Emily Ashton stirred in her sleep. She pulled the blankets in, bundling them against her chest.
She turned over. Did somebody call her name?
"Emily. That is your name, yes?"
Her eyes jerked open-- there was someone talking to her. She looked slowly across her room, her groggy eyes making out the shapes and shadows of the night.
"Please... just say something... anything... I'm so, so lonely..."
Emily jerked up in bed. Whatever creep it was that was spying on her tonight was about to get a piece of her mind and a fist.
"No, no, there's no need to be alarmed. I'm..." the voice paused for a moment. "I'm your conscience."
"Psh, sure," Emily snapped back with an eye-roll. "And I'm that dude from those insurance ads."
"...Jake? But I thought your name was Emily."
She groaned, laying down again. This was probably just some weird fever-dream or something. It'd be all gone by tomorrow, and--
What did that... that voice have to be sorry for? Being annoying? It's been a long time since she'd been this self-aware in a dream.
"If you don't want me to talk anymore, then I'll remain quiet for the time being."
Emily flipped her pillow over, slamming her cheek against the cool fabric.
She sat up again and looked through the gaps in her window blinds. Was it the moon that was keeping her up? She'd heard from somewhere that a full moon made it harder to sleep sometimes. She widened the gap between the blinds and peeked out. No moon tonight.
"Hmf. So much for this lady getting her beauty sleep," Emily grumbled to herself, falling back. The bed creaked under her. "Hey, weird disembodied voice thing, you can come out again if you want. Heck, manifest yourself and slap me in the face while you're at it. Maybe I can get some rest outside of this dream still."
"Are..." the voice whispered. "Are you sure I can speak again? You didn't seem to like it before."
Emily crossed her arms. "Well, it's not like there's much else to do anyway. I'm not gonna risk jumping out the window to see if I can fly in this dream, though."
"O-okay. What... would you like to talk about?"
"'Dunno. Stars, maybe. I'm basically talking to myself anyway... though," she softened her voice. "yes, a whisper is probably gonna be a good choice right now. I don't want to wake my parents with sleep-talking."
"...Alright," the whisper seemed to almost hesitate for a moment. "Stars are a preferable topic."
"What, was there something you wanted to talk about?" Emily shook her head, burying her face in her pillow. "Gah, I can't believe I'm talking to myself like this! My friends are gonna think I'm going crazy!"
The voice almost sounded hopeful for a moment.
"What, am I saying that I don't have any friends?"
"I never said that we were one and the same."
"Well, you said that you were my conscience, did you not?"
"I... I do sometimes regret my words."
Emily snorted. "Well, what are you, then? Some monster under my bed? Do I need to run out crying and get my mommy and daddy to scare you away?"
"Please... don't make fun of me like that, I am scared enough already. Too much has happened in my life."
Scared? What did some voice inside her head have to be scared of? This dream was making less and less sense by the minute. Maybe it was time to try the ol' pinch herself trick.
It hurt a little, but nothing happened.
"Then you are not in a dream. Do you feel ill, Emily?"
"No-what? I'm not sick! Listen, I'm going to go to sleep right now, and in the morning, you will be gone, and everything will be back to normal. Capiche?"
"Now be quiet again."
"As you wish, Emily..."
She closed her eyes again.
"Good morning, Emily. I hope you had a fine rest?"
"Ack!" Emily jerked awake, nearly batting several items off her desk with her flailing. "What the actual heck?"
"Emily," her mother's voice called behind the door. "You feeling alright in there? I heard some noise."
"Yeah, mom," she yelled back, "I'm fine."
Emily threw the covers over her head. "Okay, what's the deal here?" she seethed in a half-whisper. "I thought you were gone!"
"Well, as you can hear, I clearly am not 'gone', so I would appreciate if you were to be a little more considerate towards the notion of my existence."
Was that sass she just heard in that whispering voice? That was definitely sass there.
"Anyway, I believe I am due for an introduction, seeing as we will likely be together for an unspecified amount of time. Due to unforeseen circumstances, we have been pitted together in this joint predicament. I do have a name, but I will accept whatever name you deem me worthy of."
Emily smirked. "Parasite."
"Fine, fine, whatever. I'll call you Whisper then, so you'll always know to be quiet and not bug me. At least that way, I can still feel like things are a little more normal."
"Then it is decided. You will call me 'Whisper'."
"Hhhh... I can't believe I'm doing this, but... Whisper, since this is obviously not a dream anymore, I want to ask you some things before I freak out over the fact that I apparently now have something living in my head."
"Yes? What is it?"
"You said something about unforeseen circumstances, right?"
"What happened? Like... what got you stuck in my head?"
It took a moment for Whisper to respond, almost as if she had to think about the question.
"Spell gone wrong."
A spell. So, apparently magic was being thrown into this mess as well, huh? When was she going to start running into orcs and elves? Or were they going to be showing up as voices in her head as well? Come to think of it, was Whisper some sort of mystical creature?
"Unicorn Arch-Mage. And before you press on with additional questions, yes, I have just read your thoughts."
...And there went any semblance of privacy Emily still had in her life. Also, more sass. This... this voice's personality seemed to be all over the place!
"I would prefer if you at least referred to me by either the name you chose or my real name."
From the looks of it, there probably wasn't going to be any harm in poking a little more into the life of this supposed 'Arch-Mage'. What was the worst Whisper could do? Plant a bad dream in her head?
"I heard that."
Right. And Whisper can mind-read too.
"I know, I know," Emily sighed, hopping off her bed. "Though, I am still wondering about something."
"What is it, Emily?"
"What's your name? Like, your real name? You said I could call you by it?"
Once again, the voice seemed to almost hesitate before answering.
"Tell her that I'm lost. I'd... I'd really appreciate it if you can."
Sometimes, it had logical requests.
"Also, tell her that my teacup spell is in the top drawer of my filing cabinet."
...Other times, it did not.
"Starlight, huh? Sounds pretty fitting for a unicorn magus," Emily wandered into the bathroom and turned on the faucet. "You want me to call you Whisper or Starlight?"
"Either is fine."
Emily wet her toothbrush and squirted a blob of toothpaste onto the bristles. "So, what does a unicorn mage do, anyway?"
"Advise, primarily. My position as Arch-Mage of Equestria puts my expertise and skills at the helm of Princess Twilight Sparkle, a former rival and mentor of mine. You actually remind me quite a bit of one of the Princess' closest friends."
"Hrng? An who irshth thath?" Emily spoke through the toothpaste foam.
"Rainbow Dash-- your attitude is like hers."
"Hm," Emily spit out the foam and turned on the faucet again. "Maybe I could meet her someday then."
"I believe that you may eventually have to meet her. I--" Starlight cut herself off abruptly with a quiet whimper.
"Er... nevermind about that." Starlight's voice seemed to waver. "She's gone now. They've... all been gone for a while. Actually, would you mind if I spoke a little more naturally? It's been ages since I've been able to properly speak my mind."
Speak her mind? What, had she been under some sort of restriction before?
"Heheh, noooo..." Starlight's voice forced a laugh. "No, it's just... Even though I was able to artificially slow my aging for the sake of Twilight when her friends began to pass, it didn't make their passing any less painful for her."
Emily snorted, wiping her mouth and exiting the bathroom. This Starlight Glimmer... voice? Presence? ...Whatever she was-- she was definitely turning out to be quite an interesting character. Come to think of it, she'd probably be a great character to play as the next time she played a D&D campaign.
Surprisingly, Starlight didn't respond to her thoughts this time around.
"Emily, your breakfast's getting cold! Are you coming down yet?"
"Yeah, mom!" the girl shouted down the stairs.
"I have to leave for work now. Don't forget, don't answer the door if anyone knocks besides your friends, okay?"
"I know, I know," Emily swung herself around the end post of the railings. "What do you think I am, five?"
"Just making sure. I'll be back around two, so make your own lunch. Love you!"
The familiar hum of the garage door opening rattled through the house.
"Would you like a teacup with your breakfast this morning, Emily?"
She blinked, not registering what Starlight said until she noticed the porcelain handle in her hand. "Wait, hold up," she pointed at the teacup with her other hand. "Did you just make this?"
"My mana stores are higher than they've been for ages, now that I do not have a physical body to maintain for myself."
Emily set the teacup on the table, sitting down in front of her plate of scrambled eggs. "What."
"I used to use an anti-aging spell before I was transported here."
That got a bit of a chuckle out of her. Apparently, even arch-mages still wanted to look as young as possible. Maybe Starlight was actually some old hag that lived in the middle of the woods!
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that second bit."
She absentmindedly shoveled a forkful of eggs into her mouth, scrolling through the notifications on her phone.
"Want another teacup?"
"Gah!" Emily couldn't catch the teacup in time before it tumbled into her lap. "Starlight, what was that for?"
She swore she heard a chuckle coming from the voice in her head. "Nothing, it's just been so long since I used that spell. An old friend of mine from way back was trying to learn a spell for her show, and so she started... well, turning things into teacups."
Turning things into teacups? Then, that meant...
"No, your fancy device is fine. I modified the spell for my own purposes into a general summoning spell. I'm just turning the energy of my mana into matter, that's all." Another teacup clattered onto the table. "Though, casting the spell without anything to channel the mana is certainly proving to be a little difficult."
What, was she going to need a wand or something for Starlight?
"Actually, a wand might be somewhat useful right about now. Something conductive should work pretty well from what I've heard."
Emily rose from her seat, walking to the cutlery drawer while Starlight continued on about conductive substances and magic. She took a spoon from the drawer, immediately silencing the voice for a moment.
"Are... are you suggesting that I use a spoon to channel my magic?"
"Why not a knife? At least it'd be straight."
Emily idly smacked the palm of her hand with the utensil, walking back to the table. "Nah, no knives or forks. We ran out of 'em two weeks ago."
"But they were in the drawer?"
The girl shrugged, sitting down and continuing her breakfast. "What drawer?"
"You mock me."
"Eh, I do that a lot."
The fork in her hand transformed into a teacup.
"Emily!" Starlight exclaimed, "Will you take me seriously just once?"
Emily rolled her eyes, placing the teacup on the table. "Fine, what do you wanna say?"
"I want to show you something."
"If it's another teacup, then I will give myself a brainfreeze."
Starlight took a moment to respond, but she soon broke through her hesitation. "Alright. I want you to pick up the spoon with the handle facing away from you."
"Okay..." Emily followed as she was instructed, clutching the head of the spoon between her fingers. "What next?"
She heard what almost sounded like a sigh of relief from Starlight. "That's all you need to do, thank you. I'll take it from here. Just... try to point it somewhere open."
"Wait, what are you--" a turquoise aura enveloped her hand, trickling down through the spoon and collecting at the tip of the handle. "HOLY HECK, WHAT THE CRAP IS HAPPENNI--"
Emily yelped, her entire body jerking back from the recoil of the spell's casting. A burst of pure mana shot from the tip of the spoon, narrowly missing one of the teacups on the table before freezing mid-air and balling up. Slowly, the blob of magical energy began to warp, taking on a vaguely quadrupedal form. A rough head emerged from the shimmering mass, followed by finer details-- ears, mane, tail-- and finally, a face. The figure remained still for a couple of seconds, gently pulsating in the morning sunlight.
"Sooo..." Emily pointed the spoon at the pony hovering behind the table. "Is that... yo--"
A final blast of light exploded from the pony, rattling the entire room and filling the place with the smell of ozone. Emily coughed, fanning the air in front of her face. She opened an eye, freezing in her place.
Starlight Glimmer blinked, lifting a hoof off the floor. "It... it worked," she sputtered, "Th-this spell has never worked before!"
Emily raised a brow.
"It must've been the rest I'd taken in your body! My mana reserves must've been full! I... I--"
"You're a pretty pastel pony that straight-up looks like a stuffed animal come to life."
Starlight snorted, cantering around the table. "Well, the main point is that now you know what I look like. Even with the extra kick the spell got, this body's only going to last at most a minute or two before it disintegrates again. Now do you understand what I can do?"
Emily sat back down with a new fork, stuffing another bite of scrambled eggs into her mouth. "Yeah, I guess. Could probably make for some pretty neat party tricks, to be honest."
She continued to thoughtfully chew her food, staring blankly into the distance. Starlight groaned.
"I... I need to get out of here! Think, Starlight, think!
The voice was desperate.
"What would Twilight do, what would Twilight do... let's see..."
Sometimes, it seemed thoughtful.
"I mean, I could simply disappear forever like she did, but... no, that's an awful idea..."
...Just a little.
"So, you gonna make more teacups or something?" Emily yawned, picking up her plate. "Or are you gonna do something else now that you've got a body again?"
She walked past Starlight, ruffling the mare's mane before dumping her plate and utensils in the sink. "By the way, your mane is really soft. Did you know that?"
"It's going to be nothing but dust in about twenty seconds."
"Shame. Got any other tricks you can do?" she pointed the spoon at Starlight. "I've got the wand and everything for you to use!"
"You're not taking me seriously again, are you?"
Emily shrugged, watching the disintegrating mare. "Yeah? Anything else I already know?"
The last of Starlight's temporary body dispersed into the air, leaving her voice once again in the girl's head. "Y'know, if I were to write a story about my experiences thus far, then you'd be quite the unlikeable character."
Starlight's voice fell silent for a moment. "...If you don't act kinder towards me, then I'll stop showing you magiiiiic!"
"Oh, fine," Emily leaned back against the counter. "So... is there anything else you can do then? Besides the teacups and... uh, manifesting and all."
"Heh. Name something and I'll cast i--"
A giant grin spread across the girl's face. "Fire. I wanna see some sort of fire spell."
"Alright. Fire's what you want? You sure?"
"Yeah," Emily nodded. Though, maybe she should step outside for this.
"Don't worry about that. I'll keep the area of effect small."
A quiet click came from her finger, followed by a strange warmth that crept up her arm. Slowly, the girl raised her hand, her eyes widening at the sight of a tiny flame flickering on her fingertip.
"Small. Yes, I realize that," Starlight's voice sighed. "My mana's mostly exhausted for now because of that spell from before. It'll take some time to build it back up, so a finger-lighter's all you're gonna get. Even if I could make it bigger, I'd rather not. You don't exactly seem to be the type that'd show restraint."
Emily blew out the flame, leaning against the counter again. "So... what else do you know?"
She heard Starlight take a deep breath before beginning. "Well, most unicorns, myself included, tend to start at basic levitation spells. So that's one... let's see... personally, I know teleportation, advanced levitation-- including self-levitation, cutie mark snatching spells, cutie mark replacement spells, magical bolts and shields for offense and defense, respectively... oh, I've also dabbled in time travel and portals here and there as well. Though, with what was going on before I was sent here, a lot of what I can remember off the top of my head are offensive and defensive spells."
Emily raised a brow. "Cutie marks?"
"...Don't worry about it. That was in a past that I'd rather forget."
"Any reason why?"
"No, no, trust me--" Starlight's voice countered, "You do not need to know. It's... it's honestly from a pretty dark time in my life."
Emily rolled her eyes, stepping away from the counter. So much for prying into Starlight's life. Maybe there was something else she could do today... actually, come to think of it, did she even have anything to do in the first place? Homework wasn't anything to worry about this weekend, and most of her friends only really ever talked online, and--
"If it helps, my years of practice and experience have made me become accustomed to needing to quickly recharge my mana. A healthy diet is one of the simplest ways, in my opinion."
Emily wandered to the pantry and pulled out a bag of chips.
"No, I'm not talking junk food!"
"Too late," Emily hummed while chewing. She'd just eaten breakfast anyway, so what was a few chips on top of that?
"You are an absolute chore to deal with. You know that, right?"
"And, you should learn to respect those aroun--"
The girl shook the bag, peering inside. "Hm. These barbeque chips are pretty good for something that's been sitting on the shelf for months!"
"Fine. I still have enough mana lingering for a few more spells. Will that catch your attention, or are you going to continue pushing me aside?"
"Hm? Spells? I'm listening," Emily set the bag back on the shelf. "What spell are you going to do next?"
"Levitation," Starlight's voice deadpanned. "Lift your hand, and I'll handle the rest. Actually, what happened to the spoon you were using to channel my mana? It'd be rather useful right now as far as directing the flow goes."
"Left it in the sink with everything else. It got dirty."
"You didn't even use it!"
Emily smirked. "It got dirty when I put it in the sink."
Though Starlight didn't have a physical body anymore, Emily could feel the intensity of her facepalm. Or was it facehoof? Since... she was a small horse and all... actually, come to think of it, how does she even know about hands? Are there humans in her world too? Ooh-- maybe it was like a full-on fantasy world with like ogres and goblins and stuff, since she already mentioned--
Right. Raise hand and let Starlight do the levitation thingy. No spoon needed.
"Alright, now focus on the object that you'd like to levitate. Don't just stare at it-- imagine it. Imagine where it is, and how it'll move. That should be enough to get the spell going... er--" Emily's hand pulsed with mana as a charge began to build. "--enough to let me know how you want the spell to be cast, I mean."
Emily nodded, her eyes wandering to the bag of chips from earlier. She closed her eyes, picturing where the bag currently was, and where it was going to go-- into her awaiting arms.
"Really? Chips again?"
She imagined some tasty barbeque chips floating out of the open bag into her mouth.
"HHhhhhfine. Chips it is."
The glow surrounding her hand dimmed, transferring some of itself away to envelop the bag. Slowly but surely, the chips began to shift, crinkling with every fraction of an inch that it moved along the shelf.
"Y'know, you should be glad that you don't need to learn all of this from scratch. Learning levitation for me was... well..."
Emily chuckled, still closing her eyes. "You sucked at it?"
"More or less. Though, the reason why I'm struggling right now is more due to straining my mana reserves. Not having a horn or a wand to channel my magic isn't exactly helping, either."
The bag began to tip over the shelf's edge. The aura surrounding it sputtered, flickering erratically before fading.
"Hm," Emily snatched the chips before they could fall. "Well, that's cool. Want me to eat some chips to restore that mana of yours, then?"
Someone seemed to be in a sour mood.
"And someone needs to be a little nicer!" Starlight's voice snapped. She paused, taking a moment to recompose herself. "...And I'm feeling drained, anyway. Just plain old rest at this point would help the most."
"Including your mood?"
"Maybe. Just let me be for now."
"Touché," Emily stuffed another handful of chips in her mouth before returning the bag to the shelf. "And to think that I told you that not too long ago."
She let out a quiet breath, chewing as she gazed blankly into the pantry. Today was a Sunday, and tomorrow was a Monday... Mondays were annoying. It meant she had to wake up early in the morning and go to school all over again, and keep on doing it for five days in a row!
Actually... she blinked, breaking out of her trance. Didn't Starlight say something before about portals?
"Psst--" Emily muffled her words with the covers. "Starlight, you awake in there?"
"I am now, no thanks to you. Why did you wake me in the middle of the night? Shouldn't you be sleeping? You have schoo--"
"Portals. You said you worked with portals before, right?" Emily's voice grew into a giddy whisper. "That means you can open them, right? I've got a new spoon and everything so you can open one. I've been waiting all day for you to wake up!"
"No, no, you misunderstood. I only meant that I've traveled using a portal, not that I made a portal. There's a difference."
"C'mon, Starry! I know you've got it in you! You can levitate a whole bag of chips, so how much harder would it be to break physics just a little more?"
Emily smirked. If there was anything that could get her away from the mundaneness of her school life, a portal would definitely be the coolest way to do it. Even if Starlight couldn't pull off a portal, pretty much any kind of spell would still be enough to liven things up.
"I... don't know, Emily. Schooling is rather impor--"
"Eh, my grades are fine. I'm sure you've got the juice in you to make a portal to somewhere and back! We'll just spend the night somewhere fancy, and then I promise I'll go to school tomorrow."
Starlight's voice huffed. "I'll consider it. But first, you need to stop butting in while I'm talking."
"So, then..." Starlight paused in thought, mumbling quietly in Emily's mind about enchanted mirrors. "I think the best I can do is an unstable portal. I doubt you have the materials necessary for stabilization."
Stabilization? What, would the portal collapse on itself behind her or something?
Starlight hummed in agreement. "Precisely. And while I do have a rough idea of how Twilight's mirror portal worked from my time as arch-mage, this will actually be the first time that I've ever constructed one myself."
"Great. So there's also a chance that it could collapse while we're going through? Y'know, like in those shows and stuff where the main character uses a closing portal to cut a villain in half to kill them instantly. Actually... come to think of it, using a portal that opens and closes over and over could be a great way to slice materials in a factory."
"Emily, you scare me sometimes."
"Don't worry, I scare me sometimes, too!"
Though Starlight didn't have a physical body, Emily swore she could hear the pony equivalent to a facepalm. Again. Maybe it was a better idea to leave off on making a portal until tomorrow when she felt a little less loopy.
Starlight certainly seemed to agree.
"Emily, your alarm's blaring,"
The girl groaned, sitting up in her bed and rubbing an eye. What time was it again? Wait-- alarm. That question answered itself. She yawned, groggily crawling across her bed to shut off the noise. Mondays deserved a late start.
"Alright now, go brush your teeth and get ready. You'll miss the bus."
Emily paused, blinking in the dim light of her window. Bus? She didn't take the bus... did she?
"Oh... er, forget about that."
She hopped off her bed, scratching her side. Why did it feel like she had a spoon in her pocket?
Maybe staying up so late at night wasn't such a good idea. She was starting to hear things... maybe. Or... wasn't there something that happened recently? Voice... spoon...
Emily flicked on the lights, wincing at the sudden change in brightness. A single word escaped her lips that just about summed up her entire morning thus far:
There was that voice again! Think, Emi, think! What the heck did she do that put a random voice in her head?
"I'll... just stay quiet for now. You're waaaay too sleepy to be thinking about this."
"Yeah... sure... um... whispering voice thing... in my head..."
Emily set her toothbrush on the edge of the sink, holding a half-empty tube of toothpaste over the bristles. Still squinting in her bathroom lights, she missed the toothbrush entirely and proceeded to squirt the toothpaste directly into the sink.
She heard a snicker in the back of her head.
Emily chewed her cereal, staring at the dimmed screen of her phone.
"Feeling awake yet, Emily?"
"Yeah, Star--" she paused. "--oh. It was you."
"I'll continue to be quiet for now. I know you have a busy day ahead of you in school."
Emily rolled her eyes, stuffing another spoonful of cereal in her mouth. "Alright, Whisper. You do that."
Well, that was a morning well-wasted. A movie in first period, on top of her usual free-study second period? There was even less to say about third period as well. At least Starlight's been quiet enough to deserve the nickname 'Whisper' again. Just one less thing to bug her. But, now wasn't the time to be thinking about how pointless it was to stay awake in the first three periods of the day, it was time for lunch!
"...You're a foodie, aren't you?"
Aaaaand there's the mare.
"No, no, it's okay right now," Emily muttered under her breath. "I've been bored all morning, anyway. I'ma grab lunch and then we can head outside until the bell rings."
"Alright, you do that," Starlight's voice sighed. "I'll just... well... be here, I guess."
Ignoring the confused looks of a couple other students nearby, Emily stepped in line for a sandwich. Nothing fancy, just a good ol' ham sandwich, just like every day ever. She yawned, pulling her earbuds out of her pocket. It was a good time for some music, anyway. It's not like she was going to be relevant to the conversations around her.
One ham sandwich and an awkward fumbling for lunch money later, and Emily was out of the lunchroom. The second bonus of being out here, besides the whole fresh air and sunshine jazz, was that it'd feel less awkward talking out loud to Starlight. Speaking of which--
"Aren't you going to sit with your friends?"
"None of them have the same lunch schedule as me," Emily shook her head. "Last semester some of us had the same lunch, though. Anyway--" she set down her tray in the grass, sitting down beside it. "I was just thinking, what if I get you a real wand of sorts? Just as a friendly gesture and stuff, since I've... uh, kinda been a little rude since we first met."
"A... real wand?"
Emily nodded. "Uh-huh. There's some old trees that grow around campus. I could probably find a good-sized stick for you!"
"Were you even listening when I was talking about wand materials?"
"Wha-no-I mean yes! You said that metals conduct better, but I was just thinking... if we used something wooden, then wouldn't that take more effort to channel mana through?"
Emily smirked as her question was met with silence.
"I..." Starlight trailed off. "I... actually, you might be on to something there. Wood... wood... there was something I remember about wooden artifacts for channeling magic..."
Bingo. Score one for Emi!
"I'll ignore that. Going back to what you were saying about a nonmetallic wand, though-- I do vaguely remember something about wood once being a popular material for wands and staffs, in fact, I--" she froze for a moment. "I... once had experience with it. Granted, I enchanted the thing beforehand, but..."
Starlight's voice devolved into a rambling mutter. Once or twice, Emily could make out the phrase "cutie mark", but it really didn't make much sense regardless.
Emily stood up again. "Um..." she began, "I'll just get the stick for now." She glanced down at her unfinished lunch, then to the old oak trees towering beside the school. With so few people outside at the moment, it probably wouldn't be much of a risk to jog down and nab a stick from the ground, right?
"Seems like it."
Well, if Starlight agreed... Emily bolted, sprinting towards the worn patches of grass underneath the trees. Since Starlight didn't call her idea crazy or anything, a fancier stick would be her goal. Something with a neat little curl or something that she could use as a handle... or maybe the curl could be used to hold something? Then again, it wasn't all that common for a stick to be curled like that, anyway...
"Like that stick over there? Sorry, I was borrowing your eyes for a moment."
Wait, Starlight can do that?
"Seems like it to me, at least. Also, forget about what I was mumbling about. I'd rather not talk about it. The stick's a few steps to your left, under some dried leaves."
'Cutie mark' sounded too kiddy for her, anyway. Emily brushed the leaves away with her foot, leaning over to pick up the stick. To be honest, it looked more like a broken section of an entire branch than just a regular stick. Maybe that's why it had the curl to it? She turned over the stick in her hands. Judging by how splintered the wood was on one side, that seemed to be the case. A bit of sandpaper would probably be helpful right about now, though.
"Mind if I try something?"
"Er... sure?" Emily started walking back. "Just don't turn it into a teacup. I'm actually liking the look of this thing."
"'Kay, I want you to pick up a handful of the grittiest dirt you can find, then."
"I see a dry patch close to where you left your lunch. What I plan to do would probably work best with sand, but gritty dirt should do alright for the time being."
"Wait-- oooh," Emily gasped. "Are you about to sandblast the stick?"
"Heh. Was it that obvious?"
Emily scraped a handful of dirt from the ground, dumping it over the stick. "Kinda. I got the dirt, now what?"
A familiar teal aura formed over her hands again, enveloping the dirt-covered stick. She could faintly hear a quiet scraping sound coming from her palms as the dirt rapidly began to grind away at the splintered wood.
"This dirt's not gritty enough."
"Hmf--" Emily snorted. "--just show it a Batman movie. That'll fix the problem."
"I... don't follow."
"Don't worry, I didn't understand half of what was going on in the latest movie, either. Didn't even watch it, in fact. Anyway..." she squat down, combing through the grass. "How gritty do you need the dirt to be? Small pebbles? Gravel?"
"Small pebbles should be fine. Hey, by the way, I was just wondering, why are you acting so fri--"
"Got the dirt! What were you saying there?"
"...nevermind. I'll get to work."
The scraping sound resumed. Emily wandered back to her lunch tray, shifting the mana-enveloped stick and dirt to her other hand before reaching for her sandwich.
The end-of-lunch bell stole Emily's attention away from her phone. With a light sigh, the girl stood up with her tray and began making her way back inside.
"Hey Star," she half-whispered, "How's the wand going? I think you're gonna have to stop sanding it soon since we're going back to class. The next period I've got is math, so-- oh crap."
"Hm?" Starlight hummed. The cloud of mana coating her hand and the noticeably-smoother stick dissipated.
Emily clenched her fingers around the stick, stuffing it into her pocket as she broke into a sprint. "I've got a test next period! I almost entirely forgot about it!"
"I could help you cram study if you'd li--"
"No, I'm good!" She shook her head, dumping the tray on the tray counter as she ran past. Besides, the unit wasn't that hard.
And no, she was not going to let those words come back to bite her.
Emily tapped the question on the page with her pencil. She meant yeah as in yeah, this is gonna be easy. What did Starlight think she was going to say?
"Honestly, with the way you said that in your head, it sounds more like you're just defending yourself."
She wasn't defending herself!
"Suit yourself," Starlight's voice grumbled. "I'll just be waiting... as always..."
That definitely didn't sound creepy.
"You should be just about finished with the first free-response question at this point," her teacher announced. "If you're not done yet, I'd recommend you move onto the next question and come back to it later."
"Well, that wasn't quite as bad of a trainwreck as I'd expected out of you."
"Shut up, Starlight," Emily leaned against the wall of the school's entrance. "You know I aced that test. And it's the last class of the day anyway, so I had more than enough time to prepare myself."
She turned away from the few students that passed by with concerned glances. Maybe she should hold her phone up to her ear and pretend it was all a regular conversation... or at least, as 'regular' as talking to a powerful unicorn mage can get. It was still a little hard to wrap her head around that, to be honest.
Emily slipped her hands in her pockets, wincing as the stick she'd put in there earlier grazed her knuckles.
"Are you ready?"
Her eyes widened-- the portal! She'd almost forgotten entirely about it! Emily pulled the stick from her pocket, grinning.
Starlight's voice paused. "...I think we should probably open it somewhere a little more hidden. Also, isn't your mom supposed to pick you u--"
"Yup," Emily repeated, pushing herself away from the wall. "Anyway, how about a bathroom stall? It'll be pretty hidden away in there."
"Er... are you sure that'd be a good idea? I think I'd likely need a bit more space than that to get the spell going. Can't you just wai--"
"Nope! I've been waiting for this all day and night! Could you maybe try showing me the place where you came from using a portal?"
A long, drawn-out sigh came from Starlight as Emily retreated deeper into the school. "Fine. I... I guess I could try opening one. Though, I really don't have much of a clue as to how much time has passed since I... uh..."
"...Was whisked away by a spell that went south," Emily muttered. "Yeah, yeah, we'll figure out what day of the week it is when we get there, then. 'Kay?"
Strangely, Starlight didn't respond that time.
"I'm still here, just... thinking..."
Emily turned a corner, sprinting into the bathroom and shutting herself in a stall. "Okay!" she grinned, clutching tightly to the stick as she set her backpack on the floor. "Ready, Starlight?"
"Hold on," Starlight's voice was hardly above a low mutter. "O-okay... so, I think I remember that I'll need to make the destination as specific as possible. I... okay, I think I've got a place in mind. Emily, you might want to make some space in the stall. I have no idea how big the portal is going to be."
The girl nodded, slinging her backpack over her shoulder.
"Alright. Since this is a high-level spell, I think it'd probably be best if I handled everything from here on out. You don't know the destination, but I do."
Wait... handled everythi-- Emily felt her body convulse for a moment, slowly teetering towards the door before stopping herself. That is... before Starlight stopped her.
"Huh. That turned out better than I hoped," Starlight mumbled in Emily's voice, staring at her hands. "You alright in there, Emi?"
"HOLY CRAP," Emily's voice echoed all through her mind. "WHAT THE ACTUAL F--"
"I needed finer control," Starlight cut her off, inspecting the makeshift wand in her hands. "Only way I could really achieve that was to swap our mental states and possess your body."
"YOU CAN DO THAT?!"
Starlight chuckled, backing away and pointing the pointed end of the stick at the door. "Apparently, I can."
She closed her eyes, letting the image of Equestria fill her mind. Every little detail-- every patch of grass, the little puffs of clouds drifting overhead, the sounds of foals frolicking on a warm summer's day-- everything was crucial to pinpointing where the portal would lead to.
Just as before, a teal-blue aura formed around her hand, shimmering ever so slightly under the plain fluorescent lighting. Starlight grit her teeth, focusing all her effort into the spell. A trickle of mana fed into the base of the stick, channeling along the grain and through the little cracks before collecting at the end. The charge started out small first, being no bigger than a small grape in size. As the seconds passed, the swirling mana built up a larger and larger charge, even to the point of generating little sparks and fizzes of smoke shooting from it in every direction.
"Starlight--" Emily's voice cautioned, "I hope you know what you're doing."
She received only a dull grunt in response. Starlight's arm at this point was beginning to shudder as a few more wisps of her mana filtered into the charge. With a single flick of her wrist, the bowling ball-sized mana charge careened off the tip of the wand, hitting the stall door squarely in the center...
...The door off.
"Ohhhh I'm gonna be in so much trouble--" Emily's voice muttered. "Starlight, did you really need to blow the door clean off its hinges? Like, the portal is there and all, but... Starlight?"
"Starlight?" Emily repeated. "Hey, you there still?"
She heard her own voice beginning to grow audible again. Emily faltered on her feet, pressing a hand against the wall for support as she regained control of her body.
"...Yeah, I'm..." Starlight groaned weakly. "I'm still here. Just took every bit of my power to pull off the spell, that's all..."
"Great!" Emily's grin immediately returned. "Alrighty, time to explore your world!"
"--Wait," Starlight's voice cut in. "I... I don't think I had enough mana to fully complete the spell. The portal might be u--"
Emily slipped her arm through one of her backpack's straps. "Unstable? Then I'd might as well hop through as quickly as possible, then! No use in wasting a perfectly good portal, amirite? Don't worry so much, Star! I'll make it quick!"
A flash of light engulfed Emily as she sprinted head-on through the portal.
The destruction was fierce, yet courage still stood.
But the madness set in, as she always knew it would.
...and it all begins here.
Emily groaned, slowly lifting her head. Dirt. There was dirt under her. She rolled over, blinking in the bright sunlight. She could barely spot her backpack nearby. It probably was thrown off her shoulders when she lunged through the portal.
Wait-- she sat up, taking in her surroundings-- this was decidedly not a high-school bathroom that she was in anymore. Starlight actually did it, that absolute madmare! She'd opened a portal back to her homeland! Speaking of Starlight--
"Hey," Emily muttered under her breath. She slipped the stick-wand thing back into a pocket. "Starlight, you recognize any of this?"
No response. She must've been knocked out or something by the strain of the spell. It looked like the portal closed behind them too, like what Starlight worried would happen. Though... it probably wasn't gonna be that big of a problem. Starlight did seem to suggest that opening portals was basically just a matter of getting a good picture of the place in her head, after all. No need to worry about that sorta stuff yet.
With a grunt, Emily hopped back to her feet. Another glance at her surroundings revealed the true enormity of her environment-- dark, ancient trees loomed on one side, clashing against the rolling hills and fields of the other. This place really did feel like some kind of fantasy world! Then again, all she'd really seen so far were trees and hills, so that might've been a bit of an overrea--
"Rise and shine, sleepyhead," Emily smirked. "Guess what? You're home! We're in the land of pretty pastel ponies!"
"What? Wait--" Starlight's voice sputtered. "Where-- where's the portal? Emily-- where's the portal?"
"Oh, no no no... this isn't good! This really isn--"
Emily raised a brow. "Isn't good? C'mon, lighten up a little! We're back in your homeland! Maybe we could even get you a body again or something! What's the matter?"
"I don't know how to get back, that's the matter."
The words struck her like a slap in the face. Starlight didn't know how to get back? B-but the spell--
"Before you rushed in, I was trying to warn you that I likely wouldn't be able to get you back! Now we're stuck in the Everfree Forest! This isn't even the place I was trying to connect to!"
"So? Just take over my body again, and I can tell you what the place is like."
Starlight's annoyed groan only deepened her fear. "No... that's... that's not how it works, Emily. You need to have more than just a casual knowledge of the location. The portal spell relies on the caster's experience of the other side as well. If that isn't provided, then I cannot guarantee that the next portal will take you home."
"HALT," a voice boomed behind her. "STRANGE TRESPASSER THAT SPEAKS OUR TONGUE, WHAT BRINGS YOU TO OUR LAND?"
To be honest, getting thrown in a cage and carted deeper into the nearby woods was not what Emily was expecting to happen. In her mind, there were a little bit more fairies and witches, and a little less tribal forest horses.
"I really should've expected this," Starlight's voice sulked in the back of Emily's mind. "I... should've warned you about the world I came from. Do you want to hear the full story of how I got stuck in your head?"
Emily shrugged, grunting as the cage lurched for a moment. "Sure, I guess. Not like there's anything else I can do at the moment. Also, why do the tribe horses look so... uh, refined?"
"Exiled nobles. I fought in a war alongside them. I tried to defect at the last second, but... things weren't exactly working to my advantage, so to say. Kinda sorta maybe died, and that's why I'm stuck with you now."
"Also, that's pretty much the full story. I don't wish to go into the details. It's painful enough to think about them."
A dull stick prodded Emily in the side. "SILENCE!" the stallion whispered fiercely. He signaled for the rest of his group to pause as he dropped the stick. "Creature, you must stop talking to yourself!"
Emily folded her arms, making a face. "And why should I do that?You're the ones that threw me in a cage, after all."
"Shhh!" the stallion hushed again, quieter this time. "Not only will your incessant blabbering put you in danger, but it will do the same for us as well!"
A distant half-roar helped convince Emily to follow their orders. Maybe it was time she started taking this place a little more seriously. Being dead wasn't exactly the best way to get back home, anyway.
The roar faded away. After a short period of absolute silence, the ponies surrounding her cage nodded to each other and continued their journey.
The forest around them seemed to steadily grow denser with every step-- the trees were bigger and closer than ever to the dirt path. In some places, the vines and shrubs touched, and at times even connected to one another, forming long, spindly pillars of green stretching from the ground to the canopy. Emily spotted one such pillar dangling just overhead, clearly slashed at some point by a traveler.
Strangely, Starlight remained largely silent throughout the entire journey. The most that'd been audible of her these past minutes were more or less only low mutters and murmurs too quiet to understand.
The guard trotting directly in front of the group gestured for them to make a turn. Emily's eyes widened at the new sight before her-- the looming walls of an overgrown fort.
Another one of the guards-- a unicorn, this time-- stepped in front of an unassuming rotten tree trunk, lighting his horn. A soft, pale-green aura enveloped both his horn and the rotting wood, lingering for a moment before an abrupt crunch emanated from beneath. A low, drumming hum filled the air next, stopping at times for hisses of air to escape as the walls of the fort began to open themselves. Emily watched in awe at the sight; for a species without hands, their knowledge of mechanics was amazing!
A final puff of steam rose from somewhere behind the still-opening gates. The unicorn guard glanced back at his fellow ... tribe-horses? Er... band members? Comrades? Emily shook her head. What to call the guard's fellow ponies wasn't important right now.
Her cage began moving again, passing silently through the towering gates.
For a fort that looked like some long-forgotten temple on the outside, what Emily was seeing now was surpassing her expectations.
...Far-surpassing them, in fact. What fort in existence had a shopping district?
She grunted as the cage was parked in a stall near the gates. The wooden door swung open, setting her free. Of course, she was still surrounded on every side by the ponies that'd found her, but at the very least she was now outside of that cramped thing.
"Where are you taking me?" Emily asked, glancing about. "To be honest, I was half-thinking that I was going to be eaten or something."
The mare to her left raised a brow at that second part but nevertheless remained silent.
"I believe they may be taking you to their leader," Starlight's voice finally broke its silence. "It was standard procedure to capture and interrogate trespassers, last time I was here."
Their leader, huh? So this whole place was more of a kingdom than a fort, then.
"Hmmmore or less. I think. I've still yet to recognize any faces, though. I'm beginning to suspect that some amount of time must've passed since I departed."
The group stepped into a thinly-marked rectangle, surrounded by an outgrowth of plant life and crystal fragments. Immediately after the final pony stepped inside, even fainter rune lines lit up, shooting a coating of mana over all of them.
"Well, that's new," Starlight hummed.
Her surroundings immediately shifted as the teleportation completed, depositing her and the guardsponies at the entrance to some sort of palace.
"Is this new as well?" Emily whispered.
The guardsponies signaled for the doors to open, leading Emily into the sprawling structure.
...And just as it was with the fort, it was certainly not what she'd expected to see. Though totally overgrown with greenery like much of the surrounding city and forest, the palace had an overall more... refined look to it. Little details, like the spindly vines draping over the walls, clearly were being channeled through grooves to form patterns, for one, and the light fixtures looked decidedly high-tech compared to their environment.
Emily felt a nudge on her back, breaking her train of thought.
"Continue," the mare behind her deadpanned. "The walk's not that long."
The girl rolled her eyes but nevertheless complied. She was led a little deeper into the building before being faced with yet another set of mechanical doors.
One of her guards lightly rapped on the hardened wood. He stepped back to let the doors open, nodding to his fellow guards to lead her in.
This entire place was just surprise after surprise after surprise, wasn't it? This particular place was clearly a throne room, and yet...
A loud clang caught her attention as torches along the stone walls lit up, adding an orangeish hue to the already-sunlit room. A tattered flag unfurled above her, with an emblem of two... horned... winged... ponies?
"Alicorns," Starlight corrected. "I'd recognize that beat-up flag anywhere. Welcome to my old home away from home, Emily."
An off-green aura enveloped the flag, rolling it back into the ceiling to reveal the ruler of the place-- a plain-white unicorn stallion.
"Guards, who is this?" the pale stallion glared at Emily. "More importantly, what is this?"
"Emi, permission to take over? I might still be remembered around here, though I still have no idea how much time has passed."
No, not yet. In any other circumstance, letting Starlight take over might've made for another fun ride, but this?
"We believe she may be one of the long-mythologized 'humans' that Twilight Sparkle once claimed to have contacted, though she looks nothing like the old photographs we have seen."
...Yeah, it was time for serious Emi. She could feel the tension surrounding her.
"I see," the pale stallion nodded, looking over her again. "Human, do you speak?"
"I..." Emily hesitated. "...yes?"
"Search her," the pale stallion turned around. "I'd rather not have invited an Ashen spy into our hidden kingdom."
Hold up, she was not about to let them do that.
"Not now, Starlight!" Emily snapped under her breath. "I might be a numbskull half the time, but I will not let a buncha horses do anything weird to me!"
The guard directly beside her lit her horn, tugging lightly at Emily's shirt.
"Oh no you don't!" Emily reached for her wand-thing, pulling out... a spoon?
Great. Well, this life was pretty heckin' fantastic while it lasted. A good 7.8/10-- too much weirdness in the past couple days, though.
The mare raised a brow, turning the focus of her telekinesis to the spoon as the others continued to search Emily's pockets.
"Hey--" Emily complained as the spoon was taken from her grasp. She felt the stick beginning to come out of her other pocket. "Hey!"
A heavy thud distracted her momentarily, as well as grabbing the attention of just about everyone in the room. The stallion looked down at the textbooks and binders he'd pulled from her backpack, then to Emily.
"What in the name of Celestia is this?" the mare who took the spoon exclaimed, turning Emily's phone around in her aura. "Some kind of glass slate?"
"That's it, I'm taking over for you," Starlight groaned. Just as before, Emily felt her entire body convulse, barely staying on her feet before the unicorn in her head took the reins.
"Listen," Starlight spoke in Emily's voice. "First off, that's a phone. Secondly--"
She reached over and snatched the stick from one of the guards, allowing mana to flow freely into it once it was firmly in her grasp. A bolt of mana shot from the tip, hitting one of the guards' weapons and turning it into a teacup-on-a-stick. "--I am Starlight Glimmer."
Thankfully, the pale stallion looked far less confused than his guards.
"Starlight Glimmer..." the pale stallion furrowed his brows, muttering to himself. "Starlight, Starlight... where did I hear that name before?"
"The fall of Old Canterlot," Starlight began, "I assume it must've taken place long ago by now. You likely study it now, don't you? The civil war that tore apart Old Equestria when Twilight disappeared off the face of the planet? The one against the Ashen Phoenix faction?"
The pale stallion nodded slowly. "Yes... yes, I do believe I am aware of it. It is a tragedy that we continue to be under constant threat of Ashen invasion in modern times. You still have not stated your significance, however."
"I was among those who vanished in-battle," Starlight added. "I don't know much else, unfortunately, given my disappearance shortly after Princess Cadance's own."
One could almost see the switch being flicked on in the stallion's head. "Ah!" he exclaimed, "Starlight Glimmer, Arch-Magus of Twilight Sparkle!" He toned his excitement down a notch, cocking his head. "I must ask, however-- how is it that you reappear now, centuries after your disappearance, in the form of a human girl?"
"To be honest, even I still don't know. I only manifested in this body around two and a half days ago, in fact."
Starlight nodded. "This body isn't my own. It's only by pure chance that I woke up to find myself in it. Would you like to speak to the owner of this body?"
Emily mentally rolled her eyes.
"One last request, first--" the pale stallion stepped closer. "Starlight, I have heard stories of you having the capability to perform wild magicks on the levels of Alicorns. Please, demonstrate such a spell, and we will return your items and let you be."
"You'd better show 'em," Emily's voice grumbled. "My mom's gonna kill me if I break my phone. Also, again with turning things into teacups! One of these days, my parents are gonna notice the missing cutlery!"
Starlight pushed aside the complaints of the girl. "I-I'm sorry, but my mana reserves are almost entirely empty right now. I was able to return to Equestria via a portal, but it was unstable, and..." she took a deep breath, forcing the faint aura around herself to brighten. "Honestly, it would be ideal if I were to rest first before performing any more magic. Even maintaining control over this body is taking a toll on m-me...e."
Emily felt sensation beginning to return to her with Starlight's final, stuttering words. She teetered on her feet, slowly tipping backward. The stick fell from her grasp, hitting the floor as she too began to falter.
The sound of her single, forced footstep echoed throughout the entire room. Starlight's aura faded away.
"Very well then," the pale stallion nodded. "I will allow you a day's rest. Until then, however, you will remain in a monitored chamber, and your possessions shall be placed in a secured chest." He turned around again. "That is all, take her away!"
Emily flinched at the sudden touch of a foreign aura on her skin. The stallion it belonged to glanced back at her, gesturing to follow.
It was amazing to see just what kind of society existed within the fort. Starlight continued to comment on the progression of magic and technology as they were led down the streets, pointing out the little changes she'd noticed compared to the last time she'd been in the place. Even with the entire society having been designed to be obscured by the forest, there were apparently some ponies who were unafraid to travel by air between some of the farther regions of the city-state, taking hot-air balloons, and even at times rudimentary airplanes powered by sputtering engines.
Emily and her guards collectively ducked as one such plane narrowly glided overhead, coming in for a short landing in the middle of the street.
They took a route back through the towering gates of the fort, entering the dark wilderness of the Everfree. Though, rather than backtracking along the path she'd originally been taken in on, they circled around to a side-road.
"Starlight?" Emily whispered, "Where do you think they're taking us?"
"I'm not sure. A lot of this is new to me, like I said before."
Eventually, the caravan stopped in front of a massive, aging tree. One of the guards stepped forward, knocking some sort of code into the peeling bark of the trunk. It took a moment, but a faint aura began to materialize around the trunk, opening a drawbridge-like door into an interior elevator room.
"In," another guard gestured. "This will be your quarters for the night. The enchantments we've applied will deter you from escape if that is what you plan to do."
Emily blinked, watching the elevator's lights flicker to life. These ponies really weren't trying any chances with her, were they? She looked at the guards standing beside her. There probably wasn't going to be any way to escape anyway, even if she wanted to. She huffed. Maybe Starlight actually was good for something.
"Go on, it's not gonna hurt you."
She tentatively walked onto the elevator's platform, flanked by her guards. The trunk began to close itself again as the platform began to descend. Against the metallic sheen of the flooring, Emily watched the blurred reflections of the guards watching her.
The platform hit the bottom with a metallic clang. Another magically-sealed doorway opened up, this time leading into a short hallway lined with rooms.
"First corridor to your right," a guard ordered. "Don't mind the roots emerging from the ceiling. We are still waiting on the royal gardener to trim them."
Emily did as she was told, silently entering the doorless room. The open corridor began to seal itself behind her, leaving a narrow window in its place. She could see the heads of the guards bob in a series of nods before they left her view.
"So," Emily groaned, "I'm stuck in a weird tree dungeon, my stuff is locked away who knows where, and you are out of magic. What do we do now?!"
Starlight didn't respond. She was probably still knocked out cold from what happened earlier.
Emily let out a heavy sigh, turning her attention instead to her cell for the night. For what apparently was supposed to be some kind of high-security prison, it certainly didn't look the part; there was furniture, for one, and even a decently comfortable-looking bed. She walked over, pressing a hand into the mattress-- yup, it was a bed alright. And for a moment there, she'd been expecting a haybale with sheets!
The lighting in the room was a little odd, too. Sure, it came solely from a single lamp on a nightstand, but she couldn't see where the thing plugged in anywhere! Was the lamp battery powered? Wait... no, it was probably some kind of magical lamp thingy. The world she was in now was probably brimming with all kinds of enchanted objects like it.
A thought struck her mind: What the heck was even happening anymore? Literally only some thirty-odd minutes ago, she was still at school, shutting herself into a bathroom stall! How did things come to this? And she still had school tomorrow, too! And-and she was supposed to be home by now! What was going to happen now that she was just... gone?
"Sleep," a strange, half-giggle escaped from her lips. She turned back to the bed. "I'll just go to sleep, and tomorrow, everything will be normal again! No portal pony world, no enchanted lights..." a relaxed smile spread across her face. "...who are you kidding, Emily? That's not gonna happen. It didn't happen with Starlight, and it won't happen now."
Emily gave the bed a good kick. "STUPID!" she screamed, "WHY DID YOU HAVE TO JUMP THROUGH THAT PORTAL?! NOW..." she heaved, balling her fists. "NOW YOU'RE STUCK, EMI! WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO NOW?"
She fell to her knees, sinking a little into the soft bedding. A quiet sob escaped her lips.
Emily groaned, lifting her head off the tear-stained pillow. That's right-- it was. That is... if she was ever there to hear it in the first place. Where she was now, though, was an entirely different story.
Today is Tuesday. Or at least, it's Tuesday back at home. How weeks worked, or whether there even were weeks here, was still beyond her.
"Starlight," she whispered, "You hangin' there?"
Emily breathed a sigh of relief. A thin smile began to surface. "Alright. When I'm asked to show off some high-level magic, I want you to take over, and absolutely blow their pants off."
"Will do. Also, I didn't see anypony wearing pa--"
"Shhh--" Emily hushed with mock-seriousness, "We do not speak of Shark Tank references here."
"HUMAN!" a guard's muffled voice emanated from beyond the door. "IF YOU ARE READY, PROCEED TO THE ROOM'S CORRIDOR, AND WE WILL ESCORT YOU BACK TO THE THRONE ROOM FOR YOUR PERFORMANCE."
Well, it was now or never at this point. Emily followed the guard's orders, stepping in front of the sealed doorway. There was a brief pause, but the wood blocking her in soon retracted into the walls and floor, freeing her from her confines. The same group of guards from yesterday stood in the hall, watching.
"Eheh... hey there," Emily forced a smile, waving as she emerged from the room. "So. Big day for me, isn't it?"
None of them appeared to be amused.
"Follow," one commented, turning. "Let us make haste."
The pale stallion looked like he'd been waiting for ages by the time she arrived, judging by the exasperation in his voice. "Ah, there's the girl," he yawned as Emily's caravan arrived. "Starlight Glimmer, I expect great things out of you."
Emily snorted, rolling her eyes. Starlight'd better be ready for this. She didn't have the stick or anything to channel mana, either, so whatever she had in mind would have to be cast without any focal point. At least... that's how it supposedly worked... right?
"Yeah, close enough," Starlight's voice responded. "Alright, lend me your hands. I'm gonna attempt a partial possession spell instead to save my energy for the show. I don't want to risk burning myself out, even if it's a simple spell."
"Wait--how--" Emily sputtered, watching her hands begin to move on their own accord. "Starlight," she whispered under her breath. "what the heck are you planning on doing that needs you to save your energy?"
"We are waiting, Starlight," the pale stallion grumbled, resting his face on a hoof. "It is best if you do not waste our time with this aimless rambling of yours."
Emily nodded, drawing a deep breath. Her hands balled into fists, gently glowing with Starlight's mana. Whatever it was that Starlight had in mind, she'd just have to follow along. Hopefully, she wouldn't need to explain anything mid-spell.
She turned her thoughts inward. It'd probably be helpful to check if Starlight had any directions for her to follow.
"Just keep your arms steady. I've got your hands under control. When you start lifting off the floor, do not panic."
Wait, lift off the flo--
A burst of Starlight's mana escaped from both fists, washing over her entire body. Slowly, Emily felt herself begin to float. It was a little hard to notice at first, given how close she still was to the floor, but it was only a matter of seconds before the spell reached its peak capability, shooting her straight up into the air. She shut her eyes, keeping her arms as stiff as possible.
"Hm. Magical self-levitation?" the pale stallion turned to one of his advisors. "We do have accounts of the late Starlight Glimmer performing such acts, do we not?"
A single nod answered his question.
"Very well then, continue," he cleared his throat. "Do you have any other spells to perform?"
Didn't he ask for a spell last time around?
Starlight seemed to take the stallion's words as a challenge. Emily felt another charge of mana rapidly build in her palms, releasing in a flash of light. She opened her eyes again, finding herself on the opposite side of the room-- still floating in the air, of course.
A warm sensation crept up her arm again, followed by a nonchalant click that signaled the casting of the 'fire spell' from before. Though, this time...
Both of the girl's hands burst into flames, protected only by the thin coating of mana that continued to flow from her palms. Another charge built up, and another, and another-- Emily shut her eyes again as Starlight fired off teleportation spells one after another.
"Sorry for making you feel ill, Emily. I need to make sure that we've earned the respect of this stallion. He seems like he'd be a dangerous foe if we were to be on bad terms."
What made Starlight think that? He was just a fluffy horse.
"...a fluffy horse that likely wields magic capable of things you could only imagine," Starlight's voice deadpanned. "And he's the leader of a city-state that from my experience, was absolutely ruthless when they needed to be! We can't risk anything on him!"
Emily opened an eye, tensing up when she once again teleported to the other side of the room. She could still feel the heat of the flame spell in her arms, so that was... what, three spells going all at once?
"Enough!" the pale stallion's voice boomed across the room. "I have seen enough. You provide convincing evidence that you are indeed the lost magus of Twilight Sparkle." he bowed his head slightly. "Welcome back to the Old Guard, Starlight Glimmer."
One final teleportation landed Emily back on her feet. She felt a sensation return to her fingertips as the volley of spells Starlight cast dissipate.
"I... uh... yes," she bowed in return. "Thank you for receiving me, mister..."
"King Blueblood," the pale stallion corrected. "I descend from a glorious lineage of my namesakes stretching to the nephew of Princess Celestia herself!"
"Right. So nothing's changed that much, then. Still got a Blueblood on the throne."
That remark didn't seem to make him seem any more likable.
"Come," Blueblood stepped down from his weird pedestal throne thingy that hardly even looked like a proper throne. "Allow me to provide you with a tour of our quaint kingdom in the woods. You'll find that we have advanced quite far in your absence."
"Wait," Emily paused, "My stuff-- you said that you'd return my items once I proved myself."
"Yes, and you shall receive them promptly. Please--" Blueblood gestured to follow. "--We shall collect your items on our way."
Luckily, the guards that took her things the day before seemed to be pretty careful. Nothing was broken, scratched, or even really touched, from the looks of it-- nevermind the fact that the spoon had even been polished sometime during the night! Emily brought her phone a little closer to her face, rubbing at the fingerprint-coated screen.
"I expect that our handling of your strange items is sufficient?"
"Mm-hmm," Emily hummed, pocketing the device. She bent over and grabbed her backpack by a strap, swinging it around her shoulder. "Heck, it's better than the condition that some of my mail comes in back ho--"
"Is there something wrong?" Blueblood cocked his head
"Home. Blu--your... er..." Emily sputtered, catching herself before stumbling even more on her words. "Your Highness, do you have any way to open portals?"
"Emily, don't you dare suggest anything about my higher abilities," Starlight's voice scolded. "The Blueblood I worked with was always prodding me for high-level spells usable in combat. I don't expect this one to be any better. I more or less stopped with public displays of power back when Twilight ascended to the throne as a precaution. What I showed off back there is the most of what I'm willing to use in plain sight, and so long as you don't put any ideas in his head, it will sta--"
"Portals?" King Blueblood leaned closer to Emily. She could feel his horse-breath on her cheek. "Tell me, Starlight, about these... portals."
Starlight's voice groaned.
"Uh--" Emily forced a chuckle. "Portals? When did I say anything about portals, your Highness? I was talking about... um... fort hills! This city within a fort is mighty fine, but just imagine if you could open more forts, y'know? Just, like... pop one up on some random hill where there's nice open fields and stuff!"
"You're making it worse, Emi."
As for the King, he remained silent, a brow clearly raised at the girl's remarks.
"Ahem," he continued, turning away. "Indeed, yes. To win back some of our treasured territories would be ideal. Now then, have you finished collecting your items, yet?"
"Very well, then. We shall begin your tour of the kingdom. Please, follow me."
...Did she just awkward her way out of the conversation?
The shopping district.
Emily rolled her eyes, tuning out King Blueberry or whatever his name was. All he'd been doing since they'd left the castle thingy was blabber on and on about this fort, and how amazing his bloodline was. To be honest, he was actually giving her a run for her money for who could be the most annoying!
"At least you're also an airhead. You've got that on him still."
"Shut it, Starlight."
"--And over here," Blueblood turned, gesturing at a storefront. "...is a vendor of some of our finest wares and apparel. Would you like to take a look at their offerings, Starlight Glimmer?"
"I... I guess, sure," Emily shrugged. Maybe there'd be something actually interesting inside. Like a food court.
The King nodded, leading her through the doors. A frown immediately grew on Emily's face-- it was just another random store, except with slightly fancier looking things for sale. She wandered over to a stand lined with what looked like hand(hoof?)-made stick-wolf-dog things.
"Ah," Blueblood was suddenly at her side again, peering over her shoulder. "The miniature timberwolf golems! A fine trinket by any standard! How many do you wish to purchase?"
"Wha-purchase?" Emily turned her head. "No, I was just loo--"
"THREE GOLEM PLAYTHINGS FOR THE HUMAN GIRL," Blueblood lit his horn, taking a trio of the toys in his pea-green aura.
Starlight's voice snorted. "Looks like somepony's trying to win you over."
"What? No!" Emily quietly countered, "I am not gonna be hooking up with a horse!"
"I'm talking about how he's still trying to drag a powerful spell out of you-- I mean, me."
She felt the toys slip into her backpack's main pocket.
"Is there anything else you would be interested in acquiring within this fine establishment?" Blueblood leaned closer, cocking his head.
"No!" Emily frantically shook her head. "The figurines were enough! Let's move on to the next place now!"
Her stomach grumbled. It'd be really nice if this place sold food right about now.
"Let us depart from here, then."
King Blueblood lit his horn.
Well, that was convenient.
"Welcome to our... farming district," Blueblood stepped up beside Emily. "As a civilized society, us ponies do not interact directly with the filthy soil that grows our crops. Please, observe."
Emily blinked, staring at the towering slabs of dirt stacked up like a pancake into the sky. Bits of greenery were barely visible in some places, draping past the edges of the dirt pancakes and hanging upside-down in the air. There... there was also some kind of short, bulky... figure standing at the edges of each one.
"The golems you see standing guard are the harvest automatons that we have constructed," Blueblood explained, "They work in conjunction with our other wooden golems to tend our crops every day from planting to harvest."
Far above, a bird soared near one of the golems. A long, spindly arm grew from the body of the automaton, waving in the open air to scare it away. On the second swat at the bird, the entire machination began to tip, teetering at the edge of the slab before plummeting down the side.
"Tut--" Blueblood quickly cut her off. "Observe."
Emily grumbled under her breath, turning her attention back to the falling golem. Or at least, what was left of it. The most she could see anymore was an off-brown cloud, slowly drifting to the ground.
"It... it's gone?"
Blueblood nodded. "And now, Starlight, turn your eyes back to the former station of the golem."
She squinted, shading her eyes as she gazed back to the tower. It was a little hard to find the exact floor that the wooden golem had fallen from, but she eventually spotted it. A little burst of dirt on that layer caught her eye.
"They grow back, you see. These designs are the very same ones that my ancestors created eons ago, when this fort was first built as an emergency stronghold. So long as the soil remains tended to by the other automatons, the spell to replenish the supply of golems remains set in stone."
"So..." Emily took her eyes off the vertical farm. "You're saying that these things are basically just wooden dolls filled with magic?"
"In a sense."
She shoved her hands in her pockets, turning her gaze back to the farm and its unmoving golems.
Wherever it was that King Blueblood was leading her to next, it was far. For whatever reason, he also turned down her idea of just teleporting there. Maybe he wanted her to see the scenery?
Her stomach growled again. They'd barely left an entire farming district, and never even once did she get anything to eat!
"Just be careful for now, Emi. I know we haven't had anything to eat since last night, but he's leading us to the magical research facility that I helped build long ago. I recognized the farm tower, but I have no idea whether or not the magical training grounds of this place have been changed over the years."
"Righto. What sorta stuff are you thinking there might be?" Emily whispered, "Magic snakes? Weird plants?"
"More just general contamination, most likely. I'm not sure whether or not your body would be able to resist any powerful spells lingering in the area."
Blueblood stopped at the entrance of some kind of castle. Though, this one didn't look anything like the structure he'd been ruling from.
He lit his horn, pulling open one of the heavy wooden doors. The interior was dark, but the torches lining the walls lit themselves the moment Emily set foot inside.
"You do remember this place, don't you?" Blueblood shut the door behind himself, stepping up to Emily. "The Castle of the Two Sisters?"
"Starlight!" Emily muttered, "Take over for me before I wreck the conversation again!"
"Probably would've been better if you asked while King Blueblood was turned away from us, but fine."
A shudder ran down her spine as she lost all feeling in her body. Hey, she was getting used to this back-and-forth switching!
Starlight cleared her throat, nodding. "Yes, I remember quite well, thank you. What of the Treehouse of Harmony? I remember hearing before I vanished that Princess Luna infiltrated the fort to retrieve the Elements. Has the tree perished again since then?"
"Indeed it has. However," Blueblood trotted deeper into the castle. "My best advisors on magic have been hard at work attempting to decipher its secrets. It is a shame that Princess Luna had to wield the Elements against her sister-- otherwise, we may even have had the Elements of Harmony to study!"
Was it just her, or did King Blueblood seem to be... geeking out?
"Oh--" Starlight cut in, still following close behind. "I assume Daybreaker was ultimately reformed, then?"
"Hmm... yes, yes she was," Blueblood nodded solemnly. "I am tempted to say that it may have been one of the few acts of the Ashen that we still view favorably to this day. Do you wish to see the remnants of the tree?"
Starlight's eyes lit up. "Yes!" she beamed, "I--" she froze up mid-sentence, unable to move another step.
"I'd love to see the remnants," Emily swooped in, taking control once more. She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Starlight! What the heck just happened there?"
"Felt like an anti-magic spell. I don't think I'm capable of bypassing it in your body at the moment, so you're on your own until we leave."
Well, shoot. She'd better be a little more careful, then.
They entered another corridor of the castle. This room, however, was absolutely ginormous; even when looking straight up, it felt like she should've been seeing the open sky rather than a ceiling!
Of course, the centerpiece of the room was no less strange than the size of the place; the remains of some kind of stump sat in the very center, with pieces of long-destroyed architecture poking from the bare ground in some places. Crystalline shards littered the ground around the stump as if the rest of the tree had simply... shattered.
Emily treaded over the crystals, mentally thanking herself for wearing her sneakers as a noticeable crunch rose with every step. She turned, noticing Blueblood now standing off to the side, watching.
"Whatever destroyed the Treehouse of Harmony really did a number to it, didn't it?" Starlight's voice mused. "Even with its bigger size over the old Tree of Harmony, this thing looks like it didn't stand a chance."
She made her way deeper into the carnage. Here, the shards were far bigger, with some being nearly twice the size of the shoes she wore. It wasn't long, however, before she found herself standing at the center of the stump.
"Feel anything, Starlight?"
Emily shrugged. "I figured that you might have some kind of natural pull to this place or something. It definitely looks like the sorta place you'd be finding magical unicorns in."
She squat down, picking up one of the smaller crystals near her feet. Small, spindly cracks spiderwebbed through its center, betraying its fragility.
"King Blueblood--" the girl began, looking up from the gem, "--may I take one of these crystals with me?"
"WHAT?!" Starlight's voice roared in her head. "Are you out of your mind? That's a piece of the buckin' Treehouse of Harm--"
"E-excuse me?" Blueblood choked at the request, mirroring Starlight's shock. "You wish to... keep a piece of the Tree?"
Emily nodded, still cradling the crystal in her hand. "I'd like to study it for myself. Y'know, see the crystal structure, figure out what kind of materials it's made up of, stuff like that."
She breathed a mental sigh of relief for remembering at least some of last year's chemistry class.
"I... suppose you can," King Blueblood stepped a little closer, still remaining far from the majority of the shards littering the ground. "But what do you expect to find? My advisors and I have already amassed an extensive collection of research and findings on these shards."
A quiet groan came from Starlight's voice. "Emily, you have a death wish, don't you? Just... repeat after me: I wish to research the thaumatic capacity of the crystals in relation to their physical strength and structure."
Emily nodded, taking a deep breath. "I wish to research the traumatic capacity of the crystals in relation to their physical strength and structure."
"Thau-matic, not--" a sigh came from Starlight. "You know what, it was a load of gibberish anyway."
Blueblood blinked, cocking his head. His eyes turned to the crystals, then back to Emily. "Um... very well, then--" the stallion's eyes met hers. "I will permit it."
Wow, that worked?
"Throwing gibberish worked on his ancestors during my time advising Twilight, so I thought I'd might as well give it a go again."
So basically, Starlight just risked everything on the stupidity of the King. Neat.
"I can't tell if you're joking or being serious there."
"Both and neither," Emily grinned. "Anyway--" she stuffed the crystal into her pocket. "King Blueblood, what food do you recommend around this place?"
"I give up," Starlight's voice groaned again.
Short to say, hay-based food wasn't meant for human consumption. The salad was alright, though. At least now she didn't feel like she was going to starve to death. Also, having a chunk of crystal scraping against your leg for half an hour straight was not fun.
Emily sighed, falling onto the soft pillows of her new bed that was not inside a weird tree prison cell thing.
"So," Starlight's voice piped up. "The piece of the tree. What the actual buck were you thinking, Emi?! Those shards were once part of one of the most powerful structures in the world! You can't just selfishly take them!"
"Well, if you're saying that it's so powerful, then wouldn't it also be an amazing way to channel magic as well? C'mon, Starlight, lighten up a little!" Emily reached into her pocket, pulling out the crystal...s?
"Great, you broke it."
The girl frowned, setting the two faintly-violet halves on her bedsheets and reaching into her pocket again. This time, she pulled out a visibly-scuffed spoon.
"And there's your culprit," Starlight droned. "Well, I suppose that's one way to cut a crystal. What are you gonna do with two smaller crystals, then? I don't think there's enough left of either piece to shape it into anything all that usefu--"
"No, no..." Emily unzipped her backpack, rummaging inside it. The stick she'd used as a wand wasn't on the floor with her other things when she was picking them up, so the guards must've tossed it in with her books. "I've got a great idea for what to do with the smaller shards!" She overturned the bag, dumping everything onto the bedsheets. A grin spread across her face as the stick finally fell out. "I'll use it as a topper for the wand!"
"I--" Starlight's voice started. "I... actually, that's not too bad of an idea. I hate to say this, but that's actually some pretty sound logic coming from you. If the crystal works like any other magically-grown crystal that I've worked with, then it can hold a limited store of mana on top of what I already have myself. And... combined with the ability to direct a charge, it'd give the capability of amplifying every spe--"
"Okay, okay, I get it, I'm not as big of a doofus as you thought I was," Emily chuckled. "So, I think we should give our wand a name now, since we're making it stronger and stuff."
"O...kay? I mean--"
"Splinter," Emily repeated, holding up the stick. "That's a good name for a wooden wand, isn't it?"
Emily's backpack thudded against a stump. The girl stood beside it, shading her eyes.
"You said this is the place? Looks pretty empty to me."
"Mhm," Starlight's voice hummed. "I'd chalk it up to Canterlot nobles just being Canterlot nobles. I doubt they ever put much use into these training grounds."
"Er... yes. Anyway--" Emily set a hand on the wand sticking from her pocket. "--You said that you were going to show off some more magic tricks and stuff?"
"Ye-What?" Starlight sputtered, "No! I said that I'd see if I could teach you some beginner spells!"
Emily made a face, rolling her eyes. "Fine, whatever. So, where do we start then? Fire? Water?" she pulled Splinter from her pocket, a wide grin on her face as she gripped the wand. "Wind?"
"Now," Starlight's voice continued, "I'm not entirely sure if the same process will work for you as it did for me, but levitation is typically seen as a 'beginner' spell. My main concern is that ponies have an innate pool of mana that they're able to draw from, but... yeah. I just don't know if you can do magic."
So what? She might not have any magic juice sloshing around inside her, but Starlight definitely did still, given the whole predicament they were currently in. She could just tap into that instead!
"I don't think that's how things wor--"
"No no, lemme try--" Emily clenched her eyes shut, tightening her fingers around Splinter to the point of trembling. Her backpack would be an easy target for levitation, so she'd start with that. Think! The backpack by itself was already easy enough to visualize, so it was a matter of imagining how it'd move, right? All she'd need to do was gather the energy to make it move, and instead of using an external force, it'd be something inside her. That's how things seemed to work when Starlight was levitating things!
Now, to summon the magic to do it. What did magic even feel like? It'd be kinda like an electrical charge, wouldn't it? Or was it something a little more mental? Keep digging, keep digging... a spark?
That did it. She could feel the rough wood in her hand beginning to burn against her skin. Tentatively, Emily opened an eye, peeking at the faintly glowing crystal tied to the end of Splinter with a shoelace. She could feel the wand beginning to lighten as the light within the crystal pulsed.
"I..." she gasped at the sight. "I think I did it, Starlight! I was able to use your mana for my own spe--"
A jolt ran through her arm and up her spine. The crystal pulsed again, the light it emitted growing a little brighter.
"Emi, I don't think tha--"
A burst of mana exploded from the crystal, nearly sending the girl stumbling. The magic surged forward, wrapping itself around the rest of the wand and her hand before dissipating. All that remained of it was a faint, off-orange aura surrounding the crystal. Wide-eyed, Emily couldn't help but stare at the aura as it too began to fade.
"Emily?" Starlight's voice whispered, "Emi!"
She shook herself from her stupor, blinking. "W-huh?"
"What in the everloving name of Celestia was that?"
"'Dunno," Emily shrugged. She glanced at her now-overturned backpack. "Hey, I levitated a thing!"
"I--" A sigh came from the mare's voice. "You know what? Forget about it. Let's head back now."
One more time, first. She did it once, she could do it again! Just go through the same actions as before, gather some energy off Starlight's stash...
Emily grit her teeth, bracing for another explosion. She could feel the wooden surface of Splinter under her fingers, the still-lighter-than-before weight of the wand itself in her hand, the... lack of anything happening?
She lowered the wand, turning it slowly in her hands. Why didn't it work this time? Did she not concentrate hard enough?
"I'd say it's just you still being inexperienced. I still have absolutely no idea what it was that you did back there, but I know two things: one, you did not, in fact, draw any mana out of me, or else I would've felt it."
Emily raised a brow, pocketing Splinter. "And? You said you knew two--"
"--Secondly," Starlight cut her off, smugness radiating from her voice. "I think you might've just kick-started your magical career."
Frantic hoofsteps approached from behind. Panting, a guardspony stopped before Emily, staring first at the girl, then at her surroundings. "There--" the stallion gasped, "there's no damage?"
"...Might I ask what it was that you were doing? I am aware that you are an incarnation of Arch-Magus Starlight Glimmer, but you cannot simply throw around your spells in such a reckless fashion!"
Wait, so the spell was powerful enough that he immediately thought that Starlight did it? A grin spread across Emily's face. "Okay then!" she chirped, "I'll try and tone things down a little the next time 'round."
The stallion nodded, walking away. He stopped at the entrance, apparently taking a post to monitor her.
"So then--" Emily whispered through her grin, "--Starlight, mind teaching me how to control my magic a little better?"
"No, not with a guard watching. The difference in proficiency between us would be evidence that you could just be an imposter. You do not want to see how these ponies treat creatures they see as criminals."
"Fine," Emily huffed, taking a step towards the stallion. "I'll tell him to leave."
"No no no bad idea--BAD IDEA!" Starlight's voice shouted in Emily's head. "All that would do is raise suspicion! Just step back from magic for now, and we can pick things up again another time. Just to follow through with what you said, I'll perform some basic spells that the guard would likely be familiar with himself."
Starlight's turquoise aura enveloped the girl's hand. "'Kay," she continued, "Unless you're going to pull out the spoon or the wand again, I'm gonna need you to raise your hand a little higher so it's easier for my mana to be channeled."
Emily nodded, following Starlight's instructions and lifting a hand. The aura around it strengthened, growing a little brighter before shooting out in a narrow beam.
"You can do lasers?!" she gasped. "Cool!"
"Shh! Don't let the guard hear you talking to me!"
"Fine," the girl whispered, "But still-- you can shoot lasers? Does that mean that the war you fought in was filled with lasers and big explosions and stuff?"
"No. It's incredibly draining on mana to constantly use this spell, so at most, it is only used in close-range, head-on battles. I..." Starlight's voice grew even quieter than it'd already been. "I know from personal experience."
"Do you wanna talk about it then? Lasers are still pretty cool anyway."
"I'd rather not."
All right then, she could keep her secrets. Was there anything else Starlight was willing to show off in the meantime? A bit more self-levitation like before would be pretty neat. Of course, lasers were still better, but--
"I'll just be performing some basic accuracy practice then. You'll get your lasers, and I'll get some much-needed work on targeting."
Wait, target practice? This was just an empty courtyard! Where the heck were they going to get ta--
"Borrowing your body now," Starlight butt in, forcing the girl's consciousness aside. "By the way, are you any good at throwing things?"
Another piece of bark shattered mid-air. Starlight wiped her brow, bending down to pick up her next target.
"C'mon, Starlight, it's pretty obvious that you've already got amazing aim. Can we go now?"
Starlight shook her head, winding up to throw the chunk of wood. "Not yet. I'm still not all that great with my accuracy. If we wind up going through what I had to go through before I... y'know, died, then you'll need me to protect you."
"...Riiiiiiight. Says the mare who took over my body and obliterated over twenty targets in a row."
Starlight flung the bark, readying Splinter to fire another bolt. Seconds later, the target exploded, raining more ash over the slowly growing heap on the ground.
"Twenty-one," she smirked. "Here, if you really want to leave, then I'll just have a go at four more targets, 'kay? It's just... it's been so long since I've been able to truly do something!"
"Fine. But you gotta teach me how to shoot lasers later, then."
Emily strolled along the bustling streets of the shopping district. Now that she wasn't being dragged around by Mister Blueberry, she could actually see some interesting things among the piles of stuff being bought and sold; little wind-up toys, a model engine here and there-- she turned her head at the sound of a typewriter.
"You like mechanical trinkets, don't you? Your thoughts are occupied by them."
The girl nodded, continuing her browsing and ignoring the pressing question of how a pony could possibly use a typewriter. Then again, how were some of these ponies around her even able to hold things with their hooves?
"Don't think too hard about it. It's for the better," Starlight deadpanned. "A certain friend of mine told me how she learned that the hard way."
Alright. Don't think about the weird pony physics. Noted. Emily turned away from the typewriter noises. Maybe she'd finally have the opportunity to find someplace with some good food... Preferably something that wasn't hay-based this time around.
She wandered around a corner. More shops lined the sides of the street, stretching on to the edge of the fort's walls.
"See any restaurants around, Star?"
"Donuts. There's..." Starlight's voice was tinged with confusion. "There's a... donut shop near the walls. Why would the nobles want to keep something that they'd consider commoner food?"
Emily shrugged. "'Dunno, but donuts are donuts. Do... you know what the currency around here is?"
Starlight's facehoof echoed through her head.
"I mean, either way, I'll probably need to get an allowance from King Blueblood anyway..."
"Just..." Starlight let out a heavy sigh. "Listen, if you want something to eat, then we should head back to the palace. I think it'd be best if you don't attract too much attention to yourself."
Rapid hoofsteps approached from behind. The girl turned just in time to spot the edges of a cloak fly past her eyes.
"Hey..." Emily pointed after the cloaked pony. "Should we--"
"They're a returning spy. There used to be a formal intelligence agency that essentially sat around doing nothing, but the Old Guard made quick use of it once war broke out. Looks like things are still tense as ever."
"Wanna see what they're gonna say?"
Starlight hesitated. "I... sure, I guess? I mean, I was a trusted advisor and all before everything began to crumble, but--"
Emily broke into a sprint. She heard all that she needed to hear.
The girl stood with her back against the wall, silently listening to the report. She was a little late on account of trying to keep pace with a small horse, but that wasn't much of a problem. Being a little late never bothered her much anyway.
"--arswirl's time travel spell has been spotted within Ashen territory. Our attempts at retrieving the scroll were unsuccessful, as we are unable to track its movements within their borders. We believe it may be headed towards some kind of guarded facility within Canterlot for further analysis."
Starlight's voice gasped. Was it something the spy said? Something offending, or--
"No no, it's... I thought that spell was gone for good. If... if more copies of that scroll exist, then... oh, no no no... this is bad--"
Emily inched a little closer, tuning out Starlight's increasingly broken muttering.
"Understandable," Blueblood's voice hummed. "I assume you are making preparations to try again at retrieving this scroll?"
"Indeed, sire. My ponies and I are detailing plans to infiltrate this facility in search of the spell."
"And what if you fail?" Blueblood's voice growled a little with that last word.
The spy seemed unfazed by the King's hostility, droning on in a near-monotone. "It is for this reason that we shall be split into two groups. If one is stricken down, then the other shall rescue those who survive and return them to our territory."
"Hmph," Blueblood grunted. "Very well then. Ensure that your operations remain as covert as possible, and we will retain the element of surprise lest the Ashen attempt to strike. You are dismissed. Starlight!"
Emily shrunk back at the mentioning of the mare's name.
"Starlight, I know you have been eavesdropping. Please, show yourself, and we may discuss the spell openly. Perhaps we may even let you wield it for yourself once it has been retrieved."
"Star!" Emily whispered, stepping from her hiding place. "Starlight! You done rambling yet? We've got a sticky situation with the King to handle!"
"...Yes. If needed, I can give you pointers on what to say. Please don't mess things up this time."
Emily nodded, though that wasn't necessarily a promise. She stopped in front of King Blueblood, bowing slightly.
"Starlight," Blueblood's voice dripped with warmth as he smiled. "You remember using that spell, do you not? My historians have told me all about you. Your past, your old... obsessions-- I know it all."
"I... yes," the girl forced a grin. "I'll admit that some of my past... uh, hobbies were a little--"
"Controlling? Powerful?" Blueblood cut in, "Indeed, Starlight, I am quite aware of your magical prowess. My advisors have been over their heads in discussion of your potential in retaking Canterlot from the Ashen."
Bad idea bad idea bad idea-- where the heck was Starlight?! She said she'd be giving pointers! Letting the conversation turn towards war plans was not a good place to be headed!
King Blueblood cocked his head. "Do you feel ill? You do not appear to be very attentive to my words."
"No!-- I... I was just thinking, that's all. Why do you wanna ta--"
"Tut--" Starlight abruptly interjected, forcing her own words from Emily's mouth. "Ahem. Sorry about the stutter, your majesty. What I meant to ask was why you wish to attempt to retake your homeland now, of all times. After all these years spent growing your stronghold in the Everfree, what purpose would retaking Canterlot even serve?"
Emily sighed as she felt Starlight recede again to the depths of her mind. Even if it was a little... sudden of a save, she'd probably have to thank the mare later for that one. Though, why she didn't just keep on controlling her body was beyond her.
Blueblood, for his part, remained silent, staring deep into her eyes. She shifted on her feet, looking away.
Her attention immediately snapped back to the stallion. His eyes were still locked firmly on her.
"Unification," the King repeated, "The Ashen is a splinter group that formed solely to follow the will of the late Twilight Sparkle, even when it was obvious that their inexperience in leadership would lead to great strife across the fracturing nation. We of the Old Guard only wish to re-establish order within their anarchistic bounds, and bring peace back to the land. If the Ashen are intent on fabricating our undoing by tampering with the past, then we have no choice but to declare war and defeat them before it can happen."
That... actually sounded like a pretty decent idea. To be honest, she was expecting something more along the lines of 'GARRR, ME WANT LAND AND POWER, I AM BAD FLUFFY ROYAL PONY'... or something like that.
"You are an absolute child, Emi."
Blueblood took a deep breath, recomposing himself after his brief monologue. "Do you have any other questions?"
"Tell him no," Starlight's voice whispered. "Asking more may make him suspicious."
Emily shook her head.
"Then you are dismissed. You may return to your quarters, but please--" a smile formed at the edge of his lips. "--if you wish to listen to my conversations with my fellow ponies, feel free to come into the open. There is no need to hide."
"Starlight, what the heck was that?"
Emily rolled her eyes, sitting down on the edge of her bed. "That. Y'know, the whole thing where you said you'd be giving pointers?"
"I did give pointers," Starlight's voice countered, "It's just... I was a little lost in thought, that's all. It's really nothing important."
"You're hiding something, aren't you?"
"Hmf. You think?"
"Yup," the girl folded her arms. "It's in your voice. I might not be the greatest at reading people, but it's pretty obvious that something's up. Spill the beans, Star."
Starlight remained silent.
"C'mon, it can't be that bad, can it? Is it about your old friends again? I know you probably want to see them, but--"
"It's about a mistake. A very big, very bad mistake from a long time ago."
"Well, if it's from a long time ago, then why would it matter? You can't change the past. If you hurt anyone, then they're definitely long-gone by now. Why are you thinking about this stuff now? It's probably best to move on from it. You shouldn't be beating yourself up over things from ages ago."
"Heh. Can't change the past," Starlight scoffed. "Easy for you to say. I nearly destroyed it."
...Destroyed it? So, what, did Starlight screw around with ti--
"Yes. I broke what was more or less a sacred bond out of spite, and every time I returned to the present, things were worse than they'd been before. The time that finally broke me was the timeline where this-- all of this-- was nothing but an arid wasteland. I'm starting to think that maybe..." Starlight's voice paused for a breath, letting it all out in a heavy sigh before continuing. "...Maybe this world is one of those bad timelines, too."
"Oh," Emily mumbled. "I... don't really know what to say about that. I... wow, shattering the timeline... no wonder why the King keeps prodding us to do some fancy spe--" she gasped. That time travel spell thingy that the spy was talking to Blueberry about! Was that the spell Starlight used to--
Emily pushed herself back up, her hands balling into fists. "Well then," she began, "How 'bout this-- we steal the spell, and get rid of it before anyone else can possibly make the same mistake?"
"We'll need to get out of here first. King Blueblood, or 'Blueberry' as you keep calling him, seems to want me to go into battle again for him. If I'm going to have to fight, I want to fight against him and his cronies. The Old Equestria is long-gone, but they don't seem to be able to get that through their thick skulls."
"I don't know, Star, we've only just gotten settled. Do we really have to--"
Emily sighed. She glanced at the window, then to the floor beneath her and the bed.
"Fine. Let's get out of here tonight. You can probably just teleport us or somethi--"
"No magic. With how obsessed Blueblood seems to be with magical artifacts and spells, this place is probably swarming with magic detection and nullifying fields. I know some old passages from the days of this place's construction that we can try taking. Not sure if they're still around anymore, but..." Starlight huffed. "It's worth a shot."
It was a rocky start, but it was all that they had.
A new nation, from ashes and flame,
Rose like a phoenix;
After which it was named.
"Are you absolutely sure about this?"
Emily stared at the old cracks that spindled across the rocky ceiling. "It's not exactly... uh, safe-looking, if you ask me."
"Yeah, yeah, just keep walking. We want out, we're taking the old construction pass. There's absolutely no way the guards are gonna let us out if we just waltz up to them."
The girl rolled her eyes, running her fingers along the dusty bricks lining the corridor. Starlight had a point, though; with how much King Blueblood knew about her, he'd absolutely despise the idea of them leaving Old Guard territory-- or for that matter, defecting.
She snorted. That's basically what they were doing at this point, wasn't it? Starlight did say something about trying to get out before she died in the war, and that's basically what they were doing again now. Also, that whole spiel she had about not using magic to escape. That was also pretty important.
Emily peered down the long passage. Just like all the others she'd walked through, it was unlit. Not that it was much of a problem, though-- Starlight's little fire spell solved that problem handily. The flickering light from the flames at her fingertip also served to illuminate the still-red prints on her hands from lifting that trapdoor. She scratched at the light chafing on her fingers with her other hand. That was one heckuva rough handle she had to lift back there.
"C'mon, Emi. Stop letting your mind wander. You've been standing there for nearly half a minute now!"
Right. Left. Er... what? Emily blinked, taking her attention off her finger-candle spell thingy.
"Left..." Starlight's voice groaned, "I've already told you, walk down the left corridor. The right hall loops back to the training grounds last I remember. Now go, before I start forgetting the directions."
"Starlight, you've been pretty quiet this whole time we've been walking. Something on your mind?"
"No, not really. It's just--" Starlight paused. "The scroll. That time travel spell that we discussed earlier-- I thought it was the only copy in existence. I... I'm still trying to wrap my head around the thought of there being multiple. Here-- the next right should be the last one. If my memory is correct, you should find another trapdoor."
The mare fell back to idle muttering. As for Emily, she made the final turn, finding herself standing beneath a well-rusted square of metal. Her eyes flitted over the pitted surface, searching for a handle, or at the very least some indication on how the thing opened. Based on looks alone, this trapdoor was definitely not going to open the same way as the one she'd entered through.
"--Oh, um, here--" Starlight sputtered, "This one's reinforced since it isn't within the Old Guard's territory. I'll handle it."
Without warning, the familiar glow of Starlight's aura enveloped Emily's hands. The same soon went for the trapdoor, which promptly lifted.
Emily poked her head out of the hole, peering around at her new surroundings. From the looks of the largely-derelict buildings in the area, this place was probably some sort of town... though, given how dark it was outside, it wasn't easy to tell for sure. She grunted, heaving herself up over the edge and crawling onto the overgrown grass. Starlight's magic once again took hold of the trapdoor, shutting it quietly behind her. A quiet rustle was the only indication of their exit as the torn-up greenery fell back into place.
Brushing herself off, the girl turned her attention to the night-shrouded silhouettes of the buildings before her; broken beams and collapsed rooftops stood against the starry night sky in some buildings, while others seemed to fare a little better with their boarded-up windows and flickering glimpses of candlelight.
Emily jumped at the sound of the new voice, whirling around to find herself staring down the muzzle of a weary-looking mare.
"It's mighty late out," the mare rubbed an eye, squinting in the light of her torch and leaning closer to the girl. "It ain't safe at night bein' this close to the Everfree. Mah eyes ain't quite what they used to be, but you don't look like a guard or a soldier to me. What're ya doin' 'round these parts?"
"I... er--" Emily sputtered, her hands tightening around her backpack straps. "Honestly, I really still don't know. I just got here, and... well, it's really late at night, and--"
"Don't smell like one of them soldiers, either, though you're still mighty sweaty," the mare sniffed.
Emily rolled her eyes. "Well, it'd help quite a bit if I had a place to stay at for a little while. Maybe I'll even take a bath. Or a shower. Something."
The mare nodded, turning around and gesturing to follow.
"Hey Star," Emily muttered under her breath, "You think I should follow the creepy old mare?"
"I mean, based on her accent alone, I'm pretty sure she can be trusted."
"Wait, accent? You can't just judge someone by their accen--"
"Are ya comin', sugarcube? If you're lookin' for somewhere to get some shut-eye, Ah've got plenty of spare rooms in the house! It's been a looooong time since anypony's ever slept in 'em, though."
That only made things sound even worse!
"Just go already," Starlight's voice droned. "I'll fill you in later."
Fine then. If she died tonight, then she'd have Starlight to blame.
Like, this place not only smelled like apples, but was so saturated with apples that the air itself even tasted like apples. Not that it was necessarily a bad thing-- just... a little weird.
"It's less weird if you think about the fact that we're walking through Sweet Apple Acres, Emi."
So like that one place in Pennsylvania, then!
"Your commentary never ceases to amaze me."
If only she could smack Starlight for that quip. Emily sped up a little, slowing down again at the side of the aging mare.
"So... what were you doing out so late when you came across me?"
"Just takin' a walk, that's all," the mare sighed. "Been a long while since I've had a good walk. The kids always tell me that Ah need to 'stay safe indoors' and such these days. Rumor has it that the Old Guard wants to cross our borders and nip at the Phoenix's behind."
Emily raised a brow. "Phoenix? Why would the Old Guard want to attack a phoeni--"
"She's talking about the Ashen Phoenix faction. Most ponies in the Old Guard call it Ashen for short, though."
"Well--" the old mare chuckled, "If you wanna ask somethin' like that, then you're gonna be in for one heckuva lecture, sugarcube. Perhaps you should've asked your ma and pa 'bout it before comin' to me. Ah'm just an old mare mindin' the farm, that's all. It's nice to have some company every now and then."
"So you don't mind me being a human then, I'm guessing?"
The mare paused, cocking her head. "Hoo-min? Well, Ah'd be darned! It's been quite some time since Ah've heard of a hoo-min 'round here!"
Emily's eyes lit up. "So you're saying that there's other humans like me here? I--"
"Mm-mmm--" the mare shook her head. "Just sayin' that Ah haven't heard of 'em since Ah was a filly."
"Well," the old mare stopped in front of a rickety-looking farmhouse. She pushed the door open. "Ah'm plum-tuckered out from tonight's rounds. You can pick any room you'd like-- Ah'm just in the room by the stairs."
Without another word, the mare retreated deeper into the house, disappearing down a short hall beside the stairwell. Emily glanced about, squinting in the dimly-lit foyer. Faded photographs dotted the walls, hiding the peeling wallpaper. She didn't dare take off her shoes in this place; just the look of the floorboards could give her a splinter.
"C'mon, Emi. We can stock up and leave in the morning. This mare's offering us housing for the night, so we might as well take it. Who knows when we'll get to sleep on a bed again?"
Emily nodded, climbing the stairs.
"I think I see a room to the right at the top. We can sleep in there."
Again, the girl nodded. A good night's rest, some directions, and food would all probably be important to have if she was gonna trek all the way over to some faraway place. Though, given how strong the smell of apples was even inside the house, she already had a creeping idea of what the food was going to be like around here.
At the very least, if she couldn't take anything with her, the smooshed granola bars at the bottom of her backpack would last her a day or two.
"Rise an' shine, sugarcube!" the old mare's muffled voice rung through the room.
Emily groaned. Was it morning already? She cracked an eye, peering lazily toward the bare window-- yup, it was morning alright.
"Eh--" she turned, throwing the covers over her head. "Mornings are overrated."
"Oh come on, Emi, we agreed to this! Now's not the time to lounge around!"
"Shush, Whisper. It's powernap time."
The old mare knocked on the door. "Ah made breakfast! There's some apple fritters down on the table if you want some. Ah'll be out mindin' the orchard if you need anythin'."
Emily's eyes shot open.
"Are you kidding me?" Starlight grumbled, "You won't wake up to get something done, but you'll wake up if there's--"
Fine, fine, whatever. Next time she'll wake up without breakfast then. See how Starlight's mana pool likes it.
"Wha-no! That's not the poi--"
Emily smirked, sitting up in bed.
"...Oh. You're messing with me."
"Yup," the girl chirped, hopping out of bed. "So, after breakfast, we should probably ask around about things we might need for the trip. Where are we heading again?"
"The Ashen Phoenix faction-- that's the place where the scroll supposedly is, according to Blueblood's spy. It's a pretty long distance from here, though, so if the train from here to there's still functional, then we are absolutely taking it."
Emily raised a brow. "...And where's here, exactly?"
Wow. So creative.
"Hey! I know what you're thinking, y'know!"
Yeah, yeah, mind-reading shenanigans and stuff. Still doesn't make the name 'Ponyville' any less weird. So, it's either walking there or taking a train, then?
Starlight grumbled an affirmation.
The old mare's shovel hit the ground. "Eh?" she turned to face Emily. "You want to travel up to Canterlot?"
"Catnerlot? No, I said that we're gonna go to--"
"Emi," Starlight whispered, "Ashen is the country. Canterlot is the capital."
"--er, nevermind. So... uh," Emily kicked at the dirt under her shoes. "What kind of supplies do you think we'd nee--"
"Didja like the pie?" the old mare cut in.
"Yeah, yeah, the pie's goo--"
"Wrong!" the mare burst, "You ain't listenin', young lady! Ah made fritters! Talkin' and conversin' is a two-part ordeal, and y'all only got one part nailed."
A wide grin spread across the old mare's muzzle.
Emily blinked. "W-wait...Ohhhh--"
The old mare followed up with a hearty chuckle. "Oh, you remind me so much of mah grandchildren! They're a real chatty bunch-- and real fun to mess with, at that! Hoo-- it's been a long while since Ah've had the chance to do it again!"
Her laughter died down to a light wheeze. She leaned on her shovel, taking a moment to recompose herself.
"So, uh... Catnerlot!" Emily forced a grin. "Do you know how long it'd take to get there?"
"Hm, tough to say--" the old mare rasped, "--been a while since Ah've been travelin'. Prolly some... two? Two... three hours by train?"
"Gotcha," Emily clicked her pen, tucking the notepad into a pocket. "Catnerlot by train it is, then!"
"Canterlot," Starlight corrected. "Also, where the buck did that notepad come from?"
"Your backpack what?" the old mare cocked her head. "Sorry if mah hearin's a bit dull these days, but I didn't quite catch that last part there."
Another one of Starlight's facehoofs (facehooves?) echoed through Emily's head. This entire exchange was getting a little awkward even for her now.
"My backpack!" Emily repeated, slipping the bag from her shoulders. "I was just wondering if... we could maybe have some food that we could bring with us along the way? I'm not completely sure about whether or not the train you mentioned is even working or not, so it'd probably be a good idea to bring some extra supplies and stuff in case--"
"Ya get lost? Ah understand," the old mare nodded. "But, ya gotta work for them stuffs! Us Apple family folk have never been the kind to raise slackers, and Ah ain't gonna start now with you, either!" she pointed a hoof at the ripe apples hanging from the nearby trees. "Ah know y'ain't the type suitable for apple-buckin', but you humans have your crafty lil' hands to do the pickin' instead. If you can pick me some baskets, Ah'll letcha keep half the pickings. Deal?"
Welp. Not like there was any other option from the looks of it.
Roads may be blocked, but they can always be cleared.
Bridges may still burn, but things don't have to be as they are feared.
It isn't where you began, nor where you end--
But rather the journey, where you'll find your truest friends.
"Three baskets," Emily grinned, brushing leaves from her hair as she stood behind the heaps of apples. "That enough for you?"
"Hm. Ah think that'd be plenty enough for the time being," the old mare nodded. "Ya got anythin' to hold your share of the harvest?"
Emily nudged the backpack on the floor beside her.
"Emi, do you really think you can cram a basket and a half worth of apples in that thing?"
Emily nudged the backpack on the floor beside her harder.
"Well," Emily half-mumbled, transferring an apple into her backpack, "I guess I should probably head out now. Thanks for letting me stay the night, Mrs..."
"Ambrosia Cider," the old mare finished. "Say, Ah never caught your name, either."
Ambrosia snorted. "Huh. Kids these days an' their strange names. Well, Ah'll certainly wish ya luck on your trek to Canterlot!"
Emily nodded, trying to cram another apple into her now-bulging backpack. Geez-- how many was she able to fit? Five? Six apples? Was that gonna be enough?
"You look like you need some help with that."
Gee, thanks for the insight, Clippy. Emily turned to Ambrosia. "Er... is there any way--"
She raised her brow. "Wha--"
Emily gingerly set another tin of candied apples in her backpack. Honestly, in hindsight, she should've figured that Ambrosia was planning on sending her off with some sort of apple-based recipe. At least it tasted good. And hey, the empty cans could probably make for some good projectiles if she ever needed to clobber someone at a distance.
"You take care now," Ambrosia set another tray of candy tins in front of Emily. "Don't eat all of 'em in one sitting, or else you're gonna catch the diabeetus!"
"So..." Emily packed another tin in her bag. "Mrs. Ambrosia, do you know anything about the train to Canterlot?"
Ambrosia Cider shrugged. "Ah just know that it ain't in service, that's all. Most of the travel's been either on hoof or by balloon these days."
"Oh? A balloon?"
"Eyup," Ambrosia nodded. "Big ol' flyin' thingamabobber that lifts up into the sky. Though if you're so dead-set on a train, Ah'd say you'd best head off to find Aero Wrench. He's a retired engineer that set up shop 'round here not too long ago. Arrived by balloon, of course."
"What about the balloon, then? Would it be possible to take one to Canterlot instead of a train?"
The old mare snorted. "With the schedules they have? Ah'd bet three pies that they'd forget thatcha even paid for a ride! The balloons always arrive during the night, and even then they only come 'round once a month."
Emily's hopes dampened. "So... when's the next time it's gonna co--"
"Do you have the bits to pay your fare? If so, there's gonna be a launch leavin' in two weeks."
Oh. Right. She was broke in both this world and her own. Fun. Also, two weeks was probably a bit too long of a wait, what with the chance of war breaking out relying on her. Kind of.
"Yeah, I'll just take my chances with Mister Aero then." Emily shrugged. At the very least, if her luck fell through with him, she could probably make the trek on foot.
"Yeah, I doubt it, Emi. You fell off the ladder while we were picking apples earlier."
"We don't speak of that moment--" Emi shushed, "--Whisper." She stood up, swinging her backpack over her shoulder. "Well, I guess I'll be heading out now. Thanks for letting me stay the night!"
Ambrosia waved her off. "You're darn right, sugarcube! Come 'round again if y'all ever want more apples, and tell mah grandchildren Ah say hi!"
...This was a train station? Emily read the faded sign in front of her. Ponyville Station, the thing read-- again, a bit odd of a name, but whatever. At least there was already a train at the station. It definitely was gonna take a bit of work, though, given how much of a rustbucket it was.
Wait-- Emily shaded her eyes, squinting at the train. Were those solar panels on its roof?
...If an eye-roll could be audible, she definitely heard one come from Starlight just then.
"Well, it's been at least a hundred or more years since I was last alive, sooooo... yes, those are probably solar panels on its roof."
Ouch. Thanks for the snark, Star.
Emily wandered closer to the train. The once brightly-colored side panels were now pitted with rust, and based on the amount of dust and other gunk caked on in some places, this thing had been sitting around for ages. But, it's what they had, so it'd have to do.
"Just be glad it isn't steam-powered. The damage doesn't look too bad-- wanna try taking it for a spin?"
A wide grin spread across the girl's face. She'd be stupid not to try it out. Stepping onboard the cab, she was immediately hit with oil-scented air. And... air freshener? She picked up the spray canister, raising a brow. Somebody's been in here.
Her eyes turned to the controls. Surprisingly, there weren't nearly as many dials and gauges and stuff as she'd imagined there'd be. Heck, for the most part, the control panel was surprisingly simple; just a brake-looking thingy, a throttle, and a little dashboard with some stuff being measured. She set her hand on the throttle, pulling the brake lever into its 'disengaged' range.
She took a deep breath, shifting the throttle forward.
Emily blinked, taking her hands off the controls. "So, uh... was something supposed to happen?"
"Beats me. You're the one that decided to try driving."
"And you're the one who suggested i--"
The train groaned beneath her. It was slow at first, making more grinding noises than movement. Dust rained down on her head as the entire vehicle shuddered. Another groan rose from underneath, a little higher-pitched this time. One final jolt set it into motion.
"Look outside! We're moving!"
Slowly, they began to pull away from the station, inching ever so slightly further forward with every second.
And then they stopped.
"Wha--" Emily pushed the throttle again, craning her neck for a better view outside. "--why'd it stop?"
"Ay!" a voice shouted from outside. "What're you doing with that railcar?"
Emily almost jumped at the sudden noise that followed. A metallic screech echoed through the air as a nearby garage opened up to reveal a lanky-looking stallion.
"You'd better have a good explanation for yourself, missy," the stallion grumbled, trotting up to the open cab door. "I've seen my fair share of ridiculousness, but trainjacking is on a whole new level. What gives?"
"Oh, we..." Emily trailed off, taking her hands off the controls. "We're kinda in a rush to get to Canterlot. Mrs. Ambrosia told us that we could try taking the train there, but... well, it's not exactly in top shape." She forced a smile. "But, we're trying!"
Her smile was met with a deadpan glare.
"Uh-huh. And what business do you have, heading up to Canterlot in such a hurry? It's rare enough for a human to be out and about, let alone one trying to get into the capital."
Great. How was she supposed to explain it? He'd never believe it! Not only that, but--
"My apologies. My name is Starlight Glimmer--" Starlight cut in, forcing Emily's consciousness aside. "--and I've recently been reincarnated into this human body. It is of utmost importance that I travel to the capital city of the Ashen Phoenix, lest war may arise between them and the Old Guard."
...The heck was that mumbo-jumbo?
"'Diplomatic' talk," Starlight slipped back into her mental presence, leaving the girl control of her body once more. "Don't ask. I hate it just as much as you probably do."
The stallion's glare softened, making way for confusion. "Starlight Glimmer? Last I heard of that name was from the history books! Tell me, what's this all-important task that you gotta do up in Canterlot? How can I be sure that you're really Starlight Glimmer?"
Emily looked around. It seemed safe enough around here to spill the beans.
Not now, Star.
She turned back to the stallion, stepping closer to him. "So, this is something that I probably shouldn't be telling anyone else, but there's this time travel scroll that's apparently been discovered over there, and sh--I've made it my duty to find and destroy it. The Old Guard wants to send a force over to take the scroll for themselves, and the Ashen want to use it to get rid of the Old Guard, so--"
"Emi!" Starlight scolded again, "How are we supposed to know that he'll be willing to help us? For all we know, he could be another Old Guard spy!"
The stallion cocked his head. "Continue? Is something wrong?"
Emily shook her head. "No, no. I'm just worried that you or someone else might try to get rid of me or something, given how what I'm trying to do would be damaging to both factions."
A defeated sigh rose from Starlight.
"I..." the stallion made a face, staring between Emily and the railcar's control panel. "I... here, come with me." He turned away, gesturing to follow.
"Coffee?" the stallion mumbled, emerging from a greasy-looking kitchen with a mug. "Or are you a tea kinda creature?"
Emily shrugged. "I'm fine with either. Though, why--"
He'd already disappeared into the kitchen again before she could finish, leaving his mug on the stout table in front of her. He wandered out again not long after with a second mug, setting it down beside the first.
"--I'm sorry, what were you saying earlier?" he yawned, lazily reaching for his mug. "Kinda walked out on you there, sorry 'bout that."
"Why did your attitude change so quickly? There's literally zero reason for either of us to trust each other!"
"Emi, please don't make things worse," Starlight groaned. "I'd rather have another pony on our side, please. We probably have an entire kingdom's worth of former Canterlot nobles out to get us by now."
Well, nothing about the whole exchange seemed to be signaling certain doom at the moment, so evidently something was working.
The stallion took a sip of his coffee. "Well, the feeling's mutual. But, I've always been a helpful sorta pony myself. If you need to get to Canterlot, I'll get you there. Just don't expect me to do any more than that."
Emily's eyes lit up. "Really? I... thanks!"
"Huh. So it worked out after all. Lucky."
"Hmf. Well, I suppose we should probably get along to introductions. The name's Aero Wrench--" he held out a hoof. "--what's yours?"
Oh, so this is the dude that Mrs. Ambrosia was talking about earlier. Nice.
"Emily Ashton," she took his hoof, shaking it. "So... when can we leave?"
Aero shrugged. "Now, I suppose. I'm assuming you're in a rush, so let's get going."
"But how are we gonna travel? The train doesn't work. You even saw me trying to drive it!"
"Psh, I was planning on fixing the darn thing anyway. The line was retired ages ago, and all the bigwigs ever did to replace it was to put another dot on the balloon routes. I bought the Ponyville line after I retired with the idea of bringing back some sane transportation, since nopony's ever listened to my petition to build an airport here. C'mon, I'm pretty sure it's just some corrosion to the wiring that's holding it back."
"Okay, try again!"
Emily pushed the throttle forward, but once again, only metallic screeching and the buzz of electricity arose in response. She pulled it back, stopping the noise.
"Aight, let's try wiping some more of this crud away-- see if any of it is shorting something out. I'm just glad that all the high-voltage and high-current stuff's still sealed off and clean. That'd be a nightmare to work with if there was as much gunk in there as there is here! Heck, it'd be even worse if something happened to the batteries!"
It was a few minutes before he gave the signal again.
"Alright, try backing it up again!"
Again, she pushed the throttle. The noise was absolutely still there, but surprisingly, the railcar moved. And not just inching along like it was the first time, but moving moving. He'd fixed it!
Emily pulled the brakes, sending the vehicle to a screeching stop. Just out the front windows, Aero slammed the hood shut, tossing aside some oily-looking wires. How he was able to work with electrical components with nothing more than hooves was beyond her. He didn't even have a horn or wings!
"We ready for a trip to Canterlot?" Aero grinned, hopping into the open cab. "I can take over from here if you'd like; I've conducted these sorta railcars before. You wanna head back into the passenger compartment?"
The stallion nodded, taking a position at the control panel. Emily pulled the door open to the dusty passenger area, picking a nice window seat right up front. Hopefully, the trip would at least be scenic, based on what she'd already seen of this world. The entire vehicle jolted, easing forward towards a turntable.
Emily blinked. Wait-- how were they supposed to operate the turntable when Aero's the only one around besides herself?
They halted on the turntable. She watched Aero exit the cab, scurrying into a nearby building. An even louder mechanical creak suddenly hit her ears as the train began to turn.
It took more than just a few minutes, and she'd already finished a tin of candied apples during that time, but eventually, the train had finally turned in the opposite direction. Aero hopped back into the cab, waving at Emily as he took his position at the controls.
Once again, the railcar jolted forward, steadily accelerating past the station.
"Whoa--" Aero blurted, pulling the brakes. Emily braced herself against the wall in front of her to avoid smashing her face against the paneling.
"What hooligan thought it was a good idea to leave a freight car in the middle of the track?" the stallion grumbled, exiting the cab again. His voice grew increasingly faint the further he walked. "Did they really think it'd be a good idea to dump abandoned cars on these tracks? Holy crap. These ponies-- I swear they're trying to cut Ponyville right off the map with the things they do!"
Emily opened a dusty window, sticking her head out. Sure enough, a boxcar sat in the way in front of them, backed up against some sort of makeshift barrier over the tracks.
"--Dangit, we'll probably have to push the darn thing with us if we wanna get past. Though, if the batteries give when we get to the more mountainous terrain, then we're absolutely fu--"
"I could probably levitate it out of the way, y'know," Starlight commented.
Aero knocked on the siding of the car. "Hey, you wanna at least take a look inside? There's some unmarked crates sitting around inside. Even found this weird book-- here, catch!"
Emily ducked. A small, hardcover book flew in through the open window, bouncing against the seat across from her and landing on the floor. She picked it up.
"How to Write a How to Write a Book Book, by Redundant Press Press?" Starlight's voice snorted, "What kind of book is that?"
A book on writing book-writing tutorials, apparently. Emily tossed the book aside, standing up. She'd might as well take a look around if there was gonna be stuff as interesting as that.
"Question is, how are we gonna open 'em," Aero mumbled, a hoof on one of the crates. "No crowbar, no saw-- I think we'll just have to brute-force these things."
"Hey Emi, it's been a little while since we've done some magic. Want me to take over?"
Before she could even respond, the girl felt all sensation leaving her body again. Starlight cleared her throat, pulling Splinter from her pocket. "Well," she smirked, stepping up beside Aero. "Being a unicorn in my past life definitely came with some benefits-- magic being one of them."
Emily watched Splinter begin to glow once more with Starlight's mana. A similarly-hued aura surrounded one of the crates, tearing its lid clean off.
"Oh heck, it's crystals," Aero whistled, peering inside. "Whew, got plenty of demand for those these days up in Canterlot, what with enchanted amulets and totems being used more and more each year. You could make a good deal of bits off of this." He picked up one of the crystals, holding it up to the stream of sunlight coming in from the doorway. "Daaaaang. High-grade quartz like this would absolutely be snatched up on the market."
...Okay. Apparently they're rich now. Thanks, random abandoned freight car that Aero decided to loot. Pretty heckin' convenient for you to be around.
"Well then," Aero sniffed, tossing the quartz back into the crate, "I suppose we could load these crates into the unused space behind you in the passenger car."
"Oh geez, he's actually following through with the looting."
"Shush, Emily," Starlight mumbled. "Let's just hope he doesn't get too greedy. We could probably make good use of some of those crystals ourselves."
Aero turned to Starlight. "Hey, you can do magic. Wanna help carry some?"
"Uhhh... sure!" Starlight lit Splinter again, grasping several crates in her aura and hopping out of the car. It'd be a little tough actually getting the crates in, but this was something she could manage.
"What, are you gonna crack open the roof like a can of sardines, or-- ohhhh, okay. You shrunk the crates."
"Yup," Starlight hummed, reversing the spell once the crates were inside. "It's useful, but I'm pretty sure it's deadly if used improperly."
Aero's muffled voice echoed from the boxcar. "Huh. Well, that's neat," he poked his head out the doorway. "Some of these crates came from the company I used to work for!"
Starlight cocked her head. "Oh? And what's that?"
"Whirlwind. They were founded years ago as a manufacturing powerhouse during the war. Given how I was employed by 'em not too long ago, I can definitely say that they're still alive and kickin'."
"Ohhhhh--" she nodded, taking another crate from the car. "That Whirlwind. Wasn't their main product line some sort of airplane?"
"Yup, the Whirlwind Whirlybird, if I recall. I don't know my history that well, but I remember seeing a replica of one up on display somewhere. Biiig machines, I'll tell ya that-- I'm pretty sure their wingspan is longer than both our railcar's and this boxcar's lengths combined!"
Starlight nodded again, chucking the crate into the back of the train and letting it expand. "Sure sounds interesting, Aero. Does Whirlwind still make planes today?"
"Can you two please hurry up?" Emily groaned, "Just get the crystals and knock the boxcar off the rails or something! Hearing about all this history is interesting and all, but we kinda have something to do."
"Come again?" Aero hopped out of the boxcar. "Didn't hear all that well there. Something about Whirlwind still making planes, right?"
"Ugh! Come o--"
"Yeah, yeah they do. These days it's mostly passenger jets and stuff, though."
"Star, if you don't hurry up, I'ma try forcing back control of myself!"
Starlight rolled her eyes at the girl's complaining. "Neat. Uh-- anyways, how many more crates are there? We're... kinda in a rush still."
Aero glanced back, craning his neck for a better view into the boxcar. "Ehhh some two, maybe three more crates? It's hard to tell from this angle, but I think you grabbed most of 'em already. How's space on our own train?"
"Still plenty," Starlight walked past, grabbing the last few crates. "What are you planning to do with these? Besides just selling them, I mean."
"Keep 'em. Though, I might sell a few just to get rid of the surplus, given... y'know, how much we've got. We could split the spoils if you'd like, to be honest. I can't imagine ever needing this many crystals in my lifetime."
Emily nodded, feeling control of her body beginning to seep back. Starlight's magic fizzled away with one final flick of the wrist, sending the final crates tumbling into the railcar. "Thanks! I don't think I can fit very many in my backpack, thou--"
"You don't have to bring all of your share with you!" Aero laughed. "I'll just store yours away somewhere, and if you ever need more, just swing by and grab some from storage."
Starlight breathed a sigh of relief.
"Let's get going now," the stallion continued, walking past. "Canterlot's still a long way from here. Still need to figure out how we're gonna get around the freight car, though. Any ideas?"
"Any--" Emily paused, a wide grin spreading across her face. "Hey Star, can you explode things?"
"Making things explode is quite dangerous, Emi. I know what you're thinking. No."
"Whyyyyyy? C'mon, it doesn't have to be that destructive!"
"Ask Aero about it," Starlight grumbled. "See what he thinks about it. Though, I guess I'd best figure out the optimal way of removing the freight car myself in the meantime. Let's see..."
Starlight's words quickly devolved into a low muttering of ideas. As for Aero....
"Hey, you wanna go to Canterlot or not?" he called from the cab, waving a hoof. "Come on! We'll just shunt this thing for a bit 'till we have an idea."
Emily nodded, breaking into a sprint and leaping onboard. She poked her head through her open window, glancing at the freight car. Maybe they could float it off the tracks first, and then explode it!
"Riiiight. What's with you and being attracted to destruction? First, it was bugging me about fire spells, then it was the lasers, and now this?"
"Explosions are fun. Case closed."
"HHHhhhhhhfine. I'll explode the freight car. You happy now?"
"I swear, Emi, you've got a thicker skull than even the worst of the nobles I've dealt with back in my day."
Emily grinned. "Hey, Aero--" she called, "How about we lift the freight car off the rails? I already moved a buncha heavy crates, so what's a few tons more of wood and steel?"
"Ar--" Aero sputtered, looking over his shoulder at the girl. "Are you sure about that? The weight difference between a crate of unpolished quartz crystals and the car that was carrying them is far more than just a few tons!"
"Sure I'm sure," Emily smirked. "Starlight Glimmer's got this handled."
"I... uh... okay then? Just be careful out there. It's a lot--"
"--heavier than I think it is? Yeah, I know," Emily brushed off the stallion's worries. "Again, S-I can handle it. Don't worry!"
"Emi, I'm worried for you."
Oh, be quiet, Star. This was a perfect opportunity for the mare to practice some high-level stuff, anyway! There's really nobody else around save for Aero, and if needed, he could probably report the explosion as some kind of railway accident!
"Whatever. I hope you pay me back with enough of those crystals to make me a new body. Don't mind me while I steal your body again."
If the previous times when Starlight took over felt like going numb all over, this time felt more like she was getting sucked out of her own body through a straw.
"'Kay, gimme an explosion size," Starlight deadpanned, "I'll have to move it further away if you want a big one."
"If you want a small boom then make a small boom, grumpyhead. I'll be quiet for you."
Small boom it is, then. Starlight took a deep breath, focusing on the presence of the freight car. She'd have to be wary about the location of Aero as well-- there'd always be the off-chance that he could get injured in the process. Slowly, her mana began to leech out of Splinter, snaking over the exterior surface of the looted car. The tendrils flattened out once they connected on the opposite end, fully enveloping the structure.
She closed her eyes. Now came the hard part: lifting it. With how long it'd been since she last put herself under such magical strain, she'd have to be extra careful about it. One slip-up and it'd be the end of everyone here.
The freight car groaned as the mare began to lift. Rusty wheels long-since fused to the tracks broke free for the first time in ages with an ear-splitting screech, with one wheel even breaking free of the rest of the vehicle entirely! But that wasn't something to be focused upon. Starlight concentrated harder, cutting her attention away from all sense apart from the temporary bond she had with the now-levitating car.
And now, the part Emi'd been waiting for; Starlight attached a secondary spell to the levitation, resulting in the surrounding aura of the freight car growing even brighter than before. Tentatively, she set it off to the side, away from the tracks. It'd be a complete disaster if the explosion was set off by any sudden movement. It'd probably be safer if she could find some sort of pit or valley to nestle it in... there.
The car lifted again, floating to the other side of the tracks and settling into a ditch. Starlight dispersed the levitation spell, letting the remaining aura of the secondary spell sink into the freight car's surface.
"That's an odd place to put an abandoned car," Aero shaded his eyes with a hoof. "Did you have a reason for--"
The explosion rocked the landscape, rattling Emily, Aero, and the train behind them to the core. If it weren't for Starlight's quick thinking and subsequent casting of a sound-dampening spell, they all probably would've gone deaf. Flaming pieces of steel lay scattered on the ground, with the airborne bits quickly being taken care of by a volley of lasers. A dark plume of smoke rose from what remained of the freight car at the center of the blast.
"Anyway," Starlight hopped back onboard, setting the wooden buffer atop the tracks on fire as she passed. "We should probably get going now. Aero?"
The ride was pretty quiet from that point on. Aero hadn't uttered a single word since the explosion, and combined with the already-quiet hum of the electric motors carrying the railcar forward, the near-silence of the trip made for a nice break from everything that'd happened earlier. Emily sat in her seat, peering out the window at the passing scenery. Patches of farmland dotted the landscape, intertwined with empty grassland and rolling hills that seemed to alternate every few minutes in visibility.
Emily popped another candied apple piece in her mouth. "Admit it, Star. You enjoyed that."
"I did not!"
"That's a funny way of saying you liked blowing stuff up. C'mon, I know you loved the feeling of letting loose on that thing. You even set the buffer on fire afterward!"
"...Fine. I... I do admit I went a little overboard with the explosion itself."
Emily leaned back in her seat, folding her arms with a smirk. "There we go. Now then, are you satisfied with what you did?"
A dominating class arose, seeking power by association.
A war was lost, even as another was won.
Emily let out a loud snore.
"Seriously, Emi, stop dreaming about pink fluffy unicorns. I felt the train stop."
"Fine then. I'll do it myself."
Emily's body shuddered for a moment as Starlight took control. She raised a hand, slapping herself across the face.
"Hmf," Starlight dropped the possession, sinking to the back of the girl's mind. "Took you long enough. Anyway, we're here now."
Emily nodded. "Right. So... I guess we should get going now, or--"
"What we should do it take some of our share of the crystals with us. Given how that shard of yours is a piece of the Tree of buckin' Harmony, I'd say it wouldn't hurt to bring some regular crystals just in case if anything goes wrong."
"Mm-hmm," Emily hummed. "And that means I'll have to make some room in my backpack." She rummaged in her bag, pulling out some of the now-empty tins of candied apples. "Do you think I can use these as projectiles?"
She rolled her eyes, setting the tins aside. "Fine then. What crystals should I bring with me? I can probably cram a big, fat one into my backpack and chip away at it or something."
"Well, what do I need to bring, then? I can't throw the cans, I can't cram the crystal, what's next, am I gonna have to ditch my entire backpack?"
"Nope. Just..." Starlight let out an audible groan. "Just get a couple of handfuls of smaller crystals. You can carry them in the tins or something."
Alright then. Emily wandered over to the crates stuffed into the back of the car and lifted one of the lids. These crystals would've made for some great jewelry back at home. Granted, they'd definitely need some polishing at the very least, but there were a few crystal nuts at school that would've paid a pretty good amount for a necklace.
"Hey Star," she pointed at one of the larger crystals. "What if we just shrink 'em down again? Heck, we could fit an entire crate in my backpack! That'd work, right?"
"Nope. Too draining on my mana to maintain a temporary spell like that. I'd rather not risk running my reserves dry when we need it the most."
Fine. Emily scooped a handful of crystals from the crate, wincing at the fact that she'd just crammed an entire hand into a box full of sharp gemstones.
"Y'know, the fact that you haven't broken any bones since we met amazes me."
Shut it, Star.
Emily rolled her eyes. At least the size of these crystals meant that she'd only gotten light scratches. Kinda like rubbing sandpaper on her hands.
"I--" Starlight let out a deep sigh. "You know what, asking about this sorta stuff is gonna drive me nuts. Continue."
Sheesh. That time was an accident during a woodworking class. No need to be so harsh. Either way, she probably should wear gloves next time around if she's going to handle the tiny crystals. For now, it'd probably be best to nab some of the slightly-bigger ones instead.
Emily used the edge of a candied apple tin to rummage through the crate. It wasn't long before she'd dug up a few decently-large crystals.
"There we go. You could probably fashion some amulets from those if we ever get the chance to. It'd probably help with your magic. Also, your stomach's grumbling."
Gee, thanks, Star. Never would've known. Emily dropped the crystals and the tin into her bag. She'd might as well take a look around to see what there was to eat besides candied apples.
"Oh, hey--" Aero opened the door. "--was gonna wake you up since we've been stopped for a while. Looks like you already got the memo, though. Anyway, are we gonna sell some of our loot, or..." he glanced at the branding on the crates. "Actually, now that I think of it, I should try calling up the company and reporting the cargo. They'd probably pay nicely for returning their missing stock."
"Oh, so now he's just gonna sell all of it," Starlight grumbled. "So much for splitting the spoils."
Someone knocked against the side of the car. Aero glanced out the window before trotting out.
"So," Emily swung her backpack over a shoulder. "Should we stuff a few more crystals into my backpack or nah? I'm fine with just making a run for it with what we have right now if you want."
"I'd... rather wait and see what Aero's up to. He left in quite a hurry there."
Fair enough. She could see Aero talking to another pony outside. Was... was he being arrested?
"No, looks like they're asking for paperwork. Probably to prove that he's licensed or something. See that card he's holding out?"
"Your eyes aren't the greatest, and things have probably changed quite a bit since I was last around, but it looks like a good ol' ID card."
"Yeah, I guess."
The pony Aero was talking with handed the card back with a nod.
Aero boarded the car again. "So apparently, the line's been out of service for long enough that they needed to see my papers to prove it even exists anymore!" he took a moment to recompose himself. "So anyway, the good news is that I can legally operate the line without raising any questions."
Emily raised a brow. "And the bad news?"
"Still gotta figure out where the heck all these crystals came from. I've got some bits on me, so let's go find ourselves a payph--"
"Uh... actually--" Emily cut in, "--could we maybe find a place to eat first? I've been snacking on Mrs. Ambrosia's candied apples the entire way here. I'm getting sick of all the sugar."
Aero glanced out the window, then back to Emily. "...Yeah, I guess it's a good time to get some lunch. C'mon, I'll treat ya. Call it thanks for... well, clearing the tracks and all."
Well that was easier than expected.
"Do you have anything a little less sweet, at least?"
The mare behind the counter shook her head. "Nope. You're quite the curious creature. Might I ask where you came fro--"
"AlrightthanksI'llbegoingnowbyeee!" Emily dragged Aero out of the store by the hooves. "Man. Do they always have to point out that I'm not a freakin' pony?"
"Y'know, you could always try looking for a grocery store instead. Raid their snack aisles or somethin--"
Not helping, Starlight.
She could feel the mental eye-roll.
"Here, how 'bout we check out a place for griffins?" Aero gestured at the bakery they'd just left. "We've only been looking in equine establishments so far, and I'm pretty sure you're an omnivore. You... are an omnivore, right? Not exactly familiar with your species. Human, wasn't it?"
"And you eat meat?"
"Yeah, okay then, we're going to the griffin place then. Some of my old co-workers say it's a pretty good place even if you're a pony like me. Granted, a bit of fish every now and then is a nice complement to a meal."
Emily gawked at the dishes being served around them. She'd been expecting something more along the lines of a tuna salad or something, not sushi!
"You like salmon?"
"Whu--oh, yeah," she nodded, sipping her water. "Eel too. Have... you ever had sushi before?"
Aero shook his head. "No, not really. Like I said, I only know this place from some co-workers. It isn't too expensive, so I figured I'd bring you here. Guessing you've had it before?"
He looked down at his menu, then back to Emily. "What would you recommend?"
Emily shrugged. "I just eat the sushi. Don't really care all too much what it is. Unless it's like, a house special or something. Those tend to be pretty good when they're available. If you don't want anything with meat, just ask for a cucumber roll."
A waiter arrived at the side of their table, notepad at the ready. "Welcome to The Griffins' Bounty! Do you have an order at the ready?"
"Yup! I'll just have a dragon roll, and Mister Aero here's gonna try--"
"I'll have the same," Aero cut in. He glanced at the girl.
The waiter nodded, writing the items down. "Anything else?"
"Nope! Thanks!" Emily watched the waiter wander away before lightly elbowing Aero. "Hey, I thought you were gonna go for a veggie option. What gives?"
"Y'know," Starlight's voice hummed. "We ponies do occasionally eat meat. It's not very common, mind you, but we do from time to time."
Oh, okay. Welp, you learn something new every day. Emily picked up her chopsticks.
She whirled around, her eyes darting between the assorted ponies, griffins, the occasional dragon, and other creatures populating the restaurant. Somehow, the ponies were still able to use chopsticks without anything even resembling fingers, and--
"Whoa now," Starlight interrupted. "Calm down, Emi. I've dealt with Twilight's version of your freakout before, and it isn't pretty. Calm down and forget about it. I promise it's for the best. Just focus on eating for now. We'll be leaving shortly anyway."
Right. Eat the sushi, forget about pony hoof physics, and get out before things get weird(er?). Good idea.
"So... how'd you like the sushi?"
Aero shrugged. "It was alright, I guess. Didn't expect there to be avocado in it, though. Anyway, let's find ourselves a payphone. I think I still remember the personal line of one of their folks over there."
Emily raised a brow. "You know one of their higher-ups?"
A smirk. "Being related to one of the most powerful families in the Ashen Phoenix certainly comes with its benefits."
Her eyes widened. "Wh--"
"Family business," Aero continued walking. "And that includes extended family."
"Hmph," Starlight's voice snorted. "Didn't see that coming, that's for sure. Nothing about Aero really screams Whirlwind from what I know about him."
Aero gasped, breaking into a trot. "Ah, here's a working one!"
He dropped a couple of coins into the slot and dialed in the number. Emily tried her best to avoid thinking about how typing with hooves worked.
"Hello? Ayyy, Tornado, long time no talk! Listen--" Aero lowered his voice to a whisper. "So, y'know how I bought up the old Ponyville line after I retired, right? ...Yeah, yeah, apparently somepony decided that it'd be a good idea to dump an entire freight car's worth of enchantment-grade quartz on the rails. Yes? Yeah, I've got it here in Canterlot if you wanna come down and take a look."
He hung up, letting out a heavy sigh.
"That was quick."
Aero nodded. "Yup. Tornado said that he'd come over and run an inspection on our stock to see if it was stolen or not. Either way, we'd be able to make some good money off our load."
"Soo... I can't keep any crystals for myself?"
"Oh, I'm sure you can. These are normally sold by weight anyway, so you don't need to worry."
Emily breathed a sigh of relief.
Aero cocked his head, eyeing the girl's backpack. "What are you planning on using them for, anyway? I can't imagine someone like you having much use for crystals... at least, not without..." he blinked, glancing back to her face. "Oh yeah, Starlight Glimmer. Nearly forgot that you're her reincarnation."
Aaaaand things just got awkward.
"Hey, Aero," a pegasus dropped down in front of the two. "You wanted me to run an inspection?"
"Oh geez, I didn't think you'd arrive that quickly, Tomato!" Aero took a step towards his old coworker. "What was that? Some five, six minutes after the call?"
Tornado made a face at his old nickname. "Well, yes. I was on break at the moment anyway, so I figured I'd stop by before heading back," his attention turned to Emily. "Who's the new creature?"
"You're kidding me."
"Nope!" Aero chirped. "Anyway, you wanna take a look at our cargo?"
Tornado kept his eyes on Emily. "...Yeah, okay."
"What, something up with my hair?" Emily cocked her head.
"No, no, it's just... I've never seen any creature quite like you. You say that you're Starlight Glimmer?"
Oh boy, here we go again. Emily rolled her eyes. Starlight had better be ready to explain things all over again.
"Hey Tomatohead, get over here! We've got crates full of quartz for ya to look at!"
"So, uh, yeah--" Aero gestured at the crates crammed into the back of the lone passenger car. "--there's a lot. Would you be able to tell whether or not it's stolen stock?"
Tornado yawned, glancing at the markings. "Eh, looks like a pretty recent shipment, if the date codes are any indication," he looked back to Aero. "Given how I remember seeing these exact date codes on a crate I opened a couple of months back, I'd say that this is just a duplicate shipment that somebody wanted to get rid of. I could buy it off ya if you don't want it. We can treat it as a reward payment for returning lost resources. Wouldn't hurt to add a bit to the company stockpile anyway."
Emily nearly spat out the candied apple she had in her mouth. This whole "sell the abandoned cargo" thing was gonna be that simple? Maybe it was time to start looking for more abandoned stuff to sell off. And maybe stop snacking on the caramel-coated cubes of dried apple.
"Welp, there goes our share of the crystals."
Oh, shush, Starry. They needed the money anyway.
"Deal," Aero shook Tornado's hoof. "We'll keep one crate, though-- Emily and I would like to keep some of the crystals for our own purposes."
Tornado raised a brow. "Emily?"
"Starlight!" Aero corrected himself. "Sorry, sorry-- I forgot to mention that Emily is the body that Starlight's been reincarnated into. At least, that's what she told me."
Emily snorted. So apparently, she's nothing but a vessel now.
Starlight chuckled in the back of her mind. "Given how scatterbrained you seem to be at times, I'd say that's just about right."
Wow. That came out of nowhere. Spicy.
"Case in point."
"--And here's your check, Aero," Tornado held out a slip of paper. "If this isn't gonna set you up for the rest of your retirement, then I don't know what will. That whole thing about Emily being Starlight even though Starlight died ages ago is still weird as heck, though. Just leave the train here, and I'll send some folks over to pick things up, alright?"
Aero nodded. "Yeah, okay."
"Anyway, I'll be leaving now. Gotta get back to work."
The pegasus left without another word.
"So... uh," Emily eyed the check Aero was holding. "Are we gonna split it, or--"
"Ha. Now imagine the days back when bits were solid-gold coinage."
Emily struggled to cram the wads of cash into her backpack. Couldn't she just open a bank account or something instead? Like, put it all on a card at the very least, instead of needing to lug around so much paper! Then again, given how she's just about as foreign as foreign could get, that probably was out of the question anyway.
"Are you sure you want to take all of your share right now? I could always hold it in my account and pay you what you need."
"Nope, I'm good!" Emily grunted, zipping her backpack shut. "Anyways, I guess we'll be seeing each other around! Thanks for helping out, Aero!"
"Mmyup, no probs. If you ever need more cash, you know where to find me. I've got plenty more than enough now."
She swung her bulging backpack over her shoulder. Now, all she had to do was find that pesky scroll.
"Inner-city, most likely," Starlight piped up. "Back when I was still around, that was where a lot of the well-funded facilities tended to be."
Regardless of form, the soul within still churns. Beyond the everlasting existence, there is a voice that still yearns. Regardless of skill, regardless of wit-- Even if it means clawing it all back, bit-by-bit-- The world still turns.
"You said left three times already!"
"No, I said left twice and right once. Now take a left here. I know these roads."
Suuuuure. Emily turned the corner, wandering down yet another eerily quiet street.
"I thought you said that the inner city was well-funded. This--" she gestured at the derelict buildings around them. "--looks abandoned."
A groan rose from Starlight.
"Hey, it's not my fault that this place is rotting away!"
"Just... keep going. We're still only at the edge of inner Canterlot. Let's just hope things are better deeper into this place."
Well whoop-de-doo, it ain't. Save for the fact that there were far less abandoned buildings around, there was practically zero difference between this place and the edge of the inner city. The... outer-inner city? Emily paused in thought. Ounner?
Fair enough. "Ounner" would be a weird word, anyway. Didn't save them from the fact that this place still looked like an outdoor thrift shop with all these street markets lining the road. Emily wandered a little closer, eyeing the ragtag booths selling everything from clothing to so-called "cure-all potions". She didn't dare question the booths in the dark alleys, though.
"Emi," Starlight's voice warned, "I'd recommend you best stay away from those shops. We have a mission, remember? Hey-- hey, what did I just say about staying away from--"
Emily placed a few bits on the counter of one of the better-constructed shops.
"Oh? You're a strange creature," the stallion behind the counter hummed, eyeing the paper bills on the table. "Well, lass--you are a lady, yes?"
"Righto," the stallion took the bits, setting the menu in front of the girl. "What's your order, lassie? It's all the same price."
Chill out, Star, it's only street food! What could go wrong? Emily read over the options on the menu. "A... daffodil sandwich?" she raised a brow. "What's that?"
"Ah, a classic!" the stallion laughed. "You sure ain't from 'round here, are you?"
He smiled, placing a wrapped sandwich in front of her. "Well, I hope you have a good one! Come back again if you want another!"
Emily nodded, unzipping her backpack and slipping the sandwich in--though, she did have to remove a few more empty tins. So much for using them as projectiles.
"Just... hurry up. Why'd you even buy a sandwich anyway if you aren't going to eat it?"
Yet. She bought it as a snack for later. At least that way, she wouldn't have to keep munching on candied apple pieces for the rest of the day. Though, on a second though, it being a daffodil sandwich might lead to some wei--
"Alright Emi, we get it. You wanted something to eat for later. Can we please keep going now?"
Geez. Fine, mom.
Another groan from Starlight. Perfect timing!
"Wait--you're taunting me, aren't you?"
Emily smirked, putting her backpack back on and setting off again.
Emily's steps slowed to a stop. "What was this place like back when you were around?"
"Well... uh," Starlight seemed to stumble for words. "I mean, it was definitely better-kept than it is now, that I know for sure. Especially so if you're talking the pre-war days."
Emily didn't respond; she had none. Her steps continued, lightly echoing through the quiet streets. She tried her best to ignore how a pony would operate something like the rusty bike leaning against a building. This place was really giving her the creeps. What happened to the street marts? Those at least made the place feel less... dead.
It took another ten or so minutes of wandering before something genuinely interesting came up again--guards.
Or more specifically, an entire squadron of guards, all positioned around a single building. Heck, the building itself looked to be quite a bit newer as well, with its brighter colors and lack of any visible sagging.
"Er... Emi?" Starlight whispered, "I think we've found the place we're looking for. Unless we stumbled upon some random government office, setting up guards around that place absolutely means that there's something important going on inside."
Emily took another step towards the building. "Well, then we should as--"
"No, bad idea!" Starlight's voice rung in her head as her legs locked up. "I don't have all that much experience with the Ashen myself, but I'd rather we don't risk getting ourselves thrown into a dungeon again. Let's watch what happens for now."
She stepped back, nodding. Even if she was saying the polar opposite of what she'd been pushing for all this time, Starlight did have a point.
"Yes, now let's find a place to camp out in the meantime. I don't know how long those guards will be standing there, but our best chance at getting in would be when they're either changing shifts or distracted. And--" Starlight gasped. "--we have a distraction."
"If I could grin, I would right now," Starlight continued. "Remember how King Blueblood sent out some of his ponies to retrieve the scroll for the Old Guard? If they haven't already been through here, we can absolutely count on them being the distraction that we need."
That definitely took a while.
Emily peeked out from the alley, watching the cloaked teams of ponies descend on the building. Surprisingly enough, the guards seemed to put up little fight, if any at all--one, in fact, even stepped aside for the intruders! She yelped as something brushed against her head.
"Oi--what was that?" one of the cloaked ponies peered into the alley. "I swear I bumped up against somethin' there. Heard it, too."
"Prolly a rat," another voice sneered. "Get over here, they took the bribe!"
Good job on the invisibility, Star.
The cloaked pony frowned, narrowing his eyes before leaving.
Emily peeked out again. One of the two teams were now gone, though the other stood nearby. Probably some backup team of some sort or something like that. It'd be best to avoid going out in the open until both the cloaked ponies and the guards were distracted.
Welp. More waiting it is, then. Sighing, Emily pulled herself back into the alley. It was getting late now. She'd might as well try that sandwich she'd bought earlier.
"Yes, good idea," Starlight's voice commented. "Some food would definitely help out at the moment. I'm not sure how much more mana I've got to throw into this cloaking spell, so would you mind moving a little deeper into the alley?"
A nod. Emily stared into the darkness ahead of her.
"Oh, come on, you aren't afraid of the dark now, are you?"
"Wha--no I'm not!" Emily burst. She started pacing deeper into the alley, tracing her fingers along the wall. "See? I'm not afraid!"
One of the cloaked ponies trotted into the alley. "Who goes there? Show yourself!"
Emily tensed, her steps slowing to a tiptoe. The pony pulled out a torch, sweeping it through the air as she ventured deeper into the darkness. "Star..." Emily mouthed. "This spell you've got had better hide my shadow."
"Yeahhhh... about that--"
Oh no. Her eyes widened at the shadow she cast in the approaching torchlight. She took another step back, crossing her fingers for the cloaked pony to not notice the movement. The slow clop of hooves on cobblestone echoed all around her.
"Ay, git back over here!"
A wave of relief passed over the girl. The light of the torch lingered for a couple more seconds before retreating from the alley. If it weren't for the sheer incompetence of these ponies, she would've been dead meat just a moment ago. Emily closed her eyes, leaning against the wall. That was too close.
Anyway, sandwich time. Emily dropped her backpack on the ground, unzipping and rummaging for the daffodil sandwich. Though, whether or not it'd taste good was still up in the air.
"Yeahhh... daffodil sandwiches are more of a pony cuisine than anything I'm familiar with for humans like you."
Wait, aren't daffodils poisonous to eat? Was that street food merchant trying to kill her?! Dangit, if only she had an internet connection to look it up. Now was absolutely not the time to accidentally poison herself and Star. And... hold on a moment, Starlight said it was a pony cuisine?
"Yup. We aren't like the horses you have back in your world, that's one thing for sure."
Emily frowned, picking the flowers out of the sandwich. Looks like dinner's going to be bread tonight.
"Emi, did you fall asleep again? I-- ugh."
Emily lifted her head, squinting in the darkness. "Wuh? N-no, I was just resting a bit, that's all."
"Suuure," Starlight deadpanned. "Anyway, I can hear hoofsteps passing by. I think they're leaving, but I can't tell for sure until you go and check."
Oh? Emily paced to the end of the alley, peering around the corner again. Luckily, this time there wasn't anybody there to bump into her. Sure enough, it looked like both teams of cloaked ponies were leaving now--empty-hooved. That... probably wasn't a good sign, to be honest.
A ball of flame burst from her hand.
"Ack--" Emily swung her hand, inadvertently launching the fireball out of the alleyway. "Star, what was that for?"
A flash of light and a loud bang lit up the nighttime atmosphere. A smug grin spread across the girl's face as it dawned on her.
"Yup. Distraction for the guards. You're still invisible, and I've also created a bubble of silence around you. Now git. I can only hold up so many concurrent spells for so long."
Emily watched the guards rushing from their posts to the now-burning wreck of an abandoned building across the street. As soon as the final mare left her post, she sprinted from the alley. Step after bounding step, the girl practically flew past the panicked guards. They'd have much bigger worries to deal with if she pulled this off. She paused at the unlocked doors of the compound.
"Forget about the fact that it's unlocked," Starlight's voice urged. "They've already shown their incompetency earlier. Take advantage of that and go before my spells give out."
Right. She slipped into the building, carefully shutting the door behind her. At least that was done and over with. Now that they were in, all she'd have to do is... Emily furrowed her brows, looking about the empty room. No, empty was an understatement--this place was absolutely stripped-bare.
"Emily, stairs to the left. We have to check anyway just in case, though I'm starting to get a bad feeling about this."
Emily nodded. A place as empty as this felt more than a little off. She walked to the stairs, being careful not to make too much noise as she ascended them. The next floor was equally empty, though it seemed that this floor might've been used more recently than the ground-floor; a few scattered papers lay collecting dust, strewn about as if they'd fallen from their original container.
"Huh. Blank," Emily commented, nudging one of the papers aside. "Star, you think these might've been planted here?"
"In all honesty, yes. This feels like a badly-staged prank."
"Oh come on, it's got to be here somewhere! We've come all this way already!" Emily squat down and brushed through more loose paper. "Help me out, Star! They can't all be blank! Just because those cloaked ponies from earlier didn't find anything doesn't mean there isn't anything!"
"There isn't. Not anymore."
Emily groaned. "Stop being so cryptic! There isn't what? What do you mean by 'not anymore'? Are you telling me that they just picked up their stuff and ran?"
It took a moment before Starlight's voice responded with a quiet "yes".
"Why else would the guards not care about the infiltration teams? Or the fact that the building's completely empty? They must've received a warning about the teams before we arrived. However, if my guess is correct and they've moved the research somewhere else, then I think I know where the scroll may have gone. It likely wouldn't be here in Canterlot anymore though, given how it'd be easy to redirect those infiltration teams to a new building."
"So we came here for nothing," Emily deadpanned. "Great." She sat down with a huff, leaning her back against one of the bare walls. "Where do we go now?"
"Well... based on what I remember of the Ashen Phoenix's historical alliances, I'd say that they chose the safer route of sending the scroll up north to the Crystal Empire. The only other option I can think of is that they've built another facility somewhere in secret."
Emily stood up again, pacing towards the stairs. "Well, let's go find that secret facility then! The sooner we can, the better, and then I can finally take some time to learn that portal spell and go back home!"
"Emi, no. We'd have a better chance going directly to Princess Cadance in the Crystal Empire than to keep snooping around here in Canterlot. Given its limited accessibility, it'd be much easier to spot any intruders up there. Not to mention the fact that if anything goes wrong, there'd be... well, less casualties than if the research were conducted here in Canterlot."
Fine, Star has a point. It'd probably be best to nuke someone else than to accidentally nuke yourself, however unethical that is.
"Nothing!" Emily whispered. "So... I'm guessing we should head out now, right?"
Emily let out a shallow sigh, kicking a pebble along the road.
"Hey, something on your mind?"
"Yeah. That stupid scroll's on my mind," the girl gave the pebble another kick. "Now I need to get ready for another long-distance travel session... er..." she frowned. "--thing. Whatever. Point is, I'm still stuck in this world. It's been fun and all to be able to learn magic and explore and stuff, but finding out that I'm not even close to being able to go home? I'm starting to wonder why I'm even going after the scroll in the first place. Shouldn't have even gone through the portal. Sorry for not listening back then, Star."
That definitely seemed to catch Starlight off-guard. "Er... apology accepted? I mean, I probably should've just taken over your body again or something to keep you from jumping through, so I think we've both got some blame on ourselves."
The pebble rolled into a storm drain. It took a couple of seconds for it to hit the bottom. Emily continued to stare at where it was moments ago.
"Here--" Starlight blurted, "--how about we take a look at the street markets again? I know you were a little interested in them earlier. Why don't we use some of our bits to buy a little something for ourselves in the meantime?"
Emily began walking again. It wasn't long before she came across another cluster of street markets, though the majority of the individual stands had since closed for the day. She wandered over to one of the few that hadn't yet fully closed.
"Ah, a customer this late?" the old mare at the stand squinted at Emily. "Quite the odd-looking one, you are. Do you see anything that interests you?" She kicked something behind the stand. A mechanical clicking began to emanate from the blocky base of the counter as shelves began to open themselves in front of her. "Take your time, it's not like I get many customers anyhow."
Emily picked up a nearly-empty bottle, holding it up to the moonlight.
"Ohh, that? That there's just a used potion flask. Don't think it's ever been washed, though."
"There's a lot of these bottles."
"Bulk-buy," the old mare snapped back. "Don't question the used goods." She slid a foggy crystal ball across the counter. "This one's a beaut."
And a good blunt-force bludgeoning tool. Emily rolled her eyes, pushing it back towards the mare. "No, I'm fine. Do you have anything wearable?"
"Hrmf, yes, yes I do--" the old mare stumbled backward a little, yelling at someone in the building behind her. She glanced back at Emily, showing off a warm smile. "--hold on just a moment, I'll bring out the stock."
Emily watched the mare disappear into the building. Though there were drapes covering the window, she could still see the old mare talking to somebody before picking up a box. She emerged from the doorway and set it on the counter.
"Go on, pick one!" she pressed, nudging the box towards the girl. "They're all the same low price of five bits."
"Hm... how about this one?" Emily picked out one of the less-tangled necklaces. The amulet dangling from the string glinted in the moonlight.
The old mare grinned. "Yes, yes, a fine choice! Five bits and it is yours."
A single five-bit bill landed on the counter.
"Thank you for your business!" the old mare pulled the bill closer. "Now scram. This mare needs her beauty sleep."
Emily winced at the slam of the door.
"Don't worry about it, Emi," Starlight hummed. "She's probably just cranky. She did comment on how late it was."
Speaking of which--why was Starlight quiet that entire time? She'd expected at least one or two remarks about that old hag of a shopkeeper, but apparently they never came.
"If I could shrug, I'd be doing that now. I just wanted you to cheer up a little, that's all. I know we've got a long trek ahead of us, and being down in the dumps most certainly isn't going to help."
Fair enough. Emily held the amulet necklace up to the moonlight. The large emerald embedded in it stood out against the dull metal making up the rest of the amulet. Starlight had said something about enchanting crystals to do things, right? This amulet would probably be useful for that sort of stuff.
"Emily, are you going to keep on staring at that thing until we reach the Crystal Empire?"
"Hm? No, I'm not!" Emily dropped the amulet, letting it fall against her chest on the necklace. "I just think it's shiny, that's all."
"Hey yourself. What's up?"
"Emi, that wasn't me."
That stopped her in her tracks. Slowly, she began to turn. There was a mare standing behind her.
"Saw you were admiring that necklace," the mare smirked, walking closer to the girl. "You enjoying the shiny, thief?"
"W-wait--I think you've got the wrong--"
The mare lit her horn, pinning Emily against the facade of one of the nearby buildings. "Got the wrong creature? Oh, I doubt it. I only see one creature 'round here with my amulet, and guess what?" her smile sent chills down the girl's spine. "It's you. Boys?"
Now would be a great time for some magic, Star!
A shrill whistle came from the mare. One-by-one, ponies began to emerge from the shadows.
"On second thought, hold off for a moment," the mare took one final step towards Emily. "Do you know how long that amulet's been missing?"
"Yes! You're such a smart girl..." the mare leaned in close enough for Emily to smell her breath. "...it'd be a shame if it were to be put on a necklace and worn by someone unworthy of such a luxury."
Starlight, what the heck are you doing?!
"Trying to get us out of this mess, what does it look like?" Starlight's voice grunted. "It'd be easier for me to take control if you relaxed a little, y'know."
Emily took a deep breath... and went limp. In an instant, she felt all sensation once again leave her body as Starlight took the reigns. Splinter flew from her pocket as Starlight overpowered the mare's own magic. She took the momentary shock of the mare to form a shield of air.
"No no, I've got this--" Starlight muttered under her breath. "--I've dealt with much tougher foes in the past."
"Amulet!" the mare screeched. One of the ponies that stood behind her pulled something from his saddlebag, tossing it forward.
The mare grit her teeth, snatching the second amulet from the air. A snarl escaped from her as she raised it above Starlight's shield.
"Run, dangit Star, run!"
It was like the shield wasn't even there. The amulet glowed with a crimson light the moment it struck the shield, cutting through almost effortlessly in a single swing. Short to say, that finally got Starlight to scramble. She narrowly dodged another swing of the amulet-knife thing and ran.
"What the heck was that all about, Star?"
"No time to talk," Starlight panted. "That madmare's got a weapon enchanted to slice through spells!"
"Try and throw her off maybe!" Emily's voice chirped. "Turn a corner or something. Squeeze 'em into a tight space and blast them with some fire!"
Starlight nodded, eyeing the next gap between buildings up ahead. Both of her hands burst into flame as she spewed fire at their pursuers. A momentary glance proved its effectiveness--the mare and her group of thugs were now taking the time to run around the flames. She darted into the alley, continuing to leave a trail of fire in her wake.
"Oh no you don't--" the mare stood heaving on the sidewalk in front of the alley, this time holding a different amulet. "--your flames can't do anything so long as I'm here." She took a step into the fire, completely unfazed by the scorching heat. "Now, about that necklace..."
Starlight's eyes widened as the mare once again pulled out the cutting amulet, holding it alongside the one she'd been using to resist the flames. She looked over her shoulder. Nothing but brick; there was nowhere to run.
"Your time is up," the mare smirked. "No more tricks. No more space. How many amulets do you think I can use at once? Two? Three?" the grin on her face grew more manic by the second. "Oh, I'd give up all my amulets just to get the one around your neck."
What was going on with this mare?!
"Tick-tock, your time's running out!" the mare chuckled.
There wasn't even room for Starlight to levitate anymore, and teleportation was absolutely out of the question with how unfamiliar this place was, not to mention the confined space. She cast another shield spell.
The mare sliced cleanly through it.
Another shield. This time, Starlight pulled some loose stones from the ground to use as secondary shields. Her aura began to flicker.
"No--" Emily's words became audible again as Starlight's possession spell failed. "Oh no."
"Aw. Out of magic already? Shame," the mare once again loomed over Emily. "And we were just getting starte--"
"Hey, what the--where'd you even pull that fro--"
Clang. Emily wound up to hit the mare again with the empty candy tin. It was a good thing she hadn't zipped her backpack all the way shut. She made sure to hold on tight to Splinter with her other hand, though.
"Enough!" the mare roared, snatching the tin from Emily's hands. "You could've simply given me that amulet. You could've walked out of this unscathed, but now? I don't think I'll be playing nice anymore."
Emily tightened her grip around Splinter. With Starlight down for the count, this was all she had left.
The mare raised both amulets above Emily, readying for a final, blunt-force blow.
She braced herself as the amulets began to come down.
Emily clenched her eyes shut, ready to feel her skin be pierced by the sharpened ends of the amulets.
Please. One shot. Just a little magic.
A burst of light sprung from the shard of crystal topping Splinter, wrapping itself first around the wand's wooden surface, and next snaking its way up the girl's arm. Emily tightened her grip, her entire body vibrating as the light enveloped her. Both amulets shattered on contact with her skin, letting loose an explosion that rocked the entire city.
"Even in this broken body, I won't let anything hold me back. I'm going."
"No--you'll die if you push yourself any further!"
"I know. I'm not doing this for myself."
Emily yawned, flopping onto her bed. Another boring day came and went, and she had almost nothing to show for it. School wasn't much trouble, save for falling asleep... again... but that was beside the point! She did her work, she even did some of her homework! So what if she fell asleep in class again? Everything that needed to be done was done!
She flipped over onto her stomach, pulling her phone out from under the pillow. With all the tinkering she seemed to always be doing, Lisa would probably have something interesting going on. Emily winced as the bright light of her phone's screen hit her eyes. It always seemed to take a couple of seconds before the light sensor thing in it figured out that it wasn't the freakin' middle of the day in her room. After letting her eyes (and the phone's brightness) adjust, the girl let out a little huff, scrolling through her messages.
Nope, nothing. Guess that whole reinvent the world thing she was doing in virtual reality wasn't getting anywhere. Or maybe she got herself stuck in it again. Her dad had to unplug the headset more than a couple times in the past, though how she got stuck in VR was still a mystery to her.
An amused smirk formed at the edge of Emily's lips. Lisa always seemed to be doing big things. It'd be nice if... well, if something big happened to herself--Emily Ashton--for once. Just something to break the monotony of the week. There's a whole world out there, and all that she'd ever done is go to school, come home, go to school, come home. Breaks and vacations were nice, yeah, and so were the times she hung out with friends... especially tagging along to Lisa's robotics competitions from time to time, but it was always so... temporary.
A sigh. Emily turned over again, letting her phone fall onto the bed again. Her eyes began to close.
Nothing ever seemed to happen to boring ol' Emily Ashton.
Sunlight. Did she oversleep again? Whatever. Perfect attendance awards were overrated anyway. She brought a hoof to her face, shading herself from the light.
Wait just a freakin' second.
Emily's eyes snapped open as she heaved. A... hoof? She had hooves. She sat up, immediately flopping onto her face instead.
But still--she was a pony! What the heck, universe? She was fine struttin' around town as a human, but suddenly, wham! Out of nowhere, she's suddenly a small horse!
She grunted, planting both forehooves on the ground in front of her and pushing. This did not feel right. None of this felt right! All her human parts were now pony parts!
Also, there was rubble absolutely everywhere. At least her backpack was fine over in the corner, though.
But still, she's a--
"Okay, we get it, Emi," Starlight's groggy voice deadpanned. "You turned yourself into a pony. Not sure how, but you did."
Emily rolled her eyes. She aligned her hind legs beneath her, pushing the same way she did with her forelegs, however shaky the stance was. She was standing! That's accomplishment number one in this new body!
"Well that's quite a reversal on the whole 'I just turned into a pony' thing. At least you're taking it well now."
Oh, be quiet, Star. Only reason why she's taking it 'well' is 'cause there isn't any time to waste. Get the scroll, learn portal magic stuff, and go home. That's what she needed to do.
"Emily, I think you might be forgetting about something."
...and figure out how to turn herself back into a human, too. Either way, she didn't have time for this. Freaking out can happen later.
"Seriously though. That was a serious change in attitude in only a matter of seconds. You sure you're alright?"
"Mm-hm. Never been better. Except for being a horse."
Emily set a shaky hoof forward. "See? I'm already walking! Relax, Star, I'm a fast lear--"
"Falling muzzle-first over absolutely nothing isn't going to help with that image. Just be glad that my own senses are still a little muted as well from being out of mana last night."
Well, this is awkward.
"Tell me about it. I haven't walked in a pony body in ages. Just be ready to catch your balance in around fifteen minutes or so. I can't keep the possession spell up forever, though having an actual horn again definitely helps."
Yeah, a horn with weird crystal shards sticking out of it. The darn thing still hurt after tripping earlier. Though, now that she'd had some time to think of it, why didn't anyone come after the craziness that went down last night? The small crater she'd woken up in and the alley full of rubble definitely meant that some destruction happened.
Out here in the day, everything seemed so... normal. Ponies and other creatures were just going about their day, and even that old shopkeeper mare that sold her the stolen amulet was open for business again! Emily made sure to glare extra hard at that old hag as she passed. Granted, it didn't exactly seem like there was any sort of law enforcement around either. Not like the outer city. Either that, or she just happened to be extremely unlucky last night. Also, that amulet on the necklace was a scam anyway. The thing broke like glass when she tripped. Pretty sure that's not how emeralds work.
"I'd lean more towards 'they're just slow as molasses' to be honest. There's some coming our way."
Starlight watched the police pass by. They were saying something about an explosion last night. Must've been pretty bad if they're talking about it now.
"Wha--" Starlight shook her head. Emily must've hit her head extra hard last night for them to be having thoughts like that.
"Hey, it was your head too, Star! If I hit my head, then that means that you hit your head as w--"
"HHhhhhokay," Starlight groaned under her breath. "Calm down now, Emi. You're making a scene. Everyone around us is looking at us weird now no thanks to you."
Starlight glared at the startled creatures around them. It took a moment, but soon enough everyone went back to minding their own business. "Anyway," she started walking again. "We need to find someplace to rest. You've already put enough strain on yourself as it is."
"Again, fine. Still think I'll be alright though, but you're the one piloting, so I guess I'm gonna have to roll with it."
The mare weaved through the sea of creatures filling the streets. So much had changed since the last time she'd been around... no. Starlight shook her head. Now wasn't the time to reminisce on the past. Emily's still hurt from... well, whatever it was that happened last night, and the girl wasn't exactly familiar with quadrupedal movement, either. It'd help if there was a mirror around, though. If she was lucky, Emi's new body could be something that resembles herself a little bit--Starlight frowned at the tufts on her fetlocks. So much for looking like Starlight Glimmer.
For now, their best bet would be on finding a place to stay awhile and recover. At the very least, now that she was in a pony body again (albeit one that looks like it had an unfortunate accident in a gem mine), there was less of a chance of raising any suspicion based on being human.
Maybe it was best to just return to Ponyville. Granny Ambrosia could take them in for a couple more nights, perhaps. Maybe even restock a little on things like food, however tired Emily may be of candied apple pieces. Starlight hastened her pace, breaking into a light trot. If she was fast enough, she could perhaps hitch a ride back on Aero's train, even!
Now then. So long as Aero was still in town, all she'd have to do is find and wait by the train. He'd understand.
"Okay now. Left forehoof forward. Easy now, steady--" Starlight's voice still sounded fuzzy in her head--"there we go. Now your right hind leg. Raise it up, just think of it as crawling on your hands and feet when you were still human. Unless you want to take a half-hour break every fifteen minutes of walking, you're gonna have to learn how to be a pony."
Emily fell over again in the shadow of Aero's train. She grunted, pulling herself up again and taking another shaky step forward. At least she could hop onboard and sit the rest of the way back. Just a few more steps... aaaand nope, guess that wasn't going to happen.
"Well... at least you're getting there," Emily felt the familiar sensation of Starlight's possession spell washing over her. "I'll take it from here. Aero's likely going to be back soon anyway, and I think it's best if I do the explaining this time."
Starlight nodded at Emi's remark, climbing aboard. To be honest, it surprised even her to see that Aero hadn't left yet, regardless of their earlier hopes. The stallion was likely off spending his cash in the city. She settled in on the seat she'd taken on the first trip, curling up against the wall. There wasn't much else she could do besides waiting, anyway.
"Hey. Wake up."
Emily yawned, cracking an eye. How long was she sleeping? A good... fifteen? Twenty minutes? Whatever. She sat up.
Aero loomed over her, glaring. "You'd better have a good explanation for this. I don't want to see folks like you sleepin' in my train just 'cause I leave it for a night at a hotel."
Hoo boy. Time to do this all over again.
"Hey Star, you're up," Emily whispered. "--Star? C'mon--" her body seized for a moment as the mare rushed a possession spell.
"Hello, Aero. This is Starlight Glimmer... again. As you can see, I am once again reincarnated. Apparently."
Aero raised a brow. Wow, way to bungle things, Starlight. What a performance. He'll totally believe us now.
"Ah, your backpack--" the stallion picked up the beat-up bag sitting on the floor--"If you're really who you say you are, then tell me what you were complaining about eating yesterday."
"Candied apples," Starlight groaned. "Listen--last night, Emily and I were jumped in the street markets for buying what turned out to be a stolen necklace from a merchant. The necklace itself is long gone now, but Emily did something with the wand she'd made for herself, and... well, you can clearly see what happened to us because of that."
"So anyway, would it be possible for us to return with you to Ponyville?"
Aero shrugged. "Yeah, sure. Don't exactly have much anything else to carry around, anyway. I thought you were looking for a scroll or somethin'?"
Starlight avoided his eyes.
"I see," he stepped away from the mare. "Well, I wish you luck in finding it soon! Faust knows the last thing we need is a second civil war."
His hoofsteps echoed lightly in the car as he left for the engine itself. Starlight sighed, dropping the possession spell as Emily closed her eyes. It was time for another long ride back.
Emily sat up, rubbing her eyes. She paused.
She had hands again.
"Wh--" the girl peered into the darkness all around her. "--where am I? What's going on?"
Still nothing. She stood up. "Starlight? You there?"
Emily squinted as a gust of air blew past her face. She stepped backward in surprise, shielding herself from the wind with her arms. Her eyes widened as she lowered them; a dimly-lit path now stretched on before her, its blue glow emanating from stout flames that lined each side.
"Starlight," she muttered under her breath. A careful step forward seemed to intensify the flames momentarily. "Now would be a good time to start talking, y'know. I know this is a dream."
Another step. The flames died down to their original size moments after. Another gust of wind blew overhead, rustling some leaves that hadn't been there before.
A bright light erupted in the sky. Emily shielded her eyes, squinting at the moon that'd just appeared.
"Okay, Star. You turned this place into a weird forest. Can I wake up now?"
She jumped at the sound of a breath in the distance. Not just a normal breath, but... Emily frowned, starting towards the noise. Something about it didn't seem right. The breath was strained--like it was struggling.
Bright, dim, bright, dim--the flames pulsed with every step she made. The breath echoed over her again, but it sounded quieter. Weaker.
Emily's steps hastened into a jog. Around her, dark trees began to spring from the ground, their dark silhouettes reaching into the way of the path. She ducked under some of the rapidly-growing branches, gritting her teeth as she began to sprint.
"Em...i...ly--" a disembodied voice came alongside the breath this time. "Emm...i..."
"I'm here!" Emily burst through the branches, landing in a clearing. Glowing leaves of blue drifted to the ground around her. "I'm..."
There was something else in the clearing. Some... crystal of sorts--the same color as the leaves at her feet. She narrowed her eyes. There was something inside the crystal. It was a little hard to see even as a silhouette in the crystal's glow, but there was definitely something there.
Or rather, someone.
Emily gasped. No doubt about it, there was somebody inside the crystal. They looked... scared, in a sense, with the way that they were curled up. She took a tentative step towards the crystal, ignoring the intensifying whispers and pleads echoing in her ears.
She took another step. "...Hello? Is... anybody there?"
No response. Though it was hard to see in the position they were in, it was clear that their eyes were closed. A gentle rise and fall in their chest was the only indication that they were still alive. A chill ran down her spine as she walked closer. This... this was her! But...
Emily's eyes turned to her own hands. How could she be both here, looking at the crystal, yet simultaneously trapped inside said crystal, in some sort of deep sleep?
"Honestly, I've got no idea," another voice--her voice--came from behind.
She whirled around to face herself. The third Emily smiled, slipping her hands in her pockets as she strolled up to the crystal.
'Who are you?" Emily demanded, ready to pull the spoon from her pocket. "I'm not afraid of you. Why are you pretending to be me?"
"Oh, I'm not pretending, just..." her clone draped an arm around her neck, leaning Emily against the crystal's surface. "...guiding. You've gone through quite a bit of change these past few days."
"No worries! No worries--sit down, girl, we've got some talkin' to do."
Emily sat down. "I still don't understand. Why are you me? Why am I here? Did something happe--"
"Geez, this must be how Starlight feels, being stuck in your head and all. First of all, you're safe. Nothing's happened to you. You're sleeping on the trip back to Ponytown, or whatever that place is called."
"Secondly--" the other Emily cut in. "I don't know what's going on, either. I doubt you'd get an answer out of ol' sleepyhead there in the crystal if that's what you're gonna ask next."
Emily shook her head.
"Hm. Fair enough," the third her shrugged. "It was a bit of a weird question anyway. As far as why I'm you, or why you're here, I don't really know either. I can say for certain though that you're very confused."
"Mm-hm. Man, you're actually confused, aren't you? I don't feel a trace of sass in the words coming out of your mouth."
Her clone paused to glance at a watch that'd materialized on her wrist. "Well, I've got to make things quick this time around. I don't have much time left."
"Oh, you hush, me. Listen--I know you aren't really yourself anymore, in the physical sense. You're unfamiliar with your new body. Scared, even, but you can't let that hold you back. No matter what body or form you take, you're still you. It might not be something that you're worried about, or even something that you've thought of yet, but do not let anything or anyone else define you. You define yourself. Your actions are your own. Move with intent behind every action. Think with intent behind every thought."
Emily raised a brow. "What about Starlight? She does stuff using my body sometimes."
"...Ignore Starlight's thoughts and actions. They don't count."
"Okay, so what was this whole conversation for, then? It's not like I was going through an identity crisis or anything before I took a nap."
"You'll find purpose in our talk when the time comes. Knowing who you are and what drives you will serve you well." Her clone turned away. "I must go now. It's time for you to wake up, Emi."
"Wait! You never said anything about what drives me! What are you doi--"
The girl's eyes widened as her duplicate flashed a smirk over her shoulder.
"You'll see in time."
Emily groaned, bringing her hooves to her face. It felt weird not having fingers again. At least the train had stopped. That other Emily in the dream was right about it being time to wake up.
"That was weird."
She sat up. "Yeah, no kidding, Star. Where were you that whole time?"
"What do you mean, 'where were you'? I was there that whole time you were sleeping! Did something happen?"
"Weird dream," Emily shrugged. "I'm... guessing you didn't see it, then. You weren't in it, and you didn't answer when I called for you. Just--" she slipped her seat and made some shaky steps toward the door. "--don't worry about it. I didn't really understand it either."
The mare stopped in front of the door. Earlier, when Starlight was in control, she'd just grabbed the doorknob with some magic to open the thing. Maybe... Emily stepped back, aiming her new horn at the doorknob. Splinter was probably in a million pieces somewhere after that whole explosion-transformation craziness happened, but now, she had something better to use for magic!
"Star, how do I cast spells?"
Starlight's mental facehoof echoed in her ears. "You have to focus on the intention and the method. You're trying to turn a doorknob, so first, focus on the doorknob itself. You got it?"
"'Kay," Starlight continued, "so I want you to think about how a doorknob turns.
"Take a look at the doorknob and what shape it is. What part of it would be best to grab onto? How does it turn? Do you need to apply a lot of force or only a little, and where? It's all a matter of fine control when it comes to spellcasting. I know it sounds pretty complicated, but do it enough and stuff like this will eventually become second-nature to you."
Another nod. Emily narrowed her eyes. The doorknob was one of those lever-style knobs, so it'd be best to grab close to the middle. That way, nothing would slip from her grasp, but at the same time she wouldn't need to apply so much force. Based on the positioning, she'd have to turn it clockwise to open the door. She shut her eyes and concentrated.
She tried again.
"Here," Starlight grumbled, forcing Emily from control, "I'll handle it for now. Just... think about what I told you for now. Maybe you're just not ready yet."
Starlight lit her horn and opened the door like it was nothing. So much for learning basic magic.
"Took you long enough." Aero sipped his coffee. "You didn't drink the coffee I made you last time you were here, just so you know. By the way, did you realize that the clothes you had as a human are still on you?"
Starlight rolled her eyes. "Well, it's a bit late now to remind me, sherlock. Anyway--" she sat down across from him--"We'll be staying here in Ponyville for another day or two while we restock on supplies and plan out what to do next. We have a reasonable suspicion that the scroll was taken to the Crystal Empire, so our next journey's likely going to be a long one."
"...And your point is?" the stallion peered over the rim of his mug.
"The point is that we need a ride up north. I have no idea if the lines connecting Canterlot to the Crystal Empire are still operational," Starlight blinked, "...though now that I think of it, we probably should've checked while we were still in Canterlot. Either way, I don't think it'd be a good idea to risk a chance with Canterlot's public transport after so many years have passed."
Aero set his mug on the table. "So you want me to give you a ride up north."
"Or--" Emily mentally blurted--"we could buy a plane with our bits, and then Aero could fly us over the Crystal Empire! Star, you could just levitate yourself down or something, so that we wouldn't even need a parachute!"
Starlight let out a sigh.
"Something bothering you?" Aero cocked his head.
She kept her head down. "Emily's asking if you know how to fly a Whirlybird."
Welp. There went that idea.
"Well," Starlight continued, "I guess that leaves no option but to hitch a ride with you. So..."
"Eh, sure. You've done plenty enough for me anyway, given... y'know, the crystals and all... the ones that we--" he picked up his mug again and took a sip--"I'll stop talking now."
Starlight shook her head. "No no, continue. What do you know about the Crystal Empire? Are they still alleyed with the Ashen?"
"Yup. Princess Flurry Heart's the last known-living alicorn around, and she takes security seriously up there in the permafrost. You said you think the scroll you're trying to find is up north?"
"Yeah. Wait--last known livi--"
"Well, there's your reason." Aero set down his mug again. "Flurry Heart's been a security freak for longer than I can remember. I've never met her face-to-face, but the messages I've had to pass along from time to time while I was still with the Whirlwind company definitely pushed the image. As far as your surprise... I think I remember learning ages ago in history that Cadance was among those counted missing-in-action like you, Starlight."
"No remains, no sign of a struggle where she was last seen. Well," Aero sighed, "I suppose I could forge some papers for you or something. I know that my former standing in the company should allow at the very least me to enter, so if forging your papers doesn't work I could always try smuggling you in with some cargo instea--"
"Sorry, sorry, but my mana stores are beginning to run a little low now," Starlight's voice wavered as she interrupted. "You'll have to make do with Emily for a while."
Slowly but surely, Emily could feel control over her body returning. Slight insult aside, Star handled that whole conversation pretty well!
Oh. Right. Switching off isn't exactly the prettiest process to look at.
"Alright, Aero, you can stop freaking out now. I promise you, getting possessed and un-possessed by Starlight doesn't hurt one bit. Haven't you seen this happen before already? Or is it just that you're paying close attention to me while it's happening for once? Actually, come to think of it, being possessed in the first place might not be as freaky as--"
Starlight's facehoof interrupted her rambling.
"Ahem. So anyway," Emily continued, "did you have anything else to say?"
Aero shook his head.
The mare hopped off the couch. "Great! I'll be heading out then. Gotta restock and stuff. See ya! Thanks for agreeing to take me into the Crystal Empire!" she backed into the wall, letting out a surprised squeak before flipping around, fiddling with the doorknob.
Shut it, Star.
"Eh? Who're you?" Ambrosia Cider squinted at Emily.
The mare sighed. Time to do this all over again... again. "I'm Emily Ashton," she began. "Y'know, the girl who helped you pick some apples not too long ago? You gave me more tins of candied apples than I'd imagined I'd ever eat."
Ambrosia snorted. "Ya don't look like the Emily Ah know. When'dya get so short?"
Emily rolled her eyes. "Long story. Got turned into a pony by some weird magic in an alley, came back to this place to rest up a little before leaving for the Crystal Empire with Mister Aero. Do you want me to pull out one of the cans you gave me or something to prove I'm the real deal?"
"Nah. Ah believe you. Didn't hear a single lie in whatcha said anyway. Come on in, Emily."
Well that was certainly a relief to hear. At the very least, it wasn't nearly as awkward as the trip from Aero's train station to here. Starlight really went out of her way to keep her walking.
"You're welcome for that, y'know."
"Yeah, yeah, thanks again, Star. Now rest up," Emily muttered, stumbling in behind Ambrosia. "So... uh, do I need to pick apples for you again or something? I don't really have hands anymore at the moment."
The old mare shook her head. "Not tonight. You just rest yourself up for the night. You eat anythin' yet?"
"Well, let's get that fixed! Ah've got an old recipe Ah've been wantin' to try anyhow."
"Apple dumpling pie?"
Emily snorted. Star knew what went down. Short to say, that was something she didn't think she would ever eat until now. At least it didn't taste nearly as weird as it sounded.
She sat up in bed.
"Something up, Emi?"
Emily glanced at her hooves, then at the scrunched-up blanket at the foot of the bed.
"Oh. You don't know how to use your hooves still, let alone magic. Here, I--"
"No," the mare shook her head and hopped out of bed, wavering on her hooves. "Star, walk me through a spell. Yes, it'll take a while to get used to this new body, but I've already had some experience with magic. I can do this."
"Are you sure? It's pretty late now. Wouldn't it be better to try this in the mor--"
Emily stamped her hooves. "I said no. Please--I want to be able to do at least something by myself still. I can't use these hooves nearly as well as I was able to use my hands. At least let me be able to hold things again. Don't leave me trapped in this body. Please."
An audible sigh rose from Starlight in the back of her mind. "Alright then. What would you like to learn first?"
"Telekinesis. Or levitation. Whichever is closer to having hands. I hate how I had to be spoon-fed by Mrs. Ambrosia during dinner while your mana was still recharging. Man. I took my body for granted all this time, didn't I?"
"Yeah, you kinda did. Anyway, I'd recommend that you step in front of that mirror in the corner. Being able to watch yourself helps a lot in increasing your awareness."
Emily shuffled to the mirror, her eyes locked on the floor. "Okay... what comes next?" She raised her head, staring at her reflection and frowning. "I don't want a repeat of what you said back on the train, either. That didn't work."
"Drive--" Starlight repeated--"Casting a spell isn't as simple as pointing something at another thing and willing for stuff to happen. You have to drive the spell, so to say. What motivates you? What's your inner drive?"
Emily rolled her eyes. "You could've told me that on the train, y'know."
"Well excuse me for forgetting. Anyway, what you need to do is not only focus on what you want to have happen, but also why you want it to happen. Mana stores are the energy that spellcraft runs on, but you still need something to direct that energy." Starlight paused. "Think of it as a fire. Mana is the fuel, but you need a spark to get the flame going. Find your spark and you'll light your fire."
Emily nodded, stumbling for one of the pillows on the bed. She took a deep breath before biting down on the corner, dragging it back to the mirror. Starlight's words rung through her head. The pillow was on the floor. She wants it to hover in the air, just below her chin. The best way to lift it would be at its center, where the majority of its weight is located.
Breathe in, breathe out. Why did she want this pillow to float? She racked her mind for an answer. 'Because she wants it to' wouldn't work, that's for sure. She shut her eyes. If only she hadn't jumped through that portal in the first place. She'd still be at...
That was what she wanted. That--she opened her eyes again--was why she wanted to make this freakin' pillow fly. To learn magic was the only way she'd be able to get home. Starlight couldn't help even if she wanted to. Going home was all on her--Emily.
"Levitate, dangit," Emily muttered under her breath, tilting her horn a little closer to the pillow. "Let me find my way home."
She felt something wash over her. A dim light sparkled from her crystal-studded horn, steadily growing in intensity. A similar aura of light enveloped the pillow in front of her. "I--" she gasped. "I'm doing it! Star, look, I'm doin--"
The light flickered out, leaving the pillow to sit once again in the dark.
"No no, you did well, Emily! There's a first time for everything, and for you, this is how you start."
Emily glanced at the pillow, then to her reflection in the mirror. "You sure?"
"I'm sure. C'mon now, let's get some rest. We've got a long trip ahead of us."
And so, the frigid beasts were banished once and for all,
Never to return again.
But in their place,
Came the flames of sun.
"C'mon, you gotta buck those trees harder! Even mah frail ol' legs can hit 'em harder than you!"
Emily rolled her eyes, winding up to kick again. What a way to start the morning.
"Harder! Again!" Ambrosia barked. This side of her was far scarier than the pleasant granny that took her in a couple of nights back. To be honest, the old mare reminded her of a gym teacher.
An apple dropped from the branches. Emily grinned, picking it up in her mouth. "I gothf onge! Looth, I gig ith!"
"Good, good!" Granny Ambrosia clapped her hooves. "Now, do it again. One apple ain't gonna be enough for a hearty breakfast, y'know."
"Only five more to go!" Granny Ambrosia picked up a filled basket. "Ah'ma take these inside and get started. You just keep on pickin'."
"Here. Star--" Emily took a step back--"What if I try picking the apples using my telekinesis?"
Starlight piped up almost immediately after she said that. "Emi, are you sure that's a good idea? You could only barely lift a pillow last night. What makes you think you can--"
The mare grunted, already tugging on a nearby apple with her flickering aura.
The flame was already burning, right? Emily focused harder. The spark was definitely there already, given how she was already using the spell and all... she just needed more fuel.
"Star, gimme your mana. I'm gonna make these apples rain down."
"Emily, I can't just give you mana!"
Fine then. She turned her focus to the branch. There were... three--no, four apples on it. She sucked in a breath, reaching out for the three other apples. She could feel the shape of each one. This one was plump and round. The next one was a little more elongated, as were the last two. Wherever it was that she drew her mana from, she could feel its energy flowing through her body now. The faint aura surrounding her misshapen horn strengthened, growing in brightness as wispy tendrils reached out to the other apples.
She could feel them now. It was like... like she was physically grabbing them with her hands...back when she still had them, that is. Either way--the apples were in her grasp. She began tugging downward. Gravity already lent some assistance to the action, so at the very least it was a little easier.
But wait. Pulling them down wouldn't be enough, would it? She'd probably break the stems off before ever actually picking these things.
Think. The stems are--
"Grab the branch, pull the apple up, and twist."
The first apple began to lift as she dropped her hold on the others, shifting instead to the branch itself. A good jerk of a twist would probably do well here.
Thump. The apple fell from her grasp almost immediately after it came off the branch. Emily grinned, turning her focus to the next apple.
And the next.
"That... took an unnecessarily long time for you to pick five apples. You could've just asked, y'know."
Emily shook her head. This was an opportunity to practice her magic. And there was one more apple anyway.
Now then. All she had to do now was pick them up and bring them in. She reached out with her aura again, enveloping one of the apples that dropped. It already felt far easier to manipulate than the pillow last night, so carrying a few more at once wouldn't be that hard, right?
Emily dropped the apple.
"Emi, I think you might be taking this a little too fast. You literally just started using magic last night. Shouldn't you take a brea--"
"Fine then. Be that way."
The door slammed open. "Emily!" Ambrosia shouted, "What's takin' ya so long? Ah've been waiting minutes for you to bring those last apples in!"
Emily looked at the apple she'd dropped, then the four others on the ground. "Yeah, fine. Starlight, you can take these."
So, breakfast was just as apple-filled as she'd expected. Not like there was anything else to expect anyway.
Emily pulled another textbook from her backpack, sliding it under the bed. For all the drill-seargent-ness Ambrosia showed off this morning, at least she let her keep her stuff here. Things like books and what was left of her tattered clothing were definitely gonna stay behind.
She slid her phone out next, lifting it with her magic. This was light enough to pick up without trouble at least. Not that she'd be able to use it anyway. She set it down on top of the second textbook.
"Would you like a new saddlebag, dear?" Granny Ambrosia shuffled up behind her with a musty sack dangling from her mouth. "My son left some of his belongings behind when he moved to the city. Ah'm sure he'd understand if Ah gave them to you."
The old mare set the surprisingly-lightweight bags on Emily's back. "You're headin' up to the Crystal Empire, right? You'll need a warm cloak, too. Ah'll getcha one."
Before Emily could respond, Granny Ambrosia had already left again. She looked back to her backpack. To be honest, there really wasn't much that she should bring with her. The notepad and pencils might be useful, as would the cash... she flipped her backpack over, shaking out the remainder of its contents. The second shard from the Tree of Harmony could be useful, too, though what use it could have was lost on her. Chances are she'd probably need it for some high-level magical shenanigans or something. Speaking of magic--what were Starlight's thoughts on stuff to bring?
"Food would be a wise idea. Both of us still need to recharge our mana, after all."
Right. Emily picked up the smashed granola bars that'd been sitting for who-knows-how-long at the bottom of the backpack, setting them alongside the notepad and crystal. She did the same with the remaining tins of candied apples. Even if she did grow tired of the stuff several cans ago, food was still food. Though, something felt... missing.
"My spoon--" the mare gasped, grabbing her old pants by a leg. She checked the pockets. "Where'd that spoon go?"
"'Dunno. Probably got obliterated in the blast alongside that stick you found."
Fair enough. It was a nice spoon, though.
"Here's the cloak!" Granny Ambrosia chirped, setting another bundle of fabric down beside Emily. "Is there anything else that you'd like to bring? Maybe some more food, or a canteen for drinks?"
"Nah, I think I'm good. Thanks, though!"
The old mare smiled, turning around and leaving again.
"Now then--" Emily craned her neck in a feeble attempt to reach the flap of the saddlebags--"how the heck do I get stuff into this thing?"
After several unsuccessful attempts at nipping the flap, Emily rolled her eyes and shook the bags off her back. "Hey Star, how 'bout we head out and practice my walking for a bit? I don't think we're gonna be able to leave by today like I hoped we would."
"Sure. We should have lunch first, though."
...Wasn't breakfast only half an hour ago?
Emily pushed herself off the ground.
"'Kay, that was good! You're improving very quickly for someone who hasn't been in their body for even a week yet. Let's get some practice in on your magic now."
"Heh. Thanks," she sat down. "Though, since I'm on all fours, I'm pretty sure it's more a matter of figuring out how to walk than to stand. The hard part's already over. Anyway, I'm guessing we're gonna do more levitation and stuff?"
"Yup. Now then. You see that pebble next to the tree there?"
"I want you to pick it up and place it in front of yourself without ever touching it."
Another nod. Emily took a deep breath, mentally reaching for the stone. It wasn't so much a pebble as it was a decently-sized cobblestone. Hopefully, that'd make it easier to pick up. Her horn burst to life with pulsing mana. Just like with the apples, grabbing onto the stone felt hardly any different from picking something up with her hands. The only difference was the effort it took to do it.
Short to say, not only was the rock heavier than the apples, but her strength in comparison to her human body was far lower in the first place.
Her hold on the cobblestone fizzled out. "Star," Emily groaned, "how do you control your mana? I hardly feel anything when I'm casting spells. It's just this... this wave that washes over me. I don't know where it comes from. I just know that it's there."
"Well, I like to think of it as a sort of pressure inside you, for starters. You can tell when you're running out when your spells begin to weaken. As far as casting spells go, it's sort of like opening a valve in a way. Yes, we do have dedicated organs that generate and hold thaumic energy, but there's really no real way to control it. Controlling mana usage is up to the user. When casting a spell, you normally make available your entire mana reserve at the beginning, but place a limit on how much of it is actually going to be used."
"So you're saying I'm just weak."
She chuckled as Starlight's voice fell into a panic. "No no--I'm not saying you're weak at all! I'm saying that you're wasting energy on other things. Or holding back. But with how hard you've been trying, you might be overthinking the spell. Start with the absolute basics: look at your target, and imagine where it needs to go. If your mana pool is active, then that should result in the spell being cast. You get what I'm saying?"
"I... guess?" Emily turned her focus back to the stone.
The cobblestone was there, under the tree. She wanted it to go up, through the air, and down again in front of her.
Now then. The rock was pretty flat as far as rocks go, being more a rounded slab than anything, really. If she were to pick it up with her hands, she'd grab it with her thumb on the to--
"No, no!" Starlight burst, "You're overthinking it again! You're treating magic like a physical extension of your body. You need to stop thinking about what you would've done, and think more about what you are doing."
"So live in the now."
"If that's what you're gonna call it, then I'm fine by that."
Alright. Live in the now. Don't think about how she would've done it before. Got it. Emily craned her neck for a better view of the stone. Sure enough, it was still sitting there, still as ever. Once again, it needed to come up, over and down. Ignore her painful lack of hands, and focus on the magic. Her aura didn't necessarily act like a hand, more... sort of something like oobleck. A non-Newtonian fluid. Whatever it's called. Either way--from the past few times she'd used it, it tended to wrap around an object, whether it be the whole thing or just a part of it.
And in this case, it would be best to envelop the entire rock. She watched her aura spread over the surface of the cobblestone. Now, she had to lift it. Surprisingly enough, she could now feel the weight of the thing. Didn't Starlight say that magic isn't a physical extension?
Emily banished the thought. What mattered now was that in feeling its weight, she now knew exactly where the rock was. She sucked in a breath, holding it as the rock began to lift. Without the ground supporting it from underneath, it felt noticeably heavier than before, though it wasn't unmanageable just yet.
She let out a sigh. It actually worked! Now... how did this need to happen? The cobblestone was still there, hovering just above the ground. Did she just have to will it to move now? She took in the surrounding environment. From where it hovered, the rock could just take a direct path to its destination.
Now. She clenched her eyes shut, gritting her teeth as she mentally began to move the rock. She could feel its weight approaching her now; a looming mass of stone, occasionally brushing against the grass underneath.
A wide grin formed on the mare's face as she felt something cool and hard brush past her hoof. Emily's eyes shot open.
"I did it! Look Star, I levitated the rock! It was a heckuvalot harder than the pillow last night no thanks to how far away it was, but I did it!"
"Hm. That's great, Emi. You did well."
Emily cut the spell and let the stone drop to her side. "Something wrong, Star?"
"No, it's just... I'm genuinely surprised at how quickly you changed after you got... well, transformed. Before then, half the time it felt like you were always doing everything in your power to get on my nerves, but now?" Emily could feel a shrug coming from the mare living in her head. "I honestly don't know. I'm just surprised, that's all."
"I mean, realizing I'd be stuck in this place for good in this body without your help probably made a difference."
"Yeah, I guess so. C'mon now, it's getting late already. Want me to teach you a light spell on the way back?"
Already? Emily peered at the sky. Sure enough, she could see the glowing yellow and orange hues of sunset forming on the horizon.
"How'd your walkin' practice go?" Ambrosia set some mashed potatoes on the table. "Ah suppose it went well since you're here in one piece! You were in such a rush after finishing lunch that Ah thought you'd slam yourself on the door before Ah could open it for ya!"
Emily banished that memory from her head again. "Yup! I think I'm starting to get the hang of it now! I also practiced some magic out by the edge of the orchard, too. Watch--" she lit her horn, letting the off-white light emanating from the tip brighten a little bit more. "I learned how to create light on the way back! I only burned myself once while doing it, too!"
"Yeah," Starlight grumbled, "and it took me taking control and leading you to the hose to put you out. You're welcome for that, by the way. Just be glad that light fires don't actually burn anything."
...There was absolutely a joke about leading a horse to water in that. She could feel it.
The sound of Starlight's facehoof came as expected.
"Hm. Ah suppose a spell like that'd be useful in a pinch. Guessing you're leavin' tomorrow?"
Emily nodded, lifting her spoon with her magic. She set it down again, grinning. Up, down, up, down, up, do--
"Stop playin' with your food!" Ambrosia scolded. "Ah know you just learnt yourself some magics today, but now ain't the time to practice it."
Fine then. Emily stuck the spoon in her mouth, crossing her forelegs. Arms? Hooves? She didn't know anymore. She swallowed her food, scooping up another spoonful of potatoes. It was probably best to go straight to bed after dinner, with what she'd planned for tomorrow.
Well, today's the day, dreamless sleep be darned. Emily stretched on her bed. At least she didn't have to wake up confused again.
"Hey Star, you ready to travel north?"
The mare nodded. "Good, 'cause we're leaving today." she lit her horn, tugging on her saddlebags by their strap. "Actually... uh, Starlight?"
The color of the aura enveloping the strap shifted color as Starlight hoisted the bags up.
"Thanks. Still need to get better at picking things up without intense concentration."
"Eh, you'll get around to it. It's only been a couple days anyway."
Emily nodded. She'd get better with some more practice. For now though, she had a mission to accomplish. Taking a final, cursory look at her old belongings, she left the room.
Try not to fall down the stairs, wave goodbye to Ambrosia, head out the door, and go straight to Aero's place. Considering how she only tripped twice the entire journey, she was making great progress on her walking!
Now then. Emily raised a hoof to knock on the door. Aero did say that he'd be willing to take her, right? It was still pretty early. Maybe he was still asleep?
"Well, why don't you knock and find out then? Standing there isn't going to tell you anything."
Yeah. Knocking. She stared at her hoof. She didn't exactly have knuckles anymore, so... was she just supposed to punch the door or something? Was that how ponies knocked?
Aero opened the door before she could make up her mind. "Oh, hey. You're here."
"Yup. You ready to go to the Crystal Empire?"
"Yeah, I guess. Come in. I've already forged some papers for you."
...Wait, he can do that? Emily pushed the thought aside. There were more important matters.
"So--" Aero held up a manila folder... somehow. "I've got papers in here and an ID card saying that you're my niece. If anyone asks, tell 'em that I'm giving you a tour of Whirlwind Company's Crystal Empire research center. I may be retired, but I've got good enough connections to back up our little fib. I've got Tornado in on the loop, so if we need him to call in, then he'll call in."
"So... that means we can leave now?"
"Yeah, I guess." Aero wandered into the kitchen. "Lemme just finish my coffee first. Drowsy driving ain't a joke."
Emily sat her chin on the windowsill. From here on for however more hours, it was just going to be waiting. No exciting spell practice, no exploring, nothing. Just waiting. She could feel her heart pounding in her chest. Was she really going to be ready for this? What if the scroll wasn't in the Crystal Empire either? What happens if she's caught and sent back to Ponyville?
"Woah. Calm down there, Emi, it's just a train ride. We'll deal with those things when we get to them. There's nothing more we can do to prepare anyway."
She felt the train lurch forward. Slowly, the scenery outside began to move as the train eased out of the station. She raised her head at the sound of Aero's voice on the intercom.
"Alrighty. Thank you for riding the Aero Express. Our current destination, per the request of our one and only passenger, is Canterlot City. We will make no stops or slowdowns. If you feel hungry along the way, feel free to visit the snack stand at the front of the car. Again, thank you for riding!"
So that happened, apparently. Also, Canterlot? Weren't they heading for--
"We're probably transferring to a different line there. Chances are the Ponyville line doesn't go all the way to the Crystal Empire."
"Oh." Emily set her chin on the windowsill again. "Okay."
So this is what it's come to, hasn't it? She--Emily Ashton, the queen of sass and screwups--was stuck here in Equestria. Jumped into a portal, got herself wrapped up in international conflicts, lost her freakin' body, of all things... and now, here she was, on a train to a third nation, on a quest to sabotage ongoing research to prevent the use of a who-knows-how-old scroll written by the actual voice in her head as a superweapon.
Then again, this was what she asked for, wasn't it? She wanted something exciting to happen. Or at least, something different. Somewhere out there, somehow, the universe must've heard. It's not like Starlight could've careened into her head completely by chance, after all. She could've very well gotten stuck in a bug, of all things, and that'd be the end of her for good.
Still--she had a point. Why her? It could've been just about anyone or anything else, and yet she was the one that discovered Starlight. She was the one that made the decision to hop into the portal in that bathroom stall. She--
"Alright, Emi, I think you're getting a little ahead of yourself. The last thing we need while we look for that scroll is an existential crisis."
"Yeah, I guess..." the mare watched a tree pass by the window. "Honestly, I don't know what to say anymore. It's like something just clicked in me. I just... I don't know how to say it... realized, I guess--that all of this is happening. That it's all real. Deep down, I'm still not sure if I can believe it." She sighed. "Well, I'm going to try and sleep off these thoughts for now. It's not like there's anything else to do while we're heading to Canterlot, anyway."
This dream again.
She could feel it.
Emily sat up, flexing her fingers. It felt good to have them again.
"Hey, you're finally awake." Her duplicate sat down beside her. "What's new?"
"Learned some magic. Hey, I've got a question--" Emily gestured at the monolithic crystal before them. "What do you know about that? You said you didn't know why there's another me stuck in there, but what about the thing itself? And what about that voice from last ti--"
"Again, I don't know. That's for you to find out."
The girl sighed. "Of course it is. So anyway, why am I here again? Couldn't you have showed up or something last time I slept?"
Her clone shrugged.
"Then what's the point of me even having these weird dreams? Yeah, they're interesting and all, but what do they mean?"
Another shrug. Another sigh.
"Well... I guess you wouldn't know, either. And neither would the me stuck in the crystal. It's still my dream, so all of you... me?-- are still only projections of myself."
Man. Lucid dreaming was weird. Emily stood up, brushing off her shorts. "So, I'm guessing you've got something to tell me then. Is that why I'm in this dream again?"
The other her shook her head. "No, actually. I wasn't expecting you, either."
"But--" the other Emily added, "I think you might want to see this--" she stood up and walked a little closer to the giant crystal--"look a little closer. Doesn't it look like she's moved since the last time you were here?"
Emily narrowed her eyes. It wasn't all that noticeable, but something had definitely shifted. As a whole, the Emily within the crystal was still curled up, her closed eyes barely visible behind her arms. But one of her hands... had it always been facing that direction? She placed a hand on the crystal's surface.
"Emm... i... llly--" that same disembodied voice wheezed again when she pulled her hand away. The ground shuddered for a moment before ceasing again.
"Well then. I guess I shouldn't be disturbing her sleep agai--"
An ear-splitting crackle burst through the air.
"Ack--what was that?" Emily glanced again at the crystal. "Oh."
"You... you cracked it."
Before she could respond, the world plunged into darkness.
"Ugh. I need to stop waking up like this." Emily sat up, rubbing an eye. Yup, she had hooves again. And from the looks of it, they weren't quite there yet either. "Star... did you catch any of that this time around?"
"Nope. Like you said, I wasn't in it, so I couldn't see it."
Fair enough. Emily turned her attention back to the window. The rolling hills and pastures of Ponyville had long-since given way to the patches of suburb lining the edges of Canterlot City. It'd only be a few more minutes before they arrived, most likely.
Soon enough, just as she'd predicted, the train rolled into the station in Canterlot. She watched the ponies outside the window file past, going about their business as they boarded and got off of other trains.
"Emily," Aero poked his head in. "You ready to transfer lines? I've got your documentation ready to present, but it'll be useless if you're not there yourself, y'know."
"Y-yeah, I'm coming."
The station was crowded. The mare trailed Aero by some distance, dodging and weaving through the crowds of various creatures.
The train to the Crystal Empire? Not so much. There were... what, five... six others besides her and Aero? At least it wouldn't be as stuffy as the station while they traveled.
"Welcome to the Crystal line," the conductor droned over the intercom. "Our current destination is the Crystal Empire. Travel time at the moment is estimated to take about half an hour at top speeds, so long as the weather permits."
Half an hour. That wasn't all that bad. Though, sooner or later the view outside was likely going to change from the sprawling cityscape visible now to a frozen wasteland. Or something. All the talk about the Crystal Empire being "up north" and it being isolated enough to be considered a safe place for a freakin' superweapons research center certainly pushed the image as well. Either way, watching the view didn't sounds nearly as interesting as it did when she'd been traveling from Ponyville to Canterlot.
She turned her attention instead to the other passengers. What were they on the train for? Aero obviously was here to smuggle her into the Crystal Empire, for one. There was also a stranger-looking creature that looked almost like a pony, save for the fact that in place of hair or fur, they were covered from head to hoof in some sort of smooth, shiny--
"It's chitin, Emily. You're looking at a changeling. They're a race of shapeshifters that were once enemies with Equestria."
"Guessing they're not enemies anymore then," Emily muttered, "right?"
"Correct. The changelings eventually made peace with Equestria, and in the midst of war, aligned themselves with the Ashen like many other nations did."
Interesting. So... Emily cocked her head, her eyes still set on the changeling reading a newspaper. Maybe he too--assuming they're a he, based on looks--was coming to the Crystal Empire with a mission. Being a shapeshifter, he'd probably be a great choice for an actor... or even an assassin.
Was he an assassin?
"No, Emi, he probably isn't an assassin. Looks to me that he's here for some corporate business, based on how he's dressed."
Fine then. Emily turned to another passenger--this one was a unicorn, like herself. She was beginning to nod off, occasionally hitting her head on the top of the seat. Probably some poor employee being sent to negotiate a deal or something.
Would've been nice to feel sleepy herself at the moment, to be honest. There really wasn't much to see on this ride. Three more creatures sat together near the back, playing some sort of card game from the look of it. Two were clearly ponies, while the third looked to be... what were they? A griffin? Didn't look much like the griffins she'd Based on how casually they were interacting, they were most likely coming as a grou--
"Emi, since when were you into analyzing others?"
"Since today," Emily rolled her eyes. "Besides, what else is there to do? I don't exactly have my phone on me anymore, and even if I did, I don't have the fingers to use it!"
"...Also, the third one's a hippogriff."
The mare sighed, glancing at the last creature on the train: a pegasus. They looked far older than just about everyone else onboard, for one. She was pretty sure they were a dude, too. Ponies could be differentiated by the shape of their muzzle, right?
Right. He, like the changeling, was minding his own business. No fuss, no noise like the trio at the back; just another passenger reading a book.
He flipped a page.
"Okay, Emily, you don't need to narrate them now. We get it, you're bored."
Well that was a good chunk of her life well-wasted. At least it was only half an hour like the conductor said. Emily stepped onto the station platform, following closely behind Aero.
"Hold it right there."
Aero immediately froze at the sound of the voice.
"Aero. That's your name, right? From the Whirlwind company. I recognize you from company photos," a slender mare with both wings and a horn stepped up beside Emily. "What are you doing up here, and who's other mare with you?"
"I--Flurry Heart, I didn't expect--"
"Papers. I decided to personally see to it that none of the travelers are of any risk to the Empire's security."
"R-right. Papers." Aero fumbled through the folder in his saddlebag. "I've got them right here."
Flurry Heart gave the documents he held a cursory glance. Emily felt a chill run up her spine as the alicorn turned her attention to her. "And what identification do you have, niece of Aero Wrench?"
"An ID card," Aero blurted before Emily could respond. "If you need more information on either of us, it's all in my saddlebag. Trust me--we're not here to cause any trouble."
"If she's your niece, then why don't see a resemblance?"
Aero grit his teeth. "Listen. Like I said, we're not here to cause any trouble. Emi here just happens to not look like me. We're here to tour the Crystal Empire branch of the Whirlwind company. If you want more evidence, call up Tornado from Whirlwind Canterlot and he'll tell you the same thing. Capiche?"
The alicorn took one final look at Emily before shoving the papers back in Aero's direction. "Very well then. I'll confirm your claims with Tornado. You may rest here at the station in the meantime. I still have the other passengers to greet."
Man. If that was supposed to be a greeting, then being on that mare's bad side must be an absolute nightmare.
"Well," Starlight finally piped up. "She's certainly changed quite a bit from the last time I saw her, that's for sure. I've known that mare since she was a foal."
Emily grinned. "You were her babysitter, weren't you?"
"Usually not. Anyway, I really think you should stop talking out loud to me in public. There's a reason why I haven't been talking very much lately."
Fair enough. She was getting weird looks again from Aero, anyway. Queue the sound of Star's facehoof.
Emily shifted in her seat. They'd been sitting here for... what, half an hour now, from the looks of it? When was Flurry Heart gonna get back to them? She turned to Aero. He yawned.
"So... uh, I'm still a little confused about why you decided to help me in the first place. Besides the whole thing about getting a ton of money completely by chance."
Aero hiccuped, glancing back at her. "Well, first of all, it's the right thing to do, preventing war and all. Secondly, what else can I do with my retirement? I'd might as well make the most of all this time anyway. Even if you didn't have Starlight Glimmer's... what--essence? Soul?" he shook his head. "Nevermind. Point is, this is the most excitement I've had in ages. No more nine to five jobs--just spelunking through the world, solving problems, and completing quests! Well, not really completing any quests myself, but you know the deal. I just tag along and help when I can, really. What about you?"
"Mainly just want to go home, honestly. Once I figure out how to get back into my old body and open a portal, I'm out of here."
Starlight snorted. "Way to kill the mood, Emi."
Fine then. Time to talk some more.
"But, I guess... I could talk about myself a little more." She looked to Aero, who gave a silent nod to continue. "Alright. So. Proper introduction time. You already know my name, so we'll just skip over that. I'm in high school, or at least I was in high school before I hopped through a portal. I like sleep and food, and to be honest, I think Star's a little disappointed in me as I speak. There's a pretty big gap between me and her as far as our personalities go."
Wow. Brick wall much? The conversation was getting awkward again anyway, so killing it was probably for the best. She spotted Flurry Heart approaching in the corner of her eye.
"Alright, you two," the alicorn stopped in front of Emily and Aero. "As you suggested, I called up Tornado and requested your company records, which he kindly provided. You are cleared for entry into the Crystal Empire. However, due to ongoing security concerns unrelated to either of you, your movement within the Empire will be restricted to the industrial district and its surrounding area, which should be more than enough to suit your purposes. Your movements will be monitored for the safety of the public. Additionally, I will be checking in daily to ensure both your health and to reduce suspicion. I have arranged for your transport to a company-owned hotel near Whirlwind CE in the meantime. Enjoy your stay!"
...Wow. Talk about throwing a wrench in the plan. Was Flurry Heart always this big of a security freak?
"Nope. Again, she's changed. We all have."
A car pulled up beside them. Flurry Heart gave a nod to the driver and turned away.
"So what are we gonna do now?" Emily flopped face-first onto the bedsheets. "We're not allowed to go outside of the hotel or the company building place thing, we're stuck miles from home, and for all we know, that scroll might as well have been moved all the way back to Canterlot!"
Aero shrugged. "I've got nothing."
"Y'know, Emi, I do exist still. I knew Flurry heart when she was a foal. Just let me talk to her, and we'll see what happens."
But that was when she was a foal! Didn't Starlight say that she'd changed since then?
"Yes, but hear me out--I think Flurry Heart's like this because she's lost just about everyone she's loved. You heard about what happened to Cadance, right? That was her mother. And her father, Shining Armor, likely died of old age long before then, too." Starlight paused. "To be honest, her situation now parallels what went down with Twilight Sparkle quite well. She's only a push away from abandoning it all if you ask me."
Oh. Again with Twilight Sparkle. Wait, wasn't Starlight caught off-guard by Cadance's disappearance not too long ago?
"I'll admit, that was a lapse of my memory. I do remember that Cadance vanished shortly before my own demise. As far as Twilight Sparkle goes, do you have a question about her? I know I probably rushed a bit on the few times I talked about this place's history."
Emily shook her head. Being lectured on national history could wait for later. She turned over, staring at the ceiling.
"But seriously, are you good on letting me take over for a few minutes if Flurry Heart decides to check in on us?"
Aero glanced over his shoulder. "Hm?"
"Nothing, Aero. Just talking to Star. She wants to talk to Flurry Heart, I think."
"Alright. I'll just be... well," the stallion looked around. "Standing here, I guess."
A knock came at the door. Emily sat up.
"Hello, I am here to check in with the two of you," Flurry Heart's muffled voice began, "Do you find your accommodations comfortable?"
"Yes. Actually--" Aero opened the door. "My... uh, niece wants to speak to you for a moment."
The alicorn raised a brow. Starlight had better be ready for this.
Emily closed her eyes, letting the same old feeling of Starlight's possession spell wash over her. The mare took a deep breath, hopping off the bed.
"Hel--huh?" Flurry Heart cocked her head. "What is the meaning of this, Aero? I have no time for such casual conversation!" she began to turn away.
"Wait!" Starlight lit her horn, slamming the door shut before the Princess could leave. "I... have something to confess."
That caught her attention. Flurry Heart whirled around, her own horn lit. "Do not stop me from carrying out my duties!" she seethed. "You're walking on thin ice as it is."
Emily could feel her heart racing as Starlight readied a response. "I am Starlight Glimmer, former Arch-Magus of Princess Twilight Sparkle."
Flurry Heart rolled her eyes, turning again for the door. "Alright, Aero, tell your niece that she needs to go see a doctor or something. I'm--"
"Remember Whammy?" Starlight smirked. "Twilight told me all about the fiasco you caused when you lost it in Ponyville Hospital."
"Or what about Sunburst, your old Crystaller? What about Luster Dawn? You remember her, right? Before she... well, disappeared, like your mother did."
The alicorn looked over her shoulder.
Starlight stepped closer. "I still remember the war like it was yesterday, Flurry. 'Cause for me, it practically was yesterday. I was one of the casualties in that fateful clash in Canterlot, but I awoke one day in this body; a body that wasn't my own. If you wish for more evidence to back my claims, I can cast my old self-levitation spell."
Flurry Heart narrowed her eyes. "Yes. Please."
"Very well then. Observe--" Starlight lit her horn, letting her aura envelop herself as she lifted off the floor. She hovered for a couple of seconds before drifting to the Princess. "--Is this convincing enough?"
"You make a convincing argument, yes, but for what reason do you attempt to sway me into thinking that you are indeed Starlight Glimmer?"
"I'm on a mission to prevent another war."
Flurry Heart snorted, bringing a hoof to her chin. She glanced at Aero. "May I step outside for a moment?"
Aero opened the door again, watching the Princess exit the room. Flurry Heart's aura grabbed hold of the doorknob, shutting the door behind her.
Emily stared at the door. "She sure is taking a while, isn't she, Aero?"
"You think she believes me? Er... believes Starlight. You know I mean."
It'd be nice to have her phone right around now. Too bad she's a small horse.
The doorknob began to turn. Emily's attention snapped back to the door and the mare who was about to emerge from it. She took a deep breath.
"I have considered the evidence you provided, as well as your supposed 'mission'," Flurry Heart stepped into the room. "You may consider me interested. Please, if you have more to tell of your history, Starlight, then feel free to continue."
Emily gave a nod in return. As if on queue, the usual loss of sensation came and went as Starlight took control.
"Is... is your niece okay, Aero?"
...Oh yeah. That.
"Yes, I'm okay, no need to worry!" Starlight blurted before Aero could answer. She cleared her throat. "Anyway. Permission to speak on casual terms?"
"Thanks. So. I guess I'd might as well start with the war. Your mom, Cadance, was the former foalsitter of Princess Twilight Sparkle. It was partly because of this that she wanted to join the Ashen way back when they were just a little resistance group." Starlight blinked, glancing at Aero, then back to Flurry Heart. "Of course, it's anything but 'little' now. Just kinda shows how successful they've been since then. But anyway, I feel like I'm getting a little off-topic.
"So, continuing on. During the war, I traveled back and forth as a double-agent for the Ashen. My position as what was supposed to be a stand-in replacement for Princess Twilight when she stepped down let me stick around in what was more or less Daybreaker's advisor-slash-elite-squadron group thing. I was able to help keep the Ashen mostly out of sight when the beamings and disappearances began, and we'd even roped in Princess Luna by that point."
Flurry Heart leaned in, cocking her head. "What about my mother? Do you know what happened to her?"
Starlight cringed a little. "Ehhhhh, not really, sorry. All I know is that she was discovered to be missing from our ranks not long before I died on the battlefield. I... have to admit, I'd actually forgotten that she had vanished at all for some time."
Man, that still felt weird to hear coming from Starlight. The dying on the battlefield part. Ignore the thoughts, Star, just keep talking.
"O-oh..." Flurry Heart bowed her head. "Thank you for telling me. It brings me great hope that Cadance may still be out there. I will accept the notion that you are, in fact, the reincarnation of Starlight Glimmer."
Starlight sighed, letting a thin smile return to her face. "Thanks, Flurry. To be honest, I'd been going off the assumption that I'd never meet any of my old friends again when I returned to Equestria. By the way, I want to ask you something."
"Why are you talking like that still? I know I've got my own formal speak, but don't you get tired of using it all the time?"
The alicorn shook her head. "This is how I normally talk, Starlight. If I spoke any other way in the past, then it has surely been lost to time."
"Oh, okay. So, uh, anyway, the real reason why we came here is that we think your research teams here recently received a powerful scroll from Canterlot."
"Where did you hear that?"
"Ehhhh just a hunch, to be honest... heh, guessing by your reaction, I must've hit the nail right on the head."
Flurry Heart narrowed her eyes.
"No, really--" Starlight continued, "--it was more a wild guess than anything else. We originally traveled to Canterlot to find and destroy the scroll, but then it turned out tha--"
"Find and... destroy." The alicorn stepped closer. Her voice dropped to a sharp whisper. "You wish to destroy the only advantage that we and the Ashen have over the Old Guard? Why would you even propose such an idea, Starlight?"
"Okay, first off, I have a good reason. Secondly, do you even know what that scroll does? The thing's a time travel spell written by Starswirl the Bearded that I modified, for Celestia's sake! I know exactly what that scroll can and will do." She paused for breath. "Flurry, you do not know what you're dealing with. Twilight herself told me long ago that the actions made in the past don't simply stay in the past--they snowball, growing bigger and bigger in effect until the present. One wrong move--no, any move--could jeopardize the existence of everything we know and love. It is too dangerou--"
"Yes, I am aware of the inherent dangers of time travel. What you do not understand, however, is that we do not necessarily need to use the scroll that you speak of. So long as we have it under our control and away from the clutches of the Old Guard, we will have the upper hoof in any conflict. It is our insurance policy against future conflict, if you wish to think of it in such a way."
Man. We're really roping mutually-assured-destruction into this world too, huh?
Starlight mentally shushed her counterpart. Now wasn't the time for commentary. "No," she shook her head. "This is absolutely not the way to do it. Imagine what could happen if the Old Guard were to somehow steal the scroll for themselves? Why do you think it was transferred from Canterlot to the Crystal Empire in the first place? It's bad enough that time travel is wildly unpredictable, but just the fact that the scroll even exists still puts the world at risk of destruction. Again, you have to trust me. I... made that mistake myself."
The mare hung her head, nodding. "...Before you were born, I'd been dead-set on tearing apart Twilight and her friends, to show..." she groaned, bringing a hoof to her head. "I-it's just so stupid, looking back on it. I'm not sure if Twilight or Cadance ever told you, or if you ever even heard about it before, but... well, I wanted to prove that cutie marks were useless, or something along the lines of that. I'd even founded a settlement in the middle of nowhere, where everypony had the same artificial cutie mark. I guess I just let that power get to my head back then... but still, the point is, I made the mistake of weaponizing time travel with that very same scroll. Please, please don't make that same mistake now."
Starlight held her breath.
"--I believe I understand. Though I am still somewhat hesitant to fully trust in your word of you being the reincarnation of Starlight Glimmer, I would rather trust the word of the mare who experienced the spell's effects firsthoof over that of the Ashen leadership that constantly pressures my kingdom. I will look into your biographies sometime, Starlight. Knowledge of your life events may prove to be valuable."
"You really think that? Does that mean you're willing to help out?"
The alicorn nodded. "Though it pains me to destroy one of our few advantages over the Old Guard, I do believe you have presented valid points against its use. I will inform my researchers to halt their efforts."
"And abou--" Starlight's words ground to a halt. She began to teeter on her hooves.
"Not a good time, Star!" Emily grumbled under her breath as Starlight's possession spell fully dissipated. She recomposed herself. Following the conversation instead of spacing out while Starlight spoke was definitely a good move there. "Er... as I was saying, what about the scroll itself?"
"You will assist me in its complete destruction. I detest the thought that you may be an imposter, so I shall be monitoring your every move as you work. I will not hesitate to take action if you act in any way suspicious."
Sheesh. She's a control freak, too?
If there was a single word that she could use to describe the research facility, it would be 'cold'. Not just physically cold, either--this place was giving her the creeps. It seemed like every other second, there was a shadow waiting just around the corner to spring on her. If anything, this place felt more like some secret lair or hideout than a government-sanctioned bunker. Maybe she should've brought Aero along. Put some more body heat in this place.
"First off, that's weird to say. Secondly, this place feels the way it feels 'cause it is one," Starlight droned. "Or at least, was one back when I was still around. Flurry Heart's done some renovating, that's for sure."
They descended another flight of stairs, passing by floors upon floors of dimly-lit rooms.
"Princess, could I ask you something?"
"Yes?" The alicorn didn't bother to stop. "Feel free to ask whatever is on your mind."
"Why are there so many empty levels?"
"We have no use for them at the moment. They primarily serve as storage."
Emily fell silent again, listening to the click-clack of their collective hooves as they continued to descend the spiral staircase. Renovated or not, this place still had a distinctly sinister air to it. Almost as if it was haunted. Maybe it was. She glanced at the steel paneling separating the floor-to-ceiling windows of each level.
"Or maybe you're letting your imagination run a little too wild. Focus, Emi. Once we get this done and over with, you'll be free to head back to your world as soon as you learn the spell."
Right. Destroy the scroll.
They passed a couple more floors before finally reaching the bottom. What was that--twenty-something floors? Not that it was all that important to keep track of, anyway. Flurry Heart was now leading her down a wide hallway. There was some sort of room up ahead, though it was hard to tell through the tiny window in the... doorway? Hatch?
"Our high-security research facility," Flurry Heart gave a slight nod, still facing forward. "Over the past half a day, my guards have reported a slight increase in infiltration attempts on behalf of the Old Guard. As you correctly assumed, the scroll was transferred here from Canterlot to lessen the risk of its theft." She lit her horn, pressing a button off to the side. An airlock hatch rose behind them, made from the same steel paneling as the surrounding walls. A stream of mist sprayed from the ceiling and floor of the decontamination chamber for a couple of seconds before the airlock hatch in front of them lowered.
"Princess?" a nearby stallion looked up from his clipboard. "You're here early. Who's that accompanying you?"
"I have reason to believe she is the reincarnation of Arch-Magus Starlight Glimmer. At the moment, however, it does not seem that Starlight is in control of the body."
The stallion raised a brow. "Starlight or not, you know that bringing outsiders into the facility is dangerous."
"I acknowledge the inherent danger, yes--" Flurry Heart countered, "--and I will accept full responsibility for anything that occurs under my watch. As for our current research efforts, I am shutting down all operations."
"I know it may come as a shock to many of you, especially given our close, albeit strained ties with the Ashen, but I have been made aware of the potentially catastrophic consequences that may come with the use of Starlight's time travel scroll as a weapon. It must be destroyed, alongside all research into its functionality and properties."
"But Princess, the scroll could singlehandedly turn the ti--"
"It will be destroyed," Flurry Heart repeated. "I am not entirely aware of Arch-Magus Starlight's accounts of its use, but I have been told by her supposed reincarnation that it could very well spell certain doom to reality as we know it."
The stallion frowned, bringing a hoof to his chin. "...Yes, that is a plausible line of thought, I suppose. Are you completely sure that this mare you've brought is, in fact, Starlight Glimmer? If so, then wouldn't it be more beneficial to allow her to rewrite the spell with additional safeguards to prevent, as you put it, 'certain doom'?"
Emily stepped forward. "No. The effectiveness of the scroll comes from the lack of those safeguards."
...Hopefully that sounded close enough to how Star would've said it.
"Yeah, it's close enough. I would've said something similar myself."
The stallion sighed, glancing at his colleagues, then to Flurry and Emily. "Very well then. I will begin purging the data we have collected on the spell's functionality. The scroll itself is currently located in the thaumatical analysis chamber."
"Thank you," Flurry Heart nodded. She stepped off to one side of the laboratory, stopping in front of a small machine. A quick glance at a different pony nearby signaled for them to open the chamber. Without another word, the alicorn returned with the scroll.
"I..." Emily cocked her head, taking the scroll. "Wow. This is it, huh? Y'know, for such an old scroll, this thing's in pretty great condition!"
The stallion frowned at her. Emily cringed, unrolling the scroll in her aura. "...Anyway, we should probably get to destroying this thing. Would you like to do the honors, Flurry?"
"I was told that the scroll was restored and preserved using the Ashen's best methods. Destroying the scroll might not be as easy as it sounds."
The scroll burst into flames, illuminating Emily's deadpan stare. So much for 'best methods' if a simple flame spell did the trick. The look on Flurry Heart's face held similar feelings toward that notion.
"Well, that was surprisingly easy."
Emily glanced at the cinders on the otherwise clean flooring. "So... I'm guessing you'll be making up a story to tell the Ashen leadership now?"
"Yes. You are free to leave if you wish. I shall tell them that their preservation methods are flawed, and the strain of our tests has resulted in the destruction of the scroll."
The stallion raised a hoof. "Now that the scroll is destroyed, does this mean we are dismissed for the day?"
"Good, because I now have a headache."
Man. Everyone in this place seemed stunned by how easy to incinerate that scroll was. Emily backed away from the collection of shocked faces into the decontamination room, letting the airlock shut her off from the awkwardness.
So. The scroll's destroyed, the threat of mutually-assured-destruction has been vanquished, and total war has been prevented for at least a little longer. Emily let out a sigh on her bed. Maybe now she could work on getting home.
"As far as gaining the skills required to open another portal yourself, you still have a long way to go."
Party pooper. Emily glanced at Aero. He'd been asleep since she got back to the hotel. It probably wouldn't hurt to explore a bit while the old stallion got some rest.
"Agreed. It'd be nice to see what else has changed here in the Crystal Empire over the years."
Emily hopped off the bed.
"Glad to see that Spike's still the guest of honor," Starlight mused. "His statue's a bit... uh, worn compared to the last time I saw it, though."
Emily frowned at the cracked statue. Pieces of crystal that'd chipped away over the years littered the pedestal it stood on. Then again, the Crystal Empire under Flurry Heart seemed to be a lot more concerned about security than aesthetics, based on the roaming golems she'd seen from time to time patrolling the streets. One of them, in fact, stood right beside the statue.
"Like a bodyguard."
Maybe. There was a lot to still be learned, that's for sure--portal magic being one of them. It was still odd how badly-maintained the statue was, given how it was so close to the palace looming overhead.
A light whump came from behind. Flurry Heart stepped up beside the girl. "I have news to deliver regarding the destruction of Starlight's scroll," she frowned, holding up a letter. "It isn't the only one."
Something sunk within Emily. "I... what? No, that can't be right..." she lit her horn, taking the letter from the alicorn. "Starlight said that there's only one of them, right?"
"It appears not. At least, not anymore. According to the letter, a new copy of the scroll is to be sent to the Crystal Empire by tomorrow morning."
Emily looked up from the letter. Starlight was being oddly silent about this, given how much she'd blabbered before about the scroll and all.
"Based on that letter," Flurry Heart continued, "I can be implied that a method may have been discovered by the Ashen to circumvent the scroll's copy-protection enchantments. I am aware of some circumvention methods myself from my personal studies in magic, but for a scroll written by Starswirl the Bearded, and further modified by Starlight Glimmer?" she shook her head. "At best, to my knowledge, it is only possible to create copies through direct, careful transcription."
Starlight groaned. "Let's just hope that's what they did. The last thing we need is a load of mass-produced scrolls floating all over Equestria."
Wait. Starlight was the one that modified the spell in the first place, which meant that whatever 'copy protection' was on that thing must've been removed at least once before, right?
Starlight's voice sounded much weaker this time around. "Yes."
"Well, I guess we're screwed then," Emily sighed. "Hey Star, you wanna teach me how to turn myself back into a human and open a portal home yet?"
"No. You can't just give up like that! Think of what's at stake here! I started this mess, and I'm sorry for having to drag you into it, but we still have a task at hoof! Also, you're talking to me out loud again."
Man. Well, if Star wasn't willing to do the whole portal magic stuff, then might as well follow along.
"You really are a doormat sometimes. You know that, right?"
"Are... you--" Flurry Heart reached out with a hoof.
"I'm fine!" Emily blurted. "Everything's fine! I was just going over plans with Star on how to handle what we think is happening!"
Flurry Heart raised a brow.
"We were... well, we were talking about how it could be possible for copies to be mass-produced if the protection spells really were broken. Do you want to discuss as well?" She narrowed her eyes. "And you are with us, right?"
"Yes. I do believe you have convinced me of the dangers posed by the continued existence of these scrolls."
"Good. So anyway, we've only really got three options, not counting running away from here before anything bad happens. We can either track down and destroy the remaining copies, figure out whether or not it's possible to maybe disable, or at the very least block the use of those scrolls..." a smirk grew on Emily's face. "Or, Starlight could use the scroll you're set to receive to travel back in time, and prevent the scroll from being copied in the first place!"
"If I could cringe at that last suggestion, I certainly would."
Thanks, Star. Great moral support.
"I aim to please."
"But anyway," Emily continued, "I think the most sane option would be to track down and destroy the copies, including the original scroll if it still exists out there somewhere. Man. Never thought I'd be on some magical quest to find some pieces of paper."
"That sounded incredibly forced, Emi. Are you sure you know what you're--"
"Sure I'm sure!" Emily blurted again. Flurry Heart cringed at the outburst. "I'm just... frustrated. That's all. I was hoping that this would be easy. Y'know, one-and-done. Boom, bang, world's saved. Would've been nice if finding that scroll was as easy as finding stuff back home. Just saying. All I'd have to do is type in, oh, I don't know, 'ancient scroll that poses incredible danger to everything we know and love' or something and click on the search button, and then I'd have a nice list of--"
Starlight's groan rattled through her head. "Listen, Emily. Tonight, we talk. Just you and me. Right now though, you're only making a fool of yourself in front of what could very well be our only shot at ending this mess once and for all. I'll take it from here, whether you like it or not."
Fine. Do what you want, Star. Emily relaxed, letting that same old loss of sensation wash over her once more. Starlight cleared her throat.
"So. Excuse me... us for the odd turn in our conversation. As Emily was saying, we believe it'd be best to carry out a search-and-destroy operation on the copies of the scroll. Would you know, by chance, if there was ever a tracking enchantment applied to each copy? It would be the logical thing to do, given how desirable such a copy would be to the Old Guard."
Flurry Heart furrowed her brows. "Yes, that would indeed be logical. However, such spells are normally untraceable by anyone other than the original spellcaster. What use would a tracking enchantment be if you are not the tracker?"
"Reverse-engineering." Starlight smirked. "Don't forget, you're talking to the mare who modified that very same scroll before you were even born. Once that new copy of the scroll arrives, I'm getting to work."
For a moment, Emily swore she saw the faintest hints of a smile on Flurry Heart's face.
"What was that?" Starlight slammed the door open. "Emi, you could've blown it back there! Do you think Flurry Heart has time to hear you complaining?"
"Whuh..." Aero rubbed an eye. "Oh hey, you're ba--"
"Listen--" Starlight sat down. "--Emi, I... know things have been harsh for you, especially in these past few days. Heck, I've already lost track of how long it's been since we arrived in Equestria! But that isn't the point. You've got to hold it together just a little longer, alright? You talking about how you would've searched for things back home sparked an idea. If things go the way I hope they will, then I promise you--we can turn our full attention to getting you home."
That's easy to say. And what if things only go further downhill? What if that tracking spell Starlight talked about doesn't work, or what if it doesn't even exist in the first place? What then? And if the Ashen really do have so many copies, then what's stopping them from making more at this very second?
"I... don't have an answer for that. For any of those."
Exactly. This world faced an existential threat, and what were they? Just a dumb girl and her unicorn friend. What power did they have over something that not only had the ability to erase reality as they knew it, but had also been mass-produced? Like it or not, they were facing an unstoppable force, and they were far from being an unmovable objected.
Starlight sighed, retreating back to the depths of the girl's mind. "Okay. So first off, I'm sorry. For all of this. For dragging you into a war that I should've ended ages ago. For pushing what you want far down the line. For being the reason why any of this is happening in the first place. But we can't just give up now! Think of how many lives would be lost if a full-on war breaks out again? Or what if a scroll is fully activated, and our very timeline is erased from existence? You've become tied to this world just as much as I was, Emi, from the moment you jumped through that portal. We have a quest to complete, and the world relies on us."
And that's the problem! Since when did she become the protector of the world? This wasn't what she wanted--this wasn't even close to what she wanted! Why'd she have to jump into that stupid portal, anyway?
"How about this. It'll take a couple of days at the very least for the new scroll to arrive, anyway. I'll... teach you how to open portals in the meantime. I can't help you regain your human body, though. The best I can do is a cloaking spell to disguise you. You can go home for a day. Get your old life back, even if it's just for a little bit. Just as long as you promise you'll help. Please."
A loud bang filled the air as the ball of mana dissipated mid-air.
"Did I do it?" Emily opened her eyes. "Did I open a portal yet?"
"No, not yet. Keep concentrating." Starlight sighed. "Well, at the very least, you've been picking up on this stuff far faster than I ever did. Though, I'm half-tempted to say that that's thanks to the fact that your teacher is more or less yourself. You know what I mean?"
Emily nodded, clenching her eyes shut again. Even if she was able to experience the spell's casting firsthand when Starlight did it, actually doing it herself was still hard as ever.
"Think hard about the exit side of the portal. You don't want to phase into a wall, or any other object for that matter."
The bathroom stall. That'd be a discreet place to open the portal to, just like the one Starlight originally opened. As long as nobody was in the stall at the moment.
"Alright, you've got your location. The portal spell I'm teaching you is adapted from an older, mirror-based spell that tied two mirrors together between two locations. The difference between that and this is that--"
Yeah, yeah, this spell doesn't rely on mirrors as waypoints, even if it's between two completely different planes of existence. Yadda yadda, inherently more unstable but also much more convenient. Wouldn't it make more sense for Star to use the mirror portal spell instead, then? At the very least, it would've prevented... well, any of this from happening.
"The mirror portal spell, while more stable, requires far more energy to be upheld for the same amount of time than a free-standing portal. I doubt your world has any readily-available external mana sources."
"What attempt is this now? Eighth? Ninth?" Starlight cut in again. "Portal spells, in general, tend to sap up tremendous amounts of mana, and that isn't even counting the mana they eat up to be maintained for more than a few seconds. I think it's best to take a break now after so many attemp--"
Emily released another swirling charge of mana. She watched it careen forward, arcing toward the ground.
"Seriously, Emi. Before you burn yourself out. It is not a fun experien--"
A blast of light and dust burst from the impact point. Emily shielded her eyes with a hoof, cringing at the sudden irritation. That didn't happen last time she cast the spell. All those previous attempts popped mid-air! Did that mean...
She lowered her hoof, gasping at the wavering portal in front of her.
"Huh. You actually did it. Didn't think it'd be this soon, though."
Emily smirked. "Well, you did say I was picking up much faster than you yourself ever did. So, should I--" she prodded the portal with a hoof. "--y'know, just hop through again like I did last time?"
"No. Not in the body you have now, at least. Hold on a moment, I'm gonna borrow your horn."
Emily felt a spot on her forehead instantly go numb. Starlight's aura washed over her, momentarily tinting her vision teal as she clenched her eyes shut.
"You can open your eyes again, Emi."
She opened an eye. The portal was still in front of her, and she didn't feel any different. What even happened? She looked down to her... hands? Her eyes widened. She had hands again! She was back to her old human sel--
"Nope." Starlight countered. "Cloaking spell. I don't know any shapeshifting magic, let alone anything permanent enough to reverse whatever magic it was that turned you into a pony in the first place. The spell I cast is for the sake of keeping your pony self a secret. It's best not to look the way you currently look if we're going to venture into your world, after all."
Fair enough. Emily glanced at the portal, then to her hands again. She was still on all fours.
"It's a cloaking spell, like I said. You're going to have to stand on your hind legs to match your old body structure."
"Home, sweet home!" Emily flopped against the stall door. Face-first. "Oh hey, they fixed the door."
As always, she could feel the presence of Starlight's eye-roll. At least this time, there wasn't going to be any worry of how to get back!
"Yeah, yeah. So anyway, you've got a day to do what you want in your homeworld. Flurry Heart told us that she'd likely be receiving the new copy of the scroll by then, don't forget."
Yup. Not forgetting that. Emily pressed her hoof... er, hand against the door's latch, fumbling the small metal piece.
"You know you can still use your magic under the cloaking spell, right? I returned control of your horn already. Not like I'm going to have the mana to do much else anyway, given how long I've made the spell last."
...Right. Magic. Emily lit her invisible horn, concentrating on the latch.
The door opened.
"There we go!" Emily cheered, stumbling out of the stall. She looked over her shoulder. Of course, the portal obviously collapsed behind her after she exited, but it was always good to check. "Alrighty. First order of business, escape the building. That... might be a little hard to do, since this is a school and all."
"Maybe it'd be more helpful if you stop talking so much, then. You'll only call more attention to yourself by making noise."
Hey, bipedal locomotion was coming back to her!
Emily peeked out from behind the bathroom door. All the lights were out, save for the handful of emergency lights illuminating the hallway. That was good--nobody would be there to see her. She pushed the door open, still shaky on her hind legs as she scampered out. Darn her horse legs for literally keeping her on her toes at all times.
She paused beneath the clock hanging at the end of the hall. "Huh. Almost five in the morning," Emily mused. "Well, I guess that means we'll have plenty of time to spend here before it's safe enough to return again tonight. Weird how it isn't the same time as it is in Equestria, though."
"I can open the portal back anywhere. It doesn't have to be in that bathroom stall. And timezones are a thing that exists."
Emily rolled her eyes. Starlight seemed to be hating every second of this.
"Because this is time we could be spending trying out ways to track things back in the Crystal Empire! Don't you understand? I'm only letting you do this because I know you need it! But me? I've been on edge ever since we learned that the scroll we destroyed was a copy! There could be thousands of scrolls out there!"
Man. Way to make her feel terrible for being homesick, Star.
Apology accepted. Emily continued walking, turning the corner and making a beeline toward the front entrance. It was a good thing that these doors only locked on the outside, or else she would've been stuck in the school until the janitors arrived in the morning!
Emily grinned, her steps growing quicker as she reached out, slamming both forehooves against the push-bar on the first door. The familiar ch-click of its latch echoed down the empty hall, as did the second door up ahead when she got to it. Though, the echo in the latter's case was contained mostly by the little lobby area between the two sets of doo--
"Enough thinking about the doors, Emi. You wanted a day at home, and you got one. Don't waste it."
Right. She came here for a reason. Emily walked down the sidewalk, sticking close to the shadows. It probably wasn't a good idea to suddenly reappear after over a week of being missing. Especially when she still had things to do back in Equestria.
"Where are you going, anyway? I thought your house was in the opposite direction."
"That's 'cause it is. I'm not going home now, what do you think I am, crazy?" Emily threw up her arms... er, forelegs, and tipped over from the momentum. "Urk. Hooves are annoying. Being a pony is annoying."
Starlight snickered. "But anyway, where are you going, then? If you're not going home, where else is there to go?"
"Lisa's house. She can keep our secret." Emily's ears perked at the sound of an approaching car. "Aaaaand scratch that, gonna go hide now. I guess that's one benefit of going fully horse."
"You keep talking about hiding away and staying in the shadows. Is something wrong?"
Emily shook her head, peering out from behind a bush. "Nothing's wrong. It's just that in this world, if someone goes missing without explanation, you can absolutely bet that people are gonna have an eye out at all times. Being alone outside at night only makes me more suspicious. I'm not sure how similar things are in Equestria, but things seem pretty lax there based on that question."
That seemed to satisfy the mare for a bit. Emily emerged from the bush. All clear. She looked back to the school. From here, it was another... two blocks. There was definitely a turn somewhere along the way, wherever there was a stop sign next to a large pine tree.
Another car approached. Emily ducked into the bush again.
Emily peered at the looming house in front of her. Ringing the doorbell was definitely out of the question, and so was knocking. That'd just wake Lisa's parents instead. She didn't need a second sleepover to know how lightly they slept.
Man. Would've been nice right about now to have her phone with her. Oh well. There really wasn't any other option but to wait at this point. Both of Lisa's parents worked from home anyway, so she'd be the only one leaving the house in a couple hours. The bushes lining the driveway would make for a good hiding spot until then.
"Emily!" Lisa's voice came again. "Emi, everyone's been looking all over for you! Are you hurt? Where have you been all that time? Why do you look like you just got a fresh change of clothes? Why are you sleeping in my front yar--"
"Okay, okay!" Emily burst. She sat up, rubbing an eye. At least, rubbing it the best she could with a hoof disguised as a hand. "I'm awake."
"You've been missing for around a week now." Lisa held out a hand. "Your mom and dad have been bugging me the entire time about whether or not I know where you went."
Well, time to see whether the cloaking spell made her hooves feel like hands. She reached out and let her friend grab her hoof.
"I--" Lisa frowned at Emily's touch. "Wait, what's wrong with your hands? They feel so... velvety."
"Er... new lotion?"
Lisa folded her arms. "Doubt it."
"Sure. Anyway, I'm gonna call your parents now. You should probably get yourself checked at the doctor's office or somethi--"
Lisa raised a brow.
"Here, hold on a sec. I have to show you something. All I can say is that I absolutely can't go home. At least, not yet. I'll have to leave again soon. Starlight?"
The spot on her forehead went numb again as Starlight let the spell dissipate. "And here I was thinking you weren't going to return to Equestria. Thanks for making good on your word."
The look on her friend's face said it all. Emily looked at her hands. Sure enough, they were back to the fuzzy nubs she'd gained a few nights ago.
"I--" Lisa stepped back. "No. This is beyond weird. You..."
"I know, I know," Emily hung her head. "I screwe--"
"You became a furry?"
Hm. Now was good enough of a time as any to try out Starlight's facehoofing technique.
"Wait wait wait, I'm joking!"
Emily lowered her hoof.
"So... uh, care to explain how you got yourself turned into a pony that looks like it came straight out of a TV show?"
"Long story. Portals, spells, buying a magical amulet that turned out to be stolen from a street gang, and a big explosion. Also a search-and-destroy mission centered around a time-travel scroll that holds the potential to destroy an entire universe. How's your week been going, Lis?"
"...Yeah, I think I might've gotten myself stuck in another simulation." she backed further from Emily. "I'm... just gonna go now."
"Wait! Just... if you think this is a simulation, why don't you play along for a bit? Y'know, decide for yourself. Just promise me you won't tell anyone about this, whether or not it really is a simulation. Besides--" Emily stood up, shaking the leaves from her mane. "--if you are stuck, don't you have to wait for your dad to disconnect you anyway?"
"...Yeah. I should really get to work on a failsafe exit routine instead of relying on family members."
Emily nodded. "So anyway, I was wondering if you'd like to head back through the portal with me."
"WAIT HOLD UP--" Starlight's voice screeched through her head. "NOBODY told me that you were going to bring your friend back with you to Equestria!"
Lisa rubbed her chin. "What's the chance that I end up getting turned into a pony like you did? I'd rather keep this body. I like it."
"So long as you don't get into a tussle with street gangs at night over black-market sales, I think you should be fine."
Emily convulsed for a moment as Starlight forced herself into control. "Now, young lady," she began, pointing a hoof at Lisa. "I do not want to be responsible for a second teen crashing through a country teetering on the verge of war! Emily's already enough of a headache at times, so you'd better not--"
"Sure, I'll tag along then."
"Okay, okay, what's going on with you?" Lisa took her hands off her ears. "Just a week ago, everything seemed fine! Now, you're standing here, yelling at me as a small horse thing! Give me one reason to believe that this is not another random scenario I tossed into my headset."
"There are no reasons, so if you ask me, I would keep my adventures to myself, unlike a certain girl whose body I've been inhabiting."
"Oh, you're possessed now, too. Greeaaaat. Still gonna follow along anyway. Not like there's anything else to do half the time when I get stuck like this."
Emily felt Starlight retreat back into her head. What followed was the saddest, most frustrated-sounding screech she'd ever heard.
"Shut up, Emi."
"So," Emily turned her attention back to Lisa. "Uh, sorry about what happened just then. Did I mention that I've got the spirit of a powerful magus living in my head, too? She's... kinda why all this happened in the first place."
"Maybe if someone didn't jump through a portal in the first place, I'd just be a friendly personal assistant living up in your empty noggin."
Shut up, Star.
"Y'know, at this point, even if it wasn't a simulation, I'm still going to follow along for the sake of your sanity."
"Okay then... just know that you'll be in it for the long-haul. I'm still far from completing my quest. You can help out, of course, and I guess if you want to come back home, I could just open a portal back for you or something like that."
"Understood. I'm far enough ahead anyway in my classes that I don't really worry much over my grades, anyway. I have the time to watch over you."
"Well, I give up." Starlight sighed. "At least she seems more responsible than you. I'll... just open the portal again. This time, I won't be dropping us off into Old Guard territory."
Queue forehead spot go numb. Yadda yadda, spell-cast-y stuff, magic ball hit the ground and went boom. And there it was; a swirling portal! Lisa didn't react much, though that was probably thanks to her thinking it was still all part of a simulation.
Emily held out a hoof. "You coming? These portals aren't exactly the most stable things in the world."
"Yup, and I'm not planning on taking my eyes off of you anytime soon, Emi. This is gonna make for one heckuva story to tell the real you once all this is over."
Starlight snorted. "Just wait 'til she realizes that this really is the real deal. You're going to get an earful from her about dragging her into my problems."
Just... keep the portal open, Star.
Emily walked through the portal, with Lisa trailing close behind. Unlike last time, the portal remained open.
"Last call to stay behind," Emily looked over her shoulder. "Lisa?"
"You know I'm not budging. Also, what's up with all the apple trees?"
Emily shrugged. "Starlight decided to open a portal to Sweet Apple Acres, that's all. It's a good home base anyway... though... uh, hold on a moment--Star, why'd you bring us here instead of the Crystal Empire?"
"I think it'd be best to keep your friend away from danger. She can stay here with Granny Ambrosia while I teleport us up to the Empire. I've been itching to try out another long-range telepo--"
No. Lisa was coming with them, and that's that.
"Why are you so stubborn about bringing Lisa with us, anyway?"
She could help! Lisa had plenty of know-how on all sorts of technology. Surely she could help develop something as an alternative to the scroll, right? At least that way there'd be a less-existentially-dangerous replacement to weaponizing time travel. Just as a backup plan of sorts.
"You brought your friend... to develop weapons." Starlight scoffed. "I can't believe it! You've gone bonkers. Maybe I should leave you behind with Granny Ambrosia, and figure out how to manifest in Lisa instead! At least that way I'd be working with someone a little more level-headed!"
"Hey, hey, chill!" Emily muttered under her breath. "The weapons thing is more of a hypothetical. The main reason why I want her to tag along is 'cause I know that she's also into this sort of stuff as a side-hobby. Y'know, the whole fantastical, magical stuff? She's into that. She can help us find the scroll. I promise."
She felt Lisa's hand touch her shoulder. "Are... you--"
"Yes." Emily turned to her friend. "I'm fine. I was just talking to Starlight. My side of the mental communication becomes verbal sometimes. C'mon Star, let's head back to Flurry Heart."
"Starlight," Flurry Heart dropped down in front of them. "Where have you been? The new scroll arrived this morning. Come, you must hurry. Our ongoing analysis has revealed that there is indeed an embedded tracker of some kind." She shot cursory glare at Lisa before turning around. "I am confident that by the end of today, we may be able to put together a crude tracker of our own."
"She's here to help, by the way. She's a friend. From my world. She's pretty technical, so she should be able to figure out some stuff, I think."
Another glance. Lisa smiled and waved.
"I will accept it, if only for the sake of our mutual trust."
Well, that was easier than expected.
"So anyway--" Emily walked ahead of the alicorn. "--Because of how we traveled back here, I think Starlight's going to be out for the count for a little while. You'll have to... uh, deal with Emily for a bit while Star recovers. Sorry in advance."
"Still think this is a simulation, Lizzy?" Emily smirked as they neared the airlock. "I've never seen you tinkering with anything this detailed before, and that's even counting the ones you've developed yourself!"
Flurry Heart raised the airlock hatch. Just as before, a steady stream of mist hissed out from between the tiles on the ceiling and the floor. The hatch in front of them lowered.
Emily looked to her friend. "Lisa?"
"Y-yeah," Lisa blurted with a nod. "Kinda. I... wow-- I've only ever read about stuff like this." She stepped closer to the lab. "I've never seen anything like this. All this high-fantasy stuff, I mean."
"Yup, I figured you hadn't. And yeah, this is a magic laboratory, so things might be a little different. Anyway, don't forget that I'm on a quest. It'd be neat if you could chip in a bit with making a tracker for a scroll while we're here. You think you can do that?"
"Not quite yet." Flurry Heart cut in. "Before I left, we had only gone as far as to confirm the existence of such a tracking spell. I do not believe we have progressed far enough yet to understand even the basic workings of the spell."
Lisa scratched her head. "O...kay, then. Well, is there anything I can do in the meantime? Like Emily... Starlight--whatever you know her as--said, I'm here to help." She paused for a moment before gasping. "Oh, do you think there's any way I can cast magi--"
"Mmmnope!" Emily interrupted. "Sorry, but the only way I know of at the moment to let you do that is also the same thing that turned me into..." she gestured wildly at herself. "...this. I used a piece of some magical tree as a wand, and the moment I actually legitimately used it for anything, boom, I'm a horse."
Flurry Heart cleared her throat. "I do believe we were in the middle of something, were we not?"
"Y-yeah, sorry, sorry..." Lisa turned her attention to the Princess. "So, about that tracking spell. Would it make sense to try and... well, package it somehow? I know that magic is magic and all, but if it's possible to, like, make something that uses the spell on its own, as a sort of self-contained device, wouldn't be better to go ahead with that instead of making a singular catch-all spell?"
Flurry Heart raised a brow.
"No, no, continue. Your idea intrigues me. Are you suggesting we apply the spell as an enchantment?"
Lisa shrugged. "I guess? Not exactly all too familiar with spells or magic or anything, but--"
"We can try it."
Well, that was quick. Letting Lisa tag along really was a good idea!
Oh, hey, Star's awake.
"Remind me never to open two portals in quick succession without assistance again."
Noted. Emily glanced back at her friend. Lisa had since walked away, continuing to talk to Flurry Heart about her idea.
"--and if we can streamline the production of these devices, we could deploy them en-masse to an entire team of scroll-finders. With numbers on our side, it'd take far less time to eradicate these scrolls than a singular group! Depending on whether or not you're willing to take volunteers--"
Starlight snorted. "...How long has she been talking now?"
Only a couple of minutes, really. Though, Lisa seemed right at home geeking out over the idea of making a tracking spell. It'd only be a matter of time now before--
"Princess! We have constructed a crude replica of the embedded tracking spell placed on the scroll!"
--Oh. That was certainly a lot quicker than she'd expected.
"Flurry Heart's team likely includes some of the best minds in all of Equestria. Given how the current task is to find a way to accurately track the location of the scroll, it makes sense that it took so little time."
Flurry Heart paused for a moment, signaling for Lisa to stop as well. "Excellent work. Might I request for this spell to be applied as an enchantment to an amulet? It may also be helpful to modify the spell to provide visual feedback if it does not already."
"Yes, your highness. We'll be right on it!"
"So, you're saying that this amulet has been enchanted with the tracking spell, am I correct?"
The mare nodded. "Indeed. As you requested, the spell also provides visuals. Observe--" she tapped the center crystal on the amulet. Almost immediately, the crystal seemingly burst to life, pulsing with stored mana for a couple of seconds before settling again. The edge closest to the scroll continued to pulse, however. "--so long as their magical signatures remain unchanged, this amulet should be able to locate any nearby copies of the scroll with an accuracy of approximately a city block."
"Excellent work," Flurry Heart smiled. "I take that this prototype is safe enough for early deployment? It is of utmost urgency that we halt the distribution of these scrolls."
"I... believe so. The enchantment itself is relatively simple, so the most dangerous component as of now is the embedded crystal that stores mana for use during the duration of the tracking session. You can keep this prototype if you must. We will continue to iterate on its design in the meantime for heightened accuracy."
Again, that was fast. In the corner of her eye, Emily could see Lisa standing beside a stallion, watching... whatever it was that he was doing at the moment. So much for that "I'm coming only to keep an eye on you" mentality.
Flurry Heart floated the amulet in front of Emily. "Because you are the one urging the destruction of these scrolls, I believe you should be the one wielding this."
"Oh, uh... thanks?" Emily took the amulet into her own magic. Now, actually using it?
"You saw that mare use it not too long ago, Emi. I believe you tap the crystal to activate it."
Emily nodded. She tapped a hoof against the still-hovering amulet. Nothing happened.
"Unfortunately--" the mare added, "--the amount of mana stored within the crystal is only enough for one to two uses of the tracking spell, depending on how large the area being searched is. You'll have to constantly recharge it with your own for continuous usage."
Oh. Well, that was another benefit of being turned into a unicorn.
"Treat the amulet like your old wand, then. Be careful how much mana you put into it, though," Starlight instructed. "Wands only direct your magic. Amulets like this store it like a battery. Overcharging can lead to an explosion, or at the very least cause the amulet to break."
Okay then. Emily placed her hoof on the amulet again, this time also lighting her horn. She could feel a slight tingle as her mana seeped into the amulet. Too little would probably do nothing, but too much... yeah, fat chance she was going to cause another explosion. She cut the flow, taking her hoof off the center crystal. Sure enough, one side of the crystal gently pulsed in the direction of the scroll in the center of the room. Turning resulted in the pulse's shift to a different side.
"Huh. It's sorta like a compass."
"That's 'cause it pretty much is one!" Lisa shouted from one of the counters. "Also my idea! We were originally going to make it work like a Geiger counter!"
"Again, excellent work all around." Flurry Heart clapped her hooves together. "Now then. Emily?"
"I wish you luck on your quest. I will not destroy our current copy of the scroll as of yet for the sake of further improving the spell. If you wish to wear the amulet..." Flurry Heart opened a nearby drawer and pulled out a length of string. She tossed it at Emily, who promptly failed to catch it. "String. There should be a loop at the top of the amulet that you may use."
Emily grinned. "Great, thanks! So... uh, Lizzy, you coming with us nor not?"
"I'll stay a bit longer to help out. Promise me you won't do anything stupid, 'kay? I know I can't do much myself as far as this 'magic' stuff goes, but as someone who's coming from a distinctly non-magical perspective, I think it helps to have more unique approaches to things. You seem to be taking care of yourself pretty well anyway, aside from the whole transformation part. Just... please don't screw up again."
"Hey Aero!" Emily kicked open the door. "Let's head back to Canterlot!"
"Huh." The stallion looked up from the photo prints he'd laid out on his bed. "Took you long enough. Say, real quick, whaddya think of these photos I took while sightseeing these past couple days?"
Emily watched the unending landscape of white pass by the window. Her breath left a foggy dew on the frigid glass. If it weren't for the fact that she had hooves now, this would've been the perfect time for some window graffiti. Maybe she should've taken a longer nap instead of staring out the window when there was nothing to see in the first place.
But, that wasn't important. What was important was to make sure that the tracker worked, and that meant taking it back to Canterlot.
The sound of hooves approached her. "Hey. I was just wondering..." Aero pointed a hoof at the tracking amulet. "Since when did you get that little trinket of yours? I didn't see you with it earlier. Didn't really notice it until now, either."
She shrugged. "Flurry Heart gave it to me while you were doing whatever it was you were doing out in the snow."
"Hm. That's nice." Aero turned away. "Well, have fun with that. You said you're staying in Canterlot?"
"Alrighty," Aero returned the nod, "me, I'm just gonna head back home and hang up some of those photos I took."
He wandered back to his seat, leaving Emily alone with her foggy window. She lit her horn, lifting the amulet into the air. Nothing detected. Obviously. Maybe when the scrolls were gone, she could have another amulet made specifically to shapeshift her back into her old body or something, instead of just making an illusion. At least that would've given some semblance of normalcy again. Not having fingers sucked.
"Well... as far as shapeshifting goes, it's possible, but that's really not something you should be putting too much thought into at the moment. We still have--"
Yeah, yeah. Emily rolled her eyes. There was still the whole 'destroy the scrolls before the world is doomed' quest to worry about. Big deal. Even with its low accuracy and range, the tracking amulet was still going to make things so much easier in the long-run.
"You're putting quite a lot of faith in something that was developed in only a matter of hours, Emi. Are you sure it's going to work as well as you think it will?"
Only one way to find out. There was a reason they were headed back to Canterlot, after all. Speaking of which...
Emily turned her attention back to the window. There was decidedly less snow outside compared to the view a few minutes ago, and the beginnings of Canterlot's skyline were barely visible on the horizon.
She looked over to Aero. He was already well on his way to falling asleep again.
"So, what are our plans for Canterlot, anyway? You can't seriously expect that the Ashen will let us into whatever building it is that they're hiding the scrolls in."
"'Dunno. I--" Emily caught a glimpse of another passenger's confused face. It was probably best to keep the conversation in her head.
She shrugged. There was no plan. At least, not yet. Wouldn't it make more sense to come up with a plan after finding the location of the scrolls? That way, they'd be able to know what they were dealing with ahead of time.
"...Fair enough, I guess."
Emily looked out the window again. They were practically at the edge of Canterlot proper now. She turned her attention to the tracking amulet again. Flurry Heart said it could store enough mana for two uses before needing a recharge, right?
"I'm not sure if you're just thinking to yourself or if you're legitimately asking me, but yes. I'd recommend being ready to charge the crystal back up any time you're using the tracker."
She nodded, tapping the center crystal. Almost immediately, it lit up on multiple sides. The pulse of light swung to the bottom edge of the crystal as they passed another building.
Emily smirked. "Bingo."
A light thunk reverberated through the carriage. She turned her gaze upward. It sounded almost like they'd just run over something.
"Look. At the tracker. We're far outside of its detection radius, but..." Her voice seemed strained. "Tap the crystal again, Emi. You need to see this. I spotted something on your periphery."
She looked down again and tapped the crystal. This time, however, the pulsing edge pointed steadily ahead.
Didn't... weren't the buildings holding the scrolls behind them? Why was there...
Her eyes widened. That thump from earlier!
"Seeing how the light's still pointing forward even though we're still moving, yeah. I think we've arrived at the same conclusion."
There was a stowaway onboard.
"Yup. Don't know how they could've jumped onto a moving train without being turned into a stain, but I guess there's a first for everything."
Welp, so much for making things easy.
Emily cut off the stream of mana flowing from her horn and tapped the crystal again.
"Well, I guess here's where we go our own ways." Aero yawned. "I'ma head back to Ponyville now. Don't forget, if you ever need more bits, just ask. I've got plenty to throw arou--"
"Sh--" She cut him off with a hoof to the muzzle. "Lay low and act normal, Aero. I'm following someone."
Aero frowned. "Why me, though? I'm just going back home."
Great acting, Aero. Keep up the good work. Cue another one of Starlight's facehoofs.
"You don't have to call me out every time I do that, y'know. Just keep following."
The light shifted one edge to the right. She tapped the crystal again ahead of time. Wasn't this... Emily looked up from the amulet. Sure enough, with the tracker pointing forward again, she'd be walking right into Aero's train back to Ponyville.
Great. There went any plans to do anything in Canterlot for the next day or two.
"Oh, you're coming too?" Aero brushed past. "Aren't you staying behind to deal with... y'know, stuff?"
She shook her head. "No, actually. At least, not anymo--"
"Miss--" a mare suddenly pushed a microphone towards Emily out of nowhere. "--You were one of the few passengers onboard the train back from the Crystal Empire. We have eyewitness reports saying that a researcher was spotted on the roof of Canterlot's Institute of Magic moments before the train passed below. Given the sudden disappearance of that same individual, we have reason to believe he may have jumped from the building. Tell me, did you notice anything odd?"
Greeeaaaaat. Now she was being interviewed, too? How many wrenches was this world going to throw into her plans?
"I... heard a thump?" Emily forced a grin. "I'm really not sure what it was, though. For all I know, it could've just been a rough section of track or something." She backed away from the reporter. "I-I'm sorry that I don't have much to say, but I've got something to do."
She took off towards Aero's train. Crisis averted.
"I'd hardly say that was a crisis, Emi--"
"Shut!" Emily shushed Starlight's voice. She lit her horn again and recharged the crystal. "Gotta make sure this is the direction the thief went in."
Sure enough, a tap of the crystal pulsed that same forward-facing edge.
She boarded the train and took a seat. Another tap of the crystal, plus a quick recharge. Again. This time, the back edge pulsed. Wherever they were, the thief was definitely on the train somewhe--
Emily rubbed her eyes. Since when was there another passenger besides herself?
"Heyo, ready to go?" Aero poked his head into the carriage. "Oh? New passenger?" He paused for a moment. "Alrighty, hold on a moment. Emily! Would you like any refreshments?"
"Sh--" Aero leaned into her booth. "Be quiet. I know you tracked that guy onto my train. He the guy the reporters are saying jumped aboard the other train?"
"Okay then. Here's my plan. First of all, I think you should say something to answer my question about refreshments, before he gets suspicious."
Another nod. Emily raised her voice, peeking over the back of her seat. "Nah, I'm good. Thanks, though!"
The stallion sitting at the back of the car didn't seem to notice. Good. She turned her attention back to Aero.
"Second of all, the plan itself. Since I'm the conductor, I'll go ahead and interrogate him. To him, it'll probably feel more like I'm trying to squeeze him for a ticket or something. Point is, I can use the excuse that you were already on a trip from Ponyville, so I can say that you've already paid for your ride. Him, on the other hand? He's a first-timer."
Aero walked away. Since when was he the one making elaborate plans around here?
"Since you showed up."
Hardy-har-har. Emily rolled her eyes. Very funny, Star.
The train jolted forward, easing out of the station. Aero returned to the carriage, stopping in front of the stowaway.
"Okie-dokey, what's your name, son? Haven't seen your face on this here train 'till today. What brings you 'round?"
"Zap Apple jam. I heard that Sweet Apple Acres is stocking another batch."
"Understandable. So, seeing as you are a new passenger, could you please provide payment and identification?"
The stowaway wasn't responding.
"Why should I tell you? I will pay for my ticket, but I will not do anything more."
Welp. That didn't work. Time to try something different.
"Wait, Emi--" Starlight's voice choked. "--what are you talking about? You can't possibly be--"
"Y'know, I sure hope that King Blueblood finds a way to use that scroll he's been talking about!" Emily cupped her hooves around her muzzle. "Surely, he'll know what to do to get rid of those Celestia-forsaken Ashen!"
"...You're kidding me. What do you think he is? Stupid?"
Emily shrugged. It didn't hurt to try. It was just the two of them and Aero in here, anyway.
"I remember that time when I was trying to break in and steal the scroll myself! The team ahead of me discovered that they'd been set-up, but I saw past it! I traveled far and wide searching for Dear Leader's precious time-travel scroll, and lo and behold, I never did! But here I am, on this very train, basking in the silent brilliance of the one who succeeded! Praise be to the unnamed hero!"
"Emi, what the buck was that?"
She grinned, pumping a hoof into the air with a whoop. Middle school theater rocked while it lasted.
She fell silent as the sound of slow hoofsteps approached.
"You're with them? How do you know I have the scroll?"
Oh wow, he fell for it.
"Yup!" Emily smirked. "I've seen the horrors--no, the nightmares--of Ashen rule. I heard that they even routinely serve meat to ponies like you, and ponies like me! Where does it come from? Who is it that dies to fill their bellies?" She eyed Aero in the background. He slipped away into the cab. "Oh, they're simply terrible, I tell you! The sooner that scroll arrives at the hooves of the King, the better!"
The stowaway narrowed his eyes. Emily grimaced.
"I'm... interested in joining the Old Guard?"
"Alright," the stowaway closed his eyes, letting out a defeated sigh. "If you please shut up and give me some peace, I'll let you accompany me. I need a new partner anyway, after what happened in Canterlot." He eyed her for another few seconds before letting out a grunt. He trudged back to his seat.
Holy heck, that worked?!
Starlight was the first to break the silence.
"So that was hardly what I expected. Maybe you can annoy the Old Guard into surrendering."
"Yes. I can assure you that they are in my possession."
It was now or never.
"Ready as I will ever be."
The rest of the way back to Ponyville was filled with tension, to say the least. And not the sappy romantic kind, either.
Emily stepped off the train with a wide yawn. Now that she had least the tolerance of the stowaway, it'd be a good idea to follow along. Splitting off and doing her own thing would probably only raise suspicion. She watched him shuffle past her toward the Everfree.
"You gonna follow, Emily?" Aero stuck his head out of the cab.
"Yup. You stay here in Ponyville, Aero. They won't recognize me in this body."
"Sounds like a plan."
Emily took off after the stowaway. From behind, now that he was actually walking, it... actually looked like he had a bit of a limp of sorts. It wasn't really anything all too obvious, but it was clear that he was having some trouble with one of his hind legs.
He stopped walking "You gonna catch up, or am I going to have to call the guards to drag you away on stalking charges?"
She trotted up beside him.
"Why are you so dead-set on following me, anyway? Don't tell me you're another one of those 'undercover' journalists. I've had to deal with far too many of those in my time." He brushed aside some branches blocking the path. "Ladies first."
"I... uh, thanks." Emily walked ahead. "And I'm not a journalist, if you're wondering."
"Again, then why do you follow?"
"Well, I certainly believe that King Blueblood should be restored as the rightful heir to the Equestrian throne! Glory be to the mighty rule of the Old Gua--"
The stowaway facehoofed. "You know what? Just stop talking. You'll have a better chance of getting through the forest in one piece if you do."
Emily hid her smirk. She'd have to thank Starlight's crash-course on what the heck happened to this place later.
"I'm right here y'know, Emi. Just staying quiet so you don't start talking to yourself like a madmare around this guy."
Yup. Thanks, Star. Anyway--
Emily let the stowaway pass her again. Leading the way would make her look suspicious.
She stared up at the canopy. The forest seemed a little more... overgrown. At least, it did when compared to the last time she'd seen it. The path through the forest certainly seemed narrower than it'd been when she was captured the first time around, for one. The same went for the number of low-hanging branches. She turned her attention back to the stowaway. He slashed another branch and kicked it aside. What he used as his blade, she didn't know.
"Darn greenery's been growing all outta whack," he muttered under his breath. "Watch your step now, there's a big root. It's like the whole forest has been doused in fertilizer or something since I left the fortress."
Emily stepped over the root. She looked ahead, past where the stowaway was currently cutting through some vines. For the most part, the path ahead seemed a little clearer. Maybe it was better-kept since it was closer to the fort itself?
"Nearly there. Just keep walking."
Welp. Here it was. Again. Emily stared up at the weathered walls of the fortress.
"Quite the beauty, isn't it?"
"Hm?" Emily glanced at the stowaway.
"This place has been standing for ages now, withstanding just about everything the Everfree has thrown at it."
"Hey, thanks for actually shutting up for once in our little romp through the forest. Really appreciated the peace. You actually don't seem like all that bad a mare to be around, y'know."
"Thanks, I guess." Emily turned her attention back to the fort. Wasn't the stowaway supposed to do some sort of magic thing to open the gates? At the very least there should've been guards stationed around the entrance, right? Or maybe some roaming guards patrolling the paths like when she'd first arrived here? "So, are you going to let us in, or are we going to keep on staring 'til something happens?"
"Don't know. There's normally always a guard on patrol here that can let us in. Guess I'll have to do it myself."
She looked to his forehead. "Do it yourself? But you don't have a ho--"
A ring of green flame suddenly burst from his body. Emily shrieked, jumping back. Water--she needed to find water before he was burned alive!
"Calm down, Emi. I recognize a Changeling's transformation when I see one."
"You like that little trick?" The stowaway smirked at her. "Now I have a horn. Watch how the--"
"WHO GOES THERE?" A voice boomed overhead. About time the guards showed up.
"Exo, sir!" The stowaway saluted. "Returning from a successful mission!"
"Very well. The two of you may enter."
Well that was a lot more painless than she'd expected it to be. Then again, the last time she was at these gates was when she was in a cage, sooo... she stared at the guard standing atop the walls. The stowaway--Exo, as he called himself--did mention that something happened to his old partner. The guards probably thought that she was that partner, but still in disguise. Or something like that.
She waved at the guard and followed Exo inside.
...Well, at least now they knew where all the guards went. The crinkle of paper caught her attention. She turned her head.
"Oh wow, it's you, Emi."
"Wuzzat?" Exo stepped in front of her. "Looks like a wanted poster. Says some human who says she's the reincarnation of Starlight Glimmer has gone missing. She's got a hefty bounty on her head right now. Preferably caught alive, has proven knowledge of higher-level magicks... suspected to have been captured by the Ashen, huh? Sounds like we had the real deal for some time before those bastards snapped her up."
"Sounds like he wasn't here when we first arrived."
Exo tore the poster off the wall and tucked it under a translucent wing. "Well, I suppose I'll be hunting for her next. That'll fetch a good sum for my retirement."
"Let's keep going now. King Blueblood will be happy to hear the news I bring."
They continued to walk. Just like last time, they cut straight through the shopping district, complete with all its little trinkets and stuff. The smell of food also drifted past. Emily's stomach grumbled.
Exo paused at the noise. "Ah, you must be hungry. I can get you some dinner once I've finished speaking to the King. I'll let you pick whatever you'd like."
...Did he just casually ask her out on a date? Ew.
"For now though, let me show you the teleportation runes. They're an excellent mode of transportation through the kingdom, and have even been engineered to avoid placing teleported ponies and objects inside each other!"
And that part... Emily made a face. Was that closer to an overenthusiastic car salesman tone, or was he still trying to hit on her in some weird way?
No matter. They both stepped into the rectangle.
It didn't take long before they ran into the stallion in charge. Heck, he was right up on the roof of the palace, for whatever reason.
Yes, that is indeed King Blueberry up there, Starlight.
"He's watching something. He's not focusing on us."
"Sire!" Exo stepped up, clearing his throat. "I believe you will be excited to see what I have retrieved!"
King Blueblood didn't respond. A loud bang rung out from the direction of the training grounds. Emily jumped at the noise, turning to Exo.
"Don't look at me, I wouldn't have any clue what happened, either. You stay down here. I'm going to find a way up to the roof without flying. I don't trust the noise enough right now to fly up there."
Exo opened the doors himself and slipped inside. As for Emily, she began walking toward the training grounds. She'd might as well figure out what the heck's going on herself.
"Emi, what are you doing?" Starlight's voice mentally scolded her. "Weren't you going to stick with Exo and figure out how to get rid of the scroll?"
To be honest, that was actually a pretty good idea there. Figure out who's shooting what first, though.
Emily continued walking. She broke into a trot when the second shot echoed overhead. Magic was cool and all, but the moment guns were involved, all bets were off.
"You're joking, right? The Equestrian military's dealt with artillery plenty of times in the past. Why are you walking towards the danger? Do you want to be--"
"Oh, wow. Oh geez--" She shrunk back behind the wall separating the training grounds from the rest of the palace's exterior. They were using guns in there alright. "--Star, did you see that?"
"A little. I was kinda in the middle of saying somethin--"
Emily peeked through the open corridor again. Some ponies that looked decidedly not like guards were standing around at the far corner by some kind of machinery. Though, the main event that caught her attention was the lineup of heavily-armored Old Guard... uh, guards, each one aiming at a target opposite of them.
"They're all unicorns, too. The extra dexterity compared to pegasi and earth ponies must be a benefit."
"Reload! Increase mana output by one mark, each of you!" One of the ponies by the machine shouted. "Remember, unlike conventionals, the reloading mechanism is non-mechanical. Your weapons are intrinsically tied to and controlled by your individual magical signatures. Avoid overloading the crystals at all cost."
The horns on each of the guards glowed brighter for a brief moment before dying down again.
Emily's eyes widened as the glints of the weapons' crystals caught her eye. Those--those were shards of the Tree of Harmony! Or Treehouse of Harmony. Whatever the heck the thing's called. But still--the shot coincided with a synchronized, albeit violent, pulse from each crystal, as if they were flaring up at the moment of fire. A solid beam of mana shot from the muzzles of the guns, hitting the targets straight-on. The smell of ozone wafted through the air.
"Good, good! Reload again; let's increase the mana output one more time now! I want to see peak accuracy from both you and your weapons!"
The firing squad reloaded.
The embedded crystal shards pulsed again. Just like before, a beam of concentrated mana burst from the muzzles of each weapon.
"Starlight," Emily whispered, "is it just me, or is the air around them sizzling?"
"Y'know, sizzling! What it looks like when there's a really hot thing and you can see a mirage in the distance and stuff? The air gets all wiggly and starts distorting?"
"Oh. Uhm... yes, it does in fact look like the air is wavering from the energy in their shots, now that I've had another look."
"Doesn't it worry you? You know what the pieces of the Tree of Harmony can do! They turned me into a pony! Imagine what could happen if you're hit with a shot from one of those things?"
"Of course it worries me! Blatantly weaponizing the Tree of Harmony like this goes against the very purpose of Harmony magic! I can't even imagine what could happen if something goes wrong the way it did with you! How did the Old Guard manage to even weaponize it in the first pla--"
"Hey!" Exo trotted up beside her. "I found a way up to the roof. Let's get going now." He paused for a moment and watched another round of magical bolts being fired. "Oh neat, the heavy weapons designs are coming together nicely. Anyway, let's go!"
It was still weird how he went from barely tolerating her to acting like they'd been friends for years. Emily took one last glance at the training grounds before following.
"Exo. Carapace." King Blueblood's eyes shot between Emily and the changeling. "Exo, you say that you have a gift for me. Please, present it now."
Exo smirked. "Gladly."
Another green flame flashed on his body, though unlike last time, it was localized to one of his hind legs--the same one that he'd been limping on. With the fire now dissipated, he reached down and... detached the leg, handing it to the King.
"Ah, your false leg," Blueblood took the metallic cylinder from Exo. "I trust you have finally acquired the scroll?"
Exo nodded once.
"And you, Carapace. Why are you still disguised?"
Emily froze. Carapace must've been Exo's partner. How was she supposed to--
"Unfortunately, Carapace was captured and imprisoned in Canterlot, your Highness. I overheard that her name is Emily."
Hoo boy. Emily braced herself for the worst. Now that her identity was revealed, Blueblood was probably going to absolutely tear into her for running awa--
"Very well then. Ensure that she does not pose any danger to our kingdom."
...Wait, what? That was it? No 'hold on, that's the girl we put on the poster' or 'I recognize that name, capture her'?
"I don't think I remember ever hearing Blueblood calling you by anything other than my own name, Emi. I'm pretty sure he's never heard yours until now."
Still, wouldn't he put two and two together and realize that humans seem to be the only ones around here that tend to not be named after random things?
"Why do you think the Blueblood family has never officially ruled over anything besides a hermit faction?"
And then, a single cheer. And another, and another after that...
Within only a matter of moments, it seemed as if the entire liberated city was rejoicing.
Yet another distant distant bang. Emily rolled her eyes as she lay on her bed in the tree dungeon thing.
"Yeah, sorry about the noise," Exo peeked through the barred window in the wall. "The dungeons aren't exactly the quietest of places. I'm sure that once King Blueblood trusts that you pose no harm to the kingdom, you'll have the chance to join me and the others at the palace."
"Mm-hm," Emily hummed. Her stomach growled. "Hey, by the way, do you think you could let me out now?"
"Wha--I just said that you're in here because you aren't trusted yet!"
Emily pulled her saddlebags closer and began to rummage through their contents. "Yeah, I know that, but didn't you say a little something about... oh, y'know--" she pulled a smashed granola bar from her bags and began to unwrap it in all its crumbling goodness. "--treating me to dinner?"
Starlight's voice snorted. "Wow. Didn't think you had it in you to say something like that, Emi."
She took a bite out of the granola bar. Crumbs dropped from the ominously hovering snack as she continued. "So, Exo, how 'bout it? Dinner, just you and me? Half an hour, and I'll be back in here. Deal?"
"I...wh--" Exo sputtered behind the wall. He disappeared from the window for a few seconds before returning. "Okay, fine. Just remember that there will be guards watching you at all times. If you want to live, don't do anything stupid."
The wall opened up to reveal Exo and the aforementioned guards.
Emily grabbed her saddlebags, setting them on her back as she stuffed the rest of the granola bar in her mouth. Exo frowned.
"Come on, let's make this quick." He sighed. "Guards, stay at her sides. I'd rather not further raise the suspicion of the King tonight after having lost my previous partner today."
"So, that's it then?" Emily stepped out of the cell. "I've just got some guards sticking by me while I wander? I thought--"
"The dungeon is the easiest way to keep an eye on you. Nobody said that it is the only option, however. Now follow me."
Eh, easiest way or not, it still felt like he was low-key crushing on her.
"Wow is correct, Emily." Aero glanced down a street. "The shopping district at night is one of the many wonders of the Old Guard. King Blueblood himself is quite proud of how well it has taken to his modernization changes."
Emily nodded slowly, taking in the view. For a tiny fort kingdom in the middle of a forest, this place was absolutely filled with things she would've expected to find at, like, downtown strip-malls or something. She looked to her side. Was that a supermarket there? How the heck was something like that even necessary here?
"It certainly is far better-kept than it was back when I was around, that's for sure." Starlight mused.
She felt a nudge from one of the guards surrounding her. In her periphery, she could see their hoof pointing at Exo.
"Are you going to continue admiring our lighting fixtures, or will you follow?" Exo stepped away from Emily. "Come on, I have some places in mind. I'm sure you'll like them."
"Uh-huh," Emily began to follow again. "We'll see about that. I'll have you know that I'm picky when I want to be. I'm usually fine with just about anything, but tonight I think I want something more on the savory si--" She stopped just behind him. "Wait, we're here already?"
"Yup. What, did you expect our little city-state of a kingdom to have a diverse range of high-end restaurants? These are just the ones I personally pass by the most."
Fair enough. Emily peeked past Exo. "So... what are the options here?"
"We've got a restaurant serving artisanal soups and pastries, a pasta place, and some oddball joint that's got nothing but forest food. What's your pick?"
"I'll try the pasta place."
Exo nodded, starting toward one of the surrounding buildings. Emily trailed close behind.
"Do you want any drinks? Desserts? I have money to spa--DUCK!" a deafening shockwave rocked the ground as Exo tackled her. "What in the name of Celestia was that?"
The shockwave didn't subside. Instead, it was quickly replaced by a strong wind that spent little time flinging rubble and dust into the air. Emily looked up from beneath Exo, her eyes widening at the sight of the off-blue plume rising from beside the palace.
The same location as the training grounds.
"S-Star, that... it--" she halted the stutter with a hoof. If the explosion came from the training grounds, didn't that mean that every single crystal embedded within those guns from earlier were caught in the blast?
"I fear worse, Emi. You already know firsthoof how volatile those shards of crystal are. While neither of us were conscious to witness the explosion we ourselves set off back in Canterlot, I wouldn't be surprised if it were around the same size as this one."
So wouldn't that mean that the shards backfired the same way then? Were they going to have to deal with another harmony-transformed creature? Emily gasped. How many guards were there again? If each of them had their own crystal-based weapons that were also caught in the blast, wouldn't it mean that they would be directly affected as well? Or--
"Calm down, Emi. Don't be like Exo there in front of you."
Emily nodded. From the look of things, it seemed that Exo must've gotten off her back not too long ago, as he was currently standing in absolute silence, staring at the glowing plumes.
"The... the weapons--the Ashen will know of their existence!" He stammered, bolting toward the epicenter. "I must find and alert King Blueblood at once! Word of this must not spread!"
The ground began to tremble again, though this time it was not from some magical mega-bomb going off. Emily squinted, ducking beneath an incoming umbrella. Was that... was that a--
"Yup, it's a stampede." Starlight deadpanned. "Typical. And before you ask, no, I will not levitate you over them to get us out of this situation."
...But she wasn't thinking of that in the first place? Would've been a neat idea though. Emily turned her attention back to the oncoming stampede. Exo too had stopped dead in his tracks.
Thankfully, it seemed that the crowd up close was quite a bit thinner than how it looked at a distance.
"You there!" Exo darted after one of the passing ponies, pulling them up close. "Give me a damage report, pronto!"
"I-I just saw an explosion, tha--"
"We all saw an explosion, you nimrod! I wanna know how it happened!"
The pony nodded. "Something went wrong on the training grounds, I think. I-I was passing by... and... and I heard a thump! I didn't think much of it, but there was some yelling about... dropping something, I think? The air started to wave around in a strange way not long after--almost like a mirage. I tried to stay calm to avoid starting any panic, b-but--"
"Good enough," Exo let go of the pony. "Emily, we're heading to the training grounds. Dinner will have to wait. Blueblood will surely be traveling there to assess the damage himself."
He took off without another word. Emily felt a nudge against her back.
"I think it's best if you follow along." One of the guards grumbled. "For your sake and ours."
...Yeah, that wasn't something she was going to question.
"--So you're saying that the crystal must've been damaged when the weapon was dropped?"
"Yes, Emi, that's exactly what I'm getting at. The explosion was likely an uncontrolled release of Harmony magic, rather than a backfire like what happened with you. Not that I'm familiar with either as far as magical studies go, but that's beside the point. Just... be prepared for anything to happen."
Emily broke into a trot. She could hear a different guard groan behind her, followed by their own collective hoofsteps hastening.
The plume of smoke was far bigger up, and just as much more intimidating as well. Thunder crackled somewhere within it. Nevertheless, she continued forward.
This was it. She stared at what remained of the training grounds' walls. None of the guards from earlier were around, though... her eyes turned to the rubble surrounding the central crater. There were silhouettes imprinted in the soot on the ground and the damaged walls.
Emily forced herself to look away. Exo seemed to be inspecting the crater alongside King Blueblood in the distance, though she could only make out the vague shapes of their bodies against the glowing smoke continuing to billow from the hole. A low rumble echoed through the air. Probably more thunder.
"Exo!" She waved a hoof in the air. "Exo! Did you find out what happened?"
He didn't hear. Or maybe he did and just didn't pay attention. She stepped closer to the crater, paying mind to step around the soot-free shadows on the ground. She dreaded the thought of what it must've been like to be caught in the blast like the guards here were.
"Emi, do you see that?"
She raised a brow. What was Starlight talking about? Even this close to the crater, all she could see was smoke.
"There's something at the bottom of the crater. It's hard to see without concentrating, but there's definitely something moving down there."
Emily looked up at Exo and Blueblood. They still hadn't noticed her, apparently. She turned her attention back to the plume rising from the crater. Now that it was finally beginning to thin out a little, she could just make out a bit of color against the grey-brown of the smoke and rubble. She stepped a little closer. It was certainly moving alright, and it... Emily craned her neck for a better view. What was it doing?
Emily gasped. Someone was down there still! Better yet, they were alive!
"Wait wait Emi what do you think you're doi--"
Not now, Star. Emily wrestled herself free from the guards trying to restrain her, barreling straight into the smoke.
Emily took another blind step, holding her hands out--she paused. Hands? She was human again!
Little celebration aside, she pressed onward. Even with the murkiness dissipating, it still felt as if she were walking in a cave. The coughing was louder in here, at the very least. She could hear her guards frantically telling Exo about her being in the crater as well. He didn't sound very happy about that.
"Hello?" She repeated, waving away the smoke in front of her. Strangely enough, the tips of her fingers were beginning to fuse back into a hoof. Even stranger was that it didn't feel like anything was changing in the first place.
More coughing. She was definitely close now. Just a little further. Her arms had since transformed back into pony forelegs.
And then the smoke was gone.
Or at least, it was gone in this specific part of the crater. Emily looked overhead; sure enough, that same glowing smoke continued to flow all around this strange dome of fresh air. She teetered a little, falling back on all fours.
"...Emi, are you seeing this?"
"Seeing wha--" She turned her focus to the side.
Right there, unconscious, was some kind of... creature.
"I think I finally know what happened to Fluttershy all those years ago."
'Fluttershy' groaned, pushing herself off the ground. She held a misshapen claw to her head. "Wha... what happened?"
She opened her eyes and peered at the surrounding destruction. "Oh my. D-did I do this? I--" She turned, staring directly at Emily.
"Um... Hi?" Emily stepped a little closer. "Here, do you need some he--"
"No! No, get away from me!" Fluttershy squeaked, backing away from the mare. "Stay away, before I accidentally hurt you!"
Emily raised a brow. "No? I've been through plenty worse at this point. Trust me."
Fluttershy shook her head and snapped her fingers.
Wait, where the heck were they now? This wasn't the training ground place thing anymore!
"Pretty sure we got caught in Flutters' teleportation spell. Pretty rough execution of one too, I'll admit. I'm not entirely familiar with this place, but I believe we're in the Chaos realm at the moment, home dimension of Discord."
"Hmf. Fine then," Emily brushed herself off. "Oh hey, I'm human again. Nice."
"Chaos magic counteracts Harmony magic. But about what I said right before that. Did you listen to me, Emi?"
"Yeah, yeah, chaos world, some dude named Discord, I'm inherently chaotic or whatever, yadda yadda. I got it, okay?" She stood up. "I see Fluttershy over there. I'm gonna go talk to her."
She walked toward the cowering form huddled not too far away. "Hey--"
Fluttershy shrunk away with a gasp. "W-where did you come from? I thought... I thought--"
"That you got away? Nope. You kinda took me with you." She stopped in front of Fluttershy, staring over the draconequus' body. "So anyway, I've got some questions."
"I know well that she's not gonna answer, Emi. She's scared out of her mind right now."
Emily looked away from Fluttershy. Starlight did have a point. Not to mention the fact that "shy" was literally in the name.
"Leave her alone for now. I can try answering your questions instead."
A nod. Emily stepped aside, though she kept Fluttershy in her periphery.
"Actually, you know what? I can read your thoughts anyway. I'll just answer them right here, right now. First of all, Fluttershy's a draconequus now, apparently. Given how her disappearance coincided with the disappearance of Discord, the pretty much de-facto Lord of Chaos, I don't think it'd be unreasonable to believe that he transferred his form and powers to Fluttershy before quietly passing away. Secondly--"
Fluttershy approached Emily, her head still hanging low. "I'm ready. I... want to ask you some questions too, if that's okay with you. Do you mind if I ask first?"
Emily shook her head.
"What are you, and where did you come from? I only saw a pony before I teleported."
Man. Hitting with the blunt questions right off the bat, huh? Emily cleared her throat. "Well, to start, I'm a human. I was that pony that you saw, but that's only thanks to an accident I had with harmony magic. I... think being in this place must've reversed the effects temporarily. As for how I got here, I already told you--" She shrugged. "--You just kinda took me with you when you teleported."
Star piped up again. "Here, Emi, do you mind if I take over for a bit? I knew Fluttershy as a friend in life, so maybe things won't be quite as awkward if it's the two of us talking and you listening."
Well, if it meant less awkwardness, then she's all for it. Emily immediately felt herself go numb as Starlight took control over her body.
Another surprised squeak from the draconequus. "H-how do you know my name?"
"Fluttershy, it's me, Starlight. Do you remember?"
"No, you're..." Fluttershy shook her head. "You're not Starlight. Starlight wasn't a... what did you call yourself? A hoo-min."
"Yes, a human. Fluttershy, how long do you think you've been living here? Just wondering."
The draconequus brought a claw to her chin. She seemed to be a little more relaxed now, thankfully. "A decade, perhaps? Maybe a little more than that?"
"Flutters, it's been over a century. I died and was reincarnated into this body."
"I'm Starlight Glimmer. After you disappeared, only Rarity and Pinkie were left. Once they were gone, it was only me, Twi, and Spike. After Pinkie... well, passed away, Twilight made the decision to step down as Princess of Equestria. An entire war was fought in the months following over what direction Equestria would go in without a Princess in charge, and even now, years after anypony who could've possibly been alive during that war is long-gone, Equestria's still split in two. I myself died at the end of that same war, apparently, but thanks to sheer luck, I now share a body with a human girl from an entirely different plane of reality."
Emily mentally rolled her eyes. What was Starlight expecting when she said all that? You don't just tell someone that everything they know and love is dead and gone!
"Listen. Fluttershy--" Starlight stepped a little closer. "--you were confused over how you were summoned, right?"
"Right now, as I speak, Equestria is divided into two factions. Most of the nation falls within the territory of a faction that calls itself the Ashen Phoenix, and for the most part, I would say that it is the most similar of the two to what Equestria once was. The other--the Old Guard--has been actively working for generations to put an end to their rival. So far, I know of two different ways that they're trying to go about this. Are you ready to hear them?"
Another nod, albeit a little slower this time.
"The first tactic that they're trying to use is my old time-travel spell. I'd honestly thought that it'd been destroyed forever, but, as made apparent by the literal hundreds of copies that are likely scattered across the world now, I was wrong. The second, and at the moment more frightning tactic, is weaponized Harmony."
Fluttershy frowned. "But... wouldn't that be a good thing? I know we've beaten plenty of monsters using Harmony magic from the Elements in the past..."
"Well yes, but actually no. I'm pretty sure that when you and your friends used the Elements of Harmony, the magic was able to flow naturally. These weapons that the Old Guard have been making, on the other hoof..." she stared at her hand mid-gesture. "...hand, excuse me--seem to operate more on the ability to force Harmony magic out, in the same way that traditional magic tends to be performed."
Star, do you think that this might be going over Fluttershy's head just a little bit?
Starlight continued talking, ignoring Emily's quip. "In other words, weaponized Harmony magic has resulted in weaponry that looks to be equal to, if not more powerful than the collective Elements of Harmony, condensed into a single long-ranged weapon that draws its power from a shard of the former Tree of Harmony."
That caught Fluttershy's full attention for sure. "F-former? What do you mean?"
"At some point or another during the war, the Tree of Harmony was shattered. I still have no idea to this day who was responsible, but the resulting shards have begun seeing use as a basis for weaponry. I myself have experienced firsthand what it's like to use such a weapon, albeit in a much more crude fashion. Actually, hold on just a moment--" She took the saddlebags-turned-backpack off her back and began to rummage through it. She pulled out the remaining shard from the Tree of Harmony. "Here's a piece of the Tree if you'd like any proof. I doubt that it's going to be able to do anything here, but what matters is that it exists. The Tree of Harmony is no more, and the same goes for the Elements."
Fluttershy stared at the crystal.
"Can I..." she reached out with a paw. "Um... Starlight, would you mind if I touched it?"
Starlight shrugged, holding the shard closer to the draconequus. "I wouldn't know why I would mind. Why do you ask?"
A faint pulse of light shone from within the crystal as Fluttershy's paw made contact. For a brief moment, her draconequus form vanished, replaced by the all-too-familiar pony Starlight had known in life.
Fluttershy took her hoof off the crystal, prompting her transformation back into a draconequus. She let out a sigh. "Thanks. I think I really needed that after all this time. It isn't easy being what I am, you see--" she looked over her shoulder. "--though my animal friends are very different from the ones I used to have, they're still scared of me even now. Not even the fact that I made them myself seems to help."
Starlight felt something nudge itself against her feet. A cursory glance revealed some sort of puffball of sorts that seemed to be trying to climb her leg.
A tired smile formed on Fluttershy's face. "Well, at least they seem to like you, Starlight."
"Mmyeah, it sure looks like it... so... uh, Fluttershy?"
"I was just wondering..." Starlight bent down and picked up the ball of fluff, cradling it in her arms. "Would you be willing to return to Equestria? Help put an end to all this nonsense?"
Fluttershy responded with a frantic shake of her head. Made sense, given her apparent fear of hurting others on accident.
"Please," Starlight pushed onward. "Fluttershy, the best chance we've got right now is only to get rid of the scrolls. We didn't even know about the weaponized Harmony stuff until earlier today! If there's anything that could stop harmony, it's disharmony. And even if that doesn't work, you're still one of the best negotiators I've ever known! Who else can stare down any creature on the face of this planet and win? Tell me."
"M-me..." Fluttershy hung her head. "I... I guess I could try coming along. I really don't want to have to use any of my magic, though. I didn't even know that Discord was planning on giving it all to me before he passed. It's why I banished myself here. I don't want to be a menace to society. I--"
"--And you aren't," Starlight cut in. "You're Fluttershy. If there's anypony that I would say is the opposite of what you just said, it'd be you, no matter what form you take. You don't have to use your magic if you don't want to. I just want you to try and talk, that's all I'm asking."
A pause. Fluttershy looked away, toward her little cottage by the chocolate milk river. She sucked in a deep breath and turned back to Starlight.
Time remembers all,1 They say a picture's worth a thousand words, But history waits for none.41 But what's a thousand words to a secret none have known? Try as you might to shout and call,2 Or a thousand words to an extra 23 kilobytes? But in the end, that moment is done.40
Emily and Fluttershy returned in a puff of smoke. The former opened an eye. "Oh? We're back in the crater again?"
Fluttershy nodded. "Time passes differently where I've been living."
"Welp." Emily trotted to the edge of the crater. She looked over her shoulder. "Whether it passed faster or slower in your world doesn't really matter. C'mon."
Fluttershy carefully followed as the mare climbed out of the hole. Thankfully, there didn't seem to be many guards around at the moment, though that was probably thanks to the explosion from earlier still being fresh on everyone's minds.
"Are you sur--"
"Mm-hmm. Sure I'm sure it's safe for you to show yourself. The rest of the folks here are off panicking or something as far as I know, so--"
"No, I... I'm not talking about myself." Fluttershy climbed out of the crater, wincing as a loose twig snapped under a claw. "I'm more concerned that I might hurt somepony. There's a reason why I didn't want to come back."
Emily looked over the awkward, mismatched body of Fluttershy. "I guess... yeah, I think I see where you're coming from. You're not exactly the best-looking, to be honest."
The draconequus shook her head. "That's not what I--"
"Who goes there?" A guard's voice echoed from behind one of the remaining walls. "You know this is a restricted area at the moment, don't you?"
Fluttershy froze in place, gritting her teeth. "Starlight, grab onto me! I'll try to teleport us to somewhere safe.
Emily and lifted her hoof, though she stopped at the sight of Exo in her periphery. He was holding something in his mouth as he passed by, though, thankfully, he didn't seem to notice them quite yet.
Fluttershy looked over her shoulder at the source of the approaching hoofsteps. "Starlight..."
A pasty-beige corner of parchment glinted from his mouth.
The whole reason why she came here in the first place.
"Starlight..." Fluttershy mumbled under her breath, "He's going to see me! What if he thinks I'm here to hurt him?"
Fine. Scroll later. Emily jammed her hoof into Fluttershy's open paw. disappearing with the draconequus in a puff of smoke.
Or at least, what was left of one.
Emily scratched her head. This wasn't exactly the place she thought Fluttershy would've taken her. Still, random cottage ruins or not, she had to go back. She held up the tracking amulet, pausing for a moment to take in her surroundings. There was an old clocktower nearby, but that didn't tell much besides the time of day... and even then, it seemed to be wrong on that too at the moment.
It was a good thing then that the Everfree Forest was nearby.
Totally saw that the first time around.
"Stop talking to yourself, Emi."
Right. Emily looked down to her amulet... of which was no longer there.
Starlight's facehoof echoed through her head. "Great."
Fluttershy popped into existence with a puff of confetti, silently inspecting a scroll. Wait, scratch that--inspecting the scroll, and holding the amulet, and--
"Um, Fluttershy?" Emily stepped toward the draconequus. "Where did you find that?"
That seemed to snap Fluttershy out of whatever it was that she'd been concentrating on. She glanced at the amulet dangling from her paw, then to Emily. "O-oh, I'm terribly sorry... it's just that ever since Discord gave me his powers, it's been very hard for me to stay focused on things. When I'm at home I have my animal friends to remind me about what I'm doing, but here, I sometimes slip u--"
"No no, no need to apologize!" Emily grinned. "Actually, what you just did saves me a lot of time! Do you think you can keep doing that?"
Fluttershy raised a brow. "...Excuse me?"
"Whatever it was that you did there. Y'know, taking my tracker and finding the scroll?"
Fluttershy blinked, turning her attention to the other item in her paw. "I... did that?"
"Yup. Would've done it myself, but you beat me to it."
...Actually, come to think of it, how did Fluttershy manage to find the darn thing so quick?
"I keep saying this, but I'll say it again, Emi, don't think about it. It'll be better for the both of us if you don't go crazy anytime soon."
Emily lit her horn, taking the scroll from Fluttershy's grasp. "...So, how did you find the scroll so quickly?"
Cue another facehoof, right on time! She ignored Starlight's exasperated groan.
"I... don't really know, actually," Fluttershy fidgeted with a curled lock of her mane. Hair? Whatever it is that draconequuses have on top of their noggins. "I just kind of did it."
Welp, that rules out the idea of doing what Flutters does.
She finally got the scroll! No doubt the Old Guard folks were probably panicking over the fact that some weird chimera dragon goat pony thing popped in and yoinked it from them. It was probably best that they stayed out of the place for a while.
Wait a sec, where did Fluttershy go again?
"'Dunno. You should be more observant next time."
The ground rumbled as a plume of smoke began to rise from the Everfree Forest. Fluttershy once again teleported back, this time covered in soot. "You told me before that the Old Guard made special weapons using pieces of the Tree of Harmony. I... got rid of them so that they won't harm anypony. Oh, I do hope nopony was hurt in the explosion, though."
"Well, two birds, one stone. You're doing good so far, Flutters." Emily smiled. "You aren't a menace to society, even if you do use your magic. Heck--" she tried her best to gesture with her forelegs, though falling on her rump was the only result she got from her efforts. "--ow. But anyway, my point is, even though Star...er, I said that you don't have to use magic, you did anyway, and look at all the good you've done already!"
Fluttershy hung her head. "I don't think destroying a place where ponies live can be called 'doing good'..."
"Still, you get my point, right? You're helping me keep those ponies from dying. Don't forget, both the Old Guard and the Ashen have been preparing for war lately. I don't want to see that kind of bloodshed, and I'm sure you don't either."
"I... I guess..."
Emily's aura turned the shade of Starlight's as the mare took over for a moment, waving the scroll in front of her eyes. "Emi, you're still holding onto the scroll. Aren't you forgetting something?"
Oh yeah. The destroy part.
The scroll burst into flames in Emily's aura, eliciting a surprised squeak from the watching Fluttershy.
"Wh-why did you do that?" Fluttershy cocked her head. "I didn't know we were burning these scrolls!"
Emily shrugged. "I gotta get rid of them somehow, y'know. I don't want to have to deal with someone nabbing one of these things out of some personal stash or something. So anyway--" Emily took her amulet back from Fluttershy. "One down, more to go. I'm heading back up to Canterlot, and you're coming with me."
Fluttershy's eyes widened. "Canterlot? I... wouldn't it be much harder for me to stay hidden?"
Another shrug. "You can disguise yourself, can't you?"
Fluttershy shook her head.
"No, I don't think I can. I can barely control my magic in the first place."
"Maybe... teleport somewhere safe whenever you can? I know you said you're not exactly the greatest at magic and all, but I know you can at least teleport pretty easily. Actually, speaking of which--do you think you could teleport us to Canterlot? It'd definitely be a nice little time-saver if you can."
"I... think I can do that."
Emily cocked her head. "Teleporting somewhere safe, or teleporting us to Canterlot?"
Huh. Well, no more Aero Express, then.
Fluttershy held out a claw. "Hold on tight, Starlight. I don't want you to get hurt when I do this."
...How does hold thing with hoof?
"Again with the hooves," Starlight groaned. "I told you already when you were asking about the chopsticks. It just works. Don't question it."
Fine then. Emily grabbed Fluttershy's outstretched claw. Somehow.
Ah, Canterlot. The city of can't! Like how she can't turn back into a human no thanks to one particularly tricky salespony! Or how without the tracker amulet, she can't find the scroll stash that's apparently hiding somewhere in the city! Fluttershy, for her part, looked like she was absolutely mesmerized by the city. Probably because she hasn't seen it in ages.
"She hasn't seen it in ages."
Exactly. Emily lifted up her tracking amulet, topping it up with mana before activating it. No blip of light on any edge, so there wasn't anything nearby in this part of the city.
"Hey Flutters," Emily passed the amulet to Fluttershy. Do you think you could try sniffing out the scrolls in Canterlot for me? I'd really appreciate it if you can."
Fluttershy took the device. "I... I can try. Could you tell me how it works first? So that I know what to look for."
"Didn't you already find that first scroll using the tracker?"
Fluttershy shook her head. "I wasn't thinking when I did that."
Fine then. Crash course time. Emily pointed at the amulet. "You see how there are many sides on the crystal?"
"The crystal stores enough mana for two uses before you have to recharge it with your own. Just tap the crystal when you think you might be near a scroll, and if you are, a light will show up on the side of the crystal closest to the scroll. It's kinda like a compass if you think about it."
Fluttershy took off her glasses and put away the little notebook that'd appeared in her paw. "Got it. I'll go look now."
She teleported away in a puff of confetti.
"You really shouldn't be pushing your work off onto others like that. I know Fluttershy wants to be helpful and all, but in her current form and state? Are you crazy? The moment she pops up and nabs a scroll, everybody is going to know that there's a draconequus on the loose! Not only that, but one that's a former Element of Harmony! The Old Guard started for the purpose of trying to make Equestria stay as close as possible to how it's always been, so knowing that a former Element bearer is still alive and well will absolutely be brought to their attention! I'm hoping to Celestia that they didn't spot her back at the fortress."
Okay, okay, geez, fine, grouchypants. No more telling Fluttershy to use her super-senses or whatever to find stuff faster. They'll just use the slower way.
Though, at the moment, all there really was to do was sit and wait.
Day and night was spent searching all around, high and low.
But in the end, it was all for naught.
That certainly didn't take very long.
"A-already?" Emily stared at the scroll in Fluttershy's grasp. "That was, what--a few minutes?"
"Emi, I think you should pay more attention to the pon--er, draconequus that's holding it."
Emily turned her gaze upward.
Fluttershy quivered, her grip tightening around the scroll. "Take it. Just take it. I..." She fell silent at the sound of distant hooftsteps.
Thankfully, they didn't come any closer. Fluttershy sighed heavily. "I think I hurt somepony while I was getting the scroll... A lot of guardsponies probably saw me when I teleported inside."
"Oh?" Starlight's voice seethed in the back of Emily's head. "Oh? Is that really all you have to say? Fluttershy's not cut-out for this! I've known her for far longer than you ever have! But what do you do? You just keep on using her as your personal little scroll-finder! Look at her! I know I said before that we need all the help we can get, but now? I think we should leave Flutters out of this. She's already been through enough."
"I'm not done yet, Emi. Knowing that Discord himself is long-gone, Fluttershy is as a result the only draconequus alive. Do you know what that means when you've got two nations vying to obliterate each other? It means they'll be looking for her. The Ashen and the Old Guard are both well-versed in their history, and they know the power of a draconequus. I'm just going to say this now, but I'm almost certain that they're going to want to harness Fluttershy's power in some way or another. After all, Chaos is the only known counter to Harmon--"
"Oi!" An unseen voice shouted down the alley. "Who's there? You know there's a curfew now that the Old Guard is testing weaponry again!"
Fluttershy gasped, inadvertently crushing the scroll copy in her paw. "I-I need to get away! I can't let anypony see me like... like this!"
"Girlie, you're in for a heap of trouble if you don't scram right now. This is my last warning before I come and take you in for violating curfew."
Emily's view was blocked by Fluttershy's outstretched claw.
"Grab onto me! I'm going to teleport us somewhere safer!"
Emily raised a brow. "And that is?"
"The Chaos realm. I don't want to stay here any longer. I've been a bother to enough ponies already."
The sound of hoofsteps began to approach them. Fluttershy shook her claw in Emily's face. "Come on, you're really... peeving me right now..."
Starlight groaned, forcing control over Emily's body. "Okay, time's up now, Emi. You done goofed." She lit her horn, wrapping herself and Fluttershy in an invisibility spell.
The Ashen guardspony rounded the corner and stared down the seemingly-empty alley. He grumbled something under his breath and continued past.
"Why are you offering to take me with you?" Emily began again, "I'm staying behind--"
"Wait--Emi," Starlight sputtered. Her invisibility spell fizzled out. "H-how did you take back control so easily? It's like I was just shoved aside there!"
A shrug. Emily turned her attention back to Fluttershy. "Go if you want. I'm not going to leave the fate of the world hanging just because I'm afraid."
...Actually, hold on a hot moment, if Starlight knows Fluttershy, it'd be a far better idea for her to speak to Flutters. Or at least, maybe give some pointers on how to deal with that mare.
"Let her go. That's all I'm going to say. I was hoping that we could work with her, but you've been far too reckless in just the past couple of hours to let me believe that you can keep yourself and Fluttershy safe."
Oh. Welp, Fluttershy's clearly looking more than a little weirded out by the whole internal-external dialogue stuff.
"Uhhhh... here, Fluttershy, how about this? We'll teleport back to Ponyville for a while. Maybe hide out in Granny Ambrosia's orchard for a bit and lay low. Oh, and by the way, the name's Emily. I know Starlight mentioned a bunch of things about being reincarnated into my body and stuff, but I'm the original owner of this body. Starlight's just my... well, guest, really. Or roommate. Sister?" Emily set the thought aside. "Anyway, point is, I didn't get to introduce myself earlier, and Star's saying I'm being a bit cuckoo, so I want to start things off again on the right path. First, could I tell you a quick story about myself? I'm hoping it might inspire you or something."
Fluttershy gave a slight nod.
"Okay. So. Back in my home world, since I'm originally a human and all, I was... am a somewhat prodigious student. For the most part, I was able to tackle just about anything thrown my way, whether it be a test, a recital, or whatever. However, one day, the world just kinda... stopped existing."
"I know that's in--"
Fluttershy cocked her head. She sat down on an overturned flower pot. "Continue?"
"Anyway, after that whole debacle came and went, that left me to wake up from my own life, like as if it were only a dream. I was terrified at first, naturally, and for a few hours, all I wanted to do was to put myself back to sleep and hope that I could continue that dream. It didn't work."
"Oh? So what happened, then? Were you still scared?"
"Oh, yeah, absolutely. I'd use a certain word starting with an 's' to describe how I felt, but I'm not really one to swear. So anyway, after that, I was left with pretty much no other choice but to forge my own path through that new reality. Apparently, I'd actually originally come from there, as I had some old friends waiting for me, ready to welcome me back. Kinda like you and Starlight, Flutters.
"Continuing on, it turned out that the world that I thought was a dream when I first woke up actually was this crazy virtual-reality simulation thing that I'd been living in. The problem was that the reason why the world stopped existing was because someone, or something, was attacking it."
Fluttershy gasped. "Oh, like a monster? My friends and I have had to deal with plenty of those before."
Emily shook her head. "Nope, no monster. Just a group of cranky people who had a grudge against the folks who made the simulation. Turns out I was actually one of them, though I'd apparently forgotten after all that time I spent inside the simulation world. Long story short, I had to overcome my fears of losing everything I had in order to work toward the greater good; saving the world. Kinda like the situation you're in now."
"Emi," Starlight began, "You know that's false. Where did you even pull that story from, anyway? It sounded oddly familiar."
Well, obviously she knew it was false. Or at least, when applied to herself it was. Short to say, Lisa's a pretty good storyteller when she's given the chance. Even then, though, it was unlikely that anything in that story was true even when applied to her... unless--
"Okay, okay, I get it. You recycled your friend's story as your own to try and help Fluttershy."
"...Emily?" Fluttershy tapped her on the shoulder. "Why are you staring straight ahead and making faces?"
Oh, right. She still weirds out others even when she doesn't respond verbally to Star.
"Um. Yeah, sorry about the staring. I was talking to Starlight in my head. So..." Emily scratched her head, though it came off more as awkwardly rubbing her mane with her hoof than anything else. "I guess, if you still want to go home, then that's fine by me. I'll do my best to try and keep the world safe until you're ready again."
Fluttershy vanished, flower pot and all. The only thing left behind was the tracking amulet that now sat on the ground.
"Wow, okay then."
"I mean, excuse the mental eye-roll, Emi, but you kinda had it coming, regardless of what inspirational story you pulled out of thin-air."
Welp. That happened.
Emily bent over, picking up the amulet with her mouth. How ponies made do with mouthing things around all the time was still a mystery to her, though the convenience factor she could certainly see at the moment. Though, for now, there were far more pressing matters to attend to. She looked up, staring down the empty alley. Without Fluttershy, it was going to take a whole lot longer to find the rest of the scrolls.
...Dangit. Should've at least asked Flutters about which building the scroll was from. A lead would've been a nice takeaway.
"But, you blew your chance, so here we are."
"See anything out of the ordinary, Star?"
"Nope. Emi, remind me why we've been following a group of patrolling guards for the past hour again?"
"There's a chance that they might be on shifts. If we follow them for long enough, we might be able to get closer to wherever they're based. I'd imagine that the scrolls would be at least somewhat close-by to wherever their main headquarters or whatever it's called is."
"Yeah, alright. I see your point."
Another group of guards approached from up ahead, coming in the opposite direction. Judging by their gossip, they probably weren't on patrol at the moment. Unless they were just a rowdy bunch.
"--cer. Did you hear that she was thrown against a wall? And they're saying that the repair costs for that stinkin' piece of drywall is gonna come out of her paycheck! Can you believe it?" The stallion shrugged as he walked. "Though, I guess one nice thing we got out of that whole ordeal is some nice security footage of that draconequus. I heard that there's already a hunt of sorts to find it. I haven't seen the security footage myself, but some of my other colleagues that did say that it looked a lot like Fl--"
The stallion stopped his yapping, immediately striking a salute along with his buddies.
"Time for your shift."
"Exactly what we came here for."
Emily groaned, looking away from the armored ponies. Apparently, she very much did screw over Flutters in sending her out to get the scrolls. Whoop-de-doo. So much for following the guards, too. It looked like the gossip about Fluttershy had fully distracted them by now.
"Wait. Emi, look a little higher."
Emily raised a brow. She tilted her head upward. There was a railway up there.
...And... oh. Oh.
Emily facehoofed. Of course she'd forget that they literally passed between the two buildings holding the scroll stashes on her way back to Canterlot! All she'd have to do now was follow the rails until she finds the buildings!
Granted, finding them was probably the easy part, knowing what Fluttershy had to go through to get a single scroll. Chances are, those things were crawling with guards now after what'd happened.
Often easily shattered, yet so, so hard to fully reassemble.
There wasn't gonna be any Fluttershy to help out now.
Time to go with the old-fashioned way.
"Breaking and entering." Emily smirked. "Let's open another portal."
Starlight's voice audibly sighed in the girl's head. "Why am I not surprised? Listen--remember how draining it is to open portals? Are you absolutely sure you want to go through with that?"
"You're not going to push back against my idea?"
"Your head's already as hard as a brick anyway, so ramming it through a portal might actually help us."
Emily rolled her eyes. "Very funny. So, I'm thinking of going with the mirror portal spell this time instead of the free-floating ones. I don't exactly know enough about the inside of the building for a free-standing portal to work out, y'know? I just need a mirror."
"And we do not have a mirror."
"But we have something better than a mirror. Hold on--"
If Starlight could raise her brow right now, she would've. As for Emily, she fumbled with the clasp on her saddlebags for a moment before pulling a wad of bills out.
"Oh yeah. I forgot about that."
Emily frowned at the back-alley street markets poking from the shadows. Shopping at those places was definitely out of the question. Thankfully, there was no shortage of more legitimate-looking stores. Not to say that there wasn't a chance that she'd end up running for her life after buying something from one of those places either, though. Man, Equestria's a dangerous place.
"Furniture store. On your right. Oh wow, Quills & Sofas? They're still around after this long? And in Canterlot, too."
"Guess so." Emily eyed the hanging sign she was approaching. "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about, but a furniture store's a furniture store. Do they... uh, sell anything besides quills and sofas, by any chance?"
"I'd certainly hope so, though the one I knew back in Ponyville sold exclusively those two things back in the day from what I remember."
Eh, not like there was much to lose if that was still the case with this place. Emily walked through the doors. If there weren't any mirrors being sold here, she could always wander back out and find another pla--
"Hello there!" A mare waved from the side of Emily. "Looking for anything today at Quills & Sofas? We have a catalog if you'd like to take a look, and plenty of coupons to go with it! From what I remember, there's the usual perpetual sale on quills and sofas, and--"
"Err..." Emily shied away from the store greeter. "Sorry, but I'm just here for a mirror, but thanks for letting me know. I'll check this place out if I ever need... well, quills and sofas."
She could chew on this awkwardness if she wanted to, to be honest.
"Oh, well, alright then. Our mirrors are over in the decor section. Would you like for me to take you there?"
"'Kay, just follow me. Though, feel free to let me know if you see anything else you'd like to buy! Here at Quills & Sofas, we strive to give our customers the best service we can!"
...Yeah, okay. That last line was probably ripped straight from some employee handbook or something. Figures.
The greeter silently signaled for another passing employee to take her place before walking past Emily. "C'mon now, let's find you that mirror."
"That's a pretty nice-looking display cabinet, don't you think?"
Emily ignored Starlight's voice. Again.
"Come on, I get bored sometimes, too. This salespony's been snaking us through the entire store, and we still haven't gotten to whatever 'decor' section that she mentioned earlier!"
Huh. Whaddya know, they finally arrived at the mirrors. Only took a mini-marathon through every department in the building to get here.
"We here at Quills & Sofas have a wide variety of mirrors for you to choose from! We have hoof mirrors, bathroom mirrors, standing mirror--"
Emily picked up one of the standing mirrors in her magic and turned around. Magic made carrying things so much easier, come to think of it. Not to mention the benefit of getting away from that salespony mare quicker than she could if she were trying to lug the mirror away with her hands.
She made a quick trot to the checkout counters, checking once or twice along the way to ensure the that salespony had stopped trying to catch up. The sticker on one of the edges had the price listed, so that made it all the easier to prepare for the purchase.
"Just a mirror for today?" The stallion at the register looked up from his book. "Would you like to sign up for our rewards--"
"Nope." Emily placed enough bills on the counter to pay for the mirror, plus any sales tax that might not've been accounted for ahead of time. "Just the mirror. I'm in a rush. Keep the change!"
Starlight certainly seemed impressed by the change in pace. "You do realize that Equestria's always counted sales tax within the price of the items themselves, right? It's not an additional charge."
Keep the change means keep the change, Star.
Emily paused for a moment to scan the streets. Setting up a portal out in the open was going to guarantee suspicion. She had to do it somewhere out of the way.
"You're incredibly focused right now. Any reason for the shift?"
"I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I know what I have to do, and once it's done, I can finally go back home. I do like the ability to use magic and all, but--" She scampered across the street, mirror in tow. "--I can't imagine a life stuck as a pony. Once I'm done with this, I'm gonna figure out how to turn myself back permanently, and then I'm going home. For good."
She set the mirror down, leaning it carefully against the brick siding of a building behind a dumpster. Here, really the only folks who'd ever see the portal would be the ones to empty the trash, and even then, they probably wouldn't be looking specifically for a mirror behind the thing.
"Don't forget, Emi, the mirror portal spell links to the closest mirror it can find in range of the destination. Be prepared for anything."
"I know." Emily lit her horn. Charging up the portal spell was going to take a good chunk of her mana, so she'd have to be careful on what she spells she casts once she's in.
"Or I could take over while you recover," Starlight voiced. "Just saying."
...Was it just her, or is this portal spell taking far longer to link up than the last time she made a portal?
"Pretty sure it's got something to do with whatever anti-magic field is wrapped around the building. Did you really think that the guards would allow someone to just pop in on a moment's notice?"
"No, I wasn't thinking that. Though, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure how long the portal would stay open once it links up, either. Though, hopefully, once the scrolls are destroyed, we won't need a portal to get out."
The surface of the mirror began to ripple. Little by little, the reflection of Emily began to give way to a soft, pulsating blue.
Emily pressed a hoof against the surface, watching it pass through. "Ready, Star?"
"You probably shouldn't be doing that, y'know. We have no idea what's on the other side yet. Don't go poking things into the portal like that."
"Well excuse me for testing the waters, then. I'm going through."
Figures she'd have another encounter with a bathroom of some kind when it comes to portals. At least the mirror location wouldn't be hard to find once the quest was complete.
Emily pulled herself over the sinks, landing on the floor with a hard thud.
"Shh!" Starlight shushed. "We shouldn't be making any noise. Do you want me to--" her voice abruptly hastened. "--Emi, hide."
Emily's eyes shot to the mirror. It'd take far too long to try and scramble back through the portal. She rushed into an open stall and locked it. From behind the metal door, she could hear someone entering. The faucet came on as she held her breath. Even peeking through the cracks was a dangerous move right now.
Thankfully, the faucet was only on for a few seconds. She listened to the hoofsteps retreating to the bathroom door, then the creak of it opening and closing again.
Disaster averted. She let out a heavy sigh.
"I doubt the portal's going to still be open by now."
Emily raised a brow. She'd just opened the thing. Why would it close so quickly?
"Anti-magic field, remember? It already took a bit more effort than usual to open a portal, so I wouldn't be surprised if the part of the spell keeping the mirrors linked shuts down sooner than expected."
"As for what I was going to say earlier--" Starlight continued as Emily pulled out the tracker. "I was thinking that we could use another cloaking spell to disguise ourselves."
Emily nodded, still staring at the tracker. "Star, how do you think we should escape once this is done? I don't think I have enough mana to even try to open a portal back for a while."
"I don't see very many options beyond the cloaking spell, unfortunately. I'd rather not try to teleport out of what basically amounts to a building-sized magic inhibitor ring. As for the second part, I can take the reins if you'd like."
Emily closed her eyes, letting that familiar buzz wash over her again. Starlight was the one to open them. She tapped on the tracker amulet, though nothing happened. She lit her horn and tapped it again. This time, it pointed to the wall behind her; a good start, but not particularly helpful.
Enough with the tracker for now, though. As far as disguises go... Starlight took a moment to think. A building such as this would be swarming with royal guards, wouldn't it? A generic Canterlot Guard getup probably wouldn't look too out-of-place.
"Beats me. You're the expert here, Star."
Royal Guard it is, then. The glow around Starlight's horn intensified, wrapping around her body and sinking into her coat. Hopefully, that'd be enough.
Now then. Next step, leaving this place. Thankfully, nobody else had entered the restroom during the time she'd spent hiding, and now that she was fully disguised, there wasn't nearly as big of a risk. Starlight opened the stall door, peeking out toward the entrance.
"Coast looks clear, Star."
Starlight nodded, scampering across the floor to the door and opening it. She looked down the hall. Then the other side. The coast was clear for now.
"Y'know, Star, I think trying to hide and stuff is going to make us look more suspicious, not less."
Good point. Starlight paused, taking a moment to calm her breaths.
"You're nervous, aren't you?"
Of course she was nervous! Who in their right mind would not be nervous while breaking into a secure government facility?
"Eh, good point."
Okay. Deep breath, step into the hallway. There, that was easy enough, right? Starlight tucked the amulet inside the "armor" on her disguise. She already knew the general direction that it pointed in, anyway. If it came to it, triangulation was possible if it came to it.
"I wonder how Lizzy's doing up there with Flurry Heart?"
"There really isn't much I can do from the backseat, y'know."
Starlight rolled her eyes and continued walking. There were a couple of ponies coming their way, and... well, it seems that the disguise only served to attract their attention, rather than divert it.
Thankfully, they seemed to mind their own business as they passed, though she could hear a chuckle behind her moments later.
"Star, you wanna check the amulet again? We're getting close to the end of the hallway."
Not yet. At least, not here out in the open. It was dangerous enough as it was to be wandering the building in a disguise that only seemed to draw more attention. Pulling something out and looking at it might be even greater of a risk.
"Excuse me, ma'am," a voice behind her called, "I don't believe I've seen any royal guards entering the building these past few days. Would you mind explaining why you're doing rounds?"
"Changeling." Starlight silently prayed that the excuse would work. "Not too long ago, I discovered that there seems to be an attempt to infiltrate the building in pursuit of the scrolls by a changeling spy. I am here to assess any possible damage and report on it."
"Oh, okay then. Well... good luck with that, I guess."
Starlight turned her head. The pony who asked was walking away now, thankfully. He seemed to have bought the story.
She turned her attention to the tracker. Here at the end of the hall, it was bound to change direction. She tapped the surface of the device, watching it briefly flicker for a moment before a dim light surfaced on one of the edges. Sure enough, it was now pointing in a wildly different direction. She looked down the next hall after the corner.
"Mare in royal guard uniform," a voice over the intercom began slowly, "Please show identification to the nearest security camera. Failure to do so may result in arrest."