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        Dear Journal,

        When did music begin?  Did it begin with a question?  Or an exclamation?  Was somepony laughing?  Or sobbing?  Was that pony alone?  Or was there an audience?

        When I first attended Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns, I thought that I would find out all of the answers of how and where music began.  What I discovered was that the best pieces of us—the artistic, soulful, and melodious pieces—have been lost forever.  Equestrian Civilization is over ten thousand years old, and of those ten millennia only the last fifteen hundred years' worth of music has been recorded, preserved, or recited to this day.

        What became of the music that is now lost to us forever?  How many masterpieces disappeared into the great void of time?  Just what kind of prodigies and geniuses exist in the past, and how many of their masterpieces will go unheard?  Does the fact that their music no longer resonates in the halls of our kingdom mean that they've lost their worth?

        Years ago, I became a student of music theory, thinking that I would find answers.  What I found instead was that making music is merely a means of proposing questions with our heart that our minds can't formulate.  Every time we sing or play an instrument, we are searching.  Every time we fill the air with notes of rhythm and tonality, we are endeavoring to get in touch with the parts of ourselves that our words cannot contain.

        I would like to think that the ponies of ancient times were searching for something just as much as we are in this era.  This means to me that even though the music of the past is gone, the drive to simultaneously express and discover ourselves is still there.  Our entire civilization is the beautiful encore to a symphony that has fallen on deaf ears, but not on unfeeling heartstrings.  So long as we are feeling with music—embodying the same curiosity and ambition of our ancestors—then all that is important isn't forgotten, for we have it locked away in our very pulse.

        Today, I play music.  I do it because I am also searching.  For one, these magical notes that I am endeavoring to construct may be a way to release this curse that has been placed upon me.  For another, I am adding to the same heartbeat that has kept a constant rhythm since the beginning of time.  So long as I am a part of that, so long as I am making melodies that the Equestrian soul cannot help but dance to, then maybe I have a chance to actually reach somepony.

        Maybe, I won't be forgotten.

        Just the other day, I stood in the corner of Ponyville's Main Street, playing the latest experimental number on my lyre.  I had decided to call it “Lunar Elegy #7.”  It was the same tune that I’d been attempting to flesh out all week.  You know the one; I wrote about it in my last letter.  It's the tune that I awoke to during that stormy night—the one that almost knocked the tree over into my carrot garden.  I had always felt that that was an omen, and that finding a way to write down this melody would somehow benefit my quest in the end.  So far, though, I hadn't noticed any magical qualities to the tune, but that was probably just because I hadn't seen Twilight and played it to her yet.

Miss Sparkle always has the solutions.  She's gifted like that.  Now if only she could put those talents to making music herself, I'm certain she'd make Princess Celestia even prouder.

        Oh shoot!  I always get side-tracked with these entries.  Anyways, I was in the corner of Ponyville's Main Street.  I was playing my lyre and—well—I'd been running short on money as of late.  So, I brought the jar with me.  It didn't take long for the citizens of Ponyville to show their gracious qualities.  In less than two hours, I had earned nearly twenty-five bits.  I had gotten more than that, of course.  Several smiles and appreciative grins were thrown my way.  I merely said nothing and kept playing my music.  I must have looked so engrossed.  Little did everypony know that I was observing them with as much attention as they were regarding me.

        Carrot Top was the first to donate, of course.  I’ve written about her before. She's usually up and about earlier than any other Ponyvillean soul, and she trots back and forth across the village the most, considering all of the random jobs that she juggles around town.  That day, she tossed a bit into my jar and smiled at me.  I remembered that same face, stained with dirt and flakes of grass at the end of a day when she taught me how to plant a garden.  She waved at me like it was the first time ever—for it was, for her—and then she was gone.

        The Mayor strolled by next.  Her mane looked less gray that day.  I wonder if she's recently switched dyes.  The Mayor is a fantastic pony.  If Ponyville were any other town, the elected leader would likely disapprove of musical riff-raff like myself.  The Mayor is obviously made of far more cultured stuff.  She gave me a smile, praised my talents, and tossed a golden bit into the jar before trotting off.  I wonder if she ever got the nerve to speak to her daughter.  She's very preoccupied with the emotional wedge that's been driven between the two of them as of late.  She'd never tell any pony about how sad she's been, not like that one time I roped her into confessing it to me.  It was a heartfelt conversation over tea that we both had.  I shall always remember it, for her sake if not for mine.

        Several more ponies trotted by as the day waxed past the bright noon.  All the while, I was practicing “Elegy #7.”  The fact that other ponies were enjoying my music or dropping coins my way was just a fringe benefit.  I magically plucked each string of the lyre in practiced precision, repeating the tune over and over again.  Nopony ever complained about the repetition, but I never expected them to.  The only awkward glances I got were aimed at the sweaterjacket I was wearing—the one that I always wear during these excursions into town.  I thought I had gotten used to the brief stares, just like I had gotten used to the chills that come with the melodies I wake up to.  Still, I couldn't complain.  I simply had to keep practicing the Elegy.  I knew that only Twilight Sparkle could help me figure out what the tune meant, just like most of the others before it, but that didn't stop me from trying to feel it on my own, for as long as I could afford to.

        And then there was Rarity.  The sight of her gorgeous mane and sparkling eyes nearly broke my concentration as she paused on her way to the general store to listen to me.  “My, what a heavenly tune!” were her exact words.  She dropped three whole bits into the jar, more than anypony else.  I always feel bad when that happens, but a part of me thinks that Rarity needs to be generous more than other ponies need to experience her generosity.  So, I played my part, especially when she leaned forward with sympathetic eyes to say, “But dear, you look positively freezing!  Tell me, are you ill?”

        It was true.  My teeth were chattering, and—no—it wasn't an act.  When the chills come, there's very little I can do to stop them.  My hoodie has always been a first line of defense against the inexplicable side effects of this curse.  I can't even pretend to explain that to any of the ponies I meet.  If I bundle up like my shivering body silently screams at me to, then even more ponies than Rarity would stop to ask me the same question over and over again.

        “Oh, I'm perfectly fine, ma'am,” I remember replying to her.  I usually don't respond while I'm in the middle of performing, but I'm a unicorn who can afford to multi-task.  “My blood temperature is just lower than the average pony's.”  It was a lie.  But, relatively speaking, everything I say to these villagers is a lie.  After all, even when it's the truth, it has the same effect on them.

        “Well, I cannot stand to see a gifted musician such as yourself freeze to death!” Rarity said.  Then she did something that I should have predicted.  She reached into her saddlebag and produced a yellow scarf.  “Here, darling.  Keep it as long as you like.”  Her smile sparkled as much as the glowing telekinesis she used to float the golden article my way.  Clearly I didn't have a choice in the matter.  That didn't make accepting her gift any easier.

        “Oh, thank you, ma'am.” I smiled and paused in playing the elegy to wrap the scarf about my neck.  To attempt a polite refusal would have been too complicated at the time.  “You're too kind.”

        “Oh, I can make a hundred more like it back at my boutique.  Besides, yellow is not my color—but it does match your eyes delightfully so.”  Rarity smiled.  Some beautiful faces last forever in the mind's eye.  Rarity’s is no exception.  “You should stop by sometime.  I can make you a new sweaterjacket.  Yours is nice, of course, but I daresay it's starting to look worn-in.”

        I giggled and smiled.  “Thanks.  I'll think about it.”

        “You do that!”  Rarity trotted off, humming her own whimsical version of the tune I was playing.  She disappeared into the front entrance of the general store across the way.

        I continued playing my music, warmed more by the sincerity of Rarity's generosity than the actual thickness of the scarf that she had given me.  The afternoon was drifting by.  A crimson glow gave the many coats of ponies a bright shine as the Sun lowered towards the Western horizon.  I must have played the Lunar Elegy ten times before I saw Rarity trotting back with a full saddlebag of newly bought things.

        I can't lie.  My heart sank a little when she immediately strolled my way and dropped three golden bits into my jar.  “My, what a heavenly tune!” she said, then leaned towards me.  “But dear, you look positively freezing!  Tell me, are you ill?”

        It was a little harder to smile this time.  Nevertheless, I murmured gently above the melody I was still making, “Oh, I'm perfectly fine, ma'am.”  I couldn't help but add with a wink, “As a matter of fact, a very kind mare gave me this scarf just an hour ago.”

        “Well, she must be a pony of exceptional taste!”  Rarity said with avid admiration.  “It does match your eyes delightfully so.  You should stop by my boutique sometime.  I can make you a new sweaterjacket.  Yours is nice, of course, but—”

        “It looks worn-in?”

        “Yes!  I was just about to say that!”  Rarity exclaimed, her breath escaping her in a gasp.  “Do you also read minds besides playing such gorgeous music?”

        “Something like that,” I said.  “I'll be sure to drop by your lovely boutique someday, ma'am.”

        “You do that.”  And she was gone, once more humming, once more an elegant and care-free stranger.

        I decided then that I was done for the afternoon.  I gathered my lyre and jar full of bits and put them away into my saddlebag.  My mouth was dry, so I made straightway for Sugarcube Corner.  Ms. Cake was working.  As soon as I sat down at a table, she strolled up with a smile as bright as her apron.

        “Good afternoon to you, miss!  Are you new to town?”

        “Hmmm... Yes and no.”  I smiled up at her.  “How much for your finest herbal tea?”

        “One bit.”

        “How about three bits for a cup of tea and a daisy sandwich?”

        “Will do, hun!” Ms. Cake cheerfully said.  I wonder if she knows just how harmonious her words always sound.  I could write a thesis on the tonality of her voice alone.  She hurried away towards the kitchen at the back of Sugarcube Corner while I reached into my saddlebag for the jar of golden bits.

        Just then, I heard a sobbing sound from two tables away.  I glanced over to see Ms. Hooves and her daughter Dinky.  The little unicorn foal was crying—a sad, distraught sort of a cry.  I've never known Derpy's child to throw a tantrum in public, and that occasion was no different.  Dinky hid her face in a pair of hooves while her mother leaned over and whispered reassuring words into her ears.  I couldn't tell from where I sat just what Derpy had said, but I could see the genuine smile on her face... and somewhere in the midst of it, her consolations must have worked.  Dinky dried her tears and managed a smile to match that of her mother's.

        Around that point, Pinkie Pie had shown up—cartwheeling wildly as she always did into the center of Sugarcube Corner.  She then proceeded to entertain several young foals inside the eatery with a series of outrageous jokes and charades.  The children giggled and clapped their hooves at Pinkie's antics.  Derpy pointed Pinkie Pie's way and patted Dinky's flank, ushering the foal to go and have fun with Pinkie and the others.  The young unicorn eagerly bounded away, the sorrow on her face briefly replaced with childish euphoria.  Derpy watched Dinky with one good eye, though she couldn't hide the sigh escaping her lips or the depressed look on her face as the young mother all-but-slumped against the table.

        I was so engrossed in these observations that I barely noticed the image of Ms. Cake in my peripheral vision.  I turned to look at her.  The baker was standing in place, gazing blankly across the lengths of Sugarcube Corner.  She held a tray with a steaming cup of tea and a daisy sandwich, but she hadn't a clue what to do with it.

        “Funny...”  Her eyes blinked as her lips lingered upon every word dripping out of her mouth.  “I could have sworn I just...”  She turned and looked behind her at the kitchen.  “Where was I going with this?  I swear, I'm getting senile...”

        I cleared my throat.

        She looked down at me and instantly gave a polite smile.  “Good afternoon to you, miss!  Are you new to town?”

        “Hmm...”  I smiled gently.  “Yes and no.  You seem puzzled.  Is everything okay?”

        “Oh, absolutely!  I just wish I knew what I was doing with... with...”  Ms. Cake frowned at the tray as though it was full of ants.  “Bah!  I should be baking that cake for the Mayor's banquet tomorrow anyways.”

        I craned my neck to look at the tray.  “Is that herbal tea and a daisy sandwich?”

        “Why, yes.  Yes it is.”

        “Hmmm...”  I dropped a few golden coins onto the table.  “Would three bits pay for them?”

        “Oh!  Erhm... Do you want it?”

        I smiled.  “Seems like a nice order.  I'll give it a try.”

        “Very well then!  At least they won't go to waste!”  Ms. Cake gracefully placed the cup and plate down onto my table as I slid the bits her way.  She took them and performed a curtsey.  “Enjoy your time at Sugarcube Corner!  Just holler if you need anything else, dearie.”

        “Will do,” I said.  After she left, I sipped slowly from the tea, reveling in the warmth as it drove the shivers away.  I had time to relax, to reflect, to think about my music.  I should have spent every minute contemplating the missing movement at the end of “Lunar Elegy #7,” but instead I kept looking over at Ms. Hooves table.

        Derpy is a sad pony.  Not many in town know this.  Many commit the sin of treating Ponyville's mailmare at face value.  I've been included in that guilty party myself, but that's because during the many times I've tried learning more about her I've been at a loss to figure out the source of her troubles.  However, having just seen her consoling a distraught Dinky, I may have been given a clue.

        So, after finishing my tea and not so gracefully scarfing down the daisy sandwich, I hoisted my saddlebag and trotted over towards her table.  There is never an easy way to go about “introductions,” so I've long since learned to skip much of the pretense.

        “Why do you look so glum, Ms. Hooves?”

        Derpy gazed up from the table.  Her eyes blinked in opposite directions.  I knew just where to stand so that she could see me.  “Uhm... I'm sorry.  Have we met?”

        I smiled.  “Who in town doesn't know Ponyville's most faithful deliverer of the mail?”

        “Oh, well I guess you have a point.”  Derpy chuckled nervously, then ran a hoof through her mane.  “I haven't... uhm... flown into your house window or anything like that, have I?”

        “Heeheehee... Nothing of the sort.”

        “Whew.  I'm glad.  My memory isn't all that good.”

        “That's a boat that everypony shares a seat in, Ms. Hooves.  Believe me.”  I sat down beside her and pointed towards where her child stood with the other giggling foals and Pinkie Pie.  “Dinky is extremely gifted for her age.  She's scored the highest in her entire class the last three tests in a row.  Did you know that?”

        “I-I do!” Derpy exclaimed, squinting at bizarre angles on either side of me.  “How did you?”

        This is what I mean when I write that it isn't easy.  Thinking quickly, I replied, “I'm a music teacher from Canterlot.  Not that long ago, I was sent to assist Miss Cheerilee with expanding her curriculum.  She's thinking of putting together a band class for young foals.  Did you hear about that?”

        “Why yes!  I have,” Derpy said.

I was wrong about one thing I wrote earlier: some things I say are the truth, but that's only because I'm an observer of them.  Over the last month, Cheerilee had indeed been trying to establish a school band.  It didn't particularly appear to be a subject of joy for Ms. Hooves.

“My little muffin's so excited about it,” she said.  “It's all she talks about every morning before I drop her off at Cheerilee's.”  She sighed and gazed lethargically across Sugarcube Corner as her child lost herself in Pinkie Pie's whimsical show.  “She's got a natural talent for making music.  As a matter of fact, I took her to the music store just last week.  They had this flute that she was allowed to test out.  I swear, I've never heard anything so amazing... and my Muffin had barely even practiced.  She's so gifted... just like her father.”  The last words in particular were the hardest to get out, and I saw the sadness once more pale over Derpy's face.

        “I saw her crying earlier,” I said.  Some songs don't have a bridge to them.  At times, all you need is to hear the chorus, no matter how much it hurts.  “I'm guessing she's not able to join Cheerilee's band.”

        Derpy openly winced, but I knew she wasn't about to stop speaking.  So many ponies in town have a lot to say, and the times they choose to say them happen to be the times I ask about them about it.  Perhaps that is my purpose?  I think of this a lot.  For what it's worth, I'm the only pony who has to.

        “I wish she could,” Miss Hooves eventually said.  “But I'm afraid her mother can't help her.”


        “I don't tell many ponies this, and I certainly won't tell her, but things have been tough lately.”  Derpy gazed down at the table and spun lazy circles with a hoof, as if in a desperate attempt to counterbalance her eyes.  “I barely earn enough to squeeze by.  Being a mailmare just doesn't earn enough bits for a single mom.  If Dinky's father was still around and working, then maybe I could afford some disposable income to do more than just get food on our table.  But a school band...?”  Derpy sighed again and ran a hoof over her moist eyelids.  “Dinky is such a sweet, beautiful foal.  She’s so selfless and supportive of her mother.  All she wants for herself is to play the flute.  She has a gift, and I still can't believe how talented my little muffin is...”

        “Musical proficiency is the best kind of talent, Ms. Hooves,” I said with a gentle smile.  “You should be proud.  Your foal's on the way to moving the souls of other ponies just like she moves yours by simply being alive.”

        “She won't be moving anything if I can't give her what she deserves,” Derpy murmured, her voice wavering.  “My little muffin is so polite to everypony—both young and old.  And she does her best in school.  She studies hard.  She's so... so sweet...”  She sniffled and rubbed a tear dry before it could grace her gray cheek.  “Her passion is to make music, and I can't help her.  Her mother isn't as talented as she is.  I can't even earn us a better place to live, much less a flute to make her dreams come true.  What kind of love is that?”

        I leaned over and placed a hoof gently on hers.  “Your love is the sincere kind of thing that your daughter will cherish and remember forever.  There are parents who think that money can buy anything, but won't give their child attention or respect.  You're not that kind of parent, Ms. Hooves.  I believe that one way or another, you will find a way to give Dinky what she wants.  But you're already giving her what she needs.  If you forget any of the words I'm telling you right now, at least remember the same feeling that is bringing you on the edge of tears as I speak.  For that is real, and a very eternal thing.”

        Derpy sniffled again.  For the briefest of moments, I could have sworn her eyes had centered upon me.  She smiled with an expression that still warms me to this day.  “How could I possibly forget the words of a pony as kind and understanding as you?”

        I only smiled at that.  “Be there for your child, Ms. Hooves, as you've always been.  Someway, somehow, her dreams will come true.  I promise you this.”

        Before Derpy had a chance to respond, Dinky hopped back over and bounced all around her mother, giggling and repeating many of the silly things Pinkie Pie had said to the foals earlier.  Derpy could barely hold her daughter still, so she finally resorted to a tackling hug, enfolding the tiny unicorn in her hooves.  Dinky giggled and squirmed in Derpy's grip while her mother gently nuzzled her.

        It was around this time that a sudden chill ran through me.  I shuddered and tugged at the edge of my sweaterjacket's sleeves.  For a moment I could see vaporous breaths escaping my lips, and that's how I knew—as I always know—what had been lost.

        One of Derpy's eyes blinked my way, and her body jolted in surprise.  “Oh, hello there!  Can I help you, Miss?”

        I cleared my throat, fighting off the last of my shivers.  “My apologies.”  I stood up.  “I didn't realize that this table was occupied.”

        “Nonsense!”  Derpy's voice matched the gigglish tone of her daughter.  If anything was certain, she was happy now.  “This is Sugarcube Corner.  A pony's free to sit anywhere.  Isn't that right, my muffin?”

        Dinky merely giggled.  I've always envied Pinkie Pie for the effect she has on children.  Nursery rhymes and lullabies are still on my list of things to master.

        “Really, I must be going,” I said.  It was true.  The Sun was setting outside, and I still had to see Twilight.  Soon, it would be night, and I wouldn't be able to afford talking with any pony.  “I wish you both a good evening.”

        “Heheh... I'm not sure why exactly,” Derpy said, “but it already is one.”

        I left Sugarcube Corner and slowly made my way to Twilight Sparkle's library.  In the advent of night, the evening hung over my horn in a deep, purple blanket.  All around me, bodies of equines swiftly galloped their way home.  I can never understand why so many ponies are in such a hurry when the Sun sets, especially in Ponyville.  I sometimes wonder if I'm the only pony who does this: who takes her time and allows the cool and crisp murmur of the falling evening to lull her into submission.  I gave into the moment with a soft hum, reciting a piano number that my mother had taught me when I was a little foal.  My family had been better off than Derpy and Dinky.  I don't think I ever once imagined that I could have lost all that I had—both emotionally and materialistically.  I still wonder what my family is up to now, but I try not to.  Thinking about the piano melody carries with it all of the warm memories of the past.  I wish I could say the present was any less cold.

        The lampposts in the streets of Ponyville were being lit by the time I reached the door to Twilight's library.  It was open; Twilight's assistant must have been carrying something in.  As soon as I stepped inside, I realized I was correct.  Spike was trucking several parcels of antique books mailed from Canterlot back and forth.  He looked my way and waved cheerfully.

        “Hi there!”  He walked by, carrying a package toward the opposite end of the room.  “Dig the swell hoodie!”

        “Thanks,” I said.  “Is Miss Sparkle around?”

        “Why, did you have an appointment?”

        “Spiiiiike!”  Just then, the lavender unicorn in question marched into the front foyer from an adjacent hallway.  “Did you open the package yet that contains all eight volumes of Heroes in Equestrian Literature—?”  She stopped and let out a slight gasp upon seeing me.  “Oh!  I'm sorry.  I didn't know somepony was here!” She blinked wide then smiled, her small dimples showing.  “Can I help you?”

        Have I mentioned that Twilight Sparkle is ridiculously adorable?

        “As a matter of fact, you can.”

        “I see.  Well... uhm... I'll do my best, but it's only fair to tell you that the library's closing soon and I have an important letter to write to—”

        “Princess Celestia.”  I nodded.  “I know.”

        “Hi there!”  Spike walked by once again.  “Dig the swell hoodie!”

        “Yes, I bet you do.”  I turned to face Twilight once more, smiling.  “Trust me, Miss Sparkle.  I think you'll be very... erm... intrigued by what I have to share with you, and then I'll ask your help with just one thing.”


        “I promise that you won't be tardy with sending your letter to the Princess.”

        “Tardy?”  Twilight Sparkle's teeth showed as she let loose a nervous laugh.  “Wh-who's afraid of being tardy?”

        “Heehee... Indeed.”  I trotted over to a wooden seat and plopped down, reaching into my saddlebag.  Glancing up at her, I murmured, “Miss Sparkle, have you ever had a beautiful melody stuck in your head, but you don't know where it came from or what it's supposed to mean, only that you have the natural urge to hum it, regardless?”

        Twilight Sparkle squinted curiously at me.  Her eyes were crooked, the undeniable look of confusion.  I could write a book about that expression on the face of every pony I meet.  Then again, that's what I'm doing right now, isn't it?

        I giggled as I pulled my lyre out of the bag and held it before me.  Gazing softly at Twilight, I spoke,  “My name is Lyra Heartstrings, and you will not remember me.  You won't even remember this conversation.  Just like with everypony else I've ever met, everything I do or say will be forgotten.  Every letter I've written will appear blank; every piece of evidence I've left behind will end up missing.  I'm stuck here in Ponyville because of the same curse that has made me so forgettable.  Still, that doesn't stop me from doing the one thing that I love: making music.  If my melodies find their way into your heart, then there is still hope for me.  If I can't prove that I exist, I can at least prove that my love for each and every one of you exists.  Please, listen to my story, my symphony, for it is me.”

        “I...”  Twilight Sparkle blinked rapidly.  She ran a hoof across her forehead and shook it before processing her words past a wincing expression, “What do you mean?  I don't get it.  Is this some kind of—?”

        “Shhhh.”  I smiled and floated the lyre in front of me.  “Just listen.”

        I closed my eyes and concentrated, telekinetically strumming each string in succession.  All of my instrumentals in the heart of downtown Ponyville that afternoon were just rehearsals.  There, before Twilight, in the acoustical heart of her wooden home, I performed “Lunar Elegy #7” as sweetly and eloquently as I could.  Though I didn't know the ending, I danced my way through the chords with no less confidence.  When the performance was over, I reopened my eyes to see Twilight Sparkle sitting before me, her face aglow with the melody of the song still echoing in her gifted mind.

        “That...”  Twilight Sparkle began to murmur, “That was... was...”

        “Tell me,” I uttered firmly, my gaze strongly piercing her for a moment.  “Is it familiar?”

        “It... It is!” she exclaimed.  “I feel as though... as though I heard it from...”

        I leaned forward.  My heart was beating.  I did all I could to keep my composure.

        Finally, Twilight Sparkle stammered, “Th-the lunar archives!  Yes!  Yes, I believe that's a symphony from the early Neo-Classical Era!”  She beamed as the information blossomed in her mind, as if unfolded from a hitherto unkempt part of her mental library.  “Princess Celestia shared it with me once before the return of Nightmare Moon.  She told me that it was one of the few things she had to... remember her sister by, before Princess Luna was tainted by the spirit that turned her malevolent.”

        “Tell me, Miss Sparkle,” I spoke firmly.  “Do you know how it ends?”

        “The musical number you just performed?”


        “It... It wasn't finished?”

        “No.  But you've obviously heard it before.  Do you know how it ends?”

        “I... I don't understand what this is all about!”  Twilight gazed sideways at me, her brow furrowed beneath her violet bangs.  “Sure, I've heard the tune before.  But that's because Princess Celestia personally pulled it out of the lunar archives and shared it with me!  How could you know about it?”

        “Because I hear it,” I murmured.  “When I'm sleeping.  When I'm awake.  When I close my eyes.  When I open them.  I hear this tune—and many more like it—bouncing across the walls of my mind, resonating through the leylines connected to my consciousness... as if my own horn was picking something up beyond the frequency of the living in an attempt to tell me something and me alone.”

        “But... B-But how?  Why?”

        “For the same reason that you don't hear it, I suspect.”  I took a deep breath and said, “For the same reason that nopony will ever remember that they've ever spoken to me.  For, to them, the tune is just as forgettable as I am.”

        “Huh?”  Twilight Sparkle slumped to her haunches, blinking hard.  “Miss Heartstrings, I don't understand.  What do you mean you're forgettable?”

        I smiled.  Spike was walking by again, and I whistled at him.  “Hey.  Mr. Green Spines.”

        “Hi there!” he said, standing before the last parcel.  “Dig the swell hoodie—”

        “Yes, we know, Spike!” Twilight Sparkle frowned at him.  “Haven't you said that enough to our guest?”

        “Our guest?”  Spike made a face, his crooked gaze bouncing back and forth between Twilight and myself.  “I'm sorry, Twilight.  I was away unpacking the shipment, remember?  This is the first time I've seen her!”

        Before Twilight's voice could say something to match her flabbergasted expression, I spoke up.  “Spike, do me a favor, if you could.  I'd like to check out Zoology of the Zebrahara by Jockey Goodall.  Would you mind grabbing that for me while I have a chat with Twilight here?”

        “Sure thing!  Zoology of the Zebrahara coming right up!”  The eager young assistant bounded down a distant hallway.

        “Uhm...”  Twilight scratched her head with an errant hoof.  “Why the sudden interest in Goodall's writing?”

        “I could care less about the nature of the book,” I said.  “I just happen to know that you shelve it at the furthest part of the library from here.”

        “And how could you know that?  This is the first time you've visited the library—at least since I came here and became chief librarian.”

        “Hmmm... As a matter of fact, I have come to visit this library.  Lots of times.”  I smiled steadily at her.  “And they were all after you came to Ponyville, Twilight.”

        “But I don't—”

        “As a matter of fact, I arrived in Ponyville not long after you did, Miss Sparkle.”  This next part was hard.  I've always had a hard time keeping my composure here, but I think I've been getting better at it.  “I used to live in Canterlot, just like you.  My parents and I lived in the upper Alabaster District, on Starswirl Street.”

        “Starswirl Street?!”  Twilight's ears twitched as her eyes lit up.  “Why, that's two streets down from where I used to live!”

        “484 Nebula Avenue,” I said, my eyes reflecting hers.  “Your apartment flat was just above Moondancer's.”

        Twilight couldn't help it.  She let loose the same awkward giggle I have heard hundreds of times.  “That's uncanny!  You mean to say you knew Moondancer too?”

        “Yes.  We were good foalhood friends.”

        “The two of you?  How come she never told me?”

        “No, Twilight,” I said.  “I meant the three of us.  You, Moondancer, and I.  We attended Magic Kindergarten together, and the rest is history... well, it was.”

        She stared at me, her eyes narrowing and her mouth agape.  “But that's...”  She gulped and shook her head.  “I-I would have remembered!  Moondancer and I—”

        “We went to Magic Summer Camp together for years.  One summer, when you were only seven, you tried a teleportation spell and got yourself stuck atop a royal guard tower.  It took the entire afternoon for us to flag down a pegasus to give you a lift back down to the street.  You were so embarrassed, you cried.  So Moondancer and I took you to the local doughnut cafe, and we made you feel better.  That's when you finally told us about your acceptance into Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns.  You had kept it secret from us for so long because you were afraid we'd become jealous and not want to be your friend anymore.  That couldn't have been any further from the truth.  We loved and cherished every moment we had to hang out with you.  Years later, when Moondancer and I were also accepted into the school, you showed us around the campus.  Our first year in class went off without a hitch—unlike so many other new students—and we always had you to thank for that.”

        Twilight listened to all of my words.  When I was done, she gazed towards the far end of the room and muttered quietly, “I... remember all of those moments.  But, it was only Moondancer and myself every time.  I... I don't remember you at all, Miss Heartstrings.”  She glanced up and briefly bore a frown.  “How do I know that this isn't some sort of stupid prank?  Did Rainbow Dash set you up for this?”

        “You mean like the time that she and Pinkie Pie switched your writing jar with invisible ink?” I said with a smirk.  “Or the time Rainbow Dash doused your mane with a hidden bucket full of ketchup, and so you trotted off to the bathroom... only to find the tub filled with packages of frozen curly fries?”  I giggled and took a deep breath.  “Or what about the one time she convinced you that your horn was falling off, and like a true hypochondriac you spent the entire night reading up on unicorn ailments and fell asleep in the middle of the library?  I do recall her treating you to a lunch at Sugarcube Corner to make up for that last one...”

        “How... How could you know about all of that?”

        “Because you told me about them.”

        “You mean to tell me that we've talked before?”

        “Dozens of times.”  I said, though it came out as a drone.  It's tough trying to inflect one's words when they've been repeated so many countless times.  I did my best to stay pleasant and approachable.  “You're a highly intelligent unicorn, Twilight.  I knew that when we were foals.  I'm glad to see you becoming a shining member of the community here in Ponyville.  But, just like every conversation we've ever had, you won't remember it any more than all the other ones previous.”

        “That... That sounds too crazy to believe—”

        A young voice from the side spoke up.  “Uhmm... Twilight?”

        Twilight looked over.

        Spike stood, blinking, his expression blank.  He held a book in his hands, but he remained still in the middle of the hallway he had walked in from.  “You asked me to do something, and I... I...”  He squinted at the tome in his grasp.  “Zoology of the Zebrahara?  Ugh, this book is so outdated.  They call zebras bad names in it.  Why do we even keep this in stock?”

        “Spike, that's the book Lyra Heartstrings just asked you for a moment ago.”

        “Lyra who?”

        “Hello!” I waved with a smile.

        “Oh!”  He blinked at me.  “Hi there!  Dig the swell hoodie!”

        “You mean to tell me you don't remember her?”  Twilight's voice rose in confusion and frustration.  “She's been sitting here and talking with me for minutes!  You must have passed by—like—three times!”

        “Yeesh!  I'm sorry, Twilight!  I didn't know!  Besides, aren't we supposed to be closing the library soon?  It's a little late for strange visitors, don't you think?”


        “Twilight and I are just having a simple chat, kiddo,” I said, waving a reassuring hoof.  “Don't let us bother you.”

        “Ugh... Whatever.”  He waddled off with a groan, practically dragging the thick tome after him.  “I'm a magician’s assistant, not a gate-keeper.”

        As he left, I glanced back at a dumbstruck Twilight and said, “You see?  He walked away from me.  Distance is the one thing that causes others to forget about me.”

        “And... uhm... wh-what's the other thing?”

        I glanced up out the nearest window.  The sunset’s red kiss was all but gone.  The blackness of night was falling, and with it would come the pale glow of the moon.

        “Time,” I eventually said, my nostrils flaring.  “It's a matter of minutes.  Sometimes an hour.  Very rarely longer, but you won't know that I ever existed.  That's what makes explaining all of this so tough to do—every time—because I hardly get to the point of asking for what I really need from you.”

        “You must forgive me, but I need an explanation!”  Twilight exclaimed, her voice as sharp and desperate as her twitching expression.  “This kind of a thing is unprecedented!  Even if it were true, how could anypony possibly survive in such a state of existence?”

        “I manage.  It hasn't been easy, but I'm doing quite well for myself.”

        “I still find it very hard to believe, Miss Heartstrings.  I'm afraid you're going to have to show me more to prove that what you're saying isn't—”

        “Your first week in the Royal Palace as the magical apprentice to Princess Celestia...” I began.  “Her Majesty showed you a gallery that featured the portraits of many esteemed unicorns from Equestrian history.  You were so proud of yourself, because you instantly recognized the painting of Starswirl the Bearded.  Then your mentor took you aside and explained something to you.  She said that all of the portraits had one thing in common.  They were all former students that she had once tutored through the ages, just like she was starting to tutor you.”

        Twilight's eyes remained fixed on me, soft and vulnerable as I leaned towards her and softly continued speaking.

        “That was the first time that you truly understood death.  You were a young foal, full of energy and life.  You found yourself the inexplicably lucky student to Princess Celestia, and you didn't have a prior concept of the end of all things.  Staring at those portraits, you played out the history of Equestria in your head, and you realized that even the future would have its own history, and you would be only a piece of that—to be immortalized in a picture at best.  You suddenly began crying, and you didn't understand why.  Princess Celestia stayed by your side that whole night.  She didn't leave until your tears were dry.  She even delayed raising the Sun just to make sure that she had solaced you.  To this day, very few ponies know why that one morning was so dark nearly fifteen years ago.”

        I smiled and planted a hoof on one of hers, feeling the sudden trembles in her frame and doing my best to drive them away like a wise monarch once did.

        “You told me before, Twilight, during a very deep conversation that we managed to have several weeks ago, that the reason you study so many books, the reason why you prefer reading over seeing daylight, the reason why you can't for one solitary second of your life stop processing information, is because you want to fill yourself with as much knowledge as possible, because history is here for a reason.  Countless generations have lived and died before our time to ensure that we have the data we need to apply to our existence and make the world a better place.  To do anything less than exercise our intelligence is to forget the legacy of the ponies who predate us.  Princess Celestia—you told me—is more than a mentor to you.  She's the very heart of Equestria.  And as the central spark that holds together the Elements of Harmony, you want what's best for Equestria, and you want what's best for our Princess.  In that vein, you've endeavored to become more than a mere portrait on her wall.”

        I smiled, my face reflected in a pair of eyes that grew glossier as my words rolled on.

        “So many times, your friends ask you why you've never bothered meeting a young stallion to spend some romantic time with.  You keep brushing off their good-humored inquisitions, pretending that the whole notion is silly, but deep down inside you realize that you won’t afford yourself companionship so long as you have this incessant need to make a difference in this world.  But it's more than just a quirk of your personality, isn't it?  Someday, Twilight, you plan to write a book—a comprehensive almanac to all of the most important and timeless bits of magical knowledge that your entire life can ever hope to compile.  And the title of this book, you’ve told me, is 'The Path to Harmony.'  Every morning that you wake up, you think of this book, and you think of Princess Celestia reading it every day after she raises the Sun, long after you are gone, in constant praise of your contributions to this world.  For if there is one thing that you are mortally afraid of, Twilight—as everypony is—it's of being forgotten.”

        When I finished speaking, Twilight was no longer staring at me, but I knew that I had her ears.  A shudder ran through her body, and a single tear ran down her cheeks.  She wiped her face with a hoof, shuddered, and murmured in a voice that was a little too shaky for her own good.

        “How... H-How did all of this happen to you?”

        I knew that I once again had her as my audience.  My heart skipped a beat, but it was approaching night.  I glanced out the window.  The moon wasn't out yet.  Still, I sighed and said, “All I know is that happened while I was in town to visit the Summer Sun Celebration last year.”

        “Last year?”  Twilight sniffled, then blinked wide.  “You mean the night that Nightmare Moon returned?”


        “Something happened to you then that caused this... this...”

        “Curse,” I muttered.  “At least, I'm pretty sure it's a curse.  Heehee... I don't know what else to call it.”

        “But... How?  How does it work?  What are its connections to Princess Luna—I mean, Nightmare Moon?”

         “I've already taken enough time as it is,” I said in a low voice.  “To explain everything is impossible at this point.  You will stop understanding what I'm even trying to say halfway through the whole thing.”

        “Then write it down!” Twilight exclaimed, her wet eyes darting every which way to find a pen and paper.  “Put it down in words so that we can read it and—”

        “The pages will appear blank to you, as well as to any other pony.”  I said with a soft, bittersweet smile.  “Believe me, I've written several words... on several surfaces... in several spots all over Ponyville.  Nopony can see anything, so long as my writing is somehow involved.”

        “Because of the same factor of distance or time?!”  Twilight Sparkle remarked.  On the edge of a panting breath, she suddenly brightened.  “I know!  We'll send a letter to Princess Celestia!  Right now!  The power of green flame could get news of your existence to her in an instant!  Surely she could take care of this 'curse!'  Spiiiike—!”

        I held my hooves up, silencing her.  “We've already tried that.”

        “We have?!”

        “Mmmhmm.  Three times, on separate occasions, months ago.  All that the Princess will receive is a puff of green smoke, then black ashes.  So long as you write something while possessing short-term memory of me, nothing you send gets through the teleportation process.”

        “Then... Then...”  Twilight was fumbling for ideas at this point.  She was trembling all over.  I will always admire her concern and sincerity when she comes to this point of “knowing,” but I also can't stand to see her so distraught.  My only solace is that it never lasts long, and I knew it would only be a matter of time then.  “Oh!  A photograph!”  She started trotting across the library to where a camera rested inside a cabinet.  “We can take a snapshot of you and—”

        “You already have a photo of me.”  I said.  Getting up, I walked over towards a windowsill and pointed at a wide-framed snapshot featuring two colorful ponies in the streets of Canterlot.  “That is to say... it would have a photo of me, only... well.  See for yourself.”

        Twilight looked at the photo of her and Moondancer standing and smiling before the camerapony.  She squinted, as if truly studying the image for the first time.  “Funny... The photographer must have been really off.  There's a lot of space on the left edge of this photo.”

        “Room for a third pony, perhaps?”

        Twilight bit her lip.  She placed the photo back down, gulped, and looked at me.  “You... You could leave town, go to Canterlot, and ask for an audience with... Princess Celestia...” Her words were already trailing off after seeing the expression on my face.

        I shook my head slowly and said, “The same curse that keeps me out of the minds of ponies keeps me stuck within the town limits of Ponyville.”  I walked back to where my lyre and saddlebag were.  “I've hypothesized that it's because both Nightmare Moon and I were here when the curse began.  Whenever I try to leave Ponyville, I'm overcome by a horrible temperature drop, like I’m entering the bitter cold vacuum of space.”  My teeth chattered slightly at the thought of it as I yanked on my sweaterjacket's hood strings for emphasis.  “It's why I have this and the scarf.  Sometimes the cold of the spell creeps in and becomes unbearable.”

        “I...”  Twilight shuddered and slumped down in the middle of the library.  Her voice resembled that of a helpless, whimpering foal.  “I wish there was a way to help you, Lyra.  While I still know enough to do something...”

        “Then do this one thing for me,” I said, lifting the lyre up with magical telekinesis.  I took a deep breath, steeling myself.  “You've done it before, and it's helped me out immensely.  I'm sure you can do it again.”

        “Absolutely!” Twilight stood back up, her eyes bright.  “Tell me what it is!”

        “Help me finish this song.”

        “The one you played earlier?”  She gulped.  “Miss Heartstrings, you're right about one thing: I am doing my best to become a living repository of knowledge, but I'm afraid that music just isn't my forte.”

        “It's not your knowledge that the music should appeal to,” I said softly, grinning.  “It's your heart, Twilight.  You know this tune.  You've heard it before.  I don't need an expert thesis, I just need to know how you feel it should end.”

        “I...”  She bit her lip and stepped up closer, sitting down next to me.  “I think I need to hear it again.”

        I nodded.  Gently, I played the tune for her.  The tempo was a little faster on this playthrough, for night had fallen and I was starting to feel a little bit pressured for time.  Soon enough, the number was finished, and what I had up til then called “Lunar Elegy #7” was suddenly—

        “'The Threnody of Night,'” Twilight murmured.

        “Oh, is that the name of it?”

        “Yes.  At least I think so,” she said with a nervous smile.  “According to Princess Celestia, it was something Luna herself wrote just decades before her banishment.  Luna went through a period of mournful, artistic expression... at least before her jealousy and envy fused with the bitter taint that transformed her into Nightmare Moon.”

        “Do you know the last few bars of it?”

        “I...”  Twilight Sparkle fidgeted.  “I'm telling you, Lyra.  I'm not good at writing down musical notes.  Besides, it'd just turn up blank if I wrote it while in conversation with you, right?”

        “Then hum it,” I said.  “That's what we always did before.  I promise you.”  I winked.  “I'll remember it.”

        “I... I should just hum it?”


        “Okay.  Uhm... Here goes.”

        The sound of the library interior drowned out as an angelic voice navigated a series of invisible chords in the center of the hollowed-out tree.  I listened closely, my heart providing a beat to the melody wafting from Twilight's soul.  Sooner than I had expected, the song came to an end.  It would have brought a tear to my eye if I wasn't so busy giggling.

        “But of course.  Heehee... how bleak.”

        “I swear.  That's how it ends!”  Twilight said.  “I remember it now like it was just yesterday.  The threnody stops abruptly.  I recall questioning the Princess on it.  It was the first time I heard Celestia laugh.  'Luna never knew how to make a graceful exit,' she said.  Huh...”  She shook her head with a goofy grin.  “Funny how I forgot about that moment until now...”

        “It's always funny at first,” I muttered, concentrating as I poured a wave of magic into my lyre and repeated the last few cords that Twilight had hummed for me.  The melody echoed with haunting resonance throughout the wooden chamber.  I now knew how the composition ended.  Another week, another elegy.  It's so simple, it hurts.  “And that's that.”

        “Aren't you going to play the whole thing?”

        “No,” I replied swiftly.  “No, not in here.”  I quietly slid the lyre back into my saddlebag.  “It wouldn't... be safe.”

        Twilight Sparkle squinted.  “The elegy—it has a magical property, doesn't it?”

        “Most of them do, but only after I've salvaged the melodies I hear in my head and compiled them together with my instruments.  They're merely pieces to a grand puzzle I'm struggling everyday to figure out, though I'd be lying if I said that I worked on them completely on my lonesome.  I have you to thank for another elegy's completion, Twilight.”  I smiled at her.  “Somehow, you never fail me.”

        “If only I could do more than that.”

        “Well...”  I stepped back from my saddlebag and turned towards her.  My face avoided her gaze, though.  “I kind of lied earlier when I said that I needed one thing from you.  As a matter of fact, there's something else...”


        “It's...”  I couldn't look at her straight.  Even now, I have a hard time believing that I said what I didthat I had made such a request.  All these months that have gone by, I've told myself that I should be stronger.  I had already gotten what I really needed from Twilight that night, that which could truly help me in my quest for understanding.  There was no point in asking for anything else.  But, I guess I was weaker than I thought, and that's the real reason why I'm writing this otherwise inconsequential entry.  “It's something really weird-sounding, and you can say 'no' if you like.  It's perfectly fine, and I really couldn't blame you...”

        “Lyra...”  Twilight walked closer to me.  “What is it?  What else do you need?”

        I like to think that I'm pretty good at smiling.  It's the best expression to have in any circumstance.  I wear it all the time because I want ponies around me to be happy.  It's what the world deserves, after all.  But standing there, upon the precipice of Twilight's gaze, my smile was as solid as ever.  My eyes, however, weren't.  The image of her fogged over as I finally looked up.

        “Can I ask for a hug?”

        I've talked to Twilight Sparkle no less than fifty times since the curse began.  I've had this same conversation with her about two dozen times.  This occasion, however, was the only time I made this request.  I can't guess exactly why.  Perhaps that afternoon was colder than normal for me.  Perhaps I was thinking about Derpy's sweet child.  Perhaps it was just the threnody—it had ended too terribly short, and I felt as empty as Luna's composition was meant to feel.

        My thoughts ended short too, for I was at the receiving end of Twilight's embrace, and it stole the breath from me... to suddenly be someplace so warm once again.  I happily allowed her to hold me, my forelimbs dangling across her back as I closed my eyes over the shoulder of my foalhood friend.  If forgetfulness was a sin, then I was hardly a saint, for being held in her arms suddenly made me realize that I had lost track of what it was that I was truly searching for.  Music is a gorgeous thing, but it is still only an artifice of the real rhythm that pumps through our veins, heated by our hearts.

        Oh, what fragile things we ponies are, such separate yet special creatures—that we need the felicitous sounds of laughter and harp-strings to bridge the frigid gaps between us that are otherwise filled by dust and tears.  I wanted suddenly to tell Twilight so many things, but I knew that words would fail us both.  Besides, words will only be forgotten.  Our loving friendship is immortal, and the best thing to have conveyed such truth is the one thing that we did.  If that hug had lasted forever, I would have been fine with my name losing all meaning.

        “Thank you, Twilight,” I said, once more embracing the chill as we parted ways.  I sniffled only once, and the smile returned to fill the brief void that had swallowed my expression.  “That means more to me than you can imagine.”

        “I only wish it was enough,” she murmured sadly.  She stared for a moment into space, then suddenly brightened with a happy gasp.  “I know!  A memory spell!”  She scampered towards a tall bookcase looming on the far end of the foyer.  “If I can cast a powerful enough incantation, maybe we can counteract whatever this curse is and keep you from being forgotten until the Princess and I can come up with a real solution!”

        I sighed.  “Twilight, save your energy.  It didn't work the last time you tried, nor any of the times before that.”  I stood still as she dashed all around me, collecting more and more tomes from the walls of the place.  “It's best that you don't work yourself up—”

        “No, seriously!  This is a spell that Starswirl the Bearded invented!”

        “You mean the Concentration Buffer?”  I murmured, gazing up at the window.  I saw a sliver of moonlight, and my heart sank.

        “Yes!  How'd you know?  Anyways, if I can find the formula and cast it with a sprinkle of mana-dust as a reagent, I just might be able to—”  Her words stopped just as soon as her hoofsteps did.

        A chill ran through my body.  Vapor escaped my lips.  I didn't want to turn around.  I never want to turn around and look at the pony when this happens.  But every time, I do.  And I did then.

        Twilight Sparkle was standing dead-still in the middle of the room with a glowing horn.  She had several books hovering all around her.  She looked at them curiously, as if they were a swarm of annoying moths.

        “What... What was I...?”  She blinked, frowned, and floated the books back to their respective holes in the shelves.  “This is no time for side projects!  I've got Heroes in Equestrian Literature to unpack.”  She finished putting the books away, turned around, and instantly yelped upon the sight of me.  “Eeep!  Wow... uhm... h-hi there!  Where did you come from, Miss...?”

        “I apologize,” I said.  I was already sliding my saddlebag on.  “I didn't mean to startle you.  I was just finishing with... with a project of mine.”

        “I see.  Well, I don't mean to sound rude or anything,” Twilight said with a sheepish smile, “But the library will be closing in about—”  She glanced up at the clock and did a double-take.  “Oh!  It’s past seven!  Uhm, we're closed!  We've been closed for... goodness, about fifteen minutes now?

        “I see.  Well, I'll be on my way.”  I curtsied and made for the door.  “So long, ma'am.  I wish you a pleasant evening.”

        “Heeheehee... Same to you, miss.”  As I trotted away, I heard her calling towards the far end of the hollow tree, “Spiiiiike?  Where the hay are you?  These parcels won't unpack themselves!  We can have supper after we're done!”

        Today, a few hours before writing this, I stood once again on the corner of Main Street in sunny, downtown Ponyville.  I knew better than to play the entirety of “Threnody of Night” in public, so I only performed tiny snippets of it, so that I would learn them by heart when it came time to perform a true recital in private.

        Many ponies stopped by, and a good few of them dropped bits into the metal can I had lying beneath me.  I saw Dr. Whooves, Granny Smith, Carrot Top, and several more pleasant faces.  However, I didn't lose concentration until one pony in particular showed up.  Before she got too close, I stealthily nudged the box of bits with my rear left hoof, hiding it beyond view of a green bush behind me.

        “My, what a heavenly tune!” Rarity said, her sapphire eyes bright and sparkling in the noonday sun as she stood before me with her saddlebag. “But dear, you look positively freezing!  Tell me, are you ill?”

        “I'm... uhm... I'm perfectly fine,” I said with a smile, not once losing the rhythm of my telekinetic string-strumming.  “I'm not sick.  I just tend to feel colder than the average pony.  But I've got this wonderful hoodie and this lovely scarf, see?”

        “It is a good thing too!” Rarity said, pacing around me.  “I cannot stand to see a gifted musician such as yourself freeze to death!  Good choice on the scarf, darling.  It matches your eyes delightfully so.”

        “That's what the pony who gave it to me said,” I remarked.

        “Well, if you ask me, I think you deserve it.  Your music really makes a stroll across this town of ours all the more beautiful.  I daresay I'm tempted to hoof you some bits just to show you how appreciative I am.”

        “Heehee...” I cleared my throat and struggled to maintain the melody.  “Believe me, that's not necessary.  I... I-I wouldn't even think of it,” I said, though my lungs were already deflating shamefully.

        “Nonsense!”  Rarity waved her hoof and said, “Haven't you heard, dear?  Generosity is the lens of the heart!  How else are we going to see how truly lucky we each are for being alive?”  She tilted her head up.  “But, if you insist, I will leave you be to your smashing instrumentation.  Perhaps we can meet again?”

        I found it easier to breathe.  I looked up at her and smiled.  “Yes.  I'm sure we will.”

        “Splendid.  Ta-Ta, madame maestro!  Heeheehee...”  And she was gone.

        An hour later, I was seated inside Sugarcube Corner, cradling a cup of tea in my hooves.  I didn't take a single sip.  All I did was stare into the tiny wisps of steam rising from the drink, unenthused at how cold it felt against the memory of my first gracious hug in months.

        A jar full of bits rested on my table.  After four consecutive days of performing in the center of Ponyville, I had once again accumulated enough money to buy the materials I needed for my little experiment.  I now had the “Threnody of Night” down pat, but it wasn't just enough to perform the musical composition in full.  I needed to purchase the right magical ingredients for in case something went wrong.  After all, I had gone down that road before—and not even the world's entire supply of scarves or sweaters could have saved me from the coldness that I found lying beyond the final notes played by my lyre.

        If I didn't keep working on this project of mine, then I might lose any opportunity I had of climbing out of this accursed pit I was in.  Why, then, did I feel as though I was about to commit a sin with those bits?  I've taken advantage of my “situation” before, procuring many things that I've not been entirely proud of even though the ends justified the means.  But suddenly now, after how far I've come—after the hug—I wondered if I could really live with myself after I... find myself.

        “Oh, wow!  A lyre.  Tell me, are you a musician?”

        “Hmm?”  I looked up.  I admit it—I did a double-take.  “Oh, uhm.  Yeah.  Something like that.”

        Twilight Sparkle smiled at me from where she stood in the middle of the cafe.  “I've always admired musicians, cuz so many of my unicorn friends went on to study music while I stayed in other fields at Canterlot.  I wish I had taken time to understand music theory.  It's both fascinating and beautiful.”

        I exhaled softly.  “It's remarkable how so much in life can be those two things at once, isn't it?”

        “Oh!  Uhm... I'm sorry.  Listen to me going on and on and on,” Twilight muttered, rolling her eyes above a goofy grin.  “Ahem.  I'm Twilight Sparkle.  I'm in charge of the Ponyville Library in the east district.”

        “You're also the apprentice to Princess Celestia and the living Element of Magic responsible for banishing the tainted essence of Nightmare Moon.”

        “Oh...”  Twilight smiled sheepishly, her lavender ears drooping.  “So you've heard about all of that stuff too, huh?”

        “Is it so hard to believe?”  I took a sip of the tea finally.  Perhaps it wasn't so cold after all.  “Some of us do more to be remembered than others.  I play music—you save all of Equestria.”  I lifted the teacup in “cheers” and smiled.  “Somewhere, you and I will meet.  Hmmm?”

        She blinked steadily at me, then giggled.  “Eheheh... Yeah.  To each their own, right?”

        “Most practical rule in my book.”

        “Well, you should come by the library sometime.  I'd be more than happy to show you all the volumes we have on music theory.  I've got at least twelve books written on ancient Equestrian lyres alone.  I bet you'd eat them right up.”

        “Heeheehee...”  I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I already had.  Twice.  “If the need ever comes up, Miss Sparkle, I just may take you up on that offer.”

        “I hope you do,” Twilight said with a soft smile.  “We each have our own talents.  Sharing them is... is like a way to get to know each other better.  And what better way to not feel alone in this world than to do what we do best and share it with other ponies?  That's the essential key to harmony, at least I think so.”

        I listened to her, and instinctively my eyes fell upon the jar of golden bits.  It suddenly became clear to me.  “I believe it was a wise pony who once said that 'Generosity is the lens of the heart.  How else are we going to see how truly lucky we each are for being alive?'”

        “Hmmm... Whoever said that sounds really eloquent.”

        I nodded.  “Fabulously so.”

        “Well, enjoy your tea.  I'm off to go meet my friends.  So long.”  Twilight Sparkle waved and left.  I turned in my seat and returned to my tea, when suddenly I heard something.  Tilting my head back around, my ears pricked to capture a hauntingly familiar threnody.  Twilight was humming the last few bars of the most recent elegy, and she had a smile on her face as did she so.  I almost wondered if she understood it, but then I realized it wasn't important.

        I breathed happily and snatched my things up, starting with the jar of golden bits.  I knew suddenly what to do with my afternoon.  My experiment could wait.  What's one more week dropped into the well of nothingness?

        That evening, a long slender package magically floated up to the front of a Ponyvillean residence west of downtown.  It brushed up against the doorbell.  I struggled from afar to push with my telekinesis, and soon the package was ringing the front entrance.  After the gong had rhythmically begun and ended, I lowered the package and squatted behind a tree in the front yard.

        After several seconds, the door opened.  Derpy Hooves stared out, teetering, her googly eyes tired and bleary from a full afternoon of delivering parcels and letters all around Ponyville.  She glanced left and right, and for a moment I was afraid she was going to miss the recent purchase I had made at the store before coming there.

        Finally, one of her amber eyes rotated down—and she caught sight of the item.  Her brow furrowed.  She knelt down and nudged it, as if afraid that the box might come alive and jump out at her.  The experienced mailmare fiddled with the package, looking all over for a tag or some sort of identification that might indicate the sender.  On a whim, she gripped the edges of the box and flung it open.  Immediately, her jaw dropped.

        I watched quietly, biting my lip.

        Derpy fell on her haunches.  A shuddering breath left her as she removed a slender, golden flute from the box and cradled it in her gray hooves.  Her eyes focused on the instrument—both of them—and soon they filled with tears.  Stifling a whimper, Derpy smiled and scrambled up on all fours.

        “Dinky!  My little muffin!”  She bolted back into the house.  “Look!  Look what Mommy found for you!”  The door slowly creaked shut behind her, but not without letting the squeaks of a gleeful foal escape through its frame.

        For the second time in days, I felt the warmth of Twilight Sparkle's hug, but I didn't need another pony to be there for it.  I was alone, like always, and though I may have been several bits short of starting the next leg of my musical experimentation, it was something I was willing to wait out.

        Perhaps... just perhaps, the sweetest things that happen in life are the ones that history isn't here to record.

        With a smile, I pulled the hood of my sweatjacket over my horn, turned around, and trotted under the crimson kiss of the sunset.  Ponyville didn't stop being gorgeous, not for one second.

        Have you ever had a beautiful melody stuck in your head, but you don't know where it came from?

        That melody is me.

Background Pony

I - “Melodious”

by shortskirtsandexplosions

Special thanks to: Spotlight, Vimbert, Demetrius, and Sanlando Park

Cover pic by Spotlight:

        Dear Journal,

        What happens to us between sleeping and waking?  Every night, when the moon rises, we march like sheep into that deep darkness, not knowing what truth mechanizes the spaces between our heartbeats during such long and noble silence.  Are we really the same ponies when we wake up?  Or is what rises with the morning merely a carbon copy of the thinking creature that had laid itself down the evening before?  What a strange homunculus that thing must be, a golem crafted after the flimsy blueprint of a slumbering soul's final thoughts, that it is no wonder that all of our ambitions, aspirations, and hopes are only residually pursued until the bitter end.

        What, then, should we call our dreams?  Are they the manifestations of regret?  Are they the substance of all our attachments thrown into a searing crucible of mortal fear?  Do we dream because we know of loss, of all its colorlessness, across which our wills and desires shatter like eggshells dashed against a brick wall?

        I used to believe in these things.  I saw the fall of night like the mistress of death.  Dreaming was a threadbare, skittering whisper—like the a flutter of gray wings or the curling legs of an overturned moth after a short and fruitless life of chasing the invisible purpose behind flame.  When a pony is alone—and lucid—whilst cast before the great looming darkness of a world that forgets her, dreams serve nothing more than a dissonant overture to a symphony of screams.

        It was with a very mad notion, then, that I once stumbled upon a miraculous epiphany: a dream is much like a song.  Very often do ponies forget the title of the instrumental.  On other occasions, ponies are even likely to forget the name of the composer.  What is not lost between that impermeable gap of sleeping and waking is the tune, the indefinable voice that plays with our ears like a mother licks her newborn foal.  And when we open our eyes to the golden glow of a new dawn, it is something more than our bodies that animates us, something that gives us the tempo to which our hearts can dance, something that makes us crawl out of our beds like a resurrected soul is blessed to climb out of a tomb.

        Life is a very impossible thing, bleak and dark and dastardly at every turn.  But something in the cold void of night—something as black if not blacker than death itself—slips a tune into our meaty hearts as a gardener plants a seed in inert soil.  What grows from our dreams is a symphony, at times an orchestra that has no artist.  And like that orchestra, we blossom against the nothingness, until our search—our growth—becomes life itself, becomes something impossible, like remembering the name of a musician that you were never introduced to, only to learn that it was yourself the whole time.

        I do very much love to dream.  Does that make me mad?  I daresay, it makes me alive.

        It was the eve of the Summer Sun Celebration.  All across Ponyville, ponies gathered in happy little clusters, forming circles around brilliant bonfires that shone like amber plumes under the crimson kiss of a sunset.  The air was filled with laughter, murmur, and music as the villagers prepared  for the annual tradition of an entire night spent awake in the joyful sway of camaraderie.  Princess Celestia was visiting Baltimare that year, but that didn't stop the Ponyvilleans from eagerly greeting the morning sunrise and giving thanks to their patron alicorn for bringing light to Equestria each day.

        One soul, however, was anything but jubilant.  The earth pony sat alone beside a bonfire, displaced from the thick of the crowd.  There was a sullen shadow over his orange coat and earthen brown mane that night, and it matched the stallion's melancholic expression as he stared tiredly into the flames, his ears barely pricking to the music that wafted over his slumped shoulders.  As the day slowly died around him—forming a purple roof to the village full of summer merriment—his eyes closed and he exhaled a cold sigh.

        Just then, there was a cheerful voice echoing over the crackling, burning pyre before him.  “Caramel!  Hey there, dude!  What's happening?!”

        Caramel looked up with a start, then breathed easier.  He bore a practiced grin, as sweet as his name and yet just as flimsy.  “Hey there, Thunderlane... Blossomforth.  What are you two up to?”

        The pegasus couple shuffled up to the bonfire where Caramel was seated.  “We were about to ask you the same thing, dude!”  Thunderlane exclaimed.  “The gang's all hanging out beside the town hall building.”

        “Rumor has it that the mayor's godchild—a Wonderbolt—is visiting from Cloudsdale!” Blossomforth added with a grin, her freckles illuminated by the nearby tongues of flame.  “Supposedly he's gonna do some air tricks for all of us before the fireworks start at moonrise!”

        “Hmmm... Sounds pretty sweet,” Caramel said with a grin, albeit a grin that was already crumbling.  “But, face it, guys.  Your little clique of pegasi is awesome, but I always feel like a dead weight when I'm around you.”

        “Nonsense!”  Blossomforth's face grew long.  “How could you say that, Caramel?  We love it when you hang around.”

        “Yeah, besides...”  Thunderlane wagged his eyebrows.  “Wind Whistler's gonna be there—”

        “Shhh!” Blossomforth lightly slapped Thunderlane's chest with one of her milk-white wings.  “Thunder!  What did we talk about earlier...?”

        “Jeez!  Sorry!  I was only trying to—!”

        Caramel cleared his throat.  He stared at the two and said, “You're both Souls of Solstice tonight, aren't you?”

        The two pegasi glanced back at him, then smiled bashfully.  Their cheeks turned matching shades of red as they dug at the ground with errant hooves.

        “Yes, well...”

        “So what if it's our second time in a row being Souls of Solstice?”

        “There's just no other choice, really...”

        “I know all of the ponies have been talking about us since Hearts and Hooves Day, but...”

        “Egads... heeheehee... Is it really such a big deal?”

        Caramel smiled softly at them, a very genuine thing.  “I'm glad for you two.  I'm sure every other pony is as well.  I hope your Summer Sun Celebration is fantastic and memorable.  As for myself... I really just want to sit here and relax.  A lot of stuff has happened over the past year, and this has been my first opportunity to... to just think... y'know?”

        “But it doesn't mean that you have to think alone, does it?” Blossomforth asked with a look of sympathy bathing her features.  “This is a special night, Caramel.  You have friends.  In fact, Windy was just talking the other day about how she—oh... erm...”  She bit her lip guiltily and glanced up at Thunderlane.

        Thunderlane smiled, nuzzled her, and glanced one last time Caramel's way.  “You sure you won't change your mind, bro?”

        “Go on, Souls of Solstice,” Caramel spoke in a detached voice.  He closed his eyes and once more relaxed to the musical chords that were softly serenading his lonesome ears into the crest of night.  “Embrace the sunrise together.  Don't worry about me.”

        The two pegasi slowly, sadly left his side.  Their hooves were distant shuffles amidst the bonfire's crackling embers.  Once his friends were nothing but a memory, Caramel sighed.  He opened his eyes and dug twin circles in the dirt between him and the flames, as if mapping out a solemn eternity for himself.

        It was precisely then that the music died.  “It's a lot like dreaming, isn't it?”

        Caramel blinked awkwardly.  He raised his head, glancing all around, until his gaze finally fell upon me.  “Uhm... What's like dreaming?” he asked.

        “Living,” I said.  I stood a few meters behind him, my body leaning up against a wooden post.  My lyre levitated in front of me as I reached two hooves up and lowered the stone-gray hoodie from over my horn.  “Sunrise and sunset: our days pass by between sleeping and waking.  It's like a constantly changing stage-play with the darkest curtains imaginable.”  I smiled softly and began magically plucking the strings of the lyre.  The instrument was leading the conversation; my words were merely a background chorus.  “You look like an actor who's lost his motivation.  Dare I ask why?

“Look, thanks for your concern, but I’m really just here to relax with my thoughts, if you don’t mind,” he said.  “You can, uhm.  You can play your music though.  It’s nice to listen to.”

“Hmmm... Very well then.”  I smiled gently and resumed plucking my strings with soft magic.  “Music it is.”

But as the melody resumed, Caramel was hardly at ease.  He fidgeted, his limbs jolting with an jittery nature that rivaled the snapping embers of the burning pyre.  Finally, he spoke up.  “My friends just wouldn’t understand.”

“Hmm?” I uttered from where I was strumming.  “What was that?”

“My friends.  The pegasi who were here just now.”

“The ones who trotted off happily without you?  Who can blame them? This should be a night of celebration, yes?”

        “Well, yeah...”

        “And is there a reason why you’re not celebrating with them?”

        “Oh, it's nothing important,” Caramel said.

“Very well then.  I’ll just be here with my music,” I uttered, barely hiding a smile.

His jaw tensed.  After a flaring of his nostrils, Caramel muttered aloud, “I used to love this annual event.  But this year, it’s not so easy.”  He spoke to me, and yet I was a perfect stranger.  Something in the worn edges of his face announced a desperate need to speak, or else I would have never bothered ushering the truth from him to begin with.  “If nothing else, the Summer Sun Celebration reminds me that so much time has gone by...”  He weathered a shuddering sigh, his blue eyes returning to the blazes before him.  “...and so little good has come of it.”

        “I see.” I nodded, filling the air with a somber melody that matched the pitch in his voice.  “So, somepony has a hard time sleeping—much less dreaming.”

        He smirked slightly, then squinted at me.  “You're not from around here, are you?”

        “I'm not about to spread any horrible rumors that your acquaintances would ever remember, if that's what you mean to ask.”

        “Oh, it's not that,” he spoke, though the wavering in his voice put his honesty in question.  “It's just that... it's the Summer Sun Celebration, and everypony should be home where they're happy.”  He gulped and added, “They should be with the ones they love.”

        “I am... a long way from home,” I said in a cold breath.  It was all too quickly replaced with a warm smile as I plucked the lyre boldly, happily.  “But the ones I love?  Heeheehee.  I wouldn't abandon them for an instant.  Now, what about you, good sir?”

        “I...”  Caramel's face winced as if a horrible dagger was burrowing through him.  “It's complicated.”

        “What can be so complicated that it wrecks something as simple as finding another Soul of Solstice?” I remarked with a grin.  I hummed briefly to accompany the notes of my lyre before speaking once more, “It's a tradition as old as time.  When Princess Celestia first raised the Sun over Equestria, she discovered three pairs of ponies—the ancestors of unicorns, earth ponies, and pegasi—and she blessed these Souls of Solstice with the light they needed to begin a civilization of glory, honor, and love.  To this day, everypony has a treasured soul that they cherish above all else.  I'm sure you're no exception.”

        “Hmmm... Yeah...” Caramel mumbled.  “I suppose it's just that I'm afraid.”

        “Aren't we all?”

        “But it's no excuse!” he exclaimed, frowning, though the anger was hardly aimed at me.  “Things have been so tough, lately.  I can handle it all on my own.  But Windy...”  Caramel's frown dissolved to allow a grimace to cross his face.  He sighed, slumping once more to the ground before the bonfire.

        I hummed and strummed a few chords before glancing his way.  “I assume you speak of this 'Wind Whistler' that your companions mentioned a moment ago.”

        “Hmmph... She's a very special mare in my life,” Caramel said, his gaze melting in the flames.  “You said that living is like dreaming, right?  When Windy's around, it's always a good dream, and I never want to wake up.  She's so kind, so cheerful, so honest and smart.  She takes me apart with her laughter, as if I was made of matchsticks, and only the sound of her voice can put me back together again.”

        “Heeheehee...”  I giggled and paused in strumming my lyre.  “Methinks I picked William Flankspeare's bonfire this year.”

        He smirked and glanced at me through the corner of his eyes.  “Wind Whistler herself has said that I sound like a poet.  Though, when I'm around her, I feel like there are marbles in my mouth.  I just can never say the right thing.”

        “Words seldom work when we want them to,” I said.  Righteously, I resumed strumming the lyre, filling the spaces between my breath with harmony.  “So why isn't Wind Whistler here with you?  I'd pay a hundred bits to see marbles spill out of a grown stallion's mouth.”

        “I'd ask her to be Souls of Solstice with me in a hearbeat.  But...”

        “But what?”

        “It wouldn't be right,” he said defeatedly.


        Caramel gulped.  After a collapsing breath, he finally let it all out.  “Life on my family's farm has hit rock bottom.  Our celery stalks are dying, and we can't produce the crops to meet this year's coming harvest.  My mother and father have resorted to selling livestock, but even that isn't helping us where we need it to.  I've taken on two separate jobs in town just to provide the support that I can, but I fear that it's already too late.  My family's gotten in contact with some distant relatives in Whinniepeg.  We're seriously thinking about moving out of town before Hearth's Warming, ditching the farm—selling it and everything.  I suppose I could stay in Ponyville, but what kind of a life would that be?  In a best case scenario, I'd be living out of an apartment, barely finding time to sleep between two—maybe even three jobs.”

        “It most definitely sounds like a case of hard luck,” I said with a sagely nod.  “Though, I must be forward and ask—just what does this have to do with the fact that you're not spending time with Wind Whistler at the moment?”

        “We've been getting closer and closer for the better part of a year,” Caramel said.  “She knows only so little about all of the horrible stuff that I've been going through.  Things in my life are about to get crazier, and... and...”  He clenched his eyes shut and shuddered briefly.  “She's so happy and full of life.  She doesn't need to be weighed down by a lousy earth pony like me.  She doesn't need my troubles clouding her blue skies.  I... I love her.  I really do, and that's why I gotta let her go...”

        I hit a heavy note.  Its reverberations danced sharply between us as I cast a curious glance his way.  “Oh really?”

        “If I ask her to be my Soul of Solstice, it'd only be giving the wrong message,” he muttered.  “It's the Summer Sun Celebration, the mark of a new year—for me, at least.  It's time I committed myself to what I need to do for my future... and for her future as well.”  He gazed woefully into the flames, as if the happier colors of his life were being tossed into the consuming fire.  “It's time that I just... gave up... gave Windy up.  It's all for the best.”

        “Hmmm...”  I nodded.  “It's always for the best when we let a dream die before it finishes itself,” I said in a droning voice.  “After all, when the dream gets us to where we want to be, then there's no point in dreaming any longer, is there?”

        Caramel blinked.  He glanced up at me with a scrunched face.  “Huh?”

        I giggled.  “Heeheehee... Doesn't make much sense to you either, does it?”  I resumed strumming, this time tossing a cheerful rhythm his way.  “Tell me, have you ever heard the Tale of the Mad Pony?”

        “Uhmm...”  Caramel scratched his own head in confusion, then ultimately smirked at me.  “What?  You fancy yourself a bard?”

        “I've been sillier things before.  Would you like to hear it?”

        “What, the tale?”  He gulped and turned once more towards the flames.  “I dunno.  Is it long?”

        I glanced up at the western horizon.  There was still a sliver of crimson across the edge of the world.  The moon was nowhere to be seen.  “It's short enough, as are all good things in this precious world.  If you would prefer, I'll say nothing and let my lyre do the talking.  It makes very little difference either way—”

        “Eh, I'm good.  I'm not really going anywhere.”  He sighed and stared off at the distant bonfires where other ponies were currently engaged in crowded conversations, and all of them laced with the cheerfulness he was sorely lacking.  “Besides, I could use a good story.  Life's been a dull novel as of late.”

        I smiled.  The best audience is an innocent audience.  The challenge is in keeping that audience innocent through to the end of the story.  Without a moment's hesitation, I raised the lyre high above my head and let the ensuing notes soar majestically above the reach of the bonfire's flame.

        “The Tale of the Mad Pony starts in a town—much like this one—and during a Summer Sun Celebration—just as jubilant and fancy as the one we're about to enjoy now...

        “The villagers of this town were full of ecstasy and joy.  You see, the eve of the Summer Sunrise was a lot longer and immeasurably darker than most that year, so that when the Princess finally raised the dawn, it was all the more bright and invigorating.  Everypony danced and sang in the streets with glee—all except for one pony, an equine from out-of-town who discovered that she had very little to be happy about.  As a matter of fact, she would soon learn that she had every reason to be mad.

        “It started very subtly at first.  Ponies would look at her twice, each time with the same expression.  Then ponies would wave at her more than once, as if greeting her over and over again.  Then there were citizens that she absolutely knew she had come into contact with before, only they treated her as though she was as much a stranger as she was when she first arrived in town days before.

        “'I don't get it.  Haven't we talked before?' she would ask them.  'Weren't you there to treat me when I woke up in the hospital from a concussion?  And you—weren't you two the ones who found me unconscious in the shadow of the town hall building just this morning?'

        “The ponies merely gave her blank gazes, shook their heads, and carried on with their vibrant celebration.  The entire town was in the throes of Summer Sun festivities, and there the one pony was, standing all by herself, coming to terms with the fact that she was not only alone in her predicament, but she was cursed.

        “Of course she was cursed.  What else would you call her sudden situation?  She began shoving her face into the gaze of every pony she could find, her rapid breath reaching a fever pitch as she asked, begged, demanded that someone remember her.  With each attempt, the villagers only grew more and more oblivious to her desperation.  It was as though every single thing she said, shouted, or sobbed was immediately thrown into a deep well of forgetfulness.  It's one thing to be ostracized, banished, even executed.  It's a horrible thing to be ignored, to have one's worth and mettle treated like dust long before one's fate in a grave.

        “'Why are you all doing this?!' she began to shriek, to scream.  'Is this some kind of cruel joke?!  Somepony!  Anypony!  Please, pay attention to me!'

        “But her pleas fell on deaf ears.  No matter how startled or shocked a villager was, he or she would only forget about her moments later.  She began to wonder if she was dreaming, for only a nightmare could be painted with such heartless colors.  In desperation, the pony resorted to drama befitting an absurd stage-play, and began kicking her hooves all about, knocking down effigies of the Princess and shattering market vendors full of celestial trinkets.

        “When even these feats of hysteria weren't enough to faze her fellow equines, she went against her better nature—against her last bulwark of decency—and tossed a Summer Sun torch into a nearby flower garden, setting ablaze the front of the town's court building.  Immediately, the festival ceased as every villager within view of the smoldering chaos ran to grab buckets of water and stop the inferno.  The pony merely stood there within the glow of her conflagration, boasting loudly about her horrible act of arson.  And, sure enough, a pair of police stallions hoisted her towards the jail on the far end of town.

        “The pony couldn't possibly have been happier.  She greeted the officers with tears of joy, practically hugging them any chance she got, happily allowing them to cart her off to a barred cell—if only it meant that she did indeed exist somewhere, somehow.  Imagine her dismay when by the time they dragged her to the station, they stopped dead in their tracks, blinking dizzily as if coming out of a sleeping spell.  They apologized profusely to the pony for the trouble and set her free, so that she stumbled numbly through the streets, trying to imagine if what had just transpired was indeed real or a bitter hallucination.

        “And then she returned to the town's court building and almost fainted.  Not only were all of the flames put out and the damage repaired, but everypony was once again celebrating—oblivious to the return of the violent firestarter—as if not a single atrocity had been committed that day.  The pony soon realized that she could be either a saint or a sinner, and yet neither side of the moral compass mattered at all.  She was just as important as the shadows of her own breath, and even those were becoming threadbare things.

        “That wasn't what made her mad.  No, the final gossamer strand to her sanity had yet to be snapped.  She trudged through town—her heart as heavy as her hooves—as she made for the village library.  It was there that she'd find a pony whom she knew—beyond the shadow of a doubt—would remember her from their mutual childhood.  It was the one soul who had brought her to the village for the Summer Sun Celebration to begin with, and surely she would break the dark cloud forming around her accursed life.  As soon as she knocked on the door and her friend's bright face appeared, the pony immediately gasped for joy.  But that rapturous exhalation would be her last, for the pony saw on her friend's face the same blank expression of confusion that had swarmed across the whole of town.

        “Losing the love of a friend is like a death that has no funeral.  Entire galaxies have dissolved over the eons and even they are worthless things.  No living thing should face a reality like that, to be an island with no sea—only the perpetual blackness of apathy, encompassing. Ponies aren't born to be alone.  It's just not in our blood.  We attract to one another.  We are cohesive: like water.  The void of the universe exists only because we are here in the center to point in all directions away from ourselves and label that which is missing, that which is more cold and frightening than a winter's night, that which hungers for us because it can never understand—as we understand—what it means to be warm, to be happy, to be together.

        “The mad pony's hope died that day, but she soon realized that it wouldn't be her only death.  Her nightmare was a thick black prison layered with multiple fatalities.  She died every time she so much as talked to a pony, looked at a pony, or shared the same atmosphere as them.  It was horrible enough to be forgotten—but to be ignored over and over again by the same souls with no cessation in sight?  She lurched through the streets like the corpse she suddenly realized she would forever be, woefully stretching the lengths of her mind in want of a solution to a horrible dream that she kept waking up from, and yet would never end.

        “How do you wake from an endless dream?  It was no longer a matter of living or not living.  She had to assault the dream—that damnable masquerade of misery—and then the pain and loneliness would stop.  What lay beyond the last breath of slumber may have been blacker than black, but the pony suddenly realized that oblivion was harmless to a soul no longer possessed with the ability to see.

        “The day was coming to an end, and the Celebration had come and gone.  All of the festive decorations had been removed from the center of town.  It was late in the evening; citizens were getting ready to sleep.  She was getting ready to sleep too.

        “Then, all of the sudden, one of two earth ponies glanced up from where they were bundling equipment and saw the mad pony standing on the fourth story ledge of town hall.  He immediately gasped, his sapphire eyes full of shock and horror, the same look that she had tried so hard all day to summon.  Only, now it was too late.  Regardless, he waved a hoof at her while shouting towards his comrade.

        “'Oh dear Celestia!  Quick, go fetch a pegasus—anypony that can fly!'  As his buddy galloped off in a desperate breath, he trotted boldly to the edge of the building and peered up at her.  'Ma'am, I don't know what you're going through and I can't pretend to, but please—this can't possibly be the answer.  There's got to be another way!'

        “But the mad pony was past reasoning with.  If her tears weren't evidence enough, then perhaps her disheveled mane and muddied coat spoke volumes to the shocked stallion below.  'Just stop!  Just stop talking!' she shrieked.  'Your words are meaningless!  They mean nothing!  Soon you won't even remember me!  I'm as good as dead—I should be dead already!'

        “'No!  Don't say that!  Nopony deserves to die needlessly!'  The stallion reached a hoof towards her from afar.  'I promise that we won't forget you!  Just walk away from the ledge and let us talk to you!'

        “'There's nothing you can promise me that won't get swallowed in time!' she said, hiccuping, struggling to maintain her breaths.  Her soul teetered upon the brink and threatened to pull her body along with it.  Ponies who fall in their dreams were never known to hit the ground.  She was more than ready to test that theory.  'This village means nothing to me!  It's a prison!  Nothing more!  Nothing!'

        “'Look...' the earth pony below raised both of his front hooves and spoke calmly, soothingly, though his shivers briefly matched hers.  'Even if everything is as horrible and bad as you believe it to be, this isn't going to solve it!  This isn't going to make anything better!  You need to have faith and step away from the edge!  Don't allow yourself to go before your time!'

        “Finally, the mad pony had had enough.  'Why?!' she spat down at him, furious.  'Why shouldn't I just jump?!  Why shouldn't I just end the nightmare once and for all?!'

        “He looked up at her, but it was a different stallion somehow, or so she noticed him for the first time—as so many of the villagers had noticed her for the first time, only to forget.  But this time, there would be no forgetting, and she realized it was because she was the means of that memory, a power that she always had, but was only then echoing across the cave of her punishing situation.  Perhaps it was the drooping of his ears, or the soft shape of his lips, or the glossing over of his sapphire eyes that conveyed the meaning in his words to her.  Whatever the case, a part of the mad pony that she thought had disappeared with her sanity suddenly bore the brunt of his message, like a little foal being woken up by a soft melody tickling the inside of her ears, and embracing the golden dawn with a chorus as old as time:

        Because you are so special, so precious, and this world would be a lot less worth enjoying if you chose to leave it.

        “The mad pony was silent.  She stared down at the stallion.  He was a perfect stranger.  He didn't know her, and in a matter of minutes he never would again, and yet that didn't stop him from appealing to the deepest part of her, the part of her that was still warm, for he had reminded her that it was still there.  In mere seconds, he could very well have made her... or remade her, for the very simple fact that he could, and wanted to.  He was the one who was precious, for he didn't know that in a matter of time he would be gone, a mere shadow burned against the walls of the mad pony's beleaguered mind.

        “And it was then that she realized how selfish she had been in her anguish and despair.  She was not the one dying multiple times, over and over again.  These ponies—these beautiful villagers were the ones dying repeatedly.  They were nothing more than amnesiac shades of their past hosts, paper facades of souls that had once graced the earth with the right to bear every thought that crossed their mind into righteous permanence, but couldn't because the mad pony was there to bring their dreams to an end.

        “The entire village was dying, with ponies falling left and right into oblivion, for she—a cursed pony—had the blatant audacity to gallop across their lives and impart her pestilence upon them.  And there were so many of them, countless ponies who briefly laughed and smiled at her, far too many to dig graves for, only to sing songs of—like the vibrating tune coming to life in the back of her head, a chorus that repeated itself louder and louder with each hearbeat, for hers was beating for the stallion's, for his priceless words that would soon rocket their way into oblivion far faster than she could ever jump her pitiful self.  All of these ponies' faces were snapshots, joyous and beautiful until the end of time, like she had every ability to be, if only she was courageous, if only she was mad—mad for the sake of making a life out of a nightmare and discovering the secret colors hidden within.

        “Before this epiphany finished illuminating her more than any sunrise ever could, a cold chill ran across her body, and she knew that something that was briefly there was lost forever, because the stallion was already starting to blink dazedly like a waking infant in his crib.  But as the stallion's dream ended, and his tears disappeared, they rediscovered themselves in her eyes.  She smiled for the first time in days, and stepped away from the edge of the buildingside.”

        My lyre lamented the end of the day.  Though it had a sad sound to it, it was laced with happiness, as my gentle smile was.  I stood across from Caramel, finishing the story under the purple blanket-spread of falling night.

        “The mad pony's curse did not end that day.  As a matter of fact, it was only the beginning.  But with it was born something else, a deep and sincere warmth that would carry her through the frigid months to come.  Her madness would be her drive.  It'd give her the bravery and persistence she needed to live the life of a lunatic's dream, singing songs to those who would forget the face of the performer with the meager hope that they'd find meaning in the performance.  For, you see, a memory is only a shadow once it's been lived, once it's been drained of all its flavor.  However, it is music that can carry the sincere vibrations of one's heartrstrings, like a tune that wakes us from our darkest dreams, or a timeless carol that pierces all of history's legacies of death and loss.  The stallion taught this to the mad pony.  In one simple breath, he showed her that no matter how bleak her curse was, she still had the power—and the duty—to seize the moment and live.  Life is the only dream that we can control, and it only ends once we've searched every dark corner of it for color and transformed it into song.”

        My music ended, and the sudden void pulled the breath sharply out of Caramel's lungs.  He gazed softly at me, blind to the bonfire flickering beside us, as though it was a far duller beacon than what I was shining upon him right then and there.

        “That's a beautiful tale,” he murmured.  “It's sad.  And yet... yet...”

        “You cannot have sadness without felicity,” I said softly, my grin as fragile as my next few words.  “We are here now—happy and healthy and delightful.  But, like a memory, even this too will fade away, and I’ll then share songs with a void.  Loss and love have their places in this world.  We can accept them with despair or with delight.  I choose the latter, because it at least makes loss something that is quiet and serene, for I'll have known that I enjoyed the warm currents of my existence with grace and dignity.  Our days on this earth can too easily become an asylum, built by our fears and patrolled by our regrets.  We have it within ourselves to stop worrying about the towers of security we can build for ourselves in the future and simply enjoy the sizzling bonfires erected before us now.  And—heeheehee—I assure you, it's not something that is even remotely cherished on our lonesome.”

        Caramel gulped, and his blue eyes glossed over.  “Wind Whistler loves me, and I only want to love her back.  But how can I love her if I have nothing to give her?”

        “You can give yourself,” I said, strumming the lyre so that the melody of the tale could reach his ears once again.  “You can give yourself and live—live with her—so that the two of you can be more than just memories, and you can embrace the sunrise together, no matter how bleak the next day may seem, because you can afford to be so much, and because this world would be so much less enjoyable if you gave up something so precious.”

        He smiled painfully.  Something bright lit up the edges of his eyes.  I could recognize that bright, pale orb in my sleep, and I knew that I had been doing just that for a solid year.  I struggled through a sudden shiver to stare at Caramel's face as he said, “Did this mad pony ever find an end to her curse?”

        I gulped.  “No.  No, she never did,” I spoke.  “But she couldn't deny the fact that it gave her opportunities that no other pony could enjoy, opportunities to sing songs of things that even she realized she that had forgotten herself.  Still...”  I took a deep breath, gazing briefly into the fire.  “She would give up all of that intuition and knowledge—even for a single day—if she could just find the stallion who had changed her life...”  I slowly tilted my face up and gazed deeply into his sapphire eyes, my voice blanketed by a curtain of vapors separating us like the corners of the earth.  “And tell him how thankful she is.  She'd tell the stallion that she'd never stop dreaming; she would always remember him.”

        Sparks crackled and died in the bonfire, like a brief color that had twinkled in Caramel's eyes.  He blinked, realizing that night had fallen, and he was alone.  A horrible shiver ran through his body.  Everywhere he looked, thicker and thicker shadows were encompassing his vision.  So he stopped paying attention to his sight and trusted on his hearing instead.  A beautiful tune tugged at his ears, like a morning sunrise lifting a waking foal out of bed.  He turned and saw a bonfire several meters away, surrounded by laughing and celebrating pegasi.  Caramel literally jumped up to his hooves and galloped there like a pony possessed.

        A mare with sky-blue wings and a blonde mane was in the middle of chatting with a friend beside a burning pile of wood.  Her giggling voice had the sound of bells.  Caramel nearly fainted at the melodic tones as he struggled to stand upright behind her.  Bravely, he cleared his throat and murmured, “Windy?”

        Wind Whistler turned around.  At the sight of him, her wings fluttered and her brown eyes lit up.  “Caramel!  I...”  She lingered breathlessly, gulped, then managed, “I thought you told me that you weren't celebrating this year...”

        “I know what I said.  But I was just...”  He began, but his words trailed off uselessly.  He stood upon the precipice of confusion, his eyes gazing into the fire as if searching for the reason to why he had trotted over to her.  Slowly, his ears twitched, for he once more heard a timeless melody, and it softly pulled at the corners of his lips.  “I was listening to music.  Very sweet, beautiful music,” he said, grinning, then pivoting his gaze to drink in the image of her once more.  “But it wasn't enough, because you weren't there to listen to it with me.”

        Wind Whistler's feathers twitched on end, and her golden tail curled in twice on itself as she smiled warmly up at him.  “Oh sweety...”  Her smile was as fragile as the sudden dam to her eyes.  Her closest friends shuffled quietly away, giving her and Caramel enormous space—as if some ballroom dance was about to take place.  “I missed you too.”

        “Windy, I was... erm...”  Caramel bit his lip, his shivers returning as he was suddenly unworthy of her heavenly gaze.  “I was wondering if... That is, if you aren't doing anything special this Celebration—”

        “Yes, Caramel.” She smiled wide, her teeth glinting like the moon above.  “I would be happy to be Souls of Solstice with you.”

        Caramel blinked.  He glanced across the bonfire to see the grinning and winking expressions of Thunderlane and Blossomforth.  With a wry smirk, he squatted down beside Wind Whistler.  “And just how did you know I was about to ask you that?”

        “Mmmm...”  She leaned in, nuzzled him, and purred deliciously into his ear, “Prove me wrong.”

        He exhaled sharply and nuzzled her back.  His voice sounded like a little colt's.  “Never.”  He sniffled briefly.

        Wind Whistler gazed into his eyes with worry.  “Caramel?  Is... Is everything alright?”

        His moist eyes glistened from the nearby flame.  The sadness was canceled out by a warm smile as he spoke to her, “I'm just so happy to be alive, alive with you.  You're like a good dream that never ends, Windy.  I'm sorry if I've not said that enough.”

        She smiled back at him.  “Well, you're saying it now, aren't you?”

        The two of them giggled and leaned against each other, basking in the Celebration's warmth.  I stood just beyond the dancing amber gleam of the bonfire, playing my lyre in the spot where I had trotted to after the moon sliced its way between Caramel and I.

        Even now, I can't remember how much time had passed until the music stopped.  As soon as I realized there was no more melody, I glanced down and realized I had been hugging my instrument to my chest.  A sigh escaped my lips, sad and delightful at the same time.  An instrument is only the start of a melody.  It takes listeners to truly finish a composition to its end, even when there isn't an end.

        The tranquility of the moment was interrupted by enormous thunder.  Caramel, Wind Whistler, and the rest looked up and cheered as the first of the night's plentiful fireworks lit up the purple haze of the world.  Ponyville had become a strobing sensation of amber flame and rainbow explosions.  Ponies danced in the streets—fillies, colts, mares, and stallions alike—souls of solstice who mutually promised with their jubilant cheer to stay awake through to the next morning, when it was up to their patron Princess to bring forth a literal glow to the world that mirrored the prancing joy in their heart.

        They were so busy with their festivities that hardly a villager noticed one pony marching through the heart of the event, a pony who was not lit up by the bonfires, a pony to whom the fireworks gave no shadow.

        I paused halfway through trotting out of the center of town, looking over my shoulder.  For a moment there I saw—or thought I saw—a trail of my own hoofprints disappearing behind me in the bright moonlight, at a hauntingly even pace.  Upon such a dreamlike sight, I did what only a mad pony would do.

        I smiled.

If all I care about in life is the imprints I make in this world, then the most I'll ever leave is a grave.

Background Pony

II - “Lunatic's Dream”

by shortskirtsandexplosions

Special thanks to: theworstwriter, Demetrius’ bicycle, Warden, and Kevin Nash

Cover pic by Spotlight

        Dear Journal,


        What makes a pony?  Is it her dreams?  Her thoughts and her ambitions?  What she hopes to accomplish before she dies?  Is it her fears and her worries, the many things that she dreads in life?

        When I lived in Canterlot—when I was around my family—I knew exactly what my future was going to be.  I knew the type of a career I was going to pursue.  I knew the kind of stallion I was going to marry.  I even knew the type of foals I wished to have.  If someone had asked me then “what makes a pony,” I would have answered with “the sum of all my talents.”

        That was an easy thing to believe while I had a home.  When I arrived in Ponyville—when I was thrown through the frigid veil of endless night—it was as though a trial by fire had robbed me, had burned me of all the things that I had long taken for granted.

        I don't think anypony can be prepared for becoming homeless, for what it means to be worth the sum of all one's talents and not a single one of them granting her food, bed, or a hug to safely surrender to.  No amount of years of musical composition or philosophy could have prepared me for the nights I spent searching for food in the streets or a place to sleep in the shells of abandoned buildings.  There were times when I could have given into dread.  A sane pony would have had no choice but to give in.

        But, as I soon realized, nopony could be any more prepared for becoming so blessed—as I would be blessed.  If it's the home that makes a pony, then I'm built out of the grit of those far stronger and more generous than I.  There are many souls in Ponyville who will never get to hear the songs I make for them.  But that's hardly the tragedy I once believed it to be, for the building blocks of my chorus already exists in their hearts and throats.  I know this, for they've been so gracious as to share such foundations with me.

        My shivers stopped as soon as I heard her.  It had to have been her; I knew no other pony who took that dirt path between my house and her farm.  Under the roar of a summer's rainy downpour, I heard her scuffling hooves against the wooden stoop of my cabin's patio.

        I looked up from where I sat with a pen and paper, finishing the final touches to a written composition of “Threnody of Night.”  Before me, the flames of the brick-laid fireplace had dwindled to a dim glow.  I was so engrossed in work that the invisible winds of cold were barely bothering me.  The rain continued to pound against the wooden rooftop shingles, and still I heard her lingering just outside.  I was more curious than concerned.  Adjusting the sleeves of my hoodie, I stood up, trotted across the cabin, and swiftly opened the front door.

        Applejack jumped and spun to face the entrance, gasping.  I wasn't used to seeing her startled... much less soaking wet.  The poor mare stood on my porch, drenched from head to tail.  Blond bangs framed a freckled face beset with shivers as she blushed a shade of red embarrassment.

        “Greetings,” I said with a placid smile, keeping the door ajar with glittering magic.  “Kind of a lousy day for a walk, isn't it?”

        “Oh.  Pardon me,” Applejack muttered and fidgeted.  The world was a thick curtain of veritable waterfalls beyond her.  The dirt path snaking past the cabin had long morphed into a dark brown river of mud, and the bright light of the afternoon refracted a ghostly gray sheen across the forest stretching beyond.  “Uhm... Shucks, this looks really, really bad, I reckon.”  She chuckled sheepishly.  I spotted a basket bundled with soaked towels beneath her, as if she was using the last vestiges of her own dry flesh to keep the package from being soiled any further.  “I only meant to take a breather from this dag blame'd flood.  I swear, pegasi don't give us as much solid warnings like they used to.”

        I shrugged.  “It came as a surprise to me as well.  Normally, I'm always out and about.  Today, though, I just happened to be indoors, working on something.”  I smiled pleasantly.  “Speaking of indoors, you look as though you need a change of scenery.”

        “Oh, ma'am, think nothin' of it!” Applejack shook her head and pointed out at the offending monsoon.  “I'm sure it'll clear up... erm... eventually.  Don't you fret none.  I'll be out of your mane soon.  It was never my intention to impose—”

        “Now what kind of a pony would I be to leave a soul like you drowning out here in the rain?”  I trotted backwards a few steps and motioned towards the inside of my cabin.  “March inside.  I've got a fireplace in here.  Let's get you warmed up.”

        “Uhm...”  Applejack bit her lip.  She gazed at me, at the rain, at her basket, and at me again.  “You absolutely sure I ain't bein' a bother?”

        I grinned slyly.  “Get your sopping wet tail in here before I change my mind!”

        “Well, alright...” She shuddered before humbly shuffling into the cabin with the basket in tow.  “Whew.  Y'know, I don't rightly remember this place, which is odd—considerin' I walk this path so often.  Didn't there used to be an abandoned barn around these here parts?”

        “There could have been,” I said with a smile, closing the door behind her so that we were both sealed off from the chilling moisture outside.  “I'm rather new to town, relatively speaking.”

        “Well, howdy-do and welcome to the neighborhood,” Applejack said.  I slid a bucket towards her.  Taking a hint, she placed her hat down on the floor and began wringing her long blond threads over the metal container.  “I swear, though, this cabin must have sprouted up overnight.”

        “Mmmm... Not exactly,” I said.  I marched over towards the fireplace and levitated three fresh logs out of a metal stand to the side.  “But I don't blame you for not noticing it.”  I dropped the new planks of wood at the base of the chimney and stoked the flame.  Soon a brilliant glow was once again spreading through the cabin, this time heating up more than just myself.  “I'm not... exactly the kind of pony who attracts attention easily.  It's only fitting my house carries the same habit.”

        “I noticed the apple trees you've got planted between here and that shed you've got outback,” she said.  She paused, rolled her eyes, and smirked to herself.  “Heh.  Of course I noticed the apple trees.”

        “No crime in that.”

        “I noticed that they're grafted.  Did ya plant them yerself?”

        “Mmmm...”  I trotted across the cabin, past my bed, and opened a wooden cabinet full of fresh towels.  “Yes.  But I had some help.”

        “I've got an orchard full of hundreds more like them just up the road.”

        “So we're neighbors!” I grinned at her.

        “Heh.  Reckon we are.  Now I feel bad for not sayin' 'howdy' sooner.  How's that for rotten hospitality?”  Her voice trailed off as she gazed up towards the walls of the place.  “Huh... Now will ya take a look at that?”

        “Hmmm?”  I trotted back towards her.  I trailed her eyesight, observing the numerous musical instruments lining the wall.  The two of us were surrounded by a rather familiar assortment of flutes, guitars, harps, chimes, violins, cellos, and clarinets—all hanging from metal fasteners across the interior of the small, fire-lit cabin.  “Oh.  Heh... I'm a musician,” I hummed, as if that could succinctly explain the undeniable forest of orchestral tools surrounding us.  “There's one good reason why I'm not living in the center of town.  With all the racket I'm bound to make, the most 'hospitality' I'd get would be a swift kick to the flank.”

        “What?  You compose tunes or somethin'?”

        “I search for them.”

        “I...”  Applejack stopped wringing her mane dry and bit her lip.  “I-I reckon I don't get it.”

        “Neither do I.”  I smiled and handed the towel to her.  “Until I find what I'm looking for, that is.  And then it's another mystery.”  She took the towel and I marched once again toward the fireplace, stoking the flame some more.  “The name's Lyra, by the way.  Lyra Heartstrings.”

        “Applejack,” she introduced herself like it was the first time.

It's always the “first time,” and I can't help but feel charmed on each and every occasion.  There's a melodic tone to a pony's voice when she thinks she's never spoken to you before, and Applejack's twang is something that violins can only dream of.  I look forward to the day when I get to hear it again.  My life's a symphony that way.

“And I swear I wasn't fixin' to burden anypony,” she continued.  “I would have made it home safe and sound had the rainstorm started just a sneeze later.”

        “Why the cross-town trek, if I may ask?”

        “Cuz of this.”  Applejack draped the towel over her neck and began stripping the basket of its soaked wrapping.  “Oh dear Celestia, please don't be ruined—Whew!”  She exhaled with relief as she pulled a tiny alicorn doll out into the amber light of the fireplace.  The toy was dry—about the driest thing in the cabin, and she nuzzled it like it was her own infant.  “I would have plum tossed myself off a cliff if somethin' bad came to this.”

        “Well, your secret's safe with me, Miss Applejack,” I said with a goofy wink.

        “Huh?”  She blinked up at me, then frowned.  “Oh hush!  T'ain't nothin' like that!”  She cleared her throat and placed the doll back into the basket.  “It belongs to my 'lil sister, Apple Bloom.  Her Ma gave it to her, just before she and Pa tragically passed away.  May they rest in peace.”  She squatted down and exhaled, reveling in the warmth from the fireplace as she continued speaking, “Apple Bloom's having a bout of the pony pox right now.  It always happens to us Apple family ponies at her age.  My experience was anythang but a bed of roses, so I wanted to make it easier for her.  I went into town and had her doll patched up and freshly cleaned, but on the way back... well...”  She motioned towards the walls of the cabin, still echoing with the deluge of rain pounding from the outside world.  “I almost had a heart attack.  I couldn't allow Apple Bloom's doll to get ruined.  Maybe now you can understand why I stole your patio like I did.”

        “You didn't steal anything, Applejack,” I said calmly.  “I completely understand.  But, if you ask me, the doll is the least you should be worried about.  Here...”  I reached towards my cot and pulled free a woolen blanket.  “No need to have two members of the Apple family coming down with something nasty.”

        “Oh please, Miss Heartstrings.  I can't—”

        “Shhh.”  I draped the blanket over Applejack and shoved her closer to the fireplace.  “You can.  Just relax.  You've been through a rain-soaked nightmare; it's the least I can do.”

        She took a deep, shuddering breath, and soon she was nestled comfortably before the flames as her body dried in the toasty aura.  “Hmmmm... I reckon this feels mighty nice.”

        I smiled.  “I would think as much.”

        “Kind of reminds me of the fireplace we've got back at the farm,” she said, tightening the folds of the blanket around herself.  Her green eyes danced with the crackling embers.  “My Pa built it.  He once told me that he went by the same unwritten blueprints that his father and his father's father before him used when the Apple family first settled in this part of Equestria.  Can you imagine it?  So many homes, and all of them usin' the same thang.”

        “It just goes to show...”  I squatted down across from Applejack and gazed softly at her.  “ can get away with amazing things, so long as you have a good foundation.”

        Twelve months ago, I was a sobbing mess.  I laid on my side in the shadowy corner of a barn on the edge of town, curling in towards myself and covering my face with a quivering pair of hooves.  The only thing more potent than the pangs of grief blistering through me was an immense cold, something that chilled me to the bone.  For days, the frigidity had been my nemesis, a cryptic sensation that haunted and horrified me through the streets of Ponyville.  At that time, however—hidden in the dust and hay of the abandoned barn—I welcomed the freezing sensation, for the shivers it gave me nearly shook my tears loose, making me think that none of what I was going through was actually happening.

        Through hiccuping breaths, I smelled the rustic surroundings around me.  I felt one with the detritus, a lost and forgotten piece of history.  My saddlebag full of meager belongings had been tossed in the corner upon my stumbling arrival, and in the sparse beams of sunlight needling through the barn's porous ceiling beams I could barely tell the difference between my lyre and the random bits of farm junk surrounding it.

        Another sob, another shiver: I heard my voice squeaking free from my chapped lips, and it sounded like a perfect stranger.  Oh, if only I could forget myself as well, I thought.  My life would have been a great deal more manageable if I could no longer remember the sensations still hounding me, of a raving pony wreaking havoc across town, of Twilight Sparkle's face looking through me as though I were invisible, and of the great height that had stretched beneath me as I stood on the town hall building's rooftop and teetered on the brink...

        I whimpered and buried my face in my hooves.  I felt like a little foal.  I had tried fleeing from this place, running eastward.  If I could have galloped all the way home to Canterlot, I would.  But no less than half a mile from the edge of Ponyville, a horrible wall of cold assaulted me, to the point that I started losing the feeling in my limbs.  I rushed back to the center of town, collected my nerves, and tried trotting west instead.  After the same distance traveled, an invisible blizzard struck my body, and I had to return to the heart of my sudden prison.

        There was no sense in asking anypony for help.  As a matter of fact, I didn't want to even look at them.  The residents of Ponyville were cheerful.  They had every reason and right to be, and I didn't hate them for it.  I hated myself.  Stumbling across their pathsbeing subjected to their rosy expressionsserved only to remind me of how cold, hungry, and scared I was.  So I did what all three of those factors persuaded me to:  I hid.

        I ran to the west edge of town—where the cold was bearable enough to endure but grating enough to keep me awake—and I threw myself into the hollow of that abandoned barn on the side of a dirt road.  I had wanted to collect my thoughts, but soon I had an even more impossible task to accomplish.  I had to collect my spirit, but that had all too swiftly shattered into a hundred unrecoverable pieces, like the tears leaking over my hooves and onto the dirt floor and hay.

        Even if I could put myself back together again, I wasn't sure I wanted to.  I didn't like the idea of what that soul would be tethered to, of what fate it had to anticipate.  It's one thing to be homeless.  But to be nameless?  You can live in a mansion paid for with the world's largest fortune.  You can own a million houses, a million acres of land, and a million servants dwelling on it to do your bidding.  You can even have your very own plot in the ground reserved for you in the world's most sacred cemetery.  So long as you're nameless, you don't have a place to call “home,” not in this lifetime or beyond.

        I was contemplating this, crying over this, despairing and shivering and collapsing over this, when she first arrived.

        “Land's sakes!” her drawling voice echoed against the dilapidated walls of the barn.  My ears picked up a quartet of hooves scraping through the wooden doorframe as the figure entered from the bright world outside.  “I knew I heard somethin'!  Uh... Hello?  Somepony?  Who's there?”

        I didn't realize that I still had energy left in my body until I found myself bolting upright with a gasp.  I turned towards her, and the first thing I saw were her freckles.  A bright slit of light captured a pair of green eyes, followed by the warmest smile I had seen in three starving days.

        “Whoah!  Howdy there!” She waved two of her hooves high above her head to show she was harmless.  I saw a brown hat, a ridiculously long blond mane, and two baskets of apples that hung from her sides.  “Take it easy, sugarcube.  I didn't mean to scare you or nothin'”  She looked strong, fearless, the very definition of a working earth pony.  Then all of those iron features immediately melted into a soft and sisterly gaze of concern.  “Oh darlin', you look an absolute mess!  I could hear ya cryin' like a poor widow from the road over yonder.  Is everythang okay?”

        What could I say to her?  What could I say to anypony that would carry the smallest degree of weight?  Life had given me a hammer and chisel, but my world had been turned to mud and sand.  I almost wished I had played dead instead of responding to her.  Maybe I would have gone unnoticed like the ghost I had become.

        Instead, she stared steadily at me and said, “You do realize that this here barn's been abandoned for decades, right?  Are you a long way from home?”

        Her words were delicious, like soothing musical notes that I hadn't the fortune of discovering until then, and they were gracious enough to squeeze even more moisture from my eyes.  I barely sniffled, though, for I was too busy staring—not at her, but at the twin baskets of red fruit adorning her figure.  I was suddenly aware of how dry my mouth was.  There was a deep rumble, like the wooden structure of the barn was settling all around us.

        She heard it too, but was in a far saner condition to recognize it.  “Heheh... Hungry, ain'tcha?”  She smirked, following the angle of my eyes.  “Let's start on the right hoof, shall we?  My name's Applejack.  Here.”  She twisted her head around, balanced a red fruit on her nose, and tossed it my way.  “Have an orange.  Heheheheh—Ahem.  That's an old family joke.”

        I suddenly couldn't hear her.  My taste buds were screaming over my ears, for I had scarfed down the contents of the apple in less than a minute.  Choking would have been bearable so long as I wrangled a few tender morsels down my throat.  Once I had bitten my way to the core, I wasn't entirely sure if it had helped my hunger any, but it had certainly dried my tears.

        Applejack was whistling.  “Whoa nelly! Easy there, girl!  Heheh... Good thing I wash those things before takin' them to market, huh?”  She sat down on her haunches in front of me.  “Well, I toldja my name.  Reckon I might get a chance to learn yours?”

        I shuddered, avoiding her stare as well as her question.  Even nowadays, I think I say my name out loud only to appease myself.  I certainly wasn't the one to invent it, and if I was to give myself a fitting replacement, would anything announce it better than my lyre?  All that mattered was that—at the time—something was gnawing at me far more than either cold or hunger.  Applejack was so real, so warm, and so there.  I was willing to do anything, or say anything, just to shatter the looming horizon of loneliness that threatened to drown it all.

        “Lyra,” I ultimately whimpered.  “Lyra Heartstrings.”

        “Lyra,” she murmured aloud with a nod.  Reaching her hoof up, she tilted the brim of her hat and smiled placidly my way.  “That's a mighty pretty name you have there,  Lyra.”

        My vision instantly blurred again.  I could feel my heart beating.  I wanted to hold her.  I wanted her to hold me.  I wanted to be warm, to be safe, to be happy—and I knew that none of it would last.  None of this would last.  I should have ended the conversation right then and there.  I should have grabbed my saddlebag, galloped out of the barn, and hid myself away in the forest where there'd be less intelligent creatures to smile at me, to feed me, to remind me that I was something worthy and capable of being cherished, just as Applejack's soothing voice was caressing all of the shivering ends of me, like I was not just some dirt-covered, tear-stained piece of refuse.

        “I know this town like the back of my hoof,” Applejack continued.  “And I must say I've never seen you around these parts before, Lyra.  Are you visitin' family or somethin'?  Is there somepony I can take you to?  There's no need to be wastin' away in some dirty 'ol barn, now is there?”  She blinked and squinted at me.  “Uhm... Miss Heartstrings?”

        At first, I wondered why she was asking me so many questions.  As soon as the image of her teetered and was swallowed by perpetual shadow, it suddenly made sense.  I was blacking out.  I fainted like some pathetic damsel, my whole body going limp.  Starvation, it seemed, isn't so exhausting until you remind yourself that you're capable of eating something.  I collapsed from such a sensation, and when I came to—the world was a thousand times brighter than the inside of that barn.  I saw the ground passing beneath me, and when I glanced up the horizon was bobbing.

        “H-hey there!” I felt the vibration of Applejack's voice.  With a shuddering breath, I realized that she was carrying me across her back.  A dirt road led towards a red barnhouse nestled in a sea of delicious apple orchards, and we were gliding towards the bright epicenter.  The world beyond the crest of Ponyville grew colder and colder, but Applejack's warm body and breath melted all of my shivers away.  “Just relax, sugarcube.  I'm takin' you somewhere safe.  Yer gonna be just fine.”

        “This...” I fought for an even breath, draped across her spine.  Days of running, panicked, across the lengths of Ponyville brought an ache to my limbs that I was just then discovering.  “This is where you live?”

        “You betcha!  Sweet Apple Acres, home of the finest bounty of red fruit in all of Equestria!”  We passed wooden fences and apple carts.  I could hear distant livestock and smell bales of hay.  “But my family and I can give you the grand tour later.  You look as though you've got a mighty nasty fever, Lyra.  Let's get you warmed up.”

        I immediately gasped.  “You... Y-you remember my name?”

        “Why, of course, darlin'!  Heh... Just cuz the Apple family is simple farmin' folk doesn't make us simple-minded!”

        There are times when I feel as though the only infinite resource in the world is tears.  Closing my eyes, I smiled—a fractured, porcelain thing—and clung securely to her.  The world was bright all around me, as if a righteous fire was burning away the frayed edges of a nightmarish veil that had been hanging over my head for days.

I was almost sad to be let go.  I opened my eyes, realizing that I was suddenly inside this blessed mare's house, having been plopped down on a sofa in the middle of an antique living room full of family pictures, heirlooms, and home-crafted decorations.  There was a fireplace in front of me, and it was as empty as I felt.  The sight of it made me shiver, and Applejack must have seen it, for soon she was grabbing planks of dried wood from a metal stand.

        “Here, let me light this up.  You make yerself comfortable and I'll get Granny Smith to fix you some soup.”

        “Granny... Smith...?” I murmured.  Just then, my ears pricked to hear the sounds of voices in the far end of the house.  Applejack and I were not alone.  The place was alive, and I felt very alien there sitting on the family's immaculate sofa with my tousled mane and stained coat.

        “Her name is Lyra Heartstrings, Granny!”  I heard Applejack shout across the interior, continuing a conversation that I in my numb state was only partially privy to.  “I found her just outside of town!  The poor thing looks like she's long due for some real hospitality.”

        “I...”  I bit my lip, squirming under a fresh curtain of shivers.  “I thank you so very much, M-miss Applejack.  But you really don't need to go to all this length just to... to...”  My voice trailed off, for I was suddenly bathing in a sea of toasty warmth.  The fireplace had been lit, and as my ears embraced the delicious crackling noises of the burning wood, my body veritably melted into the folds of the couch.  “Ohhhhhhhhhh Celestia, that's nice,” I murmured with a drunken smile.

        Applejack's return grin was a lot more charming.  “Nothing treats a sick spell better than bathin' in the Apple family's fireplace.”  She winked.  “Shucks, I remember when I first had the pony pox.  Cuddlin' up before this here mantle got me through all sorts of feverish nights.”

        “I'm not sick,” I said as politely as I could.  “I'm...”  I felt a sore lump building in my throat.  I didn't want to sponge up too much of this kind mare's generosity, but at the same time it felt like the first occasion I had in days to... relax and let go.  I wanted to pour all of my troubles onto somepony, but I didn't want to burden them with something I barely even understood.  “I'm lost, Applejack,” I blurted.  I ran a hoof through my frazzled mane and stifled my whimpers before they could form.  “I'm so lost, and I don't know where to start.”

        “Well, I dunno about you, but I reckon that home is always the best place to start.”


        “It's what makes a pony, or so I've always believed.”  She placed the metal fireguard down before the brick-laid hearth and trotted towards me.  “A while ago, when I was just a 'lil filly, I left this farm and headed out to the city, thinkin' that I could live a different kind of life than the rest of the family.  Boy, was that one of the plum stupidest decisions of my life.  Heh.  I nearly cried my eyes out for days, until I ran back home, and everythang was just right.”  She stood above me and gently dragged a hoof over my mane, plucking free a random leaf and stalk of hay that I had collected in the barn where she had found me.  “Sometimes we leave home—even if it means running away from the place that means the most to us—cuz we're so desperate to find ourselves.  And what happens?  We only get more lost.”

        “I didn't run away from my home, Applejack,” I said with a soft sigh.  An invisible gust of wind came from nowhere.  The fireplace suddenly seemed miles away as images of Canterlot flicked through my mind.  “I would give anything to go back there, but I can't.”

        “And just why is that, sugarcube?”

        I bit my lip.  Goosebumps were forming under my coat.  I clutched my forelimbs to my chest and fought the icy shadows for as long as I could.  Applejack had been so kind to me.  The last thing she needed was an emaciated guest collapsing in the center of her living room.  Never in my life had I anticipated becoming what I was then: a vagabond, a bum, a unicorn with no purpose or title.  All my life, I had seen riff-raff gathered in the far shadier streets of Canterlot, and I had always regarded them with both pity and curiosity.  Now I was sitting in their place, carrying the same disgusting scent, and even those impoverished souls had more hope than I did.  Even if I could make my way back home, would I be able to stake claim to what which was once attached to me?  Would my parents be able to help me any?

        Mom.  Dad.

        “Nothing,” I murmured, my lips quivering.  “There is nothing for me to go back to.”  I huddled into the deeper contours of the sofa.  For a moment, I wished that it was a coffin instead.

        “Hmmm... Well, right now, we have a place for you here, sugarcube,” Applejack said.  Her selflessness was only outshone by the bright smile on her face as she swiftly trotted towards a closet, opened it up, and rummaged through rows of hanging jackets inside.  “And I've got something else for ya.  It's just the thing for them feverish shivers of yers.”  After a modicum of effort, she emerged with a stone gray article hanging from her mouth.  She dropped it by my side.  “Here ya go.  A little something I used to wear when I was a bit younger, for workin' around the orchards in autumn and all.  Of course, I rarely use it these days, on account that I've grown myself a second skin.  Heh.”

        I looked at her, then at her gift.  After a squinting study, I realized it was a long-sleeved sweaterjacket.  Without a second thought, I encased the item in glowing telekinesis and all-but-flung it over my forward half.  Finally, with only a little fuss, I slid my hooves all the way through and sat comfortably with the hoodie encasing my shivering limbs.  Soon, the goosebumps shrank away, as if the jacket was somehow absorbing the heat wafting towards me from the fireplace.  Looking back, I think it was the gesture itself that did the trick.  Applejack was willing to give a little piece of herself, and it was like being engulfed nonstop in her hug.  I couldn't help but smile, for I remembered what it felt like to be in the company of a pony who was more than a stranger.  I was more than ready to call this polite and thoughtful mare a “friend.”

        “Th-thank you.  Really, Applejack,” I said, curling against the sofa's shoulderest and basking in the glow of the hearth.  “For everything.  I wish I could repay you.”

        “My home is your home.”  She merely shrugged.  “Relax, rest up, and get better.  Later on, we can see about helping you find yer place, ya reckon?”

        I let loose the tiniest of giggles.  “Sure, I 'reckon.'”  I smiled, letting the gray sleeves of the hoodie dangle toastily over the ends of my front hooves.  When I was young, I used to envy Twilight Sparkle, wishing that I too had an older sibling to look after me while my parents were away.  I wondered if this was what it felt like.  “Though I dunno if any place in the world has a fireplace as good as this one.”

        “It's a good fireplace,” Applejack said with a nod.  “My Pa built it.  'Always make sure that you lay down a good foundation,' he'd say.  'The rest takes time, but it works without a hitch so long as the foundation is solid.'”  She gazed briefly into the fire.  She looked a lot older suddenly, though she carried it with far greater strength than the frail melancholy that I see in most ponies' faces.  “I reckon I've held much weight in them words of his.  My Pa was the foundation of my life.”

        I was floating dizzily on a cloud of warmth, but still I was able to understand the gravity of my new friend's words.  “I'm sure you've done him proud,” I said.

        “Hmm.  I can only make him prouder.”  Her green eyes twinkled briefly as she smiled, then trotted past me.  “I'll see how Granny's doin' with the soup.  I'll be back in a jiffy.”

        “Yeah, okay,” I said, adjusting where I sat on the sofa.  Sparks danced against the fireguard before me.  I stared into the flame, allowing the thoughts of my recent circumstances to melt away.  I pulled the hood of the sweatjacket over my horn and exhaled deeply, as if giving up a somber part of myself that had controlled my frightened limbs for so many nocturnal hours of despair.

        It was the first chance I had to sit and think deeply in days.  As a result, something dark and mysterious rose to the surface of my mind, something that had danced around the miserable waves I had so fitfully navigated up until that point.  The more I meditated on it, the more my ears twitched, for I realized that I was unearthing a melody from the deepest part of my psyche, an undying tune that had been born in the recesses of my mind and remained unsung since the very moment I woke fitfully in a dark alley, a scared and freezing victim of endless night.

        So engrossed was I in these ponderings, I barely noticed a yellow shape trotting up to my peripheral vision... then gasping.

        I glanced over.  There was a little foal looking up at me with wide amber eyes.  A red bow swayed in her crimson mane, for she was shivering.  Was I not the only one who was cold?  No, that wasn't it.  She was afraid of me.

        “Why, hello there,” I said in as gentle and harmless a voice I could muster.  I smiled at her and leaned over slightly.  “You must be Applejack's sister.”

        The girl back-trotted from me, her eyes as wide as saucers.  “Uhhh...”  Her jaw dropped as a pale sheen danced across her irises, like moonlight rippling over pond water.  “Uhhh... AJ?!”

        “Shhh—It's okay!”  I smirked.  “I'm guessing your sis neglected to mention that you had company—”

        “What is it, Apple Bloom?”  A familiar orange shape strolled back into the chamber, then immediately froze.  My heart jolted, for Applejack was suddenly shouting, “Apple Bloom!  Get over here!  Now!”

        Panting, the little foal scampered over to her sister.  I watched, blinking and confused, as Apple Bloom hid behind the mare.  Applejack stood protectively in front of her while glaring down at me on the sofa.  All of the sweetness and hospitality was gone, shattered to bits beneath an accusing frown as hard as diamonds.  “Just who in the hay are you?!  What are you doing in our house?!”

        “Wh-What?!”  I gasped.  My heart was beating hard, as if it would tear a hole in the hoodie at any moment.  “But... But... I was just.... I thought that—”

        “Is that my jacket you're wearing?”  Applejack exclaimed, her emerald eyes squinting harshly.  I could hear Apple Bloom's whimpering voice as she cowered and hid her face.  Behind both sisters, an old green-coated mare strolled up from the other room, curious about the violent commotion.  “Have you been rummaging through our stuff?!” Applejack continued, almost sneering.  “Spit it out!”

        “Applejack, I'm—”

        “You... You know my name?”  Applejack cocked her head to the side.  Her anger was briefly drowned in confusion, but soon that cloud faded and the scorn returned.  “Did somepony put you up to this?  If so, t'ain't funny!  We already had a bunch of rambunctious colts vandalizin' our barn months ago!  This here farm doesn't need no more mayhem on its plate!  Now are you gonna answer me or not?!”

        “I don't understand!  I'm Lyra, remember?  We were just—”  I stopped in mid-speech.  My heart briefly stopped, and I felt the warmth of the living room once again dissolving.  The next breath from my mouth was a whimper, for I had been reacquainted with my own foolishness.  “Oh dear Celestia, it's happening again.”

        “What's happenin' again?!  Dang it, missy!  I demand to know why you've trespassed into our very own home!”

        “Look... Uhm...”  I stood up from the couch, weak, my legs wobbling.  “This is... I'm...”  I gulped and backed away from them, waving a hoof.  “I don't even know how to explain th-this...”

        “Try me!”  Applejack's iron frown carried her icily towards me.  The fire bathed every hard line of her features and none of the freckles.  “Before I call the police.”

        “We were just talking a moment ago, Applejack!  You carried me here from the edge of town—”

        “Carried you here?!  I've never seen you before in my life!”

        “I know you think that—But I swear to you!”  I gulped before stammering like a fibbing foal who was desperate to avoid the paddle.  “We talked!  You lit the fireplace for me!  You gave me this jacket—”

        “Likely story.  You reckon I'm stupid?”

        “N-no!  For the love of Luna, it's not what you...”  I stopped in place.  The shivers had quadrupled.  I felt my bones turning to ice.  My gaze swam dizzily over the many family portraits lining the living room.  I saw nothing but the faces of strangers, like these three souls gathered before me always were and always would be.  I grimaced as though I was giving birth to a familiar horror..  “I'm so sorry... I... I-I gotta go—!”

        “Oh no you don't—”

        I spun and galloped desperately towards the far end of the house.  “I'm sorry!”

        “Applejack—!” the old mare's voice started.  “She's gettin' away!”

        “Oh no she ain't!  Macky?!”

        Their shouting voices dwindled as I shot around a corner and bolted for the front door.  Instead, I bumped into something large and red.  “Ooomf!”  I fell down on my haunches, reeling sickly.  Looking up, I gasped.  “Uhh!”

        A tall stallion towered above me, his crimson coat rippling with a sea of iron muscles.  On any other occasion, he would have been a delectable sight for a mare like me to behold.  At the moment, however, he was as menacing as a leering minotaur.

        “Big Macintosh!” I heard the elder mare's voice calling over the bounding hoofsteps of Applejack from the chamber behind me.  “Grab her before she gets away—!”

        I gritted my teeth, flashing a look left and right.  I saw a bathroom within a leap's distance.  Just as the red brute lunged at me, I bounded out of his reach and bolted towards the doorframe.  The doorknob was already glowing from my telekinesis by the time I flung myself inside and magically slammed the thing shut.  The house was rumbling from all of the bodies thundering after my hooves.  I slipped on a rug, nearly fell, and scampered back on all fours in time to lock the door and press my weight up against it.

        The door pounded once, twice.  I shrieked and pressed myself desperately against it, trembling, my starved body and glittering magic acting as a frail bulwark against the entire family's righteous anger.  “Oh Celestia.  Oh Celestia please.”  I started to weep, my tears gathering at the collar of the gray hoodie that had been donated to me by a ghost.  The door pounded a third time and I nearly fell back, struggling to keep my hooves firm against the slippery tile.

        “Open this door!” I heard Applejack say.  “I swear we ain't gonna hurt you, girl.  But—carn sarn it—you've got some explainin' to do!”  I heard the muttering of the other family members just outside.  “Don't you know that the Ponyville Police can put you in jail for invadin' somepony's home?”

        “Please!  Just leave me alone!” I sobbed, on the edge of hyperventilating.  I murmured into the wooden surface of the door, “The police will do nothing!  Believe me!  Nopony can do anything for me.  Oh blessed Luna...”  I hiccuped and slid down against the door, grasping my head and shaking.  The tune was louder this time, as if it was wanting to burst out my skull and bathe the walls of the bathroom with what was left of my soul.  “I just want somepony to help me, like you almost did.  It's that so hard to ask for?”

        There was no response from the other side.  I sat there, sniffling, hugging my lower limbs and trembling for what had to have been one minute... two minutes... three.  I blinked, dried my eyes with a stone-gray sleeve, and glanced up.

        “H-hello?” I remarked, nervously.  Again, there was no reply.  “M-miss Applejack?  Apple Bloom?”  I gulped.  “M-macky?”


        Pensively, I stood up.  I stared at the doorknob for ages before finally summoning the strength to unlock it with my telekinesis.  Pushing the glowing door open, I peered my head out into the hallway.  There was nopony to be seen.  I calmed my panting breaths long enough to sneak down the hallway.  The floorboards creaked beneath me.  With a wince, I inched my way, until I reached the edge of the living room where the entire debacle had started.  I gazed quietly around the corner.

        Applejack stood before the hearth, her flanks to me.  “Hmm... seems like an awful waste of wood in the middle of summer.”  She lowered her hat and scratched her blond mane while gazing into the crackling fireplace.  “Just who's idea was this?  Apple Bloom?”

        “Wasn't me, sis!” the little yellow foal trotted past her.  “Besides, I'm not allowed to put logs in without yours or Big Mac's permission!  Ain't that what yer always tellin' me?”

        “As much as I fancy you bein' all obedient-like, there are times when I wonder...”

        “Hey!  What's that supposed to mean?!”

        “Eh... Don't get in such a hissy fit over it, girls!”  The elder mare sat her green wrinkly self down in a rocking chair and smiled, basking in the warmth from the fireplace.  “After all, this is just what the 'ol doctor ordered for my bones.  Eh heh heh.  Ohhhh... Apple Bloom, be a dear and go grab Granny's quilt.  There's a good 'lil filly.”

        “Sure thing, Granny Smith.”

        “I reckon I better go help Big Mac with the chores,” Applejack muttered as she shuffled towards the back door to the house.  “Heavens to Betsy!”  She smiled and shook her head as she walked into the reddening sunset.  “Just where does all the time go?  I must be getting' old.”

        “Ohhhhh shut yer trap, ya stinkin' baby!” Granny Smith spat.

        “Teeheehee...” Apple Bloom managed as she dragged a quilt over to her grandmother.  In the background, Applejack rolled her green eyes and was gone.

        Biting my lip, I stepped back away from this scene.  I stood breathless in the hallway, alone with my shivers.  I glanced briefly at my reflection in a circular mirror hanging across the wall.  An unkempt, dirt-stained, sad unicorn gazed back.  Raising a hoof up, I played with the hood dangling behind my neck.  It was then that I realized the extent to which I could afford friendship in this life.

        My stomach gurgled again.  I glanced longingly at the house's exit, but it stretched away magically before my vision, as did the guilt over what I was about to do next.  In a blur, I galloped into the family's kitchen.  I flung open the first cupboard I could find.  I discovered two loaves of bread, and immediately flung them into the front pouch of my hoodie.  There were many other things inside that kitchen—expensive and luscious trinkets that could have sold for many bits around downtown Ponyville—but I didn't bother touching a single one of them.  It was my first robbery; it might as well have been a tiny one.  I prayed to Celestia that it would be my last, and ran out of the farmhouse in a desperate flight to reunite with my lyre, as if it was the only thing that could tell me what “home” was anymore.

        When Applejack trotted around the bend in the road the next morning, I could instantly see her.  It had only been a day since my little “experience” at her farm, and I hadn't slept a wink.  My body was kept up by shivers; my stomach was full of stolen bread.  Through a combination of guilt and loneliness, I didn't hide in the corner of the barn like I should have.  I stood at the edge of it, in open view of the orange mare as she strolled down the dirt path.

        Sure enough, she saw me.  To my mixed dismay and relief, she stood dead-still in the middle of the road and smiled my way.

        “Why, howdy!”  Her smile was electric. She could have been the sunrise itself for all I could tell.  “Fancy meetin' a pony out here this early in the day!”  She shifted the weight of two apple baskets on her sides.  “Hankerin'' for some breakfast?  Normally its one-bit-per-apple, but seein' as I'm feelin' mighty chipper this mornin', how'd you like a two-for?”

        Her freckles were a welcome sight, distant shadows of a loving sister I knew I would never have again.  The longer I stared, the more the sight of her face gave way to the memory of wooden kitchen cabinets being flung open and pilfered.  I wrenched my gaze away from her, refusing to so much as look at the delicious apples that she was willing to sell me.

        “Uhm... Thanks but no thanks, ma'am.  I... uhm... I'm just waiting for somepony.”

        “Oh yeah?  Anyone I know?  I've got quite the little circle of friends around town.”

        I bit my lip, leaning awkwardly against the wooden doorframe of the barn.  “You... You wouldn't know her.”  I sighed and ran a hoof through my mane, trying desperately to not look like the pathetic, homeless vagabond I so obviously was in front of her.  “But maybe... just maybe you'll get to know her someday.”  I tried to smile; it would have been easier to sprout pegasus wings and fly.

        “You okay, sugarcube?  T'ain't none of my business, but yer lookin' rather glum.”  Applejack adjusted her hat and flashed me a sympathetic glance, warm like a fireplace.  “It's a beautiful mornin'.  No sense aimin' yer horn at the ground.  You should try lookin' up at the sky for a change.”

        I felt the edges of my lips finally curving upwards, something I couldn't manage on my own.  I breathed a little more easily, my shivers dissipating somewhat.  “I was... uhm...”  I spoke before I knew what words were coming out of my mouth.  I wondered how much I'd have to be rambling before I produced a truth that was applicable enough to a given situation.  “I was just wondering about this barn...”

        “Yeah?  What about it?”

        “Who does it belong to?”  I glanced up at the shoddy, wooden structure where I had spent the last two fitful nights.  Somewhere inside, my lyre and saddlebag were lying like the accursed treasures of a splintery sarcophagus.  “Does anypony own it?”

        Applejack snickered and trotted over to stand beside me.  “A better question is 'would anypony want to?'”  She heartlessly kicked at part of the doorframe, causing a vertical plank to fall ineffectually into the dirt between us.  “From as far I recollect, this here barn's been around far longer than I have.  My Ma and Pa never talked about it.  Odds are it belonged to Filthy Rich's family before they went into the retail business, but that would have been ages ago.  Nah, from what I gather, this here land's plum for the takin'.  Though I doubt any pony's gonna want it.”  She glanced at the solid line of trees that bordered the dirt patch on the other side of the old structure.  “Even if these trees were chopped down, it'd take either hundreds of ponies or a heap'o'magic to make the ground soft enough to plant anythang.  Long story short, darlin', the barn's just a fadin' memory... like so much of what's left of Ponyville's past these days.”

        I gazed up at the structure, running an affectionate hoof across the doorframe.  “I know a thing or two about fading memories,” I murmured in a distant voice.

        “Hmmph.  That's funny.”

        Curiously, I glanced at her.  “It is?”

        “No, not that.”  She rubbed her chin, squinting towards something below my neck.  “I used to have a jacket just like the one yer wearin'.”

        I gulped and fidgeted with the long sleeves.  “You don't say...?”

        “Hmmph... Heheh... But it's been ages since I wore the thing.”

        I raised an eyebrow.  “I'm guessing, from working in the cold weather for so long, you've grown a second skin?”

        Applejack's eyes twitched in thought.  “Well, that's a nifty way of puttin' it.”

        I took a deep breath, then cleared my throat as I gazed at the fragile lengths of the barn.  “Tell me... What's a good way to... uhm... to earn some money around town?”


        “Bits, yeah.”  I nodded and looked at her.  “You know of any Ponyvillean hiring for...”  I bit my lip and navigated the impossibility of the thought just as I was producing it.  “... for freelance stuff?”

        “If you want to learn a thang or two about job openings, just go take a gander at the bulletin board at main street,” Applejack said.  “Though I doubt yer gonna find anythang aside from full time offerings.”

        I gulped and stared down at the dirt.  “Right.  Figures...”

        “Though I'm sure there're plenty of freelancin' stuff for a musician to do,” she said pleasantly.

        I looked up at her, blinking.  “Musician?”

        “Well, shucks, girl!”  She pointed at my cutie mark with a chuckle.  “You didn't get that cuz you like to lick stamps, now didja?”

        “M-my special talent,” I uttered in a numb voice, as if a sheet of ice was clearing from over my head.  “Right...”  I looked towards the distant pocket of hay inside the barn where my lyre was hidden.  “Hmmm....”  I glanced back at Applejack and pointed at her cutie mark.  “I see your special talent is selling oranges.”

        She blinked at me, then snorted.  Her hat nearly fell off as she let out a loud guffaw.  I joined with my giggles, for suddenly the day was feeling warmer.

        When Applejack trotted around the bend in the road, she paused to stare at the wooden barn.  It was obviously the same wooden barn she had trotted past every morning on her way to town, only now there was a green tent pitched next to it.

        “What in tarnation...?”  She squinted curiously.  Her ears tickled with a gentle melody wafting through the branches bordering either side of the dirt path.  “Is the circus movin' into town?”

        “Try 'a traveling minstrel.'”

        Applejack looked my way.  “Huh?”  She jolted as four bits flew towards her and landed on the brim of her hat.

        I was standing in the doorframe of the barn, leaning against the dilapidated entrance while strumming my lyre.  “Is that enough for two of those delicious apples, ma’am?”

        Applejack glanced at the baskets in question hanging from her side.  She lowered her hat and retrieved the bits.  “Well, to be honest, missy, that's enough for four of 'em.”

        I gave her a practiced smirk, something that I was getting better at after so many weeks spent performing in town.  “Alright, then.  Four.  They look absolutely scrumptious, and it so happens I have the bits to spare.”

        “Is that so?”  Applejack spoke while picking four of her best fruit from the baskets and bagging them.  “I'm guessing you're a mare on vacation.”

        “More or less, though I must say that this town's looking brighter and brighter with each passing day.  I'm thinking of staying for a while longer.”  I strummed the lyre and motioned towards her.  “You look rather fit, if I may say so, ma'am.  Tell me, do you work on a farm?”

        “Heh, as a matter of fact, I do.”  She smirked at me and held the bag of apples out in one hoof.  “And if yer truly fixin' on hangin' around here, then you're bound to get to know me and my family.  We've been harvestin' apples here for a long time.”

        “A long time, huh?”  I gently took the bag from her in glowing telekinesis and laid it beside the tent next to the barn.  “Then perhaps you could answer something for me.”


        “This barn: it looks abandoned.  Is that true?”

        “Well, uhm... Pretty much, yeah.”

        “Does that go for the land as well?”

        “As far as I know.”

        I smiled knowingly.  “So I'm guessing this structure's standing here for no reason?”

        “What are ya gettin' at?”  Applejack glanced at me sideways.  “Thinkin' of doing some demolition?”

        “Well, it depends.”  I strummed on the lyre and kicked my rear hoof playfully against the wooden side of the building.  “Would you happen to have some experience in the matter?”

        “Hah!  Sorry, missy, but you're askin' the wrong pony.”


        “I'd love to give ya some advice, but truth is I'm not all about barn-tearin' as I am about barn-raisin'.”  She fanned herself in the morning sunlight before planting the hat back atop her blond mane.  “As a matter of fact, I've watched my Pa build many a thing in his days.  May he rest in peace.”  Her nostrils flared as she murmured, “He could build log cabins in his sleep if he wanted to.”

        I raised an eyebrow.  “Log cabins?”

        “Lickety split!  They used to call him 'the House Planter' around these parts.  Heh.  But—yeah.”  She trotted back into the dirt road.  “I'd better be off to market.  Still, though, if you wanna see about tearin' barns down, you'd best be askin' ponies around town.”

        “Ponies like who?”

        When Applejack trotted around the bend in the road, she froze upon hearing a roaring voice.  Splinters of wood flew through the air, followed by a blur of bright colors darting in and out of view.

        “Rainbow Dash?” She squinted awkwardly in the morning air.  Slowly, she lurched towards the side of the road, shocked to see an old barn being torn to shreds—plank by plank—by a familiar blue pegasus who was sailing her agile body violently through the wooden structure.  “Whoa, there, girl!” she ducked as a wave of wooden bits splattered over her head.  “Watch where yer divin'!  Seriously!  Is there a war I don't know about?”

        “Here.”  A helmet floated magically towards her.  “You might need this,” I said with a smile from where I stood beside my tent and supplies.  “She gets a little crazy from time to time, but it makes for a fun show.”

        “Uhm... I reckon it does.”  Applejack removed her hat and slapped the helmet on awkwardly in its place.  “Any chance somepony might help this make a lick of sense?”

        “What's so hard to understand?  There's a barn here now, but soon it won't be.  Isn't that right, Miss—Rainbow Dash, was it?”

        “Nnnnngh!” The goggled pegasus was busy smashing a wide gaping hole in the middle of the barn.  She yanked a support beam loose with her bare teeth and prepared to kick a chunk out of the ceiling loose with her rear hooves.  “Haaaaugh—!”

        “Yoohoo?!” I shouted, cupping my muzzle with a pair of front hooves.  “Earth to Rainbow Dash!”

        “What?!”  Rainbow Dash looked down at me.  Slowly, the berserker sneer across her face melted.  She greeted each wave of confusion with a series of blinks.  “Wait.  What?  Who are you again?”


        “Lyra who?”

        “Lyra Heartstrings.”  I leaned forward, glowing my horn through the hole in my helmet like it was a symbol of trust.  “Remember?  I'm the pony paying you fifty bits to tear this barn to the ground.”

        “Hold up.”  Rainbow Dash levitated above the two of us, her ruby eyes bright.  “You mean to tell me that I get to break stuff and get paid for it?”

        “Absolutely!”  I grinned.

        “Wicked sweet!”  She coiled up in mid-air and sprung like a missile towards the remaining structure.  “Eat it, barn!  Rrrrrrgh!”

        There was a resounding explosion.  Applejack and I flinched under a shower of splinters.

        “Well, I see you're new in town!” Applejack grunted, then brushed flecks of sawdust off her baskets of fruit.  “But you must have some sort of fancy gift of gabbin' to get RD here to do such hard work so early in the mornin'!”

        “She's a friend of yours?”

        “A loyal one at that, though she can be a loyal pain at times.”  Applejack managed a smirk, and the volume in her voice playfully picked up some.  “Like when she accidentally delivers a rain cloud to the wrong end of the apple orchards!

        “Hey!”  A spectral bolt of lightning shouted overhead before exploding once more into the barn.  “I heard that!”

        “You own a farm?” I struggled to ask amidst another spray of debris.

        “Ahem.  Yup.  Sweet Apple Acres.”

        “Now there's a marketable name.”

        “Eh.  When it matters.  Why?  You fixin' to get into the fruit sellin' business?  Cuz that job's kind of filled enough as it is around town.”

        “It's not that,” I said, glancing at Rainbow Dash's chaotic job.  More and more sunlight covered the patches of dirt alongside the road as the barn was slowly disassembled before our eyes.  “I was hoping to find a pony who's had some experience with the land around here.  I've been needing to ask for some advice, you see.”

        “Really?  Like what kind of advice?”

        “You see I'm... uhm...”  I shifted a bit where I stood and smiled gently.  “My stay here in town... it's like a vacation, more or less.  But I think I'm going to be here a lot longer than I originally anticipated.  I mean—why not?  Heh... It's a beautiful village.”

        “I've always stood by that,” Applejack said with a smile.

        “You wouldn't happen to know any pony who's an expert on building?”

        “Building what?”

        “Oh...”  I took a deep breath, glanced at the line of oak trees surrounding the collapsing barn, and murmured, “Log cabins.”

        Applejack instantly brightened.  “Well, shucks!  Heheh... funny you should mention that!”

        I gulped and murmured, “You don't say...”

        “I happen to know a thing or two about that!”  She smiled.  “My Pa could build log cabins in his sleep.  He taught me everything he knew.  May he rest in peace.”

        “My condolences.”

        “Much oblidged.”

        “Well...”  I adjusted the sleeves of my hoodie and turned to face her.  “If you don't mind my asking, how's a good way to start?”

        “You start with a good, sturdy axe.”

        I blinked.  For some absurd reason, I hadn't expected that.  “Oh?”

        “Heheheh...”  Applejack squinted slyly at me.  “Unless you're rich enough to buy the lumber....”  She pointed straight at the woods.  “Seems to me like you've got plenty to work with here.  That's how every family in these parts got started.”

        “Yes.”  I gulped and managed a brave smile.  “I guess that makes sense.  Uhm...”  I scratched my neck and looked humbly her way.  “Could I trouble you for some advice on where to get the right axe... not to mention other tools?”

        “Hey!  No trouble at all!” Applejack leaned against a nearby tree and smirked.  “Though you might wanna write some of this stuff down, assuming you can concentrate while Rainbow Dash reenacts the Lunar Civil War over our heads.  Ain't that right, Rainbow?!”

        “Hnnngh—Huh?  What?”  Rainbow Dash stopped and hovered above us, panting and sweating.  “Applejack?  Why are you wearing a helmet?”  She went cross-eyed and tapped the goggles on her own face.  “The hay is all this?”

        “Did ya bang yer head too hard that last time or somethin'?”  Applejack stifled a guffaw.  “Better not hurt yerself until after yer done with Miss Heartstrings' job!”

        “What job?!” Rainbow Dash frowned.  “Who's Miss Heartstrings?!”

        “Hi there!”  I waved up at her, smiling.  “I'm the one paying you one hundred bits to tear this barn down!”

        “Hold up.  You mean to tell me that I get to break stuff and get paid for it?  Wicked sweet!  Raaaaaugh!”

        When Applejack trotted around the bend, she immediately made a face.  Slowly, under the fall of amber-colored leaves, she trotted straight towards a rhythmic thwacking noise.  “Uhm... Ma'am?  Do you need a little help there?”

        “Nnngh... No!” I exclaimed.  It came out as a snarl, but I was too exhausted to apologize.  I sweated as I levitated the axe three feet in front of me.  I was hacking away at the side of a thick oak tree.  My horn pulsed atop my skull, the invisible leylines of magic tingling in agony as I stretched my telekinetic muscles to the breaking point.  “I've got this covered!  I just need to convince the dang tree to work with me!  Nnngh!”

        I swung the floating axe once more.  Wooden chips and sawdust splashed across the broad patch of dirt beside the path.  No matter how much I cut and chopped and bit at the tree with my blade, the natural structure wasn't showing any signs of falling anytime soon.

        “Ahem.  As much as I hate to get in another pony's business...”  Applejack smiled gently and paced at a safe distance around my clumsy task at hoof.  “...but I really do wish y'all'd let me give a little demonstration.”

        “Mmmff... Don't you...”  I chopped.  “...have an...”  I hacked.  “...Ironpony Competition...”  I flailed.  “ get to?!—Whoah!”  I fell down on my dainty haunches, breathless, as the axe plopped down to the soil beside me.

        “Just how many ponies know about that thang between Rainbow and I?  I swear—she must be braggin' around town for perfect strangers to have caught wind.”  Applejack trotted over and touched a hoof to the axe's handle.  “Seriously, though.  May I?”

        I took several deep breaths, wiped the sweat from my brown, and motioned towards her.  “Knock yourself out...”

        “Well alright.”  She smiled and hoisted the axe up in her teeth.  Trotting over to the tree, she leaned the tool against it and paused to glance back at me.  “Ya see, darlin', you're goin' about it all wrong.  If a pony wants to chop down a tree like this beaut here, ya gotsta judge where the weight of it is leanin', on account that yer fixin' to make it fall where y'all want it to.”  She circled the tree and slapped a part of the trunk perpendicular to where I was pathetically chiseling into the thing.  “Right here's the best part.  Then, once you've chosen the proper place to start cuttin', you do it like so.”

        Applejack once more gripped the axe in her mouth.  Her muscles tensed and her hooves dug into the earth as she flung the whole weight of the blade repeatedly into the trunk.  Her incision was noticeably angled, biting at a forty-five degree towards the tree's roots.  Once the diagonal slice had been made halfway through the tree, she pivoted her swing and chopped horizontally, so that a visible notch formed neatly in the thick of the structure.

        “Yeesh...” I couldn't help but scratch my head and gawk in wonder.  “You must have some really, really strong teeth.”

        Applejack finished her task and spat the axe onto the dirt.  “Hmmph... Yup, I reckon I'd have to.”  She hadn't even broken a sweat.  I watched as she paced around to the side of the tree opposite of the notch and squinted at it closely.  “I've dealt with trees all my life.  I live on the apple farm over yonder.  No doubt you've heard of 'Sweet Apple Acres'.”

        “I just might have,” I said with a smile.  “Still, thanks for the help—”

        “Oh, we ain't done yet, sugarcube.”  Applejack pointed at the bark.  “Now's time to slice straight into the trunk from the other side of the cut we just made.  Once you've chopped through what's left of the width, the tree should collapse in the direction of the angled notch.  You feel me?”

        “I feel you.”  I marched up to the tree and levitated the axe into position.  “Though, I gotta ask, do you always spend your mornings helping random unicorns fell trees?”

        “Just what's so random about it?”  Applejack stood safely back from my task and smirked.  “You're here in Ponyville, tryin' to make an honest livin', from what I gather.  It wouldn't be right neighborly of me to just walk by and let you burn out your magic horn all crazy-like!”

        “Heh...” I concentrated as I hacked away at the tree, parallel to the horizontal slit she had formed at the base of the notch.  “You make it sound as though just any pony you run into could be your neighbor.”

        “Yes, well...”  Applejack dusted her hat off and watched me at work.  “That's a mighty fine strategy in my book.  The golden rule ain't so golden if ya don't bother polishin' it with every soul you meet, ya reckon?”

        I paused briefly in cutting to meditate on that.  I inhaled the crisp autumn air and smiled, as if reenergized.  “That's a very solid thing to live by, ma'am.”  I resumed chopping.  The entire height of the tree wobbled precariously, slowly leaning in the direction that Applejack had expertly designated.  “No wonder you're prime Ironpony material.”

        “Heh.  I hate to say it, but I'll hardly get that title by bein' nice.”

        “I beg to differ.”

        “It’s funny...”


        “Oh, nothin'...”  Applejack scratched her chin.  “I could have sworn there used to be a barn around these here parts.”

        “I'm sure it did what all useless things do,” I murmured while giving a few last, final thwacks.  “It disappeared.”  The tree snap, and started to lean away from us.  “Heeeeey... There we go!”  I backed up, grinning wide.

        “Ahem.  Now's where ya shout 'timber,' missy.”

        “Oh, uhm.”  I took a deep breath and opened my mouth wide.  Just then, the ground rolled with thunder.  Loose leaves fluttered all around us from the tree's heavy collapse with the earth.  I blinked and blushed slightly.  “...timber?”


        I looked back at the giggling mare and smiled.  “I don't suppose I can carve the thing hollow and just live in it, huh?”

        “Ya gotta make the notches deeper, Miss... Miss...”

        “Heartstrings,” I said, grunting a little as I carved at the sides of the oak logs with my hatchet.  The trees that were left standing beside the clearing around us were barren, devoid of leaves.  A sharp chill hung in the air as I prepared to add to the rectangular pile of wooden beams being slowly built along the side of the road.  “And this is coming along nicely.  I hate to bother you on such a beautiful day.”

        “Don't mention it!” Applejack waved a hoof, smiling.  She wore a plain brown scarf around her neck to protect her from the bitter November chill.  “I always take my sweet time headin’ home, just in case there're ponies like you roundabouts who need a helpin' hoof.”

        “Well, I’m thankful.  I really, really gotta get this finished,” I exclaimed, sweating, concentrating hard to make the notch perfect so that it'd fit with the rest of the beams I had stacked up.  “It's taken me too long as it is.  My magic just can't replace sheer experience, if you catch my drift.”

        “Absolutely.  I always feel bad for unicorns—”  Applejack began, but then blinked and blushed.  “Erm.  No offense.”

        I smiled at my work.  “None taken.”

        “It's just that y'all are always fancyin’ yourselves as capable of doin' all sorts of amazin' grunt work with them horns yer sportin'.  Two of my best friends are unicorns, and I know for a fact that liftin' too much weight with magic can give a pony an awful bad headache.  I think it's good that yer pacin' yerself.  I only wish I'd had the opportunity to see ya and help ya out sooner.”

        “Oh, Miss Applejack...” I smiled as I put the finishing touches to the wood with my hatchet.  “Trust me.  You have nothing to fret about.”

        “If you insist.  Ready to put the thang in place?”

        “Care to spot me?”

        “Can do!”

        I took a deep breath, tensed my muscles, and channeled a surge of magic through my horn.  Slowly, I raised the entire beam of wood and levitated it across the dirt clearing towards the rectangular base I had started.  With Applejack guiding me, I gently lowered the log in place so that its notches matched those of the beams already in place.

        “There... That'll do it!  Yeeeha!  See?  It fits a lot better than your previous ones, I'm willin' to bet!”

        “I can see it already.”  I exhaled sharply, adjusting my collar and drying the sweat from my neck.  I gave her a sincere smile.  “Thanks, Applejack.  I couldn't have done it without you.”

        “Pfft.”  She shrugged and adjusted her scarf.  “I only gave ya one tip and now yer thankin' me like I'm yer contractor or somethin'.  I'm only happy to lend some help, Miss Heartstrings.  Just don't forget to apply the mortar between the beams.  I could show you how, if ya like.  My father was an expert at buildin' log cabins, you see.”

        “Really, now?”  I took a deep breath of the cold, autumn air and glanced softly her way.  
“Dare I ask, did he have a lot to do with the making of this town?”

        “Funny you should ask that, missy.”  Applejack's breaths came out in misty vapors as she stood on the plain wooden scaffold beside me.  Together, we finished plastering mortar inside the upper beams of one the cabin's completed walls.  “A lot of ponies don't know this, but Ponyville's size tripled while my Pa was alive.  He was responsible for many decisions that the City Council made, includin' the expansion of housin' projects in the north side of town.”

        “Really?”  I smirked as I applied more mortar.  Flakes of snow drifted down and dotted the blue tarp that acted as the cabin's temporary ceiling.  “So he wasn't all about apples, apples, apples?”

        “Hey!  T'ain't nothin' wrong about apples, apples, apples!” She briefly frowned while I let forth a foalish giggle.  With a tranquil smile, she gazed off into the wintry lengths of the forest and said, “My Pa believed in lookin' after oneself, but his conscience extended well beyond that.  Every soul he met was a pony in need, and he never stopped workin' for one second in his life to make sure they got as much a chance to shine in life as he did.  Why, I'd reckon he'd make a mighty fine mayor...”  She sighed heavily and her green eyes fell.  “If fate had decided to smile on him and Ma.”

        “I'm sorry,” I murmured.

        “Heh.  Don't be.”  She smiled up at me.  “I regret nothin', on account that Pa taught me everythang I needed to know to keep supportin' my family and loved ones proper.”

        “You strike me as a very lucky pony, Applejack,” I couldn't help but mutter.  My work paused ever so briefly as I endured a wave of chills.  “To know where you belong, and those whom belong to you...”

        “My Pa used to say 'Always make sure that you lay down a good foundation.  The rest takes time, but it works without a hitch so long as the foundation is solid.'”  She looked me in the eyes after saying those familiar words.  “The way I see it, Miss Heartstrings, we're all in this heave-ho of life together.  What better a way to enjoy it than to make sure we do it proper?  Right now, there's no place I belong more than right here, helpin' you.”

        I exhaled softly, adjusting the sleeves of my hoodie, feeling the toasty fingers of a fireplace in the back of my mind.  “The world could use more ponies like you, Applejack.”

        “Heh...” Her cheeks flushed slightly.  “Shucks, I'm only doin' what I was taught was right.  There are heaps of ponies way more neighborly than myself.”

        “Yeah?”  I leaned forward on the scaffold and applied more mortar.  “Like who?”

        “Take for instance this one pony,” Applejack handed me another brick.  “Granny Smith insists that she's a she.  Big Mac thinks it's one of the local mules.  Whatever the case, we never see an inch of the soul, but that hasn't stopped whoever it is from dropping by every Saturday morning for the last three months straight and leaving a gift basket by our back door.”

        “Oh?”  I reveled in the feel of a campfire just beyond the partially finished wall of the cabin.  Reaching into a heated trough of plaster, I gathered some of the aggregate and plastered it to the brick before stacking it atop a slowly rising chimney along the north side of the house.  “Just what kind of a gift basket?”

        “Funniest thing—Two loaves of bread, and each time they're still piping hot... as if freshly delivered from a local bakery!”

        “Heh...”  I smiled placidly to myself as I stacked the bricks higher and higher under Applejack's guidance.  “Somepony must think you haven't a lick of baking skills.”

        “Ha!  Fat chance.  Still, we never did figure out which of the townsfolk is makin' the dropoffs, nor why they're choosin' to do it all secret-like.  But I ain't about to complain!  The bread's delicious, and it saves me the trouble of havin' to bake my own on a regular basis.  More time for workin' the farm, ya reckon?”

        “That doesn't sound like much of a gift.”

        “The best gifts involve givin' us things we need, not so much things we want.”  She exhaled a vaporous breath into the wintry air and motioned towards the slowly rising chimney.  “For instance, who else in their right mind would be spendin' Hearth's Warming Eve puttin' the finishin' touches on a log cabin?”

        “It's my own fault,” I murmured.  “I should have had this finished long ago.”

        “At least yer dead-seat on workin' on it.”  She smiled and winked at me.  “A good work ethic means bein' willing to learn while you go against the grindstone.”

        “I have you to thank, Miss Applejack,” I said pleasantly, wiping a smudge of plaster off my brow and grinning.  “This fireplace is all you.  I'm just glad I tackled it before winter was completely done with.”

        “Well, I reckon you can still use it for when a cold spell hits,” Applejack said as she handed me another pair of nails.  A white world of snow and frost lingered behind her as she stood on the scaffold in her green vest and brown hat.  “Still, it's a mighty fine chimney.  Right now, what's best is that we get this here rooftop finished.”

        “Much appreciated, Applejack,” I grunted as I concentrated hard, hammering the last of several wooden shingles into place atop the log cabin.  “But I've taken enough of your time as it is.  Don't you have some seeds to plant?”

        “As if any other ponies are awake at this hour.  Heh.”  She rolled her green eyes.  “One thing at a time, I reckon,” she said, casting a glance towards the center of Ponyville over the threadbare treetops.  “Winter may get wrapped up by tomorrow morning, but it'll still be a cold spring for a few weeks.  It'd be a shame for you to not have yer house all fixed up by then.”

        “You're a very important pony in town, aren't you?” I smiled and hammered more of the shingles into place.  “I imagine all of the farm owners owe you bigtime each spring for clearing the fields of snow.”

        “Eh... I'm pretty good at barkin' orders, if that's what yer implyin'.”  Applejack smirked with a glint of pride.  “But I'd gladly ditch the megaphone and take to the plow if it meant gettin' things done on time for once.”

        “What's that supposed to mean?”

        Applejack sighed.  “Only that every year Ponyville is late in gettin' Winter wrapped up, and a lot of that is on account of so few ponies bein' early birds like you and me.”

        “Hmmm...”  I hammered a final nail in and looked at her.  “Seems to me like you could use some organization.”

        “As much as I wanna share y'all's faith, I can only do what's best and make sure the fields get cleared and planted.  I may not exactly be timely, but I sure as hay can be precise.”

        “You're more than just resourceful, Applejack,” I said with a smile.  With a brief chill, I adjusted the hoodie around my neck and exclaimed, “You're the kind of mare to lend a hoof to each and everypony you see.  So long as that's your main concern, who cares about timing?  You really think it's just the land that needs Wrapping Up?  Ponies gotta live on that land, y'know.”

        “Hmmm... I suppose that's a good way of lookin' at it,” Applejack scratched her chin.  “Still,” she exhaled.  “I'd give my bottom bit just to be on time for once.”

        “Well, maybe I can help this year!” I placed the hammer down and swiveled about to face her.  “That is—if you don't mind a stranger taking part in the labor.”

        “Heh...” Applejack smirked.  “You're never a stranger so long as y'all got a helping spirit and four strong hooves to guide it with.”

        “A saying of your father's?”

        “My own, actually, though I'd be lyin' if I said he didn't inspire that none.”  She winked.  “So, I reckon we should get you a vest or something.”

        “That depends...”  I ran a hoof through my mane and smiled into the frigid air.  “Do they come in tan?”

        “What are the wooden stakes for?” I glanced up from the row of blossoming shoots sticking up from the soil.  “The pony at the gardening shop didn't exactly explain it well to me.”

        Applejack walked down the rows of infant apple trees.  “They're to make sure that the trees grow straight and proper.  The thing about graftin' is that the scions aren't exactly prepared to stretch just right from the root-stocks.  So long as you use the stakes in the dwarf-trees' infancy, you can make sure they don't keel over or somethin' worse.”

        I chuckled.  A flock of birds sang musically overhead, flying low over spreading leaves of green that surrounded the sunlit clearing in which my new cabin resided.  “You must know apple trees like the back of your hoof.”

        “I only wished they knew themselves half as much.  Life would be a lot easier if the trees would just plant themselves.”

        “Then where would all the fun be?”

        “That's what I try to tell my brother, Big Mac, all the time.”  She walked with me around the green yard of freshly planted grass.  “One spring, he talked us into tryin' our hooves at growing pears.  I still have nightmares about the next summer after,” she muttered with a slight shiver.  “We've since agreed that I'm the entrepreneur of the family, not him.  Heheh.”

        “I'm guessing he'd make a better mascot,” I said with a wink.

        “Ugh.”  She rolled her eyes.  “Y'all can ask half the mares in town and I reckon they'd whole-heartedly agree.  There aren't enough sticks in the world to fend them off at times, I swear to Celestia.”

        “Say, in speaking of summer.”  I glanced up at the front of my cabin.  “Could you give me some advice on adding a wooden outcropping to the front?”

        “What, like a porch or somethin'?”

        “Yeah,” I said with a nod.  “This town is a lot prettier than where I moved from, and I wouldn't mind spending some afternoons sitting out here.”  I shrugged.  “And—well—you never know when it might decide to rain.”

        Applejack looked up from the fireplace.  Her body huddled securely under the woolen blanket as she gave me a squinting glance.  “I'm mighty curious, though.”  Her voice was a gentle murmur, barely heard under the roar of the rainstorm pounding in on the cabin walls surrounding us.  “What's a musician like you doin' out here on the edge of town?  Most artists hang out in the center of Ponyville.  Seems like an awful shame for somepony as kind as you to be dwellin' someplace all lonesome-like.”

        “Believe me...” I breathed easily, sharing the heat from the crackling flame with her.  “I'm not half as lonely as you think I am.”

        “You get plenty of visitors?”

        “Oh... on occasion.”  I smiled.  “One friend in particular makes a habit of dropping by on a regular basis.”

        “Oh yeah?  What's her name?  I bet I'd know her.”

        I took a deep breath, my face melting into something cold and melancholic.  “No.  Unfortunately, you wouldn't.”

        “Well, it's good to know you're not entirely alone.  After all, you've got yerself a cozy little cabin here.”  She smiled as she gazed once more into the soft red hue of the fire.  “Must be awful peaceful.”

        “Yes.  Very.”

        “Mind if I ask just what you do for a living?”

        “What do I do for a living?” I repeated, gazing up at the rows of musical instruments haloing us along the walls.  “I... live.  I live to live happily, to compose musical accompaniments to the beauty that I see, to record that which is sad and that which is lost, for the somber things in life are mere shadows to the warmth and joy that we're often too busy to recognize.”  I adjusted the stone-gray sleeves of my hoodie and smiled.  “But I'm never too busy.  I'm a pony who listens, Applejack, and more often than not I like what I hear, because what's the point in hating the few cherishable treasures that we are given?  It's taken a while for me to discover what I've been blessed with.  But I'm grateful for that time.  It's like building a house:  you learn more about the process as you erect the walls and rooftop for the very first time.  Once it's finished, it's hardly a project of your labor and your labor alone.  Rather, it's the sum of all the love and support that dear friends have contributed to it.  In the end, a home is just an extension of yourself, something that couldn't exist without the foundations set forth by those you care about.”  I closed my eyes and exhaled peacefully.  “When I'm living here, all of my newfound friends are living with me, so that this place is something permanent... like a memory that never fades.  How could anypony call that lonely?”

        I wasn't exactly expecting a response to my heartfelt words, but I wasn't expecting utter silence either.  As the seconds ticked away, the glow of the fire grew dim beyond my eyelids.  I felt a cold wind billow through the cabin, though not a single window was open.  When I opened my eyes, I saw a misty vapor wafting from my lips.  With an inescapable chatter of my teeth, I glanced aside.


        She was rubbing a hoof over forehead, reeling in a brief dizziness.  As soon as she came to, her green eyes flew wide open.  “What in the hay...?”  Confusion swiftly blossomed into panic as she gazed fitfully at her bizarre surroundings, feeling the folds of the woolen blanket enshrouding her like a straight-jacket.  “Where... in Celestia's name...?”


        “Dah!”  She gasped and jumped up, nearly tripping over the basket with Apple Bloom's doll.  “Wh-what happened?  What am I doing here?  Why's my mane so soaked...?!”  She started to shiver, like a frail soul that she had once carried out of a barn in some ancient place long forgotten.  “Aww shoot... I collapsed in the rain, didn't I?”

        “Please...” I stood up and raised two hooves.  “Just calm down—”

        “I'm so sorry to be a burden, ma'am.  This is just so...”  She bit her lip and ran a hoof through her wet bangs, quivering all over.  I had never seen Applejack look this weak or frightened before.  I immediately wanted to hug her.  Nopony should ever have to feel the weight of the world crumbling atop her shoulders—nopony but me.  If the cabin had fallen into dust all around us, I bet she would have been less scared.  “How could I let myself faint in a rainstorm?” Her voice was breaking, as if she was on the verge of doing something I was hardly worthy of witnessing.  “What's wrong with me?  I'm never this... this...”

        “Applejack... Listen to me...”  I marched up to her and planted my hooves on her shoulder, forcing her gaze to be swallowed in mine.  “You are a strong mare.  But it takes strength to trust other ponies.  So trust me right now.  Everything is all right.  You got caught up in the rain, and I took you in.”  I smiled earnestly, replacing the warmth that she had lost when she stepped away from fireplace.  “My home... is your home.”

Slowly, Applejack's shivers melted away, like mine always do... and so many of those occasions being owed to her.  She gulped and nodded, her lips curving slightly.  “Reckon that has a nice sound to it.”

        “It'd better,” I said with a smile, ushering her back down to the fireplace where she could bask in the glow.  “I'm a musician, after all.”  I draped the blanket over the confused mare's shoulders, calming her further as the rainstorm persisted outside.  “What about you?  Do you sell oranges?”

        Applejack blinked at me.  It came out first like a stutter, but soon she was guffawing like the proper pony that taught me how to swing an axe.  Soon, her breaths slowed to an even pace.  “Ahem... So, uhm, I reckon you have a name?  It's a shame to not know the pony who's given me such good hospitality.”

        “Lyra,” I said with a  gentle nod of the head.  “Lyra Heartstrings.”

        “Lyra,” she repeated it, her eyes dancing across the musical instruments above us with foalish wonder.  “Now that's a mighty pretty name...”

        “Hmmm... So I've been told.”

        We talked for two and a half hours, during which Applejack never forgot me, and I couldn't have been more thankful.  Most of the things she told me were stories that I had heard before, from months of gently coaxing such information from the many freckle-faced, amnesiac prototypes that I had been blessed with meeting before.  Not once did I even consider interrupting her anecdotes, no matter how familiar they sounded.  The sweetest melodies in life are the ones you're willing to listen to over and over again.  No record player could do Applejack justice.  She's a symphony I've been lucky to attend on several occasions, and every single time it demands an encore.

        The rainstorm ended.  Reluctantly, I helped her gather her things.  While she fiddled with her hat, I personally bundled the basket with Apple Bloom's toy.  I gave it to her and we parted ways.  A quiet part of me felt as if I had finally discovered my older sister, only for her to be going away on a long trip.

        I watched from the patio at the front of my cabin while Applejack trudged away in the mud.  As I predicted, there came a point where she stopped in her tracks just before marching around the bend.  I kept watching, for something was evidently weighing on Applejack's mind beyond plain forgetfulness.  I saw her dangling the basket up and down in her grip, as if alarmed by how much heavier it felt.  Swiftly, she unbundled the blankets keeping the contents dry.  What followed next was a shocked expression that no painter could do justice.  She reached into the basket, for nestled beside Apple Bloom's doll were two loaves of bread, a day's freshness still wafting from their crust.

        Applejack's lips pursed.  Murmuring mute words of wonderment, she scanned the horizon.  She saw trees, mud, a misty rainbow, and even a peculiar log cabin.  But she didn't see me.

        I was back inside, nestled under blankets in front of the fireplace as I finished composing the last written bits of “Threnody of Night.”  Soon, I would have the instrumental finished, and the last step before the magical performance would be acquiring more ingredients to act as a protective buffer.  I remembered what happened during my last experiment.  A frightening chill ran up my spine, so that I scooted closer to the flames.

        But then I felt the folds of the hoodie around my body, like a sisterly hug that never ended, warming me far more than any burning logs ever could.  For another night, I fell asleep with a smile, instead of tears.  I didn't worry about the ashes of the fireplace spreading beyond the hearth.  After all, it had a good foundation.

        I don't know how long it will take for me to find my way home, but so long as I am living, I will never run out of neighbors.

Background Pony

III - “Foundations”

by shortskirtsandexplosions

Special thanks to: Seattle_Lite, theworstwriter, TheBrianJ, and Geoffrey Rush

Cover pic by Spotlight

        Dear Journal,

        What does it mean to be alone?  I mean truly alone?  Have I come to a point of understanding the feeling?  Is it enough when I fall asleep to my shivers and wake up to my tears?

        I've gone beyond feeling sorry for myself.  I like to think that the pony I am today is somepony older, braver, stronger, and smarter.  But no matter how many qualities that pony may possess, she is still alone.

        I... am still so very alone.  I cannot deny that.  Yet, I can't allow myself to be obsessed with that.  After all, what purpose is there in such a fixation?  What purpose is there in anything?

        There has to be a purpose in all of this.  Believing in some sort of purpose is what keeps me going, what keeps me banging my head against the thick wall of my predicament.  It's not that I don't have enough things ushering me forward.  I want to be remembered.  I want to make a true impact on these wonderful ponies' lives.  I want to walk up to those whom I once knew and have them recognize me on sight.  I want to be able to make new friends and have them look forward to seeing me in the future.

        But as I write all of these things—and remember that I am, in fact, the only one writing them—I wonder if I'll only ever be the single, solitary pony dreaming of them... instead of living them.

        “And so...”  Pinkie Pie plopped a box full of chocolate cupcakes atop the table in the center of Sugarcube Corner.  She gazed at her two friends with excited blue eyes.  “Then he says, 'The pegasi are promising beautiful weather for Ponyville this weekend.  What are you up to Saturday afternoon, Miss Pie?'”

        Twilight Sparkle and Rarity gawked at her, their faces blank.  “Yes, and?”  Rarity chirped emphatically.

        “I say to him 'I'll be up to what I'm always up to on Saturday afternoons: ten bottles of sarsaparilla and a prayer!'  Snkkkt—heeheehee!”  Pinkie Pie's forelegs curled up against her chest as she giggled, gasped, and finally exclaimed, “Then he laughs and says, 'The shores of Lake Marestrom look really pretty this time of year.'  Pfft!”  She rolled her eyes.  “Like that has anything to do with sarsaparilla!”

        “Pinkie...” Twilight breathily remarked.

        Rarity was leaning forward, her blue eyes sparkling.  “You do realize, of course, that the stallion was trying to ask you out?!”

        “Oh.”  Pinkie Pie blinked.  She narrowed her eyes with a quizzical expression.  “Really?  What for?”

        “You said he came to chat with you on several occasions over the last few weeks, yes?”  Rarity pointed with a grin.  “I doubt very much that he was interested only in what Mr. and Mrs. Cake had to offer.”

        “I think someone's smitten with you, Pinkie.”  Twilight smiled and levitated a mug of tea to her lips.  “Please tell me you at least acknowledged his gesture.”

        “Uhmmmm...” Pinkie Pie scratched her chin as her blue eyes swam across the ceiling.  “I can't remember if I did or not.  He kind of galloped out of here really quickly.”

        “Oh?”  Rarity's face sunk.  “Whatever for?”

        “Beats me, though it was after I tossed the lemon custard pie into his face.”

        Twilight Sparkle spit out a mouthful of tea.  She teetered over her edge of the table and gasped for breath.

        Rarity was almost fainting.  “You... It... He...What?!”

        “P-Pinkie?!”  Twilight rediscovered her voice in time to sputter forth, “What could possibly have possessed you to toss a pie into a poor stallion's face?!”

        “He was only trying to bridge communication between the two of you!”  Rarity was still reeling.  “What in Equestria were you thinking?”

        “I was trying to do him a favor!” Pinkie Pie barked in her defense.

        “And just how was that a favor?!” Twilight Sparkle exclaimed.  “He wanted to go out on a date with you!”

        “Hmmmmm...”  Pinkie bit her lip, then shrugged.  “I guess I just remembered something Dashie told me: 'All stallions ever want from a mare is some pie.'  The poor guy was so shy; I figured I'd cut to the chase!”

        Twilight and Rarity stared at Pinkie Pie for ten numb seconds, until finally they cracked.  A snorting sound shattered into a series of unrelenting giggles.  Their half of Sugarcube Corner vibrated with pure joy’s melodic cadence.

        Pinkie joined in the laughter, though an undeniable redness was blossoming beneath her cheeks.  “Heeheehee... Uhm... I-I don't get it!  Should I have tossed a cake at him instead?”

        “Heeheehee—Oh Pinkie Pie...”  Twilight Sparkle could hardly breathe.

        Rarity leaned over and nuzzled Pinkie with a warm smile.  “Don't you ever change, darling.  One of these days, we're going to find you a gentlecolt who'll gladly take p-pie in th-the face fr-from youuuuu—Snkkkttt—hahahaha!”

        “Heeheehee...” Twilight Sparkle stood up and levitated the box of cupcakes with purple telekinesis.  “Come on, girls.  Let's get to the park before the other three think we ditched today's picnic.”

        “What about strudel?”  Pinkie Pie bounced happily after them as the three made for the exit of Sugarcube Corner.  “That's a little less messy than pie!  Though it's kind of crusty.  Oh!  I know!  I could avoid the glaze!  It'd make it much more aerodynamic when I toss it at him!”

        The other two laughed merrily, their high-pitched chorus ringing in my ears as they brushed past my table.  I gazed over my shoulder from where I sat.  Suddenly, the scent of dust wafted up to my nostrils, and I realized I was squeezing a pair of ancient history books to my chest.  Sighing, I relinquished hugging the library checkouts and opened them up atop the table before me.  The inside of Sugarcube Corner somehow felt less colorful.  It was less warm too.  I felt a chill dance through my body as I heard the last traces of Twilight's harmonious voice trailing from my ears.

        With a shudder, I pulled the stone-gray sleeves of my hoodie over my hooves and absorbed myself in a sea of text as forgotten and timeless as I.

        It's been almost thirteen months since the curse began.  In that time, my life has gotten calmer.  My days now are filled with tranquility, purpose, and resolve.  I'd be lying, however, if I said that things have gotten any easier.

        There are some nights when I don't have a magical tune echoing loudly against the walls of my mind.  These would be blissful evenings, except that they afford me a chance to dream.  There is nothing that makes a prison more painful than being able to dream.  After all, what is the power of damnation without a slice of hope to merit its potency?

        When I dream, I see myself trotting across an empty Ponyville.  There are no other ponies besides me.  I am the only equine soul to be seen or heard.  Every hoofstep is mine.  Every written word belongs to me.  Every breath and song and sob holds anchorage in my throat and mine alone.

        While this may seem like a nightmare, there are times when I prefer the world of these dreams to that which I'm forced to endure everyday.  At least in my dreams I am encompassed by desolation, a far more sensible prison than one that is barred with the faces of so many happy and warm ponies.

        Seeing Twilight Sparkle's smiles, hearing her voice: I am reminded of what we used to be.  I'm reminded of the days when we and Moondancer were foals, when we played in the parks of upper Canterlot, reenacting major events in Equestrian History.  Moondancer liked to pretend she was Princess Luna and Twilight—of course—was always Princess Celestia.  More often than not, I was stuck with playing the role of Starswirl the Bearded.  The other two would giggle and poke fun at me for having to portray the surly stallion sorcerer in our little get-togethers.  It was worth it, though, because nothing made Twilight more happy than to be Princess Celestia.  The world seemed a lot more colorful when she was smiling, and that was something I never wanted to disturb.

        When the years went by, and Twilight left Moondancer and I to live under the wing of Princess Celestia, I didn't realize it at first—but something had been drained from my life that could never be refilled.  We three were young unicorns then, and like all magical ponies our age we were far too eagerly swept up in learning history and spells and various Canterlot arts.  Moondancer relocated to a Fillydelphian university to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher.  I studied music and composition at Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns.  Our days were spent in becoming living repositories of knowledge; we pursued the future in our separate ways.  As a result, our companionship dissolved, allowing our education and careers to take the forefront of our lives.

        Not once, however, did this bother us in any way.  Our friendship was something immortal, something immaculate.  Occasionally Twilight Sparkle, Moondancer and I would get back together and talk about the directions our lives had taken us.  We'd muse about the things we did in our foalhood.  So long as we had the memories of what we once were, we could accept what we had become.  Our friendship would last as long as we could remember that which united us.

        Today, I am the only pony who can afford those memories.  Moondancer and Twilight have lost something, and they don't even know it.  But do they have to know it?  As long as I remember them, as long as I let them laugh, smile, and play Luna and Celestia in my mind, then nothing is lost.  I believe this with all my heart.

        Then why is it that I see Twilight day in and day out, and I feel as though a phantom limb is speaking to me, that something lopped off my soul is screaming to be reattached, only to remain a numb spectre of something warm and irrecoverable?

        I am so happy—so exceedingly enraptured—to see Twilight Sparkle having made so many friends in Ponyville.  There was a time when I was worried about her.  Moondancer and I pursued our careers with great vigor, but Twilight Sparkle had treated her career like a veritable obsession.  On so many instances, I attempted to have the three of us reunite, and only Moondancer would show up.  Together, we'd worry over Twilight's path in life.  We missed her and shared a mutual concern over the future she was paving for herself.  In her foalhood, Twilight always held a major attachment to Princess Celestia, but Moondancer and I both doubted she was aptly prepared for the consequences of being so closely connected to an immortal alicorn.

        That's why it fills me with such joy to see Twilight Sparkle having relocated to Ponyville.  There are ponies here with whom she's had the opportunity to commune.  I truly think they've saved her from a life of perpetual isolation, a fate that would have stripped her heart of the opportunity to feel with the same vitality that she's exercised her mind.

        And yet, every time I see her and her friends, I can't help but wonder if things could have been different.  I came to Ponyville to visit her during the Summer Sun Celebration.  What if the same opportunity that blossomed for Twilight would have opened a door for me?  Perhaps I could have been making the same friends as her, attending the same gatherings as her, going to the same picnics and laughing over the same anecdotes and smiling at the same thoughts with her.

        I've lived long enough to know that life is the sum of its days, and yet the flavor of its dreams.  Sometimes the most beautiful choir is the one you can't join, the one you can only listen to.  It's been many years, and I feel like I'm still playing the role of Starswirl the Bearded, giving the spotlight to Twilight Sparkle, allowing her to illuminate the stage with her smile.  It's a wonderful play, and it deserves an encore.  I just don't know how long I can sit here alone with my applause.

        A few days ago, I stumbled through the door to my log cabin, and it felt like just any other afternoon I've ever lived.  The same walls embraced me, dangling with the many musical instruments I made to be shared with nopony but myself.  A fireplace yawned in waiting, something that would be lit at night—a night just like any other, spent alone with my thoughts and shadows.

        This routine I live by is mind-numbing.  As soon as I step over the hearth that I've built for myself, I know what the next few hours are going to consist of.  I know that I'll be reading one of the many ancient tomes checked out from Twilight's library.  I know that I'll be scouring the texts for any tiny bit of info that can clue me into the magical secrets behind Nightmare Moon.  I know that I'll come up with either nothing or very little to go by, and the rest of the daylight will be spent sitting out on the patio, attempting to eke beauty from the fringe of the wilderness around me.  Then, when evening falls—and the shivers make my bones twitch on the verge of a moonlit waltz—I surrender to the blankets of my cot, staring into the fireplace, trying to imagine another world where there is a smile for every tear, a laugh for every sob, and a pair of ears besides mine for every fear I have to stammer into the gaping abyss of the night.

        Why do I even write this?  Every ten journal entries or so, I ask the same question, and it is just as pointless and rhetorical as all the others.  Right now, as I ramble poetically, I am sitting on a bench about twenty yards from the Carousel Boutique.  It's a sunny day.  There are very few clouds in the sky.  The same squirrel has crawled up to me for the fifth consecutive occasion.  I don't know if it realizes I've given it the same morsel of food four times in a row.  Candy Mane has flown by three times, each time waving and saying the same greeting.  Miss Hooves has trotted past the bench with Dinky, giving me the same smile and nod that she did yesterday and the day before and the day before that.  Twenty minutes ago, for the sake of whimsy, I stood up from the bench and scuffed my name in the dirt path with my rear hooves.  Sitting back down, I decided to count the number of ponies who stopped to give the four-letter word a cognitive glance.  Twenty minutes have gone by, and my count is still at zero.  An hour will past, four hours, five days, or a thousand years—and I don't expect that number to go up any.

        Who do I write this for other than myself?  What other pony do I have to look after, to provide for, to feed or to blanket or to comfort?  Who else will read this?  Who else will have the ability to read this?  Am I just circling words down a gaping funnel?  There are times when I feel as if I'm only indulging myself with a great bowl of nothing.  It would make far greater sense to write nameless songs in the dirt, or to fatten a squirrel to the bursting point.

        There was a time when I used to compose music for a hobby.  After all, why study music if you're not going to make more of it?  It used to bug my parents.  There were nights that I spent in my upstairs bedroom, repetitively strumming away at the same stubborn tune with a lyre or harp, attempting to unlock a musical symphony that I knew for sure would be Canterlot's next masterpiece.

        These days, my symphonies are not my own.  I go to bed and wake up with tunes haunting my mind, resonating in my horn like some accursed tuning fork.  I do everything in my power to drag them out of me, just short of screaming.  The nights are cold, freezing, and frightening.  When I finally break the music down into a palpable composition, it hardly brings warmth, for another melody is there to take its place, filling my ears like ghost whispers.  There are no strings left to pluck and call my own, for I am still threading loose the shadows of Nightmare Moon's endless night.

        Perhaps, then, what's left of me to claim as my own is my words.  This journal is a solitary piece, performed in a capella, an ode to joy... so long as I have joy to perceive, like a glimpse of the past or a hope for the future.  I know very well that I may be the only pony to read what I am writing right now, but perhaps such is for the best.  So long as I fill these entries with that which is beautiful, that which is inspiring, then it's a symphony that I can call my own.  There are many tunes I've yet to unlock before I can even hope to tackle this curse.  However, I must never lose grasp of the most important composition, to which I am the one true conductor.

        I only wish the elegies were so clearly defined.

        “Are you sure these are the books that you wanna check out?” Spike looked down at me from where he stood, perched, atop a rolling ladder that was leaning against a bookcase full of dusty tomes.  “They're not written in Equestrian Basic.  From what Twilight Sparkle says, many are written in Moonwhinny.  I don't suppose you've got a laypony's knowledge of the lunar tongue, Miss...?”

        “Heartstrings,” I murmur.  I trot across the library and stand at the base of the ladder.  “And you shouldn't concern yourself too much.  I know this is dense reading material.  Let's just say that I've had... time to invest in learning some of the old languages.”

        “Hey, that's fine with me,” Spike said with a shrug as he pulled two large books out from their shelving.  He winced at the sight of a scurrying spider and brushed loose a few flimsy cobwebs.  “Honestly, I think it's kind of cool.  Most ponies who visit this library—and Twilight Sparkle will be the first to tell you this—they come looking for a cook book or an adventure novel or some other really simple thing.  It's a shame that she isn't here to help you find this sort of stuff.  Then again... Heh...”  He smiled as he crawled his small, portly frame down the ladder, balancing the books in a tiny hand.  “Maybe it's all for the best.  She'd get all excited that a fellow unicorn was checking out stuff this old and would talk your ear off about ancient Equestrian history.”

        I couldn't help but brandish the thinnest of smiles.  “You say that as if it's a bad thing.”

        “Eh.  To each their own.  I kind of feel bad for some of the ponies who come here to study, especially when it's a gorgeous day outside.  It seems like some of them just never get to leave.”

        I took a deep breath and took the book from him with gentle telekinesis.  “Believe me.  I understand completely.”  I adjusted the collar of my hoodie with a slight shiver before adding, “Still, it's worth it when we have forgotten treasures to uncover.”

        “Hmm.  That almost sounds exciting.”  He smiled, his rows of tiny razor sharp teeth showing.  “You must be doing some sort of wicked cool research project, Miss Heartstrings.”

        “I'll settle for 'cool,' alright,” I said with a nod.  “The jury's still out on 'wicked.'”

        “Jee, I dunno.”  He scratched his green spikes and gave the books in my levitating grasp a slightly detestable glance.  “I always get the chills when I touch books from our 'Lunar Collection.'”

        “You're not the only one.”

        “Cuz—Really!—Twilight's told me enough about them.  The legacy of Nightmare Moon used to be a big deal long before Princess Luna returned from her whole thousand year imprisonment and all.  Twilight says that many of the books written in Moonwhinny were banned from libraries all across Equestria.  Can you believe that?  It had something to do with... uhh... Princess Celestia being concerned that mortal ponies would read what Luna had written and somehow be afflicted by the taint of Nightmare Moon.”

        “It was called the 'Great Canterlot Eclipse,'” I explained to him, mentally quoting Twilight as I shuffled over to a desk and prepared for a long afternoon of studying.  “Scholars write about it to this day.  It was a dark time in the aftermath of Nightmare Moon's tyranny when literature underwent a great deal of censorship.  Eventually, as a few centuries rolled by, Princess Celestia realized the error of her ways, and she lifted the ban.  This gave birth to the Modern Equestrian Renaissance, and Canterlot was founded as a center of art and learning, ultimately leading to it becoming the capital city of Equestria.  Still, the effects of the Great Eclipse are evident in pony culture, and many things written down in the lunar archives remain undiscovered to this day.”

        Spike whistled.  “Wow.  That's different than how Twilight explains it.”

        That struck me rather curiously.  “And just how does she explain it?”

        “Simply that most ponies are too scared to read things that were once held in the library of Princess Luna.”

        “Well, that's perfectly understandable,” I said sagely.  “There's a great deal of darkness and loss attached to the name 'Nightmare Moon.'”

        “Yeah, well.”  He winked and pointed my way.  “If it gets too freaky to research on your own, just give me a whistle.  Even Twilight will say that I'm a pretty good research assistant.  Don't be afraid to ask if you need help with anything, Miss Heartstrings.”

        “Really?”  I opened one of the old tomes, waved the cloud of dust away, and squinted over the many alien words.  My question was a very droll, tone-deaf plea.  “Could you, by chance, tell me anything about the Cosmic Matriarch?”

        “Uhhhh...”  Spike's emerald eyeslits blinked dazedly.  “The Cosmic What-now?”

        “It's an old mare's tale, as far as most ponies are concerned,” Twilight Sparkle had once said.  “But I happen to know it's a lot more than that.”

        I gulped.  I shivered.  It was barely two months into my curse.  I was living out of a green tent pitched alongside an abandoned barn just outside of town.  That day, I sat in the waiting room of Aloe and Lotus' Day Spa, pretending to be another anxious customer—just so I could interrupt Twilight for this one desperate conversation.  To this day, I thank my lucky stars that she was gracious enough to ignore the sight of the shivering bum in a stone-gray sweatjacket, looking like she needed far more than a frivolous massage or pedicure.

        “How's that?” I murmured, trying to keep my composure.  The world was a frigid tomb.  My mind reeled from the same miserable tune spinning like a broken record in the thick of my skull.  “How do you know it's more than an old mare's tale?”

        “Because Princess Celestia has spoken about it... or her...”  She giggled.  “Or perhaps them.  Whatever the case, I have no doubt that the Cosmic Matriarch is real.  I've been our magical ruler's apprentice long enough to hear her infer as much.”

        “Infer?”  I gulped, struggling to remain still in the chair.  The shivers were unbearable; I fought them courageously.  I had to appear as interested in this conversation as my heart genuinely felt.  “You mean to say that she's never outright come out and told you what the Cosmic Matriarch is?”

        Twilight shifted with momentary discomfort.  For a moment, I was afraid that I had struck a nerve, that I had lost her desire to educate me.  To my elation, she continued, though pensively so.  “It's very personal to her, I think.  And I don't say that lightly.  Princess Celestia has lived for a very, very long time.  It's very difficult to stumble upon things that she takes personal stock in.”

        “But she does with this?”

        “Mmmmhmmm.  And Princess Luna as well.  You see...”  Twilight smiled and brushed a hoof through her mane as we waited “our turns” with Aloe and Lotus.  “The Princesses who look after the Sun and Moon are immortal.  However, while that fact is irrefutable, it makes ponies overlook something very important.  Ironically, it's the one thing that every magician in Equestria has to learn before starting their career.”

        I swallowed hard and uttered, “Everything has a beginning.”

        Twilight glanced at me with pleasant surprise.  “Why... yes!  Heehee—How would you know that?  Are you also a magician, Miss Heartstrings?”

        I bit my lip and avoided her gaze.  This was my fifth identical conversation with Twilight Sparkle, and I was only just then getting used to the whole ritual.  “I've... done my fair share of reading,” I confessed and lied at the same time.  All I knew were words, terms, names, and very few of them in Equestrian Modern.  “But it's my understanding that nopony has ever been taught the true origin to the Princesses of Equestria.”

        “And for a good reason,” Twilight said with a nod.  Her lavender features were bathed in the gentle light of an aroma candle, giving my foalhood friend an ethereal quality as she spoke of holy things.  “Mortal ponies live—what?  Sixty to seventy years?  Ninety years at most?  Starswirl the Bearded was a major exception, of course, but most ponies are lucky if they see so much as a century go by before their time on earth is over.  Can any of us really imagine what it's like to be an alicorn?  To have lived for eons?  To have seen the foundation of this world, and the birth of the Sun and Moon themselves?”

        I fought another wave of chills, staring off into the distant candles as if they were alien stars twinkling beyond us.  “I can imagine many things.  It's a whole different situation to feel.”  I glanced back at her.  I could only hope my eyes were as sincere as my words.  “What does Princess Celestia feel?  Do you know?”

        “I wish I could tell you, Miss Heartstrings.  I wish I could know—so I could tell it to all of my friends, or to anypony for that matter.  But, even though I am Celestia's apprentice, there are many things that are still a mystery to me, and I think when it comes to the topic of the Cosmic Matriarch, it's far too sensitive a thing to press the Princess for information about.”

        “You think she isn't willing to share what she knows?”

        Twilight squirmed with a sudden awkwardness.  “Erm... No.  It's something far different than that, I think... or at least I theorize.”




        She looked at me.  Her eyes were surprisingly vulnerable.  “Would you, Miss Heartstrings, attempt talking about your mother... if you had lived for so long that you could hardly remember her?”

        A sharp breath left me.  The shadows in the room doubled, like the thick curtain of night.  “I... I never once thought of that...”

        Twilight gently nodded.  “I imagine Celestia thinks of that everyday, which is why I'm so reticent to bring it up in conversation.”

        I let my gaze fall.  “I'm sorry...”

        “Hey...”  She smiled and leaned forward.  “Don't be.  It's healthy to be curious, but we mustn't forget that there are still sacred boundaries in this world.  Besides, though Celestia may not have much to talk on the subject, she did once say something that has stuck with me for as long as I've known her.

        I glanced at her again.  “What's that?”

        Twilight was grinning, a very soft and childish expression.  “When I first became her apprentice, I asked her about the creation of the world.  She was very vague in her answer, except for one curious detail.”  She stifled a giggle, cleared her throat, and quoted her mentor.  “'The world began like all things began, my apprentice, not with a mere breath... but with a song.'”

        What is this song?  Is it the same thing that gets stuck in my head every morning and every night of my life?  Have I been made capable of sensing something that no other Equestrian soul has been blessed—or cursed—to witness?  Why me?  Why me alone?  And what does Nightmare Moon have to do with it?

        This is what I struggle over.  This is what I wrack my brain with.  Day after day—in Twilight's library, on park benches, before the fireplace of my cabin, under candle-light, in the frigid glow of the moon and the gentle kiss of the morning sun—I rummage through books, tomes, scrolls in search of an answer, until my eyes gloss over with the dust and exhaustion of all the ages this mortal soul is constantly struggling to catch up with.

        It's taken me several months, and I am only barely scratching the surface of history's forgotten answers—assuming that they are indeed answers, and just not red herrings disguised by the obscure layers of time.  The richest details are lost in several languages, and most of them dead.  I've relied on codecs, translations, almanacs, and various other legends that dig and chip away at mountains of lunar speech, and the most I know is that there is even more that I don't know, and may never know.

        Was Nightmare Moon a musician first and a despot second?  This should come as no surprise.  My constant research over the last year has granted me remarkable insight.  It turns out that every sentient culture in Equestria has a common retelling of a great deceiver whose gift was in the musical arts before turning into a bane of righteousness.  Minotaurs write of a royal lyricist who—once scorned by a lover—trapped his entire kingdom in a labyrinthine spell.  Diamond Dogs, often considered to be illiterate, actually possess several scrolls depicting a tribe of murderers who led their brothers astray with a 'Howl of Cyclones'.  Even dragons have a spoken legend that tells of an ancient queen who petrified her brothers and sisters using a magically resonating diamond.

        Perhaps my discoveries are a result of me—a cursed unicorn—looking specifically for information that relates to her plight.  Still, I can't shake the uncanny coincidence of so many similar legends being told across multiple, different civilizations.

        It's no secret that Princess Luna has an appreciation for musical arts.  Then again, so does Princess Celestia.  The sisters are both alicorn rulers of ponydom, and it'd be a heinous crime to not invest in the same culture that defines those whom they rule over.  However, it's always been an accepted notion that ponies of ancient times relished more in the daytime than in the nighttime, and as a result Celestia's patronage was expressed in song and dance whereas worship of Luna was far more subdued.  It doesn't take an immortal soul to imagine Luna seeking music of her own to fill in the gap.

        But what connection could that have—if any—to the Cosmic Matriarch?  I am certain—no—I am convinced that there must be a common thread.  Twilight Sparkle is an apprentice after Celestia's own heart.  If she quotes the Princess, saying that “all things began with a song,” I simply have no choice but to believe her.  Our alicorn rulers began when the rest of the world did; they're the only ones possessed with the ability to remember.  What better a way is there to preserve memories than through music?

        Yes, this song is real.  I am a lone soul, imprisoned in a cold bottle echoing with these ghostly melodies, like hidden phantoms on the dark side of the moon.  Once I find them, I can find myself, and maybe—just maybe—I can rebroadcast them to the world, so that more ponies than just the alicorns can remember what has been lost since the foundation of everything, and then I can be as real as the song too.

        Just yesterday morning, I knew it was time.  I had put off the performance of the Threnody of Night for far too long.  I had run out of excuses just as I had run out of fear.  There comes a time when the desperation to find answers overcomes the trepidation of the cold journey ahead.  Yesterday was just such a time.  I had all the bits I needed to buy the ingredients.  I had all the time to make my trip.  I just didn't look forward to the energy it was going to sap from me.

        I needed to go to the Everfree Forest, and that meant bundling up.  Where I was headed, the hoodie simply wouldn't be enough.  It started with woolen socks.  I slid these over my hooves, then slipped them into thick goulashes that went halfway up my fetlocks.  I grabbed a thick brown cloak that I hadn't worn in over a month and draped it over my entire body.  Next came a familiar yellow scarf that still carried with it the felicity of an elegant unicorn's generous smile.  Finally, I grabbed a black snowcap that I had sewn for myself, with a hole made to allow my horn to pierce through.  Grabbing a bag of bits, I telekinetically flung the dual hoods of the sweatjacket and cloak over my head and stumbled out the door to my cabin.

        It was a thirty minute trot until I would get to the edge of the Everfree Forest, to where the thick bundle of clothing would prove useful.  Until then, I sweated uncomfortably, assaulted by a warmth that was actually unbearable for once.  Despite the temptation to strip of at least the cloak or goulashes, I pressed on, knowing that soon I would be wishing for all of the world's blankets to be engulfing me.  I wondered what I looked forward to the least: making this trip, or performing the instrumental once I had acquired what I needed.  I had to keep my mind distracted, if only to give me strength, if only to make me think of other situations where sweating profusely was as comical as it was awkward, like trying to explain my cutie mark for the millionth time to Applejack's and Rarity's sisters, or receiving a flower from Morning Dew.

        Morning Dew.

        A sigh escaped my lips, and I smiled for the first time in days.  It's funny:  all of my writings on the beauty of friendship and my hopes for relinquishing the binds of this curse, and it's still those two words that can bring me joy without fail.  My burdensome journey became slightly more bearable, and I marched into the thick forest refreshed, so that I meditated calmly for once and did what every musician does when she's relaxed.

        I composed.

        There are seven lunar elegies connected to my curse.  I know this only because they are all that I have discovered so far.  They come to me without warning or announcement, infecting my mind, born in sleep or in waking fright.  If it was a song that began the world, then it was one that ended me, and I must carefully bridge the gap between creation and annihilation.

        Lunar Elegy #1, as Twilight helped me discover, is the “Prelude to Shadows.”  Referred to only once in The Royal Equestrian Compendium Volume Twelve, it's the first piece of evidence in the Lunar Archives that suggests that Princess Luna ever took a hobby in musical composition.  To that end, it was the first tune that was stuck in my head the very moment I awoke to a world that perpetually forgot me.

        Like all of the elegies that come to my mind, I endeavored to understand the nature of “Prelude to Shadows.”  That meant performing the melody myself once I had completed the composition.  I knew that there was something mystical and enchanting about the piece.  What I didn't bet on was an actual magical effect for playing it out with my lyre.  No sooner was I done with “Prelude to Shadows” when I found myself experiencing a severe mood shift.  I became nervous, paranoid, and easily frightened.  Every loose shape and beam of light spoke to me, as if something beyond the walls were closing in.  I was almost mortified when another tune immediately took the Prelude's place in my mind.

        Lunar Elegy #2, also thanks to Twilight, would turn out to be called “Sunset Bolero.”  When performing the Prelude and the Bolero back to back, I realized that the music called for a smooth transition.  It was then that I realized that the elegies coming to my mind weren't just random tunes.  They were a suite, and I was on the verge of unfolding a grandiose symphony of mysterious proportions.

        When I first played the “Sunset Bolero,” I was pleased to not experience a wave of uneasiness the likes of which the Prelude afflicted me with.  Instead, I was overcome with an excitement I didn't expect.  My heart's pulse rate went up and stayed that way for over thirty-six hours.  I felt like I could run a marathon.  Whether this was magically the result of the Bolero's heavy percussion or some sort of unexplained impetus that only Nightmare Moon could understand, I was at a loss to know.  I was merely a mortal playing the tunes of an unearthly alicorn spirit.  I was willing to bet that with only two performances, I was retaining more knowledge than even poor Princess Luna herself was capable of knowing at that point in time.

        Lunar Elegy #3 took me a while to figure out, for I at first thought that I was simply hearing “Sunset Bolero” over again.  It took several hours of meditating into the long cold night, but finally I realized that the third elegy was a modified version of the Bolero, slowed down, with a melancholic dissonance.  Desperate for an explanation, I rummaged through the lunar texts available to me in Twilight's library.  It took over two months, but upon mastering enough words of the lunar tongue, I was finally able to look up an ancient passage depicting Princess Luna and a second composition of one of her previous songs.  This was how the “March of Tides” was born.

        Performing the “March of Tides” had an instant effect on me.  It made me light-headed, and time seemed to slow down.  I realized then what the “Sunset Bolero” was preparing me for, because if my heart wasn't ready for the creepy effect of the March, I may not have been able to finish the composition.  It was at this point of discovery that I realized that not only were these elegies meant to be performed in time, but they were being fed to me in just the perfect order, as if there was some invisible purpose behind the whole thing.  I now had an even greater reason to practice these enchanted tunes, for I suddenly felt that some other spirit besides myself was involved.

        Lunar Elegy #4 had no title, because for the longest time I didn't desire to name it.  After the first performance, I had a panic attack, because I was blinded halfway through the instrumental.  There's really no better a way to describe it.  Halfway through the performance, all of the lights and colors were sucked out of the world.  I remember collapsing in the middle of my new cabin that night, shivering, clutching at the shadows.  I think I may have even screamed for help—not that anypony could have heard me.  It's difficult to remember.  The important detail is that when the morning sun came, I could see it, and I was enraptured.

        After that, I gave up on pursuing the elegies for over six weeks.  Could you blame me?  I was dealing with a symphony that was beyond my control.  My curse certainly wasn't being lifted with any of my subsequent performances.  Besides, understanding it didn't make me any less vulnerable a mortal soul to the work of an equine goddess.  However, as the days wore on, and the fourth elegy resonated in the recesses of my mind, I was drawn back to the lyre like a mother to her sickly foal.

        I picked an evening when the moon was full.  It was a pale glow of comfort to my frightened senses as I plucked forth at the strings once again.  I performed the first elegy, then the second, then the third.  Sure enough, halfway through Elegy # 4, my vision left me.  Bravely—blindly—I strummed on, and when I was finished with the composition, my vision returned.  Not only that, but I was experiencing a strange peace, a tranquility that kept me awake and resolute in the middle of the night's freezing stare.  The next day, I did some research at Twilight's library, and almost immediately stumbled upon an ancient tale about Princess Luna curing a village of a pestilence that had afflicted the ponies' eyes.  What was more, she did it with a song, and the name of it was “Darkness Sonata.”

        After the harrowing circumstances involving the Sonata, I felt as though I could take on anything.  So I engaged Elegy #5 with great courage and vigor.  It turned out that my guile was almost for nothing.  The fifth elegy resulted in a very comforting—almost whimsical experience.  I wouldn't necessarily call it “happy.”  A more appropriate word for it would be “secure.”  According to Twilight Sparkle, the name of the instrumental is “Waltz of Stars,” and it's an appropriate name too.  Its cadence mimics the uplifting beat of the “Sunset Bolero,” while incorporating a dissonance akin to “March of Tides,” whereas “Waltz of Stars” achieves a far more transcendental effect.

        Playing the “Waltz of Stars” was ultimately a neutral experience.  While the tune's whimsy and ethereal quality enchanted me at first, I felt for days after the song's performance a sense of longing.  I couldn't sleep, on account of how pathetically lonesome I felt.  I couldn't stop thinking about the song, about the void through which my strings echoed, as if I was calling out to long lost sisters I could never see again.  Why siblings?  I still don't quite understand it.  But when I think about the song, I look up at the starry expanse and suddenly I feel as if I have all the answers, even if they're not all discovered yet.

        Then there's Elegy #6.  Twilight Sparkle immediately recognized the tune, and then she shocked me when she said that it was none other than the Anthem to the Lunar Empire.  She explained to me that the song had in fact  been used as a military call to assembly in the years preceding the rise of Nightmare Moon.  Before Princess Luna was banished with the Elements of Harmony, her tainted spirit tricked many unicorns into following her will.  The result was an army that had gathered under Nightmare Moon's lead.  Using these ill-fated ponies, the dark alicorn attempted to usurp the power of her sister and all souls who defended her.

        It pains me to think that I was being taught by invisible tongues to learn a tune that had once meant the bane of my very own ancestors.  Unicorns almost went extinct as a result of the war between the holy siblings of Equestria.  The elegies I was uncovering were frightful and mysterious, but they were not without their own sense of beauty.  I think it goes without saying that even the most insidious of tools we invent in this world all start as a noble work of art.

        So, with great zeal, I poured through the pages of every ancient tome I could find.  I soon discovered that almost anything related to the sixth elegy had been eliminated from modern history.  In a way, it makes sense.  Nopony in their right mind would want to see something like the Lunar Empire become reborn in our day and age.  Still, it's such a tragedy that fantastic works of art—beautiful by their merit alone—must absolutely be destroyed along with the nefarious shadows of the past.  As my mind swam with the melancholic tunes being sung to my mind, it soon became clear that I didn't need to know the actual name of the elegy to ascertain its composition.  Ever since my plight began, I've possessed an inexplicable sense that is not blemished by the fears and prejudice of time.  Furthermore, I of all ponies should know that words are meaningless in my search.  I can only imagine how much of Princess Luna's heart went into her symphony before her poisoned mind transformed it into something wicked.

        I decided to call the sixth instrumental “Moon's Elegy,” and it's impact upon me was immediately noticeable upon performance.  As soon as I had finished strumming the composition, I felt the chills of my curse doubling... tripling.  It was as though every warm piece of the world had been pulled away from me.  I felt numb, cold, hungry, and very impressionable.  It suddenly made sense why this was such an easy song for corrupt warmongers to wield.  If enough zealots were exposed to the “Moon's Elegy,” I could see a despot like Nightmare Moon making them do anything with the simple promise of lifting the very effects of the tune.  As a matter of fact, the only way I was able to free myself from the paralyzing cold was to play my way back through elegies # 1 through 5.

        Perhaps, then, it's excusable as to why I've been so hesitant to tackle Elegy #7, a tune that Twilight Sparkle has herself called “Threnody of Night.”  A threnody is a song of tribute to the dead.  I've hoped to be many things at the end of unraveling this curse, but dead isn't one of them.

        And yet, what else am I to do?  I certainly can't quit on these instrumentals.  I learn them as I discover them.  There is no skipping a tune, no jumping ahead to see how the entire symphony ends.  I can't track down Princess Luna and ask her for help.  I can't send a letter to Princess Celestia and call upon her wisdom.  With the exception of Twilight's insight and Spike's research skills—both of which are fleeting assets at best—I am alone on this journey.  It's a cold and treacherous trek, like a tiny pony flung into endless night, or a lone body trotting through a gloomy jungle.

        Yesterday, at noon, I marched slowly through the Everfree Forest.  I had no choice but to take it easy.  It didn't matter how desperate I felt.  Breaking into a full gallop would waste my energy, and I was utilizing every bit of stamina in keeping myself from passing out in the middle of that dense foliage.

        It was cold.  So very, very cold.  My teeth chattered and the hairs of my coat stood on end.  Even beneath all of my bundled clothes—the cloak and the scarf and the snow cap and the sweatjacket—I was about ready to shatter into a million frozen pieces.

        When the curse struck me, I was located in the center of Ponyville—at ground zero—where Nightmare Moon first touched down upon the earth after a thousand long years of banishment.  For that reason, apparently, I am the warmest in the heart of Ponyville.  Moving out, I am shivering along the town's fringes, freezing at my cabin, and downright numb at places very distant from the center, places such as Sweet Apple Acres.

        In the Everfree Forest, I might as well be dead.  The temperature is unbearable.  To any other pony, I must look like a feverish mess, shivering beneath layers of wool and cloth.  It's a feat in and of itself to pass my condition off as a temporary illness.  I rarely ever trot out this far, and when I do it's only when it's absolutely necessary.  I needed the materials for performing the “Threnody of Night.”  As a result, I had to keep going.  I had to keep piercing the forest.  Soon enough, I would have found my destination.

        Everytime I looked at the uneven path ahead of me, the trail appeared to stretch on even further.  To avoid fainting, I tilted my gaze upwards and allowed the frail specks of sunlight to bleed through the foliage and play with my eyes, keeping me awake.  I've been told that the Everfree Forest is supposed to be frightening, that the unchecked growth of nature is a scary change from the orderly world that stewards like the pegasi maintain for us.  As far as I'm concerned, all of the nightmarish things of Everfree are invisible and harmless, at least in comparison to the very real cold that assaults my body each time I venture out there.  Making a sort of trek like I did yesterday is the mystical equivalent of diving into a subterranean lake hidden beneath a polar ice cap.  I'd be warmer if I gathered a syringe full of permafrost and shoved it into an open vein.  Toying with the mystical effects of a lunar curse is hardly a game, and yet I have no way of dissecting my situation unless I play with it just a little bit.

        I had to keep myself distracted.  I thought of the Threnody.  I thought of the musical notes burned into the back of my brain.  My ears twitched as I imagined each tune long before I performed them.  In the streets of Ponyville, before the gracious bits of other ponies being flung before me, I had practiced the tunes—but each occasion was a purposeful alteration of the true composition.  I couldn't practice the actual instrumentals by striking each note true; a perfect playthrough meant activating the magical spell attached to the elegy I was performing.  I very deeply feared afflicting other ponies with the same mystical burden that I and I alone was enduring.  After all, the purpose of freeing myself from the curse was finding a way to commune with such souls in the first place.  It was a noble goal, and it was worth all of the trials, tribulations, and shivers... most of the time.

        I felt a great shadow looming over me.  With a gasp of joy, I realized that I had finally stumbled upon the treehouse.  Various masks of exotic design greeted me as I all-but-stumbled into the door, rapping upon it with a shuddering hoof.  I clung to myself, shivering upon the threshhold.  I felt weaker this visit.  I wasn't sure how long I was going to last.

        Thankfully, I didn't have to wait for long.  I heard her voice almost immediately:  “Come.  Come and enter, stranger or friend.  For I have brews for all ills contained within.”

        I took a deep, deep breath and opened the door.  I had to work every quivering muscle into producing a neighborly grin.  “Good afternoon, Miss Zecora.”  I nearly stumbled dead across her floor.  I locked the joints in my legs and stood as tall as I could, my teeth showing in the green torchlight.  “I'm so sorry to bother you.”

        “It is hardly a bother, kindly mare,” said the meditative zebra.  She stood over a bubbling cauldron, squinting at a series of herbs that she was sprinkling over a new and experimental concoction.  “So long as you are in my house, you are in my care.”

        “Well, th-that's good...”  I winced past a wave of chills.  I was afraid to look up, as if expecting the dangling decorations from her desert homeland to be replaced with deadly icicles.  “Uhm... I've been told th-that you're a local hermit, and that you rarely wander into town...”  The fact that this was the fifth (or sixth?) time reciting these words didn't make the task any less awkward.  “...but I'm desperate t-to finish this scientific experiment that I'm working on for the Manehattan University, and I'm sh-short four reagents.  I'm t-told that you have several sound stones that you c-commonly sell, is that true?”  I clenched my teeth.  I knew Zecora's answer before she said it.  I only needed her to come out with it quickly.  If only zebras were as punctual in their predictability as ponies.

        “Hmmm, magical sound stones, a ram-crafted delight.”  Zecora murmured to the hazy atmosphere of her home as she stirred the broth before her.  “I say five pony bits per rock sounds about right.  I wish I could charge less, but unfortunately sound stones are acquired through much trial and difficulty.”  She trotted over towards a shelf where a black box resided.  In so doing, she cast me the first glance since I entered, and her blue eyes widened.  “By the shadows, pony, your attire!  Is Equestria due for a blizzard most dire?”

        Here we go...

        I swallowed hard and did a very brave thing.  I lowered the hoods of both my cloak and hoodie.  Whether or not Zecora spots the chattering teeth beneath my smiling lips, I can never tell.  I can only hope the gesture is enough to distract her, and so far it's worked every time.  “There's no c-cause for alarm, Miss Zecora.  Ponyville's not expecting inclement weather.  It's just me and my c-condition.”

        “And what condition, pray tell, is that?”  Zecora grabbed four dark crystals from the black box and cradled them in a prehensile tail.  She trotted towards me with an expression that was half concerned, half amused.  “Before you, the most I've seen a pony wear is a hat!”

        “It's genetic, so n-none of your m-medicines will help me.”  After so many trips, it was the best excuse I had for making these visits short.  I have nothing against Zecora.  I'm sure I would love her company, and if I could predict her trips to downtown Ponyville I would visit her there in a heartbeat.  It was just that the longer I stayed in her home the more certain I was that my hooves would go permanently numb.  “Seriously, all I c-came for was the sound stones.”  I was already reaching telekinetically into my floating bag of coins.  Several weeks of street performances went into this shivering moment, and I wasn't about to tarry.  “Five bits per stone?  It so happens I have about twenty bits here...”

        “Surely, there is more for you that I can do!”  Zecora's face was long, sad.  Then suddenly it brightened.  “Ah!  Perhaps a sample of dragon's brew!”

        Oh shoot.

        She had never said that on any of the visits before.

        “Uhhh...”  I stood, frozen in mid-payment, like a tourist who had suddenly gotten lost in the middle of a horrible jungle.  “Dragon's b-brew?  Miss Zecora, I swear, all I need is—”

        But she was already reaching for a jar from a nearby counter and pouring red liquid into a wooden bowl.  “If there is any noble truth taught me by ponykind, it's that one must keep hospitality first in mind.  You can consider these sound stones as good as sold, but it would be cruel to let you leave so infirmed and cold!”

        “Miss Zecora, seriously...”  I ran a hoof over my face.  Why?  Why do I have to be cursed in the middle of a sea of blessings?  I could have just grabbed the stones and ran.  I could have even stolen them and used the twenty bits for my own benefit later.  What would it have mattered?  Zecora wouldn't have remembered me, whether I was a robber or a saint.  Why?  Why do I have to play by this code?  Haven't I gone through enough as it is?  I'm alone in this nightmare.  Don't I deserve to play a little dirty for once, especially if it means me getting what I need faster? “You don't need to give me anything...”

        “Your words say 'no' but your voice says 'yes'.”  She pierced me as much with her smile as she did with that statement, all the while motioning me towards the fresh potion she had prepared.  “Your trembles should decrease as soon as you ingest.”

        I sometimes wonder if I'd be any less transparent if those I live with actually remembered me.  With a defeated breath, I marched over and gracefully accepted her medicinal gift.  The taste wasn't half as bitter as the knowledge of its uselessness.  I've no doubt Zecora's brews could cure pony pox, leprosy, or even pegasus arthritis.  The only thing capable of appeasing my situation is a smile—blissful and ignorant—and it was my job at the moment to aim it at her.

        “Thank you very much, Miss Zecora.  That was very generous of you.”

        “It should provide enough heat to carry you back from which you came,” she said.  “And now that you've sampled the dragon's brew, might I trouble you for your name?”

        “Lyra,” I recited.  “Lyra Heartstrings.”  I set off the invisible metronome inside my head in anticipation for what would come next.

        “Ah, such a delightful name is 'Heartstrings.'  If only every soul was designed after beautiful things.”

        I can't help it.  I giggle everytime I hear that.  That alone—far more than the brew—made the cold momentarily manageable.  “Jee, thanks.  Too bad you don't have an instrument to read such lyrics off to.”

        “My spoken rhyme is merely shamanistic tradition,” Zecora explained as she marched over to the nearby counter and picked the stones back up again.  “I dare not encroach upon the ways of a musician.”

        “Why not?”  I asked.  As I spoke, my gaze fell upon a wooden engraving lying on a nearby shelf.  I saw the illustration of several zebra figures gathered around what looked to be a pair of festive drums.  I felt my heart beating at the very notion.  “Music is the best expression of the soul,” I murmured, my eyes dripping forlornly over the desert illustration.  “Be it zebra or pony.”

After a pause, I hoofed her the twenty bits and slid the four sound stones she offered into my pouch.  Zecora had said something new to me this visit, so I felt like saying something “new” to her.

“I'm sure there're plenty of songwriters in town who'd love to work on something with you that doesn't involve herbs or potion-making.  Twilight Sparkle and her friends speak highly of you, otherwise I would never have thought to come here for these rocks.”

        She replied, “I am sure they have better ways of spending their time than attempting to shape melody around a zebra's rhyme.”

        “But... you're so...”  I gazed around at the walls surrounding us.  All too soon, I felt the shivers returning, but this time they were for her and not for me.  I realized that the only alien thing in that place was me.  Zecora had made a home away from home for herself, and the foundations of her little nest were as beautiful as they were strange.  “You're so alone h-here,” I eventually murmured, failing to hide the trembles in my frame once more.  “And I get the feeling it's because you choose to be, M-Miss Zecora.  If I were you...”  I bit my lip.  What was I doing?  I should have just left and been done with it all.  I had gotten the stones.  Foalishly, I continued, “If I knew that I had so many friends in town, I wouldn't spend half as much time alone as I already do.”

        Zecora seemed unaffected by my impassioned plea.  She trotted back to her cauldron like a soldier returning to her post.  “What I do in solitude, I do for the best.  A shaman's work isn't done until she's finished her quest.”

        I gazed forlornly her way.  “And all of those years that we spend working on something so important to us...”  I struggled through a wave of frost.  I felt like my eyeballs would freeze in their sockets, and yet I struggled to keep staring at her.  “That's a long time to live without a soundtrack, don't you think?”

        At that, she glanced curiously up at me.  She gave a gentle smile.  “I am curious that you would speak of 'we'.  Is there a shaman in this room other than me?  Heheheh...”  I'm sure that the chuckle coming out of her lips was meant to be whimsical.  However, to me it felt like a bitter pill, more nauseating than all of the world's exotic brews sloshed together.

        “Shaman... Musician... Goddess...?”  I gulped hard.  The walls were closing in, and all of them laced with ice.  I stumbled backwards out of the treehouse as if I was tripping over a snowbank.  “What's in a title if we don't have anypony but ourselves to share our gifts with?”

        Something reflected in the surface of Zecora's bubbling cauldron other than her face.  To her squinting blue eyes, it looked like a fine mist of vapors.  She glanced up at the walls of her home.  Aside from the curious sensation of having just used her voice to speak, this revelation had no effect on her.  After all, she was always alone.

        I returned to my cabin well before the sunset.  Even then, I didn't immediately start performing the “Threnody of Night.”  I had to recover from my trip into the veritable tundra that the Everfree Forest was to me.  I laid in the center of my cot, huddled beneath a mountain of blankets.  I stayed there, weathering the fading waves of cold, practicing the Threnody in my head.  But I did more than that.  I had to steel myself for what I was about to do, for what no amount of meditation could truly prepare me for.

        You would think my life is predictable, given the circumstances.  That couldn't be further from the truth.  My entire situation is one immense dive into the unknown.  Even the very alicorn who invented these tunes is oblivious to the masterpieces I'm endeavoring to unlock.  The only soul who possibly knows an ounce of truth is Nightmare Moon, and all ponies—those cursed and those blessed—are equally happy to see her gone for good.

        It is the task of mortals to make sense out of senselessness.  Goddesses have galloped among us for millennia, and this has never stopped being true.  When my task becomes too formidable to bear, I simply remind myself that while I may be alone with my memories, I am hardly alone in my struggles.  I take little comfort in this understanding, but I do take a decent amount of strength.

        After an hour and a half of rest, I decided that I was ready.  I grabbed my lyre.  I grabbed a torch.  I grabbed my music sheets, my notes, and an oil lantern.  Finally, I brought along the four dark-crystal sound stones, devices that had been used for ages by rams and unicorns alike for absorbing acoustical frequencies.  After hours of reading in Twilight's library, I learned that these same materials were used by proto-Equestrians in harnessing the frequencies of mystical enchantment.  It's hypothesized that the substance had originally been made out of a vibrating stone whose age predates the first Rise of Discord.  As a matter of fact, the rocks were believed to be immune to waves of chaos energies.  After utilizing them myself, I realized that I could properly channel the effects of the lunar elegies and contain them to a small area of focus, so that the instrumentals I performed became much more manageable.  If there was anything I needed from that evening, it was a way to properly manage whatever would come next.

        With beautiful irony, evening had fallen.  I trotted the dark length from my cabin to a tiny wooden shack positioned along the edge of the woods.  My dim lantern illuminated my path.  Reaching the shack, I unlatched the wooden door and opened it, revealing a hidden flight of wooden steps that led down a steep trench dug out of the earth.  I had shoveled the hollow myself, spending several months of flexing my telekinetic muscle.  Closing the door to the “shack” behind me, I marched down the depth of fifteen feet until I was finally standing in the center of a twenty-by-thirty foot rectangular cellar.  When I first started these experiments, I wasn't sure exactly what danger the magical instrumentals might pose upon the residents of Ponyville all around me.  I decided to play it safe and fashion for myself a “bunker” of sorts within which I could perform my lonely symphonies, in full confidence that no other soul could hear the compositions of Princess Luna besides my accursed self.

        I hung the lantern from a metal hook implanted in the roof of the underground niche.  A dim amber light danced across the wooden boards barricading the walls of soil all around me.  The floor was a sea of even gravel that crunched under my hooves, except for a plank of wood in the center, atop which a metal stand resided.  Upon this pedestal, I planted my lyre.  With magic, I floated a wooden stool over and propped it in front of the instrument.  I then laid the sound stones in key positions in the four corners of the wooden plank, so that they surrounded me and my instrument.  I meditated, focused upon the leylines of magic attuned to my horn, and enchanted the four crystals.  They glowed with a dark emerald haze that played with the amber kiss of the lantern above, making it feel like Hearth's Warming morning.  Sitting down in the center of the ethereal halo, I collected my breaths, then propped the notebook full of musical notations in a notch positioned halfway up the pedestal.

        For several numb minutes, I sat in dead silence, half buried in the earth like the ghost I was made to be, teetering upon the edge of unknowing.  The hardest part of experimenting is always starting the experiment to begin with.  What am I to discover?  What horror or elation waits for me at the end of my last strummed note?  Will I find a cure to my curse, or a deeper degree of damnation?

        I thought of Zecora, for some reason.  I thought of her sitting in the middle of her house, just as alone, just as far away from home, working on the latest of her shamanistic experiments.  I wondered what drove her to do what she did—and in such solitude as well.  Was it all pure, medicinal altruism?  Did she have a goal in mind?  Did she benefit from everything she ever did... and did alone?

        I envied her zeal, her courage, to embark on a daily basis to work on things nonstop, for the simple sake of being busy.  The day that my curse is cured, what will I do?  Will I have as much of a drive as Zecora?  Will I live up to all the things I've ever wanted the ponies of this town to see in me?

        Nothing ever seems to get done when I think too much.  That's why it helps to just do things, and the only thing I had to do yesterday was the experiment.  I forced myself into the first throes of it, breathing evenly, sitting in a calm pose atop the stool as I forced the first of several strings to vibrate along the channels of my telekinesis.

        “Prelude to Shadows” began, and with it came the shivering waves of paranoia.  I felt the amber shadows of the lantern dancing above me as the dissonant cords came to life.  I kept playing, choosing to focus on the protective green aura of the sound stones surrounding me.  Soon enough, the Prelude's eerie melody ended.  It is a short instrumental after all.  My heart was ready for the “Sunset Bolero.”  The cellar resonated with its pulsating tempo as invisible percussion instruments sounded off in my head.  I felt the glow of green light increase, and I realized it was from my horn and not the crystals engulfing me.  The emerald brilliance began to shift and flicker, and that's how I knew that the “March of Tides” had begun. I allowed the numbness of the music piece to creep over my body, sending me weightless and fearless into the instrumental that was to come.

        The “Darkness Sonata” started, and already I felt my blood beginning to freeze over.  The lanternlight was growing dimmer, or so I told myself.  I stifled a whimper deep in my throat and kept my eyes wide open to the subterranean blackness that was burying me.  I felt as though the weight of twenty thousand generations of moon phases was bearing down on my body.  In desperation, I swam towards the pale orb in some imaginative sky, and I discovered several invisible arms carrying me there upon streams of mesmerizing cadence.  I no longer felt afraid, for the “Waltz of Stars” was accompanying me.  My vision returned, and I embraced the lanternlight once again with steely determination, for the hardest veil was just about to come.  It hit me like a solid block of ice.  I nearly fell out of my chair as the frigid kiss of the “Moon's Elegy” ripped through me, threatening to shatter my soul like glass.  I skated across the alabaster surface of its melody with tenacity, utilizing every nimble talent in this lone musician's arsenal, for it was the last layer of mystery I knew how to pierce.

        The “Threnody of Night” was next, the death of all my music and the anthem thereof.  I tackled the dirge like a monk, pure in form and devoid of flare.  One does not show off before the reaper; I was not about to turn a masterpiece into a farce.  The solemnity of the tune was excruciating to my ears.  I felt my breaths like delicate punctuations between each string pluck.  If I hadn't seen the walls around me with my naked eyes, I could have sworn the cellar had morphed into a bottomless ravine.  Where had all the echoes gone?  Was it the sound stones creating this deathly silence that gobbled up the vibrating edge of each cord?  Did the acoustics simply die?

        I couldn't panic.  There was no way to afford an error at this point.  Who knows what would happen if I stopped in the middle of this instrumental, especially after I had played so much of it so perfectly.  Was it perfect?  It had to have been.  What could have been more melodious than this?  I had played variations of this tune so many times in the streets of Ponyville, and never once did it appeal to me with such beauty, a haunting beauty, a beauty that could tell a diseased foal that it was okay to embrace the darkness, for there was something beyond the black veil that was even more comforting than a mother's kiss.

        Dear Celestia.  What was I thinking?  What was this Threnody speaking to me?  I tried to call back to it, but something was deafening my ears.  I heard the rattling of infinite chains, swirling into the dark navel of the world like cyclonic, black intestines.  Art teachers lied to me when I was young, for there have always existed colors that were never meant to be seen, and suddenly every single one of them was reaching out from the Threnody's throat for me, blacker than black, like the blood of something that had crawled and wheezed across this world long before the goddesses gave birth to air, light, and sorrow.

        I was too cold to be scared.  The “Moon's Elegy” had made sure of that.  I was a flightless insect being shoved down the maw of something far too enormous to be put into words, for the only way to recognize all that's existed was to forget it.  My mind was not large enough.  I tried stopping my music, but the lyre was going on without me.  If I had a hammer, I would have smashed my horn to dust, but I found that the same thing was happening to my hooves.  I looked down at my forelimbs and all I saw were tears.

        The air grew sour.  I looked without looking; I couldn't feel my body anymore.  The light of the lantern had gone out.  The crystals had all but shattered.  A gray haze had filled the cellar.  It tasted like a baby's first nightmare.  I entreated the walls and the walls buckled.  They leaked in a thousand places.  They must have been as sad as I was to be crying so much.  When their tears broke through—with the gloss of ages overcoming me in a frozen deluge—I gave up trying to count the many places in the world through which they shattered.  There were so many dying, black stars, like the sand of a beach catching fire and burning out forever.

        I fell back and the cellar fell with me.  Into the blacker than black we swam, past the chains, past the strings of the lyre stretching like wingbones from horizon to horizon, submerged, glittering with the pale sheen of endless moonlight.  There, hidden beyond all shadows, I finally found my voice, and it was sobbing.

        Alone in the penumbra of all my hopes and horrors I cuddled that voice and I heard...

        I heard...


        The gazelle of the northern Zebrahara have long employed the hollows of milkwood reeds to craft the flutes traditionally utilized in their wedding ceremonies.  However, upon the introduction of polygamist rituals brought in by the migratory wildebeests, they've replaced the flutes for ocarinas crafted out of dried river mud, and this has been the standard form of social instrumentation for the last five decades.


        Ever since contact has been made with the zebra tribes of the southern plains, the gazelle have learned to incorporate percussion instruments into their native songs.  This has led to the first known case of Zebraharan songwriting since the rams performed their exodus to the Northern Mountains following the Age of Discord.

        “Lyra Heartstrings!”

        Mom's voice...

        I look up from a sprawling assortment of textbooks and notes across my bed covers.

        The rooftops of Canterlot outside my windows are every color of the rainbow.

        Mom's mane is somehow brighter than everything else.

        I wish I could say the same of her frown.

        “Uhhhh...”  I sit up straight, blinking.  The air is cool, but that's not why I'm suddenly shivering.  “Am I forgetting something...?”

        “Your train leaves in less than two hours!”

        “Oh shoot!” I scramble to scoop up all of my study materials and shove them into a turquoise saddlebag.  “The Summer Sun Celebration!  Twilight's going to kill me!”

        “Kill you?  She hasn't seen you in months!”  Mom chuckles.  I can never recreate the tonality in her voice.  I wouldn't want to.  “But seriously, Lyra.  Must you take all of those things?  You're going to meet with Twilight to celebrate.  You'll have plenty of time to study when you get back.”

        “I'm just zero point two grade points away from being top in class!” I exclaim as I gather the last of my things and tie my saddlebag shut.  “I can't let myself slack off for even a second!”

        “Well, at least try not to be rude when you're around Twilight by studying instead of catching up with her.”

        “I think I know better than that, Mom.”  I wink at her.  I gallop to her side for a quick nuzzle before scampering down the stairs.  “I'll send a postcard once I'm in Ponyton.”

        “Ponyville.” She calls after me.  “And Lyra...”

        Her tone stops me dead in my tracks.  I linger in the middle of the stairs, groaning.  “Don't tell me... What have I forgotten now?”

        “What else?”  Her horn glows with aged grace as she floats an embarrassingly familiar instrument into my peripheral vision.  “Even if you don't use it for your studies, perhaps you can play a song or two at the celebration.”

        I smile.  I feel my cheeks flush.  “Thanks, Mom.”  I grab the lyre with my magic and stuff it down my saddlebag.  “I swear, I'd lose my horn if it weren't attached to my head.”

        “So long as you look after your horn, then our baby genius has her future set out for her, she says.  The last I see of her is a wink.

        I descend the stairs.

        The windows are wide open.

        The air of Canterlot is crisp, rich, full of delicious sounds.

        Dad stands in the middle of it, fiddling with his latest painting.

        “Darn it,” he mutters.  “I can never get the colors to blend just right.”

        “It looks just fine, dad.”  I say in a sing-song fashion.  I dash over to give him a swift peck on the cheek.  “Photo Finish is going to love the portrait you're making of her.”

        “Actually, it's still-life of a bowl of cantaloupes.”

        “Erm... Yes.  Well... She seems to be into fruity things.”  I giggle nervously and bolt towards the door.  Bright sunlight engulfs me.  “Gotta go!  See ya soon!”

        “Don't grow too attached to Ponyville, Lyra,” Dad mutters.  “It's farm country.  I’ve been told the smell takes forever to get out.”

        “Daaaaaad... I'll only be there for a few days!  Heehee!  You won't even know I left!”

        He disappears along with the painting.

        Everything's a blur.

        The train car keeps jostling.

        It's hard to concentrate.

        There's a foal crying two seats ahead of me.

        I'm reminded of a Ponyrecki composition.

        I scribble a few things in my notepad.

        There are thirty-five lines left on the sheet, and I wonder if I could fit Octavia's latest “Adagio for a Bearded Sorcerer” on it by memory.

        “Ponyville!  Next stop!  Next stop!  Ponyville!”

        Dear Celestia, there's so much noise.

        The train's making a massive turn around the bend.

        I feel myself tilting towards the window.

        In my annoyance, a flash a glance outside.

        I see apple trees, a windmill, thatched roofs, a bell tower, and more apple trees.

        “Yeesh...”  I chuckle to myself.  “What a flippin' hole in the ground.”

        I look at the blank sheet again; it's a lot more interesting.

        I hum to myself.

        Goddess, I'm so jealous of Octavia...

        “Twilight?!  Yoohoo!”

        I jump—grinning like mad—my muzzle bouncing over several heads of ponies.

        “Hey!  Twilight!  Over here!”

        She's sitting at a picnic table, surrounded by farm ponies.

        A half-devoured pie rests on a plate before her.

        It glistens like all the apples surrounding us, like her violet eyes briefly do when they look up to see me.

        “Oh, Lyra.  Hey.”  She struggles to smile.  There is something weighing on her, and I think it's more than just the farm family's sweets forming a bulge in her belly.  “Moondancer told me in her letter that you'd be coming.  I'm really glad that you did.”

        “Well at least one of us is.”  I wince at the backsweat wafting off the multiple workhooves prancing through the apple orchards around us.  “Whew!  You smell that?  Why is Princess Celestia choosing the boondocks of Equestria to raise the Sun at this year?”

        “It's not so bad a town, really.  The ponies here are insanely friendly, though.  But I guess it can't be helped.”

        “Heeheehee... You look like you could use a long night's sleep.”  I wink and point at her belly.  “Or a stomach pump.”

        “I can't, Lyra,” Twilight groans.  “As Celestia's personal protege, I've been charged with overseeing the ceremony.  This was to be my first stop.  But at this rate, I dunno if I can so much as stand up—much less interview the rest of the ponies running the show.”

        I glance all around us.

        Everypony is looking the other way.

        I've never once let a magical opportunity go astray.

        “Pssst...”  I lean towards Twilight.  “Perhaps simple ponies could do with a simple distraction?”

        “Oh please—!” Twilight's lavender hooves are held together across the table from me.  “Anything, Lyra!” she pleads.  “You've gotta help me out!”

        “Don't worry.”  I pull my lyre out.  “I've got this.”

        I strum every string in succession, then shout before the air.

        “Oh my stars and garters!  Is that Whinny Nelson over there?!”

        To my dismay, the huge family of farmers merely blinks in confusion.

        After a beat, I clear my throat and utter, “Oh, also, the apples are on fire!”

        Everypony is immediately shrieking and running straight towards the fields.

        Soon, Twilight and I are alone with our gasping breaths.

        “Now's our chance!” Twilight shrieks and leads the charge.

        I gallop after her, giggling.

        “Twilight!  There you are!”  Spike gasps from where he waits in the middle of the road.  He gives his mentor a strange look.  “Holy guacamole!  Did you have enough of their apple treats?”

        “Unnnngh...”  Twilight gulps something down before it has the chance to rise out of her throat.  She smiles sickly my way as we trot towards her assistant.  “Thankfully Lyra arrived just in time to save my tail.”

        “You should thank Spike too.”  I say with a smile.  “He told me I might find you here.  I had no idea you'd be forced down a gauntlet of pies.”

        “Please...”  Twilight sighed, her face long.  “Don't say that word.  It's not like I don't have enough on my plate.”

        I trot around to get a better look at my foalhood friend's expression.  “Something eating at you, Twilight?  Last time we hung out, you couldn't stop rambling excitedly about the latest spell Celestia was teaching you.  She's gonna be showing up here tomorrow to raise the Sun, right?  Why aren't you chomping at the bit to see her—erm—if you pardon the old mare's expression.  Hehehe...”

        “Lyra, you're always studying about the history of music, right?”

        “There'd be something terribly wrong with me if I wasn't.”

        “Have you, in your studies, ever chanced upon song relating to the 'Elements of Harmony'?”  She clears her throat and further utters, “Specifically dating back to more than a thousand years ago?”

        “Ugh... Not this again.”  Spike rolls his eyeslits and trots off towards the center of town beyond the bend in the road.  “I'll go scout ahead for this 'Dashing Rainbow' pegasus or whoever we're supposed to meet next.”

        I scratch my mane and squint curiously after him.  “Just what's gotten his spines in a bunch?”

        “He thinks I'm overreacting.”

        “Overreacting about what?”

        Twilight sighs.  She's a wealth of knowledge, and yet so much of that is forever a mystery to me.  I can never understand her: only admire her.  If only Moondancer was here.  Together, we might make her giggle.

        Her smile is half-hearted as she trots toward me.  “Never mind, Lyra.  This... This is a year just like any other.  We should be happy and celebrate the warmth that's given to us on a daily basis.”

        “Hey, works for me,” I say with a smile.  “I heard you're going to be at the library in the center of town tonight.”

        “Yes.  It's where I'm staying during the Celebration.”

        “Think you'd mind an annoying, mint-green unicorn knocking on the door and chatting it up about music?”

        “Hmmm... I'd love to sit and talk with you again, Lyra.  But I've got a lot of work to do.”  There is something distant in her face.  It draws the smile away just as it draws her near to me for a friendly nuzzle.  “Still, it's nice to hear your voice.  It's like a song that I'm happy to remember every time you stop by.  Things have been so strange lately.  Princess Celestia's been really distant, and I can't get her to give me a straight answer.”

        “About what, Twilight?”

        “Things.  Important things.  Mysterious things.”  She steps back and runs a hoof over her head and sighs, as if the entire universe is weighing in on her horn.  “There's no time to explain.”

        I gulp and gaze at her in concern.  “Not even time for friends?”

        At first, she says nothing.

        She trots down the road, and only once she's become a shadow does she glance over her shoulder and say with an awkward smile, “Let me just get my work done.  Then we'll see what comes next.”

        “I'll still drop by the library later!” I call after her.  “Do you want me to bring some food and games?”

        “Please!  No food!” She exclaims back, then practically growls, “And no games!  I'm not in the mood for surprises tonight!”

        “Alright, Twilight!  You can count on me!”

        “So, like, you should totally surprise her!” I say with a grin.  “Spring this party you’re planning on her like it’s a lightning storm!”

        A pink pony gasps from across the dessert counter of Sugarcube Corner.  “Ohhhh I knew it I knew it I knew it!”  Her blue eyes sparkle with electricity.  “The first moment I saw her I knew it was a pony who needed to have a surprise welcoming party thrown for her!  Is it true?  Is she going to be in the library this very evening?!”

        “Heehee!  Yeah!  And she'll likely be there all night until the raising of the Sun at your mayor's town hall.”

        “Perfect!  Not all ponies are into bonfires, y'know.  Too many mosquitoes.  Bleachk!  Eeeheehee!  This is so super-duper-perfect!  I'll throw an indoor banquet and have all of Mrs. and Mr. Cake's finest treats lined up and ready for the scarfin'!  Oooh!  Hot sauce!  Mustn't forget the hot sauce!  It goes great with sarsaparilla, don't you think?”

        “Yeah, yeah.  We all love sauce.”  I'm already reaching into my saddlebag.  “So how much is this little shindig gonna cost me?”

        “Heehee!  Nothing!”  She grins wildly.  “Consider this on the house—and when I say 'on the house'—I really mean 'on the treehouse', cuz that's where the library's built.  The pony who decided to build that must have had a thing for termites cuz I swear—”

        “You're pulling my tail, right?”  I raise an eyebrow.  “I'm from Canterlot, you know.  If I wanted to, I could afford to hold three banquets and a dance party and still have room left in my saddlebag to rattle at bellhops.”

        “Hehehehe—silly unicorn!  Bells don't hop!  They ring!”

        “You know what?”  I smirk and zip my saddlebag shut.  “Who am I to refuse a kind offer, Miss Pine?”


        “Whatever.  Just make sure you're there on time.”

        “Wooooohooo!” She jumps and pumps her hoof in the air.  “We're gonna party and we're gonna party loud!”

        “Mmmmm-heeheeheehee—” I giggle devilishly.  “Somehow, I have no doubt of that.”

        Spike marches out of a tiny room with a lampshade covering his head.

        Less than a minute later, Twilight rejoins the loud and raving party in the center of the library.

        She has a burning frown, and it's aimed directly at me.

        “All.  My.  Hate.”

        “Heeheehee...” I fall back on my haunches and hug myself.  I wink at her.  “Love ya too, lavender lumps.”

        “Why doesn't anypony get it?!” she grumbles.  “Why can't anyone see what this coming day means?!”

        “It's the Summer Sun Celebration, Twi!”  I scoot over and engulf her in a deep hug.  “Come onnnnn!  Smile!  Want me to play the Smarty Pants Song?”

        The hairs on the back of Twilight's coat bunch up.  “No.  No!”   She hisses and stares worriedly at all of the ponies around us.  “You promised never ever to mention the Smarty Pants Song!”

        “Heeheehee... But it always made you smile when we were little fillies!”

        “Things have changed, Lyra.  I don't have time for horsing around—figuratively and literally!  There's so much at stake!”

        “Yeah?  Heehee...” I wipe a tear free and grab a bottle of soda from a nearby table.  “Like what?”

        She hangs her head and groans.  “In less than an hour—when dawn arrives—it will officially be the longest day of the thousandth year, and things that have been set in motion long before history can remember will come into fruition.”

        “Heh.”  I stifle a burp, wipe my lips, and place the beverage down.  “Sounds freaky.  Uhm... thousandth year since what?”

        “Lyra, have you ever wondered where the Mare in the Moon came from?”

        “We've all been taught stories about the exiled princess, Twilight—”

        “Her name was Luna.”

        “Whatever.  The fact of the matter is, that's way in the past.  What we don't remember has been forgotten for a reason, don't you think?”  I smile at her.  I can see my teeth glinting in her eyes.  “You're getting all washed up over nothing, Twilight.  If Moondancer was here, she'd say the same!  Don't let a bunch of old pony's tales keep you from enjoying your chance to live in the moment.”

        Twilight bites her lip.  Before she can respond, there's a loud shuffle of hooves.

        Everypony is exiting the library, joining a thick herd that surges towards the town hall on the other side of town.

        “Princess Celestia...” Twilight murmurs.

        I smile and nudge her with my horn.  “What are we waiting for?  Let's go and meet your mentor, shall we?”

        “Yes... I've missed her so...”

        Twilight breathes a little easier.  She isn't smiling, but I can see the color returning to her face.

        She trots out briskly, and I'm immediately behind her.

        Then I stop.

        I remember...

        “Shoot... Never fails!”  I gallop straight towards a far corner of the library.  “I'll be with you in a sec!”

        I have to shovel my way through a mountain of confetti and a tossed pin-the-tail-on-the-pony poster.

        I finally find it, glistening and golden as ever.

        “I should just sew you to my tail and be done with it.”  I slide the lyre into my saddlebag and trot happily out of the library.

        “Okay... Where the heck is the stupid town hall?”

        I groan.

        The streets are suddenly empty.

        All the ponies had cleared out of the library in a flash, and I am completely alone.

        I should have gotten a lay of the land instead of setting up the silly party; it's not like Twilight really enjoyed it anyways.

        “Ugh!  Idiot!”  I roll my eyes and chuckle into the starry night.  “Just follow the noise!”

        I do just that.

        In the center of town, there's a symphonic murmur of noise, giggles, voices, and cheers.

        I take my sweet time heading towards the place.

        There's something magical about being somewhere strange and unknown.

        I could almost write a song about it.

        I hum a melody to myself, already planning out the chorus, when something flickers above me.

        I glance up and I see the moon—only it's not the moon.

        There's something different about it.

        “That's weird...”  I stop in my tracks.  I squint up at the familiar object.  “The blemish is gone.  Where is the Mare in the Moon...?”

        No sooner do I utter this, but four specks of light twinkle around the lunar sphere, as if framing it.

        I am filled with so much wonder, I hardly even notice my teeth chattering.

        “What... Wh-What?”  I shiver and rub a forelimb over a sudden coat of goosebumps.  “Where did that come from?  It's in the middle of Summer.  How...?”

        My voice stops.


        My voice is being taken from me.

        I am speaking, but I cannot hear myself.

        I cannot hear anything.

        Dead music.

        It tilts my head up, like a mother introducing an infant foal to the hush of night.

        I gaze into the stars.

        The stars part ways.

        The blackness in the center has wings.

        She is coming towards me.

        I have fallen to the earth long before her arrival shakes everything around me.

        The sound returns, and it is laced with thunder, for she is standing above it all.

        Ink black coat.

        Onyx wings.

        A helm and metal shoes.


        Polished silver, like the exposed bones of a diseased goddess.

        Eyes of pale blue, carved with the lifeless knife-point of a crescent moon.

        Her breath is frigid, colder than death, and it sucks the life out of me.

        I can't scream, even when I try to.

        I'm just a discarded scrap of refuse, cluttering the ruptured ground beside my fallen lyre and tattered saddlebag.

        I gaze towards her, and it's like being swallowed up by a deep abyss.

        A sea of ethereal blue taint engulfs me.

        I am her first.

        She is my last.

        There are no words, only a song, something resonating from deep behind her deathly dark nostrils.

        It sings of nothing, for she is nothing, and nothing is her gift to me.

        I receive it.

        I receiveth it, thine reaper of warmth, steward of annihilation until the fading whimper of time.

        We receiveth it and become it.

        We, vanquisher of the morning light, stern guardian against the pollutants of the indignant spectrum.

        We art one with the timelessness, faithful sage of the eternal yesterday.

        Blissful oblivion, we maintain, until the Cosmic Mother wouldst return thy glory to the firmaments.

        We shall sing of the songless, as thou wouldst have of thy precious daughter, and keepeth thy glory submerged in the world beneath worlds.

        Thy will is ours.

        Thou shalt remember bliss.

        And we shalt remember nothing.

        “Nnnngh—Gaah!  Aaaaahh!”

        I flail.

        Bright light.


        A pair of forelimbs kicking at the Sun, trying to push it away.

        Two faces.

        They gaze down at me, alarmed and frightened.

        I feel hooves holding me to the alleyway's cobblestone.

        “Just relax!  We're going to get you to Nurse Red Heart!  You're gonna be alright!”

        “Where...”  A weak voice.  So small, so frail.  “Nnngh... Where art we?”


        “Dear Celestia, she's delirious.”

        I wince, struggle, and whimper.  “We... I... Wh-Where am I...?”

        “It's okay.  Just calm down.”

        “So... Much noise...” I'm shivering all over.  Something is piercing my head, drilling my horn straight down through my skull with the force of a million burning stars.  “So... much.”  I sob and choke.  “Please... make it stop...”

        “What's she talking about?”

        “I dunno.  She's rambling.  Help me carry her...”

        “So loud... Make it stop... I can't hear...” I'm sobbing.  We're moving.  There are tear drops on the ground where chains and ice should be.  Everything is bright, too bright.  And the noise.  “Somepony stop playing... Stop playing the song.  It's not supposed to be heard.  We must wait for when she returneth—Nnngh...”

        My vision is blurry.

        All is bells and voices.

        “Quick.  I think she's going into a seizure or something!”

        “What happened to her?!  She's all wet, like she's almost drowned or something!”

        “You ever seen her before?  I thought everypony was hiding indoors while Nightare Moon was about.”

        “Nnngh... M-Mother...” My eyes roll back in my head.  I cannot find her.  I'm so alone.  “M-Mother!  Do not listen!  We... I beg of you!”

        I shout.

        I scream.

        The music's so loud; she's going to hear it.

        She cannot hear it.

        We mustn't allow it.


        “Oh dear heavens—She's a mess!”  A snow-white mare is leaning over me inside someplace.  “What happened to her?”

        “She... Uhm...”

        “Well, we... That is...”

        “Well?!  Where did you find this poor filly?”

        “It... Uhm...”

        “I don't remember.  Do you, Cloudkicker?”

        “It was in town, I guess.”

        “You guess, Miss Raindrops?!”

        “Uhm... Or just outside the hospital?  Don't be angry with us, Nurse Red Heart.  We're just as confused as you are.”

        “This Celebration!  I swear to Celestia—they should stop hoofing cider around like party ribbons.”  She's peering at me with several instruments, poking me, prodding me.  “Tell me, do you feel any pain?”

        “I... I...”  The world is spinning.  “My head.  The music...”

        “Your head hurts?  How about your horn, Miss...”

        “Heartstrings.  Lyra Heartstrings.  Will you please turn off the music?”

        “I think she has a concussion.  Nurse Weaver?!  Go fetch some water and—”

        “Please, just stop the music.  That's all I ask...”

        “We're going to make your head feel better.  Just try to relax and... and...”

        There's a chill in the air.

        I shiver and clutch myself.

        My eyes focus, and all I see is vapor.

        Vapor and lights.

        “What is... What just...?”

        “Uhm... I'm... I'm sorry...”

        I gaze across the hospital bed.

        A nurse is reeling beside me.  She leans against a wall and shakes her head before looking at me crookedly.  “You were suffering from... from...”  She winces.  “Blessed Haypocrates, what was I doing just now...?”

        “I think...” I gulp.  “You think I might have a concussion.  You said—”

        “I'm sorry, can I help you?”


        “Are you ill?  We have a process for checking patients in, you realize—”

        “These two pegasi just dragged me in here...” I pointed to one of the two young ponies standing across the room.  “I was... in a street somewhere, and they... they...”  I stop to gaze at them.

        They are gazing back at me, twice as blank.  “I'm sorry, Nurse Redheart.  But we've never seen this unicorn before in our lives.”

        I exhale sharply, my face wretching.  “I... but... Wh-What?!”

        “If this is some sort of practical joke,” Redheart grumbles, frowning at all three of us.  “I'm not even close to laughing.”

        “I... I told you...” I rub my forehead and nearly whimper.  “My name is Lyra.  Lyra Heartstrings.  I was going to fetch my lyre.”  I gulp and shudder.  It's so terribly cold.  I hear the music again.  It comes and goes like crashing waves, and I'm falling apart piece by piece.  “I grabbed it, and I was walking under the moon and...” I hold a hoof over my face.  “Oh Celestia, she was right there.  She was right there and I couldn't do anything.  I looked into her eyes.  I looked into her eyes and I fell.  I fell so far and for so long...”  I gulp as I shake all over.  The walls melt together to form a blur of noise and tears.  “Where was I?  Somepony tell me, please...”

        I am returned with silence, like a song with no cadence.

        Fearfully, I glance across the room.

        Everything comes into focus.

        Three faces are staring at me.

        All blank.

        “I'm sorry.  Uhm... You are...?”

        I stumble into the brightness.

        I am dizzy.

        I am teetering.

        I can't stop looking.

        I can't stop blinking.

        Ponies are dancing.

        Ponies are celebrating.

        Fireworks explode like gunshots all around me.

        Banners of the sun are being hoisted all across the village.

        I am nothing but a shadow of the spectrum, engulfed in noise, born unto confusion.

        “Please... Somepony help,” I mutter.  I point back towards the hospital from which I have trotted.  “There's something wrong with the ponies in that place.”  I wince, but continue speaking.  “Something's wrong with all of them.  Their heads are messed up or something.  I think... I think there might be some sort of an epidemic or... or...”

        I linger in place.

        Something's wrong.

        Something's horribly, horribly wrong.

        “Hello?”  I murmur.  The pain in my head is replaced by an all-numbing confusion as I gaze at the many celebratory faces bouncing around me.  “Uhm... Excuse me?”

        Ponies look at me.  They blink in alarm.  Then they're shoved back into the crowd.  The village full of churning bodies circulates, and the faces rotate back to once again embrace me, and they have the same smile as before... innocent and unblemished.

        “My name's Lyra Heartstrings.  Please, listen.  Something's wrong in the hospital.  I think that—Hello?!”

        The faces are there and gone again.  Everytime I see them, they look at me just as stupidly as the first time.  It's like I'm being introduced to the same party over and over again.  Just like Twilight, I don't like surprises.

        “Look, this is serious!  Somepony pay attention to what I'm saying!  There's something terribly wrong with—Why aren't you paying attention to me?!”

        “I'm sorry?” A laughing pony bounces past me.  To my horror, it's one of the pegasi who picked me up just a moment ago.  “And you are...?”

        I almost snarl.  “Lyra!”  I point a hoof angrily at her chest.  “And what are you doing out of the hospital?”

        Just then, a pale body prances past me.  “Enjoy yourselves, everypony!” Nurse Red Heart cheerfully shouts above the noise of the Summer Sun Celebration.  “But remember!  Safety first!  My station's open all day!”

        I gawk at her.  I can feel my heart beating.  It's so terribly cold.  The adrenaline does nothing.

        “Hey!  HEY!”

        I bark.

        I wave my hooves wildly.

        I surf through the crowd and all but collapse against a table full of cupcakes outside of Sugarcube Corner.

        Panting, I grab the shoulders of the pink mare tossing samples out to passing celebrators.

        “I'm so glad I found you, Miss Pine.”

        “Heehee!  Actually, it's Pinkie Pie!  But I wouldn't mind be called 'Pinkie Pine' once in a while!”

        “Heh.  My bad.”  I smile nervously and squeeze her forelimbs.  “Look.  You gotta help me.  Twilight must be paying me back for the surprise party from yesterday—”

        “—because pine smells sooooo goooood, don't you think?  It reminds me of Hearth's Warming Eve and opening presents!  Why, this one time, I was unwrapping a box covered in silver glitter and a baby alligator popped out!  Swoosh!  Bit me over the head!  Heeeheeeheee—Good thing the little fella had no teeth!  That's why I named him 'Gummi'—”

        “Please—Listen to me!” I all but snarl at her.  I bat away a few ponies before they can grab some cupcakes and interrupt this little “meeting” of ours.  “Where's Twilight?  I gotta apologize to her so she can stop this practical joke.  I knew she could organize a Summer Sun Celebration but—ho ho ho hoooo...”  I chuckled madly, my lips crooked.  “This sort of stuff takes the cake!”

        “Mmmmmmm... Cake.”

        “So where is she?”

        “Huh?  Where is who?”

        “Twilight Sparkle!”

        “Why?  Did she do something wrong?”

        “Yes.  I mean no.  I mean not really.  Look, I just need to find her and apologize for the surprise party yesterday—”

        “You were at the surprise party yesterday?!” Pinkie grins wide.  “Cuz that was sooooo fun!  I'm glad that I thought it up!”

        I do a double take.  “The heck are you talking about?!  I thought up the surprise!”

        “Hmmm... And you are?”

        “Lyra!” I shout.  “Lyra Heartstrings!  The rich unicorn whose friend you agreed to spring a party for 'on the house?'”

        “Heeheehee... That's a pretty name, miss.”  She smiles innocently at me.  “But I'm sorry.  I've never seen you before.”

        I stare at her blankly.  My veins are filling with an iciness as cold as her blue eyes suddenly appear.

        “Cuz if I had, I would have totally sprung a super-duper welcoming party for you too.  I wish there were more ponies around town with green coats, cuz green coats are so hard to come by and... and... Hey, where're you going?”

        I'm leaving.

        Leaving her.

        Leaving this town.

        Leaving the noise and the brightness and the madness and...

        “Unnngh!” I fall back in the dirt road and curl my legs to my chest.  “Nnnngh... Celestia, Please...

        It is cold.

        It is colder than cold.

        I can't trot any further.

        I'm on the edge of town.  The sun is burning high in the sky.  I feel as if my legs are made of glaciers.

        “Nnnngh... Augh!”

        I shriek.

        Frozen needles are bursting out through every square inch of my flesh.

        I can barely move.

        I'm too scared to proceed any further in the direction I've been heading.

        So I crawl.

        Like a lame little foal, I crawl.

        I inch my way back towards the heart of downtown.

        Slowly, the frost in my veins melt away.

        It is still bearable, but the agony permeates everything.

        And the noise and the music and the tears...

        “Somepony... Anypony...”

        I whimper.  I sob.  I climb up and break into a desperate gallop.

        “H-Help me!”

        “What's wrong with her?”

        “Did she have too much cider?”

        “Heheh... party animals will do as party animals do—”

        “Please!” I pounce on the first pony I see in downtown.  In her eyes is the reflection of a hyperventilating unicorn with a disheveled mane.  I want to jump in those pools and drag her out, but she keeps shrinking away from me.  “You've got to help me!  My name is Lyra Heartstrings!  I have a family in Canterlot!  I gotta get to them!  I gotta get to somepony who remembers me!”

        “Hey!  Relax!  You need help, we can find you a pony who can... who can...” The pony suddenly teeters, her eyes turning thin.  There's a vapor of cold mist between us, and she's already murmuring, “Nnngh... Whew.  Too much sun.”  She smiles weakly at me.  “I'm sorry.  Can I help you?”

        “What's wrong with everypony?!”  I shove her back and angrily growl at the many equines circling me in the street.  “Is something stuffed in your ears?!  You're all sick!  I swear!”

        “Did somepony say that they're sick?”

        I spin around with a hopeful breath.  My heart immediately shrinks.  “Nurse Red Heart...”

        She squints at me from where she stands in front of the hospital.  “I'm sorry, have we met?  Did somepony send you to meet with me?”

        I backtrot away from her, but nearly trip over something.  I tumble into a tiny bundle of purple scales.  “Ooof!”  I snap out of it, and gasp for joy.  “Spike!”  I lift the purple whelp with two forelimbs and grin madly in his face.  “Thank Celestia I found you!  Spike, you gotta help me find Twilight!  Something's horribly wrong and maybe she can help!  She's good at magic spells and stuff!  Where can I find her?”

        “Uhhh... Uhh...” He stammers, struggling to hold a sun-colored candy-on-a-stick in his grasp.  “Twilight Sparkle's at the library with her new friends.  But why would you want to speak with her?”

        “Why else?!  If anypony can understand what I'm going through, it's her!  I haven't seen her in... in... well, dozens of hours!”  I gulp and exclaim, “Hasn't she asked where I went off to?  Where I've been all this time?”

        Spike's green eyeslits bounce all around the scene.  He bites his lip and nervously squeezes forth, “Uhm... ma'am?  Until today, Twilight's only had one real friend, and she's off doing studies in Canterlot.”

        I let forth a shuddering breath.  “Moondancer,” I whimper, like a kitten.  “But... But what about me?  What about Lyra?”

        “I've been with Twilight literally all my life,” Spike says with a nervous smile.  He avoids my gaze.  I can feel a twitch of fear surging through his scaled body.  “She's... uhm... She's never mentioned no 'Lyra.'”

        I gaze blankly at him.  He drops to the floor with a grunt.  I'm looking around.  Nurse Red Heart is off talking to another pony, as if this scene hasn't even happened.  The mare I grabbed earlier is gone.  No single pony is looking at me.

        I feel my heart racing a mile-per-minute.  The blood rushing to my head is almost drowning out the music.  Almost.

        “Well, maybe you're just—”  I turn to look.  Spike has waddled off, completely ignoring me.  He's already several yards away, gawking and clapping at a magic act along with several colts and fillies.  “...delirious.”

        I start to hyperventilate.  Every time I close my eyes, I see something beyond the darkness, a place where songs go to die.  I feel as if I'm headed there too.  The gravity tugs at me, so I defy it by breaking my hooves into a frenzied gallop.

        I practically fling myself against the wooden door of the library.

        I pound on it.

        I scrape against it.

        I can't stop panting.  I feel like I must outrace something, but I don't know what.

        Finally, the top half of the door opens.  An obstinate looking mare with an orange coat and white freckles is glaring at me.

        “Uhm... Can we help you?  Reckon you do know this here's a library, right?”

        “Where's Twilight?!” I lunge towards her.  The mare jumps back with a start, her hat nearly falling off.  “Where is she?!  I have to speak with her!  It's urgent!”

        “Uhhhh... Missy, have you looked at yerself in the mirror lately?  Yer ten bushels of 'messy' in a ten pound sack.  I think somepony should lay off the cider.  Heh—I can't believe I'm hearing myself say this.”

        “Applejack?” A voice murmurs from the deep recesses of the treehouse.  My heart instantly leaps.  “Who is it?”

        “Eh, some mindblown unicorn, Twilight.  I think she's done a tad bit too much celebratin'.”

        A blue pegasus floats by the foyer.  “Hah!  There's no such thing as too much celebrating!”

        “Oh will you two cut it out?”  Twilight Sparkle giggles as she trots into view.  “This is going to be my new house.  Let me take care of this.”

        “Ya sure, sugarcube?  I don't think she's right in the head.”

        “Element of Magic, remember?  Hehehe.  I think I'll be more than okay.”  She brushes the farm filly aside and smiles at me.  “Now, what seems to be the problem—?”

        “Twilight!” I grasp her hooves, almost yanking her over the bottom half of the door.  Something is twinkling in her eyes, until I realize it's the reflection of my own joyful tears.  “Thank Celestia!  I've been looking all over town for you!  You were right!  Something crazy is going on!  Thousandth year or not, you were onto something!  I can't explain what's happened to me, but it's suddenly like I'm not here!  But I am here!  Everypony's ignoring me!  Not just them—but Spike too!  At first I thought it was a joke, but now I think it's something else!  Please, you've got to help me!  If you can't, then maybe the Princess can!  I think it's... uh... it's some sort of degenerative brain disorder or some crud.  I remember reading up on it once in a copy of Canterlot Health Monthly.  If... If we get all the ponies checked, th-th-then maybe we can—I dunno—figure out what's wrong and get them all cured!  They owe it to you after all the preparation you did for the Celebration after all!  And I'd be more than willing to... to help... help...”  The warmth left my voice, like a song interrupted.  I gulped a painful lump down my throat and searched for answers in the blank canvas staring back at me.  “Twilight...?”

        “You... You sound like you've been through a lot,” she says.  Her voice is placid, like pond water that not a single pebble has been able to disturb.  I stand upon the brink, looking in, but I can no longer see myself.  “But you have to start over from the top.  Calm down and speak slowly.  I'll do anything I can, Miss...”

        It's too cold for me to melt.  The only thing that cracks is my voice.  “L-Lyra...” Something has died, and I suddenly realize I can't bury it.  “I'm... Lyra.  Your Lyra.  Your friend. Twilight, why don't...?”  I stumble backwards from the library.  I'm a limb cut off from the tree, forever a lost element.  I try to speak, but all that comes out are breathy palpitations.  I see her in the doorway, and yet she's squatting on a sidewalk of Canterlot, two blocks from my house, having tripped after trying to read a book in mid-trot.  I shuffle up towards her, the first unicorn my age that I've seen since we moved from another district, and I pretend to ignore her tears as I pick up the book for her.  We talk about things.  She likes magic.  I like music.  Someday soon, we both meet another unicorn who likes playing “pretend,” and thus begins an unwritten chronicle of adventures just outside our homes.

        Our homes...



        Something else has died, and I wish it was me.

        “Please, let's just talk—Wait!” She reaches out for me, but I am gone.

        “Listen to me!  Look at me!  Please!  Somepony!  Anypony!”

        There's a mad unicorn running through the streets of some backwater town.

        I hate her.

        I don't want to be around her.

        She follows me like a tune that will never leave my head.

        I want to rip it out.

        I want to rip her out.

        I want to rip her asunder.

        “Please!  I beg you!  Pay attention to me!”

        I am surrounded by laughter.

        I am surrounded by dancing.

        Everywhere I turn, the chorus gets louder and louder.

        I can't even shut it off with violence or flame.

        “My name is Lyra!  For the love of Celestia, please!  Listen to me!  I am real!”

        There are eyes, and then there are no eyes.

        The only thing constant is light, and soon that is swallowed by an all encompassing darkness.

        “I am real!”

        I woke up, accompanied by my own yells.  A wall of trees resonated with my voice, echoing my agony beneath the stars of the night.  I flailed—soaking wet—rolling over leaves and grass in pitch-blackness, until the moon found me.  Even then, I couldn't stop making noise.  One million invisible forgotten creatures screaming in the night: and I was one with them.

        When I paused for breath, I realized that I wasn't where I last was.  This wasn't my cellar.  The lanternlight was gone.  The sound stones had disappeared.  I was in the middle of the forest, surrounded by the bright, looming bodies of trees.  And the “Threnody of Night”...

        It had been replaced.

        “Nnnngh—Celestia!” I gripped my skull and gnashed my teeth, plowing my muzzle through the damp earth.  I was crawling over with moisture, but it wasn't my sweat.  What was this mess?  What hidden ocean had I emerged from?  And this tune... this new and infernal tune.  “Dear Celestia, no,” I whimpered.  “Not another elegy.  Not an eighth!”

        I stumbled up to my hooves, only to slip immediately into a huge puddle.  My body screamed.  I was freezing again.  This was ten times worse than Everfree, and what's more: I was naked.

        My limbs were the tendrils of a numb ghost; I floundered for a hoof-hold.  By the time I entered a swift trot, I couldn't tell which way I was going.  All I saw was an endless sea of trees, all shining in the pale moonlight like bright femurs planted in the ground: just as sterile and lifeless.  It was with miraculous luck that I stumbled onto a dirt path, and from there I knew where to go.  As I stumbled along, a trail of moisture dribbled off my coat and stained the ground behind me.  What was all this?  Where had I been?

        I found the cabin and immediately flung myself through the door.  It took three petrifying minutes to summon enough nerves in my limbs to start a fire.  When I did, I didn't bother with subtlety.  I flung ten whole stakes of lumber onto the blaze and planted myself before it, drowning myself in a sea of blankets.

        There, upon the hearth, I quivered through the agonizing night.  There was no way I could sleep, no way I could rest.  The trembles shook my body so hard, I feared that my spine would rattle out through my skin.  I prayed for the daylight to come.  I was tired of this darkness.  I was tired of this waiting and waiting, of fighting my way through nameless songs in a futile attempt to find a purpose to my solitary pestilence.

        When the gray haze of morning wafted in through the window, I took a look at myself.  There was still a sheen of moisture.  It had no color, no odor, and—to my daring taste—no flavor.  I could only guess that I had been soaked in none other than pure water.  But why?

        What had happened in the middle of the instrumental?  Why had I been relocated to the middle of the woods?  Was this the purpose of the Threnody?  Was this what all of my work had promised me?  Was this what unraveling the symphony of Princess Luna had in store?

        It wasn't until noon that I dared to go outside.  I trotted forlornly into the cellar beneath my shack, as if afraid of the evidence I was going to find.  I discovered nothing: no footprints, no scrape marks, no signature at all to suggest what may have dragged me out into the darkest folds of the night.  I found my lyre where I had left it, my sound stones—no longer enchanted.  And, of all things, I found my hoodie... lying perfectly dry and deflated on the floor... where my body had collapsed halfway through performing the latest instrumental.

        At least, it was the latest instrumental.  Now my head was full of something else, something terribly, damnably new.  It filled me with more fear than the “Prelude to Shadows.”  It chilled me to the bone far more mercilessly than the “Moon's Elegy.”  I already absorbed enough into my memory to compose the first ten cords if I wanted, but I couldn't allow myself to do that.

        “But if you're all about trying to discover these mysterious tunes, what's stopping you from composing this new one?”

        “Maybe because I'm sick of going on a wild goose chase, only to be awarded with fainting spells, freezing blood, and migraines!”  I snarled, slapping the dusty books down onto the library table and fumbling to yank my notepad out of my saddlebag.  “Maybe because after thirteen Goddess-forsaken months, I can't help but ask if it's worth it!  It's not like I'm making any progress!  It's not like I'm—Nnnngh!” With an angry shriek, I tossed the notepad against the wall and slammed my hooves into the nearby bookcase with loud punctuation.  “It just feels so pointless!  Why do I even bother trying?!  Why do I even bother...”  I stopped in mid-sentence, for I realized I was not the only one trembling.  I glanced to my side.

        Spike stared back at me, nervously toying with the end of his tail.  Upon receiving my glare, the library assistant gazed away, as if guilty for not relating to this infernal unicorn's frustration.

        My heart sank.  I remembered the day Twilight Sparkle first showed him to me, a young hatchling fresh out of the egg, a gift to the Princess' new apprentice as much as he was a gift to the very notion of life.  I again saw a tiny little whelp who once dangled—confused and frightened—from my forelimbs in the middle of the Summer Sun Celebration.  Existence is too precious a thing to have attacked something so sovereign not once, but on two separate occasions.  I immediately deflated, calming myself with a deep breath and smiling as genuinely as I could the youngster's way.

        “I'm sorry.  You... You don't deserve to hear me go on like that.  You're only trying to help me.  It's just that I'm so frustrated and my head hurts and... and...”

        I shuddered.  My eyes closed on their own.  Once again, the darkness was so familiar, the bitter black birthplace of black songs.  They had shaped me for the better, now that I think about it.  They had chipped away the sour edges of the unicorn I used to be.  If I had the ability to reverse time, I don't know if I would want to anymore.  I'm not nearly as proud of the filly I once was.  I'm constantly endeavoring to discover the mare I someday wish to be, so that what emerges from this amnesiac prison is something worth being proud of, something worth being remembered.  But on the fringes of that darkness, I see the same unicorn shivering—by herself—before the ashes of a dying flame.  And I wonder, in over a year of trial and error, have the things I've gained outweighed the things I've lost, or would forever lose?  Just like the words slipping, unguarded, from my trembling lips...

        “I'm just so alone,” I murmured.  I couldn't help it.  I didn't want to help it.  “I'm just so alone, and it's so hard... it gets so very hard, trying to do this research.  Even with all the help in the world, I'm on my own.  This is my symphony alone to discover, and I have nopony else to turn to.  Though it's as if opportunity is knocking everywhere I look.  I... I’m not sure if you know what it's like to be so cold and yet surrounded by so much warmth.  It's... It's trying sometimes, and I apologize.  I apologize for snapping.  You're young and you're loved and you're blessed to have a home.  You don't need to hear any of this.”

        I sighed, bowing towards the books, the holy relics of forbidden languages that I was forced once again to peruse.

        Then Spike's words melted through the veil, startling me.  “Actually... uhm, ma'am, f-forgive me for saying so, but I kinda-sorta do understand.”

        I glanced curiously towards him.  I was silent.

        He looked like he wanted to be as well, but could afford it even less than I.  “I know that I'm loved.  I know that I have a home.  But that doesn't change what I am.”  He smiled bashfully.  It was a forced thing, and he wrung his fingers over the edge of his tail, as if struggling to produce the words.  “I'm a dragon, a purple magic whelp.  Even Celestia herself has told me that I'm the only known one of my kind.  I'm... I-I'm really thankful that Twilight Sparkle and so many other ponies look after me.  And I know that they care for me a lot.  But... But I can never make them understand what it means to be what I am.  I'm not sure if I can ever learn everything that there is for me to know about myself—or about dragonkind, for that matter.  But, that's not gonna stop me from trying to find out.  Maybe not now, but perhaps when I'm older.   I'm gonna give it all that I've got.  And though I know that Twilight would gladly try to help me, I really don't think she can, y'know?”  He sniffled slightly, but his ensuing grin was braver than anything I could ever muster.  “Sometimes, though, I think it's okay to be alone.  If we needed other ponies to discover ourselves, then—well—we just wouldn't be ourselves, now would we?”

        I smiled painfully his way.  I stretched my forelimb out and rested it on his purple shoulder.  “Spike, I have no doubt that you will find yourself.  And if what you discover is anything nearly as genuine and sweet as what's standing before me right now—well—I wouldn't be surprised.”

        Something was bridged between us.  I was thankful for it, because whatever tears had almost begun welling up in his eyes very swiftly dried.  “Twilight always tells me that 'I should be true to myself.'  I used to think it was a bunch of sappy hoopla, but I think it was her way of telling me that there comes a time when we can only help ourselves.  It may be kind of scary to face challenges in life alone, but... well... things would be boring otherwise, don'tcha think?”

        He giggled at his own attempt at a moral.  I was confused at first, until a part of me—the portion that was thirteen months older than the other half—very easily understood this child's statement.

        “Yes,” I murmured delicately, smoothing back his spines and giving him an affectionate smile.  “Yes, it would be very boring indeed.”

        “So... Uhm...”  He cleared his throat and attempted to reattach the conversation to the dusty tomes resting in front of this moody unicorn.  “Ancient Moonwhinny.  Heh.  Think you need any help with the translation?  I've got an antique lexicon somewhere on the other side of the library.”

        I knew what would happen as soon as he walked away.  “No.  I mean... if you'd like, just hang out here for a little bit longer,” I said quietly.  I took a deep breath.  I fidgeted with my hoodie's sleeves while my eyes searched a distant, cold place, dense and sacred.  “Some of us are alone by choice.  Others...”

        There was a knock on the treehouse door.

        “Come.  Come and enter, stranger or friend.  For I have brews for all ills contained within.”

        With a deep, wooden creak, I entered the zebra's household.  I immediately lowered both hoods from over my horn and spoke bravely into the freezing air.  “Are you Miss Zecora?”

        “Yes, yes,” she murmured while perusing several scrolls mailed in from her homeland.  “In the households of Ponyville, my name goes about.  My medicinal remedies you've heard of, no doubt.”

        “Well, I wouldn't know a thing or two about that, but some pony sent me to give you something.”


        “Yeah.  These things were found lying in the middle of downtown, and nopony around these parts has ever been known to own them.  We figured they belonged to—well—the only resident mare who wears her mane in a mohawk, if you catch my drift.”

        “I'm afraid you have to be more clear,” Zecora rolled her scrolls up and gave me a suspicious glance from across the wooden atrium.  “Just what curious things do you bring here?”

        “Eh...” I nonchalantly unwrapped a canvas bundle and held a pair of drums up for her inspection.  “Do these mean anything to you?”  I bore a poker face.  I waited.

        For a moment, I could have sworn the stripes in Zecora's coat had paled over.  Her mouth fell agape, and she shuffled slowly towards the items in my possession.  A murmur escaped her, undoubtedly a flimsy thread of her native tongue.  Finally she swallowed and exclaimed, “Sundried snares, vestiges of a Zebraharan soul.  By the shadows, I've not seen the likes of these since I was a little foal.”

        I squinted knowingly at her.  “So I was right.  They do have 'zebra' written all over them?”

        “In a manner of speaking, yes,” she stammered, holding a hoof up to her chest.  “Of their value to my kind, I do not jest.”  Something melted across her face, a sweet smile forged by a dozen memories all flashing across her blue eyes as she stared at the drums and past them all at once.  “My siblings would play the drums for me when I was but a child.  Just thinking about it now makes my spirit feel young and wild.”

        “Yeah.  Nostalgia will do that.”

        “But their presence here truly baffles me,” she stated with a confused expression.  “To think that a pony could stumble upon them so casually?”

        I glanced towards the far ends of her workstation.  A wooden engraving lingered before my eyes, like a warm sunset too far away for either of us to taste in that cold domain.  In truth, I had made the drums—just like I had built all of the tools, both conventional and unorthodox, which were presently hanging along the walls of my cabin.  Sometimes, half of being alone means struggling to find the purpose in being alone.  Standing there, nearly freezing to death in the presence of such a secluded zebra, I had discovered something far more sacred than a forgotten song.

        “Well, stranger things have happened,” I flippantly mused.  “Whatever the case, nopony in town wants them.  Seems only fitting for them to be yours.”

        Zecora bit her lip in a sudden pensiveness.

        “What's wrong?” I pretended to ask.  “Oh, right.  The ponies in town say that you're a shaman.  Lemme guess, your order forbids you to play music or something?”

        She fidgeted slightly, though she couldn't tear her blue eyes from the wondrous instruments of her use.  “I must solemnly admit my dismay, for I have been committed to work and not to play.  Why else would I be working in a faraway land if not to seek the mysteries of the world so that I may understand?”

        “Miss Zecora, I shudder to think that a seeker of knowledge forgets to also be a seeker of the self.”

        She said nothing to that.  She sadly hung her head.

        However, I was smiling.  “Well, if you're not allowed to play something so dear to you...” I shuffled over to a wooden stool and plopped myself down.  Miraculously, the shivers had stopped, so that I embraced that precious moment with a pair of hooves hovering deliciously over the twin snares.  “Is there any harm in letting someone else give it a shot, so that you can at least enjoy listening to it again?”

        She gawked at me as if I was on fire.  “You mean to tell me that it's true?  That the art of Zebraharan percussion is housed within you?”

        “Hmmm... It must be if it can make you force your own rhyme that blatantly to believe it.”  I winked at her and motioned towards another stool.  “Have a seat.  No good song is ever meant to be listened to alone.  Even a shaman can afford company once in a while, right?”

        She smiled, and the moisture in her eyes was like that of an enchanted young filly's.  Zecora squatted across from me, her face eager and bright, just as I began my rendition of a ritualistic chant that I had researched long ago—accompanied by a drumbeat that I had mastered with enough time, patience, and solitude.  The two of us converged, lonely souls in the middle of an alien cold, to indulge in the beauty of something that was lost to both of us.  And though we may not have made any progress, we reminded ourselves—ever so briefly—of just what progress is meant to serve.

        Someday, I will cure this curse of mine.  Maybe it will take picking up the pieces of the “Threnody of Night.”  Maybe it will take piecing together the bits of this new song in my head.  Maybe it will involve tackling the elegy after that, or ten more elegies, or a thousand.  Suddenly, it no longer matters how long the road ahead of me is.  I have friends in waiting on either side of me, and though they don't know my name, I see and hear my spirit reflected off them—off their warmth and sincerity.  The thought of their eyes looking at me, and one day not losing sight of the thing that holds my soul: that is a goal I shall pursue with joy, for what other impetus is there to pierce the freezing depths of this universe?

        In this life, I am guaranteed to have at least one friend.

        So long as I am true to myself, then I can be true to everyone.

Background Pony

IV - “Symphony of Solitude”

by shortskirtsandexplosions

Special thanks to: Seattle_Lite, TheBrianJ, Laichonious, and Gamestop

Cover pic by Spotlight

        Dear Journal,

        What does it mean to be cursed?  What does it truly mean?  Does it mean that I've been robbed?  Does it mean that I still possess things that have yet to be stolen from me?  Have I experienced the worst that fate has to offer, or am I simply lying in wait for the darkest, cruelest punchline in life to come?

        It's so very easy for me to feel sorry about myself.  It's something that I cannot help but dwell upon each and every day.  For a while, I’ve feared that I would let things like this get to my head, that I would resort to doing acts both desperate and pathetic that would only hurt the ghostly shades of friends I pretend to be surrounded by on a regular basis.

        Then I met souls—amazing and inspiring souls—who each were born with a chance to shine, like I once was.  Only, though they were never magically robbed of their ability to achieve greatness, I soon realized that they too were at a loss to encounter an opportunity to surpass the limits of themselves.  After all, what is life if not a complex game with both winners and losers and not enough points to happily placate both?

        The fact that I'm a pony with no perceivable future cannot be denied.  Until I can somehow unlock the magical power of the elegies—the thick black borders of my invisible prison—I cannot hope to anticipate anything but a future of oblivion, obscurity, and emptiness.

        What, though, can be said of those around me?  As a matter of fact, ponies have always been cursed since the beginning of time—not by a frigid dome of amnesia, but by a transitive sphere of ignorance that constantly threatens our very dreams and aspirations from their genius conception to their desperate expression.

        I, at least, have a hope that nopony else seems to have.  As soon as I end this curse, I expect to immediately start existing again.  However, it's been my experience that there are mares and stallions—gentle hearts, all of them—who may never exist, at least not as brilliantly as they would desire to, no matter how hard they struggle.  What solution do they have to pick out of a hat?  What silver bullet will slay the beast that consumes their artistry with as much ease as I can slay mine?

        No.  No, I am not cursed.  I am simply less blessed, less polished, less shiny than those around me.  With time, I have faith that I will enchant that which has been struck dead in my life.  I will bring shine back to a dull existence.  And yet, no matter what progress I may or may not make, I cannot stop hoping—I cannot stop dreaming—that those around me can become just as lucky too.

        A dangling bell above the door shook as I entered.  The lavish interior of the fashion shop rang with a gentle melody.  Soon, though, an eloquent voice surpassed even that heavenly jingle with a chirping tone of its own.

        “Welcome to Carousel Boutique, where every garment is chic, unique, and magnifique.”

        I couldn't help but smile.  Now that's a fabulous greeting if I ever heard one.

        “Excuse me...” I spoke as gently and politely as I could.  Almost a week had passed since I performed the Threnody in full.  Most of my nerves had recollected, and I was happy to be in public once more.  The eye-pleasing curtains and smell of clean fabric lulled my spirit as I marched into the luxurious establishment with my rough saddlebag and unassuming hoodie.  “I was told that a mare by the name of Rarity works here.  Is there a chance I might speak with her?”

        Long ago, I had established for myself a simple rule when “greeting” ponies with whom I had become quite familiar.  For the sake of simplicity, it seemed a good habit to feign ignorance.  I didn't want to alarm any soul by immediately addressing them by name.  For the longest time, I never second-guessed this “code” that I lived by.

        “Oh, but darling, you are speaking to Rarity.  The one and onlyyyy.”  She was chiding me, like a princess correcting an uncouth servant.  At the same time, her voice had a melodic edge to it, as if she was satirizing the very notion of such haughtiness.  “Oh dear, do listen to me go on,” she exclaimed, stifling a giggle.  “My apologies, ma'am.  I swear, there's something to be said about working on a gorgeous dress when one feels good inside.  It's like grocery shopping on an empty stomach.  It's only asking for trouble, hmm?  Hmm-hmm-hmm...”

        It was a beautiful day outside, and I could already tell that much of the brilliance had seeped in through the ornate windows and walls of the place.  The white unicorn in question was busy fiddling with a ballroom gown that was halfway through becoming a satin masterpiece.  The tone in Rarity's voice matched the artistic whimsy of her present project.  I almost felt like a criminal for interrupting it.

        “Nothing to apologize for,” I said with a smile as I stood behind her.  I craned my neck to squint over her figure, as if instantly drawn to the curious sight of her work.  There are things in this world that are unexpectedly absorbing.  The Carousel Boutique had an air of enchantment; I felt like I was in the birthplace of magical things.  “I heard about your talents and craftponyship around town,” I exclaimed, fighting the shivers long enough to maintain normal composure.  “I was wondering if you'd be willing to earn some extra bits.”

        “Doing what, pray tell?”  Rarity murmured without looking.  She added another stream of blue ribbon along the edge of the blue gown's flaring skirt.  She was one with her work; I was merely a curious satellite in orbit of her sacred project.  “As much as I hate to sound dismissive of new and fantastic opportunities, I do happen to be overloaded with a most demanding list of requests at the moment.  If you have indeed heard of me around town, no doubt you've become aware of my rather strict schedule of appointments as of late.  Pay the front desk a visit, dear, and you'll find a very thorough list of guidelines by which I perform commissions.”

        “Oh, it's not a dress that I want to have made,” I said with a nervous smile.

        She yanked too hard on a length of ribbon, nearly ripping it loose from its fresh seams.  I could sense her hard blinks without looking.  “Oh?” her voice cracked slightly.  The room dulled for the briefest of moments.  “If not a dress, then what, if I may ask?”

        I decided that it was best to be as direct as possible.  “I heard that your special talent is in jewelcrafting.”  My eyes danced briefly over her sapphiric cutie mark as I fiddled with my saddlebag.  “Ponies have told me that you're good at locating and enchanting gems of absolute scarcity.”

        “H-have they now?” Her tone was flat, resembling the unfinished lengths of her dress.  She stood in place, as if gazing at a blank space beyond her work.  “Well, those ponies were certainly being honest.  What was it that you needed, Miss...?”

        “Lyra Heartstrings.  And I need to have some enchanting done,” I said.  Feeling a chill in the air unrelated to my curse, I added with a smile.  “And I didn't want to ask any other craftspony around town unless I had to.  I heard you were the best, so why settle for less?”

        “Hmmm...”  She turned slowly to look at me and the smile on her face formed just as easily.  “They said I was the best?  Well, I do suppose that speaks for something.”

        “But, I didn't realize just how busy you were,” I said, squirming slightly.  I learned long ago that I will perpetually be a splinter in this town.  No matter what I do or say, the situation is never as placid after I've arrived as it was before.  “You're working on something really beautiful.  Don't let me interrupt your concentration with such a trite request.”

        “Oh, darling, perish the thought!”  She immediately rushed towards me as if I was an infant foal teetering at the top of a staircase.  I was suddenly the most important thing in her world.  I wasn't quite expecting that, and it made my heart trip over itself.  “Not to toot my horn, as it were, but I can enchant stones in my sleep.  If anything, it only helps me focus my mind all the more, so you'd actually be doing my dress-making a favor!  Now—ahem...”  She smiled regally at me.  There was a sparkle in her gaze that never went away.  I suddenly knew where she got her eye for beauty.  “Just how many gems are we talking about, Miss Heartstrings?”

        I looked into my saddlebag.  The four soundstones that Zecora had sold me days ago were completely drained of enchantment.  If I had any hope of performing this new song stuck in my head—assuming I could build the courage to do so—I wouldn't make any progress whatsoever until I had all four rocks completely recharged with magical potency.  The sooner I had them brought back to their original glory, the sooner I’d be in the cellar, performing the elegies, throwing my soul deep into a dark abyss of mystery, cold, and shadows...

        “Just one gem,” I told her.  I took a single dark crystal out of the saddlebag and floated it in front of the mare.  “I'm working on some new music, and it helps to have a mana battery nearby to... to... well...”

        “To get that special spark of inspiration?” Rarity immediately snatched the rock like it was hers since the beginning of time.  She telekinetically spun it at multiple angles in front of her eyes, examining it with an expert gaze.  “Tell me no more.  I know the feeling quite well.  A unicorn is all too often the sum of their surroundings.  I almost feel bad for those not blessed to be connected with the generous leylines of our supernatural world.  You ever heard of Hoity Toity?  Such a diamond in the rough of earth pony couture, he is.  Popular legend says that he made his first line of successful outfits while working in a wooden shack outside of Las Pegasus.  Hah!  Can you believe that?”


        “Hmmm... Oh my my my—I see why you had to come to the absolute best gem enchantress in town,” she said with a playful wink tossed my way.  “This poor thing has been through a lot!  It's practically a doorstop!  What-ever did you do with this, darling?  Did you use it to summon a Windigo from the nether?”

        I bit my lip.  I struggled through a fresh wave of memories, and all of them laced with frost and shadows.  “Let's just say that I'm not your average composer of music,” I eventually murmured.  My ears twitched as I tried to shake the tune in my head long enough to cast my voice evenly.  “Sometimes I have to reach deep down—further than what history provides—in order to restore the most sacred ballads lost to us.  I believe that there are songs that mean so much to ponydom that we no longer have the capacity to remember them, and the act of finding them saps more from me than just my talents.  It takes a lot of... uhm... magic energy as well.  Does... does that make any sense to you?”  I winced openly.  I was already planning to just ditch the Carousel and attempt to repeat this entire meeting the next day.

        But something that would have been lost was immediately saved by Rarity's grace and her grace alone.  “What's obvious to me, darling, is an artist in search of beauty, and that is something I can instantly respect.”  She smiled over the dull jewel at me.  “I too have a deep admiration for classicism.  If I could invent a time machine and go back to the period of Starswirl the Bearded...”  She drew a hoof over her forehead and painted the rooftop of the Boutique with rolling eyes.  “Ohhhh stars, so many fabulous designs, lost to the hungry moths and bitter decay of ages!  If I could just bring back a single illustration to present day, I'd reintroduce modern Equestria to real taste and elegance.  But, alas...”  She focused once more on the dark gem and murmured lovingly, as if caressing a reflection hidden beneath the onyx surfaces.  “What are we here for if not to invent, inspire, and illuminate?”

        I gulped and smiled awkwardly.  “I can't say I'm nearly as creative as you, Miss Rarity.  I'm just a historian.”

        “Nonsense!  Don't sell yourself short!”  She smiled my way.  “Nopony is ever really just an appendix of the past.  We all have the future to build—together—in our unique and special ways, don't you think?”

        I turned my gaze from her.  The walls were be-speckled in random places with shiny jewels and mirrors.  I saw Rarity's white coat and purple mane reflected in a glittering kaleidoscope.  My colors were nowhere to be seen.

        “I don't hold too much stock in the future,” I eventually muttered and glanced back at her.  “Is it such a crime to live in the now?”

        “It's my experience that saints and criminals often have the same things in common, so why stress it, hmm?” she remarked flippantly, then cleared her throat.  “Now, darling, about... re-fabulousing your once-fabulous jewel...”

        “Oh, uhm...”  I shifted where I stood.  “I know it doesn't look like much now, but it's a—”

        “Ram-crafted sound stone.  Trust me, dear, I know my rocks.  I must say, this is a remarkable find.  Where rams lack in aesthetics, they certainly make up for in substance.  If this was produced by any other culture in Equestria, it'd be a loss cause to attempt re-enchanting it.”

        “How much would be appropriate for such a service?”

        “Hmmm...”  Rarity murmured aloud as she trotted towards a nearby window, parting the curtains with telekinesis so that a brilliant beam of noonday sunlight poured directly into the heart of the boutique.  “It has been a terribly long time since I provided enchanting services, come to think of it.  But if I recall the rates I used to charge...”  She paused for several seconds, to the point that I could only guess she was pretending to think for the sake of pretending.  She soon tossed a tranquil glance my way.  “Three bits, dear.  Seems fitting, don't you think?”

        I couldn't help it.  My gaze was crooked as I blinked at her, and I fumbled a bit before answering, “Erm... Yes.  That is... rather generous of you.”

        “Hmmm... I do get that a lot, it would seem.”  Her voice shook at the end of her utterance, like she had woken up that morning giggling and still couldn't stop.  The air was alive with more than her sparkling telekinesis as she floated a metal stand over from a closet.  She blew the dust off, coughed briefly, and positioned the tripod directly in front of the window.  “Oh, how glad I am that this thing hasn't rusted.  It would be doing my family a great disservice if I ever let this heirloom go to ruin.”

        “If you don't mind my asking... uhm...”  I trotted over towards her and the contraption.  “What exactly is it?”

        She gave an airy laugh.  “You really have had your horn stuck in the history books, haven't you?  I weep quietly inside whenever I meet a unicorn who hasn't experimented with more than one style of magic.”  She cleared her throat and spoke while methodically floating over a glass lens and fixing it to the upper stalk of the metal device.  “This, my dear, is a celestial magnifier.  All things that stand to be enchanted in this world have one element that can almost always bring luster back to their magic without fail.”

        I blinked and uttered, “Sunlight?”

        “Mmmmhmmm,” Rarity hummed as she tilted the lens and positioned it at just the right angle to focus a thin beam of magnified light through a ring of metal clamps at the top of the stand.  “Her Majesty, Princess Celestia, gives us more than just the warmth and beauty of the day.  She grants us the very essence of her being, something sacred that was hoofed down by the Cosmic Matriarch herself.  If we focus the energy of the sun just right, it's like grabbing magic from the air.”  She tensed her facial features as she carefully, carefully floated the dull stone over and positioned it tightly within the polished ring of the metal clamps.  “Aaaaaaand... there!  Ah... Tell me, have ponies been given anything more generous than the Princess' very own shine?”

        I trotted over and stared closely at the gem with subtle, foalish fascination.  Indeed, before our eyes, the dullness of the sound stone gave way, and I saw a glow emanating from the center of the dark crystal in direct response to the focused beam of light.  It was dim at first, but soon the familiar emerald haze was coming to life underneath the glossy surface of the jewel.

        “That... is indeed beautiful,” I remarked.  “It's like capturing an alicorn's glory in a bottle!”

        “Not yet it's not,” Rarity boldly said.  She brushed me aside and approached the gem like it was an altar.  “Ahem.  This is where I come in, darling.”  She winked, and it was then that I realized she was about to earn my bits.  With great concentration, Rarity focused magical energy into her horn.  A second glow filled that part of the Carousel, and soon she was encompassing the gem with a cascade of sparkles.

        I realized that she was using her talents to plant a containment spell on the sound stone.  It was something I could never imagine doing myself.  After a year of studying every book on lunar magic in Twilight's Library, I've learned to perform many fantastic feats, and yet still I was in awe of Rarity's gifts.

        “That's... That's amazing.”  I looked from the gem to her and smiled.  “And you make it look so easy.”

        “Only because it is, dear.  Mmm... for me, that is.”  She murmured aside, all the while concentrating.  “I don't mean to sound like a braggart.  We all have our places in this world.  I've met unicorns who could do something like this in half the time, and yet they charge three times as much.  I've endeavored to not be like them.  True talent is about earning more than just money, after all.”

        “Well, you've earned my thanks, Miss Rarity.”  I chuckled briefly and floated three golden coins out of my saddlebag.  “A well as my bits.”  After she graciously took the payment with her own telekinesis, I said, “Though, nothing I could pay you would come close to how golden this day appears to be.”


        “If I may be so bold, you seem to be in a fantastic mood.  I wish all ponies had as sunny a disposition.”

        “Is there any reason why they shouldn't?”  She continued enchanting the stone while casting me a sideways glance.  Her lips were curved, as if she was born with that smile.  “Well, perhaps I'm one to talk.  It so happens that I've been struck with a great deal of good fortune as of late.  Do forgive me if it comes across as a little uncouth”

        “Nothing uncouth about being happy, Miss Rarity.  Dare I ask what's the occasion?”

        “Tell me...”  Rarity's melodic tone didn't falter for one instant.  “Have you heard of Silver Seams?”

        My eyes swam over the rich decorations of the boutique, and I was at a loss to form an answer.  “I can't say that I have.  But then again... heh... what's in a name?”

        Her reaction was rather explosive.  “Why, everything, Miss Heartstrings!”  For a second there, I thought she might accidentally knock over the stand atop which the gem was being enchanted.  She glanced back at me, and her eyes were as hard as diamonds.  “It's what defines a pony!  A title is one's vessel for notoriety and purpose.”

        I said nothing.

        Thankfully, Rarity wasn't finished.  “And Silver Seams' fame proceeds her!  She is only the most prestigious dress designer in the Manehattan scene!  She's made top-of-the-line gowns for every annual fashion exhibit in Fillydelphia and Trottingham over the last decade!  She produces the luxurious costumes for the regular Hearth's Warming's Eve pageant at Canterlot, and she's even designed the latest uniforms worn by the Wonderbolts!”

        “Wow, sounds like quite the career.”

        “It is more than that.  Silver Seams' impact on Equestrian culture is positively legendary!  And I can't wait to speak with her face to face.”

        “I bet you can't,” I said with a nod, then jolted as the realization hit me.  I glanced at the sparkling-clean lengths of the boutique, the fancy dresses that were on exhibit, even Rarity's latest project.  “Wait, so Silver Seams is coming here?”

        “Squeee-heeheehee-Yes!”  Rarity squirmed in place.  It wouldn't have surprised me if she suddenly sprouted pegasus wings and performed laps around the ceiling.  “It turns out she's making a trip to Trottingham and will be stopping by Ponyville along the way.  Hoity Toity—with whom I have a good business acquaintance, ahem—had an opportunity to speak with her, and he personally suggested that she stop by my Boutique!  Silver Seams!  The divine queen of fashion!  Stopping by here!”  She seemed on the verge of fainting.  A magical beam of light pulsed from deep within the soundstone, shaking her out of her felicitous spell.  “Oh, but that is merely my own little life.  I just feel so... so... bubbly, as Pinkie Pie would put it.  Do forgive me for not being able to contain my excitement.”

        “Sounds like you have every reason to be excited!”  I said with a  smile.  She levitated the re-enchanted stone towards me and I gladly took it.  “You have an obvious eye for beauty.  No doubt Miss Seams would love having a look at your work.”

        “What?!”  Rarity gasped at me, her voice hoarse and mortified.  She gave the lengths of her boutique a flippant wave of the hoof.  “You mean these paltry attempts at day-to-day garb?”

        I glanced at the rows of flowing, shiny dresses on display.  “They seem very lovely and impressive to me—”

        “That's just it!”  She trotted limply past me, her voice orating towards the dull mannequins suddenly surrounding her.  “If I wish to impress the likes of Silver Seams, then I need to be more than lovely and impressive! I need to be absolutely stellar!  I need to eke supernatural feats of whimsy from the creative nodes in my mind!”  I felt like I was suddenly privy to a dramatic one-mare-show, and it was worth every golden bit.  “She will be here in less than a week!  I only have a few days to make this Boutique worth its weight in polish!  I need to make a dress that will shock her, flabbergast her, and make her leave this town with my name engraved in her head as succinctly and righteously as her name is emblazoned into the heart of every self-respecting fashionista from here to Blue Valley!”

        “Sounds like you've got your work cut out for you,” I said.  I dropped the sound stone into my bag, zipped it shut, and smirked at her.  “I have no doubt that you'll find the time to make something absolutely dazzling.”

        “It's not so much a matter of time, dear.  Inspiration is as spontaneous as it is divine.  I've been toiling through my lists of paid projects in hopes that an idea would bloom from mundanity.  Alas, it doesn't help that most if not all of my clients make... eh... rather plebeian requests at best.  Celestia forbid that a pony would commission something with flare so that I could truly put my mind at work...”

        “I guess I couldn't understand,” I murmured defeatedly.  “I almost wish there was some way I could help.”

        “Hmmm.  You've helped me quite enough, darling.  You let me ramble on right when I needed to.”  She gave an aristocratic laugh, then turned to look me over.  “Though...”  She rubbed her chin in thought.  “It would be only fair if I had the chance to help you.”

        I blinked.  “I don't understand.”  Perhaps I was still dazed from tackling the Threnody a few days previous.  Otherwise, I have very little reason to explain my obliviousness.  “You've already helped me with the enchantment.”

        “Never mind a glowing rock, darling.  I suddenly can't help but notice your rather... warm looking choice of wear.”

        Ah.  But of course.

        “What about it?”  I gave her a sly glance.  “Let me guess, it looks 'worn-in?'”

        “Yes, to put it lightly.”  She smiled and leaned in to me, raising a hoof just an inch from my forelimbs.  “Uhm... If I may...”


        She fidgeted with the sleeves and hood and length of the stone-gray material as she trotted tightly around me.  “Mmm... Yes, yes, yes.  It's getting positively threadbare at the cuffs.  And—oh dear—these patches!  Aside from their unsightliness, the seams are starting to pop loose!  Darling, I know you're only trying to keep warm in this thing, but with the way it's falling apart, I can't imagine that it's doing a very good job of living up to such a task!”

        I merely shrugged.  “It's worked well enough for me.  Besides, when I get cold—er—when I get really cold, I have other ways of taking care of myself.”

        “It's one thing to take care of your senses, but what of your presentation?”

        “I beg your pardon?”

        “Your coat's a rare color, a very fantastic one at that, Miss Heartstrings.  And you keep your mane so well.  You're obviously a unicorn with a soul of refined grace.  What a shame it would be to constantly wrap such a pretty package in veritable rags.”  She took a step back and tilted her horn upwards with authority.  “I insist!  You absolutely must let me make you something new that will do the same job and even better!”

        “Oh, Miss Rarity.”  I shook my head.  “Seriously, it's fine...”

        “All things dull and commonplace are fine, until we have the wherewithal to make them better.  Please, I promise it will make you feel better.”  Her teeth glinted with the enchanting sunlight wafting in through the window beside us.  “I won't even charge you!  If nothing else, this will be a way for me to flex my mental seamstress muscles and give you something worth wearing proudly all at once!  What better a way to celebrate the arrival of Silver Seams than to celebrate fashion in mutual company of a graceful mare such as yourself?”

        “Please...”  I took a deep breath, clutching at the ends of my stone gray sleeves, feeling as if I was clinging to the edges of so many sacred, cold, yet altogether holy memories of solitude.  “As much as I admire your generosity and willingness to do me a favor...”  I shuddered briefly.  I had gotten what I needed for the time being.  There's only so much I can do to interfere with the lives of these beautiful and blissfully ignorant residents of Ponyville.  Rarity had so much on her plate, and I didn't feel right in devouring the excessive byproduct of her current joy.  So, I decided to tell her the truth, “But I couldn't part with this sweatjacket even if you, Hoity Toity, and Silver Seams all worked together on making me something new.  I... I have something of an attachment to it.  It was a gift that a very nice pony gave to me when I most needed it.”

        “Hmmm... Very well then.”  I was surprised with how easily that won my case.  I felt a tiny bit disappointed, actually.  “I can't force you to let me make you something, darling.  Besides...”  She winked as she strolled back towards the dress that she was working on when I had first arrived.  “I know better than to undermine the power of a true gift.  Sentimental value is like an extra pony sense.  Without it, I doubt very much we'd remember what made us who we are today.”

        I gulped and nodded towards the shadows of the place.  “That's something I tell myself every sunrise.”

        “But I'll be here, Miss Heartstrings, in case you ever decide to return and accept my offer.”  She added more ribbons to the skirt of the dress she was making, her voice stretching as her mind went into a mode of deep focus.  “I may look forward to impressing the likes of Silver Streams, but I'd hate myself forever if I forgot my own clientele, if even for a single moment.”

        It took a mountain of effort to keep my smile alive, though I knew she couldn't see it at that moment.  “Of that I have no doubt, Miss Rarity.  I... I wish you a good afternoon.”  I turned around, my hooves sounding loud and invasive as they scraped against the tile floor of the boutique.  Without looking back, I made straight for the door.

        The bell rang melodically throughout the lengths of the dress shop.

        “Excuse me.”  I trotted into the main foyer with my saddlebag in tow.  “Is Miss Rarity around—?”

        “Oh my stars!”  She gasped.  All four of Rarity's limbs flailed as she struggled to yank a dull black tarp over the body of a mannequin positioned atop the center stage of the Boutique.  She panted heavily, as if having run a ten-mile marathon at the first sound of my voice.  As she clung to the shrouded dress, I saw her surrounded by a veritable warzone of scattered pincushions, measuring tape, sewing needles, and all sorts of multi-colored fabrics.  It had been nearly a week since I had seen Rarity last, and every single day hung like a weight from her features, pulling at the skin beneath her eyes, yanking at the frayed edges of her mane.  A pair of working glasses reflected my blinking face as she gawked at me.  “I... I-I thought I had locked that door!”

        “I'm... I'm sorry!”  I felt genuinely shocked.  I always fear that something like this might happen with the nature of my curse.  There are times when I wonder if I'm just as incorporeal as I am invisible.  “You're supposed to be closed?  I... I didn't see a sign or anything...”

        “Ohhhhh where has my mind gone?!” Rarity rolled her eyes back as her voice took on a breathy growl.  “I must have forgotten to lock the front entrance after returning from lunch!  Nnnngh... I've just been so, so terribly busy.  Ahem.”  She stood tall and proud, brushed aside a few strands of purple hair, and brandished a polite smile.  “I am exceedingly sorry, Miss...”


        “Do forgive me, Miss Heartstrings, but the Boutique is—as a matter of fact—closed for business at the moment.  I finished the last of my clients' current projects two days ago, and I won't be accepting any more requests until after the weekend.  There's been... pressing business, as of late.”

        “Pressing business?”  I blinked, then brightened with a smile.  “Oh, you mean that dress for Silver Seams that you were planning—?”

        Rarity's face became paler, if that was even possible.  “You... It... She...”  Her lower left eyelid began twitching.  For a moment there, I thought she was going to teeter backwards and collapse completely.  “How did you know about Silver Seams' visit?!”

        I winced immediately.


        “Did... Did one of my friends talk?”  She blinked, then her expression became a hard-edged sword.  “Pinkie Pie.  Somehow, she's always putting her tongue to improper use...”

        “Uhm.  No.  It's n-nothing like that!  I... uhm...” I fiddled desperately for an explanation.  I still don't know why I do this at times.  I very seriously doubt that whatever I say—fabrication or not—will be explicitly carried over past my visitation with a pony soul.  What is there to cover for?  I suppose I want each encounter I have with these Ponyvilleans to remain as sacred as I consider them to be.  “I-I-I'm visiting from Las Pegasus, and I had attended a fashion show—”

        “Las Pegasus?”  The menace in Rarity's face immediately dissipated as soon as the word “fashion” bled from my lips.  She even smiled for the briefest of moments.  “Then you are familiar with the work of Hoity Toity!”

        “Yes!  Hoity Toity!  And... uhm... supposedly he ran into Silver Seams and suggested that she stop by here...”

        “And if you made the trip from Las Pegasus to Ponyville in such short time...”  Rarity's gasped breathily as a thought of great enormity rocked her mind.  “There's no telling when Silver Streams herself may have arrived!  She could be checking into the downtown hotel right now as we speak!”  She grimaced visibly and began pacing a panicked orbit around the tarp-covered dress.  “Oh blessed Celestia, I'm not nearly finished!  I've wasted enough time as it is!  Oh, whatever shall I do?”

        “Hey!  It's okay!  Just... uhm... Just relax!”  I gestured at her with two hooves and gave a gentle smile.  “Silver Seams is an affluent, well-to-do pony, yes?”

        “Oh, absolutely!”

        “Then, like all rich and famous mares, she's probably taking her sweet time.”  I grinned and touched the tarp with a hoof for emphasis.  “I'm sure you'll have every opportunity to finish this masterpiece—”

        “No!”  She blurred over and quite forcibly removed my hoof from the material that was obscuring the dress.  “You mustn't look!” she hissed.  “You mustn't!”

        “Uhm... I wasn't about to, Miss Rarity.  Not unless you wanted to share—”

        “Out of the question!” she exclaimed, nearly snarling as she hugged the bulky item like a dying pet.  “No way in Equestria could I let anypony see this now!”

        “Oh, very well then.”  I gulped and ran a hoof through my mane.  I cast her a nervous glance.  “Er... may I ask why?”

        “Why?!”  Her eyes turned into bright blue saucers.  “Why?!  Because, darling, a work of art is always pathetic and unseemly in its most primordial stages!  I would be outright cursing the dress to defeating scrutiny if I allowed another pony to see the ugly building blocks of the final product before it even has a chance to shine!  A self-respecting seamstress never exhibits a work until it is close to completion!”

        “Oh.  Well, I guess that makes sense.”  I should have just let the conversation end there, but something about seeing Rarity so nervous and disheveled put a bad taste in my mouth.  Why do I always make friends with ponies I can never afford to commune with?  “But... I'm not Silver Seams, am I?”

        “Erm... Your point being?”

        I glanced around the shadowy lengths of the Carousel Boutique.  Half of the lights that were on last week were dimmed that afternoon, so that a single utilitarian spotlight was cast upon the dress Rarity was working on when I had shown up.

        “I get the feeling that you've been holed up here for quite a while, working on this thing...”

        “Why, but of course!  Silver Seams is visiting and I must do all that's in my power to give her something worth writing home about!  After all, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!”

        “And in all that time, have you had any critical eyes other than your own to judge the work in progress?”

        Rarity said nothing.  She merely blinked.

        I gazed past her expression.  “Not even your friends?”

        She bit her lip to the bleeding point.

        I smiled gently.  “What I'm trying to say, Miss Rarity, is that maybe it wouldn't hurt to get an opinion about it this early on.”  I smiled and turned my flank aside so she could see my cutie mark.  “Experience with writing music has taught me that the final composition is always a heck of a lot more spectacular if I've had some other pony other than myself be a critic through the creation process.”

        “Mmmm... Yes.”  She breathed slightly easier.  It appeared as though the wrinkles in her mane were smoothing away magically as she ingested my words.  “Yes, I do believe that is a very... intelligent observation.”

        “So then...”  I turned to face her straight-on.  “What's the harm in heading outside, seeing some sunlight, and fetching one of your closest acquaintances to provide you a critical eye?”

        “Mmm.  No.  N-No, we can't be having that.”

        I blinked.  “We can't?”

        “The girls—erm—my friends, they are a darling bunch, but so many of them are prone to exaggeration for the sake of placating me.”  She paced slightly about the Boutique.  “There are times when I enjoy such bias, even moments when I need it.”  Her jaw clenched tightly as a fire burned in her blue eyes.  “But this is not one of those times.”  After a pause, she tilted her face back up with a bright expression.  She glanced at me.  “Miss—Heartstrings, was it?”

        “Err... Yeah?”

        “Would you be willing to tell me what you think?” Her eyes were sparkling as she asked me this.

        I wish I could have said the same about mine.  “Uhm...  Eheheh...”  I shifted nervously where I stood and waved my left forelimb so that she could get a good look at a patch on my “worn-in” hoodie sleeve.  “Honestly, Miss Rarity, do I look like I'm qualified to say what is or isn't acceptable in fashion?”

        “You're a perfect stranger; that's qualification enough!”  She smiled with the rising layers of hope emanating from her being, making it increasingly difficult to deny her with each passing breath.  “What's more, you're obviously a refined unicorn who's both blunt and eloquent.  Please, would you do me this favor?  I'm sorry to bother you with it, but I am at my wit's end at the moment!”

        “But I thought it was practically criminal to look at a dress before it's completed!”

        “Thankfully, dear, you've just convinced me otherwise!”

        “Ehh... yeah...”

        “Just what were you coming here for in the first place, if I may ask?”

        “Uhm...”  I opened my saddlebag and produced the second dark crystal.  “There's this stone I need enchanting and—”

        “Ah!  I can do enchanting in my sleep!  Let's consider it an even exchange, hmm?”  She practically grabbed the rock from my grasp with a pair of hooves and shoved me towards the dress.  “Please.  Be a dear and look at what I've crafted so far.  I'll be ever so grateful!”  That said, she aimed her horn and effortlessly slid the tarp off of the forbidden work of dressmaking.

        For a moment there, I thought all the lamps that were previously dormant in the Boutique had suddenly been switched on.  It took me a few seconds to realize that it was actually the shiny, alabaster material of the silken dress reflecting the meager light from all the windows around us, positively magnifying it.  The gown's upper collar was a shimmering array of ivory beads.  The sash about the middle of the dress was also studded with glittering spheres.  The hem of the skirt—obviously unfinished—was nonetheless remarkable at this stage, with several layers of laced edges accentuating the weight of the fabric.

        I suppose, as fillies go, I've never held much stock in fashion.  Like Twilight, I often had my young nose stuck in history books more than dress catalogues.  It was Moondancer who was the little princess of the foalish trio, and no doubt she would have been beside herself to see such an amazing gown propped before her.  And yet, I couldn't help but feel my breath taken away.  This work of Rarity's was something befitting royalty.  I was afraid that I'd go to sleep depressed that night after staring for so long, because nothing I'd see for the rest of that afternoon could possibly match the beauty of what stood before me.  A real critic would have written an essay about this.  All I had to say was...

        “It's beautiful.”

        “Just that?”  Rarity, as it turns out, was directly beside me.  I nearly jumped in fright.  “Simply 'beautiful'?”

        “I... Uhm...”

        “You barely looked at it for ten seconds!  Please, I implore you!”  Her body hung low to the ground, as if the aristocratic fashionista was willing to beg.  “Take your time!  Get a good look at it!  A real close look and then tell me what you think!”

        Okay then...

        Taking a deep breath, I approached the dress like a polite dancing partner.  I squinted at the thing.  I poured my eyes over the length of the skirt.  I marched in circles around it.  I stalked it like a lion hunts its prey.  I made sure that my eyes covered every silken inch until I had enough sufficient details to sputter forth.

        “It's still beautiful.”

        I briefly feared that Rarity was going to explode.

        Swiftly, I followed that up with, “I-I just realized...”  I pointed at the glittering spheres along the middle of the dress.  “These... These are all pearls?”

        “Mmmmhmmm.  Yes.  Natural as oxygen.  Straight from the river basins of Blue Valley!”  She smiled wide.  I could see the pools of her eyes quivering with each anxious heartbeat.  “Spared no expense!  I stored them for a rainy day—eheheh—as it were.  Aren't they splendid?”

        “And they're making up the collar,” I pointed out.

        “And... And-And-And—” She scampered around and stood next to me as she pointed out the many layers of the skirt.  “And there're more to be applied!  Each of the final three seams shall be accentuated with them!  That makes a total of five layers of pearls!”

        “That's... That's bold...” I nodded, rubbing a hoof along my chin.  “Extravagant, yes.  But... It just shouts confidence and beauty... a natural beauty.”

        “Yes!  Yes!  Heehee—Ahem.”  She calmed herself and spoke in a duller voice.  “Remind you of anypony?”

        I blinked.  I looked at her, then at the dress.  “Uhm... Wouldn't you have put more blue gems into the design if you meant it to represent—?”

        “Hmmm?”  She squinted awkwardly, then rolled her eyes.  “Oh, bah!”  She chuckled airily.  “I would never think to be so narcissistic!  Erm, at least not in this scenario.  Ahem.  Think harder...”

        “Uhm...”  I scratched my skull through my mane.  “Is it for Silver Seams herself to wear?  I'm... Not entirely familiar with the color of her coat.  Does it match?”

        Rarity gawked at me as if I was committing some blatant crime.  “You... You mean you don't see it?  You don't see what I've done?”

        I gazed at the dress, frantically searching for a clue.  Everything was white, brilliant, pearlescent, and magnificent.  What else was there to say?

        “Is it not the tenth of August in two days' time?” Rarity finally clued me in.

        I glanced at her.  I wracked my brain for a connection.  “August Tenth... August Tenth...”

        Rarity paced around me, orating with authority, “Not only is it when I'm expecting Miss Seams to visit, but it's none other than the birthday of the legendary Princess Platinum of Unicornia!”

        “Oh...”  I blinked.  “Oh!”  I blinked harder, the dress suddenly coming into greater focus.  “One of the three founders of Equestria!”

        “Aaaaaand...”  She leaned towards me with a proud grin.  “...the first royal family member to have united the five tribes of unicorns into solidarity!”

        I stared back at her.  Seconds ticked into breaths.  Her resounding sigh felt like a cannonball to my chest.

        “Oh, darling, do remember your roots!”  She said as she sashayed back towards the dress and pointed at the many rows of pearls.  “What was Princess Platinum's gift to the founding matriarchs of the five tribes?”

        “Uhm...”  I thought out loud, and grinned as the realization came to me.  “But of course!  She gave them pearls excavated from the long lost Sapphire Lake of Dream Valley!”

        Rarity grinned at me, like a teacher congratulating a learning foal.  “And as she gave them these pearls—the symbol of her grace and generosity—she declared a new era for unicorns, when they would invest all of their magical energies in guiding the path of the Sun and Moon for generations to come.”  She pointed at the obvious layers on the dress where the pearls would go.  “Five tribes, five layers, a whole ensemble of beauty, grace, and promise.”  She stood up straight and tall.  “Silver Seams is one of the most prominent members of Manehattan elite, and as all ponies know, Manehattan was formerly Neigh Amsterdam, the central capital of Old Unicornia!”

        “And she's arriving close to the birthday of Princess Platinum herself.  How old would that make the monarch anyways?”  I glanced at her with a curious grin.  “Two Thousand Years?  Her reign began almost a millennium before the fall of Luna.”

        “Don't you get it?”

        “Absolutely, Miss Rarity.  I just...”  I gulped.  “I guess my head wasn't in the right place.  But Silver Seams?”  I winked at her.  “It seems like you know your audience.  This is all... well... this is all positively dazzling!”

        “Do you really think so?!”  Rarity almost giggled like a foal, but once more covered it with an air of restraint. “Ahem—But I did not ask for your observation to simply gush over my own labors.  Tell me, do you think the message is too obvious, now that you know the appropriate angle and all?”

        “Rarity, it seems to me that you put a lot of thought and effort into this work.  Not only do I think that the message will hit Silver Seams close to home, but I think it will impress her greatly that you were capable of thinking of something so fantastic on such short notice.”

        “Yes, funny that you should say that.  I only had a week to work on it.”  She gulped and gazed at the dress with a rediscovered pensiveness.  “Still, it's not been enough.  I have so little time left, and so many pearls to apply.  I fear as though I've embellished too much on the front half of the dress as it is.  I don't know what I'd do with myself if I ran out halfway through the last layer.”

        “Surely you've taken the right measurements...”

        “Hmmm.  Yes.  But I won't know how much to apply until the dress has been worn, so that the fabric has been truly flexed to allow for a proper estimate...” Her words trailed off as she attempted to think up a solution halfway through uttering them.

        “Have you tried it on yourself?” I asked.  “The dress that is.”

        “Hmmmph!  Don't be so absurd!  A proper dressmaker could never do her work while wearing it—” She stopped.  She looked at me.

        I looked back.  “Uhm... What are you...?”  I felt my cheeks burning suddenly.  “Oh no.  Seriously, Miss Rarity.  There's no way I could do that.”

        Thirty minutes later, I was doing that.

        The sound stone was resting atop the metal stand before the window, glowing slowly with enchantment while Rarity focused on another “magical” situation altogether.  I stood atop the stage as she trotted and hovered all around me, forcing my limbs apart so as to get proper access to all the layers of the dress she had left to apply the pearls.

        “You have no idea what this means to me, Miss... Heartstrings, was it?”


        “Erm—Yes.  My apologies.  It's simply horrible to get a mare's name wrong.”

        “I wouldn’t be offended.”  I tried to breathe evenly.  “Trust me.”

        “I'm just so beside myself right now!”  She giggled nervously before proceeding with the task, her eyes squinting earnestly from behind her spectacles.  “If you hadn't come out of the blue—unlocked door and all—I'd be at a loss for time!  Oh, thank Celestia!  I swear, you're like a guardian angel!”

        “An... angel?”  I gazed off towards the windows.  I thought of Morning Dew.  A warm toastiness spread through me that made the awkward situation instantly bearable.  I imagined wearing this fabulous dress for another occasion altogether, and I couldn't help but smile and sigh.  “Generous ponies are as generous ponies do.”

        “Hmmm...”  Rarity smiled as she floated needle and thread between us, fastening the pearls one at a time to the seams of the skirt.  “Some of the things that you say, Miss Heartstrings: they're quite poignant.  I'm tempted to ask if you've heard more about me than my gifts in sewing and enchanting.”

        “Oh.  Uhm.  Not much more than... er... they say around town.”

        “Yes?”  Rarity paced around me and squinted hard at her work.  “And just what do they say about me around town?”

        I bit my lip.  There are times when it's not so bad being backed up into a wall.  I'd have expected not to be wearing a fragile, expensive dress at such moments.  “Well, ponies say that you're a good seamstress and very dedicated to your work.”

        “Oh.”  Her voice had a dead tone to it.  She threaded the needle with far less enthusiasm, suddenly.  “Is that all?  Why am I not surprised...”

        “B-but I'm not exactly from around here!” I tried to make up for it.

        “Visiting from Las Pegasus, right?”

        Was that what I said?  Dear Celestia, I should have been better at this.  “I'm sure that if I had stayed around here longer, I would have heard more about you.  But, honestly, I try not to stake too much claim in gossip.”  That, at least, was true.  I relaxed with a gentle breath and allowed her more room to work around me.  “Besides, being popular has never exactly been my schtick.”  I gulped.  “Especially as of late.”

        “And why would you say such a thing, darling?” Rarity's voice became melodic once more.  My attention was instantly grabbed.  “You're a pretty, elegant, intelligent young mare—if I may be so bold.  I'm sure you're the object of stallions' desire and the target of fillies' envy wherever you go!”

        I chuckled at that.  “I think your friends' tendency to placate has rubbed off on you, Miss Rarity.”

        “Oh please!  A good compliment is just like any other gift!  Why shoot it down so?”

        “I'm...” I fidgeted.  “I'm sorry.”

        “And none of that!  There's a thing to be said about excessive humility.  But, just like with my good friend Fluttershy, it can be a tad bit grating at times.”

        “Do you lavish this 'Fluttershy' with compliments as well?”

        Rarity's lips curved.  “As I do with all kindly ponies who deserve it.”

        “All I've done is help you with your dress.”

        “Oh, but it's more than that.”

        “Like what?”

        “Why, the little things, darling.  Such as you asking for me by name when you first marched in here.”

        I stared down at her.  “You... You really appreciate that, huh?”

        “Oh, don't let me get started!”  She briefly paused in sewing to roll her gorgeous blue eyes.  “If I had a shiny red apple for each time a pony marched in under that doorbell and failed to recognize me or my lifelong work, I swear, I would put Sweet Apple Acres out of business with my bounty!  Hmph!”  She smiled.  “That's why I'm so proud to have had a perfect stranger like you come in asking to see me, even if I was... erm... h-hardly welcoming when you first entered.  Eh heh heh...”

        I was gazing off towards the corner of the place.  I've never liked thinking about it, but for a solid year I've always been the first pony to say my own name in a given situation.  I'm not sure a year’s worth of journal entries is enough to explain just what that feels like.  There are times when—I swear—I forget I was ever once called “Lyra.”  Those are dismal gray mornings, waking up to my own fears and regrets, the casual detritus of an indefinable curse.

        “It's a wonderful thing to be recognized,” I found myself saying out loud.  “But that's as far as I could ever hope to dream.  I like my name.  I just wouldn't care for it being waved around like a flag.”

        “Are you afraid of the spotlight, dear?”

        “The what?”

        “The spotlight.”  She smiled at me while a few glittering pins floated before her.  “It is my belief that we're destined to experience it at some point or another, whether we ask for it or not.  I've endeavored all my life to be prepared for it.”

        “You say that as if being popular was what a pony was made for.”

        “Isn't it?”

        “I...”  I chewed on my lip briefly.  “Maybe once I believed that.  Nowadays, though...”  I felt a wave of cold, but did my best not to shiver while wearing Rarity's unfinished masterpiece.  “It's my hope that when my time on this world is done, I'll leave everything behind while remaining perfectly content with myself.”

        “Good heavens,” she almost grunted.  “That's remarkably grim, don't you think?”

        “I-I like to think it's an affirmative perspective.”  I gave her a reassuring smile.  “I at least believe that it's possible to end things happily.  Just how does popularity fill that niche?”

        “Well, I can't presume to lecture a pony on philosophy,” Rarity sewed another pearl in and paused altogether, her eyes swimming in the alabaster fabric of the half-finished dress before her.  “But I firmly believe that a pony's essence is not only defined by her notoriety—it is, in fact, improved by it.  It's not half as shallow as many are prone to think, though I don't blame them.  It all deals with what we are, and what we were made to be.”

        I admit: that definitely got my attention.  I gazed earnestly at her.  “Oh really?”

        “Mmmhmm...” She stood before me and rested on her hind legs with a tranquil grin.  “Being popular means more than having fame or fortune or good standing with the citizenry of ponydom.”  She fluffed her mane elegantly with her hoof, all the while casting a glance towards the sound stone being enchanted across from us.  “Ponies, after all, are social things, finely crafted jewels of Creation that are all meant to shine together.  When a strange pony walks into my store and has the good grace to know my name, a part of me feels reborn.  It means that something that I've done, something that I've contributed to the canvas of this world has captured their attention, and our hearts have been connected.”  She gazed back at me, and her face was as bright as the painting she was attempting to illustrate in my mind's eye.  “We are all artists deep down, Miss Heartstrings, every single one of us, and we make our mark on this world with the brushstrokes of our indomitable spirits.  I have only ever sought to paint a masterpiece that can inspire others, for why else do we exist than to do so remarkably?”

        As she spoke, the haunting chords of the eighth elegy were returning to my mind.  But instead of drowning her out, they were highlighting every word that came out of her mouth, as if she had been designated the lunar instrumental's choir since the dawn of time.  I remembered ever so briefly what it meant to compose music before the curse drowned me.  Making music was something to be shared, along with every glorious facet of existence.

        No, I could never judge Rarity for wanting to be bigger than life itself.  A generous soul deserves to rest on the highest pedestal.  How else was she to shower the rest of the world with gifts?  Like the gift she was giving me right then, a most precious gift that would be done with far sooner than I had the desire to believe, only the good wisdom to expect.

        “I wish I could be as remarkable as you, Miss Rarity,” I solemnly said, though my smile was joyful.  “But, I think some of us were born to shine, and others simply to twinkle.”

        I don't know if she understood what I said, but her coy wink told me that there was something else I hadn't gathered until then.  “That's the biggest misconception about popularity, darling.  It is not a competition.  Much rather, I like to see it as a marathon.”  She trotted back over to my side and resumed work on the gown's skirt.  “One of these days, Miss Heartstrings, you are going to break into a full gallop, and I sincerely envy the ponies who will be there to witness your shining moment in the spotlight.”

        Rarity's words filled my mind, generating an awe that was as numbing as it was felicitous to my spirit.  It was distracting to the point that I couldn't focus on the eighth elegy.  As a matter of fact, I lost track of time, so that I hadn't counted the days between helping her with the dress and returning to the Boutique with the third stone.

        All I could think about was making her day, hopefully in some fraction of the manner in which she had once made mine.  So when I stepped through the door and heard the ringing bell announcing my entrance, I immediately chirped forth into the domain of fabric and sparkles, “Hello, Miss Rarity?  My name's Lyra Heartstrings, and I heard lots about you.  So long as you're not busy with something at the moment, I was wondering if I could borrow your infamous talents in enchanting this gemstone that I've—”

        I froze in my tracks.

        A tall, brown-coated mare with a gray mane stared haughtily down at me over the crest of her thick-framed, dark spectacles.  She was dressed in a black blouse and matching slacks with room for her flaring tail to poke through.  Nothing about her straight-laced outfit succeeded in hiding the thin and rigid frame that encompassed her being.

        “Huh...” I blinked.

        “Hmmm...” Was all she uttered at first.  Her eyes narrowed on me.  When she next spoke, I wasn't entirely sure whom she was addressing until I heard scampering hooves in the distance.  “A regular of yours, I gather?”

        “Oh!  Uhm... Eheheh!”  Rarity—a frazzled and sweating mess—dashed over between me and this angular stranger.  “It's the middle of the day!  I'm bound to have clientele visiting as they see fit!”

        “I could have sworn that you were going to close regular business for my visit...”

        “Ah!  Yes!  Hah!  Funny, I did say that, didn't I?!”  Rarity spun to face her, all but bowing to kiss the deadpan mare's hooves.  “Heheheh—Absent mind of a genius!  Our words go places but our hooves seldom follow them!”  She turned to face me.  “Uhm... Can I help you?  Erm—that is to say—”  She shook her head, blurredly, then exclaimed, “I would ever so like to help you, but at the moment I'm afraid that I am predisposed.  Still, if you leave a brief description of what it is that you require, I am certain to leave for myself a detailed note so that I can properly serve you first thing tomorrow morning, as I am prompt and diligent to pay heed to all of my loyal, well-paying customers!  Eheheheh...”

        “Uhm...”  I glanced forlornly at the mare standing behind her, above us, like a grand looming shadow.  “It... It's not important,” I eventually murmured, backing out of the store with my saddlebag and shivers.  “Really.  I can come another time.”

        “Oh, but please!  Let me know what it is that you want so that I can help you tomorrow!” Rarity's pleading eyes briefly broke the walls of sheer panic.  “Yes, I'm closed for business, but I would hate myself for sending away a pony in need without finding a way to get back to her...”

        “Undoubtedly she's in need of new winter wear,” the mare said, and my attention was drawn to her bored gaze being aimed at my hoodie.  “Or else a severe alteration.”  She glanced lethargically at Rarity.  “From what Mr. Toity said, I had assumed all of your fellow residents wore the Canterlot line you sewed for him a year ago.”

        Rarity gulped, then glanced aside at me.  “Well, yes.  I do seem to... erm... have quite the following in Canterlot.  Hereabouts, however... erm...”  She gnawed briefly on her hoof and tried to cover it with a smile.  “Well, this is farm country, Miss Seams.  And you know how earth ponies are.  They rely a great deal on hoof-me-downs...”

        “And your establishment...”  Silver Seams paced across the boutique.  “It's been here for the better part of five years?”

        “Erm.  Yes.  I graduated with a minor in business, and my mother's an entrepreneur, so—”

        “That's a long enough time to make an impact on the local fashion, wouldn't you think?”

        “Erm.  Yes.  I suppose that—”

        “Well, I came here to be thrilled.”  The first thing that resembled a smile graced Silver's lips, but even that was something of a stretch, like trying to carve a thin line out of black granite.  “So, here's your chance, Rarity dear.  Thrill me.”

        Rarity was in an entirely different world, and I was obviously not part of it.  “Oh!  Absolutely!  I have just the thing that I've been dying to show you!”  A chill ran through the room, but I already knew the real reason why I was invisible.  The young unicorn trotted eagerly over to Silver Seams' side.  After a great deal of dramatic narration over the details of Princess Platinum's legacy, Rarity yanked at a cord, and a pair of curtains unfurled, revealing the completed dress on the center stage of the Boutique in all its majesty.  Rarity went over every detail, highlighting each of the five rows of pearls with magical blue luminescence, all the while lavishing Silver's ears with the timeless tale of Unicornia's unification before joining the Equestrian herd.  “And as she gave a gift to her fellow unicorns, I present you this gift for your eyes!  Doesn't it positively shimmer with Platinum's eternal spirit?”

        “Mmmm.  Yes.  It is quite beautiful.  I can see you put a great deal of time and effort into it.”

        “Oh, absolutely!  Though, I must have been incredibly inspired, for the entire fabrication went by in a delightful blur.  I swear, it's as if the last five days flew by on wings of inspiration—!”

        “But, if you would, I'd like to be shown the floor models of your Canterlot lineup.”

        “My... C-Canterlot lineup?”

        “Yes, the ones you supplied to Hoity Toity's marvelous boutique.  He's the top supplier in the upper district, or so I've been told.”

        “Oh... Oh!  Uhm... Y-Yes!”  Rarity gulped and side-stepped away from her detailed work as I gazed from afar.  “I... I do believe I still have some of those... erm... year-old models lying around.  Give me just a moment and I'll get them properly displayed—”

        “You mean that you don't have a showcase on hoof already?  I'd imagined that your customers would like to see your finest work on a day-to-day basis.”

        “Oh, they are hardly my finest work.  Heheheh—I've sold so many of them that they are practically commonplace in the streets of Canterlot by now—”

        “Yes, yes.  And from Hoity Toity's profitable sales, I imagine that means something.  So where are they, darling?  My time here in Ponyville is short, after all.”

        “Uhm—R-Right this way, Miss Seams!  I promise you.  Eheheh—You won't be disappointedddd!”

        As the two trotted out of view, I stood forgotten as always in the shadows.  The pearlescent dress in honor of Princess Platinum shimmered brilliantly in the spotlight, but for the first time in nearly a year, I couldn't conceive of a lonelier image than what I saw right then.  I longed for the words of Rarity, but whatever could have floated across the lengths of the Boutique were instantly drowned out by Silver's absorbing presence.  I trotted slowly out of the shop.  The bell was a dull and heartless noise.  I did somepony a favor of switching the sign in the front window to “closed” on the way out.

        The next morning, I entered slowly, saying nothing.  The Boutique was open early for business and all of the lanterns hanging from the ceiling were lit.  Two things shone in the center of the shop.  One was the dress of pearls, untouched and unmoved from where I had last seen it.  The other thing was Rarity's snow-white coat, reflecting sunlight like a precious diamond.

        Her brilliance, however, was drowned out by a dull expression as she unemotionally fiddled with a scarf that she was sewing telekinetically in front of her.  The skin was weighted under her eyes, so that I was afraid to find out what—besides sleep—had tugged at her spirit.

        Bravely, I cleared my throat, and asked, “Miss Rarity?”

        In a flash, the artist's eyes lit up at the sound of her name, as if a torch was ignited deep inside her.  Rarity turned to gaze at me, her expression bright—but blank—like an untouched canvas.  “Oh!  Why, hello.”  It was her turn to clear her throat.  She straightened her legs so as to no longer appear so stooped.  “Welcome to Carousel Boutique, where every garment is chic, unique, and magnifique.”

        I smiled genuinely, hoping that it would be infectious.  It wasn't.  I nevertheless spoke, “I'm visiting from out of town—”  I paused.  I started over.  “My name's Lyra Heartstrings, and while I was visiting, I was wondering if I could pay you for some services, Miss Rarity.”

        “Hmm.  Yes.  I would be more than happy to help you,” she said, though her voice hardly matched the enthusiasm her words had meant to convey.  It's always a tragic thing when a song is sucked from a pony's throat.  “Though I must apologize in advance.  I have this scarf to finish for another client of mine, and I promised them that I would do it first thing when business hours began.”

        I glanced back at the door, then at her once again.  “You're open earlier than the sign outside says.  I couldn't help but notice that while I was strolling by for a morning walk.”

        “Well, I did not get all that much sleep last night, so I didn't see the purpose in waiting another two hours.”

        “I'm so sorry to hear that, Miss Rarity.”  I gulped and backtrotted slightly.  “If it helps, I can just come another day—”

        “No!  Absolutely not!  I forbid it!” she said with a slight growl.  Then, after blinking at herself, she sighed and ran a hoof over her forehead.  “Oh, I do apologize.  I know that sounded awfully forward of me.”

        “I've heard ponies say worse,” I said with a gentle smile.

        “I've never turned a pony away for services.  I don't want you to be the first, Miss Heartstrings.”  She took a deep breath, her gaze locked onto nothing in particular beyond the nearby window frame.  “'Heartstrings.'”  She smiled.  “Now that's a delightful name that deserves to be famous.”

        My heart skipped a beat.  At first, I thought it was because a part of me actually, foolishly thought she had remembered it.  I then realized that I was simply being overwhelmed by a sinking feeling, and every time I tried to rationalize it, all that my mind's eye could come up with was Silver Seams' dark, emotionless stare.  It's times like this when I do something impulsive and desperate to shake the stupor that's overcome me.  Perhaps it wasn't an accident that I did such a thing in Rarity's presence.

        “I heard that you got a visit yesterday,” I blurted.  “From Silver Seams, no less.”  I then attempted to rationalize what had to have been no less than a kick to the gut.  “That's one reason why I came here.”  I tried to give a playful grin.  “If Silver Seams shops at Carousel Boutique, then that must make this a place of high class!”

        My rather awkward compliment had no effect on Rarity.  I should have known better, but I was just so desperate to get her to cheer up.  I only wished she was nearly as desperate herself.  “Hmmm, the jury is still out on that, I'm afraid,” she ultimately said.

        I gulped.  “Why... uhm... Why do you say that?  I imagine a seamstress would be excited to have somepony like Silver Seams pay her a personal visit.”

        “If you can call it a visit,” she murmured aloud, struggling to fix the scarf with a sudden frustration.  “Nnngh... Oh bother, who am I kidding?”  Her lips curved slightly.  “It was a delightful encounter.  Truly, it was.  Silver Seams is an amazing mare, and she is an utterly bedazzling conversationalist.  Why, I spent two hours, mesmerized, as I heard her tell about her designing exploits in the grim streets of Stalliongrad.  A pony of her age and grandeur is remarkable.  Truly remarkable.”  Rarity's nostrils flared briefly as her eyes lost themselves in the sea of fabric she was shaping into being.  “A pony like that has truly earned her fame.”

        I fidgeted, standing behind her, like the shadow to something that once shone inside that place.  With a cheerful voice, I boldly asked, “And did you tell her anything at all about yourself?  It sounds like Silver Seams travels around a lot.  I'm sure she'd like to know more about the Ponyville scene.”

        “I'm afraid our conversation never took such a turn,” Rarity swiftly replied.  “She had to take leave for a meeting with one of her agents.  Right now, she's likely having breakfast in bed, waiting for the afternoon train to take her off to Trottingham, and onwards to another season of lavish fashion shows.  Hmmm.  I will always admire the swift pace and courageous restlessness of the working elite.  Though, I suspect, it will forever be from afar.”

        I didn't know how else to get her to say more than to utter, “I... I don't understand.”

        “What's there to understand?” she retorted coldly, so that I wondered if she was even talking to me anymore.  There was a cold tap-tap-tap of her floating needles coming into hard contact with one another, almost snapping loose the thread that she was knitting into place.  “That I set myself for yet another fall?  I only have myself to blame, of course, putting so much weight into a single moment, a single glance, a single blasted opportunity, as if the entirety of one's life is determined in a blink.  I don't know what's more foolish, the fact that I had stooped to relying on something so desperate or the fact that this wasn't my first time doing so!”

        I gulped and said, “The way I see it, it's not so much that we learn from the mistakes in life, but that we learn to encounter future mistakes with greater tenacity.”

        “Well maybe mistakes are the problem in and of themselves!” Rarity finally grunted, all but slapping the knitting materials to the floor as she flashed a very familiar dress the angriest of glances.  “Maybe genius shouldn't have room for stupid errors, or else it isn't actually genius in the first place!”

        The room was silent, save for the pistoning sounds of her enraged lungs.  Slowly, the elegant unicorn composed herself.  The voice that came out of her next was still embroiled, but collected.

        “Miss Heartstrings, whoever you are, I can only guess that you are a musician, and a talented one at that.  Am I correct?”

        I swallowed and gently nodded.  “Yes.  At least, I'm inclined to agree with you on that.  Talent, however, is relative—”

        “But it is real,” she said, her eyes briefly hot as she glared back at me.  “Or else, why would you even subscribe to that name?”

        “Er... It was the name I was born with.”

        “Was it?” she asked sharply.

        I blinked at her.  “Well, yes, for your information.”

        “And does it define you?  Does it convey to other ponies who and what you are when they say it out loud?  Does your name fill their mind with delight and joy just to think of it, because they have utmost confidence in what you mean to them, and what you provide to this beautiful world of ours?”

        I took a deep breath, and my gaze fell defeatedly toward my hooves.  “I... I couldn't say...”

        “Well, allow me to be so bold, but I hear your name, and I see your cutie mark, and I am instantly proud of you, even if I don't know who you are,” she said.  Her face was too tight to express a smile, too proud to grimace.  She continued, “Because if there's one thing I believe in, it's that we're all here for a purpose.  We're placed on this earth to shine.  Some of us do so better than others, but that's not the argument I'm trying to make.  In order to be successful, Miss Heartstrings, to be popular, to make our mark in society, two things have to happen.  We have to be sure of ourselves, and the gifts that we have.  Secondarily, we have to meet others who share that vision, so that they may properly channel the contributions we have to make in the world of expression.”  She sighed and looked towards the brilliant dress once more.  “With each passing day, I feel as though there are fewer and fewer ponies in existence who know how to properly keep those channels open.  Complacency has taken the place of creativity.  At least, I hope that's the case, as horrible as that may sound.  Because if I'm wrong, and it's all just me...”  Rarity's breath came out ragged.  She ran a hoof over her face, muffling her next utterance.  “Then, dear Celestia, how far have I fallen...?”

        I pretended to follow her gaze, just so that I could have an excuse to make mention of the beautiful masterpiece in the room.  “I have to say, though.  I can't stop staring at that gown since I walked in here.  Did you get a chance to show it to Silver Seams while she was around?”

        For a moment, Rarity was without words.

        So I continued.  “I think it's absolutely gorgeous.  But, it's more than that.”  I opened my mouth to continue, but a very tender part of me hesitated.  The moment was too thin.  After a quiet struggle I dared to say it anyways.  “Funny that you would choose a pearl motif, considering it's a day after the anniversary of the legendary Princess Platinum's birth.”

        Rarity immediately flashed me a glance, one that was frozen for a few pale seconds.  Her face broke into something that was halfway between a chuckle and a sob.  I was briefly mortified to hear her sniffle.  Soon, however, she composed herself in time to smile and murmur, “You really do live up to your name, Miss Heartstrings.  I only wonder where your sentiment was yesterday, when the legacy of Unicornia utterly failed me.”

        I bit my lip.  “I'm starting to wonder too.”

        “To think, she carries the name 'Silver' like it's a copyright, and yet she dares to dress all in black.”

        “I'm sorry?”

        Rarity looked at me.  “I'm guessing one of my friends directed you here, or one of the more high-standing members of Ponyville?  Hmmm?”

        “I-I came here only to do business!  I promise.”  It was the truth.  Most of it, at least.  “I think you're more famous around town than you give yourself credit for, Miss Rarity.”

        “Correction, darling.  I'm a utility.”

        “You're what-now?”

        “A household name,” she said with a smile that obscured the layers of disappointment pouring out of her gaze.  “A common noun.  I'm the local seamstress that a pony sends a friend to when they need a seam realigned or a hem fixed or a cuff mended.  Undoubtedly they say my name a lot, just like anypony in Equestria would say 'Silver Seams.'  But do they think twice about it?  Do they have the vision—the innate desire—to look even further, in expectation that there are ponies that bury treasure deeply enough to reward souls who look for it?  I'll have you know that I wasn't born with the name that you've heard villagers call me by.  I wasn't always Rarity.”

        I blinked.  I hadn't expected that at all.  “You weren't?”

        “No, darling,” she shook her head slowly.  “As a matter of fact, I was born under the name 'Sapphire Sight.'  I come from a long family of jewelcrafters and enchanters.  It's only fitting that they expected me to fall in line with what is undeniably a biological tradition.  Sure enough, the day I discovered my cutie mark, it was in the act of finding a miraculous repository of natural gemstones.  But while my talent may have been determined by fate, I had no intention whatsoever of letting it determine my lot in life.  My horn owed its talent to precious rocks, but my heart belonged to my dreams and what future they could provide me.  That's why—at a very young age, even before finishing elementary school—I changed my name to 'Rarity'.”

        “Why?” I asked her.  “Why 'Rarity?'”

        She stared deeply at me as she said, “Because I wanted a name that I could live up to.”  She looked sadly at the dress.  “And, furthermore—with time and effort—to surpass.  I wanted to be special.  I wanted to be famous.  I wanted to be the pony that everypony would know, not just for the sound that her name entailed, but for the hidden and deeper meanings held within, like a multi-layered diamond would offer.  Precious rocks aren't meant to be just mined.  They exist to be put on display, to fill the world with glittering wonder because—after all—there are things born in this world that are granted the gift to see and admire that which stands out among us.  Long ago, I stopped being 'Sapphire Sight,' and chose to be 'Rarity.'  How else was I to aspire to greatness?  What other choice did I have?  Would I follow the hoofsteps of my family and remain a mere blemish in their shadow?  The most I would ever accomplish was being a grain of salt in the steep well of tradition, or else a mere cog in some unimaginative industry.”

        “Industry?” I remarked, an eyebrow raised.

        “That is what everything becomes, sadly,” Rarity murmured.  “Given enough time.  Given enough ritual.  You go through the motions until the motions become you, and then what is life beyond the utter necessity of the mechanization?  Yesterday, I had an entire afternoon to look into the eyes of Silver Seams, to hear her voice, to bask in her aura.  And when the whole encounter was said and done, and after I had finished digesting all of her words for whatever palatable merit there was left to savor, I realized that I could have gotten as much of a catharsis from a machine.  And do you know why?  Because Silver Seams has become part of the industry, a process born from art yet blind to it.  She was once an aspiring daredevil of Manehattan couture.  Today, she's an old and jaded mare who designs with her hooves, but they're no longer attached to her heart and soul.  All that matters is the profit behind the process, something that is measured in money and not in magic.  I would almost feel sorry for her... if it wasn't for one thing...”

        “Yes?”  I leaned forward, curious.  “What's that?”

        Rarity gulped hard.  She seemed to be dealing with her own brand of shivers by the time she eventually said, “That she's the one mare in Equestria who has it right.  That everything today is nothing but industry, for what is commonplace is not only accepted, but worshipped on high, because everypony is afraid to think, to challenge, to find things that are new... that are special... that are rare.”  She exhaled long and hard.  “And all awhile, I'm wasting my time looking for ways to stand out, saving all of my pearls to make one beautiful dress when I should be making dozens that will earn me a proper spot, even if it is just another part of some grand, bland machine.”

        I was listening to her, but somepony's words were rising to the surface, and that pony was me.  I thought of my journal entries—so many identical to this one that I'm writing right now.  If I wasn't writing for myself, what kind of exposure could I actually hope to achieve, assuming that a pony had the blessed sight to see what I had enscribed?  Would it be a deep and thoughtful critique, or an errant flip through the pages before those same hooves tossed the text back into a dusty pile of all of yesterday's tragedies?  Even a song can move a soul only so far ahead until a different tune shoves that spirit in the other direction like a gale force wind.  How, then, does a pony build a proper sail to navigate the storms of this saturated world?

        “Maybe...” I spoke.  “Maybe... you're still just waiting for proper exposure.”  I glanced up at her.  “It's a long wait, sure, but that doesn't mean it won't come to you, Miss Rarity.  Perhaps the day will come when you will rise up—like Silver Seams has—only you won't settle for being commonplace.  You won't make the same mistakes she did.”

        “Hmmm... Mistakes?”  Rarity smiled.  “Miss Seams has achieved everything I've ever wished I could, and did she get there by making mistakes?  If that's true, then I obviously need to make such transgressions myself.”  She took a deep breath.  “But I have never, ever worked that way.  Nor would I wish to.”

        I said, “I'm guessing life is cruel to perfectionists.”

        “I've never blamed life for the world's cruelty,” Rarity muttered.  “Only ignorance.”  She smiled painfully my way.  “And I would hate to be such a transgressor, especially before a mercifully patient and gracious mare such as yourself.  Please, do forgive my self-absorbed ramblings, Miss Heartstrings, and tell me how I may be of service to you today.”

        My heart immediately fell down to the bottommost part of my gut.  “Oh.  Oh... Uhm...”  My saddlebag weighed as though it was full of cemetery gravestones.  “You know what?  We had a delightful conversation.  I think I got exactly what I needed from this visit—”

        “Come now, do not let my passionate goings-ons frighten you away, dear,” she said softly.  “My best friends have occasionally labeled me a 'drama queen,' and they would more than occasionally be correct.  Please, tell me what you came here for.  You have my full and undivided attention.  You've earned it.”

        I gulped, shifting guiltily like a young colt who had just killed a bird with a slingshot.  I fiddled telekinetically with my saddlebag and avoided her gaze as I stammered forth, “I came here... I-I came here because... uhm... I heard that you were good with enchanting gemstones.”  I should have given her the last two stones.  Instead, something sincere inside me only produced one.  “And I very desperately need to have this imbued with magic once again.  I.... uhm... I've been told that you're the best in town.  I didn't want to settle for less.”

        Rarity's response was a sincere breath and a nod of her head.  “Nopony should ever settle for less, darling.”

        I immediately winced.  “But.  But you're busy with the scarf and I'm sure you've got other dresses to make and—”

        “Miss Heartstrings.”

        “I'll understand if you're just not up to it—”

        “Miss Heartstrings.”  She grabbed the rock with a forced charge of telekinesis.  Standing up straight, she gave me a placid grin as she trotted towards the necessary equipment beside the window.  “Enchanting gemstones is just one of many ways I make a living.  Ever since I came to Ponyville, I've done just that—living.  But that doesn't mean I can't do it gracefully, and proudly.  Please, let me be of service to you.”

        I reached a hoof towards her from afar, but it was as if she was slipping away from me.  What broke my heart was that I realized she had no other place to slip away to.  This was her home as much as it was mine.  She was as much a prisoner, and yet she wasn't cursed.  Or was she?

        Just what pony isn't cursed, come to think of it?  I hadn't put that much philosophical thought into the idea until then, until I saw Rarity going through the motions, being reborn as “Sapphire Sight,” setting the lens up before the window and capturing the sunlight like a piston would be powered by steam.  In the end, I would give her three golden bits and she would give me a smile, but I suddenly no longer knew which was more jaded.

        Once I had left Rarity's presence, she would forget that I ever existed.  But she would not forget her troubles.  Her concerns were as real as oxygen, and she depended on them just as desperately.  What place was it of mine to try and convince her otherwise, even if I had the power to do so?  Fame means nothing to me, but that is simply my curse.  How much worse is it to have an opportunity that is never realized, though the potential is always there?

        Was she making a mountain out of a molehill?  Did society think of her as just any other contributing part of the machine, assuming it thought of her at all?  I wondered if there was any pony qualified to do proper, unbiased research on a soul's notoriety, and then I realized that such a proper pony was me.

        “Rarity?  Yeah, I know her.  She's the pony who operates the carousel besides the Ponyville fairgrounds, right?  Wait—Huh?  You mean to tell me it's not an actual carousel?  Yeesh.  What's with all the flippin' tents around that side of town, then?”

        “Hmmm... Miss Rarity... Miss Rarity...  Oh!  I remember her!  White coat?  Bluish mane?  I listened to her perform once at a dance party in Town Hall last Summer Sun Celebration.  What's her call sign again?  DJ-P0N3?

        “She's a tailor, right?  She puts together dresses and stuff?  Or is that the unicorn with the streak in her hair?  Whatever.  One of them lives in a tree.  Can I go now?  I'm late for a lunch in downtown.”

        “I vaguely remember something about a unicorn who nearly died at the Best Young Fliers Competition in Cloudsdale.  Hey, did you hear what our neighborhood weather flier Rainbow Dash did on that day?  She produced a brilliant sonic rainboom—right in front of Princess Celestia!  Swooosh!  Kablaam!  Yeah!  She saved—like—three entire members of the Wonderbolts at the same time too!  Talk about your fifteen minutes of awesome!  Heh!”

        “Isn't that the mare who sounds like a vampire and visits Aloe and Lotus' Day Spa twice a week?”

        “Why, I go to Carousel Boutique all the time!  You're telling me that she owns the place?  My goodness, I always thought she was just an intern.  I mean, what unicorn at that young age doesn't inherit a business like that?  Do you get what I'm saying?”

        “I know that there's a white unicorn who's one of the rumored Elements of Harmony.  Y'know—cuz supposedly the Elements are no longer sacred objects like in olden times, but they've instead been fused with the spirits of living ponies.  All I know is that one of them is Loyalty and she's a white unicorn.  Or maybe it was the Element of Beauty.  Hmmm... Why're you asking me this again?”

        “Scram, lady.  I'm trying to eat my sandwich here.”

        “Come to think of it, we had a fashion show here in Ponyville once.  It was almost a year ago.  Some fancy schmancy art critic from Canterlot came for the whole event.  Wouldn't you know it?  It was all just some practical joke on the poor schmuck.  It had to have been!  The dresses that were on display were gaudy as all get-out!  I swear, I've never seen a posh know-it-all get so engraged.  Heh—Wait, what?  Why does this come to mind?  Cuz the whole dang prank was this 'Rarity's' idea, wasn't it?  I mean, that's why you're asking around about her, right?  It's about time karma caught up with the mare.”

        “Ew—like—why would I go shopping at some overpriced hole-in-the-wall place on the far east side of town?  I totally—like—do all my shopping at Rich's Threads.  After all, that's where all the popular fillies go.  Leave Carousel Boutique to the upstart snobs who run the place!”

        “How dare you!”

        I glanced over from where I stood inside Sugarcube Corner, interviewing a pair of young mares with pastel, permed manes.  The two gazed in the same direction, looking bored beyond all measure.

        The author of the last exclamation immediately wilted upon our combined glance.  “Uhm... Not that I have anything against you as ponies... but...”  Fluttershy took a deep breath and summoned the same frown that had empowered her voice just seconds go.  “But Rarity is not an upstart snob!  She's a talented pony with a gift for making beautiful dresses and she most definitely does not overcharge her customers!  What's more, she's my friend, and she deserves more respect than that!”

        “Heh... Schyeaaah...” One of the fillies rolled her painted eyes.  “So—like—if that was true, then how come I never knew her name until now?”

        “Yeah...”  The other joined in, glaring Fluttershy's way.  “If she's so great, shouldn't she be hanging out in Trottingham and not hickville-central?”

        “Only figures you're defending her cuz you're her friend.”  The first one scoffed once more.  “Heh—Lemme guess.  She totally gives you discounts just to say nice things about her.”

        “I... I...”  Fluttershy's blue eyes quivered.  “That's not true!  Rarity—” She gulped.  “She just—”

        “Heh.  Just what I thought.”  The two fillies marched off, their bright tails swishing in unison.  “Come on, let's ditch these lame-o's.  The smoothies totally stink here anyways.”

        “Like—omigoddess—I was about to say the same exact thing!”

        “No way!  We should sooooo take notes about it!”

        The two left, along with their perfume.  I glanced crookedly at their absence, cleared my throat, and pivoted slowly to face Fluttershy.  “So... You say that Rarity is a talented pony and deserves respect?”

        “Mmmm...” Fluttershy was obviously still reeling from the duo's heartless words.  She hid behind a satiny lock of pink hair and turned to walk towards the far end of the semi-crowded eatery.  “Never mind.  Forget I said anything.  It was rude of me to have interrupted.”

        “But what if I wanted to hear more of what you had to say?”

        She merely walked away, slowly, like a rain drop sliding downhill.

        I shrugged, adjusting the sleeves of my hoodie.  “Oh well, then.  I guess I've learned all I needed to know about that upstart snob at the Carousel Boutique.”

        “Nnnnngh—” I saw the tiniest hint of gnashing teeth, and soon she was aiming an angelic frown at me once more.  “You take that back right now!”  A blink, a fluttering of her lashes, then a deep blush:  “Erm... if you don't mind, that is...”

        I smiled her way.  “So now you want to defend her again?”

        “I...”  She shuddered and brushed away a few bright bangs from before her blue eyes.  “I never thought that I would have to.  Rarity has always had a good reputation.  At least I've always thought so.”  She glanced up at me, and the smile that came from her was as soft and gentle as her voice, and twice as sincere.  “Just like anypony, you have to get to know her to understand her.  She's the most generous, elegant, thoughtful, and giving mare that I know.”

        “The question that's on my mind...”  I leaned against a counter of glass-cased desserts as I gazed at Fluttershy.  “Is whether or not Rarity is satisfied with that?”

        “Uhm... Satisfied with what?”

        “With somepony having to get to know her before she can understand her.  Rarity's an artist, yes?”

        “Oh.  Most definitely...”

        “You say that just because you're her friend—?”

        “N-no!” Fluttershy exclaimed, her wings flexing in time with her exhalation.  “Her works speak for themselves!  She's designed hundreds of dresses for all kinds of ponies, from local celebrities to visiting diplomats to close acquaintances!

        “So then...”  I glanced towards the exit through which our two “companions” had just exited.  “How is it that most ponies I ask know very little about her?”

        Fluttershy chewed on her bottom lip and looked away shamefully.

        I gave her a curious glance.  “Have I struck a bad chord?  I'm a musician.  So be honest with me, cuz I really hate doing that.”

        “Why... do you want to know so much about her?” Fluttershy gulped.  “About my dear friend Rarity?”

        I scratched my neck and weathered a wave of chills.  “What's your name?” I asked just to hear her say it herself.

        “Um... Fl-Fluttershy.”

        “Do you know your mother's name?”

        “Erm.  Yes.  Why is that important?”

        “Humor me, if you will.”

        “My mom's name is Windflicker.  She was born in Stratopolis.”

        “And your grandmother's name.  What about hers?”

        “Fluttersky.  I was... m-more or less named after her.”

        “Her mother had a name too, yes?  Your great grandmother?”

        “Uhm...”  Fluttershy had to think about that for a second.  “Silvercloud... I think.  Oh dear, I feel terrible for not remembering immediately...”

        “And...” I leaned forward slightly.  “What of your great-great grandmother?  Do you know her name?”

        Fluttershy drew a blank.  Her cheeks were rosy as she fidgeted before the unexpected inquisition.

        “If you must know, I don't remember my great-great grandmother's name either,” I murmured.  Then gulped.  “Nor do I recall my great grandmother's.  So you're one point above me, Miss Fluttershy, if it's of any consolation.”

        “What... uhm... What are you attempting to prove with this?”

        “Rarity is here.  Unlike your ancestors and mine, she's alive.  She lives among us, barely a few walls away from where other ponies dwell.  Why is it that so few of them know her name, even when she does so much to establish a reputation for herself?”  I adjusted the collar of my hoodie and murmured towards the walls.  “And just how many generations will it take to forget she ever had a name to begin with?”

        “To be honest, I've never thought of it in that detail.”

        I nodded slowly.  “Neither have I.  Not until lately.  I have long... taken such things for granted.  Now I can't afford to do anything but obsess over it.  Only, I believe, Miss Rarity has made it the focus of her whole entire life, and just what has it earned her?”

        “You obviously care about her to have analyzed the matter this much,” Fluttershy said woefully.  “I only wish I was as considerate.”

        I gave her a curious glance.  “Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't you her friend?  What could make you think that way about yourself?”

        “Because...” Fluttershy struggled to push the words out.  “Because when I should have been there for her in the past, I failed.  And I wasn't the only one.  All the ponies she depended on failed her as well.”

        “I don't see how that could be.”

        “It's true,” Fluttershy murmured. “For this year’s Grand Galloping Gala, Rarity and myself and five others were all invited to attend the royal ceremony.  In honor of the occasion, Rarity took it upon herself to make us all dresses, free of charge.  I've never seen a pony do something so generous before or since.  But after she had put so much time and effort into the gowns, we... uhm... we didn't show any gratitude.”


        “Mmmm... no.”  She guiltily shook her head.  “Not at first, at least.  We had our own ideas of what our gowns should have looked like.  Any self-respecting seamstress would have quit on us all right there and then.  But not Rarity.  Her desire to make us happy was bigger than her desire to express herself, which she had every right to do.  She sewed the dresses we wanted to have made, but they were simply horrible.  We were just too blind and selfish to realize it.  And then... mmnngh...”  She winced as if a wave of nausea was passing through her frail body.  “There was this fashion show, and those terrible dresses were put on display for the likes of Canterlot's own Hoity Toity.  It was Rarity's one chance for the spotlight, a moment she had always dreamed of, and we had ruined it for her.”

        “That...”  I bit my lip and helplessly nodded.  “That sounds horrible.”

        “It was.  She was devastated.  But we all tried to make it up for her.  We finished the dress that she was making for herself to wear at the Gala.  Then, after grabbing Hoity Toity's attention, we were able to perform a second fashion show—a private one—and he got to see all of Rarity's marvelous designs for the first time.  He was impressed, and he ended up paying her a great deal to have her line of fashion sold in his boutique at Canterlot.”

        “Huh...”  I smiled warmly.  “Well, there ya go.  Friends to the end.  Sounds like you paid her back proper.”

        “Paid her back?”  Fluttershy gave me a sad, wilted expression.  “Oh, if only that were true.  Don't you see?  The damage was done.  Even if Hoity Toity was impressed, did that really mean anything for Rarity's fashion career?”  She gulped hard and shut her eyes shamefully.  “Yes, she earned a lot of bits from the private show.  But what had happened in town ruined any chance she had of coming public in this part of Equestria.  She's sold hundreds of dresses in her line of work throughout Canterlot, but right here—in her home—where her reputation matters the most, she's had her chance to be in the spotlight... and it's gone.  Gone forever.”

        I stared around the lengths of Sugarcube Corner, entrenched in thought.  Finally, I couldn't help but ask, “Then why does she stay here, if her opportunity had come and gone for her elsewhere?”

        “I wish I knew.  I'm only glad that she's around because she's my friend and it fills me with joy to be in her presence.”  Fluttershy smiled painfully.  “Especially since it wouldn't be the last time we... erm, that is I put a dent in her dreams.”

        “How... H-how so?”

        “Something like that happened again,” Fluttershy once more avoided my gaze.  “A famous photographer named Photo Finish came to town.  Rarity had an opportunity to show off her fashion, and she needed a model.  She chose me.  I was so honored, but then something unexpected happened.  Photo Finish focused entirely on me.  She paid no attention to Rarity's beautiful outfits whatsoever.  It was because of Rarity that any attention was paid to me in the first place.  I wasn't a huge fan of it, and it didn't last for long, but I was somewhat famous in modeling for a while.”

        “And in all that time, Rarity didn't receive an ounce of fame...”

        Fluttershy's voice was shaking somewhat as she spoke, “All that sweet mare wants to do in life is make her name known.  She wants to make beautiful things and have other ponies share in it.  And at least twice already, fame has passed her over.  You can even say three times, if you count her connections with Princess Celestia's star pupil.”

        “Twilight Sparkle...”

        “That's a name that is bound to go down in history,” Fluttershy remarked.  “And I know Twilight.  Just like myself, fame is not important to her, and to Rarity—our mutual friend—it means everything.  And she has given everything, over and over again, with a generous heart that amazes me each and every day.”

        I took a deep breath and laid a gentle hoof on Fluttershy's shoulder.  “I envy you, in a lot of ways.”

        “Me?”  Fluttershy blinked awkwardly.  “Why?”

        I smiled.  “Because you're close friends with a living fountain of blessings such as Rarity.”

        “I know that.  But then there's one thing that I can't understand.”  She entreated me with soft eyes, as if begging for an answer to an impossible question.  “Why is it, in this world, that a fountain of blessings seems to be so terribly cursed?”

        I didn't know either.

        But I was almost willing to ask Rarity herself.

        “Hello,” I spoke under the resonating tone of the Carousel Boutique's entrance bell the next day.  “My name's Lyra Heartstrings, and I was wondering...”  I froze in place, blinking, as several flailing bits of fabric flew past me like silken comets.  “Uhm... Is something wrong?”

        “Oh, what ever could be wrong?!”  Rarity grumbled.  She was a purple-capped volcano waiting to burst, or else she had burst several hours ago.  Her voice was as hot as her bloodshot eyes as she fiercely rummaged through the messy sea of sewing materials that the center of the Boutique had become.  “Could it be wrong that I don't have the lace I need to finish a dress order that I should have tackled a week ago?!  Could it be wrong that I've put my trivial problems ahead of everything else in life, such as my duty to my clients?  Could it be that I swore I bought some yellow lace just three days ago, and now it seems to have grown hooves and galloped away?!”

        “Er...”  I gulped nervously and stood still as an iceberg as she darted all around me.  “Would you... Would you like some help with—?”

        “With what?!  I put myself into this situation!  I should be the one to pull myself out of it!  As if I haven't allowed myself enough distractions already.”  She paused briefly, knee-deep in a hill of fabric, to sigh and groan my way.  “Ma'am, I am exceedingly sorry for this immature show I seem to be putting on, but I'm afraid you've caught me at a bad time.  I'm behind with several projects, and though I'm willing to take orders, I doubt very much that I can make my services available to you anytime soon.”

        “And I c-completely understand!” I said, shoving a smile past my chills in an attempt to solace her.  “I just heard about your work around town, Rarity, and I wanted to see—”

        “Oh!  I'm surprised the local gossip had a breath to spare about me!”  She smiled bitterly as she dug through another messy mountain of unkempt materials.  “They do seem to be all too eagerly enthralled in covering every inch that the genius hooves of Silver Seams have covered!”

        “Silver Seams?”  I leaned precariously on the edge of multiple responses, before deciding to play blissful ignorance.  “You mean to say that she was here?  In Ponyville?”

        I had forgotten how much Rarity hated ignorance.  “Hah!  But of course, she no longer is!  But that's not enough to silence the sound of her name in the air!  At least not enough to hide the fact that she didn't leave for her trip to Trottingham empty-hoofed!”

        “She...”  I blinked awkwardly.  It was obvious that Rarity's ire was steering this whole conversation.  I was merely the rudder.  “She didn't?”

        “Why?  Haven't you heard?”  Rarity spun to face me, slapping her hooves onto the tile floor as deadly parentheses to her next exclamation.  “She bought an entire wardrobe of fall clothing from Rich's Threads before boarding the train heading east!  She even paid the store owner a generous commission!”  Her eyes lit up like twin meteors of murderous blue.  “Here's something nopony has likely heard!  She paid the Carousel Boutique a visit too!  What did she have to donate me?  Only a purse full of yawns and two hours of autobiographical anecdotes that I couldn't possibly write a book about!  She barely even glanced at my work, even the dresses that she pretended to be interested in!  And now she's leaving Trottingham with half of the inventory from Rich's Threads!  Bah!  I swear, all that was holy and decent in this world went into the grave with Starswirl the Bearded!”

        “I... uhm...”  I shifted nervously.  “That sounds rather... odd.”  I cleared my throat and braved a glance at her.  “I've never been to Rich's Threads.  Is the fashion establishment anything to shake a stick at?”

        “Fashion Establishment?  Snkkt—”  Rarity all but spat her tongue out.  “Fashion Establishment?!”  She marched halfway towards me and pointed a vicious hoof.  “Darling, let me tell you something about the stallion who owns that place.  Filthy Rich and his entire family became rich by selling apples—apples that they didn't even grow!  He's an accountant attached to a gallon of hair gel—albeit a good one, but nothing more!  He knows about as much concerning fashion as a minotaur would recognize a can of potpourri!  He'd sooner dedicate a department of his store to dresses as he would to apples or to bear traps or... or... Celestia-knows-what-else!

        Rarity seethed and strangled an invisible neck in front of her grinding teeth.

        “And... Silver... Seams... Nnnngh...”  She clenched her eyes tightly shut and exhaled hard.  “No doubt she dredged him of all his feminine attire just so she can haul the gargantuan bounty all the way to Trottingham, disassemble the gowns to their base materials, and have the means to lazily slap together some uninspired, gaudy, but altogether successful line of autumnal pish-posh!  Because, after all, that's what the art of the dress is anymore!  A heterogenous assortment of scraps that we have the divine authority to pilfer and reintroduce into the world as new, though it's painted with all the vomitous colors of yesterday's garbage!”

        At the end of such a tirade, she indeed looked close to retching, so she sat herself on the edge of the stage beneath a familiar white dress in order to collect her breaths.

        “Nnnngh... It just maddens me so.”  She fanned herself with a dainty hoof as she mumbled.  “All it is anymore is a process, a factory proceeding of mundane proportions.  We have it within ourselves to do better... to be better.  What is the point in expression when what is popular is expressionless?”  She gulped and gazed down at the floor, her mane bordering either side of her face in frazzled, purple tributaries.  “I always wanted to make a difference.  With this shop, with my trade, I wanted to share my inspiration with all of Equestria.  Then somepony like Silver Seams comes along, and yet again I encounter a soul who has risen as far as I want to rise, and just what does that make her?  What does that make what I desire to be?”  She closed her eyes and ran two hooves over her face.  “Mmmmmmfff... I swear, I wonder if there's any point in trying.  All of this... this taste.  I am sick to death of this taste...”

        I stood in the silence that followed, afraid to break it, as if the shattering was something neither of us would have been able to withstand.  I realized that it was my place to say something, where it was nopony else's.  My voice was something that would only be forgotten.  I've come to expect my echoes, however, to be something immaculate.

        “Perhaps what matters, Miss Rarity, is that you have a taste of your own?”  I said as I marched over and gently brushed a length of the pearlescent dress' skirt.  I smiled softly and spoke, “In a bland world, somepony is bound to be attracted to your sweetness.”

        “Hmmm... a noble dream,” she murmured, then lowered her hooves.  She gave a frown to the same dress that I was smiling at.  “But how long must I dream it, too afraid to wake up?”  She gazed up at me.  “Would I find myself turning into an old mare by the time my ambitions finally paid me back?  I shudder to imagine my genius then, a soul with all of its inspiration sapped from me, and so that I would walk in the shadow of those like Silver Seams and Hoity Toity because I too will have become too sensitive to brilliance.”

        “I... I wouldn't know about that...”

        “Neither can I pretend to.”  She stood up and gazed dismissively down at the dress like a gray-maned creature I had once seen.  “I tell myself that I think of the future, but dreaming of it is not the same thing.  I only have so many years of my youth left.  It's time that I decided to make the best of them.  For too long have I chased the flighty streams of an enchanted filly.  The likes of Hoity Toity and Filthy Rich have found their successful places in this industry.”  She gulped in resolution.  “It is high time that I found mine.”

        “But Rarity...”  I gazed at her.  “This dress!  It's... It's beautiful!  It's full of love and devotion and... and...”  I took a deep breath and gazed at a fleeting color bouncing off the multiple rings of pearls.  “It deserves more than to be forgotten.”

        “And, indeed, it will find it's place in somepony's memories forever.”  Rarity's nostrils flared.  “For the right price.  After all, it's the way of things.”  She turned towards me, a deadpan ghost of somepony that had once giggled like a songbird.  “Might I, perchance, assist you in such a purchase, today?  I assure you, my dear, that though I may be a tempestuous personality, I am nothing but a perfectionist in my services.”

        “I... I...”  I gazed at her, at the dress, then at my saddlebag.  I choked on something briefly, then murmured towards the walls.  “Actually, I wasn't wanting to buy or order anything...”


        “Uhm... As a matter of fact...”  I gazed at the dress.  Something within me bubbled, something that had—on occasion—deeply desired to mimic the crackling blazes of the fireplace back at my cabin.  I needed to know that there were things in this world capable of rising from the ashes.  The only thing real about “defeat” is the letters comprised in making up that word.  “I was... I was sent to deliver a message?”

        “A message?”

        “Yes.”  I gulped, trembling with the realization of what I was suddenly planning to do.  “From some pegasus I met in Sugarcube Corner, a very sweet mare with butterflies for a cutie mark.”

        “Fluttershy?” Part of Rarity's face inescapably brightened.  Her eyes blinked.  “What could be so important that she was incapable of informing me face-to-face?”

        “She says that she... That she needs a sweater made for her pet hedgehog back at her house... uhm... because the poor thing is sick.”

        “Pet hedgehog...?”  Rarity scrunched her face.  She scratched her chin in deep thought.  “Odd.  I wasn't aware that she was in possession of a hedgehog.”

        “Uhm.  She said that she found it just this morning.  The thing must have fallen into the river overnight, and she thinks it's suffering pneumonia.  If she doesn't have a sweater or blanket made for it soon—”

        “Say no more.”  Rarity waved a hoof, sighed, then gave a tired smile.  “The poor darling must be sick with worry.  I'm more worried about her than the little animal, truth be told.  Everything else can wait for as much as I'm concerned.  Thank you for delivering the message, Miss...”

        “Heartstrings.  And... uhm... my pleasure.”  I gulped and smiled nervously at her.  “I don't suppose you have the makings for knitting a sweater in all this mess?”

        “Ugh!”  Rarity tossed her head and marched towards the far end of the room.  “Don't remind me!  I'm struggling with a dress order involving a great deal of satin and lace.  If I just calmed down and opened my eyes, I'm sure I'd find what I'm missing.  No doubt your selflessness in listening to me helped with that some.”  She next marched completely out of view, her voice trailing from a deep closet adjacent to the main foyer.  “Now... please, Celestia, tell me I'm not missing my knitting materials either!  Bah!  This whole Silver Seams business has me all flank over elbows, I swear!”

        As she rambled on, I bit my lip and inched towards the dress of pearls.  Only when I was satisfied that she wasn't immediately trotting back, I opened the lid to my saddlebag...

        That afternoon, I expected Rarity's expression to be full of anger the first moment I saw it.  Instead, it was full of shock—immense, numbing shock.  That's how I knew that I had achieved what I wanted.

        It was hard to see her face at first, not so much that she was so far away, but because of all the other sensory details I was too busy juggling at that very moment.  As she trotted across the center of downtown Ponyville towards where I stood, I drew my attention away from her pale gaze, away from the bright crimson sunset casting a spotlight on me, away from the chorus of crickets accompanying my strings into the edge of night, and finally away from the dozens upon dozens of awestruck pony faces forming a solid ring around me.  I telekinetically plucked each of my lyre strings in precision, grabbing the delightful melodies of the past and repainting the living present with them, in an attempt to form something that was twice as inspiring as it was graceful.

        Beneath the chords, I heard my audience, and I reveled in their sound—for they were Rarity's audience too.

        “Have you ever heard anything so beautiful?”

        “She's playing 'Platinum's Ode to Union,' I do believe, but I've never heard it performed so delicately before!”

        “When was the last time you heard something like this in Ponyville?”

        “Shhh—Please!  I want to listen!”

        “I can hardly listen!  I'm too amazed by that dress she's wearing!  Where did she find such a regal garment?”

        “Are those real pearls?  Those are remarkable!”

        “Oh, how fitting!  It was Princess Platinum's royal birthday only a few days ago...”

        “And here I thought you could only witness the likes of this in Canterlot!”

        “Brilliant.  Simply brilliant, I tell you.”

        “And that dress!  Did she have that tailored?”

        “Don't be absurd!  That gown must belong to royalty!”

        “Who is that mare?”

        “I've no idea!  She just trotted out into the open here and started playing!”

        “I must ask her where she got that marvelous dress!  I swear, it's made my whole evening...”

        From the corner of my vision, I could see Rarity's purple mane bouncing as she tossed her gaze left and right, her jaw dropping further and further towards the ground with each subsequent murmur of awe from the crowd.  As she tried to scrounge an explanation from her stupor, a soft yellow shape trotted up and stood beside her.

        “Oh!  My goodness, Rarity!  Isn't that—?”

        “Yes, Fluttershy.  It's... It's the dress that went missing a few hours ago!  I was on my way to the police station to report a theft, but now...”  She gulped.  “My stars...”

        “Do you think that unicorn must have stolen—?”

        “Shh!  Fluttershy, dear!  Will you listen to that?”

        “Huh?  Oh.  It is very nice music.  'Platinum's Ode to Union,' I think...”

        “No no no—To the ponies!”  Rarity hissed.  “Do you hear them?”

        Both friends leaned into the crowd, their ears pricking to the murmurs that continued to form a backdrop to my relentless symphony.

        “I swear, it's as though that dress was crafted out of the sea foam of Blue Valley's shores!”

        “Could it be a seapony import?”

        “Are you daft?  They're a myth!”

        “That gown is too gorgeous to be real, if you ask me.”

        “It fits the performance so well.  It's like Hearth's Warming's come early.”


        “Tell me, does this unicorn take bits?”

        “Or her dressmaker for that matter...?”

        I inhaled every word I could hear.  I stood with my eyes shut, smiling meditatively, as I finished the last few notes of the song.  Only when I was finished did I open my eyes, and when I did, my gaze was locked on Rarity's.  I gave her my full attention, all the while the crowd's applause broke the crisp advent of night.  I let my teeth show through my curved lips before giving a graceful curtsy, then resting the lyre down beside my saddlebag.

        “Bravo!  Bravo!”

        “Magnificent performance, young lady!”

        “It's been a long, long time since I heard the 'Ode to Union' in its entirety, and that was by far the best solo I've heard!”

        “Tell us, please, are you from Canterlot?  Are you representing one of the noble houses?”

        “Before you answer that, tell us—where did you get that marvelous dress?”

        The crowd laughed from the sheer joy electrifying the air.  I let my giggles join the chorus, then bowed my head.

        “I may be dressed royally, but that's only because royal attention was given to the making of this outfit.”  I stared across the crowd and pointed with a hoof.  “Why... there the seamstress is!  None other than Carousel Boutique's own Rarity!  It was she who made this gown.  After all, was there any doubt?”

        The entire crowd spun in two halves to gawk at her, as if they had melted down the center from the sheer path of my gesture.  Rarity nearly stumbled back, stunned by the forest of bright eyes suddenly assaulting her.  Fluttershy blushed beet red and immediately marched away as a fresh throng of ecstatic ponies surrounded her fashionista friend.

        “Rarity!  I should have known!”

        “A pony with your taste wouldn't have settled for less!”

        “Good to know that you're putting your heart and soul into your crafting still.”

        “Yes, Ponyville could sure use more of that—All of Equestria, for that matter!”

        “Oh, please!  Please tell me that you have more pearls left in your shop!”

        “We absolutely need to have matching dresses like that for the Trottingham Garden Party!”

        “Oh!  And Nightmare Night!  I've always wanted to dress as Princess Platinum!  Surely you have it within you to make something just as beautiful as this marvelous ensemble before us!”

        “How appropriate to showcase your work with a performance of 'Ode to Union'.  It makes me feel as though we've gone back in time.”

        “Yes.  Such beautiful music to go along with a beautiful dress!”

        “Please—tell us—are you accepting commissions?”

        “Do you and this musician work together, Miss Rarity?”

        She bit her lip and slowly spun to meet all of the entranced faces.  Her body was trembling noticeably, but there was an undeniable sparkle in her eyes.  “I... erm... Eheh... That is to say... uhm...”  She glanced over the many heads and manes until her vision locked with mine.  “I'm... just as surprised at this as you all are.”  She gulped.  “It's... funny how spontaneous inspiration can be, yes?”

        The group chuckled.  Fluttershy smiled with pride.  And I...

        I was alive.

        “Seriously!  I had no idea that he had stolen the gown!” I exclaimed.  It was an hour later and we were both trotting into her Boutique, alone.  The world outside the windows had grown dim and purple.  I knew I had very little time left to “wrap things up,” but I was convinced that I had done all that I needed to do.  “Do forgive my naivete, Miss Rarity,” I disrobed from the dress slowly, careful not to add so much as a wrinkle to its unblemished lengths.  “I get carried away sometimes while I'm on vacation like I am now.  When a pony offers me a dress this gorgeous for such a generous price, I'm usually wise enough to think twice on the matter.  Unfortunately, I'm a long ways from Canterlot, and I think I left my good sense back there.  Heeheehee!”

        “Oh, I understand the feeling quite well, Miss... Heartstrings, was it?”


        “On my first trip to Appleloosa, I nearly engorged myself on the general store's supply of cactus nectar toffee.  It's something that my friends and I seldom wish to recollect.”

        “Heeheehee—Yeah!” I gracefully finished disentangling myself from the garment and hoofed it to her.  “I can only imagine.”

        She gently took the dress, levitating upwards in translucent telekinesis.  Her face was calm and unemotional as she hummed and asked, “Could you describe this stallion again?  The ruffian you claim to have peddled this to you in the streets behind town hall?”

        “Mmmmm...”  I pretended to think hard, my eyes scanning the ceiling of the shop.  “He was short, stubby.  A pegasus, I think.  One of his wings was molting.  Yellow coat, I believe.  A sickly color.”

        “It can be, on occasion,” Rarity flippantly droned.  She hung the dress neatly over the body of a mannequin.  She spoke without facing me, “And just how many bits did he take from you?”

        “Oh, you won't believe this, but—three hundred bits!  Isn't that insane?”  I rolled my eyes and gestured dramatically.  “Dear Luna, if my parents knew, they'd kill me!   Ahem.  I'm just sorry that it all turned out to be the result of a pathetic robbery.  The stallion said that he bought this gown from 'Lady Rarity's Boutique, in the east side of town.'  Nowhere did he even bother telling the truth: that he outright stole the thing.”

        “He must be a rather fastidious robber,” Rarity said.  “We both owe him for keeping the dress in good shape, at least.”  She finally glanced my way.  “No doubt you'll wish to pursue a means of retrieving your bits back.”

        “Eh...” I waved my hoof and made a face.  “My parents have blown their noses on twice as much as three hundred bits before.  Teehee—How else did you think I got through Canterlot music school?”

        “And quite a remarkable talent you have there, Miss Heartstrings.”

        “Eh, it's a hobby.”  I then grinned widely at her.  “But, hey!  It worked out for us both in the end, didn't it?”

        “I'm afraid you're going to have to be more obvious, dear.”

        “Why, that crowd I gathered!”  I gestured out the door with a drunken grin.  “To be honest, I was just wanting to show off the dress I just got...”

        “Did you now...?”

        “But I had no idea that I'd get nearly three dozen ponies willing to listen to my performance!  I'm telling you what, Miss Rarity, your dress is something else!  I've never gotten that much attention before!”


        “Yeah.  It felt like cheating in a way.  Seriously!  I owe it all to you and your dress.”

        “Hmm-hmm-hmm...”  She chuckled breathily, trotted around to face me, and planted a pair of hooves on my shoulders.  “Miss Heartstrings, sit with me, if you would, darling.”

        I blinked at her, my mouth frozen in the middle of trying to reply.  I felt my heart beating oddly, as if I was missing a chord for the first time that evening.  Nervously, I did as she was told.  I felt like I was having time-out with my mother.

        As Rarity spoke, I soon found out I wasn't that off.  “My dear, no robber with any form of self-respect would steal a work of art like mine and sell it for anything less than two thousand bits.”

        I gulped, and resumed smiling as plastically as before.  “Well, uhm, maybe he was... uh... d-desperate!  Yeah!  That's why we have criminals in the first place, right?  Some ponies are in such need for money right away, that they'll sell just about anything!”

        “It would have been far easier for such a thug to have broken through the window of a grocery store overnight and grabbed himself a bite to eat.”  She glanced out the window.  “As a matter of fact, Ponyville is farm country.  My friend Applejack tells me that she has her fruit nabbed off her very own orchards all the time.”

        “But... Maybe...”  I gnawed on my lip.  I was losing grip of this situation at a frightening plummet; my brain just wasn't ready to accept it.  “Maybe he wasn't all that bright—”

        “It would have to be quite the mental affliction for somepony to ignore the value of so many natural pearls lying in his possession.  If such a pony was expert enough to grab that dress from my store, he... or she would have made a year's worth of profit by placing the outfit on the Manehattan black market.”

        I tried to say something else, but my mouth was dry.  It was hours after I had done the unthinkable, and only then was I starting to feel the initial waves of horrid guilt.

        Thankfully, Rarity's gentle voice lulled my throbbing pulse into a tranquil stream.  “You strike me as quite a resourceful, intelligent unicorn, Miss Heartstrings.  This afternoon, I came into this very room after searching for something.  What it was that I was looking for, I can no longer recall.  All I know is that my latest dress was suddenly missing, and I had no proper explanation for where it could have gone or who could have taken it... until now.”

        I gazed down at the floor between us.  I kneaded my hooves against the tile as I felt the first waves of chills hit me that night.  “Miss Rarity, I won't judge you for any of the action you're about to take.  But stop for a moment.  Stop for a moment and think about what happened out in the center of town.”

        Even without looking, I could tell she was making a strange face.  “What about the center of town?”

        I looked back into her gaze.  I couldn't tell if her eyes were glossy, or just my reflection.  “The ponies you live with, Rarity!  They love your dress!  They love the quality of it!  The meaning behind it!  The expert craft and work that went into it!”

        “Correction, darling.”  She smiled painfully.  “They adored your performance.  It just happened to have been painted in the colors that I had once made.”

        “But... But it's one in the same!”

        “No.”  She shook her head, gently exhaling.  “No it isn't.”

        “You... You just needed a way to get attention!”  I exclaimed, my breath becoming ragged as I too was becoming witness to my own desperation.  “Your dress is fantastic, Rarity!  All it needed was its time in the spotlight and... and...”

        “Shhh...” She gently caressed my shoulder with her hooves, staring positively into my soul as her words came out.  “I don't know who you are, Miss Heartstrings.  I don't know how you've heard of me, or what you presume to know about my artistry.  All I know is that you're a perfect stranger.  However, in spite of this, I do believe that there is one thing that we both have in common, and that's the knowledge of the fact that there is nothing left in that dress that I believe in anymore, save for a lesson on how to drive my talents down brighter, wider roads.”

        “But...”  I tried my best not to whimper.  I felt like a little foal as I sat before her.  I avoided her gaze, absorbing myself in the sight of the dress, as if trying to scoop the pearls up with my tears.  “But you deserve to be remembered, Miss Rarity.  You're such a talented, hard-working unicorn.  You deserve attention—”

        “It's never a matter of what we deserve, darling.”  She leaned towards me, stealing my gaze.  “It's a matter of what we earn.  Has anypony ever told you that I'm a living piece of the Elements of Harmony?”  She leaned back and spoke sagely.  “Destiny, for whatever reason, has designated me as the Element of Generosity.  I was instrumental in the exorcism of Nightmare Moon's taint from Princess Luna.  Ever since then, I've been privileged and blessed to be tied to the hip of Twilight Sparkle, the only unicorn in five long centuries who's been made the personal protege to Princess Celestia herself.  Don't you think that if I wanted to take advantage of my connections—and sealed myself a high seat in the Canterlot fashion scene—I would have easily done so by now?”

        I reflected quietly on that, a sore lump forming in my throat.

        “Hmmm...” She smiled at a warm thought.  “I would be lying if I said that I wasn't tempted in the past to do something so pathetic and shallow, but I like to think that I've become a better mare since then.”  She gazed sideways at me, her gaze gentle but piercing.  “There are many things in this world that I want.  Fame is one of them—even my closest friends will tell you that.  What they don't know, but should be obvious to everypony, is that a soul such as my own greatly desires to better herself as a lady and an artist, more than any other dream of mine that I pretend to call supreme.  You see, Miss Heartstrings, if I don't earn my place in this world, then the most I'll ever become is the queen of hollow victories.  No such matriarch of mundanity would ever deserve a tiara—heeheehee—no matter how sparkling.”

        I took a shuddering breath and gazed out the windows, at the darkening approach of night.  “I have that desire too, Rarity.  But... But I learned long ago that I can't pursue them so easily anymore.”  I sniffled and put on a brave face, albeit a deadpan one.  “I just wish I could help those around me shine where I can't.”

        “We're all born with the ability to shine, Miss Heartstrings.  But we can't force the spotlight on each other.  Otherwise, we'd just be dancing to an old, boring tune, conceived only once, but never allowed to blossom on its own.  And if there's anything I can't stand, it's a performance that doesn't earn itself an encore.”

        I gave the dress one last, forlorn glance.  It was a chuckle that escaped my lips, instead of a sob, as I painfully let forth, “I suppose some things in life can't stand to be re-enchanted.”

        “That's why I live to invent newer and prettier things.”  Rarity smiled.  “And so should you.”  I watched as she stood above me and paced across the way.  “I hate refusing gifts, especially ones so sincerely and passionately donated.”  She telekinetically picked up a black tarp and carried it back over to where the gown of pearls was residing.  “What you did today... what you tried to do today was daring, brash, yet altogether generous.  Which is why I'm not about to press charges for a theft that lasted the entirety of what would otherwise have been a boring afternoon.”  She hung the canvas material over the dress.  The room grew dimmer, so that her bright features suddenly stood out like polished ivory.  “I very much envy your talents, dear.  A dress is dazzling for an evening or two.  But music... gorgeous music... It lasts forever.  Oh, how I wish I could start over sometimes, and engage myself in an art that was... far more immortal.”

        I swallowed hard and tilted my head away so she couldn't see the tear rolling down my left cheek.  In my mind, I saw the smiling faces of listening ponies all around me, and they once again mimicked the dying ashes of a cabin fireplace.  “Don't envy too much, Miss Rarity, or else you'll find yourself doing nothing but st-starting over...”

        “Hmmm...”  She smiled softly my way.  “I shall remember that.”

        I dried my face and nodded.  “Somehow, I think you will...”

        We spoke of a few things as night fell.  We talked about gossip.  We talked about popular celebrities.  She told me the names of a few famous musicians she had met, and I once again cursed the stars for never having a chance to meet the legendary Octavia up close.  As the stars began to form, I decided to take my leave, or else risk the moon curtailing what had become a most gracious visit.

        “It's just as well.  I really do need to get to work,” Rarity said.  She had finished cleaning up the mess that an angry doppelganger of herself had left in the center of the Boutique hours earlier.  “This one dress I'm working on won't finish itself, after all.”

        I watched her trotting up to the half-made dress in question.  Lingering in the doorframe to the Boutique's exit, I exhaled the first wisps of vapor from my lips.  “Will you ever be done working, Miss Rarity?  Will you ever finish?”

        “That's up to the industry to decide,” she said.  The tone in her voice was threadbare, like so many materials gathering dust in the far corners of the place.  Perhaps she was talking to nopony all along.  “Hmmm... What does this one need?” Her voice rang in the direction of the gown.  “It's got lace.  It's got emerald.”  There rose a sigh across the room, colored with the pale kiss of moonlight.  “More ribbon...”

        The ringing bell above the door was deafening.

        It had been three weeks.  I felt like an archaeologist stumbling upon a sacred temple left abandoned for ages.  My heart actually sunk—instead of danced—when her singing voice spun across the morning light to welcome me.

        “Welcome to Carousel Boutique, where every garment is chic, unique, and magnifique.”

        “Hello, I'm...”  I bit my lip, hesitated, and exhaled.  “I'm just visiting in town.  I'm not looking for anything special.  But...”  I marched stiffly into the center of the place, already digging into my saddlebag.  I produced the last stone, raising the dull thing up like it was an errant piece of lint.  My head wouldn't stop hurting with the eighth elegy, but that morning I was too tired to cry.  “I was wondering if you were skilled in the arts of gem enchantment.  As you can see... uhm... this needs a lot of work.”

        “Here, let me take a look at it, dear.”  Rarity sashayed over from a jacket she was working on and took the gem from my grasp.  She adjusted the spectacles on her eyes and hummed to herself.  “Hmmm... Yes, it does seem as though this has been through quite a lot.  It's rather unusual that I get requests to re-enchant old rocks, but the day I can no longer bring luster back to a jewel is the day I retire.  Eh-heheheh...”

        “I... uhm... I'm sure you have plenty of more important things to be working on.”

        “Oh, nonsense!  It's a slow week.”  She rolled her eyes.  “Nothing to do but fiddle with a few drab sheets of wool and see if I can outdo the latest craze mailed in from Canterlot.  Ahem.  Honestly.”  She gave me the sweetest of smiles, and no less elegant.  “You are the absolute highlight of my morning.  Care to have a seat while I work?”

        “It depends.  How much do you think I have to give up?

        “Why, when you put it like that, dear, I'm tempted to ask for a lock of your first-born's mane!  Eh-heh-heh-heh-Ehhhhh I don't know how Pinkie does it.”  She cleared her throat and marched over towards the metal brace positioned by the window.  “In all seriousness, about three bits will do.  This will only take but a moment.”

        “Much appreciated...”

        “Though I must say, I wish you would let me give you more time.”  She gazed up from where she was fixing the gem into place and focusing the sunlight through her containment field.  Her eyelashes battled like those of a fairy tale filly as she chirped forth, “You have a very utilitarian outfit there, darling.  But I must say it looks positively worn-in!  I have the good mind to fix you a new sweater, one that could warm the eyes of others while it warms you... if you catch my meaning.”

        “Thanks, but no thanks.  You're very generous, but I...”  I stopped immediately.  The dryness in my throat left me as I saw the jacket that Rarity had been working on.  I saw the fine seams woven intricately in floral designs across the pockets.  I saw the layers upon layers of fabric forming a mesh of beatific color blend.  It occurred to me—like a spontaneous burst of inspiration—that a pony with nothing to lose has everything to give.  It may not have been my destined time in the spotlight, but I wasn't about to back down from an idea so beautiful that I immediately knew it deserved an encore.  “Yes, please.”

        “Hmm?”  Rarity glanced up—somewhat surprised—from the menial task she was doing for me.  “I beg your pardon?”

        I looked towards her, smiling gently.  “Yes.  I would like it if you made me something new to wear.  Something warm... and fabulous.”

        Rarity blinked.  When her eyes reopened, they not only shined, they positively sparkled.  “Oh.  Oh, yes!  But of course!”  Her breaths were like cosmic bursts that carried her—skipping foalishly my way.  “Oh, it's been ages since I've made something for a mare with a green coat, especially one as bright and shiny as yours!  Hmmm—What about a new sweaterjacket, this time with a shiny gold seam running down the sides?  Or perhaps a fancy yellow scarf—Ooh!  But of course!  A gorgeous red sweater with amber bands to match your eyes!  It positively screams 'Hearth's Warming'!  Heeheehee—”  She suddenly clamped a pair of hooves over her lips.  “Oh!  My heavens, listen to me go on!  You... uhm... must have your own idea in mind, of course.”

        “No...” I breathed, slowly shaking my head.  “I couldn't possibly think up something as marvelous as you could.  Design whatever you want.”

        She gasped sharply, her features illuminating like the sun itself.  “Really?  Do you truly, truly mean it?”

        I grinned wide at her.  “Thrill me.”

        “—so I carried on and on quite melodramatically, insisting that the brazen canines had attempted comparing me to a mule.  I put up quite the show, if I do say so myself.  If it wasn't the act of deep horror that I was portraying, then perhaps it was the sheer volume of my whining voice that finally broke their brutish resolve.  They ceased their attempts to enslave me into jewel-finding, and by the time my dear friends had arrived to save the day, I had just about freed myself from those terrestrial ruffians' clutches.  Ahem—How do the sleeves feel?  Are they too tight?”

        “No, Miss Rarity,” I replied, sitting on a pedestal as she circled around me.  A sea of sewing utensils levitated all around her latest work of art, a bright and colorful sweater adorning my turquoise limbs.  “They're just perfect.  You got the measurements down right.”

        “Are you certain of that, darling?”  She tilted my forelimbs up and down, closely eyeing when and where the material of the sleeves grew taut.  “You haven't stopped shivering since I began.  Is the sweater not giving you enough insulation?  If so, I should fix that from the start before I let myself go with the aesthetics—”

        “Trust me.”  I smiled up at her as soon as her face moved into my peripheral vision.  “I'm going to be absolutely fine.  I'm loving this sweater already.”

        “Hmm... Well, that makes the both of us!”  She stifled a tiny squeal and began tightening the cuffs at the end of one sleeve.  “I haven't had a chance to work my talents this freely in ages!  I do apologize that it's taking so long.  Perfection and genius seldom tango when they can instead waltz.”

        “Take as much time as you need, Miss Rarity,” I said.  “You were going on about Diamond Dogs?”

        “Oh!  Yes.  Would you like to know a secret?”

        “Sure.  Why not?”

        “Heeheehee—I told all my friends that I simply relied on the refined talents of a lady in dissuading those brutes' demands.  As a matter of fact, that's only partially true.  It so happens that my family has dealt with Diamond Dogs before, and I knew well in advance how to take advantage of—oh, how should I put this—ah yes, their pathetic simple-mindedness.”

        I giggled.  “You don't say.”

        “Oh, but I do!”  She fiddled and worked and painted a linen canvas all around me.  “As a matter of fact, it was the poor fortune of my great-great grandmother, an aristocratic mare named Ruby Joy, to have stumbled on an entire colony of those digging mutts!  However, she was a very calm and intelligent lady, and soon she not only had all of the dogs eating out of her hoof, but she got them to fetch a gigantic node of diamonds and carry them home to my ancestors' dwelling in Chicacolt.  Hmm-hmm-hmmm... just where do you think my family's affinity for rare rocks got its start?  Heeheehee...”

        I smiled.  I listened to her.  I modeled for her.  And for a blissful afternoon, I didn't think one bit about my future.  After all, it takes a curse to make generosity truly, truly delicious.  The things that I've grown most thankful for in life are the things that come at me by surprise, like a spotlight from out of nowhere.

        Who's to know how much opportunity we'll have to truly shine in this life?

        But so long as we can help it, we must never let ourselves become dull.

Background Pony

V - “Industry”

by shortskirtsandexplosions

Special thanks to: Spotlight

Cover pic by Spotlight

        Dear Journal,

        Do heroes exist only because history chooses to write about them?  Are the greatest ponies who ever lived so legendary because they earned that status, or on account of their being in the right place when fate struck?  If the ponies of our epic poems surpass the slings and arrows of time simply by the whim of popular knowledge, then could we accidentally be worshipping villains in this day and age?

        I never sought to be a famous pony.  Not really.  Sure, I wouldn't have mind a tiny bit of popularity.  Certainly, when endeavoring to make waves in the music scene, I would have been happy if my name had been passed around.  However, I never expected to do anything dramatic enough that it would have had my name exalted on high.

        Now, I can't help but think otherwise.  I toss and turn at night—fighting shivers—fantasizing that one of these days I will walk into town and somepony—anypony—will actually be heard saying my name, if even in a passing joke or upon the flippant waves of gossip.  I don't want to make the history books.  I don't even want to see my name in lights.  I just want to witness somepony speaking of me, and I want it to be something positive and joyful.

        It's been a long year of dealing with this curse, and I know the difference between thinking rationally and fancifully.  I've encountered many fears, and I've endured my fair share of distress.  Is it too selfish of me to think that I could at least earn myself a tiny bit of recognition?

        No.  No, it's not selfish of me.  However, it is foolish.  After all, who will sing of this composure's tragedies or triumphs?  Who will chronicle her actions and discoveries into an epic chorus?

        Now, I'm starting to realize, that chronicler is me.  I do not sing of a fearless vixen, one who faces the darkest shades of freezing night undaunted.  No, I speak of a lonesome learner, one who traverses the blackness with only her own hoofsteps to keep her company.  Whatever she salvages, she does so by herself, which is a very frightening task to say the least.  If saving the knowledge of myself makes me a hero, then I treasure that with every fibre of my being.  After all, I wouldn't be much of a hero if I didn't save an audience, even if it's an audience of one.

        Ten little chords.

        Ten little chords beginning Lunar Elegy #8 were playing through my mind; it was far from enough.  I needed to discover more if I wanted to come anywhere near close to composing the entire musical number, much less running the tune's authenticity by Twilight Sparkle.

        Of course, the beginning process of mapping out an elegy is always the hardest.  I wake up to a melody stuck my head.  I let the tune play itself out repeatedly.  The music takes shape, forms chords, and grows into an ancient composition that I must then struggle to translate back into the world of the living.  There are times when a phantom tune simply takes forever to come into fruition.  It pays its toll on my mind, which is the least I can say about my sanity.  So, to assist in the evolutionary process, I usually busy myself with menial yet functional activities in an attempt to get the juices flowing out of my mind instead of stirring for an eternity within.

        Which is why I was squatting by my garden the other day, dutifully tending to the carrots and planting new vegetables for a solid two hours, around the time I first heard her.

        There was a resounding thunder across the face of the woods, followed by a cracking voice behind me.  “Ow!”

        I looked up and wiped my sweaty brow with a forelimb.  She was earlier than normal.  These collisions, after all, usually take place way later in the afternoon.  I got up and trotted slowly towards the side of the cabin where I saw her lying on the ground, rubbing a bruised muzzle.

        “Ahem.  Can I help you?”

        “Nnngh... Maybe if you had a thicker skull among your gardening tools to spare.”  Rainbow Dash winced and glared up at the offending structure.  “Where'd this stupid cabin come from?”

        “It's the rain season,” I said with a smirk.  “Some things just spring up out of nowhere.”

        “Hey!  I'm a pegasus!”  Rainbow Dash hopped up to her hooves and dusted herself off.  “If anypony should know a thing or two about the rain season, it's me!  Still, I have no buckin' clue where this building got off thinking it could block my usual flight path!”  She fumed briefly, then cast me a sideways glance.  “Good morning, by the way,” she muttered.

        “Back at you,” I said with a nod.  “Is your head okay?”

        “For what it's worth.”  Rainbow Dash gripped her skull in two hooves and pivoted it to the side.  A number of ritualistic cracks sounded off from the top of her spine.  “Whew!  At this rate, I'm not gonna have enough brain cells left to pass the Wonderbolts Entry Exam, assuming they finally start flippin' inducting for another wingpony soon.  Heh.  Been waiting for six long years for a new position to open up, ever since Fleetfoot from Trottingham joined the team.  Ugh... That lucky, feather-brained—”

        “Well, it sounds like you have your future cut out for yourself!” I said with a gentle smile.  It was a beautiful morning, and this living spectrum of colors was a pleasant addition to the breezy moment.  I briefly forgot how cold I was.  “What's the big hurry?  Speeding around in the air with no care: you'll get a nasty concussion at this rate!”

        “Hmmph...”  Rainbow Dash smirked and stretched her wingfeathers.  “I wouldn't be living up to my name any other way.”

        Ah, there it is.  Should I?  Yes.  Yes, I should.

        “And just what name would that be?” I tossed her way with a wry grin, knowing exactly what would happen in response.

        I could have witnessed the same reaction even if I had my eyes closed and my ears plugged.  Rainbow Dash looked at me, gasped, and floated in midair as if the very grass below was as toxic as my ignorant response.  “No way!  You mean you don't know about me?!  Rainbow Dash?!  Ponyville's chief weather pegasus?!  Master of the Sonic Rainboom and winner of last year's Best Young Flier's Crown?!”

        I giggled.  Some of the best entertainment in life is free.  “Well, my apologies!  You certainly sound like a very important pony!”

        “I'm more than important!  I'm... I'm radical!  That's like four 'importants' stacked together in an awesome sandwich with slices of tubular bread!”

        “Am I supposed to praise you or eat you?”

        “Neither!  Er—I mean... nnngh...”  She hovered around me, squinting suspiciously.  “Is this some kind of a joke?  Surely no pony around here could live under that big of a rock!”

        “Believe me: sometimes I wish I had that excuse.”  I gazed over at the carrot garden while producing a melancholic exhale.  As lovely as this encounter was, I was getting even further away from bringing the Eighth Elegy to reality.  Every now and then I'm reminded of how my life has become nothing more than a hall of mirrors, and even the most colorful hues are merely the reflections of yesterday and tomorrow cascading onward into a dull infinity.  “I apologize, Ms. Dash.  I guess you could say that I'm new to town.  It's comforting to know, at least, that a mare like you is fully aware of how famous and important you are.”

        “Heck yeah!”  Rainbow Dash smiled proudly.  With fluttering wings she “backstroked” playfully in the air around me and the cabin.  “From warning the local ponies about stampedes to driving out smoke-snoring dragons, I never leave Ponyville hangin'!  Why, I'm even buddy-buddy with Princess Celestia's magical apprentice!”

        “Hmmmm...”  I squatted back beside the garden and resumed inspecting the carrot tops.  “You don't say...?”

        “Mmmmhmm!”  Rainbow Dash's wings settled as she perched herself down atop the wooden patio at the front of my cabin.  “It's why I was out here to begin with.  I'm practicing!”

        “Practicing?”  I glanced over my shoulder.  “Practicing for what?”

        “Ponyville's egghead extraordinaire, Twilight Sparkle, is helping some big-wig science professor from Trottingham with a teleportation experiment.  And they need help from a fast-flying pegasus to keep track of... uhm... the test subject, or something.  I dunno.  All I know is that Twilight promised me there'd be lasers involved, and lasers are cool!”

        I raised an eyebrow and glanced back at her.  “Did you say... a teleportation experiment?”

        “Y-Yeah!”  Rainbow grinned wide.  “Haven't you heard?  Oh wait, you said you were new in town.  Hmmm... Well, I can't even begin to explain all of the boring numbers and figures involved, but basically this stallion—'Dr. Hay'... 'Dr. House'... 'Dr. Horse', whatever—is trying to capture the magic of unicorns in a bottle.  Not that all of you are capable of blinking around great distances or whatnot, but he's trying to find a way for non-magical ponies to have access to teleportation.  Supposedly it can have a major effect on transportation, economy, and other stuff that makes me yawn.”

        “Really?”  I stared off into the wooden bodies of the trees surrounding me.  I hadn't expected this leg of our conversation.  I felt a chill for the first time in hours.  “That's... That's quite remarkable.”

        “Meh... If you say so.  The way I see it: it's been thousands upon thousands of years since Equestria began, and still other ponies are trying to be as cool as pegasi.”  She winked with a smile.  “Heh, like teleporting is really gonna help them get around as much as us!  But I don't care.  The experiment gives me a reason to hang out with Twilight, and Twilight's cool so long as she's blowing stuff up in a lab instead of digging her nose in a book.”  Rainbow Dash smirked and took off for the bright sky above the woods.  “Anyways, I've got some cloud kicking to get to, and then I'll be heading over to Twilight's to help 'make history', as they put it.  I'm like 'whatever.'  If we get a small scrap of manadust to explode or something, that'll sure as heck make my day.”

        I mumbled absent-mindedly.  “There's something to be said of short scraps and explosions.”

        “H-hey!  I like your style!”  Rainbow Dash chuckled and soared past me.  “Next time I run into you, remind me to share how it all went down!  I'm sure I'll have done something awesome to brag about when the time comes.”

        I saluted her as she flew off.  In the windy vacuum that followed, I murmured to the air.  “Awesomeness needs only to remember itself.”  I didn't feel sad about Rainbow Dash's absence.  I'd gone through the motions of introducing myself to her on so many occasions that the bittersweet departures had long lost their cathartic edge.  In many ways, I've forced myself to become acquainted with a necessary apathy upon the culmination of these painfully short meetings.  To do otherwise would mean drowning in tears.

        However, I couldn't stop thinking about what Rainbow Dash had just spoken about.  It had to have been an immeasurably fascinating endeavor in science if it could get her to ramble on about it.

        Twilight Sparkle and a professor from Trottingham were experimenting with non-unicorn teleportation?  Could that have involved some sort of localized spell?  Leyline manipulation?  A machine of sorts?

        I tugged the strings of my hoodie and fought through the shivers as I allowed several memories to resurface.  I remembered several of my early interactions with Twilight after the curse began.  I remembered our desperate attempts to convey my existence to Princess Celestia.  Written letters hadn't worked.  Either my words vanished or the scrolls themselves turned to ash on the other end of Spike's green-flaming breath.

        It was then that she had resorted to teleportation.  After a great deal of meditation and focus, Twilight Sparkle teleported the two of us as far as her expert leylines could reach.  We landed two and a half miles outside of Ponyville's town limits.  Twilight's plan was to rest, concentrate, and then perform several more concentrated teleportation bursts until we got to the city gates of Canterlot to the far east.  This, however, failed after the first immediate blink because two things happened.  For one, Twilight had forgotten about me after the first teleport, as if the sheer magical strain of the act was enough to jump-start the curse into infecting her.  For another, two miles' distance from the center of Ponyville was akin to dropping a guillotine blade of ice across my spine.  Never before in my life did I feel that cold and never would I feel that cold again.  I galloped straight to the abandoned barn where I was living at the time and built the biggest campfire any pony in history ever likely conceived.  Even still, it took me two solid weeks before I could feel my extremities once again.

        But now I had just learned about an experiment to make transportation possible beyond the limits of unicorn manipulation.  Seeing as I was an inconceivable distance away from ever mastering Twilight's gift of spatial blinking for myself, what were the odds that I could somehow take advantage of such a remarkable scientific development?  I couldn't help but feel my blood pumping in opposition to the deadly shivers.  I had to learn more.  I had—

        My thoughts were immediately interrupted by a loud thudding noise against the side of my cabin.  At first, I thought it was poor Rainbow Dash again, cursed by her amnesiac state.  But then the voice squeaked forth, “Owie!  Who put this cabin here?”  It was too high to belong to anything other than a young foal.

        “Uhm...?”  I turned around and trotted back towards the side of the barn.  “Can I help you?”

        A tiny orange filly sat in the dirt where she had been thrown back on her haunches.  A collapsed scooter—its wheels still spinning—was lying on the ground beside her as she pulled a purple helmet off, flung a pink mane loose, and rubbed a throbbing bump on the front of her skull.  “Ugh.  Yeah.  Can you tell me which way the earth is?”

        “Right where you left it.  It's the thing covered with grass and aphids.”

        “Jee, thanks.”  She blinked up at me with violet eyes.  “Hey, you're a unicorn.”

        I couldn't help but chuckle.  The utterance was as cute as it was random, two things I could already use to describe this kid.  “Last time I checked.  Why, is that a problem?”

        “Erm, no.  Not really.”  She stood up and pulled the scooter back up into her grip.  “It's just... Well.  This is the middle of the woods.  I've never known unicorns to be outdoorsy types.”

        I shrugged.  The urge to let my teeth chatter was bearing down on me, but I wasn't about to give into it in front of this young foal.  “A unicorn's capacity for magic is equal to her capacity for change.  I've long been acquainted with urban living, but I find myself developing a delightful affinity for far more rustic surroundings.”

        She stared up at me, blinking.  “Okay.  I'm sorry.  You lost me at 'capacity'.”

        I sighed.  “Yes, well, if you run into nearly as many dictionaries as you do houses, then we might have a pleasant conversation.”

        “Dictionaries?  Hah!”  She stood and balanced herself playfully on the wobbling scooter.  “I've got a best friend for that.”

        “And the reason you aren't hanging out with her on a beautiful day like this is...?”

        “Hmmmm...” Her face scrunched up into a stubborn scowl.

        I blinked.  I glanced up at the tree tops, many of them still glistening with dew.  “Wait.  Isn't this a schoolday—?”

        “You've got a really swell place here...”  She pushed herself on the wheeled contraption so that she was leisurely drifting past the front of my cabin.  A whistle escaped her lips.  “Did you build it yourself?”

        “Uhm...”  I blinked awkwardly at her.  “Yes.  As a matter of fact, I did.”


        “How did you know?”

        She blushed slightly.  “Lucky guess?”  She ran a hoof along a pair of wooden beams forming the front exterior of my dwelling.  “You can tell when a place was built by hoof.  One day, I plan to live on my own, and when I do I want to have every say in where and how I live.  There's no better way to do that than to build your own house.”

        “It's not as easy at it seems,” I said to the kid as I trotted slowly after her.  “It takes a great deal of time, strain, and sweat.  Still, it is worth it in the end.”  My smile lasted as long as my good manners did.  “Ahem.  So, uhm, haven't your parents ever preached to you about talking to strangers—?”

        She swiftly interrupted me.  “It must be awfully scary to live on your own, in a place that you have to build by yourself,” the filly murmured.  Suddenly her bright features looked jaded, as if several years had piled up on the filly's face all at once, casting its shadows over every corner of her orange coat.  “But I kind of see that as a good scariness, like the type of scariness that's worth living through.”

        I ran a hoof through my mane as I gazed thoughtfully at her.  I wondered why I hadn't run into this little soul before.  It was my proud habit to be familiar with every living soul in town, both young and old.  In so many months of concerning myself with the lunar elegies, I wondered if I had finally become oblivious to the same background I had been relegated to.

        “What's your name, kid?” I blurted out.

        She looked up at me.  “Hmmm?”  She blinked, as if snapping out of a stupor she was experiencing parallel to my own.  “Oh.  Ponies call me 'Scootaloo.'”

        “'Scootaloo,'” I repeated with a nod.  I glanced at her flank, observed the lack of a cutie mark, and then smiled at her face.  “Named after your love for elegant ballet, no doubt.”

        That jab worked.  She frowned and stuck her tongue out at me.  “Hardy har.  Very funny.  I'd rather be caught dead than have that be my special talent!”

        “Why does that not surprise me?”  I remarked.

        “I mean it!”  She hopped in place, her hooves pounding on the base of the scooter.  “Someday I'm gonna earn a cutie mark for something really awesome!  Like flying through hoops of flame!  Or base jumping!  Or becoming a rock'n roll singer!  Or doing stunt pony tricks just like Rainbow Dash!”

        “You don't say?  You know, she was here just now—”

        “She was?!”  Scootaloo beamed, and I was surprised to see a pair of stubby wings sprouting up from her sides.  I honestly hadn't noticed she was a pegasus until the very notion of that name sparkled across the violet shores of her eyes.  “I knew it!  She was doing some super cool cloud-slicing moves, wasn't she?!”

        I blinked at her.  How old was this filly?  And she was still flightless?  My eyes wandered from her tiny wings to the scooter's wheels to the fresh ditch that she had made in the earth after colliding with my cabin.  I realized that the same excitement and impulsiveness that had flung Rainbow Dash like a missile into my house had brought another pony along for the ride.  Very calmly, I nodded and said, “Well, she said she was practicing for a science experiment she was going to help her friend Twilight Sparkle with—”

        “Oh!  Oh!”  Scootaloo hopped in place, beaming, her bright face like a second sunrise to that crisp morning.  “She told me all about it!  There's gonna be explosions and lasers and stuff!  Rainbow Dash said herself that she'd be lucky to get through the experiment without her mane and tail-hairs being burnt off!”

        I squinted at that, then smiled at her.  “Did she, now?”

        “Uh huh!”

        “Sounds like you've got a very courageous friend.”

        “Yeah!  Isn't she—?”  Scootaloo stopped in mid-speech.  Pensively, she let her gaze fall to her hoof digging in the earth.  “Erm.  Well.  Heh.  I can't really say that I count as her friend...”

        “Why not?”

        She spoke on.  “But someday, I'm gonna be as brave as her.”  She gazed up again, but this time her smile was softer, gentler, more serene.  “And then I'll get to do cool stuff!  And maybe I'll know what it's like to be just as awesome.”

        I smiled back at her.  “Scootaloo...”  I squatted down so that my face was level with hers.  “Tell me, what's so awesome about a life when it's lived in the exact same way as a pony that has lived it before you?”

        “I...”  She blinked confusedly at me, but something twitching in her eyes told me she was curiously intrigued.  “I don't understand.  Why would a pony not want to be like Rainbow Dash?”

        “I don't mean to say that there's anything wrong with that.  After all, she's made a major name for herself in Ponyville, hasn't she?”

        “And how!”

        I chuckled and gazed deeply to gather her attention.  “But even still, there is only one way for a pony to be like Rainbow Dash.  While that's all good and fine, there are at least a million ways to be a different pony, and all of them just as exciting and awesome, wouldn't you think?”

        Scootaloo stared at me, and for the briefest of moments she could just as easily been staring into an abyss.  If her cutie mark appeared right then and there, I was almost afraid to discover what it would look like.  Even if I went back in time and built my cabin blindfolded, it wouldn't be nearly as scary as when a young foal discovers the glorious yet all too bitter taste of opportunity.

        Before she could formulate a response, a voice was calling out from around the bend in the road.

        “Scootaloo?!”  A white-coated mare with a yellow mane was wandering around the dirt path, frowning and stomping a hoof.  “Scootaloo—for the love of Celestia—is that you?!  Get over here this instant!”

        “Ugh...”  Scootaloo rolled her eyes.  “Milky White.  Will you ever let it rest?”  With a sigh, she slapped her helmet back onto her head, tucking the pink mane underneath.  “I'm coming!” she shouted over her shoulder.

        I glanced at the mare from a distance.  “An older sister of yours?”

        “Pffft.  Please.”  Scootaloo smirked devilishly.  “As if I could be that lucky.  So long, lady!”  Her petite wings blurred, and I watched with muted marvel as she propelled herself up the path atop her scooter, joining the mare's side.  “Milky!  I've been looking all over for you—”

        “Save it for somepony who's gullible!”  Milky White snapped.  She wasn't half as angry as she was concerned.  In addition to that, I noticed that she was an earth pony, which made me stare a little bit longer as she ushered the sulking filly towards the heart of Ponyville beyond the treeline.  “Why aren't you at school already?  Cheerilee's class begins in less than half an hour!”

        “Awwww, come on, Milky!  I was just taking a side route!  Rainbow Dash was flying around here and—”

        “No more excuses!  And unless Rainbow Dash is acting as one of Cheerilee's chaperones, I don't want you following her or any other adult pony around town unsupervised!  Do you understand me?!”

        “Ughhh... Yes, Milky...”

        “And don't give me that attitude!  I'm only trying to look after you, Scootaloo.  Remember that talk we had...?”

        The two were soon gone beyond earshot.  I sat beside the carrot garden, alone in thought.  I suddenly wondered if the lives of so many ponies—cursed or not—remain blank because we're afraid to test the limits of ourselves, especially when those limits are painted with the shades of those who had failed or succeeded before us.

        I looked once more towards the woods, and I thought of a dark night when I awoke—naked and screaming—soaked with the chilling mystery of the Threnody.  It was something horrific and unexplained, but I had survived it.  I knew that it was more than luck that made me survive such an ordeal.  What more was there in life that I had to experiment with, and how much of it was barricaded by fears instead of fate?

        “I thank you so very kindly, Miss Sparkle, for assisting me in this endeavor.”

        “It's my pleasure, Dr. Whooves,” she said with a smile, telekinetically lowering the last of eight crystals into place.  Soon, a ring of identical gemstones was surrounding a metal box located atop a metal pedestal in the center of the town's library.  It wasn't just any ordinary box, but a complex, hollow cube with several perforated grooves forming intricate runes along the silver surface.  The very top of the cube bore a cylindrical platform that glowed dimly with residual enchantment.  “I hope this doesn't come across as too silly,” Twilight murmured as she straightened the last crystal into its copper brace in the middle of the makeshift laboratory, “But I've always been a great fan of your scientific documents.  I find the idea of this experiment beyond fascinating.  I, for one, believe that all ponies should experience the benefits of magic, regardless of what they were born as.”

        “You have no idea how delighted I am to hear a gifted unicorn such as yourself say that,” Dr. Whooves replied.  His ocean-blue eyes shone as he leaned into the complex equipment and adjusted a metal panel on the side of the cube with a pair of pliers gripped in his teeth.  He dropped the tool onto a tray and resumed speaking, “If earth ponies had half the resources available to unicorns, it would allow their tasks to yield far greater bounties than that of their last five generations of ancestors combined.  I only hope you understand that it is not my attempt to abuse magic, but to find a way to facilitate it through safe and applicable means.”

        “If you asked me, I'd say it was high time that the Equestrian Science Committee reconsidered the prohibition of the public use of machina in channeling magical leylines,” Twilight said as she trotted around the array of equipment in the center of the room, assisting the Doctor in a last-second, careful examination.  “After all, it's been nearly a thousand years since the Civil War and its legacy of infernal weaponry.  With Princess Luna returned and exorcised of Nightmare Moon's taint, I doubt very much that the world could ever consider using magical machines for evil again.”

        “I shudder to think of such a thing!”  Dr. Whooves took a deep breath and glanced at his young partner in science.  “I spent months on my hooves and knees before the Committee at Canterlot, trying to convince them that a teleporter device could only be used for good... to assist agriculture and industry.  If this week's procedure goes as planned, I'm bound to win their financial backup for sure!”

        “There's only one way to find out if this was worth all the time and sweat, right, Doctor?”  Twilight Sparkle gave the arrangement a final glance and smiled with pride.  “Are you ready to get started?”

        “After you, ma'am.”  The Doctor bowed from where he stood with a wry grin.  “It takes your spark, after all.”

        “First thing's first.”  Twilight remarked.  She turned towards the corner.  “Hey, Rainbow Dash!”

        Rainbow Dash sat, slumped on the stairs leading up to the library's second floor.  She was snoring loudly.

        Twilight frowned.  “Rainbow!”

        “Snkkkt—Nnghh...Nyup...Naaugh—Huh?  What?”  Rainbow Dash looked up, blinking dizzily.  “Are we ready?  Is it time for explosions yet?”

        “For the last time, there aren't going to be any explosions!”


        “Not if everything goes right,” Dr. Whooves nervously added.

        “Oh!”  Rainbow Dash smiled, her wings flexing.  “So there's still hope?”  She exhaled sharply as a pair of goggles were thrown into her chest.

        “Put them on and get ready to fly!” Twilight Sparkle said firmly.  She turned and gave the Doctor a far more pleasant expression.  “Just what should we test the machine on?”

        “Erm... Oh dear, I should have given that more thought, shouldn't have I?”  Doctor Whooves gulped and glanced all around the room.  “It obviously has to be something inert.  Perhaps a metal weight or a container or... or... even a blank book!”

        “Heh, yeah, forget that!”  Rainbow Dash droned as she slipped the goggles onto her head.  “I didn't volunteer to help you guys just to go chasing after falling books!  I could do that for Twilight any day of the week!”

        “Well...” Twilight rolled her eyes, but suppressed a smile.  “She's got a point there.  Perhaps...”  She scanned the familiar contours of her library, then brightened.  “Ah!  I know just the thing!”  She levitated a wooden unicorn carving off a pedestal and levitated it before the Doctor's eyes.  “Would organic material be a problem?”

        “So long as it's no longer alive, it's perfect!”  Doctor Whooves grinned wide.  Grabbing the carving's “horn” in his teeth, he carried it over and planted it on the cylindrical platform at the top of the cube.  He then backed away to a safe distance and stood beside Twilight.  “Alright, Miss Sparkle.  Everything has been accounted for.  Whoops!”  He scrambled a bit before finally picking up a switch that was attached to a wire strung into the body of the cube from afar.  “Ah, there we go.  Couldn't very well get started unless we had access to the ignition, yes?”

        Twilight giggled.  Rainbow yawned.

        “Alas, no need for pomp or gravitas.  Let's get on with it, shall we?”

        “Here goes...”  Twilight Sparkle took a deep breath.  Her violet eyes narrowed and her mouth tensed as she aimed her horn at the nearest of the crystals.  After a minute of concentration, she fired a purple beam of bright light into the array.  The luminescent laser flew through the stone and refracted so that it bounced solidly through the rest of the seven crystals.  Once the beam of light had made three full orbits, all eight stones directed a piece of the glow into the body of the cube in the middle.  Soon, the hollow container started glowing from the inside as the light spell from Twilight's own horn energized the leylines etched into the machine's silver body.  A high-pitched hum filled the room, causing the windows around the library to vibrate within their frames.

        “Hey, my teeth are shaking like guitar strings!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed above the rising noise.  “That's cool and all, but does that mean we're the ones that are gonna explode?!”

        “Rainbow Dash...”  Twilight hissed aside.

        “It's almost reached maximum intake!”  Dr. Whooves shouted as a mysterious wind began building up.  “By Celestia, it's going just as I planned!”

        “How do we know it's time to hit the switch?!” Twilight replied.

        Just then, the wooden carving atop the cube started shaking uncontrollably.

        “Uhm... Guys...?”  Rainbow Dash pointed at the bizarre spectacle.


        “Right!  It's a go!”  He twisted the node in his hooves.  A spark shot through the wire and into the machine.  There was a brief flash of light as all of the lasers shot one last time from the crystals into the cube.  The center of the room turned black, then the darkness dissipated like a fine mist.

        The wooden carving was gone.

        “That did it!”  Doctor Whooves exclaimed.  His grin was positively electric.

        Twilight was already spinning to face her companion.  “Rainbow Dash!  Go long!”

        “On it!”  She saluted, opened a window, and rocketed skyward.

        The room filled with an eerie silence as the two scientists waited for the blue pegasus to return.

        “How far should it have gone?” Twilight nervously asked.

        Dr. Whooves gulped, his body visibly shaking in anticipation.  “At least four hundred feet.  I was afraid to aim for anything longer.  I just wasn't sure how much energy output this device could manage.”

        “Sometimes the smallest steps are the safest steps, Doctor.  I applaud you for planning with caution.”

        “Ohhhh...”  He squirmed nervously where he stood, his eyes locked on the open window.  “All the world's planning will mean nothing if it doesn't work.  And I would hate to think of what horrible fate I may have dealt your charming art piece if worse came to worst.”

        “Charming art piece?”  Twilight blinked at him, then giggled.  “My dear Doctor.  If it would somehow aid science to feed that gaudy thing to a radioactive hydra, I'd do it in a heartbeat.”

        “Heh.  Of that I have no doubt.  It's almost as if—” He stopped as his eyes suddenly lit up.  “Good gracious!  Back already?”

        Twilight spun to look.  “Rainbow Dash?”  She gulped.  “Well?”

        She entered through the window, her forelimbs crossed.  She paused for dramatic effect, then smirked deliciously as she unfolded her upper limbs to display the wooden unicorn carving in her grasp, completely intact.  “Ta-daaaa!”

        “Yes!  It worked!”  Twilight reared her hooves before nudging the Doctor with a bright grin.  “Doctor Whooves!  I am so, so very happy for you!”

        He merely stood there, his face plastered with euphoric shock and disbelief.  “Four hundred feet...”  He gulped and grinned slowly, his eyes glossy.  “Nearly half a town's length of spatial displacement straight up into the air, and yet there's not a chip missing from the test subject!”

        “Yeah, and get this!”  Rainbow Dash grinned and held the carving up high like a trophy from where she hovered.  “It was still on its way skyward when I caught up with it!  I think you just built yourself some crazy awesome magical teleporter cannon thingy!”

        “Errrm...”  The Doctor made a face.

        Twilight rolled her eyes and smiled at him. “Don't mind her.  I'm sure we'll be putting your words of discovery into the history books, Doctor.”

        “Hey!”  Rainbow Dash frowned.  “Don't I get my name carved into some science statue somewhere too?!  Why should just the three of you get all the credit—?”  She paused in mid-sentence, doing a double-take.  Swiftly, she pulled her goggles up to her brow and squinted down at me.  “Uhm... Just who in the heck are you?”

        “Me?”  I smiled wide from where I sat on a reading bench, applauding.  “I'm incredibly impressed!”

        “Gah!”  Twilight Sparkle gasped and spun around.  Doctor Whooves was no less startled as the two of them jumped in place.  “Who... What...?!”  Twilight stammered, gazing at me in shock.  “How did you get in here?”

        I allowed my face to become awash with “shock” and “confusion.”  “Uhm... I just trotted in?  I apologize.  Was the library off limits today?”

        “Can't you see that we're conducting a science experiment?”  Twilight exclaimed, beside herself.  “The library's closed to act as a temporary laboratory!  I had my assistant Spike put up signs and notes all over town!”

        “Uhm...”  I felt my ears drooping as I smiled innocently.  “Does that include the side door?”  I pointed at my saddlebag.  “It was wide open when I came here to return my checkouts.”

        Twilight blinked.  She then turned to frown at Rainbow Dash.  “Rainbow... Did you leave the side door open again?”

        “What?”  She blinked and juggled the carving in her grasp.  “No!  Of course not!  Erm...”  She bit her lip and gazed around the ceiling, her voice cracking.  “At least, I don't think so.”  A gulp.  “Eheh... Though I guess it's possible I could have...”

        “Unnngh...”  Twilight ran a hoof over her face.  “I'm sorry, ma'am,” she looked my way with an exhausted expression.  “But you weren't supposed to be here.  Who knows what danger a random pony like you could have gotten—?”

        “Did you see how successful we were?!”  Doctor Whooves' grinning expression was suddenly blocking my view of Twilight.  The scientist's ecstasy was overwhelming.  “We teleported an inert object safely and successfully at a distance of over four hundred feet!  Can you imagine what ponies could do if we somehow found a way to harness this sort of technology into common practicality?!”

        “Uhm... Doctor?” Twilight leaned over him, nervously smiling.  “I know you're excited, but I don't think this is a time to—”

        “I think it's absolutely fantastic!”  I spoke up.  “If I'm to understand correctly...”  I pointed at the crystals surrounding the cube.  “The gemstones magnify a light spell cast by a practiced unicorn, which is then channeled into the machine.  The cube then uses a complex layering of artificially drawn runes that mimic the natural compositions of leylines, so that the mana streams expound upon themselves and produce a core of ubridled magic that can be focused into a single, modulated spell?”

        All three ponies gazed at me blankly, that is until Rainbow Dash shook her head and rubbed it achingly.  “Okay.  Who invited the encyclopedia in a hoodie?”

        “That is... quite a remarkable observation,” Doctor Whooves said with a smile plastered across his face.

        “Are you a fan of the Doctor's?”  Twilight leaned in and asked.  “I've met every unicorn in Ponyville, and—if I may be so bold—very few of them tout a career in advanced science.”

        I smiled gently at my foalhood friend.  “Let's say I've... been tutored over time by the best.”

        “Well, despite the circumstances,” Dr. Whooves extended a hoof.  “It's a pleasure to share this moment of discovery with a unicorn so avidly schooled, Miss...”

        “Lyra,” I replied with a smile and shook his hoof.  “Lyra Heartstrings.”  I stared at the group.  “And I hardly intend to subtract from this marvelous occasion.”

        “Not at all, Miss Heartstrings.”  Dr. Whooves grinned at his two associates.  “If our subsequent experiments over the next few days prove to be just as successful, then in a matter of years we may have teleporting equipment like this available in every household!  Why, the sheer possibilities for non magical equines to make full use of this gifted technology is mind boggling!”

        “Yeah, well...”  Rainbow Dash unceremoniously planted the carving down onto Twilight's backside.  “This pegasus has to teleport her bladder really quick, if you catch my drift.”  She yawned and flitted away.  “Try not to blow anything up while I'm not here to witness it.”

        “Erm... by all means, Miss Dash,” the Doctor remarked with a nervous expression.

        Twilight rolled her eyes and trotted off.  “I need to run some tests on the structural integrity of this... um... piece of art, to make sure it's in as much one piece as it looks.  If you'll excuse me, Doctor... erm... and Miss Heartstrings.”

        As Twilight strolled away, I turned to look at the Doctor.  “It sounds like your goal with this device is to make teleportation accessible to non-magical ponies, and yet I notice that you require the enchantment spell of a unicorn such as Twilight Sparkle to power the machine...”

        Doctor Whooves blushed slightly.  “Yes, well, this is merely a prototype.  No matter what design I concoct, a teleporter such as this will inevitably rely on unicorns to provide power.  However, once I have a self-sustaining mana battery implemented, I imagine a device such as this could perform hundreds of long-distance spatial displacement charges on one single magical charge alone.”

        “So, it's more of a means of magical conveyance than it is a self-sustaining generator.”

        “But of course.  We've yet to discover magic that comes from nowhere.”  Doctor Whooves chuckled pleasantly.  “Some things that exist in science fiction must stay in science fiction.”

        I giggled as well and admired the machine from afar.  “I can't help but notice that the cylindrical platform atop the cube is made of arcanium.”


        “Arcanium is often used as a magical suppressant.  Does the platform have a dual function?”

        “As a matter of fact it does, Miss Heartstrings.  To focus the teleportation spell, the machine needs a singular point of discharge, a place where all of the artificial leylines converge.  Such an exit point for the machine's mana streams is located just beneath the platform.”

        “So, if you hadn't put a layer of arcanium there...”

        “The spell would emit from the device in a solid stream of unbridled energy.”  Dr. Whooves chewed on his lip as he gave the machine a nervous glance.  “That platform serves more than a tiny teleporter pad, you see.”

        “Oh, so there could have been lasers involved.”  I smirked.  “Even explosions.”

        “Not if we can help it!”  Dr. Whooves said with a grin.  “Thankfully, Miss Sparkle has not only been helpful in disaster-proofing the device, but in providing a safe interior within which to conduct this experiment.”

        “She's very selfless,” I murmured, gazing towards the far end of the treehouse library.  “In a lot of ways.”  I took a deep breath.  Twilight and Rainbow Dash would both be back soon, and undoubtedly the distance would have rekindled their forgetfulness, along with their ire.  If I wanted to avoid an awkward situation, I had to take leave of Dr. Whooves, but not without asking a question that had been hammering the walls of my mind.  “I can't help but notice that the arcanium plate affords very little space for test subjects.”

        “Yes.  We hope to perform more tests by sunset.  With Miss Sparkle's permission, I would like to work on larger and more dense objects.  You're welcome to witness if you like, Miss Heartstrings.”

        I smiled pleasantly at him.  “As much as I would enjoy that, I can't help but ask.”  I took a deep breath.  There was no turning back now.  “What if your next prototype could afford a larger teleporter pad?”

        “I don't understand.  Why would we need a larger platform?”

        I stared directly at him.  “For teleporting living subjects.”

        Dr. Whooves blinked at me.  I could detect the wince in his expression before he bore it.  Nevertheless, I listened as he paced and said, “That... is quite difficult, Miss Heartstrings.  I dare not experiment with that sort of a situation, not now and perhaps not ever.”

        I raised an eyebrow.  “Dare I ask why?”

        “Far be it from me to establish limitations so early, but it does not seem remotely safe.”

        “How so?”

        “Unicorns—such as yourself, Miss Heartstrings—are more than capable of surviving teleportation performed by yourself or other unicorns.  However...”  He gestured towards the cube in the center of the eight crystals.  “Though a device of this nature is empowered by a unicorn’s light enchantment, the magical burst that comes out the other end of the layered runes is anything but natural.  When a unicorn teleports herself from place to place, what emerges through the process is the same creature.  This is because she has merely traveled the streams of the same magical leylines that her essence is empowered by.  This goes for any other pony—unicorn or not—that she teleports with her.  Her essence—her soul self, as it were—preserves the nature of her being and those who share the transient leylines through which she propels her corporeal self.”

        “But...” I thought aloud, my eyes locked onto the suddenly sinister device in our midst.  “...when the machine teleports a living thing, what comes out the other end has been... disconnected from the leylines, hasn't it?”

        “Or so theory would say,” Doctor Whooves said with a nod.  “The experience of teleportation would not kill the living subject.”  He then gulped and added with a nervous smile.  “Not at first.”

        “How do you mean...?”

        “Well, the subject would emerge from the teleportation in relative control of her or his faculties.  However, the disconnection with the leylines would cause a unavoidable sever between the pony's physical body and incorporeal essence.”

        “It's like ripping the ghost from the flesh.”

        “In a manner of speaking.”  He nodded gravely.  “You see, Miss Heartstrings, it was never my goal to transport ponies with this device, but simply to allow non-magical ponies a means to deliver material objects to each other from a distance.  It would be a long time—perhaps beyond my years—before a device like this could teleport living creatures by purely artificial means.”

        I felt my tail flick at the sound of that.  I gazed up at him.  “So... you mean that it is possible?

        He chuckled, running a hoof through his mane as he gazed aside.  “If only there was a way to compensate for a test subject's incorporeal disconnect.  The only solid solution I can think of is for another unicorn, one gifted with at least an intermediary knowledge of expert sorcery, to approach the test subject immediately following the teleportation and manually reacquaint her with her natural leylines.  But I wouldn't even begin to imagine the type of concentration and mana that would take.  The very prospect—at least as we currently perceive it—is far too dangerous to be practical.”

        Far too dangerous, but still incredibly enticing...

        Doctor Whooves words were all I could think about.  I sat on the front patio of my cabin the next afternoon, engulfed in thought.  My lyre was resting beside me; it remained unplayed.  I should have been practicing the Eighth Elegy, but I couldn't stop pondering about the magical box and the wooden carving it had propelled invisibly skyward beyond the rooftop branches of Twilight's library.

        All this time, I've been obsessing over the lunar elegies.  Why shouldn't I have been?  They seemed obviously made for me to focus on.  It was as though they had been inserted in my brain for a reason.  Since the first day I woke up in this world of chills and ghosts, the symphony of Princess Luna had been my task to uncover.

        But what if I didn't have to finish that task?  What if there was another way out, even if it was cheating?

        I'm stuck in Ponyville.  I know that.  I live that.  But what if I could forcibly remove myself from this place?  And to what end?  My heart soars with the implications.  I could see my parents again.  I could reach the ancient magical libraries of Canterlot.  In a miraculous blink, I could even show up on the doorstep to the royal sisters' palace and rob their attention just long enough to listen to my pleas and save me from this blasted curse.

        But, even if I could do all of that, what would I have to look forward to?  Doctor Whooves had made it perfectly clear: something alive like me could not survive the teleportation process, at least not for long.  I would emerge on the other end of the procedure as some pathetic golem that thought it was me.  My only hope, then, would be for a unicorn like Twilight or an alicorn like Princess Luna to somehow... “reattach” my soul to my body before I could even pretend to ask for help from the outside in curing my curse.  And even if I traversed all of those wicked boundaries, how much time would I have to accomplish all that I needed to do before I would be consumed by utter cold and forgetfulness, so far away from my new warm “home?”

        I sighed and tucked my hooves under my hoodie's sleeves before hugging myself.

        Just when I think that this whole situation couldn't be any more exhausting, I witness something as tantalizing as this scientific experiment taking place under my very nose, and it simply eats at me.  There is something so dreadfully frightening about performing the elegies, and no matter how deeply I explore those unearthly compositions, I find myself growing even further and further from my goal.  The idea of teleporting myself to someplace where answers may lie is extremely tantalizing, but is it any less of a frightening venture?  Just because it's different doesn't mean it's safer, and no matter how I spin it, it still demands the same bottomless well of courage from me as the alternative.

        As a matter of fact, I've never been much of a courageous pony.  I don't know how the likes of Rainbow Dash or Applejack or Twilight Sparkle manage to summon such bravery from the depths of their souls.  To attempt being strong in a cursed world is like starting a fire with sticks of ice.  There are times when I don't even know how I can walk out of this cabin in the morning.  On countless occasions, I've felt lonely in this place, but it doesn't compare to how often I feel utterly and bitterly afraid.

        There was no point in entertaining the notion of the teleporter machine.  With the life I live, it's easy to grab onto bizarre things after confusing them with symbols of hope.  All I am, and all I'll ever be, is a musician.  It's best to leave heroism to the heroes—

        I gasped suddenly upon hearing a shrieking cry, coupled with the cacophonous sound of tumbling limbs.  I glanced over from the front of my cabin to see a tiny pony having collapsed in the center of the dirt road.  Several wheels spun from an overturned scooter, and I felt my heart skipping a beat.

        In an instant, I was up on my hooves and galloping over to the scene.  The dust had just begun settling as I stumbled upon her.  My ears pricked to hear her squealing breath desperately stifling a pained moan.

        “Uhm... Hey there, kiddo?”  I leaned down towards her with a concerned expression.  “Are you okay?”

        “Nnnngh...”  Scootaloo's eyes were clenched shut.  She hissed through gnashing teeth.  “I'm fine!”

        “That's quite the tumble you just took.”  I glanced behind her, spotting a sharp rock jutting in the center of the path.  Deep wheel marks spelled where the scooter had crashed after hitting the obstruction.  “Better watch out when you come around the bend.  This path was built long ago, and I suspect not many ponies have looked after it since.”  My eyes caught her forelimbs clutching a spot on her rear left leg.  I reached towards it.  “Here, lemme see—”

        “I said I'm fine!” she hissed and practically batted my limb away.  “I'm a tough pony!  I've taken worse tumbles befo—Ow!  Owwwww...”  I could see the smallest hint of moisture clinging to her eyelashes as she hissed through chapped lips.

        With a gentle smile, I reached forward again.  This time, she was too weak to protest, and I parted her forelimbs in time to see a nasty red gash having been burned through the orange coat of her rear leg.  It was hardly anything to go to the emergency room for, but Celestia it looked like it stung.

        “Whew!  That's one heck of a case of road rash!”  I said.  I attempted a chuckle, as if it would alleviate her pain.  It didn't.  So I distracted her nerves with a pair of hooves gently caressing her chin.  “Here.  Follow me.  I think I have just the thing for that.”

        “I... don't need... any help...” She grunted, still fighting the pain like a pony would bang her head against a brick wall.

        “I'm not sure your leg agrees with you.”  I stood up straight and a bright green glow filled the air from my horn.  “Don't worry.  I promise it won't take but a second.”

        Scootaloo mumbled something.  With her face hung in a mixture of embarrassment and frustration, she hoisted herself up to a standing position.  Gently, a haze of glittering telekinesis wafted over her injured leg.  She allowed me to support her weight with magic as I escorted the filly—limping—to the front of my cabin.

        I swiftly ducked in through the door to my home.  In less than a minute, I had emerged with a first-aid kit full of materials that I had assembled after a year of wandering through Ponyville.  I learned long ago that if I was ever to be seriously injured, the only pony I could safely rely on to fix me up was myself.  It was a pleasure, then, to help another soul for once in a blue moon.

        “Just sit still, and I'll get you patched up.”

        I cleaned the edges of her wound.  Next, I applied a medicinal ointment to a bandage before softly wrapping it around her scraped leg.  All the while, Scootaloo remained remarkably dormant.  She barely winced as I worked through my ministrations.  Every now and then, the faintest hiss would spill from her lips.  I soon realized that she was being brave—a little too brave.  Her entire upper body began shivering, like a leather balloon that was waiting to burst.

        Calmly, I prepared a second bandage while uttering, “I apologize in advance for the smell.”

        Scootaloo stirred.  Her voice came out as a tense grunt.  “Sm-smell?  I don't smell anything...”

        “Well, that's just the thing...”  I smiled softly as I stood behind her.  “It's a very rare ointment.  I promise that it'll keep your scratch from getting infected, but at the same time it has a different effect on everypony.  Some ponies smell something horrible.  Others—well—they don't smell anything, but it still affects them.”

        She gulped.  Her head and neck were quivering at the breaking point.  “Affect them how...?”

        “They have a mild reaction,” I murmured.  “Their nose gets a little runny and their eyes start to water.”

        “You... Y-you mean it's normal?”  She asked, and I detected the slightest sniffle.

        I smiled and gently nodded.  “Yes, sweetie.  It's normal.”

        Her sniffles doubled, then quadrupled, and finally Scootaloo's body became still as she relaxed.  I didn't bother looking at her tear-stained face as I squatted down.  “Now lift the leg one more time.  I'm almost done here.”

        She did so obediently.  I applied the last bandage and pulled it tight.  As I stood up, I got a close look at the filly's wings.  I couldn't help but squint.  I noticed something for the first time:  Scootaloo's longest feather stems appeared abnormally short, as if they ended abruptly at half the normal length for a pony her age.  I cleared my throat and marched around so that I sat on the patio's edge beside her.

        “So... are you going to tell me why?”

        Scootaloo sniffled one last time and dried her face with a forelimb.  “Why, what?”

        “Why you felt like speeding around the dirt road on that scooter like a bat out of Tartarus?”

        She frowned and faced off towards the afternoon horizon with her forelimbs folded.  “Hmmph... I'm practicing.”

        “For what?”  I chuckled.  “The Demolition Olympics?”

        “Pffft!  No!”  She glared briefly at me.  “Look, lady, thanks for making my leg feel better, but don't poke fun at me!”

        “Hey... I meant no offense!” I exclaimed with a soft smile.  “I just think fillies your age have better things to be doing than attempting suicide.”

        “It's not suicide,” she said with a sigh, then ran a hoof through her pink mane.  “It's a pegasus thing.  I can't expect you to understand...”

        I shrugged.  “When I was your age, I accidentally 'rearranged' my bedroom quite a few times trying to discover my magical gift.  Heh.  You see, even young unicorns have been known to make a mess out of themselves on occasion.”

        “But I shouldn't be making messes!  I shouldn't even be on the stinkin' ground anymore!”  Scootaloo sighed long and hard.  She hugged herself and stared forlornly into the sky.  “I practice on my scooter all the time, if only to feel what it's like.”

        “What what's like?”

        “Speed.  Wind.  Soaring.”

        I raised an eyebrow.  “Flight?”

        Her nostrils flared.  She looked defeatedly into the soil beyond the patio and muttered, “I'll never know how she makes it look so easy...”

        Ah.  But of course.

        “And just who is 'she', if I may be so bold to ask?”

        “Ugh.  Look...”  Scootaloo stood up and began limping away.  “Whoever you are, thank you.  I mean it.  But... I really didn't mean to bug your or nothin'.  I... I have places to be.  I should be doing homework or some other boring junk right about now anyway.”

        As she trotted off, I fiddled with my hoodie's sleeves and murmured to the wind, “You know, we haven't had a terrible thunderstorm in nearly eight months.”

        “I know,” Scootaloo's voice sounded practically defensive as she trotted towards the distance.  “Ponyville's Weather Flier is the only pegasus in Equestria with a perfect record.”

        “Do you really think she got so perfect without getting scorched by lightning a few times?”

        Scootaloo stopped in her tracks.  She glanced back at me.

        I looked into those violet eyes from afar as I said, “It's much more than courage that makes a pony, kid.”  I pointed towards her fresh bandage.  “Sometimes, what looks perfect is really just something sculpted out of a life of countless bumps and bruises.”

        Her face was remarkably deadpan when she gave her swift response.  “I've been given enough bumps and bruises in life already, lady.”  Her face briefly grimaced, as if that was something too sacred to admit until then.  There was a distant look in the child's gaze as she picked the scooter up, all the while her stubby wings twitched.  “I... I just want to be cool already.  She's earned it.  Why can't I?”  She gave one last sniffle; there was no more need to hide it.  Nevertheless, everything disappeared into a brazen frown as she jumped on the scooter and blurred down the road and out of my life once more.

        I sat alone with my lyre and my beating heart.  Slowly, I closed the first-aid kit and sighed.  I knew that I could only depend on myself in this life; perhaps it was high time I stopped pretending I could look after others as well.  Some of us could only dream of being heroes.  Others have earned the title with no hope of receiving it.  I will forever be stuck as a bard to such ponies' legacy.

        “Alright...”  Doctor Whooves stepped back from the cube after having placed down a black cylinder atop the machine's arcanium platform.  “Fifty kilograms of ram-crafted iron alloy.  This will be our heaviest test subject yet.”

        “What's the distance we're going for this time, Doc?” Rainbow Dash asked.

        Doctor Whooves glanced at Twilight Sparkle, gulped bravely, and said with a grin.  “Nine hundred feet.  I fear, Miss Dash, that by the time you catch up with it, it'll have achieved a great deal of velocity.”

        “Sounds dangerous,” Rainbow Dash said.  Her ruby eyes lit up.  “Ready when you are!”

        “Have... uhm... Have you been able to catch something of this mass before?”

        Rainbow snickered and glanced aside.  “Hey Twi!  Remember that one time Big Mac's outhouse was placed a little too close to the edge of a hill and I happened to be doing a cloud run overhead just as he was—?!”

        “Ahem.”  Twilight Sparkle smiled nervously at the stallion.  “She can handle it, Doctor.  Are we ready to begin?”

        “We're using twelve crystals this time.  It should be more than enough to channel the required energy into the runic matrix.”

        “Okay then.”  Twilight carefully approached the nearest stone on a pedestal and tilted her horn forward.  “I'll need a few moments to concentrate, then I'll give you the signal.”

        Doctor Whooves sat on his haunches while gripping the wired switch.  “I await with anticipation.”

        Rainbow Dash watched from where she hovered above.  The center of the library shimmered with a deep purple light as Twilight focused a light spell through the structure of her horn.  Her mane billowed in a magical wind as bulbs of sweat ran down her face.  “Almost... Almost...”  She briefly gnashed her teeth, took a deep breath, and finally exclaimed, “Casting now!”

        A bright flash illuminated the room.  In the next blink, all twelve crystals were being joined by a thick web of criss-crossing violet lasers.  Twilight Sparkle briefly stumbled, only to be supported by the weight of Doctor Whooves leaning into her.

        “Are you alright, dear?”

        “Never mind me!” Twilight found herself having to shout.  The room was echoing with a loud hum as the crystals flickered all around the metal cube.  “Do we have the energy contained?”

        “Just about!”  The Doctor yelled back, grazing the switch in his grasp with a tense pair of hooves.  “I adjusted the intake of the machine so that the artificial leylines will absorb the mana stream with thirty-five percent resistance!”

        “You think it's enough to compensate for the increased charge?”

        “If not, the device should harmlessly expel the mana stream into the lateral absorption banks!”

        “Well, that sounds anticlimactic!”

        “Not on my watch!”  Doctor Whooves smiled wide as the room swirled with an ethereal haze.  “Are you ready, Miss Dash?”

        “Hit it, Doc!”

        “Consider it hit!  Nine hundred feet or bust!”  He pulled the switch.

        The lasers from the twelve crystals shot immediately into the cube.  What wasn't so immediate, however, was the rate of glowing light from the heart of the box.  Instead of instantly dematerializing the black object on top of the machine's platform, a low whining noise began emanating from the center of the cube.

        “Uhh...”  Rainbow Dash made a face, her fluttering wings drooping slightly in midair.  “That doesn't sound good.”  She gulped.  “Am I the only pony who thinks that doesn’t sound good?”

        Twilight Sparkle flashed a worried glance.  “Doctor?”

        “I...”  Doctor Whooves' mouth was agape as he glanced at the delayed teleportation.  “I don't understand!  We should have witnessed the discharge by now!”

        “Maybe it's taking longer cuz the metal weight is heavier?” Rainbow Dash blindly speculated.

        “No, it should have nothing to do with the test subject's variable weight,” Twilight exclaimed.  “It's as if all of the mana has disappeared.  But that can't be possible!  The box—”

        “Good heavens,” the Doctor gasped.

        The two mares looked fearfully his way.

        He flashed them no less a worried look.  “Of course the mana charge hasn't disappeared.  The reason we're not seeing it is probably because the enchantment immediately pierced the outer layers of artificial leylines.”

        “You mean the beam was strong enough to pierce to the center of the apparatus?”  Twilight Sparkle breathily exclaimed.

        “Uhm...”  Rainbow Dash fluttered lower.  “Is that bad?”

        “The core of the cube's runic chambers isn't built to handle that much magical stress!”  Twilight Sparkle shrieked as the room started resonating with an alien cacophony.  “It could very well be overloading as we speak—”

        “I'm aborting!”  Doctor Whooves shouted.  It was becoming difficult to hear his own voice.  “I'm shutting it all down!”  He fiddled with the device.  He pounded on it, seething.

        “Nnnngh!”  Rainbow Dash was gripping her aching ears at this point.  Lanterns and light fixtures wobbled overhead.  The windows along the edges of the library began to crack.  “Ughhh—D-Doc?!”

        “The failsafe!”  He bellowed.  It came across as a whisper against a gigantic earthquake.  “The lateral banks have burnt out!”

        “Then that means—!” Twilight began.

        Rainbow Dash was already swooping down.  As the cube flashed a bright purple, its metal shell buckling, she swiftly yanked Twilight and the Doctor away with two hooked forelimbs.  “Get down—!”

        The cube ruptured.  The black cylinder was spat out, landing two feet deep into a wooden wall as the twelve crystals shattered.  Tremors bred tremors, and soon the shuddering stopped, giving way to a low bass hum as dust settled across the room.  Shadows danced across the interiors of the hollow treehouse.  Books and tattered pages spun magical cyclones, beneath which a groaning Doctor Whooves stirred to life.

        “Nnnngh... Great Starswirl... My head...”  He winced visibly, his ears and nostrils streaming thin trickles of blood.  He glanced up and gasped at what he saw.

        A huge gash had been torn in the body of the cube, exposing its glowing purple core to the room.  Despite the disastrous explosion, the teleportation machine was remarkably intact, except for one key detail.  The arcanium platform had been blown clean off.  What was more, the cube had fallen and was currently lying on its side.  The onion layers of artificial leylines were exposed to the air so that the one opening of the device was currently being aimed at—

        “Miss Dash!” Doctor Whooves sputtered.

        “Ughhh...”  Rainbow Dash barely stirred, lying paralyzed on her side.  She was overcome by waves of pure magical energy billowing over her figure.  The torn mouth of the cube was facing directly towards her, and the pegasus had very little strength to wake up, much less crawl away from the threatening contraption.

        Doctor Whooves tried crawling towards her.  He instantly winced, then glanced down at his rear limbs.  A cloud of glass shrapnel from one of the mana crystals had embedded viciously into his knee, spilling a small pool of blood across the floor.  Panicking, he flashed Rainbow Dash another glance, then looked to where Twilight Sparkle was lying just a few feet away from the pegasus.

        “Miss Sparkle!  Hckk...”  He winced past a wave of pain and again struggled in vain to crawl towards the two mares.  “Can you move?”

        “Can... hardly... breathe...”  Twilight whimpered.  She was glued to the floor, but for a completely different reason than the other two.  As waves of mana billowed out from the lopsided teleporter, her horn resonated with a weak, pulsating light.  “Too... much energy.  Feel my nerves... going numb...”

        “Miss Dash is going to be in a worse situation if we don't—”  Doctor Whooves began, but was suddenly overcome by a loud groaning sound.  He glanced up with wide eyes as he saw a heavy bookcase stuffed with thick tomes teetering from the recent burst of energy.  “Oh dear...”  He curled inward and covered his head with two hooves.  The hulking wooden structure fell over him.

        A loud crash filled the room, but Doctor Whooves was untouched.  He found himself being dragged away from the collapsing bookcase at the last second.  Twitching, he glanced up at me.

        “Who in Celestia's name are you?!”

        “You're welcome,” I grunted, sweating.  I finished pulling the Doctor to a safe distance from the disaster and looked over at Twilight's and Rainbow's situation.  I too was deeply affected by the overloading cube.  Even from over a dozen feet away, I found it hard to stand upright.  If it wasn't for the fact that I was watching the experiment from an adjacent hallway when everything hit the fan, I would have been in as bad a shape as the others.  “Never mind introductions, Doctor!”  I struggled to speak past the waves of raw magic pouring from the ruptured device.  “Is there any way to turn this thing off?”

        “I... I...”  Doctor Whooves shook off the confusion of my presence and forlornly glanced at the situation at hoof.  “Nopony but one of the royal alicorns themselves could shut it off at this point!  There's nothing we can do but wait for the pent-up energy to exit the machine on its own!”

        “Just how long are we talking about?!” I exclaimed above the deep bass roar.  I shaded my squinting eyes with a hoof as I looked at Twilight and Rainbow alternatively.  It was hard to hear anything above my beating heart, much less the mana-spilling cube.  “A couple of hours?”

        “More like minutes, ma'am!”  the Doctor exclaimed.  “There's too much mana inside the thing to stay contained for much longer!  I fear the first burst was but a precursor!”

        “What do you mean by that?!”

        “Even shattered in pieces, the teleporter is going to do what it's designed to do!”  The Doctor pointed as I helped him into a sitting position.  “And that's emit a solid beam of energy in the form of a spatial displacement spell!  And right now, the unguarded mouth of the machine is aimed at—”

        “Rainbow Dash...”  I murmured.  “I'll move her—”

        He held me in place with a strong hoof.  “No!  If you get any closer to the core, you'll be as worse off as them!”

        “But we have to move them!  Both of them!”  I felt my teeth chattering.  It wasn't the cold this time.  I looked all over the rumbling, billowing scene.  “Any ideas?”

        He looked up at me as if for the first time.  “You're a unicorn!  Praise Luna!”  He pointed at a splintered plank of wood severed from a collapsed bookcase.  “Perhaps you can give one of them a boost—!”

        “I read you!”  I exclaimed.  Trying to steady my breaths, I planted all four hooves tightly against the floor and concentrated hard through my horn.  With the most intensely focused burst of mana I've ever summoned in my life, I levitated the wooden plank upwards and pierced it through the sphere of swirling energy.  “Nnnngh...”  I strained and sweated as I attempted shoving the thing towards the dormant, moaning figure of Rainbow Dash.  It felt like carving a plastic butter knife through wet cement.  “I... I-I don't think I can reach her!”

        “Then don't!”  Doctor Whooves shouted.  The bass hum of the machine was intensifying once more.  We both felt the advent of another mana-burst coming from the sundered teleporter.  “Miss Sparkle's closer!  Try and pull her out first!”  He pointed.  “Then the two of you might be able to work together and get Rainbow Dash out!”

        “Twilight!” I shouted as I pivoted the plank her way.  “Did you hear the Doctor?  Grab ahold!”

        “I... I...”  Twilight blindly lifted a hoof and miraculously found her end of the wooden object.  “Who... Who is that...?”

        “Let's play guessing games later!”  I shouted.  The windows started rattling again.  Glass that had fractured before was outright shattering as I tugged telekinetically at my end of the plank.  “Just hold on tight!  I need your help in saving—”

        “Rainbow Dash!”  Twilight cried.  She stared in horror at Rainbow's limp body while she was being tugged towards me.  “Just hang in there!”  She cast one look at the ruptured cube that was aimed at the pegasus and almost sobbed.  “Oh please Celestia, no...”

        “Nnngh... Tw-Twilight...”  Rainbow Dash barely stirred.  Her feathers were practically molting from the machine's proximity.

        “Do you hear me?!”  Twilight stammered as I finally pulled her over to me and the Doctor.  She collapsed into my forelegs and tried to regain her bearings.  “Just... Just breathe easily, and we'll have you out of there—”

        The machine began pulsing.  A wave of pure magic knocked all three of us onto our backsides.  I stumbled accidentally over Doctor Whooves' bleeding leg, causing him to shriek in pain.  By the time I got up to my hooves once more, I was assaulted by a sudden beam of pure sunlight.  It took several seconds of wincing to realize that the front door to the library had been flung open.

        “What in hay's name is going on in here?!  Is everypony alright—?”  A high-pitched voice began, then gasped, then practically shrieked.  “Rainbow Dash!”

        I next heard Twilight breathily murmuring, “Oh no... Stop!  Go back outside!  Don't come anywhere near her!”

        I looked up at the library's front entrance.  The first things I saw were the four spinning wheels of an overturned scooter.  My heart sank, and my wavering sight danced over to see her little orange body practically swimming against the waves of nauseous mana.

        “Listen to me, Scootaloo!”  Twilight shrieked.  I numbly helped her to her hooves as she shouted above the noise and bedlam.  “Go back!  Don't try to touch her!  That machine's about to blow—”

        “She's... She's h-hurt!”  Scootaloo squeaked into the billowing streams of energy.  Her gnashing teeth reflected streams of murderous violet light as she inched herself painfully towards Rainbow Dash.  Whether or not she heard Twilight's words of warning no longer mattered.  We watched helplessly from our end of the library in utter horror.  “We... I... I-I gotta get Rainbow out of here!”

        “Mmmf... Wh-what...?”  As if sparked to life by the sound of her own name, Rainbow Dash's eyes fluttered open.  She saw Scootaloo.  She saw the pain in her face.  Then, she saw the cosmic glow of the teleporter on the verge of erupting.  With one gasp, she snarled Scootaloo's way and poured all her strength in raising a numb forelimb.  “Kid!  Back off!  I mean it—”

        For a brief moment, Scootaloo collapsed on four knees.  She winced from the contact her bandaged leg made with the library floor.  That must have sparked a fire from deep within.  Her eyes blazed as she summoned an animalistic growl, fluttered her tiny wings, and propelled herself like a comet into Rainbow Dash's side.

        “No!  Don't—” Doctor Whooves was shrieking.

        But it was too late.  The machine exploded for a second and last time.  A stream of purple energy popped out the box's torn mouth and billowed across the wooden floor.  Rainbow Dash gasped, until her tumbling body was replaced by Scootaloo, who was then replaced with nothing.  In a bright burst, the filly was gone, and only a dim purple haze remained.

        Once the noise and mayhem of the disaster had dissipated, Rainbow Dash's yelling voice was immediately filling the void.

        “Dang it!  Dang it dang it dang it dang it!”  Her dizziness replaced with shock and anger, she tried bounding up to her limbs.  She only managed to bump into several bookcases and shattered bits of laboratory equipment.  “Nnnnngh—Raaaugh!”  She bucked her hooves repeatedly into a wooden table, viciously knocking it over and spitting into the air.  “Idiot!  What in the hay did she think she was doing?!  That... nnngh... stupid... stupid...”

        The cube lay dead and quiet.  No longer encumbered by waves of mana, I numbly stumbled over towards her and helped her up onto all fours.  “She... She...”  I mumbled in a dry voice, gulped, and gazed at the charred ring of soot that marked where Scootaloo was standing last.  “She... was teleported away.  She had to have been!  Miss Dash, if we could just—”

        “Hmmmph!”  She seethed and shoved me to the floor before marching across the library.  “Twi!  Tell me!  Where is she?!  Where'd that dumb machine send her?!”

        Twilight Sparkle was gazing at the empty space of the library with her jaw agape.  Her eyes were moist, on the verge of tears.

        “Twilight!”  Rainbow Dash grabbed her shoulders and shook her.  “Look at me!”

        Twilight gulped and looked at Rainbow Dash.  Her lips quivered.  “I... I don't know, Rainbow.  If I had any idea that this could have happened...”

        “But it has happened!”  Rainbow Dash growled.  “That stupid thing teleports crud to places, right?  So where's the kid?  Did it send her nine hundred feet across town or what?”

        “There's no way to tell,” Doctor Whooves suddenly muttered.

        Rainbow Dash spun to face him.  “Bad answer!” She frowned.  “I'm having a look!”  She stretched her wings to fly out—

        “No!  Stop!”  The Doctor winced past his bleeding pain and gestured for her to remain in place.  “I mean it!  The machine's energy output magnified Miss Sparkle's enchantment by ten-fold!  Furthermore, the damage dealt to the machine can't guarantee that the child was sent anywhere predictable!”

        “Just tell me where to go searching for her, Doc!”  Rainbow Dash exclaimed.  She steeled herself with a frown to avoid  imminent hyperventilation.  “I don't think that teleportation thingy is very foal-friendly!”

        “What I think the Doctor is trying to say is that the machine did in fact send Scootaloo somewhere, but there's no telling where exactly!”  Twilight Sparkle teetered, still attempting to regain her balance.  “It... It could have been in any direction.”

        “That isn't helping, Twi!”

        “Just give me a second...”  Twililight limped across the room.  We watched anxiously as she picked up a collapsed blackboard, levitated a piece of chalk, and began flurrying through an array of high-level math equations at dazzling speed.  Her forehead was furrowed in deep thought.  Her lips murmured unintelligibly.

        “With that rate of discharge,” Doctor Whooves spoke between painful breaths, “A body that small would have been sent at least five times the distance we had estimated teleporting the last test subject.”

        “Yeah?  So what?”  Rainbow Dash fluttered desperately between the two scientists.  “What does that mean?  What do I have to work with?”

        “Just let me concentrate!”  Twilight snapped, gritting her teeth as she struggled through a few lasting equations.  She clenched her eyes shut, murmured breathily, then struck a final figure.  Spinning around, she gazed up at a wide-eyed Rainbow Dash and practically whimpered, “She could be anywhere in a thirteen mile circular area.”

        “With this place—the location of the teleporter—as the center,” the Doctor added in a forlorn breath.

        Rainbow Dash gazed left and right between the two.  She flung her forelimbs above her tattered mane.  “What does that tell me?”

        “She could could be two miles north of us, two miles south of us, southwest, southeast—There's no real way to tell!”  Twilight Sparkle said and gulped nervously.

        Rainbow Dash took a deep breath, her ruby eyes hardening.  “Well, what are we waiting for?”  She made for the nearest shattered window.  “Twilight, you tell the mayor that I'm fetching every able-bodied pegasus in Ponyville.  We're combing the area!  We'll search all day and night and all week if we have to!”

        “It's not a matter of if you find her, Miss Dash!”  The Doctor exclaimed.  “It's a matter of how soon.”

        “Why?”  Rainbow Dash flashed him a frown.  “What now?”

        He bit his lip, exchanged a worried glance with Twilight, then looked once more Rainbow's way.  “No living thing has ever been teleported by a machine like this before.”  He winced and sat up straight while clutching his wounded leg.  “All hypotheses suggest that a living pony may survive spatial displacement, but not for long.”

        “What do you mean 'not for long'?” Rainbow Dash's voice cracked in horror.

        “What he means, Rainbow, is that Scootaloo—wherever she is—will soon lose her faculties, followed by swift paralysis, on account of her body being separated from her incorporeal self.”  Twilight tried to calmly explain the horror of the situation.  “The machine has essentially disconnected her from the leylines that keep her consciousness and physical self in perfect sync.  In a matter of time, her body will cease to function, like a sort of magically-induced suffocation.”

        “Then... Then...”  Rainbow Dash fidgeted in mid-air, bit her lip, then barked, “Then we must fetch her and bring her to a smart, magicky unicorn like you so you can... c-can put back together her leylines and crud, right?”

        “I...”  Twilight Sparkle squirmed where she stood.  “I've never tried something like that before—”

        “But is it possible?”

        “Well, sure!  But—”

        “Then it's enough to go on!”  Rainbow Dash pointed.  “Get the Doc to a hospital!  I've got a rescue team to round up!”

        “Miss Sparkle... Miss Dash...”  Doctor Whooves winced as Twilight propped him up against her.  “I must apologize for this series of disastorous events—”

        “Apologies can wait, Doc!  Scoots needs us!”

        “But... Everypony just wait!”  My voice sounded across the room as I jumped into the center of the library, waving my hooves.  “We can't go about this blindly!  There's gotta be—I dunno—a way to know for sure just where the kid is!”

        All three jumped in place, glancing at me.

        “Uhm... Who...?”

        “Where'd you come from?”  Twilight Sparkle blinked.

        My eyes twitched.  I was amazed at how quickly even I had forgotten a case of misfortune within misfortune.  “Erm... I was... just...”

        “Were you here the whole time?”

        I snarled and stomped my hooves.  “Look, who cares?!  Seriously?”  I frowned in Doctor Whooves' face.  “It takes a light-based enchantment spell to activate the machine, right?”

        “How...”  He squinted nervously at me.  “How did you know—?”

        “Yes or no?  Answer me!

        “Yes.”  Twilight answered for him, staring at me warily.  “I channeled a light-intensive spell into the crystals that were then absorbed into the machine.  The runes built into the device do all the rest, transforming the spark into an artificial teleportation spell.”

        “Then, if it's light-based...”  I rubbed my chin in thought, then gasped wide.  “Perhaps an illumination spell can trace where the machine sent her!”

        “I...”  Twilight glanced at the twitching Rainbow Dash and wounded Doctor.  I could tell she was beyond her wit's end.  “I haven't performed a light spell in ages.  Even if I could...”

        As Twilight was speaking aloud, my mind was flying circles to make even Rainbow Dash proud.  I thought of the glow of a lantern above my head in a dark cellar while I performed the elegies.  I imagined the subterranean world undulating around me as I threw myself down a gauntlet of forbidden songs.  Shades of light had danced before me, just as a spark of inspiration was twinkling before me then.  “Don't worry!”  I grinned suddenly and galloped towards the hallway at a pace to match my heartbeat.  I found my saddlebag right where I had left it upon arriving at the library earlier to watch the experiment.  “I think I have it covered!”  I reached deep into one of the pouches and produced my lyre.  “I know a song that has a side effect of disseminating faint light from shadow and—”

        The hairs of my coat stood on end as a deep chill entranced me.  Shuddering, I stumbled in place.

        “Uhm... Guys?”

        I turned around.  My heart sank.

        Twilight Sparkle and Doctor Whooves had hobbled away.  Outside the shattered windows, I could hear the yelling voice of Rainbow Dash as she rounded up every pegasus within earshot.

        I took a deep breath.  One way or another, I always end up alone.  But Scootaloo?  I suddenly wanted to find her more than anything.  It’s not everyday I find out that I’m not the only pony who’s incapable of flying out of this place.

        I looked at my lyre.  The golden body and taut cords felt cold to the touch, just like what I was about to do.  I felt naked and awkward in the middle of a rubble-strewn library.  It amazed me how acquainted I had become with the dark, pristine interior of my subterranean cellar.  Nevertheless, I trotted over towards the wrecked cube, stood above it with my instrument, and took a deep breath.


Just perhaps... these elegies were given to me for a reason.  What’s a pain to me could be blissful deliverance to others.  I’ve long discovered my music to have an edge that my words fail to deliver.  Luna’s compositions have transcended the obscuring layers of time, delving into a realm of pure forgetfulness only to emerge with new and enchanting tonality in my hooves.  I’ve taken it upon myself to become the steward of these forgotten songs.  Did I have another thankless job to attend?  Was I to be the nameless steward of souls as well?

I may not be a courageous pony, but I like to think of myself as an intelligent one.  Princess Luna's songs had once served her some mysterious purpose in ages gone by.  Though the function of the tunes are forgotten, it doesn't mean I can't invent new applications for them.  If I'm not here to be creative and resourceful, then why else would a phantom like me exist?  I was never born to be a hero, but I'd hate myself forever if I failed to be a good bard.

        Once I had collected my nerves in the center of that wrecked room, I put my telekinesis to use, and began strumming the first of the lunar elegies.  The dissonant strings of the “Prelude to Shadows” slowly filled the lengths of the library.  Ironically, the first portion of the symphony was all that I required.  I had no intention to play any of the tunes that followed.

        Less than a minute into the performance, and the side effects of the elegy began assaulting me without mercy.  I started trembling all over as a deep paranoia overwhelmed my body and mind.  I wasn't used to playing this song in the daylight, and I felt like everything that was lying still around me was suddenly squirming to life.  Despite my desperate need to clench my eyes shut, I kept them wide open, taking in every horrid hallucination that dared to flicker and jump before me until a ray of truth made itself known.

        Through the dancing shadows and squirming shades of the song's eerie tones, I finally found what I was looking for.  Beams of light separated before me, so that I saw with a mystic sight-within-sight, discovering a spectrum unknown to most mortals.  The bands of brightness separated, and soon one ray in particular was arching away from the heart of the dead teleporter.  It was a fresh beam of luminescence, as infant as it was artificial.  I stopped playing my lyre and drifted forward, breathing it in.  It tasted like vanilla and bone.  The dreadful succulence led me—limping—straight out of the library, until I nearly collapsed from the waves of cold that resulted from my having aborted the magical elegy in mid-performance.

        My heart pumped, wracked with darting fears.  I fought the flowers and grass squirming around me like a sea of snakes.  Tilting my head up, I was enraptured to see the beam leading straight northwest, past the edge of town, past Sweet Apple Acres, and towards the base of a misty mountain range that—sure enough—was no more than three miles' distance.

        I now knew where Scootaloo was.

        My breath came out of me in a happy whimper.  I was so hammered with cold and frayed nerves, I would gladly have collapsed right there.  But I couldn't.  The afternoon air above Ponyville was buzzing with more and more swarming pegasi.  The streets thundered with scampering hooves and murmuring voices.  The entire city had come alive in panic.  One of the town's precious foals had gone missing by the most bizarre of circumstances, and she had to be found.

        Wincing, I pulled myself up on all fours.  “Nnngh... Twi... Tw-Twilight...”  I murmured.  I shuffled forward, teetering sickly.  The Prelude's toll on me was almost worse than the exploding teleporter's.  Like a zombie, I limped through town.  I put two and two together in my head and guessed where Twilight had taken the Doctor.  I was elated beyond measure when I stumbled upon the front entrance to the Ponyville Hospital and—indeed—I had found her.

        She wasn't alone.  While Nurse Redheart and several other ponies were tending to Doctor Whooves, Twilight was speaking a mile-a-minute with a distressed mayor.  Among the other ponies surrounding the frantic scene, I spotted a familiar soul...

        “Please!  You must find her!”  Milky White sobbed.  Carrot Top and Colgate were standing on either side of the sobbing mare, holding her up and nuzzling her.  “That poor filly's been through so much!  I brought her here to Ponyville to start a new life and forget about where she had been!  This is the last thing I could have ever imagined would happen!”

        “I promise you, Miss White,” Twilight Sparkle planted her hooves on the mare's shoulder.  Her fragile desperation was hidden from everypony me, her foalhood friend.  “We will find Scootaloo!  Rainbow Dash is already on it!  I need you to stay calm and let us all conduct a search—”

        “She's northwest!” I grunted, coughed, and all but collapsed into the group.  I heard Caramel's murmuring breath as I was helped back into a standing position.  “Scootaloo's northwest of here!  Don't waste your time searching anywhere else...”

        Twilight and the others squinted hard at me.  “How... How could you possibly know that?”

        “The teleporter was enchanted by a light spell, right?”

        “Uhm... Yes.”  Twilight gave me a strange look.  “What's your point?  Just who are you?  We kind of have a situation here—”

        “Yes—Right—And I'm trying to tell you where Scootaloo is!” I snarled as the confused looks around me doubled, tripled.  “I cast a spell that revealed to me a light trail leading to where the teleporter sent Scootaloo!  You need to send everpony about two and a half miles northwest—!”

        “Twilight!”  Rainbow Dash floated down, flanked by the hovering figures of Cloudkicker and Raindrops.  “I've got a team of fifty already!  I sent Candy Mane and Blossomforth to fetch more!  How should we go about doing this?”

        Twilight immediately spun and replied.  “We shouldn't waste precious pegasi on nearby areas.  You should fly over the furthest parts of the teleporter's range while earth ponies and unicorns cover the town.”

        “Yes!” the mayor spoke up.  “Everypony, listen!  Gather in groups of three and cover a separate district of the village!  Carrot Top!  Go fetch Applejack and Big Macintosh and work out a plan with the other farm families to cover the nearby woods—”

        “Hey!”  I barked as a wave of chills racked me in the middle of the scrambling villagers.  “Didn't you hear me?!  I just said I know where she is—”

        “Nnngh...”  Twilight rubbed her forehead.  She gazed at me with mixed disgust and nausea.  “Huh?  What are—Who's yelling?  We need to—”

        “Pay attention!!”  I leaned forward, panting.  “Scootaloo's northwest of here!”  I glanced frantically at everypony, feeling the situation swiftly slipping away from my hooves.  “Just calm down, stay next to me, and listen!  I promise, I can help you find her—”

        “What are we standing around for?!”  Rainbow Dash shouted.  She was twenty feet above us.  She might as well have been four galaxies away from me.  “We need to find her and bring her back here so that Twilight can—I dunno—mind delve her or something!”

        “Better hurry, Miss Dash!”  Doctor Whooves exclaimed, wincing as Nurse Redheart treated him.  “Every moment wasted risks losing Scootaloo forever!”

        “What... What does he mean?”  Milky White sobbed.

        “Just calm down!  Please!”  I shouted.  “I know where she is—”

        “Now's not the time for practical jokes,” Carrot Top said, frowning at me.  “Unless you're able to help—”

        “I just told you seconds ago that I conducted a spell that can help us—”

        “I better get prepared for her return,” Twilight Sparkle said, rubbing her head again as she stumbled towards Doctor Whooves.  “If I'm not meditating by the time she gets here, I may not be able to reattach her to the leylines.”

        “Everypony fan out!”  Rainbow Dash said, darting off as her fellow pegasi spread in opposite directions.  “Counter-clockwise formations!”

        “I'll get the Apple Family!”  Carrot Top galloped away.

        “No—No wait!  Please!”  I reached out, but stumbled to my haunches, panting.  Everypony was running everywhere but towards me.  The desperation and panic in their bodies was pulling them away from my body like unraveled yarn.  If this was any other day, any other occasion, then perhaps I could very easily have plucked a receptive soul out from Ponyville's bitter-cold sea of amnesia.  But this...

        I shivered, hugging myself, watching as the fruitless search began under a slowly setting sun... what could very well have been a foal's last day on earth.

        Numbly, I stumbled into my cabin.  I plopped my saddlebag atop my cot.  I let my body slump down on the floor before the fireplace.

        I did not light it.

        I stared into the dry, unlit lumber lying before me.  There were so many ashes, so many dead and lifeless flakes of brittle wood, and still I was no warmer that day than I was the first morning I was introduced to my curse.

        My ears pricked.  The veteran musician inside me couldn't help but hear the faintest of shouting voices beyond the windows to my house.  The search was going on across Ponyville.  Dozens upon dozens of ponies were desperately combing miles of acreage, and they were all blind.

        I knew where Scootaloo was.  I knew she was suffering, dying even.  I also knew that wherever she was—she'd be better off than me.

        Two miles—maybe three—from the center of Ponyville:  I had never even remotely gotten that far from the birthplace of my curse, not even that one time Twilight had personally teleported me.  The furthest I ever dared to tread was to Zecora's place in the middle of the Everfree Forest, and even that was a paltry mile-and-a-half distance at best.  Every time I came back home from buying those precious soundstones, it took the better part of a day to warm my body back to being able to feel once again.

        I heard more shouts of pegasus voices outside.  Wincing, I clenched my eyes shut and ran a pair of hooves through my mane.

        I was born to a rich family in the streets of Canterlot.  The first and only time I hurt myself was one day, when I was a foal and I had spranged my ankle chasing the family cat down the stairs.  I only wore a cast for half a month, and still I thought it was the most excruciating pain a pony could ever go through.  Afterwards, I grew up, and I lived my life day by day, book after book, music sheet after music sheet, in the luxury of college life, in the glow of an alicorn princess who guarded and watched over us all.  What did I know of agony?  What did I know of struggle?  Even this curse—for all its frigid horrors—is painted with the rosy colors of friendly faces who would gladly help a stranger, would talk to her, would even hug her.

        I am not hero material.  If anything, my soul is empowered with patience, not courage.  I don't have a single versatile inch of muscle or intestinal fortitude to boast of.

        That day, shivering before a fireplace that I was too guilty to light for myself, I knew that all I had was knowledge, a memory.  I knew where Scootaloo was.  I could remember it, where everypony else couldn't.  If one soul was to die that day, I knew another that would not be able to live with herself.

        If this is what Nightmare Moon had meant for me, then I respect her as much as I hate her.

        I threw myself to my hooves before my brain had a chance to protest.  The first thing I threw over my hoodie was Rarity's gorgeous sweater.  Next came a second coat—one that I had barely used and still smelled like the dumpster I grabbed it from nine months ago.  I added the scarf, socks, and stockings next.  The woolen cap and cloak covered the entire ensemble.  As if all of this didn't weigh enough, I brought along my saddlebag and stuffed it full of blankets.  I hadn't realized it at first, but I was sobbing by the time I marched out the cabin's front door.  No single pony faces the reaper with dry eyes.  Bundled like a woolen tank, I enjoyed the last few drops of sweat I was allowed, and galloped northwest under the shadows of misguided pegasi in the decaying afternoon.

        This wasn't the Everfree Forest, but I wished it was.  No less than ten minutes into marching through the woods, I realized how terribly hilly it was.  Every other step sent me stumbling over a sharp rock or exposed bit of stone.  Pulling myself back up was a difficult feat.  My bundled clothing stiffened my limbs, so that I felt like I was wading through a sea of bed blankets.  No matter how much I wanted to free my legs, I couldn't afford to shed a single scrap.  I may have been shivering then, but I knew that in less than an hour I'd be traversing a veritable arctic circle.

        Twenty minutes in.  I couldn't feel my lower legs.  At first, I thought it was because the cold had already hit me.  I soon realized that it was because I was getting worn out by clopping my hooves over so much stone and pebbles.  I was foolish to think that the mountainside would start abruptly far north of my destination.  As a matter of fact, the mountain was gradually giving birth to itself beneath me with each step I took.  I've gone on several jogs in my life, but each occasion had been on even ground, and never scaling uphill.

        It didn't help that the sun was setting.  The light was already being obscured by the thick sea of trees surrounding me.  To my utter dismay, the forest only grew denser and denser the further north I marched.  I was so desperate to get to Scootaloo's location, it hadn't dawned on me just how easily I could get lost from my goal.  If I had to readjust my bearings, it was now or never... before I lost any of my senses to the frigid wall I was just about to pierce.

        Pausing, I sat on my haunches and pulled my lyre out from my saddlebag.  It took a long time to focus my telekinetic talents.  It took even longer to gear myself for playing the “Prelude to Shadows” out in the middle of such a foreboding location.  My entire body tensed as I heard the enchanting elegy drip forth from my trembling instrumentation.  Soon enough, I relocated the beam of light tracing Scootaloo's teleported path.  It swam over me like a frozen lightning bolt, leading me further towards the neck of the mountainside.  It was with small relief that I found the Prelude's normal waves of paranoia failing to engulf me.  Then, I realized, I had become so tense and frightened with my present task that the elegy's side effects had simply become unnoticeable.

        Without wasting any time, I pocketed the lyre away and marched after the streak of light.  It shone above me like a burning plume of platinum fire.  I saw my breaths forming against the dense woods before me.  The magical beam grew brighter and brighter, and that was how I knew night was coming.  If there were pegasi swarming overhead, I could no longer see them.  I could only focus on each hoofstep I made as I scaled hill after hill, because soon I couldn't concentrate on anything else.

        The first wave of cold hit.  I imagined that I was a mile out.  Every time I opened my mouth, I felt as if my very own saliva would freeze, and yet it was all I could do to stop from suffocating.  Bundled as I was, I felt like I was carrying a small house up the side of a mountain.  I knew that if even so much as my scarf fell off, I might freeze to death right there, and yet to stop and think twice meant robbing another second of life from Scootaloo.  It's hard to convince oneself of another pony's plight when all one feels is the stabs of icy pins and needles with each trot.  I pulled my body forward, attempting to convince myself that I had been in worse spots, then trying to make myself believe that the previous attempt wasn't such a blatant lie.

        The second wave of cold hit, and it felt more like a wall of invisible snow than an actual wave.  I no longer felt like I was walking; I was burrowing.  My hooves were carving their way through powdery mounds of frost.  I felt as though my eyes were being stabbed, and I realized it was because my tears were freezing.  There was a pathetic whimpering sound in my ears.  I gasped, thinking I had stumbled upon Scootaloo, but then realized that those tiny whimpers belonged to me.  I almost wondered if I was the one who had been zapped with the teleporter instead, for my soul felt as if it had been disconnected with the puppet legs flagrantly tossing it forward.

        And that is how I discovered pain.  I mean true pain, the sort of pain that a body is not meant to endure, only to dream of, toying with nightmares that fuel us into avoiding stupid, self-destructive actions during the waking day.  It's the sort of pain that exists as a last ditch spark to startle a ghost and fling it back—screaming—straight into the body where it belongs, as a final means of avoiding death.  And there I was marching straight into the gaping maw of that very same oblivion, and for what?  Even if I was lucky enough to get to Scootaloo in time, what chance did I have to bring her to Twilight swiftly enough for my old friend to maybe or maybe not save the foal's life?

        The fact of the matter was—dead or not—I would never earn myself a gravestone.  But Scootaloo...

        There were tears in this world that belonged to her, and all of them incalculably warmer than mine.  I snarled at the mountain.  I screamed at it, clawed at it, and pulled myself up it.  It felt pretty intense at the time, but I'm sure all of my utterances came out as kitten mews against a great pale planetoid.  Trees surrounded me like gray mane hairs, and I was a starving flea hopping away from the throbbing arteries.  I glided through a land of stale blue ice, painted with horrors that I had only ever read about, poetically fantasized about, until it all slammed down around me with the sudden shriek of twinkling stars, and that's how I realized something had woken me from my frozen stupor, three shivering hours into the suicidal climb.

        “Nnngh—Gah!” My eyes flew open and I shot up, bundled like a funeral shroud.  Instead of a coffin, I found myself surrounded by granite and wood.  It was the very crest of the mountainside.  The sun was bleeding over the blurry edges of Ponyville lying to the southeast.  I thought I heard a vulture shrieking above me, until those shrieks turned into fitful sobs.  I looked up, and I saw her.

        Scootaloo was dangling, upside-down and paralyzed, with her tail-hairs caught in the angry spokes of a dead tree.  I was sobbing.  I knew I was.  The world blurred and unblurred as I stood up and reached towards her.

        And then I fell down.

        I gasped.  I couldn't feel my body.  I was a shell, deader than the rock around me.  I was afraid to look at my hooves in the scant twilight afforded me, for fear that I might see blue lifeless skin peering through my mint green coat.  I tried to stand up, the best I could do was roll over.  I felt sudden, sharp bites of pain from where my body stumbled over rough pebbles.  The fact that any of my nerves still answered to torment was a very queer thrill at the time.  I embraced the jolt running through me and sat up, reaching two alien hooves overhead in a desperate bid to reach her.

        There was no denying it.  Scootaloo was less than two feet away.  Still, I couldn't so much as touch her.  If I was rescuing an adult, I would have cursed up a storm.  Instead, I focused, imagined a tune from my childhood—anything to center myself—and propelled that energy through my horn.  There was a brief green spark as I surged a burst of telekinesis towards the stars.  Thankfully, the branch holding Scootaloo happened to be in the way, and it snapped.  Scootaloo plunged towards me like an orange comet.  I caught the foal with whatever part of my body was least painful to her.

        “Ooof!”  I shrieked, rediscovering the mists of my breath as I tumbled under her weight.  The severed branch that had once held her bounced ineffectually away into the shadows of the night.  I briefly wondered if I too might have snapped.

        “Nnngh... Where...?”  Scootaloo flailed, twitched.  She was like a newborn, adrift in a wave of confusing shadows and nausea.  Her eyes never once stopped rolling back in her head.  “Who... Wh-Who...?”

        “Y-Your t-t-ticket out of h-h-here,” some voice replied, horrifying me with its frigid stutters.

        “I... I can't...”  Scootaloo sobbed.  Scootaloo retched.  Scootaloo stammered, “I-I can't... can't feel...”

        “You and m-m-me b-both, k-kiddo.”  Something was putting her on my back as the world spun one hundred and eighty degrees.  I was beside myself with horror.  My eyes were playing a simulation of me stumbling down the mountainside, and suddenly that simulation became real.  “J-J-Just hang on t-t-tight.  Whatever y-you d-d-do, don't let g-go.  I'm g-g-going to get you h-home.”

        “My wings...”  She trembled all over.  Something colder than a glacier was stabbing my back in several places.  Scootaloo's teardrops were like a sea of knives.  “I... I can't feel my wings...”

        If I was a stronger pony, I wouldn't have replied to that.  “I kn-know you c-c-can't, Scootaloo.”

        “But... But I—”

        “I'm g-gonna get you home.  That's all I can do—”  No sooner were those words uttered, I saw the dark earth plunging towards my face.  “Unngh!”  I had slipped on a boulder and was sliding blindly down a hill of pebbles.  The night sky blurred, and I no longer felt the icy pain in my back.  “Sc-Scootaloo!”

        I gasped, tumbled, and reached my hooves out as soon as I saw a shade of orange.  I wrapped her in my forelimbs before she could get nearly as banged up as I.  That was all that mattered, and next came the breath of air being flung out of my body as I fell the last five feet to the bed of leaves and branches looming below.

        “Nnnngh!”  I weathered the wave of pain surging through my frame.  After several freezing moments, I unfolded my arms and found her shivering identically in my grasp.  “S-Say something.”

        She gulped and clutched tighter to me.  “Owie...”

        “Good enough.”  I picked her up again.  I picked myself up again.  I considered donating her one of the many blankets in my saddlebag, until I realised just how sweaty she was.  The night was so chaotic and excruciating, I easily forgot I was the only blisteringly cold soul in Equestria.  I navigated the hillside like a drop of molasses, serenaded by Scootaloo's frightened sobs.  “Gotta... find... Gotta get somewhere...”  I gulped and teetered left and right.  I could have sworn I was going in the right direction, but the Sun had disappeared and I no longer knew east from west.  If I still had the energy left to play the Prelude, I would much rather have started a forest fire to grab some pegasus' attention.  “Gotta get one of the ponies to see us... so they can fetch Twilight and... and...”

        “So... So tired...” I heard Scootaloo say.  Each word was a gunshot to my startled ears.  “Just... want it all to be quiet—”

        “No!  No!” I shouted.  I snarled.  Through the nightmarish cold, I felt her broken wings fluttering against my shivering flesh.  We were both prisoners of a shadowy world, and only one of was deserved to go free.  “Stay awake, Scootaloo!  Stay with me!”

        “Can't... Just... Just want to—”

        “Talk about something!  Tell me about your fami—”  My tongue limped half as badly as my legs did.  I gulped dryly and spoke to the invisible blizzard slicing across my face.  “Tell me who you want to be like, more than anypony in the world!”  I inched my way forward.  With each successive trot, my limbs grew weaker and weaker.  I could have sworn I discovered absolute zero.  My heartbeats were miles apart.  “Better yet, tell me why!”

        “She... She isn't afraid of anything...” Scootaloo's voice came as a gentle drip between hiccups.  It was the last piece of warmth I had to go by.  All of the bundled clothing felt like a thin paper napkin between me and her burning presence.  “She does everything by herself, and yet she's loyal to everypony...”

        I was stumbling at this point, lurching, crumbling.  I pulled myself on scuffed knees, my quivering eyes locked onto a patch of gray haze ahead of us: a clearing.  If I could get there, and maybe start a fire...

        “Y-yeah?” My voice danced on ectoplasmic strings, entreating her as I wormed myself pathetically in the dirt, slowly entombing myself in the saturated earth.  “What else?”

        “Sh-She's brave.” Scootaloo clung to the last feeling bits of me.  Her voice was soaring away at the speed of light.  I drunkenly envisioned it as the foal's maiden flight.  “She's... She's like me.”  A sob, a gasp, then a whimper:  “And I hate being alone...”

        “You're not...”  I panted, yanking my head forward, but my legs weren't obeying me.  The ice had crept up to my spine.  The clearing was a continent away, and the only thing not failing me was my voice, the last semblance of my soul.  “You're not alone...”  I scraped the surface of oblivion in fitful desperation, trying to leave an etch that could be remembered.  “You're n-never alone...”  My mouth stopped talking as soon as my chin collapsed into the wet soil.

        When the light left my eyes, I did not think about my parents.  I did not think about Twilight Sparkle or Moondancer.  I did not think about the fireplace, Applejack's neighborly drawl, or Rarity's fabulous sweater.  I did not think about Luna’s undiscovered elegies or unwritten compositions.  I did not even think about Morning Dew's voice and what it did to my heartbeat.

        All I thought about was Scootaloo, about her wings, and how there'd be nopony to remember those words of hers, because she passed away in my forelimbs and not theirs.

        No, I was not dying a hero, but I knew who was.  It was a noble thought, warm enough on its own.  I held it gently to myself as I embraced the endless night.

        It was the emptiness in my forelegs, and not the flames, that woke me.

        My eyes flew open.  A campfire was being lit right beside me.  It was so close, I could stick my tongue out and taste the flickering sparks.  I did just that, and it burnt my tongue, making me realize that I was indeed alive.

        I jerked—violently at first.  When I next tried sitting up, I realized that I was still freezing cold, and shivered madly like a reanimated corpse.  Squinting, I looked up to see a pale pegasus squatting over the tiny blaze, applying the finishing touches with a cluster of flint and steel in her hooves.

        “Come on... Come on... There we go.  That should just about do it—”

        “Cloudkicker!” a familiar, raspy voice barked from several feet away.  “The heck are you doing over there?!  This is no time to roast marshmallows!”

        “But... Rainbow Dash!” the pegasus pointed right at me.  “This unicorn here is freezing—”

        “The heck are you talking about?!  What unicorn?!  We got what we came out here for!”

        “I... But... Don't you see her?”

        “The only unicorn we should care about right now is Twilight!  And she's waiting for us!  Now stop horsing around and let's move!”

        Cloudkicker blinked.  A pale sheen glinted across her eyes.  The moon had risen, and she reeled briefly in a dazed manner.  “Huh... Y-You're right.  What... What was I thinking?”  I watched as her shadowed figure marched blindly over me, then took to the sky with a flurry of feathers.

        As she left, I saw two figures huddled a few yards from me.  Rainbow Dash was squatting, cuddling the shivering figure of Scootaloo in her grasp.

        “Shhhh... It's okay, kiddo.  Can you hear me?”

        “R-Rainbow Dash?!”  Scootaloo gasped.  “Oh Rainbow Dash!  You found me!  I knew you'd come and save me!”

        “Just relax, pipsqueak.  We're not out of the woods yet.  I'm going to get you to Twilight.  She has a trick that'll get you as good as new.”

        “Rainbow Dash...” the foal's voice sobbed.  “I-I was so scared...”

        “Yeah, well, lucky for everypony, that stupid machine landed you in the middle of this clearing.  Now hold on tight!”  Rainbow Dash scooped Scootaloo up in her forelimbs, flapped her sapphire wings, and bolted into the moonlight.  She soared straight towards Ponyville, leaving me with my shivers and the campfire.

        I took several panting breaths.  I turned over and—using my teeth—yanked my saddlebag open.  I finally made use of the many blankets there, praising Celestia for the fire that Cloudkicker had made before the curse sapped her and Rainbow Dash of reason.  As I huddled there besides the blessing warmth, I finally discovered the strength to sit up.  As I did so, I found my breath leaving me.

        Indeed, I was in the middle of the clearing.  The ground around me was solid, exposed granite.  With the moonlight shining down overhead, Scootaloo and I must have appeared like two inky dots against an alabaster sheet.  Any pegasus with an elementary skill in aerial sight would have spotted us in a blink.

        But... how in Celestia's name...?

        I had collapsed in the middle of the woods.

        Then... just how did we end up out here...?

        Fatefully, I turned around.  I scanned the edge of the hilly forest.  It was then that I saw it: a trail of leaves and scattered soil leading a solid swath from the treeline to where I sat, huddled with the campfire.

        I raised a hoof to my face.  The barest hint of feeling was returning to my nerves, just as I was becoming awash in joyful disbelief.


        She had dragged me.


        I murmured something.  My lips were chapped, but I delighted in the pain it took to smile.  I bundled the blankets around me.  This was not my cabin.  This was not my fireplace.  This was a mile away from town at best, with every inch of me still shivering from the cold.

        I had never felt more comfortable in my entire life.

        “It was the arcanium plate,” Doctor Whooves explained, hobbling as he strolled alongside Twilight Sparkle across the center of Ponyville several afternoons later.  “I installed it to act as a buffer between the heart of the teleporter and the object being teleported.  What I hadn't taken into account was that the material simultaneously acted as a mirror, and was reflecting waves of mana back into the center of the cube.”

        “That must have been what wore away the outermost layers of artificial leylines,” Twilight thought aloud, nodding.  She kept her pace slow so as to not exhaust the mending stallion's pained gait.  “With each subsequent test we ran, the machine passed our visual examinations on the outside, but we didn't realize to what extent the machine was being deteriorated from the inside out because of the constant waves of reflected magic.”

        “This village almost lost something precious because of my mistakes.He sighed, his head hanging.  “Maybe now's not the right time to leap upon artificial teleportation.  Assuming the Science Committee doesn't revoke my official laboratory privileges, I'm halfway tempted to put this whole experiment on the shelf for another decade.”

        “Hey, it's a mistake we both made, Doctor.”  She smiled and gently nudged him.  “You did everything in your power to help us track down Scootaloo.  I seriously doubt that the Committee will strip you of anything, and it would be a crime to see you quit such a promising endeavor after you've come so far.”

        He smiled bashfully.  “I see why Princess Celestia chose you to be her star pupil.  You are a boundless well of hope, Miss Sparkle.”

        “Heehee... Null hypotheses aside, even scientists can afford hope, Doctor.”

        Their voices grew distant, and in their place came Rainbow Dash's and Pinkie Pie's.

        “And so Cloudkicker and I were skimming the mountainside, and that's when I said, 'Let's give it one more pass!'”  Rainbow Dash, already hovering, performed a dramatic dive in mid-air.  “So I was like—SWOOSH—and then, out of the corner of my hawk-like vision, I totally saw her!  The little scamp was shivering cold, and she could barely open her eyes.  I knew I had to be extra careful while holding her.  There was no telling if any little jolt or dip in flight might—like—knock her spirit loose from her body or whatever it was that Twilight said the machine did to her.”

        “Wowie, Dashie!”  Pinkie Pie bounced gaily, her eyes bright as she took in the dramatic lengths of Rainbow's tale.  “I knew you could be super-gonzo-heroic!  But it's nice to know you can be super-gonzo-gentle too!”

        “Yup!  I cradled her like a baby!  And I've—like—cradled babies only twice in my life.  Well, maybe three times, if you count that one day I took Apple Bloom for a ride over Sweet Apple Acres.”

        “Apple Bloom's a baby?”

        “Well, she sure barfed like one!”

        “Heeheehee!  Well I'm just glad you and Twilight were able to stop Scootaloo from barfing!”  Pinkie Pie bounced.  “Oh, and dying!”

        “Heh... Yeah.  That was certainly a close one.”  Rainbow Dash flapped her wings while taking a deep breath.  “Y'know, Pinkie, I'm saving ponies everyday.  But Twilight?  It's not everyday she's on the 'superhero pony list.'”

        “Yeah!  We should totally get her a trophy or something!”

        “Heh!  Good idea.  Let's talk to Rarity about makin' one for her.  Cuz if there's anything I hate, it's when something truly awesome goes unpraised.”

        As they drifted by, I finished strumming the ten chords of the Eighth Elegy, repeated in variance so as to make a semblance of a melody.  I took a deep breath and shook my left hoof in front of my face.  Half a week had gone by; I was still barely getting the feeling back in my limbs.  Praise Celestia for telekinesis.  If I couldn't make music anytime I wanted to, I'd go as insane as this curse wants me to.

        Because that’s all a curse is made to do, right?  It afflicts a pony’s sanity, makes her wish for the sweet release of death.  Surely it doesn’t give her magical opportunities to save the day.  Or does it?

        I have long dreaded unraveling the eighth elegy, but suddenly it wasn’t half as foreboding a prospect as I first imagined it to be.  Along with the instrumental there would come a whole wave of frightening circumstance.  But what helpful side effects could Luna’s forgotten tune also bring?  I could only expect the magic of the song to be beneficial to anypony but me.  That’s what kept it a curse, and what maintained my task of re-discovering it so daring... or perhaps even brave.

        I sighed again, and then caught something orange in my peripheral vision.  My heart skipped a beat, for it was the first time I had seen her in hours.  I glanced over, and soon wasn't wasting anytime.  Zipping my lyre away in my saddlebag, I trotted over.  She wasn't looking at me.  Her gaze was halfway skyward.  I didn't need a compass to know it was pointed towards Rainbow Dash.


        Scootaloo blinked.  She looked up at me.  “Oh... Uhm... Hello there.”  She pointed at my saddlebag.  “Nice music, by the way.”

        I raised an eyebrow.  “You were listening to me just now?”

        “Yeah,” she said, her body deflating with a tranquil exhale.  “This city's full of sounds.  I don't notice it half the time, cuz I'm rarely sitting in one place, I guess.”

        Upon hearing that, I squinted curiously at her.  “Where's your scooter, anyways?”

        The foal rolled her eyes and angrily blew a lock of pink hair from over her brow.  “Milky White's taken it away from me this week.”

        “Wuh oh.  Did somepony get in trouble?”

        “Nah.  Not this time.”  She squirmed her rear hooves against the earth.  “Heh.  She said something about 'Me needing to get my bearings back.'  Pfft!  I feel just fine!  Ever since Twilight zapped me with her magic horn, I haven't felt the slightest bit dizzy!”  As soon as Scootaloo said that, she teetered ever so slightly with googly eyes, then blushed.  “Well, almost.”

        I smiled.  “If you ask me, I'd say Milky White was just trying to look out for you.”

        “Heh.  She's fussed over me a lot more than all the mares before her.”  Scootaloo took a deep breath and squatted low to the floor, folding her limbs underneath her as she gazed lonesomely across the village.  “I guess that means I'm stuck with her.”

        “That's a good thing, right?”

        Scootaloo bit her lip.  “Hmmm... It could be worse.”  Her stubby wings twitched uselessly.  “A lot worse.”

        I said nothing to that.

        When she noticed I wasn't leaving her side, she rolled her eyes and groaned:  “Alright.  Just get it over with..

        “I beg your pardon?  What is it you want me to get over?”

        The little foal cast me a wry smirk befitting a filly twice her age.  “You're about to gush over how amazing it is that I survived such a horrible accident and shower me with gifts.  Please—as much as I like attention, I've been dragged to Sugarcube Corner three times already.  My stomach hurts enough as it is.”

        “I would never think of such a thing.”  I said with a chuckle.  “After all, you strike me as... as a lot 'older' than most foals your age.”

        She briefly went cross-eyed before snickering at me.  “That's about the silliest thing I've ever heard.”

        “Is it really?”

        “Yeah, really.”  She sighed and stared once again across the village with sad eyes.  “Cuz I certainly don't feel cool enough to be older.  When I grow up, I wanna be just like Rainbow Dash!  I wanna do awesome things, and I wanna do them alone so that nopony else gets to steal my thunder!”

        I glanced at the ground and stirred where I sat.  “Yeah, well, some ponies hate being alone.”

        Scootaloo glanced up at me.  Her tiny feathers fluttered as she gulped and said, “I was alone once.  But then Rainbow Dash swooped down and saved me. She took me away from the mountainside when I was freezing to death from that crazy machine that zapped me.”  What came next was a triumphant smile, but something jaded hung on the edges of it.  “If it wasn't for her... I'd just be a stupid corpse in the middle of nowhere.”

        I sighed, but then smiled.  “Scootaloo...”

        She blinked awkwardly.  “You... Uhm... You know my name?”

        I squatted down in front of her.  I looked her square in the eyes, making contact where our gazes previously couldn't in a frantic night full of horror and shadows.  “For all I know—or anypony for that matter—Rainbow Dash is the greatest hero Equestria has ever known.”

        “Heck yeah, she is!”  Scootaloo beamed.  “She's terrific—”

        “But I don't need to convince you that the sort of feats that Rainbow Dash accomplishes, she could do in her sleep.”  I pointed at her chest.  “The bravest pony on that night was you.”

        She frowned.  “Me?”

        “Yes.”  I nodded.  “Because you went through scary things that you weren't prepared for.  You endured stuff that nopony your age—or any age—should ever have to endure.  It's facing the unknowable and making the impossible happen that determines true courage.  You, Scootaloo—You are a courageous pony.  I... I can only hope and pray that—as you grow older, someday exceeding even Rainbow Dash's age—that you remember that it was you that got you through that night, that it was your strength that got you to where you are now.”  I took a deep breath and smiled lovingly at her.  “Because once you recognize that strength inside of you, there's no telling how much you can... bless other ponies around you too, becoming an absolute hero yourself, something worthy of song and smiles.”

        Scootaloo blinked at me.  There was no telling when or where the accursed glint of moonlight would finally fall upon those bright, violet eyes.  But as she stared at me, and her grin brightened, and her tiny wings fluttered as if catching wind for the first time, I no longer cared about the grim curtains of life, but rather took the time to cherish something precious as it bloomed right there before me.

        “Hey!  Scoots!”


        We both looked aside.  A pair of young foals were waving at her from afar.

        “Heh... Right... I almost forgot...”  Scootaloo giggled, struck with the honey-sweet burst of a returning memory.  “I have some crusading to do tonight.  Uhm...”  She leaned in and whispered mischievously.  “Promise not to tell Milky White if you run into her?”

        I giggled and stood up.  “Go and be with your friends.”  I ushered her with a wave of the hoof.  “You have many years left to be courageous...”

        She scampered away on cue, leaving me under a cadence of giggles too holy for song.  I watched her and her two friends run towards the edge of town under the melting afternoon.  From where I stood, I couldn't tell where their pastel coats ended and the sunset began.

        It's a brave thing to be alone.  As long as I make song of it, I'm saving something.

        After all, it's never too late to be a hero.

Background Pony

VI - “Heroes and Bards”

by shortskirtsandexplosions

Special thanks to: theworstwriter, Props, TheBrianJ, and Daredevil

Cover pic by Spotlight 

        Dear Journal,

        When do we know that we've lost something?  Is it after we've spent all of our days trying to earn our keep, only to have all that's special to us taken away before our eyes?  Or is it after we've claimed something, only to have somepony else steal it from us?  Does a life of pride and hard work equate to pure agony when all of that effort is laid to ruin?

        Or, perhaps, we stand to lose something that is essential to us, something that makes us who and what we are.  Then, someday, that part of us crumbles away, and what choice do we have but to stand back and reevaluate ourselves, wondering if we were ever made up of the substance we used to value so heavily?

        I thought I had lost everything when this curse happened.  And, perhaps, I indeed had.  But there's something worse than loss, and I've come to believe that it's the actual knowledge of loss.

        Everything dies.  Of this, I am convinced.  Of this, I have no doubt.  But, until now, nothing had ever made that palpable to me.  Nothing had ever marched in on my life—cursed or uncursed—and showed me with the pale emotionless light of truth what it means to be part of something, and then to witness that something crumbling away.

        After all, the best things in life could very well be those that have been collapsing for as long as we've been alive.  Can a simple song restore the gaps of us that will forever remain empty?  Or can some of us—some of us who are blessed—be capable of filling those gaps with new and promising things that even death itself will tarry to drown?

        “Well, I'm certainly glad you came to me for practice, Miss Heartstrings,” Twilight Sparkle said.  I heard her voice slowly orbiting me.  It was difficult paying attention to both her and the field of energy I was summoning above myself, but I did the best that I could to multitask.  “Though this mostly takes careful concentration to master, it's not something that a unicorn can so easily learn on her lonesome.”

        “I'm beginning... to understand... just how difficult... this is...” I struggled to utter.

        Her voice giggled.  It should have been distracting, but it only made my heart jump.  “You're straining too hard,” she said.  “This isn't a telekinetic spell.  Protection buffs are all about summoning magic fields to do the hard stuff for you.  You don't need to put all of your strength into it.  The key is to relax.”

        “Relax?”  I stammered, feeling all four knees wobbling beneath me.  “Relax how?”

        “Well, for one, you don't have to keep your eyes shut like that.”

        I took a deep breath.  Carefully, I opened my lids.  A foggy library came into focus, in the center of which was Twilight's smiling face.

        “There.  Isn't that better?”  My foalhood friend said with a pleasant tone as she stood before me.  “There's no need for you to be inflicting so much stress on yourself.  You've already opened the necessary channels to your leylines.  Take slow breaths and allow your horn to do all the rest.”

        I gulped and nodded shakily.  “Okay, Miss Sparkle.”

        “Heehee... Call me Twilight.”

        “Okay, Twilight...”  I managed a weak smile.  My eyes twitched under the mint-green glow emanating directly out of my forehead.  I couldn't help but feel nervous.  My special talent was in music.  Sheer magical strength just wasn't my forte, and yet here I was in the middle of Twilight's domain, attempting to cast a low grade protection spell.

        As a matter of fact, much of my life since the curse began has consisted of me forcing myself to exercise magical feats that I would never have considered attempting before.  Until I came to Ponyville, the most I ever used my horn for was floating small objects around the house or strumming my lyre.  With each progressive month spent in that town, I've found myself lifting logs to build a cabin, casting light beams to illuminate the world at night, sparking flame to light a fireplace, and—of course—performing enchanted symphonies that flung my entire world upside down.

        To say that I needed a magical tutor was an understatement.  It's funny how I never once thought of asking for Twilight's help for more than just identifying the lunar elegies.  I suppose I've always felt like I'd be troubling her unnecessarily, regardless of whether or not I was a stranger to the young mare.  I soon realized, however, that I was treating my foalhood friend with kid's horseshoes.  She was no longer the little filly that I used to hang out with in the streets of Canterlot.  She was an adult—and much more than that, she was the most gifted magical unicorn in the entire town of Ponyville.  Of course she'd be more than capable of helping a stranger such as myself learn new things, regardless of the impromptu nature of such imposing requests.  I felt bad for underestimating her—not just for her gifts—but for her capacity for kindness and generosity.

        “I can't tell if I'm doing it or not,” I murmured, still sweating a bit.  “Can you tell if it's working?”

        She smiled and merely pointed a hoof over my horn.  “See for yourself.”

        Gulping, I glanced upward.  My eyes blinked upon registering a thin sheet of emerald energy stretched above me like a glowing tarp.  It was as if a dome of pure light had been erected just above my figure.  Every time my heart beat, I could see rivulets of magic surging through the luminescent structure.

        “Huh...” I managed.  “Well, if that isn't cute.”

        “It's remarkably well maintained!” Twilight exclaimed, gazing at the translucent dome as she paced around me.  “Especially now that you've decided to relax just like I told you.”  She paused and gave me a sly glance.  “Are you sure you haven't practiced this before, Miss Heartstrings?”

        I smiled back at her, still trembling slightly with the concentrated effort.  “Trust me, Twilight.  If I knew I could learn so much from you in one go, I would have visited this library sooner.”

        Truth is, I had visited her three times already, all in the same week.  I had learned fifteen more chords to the Eighth Elegy, and it dawned upon me that I'd never be able to play it if the “Threnody of Night” would just knock me unconscious and teleport me somewhere at random.  If I had any hope—any hope whatsoever—of performing all of Princess Luna's forgotten instrumentals, then I would have to master the art of magical buffs in order to protect myself from the many mysterious side effects that the symphony might afflict me with.

        “I almost wish you would visit me more often.”

        Twilight's comment there startled me.  I almost broke concentration as I flashed her a surprised glance.  “What...?”

        “Well, what I mean is...”  She rolled her eyes at herself and clarified, “I wish that unicorns in general would visit me more often so I could help them with their magical abilities.  I used to be a tutor back in Canterlot, assisting younger students in Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns.  The look on so many ponies' faces when they gain control of their talents is absolutely priceless.  Working here in Ponyville, I've been busy doing historical research and science experiments.  I've not really had the chance to assist others with magic like I used to.”

        “Well, I am... glad to have... given you an opportunity,” I managed to say, my knees shaking as I felt a sharp pain pulsing against the tip of my horn.  “Nnnngh!”

        “Shhh—Stay calm...” She rushed over and stood a breath’s distance from me.  “Breathe in and breathe out.  You're encountering mana feedback along your leylines.  It'll pass.  Just focus on the protection spell, and soon it'll maintain itself.”

        I gulped, fought a few more waves of pain, and came through the brief storm with a relaxed breath.  “Whew... It really is like stretching muscles, huh?”  I gulped and produced a weak smile.  “Invisible muscles...?”

        “The more you practice it, the better you'll get, I promise.”  She said.  “You're already doing a lot better than most novice practitioners of magic.  If I didn't know better, I'd say you have an untapped gift in navigating your horn's leylines.”

        My eyes darted towards the sea of books lining the cases around us.  I imagined the earthen walls of my cellar instead.  My ears twitched with the twenty-five chords of the Eighth Elegy.  I felt a wave of chills, but bravely fought them away as I spoke, “Well, the way I see it, it's never too late to learn things that just come to you naturally...”  I gulped.  “Or supernaturally.”

        “Long ago, Princess Celestia taught me that there's an essential balance between the visible world and the invisible,” Twilight said.  “The realm of magic is like a mirror to the realm of physicality.  They both reflect the same image.  The light of the universe shines on each realm evenly.  After all, sorcery is all about equivalent exchange.  The fact that we're here—in the flesh—means that we are just as capable of expressing ourselves through mana and energy.  It's not a matter of whether or not unicorns can find their ethereal talents, but a matter of when.”

        “When did you find that connection, Twilight?” I asked, though I felt I already knew the answer.  “Was that how you got your cutie mark?”

        She smiled gently, her eyes caught in a distant thought.  “Long ago, my horn produced a spark, and I discovered my talents.  But—no—I do not believe that is when I made the connection.  Years later, when I came to Ponyville, I discovered a spark of a different kind, and that has mattered more to me than all my years of exercise and research combined.  You see, Miss Heartstrings, being connected to the realm of magic means nothing when you're blind to the connections you can make in the plane that you're currently residing in.  Such attachments are far more challenging to make or maintain, but they're a great deal more rewarding, I've come to believe.”

        I took several deep breaths.  I was just then starting to relax, or at least in the manner she had so desperately coached me to.  “No wonder everything comes naturally to you, Twilight.  You seem to really have it together.”

        “Heehehee... Well, I try.  But I'd much rather see you and other unicorns achieve that same harmony, which is why I'm starting this new project for Cheerilee's school.”

        “Oh?  Like what kind of a project?”

        Before she could answer, a familiar purple figure waddled into the room.  “Nnngh... Okay, I got the bucket of water, Twilight,” Spike grumbled, using all his might to maintain the weight of the wooden container in his scaled arms.  “Would you care to remind me just why I fetched this from the well out back to begin with?”

        “Spike?  Didn't I explain it to you ten minutes ago?!”  Twilight frowned and pointed towards a ladder leaning against the far wall of the library.  “We need that water for Miss Heartstrings' protection spell lesson!”

        “Miss who?” Spike made a face, glancing at the bucket in his grasp as if it was a sea mine.

        “Hey there, handsome,” I said, struggling to add a wink.

        “Oh!  Uhm, hello.  Dig the swell hoodie!”

        “Ugh...”  Twilight rolled her violet eyes.  With a flick of telekinesis, she dragged the ladder over so that it stood beside me.  “I swear, Spike, it must be something I feed you.  Your ears are getting clogged up.”

        “I've been staying away from the fatty diamonds!  I swear!”

        “Don't worry about it, Spike.  Just climb up the ladder and wait for my signal.”

        He awkwardly ascended the wooden rungs, balancing the bucket on one aching wrist.  “I don't get it.  What are we doing?  Don't we need Rainbow Dash around to pull a prank on somepony?”

        “Spike, we used to do this in Canterlot, remember?  It's how I learned to master the protection spell myself.”

        “Yeah, but at least the Princess was around to levitate the stupid bucket.”

        “We can afford to live without Her Majesty's magical luxuries, don't you think?”

        “Easy for you to say, Miss Horn-head.”

        “What was that?”

        “Erm... N-nothing!”  He stood above me with the bucket of water.  “Ready to pour!”

        “Uhm...”  I bit my lip and glanced—sweating—at Twilight.  “Is this part of the plan?  I swore I came here to do a magic lesson, not participate in a wet mane contest.”

        “Just relax and focus on your spell, Miss Heartstrings.”  As Twilight spoke, she smiled and effortlessly erected a lavender wall of energy in a circle around me, like the bottom to a telekinetic, cylindrical bathtub.  The ease with which she shot her beams of magic filled me with instant awe... and envy.  “Though this is just a low level buff, it should be more than enough to... well... keep you dry.”

        “But what if I-I fail to maintain the energy field?”

        She chuckled briefly.  “Ohhhhh I seriously doubt you'll want to do that.”  She cleared her voice and glanced up at her assistant.  “Spike?”

        “Yeah, okay.  Here goes.”  He tilted the bucket directly over my head.

        I resisted the urge to wince.  My eyes squinted instinctively, but to my delight the water did not splash into my face.  Instead—as soon as the liquid made contact with the emerald dome—it went in all directions except down.  A ceiling of levitating liquid collected in a magical pool above me.  The protection spell was working.  The energy from my horn resisted the trickling currents of well water.  I couldn't help but exhale in wonder.  This was a great deal easier than trying to push water away with telekinesis.  All I had to do was maintain the shape of the dome, and the energy field did the rest of the work.  I never once dreamed before coming to Twilight that I'd be anywhere near capable of performing a feat such as this.  I immediately started wondering just what other elements this spell could ward off, and just how severe...

        “You're doing it, Miss Heartstrings!”  Twilight exclaimed in delight.  She paced about as she watched the water trickling around me like rainwater cascading down the edges of a transparent umbrella.  Her lavender telekinesis collected the water at my hooves and kept it from spreading to the valuable contents of the surrounding library.  “I must say, your speed of mastery is amazing!  Keep this up, and you can learn a mid-level protection spell in no time!  You could go trotting along the bottom of a lake and not even get wet!”

        I managed a breathy chuckle of my own, gazing in happy shock at the water sloshing just inches from my nose.  “You don't say?”  I gulped and uttered impulsively, “And what about a blizzard?  Could I survive a plunge into a frozen lake?”

        It was Spike, of course, who retorted at such absurdity.  “Uhm... Lady?  It's the middle of August.  Why are you so concerned about a blizzard?”

        I winced.  Before I could manage a witty reply, there was a sharp knock on the door.

        Twilight shouted over her shoulder, “Library's open!  Come in!”

        Bright light flooded the room as the front entrance flew open.  A pale figure glided in, carried by the sheer melody of her joyous voice, “Well, batten down the hatches!  Cuz things are about to get loud and crazy in here, girl!”

        That voice...

        Every artery in my body pulsed with one single leap of my heart.  My eyes twitched.  The world blurred.  And my protection field...

        I could no longer feel it.  As a matter of fact, I could no longer feel my horn.  I could feel nothing but water.  I was doused from mane to tail, soaked all the way through to the bone as my concentration shattered like an ice sculpture.  The shock of the severance from my leylines and the force of my breath being shot out my freezing lungs were nothing compared to the waves of amazement surging through my mind.  I collapsed in the middle of Twilight's telekinetic field, blinded by a mat of gray mane hair falling like a bathroom curtain over my eyes.

        “Oh dear!  Miss Heartstrings!” Twilight's voice exclaimed, though the breath had a trace of shameless amusement to it.  “I'm so... so sorry...”

        “Holy guacamole!” Spike exclaimed from somewhere above me.

        “Oh shoot!  I had no idea you were tutoring magicians, Twilight!”  The familiar voice came closer.  I smelled the scent of vanilla perfume.  I saw the bright streets of Canterlot against my shivering eyelids.  “I thought those days were long behind you!”

        “Well, just because I'm not a teacher like you doesn't mean I can't lend my talents from time to time.”

        “Seriously, Twilight, if you lent any unicorn your raw, unfiltered abilities, her head would explode.  We're lucky this mare got doused with water and not her own brain fluids.”

        “Oh please...” Twilight giggled awkwardly.

        “Heehee... Hey there, uhm... I'm really sorry for that.”  She was right in front of me.  I reached a blind hoof out, and she caught it in a warm forelimb.  Before I knew it, she was parting my mane hair with pale telekinesis.  Through a wet world, the first thing I saw was her violet eyes, framing an alabaster smile.  Every detail made my heart beat faster: her white coat, her violet-streaked red mane, her crescent moon cutie mark be-speckled with tiny stars.  “I should know better than to walk in on Twilight Sparkle here without warning.  This one time, she nearly set her parents' drapes on fire.  Hey, Twi, you remember that?  That was the week before you were taken to Celestia's palace, wasn't it?”

        “H-hey! Stop it!  I try my best to forget that!”

        But I couldn't have forgotten that.  I couldn't forget anything.  And her face...

        “Moondancer...?” I stammered.

        She gave me a double glance, and then a smile.  Her smile.  “I'm sorry.  Do I know you?  I'm not from around here.”

        “I... I...”  I wanted to hug her.  I wanted to collapse.  I wanted to faint and wake up all at once.  Then came a shiver, and I remembered something that was far more real than this precious moment.  “I... uhm...”  I gulped.  “I sat behind you in Canterlot Preparatory School, Fifth Grade.”  It was the truth, for one of us, at least.  “You went on to... to major in education and sociology.”

        “Huh... Small Equestria, huh?”  Moondancer smirked.  There was an immortal glint of mischief and curiosity in her eyes.  I felt like a foal once again and I wanted to melt in her smile.  “I can't say your face rings a bell, Miss...”

        “Lyra,” I breathed.  I realized that it must have sounded like a whimper.  So I gulped and forced my soaked lips into a smile.  “Call me Lyra, Moondancer.”

        “Well, Lyra, I apologize for not recognizing you.”  She rolled her violet eyes.  “But even Twilight here can tell you that I was never really all that much there in my school years.  If it weren't for my extra-curricular points, I swear, I don't know how I would have made it to tenth grade without trotting off a sheer cliff!”

        “I recall things pretty well, Moondancer.”  Twilight smiled as she gathered the spilled water and levitated the liquid globe back into Spike's bucket.  “Funny that you decided to become a teacher, huh?”

        “Grrrr!”  Moondancer spun and galloped straight towards her.  “C'mere, you!”

        “Eeep!  Heeheehee!” Twilight flinched, only to be engulfed in a hug instead of a tackle.  She and Moondancer happily nuzzled each other before sharing a friendly gaze.  “It's so nice to see you again, Moondancer.  I'm frankly surprised you responded to my letter as quickly as you did.”

        “And just why is that?  Huh?”  Moondancer stuck her tongue out.  “For Luna’s sake, Twi!  I’m a teacher now!  I know the value of getting to papers on time!  I treat letters all the same!

        “Yeah, well,” Twilight said with a chuckle.  “You still surprised me”  She briefly hardened her gaze.  “And don't use Princess Luna's name in vain like that.  Nightmare Moon has been driven out of her spirit now.  She deserves more respect.”

        “Heh.  Less than two minutes in, and I’m already getting grilled.”  Moondancer winked playfully.  “Oh Twilight... You're still the same adorable little historian I loved hanging out with.”

        “Yeah, well, I'm trying to loosen up these days.”

        “Try harder!  Heck, I'll help ya, girl!  Where does a couple of old filly-friends go to party around here?”

        “Hahaha—Moondancer!” Twilight protested, all the while giving me an embarrassed side-glance.  “That wasn't why I asked you to come to Ponyville!”

        “Yeah, yeah.  We can get to the project later.  I just arrived, Twi!”  Moondancer groaned and slumped her saddlebags off her back, tossing them like a sack of bones in the middle of the floor.  “My hooves are positively aching!”

        “I thought you took the train here.”

        “And then I had to trot clear across Ponyvania!”

        “Ponyville!”  Twilight smirked.  “And if you so much as plan to spend one week here, much less three, then the first thing you're gonna have to lose is the Canterlot affinity for little exercise.  Trust me.  I've been here a year and a half and still I'm struggling to flex my muscles.”

        “Hey, if there’s anything I do best on my vacations off, it’s stretch muscles that haven’t been stretched in a while.”  Moondancer trotted over to a bench and slumped down.  Her eyebrows wagged as she said, “If Ponyville is anything like Las Pegasus, I should have no problem whatsoever, catch my drift?

        “Heeheehee... I don’t know if I want to,” Twilight replied with a wink.  She turned around.  “Spike?  Would you mind grabbing Moondancer's bags?”

        “Yeah yeah, this is sure bringing back memories,” the dragon muttered as he placed the water bucket down and marched over towards the discarded saddlebag.  “I thought my bellhop days were over.”

        “And what a cute little waddle you have when you play butler, green-spines.”

        “Ugh!  Moondancer, don't call me that!”

        “Heehee... C'mere, Spike.  Give Auntie Moonie a hug.  That's what you used to call me when you were an infant.  Remember?”

        “Ew!  I did not!”

        Twilight giggled.  “Yes you did, Spike.  I was there...”

        “Whatever.  Enough of this mush.  Let's just get this hug over with so that I can get back to my chores.”

        “Awwww, Spike...”  Moondancer nuzzled him as they joined briefly in a close embrace.  “Is Twi still working your scales off?”

        “No more than usual.  At least there are more gems to chew on around here than in Canterlot.  I swear, Ponyville was built on top of a diamond mine.”

        “Then I guess you won't be wanting any of the mountain sapphires I brought with me.”

        “C-Canterlot Mountain S-Sapphires?!”  Spike exclaimed, wide-eyed.  He regarded the bags in his grasp with sudden excitement.  “The ones with quartz sprinkles?!  Did you really bring some?!”

        Lavender energy encased the saddlebag and lifted it from his suddenly greedy grasp.  Twilight cleared her throat and produced something halfway between a smile and a frown.  “Dessert can wait, Spike.  Aren't you forgetting something?”

        “Uhm... What?”

        Twilight opened a nearby cabinet and floated a white towel out.  She hoofed it to him and motioned towards me with a smirk.

        Spike bit his lip.  “Oh, right.”  He marched towards me, making a face.  “How come I'm suddenly the one who's 'forgetting' about our guest?”

        “Moondancer's here.  At least I have an excuse.”

        “Whoahhhh-Girl!”  Moondancer giggled and nuzzled Twilight again.  “Maybe you have changed after all.”

        “Heh... I'm just really glad to see you, Moondancer.”  Twilight nuzzled her back, smiling warmly.  “It feels like an eternity.”

        “And how!  Yeesh... Twilight Sparkle:  vanquisher of Endless Night and Dragon Slayer!  Just how do you manage?”

        “I haven't slayed any dragons!  That one that I wrote you about, the dragon who was perched up above Ponyville: he was talked into leaving, and that was all my friend Fluttershy's work.”

        “You friend, huh?  I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but you should tell me all about these friends of yours, Twi.  I swear, this is like visiting a distant cousin only to discover she's got the pony pox.”


        “Haha—What?  I think it's really spectacular, girl!  Next thing I know, you'll have sprouted wings and begun moving mountains!  I always suspected you were secretly an alicorn beneath that gorgeous lavender coat.  It would certainly explain a lot, wouldn't it?”

        “Yeesh, Moondancer.  Do you ever switch off your insanity?”

        “Only when I'm failing my students' papers.”

        “Heheheh—Ohhhh I forgot what it felt like to have you around.”

        “If you ask me, you could do with a few more doses.  But let's talk about something else.  I think we're scaring your guest mute.  Heeheehee—Ahem.  Sorry to just drop in like this Miss... Lyra, was it?”

        I was beside myself.  I felt like a numb shell of a pony.  This whole time, I didn't care how soaked I was.  I could have stood and listened to this scene forever.  When Spike came to me with the towel, it was like a ghost was handing me a shroud from beyond a bizarre dream.  I took the article and eagerly dried my face.  It was more than bucket water that I had to contend with.  Several seconds passed since I last heard Moondancer's voice.  I sniffled once, twice, and made sure my face was good and dry before gazing at her with the bravest of smiles.

        “Please.  Don't... uhm... Don't mind me.”  I bit my lip and fought to keep my voice from cracking.  “By all means, you two should catch up.”

        “And I know just the place to do it too!”  Moondancer beamed, glancing at Twilight.  “The mare next to me on the train spoke of this delightful little place called Sugarcut Quarter.”

        “Sugarcube Corner,” Twilight corrected.  “And I'd be more than happy to take you there.”

        “Oh, please!”  Spike chuckled.  “I have to wait on eating delicious sapphires, and you two get to go gorge yourselves at the local cupcake repository?!”

        “Give us a break, Spike!”  Moondancer chuckled.  “Us girls have a lot of work cut out for us over the next three weeks!”

        Twilight added, “You can enjoy Moondancer's gift whenever.  She and I, though, will be racking our brains on this project until it's finished.  So, it's Sugarcube Corner or bust!”

        Moondancer once again interjected, “Plus, sexy fillies can never run out of sugar and spice!”

        Twilight face-hoofed and groaned.  “I swear, I don't know how I'm gonna survive you for more than five days.”

        “Heehee!  It only hurts cuz you miss me, girl!”  Moondancer jumped back up to her hooves. “So, are we going or—?”

        “We have to stop by the Ponyville bank first.”

        “Ew.  Boring.  What for?”

        “Because!”  Twilight gestured wildly.  “I thought you wouldn't get here until tomorrow morning!  I just bought a gift for my friend Applejack yesterday.”  She gnawed on her lip in embarrassment.  “I'm currently empty-saddlebag'd!”

        “Hah!  Why do I get the feeling that I'm going to have to hoof out bits for you... again?”

        “What do you mean 'again?'”

        “You remember all of those trips to Doughnut Joe's as a kid...”

        “Hey!  You volunteered them!”

        “Only because you looked so adorably famished in those days!  All the books you were reading—I'm surprised you got time to stuff anything edible down your throat!”

        “You make it sound worse than it ever was...”

        “Do I?  When was the last time you ate today?”




        “Egads, Twilight!  I'll be forcing you to munch on stuff all week, aren't I?  Haha—If I had known ahead of time, I would have brought a queen's fortune!”


        “Moondancer, for goodness' sake—”

        “My treat.”

        Both mares looked at me, blinking.  “Huh?”

        My lips quivered.  I swallowed a dry lump down my throat and smiled.  My muscles shook inside my suddenly frail frame.  “I'll treat you.  Both of you,” I said in a warm little voice.  “Let's... Let's go to Sugarcube Corner together.  We can talk about... about...”  I gritted my teeth, struggled, then produced, “About this project that you two are working on.  I'm... uhm... I-I'm really, really intrigued.  I wanna hear all about it.”

        “Miss Heartstrings, I feel so terribly rude as it is,” Twilight said, blushing slightly as she glanced between her friend and a phantom stranger.  “I was just so excited that you came to me asking for a magic lesson, I didn't even think to consider that my friend might be arriving a day early.  I can't possibly ask you to do something like that, especially after... eheh... our little experiment got all wet...”

        “Pssst...”  Moondancer pretended to whisper aside at me.  “Do it, filly!  She needs more cinnamon sticks in her belly!”

        “Will you cut it out?!”


        “No... Really...”  I trotted towards them, afraid I would collapse on the razor edge of their bright gazes.  “I mean it.  I'd like to treat you.  Who cares if I got a little wet behind the ears or not?”  I smiled brightly.  The image of the two fogged briefly, then returned to clarity in a blink.  “Trust me.  This... This has been the highlight of my day.”  I gulped.  I wanted to say “week,” “month,” “year,” even “life.”  But I couldn't do anything drastic.  This bubble of a moment was a million times more fragile than a protection sphere, and I was terribly afraid of bursting it.  “Let's go eat and chat somewhere... like fr-friends do.”  I winced slightly at the last utterance, for it sounded to me like a mewling kitten's.  I was horrified that they wouldn't look past it.

        They did..

        Twenty minutes later, we walked into Sugarcube Corner together.  I felt like I was gliding on a cloud.  Moondancer didn't stop talking.  Twilight didn't stop nodding.  I had both a headache and a heartache all at once.

        I didn't want it to end.  Ever.

        “Whew, look at this décor!”  Moondancer rolled her eyes over every bright, pastel shape of the eatery's interior.  “It looks like Sapphire Shores turned diabetic and vomited all over an architect's drawing table.”

        “Shhh!” Twilight hissed, blushing furiously.  “Mrs. and Mr. Cake are just over there!  They might hear you!”

        “Mrs. and Mr. ‘Cake?’  Seriously?  Is the post office managed by a pony named ‘Stamp Licker?’”

        Twilight started growling.  I found myself interjecting almost naturally.  “You haven't been around many earth ponies, have you, Ms. Moondancer?”  I smiled.

        She sighed as we found a table in the front to sit at.  “I've met my fair share in Fillydelphia.  But don't get me started on the rural names there.  They'd make a sailor blush... heheh...”

        “You'll find that most earth ponies around here have simple titles, but their hearts and minds are as complex as any Canterlot soul's,” I said proudly.

        “Why, Miss Heartstrings, that intrigues me,” Twilight remarked.  “Today's the first time I saw you.  Do you mean to say you're a resident of Ponyville?”


        “I gotta say, I love the name 'Heartstrings,'” Moondancer said with a grin.  “Tell me, girl, do you play music or do you teach?”

        “Heh.  I could never learn enough to feel comfortable as an instructor,” I replied to her.  I gulped and then gazed at Twilight.  “Nor have I mastered my talents enough to be anything famous, which is probably why you've never heard of me.”  I sat directly in the middle of the two.  It felt as natural as natural could be.  This miraculous moment was threatening to slip away, gathering speed with each concrete-shattering heartbeat.  All the scents of foalhood wafted up to me at once.  I wanted to savor it as best as I could.  “But let's not talk about me.  You two obviously haven't seen each other in a while.  Feel free to chat as much as you like.”

        “Oh, girl, don't tempt me!”  Moondancer grinned wide while Twilight giggled.  “If I get started about Fillydelphia and my students and all the crazy city morons I have to deal with, you'll yawn that golden cutie mark of yours clean off!”

        “Heehee...”  Twilight Sparkle caught her breath and said, “Is it true that you foiled the fourth attempt in a row by your class to pull a practical joke on you?”

        “Students pulling pranks on a teacher?!”  I made a face.  “That sounds horrible.”

        “For them, maybe!”  Moondancer winked.  “Just a few days ago, before I boarded the train, they plastered transparent paste over my chalkboard.  Well, I always come into class early, and I saw their attempt to trap me the first moment I wrote on the board.  So I got some adhesive of my own and I applied it to their seats before roll call.”

        Twilight snorted, covering her face with a hoof as her eyes went wide.  “Good grief!” her voice came out muffled.  “What became of that?”

        “Hmmm... Let's just say that it took more than a slip of paper to keep them sitting in class for detention.”

        Twilight giggled.  “I don't know how you can stand such delinquents!  I'd lose my temper in a day!”

        “I don't see it as a matter of disrespect,” Moondancer said with a devilish grin.  “If anything, I'm helping them be creative.  They're always inventing new and crazier tactics.  It’s quite amazing, really.  I always out-smart them, of course.  I think they just do it to see how I'll best them next.”

        “But does it ever go too far?”

        “You gotta ask them.  Last I checked, three of the colts had to wear trunks.”

        “In the middle of urban Fillydelphia?  What for?”

        “Cuz they got stripped of all coat hairs on their rumps!  Why else?!  The wrath of Moondancer knows no boundaries!”

        Our laughter was a delightful chorus, an encore to years that I thought would forever be lost to me.  When Mrs. Cake shuffled over, I was so light-hearted I felt I would faint before making my order.

        “Well, if this isn't a merry bunch!”  Mrs. Cake beamed.  “Good afternoon, Miss Sparkle!  Are we having ourselves a little reunion here?”

        “You can say that again!”  I heard myself speaking up.  But before I could add anything else—

        “This is my good friend from my foalhood, Moondancer,” Twilight remarked.  “She's come to visit and help me with the curriculum I have planned for Mrs. Cheerilee's after-school program.”


        “Yessirree!”  Moondancer wrapped her forward limb around Twilight and Twilight alone.  “It's the two mistresses of mana, galloping together again!  Hey Twi-girl, you remember those days we used to pretend to be Celestia and Luna going on adventures?”

        Twilight rolled her eyes.  “How could I forget.  You kept pretending that the moon could swallow the sun.”

        “Hah!  And wasn't that fun?”

        “It was also scientifically inaccurate!  I spent an entire week trying to convince you that eclipses become visible as a matter of light projection and depth perception—”

        “Needless to say, she needs me here to get her to loosen up a bit,” Moondancer said.  “But so far all we've managed to do is tease Spike and get Lyra's mane wet here.”

        “Seriously, it’s all... in the past,” I said in a soft breath, feeling like the lone satellite that I was.  Clearing my throat, I summoned a smile once again and looked Mrs. Cake's way.  “I'd like to order me and these delightful mares some of your finest sundaes.”

        “Oh, that is more than doable, hun!”  Mrs. Cake sat on her haunches and used her front hooves and teeth to sketch on a notepad.  “Mmmff—Ahem.  And what flavors would they be?”

        “Chocolate,” Twilight said.

        “Vanilla!” Moondancer chirped like the foal she once was.

        I glanced at them, took a warm breath, and gazed at Mrs. Cake again.  “A little bit of both.”

        “Done, done and... done!  You three just sit and relax and I'll be back with your orders.  Nice as always to see you, Miss Twilight!”

        “Same with you, Mrs. Cake.  How's Mr. Cake doing by the way?”

        “He finally got out of bed this morning.  He's no longer dizzy.  So, that's a good sign, at least.  I'm sure his head will stop aching soon.  Anywho, I'll be back shortly!”  She trotted off.

        Moondancer blinked at Twilight.  “What's wrong with her husband?”

        “Oh, uhm.  He slipped and fell a few weeks back.  Turns out Pinkie Pie accidentally left a mess of spilled cake frosting on the kitchen floor while trying to make Applejack a birthday treat.”

        “Pinkie who?

        “Oh jeez, I can't even imagine the two of you meeting!”  Twilight practically gasped.  “I'm not sure the world could contain that much energy in one place at once!”

        “Hey, I'll accept that as a challenge!”  Moondancer's eyes grew thin and mischievous.  “'Pinkie Pie', huh?  I bet she's never almost burned her family’s apartment down by baking fireworks, thinking they were candy canes.”

        “Oh my heavens, I forgot all about that!”  Twilight snickered.  “I could hear the explosion from my house two blocks away!”

        “My father almost rung my neck!” Moondancer exclaimed.

        “Yeah!”  I giggled helplessly.  “He made you repair the damage at age ten.  Heeheehee!  But you made a game out of it by pretending the holes in the wall were secretly a tunnel being dug to Foal Knox!”

        Moondancer and Twilight both blinked at me.  Their smiles faded under a suspicious squint.

        “How in the heck would you know about that?”

        I gnawed on my lip.  I fidgeted with my hoodie's sleeves, gulped, and pointed over my shoulder with a shivering hoof.  “Twilight's... uhm... Twilight's dragon assistant! On the way out, he... uh... he mentioned it.  You girls must not have heard him...”

        “I thought you said you were gonna do something about his penchant for gossip,” Moondancer smiled at Twilight.

        “He's still a baby dragon, Moondancer.  You can't expect him to learn everything overnight.”

        “But you can expect to teach him everything, huh?  Which is why you hauled his purple scaly butt all the way to Ponyville.”

        “Who else does he have to hang out with in Canterlot?”

        “The same could be said about you, girl.  Just how did you go about your metamorphosis?”


        “Five new friends in a year!  You're suddenly Miss Socialite!  You kind of have me jealous!”

        “I wrote you all about it over the last few months!.  Why's it such a big surprise?”

        “On top of all the letters you write to Celestia, I'm surprised your hoof doesn't fall off.”


        “What?  I'm happy for you, girl!”  She grinned.  “Doesn't my face just drip with joy?”

        “It's dripping with something, alright.”

        “Oh hush.”  She stuck her tongue out.  “It's enough that I have to force myself to forget that we'll be muzzle-deep in boring planning and outlining this time tomorrow.”

        “Your help will be priceless, Moondancer.  I can't thank you enough...”

        “Then don't.  You'll make my ears bleed.”

        “Just what is this project you're both working on?” I asked, happy to be out of firing range from their inquisitive stares.  “I keep hearing about it...”

        “Well, Miss Heartstrings, we have a one-room school on the edge of town, managed by a very kind and giving teacher named Cheerilee,” Twilight explained.  “There aren't that many children in Ponyville.  Still, that doesn't make her job here any easier.  She's having to juggle several different ages and intelligence levels all at once, while still giving the same curriculum.”

        “No easy feat, lemme tell you.”  Moondancer rolled her eyes.  “I had to teach a one-room school for two years outside the city limits of Oatslando.  That was not fun.  If the students there played practical jokes—heck—it'd involve alligators and a crapload of pine cones.”

        “Ahem,” Twilight regained control of the conversation.  “Well, ever since Nightmare Moon was defeated, there's been a renaissance of sorts in the quest for magical knowledge across Equestria.  Many unicorns such as myself have moved from the major cities to the outlying villages to perform studies and experiments.  As a result, there're twice as many unicorn children in Ponyville this year than there were last year.  Magical ponies aren't as scarce a minority around here anymore, and it seems a shame to me that there isn't a special class of magical instruction catering to their gifts.”

        “I hear this 'Cheerilee' is an earth pony,” Moondancer said.  “As horrible as it sounds, when it comes to teaching magic, she could use a little bit of a helping hoof from those with horns that do more than honking.

        “I imagine she's tried her hardest to teach unicorns on her own,” I remarked.  I had, in fact, met Cheerilee on several occasions.  I couldn't fault Moondancer for not knowing how intelligent and resourceful the local teacher was up close.  Still, Cheerilee was only one pony, and she had no horn to perform magical experiments with.  “Where exactly do you two come in?”

        Moondancer smiled.  “It was Twi's bright idea here to set up a study course of our own, but one that could be as equally informative to earth ponies and pegasi as it is involving with unicorns.  There's no reason ponies of all trots of life can't learn about magic.  Most of all, we can make it fun for the little scamps!”

        “Well, yes,” Twilight murmured, “But most of all we have to find a way to be as informative in as few lessons as possible, while at the same time not confusing the young minds—”

        “So we make it fun.” Moondancer leaned over the table and spoke above her friend.  “That way it'll stick in the foals' minds and they can take the knowledge with them to schools of magical arts, if they so choose.  Every institution should promise opportunity, no matter how small or surrounded by ponies named after dessert trays.”

        “Ungh...”  Twilight rolled her eyes and chuckled.

        I cleared my throat, drawing their gazes to me.  “Well, I think it's a great idea, and I'm proud of the two of you tackling it together.  I'm guessing you'll be using the library nonstop over the next few days.”

        “Erm... As a matter of fact, yes.”  Twilight Sparkle fidgeted somewhat guiltily, avoiding my gaze.  “I fear that it's only safe to say that our lessons in casting protection spells will have to wait for a while, Miss Heartstrings—”

        “Nonsense, Twi!”  Moondancer leaned back and rested a hoof atop the table.  “If Lyra here wants to continue her magical lessons of avoiding bucket water with you, then who am I to trample all over that?  The more the merrier!  That’s my philosophy!

        “Moondancer, we can’t afford to allow too many distractions,” Twilight began, but was suddenly distracted by something glittering beneath the three of us.  She glanced down at Moondancer's limb and gasped.  “Oh, Moondancer!  That's beautiful!”

        “Hmm?  What is?  My philosophy?  You must be getting me mixed up with Aristrotle.”

        “No, that hooflet!  Are those real ingots of silver?”

        Moondancer blinked, glanced down at the shiny band around her hoof, then rolled her eyes above a pair of rosy cheeks.  “Mmmmmm-yeah.  Spared no expense.  Pretty stuff, huh?”

        “Wherever did you get that?”

        “A more pertinent question would be whoever gave it to me.”

        Twilight did a double take, then grinned slyly.  “Moondancerrrr...”


        “What's his name?  Is it Starflare?  The astronomy professor from your same building?”

        “Hmmmmm... Maaaaaaaaaybe...”

        “How long have you two been going out?”

        “Long enough to start going in.”

        Twilight Sparkle almost choked on her own tongue.

        “Heeheehee...”  Moondancer hugged herself, losing oxygen from laughter.  She leaned over and patted a blushing Twilight on the shoulder.  “How I always forget that you're attached to the hip of a princess...”

        “I... I had no idea, Moondancer...”

        “Now you've got a pretty good idea.  Perhaps it makes sense where I get the wherewithal to deal with so many delinquents in my class.  I'm in a pretty happy place these days, Twi.  Silver hooflets aren't enough to convey what a daily romantic stroll by the campus lake feels like.”

        “I'm very happy for you, Moondancer.  If Starflare is as handsome as he is intelligent in the letters you've written back to me...”

        “You know what they say about stallions with big brains.”

        “No?” Twilight blinked.

        Moondancer blinked for a few spaces in time, then groaned.  She decided to smile and lean across the table.  “Soooooo, what about you?  Has the radiant and aloof apprentice to the Princess met her very special somepony yet?”

        Twilight's cheeks went red as she ran a hoof through her bangs.  “Moondancer, how many times have I told you to knock that off?”

        “Whaaaat?”  Her eyes fluttered.  “You've made a bunch of friends to write home about.”

        “Yes, but—”

        “I hoped youd have met a stallion to write a novel about!”  She winked.  “A steamy one at that!”

        “Moondancer!  We're...”  Twilight clenched her teeth, ducked her head low to the table, and hissed.  “This isn't the time nor the place!”

        “You still don't get out enough, Twi!  Otherwise you'd know it is always the time and the place!”  She smirked my way.  “Let this be a lesson to you, Miss Heartstrings.  Never let magic be your mate, or else you'll always be having dinner alone.”

        I chuckled.  “To each their own, Ms. Moondancer.”

        “Pfft.  Did I drop in on Sugarcube Convent?!  It's still summer, in my book!  Love's in the air!  Take a good whiff, girls!”

        “I'm just not ready for that kind of a life, Moondancer,” Twilight said.  “I've got research to do, books to translate, spells to harness...”

        “And why do them all alone, Twi-girl?”

        Twilight sighed.  She smiled happily into the shadows of the place.  “Still, the thought is certainly... appealing.”  She gulped.  “I doubt I'll ever meet a 'Mister Perfect'.  But a 'Mister Polite' sounds manageable.”

        “Who would do the managing, I wonder?” Moondancer remarked, and merely giggled when Twilight blushed again.  She looked my way.  “How about you?  Got a knight in shining armor with a thing for mares getting doused with buckets of water?”

        I couldn't contain my laughter, though it was a dry, breathless thing.  Here I was, sitting with two shades from my childhood.  They were right in front of me, and yet so far away.  My heart leaped to tell them of so many impossible things, things that I had let go to waste in the years that I could afford to bridge the distances between us.  And then there were new things, some glorious, some horrifying, and how I wished so terribly that they would be there to hold me, to listen to me, to become one with my sobbing, laughing, screaming, giggling spirit.  I thought of the elegies, I thought of the cabin, I thought of my music, I thought of Morning Dew...

        “I've not been here in Ponyville long enough to... to make anything of it,” I finally said in a wavering tone.  I cleared my throat and uttered more strongly, “But if I could live here, I'd make as many friends and family as I could.”  I gazed lovingly at them.  “And I'd never let them go.”

        “Awwww...”  Twilight Sparkle hugged herself as she stared back at me.  “Why don't you consider doing that, Miss Heartstrings?  You'd be a lovely addition to this town.”

        My first impulse was to shoot that comment down—as I had trained myself over a year of cursed conversations to dismiss such personal remarks.  What came out of my lips, however, was empowered by the foal who used to play the role of Starswirl the Bearded with these two fillies.

        “You really think so...?”

        “If anything, you could give the farm air around here something nice to dance to,” Moondancer said.  “Tell me, do you actually play any instruments or do you just write compositions?

        “Oh!  I play!”  I said with a bright expression.  “I'm not exactly a prodigy, but I like to think I carry a tune pretty well.”

        “Well, if there’s anything I respect, it’s a mare who holds her own.”  Moondancer smiled, her dazzling teeth showing.  “You got a sample for us?”

        “Heehee...”  I felt bubbly inside, to say the least.  “I never thought you'd ask, Moondancer!  As a matter of fact...”  My horn glowed as I pivoted my head to gaze down at my saddlebag.  I opened the pouch and lifted the golden lyre out.  “I have this tune that I've been working on lately.  I was actually hoping to share it with Miss Sparkle, but since the two of you are both here for this little 'reunion,' I don't see why I can't...”  My voice came to a stop.  My eyes twitched, as if navigating a fog.  But it was only a series of cold vapors billowing out from my lips.  “I... I... uhh...”

        “Oh, hey!  Look at this, Twi-girl!”  Moondancer giggled and pointed across the table.  “Dessert and a performance!  I take everything I said back!  Supercute Court is a lot cooler than I thought!”

        “Sugarcube Corner,” Twilight corrected, rubbing her head as if coming out of a stormy migraine.  “Nnngh...” She gave me one glance, and tiredly smiled.  “Well, hello there.  Is Mrs. Cake hiring minstrels now?”

        “Uhm...”  I gazed at her, at the dullness in her eyes, and the trace amounts of joy that was spilling out, only to be absorbed by the pale pony next to her.  I looked at Moondancer, who was as bright and enthusiastic as when she first arrived.  Her face was still a snapshot from my childhood, a photograph I could no longer afford to share space in.  “I was just about to... to...

        Twilight and Moondancer smiled.  They could just as well have been looking straight down a deep, dark well.  With each blink, I felt like they were shrinking away a mile per second.  I was afraid the next twitch of the eye would cast them into blackness forever.

        So I turned away.  “I was just leaving.  I... I-I didn't mean to take this seat.  I thought it was unoccupied.”

        “It's alright,” Twilight said softly.  “It's not like it's reserved or anything—”

        “Well, actually, we kind of have some catching up to do and stuff,” Moondancer interjected.  “Still, that's a wicked-awesome instrument you got there, girl.  You should let us hear it sometime!”

        “Maybe... Maybe someday you can—erm... will hear it...” I shuddered, bagged the lyre away, and sniffled.  “Uhm... If you'll b-both excuse me.”  I made sure that my exit wasn't a gallop, but that's the least I could say about my grace.  I nearly bumped into Mrs. Cake along the way.  She carried three sundaes atop a tray positioned on her spine.