in dark magic, as well as his thoughts on the religion he had created from it and devoted himself to. Even still, Twilight had harrowingly told me when she got back from the Crystal Empire that he had a list of every pony employed there just to be sure he had turned each and every one to a thrall.

He had to have gone to the Crystal Empire for some reason, but that was speculation for later. The rune Silver Jubilee saw was definitely his work, and I was certainly willing to bet that it had something to do with why everypony had been rising from the dead lately.

But whatever it was, it was going to be very, very particular.

I tapped my hoof on the table we were sitting at and opened my eyes, looking towards Twilight. She looked up to me with her eyes narrowed and her head tilted slightly to the side, and I knew then that she figured I was on to something.

"Twilight, what exactly is a magic ritual?" I asked. She reeled her head back a bit, as she knew I knew the answer, but she gave it to me regardless as Silver listened intently.

"It's an algorithm of sorts," she started slowly. "A ritual is crafted to do something specific, whether it's to summon something or to trigger an event. You give it instructions in the form of charms and items to fuel it, and it gives you what you want in return." I nodded in the affirmative, but before I could follow up, Silver did it for me.

"So then we have a question to answer," she replied for me. "What did Zephyr want?" Fortunately, it was a very easy one to answer, and Twilight chimed in immediately.

"Chrysanthemum," she stated. "He wanted to cure her. Perhaps he wants to revive her again?" I nodded sagely, but I shook my head almost immediately afterward. I felt like I had some sort of spotlight on me with the way the two of them were looking at me.

"That isn't the whole story. He likely wants Chrysanthemum back now, but not at the cost of his own life. He wants to be there with her, not to sacrifice himself so that she can live. We also can't forget that this is his religion, too, and he wants as many converts as he can get. He believes that dark magic and those who used it are the keys to some sort of higher understanding." Twilight's eyes widened the farthest they could go in her state, and she quickly closed the book in front of her with her magic and placed it neatly on top of the pile.

"So the ritual that Silver saw had something to do with one of those things," she said. "It was either Chrysanthemum or to spread his dark magic. Whatever it was, I'm absolutely certain it's the reason we're all here. It can't be a coincidence." She narrowed her eyes and gritted her teeth, the frustration clearly evident as the gears in her head fired further.

"If only we had something definitive that could tell us. We can't afford to keep guessing." That was the trigger: as soon as she finished her sentence, I could feel my own eyes light up as I pointed my hoof towards her frantically once more.

"Didn't Celestia say he kept a journal?"


There was a renewed spring in Twilight's step as we walked down the stairs and back into the castle.

Thankfully, Celestia was still in the castle at the moment. Celestia wasn't scheduled to be out and about today, but she was still running the country, so we wanted to make sure we could talk to her early in the morning in hopes that her workflow wouldn't have picked up yet. Luna was away, however, as she had already committed to a week-long diplomatic trip to Saddle Arabia and had left at the end of the night last night. Thankfully, we only needed our former mentor, and so we were currently making our way up to her study as we traversed once again through the halls of the castle.

"Where do you think she keeps it?" Silver asked, though she quickly tacked on to the question. "Assuming she still has it."

"She said she's read it," Twilight answered, shrugging her shoulders as we turned a corner. "I honestly have no idea whether she's kept it or not, but it's worth a shot to ask. That information would be game-changing." I nodded in agreement, and the three of us continued down the hall in silence for quite some time.

We were interrupted, however, when we passed by the large double doors that marked the entrance to the castle. They slowly began to creak open as we passed, and it only took a second to remember the group of ponies we had been expecting this morning.

Sure enough, Starlight and Trixie ducked through the doors, and we stopped dead in our tracks and they entered the castle. Trixie's face lit up upon seeing us, and she broke into a brisk trot with Starlight as she ran to meet us.

"Hey there, everypony!" she called, running to Twilight first. She wrapped her in an embrace, but she made sure to do it carefully with regard to the boot on her right hoof. Strangely enough, Trixie had a small brown satchel hanging at her side, and she had to adjust her hug to make sure it didn't press into Twilight uncomfortably. When she looked up to meet her, though, her face dropped, and she held a hoof up to her mouth before addressing her.

"Are you okay, Twilight? You look very sick!" Starlight's gaze seemed to echo the concern, but both of their faces quickly twisted in befuddlement as the three of us broke out into laughter. Twilight answered her when the laughter eventually died down, and the quiet raspiness in her tone gave her away almost immediately.

"You could say that, I suppose," she replied. Trixie and Starlight's eyes widened as an understanding quickly came to them, and they shared their own quick chuckle amidst all of our grins. Suddenly, however, Trixie pointed her hoof in the air, and she used her magic to open the satchel at her side whilst rummaging through it.

"Oh, I almost forgot! Sunset, do you remember that mailbox you bought down at the post office when you first got here?" I tilted my head forward, but before I could even react with confusion -- I certainly had not done anything of the sort -- Trixie looked up to me with a glare that sent a chill through my veins.

She was smiling ear to ear, but it acted as a thin veil. There was an extremely unsettling pleading from her eyes, and I could almost feel the nervous twitches of her skin and the fear from inside her as she pulled out a letter and hung it in the air. She didn't dare say a word, but her message was very clear. I tried my absolute hardest to make a neutral expression, and thankfully, Silver and Twilight didn't seem to notice that anything was wrong.

"Yes, of course!" I answered, perhaps a little too jubilantly. Again, nopony seemed to notice I was lying, and Starlight stood behind Trixie with an unassuming grin as she looked toward the letter.

"I went ahead and picked up a letter for you! It's from some sort of moving company." She passed it over to me, and when I grabbed it, I looked carefully at the address my "letter" had come from. It was from "Canterlot Moving Co.", and aside from the incredibly generic name, every bit of it seemed legit: it was even stamped properly.

"Aww, thanks, Trix! Let me go see if there's a letter opener somewhere. If it's a bill, I don't want to rip it."

I walked away as casually as I could, and although I saw a weird face from Twilight and Silver, I paid it no mind. Of course, I didn't need a letter opener, and so I ducked around the corner of the hallway I'd escaped down with haste and shuffled into a guest room as far down the hall as I could find one. Very gently closing the door, I quickly ripped the top off the envelope and let it drop to the floor as I opened up the piece of paper inside.

When I did, I had to stifle a gasp.

Inside was a note that was scribbed down frantically, the tremors from fear entirely evident in the stroke. It was three simple words written in large capital letters, but they were enough to put a sickness in my stomach and a chill down my spine.

THATS NOT STARLIGHT