The voice of Princess Celestia, one normally so gentle that birds would fall weeping, resounded through Everfree Castle. The enchanted walls carried its echo through even the highest towers, in one of which happened to dwell its intended recipient.
Princess Luna stirred in her hiding spot. At least sleeping somewhere other than her room had gotten her a bit of extra time. But she knew that if she stayed up in the observatory any longer, Celestia would start to worry, and Celestia got a little crazy when she was truly worried. With a sigh, Luna took to her wings and flew down the spiral staircase, and into the throne room. “Yes, Celestia?”
Celestia’s normal expression of serenity was completely absent from her face. She was, instead, looking positively frazzled. “Luna, it’s been half an hour since the moon should have been up! I’ve had to keep the sun on the horizon the entire time so that the sky doesn’t go black. Where have you been?”
“Sleeping in,” Luna replied curtly, though her horn glowed as she raised the moon into the sky.
“Luna! How can you care so little about your duties?” Celestia’s voice had the slightest hint of anger, just about the worst it ever got.
“Nopony else seems to care if the night comes. I bet they were all happy to get an extra-long sunset before bed.” Luna turned and went to go down one of the corridors.
Celestia bit her lip. She had actually heard some of the castle ponies admiring the prolonged sunset. “Well, perhaps for one day. I mean, twilight is very beautiful…”
“Oh, Princess, you speak too kindly of me.” A unicorn with a red-orange coat and mane of the darkest purple trotted down from one of the towers. A pile of books and scrolls in a cart followed behind him, the wood of the cart audibly creaking under the weight. By the look on his face, he was already starting to regret trying to say something clever.
“Twilight Sage,” Princess Celestia replied, her voice returning to its normal calm, “if you need to do more research, stay in the library. Don’t bring the entire thing with you.” She couldn’t help but smile when the young scholar made one of his rare attempts to sound self-confident. He was normally far too intimidated by social situations to even speak up. However, his outstanding performance at the Royal Academy had earned him tutelage under the Princesses, who ended up spending more time teaching him to be less of a shut-in than anything else.
“I’m afraid, Princess, that I need to go into town with all of these. I have to see Shimmerdust about some glass lenses, and these books have all the research that needs to be referenced.”
“Lenses?” Princess Luna spoke up from the back. Twilight Sage was one of the few ponies she knew well, since he slept so irregularly that he saw as many nights as days. “You don’t need glasses. You don’t even need a monocle. Are you getting a fake monocle? I know you’ve always wanted one.”
Celestia smirked, “Or maybe that’s not what you’re actually going to see her for.”
“Erm, beg pardon, Princess?”
“ Really, Twilight, nopony would visit a lens shop as frequently as you even if they did need glasses. Perhaps there are…other needs you were going to have young Shimmerdust attend to?”
Twilight Sage blushed a bit. “Uh, not today, I’m afraid. I think I’ve devised a way to arrange lenses that will magnify things in a way that eyewear never could. I hope it could even show us something as distant as the stars. Perhaps gain more insight into their strange orbits, or why some shine more brightly than others. But it will take a lot of work. And that’s why I’m going to town now, since Shimmerdust should just be opening shop for the morning.”
“It’s night,” the two princesses said in unison.
Twilight Sage lost his smile. “Oh. Oh, dear. Well…I suppose I should go to bed. We’ve gone uncounted years without seeing the stars up close. Another eight hours can’t do us too much harm.” Head low, he slowly walked back to the library.
“Oh, please tell me he isn’t planning to sleep up there,” Celestia said mostly to herself. She turned when she heard hooves walking the other direction behind her. “Luna? Where are you going? You should be on your throne holding court to hear petitions.”
Luna didn’t even turn to address her sister, “As if anypony will show up.” She disappeared around a corner.
“Luna? Luna, wait!” Celestia galloped, hoping to catch up with her before she was lost in the corridors of Everfree Castle. Unfortunately, it was too late. Luna was an incredibly elusive pony even when she was in plain view, much less when she managed to get out of sight. The princess heaved a sigh and decided to make sure all the other royal duties were attended to. No doubt Luna was presently neglecting to attend to the rest of the castle. “I just wish that filly would let me talk to her,” Celestia said to nopony in particular. “she’s been getting more and more antisocial.”
After a short trot, she arrived at the castle barracks. It was not a very large room, since soldiers were quartered in homes in the city of Everfree, using the barracks as mostly an armory. Equestria had lost the need for a strong standing army long before the sisters divine were even born. Still, the Royal Guard was kept at full strength, and somepony needed to keep them updated on the time change so that the shifts could get organized. As it stood, the Day Guard was just returning to the barracks, alabaster-coated ponies (mostly pegasi and unicorns) removing gilded armor. All except for one pegasus, who wore an illustrious captain’s uniform. Though her uniform was enough to separate her from the crowd, she stood out more because of her tail of orange and yellow, like a blazing fire.. Celestia sighed and approached the captain.
“Flash Burn, you have been on shift for over a day now. You need to go home. Let Captain Pavise do his job.” The two Night Guard ponies bowed and quickly fled to their posts. The fiery captain bowed as well, but stayed.
“I’m sorry, Your Majesty, but it’s necessary, Your Majesty. The notorious criminal, ‘Dark Blur’, is becoming more troublesome, Your Majesty, and he continues to evade us, Your Majesty.” Celestia held in her sigh. The entire Day Guard idolized Flash Burn for her talent and her steadfastness, but the princesses both found her incessant formality a bit wearying. Neither princess particularly cared to be called “Your Majesty” in the first place, but no matter how often they told the captain, she didn’t seem to be able to stop. The princess glared at the captain.
“Flash Burn, you can’t let your obsession with that scoundrel keep you from doing your job. Go home and get some sleep, or I’ll have you placed under house arrest and make you. I’ve been responsible for the sleep schedules of enough ponies today.”
Flash Burn gave the princess a quizzical look, “Your Majesty?”
“Luna slept in, Twilight Sage decided to spend all day holed up in his office, and now this. Really, I think something might be in the air. It’s even getting to me.” Celestia’s expression softened again. She realized that she too had been acting a bit stressed lately. “I’m sorry, Flash, for snapping at you. I…Flash?” Celestia just realized that the fiery pegasus was adrift in thought, beginning to blush. The princess quickly realized that she shouldn’t have said the ‘T’ word.
“Obsessing over my advisor isn’t a good reason to stay out of bed either, my little pony.”
Flash Burn’s blush began to cover her entire face. “Your Majesty, I…wasn’t…Your Majesty, it…Your Majesty-“
Celestia leaned in, smiling and nuzzling the pegasus affectionately, “Go to bed, and I’ll see you in the morning.” She pushed Flash Burn in the direction of the door, and the pegasus trotted off, obeying the princess’ request.
“I swear,” said the princess to herself, “sometimes it feels like I have to take care of the world by myself.”
Celestia woke up as the moonset stirred something primordial inside her. A quick look at the grand clock opposite her bed confirmed that it was indeed time for sunrise. She stretched out her limbs as she willed the sun to rise into the sky, and light crept into her eastern window. She took a look in the mirror to confirm that, as usual, she had a severe case of bedhead. It took ten minutes of brushing to get her pink mane and tail to fall straight. Keeping up the appearance of the perfect princess was rather annoying sometimes. After a quick check to make sure she hadn't missed any patches of tangle, she trotted off to the grand hall.
Celestia was surprised to see her younger sister sitting at the foot of the Night Throne, chatting with a green-on-green earth pony of indistinguishable gender. She attempted to approach quietly, but it was no use. Her hooves on the stone floor rang throughout the chamber. Luna and the earth pony turned to look at her.
"Luna, while I appreciate you holding court, you're supposed to actually sit on the throne when you do it," Celestia said with a smirk. Luna went wide-eyed.
"Oh! Yes. Court. I was...holding it. On the floor. I, uh...thought it would be...a good idea. To get closer to subjects. Like, closer, physically. But also, um...that other thing. Personally. Yeah." She gave her most adorable smile.
"But Luna," the green earth pony said quietly, "when I caught you here, you said you were just on your way to-mphphl!" The pony's mouth was suddenly full of silver-shod hoof. Luna looked even more worried, but Celestia just giggled.
"It's all right, Luna. I didn't need Amaranth to tell me you weren't being entirely truthful." The younger princess looked down at the floor guiltily. "Will you just promise me that you'll actually hold court tomorrow night?"
"But nopony comes," Luna whined.
"Oh, really? Would you like to know how many petitioners I see complaining that they come night after night for an audience, only to find an empty throne room?"
Luna responded in a flat voice, "Two this week, one last week, three the week before that, and-"
"Okay, okay!" Celestia had forgotten how disturbingly well-informed her sneak of a sister could be. "Look, I know that's not a great number compared to how many ponies come during the day, but I should be hearing zero complaints. We have a responsibility to all of Equestria, and these marks on our flanks to prove it." Celestia gestured towards her own flank, while looking at Luna's. The symbols that adorned their coats distinguished them from all the other ponies, even more than their possession of both horn and wing.
"Yeah, yeah," Luna rolled her eyes, sounding like she was chanting something by rote, "you with that big ol' beauty mark."
"And you with your cutie mark." Celestia nudged her sister gently. As often as she said it, her affectionate name for Luna's royal symbol never failed to make the younger princess smile. "Now, do you promise me you'll actually hold court?"
Luna heaved a sigh, "Okay, okay, I promise." She didn't actually sound sad or resentful.
"Now, off to bed with you."
Luna gave her sister one last hug, and headed up to her quarters. "See you tomorrow, Amaranth."
"Good day, Princess," responded the earth pony. His eyes followed Celestia as she climbed upon her throne. "Would you like to hear my report, Princess?"
"Yes, Agricultural Minister Amaranth, I would love to." The green pony knelt in front of the Day Throne.
"All the farms in the province of Everfree are reporting in normal. The flood in Trottingham was mostly averted, but some of the outlying farms were hit. There's already a relief effort underway. Uh...I think." Amaranth looked down. Celestia was unsurprised that he wasn't quite sure. His organizational skills were quite poor. "Damarescus seems to have finally dealt with those strange locusts. Apparently a wandering bard found a way to get rid of them. I didn't quite figure out what they meant. Zebrica should be sending everything on schedule."
There was an awkward pause. "And the royal garden?"
Amaranth perked up, "Ah, yes, well, the honeybee population is stable, and the tomatoes and oranges are coming in, and the hyacinths are doing just great!" The green pony was positively beaming. Celestia knew that there was nothing he loved more than tending to the royal garden.
Amaranth continued talking, but Celestia was distracted by a sight over in the distance. An unusual clattering of armor was quickly followed by a strangely contended-looking earth pony trotting into the throne room. She was dark brown, but her flowing auburn hair made her impossible to miss.
"Any problems, Amaranth?"
"Ah, yes, well, I've been having trouble keeping the morning glory off the wall..." the brown pony was now directly behind him.
"That's because I come through the front gate, dearie."
Amaranth literally jumped into the air. "Ah! Miss, I didn't see you there. I, uh, of course meant the flower. I mean, I know you're also Morning Glory, but I was referring to the decoration. Not that you aren't decorative! I mean pretty! I mean-" Amaranth simply began galloping away.
The brown pony held a hoof to her mouth to delicately conceal a giggle. "You knew exactly which flowers he was having trouble with, didn't you."
Celestia looked aside with fake guilt, "I'm not sure what you could possibly mean, Morning Glory." She couldn't keep the facade for long, and began to giggle herself. "Perhaps it may have been a little too much for the poor thing."
"Is Princess Luna here? I wanted to see her before she went off to bed."
"Sorry, you just missed her. Don't worry, she'll be holding court tomorrow night. I made her promise."
Morning Glory looked downcast, "Oh, I simply can't come tomorrow. Top Hat is holding quite the soiree that evening, and if I miss it, I'll lose the chance to meet some very influential ponies."
"Well, I'm afraid you'll just have to decide between playing your little political games and being there for your friend."
The earth pony glared at the Princess. "Oh, you're just loving this, aren't you. I know you don't like the way I work, Princess, but not all of us can simply wave our hoofs around and effect social change. My 'little games' are what got equal rights for zebras passed through the senate."
The princess never let her smile drop. "You know I appreciate your work, Morning Glory. But, you know, the night court lasts until morning. You can always stay up and go after the party."
"Well, not if somepony wants to take me home," Morning Glory said quietly. Celestia was thankful of how little she had to see of that side of politics. Ponies like Morning Glory took care of the backroom deals that the princess had no stomach for. She worried that her younger sister might be a bit more inclined towards such things, but she trusted her. Luna made good choices in friends, ponies like Morning Glory who had good hearts, even if they played dirty.
"I'm sorry, dear. I'll let her know you stopped in, okay? Meanwhile- oh, good morning Twilight Sage!"
The unicorn was once again descending from the tower with his cart, which, Princess Celestia noted, was even more laden than it was last night. "Good morning, Princess." Twilight Sage turned his head and noticed the earth pony at the foot of the throne, "Hey, what's the story, Morning Glory?"
Morning Glory rolled her eyes, "Twilight Sage, if you think I find that even the slightest bit original or clever, you've spent more time cooped up in that library than I originally thought." Twilight gave her a guilty look and turned to head out the main gate.
"Oh, Twilight, you're heading to see Shimmerdust now?"
"Yes. I even checked the clock this time. She'll be opening soon. I can't be sure how long it will take to go over specifics, but I promise I'll be back in a few hours. This will probably need to be a multi-day project. At least I'll get good exercise bringing the books back and forth." Sage's cart groaned in response.
Celestia thought for a moment. "You know, this really seems like an important project. Why don't you take a few days of special assignment? You'll get your work done a lot faster if it's not broken up into tiny pieces, and you can keep the books all in the same place you're working."
Twilight Sage looked surprised. "Oh, really? Thank you, Princess!" He began to smile as he once again continued out the gate.
"And I'm sure you and Shimmerdust could use the alone time." Twilight Sage began to speed more quickly out of the room. Celestia swore she could almost hear his blush in his hoofsteps.
Morning Glory took a seat by the side of the throne. "I'm not sure why you let him carry on like that. It's not befitting for someone of the Court to take time for dalliances with some commoner out in the lower quarters of Everfree."
"Morning Glory, you carouse with commoners from the lower quarters all the time."
"And I am a commoner, not part of the Court. Besides, it's all an important part of my work."
"So that little mare you snuck into the garden last week was part of some big power struggle?"
Morning Glory averted her eyes. "Well, I'm sure she was important to someone. Her father never seems to let her go anywhere. Someone needed to teach him what happens when you don't let your daughter have fun with colts."
"I see," Princess Celestia responded simply. "Well, how about you tell me what's going on in politics outside the bedroom."
Morning Glory began to fill the princess in on the various affairs of the Court. There was much hidden from the eyes of the princess that most political ponies wanted to stay that way. It was because of spies like Morning Glory that the royal sisters seemed so all-knowing and savvy.
Near the end of the briefing, a whistling sound began emanating from one of the adjoining corridors. It quickly grew louder, until finally, it erupted as a blazing streak burst into the room's center. The blur solidified at the foot of Celestia's throne into the form of Captain Flash Burn, in full uniform.
"Captain Flash Burn and the Day Guard reporting for duty, Your Majesty."
"What Day Guard?" Princess Celestia asked in an amused tone. Flash Burn looked to her right and left. Surely enough, she was alone. A furious fluttering of wings from the same corridor heralded a number of pegasi attempting to catch up, followed by the hoofbeats of a number of unicorns and earth ponies. Out of breath, they stumbled into ranks around their captain.
"Uh, apologies, Your Majesty." The Day Guard all glared at the captain. They would have been on time if she had started their march off on time. "I...I slept in."
Princess Celestia burst into laughter. "Perhaps next time you'll sleep every night so you don't have to catch up?"
Flash Burn's eyes were glued to the floor. "Yes, Your Majesty."
"Alright, that's enough fun for the morning. Back to work."
"Yes, Your Majesty." Flash Burn stood up straight, still facing the princess. "Day Guard! Stations!" The entire Day Guard dispersed in a quick, orderly fashion to fill the castle and the streets of Everfree's upper quarter. Flash Burn remained in the throne room.
"Hey, what's the story, Morning Glory?" she said addressing the pony by the princess' side.
"Oh, Flashie, you're such a card," Morning Glory giggled in reply. The two walked towards each other and bumped their heads affectionately.
"So, how did you get in today?"
"Oh, you know, the guards know I'm allowed in here," Morning Glory waved a hoof in the air dismissively.
"Really?" Flash Burn raised an eyebrow inquisitively. "Because they're still under strict orders to keep you out of the castle."
"Oh. Ah, well, if you must know, young Lieutenant Destrier seems to fall to pieces when a lady brushes her flank against him just so." She demonstrated on Flash Burn, causing the captain's cheeks to go flush.
"Uh, you do know he's married, right?"
"Really? Well, introduce me to his wife sometime, and I'll teach her all about it." This simply caused Flash Burn to blush even more. A soft throat-clearing from the throne quieted both of the ponies.
"Perhaps, captain, you'd like to give me more information on your plans for the day?"
"Oh, yes, Your Majesty." Flash Burn once again bowed before the throne. "Normally, Dark Blur is inactive during the daytime, Your Majesty, but we believe that if we find a forensic specialist, Your Majesty, we may be able to figure out where he's staying based on his activity pattern, Your Majesty."
"Very good, captain. You should get to that."
"I'm sorry," piped up Morning Glory, "but did you say 'Dark Blur'?"
"Yeah, that's what he calls himself, we think," replied Flash Burn, rising. "Why, you know anything about him?"
"Me? Oh, no, I wouldn't know anything about that sort of thing. It just sounded odd, was all."
"Strange that you've never heard of him," said Princess Celestia, "since he's quite the plague on the nobles."
"Ahaha, well, yes, one can miss the occasional thing. It's not like I've ever had a run-in with him. I don't actually live in the upper quarter, you know." She waved her hoof in the air dismissively.
"Sometimes I forget," Flash Burn chuckled. The princess laughed as well.
"Well, Flash Burn, since you're headed to the lower quarter, there's a certain glass shop you may want to stop by. Twilight Sage is headed off to get some lenses. If you see him there, you can ask him about Dark Blur."
The captain's face lit up. "Oh! I, uh, yes, Your Majesty. I'll go do that, Your Majesty." In an instant, Flash Burn took off, leaving a trail like a flame.
Morning Glory glared at Princess Celestia once more. "Surely you can't be encouraging that foolish little crush she has on your advisor."
"I'm not encouraging it," Princess Celestia replied with a knowing smile, "and don't call me Shirley."
"Wait, what? Ooh!" the earth pony winced as she understood the princess' joke. "Nevermind. Why are you sending Flash Burn out to see Twilight Sage if you're not trying to get them together?"
"Because, my little pony, Flash Burn will be traveling to the shop as fast as she can, while Twilight Sage is trotting along laden with books. When Flash Burn arrives to inquire after him, the only pony who will be there to answer her will be Twilight Sage's filly-friend." Celestia's smirk got wider as she waited for realization to dawn on her confidante.
"Oh. Ohhhhhh. That was sneaky, Princess. I'm not rubbing off on you, am I?"
"Goodness, I hope not," Celestia replied in a jocular tone. Both of them laughed.
A few minutes passed before an alabaster pegasus in armor walked into the throne room. "Princess Celestia, requesting permission to open the gates to the public."
The princess smiled down at the guard. "Lieutenant Destrier, I thought you had already done that. Why, look who's sitting right here." Morning Glory stepped out from beside the throne with her most innocent expression.
"Um, I..." the pegasus could only stammer. The two mares up the staircase only laughed.
"It's alright, captain. If I punished guards for letting Miss Glory through, we'd have more prisoners than ponies to guard them. Go open the gates, please."
"Yes, Your Highness." The lieutenant slunk off in the most professional-looking way he could manage. The princess and Morning Glory waited until he left the room.
"Well, Princess, I should be going. I'm sure that my brother will be stumbling home shortly to attempt to wash off the smell of a night of carousing, and it's always fun to catch him." Morning Glory began walking towards the exit.
"You know, you talk about him all the time, but you've never snuck your brother up here to meet me or Luna."
"Ahaha," Morning Glory laughed delicately, "yes, well, he's never been terribly interested in coming up to see the palace. I'm afraid ambition doesn't run in the family, you know? Good day, Princess."
The princess stretched and adjusted her posture. The morning had been enjoyable and relaxing, but now she had petitioners to attend to. Very many whiny, self-interested, entitled petitioners. And she had to look nice for them.
"Oh, please tell me those aren't the Bluebloods I see coming in."
Flash Burn both loved and hated flying into the lower quarter of Everfree. On one hoof, because there were no tall buildings, she was free to take any course she pleased as long as she kept her altitude. On the other hoof, what fun was a good flight without a few obstacles? Still, it was best not to endanger the civilians. As captain of the Day Guard, she had a reputation to uphold, even amongst commoners. She could feel the admiring gazes of the lower-class ponies as she left a blazing trail above them.
All that aside, she wasn’t out on a pleasure trip. She was hoping to find information on the notorious criminal Dark Blur, and her first stop was Shimmerstar Glassworks, where she hoped to run into one rather intelligent, informative, handsome colt with eyes that she could just get lost in sometimes, in order to ask him for information in a strictly business-like fashion. She had never actually visited the little shop, but years of patrolling and chasing criminals down every corner of the city gave her a near-perfect mental map of even the lower quarters. The belltower struck seven chimes as she landed in the square that the glass shop was located in. She saw an “OPEN” sign being flung out to hang in front of the shop window.
“Perfect timing” Flash Burn muttered to herself, satisfied. As she walked over, other ponies cleared out of her way, somewhat unnerved by the sudden presence of the Day Guard’s captain in their part of town. She ignored them and rang the little glass chime hanging on the window. “Hello?”
Out from behind a divider appeared a blue unicorn with the most exotic hair Flash Burn had ever seen. It was pale, but glistened like a prism as she walked into the sunlight. The unicorn had a pleasant, soft, but genuine smile as she leaned forward over the counter. “Good morning. How can I help you today?”
“I, uh…” Flash Burn coughed, “yes, I’m looking for a unicorn named Twilight Sage. Have you seen him?”
“Twilight? Oh, yes, I have seen him. Just a couple days ago, he stopped by and took me to dinner. I haven’t seen him since then, though, so I guess that’s not very helpful, is it?” The blue unicorn tilted her head and looked nowhere in particular.
“Wait, what?” Flash Burn took a tiny step back. “Twilight Sage, the royal advisor, took you out to dinner?”
“Why, yes,” the blue unicorn said returning back to the conversation. “He does that occasionally. Other times he just spends time here. Really, I like that better, but he insists that there’s a proper way to go on dates. Odd, since he’s never dated anyone before me. Maybe he reads books on dating.” Her eyes drifted off to nowhere again.
“Who…who exactly are you?”
“Who exactly? Why, that’s a very difficult question. I’m not sure that we can ever define ourselves exactly. We may strive for it in all our arts and creations, but I’m not sure we can ever know.” This time, her eyes never even returned to looking at Flash Burn.
The pegasus gave an exasperated sigh. “What’s your name, filly?”
“Oh!” the unicorn snapped back to reality. “My name is Shimmerdust. I run this glass shop now, but it used to belong to my dad. That’s why it’s Shimmerstar Glassworks and not Shimmerdust Glassworks.”
“Okay,” Flash Burn said, trying to keep herself from getting angry, “and how do YOU know one of Equestria’s most important ponies.”
“Oh, now, is anypony really more important than any other pony?” Shimmerstar managed to catch that Flash Burn was glaring at her intensely. “Well, he wasn’t always such a bigshot. He used to live down here, you know. We’ve been friends ever since we were foals. But the dating is a bit more recent, I suppose.”
Flash Burn looked down at her hooves. Twilight Sage really had a fillyfriend? They talked all the time, and he had never mentioned a fillyfriend. Though she had never really asked. In fact, most of their talking was composed of her trying to stammer out anything intelligible, and him trying to see if she was alright. The pegasus sighed.
“I’m sorry about that, I got a little lost in thought.” Shimmerdust didn’t respond. She was looking at nothing in particular again. Flash Burn rang the glass chime.
“Good morning! Welcome to Shimmerstar Glassworks.” Flash Burn raised an eyebrow nervously. Had the unicorn really gone that far from reality? “Hey…I’ve seen you before. Welcome back!” Flash Burn went slack-jawed.
“Look, can I just come inside?”
“Oh, of course!” Shimmerdust disappeared and reappeared in the door next to the window. “Did you want to take a look at my gallery?”
“Actually, no,” Flash Burn said as the unicorn closed the door behind her.
“Oh, shoot. Nopony ever wants to see my gallery.” Shimmerdust looked at the ground and thrust out her lower lip in a pout. Flash Burn tried to say something, but couldn’t get past the unicorn’s pathetic expression.
“Fine, show me your gallery.” The unicorn bounced into the air, and grabbed Flash Burn by the tail. “Hey, whoa!” She dragged the pegasus back behind the divider. Flash Burn’s eyes were suddenly assaulted by shimmering colors. She had seen some glassworks at fancy houses in the upper quarter, but Shimmerdust’s gallery room was something else entirely. Glass vases framed by glass candleholders, glass bowls and plates, glass goblets, and tiny glass figurines lined most of the shelves. Glass statues rested on top of chests, and a glass chess set was lit by colors from a stained-glass window. “How…? Who…?”
“Lots of practice, and me,” Shimmerdust replied to the rhetorical questions.
“You said nopony comes back here? Then what do you sell?”
Shimmerdust sighed. “I may be an artist at heart, but that’s not my job. I sell lenses. Most of the lower quarter comes here for their glasses, those who can afford them. If I had competition, I’d probably go out of business.”
“Why don’t you submit your work to a gallery?”
“All the galleries are in the upper quarter, at least here in Everfree. And I can’t afford to travel outside the city, nor spend even a day away from my shop.” She walked over to the chess set and used her magic to rearrange it to a new setup.
“I’m so sorry,” Flash Burn said, moving closer. Shimmerdust smiled back at her.
“So, if you didn’t want to see the gallery, what did you want to come inside for?”
Flash Burn snapped back to reality. She had work to do. “Well, I was hoping to find Twilight Sage to help me with a criminal investigation. Since he’s not here yet, I thought I’d wait.”
“A criminal investigation? Are you with the Guard?”
Flash Burn looked down. She was wearing her gilded armor, and she could feel the weight of her helmet on her head. “Uh…yeah.”
“Oh, goodness, I’ve been a little rude, haven’t I? Or have I? How is one supposed to act when the Guard comes to visit? I mean, I suppose if one is under arrest, then it’s obvious, but…” Shimmerdust stared off into nowhere again.
“Why don’t you just do what you normally do, and let me know when Twilight Sage gets here?”
“Okay!” That instant, Shimmerdust began loudly singing an old mariner’s tune and used her magic to fire up the furnace. She was using a notably saltier version than the one Flash Burn had learned at summer camp.
“Maybe you can do-“ Shimmerdust was singing too loudly for Flash Burn to hear herself. “MAYBE WITHOUT THE SINGING!”
“Oops, haha, sorry,” Shimmerdust continued stoking the furnace. “I guess not everypony knows that version of the song.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t be able to forget it.” Flash Burn was sure that the heat on her cheeks was from furious blushing, and not the nearby furnace.
“Good morning, Frothie,” Glory called to the back of the bar. A middle-aged mare in an apron appeared from below the bar.
“Ah, ma petite liseron!” The mare ducked back behind the bar and reappeared with an apron in mouth. She placed it upon Morning Glory’s back. “You are juste in time zis morning. I have to do ze brewing for mon petit today, so you will have to take of ze customers.” Frothie pulled the knot tight.
“That’s quite alright, Frothie. Have you seen my brother today?”
“Oh, non, he iz still out, I zink.” She trotted to the back room of the bar.
“Perfect.” Morning Glory retrieved a broom and began sweeping the inn floor. It would only be a matter of time before-
A dark grey pegasus with short black hair had plowed into one of the tables. He was doused in hot wheat porridge, and the customers with no more breakfast glared at him. He rose to his feet. “Ah, heh. I’ll get you new ones, guys.” He darted over towards Morning Glory. “I don’t suppose you can give those gentlecolts their breakfast on the house.” He gave her a big grin.
“Hurricane, from what I hear, you’ve been doing enough work to pay for it yourself.” The pegasus’ grin disappeared.
“Okay, I’ll pay for it later. Just get them their food before they decide to make trouble.” Morning Glory sighed, and then bit his ear and began dragging him to the back. “Ow! Ow ow owwwwww! Come oooonnnnnn!” She didn’t let go until they were in the back room.
“Do you know with whom I spoke today?” Morning Glory glared directly into his eyes.
“Uhh…the Princess of Equestria?” The pegasus grinned again.
“Sorry, not a clue.”
“CAPTAIN Flash Burn.” Hurricane’s shoulders dropped. “Do you know what she said? She’s been trailing a NOTORIOUS criminal named ‘Dark Blur’, and APPARENTLY, he lives in the lower quarter.” Hurricane muttered something very quiet. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
“It’s THE Dark Blur,” he said just a bit more audibly, obviously put out. “They could at least get it right.”
“I don’t care if they call you Little Miss Frou-Frou! When you told me that you were going to liberate your income from those who wouldn’t miss it, you promised me that you would remain undetected!” Morning Glory was backing the pegasus into a corner.
“I was gonna! And then they saw me, so I figured I’d have a little fun. It just…got a little out of hoof.”
“OUT of HOOF?!” Hurricane gave a panicked look towards his back. Nothing but walls and ceiling . “You are now one of the most wanted criminals in all of Equestria! The most influential military commander in all of Everfree has a personal grudge against you! They are going to find out where you live! WHERE WE LIVE! What do you have to say for yourself?” Morning Glory was breathing heavily.
“Hey, they still haven’t managed to catch me.”
In the main room, all the customers turned their heads as a horrid wail issued forth from the back room.
“No more,” Morning Glory ordered the crumpled heap on the floor. “Find a real job. If I ever hear one more word of this ‘Dark Blur’ character, our room will become MY room.”
“At least I won’t get kicked there anymore,” whined Hurricane as he tried to uncurl from his fetal position.
“Now, I have customers to attend to. Go wash up, pawn off anything you have to, and start looking for a real employer.”
Hurricane blasted off from a standing start, leading a dark cloud sparking with lightning in his wake.
“I swear,” Morning Glory muttered as she spooned more wheat porridge from the kettle.
“Smack her croup and pull her hair! That’s how the captain treats his mare!” Shimmerdust and Flash Burn collapsed into giggles after the last verse of the latest sea shanty.
“Oh, goodness. I haven’t laughed that hard since…I don’t even remember.” Flash Burn wiped a tear from her eye. “Where did you learn all these songs?”
“Well,” said Shimmerdust as she moved a new glass bottle to a cooling rack, “my dad, Shimmerstar, wasn’t much for songs, but Granpappy North Star was still sailing when I was born. He loved spending time with me whenever he could return to Everfree.”
“Your mom must have been furious.”
“I bet she would have been.” Shimmerdust was still smiling, but Flash frowned a bit.
“I’m sorry, I-“
“It’s alright, I know. I never really knew her.” Shimmerdust rearranged the chess board once again. “So, I guess you grew up with two parents?”
“Well, yeah. Sorta. I grew up with a maid. My parents just stopped in once in a while. They were both very big in the military.”
“I guess we both followed in our parents’ hoofsteps.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” There was a short silence.
“So-“ Flash was cut off by the sound of a glass chime. Shimmerstar trotted to the front of the shop.
“Good morning! Welcome to Shimmerstar Glassworks.”
The voice from the front of the shop was male. “Shimmerdust, you don’t have to say that every time I visit.”
“Oh, hi Sage!” Flash Burn’s stomach turned to butterflies. She’d forgotten that she was awaiting the second-most awkward social situation of her life (nothing really compared to arresting her father for soliciting a prostitute). She briefly pondered fleeing before anyone could see her, but she remembered that she had a job to do. She was about to go up to the front before Shimmerdust appeared from around the corner again.
“Twilight Sage is here. You wanted to see him, right?”
“Ah, yes. Is he coming back here?”
“Yes.” There was a pause. The pause went on.
“Um…is he coming back here now?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t think so. The wheel on his cart broke, so he’s trying to drag it. It will probably take him a while.” Shimmerdust’s eyes drifted off.
“Oh, for the love of-“ Flash Burn darted out the front door. Twilight Sage was indeed trying to drag a one-wheeled cart, with books falling out continuously. “Let me help you with that.”
“Oh! Captain, what are you doing here?”
“Looking for you. How many books did you bring?”
“A lot. Uh-“ Twilight Sage stopped as he felt Flash Burn pushing the cart behind him. They both managed to get the cart inside the door, and then began picking up all the fallen books. “How did you know to look for me here?”
“The Princess told me where you were going.” They both walked inside to find Shimmerdust staring at the cart of books.
“Uh…Shimmer?” Twilight Sage stepped forward to nudge the other unicorn.
“What are you doing?”
“I want to see if they’re reproducing in there.” She wasn’t even blinking.
Flash Burn walked up next to Twilight and leaned her head in. “You’ve known her longer. When she says stuff like that, is she making jokes?”
“I honestly never managed to figure that out,” he whispered back. They both waited for a bit before deciding to give her a push to break her line of sight.
“Oh, am I in your way?” Shimmerdust obligingly moved to the other side of the cart, and she resumed her staring.
Sage cleared his throat. “So, you said you were looking for me?”
“Oh!” Flash Burn gathered her helmet from one of the benches. “I’m actually on an investigation. You’ve probably heard of ‘Dark Blur’?”
“You mean ‘The Dark Blur’? That’s what your first report said he called himself.” Flash Burn blushed. She knew Sage was smart, and that was why she was asking him in the first place, but he shouldn’t have a better memory of her reports than she did.
“Yes, well, either way. I am trying to figure out where he might base his operations. You’re pretty smart, I thought you might be able to figure it out.”
“Ah, well, I suppose I can try, but I doubt I can do anything your Guard can’t do. Shimmer, dear, could you grab me a piece of paper?”
“But there’s so many right here,” Shimmerdust intoned in a voice that sounded far away, still focused on the pile of books.
“A blank one, dear.”
“Oh! Okay.” Just like that, the unicorn trotted off and retrieved a paper from a drawer.
Twilight Sage pulled a pencil from his pouch. “Now, Everfree is roughly a series of concentric circles.” He drew near-perfect circles on the paper. “All of The Dark Blur’s targets have been in the upper quarter. Here here here and here, mostly.” He drew tiny dots. “Now, The Dark Blur used to work low-profile, meaning he would want to have a minimal distance from target to base of operations, so there’d be less chance of being spotted carrying stolen goods. If we draw these lines…and these circles…a few triangles. Aha! Yes, there’s a single common area that makes sense as a starting point. And, why, it’s right here!” Sage dropped the pencil and looked at Flash Burn, whose mouth was agape. “Brilliantly done, Captain! You must have already narrowed the search down. I knew I’d be no help.”
Flash Burn searched for words. “I…well, yes, I…what?”
“Oh, Captain Flash, that’s impressive. I’ve never known anyone to be as good as my Sage at these things.” Shimmerdust pressed uncomfortably close to Flash Burn.
“Okay, okay!” Flash Burn pushed the unicorns away. “Enough funning. I had no idea he was here. I was just looking for you, okay?” The other two looked crestfallen.
“Oh, sorry Captain. I forgot how much running my mouth put you off.” Twilight smiled apologetically.
“It what?” Flash Burn inclined her head in, as if she had trouble hearing.
“Well, every time we talk, I start blathering, and then you start stammering and fly away.” Flash Burn blushed. So he HAD noticed.
“Look, that’s…I don’t not-like you, okay? I just…it’s hard to explain.”
Shimmerdust rubbed her head against Flash Burn. “It’s okay if you’re a bit shy. Twilight’s really shy, too. Did you know he never even took his novels to a publisher?” Twilight’s face instantly contorted like he had just been pinched in a very uncomfortable place.
“Darling, I’m begging you, please don’t tell her.”
“You haven’t even mentioned them? Sage, how could you?” Shimmerdust dropped into a pout. There was a short moment as Sage attempted to keep himself from looking, but it was no use.
“Fine, you can tell her about them.” Shimmerdust bounced back and spun to face Flash Burn.
“Ever since we were little, Sage has been writing about a powerful unicorn wizard who goes around and saves Equestria. He’s such a brilliant hero. When he got out of school, he started to compile the old adventures into actual novels, and added more complex themes and nuanced side characters and everything. It was a complete overhaul, really. But Wonderbolt stayed the same. He’s kind of a big ham, but it’s really fun to read.” Sage was blushing, and Flash Burn turned to address him.
Sage sighed. “When you’re the only unicorn you know with no magic, you really get some ridiculous fantasies.”
Flash burn reached a hoof out towards his shoulder, but the space was quickly occupied by Shimmerdust. “Oh, come on, honey, you do have magic. I should know.” She nudged him with a knowing smirk.
“Yes, please, dear, embarrass me even further in front of the Captain. I don’t think she yet knows enough of my secrets.” Sage rolled his eyes and sighed.
“Oh, okay. Well, Miss Flash, when we’re alone, we-“
“I WAS BEING SARCASTIC!” At that point, the two unicorns seemed to notice that Flash Burn was blushing vividly and had her helmet tilted to hide her eyes. “I’m sorry, Captain, if we made you uncomfortable.”
“I…I should go. Investigate.” Flash Burn turned to walk out the door. Finding herself thinking about what her crush and the exotic mare might do in their alone time was much more than uncomfortable. Besides which, the morning was wearing on.
“I hope you can stop by again soon, Miss Flash.”
Flash found herself standing in the town square. “Okay,” she muttered to herself. “I think I need to go find somewhere to cry. Then I’ll get to searching the area.” She was about to take off to the sky, when she saw a familiar dark cloud with lightning burst from the door of a bawdy-looking public house.
Flash narrowed her eyes and bared her teeth. “Or maybe I can make somepony else cry.”
"For the last time, no, the Crown will NOT sponsor a Royal Dressmaker's Academy without Senatorial approval." Celestia was doing her best to keep her voice calm. There was no law in Equestria that forced any member of the royalty to hold public court for petitioners, but she insisted on doing so anyway, for she wanted to hear the voice of the people. At least, that was the intent. Ever since the upper quarter had been cordoned off, however, almost all the petitioners who came in without making special appointment were aristocrats. Mostly, self-interested aristocrats.
"Your Highness," said the white unicorn in front of her, affecting an upper-class accent that Celestia herself avoided ever slipping into, "with all due respect, the Senate mostly holds representatives from the more," she coughed, "common class. Those ponies simply don't have any perspective on what is good for Equestria."
"The 'common class' IS Equestria, Karat-"
"Lady Karat," the unicorn corrected her with a dismissive sneer. Celestia barely kept herself from snarling.
"AND you would do well to remember it," Celestia attempted to assert her conversational authority. "You know that the founding of any such school would receive many tax reliefs and incentives, due to the laws that the Senate has already passed. Your endeavor already has plenty support, and I'm sure that if you were to build in the lower quarter-"
"IF you built anywhere other than Everfree's upper quarter, even, you would have no problem getting a land grant. But there's nothing that I, or anyone, can do about the land up here. It's all privately owned. Now, I will hear no more of this, unless somepony is acting in an illegal manner. And I mean a TRULY illegal manner, not violating some fine print that Senator Blueblood managed to slip in the latest bill. Are we clear?" Celestia realized that she had started leaning forward and spreading her wings, towering over the mortal pony. She retreated to a more regal posture.
"Yes, of course, Princess." The unicorn hardly sounded sincere, but Celestia wasn't willing to press the issue. She was already too tired to deal with any more aristocrats. She watched the unicorn trot away, and peered into the distance. "Lieutenant, you can send the next one in."
"Nopony else here, Your Highness," came a voice from the entryway.
"Oh, thank goodness." Celestia stepped down from her throne and closed her eyes. She allowed thoughts to float freely through her head. Though her usual petitioners were tiresome, she remembered that they were the most ambitious and petty of the upper class. Many ponies who were true of heart, such as Flash Burn and Amaranth, were also born and raised in the upper quarter. She had absolutely nothing against the rich ponies of the world. If only the nice ones would come to talk to her.
"Good afternoon, Princess," came a familiar voice from just beside her. Celestia opened her eyes to see the green pony that had run off in the morning.
"Oh, Amaranth. I'm glad you could make it back. Where did you get off to?"
"I." The green pony stared at the floor and shyly kicked a single hoof.
"I ran into a wall."
"What?" Celestia took a step back.
"When Miss Glory surprised me, and I went running, I ran into the first corner I came across. I woke up to one of the guards checking if I had a concussion." Amaranth shrank a little.
"Goodness, are you alright?"
"Yes, I'm fine."
"Well, how about I get you lunch. I confess, I played a bit of a prank on you. I didn't mean for you to get hurt." Celestia bumped the earth pony's head affectionately.
"Oh, that's all right, Princess. I could tell that you were up to something. It's my fault I fell for it."
Celestia stepped back again. "You could?"
"Sure. Whenever you play a trick, you squint your eyes because your're trying not to grin. Princess Luna does it too. I think it's adorable." Celestia blinked. How many centuries of life had she gone without noticing that? Maybe it was new. Ponies change, after all, even immortal ones. Surely, in a thousand years, that tell would be completely gone.
"Still, I think I owe you. Besides, I could use the company of somepony who isn't conniving."
"Oh, of course, Princess. I don't even know how to connive." The Princess rolled her eyes. It was true: Amaranth was just about the least underhoofed pony in the entire city. However, he seemed to lack understanding of when that wasn't precisely a good thing.
"Well, where would you like to go?"
"Oh, I thought we would just eat here. Madamoiselle Gateau is just waiting for an excuse to use those strawberries that came in yesterday."
"My chef won't be in for another hour, I'm afraid, and she'll need the time to start on dinner."
"Oh. Where do you normally eat lunch, then?"
"Anywhere I like!" Celestia giggled a bit at her own joke. There wasn't a public eating establishment in Everfree that she hadn't been to at least once. She noticed that Amaranth was looking at her with confusion. "No, really, we can go anywhere. How about Zebraville? You haven't lived until you've had traditional zebra food."
"But there are restaurants with zebra cuisine all over Everfree."
"REAL zebra food."
"You mean they're all fake?" Amaranth looked positively aghast, even though most ponies knew that it was now common practice to serve more nativized food based on zebra dishes, rather than the more exotic fare that zebras were used to.
"Oh, come on, you." Celestia unfurled her wings and took to the sky. She only got a couple stories high before she remembered that Amaranth couldn't fly. She stopped. "Oh, sorry. Let me call for a carriage." She was about to whistle, when she heard a crackling sound behind her. She beat her wings just in time to dodge the streak of black cloud that had almost hit her. "That was clo-"
She did not dodge the blaze that was following it, and was met with the full force of Flash Burn colliding into her side. They both went tumbling to the ground, and the princess found Flash Burn struggling to stand on top of her.
"You idiot! I almost had him! What were you doing flying so high-ay-ayYOUR MAJESTY!" The guard pony sprung back and flattened herself to the ground. "I'm so sorry, Your Majesty! Please don't throw me into the dungeon, Your Majesty! I-"
"It's all right, Flash. Stand up, and tell me what happened."
Flash Burn stood up weakly. "Well, I went down to the lens shop exactly like you said, Your Majesty, but when I left, I saw Dark Blur leaving a...a house of ill repute. I raced to follow him, Your Majesty, but he must have seen me. I've been chasing him for hours, Your Majesty"
"You don't have to say 'Your Majesty' all the time, Captain," piped up Amaranth from beside the pair.
"I don't! Shut up!" Flash Burn was blushing furiously.
"Well, Flash, did you find out anything interesting at the glassworks?"
"Yeah. Twilight Sage has a fillyfriend," Flash Burn muttered more to herself than the princess.
Celestia giggled, "I meant something important to your investigation."
"Oh." The pegasus blushed even harder. "Well, whatever he may have been doing in that public house, Your Majesty, he probably lives near there, Your Majesty. Or maybe even in there, Your Majesty."
"Good work, Captain Flash. I think you deserve a break. Care to join us for lunch?"
"Can she order from the waitress without continually calling her 'Your Hospitality'?" Amaranth chuckled. Flash Burn shot him a glare that Celestia swore might actually set him on fire.
"I'm sorry, Your Majesty, but I should really get back to pursue leads. Enjoy your lunch, Your Majesty." With that, Flash Burn took off. Celestia turned to Amaranth.
"I know you were just trying to be funny, but that was a little mean."
"So was you sending her off to meet her crush's fillyfriend without warning her about it." Celestia looked aside guiltily.
"I know. But it's not good for her to be pining for a colt that she can't have, and I thought that would stop it fastest."
"There's no way of knowing." The two shared a silent moment.
"Why don't I go get a carriage? There are plenty more cheerful things that we can discuss."
"Okay." Celestia went to fetch the royal carriage, hoping she hadn't made a big mistake.
Morning Glory was wiping the tables in preparation for the lunch rush when a black cloud once again burst through the front door. Her brother fell to the ground panting.
"I hope you're out of breath because you've been very hard at work at a job you happened upon just after I sent you out."
Hurricane put his hooves on her shoulders. "You won't believe what happened! The instant you kicked me out, I looked behind me and I saw the Day Guard captain chasing me. I didn't even get a chance to put my hooves to the ground." He tried his best to look pathetic, but Morning Glory was having none of it.
"Did she see you leave here?"
"I…I don't know. Probably." Morning Glory smacked Hurricane across the face.
"Do you see what you've done now? Now the Guard is going to find you, you'll be arrested, and they'll find out that I'm related to a criminal. My reputation will be ruined!" There was a brief moment of silence.
"No, it won't."
"What do you mean? Of course it will. That's what happens to anypony who associates with criminals."
"I mean, they won't find me, because I won't be here. I didn't want to do this, but there's no choice. I have to leave Everfree."
Morning Glory stammered. "But…you can't! You don't have enough money for a passport. You won't be able to enter any walled city, or use a highway, and if they catch you flying-"
"I'll be banished. I will be sent outside Equestria and my face will be on a poster in every guard station. But they won't know who I am. Or that I'm your brother. And you'll be able to keep helping the little ponies, those who the rich want to keep down. That's what we've been fighting for this whole time. I can't let that go by." Hurricane started towards the door.
"Hurricane, you stay right here! We need to talk about this."
"No, we don't."
"But what will I tell dad? What will I tell your mother?"
"Exactly what I told you. They'll understand."
"But-" Morning Glory was about to raise a futher point, when the door opened right in Hurricane's face, causing him to reel back slightly. As he opened his eyes again, he stared directly into the orange inferno of Day Guard Captain Flash Burn's glare.
"They really serve that here?"
"They do." Celestia wasn't even looking at her menu. She was well enough acquainted with zebra cuisine to know what to order.
"I've just never heard of anypony eating tree bark."
"It's a special kind of tree bark. Of course, it's not for the faint of heart, or weak of tooth."
"I'm just not sure." Amaranth was looking at the menu with a very dismayed expression. Though he was not unfamiliar with the plant names, being a hard-working gardener, it was not common practice to nibble on the Royal Garden (well, not for a pony, at least).
Celestia smiled. "Take your time."
"But I've already taken so long."
"Oh, it hasn't been that long."
"Wanna bet?" Celestia jumped at the voice from behind her.
"Luna? What are you doing out of bed?"
"I woke up, duh." Luna dragged a chair from another table and sat herself down. "It happens sometimes, you know?"
"I'm sorry, it's just that you can't have been asleep very long."
"Sis, do you know what time it is?"
"Well, of course, it's-" Celestia cut herself off. "How is it already two o'clock?! I thought I finished with court before noon."
"You did," replied Amaranth.
"But we came here right after, didn't we?"
"…Amaranth, pick something to eat already." Celestia heard her sister giggle. "Oh, come on, so I lost track of time a little. I don't know how."
"It's 'cause you're too patient for your own good." Luna stuck out her tongue.
"Well, aren't we in a cheerful mood," Celestia said, faking being offended.
"Sleeping during the day is waaaay more rejuvenating," Luna replied while stretching. "Honestly, I think everypony would be happier if they took afternoon naps and stayed up late to work instead."
"Gardening at night is pretty much impossible, though. So's farming." Amaranth was hardly looking up from his menu as he said this. Luna pouted and stuck her tongue out again.
"I think plenty of ponies would agree with you, Luna."
"Yeah, I just haven't met any." Luna folded up her legs and sunk her head down.
"Dear sister, if you insist on being so down, I'm going to have to tickle you."
"Wait, what?" Luna pulled her head from the table.
"You heard me." Celestia's narrowed her eyes menacingly.
"You wouldn't. Not in public."
"Wanna bet?" She got off her seat and began advancing around the table. Luna retreated.
"No. Nonono." They both sped up. "NononononononoNOOOOOOO!" The younger princess took off instantly.
"Oh, I'm gonna getcha!" screamed Celestia as she shot off in pursuit. They both disappeared into the sky.
A male zebra with an apron walked up to the table. "Have you decided, yet, sir?"
Amaranth slammed a hoof down delicately. "Oh, I just can't make up my mind! Princess, tell me what I should order." The green pony looked up to see both seats opposite him were empty.
In the remains of a broken table, Flash Burn stood atop the body of a dark grey pegasus, pressing a single armor-clad hoof into one of his wings. The downed pony screamed piteously, and Flash pulled her hoof back to see that there was a smear of blood along its bottom.
“My wing! You broke my wing!” the pegasus screamed, choked-back tears in his voice. Flash Burn had never really seen his face before, and looking at it now, she could hardly believe her eyes. The notorious ‘Dark Blur’ hardly looked like any kind of hardened criminal. He was a handsome young stallion, who looked like he had never been in a fight in his life. She felt like she had just broken the body of a child. Flash fought to recall memories of the grey pegasus stealing valuable pieces of art and causing havoc for a great number of ponies.
“You are under arrest for grand theft, disturbing the peace, destruction of property, inciting mass panic, and resisting arrest. If you attempt escape again, I will not hesitate to break more.” Flash pressed her head in to try and get the criminal to make eye contact, but his eyes were firmly shut in pain and fear. She decided to look somewhere else before she started to feel guilty about her sudden assault, and the first thing she saw was a very familiar earth pony. “Glory?!”
“Captain, what is going on here?” Morning Glory was affecting a tone of respect that Flash found highly unusual. Then she realized that it was the sort that a civilian would normally take with an officer of the law.
“This pony is a criminal that I’ve been chasing for a while now. I’m bringing him in for questioning.” Flash looked down. “Is that an apron? You work HERE?!”
“Yes, I do.” There was a slight pause, and Flash felt herself avoiding eye contact with the earth pony. “It’s not that sort of establishment any more, dear, not since long before I was born.” She felt relieved. Morning Glory’s personal habits tended to bother her a bit, but that would have been much, much worse than anything she’d heard before.
“Okay, good.” She noticed that most of her weight was still on top of the other pegasus. “Have you seen this man before?”
“A few times, I suppose. I always thought he was just another customer.”
“I see.” Flash looked down. There really was nothing that seemed menacing about the other pegasus. “Did he ever tell you his name?”
“I’m afraid not.” Morning Glory started moving the pieces of table out of the way. “Really, there was nothing unusual about him.”
“Well, we’ll find out soon enough.” Flash prodded the pegasus to make sure he was still conscious. “This one doesn’t seem like he’ll be hard to get answers from.”
“You won’t hurt him, will you?” Flash looked up and noticed that her friend had an unusual look of concern on her face.
“…no, we won’t. Torture of any sort is more illegal than anything he’s done. Unless we thought he was connected to a muder or something, it wouldn’t even be considered.”
“Oh, good.” Morning Glory took an audible breath. “I hate to think of such horrible things being done to anypony.”
“Right.” Flash felt like something was off, but she chalked it up to paranoia. In a situation like this, acting on a snap judgment could be dangerous to innocent ponies. “Somepony gallop to the nearest guard station and alert them that Dark Blur has been restrained and is at this location.”
“It’s…” came a raspy voice from beneath her. The pegasus was trying to turn his head, but Flash Burn’s hoof was keeping it down. “It’s THE…Dark-“
“Quiet!” Flash increased the pressure on the young pegasus’ head. “Glory, you don’t have any rope here, do you?” Morning Glory shook her head. “Well, great. Keeping him pinned here is going to be a pain.”
“Oh, I doubt you have to worry. He can’t run nearly as fast as he can fly.”
“Still, I’d rather not have to bother-“ Flash shifted her gaze from the other pegasus to her friend. “How do you know?”
Glory stammered, “Oh, I have seen him before, and I suppose, well-oh, how wonderful, the guards are already here!” Flash turned her head and saw two ponies in guard uniforms walk in. However, the next thing she saw was a pink mane billowing into the door, followed by a familiar face.
“Princess Celestia?” both Flash and Glory cried out. The princess walked very slowly into the room. Her face was calm, but serious.
“What is going on here?”
Twilight Sage and Shimmerdust sat on opposite sides of the strange tube that now sat between them. It looked unfinished on the outside, but both ponies knew that the inside was a good deal more complex.
“Well,” spoke up Shimmerdust, “I think we got it. I’ll need to pick up something to use as knobs, but the inner mechanisms are just like you said they should be, and the lenses are definitely right.”
“Yes,” said Sage, not taking his eyes off it. “It’s finally real. Tonight will be glorious.”
“So what did you bring all the books for?” Sage looked to his side. Indeed, they had only opened five of the books he’d brought along, and those were only to double check the information Sage had already memorize.
Sage sighed. “I suppose now I have to tell you the real reason I came out here.” He walked back over towards the cart and dug around in it.
“Real reason?” Shimmerdust tilted her head.
Twilight Sage finally pulled out a very old-looking tome and set it down. “I was translating this old tome when I found something amazing.” He flipped the book open to a page that looked like a formula so complex that even a pony who spoke the old tongue would be completely lost.
“It’s a spell, Shimmer. And not just any spell. This spell can calibrate a unicorn’s magic to temporarily increase their power! This could let me use magic!”
Shimmerdust stood on her hooves. “But don’t you need magic to cast the spell in the first place?”
“And that’s why I’m here. I don’t have magic, but you do.” Sage pushed the book towards Shimmerdust.
“Oh, Sage. I can’t even read that. I’m certain I couldn’t cast it.”
“Yes, well, there’s a lot of preliminary reading and calculations to do. The spell here is a sort of shorthand for a number of processes. But, I’m sure that if we go over it all, you can do it.”
“I just don’t know. Sage, every time you’ve tried something to get magic, it’s wound up with failure and a story that I’m not allowed to tell to any of our friends.”
Sage leaned in, “Come on, dear. This is my childhood dream. You’re the only pony I can trust with this.”
“What about the princesses?”
Sage looked to the side. “I don’t want them to know that I never really got over having no magic.”
“Eh, we kinda had it figured out already.” Sage froze. The voice coming from behind him was far too familiar. He slowly turned his head, and surely enough, Luna’s smiling face was poking out from the cart of books.
“P-princess? How did you? Why?”
“Me and Celestia were playing around, and now I’m hiding. I’m surprised she hadn’t stopped by here already.”
“How long have you been in there?”
“Like five minutes.” Sage saw that Luna was now looking behind him. “What’s with your belle?” He turned and noticed that Shimmerdust was looking wide-eyed at the book pile.
“They gave birth. And I missed it.” Sage put his hoof to his face.
“No, dear, Princess Luna is a master of teleportation.”
“Oh. That makes a lot more sense.” Shimmerdust went back to looking at the book.
“So, since I already know, maybe I can take a look at the spell?”
Sage sighed. “I don’t see why not.” Luna jumped out of the pile, sending books everywhere. She went to the book, standing opposite from Shimmerdust.
“You know you’re reading it upside-down, right?”
“But I think it makes more sense this way.” Shimmerdust was moving her head back and forth, like she was trying to make sense of a magic-eye puzzle. Both Luna and Sage sighed.
“Well, Princess, how does it look?”
“Hard. You need to have a really good sense of a pony’s magic to use it. I mean, it’s supposed to be used on yourself.” The princess suddenly stood up straight. “Heeeey! I have an awesome idea!”
Sage raised his eyebrow. “You do?”
“I can practice this spell on myself! Maybe if I use it, I’ll become a fully-ascended goddess, or something.”
Luna shook her head. “It takes many centuries for a goddess’ magic to concentrate enough to give her full power. Right now, I’m kinda, like, half a goddess. So is Celestia, but she’s older than me, so she’s closer to ascending.”
“Princess, the spell only lasts a day.”
“But that’s the best part! Look, I’ve had misadventures trying to speed up my ascension long before you were born. But this is temporary, so it’s not going to screw with the natural order, right? I get to be the big cheese for a day, Celestia gets to take a break, and I learn a spell that you can get magic from. Everypony wins!” Luna reared up on her hind legs and clapped her front two hooves together in delight.
“Well…if you really think that’s best, Princess.”
Princess Luna’s horn began glowing as she sank into concentration. “Just gimme a few minutes.”
Celestia sat back upon her throne. Chasing Luna around had been fun, but seeing an arrest in progress reminded her that she still had work to do. She closed her eyes and began reviewing her remaining duties in her mind. There were five new laws that she needed to review and ratify, all of them excruciatingly long and full of unrelated addendums and minutiae. She was scheduled to visit the charity hospital in the lower quarter. At sunset, there was a knighting ceremony for some noble’s brat, a mere formality that was a mockery of the old purpose of such practices. She calculated the amount of time she had. Even with speed-reading, and her powerful mind, the laws would take a good two hours. She needed to be at the hospital in an hour and a half. The knighting ceremony would last until her normal bedtime. She either needed to skip dinner or miss out on sleep. Celestia stifled a growl and wished that she kept her schedule on paper, so that she could throw it in the air and maybe tear it to pieces. Releasing the frustration as a sigh, she began to step down from the throne, when she heard hoofsteps at the entrance.
“Flash?” The guard pony walked up to the throne and bowed.
“Your Majesty, I need to see the prisoner. Do you know where he is now, Your Majesty?”
“That young man is in the hospital, having that broken wing you gave him healed.” Celestia’s voice was devoid of any anger, but Flash Burn still averted her eyes.
“I-Your Majesty, I needed to stop him before he could start moving. His flying is too good, Your Majesty.”
“It may not be anymore. Healing wings is no easy business, even for unicorns. If it broke the wrong way, he may never fly the same again.” Flash Burn sank lower to the ground. “But why are you concerned? I thought he was quite the notorious criminal, wasn’t he?”
Flash closed her eyes. “Yes, Your Majesty, but…I’m not sure how to say it. I’ve seen hundreds of criminals, Your Majesty, and all of them had wickedness in your eyes. I saw this colt’s eyes…and I don’t know. I just don’t know.” Celestia stepped forward and brushed her head against the pegasus’.
“You didn’t do anything wrong, Flash. But perhaps you shouldn’t see him. He’ll be there tomorrow, and you really need to take a break. I think you should call it quits for the day.”
“I can’t, Your Majesty,” Flash Burn said standing upright once more, “We have that knighting ceremony for Lord Pearl Comb’s son, remember?” The princess winced as if she’d just been smacked.
“Right, well, just promise me you’ll take it easy until then. I can tell when a pony’s had a longer day than the hours should allow.” They gazed into each others’ eyes. They were both far too tired.
“I understand, Your Majesty. I’ll see you in a few hours, Your Majesty.” The captain trotted off, leaving Celestia alone again.
“And now I have 50 minutes to get work done,” Celestia groaned.
“I pronounce you Lord Pearl Wine.” Princess Luna and Princess Celestia lifted their horns from the young stallion’s shoulders. His eyes were full of emotion, as if this was something he was lucky to have. Celestia felt a tiny bit of joy in that, though her own expression remained placid. “You may rise.” The new Lord stood and slowly walked away from the throne, as the quiet but pervasive applause of his family and their allies filled the throne room. Soon, the other ponies were adjourning to the banquet room. Celestia moved to follow them, but she noticed her sister going in the opposite direction.
“Luna? Where are you going? You normally like these banquets more than I do, with all the gossip that goes on.”
Luna turned and gave her sister a smile. “Oh, I just thought I’d get some work done. It’s not like anypony will notice I’m gone.”
“They will, Luna, and they might take offense. Just come for an hour?”
“Sorry, sis, but there’s a lot to do. Just tell them that I was called away to something, okay?”
Celestia sighed. “Fine. Just remember that you have to hold court tonight.”
Luna stopped dead in her tracks. “Crap!” she yelled, loud enough to echo in the throne room. Celestia felt herself blush, and she lowered her head.
“Language, Luna,” she whispered, as if it would make ponies less likely to hear what had already been said. Luna began walking off with loud, angry hoofsteps.
“You’re lucky that you made me promise,” she whined. And, yet, up to her chambers she went. Celestia turned to the banquet, wondering what she would use as an excuse. At least it would be sometime until anypony asked her.
“Oh, Princess, where has your sister gone?” asked a younger mare.
Celestia grinned to hide her nervousness. “Uh…she had to…wash her hair?” The mare’s bewildered face clearly indicated that she hadn’t bought it, but she said nothing and went to join the party.
Celestia lowered her voice to a mutter. “Crap.”
The arrival of moonset, Celestia noted to herself, felt not unlike being very hopped up on sugar. There was an incredible need burning inside her to just DO things, and it was also impossible to actually sleep. Without stirring from her pillow, she willed her divine magic into the sky and pushed the sun into the heavens once more. In her more philosophical moods, the princess often reflected on the fact that she and Luna were probably to only ponies capable of feeling glum while exercising powers beyond imagination. Changing the night into day did nothing to make Celestia feel any better after yet another night of attempting to appease nobles. Groaning, she pushed herself off her bed.
The princess walked over to her mirror and levitated a brush. She could hardly even get it through the tangle of pink on her head, and after half an hour, she decided that her tail was good enough that most ponies wouldn't notice. She would be sitting down most of the day, after all. Besides, today would be a good day. Flash Burn would finally relax a bit with Everfree's most wanted behind bars, Groza the griffon ambassador was coming by for the first time since winter, and Sage would probably be coming back to spend some time with her. Her close friends were happy, and that made Celestia happy.
The first thing that Celestia noticed upon entering the throne room was that her younger sister, Luna, was decidedly not happy. In fact, she had not seen such an angry glare from the other princess since the only time they'd ever had a real fight. Neither of them could even remember what it was about afterwards, but they had promised to never fight again, not even if the sun burnt to cinders and the moon was lost amongst the stars. Unable to bear the expression on her sister's face, Celestia looked out the eastern window to make sure that the sun was, in fact, in the sky.
"Did you sleep well, sister?" Luna had descended from the silver-and-midnight throne to stare her sister right in the face. Her horn was dangerously close to Celestia's head.
"Ah…no?" Celestia tried to manage a big grin, but it did not soften Luna's expression the slightest.
"Would you like to know how holding court went for me last night?" Celestia stepped back as Luna's face grew closer, but the younger princess pressed in without a delay.
"I had three petitioners." Luna's glare faltered a bit as she looked off to the side, but it resumed quickly.
"Well, those three ponies must have really had urgent business with you, since they must have either skipped the ceremony or stayed up to come in after." Celestia breathed. That made sense, didn't it? It wasn't about the number, but the importance. And, surely, anypony who would come in that late or miss such an event must have had much more important matters that Celestia's own average petitioners.
"Two of them asked me if I could maybe please make the night start a bit later."
"Oh, that's nothing." Celestia rolled her eyes. "Do you know how many ponies come in asking me if I could put off sunrise so that they could sleep in easier on weekends? I tell you, sometimes I'm tempted to just post a sign. What was the third?"
Luna raised her voice to a shout, "The third one asked me to pose for naughty pictures!"
Celestia stepped back. "But we…Equestria has had no nudity taboo since before even we were born. What could that possibly entail?"
Luna narrowed her eyes, "You can see why I'm a bit upset."
There was an awkward silence, and Celestia sighed. "Luna, I'm sorry. But one bad night doesn't mean that they'll all be like this. You have to keep trying."
"ARGH!" Luna stamped a hoof down. "You just don't get it, do you?" The younger princess fled into the corridors.
"Oh no you don't, young lady. We are going to have a serious-" Celestia began to give chase, but she rounded the corner to find that Luna was already gone. "-chat," the princess said mostly to herself. She took a deep breath and willed magic into the walls of the castle. "This conversation is not over." She knew that Luna heard the message. With no further way to resolve the matter, she sat upon her throne.
Many minutes passed before the Day Guard marched into the throne room. They all bowed ceremonially. "Captain Flash Burn and the Day Guard reporting for duty, Your Majesty"
"At ease, everypony." The Day Guard stood up stiffly. For them, that WAS 'at ease'. "Anything to report this morning, Captain?"
"Yes, Your Majesty. The agricultural advisor was found stranded in the Foreign Quarter sometime last night, Your Majesty. He said…" the captain trailed off, looking to the side. Celestia's stomach leaped. She should have remembered that Amaranth hadn't the first clue how to navigate a paper bag, much less the lower areas of Everfree. And he certainly would have had no problem saying that Celestia had been the one to leave him there without a way home.
"Please tell him that I would like to see him and apologize." Flash Burn tilted her head in a small bow. "Is there anything else?"
"We recovered most of the objects stolen by Dark Blur from pawn shop dealers, Your Majesty, but we have been unable to locate any of the money he received from selling them, or any objects he may have purchased with such money, Your Majesty. We plan to follow up by finding any gambling houses he may have had debts to, Your Majesty, but-" Flash stopped suddenly. The guard pony bit her lower lip, and some of the other guards were trying their best not to stare at her.
"Out with it, Captain."
Flash sighed. "Your Majesty, I don't think we'll find answers there. The only pony who knows where that money has gone is the criminal himself, and he is in no state for interrogation, Your Majesty."
"That's all right, Captain. Is that all?"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"Then you are all dismissed."
Flash stood up straight. "Day Guard! Stations!" The other ponies hurried off to their jobs. "Your Majesty, I know I screwed up-"
"You did nothing of the sort." Celestia stepped down from her throne. "Still, I'd like you to tell me why you think looking into the gambling houses is a bad idea. I've met enough criminals to know that the debts those places rack up can drive a pony to desperation."
"I just have this unshakable feeling, Your Majesty. There's something more to him." The two ponies pondered in silence.
"You said he can't be interrogated now? Surely his wing is well-mended enough that he can move, at the very least."
Flash Burn shook her head. "I stopped by the infirmary early this morning, Your Majesty. His wing will heal properly, they think, but they had to re-break it. I got there just in time for the procedure. It…if I didn't know they were healing him-"
"Stop blaming yourself, Flash." Flash gasped and looked the princess right in the eyes. Nailed it, thought Celestia to herself. "Feeling guilty won't get you anywhere. I'm sure he'll be fine."
Flash turned away again. "It's just…when I was taking ballet classes, Your Majesty, there was a girl. She made a bad landing, and she broke her wing. They tried so many things to fix it, but in the end, she couldn't fly at all. She was my friend, but as time went on, I couldn't see her anymore. Nopony could, because her parents never let her out. And one day, she-" Celestia heard a sob in Flash Burn's voice, but before she could assuage her, a voice rang out from beyond the gates.
"That, young lady, is why we took you out of those infernal classes." An alabaster pegasus and a deep orange unicorn were walking in the gates, both dressed in finery. Their age was only just starting to show on their faces.
"In front of the princess, you will call me SIR, young lady." The white pegasus glared angrily at Flash Burn.
Celestia cleared her throat. "Duke Cirrus, the throne room has not been opened for the day. What are you doing here?"
The white pony and the orange pony both bowed. "Your Majesty, I apologize for intruding, but Lady Spring Dance and I must speak with our daughter about an urgent family matter." Flash Burn was looking at Celestia with a pleading expression.
"I, um, am afraid, Duke Cirrus, that the captain has a very important prisoner to attend to today. In fact, she needs to see him as soon as possible."
The white pegasus glared back over to his daughter. "You have work to do, and you were wasting both your time and the princess' with your daft sob story about that filly offing herself? If we weren't in the throne room, I would-"
"Cirrus Fluff!" The older pegasus bared his teeth upon hearing his full name, but backed down quickly.
"I am sorry that you had to see that, Your Majesty, but my daughter-"
"Is the leader of over two-hundred of Equestria's most fearsome ponies, and the most honorable member of my circle of advisors. You have no right to speak to her that way." The princess and the duke glared at each other.
"With all due respect, Your Majesty, she is my daughter. It is my duty to make sure that she remembers her standing and does not submit to the sentimental behavior of the common riff-raff." Celestia felt her muscles tense, and her magic surge. Perhaps it was because sunrise was so recent, but she still felt the need to unleash her power, and the duke was presenting a very fine target.
"Why Duke Fluff," came an androgynous voice from a corridor, "how wonderful to see you again." Amaranth trotted into the throne room to stand beside the collapsed form of Flash Burn. "I am so sorry that I missed you at the ceremony last night. It's lucky I caught you. I heard that you were discussing arranging a marriage between your daughter and the Princeps Minor, Azure Blueblood." Everypony's eyes opened wide, including Celestia's.
"Er, Lord Amaranth. How well-informed you are. Princess Minor Decadence seemed to have no intention of telling anypony." The duke looked a bit nervous.
"Yes, well, I only heard because apparently she also had to discuss it with the Duchess of Cloudsdale. Apparently she was supposed to marry Blueblood too. You know, that would have made your daughter his second wife? It's a good thing I stopped you in time, Duke Fluff. It would have been a shame if you had traded your vote away for something like that." The duke looked much more pained than if Celestia had actually thrown him across the room.
"Excuse us, Your Majesty." Duke Cirrus and Lady Spring Dance trotted out of the room quickly. Flash Burn looked up from behind her hooves.
"Amaranth? Why-I thought-but-"
"I figured I owed you for yesterday." The green pony and the pegasus smiled at each other, and Celestia felt all the tension in the room melt away.
"You didn't. But thank you."
"Just promise me that you won't let that old blowhard decide on a husband for you?"
Flash blushed a bit. "I won't. As long as you promise to stand up to him for me."
"No problem. Besides, you seem more like a mare's mare to me anyway." The green pony stuck out his tongue.
Flash brought her hoof to her mouth to stifle a chuckle. "Oh, don't tell me you were planning on proposing?" That broke the dam. Both ponies collapsed to the ground laughing. Even Celestia felt that she had begun to chuckle.
"Okay, you two, enough joking around." She nudged them both off the ground. "Flash, I think you have paperwork to do."
The pegasus shot up into the air. "I forgot! Crap!" She looked down at the princess. "Er. Your Majesty." She disappeared into one of the corridors. Celestia let herself giggle. She then knelt beside Amaranth.
"Amaranth, I am so sorry for abandoning you at the restaurant. It was stupid of me."
"Yes, it was." Celestia winced. Brutal honesty could be brutal. "But I forgive you."
"You were okay, right? I mean, I know you were lost, but other than that?"
"I was not." The green pony turned to let Celestia see his right back leg, which had notable swelling on one of the joints.
"I was in some alleyway when a gang cornered me. They wouldn't believe that I didn't have any bits left on me after the restaurant. Thankfully, somepony heard the commotion and found the guards. Honestly, if I hadn't been mugged, I might not be here right now."
Celestia frowned. "We never used to have muggers. Not even in Everfree. How are so many ponies so poor when Equestria is the richest land in the world?"
"Princess, if you want to know about economics, you are asking the wrong pony. However, I think the situation may have been alleviated somewhat yesterday."
"Why? Did something happen in the Senate?"
"No. I just think that spending my entire week's stipend ordering every item on the menu at that restaurant must have had some effect on the local economy."
"You didn't." Celestia inched closer to Amaranth. "Tell me you didn't."
"I couldn't decide on what to get. I was going to ask you, but you left."
Celestia looked at her hooves. "I'm sorry. It's just…my sister has been feeling poorly lately. I saw an opportunity to cheer her up, and I took it. I wasn't thinking."
Amaranth nodded. "You can be a bit singleminded when it comes to Princess Luna. Amazing that after centuries, she is still more important to you than anything else in Equestria."
Celestia squinted. "Was that an insult or a compliment?"
"It was a statement." Celestia laughed in spite of herself. She knew that Amaranth had not meant to be funny, but his offhand deflection of the question amused her.
"Alright, alright. You haven't seen Morning Glory today, have you?"
Amaranth looked behind him with a gasp, which made Celestia laugh again. "No, Princess, I have not.," he grumbled.
"Strange, she's always in before it's time for court."
"Oh, goodness, is it that late already? Should I go?" Amaranth stood up, but Celestia placed a hoof on his.
"Let the nobles wait a bit. Why don't you tell me what it was like to have real zebra food for the first time?"
Celestia rubbed her forehead with her hoof. "Decadence-"
"Princess Minor Decadence." interrupted the blonde-maned grey unicorn mare before the throne.
"Explain to me what you mean when you say 'secessionists'," grumbled the princess, heedless of the correction.
"Well, it's a very simple political concept. You see, when there is a state-"
"I mean, why are there any secessionists in Maredrid?"
"Oh, I see." The unicorn laughed. "Well, it seems that the recent tax increase has upset a number of the ponies there. Apparently they don't think that they can run their businesses with a tax placed on official document paper. It's utter nonsense, if you ask me. I think sending a little military presence down there will have the issue resolved swiftly."
"You are in charge of the taxes of that province. You could just lower them."
"Oh, Princess," the unicorn chuckled, "the taxes are to benefit you. The more money I make, the more goes into the royal treasury. We both come out on top."
"Ah, yes," Celestia rolled her eyes, "because I was just thinking that my sprawling palace have enough luxuries. Why, with more money, I could renovate the swimming pool to have diamond studs all around and change colors. Surely that's worth hundreds of Maredrid farmers being unable to afford licenses to sell their produce."
"That's the spirit, Your Highness!" The mare reared up excitedly.
"Princess, please recon-" the unicorn mare stopped. A giant bird talon was on her shoulder. Feathers brushed against her mane.
"Mmm, it's been ages since I've gotten a pony in my talons. And you feel so…tender." The voice dripped with predatory lust and hunger. Decadence Blueblood galloped from the room screaming, leaving an elderly griffon standing alone before the throne. Celestia rose to her hooves.
"Lady Groza of the griffons. Are you threatening a noble in my court?" She glared at the intruding griffon with lethal intent.
"Oh, only a little." The griffon chuckled to herself.
"That could be considered an act of war." Celestia narrowed her eyes.
"Yup." The griffon also narrowed her eyes. There was a moment of silence. And then both of them began laughing.
"Wow. I have never managed to make Decadence shut up that quickly."
"Well, everyone knows that griffons have more charm and charisma, of course." They both laughed again. Celestia moved in for a hug, but was stopped as she saw Groza's front foot held up, talons curled in.
"Uh…huh?" She raised one eyebrow and tilted her head. She had no idea what to make of the gesture.
"Ugh, Celestia, you are so unhip." Groza put her foot down and hugged the princess.
"How are you hip? You're over 200 years old."
"And still way more hip than you, so you should feel pretty bad." The two of them stared at each other for a moment. "So, how was winter?"
"Beautiful, as usual. Some days I wish I could have snow all year."
"If you like it so much, you could come live up in the mountains with me."
"Just the two of us. A nice log cabin…"
"Snuggling up for warmth when the storms hit…"
"Enough, Groza. I'm a goddess. We're not interested in cuddling, or anything related to it, you know that."
"Hmph, maybe you aren't." Groza paced to recline onto Celestia's throne. "Your little sister's a different story."
"What do you mean by that?" The griffon silently preened her feathers. "Groza? What do you mean about my sister?"
"Don't worry about it, I was just teasin'." Groza waved her front foot in the air. "Say, where is the little tyke? This is the first time I've made it all the way to the throne room without her tackling me."
"She's really upset about something. A lot of things. I think it's my fault."
"Hey." Groza placed her foot on Celestia's shoulder. "It's not. I know you, and I know her. If she's mad, it's not at you. Remember the last fight you two had?"
"I try not to."
"Yeah, well, it wasn't your fault either. You can't take responsibility for your sister. She's gotta own up to herself."
"I know, but she's so young."
"She's older'n me."
"It's different for goddesses," Celestia protested, but she could see that the griffon was unswayed by the argument. ”Oh, Groza, it feels like Equestria is falling into ruin and I'm just failing to stop it. What am I doing wrong?"
"How much control do you still have over Equestria?" Celestia felt her heart sink. It was too good of a question. "I rule over my lands absolutely, but you, with your Senate…I don't think you have enough power anymore to accept responsibility."
"Maybe. But it's my responsibility anyway." Celestia felt a sharp sting in her shoulder, and realized that Groza had smacked it affectionately.
"And that's why I like ya. Now, I expect that you have a cake ready?"
"Yes, Madamoiselle Gateau has been working very hard. I hope you like strawberries…" the pair walked out of the throne room and off to the kitchen.
Princess Celestia's voice rang off the castle walls as she once again activated its magic. "I'm so sorry, Groza," she said, turning to the old griffon, "lately she's been so-"
"Up in the library, sis."
"Yeep!" Celestia jumped a bit at the response. "Er, pretend you didn't just see that."
Groza chuckled. "My beak is sealed."
The pair took to their wings and flew up the stairs to the library. Waiting for them at the entrance was Twilight Sage, looking incredibly exhausted. He hung his head upon seeing the princess and the ambassador.
"I can't get her to stop. At this rate she's going to hurt somepony. Probably me." Sage turned to re-enter the library, which led Celestia to notice the state of affairs. Stone bookshelves had been toppled, some of the books were flying and trying to eat each other, and the filing cabinet had turned plaid. Princess Luna was at the dead center of the chaos, her horn aglow in night-sky purple.
"Luna?! What in the world are you doing?" Celestia advanced on her sister, but stopped to try and settle things down with her own magic.
"Practicing! You gotta check this out." Luna reared up on her hind legs, kicking at the air excitedly. Her eyes widened when she faced the entrance. "Groza!" The young alicorn leapt into the air and tackled the griffon in a large hug. Groza managed to keep her footing, though.
"Hey, squirt. I was worried when you didn't catch me halfway into the city. Everything alright?"
"Yeah, I've just been busy. Do the thing!"
Groza rolled her eyes. "Aw, c'mon. Aren't you tired of that by now?" From Luna's widened, shimmering pupils, the answer was obvious.
"You might as well do it, Groza. She'll just keep bugging you."
Groza sighed, smiling. "Fine." The old griffon reared up onto her lion legs and shut her eyes in concentration. Golden shards formed around her swirling in a whirlwind until they became a necklace, which ended in a golden crown. "You know I'm only supposed to do this when I face evil, right?"
Luna giggled. "Ooh, I can be evil, if you like. A vicious monster. Graaawr!" The little goddess once again attempted to tackle the griffon, only to meet with even greater resistance. Groza didn't even move an inch, as if she were made of stone. "Or not. I guess I'm not cut out for evil."
"Wouldn't matter if you were, kid. As the Spirit of Loyalty, none can fell me when I defend others."
"But you weren't defending anyone!"
"On the contrary. I seem to have been defending the princess of Equestria from a vicious monster." Celestia giggled. The fact that the forces more ancient than the world had a sense of humor gave her strange comfort.
"So, Luna, you said you wanted us to see something?" Celestia looked over at Groza to see that the necklace was already gone.
"Oh yeah!" Luna hopped back to her hooves. "Sage found an awesome spell, and I've just about got it. It's hard to hold, though."
"What could you be-?"
"Watch!" Luna braced herself in a wide stance and channeled magic into her horn. Celestia took a step back as her younger sister grew taller, her horn longer, and her wings wider. Her short silver mane grew immensely, and became a starry umbra. Her coat darkened just a little, but it seemed purer somehow. The young goddess wore a huge grin. "Cool, huh?"
Celestia's heart raced. She recognized that spell. It was one she had tried when Luna was still very young, just after their parents had passed on. She remembered what it felt like. The power of the sun had burned in her mind, fueling an unquenchable flame. It would have destroyed her, had she not heard Luna crying in the next room. It was unrelated, of course, but she had almost lost a hold on what was truly precious to her.
"Luna. End that spell right now. You don't know what you're doing."
Luna's grin turned into a snarl. "Don't know what I'm doing? I-oh no." The young alicorn's horn burst into magic once again, filling the room with light. When the light subsided, Luna was normal again, and the floor grew a carpet that felt disturbingly like real hair. Celestia sighed.
"Luna, that spell is for mortal ponies. Goddesses like you and I are tied to the very forces of nature in a way that no other beings are. Messing with our power is very dangerous."
"You just don't like the idea of me being better than you at something."
"Luna, that's ridiculous-"
"It's not!" Luna advanced on Celestia. "I know how you love being the better sister. All the ponies adore you, you and your sun. They act like you're the only princess here, and I bet you wish you were!" Celestia noticed that Luna was glaring at her again, intensely and full of hate. Her eyes shimmered, and Celestia tried to look away. There was just something so very wrong with that look. It wasn't natural. It wasn't the look of a pony, nor of anything else in the world. It was like a beast, or something that even beasts feared.
Luna was stopped by a clawed talon. "Your sister loves you more than anything in the world, squirt." Groza's face was filled with genuine concern. "I know it can be tough sometimes, but we have to trust that those close to us have our best intentions at heart." And that was it. Luna's eyes were once again those of an emotional little filly.
"I guess you're right. Sorry, sis."
Celestia noticed that her wings had flared out, and she folded them up as she tried to regain composure. "It's alright, Luna. I owe you an explanation." Luna's eyes popped. "A long time ago, I tried that spell myself. It messed with my head. The power of the sun is too much for a mind not yet prepared for ascension. The effects were permanent. You probably don't remember much of what I was like before then, but since that time, I've been a little prone to anger."
"Wait, that was magic? I always thought that was just your time of the month." Celestia blushed, and heard Groza launch into uproarious laughter. She lowered her eyebrows and gave the griffon an even stare. It was not one of anger, nor of any emotion, but the instant she met the griffon's eyes, Groza stopped laughing immediately.
"Wow. Funny thing is, you're a lot scarier when you should be angry and you're not."
"This is serious, girls. Once I discovered the spell's deleterious effects, I hid the book away. I honestly wonder how you found it." Celestia heard a gasp from the corner. Sage had been standing there the entire time, and now appeared to be looking for a way out. His eyes lingered on the stained glass window. "Oh."
"I'm sorry, Princess! I was just doing research. I had no idea."
"I believe you, Twilight Sage. It's alright. Help me clean up after all this, and we can call it even." Sage hung his head. Since he had no magic, he would only be doing cleanup that required muscle and hoof. "Groza, why don't you go with Luna to get some more cake?"
"Ooh, cake!" Luna sprang into the air and began trotting out the door, with Groza right beside her smiling softly.
"Wait, Luna, one last thing." The alicorn stopped and turned around. "Whatever thoughts may have come into your head from the moon while that spell was on…don't listen to them. They'll do nothing but harm."
"Oh, Celestia, I didn't hear anything. Honestly, I felt as normal as ever when the spell was going on, except for being taller." Luna resumed her trot and was soon out of sight.
Celestia's stomach churned. Somehow that made her feel more nervous than ever.
"Are you sure?"
"Positive." Sage's eyes were filled with determination.
"You know this will change everything, don't you?" Celestia didn't show her worry, but nothing could hide that she was greatly concerned.
"It's our only choice."
"Alright." Celestia closed her eyes and levitated a great tome in front of her, followed by a quill and a vial of ink. "From now on, we put the agriculture books under administrative sciences rather than physical sciences." She began crossing out old entries. The change meant they'd have to undo a half-hour of work to get everything re-sorted properly.
"I'm sorry, Princess, but that's the only way we can compensate for the missing section of the shelf." The orange pony kicked aside some pebbles that still remained from the rubble.
"I know. I just didn't think I'd be spending the day that my oldest friend came to visit cleaning up." She levitated a number of books off the shelves and put them into a neat pile on the floor. "She has to head back tonight, and I won't see her again for months at this rate."
"I understand. Sometimes duty keeps us apart from the ones we care about." Sage pushed the books on the lower shelves so that they would be more compact. He didn't look up as he spoke, but Celestia could hear in his voice that his mind was somewhere else.
"You'll get to see her again soon, Sage. It's not like your job requires you to be here all the time, much as you act it." Sage looked back with a sad expression. Wordlessly, he went over to the main desk where his saddlebag was lying. He pulled out a tube with a lens on each end.
"It does now. This device magnifies distant objects like the heavens. The amount of research that could be done on the stars is too great to ignore. I'll be spending every night up in the observatory. Even when she's free, I'll be either working or asleep." He nudged the tube back into the bag. "Innovation can carry a hefty price."
"Even discovery should be tempered by wisdom." Celestia looked at her advisor calmly. He simply stared at the floor.
"I'm sorry that I didn't tell you about the book. I should have gone to you first."
"Yes, you should have." The princess gave the unicorn a hug. "But I forgive you." Sage hugged her back tightly. They both stood in silence for a moment before Celestia released the hug. "Now, let's get back to work."
"Of course." Sage resumed his compression of the economics section as Celestia levitated the new section onto the shelf. The fit was very tight, and he had to put his hooves against the shelf to pull his nose out. "You know, Princess, if you want to go and talk to your friend, I'm sure I can take care of the rest of this. The magic's all undone and the heavy lifting's over."
"Twilight Sage, I will not have you doing all this work all by yourself." Celestia didn't want to mention that the workload would increase dramatically without the aid of magic. It was always a bit of a sensitive subject with her magic-less advisor.
"I have been doing library work without magic for years, Celestia. This is no different." Perhaps she had taught him too well. The boy was far too smart.
Celestia sighed. "If you're sure. But if you're not done by the time Groza leaves, I'm coming back to help you.” Sage didn't respond. He was already getting to work. Celestia slowly walked out of the room, looking back the entire time.
She whispered to herself, "Confound all these insecure ponies."
"You have to leave already?" Luna was looking up at Groza with pleading eyes. The old griffon ruffled the alicorn's mane with a single talon.
"Sorry, squirt, but I've gotta be back in Griffonmont before sunrise to preside over a marriage. It's mostly a political thing, but my claws are tied when it comes to inter-tribal stuff. I can't get out of it."
Luna grumbled, "Stupid sun, always ruining everything."
Celestia watched the scene with an even stare. Luna and Groza were acting as blithely as ever, despite the events that had happened just a few hours ago. She knew that Groza was downplaying it on purpose, but what about Luna? Did she really have no awareness of what was going on?
"Okay, Luna, we should really let Groza get going. We've all got politics to get back to." Celestia placed a hoof on her younger sister's shoulder.
"Fine," groaned Luna with a sigh. She hugged the old griffon and backed off to let Celestia do the same. With that, Groza took off, waving one talon back at the pony princesses. "You owe me a story next season, you old harpy," yelled Luna after the griffon's diminishing form.
"Come on, honey, we have work to do. You still have bills to sign."
"They only need one of us to sign them."
"Yes," Celestia said in the most "yes-but" tone she could, "but do you remember the last time you tried to exercise that little loophole?"
Luna huffed. "For all you know, the newspapers were right and I really WAS off vacationing in Maredrid sipping drinks and fooling around with poolcolts."
"We ate dinner together every night that week."
"I am a master of illusion and trickery. That's just what I wanted you to think!"
"And you hate pools."
"And every time you have to drink alcohol, you make this adorable little gagging noise." The two of them stared off for a minute. Luna's eyebrows were knitted, and Celestia's were narrowed despite the fact that her smile was not at all broad enough to force them that way.
"Just gimme a pen." A quill and inkwell levitated right next to Luna, who began signing the papers beside the throne with an exaggerated frown. "Why do we even bother with a senate?"
"Luna, we have this discussion every five years. Long before we were born it was declared that all ponies must be free. That precludes a dictatorship, even one ruled by goddesses."
"But what about other forms of government? We could do what the griffons do. A gera-…gerald-…"
"That thing! It's way less convoluted than a republic. Just let all the old ponies be in charge."
"The griffons have a complex tribal system. A gerontocracy doesn't necessarily preclude dictatorship, Luna, it merely changes how it's decided who's in charge."
"But the leaders aren't decided by something stupid like royal families! The ponies could still choose who's in charge by making sure the ponies they don't like never reach old age and WOW I already see what the problem with that is." Luna set aside the bills and slumped on the throne. "Guh. I am not cut out for politics."
Celestia sat next to her sister, which was quite a cozy fit on the throne. "You're better at it than I am most days, Luna. You just need to not charge ahead with every little idea before you think it out first. She leaned down to nuzzle her sister. When she opened her eyes, though, she noticed that Luna was no longer next to her, but was rather at the foot of the throne.
"Oh, yeah, 'cause I'm just the little sister, right? I don't know any better, right?!" The younger princess was glaring right at Celestia. Her pupils were shrunken, and…wrong. Celestia couldn't put her hoof on it, but she couldn't help but avert her eyes.
"Luna, I was trying to compliment you." She kept her voice calm, but Celestia felt her heart racing.
"Yeah, well-" the younger princess cut herself off and stared at the ground. "I…I have to go!" Her horn glowed, and with a loud flash, she disappeared.
"Luna!" Celestia stood and looked around. "Luna, where are you?" She spread her wings and flew out the throne room at top speed. She closed her eyes as she sped into the city of Everfree. "What is going on today?"
Princess Celestia followed the tug of her horn as she honed in on the energy signature of Luna's spells. The tracker spell wasn't usually worth trying, as it couldn't distinguish between different spells, but there was no other choice. Celestia could feel that her little sister was in danger, with a magic much deeper than that channeled through her horn. There was no time to lose.
Eventually, she located the closest location. A stall in one of the town squares in the lower quarter. The princess beat her wings faster and crashed into the door, where she found herself face to face with a blue unicorn with glittering hair.
"Welcome to Shimmerstar glassworks. I'm Shimmerdust, the-" the smiling unicorn began before Celestia cut her off.
"Have you seen Princess Luna?" The princess tried to sound calm, but she was breathing heavily, and her expression of concern was unconcealable.
"Why, yes, she came in here-"
"Which way did she go?"
"Back to the palace." The unicorn seemed completely unperturbed.
"I just came from the palace, of course she's not there!"
"Why, whatever were you doing at the palace?" The unicorn tilted her head. "Sayy…you're the princess, aren't you?" Celestia looked back to make sure her wings hadn't fallen off. Why would anypony even ask that?
"You must be the Shimmerdust I've heard so much about." She sighed.
"How do you know who I am?" the unicorn asked with wide eyes.
"You told me your name ten seconds ago."
"I meant how have you heard about me? Of course I know I told you my name. I'm no airhead." Celestia's eye twitched.
"Look, my sister is missing, and my tracker spell led me here. Do you know why?"
"Sure. My boyfriend said she teleported in here when she came in earlier today. But if it's magical auras you're looking for…" Shimmerdust used her mouth to pull down on a lever that lifted up a large lens, which had, through its light-bending properties, been completely concealing a large pair of glasses behind it. "These show the intensity and properties of magical auras. I've been working on them for over a year now, since I'm not good with magical theory. They were supposed to be a present for…well, somepony else, but I think you need them more." She lifted the pair of glasses onto Celestia's face.
Celestia's eyes were instantly assaulted. The glass shop, already full of color, was now nothing but color. The unicorn in front of her appeared as a vortex of near-white colors and glitter.
"How am I supposed to use these?"
"She teleported in over there," replied Shimmerdust pointing a hoof at a spot on the floor, "so just look at what you see there and try to find the biggest concentration of something similar." Celestia didn't need to focus to see what the unicorn meant. Luna's spell signature was an umbral swirl like a moving painting of the night sky, and quite a bit stronger than anything else in the shop, even the pony.
"Thank you. I'll find some way to repay you." Celestia took off straight up, leaving a hole in the ceiling.
Shimmerdust stood staring up at the new skylight. "I didn't accidentally make those prescription lenses, did I?"
With her new magically enhanced vision, Celestia had no trouble seeing the strongest of Luna's auras. The younger princess had hidden herself deep within the caves under Everfree. Celestia had found a clear spot in town and used her magic to tear through the earth until she reached the caves. She immediately noticed another pony on the opposite side of a still pool of water. The pony was shrouded in darkness, aside from the fading magic around its horn. However, the lenses told Celestia that it was most certainly her sister.
"Luna? Come here, sweetie, and let's talk about this." The other pony didn't respond, or even move. Celestia used her wings to hover above the pool, and inched closer to her sister.
"Why is this happening? What is this?" Celestia heard the sob in the other pony's voice. It was like her sister's, but a bit deeper, and lacking the usual childlike energy.
"Luna, I got mood swings from that spell, too. It's alright. They'll get better, I promise, but right now-"
"Mood swings?" The voice was even deeper now. "Is that all you think this is?" The sob had disappeared. "You still think of me as a witless child, don't you?" The other pony lifted her head. It had the eyes, the horrible eyes, full of evil and the promise of death. "You bitch!"
That's when Celestia noticed that the other pony wasn't so hard to see because of the lighting, but because she was pitch black. On those last words, her mane flared to life, a menacing, living nebula of stars.
"You're not my sister." Celestia looked the other pony straight in the eyes. "What are you?"
"What am I?" The pony chuckled condescendingly. "You can't even spare me the grace of a 'who'? Well, it matters not. Soon, you will be dead, and I will rule Equestria as Nightmare Moon!" The black mare reared up and cast her horn aglow. Celestia's glasses warned her that a lightning spell was brewing, and she threw up a shield just in time to keep from getting electrocuted.
"Give my sister back, you monster." Celestia returned fire with bolts of sunlight. She knew that the evil goddess could easily block them, but they were a simple enough message of deadly intent.
"Oh, Celly, Celly, Celly. I'm still your dear, sweet sister." Nightmare Moon spat the words. "Now come give me a hug!" The mare leapt up to ram its horn straight through Celestia's chest. Celestia pushed with her wings, clearing the height just in time to avoid a goring.
"With pleasure." Before Nightmare Moon landed, the older princess snared her telekinetically and flung her up through the hole that she had made from the surface. Without delay, she rushed up after her to continue the fight. However, on the ground next to the hole, she saw the form of Luna lying on the ground, crumpled up. "No, Luna!"
"Big sister?" moaned Luna weakly. "I'm sorry. I-ARGH!"
With a piercing shriek, Luna's limbs stretched, and her coat blackened, as her hair came to life once again and wrapped Celestia in a stranglehold.
"No," growled Nightmare Moon through clenched teeth, "I won't go back. I won't let myself love you ever again. You don't deserve love. None of you ponies do!" The dark mare threw Celestia to the ground, face-first. Celestia shook the pain away.
"If you really are Luna, then I will always love you. You know that, don't you?"
Nightmare Moon snarled. "You haven't a loving bone in your body. It's all lies. I thought I was the trickster, but I believed your lie for centuries. No! More!" Nightmare Moon kicked Celestia with her front hooves. Celestia felt her breath go, but used the momentum to allow herself an easy liftoff.
"Your mind is being toyed with!" Celestia levitated rocks and hurled them at the dark mare. "Stop this, please."
"No, it is only now that I see clearly." Nightmare Moon easily batted away the oncoming rocks. "You only pretended to love me because you needed me to raise the moon. But you knew you would ascend first, and once that happened, you would-" she was cut off as a boulder from the rear soared past her peripheral vision to hit her solidly in the body. She fell over, and her form slowly started melting back to the form of the young princess.
"I love you Celestia," Luna's voice came through, accompanied by tears. "I love you so much. Please, end it now. She'll-NOOOOO!" Nightmare Moon's full form reasserted itself.
"Oh, but you don't need to know that yet," chuckled the mare of darkness. She flung all the rocks back at Celestia, who had to use both aerial maneuvers and magic to stay safe. Nightmare Moon took off to the sky as well, attempting to engage Celestia in melee combat. Since the dark goddess was bigger than Celestia, she would have the advantage.
"All I need to know is that love will win the day. Perhaps you've forgotten that in Equestria, the heart is the most powerful magic." Celestia climbed into the air, forcing Nightmare Moon to chase her. They reached the level of clouds very quickly, and Celestia landed on top of a large one. Nightmare Moon landed on the cloud as well. From the vantage point, both could see that the sun was low in the sky and painting everything red. "But there's some other powerful magic as well." Celestia's horn glowed, and the red-lit cloud suddenly came alive. It trapped Nightmare Moon's hooves, and her struggles to get free did nothing.
"That sun will go down soon, and then we'll see who has the powerful magic." Celestia paid the words no heed and flung Nightmare Moon to the castle tower, where she crashed through the wall.
"No! She was supposed to resist that." The princess dived after her sister. She stood over the limp form of the dark mare, lying on the floor of the observatory. "Luna! Luna, can you hear me?"
The dark mare's eyes opened slowly. They were the eyes of a pony once more, though none of the rest changed. Tears flowed freely from Luna's eyes, over Nightmare Moon's face.
"Big sis," came Luna's voice just barely above a whisper, "you look totally dorky in glasses."
Luna's shriek of agony resounded through all the lands of the world, marking the Eve of Darkness.
Princess Celestia shook her head to clear the ringing in her ears. She saw Nightmare Moon standing opposite her in the observatory.
"Hm. Finally." The dark mare smiled approvingly at her own hooves. "I was worried that little brat had a fighting chance." Celestia readied her magic for another volley, but Nightmare Moon only chuckled. "Oh, don't worry about that, Celly dear. I was only overreacting because I was a bit at war with myself, you see." She began pacing around Celestia. "Oh, but that was just a phase. I'm all better now, I promise."
"No, Luna, you're not. You need help."
"Luna? Oh, my, it seems you've forgotten." In an instant, Nightmare Moon disappeared into the cloak of her own mane, reappearing right next to Celestia. Celestia hardly had time to register this as she was immediately kicked to the ground. "It's Nightmare Moon now."
"No," groaned Celestia, trying to ignore that some of her ribs had just broken. "You're still Luna. You're still my little sister, and I still love you." She tried to struggle to her feet, but Nightmare Moon kicked her again.
"Of course you do," cooed the dark mare. "Twue wuv always wins the day, doesn't it Cewwy-wewwy." She resumed her pacing. "Well, maybe you haven't noticed, but Luna is no more. I am free of that sickening admiration you programmed into me. But if I loved you, then what was the problem? After all, we all know how magical a pony's heart can be. Oh, I know." She leaned down next to Celestia's face. "Your love just wasn't strong enough." Nightmare Moon walked to the other end of the observatory.
"You're wrong," Celestia said between coughs. "This isn't over. You think that a little injury will stop me?"
"Of course not," snapped Nightmare Moon, "do you think I failed to notice how annoyingly stubborn you can be?" Her mane flared to life, but quickly calmed down. "But it doesn't matter. Your sun will only last another five minutes. Once that happens, they sky is mine. For you see, sister dear," she spat the word, "with my ascension, I've gained the power to control both sun and moon. And the night will last FOREVER!" Nightmare Moon cackled with glee.
"I can still stop you." Celestia struggled to her feet.
"Oh, really? You're running out of time, sister, and the game has changed. You see, beforehand, dear little Luna was holding me back. But now, there is nothing stopping me from destroying you." Celestia felt herself lifted into the air, but not by telekinesis. The magical energy was running through her body. No, it was tearing through it, slowly upwards. "Oh, sister, the heart really is the most powerful magic in Equestria. Now you will see what happens when a heart turns black." The tearing grew faster. Celestia could see the bottom of her body dying and withering.
"I can still stop you," she gasped weakly.
"Have you already resorted to repeating the last coherent thought you could manage? You were always weak, sister, just like all the ponies of Equestria who fear the dark. They will soon learn as you have."
"I can stop everything." Celestia poured all her magic into her horn. It glowed with enough power to bathe the room in light.
"No! You won't get the chance!" Celestia knew that it was obvious what she was doing. She raced to weave the complex magic as the tendrils of death ripped further and further into her body. She felt them reach her heart.
All went black.
The sudden force under Celestia urging her back into the waking world was immediately disturbing. She never woke up to anything other than the urge of the sun, or occasionally another pony's voice. The physical world being upset beneath her as she was unconscious registered as an immediate threat, and her mind rushed to respond. She immediately tried to open her eyes, only they didn't open. It was no issue of blindness, but she could feel her eyelids refusing to respond. She tried moving her legs next, but they felt even more unresponsive, if that was even possible.
"Celly, Celly, Celly…" came a voice from right next to Celestia's ear. The princess' heart raced faster. "Even your most desperate measure failed. And now you're mine." Nightmare Moon's voice danced all around, as if the evil mare had enveloped Celestia within her darkness. "You never loved me, but you will now." Celestia tried to respond, but her mouth was as immobile as the rest of her body. "I'll make you love me." Nightmare Moon's voice sounded quieter now, but somehow closer and angrier. "I will take your heart, your soul," the evil mare's voice dropped to a whisper, "your body." Celestia tried to move anything and everything. Her body felt like a cage for her mind, now doomed to suffer. She felt the oppressive heat of another body pressed against her. "And I'll take them now." Celestia tried to scream, but felt only the quietest of whimpers escape her lungs.
"Princess? Are you awake?" The voice wasn't Nightmare Moon's. It wasn't even Luna's. Celestia's eyes shot open. She was in a wooden cart. It smelled like the library, and there were a few books wedged in the cart with her. In a panic, the princess shot her leg out to keep everything away from her, to get to safety. She felt her hoof make contact with something fleshy but hard. The fleshy hard thing cried out in pain. As her vision cleared, Celestia saw her faithful advisor, Twilight Sage, staggering back from the cart.
"Sage?" the princess said weakly. The mouth felt perfectly mobile, but when she tried to speak, she noticed that she was incredibly dehydrated. Her throat had never felt drier, in fact. Along with that realization came the one that every single part of her hurt. Her muscles burned like she had been exercising them all at once, and her head felt like she had tied in a game of "chicken" against a rock. She curled herself up instinctively, as if something was assaulting her from the outside.
Sage walked back up to the cart. "Try to calm down, Princess. I believe that your spell may have had an issue in its execution. It may take time for you to recover." Celestia relaxed her body. The pain was already starting to go away.
"Water." She wanted to say something else, to ask what had happened, but that was all that came out.
"Of course, Princess. Just sit tight." Sage walked out of sight, and the cart began moving. Celestia shut her eyes. Exhaustion threatened to overtake her again, but the dull pain kept her awake until the cart stopped moving again. "Here. This fountain is still working. Can you move?" Celestia managed to move her hooves under her body, but as she strained to rise to standing, she merely pushed herself off the back of the cart and onto the floor face-first. It didn't hurt too much, but it sapped her will to keep trying. Celestia went limp and felt herself start sobbing. She hardly registered her advisor dragging her head by the mane until it rested on the edge of a stone fountain. She lowered her head and took drinks between sobs.
"I don't want to rush you, but we have to finish quickly. This wing only has another ten minutes before it collapses." A rumbling shook the building. "Make that six."
Celestia raised her head from the fountain. "What's going on? Is Nightmare Moon attacking the castle?"
"Who?" Sage narrowed his eyes while simultaneously raising his eyebrows, a look Celestia had long ago identified as one that he used when attempting to discern if another pony was crazy.
"I'll tell you later. Just…explain, okay?"
Twilight Sage took a deep breath. "The other spell you cast seems to be taking more energy than your body actually holds, possibly because that other alicorn is fighting it. It seems that you've unconsciously started unweaving magic around you for more energy. And, since you're in the middle of Everfree Castle, which is a giant pile of enchantment, well…this entire place is coming apart. The throne room and some other places should remain intact, but I had to get you all the way down from the observatory first. It's been a couple hours."
"Hours?!" Celestia began coughing. Yelling was definitely a mistake. "I've been out for hours?"
"Well, yes. Casting a big spell after you'd already drained yourself? I had little hope that you would wake up at all."
"Why do you keep saying I cast two spells? I cast a spell to keep Nightmare Moon frozen in time, and then I blacked out."
Sage sighed. "Look in the fountain's pool." Celestia obliged him, and immediately noticed what was wrong. Her horn was missing from her head, and her wings from her body. Her royal crown and the rest of her regalia were all gone as well. Her proportions also suggested that she was quite the same size as a normal pony.
"My clone spell?" At least her wits had not deserted her. It all made sense. Her muscles were atrophied, her clothes gone, and she felt like she'd never eaten or drank. An incredibly minimalistic clone spell would result in an earth pony body without any excess calories, water, or muscle mass. And, if she'd been in the stasis spell as well, she wouldn't need to use magic to keep up two bodies at once, meaning that she would need to spend zero magic at all until she broke the time freeze.
"Yes. I'm not sure how you forgot about it. Perhaps the blackout gave you a small amount of amnesia?"
"It must have. So, does that mean that my original body is in the stasis bubble with Nightmare Moon?" Sage nodded. "And she's still not moving?" Sage nodded again. Celestia heaved a sigh of relief. Disaster had been averted. She had time to think. "Let's get out of the castle. I need to find some food, and we need to figure out how to fix this mess." She pushed herself off the fountain, only to find that she could still not support her own weight. However, this time, Sage caught her before she hit the ground.
"Let's get you back in the cart." With Sage's help, Celestia managed to climb back into the cart. She was able to make out the titles of some of the books. They appeared to be tomes of theology and history, none of them written in modern Equestrian.
"Sage, what are these for?"
"You'll see," said the unicorn dourly, as he picked up the cart and took Celestia down the corridor.
"Don't play games, Sage. I'm far too tired for them."
"You need to rest. It will take some time to explain, and we really have to get moving. Besides, I think you need to see it for yourself." Celestia's stomach churned. Mostly out of hunger, but she was also nervous. What else had gone wrong?
A short time later, Celestia noticed that they had arrived in the throne room. Non-magical torches had already been placed in the sconces along the walls, casting the room in a light that seemed somehow more eerie than the dimness of the hallways. She heard quick hoofbeats rush to the side of the cart.
"Sage? Are you alright?" It was Flash Burn's voice.
"I'm perfectly fine, Captain, but the princess could use your help." Flash Burn's head appeared over the cart.
"Your Majesty! I am so sorry. I didn't see you there, Your Majesty."
"It's all right, Flash." Celestia smiled weakly.
"Please, Your Majesty, tell me what I can do for you."
"I need food."
Flash frowned. "The areas leading to the kitchen have collapsed. There's no way in. The only other food I could find quickly is the food being taken by evacuees, but…"
Sage's head appeared next to Flash's. "What about the food in the hospital wing that's kept there for emergencies? None of the nurses were taking anything with them when they left, and we still have a couple minutes before that part of the castle collapses."
"The hospital's going to collapse?" Flash sounded very panicked.
"Yes, but there were no patients there, so-" Sage was talking to air. He looked around the room before turning back to Celestia. "If she's not back in a minute, we have to go."
"Sage, what did she mean by evacuees? What's going on?" Sage walked around to the back of the cart so that they could talk face to face.
"The pattern destabilization I spoke of earlier is spreading. Most of the upper quarter has magic architecture of some type or another. Once that destabilizes, the entire city will become a disaster zone. I was not confident that the issue leading to your sister's imprisonment would be resolved quickly, so I proposed at the Senate's emergency meeting that we evacuate immediately, under the standard protocol. They agreed."
Celestia felt her head swimming. Had she actually made things worse by trying to stop Nightmare Moon? "How exactly can you tell that's my sister up there?"
"Her flank, of course. It appears that no matter what form you two take, you keep those divine marks." Sage gestured towards Celestia's flank, which still had a golden sun emblazoned on it.
"Okay, second question: how did you get the Senate to agree to something like that? I may trust in your expertise, but those ponies can't agree to do something reasonable, let alone force everypony to abandon their homes."
"They've already been spooked. I didn't have to try hard to push it through."
"Spooked from what?"
Sage sighed. "I guess there's no putting it off. I'll show you." He took hold of the cart once again and wheeled it to the gates of the throne room. In an instant, Celestia understood everything.
The sky was black. There was no moon, and there were no stars. It was even blacker than the space between the stars had ever been.
"This feels wrong." Celestia looked apprehensively at the array of food in front of her.
"They're not coming back for it." Sage pushed a plate of fruit salad towards the princess.
"But still. Breaking into a noble family's house to eat their food? That's just not right, especially for a princess." In spite of her words, Celestia cleaned the china plate in front of her with a ferocity unmatched by any mortal pony.
"Desperate times, Celestia." The unicorn ate some food himself, albeit much more slowly. Celestia attempted to telekinetically summon a dish of baked vegetables before remembering that she had no horn. She leapt onto the table and dug into the dish, entirely ignoring table manners.
"So, you never explained all the books," Celestia managed between bites.
"I suppose now is as good a time as any." sage pulled the largest tome from the cart and placed it on the table. He opened it to a page somewhere near the middle. "This book is a compilation of traveler's tales from before the foundation of Equestria and the establishment of Everfree. The wild ponies had many legends concerning the Elements of Harmony."
"They're real, Sage, if that's your concern. You saw one earlier."
"Yes, yes, that's where I got the idea in the first place." He pointed to the book. "The wild ponies did, in fact, have what I now believe to be accurate descriptions of them. This tale here and another one speak of golden necklaces which can be summoned in a flash of light. Other tales mention stones with symbols on them which match descriptions of ancient symbols. I think that these are the unbound forms of the Elements. Why, they might have evidence as to the creation of-"
The unicorn cleared his throat. "Ah, yes, well, do you remember what the ambassador said? A single Element has the power to render her invincible under the correct circumstances. Not even your magic can do something like that. If we could harness that power, we might be able to fix whatever's going wrong."
Celestia finished another bowl of food and looked around for more. Finding that she had cleared the entire table, she climbed back down to the floor. "Well, I'm not sure that we can get the Element of Loyalty from Groza. It's bound to her."
"Ah, but I have a backup plan." Sage pulled out another book. "This is what was recovered of the Testament of Freedom after it was destroyed in the war."
Celestia frowned. "And what does that evil thing have to do with the Elements of Harmony?"
Sage grinned. "Maybe if you'd ever bothered to learn Draconic, you'd know."
"Even dragons don't speak Draconic anymore, Sage."
"But they did when they wrote THIS." He pointed to a section of gibberish. Celestia raised an eyebrow at him. Sage's smile became a nervous one. "Ah, I'll read it aloud. 'The Dragons of Wisdom', ah that's part of their creation myth," Sage commentated, "'handed down the Elements of Harmony to all the free beings of the world, and so they shall not be kept from any. To the Sons and Daughters,' that's the dragons, 'goes the Element of Generosity, for though the power is theirs to take or destroy, they give equally to all the free beings of the world.'"
Celestia mumbled a few syllables in an attempt to invent new vulgarity, but didn't interrupt.
"The damage makes the next section unreadable, but here it says 'griffons' and 'Loyalty', and we know that still matches up. It also has 'serpents' and 'Kindness' in the same line, so that's a pretty safe bet too. Already we have solid leads on two other Elements." Sage shut the book.
Celestia sighed. "I guess if the griffons still have theirs, then the others might be the same too. Alright, I'll start off towards Griffonmont as soon as I can. I guess that will leave you in charge of the Senate, if they can even meet outside the city."
"Don't be ridiculous. I must go with you." Sage closed the book and placed it back in the cart.
"You must? Sage, you know that I would not deny your company without good cause. The people need an intelligent pony to keep things together."
"And you need me more. Celestia, you don't know any provincial tongues that weren't around centuries ago, and the road to Griffonmont alone takes you through two places where you'll need to use local dialects. Outside major cities, very few ponies speak proper Equestrian."
Celestia placed a hoof on Sage's shoulder. "My trusted advisor, I have journeyed through Equestria time and time again. Do you really think I am without ways of getting around?"
"And what might those ways be?" Sage asked with a cocked eyebrow and a doubtful tone.
"A rather obscure, though handy, spell that-" Celestia gestured to her forehead and felt a sinking sensation in her gut. No horn. No magic at all. She smiled weakly at her advisor. "So, how's your packing coming?"
Sage smiled back at her. "It's all done, actually. I'm always prepared for a journey. I've left an emergency travel pack with Shimmerdust, and she knows where to meet me in case of emergencies like this."
"I'm not sure, Sage. She seems like the kind of pony who wouldn't notice an emergency was going on."
Sage scrunched up his face a little. "Well, I…when did you have the chance to meet her, anyway?"
Celestia's eyes narrowed despite her smile being quite small. "Not too long ago. So, we'll be stopping by her shop, then?"
Sage shook his head. "Whether or not she thought anything of the sky darkening, the Guard would have informed her of the evacuation. She is situated right on a square, after all. No, it would be best to make haste to the rendezvous."
"You sound like you're excited to go."
Sage smiled, but looked at the floor. "Well, can't a pony want a little adventure?"
"Of course." Celestia began walking to the door. Her hooves felt sure beneath her, like the banquet had restored her to perfect health in an instant. "And actually living one will most certainly be better than just writing novels about it."
There was a pause. "How does everypony know about those?
The lower quarter of Everfree was not as it should have been. Even at night, the ponies of Everfree would light the streets with lamps. Lovers would sing to their beloveds from beneath windowsills. Whispers would be heard in alleyways. Drunkards would stagger out of taverns. But in the darkness, not a whinny could be heard. Only the sound of the hoofbeats of two ponies, walking along slowly.
"Sage, do you think that everypony is alright?" Celestia turned to her advisor with a worried look.
"I do." Sage did not look back at his mentor. He was too busy looking around. "The evacuation protocols are quite sound. Even if they were made before the city was divided, they are designed to keep up with a changing populace. Although," he looked down at the ground, "they were made assuming that the Guard would be maintained at full strength."
"The Guard is very diligent. I am sure that any slack caused by loss of numbers was taken up by determination."
Sage laughed. "Ah, you should have seen Captain Flash. She was giving out orders like presents on the Winter Moon Celebration. Even Captain Destrier wasn't safe from her. I was sure somepony would wet themselves before she was through."
"She can be quite fierce when she's doing her duty, can't she?"
"So it seems. I guess my impression of her as shy was mistaken. In fact, nopony else seems to think of her that way."
Celestia rolled her eyes. "All those brains, and yet so much to learn."
"And what do you mean by that?"
"Oh, look, the gate." Sage turned his head. Indeed, the main gate of Everfree was just ahead. A line of guards stood in it, all facing outward, standing between the city and thousands of ponies. "We should probably warn them that we're coming."
"Good idea." Sage took a deep breath and called out. "Hello, the gate!"
Some of the guards turned. "Twilight Sage! Where's the princess?"
"Here." Celestia turned her flank mid-stride so that the guards could see it. They went slack-jawed.
"Er, yes, of course. Your Highness. Sorry." They separated to make way for the two ponies. Celestia and Sage passed through quietly. After they were out of earshot, Sage leaned in so that his head was next to the princess' ear.
"Did you need to do that so…like that?"
"Like what?" Celestia raised her eyebrows in confusion.
"The way you, uh, showed your flank. When you walk like that it's…well, it's a little bit…oh, I'm not sure how to put this."
"Just speak plainly."
"It's what ponies in the Lower Quarter call 'shaking that thang'." Sage stared intently at his hooves.
Celestia boggled. "That? That is what gets stallions in a tizzy? THAT is what you ponies make a big deal over?" Sage's silence told Celestia all she needed to know. "Wow. Next you'll be telling me that bucking is 'sexy'." Sage scrunched his face up and drove it into the ground. "You can't be serious."
"Just, please, never EVER do that again unless you absolutely have to. Either of those things, actually."
"Hey!" The voice didn't come from Celestia or Sage. Both of them looked over to the source. It was an earth pony with laden saddlebags and a strong build. "Are you really the Princess?"
Celestia stood in front of Sage. "Yes, I am. The state of affairs has left me in the body of an earth pony, but with any luck, that will soon be-"
"What happened to the sky? Where's the moon?" The large pony stepped forward until his height pressed on the princess.
"Calm down, sir. We're working to resolve it right now, if you'll just-"
"Don't give us that damn politico talk!" Another pony stepped forward. A mare just barely old enough to be an adult. "You tell us straight up what happened."
Celestia sighed. "Something happened to my sister, Princess Luna. She's had to be dealt with until-"
"What did you do with Princess Luna?" A third pony stepped forward. Then a fourth. A mob of ponies began surrounding Celestia and Sage.
"We've had to temporarily-"
"You royals and your infighting. Do you ever bother to consider the rest of us ponies?"
"We've had it with you messing up our lives for your little power games!"
"This ends now!" The mob closed in around the two ponies. The blaze of torches lit their bodies, but in the darkness, none of their eyes could be seen. All speech was drowned out by the rising collective noise of the ponies, and their hoofbeats coming closer.
The din of the refugees closing in made Celestia unable to hear her own voice. She could vaguely make out her advisor, Twilight Sage, yelling something back at the other ponies, but he was pushed to the ground as he tried to fend them off. Celestia was running out of room to move. She felt the muscles in her back tense, as if she still had wings to fly away with. Without that option, though, it was starting to look like fighting would be the only answer. But she was still weak. Her tail brushed against somepony. She prepared to kick.
Her back hooves met with empty air. Celestia looked up and saw that, one by one, the ponies around her were being lifted into the air, surrounded by magical glows of varying colors. They were even louder now, many of them screaming in surprise. As they cleared the ground, three unicorns in silver armor, horns bursting with energy, marched under the levitated crowd. They parted from their triangular formation to reveal a green earth pony in a very old-looking set of bronze barding.
“Amaranth?” Celestia took a single step forward. “Is that you? What in Equestria are you wearing?”
Amaranth closed his eyes. “You’ve missed a lot in the past few hours, Princess.” He gestured with a hoof at the three unicorns. “These are Sirs Mistlocke and Dream Catcher, and the Lady Nightshade. They’re elite members of the Night Guard.” The unicorns glanced, but they didn’t bow. Their eyebrows were furrowed in concentration.
“And why are you marching around like this? And in that ridiculous getup?”
“This is not the first time tonight that a mob has formed targeting the nobility. Many nobles are far from able to protect themselves, so those who are able have taken it upon themselves to keep the rest of the nobility safe.” The unicorns set the crowd down many feet away, and the other ponies began to disperse. “I just hope this doesn’t get out of hoof. Being of the noble class does not always give one noble intentions.”
“You still haven’t explained-“
“The armor,” Amaranth interrupted, “belonged to my ancestor, who fought in the war and earned our family the duchy. I did not want to leave it behind in Everfree in case we were forced to abandon the city forever.”
“How optimistic.” Celestia helped pick Twilight Sage off the ground. “I have to say, Amaranth, I never pegged you for the fighting type.”
“I am not. I believe I mentioned that the nobility with fighting ability were protecting those without.” Amaranth’s statement led Celestia to look again at the three unicorns. They had returned to a triangular formation around the green earth pony.
“So you’re going around getting yourself into trouble even though you’re…” Celestia looked at the bronze armor, “basically defenseless?”
“I am not a weakling, Princess, merely untrained.” Amaranth looked at his own hoof. “Also, I have not yet found a convenient place to store this. I believe that I will require some ointment for the chafing.”
Celestia stifled a giggle. “You’ve been very brave, Amaranth. We’re looking for a unicorn named Shimmerdust. Can you and your retinue help us?” The unicorns all gasped, and Amaranth sighed.
“Finding her won’t be hard. Come with me.” The unicorns all looked at each other hesitantly, but raised no objection.
Twilight Sage groaned. “Oh, no.”
The walk took the ponies over ten minutes. As much as Celestia had tried to get Amaranth to reveal what had given everypony such apprehension at Shimmerdust's name, the green pony refused to say anything. This change from Amaranth's normal open bluntness upset Celestia. What could be so bad that even he wouldn't say it?
Finally, the walk led to a large cluster of ponies who seemed quite a bit more calm than the last one. The unicorns ordered the ponies to make a path, and they complied. However, the group was not ten feet in before somepony yelled out.
"That pony has the royal mark on her flank!"
This caused the ponies to erupt in frantic conversation. Unlike the last group, however, this one was not talking to the princess directly. Rather, they seemed to be arguing among themselves. Celestia was unable to make out any of it, though she swore that she kept hearing the word "goddess". She turned to Amaranth.
"Are these ponies going to cause trouble?"
"Not for us," Amaranth said curtly. "Come. We're very close." The crowd gave Celestia a lot of distance, but their arguments were becoming more pitched, many ponies even yelling.
"Why are they all arguing? Amaranth, you're not telling me something, and I'm getting really worried."
"Here." Amaranth pushed an earth pony aside, giving Celestia a view of a clearing. The ponies were dressed in simple white cloths and bowing before a makeshift throne assembled from the remains of merchant stalls. Two ponies in what appeared to be bronze bikinis stood fanning the pony who stood upon the throne. That pony was a very familiar blue unicorn with glittering hair. Celestia's jaw dropped.
"Shimmerdust?!" Her yell was accompanied by Twilight Sage's. His expression was more composed, but his voice no less shocked. The blue unicorn on the throne turned her head.
"Sage!" Shimmerdust leapt from her throne, the force of which caused the thin wood to creak. She rushed to hug Celestia's advisor. "I was worried after they closed the gates."
Sage returned the hug half-heartedly, still looking worried. "Honey, what's going-"
"The Prophet has chosen a consort!" One of the ponies near the throne held a hoof in the air. The surrounding crowd cheered. "Praise her glory!"
"Praise her glory!" repeated the entire crowd. They parted so that everypony could get a good view of Twilight Sage, who looked as if he had just had a door slam on his tail.
"Prophet?" Sage slipped out of Shimmerdust's embrace. "What are they all talking about?"
"Oh, I think they mean me. Somepony must have gotten my name wrong, and I guess it caught on. I've tried to correct them, of course, but misconceptions spread so fast, you know?" Shimmerdust giggled.
"Honey, listen very closely. What were you doing before they started calling you that?"
Shimmerdust looked off to nowhere in particular. "Let me see…I guess the last thing I was doing was talking with some ponies about the whole stars going out thing. I drifted off for a bit while I was talking, and next thing I know, there are a hundred ponies surrounding me and calling me Prophet. Maybe I accidentally introduced myself wrong? From what I hear, the things I say that I don't remember can be quite silly." She giggled again. Twilight Sage looked nervously at Celestia.
"Have you met Shimmerdust before?"
"Yes, once, not a few hours ago," Celestia answered uncertainly. She certainly didn't remember the blue unicorn being terribly prophetic.
"Oh, don't be silly," Shimmerdust said with her head between the two of them. "We've never met before."
Celestia raised an eyebrow. "It was just before sunset. You gave me glasses."
"Nooo…" Shimmerdust smirked. "At sunset, I met the Princess. And if your story were true YOU would be wearing glasses." She turned to Sage looking proud of herself. "I'm totally getting the hang of this 'deductive reasoning' stuff you're always talking about." Sage's hoof was buried in his face.
"Darling, that IS the Princess."
"Nuh-uh. The Princess has a horn, wings, and a really straight mane. This girl's an earth pony with a really frizzy mane. See?" Shimmerdust used a hoof to bounce Celestia's mane up and down. Celestia felt her heart fall into her stomach. Her clone had started out fresh, which meant no brushed mane.
Sage stepped beside Celestia. "Look, she really is Celestia. See her flank?" Shimmerdust peered around the voluminous hair.
"Wow! So do you, like, turn into a normal pony at night because you're the Sun Goddess?"
Celestia inhaled to respond, but felt her breath arrested when a pony nearby yelled out. "The Prophet reveals to us the secrets of the divine! Praise her glory!"
"Praise her glory!" replied the crowd.
"Oh but wait," Shimmerdust looked off to nowhere, "we saw Luna during the day, so that can't be it. Maybe you're a clone." Celestia's eyes widened and she tried to respond, but she didn't get that far.
"The Prophet sees through mysteries and deceptions! To her, all truth is revealed! Praise her glory!"
"Praise her glory!"
"Enough!" Celestia reared up and slammer her hooves on the ground. "I am your goddess, and I am trying to have a private conversation! Hold the praising for just a minute, alright?!" The princess tried to slow down her breath, but her heart was still beating quickly. The other ponies quieted down quickly, though they were still murmuring. However, one of the fan ponies dropped her fan and stepped forward.
"The Goddess must speak with The Prophet! Everypony, please do not disturb them." Celestia turned her head. The voice sounded very familiar. The pony stepped out from the shade of the throne and into the torchlight, revealing a dark coat and a flowing auburn mane. She trotted up to the princess. "About time you got here," she said dropping her voice to a more conversational volume.
Celestia closed her jaw. "Morning Glory? What are you doing here?" She looked down. "And where did you get that outfit?"
"Don't ask questions you don't want to know the answers to, Princess." Glory waved a hoof in the air dismissively. "And as for what I'm doing here, well, I noticed this little cult forming, and I figured I'd try to get in so I could keep it twisted around my hoof."
Celestia raised an eyebrow. "Are…are you trying to take over the world?"
Morning Glory laughed. "Oh, heavens no, Princess. I wanted to make sure they could be easily dealt with once you were back on your hooves. Although I wish I'd seen you before they did. They've already started splitting into…denominations. It could be tricky."
"Right." Celestia rubbed her temples. "Look, Sage and I have to go save the world, and he left his stuff with your 'Prophet' here. We came to get it."
"Where are you going? Surely Everfree's library has the best resources for you to fix this."
Celestia shook her head. "The only magic powerful enough for this task is the legendary Elements of Harmony. They're all in foreign lands."
"Oh." Morning Glory looked away. "Yes, of course. I suppose I'll," she sniffled, "I'll just have to get used to not seeing you every day. And worrying if you'll ever return. But don't fret, Princess, I'm sure I can handle it."
Celestia rolled her eyes. "Fine, you can come with us."
Morning Glory leapt in excitement. "Oh, thank you, Princess! As long as we don't take any highways, I don't think we'll have any trouble at all!"
"Don't worry, Glory. We still need those supplies, though."
"Of course. You there!" Morning Glory pointed at one of the ponies in white cloth. "Fetch the divine regalia!" The pony quickly zipped off and reappeared with two sets of saddlebags and a white bandana. "That will be all. Return to your meditations." The pony disappeared again.
"Hey, my bandana!" Shimmerdust excitedly grabbed the white cloth and tied it around her head.
"Hey, my pack!" Sage hoisted one of the sets of saddlebags up. "This is it, Princess. We can head out any time now."
Shimmerdust went to Sage's side and nuzzled him. "You're going so soon? But you just got here. Do I have to go right back to missing you and worrying about you?"
"Absolutely not," said Morning Glory. She turned to the Princess. "We can't leave her here. With me gone, this whole cult thing could spiral out of control. She has to leave Everfree, and she's better off coming with us."
Celestia sighed. "Fine. She can come too. Let's just get going. And maybe find some place where I can brush my mane."
Shimmerdust broke off from Sage. "Oh, but why would you ever want to? It's so bouncy and fluffy! Just like a cloud, or a pillow." The unicorn rested her head on top of Celestia, though Celestia could hardly feel it through her thick hair.
"The Prophet has chosen another consort!" came a voice from the crowd.
"The Prophet is the consort of the Goddess!"
Celestia pushed Shimmerdust off her. "I don't-"
"The Princess has taken The Prophet to be her eternal bride!" Celestia began backing away.
"Okay, everypony, we have to run. Amaranth!" Celestia turned back to where Amaranth had been standing moments ago. He was still there, but now surrounded by female cultists, who were giggling and running their hooves through his mane and tail.
"Hm?" he mumbled incoherently through a mouthful of grapes.
"Get those unicorns to cover us, we gotta run!"
Amaranth swallowed. "Sorry, ladies. another time. Night Guard, cover!" The three unicorns seemed to materialize from nowhere, and in mere seconds, the entire area was blanketed with thick mist. "Follow me, Princess, I can see the way out."
The four ponies galloped off after Amaranth. Celestia heard Twilight Sage say something just before they left.
"The ponies in this refugee camp are CRAZY!"
The group slowed as they heard Morning Glory begin to pant with exhaustion. They were far enough around the wall that they were no longer in sight of the mist that had provided for their escape. However, they were now lacking the Night Guard unicorns, who must have stayed behind.
Twilight Sage turned to the auburn-maned pony. "Are you alright?"
Morning Glory growled back at him. "I'm fine. I just…don’t run that much. Besides, look." Celestia saw that Morning Glory's hoof was pointed straight at her. She then noticed that she had collapsed face-first onto the ground, and that her legs felt like jelly. Her new body was not at all fit to be doing that kind of exercise yet. She felt Glory and Sage begin to lift her up.
"Don't bother, you two. I'll just fall right back over." She curled up to a more comfortable position. "Give me a couple minutes, alright?" The other ponies sat down as well. None of them said anything, but Celestia sensed that they were glad to be away from chaos for a little while. "I swear, every time somepony notices me, things just seem to get worse."
A voice from above came. "Princess Celestia!"
"EEEEK!" Celestia tried to get her hooves under her, but she couldn't push even a pound, much less her full weight off the ground. She looked up, and relaxed when she saw a familiar orange streak in the sky.
"Your Majesty, are you alright?" Flash Burn spiraled down to the rest of the group, with an airborne litter attached to the harness of her armor. She touched down delicately, and the litter settled down behind her.
"I'm fine, Captain. Where have you been?"
"I remembered that criminal was still in the infirmary. When Sage said it was going to collapse, well…" she gestured at the litter behind her where a dark pegasus was lying with his hooves bound. "I couldn't just leave him to die."
Morning Glory galloped to the side of the litter. "Hurricane!" She leaned down next to the bound pony. "Are you alright?"
"Peachy," grumbled Hurricane.
Glory embraced Flash Burn. "Oh, thank you. Thankyouthankyouthankyou." Flash retreated from the hug.
"And what are you so excited about? I thought you didn't know this pony." Morning Glory's smile turned to a frown. She looked around, and all the other ponies were staring at her. She sighed.
"I guess there's no avoiding it now. Fillies and gentlecolts, this," she gestured to the pegasus, "is my half-brother Hurricane. We used to stay in a room together at the bar where I worked. Recently, however, he turned to a life of crime. I knew, but I kept quiet."
"So you lied to me?" Flash pressed forward so that her face was up against Morning Glory's. "You told me that your brother meant nothing to you while he lay there crippled?"
"Yes, but I had to, because-"
"Because you couldn't afford having ill repute attached to your name, is that it? I can't believe you would leave your own brother in the dust so you could keep playing at politics."
"I don't want to hear it!" Flash broke away and marched off to the other side of the gathering. "From this moment on, you and I are not speaking!" Morning Glory reached a hoof out to try to stop her, but pulled it back quickly. Her eyes glistened as tears began to form.
Celestia lifted her head. "It's alright, Glory. She'll calm down. She's just a little sensitive when it comes to these sorts of injuries. She didn't mean what she said."
Glory turned away. "Maybe. But she was still right." The earth pony walked away a few yards so that none of the group could see her face.
Celestia walked unsteadily towards the captain of the Day Guard. Her legs were aching, but at least they were working. She got the pegasus' attention by brushing up against her.
"So, are you going to be taking care of Glory's brother while she's gone?"
"Yeah, I guess I'm the only- wait, gone?"
"She's coming with me while I find the elements of harmony. Actually, all the ponies here are, it seems." Celestia giggled in spite of herself. She had originally intended to go travelling alone, but it seemed she had wound up with quite a bit of company.
"What? No, you can't, Your Majesty! In the past few hours, Equestria's become more dangerous than it's been in centuries, Your Majesty. You need somepony who can fight, Your Majesty. A warrior." Flash glanced over at Amaranth, who was adjusting his bronze helmet. "Er, a REAL warrior. Sorry, Amaranth."
"No, I completely agree," replied the earth pony.
"Right. Anyway, Your Majesty, I must insist that you let me accompany you. I know that it might be a bad idea to travel far with a large military force, Your Majesty, but at least take me, if nopony else."
"And what about Hurricane?" Celestia gestured to the litter.
"Don't worry, Your Majesty, this is a litter made for pegasi. It won't slow me down at all, Your Majesty."
"You could just let me WALK," said Hurricane from the litter.
"You're still a criminal, criminal!" yelled back Flash Burn.
"Oh, yeah, I might fly away with all your stuff. Oh, wait." Flash Burn frowned. It was rather obvious she was trying to get away from the guilt she felt at causing the injury in the first place. However, she detached the litter from her harness and untied the rope around Hurricane's legs, whereupon he clumsily climbed out of the litter.
"Happy now?" Flash tossed away the now-useless litter.
"Yeah." The two pegasi glared at each other for a moment before going in opposite directions. Amaranth put a hoof in front of hurricane. "Dude, what's your problem?"
"Are you angry at her because she is your enemy, or because she saved you in spite of that?" The two of them locked eyes, but Hurricane broke away quickly.
"I don't know what you're talking about, dude. All you nobles are the same. Us commoners are like dirt to you."
"If you say so. But think about what I said." Amaranth walked away to where Flash burn had gone, and Hurricane went to rejoin his sister.
Celestia sighed. With tensions so high, could the ponies even make it to Griffonmont before it took a turn for the worse? Things were definitely not looking up.
Celestia looked over the supplies again. Only Twilight Sage, Shimmerdust, and Amaranth had anything with them, and only Sage had packed well for travel. She put the packs aside and stood in the center of the clearing that the other ponies were resting in. They had all fallen asleep hours ago. She took a deep breath.
"Okay, everypony wake up." The others stirred, some of them grumbling. "I know you've only had a few hours of sleep, but we have to get moving. We don't have enough food between the seven of us to last a single meal, and it'll take two days worth of travel to reach Cloudsdale where we can get transportation to Griffonmont. That means we'll have to make a stop somewhere for food. I've been looking at Sage's map." Celestia rolled out a map of the territory surrounding Everfree, "and the best place for us to go is a farming community known as Sweet Acres. We should have enough gold between us to buy supplies there if the farmers are kind. Is everypony clear on the plan?" The other ponies nodded. "And one more thing. In the space of an hour, I was subjected to a riot and a mad cult simply due to other ponies recognizing me. We can't allow that sort of thing to delay us. And so, from now on," the princess took the cloth from the litter and tied it around her neck as a makeshift cloak, "just call me Sunny." There was silence. Everypony looked rather uncomfortable, but none spoke any objection. "Okay, let's get going."
The group moved quickly. They soon stood at the foot of the trail leading to the provinces. As the bell tolling the seventh hour struck, they set off on the path. Celestia, however, didn't move immediately. Twilight Sage noticed this and turned back.
"Prince-er, Sunny, aren't you coming?"
"Sorry. It's just that…if I were still capable of raising the sun, it would be scheduled for a minute after seven."
"I don't think we'll find the Elements of Harmony that soon." Sage smiled weakly.
"Yeah," the princess said, returning the weak smile. "I guess we're going to have a day without sunshine."
Shimmerdust giggled. "That's gonna screw up so many proverbs."
A cool wind blew in the spring morning, and the seven ponies all looked to the West, to see the dark sky at dawn. And so they immediately noticed as the rays of the sun began to creep over the plains. They all cried out in unison.
Celestia scrambled for words. Surely as the goddess of the sun, she should have had some kind of explanation for why, despite her complete inability to use magic, the sun rose into the sky on its own course. After a solid minute of stammering, she fell to the phrase that she always did when explanations did not come to her.
The sunset-colored unicorn made a grumbling noise. “I don’t have anything for this one.”
Shimmerdust popped up beside him. “It kinda reminds me of that old mariner’s tune.” All eyes turned to her. “You know? Blackest sky? Cry the four winds?” Blank stares. “Let me sing it for you.” Flash Burn looked around nervously, but Shimmerdust’s tune was much less rough and rousing than those the two had shared earlier.
Sail we under blackest sky
Heave the lines and hoist the main
Cry the four winds rage the tide
Heave to, ho
The flag of freedom still shall fly
Heave the lines and hoist the main
Thirteen sunsets ‘ere we die
Heave to, ho
There was a brief pause, as everypony continued staring at the blue unicorn. Shimmerdust looked around.
“It’s a song for when you’re hoisting the mainsail.”
“We know!” shouted all the other ponies.
Celestia stepped forward. “That sounds like a song from the war. How is that related to this?” Shimmerdust grabbed Flash Burn by the tail and positioned her in front of the sun, then pushed her onto her hind legs. Flash Burn spread her wings for balance.
Shimmerdust pointed. “Look familiar?”
Celestia stepped back. “That’s the flag of Equestria, the symbol of freedom since before I was even born. Shimmer, do you know where the mariners learned that song?”
Shimmerdust shrugged. “They probably made it up. Seafaring ponies are very prolific songwriters you know.”
“I don’t think so.” Celestia tapped her hoof on her chin. “Twilight Sage, correct me if I’m wrong, but most archaeologists agree that, before the war, there were twelve Divine Ages?” The unicorn nodded. “And one ended since the war. That means thirteen. Thirteen divine beings have parted from this world. Does that seem like a coincidence to you?”
Twilight Sage mimicked Celestia's pondering stance. "I'm having trouble imagining how sailors ran across something that could very well be a prophecy."
"Sailors travel to lands we know little of. Who knows what they may have run across?"
Sage shook his head. "Still, it makes sense. The gods have always been responsible for raising the sun and moon. Some of their essence still remains in the mortal world, so it's not unreasonable to think that the patterns of magic over the world have the power to raise the sun."
Morning Glory frowned. "If you two have this figured out, then maybe you know where the moon and stars have gone?"
Celestia nodded. "Actually, that part's easy. Luna and I weren't completely divine when this happened. I may have power over the sun, but it's not part of my being. When Luna became Nightmare Moon, the celestial objects of the night became truly a part of her. So, while she's disabled, they are too."
"Seriously?" Morning Glory's confused face was reflected by the other ponies.
"Quite. In fact, I suspect that the infusion of the moon's essence is what caused the shift in personality. I underwent a similar experience when I tried the spell that she was using to enhance her power. However, I only tried it once, so the effects were…not too drastic. From what I could tell, Luna cast that spell very many times."
"But, Your Majesty-" Celestia shot Flash Burn a glare. "Oh. Umm…Sunny. Why did the moon and stars make her evil? Neither ever seemed particularly evil to me."
Celestia shook her head. "They didn't. She became obsessed with the night, of course, and the vast power gain made her desire even more power, but they didn't make her evil. It's more like a combination of temporary insanity and a terrible mood." The other ponies didn't look terribly assured. "Don't worry. We have thirteen days now. We just have to get one of the Elements of Harmony, and then we should have enough power to cleanse the moon essence from her. I'm sure that her regular pattern is still rejecting the foreign magic, so we just have to get past her defenses."
"Okay," Flash Burn sighed. "Thirteen days to get to Griffonmont and back? We'd better get a move on, then. Come on, everypony!"
The other ponies continued down the path after Flash Burn, but Twilight Sage hung back next to Celestia.
"I'm sorry. This whole thing is my fault. If I hadn't tried meddling with things like I was, Luna would still be safe."
Celestia didn't look at Sage, but she responded. "You're wrong. There's something I haven't told anypony." Sage looked at Celestia with wide eyes. "When Luna was being taken by the magic, she had this look to her. But it wasn't the first time she did. Whatever caused it…it's been in her for many, many years."
"So it's not the moon?"
"I don't know, but whatever it is…I'm not sure we'll be rid of it once this is all over."
"Then what will you do?"
Celestia said nothing, and continued on after the other ponies.
It was past noon when the first of the orchards that made up Sweet Acres came into view. It was surrounded by a rather low fence, which looked to be in significant disrepair. As the group drew nearer, a soft thumping sound started coming at irregular intervals. It became louder the closer they got, until finally, they came into view of the source of the sound. A lone mare with a coat of greenish yellow like a ripe golden delicious apple and a vibrant green mane was bucking apple trees. Each kick knocked loose a number of apples into carts that were already wheeled into place around the tree.
Celestia waved her front hoof. "Hello!" The farmer turned around and gasped. She instantly galloped off into the orchard.
Flash Burn frowned. "Should I go get her?"
"No," Celestia said with a hoof on Flash's shoulder. "We don't want to make trouble. Let's just go to the front gate." Nopony raised a voice in protest, and they continued on the path. It took only a couple minutes until they were close enough to read the sign above the gate. "Sweet Apple Acres." A voice called out from behind the gate.
"All right, whadda y'all want!" The voice sounded like an older stallion, definitely not the farmer from before.
"We're here to buy food!" Celestia called back. There was a murmur from behind the gate. From the sound of it, there was also an older mare there, and she and the stallion were quietly arguing. After an uncomfortable minute, the gate slowly swung open.
"Alright, y'all can come in," grumbled the stallion. He looked as old as he sounded, though he was still broad and muscular, and colored a deep red. The mare appeared to be a bit younger, and her coat was deep purple. Both their manes had gone silver. The stallion wore a frown, but the mare had a soft smile.
"Oh, don't listen to him, dears. We've just all been a bit on edge since last night. C'mon in!" She stepped out to walk alongside the other ponies. "My name's Plum Juice. This here's my husband, Appleseed."
Plum smacked Appleseed as she walked by him. "And y'all have already met our daughter, Apple Juice. I hope you weren't too put off by her runnin' off like that. She only thought you might be apple bandits."
Celestia smiled. "It's alright. My name's Sunny, and these are my friends Twilight Sage, Captain Flash Burn, Amaranth, Morning Glory, Shimmerdust, and Hurricane." The other ponies waved and nodded as their own names were spoken. "We're traveling really far, but we left in a hurry, so we didn't pack too well. We need to pick up food."
"Refugees from Everfree, huh? Yeah, we seen the paths lit up with lots of ponies headin' away from that place. What all happened over there anyway?"
Celestia looked away. "Some kind of magical accident. We're actually out looking for a way to fix it. The city's still safe, but it's only a matter of time."
"Official business, huh? Explains the armor, though I thought all the guards wore the same uniforms." Plum Juice continued on nonchalantly, but Celestia noticed that Amaranth was slouching low to the ground.
"Yes, well, it's a bit complicated. Anyway, if we could buy some apples from you, we'll just be on our way."
"Sakes alive!" yelled Appleseed. "If y'all are goin' anywhere you can't just eat grass, you ain't gonna solve your problems with a pack fulla apples. Ain't none of you ever traveled before?" The group of ponies shook their heads.
"Appleseed, these here are payin' customers and you will be polite!" Plum Juice turned back to the group. "Beg pardon, dears. Before we were married, Appleseed used to be quite the wanderer. He helped a lot of settlements get their farming up and running, especially apple orchards and nurseries. So, of course, now he thinks he's some sort of expert."
"I am an expert, woman! I been just about everywhere in Equestria, and I'm none worse for the wear."
"Last time somepony took your advice, he threw a shoe, you old coot!"
"And how is it my fault your brother's a sissy won't use nails to put shoes on?"
Celestia cleared her throat loudly so that both the older ponies looked at her. "I don't want to be a bother, but we really need to be quick. We've got a limited amount of time, and the journey won't be easy."
"Of course, dears. Follow me." Plum Juice began trotting, but stopped suddenly. "Oh, I have an even better idea. Whatever I may say, my husband does certainly know how to pack for a journey. How about y'all stay here while he goes about Sweet Acres getting' some real packs together for y'all."
"Oh, we don't want to be any trouble."
"Nonsense, he'd be happy to."
"Hell I will, woman! Any far journeyer's gotta have prunes, and you know the horrors I gotta face if'n I want those."
Celestia raised an eyebrow, and Plum Juice rolled her eyes. "He means my mother."
"Mother nothing!" protested Appleseed. "Plum Jerkum is a vicious mule who could never be related to the sweet little filly I met on the farm she just happens to own."
"You better mean me, you old coot."
"Maybe," grumbled Appleseed.
"Oh, just get the wagon and git!" Plum Juice smacked Appleseed again, though he didn't show any noticeable increase in speed as he slunk to the barn. "Don't worry 'bout him, my little ponies. Only thing he loves more'n being ornery is helping other ponies. It's not like he went out traveling for his health. Now, c'mon, I got something for y'all to do while you wait."
Celestia looked back at the others. They looked as confused as she was, but none of them said anything as they fell in behind Plum Juice. None of them except Flash Burn, who leaned in to whisper something to her.
"Does the name Appleseed sound familiar to you?"
"Not really. Why?"
"I dunno. It's just…something bugs me about it."
Celestia peeled away from Flash Burn and tried to look as if she hadn't just been having a surreptitious conversation. The unease in her stomach made the walk to the mysterious objective seem like it took forever.
After a short walk, they came to a part of the orchard where many of the trees had no apples left on them. Plum Juice pulled a number of harnesses out of a cart.
"Y'all take these. You two girls might wanna be takin' off your armor. Apple bucking can tire a pony out quick."
Amaranth tried to say something, but Flash Burn cut him off. "Wait, you want us to buck apples?"
Plum Juice nodded. "We've gotta get all the Macintosh apples in today, and with my husband out doing up those packs, we can't possibly finish. I figure the seven of you might be able to replace him. I'll put your farmhands' wages towards what you owe us for the food, of course."
"But we don't know how to buck apples properly," protested Morning Glory.
"Aw c'mon," said Hurricane, "how hard can it be? Anypony can buck, and you just gotta hit a tree, right?"
Plum Juice shook her head. "Ain't that simple. But I ain't the one to show you. Hey, AJ!" she called. Within seconds, the green-maned pony from before.
"Yeah, ma? Oh! Uh…hi." Apple Juice kicked at the ground shyly.
"You show these city folk how to buck apples. I'll go and make y'all some lunch."
"Okay ma." Apple Juice watched as her mother disappeared back into the orchard. "Listen, y'all, I'm powerful sorry about running off earlier. Pa's just been scaring me with stories about bandits. Thinks we're gonna be getting a bunch since the stars went out."
Celestia sighed. "Some ponies have certainly been acting up since then, but you don't have to worry about us."
"Glad to hear it!" Apple Juice started helping fasten the harnesses onto the other ponies. "You girls gotta get out of that armor. It's gonna get hot out today."
Amaranth sighed. "I'm not a girl."
Apple Juice blushed. "Oh." She looked around nervously. "Right. Uh…well, I just can't tell with that crazy armor of yours. I mean, it looks nice! Uh, but I ain't seen anything like it before. Not that that's bad!" There was a short pause. "Right. Well, why don't I show y'all how to buck so I can go off and die of embarrassment nice and proper?"
"Oh come on!" Hurricane shouted. "What's there to it? You just buck!" He went over to a full apple tree and kicked back with all his might. The tree shook, and two or three apples fell down. "What? Oh, come on!"
Apple Juice pushed him away from the tree. "Sorry, kid, but it ain't so simple after all. It's more than how hard you kick. You gotta kick right, too." She bucked the tree, and the apples fell out cleanly, filling the carts. "See? I'm half my dad's size, but I get just as many apples."
Hurricane grumbled. "How is that different than what I just did?"
Apple Juice blushed. "I guess I'm not much of a teacher. It's harder for pegasus ponies and unicorns, though. Y'all just do what you can, alright? It'll go faster with extra cart-pullers too."
The ponies all started bucking trees. Surely enough, most of them had trouble getting more than a couple apples at a time. Morning Glory started getting the hang of it, and was soon getting a tree finished in only three or four kicks. However, the real surprise came when Amaranth finally finished getting out of his armor. On his very first try, he finished a full tree in one kick. The same with his second try, and his third.
"Land's sakes!" cried Apple Juice. "You a secret farmer or something?"
Amaranth looked around, noticing that the other ponies were not faring nearly so well. "Well, I tend the castle gardens, but that's not quite the same. I don't actually do any harvesting."
Apple Juice shook her head. "All the same, I guess plants like you something fierce. Took me years before I could get a whole tree in one kick every single dang time." She took a breath. "Okay, I think I got us a system. Me, Amaranth, Glory, an' the Captain will do most of the bucking, and the Captain can fly up and get any stragglers. Hurricane, Sage, Sunny, and Shimmerdust can get the carts. We might get finished even faster than if Pa were here instead."
The ponies got back to work. Things went quickly, as surely as Apple Juice had predicted. By the time they were finished, Plum Juice had a stew ready, and Appleseed was folding cloaks to fit in the tattered saddlebags he had gathered. He looked as grumpy as ever, but he was very quiet as everypony had dinner. Shortly afterwards, they had apple pie.
Celestia stood up first. "Well, we appreciate your hospitality, but we should go. It's a few miles yet to Cloudsdale."
"Now hold on, girl," said Appleseed. "You been lucky so far, but I guarantee you that you ain't making it all the way to Cloudsdale without running afoul of some nasty folks. Don Corleoaty an' his boys been quiet recently, but with all the problems coming about, you can bet your soft city flanks that they'll be running down every pony taking the roads 'round here at night. I know you're in a hurry, but you best wait until morning."
Flash Burn stood up. "I'm the highest-ranking member of Equestria's military. I think I can handle a couple thugs."
Appleseed smirked. "That so?" He stood up as well. "You got horseshoes on, right? Come out back to the corral. I wanna see."
Plum Juice stood in front of him. "Appleseed! I know you mean well, but you are not picking a fight with our guests. I forbid it in my house!"
"That's why I'm going outside. Come on, Miss Captain. I just wanna see it for myself, so's I don't feel guilty about letting you go off on your own." He brushed past his wife and disappeared out the back door.
Plum Juice frowned. "You don't have to follow him. I'm not sure what's gotten into him."
Flash Burn started towards the door. "You said you're just barely on schedule, right?" Plum Juice nodded. "And without Appleseed, you get a lot less work done, right?"
"Yeah, but I don't see."
"And if I don't show him I know what I'm doing, he'll insist on coming with us to Cloudsdale, won't he?"
Plum Juice sighed. "I suppose he will, stubborn ol' mule that he is. Just…just be careful, alright?"
Flash Burn laughed. "Don't worry, I won't hurt him. I've done plenty of sparring matches. And even if he catches me off guard, he looks like he can take a strong hit."
Flash disappeared out the door too soon to hear Plum Juice say "He's not the one I'm worried about."
The corral was suspiciously empty of any signs that cows had been kept there recently. Appleseed was already at the center, stretching. Flash Burn flew over the fence and faced off with him.
"Okay, so how are we doing this?"
"Pretend like I'm a thug and I'm trying to hurt you and your friends. Plain and simple."
"No, but I mean-"
"Hey! You foals get in here too. You can't see a thing over that fence." Celestia looked at the other ponies. Hurricane had already hopped over the fence, and one by one, the other ponies hesitantly hopped over. Celestia went last.
"Good! Alright, let's get started." With little other warning, Appleseed charged straight at Flash Burn. The Captain of the Day Guard deftly dodged and gave a counter kick, however, her hooves hit empty air. "Land's sakes, quit pulling your blows!" Appleseed was standing just two inches away from where Flash's hooves had stopped. "I said pretend I'm trying to hurt you and your friends. You got wax in your ears?"
Flash Burn growled. "I was trying to take it easy on you!" She kicked again, but Appleseed had already begun circling behind her. "Argh! How do you move so fast?"
Appleseed smirked. "Lotta practice. You're doing great, though. Best kicks I've ever seen."
"Shut up!" Flash sprung into the air and dove to plant a hoof into Appleseed's head, but he sprang backwards, forcing the spectator ponies to take a step backwards. Flash stared daggers at Appleseed, who looked perfectly calm. "Now I know where I heard your name. You're an outlaw! My father faced off against you once."
"WAS an outlaw. And anyway, I prefer the term 'freedom fighter'. Not all the Guard are kindhearted, hard-working ponies like you, Miss Captain. Some of them ain't no better than the thugs they're supposed to be facing."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Flash took off again and turned herself to take an aerial loop so she could hit Appleseed from the side. He reared onto his hind legs and she sailed right under him.
"I can't count how many ponies I saved when I was out on my adventures, but I know that more than a few of them were being attacked by those very ponies who should have been protecting them."
"Well of course you think that, criminal!"
"Look, girl, I'm sure your daddy was a right upstanding fellow just following orders, but if you can tell me you ain't never seen one of your number picking on somepony who couldn't fight back, you forgot on purpose."
Flash stopped fighting. "Well…I-"
"Any case," Appleseed gently placed a hoof on Celestia's forehead. "You lose."
"Wait, WHAT?" Flash resumed her crouched stance.
"I told you, pretend like I'm trying to hurt you and your friends." He looked at his hoof. "If that were the case, your friend Sunny here would be seeing stars, and that's if she got lucky."
"Get off her!" Flash practically disappeared into the air, and everypony heard the splintering of wood as she took Appleseed straight through the corral fence. He hit the wall of the barn with a thud. After a short few seconds he got back on his feet, and smiled again.
"That's more like it. But that's not important. I could tell you were more than good enough to fight Don Corleoaty's thugs halfway in."
"Then why did you keep antagonizing me?"
"Were you listening, girl? I didn't want to see if you could fight, I wanted to see if you could protect your friends." Flash slumped. "Look, peaceful times like we've had, I bet you can count the number of times you've had to worry about bystanders on one hoof. But it's gonna be different from here on out. You gotta make your TOP priority the protection of others. Somepony's life is gonna depend on you looking out for them." Appleseed turned and disappeared into the farmhouse.
The rest of the ponies looked at Flash to see how she would react. The fire-maned pony didn't turn back to face them. "Miss Plum Juice, I'm tired. Where can I get some sleep?"
"Apple Juice has plenty of space in her room, dear. Why don't you girls all stay there for the night.
"No buts, young lady! You've never cared about sharing your room before. What reason could you possibly be raising a fuss for."
Apple Juice's eyes drifted over to Amaranth, but quickly snapped back. "Uh, no reason, Ma. I'll go get them some extra sheets." The golden delicious pony disappeared into the farmhouse as well.
Amaranth tilted his head. "So, where do the rest of us sleep."
Plum Juice sighed. "I think that's all the room we have. I don't suppose you can sleep in the barn?"
Hurricane groaned, but he was the first to turn off to the barn. The other stallions followed without complaint.
"Well! Such polite young men. I tell you, my husband can sleep on the street, but if I tell him to sleep in the barn, he raises such a fuss."
Celestia approached Plum Juice. "So, Appleseed didn't really go around planting orchards?"
"Oh, of course he did, dear. He just ran into so many problems, since he was always on the road, or in places where ponies were less fortunate. It was rough. As much as I wish it, I ain't the reason he settled down."
"So you were seeing each other while he was still traveling?" Morning Glory was on Plum's other side.
"Oh, yes, dear, he came back every month or so. Why do you think my mother hates him so much?" Celestia laughed. "Alright, off to bed with you, dears. Early wakeup on this farm."
Celestia and the other mares headed upstairs to Apple Juice's room. The farmgirl was already under a blanket on the floor. The bed was empty, and after negotiations, Celestia wound up getting the bed, which could not have fit two ponies lying side by side. No amount of coaxing would get Flash Burn or Morning Glory to take the bed instead, so she had relented. However, voices coming from below alerted Celestia that the window she was lying next to was right above the barn.
"So, dude, was it awesome?"
"Was what awesome?"
"Dude, you were there with the girls while they were bucking all day. Tell me you weren't watching."
"Is not one of those 'girls' your sister?"
"Yeah, well, I don't care if YOU look. Come on, seriously, man, were you checking them out or not?"
Apple Juice sat up in her bed and yelled. "By the way, Sunny, the barn walls are real thin, so you might hear it if one of the boys snores." There was a long period of silence. She laughed and plopped back down. "Sorry 'bout that, Sunny. Boys will be boys, but I don't care to hear anything about my haunches."
Morning Glory waved a hoof in the air. "Oh, none of us do. I appreciate being admired, but there's a line, you know."
"Oh yeah?" Flash sat up. "As I recall, you once told me a story of when you heard somepony whispering dirty things about you, so you just shook your haunches so that he would faint."
"That was retaliatory. Like this!" Morning Glory pounced on top of Flash Burn and started tickling where the shoulder met the neck.
"Ah! Hey! Nooooo!" Flash was kicking in the air, but clearly not trying very hard to stop her assailant.
"Alright, you two, we need to go to bed now."
"Fine," both of them said in unison. They crawled back under their blanket, and Celestia blew out the candle next to her.
Very soon, the last of the sun's rays disappeared below the horizon. Celestia said nothing, but in her head, she counted it off. "Twelve left."
Author's Note: I don't do these often, but I felt like a particular topic in this chapter needed one. At a couple points, the ponies talk about horseshoes. From discussions in the brony community, I gather that it is totally unclear of how ponies do horseshoes. Since I don't feel like awkwardly wedging in exposition, I would just like to note that, in my fanon, ponies use horseshoes sparingly. Only those ponies who have hooves weakened from hard work (cargo hauling, pulling trains) or inactivity, or who want weapons for fighting would use them. Most of Equestria's farriers are probably the equivalent of pony podiatrists, really. Also, to those bronies who think nailing a horseshoe would hurt a horse: NO. Hooves are keratin. That's what your hair is. The only issue that can occur is that an improperly applied nail could hit the quick. This does hurt, but if it happens, the nail is swiftly removed (because, let's face it, it's easy to tell when a horse is upset with you) and the shoe is refixed properly.
“Celestia.” The voice came from somewhere far away. It cooed gently. “Celestia, I’m here.” The voice was closer. Celestia tried to lift her head from her pillow to look, but she couldn’t.
“Shhh…don’t try to speak, dear sister.” Nightmare Moon’s voice was right next to Celestia’s ear. “You escaped me last time, but now we can play.” Celestia whimpered. “No, no, shhhh,” Nightmare whispered. “It’s going to be alright. Just stop struggling.” The mare of darkness’ weight lowered onto Celestia, making her breathing difficult. Celestia felt a nip at the tip of her ear. Then a bite. Nightmare Moon was latched onto her ear, and pulling. The dull teeth dug into the cartilage of Celestia’s ear. She tried to scream, but nothing came out. Blood dripped down the side of her head.
Celestia’s eyes shot open. Her vision was fuzzy. There were indistinct shapes in her vision. Green, white, brown. The light of the sun in back of them made them even harder to make out.
“Hey, she’s awake!” The voice was familiar.
“Flash? Flash is that you?”
“Yeah, Sunny, it’s me. You okay?”
“Flash, where am I?”
“Sweet Apple Acres.” A different voice. A young mare from the countryside. “Same place as you went to bed.” Celestia’s eyes began to adjust. She realized that she was looking through tears. She wiped them away with a hoof and saw that every pony in the room was staring at her.
“What’s going on?”
Morning Glory leaned in to give her a hug. “We woke up to the sun, and we heard you whimpering. Are you okay?” Celestia leaned into the hug. No blood on the side of her head.
“I…I think so.” She looked around. “None of you heard anypony come in here?” The other ponies shook their heads. “Okay.” She looked again. One, two, three other ponies. “Shimmerdust. Where is Shimmerdust?!” She kicked her legs to pull her weight over them, but she felt something holding her down. Her tail was being pulled.
Flash Burn blushed. “She’s over there.” Celestia turned her head to where all the other ponies were looking. On top of the frizzy pink mass attached to her rear was a familiar blue unicorn, slowly rolling back and forth.
Apple Juice giggled a bit. “I’ll, uh, get you a comb.”
The seven ponies stood at the gate of Sweet Apple Acres once more. Though their saddlebags were full, they were all full of energy and ready to get moving.
"Thank you again, for everything." Celestia reached out a hoof, but found that Plum Juice had already leaned in to give her a hug.
"Weren't no trouble at all. Y'all come back anytime once you're done saving Equestria and whatnot." Plum broke off to give hugs to the other ponies. Celestia turned to Appleseed, who made no motion other than eye contact.
"Thank you too, for all the help." She smiled gently, trying not to show that she still felt somewhat awkward about the sudden fight last night.
"Aw, shucks. 'tweren't nearly enough for the Princess of Equestria."
Celestia felt her heart fall into her stomach. "You…how did you…buh?"
"AJ saw that big ol' sun on your flank when you was sleeping. I sure never seen anypony with any kind of permanent marking like that, not even ponies who associate with zebras."
"Oh." Celestia looked at her hooves. "I guess I'll have to be more careful where I sleep."
"Reckon you will." The old stallion smiled. "But you'll always be safe at Sweet Apple Acres. Now go on. You got a long way to go." He didn't offer his hoof, but the warmth of his voice was certainly the most affection that Appleseed offered anypony. Celestia turned to say goodbye to Apple Juice, but she was still talking to Amaranth.
"-and I cleared out my wardrobe so it'd fit nice and proper. Ain't got much to put in there anyways. Just this old dress that'll never see the light of day anyway. No dress in Equestria's good enough to make me look pretty anyways." Apple Juice was blushing rather heavily.
"Oh, you hardly need a dress for that." Amaranth smiled gently, and Apple Juice turned redder than her father. "However, I do appreciate it. That armor is old, and some cloths have oils that might degrade it further."
"Yeah, well…" the yellow-green mare pawed at the ground. "You just…you just make sure to come back for it, alright?"
"Of course. I would never have had it with me if it didn't mean a lot to me."
"Right. Yeah." There was a brief pause. Apple Juice took a small step forward. "Well, uh, goodbye." Their muzzles were very close. Apple Juice was biting her lip.
"Goodbye." Amaranth turned around and trotted towards the mass of ponies. They were all, Celestia included, staring at him with their eyes wide and their jaws wider. "Is everypony ready to go?"
Celestia was the first to speak up. "Sure. Let me say goodbye to Apple Juice and then we're off." She brushed past Amaranth and gave the gobsmacked mare a hug, and whispered in her ear. "He likes you; he's just a big idiot."
Apple Juice smiled weakly. "Thanks. And goodbye."
The group headed down the path again, and the Apple family waved until they were out of sight. As soon as they were no longer in view, everypony immediately turned to Amaranth.
"So," Celestia said with a grin, "she really wants you to come back, does she?"
"Hm? You mean Apple Juice?" Amaranth hardly even turned his head. "Well, it stands to reason. Even I hate taking responsibility of that artifact. It's not even hers to look after, so I can't imagine she'd want to be stuck with it for any longer than necessary."
"Yes," said Morning Glory, sidling up to Amaranth, "but I think she really looks forward to seeing you again."
"Well, I suppose that makes sense. It would be a pity to make somepony's acquaintance and never see them again. Plus, I imagine she doesn't meet too many ponies living out on a farm. She certainly seemed to find talking to me awkward. I bet she doesn't have much experience with strangers."
"And don't you want to see her again?" Celestia asked, her tone insistent.
"Well, she seemed nice enough, so why not?" Celestia and Morning Glory poked their heads past Amaranth to look at each other. Celestia made a face, and Glory returned it. They both broke away from the green earth pony.
Hurricane piped up from the back. "Okay, somepony level with me. Is this guy for real?"
Shimmerdust giggled. "Oh, that's nothing. You should have seen how clueless Sage used to be."
"Hey, I wasn't that bad!" Sage retorted.
"Honey, remember when we went on our third date, and I kept making really saucy remarks about glassblowing?"
"Uh…" Sage blushed. "Yes, but do we have to-"
"And do you remember what happened when we reached my house?"
"Really, I don't think anypony wants to hear this." Sage picked up his pace, but Morning Glory and Hurricane headed him off.
"No, no, tell us." Glory leaned in closer.
"Yeah, bro, what happened?" Hurricane pressed even closer, forcing Sage to back up next to Shimmerdust.
The unicorn sighed. "She asked me to come inside."
"Did she ask you nicely and offer you tea?" Glory was now directly in front of him.
"Or was she all sexy about it?" Hurricane stood to his side, so that he and Shimmerdust were on Sage's flanks.
Sage made a pained expression. "She whispered in my ear and wrapped her leg around mine." This provoked an "oooh" from the siblings.
"And what did you say?" prompted Shimmerdust.
"I said," Sage rolled his eyes, "that I should go catch up on my reading, goodnight." That did it. Hurricane and Glory began guffawing loudly enough that Celestia was sure the Apples could hear it. They leaned on each other for support, but ended up collapsing to the ground anyway. Celestia tried stifling her own giggling. She had, of course, heard the story the night it happened, but Sage's manner of painful recollection was simply precious.
"Hey!" Flash Burn yelled from the front. "We've got to get to Cloudsdale before sunset. " Glory and Hurricane picked themselves up off the ground to keep walking, but they were still laughing.
"I'll have you all know," Sage said trying to keep a stern voice, though utterly failing to suppress a smile of his own, "that I have gotten a lot better at being forward and figuring out mares."
Celestia poked him in the ribs. "Given the number of books you've read on relationships, you'd better be an expert."
"I am. If, for instance, I wanted a kiss right now, I would simply grab Shimmerdust and-" he cut himself off, as when he reached over to wrap his hoof around Shimmerdust, he noticed that she had begun galloping ahead of him.
"You'll have to catch meeee!" she teased. Twilight Sage began galloping as well, but was stopped in his tracks as Flash Burn body checked Shimmerdust, stopping her instantly.
"What is wrong with you all? In case you haven't noticed, the freaking world is ending!" Though Flash addressed everypony, she was yelling right in Shimmerdust's face. "Did you forget that we only have twelve more days of warmth? Or that Everfree is being torn apart? We are the only ponies who have any hope of fixing all this, and we're wasting time fooling around. When ponies start dying, it will be on your hooves!" The group stared alternately at the guard captain, and at their own hooves. Flash Burn looked like she was about to apologize, but instead she turned around. "Let's get moving."
Every pony marched along in silence in the long hours of the second day.
An archway made of fog drifting over the path filled Celestia with relief. "Cloudsdale!" The ponies in back of her cheered. They had made good time, and the sun was still hanging in the sky, casting long shadows along the cobblestone path leading to the foothills of the pegasus city. "Okay, everypony, let's get ourselves a flying carriage to Griffonmont."
"Er, Prin-" Flash Burn cut herself off, "I mean, Sunny, there's a bit of a problem. That archway is going to be watched by guards. Guards who will want to see ALL of our travel papers."
"Oh." Celestia felt herself lose her resolve. A long day of walking had made her legs weak, and without the elation from seeing their first milestone, she couldn't stand anymore. Everypony instantly came around her to help pick her up off the ground.
"Princess, you needn't worry," Morning Glory said, while waving a hoof in the air dismissively. "Those guards will be easy to take care of. And we have enough bits to pay for transportation that won't ask questions. It's not like we'll need bits outside Equestria anyway."
"You can't be serious," said Flash with a frown. "You expect to be able to seduce all the guards at the entrance and get all seven of us through with no questions?"
"Oh, Flashie," Glory laughed, "you act as if sex is the only weapon in my arsenal. No, it's far from my only one. It's not even my best. Just the most fun." Flash Burn blushed, but raised no objection. "No, I have a plan. Now, I'll need you all to do a bit of playing along. Line up, please." The group looked at each other, but silently lined up. "Alright, now, first, I need Flashie to play the part of the strong, honorable Captain of the Guard." She stood in front of Flash Burn eyeing her up and down. "Perfect!"
"Uh, I didn't do anything."
"Exactly, you're a natural!" Glory rubbed the side of her head against Flash's. "Now, the rest of you need to play the part of quiet, well-behaved citizens of Equestria." She paused. "Hurricane, dear, you might want to stay in the back."
"Yeah, yeah," grumbled the dark pegasus.
"Okay, everypony, let's get going!"
"But wait," Celestia started, "what are YOU going to do?"
"The same sort of thing I do every single day, dear 'Sunny'." She turned and walked slowly in the direction of the gate. Nopony else raised an objection, and uneasily followed her.
When they reached the cloud-gate, they saw two pegasi in silver armor. There was not much on the ground to be guarded, so the low number of guards was understandable. Morning Glory approached them casually.
"Good evening, gentlemen. We need to take a carriage to Griffonmont. It's somewhat urgent Royal Guard business." The brown earth pony gestured back at Flash, who merely stood stoically.
"We need to see your travel papers," replied one of the silver-armored pegasi.
"Oh, don't tell me that being under the charge of the highest-ranking military officer in Equestria doesn't count for anything." Glory flashed the guard a friendly smile.
The guard leaned in. "No papers, no entrance," he growled. At that point, Morning Glory leaned in further to whisper something in his ear. The guard backed up. He stepped to the side so that the gateway was clear. "You may pass." The other guard looked like he was going to say something, but the first guard shot him an intense glare, and he stepped to the side as well.
The group passed through slowly, avoiding eye contact. Flash gave the guards suspicious looks, but they were also avoiding eye contact, staring straight ahead. Soon, they were well through the gate and out of hearing distance of the two guards. Flash Burn grabbed Morning Glory.
"What in Equestria did you SAY to that guard? I've never seen anypony backpedal like that."
"Oh, it was nothing. I just mentioned to him that if he didn't let us through, I might let the fact that he was on Don Corleoate's payroll slip to the Captain of the Day Guard, and it might not end well for him." Glory didn't shrug off Flash's hoof, but it fell off anyway, as Flash lost all muscle control from shock.
"How could you have possibly known that?" Celestia asked with surprise in her voice. "None of us had even heard of that pony until yesterday."
"Oh, of course not. However, from what we heard, he has been in operation in the area for many years now. Do you think he could get away with that if he didn't have control over the patrols?" Glory smiled wide. "Greed and disloyalty are easy to spot once you've seen the same patterns over and over. Politicians, crime bosses, and businessponies are all the same. You just need to learn to take advantage of that."
"That's…how can you smile at that?" Flash had a bit of a sob in her voice. "Those ponies were sworn to defend Equestria and every pony in it. They've forsaken their duty for a few bits, and you think it's a joke?"
Morning Glory shook her head. "It's no joke. Why do you think I'm in this game? I have been lorded over by ponies who care for nothing more than to stand atop those crushed beneath their hooves. But to get in the game, you have to be willing to take advantage of other ponies." She looked away. "…no matter how despicable it is." Flash stepped forward to say something, but Glory cut her off. "I'm sorry about lying to you about my brother earlier. There's no excuse."
"It's okay, I forgive you." Flash hugged Morning Glory.
"Really? but I thought-"
"Normally it'd probably take me a bit longer, but…" Flash put her hooves back on the ground, "when Appleseed was talking about my father, I realized that every part of me wanted to pretend that I wasn't even remotely related to that pony." She looked at her hooves. "I've never felt that kind of shame before, but I understand it now."
"Hey, drama princess!" Hurricane piped up from the back. "She lied because I practically told her to."
"Say what?" Flash appeared to be too startled to get angry about the 'drama princess' line.
"Yeah, just before you came in, I was telling her I was gonna leave Equestria so she wouldn't be associated with a known criminal." The dark pegasus walked around so that he was looking Flash Burn in the face. "She's responsible for the well-being of every pony who doesn't live in a mansion. I couldn't let her throw it all away just because she looks after my sorry haunches. She wasn't even gonna agree to it until you busted in." He pointed a hoof at Flash. "So get off her case, okay?"
Flash Burn took a second, but then she smiled. "You know I already forgave her, right? Your sister's my best friend."
Hurricane stammered. "Uh…right. Um." He looked back and forth. "Yeah, okay, whatever." He slouched and returned to the back of the group.
Flash giggled. "Your kid brother's a sweetheart, considering he's a notorious thief."
"Yes, well," Morning Glory sidled up alongside Flash, "it's probably because I'm such a good influence." This caused Flash to giggle even harder.
Celestia cleared her throat, causing the giggling to cease. "Weren't you the one saying that we don't have time for fooling around?" Her voice dripped with sadistic pleasure, and her eyes narrowed. Flash and Glory separated immediately with guilt looks. "Now, why don't you two go and find us that nice, low-key carriage we talked about?" The two mares nodded and slowly walked off to the large cluster of carriages.
The other ponies surrounded Hurricane and began throwing muddled teasing remarks about his adorableness. His frustrated cries of rage and shows of manliness seemed to only egg them on further. Celestia just sighed and smiled. Perhaps the worries that she had at the beginning of the journey were unfounded. Perhaps all these ponies really could work together.
There was a loud thud and Hurricane galloped out of a pile of ponies that had just barely missed collapsing on top of him. He looked very frightened.
Celestia sighed. "Or…maybe not."
Celestia felt that the air around her was very still. She couldn't put her hoof on why it bothered her, but she couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't right. She tried to get her hooves under her, but her legs wouldn't respond. She felt a sharp pain in her left ear, and warm blood trickled down the side of her face.
"Dearest Celestia," came the voice of Nightmare Moon from inches away. "I missed you so. Those daylight hours feel so long." The mare of darkness nuzzled Celestia in a parody of affection, "and I ache for your sweet caress." She kicked Celestia's face. The princess tried to say something, but it only came out as a whimper. "Oh, what's the matter, sister dear? Am I being too rough?" A kick to the stomach. "Well, how about we just take it slow at first?" A bite on the shoulder. "And you tell me," a sharp blow just above the haunches, "whenever," a kick to the kidneys, "it starts," a knock on the back of the head, "to HURT." Nightmare Moon kicked Celestia under the jaw. It felt hard enough that it should have sent Celestia reeling, but she didn't move. The princess tried to speak once again, but all that escaped was a gasp.
The dark mare knelt so that she was nestled between Celestia's forelegs, limp as they were. "Oh, that does feel nice after the harsh, harsh daylight." She wrapped her own forelegs around one of Celestia's, holding it under her chin. "I know you don't appreciate it now, Celly. You never appreciated me." Nightmare's grip became tighter. Even if Celestia could move, she felt that she wouldn't be able to escape the hold. "But somehow, you did always manage to find time for me." The grip relaxed, just a tiny bit. "You found the time to introduce me to ponies who would talk to me. Who would care about me." Celestia's heart slowed a little. Nightmare Moon's voice sounded sincere. "You took the time to show me that for every thousand ponies who adored you, there was at least one who would acknowledge my presence." The grip tightened once more, and the dark mare's voice became harsh again. "You took the time to let me know how truly worthless I was to you, and to everypony." The grip tightened more. Each of Nightmare Moon's legs were pushing opposite directions, each placed directly on the elbow of Celestia's foreleg. "You made time to not only show your contempt for me, but to make me hate myself!" Nightmare Moon pushed harder. Celestia's elbow snapped. Even though it was a single point, her entire leg shot pain into her body. Her stomach churned, and tears flowed unbidden. Her scream came out as a strangled whimper of agony.
"And now," Nightmare Moon said softly, nursing the broken leg, "I can make time for you."
"Sunny! Sunny, wake up!" Celestia's eyes shot open. Midnight Sage. Flash Burn. Amaranth. Morning Glory. Shimmerdust The rays of sunlight peeking over the mountains in the distance. The chill breeze flowing through the flying carriage.
"Hey, she's awake!" Celestia couldn't tell who had spoken. The pain from her leg was overwhelming her senses.
"Leg. Leg! Broken!" She dared not move, for fear of making it worse.
"Let me see." It was Flash Burn. The fire-maned pony bent down to slowly examine Celestia's legs. She ran over each one gently and quickly with her muzzle, not causing even a bit of pain. "They look fine. Which one hurts?" Celestia looked down. Her elbow was bent correctly. Nothing hurt anymore. She tried moving it. It felt fine.
"I…" she tried to say something, but she still couldn't think. "I. I am. Fine."
"Sunny," Sage said pressing himself in next to Flash, "you've been twitching and whimpering for the past half hour. What happened?" The pegasus was blushing from the proximity, but she looked at Celestia with pleading eyes.
"Nightmare." Celestia tried to form a sentence. "Nightmare was there. None of you were. When I was asleep. I couldn't…nothing. And she hurt me. She kept hurting me." Sage backed away a step, and Flash tried to help Celestia onto her hooves. It was very slow going, but Celestia managed to get her legs under her. They felt weak. "Why didn't any of you wake me?"
"We tried." Sage frowned. "We've been yelling at you and shaking you. Nothing worked."
"Not until the sun came out," Morning Glory pointed a hoof at the place where the sun shone through the mountains. "Your eyes just flew open."
"I'm not sure how," Sage said with a hoof on his chin, "but I think that Nightmare Moon may be reaching through the stasis, only she's not powerful enough when the sun is countering the moon essence that flows through her."
Celestia sighed. Would this happen every night? What about when they ran out of sunrises? "How soon will we be at Griffonmont?"
"Less than an hour!" came a call from the front of the carriage. One of the two pegasi pulling it must have heard her.
Celestia tried to push strength into her legs so that she could stand tall. It didn't work, but she felt better for the attempt. "Alright, everypony, we should get ready to meet the griffons. Flash, put on your armor. A bit of a show of strength is customary for them, so we might seem less suspicious." Flash nodded and ran off to her armor. "Sage, see if you can teach everypony some griffon customs. I've known them so long I'll lose track of what's obvious and what's not." Sage nodded in response. "Hurricane-" Celestia broke off mid-sentence. "Where is Hurricane?"
Morning Glory smiled weakly. "If you don't kick him awake, he sleeps until the afternoon." She gestured to the dark form in the corner, which Celestia had mistaken for a shadow. "We'll get him, don't worry."
Celestia shook her head. "I was just going to tell him to stay back. I'm not sure how they'll react to his wing bandage. Okay, everypony knows what they have to do. Get going." The other ponies started to group off, but the stopped and started staring at Celestia. Flash Burn was blushing vibrantly. "What?" Celestia felt a slight tugging at her mane. She turned and saw Shimmerdust nipping at a distinctive trail of frizzy pink, her expression distant.
The blue unicorn let the hair fall from her mouth with a downcast look. "Eugh. Well, it doesn't TASTE like cotton candy." Silence fell over the carriage. Celestia felt herself start twitching. Her breathing started getting strange. She was…laughing. With that realization, the laughter overtook her, and she soon found herself on the floor, desperately trying to stop.
Flash Burn pulled the unicorn back. "Sunny, are you okay?"
Celestia waved a hoof in the air, and tried to squeeze words out between paroxysms. "I'm fine I just…I just…it just finally hit me that I'm back somewhere safe." Her laughter calmed down. She really did feel better. "Thank you, Shimmerdust."
Shimmerdust tilted her head to the side. "For what?"
Celestia shook her head as she stood up. "Nevermind. Don't ever change, okay?"
"I'll try," said the unicorn with a bemused look. "I wonder how one goes about not changing."
Celestia held in further laughter. "You know," she said turning to the others, "I've been annoyed at it for so long, but I guess it's a comfort to wake up to now." She bounced her mane up and down with her hoof.
Morning Glory snickered. "Sage, have you ever found yourself thinking the same thing about somepony?"
Sage glared. "I know she seems odd at first, but Shimmer is very sweet and intelligent."
Morning Glory waved her hoof in the air. "I didn't say anything about your little friend, I was just asking a question."
Sage shook his head. "Look, can we get started? Griffon isn't a hard language, but even the basic customs take time." Glory smiled demurely. "Right, now, to start off with, you have to…"
Celestia stopped listening. She gazed into the distant mountains. The Element of Loyalty was very close, and she'd be able to put an end to Equestria's troubles. Hopefully things really would be that simple.
The mountain upon which Griffonmont was built towered over the rest of the mountain range. Its peak was so high that clouds obscured it, and at the level of the rest of the mountains, it was incredibly wide. Wide caverns pockmarked its surface, and griffons circled all about it. It was a sight that Princess Celestia had not seen in many years. However, though it was usually a welcoming one, something was making Celestia feel-
"Uneasy?" her advisor asked. Twilight Sage was leaning over the side of the carriage with her. He looked perturbed as well.
"I guess," Celestia admitted. "I wish I could figure out why. Griffonmont is one of my favorite places to visit."
"The world is in turmoil. We at least have knowledge of the goings-on of the heavens. The griffons will be a lot more confused than we are. Who knows how they'll act?"
Celestia sighed. "You're right. I hope we last long enough to reach Groza. How is everypony doing with the coaching?"
"I wouldn't be talking to you if we weren't done. Lucky for us that griffons aren't the types for long and flowery traditions."
A sharp call pierced the thin mountain air. A pair of griffons closed in on the carriage. The pegasi slowed, but they stayed on course. Within seconds, the griffons had already closed the distance.
"State your business, ponyfolk." The griffon's voice was nasty and dry.
"We seek an attendance with Elder Groza."
"Are you serious?" the other griffon spoke up. A young girl. "We should hardly be allowing you in our airspace, much less-"
"Erix!" The older griffon silenced the younger. "I apologize for her. But I must ask you to divulge everything. A mere wish to see the busiest griffon in the world is not sufficient for us to allow you to land."
Celestia hung her head. She had hoped to not provoke any more hostility than necessary. "We're trying to fix what's wrong with the sky. And we need more magic than Equestria has. We need the Element of Loyalty."
The young griffon's face contorted. "Presumptuous fools. You plan to steal our greatest treasure and you-"
"One more word, Erix," said the old griffon in his sharp native tongue," and I'll put your tail on my mantlepiece next to that of every other rookie I've kicked off the force." The young griffon shut up rather quickly. "Not many ponies know about the Element of Loyalty. How did you find out about it?"
"I've seen it. My little sister loved watching Groza put it on." The older griffon glared at Celestia, narrowing his eyes. She kept her gaze even and expressionless, hoping that he wouldn't find her story suspect.
"If you know that much about its nature, then it would be quite a stretch for me to believe that you're lying. Regardless, you will all have to stay confined to the landing. This is a…difficult situation. We will guide you. Don't make trouble." The two griffons flanked the pegasi pulling the carriage, directing them to one of the smaller caves of Griffonmont. It was well-lit enough to see that the cave didn't go terribly far back, and wasn't connected to anything else. The older griffon opened the back of the carriage for them. "Stay here. Well, I guess most of you can't fly, but still. I will speak with the Elders. You'll have word by noon, and if they permit you to see them, you can submit your request at…ah, what do you say in Equestrian…lunch?"
Celestia smiled. "Thank you, sir. We couldn't ask for anything more."
The griffon nodded. "Our treaty says that ponyfolk are welcome in Griffonmont. Knowing that I serve griffonkind is all the thanks I need. If only that was a lesson griffons learned young." He turned his head to the other griffon. "Erix, stay here and watch these ponies. If so much as a hair on their manes is out of place, it'll be your hide, I don't give a damn who your grandmommy is." With that, he flew out of the cave and out of sight.
Erix made a grunting noise and sat at the entrance to the cave, glaring at the ponies. "Don't cause any trouble."
Hurricane made an eerily identical grunt. "Trouble like what? We're in a dead-end cave."
Erix's scowl deepened, but suddenly her eyes went wide. "You…is your wing broken?"
Hurricane looked back at his own torso. "Uh, yeah, kinda, I guess. It's gonna get better soon, really."
Erix looked as if she were trying to make her face unreadable, but her expression was undeniably guilty-looking. "Oh. I mean…I mean, yeah, I mean." She scratched her head with her talon. "It's like…whatever."
Hurricane put a hoof on her other talon. "Yeah, I know what you mean."
"So, yeah, like whatever, okay?"
Celestia looked at Hurricane, then back to Erix, then back to Hurricane. "Sage, are you schooled in whatever language they're speaking?"
Sage's expression was as bemused as Celestia felt her own was. "Not a word, Sunny."
"Hurricane, what just happened?"
The dark pegasus shrugged. "I guess she's seen a broken wing before. And it's like, she didn't do it, so she's not sorry, so I guess she's, like, whatever."
Flash Burn giggled. "Well, that makes sense, then. I didn't pin you for the sensitive type, Hurricane."
Erix looked away. "Hey, let's not get all mushy, okay? I just…whatever!" She folded her forelegs across her chest.
Hurricane glared. "Yeah, I'd hate for it to get so mushy that I start talking about the story behind it." Celestia gulped. There's no way that the young griffon would react reasonably to that.
Before anything more could happen, the older griffon from before returned. "Well, that went more quickly than I expected. Apparently Groza was pretty excited to see you once I related your story." He was glaring at Celestia. "You'll be coming up to…lunch. I guess we'll have to prepare a landing for your carriage. It will take some time."
Celestia bowed. "We can't thank you enough."
"You already have. Oh, and Erix." The young griffon turned. "Groza's in a cheery mood. You might want to skip out unless you're ready to hear the great-grandkids talk again."
"Thanks, sir." Erix gave a weak salute before the old griffon took off.
Celestia's jaw was hanging open. "Groza is your grandmother?!"
"Heh, yeah." The griffon shrugged. "All of her other grandkids are married. I decided to put it off so I could do officer training young, before having kids." She scratched her head. "It's a whole…thing. I don't suppose you ponies have weird bloodline politics like we do." Celestia looked at the other ponies, who were all as uncomfortable as she was. None of them were saying anything.
"Er," Celestia tried to think of how to explain the sudden awkward silence. "I guess, it's like, whatever?"
"The Council of Elders has been called," a young Griffon spoke from the side of the head table in the Great Hall of Griffonmont. "The petitioners from Equestria shall be heard to their fullest, and the decision of the Elders shall be honored with food and song. We honor the Eternal."
"We honor the Eternal." came a chorus from the other Griffons.
"And we honor you, Ponyfolk," said Groza in Equestrian, from the center of the head table. "I speak, Groza, eldest of the Griffons, in the name of the Council and of all Griffonmont. Who speaks before the Council shall now be heard."
Celestia looked back at her companions. They had to know their part to speak before the Council. She turned back to the head table. "I speak, Sunny of Equestria, in the name of Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and Equestria."
Twilight Sage stepped next to her. "I speak, Twilight Sage of Equestria, in full accordance with Sunny of Equestria, as her second."
Flash Burn stepped on her other side. "I speak, Flash Burn of Equestria, in…um…full accordance with Sunny of Equestria, as her servant." She got the accents all wrong, but it was certainly close enough.
Amaranth stepped next to Sage nervously. "I speaken Amaranth Equestria…uh…on the sunny accordion fully Equestria, and service her." The odd looks from a couple of the griffons made him lower his head, but none of the head table reacted.
Morning Glory cleared her throat and stood next to Flash, clearly ready to deliver her line with the utmost perfection. "I, Morning Glory of Equestria, possess an inordinate number of cheese blocks, and Sunny of Equestria can vouch for that." Utter silence fell over the room. The griffons who were chatting quietly had all stopped to stare at the brown pony. Glory looked around nervously. "What?" Celestia was about to say something, but she heard a sound on her left. Twilight Sage was…snickering? And covering his mouth with a hoof in a futile attempt to cover it up.
"Twilight Sage, what did you do?" Celestia attempted her best scowl, but it only caused the unicorn to burst into laughter. Celestia looked nervously back at the head table. They were all…smiling? Indeed, several of them had begun to laugh. The entirety of the Great Hall was soon full of the sound of laughing griffons.
Morning Glory broke formation and smacked Sage on the head. "You wretch! You evil, wicked pony! You told me to say the wrong thing, didn't you? You've ruined everything!" Sage was unresponsive, still laughing.
Groza stood weakly, shaking with suppressed laughter. "Perhaps…perhaps we should…conduct theheeheeheeheeehee the, uh, ceremonies in Equestrian, to prevent…to prevent any further…hnnn…mishaps!" She collapsed onto the table, unable to speak. She waved one of her talons, motioning for the ponies to continue.
Shimmerdust stepped forward as scripted, but she looked around confused. "I dunno what to say. You only told us how to say it in Griffon." The room once again surged with griffon guffaws. The head table, however, appeared to compose themselves a bit.
"Just…why don't you just give us the petition? All this laughing's making me hungry." Groza's eyes were filled with tears, and her talons gripped onto the edge of the table.
With a final glare at Twilight Sage, Celestia took a deep breath and recited the piece she had prepared. "Honored Elders of Griffonmont, we ponies come to you in an hour most dire. The night sky is dark, and soon, so too shall be the day. The princesses are in grave danger, and we require the most powerful magic in the world to save them. We need the Element of Loyalty."
The levity of the room died down, and the smile was gone from the faces of all the Elders. "We have seen the sky, ponies," said Groza, "and I personally know that there has been trouble with the princesses. However, you must surely understand the enormity of this request. For many centuries, the Element of Loyalty has been the most treasured object of all Griffonmont. Though the laws that named it the rightful possession of the griffons have long been abolished, it is more precious to us than all the gold and jewels that these mountains may contain."
Celestia lowered her head. "I understand. I would not ask, but the lives of all ponies and indeed all the world are at stake."
There was a brief silence. "Very well, Sunny of Equestria. As the Spirit of Loyalty, I accept your request." Whispers erupted around the room. "But," Groza said with a talon held in the air, "as the leader of the Council of Elders, I must receive their support before I can release the prized treasure of the griffons to ponyfolk. Let the Council speak." A griffon at the end of the table stood up immediately. Groza sighed. "The Council recognizes Oerda, General."
The old griffon cleared his throat. "I respect the wishes of Groza, Eldest, and all the much more the wishes of Groza, Spirit of Loyalty. However, I do not trust these ponyfolk. They say that they require powerful magic? Their gods grant them powerful magics enough. What more can but one of the Elements of Harmony do? They must be deceiving us for some other purpose." Another griffon at the opposite end of the table stood up quickly.
"The Council recognizes Ynga, Wisest."
The griffon spoke with a shaky voice. "The lore of the Elements of Harmony is not well known, Oerda. I imagine that the ponyfolk only knew to look for even one because Groza is well-acquainted with the Royal Pony Sisters. Surely, they are truly in service to their princesses, and merely did not know that all five Elements must be acquired to summon the power of Magic."
Celestia's heart fell. "All f-five? But…but how will we find them all in only eleven days?"
Groza held up a talon to silence the other Elders. "The locations we know not, but we know who last had them. The Element of Laughter was turned over to the Great Temple after the war, and that lies at the other end of this mountain range. The dragons possessed the Element of Generosity, and entrusted it to their leader, who was last seen in the Eastern Desert, just beyond these mountains. The Element of Honesty lies south of that, once possessed by the Anansi, before their fall. We believe that the zebrafolk now have it. Finally, the Element of Kindness is in the hands of the Serpent King, who dwells in the ocean to the West of Equestria. If your magic is not enough to fix your problem, you will need to gather all of the Elements."
General Oerda scoffed. "You presume, Groza, that this council will indeed vote to trust these ponyfolk. They have not shown themselves to be worthy, even if their intentions are as noble as they proclaim."
"Then let them show themselves," Ynga proclaimed. She coughed from the strain of raising her voice. "All those griffons who wish to be proven have undergone the Trial of the Mountain, our greatest test of loyalty and honor. I say, let the ponyfolk perform the Trial."
Oerda growled. "The trial must be taken by six, and the ponyfolk have only three working wings between them. You mock our traditions, Ynga."
"And you overstep your bounds, Oerda." Groza shot the general a glare from across the table. "The Trial of the Mountain has been put forth. The Council must vote to allow the ponyfolk to enter. All who vote yes, raise your talons." All the head table but Oerda did so. "It is decided. Sunny of Equestria, do you and your companions accept the Trial of the Mountain?"
Celestia looked back and forth. "What is the Trial of the Mountain?"
Groza's expression softened. "It's the only way I can swing this, honey."
Celestia's head sunk. "We accept."
"Then the decision is made." Groza raised her volume to fill the Great Hall. "Bring forth the feast!" In an instant, the Hall was flooded with younger griffons bearing trays full of food. "Come, ponyfolk, and sit at the head table with me. There is much I would like to discuss now that the formalities are over." Groza snickered. "For example, Miss Glory's robust cheese collection."
Morning Glory boggled. "Cheese collection?" Sage started laughing again.
Shimmerdust turned to Morning Glory. "You collect cheese?"
"I do not collect cheese!"
Celestia rolled her eyes as Shimmerdust continued to ask Glory about a nonexistent cheese collection. "Sage, why did you do that? You could have ruined everything."
Sage caught his breath. "I was told that griffons were very fond of practical jokes, and that it was not abnormal for them to interrupt even the grandest of ceremonies. And I owed Glory."
"Who taught you that?"
Sage raised an eyebrow. "Why, Princess Celestia did. And I hear she's very well acquainted with griffon customs. She even taught me the language." Celestia screwed up her mouth. She had forgotten that she told him that.
"It's true, sweetness," said Groza, with a hunk of bread in one hand, "I was doing this big important wedding a couple days ago, and the bride had her brother put on some makeup and go in her place. We had to hold the wedding off until next sunrise. Man, that was a trip." She tore into the bread voraciously. "No way you would have gotten so many votes if the Council didn't think you were, well, a lot like us. Most of them don't know much about ponies."
Sage smiled. "You see? It's a win-win situation."
"Don't be so sure, Sage." Celestia pointed over to Morning Glory, who was surrounded by griffons. "They're all giving her suggestions on how to get you back." Sage's smile disappeared. "Anyway, what exactly is the Trial of the Mountain?"
Groza swallowed more food. "It's a race through the big cave that goes all the way through Griffonmont. There's a few natural hazards. The first one through receives the prize, but don't be fooled. You won't live through it if you don't all help each other out. We often use it to see who will get promotions in the military. Good, loyal leaders make it through. Bad ones have to turn back. Or worse."
Celestia frowned. "I know the ways of Griffonmont are harsh, but do you really have to put us through a deadly trial? You know how much we need the Element of Loyalty."
Groza's expression turned serious. "It's of no use to you if the power of Loyalty doesn't reside in you. Now, come on, eat." She gestured to the plate in front of her, which was now empty of all but crumbs. "Uh…let's get some more food over here." The griffon waved a talon at one of the servers, who rushed off.
Celestia sighed and muttered to herself. "Just when I thought things couldn't get worse."
The sun still shone brightly in the sky as the ponies were flown down to the trial cave. The entrance was obvious. Though it was only as wide as six griffons standing shoulder to shoulder, the rock surrounding was carved with ostentatious designs, and it was sealed, unlike every other cave on Griffonmont, by a wooden gate. The gate was decorated with carved letters. Celestia could tell that they were the letters of the griffon language, but the words made no sense to her. There seemed to be some sort of rhyme to it, but it must have been a version of the language older than the war. The ponies were led off the carriage and two griffons stood by the door entrance. They grasped the metal handles to the gates, but did not pull.
Groza stood up on her hind legs. She intoned the words on the door like a chant, then reverted to Equestrian. "All but the brave and strong shall perish in the trial of fire and stone. Only the first to the end shall succeed, but they shall fail who endeavor alone." She fell back onto all fours. "A little melodramatic, but take it to heart. You have to work together if you want to make it through this."
Celestia stepped forward nervously. "What's in there?"
The griffon shook her head. "I can't tell you that. This isn't the sort of thing you're supposed to plan and prepare for. It's all about wits, strength, and courage. In fact," she turned to Flash Burn, "you'll have to take off that armor."
Flash Burn looked nervous. "What? Why?"
"No preparations whatsoever. We'd all go in armored if we were allowed."
"Well…what are you going to do with it?"
Groza gestured to Hurricane. "Have this one look after your things. Only six may enter, and he has a broken wing anyway. We take that sort of injury very seriously around here."
Flash narrowed her eyes. "He is a thief."
"Hey, don't worry," said Hurricane, the roll of his eyes audible in his voice, "I'm not going to fly off with it or anything." He flapped his one good wing. Flash Burn looked at the ground and slunk off to remove her armor.
Celestia turned to the griffon. "We won't need to fly to get through this, will we?"
Groza shook her head. "It's a cave. Griffons don't have room to fly through most parts of it. A pegasus pony might be able to pull it off, but unless that Flash has some pretty slick moves, it won't do you too much good."
"Right," Celestia said distantly, looking at Flash. The fire-maned pegasus was, without a doubt, an amazing flier, but even the halls of the castle were nowhere near as constricting as a cave. "So, how long will it take?"
"Officially, until sundown. The sun should start disappearing behind the mountains in six hours, and that's when they'll close the front doors behind you. After that, those of us waiting at the end are supposed to consider you failed, but there's no door there, so the only issue is that if we all leave, you won't have a witness to determine the 'winner'. Not a problem for your case."
Celestia nodded. The distance to the other side of the mountain, going straight through, could not have been two hours' walk. Six hours was probably more than enough time to determine if anyone was coming out. Her stomach fluttered as she imagined the griffons and Hurricane waiting at the entrance as the sun fell, only to never see the ponies exit.
"But," Groza added, placing a talon on Celestia's shoulder, "I'll wait as long as it takes for you." The elderly griffon was smiling gently.
Celestia chuckled. "So, you didn't buy that 'Sunny' bit after all, did you?"
"You kidding? Minus the horn and wings, you look exactly the same as you did growing up. We've been best friends for centuries; there's no way I wouldn't recognize you." Groza's smile faded. "I just wish the lie wasn't necessary. A lot of griffons aren't happy with the Royal Pony Sisters right now."
Celestia's head sunk. She looked over at Flash Burn, who was nearly finished disrobing. "We should get going."
The griffon smiled again. "Good luck." She backed up and reared onto her hind legs again. "The entrants are ready," she cried out loudly. "Open the Trial of the Mountain." The two griffons heaved the gates backwards. The heavy doors groaned at being moved, but they opened fully.
Celestia looked back at the other ponies. "Let's move, everypony." The others followed wordlessly into the darkness of Griffonmont.
"Hey, Glory?" Shimmerdust turned back to face the earth pony, causing the glow from her horn to recede from the cave.
"Eyes forward," replied Morning Glory with a slight hint of impatience.
Shimmerdust faced forward again. "I was just wondering something."
"You live in a tavern, right?"
Morning Glory sighed. "An inn, yes."
"So where do you keep all your cheese?" This was immediately followed by gleeful chortling from the other end of the line. Twilight Sage sounded like he was having trouble breathing, but he laughed nonetheless.
Morning Glory's cheeks turned red. "For the last time, Shimmerdust, I do not now, nor have I ever, collected cheese in any way." Shimmerdust made no sound or motion of acknowledgement, which caused Glory to make a "hrmph" sound.
"How much longer until we get to the end of this?" Glory's voice was tired.
Celestia attempted to restrain the weariness from her own voice. "Probably at least another half hour, though it depends on what other obstacles are in our way."
Sage's giggling finally died down. "I can't imagine that we have too much to worry about. The worst we've run into so far was the spike hallway, and we got through that just fine."
Amaranth didn't turn back to speak. "You got your tail caught in the last closing wall."
"Your tail is only a few inches long."
"Oh, come on." Sage didn't sound terribly disheartened. "How can you be pessimistic at a time like this? Six brave heroes delving through a dungeon full of traps to acquire a powerful treasure…we're on an adventure!"
"I value my life over the idea of 'adventure'," Amaranth stated chidingly. Sage said something back, but Celestia didn't hear it. Flash and Glory were whispering just ahead of her, and she tried to listen in.
"…STILL can't believe he would do something so idiotic." Glory's whisper was harsh and hissing.
"He knew what he was doing," replied Flash softly. Her voice had a bit of an uncertain edge to it.
"You're just making excuses for him because you like him." Now Glory was positively growling.
"Do you really have to bring that up now?" Flash's blush was audible.
Glory made an impossibly feminine grunt and started walking faster. "Come on, everypony. The faster we walk, the sooner we get out of here."
Somewhere distant in the cave, there was a strange "hiss-clunk" sound. Then another one, closer. Then another. The hissing approached the ponies, and with no other warning, a pillar of stone shot up in front of them, causing Morning Glory to scream and tossing her backwards into Flash Burn's forelegs.
The earth pony turned around to embrace the pegasus. "Oh, Flashie, you saved me! I'm so sorry I yelled at you." She buried her muzzle into Flash Burn's neck, which caused the pegasus to make an expression that was at once amused, bemused, and confused. The stone pillar had already fallen back onto the floor, but dust from where it had hit the ceiling settled down onto the ponies. Celestia traced its path back to the floor, and saw that the entire cave in front of them was hewn into irregular section.
"It's another trap," she said flatly. "This entire hall is made of these crushing pillars." Another round of "hiss-thunk"s began. Different pillars hit the ceiling this time. "And it looks like they fire randomly. This is way more impressive than anything we've run into…"
"It's natural," said Sage with a hint of wonder in his voice. "That hissing sound? That's some kind of superheated gas from the geothermal activity under Griffonmont. I wouldn't have expected anything to come up this high, but…I think the entire Trial may have been built around this. Look," he pointed a hoof at the tiles that were, in fact, the tops of the pillars. "These are cut into really irregular shapes and sizes. Nothing even resembling uniformity. I'm not sure what made the cuts, but it wasn't griffons. Possibly some kind of ancient magic, from before Griffons lived here."
"Okay," Flash said, with Glory still wrapped tightly around her, "how do we get through?"
Another set of "hiss-thunk"s. "Well," Sage said uncertainly, "It seems that the interval is regular. Judging from the sound, they don't start too far off. If we start just after one pass ends, we'll only have to contend with one round of pillars."
"What?" Glory let go of Flash. "We have to be in that mess? I already almost got crushed!"
"The only other option is turning back and failing, and going through all the other traps again besides. Do you really want to go through the sticky hall again?" Sage raised an eyebrow with an amused smirk.
Glory stared at the ground. "We agreed to never speak of that again."
Shimmerdust brushed up against Glory. "Aw, come on, it was funny."
Glory grumbled. "I hope these pillars kill me."
The ponies lined up in front of the tiled floor. Another round of "hiss-thunk"s. The instant one hit in front of them, they broke into a gallop. As predicted, they were still on the tiles when they heard a hissing start. However, the sight ahead made Celestia's heart skip a beat. There was a gout of flame at the end of the tiles, and the instant it cut out, a massive chunk of stone the width of the entire hallway rose up and smashed the ceiling. The end of the trapped section would certainly kill them if they didn't make it in time. Smaller pillars began rising and falling in front of them. Celestia closed her eyes. She heard a hissing sound behind her and knew that she was clear. But then she heard another sound. She only dared to turn her head for one second. Shimmerdust had been pushed off her hooves and fell to the ground.
"Shimmer!" Sage's yell confirmed what Celestia had seen. The unicorn quickly scrambled back up, but she was still far behind the rest of the group. The sounds of the pillars were reaching the beginning of the hallway.
"We're not going to make it!" Glory screamed in panic. Then, suddenly, she disappeared in a blink. She reappeared with Flash past the giant end pillar, but Flash disappeared again. Celestia felt a surge lift her into the air, and by the time she could look down at the ground, she was already at the end. One by one, the other ponies were scooped up by the pegasus and deposited at the end of the hallway, until only one pony remained in the hallway.
Flash looked nervously at the hole in the wall where the flame jet had come out. "I…I-" she didn't have time to finish. The roaring fire pushed everypony back with its heat. And Shimmerdust was on the other side. Flash sunk to the floor. "I wouldn't have made it. She was too far back."
Sage stumbled into the wall. "Shimmer…no…" He stared at the floor. "She can't be…this can't…" Tears began forming in his eyes.
"She might make it," Celestia said hopefully. "Those pillars are random."
Amaranth looked at Sage sadly. "I don't think she'll know to avoid that final stone, and even if she does…the pillars near the end looked like they came up more frequently. I don't think we have that kind of luck. And we saw that the pillars start the instant the flame cuts out."
Flash spoke to Sage in a weak whisper. "Sage…I am so, so sorry."
He didn't get up. "You did everything you could."
Flash stammered something, but then her eyes narrowed. "Wrong."
Celestia saw Flash spread her wings and turn to the flame. Everything seemed to go in slow motion. The pegasus leaped into the gout of fire as Glory reached out a hoof to stop her. There was a pause. The flame disappeared. Shimmerdust flew out into the crowd with enough velocity that she skipped off the floor. A streak of fire just barely cleared the giant stone pillar before it smashed the ceiling. The streak slowed down enough to be obvious as the form of a pegasus, who smashed hard into one wall, then the opposite wall, then finally tumbled to the floor until she reached a complete stop.
"Flash!" Morning Glory galloped over to the fallen pegasus. Flash Burn lay on the ground, the smell of burnt fur rising from her. Blood started to color her near-white coat in spots all over her body and head. "Flash, speak to me. Say something!"
Meanwhile, Sage was helping Shimmerdust up. "Can you walk?"
Shimmerdust's voice was shaky. "My back leg's a bit tender, but I'll be fine." It was the first time Celestia had heard anything in the blue unicorn's voice besides calm contentment. "Go help Flash." Sage looked uncomfortable leaving her, but he rushed over to Flash Burn all the same.
"How is she?" he asked Morning Glory.
The earth pony had tears in her eyes. "She's not talking to me. She's not moving. I don't know what to do. Tell me what to do."
Sage calmly leaned down next to Flash. "She's breathing. She's breathing well. She should be alright, but we have to get her wounds disinfected now. My supplies are in my saddlebag, but-"
"If we're carrying her, it will take us the better part of an hour," Amaranth said calmly. "And if she has any broken bones, that would be a bad idea."
Sage nodded in agreement. "Somepony has to go ahead and get my things while the rest of us tend to her. Shimmer is still injured-"
"I'll go." Celestia passed the other ponies. "They're expecting to see me first, I'll get the bags fastest."
"But, Princess," Sage protested, "your muscles may still be weak. A long gallop could burn your muscles out."
Celestia put on the bravest face she could manage. "Then today is a bad day to be me."
The princess broke into a gallop instantly. After the first minute, her lungs ached, and her legs felt weak. She didn't stop. Her hooves threatened to fall out from under her, but the cave slowly brightened. The end was near. Finally, around a bend, she saw the exit. It wasn't as bright as she had expected, and she could see the others standing outside. She pressed harder, though it still felt too slow. She finally broke into the open air, and she thought she could hear cheers over the wind rushing past her ears. She didn't care. She sought the dark form of Hurricane, the only pony in the crowd.
"Hurricane!" she tried to yell. It came out as ragged breathing which somehow resembled the word she wanted to say. "Flash. Hurt. Sage's bags."
The pegasus squeezed his way through a crowd of griffons. "What's going on?"
Celestia tried to catch more breath. "Flash is hurt. Needs what's in Sage's bag. I gotta go back."
An old griffon cleared his throat. "No outside materials in the trial, pony."
"Sunny has won," said a voice that Celestia identified as Groza's. "The trial is over, Oerda."
Celestia gestured frantically. "I have to go back. No time."
Hurricane put a hoof on her shoulder. "You'll collapse if you try to run. I'll go." He pulled Sage's bags on top of himself.
A young griffon rushed out of the crowd. Erix. "You can't run! Something could happen to your wing."
"I gotta risk it. The bandaging is good; I should be fine."
"But it's that guard pony that you don't even like."
There was a pause. "Doesn't matter. She's hurt, and I can help." Hurricane galloped off into the cave. Once he disappeared, Celestia felt herself stagger. She was caught by a mass of feathers.
"Easy, there. You did it. Now you just have to wait." Groza's voice soothed Celestia. She leaned against her old friend, and she rested her head in the griffon's plumage. Her part was done. She could do nothing but hope.
An hour passed in silence. Celestia never did stop leaning on Groza, even as her strength returned to her. She found herself able to do little more than worry. There was a good chance that bad news would come out of the cave at any second. None of the griffons said anything. All of them stood reverently, waiting for someone else to make a move.
Suddenly, a griffon gasped. There was movement from the cave. All the griffons clamored around the mouth of the cave, hoping to get a better look. The shadowy forms coalesced into three ponies. Amaranth and Twilight Sage stood on either side of the formation, and in the center, with one foreleg draped over each of them, was a bandaged and bloodied Flash Burn, smiling weakly.
Celestia rushed up to give the pegasus a hug, but when she tried, found that her legs had all fallen asleep. She fell onto her face. It was just as well, since once they were outside the cave, Shimmerdust and Morning Glory took Flash from the stallions and began lavishing her with affection. Glory did so in her predictably melodramatic manner, and Shimmerdust with unmistakable quiet sincerity. Amaranth and Sage stood smiling silently, and Hurricane attempted to pry Glory off Flash to no avail. They all parted when Celestia got to her hooves and walked up to the pegasus.
The princess smiled down at the injured Guard captain. "You were amazing, Flash."
The pegasus gave a weak chuckle, then made a face that looked like she'd just hurt herself. "Just doing my job."
Celestia leaned down and gave Flash a gentle hug. The bandages were moist with disinfectant, and her fur was matted with blood in a lot of places. The princess released her, only for Morning Glory to come rushing back in.
"Never do anything like that again, Flashie! I'll die of worry." The brown earth pony stroked Flash's mane gently.
The pegasus laughed again. "YOU'LL die? Of course, how inconsiderate of me." This hardly seemed to dissuade Glory, but they were both smiling.
A soft coughing from behind made Celestia turn her head around. Groza was standing at the head of the rest of the griffons, looking impatient.
"Sorry," said Celestia, "I guess we're done now."
Groza nodded. "You have passed the Trial of the Mountain. With both my blessing, and the blessing of the Council, I bequeath unto you ponies the Element of Loyalty." The elderly griffon closed her eyes, and golden light appeared in the sky around her. It coalesced into a necklace, but then dispersed into a cloud of dust. The motes settled to the ground, where they formed a plain grey stone sphere, about an eighth the size of a pony, with nothing but a simple geometric character marking its significance.
Celestia bowed, and reached out to grab the stone, but she felt herself bowled over by something heavy. Heavy and equipped with talons. She threw herself to the side to escape further injury, but the talon left a scratch in her side. She fell to the ground and looked up to see the source of the attack. An old griffon male stood framed by the setting sun.
"No!" came Oerda's weary old voice. "I will not allow our greatest treasure to be handed to these ponyfolk. Not in this time of darkness." He stepped forward, but he was whisked out of view by another blurred form.
"Stand down, you old bastard!" It was Groza's voice. She had knocked the general to the ground, and stood between him and Celestia.
"Your foolish decisions won't matter if there are no ponyfolk to give it to." He lunged into the air, but Groza rose swiftly and smacked him back down to the ground.
"The Council has spoken, fool." She settled back down to the ground in a low stance. "I have spoken."
"Then you are a traitor," growled Oerda. He let out a roar and charged Groza. Groza crouched down as if she were expecting a tackle. However, the general instead swiped at her with a single talon. It didn't look like it pushed her at all, but blood began to come from Groza's neck.
"You…you…" stammered Groza, as she lifted a talon to her wound.
The other griffon backed up a few paces. "Now I am in charge." His expression was grim.
Groza's eyes went wild. "You're a fool." She stood tall, despite the blood running from her throat. "Perhaps you have forgotten what Loyalty means. Allow me to show you." She made a blindingly fast charge and pinned Oerda to the ground.
"But…how?" Oerda's words were quiet. He was being strangled.
"The Element of Loyalty prevents me from being struck down as I defend those I care about. Surprisingly enough, that happens to include a very dear friend of mine."
"Don't…have…Element…" The general was kicking his hind legs into the air, and desperately attempting to wrench Groza's talon off his own neck. He was not succeeding.
"The Spirit of the Elements is stronger than that, fool. And now, you pay for your arrogance and treachery." Groza's talon went high into the air, and then plunged straight down Oerda's beak. The old general made a strangled gurgle, then stopped moving. Groza calmly climbed off his corpse, and faced the crowd of shocked griffons. "These ponies are here to save the world. To harm them is as great betrayal as any griffon shall ever know. Does everyone understand?" The griffons nodded silently. They all appeared to slowly recede from the ponies and the fallen elder.
Groza turned back to Celestia. She crouched down and, with her clean talon, slowly stroked Celestia's mane. "There," she said, with a weak smile and eyes full of tears. "You're safe."
Groza the griffon collapsed on the ground, her neck split open, and her eyes empty of life.
Celestia stared at the ground. Before her lay her best friend, a companion who had been with her for centuries, spilling blood onto the rocky mountainside, empty eyes staring into the sky. Groza's blood stained the bottoms of Celestia's hooves red, but the princess could not bring herself to move away. She felt her insides seize up. After what seemed like an eternity, she saw something disturb the red pool below her. Teardrops had begun falling from her face.
"Ah. Ahhh!" She retreated from the pool of blood, her voice unsteady. "What…you…no! No!" The dead eyes of her oldest friend stared at her from the ground, sapping Celestia of all her strength. Her legs folded, and she hit the ground painfully. Her chest heaved with sobs, even though she wasn't taking in breath. Thoughts were coming in too fast. It all felt like just another dream…another horrible vision like those Nightmare brought on. In the face of horror, Celestia was helpless…and alone. Alone except for the griffons slowly advancing on her.
Though her vision was hazy from the tears, she swore she saw a gout of flame shoot in front of her for just the briefest instant, driving the griffons back. The armored form of Flash Burn interposed itself between Celestia and the griffons. The larger creatures all stopped in their tracks, except for one lone griffon. A younger griffon.
"Hey, listen, we're not gonna hurt you. We just need to see to…well, one of the fallen, at least." It was Erix's voice. She glared at the body of Oerda, but approached Groza's body gingerly. With her talon, the young griffon carefully closed her grandmother's eyelids. Celestia felt like a spell on her had been released, and her legs regained their feeling. She struggled onto her hooves.
"P-please. Erix. T-tell me she's okay."
The young griffon gave her an even glare, with eyes that suddenly looked centuries old. "Groza, once Eldest, is passed. Ynga is now the Eldest of the griffons. I would recommend you speak to her." Erix turned and attempted to disappear into the crowd, but Ynga appeared at the front and stopped her. Erix bowed her head and obediently sat at the elder's side.
"I give dire news, ponyfolk," said Ynga in her creaky voice. "As Groza has passed, her decision to give to you the Element of Loyalty is no longer valid." Whispers shot through the crowd of griffons. Flash Burn crouched aggressively.
"Hey," said Hurricane from somewhere behind Celestia, "they passed your trial. How can you just ignore that?"
Ynga hung her head solemnly. "It was Groza's to give as reward for the trial, even if the entire Council decided it. However, it is now wholly the possession of the griffons, and we must revisit the decision before we allow our sacred treasure to be taken from us. Time is short, and so I must render my judgment now."
Morning Glory made a delicate grunting noise. "Doesn't it matter to you that your leader died to make sure we got the Element? Are you just going to act like that doesn't matter?"
Celestia fully expected the old griffon to get angry, but she did not. "As far as our laws are concerned, that makes no difference." Celestia felt her stomach knot. Had Groza died for nothing? "However," the griffon said with a talon in the air, "there is more to life than the law. There are our duties to our people…" she paused longer than anyone felt necessary, "and our duties to those close to us."
The murmurs of the crowd had died, as they awaited the first proclamation of their new leader. "I abide by my predecessor's decision,” Ynga said at last. Any griffon who disagrees with me is free to spit on her corpse as well, for good measure." The griffons in the crowd exchanged glances, but said nothing. Ynga changed her speech to the griffon language. "Groza, once Eldest, shall be taken to the depths of the Eternal, and prepared for a funeral which befits her glory, her wisdom, her spirit, and her sacrifice." The griffon turned to glare at Oerda's body. "Burn the traitor, and let its ashes be locked away, so that they never return to the world." Slowly, griffons from the crowd began approaching the bodies. The rest turned to leave, Erix included. However, Ynga grabbed Erix's shoulder. "You must take the ponyfolk to the temple. Leave immediately."
Erix glared at the elder. "I will attend my grandmother's funeral."
Ynga snarled. "The traitor had many loyal to it, young Erix. We may face civil war. As the last unwed descendant of Groza, you are a primary target. It is not safe for you here."
"I don't care!" Erix snapped. Her face was contorted in anger, but there was more than a hint of sadness in her voice. "I'm not just leaving."
"You must, child. The ponyfolk must reach the temple, and you fly faster than those pegasus ponies they had pulling their carriage. Stay at the temple until someone you trust comes to get you."
"I can fight!"
In response, Ynga made a swift motion so small that Celestia could barely see it, even though she had wiped her eyes. Erix was on the ground, with the old griffon standing over her. "Not yet, child. For the last time, go."
Erix made some kind of face that Celestia didn't understand, but flew over to the ponies. "Okay, all of you, let's move."
Hurricane made a face. "What, like, now?"
"Yeah, now. I'll get the carriage. Stay here." With that, Erix took off and disappeared around the mountain. Celestia stared at the point where the griffon had gone before she felt something brush against her sides. The other ponies had all surrounded her.
"Princess," Twilight Sage said in a hushed voice, "are you alright?"
Celestia tried to sink lower, but found that her weight was held up by the ponies pressing against her. "No," she said plainly, "I don't think I am."
"We're here if you need us," said Amaranth in his strangely comforting matter-of-fact tone. Celestia was fairly certain that the earth pony was not actually touching her, if only because the other ponies had left no gap for him, but he was leaning into the group all the same.
Celestia wasn't sure how long they stayed like that. It might have been a few seconds, or it might have been many minutes. However, when she opened her eyes, Erix was landing on the ledge with the pony carriage's harness secured around herself.
"Get in," said the griffon, flicking her head towards the cabin. Slowly, the ponies broke away, filing into the carriage one by one until only Celestia was left outside. Before Celestia reached the cab, she felt Groza's talon on her shoulder. The griffon was giving her a sad look. "My grandmother always talked about a pink-haired pony whose little sister just loved watching the whole Element of Loyalty show. And even though a lot of things changed over a lot of years, I know one thing has been true since long before I was born. That she loved that pink-haired pony very much."
The two stared at each other for a long moment before Groza put her talon down. Celestia slipped into the carriage, and once she was inside, she felt it lurch into the air. Everypony was silent, and the shadow of Griffonmont made the inside of the carriage as dark as night. The slow bobbing in the air made Celestia feel just how tired she was. The trial had drained her body, and the death of her oldest friend had drained her spirit. With nothing sustaining her, the cart rocked her to sleep.
"And guess who's next, my pretty sister?"
Celestia wanted to snarl. She wanted to cry. She wanted to fall into senselessness. But just like the last few nights, she was powerless. She quickly noticed that her injuries had returned. Her elbow was broken, and her body scraped and battered. Though her breath was beyond her control, she could feel it becoming hard and rasping.
"The sun is down again, dear Celestia," said Nightmare Moon, pacing around Celestia at a greater distance than before. "Do you know what that means?" A pause. "Oh! How silly of me, I forgot that I took your speech from you. Well, allow me to explain." The wicked mare came close again, but still remained far enough that she wasn't touching Celestia. "Every time the accursed sun climbs into the sky, it takes you away from me. It takes everything away!" Nightmare's voice climbed into sudden rage, but calmed quickly. "But when it's gone, I have you to myself. Oh, just think, Celestia. You only have ten more suns until you'll have no escape from me. But will you even last that long? My poor, pitiful sister." Nightmare Moon brushed Celestia's hair with a hoof. "I have hours every night to break your mind, to break your soul." The mare's teeth clamped down on Celestia's throat. There was a horrible sound as they tore away flesh, forcing Celestia to emit a high-pitched whimper. The smell of blood assailed her nostrils. "I have hours every night," Nightmare Moon repeated, stomping on Celestia's face. Her head swam from being struck so suddenly. "And I will make you mine."
Nightmare leaned down to Celestia's face, her breath hot and stinging on the open wounds. But she gently licked around the wounds in a gesture mocking affection, numbing the pain just a little. "As you endure it all, you will understand that it is also in my power to grant succor. Oh, yes, I will grant you pain." The mare pressed a hoof down onto Celestia's bruised ribcage to emphasize her point. "But I will also grant you release." The hoof left. "I will be that which you hate and fear." Nightmare Moon's full weight pressed upon Celestia. She lay directly on top of her. "And I will also be what saves you. What you need most." She pressed her head to Celestia's and slowly rubbed. "And you may think that knowing in advance will help you to resist, to fight it. But it won't." Without warning, Nightmare jerked her head so that her horn pierced through Celestia's eyelid and into the eye with a horrible squelching noise. Celestia's stomach revolted, and the pain overrode every thought and every sense that she had. The wicked mare's horn withdrew, causing the shocks of pain to repeat. "You're going to give me what I want. What I deserve." Nightmare pressed into Celestia, her whole body rubbing against all the bruises and bones, but ever so lightly brushing fur against fur, softness against softness. The mare's mouth moved to Celestia's ears, and her voice fell to a whisper.
"You're going to love me."
The night lasted forever.
Somehow, a stinging feeling in Celestia's eyes stood out amongst all the other sensations. What followed was an overwhelming upheaval of all her senses. The stench of blood and sweat was overridden by that of vomit. The pervasive pain was replaced by pins and needles, and a strange half-numbness. Her ability to breathe had been usurped by a horrible, wet coughing, barely getting any air into her lungs. She gave a weak kick in order to adjust her body so her airway was clearer. At this point, she noticed that she was awake and surrounded by voices.
"Did you see that? I think she's awake!"
"She's still coughing. Should we do that thing again?"
"If we help her stand up, she should be able to clear her airway on her own. Come on!"
Squelching sounds came from the floor next to Celestia's head. Soon she felt herself being pushed and pulled into an upright position. Her legs couldn't hold the weight, but she was still being supported. She tried to open her eyes, but they were stuck shut by some combination of dried gunk. Every one of her coughs felt like an entire lungful of liquid. Her throat was already hurting, and each gasp just made it worse. After what seemed like an eternity, the coughs became smaller, and her breaths deeper. Her balance was gone as far as her strength, but she still did not fall. Though her eyes were still stuck shut, she turned her head left and right in an attempt to get a sense of the situation.
"Princess? Princess, can you hear me?" It was Twilight Sage's voice. Celestia turned her head in the direction she thought the sound was coming from, though since there was something in one of her ears it was a bit difficult.
Celestia tried to ask a question, but it only came out as a series of whimpers and coughs. She pitched forward from the exertion, but whatever was holding her up caught her.
"Hey, it's okay, you're safe now." Flash Burn's voice. "Open your eyes, look at the sunrise." Celestia whimpered something softly and shook her head. "What? What are you trying to say?"
"I can't," Celestia managed. It came out in a sob, which only caused more coughing. She felt herself start crying, but she couldn't tell if tears were coming down her face, or if she was all out.
"Here," said Twilight Sage. A hoof scraped against Celestia's muzzle, causing her to turn her head instinctively. However, it gently worked its way over her eyes, and she held still so that it cleared some of what was holding her eyes closed. When she managed to open them, she gasped, and started coughing again. Her vision was so bleary that she couldn't make out any details, but the sunset orange blob in front of her was most assuredly Sage. She looked to her sides. A green blob on one, and two dark blobs on the other.
"What happened?" asked Flash from somewhere behind. Celestia tried to swing her head around, but it made her dizzy, and she couldn't see anything.
"Nightmare. Again." Saying the words brought the memories back into focus. Hours of…whatever it was that Nightmare Moon had been doing to her. "Worse," was all she could say, as the last of her strength left her muscles. She could tell that she only stayed upright by being tightly pinned between three ponies. A pause in the conversation allowed the scent of vomit to re-enter the nostrils. "Was that me?"
"Was…oh!" Sage seemed to comprehend almost immediately. "Yes. Almost immediately after we went to sleep, you started making noises. A bit into the night you started crying. It wasn't until a few hours ago, though, that you threw up. We moved you and tried to clean you up a bit, but you just threw up again. The second time, though…you stopped making noises. You stopped breathing, Princess"
"Wh? Whuh?" Celestia's weak breaths were stolen from her.
"You were choking on your own vomit. We must have positioned you poorly. Once I noticed I immediately set about getting you to expel the obstruction. It worked, then you stopped breathing again, and then it worked again. A bit after that, you woke up."
"I choked? How?"
"I think, Princess, that you might have been physically reacting to whatever you were dreaming. It's not the first time that sort of thing has happened, though ponies can't normally feel pain in dreams."
"She would have killed me. She would have killed me with a dream." Celestia made an odd sound like a hiccup, or a weird laugh. Then she made another one. Then she blacked out.
Celestia's eyes opened to elaborate paintings whizzing by overhead. She was bouncing up and down. Groza was dead.
They opened again to a great domed ceiling that looked like brass. Nightmare Moon could kill her.
This time she woke to a low stone ceiling and someone murmuring. She would never gather the Elements of Harmony.
A dark room, with some small, flickering source of light. The world would end because she had failed.
A well-lit wooden ceiling. Something smelled positively delicious.
"Wait, what?" Celestia bolted upright. She was seated upon some kind of straw pillow, and in front of her was a table full of plates of cheeses and grasses. There was some kind of sweet stew in a kettle in a fireplace at one end of the room. And on the other end of the room was…something she could not see because her vision was blocked by the smiling face of an elderly mountain goat. Celestia shrieked and tumbled backwards.
"Be not alarmed, Celestia. I am a friend." The mountain goat's voice could not be more soothing, unfamiliar as he was.
Celestia climbed back up on the straw pillow. "What happened? I was just thinking about…something." She tried to remember what train of thought had been cut off by the smell of stew, but absolutely nothing came to mind. "Why can't I remember?"
"It was not a healthy train of thought. I am sure you will revisit it when the time is right. For now, though, relax, and enjoy the serenity of this room." Celestia looked around. Though it was large enough to fit fifty ponies if they crowded in, the room was exceedingly plain. Everything was made of simple, unvarnished materials, with nothing wasted on decoration. Even the floor was simply natural rock. And the smell of the food was overwhelmingly intoxicating. Celestia tried to focus her thoughts.
"Who are you?"
"I," the mountain goat said with a bow, "am Brother Skipping Stone."
Celestia frowned a bit. "Brother? What does that mean?"
"It is what we monks all call ourselves, and each other." The goat's smile didn't leave his face for an instant.
"Monks? Where…where are we?"
"Why, the exact place you are supposed to be, Celestia." The monk held a cloven hoof in the air. "Welcome to the Great Temple."
“The Great Temple?!” Celestia looked around her again. The sparse room around her certainly fit with what she knew of the monks. And, somehow, she felt like she knew she’d been here for hours. She also felt that she was very hungry. “So, uh, you’re not the kind of monks that fast, are you?”
Brother Skipping Stone’s smile didn’t falter even slightly. “We are not. However, what you smell is a meal we have prepared for you ponies.” He gestured towards a large pot atop a fire. “We do not normally eat between breakfast and lunch.” The sound of hooves came from outside the door. “Ah, and here they come now.”
Twilight Sage, Flash Burn, Morning Glory, Shimmerdust, Amaranth, and Hurricane filed into the dining hall one by one. Their faces lit up upon seeing Celestia awake. They looked like they were ready to smother her with affection, but when the old goat turned to look at them, they slowed down and sat around the table.
“This is stew made with vegetables from our garden, and we have all the fresh spring water you could ever hope to drink. If there’s anything else we can do to make your stay here more comfortable, please let any of the monks know.” Brother Skipping Stone calmly exited the room, leaving the ponies to themselves.
Celestia did not hesitate in grabbing a bowl and filling it with sweet, sweet stew. She practically flung it on the table and dove into it before remembering that her friends must be very worried. She looked up from her bowl with a guilty look on her face, marred by stew splashed everywhere.
“So, uh, Great Temple, eh guys?”
Sage was the first to speak. “Princess, you just had the most immense traumatic episode I’ve ever heard of. What happened?”
“No idea.” Celestia grinned. Why was that funny? Something horrible had obviously happened. But it was banished from her mind, and all she could think of was the tasty, tasty food and kind company.
“You were crying every moment you returned to consciousness,” said Morning Glory, who was starting to gather food on her plate.
“Oooh,” Shimmerdust interjected, “that cheese looks like it would be great for your collection. Can you imagine? Great Temple cheese! I wonder if it came from one of the cow monks?”
Morning Glory rolled her eyes and deliberately avoided taking any cheese. Celestia simply chuckled at the ongoing misunderstanding.
“Yeah,” Hurricane said between mouthfuls of grass, “but remember, Brother Skipping Stone did that awesome thing with the chanting and the big chamber and the candles. I didn’t even know goats could use magic. Heck, I thought they couldn’t even speak Equestrian. Guess being a city pony leaves you with a lot of prejudices.”
“Actually, you’re right,” said Sage, “most goats can’t do either. But they can learn to do both, and the Great Temple is a good place for that.”
Only Flash still had a worried look on her face. “So, uh, you’re alright?”
“Mostly just confused, really.” Celestia began refilling her already-empty plate. “Isn’t the Great Temple closed to outsiders.”
Sage sighed. “Normally, yes, but…” he looked at Shimmerdust, “I swear, I have no idea how she did it.”
Shimmerdust grinned, “Oh, yeah, the monk at the gate said I couldn’t get by unless we had a conversation first. Idunno. He was really nice, though. Nopony’s ever followed me when my mind started wandering before.”
Sage put a hoof on his face. “The guard demanded that we prove ourselves by engaging him in a round of koan, a type of unsolvable riddle used by mystics to meditate upon the universe. It turns out that the only thing more puzzling than the contemplations of wise beings over thousands of years is the innavigable mind of my girlfriend.”
Celestia laughed again. “I have a feeling our visit here will go well.”
Sage frowned. “I hope so. When I asked Brother Skipping Stone to show us the Element of Laughter, he didn’t even respond. He doesn’t seem hard of hearing, so I think something might be up.”
“Oh, he just wanted to speak with the Princess privately about it is all,” Shimmerdust said with an air of contentment. Or certainty. It was impossible to tell with that pony.
“Oh, and that’s another thing,” Hurricane said through a mouthful of food, “the dude knew who you were the instant we walked in with you. He didn’t even turn around to look. I think after we finish this whole ‘Elements’ thing, I’m gonna become a monk and get some kickass powers, you know? And I could go around the world fighting crime with them.”
“I think staying in a cloister precludes going around fighting crime, dear,” Morning Glory said in a reassuring tone.
“Plus, you ARE a criminal,” Flash Burn added with more than a hint of criticism.
“I mean real criminals, not just people who break the law. Ponies who hurt people, you know?” Hurricane didn’t seem too bothered in explaining himself.
“Ponies who break the law are hurting people!” Flash seemed ready to jump from her seat.
Brother Skipping Stone appeared in the doorway again. “I hope I’m not interrupting.” The other ponies went quiet. Even Celestia felt extremely hesitant to speak in the old goat’s presence, despite his absolute serenity. “Since Celestia has eaten her fill, I would like to speak with her privately about the purpose of her visit.
“But I’m…” Celestia wanted to say that she was still hungry, but she instantly realized that she wasn’t. Three bowls of stew with a hefty portion of cheese and grass will do that to a pony. But, seriously, those were some awesome monk powers. “Okay, sure.”
“Excellent, please join me outside.”
Celestia followed Brother Skipping Stone outside. As she stepped into the sun, she remembered everything.
“Oh.” Celestia sat down on the grass. “Wow.”
“You are safe, Celestia. Please think slowly.” Brother Skipping Stone’s expression remained unchanged, but his voice sounded more serious.
“My life has been endangered many times these past couple days, but Nightmare Moon is the only thing I can’t do anything about.”
“Not alone, perhaps.” Skipping Stone did not sit down.
“My friends can’t join me in my dreams. Or…whatever it is Nightmare Moon is using.”
“But they have already joined you in your heart. You need only learn to call on their strength.” Celestia looked up into his eyes. She saw now that, beyond the crinkles of the monk’s eternal smile, those eyes held more wisdom than she had gained even in her centuries of life.
“You can teach me?”
“Not exactly, but you can still learn. Before the day is out, even. Come. You may wish to brush your mane and tail before we begin.”
Celestia used a hoof to lift her mane. Tangled as it was every morning.
“Oh, blast it to Tartarus.” She followed Brother Skipping Stone, hoping he was leading her to a comb.
After a bit of preening (okay, a lot more preening than any mane and tail should normally require), Celestia followed Brother Skipping Stone into the temple proper. She recognized the grand domed ceiling from her earlier episode of consciousness. The decorations of the room were minimal. Some places for monks to kneel, an altar, and lighting fixtures. She found the contrast odd, but paid it no mind. However, Brother Skipping Stone led Celestia past all that to a door behind the altar. The pair descended a staircase, until they were in another room that was familiar to Celestia, the one with the low stone ceiling. It was here that Brother Skipping Stone sat down, next to a circle of candles.
“Please, enter the circle and lie down so that you are comfortable.”
Celestia turned her mouth sideways. It was hard to consider being comfortable lying on rock, but she would certainly try. She folded her legs under herself and looked up at the goat.
“Now, I am going to help you enter a state of meditation, one far deeper than you are used to, even from your many experiences. It is much like sleep, but you retain full consciousness, in a way.” He retained his smile, even in this moment.
“Okay. So, are you going to lead me through breathing and imaging exercises? I’m usually fairly good at those.”
Skipping Stone laughed a little. “Ah, yes, with some hours of work, it might be possible to get you to achieve this state on your own. However-“ the goat lifted a single cloven hoof to Celestia’s temple, and the room was gone.
Celestia found herself surrounded by the heavens. Not just the sun and moon, but stars, nebulae, galaxies, comets and asteroids, and things she didn’t even know names for. She was floating, but didn’t feel weightless. She felt she could stare into the beauty of the cosmos forever, but a voice broke her reverie.
“What you are seeing now is your inner self, in the manner your mind can most easily interpret.” It was Brother Skipping Stone. He sounded somehow younger. Or older. Celestia couldn’t really be sure. “There is much here, and you could spend lifetimes meditating on it all, but we must now focus. I want you to think of your closest friends.
Celestia did so, and in an instant, the images of many beings appeared around her. Ponies who had long since died, the ponies she traveled with, other creatures she had grown attached to. She frowned upon seeing that Luna was not among the crowd.
“What you see now is the part of their essence that has merged with yours. Your sister is not among them because her essence is a little preoccupied at the moment.” Celestia was beginning to feel severely outclassed by the monk’s semi-omniscience. “Now, I wish you to think of your implacable foes.”
Celestia had hardly done so before she felt them surge towards her through the cosmos. The most horrible creatures that had plagued her through the centuries came towards her in a single wave. She instinctively held up her hooves, and they bounded off an invisible wall. Celestia looked down to see that her friends were all staring at the enemies with frowns on their faces, as the evil creatures battered at the force in their path.
“My enemies’ essences have joined me as well?”
“Though it may sadden you to hear it, hatred is no less strong than love. But, surely, you wonder why those you love do not fight beside you?”
“I don’t need them to. I can handle this fine, in case you didn’t notice.”
No sooner had Celestia spoken than her enemies ceased their rage and parted to welcome in a new foe: Nightmare Moon. The mare of darkness began pressing against the force. And she slowly moved in.
“They have still not moved, and now you have frozen them. You need only lower your guard and ask them.”
Celestia groaned. “Okay…uh, can they get hurt in here? How does this work?”
“Why does that matter?”
“I won’t see the ones I love hurt in my battles, nor will I stop loving them just to fight!” Celestia wished she could snarl at the monk’s face, but she hardly trusted herself to take her eyes off Nightmare Moon, even if the monk were present.
“Then you will die.”
“I only need to fight long enough to get the job done. Just long enough to get the Elements.”
“You misunderstand. You will die now. You will die inside. And, believe me, your body is pretty useless without a pony inside it.”
“WHAT?” Celestia felt her strength wane. Nightmare Moon seemed infinitely more frightening, not to mention the vast array of foes behind her. “Why are you doing this?”
“This struggle has been going inside you. The only difference is that now you can see it. If Nightmare Moon’s essence was not eating at your soul, your strength would keep your enemies so far away that you’d have not been able to see them. That’s why you are not normally consumed by the centuries of hatred that have piled up.”
“But…what do I do?”
“Let your friends fight for you.”
“I’m stronger than them! If I can’t fight, how can they?”
“I think you’re getting a protector complex mixed up with a big ego.”
Celestia snorted. “You’re an ass.”
“Goat.” She could HEAR the monk’s eternal smile in his voice.
“Fine.” Celestia closed her eyes. She lowered her hooves. “Fight for me.”
A roar of noise surrounded her in an instant. She gritted her teeth. Would this be the end?
The noise died in only a few seconds. A moment passed. More. Finally, she opened her eyes. Her jaw dropped.
Her friends stood atop the broken bodies of her enemies. Even Nightmare Moon lay on the ground, fuming, beneath a pile of hooves and claws and other assorted appendages (and at least one butt).
“HOLY SHITBALLS!” Celestia shot up from her sleeping position on the ground of the temple’s basement. She saw Brother Skipping Stone sitting in the exact spot he had been when she first fell into meditation. She raised an eyebrow in his direction. “Didn’t you just say that love wasn’t stronger hatred?”
“Yes, but you are wise to have loved much more in your life. Certainly, there are more beings deserving of love than of hatred. Many are not as wise as you. Or as fortunate.” Celestia felt the corners of her mouth pull, though she couldn’t decide if it was a smile or a frown. She felt rather guilty about being so angry and mistrustful, and wait a second-
“So, if I wasn’t so loving of other ponies, I’d be dead right now?”
“Hm. Yes, I suppose so. I suppose that I should hope you have the same attitude towards goats?” Brother Skipping Stone certainly didn’t seem concerned, but he looked at Celestia as if he expected an answer.
Celestia sighed. “Fine, fine, you’re right. I’m sure you wouldn’t endanger the entire world to play silly games.”
“Technically it would be possible to save the world without you. You really do need to work on that ego.” Skipping Stone turned to walk up the stairs.
Celestia frowned. It was all she could do to keep from laughing.
Brother Skipping Stone was quiet up until the moment they reached the door to the dining hall. He opened it, and twelve wide eyes swerved to meet Celestia’s. She walked into the room and pounced on the closest friend she could find. Twilight Sage had the honor of becoming the bottom pony of a seven-pony group hug. It was a good minute before everypony managed to exit the pile.
“So, how did it go? Did we get the Element of Laughter?” Flash Burn looked between Celestia and Skipping Stone.
“We have not yet discussed the matter. We shall do so now,” Skipping Stone said plainly.
“Wait, then what were you off doing?” Sage managed to cough out.
“Dissuading me of some rather nasty delusions,” Celestia said with a grin.
“I’ll tell you later.” Celestia took a seat and looked at Brother Skipping Stone. “So, you know we need the Element of Laughter to save the world, right?”
Skipping Stone nodded. “Of course. There is no question that we should give it to you.”
“Great! So, that’s settled.” Celestia smiled at her friends.
Celestia’s expression fell. “Whaddya mean ‘no’?”
Skipping Stone’s smile did not falter. “We cannot get to it.”
“You mean you don’t have it after all?” Flash began to stand from her seat.
“We have the Element. There has been no deception here. We are simply unable to get to it.”
Celestia sighed. “Can you at least show it to us?”
“Of course. Perhaps you will have better luck. Follow me.”
As Brother Skipping Stone left once more, Celestia looked back at all her friends. In near-unison, they all shrugged.
The seven ponies followed the goat through the grounds of the Great Temple, passing by many monks doing their chores. Celestia noted that they were of many species. Ponies, griffons, goats, cows, pigs, minotaurs, basically anything that could talk and walk on land. They all seemed perfectly content with their gardens and meditations.
Finally, the group approached a shrine standing alone in the middle of a rock garden. It was rather ornate, unlike the rest of the temple, with gold filigrees and elaborate engravings. Brother Skipping Stone stopped at the steps of the great temple. Inside, a large spherical stone with a single geometric symbol sat on a pedestal. It was very similar to the Element of Loyalty.
“You may retrieve the Element.”
The ponies stood looking around.
“So, uh, why can’t you do it? Is it some code of the monks, or something?” Hurricane scratched his head.
“Not at all. Please, feel free to go up.”
Celestia and the others continued to stand around, looking at each other. None of them moved.
“I will make it easier,” Brother Skipping Stone said with a hint of resignation, “Celestia, please ascend the stairs and take the Element of Laughter.”
Celestia didn’t move. She didn’t feel any desire to move. She didn’t even feel like she should have any desire to move.
“Okay, what’s going on?” Celestia said flatly.
“When the Element of Laughter was turned over to us after the war,” explained Skipping Stone without losing his eternal smile, “an enchantment was placed upon the shrine. Only one who has released all burdens from their heart can enter.”
Celestia’s heart fell. “But…but if you all have been trying for your whole lives to do just that, then how can we possibly manage it?”
Skipping Stone shrugged. “One thing I am not burdened with is the answer to that question.”
Celestia frowned. That was the sort of joke she normally loved, but she felt it was hardly the time.
“Hey, maybe we need to go on a diet.” Celestia turned her head to see who had made such a remark, though she hardly needed to. Shimmerdust was the obvious, and indeed, the only possible culprit.
“Shimmer, what are you talking about?”
“Well, y’know, unburdened heart. Maybe it just means a pony who’s not carrying anything to spare, if you get what I mean, Princess Big-Lunch.”
Celestia rolled her eyes. Not only was that a ridiculous idea, but seriously, anypony would be that hungry after the sort of day she’d had. “Shimmer, I don’t mean to be rude, but that’s just silly.”
Shimmerdust shrugged. “Hey, if they’ve already tried everything sensible, then why not silly?” Celestia sighed, but Shimmerdust persisted, “You know, this whole trip, everything seems to go a lot better when you stop taking things so seriously for just a second.”
Celestia’s eyes shot open. She galloped over to Shimmerdust and hugged her. “You’re a genius!”
“Ponies keep telling me that, but I don’t see it…”
Celestia’s grin was practically tearing her mouth apart. “Just a second! We only need to be unburdened when we walk in the shrine, not forever.”
“Hey, that’s a great idea!” Sage sounded as excited as Celestia felt. “I’m sure we can find a way to forget our troubles for just a little while.”
Hurricane pumped a foreleg, “Aw, yeah, bring on the booze and whores!” Everypony (and a goat) stared in his direction. “Oh, did you mean something else?”
Brother Skipping Stone tapped a cloven hoof to his bearded chin. “You know, in light of this new idea, I think I have a plan…”
As the sun descended on the horizon, Celestia reflected on the day. She remembered most of it. But as she sat atop of the pile of custard, pie crust, and giggling monks, she could not for her life how the Element of Laughter had gotten in the mix.
Celestia took a deep breath as she raised her eyes to an infinite void. She flexed her legs, her back, her neck, checking to make sure they were in working order. Then she relaxed. It would only be a matter of time before her new defenses would be put to the test.
It could have been seconds or hours for all Celestia knew, but eventually, a voice came from the darkness.
“Well, sister dear,” it spat, full of hate so seductively smooth, “I’m surprised at you. We were having such a good time.” Nightmare Moon materialized from the void, face contorted in rage. She paced back and forth, far out of Celestia’s reach.
“You know you can’t win, creature. I will have my sister back.” Celestia kept her calm. She let the memories of the previous nights fall from her mind. They meant nothing.
“I AM YOUR SISTER!” Nightmare made a motion, as if she was lunging, but didn’t move any closer. “You have always hated me. You have always wanted me gone. They all have!”
“Even in her worst moods, the real Luna could never believe that.” Celestia shook her head. “You have her memories, but you’re not her.”
Nightmare Moon steadied herself and smiled a horrible smile. “Fool. I lived those memories. I am your sister in every way. Perhaps you don’t recall seeing me like this before?”
Celestia frowned and tensed. There was something nagging at the back of her mind. “No.”
“LIAR!” Nightmare Moon’s accusation sounded more triumphant than angry. “The rage, the unnatural eyes, the darkness? You recall it well. The first time I saw a pony die? The first time a pony abandoned me? You were there for all of them. And you have never been able to shake the feeling that your dear little sister was WRONG. Was BROKEN.”
“I love my sister. I love her more than the world itself.”
“YOU HAVE ALWAYS THOUGHT ME A MONSTER.” The nebulous mane of Nightmare Moon came alive like fire.
Celestia gritted her teeth. “No.”
“I COULD NEVER MAKE YOU LOVE ME. I COULD NEVER MAKE ANYPONY LOVE ME.” Nightmare Moon’s voice echoed off walls that weren’t there.
Nightmare Moon’s rage died down. She stared at Celestia. Celestia stared back.
“What’s wrong with me, Celly?”
Then the Nightmare disappeared.
Celestia felt a pain in the small of her back, and she opened her eyes to the familiar ceiling of one of the cells of the great temple. Somehow, the beds of the monks were MORE uncomfortable than regular ground. However, they were a remarkable improvement over stinging tears and vomit, so Celestia couldn’t help but smile as she greeted the sunrise. Or, she would have, if the ponies surrounding her hadn’t been blocking her view of everything.
“Uh, good morning, everypony.” Celestia raised an eyebrow. They all looked nervous.
“Sleep well, Princess?” Morning Glory managed to say at last.
“Yes, I’m fine. It looks like my little problem is taken care of for now.” She smiled, hoping that it would calm everyone down. It seemed to work well enough, as the other ponies backed up a step or two, but they didn’t break formation.
“It’s just, well,” Twilight Sage said uneasily, “you haven’t really told us much of what’s been happening to you. We’re worried.”
Celestia started moving out of the circle. “I’m sorry, I should have been keeping you all informed. Nightmare Moon was using her power to attack me even though she’s stuck in stasis. It was working, but Brother Skipping Stone taught me to draw on the strength of the love in my heart, so now I’m fine.” She wanted to laugh at how silly it sounded, but she kept her calm. “Rest assured, it’s behind us. I promise to let you all know if anything else starts to worry me. So, breakfast?” She trotted towards the exit of the small bedroom. She stopped as she felt a tug on her tail. “Shimmerdust, off.”
“Somepony get me a brush, please.”
Breakfast was nothing like the grand feast of the previous day. The ponies ate together with the monks, a simple meal of porridge. Afterwards, they picked up their belongings and assembled at the entrance, prepared to say their goodbyes.
Erix fought her way through to the front of the crowd of monks. “Hey, good luck, guys, okay? It looks like I’m gonna be stuck here a while, and I don’t want the world to end before I get a chance to say goodbye to Grandma, okay?”
Celestia smiled. “Take care. I promise, you’ll get to go home.”
Erix looked like she wanted to say something, but she just wandered back into the crowd of monks, who quickly closed in to say goodbye to the rest of the ponies.
Finally, it seemed that all the monks were done. Only Brother Skipping Stone remained. He stood to face Celestia directly, as placid as ever.
“Remember, Celestia, to trust in your friends. It is the only way you will be able to complete this journey and return harmony to the world.”
“I will, Brother Skipping Stone.” Celestia felt more certain than ever that she would be able to, this time.
“And one more thing.” Skipping Stone’s face lost its characteristic smile, making the old goat look positively ancient. “It is unknown to our history that ever were there two divine beings. If the world is to be saved, you will lose somepony very close to you.”
Celestia knitted her brow. “I’m not losing Luna.”
Skipping Stone’s smile reappeared. “I trust in you, Celestia. Goodbye.” He turned, and disappeared into the crowd before Celestia could make any retort.
Celestia pulled her mouth back into a frown. “Yeah.” She turned to the other ponies. “Alright, everypony, it’s time to go. There’s a village at the foot of these mountains. From there, we should be able to find transportation across the desert. We only have ten days, and the homeland of the zebras is over a day’s travel each way if we’re lucky. Let’s move!” She reared and kicked the air as she set off in a trot down the mountain path from the temple gate.
“…the launching point of hundreds of expeditions over the years of Equestria alone. There is architecture from cultures that we can’t even name, the town has stood through so many ages. Pinion the Blackhoof wrote that-“
“SAGE!” Everypony in the group yelled in unison. Twilight Sage had promised to give them a brief rundown of the place they were headed, and ten minutes later, they were all wondering where he learned the definition of “brief”, since it was obviously not any standard Equestrian dictionary.
“Uh, sorry.” Sage stared at the ground.
Shimmerdust patted him on the head. “I’m sorry for yelling, honey, but seriously, you haven’t even told us the name of the place, and you’re talking about archaeology.”
He perked up instantly. “Oh, well, that’s interesting, too! Equestrian society calls it ‘Mission’, which is an adaptation of the Draconic word ‘Mykh-suhun’, which is sort of like the word for ‘embassy’, but some believe that’s also an adaptation of-“ Sage cut himself off. Everypony was glaring at him again. He hung his head in defeat, and Shimmerdust gave him a peck on the cheek.
Morning Glory cleared her throat. “So, I am to understand that the population of this place is greatly non-pony?”
Celestia took over for Sage. “Yes. By the time ponies came to the land that would become Equestria, Mission was already very populous. However, it is a very accepting place, and since that time, it has been more accessible to ponies than other species, so there is still a strong pony presence.”
Flash Burn flew in front of the group. “Okay, so, what exactly do we do when we get there? I doubt we can just accost a random citizen and say, ‘Hey, take us across the desert and out of Equestria on a blind search for magic that has not been seen in so long it’s practically myth’. Pardon the pun, but that won’t fly.”
Celestia grinned. “I guess we’ll just have to wing it.” This drew a chortle from Glory and Sage. Hurricane, however, grumbled. Celestia picked up on it immediately. “Are you okay, Hurricane?”
“Okay?” Hurricane growled. “Yeah, I’m okay. I’m fine. Peachy dandy super wonderful, even! It’s not like I’m being dragged across the world unable to do the one thing I do best and being USELESS while everypony I know could die from starvation and cold before I ever get to see them again. No, let’s all tell stupid riddles and jokes and act like nothing’s wrong!” He stormed off ahead of the other ponies, with a face that made his stormcloud-colored coat redundant. Celestia picked up her pace a bit to try and catch him, but Morning Glory headed her off.
“I’m sorry he snapped at you, but it’s best if you let him be right now. There are a lot of ponies in Everfree that he looked after, and he’s always anxious when he can’t do anything.” Glory stepped back to give Celestia her space. “And, besides, he’s just an irritable young stallion. He’s been so moody lately. Poor thing hasn’t even had his first kiss yet.”
“Well, I hope you’re not asking me to fix that,” Celestia said with a smirk.
“HEAVENS no!” Glory stopped dead in her tracks. “Eugh, I don’t even want to think about it.” She sat there slightly dazed until Flash nudged her to keep moving.
“So,” Flash said, landing next to Glory, “what did you mean when you said your brother had ponies to take care of?”
“Oh, well,” Glory said dismissively, “those of us in the lower parts of the city who are better off, for whatever reason, usually end up being responsible for those who can’t even afford to eat. Most just drop a bit or two into a reputable collection box, but Hurricane made rounds to shelters, and especially orphanages. He loves foals, you know? He’s not much for cooking or housework, but he’s very entertaining, and very athletic, so he makes their lives easier nonetheless. It’s not uncommon for ponies his age, especially before they find a steady job.”
Flash made a face like she was trying to fight off brain freeze. “So, uh, what was with the whole ‘being the biggest thief in Everfree’ deal, then?”
Glory sighed. “That’s my little brother being an idiot. He wanted to help more, so he figured he’d try the whole ‘steal from the rich, give to the needy’ thing. I’m sorry to say I gave my tacit approval. I thought he’d be discreet. Don’t get me wrong, the amount of money he raised for the orphanages was impressive, but if the money were traced, they’d get shut down. I don’t think he knew that.”
Flash laughed. “Come on, they wouldn’t really kick foals out on the street just for accepting donations they didn’t even know were crooked.” But Flash’s laughter died down when Glory shot her a look that was supposed to be even, but had a deep sadness beneath it. “Seriously?”
“Most of Everfree’s criminals are ponies who were left to fend for themselves from a young edge, or were displaced from society by unfair laws or competition in their field of work. Amaranth’s muggers, for instance? I know one of them. He used to be an artist. He would have been doing well, except he tried to get his paintings sold by an Upper Quarter dealer without a proper license. He was fined for all he had.”
Amaranth piped up from behind her. “How in Equestria do you know that? When did you even hear about me being mugged?”
Glory waved a hoof. “I have my ways.” Sage mumbled something that Celestia couldn’t hear. Apparently Glory either didn’t notice, or didn’t care. The ponies continued down the mountain trail, watching as the sun climbed slowly into the sky.
The town of Mission was odd to look at. The outskirts were composed almost entirely of tents, and further into the town, buildings of varying architecture and material were laid haphazardly, creating streets that required incredible patience to even get a cart through. The inhabitants were no less varied, some being creatures Celestia had never even seen outside books before. The group of seven wove their way through innumerable merchant stalls before finally arriving at the part of town that was mostly permanent structures.
Celestia turned to Twilight Sage. “So, can you read any of these signs? I can recognize some Equestrian, and some Zebraic, but that’s about it.”
Sage looked around with a calm concentration. “Yes, some of them. From what I can tell, there’s a lot of linguistic throwback, and even more language mixing. I mean, right there is a Griffon word that hasn’t been common in Griffonmont for over a century.”
Celestia frowned. “I think I’d recognize it.”
“Yes, you would, if it weren’t written in Sand Scratch, a common language near the desert. I only know the alphabet. Don’t worry, it’s just a sign for a laundry/tailor service.”
“Well,” Morning Glory chirped happily, “at least everyone seems to be SPEAKING Equestrian, to some extent. They seem to default to it around here when there’s not an obvious shared language.”
“Right,” said Celestia, “so all we have to do is figure out who we need to talk to. Where do you think we should start?”
Sage stopped and pointed. “I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure that office is a cartographer. Or a scribe. Or possibly an artist.” He paused as the other ponies frowned at him. “What? Maybe you all can do a better job of translating what appears to be some mangled hybrid of Draconic and pre-Equestrian pony language?”
“Ooh, maybe he’s an artist who draws continents!” Shimmerdust was at the window of the office. “There’s so many pictures of them hung up front here, and they’re pretty.”
Sage blushed. “Uh…let’s go inside.”
Inside the office was a cramped space, with the walls and desks all completely covered with parchments and papers, most with maps on them. Two larger desks were staffed, one by a stallion with a coat the color of red clay, and the other by a slender, cream-colored horned creature that Celestia recognized as a gazelle, a being from near the homeland of the zebras. They looked up in unison as the group entered, but the pony went right back to his work, carefully making lines with a charcoal stick.
The gazelle didn’t come out from behind her desk, but she moved her work aside a bit in a futile attempt to make it appear as if there were some room on her desk. “Hello, ponies,” she said in accentless Equestrian, “how may I help you today?”
Celestia stepped up to the desk. “We need to get to the zebra capital as soon as possible. Do you have anything that would help us cross the desert?”
The gazelle kept a straight face, but her shoulders fell. “I’m afraid that the desert is featureless. The best I can do is give you a map of the southeastern edge, so you can navigate to the capital once you’ve crossed. Normally I’d tell you to just go by the stars, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing them soon.”
Celestia frowned. “Okay, well, we’ll take that, then. It’s better than nothing.” She turned for her saddlebags, but the gazelle interrupted her.
“Wait, please. The southern desert is easy to get lost in. Perhaps you should travel with a caravan instead.”
The stallion at the other desk mumbled. “Let ‘em spend their bits, Lecar. We ain’t seein’ ‘em again in any case.”
Lecar shot him a glare, but continued. “If you go to the other edge of town, you can find many traders who travel the desert. Most are probably avoiding travel right now, but you might be able to convince someone to take you. Especially if you have money.”
Celestia bit her lip. “Oh. Well, thank you, then. I’m sorry there’s nothing we can really buy from you, then.”
Lecar waved a cloven hoof. “Don’t worry about it. Believe it or not, on an average day, all the maps you see in here would be gone before sunset. We sell a lot of copies when ponies are actually out and about. You should head out soon; with no stars, any caravan will have to travel entirely by day.”
Celestia turned to leave. “Okay. Thank you again.” The rest of the ponies moved outside so that Celestia could reach the entrance. Celestia stepped outside and shut the door behind her. The instant she did, she heard the two cartographers begin a shouting match inside the office. “I think we’d better get out of here, everypony.”
The party traveled to the other side of Mission, which was very similar to the initial part of town. However, many of the tents were replaced by wagons and carts, which were attended by rather upset-looking merchants. Morning Glory took up the task of striking up conversations with various groups of them. However, unsurprisingly, none of them were willing to brave the hot desert day.
As the sun climbed higher into the sky, Celestia hung her head low. The group’s quest looked like it was becoming futile indeed. Her ear twitched as she heard a voice yelling from one of the wagons.
“Hey, you fillies shake those pony parts!”
Celestia glanced at Flash Burn, who immediately (and correctly) interpreted the look as permission to relieve some tension with a good old-fashioned chewing-out. Flash burst over to the wagon, upon the steps of which was seated a male zebra, old enough that his black stripes were turning grey. He held a ceramic jug between his hooves. But, quick as Flash was, she didn’t reach the zebra before a hoof from inside the wagon struck him upon the head.
A female zebra of approximately the same age stepped out, not removing her hoof from the male’s face. “Husband! For the hundredth time, stop bothering ponies. It is not even yet noon, and you are already drunk. And is this the expensive wine?” Her voice was thick with a standard Zebraic accent, making it rather obvious she was choosing to speak in Equestrian purposefully. “Begging your pardon, ponies. These past few days have been hard on us, and my husband has chosen to relieve himself of the pressure of the day a mite earlier than is entirely appropriate.” She snatched the jug from her husband and placed it behind her.
The zebra stallion laughed. “You know I don’t need wine to appreciate some heaving haunches.” This earned him another smack to the head. He didn’t seem to mind too much.
Sage raised an eyebrow. “Does he always like to alliterate when he’s drunk?”
The mare shrugged. “We zebras enjoy word game. Most of us like to do such things when we are in a good mood.” She looked at her husband again. “For one reason or another.”
Celestia interjected. “Is this traveling wagon yours?”
“Why, yes it is. But we haven’t done so much traveling, since we cannot cross the desert in a day, and we do not wish to be stranded in the starless night. Tales have been circling of strange beasts that wander.”
The stallion murmured something in Zebraic, but Celestia didn’t catch it, not being fluent enough in the language to pierce the drunken mumbling.
The mare returned, “For the last time, the Cave of Wonders is not a real place, I don’t care WHAT you think you saw!”
Celestia frowned. “Oh. It’s just that we need to get to the zebra capital as soon as possible, so I was wondering if you might know how we can do it.”
The zebra mimicked Celestia’s expression. “We would be your best chance, and it’s impossible for even us. What is so urgent that you would brave the hot desert day and the starless night?”
Shimmerdust jumped. “We’re saving the world! And stuff.”
Celestia rolled her eyes. “We’re trying to find the Elements of Harmony. They’re a legendary source of magic, native to Equestria, but the Element of Honesty lies somewhere in zebra lands.”
The zebra’s eyes went wide in shock. “What you speak is true. This mystical power has graced many of our leaders in years past, and shaped much of our way of life. But, you cannot expect to be granted the greatest treasure of our people without any founding whatsoever.”
Celestia motioned for Sage. “Actually, we’ve already got two of the Elements.” Sage opened his pack, showing the two spherical stones. “We need all five to restore balance.”
The mare pondered for a moment. “Your case is strong. Perhaps strong enough to sway the elders. But you will have to prove your worth, that is for sure.”
The zebra stallion spoke up from his slump. “By shaking those big beautiful-“ he was interrupted by a swift hoof to the mouth from his wife.
Flash groaned. “Great. I wonder which of us will almost die THIS time?”
The zebra seemed to ignore her. “I am Zerishan. My husband is Adombra.”
Shimmerdust tilted her head. “Hey, just because he’s drunk doesn’t mean he’s dumb.”
Zerishan locked eyes with Shimmer, seemingly bewildered. There was a moment of silence before Zerishan began laughing. “That is his name, child. Oh, my. Where was I? Yes. We will attempt the journey across the desert. My husband is the greatest wagon-driver I could hope for, even when he can’t muster up an ounce of politeness through the gallons of wine.” She dragged Adombra to the front of the wagon by grabbing his ear with her teeth. He seemed quite nonplussed, but began hitching himself up.
“Feel free to take a peek while you’re back there, fillies.” The zebra stallion laughed, glad to be uninterrupted as his wife was pre-occupied.
Zerishan sighed. “Ignore him. He will become at least a little more pleasant in a couple of hours. Now, help me load our cart, please. We need a lot of water if we’re to make this in good health.”
The ponies quickly helped hoist the barrels into the back of the wagon. Zerishan performed impossible feats of sorting and stacking, making them fit alongside food, merchandise, and other assorted items. It seemed like no time at all before they were ready to go.
“Now, perhaps one of you ponies would like to help pull? It will make the journey easier.”
Hurricane jumped up. “Oh! I can do it. Don’t need wings to do that!” He bounded towards the front of the cart. Adombra hitched him to the second harness in a few quick motions.
Celestia looked around. “Well, I’m glad that went easily. Thank you, Zerishan, for giving us this chance.”
“Oh, don’t thank me yet, pony. We’ve yet to make the journey.” She hoisted a pair of saddlebags onto her back, and kicked her husband once. “Let’s go!”
Flash Burn darted back at something. “Hey, wait you forgot your…” she held a ceramic jug in her hooves, but she sniffed at it curiously.
Celestia looked back at Flash. “Is that Adombra’s wine jug?”
Flash kept inspecting it. “Yeah, but…this is just plain grape juice.”
Celestia looked up to the front of the cart. She noticed Adombra turn and wink.
“This is gonna be a looooong trip,” she moaned to nopony in particular.
The desert heat and tumbling sands wore heavily on Celestia and the other ponies. Before it was even evening, they were forced to slow their pace and switch up the wagon setup so that they didn’t need to stop every time somepony needed water, which was incredibly often.
Celestia passed Amaranth a wooden bowl part full of water. “So, you’ve been quiet since the mountain. Well, extra-quiet I mean.”
Amaranth drank it all in one gulp. “I’ve been thinking about what Brother Skipping Stone said to you when we left the temple.”
Celestia frowned. “You heard that, huh.”
Amaranth nodded. “I know you are used to making sacrifices. You have ruled Equestria for centuries, and suffered through many tumultuous times. But I can’t help but wonder if you’re capable of risking your own sister’s well-being.”
“We’re doing this to save Luna. Everything will work out. We just need to bring everything back in balance.” Celestia moved ahead of Amaranth to cut off the conversation.
“Did you know we didn’t tell Brother Skipping Stone who you were?” Amaranth didn’t press to keep up with her, but he spoke louder so that she would still hear him.
“He addressed you as Celestia the instant we brought you to the temple.”
Celestia huffed. “So?”
“There’s no telling what he knows, but I’d count on it being correct.” Amaranth and Celestia’s eyes met for an instant before Celestia turned away.
“It’s going to work, okay?” She huffed and accelerated into a trot, and caught up with the wagon. Morning Glory and Flash Burn were gabbing frivolously, and Sage was talking with Zerishan in Zebraic. Shimmerdust appeared to be contemplating her hooves, which Celestia had come to realize was probably true in the literal sense. None of them turned when she started to walk towards the front of the wagon.
Before Celestia even got around to the front, she heard what must have been some sort of giant insect, for she could not imagine anything else capable of making the sound. However, she soon came up far enough that she saw Hurricane and Adombra doing some sort of strange humming.
“AmMUMmumMUMmumMUMUMuuuu” Adombra began
“AMmumMUMmum-“ Hurricane attempted to repeat, but Adombra interrupted
Celestia rushed to stick a hoof in Hurricane’s mouth before he could deliver his atonal reply.
“What in the hay are you two doing?”
Adombra laughed. “Ah, Sunny! I was just teaching young Hurricane how to do a proper…what is the word…drone? Yes, something like that. It’s an important part of the music of my tribe, and most zebra tribes. He is awful at it, though.”
Celestia raised an eyebrow. “Oh. Uh, well, I guess it’s good you two have stopped talking about perverted stuff, finally.” She removed her hoof from Hurricane.
The black pegasus instantly turned back to the zebra with a big grin. “So, do the zebra chicks really go for the guys who do that crazy humming stuff?”
“They sure do! If you ever figure it out, I’ll show you where the girls with the nice booties like to go.”
Celestia put a hoof to her face. “Hurricane, perhaps you could try to learn something WHOLESOME about zebra culture?”
Hurricane rolled his eyes. “What is this, cloud kindergarten? Fine.” He looked off to nowhere in particular as he tried to think of a question. “So, uh…culture. How about that?”
Adombra nodded. “Indeed.”
Celestia growled. “Oh, forget you two. At least leave me out of it when you talk about butts next time.” She headed back towards the rear of the cart.
“Hey, for your information,” Hurricane yelled after her, “when I said ‘tight’, I meant it in a good way!”
The pegasus and the zebra were as soon out of mind as they were out of sight. Celestia moved to join Zerishan and Sage’s conversation.
“-however, I don’t think that’s true of all zebras. I think my husband is just peculiar.”
Celestia perked up. “What’s peculiar? Don’t tell me Adombra actually has depth.” She giggled.
Sage turned. “Oh, uh, we were just talking about, uh…well, how much Adombra seems to like mares with, uh…you know. Large, uh-“
“AAAAARGH!” Celestia threw her hooves up and collapsed on the ground. “New conversation!” She hopped over to Shimmerdust. “You look deep in thought. What’s in that pretty little head of yours?”
Shimmerdust didn’t look up. “A brain?”
Celestia smiled. She had that one coming. “I mean, what are you thinking about right now?”
“Oh.” Shimmerdust picked her head up. “It’s kinda funny. You know my butt?”
Celestia gritted her teeth. “I know of it.”
“I’ve just been thinking, you know, about how all parts of a pony serve a purpose, but my butt doesn’t seem like it needs to be the size that it is. I mean, it needs some padding, but past a certain point, it seems like the only possible purpose would be to get stallions to look at me, which I guess is kind of a purpose, so-…Sunny?” Celestia was already trotting off.
She sidled up to Flash and Glory, who cut themselves off when they noticed the look on her face.
“Ah, Sunny, uh…” Morning Glory put on her best nervous smile, “you seem…intense.”
Celestia pointed a hoof. “Tell me what you’re talking about right now. And it had BETTER not be butts.”
Glory laughed. “Ahahaha, of course. Why would we be talking about…those things. Yes.”
“Then what were you two talking about?”
Glory and Flash exchanged a look, and yelled at the same time.
“Playing horseshoes!”“Eating pie!”
“Eating horseshoes!”“Playing pie!”
Flash frowned. “Okay, we’ve got to work on this. Maybe-“ Flash stopped and looked at Celestia, who was fairly sure that she was emitting a whistling steam from her ears.
“THAT IS IT! EVERYPONY STOP!” The wagon lurched to a halt as Celestia’s voice tore through the desert air. Adombra and Hurricane peeked their heads around the wagon. “You will all engage in a conversation that has NOTHING to do with rear ends, or so help me, I will take the wheels off the cart and hitch all of you to it!”
There was a long silence, until finally Hurricane spoke. “Ooh! Ooh! I have one!”
Celestia pointed a hoof at him. “Okay, go.”
“I was actually wondering about those marks you zebras all seem to have on your-.” He stopped cold. Another awkward silence.
“Non-anteriors?” Sage suggested wryly.
There was another silence before Celestia sighed. “Close enough. At least it’s culturally relevant.”
Zerishan chuckled. “The symbols which adorn our flanks go as far back as our histories. Each means something in the ancient Zebra language. My husband’s means ‘discovery’, and mine means ‘fortune’, which is often used to refer to economic success.”
Adombra yelled from the front of the cart. “It’s why I married her. She helps me get lucky all the time.”
Celestia sighed. “Please continue. How do you get them?”
“In ancient times, when a foal was old enough, they would perform many trials as a coming of age ritual. Their mark would be chosen for them by the elders, and would be carved into the flesh with sharp stones and ink. However, long before the dragons ruled, it is said that zebras were gifted with the favor of the divines. The gods chose to grant us a painless ritual, which performed itself once a zebra had discovered where their destiny lay. My own engraving appeared when I sold my first tapestry at a market. I would suggest you ask Adombra to tell you his own story. And I wish you the best of luck figuring out which parts are true. It took me ten years of marriage, three foals, and more wine than even he will admit to drinking.”
Shimmerdust perked up. “Oooh, you have foals?”
Zerishan smiled gently. “Well, not anymore. They have all grown up and moved away. I will not be surprised when they start having foals of their own.”
Shimmerdust sagged. “Aw. I like foals.”
There was a gagging sound from the front of the cart. “I’m just glad we don’t have to put up with any brats on this trip.” Celestia was sure Hurricane was rolling his eyes.
Zerishan laughed. “You may feel differently when a foal enters your life.”
Morning Glory huffed. “Hurricane, you play with foals at the orphanage almost every day and-“
“HEY, SHUT UP! I don’t play with them, okay? I show off a little and leave them some toys, THAT’S IT!”
Glory growled. “I swear, he’s like a foal himself.”
Amaranth yelled up towards the front, “If it helps, Hurricane, none of us really think of you as ‘cool’ or ‘tough’ to begin with, so you don’t have much of an image to protect.”
There was a moment of silence. “The INSTANT my wing is working again, I’m making you a lightning cloud codpiece.”
“Don’t bother,” Glory said, “he’ll grow up when he’s good and ready. Though, I hope it’s soon, because he has a lot of catching up to do.”
“I heard that! Don’t think you’re getting off because we share a parent!”
Glory replied in a singsong voice that sent chills up and down Celestia’s spine. “Nooo, but I DO know the exact age SOMEPONY stopped wetting the be-ed…”
The front of the wagon was silent.
Zerishan tilted her head. “Strange. I am accustomed to ponies being very evasive and polite. You must be close indeed.”
Morning Glory waved a hoof in the air. “He’s my brother. It’s my job to pound at his thick skull to get things through.”
“Ah, you three are all siblings?”
Amaranth shrugged. “No, I’m not related to them. I just happen to be utterly bereft of tact or subtlety. I’ve never seen much point in developing them, in any case. Good ponies seem to stick by you even when you point out their faults.”
Celestia smiled. “It can be unpleasant, but I guess we all need it from time to time. Besides, you’re lovable enough to make up for it.”
Zerishan interjected, “Well, if that’s the case, you will be quite welcome in zebra society. It is a mark of prestige to speak the truth plainly, even when it is to your disadvantage. Most of our shamans take very strict vows of truth.”
Glory raised an eyebrow. “Not to disparage zebras, but I’ve never noticed them to be much more truthful than ponies. At least, not your merchants or diplomats. I suppose I’ve hardly talked to the kind of zebra who doesn’t stand to make more money from lying.”
Zerishan made a sort of minimalist shrug that only involved a slight tilt of the head. “Zebras are, in the end, much the same as ponies. We are flawed, we fail to uphold our own morality, we can be offended, and we can be cruel. But the culture of honesty does run deep, especially in zebra lands. Make no mistake, the stigma of untruth is far stronger than you are used to. I would be wary, especially if you wish to gain the favor of our elders.”
Adombra yelled from the front. “Ah, I believe they may not have to worry about that.”
Celestia frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean we may not make it to zebra lands at all.”
The ponies all galloped around to the front of the cart, and Zerishan hopped down to follow them. They all gazed into the distance ahead.
On the horizon was a figure that could only be seen due to its massive size. It seemed almost flat, but a single appendage towered over it, looming dangerously.
Sage whispered. “Scorpio.”
Flash Burn took to the air instantly. “What is that?”
Twilight Sage didn’t take his eyes off the monstrosity. “Long before Equestria was founded, perhaps even before the dragons ruled the world, there were terrifying beasts that roamed the world. They were once imprisoned, because defeating them was nigh impossible.”
Morning Glory raised her eyebrow. “Well, it doesn’t look imprisoned now.”
Celestia’s head sunk. “Most of them were imprisoned in the stars.”
Glory winced. “Oh.”
A horrible sound reminiscent of a rake on a chalkboard rent the air. The shape started moving towards them.
Flash looked down. “So, uh, what’s the plan here? We’d have a rough fight against that thing if we had the entire Day AND Night Guards here.”
Zerishan lifted a hoof nervously. “It’s right between us and the zebra lands. We have to turn back.”
Celestia huffed. “If we turn back and try to wait until that thing moves, the world will be over before we ever get to zebra lands.”
Sage yelled, “Well, dying in a fight against that thing won’t help much either.”
There was a cough from the front of the wagon. “If you’ll all calm down,” Adombra said without even a tinge of nervousness, “I know exactly where we can go.”
“I told you, husband, you’ve never seen the Cave of Wonders! I’ll not have you lead us blindly into the desert.”
Adombra shrugged. “I can find it again if you’d actually let me for once.”
“NO! We must go back to Mission.”
Adombra sighed. “So you do not trust me.”
Zerishan instantly softened. “Husband, of course I trust you-“
“And of course you know I’ve never missed a direction since you’ve known me.”
“But you won’t let me make the call when it actually matters.” Celestia’s heart skipped a beat. Though she had known the cheerful old zebra for a scant few hours, the bitterness in his voice surprised her immensely.
Zerishan was silent for a moment, then hung her head. “You are right, husband. I have been inattentive to you. Perhaps for longer than I even realize now.” Another moment. “I need you more than ever now, and I am too old and proud to see it. Please, lead us.”
Adombra didn’t hesitate. “We can outrun the beast, but not with a full wagon. We need to rid ourselves of the heaviest goods.”
Zerishan winced. “You don’t mean-“
“The water. We’ll keep two barrels.” Zerishan instantly began unloading the barrels, and the rest of the ponies followed suit. As they hit the sand, Adombra turned to Hurricane. “So, boy, I hope you run better than you sing.”
Hurricane laughed. “Just try to keep up, gramps.”
A cloud of sand flew up as the ponies began galloping as one, and the race began.
It soon became obvious that the Scorpio beast was too fast to outrun. Though there was still quite a bit of distance between it and the ponies, it was gaining steadily, and the ponies could not keep up their pace, especially not under the midday sun on the hot desert sand.
Flash Burn was the only one who didn’t seem tired (though it may have helped that she was flying). She shouted down, “We’re not going to make it! There’s nothing in sight ahead!” Celestia looked over to Adombra, who was completely silent. His eyes were transfixed on the horizon, his hooves carrying him in a straight line that should have been impossible over the sandy dunes. Hurricane kept making yelping noises as he was pulled back on course by the unwavering zebra.
“Tell him that!” Hurricane replied in Adombra’s stead. “Dude’s possessed!”
Celestia tried bumping him as she ran. “Hey! Flash says she doesn’t see anything! There’s nothing close enough, even if this is the right direction!”
Adombra was still silent. Zerishan yelled over the sound of hoofbeats, “Stop trying to disturb him! Maintaining direction in the desert is difficult, even for him. It’s taking all he has.”
The ponies continued in silence. They kept pace for a while, until there was a thud from the back of the group.
“SAGE!” Shimmerdust and Flash Burn cried out in unison. The orange unicorn was prone on the ground.
Twilight Sage groaned. “My legs. I don’t think I can move my legs anymore.”
Shimmerdust walked over to him, but collapsed before she reached him. “Uh…okay you have a point.”
Celestia hear Hurricane yelling at Adombra to stop, but the old zebra continued nonetheless, taking Hurricane and Zerishan along with him. Celestia rushed over to help Sage, but slowed when she found that her legs were nearing their end as well.
Morning Glory breathed heavily, “Unicorns, huh?” She walked slowly, and the shaking of her legs told Celestia that she was giving everything she had just to stay up.
Celestia groaned. “We can’t keep this up. We…I can hardly breathe. We’ll die before Scorpio even catches us, at this rate.”
Sage tried to move, but failed. “So, what do we do? We have one flyer and one magic user between us, and that thing must have eyes that are bigger than our wagon, assuming its anatomy is generally accurate to a scorpion’s.”
Flash huffed. “Anatomy! Scorpions have to have some kind of weakness other than being small, right? Sage, you must know something.”
Sage made an extra large breath that was like a sigh. “Its legs can’t move in every direction, it sees different light than ponies. That’s about all I can think of, and at that size, we couldn’t take advantage of either of those without an army of pegasi and unicorns. Maybe zebra mystics. But we kinda don’t have any of those.”
Flash slumped in the air. “Okay, so…just go for its eyes?”
Sage shook his head a couple millimeters. “At that size, even its eyes are too tough. It’s take the force of a catapult to get through them. And it doesn’t have weak joints either. Exoskeleton.”
Shimmerdust piped up, sounding even more far off than usual, “no skeleton means it’s all squishy underneath. Squishy and huggy like a teddy bear.”
Flash pounded her hooves together. “Right! So, all we have to do is…get…inside. Uhhh…” she looked around at all the scrunched up faces, “We’ll call that ‘Plan B’.
Amaranth sighed. “We’re going to die, aren’t we?”
Celestia put a hoof to her face. “Negativity is not going to help us right now.”
“Nothing is.” Amaranth sunk his head. Nopony had a retort.
As the beast drew closer, its full measure became even clearer. Even without its tail, it stood taller than the castle of the Royal Pony Sisters. Its stinger was lifted high enough to scrape the cloud homes of pegasi in mixed-pony towns. But, even more incredible was its coloration. While at a distance, it had seemed black, up close, Celestia could tell that was not the case at all. It was a dark blue, and its carapace was filled with the stars of the night sky, wearing its once-prison as a new skin. As it closed in on the ponies, it made its horrible screech again. This time, it overwhelmed Celestia’s senses, and she could do nothing but futilely cover her ears with her hooves. She felt like she was about to vomit.
Even as it drew right up to the ponies, it did not slow down. Celestia could feel its footsteps even through the sand.
Flash Burn flew to the air and began her attack. In spite of Sage’s earlier advice, she went straight for the eyes. She kicked over and over to no effect. Scorpio kept moving forward. It was right above the ponies. And still it continued.
And it continued on.
In a few seconds, it had passed over them completely.
Flash Burn relented her attack and rejoined the other ponies. “Okay, what just happened here? I’m pretty sure that thing was chasing us.”
Sage struggled to his hooves. “I think…I think it couldn’t see us.”
Flash frowned. “Again. Chasing us.”
Sage shook his head. “Again, speaking from anatomy, scorpions don’t exactly have or need to have excellent eyesight. We’re so small…I think it couldn’t tell we were even things. I think it’s chasing the wagon.”
Flash looked down and up in an instant. “I have to separate the others from the wagon. Is anypony carrying something I can use to cut the wagon harnesses, in case I can’t snap Adombra out of whatever he’s doing?”
Sage produced a fine knife from his saddlebag quickly. “Here. Good thinking, Captain.”
Flash stammered. “Uh, t-thanksgottagobye!” She took the knife with her hooves, and became nothing more than a blur of flame as she took off to catch the wagon.
But even at her speed, she had not reached the zebras before another sound split the air. But this was not the horrible screech of Scorpio. This was a terrible roar, one that Celestia recognized even though she had not heard it in centuries.
The unmistakable sillouhuette of a great dragon appeared in the sky in the exact direction Adombra had been leading them.
“Sage?” Celestia said hesitantly, “It’s pretty much impossible for me to be dreaming right now, isn’t it?”
“Yup.” The orange unicorn was unusually terse.
“Well, on the bright side,” Shimmerdust offered hopefully, “the scorpion’s WAY bigger, so we really don’t have MORE problems.”
Celestia frowned. Even though Shimmerdust had a point, it didn’t really make her feel any better. The dragon began flying in their direction, though Celestia was unsure if it was headed for the wagon, Scorpio, or the ponies.
Suddenly, as it drew near to Scorpio, it ascended high with a great flap of its wings. Then, without warning, a column of flame that looked like it must have been only a foot wide, but as bright as the desert sun, lanced Scorpio straight through. The beast made a sound much like its last one, but much quieter and faltering.
The flame was followed by tens, maybe even a hundred more like it, all in quick succession, severing Scorpio’s body into sections of boiling carapace. A shockwave of force and heat hit Celestia, knocking her to the ground. She regained her hooves quickly, in time to see that the dragon was diving right towards her.
“Sage? Dragon strategy.”
Sage paused a moment. “Pretty sure if it wanted to kill us, it could have spared a couple more of those flame lances.”
“Still doesn’t make me feel better.” Celestia dug her hooves into the sand. Dragons were never good news.
It was mere seconds before the dragon approached. Though its size was nowhere near that of the Scorpio, it was still easily large enough to fit a whole pony into its snout. It was a deep, dark purple in color, with black, menacing spines. With a single flap of its wings, it landed on the ground, mere feet away from Celestia. She instinctively backed up. She’d fought dragons before, but that was when she was an extremely powerful goddess. The dragon leaned down.
“Art thou well?” Its voice was a bass lower than any pony could possibly achieve, but it was gentle and calm.
“Uh.” Celestia searched for a reply, but found none. She just stared. She saw shapes moving on the dragon’s back, which quickly revealed themselves to be Adombra, Zerishan, and Hurricane waving excitedly.
“I did give aid to these fellows when I did see their danger. It was them who did telleth me that thou mightst require assistance. Dost thou require healing?”
“Uh,” Celestia repeated.
Sage got on his hooves weakly. He spoke something in Draconic.
The dragon frowned and replied in Draconic. Sage translated the dragon’s words into Equestrian. “Ah, it is good that you speak the Empire’s tongue. I do not know so well the tongue of ponies. Sadly, I have no water, or food. I can only offer shelter, and whatever treasures may aid you.”
Celestia shook her head. “Okay, wait. I can buy a dragon being sufficiently decent as to fight off a horrible monster, but dragons do NOT offer anything else their riches, ESPECIALLY ponies. What’s going on here?”
The dragon smiled gently. “Come ye to mine home, and I shall explain all.”
He turned to fly, but a blazing trail streaked towards him, hitting him directly in the face. Flash Burn hovered with an angry look.
“Get away from them!” She shouted, clearly prepared to deliver another flying kick.
The dragon did not change expression, or even move. “Thine friends art safe. Please, accompany me to mine cave.”
Flash’s eyes widened. She looked at Celestia, who could do nothing but shrug.
“I guess we’re following him.” Seeing her acknowledgement, the dragon took off in the direction that it had come from. Celestia and the other ponies slowly made their way behind him.
It was over an hour of walking before they saw a large hole in a rocky crag hidden among the dunes. The dragon waited at the entrance. He beckoned the ponies closer. Hurricane and the zebras were nowhere to be seen.
Celestia immediately confronted the dragon. “What did you do with our friends?”
The dragon produced little reaction. “The zebras and the pony have already entered the home.”
Celestia pressed. “Look, we’re not going into your cave until we get an explanation.”
The dragon looked momentarily consternated. He said something in Draconic. Celestia noticed this time that she could almost feel the dragon’s words in her bones when he spoke his native tongue.
Sage translated, “He, uh, wants my help translating. He seems to think that his bad ‘pony speech’ is making things unclear.”
Celestia frowned. “He’s perfectly clear, but something’s up, I know it.”
The dragon winced. “I promise that I am a friend to thee,” he resumed his broken, antiquated Equestrian. “Whatever I may have done to cause thee offense, it is my deepest regret. More so that thou art a stranger to me.”
Celestia stomped her forehoof. “Any pony would be foolish to trust a dragon, before or after the war!”
The dragon’s eyes widened, then closed. He sighed, and smoke trailed from his nostrils. “There is much news to me. But know that I may be dragon, though no citizen of the Empire.”
Celestia prepared to shout something else, but was interrupted by the pressure of an uncountable number of hooves on her hindquarters.
“JUST GO INSIDE” yelled a multitude of ponies behind her. She tried to protest, but they were too strong and quick, and the sand offered her hooves no traction. She found herself practically being carried into the cave. She heard the dragon making a sort of giggling noise behind her.
Celestia shouted and cursed until they rounded a corner inside the cave, revealing to her something that rendered her speechless. Stacked almost to the ceiling was a mound of glassworks of near infinite color and composition. Some were larger than any pony, and some were so small and intricate she couldn’t believe that even magic could create them. In the light of Shimmerdust’s now-glowing horn, they coruscated in a display of colors that put to shame anything she or her sister had ever painted in the sky.
“H-wha-buh?” She stammered, unable to form a sentence.
“Dost thou enjoy mine workshop?” The dragon rumbled from behind her. “Thou art welcome to all the treasures thou mayest desire. I have no use for them.”
Celestia shook her head. “Seriously, what? Dragons never share their treasure. EVER. Everypony knows they just hoard it all up for whatever reason.”
The dragon smiled. “I think that mine treasure is hoarded in this time, yes?” He chuckled. “But surely ye ponies havest more use for this finery than I do. It doth me no pain to grant unto it some of thee. Or, grant some of it unto thee?”
Morning Glory piped up. “Far be it from me to interrupt a scintillating conversation about glorious riches, but…what is your name, exactly?”
“Ah, of course. Pardon me.” The dragon cleared his throat. “My name is-“
Celestia felt an earthquake and covered her ears to futilely defend them from what must have been an explosion.
“But thou mayest call me Kremhault the Terrible.”
Celestia opened one eye. Okay, the cave was still there.
Hurricane piped up. “Okay, how exactly did you come by that title, mister weirdly-nice dragon?”
Kremhault the Terrible tilted his head. “I have no titles, young pony. To what dost thou refer?”
“The whole ‘the Terrible’ thing? You’re not really very terrible. You’re not even, like, smarmy.”
Kremhault the Terrible said something in Draconic to Sage, who replied quickly. The dragon nodded. “Ah, I see. Yes. It is simply a translation of mine name, which, of course, mine parents declared me.”
Celestia’s eyes went wide. “Well, that explains a lot of the old history books right there. I always wondered how we used to have a diplomat named ‘Sorgat the Destroyer’.”
Sage chuckled. “Can we just call you ‘Kremhault’ or something?”
The dragon clapped excitedly. “Oh, a ‘nick-name’! I have never had one before.”
Celestia raised one eyebrow. “Riiiiight. So, do you normally invite passing travelers in to stay a while and take your stuff?”
The dragon gestured to the hoard of glassworks. “I do not normally receive visitors. It hath been over one hundred years since I have spoken to another living soul.”
Glory’s jaw dropped. “How in Equestria do you stand such loneliness?”
Kremhault smiled. “Sleep, mostly.”
Amaranth frowned. “Take it from somepony who’s done it before, you should really try to get out more.”
The dragon sighed. “I do not cooperate well with the Empire. It is generally unsafe for me outside this desert.”
“But the Empire was obliterated hundreds of years ago,” Amaranth continued. Celestia tensed. She looked at Kremhault, hoping he wasn’t about to explode on them.
The old dragon only shook his head. “It was a matter of time. The emperor, the nobles, they had become decadent. Cruel. Even in my time, many wished them dead.”
Celestia snorted. “Pretty sure all the dragons were decadent and cruel.”
Kremhault returned, “And the nobles of your ‘Equestria’? They art kind?”
Amaranth shrugged. “He kind of has you there.”
The dragon continued, “Some dragons, even nobles, were good. But too few.”
Celestia felt a pang of guilt over the pressure she had been laying into the dragon. “Is that why you left the Empire?”
The dragon smirked. “No. I claimed something which the Empire believed did belong to it, but did not.”
Celestia mirrored the expression. “Mister Generous actually stole something?”
“No.” The dragon’s smile widened.
Instead of speaking, Kremhault responded by spreading his wings. An aura of light surrounded him, brightening and coalescing into a giant necklace of gold, with a large jewel at the center.
Celestia found herself yelling more out of shock than anger. “The Element of Generosity?! Seriously?”
Kremhault the Terrible shrugged. “It would be very difficult to make a joke in this way.”
Morning Glory seemed much calmer than the other ponies. “Well, that simplifies things greatly. You see, Mister Kremhault the Terrible, we’re in dire need of the Elements of Harmony, and you, one of the most generous creatures in the world, seem to possess one. I think we’re already one step closer to saving the world, don’t you?”
Kremhault smirked. “I am happy to give thee all that thou dost require, but I am afraid I cannot take it at thy word that thou will use the power of the Elements of Harmony properly. It is too great a power to risk.”
Glory sighed. “Well, time for plan B.” She nudged Celestia. “Go on, no point in covering it up anymore.”
Celestia wanted to protest, but she failed to find any sort of reasonable objection. “Alright.” She stepped forward. “I am Princess Celestia, leader of Equestria and steward of the sun. My sister has fallen victim to a horrible magical accident, and we have reason to believe that the Elements of Harmony are the only power capable of restoring her, as well as the proper heavenly cycle.”
Kremhault nodded. “That sounds like a wise course of action, though thou certainly lacketh proof of thy divinity.”
Celestia frowned. “Ugh, right. I was forced to take the form of an earth pony to properly maintain a stasis spell. I don’t have any magic right now.”
Kremhault tilted his head. “Stasis spell? Ah, so that must be what is doing that.”
Celestia raised an eyebrow. “Doing what?”
Kremhault gestured in the air. “Dragons are quite sensitive to the magic of the world. Since the stars fell, I noticed something tearing away at the very patterns of this land’s magic. Many creatures which can cast spells hath the capability of drawing upon such magic, but it is almost never necessary.”
Twilight Sage sighed. “Yes, we noticed that effect when the spell was first cast. Everfree is most likely falling apart by now.”
Celestia thought back to Everfree. The castle had been torn apart in the hours she had been unconscious. Over ten times that amount of time had passed since then. There was no telling how far the destruction had spread.
“So, you can understand why we need to hurry with this, don’t you?”
Kremhault nodded. “I am sure thy quest is urgent, else thou wouldst not be crossing the desert in these dire times. However, I still cannot simply grant you the Element of Generosity.”
“Why not?” Celestia resisted the urge to stamp a hoof indignantly.
“The Elements of Harmony are useless unless a creature possesseth the spirit which is also harmonious.”
Sage protested. “The ones who had the last two Elements knew them well, and made no objections to us taking them. Surely they believe she can use them.”
Kremhault shook his head. “Perhaps thy spirit was ready for them, but each harmonious quality needs must be present individually. And I have not been presented with proof that thou art generous.”
Celestia gave the dragon a flat stare. “I would give anything for the ponies of Equestria, and for many others. How is that not generous?”
The dragon closed his eyes, his brow furrowed. “Thou art loyal to thy people and thy friends. But generosity is far more that. Thou canst not be loyal to all creatures, but thou canst be generous to all creatures. To give of thyself not of thy fellowship, but of simple knowledge that thou hast no greater right to happiness than any other creature, is the true spirit of generosity.”
Celestia raised an eyebrow. “So I should give my enemies what they want as well, is that what you mean?”
Kremhault shrugged. “If I judge you well, thine enemies hurt others. It is quite wrong enabling such. But, indeed, those that thou dost hate are still deserving of thy generosity.”
Celestia tapped a hoof to her face. She wanted to say something, but Morning Glory pre-empted her.
“Well, how exactly are we supposed to show that Princess Celestia has this quality? I can certainly vouch for her. We both give much to ponies whom we don’t very much like. Part of the job, you know.”
Kremhault replied, “Out of generosity, or convenience? But, indeed, perhaps thou simply hast yet to discover the generosity in thy hearts. It is easy for me to discern that which is at the forefront of a creature’s heart.”
Celestia grinned. “Well…I don’t suppose you do vision quests? That got us through the last one real quick.”
The dragon shook his head. “I do not. But perhaps the trials of thy journey shall reveal more of thy true selves.”
Sage raised an eyebrow. “So, what does that mean for us?”
Celestia hung her head. “I think it means ‘get lost and come back later’.”
Kremhault tilted his head. “How could thou come back if thou became lost?”
Sage laughed and said something in Draconic.
Kremhault nodded. “Ah. Of course, thou art welcome to stay as long as thou requirest. But perhaps thou art best if thou dost hurry on thy way. I am sure thy quest for the remaining Elements of Harmony would benefit from thy haste.”
Celestia sighed. “Right. I guess we’ll just stop here on our way back, and hope. Come on, everypony, let’s go.”
Amaranth cleared his throat, a sound so soft Celestia felt she would have missed it if not for the echo of the cave. “We appear to be missing some ponies.”
“What?” Celestia looked around. Hurricane, the two zebras, and Shimmerdust were all nowhere to be found. “Where did they go?”
“Thy friends appeareth to be enjoying the treasures.” Kremhault gestured to the massive mound of glass.
As if on cue Zerishan burst from the top of the pile. “We are rich! With the money we could make from even a few of these pieces, we could buy a house in Equestria and retire for life. Hooray!” She dove back into the pile, and Adombra immediately popped up.
“We could buy a pool! We could buy pool girls! Hahaha!” He disappeared as well.
Hurricane came out next. “We could buy passports for every pony in Equestria! We could just buy out the whole Senate and make those stupid laws illegal!” He followed suit with the zebras. Celestia waited for Shimmerdust to appear, but the unicorn mare didn’t show up.
“Shimmer?” Celestia said expectantly.
“Right here,” came a reply from only a couple feet away. Celestia jumped. She searched with her eyes for a second before she noticed Shimmerdust’s blue coat sat among the bottom of the pile of glassworks. Her glittering mane was almost entirely indistinct from the artworks she rested upon.
“Oh.” Celestia walked next to Shimmerdust. “I’m surprised you don’t have some sort of weird reaction to all this.”
Shimmerdust’s response was in an even more distant tone than usual. “Every single piece of glass in this collection is made of sand that is either perfectly pure or else has deliberate impurities for color. There is even selection for granularity. The kind of sand required to produce such works is incredibly expensive, to the point where only a widely recognized master or else an artist with a very wealthy patron could afford most of these materials. And yet, the variety in work quality goes along grade levels, from malformed baubles to perfectly tuned chimes. It’s baffling.”
Sage stepped in. “Honey, the dragon probably made all these himself, and just had a long time of practice.”
Shimmerdust looked up. “Oooohhhh.”
“I’m not sure about the sand,” Sage continued. “There’s plenty around here, obviously, but it’s not pure, I think.”
Kremhault shrugged. “Dragon stomachs digest many things, but sand is not one of them.”
There was a large “EEEEEWWWW” from inside the pile, and Hurricane came tumbling out.
“Agh, I touched dragon poo! Get it off!”
Glory smacked her younger brother on the head. “Don’t be so offensive.”
Kremhault added, “If it maketh thee feel better, I used vomit.”
It quite clearly did not make Hurricane feel better, and he continued making retching noises.
Celestia laughed. “Well, I think the zebras would certainly appreciate some of your work, if you’re not too attached to it. They certainly deserve some reward for risking their lives for us.”
The dragon nodded. “Thou art welcome to as much as thou canst carry. And I do notice that thou hast a mostly-empty wagon nearby.”
Celestia smiled. “Thanks. You know, dragon or not, you’re a really nice guy.”
Kremhault smiled. “I thank thee. And thou art, princess or not, ‘nice’ as well.” Celestia winced. Dragon royalty was probably worse than any of the nobles she’d ever had in court. Revealing herself as a princess had probably not done her any favors.
“Well, everypony,” she called, “if any of Kremhault’s works catch your eye, ask him if he is willing to part with them, and let’s get moving. We can probably still make it to the capital by nightfall.”
As she walked out of the cave to bring the wagon to the entrance, she noticed Adombra and Zerishan slowly pushing a mound a good deal more than one or two glassworks out of the hoard.
If the desert sun was any less strong in the evening than it was in the middle of the day, Celestia hardly noticed. The cart was just as full as it had been when the group left Mission, only now, most of the water had been replaced by nearly-priceless art pieces. Hurricane, rather tired from running from Scorpio, started trading out with the other ponies. Only Sage stayed up front for very long at all, though, as the other ponies quickly grew tired of the inconspicuous glances at their rears. Even Shimmerdust noticed them, which surprised Celestia, though she decided not to say anything.
Flash Burn flew up in the sky for the fifth time that hour. “Alright, everypony, good news and bad news,” she said as she rejoined the group. “The good news is that we’re nearing the edge of the desert. The bad news is, there’s no way we’re making it to the zebra capital before sunset. We won’t even reach the border of zebra territory.” Flash landed on the ground, and pulled a waterskin out of her bag. She tilted it back, but put it back into her hooves and frowned. “I’m out. How much do we have left in the barrels?”
Zerishan bit her lip. “The barrels are empty. I divided the water between our waterskins as evenly as I could, and none was left.”
Flash slumped. “Well, that’s great. I tell ya, flying around the desert in armor? Not a good idea.”
Morning Glory rushed over to Flash’s side. “Flashie! You really must take more care. No more flying for you today, and take some of this.” She hoofed her waterskin over to Flash Burn.
“Uh, don’t you need that?” Flash asked, clearly hoping for a negative answer.
“Hardly as much as you do, clearly. Take it.” Glory waved the waterskin in Flash’s face before the pegasus mare finally took a swig.
“Thanks, Glory. I think I’ll make it fine.”
Morning Glory beamed. “Any time, dear. You know anything of mine is yours.” The two gabbed for a bit before the dryness of the air convinced them to save their voices.
As the sun set, their pace slowed to a crawl. It wasn’t hard to tell why. Twilight Sage and Shimmerdust were both lagging far behind. Their breath was ragged, and though they levitated their waterskins above their heads, nothing came out.
“I think we need a break,” Sage said with a raspy voice. “It’s just too hot.”
Celestia shook her head. “We’ve got to keep going. We only have until the last rays of the sun disappear, and I want to use every second.”
“I p - I can’t walk anymore,” Sage stammered.
“Urgh,” groaned Morning Glory. “If it will get you moving, take my water. I’d say try sitting in the back of the wagon, but there’s hardly room.”
Flash raised a hoof. “Glory, you can’t just keep giving away your own water. Maybe somepony else has some to spare.”
The other ponies in the group looked around at each other. One by one, they took empty waterskins out of their saddlebags.
Glory huffed. “Well, let’s take care of our stragglers, and then try to take it easy, shall we? It doesn’t matter how fast we go if we don’t reach the finish.” She gave some water to Sage, then to Shimmerdust. “And that’s the last of mine, so make it count.”
Sage made a face. “Alright, thanks. We’ll try.” The two unicorns picked up pace a little, and the group continued on.
As the last rays of the sun disappeared behind the horizon, Celestia tensed. She knew that she was well-shielded against Nightmare Moon’s attacks, but she wasn’t sure if she was able to stay awake during the night, regardless. Adombra was still walking, and she didn’t want to suddenly collapse, causing a lot of worry. However, as she was about to speak, she heard a dull thud in the sand. She looked down at her hooves. She was still standing. Then what-
“GLORY!” Flash screamed from behind her. Celestia turned around and saw the dim silhouette of a pony lying down. She presumed that it was Morning Glory. The other ponies crowded around the form.
“Heat stroke,” said Sage grimly. “She was holding back on her water.”
“You can fix it, right?” Flash sounded on the verge of tears.
“The supplies in my pack would do very little. We need water. If we don’t get her some, and soon, she…”
Flash grabbed Sage’s shoulders. “She what? WHAT?!” There was a pause.
“We’d better find some water.” Twilight Sage made no motion to expound on the matter. And he didn’t need to.
Flash reached down and picked up Morning Glory’s limp form. “Hang on, Glory, I’ll get you to some water.”
Amaranth interjected. “It’s all but pitch black out. You won’t be able to see a thing, even if you carry a lantern.”
“The light isn’t focused enough to reveal water from even a few meters high,” Sage agreed.
Flash clutched her head with a hoof. “Agh! What do we do? What do we do?”
“Duh,” came a voice from somewhere a bit further away from the other ponies.
“Who said that?” Flash screamed, halfway between fear and anger.
“Me!” Despite the unhelpful answer, Celestia identified the voice as Shimmerdust.
“Shimmer, please, this is a crisis,” Celestia said as calmly as she could manage, which was, to her credit, quite a bit calmer than she felt. “We’re trying to think of solutions.”
“Well, we have one,” said Shimmer, as if it were obvious.
“Honey, what are you talking about?” Sage asked, as confused as all the other ponies.
“We’re towing a wagon full of glass, everypony. I guarantee there’s something we can use as a lens in there. Artsy glass always does funny things with light.” There was a long silence.
“Well, I feel stupid,” said Sage at last. “Come on, let’s test some on a lantern.” Sage and Shimmerdust carefully made their way over to the wagon. Shimmerdust immediately selected a strange sculpture, and positioned it in front of the lantern. It was perfect.
Flash grabbed both objects instantly. “Thanks, both of you. I’ll be back soon.” She nestled Morning Glory on her back, securing her with her saddlebag straps, then took off into the night sky, as fast as she could.
Without her divine link to the heavens, Celestia found it hard to measure the passage of time when her mood was heightened. The other ponies were still, and she had never relied on her biological sense of time. Nonetheless, she was confident that it was over an hour before Flash Burn’s lantern came streaking back towards the group. The pegasus didn’t slow until she was almost at the ground, but landed gently, setting Morning Glory down in the sand as if it were a bed.
“She’s still there. I left her in the water for a bit, and held her head up. I filled these waterskins too.” Flash paused. “Is she gonna make it?”
Sage nodded. “If she were weak or old, I wouldn’t be sure, but as far as I know, Morning Glory is quite healthy. Physically, at least. She could wake up any time now, and she’ll recover fully in a matter of days, as long as we give her a lot of water and salty foods.”
Flash stood over Glory worryingly. “Well that’s good. And what exactly do you mean by physically?”
Sage raised an eyebrow. “She did just willingly put herself in a lethal situation that she didn’t need to, or even seem to want to. I’d bet my books that she’s not well, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say she’s mentally ill.”
Flash snorted. “She saved your behind, you and your stupid fillyfriend!”
Sage quickly mirrored Flash’s anger. “Hey, don’t you take this out on Shimmer! We’d have never gotten this far without her.”
“You’re only saying that because you two are sleeping together!”
Sage growled. There was a pause. “I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I don’t want to hear about it anymore. Unless it’s absolutely vital to finding the Elements of Harmony, you and I are no longer speaking.” He walked away at a quick trot, lying down where Shimmerdust had already fallen asleep.
Flash Burn raised a hoof. “Wait, I-“ She cut herself off and hung her head. Celestia walked over to Flash’s side. She wanted to wrap a wing around the pegasus, but lacking that option, she gave her a regular hug.
Flash sniffled. “I just…I was so worried. And I wanted to blame myself, then I wanted to blame somepony, ANYpony. I don’t know why…well, okay, I guess I do know why it was Shimmerdust. But I don’t wanna talk about it right now. You know.”
Celestia held the hug. “I’m sure you two will make up. Sage might be angry for a while, but a sincere apology will help if you wait a bit.”
Flash breathed heavily, obviously trying to hold in tears. “I don’t want to talk to Shimmerdust. I’m not sure I can even make my apology sound good.” There was a long pause. “I fucked up, didn’t I?”
Amaranth appeared on Flash’s other side. “You gave into the worst of your feelings at the worst of times, for the worst of reasons.” Flash looked up at the green earth pony, and he looked back at her. There was a pause. “You fucked up.” In spite of his harsh words, Amaranth wrapped a hoof around Flash’s back, right next to Celestia’s.
Flash sank into the double embrace. “Our whole mission is jeopardized now. As if we didn’t have enough to deal with already, what with at least one pony almost dying somewhere around twice a day.”
“If you’re counting by occurrences, closer to one and a half, and that’s not even accurate to two significant figures,” Celestia said absentmindedly. Amaranth and Flash looked at her with confusion. “What? Sage isn’t the only smart one here. I’m his teacher.”
Flash snickered. “Sorry. You just tend not to correct ponies much.”
Celestia smiled gently. “I try not to. But when you’re so pessimistic about our little sojourn, I feel I have to.”
“Right, because staring death in the eyes a little more than once a day is a walk in the park. I feel like I should be feeding some pigeons. Everything’s just going so well!” Flash was smiling, but tears were streaming down her face. “Damn it. DAMN IT!” The pegasus collapsed on the ground, holding her hooves on the top of her head. “I’m sorry. I just…sorry.” She didn’t stop crying.
Celestia looked to Amaranth. “Keep her company, okay? I’m going to make sure everypony else is doing alright.” Amaranth nodded, and Celestia left the two ponies to head over to Twilight Sage.
Sage was lying down next to Shimmerdust, quite clearly not asleep. He gently cradled her in his hooves. His eyes flickered when Celestia approached, but he made no motion to get up.
“Everything okay?” Celestia asked, despite knowing the answer.
“I just don’t understand,” Sage said, burying his muzzle in Shimmer’s mane. “I thought we were becoming friends. I thought she liked me. And Shimmerdust. I don’t get why she’d say anything like that.”
Celestia thought carefully to explain without giving away the secret beneath it all. “Flash Burn is nearly obsessive about what, and whom, she cares about. It’s why she worked so hard to become Captain of the Day Guard. And it’s why Glory being in danger got to her so much. She really wasn’t in her right mind.”
“I thought I was getting good at getting ponies to like me,” Sage continued, as if Celestia had said nothing. “But I’m in the same place I always was. Glory hates my guts. Amaranth…I really can’t read that guy, but he’s nowhere near as friendly with me as he is with Flash. And now the Captain hates me too.”
“She doesn’t hate you,” Celestia pressed.
“I wish I could believe you.” Sage sunk low into the sand, holding Shimmerdust closer.
Celestia bent low next to him. “Sage, ponies aren’t perfect. Sometimes we hurt ponies we really do care about, without meaning to.”
With as much royal charm and grace as she could muster, Celestia raised a single hoof. After a slight pause, she brought it down on Sage’s head.
“OW!” He jolted a bit, almost letting go of Shimmerdust, who didn’t even stir. “What was that for?”
“Sometimes we hurt ponies because we care about them. You’re going to talk to Flash before sundown tomorrow.” Sage glared into her eyes. There was a moment’s pause. Celestia raised her hoof again.
“Ah! Okay, okay, I’ll do it. At least stop treating me like a foal.”
“I’m centuries older than you,” Celestia said with a smirk. “No matter how old you get, you’ll still be my little pony.”
“Goodnight,” Sage said as finally as he could. It was obvious he was swallowing a chortle.
“Goodnight,” Celestia replied, as calmly as ever. Satisfied that the group’s issues were taking a good course, she found a place to lie down, breathed deeply, and prepared for another confrontation.
The blackness of the mental plane was becoming familiar to Celestia. Though its darkness was similar to the starless sky, there was a depth to it that even the night could not match. The minds of all creatures, even those long gone, lurked somewhere in those dark distances. Celestia wondered if she could reach them, in the same way that Brother Skipping Stone could reach her mind.
Nightmare Moon’s form seemed to melt out of the blackness when it appeared. Her face was the same mask of rage and hatred as Celestia had come to expect. The monster stared at Celestia silently.
“Well, sister dear?” she said venomously, “How does it feel, knowing you’ve delayed the horrors I will bring upon you? It will be so sweet when we are finally reunited.” The mare of darkness paced around Celestia, always keeping a good distance away. She kept an upright posture, towering over Celestia’s earth pony form. However, her helplessness was quite apparent to Celestia beneath the malevolent façade.
“Your taunts are nothing new to me. I don’t suppose you think repeating the same thing over and over makes it scarier.”
Nightmare Moon laughed, which Celestia found more terrifying than anything she had actually said before. “So, you’re saying I need new material? I like the way you think, Celly.”
Celestia frowned. “It doesn’t matter what you say. We’re going to find the Elements of Harmony. We’re going to fix everything. You can’t stop us.”
Nightmare Moon batted her eyelashes. “Your taunts are nothing new to me.”
Celestia stamped her hoof. “Why are you doing this? You claim to want love, yet you only aim to inspire hatred and fear. Have you lost all understanding of pony-kind?”
Nightmare Moon shrugged as she continued pacing. “Ponies will come to love me after I rule. They only ignore me because of you. You and your hateful sun. When all is in darkness and I have made you mine. I will be loved.”
“Ponies can’t live in darkness. They’ll perish.” Celestia turned to keep facing the evil mare, not trusting even the realm of thought to keep her safe from surprise attacks.
“They will live under the providence of their new queen,” Nightmare Moon explained with a fanged grin.
Celestia growled. “How dare you even think about calling yourself that.”
The mare of darkness reduced her expression to a self-satisfied smirk. “It seems appropriate. The cosmos will bend to my will. I have no intention of following rules that exist for no reason other than to diminish me.”
Celestia began approaching Nightmare Moon. She stared her in the face. “You can’t even give gratitude to the powers that bore you? You sicken me.”
Without warning, Nightmare Moon leaned down so that the tip of her muzzle was touching Celestia’s ear.
“Too close, sister dear.”
“WAUGH!” Celestia shot up from her sandy bed, startled to find that her hooves were not under her. She swiveled her head around, trying to take in her surroundings with bleary eyes. A single figure resolved into view, standing above her.
Zerishan leaned over Celestia, holding between her grinning teeth a fine glass comb.
“Thanks,” Celestia groaned. Without any prompting, the older zebra mare began grooming Celestia’s mane. It was a significantly faster procedure than doing it by hoof. As Celestia sat enjoying the easy morning, she observed the other ponies milling about, preparing to travel. Flash Burn set down a load of full waterskins in the sand beside Morning Glory, who was lying as still as the night before. Some of the group took their own back, but a few were left for Flash to tend to Glory.
Shimmerdust galloped over to Celestia. “Hey, you already combed it!”
Celestia rolled her eyes, which felt much clearer than they did a minute ago. “Yes, Shimmer. I know you like my mane messy, but it’s really inconvenient for me.”
Shimmerdust tilted her head. “Messy? But if it always goes back to that, then that’s its natural state. Isn’t straightening it out more like messing it up, then?”
Celestia patted Shimmerdust on the head. “Never change,” she said, finally allowing herself a smirk.
Shimmerdust shrugged. “No promises,” she said without the slightest hint of irony. She slowly trotted back over to Twilight Sage, who was carefully arranging items in saddlebags.
Amaranth and Hurricane were busy having a discussion, which appeared to be frustrating Hurricane. Celestia checked to make sure nopony else was available to solve the problem, and, soon enough, resigned herself to the task.
“What’s going on, boys?”
Hurricane made a distraught moan. “I’m trying to explain false advertising to this crazy pony.”
Amaranth shrugged. “It simply doesn’t make sense to me that one would tell lies about a product which are sure to be discovered. Do ponies not demand their money back?”
Hurricane threw his front hooves in the air. “I told you, even if somepony DOES get the courage up to do that, it’s practically impossible for them to prove it happened, and even if they have a case, the courts are freaking awful about handling this, if they don’t just throw the case out immediately.”
Amaranth lifted a hoof as if offering something. “But it is illegal?”
“Yes! And, you know what? So is stealing, but guess what it took ME years to get arrested for!”
Celestia meant to interject, but a horrible feeling pierced her stomach. A split second later, she heard a commotion behind her. Flash Burn was yelling something. Celestia couldn’t make it out, but she was sure that it was somehow in reference to the fact that Morning Glory was slowly rising to her hooves. The auburn-maned earth pony walked slowly and smoothly across the sand, almost as if gliding, inexorably towards her half-brother, her eyes full of malice.
Hurricane shied away, refusing to meet her glare. “Oh, uh, ‘morning. Good to see you up.”
Morning Glory’s voice hissed from her mouth. “Years?”
Hurricane laughed nervously and rolled his eyes. “Did I say years? Of course I didn’t say years, because I only told you I’d be stealing stuff like a half a year ago, so of course I wasn’t doing it before then.” Glory’s expression remained stone still. She didn’t turn when Flash Burn rushed over to support her weight.
“Flash? I’m tired. I need you to hurt him for me.”
“The kid has a broken wing,” Flash said uncertainly.
Glory’s voice slowly drifted from hiss to growl. “He also has an UNbroken wing…for the moment.”
Hurricane’s little remaining resolve broke at those words. He tore off galloping in a completely random direction, screaming pleas for help. Celestia chuckled, certain as she could be that the dark pegasus was as unlikely to need any help as he was to get any.
Flash held Glory by her shoulders. “Glory, you’re up! I was so worried.”
Morning Glory’s features softened, and her voice changed to a dry softness. “What happened?”
“You need to drink water,” Flash continued, not answering Glory’s question. She held a water bottle to her friend’s mouth. Glory hesitantly drank from it.
Celestia stepped over to them. “You intentionally dehydrated yourself and almost died. I don’t suppose you remember why?” She kept her voice perfectly level, and her expression neutral. She didn’t need any extra force to impress upon Glory the dire nature of the question.
Glory looked down at the ground. “I’m useless,” she muttered.
“I beg your pardon?” Celestia said with continued detachment.
“Everything is at stake, and everypony has something to contribute. But not me. I’m not strong. I’m not knowledgeable. I’m not wise. I’m just a bunch of lies behind a pretty face.”
Flash Burn held Glory’s face in her hands. “That is NOT true. You’re my best friend, and we’d never have gotten here without you.”
Celestia nodded. “You got us past Cloudsdale, and earned the friendship of the griffons. Surely you don’t think that was all unimportant?”
Glory didn’t look up, despite her head being held level by Flash. “And since then, I’ve been dead weight. I just thought…the best thing I could do was keep the useful ponies going.”
Celestia put the slightest edge of impatience in her voice. “You have not been the slightest hindrance to our efforts, even when the other ponies were taking the lead. What’s this really about?”
Glory paused. “Can I go back to being unconscious, please?”
Flash frowned. “Glory, you’re not acting like yourself. I’ve never seen you afraid to face any problem, whether with other ponies, or with yourself. Do you really feel like giving more than any pony could ever be expected to isn’t enough?” Glory winced, and didn’t open her eyes.
“Yes.” She began tearing up, and sunk her face into Flash’s shoulder. Flash Burn patted her slowly, not replying.
Celestia exhaled slowly. She was not satisfied with the issue, but the tension had gone, and there were pressing matters, such as getting everypony moving. The wagon and saddlebags were all ready, so all that remained was to start walking.
“Okay, everypony,” she announced loudly, “it’s about three or four hours to the capital from here. If we make good time, we’ll be at the capital in time for a nice brunch.”
Zerishan tilted her head. “Zebras do not commonly eat brunch.”
“Then today we’re emissaries of pony culture,” Celestia replied. “Now, let’s get going.” She turned to Morning Glory, who had fully collapsed onto Flash Burn. “Glory, I want you in the back of the wagon. You’re not okay to walk. We’ll see how you’re doing in a couple hours, but don’t get overeager. You almost died.” Glory mumbled something weakly from Flash’s neck, but didn’t move. The golden-armored pegasus carried her over to the wagon, and laid her down where the water barrels had previously rested. Celestia shouted, “Okay, everypony, move out!”
The small caravan set out once again on their mission.
From a distance, the zebra capital didn’t appear that impressive. Unlike Everfree, and most other major Equestrian cities, there were no towering castles or mansions. At the edge, there were only a very few buildings that had so much as a second story. On top of that, the buildings were primarily wooden huts, even further into the city, where there were no farms.
However, once inside, the ponies found that it was a city indeed. Zebras crowded the narrow streets, flooding them with a sea of black and white stripes, moving back and forth. Though some of the zebras were clothed in simple robes of bright colors, the crowd was mostly a motile monochrome. It reminded Celestia of the tales that equines once had to herd and flee from powerful carnivores, and she felt certain that if she were in the mood for a snack, she would never resort to a headache like a swirling mass of zebras. She found herself walking with her eyes on the ground much of the time. The zebras, for their part, all stared at the ponies. They certainly stood out, with bright manes in styles that were radically different from those the zebras wore, and with their wings and horns. However, besides awkward staring, the zebras did nothing to impede the ponies.
Zerishan and Adombra made a quick stop to a particularly large wooden hut type building, where they dropped off their goods with what appeared to be a storage business. Following that, they immediately took the ponies towards the center of the town. At around noon, they came to a wide circle, empty of buildings, marked off with stones. Ceremonial masks hung from poles, and patterns were inscribed in the ground with layers of inlaid white pebbles. There were only a few zebras there, all of whom seemed to be old, and keeping to themselves.
“Where are we?” Flash Burn asked before anypony else got a chance.
Adombra gestured towards the center of the circle. “This is a sacred place. It is where our elders convene on matters of governance and culture. Of course, all are permitted to be here, but it is disrespectful to come without good reason. Most who come here do so to pray, or to petition the elders for matters of true importance.”
Flash looked around. “Shouldn’t a place like this be…I dunno, more private? If it’s that important, I mean.”
Zerishan shook her head. “To hide decisions from those whom they affect, it is a horrendous thing to our culture. If our leaders were to hide things from us, I think it would eventually cause war between the tribes.”
“And we’re here, why?” Hurricane asked with a raised eyebrow.
Adombra frowned. “Was I unclear? We must speak to the elders, if you are on a quest which requires you to take the Element of Honesty from our lands. It is their decision to make.” The ponies all looked around at the nearly empty circle.
“Unless these geezers are the elders,” Hurricane said impatiently, “I think we kinda missed them.”
Adombra lightly smacked Hurricane. “You will speak with respect towards these zebras!” Celestia worried at the anger in his voice, but did not intervene. “They may not be the leaders of our people, but they are the wise keepers of our culture.”
Zerishan put a hoof on Adombra’s shoulders. “Calm yourself, husband.” Adombra settled, but continued to glare. Zerishan turned towards the ponies. “The elders are currently with their tribes, but for matters of importance, it is possible to meet with them immediately. It is an ancient working that was set in place long before the city was built around this circle, when it was merely neutral ground for our many tribes. Observe.” The zebra mare entered the innermost circle, which was surrounded by ceremonial masks. She intoned something in what Celestia could only guess was a very old form of Zebraic, since it sounded like the language but had no words which she could identify.
Without any further warning, the sky seemed to darken, and great fires of greens, blues, and purples sprang up from the masks. They all twitched, and swiveled towards the center of the circle.
“You have called upon the council of the elders, Zerishan L’kulpi of the Falling River Tribe. What do you require of us?” The voice of an old male zebra came from one of the masks, which moved along with the words. Its tone was kind and patient.
“Oooh, pretty,” said Shimmerdust, who looked entranced by the dancing flames.
Zerishan replied in the general direction of the mask that had spoken. “Seven ponies have come to our lands on a quest of the greatest importance. In order to restore the stars to the sky and save us from darkness, they require the Elements of Harmony. They thus request the Element of Honesty from our people.”
A different mask spoke. It was also an old male, but one who sounded considerably more sickly. “Bring them forth, if they are here.”
Zerishan made a beckoning motion. “Please come into the circle, so that all the elders can see you.”
Celestia started towards the circle, and the other ponies followed, along with Adombra. She looked up at the masks, and they all swiveled to center on her.
“Ah,” another mask said, continuing in heavily accented Equestrian, “you did not tell us that the pony goddess had come herself. We are honored.”
Zerishan took a step as if staggered. “What? I was not aware.”
A fourth mask spoke. “But her soul burns with the very fire of the sun! Hm, perhaps such things are not so obvious to normal eyes.” It made a strange chortling sound. Celestia did her best not to slump. She didn’t want to appear deceptive in this situation, but she hadn’t realized that Adombra and Zerishan were not paying attention to her in the dragon’s cave.
The first mask began speaking again. “This is a very delicate situation. Luckily, our ancestors foresaw the possibility that the magic of the elements might be required by beings other than zebras. They provided a manner with which to test if it would be used properly. It is a trial, in which you must prove that you are capable of the Honesty that the Element is connected to.”
“Ooh,” a fifth mask, distinctly feminine and ancient cooed, “I have always wanted to do the trial. What luck!”
“But,” the third mask added, “there are even more important matters that must be taken care of first.” Celestia looked around to make sure that the other ponies were as shocked and confused as she was. Satisfied that every pony but Shimmerdust was bewildered, she dared to ask the masks a question.
“What is more important than restoring order to the heavens?”
The third mask spoke gleefully. “Lunch!” All the other masks nodded their assent.
“Oh, dear,” Amaranth said so calmly that Celestia would have thought it sarcasm coming from anypony else.
“Besides,” the fourth mask continued, “we must all come to be physically present. The trial has no meaning if we watch it through masks which see through all deception.”
A sixth mask, with a voice that remained deep and authoritative despite the obvious age of its speaker, announced, “We shall all be able to arrive before sundown. Please return to this circle when the red light first begins to appear in the sky.”
With no further warning, the fires of the masks went out, and they hung limp. Celestia blinked her eyes, and realized that the sky had not, in fact, changed in lighting, but that it had only been a false impression of her mind. She turned to face the other ponies.
“What…what just happened here?”
The ponies spent their afternoon being dragged on a tour of the zebra capital by Adombra and Zerishan. What few sites there were to see were mostly the same: clearings for some sort of ceremony or other. Though they were quite varied in shape and decoration, they were, in the end, large patches of empty ground. Celestia did her best to pay attention to the cultural significance and history of each, but she tended to find herself drifting off after a few hours. Only Twilight Sage remained in rapt attention the entire time.
When the sun drifted closer to the horizon, Celestia urged that the group return to the circle of the elders. Adombra and Zerishan seemed sad that they wouldn’t get to see more places, but they didn’t argue. They all arrived at the circle just as the sky was touched with the faintest pink.
No sooner had they arrived than the magic fire erupted from the masks again. This time, however, the flames grew in size, engulfing the masks. They sank to the ground slowly, continuing to grow until they were larger than any pony Celestia had ever seen. Then, without warning, they vanished. In their place were six zebras, each wearing a large ceremonial mask. Despite their hidden faces, Celestia could tell that they were very old indeed.
The one wearing the mask that had spoken first in the initial meeting spoke first again. “Welcome, ponies. I am Tahubra, the eldest of the zebras.” Tahubra’s voice sounded less clear and potent than it had through the magical contact, but still calm and steady. “We have gathered here today to administer the trial of the Element. Are you prepared?”
Celestia steadied herself and nodded. “Yes.”
The zebra wearing the fifth mask from before cheerfully added, “Did you dears have a good dinner?”
Before Celestia could reply, Tahubra coughed. “Zeikava, please remember that, at official meetings like this, you may not speak before all the zebras older than you have spoken.”
“Pfah!” Zeikava spat, swatting a hoof in the air, but she made no further protest.
The zebra with the second mask sighed. “I am Lomobra,” he said shakily. “It is an honor to meet you.”
“And I am Zema,” the third mask continued quickly.
The fourth mask went next. “And I,” he said in a voice far too grandiose for the occasion, “am Fudabra.” He waved his front hooves in the air mystically.
“You already know my name,” Zeikava said with undisguised spite. She turned to the zebra in the sixth mask, but he only nodded his head, declining to speak.
Tahubra picked up immediately. “The trial is simple. Each of you shall tell your deepest secret, and the current Element of Honesty shall judge whether you have passed or not.”
Morning Glory looked around. “I thought you said that seeing through lies would invalidate the trial.”
Zema nodded. “Indeed, only the Element of Honesty is privy to knowing if you lied or not, or who lied at all. He will never reveal that information. Much the same, only he knows whether it was your deepest secret that you revealed, and which, if any, did not reveal such. So, if you wish to keep your secret, you will.”
“But,” added Fudabra, “he is the Element of Honesty, so forcing him to carry a secret to the grave would be quite cruel.”
Hurricane rolled his eyes. “Right. And, let me guess: tall, dark, and mute here is the Element guy?” The other elders nodded.
Zeikava smacked the silent zebra on the shoulder. “Well, don’t just stand there! Introduce yourself.”
There was a silent moment, until finally he spoke. “I am Umbra Mostonoc of the Blessed Leaf tribe.” His voice, low and powerful, resonated across the clearing. “I am humbled to be in your presence, Princess Celestia.” Celestia felt her stomach jump when he addressed her. She looked around at the other ponies to see if they were having similar reactions, but none of them showed it.
Fudabra chuckled. “What you are feeling, Princess, is what all beings feel when Umbra conveys his feelings to them. Even beyond the magical power to make his words undeniable, he has quite the talent for voice.” Umbra shrunk at the praise, without reply. Celestia felt herself settle down. Sincere compliments of such a nature often felt like that, but she knew as well as anypony how rare sincerity could be.
Lomobra interrupted her thoughts with his shaking voice. “You may begin whenever you like. We old zebras are merely enjoying each other’s company.”
Celestia nodded. “Right. Uh…” she turned back towards the other ponies. “Who wants to start?” There were a few moments of everypony looking around until, finally, Twilight Sage stepped forward.
“I’ll go,” he said hesitantly. He looked around, clearly waiting for some sort of reaction, but he got none. He took a deep breath, and paused. Then he let it out and screwed up his face, shaking his head as if trying to get something to come off. The few seconds of these theatrics dragged on, but finally, he began in earnest. “I really wish I was able to use magic!” he shouted. He opened his eyes and looked around.
“Sage, darling,” Glory said dryly, “while it’s a little adorable that you think that everypony didn’t know that, you’re really going to have to dig deeper.”
“No!” Sage said waving a hoof frantically. “I mean yes. I mean – no.” He sighed. “Being born without magic happens to unicorns from time to time. There are a few accounts of it happening to nobles. Being able to use magic is hardly a requirement for pony life, even a happy life.” Sage slumped further. “But I love magic. I probably know more about magic than any mortal pony still alive. I could incorporate Starswirl the Bearded’s theorems into Clover the Clever’s ‘On Magic and Motion’ without even looking at either of them. And being unable to use it, it…” he opened and closed his mouth a couple times. “It feels like I’ve failed at the one thing I’ve tried hardest at doing.”
Celestia put a hoof around Sage’s shoulders. “Even without using magic, you’ve made many contributions to the study of it. A thousand years from now, the field of pony magic will know few greater contributions than yours.”
“And think about what that would mean if I could use magic?” Sage shook his head once. “I want to change the world. That’s why I work days on end. That’s why I wrote those stupid books about Wonderbolt, a unicorn who happens to go around changing the world because he’s so good at magic. That’s why I keep trying to get magic. And that’s why this whole accident happened and Princess Luna and the whole world are in danger. Because I just can’t let go.”
“Sage,” Celestia said, lifting the unicorn’s head so he was meeting her eyes, “don’t think for a second that I blame you for what happened to my sister. You had no way of knowing the danger, and it wasn’t even your decision to have her cast that spell on herself. If it was anypony’s fault, it was mine, for failing to impress upon her the importance of letting her ascension come at the proper time.” She pulled him into a hug. “You are my faithful student, and a wonderful pony. Never forget that.”
Sage hugged Celestia back. “Hearing that isn’t just going to make it all disappear.”
“It’s step one, my little pony.” The pair stood there for a minute. Nopony else said anything.
Finally, Twilight Sage slid out of the embrace. “Well, I guess that’s my biggest secret.”
Hurricane raised an eyebrow. “That seemed a little too easy.”
Sage allowed himself a bit of a smirk. “That’s all the secrets I keep. Unless you want to hear about what Shimmer and I do in our private time.”
“Or when we’re sure nopony’s looking,” Shimmerdust added.
Sage rolled his eyes. “I guess that counts as a secret, too.” He didn’t seem to pay attention to the generally upset looks the other ponies gave him. “Anyway, I really can’t think of anything else. It’s somepony else’s turn now.”
Another awkward lull came, with the threat of total honesty hanging over everypony’s heads.
“I’m not dumb,” came a voice, finally. Everypony’s heads swiveled towards Shimmerdust. She was staring at her hooves, but she continued. “I know everypony thinks I really don’t know what’s going on most of the time, but I do. The veiled references, the subtle insults, I get them. As much as anypony ever does, anyway.”
Sage nuzzled his fillyfriend. “Honey, we don’t think you’re dumb. Maybe a little odd sometimes, but we’ve all seen that you’re smart and clever.”
“You think it’s obvious because it’s obvious to you, but ponies find it very hard to shake first impressions.”
Sage frowned. “We could argue about this all we want, but this is supposed to be a secret you keep, not something that other ponies don’t notice.”
“But that’s just it,” Shimmerdust replied with a desperate tinge to her voice that Celestia had never heard before. “I act weird because I want ponies to just write me off as some crazy pony. I mean, it’s not acting, exactly, because I really do think about what I talk about, but I know what you’re supposed to do when ponies talk to you. You make small talk, you don’t engage them in pointless trains of thought, you don’t take expressions literally. I could be normal and witty. But I don’t cover up my weirdness because I want that distance. That safety net whenever I do something wrong.”
“Shimmer.” Sage patted her on the head.
Hurricane interrupted, “You don’t need some excuse to be who you are. If somepony doesn’t like it when you go off on one of your weird rants, that’s their problem. And if somepony doesn’t like you for who they think you are, well, that’s their problem too.”
“I know all that,” she said weakly. “It’s just…it’s so much pressure. To be normal. To be liked. To be right. You all go about your lives, expecting something out of every pony you talk to, and you don’t even realize it. And every time any pony talks to me, I can feel it. That silent insistence that you fit into the mould. I just worry so much about letting anypony down that I just find it easier to break their expectations early. I’m such a coward that I play dumb just so ponies are happy when I do my job right. So that I’m not always waiting for that horseshoe to drop.”
Sage pulled her closer. “No matter what you think, it takes a lot of bravery to act as you like no matter who’s watching. You’re not a coward.”
“I wasn’t finished.” Shimmerdust squirmed a bit, but she didn’t pull away from Sage. “There’s a reason I do this. Something even you don’t know.”
“We grew up together, Shimmer. What did I miss?”
Shimmerdust swallowed, and took a deep breath. “My dad hit me.” Everypony breathed in sharply, shocked. “Once. It wasn’t the sort of ‘punishing a petulant child’ thing, though. He meant to hurt me. It was early in my apprenticeship under him. I screwed up something big. It cost him a lot of money. He was yelling, and I kept trying to apologize and then…yeah. And every day since then, I just got more scared of disappointing him. He never seemed okay with me. Looking back, he was always short with me before that, but after, it was even worse. Like I was just one wrong move away. I didn’t want to get caught screwing up, so, over the years, I just figured out a way for it to be impossible for me to mess up.”
Twilight Sage hugged her tighter. “If I ever get magic, I’m going to finish Starswirl’s time travel spell. Then I’m going to go back in time to before your father died, and I’m going to kill him myself.”
Flash Burn trotted over to the pair. “Shimmer, we like who you really are. You look at life a different way than we do, but that’s not a bad thing. I know that’s not the point of what you were saying, but I thought it needed to be said.” Shimmerdust just hung her head. “As for feeling like you need to set a low bar,” Flash continued, “I understand you. I’ve had to deal with that constant pressure, too. You haven’t met my parents, but let me assure you, they were relentless. But, you know what? Not all ponies are like the ponies who treated you badly. Most of us understand that nopony’s perfect. We forgive each other, even when times are bad. I mean, look at Glory and Hurricane. They mess each others’ lives up all the time, but they’re inseparable when the cards are down.”
Shimmerdust shifted her expression with an exaggerated slowness. “Glory…threatens Hurricane with physical violence on a regular basis.”
Flash held a hoof to her own chin. “That’s a good point. She really shouldn’t do that. But when things get serious, like when it’s a choice between all her political ambitions or her brother’s safety, I know she’d choose her brother, and she wouldn’t regret it. There are ponies in this world who are capable of love. Real love. And it’s more of us than you think.” Shimmerdust searched Flash’s eyes. She looked down, then back up. Finally, after a long pause, she replied.
“Are you coming onto me?”
Flash’s face fell. “What.”
“Because I know I’m all vulnerable and all right now, but I have a boyfriend, and we don’t swing. And, even if we did, I kinda only like colts, and while you do have that sorta boyish charm mixed with feminine beauty thing going on there I-“
“I’m not hitting on you!” Flash yelled. She looked like she was trying not to laugh. “I know I’ve been acting weird towards you, but…well, I’ll explain in a bit. Just…remember that all of us are your friends, even if we haven’t known you for very long. We’d never want to hurt you, even if we do it on accident sometimes.”
Shimmerdust rested on Sage limply. “I think I need to lie down.” Sage gently lowered her onto the ground.
“Right,” Flash said, “I think it’s time I went. I really want to get this out of the way.” The other ponies looked at her expectantly. “Sage?” Sage looked up at her from his place next to Shimmerdust. “I…I…” Flash said, resetting her confession and re-contemplating it each time. Celestia and the other ponies stepped forward, waiting to hear what she was trying to get out.
“I don’t have a crush on you.”