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Of Harmony & Chaos

Written by: Brightwel

and (very helpfully) edited by: DustyGrrl

Chapter 1: New Dawns, New Lives

 

 

CRASH!

 

The rain, thunder and lighting were relentless. The ivory-coated, red-haired mare sighed to herself and trudged on, her long, spiralled horn just barely illuminating the rocky mountain path in front of her. She really ought to have consulted the pegasi on what weather was due today, but the trip had still been worth it; two saddlebags full of books and papers for her to study from New Manesterdam; Star Swirl’s latest theories on the possibility of pony teleportation, ‘A History of the Blizzard and Canterlot vol. 2’, the list was extensive, as was the mare’s interests, but it would be some time before she could afford another such spree.

 

“But…” She looked to the rampaging weather above her with worry. ‘At this rate I’m going to have to find shelter and wait out this storm…it’s too dangerous to fly, and I doubt it’s exactly safe to be trotting practically blind on these paths either.’ The mare’s thoughts were interrupted by a turn of luck however. The furious lighting roared and flashed once more and briefly revealed what looked like a small cave in the side of the mountain, less than a few minutes trot away.

 

“Jackpot!” cheered the pony. Gritting her teeth with intense determination and a challenging smirk, the mare willed on her weary hoofs. Within a few minutes she was out of the angry maelstrom and shaking herself down in an attempt to dry her soaking coat and mane. Using her telekinetic magic to lift the heavy bags from her back and lay them down gently onto an oddly flat stone, after which she then proceeded to use her magic again to spark a warm fire for her to lie beside.

 

‘Heavenly…’ The equine thought as she rolled onto her back and shifted her body to try and get as close as possible to the fire. After the biting cold of the rain, the heat from the flames made even the rock-hard floor feel like a freshly fabricated cloud from the weather factories, infinitely soft and fluffy.

 

Several minutes passed before the pony actually made another move. Magically trying to arrange her still damp hair so that it stayed out of her face was surprisingly the largest of her worries, given the two children that were still at her home by themselves. I know I can rely on Celestia not to worry too much, and to look after Luna. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve left those two alone for the night!’ The thoughts made her smile, as did the happy mental picture of her two daughters. Celestia might just have been in her early teens, but she was already a mature and dependable pony who could take care of her sister just as well as the mare herself could.

 

“…who’s there?” inquired a small but confident voice from within the shadows of the cave behind the grinning pony.

 

Turning her head with a slight expression of surprise. The mare called back into the void of the cave in response “Oh? I’m sorry, am I intruding in your home?” Without waiting for a reply, the mare began to magically gather up her things. She should have realised that that the cave might have been occupied and checked first before making herself cosy. Ponies rarely took up such residences, but there were plenty of creatures who did. As she scrambled to collect her belongings, the red-maned mare silently cursed to herself. Looking around, she realised there were several pointers to suggest the cave was occupied, the flat stone which must have been artificially smoothed down to act as a shelf or bench being one of them. “Excuse me, I’ll leave you if you wish?” As she spoke, a small, serpentine figure began to emerge from the blackness.

 

“No, no! Please, stay! Maybe you can help her!” The voice was clearly that of a young creature and it became louder and more pronounced as it got closer to the circle of light cast by the fire. The voice’s plea for help prompted the pony to rise to her hooves, trotting closer and casting a soft glow from her horn to aid the flames in showing her this creature’s identity.

 

“Help? Of course. Please, explain-” The pony stopped in surprise as the owner of the voice became illuminated by her magic. Before her was a creature she had never expected to see. Peering up at her with a look of great worry was a small being of great variety. It possessed the head of a pony, the limbs of a lion, eagle, lizard and goat, the wings of a bat and a pegasus, and the tail of a snake. The mare stood amazed. If the creature was what she thought it was, then she was truly fortunate. The small, diminutive being before her closely matched the description of an ancient race thought to be on the verge of extinction: the draconequus. Questions and wonder flooded into the mare’s mind but as her tongue began to form them, she shook them and her fascination away. Her curiosity could wait. Something needed her help. “Sorry, do go on.”

 

The draconequus motioned for the pony to follow him, turning and scampering back towards the shadows. “My mother... she’s very sick. Please, follow me!” explained the young creature, stopping every few metres and waiting for the light-wielding mare to catch up to him.

 

The contrasting duo reached their destination only a handful of metres from the makeshift camp. The patient in question was mostly concealed by the blinding gloom. Lying almost perfectly still save for the very slight rise and fall of her chest was another, though mature, draconequus. Like her son, this draconequus was composed of the same attributes, arranged differently but she was noticeably more pale as a whole even in the dim light the mare’s magic provided. ‘She looks so weak… I doubt she has long left…’ the equine thought sadly to herself.

 

The young draconequus rushed over to nuzzle his mother’s face, overjoyed at the thought that his only family would recover. “Mother! Mother! A pony is here to help, you’ll get better!” he exclaimed while gesturing to the mare who was slowly approached the two.

 

“Hello there, my name is Equidae Aumean,” soothed the mare as she tried to keep her voice hopeful for the small draconequus’ sake. She struggled to stop her face from falling as she surveyed the ill draconequus before her. Despite her youthful appearance, Aumean was a pony of many years of age. Throughout her life, she had worked many times as a healer and nurse. It took only a moment for her magic to scan over and diagnose the pale draconequus and the problem was quickly revealed to the pony. I wish it didn’t have to be like this, but there is nothing I can do for her. She isn’t sick, she’s old,’ concluded Aumean as she finished scouring her vast knowledge for any other possible ailments that could give her the same results her magic had revealed.

 

The ancient creature raised her head to try and see the visitor with near-blind eyes, smiling as she realised the nature of Aumean. “Heh… well, what an honour, to have an alicorn be my last ever gues-ˮ the old draconequus couldn’t finish before launching into a raspy cough that essentially confirmed Aumean’s suspicions: she was nearing the end of her natural life.

 

“Mother, don’t speak like that!” pleaded the little being, hugging his mother’s head tightly before flailing at Aumean to come closer and try to help. ‘It’s okay Mother, you’ll get better, you will!’ he told himself repeatedly. His thoughts were less those of encouragement for his ailing mother and more crude weapons that he tried desperately to fight the growing sense of dread within himself with.

 

The dying creature looked at her son deeply, as if trying to apologize for everything that was happening. “Oh, my son…” The draconequus paused as she tried to think of a gentle way to tell him about the inevitable. “…you must understand, my time is up.” The sadness in her voice was not that of self-pity, but rather sympathy for her child who had dealt a cruel hand by fate. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t have brought you into this world sooner, so you would have had more time to prepa-ˮ She could not finish her sentence as, once again, the hoarse cough robbed her of her ability to speak.

 

Aumean settled herself down close to the ancient being and began concentrating her magical energies into her horn after the younger draconequus had started tugging urgently on her coat, simply wanting her to make all the badness go away. “I’m sorry, all I can do is ease your pain… but you must know that even if I was capable, it wouldn’t be right for me to prolong your-ˮ

 

“Everything has its time, alicorn. I’ve lived a long and happy life…” asserted the elderly being as she closed her eyes and began to fondly remembered her youth “…as did my kin before me. Much like your own people, the legacy of us draconequus is almost up,” she stated this with a slight air of questioning, apparently not knowing the exact status of the equally old alicorn race. “I just hope my son here can lead as good a life as me, spoke the elderly creature, smiling contently at Aumean. And what a life it had been! The draconequus sat and warmly recalled soaring blissfully through the skies, competing in grand yet-exclusive competitions of creativity, even curiously observing from a distance the gradual birth of the three pony races and how they struggled with the land’s near-eternal blizzard before finally overcoming their differences and forging a fiery passion for goodwill and friendship that thawed even the iciest of frosts.

 

Aumean couldn’t help but feel a strange sort of bond had formed between herself and the old draconequus, despite having only just met. She was right: much like the draconequus, there were but a handful of alicorns left, herself included. It wasn’t a saddening fact though; they may be physically different, but there were still plenty who would carry on into the future. History was simply taking its course.

 

Aumean’s musings were interrupted by another of the ancient creature’s coughing fits. The mare’s soothing magic was clearly having an effect, much of the rough wheezing having disappeared. “I ask one thing of you, alicorn,” stated the mature draconequus with an increasingly serious tone. “When you leave, take him with you. I was unfortunate enough to give birth so late in my life, he is not ready to stand on his own two hooves,she explained, gesturing to her son. “Please, give my son the chance at life I couldn’t provide him.” She looked over sadly at her child, who had wandered over to Aumean’s fire, apparently trying to brew some kind of tea for his mother.

 

The mare blinked in surprise, though she realised she shouldn’t have. It was a huge and daunting request, but there really wasn’t much else that could be done. After all, the small draconequus was still very young and it would be nigh impossible for him to survive on his own. Even if he managed to leave the Western Range and reach civilisation, it would be harder for him to integrate than it would a pony. ‘There really is no option...’. Mind made up, Aumean replied, “I’m thankful you can trust me with such an honour. You have my word I will raise him as well as I can,pledged Aumean as she followed the draconequus’ gaze to the struggling child. “Tell me, what is his name?”

 

The old draconequus smiled proudly as her son began waddling back awkwardly with a steaming pot, almost tripping up and spilling it everywhere. “Discord.”

_____________________________________________________________________

 

The distant rumbling of thunder provoked a long and weary sigh from the white foal. ‘Looks like mother is going to be late home again. I’ll have to make us something, then, she thought to herself as she trotted from the large window of the castle-turned-library to the crackling fireplace where a pile of cushions held a tiny, dark blue-coated filly who was dozing oh, so sweetly while curled-up in a small ball.

 

“Luna… Luna…” whispered the older alicorn as she lightly nudged her sister from her adorable slumber. ‘That mother of ours… she can be so irresponsible!’ thought the pastel-maned pony as she tried and failed to be mad at her mother. Being angry at anypony had been made an impossible feat with her intensely cute sister smiling up at her with sleepy eyes. Even if Luna had not been there to calm Celestia, her profound love of her kind mother would have stopped her frustrations from building to any great level.

 

“Ce…Celstia!” beamed little Luna, wobbling to her hooves cautiously to try and hug her sister.

 

“Ce-les-ti-a.” corrected the older sibling, smiling back at the filly while offering a hoof to help steady her. ‘She’s growing up so fast!’ the white foal mused as she grinned over how quickly Luna was developing, despite only being a few months in age. “Now, Luna. Mother isn’t going to be home tonight, so I’ll have to make you something to eat…” explained Celestia as she carefully led Luna towards the kitchen at the back of the library. Of course, the small filly didn’t really understand all of her sister’s words but “eat” was one her tiny vocabulary certainly did recognise.

 

“Oh, oh…” Luna excitedly sounded, instinctively unfurling her petite wings before furrowing her brow trying to remember the right names for her favourite treats. “Ca…cake!” shined the filly, on the verge of hopping in anticipation.

 

Celestia picked the bouncing dark foal up with her forelegs and settled her in a seat at the simple wooden table and began investigating the cupboards and shelves for something simple yet edible for them to have. “Cake? Well… alright, so long as you have something healthy with it…” explained Celestia somewhat pointlessly, the filly not knowing the word. “I don’t want my little sister getting chubby!” teased the older foal as she spied some fresh greens and the cake in question.

 

“Cake! Cake!” bobbed Luna in her seat as she watched her sister telekinetically pull down a large plate with about a third of a carrot cake left on it. She then proceeded to magically cut the delicious sweet evenly, leaving a slice for her mother, and serving it on two separate, smaller plates. “Yay!” cheered little Luna as the cake was slowly lowered onto the table in front of her. The young filly went to pick the cake eagerly but stopped before reaching it. She looked up at her sister levitating a number of kitchen utensils around, then stared back at the cake with immense concentration.

 

Celestia was busy cutting and mixing a variety of vegetables and fruit into a salad. Looking down at her decent but by no means extravagant work, the white foal gave herself an awkward smile. ‘It’s better than something Surprisena could make.’ She didn’t notice a few sky-blue sparks fly from Luna’s horn, or the slice of cake shudder slightly. “Alright Luna, here’s a nice nutritious salad so that you don’t get fa-" Celestia’s words were stopped by her mouth gaping open in surprise as she saw her sister’s slice of cake surrounded with a faint blue aura, levitated ever so slowly from its plate, and then splatter in Luna’s face after shooting towards her at extreme speeds. Both sisters merely blinked in surprise for several moments.

 

Naturally, Luna’s eyes began to bubble and then release a trickle of tears. “…caaaake…” the little filly sorrowfully cried as her treasured desert fell to the floor.

 

Celestia couldn’t help but let out a small chuckle before going to comfort her silly little sister. “Oh, Luna, you’re growing up too fast!” giggled Celestia.  “Don’t worry, let’s get you cleaned up…” floating a pile of napkins over to the table, Celestia began tenderly wiping Luna’s face to remove all the crumbs and growing stream of tears.

 

“B-but…” sniffled the dark filly, scrubbing at her face with her hooves and looking sadly down at her empty plate.

 

“Here,” offered the pure white foal as she telekinetically slid her own slice of cake over the table and then cut it down the middle, levitating one half onto Luna’s plate. “Now no magic at the table until you know how to use it, little sister!” she scolded while simultaneously nuzzling her younger sibling.

 

Luna didn’t fully understand what her big sister’s words meant, but she knew she was being told not to try that again. She nodded vigorously in response before nibbling in delight at the cake Celestia had given her.

 

With Luna happy again, the white foal trotted over to the kitchen window and peered out at the far-off mountains to the west. ‘I’m sorry mother, you missed Luna’s first ever bit of magic!’

 

__________________________________________________________________________

 

Though dark, the night sky was cloud free when Aumean’s internal clock awoke her. It was of course time for her to perform her duties, passed down to her by her ancestors. Picking herself up from the thin sheet she had been sleeping on, the white mare made her way outside the cave onto the cool, damp rocks. Looking up at the now-unclouded stars, she smiled, taking in the beauty of the glistening night sky before she was forced to replace it. Taking a deep breath, closing her eyes and pointing her horn to the horizon, it began to glow and spark with a golden light. The aura from her horn spread to the rest of her body and outstretched wings, illuminating the entire mountainside. In a final flash of light, the divine rays of the sun began to pierce their way lazily across the sky, signalling the beginning of a new dawn. “There…” smiled Aumean as she appreciated her work for a few moments more. Satisfied, the tall alicorn made her way back into the cave and noticed the young draconequus, Discord, muttering and rolling around in a disturbed sleep by his deathly still mother. The mare gave him a gaze full of pity as he began to wake from the warm light of the rising sun, stretching his long body and rubbing his bloodshot eyes.

 

“…is it…” Discord began to say, but stopped as he recalled the events of last night. Without saying another word, the small draconequus simply sat himself down in front of his mother and grasped her neck tightly, rubbing his cheek against her’s affectionately. The elder being did not respond, but the content smile she had left behind showed her passing was not something to despair over.

 

Hoisting her saddlebags onto her back, Aumean continued to shower the sight with a gaze of sympathy. “Discord… it’s time to go.”

 

The small draconequus nodded and gave his mother a final squeeze before letting go and wordlessly scanning the cave. Finding what he was looking for, Discord made an awkward path towards Aumean carrying nothing of his mother’s possessions but a fat iron teapot. It was the same one he had used the night before.

 

“Don’t you want anything else…?” she questioned, surprised by Discord’s choice, “I could carry something for you, if you…”

 

Discord shook his head. Though they had never had much, none of their possessions held as much value as the teapot. Countless times had Discord’s mother beaten away the cold nights and huddled with her son with cups of tea brewed with this very pot. It was a simple thing, worthless to anypony, but a sentimental treasure brimming with loving memories of the one individual to show him affection. Discord would not trade this battered lump of dark metal for any amount of bits, gold or gems. Even a painting of the older draconequus would not have the same value; Discord had seen his mother’s caring face enough times to burn it forever into his memory, and it was her actions, not her appearance, that defined her as someone the little draconequus would never forget.

 

Nodding with understanding, Aumean lifted Discord and his pot onto her back. Twisting her head to give him a reassuring smile, she began a steady trot forward out of the cave, carrying the draconequus into the light of his new life.

[a]

Of Harmony & Chaos

Written by: Brightwel

and (very helpfully) edited by: DustyGrrl

Chapter 2: Resolution Not To Cry

 

Pink clouds swirled unnaturally in the sky, showering the earth with brown droplets of rain. Animals assumed twisted forms, their limbs growing out of proportion with their bodies, sending them into insane races that tore up the ground below them. Plants grew inexplicably, their branches and leaves curling into random shapes and sprouting fruit of eye-watering patterns and colours. Everywhere she looked, the white foal saw only pervasive abominations.

“By the Elements… mother! Mother, please, help! What’s happening!?” cried Celestia as she launched into a gallop, unable to stop her eyes from darting in all directions and soaking up the warped scene. ‘I have to get out of here… get to town… somepony must know what’s happening…’ Celestia’s mind raced as she focused on that goal. The madness that was infecting her beloved Everfree forest was neither scary nor particularly threatening, it was just so… wrong. How had such a place of tranquil beauty become like this?

 

When she saw the roofs of Ponyville’s houses Celestia let out a relieved sigh. Even if she couldn’t find her mother, the citizens would surely have some idea of what was going on. As the white alicorn continued her run towards the small village, her hopeful smile began to fall and her fierce gallop slowed to a weak trot. She had seen the thatched roofs and spires, not because she was getting close to the earth pony-built settlement, but because the buildings themselves were floating in the air.

“Not here as well… mother… mother!” pleaded Celestia as she resumed her rush to the now-cursed village, intent on finding somepony to explain the havoc. Passing over the bridge and into Ponyville proper, the young mare couldn’t help but once again surrender her eyes to the visions of utter chaos around her. Ponies of all ages and size were either laughing manically on the floor, leaping off balconies regardless of whether they could fly or not, poking their heads into every nook and cranny with looks of wonder, trying to slap together random objects into something meaningful or trotting around with their heads held high. ‘What is wrong with everypony!?’ she wondered ‘There must be…Penwell! He’ll know what to do!’ realised Celestia as she thought of the town’s librarian, an intelligent and sensible stallion who was a good family friend. Surely he wouldn’t have been drawn into all this madness?

 

As Celestia set off full-speed to the village’s centre and local library, she was so distracted and confused by this horrid turn of events that she ploughed straight into a hovering figure, sending both crashing onto their blank flanks. “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was-” Celestia began before she was stopped by Surprise, both the feeling and the pony.

 

“And who do you think you’re running into, eh!? How dare you even think of touching me! I am, without doubt, the greatest…dramatically proclaimed the small snow coloured pegasus, though her proud rants were heard by nopony, as Celestia simply stared at her normally carefree and fun-loving friend with horror, unable to even continue listening to what she was saying.

 

‘Surprisena too…? By the Elements, somepony help…!’

 

“…and it’s all thanks to that wondrous gentlecolt!” applauded Surprise as she pointed a hoof to the village pavilion, where a tall, thin, throne-like seat had been placed at the top of the stairs, replacing the normal pedestal used to make announcements. Despite the sun shining brightly in the sky, the chair was engulfed in a menacing shadow, obscuring the long serpentine figure that coolly sat upon it.

 

“He’s responsible? Who is…? Why…? None of this makes sense!” despaired Celestia as she clutched her thoroughly aching head with her hooves. The figure upon the throne stirred at her confused cries, a sadistic, mocking chuckle echoed from the undoubtedly evil being’s throat.

 

“Well of course it doesn’t make sense, my dear…” spoke the figure as he literally stretched his arm, a wicked set of eagle talons slowly clawing their way through the air towards Celestia as she lay frozen on the ground with terror. “…where’s the fun in making sense?” He cackled as a talon forcefully came down on the white foal’s head, not cutting her skin but slicing deep into her mind and infecting her head with such intense feelings of chaos she could do nothing but scream.

______________________________________________________________________

 

The morning sun had still yet to fully rise, but the two travelling companions were already approaching Everfree Forest, which glistened and sparkled with dew in the orange light. They were still high up on the mountain slopes and the cosy village of Ponyville and even the towering spires of Canterlot were visible in the distance. The contrasting couple had remained silent for the few hours they had been hiking the rolling paths. It was not an awkward silence, however; Discord naturally needed time to think about last night and Aumean was fully aware of it. He would speak when he was ready. The red-maned mare smiled wearily to herself; she had accepted responsibility for the young draconequus without giving much thought to what she would do with him exactly, but it now occurred to her that just Celestia and Luna alone could be hooffuls at the best of times. Despite this, her thoughts were more of planning than reconsideration. There was no way in all of Equestria that she would think of abandoning Discord now; even giving up responsibility to somepony else was not an option to the wise mare. The little draconequus was having enough of a hard time as it was; betraying her promise and his feelings was simply inconceivable.

 

“…that village… is that where you live?” piped up Discord, speaking with a curious look in his large yellow eyes that were fixed on the small settlement. Aumean was glad; for one so young, the orphaned draconquus seemed to be taking his circumstances well. She had expected him to want to mourn his loss for longer.

 

“Not quite. I live in a converted chapel with my daughters some distance in that forest, but we often go into the village, Ponyville, for food, supplies and just to be social!” explained the ivory alicorn. “In fact, I want to cut over the forest and go to Ponyville first to see if I can pick up something as an apology for my little ponies…” she continued with a guilty grin on her face. She had told Celestia she would be back from her trip the night before. No doubt the teenage foal would be cross with her.

 

“…daughters? You have children?” asked Discord, his inquisitive eyes turning to look at the back of his carrier’s head with wonder.

 

“Why yes, their names are Celestia and Luna. Celestia is about the same age as you, I think, maybe a little older, but Luna is only just nearing a year now. Don’t worry, they’re both very kind, I’m sure they’ll welcome you,assured Aumean, smiling back at Discord.

 

‘She has daughters!’ exclaimed Discord in his mind, unsure of what to actually think about it other than the fact that there would be other children. He had always been an only child, and while Discord had certainly met many others during his and his mother’s nomadic life, he had never had much of a chance to really get to know them or make friends. It would be a completely new experience for him. His feelings of intrigue only grew as more questions about this pony and her family sprang to mind like embers from a flame. One question in particular tugged at the draconequus’ mind. “Aumean… can I ask what you do? My mother told me that you could tell what a pony did from the marks on their flanks…” asked Discord as he peered at the equine’s rump. “…yours is a quill and some ink, right? What does it mean? Are you a writer?”

 

The mare laughed heartily at the draconequus’ many questions. He certainly was a inquisitive one! ‘In fact… he just might do…’ pondered Aumean before shaking away her thoughts to answer the little creature on her back. “Your mother was right. That is a ‘cutie mark. It symbolises a pony’s calling in life, once they’ve found what it is,explained Aumean as she moved her wings slightly to give Discord a better view of the marking on her rear. “I am a writer, of sorts. I don’t write about stories though, I mostly research and write about magic.”

 

Rather than nod in understanding as he had been doing Discord suddenly frowned, as if Aumean’s explanation wasn’t the answer he was hoping for. “So… it doesn’t have to do with…well… having a horn and wings?” exclaimed the diverse chimera, flapping his mismatched arms to represent the mare’s wings.

 

“Ah, no. I have both a horn and wings because I’m an alicorn, but… you’ll have to wait for another day to hear about that tale, it’s a long history not really suited to mountain hiking!” chuckled Aumean as she slowly came to a canter and looked around the steep slopes, her grin turning to a frown. “Speaking of which… I think we’ve lost the path…”

 

Discord blinked several times and stood as tall as his slender body would allow in an effort to help him scan the unfamiliar surroundings “…I don’t see it…”.

 

For several moments, the pair simply stood and dumbly looked at the rocky inclines around them. “Well, I suppose the only choice is to fly. You don’t mind, do you Discord?” sighed Aumean with an amused tone. Contrary to her reputation in Ponyville as one of the wisest and most knowledgeable beings in the land, she really could be hopeless at times. It was a shame as well, she enjoyed leisurely absorbing the scenery from the ground, rather than see it all as a blur from the air.

 

Standing tall and proud while simultaneously clutching his precious pot, Discord gave Aumean a confident grin. “I flew with mother all the time! No need to worry about me!” It was true that the draconequus had flown with his mother plenty of times before, but it was also true that Aumean was considerably smaller than his mother, and the pony’s hooves were not particularly well adapted for holding onto him.

 

The alicorn returned the grin to her passenger, clearly being able to sense the tiny pang of doubt in him. “I’ll keep you in place with magic if I have to, I’m not that irresponsible,assured Aumean as she covered the draconequus in a shining gold aura that kept him firmly seated in his place. “Ready?”

 

After recieving an excited nod in response, the alicorn unfurled her majestic wings to their maximum, accelerated into a thundering gallop, and leapt into the air, leaving the ground with a powerful gust.

_____________________________________________________________________

 

Yawns were all the pure white foal could muster as she stood at the kitchen sink, magically scrubbing the morning’s dishes. Black bags had already formed under her violet eyes. Last night’s horrible dream had deprived Celestia of all sleep; first simply by making her bolt up in bed, sweating and shivering with fear once it had reached its stomach-curdling conclusion, but also by indirectly scaring poor Luna through her sister’s waking screams. It had taken hours of soothing and lullabies to hush the midnight filly [a]back to a peaceful slumber and at least an hour more for Celestia herself to doze off again, by which time it was already early dawn. Yet another long yawn lazily sounded around the kitchen, tempting Celestia to return to bed. Her normally flowing pastel mane lay curled and tangled and screeched to be tamed from its wild state. On the verge of falling asleep where she stood, the tired foal didn’t notice the hovering figure slowly advance towards her.

 

“SURPRISE!” boomed an adrenaline pumping voice in Celestia’s ear that caused the alicorn to rear up in shock and lose her grip on the levitating dish. The plate, luckily, fell harmlessly in the sink’s soapy water, but splashed the startled foal with a face full of suds. Turning wide-eyed, Celestia saw a yellow-maned pegasus giggling and rolling hysterically on the floor behind her. “Oh…Tia!…Your face!” squeaked the snowy pegasus through aching laughter.

 

“Surprisena…please…don’t do that…again…” gasped Celestia, having lost her breath as well. Though she tried to look annoyed with the sniggering mass on the floor, the alicorn couldn’t help but chuckle a little herself.

 

After a minute the two ponies recovered enough to actually hold a conversation. “Sorry, Tia! But you know me, can’t help it! So, how’s things? Your mom not back yet?” Surprise asked her friend, not particularly astonished that Ms. Aumean hadn’t yet returned from her trip to the rapidly-growing colony.

 

“No, but I doubt she’ll be long now. Knowing mother, she probably went to go get something to try and apologize with, not that she needs to,spoke Celestia. Her words were true. Of course she loved having her mother at home. Everypony knew however, Celestia included, that the young alicorn was very mature for her age and was perfectly capable of taking care of both herself and her little sister. “Luna will be happy though, you know how much of a sweet tooth she has,sighed Celestia as she turned her gaze back out of the kitchen window to the library’s’ garden. Her sister was playfully trying to chase a trio of pink-winged butterflies, the stress of the night before having seemingly been forgotten.

 

“Can’t really blame her, though. My pals in Cloudsdale say the mountains were due a big storm yesterday, she’d have to be as stubborn as a mule to try and get through that!” Surprise informed as she floated up to the sink to join her friend in gazing out into the simple garden.

 

A few moments passed as the two contently watched Luna who was prancing about carefree amongst the flowers, her little wings flapping weakly by her side. “Hmm…oh! Where are my manners? How have you been Surprisena?” inquired Celestia, not noticing the snowy pegasus’ eyes rolling at her constant use of her full name.

“Usual! Bouncing about moping ‘bout how this sleepy little place is too small for ol’ Surprise!” chattered the fun-loving pegasus, clearly not as bored as she made out.

 

“And what about Red?casually asked the alicorn, a knowing smirk spread across her muzzle. She tried suppressing a chuckle as Surprise’s cheeks turned a deep rose. “Got him to examine any jewels?” Celestia continued to tease. Everypony, bar Redstone himself, knew that the spring-hoofed pegasus had a crush on the quiet and humble earth pony.

 

“He’s…he’s good…! Though I haven’t actually…” Surprise paused as her eyes quickly scanned her surroundings. “Wow, look at Luna go! I bet soon she’ll have no trouble flying at all!” stammered the pegasus, zooming towards the garden door to go and play with Luna so she could escape the topic of her blatant affections. Despite her speed, Surprise could not escape the white pony’s taunting chuckle. ‘I’ll get her back!’ she vowed, already in the process of concocting some suitable revenge for Celestia, an amazingly easy task given the alicorn’s organisation-loving nature.

 

Celestia remained in the kitchen and quickly began finishing what cleaning was left from breakfast, as well as giving her mane some much-needed attention. With a little magic here and there, the chores and grooming were soon complete. ‘Tia’ decided she deserved some much needed relaxation after her horrible dream and sleep deprivation. Glancing with a smile through the window, the now well-groomed foal indulged herself and let a fantasy or two slip into her mind; a young, charming colt, or perhaps a big, strong, stallion…? She giggled at the thoughts forming in her mind. It was silly to think she or Surprise would find true love at their young ages. ‘But it would be nice to meet somepony…’ she thought while breathing a hearty sigh. Giggling at herself once more, Celestia shook away her mind’s melodramatic images of romance. She then trotted out into the garden to scold the two filthy fillies practising flying in the meadow’s one muddy pool.

______________________________________________________________________

 

Cheery greetings were gifted by all those whom the pair past, hailing the alicorn with goodwill. “Aumean…you’re famous! Everypony must have said hello…” Discord trailed off while staring at the merry residents of the small town. Little heed was given to the draconequus, but from the foals to the nags they all recognised Aumean.

 

The alicorn blushed faintly and turned her head straight. “W-well, I suppose you could say that…” she stuttered and accelerated into a trot, giving the occasional polite nod in response to the constant acknowledgement.

 

‘…she doesn’t like the attention?’  pondered Discord at Aumean’s reaction. It wasn’t that unusual to be shy, but he found it a little surprising, the way she blushed at every greeting after he had made the remark. The alicorn had appeared to him as the confident type who wouldn’t mind a little renown.

 

Ponyville was not a large place and it did not take long for the mare and her passenger to reach Aumean’s first port of call: a new, two-story thatched roof building with the sapling of an oak tree growing in the open space beside it. “I hope you don’t mind the delays, I just want to see a friend. Then we can go buy the girls a treat and be on our way home,” assured the red-maned mare as she smiled at the small mixed-up creature on her back who promptly returned the expression in kind.

 

“Just a minute, please!” called a slightly muffled voice from the back of the library/bookshop as the store’s doorbell dinged loudly. Several moments passed before an inky blue pony emerged from a backroom on his hind hoofs, precariously carrying a large stack of dusty tomes which obscured his face. The struggling stallion eventually made it to the counter and dropped the stack down with a large THUD!

 

“Really Penwell, I’m sure nopony would mind giving you a hoof if you asked,” remarked the mare with an amused frown. The librarian, who had been regaining his breath, suddenly poked his head around the large pile. He adjusted his circular glasses and shone the mare a bright smile. Bringing the rest of his body with him to stretch over the counter, his forelegs were spread awaiting a hug.

 

“Well, well, if her royal majesty the Queen hasn’t returned to grace her oh, so loyal subjects!” chuckled the earth pony teasingly, causing the powerful alicorn to blush as she embraced the blue stallion warmly.

 

“You know I don’t like being called that!” cried Aumean, her cheeks glowing even more furiously. “Honestly, you’ll be having all the young fillies and colts bowing their heads whenever I walk past!” she scolded the stallion. “It would be so embarrassing if somepony actually thought I was a queen! Can you imagine?”

 

“D’aww, I’m sorry, you know I don’t mean it. But it is good to see you Aumean. Please, tell me all about your trip! What’s Manesterdam like? Growing as fast as they say? And the library! I hear it’s grand! And did you try some of the cuisi-” Penwell’s ramble was cut short by Aumean raising a hoof.

 

All in good time friend. For now though I have to go and see my girls. I am late back after all and I need to get this one settled,explained Aumean as she turned to allow Penwell a better view of Discord. Up until then had been sitting quietly either looking around at the many stuffed shelves or listening in to the two ponies’ conversation with fascination, especially regarding the ‘Queen’ business. The draconequus gave a small wave to the earth pony as his eyes met a questioning frown.

 

“Well…what…what is it?” questioned Penwell, his eyebrow reaching beyond the tip of his short, neatly combed mane. The librarian did not attempt to get closer; rather, he simply moved his head to different angles to take in the random assortment of species that made up the small being.

 

Though the alicorn and earth pony were good friends, Aumean clearly did not appreciate the tone with which Penwell spoke about her new responsibility. “He is called Discord. A draconequus, believe it or not. He will be living with me from now on,” Aumean informed the stallion, intent on emphasising that Discord was, in fact, a creature with feelings.

 

Penwell had read of the draconequus. Supposedly a near-extinct race of nomadic, chimera-like creatures rumoured to have great magical potential and an affinity for either creativity or randomness, dependent on the opinion of the pony in question course. So the legends went. “I…see…” trailed off the stallion, looking at Discord with a curious gaze; not a warm, interested one a friend may give another, but a cold, impassionate stare a scientist might give a test subject he was best deciding on how to dissect.

 

Discord shrank back at the earth ponies’ questioning eyes and tugged at Aumean’s mane to pull her closer. “…can we go soon?” whispered the draconequus, obviously unnerved by Penwell’s frosty gaze.

 

Anyway…” the mare broke the growing tension. “…like I said, we’ll have to chat some other time, Penwell. I must be getting home now.”

 

Penwell’s face snapped back to his old friend. “Of course, of course! I look forward to it! Be sure to bring those bags with you, I know they have the latest releases in them!” The blue-maned librarian smiled, waving a hoof.

 

“See you soon, Penwell,said Aumean as she turned and trotted through the store’s door and back out into the open air. Much like their initial journey together, no words were exchanged between the two companions. Discord remained silent as Aumean made her way to the market, the ‘Sugarcube Stand’ in particular, and bought a large crème and raspberry gateau with the few bits she had left from her trip. Though she kept a brisk pace, Aumean finally slowed and came to a stop just at the borders of the Everfree Forest. Levitating the draconequus and his pot off her back to the ground in front of her, she herself than sat down on the road with him.

 

“…why have we stopped?” asked the draconequus after several silent seconds, his voice lacking its normal inquisitiveness.

 

The mare took a deep breath before speaking. “Discord, I want to say a few things. Firstly, I’m so sorry about Penwell, he’s a good pony, really, but he… can be a little insensitive at times… he doesn’t get out that much after all…” Aumean spoke carefully and slowly. It didn’t take a sun-raising alicorn to see that Penwell had hurt Discord with the way he acted, and the mare was worried how much abuse the little draconequus could take, given his circumstances.

 

“It’s okay, it’s happened before,” replied Discord while shrugging his shoulders indifferently, cautious to keep his head down and not meet Aumean’s concerned face.

 

“That doesn’t make it right or any less hurtful, Discord. Please, I don’t want to push you, but you mustn’t hide your feelings from me. I may still be a stranger, but I swore to take care of you. I want you to trust me and I assure you that you can tell or show me your feelings no matter what shape they may take,” Aumean explained as comfortingly as possible. Discord seemed fine before, but his silence made it occur to the alicorn that he may well be suppressing any lingering sorrows over his mother’s passing for her sake. The draconequus raised his head slightly, catching the caring eyes and warm smile directed at him. “Discord… tell me. What are you feeling? About everything: Penwell, me… your mother. Do you trust me enough to say?”

 

The wind whistled gently over the scene, causing the trees to rustle quietly and the iron teapot to ding against the draconequus’ scaly tail. Discord did not answer for some time. He remained seated in the road, perfectly still. To Aumean’s surprise, he rose to his feet and looked her directly in the eye, bursting with resolve. “I saw it. I saw the way mother smiled when she left us. She was happy. She didn’t want me to despair! Of course I’m sad, but I’m not going to make her sad by letting it hold me back! I’ll miss her, but I’ve got my own life to live!” Discord proclaimed confidently. Aumean was speechless as the draconequus continued proudly. “And the same for Penwell! He’s not the first to think I’m some sort of animal or monster, but I’m not going to let it keep me down! He wants to judge a book by its cover? His loss!” finished Discord, puffing his chest out and smiling broadly with intense self-satisfaction.

 

“Discord…” began the mare with a growing smile “Oh, I think we’ll get along just fine!” she laughed heartily. She didn’t realise he had so much spirit. “Come, let’s go home and introduce you to Celestia and Luna, I’m eager to see those two get to know you,” smiled Aumean as she levitated Discord, his pot and the gateau onto her back. The few grey clouds that had been lingering in the sky slowly parted, making way for the bright rays of the sun to light up their path.


Of Harmony & Chaos

Written by: Brightwel

(very helpfully) edited by: DustyGrrl

Cover art by: Iopichio

 

Chapter 3:

Everything Is Better With Family

 

For the second time in the same day, Celestia received a bubbly volley to the face. “Luna! Would you please stay still…?” begged the white alicorn as she used her magic to levitate a towel to wipe the soap from her eyes with. “…and would you stop encouraging her?” she continued, flashing the pegasus pulling silly faces an annoyed glare. It had been difficult enough dragging a dirt-ridden Luna back through the old library and into a bath. The flailing filly had nearly ruined half of mother’s papers as she cried to be returned to the yard so she could continue her play, though the task at hand of washing her was proving to be no small feat either. Of course, now that she was in the warm, soapy water, the dark-blue foal was splashing about giggling, happy once more and the previous offense forgotten.

 

“WooooNAA!!” called Surprise through a scrunched up face, ignoring her more mature friend’s frustrated stares. As expected, the filly bounced up and down and threw her hooves in the air with excitement, sending yet more water flooding over the bathroom floor.

 

A loud knocking sound caused all three ponies to pause, ears pricking up to try and catch the sound again to confirm their suspicions. The snow-coated pegasus was the first to break the silence. “Hey! That’s probably your mom, you should go-”

 

“No, you do it.”

 

“Eh? But wh-AH!” yelled Surprise as the irritated alicorn flung her from the room telekinetically and slammed the door shut behind her before grasping the brush and resuming her careful grooming of her sister’s mane. Luna momentarily looked a little startled and confused at the funny pony’s abrupt departure but simply giggled and went back to swirling the water about and throwing bubbles where ever she deemed them lacking.

 

“Finally… now let’s get you cleaned up quickly before mother sees you…” Without the bouncy pegasus’ distractions and if she was quick, Celestia calculated that she just might get Luna into a presentable state for when her mother finally got settled and found them.

 

Celestia’s efforts were in vain however as an all too familiar voice echoed from the library. “Celestia! Luna! I’m back!” The foal sighed and put down the brushes and bar of soap she had been using as Luna’s whole form froze except for her tiny twitching ears. The pastel-maned pony made sure to move back quickly to avoid a total soaking as her sister exploded from the bathtub. The little filly leapt at the door and managed to turn the doorknob enough to unlock her path, then dashed as fast as her tiny legs could carry her into the library. With another long and cheery sigh, Celestia slowly followed the damp trail left by Luna.

 

“OH!” exclaimed Aumean as she was forced from her hooves by a blue, speeding, dripping-wet torpedo that proceeded to bombard her with hugs and endless nuzzling.

 

“Mama!” squealed Luna as she wrestled her mother to the ground again, relentlessly showering her with affection.

 

“Sorry mother… I was giving her a bath…” apologized Celestia, trying to hold back the urge to pounce her mother in a similar fashion to her sister as she strode past the many book shelves and into the centre of the library. Her family lay rolling on the floor giggling and snorting with warm laughter.

 

“Oh, Celestia, stop being so formal and come here!” ordered Aumean as she managed to grab her youngest filly and restrain her in a cuddle with one leg while leaving the other open for her older daughter.

 

The pastel-maned mare rolled her eyes at the chortling pair but was nonetheless quick to trot over and receive a tight embrace followed by a fair share of kisses. “M-mother!…heehee…stop! Surprisena is-” protested Celestia, not wanting to offer the often mischievous pegasus any teasing material.

 

“Too late wittle Cewestia!” Surprise laughed with them. She wasn’t going to let the alicorn live the gushy moment down any time soon. It was no less a happy sight for the pegasus than it was for the reunited family, or even the other small figure waiting by the library’s large wooden doors.

__________________________________________________________________________

 

There was surprising amount of bustle for the time of day, the inky blue earth pony noted. Having decided to close early and take a stroll through the village and its green outskirts, Penwell found himself feeling a tad miffed. As good a friend as she was, the earth pony could never quite understand Aumean’s fascination with what he could only describe as everything that breathed or was green. It had only been a handful of weeks since she had come to him spouting about the supposed discovery of a small insect that could consume several hundred times it’s own mass and reproduce at an unheard of rate. And now this ‘draconequus’? He found it hard to believe that the diminutive patchwork monster she had on her back could be one of those legendary beasts. Especially given how they were, after all, legendary. The few reports of somepony having met and talked to the elusive creatures often had no evidence to back them up and sightings were more likely just that of regular chimeras. The worst thing about it all, however, was that she had said it was going to live with her.

Oh Aumean, whatever are you getting yourself into this ti-’

Bang!

Penwell was unable to finish his thoughts as he was thrown into a daze by the sudden impact that sent him sprawling hard onto his back.

 

“Oww… geez, mister, I told you to look out! You deaf or what!?” a voice rang sharply in the ageing stallion’s ears. Pulling himself back to his hooves, the older pony’s suspicions were confirmed as to the voice’s owner: Ponyville’s resident speedster, Firefly. The pink earth pony sat looking up at him with great impatience. “You know, you’re lucky mister. If I had wings, I’d be going so fast I would have sent you flying as well!”

 

Penwell matched the filly’s unimpressed glare, rubbing his bruised flank. “Again with this, Firefly!? I don’t even know which number victim I am! By all means, race yourself, or whatever it is you do, but not through the village! Ponies will get, and have gotten, hurt!” disciplined Penwell, inspecting the area around his cutie mark –a black and gold fountain pen drawing a neatly curving line- for any serious damage.

 

The blue-maned filly simply hmpfed and crossed her forelegs defiantly. She knew it was dangerous to gallop through the village, but her parents didn’t let her go outside the town by herself and even when she could gather a few friends to go with her, the really good tracks were further still, places absolutely off-limits without her parent’s supervision. ‘It’s so stupid! Everypony knows the Everfree forest and all the other areas around Ponyville are totally safe!’  Firefly mentally complained.‘If I had wings, then I wouldn’t need to go through the town! I could just go over!’

 

“Please try not to cause too much trouble, Firefly. I would hate to have to ask Aumean to help patch somepony up again after she’s only just returned…” sighed Penwell, satisfied that his hind quarters were in no need of medical attention.

 

“Meanie’s back!? You could have said earlier mister! I wanna hear all about her adventure!” exclaimed the pink earth pony, forgetting her attempts to show off her pride to the bookish stallion.

 

Penwell sighed once more as he cleaned and readjusted his glasses, thankful he had them on a chain and they had not been broken in the impact. “Yes, she is. It’s been the talk of the town.  Congratulations, it seems you can gallop faster than the speed of sound…” sarcastically commented Penwell as he returned his focus to the younger pony “…you might have heard if you would slow down for once.”

 

Firefly simply stuck her tongue out at the remark before leaping back to her hooves and readying herself for another full speed gallop. “Deal with it, mister!” taunted the blue-maned speedster, her launch leaving the inky-blue stallion coughing in a dusty cloud.

_____________________________________________________________________

 

“Celestia, Luna. This, is Discord.”

 

The two sides stood like a pair of opposing statues. Neither moved, intensely scrutinising the other. The heavenly white, well groomed alicorn and the randomly assorted, dishevelled draconequus stared and gazed at one another in a fierce battle of examination, each weighing up the other and making silent judgments.

 

‘She’s beautiful…’

 

‘What…is he?’

 

“Di-Di-…Dis-cord!” the neutral silence was shattered by the midnight filly’s giggling. So absorbed by the teenage foal, Discord had not noticed the tiny alicorn’s approach. Unlike her sister, who employed mature understanding and logic, Luna scanned the new individual the way she knew best: she prodded, smelled, felt and even hugged the thin being before her, ultimately and hastily concluding that he should be her knew friend and play partner, effective immediately. Trotting behind the bemused Discord, she began to forcefully push him in the direction of their mother with what little strength her legs could muster, careful to use the side of her head so as to avoid hurting her wiry companion with her horn, stubby as it may have been. The draconequus showed only the slightest hint of resistance as he was squashed against Aumean’s chest, the ivory-alicorn content with letting her youngest have her way. With a pair of soft hooves to the back of the neck, Discord was foalhandled into lying down by the elder alicorn, the two being quickly accompanied by Luna herself, who snuggled onto her mother’s side and eagerly began gesturing to her sister and the snowy-pegasus to come join them.

 

“Luna…? Oh, excuse me…” Celestia cleared her throat, taken aback by how quickly even her sister had warmed to the…unattractive, new arrival. “…as you can probably see, she’s only very young, apologies if she bothered you…Discord?” Even his name had a chaotic ring to it.

 

The draconequus nodded slowly, blushing faintly, presumably at his position, though he made no attempt to change it. “P-please, I don’t mind, it’s a pleasure to meet you…C-celestia?” spoke the chimera awkwardly, extending a talon for the white-pony to shake.

 

Celestia froze. She had seen just such a talon in a place she had most certainly wanted to forget. Quick to regain her manners however, Celestia suppressed any frowns before they could form and smiled politely, letting the draconequus take her hoof and shake it. She thought she caught a glimpse of a ‘look’ from her mother, but dismissed any notion of acknowledging it. It wouldn’t do to make an uncomfortable situation, especially given how much of a tantrum Luna would throw if her envisioned family moment did not come to pass because of it. “…Likewise,” the alicorn forced herself to say.

 

Aumean smiled. She was glad with the results. Luna had taken to Discord very quickly and though it might take Celestia time to feel the same, the two would surely become friends. “I have something important to say,” announced Aumean, drawing the attention of the room to her. “I realise it is sudden, but Discord here will be living with us for some time. Please, make him feel comfortable.”

 

“Consider yourself super lucky then!” congratulated Surprise with a wink. If there was any other pony she had to live with, it would be Aumean ‘…well, except maybe Redstone…’ she silently told herself.

 

Luna was not listening and the pegasus took the news with cheer, though it left her friend’s mouth agape. ‘Living with us!?’ Discord seemed nice enough, now that she knew he was actually intelligent, but even so, bringing a complete stranger into their home? Where there was a young foal? And of course there was also mother’s secret. Was it not her duty to guard them? Celestia shook away her shock, reason returning to her. ‘There must be something about him… plenty of times somepony or animal has stayed here for a few nights…but never lived with us! Mother must have a good reason…’

 

“…Celestia? Celestia?” Aumean dragged her oldest back to reality, grinning as the pastel-maned alicorn blushed at realising she had slipped into such deep thought. “Celestia. I want to show Discord around, could you and Surprise perhaps start making lunch please?” asked the ivory mare.

 

“Sure thing Ms. Aumean! Come on Tia! Luna, you can help too!” the pegasus exclaimed as she swooped down and gently lifted a slightly startled Luna from her mother’s side. The midnight-filly struggled a little, wanting to go back to the warmth, but was soon giggling as Surprise swerved and looped lazily around the large hall in the general direction of the kitchen. “Hurry up Tia!”

 

Celestia nodded to her friend as she disappeared over a bookcase before turning back to her mother with a slightly concerned expression. “Mother…you aren’t going to show him...? Are you…? You don’t know-” she spoke with a hushed voice but was abruptly stopping by a reassuring hoof.

 

“Don’t worry Celestia. I’m glad you showed some concern, but I know what I’m doing,” Aumean said with full confidence, her gaze matching her tone. Celestia retained her expression momentarily before realising that it was her mother she was questioning. If she was happy to show the small chimera artifacts as precious as those, then the teenage foal would go along with it. Everypony, even strangers, generally found themselves trusting the alicorn’s judgment; her daughters were no exception. With a smile and nod, Celestia followed her friend and sister and left the mare and draconequus alone together.

 

‘…What are are they talking about?’ pondered the brown-coated creature as he watched the fair pony elegantly stride away. His curiosity had been sparked countless times in the past couple of days. Like nearly every other incident in that time, the draconequus looked to his new guardian with a raised eyebrow and as usual she exchanged it for a knowing smile.

 

“I know what you must be thinking, Discord.” He merely continued to look at her blankly. “Come. They are, after all, perhaps the most interesting things I have here,” calmly spoke the mare as she rose to her hooves and gestured for Discord to follow her along the length of the hall towards the back wall, a simple, smooth stone construct. “Oh, and don’t worry about our things, they’ll be fine in the entrance hall for the moment,” she commented as the draconequus quickly shot a thoughtful glance over his shoulder. As they passed the bookshelves and approached the wall, Discord heard echoing voices and the occasional burst of laughter resounding from a corridor branching off to his left. This was clearly where Celestia, Luna and the pegasus had went, and must also be the direction of the kitchen. “I trust you Discord, but what I am about to show you are… a sort of secret. Please, do not talk about them to anypony you meet,” requested Aumean, her normal relaxed voice carrying a slight edge of gravity to it.

 

Discord’s mere and simple nod masked the buzzing of his mind, which was now aflame with intrigue. What could the alicorn possibly have which she did not want others outside her household to know of? Celestia had also seemed worried of letting knowledge of whatever it was Aumean owned leave the family. As the pair reached the wall, Discord noticed that it was not completely without detail. Within its centre lay a small hole surrounded by eleven coloured circles, the top most circle, decorated purple, being slightly larger than the other ten. Each circle was connected to the next with a golden line which linked them all and formed one greater ring.

 

“Hmm…I may have to change this lock…” Aumean stated with a minor frown as she lowered her head and smoothly inserted her horn into the hole, resulting in each circle and the line lighting up with a soft glow. The wall revealed itself to in fact be a well disguised doorway that proceeded to rumble open, its demands met, showing a stone corridor not unlike the one Discord had seen previously. The corridor was dimly lit with glass lamps filled with glow worms. Its only other noticeable feature was the large wooden doors, reinforced with dark iron, marking the end of the passage. They stood silently,  guarding of whatever treasures lay beyond them. As the two made their way along the corridor the large pony’s hooves kicked up wisps of dust that floated in the air and quickly wound up snagged in one of the many cobwebs stretched across the walls and ceiling. Aumean or any other pony evidently didn’t come here often. The alicorn threw a smirk over her shoulder to Discord as she placed a hoof on the doors. “Ready?” The draconequus eagerly nodded in response. “These, Discord…” Aumean began as she shoved the creaking doors open, allowing a spectrum of soft rainbow light to flood into the passage, prompting the draconequus to scrabble closer to try and satiate his burning intrigue. “…are the Elements.”

_____________________________________________________________________

 

The bearded pony stared out of his study’s window glaring daggers to the many builder ponies shouting, banging and making all the noise generally involved in construction. The move to New Manesterdam had certainly been a trade-off. On the one hoof, the wise unicorn had close access to what was quickly becoming any academic’s dream, the growing town’s Central Public Library. He didn’t know quite how the gleaming marble building had attracted so much attention and with it, enough books to last a century; that was a sociologist’s field, he imagined. Regardless, the immense diversity and volume of research material had come with a terrible price: racket. Everyday from dawn till dusk, wood was sawed, mallets rang on metal, concrete churned in large vats, it was relentless! The ageing grey unicorn, powerful as he was, could only keep his sound-proofing spells up for so long! After one more pony received the fright of her life by letting their gaze wander accidentally to the old stallion’s window and meet those bloodthirsty eyes, the robed sorcerer slammed the blinds closed and tried desperately to concentrate on his notes. Using his magic to carefully and neatly continue writing down his most recent thoughts on the dangers of magical manipulation of space/time, the elderly wizard neared a state of perfect focus.

BOOM!!!

The sound physically shook the house and left a large, thick line of ink splattered over the many paragraphs of top-class study. Grinding his teeth, the gray-unicorn narrowed his eyes over the offending line of spilt ink and applied to a light touch of magic to levitate it off the page before it dried and stained. Calmly, he righted his inkwell and let the black liquid drip back into its proper place. With a deep breath, the stallion walked over to the window, rolled up the blinds and pushed open the glass.

“WOULD YOU KEEP IT DOWN!? SOME OF US ARE TRYING TO STUDY HERE!yelled the old pony as loud as his frail lungs could muster. Each one of the silent construction ponies received a terrifying death stare before wincing in unison as the unicorn’s window was slammed shut with enough force to leave a small crack at its base. With the blinds shut once more, the white-maned pony collapsed onto a cushion. He really shouldn’t have bought a house so close to the town outskirts where all the heavy expansion work was taking place, even if it did mean he had saved a small fortune in bits.

 

“Uncle Star Swirl! Uncle Star Swirl, are you alright?” cried a worried voice, its owner bursting into the room a moment later. The blue filly was panting and a little sweaty, having rushed up the tall spiral staircase to check on her elderly uncle as soon as he heard his infuriated screams.

 

“Victory Dawn… Dear, I’m fine, just those noisy construction workers tugging at my beard is all.” Star Swirl’s voice relaxed the moment the blond-maned earth foal had flown through the door. It always calmed his heart to know that even at such a tender age his niece never failed to look out for the senior pony. Despite not being a unicorn, Dawn had always had a keen interest in magic and loved to help her uncle in his studies, even if it was just to take some weight off the stallion’s aching bones.

 

“Uncle~~!” complained the filly, looking at him with an annoyed but terribly adorable glare. It took a moment for the wise unicorn to realise the cause of her protest, he had used her full name. Even though Star Swirl himself, his brother, and sister-in-law had all approved of the name, the filly hated ‘Victory’ and preferred to just be called Dawn.

 

“You must be the only one who doesn’t like it girl! Even Aumean thinks it a good, strong name!” countered Star Swirl, beckoning for his niece to come and sit with him.

 

“I know… Hey Uncle, when’s Ms. Aumean coming to visit again? You make a really good team!” beamed Dawn, fondly recalling the amazing experiments which the alicorn and her uncle had performed.

 

“Oh, I don’t think dear Equidae will be able to come ‘till at least next year,” he told her, wincing a little at the memory of his and Aumean’s library outing. ‘She did buy some of the library’s most prized books after all…’ remembered the gray-unicorn with a frown. He had never known the library staff to get so flustered. It had been an embarrassing situation indeed, watching the alicorn literally begging the clerics to sell her part of their one-of-a-kind collection; she even began throwing bits at them at one point. “…Now, Dawn dearest, why don’t we go have some tea? I suddenly feel the urge to hide myself in a cup…”

__________________________________________________________________

 

The wonder overflowed from Discord’s eyes. He stood, head near the floor, not having moved from the awkward position he had assumed so as to catch a glimpse of the chamber’s contents as the doors had been opened. There, above a simple pedestal floated eleven gems under what must have been their own power. They were arranged into two rings, each ring composed of five gems orbiting an eleventh, slightly larger purple gem. With an amused grin plastered over her muzzle, Aumean nudged the draconequus into the round chamber and walked in herself, shutting the wooden doors behind with magic as she did so.

“These, Discord, are the Elements. The most powerful objects known to ponykind and perhaps even the world,” stated the alicorn, approaching the pedestal casually. “The Elements have been guarded by us alicorns for millennium. Who or what made them, how they work, why they are here, there is a great deal still unknown about them. A great deal we will likely never learn and perhaps shouldn’t,” she continued, rounding the pedestal until she arrived back in front of Discord. “Please, ask anything you want to though.”

 

The draconequus could actually feel the intense magic power of the Elements radiating onto every inch of his varied skin. “What… what exactly do they do…?” Whatever is was, the Elements did it on a massive scale.

 

“Good start. The Elements are infinitely powerful artifacts that can, in theory, grant the wish of anypony who can wield them,” explained Aumean, her tone confident. This was an area she knew about. “For many though, that is the problem right there. Each Element embodies a particular personal trait and those who don’t also embody that trait well cannot effectively wield them. Only if somepony was a living representation of that trait could they unlock an Element’s true potential.”

 

“But…doesn’t that mean there are barely any who can use them? And what traits are they?”

 

“No, not exactly. There are very few ponies who can use an Element at it’s best, but most would be able to wield them to some extent if they had the chance. As to the Element’s traits, they are: Honesty, Kindness, Will, Generosity and Loyalty, these are grouped together as the ‘Elements of Harmony’. Then there are the ‘Elements of Chaos’ which are: Innovation, Pride, Laughter, Ambition and Curiosity,” recited Aumean proudly, before taking a breath and continuing. “Finally, to tie them all together, Magic.” at which she gestured to the larger gem in the centre of the other ten.

 

“…Harmony? Chaos? So… some are good and some are bad?” inquired Discord, confused at why something as simple as ‘Laughter’ had been labelled as chaotic.

 

Aumean laughed awkwardly. “…No…you see, my ancestors didn’t seem to think those names through very well. Basically, there is no fundamental difference between any of the Elements, perhaps baring Magic, except for what they represent. As far as I know, they were only grouped as such because that’s what the Elements’ original guardians thought those traits would create if society exhibited them excessively.” Aumean paused to breath and think of how best to explain it to the young creature. “But…once again, they did not think it through very well. Harmony, in excess, can be just as bad as Chaos. Too much order deprives freedom, halts progress. Likewise, too much Chaos is bad. It would only bring destruction and madness. Do you understand? It all revolves around balance and a concept known as ‘the Golden Mean.’”

 

Discord nodded slowly, taking some time to absorb the wave of information, but he still wanted more. “Golden Mean?”

 

“Yes, it was originally thought of long ago by a very wise stallion called Ariscolte. He stated that in order for there to be true peace and happiness, ponies and every other species have to find just the right balance, the golden mean, between an excess or a lack of a personal trait. Let’s take Generosity as an example. Were there too little generosity, then everypony would lack something they need from somepony else. Too much generosity, and a pony would forget there own needs, they would give away everything they required and desired and would be left miserable and even sick.”

 

The alicorns lecture began to make sense in the draconequus’ still growing mind, but there were still some things that bothered him about the Elements. Hovering over to the pedestal, Discord gave one of the orbiting gems a light tap with a talon, causing a sharp note to echo around the chamber. “I get that they’re very powerful, but… they look a bit fragile, is it possible to…?” he trailed off, looking back to the alicorn expectantly.

 

“Destroy them?” she finished his sentence and stopped to think about it. “…I honestly do not know. It isn’t something I’ve ever dared to find out. Were I to accidentally break one, I would have no idea how to restore it, or even if it could be restored. That...” she hesitated as she mulled the scenario over in her head “...and it would be a dark day for the world if somepony did try to destroy them.”

 

“Why? Would something bad happen…?” the draconequus asked as he imagined the quaint Canterlot Valley consumed in a huge magical explosion. The thought made him shudder slightly. If that was how dangerous the Elements could be, then he was beginning to understand why Aumean or Celestia did not want knowledge of the Elements to be made widespread.

 

“Like what? Some sort of devastation?” she accurately guessed at Discord’s own imaginings. “I wouldn’t think so. No, it would be a tragedy simply because somepony may have been willing to destroy them, mused Aumean, pondering the thought herself.

 

“But you said that any being could potentially wield the Elements! They could be used for evil, couldn’t they?”

 

Aumean shook her head. “Could. Could be used for evil. Equally, they could be used for great good. For somepony to destroy them purely because they could be used for evil would show that that pony, and maybe other ponies, held great fear in their hearts. And fear like that is a terrible, terrible thing, Discord.” The chamber fell silent as the two thought deeply about such an awful scenario.

 

“One more question…” Discord broke the stillness. “What happened to the Elements’ guardians? To the alicorns? Your ancestors? You, Celestia and Luna are the first I’ve ever seen in all my life! Did they die out like… my…my people…?” Discord stung himself with the question, but he genuinely wanted to know. Before a few days ago, he thought only three kinds of pony existed: earth, pegasi and unicorn.

 

Aumean smiled warmly at the draconequus. So few could sit through her lectures and still drink up more. “To put it simply, the alicorns changed. Through the generations, they became the ponies of today. What you must understand about alicorns is that though we are very long lived, we aren’t immortal. Not only that, but we can only have children during a very small window of opportunity in our lives, normally around ten to twenty years, depending on the individual,” schooled Aumean a little sadly. The alicorns were fortunate really; though their descendants were physically different, they did at least have them. The draconequus lifespan and reproductive methods were very similar to that of the ancient pony race, yet they had not changed and had now been almost totally swallowed up in the murky depths of history.

“Unlike the ponies of today, we alicorns were never truly united in friendship. Some, like me, liked to devote their time to magic and research. Often, they felt their mastery of the arcane made them the superior of the ‘clans’ that had formed, you could say. They were the ones who eventually became the unicorns,” Aumean was now pacing around the chamber, occasionally creating starry drawings of what she spoke of in the air. “There were those alicorns who loved to live among the clouds and the freedom of the air. Much like the sorcerers, some believed that without their weather-controlling expertise, the rest of pony society could not function. Their children were the pegasi,” with another spark from her horn, the magical images morphed into a far-shot of Canterlot Valley. “And then there were those alicorns who were happy with simple farming and connecting with the earth. Perhaps ironically, a number of them thought their basic lives were above the arrogance and pride of others and that they were the better ones because of it. As you might have guessed, they became the earth ponies.” Aumean finally stopped her pacing and drew a simple picture of an earth pony, pegasus and unicorn holding hoofs together and smiling. “Perhaps for all their natural power and abilities, the alicorns were always destined to be triumphed by their descendants. After all, it is thought that it was their friendship that thawed the blizzard that had plagued this land for countless years, something alicorn kind had never successfully achieved.”

 

Discord nodded with unending interest and cursed his body for not being able to muster the same intrigue when he let out a long yawn. “I-I’m sorry, it’s not…”

 

Aumean herself yawned as well. “No, we’ve been talking for hours now! I think we should leave the lessons there for today, yes?” the ivory mare asked, but before Disord could reply, a loud gurgle echoed from Aumean’s stomach causing her to blush. “…and let’s see if there are any leftovers from lunch.”

_____________________________________________________________________

 

“…Thanks again for putting Luna to sleep Surprisena, she can be such a terror sometimes,” the white foal thanked her pegasus friend. The two had gotten sick of waiting for Aumean and the new arrival and simply eaten lunch without them, then spent the next hour or so trying to get Luna, who had thrown a tantrum at not being able to play with her mother more, to take her nap. The winged ponies had then simply lain around the library patio, recovering from the exhausting battle with the midnight-filly before it was time for Surprise to return home to Cloudsdale.

 

“No problemo, Tia! I’ll call around again tomorrow if it’s okay with your mom,” replied Surprise while saluting.

 

“I’m sure she won’t mind, unless she gets to distracted with the lodger or…whatever he is.” The alicorn rolled her eyes. She wasn’t particularly thrilled with the idea of Discord staying with them, but she trusted her mother had made the right decision in letting the patchwork being take up residence in the library.

 

“Discord? He seems a swell guy! Anyway, gotta jet, later Tia!” the gold-maned pegasus waved as she ascended further into the sky. Celestia returned the wave smiling before closing the large wooden doors and trotting casually back to the kitchen, levitating her mother’s saddlebags and other items left in the entrance hall, including a large gateau and an old iron teapot. The gateau was to be expected, really. Celestia had known her mother would get something like it as an apology. She had no idea why she had brought a teapot home though, they didn’t need a new one and even if they did, this one wasn’t new. The white-foal shrugged and simply decided to leave the teapot with the saddlebags on the table in the centre of the library hall while she took the cake to the kitchen with her.

 

‘I suppose I can make a start on dinner, even if just for me and Luna,’ she told herself with a sigh. It was always a bother when mother went into the Elements’ chamber. Only she could unlock the seal on the door to them and there was no way Celestia could contact her once the large stone portal closed again. Of course the worst part was that Discord was in there with her. If he was truly going to be staying with them, then there was no doubt that mother had entered her teacher mode and was telling him all about them, which in turn meant they could be in there for who knows how long.

The kitchen’s only noise was that of the rhythmic thud of a knife against a chopping board, but Celestia’s mind was whirring with thought. There must be something about Discord, other than his odd appearance, that mother could see if she trusted him enough to both show and tell him about the Elements this quickly. Could she want him as a student? A tiny pang of jealousy resounded in the alicorn’s stomach. Up until now, Celestia had been the only one to have been taught of the Elements and she was also the only one that was learning how to use them, should she ever need to. Luna would also naturally receive such tutelage, once she was old enough. But Discord? He wasn’t even a pony, let alone a part of the family. She didn’t like it, but she would have to learn to live with it. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, her mother would inform Celestia of the reasons behind her unusual decisions.

 

“My, that looks good!” The sudden voice caused Celestia to leap with fright, she was so startled. “And I see you found the gateau. It was supposed to be a surprise!” Turning around, Celestia was met by the sight of her mother chuckling at her and Discord struggling to hold back his snickering. The pastel-maned alicorn shot them both an annoyed glare and held a wooden spoon in the air threateningly. That was the second time in the same day she had been caught like that.

 

“Don’t scare me like that, I might have-” Celestia stalled and looked around, unwilling to reveal the thoughts which had muffled her senses to the chortling duo’s presence “…spilled the stew...?” she said with no great confidence. There bubbling on the stove was a pot of potato and leek stew that she couldn’t actually recall making, so lost she had been in her mental far lands.

 

“Mama…” an angelic voice squeaked from the other corridor leading to the bedrooms. Peering over the table, Aumean discovered her youngest wobbling into the kitchen, stopping every few steps to rub her eyes of sleep.

 

“Luna, just in time! Look, your big sister has made us all dinner!” the ivory mare spoke as she scooped Luna up in a golden aura into her outstretched hoofs. “What do we say when somepony makes us something?” coddled the elder alicorn as she held her in the direction of the stove.

 

“T-…Th-…Zankyu!”

 

“Th-ank you,” gently corrected the mare, spinning her daughter around before putting her down in one of the simple wooden seats next to Discord, who had taken the liberty to sit down himself.

 

“Dis-…Discord!” playfully giggled the filly, stretching her stubby hooves to try and reach her knew friend.

 

“That’s right!” Discord replied cheerily, snaking his tail around the chair and dangling it just above Luna’s reach so she would try and catch it. He had only met her hours ago but Luna’s very presence already made his heart melt a little.

 

“Oh, mother, I forgot to say, Luna used magic!” said Celestia excitedly, turning her head from the stew to her mother who beamed at her youngest proudly.

 

“She did? Oh, Luna! I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to see it!” she apologised while spinning her filly around again. “I’ll have to start teaching you! Let me guess, there was a mess?” grinned Aumean back to her oldest. First time magic use always made a mess.

 

“Only a little, but I don’t think she’ll be trying it again when food’s about. Speaking of which, the stew’s done,” Celestia remarked, quickly turning off the stove to stop the piping hot soup from boiling over. After leaving it to cool for a few seconds, she levitated the pot onto a folded cloth in the middle of the table while Aumean arranged cutlery and bowls for four. An additional chair normally reserved for guests was also put into place so there were enough seats around the table that would normally only see three.

 

Once they were all seated, Aumean turned to Discord and smiled. “This is your first meal with us, but please, don’t feel you can’t act casually. You’re probably going to have many more experiences like this and, well… I hope you feel welcome.”

 

“I do! But I should really be thanking you, Aumean, you’ve done so much for me,” replied the draconequus as he took a small bow of gratitude towards not just Aumean, but Celestia as well.

 

“Now Discord, there’s really no need for that! This is your new home and I hope you’ll come to see it as such. Now, let’s dig in,” happily proclaimed the red-maned equine before taking a spoonful of soup. Discord smiled and did likewise. He was pleased his assumption that the stew would be delicious turned out to be correct. After all, food always tasted better with family.


Of Harmony & Chaos

Written by: Brightwel

(very helpfully) edited by: DustyGrrl

Cover art by: Iopichio

Chapter 4: The Night Everypony Saw

Bright orange rays stretched across the horizon, the sun performing a passionate finale for the day. Emerging from the shaded floor of the Everfree Forest were two ponies, clearly bickering with each other as they ascended the light slope to a small gathering at the edge of cliff. “Surprise, hurry UP! We’re going to miss it!”

Maybe if you hadn’t insisted we race through so many detours we would have gotten here half an hour ago!

“Well maybe if YOU weren’t so slow and actually sped up sometime this century!”

“Please, Surprise, Firefly, there is no rush! Luna is still preparing!” Discord called, breaking the two ponies dispute as they approached the wide ledge where five other figures were waiting.

“Cool! Told you we weren’t going to be late, didn’t I Surprise?” boasted Firefly, ignoring the white pegasus as she rolled her eyes.

“Of course we aren’t late, the moon isn’t up yet is it, silly?” she countered, putting a quick stop to another potential argument.

“Oh. You’re right…!” The pink speedster surveyed the cliff top to see who was there ahead of them. Discord of course, who was waving and gesturing for them to come closer; the bookkeeper Penwell, who was lying on a plain linen cloth while passing his gaze back and forth between the fiery sky and some kind of chart; Celestia, who was also lying by herself, happily observing the final two who stood closet to the sheer drop, and Aumean and Luna. The young filly was listening nervously to her mother, nodding occasionally as the mare calmly explained something inaudible to her. It was most certainly last minute instruction and encouragement for the momentous undertaking she would soon attempt.

“Wonderful, isn’t it? It seemed only yesterday she had difficulty saying our names, and now? Little Luna’s going to raise the moon. How the years have flown by!” the draconequus mused as he snapped his talons and caused three stripy deckchairs to appear in a flash of light.

“They sure have! I can’t wait to see her lift the moon all by herself! You think she’ll get her cutie mark like Celestia did?” The two ponies followed Discord and took places in the deckchairs.

“I can very well see it happening. It would certainly make sense; talents can run in families, can’t they?” he quizzed the two ponies.

“Yeah! My dad says grandpa was super fast as well! I bet I get these pegasus-beating legs from him!”

“Alright everypony, she’s ready!” a clear voice rang on the cool wind, halting all talk and turning all eyes to Luna, who smiled back anxiously.

“Mother, are you sure I’m-”

“Yes, I’ve taught you all I can. Don’t worry sweetie, we all believe in you,” Aumean interrupted her daughter, refusing to let doubt get the better of her. The ivory mare left Luna standing at the cliff edge to go join the others, Celestia and Penwell getting up to walk alongside her.

“Aumean, are you sure she’s ready? She’s even younger than Celestia was when-” the ageing stallion began before he was similarly interrupted.

Penwell, old friend, it isn’t just my daughters that have grown. I too have been learning, learning how to teach. I’m fully confident she will succeed.” Penwell tried to frown yet could not help but grin instead at the alicorn. Wise and humble as always.

As the three approached the seated audience, Discord spawned more chairs for their benefit and they reclined and lay in them. Celestia however, opted to morph hers into a neatly patterned cushion instead.

“Whenever you want sweetie!”

“Go Luna! You can do it!”

“Good luck!”

        

“We’re rooting for you!”

“T-thank you, all…” Luna meekly called back to her cheering friends and family. The blush from her cheeks faded as she stood and turned to face the cliff and the horizon in the distance. The sun had now all but been set by her mother’s magic. Only the tiniest rays of light scrabbled over the sky in a desperate bid to prolong the day for a few seconds more. Without the sun or the moon, the sky was left as an odd sort of void, deprived of both the light of day and the true darkness of night. Luna had to remedy that. Sinking her hooves firmly into the damp earth, closing her eyes, and taking a long, deep breath, Luna concentrated solely on focusing the ancient magic that controlled the passage of day and night into her spiralled horn. The crowd behind her didn’t just fall silent, they fell from her mind, everything did: the chilly wind, the rustling trees, the distant calling of birds and howling of animals. Everything left her consciousness except one purpose: to bring the moon from its slumber.

…go Luna…go,Celestia barely breathed under her breath. Each and every one of them continued to mouth and whisper their support automatically, not caring that their words would be lost in the breeze.

A deep blue spark. Then another. And another. Soon Luna’s horn was wrapped in midnight-light and throwing embers cascading through the air, swirling and sizzling with power. ‘There!’ she could feel it. The great white eye of twilight sat just beyond sight, begging to be set on its way, free, so it could fulfil its duty as beacon in the dark. Luna pushed harder, egging her magic on, encouraging it to form a guiding hoof for her namesake. ‘It’s…so…heavy!’ It was heavier than anything Luna had even dreamt of lifting, the very thought of a pony being able to carry such a thing almost made her laugh out loud, but it had to be lifted. She couldn’t bear to leave the depressing gloom of the sphere-less sky in existence. She was going to get rid of it, replace it with something that could give even the most lost pony hope. Luna poured her very being into her horn; every ounce of will she could muster was turned to pushing that eternal orb into its rightful place. ‘Come…on! Almost…!’

Within Luna’s mind, everything went black.

____________________________________________________________

“Mother, I did it! I did it!”

“Oh, Celestia, words cannot describe how proud I am of you!”

“Woaaah, that was awesome!

“I had no idea you could so something so amazing, Tia!”

“Celestia, look, look! You got your cutie mark! Congratulations!”

“I did!? Wow, I did!

“Astounding. Truly astounding. I don’t know how you did it Aumean, but you must surely be an amazing teacher. Well done Celestia!”

“Yay! Again sis! Again!”

“She can’t do it again, Luna. We’ll have to wait until dawn. But she can start practicing for tonight!”

“Wha-… You’re going to let me raise the moon as well!?”

“I don’t see why not. It’s easier than raising the sun. In fact, I would have had you raising the moon instead if you hadn’t insisted on learning to master the sun first.”

“Wow, thank you so much mother! Oh, do you think when its Luna’s turn I can help teach her?”

“Of course! It will be much simpler for me and for her with some help. Actually, I know he’s almost finished his training, but you can assist Discord as well!”

“Oh…yes…I-I will. A-anyway, I’m going to go do some last minute study for tonight! Bye!”

“So Luna’s also going to…?”

“Of course, Discord. Celestia has done it and like I said, you’ve almost finished your training. I love you all equally, and I’m going to treat you all equally.”

“Dissy’s going to do that as well!? Your family is so cool!”

“We should celebrate!”

“That’s an excellent idea, Surprise.”

“Don’t worry, leave it to me! If anyone knows how to throw a celebration, it’s Surprise! Come on Firefly, I’ll need help carrying stuff.”

“Race ya!”

“I’m going to have to write something about all this, I truly am. It won’t be original, I know, but It still boggles me to think that the sun and moon must be controlled like that. And that even one so young can do so!”

“Just be sure not to mention any specific names, old friend.”

“Of course, of course, Aumean! I look forward to tonight’s show as well! Until then!”

“Goodbye Mr. Penwell!”

“Bye-bye!”

“So, Discord. Has seeing Celestia do it given you some more confidence? It’s just magic, very powerful magic certainly, but magic nonetheless. With enough practise, anypony capable of magic can theoretically do it.”

“I’ll do my very best!”

“I want to do it to!”

“D’aww, in time dear, in time. But you’re a little young at the moment.”

“But mother, I’m not a baby anymore!”

“I know you aren’t sweetie and I promise you, one day you too will move the sky.”

____________________________________________________________

It was there. Gazing at her head-on in all its elegant glory. A great, round candle in the dark, cradling everything in its soft light. Queen of the night, surrounded by thousands of tiny subjects mapping the sky with countless constellations.

“Luna, are you going to lie there all night or would like to come join the party?” Luna blinked and tore her gaze away from the glowing sphere in the black sky. Her mother stood over her, smiling with overflowing pride for the young alicorn.

The dark-coated foal dizzily got to her hooves, putting one to her head as she tried to steady her senses. Her stomach was damp and she realised that she must have slid from her hooves onto her chest. Slowly, she turned her head around and saw the rest of the group cheering and talking excitedly amongst each other; Surprise was even firing party poppers and showering everyone with confetti. ‘I did… this isn’t a dream, I really did it!’ Luna leapt in the air with joy and began a hasty trot over to the crowd.

“Luna, aren’t you going to take a look?” the alicorn stopped in her tracks at her mother’s voice and turned to look at her in confusion. The ivory-mare replied only with a nod at Luna’s flank. The filly followed her mother’s eyes and bulged her own at her rear. Where normally her midnight coat would continue uninterrupted, there was now an image: a crescent moon within a black cloud-like shape. Her cutie mark. “Congratulations, Luna.”

The blue maned alicorn said nothing, but leapt again and again and again. She ran to her mother and nuzzled her tightly before bounding to the waiting group shouting in excitement “I got it! I got my cutie mark!”

The applause echoed across the still forest for miles around but was cut short by the clearing of a voice. “Please, everypony listen.” The cliff top fell silent as they all stared up at the red-maned mare with surprise. “Today is a great day. Luna has not only achieved something amazing, but has also found her calling. However, today is also the day I hope something will begin, something I have been planning for some time. Please, come home with me and continue celebrating, Luna definitely deserves it! But you’ll have to excuse me while I prepare.” The six looked at her a little dumb-founded. It was a normal speech except for the ‘something’ which had sparked the cognitive gears of all those assembled into motion.

‘…A tad odd, but it makes complete sense. It must be something to do with the Elements,a certain draconequus concluded. It had begun several months prior; Aumean had been silently reading in the library when she had suddenly jumped with inspiration. Everyday since then she had, at some point during the day, locked herself within the Element’s chamber for several hours at least. After a few weeks signs started to show, black bags became a constant addition to her appearance and her mane was rarely combed or treated. All three of the house’s children had initially worried but soon accepted it once they realised her mood was no less cheery because of it and were told their mother was working on a ‘secret project.’ They had to be related.

“C’mon Discord, you just gonna stand there or what!?” Discord broke his silent self-debate and blinked down at Firefly who was tapping her hoof impatiently waiting for him. Every other pony was making their way back towards home to carry on the party.

“Oh, yes, yes. I was just thinking about what mother said…” The deck chairs disappeared with a snap of Discord’s talons and the draconequus and blue-maned pony began the short trip back to the chapel.

“Yeah, wonder what she meant. Maybe she’s planning an even bigger party, you know, since all three of you can do the moon and sun thing?” quizzed Firefly, clearly as curious as Discord.

That was another possibility. Even if Luna hadn’t raised the sun, the magic required for it was similar to that of the moon. With a little practise, she would surely be able to command the day as well. The mix-match creature nodded and gazed up at the new moon, stroking the small tuft of white hair that had recently began spurting from his chin.

“I knew you could do it, Discord! Congratulations!”

“Brother, that was amazing!”

“Celestia, don’t you have anything to say?”

“O-of course! Well done…Discord.”

“Hey! Are you even listening to me!?” The flow of memories was suddenly cut by Firefly’s voice. The two were standing just outside the chapel’s entrance, far further than Discord remembered covering.

“…Yes?” Firefly’s scowl made it evident his reply was not the correct one. Discord couldn’t help but chuckle. “I’m sorry Fire, but mother has gotten me all distracted. What were you saying?”

The speedster waved a hoof dismissively. “Nah, its fine. I was just telling you how awesome I am for beating Swiftwind in a race, wings allowed. Twice!

“Awesome indeed!” Discord chuckled again before pushing open the large wooden door. “Let’s not keep everypony waiting though, shall we?”

The scene that greeted them in the main hall was another to be cherished. The large, round table at its centre was covered in all manner of party food from salads of pansies and bluebells to toffee coated apples. In the middle of it all was a cake coloured and shaped like the moon.

“You two, hurry up! Your mom told us to start without her, and the way Tia’s going, there won’t be anything left!” A cry, muffled by food, tried to disagree with the group’s party specialist.

“Don’t need to tell me again, c’mon Dis!” Firefly was already at the table stacking food onto a plate before her words reached Discord’s ears.

‘…I think this is a worthy occasion.’ The draconequus walked past the table of munching ponies in the direction of the kitchen. “I’ll be with you in a minute, carry on if you will!” Even Penwell was not afraid to do so, almost choking himself on a cupcake.

The kitchen was predictably, given the feast in the main hall, a mess. In that household however, mess was simply another opportunity to practise magic, and was in some cases encouraged. The yellow aura shining around Discord’s talons was not focused on the mess, but rather on carefully lifting an old, iron teapot from the highest cupboard. With a snap of his paw, the stove burst into life, the tap began running and a box of herbal leaves appeared then disappeared once Disord had taken a few of the dry plants from it. Discord did not need the pot or any of the other tools and ingredients, he could have simply used his magic to create a cup of the lush liquid, but he always preferred to do it manually. The draconequus gently stroked the pot fondly and sighed happily as he stuffed a bunch of the leaves in it and set it to work. His life had certainly taken an interesting turn since then. It was not perfect, he wished his and Celestia’s relationship wasn’t quite so…formal, yet he was nonetheless extremely happy with his existence.

“Discord! Discord?” a tender voice called from the main hall. “Could you come here, please? I have something to show you all!”

“Just a moment, mother!” he called back, deciding to give his brewing tea a little magical push so as to not keep Aumean waiting.

As Discord returned to the hall with a steaming cup, he was not entirely surprised to see his adopted mother sitting in front of the table waiting with eleven glowing gemstone-shaped objects orbiting around her.

“Discord, there you are! Please, everypony follow me. I’ll try to keep it short, I want some of that cake too!” Aumean smiled as she got to her hooves and began leading the way back outside the chapel. She was either oblivious or ignoring the intense mix of confusion and wonder that filled her family and friends. All of them had at some point seen the Elements and been given at least a brief explanation of them; after Discord’s arrival and as Surprise, Firefly and Penwell got closer and more comfortable with the family, each had been granted a viewing of the mystical artefacts, on the condition they swore never to tell any other pony about them without Aumean’s approval. Penwell was the only one of three friends to show any real interest in the Elements, but the pegasus and earth pony were just as amazed as he and the ivory mare’s family were to see the Elements so casually taken from their secure chamber. After a moment of blinking and head shaking, they all cautiously followed Aumean into the chilly twilight.

“Aumean…what are you…?”

“It occurred to me some months ago that even though it may be years from now, eventually I won’t be here to keep protecting the Elements from anything that might misuse them,” calmly explained the alicorn, walking slowly into the clearing outside the chapel. “So I came up with an idea.”

“An…idea?”

“Yes, an idea. Should my children want to continue my work, then they will have to be ready. It takes more than just a magic door to properly guard the Elements and use them in times of crisis. I’ve been waiting for the time when not just Celestia, Discord and Luna are prepared, but their friends as well. With Luna raising the moon today, I think that time has come.”

“Ready…? Aumean, ready for what?” Penwell spoke for all those gathered behind him as well.

“A lesson, Penwell. A lesson that only hardship and experience can teach. A lesson that will show them the one thing more powerful than the Elements themselves and what they truly embody.” Aumean unfurled her wings and slowly started to rise in the air as she spoke, the gemstones still orbiting her.

“Mother, what are yo-” Celestia tried to shout but was cut off by a blinding light radiating from her mother. The Elements shone with a rainbow visage and swirled around the alicorn at increasing speeds, becoming a colourful blur with the magic that poured forth from her horn and burning-white eyes. Despite the gleaming light and near-hurricane strength wind emanating from the wise alicorn, none of the struggling spectators could resist casting an eye at the sight from under a shielding hoof. The pure power captivated them as it only grew and grew until eventually, when it seemed reality itself could take no more…

BOOM!!!

Everypony shut their eyes tightly as an explosion of warm, soft light engulfed them, filling them with a feeling none of them could quite name but which all of them never wanted to let go. As the light faded, each whipped their heads to the skies as the night time silence was shattered by a tremendous howl. The stars, with all their beauty, were for a brief few moments shunned and ignored as their splendour was obscured by streaks of every colour tearing across the sky like comets, each in a different direction and each beyond the visible horizon. With an inaudible thud, Aumean returned to the ground, breathing deeply and drenched in sweat. So powerful had her spell been that after-sparks still popped from her horn.

“A-aumean! Are you alright, dear? What did you do!?” The ageing stallion who ran to his friend’s side to help support her was quickly joined by the others once they had recovered from their shock.

“Haha… I hid them, of course! For the…phew…for the little ones to find…” Penwell’s eyes turned to saucers.

“You…you did what!?”

“Penwell…old friend…let’s…let’s go back inside…I’ll explain once I’ve had some cake…”

____________________________________________________________

Star Swirl the Bearded, as he had come to be known, did not like tardiness. It was a disruptive thing which could have disastrous effects when it came to so many scientific practises. Add an ingredient a few seconds too late? Potentially an entire batch of elixir ruined. Fail to think about your destination in time? Possibly teleported miles out of your way. Don’t raise the moon on time? More painful minutes an old unicorn had to suffer because of his tired old bones as he waited for the chance at some celestial observation. He seemed to recall Aumean mentioning that she was starting to teach another of her children how to raise the moon, no doubt it was that which was causing this delay. Star Swirl sighed and simply continued to stare at the ugly nothingness from his window. The creaking door to the study allowed the old wizard some relief from his frustrations.

“Uncle, did you find anything interesting?” The wizard turned and smiled at his delightful niece, but could not keep the annoyance from his voice.

“I’m afraid there’s been a slight hindrance, my dear… Ah, not to worry, it’s here, finally,huffed the elderly stallion as he noticed the lunar body creep into view. He magically drew his chair forward so that his eye perfectly met up with the room’s powerful telescope. “There we go…much better…Hmm, its late but not too bad for a novice…”

“Novice, Uncle?”

“Oh, yes, hmm, I suspect that the aforementioned delay was Aumean’s doing. Likely teaching one of her girls the whole moon-raising malarkey,” explained Star Swirl to a giggling Victory Dawn. “…and what’s so funny?”

“You! Honestly Uncle, getting into such a twist over a few minutes delay. And you speak about it so casually! You know how serious Ms. Aumean is about keeping it a secret,chortled Dawn as she carried a pile of fresh parchments and scrolls over to the telescope so they could continue their mapping.

“Secret!? Pah, I don’t see the point! So somepony raises the moon! Somepony has always raised the moon and the sun; it’s old, boring magic. If everypony just picked up a history book, they would know that somepony was doing it and they wouldn’t bat an eyelid! I don’t know what terrible consequences Aumean thinks will come from the public knowing she’s the one who does it. Pah!” the unicorn snorted, taking his eye away from the telescope and making a few notes on one of the scrolls.

“Not everypony thinks like you, Uncle,the earth pony spoke soothingly, trying to calm the moody sorcerer. “Shall I get you some tea? Oh, 30° to the left, I think we need that one.”

“That would be wonderful, dear. And are you sure? It looks awful similar to the constellation we mapped last winter.”

“It does, but see those four stars there? I think it’s different, note it down at least.” The wizard chuckled as his niece’s young, sharp eyes once again set him right. “I’ll be back in a minute. Crème?”

“If we have some, just don’t get it confused with my mane froth, as good as it is for the old hairs, the stuff is foul on the tongu-Oh, my!” Star Swirl abruptly swirled the telescope in chase of some red light that shot across from the east and over the growing spires of New Manesterdam.

“What was that!? A meteor?” The earth pony pressed herself against the window, having been startled by her Uncle’s exclamation and tried to follow the bright object across the sky and beyond the telescopes reach. “Oh, another one! 80° to the right! And another!” She almost punched out the glass as she tried to point in the direction of yet more sparkling mysteries that shone with the colours of a vivid rainbow.

“Curses, they’re too fast…! I don’t think I’ll be able…gah! Missed that one as well!” the wizard grumbled and banged a hoof on the small table next to him. Whatever the objects had been, he had only gotten to see their fading trails. “Hmm…” the drawn out sound told Dawn that hundreds of hypotheses were now passing through her Uncle’s mind.

“What do you think, Uncle? They couldn’t have been meteors, could they? Not with that colour or altitude.”

It took some time for the unicorn to respond, time spent with intense beard-stroking and hmming. “Yes, I think you’re right, but what then? No pegasus, or any other creature for that matter, could achieve such speed…”

“They all seemed to come from the same direction as well.” For all the years spent being taught the sciences and the theory of magic by her knowledgeable Uncle, Dawn had no idea what the lights could have been. Such moments occurred rarely, and all she could do was help her ageing Uncle to get all the facts straight.

Indeed…you know Dawn, I cannot help but think this is also somehow Aumean’s doing,concluded Star Swirl, leaning back in his cushioned chair and folding his front legs.

“You do? I suppose they did come from Ponyville’s direction, but…” From the few times Dawn had met the alicorn she knew that she was very powerful, but could the unusual occurrence really be Aumean’s influence?

“I don’t know what those lights were exactly, dear, but I’ll bet my alchemy set that they were magical in nature. Powerful magic at that.” The wizard furrowed his brow at this. He didn’t like it when something magic-related happened and he couldn’t find a decent, backed up explanation, but he had so few pieces of hard-fact to work with. “And anything involving strong magic coming from over those mountains instantly places Aumean as the prime suspect, at least in my book. It’s only a hunch, and I hate hunches, but it’s the only possible explanation we can guess from what we know.”

“I suppose you’re right…” Dawn could do nothing but agree with her Uncle. Those objects were like nothing she had ever seen, and a spell with such a wide area of effect would take tremendous magical disposition. “What are you going to do? I know you aren’t going to just leave this.”

“I most certainly am not! No, I’ll write to her and see if she knows anything. Either she does and we’ll get it sorted nice and quickly, or she doesn’t and we’ll likely end up collaborating on finding out.” Dawn instinctively handed her Uncle a clean scroll and inked quill so he could do just that. “Thank you, dear. As interesting as it no doubt will be, it’s really quite disruptive when something like this happens, messes up my schedule worse than an ursa major does anypony’s day.”

Dawn smiled. “You’ll figure it out Uncle, you always do! Now, how about that tea?”

____________________________________________________________

For once, the air was perfectly still amongst the mountains west of Ponyville. So still, in fact, that the splintering crack of wood echoed unchallenged through the winding crags and valleys of the notorious mountain range. As did a pony’s cursing. The azure-unicorn stared with a twitching eyebrow at the wheel of his stagecoach. This was the fourth time one of them had broken and he was at his wit’s end about having to stop and repair it again. Naturally, it wasn’t a particularly difficult task for one of his talent, but this made it no less annoying. After all, it forced him to divert his attention away from the important things, like thinking of new and exciting performances. Still, at the very least it had happened on a wide ledge that afforded plenty of space to move around and was surrounded by a wall of natural stone barriers that allowed even the most cross-eyed of ponies to safely approach the edge. Thoroughly better than one of the dreadful and precarious narrow paths that made up so much of the route to New Manesterdam from Canterlot Valley.

The silver-maned pony hmpfed at the sheer ineptitude of the wagon’s maker and turned his gaze towards the oddly empty sky. Though the sun had set only a few minutes ago, it would be quite bothersome to keep a track of the time, and by extension his progress, without any form of celestial body with which to estimate it. The unicorn hmpfed once more; this unusual sky was probably another hurdle these mountains had stored for any hopeful travellers. Regardless, he would have had to buckle down for the night in an hour or two anyway; he could afford to waste it by simply stopping here.

With a bright burst of magic from his horn, the travelling stallion lifted the entire coach and gently moved it to the side of the dirt path. With a quick check to ensure nothing within the wagon had fallen off its shelves, the azure pony gave a satisfied nod and set to work on the cracked wheel.

Grr…

“Stupid wheel, I may as well just make a new one…reinforced…with iron…!”

Grr…

It was only at that point that the unicorn heard the faint growling behind him. He raised a hoof behind him as if to tell whatever creature was there to wait while he put the finishing touches to the wheel. The silver-maned pony stared at the small stone he was levitating oh, so carefully towards the last crack. With a simple transmutation spell and a dab of precise telekinesis, the wheel would be good as new.

Grr!

The growling did not cease, and the added ferocity caused the pony to lose his concentration and drop the stone. Without a sound, he raised his head and turned to the offenders. Only meters from the coach stood a pack of manticores. Six or so strong and each was advancing closer to where the unicorn stood. Blood lust poured from their eyes.

The traveller calmly surveyed the pack, counting their number and noting their position. The only two escape routes had been cut off already, not that he had ever planned on using them. He sighed before speaking. “Clearly, you overgrown stuffed toys don’t know who I am.”

The nearest of the manticore, seemingly enraged by the pony’s taunting, howled and leapt, claws unsheathed and ready to shear anything they came into contact with. Less than a second before the great beast crushed the azure unicorn, the pony was gone in a poof of smoke. The manticore landed on its paws and twisted its head back and forth, searching for its prey in the thick fog. The prey in question however, quickly became the hunter. The chimera was sent sprawling onto its back unconscious as it received two bucking hooves directly to the face. As the smoke cleared, the other manticore saw the pony standing triumphantly on the stomach of their dazed comrade. They hesitated momentarily, but soon followed suit and pounced at the unicorn. The resulting flailing tangle of frothing beasts was stopped only by an amused snort from where the manticores had attacked. Each beast gazed at the travelling pony, who only moments before had been face to face with the snarling animals. The pack stared at him with primal hatred. It took them a moment to notice his horn shining brightly, the hidden grimace of effort on his face and the shadow they were standing in. In turn, each manticore turned their attention from the pony to the air above them, where countless small boulders were held by a thinning aura of magic.

“Run, little kitties.” The manticores did as the pony commanded and tried to simultaneously bolt from the knot of limbs they had tied themselves in. Only three made it back into the clearing conscious or unpinned by one of the cascading rocks, but they did not let their reduced number deter them. The pony was quickly surrounded on all sides by the manticores who were more determined then ever to devour this individual. Unfortunately for them, the unicorn had no intention of letting that happen.

“Enough playing around.” in an instant, the manticore in front of the pony was left knocked out with singed fur by a large blast of magical energy. The remaining two ended up crunching their faces together as they both attempted to attack the pony, who disappeared in a flash of violet light. Each received a further blow as the unicorn elegantly landed on their skulls hooves first. The two were finally left just like their kin with a mid-flip buck to their muzzles. With a soft clop, the pony landed neatly on his hooves and glanced around the battlefield. “And let that be a warning to you all! No beast; manticore, cockatrice or even ursa major challenges this unicorn!”

Mewww…

The manticores whimpered as they gradually came to and froze as soon as their dazed eyes caught the sight of the unicorn. Breaking from their trance of fear, the bruised beasts quickly helped their companions still pinned under the boulders and turned tail.

With a proud hmpf, the pony returned to his stagecoach, which had miraculously remained untouched throughout the conflict. He only just noticed that the moon and stars had finally come about, yet his attention was snatched away and his eyes made wide by many streaks of colour burning through the sky, lighting it up more vividly than any firework could ever hope to achieve. They lasted for only a brief moment, but that was all it took for inspiration to explode into the unicorns mind like a bomb of creativity. Fantastic ideas for new displays of magic blossomed in his mind faster than flowers in spring and he had no choice but to scratch then into the ground before they and their brilliance slipped away, like the rarest and most beautiful of butterflies.

Minutes later, the stallion was lying on a cushion in his coach, recovering from the excitement. He swore that his next show would be the best, everypony of Manesterdam, neigh everypony of the land would want to see it, everypony would fight for the chance to merely glimpse at one of his spectacles! Everypony would know and love the name The Grand & Mightful Viator!

____________________________________________________________

“Kromi! Kromi! It is time to come in, child!”

“Just a minute more, mama!”

“Now, Kromi! The elders say this sky is unnatural, that the moon may be displeased!”

“Yes, mama…” the young zebra called back, defeated. She stole one last glance at the endless expanse of water before slowly making her way to the gathering of huts that was her home of Oromo village.

“Come child, quickly! Or do you desire one of them talon folk to snatch you from where you stand?” Her mother’s threat was a hollow one. The Taloned hadn’t been seen in the area for nearly a year now. They were far more interested in the huge boats that could sometimes be seen crossing the Great Sea to the north. Her mother insisted that there was still a danger, but Kromi played on the beach and gazed across the eternal stretch regularly. Unlike the older folk, she paid attention to what was actually happening far out on the calm waters. She occasionally saw the boats sailing peacefully and then getting swarmed by large groups of shadows, what could only be the Taloned. Often smoke would start billowing from the boats, but they always drove off the Taloned in the end.

“Alright mama- wait, look! The moon! It’s rising, everything is okay!” Sure enough the heavenly white sphere had begun lazily ascending into the sky, bringing the stars with it. Kromi jumped in happy circles, her ringlets jingling with appropriate cheer. Hopefully she would be allowed to stay out a little longer; looking across the Great Sea in the moonlight was among the best fuels for the young zebra’s imagination. Everyday she dreamed of one day boarding one of the big boats and travelling across the Great Sea to new lands where she could have all sorts of amazing adventures and meet so many kinds of interesting creatures.

“Kromi! I said in!” her mother’s voice rang out, filling Kromi with disappointment. With a heavy sigh she resigned herself to what would no doubt be another night of boring lessons on the importance of tradition and staying true to the tribe. Pushing through the bead doors of her family’s clay and straw hut confirmed it; one of the village elders lay by the fire mumbling some incantation or another.

“Here Kromi, eat your food now,” ordered her mother as she placed a bowl of nuts in front of the zebra. She sighed and began eating on the nuts one by one. The same dry, bland flavour she was used to. Rarely did they have the luxury of anything with actual taste but young Kromi had heard amazing tales from passing travellers of huge towns of glistening stone where the people ate fresh, juicy plants all the time! What she wouldn’t give to be able to visit such places, even for just a day! Her fantasies, however, were interrupted by a clip to the head.

“Ow!”

“Listen when the elders are speaking to you girl!” Kromi looked around the room and noticed her mother, father and the tribal elder glaring at her as if she had stolen something.

“I’ll say it again for the little rude one. Have you planned yet how you are going to help the tribe?” The elder continued to glare at her. Kromi knew the look well, she received it often. It was a look that tried to fill her with shame. Much to the disapproval of her parents, she had a reputation in the village of being a dreamer, which in their minds meant being lazy and disrespectful. “You’re almost of adult age, girl. Soon you’ll have a responsibility and duty to uphold.”

Kromi hated being glared at like that. She was a dreamer, but she could be just as hard working as every other zebra. Just because she didn’t want to spend her entire life devoted to this tiny little village didn’t mean she deserved scorn! “I…I don’t know-”

“You don’t know!? What do you know, child? Anything? Or is it all just fantasy in there?” The elder brought her face uncomfortably close to Kromi’s. She could smell the rancid breath and almost feel her leathery wrinkles.

“I…I know I hate it here-” once again Kromi was cut off, but not by the elder this time. Through the smoke hole in the top of the hut she saw a trail of pink light rip across the sky, leaving a sparkling path through the nether.

“Hate what, child!? Answer me!” Despite her fierce tone, the elder’s demand was not met as Kromi jumped to her hooves and stormed out of the hut. The group sat stunned, so rare was an act of disregard such as that.

“Wooow! They’re so…so pretty…!” gasped the zebra as she stood in the parched, brown fields outside her village. They came from across the Great Sea, beams of colour swept through the sky free and unhindered by anything. Kromi could not believe such a magical sight even existed.

She made her mind up then and there. One day, one day soon, she would leave this awfully dreary place and she would see the rest of the world. She didn’t care about the looks and the whispers that would come from it; she didn’t care about upholding the village’s decrepit traditions and practises. She would go where ever she wanted to go, say what she wanted to say, be free to do what she wanted!

___________________________________________________________

“Yhh knhh, Penwhh, I thhhk chk hhs hhhlhhng prhhpties.”

“What?”

“Healing properties,” Aumean tried again after swallowing her mouthful of cake. “I was completely drained after all that, but I feel so much better now.”

“Please, mother, you’ve had three slices. It was meant mostly for Luna…”

“It’s okay sis, I’ve had enough anyway.”

“But-”

“As fascinating as cake may be…can we please talk about the Elements and…well…what you did with them!?” cut in Penwell, his muzzle scrunched up with confused worry.

“Yeah! What was that awesome display all about! You said you had hidden them!”

“Oh, yes, I suppose we should, shouldn’t we?” calmly suggested the ivory mare much to the apparent frustration of the book collector. “It’s quite simple, really. Like Firefly says, the spell I cast hid the Elements all around the land. If any of you wish to one day take over my duties as their guardian, then it is vital you understand them. That is something neither me nor anypony can teach, in full.” Aumean momentarily stopped herself to take another small bite of cake. The tension only rose as she chewed it down. “…yes. Now, I am not going to force any of you to do such a thing. The decision is purely yours. If you want to take this class, then I must warn you that the journey you’ll undertake will be fraught with difficulties and hardships, but also discovery and adventure!” she continued, waving her hooves in the air dramatically and throwing cake crumbs over everypony present. “If none of you do, if you want to lead your own lives free of any such responsibility, then that is also fine. The Elements will remain hidden and should I ever need them, I can gather them once more,she finished to a quiet room.

The silence was eventually broken by a quiet chuckle that grew until it was hysterical. Frowns assaulted the draconequus who was struggling to stay in his seat. “That’s brilliant! Brilliant!” though at first Discord was alone in his laughter, giggles and snorts began to titter out of Firefly, Surprise and even Luna.

“H-he’s right! That sounds awesome! Don’t know about you slow pokes, but I’m in!”

“Yeah! Think of all the ponies we’ll meet!”

“You…you really think we’re ready for something like that mother?”

Aumean smiled. “Yes, Luna. You’re all still young, I know, but you all show such promise. Sweetie, you raised the moon today and I’ve seen how good you are with magic in other situations. If you go together, then I truly believe you have nothing to fear.”

“Aumean…”

“Penwell, you have not seen these children as I have. Together, there is little that could stop them. And it won’t just be them; I have a feeling they’ll make even more allies on their trip.

“I…” the talk and cheer stopped as the room turned expectantly to Celestia. She looked around at each pony sat at the table, uncertainty clouding her eyes.

“Celestia.” The attention then shifted to Discord “You heard what mother said. You don’t have to, you can do what you want and we shall think no less of you. Besides, we all know how much you hate getting…dirty.The draconequus’ last word was spoken with a distinct smirk, bait the pastel-maned alicorn could simply not resist.

“Are you…are you challenging me?” Celestia gazed at Discord and with all her might she tried to suppress the grin raging to be released. Her muzzle failed her and just a tiny portion of a confident smile was leaked to all those gathered.

“Challenging you? Why would I ever do such a thing?” The same smirk played across Discord’s face and there was only one thing Celestia could do to ensure she would be able live with herself thereafter, despite knowing she was playing right into Discord’s paw.

“A-alright…I’m in.” Celestia’s words were met with yet more cheer and an approving smile from her mother. The celebration and excitement grew and fell with the moon which shone brighter than it had in many years. As if to signify how with that white alicorn’s one decision, the fate of everypony was changed.


Of Harmony & Chaos

Written by: Brightwel

(very helpfully) edited by: DustyGrrl

Cover art by: Iopichio

 

Chapter 5: Always Look Up!

 

“…We’ll totally need some of these…”

 

“…I hope it doesn’t get too cold…”

 

“I’m assuming from all the mess that none of you are ready yet? It’s late-morning already.” Penwell looked at the pile of bags, supplies and two young ponies with a clear sense of disdain. ‘By the Earth…how can Aumean trust the fate of the Elements to them…?’

 

“Ah, buck it! I’m just gonna take what I have here.”

 

“Fire…all you have is a pair of sunglasses, two loaves of bread and a hat…” To prove her point the pegasus grabbed one of the speedster’s saddle bags, turned it upside down and shook it. A few crumbs dropped to the ground. “Make that one loaf…”

 

“I got hungry on the way here!” The pink earth pony innocently shrugged. “Besides, we don’t even know what direction we’re headed in yet! No point weighing myself down with stuff I might not even end up needing!”

 

“Still…” Surprise could not help but share some of Penwell’s concern -at least she thought it was concern- for the speedster. It was true that the route had been left for Celestia and Discord to work out, but Firefly hadn’t even packed a scarf! Who knows where they might end up?

 

“Surprise!” a bold voice called out over the loose crowds of Ponyville’s market, a voice that made Surprise’s heart skip a beat. She turned and found herself face-to-face with an auburn coated, coal maned earth pony. His cutie mark was a varied heap of valuable rocks and gems. Like the prescious stones his mark represented, his emerald eyes often gleamed in stark contrast with his somewhat dull coat and mane. “Surprise! I’m glad I found you, I wanted to say goodbye before you left.”

 

R-Restone! Oh, uhh, umm, h-hi! H-how did you, umm, know I was…?” the snow coated pegasus spluttered. It was all she could manage, all Penwell and Firefly managed to do however was to roll their eyes.

 

“Going on an adventure?” he finished. “The latest gossip’s that Aumean’s kids, Firefly and you were heading off on some journey. Took a while for the news to get to me, so I’m just glad I got here to see you off in time.”

 

“Hey, did you hear that Surprise? Your boyfriend came all the way from his rock farm to say goodbye! How swe-” A hoof to the head cut Firefly off, but it was already too late to stop either the pegasus or the geologist pony from turning scarlet.

 

“I-ignore her Redstone! I at least know it isn’t a ‘rock farm.’” Surprise’s don’t-reference-the-boyfriend-part plan worked. Redstone’s blushing ceased and was replaced with a slightly less awkward smile, much to her relief.

 

“I know! Why don’t you come with us Red!? Then you and Surprise could get all lovey-dovey on a mountainto-” Once again Firefly’s head made a harsh impact with the earth. The blow had been made in vain however as it could not stop her mischievous cackling which ensured the embarrassment was shared between her two victims in generous doses.

 

“Heh…it sure sounds, uhh…exciting, Firefly. But my folks really need me around these days and I’ve got a paper due soon anyway, so…” The question had made the usually stoic auburn pony even more uncomfortable. He desperately sought to change the topic. “So…what do your folks think about all this? Sure they’re okay with you just up and going on a voyage like this?”

 

“Nah, they’re cool, said they’re glad to get me out the house. Whatever that means,” said Firefly with disinterest, earning her a momentary scowl from Redstone. The question had been meant for Surprise.

 

“It’s fine. They were a bit surprised, but said they were happy I would get to see the world. They also said that even if they wanted to, they couldn’t have stopped me anyway.”

 

“Well…that’s good. I wish you luck, Surprise!”

 

“D’aww, how romant-OW!”

 

“Surprise, Firefly!” The two ponies’ sparking conflict was halted just in time by Celestia’s voice ringing overhead. Turning, they saw three alicorns and one draconequus quickly approaching the village for a landing. The two waved and a few moments later the travelling party was assembled.

 

“Do you girls have everything?”

 

“Sure do Ms. Aumean! Got everything we need-” Surprise shot Firefly an expectant glare before tuning back to Aumean. “Uhh…want. And we’ve told everypony we know that we’re going to be out of town for a while.”

 

“Hello Ms. Aumean.”

 

“Redstone, it’s nice to see you again! How are Flint and Amethyst?”

 

“Oh, they’re getting on in years, happy thou-”

 

“Hey, did you get a route sorted out? Are we going to Canterlot? To the mountains?” interjected Firefly, eagerly bouncing up and down.

 

“You’re free to go in whichever direction you like, but I’ve made something to help guide you. Celestia, if you would?”  The ivory alicorn nodded to her daughter who proceeded to levitate a golden yet simple metal box from a leather string around her neck and float it close to the intrigued faces of Firefly and Surprise. Itt snapped open to reveal a compass-like dial, complete with markings.

 

“A…compass? How is this going to help us find the Elements?” remarked Firefly, clearly unimpressed.

 

“This isn’t just any compass; I have enchanted it to point in the general direction you should go. Follow it, and you will surely find what you are searching for.” Celestia narrowed her eyes at her mother’s words. It was tiny, but she was sure she had detected a slight trace of sly cunning in the red maned pony’s voice.  She could not help but feel she was hiding something, or at the very least not being as forward as she could.

 

“Wow, this’ll be really helpful!” Surprise grabbed the compass from Celestia’s magic with her front hooves and turned it towards the north before peering at it in more detail. Much like Aumean had said, the compass’ dial pointed only in a general direction; the arrow never fixed itself on any certain path and was constantly flitting back and forth within a 90° range. According to the pointer’s current alignment, they should head in a westerly direction.

 

“We have our things, we have our routes and we’ve said our goodbyes. Is there anything else anypony would like to do before we depart?” The draconequus’ question was met with a nervous silence. As hyped as the team had been at the idea, the scale of the task they were about to perform was beginning to dawn on each of them .

 

The elder alicorn broke the silence with a light hearted chuckle and more of her words of wisdom. “Remember everypony, this adventure is yours to shape. Take your time. Yes, the journey will be hard, but it should also be fun and exciting. There is no hurry, be sure to stop every now and then to take in and reflect on what you’ve seen and done. There is no finish line to race to.”

 

Without warning, Aumean found herself being leapt at by her two daughters, who clung to her tightly and nuzzled her affectionately. “I promise I’ll look after Luna!”

 

“I’m going to miss you, mother!”

 

After overcoming her surprise, Aumean chuckled again. “Girls, girls, you’re taking this all a little too seriously! Now hurry, your brother and friends are waiting for you…” Aumean trailed off, her words not quite as accurate as she thought. While Discord seemed content, smiling happily at the show of warmth, the sight of the open road out of Ponyville seemed to be encourageing Surprise and Firefly into welling up with the same emotion as Luna and Celestia.

 

Penwell rolled his eyes. “…Please, just go already…”

 

_____________________________________________________________________

 

Thirty minutes, more than a few tears and countless cries of “farewell!” and “good luck!” later, the party was trotting and hovering along the western road out of Ponyville towards the Everfree Forest and the looming mountains beyond. They all moved in relative silence; while Celestia furrowed her brow between their compass and a map, the others plodded along happily, enjoying the warm sun and rolling hills that made up most of Canterlot Valley.

 

“Sooo… this is it, huh? We’re actually doing it.”

 

“Sure are, Fire. Scared?” Surprise teased the pink earth pony, who tried and failed to swipe at the floating pegasus.

 

“’Course I’m not scared! I’m more pumped than ever!” retorted the speedster, puffing her chest out an impressive distance.

 

“Oh, yeah? Prove it!” Surprise did not actually expect the speedster to take her up on the challenge and immediately stop to scan the surroundings fields for some way for her to do just that. It only took her a moment to make her decision, her eyes darting from one lonesome tree just visible in a distant field to the south to another by the roadside several meters away. An evil grin spread across her face.

 

“Alright, listen up everypony! I know we’re just started, but here’s our first challenge! See that tree there?” She pointed with her hoof to the distant tree once the rest of the group, who had carried on walking, came to a stop and craned their necks. “And this one?” With her other hoof she pointed to the closer tree. “We have to move as fast as we can from this tree to that one!” she proclaimed, a mock-tone of alarm in her voice.

 

“Umm…why, Firefly?” nervously inquired Luna, picking up on the blue-maned pony’s voice.

 

“What’s wrong?” piped in Celestia, tearing her eyes away from the navigational tools before magically rolling up the map and slipping it away in one of her saddlebags. Discord glanced at the closet tree and seemed to notice something which prompted him to share Firefly’s mischievous smirk.

 

“Well, none of you want to get stung, do you?” commented Firefly with barely contained laughter and she totted casually up to the tree and lined her back legs up with its trunk.

 

“Stung…? Fire, what are you- Wait, you wouldn’t…!” Realisation dawned on the pegasus and she flapped her wings fiercely to try and tackle the earth pony away from the tree, though for all her efforts, she was too late.

 

“We have to run or we’ll get stung by these wasps of course!” Without a second’s hesitation, the speedster reared back and bucked the tree as hard as her strong legs would let her. The tree shook violently and four rough, beige melon-sized objects came crashing down to the ground where even the soft grass did not stop them from shattering.

 

“Eeeh!” Luna squealed, Celestia froze with shrunken pupils, Discord laughed merrily, Surprise pulled a sharp 180° in the air and Firefly leapt forward and launched herself across the fields full gallop as a gargantuan wall of buzzing rage formed in front of them.

 

RUN!” Firefly yelled back cackling. The draconequus and ponies took heed and turned tail, bolting into the air to follow the pink blur as a massive vibrating hand, large enough to cast a intimidating shadow over the earth, charged after them.

 

Firefly, are you insane!?” shouted Celestia as she pumped her wings as hard as she could, surprisingly unable to overtake the earth-bound pony.

 

“Delightful, Firefly! What a way to start us off!” applauded Discord, who struggled to feed his own beating wings with precious air over his giggling. The conversation ended at that as each of them concentrated on putting as much distance between them and the angry hoard close behind them as they could. Despite the immediate danger, each of their fear slowly drained away as they exchanged challenging glances, wordlessly egging themselves on to go faster than not just the rampaging wasps, but each other as well. After only a handful of minutes, the dash for life had turned into an all out race which even Luna participated in with gritty determination. Small meadows, rolling hills and even the clouds shot past as the five pushed themselves to even greater levels of speed. The wind slapped and stung at their eyes but could not deter any of them. The distant tree that was previously just a speck grew in size and beckoned the racers on. The now far-off swarm was forgotten, the only thing that mattered now was reaching that tree! Nopony could really tell who was in what position since there was no audience and the racers themselves had only the gently-swaying oak in their focus. Closer and closer and closer, the tree became little more than a green blur and then…gone!

 

“…wha?” Each contestant blinked and gradually brought themselves to a stop. Each turned their heads and realised that they had overshot the tree by some diatnce. They all exchanged glances as it hit them how exhausted they had made themselves. Luna snorted. Then she snorted again and held up a hoof to try and hide her growing tittering. Celestia likewise let out a rising chortle, then Surprise and Discord and finally Firefly joined in. Soon the five of them were rolling on the floor rasping for breath, on the verge of suffocating themselves through their uncontrollable laughter. They didn’t even know who had won, yet the spur-of-the-moment contest had left them each in a fit of humour.

 

“…Why…oww…why…did we…?”

 

“…Just…because, Tia!” replied Firefly, which prompted a second round of boundless giggling. The party continued their carefree laughter until their aching sides could take no more and they flopped limply onto the cool grass with a cheerful sigh.

 

“L-lunch now…?” Speech was still painful for the snowy pegasus. Everypony simply nodded, intent on letting their lungs rest. Too weary to move, Discord saved his companions the effort and levitated a trio of shiny red apples from his backpack and distributed them to his sisters and himself before bringing forth another two for Firefly and Surprise.

 

“These should do…eat up now…everypony!” Each nodded in thanks and took slow bites of their apples. It had been less than an hour since their journey had begun and they had already been confronted with a potentially painful scenario and were completely exhausted.

 

Celestia looked around at her fatigued companions. ‘It’s going to be an interesting trip indeed.’

____________________________________________________________________

 

The teacup rattled on its saucer as the nervous hoof that had carried it half-placed half-dropped it. The owner of said hoof had already received a number of wary looks from the two waiter ponies who ran the cosy Ponyville café. She wasn’t a regular, a daisy yellow pegasus with a curly silver mane and tail, and it seemed almost certain that she would at some point break something with her jitteriness. Both made a note to subtly try and replace her cup with one of the less valuable ones as soon as possible.

 

“…You sure she’s alright?” The light brown stallion looked the quivering pegasus up and down once more. He then turning his quizzical eyes back to her husband, also a pegasus whose coat was a baby blue whereas his mane was straight, unkempt and copper in colour. His cutie mark was three connected arcs like those that would illustrate something bouncing in a drawing. The earth pony had seen plenty of shy mares and stallions in his time, but few who reacted as uneasily in such a casual situation as she did. Her cutie mark, three marshmallows, didn’t give much to suggest why she was as shy as she was. The earth pony scratched his short, rough black mane with one hoof while taking a large bite out of his mushroom sandwich with the other. He was big but not normally labelled as intimidating. Still, perhaps it was him?

 

“Sorry, she always gets nervous around strangers, Mr..?”

 

“Dustcloud. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you two. Surprised we haven’t done so before, way our kids are usually together.”

 

“Not that surprising, Dustcloud. Cloudsale is not that close, after all.”  Though the voice wasn’t as loud as any of the other customers who were sat in the the café, it still received the most attention and practically everypony threw a greeting in its direction.

 

“M-Ms. Aumean!” gasped the timid daisy coated pegasus as the powerful alicorn approached the three seated ponies.

 

“Please, dear, you know she doesn’t like it when ponies stare…” the baby-blue pegasus reassured his wife who, proceeded to shrink into her seat and paw the ground nervously.

 

“I should apologise myself, but Sun Spring is right, Softheart. It is a little… uncomfortable.” Both the alicorn and pegasus had begun blushing, causing the former’s partner to try and frantically comfort her.

 

“Hehe, well this is a good start!” chuckled Dustcloud, completely unaffected by the awkward silence which had slowly begun to descend on what had been intended to be a causal meet. The three other parents smiled but remained mostly quiet until one of the waiters appeared by their side, graciously offered a menu to Aumean and took a discreet glance into the shaky pony’s cup to see if it was empty yet. With an inaudible curse, the waiter bowed his head and disappeared as quickly as he had materialised.

 

“So…do you truly think they’ll be alright, Aumean? I know Surprise is a grown girl now, but I still worry about her so much. She’s our little pony, after all…”

 

“Please, Softheart, do not worry,” interjected the ivory-mare while placing a supportive hoof on the pegasus’ shoulder. “I have every confidence that they will all be fine. The lands beyond the borders of Canterlot Valley are not known for their extreme danger. Even the Western Range should not pose much of a threat to a large group like theirs,” she confidently explained. Aumean realised she would have to be sure to make her faith in the children clear so as to not harm their parents with worry. “You should also remember that Surprise is travelling with some powerful magicians. I try not to promote violence, but Celestia, Discord and Luna each know how to defend themselves should they need to and,” Dustcloud received an approving nod from the alicorn, “from what I know of Firefly, she can also be a force to be reckoned with.”

 

“She sure is. Once my girl sets her sights on something there ain’t no stopping her getting it.” The earth pony nodded to himself in a mix of agreement and pride.

 

“There. So you see, Surprise is quite safe, I assure you,” finished Aumean with even more confidence than when she had started, having assured herself in the process.

 

“Well, I suppose in that case we shouldn’t worry, should we?”

 

“We won’t worry, dear. There’s no reason to. Surprise will be fine. Let’s not make her feel guilty and want to come back for our sakes, hmm? This will be good for her.” Sun Spring placed his hooves on the silver-maned pegasus and stared hard into her eyes as if to try and transmit his own trust in his daughter into her mother. Softheart did not respond immediately and seemed deep in thought. “…dear?”

 

Yes! You’re right! All of you are right! I won’t worry! I’ll… I’ll do the complete opposite!” The pegasus burst into the air enthusiastically, eyes burning with passion. “We should cheer for them-oh, oh, we can make a banner and streamers for when they come back! A real party! Surprise, would like that wouldn’t she!?”

 

“Dear-”

 

“And cake of course! Lot’s of cake! Ooh, it’ll be so fun!” Infected with excitement, Softheart began flying in circles and twirls, oblivious to the efforts of Aumean and her husband to calm her, Dustcloud’s snickering and the other gawping customers of the café.

 

“Softheart-”

 

“We could invite the whole of Cloudsdale! No! All of Cloudsdale and Ponyville! It will be the best celebration in the history of Canterlot Valley!” As the pegasus finished with a dramatic flourish of her front hooves, perfect silence fell over the café. The other patrons gazed, mouths agape at the odd outburst.

 

“Oh my…”

 

“Seems she went a little overboard with not worrying, eh?” The brown stallion seemed to be the only one to find it funny at first, though Aumean also joined in grinning.

 

“Perhaps we should go to another café now?”

____________________________________________________________________

 

 “Come on brother, we’re leaving now!”

 

“Just a moment, Luna!” The young alicorn could tell that Discord must be doing something with their leftover apple cores. She hesitated for a moment and looked over her shoulder at the waiting group but nonetheless trotted over.

 

“What are you doing, brother?” she asked curiously, trying to see over one of his wings.

 

“We don’t know exactly how long we’ll be on this journey, do we? So, I thought it would be a fun idea to plant these apple seeds and see if they’ve grown at all when we get back!” proclaimed the draconequus, proud of his idea.

 

“Luna! Discord! Hurry up, we’re waiting!”

 

“There, that should do... Coming, Celestia!” As Discord reared his slender body around, Luna could see that he was indeed holding a pile of apple seeds in his paw. As the two began to walk over to the other three, Discord quickly noticed Luna staring at the seeds he carried. “We’ll each throw some into the ground as we move back to the path. It’s a little late, but they should be able to grow at this time of year and I think that these hills are plenty fertile.”

 

“Fertile for what?” inquired Celestia a tad sceptically, having only caught the last part of Discord’s explanation over studying her map and the compass some more.

 

“Ooh, ooh, brother had a great idea sis!”

 

“...did he now?” Discord smirked as he was hit by one of Celestia’s questioning looks. She always did suspect him of plotting some kind of mischief, even though most of the time her suspicions were proven completely false.

 

“Yes! We’re going to plant these apple seeds as we walk and see if they’ve grown when we return home!”

 

“Hey, that sounds like a cool idea!”

 

“Yeah, we can leave our own little mark!” agreed Firefly and Surprise, having stopped their own talk to listen in on their companions.

 

The white-alicorn looked around at the faces of her travelling mates. Even if she had objected to the idea, she would have been defeated four to one. Admittedly, Celestia hoped it would not cost them anymore valuable time. Their mother would not keep the sun out longer just for them and the pastel maned pony wanted to reach the cover of the Everfree Forest before dusk. She did not want to sleep in the middle of a field, even if the stars were to be pretty that night. Despite those thoughts, she did have to give credit to the draconequus; it was quite a nice idea. “Alright then, just so long as we don’t dawdle.”

 

“So we’re all in agreement then? Good!” With a touch of magic, Discord gave out an equal number of seeds to everypony. “Shall we be on our way?”

 

Nodding between them, the party set out on their quest once again. Every few meters and under Discord’s instruction, one would throw a seed into the rich soil. It was a small thing, but each enjoyed the idea of leaving their mark on the journey, something for them to tell and boast to others about in the future. They remained quiet as they trotted northwest through the fields towards the lush green of Everfree Forest, appreciating the simple beauty of Canterlot Valley as the sun made its lazy way across the sky above them. Before long, they had thrown all their seeds and had returned to the road. Everfree was home to Celestia, Discord and Luna and even the two other ponies visited it often, but it was the growing mountains beyond it that plucked at the strings of adventure-lust in their hearts. It would not take long to traverse the width of the Everfree, a day at the very most, at their current pace. Once they had done so, they would have to scale and find a way through the mountains, not a unique task in itself, but one none of them had ever attempted themselves. ‘Assuming the compass doesn’t take us in some other direction before then…’ Celestia half-hoped they would not have to go through the mountains. Naturally, it would be a breathtaking experience, but at the same time the Western Range was -unlike the Everfree- actually regarded as dangerous, and few ponies attempted to traverse it. There were plenty of balloon or chariot services available that covered the Canterlot-Manetserdam route, though Celestia had a distinct feeling that the trials their mother had set for them would involve venturing into that mountain range.

 

“Well, here we are: the Everfree Forest!”

 

“So we going to stay at your house or something?” replied Surprise to the draconequus’ announcement.

 

“What!?  No, of course we aren’t! Where’s the adventure in that!?” cried the pink earth pony, evidently wanting to camp out.

 

“It would take us quite far out of the route, and I’m not sure we could make it that far south before nightfall-” Celestia thought aloud, the only one with any real concerns.

 

“And think of the adventure!” threw in Firefly.

 

“Yes…that as well…”

 

“Everfree isn’t dangerous either. Let’s stay out, it’ll be fun, right?” With Luna’s opinion, it was once again decided by majority for them to follow the compass and continue west into the forest and simply camp out.

 

“Well, let’s be on our way then!” With a gesture of his talons, Discord lead the way under the leafy blanket. Despite the forest canopy being thick, light still managed to somehow filter through onto the floor and cast the whole wood in a gentle yellow glow. The air was charged with magic that even Surprise and Firefly could feel playfully tingling on their skin. Celestia had a lot of happy memories and experience wandering the forest, though she had rarely ever ventured to this part of the old wood, so far north of her home. It seemed that few others had either; it only took several hundred yards for the dirt path to virtually disappear under a carpet of grasses, ferns and bright flowers, each resonating with life. The sheer diversity was captivating as always: ants, beetles, bees, cicadas, crickets, dragonflies, mantises and hundreds of other insects buzzed and crawled around them, while the trees shared their trucks with mosses and fungi. Above them in the canopy doves, parrots, sparrows, toucans, hummingbirds, owls and swifts all sung and chirped, further adding to the loud yet strangely calming song of the forest. Content with listening to the melodious tune, the five kept up a fast canter that saw half of the forest’s width behind them in good time and without incident.

As the gold of the sun began to fade to a bright orange with early evening, they arrived at a clearing by a wide river. Discord signalled for them to stop, having noticed the beads of sweat running down Celestia and Luna’s coats. “We’ll rest here for now and have something more to eat. None of us are workponies after all.” He, Surprise and Firefly were breathing harder than normal but were no where near as exhausted as they had been after their race earlier. Discord and the pegasus had opted to use their wings, as they were used to, instead of their hooves and Firefly had simply trained her endurance as a side effect of trying to improve her speed almost everyday. It was Celestia and Luna who really needed a break, they were not athletes like Firefly. Their larger frames and wings also made flying more awkward for them amongst the dangling vines and thick woodland than it did the smaller pegasus or slender draconequus who also preferred to remain in the air on a far more regular basis.

 

“S-sorry everypony!” apologised Luna as she wiped her brow and horn with a hoof and levitated a water canteen out of her saddlebags with her magic.

 

“It’s cool, I’m hungry anyway.” A rumble from her stomach confirmed the blue maned pony’s claim and she reached around to grab the single loaf of bread left in her saddlebags with her teeth.

 

“Shouldn’t you save that for the Western Range, Fire? There’s plenty to graze on here, up there I doubt there’s going to be much.” Firefly hesitated clamping her jaws down on the scrap of bread she had already torn from the loaf at the snowy-pegasus’ words. The earth pony looked back and forth between the looming mountains and the fresh grass at her hooves, the bread still in her mouth.

 

“Ffhin,” she gurgled as the small bit of bread slid down her throat. Peering at the leaves closely she took an experimental nip. Surprise and Discord were already tearing up clumps of green and chewing on them happily, so the grass couldn’t be bad. Grass normally wasn’t bad per se, but Firefly had always found it to be extremely dull in taste and never capable of fully satisfying her often ravenous appetite. Can’t win races on something as energy-deprived as grass after all. Of course, they weren’t in a race and Firefly knew it. ‘Still…’ she thought.

 

“Come on Fire, it’s pretty good stuff! Juicy!” Firefly rolled her eyes at the ever optimistic pegasus and gave in, ripping a mouthful of grass from the dew-soaked earth and chewing on it with a clear look of disapproval. It really wasn’t bad, better than average for grass actually, but still nothing to get excited about. By this point, the two sisters had finished guzzling water from their canteens and had silently joined their three companions in munching. A few minutes later, they were all rested and recharged, and after refilling their canteens in the river they resumed their way.

Despite its large girth, the river proved not to be a problem. Four of them could fly and quickly hovered over and the waters were calm and not particularly deep, prompting Firefly to splash her way across in a deliberately explosive swimming style that was more playful flailing than it was an actual technique. With the river crossed and their manes soaked by the earth pony drying herself like a dog, they ventured deeper into the magically-engorged forest.

_____________________________________________________________________

 

“Perfect. Just perfect. Really, were they alive, I would thoroughly lecture these damnable hills on the meaning of respect!” Voice dripping with corrosive levels of sarcasm and burning annoyance, the Grand & Mightful Viator concluded that today was not a good day. The azure stallion sat on his haunches, hooves crossed and stared at the largely broken heap that was his stagecoach lying, twisted and wrecked at the bottom of a steep slope. With twitching eyes, he was seemingly willing the situation to fix itself. When all he got was the suspiciously mocking-like screeching of a falcon flying overhead, the traveller sighed and rubbed his horn. A throbbing headache was already taking root in his skull. The Western Range truly was perilous: one moment Viator was happily pulling the cart along a high-up path, fantasising about the fame and fortune that would be his once he reached Manesterdam, the next the road had partially collapsed under his coach’s weight and had attempted to bring it and the unicorn cascading down to the gorge below as well, the former successfully. So taken by surprise had the pony been that he had had barely enough time to magically undo the harness that would have also dragged him down to a no doubt messy doom.

 

“Phewee! That’s one mighty fine pickle ya got there, pardner,” the strongly-accented voice boomed in his ear and sent another pulse of pain racking through Viator’s head, encouraging his headache to undergo a growth-spurt. Casting a wincing eye to his side, Viator’s vision was filled with sight of a moustached, moss-green earth pony grinning uncomfortably close to the unicorn’s face.

 

‘When did he get there…?’ pondered Viator. Apparently he was losing his senses as well as his patience. “Please, sir, I’m quite capable-”

 

Name’s Craggy! I’ma these ‘ere mountain’s ranger! Pleased ta meet’cha!” Craggy, as he called himself, grabbed Viator’s hoof and shook it vigorously as part of his introduction before sitting himself down on his own haunches to survey the damage strewn about below them.

 

“’Ranger’? And what exactly does that-”

 

“Eeyup, a mighty fine pickle indeed. Don’t know if ya’ll be able to hocus-pocus it back up ‘ere or not, bu’ either way, looks trashed ta me, pardner.” Viator glared at the oblivious earth pony. The hair of his moustache and mane was an earthy brown colour. His cutie mark was a far-off shot of two stubby mountains stood together with what looked like a path winding off between them. To complete his appearance -which the azure-stallion was already beginning to loathe- he wore a beige, brimmed hat on his head and a short vest of the same colour.

 

“Would you please let me speak-”

 

“A’ight, tell ya whut, pardner. Ya makin’ ya way to good ol’ Manesterdam, yea? That there gorge, where ya wagon’s lying in bits, ‘ll take ya there as well. Add a coupl’o hours onta ya trip, but ya can least gather up what ya can carry, an’ what’s not been smashed, ‘course. I’ll show ya a safe way down if ya want.” As much as his pounding headache and throbbing veins yelled at him to throw Craggy into the gorge, Viator could not help but admit that the aggravating earth pony could help. While the unicorn was sure he would be able to levitate the wagon back up onto the path, it would take far too long to fix it and there was still the possibility of the exact same accident occurring later on. Although there wasn’t anything of terrible importance to his work in the coach, Viator still hoped that he would be able to salvage some of it simply to save him time and bits replacing anything that might have broken when he got to Manesterdam. He was also torn over whether to ask the infuriating Craggy to help him carry what he could salvage, assuming there was anything left to carry. On the one hoof, it would mean he wouldn’t have to leave what may be perfectly good supplies behind; on the other, he would have to travel for hours more with the insufferable pony Viator suspected Craggy of being.

 

Today was indeed not a good day.

_____________________________________________________________________

 

                

“…We should stop here, it’s getting dark.” The four other travelling ponies came to a halt as Celestia spoke. They had reached another clearing where a clear stream flowed freely and glistened in the fading light of the sun, which was already dipping below the horizon. It was unlikely they would find another good spot such as this before reaching the mountains proper, already the terrain had become considerably more rugged and inclined. A mixture of boulders, some covered in moss and some freshly fallen from the slopes, dotted the ponies’ path, and more and more frequently did the grass suddenly give away to patches of bare rock. It would be better to stop here where they still had at least some cover from the wind and rain which might pounce them at any point, so untamed was the weather of the self-regulating forest.

 

                “Agreed. I’ll gather up some firewood, shall I?”

 

                “I’ll help, brother!”

 

                “Alright, Luna, Discord, you go get some firewood. Surprise, can you help me build up a bit more shelter? And Firefly, would you mind going to fill up our canteens?” Everypony, bar Firefly who grumbled something about getting the most boring task, saluted cheerily and set about their assignments. Working together with their wings and magic, Luna and Discord were able to snap off some dry, fat branches from the surrounding canopy while Celestia and Surprise were soon on their way to making a makeshift tarpaulin by meshing together the thicker leaves of the floor species with strips of bark from the nearby trunks. Within minutes, smoke was billowing from a large campfire and three ponies and a draconequus were comfortably sitting around it taking occasional bites from bits of torn up grass.

 

It was Luna who first noticed the absent one. “Firefly…?” Looking over through the growing darkness to the quietly gushing stream, the midnight-alicorn spotted the speedster lying silently in the grass. Her mane was drooped over her eyes and she sporadically pawed aggressively at the damp ground. “Firefly, why are you all the way over there…? Come join us!” By this point the other three had realised how long the pink earth pony had been by the stream and enthusiastically nodded their agreement with Luna’s words.

 

                “Are you sure I don’t need to have wings or be able to cast magic to be able to do that!?” She did not raise her head to her companions, and her voice was laced with stinging bitterness.

 

                “…F-firefly…?”

 

                “‘Firefly, would you mind going to fill up our canteens?’ I can help, you know!?” her mocking tone quickly reverted back to a harsh cry. “I know I’ve been holding us back, you could have all just flown over the forest and been halfway through the mountains by now, so at the very least let me help with something, I don’t know, important!

 

                “Fire…? What’s wrong?” Surprise’s look of concern reflected all four of their expressions.

 

                “What’s wrong!? I just…just…ARGH!!” as she screamed in frustration, the speedster violently kicked one of the canteens by her hooves. It span through the air spraying water, where it then landed by the fire with a dull thud. “…I just hate seeing you guys- no, everypony, do all these amazing things that I know I’ll never be able to do…” A few tears began to trickle down her muzzle, defying the desperate sniffling that tried to stop them. Firefly’s four companions could do nothing but stare in shocked silence. Never had they seen such an outburst of emotion from the normally confident and strong earth pony. “…ever since I was small, I’ve always looked up to the sky and saw ponies soar so…so freely…and no matter how much I train, no matter how fast I get, I can’t help but be…be…j-j…j…” she choked on the word, seemingly terrified to say it. “jealous.

 

Surprise, Luna, Celestia and Discord instinctively furled their wings in closer to their bodies. “Firefly…is that why you wanted to come on this journey? To somehow…well-”

 

The earth pony cut the white alicorn off. “To prove myself? I dunno. Probably.” Firefly rubbed her mane out of her eyes to wipe away her tears before turning to look up at the steep mountains.  None of them knew what to say to her. Each had the natural gifts she was so envious of and none of them could think of a counter for her sorrows. Earth ponies were generally stronger, studier and more resolute than their unicorn and pegasi cousins, but even knowing and acknowledging this could not soothe Firefly’s longing. “Even speed, my special talent,” she rubbed her cutie mark, two blue lightning bolts, while keeping her eyes fixed on one particularly tall and steep mountain, “isn’t so special. I mean, I have to work so much harder, just to achieve the same thing as a pegasus. Sure, I can beat an average flier in a race, but no matter how hard I push myself, I’ll never be able to win against one who puts a bit of effort in to exercising.” She took a deep long sigh and wiped her eyes again, still sniffling.

 

                “And that’s why you’re better.” Discord’s calm voice managed to swivel even Firefly’s head away from the mountain she had been staring at so sternly. “Because you keep pushing yourself, even if you know it’s hopeless, you’ll always be the one to achieve the most.”

 

The pink speedster looked to Discord quizzically. “What…what do you mean?”

 

“What I mean, Firefly, is that yes, you may never be the fastest, but the ability to always look up means you’ll prevail in not just speed, but any challenge fate sets you. So really, there’s no need to cry-”

 

ROOO-DAAAAAHHHHHH!!!” the roar tore the calm quiet of the increasing night apart; it was so loud the air itself shook as if in terror. The draconequus and ponies automatically squeezed their hooves to their ears in a vain attempt to block the shockwave. After a few moments, once the frantic scurrying and rustling of animals had died down, the silence returned. The travellers each blinked and looked around with the tiniest of pupils.

 

“Sis…what…what was that!?” Luna had tried to crawl under her elder sister’s wing and was shaking in fright. The roar had been a thing of nightmares and in all her years living within the Everfree, Celestia had never heard such a dreadful wail.

 

“I…don’t know, Luna, just stay there…” the pastel maned alicorn continued to dart her head around, scanning the clearing and the pitch black woods beyond. None of them had realised just how dark it had become and each had let their guard down.

 

THERE!!” Firefly’s scream was too late. A massive shadow had been skimming the tops of the trees, silently despite its bulk, coming in from the east. Before any of the assembled could follow the earth pony’s flailing hoof, it was upon them. The thing landed in the clearing with enough weight to crack the earth beneath it and almost crushed the four seated around the fire. As it bent its long neck down the campfire revealed its identity: a dragon. Plated from its razor sharp claws to its spiny head with diamond-hard, crimson scales the beast was certainly a sight to behold. Each of the hopeful adventurers were stunned into paralysis. The huge creature largely ignored the other ponies, whether because it hadn’t seen them or because it simply wasn’t interested none could say. Instead, it settled its eyes on Firefly, who could only stare in still horror. The dragon took two snorts before bursting into action once more. With one of its colossal taloned hands it swiped up the pink pony and leapt into the air with a powerful gust of wind from its wings that blew out the others’ fire.

 

FIREFLY!!!” they all shrieked in unison. Without another second’s hesitation, their wings sprung from their sides and they took to the air in pursuit of their abducted friend. The dragon’s mighty wings had ensured it had a good head start, and they created a constant downdraft that forced those who chased the beast to fly above it or be sent hurtling back to the ground. The dragon climbed higher and higher into the air, apparently heading for the peak of the mountain which Firefly had been eyeing previously. For all its superior wing strength however, the creature was not flying at its full potential and was flapping casually back towards where its home would undoubtedly be. Firefly’s companions, however, were beating their wings as fast as they possibly could, allowing them to slowly begin closing the gap on the ponynapper.

 

HELP~~~!!!” Even though she yelled as loudly as her lungs would allow, Firefly’s shouts did not nothing to deter the dragon and could only just be heard over the howling winds.

 

FIREFLY, JUST HOLD ON!!!” Celestia attempted to yell back, though it was unlikely the pink pony could hear her over the wind and the fatigue which was beginning to seep into her wings, making her breath go ragged. None of them were accustomed to flying at such speeds at such high altitudes. Little by little they closed the distance between themselves and the dragon, but they had only moments before it reached its lair, a gaping cave on the face of the mountain. A wide ledge situated in front of it provided the dragon with somewhere to land lest it clip its wings attempting to fly into the cave directly.

 

“Celestia! We have to do something now!” Discord was right. They were out of time. There was no way they would be able to fully catch up to the hulking beast before it returned to solid ground and could put Firefly in real danger.

 

Its underside looks softer! On the count of three!?” Discord nodded, needing no further explanation. “1…2…3!” as soon as Celestia reached three, the two swooped down, horn and talons glowing. In the brief second before the irresistible downdraft forced them out of range the alicorn and draconequus let loose with two golden beams of pure magical energy. The beams danced and twisted around one another before merging into an intensely bright blast which struck the dragon hard on the sandy skin of its belly. The creature released another deafening roar and bucked in the air, involuntarily releasing its prisoner moments before coming to land on its ledge. Each of the four pursuers gasped in terror as Firefly fell and collided hard with the mountain below the now-raging dragon’s ledge. Bruised and slightly winded, but not incapacitated, the pink pony waved her hooves desperately to try and catch onto something as she began to slide down the mountain face. Luckily, her hind legs landed on a tiny sliver of rock poking out of the cliff, giving her a chance to better secure her precarious balance by wrapping her forelegs in some branches and roots growing above her.

 

“Firefly, we’re coming to get yo-AHH!” Celestia’s reassuring words were interrupted by a column of flame that almost turned the earth pony’s would be rescuers into ash. The ponies circled and attempted to get closer to Firefly again, only to be forced back once more by another fiery pillar from the furious beast’s stomach.

 

“Celestia, we’re going to have to distract or defeat it, we’ll never get close otherwise!” yelled Discord as he narrowly dodged another bout of searing breath.

 

“Curses…Discord, Luna, with me! Surprise, you get Firefly!” ordered the alicorn, as she swooped up to the ledge to meet the dragon head on. “Bombard it with spells, it doesn’t matter what, just distract it!”

 

                “G-got it!”  Though she was terrified, the younger alicorn and draconequus ascended to accompany their sister. Despite its intensity, the last magical attack had surprised the dragon but failed to cause any significant damage. The following arcane pelting by the trio fared little better. The armoured beast’s scales were naturally resistant to magic and the siblings’ spells did little but bounce straight off. It didn’t matter though; so long as Surprise could get close enough to airlift Firefly to safety, and they could actually get away themselves, then it was good enough.

 

                “Hold on Fire, I’m nearly there…!” the snowy pegasus called, pumping her wings to try and keep steady in the unrelenting winds. “Just a little more- WOAH!!” As Surprise extended a hoof towards Firefly, she looked down to her waist to find a scaly, crimson tail wrapped around it which proceeded to yank her up onto the ledge and away from the perilously placed pony. A moment later her head poked over the cliff. “Just stay there Fire, I promise we’ll get you-!” was all the yellow-maned pegasus could manage before she was forced to roll to the side or be squashed by a humongous claw.

 

                “G-guys! Don’t…!” she looked down and could barely even see the ground thousands of feet below her for all the clouds. There was no question: if she fell, she would die. The unceasing growls, roars and spurts of fire also told her that her friends were fighting a battle they could not win. Even with all their years of tutelage under perhaps the most powerful pony in the land, neither Celestia, Discord nor Luna could harm the dragon to any great extent and Surprise would be no help at all in that situation. And neither would Firefly, stuck there clinging for dear life on a bump of rock. The emotions that had filled her before began to resurface and it took all her strength to force back more tears, rolling her head back to try and stop them from escaping her eyes.

 “…the ability to always look up means you’ll prevail…” For some reason, Discord’s word echoed in her mind and Firefly could not resist unclenching her eyelids to gaze at the stone face above her. It was certainly steep, even sheer at times, but it definitely wasn’t smooth. Branches, roots and slivers of rock just like the ones she was using to hold herself up jutted out from the cliff at least every few inches. Suddenly, she realised something: there was no reason why she couldn’t physically climb up. She would do it. She would climb the cliff, climb higher than she had ever climbed before. She may not have wings, but it didn’t matter, because she would let her resolve carry her. She wasn’t going to let some mountain stop her! She was going to reach her goal, not just for herself, but for her friends! And if she fell and died trying? Then at least she would be able to experience the feeling of soaring through the air once! There were no more tears left in her eyes, just a glare of steely determination.

Unwrapping one of her forelegs from the cradling safety of the branches, Firefly pulled herself upward with the other and caught another hoofhold. She repeated the action with the other leg and slowly but surely she began to rise. Lift one leg, then the other, and repeat. It wasn’t that hard, she could do it.

CRACK!!!

A piece of rock gave way beneath her. She roughly slid down the cliff, grazing the skin on her stomach and knees, but managed to hook a hoof around a branch and stop her fall. Her goal didn’t change. Lift one leg, then the other, and repeat. Even the wind and dragon’s earth trembling stomps that threatened to throw her off each moment didn’t stop her, she simply continued to cling to the mountain side, downright refusing to let go again. The pink speedster entered an almost trance like state; all that mattered was reaching that ledge. And she would do it. Then, almost without realising it, she had. She was there. Heaving herself up once more, her four hooves were planted firmly on solid, flat stone. She looked behind herself at Canterlot Valley below, twinkling with lights like the night sky above, an indescribable view she would never forget.

 

               “SIS!!” Luna’s alarmed screams snapped Firefly back to the present. Lying huddled against a boulder, singed, bruised and bleeding lay her companions. Luna had rushed over to her siblings to try and help them up, but the dragon was already staring at them, hatred pouring forth from its yellow eyes. In one swift moment, the dragon had reared its head back, getting ready to spew one last breath of flame that would finish the fight, and Firefly’s friends. Without a single thought, the speedster then did what she was best at; she galloped. Time seemed to slow as the dragon’s head came back down, embers leaping through the gaps in its teeth, foreshadowing the burning torrent that would cut their journey and their lives short. As the moment dawned, Celestia, Luna, Discord and Surprise clustered together even tighter and shut their eyes. They missed the pink blur that hurtled through the air and collided with the leering eye of the dragon with enough force to shove the entire beast’s head off target, causing the stream of flames to fire off harmlessly into the open sky. When they did not feel death’s scorching embrace, the four wounded travellers peeked a look to see their fierce foe thrashing about wildly, clutching its eye in immense pain.

 

“How…Firefly!?” As Celestia spluttered the name, they all gawped at the grinning earth pony. “What…but…”

 

                “I’ll explain later, now let’s just RUN!!” They needed no further encouragement. Careful to avoid the crashing limbs of the dragon, the adventures struggled to their hooves and galloped as fast as they could towards a downward path. They kept on galloping down the mountainous trail, often almost tripping and falling from their injuries and aching muscles. After minutes of painful fleeing, safety presented itself. “Quick, in there!” Skidding to a halt, Firefly pointed towards a thin inlet within the rock, another cave with a small and well disguised entrance which they should be able to squeeze into and hide from the dragon’s wrath. With some huffing and groaning, the five companions found themselves safely tucked up in what was little more than a hole, only just big enough to accommodate them all. With what small drops of magic they had left, the three sorcerers of the group lit up their hiding spot and created a minuscule fire for them to hunch around. Wary of revealing their position, they ensured that the flames provided only the bare minimum in illumination.

 

                “We…phew…made it…!” gasped Surprise between breaths, collapsing to her stomach. Everypony nodded and smiled, relieved to have survived. They didn’t care that they had left their saddlebags and supplies back at the clearing, they could head back and retrieve them once they had recovered and there wasn’t an angry dragon possibly on the hunt for them. In turn, they each fell to the ground and simply lay, but they all jumped in surprise when it came to Firefly’s turn as she yelped in pain. Turning her head down to the ground to try and see what had poked her in the bottom, she could only make out a faint glint in the weak light of their fire.

 

                “What’s this…?” Frowning, the earth pony reached down and pulled a slightly glowing, orange gemstone from the pile of stones she had tried to sit on. “Wait, is this…guys, look!” Weariness forgotten, the speedster thrust her hooves into the middle of their circle, holding out the gemstone for them all to see.

 

                “By the…is that one of the Elements!?” The mention of the artifacts which their entire quest revolved around caused each of the ponies’ eyes to bulge from their sockets.

 

Taking the gemstone into his paw and weighing it up, then covering it in a magical glow, the draconequus grinned intensely “It is!”

 

                “WOW! We did it! We found one of the Elements! Can you believe it!?” Reinvigorated, Surprise leapt back to her hooves and began dancing around the cramped space with Luna.

 

                “We did it!? We did it! YAY!” cried Luna, echoing everypony’s cheer at their success.

 

                “Which is it? Generosity or…?” inquired Celestia, peering at the perfectly cut gemstone in Discord’s paw.

 

                “Ambition, I believe. Though I do wonder how it got in…” the draconequus trailed off in thought and let the stone be levitated from his paw by Celestia who examined it thoroughly before nodding in agreement.

 

                “Yes, Ambition… one of the Elements of Chao-”

 

                “THIS IS SO AMAZING! We actually did it!” Surprise and Luna continued to dance around the small cave happily. Their near-death experience all but forgotten, even Celestia could not help but eventually join in with the two’s merriment. They were in high spirits, and rightly so. They had only just began their adventure but had already made a great success. Though their harsh trial was out of mind, it was not out of body, and one by one as they sang and danced in celebration the ponies and draconequus gradually slumped to the floor and slept.

_____________________________________________________________________

 

The ivory alicorn beamed a soft smile into the clear orb where an image of four ponies and a draconequus slept soundly in a small cave. She had been worried, for a moment, but deep down knew that Firefly would find the courage and ambition in her heart to conquer that high mountain and the perils it held. One down, ten to go. The mare felt a pang of guilt streak through her. She hoped the little ones wouldn’t think that their whole journey would be quite so daunting. She didn’t want to put them off after all. It also seemed that Discord was the only one who was beginning to suspect the true nature of the trial and the manner which they had found the Element. No matter, the others had plenty of time to catch on, or be told. Taking one last look at her children and their friends, the alicorn dimmed the orb with a spark of magic and made her way to her own bed. “Well done, little ones, well done…”


Of Harmony & Chaos

Written by: Brightwel

(very helpfully) edited by: DustyGrrl

Cover art by: Iopichio

Chapter 6: Crossing Paths

 

Light. Demanding, horrible light. Even with his eyes closed it somehow managed to burn at his retinas. He rolled over, but it made no difference. The light still prodded and stung at his eyes, unrelenting in its efforts to wake him up. Suddenly, he realised that light had been joined by an ally: Discomfort. Why was his bed so hard?

 

‘Dragons.’

 

 Dragons. What odd reason for his bed to be uncomfortable. Why had he thought ‘Dragons’?

 

‘We fought a dragon. Then escaped and hid in this little cave.’

 

Ah. They had fought a dragon and hid in a cave. It all made sense now.

 

Discord’s eyes fluttered open. He was lying flat on his back, head pointed towards the small slit that was the cave entrance. Cruel rays of orange were squeezing through and beaming directly into his face. The floor was cold, hard stone littered with pebbles and little rocks that dug into the draconequus’ back. It all made sense then. With a drawn out yawn, Discord rose to his haunches and groaned as seemingly every sore joint and aching muscle popped and creaked. He looked around. The other four were still asleep, all huddled together to help keep warm and comfortable. The bright orange line cutting across them told Discord it must still have been early dawn and he was tempted to wake them, but thought better of it. Their ordeal last night had been an extreme one, and they were in no rush; he could afford to let them sleep longer.

                

‘But what to do? Start on breakfast…?’

 

He definitely wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. Even though he was still a little tired, the hard floor would ensure that by the time he had nodded off again, he would need to get up anyway.

 

                ‘The saddlebags.’

 

That was right. Their equipment and supplies had been left in the clearing when Firefly had been taken by the dragon. With a bit of effort, he would be there and back in a few minutes. Trotting carefully so as to not wake his companions, Discord slipped quietly out of the cave onto the narrow mountain path. The sun had still not escaped the clutches of the horizon; to think, his mother had to wake up so early everyday in order to actually start it on its way. Try as he might though, Discord could not see their home from where he was. It was either too far or hidden amongst the sprawling expanse of green.

 

                ‘Oh well.’

 

A tad disappointed, he then turned his view to the woods below him, trying to pick out the clearing where their bags hopefully still sat. The forest, however, was still quite dark and the morning rays clawed at the shadows, but fell short. Discord had two options: the first, to wait until it was lighter and he had the eyes of his companions to help him; the second, to go for an early scouting mission.

 

                ‘A fly would be good.’

 

He picked the latter. He stretched some more, moved to the very edge of the path, looked down the dangerously steep slopes below, and then leapt. The whistling wind was strangely soothing and Discord chuckled as he fell.

 

                ‘To think, the sound of a lethal plummet to almost certain doom can be comforting! Hilarious!’

 

He was of course, in no real danger. As the earth drew close enough to allow individual rocks and the occasional flower to be visually picked out, Discord opened his mismatched wings and swooped away from death’s stony maw. He allowed himself only a moment more fun swirling and twisting freely in the air before getting to work and finding their would-have-been campsite. It didn’t take him long; they hadn’t flown that far in pursuit of the dragon after all, and had travelled in one direction.

 

                ‘Let’s hope no critters have had their way…’

 

With a soft thud, the draconequus landed in the damp grass of the clearing. The stream, burnt-out remains of a campfire and makeshift shelter told him that this had certainly been where they had stopped momentarily the night before. Holding his breath, Discord trotted over and peeped under the tarpaulin. Luckily enough, all their bags were there and didn’t look to have been raided in the night. With a long sigh of relief, the draconequus began to gather up the various bags but began to feel somewhat apprehensive while doing so. Would he be able to carry all of them back up to the cave? He could make several trips, but it would be a bit of a bother. Frowning, he lifted each pony’s bag and weighed them individually. None of them were especially heavy, but combined they would surely prove a fierce foe. Magic was naturally an option, Discord knew several spells which would help him carry all the bags. He was wary, however, of casting anything on Luna’s or Celestia’s packs. Other than the obvious, he wasn’t entirely sure what either of his sisters had decided to bring and he knew of several objects and substances they owned which could…react, with any direct contact with magic. And it would just be plain rude to rummage through their things.

 

                ‘Compromise.’

 

It was all that could be done if he wanted to make the one trip. Discord settled on using his magic to lighten the load of his, Surprise’s and Firefly’s bags and then simply hope he was strong enough to carry his sisters’ packs at their full weight. He slipped his own bag onto his back and grabbed the eight others by their straps, shrouding four of them in a golden glow. Setting his sights back onto the mountain that was cloaked in a thin fog, Discord jumped into the air and flapped his wings.

 

                ‘I should be able to manage this…’

 

The additional luggage was by no means light, but neither were they extraordinarily heavy. It would be tiring no doubt, though Discord suspected that he would be far less exhausted by this trip than he had been by some of the other trials they had already endured.

 

                ‘Hopefully they aren’t awake yet. I wouldn’t want them to worry.’

 

The sun was still rising yet the return voyage was not as exhilarating as it had been. Coming down the mountain was far more nerve-wracking. With the added weight, Discord was unable to fly as fast or as nimbly as he had initially, and as such was very wary of encountering their scaly friend from the night before. Fortunately, the jaunt passed without incident and the draconequus was able to locate the cave and its safety after a few minutes of searching, having been sure to mentally note down its approximate location before leaving. A second later, and Discord was once again in the company of his sleeping sisters and friends, still closely knitted together to share each others’ soft coats and body heat in the cold, hard hole they slept in.

 

                ‘To wake or not to wake…’

 

Discord wished himself to have fallen asleep with them beforehand, so at the very least his body wouldn’t have been in as much painful protest as it was earlier. He looked to each of them in turn, breathing and snoring peacefully, until his bright yellow eyes fell on her. Celestia.

 

‘By the Elements, she’s so beautiful.’

 

She most certainly was. The morning light of the sun was gentle to her, unlike it had been to Discord. It didn’t shine and directly besiege the meagre defence that were her eyelids. No, rather it played gently across her heavenly white wings and coat, blanketing her in gold.

 

Discord sighed quietly to himself. He shouldn’t be thinking of her like that; she was, after all, his stepsister. But ever since that day when he had first laid eyes upon her, there had always been that lump hidden in the very depths of his heart, kept sealed down there through sheer willpower alone, a lump that had grown ever larger and more restless with each passing year.

 

                ‘I love her.’

 

As much as he would like to deny it to himself, Discord could not. He loved her, perhaps he always had. And it wasn’t simply her beauty that caused the draconequus’ heart to defy all reason and circumstance and long for the alicorn. She was as smart and kind and gentle as she was nature’s masterpiece. True, even after all those years spent together Celestia had never truly warmed to Discord like Luna had and their mother intended. But even so, the draconequus could tell that Celestia had a pure heart and wished only the best for every being, despite not always loving each and every one of them personally. As Discord placed the packs in the corner by the entrance, he heard a pony stir.

 

                “…Discord?”

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “VIATOR! VIATOR! WE LOVE YOOOOOOUUU~~~!!

 

                “Where’s your next show going to be!? When!? I HAVE to be there!”

 

                “Grand & Mightful Viator, please can I have your autograph!?”

 

                “VIATOOOR! VIATOOOR!”

 

They wouldn’t stop. For thirty minutes now, the Grand & Mightful Viator had simply been standing on stage basking in the crowd’s never ending applause and love. He had long finished his performance to a silent audience that then required a minute to fully absorb and appreciate what they had just seen. A show so amazing that many of them would be unable to return to their normal lives now that they knew just how indescribably excellent life could be with the influence of one such as the Grand & Mightful Viator, of which of course there was only one. Many even had to be taken to hospital, having either fainted or slipped due to the tear-drenched floor.

 

The Grand & Mightful Viator looked back and forth through the screeching crowds with a smug smile. His performance had proceeded even better than expected, and he had expected it to go very well. He was the Grand & Mightful Viator after all. As he sweapt his gaze over his adoring audience, the azure unicorn spotted a news mare struggling to get closer and shout some questions at him while waving a pencil and notepad. Naturally, additional coverage was always good so why not just do an interview here?

 

                “Please, quiet.” The performance pony hadn’t even needed to speak; his raised hoof was enough to hush the roaring waves of affection into near-perfect silence. Turning his head, Viator nodded once to the news mare, giving her permission to speak.

 

                “Grand & Mightful Viator! Manesterdam Weekly, please, would you mind answering just a few questions?”

 

                “But of course not! My work here is done, I can spare the time.”

 

                “Wonderful! Now, my first question is: just how are you so Grand & Mightful?” The whole crowd was listening to the news mare and looked up eagerly to their new hero who was casually inspecting his hooves for dirt.

 

                “Why, a simple combination of unparalleled natural talent and years of incomprehensibly difficult training.” The audience applauded their approval as the news mare excitedly took notes.

 

                “I see! Something to be expected, really! Next question: how do you react to claims that you’re the best pony in the land, all of history and will never be surpassed in the future?” A ripple-like effect coursed through the throng of ponies as each leaned forward in anticipation of the undoubtedly incredible answer.

 

                “Well, since I’ve never been defeated in anything at any point in time and since no pony with even the slightest hint of power has yet to challenge me, I can only assume that…” An even greater ripple. This was, hoofs down, going to be the greatest reply ever to leave a pony’s mouth. “…I am.”

 

“WWWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” The crowd went insane. They danced and writhed with excitement. Their lives were complete. They could be struck down then and there and would die happily. The news mare however, though barely able to write due to the shaking in her hooves, was not done. The Grand & Mightful Viator raised another hoof to calm his people.

 

                “F-final question, and then a message! What was your personal favourite part of your show?”

 

Viator chuckled smugly. What a silly question! His favourite would naturally be the same as every other ponies’ favourite. “Obviously, my personal favourite was…was…” The Grand & Mightful Viator stopped, hoof in the air. What was every other ponies’ favourite part? What did he actually do? “…it was…uhh…” He couldn’t remember. He had just performed the greatest, most spectacular show that cemented his place in history and ensured he would be immortalised in memory, art and song. And he couldn’t remember it. He couldn’t remember any of it. He was drawing a total blank. “…clearly, I enjoyed all of it! I have no particular favourite…uhh…p-part!” They didn’t scream. They didn’t hug the air fantasising that the Grand & Mightful Viator was wrapped in their legs. There was no reaction at all. “N-now! That message you mentioned? What is that?” He had to dazzle them again. Remind them just what he had done for them.

 

                “Oh, yes, yes of course! This comes from an old friend of yours! He wrote in and asked us to tell you this!” Viator raised an increasingly sweaty eyebrow as the news mare cleared her throat and put on an impressive accent. “Time ta git up, pardner! Rise an’ shine there!

 

Viator twitched. He had heard that voice before. And he did not like it. “Where did…?” spluttered the unicorn. Before he got a reply he noticed something dreadfully odd from the corner of his eye. The crowd was frozen still, everything was, and not only that, they were…changing. The Grand & Mightful Viator stared in increasing horror as the ponies around him began to warp into…rocks? Others simply began to disintegrate, blowing away in a cold wind that had appeared from nowhere and left an empty floor where there had once been hundreds of ponies packed tightly together. Then the walls of the stadium began to morph as well, becoming a dull grey and littered with the occasional plant or weed. He whipped back around to the news mare, trying his best to suppress the panic in his voice. “What is going on!?”

 

                “Looks ta me like somepony ‘eres ‘aving a mighty bad dream. C’mon now, time ta git up ‘an back on the road.”

 

                “A dream…? So all this…No! No! NOOOO!”

 

Viator opened his eyes and glared pure, boiling hatred at the other cheerful pair looming far too close over him.

 

                “Ya’ll awake now, pardner? Seemed like dem bed bugs were nipping somethun fierce! ‘Course ya weren’t sleepin’ in no bed, but ya git ma meaning, yea’?”

 

                “Yes, yes I do. Now, I think we should ju-”

 

                “We probably ought ta be hittin’ the road sooner ra’er than later. Still a couplo hours trek till ya git ta da plains.” Viator was reminded once again why he did not appreciate the company of Craggy.

 

In the end, Viator had decided to leave behind the broken heap that was once his stagecoach. It would have simply taken too long to repair, even with the unicorn’s considerable powers, and he wanted to reach New Manesterdam as soon as possible. He had also, with great reluctance and uncertainty, decided to ask Craggy for help carrying what could be salvaged from the smashed remains of the performer’s wagon. As Viator had feared, the green earth pony had happily offered his assistance, even stating it was part of his duties as ‘mountain ranger’ to lend a hoof to anypony in need.

 

Viator pulled himself to his hooves from the blankets he had been wrapped in. As he looked west along the winding path of the gorge bottom, he sighed. Climbing back up the higher, more direct path would be both difficult and dangerous and Craggy had highly advised against them trying. The earth pony claimed the unicorn should never have been on that path in the first place since it was so unstable. That of course had begged the question as to why Craggy had also been on it, but Viator was already too tired of the mossy green pony’s voice to ask anything but the bare necessities.

 

As the travelling unicorn magically rolled up his blankets and placed them neatly in the dirty worn saddlebags he had managed to retrieve from his coach he simultaneously lifted out a loaf of bread and precisely cut two slices from it telekinetically. He then preceded to stuff down his throat as quickly as possible. It was his food, and he didn’t want the infuriating ‘ranger’ trying to leech some off him. Even if he was helping Viator out immensely, he should still have his own!

 

                “Ya ready there, pardner?” Viator waved a hoof behind his head to signal to the earth pony that he just about was, still trying to conceal his chewing with the rest of his body. Once Viator’s bread was safely in his stomach, he slipped his saddlebags on and turned to face Craggy, who was kicking dirt and dust over the ashes of the fire they had made.

 

                “Shall we be on-”

 

                “A’ight, let’s hit the road!” The two began a brisk trot along the canyon floor in silence. With all his might, Viator tried not to look towards the ranger pony trotting to his left for any reason. Instead, he tried merely to appreciate the rugged beauty of the steep mountains and cliffs or plan a new performance. Perhaps the stores of Manetserdam would stock ingenious new items which he could incorporate into a show? He had even heard that the legendary Star Swirl had moved there.

 

                ‘It must be, or at least will be, a city of great magical commerce and learning! Oh, it is obvious that I, the Grand & Mightful Viator, will find destiny waiting for me there!’ The thought sent a shiver down the unicorn’s spine and he grinned to himself. He was pumped.

 

                “Y’all never did say what ya did, pardner! Ben tryin’ to work it out from ya mark, but it jus’ ain’t happening!” Viator’s excitement instantly deflated. He didn’t want to talk to Craggy. But then, he somehow doubted the irritating stallion would give up and accept silence. The azure unicorn sighed and looked back to his flank and the mark upon it, a stereotypical magic wand standing straight with a ring of light bursting from its tip and encircling it.

 

                “I, am a performer. I travel the land and use my great talents for the entertainment of others!” As he finished speaking, Viator almost tripped over his own hooves. He hadn’t been interrupted; Craggy hadn’t cut in with something else. The azure stallion slowly turned to look at the ranger who simply nodded and smiled at him. “A-and I don’t just use my own abilities, why, some of the things you’re helping me carry are-”

 

                “Ben meaning ta ask, what’s all the fancy bottles and such we carrying for?” The unicorn stopped talking, stared straight ahead and ground his teeth together audibly. He had thought, hoped, prayed that Craggy might start changing. But no, clearly just a one off.

 

Thankfully, the agitating earth pony did not seem to mind having his question left unanswered and retained his ever-optimistic smile plastered on his muzzle even as the two continued to trot in quiet. Viator however, began to notice that there were a number of sharp rocks and heavy boulders lying loose around them. ‘It would be easy. Nopony would miss him, would they…?’ As the unicorn’s eyes locked onto a particular large and heavy stone he shook the criminal thoughts from his mind. The Grand & Mightful Viator was no murderer! He just hoped to the sun that he could truthfully make the same claim by the time he left those mountains.

 

_____________________________________________________________________________

 

 

Plop!

 

‘Missed it.’

 

Plop!

 

‘Missed it.’

 

Plop!

 

‘Missed it.’

 

“Ahoy!”

 

‘Missed…what?’ The young zebra stood still and listened, ignoring the slippery fish she had been trying to catch from a rockpool for nearly an hour.

 

“Ahoooy!” Definitely a voice calling. She twitched her ears and tried to follow the direction of the sound, but was almost afraid to do so. The voice had come from behind her. And the only thing behind her was the Great Sea.

 

“Ahoy, I say! Can you hear me, lassie?” Kromi darted her eyes to the left and then the right. There was not a single soul other than her on the beach. The voice was speaking to her.

 

“Hmm, maybe speaks a different language per chance…?” The owner of the voice cleared its throat. “He-llo. My. Name. Is. Coin Bag. Do. You. Under-stand. What. I. Am. Say-”

 

“By the Elders! I…I don’t…you’re real aren’t you!?” Kromi had finally managed to slowly turn her head behind her. There, standing on the deck of a small, wooden sailing boat was a zebra-like being frowning at her. He didn’t have stripes and his coat was platinum coloured. His mane, though not particularly long, was neatly arranged so it didn’t get into his eyes while a white hat sat in between his ears. He appeared to have some sort of drawing or tattoo on his flank, though Kromi could not make it out at the distance he was at.

 

                “Real? Golly lass, I hope so!”  Kromi instinctively hit herself in the leg lightly. It hurt, so it couldn’t have been a dream. So, in other words, Kromi was truly speaking to an individual who more than likely came from beyond the Great Sea. Not someone who had simply heard tales of the huge cities and lush landscapes, but had actually been there, maybe even lived there!

 

                “What’s it like!? Are there really towns built on mountains!? With buildings so high they touch the sky!? Do they eat flowers and green grass there everyday!?” The young zebra hadn’t hesitated to charge into the water just to get a little bit closer to the boat and its incredible passenger, who seemed taken aback by the girl’s enthusiasm.

 

                “Calm down lass! One question at a time! One at a time I say!”  It took several minutes for the surprised sailor to calm the jumping zebra, she was so consumed with excitement. Once she was simply trembling rather than bouncing, he lowered a small rowing boat from his yacht and came to shore.

 

                “I say girl, you’re acting like you’ve never seen a pony before! The name’s Coin Bag by the way, if you didn’t hear it before.”

 

                “A pony? Are you a pony? I haven’t seen one before!” Coin Bag, as he had called himself, raised an eyebrow at the zebra, who continued to stare straight at him with a huge grin spread over her muzzle.

 

                “Never seen a pony…? Ah, well, that would explain it then, wouldn’t it?” On closer inspection, Kromi noticed that the mark on Coin Bag’s flank was of three stacks of gold and silver coins. She also saw that he had a small sliver of facial hair above his mouth, which he proceeded to stroke gently while in thought. “A bit of a mystery though. I thought Sharpsail, Rubybox, even Blackmane and all their crews traded dragon hoards with you zebra folk! Unless…?”  Without letting go of his hair, Coin Bag looked around the beach and trees growing behind it. “No pier…this…this is Cairib…isn’t it? Please tell me it’s at least close by?” The doubt was clear in his voice.

 

Kromi knew of Cairib, but had only ever been once, when she was very young. It was by far the largest village within the known radius of Oromo, Kromi’s home. Like many villages, Cairib it was built on the shores of the Great Sea, unlike many villages however, it wasn’t shrouded from the water by trees. It had been a long time since that village had come to mind, but Coin Bag’s words made Kromi think. Cairib was located to the west of Oromo, further along the coast. Kromi often saw the big boats sailing in Cairib’s general direction, and if they were trading boats like Coin Bag had mentioned, then it would make sense for them to go to the biggest, most visible village they could find. Was Cairib where the big boats docked? How long had they been going there for…? Cairib wasn’t too far from Oromo, a few day’s hard galloping at most. The young zebra was sure she would be able to go there by herself if she wanted to.

 

                “Lass? I say, lass, are you alright there?” Kromi blinked out of her thoughtful trance at Coin Bag’s calling.

 

                “S-sorry! And no…this isn’t Cairib…Cairib is several days that way!” She pointed with her hoof to the west.

 

                “Oh, blast! I knew that wind was too strong south!” As he spoke, the stallion pony lifted his hat and pulled a roll of paper from it while at the same time revealing to Kromi that he had a horn. Despite her best efforts, the zebra could not get a good look at it before it was hidden again under his hat. “Hmm, so if I was going faster south than I thought, then I’m probably about…here!” Coin Bag jabbed at a spot on the paper which he had unrolled and scrutinised for a few moments in an attempt to show Kromi where they both were standing. The sheet of paper was clearly a map; Kromi had rarely had the chance to look at them but knew that her tribe owned a precious few.

 

                “Wow…” The map confirmed the zebra’s hopes. North of where Coin Bag pointed, where they currently were, lay a large expanse of water and then more land. And unlike Kromi’s native land, which had been coloured almost entirely in varying shades of yellow and brown, the terrain beyond the Great Sea was green with occasional splodges of blue or bumps of blackish grey and white. Kromi pointed to the beautifully colourful drawing on the map. “Are you going to go here?” she asked, barely able to contain her exhilaration.

 

                “Back to where now? To Ploughmouth? Ah, well yes of course! I wouldn’t be able to run the Ploughmouth-Cairib route very well if I didn’t now, coul-”

 

                “TAKE ME WITH YOU! PLEASE!” One moment Coin Bag was casually conversing with his new zebra friend, the next her face was almost planted in the sand by his hooves. He was thoroughly surprised.

 

                “I say…either my ears need a good scrubbing or I swear you just asked to take you with me?” As he spoke, Coin Bag gently tried to lift Kromi’s head from her bow with an expression composed of both confusion and amusement.

 

                “Please! Please take me with you! I hate it here! I want to go explore, have an adventure, get away from this…this…this bucking place!” Such was Kromi’s frustration that she was forced to take large breaths. Coin Bag placed a comforting hoof over her shoulder to try once again to calm her.

 

                “There, there lassy, let’s talk about it, shall we? Over a nice cup of tea, hmm?” Kromi didn’t know what ‘tea’ was, but she nodded anyway, still shaking a little from her outburst.

 

                “You’ll do no such thing!” The two whipped their heads around to try and locate the source of the voice. Standing just by the trees that marked the end of the beach, was a small crowd of angry-looking zebra, including Kromi’s parents, lead by the same wrinkled elder that had scolded Kromi earlier.

 

                “Mama? Papa?” Coin Bag noted that the young zebra standing by him almost sounded afraid.

 

                “Get over here child! And you! We do not want any of your cursed pony goods! Be gone! Back to the waters with you!” The elder almost spat the words and pointed her staff accusingly at the unicorn.

 

                “Wait here lass, I’m sure we can talk things over and be best of chums lickety split…” Coin Bag forcibly injected confidence into his voice, but his stride towards the zebra was steady, slow and cautious.

 

                “I said back with you, pony! We do not want your kind corrupting our way of life like you did Cairib!” Both sides tensed and the zebra audibly hissed at the pony, causing him to hesitate.

 

“Hmm, seems I’m clearly not welcome!” Another hiss emanated from the mob. “Now, now! No need to get our tails in a twist! I’ll be on my merry way…” Slowly, Coin Bag began to back away from the crowd.

 

                “Mama, Papa, please stop this! He’s my friend!” The young zebra’s efforts were met only with a disapproving glare.

 

                “I will not tell again, child! Come here!” Kromi hesitated, but ultimately submitted. If she refused, she would no doubt receive a severe beating later and if she tried to flee with Coin Bag then they would try and hurt him too. Defeated, Kromi lowered her head sadly and slowly walked over to her parents who refused to look at their daughter. “The same for you pony! We will not ask again. Be gone!” Coin Bag complied and retreated to the rowing boat. The tension began to relax only once the platinum pony had reached his yacht and begun hoisting the dingy up its side.

 

                “Let us go, Kromi. And you will never speak to an outsider again, understand?” Kromi simply nodded and watched as the crowd began to disperse back through the trees. As the last of the zebra vanished into the foliage, Kromi sighed and picked herself up but jumped in shock when something hit her flank. Rearing her head back, she saw a large bag suspended in the air by a shimmering aura of bronze light. The unusual sight captivated her entirely before a sharp whistle drew her attention to Coin Bag’s yacht. She could make out the pony waving at her, a similar glow shining from under his hat. She waved back and thought that just as the boat’s sails caught the wind and began to set out, she caught Coin Bag wink. The young zebra watched as the boat sailed off to the west then quickly looked around her to ensure there were no prying eyes before undoing the knotted sack and examining its contents: a wooden and bronze tube with two pieces of glass fixed in either side; a brightly coloured cylinder with a rounded arrow head and a small length of string emerging from its rear end; some small collections of neatly collected paper and finally a hastily scrawled note.

 

                “I think I can see why you don’t like it there, lassy! Just sit tight and don’t worry your stripes though! Come next run, I’ll be sure to offer you a jolly ‘tour’ of this old rig! Who knows? We might ‘accidently’ leave the sails out and get caught in the wind! I’ve left my predicted schedule on the back of this note and included manuals on how to use those two toys. Keep an eye out for me with the telescope then signal with the firework when it’s safe and I’ll bring her in quick as can be to get you!

 

Best Regards

Coin Bag, Merchant Extraordinaire”

 

A single tear dropped onto the note, smudging the still wet ink. Kromi quickly wiped her eyes to stop herself damaging the note any further but could not help smiling at it for a few moments more. She wasn’t going to forget her promise to herself. Just as those amazing lights had inspired her to do so, she would escape this place and travel to better lands. A little bit longer, and everything would become better.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

BANG! BANG!

 

                “There we go, careful now! Hoist it up nice and slow!”

 

                “Hey, get some more cement mixing!”

 

                “Are those timbers from Gallopotris here yet?”

 

                “Anypony seen my helmet?”

 

Dawn smiled. It was busy as usual in the Manesterdam outskirts. Her uncle would no doubt be grumbling, but she had gotten used to it for the most part. And the earth pony had to admit, it could be quite the sight seeing the feats accomplished by the growing cities’ endless army of construction ponies. She did not, however, have time to marvel at the engineering accomplishments. Not only were there groceries to buy, but she had to pick up their latest orders from the library. As she turned on to another street, this one free from any construction work, Dawn shook her blond mane to try and remove any dust that had gathered in it. The staff at the public library would throw a fit if she began trailing any form of dirt into their immaculate marble halls. They could well react in a similar manner if she brought bags of provisions in with her, so she decided to go to the library first.

 

Victory Dawn liked Manesterdam. In the outskirts, there were the breathtaking towers slowly climbing higher and higher towards the clouds, surrounded by groups of fluttering pegasi and the glowing spots of unicorn’s magic. And then there was the inner city, finished in its construction for the most part and absolutely striking. Almost every building was unique in its architecture but they all shared a common trait: height. Ten floors was a bare minimum, a minimum the vast majority of the towers choose to exceed. Of course the city wasn’t just buildings; a massive green space, which Dawn loved to stroll through, had been left close to the centre as both a place of recreation, and also to serve as a reminder of every pony’s duty to take care of their environment.

 

                “No! You can’t borrow it! It is strictly for display only!” Dawn was so caught up in enjoying the sights and wonders of the city that she almost didn’t notice the ruckus taking place just within the large white building that was Manesterdam’s Public Library.

 

                “Please! I’m an excellent guardian! There’s no need for you to worry about it! Just two days! Two days and I’ll bring it right back!”

 

                “NO!” As Dawn approached the scene, she could see an unusually tall unicorn wearing a simple white dress, wide brimmed hat and sunglasses trying desperately to grab a worn tome from the hooves of one of the library’s curators. Despite her face being well covered by the glasses and hat, the curator’s eyes flashed with recognition. “Wait a second, I remember you! You were the one who forced us to sell you the collection on the studies of ‘Extra Sensory Perception through Involuntary Spasms’! Do you realise how rare they were!? Do you realise how rare this book is!?”

 

                “Oh, erm, well, yes, but…” The tall white mare began prodding her hooves together in embarrassment. “…But I haven’t read anything on the moon in maybe four hundred yea-Uhh, I-I mean ever! Yes! I haven’t read any good research on the moon ever! And that’s ‘The Viability of Life on Lunar: A Study of Mixing Magic & the Moon!’ It is the book on the whole subject!”

 

                “No. Now please, leave before I have to call security.” The mare gazed longingly at the book once more before sighing and pacing out of the library, head down. The blue earth pony already had her suspicions as to the true identity of this character.

 

                “…Ms. Aumean?” Quicker than Dawn thought possible, the disguised alicorn was by her side with a silencing hoof in the blond pony’s mouth.

 

                “Shhh! Sorry, Dawn, but I’m not really supposed to be here…” Equidae Aumean, the powerful sorceress, poked her eyes out from behind her large sunglasses and darted her head around, scanning to see if anypony had heard her name being spoken.

 

                “Whh nht?” It was unsurprisingly difficult for Dawn to speak with a hoof in her mouth.

 

                “Oh, sorry.” The alicorn quickly pulled her hoof from a frowning Dawn’s jaws and shook it a bit to try and get rid of a string of saliva.

 

                “I said, why not? Is this why you’re being all…secretive?” Aumean glanced to the library with a flash of guilt.

 

                “…Yes and no. Why don’t we talk over a nice cup of tea?” Dawn nodded slowly, still frowning.

 

                “That sounds nice…but first I have to pick up a book order,” she nodded towards the white building “from there. I suppose you’ll just wait outside…?”  Aumean simply nodded sheepishly in response.

 

Half and hour later and the two ponies found themselves sitting at an outside table by a casual, friendly establishment situated right next to the park. Aumean had directed them here rather than Dawn and her uncle’s home, much to the confusion of the blond earth pony. As the alicorn magically sipped her tea, Dawn examined her disguise in greater detail. Aumean had seemingly gone to great lengths to conceal her identity and status. Her hat and glasses covered her mane and face while the white dress ensured her wings and tail were also hidden. The whole situation was quite bizarre, and Dawn was intent on finding out exactly what was going on.

 

                “So…” Dawn waited to continue while Aumean placed her cup down lightly and let out a long, relaxed sigh.

 

                “Yes, all this,” she gestured to her hat and glasses with a hoof. “It’s all quite simple really. Partly, it’s just to hide my…standing. You know how I hate people staring or wondering how I have both a horn and wings. It can be bad enough in Ponyville. I don’t think I could cope with it in a big city like this with so many ponies.” She took another sip of her tea and adjusted her hat a little.

 

                “But why the hat? And glasses? The dress I can understand, but why hide your identity as well?” As Dawn spoke, Aumean looked back up the street towards the library and laughed nervously.

 

                “I don’t suppose you remember that little incident years ago, when I-”

 

                “When you almost got arrested for nearly stealing that book? Yes, I do.” Dawn smiled at the memory. She remembered herself as a filly rolling around on the floor in tears of laughter at the huge fuss Aumean had stirred. Her uncle’s attempts to defuse the situation while simultaneously attempting to cover up the fact that he knew the alicorn had been equally hilarious.

 

                “Heh heh, yes…that incident.” Aumean blushed and laughed nervously again.

 

                “You also said you weren’t supposed to be here…?” The ivory mare nodded in response.

 

                “You see, my children recently embarked on a journey. A journey that I planned for them and one that will eventually bring them here,” she looked to the eastern sky with a frown “Now, I’m supposed to stay at home and keep everything in check there, buuuut…” Dawn similarly frowned as Aumean childishly drew out the word.

 

                “But?”

 

                “But then I heard that somepony had donated a surviving copy of that book to the library! Its been lost for hundreds of years; I just had to try and read it again!” The alicorn’s eyes glistened over with excitement as she talked about the book she had tried to obtain. “If I remember correctly, it was a truly fascinating read, very advanced theory and magic.”

 

                “…so you don’t want them to know you’re here?”

 

Aumean nodded with an awkward grin. “Celestia certainly wouldn’t approve of me leaving the house empty, even if it is quite a trot into Everfree. Were I at home, I could check their progress. Once I set out to come here however, I can only guess. They may well end up arriving here earlier than I anticipated,” the alicorn took another quick slurp of her tea and pointed hoof in the direction of the library. “And knowing my little ponies, they would probably want to at least visit the library once. And since I was going to be there as well…”

 

Dawn nodded and took a long sip of her tea, which was now a little cold. The alicorn’s reasoning made sense, she supposed, though one thing was left unexplained. “So this visit has nothing to do with the lights?”

 

Aumean placed her cup down and raised a questioning eyebrow. “Lights?”

 

“You didn’t get Uncle’s letter? It certainly would have been fast if you had, but I did manage to find a courier soon after he wrote it, so it’s possible.” Aumean’s shaking head answered Dawn’s question. She didn’t think that the googly-eyed mail mare would be able to deliver the letter that quickly. “Two nights ago, we saw a series of bright objects fly from over the Western Range. Uncle thought that they were magical in nature, and that you might know something about them.” As soon as the earth pony mentioned ‘bright objects’ and the Western Range, the ivory mare’s eyes flashed from uncertainty to realisation.

 

“Oh, yes! I’m afraid that was my doing. I should apologize, I would have warned him in advance, but there are reasons why I can’t.” Once again, Aumean looked around as if she feared her fellow sorcerer might be sitting beside them. “Please, Dawn, don’t tell him I was here.” The alicorn’s expression of worry was not one that hinted at danger, but also that she was concerned that something important to her might go wrong, like a surprise party at risk of being found out.

 

“Why? Is it the reason you wanted to come here,” the blue pony gestured to the café,“Instead of home?”

 

“Yes. I may just be being silly, but I don’t want to take unnecessary risks. I would love to be able to explain to both you and Star Swirl, but right now, I probably shouldn’t. Don’t worry, everything will become clear in time.” Dawn was intensely curious. As her uncle had thought, Aumean was the one responsible for the magic comet-like objects they had seen. Dawn also knew that the red-maned alicorn was a very powerful user of magic, perhaps more powerful than even her uncle. With Aumean confirmed as the perpetrator behind the streaking lights, then Star Swirl’s other suspicion of the objects being connected with exceedingly potent magic was also now more likely to be true.

 

“I see…”

 

“I hate to ask you to hide things from your uncle, but this is important to me.” The blond-maned earth pony looked hard into the alicorn’s pleading eyes. Predictably, she could find no trace of malicious intent. “I promise you that I will explain everything soon, a few days at the very most.” To Aumean’s surprise, Dawn started laughing.

 

“Of course I won’t tell him! Whatever it is, you and your secret are safe with me! It’s not as if you’re asking me to shave his beard while he sleeps!” Aumean could not help but break into a chuckle with her young friend.

 

“Thank you, Dawn. Thank you.” The two silently dinged their near-empty cups together and smiled deeply as they drank.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

“…Discord?”

 

“Ah, Celestia, good morning! How did you sleep?”  The white alicorn simply mumbled something inaudible in response to the draconequus’ questions, concentrating more on rubbing the sleep from her eyes with her hooves and stretching her wings as far as they would go.

 

“I’m a little achy…” she finally said in response, flexing her legs and neck to try and coax them into loosening from their stiff state.

 

“Yes, not the best place to sleep, but better than becoming dragon chow.” Celestia’s eyes shot open at the mention of the previous adrenaline-filled night, her memories finally filtering through into her still drowsy mind.

 

“By the Elements…I truly cannot decide if yesterday is something I want to forget forever or cherish. It was just…” she trailed off and brought a hoof to her chin in thought

 

“Exciting?” Discord offered, receiving a gentle smile for his efforts.

 

“Not quite the word I was searching for.”

 

“Caaaaake…” Both were interrupted by Luna’s sleep talk. Their conversation had caused both their sibling and Surprise to begin stirring, though Firefly lay snoring quietly just as peacefully.

 

“Luna…oh, Luna…” The elder sister calmly whispered and nudged the midnight foal, causing her to frown and grumble and wave her hooves around in front of her, as if trying to grasp something.

 

“Caaaaaake…Oh!” The young alicorn’s lashes fluttered open to the sight of her brother and sister giggling at what could have only been her dream-speak. It wasn’t the first time Luna had awoken to such chortling; ever since she was a tiny filly she had had a habit of talking in her slumber. “H-heeey!”

 

“Ugh…morning everpony.” Surprise was next to awaken, the chatter and Luna’s protests having dragged her from her rest, though a grin managed to stretch itself across her muzzle “…all still alive, huh?”

 

“We most certainly are, and with one of the Elements to show for it!” Discord smirked as he proudly held the orange gemstone high in the air. Everypony present -even the sleeping Firefly- smiled happily at being reminded that they had overcome the first of no doubt many trials. The gem glowed in the dimly lit cave, supporting the few beams of sunlight in wrapping each of them in a golden aura.

 

“Woooooo!” The moment was interrupted by Ponyville’s speedster cheering in her sleep.

 

“Do you think we should wake her?” inquired the snowy pegasus. She was debating with herself whether to try, likely in vain, to poke her friend awake or leave her sprawled out on the hard floor, apparently oblivious to the rough, uncomfortable surface.

 

“She can have a few minutes more. Meanwhile,” with a snap of his talons, Discord levitated each of the packs he had retrieved to their respective owners. “You should check these and make sure everything is still there. They’ve been lying out in the forest unattended for the whole night after all.”

 

“You went and got them? Wow, thanks brother!” Luna and Surprise’s eyes lit up as their belongings were returned to them, and they hugged the packs like some sort of stuffed animals before unclipping their personalised clasps and rummaging through them.

 

“Yeah, thanks Dissy! Now we can continue straight on!”

 

Even Celestia managed a smile at seeing her saddlebags safe. “That’s very thoughtful of you, Discord. Thank you.”

 

                “Think nothing of it. Now, let’s wake our dragon-beating friend, have some breakfast, and be on our way.” Another snap of his talons and a small, brass horn appeared by Firefly’s head “Shall I?” His grin was its usual mischievous self and he had already readied his talons for another click.

 

                “She probably won’t wake up otherwise, trust me.” Surprise was quick to inform, fully aware of how deep a sleeper the blue-maned earth pony was. Luna gave her consent with a giggle and clamped her hooves over her ears in preparation. Celestia rolled her eyes, but her attempts to hide a grin did not go unnoticed by the draconequus.

 

                “Well, with all in favour then.” His talons snapped together.

 

TOOOT!

 

“AGHH!”

 

“Good morning, Firefly!” The pink pony had leapt to her hooves in fright and was looking around with pinprick pupils.

 

“What…who…?” Discord had skilfully made the horn disappear just as the earth pony was still mid-air, destroying all evidence of the devious prank.

 

                “No time for that, Fire! Quick, eat up!” Both Surprise and Luna were desperately struggling with their lungs, trying to contain a fit of giggles. Discord and Celestia managed to each release a tactful, discrete chuckle as they both rummaged through their packs for something to eat. The others quickly joined them, despite Firefly still being in a state of slight shock and confusion as to exactly what had happened. She had thought the dragon had found them or some equally perilous situation had befallen the group.

 

Without abundant plants growing within the cave, the travellers were forced to take something from what they had brought. Soon, they had each finished their varied breakfast, buckled their saddlebags in place and were ready to continue their adventure.

 

                “Let’s go everypony!” For all the danger they had faced last night, Luna’s call was still bursting with enthusiasm and motivated her companions enough to leave the safety of the cave without a moment’s hesitation.

 

The dawn had long since broken, and the group was greeted by the mid-morning sun and a spectacular view of Canterlot Valley. They each only took a moment to savour it however, anxious to carry on and make as much distance as they could from the large den that sat higher on the mountain above them.

 

                “You sure I won’t get ponynapped today?” jokingly asked Firefly as she peered back up the track they had escaped from the dragon with. A trail of deep black smoke could be seen lazily floating around the mountain, signifying that the dragon had more than likely gone to sleep.

 

                “Good…let’s try to be as quick as we can, at least until we get deeper into the mountains.” Celestia signalled with her hoof as she spoke and took the lead, breaking into a mild gallop down the mountain and further away from the dragon’s lair. Her companions were quick to join her and the group fell into silence, concentrating only on the road ahead.

 

A few hours passed and the adventurers stopped for a break by a small spring. They had made good time, and though the dragon’s mountain still dominated the eastern view, the deep crags and high mounds of earth gave them enough cover that the chances of being found by the fiery beast were minimal, were it to start hunting. As Discord, Luna, Surprise and Firefly cooled and splashed themselves in the fresh waters, Celestia sat in the shade of a boulder studying her map and the compass. She had only given a brief glance to the enchanted tool to confirm their general direction, but hadn’t taken the time to perform any serious pathfinding since before finding the Element of Ambition. She was curious to see how both the compass and their possible route had changed.

 

                ‘It’s more northerly now,’ she thought as she observed the compass’ ever-changing needle for a few moments. It was true, the needle now spun back and forth between the northern and western pointers, unlike before where it had pointed exclusively in a westerly direction. To double check, the alicorn cast a quick spell and created a starry arrow in the air above her head. It pointed in the same direction that Celestia had aligned the compass’ northern marker in, confirming that she was reading it right and they should generally head north east. ‘As I thought. Straight to Manesterdam. What could be awaiting us there I wonder? I doubt another dragon.’ Celestia could only ponder their future momentarily before she was pulled from the depths of her mind by a splash of cold water to the flank. She blinked in surprise and turned her head to find her companions all soaking wet, their manes dragged to the ground by the weight of the liquid. Luna in particular had a sheepish expression and Celestia was certain she had seen the last few sparks of a spell pop from Luna’s horn just as she had turned to look.

 

                “C’mon Tia, the water’s great! It’ll freshen you right up!” Celestia had to admit, Surprise’s words tempted her. She was quite sweaty from all the galloping and it would certainly be a good idea to clean the cuts and bruises she had received in the fight against the colossal lizard.

 

                “I suppose a quick dip wouldn’t hurt.”

 

An hour later and Celestia’s mane was still drenched from the watery assault she had suffered at the hooves of her companions. She had protested, but was secretly grateful. The wet locks of her pastel mane obscured her vision and were a little annoying; however, they also greatly helped in keeping the heat at bay and the odd shake of her head to sprinkle some droplets over her wings and coat was revitalising. Time passed and the sun crossed overhead and began to make its descent. For the most part the group was silent, preferring to save their breath for their legs and wings, but as the light from the falling star began to burn orange the quiet was broken.

 

                “Why’d you all come on this trip anyway?” The pink pony’s question caught the group off guard and they all slowed, frowning at Firefly.

 

                “What do you mean, Fire?” Luna was the first to respond.

 

                “I mean why did you all want to do all this? You all heard Meanie, none of us had to. And last night got me thinking, why did I come along?” By that point they had all come to a slow trot. “At first I just thought it was for the adventure, you know? But the things you said Tia, they made sense. I think, deep down, I joined you guys to prove something to myself, maybe prove something to others as well. And it just made me wonder if any of you had similar reasons.” As if on cue, they all looked up to the sky in thought.

 

It was a difficult question. None of them had thought of any real reason. Celestia even blushed at the realisation that with just a little taunting even she had leapt at the task offered to them without much consideration for what it would truly entail. Was there a reason? Or had they all simply grabbed the opportunity as soon as it was presented to them?

 

                ‘For mother perhaps…?’ The thought made sense to the white alicorn, but didn’t feel quite right. For all the years living and learning together with her mother, Celestia had never given much consideration as to what she would do when Aumean was gone. The very thought that Aumean could be ‘gone’ was also entirely new to her. ‘Come to think of it…I don’t even know how old mother is!’ Celestia’s mind was undergoing a number of revelations. The very idea that she did not know her mother’s age, had never even inquired into the subject, was shocking. She knew that alicorns were extremely long lived, but even without this fact she remembered the wise mare once telling her that guessing the age of an alicorn was a virtually impossible task. Once they reached the upper level of their immense life span; an alicorn would still retain their youthful appearance, giving no hints as to their exact age. The more Celestia pondered on it, the more she realised how little she knew of her mother’s past and how little she knew of the alicorn race as a whole before their gradual change into modern ponies over the many generations.

 

                “Gee Fire, I really don’t know! I guess I just got caught up in all the excitement.” Celestia’s yellow maned friend brought her back to the present.

 

                “Umm…sorry, I can’t think of anything either.” Luna was next to drop her head down with an awkward smile.

 

                “D’aww, don’t worry you two! We’ve only just started this merry little quest now, haven’t we? There’s plenty of time ahead to think and discover!”

 

                “That another way of saying you can’t think of anything, Dissy?” The five began to pick up their pace again as Firefly shot the draconequus a grin, causing him to grin back in return.

 

                “Guilty as charged!”

 

                “What about you, sis? Do you have any special reason for coming?”

 

                “Oh, err, no, I suppose not! Sorry, Firefly, we’re making you sound like the odd one out.” Other than Discord, they all chuckled and giggled sheepishly with their speedy companion.

 

                “Nah, don’t worry about it! I should say sorry as well, for that little tantrum I had…” It was then Firefly’s turn to rub the back of her head with her hoof and blush.

 

Before the ponies could hide their embarrassment by picking up the pace, a familiar roar echoed through the rolling valleys. Humour forgotten, they all instinctively dived behind a large mound of earth.

 

                “Oh no, not this guy again…” They each poked their heads above the mound and scanned the skies above them, muscles tensed and ready to flee at a moment’s notice.

 

Far to the south, in between the peaks of the stony spires, they saw it and breathed a sigh of relief. The dragon was heading in the direction of his lair, the opposite way from the travellers route. Fortunately, this meant that the fiery beast should miss them by a good few kilometres.

 

                “Let’s not dawdle too much now. It’s evening already and if yesterday was anything to go by, he likes to come out at night as well.” Discord’s companions nodded in agreement and they set off in a gallop once more. “We should try and either get out of the mountains by nightfall, or find somewhere to hole up for the night quickly.”

 

Neither of them needed any further encouragement, and the group lapsed into silence once more. Determined to create as much distance between them and the dragon’s home as possible, the adventurers cut down on their breaks as well, pausing only for a few minutes at a time for a quick bite and swig of water before marching onward.

 

Their swift pace was truly interrupted only once, when the group had to pause and fly over a section of road that had collapsed, bar Firefly who opted to slide around what little remained of the still crumbling path. They then briefly investigate the shattered remains of a stagecoach that lay on the gorge bottom below them.

 

                “I hope nopony is hurt…” Luna, Surprise and Firefly waited on the upper path as Discord and Celestia went to investigate the remains.

 

                “I bet they’re fine, I don’t see anypony, and they were probably pulling it from the front, so if they had fallen, we would be able to see them,” the snowy pegasus tried to reassure the midnight foal, though she still held her breath as the alicorn and draconequus began poking their heads under the shattered boards of wood. The two seemed to pick up a few objects from the wagon and then flew back up, shaking their heads while holding the items with their magic.

 

                “There’s no trace of anypony there. Just a few cheap magic items and supplies. Looks like somepony’s already had a look through it though, so I don’t think the owner was hurt. They probably just took what they could after it fell.” As Celestia explained, she and Discord dropped the items in question on the floor so the others could look at them. A few bottled rainbows, some firecrackers, and a jar of green illusion dust were among the objects strewn on the earth, all of them quite cheap from any alchemy store.

 

                “Hey, why don’t we take these things with us? That way we can return them if we find the owner!” proposed Surprise, opening her saddlebags to see if she had room for any of the vials or bottles.

 

                “But what if they come back looking for them?”

 

                “In the Western Range, Celestia? I doubt anypony would risk it for a few bits worth of common goods,” countered the draconequus, picking up a swirling bottle of rainbow.

 

                “I suppose you’re right. But does anypony have room? We shouldn’t give up our own belongings for them.”

 

                “Hey Surprise!” The pegasus looked over to Firefly to see a huge smirk. Her voice had a clear mocking ring to it. “I seem to remember you saying I shouldn’t have brought so little…you sure I still shouldn’t have?” Surprise was incredibly tempted to hit the speedster, but decided against it and endured her giggling as the earth pony loaded the supplies into her saddlebags which until now had lain deflated by her sides. Despite the light quickly fading, Firefly choose to put her sunglasses on rather than risk breaking or crushing them accidently with the glass bottles now dinging repeatedly in her packs.

 

                “Let’s keep moving. This path is quite straight, so if we hurry we might be able to reach the Range’s borders by nightfall.” With that the group set off at full speed once more. True to Celestia’s word, the terrain gradually became less rugged as they galloped on. The slopes and cliffs became less inclined and the mountains themselves grew smaller and smaller.

 

Another few hours passed and just as the sun began to dip below the horizon, the five travellers made their way around one final mound and saw their goal. Where once their vision was blocked by snowy peaks, deep gorges and sharp cliffs, the sight before them stretched on endlessly. Even within Canterlot Valley they could not see so far. Without thinking, the group came to a standstill and simply gazed. Below them fields of grass and wheat swayed gently in the wind, and a large winding river stretched out to the north west where the flickering lights of New Manetserdam could be seen sparking into life. They had passed a difficult hurdle in their journey and from then on, at least until they reached the city, they could relax a little and not push themselves too hard.

 

                “Come on everypony. We just need to follow this path down and then we can stop for the night.”

 

                “In the open!? Under the stars!?”

 

Celestia smiled warmly to her little sister “I don’t see why not Luna.”

 

                “Yay!” The dark-coated alicorn shared a cheer with Surprise and Firefly while Discord beamed a similar expression to his elder sister.

 

Rather than gallop, the group navigated the winding path down into the plains at a more comfortable speed and soon were able to appreciate the feel of cool grass under their hooves again. By the time they had reached the mountains proper, the sun was all but gone with the moon taking its place. It was only due to the darkness of night that they spotted a campfire burning alone a short way ahead of them.

 

                “Look, a fire! Maybe it’s that cart’s owner!” Celestia certainly hoped it would be. Additional company would no doubt be pleasant and they would hopefully be allowed to share his or her fire, which would save them the effort of making one. It was not that making a fire was an especially difficult necessity, but Celestia and her companions had once again greeted the moon with exhausted breaths. They had been galloping nearly nonstop all day through rough terrain, and it had certainly taken its toll on their muscles.

 

As they approached the fire by the side of the dirt road, they could hear the voices and make out the shapes of two ponies.

 

                “…I assure you, Craggy, you don’t need to come all the way to Neighly with m-”

 

                “Aw, now don’t be like tha’, pardner! Even wit all your fancy unicorn magic, ‘ll be a mighty tough ride carrying all these ‘ere bags by yaself!”

 

                “But! But! Don’t you…need to stay in the mountains? And do…whatever it is a ranger such as yourself do-”

 

                “Naw, I’ma due a break bout now anyways, so I can come all the way to the city wit ya pardner!”

 

The travelling group stared at the azure unicorn. He seemed to be both on the verge of tears and wanting to stab the moss green earth pony next to him with his horn. It took several moments and despair-filled staring before the two noticed the diverse team standing looking at them.

 

                “Please,” the unicorn began, his eyes bloodshot and his tone full of desperation. “Help me.”

[a]

Of Harmony & Chaos

Written by: Brightwel

(very helpfully) edited by: DustyGrrl

Cover art by: Iopichio

 

Chapter 7: Loss and Gain

 

 

“So who is he?”

 

“I’m not quite certain. But he will be important, I think.”

 

“And the ‘ranger’?”

 

The mare chuckled “You don’t like him either, Penwell?”

 

“He certainly seems…friendly, but just as annoying. I can’t help but pity this Viator character.”

 

“Don’t worry, I believe our little ponies will be able to relieve him of his suffering soon.”

 

“You think he will travel with them?”

 

“It’s a distinct possibility.”

 

“A possibility? Or have you arranged for this in some way?”

 

Another chuckle echoed within the stone hall. “Arranged? Oh, old friend, I’m hurt! You make me sound like some sort of puppet master. I haven’t ‘arranged’ anything. Just given the occasional…nudge, is all.”

 

The stallion’s chortle joined the mare’s. “Really, Aumean, you’re terrible at times. I still can’t believe you felt it was absolutely necessary to go all the way to Manesterdam like that, even if it risked, in your own words ‘jeopardising their entire quest’.”

 

                “When you’ve lived as long as I have old friend, keepsakes of the past become more valuable than gold. They were happy times when I first read that book.”

 

                “I’m sure. How did you get back so quickly by the way? You couldn’t have flown, even in good winds you wouldn’t have been so fast.”

 

                “Did I tell you about that spell Star Swirl has been developing over the past few years?”

 

                “…you teleported?”

 

                “I most certainly did. It’s a shame though, I haven’t seen him in quite some time and I very much wanted to discuss the finished spell with him. I’m sure he’s very proud of it, but if I did go to see him…”

 

                “It would jeopardise their entire quest. I know you’ve worked with him on it a few times, but if you didn’t go and see him then how did he teach it to you?”

 

                “He didn’t, his niece, Victory Dawn snuck a copy of the perfected notes out for me and gave me all the pointers. Admittedly it took a bit of practise and more than one jump to get all the way back here, but it’s still much faster than flying.”

 

                “Well, that’ll be very useful for you I’m sure. How is the old Bearded’s niece doing anyway?”

 

                “Oh, she’s good…”

 

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

“Please, help me.” Despite the desperation in the unicorn’s voice being quite clear, the moss green earth pony sat and smiled, totally oblivious to the distress he was causing the azure stallion.

 

“Well, howdy there strangers! C’mon over, there’s plenty space.” The five travellers stood and looked on to the two ponies, unsure of whether to take up the offer. One was kindly gesturing for them to go and sit while the other was flailing with contained urgency, as if to try and discreetly warn them to do no such thing. “Oh, yea, Ah shud ask now rather than spring it on ya later. Like ma pal says, some ‘elp carrying all these ‘ere fancy bottles an’ such to the big ol’ city would be mighty appreciated.”

 

“Bottles? Were you the ones whose cart got smashed? We might have some of your stuff!” asked Firefly as she wiggled causing the bottles in her packs to ding together.

 

The unicorn suddenly ceased his flailing and jumped over to Firefly, his eyes locked onto her packs. “You do!? Oh, excellent! This will certainly save me a good few coins,” he excitedly stated.

 

Prompted by the eager’s pony’s twitching hooves, Firefly pulled off her saddlebags with her teeth and let their contents roll out onto the grass. The azure stallion’s worries were seemingly forgotten and he whopped happily at the sight of the bottles. “By Clover’s horn, you do have them! Thank you!” he cried and grasped each of the bottles with his magic. With impressive speed, he was settled next to the fire again and gesturing just as his companion had been. “Fear not, this will not go unpaid! Come my next performance, I, the Grand & Mightful Viator, will be sure to credit you five in helping to make it possible! Please, come, tell me your names!”

 

Encouraged by the sudden change in mood, the three youngest ponies took places by the toasty blaze. “I’m Firefly!”

 

“Surprise here!”

 

“And my name is Luna!”

 

Discord quickly went to join them, Celestia however remained somewhat wary of the two odd ponies. She joined them around the fire last, giving the two stallions another once-over. With the excitement having died down and the glow of the crackling flames illuminating their true forms, Celestia, Luna and Discord each managed to turn Viator’s smile into a slack-jawed gape. Craggy simply continued to beam happily, either somehow unaware or simply uncaring for his guest’s interesting appearance.

 

                “Stop, stop, stop…a horn and wings!? They mustn’t be permanent, oh, I cannot let anything else be spoken of until I know what magic-”

 

                “Whoo Wee! Would ya look at that! Don meen no offense o’ nuttin, but you’s an awfully funny lookin fella, pardner! An’ Ah specially don’ wanna be insulting a lady, but you two missys sure a rarity round these ‘ere parts, whut with the wings an’ a horn!” The green earth pony addressed the draconequus and alicorns in turn and tipped his hat to each. As usual, he also received a threatening glare from Viator which flew straight over him.

 

                “I’m sorry, we’ve been travelling all day and we’re tired but we’ll be happy to talk tomorrow, if that is ok with-”

 

                “Don’ git ya tail in a twist missy! Proper introductions an’ such can wait until we’ve all gotten sum rest!” Much like Viator’s own expressions of disapproval, Celestia’s raised eyebrow sailed directly past Craggy’s head and without a moment’s hesitation he lay down on the ground, placed his hat other his eyes and was soon snoring loudly.

 

                “I apologise on behalf on my…friend. I truly believe that those mountains have gotten to him in someway,” remarked Viator while he shook his head at the sleeping earth pony.

 

                “I think he would begin to grind even my hoof, eventually. Discord, by the way,” the draconequus said. He shook the unicorn’s hoof with his paw before gesturing to his elder sister. “And this is Celestia.”

 

                “A pleasure, Mr. Viator, was it?” Celestia asked, also shaking the show stallion’s hoof.

 

                “The Grand & Mightful Viator, yes,” he proclaimed his full-title proudly.

 

                “’Grand & Mightful’? What does that even mean?” inquired Firefly, looking to the stallion with clear scepticism.

 

                “It means that I am the most great and powerful uni-” Viator was stopped once more, not by Craggy, but by a loud yawn accompanied seconds later by gentle breathing. A flash of annoyance whipped across the pony’s face and he turned to fiercely gaze at whoever was not apparently listening. “…how dare-Oh…” The sight of both Luna and Surprise curled up snuggling together in slumber cut the azure stallion short for the countless time. For all the stallion’s pride, even he could not resist freeing a tender smile to play across his lips. “…perhaps we should just leave the full introductions until tomorrow,” spoke Viator. He smiled at the pair half-buried in each other’s manes and tails a moment more before shaking his head and lying down himself to try and obscure his blushing. After all, how could the Grand & Mightful Viator ever live down being caught almost audibly “d’awwing” at such a sight, as sweet and adorable as it was?

 

                “Hehe, night everypony!” called Firefly as she adjusted her sunglasses and sprawled out on her back. Discord and Celestia soon nodded to each other and followed suite, using their packs as make-shift pillows while inching closer to the warmth of the fire and their friends. Within just a few minutes, the night was filled only with the sounds of crickets and the slow, rhythmic breathing of six ponies and a draconequus.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                There was not a single cloud in the sky. Only the sun stood up, unopposed as master of the heavens. The animals did not fight, bicker or even play with one another, they merely went about finding and doing what they needed without so much as a squeak. Straight lines had become an all too prevalent part of nature; the trees and flowers grew at strict right-angles and each leaf and branch had its symmetrical double, they even grew in patches clearly organised by species. Everywhere he looked, the draconequus saw only pervasive abominations.

 

                “By the Elements…mother! Mother, please, help! What’s happening!?” cried Discord as he launched into a swift flight, unable to stop his eyes from darting in all directions and soaking up the stringent scene. ‘I have to get out of here…get to town…somepony must know what’s happening…’ Discord’s mind raced as he focused on that goal. The perfect sanity that was infecting his beloved Everfree Forest was neither repulsive nor particularly frustrating, it was just so…wrong. How had such a place of creative freedom become like this?

 

                When he saw the roofs of Ponyville’s houses Discord let out a relieved sigh. Even if he couldn’t find his mother, the citizens would surely have some idea of what was going on. As the draconequus continued his flight towards the small village, his hopefully smile began to fall and his whooshing wings slowed to a weak flap. He had seen the thatched roofs and spires, not because he was getting closer to the earth pony-built settlement, but because the buildings themselves had grown considerably in height and had become carefully arranged in firm patterns.

 

                “Not here as well…mother…mother!” pleaded Discord as he resumed his race to the now-bewitched village, intent on finding somepony to explain the rigid order. Passing over the bridge and into Ponyville proper, the young draconequus couldn’t help but once again surrender his eyes to the visions of utter harmony around him. Ponies of all ages and size were staring in total focus at their tasks, throwing everything they had at others, standing steely-eyed by the side of another as if trying to guard them, spouting their deepest secrets as loudly as they could or massaging and pampering random passer-bys.

 

                ‘What is wrong with everypony!?’ he wondered. ‘There must be…Penwell! He’ll know what to do!’ realised Discord as he thought of the town’s librarian, an intelligent and proud stallion who was a good family friend. Surely he wouldn’t have been drawn into all this rigidness?

As Discord set off full-speed to the village’s centre and where he hoped the local library still stood, he was so distracted and confused by such a horrid turn of events that he ploughed straight into another speeding figure, sending both crashing onto their flanks. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was-” Discord began to say before he was stopped by Firefly.

 

“Oh, hey, do you want some stuff? I should have some stuff, just wait, I’ll get it for you!” the pink earth pony offered, though her generous gifts were received by nopony, as Discord simply stared as his normally tough and independent friend with horror, unable to even continue listening or pickup the many presents she was eagerly trying to show into his arms.

 

‘Firefly too…? By the Elements, somepony help!’

 

“…but you should really be thanking our amazing queen!” applauded Firefly as she pointed a hoof to the village pavilion, where a tall, golden, throne-like seat had been placed at the top of the stairs, replacing the normal pedestal used to make announcements. Despite the harsh sun being the only source of light, the chair was engulfed in a menacing glow, obscuring the majestic figure which sat sternly upon it.

 

“She’s responsible? Who is…? Why…? How can any of this be fun!?” despaired Discord as he clutched his thoroughly aching head with his paw and talons. The figure upon the throne stirred at his agitated cries, a judgmental, disapproving “hmm” echoed from the undoubtedly tyrannical being’s throat.

 

“Of course it is not fun, you foolish monster…” spoke the figure as she sparked her horn into life, a hideously neat rainbow slowly swirling its way through the air in symmetrical patterns towards Discord as he lay frozen on the ground with terror. “…how can order exist with fun?” she hissed as the rainbow forcefully came down on the draconequus’ head, not burning his skin but solidifying his entire body and mind with such intense feelings of boredom he could do nothing but weep.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

“Hey, Dis! Dis!” the pink blur seemed to be calling him. “Did getting up first yesterday make you this tired? Sheesh.”

 

“Shut up, Fire! Can’t you see he was having a bad dream? Look, he’ been crying!” another voice rang out.

 

“Don’t worry brother, I’ll help!” Suddenly Discord felt the damp grass beneath him disappear and a distinct sensation of hovering in the air. The grass then returned, but only in his hoof and claw. He was clearly standing.

 

Discord opened his eyes fully and allowed them to focus. Luna, Surprise and Firefly were standing around him smiling while Celestia talked over by their packs with the two ponies they had met the night before.

 

“You awake now Dissy?” Surprise spoke, a small hint of worry in her voice.

 

The sight of his three companions, particular Firefly, stirred the draconequus’ memories of the dream he had been forced to experience and he was quick to wipe his eyes before another round of droplets made a break for his cheeks. “Yes, yes! I am! Oh, and thank you Luna, for the assistance. Quite a nice way to wake up.”

 

“You’re welcome!” she giggled in response.

 

The chimera looked about his surroundings once more. “So do we have a plan, or is that still in the making?” he asked.

 

“Tia’s working it out. I think I overheard her saying something about just going along with those two,” replied Firefly while scratching her head with hoof. “So long as they can keep up, I don’t mind at least.”

 

On closer inspection it became quite apparent to the draconequus that both Celestia’s and the unicorn’s, Viator, faces were cringed in annoyance. Combined with what he had already seen and heard of the green earth pony, Discord quickly deduced that Craggy may have been well-meaning but was completely insufferable. ‘In some ways,’ he thought ‘that is the worst combination.’ If Craggy were rude, unkind or mean, then Viator -and now the other five- would have had every reason to leave him. However, because he did genuinely seem to be a good pony at heart and only unwittingly drove those around him to tear at their manes, it created an awkward situation that would be very difficult to escape from without resorting to hurting the earth pony’s feelings. It was mostly speculation on the draconequus’ part, but regardless, there was little he, or his fellows, could do about it except push on and see what the road held for them.

 

“Ohh~, Dissy! Still there?” Discord snapped from his ponderings to the sight of a white hoof full of grass. “You might want to get some breakfast quick, Dissy,” Surprise nodded her head over to Celestia who was attempting to restrain her eye from twitching. “I think Tia’s going to want to get going pretty quickly.”

 

“Of course, of course…” Without further ado, Discord took the grass and joined Luna, Surprise and Firefly in eating. The draconequus noticed that Firefly had decided to wear both her sunglasses and cap, with good reason; there were barely any clouds and those that did float lazily around the sky were small and provided nothing in the way of shade. Without the trees of the Everfree or the hills of the Range there was no cover from the shining rays of the sun. Though the mid-morning heat was gradually rising, Discord shivered. The sky was uncomfortably familiar.

 

“What do you think of this grass, brother? It’s not as juicy as in Everfree,” Luna pouted as she frowned and pawed at the faintly brown grass below her, trying to find some greener leaves.

 

“Yeah, talk about disappointment. At least the stuff in the forest was okay,” complained Firefly in agreement.

 

“It’s not that bad, right Dissy?”

 

“Well, it could be better. Instead of the magic and dew of Everfree, all this grass likely gets is a lot of sunlight and hot air,” explained the draconequus while pointing to the blazing sphere of flame above them with a talon.

 

“Luna, Surprise, Firefly, Discord, are you almost done? We’re ready to go,” called Celestia to the munching ponies. Her tone was full of frustration and she was quick to move away from the green earth pony.

 

“Just a second sister!” replied Luna, taking a final bite of grass and quickly chewing it down. Discord, Surprise and Firefly quickly followed and buckled up their saddlebags. The route was clear, though Viator and Celestia still decided to hide their faces in maps and scrolls as they waited for the others.

 

“Ready to roll, T-”

 

“Ya’ll ready there, pardners?” Firefly had become his next victim.

 

“Let’s just be on our way, ye-”

 

“A’ight, let’s head on out! Yehaw!” Discord too, was struck with a bolt of irritation. Rather than immediately following Craggy’s gallop, the six decided to let him gain a head-start before following: with a slightly slower pace.

 

Soon after the group set out on their journey once more, they were each brought in to a close-knit formation by Celestia’s subtle gestures. “Me and Viator have agreed. We’ll try to lose him in Neighly. Get on different boats perhaps. Any objections?” she spoke and outlined their plan in a hushed tone, loud enough to be heard over the pounding of their hooves but soft enough so that the earth pony ahead of them would hopefully not hear them. The alicorn’s question was met only with shaking heads. Luna and Surprise had yet to feel the green stallion’s burning sting of aggravation but had seen and understood its excruciating effects, even in the short space of time they had been around Craggy.

 

                ‘It’s a good plan. Hopefully we’ll be able to find a good enough distraction,’ Discord mused to himself. He was not entirely sure if Celestia had planned to take them to Neighly in the first place, but it would not be surprising if she had. A small riverside town built to be more of a crossing than a true settlement. Discord had heard that most ponies coming from over the Western Range on their way to Manetserdam, on hoof or by air, often stopped in Neighly to resupply and rest before the final stretch to the big city down the Saddle River. In recent years however that “final stretch” had become less imposing than that title suggested due to the town’s ferry network being expanded to include up and down stream and not just bank-to-bank.

 

                It took little more than an hour of galloping before the log cabins of Neighly became visible on the horizon. “There she is folks!” yelled Craggy. Pony and draconequus alike decided to remain silent and concentrate on keeping Craggy a good number of paces ahead.

 

They were thankful however to at least have yet more new sights to gaze upon. Unlike Canterlot Valley, the Manesterdam Plain was very flat and lacked the rolling hills they were all familiar with. It was, all in all, a very simple land; aside from the occasional tree or field of wheat it was thoroughly unremarkable. Given a few years living in it, they would all no doubt begin to find it dull but, baring Craggy, it was a new and wondrous sight for each of the travellers. It did not exceed the sheer breathtaking beauty of the mountaintop views they had recently experienced, but the countless fields of gently flowing grass had a certain rustic charm which they could all appreciate.

 

“Oh, looks a like we’re ‘ere!” The earth pony’s sudden deceleration caused an impressive mess to form behind him. Each of his companions had dug their hooves into the ground or pulled back sharply with their wings a little harder then necessary so as to not just avoid a collision, but also to not end up right next to him; instead however, they had all collided with each other and become thoroughly tangled. Craggy did not notice the groans of pain and sheer aggravation.

 

“Let’s…let’s just find out when the next ferry is due,” Celestia growled through gritted teeth after spitting the dirt from her mouth.

 

“Don’t you worry yer fancy self missy, leave that to ol’ Craggy!”

 

“NO!” The white alicorn’s scream only intensified the curious looks of the town’s ponies who had come to greet an entourage of travellers and instead found a mismatched ball of limbs that was struggling to free itself from its own confines. “I…umm…think it would…think it would…” she stuttered, trying to find any possible excuse to stop what she was slowly beginning to see as irritation incarnate. If he learned the boat’s schedule, it would be far more difficult for the rest of the group to ‘accidentally’ slip away without him. ‘…Accidentally…’ Celestia repeated the word in her mind. She really didn’t want to have to do such a thing; she could see that Craggy was an incredibly well-meaning and kind pony at heart. He just seemingly happened to also be utterly ignorant of some of the essential norms of social interaction and his own habits which drove those around him to despair. In total, Celestia had only interacted with Craggy for perhaps a few minutes at the most, yet she already found herself wanting to go against her better nature and abandon him as soon as possible. “…think…it would…” she looked over to the azure stallion who was resorting to using magic to try and free himself. From what they had talked about, Celestia knew the unicorn had suffered hours with Craggy. ‘…How did he ever…?’

 

“Think it would be fairer for you to go have some rest! You’ve been…leading us all this way after all…right?” Discord interjected. It was not the greatest pretext Discord had ever thought of, but the earth pony’s unceasingly cheery grin had become strangely frightening and had demanded an answer.

 

“Would ya looka tha’! We got ourselves a real gentlecolt righ’ ‘ere! If y’all sure ‘bout it, I’ll take ya up on tha’ mighty kind offer,” Craggy said while looking to each of the ponies in turn. Each forced a smile and shook their heads to confirm they did not mind.

 

“Where will you be?” Discord asked. “So we…know where to come and get-” he quickly tried to add for good measure.

 

“Ah might go ‘ave maself some good ol’ apple cider down at the bar. Centre o’ town, can’t miss it,” sighed the earth pony, already dreaming of his drink. “Well, catch y’all later!”

 

The six travellers had ceased their struggling and frozen, waiting for the green stallion to trot out of eye and ear shot. As soon as Craggy’s short tail disappeared around a building, the group’s efforts to untangle themselves resumed at an even more frantic pace. With the help of a little magic, they were all separated quickly.

 

“We have to be quick. Firefly, Surprisena, you find the general store and see if you can get us any food for the ride. Luna, Viator, you come with me and we will find out the boat’s schedule and secure our passage. Discord…find Craggy, make sure he isn’t fit for sailing. In case of emergency, I will send out a flare which means you should each get to the pier as soon as possible. Everyone understand?” A round of nods followed. “Good. Remember, everypony meet up at the pier once everything is ready.” Each of the six raced off to complete their tasks with no complaint and militaristic discipline. They each had a vitally important mission and would have to work in perfect synchronisation in order to succeed. They weren’t just trying to catch a boat. They were trying to save their sanities in the process.

 

_____________________________________________________________________________

 

 

“General Store spotted!” called the snowy pegasus after a few moment’s of aerial reconnaissance. “Second left, then right, third building down!”

 

                “On it!” Surprise’s pink friend yelled back. With the directions firmly stuck in her mind, Firefly burst into action, sending dust flying into the air. It was midday and ponies were going about their business in full, but years of galloping through the streets of Ponyville had taught the speedster a great deal about crowd behaviour and evasive technique which ensured the only thing she was hit with was expressions of shock and disapproval, neither of which would scar anypony. It took Firefly mere seconds to reach the store and skid her way directly in front of the counter. Several impatient taps on the wooden surface were required to break the store keeper from his trance and get him to close his gaping jaw.

 

                “…C-can I help you…?” he asked cautiously, unsure of what to do about the bright young pony that had suddenly raced into his store.

 

                “We need food for the boat! Stat!”

 

                “O-oh, yes, of course. I have these lunch-bags made specifically for the trip. They’ve got just the right things to give you the best experience!”

 

                “Great, great, give me six of them!”

 

                “Fire, you got something yet?” The two ponies looked to the swing doors to see a yellow maned pegasus that was poking her head into the store. Her urgent tone and beckoning hooves spurred the store owner into an equal state of haste.

 

‘Come to think about it, the ferry leaves soon doesn’t it…?’ realised the store pony. He had seen it before, ponies rushing about because they wanted to catch the boat before it left, and for good reason: the next wouldn’t depart until the next day. With skilful speed, the sales pony grabbed six of the bags and threw them onto the counter perfectly. “Sixty bits, please!”

 

Firefly was already tearing through her saddlebags to her money pouch. With one sweeping movement, she cast six ten-bit coins and slung the bag’s handles onto her hoof then used the remaining momentum to twist her body around. With a kick of her back hooves she was at the doors before the coins had even hit the counter. “Thanks!”

 

“Have a nice…” He did not bother finishing. The two ponies were already gone.

 

“What did you get, Fire?” inquired Surprise as she peered at the bags. Though not zooming through the streets quite as quickly as they had been, the two still garnered a host of curious looks from passerby’s who wondered what the rush was.

 

“A bunch of premade food, especially for the trip,” replied Firefly.

 

“Huh, grea-” The bouncy pegasus could not finish. A bright, red flare tore into the sky above Neighly and popped loudly. Both the two travellers and the townsponies were stunned into momentary silence. “Do you think that’s…?”

 

“Yep. Come on Surprise, race ya!” Despite the pink pony’s grin, urgency had definitely been restored.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “Welcome, sir. What can I-”

 

                “Ya wouldn’t min servin’ little ol’ Craggy a nice, hard cider would ya?”

 

                “…Of course, right away, sir.” The barpony obviously did not appreciate being cut off; regardless, he went to pour the first alcoholic beverage of the day drink. It was still relatively early and the bar was mostly empty save for a handful of ponies whose drinks lacked the colour, froth or bubbling of ethanol.

 

Discord, who was peering discreetly into the open bar, noticed that the few other patrons were quick to shuffle their chairs so that their backs were turned to the green earth pony. Obviously, they were either quick judges of character or Craggy had a reputation, the latter would not be all that surprising to the draconequus. Discord’s task was to make Craggy less likely to be able to sail and make it to the boat on time. He didn’t know how long he had exactly, but the sight of a fair number of ponies making their way to the river with saddlebags by their sides suggested that the boat was already here. Given the current situation and his own rough estimate of available time, Discord concluded that getting such an excessive quantity of liqueur into the earth pony that he started dancing on the counter, flirting with everypony that passed or simply ended up asleep in the corner was the best course of action.

 

“Your cider, sir. That will be three b-”

 

“Aw, thanks a bunch, pardner! How much that cost now? ‘bout three bits I reckon?” The barpony glared at Craggy but simply gave him a slow nod that to any normal creature suggested a few kindling sparks of rage were brewing.

 

Discord winced. He didn’t want to, but he knew he would have to directly intervene, not only to ensure the cider-sipping stallion would have less skill at numeracy then a newly-born foal, but also to possibly save his life from anypony less forgiving than the draconequus or his friends.

 

“…F-friend! Hell-”

 

“Well howdy there, pardner! Come ta share a drink wit’ this ol’ ranger?” Although it had been blocked before it was even finished, Discord’s voice had attracted a glance from everypony present in the bar. His body had then also succeeded in attracting mixed looks of mild fear and wariness. Much as his mind begged him to show the bar’s ponies otherwise and lecture them, the draconequus ignored the eyes watching his every move save one pair. He had far more important business to deal with.

 

“Not share, to offer! I just wanted to…thank you for all the…things you’ve helped us with,” Discord forced himself to say. “So here! Have another drink…on-”

 

“Tha’ is awful kind of ya, pardner! Don’ mind if I do!” Craggy nodded to the barpony who in turn looked to Discord with a large frown. Discord was able to confirm his words with another nod, though he could not help but roll his eyes in doing so.

 

‘Two might not be enough. Hopefully I can remember how it goes…’ the draconequus said to himself as he watched the earth pony begin to reach for his first drink. Discord made sure to press himself closer against the bar so he could hide his talons with his body.

 

Without warning a lonely glass sitting on a table in the corner spontaneously shattered, drawing the attention of everypony bar Discord. With the mystery of the breaking glass, nopony noticed Craggy’s drinks being momentarily enveloped in a golden aura.

 

“What was that…?” muttered the barpony as he walked over to the table to investigate the mysterious breaking glass. After a moment spent looking around the table for any clue as to what happened, the pony shrugged and went to fetch a broom and dustpan to sweep up the shards of glass with.

 

Craggy, meanwhile, turned back to his drink and began slurping it down.

 

Discord smiled. “I should get back to my-I mean our friends now. I’ll come and get you when the boat leave-”

 

“A’ight, pardner! Come git me when we’re all ready to move ‘em out?” asked the earth pony. Though he had interrupted Discord once more, even Craggy’s unwitting efforts could not wipe the grin from Discord’s face.

 

“Of course, of course!” Discord waved and then walked out of the bar. He still received stares, though they bounced off his pride before he could even register them. ‘Oh, I am brilliant!’ he chuckled to himself. He hadn’t been able to use it in a long time, but the particular spell he had cast on Craggy’s drink was one of his personal favourites: an alcohol multiplier. It could turn even the mildest of drinks into a potent brew of liquid friendship and the best part was that it didn’t alter the taste, so whoever drank it wouldn’t realise and probably never would due to drunkenness’ immense appetite for memories. A fine party trick, one Discord had very fond recollections of, especially the one time Celestia had, for once, agreed to partake of a little social lubricant.

 

BANG!

 

“Hmm?” What sounded like a firework lured the vision of everypony to the air above the river where the fading sparkles of a firework or flare were glistening. “An emergency already? My, my.” Discord was in a humourous mood and he chortled once more before flapping his way into the air and towards Neighly’s pier.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                She could see the whole of the town from only a few feet in the air. Though roughly the same size as the more familiar Ponyville, Neighly was markedly different in feel. Rather than the thatched cottages that Celestia was more accustomed with, Neighly consisted mostly of log cabins and planked buildings. It was far less warm or gentle than Ponyville, more rugged, but quaint enough to the white alicorn. The few patches of trees on the outskirts suggested a small wood had resided in the spot previously but was felled and then literally turned into the town. There was also the river which sat directly by the town. Unlike the small streams that surrounded and flowed through her hometown, Nieghly had one large flow of water which was perhaps the village’s very reason for continued existence. More specifically, the large wooden construct which sat patiently on the river’s edge was Nieghly’s primary source of purpose.

 

                “There it is,” called Celestia to her two companions on the ground. With one last quick glance to try and memorise the route, Celestia returned to the rough street and began to lead the way towards the pier. The aerial surveillance hadn’t really been necessary; they knew the direction of the river and Neighly was small enough that the chances of getting lost were minimal and even if they did, they could no doubt quickly find their way.

 

                “Was that really necessary?” inquired the newest member of Celestia’s entourage of fellow travellers. “If we just followed the main street, we could have found it I bet.”

 

                “I didn’t go up just to find out where the pier was,” she replied. “Seeing things from the air helps me…get a feel for the place.”

 

                “A ‘feel’? Well, regardless, it still begs the question as to how you have yourself such a fine horn but can still go and get a feel for somewhere,” Viator remarked, not even trying to hide his curious gaze which shifted its focus repeatedly from Celestia’s horn and wings.

 

                “…Would you please stop that?” the white alicorn scolded. ”I’ll tell you about it once we’re on our way to Manetserdam.”

 

                “I would, but for equalities’ sake you’ll have to ask everypony,” he nodded to a number of the town’s citizens which each stopped what they were doing to give Celestia, Luna or both a quick moments’ look of intrigue as they trotted past. “If you didn’t want ponies to look, then putting yourself on full display right above their heads might not have been the best idea.”

 

                Celestia tsk-ed and increased her pace. They didn’t have the time to be messing around with her heritage. At least Luna did not seem to mind; she responded to the attention with nothing but a friendly smile and wave.

 

                “It doesn’t matter, we’re here.” Surely enough the repeated sound of clopping on hard dirt changed to the rattle of wood as the three ponies arrived at Neighly’s single pier. The sound of their hooves on planks stirred the interest of an elderly earth pony -who Celestia assumed to be the dockmaster- from some scrolls of parchment on his podium.

 

                “…Hmm? Ah, oh, yes, yes, here for the Manesterdam Ferry? You’re just in time!” piped the old mare. She adjusted her thick glasses to give the alicorn before her a better look, though made no comment on Celestia’s somewhat unusual appearance.

 

                “Yes, six tickets, please and…just in time?” replied Celestia with a growing tone of worry in her voice.

 

                The dock mare began organising the requested tickets before speaking. “Why yes, the boat leaves in less than five minutes,” she answered, causing all three of the ponies to recoil their heads in concern. “Six, you said? For friends? They had best hurr-” She was cut off by an intense magical glow from the white pony in front of her and the bright, red ball of energy that erupted from her horn. The sphere screeched into the air above the dock and exploded with a loud pop. “Oh, my! Whatever was the meaning of that!? Almost gave me a heart attack!”

 

                “I’m very sorry, but it’s an emergency. Can we have our tickets now?” Celestia forced a smile and stared anxiously at the six, stamped pieces of paper the mare had collected on her podium.

 

                “…Yes, yes…umm…of course, that will be, uhh… ninety bits,” she stuttered, still in a state of shock and mild confusion in regard to the abrupt firework-like spell.

 

                “Sis, do you think they can make it on time?” asked Luna, her tone full of unease.

 

                Celestia’s horn was glowing anew, telekinetically sorting the money from her saddlebags. “Firefly and Surprisena should be fine, but…” Celestia trailed off as she levitated nine coins onto the podium in exchange for the tickets. ‘Discord’s good at that sort of thing, but even he might not be quick enough without resorting to violence,’ the pastel maned alicorn thought to herself. “Luna, Viator, come on. We had better get aboard.”

 

                “But sis!”

 

                “I’ve already cast the emergency spell. There isn’t anything more we can do except trust that they’ll get here on time. Hurry now…” Celestia had to resort to gently start pushing her sister along the pier and towards the boat which was now starting to buzz with activity. It was a rather modern vessel, a mixture of wood with some metal plating and two large paddled wheels on either side of it. It was reasonably short for its width and was tiered with three floors in a vaguely pyramid-like shape. The walls of each floor, with the exception of the top, was covered in benches which many ponies now sat on, normally with saddlebags at their sides.

 

                “Is all this really worth it for one pony?” Luna asked while still trying to watch the path back into town for the arrival of her friends.

 

                “Yes,” spoke Viator with nearly unnerving conviction. “He…that pony is not one we should take with us.” The unicorn’s voice was enough to subdue Luna into allowing herself to be pushed up the ramp and onto the boat.

 

                “Prepare for departure! Light ‘em up!” a pony called from above the trio. Once the order was given the paddle wheels were each enveloped in a white magical glow and creaked into life.

 

                “Oh no…”

 

                “Sis! We can’t leave th-”

 

                “Wait, wait! We’re here, we’re here!” Three heads whipped to the pier to the sight of two ponies and a draconequus racing towards the boat, not even stopping at the surprised calls of the dock mare. Encouraged by the flailing gestures of their friends, Discord, Surprise and Firefly were able to scurry up the ramp and onto the deck of the vessel just as the wheels burst into life proper, the glow surrounding them reaching its peak. The sound of splashing water grew and the ship slowly began to pull away from the pier and turn further into the river.

 

                “Brother! Surprise! Firefly! You made it!” The midnight alicorn laughed happily and drew each of them into a big group hug.

 

                “…Wai-hic!…For…for ol’ Craggy…hic!”

 

                “…oh…no.” Joy was instantly transformed to dread. Slowly, as if terrified at what he might see, Viator turned his head back to the pier. There, at risk of collapsing at any moment, was Craggy galloping towards the boat. “No…no, no, no, no…” The normally proud and unshakeable show stallion seemed on the verge on a panic attack. “He’s going to try and jump. And he might make it…”

 

                “Really, incredibly impressive. There must have been enough alcohol in those drinks to sedate a bear in ten seconds flat,” commented Discord, more amused at Craggy’s ability to walk let alone gallop despite being so inebriated.

 

                “What…what do we do!?” Even Firefly had begun to panic and looked to each of her companions in turn, eyes begging for a solution.

 

                “…Be there…be there…hic!…in jus’ a secund…” The boat drew further and further away from the pier with each passing second but had not reached its full speed nor made any significant distance. Though improbable, the jump was still certainly in the realms of possibility for anypony with a bit of buck to their hind legs; many would say it was still a crazy feat to attempt but Craggy’s blood was at that point likely flammable enough to easily allow him to be included in an insane category.

 

                As the earth pony drew closer and closer to the edge of the pier, Viator suddenly darted to the edge of the boat, horn flaring. “…Sorry,” he uttered as his horn flashed with light. Just as Craggy was mere feet away from the ramp, a plank beneath his pounding hooves snapped, causing him to trip, roll and plunge into the water with a resounding splash. The six travellers remained frozen in direct contrast to the other passengers and citizens of the boat and town who rushed to try and see what had happened. Much to Viator’s chagrin, there was talk of diving in to save the drunkard stallion. Their breaths remained held as they watched the stream of bubbles pop continuously on the surface. Then, a moss green pony emerged, lying on his back in the water, his chest bobbing slowly up and down.

 

                “…Is he alright?” asked Luna, struggling to see over everypony and the considerable distance the boat had now achieved.

 

                “…I think he’s asleep,” observed Surprise, her keen pegasus eyes allowing her to make out the rhythmic rise and fall of the stallion’s stomach that was characteristic of sleep. “He’ll be fine! Just out of it for a bit!”

 

                They each breathed a sigh of relief and went to sit on some vacant benches. The way through Neighly had been far more hectic than any of them had predicted but they were all at least secretly glad that they wouldn’t have to suffer at Craggy’s hooves for the rest of their journey, even if abandoning him did leave a tiny lump of guilt.

 

                “So,” Celestia began after sighing once more. “Just plain sailing from here.”

 

                “Not quite. I think somepony wanted a little lecturing, hmm?” Discord nodded in Viator’s direction.

 

                “Yes,” he rubbed his eyes. Fatigue was beginning to set in. “What I want to know is,” he pointed to Celestia, Luna and Discord in turn. “How do you do that? Have both, I mean.” Firefly shifted a little uncomfortably, though everypony’s attention was fixed on the unicorn. “And him; I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of such a type of chimera, let alone one that’s intelligent!”

 

                ‘Should we tell him? Would mother approve? She must have known we might get questioned. Perhaps we can just say it was-‘

 

                “We’re alicorns! And our brother here is a draconequus!” Celestia was dragged from her thoughts and stared at Luna a little wide eyed. The white alicorn’s sister clearly had no reservations about revealing their true status to a pony, even one they barely knew. Discord, unsurprisingly, simply chuckled quietly to himself.

 

                “…Alicorns? Draconequus? I see.” He did not inquire further and merely began prodding the paper bags resting by Firefly’s side. Celestia frowned at him and shook her head in disbelief.

 

                “…I’m sorry?”

 

                “…Whht?” His voice was muffled from the bread he had taken from his chosen bag and hungrily began chewing on. “Is something wrong?” he clarified after swallowing the soft bit of loaf. Though not as in such a state of amazement as Celestia, the four other travellers looked at the unicorn with mild expressions of surprise.

 

                “You know about alicorns? About the draconequus?” The elder alicorns was not going to let such a simple acceptance of her heritage go un-scrutinised.

 

                “No,” replied the stallion calmly, preparing to take another large bite of bread.

 

                “Aaand you aren’t curious? At all?”

 

                “No.”

 

                “But…you seemed so interested before! Why have you suddenly changed your mind?”

 

                The unicorn sighed and put down his bread then looked at Celestia directly. “Because at first I thought that you had acquired them through some sort of magic. Now I know it’s simply because you’re a different species. The same applies to…” he nodded at the draconequus. “Discord was it?” Discord nodded back in return.

 

                “But…” Celestia was having a hard time accepting Viator’s own acceptance so easily, even though her companions had. Firefly and Surprise had snuck off to have a look around the rest of the deck, Discord lay relaxed on the boat’s edge, apparently trying to sleep and Luna was listening to her sister’s stuttering and giggling in response. It wasn’t often that Celestia got so flustered.

 

                “Listen. I travel around a lot and I’ve met many different kinds of ponies and creatures. Earth pony, unicorn, pegasus, buffalo, zebra…I know there are countless different kinds of species out there,” he spread his legs to try and illustrate his point. “What I thought you had was due to some kind of… special, magic. Something I might be able to explore for myself. But it wasn’t, you’re just another pony-Well, sapient being,” he nodded to Discord again. “Like the rest of us.” Viator picked up his bread again. “Why are you so bothered anyway? You think being an alicorn, or whatever it was, is special or something?”

 

                “Well…” Celestia shook her uncertainties away. It was neither the time nor place. “It doesn’t matter. Why don’t we talk a bit about you?”

 

                Viator smiled and placed his hoof on his chest dramatically. “The Grand & Mightful Viator, greatest show-stallion in the land. I don’t just amuse ponies with some cheap tricks, I amaze them!” The pride was already trickling back into his voice.

 

                “That sounds really cool! What kind of things do you do!?” Luna asked excitedly, shuffling closer on her seat so that she was closer to the unicorn.

 

                Celestia settled down on a vacant bench and lifted a food bag for herself. It would take a few hours for them to reach Manesterdam, there was no reason not to let Viator do a little of his thing.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “Come out girl! Take your punishment with dignity!”

 

                “Haa…Haa…Phew…”

 

                “Hiding will only see more strikes of the cane!”

 

                “…”

 

                “Elder Zekra, the lookouts say they see figures on the horizon! Could she be trying to flee with her pony friends?”

 

                “Check the stores! Make sure nothing has been taken and that they are guarded!”

 

                “Yes, Elder Zekra!”

 

                “…”

 

                “…You are foolish girl. This is your home, where you belong! Your kinsmen should come before all else! Alone we would perish, but together we may survive the evil which rules this world!”

 

                “…”

 

                “You continue to dishonour that unity! The unity you owe everything to!”

 

                “…”

 

                “…I know you are here somewhere, Kromi. And I will not let you disgrace your family as you did. You will be punished.”

 

                “…”

 

                “And you will learn your lesson. I have the right mind to have you exiled, but no. You will learn, I do not care how much I must beat you for it to stay, but you-“

 

                “Elder Zekra! Elder Zekra! You must come quickly!”

 

                “What is it? Did you find the girl? What of the figures?”

 

                “They took to the sky and are approaching! They must be the Taloned!”

 

                “The Taloned!? They have not been near here for months! O great Ancestors, why now!?”

 

                “Elder Zekra, what should we do!?”

 

                “How!? How did they find us!? We have remained hidden from them for years! Spirits, please!”

 

                “Elder!”

 

                “…Go…Go alert the tribe. Rouse the warriors!”

 

                “E-elder!? We are to fight!?”

 

                “Yes. The Spirits are on our side. This is our home, they cannot defeat us here!”

 

                “B-but, Elder Zekra, it is the Taloned…”

 

                “To question me is to question the Spirits! GO! And may-”

 

                “THEY ARE HERE! THEY AR-AGHHH!!

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                Discord rubbed his eyes. He could not quite remember its contents, but he was sure he had experienced yet another dream. Unlike his previous one however, it had been chaotic, the bad kind of chaotic. He blinked and looked around to help jog his still blurry head as to where he was. Since starting his journey, the draconequus had decided that if he woke up in the same place twice, it was likely a not very good sign.

 

                “Brother!” The smiling face of his younger sister popped into view. “You’re finally awake! You’ve been really sleepy today; Celestia even got a little worri-”

 

                “D-don’t go bothering Discord now, Luna!” a clear voice called over the increasingly familiar sound of machinery and water. They were still on the ferry, though the dipping sun told the draconequus that he must have slept through most of the afternoon. Perhaps all the travelling was truly catching up to him? More importantly however, Celestia had actually been worrying about him!

 

                “No, no, don’t fret little Tia! I’m awake now! What were you saying Luna?” asked Discord with a barely repressed grin. Celestia sighed and it was not difficult to picture her shaking head to go along with it. As much as Discord wanted to continue teasing his elder sibling through the younger, he was interrupted by a particularly fierce rumble erupting from his stomach. “…Seems I missed lunch.”

 

                “…You did!” a pink blur said before whipping around the deck, with more than a few shouts of annoyance to accompany it.

 

                “Please, Firefly….” Celestia sighed again. The blur soon came back around, having circled the deck. Firefly never got to complete a second lap however, as her tail was nearly ripped from her rump after being grasped firmly in the grip of Celestia’s magic. “…stop with the running? I know we’re close to Manesterdam, but I still don’t want to have to wait for you to swim the rest of the way if they threw you off.”

 

                “Hey! That engineer said in a one-on-one, his magic would beat my hooves in powering the boat! How else am I going to make him take that back? It’s not as if they have a big pony wheel I can use to get the juice flowing!”

 

                “In a one-on-one, no-pony would beat any other pony. They would both lose,” Viator answered, having caught on to the conversation while returning from the front of the ship. “Well, perhaps unless I was participating. Anyway, why do you think they need a whole crew of unicorns on ships like this?”

 

                “…They take it in turns?” replied the earth pony with no great confidence.

 

                “No, silly. These things are really, really heavy, Fire!” From the upper decks, Surprise had floated down.

 

                “Going back to the original topic, where is the food?” Luna kindly levitated the last remaining lunch bag to the draconequus.

 

                “Don’t take too long, Discord. We should be coming into port soon.”

 

                Discord did as instructed and ate quickly. The time passed and the sun fell even lower. The ferry was big, but not huge nor open; a bad place in which to have to wait with a pony like Firefly. Celestia could only breathe a sigh of relief when the captain called for everypony to prepare their things and get ready to come into port. A few minutes and a final bend in the river later and the travellers were met with the sight of Manesterdam, the fastest growing town since the great migration to Equestria itself.

 

                “Wow! Sis, look at all those buildings! I’ve never seen something so tall!” Luna’s companions nodded I agreement and shared her gaze of amazement.

 

                “I wonder what we have to do there though,” Celestia thought aloud.

 

                “The compass points this way, right Tia? There’s an Element somewhere there?” The elder alicorn was too late to put a hoof to her lips to signal Surprise to be quiet. Viator had already heard.

 

                “Element? Are you scientists? I don’t believe you ever said what it was you were going to Manesterdam for,” the unicorn commented in a tone full of curiosity.

                

                “Oh…we are…umm…”

 

                “Prepare for docking! Please, hold on tightly until the boat has come to a complete standstill and form an orderly line in front of the gangway.”

 

                “Well, we had best be going!” announced Discord, saving Celestia from further questioning.

 

                Having sat next to where they boarded, the six were able to leave the boat first. After a few minutes navigating the maze-like structure of Manesterdam’s harbour they found themselves ascending a flight of perfectly-chiselled stone steps into the city proper. An awkward air suddenly engulfed them.

 

                “I…assume this is where we must part ways.” Though blunt in his approach, Viator’s efforts did little to break the tension. For as brief a time as they had been together, and despite the unicorn’s somewhat aloof personality, both parties had found each other to be good partners. They had, after all, united against a common annoyance and triumphed over it. “So, where does your route take you now?” he asked once more. Viator had temporarily travelled with other ponies before and he wouldn’t normally show as much interest as to where their own travels would take them, but this particular crowd tugged at his sense of intrigue. It held two unusual species he had never encountered or heard of and they had decided to walk over the Western Range; despite most of them having wings and not carrying enough luggage that a chariot or balloon service would refuse to transport them.

 

                ‘What do I say? I don’t even know where we’re supposed to go from here and I can’t mention the Elements,’ worried Celestia.

 

                “Hey sis, can we go see Uncle Star Swirl? Its been years!” Oblivious to the situation at hand, Luna’s suggestion nonetheless helped it. Upon hearing her words, the show-stallion’s eyes bulged to a thoroughly dangerous level.

 

                “You’re related to Star Swirl!? The Star Swirl!?”

 

                Luna frowned “Oh, no, we’re not related to him, I think. He’s just really good friends with our mother, so we sometimes call him ‘Uncle,’” clarified the midnight-foal.

 

                Viator was no less deterred and waved a dismissive hoof at Luna “Good enough! I had been tempted to try and seek him out, though I’ve heard he stays somewhat low-key these days…but this is excellent!”

 

                “Star Swirl? Isn’t that the old wizard dude?” Firefly joined in with, although she was clearly less interested than the azure stallion, having chosen to lean on the wall by the steps and gaze out over the harbour and sea.

 

                “Oh, oh, I’ve heard he’s the most powerful unicorn ever! We should totally go see him, Tia! Think of all the cool stuff he could show us!” Surprise was not normally a huge fan of magic, but even she was interested in meeting a pony as highly regarded as Star Swirl the Bearded.

 

                “I assume this isn’t where we part ways,” Discord mirrored Viator’s previous words.

 

                “Yay!” cheered Luna and Surprise in unison.

 

                With yet another common goal in mind, the six went on their way into the city. Even with the aid of a map, they repeatedly got lost and were forced to deny themselves the pleasure of visiting some of Manetserdam’s many fine attractions. It had been late afternoon when they had first arrived in the burgeoning town and Celestia knew that turning up on Star Swirl’s doorstep when it was dark would earn them more than a little scolding. As time dragged on however, such a scenario seemed more and more likely; the white alicorn could only vaguely remember the area where Star Swirl lived and though she was sure they were generally heading in the correct direction, their destination never seemed to get any closer. Neither Celestia nor any of the group had truly appreciated the sheer intricacy of Manesterdam’s countless streets and avenues. Large settlements were not a new experience for any of the travellers; they had all at one point visited Canterlot, but unlike the city in the mountain, Manesterdam was a thoroughly disorientating place for anypony unused to being surrounded by hundreds of dizzying tower blocks and skyscrapers.

 

                As the companions rounded yet another corner they came face-to-face with a large, marble building guarded by two stone manticore statues.

 

                “…You know, guys, I’m pretty sure we’ve been here before,” commented the group’s speedster.

 

                “…Yes, Firefly. We have,” Celestia spat through gritted teeth. “Ugh! Useless map! Why do they even give these things out!?” Her enraged yells prompted Luna to huddle close to Surprise and Discord. The three of them all believed they saw the map being pulled even more taut by the magic holding it in front of the pastel maned alicorn. They each figured that without correct directions soon, the paper may well cease to exist as nothing more than ash, or possibly tiny shreds if Celestia’s frustration did not build to such great heights.

 

                Rather than incinerate the offending document, the elder alicorn simply took a deep breath and stored it away. “I’ll try and find us another one. Or ask for directions. Really, I don’t think it could get worse.”

 

                “…O-oh no! She’s back! Guards, guards! Police!” The shouts drew the six’s attention. To their surprise, the source of the noise, an old pony that had just left the Public Library, was pointing and bellowing in their direction. “You’ve been suspended from the Library! We won’t have you taking anymore of our collections! Police! Shoo, be gone I say!” Each pony present tried to trace the screaming pony’s hoof. Despite numerous attempts to try and prove otherwise, they always followed it to Celestia who was sat on her haunches blinking and pointing her own hoof at herself, rage erased by the strange turn of events.

 

                “E-excuse me?”

 

                “Putting a wig on won’t help you! I’d recognise your size and coat anywhere! Guards, hurry!”

 

                It was at this point that the librarian’s calls were heeded and numerous security and police ponies began to converge towards the six travellers.

 

                “Sis! What did you do!?”

 

                “I didn’t do anything! This must all be a misunderstanding!”

 

                “But how? Tia, there isn’t any other pony that really looks like you, except…”

 

                “…Wait, you mean Meanie, Surprise? Oh, that is awesome! I never would have thought she was secretly a pony-burglar!”

 

                “Why didn’t you tell me you were criminals!? I can’t have my Grand & Mightful name tarnished through association!”

 

                “Oh mother, how I do love the things you do.”

 

“We can work out why later. For now, let’s just go!” shouted Celestia. She wasn’t well versed in Manesterdam’s laws, but the white alicorn was certain they hadn’t broken any. At least, she hoped they hadn’t.

 

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “Yes! Do you hear that, Dawn?”

 

                Silence.

 

                “…No? Uncle, is something wrong?”

 

                “On the contrary my dear, something is very right! You can’t hear anything and neither can I! No hammers, no drills, no noisy workers, no heavy machinery, no cursed girders!” The unicorn was ecstatic. For the first time in weeks had he had the pleasure of being able to drop his sound proofing spells early and keep them down for the rest of the day.

 

                “I’m almost afraid to question how, but I really do feel like thanking somepony!”

 

                “Then you should thank the mayor I think, Uncle. Everything’s closed early today because of the vote.”  Victory Dawn put down the beaker in her hooves and walked over to her uncle, Star Swirl, who was sitting grinning like she hadn’t seen him in many months.

 

                “Vote, dear?”

 

                She nodded. “Don’t you remember, Uncle? It’s the day everypony votes on whether to rename the city! It’s an important event for the whole town’s culture!”

 

                The old stallion nodded in recognition and began stroking his beard. His grin had faded to an expression of thought. “Oh, yes, that. You’ll have to forgive an old wizard, dear. My memory really isn’t what it used to be. Which reminds me, funnily enough, has anypony answered those adverts yet?”

 

                Dawn turned, partially to check their mat for any mail and partially so she could sigh discreetly. She had told her uncle about the renaming vote only a few hours ago. ‘What am I going to do…?’ the earth pony worried to herself. She hated to think about it, but what Star Swirl had said was perfectly true, the unicorn was old. They were going to celebrate his birthday in a few months and it should be a joyous thing, but it only made Dawn even more worried about how much longer the two could continue this life style. As the years rolled on, more and more was Dawn forced to become Star Swirl’s carer rather than him as hers. “No, Uncle, they haven’t.”

 

                “Blast, I really do need somepony willing to be a test subject for just a little while.”

 

                “Uncle, I’ve told you loads of times now that I’ll be happy to volunteer!” complained the blue earth pony. For all her efforts however, Star Swirl merely shook his head, beard still in hoof.

 

                “And I’ve told you that I won’t endanger my own niece like that! This spell isn’t without risks and I downright refuse to play about with your memory knowing that!” the stallion snapped back. Silence descended. “…Dawn, I’m sorry, it’s just… “

 

                “I know Uncle! But you just said it! Your memory isn’t what it used to be, nothing is!” Dawn shouted back in response. “You need to perfect this memory spell Uncle! You need to perfect a lot of other spells to! I don’t care if you have to use me as the test subject!”

 

                Star Swirl the Bearded sighed deeply and gestured for his niece to embrace him in a hug. “I know, dear, I know.”

 

                BANG! BANG!

 

                “…Was that the door?”

 

                BANG! BANG!

 

                “Yes, it was. Don’t worry Uncle, I’ll get it,” Dawn said. She pulled away from the old ponies hooves and smiled at him before quickly going to open their door.

 

                “Uncle Star Swirl? Are you there?” Dawn froze as she heard the voice from the other side of the wooden entrance.

 

                “Is that…?” she murmured before increasing her pace. With a quick tug, the door was opened to reveal a group of five ponies and a draconequus squashed into the corridor. “Celestia! Luna! Discord! I haven’t seen you in months! What are you all doing here?”

 

                “Who is it dear? Did someone reply?” called her uncle from within the house.

 

                “Come in, come in!” urged Dawn to the six. She didn’t need to know the other three, if they were friends of Aumean’s children then they were friends of hers. “It’s Celestia, Luna and Discord, Uncle!” she called back to the waiting stallion.

 

                “My hearing must be going as well…Aumean’s kids?” He did not need a reply as the kids in question were presented before him in addition to three strangers. One of them, a azure unicorn, looked as if he was going to explode with excitement. “Well! This is certainly an unexpected surprise. What brings you three here?”

 

                “It’s good to see you too, Star Swirl, but…”

 

                “I’m sorry, but I can’t wait any longer! Star Swirl the Bearded, mentor of Clover the Clever and father of the amniomorphic spell! I challenge you to a magical duel!” Viator’s sudden outburst held the tongues of everypony present and ensured their eyes were fixed upon him.

 

                It took some moments for anypony to react, but then one did: Star Swirl started laughing. A hearty chortle rang around the house and stole the attention which the show stallion adored. Viator’s confident grin slowly hardened into a fierce glare. Star Swirl did not stop laughing because of this and only calmed down after chuckling some more. “A duel? I don’t know who you are, colt, but you clearly don’t truly know who I am either.”

 

                “I am the Grand & Mightful Viator. I know full well the accomplishments you have made and I assure you, my challenge is a serious one.”

 

                “Viator! What are you doing!?” hissed Celestia. “He’s one of the most powerful unicorns in history! And we’re his guests!

 

                “You’ve made some interesting friends, Tia. Don’t worry, it wouldn’t be the first time some colt has challenged me. I think I’ll actually rather enjoy a bit of action,” responded the elder stallion. His tone was clearly one of mocking, though Viator did not let himself get wound up and remained cool, his grin returning.

 

                “Uncle, no!” Dawn leapt in between the two unicorns on her hind legs, hooves spread. “Are you crazy!? You can’t go duelling at your age! I’m sorry, sir, but my Uncle is in no fit state-”

 

                “Settle down, Dawn. I know a pony I can beat when I see one,” retorted Star Swirl, his eyes focused solely on Viator.

 

                “But, Uncle…”

 

                “I’ll be fine, dear. Is the roof good enough for you?”

 

                “A roof? That’s excellent, higher is always better.”

 

                “Oh, this is I have to see! C’mon Surprise, race ya!” Firefly suddenly yelled and raced out the door.

 

                “Fire, wait!” The snowy pegasus called as she flew out after the speedster. “You don’t even know how to get to the roof!”

 

                “Everypony, please, just calm down!” Celestia’s efforts to defuse the quickly heating situation were largely in vain. Both Viator and Star Swirl had become dead set on having this duel. Now that the challenge had been issued both their prides were at stake.

 

                Though both Dawn and Celestia protested, they all found themselves on the roof of Star Swirl’s building with the wizard himself standing on one side, smiling assertively to Viator on the other. The five other travellers and Dawn were stood in a makeshift sideline and each had varying expressions. Firefly was grinning with excitement, Surprise was darting her head back and forth between the two unicorns, Celestia and Dawn both looked on with worry etched deeply in their faces, Luna did not seem to know what to think while Discord remained unusually quiet and distant as if lost in thought.

 

                “Standard rules, colt? Nothing lethal, no leaving the designated battlefield, no physical contact, the first to be hit three times or become unable to continue is the loser?” listed Star Swirl.

 

                “I know the rules, Star Swirl the Bearded. Let us see if you are truly as powerful as they say!”

 

                “Fine. Would someone please count us in?”

 

                “Ooh, I’ll do it!” called Luna. Before anypony could protest, she was in the air above the two unicorns with her hooves lifted above her.

 

                “On my mark…get set…”

 

                “Didn’t he say count, Luna?” questioned the pink pony. Luna simply stuck her tongue out and resumed her pose.

 

                “Get set…GO!” with a quick flourish, Luna whipped her arms downwards to signify to the two unicorns to begin, then joined her companions by the roof’s edge.

 

                Neither sorcerer made a move. The wind whistled loudly through the stone and steel canyons below.

 

                “Don’t want to make the first move? Then let the Grand & Mightful Viator make it for you!” cried the azure stallion as he focused his energy into his horn. After only a moment’s charging, six violet beams of magical energy burst forth, spread, then rapidly began homing in on the elder unicorn who remained motionless. Everypony bar Dawn leaned forward in anticipation of Viator’s attack.

 

                Star Swirl did not move and did not need to. As the beams came within mere feet of his position, his horn sparked with light once and the streams of magical energy froze in air allowing their bright trails to catch up with them. The glowing energy twitched and paralysed the breath of the travellers in the audience. Another twitch, then a small ‘poof’ and the orbs of light transformed into a handful of small pebbles which clattered to the ground.

 

                “…What did he do?” Firefly uttered, voicing the question for her pegasus friend as well.

 

                “What an honour. To see the famous amniomorphic spell used by its very creator!” proclaimed Viator with a hint of sarcasm.

 

                “Amniowhat? He said that before, what is it?” Firefly poked Celestia with both the question and her hoof.

 

                “It’s a famous spell that Star Swirl created. Basically, it turns one spell into another. Very difficult to master and get right,” the white alicorn explained briefly. Celestia, Luna and Discord had all been taught the amniomorphic spell by their mother, though none of them, Aumean included, could use it with so little effort and so flawlessly as Star Swirl could.

 

                “I’m really quite glad that such a simple attack didn’t go through,” casually spoke the azure unicorn. Both Celestia and Discord frowned: Viator’s attack had been a fairly powerful one. They were curious to see what the stallion’s definition of an advanced attack would be. “It wouldn’t have been very satisfying if it had.”

 

                “Simple? Colt, I was teaching myself bigger spells in kindergarten,” Star Swirl replied coolly.

 

                Viator’s smile dropped a notch and rather than reply with words, he threw more magic at the ageing wizard. Several volleys composed of tens of magic spheres that were constantly changing their exact trajectory tore towards Star Swirl. Much like the beams before them, each sphere was stopped still in its flight, twitched, then morphed into some harmless object that fell to the ground. The roof was quickly littered with small pebbles, leaves or clumps of dirt. Star Swirl yawned.

 

                It was clear from his face that Viator was becoming frustrated. Even for the travelling unicorn, they had both been powerful attacks, yet Star Swirl had countered them with but the slightest glimmer of his horn. Though egotistical, Viator was not stupid. He had issued his challenge fully aware of the old unicorn’s reputation and had been determined not to underestimate him despite his age; regardless, the azure stallion was beginning to realise that he had done just that.

 

                “Tsk…I admit, Star Swirl the Bearded, you are indeed as great as the legends say. But I’ve barely even begun to show my hoof!” Viiator reared up as he spoke and planted his hooves firmly on the hard ground, head held low. Once again his horn glowed yet it was more intense than any of those gathered had seen before. Another barrage of magical orbs sped towards the grey unicorn, Viator however was nowhere to be seen, having disappeared in a bright flash of lavender light. Despite the fact that Star Swirl had managed to remain perfectly calm throughout the duel, this act visibly threw him off guard and he immediately adopted a more ready pose, magic at the ready.

 

                ‘He couldn’t have teleported. I haven’t even published the perfected spell yet,’ Star Swirl thought, alert but still retaining his composure. Not even Aumean had ever managed to develop a teleportation spell by herself, it was inconceivable to the old stallion that some young, country colt had managed to develop such a complex magic. ‘Invisibility, perhaps? But I should be able to sense him.’ The rapidly approaching orbs were of no concern; Star Swirl was able to counter them nearly without thinking. What the young unicorn had done was of concern however.

 

                Before even Star Swirl’s magic had fully countered Viator’s latest attack, and much to the old wizard’s surprise, he heard another distinctive poofing sound behind him. What Star Swirl saw to his rear almost took his breath away. Still partially in the air was Viator, face a picture of concentration and horn flaring with power. It was only a momentary sight, for in the next moment the azure stallion was obscured by yet more balls of energy. The sound of a teleporting pony told Star Swirl that Viator was no longer there anyway.

 

                “Uncle…!” Dawn’s cries were met with similar gasps from the rest of the crowd. The bearded old pony had been taken by surprise and the sparks from his previous spell had yet to fade. They did not know whether he would be able to defend himself in time.

 

                Star Swirl the Bearded’s horn shone; blindingly so. The orbs, that had been screeching towards the old unicorn, stuttered, convulsed and slowed to a stop mere inches from his skin. Each and every one of the many violet spheres was surrounded by another, silvery glow.

 

                The roof was silent save for Viator’s quiet panting. He had reappeared in his starting position, exhausted and with a look of grim realisation on his muzzle.

 

                “Wow…” whispered Luna. Celestia and Discord were just as stunned as their younger sister. Generally, successfully making magic directly interact with other magic was strenuous and far more difficult to achieve than having it interact with simple, physical matter. Star Swirl had telekinetically caught, and forced into submission, every single one of Viator’s projectiles. And the elder stallion did not seem even the least bit out of breath.

 

                “I have to say, colt. I misjudged you. A little, at least. It’s getting a tad cold out here now though, so I’m going to finish this, if you don’t mind.” Without giving the travelling unicorn a chance to respond, Star Swirl flicked his horn, sending the converted orbs hurtling towards Viator, even faster than they had been initially launched. Too late did the azure unicorn realise his mistake when, rather than blocking or countering, he choose to evade his own attack by teleporting. Shrouded by the fragmented wall of light, Star Swirl had prepared another spell, which he fired just as Viator’s shape began to re-materialise precisely where the older unicorn had predicted.

 

                The eagerly watching crowd reared back in shock as a huge, smouldering shape flew across the roof towards the helpless show-stallion. A dragon, composed entirely of a burning smoke, sealed the outcome of the duel. The cindering drake was upon Viator the moment he reappeared yet before he could even hope of somehow saving himself from the terrifying cloud.

 

                The dragon flew onwards, passing off the roof before slowly disintegrating into the air. The five travellers in the audience rushed over to find Viator: singed, wheezing and struggling to return to his hooves.

 

                “You alright there, V?” Firely was the first to ask. “You think you can keep on going?”

 

                With some hesitation, Viator shook his head slowly. He had only been hit once, but as much as he would like to, he was in no state to continue fighting.

 

                “He’ll be fine. Stay out here for a few minutes, clear your lungs,” blankly stated Star Swirl as he dusted his chest down with a hoof and turned to return to his apartment. “And then you may want to go back to magical kindergarden, colt,” he added bitterly before addressing his niece. “Pah! Really Dawn, can you believe this is the sort of thing this generation has to offer?  I bet I could defeat them all at once, blindfolded! Pah!”

 

                “Uncle…”

 

                “…Wait…” Viator managed to cough in between his rasping breaths. Star Swirl stopped and raised an eyebrow at the young stallion. The moon had begun to rise and with it came a biting wind, though the aged unicorn waited for the colt to recover and say his piece. With some assistance from the other five travellers, Viator rose back to his hooves with a slight grin on his face.

 

                “…Two things. Firstly: don’t you dare involve them. This was between me and you. Not ‘this’ generation or ‘that’ generation. Not western ponies or eastern ponies. Not any group against any other. Me and you. I won’t let you just group me in with some other lot like that, as if I was just a part of one big thing with no achievements or pride of my own.” Viator’s tone was fierce, as if the very notion of what Star Swirl had said was extremely offensive to him. “Secondly: magical kindergarten? You may have defeated me, but I’m still the Grand & Mightful Viator! You might be more powerful than I am, for the moment, but that doesn’t mean I’m not powerful!”

 

                The two unicorns stared at each other in silence.

 

                “Heh. Colt has guts at least,” Star Swirl chuckled and left the roof followed closely by Dawn.

 

                Viator turned to the five remaining on the roof and shook his hoof at them. “Go on. It’s getting cold out here,” he said, his voice noticeably softer than it normally was.

 

                “What about you? Shouldn’t you come in as well?” inquired Surprise, fluttering over closer to the soot-covered unicorn

 

                Viator coughed in response. “You heard the old pony. I should let my lungs clear a bit. Go on,” he urged. It was clear to all of them that Viator wanted to be alone for a little while.

 

                “That was pretty awesome, right Dis?” Firefly began as she, Surprise, Discord and Celestia made their way towards the stairwell that would take them back into the building.

 

                “Luna, come on,” spoke Celestia to her sister. Luna was still starring at him with a worried look. She tugged herself away at hearing her sister’s voice.

 

                “O-okay, coming sis.”

 

                Soon the show-stallion was the only one remaining. Being sure to be gentle, Viator cast a few spells to help clean his coat and mane and to soothe the small burns he had received after being engulfed by Star Swirl’s spell. He remained still for several minutes, letting his magic and the cool breeze do its work while he stared at the stars and moon overhead. Another handful of minutes passed before he sighed and chuckled quietly to himself. Rising to his hooves, Viator began to walk limp slowly to the stairwell but stopped suddenly when he heard a small yet beautiful dinging sound and felt the sensation of something smooth by his hoof.

 

                “What is this…?” he murmured to himself as he brought the object closer to his face with his magic. Before his muzzle was a deep blue gemstone that shone softly with its own glow. ‘Did Star Swirl or one of the others drop it…?’ he pondered. He could feel that it was magical in nature, and powerful magic at that. Viator shrugged and started to limp towards the roof entrance again. It was probably important.


Of Harmony & Chaos

Written by: Brightwel

(very helpfully) edited by: DustyGrrl

Cover art by: Iopichio

 

Chapter 8: Learning

 

 

                “Looks like he’s coming around. You know, it was nice of you to stay by him, but he was only drunk. There isn’t anything seriously wrong with him.”

 

                “…”

 

                “Is he a friend of yours?”

 

                “…”

 

                “No? Well, I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: you’re an odd one.”

 

                “Ughh…jus’ a few more minutes…pardner’…”

 

                “Except for the migraine he’ll no doubt have, I’d say he’s fine. I’ll leave you two alone for now. Just shout for me or the nurse if you need anything.”

 

                The creaking of wood under the weight of somepony’s hooves roused the green earth pony from his slumber even more than the voices already had. A dull throb rhythmically pounded around his skull, though it was not the worse hangover he had ever experienced. Craggy slowly drew himself up and opened his eyes. He was in a hospital bed. The log walls enclosing the building told him that he was still in Neighly, but he could not see a window and thus tell the time due to the half-drawn curtain around his bed. He did not notice her initially, though the faint feeling of being watched drew the stallion’s attention to a young mare sitting beside his bed and smiling happily at him.

 

                “Well howdy there!” Craggy cheerfully replied.

 

                “…”

 

                “I said, howdy!”

 

                “…”

 

                For one of the few times in his life, Craggy frowned. He had quickly come to realise that there were a number of odd things about the pony in front of him. There was of course her refusal to speak, but the ranger also noticed that her pupils were never focused. They moved and she blinked, but it was if she was unable to get her eyes to properly lock onto anything.

 

                A pony in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck suddenly popped his head around the curtain. “Sorry, you don’t know each other, right? I should have explaine-“

 

                “Hey Doc, ya mind telling ol’ Craggy what’s the matter wit’ this ‘ere lady?”

 

The medical pony stared at Craggy momentarily before continuing. “…Yes…Firstly: she’s mute. As you can no doubt already tell, she also suffers from an eye condition. She isn’t blind but does have difficulty with her vision. Please, try not to make a fuss about-”

 

“My most pro-found apolo-gies miss. I hope ya can forgiv’ me,” Craggy put his hoof to his chest and bowed a little to show his respect. The mare simply continued to smile and patted the earth pony on the head.

 

The physician did not feel quite so forgiving to Craggy. He stared at the rude pony then shook his head and disappeared around the curtain once more. “You’re free to leave whenever you want,” he called to them over the sound of his hooves.

 

Upon hearing that he was not required to stay in the clinic, Craggy was quick to leap out of bed. “A’ight then! Ain’t no point in staying here. Got ta make sure ma friends got to the big ol’ city jus’ fine! Still can’t believe a let ma drink git the best of me, have to apolo-gise for tha’ too!” Craggy was not speaking to anypony in particular but the silent mare, who the stallion also noticed to be a pegasus, nodded and began to follow him as he made his way to the small clinic’s entrance. Craggy waved his thanks to the doctor who only scowled in reply while the mare quickly grabbed a bag from a coat stand and slung it over her shoulder.

 

The two new friends stepped outside into the early morning light shining over Neighly. It would be sometime before the ferry was to sail again and the decision was already made in Craggy’s mind to just go by hoof. He did not ask if the mare wanted to come with him, he assumed, correctly, that she would. After only a few minutes of trotting, the two were on the path to Manesterdam with the golden rays of dawn lighting their way.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “Mama…! Heehee…! Oh!” Luna’s eyelids fluttered open and she looked around. She was lying on a pile of cushions in a comfortable sitting room. Celestia, Discord, Surprise, Firefly and even the unicorn Viator were spread around the cosy space in varying positions of sleep. She looked to a clock perched on the mantelpiece above the fireplace: midmorning. “I suppose I should wake everypony…” she muttered to herself, still partially under the thrall of sleep.

 

                “Sis,” she mumbled while rubbing her eyes. The blue maned alicorn went to prod her sister awake but stopped upon noticing a glint in the corner of her eye. Turning her head, Luna found the light’s source: a blue gemstone lying casually on the coffee table next to where Viator was sprawled. Careful not to wake the slumbering unicorn, Luna slowly crept to the table and peered closely at the gemstone. It glowed with its own power and was incredibly familiar to the dark blue mare, yet she couldn’t quite put a hoof on why.

 

                  Realisation suddenly hit her and she squealed as loudly as her lungs would allow out of pure excitement. The room was suddenly flung into comical chaos as hoofs flailed everywhere in an attempt to find the floor.

 

                “I’m up, I’m up!” cried Surprise as her wings sent her shooting into the ceiling head first.

 

                “Dragon!? Where!?” Firefly screamed, her head flitting back and forth in panic.

 

                “Luna, what is it!?”

 

                “An Element! An Element!” If the young alicorn’s shrieks hadn’t been enough to fill her companion’s with adrenaline, her subsequent mentioning of an Element definitely was.

 

Celestia and Discord both scrambled over the sofas and many cushions spread around the room to examine the pristine stone clasped in Luna’s hooves. Instinctively, Celestia magically drew the Element of Ambition, which they had found previously, from her saddlebag across the room. Holding the orange gem close to the blue, it was clear that they were both of the same size, shape and general characteristics.

 

“It is an Element. Though I wonder how…” Discord trailed off, lapsing back into the thoughtful looking state he had been in for most of their recent travelling.

 

As excited as she was about the Element, Luna could not help but cast a worried look to her brother. He had been very quiet in the past day or two, as if he was preoccupied with something terribly important.

 

“So that thing is what you’ve been looking for? An ’Element?’” They all froze and slowly inched their heads around to face the unicorn. Viator was standing and peering at each of them with a raised eyebrow. “Are you sure you didn’t simply drop that one last night? I found it on the roof, after you’d all left. Of course, if you didn’t drop it, then you haven’t got a hope of finding more, it was in quite plain sight if I remember. So what are they? Some sort of mysterious mineral? Artefacts maybe? Anything the Grand & Mightful Viator can make use of, perhaps?”

 

‘Oh no… We aren’t supposed to tell anypony about them. Brother or Sis’ll come up with something, they have to!’ Luna frantically thought. She could trust her siblings, they would know what to do.

 

“Huh? You mean it was just lying there? Gee, sorry guys, I didn’t notice! But it was an awesome fight!” Firefly grinned and laughed, the rush of fear at thinking there was another dragon and exhilaration at finding an Element still coursing through her.

 

“Hehe, neither did I? Guess we were all just hooked on the duel!” Celestia shot a look to Surprise and Firefly. They didn’t seem to appreciate the seriousness of the situation at hoof. Aumean had always been adamant at guarding the secret of the Elements, yet here was a pony who was on the very verge of discovering them.

 

The clanging on hooves on metal announced yet even more of an audience to the potential unveiling of the Elements. The forms of both Star Swirl and Dawn appeared on the iron spiral staircase that lead to the second floor. “What’s all this racket!? Would you young ones keep it down!? It’s still early!”

 

“Sorry everypony! Uncle is always a little grumpy in the morning!” apologised the younger of the two hosts.

 

“Star Swirl, Dawn. It’s probably best that you’re here,” announced Discord as he magically grabbed the two gems and took centre stage as best he could in the living room.

 

“Discord…? What are you…?” stammered Celestia, mind still reeling for someway she could explain to Viator, Star Swirl and Dawn without letting her mother’s secret out.

 

“I’m going to tell them. Everything.” Both alicorn’s mouths hung open. They weren’t sure how to respond to such an apparent disregard to their mother’s wishes, by her adopted son no less.

 

“‘It won’t just be them; I have a feeling they’ll make even more allies on their trip.’ Those were mother’s exact words, if I recall. I know how you feel, Celestia. But I believe mother intended for more ponies to learn about the Elements. I mean, think about it! Did you really think we would get through this entire journey without running into something like this?” Discord casually explained and asked. “Besides, our latest acquisition, which is the Element of Pride I believe, practically confirms my thoughts on the nature of this little trip our cunning mother devised for us all.”

 

All eyes turned to Celestia, waiting for her authorisation on the matter. ‘Brother’s right! C’mon Sis, we can trust Uncle and Dawn and even Mr. Viator!’

 

“I… suppose so. Just so long as you don’t go out in the street with a loudhailer or the like.”

 

Discord grinned as Celestia approved, reluctantly as it may have been. “In that case, get yourself comfortable everypony, we may be here for a while.”

 

For the rest of the morning, Discord passed on the lectures he, Celestia and Luna had all received from their mother. Star Swirl, Dawn and Viator all sat enthralled, all having a keen interest in magic. It wasn’t long into Discord’s lesson that Surprise, Firefly and eventually even Luna fell asleep again, but he was not deterred and continued into the early afternoon.

 

“…which brings me to a little theory I’ve thought of. Both Elements we’ve found thus far have been in odd places and under equally odd circumstances. I don’t believe mother’s spell physically hid the Elements, rather, they’re set to appear when we achieve something. When we fought the dragon, Firefly overcame her inability to fly and rescued us regardless. And just last night, our new friend Viator stood tall and proud even after being defeated and then just so happened to come across yet another Element, Pride to be precise. Coincidence? Possibly. But I still think dear mother’s magic was a little more complex than simply setting up a game of fetch,” finished the draconequus with a large breath.

 

“So that is what we saw that night…Good. Now come along, Dawn. We have experiments to run.” The three other magic users frowned at Star Swirl’s blatant and quick dismissal of the near-omnipotent artefacts he had just learned of.

 

“Sorry! If it’s something old, then Uncle probably isn’t terribly interested in it. I thought it was fascinating though!” Dawn meekly apologised before scampering back up the staircase in pursuit of her uncle.

 

“Anyway…let me get this straight. These Elements, when combined, can achieve almost anything?” Viator inquired as he turned back to Discord.

 

“In theory,” he replied.

 

“I see…In that case, I am coming with you.”

 

“…You are?” It was Celestia’s turn to speak up.

 

“Yes. I planned to hold another show here, and then move on for another. But the duel last night taught me something. As Grand & Mightful as I am, I must become even more Grand & Mightful before I can show myself on a stage again! And what better way to become more Grand & Mightful then in a quest for a group of exceedingly powerful artefacts! I won’t take no for an answer.”

 

“Oh…well, I suppose that is settled then.”

 

“Take Dawn as well.” The old unicorn’s words had an even greater impact than Viator’s and the rest of the room, including Dawn herself, were left staring at Star Swirl in confusion.

 

“U-Uncle! What d-did you say!?” The earth pony stammered.

 

“I said for them to take you with them as well. Like the colt said, it will be good for your studies,” he casually explained, gesturing to the other unicorn in the process. The show stallion grimaced at being called a colt again, but did not retaliate.

 

“But…! But…! I can’t just up and leave you! Who’s going to look after you!? Help you in your research!? I know you like to try and do things by yourself, but you know just as well as I do that even if you did manage to perfect all those spells you’re working on, you would still need somepony to lend a hoof with a few things!” ranted a fuming Dawn. She was angry with her uncle for even suggesting such a thing, given his deteriorating age and health.

 

Star Swirl grinned despite his niece’s fierce face. “Hehe, don’t worry, dear. You’re right, I know. But, I still have friends who wouldn’t mind coming around every few days just to check in. And there isn’t any need to concern yourself with those spells,” he slowly turned his grin, towards the three guests, “I think I’ve found the perfect test subjects.”

 

Celestia raised a hoof to herself with a growing sense of unease. “…Us? What kind of spells?”

 

The wizened pony laughed merrily at their reactions. “Let me explain. As Dawn says and as much as I hate to admit, I’m only getting older and older. With each year I’m less able to take care of myself on a daily basis. So I’ve recently started research into spells that will help me get by without being waited on. Muscle enchantments, immunity augmentation, memory spells, that sort of thing. But as you may know, body and mind altering magics can be dangerous and need to be properly tested and trialled before fully applied. The problem though is that we’ve yet been able to find any suitable and willing test subjects.”

 

Each of the three guests nodded along in comprehension. The old pony’s plight should have been obvious to them. After all, Star Swirl was already a fully grown and matured stallion by the time of the Migration and settling of Equestria which had been well over five decades prior to the current year.

 

“Now just wait a moment. I refuse to believe, no matter how old they actually are, that anypony who could defeat me so easily, like you did, could have problems with something as simple as taking care of themselves!” Viator angrily exclaimed. He could accept being defeated by an older pony, even by a much older pony, but one who might not be able to bathe themselves? That may be going too far.

 

Clearly, there’s still a lot you need to learn about magic, colt. I’ll admit, when it comes to the practical side of things, you have a lot of talent. Being able to perfect your own teleportation spell is proof of that. There is still a lot of theory missing though. For example; raw magical ability does not fade with time in the same way physical ability does, but magical endurance can. I could not do what I did last night again in any quick succession. Even now I’m still a little worn from it,” explained Star Swirl to a sulking Viator. Clearly, the azure unicorn did not like being lectured like that, but held enough respect for the older sorcerer to not interrupt. “Anyway, we’re going off topic. What I would like you and your friends to do, Celestia, is to help me perfect the spells I’m working on. I won’t lie, there will be some risk involved, but all the additional hooves and horns present will minimise it,” he asked coolly, returning his gaze to the white alicorn.

 

Celestia’s face was full of doubt. “I’m sorry, I’m sure we would all like to help, but we don’t wish to delay our travels for too long either,” she stated apologetically. It was clear from her expression that she did want to help her mother’s old friend.

 

Rather than the look of disappointment they expected, Star Swirl merely chuckled again. “If it’s time you’re concerned about, then you shouldn’t. I don’t expect the tests to take anymore than a few hours at the very most. These spells aren’t perfected, true, but they are highly developed theoretically. One or two tries per spell should be more than enough to tell whether they are safe and suitable enough for actual use.”

 

“There isn’t any real reason why we can’t spare a few hours and assist him, Celestia. You haven’t even checked the compass for our new heading yet. Or brushed your mane,” commented Discord, his tone becoming noticeably more sly near the end of his words.

 

Celestia intuitively gazed at herself in a mirror mounted on the wall and turned a bright pink at seeing the mess her mane was in after forgetting to maintain it since being suddenly awoken by Luna’s screams. Without another word, the older alicorn summoned a brush to her and frantically set about taming the multi-coloured bush upon her skull into something she considered presentable, much to the cackling amusement of her brother. “Yes, yes, we can help then! Just be sure to ask the others!”

 

The others in question were promptly awoken from their boredom induced slumber with a few gentle prods from the draconequus and the situation quickly explained to them.

 

“Of course we’ll help Uncle!” Luna happily agreed.

 

“Same! What kind of friends would we be if we didn’t? Besides, it sounds super fun!” added Surprise.

 

“I’ll join in too, on the one condition I get to test those muscle whadyamacallits!” Firefly also pledged.

 

“Excellent. When you’re all ready, come through to my lab,” Star Swirl gestured to a heavy door and made his way to it, accompanied by his niece. “Just be sure not to touch anything, understand?” He received nods all around.

 

Once the door had creaked shut again, the travellers each quickly groomed and fed themselves then squeezed through the door together in pursuit of Star Swirl. What greeted them was a interesting sight, even for Firefly and Surprise who held little interest of magic. The walls, floor and ceiling of Star Swirl’s magical laboratory had been left as bare, smooth rock, or possibly even had the stone purposely added since it did not match the rest of the building. The room itself was also very large, far bigger than the lounge they had slept in. Its status as a laboratory was clear as well; throughout the room were benches, shelves and cupboards filled with all sorts of mystical items, from worn tomes to beakers filled with colourful liquids to jars of preserved creatures, no doubt magical in nature.

 

“Hey gramps, what’s this stuff?” casually asked Firefly who had zoomed up to a fat cauldron filled with a bubbling cyan liquid.

 

“Fire!” Surprise hissed at the rude earth pony.

 

Star Swirl, who had been skimming through a small notebook lifted his head and looked over to the speedster and cauldron she was peering into, apparently oblivious to her disrespectful comment. “Oh, that? Its just a little something for when I publish my finished teleportation spell. Increases a ponies’ ‘slickness’, helps those new to it get through space/time. Made mostly from wheat of all things. Anyway, that’s not what we’re here for…” the old unicorn trailed off as he went back to his notebook.

 

The six guests continued to examine and visually probe Star Swirl’s lab with wonder and awe for a few moments more when Dawn pulled her head from a circular array of lines on the floor by the far end of the lab. “The wards are ready, Uncle. Did you find your notes yet?” She walked over to the wizened pony and joined him in skimming through the notebook before pointing to a page which Star Swirl stopped on with a smile.

 

“Right, yes, here it is…Listen now, everypony. We’ll be trying the muscle enhancement first. You volunteered, didn’t you…ehm…”

 

“Firefly,” the pink earth pony reminded the senior unicorn.

 

“Firefly, yes. In that case, could you please step into the circle here and we can get started,” Star Swirl was no longer making eye contact with anypony, becoming increasingly focused on the open books and scrolls laid on roughly on the bench in front of him.

 

“The circle is full of magical wards. Basically, they’ll help stop anything…bad, happening,” Dawn explained without any considerable level of confidence.

 

“Did you mean ‘help’ or ‘will’?” Firefly asked with a suspicious tone.

 

“Don’t worry! The chances of anything really bad happening are virtually nonexistent!” Dawn tried to reasure her fellow earth pony.

 

Firefly waved a hoof dismissively, never really concerned from the start, and trotted into the circle. “Eh, I’m sure it’ll be fine. Now bring on the muscle!”

 

“Alright then…everypony step back,” warned Dawn, urging the others a few feet away from the circle.

 

“Are you ready Firefly?” inquired Star Swirl as he took up his position in front of the circle.

 

“I’m always ready gramps!” said Firefly confidently.

 

“Heh, let’s do it then!” chuckled the unicorn in response. A moment later and Star Swirl’s horn began to glow and spark as did the lines making up the circular ward. As the glow became brighter, the others covered their eyes with their hooves until there was a bright flash of light that engulfed Firefly. Their vision was still obscure, even once the light had faded, due to the smoke billowing around the room.

 

“…Firefly? Are you alright?” Dawn received no response.

 

“Fire?” Surprise likewise did not get any reply.

 

“Firefly!” Panic that something had went wrong was now spreading through the assembled group and Star Swirl, being the closet, pushed himself through the smoke to the circle and magically began to force it away.

 

“Whoa! Talk about a buzz! Hey gramps, got a treadmill or something?” Celestia, Luna, Surprise and Dawn each breathed a sigh of relief at the sound of the speedster’s voice. As the smoke fully cleared, it became obvious that Firefly was unharmed, she even seemed the complete opposite. “Seriously though, I need to run! Now!” The earth pony was not just unhurt, she seemed to have been energised, she was actually bouncing up and down to try and stay the urge to tear up some ground.

 

“Interesting…We’ll need to see how well you fair, but it looks as if this spell is a success…” Star Swirl muttered mostly to himself as he observed Firefly from a variety of angles.

Gramps!” yelled Firefly in growing desperation. She could feel masses of pent up energy in her every limb, just waiting to be burned.

 

“Oh, yes, yes of course. If you just give me a moment…” With a flick and spark of his horn, Star Swirl magically opened a small storeroom and levitated various mechanical objects from it. Before long a simple, magic-powered treadmill had been set up in the middle of the lab and Firefly was galloping happily on it at full speed. Despite powering the exercise machine, Star Swirl was still able to focus on his notes again, preparing for the next spell.

 

“Why don’t we try the memory spell next, Uncle?” suggested Dawn as she pointed at a page and stopped the old unicorn’s skimming with a hoof.

 

“Yes, a good idea. Though this one might be a little more tricky,” spoke Star Swirl as he lapsed into thought and began stroking his beard.

 

“What does it do, exactly?” Celestia asked.

 

“It makes one or more subjects of choice unforgettable to whoever it is cast on. Not only that, but it is extremely resistant to anything that might make a pony forget something, including other spells. Regardless of what it is, with this spell you will remember it. The tricky part is testing it,” the elder unicorn explained.

 

“Why not use one of those forget spells then? Cast your memory spell, then the forget spell and if whoever still remembers, then surely it will work, correct?” Viator tried to helpfully add.

 

“Yes, those are the lines I was thinking of. It isn’t my preferred course of action, but it’s the only one I can suitably think of,” continued Star Swirl. “Well, any volunteers then?” He stopped stroking his beard and lifted his gaze to his guests. Firefly was still under the effects of the previous spell and it would be difficult to properly quiz her while she was still galloping madly away on the treadmill.

 

After a moment’s stillness, a midnight hoof rose into the air. “I’ll do it!”

 

“Luna, are you sure? This test will be more dangerous than the previous. Not by much, but the risk is nonetheless greater,” the unicorn warned.

 

“I’m not sure I want you doing this, Luna,” Celestia interjected. The worry was clear in her voice.

 

“Why not, Tia? It’s Star Swirl! The bestest unicorn in ever! Fire was fine, right Fire?” Surprise spoke up with cheer, gesturing to the earth pony that was threatening to outpace the treadmill.

 

Never better! It’s like I could run forever!” Firefly called back vigorously.

 

“I agree with Surprise, Tia. You heard Star Swirl, with all of us here the chances of anything happening are minimal. Besides, she wants to help, don’t you Luna?” The draconequus nodded to the young alicorn who returned it with an added smile.

 

“Uh-huh! Don’t worry Sis! I trust Uncle Star Swirl, everything will be fine, you’ll see!” Her younger sister’s confidence and trust was a little reassuring. It was Star Swirl after all. “Let’s do it Uncle!”

 

The ‘uncle’ in question had returned to his notebook but lifted his head once more. “Decided? Good, good. Now, in order for this to work, you’ll have to remain outside of the wards. If you three could be ready with any dispel magics you know, and Dawn, if you could search for one of your potions please?” Each pony complied with the instructions and were soon more prepared for anything that went wrong than the emergency wing at Manesterdam hospital. Star Swirl gently guided Luna a few steps back from the others then positioned himself before taking a final check of his notes. “Here we go…” For the second time, Star Swirl’s horn lit up brightly. The whole room, even Firefly who had slowed down to watch, tensed in anticipation. A pure white orb of light sluggishly pulled itself away from the old unicorn’s horn and drifted lazily to Luna. The twilight alicorn stared at as it floated along hypnotically. Finally, the orb bopped itself down on Luna’s head causing her hooves to slide away beneath her as fell unconscious.

 

“Is…Is she alright?” Celestia was the first to ask.

 

Star Swirl trotted over and gave Luna a quick examination, being sure to check her pulse and breathing were normal. “Yes. She’ll wake up in a moment. Before that though, I’ll have to apply the forget spell.” Carefully, the elderly wizard placed his horn on the skin of Luna’s forehead where it glowed once more, though with less intensity. Blood red trails of magic leapt from his horn and seeped into the sleeping alicorn’s skin. She did not stir in the slightest and looked quite content despite her position.

 

“What did you have her forget? Nothing too serious I hope, restoration magic is not my speciality,” the azure stallion informed them all, though only Star Swirl was listening to any great degree.

 

“Me. Even with my age I still know a lot of details about myself so it will be easier to restore in the event the memory spell failed,” clarified Star Swirl as he raised his head and gave Celestia, Discord and Surprise space to get closer to their companion.

 

The three’s huddling was more for their own comfort than it was Luna’s, but it nevertheless warmed their hearts to see her eye’s flutter open and an expression of dazed confusion spread across her face. “Uncle…? Did it work…?”

 

Star Swirl smiled. By Luna still being aware of both the unicorn as her adoptive ‘uncle’ and that they were testing something confirmed the spell had worked, at least to some degree. “Yes, Luna. I do believe it has.”

 

The young alicorn was still too groggy to give a verbal reply and so simply beamed a large smile once more. With the help of her siblings and friend, Luna ws soon back on her feet.

 

“This is certainly going even better than I had originally anticipated. But we aren’t finished quite yet. Are you all still up for a little more testing?” Star Swirl chuckled. The success of his experiments had clearly put him in a very jolly mood which spread and lifted the spirits of everypony present, especially those of his niece. “You’ve all earned my thanks, truly. So after we’re done with these, why don’t I teach you the basics of some of my more practical magic? I’ll even give you a copy of the final notes, to help you revise with.”

 

Although the faces of the three other magic-users in the group lit up, Viator instead sniggered to himself. “If they’ve yet to work them out by themselves, of course.” He received a volley of glares in response to which he just chuckled.

 

“Great & Mightful over there aside, I think I speak for everypony when I say we’d be honoured,” said Discord, accompanied by gracious nodding from Celestia and Luna.

 

“I think we would greatly appreciate it,” The elder alicorn stated.

 

“Can you teach us to teleport!?” Luna asked excitedly, her eyes lit up with eagerness.

 

“Of course, of course. But I’ll be clean shaven if I don’t also manage to teach that colt a few things before he leaves either.” Star Swirl was sure to put additional emphasis on the demeaning name.

 

“Oh? Why? You don’t happen to secretly respect me, do you, Star Swirl?”

 

“Don’t flatter yourself, colt. I just don’t want anypony of your potential running around like a loose cannon, possibly blowing up sensible sorcerers like these three,” scolded the older unicorn before nodding with approval at the two alicorns and draconequus. For all the master wizard’s willpower however, he could not suppress a grin as he spoke. “Now, let’s get started.”

 

For the rest of the afternoon the travellers helped Star Swirl with several more spells and were then taught and trained by the reputable unicorn. Once the sun had reached its peak and begun its descent, they found themselves once again at the city harbour, packed and waiting for the boat that would take them across the river and further west to the very borders of Equestria. Unlike before however, there were now seven sets of travel bags.

 

“Now you all look after my little Victory, won’t you?”

 

Uncle!” Star Swirl’s teasing had its desired effect and he laughed at Dawn’s pouting, causing the many small bells on his outing cloak and hat to jingle cheerfully. His merry chortling had started to die down when the old wizard once again noticed the products of Celestia’s disastrous first attempt at teleportation and exploded into another fit of mirth. He was quickly joined by the rest of the gathered group, even Viator managed a quiet snigger.

 

The once-white alicorn ground her teeth and tried with all her might to remain calm. “Can we please just not talk about this…?”

 

“But Tia! You’re pink!” Surprise did not have to point the fact out to anypony. For reasons even Star Swirl was not completely sure of, Celestia’s coat had turned a vivid pink upon first attempting to teleport. The spell had been mostly successful in terms of moving the older alicorn from point A to point B instantly, but something had clearly gone wrong along the way. Celestia could only cling to the hope that Star Swirl’s assurances that the changes would not be permanent were correct. Despite not being the only pink member of their party -Firefly was naturally a rosy colour after all- the colour swap was nonetheless irresistibly hilarious for them all, baring the pastel maned mare herself.

 

Much to Celesia’s relief, her companions finally managed to rein their laughter in and settle down, though tears and aching lungs were in abundance, to her annoyance. They had been laughing for so long in fact, that the shape of their boat could be made out, chugging its way closer and closer to the maze of piers where they stood.

 

“Now, before you go, I have some things to give you…” said Star Swirl as he magically opened a small sack and rummaged around inside it. “It isn’t much, but they’ll hopefully help…first of all,” what looked like a rolled up bundle of cyan wool emerged from the sack “these! I’m afraid I only have enough for four hooves, but they’ll still work if you share, albeit not as well.”

 

“Wait, but I knitted and enchanted those especially for you Uncle!” Dawn cried out in protest. The rest of the adventurers remained confused and looked between the earth pony and the unicorn for an explanation.

 

“Dear, you’re all going out on a long journey. You’ll make much more use of them than I do! Anyway, these,” Star Swirl used his magic to unravel the bundle and reveal their true identity as four socks “are magic socks! They are enchanted to try and keep their wearer to as close to a comfortable temperature as possible, so they work both ways, in the heat and cold.”

 

“Neat, I guess…?” Being the closest to the sorcerer, Firefly was the first to closely examine and hold the woollen tubes. She passed them around and each pony inspected them with a variety of expressions. The socks finally came to Luna, who held them in her hooves with great care and looked at them in a way that could only be described as intense awe. She did not pass them to anypony else.

 

“Really Star Swirl, it’s awful nice of you but I’m certain we could do without…” humbly noted Dicord as he tried to peer into the still floating sack.

 

“Nonsense. Good preparation is vital,” Star Swirl said dismissively as he continued to rummage. “Next, we have this.” A simple bronze amulet with a small garnet embedded in its centre was next to hover from the bag. “I saw how effective that muscle enhancement spell was, even for young ponies like yourself. So, I stored a few charges worth of it in this old trinket. Just push down on the gem, and it will release one charge of the spell onto the wearer. Just remember that there is a finite amount of times it can be used-”

 

“Now that is neat! Thanks gramps!” Firefly snatched the amulet from the air and tried it on. Seeing the magic-filled gem glow caused her to grin confidently. “Getting to run like that again, for real though! This is so cool!”

 

“Now, now Fire. You should be more polite when someone gives you something,” Discord mockingly scolded the pink pony.

 

“Heh, so long as she likes it. Finally…” a worn and battered tome emerged from the bag “Some research notes. Not as good as actual tutelage, but they should help you practise and better understand the things you learned today.”

 

“You really didn’t have to go all this way for us, but thank you,” Celestia told the bearded pony.

 

“Yeah, this is some good stuff! Thanks!” Surprise added before the boat’s horn began to blare across the harbour, signalling its close arrival. The boardwalks were becoming more and more crowded as ponies hurried to the growing queue in anticipation of the ferry’s docking.

 

“Uncle…”

 

“Ah, ah! I won’t have any of that, Dawn. There’s only so much one pony can teach another, and this is an excellent opportunity for you to go out there and learn. An opportunity I’m not going to let you pass up. After all, to carry on my work demands the highest standard and you still need the experience!”

 

Dawn tried to smile, though a hint a sadness passed through. “I’ll miss you, Uncle.”

 

Star Swirl burst into laughter. “How long do you think you’re going to be gone for, dear? Pah! I didn’t raise you to be a cry filly! Now go, off with you!” The powerful unicorn had intended his words to be more resolute than they sounded, but uncle and niece still shared an understanding smile.

 

“Kinda reminds you of when we left, huh Fire?” commented the snowy pegasus to her friend as Star Swirl and Dawn shared a warm embrace.

 

“Nah, I was way less sloppy!”

 

“What!? You were too! We all were!” The friend’s imminent argument was stopped short by another blast of the ferry’s horn. Their transport had arrived.

 

“Come along, everypony. The boat won’t wait for us forever,” Discord called as he turned and made his way towards the waiting vessel, gesturing for the others to follow. Celestia, Surprise, Firefly and Viator broke their gaze away from the two embracing ponies and followed the draconequus along the pier, each saying a silent goodbye.

 

“Go on now, dear. You don’t to keep our friends waiting.”

 

“A-Alright…bye, Uncle. You take care now!”

 

“I will. Goodbye, Dawn.”

 

The blue earth pony finally turned her back towards her beloved uncle and made her way in the direction of her new-found companions, stopping momentarily to nudge Luna out of her sock-filled trance. Without another word she and Luna trotted towards the boat without looking back. Star Swirl, in turn, turned around and slowly began the journey back to his house. Nopony noticed the slight few droplets that ran around his smiling muzzle and dampened his beard.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                The sound of clanking machinery, splashing water and a blaring horn echoed around the sunlit shores of Manesterdam. Two ponies, approaching from the south, could clearly see the shape of a ferry departing from the cities’ port.

 

                “…Ah sure hope those folks aren’t on tha’ there boat.”

 

                “…”

 

                “I git ya. How else am I going ta return these ‘ere trinkets?” The moss green earth pony looked to the saddlebags slung over his back. His good friend had entrusted him with the duty of helping him carry the additional belongings he had managed to salvage from his ruined stagecoach, but forgotten to take them back. Though blurry, Craggy pulled the painful memory of his failure to mind. He saw Viator, encouraging him with his magic, trying to give the stallion that helping hoof which would let him reach the boat before it sailed too far out. But in his drunken stupor, he had tripped and fallen.

 

                A grey hoof rested itself on his shoulder and he looked to his new companion, whom he had simply decided to name “Bright Eyes,” who was smiling encouragingly at him.

 

                “…You’re right, pardner. It migh’ be outta ma juris-dict-ion, but Ah need ta’ return these things on ma honour as ranger!” Craggy vowed solemnly. It would be difficult, the show stallion had already gotten a considerable head-start. The only thing he knew was that the azure unicorn had wanted to hold one of his shows in Manesterdam, so Craggy would have to ask around and see if he could not find his one-time travel partner that way. If Viator had already held his show and already moved on, then things would be considerably more difficult.

 

                Another comforting pat on the shoulder. Craggy could tell that already that Bright Eyes was a particularly kind pony. ‘Ah don’ wanna go pickin’ fa-vou-rites, but Ah’m sure glad I got this ladies’ com-pany instead o’ some folks,’ admitted Craggy to himself silently. He smiled to Bright Eyes and she smiled back. “Up an’ at ‘im now. Can’t go wastin’ too much time.” The pegasus remained silent as usual and merely nodded in agreement.

 

The two ponies started up their pace again and they entered the city proper not long after. Both of them had seen and visited the sprawling settlement before and so its wondrous heights and majestic streets didn’t ensnare them in awe as it did so many first time tourists, traveller and migrants. Regardless, the green stallion could not resist complimenting the collected marvels of pony engineering in the form of a drawn out whistle.

 

“Manesterdam, pardner’. This ya first time?” Craggy asked the grey pegasus.

 

“Sorry to interrupt, but it’s not ‘Manesterdam’ anymore. The vote passed today in favour of renaming it. Now-”

 

“Not Manesterdam? Then what in tarnation is it?” The well-dressed pony who had been walking past and overheard the two’s conversation frowned at Craggy and looked the ranger up and down.

 

Now, this city is now called ‘Manehattan’. The whole ‘New’ business in New Manesterdam made some ponies feel that such a marvellous city should sound a tad more…independent. I must say, I’m inclined to agree-”

 

“Huh. Well ain’t tha’ jus’ dandy. C’mon Brighty, we got ourselves a pony to find!” Craggy called loudly while rearing himself up on his hind legs and charging off, Bright Eyes in tow. The finery-clad pony was left in a small cloud of dust and an equally fine temper.

 

“Can’t say Ah liked the look o’ tha’ one. Shame the place is so full o’ them! Think they’re so much better than every other pony, jus’ cause o’ their fancy ex-otic oranges.” Craggy did not immediately notice that his friend had suddenly stopped mid-air and he managed to gain some distance before grinding to a halt and whipping back around to investigate why the pegasus had frozen up so suddenly. “…pardner?”

 

Bright Eyes, noticing the stallions arrival by her side, smiled and pointed enthusiastically into a shop window where bread, croissants muffins and all sorts of baked goods were neatly arranged. “…Well, we ‘ave been on the road for a while. One short break won’ hurt!” Bright Eyes squealed and clapped her hooves together in delight and the two entered the bakery to rest their hooves and wings and plan their next move.

 

Craggy made orders for them both, based primarily on the ecstatic indications of Bright Eye’s, whose hooves seemed ready to break the glass of the shop’s display window. Several minutes, a few bits and an annoyed glare directed at Craggy later and the pair found themselves on a wooden bench chomping down happily on two extra large muffins. Bright Eyes consumed hers in what the stallion considered may have been record timing. He looked on curiously as a small pencil emerged from her saddlepack and she started to draw something on the paper bag that her treat had come in. Before long it was clear that not only was Bright Eye’s a talented artist despite not having the precision-granting magics of a unicorn but her picture was that of Viator’s cutie mark. There were a few small details off, but it was still impressive given all she had for reference was Craggy’s description of the azure stallion during their journey to Manehattan.

 

“That’s a mighty fine pen-hoof you’ve got there, pardner!” praised the green ranger pony. As per usual, the pegasus smiled happily and quickly put the finishing touches to the sketch. She then waved at Craggy’s own muffin bag which he gave up without question. She proceeded to draw an identical sketch of the show stallions cutie mark. Craggy was not exactly sure what she intended by doing so, but remained quiet. Once they had each had a bag emblazoned with Viator’s mark, Bright Eyes pointed to a few random passerby’s and then to the bag.

 

Realisation came to the ranger pony. “Oh! Ya think we should go an’ ask folks whether they done seen ‘is mark before? I bet fifty bits ‘e uses it for ‘is show!” The yellow maned pegasus bounced her head up and down in confirmation. Craggy had seen the magician’s mark on his coach after it was destroyed, so it was more than likely that he used it to represent his show as well. “Great idea, pardner! If it was as big an’ fancy as he said would be, then there’s no doubt somepony will ‘ave seen ‘im!”

 

Without further hesitation, Craggy got to his hooves and set about probing the citizens of the newly named Manehattan as to whether they had seen the cutie mark anywhere before, whether on posters or even in the flesh. Bright Eyes was quick to join him and together they began their great hunt for the Grand & Mightful Viator.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                Something burned. Not just physically, but inside as well. The young zebra didn’t know what had happened, and she didn’t want to. The screaming had stopped, but she knew that opening her eyes would be much, much worse. But she had no choice. The heat was getting closer and even more intolerable, it had gone from just being uncomfortable to outright painful, and she would have to open her eyes and move away soon. She could handle the pain for a little longer if it meant delaying her eyes opening for even just a few second more, but that was all.

 

                “...K-Kromi…” The roaring of the flames almost succeeded in smothering the pathetically weak sound from reaching the young zebra’s ears. And Kromi wished that the fires had achieved complete oppression of all other sound. Because the voice forced her eyes to open, almost against her will.

 

                From under the cover of an overturned sack and piles of cloth, Kromi could only see destruction. The storage hut she had hidden in was now near non-existence. Its mud walls were gone, forcibly broken or melted by the intensity of the flames. Scrabbling her hooves, Kromi was able to pull herself from under the hiding spot which may well have saved her life. And then she saw her father. He had discovered her personal hiding hole once before and must have figured she would return to it. He had not managed to reach it however, and had collapsed in the middle of the barely standing hut, covered in blood. He had stopped moving.

 

                “…Papa…?”

 

                He did not stir.

 

                “Papa!”

 

                Once again the older stallion did not respond. For all the hatred she often felt for him, Kromi still found herself rushing to his side, trying vainly to awaken her father. When that did not work, she instead began to drag him outside and away from the growing fire. The young zebra was only able to pull her father just clear of the burning hut and out into the village as the sight that greeted her drained the strength from her hooves. It was not one hut that had been set aflame during the Taloned raid, but every hut. Kromi’s home, everything she knew had been turned into one, horrifying bonfire whose smoke smothered the night sky. Zebras, the ones she had known her whole life, lay just like her father: bloodied and motionless.

 

                “No…” Even if somestripe had been there to try and listen to her, Kromi’s voice came out as little more than a terrified mew. She hit herself in the head, just like the elder would. She then hit herself again. And again. The scene before her did not go away. As much as she wanted, needed it all to be a nightmare, it would not go away. She fell to her haunches and began shaking. She had no idea what to do, no idea how to even process what she was seeing. So she sat and trembled.

 

                For as long as she could remember, Kromi had felt little but a burning desire to escape from the strict, harsh life of Oromo Village. But this was not how she wanted it. She may have disliked her parents, her elders, her entire home, yet to have it all be so suddenly and brutally wiped away shook Kromi to the core. To say she was shaken or upset would be a drastic understatement; she could not even muster the necessary thoughts to cry. Just as her village had been washed clean away into the unknown, so too had Kromi’s mind become lost. So she sat.

 

                Hours passed, and only then did the great flames of the Taloned’s wrath begin to die down.  Only when the once scorching infernos became little more than kindling embers could the soft sound of hooves on ash be heard. Kromi kept her head straight, making sure to not so much as glance at the lifeless bodies of her family and neighbours littering the dusty streets of what was once a proud village.

 

                The sound soon changed to that of a zebra walking on sand and of the waves. The foliage between the beach and Oromo concealed the carnage completely. The moon and stars casting their light down on the gentle waves made for an especially beautiful picture and Kromi, despite all the confusion and pain wracking her soul, could not help but find it oddly amusing the realisation of how thin a line there was between harmony and chaos. Separating what was truly a precious work of nature from spirit-shattering disorder was but a few feet of trees and shrubs. It had even taken less than a single night to turn Oromo’s very existence from that of a rigid village of predetermined fate to a smouldering ruin.

 

                As Kromi gazed unceasingly into the swirling sea, letting the cool waters lap up and down over her hooves, she noticed a tiny blip appear on the horizon. It did not take long for the blip to grow and grow in size and it eventually became evident that it was a yacht, speeding in the exact direction of the village on what must have been an unnaturally strong wind. Kromi could soon make out a platinum coated figure onboard the vessel, a bronze light shining from his forehead.

 

                “…Coinbag…” she whispered quietly to herself. She remembered the note and schedule he had given her. He must have seen the smoke and come to investigate. For the first time in the hours since the devastation, Kromi was able to let her lips form a tiny, heartbroken smile. Tears began to flow freely from her eyes and she made no effort to stop them. A silent chuckle echoed within her. The chains that had bound her had at the same time been the ones holding her up. Those chains had been broken; the pain of falling was intense and would surely leave scars, but at least she had the choice of climbing back up or not.


Of Harmony & Chaos

Written by: Brightwel

Edited by: DustyGrrl

Cover art by: Iopichio

 

Chapter 9: One Hoof at a Time

 

                “Morning Celestia. You’re up early-” The earth pony stopped before she finished, pushing a hoof to her mouth to try and stop a few light giggles. The alicorn before her was still slightly afflicted with the curious side-effect of her semi-failed attempt at teleportation. Since leaving Manehatten, arriving in the tiny village across the river and stopping the night at the local inn, the bright pink sheen of Celestia’s coat had faded, though it was still visible.

 

                Focusing intently on the compass and map before her, Celestia did not immediately notice her companion’s desperate efforts to suppress her laughter. “Oh, morning Dawn. Sorry, I just wanted to be sure we’ve chosen the best route.” The white alicorn turned to exchange tired smiles with the other pony, who was able to restore her expression just in time to avoid reminding her friend of the unfortunate incident. Celestia ducked her head into her map once more and Dawn searched the counter for any means to obtain a cup of tea.

 

                The sun had only begun to rise over the small village of Last Meadow, a town similar in construction to that of Neighly, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale. Unlike its sister settlement on the other side of the river, Last Meadow did not act as any sort of hub to two or more big cities, furthermore, nopony wanted to live on the border of a desert and so it remained diminutive in size.

 

                “…You girls are certainly up nice and early,” remarked the owner of Last Meadow’s Inn, Sleep Soft, a middle-aged mare with a greyish coat and white mane. “Coffee, dear?” she offered to the blue earth pony who was trying not to let her bloodshot eyes show.

 

                “I would prefer some tea, if you have it. Please,” Dawn asked in response.

 

                All Dawn received in return, unfortunately, was an apologetic smile. “Oh, I’m sorry dearie. We don’t have any in stock. Most of the folks here like coffee…”

 

                There was a moments silence as Dawn tried to keep her face from falling in disappointment. “Well…coffee it’ll have to be then!” Sleep Soft gave the blond-maned pony another apologetic smile before turning to make a fresh batch of coffee. Dawn could keep up appearances no more and slumped unhappily on the table by Celestia.

 

                “I wonder how many folks there can be here. All I saw was a hooffull of houses and this inn,” Celestia commented as she scanned a pencil line she had drawn on her map for what Dawn thought must have been the tenth time.

 

                Sleep Soft chuckled and shook her head in amusement. “Not many. After all, who would want to stop or live in a town with nothing but the river on one side and the desert on the other?”

 

                “But surely you get some business from ponies on their way to Gallopotris? The boat stops here, doesn’t it?” countered Celestia. Dawn meanwhile still had her head slumped on the table and remained silent.

 

                “That was the idea, same sort of thing as Neighly. Buuut… well, Last Meadow is too close to Manesterdam or Manehatten or whatever they’re calling it these days. Neighly works because the river is a lot longer than it is wide. It still takes a good part of a day to get from Neighly to the city, but much less than half of that to get from the city to here. There’s just no need for most ponies to stop here,” the inn-owner explained sadly. She sighed loudly but quickly changed her sullen expression to a more cheery one once she realised the coffee was done. “In fact, you wouldn’t believe my surprise when such a big band of young’ens like yourselves came walking in through my door!”

 

                Celestia smiled and nodded politely, secretly grateful that Sleep Soft had left it at that and didn’t have an inquisitive nature.

 

                “Here’s your coffee, darling. Need anything else? I can start on all your breakfasts if you want?”

 

                “That would be wonderful, thank you,” Celestia said in place of Dawn who was weakly pulling the mug of coffee towards herself. Sleep Soft smiled to her customers once more before disappearing into the kitchen.

 

                The small café returned to silence save for Dawn’s quiet slurping of her coffee. Almost as if in response to the dull lack of volume, Discord appeared directly in front of the two mares’ table in a flash of light. “I must say, I do love this teleportation spell! Good morning Celestia! Good morning- Oh, my, whatever is wrong with her?” The draconequus indicated the limp Dawn and prodded her with his paw several times. His attempts to both probe the earth pony’s wellbeing and revive her from her stupor helped Discord completely ignore Celestia and her still vivid fur. The fun-loving draconequus had already had more than enough instances of borderline asphyxiation from looking at his elder sister’s coat and had been able to purge the novelty of it from his mind.

 

                “Coffee. It just isn’t the same,” Dawn slowly managed to say.

 

                “Coffee? I can only conclude you’re a tea-pony then?” asked Discord as he stared into the dark liquid in Dawn’s mug and dipped a talon in to taste it.

 

                She nodded slowly in response.

 

                “Really, Celestia. How can you let a friend suffer like this?” Discord scolded the map-absorbed alicorn as he tapped the mug with his talon once more, this time accompanied by a small golden flash. “There. Drink up now.”

 

                “Suffer?” Celestia pulled herself from the chart before her and gazed confused at her most recent friend whose eyes had lit up with delight and quickly began gulping the new contents of the mug down. “It was just coffee instead of tea. There’re both virtually the same thing, aren’t they?”

 

                Dawn was far too busy savouring the warm drink to respond and let Discord do so. “Dear, dear Celestia. You have an awful lot to learn!” patronised Discord.

 

                Celestia’s expression made it clear to the draconequus that she had no idea what he was talking about and thought he was simply trying to wind her up. She was prepared to begin scolding herself, but was interrupted by the creaking of floorboards which announced the arrival of her fellow travellers, each seemingly as tired as Dawn had been. Both the draconequus and the alicorn could not help but giggle at the sight of the weary group.

 

                “…Morning everypony…” mumbled Luna. The other three made similar slurred greetings and filtered into the café, drawing up chairs to squeeze in together on the same table. Much like Discord, the other travellers had laughed enough at the pastel maned mare’s coat; it no longer inspired fits of giggling as it once had. Although even if they hadn’t, their fatigue filled eyes prevented them from even properly registering the fact that the pink was still there.

 

Though she was determined to check her map again, the sheer number of hooves prevented Celestia from continuing her pathfinding. As funny as it was to see so many bed-manes, Celestia hoped the state of her companions would soon perk up. No matter how many times she had checked or tried to find a gentler route, the result was the same: they would have to soon travel through harsh desert. If their fatigue persisted through the day, she wasn’t sure they would be able to cope.

 

                “…Talk about wild weather. It was so hot to start with, then it got cold, then hot again! I barely got a wink of sleep!” Surprise moaned.

 

                “Sorry, I should have warned you. We’re just on the edge of the desert here in Last Meadow, and we normally have to share a little bit of the same climate,” Sleep Soft explained, having poked her head back into the café at the sound of the new arrivals. “We’re lucky though. It’s a bit milder here, not half as bad as the desert proper. I haven’t the faintest idea how those buffalo manage.”

 

                “Buffalo?” the entire table piped up in unison. They had all heard of buffalo before, but the thought of wandering into their native lands and possibly meeting one hadn’t occurred to any of them.

 

                “Oh yeah. They don’t ever come into town or anything, but you can sometimes see them stampeding in the distance. I would tell you more, but… that’s all I know,” Sleep Soft said with an apologetic tone.

 

                “This is gonna be so cool! Stampeding buffalo! I wonder how fast they can go?” Firefly excitedly exclaimed.

 

                Viator gave Firefly a disapproving glance as she began to swat her hooves about in a mock-fight with an imaginary buffalo “Don’t get ahead of yourself, I’ve heard buffalo can crush even large ponies underhoof. Of course, no matter how much brawn they have, it’ll never be as powerful as the likes of magic!”

 

                “Speaking of which, buffalo have horns, don’t they? They should be capable of magic themselves! I hope I get to study one…” Dawn pondered out loud, perked up at the thought of a new research project.

 

                “I wonder what they’re like…”

 

                “I wouldn’t worry yourself little Luna. I’m just positive we’ll meet some,” the draconequus reassured his younger sister, to which she smiled.

 

                “I bet they’re super strong! Come on guys, let’s get a move on already! I’m pumped!” The pink speedster was virtually jumping out of her seat.

 

                “You’re always pumped, Fire!”

 

                “Well, ‘course I am Surprise! I’m the fastest pony there is, I have to be! And I’m still pumped, so let’s go!”

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “…You’re all still staring into that thing? I think I’m somewhat glad I’ve never had children, if this is what it does to you,” the stallion announced in a somewhat snarky tone to the four other ponies gazing deeply into the orb.

 

                “Oh, Mr. Penwell no! Being a parent is the most wonderful thing!” The pegasus’ voice echoed around the stone hall, causing her to recoil a little in shock at the noise.

 

                “I hate to get all sappy, but I have to agree with Softie. Firefly always was a hoofful, especially after her mother passed on, but watching her grow has been one of the best things I’ve ever done,” the brown earth pony admitted without hesitation.

 

                Penwell frowned at Dustcloud. Firefly’s father in particular was not one to make what few words he did speak to be mushy ones.

 

                A familiar chuckle rang around the hall. “I’m certain we’ve had this conversation before, old friend. When those rumours arose concerning us two, I think?” added Aumean after her chortling settled down.

 

                “Yes, we did. And my opinion hasn’t changed: how would I ever find the time to do anything with a foal or two running around?”

 

                Aumean laughed once more, though she was joined by the three parents. They all knew what the library pony spoke of, having each dealt with what some ponies called the “horrors of foalhood” at some point. It did not alter their outlooks on their children in the slightest however.

 

                “You should have had him babysit more, Aumean. Then he might know!” Softheart’s husband, Sun Spring, suggested.

 

                “Perhaps you are right. Regardless, I think Penwell is correct on one thing: we have been spying on them for sometime now. Why not have something to eat?” the ivory alicorn offered her guests.

 

                “B-But, they’re about to go into a desert! We have to keep an eye for them!” cried Softheart.

 

                “Now, now dear. They’ve handled everything so far, haven’t they? And I’m sure Aumean will do something if they really need the help, right Aumean?” Sun Spring asked as he tried to reassure his panic-prone wife.

 

                “…If it is an absolute necessity, yes,” the alicorn replied with a surprising lack of confidence.

 

                “I don’t mean any disrespect, but that wasn’t all to convincing.” Dustcloud spoke for Sun Spring and Softheart as well as himself. It was rare for Aumean’s tone to not inspire complete trust and it was normally not such a bad thing when it didn’t, when it came to the safety of their children however, the other parents could not help but feel the need to question the strength deficiency in Aumean’s voice.

 

                The ancient mare sighed loudly and trotted slowly to a window. “…No matter where they are or what they face, it is unlikely I could not help them, should they need it. That is not the question. The question is whether I should help them.”

 

                “…Only a Queen watches over her kingdom, right Aumean?” Aumean turned her head from the window and smiled sadly at Penwell.

 

                “…W-What do you mean?” stuttered Softheart.

 

                The ivory mare sighed once more. “I am an alicorn, Softheart. An old one at that. Nearly by definition, that makes me very… powerful,” she forced herself to say “I could no doubt help all our children, in someway, regardless of what it is that endangers them. But I could also do this for nearly any pony. Counting their journey or not, should they alone be guaranteed protection purely because they are our children? Surely, if I were to come to their aid in their time of need, I should do so for all who I possibly could. But in doing that, even more problems arise…” Again, Aumean sighed and went to staring out of the window once more.

 

                Knowing it was an uncomfortable subject for his friend to talk about, yet realising the need of the other parents to comprehend what she was talking about, Penwell took over. “Ponies are interesting creatures, you have to understand. Generally, we love freedom, yet try to avoid responsibility when we can. Most would happily give up the need to make decisions to somepony else if they felt their freedom wasn’t too threatened and that they could trust that pony with the responsibility. Unfortunately, Aumean here fits the bill of such a pony almost to the letter,” he explained to the intently-focused three.

 

                “I cannot help but feel that if I were to start using my power like that, then the ponies of the land would ask that I continue to use it. Not only would it disrupt the natural flow of the world, but ponies everywhere would come to rely on me more and more. It wouldn’t feel right to become a de facto Queen, simply because of my gifts. Ponies should be free to make and live by their own decisions, not feel the need to defer to the will or even just the council of some individual sitting above them, who had the fortune to be born with such abilities.” Aumean stopped to regain her breath and composure, having let it slip somewhat during her speech. She turned to face the three other parents and smiled another of her slightly sad smiles. “…That is why I’m reluctant to intervene to any great extent. Now… about getting something to eat…”

 

                The three parents, including the normally gruff Dustcloud, smiled apologetically back in return. “Sorry, Aumean… we understand now, I think. Right?” Softheart said, looking to the two beside her for confirmation.

 

                “You all get way too worked up about these things, in my opinion,” Penwell commented in a slightly snarky tone once more. “Come on, let’s do what Aumean said and eat. I’ve had to skip lunch because of you four.”

 

                They each began to cheer up and share some laughter. “Perhaps you’re right, old friend. Lead on, why don’t you?” Aumean nodded to the single stone corridor connecting the chamber to the rest of the library.

 

                “Oh, very funny, my Queen,” Penwell replied. It had been funny however, and he was unable to keep the amusement from his voice. The five ponies laughed together again and filtered one by one from the chamber, leaving their children to continue their quest free of observation.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                Only the waves and the occasional squawking of birds could be heard, despite the boat having two passengers. It had been like for many hours, and the silence was only broken by the eventual sound of shimmering magic. A woolly black sweater made it way through the air and over the shoulders of the striped being, resting her head on hooves on the boat’s railing and staring almost lifelessly out over the endless waters.

 

                “…You’ll catch a terrible cold if you stay out for too long, lass. Why don’t you pop below deck, get some shut eye perhaps?”

 

                “…I don’t want to.”

 

                The unicorn looked sadly at his zebra friend. The pity he felt for her surpassed any other he had ever felt. For a young girl to have seen what she saw was nothing short of heartbreaking. The merchant pony had encountered his fair share of tragedy before, but nothing on the scale of the sight that greeted him after investigating beyond that foliage, to find out the cause of his friend’s unbelievable pain. Everything about it made him feel bad; not just the intense sorrow Kromi must have been plagued with, but the dreadful thought that the entire incident may have in someway been his fault. Griffons, or “the Taloned” as the zebras knew them, the ones who had committed the awful atrocity, had never so much as found Oromo Village beforehoof. The only reason Coin Bag could think as to why and how they had struck was because they had followed somepony: him. He knew that griffons regularly raided large pony merchant ships, but Coin Bag had always been able to avoid trouble thanks to only sailing a small vessel, apparently not worthy for the griffons to devote any resources to. That didn’t mean they never saw him though. Practically every ship coming from Equestria was headed to Cairib, but if even a single griffon scout saw a vessel head somewhere else for a change, then that scout would likely investigate. Just as Kromi did not, or perhaps could not, talk of her troubles, Coin Bag was also unable to find the strength or conviction to voice his fears.

 

                “…How long until we arrive at Cairib?” Coin Bag could tell that everything had gone wrong. This was it, Kromi’s dream to escape from Oromo and begin a life of her own, a life of adventure and discovery. And yet here she was, taking her first steps down the path her heart had set out for her, with a voice so monotone and devoid of life it dragged Coin Bag down even further into pity.

 

                Kromi did not receive a response immediately. Rather, she was pulled momentarily from her stare by the ship’s sail glowing with a copper light. Slowly, they furled themselves up. “…What are you doing?” the zebra asked, anger beginning to ring sharply in her voice.

 

“…Listen lass, I can’t rightly sail this old ship a knot more. Not until you let all of those troubles loose to the winds,” he replied, his own voice becoming sterner. “This was supposed to be the merriest time of your whole life, and look at you! Don’t take this around the wrong bend, it would be simply brutish of me to have you face your rump towards everything that’s happened. But, you have to get it all out, otherwise… well… dear me lass, I’ve seen it before and it’s no show! No show at all…” Coin Bag trailed off. He had seen it before and the only result was a wreck of a pony.

 

Kromi looked to him, and then back out to the water. The unicorn could tell she was in conflict with her self on whether to follow her friend’s advice and open her heart, to try and set free all the pent up agony, anger and sorrow, yet expose herself to it all once more. It was a conflict she was far too young to have to make. One no pony should ever have to make, but especially one as young as the normally hopeful zebra.

 

“Do… do you promise it’ll work? T-That it’ll go away?”

 

“I hate to say it, lass, but that’s one deal I can’t make. You’ve had the worst the world can throw your way and it’ll be one dreadfully high climb back up. But letting your chums carry some of the cargo is a sure way to get there top speed and let everypony a go at the profits!” He tried to smile reassuringly, and Coin Bag was blessed to know that he had done at least something right, as she smiled back. It was not a joyous smile, the kind Coin Bag was used to from his striped friend, but it held the slightest shimmer of hope, and it was precisely what the unicorn had wanted to see.

 

“T-Thank you,” she simply said. It looked to the pony as if she was going to say more, but instead she merely stuttered and tripped over her words several times, sat on her haunches, and started to cry.

 

The merchant pony knew that Kromi should be the only one to speak from then on, until she had voiced her sadness and properly mourned the loss of her former life. Instead, the older of the two trotted over and joined the sitting zebra, sure to wrap a comforting hoof around her shoulder while the tears flowed.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “…C’mon… Let’s… let’s go…everypony…ughh…”

 

                “Don’t talk… Firefly… just… focus… on walking…”

 

                “Sis… it’s so hot…”

 

                “You too… Luna… just keep on walking…”

 

                “Darn it hat… why… why don’t you work…?”

 

                “Firefly… I already told you…”

 

                “I can’t… I can’t…uhhh…” With a soft thud, the blue earth pony collapsed into the sand.

 

                “Dawn!” The snowy pegasus screamed as her fellow traveller fell to the ground. Even with the desperation in her voice, the other five’s senses were dulled by the blistering heat of the desert and it took them several seconds to turn their heads in response. Only the sight of Dawn lying still was enough to prompt adrenaline to enter their veins.

 

                “D-Dawn!?” The earth pony did not respond to Luna. “Dawn!” the midnight alicorn cried exactly as Surprise had. Realising precisely what was going on, they all rushed to the fallen pony’s side.

 

                “She’s burning up. Somepony get her water! There, carry her into the shade,” Celestia ordered. Nopony argued otherwise and they all scrambled for their canteens in search of even the smallest drop of water while the elder alicorn gently lifted Dawn with her magic and carried her into what little shade a nearby boulder provided.

 

                “I’m all out!”

 

                “Me too!” Panic was beginning to set itself into both Surprise and Firefly’s faces and they both looked instinctively to Celestia for guidance.

 

                “I think it is safe to say none of us have any to spare, Celestia,” Discord informed her. Celestia was glad that both the draconequus and Viator were seemingly able to keep their cool. If they didn’t have any water, then they would simply have to try and make some.

 

                “Discord, Viator. Do either of you know any spells to transmute water? Or to create it?” The white mare’s teeth were gritted. It was sometimes difficult for her to believe that water, one of the simplest natural elements, was so difficult to make with magic. Though by no means an impossible task, water spells were often notoriously complex and it would be made even more challenging by the oppressive heat.

 

                “Of course I can transmute water! But it’s not just that she’s dehydrated, it must be just too hot for her body to cope. Water will only help so much. We need to bring her core temperature down, quickly,” The show stallion explained. Although he had never ventured into the desert beforehoof, Viator’s travels had ensured he had heard many tales regarding the dangers of more exotic environments such as the one they were in.

 

                “But how? We can’t turn back, and there’s nothing out here!” the speedster wailed.

 

                “…Socks!”

 

                Each of the still-conscious travellers craned their necks to shoot a raised eyebrow at Luna’s bizarre comment. “…What?” The show stallion expressed his companions’ confusion perfectly.

 

                “Socks! The socks that uncle Star Swirl gave us!” Luna was no longer keeping eye contact, instead rummaging magically and physically through her saddlebags. After a moments frantic searching, she triumphantly produced the bundle of cyan wool that Star Swirl had originally gifted them the day before. “He said that they helped keep whoever wore them at just the right temperature!”

 

                Realisation hit the other five like a storm and they rushed over to grab the socks from Luna’s hooves and quickly pull them over Dawn’s. Discord was quick to put his paw to her forehead and he could tell almost immediately that her temperature had begun to stabilise.

 

                “Viator, the water!” Celestia snapped, eager to do everything possible to get her friend back on her hooves.

 

                “Oh, yes, right… Just a moment, and the Grand & Mightful Viator will-”

 

                “Now V!” the snowy pegasus practically roared.

 

                Boasting stifled, Viator grabbed both his canteen and a large pile of sand in a magical grip. Then, with another burst of magic from his horn, he turned the sand into a floating glob of clear water which he promptly siphoned into the canteen.

 

                Working in perfect telekinetic conjunction, the canteen was passed from Viator to Discord and then to Celetsia and brought to Dawn’s lips in seconds. Some spilled down her muzzle and was quickly evaporated upon touching the scorching dust below, although once her body sensed the presence of the much needed liquid the blue earth pony began to unconsciously lap it up greedily as it poured from the bottle.

 

                “I do believe she’ll be alright. We should stop here, just for now,” the draconequus advised in what had become a rare moment of seriousness for him.

 

                “Alright, if you can get us some more shade. If we spend too long out here, then we’ll all end up like this.” They all nodded in agreement and set about making the spot more appropriate for resting. Surprise and Firefly lay down towels, cloths and even the few clothes they might have packed so that their bare skin did not have to touch what felt like near-molten earth. Meanwhile, Celestia, Discord and Luna used their magic to try and create parasols and umbrellas to extend what little shade there was. Lastly, Viator took it upon himself to refill their canteens as much as he could, tiring himself more in the process from the strain of casting so many complicated spells.

 

                A few minutes after they had settled themselves as best they could, Dawn began to stir. “…What happened…?” The blond maned earth pony’s voice created a wave of relief that spread through the makeshift camp.

 

                “You collapsed from heat exhaustion, Dawn!” Surprise informed her while joining Luna in hugging their revived friend. “We were really worried!”

 

                “You should thank Luna, though. And your uncle. It was her thinking and his socks that helped you,” Celestia told Dawn, nodding to her blushing little sister. The earth pony frowned before noticing the cyan tubes covering her hooves and lower legs. It was odd enough to see a pony in such apparel, but even odder to see one sitting under a multitude of parasols with vastly different designs in the middle of a desert.

 

                “Don’t forget my amazing skills! It was me, who got you the vital fluids you needed!” Viator added, determined to get what credit was due.

 

                “T-Thank you, both. I didn’t think this desert would be so… treacherous!” she exclaimed, bowing slightly to both the younger alicorn and show stallion in turn.

 

                “It was nothing, really! Uncle Star Swirl is the one who really deserves thanks!” Luna mumbled sheepishly.

 

                “Speaking of which, we should be sure to take turns with those socks when we start up again. They should help to stop anything like this happening again.” Baring Luna, each of the travellers nodded once more to Celestia’s judgement, though neither could help glancing at the articles of footwear awkwardly. They knew they would need them to prevent anymore instances of sudden collapse, but it would be no less embarrassing.

 

                “Hey… why are we even here anyway? Are you sure the compass pointed this way? I dunno if even Meanie would send us to somewhere as crazy as this place.” Firefly’s question prompted her friends to ask themselves the same thing. Their quest for the Elements had seen them travel through harsh terrain already, but Dawn’s mishap was rapidly making it clear just how perilous the surrounding land was. They would have to be especially careful and take every additional precaution to ensure they made it through the desert without serious consequences.

 

                “That’s why I made sure to wake up early and triple check. At first I thought we were meant to go to Gallopotris, on the other side of the desert,” as she spoke, Celestia drew forth her trusty map and compass and laid it out for the others to see. She pointed a hoof to a small blip marked “Last Meadow” before continuing. “If we were, then we could have simply taken the boat around the coast. But the closer I looked at it, the more it became clear this wasn’t the case. The most precise direction I could get from the compass didn’t correspond to any marked town or city. Somewhere in the desert was the only possible explanation,”

 

                “Huh… We don’t really have a choice then, do we Tia?”

 

                “No, Surpisena, we don’t. Not if we want to see this through,” Celestia replied with a heavy-heart.

 

                “Are you sure we should, sis?” Luna spoke up, uncertainty clear in her voice. “I know mother said it would be difficult, but I don’t want anypony to get hurt…”

 

                “…Except for Dawn, you all come from Ponyville, correct?” The show stallions question was met with a round of nods, as well as frowns. The question seemed fairly random. Viator’s laughing prompted his companions to raise the eyebrows even higher. “You’ve come all this way and want to quit now? You hit one wall, and are going to just sit down and stop? Hmpf, I wouldn’t stop you, but I know that I’m not going to let a pile of sand scare me away.”

                

“…V’s right! We got past a dragon didn’t we? We can get past this as well!” The speedster’s cheer was accompanied by her hoof being thrust into the centre of the small circle they had formed. “Who’s with me!?”

 

                The downcast expressions that had been weighing down the faces of the group turned to grins. Four hooves and one paw then met Firefly’s. “We should all paint ourselves pink for thinking such a thing, right Celestia?” The alicorn did not need paint, as Discord’s comment rapidly made her flush with a mixture of rosy coloured embarrassment and a frustrated scarlet, much to the amusement of everypony present.

 

                Once their fun had died down, each one of the travellers began to prepare to continue their journey through the unrelenting heat of the desert once more, albeit with far more preparation. Rather than leave or destroy the parasols they had created, it was decided that they should use them in turns, as they would Star Swirl’s enchanted socks.

 

                With their canteens refilled by Viator’s magic, the socks distributed, and the parasols floating overhead and ready to be tied to their sides should the magic users tire, the group deemed itself ready to travel once more. As they set out under the baking sun, it became clearly apparent that despite all their preparation, they were still going to be under a great deal of strain. Even with the precautions they took, the sapping heat still invaded their bodies and drained their strength away mere minutes after departing the temporary camp.

 

                The hours dragged on by and the desert warmth had reduced each of the adventurers to sweaty, panting bundles of fur. And it was only to become worse. The wind began to stir, slowly at first, though it gained speed as time went on and soon the group found themselves amongst a fierce dust storm. Though the howling sands blocked out the harsh rays of the sun, the pelting particles were just as hot as the earth beneath the party’s hooves and the sudden maelstrom offered little relief. On the contrary, it made the ponies’ plight even more dire; they could barely see in front of them, and that was when they could open their eyes any longer than a hoofful of seconds, as the raging storm nipped and burned at any exposed surface and was especially painful on the eyes.

 

                “We have to find shelter!” cried Surprise as well as she could over the roaring tide of sand.

 

                “I think I saw some cliffs ahead, we might be able to find some there!” Discord attempted to reply. He made sure to flail his arms widely in the direction of the cliff, so that his fellows at least knew where to go.

 

                There was no argument or further talk. Conversation was simply too difficult with the party engulfed by the screeching winds and it would distract them from the only thing that mattered: getting into cover and out of the nightmarish storm.

 

                The ponies and draconquus trudged on for what seemed an eternity to them until they could make out the looming figure of a shadowy rock face standing vigilant before them, immune to the hammering of the sandstorm. The travellers could not even afford to smile at the prospect of shelter; literally all of their energy was devoted to simply reaching it. Of course, the cliff by itself would only provide marginal protection, but what the cliff could offer and what the travellers desperately hoped for, was a cave or even just a low outcrop they could squeeze under. Anything that would stop the relentless stinging would do.

 

                “We’ll split into two groups! Each follow the cliff along and see if you can find anything! If you do or don’t, turn back after fifteen minutes and we’ll meet back here!” Celestia shouted as loud as her lungs would allow. Once again, there was no argument and the seven broke off into two groups. Celestia, Luna and Firefly went one way while Discord, Surprise, Viator and Dawn went the other. The magic users of both groups were sure to keep their most powerful light spells up to ensure they had the best chance of finding any form of cover in the smooth stone wall, as well as each other when the time came to meet again.

 

                To their despair, they could find nothing. Both groups did not turn back until the very last second, yet were unable to locate anything but more worn rock. Once they had managed to trace each other again, their faces were all they need to tell of any success, or lack of it. They were in a dangerous situation indeed; already was each of the adventurers beginning to find it harder and harder to breath as their throats were infiltrated and smothered with sand. Should the storm become even worse, then the desert’s fury would become instead some sort of twisted competition to see which it could do first: choke or lash the struggling travellers alive. They had to find shelter if they were to have any hope of continuing their quest, or even making it home.

 

                ‘…We don’t have any choice…’ She didn’t very much like the idea, but it was all the white alicorn could think of. “Luna, Viator, Discord, by me! We’re going to make a cave!” As the three other sorcerers gathered beside her, Celestia pointed a hoof to the cliff face. Luna was the only one to look surprised, but like Discord and Viator needed no further explanation. “You three, stand back!” The pastel maned mare did not wait for them to do so, and turned her head back towards the rock, her horn joining the others in their intense glow.

 

                 Celestia did not give a signal, but the four still managed to launch their magical assault upon the cliff in perfect synchronisation. Four beams of varying colours bore into the stone with a resounding clap and inch by inch began to dissolve it away, the magic shaking the whole cliff with its magnitude. The task of forcefully digging their own cave into the cliff was a difficult one, perhaps more than the four could handle in their exhausted and beaten state, but nopony in the group would find out if the magician’s power would be enough. After several seconds of the beams gnawing away at its base, the entire rock face began to quake and rumble even more ferociously and a horrifying crack split the air.

 

                “Watch ou-!” Dawn was unable to finish her warning, as the cascading wave of boulders was already upon them. Years of erosion at the hands of similar storms had ensured that the mounds and cliffs of the region were highly unstable and susceptible to collapse at the hoofs of even the slightest force. The four magic users had poured far more than that into it, and been paid back in full, along with their companions.

 

                Once the boulders and growling of the cliff had settled, it would have been silent were it not for the screaming of the winds.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                Amongst the hustle and bustle of Manehatten, an earth pony and a pegasus felt a strange sort of loss. They had been searching and asking everypony they met throughout the day but had not had any luck in finding so much as a single clue as to the whereabouts of the Grand & Mightful Viator. The moss green stallion looked to the bags secured around his back sadly. He was honour bound to return the few possessions the unicorn had entrusted him with, and until he did so, Craggy could not feel content. No doubt Viator’s work forced him to remain on the move at all times, and simply hadn’t the chance to stop and wait for his friend and one-time companion to catch up and get the indisputably important items back to him.

 

                A tap on the shoulder from Craggy’s hovering cohort ‘Bright Eyes’ brought the ranger from his momentary lapse and he followed her hoof to see a myriad of wooden piers in the distance. It was the harbour which was largely part of why the city had flourished so much, and also where many ponies would go to continue in whatever travels they may be on.

 

                “O’ course! He’s a stallion wit’ no home! I bet he’s gone moved onto the next big ol’ town! C’mon, we’ll go see if we cannut git some answers from them dock-folk!” With their new destination in mind the two ponies rushed to the docks eagerly. Buying a ticket did not require a name to be given, but surely the dock master or pass vendor would remember a stallion such as the Grand & Mightful Viator.

 

                At that time, the harbour was very quiet. The vast majority of vessels had returned from their duties and been securely anchored to one of the many piers that riddled the water. Neither were there any ferries due, and the docks were devoid of life for the most part. Craggy and Bright Eyes were in luck however, as the ticket vendor had not yet left his post at the ferry’s wharf. The last ship had sailed sometime ago, but the paperwork and sorting of the day’s profit had obviously held him back.

 

                “That’s 170, 180- Hmm? Can I help you, sir-”

 

“’scuse me! Me an’ ma good friend ‘ere are lookin’ for a uni-corn wit’ this mark,” Craggy cheerfully announced while shoving the make-shift search poster Bright Eye’s had drawn earlier into the stallion’s face.

 

The move took the vendor by surprise and he drew his head back sharply. “…L-Let me see…” He frowned at the tattered bag momentarily. “…No, I’m sorry, I would need more of a descrip-”

 

“Stallion. Fancy blue coat. Pretty well built for a uni-corn. Oh, and he’s a big, super-talented, sparkly magic type ta boot! Famous ‘un all.”

 

                “…Sorry, sir, but I don’t recall- Wait, famous magician? Yes… yes that does ring a bell… what was his name?” The vendor put a hoof to his chin and rubbed it vigorously, trying to recall the individual in question. “…I can’t quite remember, but I did see somepony like that sending off a few friends I think. Odd crowd, had a pet chimera and two awful tall mares… Anyway, he didn’t get on the boat with them, went back into tow-”

 

“Didn’t git on the boat with ‘em? Where’d ‘e go then?”

 

The ticket master glanced back at Craggy indignantly. “As I was saying, he went back into town. I think he might liv-”

 

“Went back inta town, huh? Well least he ain’t on some voy-age to Galloptown or whutever. Thank ya kindly mister, you been a mighty fine help! C’mon Bright Eyes, think we gotta do some ol’ fashioned de-ducting!” Craggy gestured to the floating pegasus and the two began a rapid canter back towards the heart of Manehatten, leaving the ticket vendor flailing and shouting after them.

 

“W-Wait! Hold your hoofs, I might be able to get you some directions to his hous-”

 

“Cya later, pardner! Thanks again!” After being interrupted once more, the vendor simply decided to let the two rude ponies be on their way. He might have been able to get an address, or at the very least the general neighbourhood, but if they didn’t want it, then they didn’t want it.

 

“Ai’ight, let’s go over the facts; he weren’t on that there boat ta the other big cities an’ musta just been seeing off them folk we met. Then he went back inta town, but ain’t nopony saw ‘im. He musta passed on through real quick like… but where woulda wandering stallion like ‘im go next?” The two slowed their pace and gazed off in thought. As they passed a noticeboard however, Bright Eyes suddenly reared back in midair and gazed at a particular piece of paper on the board. Craggy was unable to tell straight away as to what she was looking at due to her eye condition, but was soon ale to follow her hoof when she pointed to a particular point on a large map.

 

“!” Bright Eye’s began to stab at the map to emphasise her discovery, prompting the ranger to rush over and get a closer look at exactly what it was that had her so excited. Staring at the spot where her hoof had been, Craggy could see the name of a town.

 

“…Ploughmouth? O’ course! It’s the only other big town close by! Yer’ a genius, parnder! C’mon, we best get to it, not a moment ta lose!” The two ponies nodded in agreement and resumed their rapid gait.

 

Ploughmouth was another large port town to the south of Manehatten. It couldn’t boast to be of the same size as the city, but was certainly larger then the likes of country villages like Ponyville or Neighly. It would be quite a trek; Ploughmouth was some distance to the south, past the plains surrounding Manehatten, back through Neighly and then even further south along or through the Western Range. While most ponies would loathe the idea of travelling through the mountains and would prefer to hire a chariot or balloon, Craggy knew those hills like the back of his hoof and would easily be able to navigate his and Bright Eyes’ way through them quickly and safely. Knowing the Grand & Mightful Viator, he would surely try and do the same, giving Craggy a big advantage in catching up.

 

Destination set and route planned, the travelling duo rushed back into Manehatten to stock up on supplies and then once again set upon their journey to return what had been lost, in what could only be the correct direction. Craggy smiled as he galloped onwards, his magician friend had no need to worry, everything was going to be alright!

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “No… no, no, no… Celestia, Luna, Discord! Anypony… just somepony wake up!” The only response Dawn got was from the constant wail of the swirling winds. She lay huddled between a random assortment of boulders that offered her only the slightest refuge from the vicious storm. Her companions laid there with her, unconscious, after being unceremoniously dragged there. All of them, the panic-stricken earth pony included, were covered with large, swollen bruises and deep cuts and grazes. Their injuries came from the hundreds of scattered rocks that had furiously assaulted them after their failed attempt to carve out a cave in the cliff side resulted in nearly the entire mountain collapsing upon them. Dawn had been the only one to retain consciousness and was now suffering with the choice of what to do. She could not stay where she was, but neither could she simply leave her friends to be claimed by the storm.

 

                For the first time in months, droplets of water hit the desert floor. It was not rain however, but the tears of a young earth pony who, after only just starting what was to be a magical journey of discovery, was fresh out of hope.

 

                “Uncle…” It was all Dawn could manage. She did not regret her decision to accompany Celestia and her group, but was merely in despair at having everything cut short as it was. She could feel the sand gnawing at her and her lungs wheeze more and more with the strain of breathing in the thick air. Dawn did not believe in any sort of afterlife, but if there was one, then she knew she would miss a lot of things. Taking leisurely strolls around Manehatten, watching the night roll by with a good book by her side, picking the universe apart piece by piece with her uncle and gorging herself on its secrets. But perhaps most of all, she would miss that old bearded unicorn.

 

                “How long do you think you’re going to be gone for, dear? Pah! I didn’t raise you to be a cry filly! Now go, off with you!”

 

With the thought of Star Swirl also came the last words he had said to his niece. The proud look on his face filled Dawn’s vision and it occurred to her that if he saw her now, the ageing sorcerer would not be able to hide his disappointment. She was not just crying, but she had given up, just like that, forgetting one of the most important lessons she had been taught.

 

“Now Victory, listen to me. If you’re going to be my assistant, remember this: there is always a solution. It doesn’t matter what you’re working on, no matter how complex a problem seems, there will always be an answer somewhere. It might not be as good as you hoped and it might require a great deal of effort, but it will always be there.”

 

A scientist didn’t give up. That was what Dawn’s uncle had pounded into her from day one of her living with him. True, her situation wasn’t like the many troubles she faced in the laboratory, but the message still stood. Under no circumstance could she just give up, lie down and accept her fate. She had to think.

 

‘Think, Dawn, think! Okay, the storm came in from the south west, so it will be heading north east. If I head in the direction the storm came from, I should escape it sooner. But what to do about the others? I definitely can’t leave them, but it’s physically impossible for a single pony like me to carry them all at the same time without assistance or magic… That’s it! Magic assistance!” The idea struck her like a thunder bolt, and she scrambled over to the fallen Firefly almost as quickly. Dawn’s hooves were shaking, but she was still able to retrieve the pendant Star Swirl had gifted them. As she placed the amulet over her neck, Dawn realised that not only one, but two of the three items her uncle had given to them had ended up saving their lives. The thought was somewhat unnerving; Star Swirl had never bothered researching claims of foresight or possible magic related to it and while the old stallion may have simply had a keen idea of the sort of challenges they may have faced, Dawn was still a little disturbed at just how convenient the items were becoming.

 

The young mare shook her head and focused more on enacting her plan. The hows and whys could wait until they were out of danger. Instead, Dawn continued to search through each of the ponies’ packs until she had everything else she needed: rope, a tarp and a pair of sunglasses. The glasses weren’t ideal, visibility was low enough as it was, but she would at least be able to keep her eyes open for longer periods without having to stop and rub the sharp grit from them. With the rope and tarp, she quickly assembled a rough “bag” to carry her friends in while they were still out cold.

 

“Thank you, Uncle,” the earth pony mumbled under her breath. Everything was in place: the ropes she had tied around her middle were in turn strapped to the tarp which her companions were partially wrapped in. It was crude, but it was an answer. With a final deep breath, Dawn pushed down on the simple gemstone within her amulet.

 

Even behind the blinding sand and darkened glasses, the world was lit up. Strength flooded through every muscle fibre and nerve in the mare’s being. It was as if somepony had scooped her mind from her own body and placed it in something… evolved. The force coursing through her was like nothing she had felt, and Dawn could now perfectly understand why Firefly had demanded to be allowed to run almost immediately after the spell has been originally cast. For the first time since the dread storm had engulfed them, Dawn grinned. Raising her hoof, she then placed it down in front of her, and pulled. To her glee and growing confidence, she moved forward. It was hard, even with the magic throbbing in her muscles, but nothing she would not be able to handle.

 

Resolve and confidence growing with each step, the whole group was able to make progress once more, albeit only through Dawn’s efforts. It was, however, not to last. The earth pony walked and walked and still the sandstorm raged. The magic augmenting her strength gradually faded, and she was forced to use another charge from the amulet lest she fruitlessly attempt and pull herself and her friends under her own physical power. And breathing! Dawn’s throat burned with every breath and no matter how deeply she inhaled, she could never seem to feel the rush of sufficient oxygen flowing into her.

 

‘Just… a little… further!’

 

It could have just been an illusion of the sand, but the world itself seemed to be shifting and becoming distorted. Even her mind was not immune to the arid hell Dawn found herself; the earth pony’s thoughts became as laboured as her breathing and at times she had to remind herself as to where she was, what she was doing and if she was actually awake or not. Everything hurt, and the temptation to just lie down and go to sleep on the warm, soft sands grew every time her hoof touched the earth.

 

‘I can rest… just a little while-’

 

“I didn’t raise you to be a cry filly!”

 

‘But-’

 

“There will always be an answer somewhere!”

 

‘I can’t-’

 

“I won’t have any of that, Dawn.”

 

The apprentice scientist stopped in her sluggish tracks. Body and mind were screeching for her to stop, just to stop and give up the pointless task of continuing. But something wasn’t letting her. It would hurt, it would be excruciating, but she was still able to go on, regardless of how much her muscle and light head told her otherwise. What was it? Her uncle? No, her memory of him perhaps. She didn’t want to let him down by giving up. She didn’t want to let anypony down by giving up. She couldn’t give up. Dawn had not travelled far, but that was perhaps the very reason as to why something deep down, even deeper than her very own thoughts, outright rejected the idea of abandoning the struggle she faced. There was so much left to see! Do! Learn!

 

“After all, to carry on my work demands the highest standard and you still need the experience!”

 

It was then that Dawn made a decision. She was just going to keep going. Once more did she lift her hoof and place it firmly into the sand and once more did she pull her friends along with her. And it did not mater how loudly her body begged her to stop, as she made sure to only focus on the smaller, yet far more commanding voice within her.

 

Dawn walked. She kept walking for what may have been minutes or days; she was concentrating far too much on simply taking the next step to be able to tell. And that was how it went on until, like the friends she carried so diligently, Dawn was consumed by darkness.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “…Thank you. I apologise for such an abrupt request. I will be sure to return my gratitude in person soon.”

 

                “Do not worry yourself, Aumean. We would be honoured to act host to any kin of yours.”

 

                “Hmm, I’m not sure you would say that if you’d met the rest of my family.”

 

                “That has yet to happen however, so the statement still stands.”

 

                “Yes… Well, once again I’m sorry for asking this of you. Things… didn’t go quite how I thought they would.”

 

                “You underestimated this land, Aumean. It is fortunate you had the means of contacting me.”

 

                “I can assure you, friend, I won’t make the same mistake again.”

 

                “Then all is well. It is comforting to know that even a being of your age is still able to learn from one’s errors. I must go now, the patrol is returning.”

 

                “Goodbye then. Please, don’t-”

 

                “Fear not. I will ensure that whatever part you played is kept secret.”

 

                “…Thank you.”

 

                “Hmm.”

 

                With a meagre poof, the magical window disappeared in a small cloud of smoke, leaving the white alicorn alone in the now-silent chamber. It remained as such for several moments before a drawn-out sigh punctured the quiet followed by a frustrated voice.

 

                “Stupid, stupid, stupid! What was I thinking!? That one went too far!”

 

                Another sigh floating through the hall. Although the ancient mare was angry at herself for the mistake she had made, and the action she was forced to take as a result of it, she could not help but smile sadly.

 

                “You were right, brother. I really am too much of an optimist aren’t I? The dragon was one thing, but… I really overdid it this time, didn’t I?”

 

Silence.

 

“…Now I’m talking to myself. But, if I am talking to myself… Sorry, children. I promise I won’t do something so reckless again.”

 

There was of course, no reply.

 

“Now I just have to think of a good way to phrase it to Penwell. After our previous discussion… he’s really going to take in into the small hours-… Still doing it Aumean, still doing it…”

 

Yet another, though considerably less annoyed, sigh made its way around the chamber. Aumean shook her head to herself, carried on smiling, and left the hall which lapsed into silence once more after the resounding boom of its doors echoed throughout.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “…Where am I?”

 

                “Take it slowly now, dear.”

 

                “…Uncle!?” The sudden adrenaline rush forced Dawn’s eyes to shoot open. There before her was Star Swirl the Bearded, smiling.

 

                “Yes, yes. It’s me. Don’t worry, it’s all over now,” he comforted her. Had she done it?

 

                “Dawn, you’re awake!” The sound of hooves caused the confused earth pony’s head to whip around to the sight of all but one of companions rushing towards her excitedly. Luna, Discord, Surprise, Firefly, even Viator was there, healthy and happy at her regaining of consciousness. Yet Celestia was nowhere to be seen.

 

                “What…? I don’t remember what happened… did we make it?” Dawn asked the assembled crowd. “Where’s Celestia?” They did not respond, and Dawn could only twist her neck back and forth looking at each with an increasingly desperate expression. “What’s wrong!? Why aren’t you speaking? What happened!?”

 

                Finally, once all of their faces and smiles had subtlety shifted to hollow, emotionless visages, they spoke. “You failed.”

 

                “Wha-”

 

                “You failed, Dawn. You failed us.”

 

                Dawn continued to crane her neck from side to side, now becoming aware that the space they were all in was nothing but endless black. “Wait-”

 

                “I’m disappointed in you, Dawn. You have no right to call yourself my niece.”

 

                “No, NO! What’s going on!? Why are you all-”

 

                “Failure.”

 

                “S-Stop!”

 

                “Failure.”

                

                “Celestia, what’s going-”

 

                “Failure.”

 

                “Stop it! What’s wrong with you-”

 

                “Failu-”

 

                “STOP IT!”

 

                Piercing sunlight suddenly filled the earth pony’s vision and she was surrounded by the feel of feathers brushing softly on her coat.

 

“Easy, easy! It’s okay Dawn! Everything’s okay!” a familiar cheery voice called out from blinding light.

 

“…Surprise?” the blue pony mumbled. The voice certainly did sound like the snowy pegasus, though it was difficult for Dawn to tell whether it truly was her friend or whether she was still trapped within some sort of dream, or worse, nightmare.

 

“Yes! Just stay there, I’ll go get the others! Try not to move, alright?”

 

“Um, okay-”

 

“Hey everypony! She’s awake!” Surprise did not bother to wait for a response, she was too caught up with excitement and bolted from Dawn’s side yelling in joy.

 

“Hmm. She is a reckless one. Stay here,” yet another female voice asked the confused scientist. This voice was unfamiliar however and had an accent Dawn had never heard before, she was in fact totally unable to place it. She tried to find its source, but even with her hoof blocking the incredible rays of the sun, her vision was still blurred and her sore eyes could only make out a burly shape moving to the exit of whatever structure she was in. From the few things she could make out, Dawn was sure it was some sort of tent, a large one at that.

 

“…but why not!? She almost died you know!” More voices, this time coming from outside. Dawn was sure that the one she had just heard was Firefly’s.

 

“And that is precisely why. Do not worry yourself little ponies, draconequus. I shall have her remedies prepared soon. Once she has partaken of them, and had time to rest, then you may see her.” The voice of the large figure once again resounded. Despite not being especially loud, it was commanding and gave the solid impression that its owner was full of wisdom, certainly enough to make even Firefly back down in her demands. The blue earth pony could only make out so mumbling before the bulky figure returned to her side, covering the tent entrance in the process and blocking out the sun’s fierce glow.

 

“Who…?” Dawn blurted out with some effort. With the sunlight no longer in her eyes and her vision properly returning, the pony was able to make out more of her surroundings as well as the identity of her mysterious overseer. And it was more of a shock than it should have been, given their circumstances. The individual lying calmly by her side was without doubt a buffalo.

 

“Am I? Mmhm, yes, I am sure you will have many such questions. I am Spirit Horn, healer to the Sand Strider Tribe, the ones who rescued you and your friends from the desert,” the buffalo explained calmly. Dawn could see that while Spirit Horn maintained eye-contact with her whenever she spoke or was spoken to, she was still able to expertly mix various unique herbs, light candles of incense, crush brightly-coloured stones into fine powder and all sorts of other odd practises.

 

“The desert- Oh, that’s right! We were trapped in the sandstorm! What… Oh no… I blacked out, didn’t I? I failed all my friends…” The painful experience of her nightmare came flooding back to Dawn as she probed her memory for the events that had transpired.

 

“Failed? If you qualify your actions as a failure, little one, then I can only hope to ever see a success. There are few, even among us buffalo, who could have withstood the fury of the sands as long as you did, not including the weight of your friends as well,” the buffalo’s words resulted in Dawn blushing in embarrassment and she tried to cover her scarlet face with the feathery blankets. “No, the only failure was unavoidable ignorance. Entering the desert unprepared as you and your friends did has sadly claimed the lives of many a would-be traveller,” Spirit Horn sighed loudly. “Many times have I attempted to advise the chief on better educating your kind before they enter these treacherous lands, while they still know the luxuries of Last Meadow. Unfortunately, he does not feel the effort and risk to our own kind worth it, for the sake of the rare few who do underestimate the desert.”

 

“I see…”

 

“…Yes. Oh, and I believe this is yours. It must have fallen from you.” Spirit Horn reached around to what Dawn presumed were their bags.

 

“Oh, the pendant? I couldn’t have gotten so far without it!” the earth pony exclaimed, thankful that she hadn’t lost her uncle’s parting gift.

 

“Hmm. I sensed, and saw, the magic in it. It is certainly very powerful,” remarked the wise buffalo. However, the object Spirit Horn handed to Dawn was not the enchanted amulet she and her friends had been given by Star Swirl the Bearded. The pony’s face underwent an odd and rapid change, first falling in disappointment and confusion then lighting up in shocked realisation. What Spirit Horn held in her hoof, was a perfectly cut, light cyan gemstone that shone with its own light. It could only be one of the Elements that the others had shown her, and the very purpose of their very journey.

 

“Where… where did you find this?” Dawn struggled to say, such was her amazement.

 

“Hmm? I am told it was by your side where they found you, half-buried in the sand. Why, is there something wrong?”

 

Dawn did not reply and simply gazed at the gem, frowning. ‘Could it just be coincidence…? No, the chances of it are astronomical. There must be something else-’

 

Hey lady! Can we see her yet!?” a familiarly impatient voice yelled from outside the tent. A blue maned head poked in from around the flap of the tent door. “Dawn! How you feelin’? Hurry up and get better so we can get out of here! I hate to say it, but these buffalo are really lame! C’mon-Ow, ow! Hey, cut it out!” Firefly was unable to finish her complaints, as a light red glimmer manifested above her head and forcibly shoved it out of the tent.

 

“Your friend should learn some patience. Though her concern for you is admirable.” The light was unmistakably that of the telekinetic magic commonly seen in use by unicorns. Dawn was sure that other than her and Spirit Horn, there was no others in the tent, and the magic’s colour did not match that of any of the scientist’s friends. Which left only one other possibility.

 

“You can use magic!? Wait,” Dawn stroked her chin thoughtfully, thinking of the healer’s exact words. “Of course, that’s how you sensed the Element’s magic…” concluded the earth pony.

 

Spirit Horn smiled. “Yes. Though all buffalo have horns, the gift of magic does not run strongly in our people. Few have the raw talent needed to develop it to any great extent. It is a shame, perhaps, but we survive and many of my brethren are happy without it,” the healer explained with both a hint of melancholy and amusement.

 

“But it’s still fascinating! Do buffalo magicians specialise in anything specific? I assume they serve similar roles to you, as healers?” Dawn excitedly inquired.

 

“Yes, you are right. Despite their scarcity, we specialise in using our magics in conjunction with what plants, herbs and other treasures the desert has to offer,” Spirit Horn gestured to the various reagents she was still masterfully mixing. “May I ask the same of you? Though as I understand it, unicorns are somewhat more adventurous when it comes to the arcane. Like that gem of yours. Its energies are powerful, yes, but also… strange,” the buffalo noted with a frown.

 

“Oh, yes, it’s actually one of several artefacts we’re searching for. I could tell you more, but I don’t really know a great deal about them myself… sorry,” Dawn said with an apologetic smile.

 

“Do not fret, it is of no great importance. Besides, your remedy is ready,” The healer finished her art and handed the bottle she had been using to Dawn. A faint green mist emanated from the bottle, accompanied by a powerfully fragrant smell. “It shall cure you of the desert’s lashing. Eyes, throat, lungs, all will be set right in little time. Drink, and with a little more rest I promise you that all your ailments shall have floated away,” Spirit Horn encouraged, mimicking the action with her own hooves.

 

Dawn sniffed the contents of the bottle. She certainly could do with the aid; her time in the sandstorm had left her more than a few reminders. Her throat burned, breathing was noticeably more difficult and her eyes were very sore and irritated. Though the earth pony was a little wary of taking such a concoction from a stranger, she had been observing Spirit Horn as she worked and could confirm from hours in the laboratory that the buffalo’s processes were sound, if a little primitive. There really was no reason for Dawn to be suspicious of the healer, she and the other buffalo had saved their lives after all. With such thoughts in mind, Dawn decided to simply trust Spirit Horn and downed the drink quickly.

 

‘Huh. Better than most potions…’ The remedy was by no means an aged bottle of wine, but lacked the gag-inducing bitterness of many elixirs Dawn had had to drink over the years and it flowed down smoothly. Almost as soon as the liquid reached her stomach, the blue coated pony began to feel incredibly drowsy and looked to Spirit Horn with what must have been a confused expression.

 

“Do not worry, little pony. An hour or two more of rest, and all will be well,” the buffalo assured, smiling gently to the sleepy pony and guiding her head down to the bed’s pillows slowly.

 

Dawn could not respond or resist, and was struggling to keep her eyes open. After the nightmare she had experienced the last time she had been asleep, the prospect of slumber did not appeal to her. But it was of no use, the sleeping agent the drink contained must have been a powerful one, and Dawn could only submit herself to the relaxed state spreading through her body. Within seconds, darkness covered her vision entirely and she was snoring gently once again.


Of Harmony & Chaos

Written by: Brightwel

Edited by: DustyGrrl

Cover art by: Iopichio

 

Chapter 10: Picking Yourself Up

 

 

                “Uhh…”

 

                “Hmm.”

 

                “Pst, Surprise! Do something! This guy is creeping me out!

 

                “What do you want me to do!?

 

                “I don’t know! Just make him stop staring at us like that!

 

                “How!?

 

                “Surprisena, Firefly, please… I’m sure Chief…?

 

                “Rockheart.”

 

                “Chief Rockheart will… talk, when he’s… ready?”

                

                In some ways, sitting before the stony gaze of the buffalo chief was a far worse experience than the desert had been. The awkwardness inflicted by Rockheart’s steely gaze was just as uncomfortable mentally as the heat and sand of the arid wastes had been physically. It was as if there was something constantly bothering the muscle-bound creature, but under no circumstances should anypony enquire as to what it was, or even talk without first having been talked to.

 

                “Do any of you realise how close you all were to never awakening again?” The question stung, but demanded an answer.

 

                “Uhh… quite?” Surprise replied, trying to inject a hint of cheer into her voice; a move she soon regretted after Rockheart focused his attention onto her.

 

                “Had we been a few minutes longer, then you would have all been buried by the sand, along with the hope of us ever finding you.”

 

                “…Right.… sorry…”The pegasus’ voice had suddenly become very meek and forced.

 

                “I am not the one you should be apologising to. Your friend is the one who you should be begging for forgiveness. She was not only closer to the edge than any other, but also the one who is most responsible for saving your lives. You would do well to remember that, next you see her.” Rockheart’s words were met with a round of nodding, even Viator was somewhat humbled by the Chief.

 

                Silence fell once more in the tent until a draconequus built up the courage to speak. “May I ask… why are we even here?”

 

                “You are here to meditate on and eventually understand the mistakes you have made, the mistakes that could have cost you dearly.”

 

                “But that’s not fair! It’s not as if we had a choice, we had to come into this stupid desert if we wanted to find the Elem-”

 

                “Firefly!” Celestia hissed, causing the speedster to realise her mistake and clamp a hoof over her mouth.

 

                “The Elements. Yes, I would have guessed that was the reason I have two alicorns and a draconequus in my midst. Equidae Aumean’s children no less,” he casually commented, as if the idea was of little significance to him.

 

                It was at this point that the mouths of Celestia, Discord, Luna, Surprise and Firefly dropped to the floor in shock. For a complete stranger, one who resided in a remote desert far from their home, to know both about Aumean and the Elements took each of them completely off guard.

 

                “Y-You know about mother!?” Luna managed to stammer.

 

                “Yes. Aumean and I are old acquaintances. We met many years ago while my tribe was stampeding in the east, close to where Last Meadow now stands. She has told me of you three before, as well as the Elements, which she carried with her when she first came to this land,” Rockheart explained.

 

                “So you get why we have to be here, right? The Element’s got scattered! We have to get them back!” Firefly hopefully exclaimed. She was clearly eager for any excuse to leave Rockheart’s tent.

 

                “Entering the desert is not the mistake you made, for whatever reason and by whoever’s will. Underestimating this place, not bothering to take the necessary precautions, was. You ponyfolk have many ways of learning, your libraries and scholars; amongst them would have been the means to research this place, find ways that would have seen you cross the dunes without harm. I do not know the details of your journey, but any journey is just as much about thought as it is putting one hoof in front of the other.” The buffalo’s stony gaze was met with an equally stony silence as the travellers contemplated his words.

 

                The silence was soon broken by another strong voice, this one coming from behind the assembled adventurers. “…I do hope you are not being hard on our guests, Chief Rockheart.”

 

                “Spirit Horn. How is she?” the Chief asked before any of the ponies could.

 

                “Well, all things considered. That was not my question, however,” responded the tribal healer, adding a cold edge to her voice after answering the Chief’s query.

 

                “They need to realise their mistakes, Spirit Horn.”

 

                “Mistakes which could be avoided, if we would share what we know.”

 

                “We have had this discussion before, Spirit Horn. And I have already made my decision. I will not waste so much of my people’s time and put them at risk to try and vainly educate every foolish pony to wander into the desert.”

 

                “And I have told you, we need not go to such lengths. Were we to simply teach the people of Last Meadow, then they could in turn teach travellers ignorantly walking to their doom.”

 

                “The desert’s fury knows no order. It shifts almost with each passing month. We would need to send too many of our own too often. We survive through our experience in predicting that which cannot be predicted. It is not something one could teach.”

 

                For sometime did the two buffalo argue and remain calmly at each other’s throats. Though the two were clearly frustrated at one another, not once did they raises their voices and their confrontation remained little more than a tepid debate that poorly hid the disdain they both held for each other. It soon became quite clear for those listening that the two did verbal battle on a regular basis.

 

                “…I am quite aware of its health benefits, but I still do not believe that these ‘changas’ will be worth the trip-”

 

                “FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THINGS GREAT, WOULD YOU TWO STOP!?” It was Viator whose voice eventually tore through the tent and brought silence to not just the Chief’s tent, but the camp as a whole.

 

                “…He is right. We may have gotten slightly carried away,” Rockheart admitted, speaking for the first time with even the slightest hint of humility.

 

                “Slightly? We may as well have been entranced. We were completely carried away,” Spirit Horn retorted.

 

                “Hardly. Carried away, yes, but to such an extent? No,” the male buffalo countered once more.

 

                “We were like flies caught in winds, and you know it, Chief Rockhear-”

 

                “Stop. Just stop,” Viator commanded through gritted teeth. “Dawn. Can we see her?”

 

                “…Yes, of course. That is why I came here. Not to exchange opinions with our… esteemed, Chief,” Spirit Horn shot her tribal leader a hard glare. “Come. She will undoubtedly want to see each of you.” With a quick gesture of her hoof, Spirit Horn left the tent accompanied by an eager group of ponies and draconequus behind her.

 

                “Hmm,” the Chief sighed disapprovingly. Spirit Horn, and the keen party behind her however, ignored him and trotted excitedly over to the healer’s own tent, passing groups of shocked and curious buffalo the whole way. Slowly they each poked their heads through the flap, stacking themselves on top of one another, partially so they could each see the earth pony inside, partially to ensure they did not disturb her, should she still be resting.

 

                “Hey! She’s still asleep! I thought you said she was up!?” Firefly whispered loudly to the buffalo waiting behind the small mountain of ponies.

 

                “She was, when I left. Perhaps she drifted off during mine and the Chief’s…” the healer trailed off, unable to think of a word to suit her.

 

                “Argument?” Discord suggested helpfully.

 

                “…Yes…”

 

                “She must still be tired. Maybe we should just leave her…?” Luna asked.

 

                “Nah, you heard her! She wants to see us! I bet she just dosed off…”  the speedster announced while pushing her way into the tent, causing each of her companions to flail at her in panic of waking Dawn. The torture she had received from the sands of the desert had been brutal, and she would surely still be exhausted. “Dawn! Wakey wakey!” Firefly called.

 

                “Ughhh… Just another few more…minutes…”

 

                “Don’t you think we should just leave her, Fire? It’s not as if we’re in a hurry, right, Tia?” Surprise asked with a clear sense of worry, poking Celestia to hurry her in responding to the pegasus’ question before Firefly went and inadvertently woke the resting earth pony.

 

                “Not after everything we’re been through, no,” the white alicorn added, her voice equally as concerned as Surprise’s.

 

                “Well… she needs to eat or something, right? Come on, Dawn! How you doing?” Firefly then decided to step up her efforts to wake her up friend by shaking her, but was stopped by a golden aura that enveloped the speedster’s body and forcibly began to drag her back to the tent’s entrance. “Aw, c’mon! Not this again! No fair!” Though at first the pink pony’s dug-in hooves proved a challenge for Celestia’s magic, they could not stand up against the combined might of the three siblings.

 

                “Let’s just leave her be for now, hmm, Firefly?” Discord tried to comfort the now-grumpy earth pony.

 

                “…Too late, everypony… sorry!”

 

                “Oh… sorry, Dawn. You know what Firefly can be like,” Celestia apologised on behalf of the blue maned pony.

 

                “No, no… it’s okay. I think I’ve slept enough anyway,” Dawn sleepily replied while rubbing her eyes and yawning.

 

                “Well, since you’re awake, I’ll say it shall I? I think everypony here, even myself, needs to… thank you, for what you did,” Viator managed to say with some effort, but genuine appreciation.

 

                The rest of Dawn’s friends soon followed suit, quickly becoming embarrassed they had no idea how to properly thank a pony for delivering their lives from the jaws of death almost singlehoofed, while they themselves were completely helpless. As was the scientist’s nature, she too rapidly turned scarlet at the wave of praise and thanks aimed at her.

 

                “T-There’s no need to be like that, I just did what anypony would have done!”

 

                “Nonsense, dear! I certainly don’t think even Celestia would have the brains to use what limited resources you had so well!” Discord’s jab was met with the usual annoyed glare from the alicorn in question, but was quickly forgotten in the mood of the moment.

 

                “Yeah, Dawn! You’re our hero!” Luna added sheepishly.

 

                “Hehe… well, I guess… Oh! And look what Spirit Horn gave me!” the group’s smiles soon turned into curious stares as the earth pony began digging in her bed sheets. “She said they found it next to me after I blacked out, I still find it hard to believe though, I mean the chances of it are…” she trailed off after finding the desired object. With a slight flourish, Dawn pulled forth the artefact the buffalo had given her earlier for all of them to see, and gawp, at. “It’s an Element! … It is an Element, right?”

 

                “Yes, I can tell from here… next to you when you passed out…? That’s… well…”

 

                “Suspicious,” Discord finished for his elder sister.

 

                “…What do you mean, brother?”

 

                “You see… No, it doesn’t matter. I’ll tell you all later. Anyway, Dawn! How are you feeling?” The draconequus’ attempt to change the subject was successful and all attention returned to the still snuggled-up earth pony.

 

                “Hmm… better, definitely better. W-Why don’t you all come in? Instead of talking at the door…” Dawn’s companions looked around up and down at each other and realised that they were still poking their heads through the tent’s flap, piled one atop the other. The thought of how they looked resulted in a soft chorus of chuckling and they all proceeded to enter the healer’s tent one-by-one and settle down by their saviour. Nopony mentioned it, but they all were eternally thankful that they had the chance to speak to each other as friends once more, after they came so close to never having such a simple luxury again.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “…Ughh…”

 

                “…Still here, Aumean? I’ve finished organising Ms. Do’s essays, which… was about two hours ago.”

 

                The ivory mass groaned and rolled over, planting its head deeper into the pile pillows which it lay upon.

 

                “Ughh… please, let me sleep, Penwell. The… ‘Extreme Rainbow Phenomena’ reports kept me up until… three? Maybe four…”

 

                The old bookkeeping stallion tsked at his friend. “Aumean. You know I stayed here last night. And I know that you were out of commission before midnight.” Her lie exposed, Aumean gazed up at the bespectacled pony with a sheepish grin, to which he sighed in response. “This is about the children, isn’t it? I can’t believe you’re still moping around because of it. Yes, you had to intervene on their behalf. No, it doesn’t mean you have to fly around and save everypony who gets in danger. For an incredibly old and supposedly wise alicorn, you can be quite stupid at times,” he lectured the mare.

 

                A smile began to creep its way onto Aumean’s face, though it was still laced with hints of embarrassment. “…Thank you, old frie-Ow! Penwell!?” All traces of gratitude on the alicorn’s face melted away, having been replaced with a look of annoyance once she overcame her surprise and realised that her friend had bopped her playfully on the head.

 

                “For the love of the sun, Aumean, spare me the teary emotions. You really do get far too worked up about these sort of things,” the stallion continued to scold.

 

                “But think about it! Surely if I save-”

 

                “Ah-ah-ah! Don’t! I’m not going to let you keep tearing yourself up like this. But… if you really want me to put you at ease, then consider this; you knew the children were in danger, and so you helped, yes?” She nodded slowly, curious as to where Penwell was going. “Similarly, if you saw another pony hurt by the roadside, you would help them as well, correct?” Another slow nod. “Now what do these two example have in common? I’ll tell you. You knew about them. Of course you would help anypony who you knew needed it. Most of the time however, you don’t know when a pony needs it.”

 

                “But-”

 

                “Yes, I know you have the power to find those in danger. But then you wouldn’t be offering them help, you would be practically forcing it upon them. Not to mention how much it would mess up the flow of things. You weren’t and still aren’t keeping an eye on the children’s safety by watching them; you’re keeping an eye on their progress as a whole. That’s the difference, and that’s what gave you the right to intervene on their behalf. Happy?”

 

                Once again Aumean’s expression changed, this time to a mischievous smirk. “…I don’t know… I could really enjoy some cake…”

 

                Penwell placed his hoof on his forehead and sighed, though he was clearly not as frustrated as he wanted to appear. “Fine. But we share the bill, alright, my Queen?” The question was met with a moment’s silence before both stallion and mare burst into laughter. There they remained for some time, snorting and giggling until they finally calmed down and picked themselves up to get ready for the trek through the Everfree to Ponyville, where they could buy something to satisfy the alicorn’s sweet tooth.

                

After some quick filing and sorting, the two found themselves in the entrance hall to Aumean’s old library. “Ready, Aumean?”

 

                “Yes, yes!” she frantically called while giving everything a quick once-over to ensure everything had been put away correctly. Satisfied, the alicorn joined Penwell by the large wooden doors and placed a hoof in the iron handle of one of them. It was at that point however, that a loud bang echoed through the stone halls and the doors shook as another hoof made contact with them several times. “…Oh?”

 

                Both ponies shared a surprised glance at each other before Aumean pulled open the door a little so she could peer outside at whoever had decided to visit her. ‘I’m not expecting Dustcloud… or Softheart and Sun Spring… then who…?’ the alicorn’s mind raced. It would be incredibly embarrassing if she had arranged to meet or go out with some of her other friends and then forgotten about it. There were few other possibilities however, the old hall was quite far out of the way and very few came to visit the alicorn, not out of spite but purely because everypony in town had been told at least once by the ivory coated mare that they should rely on Aumean to come see them, rather than they coming to see her. To her relief, the individual standing outside the library was not anypony Aumean had made plans with, or even spoke to on a very frequent basis, but whose company she still enjoyed.

 

                “Sorry to disturb you, Ms. Aumean.”

 

                “Redstone! Whatever brings you all the way out here? Not that I don’t appreciate the visit,” Aumean happily informed the young stallion. It had been some time since the alicorn had spoken to Redstone. He and his parents lived even further away from the alicorn’s library than Ponyville was, and so the opportunity for the two to speak to each other rarely presented itself, though their mutual friend Surprise did help to ensure they did get the chance to exchange words on occasion.

 

                “Well, the folks asked me to gather a few plants from around here for them, they need them for some preparation you see, and I wanted to ask you something’s as well. So, it only made sense to come along while I was in the area. If you don’t mind, that is,” he humbly informed her.

 

                “Not at all! Me and Penwell here were just on our way to Ponyville now. Why don’t we talk on the way there, if you have what you needed?” Redstone nodded in response then turned and showed her a pack full of various plants and herbs, all neatly arranged by species. “Ah. Well why don’t we be on our way then? Penwell?”

 

                “Yes, let’s. Oh, and nice to see you Redstone,” the older stallion greeted the younger, somewhat awkwardly.

 

                “And you to, Mr. Penwell,” the auburn earth pony replied.

 

                “…Did that book on iron formations help?”

 

                “It did, Mr. Penwell. Thank you,” Redstone responded once more.

 

                “…Good.”

 

                Aumean could not help but chuckle quietly to herself at the growing air of awkwardness emanating from her friend. Neither of the two stallions was especially good at being social with those ponies they didn’t already know. Rather than let them suffer, she decided to take over the role of making conversation.

 

                “So, Redstone. What was it you wanted to ask me? Flint and Sapphire don’t need any medical help, I hope? I know the two are getting on in age.” To both the older ponies’ surprise, Redstone suddenly began blushing at Aumean’s words. Given the geologist pony’s stoic reputation, the two were particularly caught off-guard. The ivory mare could not help but mentally rewind and replay what she had said, so as to thoroughly analyse it and make sure she had not misspoke and said something rude or embarrassing.

 

                “Well… I was… uhh… wondering if you knew how Surprise was doing. Oh, and the others, of course,” he hastily added. It was clear then to both Penwell and Aumean what had caused the young stallion’s embarrassment. It was painfully apparent to anypony who knew them that both Surprise and Redstone had feelings for each other, whether they themselves truly realised it or not. While this realisation eased the alicorn’s mind in that it meant she did not unintentionally say something embarrassing, it did mean she would have to explain the harsh trials Surprise and her companions had faced.

 

                It was one of Aumean’s principles not to lie, though she could not help but try to hide how uncomfortable the question made her behind an awkward smile. “They… They are well, now.”

 

                “…‘Now?’”

 

                She sighed heavily. Penwell had only just helped ease Aumean’s guilt and worry she felt over what her previous actions had forced her to do, and she now had to explain those consequences to another. “I will be honest with you Redstone. Surprise and the others were, for a time, in very serious danger,” the young earth pony’s face fell and Aumean’s conscious ached with it. “Don’t worry! Everything’s fine, they pulled through unharmed!” Upon hearing that the unwitting target of his affections was safe, Redstone managed to pull an uneasy smile, to which Aumean mirrored and Penwell snorted at.

 

                “Am I truly the only pony not to let my feelings go hyper over this whole thing?” Penwell knew of course that both Aumean and Redstone had far more reason to be concerned than he did; the alicorn’s children and the young stallion’s love interest were among them after all. Still, the very fact that Aumean was watching over them meant they were never in any real danger at all, even if they themselves didn’t realise it. Regardless of how much Aumean may try and apply her logic to it, she, like any mother no doubt, simply didn’t have it in her to stand by and let her children enter a situation they may not walk out of.

 

                “I think you are, old friend. But maybe it’s for the best that we can rely on at least one pony to keep his cool,” the mare cheerfully remarked, a genuine grin returning to her muzzle. “Yes, but like I said, Redstone, they’re all perfectly fine; shaken, perhaps, but quite alright otherwise.”

 

                “I have to admit Ms. Aumean, you scared me a little there. I don’t even know what I’d do if they all weren’t coming back,” Redstone admitted sincerely.

 

                “I’m sure many of us wouldn’t. Now why don’t we talk about something else? I’m sure we can all agree-… Well, at least two of us can agree,” Aumean made sure to prod Penwell playfully at this, “…that all this talk of friends and family not coming home it not the best topic of conversation for such a nice day?” The alicorn’s sentiment was met with firm nodding from Redstone and quiet chuckling from Penwell. “I thought as much. So, Redstone, you said you and your parents were preparing for something?”

 

                The auburn pony stared at the alicorn a little dumbfounded before remembering the entire reason for coming out to the Everfree Forest in the first place. “Oh…? Oh! Yes, I’m gathering these plants because I’ll be going on a short trip to Ploughmouth,” he explained.

 

                “Ploughmouth…? Oh…” Aumean muttered. It was at this point that the alicorn suddenly lapsed into deep thought.

 

                “Ms. Aumean…? Is something wrong?”

 

                “Yes… that’ll work even better…” she quietly whispered to herself before realising that not only had she stopped in her tracks, she was being spoken to, and both Penwell and Redstone were shooting her concerned frowns. “Oh! Sorry, no, it’s nothing! Please, continue,” she happily said, eager to steer the conversation away from her abrupt mind-dive.

 

                “Yes… like I was saying. We’ve heard that there’s a large shipment of rare ores being imported in from the east, so… I want to get my hooves on a few samples. Ploughmouth isn’t too far, but Dad still insists on making me some pre-cooked meals and emergency medicine… hence the plants,” Redstone clarified before nodding to the herb- filled baskets on his back.

 

                “It’s certainly very considerate of them. I’m sure that you’ll have a… good time,” Aumean remarked. Penwell was certain that for the split second Aumean paused, he saw the same mischievous smirk on the mare’s face that was a clear indicator of her plotting something, no doubt involving Redstone. The old stallion was unsure of whether he should warn the geologist. On the one hoof it would possibly save his simple trip to Ploughmouth from escalating into something far beyond what the humble earth pony was used to, on the other, it might disrupt Aumean’s plans for the children and their quest, which Penwell also suspected of being part of whatever plan was forming in the alicorn’s mind.

 

                “Aumean… you wouldn’t happen to be-”

 

                “Oh! Look at that toucan! The birds really are wonderful at this time of year, aren’t they? Do you think Flint and Sapphire are fit enough to go for a walk, Redstone? It has been a long time since I saw them, and I’m sure they would love to see the forest as it is,” Aumean half-asked, half-rambled. She did not look at the bookkeeper while she spoke, but the way she had cut him off made it clear to Penwell that she didn’t want him to spill anything. By that very fact, it became incredibly obvious to the older stallion that Aumean was indeed planning something to do with Redstone’s trip to Ploughmouth. And he could not help but chuckle to himself once more while shaking his head.

 

                “Mr. Penwell? Is everything alright?”

 

                “Yes, Redstone. Everything is just fine.”

 

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                As the sun reached its peak in the skies above the arid desert the buffalo called home, the current camp of the Sand Strider Tribe was divided. On one side, a healer’s tent crowded with ponies and a draconequus celebrated their conquering of the desert and finding yet another Element. On the other side, Spirit Horn and Rockheart were once again locked in vocal combat. One side was also devoid of other buffalo; the healer and Chief’s arguments required the most adamant patience and spirit to be able to listen to. On the other side of the camp however, the tribe was hosting its first pony visitors in many, many months, as well as its very first draconequus. Not only this, but all of the tribe’s guests were in a celebratory mood after surviving the sands and finding some sort of artefact that they had been searching for. Which tent to gather around was not a difficult decision for any tribe-member to make.

 

                However, regardless of how loud the singing and cheering on one side of the camp got, the two senior buffalo’s quarrel raged on.

 

                “How much longer are they to stay, Spirit Horn?”

 

                “With my remedies, they should all now be well enough to leave. As soon as the dunes to the east soothe themselves, they can be on their way. If they move quickly, they should be out of the desert and on the edge of the river by nightfall,” the healer tried to keep her voice as neutral as possible, but it was quite obvious she did not approve of the words coming from her own mouth.

                

“That will be a harsh trek, even for one who has not been through what they have. I assume then, that you want them to stay?” the buffalo chief inquired through gritted teeth.

 

“Of course. Their bodies are surely capable, but to force them into the desert once more would be a cruel blow to their minds,” Spirit Horn calmly retorted.

 

                “You know we have a difficult enough time feeding our own. Even a few days of them being here will put a strain on what little food and water we currently have.” The chief’s glare grew in ferocity as he spoke.

 

                “We have survived tough times before. I am certain we will manage.”

 

                “As am I, Spirit Horn. But that is not the point. Why should our own young go hungry when they do not need to?”

 

                Spirit Horn’s own face contorted into a glare to match Rockheart’s and she could not help but shake her head in disappointment. “I told Aumean we would be honoured to host them, look after them, and not reveal to them her involvement. We owe her that much, yet you have made me a liar.”

 

                “You should not have made promises when you knew what my feelings would be on this, and I did not reveal her hoof in all this, only that I knew of her and those Elements of hers. I do not deny that we owe Equidae for her past deeds. But even she would not want us to put ourselves in harms way for such an old debt.”

 

Unbeknownst to the two buffalo, the small party was beginning to die down and each tent’s level of noise output was drawing to a more equal level.

 

“I warn you Chief, do not put yourself on the same level as one such as Aumean. You could not possibly understand a mind like hers,” hissed the normally tranquil healer.

 

“Is that a threat Spirit Horn?” Both buffalo had brought their faces so close to one another’s that their horns began to lock and grind together.

 

“Now whatever is all this? Surely you’re both not getting yourselves all tangled up over us are you?” As soon as the voice had made itself heard, the healer and chief eye’s darted to the tent’s flap simultaneously; their horn’s still twisted around the other’s.

 

“This is none of your business, draconequus. Please, leave,” asked Rockheart as politely as his frustration at Spirit Heart would allow.

 

Discord simply smirked. “Au contraire, it involves my dear mother doesn’t it?”

 

Rockheart stared at his grinning guest. “You were listening to us?” The two buffalo finally pulled back their heads, attention now focused on Discord.

 

“Perhaps a little,” Discord replied innocently. His face betrayed whatever innocence his voice may have had though.

 

“…How much did you hear?” dejectedly asked Spirit Horn. It was true that Rockheart hadn’t revealed as much as he could have regarding Aumean’s intervention in the ponies’ rescue, but if Discord had overheard them speaking of it, then he would likely suspect something and the healer would then have definitely broken her promise to the older alicorn.

 

“Oh, don’t worry yourselves. Nothing I didn’t already guess was going on, anyway,” the draconequus casually remarked.

 

“You… already guessed?” The revelation took both buffalo by surprise and they continued to stare at the draconequus who began inspecting his paw for dirt nonchalantly, their conflict nearly forgotten completely.

 

“Let’s just say there have been one too many… coincidences, on this whole trip. Every Element so far has been found under odd circumstances. It seems more and more likely that mother’s spell did a little more than just physically scatter them. And like you said yourself, our rescue by your hooves was very fortunate, wasn’t it? Doubtfully so!” Discord explained, his smirk growing ever more in size as the buffalo’s faces told him that his assumptions were more than likely correct.

 

“…You are smart, draconequus. But I swore to Aumean I would not tell of her involvement, so I cannot and will not have this conversation with your sisters and friends. A buffalo does not go against their word if it is at all possible,” Spirit Horn stoically informed the still-smirking draconequus.

 

“Good! I wouldn’t want you to! It would spoil all the fun after all! I actually considered telling them myself earlier, but really, guessing games are among the best! Wouldn’t you say?” As Discord expected, neither Spirit Horn nor Rockheart laughed along with him.

 

“Hmm. So long as the secret is safe, at least to the others, then all is well. Now please, leave us. I have still not spoken my mind to the chief,” the healer informed Discord, glaring once more at Chief Rockheart.

 

“Yes. It may be best that you go back to your friends now, draconequus,” mirrored the buffalo leader, being sure to return his fellow’s glare.

 

Had the two buffalo been paying attention to Discord’s face, and had they known him as well as Luna or Celestia did, then they may well have realised that the large grin spreading across his face was one that clearly indicated the rapid forming of a plan in his mind, one that Rockheart would more than likely not approve of. Perhaps unfortunately for the buffalo, they were not paying attention and they did not know Discord well.

 

“Of course, of course. You get it all out of your system, then I’m sure we can all make up and have a barrel of laughs,” the draconequus half-said half-chortled, though his words went unheard, as the two camp elders had already resumed their passive-aggressive tirades. With a final smirk, Discord let the buffalo be.

 

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

                “Welcome, lass, to Cairib.”

 

                The sight helped. It helped a lot. Ever since leaving Oromo, the young zebra Kromi had been in a state of depression, but the simple picture of something so different, the very thing she had desired to see since as long as she could remember lifted the zebra’s spirits to a height she had not experienced in a very long time. It didn’t heal the wounds in her heart, but like a soothing balm it took away the pain, if only temporary.

 

                “It’s so…”

 

                “Cairib’s a lot of things, young Kromi. I’m afraid I can’t finish that sentence for you.”

 

                “It’s… well… so big. How do so many zebras live together? Where do they get all the food!?” she yelled in amazement.

                

“Zebras and ponies, lass. And it’s got a few more spiffing qualities to it than being a might large. Finest salt dens in all of Equestria, and absolutely delightable date salads. How Equestria ever went without for so long, well, it’s beyond this old stallion,” commented Coin Bag, the pony who had taken Kromi away from the smouldering ruins and bloody fields of her previous life.

 

Despite the circumstances they had only just left behind, the refined merchant pony had to stifle a laugh when he realised Kromi was not even listening to him, instead staring with immense wonder at the large port city the wind and waves were gently carrying them to. Coin Bag only wished that the weather was an accurate reflection of how a pony felt. Kromi had cried for hours, and the unicorn figured this was a good thing, and while it had certainly seemed to have helped, Coin Bag was unsure if sunlight had indeed started to shine inside the young zebra, or if the maelstrom of emotions had only been calmed faintly and temporarily.

 

“How long can we stay!? I want to see it all!” There may have been expenses to pay, but Coin Bag was quite simply unable to deny Kromi, even if they had come from less turbulent waters. He could take another small vacation before buying his next shipment and heading out again. After all, he had only been to Cairib once himself and there was many sights left to see.

 

“Well, I’m quite certain giving the city a day or two to see its many wonders wouldn’t hurt. By the skies I hope that it’s enough though. Can only be one place at a time now, can’t we?” Coin Bag jokingly asked. It would be quite the challenge to see all that Cairib had to offer in just two days. He wished he could give more to the mentally beaten zebra, but it was all he could realistically afford at the time.

 

“Two days…? Two days!?” Kromi practically shouted back, causing the unicorn to pull his head back awkwardly.

 

“Sorry, lass. But I was a little late with the last salt shipment. Can’t very well sell for a high price back in Ploughmouth when they’ve already got a galleon full from Sharpsail- Uhh, lass?”

 

“Two days… two whole days…!” Kromi distantly spoke to herself.

 

“I’m dreadfully sorry, lass, but-”

 

“It’s wonderful! Oh, thank you so much Coin Bag! I never would have thought I would be able to spend two whole days exploring!” the stripped girl almost chattered with explosive excitement, leaving Coin Bag thoroughly confused.

 

“But, Kromi… Two days isn’t very long! By golly, it’s barely enough time at all! We’ll never get around the whole grand place!” the unicorn replied and pointed out to the city growing ever closer. With his hoof he indicated several distinct parts of the port town. Each district had something that marked it out from the rest, whether it was the styles of the building’s roofs, the colour or the pillars of steam floating lazily from hundreds of stoves into the sky. “See? Each little part of the place is unique in its own way. For the full, and might I add best, experience, we’d have to lend our eyes, ears and tongues to each in turn and I can tell you with good authority there’s not much of a chance to do all that in two days! Not much of a chance at all!”

 

“I don’t need the full experience! Don’t you see? I just need an experience!” Kromi cried back. Coin Bag was forced to smile once more. He had to admit it to himself, he was proud of the girl. Certainly, her wounds wouldn’t have closed yet, but she didn’t let the pain smother her hopes and dreams. It would have been the easier option, to just sit in the sticky pit of despair, but she was determined to drag herself from it, no mater how much struggling it would take.

 

“It’s a plan then! Don’t you worry your hooves, I’ll get everything sorted. I’ve only had the pleasure of touring the fine old place once, but this is one pony who knows the best spots in the city, if my name isn’t Coin Bag, Merchant Extraordinaire!”

 

And so it was that the unicorn and the zebra entered Cairib, the largest city south of Equestria. Despite being set on a large hill that rose the entire city up like some sort of grand fortress, it was the harbour that dominated the view of any coming in from the sea. Piers, cranes, warehouses, drydocks and all manner of ships were squashed into the massive wooden crescent that made up Cairib’s bay. It was an incredible sight, so chaotic yet deceptively efficient and thus by extension, profitable. Unlike Oromo, Cairib had welcomed the first pony explorers with open hooves; their hospitality was rewarded with a trade route that had brought great wealth to zebra and pony alike. Each had countless varieties of desirable produce, all unique to their respective lands and for which others were willing to trade a great deal.

 

For some less experienced sailors, docking within Cairib would be a challenge. Coin Bag however, was a natural and had quickly become accustomed to the tightly-packed mooring spots of Cairib’s harbour. In the space of a few minutes, he was able to neatly navigate his small vessel into a free space where it was snugly tied, and without the help of any other pony or even his magic.

 

“Wow… how did you do all that!?”  Kromi exclaimed in astonishment.

 

With obvious smugness, Coin Bag stroked his moustache. “Every good merchant knows the tools of his trade, dear Kromi. Big or small,” he proudly informed her.

 

It was then, just as Kromi was about to cover her pony friend with more praise, that the young zebra’s attention was pulled away by the sound of approaching hooves and wooden planks.

 

“To refer to such a vessel as ‘big’ is an offense to all those who call the waves home.” Upon hearing the pony behind him, Coin Bag’s haughtiness drained away immediately and a grimace of annoyance spread across his muzzle, a grimace he pointed to the pony who encouraged it in the first place.

 

“Sharpsail my dear. What a simply divine pleasure,” the unicorn struggled to say without hissing the words. Kromi meanwhile continued to twist her head back and forth between Coin Bag and the new individual, Sharpsail. She was a female pony with a rope-coloured coat and a long, freely flowing mane of black hair. Upon each side of her flank was a crescent of white light, tinged with blue. Kromi was not exactly sure what the mark was, but it looked as if the air itself was being cut. A tricorn hat sat upon the pony’s head and a long, curved sword dangled from a belt around her midsection.

 

“Save your sarcasm, Coin Bag, I am in no mood. I simply saw you docking and thought to tell you again: leave this business,” Sharpsail told the scowling stallion. Even though Kromi was not being addressed, she felt the urge to shrink away back onto Coin Bag’s boat and hide below its deck. Sharpsail’s tone and expression was as commanding and sharp as the blade that lay by her side. The two figures bringing up her rear, a zebra and winged pony both of whom were well built, remained silent but were just as stern faced as their leader and only served to add to Sharpsail’s unnerving demeanour.

 

Coin Bag’s response was to simply roll his eyes and go to make his way past Sharpsail and her subordinates. “Dear, please. I may be relatively new to this whole sailing malarkey, but I’m a merchant through and through! And no merchant, not unless he wouldn’t give a single coin for his pride, shirks away from the golden road! No siree!” Despite his confident speech, Coin Bag made it no further than his rival sailor, due to a sword suddenly baring his progress. Kromi could not help but gasp in amazement once more; Sharpsail had drawn her blade in the blink of an eye and the high-pitched sound of vibrating steel silenced everything but the soft rolling of the waves and creaking of the many ship’s rigging. It didn’t seem to Kromi that Sharpsail could use magic like Coin Bag could, rather, she simply grabbed the sword’s hilt with her hoof like a zebra would.

 

“I am trying to warn you Coin Bag. The griffons are becoming more and more desperate. Soon they will take whatever they can find, including whatever you might be carrying on that pitiful insect of a ship, and you have no means of defending it or yourself. Leave this business, go back to Equestria. Too many have already fallen to their talons,” the pony captain grimly remarked.

 

Coin Bag sighed almost merrily and smirked at Sharpsail. “Sorry old bean. But this route is just far too lucrative. And she may be small, but I cannot help but think that dear Fleur has grown on me… that, and she cost a hoof and a horn! I can’t very well just cut my losses now, can I?”

 

Sharpsail looked up from under the brim of her hat and narrowed her eyes at Coin Bag. “You’re a fool,” she simply remarked before carefully sheathing her sword back on her belt. Without further hesitation she turned around and began to leave, her pair of flunkies obediently doing the same.

 

“Sharpsail,” Coin Bag called to the departing pony.

 

“What?” she glared back at the merchant pony.

 

To Kromi’s surprise, Coin Bag pointed a hoof over his shoulder directly at the young zebra. “I’ve went and gotten myself something to protect. Now I’m not much one for fisticuffs, but one of those ruffian griffons so much as peck one of her hairs and I’ll show ‘em what for!” the merchant pony announced, the confidence retuning to his voice.

 

For the first time, Sharpsail noticed Kromi and for a moment the zebra hated Coin Bag for having pointed her out to the fierce sailor. It was then that something ticked in Sharpsail’s piercing eyes and she swiftly began to approach the zebra, leaving her subordinates behind and ignoring Coin Bag completely. Almost instinctively did Kromi start to back up fearfully until she hit a bollard and could go no further without falling into the water or leaping on to a boat. Sharpsail quickly caught up to the cowering Kromi and looked deeply into the zebra’s eyes.

 

“Now just you wait right there, Sharpsail! That girl has been through more than you can imagine! Lay a hoof on her and-”

 

Without waiting for Coin Bag to finish or for Kromi to stop whimpering, Sharpsail swung a hoof out and caught one of Kromi’s own. Then, pulling the zebra’s hoof closer to her face, she bent down and kissed it lightly. “I am sorry you had to see my unpleasant side, desert flower. Come, we shall leave this jester and I will show you the wonders of a city built on the trust and friendship of two species.” Kromi’s fear was instantly and wholly replaced with utter confusion, as was Coin Bag’s growing bravado. So dumbfounded was the zebra that she did not resist in anyway as Sharpsail began to gently lead her away from Coin Bag and his yacht.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “Are you sure you’re alright, Dawn?”

 

                “Yes Luna, thank you. I’m not exactly sure what Spirit Horn put in that remedy, but it seems to have worked perfectly!” Dawn addressed the younger alicorn sitting by her side, an expression of concern still plaguing her muzzle.

 

                “She’ll be fine! We all had it, and we’re all better, right?” reassured Firefly.

 

                “Fire’s probably right, Luna. Whatever that stuff was, it didn’t waste anytime in curing us!” Surprise added.

 

                “Well, I suppose so…”

 

                “You’re worrying too much Luna. They may be… stiff, but these buffalo are trustworthy at least.”

 

                “Viator’s right, sister. Everything’s fine now, hmm? Come on, hurry up and pack,” Celestia comforted her little sister, giving her a quick nuzzle. The older alicorn’s face of affection soon returned to how it had been; scrunched in annoyance. “Now if this compass would work…”

 

                The afternoon was dragging on and the pony entourage, minus Discord who had excused himself earlier, had finally been left alone by the buffalo curious of their exploits and cheer at finding yet another Element, the Element of Will. With yet another one of the treasures in their possession, the ponies were ready to move on, despite only staying in the buffalo’s care for so little time. There was of course the matter of working out precisely where it was their journey was to take them next, a matter which Celestia was trying to address with increasing frustration.

 

                “What’s up, Tia?”

 

                “The problem, Surprisena, is that the compass seems to be broken. But I don’t see how, it’s magical! How could it… break!?” Celestia answered with increasing volume. “Unless someone tried to deliberately cast some sort of counter enchantment… is that why Discord…?” It was just the sort of prank Celestia could imagine the draconequus pulling. ‘He’s probably hiding in some other tent now, rolling on the floor!’

 

                “Broken? Broken how?” Firefly wasted no time inrushing up to Celestia and peering on the compass lying on the ground before her, regardless of whether it improved the white mare’s mood or not.

 

                “Broken, as in it isn’t pointing straight. Now Firefly, please would you-”

 

                “But I thought it never pointed straight!”

 

                “Well, true, but it’s not even doing that. It’s just spinning, as if we were right on top of another Element. But we already found the Element of Will… so perhaps it hasn’t… registered this time?” proposed Celestia with little in the way of confidence. She finally gave up trying to gently nudge Firefly out from under her face and simply brought the compass up into the air for everypony to see with her magic.

 

                “Is… that how it works?” Surprise’s question was one none of the ponies actually knew the answer to, at least not for certain.

 

                The issue the snowy pegasus had raised was one Celestia did not like, but there was little she could do to counter it. “Well… that is how it has worked until now. Whenever we find an Element, the compass changes, if only slightly. Now it’s just spinning…”

 

                Viator simply stared at the compass, and then turned to face Celestia. “So the plan is…?”

 

                The show-stallion got no response and the tent fell into silence. Until however, the compass suddenly snapped into its usual habit of pointing only vaguely in one direction.

 

                “…Oh, look, it’s fixed!” Luna happily cried. The rest of the room remained somewhat blank and proceeded to frown at one another.

 

                “Cool! So we can go soon? I can’t wait to get back to somewhere, you know, nice,” Firefly cheered after deciding to break the silence.

 

                “I suppose so, but… that was strange…”

 

                “Now you’re worrying too much, sister!” the younger alicorn answered.

 

                “Perhaps you are, Celestia. Did you ever look at the compass as soon as you found an Element before? Perhaps it simply requires time to change,” Viator observed.

 

                “Perhaps… Wait, do any of you hear something? Is that… laughter?” The group all pricked up their ears in response to Celestia’s question. Much like the alicorn had said, the sound of hearty laughter could be heard coming faintly from the other side of the camp. Before any of the ponies could investigate, Discord returned. And being tossed up and down in his paw was a perfectly cut, pink gemstone. Once again, the ponies were reduced to staring. “…Is… that? No… it can’t be?”

 

                “I’m afraid it is, dear Celestia!”

 

                “But brother… how?” Luna’s confusion mirrored the rest of the ponies exactly.

 

                The draconequus did not even try to hold back his grin. “With just a little laughter, little Luna.”

 

                “Discord… what did you do…?” Celestia’s voice was beginning to grow a hint of anger. While she was happy that another Element was in their possession, and so quickly, the situation was more than suspicious.

 

                The Element stopped its constant rise and fall in Discord’s paw and with his talon he gestured for the ponies to follow him. “I’ll show you.”

 

                Although Celestia wanted to question him more, her interest got the better of her, and she joined her friends in leaving the tent and walking quietly over to the chieftain’s tent, where the majority of the buffalo tribe had already gathered outside. The sound of laughter grew, and it became clear that it was emanating from within. It also became clear that the racket was not just regular laughter, the noise coming from Rockheart’s tent was veritable howling. Whoever it was causing all the clamour was giggling so hard it was unlikely that they would be standing, more likely in fits on the floor.

 

                “Hey! We won’t be able to see a thing!” Firefly moaned, with good reason. The chortling had drawn such a crowd that the tent entrance was completely packed. Even the smaller ponies realised that they had little hope of squeezing through to get a glimpse, Luna and Celestia did not even try.

 

 “Around here everypony!” The travellers tried to follow the voice, and managed to catch the sight of Discord’s distinctive tail sneaking around the back of the tent. The trickster seemed to want his friends to remain quiet in following him, though the incessant chortling and murmurs of the crowd negated any need for discretion on the ponies’ part. Still, Luna, Firefly and Surprise tiphoofed carefully around the side of the large tent to join their companion, in complete contrast to Celestia, Viator and Dawn who casually walked with little regard as to whether they were seen or heard.

 

“Discord, please, whatever it Is you did-” Celestia was interrupted by her younger brother’s frantic gesturing to join him and those who had decided to sneak with him in peering under the bottom of the tent and at the origins of the thunderous chuckling. The elder alicorn rolled her eyes, but complied with the signals Discord was giving her and knelt down beside him, then used her horn to lift the side of the tent up just enough to fit her head underneath it, joining her companions in forming a colourful line of heads poking out from below the tent’s lining.

 

The sight that greeted Celestia was both shocking yet to be expected at the same time, given Discord was no doubt involved in shaping it. There before her was Chief Rockheart and the healer, Spirit Horn, both on their backs and struggling to breathe with laughter. Two of the most stone-faced individuals any of the travellers had ever met were now rolling around with uncontrollable tittering, like foals who had just pulled what they thought the best prank in history.

 

Nice one, Dissy! How’d you get them to loosen up!?” The speedster and draconequus shared a hoof-paw bump and Firefly then pulled her head back momentarily so Surprise could physically compliment Discord’s work as well.

 

“A few bottles of flatulence encourager, some exploding tea and of course one or two invisible banana peels! Quite elementary, really,” Discord explained without any lack of ego.

 

“But brother… wouldn’t that just make them mad?” Luna was struggling not to laugh herself, but did manage to show some curiosity as to her sibling’s methods in not simply angering the two serious-minded buffalo.

 

“Oh, dear little Luna. May you never know the hardships of adulthood!” The draconequus teased, adding a ruffle of Luna’s mane in for good measure. Just as Discord wanted, she immediately began to pout at being treated like a filly still, which even Celestia and Viator had to quietly admit to themselves was a heart-warming sight to see. “Anyway, I asked around. As it happens, these two are just as fun-loving as the next pony, but all the responsibility of leading and taking care of the whole tribe in this nasty little bit of desert just made them… forget.”

 

“…Forget? I would have thought forgetting something like that would be quite difficult.” Viator’s observation echoed in the mind of the ponies gathered.

 

Discord responded with a shrug of his shoulders and took a moment before explaining. “I think we all know how harsh the desert can be. A little more stressful for those who have to live in it. Still, in my humble opinion, no matter how serious life becomes, you should always be able to just sit down once in a while and have a good laugh!”

 

Much like her friends, Dawn smiled, but her expression soon returned to one of questioning. “I think you’re right, Discord…but… what does this have to do with finding an Element?” Much like Viator had just done, Dawn also got each the cogs in each ponies’ brain spinning and they all turned to Discord for an answer.

 

“Hmm? Ah, yes, it was in the Chief’s tent, I found it while planting that little dose of fun for them. I think him and Spirit Horn were actually arguing about it.”

 

“Huh, cool! I know we should probably celebrate again or something, but can we go finish packing now? This stupid desert is really starting to get to me.” Everypony agreed with Firefly’s productive idea, one of the rare few she proposed, and began to make their way back across the camp towards Spirit Horn’s tent where they had been staying. All but Celestia, who quietly called for Discord to stay.

 

The alicorn waited for her companions to leave before staring at the draconequus and speaking up in a hushed but accusing tone, “That was a lie, wasn’t it?”

 

Discord smirked. “Oh, you know me too well, Celestia. But you can’t blame me; I simply didn’t want to spoil the surprise after all.”

 

“It’s about the Elements, isn’t it? This whole… journey. It’s not quite as simple as us just finding them lying around, is it?”

 

Her brother’s grin confirmed the alicorn’s suspicions, or at least confirmed that Discord shared them. “I don’t know for certain, but when I checked the compass earlier, I just had to test my theory. It would seem to be correct,” Discord remarked while indicating the gemstone in his paw. “Ever since we found the Element of Ambition, the very first one we did find, I’ve had a little annoying niggle at the back of my mind. Too many coincidences, too many lines that could be drawn to connect the dots, Celestia. This quest isn’t about finding the Elements, it’s about earning them.”

 

The possible revelation spurred Celestia into deep thought. It was a little jolting, but she could not help but smile. ‘Mother… It’s no surprise where Discord gets his guile from…’ It was exactly the sort of thing Celestia could see her mother orchestrating, and she was a little annoyed she hadn’t worked it out sooner. Aumean had said that their quest was a lesson, about how to wield the Elements correctly. And it all made sense; each Element they had found was immediately after one of them had overcome some sort of challenge or personal hardship.

 

Whether it was Firefly reaching the top of the mountain by herself, despite not having the amazing abilities of a pegasus or unicorn; Viator proving his unshakeable pride even in the hands of defeat; Dawn pushing on for the good of her friends no matter what; or even Discord, who was always there to remind them just to laugh sometimes, even with the burden of responsibility bearing down on one’s shoulders.

 

…if only there was an ‘Element of Lov-’

 

“Discord?” The matter was a serious one, and Celestia did not have the time for her brother’s daydreaming, or whatever it was that was passing through his mind. He was however, quick to snap back to attention. “I don’t think we should tell any of the others. Viator and Dawn may work it out themselves in time, but…”

 

“It could interfere, agreed. So this’ll be our little secret, won’t it?”  Celestia did not like having to withhold information when she didn’t have to, but she had to concur with Discord, albeit somewhat reluctantly. If everypony knew what to look for, then it could well impede their ability to truly earn the Elements they were seeking.

 

“Tia! Dissy! C’mon! The buffalo say we have to leave soon if we want to get out of the desert by nightfall!” Surprise’s voice prompted both to quickly nod to each other in secret understanding before following the snowy pegasus back to Spirit Horn’s tent to finish packing. Surely enough, Celestia found that their compass had remained on a more fixed direction. With the aid of a directional spell, it was clear that the party needed to head back east, the same way they had came. From what the alicorn could make of it, once they had escaped the desert then they should travel more south-easterly, in the general direction of Ploughmouth. It was quite a distance to travel to the port city, and Celestia had no idea how much of it they would actually have to cross before finally finding their next trial.

 

‘After this desert though… I don’t think it will be so bad,’ the white mare thought with some relief.

 

Within the next hour, the travellers were once again prepared to make their way, desert or no. For the second crossing however, the group had been sure to consult the expert buffalo, who had provided them with advice on how to better preserve their strength and fluids. Thanks also to the buffalo; each of the adventurers was able to store away the fear of encountering another of the dreaded sandstorms. According to all of the tribes most experienced scouts, no dust storm was likely to form in their path, should they move quickly.

 

Guidance and direction in mind, the ponies and draconequus said farewell to the Sand Strider Tribe, even receiving a cheery goodbye from Spirit Horn and Rockheart who saw the travellers off with the rest of the buffalo. Though the two groups had not met under the best of circumstances, their time together was brief, and they did not have the greatest start any relationship could have, they still considered each other friends who would happily welcome the other.

 

A sunset was already just beginning to form when they set upon their way. They would have to move quickly through the baking sand and scorching heat, if they wanted to escape the desert before nightfall. Despite the arduous task before them, no pony or draconequus gazed forth with the slightest hint of trepidation.


Of Harmony & Chaos

Written by: Brightwel

Edited by: DustyGrrl

Cover art by: Iopichio

 

Chapter 11: Confronting Nightmares

 

 

                “…Green…? Green! Guys, I see green! It’s grass! We made it! We made it!”

 

                Just as the pink earth pony shouted, slivers of green could be seen from where the seven strong party stood on a particularly high dune. The sight had been expected by some of the more observant members of the group, the soil beneath them having gradually shifted from loose sand to slightly firmer loam. Though still far too dry to support anything but the occasional shrub and leafless tree, the ground they stood upon was still a good indicator of their progress. With the short sliver of fertile land that marked the border of pony inhabited lands in sight, they were each able to let out a long sigh of relief.

 

                “It won’t be long now, will it sister?” Luna excitedly asked her older sibling.

 

                “No, not long now. We’ll soon be able to have a nice rest and some juicy grass.” Luna’s expression lit up at the news, and Celestia could not help but reflect her sister’s glee. Much like their companions, the two sister’s coats and manes were drenched in sweat. The trip back through the desert had certainly not been as harsh, or life-threatening, as the initial journey, but the evening sun was no less cruel in its bombardment of the weary group.

 

                “We aren’t there yet. Let’s not stop,” Viator ordered sternly, despite his fatigue.

 

                “He’s right. No reason to celebrate quite yet!” Discord concurred. With slow nods, each accompanied by a heavy-eyed smile, from Dawn and Surprise, the travellers trudged on.

 

Sand turned to soil, and the soil eventually turned into cool, soft grass. The feeling of dew and vegetation beneath their hooves was intoxicating after hours of labouring through rough, blistering sand and they were all sent into a drunken-like state at the grasses’ touch. They kept on walking, drawing closer to the river that had brought them into the desert n[a][b] the first place, but with each passing minute their steps grew ever more sluggish and clumsy. Eventually, they all let their aching muscles go limp and fell to the floor, each in a fit of laughter. It had been mere days since their hooves last touched fertile earth, yet it felt like an eternity, a fact that saw the adventurers chortling away under the growing night sky.

 

“Never again! Right, everypony?” The blond pegasus’ question was met with a cheery round of affirmative hums.

 

“I cannot imagine how those buffalo live their entire lives out there!”

 

“I think they’re built for it, Celestia. And they have a lot of experience!” Another round of nods showed Dawn that her friends agreed.

 

The seven gradually fell into silence. Their most recent adventure had left them all thoroughly exhausted and at that time they all felt like simply gazing up at the sky and watching as the stars slowly faded into view, one by one. The spectacle was one of the many things they had come close to losing in the desert, and even though they had each seen it countless times, the sparkling nether above them seemed far more beautiful than it normally was. To the alicorns and draconequus, it occurred that Aumean was perhaps gifting such a vast and brilliant piece of art to them as a reward for their progress. Or perhaps being balanced on the very brink of life and death had sowed in them all a greater level of appreciation for the world around them. Even the slight chill of a passing breeze brought an absurdly comfortable feeling of warmth and elation. Pony and draconequus alike lay in an understanding silence, there was simply no need to speak; they all understand how, just like they themselves, the others were in a state of simple bliss and quiet contemplation.

 

As the night grew in majesty and power, so too did its oppression of the group’s will to remain conscious and eventually they all drifted into the most peaceful slumber they each had experienced since perhaps beginning their journeys. For two however, their sleep was not to go without interruption.

 

…I’ll lend you my wings, I’ll bake you sweet things, all until your laughter stings…

 

“…Mhmm…wha…?” For the pink earth pony, waking up to see the night sky was a rare occurrence. She was a heavy sleeper by nature and it was often well past sunrise by the time she ever managed to carry herself from wherever she may be sleeping. Odder still, was the sound of singing that accompanied the gentle rustling of grass on the wind.

 

…Don’t pout, don’t frown, don’t let me catch you down…

 

“…Surprise?” The voice was certainly akin to the pegasus’, and a quick twist to the left and right confirmed her absence in the sleeping circle they had all formed.

 

…I’ll lend you my smile…

 

The sound started to bug Firefly, not because she disliked it, but because it made her wonder where Surprise had gone, and why she was singing. A quick scan of the surrounding area revealed a nearby oak tree, its branches swaying slowly in the breeze. As quietly as her hooves would allow, Firefly trotted away from the calm snoring of her friends in the tree’s direction. Sure enough, the tips of curly, bright blond mane came into view at the base of the tree as Firefly got closer. Closer still and the speedster could fully make out her pegasus friend, a small smile spread across her muzzle as she stared contently at the shining void above

 

“Hey Surprise!” Apparently in some sort of trance, the pegasus jumped in shock.

 

“Oh! Fire! You-”

 

“Surprised you?” Firefly butted in with a grin.

 

Surprise returned the expression. “You sure did!” The two shared smirks for a moment more, before an air of awkwardness began to grow and Surprise turned back to her star gazing.

 

“So… watcha’ doing all the way over here? I heard you singing… You’ve got a nice voice!”

 

The smile on the blond maned pony’s face grew at the compliment. “Thanks! Haven’t you heard me sing before?”

 

“No! Well, not really. I mean, you’d join in with everypony at parties and stuff, but nothing serious like that!” explained Firefly. It was true, in all their years of friendship, the pink earth pony had never heard Surprise sing quite like she had been.

 

“You haven’t? Huh… I don’t do it often, but I figured you would have heard me at least once…” the pegasus remarked with a hint of her namesake.

 

“Guess we’ve discovered a whole bunch of stuff on this journey.” The smile had returned to Firefly’s muzzle and the two ponies had resumed eye contact. “Mind if I join you?”

 

“Sure! It’s not very comfy, but not that bad either!” Surprise happily told her friend, patting the ground next to her with a hoof to indicate to Firefly to come over, which she promptly did.

 

“Nice night, huh?” the speedster asked somewhat nonchalantly. It was small talk, but Firefly felt that it had to be said at some point.

 

“Uh-huh. Makes you feel kind of small though.”

 

“…It does? What do you mean? Wait, you aren’t doing the same thing that I did back in the Everfree, are you?” inquired Firefly, a stern tone entering her voice.

 

A shade of red flushed the pegasus cheeks, accompanied by a bashful smile and scratch of the back of the neck. “You got me! I suppose I am a little!”

 

Though she had been lying against the tree, Firefly took the opportunity to leap back to her hooves and gesture one in a wide arc before finally pointing it high in the air. “Well don’t! You remember what Dissy said! You’ve just got to keep climbing to [c]you’re the highest thing there is!”

 

“Surprise couldn’t help but giggle softly at the display. “Thanks, Fire. You, Dissy, Luna and all the others are really great ponies, you know? Well, ponies and draconequus,” she quickly corrected herself with.

 

“And so are you, Surprise!” Firefly replied with resounding vigour.

 

The pegasus blushed again and waved at hoof at her friend. “Nah, I’m not that super! I mean, you fought off that dragon, Dissy, Tia, Luna and V are always awesome with their magic, and even Dawn pulled us across the desert by herself!”

 

At this Firefly rolled her eyes and planted her hoof on her forehead. “Aw, you are doing an old me! You’re just as important member of the team as any of us, Surprise! Sure, you might not have had a ‘big moment’ yet, but you will!”

 

“…You think so?” It was now Firefly gazing up at the stars with Surprise’s eyes fixed on the other pony.

 

“I know so! I haven’t told any other pony this and it sounds crazy, but when we found the first Element… I dunno, it just felt like I had really achieved something,” Firefly spouted. She didn’t exactly know how to describe what she had felt in that cramped cave, but it was a feeling like no other.

 

“But you had achieved something, Fire! You climbed all the way up that cliff and saved us from that dragon!” the pegasus cried back.

 

“No, no! It was… different! I can’t describe it, okay? But it was like I had… done what I was meant to do!” Surprise’s frown was dripping scepticism. “Just trust me, alright? There’s something in store for you, for all of us! I know it!”

 

Surprise retained her frown for a few moments before slumping back against the tree in a fit of giggles.

 

“Hey! I’m serious!” the speedster protested, her own eyebrows forming an annoyed scowl.

 

“Heehee! S-sorry Fire! I know you’re just trying to cheer me up, but you have to admit, it’s kinda of [d]a crazy idea!”

 

The earth pony brought a hoof to the back of her neck and a small grin forced its way over her lips. “Yeah… I guess it is. I still think it’s true though!” Firefly joined her friend in giggling.

 

“…We should probably head back now. Need every minute of sleep we can get these days,” remarked Surprise, yawn emphasising her point.

 

“Yeah, we should. You just remember everything I said, okay?”

 

“Don’t worry, Fire, I will!” the pegasus confirmed with a nod.

 

The two exchanged another pair of grins before slowly making their way back to the makeshift camp that they had formed with the others. Firefly fell into slumber almost immediately, though Surprise managed to stay awake for a few minutes more.

 

‘A Big Moment for everypony, huh…’

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                As the night sky formed over Equestria, so too did it collect far to the south, in the city of Cairib. However, despite the sheer level of logistics needed to keep the bustling port city running smoothly, the vast majority of its residents, simple dock workers and high-up administrative staff alike, liked to relax as hard as they worked. Once the day’s many tasks and jobs were finished, the chaos of the docks migrated to the many taverns, salt dens, cafés and restaurants held in the heart of the city. Barely audible over the friendly chatter and cheer of one such tavern was a voice trying to calmly make its disapproval heard, without much success.

 

                “I simply must say, Sharpsail, I can’t say I think much of this particular establishment. It was my intent for dear Kromi and me to explore the new… finer, catering spots I’ve been hearing all about.”

 

                “Coin Bag, you stiff-lipped jester. This place holds the true spirit of Cairib, something a pretend pony of the sea would know nothing about. You want our striped sweet to experience it? Then you will find no better place,” the pony captain sharply responded, refusing to so much as look at her fellow merchant.

 

                “…She’s right, Coin Bag! This place is… is magical!” the unicorn’s zebra friend yelled with as much enthusiasm as was physically possible for her lungs. The zebra looked as if she was going to cry yet more compliments for the drinking house, but was suddenly lifted off her hooves and gently thrown into the air and caught repeatedly by an incredibly jovial group of ponies and other zebra. She did not know any of them, and any of them her, but none of it mattered to Kromi or the crowd. They were all joined together in laughter and song.

 

                 Coin Bag watched from the bar, the only remaining corner of the building that could be described as calm, a happy frown on his face. The tavern and booming cheer weren’t much of a personal favourite of his, but if Kromi was happy, then so was he. The merchant pony watched her for some minutes more as she joined a small band of patrons who had taken to using one of the larger tables as a dancing stage. Then, with a sigh of relief he turned around in his stool to face the bar and browse over what was available.

 

                “…No sense in not joining in, I suppose,” he quietly concluded to himself and fished a few bits from his pocket with which to pay for a large mug of frothy liquid, the same drink Sharpsail was quietly sipping next to him. Though Coin Bag was new to the sailing aspect of being a travelling salespony, he had heard of the great Sharpsail years ago, and their meeting at the docks had not been the first. She was an odd mare, to be sure; normally appearing cold and aloof, yet rumoured to deep down be a highly caring and loyal figure, even if she expressed such features in a particularly fierce way, to those she deemed worthy, most predominantly her crew.

 

Coin Bag wasn’t much of a pony for rumours, but in the few instances where he had been able to observe Sharpsail in her natural environment, specifically the small number of times she hadn’t been belittling the merchant stallion or trying to convince him to give up any hopes he might have had for making it as a sea-based salespony, he had a feeling that Sharpsail’s intentions were always good, and that her spirit was a noble one. She just had a scary exterior that hid it from most.

 

                “…What?” Sharpsail’s remark made it unnervingly clear to Coin Bag that his eye had been trained on the pony captain for far too long.

 

                “Nothing, Sharpsail. Then again… care to satisfy this old stallion’s curiosity, per chance? Whatever did you mean when you said that those griffon lot were ‘getting desperate?’ Surely they aren’t stepping up their game?”

 

                Sharpsail did not answer immediately, preferring to make Coin Bag wait while she took a long gulp of her drink. When she did turn her head to answer, the look she gave the stallion was one he felt was capable of tunnelling through stone. “Firstly; it is no game. Don’t let me hear you say otherwise. Secondly; the griffons are becoming more desperate for the very same reasons they began raiding merchant ships and coastal villages in the first place.”

 

                Despite the goodwill and merriment saturating the tavern, the air around the two ponies at the bar took a considerable dive in mood. “…The windigoes? By my coffers dear, haven’t they all been rounded up by now? Why, it’s said that Clover the Clever has been travelling Equestria and beyond for years, herding them all down into the dreadful depths of-”

 

                “Tartarus. I know the stories, Coin Bag. But if you had the nerve to sail anywhere near Gryphos, you’d know that the entire island is as much of a frozen wasteland as the far north. It isn’t natural, not with the surrounding climate. The work of windigoes, without doubt,” Sharpsail confidently concluded.

 

                “And the more they put up their talons, the chillier it becomes. Bit of a downward spiral they’ve gotten themselves in, eh Sharpsail?”

 

                “Precisely. The more they fight, the more powerful the windigoes become, and thus the more they need to rob and steal in order to survive,” she confirmed.

 

                It was a downward spiral indeed. Among all the sentient species known to ponykind, gryphons were amongst those more inclined to violence and were a race of natural warriors. Much like it had once been with the pegasi, conflict was something firmly entrenched in gryphon culture. And something windigoes had begun to slowly feed off and use to cover the gryphon’s homeland in frost and make food of any sort incredibly scarce.

 

                “Be very wary, Coin Bag. If things on Gryphos continue as they have been, then they will even begin to target the likes of you,” Sharpsail warned. Another glare was aimed the stallion’s way. “I’ve already tried to warn you of this. Clearly you’re too stubborn, however.”

 

                “Don’t you get your sails in a twist! This pony knows tricks even the craftiest of unicorns hadn’t the idea to use!” Coin Bag proudly proclaimed.

 

                “I should hope so. For both your sake, and the flower which now follows you.” Point made, Sharpsail went back to slowly emptying her mug in silence.

 

                ‘If I’m not mistaken, then there it is again!’ Coin Bag mentally noted, a curious eyebrow rising above the other. “I must say, Sharpsail dear, but it seems to me that you’re a tad taken with little Kromi?”

 

                For the first time since he could remember, Coin Bag witnessed the fierce captain’s demeanour trip as she choked on a sip of her drink. After a bout of spluttering and coughing, Sharpsail managed to recover enough to face Coin Bag with an enraged glare. It was a look that would normally send even the most powerfully-built of ponies cowering to a friend’s embrace. The unicorn however, not only knew that whatever terrifying fate Sharpsail’s glare implied would never be truly be made a reality, but also that the area he had cast his net into had resulted in quite the catch.

 

“…What are you implying, Coin Bag?” By this point, the captain’s eyes had been reduced to slits.

 

“Oh, dear, dear. You don’t hide it quite as much as you may think, I’m afraid! I’ve seen a great many lovebirds in my time, and you’re singing all the songs!”

 

Sharpsail turned to gaze at the zebra laughing and singing with her crew and the other patrons. Moments passed as the captain watched in silence, debating whether to continue the subject. “She is indeed… beautiful. With a personality to match. But it is more than that… There is something about her, something difficult to describe. When I first looked into her eyes, I saw a fear, not just of me, but a pain. As if she had seen the worst that this world has to offer. Yet still, she manages to cheer and laugh. She has not been to Cairib before, correct? It is as if she finds something new, and embraces it to its fullest. Appreciates everything there is to appreciate, no matter the pain she may be feeling.”

 

Coin Bag joined his rival in watching Kromi having the time of her life. “You’ve no idea just how hard you hit the mark, dear.”

 

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                CRASH!

 

                “Oh my… ‘some pre-cooked meals’ was a slight understatement, wouldn’t you say, Redstone?”

 

                “Y-Yes, the folks are a bit enthusiastic when it comes to this sort of thing…”

 

                Aumean and Penwell stood staring as the other wheel of Redtsone’s wagon was also crushed under the weight of the boxes of food, medicine and other camping supplies. Granted, the wagon was old; the wood it was made from was showing signs of rot and the iron rivets were rusted, yet the tower of provisions stacked precariously in the cart was of comical proportions, and weight.

 

                The three had made their way out of the Everfree, through the fields surrounding Ponyville and the town itself and at last reached Redstone’s abode, a large single-floored cottage, located several minutes southeast of the small village. The house lay next to a wide, rocky plain which, while devoid of plant life, was for any keen geologist a literal mine of precious gems and metals. Tucked beneath the unassuming surface was what could have been miles of natural caverns and tunnels, all filled to the brim with treasures of the earth.

 

                “Well of course we’re enthusiastic! You try finding something different to do when you’re cooped up in the house with arthritis in each leg and a back to match! We’re old and don’t have anything better to do!” a coarse voice bellowed heartily. Popping out of a window of Redstone’s house was the wrinkly head of an old stallion. “Didn’t think it would hold, to be honest. Here, son, just take these.” The head withdrew from the window and emerged a moment later with a pair of saddlebags held by the strap with a set of suspiciously white teeth. Teeth that proceeded to slip from the old pony’s mouth from the weight of the bags and reveal themselves as dentures.

 

                “Dad…”

 

                “Flint, are you alright?”

 

                The old earth pony looked down at the bags with his teeth still clamped on the strap, then burst into a wheezing laugh. “…Hope you never get old, son! Hope you never get old!”

 

                Redstone sighed, unhitched himself from the broken wagon and went to pick up the saddlebags his father had presented him with, being sure to place the saliva-covered dentures on the windowsill before strapping the packs on.

 

                Penwell, finally moving from his position, suddenly began pulling strands of hair in front of his eyes, examining them for any grey or white. “Aumean, please, if I ever become like that… I don’t even know[e]. Just don’t let me.” Aumean could not tell if her friend was being serious or not, but giggled regardless. Penwell did not join in.

 

                “I should get going, Dad,” Redstone told his father with a hint of impatience.

 

                “‘course, ‘course. Be safe son, love you.” The two stallions exchanged a warm smile before Flint abruptly yelled back into the house with incredible volume for a pony his age. “SAPPHIRE! RED’S HEADING OFF NOW!”

 

                A shuffling sound began emanating from another room and was soon followed by a mare, equally elderly as Flint, slowly poking her head out of the window as well. “Have fun, Red! See you in a few days, alright?”

 

                The three shared a group hug and a kiss on the forehead for her son from Sapphire. “Will do. Bye Dad, bye Mom.” With a final nod, Redstone turned his back on the two, sighed once more at the pile of supplies and splintering wagon, then focused his attention on the two ponies who had walked him to his house from the Everfree. “Goodbye Ms. Aumean, Mr. Penwell.”

 

                It took all of Aumean’s willpower to keep the cheerful smile on her muzzle as just that, and not let it turn into an evil grin. “Goodbye, Redstone. I hope you have a… good trip.”

 

                Much like Aumean, Penwell was also struggling to resist a temptation, specifically one to kick the alicorn beside him in the legs. “Yes… Until some other time, Redstone.” Without making it obvious, Penwell tried to analyse the geologist pony’s for any sort of hint that he was aware of Aumean’s plotting. He found it hard to believe Redstone didn’t suspect anything; to the bookkeeper, the mare had made it painfully obvious that she was planning something.

 

                The auburn earth pony gave one final wave before finally setting out on his way to Ploughmouth. His parents, Flint and Sapphire, smiled and watched him for a few moments before shouting over the yard to Penwell and Aumean. “Feel free to come over, you two! We’ve got some tea on the stove and the back door is unlocked, so just make yourselves at home if you want!”

 

                Aumean looked at her friend. “Well, Penwell? Shall we?”

 

                The ageing bookkeeper waved a hoof in front of his face. “Not for me, thank you. I’ve got an interesting commentary on ‘bird hostility’ to get through, if you can imagine it. If you’re staying, I’ll see you soon no doubt,” Penwell remarked as he turned to leave.

 

                Aumean rolled her eyes and grinned to herself. Penwell truly did need to get out more and be a little bit sociable. As it was however, he never did get to finish his commentary that day, as his journey back to Ponyville was quickly interrupted by a flash of magical light appearing in front of him. The shock of it threw the stallion to the ground, though the sight of what had appeared with the light was even more surprising.

 

                “…Star Swirl!?” Aumean’s words were accurate. Standing in the road before them both was none other than Star Swirl the Bearded, outfitted in his hat and cape, who was casually dusting himself down.

 

                “Aumean, you old devil! You’ve got a bit of explaining to do! That, and I happen to need a look through some of your books for my next project,” the sorcerer informed the gawping alicorn.

 

                “Star Swirl… it’s wonderful to see you again, but… how did you know I was out here? I didn’t leave a note or anything at the library…” Aumean frowned and put a hoof to her chin, trying to remember. “…did I…?”

 

                Star Swirl rolled his eyes and marched up to the alicorn, completely ignoring the baffled stallion still lying on the ground. “Note!? Pah! Aumean, you alicorns, and you in particular are like springs! Bursting with magical potential from every seam! I can sense you from more than a mile away, quite literally I might add, with only the tiniest effort on my part. I’m quite certain I’ve told you this before…”

 

Both Aumean and Star Swirl lapsed into temporary thought, trying to recall whether the two had indeed had the conversation. Penwell took the chance to get back to his feet and clear his throat, clearly expecting an apology from the ancient unicorn. The noise brought the two from their memory dives and Star Swirl simply frowned at Penwell before shaking his head and approaching his friend.

                        

“No matter! Like I say, I happen to have need of one of your older collection pieces. That, and I want to hear what you have to say concerning your offspring suddenly showing up on my door, late at night!” listed the old unicorn while eyeing Aumean accusingly.

 

The alicorn’s first response was to grin sheepishly. “Oh, that. Don’t worry, I’m sure we can clear everything up over a nice cup of tea, say… back at the library?” she suggested.

 

Star Swirl nodded, satisfied. “Good. If we teleport, it shouldn’t take long. Penwell… was it? Are you coming?” he asked the other stallion abruptly.

 

The sorcerer was met with a scowl. “No, thank you. Being dragged through a hole in space doesn’t quite appeal to me. I’ll just go back to the shop.”

 

A snort rumbled from Star Swirl’s throat. “It’s a good experience! But, your loss,” the magician quickly dismissed the bookkeeper and turned his attention back to Aumean. “I’ll see you there,” he informed her before disappearing in yet another flash of light.

 

Once the magical sparks had faded, the alicorn smiled weakly at her friend. “Sorry, Penwell. I’ll come see you again soon, but I probably should go and talk things over with Star Swirl before he gets even crankier.”

 

The stallion rolled his eyes, but reciprocated the expression. “I’ll be fine, I’m sure. Just go, I’ll tell Flint and Sapphire we won’t be joining them today,” he assured her.

 

Aumean nodded in response, gave her friend another bashful smile before vanishing herself in a flash of light. The sight of her cosy library suddenly greeted the alicorn, as well as that of a book flying towards her. She gasped in shock before just managing to catch the rogue book in the air with her magic. “…Star Swirl… could you please be more careful? Some of these are fragile and took a very long time to sort…”

 

A chuckle echoed from a nearby bookshelf where a heartbreaking pile of books had already been haphazardly thrown to the floor. “Look closer, dear.”

 

Aumean managed to tear her look of sorrow away from the chaotic mess long enough to take the book she held in her magic into her hooves and peer at it closer. Sure enough, a very dim aura of magic surrounded the book.

 

“Do you really think I would treat such rare works of academia so badly? There is a protective spell on each and one that will help us re-sort them,” he informed her with a smug grin.

 

The alicorn breathed a sigh of relief and chuckled a little nervously in response. “Thank the skies… I thought you had went a little crazy since we last met…” she trailed off while stroking the book in her hooves protectively. After a brief period of silence, Aumean snapped back to reality. “Oh! Yes, what was it you’re looking for? I might know it…”

 

“I’m not actually sure of any exact title, but I just happen to know you have a few works even older than me,” Star Swirl explained while continuing his rampart book search.

 

The frown that had been slowly blossoming on Aumean’s face deepened. “Why ever would you need something that old? I do have some pre-Equestrian unicorn works, but… other than your own studies…”

 

“The period wasn’t famed for its magical advances, I know. But there might be something, and if not, then I’ll quite simply have to look through your alicorn section.”

 

What was a frown turned into a look of concern. “Star Swirl, that’s all very ancient magic. Celestial regulation, that sort of thing. I thought you didn’t like such old research?”

 

“I don’t, hate it in fact. But I’ve scoured every last book in Manehatten’s library and my own collection, and I can’t find references anywhere!” he grumbled with a growing sense of frustration.

 

“References for what, old friend?”

 

The sound of books being tossed aside onto the hard floor suddenly ceased and the sorcerer poked his head around the bookshelf to grin slyly at the alicorn. “Aumean, dear. You know this old conjurer, I won’t stop poking at boundaries until the day I drop down dead.”

 

Seeing Star Swirl’s grin forced Aumean to share with him her own. “…Star Swirl, what are you planning?” she asked with growing suspicion.

 

The old stallion chuckled smugly. “As you well know, Aumean, I recently developed a spell that would allow a unicorn to move themselves, and others, through space instantaneously! And now, I have decided to take it a step further and tackle the other half of the spectrum…”

 

“…You don’t mean?”

 

Star Swirl’s grin grew to a size Aumean had not seen in years. “Yes, dear, I do. I’ve mastered space, and now I intend to master time!

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                A fog horn boomed over the waters, causing several travelling ponies and a draconequus to jump in fright.  They had all awoken well-rested, something they had not expected given that they had been sleeping in a field. Rather than waking to a shining sun and perfect skies, a thick fog had greeted them instead. They were no less deterred however, and after a quick breakfast of dew-covered grass, they once again set out, albeit somewhat blindly.

 

                “Hey, Tia, you got any idea when we’ll hit the river again? I can’t see a thing in all this mist.” To emphasise her point, Firefly brought a hoof to her forehead and squinted into the shrouded distance.

 

                “Not entirely… we must have come out the desert further south than we went in, otherwise we would have passed Last Meadow again. I think the river curves gradually east as well, so it might be a bit longer before we reach it,” Celestia explained while frowning at the map she held in front of her face telekinetically.

 

                “Oh… okay. I just don’t want to suddenly fall in. Surprise baths aren’t cool.”

 

                “Rivers don’t just suddenly dip, Fire! More like a gradual slope… right?” Surprise exclaimed confidently, before turning to the group’s smarter individuals for confirmation.

 

                “That’s right, Surprise. You don’t have anything to worry about Firefly, most rivers aren’t that deep at their edges,” Dawn assured the two ponies with a smile.

 

                “The bigger problem is how to cross it once we do get there. I somehow doubt there will be a boat,” Viator dryly commented. “Most of us could fly or teleport over. But that would leave Dawn and Firefly, and unless you’re both willing to swim…”

 

                “Hardly. We have hooves, don’t we? It wouldn’t be hard to carry them, surely,” Discord countered while waving his own appendages in front of Viator’s face, much to his annoyance.

 

                “Maybe there will be a ferry like last time? We should just wait and see!” Despite her younger sister’s sound advice and enthusiasm, Celestia instinctively stretched her wings.

 

Contrary to what she had originally thought, there had been precious little flying over the course of their quest, and the elder alicorn began to realise that she was developing an itch to soar about once more. ‘Maybe when we next stop I could take a little flight…? Though Firefly…’ As soon as the thought struck, the white mare glanced over to the pink pony hiking ahead of her. Celestia still thoroughly remembered Firefly’s sudden outburst, and while she seemed to have been able to conquer her envy, the idea of taking a casual stroll in the sky while the speedster sat there and watched made the alicorn very uncomfortable with herself, and she decided to simply dismiss it until later.

 

The sudden sensation of water on her hooves, as well the sound of muffled giggling brought Celestia to a sudden stop. Blinking, she realised that she had been so deep in thought that she had managed to tread into the very same river they had just been discussing. The giggling then burst into childish groans of disappointment. Noticing her trance, her friends had decided to allow her to continue on walking, seemingly to see how far into the waters she would go before realising what she was doing. Discord in particular, seemed the most vocal in his dissatisfaction at the end result.

 

The alicorn didn’t even bother scold her companions, choosing instead to just roll her eyes and turn her attention back to the river and how they would get across it.

 

“Aww, c’mon sis! It would have been funny! And we wouldn’t have let you go too far!” Luna happily called while running to her sister to give her an affectionate muzzle.

 

Celestia returned it with a frown. “It’s fine, Luna. I know you wouldn’t at least,” she coldly remarked before shooting Discord an accusing glare. The draconequus merely pointed to himself innocently in response. “…Anyway, we need to decide how we are going to cross. I don’t think there are any ferry crossings here, and with this mist it is difficult to tell which direction Neighly is in, or how far.”

 

“Celestia, I’m hurt! Don’t you ever listen to your dear brother…? I said we could carry the non-fliers!”

 

The white mare pointed a hoof in the rivers direction. “It’s a wide river, Discord, and with all this fog we can’t tell just how wide it is at this point. That, and none of us here are as light as fillies. We could try, but… “

 

“Oh, come on Tia! What’s the worst that could happen!? You drop us and we get a little wet?”

 

“Firefly is right, Celestia. The current isn’t that strong and the sun will probably be coming out soon, so it won’t take that long to dry,” Dawn explained in agreement. The speedster and scientist exchanged grins.

 

“Yeah, Tia! And If V can teleport-”

 

“Which of course I can.”

 

“Right, so if V can teleport, then that just leaves Dawn and Fire! And since there’s four fliers, we can have two ponies to helping them each!”

 

Surprise’s logic was solid, and Celestia couldn’t find fault with it, even if deep down she hoped to find some flaw, a desire she herself did not quite understand. Perhaps all their recent experiences had led the alicorn’s inherent concern for her friends to grow to overprotective levels, or perhaps it was because she was loathe to admit that Discord had thought up a perfectly suitable solution to their problem before she had? Regardless, Celestia had no choice but to nod along slowly, and with a subtle hint of reluctance.

 

And so it was that Dawn and Firefly were carefully airlifted from one bank of the river, to the other. True, the gentle giant of a waterway was vast in width, but with the support of two ponies per earth-bound traveller, they all made it across and were greeted by their resident showstallion trotting back to the river bank, having intentionally overshot his teleportation spell so as to not accidentally underestimate the river and end up soaked.

 

“…So all the ponies made it safely across the river, and quested on happily ever after!” a suitably-smug Discord sang as he, Luna and Firefly touched down on the damp grass by Celestia, Surprise and Dawn.

 

“…Let’s just move on. Hopefully we can get to the Western Range by nightfall. Then it’s a simple matter of cutting through them, and we should be able to get to Ploughmouth by tomorrow.”

 

An annoyed sigh emanated from Firefly. “We have to go through them again!? You know we got attacked by a dragon the last time we went near them!?”

 

“A ‘simple’ matter, Celestia? The last time I ventured through those mountains, I was attacked by manticores, had the cart carrying all of my belongings destroyed, and hounded by…” a worrying grimace emerged across Viator’s face “…him.”

 

Sympathetic and sheepish smiles became the norm. Every member of the group, baring Dawn, had met the object of the stallion’s grievances. Dawn’s exclusion from such an experience raised many questions in her mind, though the grim memories clearly circling through the unicorn’s face did not encourage her to ask them, and she eventually decided on remaining silent regarding them.

 

Viator’s mood shifted and spread and the party lapsed into silence as a whole, focusing instead on closing the distance between them and the stoic, mist-covered peaks ahead.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                The ringing of a bell, the creaking of rope, and hooves on wooden planks. All sounds that were familiar, but didn’t seem quite right.

 

                Kromi slowly opened her eyes and looked around, her vision still blurry with sleep. She was curled up under a pile of blankets on a simple bed in a cramped wooden room. A room that appeared to be gently swaying. Picking herself, Kromi looked around some more, but upon moving her head winced in pain. A dull throb boomed in her skull and she groaned in pain, deciding instead to simply stay in the bed and try to remain as still as possible.

 

                Without warning, the room’s door popped ajar, and a unicorn’s head squeezed through the gap. “Now, I bet a good five bits that was somepony lamenting too much drink that I just heard! Need I ask how the old noggin is?”

 

                “…It hurts…”

 

                A grin spread over Coin Bag’s muzzle. He knew he should have been more sympathetic, but seeing somepony’s first ever hangover was always a sight to see. “Let it not be said that this pony didn’t try to warn you, lass. Stay strong for just a moment though, and I’ll get something to help.” The head disappeared, and returned a few minutes later with the rest of Coin Bag’s body and a mug of water, tinted green with some sort of herb. “Drink this, and you’ll be back on your hooves lickety split!”

 

                The young zebra took the mug into her hooves and peered at its contents before taking a small, experimental sip. The brew was bitter, but not terribly so, and if it helped with the pounding pain in her head, she was more than happy to drink it.

 

                “Now, I grabbed the initiative and went and got all that buying and selling business out of the way while you were still asleep, so we’ll be able to devote all the time we have left to the good stuff; exploring Cairib some more, eh?”

 

                Kromi nodded enthusiastically, though quickly regretted it as a sharp pain shot through her brain. Coin Bag chuckled, and both managed to exchange smiles. The moment was interrupted however, by a loud thumping sound from above them, on the boat’s deck. “…Whoever could that be? I say, if it’s that darn peddler trying to cheat me out of my wallet again, I have a good mind to tell the-”

 

                “Coin Bag you sorry excuse for a sailor! Where are you!?

 

                “Ah. Perhaps not the peddler then. Wait here lass, I’ll go see what our good chum Sharpsail wants at this ridiculous hour,” he gently informed the zebra, clearly straining to keep the annoyance from his voice, before disappearing once more.

 

                Despite her friend’s words, and the aching pain in her skull, Kromi could not stop herself from cautiously slipping from her bed and padding carefully through the ship in pursuit of her friend. Gently climbing the steps, Kromi was able to poke her head upwards and see past the open door just in time to see Coin Bag hit in the face with a sheet of paper. Before he had time to respond, Sharpsail came into view, idly examining the boat’s deck with a clear sense of distaste.

 

                “…And what, per chance, is this, Sharpsail?” Coin Bag intoned after successfully pulling the sheet from his face with a touch of magic.

 

                “It’s a weather report. In short, several tornadoes are due on and around the Ploughmouth-Cairib route over the next few days. Something about collecting emergency water supplies in case of drought. Anyway, the point is that if you want to get to Ploughmouth anytime soon without putting you and, more importantly, Kromi here in even more danger, then you’ll have to set sail soon. As in, today.” The pony captain dryly explained while avoiding eye contact.

 

                Coin Bag’s jaw had become increasingly slack as Sharpsail described the situation. “N-now hold on just one minute! Surely they have to give us folk greater notice than a single day! And I for one am all for getting extra water, but that’s sea water they’ll be sucking up! It’s packed full of salt! Surely they can’t use it!?”

 

                Sharpsail shrugged casually. “I don’t need to understand how the weather is created, only how it works once it has been created. I’ve no doubt they have some way of filtering out the salt content, if it isn’t already removed when they move it up to the factories.”

 

                “But… but a single day’s notice!? However is that-”

 

                The merchant was interrupted by Sharpsail’s face suddenly being uncomfortably close to his own, an annoyed scowl on her face. “If you had any idea what you were doing, Coin Bag, then you would also know that this report was released well over a week ago. For sailors like us, painful as it is to include you amongst such ponies, who spend most of our time on the waves without any means of direct contact with the cities, it is important to check any and all weather reports as soon as we make port so we can prepare and plan accordingly,” she almost roared.

 

                “Whatever shall I do about Kromi…? I promised the girl another day of Cairib… but if I don’t keep up the pace with the other merchants out there…”

 

                “Prices will fall and you’ll likely start having to incur debt. That’s why I’m here telling you to set sail quickly. The route may be blocked for a few days, but you and I both know how much difference that can make if all the competition got through before you had the chance,” she finished for him.

 

                What was a look of deep concern turned into a frown. “Then why are you helping this old stallion out by passing the message?”

 

                A quiet chuckle escaped Sharpsail’s throat, the first Kromi had heard. “Please, as if you and this dinghy could pose any serious threat to my profits. I’m telling you more out of concern for her,” she exclaimed, her hoof pointing directly to the striped head hiding in the shadows of the stairway, a head that blinked in surprise at being found out and then quickly retreated further below deck in a vain attempt to hide. Sharpsail smiled. “…How very endearing.”

 

                “…Kromi?” the merchant stallion called out, despair creeping into his voice.

 

                The zebra did not respond immediately, instead thinking that if she stayed quiet, she would not be properly discovered, just as she had done when the Taloned had attacked Oromo. Hiding there, on the boat’s stairwell, the memories which until then had felt strangely far off and in the distant past suddenly resurfaced like a slideshow of ugly and gruesome images. Kromi was afraid, but could not for the life of her work out why. There was no reason why she should be; she was among friends, she had been taken away from all the horror of Oromo, even the things Coin Bag and Sharpsail had been discussing didn’t upset her too much. She would have liked to see more of Cairib, but even if they did leave it was in the direction of yet more adventure, yet more new things for her to see, hear, smell, taste and feel. Was she afraid of upsetting Coin Bag? He had vowed to show her as much of Cairib as physically possible in the two days he thought they would have, but it was a vow he wouldn’t be able to keep without seriously risking his future prospects. That didn’t seem right though, she would have found out regardless of whether she had been eavesdropping or not, and she was sure she would have been able to convince him that she didn’t mind their exploration of the port city being cut short if it meant she would have the chance to explore something else.

 

                ‘So why? Why does-’

 

                Kromi’s confused thoughts were interrupted by a looming figure standing over her, its face obscured by shadow. Initially, she tried to cower even further away, but the figure slowly leant down to reveal itself as Sharpsail, a kind and comforting smile on her lips. “A fear. As I thought. Do not worry, Kromi. I don’t know what has hurt you, but all wounds take time to heal. Continue as you have been though, and I think there will soon be nought but a faint scar.”

 

                The stripped equine merely stared at the captain, unsure how to respond.

 

                “You are a remarkable individual, Kromi. And… it pains me to know that our paths will not become any more intertwined than they are. Please, for my sake as well as your own, do not slip back down the road you have walked. Keep climbing.” What that, Sharpsail planted a quick kiss on Kromi’s forehead, turned and made her way to the boat’s railing; leaving the young zebra in as much shock and confusion as she had the first time the two had met. “Me and my crew will be leaving in two hours sharp. If you want to guarantee your safety, then I suggest you follow in our wake, or better yet, join us aboard my ship.”

 

                Coin Bag’s eyes narrowed and tried find some hint of suspicious intent upon Sharpsail’s departing form, to no avail. “I’m afraid to say Sharpsail dear, but that sounds like something you wouldn’t offer to anypony… ever, if I may add.”

 

                The sound of the mare’s hooves on the yacht’s deck stopped, and she turned to face the merchant’s claim with a rare smirk. “Normally I wouldn’t. Fortunately for you, there’s somepony you’re taking care of who I happen to… admire.” Sharpsail said no more, and promptly continued on her way, her form soon becoming lost amongst the crowd of dock workers and sailors.

 

                “…By golly, she is an odd one. I don’t rightly think I’ll ever quite work out that mare’s way of thinking,” the stallion mused. “Now, what ever do we do about her offer? Kromi?”

 

                Slowly, the zebra made her way out on to the deck from her hiding place on the stairway. “I… I think…”

 

                “Hmm?”

 

                “…Can we go with her? On her boat?”

 

                Coin Bag had expected the response, and while he and Sharpsail’s relationship was not conventional, he still felt the need to make up for leaving Cairib early, and her warning about the gryphons was playing on his mind. Of course, they would surely try and raid a ship as large as Sharpsail’s, but if the possibility existed that they would raid his small boat as well anyway, then he couldn’t think of any better crew he’d like to be by his side. The captain owned a large and well-equipped ship and commanded many hardened ponies and zebra that had proven time and time again that they were more than capable of fending off a gryphon raiding party with as little danger to themselves as possible.

 

                “Can we?”

 

                The zebra’s voice snapped Coin Bag from his mental retreat, and he looked to her for a moment before smiling. “Yes, lass, yes we can. If you think you’re up to it…”

 

                “…What do you mean?” she asked, expression turning to one of concern at Coin Bag’s tone. She was met with a sigh, and the stallion quickly went about explaining how she should way up the odds, how there was far less chance that the two would be attacked if they went by themselves in the merchant’s yacht. At the same time however, if they were attacked, they were in far greater danger than they would be with Sharpsail and her crew, but if they did accompany them, then there was a far higher chance of them being attacked in the first place. All the while, Kromi listened and occasionally nodded, contemplating the possible event of being thrown into the middle of yet another attack.

 

                “So you see, lass, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword if ever there was one. I’m quite happy to go with whatever you feel more comfortable with, I just want you to be jolly well certain you’re prepared for the consequences,” he cautiously explained.

 

                Naturally, the zebra’s decision was not immediate, and she looked to the waves as she thought in silence. “…I still want to go with her,” she eventually replied, looking back to Coin Bag with eyes of steel determination.

 

                “You positive now, lass?”

 

                She nodded firmly. “I know that the Taloned might come again, but… this time I’ll have friends to protect me! To protect each other! It still hurts… the memories. But Sharpsail is right, I have to keep pushing on! F-face them again, show them I’m not going to let them pull me down again!”

 

                A sympathetic smile looked towards her. “It’s quite alright to feel what you’re feeling, Kromi. You’ve been through a dreadful ordeal, simply dreadful. Don’t feel you need to go and rush on ahead for my sake, or anypony’s sake. I implore you lass, under no circumstance should you force yourself to relive what you’re already went through, there’s simply no need for it.”

 

                Another moment of silence. “…But I want to go with Sharpsail. I want to see her boat, meet her friends, learn what it’s like to travel with them! And I don’t want my fear of them to take that away from me!” she cried, emotion rising in her voice and moisture forming around her eyes.

 

                Kromi’s tears however, were never to fall, as a hoof was suddenly slung around her shoulder. “That’s what I like to hear! Come along dear Kromi, we’ll be riding with Sharpsail today!”

 

                With an affirmative nod and hum, the two leapt off the yacht and trotted off to find Sharpsail and the next segment of their adventure.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “Eep! Help!

 

For the fourth time in an hour, five ponies and a draconequus rushed to the aid of the dark blue alicorn.

 

                Grunts and groans followed by sighs of relief echoed around the marshland as Luna was once more pulled free from a pool of sticky ooze. “…There we go! Quite the fun place, hmm?” a draconequus chimed.

 

                The elder of the three siblings rolled her eyes. “Hardly, Discord, that’s the ninth time we’ve had to pull one of us free. This swamp is treacherous!”

 

                As Discord sniggered to himself and shook his head in amusement, Luna looked down at her hooves and tail, all caked in a fresh layer of mud, and tried to shake the slime off to little avail. “Maybe we should just fly over?” she proposed with an accompanying sigh.

 

                As had become custom, Celestia pulled forth her map and examined it thoroughly again. “I would love it if we could all just fly there, but we still have a way to go, and if we were to try carrying the three who can’t fly then we’d no doubt exhaust ourselves before we got there…”

 

                Another groan sounded from most of the group. What had been gentle fields and plains had gradually devolved into a putrid bog, where the land dipped slightly and excess water from the hills and river collected and stagnated. Celestia was not alone in regretting taking the route they had; rather than cross the Manehatten river where they had originally and then follow the same road they had travelled on to Neighly, they had instead returned to the eastern banks far further south in an attempt to cut a shorter path to Ploughmouth. They had not anticipated running headfirst into the expansive swamp they now found themselves in.

 

                “…C’mon, let’s just go, get it out of the way,” Firefly moaned before setting off once again, closely followed by her friends.

 

                “We’ll get there eventually everypony!” Although they all appreciated her efforts, Surprise’s attempts to lighten the group’s spirits were not very effective.

 

                “In some ways, I’m glad that stupid old cart got destroyed. It’s annoying enough just to get a pony through this place,” the team’s showstallion muttered to himself.

 

                “It might not be as hot, but all this mud makes trekking even more difficult than the desert sand had been,” Dawn noted with no small amount of frustration, prompting a round of agreement from her comrades.

 

                Everypony fell into a moody silence, it wasn’t long before even Discord was in no frame of mind for talking, and he had the advantage of being in the air above the streams of sludge most of them were forced to pull through. By that point, they had all been through a variety of environments that would fit the definition of bleak, yet to Luna, there was something even worse about the marsh she found herself in, something over than the infuriatingly awkward task of trudging through paths sometimes knee deep in mud. The mountains had been rough and harsh, the desert had been downright devoid of life, so what was it about the marsh that threatened to drive a pony to fume in annoyance? The younger alicorn worked out what it was that made the swamp tedious to travel only after taking a larger sniff of the stench that was constantly lurking in the background: the stench of death. It wasn’t like the desert, which lacked life, things actively died and rotted amongst the shallow, fetid pools. It was a horrible thing to have to always smell, a fragrance one simply couldn’t get used to and ignore, a fragrance that could bother even one as laid back as Discord.

 

                Luna took to the air along with Surprise and her brother, feeling her hooves deserved a rest. Her sister would no doubt join them soon enough, assuming her wings did not tire before Celestia’s own hooves did. Despite not wanting to, Luna could not but look down in pity at the three sour faces who had no wings and thus no choice but to rely solely on their legs to carry them. The swamp truly was a place for no pony to stay. ‘I remember when I was a filly! Surprise and I would play all day in the mud… but this mud looks horrible…’ the young sister thought sadly. She still did enjoy the occasional mud fight with her brother, or whoever was happy to play, but the idea of rolling in the slime around them was simply revolting to the dark blue pony.

 

                “This is ridiculous! I can barely trot through all this gloop! Can I please use the old pony’s necklace thing?” the speedster whined, looking hungrily back to Dawn’s saddlebags where the enchanted, strength-giving pendant was kept.

 

                “No, Firefly. Star Swirl told us it only has a limited number of charges, so we should save it for an emergency,” the white alicorn sternly replied without looking at the complainer.

 

                “But this is an emergency! We’ll never get through this stupid swamp at this rate!”

 

                “Firefly, just focus on walking. We’ll get through eventually,” Celestia answered calmly once again.

 

                “…Easy for you to say, you can just fly whenever you want to, not like us Earth ponies,” the pink mare mumbled bitterly.

 

                It was at this comment that Celestia lost her cool, spinning around in the mud to face Firefly angrily. “Don’t start this again, Firefly. We all feel guilty enough as it is, but I hoped you had come to terms with it!”

 

                “Well now I’m not on terms with it, okay!?”

 

                “Oh, come on Fire! Stop being such a baby! Crying about how you can’t fly all the time!” Surprise threw in to the heating row.

 

                “Sorry everypony, but I think we ought to cut Firefly some slack, hmm?”

 

                “Don’t you get involved, Discord! We don’t need the thoughts of some chimera thrown in as well!”

 

                “Wha… What did you just call me Celestia!?” the draconequus blurted back, a look of rage suddenly forming on his face.

 

                “We should stop this. Firefly, I’m sorry to say but you’re a little wild and… unintelligent at times. We should only let those who know how to use the pendant actually use it. Smart ponies, like me.” Dawn interrupted with as much elegance as she could muster.

 

                “Riiight, cause we all know how reliable Dawn is! She collapsed as soon as we got in the desert! She only got so far afterwards ‘cause of that little trinket!” Surprise sneered in response.

 

                “Surprise, you… you… featherbrain! How dare you! I ought to take that attitude of yours and… and…”

 

                “And what? Explain it?” Firefly remarked with a cruel snigger.

 

                “She probably couldn’t do that well, either. Really, an Earth pony studying magic…” Celestia dryly remarked.

 

                “Ohhhh, but of course, the big powerful alicorn could! She thinks she’s better than everyone! Look at me, I can move the sun, everypony give me attention!” Discord snapped back.

 

                Then it was Surprise’s turn once more. “Cram it, freak! Goody-gold-horn over there already said we don’t need anything from a lame jokester!

 

                “STOP IT!!

 

                The group stopped, caught paralysed in the motion of going for each other’s throats, and blinked, struggling to comprehend what they were doing and what had stopped them: Luna. The alicorn hovered above them, panting for breath after screaming the entire air content of her lungs.

 

                “…W-What’s wrong with you all…? These… these aren’t my friends!”

 

                Each combatant slowly backed down and looked to the ground awkwardly.

 

                Luna gestured to the fetid landscape surrounding them with a wide arc of her hooves. “It’s this place! There’s something… something evil about it! It makes you mad, like you want to fight your own friends! We should hurry up, or else-” Luna suddenly stopped and looked to the five individuals before her with a frown.

 

                “…Or else what? Please, tell us Luna,” Celestia asked with sincerity.

 

                Luna only continued to frown more. “…Has anypony seen Viator…?”

 

                The party all simultaneously blinked once more and looked around to count themselves, though each came to the same conclusion: the showstallion wasn’t among them.

 

                “…Oh, oh, there he is! Over there!” the snowy coated pegasus cried, pointing her hoof back along the route they had taken. Surely enough, the azure stallion was there, standing still and gazing off into the distance with a small telescope.

 

                “…I wonder what’s wrong? What is he looking at?” Dawn inquired and tried looking off in the same direction to see if she could spot anything that would grab the unicorn’s attention so thoroughly. “Hmm… there’s certainly something… I wonder what it could be? Local fauna perhaps? It’s definitely moving…”

 

                “Dawn, Firefly, stay here. We’ll go and see what’s wrong,” Celestia ordered and pulled herself into the air, flapping her way towards Viator, closely followed by Luna, Discord and Surprise.

 

                “Hey V! What’s up? You watching something cool?” the pegasus called as they approached.

 

                The stallion did not respond immediately, instead he lowered the magically-held telescope from his eye, looked to the ground, and then to his travelling companions with an intense expression of fear and horror. “…He’s…He’s found me… But… he’s in trouble…What do I do!? I should help, but… it’s him!

 

                Unable to comprehend what the unicorn’s rambling, Celestia instead took hold of the telescope with her own magic, pointed it in the general direction Viator had been viewing and brought it to her eye. The sight that the alicorn was presented with made her proud friend’s sudden terror, and indecision on whether to help “him” all to understandable. Not far from where they stood, a grey pegasus and a moss green, hat-wearing earth pony were deftly trying to dodge the many biting heads of a towering hydra.

 

                “Oh… him…”


Of Harmony & Chaos

Written by: Brightwel

Edited by: DustyGrrl

Cover art by: Iopichio

 

Chapter 12: Farewells

 

                “…him.”

 

                The word was said with the utmost horror and despair. None of the ponies had known Viator for long, but it didn’t take any of them, baring Dawn, a particularly long time to work out who it was the stallion was referring to. The telescope, which was hastily passed around for all to the see, proved their suspicions.

 

                Galloping as hard as his hooves could carry him, all the while leaping left and right to avoid an upgrade from “prey” status to that of actual “food,” a promotion most would be keen to pass up. Contrary, however, to the fear one would expect the mountain ranger to have coursing through his every fibre, the look of excitement and inaudible “whoops” clearly being shouted by him suggested that the insufferable stallion was, in fact, enjoying himself immensely. The same could not be said for the pegasus which followed him; though her expression was suitably more difficult to read than most on account of the way her eyes refused to focus, it was nonetheless clear she was in a state of distress.

 

                “We have to help them! There’s no way they’ll be able to avoid it forever!” Surprise’s sentiment was one most shared, but it was clear that it would be no easy task.

 

                “I’m all for helping, but that thing’s a hydra! Have you seen how many heads it has!?” Firefly wailed, while flailing her hooves in the air for added emphasis. “How would we fight it!?”

 

                Taking up the telescope once more, Discord quickly scanned the chase once more. “At my count, six heads. So, assuming our old friend has a good buck to him, then that means we can fight a head each!”

 

                “It… does?”

 

                Rather than the draconequus, it was Viator who stood forward and answered the question, the indecision once scrawled all over his muzzle having seemingly disappeared. “Discord is right, Firefly. Dawn and Surprise aren’t capable fighters, correct?”

 

                “…Hehe, yeeaah, I’m not so good when it comes to that sort of thing. Sorry!”

 

                “I would have to concur with Surprise… I’m more of a thinking pony.” Both ponies nodded their heads and smiled sheepishly in agreement. None of the ponies present were fighters by nature, but at least some experience in the field and talents that could be used within it.

 

                “I thought as much. Now come, we shouldn’t delay,” the unicorn boldly stated.

 

                “…Um, Viator?”

 

                “What, Luna?”

 

                “…You suddenly seem so confident, and before you were…”

 

                A sigh escaped the show stallion’s lips. “I’ll tell you later. Now get closer, we’re going to do a group teleport. Surprise, Dawn, you’re happy to stay here and guard our things?” He received two nods of confirmation, prompting the soon-to-be combatants to quickly slide their bags from backs and place them in a pile on one of the few patches of earth not drowning in mud. “Ready?” he asked the ponies by his side. Another round of nods followed, then the magic users began to glow as they powered up the teleportation spell that would transport them all to the endangered ponies’ aid. “Three… two…”

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

To most, ships were mere vessels, tools used to transport material goods or passengers from A to B where there was a large amount of water between those two points. To those individuals who work, play, eat, sleep and for the most part live on a ship, those wooden constructs become much, much more. This was no different with the crew of the Octave, a galleon often admired for its fine build and craftsmanship even by those not of a naval mind. And so what a treat it was to be able to ride such a vessel for one such as Kromi, who had never so much as seen such a large ship in detail before, let alone be its guest of honour.

 

The same however, could not be said for the Octave’s other guest, a pony who not only had ridden and admired many such works of carpentry before, but who was not in quite as much favour with its captain and who had the distinct fear that his own little yacht, that had been tied to the larger ship so it may be towed, could quite easily be crushed under the galleon’s sheer enormity.

 

“Are the stores stocked yet?”

 

“Yes ma’am!”

 

“Docking fees paid?”

 

“The Harbourmaster has given us his blessing, ma’am!”

 

“All crew present?”

 

“All hooves on deck, ma’am!”

 

“Good. Lower the sails, we depart for Equestria!”

 

AYE!

 

What may have looked like a bunch of ponies scrambling around a ship wildly, was in fact a practised, and highly efficient routine, which saw the Octave go from port to the open waves in near-record time. Of course, Sharpsail was not too concerned with breaking a record she and her crew had set themselves.

 

“…Sharpsail, dear, are you sure Fleur will be… well, ship-shape after this voyage?”

 

Coin Bag, Kromi and their host stood at the rear of the galleon, watching the bubbling foam created in its wake and the small yacht bobbing along behind, secured only by several thick ropes.

 

“What? Afraid your pond skimmer will fold under the weight of real waves?”

 

An annoyed glance was shot Sharpsail’s way, to little effect. The captain merely laughed and turned her attention to the other guest aboard her ship.

 

“Come, Kromi, let me show you around my home and introduce my brothers and sisters,” she ordered with a rare tone of affection.

 

“Can Coin Bag come too…?” Kromi nervously asked, shooting a concerned look to her friend who could not help but keep a worried eye on the boat trailing behind them.

 

“If he can muster the intelligence to realise that puny tub of his is in perfectly safe hooves, then yes,” Sharpsail answered dismissively, eager to show the young zebra her livelihood.

 

“Coin Bag…?” Kromi called, snapping him from his paranoia-induced stare.

 

He smiled back. “I’ll be just fine here, lass. Go on, you have yourself a little adventure.”

 

“Oh… okay then!” She returned the smile and bounded off, leaving the two older ponies.

 

Sharpsail seemed on the verge of smiling just as widely as she watched Kromi go, though her face returned to its usual serious demeanour and she returned her gaze to Coin Bag. “Coin Bag. A word, when I have shown her about.”

 

Without waiting for a reply, she left in pursuit of Kromi, leaving Coin Bag flummoxed. He did not know what she wanted, and was not sure he wanted to find out, but he did realise that far too many times had that mare left him with a frown.

 

Sharpsail’s shipmates came in every colour, shape and size imaginable. Even the crew’s accents were a diverse blend, with few voices sounding the same as the next. The next hour saw Kromi introduced to more ponies and zebras than she had ever known in the first place. To her, it was as incredible an experience as Cairib had been. Her mood quickly collapsed however, when a large, feathered figure emerged from the below deck, causing her eyes to widen to the size of saucers.

 

“…S-Sharprsail…” Kromi whimpered, trying to shrink behind the captain’s strong aura.

 

As soon as she felt the young zebra’s shaking and heard the fear in her voice, Sharpsail rounded and gave her full attention to the cowering equine. “What is it, Kromi?” A trembling hoof indicated the gryphon going about what was merely the same work as the other ponies and zebras around him. A warm, comforting smile formed on Sharpsail’s muzzle, and she shared it with Kromi. “Ah, do not wilt, desert flower. That is Gadeon, and he is just as worthy a friend and brother as any pony or zebra you see here.”

 

“…B-But…but… he is Taloned!” the terrified guest sputtered, looking back and forth between the oblivious gryphon and Sharpsail.

 

It was then that Sharpsail gave the gentlest gesture most of her crew ever saw, and would ever see. Captain Sharpsail, known throughout the sailing and trading world as one of the fiercest, most resolute ponies on the high seas, was, for a brief few moments, stroking the mane of a scared young filly.

 

“No, Kromi. He is Gadeon. A being with as noble and loyal a soul as any. I wondered what it was that left such an aching rend in your heart. And now I know. You’ve seen the despair the gryphons, the ‘Taloned,’ can wreak, haven’t you?”

 

Her reaction was not immediate, but she soon relented and nodded slowly and weakly, her eyes to the floor.

 

“I apologise. I shouldn’t have mentioned it, but… my ear will always be there, should you want to talk. For now though, I think you should come say hello.” Though her knees were still rattling, Kromi was slowly led by Sharpsail over to the gryphon, who was hard at work tying and sorting piles of spare rope.

 

When he saw his captain approach, Gadeon grinned and nodded politely. “Cap’n. Who’s the new blood?”

 

A hoof gently pushed Kromi forward, towards the gryphon. “…I-I… I’m…” she stuttered, unable to coordinate her mouth and tongue over the lingering feeling of dread in her stomach.

 

Whether it was simply due to natural intuition or some sort of silent message from Sharpsail, Kromi did not know, but Gadeon’s face suddenly exerted understanding after seeing her failed attempt at talking coherently. “Guess you’re a rural one, then? Well, lemme tell you, you ain’t got nothing to fear. I know us gryphons have one nasty reputation, but not all of us are dumb enough to keep fighting and not realise that’s what’s killing us.” He grinned again, a perfect example of a friendly expression if ever there were one and held out a talon for her to shake. “Name’s Gadeon. You wanna to try again with yours?”

 

It couldn’t win. The tiny inner voice that screamed at Kromi to run for her life was increasingly dimmed and muffled by the situation she had been presented with. Before her was a gryphon, yet his face was not contorted with rage or sadistic glee, instead his beak formed a simple smile. And he was not the only one; the surrounding crew had stopped whatever task they had been performing to listen and witness somepony overcome their misguided fear, a sight that never got old.

 

Kromi looked back to Sharpsail, who only nodded her encouragement. “I’m… My name is Kromi.” The zebra cautiously extended her hoof towards Gadeon’s talons, still extended, hesitated for another brief moment, and then shook it. A series of whoops and cheers boomed around the deck as everypony present commended the occasion.

 

“Kromi. That’s a pretty name. Well, nice to meet you, Kromi!” Gadeon said with a chuckle.

 

As if by instinct, the zebra turned to Sharpsail for guidance. She was met with a proud smile. “Thank you, Kromi. It means a lot to us all.” Little Kromi did not quite understand what Sharpsail meant with her gratitude, but she was happy to hear it nonetheless. “Now, the rest of you; get back to work!” the captin suddenly yelled, causing Kromi to wince, and the rest of her crew to snap back to their chores, though their muzzles were still plastered with grins. The order had been given loudly, but to any who knew Sharpsail, they could tell there had not been a hint of malice in it, and the captain’s face softened almost immediately. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to excuse me now, striped sweet. Please, stay and explore at your own pace, and don’t be afraid to talk to anyone; we’re making good speed, they can spare a few minutes of their time.” The young zebra nodded in confirmation and looked around for anyone she had not yet met, but was stopped once more by Sharpsail. “Kromi… truly, thank you.” Before she could ask, Sharpsail was gone, already halfway across the deck.

 

The first thing most noticed about the captain of the Octave, was how authority radiated from her every pore. Sharpsail was a pony you listened to, no questions asked. She was a natural-born leader, but what Sharpsail wasn’t, was a tyrant. She knew each of her crewmembers by name, and regarded them as family, a bond that was not one sided. And so, she responded to the countless knowing smirks she received from her subordinates with nought but her own smug expression. The Octave’s crew’s captain, a mare that commanded respect from even the worst of her enemies, had a crush on a little lost zebra. And her brother’s and sister’s at sea knew it.

 

There was one more individual who knew of the fierce captain’s affections however. A unicorn who found himself being almost dragged into Sharpsail’s private quarters by his horn, much to his chagrin.

 

“I say, Sharpsail… whatever is this all about? Colthandling a grown unicorn like that… How is the little one? Still to the brim with spunk, I hope?” Coin Bag asked after settling himself down in a chair. The question was semi-rhetorical, it was very unlikely Sharpsail, or any of her crew, had managed to upset Kromi, given the captain’s feelings toward her.

 

“Kromi. It was the gryphons she feared. Why? Where does she come from?” the captain sternly responded.

 

Coin Bag blinked, he hadn’t expected the questions, nor had he expected them to be asked in such a situation or manner. “Why, what ever do you need to know that for?”

 

Sharpsail sighed as if she were trying to deal with an immense fool. “Because I need to keep up to date, Coin Bag. Whatever happened to her happened recently and I need to know where, so I can keep myself and others informed on gryphon movements. Now show me,” she ordered, while spreading a large chart showing all of Equestria, the Great Sea and all the explored zebra lands to the south of it. “Show me,” she repeated with deteriorating patience.

 

The unicorn sighed as well and rubbed his small moustache in thought, trying to remember the rough location of Oromo Village. After studying the chart for a few silent moments, he pointed a hoof at a small cove, surrounding by forest with only occasional patches of dry land. “Here, I do believe. Her village was called Oromo, I think. Isolated crowd if ever there was one. Didn’t take too kindly too strangers, no siree. I must have gotten myself caught in a rogue wind, drifted into this cove here and met dear Kromi. I promised to come back for her, and what do I find? Whole village razed by gryphons. Poor lass must have the luck of the sun to get out without so much as a singed tail.”

 

Sharpsail was silent. Her eyes flicked back and forth rapidly between various points on the chart, cross-referencing the information before her with her own knowledge of events and gryphon movements and behaviours. This continued, until her eyes suddenly stopped, narrowed to slits which glared at Coin Bag, her muzzle contorting with rage. “Coin Bag you… you FOOL!” In an instant, the earth pony slammed her forehead into the unicorn’s so that he saw the extent of her anger up close. “You lead them straight to her! Do you have ANY idea what you’ve DONE!?

 

For the first time in a great many months, Coin Bag was genuinely in a state of complete and utter fear. To see Sharpsail truly angry was a terrifying enough experience, but the fear he had managed to push to the very bottom of his mind resurfaced like an erupting volcano. The fear that he had lead the gryphons to the hidden village of Oromo, that he had prompted them to raid the village and take it for everything it had, and that he was the one who had caused a young mare like Kromi so much pain and suffering. And he was at a loss for words. His brain simply wouldn’t function. Horror, horror at himself was the only thing he could process. He had dreaded the moment, the moment when somepony might figure out that it was his fault. Ever since taking Kromi from the ruins of Oromo, he had known the blame was potentially on his shoulders, but seeing Kromi push on, overcome her pain had inspired him to do so as well. But now that it had been laid down in front of him, after a hoof had been pointed, all that horrid guilt came back many times worse than it ever had been.

 

Even if the merchant was physically, or mentally, able to reply, he would have been interrupted, as the cabin door took the moment to creak open. A striped figure stood in the frame.

 

“…Coin Bag?”

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                Hydras were fearsome beasts. Few creatures could boast to be as dangerous. Not especially intelligent, but when you had four or more heads complete with boulder-crushing jaws and you possessed a size to rival some dragons, intelligence wasn’t usually a necessity in day-to-day living. When something unusual did happen however, stupidity had its downfalls. For one hydra in particular, who had been merrily chasing two little ponies, several more ponies, as well as some sort of chimera, suddenly appearing in a flash of light was unusual and as such, it was forced to halt all action so it could process this turn of events. In this hydra’s experiences, things did not just appear, and they especially did not just suddenly appear in such numbers. Food didn’t just magically sprout in front of you. So what was this? What should it do? Eventually of course, the hydra simply concluded that food was food and it should not ponder such complex thoughts when it could in fact by eating things. Alas, it took the hydra’s many brains precious seconds to reach this conclusion, and then actually agree on it. Seconds that allowed the food-to-be to spread out, and for some of them, to start making their horns twinkle.

 

                “NOW!” the azure one shouted. The hydra may have been incapacitated by thought once more, since food did not regularly shout back with such a lack of fear, were it not for the blast of combined magic energy slamming into its body and thoroughly punching the wind from its massive lungs. Like nearly everything about that particular meal, being attacked with such force was not an expected occurrence, and it served to push the poor monstrosity over the edge. No more thought, or pondering, or unanticipated twists. The little ponies and chimera were to be eaten, immediately if not sooner.

 

                The hydra roared with primordial fury and lashed out, its heads gnashing their teeth, hoping to devour as much of its prey as it could at once. Unfortunately for the hydra, the newly arrived ponies were just as agile as the two it had been chasing. If they did not zip out of the way of its mouths then they disappeared and reappeared in the same flashes of light that had originally brought them, letting it eat nothing but mud.

 

                It also gave two ponies a moment to quickly reunite.

 

                “Pardner’…! Ya came back for ol’ Craggy! Hehe, I jus’ knew ya would! Knew it!”

 

                “Craggy, we can talk later. If you didn’t notice, there’s a multiple-headed beast trying to eat us, so we need to work together and fig-”

 

                “So ‘eres my thinkin’, we gang up together, an’ figh’ this mean son-o’-a mule!”

 

                The show stallion could not believe he had actually volunteered to save that pony’s life.

 

                “Oh, an’ let me in-tro-duce ya to ma goo’ friend Bright Eyes! Bright Eyes, com’ say howdy!” Craggy cheerfully went on, nodding to the grey pegasus hovering warily above them all. Despite the concern on her face, her expression did a complete u-turn upon being called and she waved happily to the two, though the moment was interrupted by another head slamming down and nearly devouring them both.

 

                “Craggy, while I’m sure that’s wonderful, we really ought to-”

 

                “She don’ talk much, but I can tell that there’s a heart o’ gold in her chest!”

 

                “FOR THE LOVE OF THE SUN WOULD YOU HURRY UP AND-”

 

                “A’ight, now let’s show this ‘ere beasty whose boss! Yeehaaw!

 

                And show the hydra who was boss was exactly what they proceeded to do. With its heads divided evenly, the hydra found itself at a considerable disadvantage. Celestia, Luna, Discord and Viator teleported back and forth, sending bursts of magical energy into the hydra’s eyes and skulls while Firefly and Craggy proved equally as troublesome. They did not have wings or magic to support them, but even in all the sticky ooze they were too fast and agile for the hydra to catch them between its razor teeth, and every attempt it made merely resulted in two strong hooves making very forceful contact with whichever head happened to have taken a lunge at the earth ponies.

 

                This continued for sometime, and eventually, through all its rage, bloodlust and headaches, a new instinct began to surface in the hydra’s brain: self-preservation. No matter how many times it snapped and assaulted the group of equines, it didn’t get any food; on the contrary, it only got hurt. Thus, for what may have been the first time in its life, the hydra took a step back. And then another, and another. With each step the beast’s attacks lessened in ferocity until they were little more than aggressive gestures as the repeated counter-attacks soon forced the hydra into a full-on retreat, with tears in its eyes and a sad rumbling in its stomach.

 

                Only once the hydra’s form was fully out of view, having sunk away back into the depths of the bog, did the companions move from their fixed, panting stance. First there were smiles, then cheers and finally a quick round of hugs. They had defeated the hydra, though the experience had nonetheless been a tiring, and scary one.

 

                “Well done, everypony! I think it’s quite safe to say that there isn’t much that can stop and bring our spirits do-” Discord began to say.

 

                “WOOOO-WEEE! Tha’ sure was somethin’, aye pardner’s?” The group sighed, coming to the realisation that not every heroic deed is met with a desirable reward.

 

                “…Craggy… How have you been…?” Celestia asked with no small sense of fatigue.

 

                “Oh, I’va been ‘aving myself one heck o’ an adventure with none other than ma goo’ pal Bright Eyes ‘ere! We’ve been a lookin’ all over Equestria for you fillies!”

 

                “…You… have?”

 

                “Well, sure! After tha’ whole in-ci-dent a’ Neighly, I jus’ couldn’ go back an’ let ya carry on wit’out tryin’ returnin’ ya things! I jus’ know how much all them trinkets an’ shiny goods meant to ya’. ‘course, I know ya couldn’ stop, yer got sche-dules an’ time-tables ta keep!” The smile never left Craggy’s face.

 

                Viator did not respond. His face seemed to undergo a strange twist of emotions, as if he had absolutely no idea what to feel, say or even what face to pull. Eventually, his body seemed to give up, and all he did was nod, before turning away and walking slowly back to Surprise and Dawn.

 

                “Aww, he so happy ta see me he don’ know what ta say!”

 

                “It would seem so…” Discord remarked somewhat absentmindedly. The draconequus stood, looking around as if expecting something.

 

                “Wow! You guys were awesome! We saw it all from here!” Surprise yelled with unbound excitement.

 

                “Agreed! You’re were all excellent! It’s so good to know I’m travelling with such dependable ponies!” Dawn added, a look of amazed awe on her muzzle.

 

                Suffice to say, Viator did not share either ponie’s sentiment. “Wonderful. Pack up everypony, we should push on,” he ordered with what sounded like a slight hint of frustration, with who was not clear.

 

                There were frowns and exchanged looks of surprise, but the stallion’s words were not challenged. Most attributed Viator’s shift in mood to Craggy; all but Dawn, who seemed the most confused of all, knew of the time Viator had spent with the mountain ranger before they had met, and they all had first hand experience of how annoying he could be. The prospect of having to travel with him again was surely the reason, and nopony felt like annoying the sorcerer further.

 

                And so the seven travellers became nine. They continued on for a way, in silence. Craggy aside, the terrain was no less favourable, and it was only once they had pushed on through the slime for several hours that nature offered them some relief, as the earth became gradually firmer and the fetid pools of mud barred their path less and less frequently.

 

                During all this time, Viator had led at the front, closely followed by Craggy and his pegasus companion, with the others following them in turn. Eventually, curiosity concerning a particular question overcame Celestia, and she slowly fell back to the rear of the group, where Discord plodded along, constantly rubbing his chin in thought.

 

                “Discord!” the pastel maned alicorn hissed quietly.

 

                The draconequus snapped out of his trance and looked to his elder sister beside him, and raised an eyebrow, subtly asking her what she wanted.

 

                “Don’t you find it a little odd how we haven’t found one of them? The whole ordeal with the hydra, and then Craggy… it seemed perfect,” she whispered, determined not to let the others hear and learn what the two suspected about their quest.

 

                “Agreed. But apparently it wasn’t. What more can we do?” he whispered back while shrugging nonchalantly.

 

                Celestia could only agree glumly. There wasn’t much they could do, not when they had so little hard facts on how it was they actually found an Element. So she kept walking, as they all did. Time passed, and swamp returned to lush plains, then lush plains steadily hardened into rough hills and finally the rough hills grew into tall mountains. In a few hours time, the group had successfully traversed the soul-sucking bog and stood at the foot of the Western Range, the very same collection of mountains they had traversed before and where they had found their very first Element.

 

                Upon planting his hoof on the path proper, Craggy took a massive breath of air, and exhaled it noisily with a relaxed sigh. “Home sweet home.”

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “BAH! Bah, I say! How could there be nothing!? How could nopony have even tried!?

 

                The two magic enthusiasts had been searching for hours. There was not a single inch of floor that was not covered with some form of bound paper. Books and scrolls alike lay everywhere apart from the shelves they normally rested on.

 

                “Star Swirl… I already told you. Unicorns studies simply aren’t at that stage yet,” Aumean groaned while rubbing her forehead with a hoof. The alicorn was an avid reader, but at that point she felt like never picking up anything with print in it again.

 

                “Of course, unicorn studies aren’t at that stage yet! But there isn’t as much as a snippet of speculation! And don’t even get me started on the ‘oh-so-mighty’ alicorns! How can even they not have anything!?” Star Swirl grumbled, flinging several more tomes to the floor, where they bounced harmlessly within the field of protective magic the two had set up.

 

                The mare sighed. “Star Swirl… alicorns… alicorns never liked change. It’s why alicorn society never learned to truly get along with others. Why we regularly had windigo problems. Why so many were repulsed by what they saw as us ‘devolving,’ when we began giving birth to earth ponies, pegasi and unicorns, instead of more alicorns… What helped with our downfall…” Aumean sighed once more, and shook her head. “The point being that magically manipulating time could potentially result in drastic changes. It just wasn’t something alicorn scholars would so much as consider.”

 

                All the while, Star Swirl stroked his beard. “I see… afraid of their own power more like, but…” His eyes glistened with inspiration. Aumean knew the look well.

 

                “…What have you come up with now, Star Swirl?”

 

The old unicorn was grinning as he always did when he was excited about an idea.  “Alicorns might not have experimented with time spells, but what about draconequus?

 

Aumean blinked. The question had caught her off guard and instantly brought the image of her adopted son to mind. “It’s… possible. Likely, even. But Star Swirl, you should already know that draconequus were never ones for forming an orderly society. Most were nomadic and solitary; rarely did they live in groups of any more than five. There really wasn’t much of a need or demand for them to write down any magic discoveries they made. The alicorns were certainly never interested; generally, alicorns looked down on the draconequus as a species of silly foals who happened to be blessed with just as much longevity and an affinity for magic as strong as their own. I’m sorry, old friend, but I severely doubt there are any draconequus works out there, and even if there were some, I have no idea where you might find them.”

 

“And that is coming from the pony who raised one… hmm…There is only one thing I can think of, and I somehow doubt you’re going to like it. But what about Discord’s mother? Biological mother, I mean,” the stallion asked cautiously.

 

Star Swirl’s words stung and a wave of sad memories washed over the alicorn, It had been many years since that fateful day, but the images were still clear. Aumean had watched one of the last of a species die, in front of her son no less. The alicorn understood the question however, Discord had left the vast majority of his mother’s possessions behind, and it was possible they still stood there. It was a slim chance, slimmer still that there would actually be anything relevant among the small pile of travelling packs. Probabilities weren’t what bothered Aumean though; it was what they would have to do in order to retrieve whatever items may be there. “…No. I’m sorry, Star Swirl. But I can’t do that.”

 

It was the stallion’s turn to sigh. “I thought as much. Well, no matter! All the more credit for me, eh? Come on, we’ve got work to do,” chuckled Star Swirl, his grin returning.

 

“Right now…?” the mare asked, still nursing her head.

 

“Of course! I have a few ideas in mind on how it should go, but I don’t work without an assistant, and you’d be perfect for the job!”

 

Aumean never specifically agreed to help Star Sirl with his experiments, but she nonetheless found herself in the clearing outside of her library watching the elderly wizard carve a complex array of circles, runes, glyphs and all manner of magical symbols into what was essentially her garden. What worried her the most however, was the way her friend would repeatedly look over his work, frown and then telekinetically alter what he had drawn, often the very same text was revised several times, and never did Star Swirl look particularly confident about any of the project.

 

“Are you certain this is safe, Star Swirl?”

 

“Yes and no, my dear. Safe for us, yes. Safe for anything several miles due west, no. You didn’t think I was going to fire off a completely untested time spell, with absolutely no references to back up my theories with, right in front of us?” he responded with a hearty laugh.

 

“Well, no, I didn’t think that. But how exactly are you going to know if it works if it is set to take effect miles away? And exactly what kind of spell are you testing?” Aumean asked, still confused, and a tad nervous, about the entire test.

 

“Work? I never said I was testing if it ‘works,’ I’m just testing to see whether or not I’m not so far off in my ideas that it blows something up. Oh, and it’s a merely a simple ‘time tunnel’ spell. Five minute ‘length,’ if you understand a thing I’m saying. Now, if you would kindly stay there while I go and get a drink, then we can have it up and running in no time…” Star Swirl practically rambled. Without another word, he slowly waked back to the library in order to get some sort of drink, apparently forgetting that Aumean was not only in better shape, but had also been labelled his ‘assistant’.

 

Had he known the thoughts going through Aumean’s mind at the time of his momentary departure, then Star Swirlmay well have reconsidered the entire experiment, or at the very least delayed it. As soon as the stallion had disappeared back into the library, Aumean gazed over the array, studying its every mark. Most of it was alien to her, Star Swirl’s personal interpretation of what time-controlling runes should probably look like, but there were some markings she recognised; one circle was dedicated to actually targeting the spell and, assuming they were correctly written, would dictate where it would take effect. And Aumean could tell exactly where that was going to be.

 

She knew she shouldn’t. After the whole desert calamity, she had given up control over how and when the Elements appeared. Now, it was for the artefacts themselves to decide. She wanted to keep it that way, not let her rash decisions or emotions get in the way of the little one’s quest. But seeing those runes made her doubt her spell’s ‘wisdom,’ if it could be called that. Both the alicorn and Star Swirl knew that this time-magic experiment could go horribly wrong, it was exactly why the wizard intended to cast it so far away from themselves, in what was normally a deserted series of rocky valleys and crags. But Aumean could see it, knew that it was all too much to be a coincidence. However the next Element chose to appear, it was likely going to be in a big, maybe even tragic, way. And all it would take to avoid it would be to quickly alter some of those markings. It would be so simple, yet indecision wracked Aumean’s mind; should she take all that responsibility again? Become puppet master once more? Direct the lives of others from the shadows?

 

“Alright, let’s get this over and done with! Did I mention I had perfected some spells to help rid myself of the ailments of age? Working wonders, I can tell you! Your kids helped actually… Anyway…” Too late. Star Swirl was back, and there was no way Aumean would be able to modify any of the circles without him noticing.

 

“Star Swirl… old friend… Why don’t we leave this until tomorrow? Surely you must be tired after our book trawl?”  the mare asked hesitantly.

 

Star Swirl snorted, oblivious to the reluctance in Aumean’s voice. “Tired? Pah! Not at all. I can’t rest until I’ve gotten something other than theory. I couldn’t give a hoot how far off the results are, just so long as I do get results.” Without further argument, Star Swirl moved to the centre of the circle and his horn began to spark. “Aumean, dear, keep a close eye out for me, keep a note on how everything reacts, etc.”

 

“Star Swirl…” she whispered, casting a worried gaze to the towering mountains in the west.

 

Even if Aumean had been shouting, it is doubtful that the sorcerer would have heard her. His eyes were closed, and all his concentration had been shifted to casting the spell. The entire circle began to glow and spark, arcs of white magic danced and buzzed, lighting up the field in beautiful yet terrifying display of power. The grass the circles were carved into began rapidly grow and wilt, then suddenly return to their prime and shrink back into the grounds as seeds. Wispy, monochrome images of times gone by and possible futures flashed in and out of existence, forming a disturbing slideshow of everything that was, is, and could be. Powerful gusts of wind pulsed from the circle, and when it glowed so brightly it seemed fit to explode, everything was calm. The grass returned to normal, the magic and images no longer lit up the sky. Silence fell.

 

“Gah… I was a fool…” Star Swirl suddenly grumbled. His entire body was shuddering, and he decided to simply sit on the ground, rather than move.

 

Aumean blinked, and cautiously entered the circle towards her friend. She herself was shuddering, though it was not out of fatigue like it was with Star Swirl; Aumean was shaking with the aftermath of fear. “S-Star Swirl… are you alright? What happened?”

 

“Pah! I was stupid is what I was! Of course it should have been written like that, it should have been-“

 

“Star Swirl. What happened?

 

The old wizard’s ramblings stopped immediately, and he looked up to the alicorn with a raised eyebrow. Concern was scrawled all over her face. “A power surge, Aumean. The runes were wrong. The time tunnel won’t send whoever enters it five minutes into the future, it will send them further,” he explained calmly.

 

“…How much further?” She was almost afraid to ask.

 

He shrugged. “I have no idea. Days? Weeks? Months? Possibly hundreds of years for all I know. Millennia even! Still, this is why we cast the spell away from civilisation, so stop worrying yourself. The chances of anypony being near enough to the tunnel for it to be a danger are astronomically slim, and the chances of it displacing them drastically is even slimmer. Unless there was some sort of outside force manipulating the spell, I severely doubt any damage has been done. Now, how about a cup of tea?” he asked casually while picking himself up and slowly walking back to the library.

 

Aumean looked to the west. A bright, white light could just be seen shining through a tiny crack of a valley in the massive montage that was the mountains. “I hope you’re right, old friend. I hope so much that you are right…”

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “…Coin Bag?”

 

                Silence fell around the cabin. The merchant pony did not know what to say, and Sharpsail remained intentionally quiet, expecting an answer from the stallion just as much as Kromi was.

 

                “…Y-Yes, Kromi?” he managed to stutter after several moments quiet. The young zebra had started to frown, confused by her friend’s lack of a voice, but quickly regained her cheerful composure.

 

                “Come look! You can see, umm… hurricanes?” The young zebra looked to Sharpsail for confirmation, and smiled happily when the captain nodded. “You can see the hurricanes in the distance! Come see!” she ordered before skipping out of the cabin to once again marvel at the pegasi work.

 

                “Go to her, get out of my quarters. We will talk more, later,” Sharpsail hissed. Coin Bag looked to her, fear still in his eyes. His hooves refused to move, until the sound of steel slowly sliding against a leather sheath caused his survival instincts to kick in. He trotted unsteadily out of the cabin, and leapt in fright as its door slammed shut behind him.

 

                “Coin Bag! Over here!” Kromi called and waved. She was standing on a small box, her legs curled over the side of the ship.

 

Much to Coin Bag’s relief, nopony had noticed the loud bang of the door shutting, concentrating too much on their work, or the massive spirals of wind and water which could be seen far in the distance. The merchant pony felt reluctant to stand by the side of his striped friend, but forced himself to nonetheless. They both stood in silence, the salty wind blowing gently through their manes. The hurricanes were an odd spectacle; it was so calm where the Octave sailed, yet there they were, an intense collection of storms with the power to tear even the mightiest ship to splinters in seconds.

 

“Hey Coin Bag, how do they work? The hurricanes? And why are they even there?” Kromi eventually asked.

 

“Well…” Coin Bag began, still unable to look at his friend. “It’s a rather interesting thing. You see, lass, pegasi, that is, ponies with wings, are the ones responsible. When a big old crowd of pegasi get themselves flying in a circular motion, it creates quite the force!”

 

“It does!? But why do they do that?”

 

“Ah, now’s that’s a good question! Water, would be the answer. In order to form rain, our pegasi chums need to get water up into the cloud factories! You see, there’s one over there!” Coin Bag pointed to a large cloud high up in the sky, though to call it a cloud may be a tad inaccurate, as it was more of a floating, white, building than anything else. When she spotted it, Kromi drew out a long gasp of amazement. “So you see, the pegasi must be able to work together, to help each other, so they can master their storms, and bring up the water so that it can be made into life giving… rain…” the stallion trailed off, realisation hitting him slowly.

 

‘They have to work together… help each other… to master the storm… so you can give back something precious…’ he repeatedly thought, again and again.

 

“…Coin Bag…?”

 

Kromi’s voice went unheeded. Coin Bag had become stuck in his own thoughts and revelations. Should he hide the truth from her? Try and tackle the storm by himself? Or let her help him to bring that precious rain? They were all questions fate would decide for him.

 

“GRYPHONS!” somepony called from high up in the Octave’s rigging. Interest in the hurricanes or chores was lost immediately and within seconds the entire crew was professionally moving around the ship, preparing weapons and defences against the impeding assault. A bell began to ring loudly and the door to Sharpsail’s cabin burst open, revealing the captain herself standing on her rear hooves and with her sword at the ready.

 

You all know the drill! Secure the holds, get anything not bolted down below deck and for the love of the sun somepony get me a report!” she loudly commanded.

 

As soon as the order had left her lips, a pegasus pony swooped down from the rigging, saluted and began to give his captain just that. “Flock of around thirty to forty, Cap’n. All look quite young, not employing any form of formation and don’t seem to have any particular strategy or tactics in mind, other than charge straight in. By my guess, they’re probably a new band and shouldn’t pose too much of a threat.”

 

Sharpsail listened intently and nodded. “Thank you, Scope Sight. Now go get yourself armed.”

 

“Yes Cap’n!”

 

Scope Sight flew off as quickly as he had appeared, and with his report in mind, Sharpsail was quick to approach the two, somewhat dumbfounded equines trying to stay out of every other ponie’s way. “Coin Bag, Kromi, there is a gryphon raiding party on its way. Get below deck, and hide if you can. I cannot promise we will be able to stop some from penetrating that far into the ship, but I can promise that we will repel them eventually. Go,” Sharpsail calmly ordered.

 

For a moment, neither of the three did anything. Fear and bravery fought over which would be shown on Kromi’s face until they reached a stalemate, leaving her with a neutral expression. She finally nodded, and scurried off towards the hatch that would lead her to the safety of the holds, cautious not to become an obstacle for any of the many hurriedly racing back and forth across the deck in anticipation of the gryphon assault. Coin Bag intended to be right behind the zebra, but a hoof stopped him.

 

“Coin Bag. You will protect her, understand? Forget the past, for now. Everypony… everypony makes mistakes. And everypony can redeem themselves of their mistakes,” Sharpsail spoke slowly, selecting her words carefully and with thought.

 

Once again was the stallion left frowning by Sharpsail’s actions. “By golly… I must be dreaming… why, I swear I just heard an apology…”

 

The scowl quickly returned and masked the softer expression she had worn. “Shut up Coin Bag and get out of the way!” she grumbled before bringing the flat side of her sword down on the merchant’s flank. His eyes promptly widened and a loud whinny escaped his throat. He wasted no more time in hurriedly moving below deck.

 

“Coin Bag! Over here!” Kromi hissed from behind a stack of crates. It was a good hiding place on account of a spare tarpaulin lying loosely behind the pile; even if somepony were to move the heavy containers out of the way, they could still be effectively hidden under the heavy material.

 

Without needing to be told twice, the two equines scrambled underneath the sheet and lay still, listening to the clattering of hooves above them. Eventually, the sound stopped and was followed by several muffled shouts, which was in turn followed by dead silence. Neither Kromi nor Coin Bag could so much as hear a shuffling hoof. The total lack of sound unnerved them, it made them realise just how loud their own breathing sounded.

 

What seemed like hours passed, and then all Tartarus broke loose. Silence turned into the roar of battle without so much as a build up. War cries and the clashing of steel rang heavily throughout the air. The splintering of wood and cries and grunts of pain seemed to sound from everywhere around them. However much she tried, Kromi could not help but shiver, and her eyes clamped shut. Seeing her fear, Coin Bag rested his head gently against hers, to comfort himself as much as her. The stallion had seen plenty bar brawls in his time, but nothing like the conflict raging above him. It wasn’t simple, alcohol fuelled fistihooves, it was a true, hatred-filled battle, a battle ponies could quite easily die in.

 

It was at that moment that a griffin burst, quite literally, through the hatch connecting the two levels of the ship. Whether intentional or not, the griffin reduced the hatch to splinters and was himself thrown into a stack of barrels which began to topple over and bury the invader unceremoniously. He did not attempt to get back up, likely because the impact had knocked him unconscious, or worse. Unfortunately, he was the not last griffin to reach so far into the ship, as a small group of five or six rapidly pushed through the open hatch and began frantically inspecting the various containers for any foodstuffs, or anything they could trade for them. Of course, neither Coin Bag nor Kromi could see exactly what was going on, only hear it, being hidden under the tarpaulin, but that perhaps only made it worse for the two.

 

For whatever reason, nopony from Sharpsail’s crew followed the interlopers down into the heart of the ship. Perhaps they did not notice the intrusion from all the fighting, or were too occupied with the other griffins, either way, it was Coin Bag and Kromi alone in a room with a pack of raiders driven wild from malnutrition and gradual starvation and who were desperate for food or someway of getting it. They ripped open crates and barrels indiscriminately in their search, and tossed any container aside if it did not hold what they searched so urgently for. One such container collided with the stack of crates two equines hid behind, causing it to loudly collapse to the floor.

 

Eek!

 

She hadn’t intended to make the sound, small as it was. But she couldn’t help it. And it was all it took. The griffon’s noisy search suddenly stopped, and Coin Bag could feel their gaze burning through the tarpaulin to stare directly at them. Tears started to form in Kromi’s eyes and she shivered with uncontrolled fear. She knew they had all encouraged her to be strong, but it was just too much.

 

The sharp clicking of talons on wood began to slowly get closer and closer to their hiding spot. It was predator-like, and Coin Bag was all too aware of who the prey was.

 

The clicking stopped, and Coin Bag could see a looming shadow pass over the sheet.

 

“Coin Bag. You will protect her, understand?”

 

‘Too right I will!’

 

The griffin who had the honour of tearing the tarpaulin away from the two equines was called Grizle. Grizle the Griffin was a nasty piece of work, even to other griffins. It didn’t matter what he had to do to get what he wanted, he would do it. Now, for Grizle, the day had taken a sour turn. To begin with, he had been in high spirits and hopes, they were going to raid an awfully nice ship and probably have a feast later with all the spoils. However, as soon as they had landed on the deck, things began going badly, as the crew turned out to be no ordinary crew; to Grizle, they were more akin to raging beats then they were sailors. Griffins are well known, feared, and respected for their combat prowess, but this didn’t seem to matter to that particular crew, who jumped straight into the fray and began giving the mighty raiding party a hard time. Then of course, they had managed to breach the holds, which as it turned out were carrying very little in the way of actually food. Naturally, they could still steal what the ship had and then trade it later, but it was always a bother finding somepony willing to trade with a band of griffins. And then, last but not least, Grizle had heard a pony hiding amongst the cargo in the hold. At first, he had thought this may provide him with a little fun, but sadly for Grizle the Griffin, the only thing he found after pulling up that quivering tarpaulin was an angry unicorn, who quickly proceeded to gift him with a powerful burst of magic to the face. Grizle was sent, at a rather impressive speed, to the other side of the hold with considerably less feathers around his head than he had several seconds previously, as well as with a noticeably blackened beak. He did not wake up until he was carried home.

 

“BACK I SAY! BACK YOU RUFFIANS!” The unicorn who had sent one of their fiercest flying then chose the moment to spring into action. He stood, a gawping teary-eyed zebra behind him, waving his horn threateningly.

 

Unfortunately for Coin Bag, his impressive triumph over Grizle did not deter the griffin’s companions as much as he would have hoped. Although they were indeed stunned momentarily by the surprise attack, and the brazen attitude with which the unicorn greeted them, it took them little more than a few seconds to recover and point their talons and equally wicked grins in Coin Bag’s direction.

 

For a pony who hated fighting, and who would avoid it as much as physically possible, Coin Bag did well against a gang of prime-aged griffins. He managed to weave his way out of the way of several blows, while delivering a few strong ones of his own. Alas, he knew from the start that there was little hope of him coming out from the fight victorious. One griffin managed to land a punch to the back of the unicorn’s head, causing him to stumble and give the gang a chance to grapple him into submission.

 

He bucked and struggled, but Coin Bag’s efforts were in vain, and the griffin’s grip on him didn’t loosen. With his fore hooves pulled back, and a set of talons holding, and threatening to break, his horn, the stallion’s stomach was left wide open to the one griffin who wasn’t holding him down. The griffin’s talons were raised, ready to cut deeply into the merchant’s flesh. The wound would no doubt be fateful, though the only concern voicing itself in Coin Bag’s dazed and exhausted mind was for Kromi’s sake, not his.

 

“Say goodnight, pony,” one of the griffins sneered, before bringing his razor sharp talons down, scything through the air.

 

A fortunate thing happened then. The griffins holding Coin Bag were startled by something, and flinched backwards. It was, however, not enough to save the unicorn from harm entirely, and the talons still cut across his skin like a hot knife through butter. The key difference though, was that the wound was not as deep as it could have been. Despite this, it was still painful, and Coin Bag’s chest continued to burn in agony long after the blow had been struck. In his last moments of conscious, he saw a figure, obscured by shadows, standing on its hind legs where the hatch to the deck once was. The only thing he could make out was a hat upon the figures head and eyes burning with rage. He blinked once, and just managed to make out the figure mid-flight, the flash of steel, and his would-be executioner taking the blunt side of a sword to the head and promptly being thrown across the room from the force. He had a good idea of who his would be saviour was, but he hadn’t the strength to thank her before darkness and pain overcame his senses and his mind shut down.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                A guide can be a very useful thing, even when exploring what is thought to be familiar terrain. A pony could walk through a forest on a regular basis, though this does not mean they could give a lecture on the local flora, fauna, dangers or even potential shortcuts. It takes a greater degree of observation and understanding to truly get to know a land. This was something Celestia and her band of travellers learned quite quickly upon setting hoof once more in the Western Range. For all his faults, Craggy was an excellent guide, and seemingly knew every path, valley and cave system by heart. Though at first Celestia, the regular group leader, often felt that she should have questioned the earth pony’s decisions due to the way they seemed to contradict everything her beloved map and compass told her, she soon learned not to doubt Craggy’s pathfinding skills at all. On the contrary, she came to the respect them immensely, when their progress became apparent and that the routes he proposed had cut their estimated time in the mountains by more than half.

 

                “A’ight now Bright Eyes, now what did we call them mighty fine treats?”

 

                “…M-Muffins!”

 

                Craggy’s companion, Bright Eyes, was also a cause for curiosity. Her skewed eyes aside, the fact she was apparently unable to speak, despite being a young mare, earned more than a few inquisitive glances from the rest of those she travelled with. Craggy however, had seen fit to take it upon himself to change this, and had spent every minute he wasn’t directing his fellow adventurers patiently teaching, and perhaps more importantly, encouraging, Bright Eyes to become vocal. And he didn’t seem to care how long it would take.

 

                “…He really likes her, huh?” Surprise quietly murmured to the rest of her friends. Although there was no real need, everypony bar Bright Eyes, had decided to hang back behind Craggy and to just follow him wherever he went.

 

                “He’s an odd pony. I wouldn’t be that surprised by it,” the group’s show stallion replied while shrugging his shoulders.

 

                It was then Firefly’s turn to scrunch her face up in confusion. “Why’d you think he’s even helping us at all? I thought he just wanted to return your stuff? We should just tell him that we’ve got enough space between us to carry it all, then try and make as much space between us and him,

 

                “Because… well… that’s just what he does! You shouldn’t be nasty to somepony for helping Fire! Right sis? And who knows… maybe he’s gotten better since last time!” Luna answered, louder than the others would have liked. Upon realising her words should have been audible to their current leader, the blue alicorn plugged her mouth with a hoof and blushed. Fortunately for her, Craggy was too engrossed with his language lessons to realise he was being spoken about.

 

                They all breathed a sigh of relief before Celestia answered her younger sibling. “That’s right, Luna, but…” she trailed off, unsure how to explain her thoughts on the matter.

 

                “But what, sis?”

 

                Celestia cursed herself. She hated getting into situations like this with Luna. As much as she respected and loved her little sister, she was still just that; her little sister. Luna was still very young, and she probably wouldn’t understand the more complex side of social interaction and relationships. The white alicorn sighed and drew herself up close to Luna so she wouldn’t have to raise her voice any louder than she had to. “Luna, look,” she slowly and quietly began to explain. “…We… none of us here like Craggy. You know what he’s like yourself. Yes, he’s helped us a great deal, but we’ve already tried to ditch his company once. We can’t just say it to him though, and we don’t know how long he’s going to insist on travelling with us. Neither I do I think we’re going to get another opportunity like we did in Neighly, so we’re going to have to make it clear we don’t need his help.”

 

                “But… maybe he got better…” the dark blue filly sadly responded, turning her head to the ground.

 

                Celestia bit her lip, clearly her little sister was wanting to give him another chance and felt guilty about what they had done in Neighly. Perhaps she was still feeling the effects of everypony’s cruel outburst in the swamp, and just didn’t want to see anymore fractures in their group? Either way, she was unwilling to leave Craggy through deception again. “I know, sister, but I think it’s for the good of everypony here.”

 

                Even Discord nodded in agreement. As kind-heartened and helpful as the earth pony was, he drove each of them to their wit’s end with his incredibly rude ways of conversation. The sad thing was that Celestia, or any other pony for that matter, didn’t think Craggy meant to be so offensive; he just spent so much time on his own in the mountains that he was probably just out of touch with how to be social properly.

 

                “We should just tell him how we feel. Then maybe he would get better…?” she mumbled, mostly to herself, though Celestia heard her worries but could only offer a quick nuzzle.

 

                It was then however, that Craggy abruptly stopped, and held up a hoof to signal his friends to do the same. They all blinked as the ranger began sniffing the air, and cautiously stepping forward.

 

                “What is it, Craggy? Manticores? Cockatrice? Dragons?” Discord asked with a hint of sarcasm. He quickly regretted it however, as he received a painful kick from Firefly for the dragon comment. The draconequus rolled his eyes. “Something serious then.”

 

                “…I don’ know. Somethin’ odd, that’s for darn sure. Ain’t felt anythin’ like it before… somethin’ magic-ky,” he concluded, voice filled with suspicion and caution.

 

                Almost simultaneously, the magic-users of the party frowned and twitched.

 

                “Do you feel that, sis…?”

 

                “Yes, Luna. Discord, Viator, what do you think?” Celestia asked, taking charge once more.

 

                “Something powerful. The sort of thing I would only expect from the likes of Star Swirl the Bearded.”

 

                “Or mother dear.” Discord added.

 

                Celestia nodded, and looked around the stony walls of the narrow pass they were walking through. There was definitely something. An electricity in the air that danced and tingled around her horn and made her coat want to stand on end. It was without doubt magic, but a kind she had never felt before.

 

                A few moments passed as they all stood in silence, on total alert. Suddenly, Firefly, Dawn, Surprise and even Bright Eyes all shuddered in perfect synchronisation.

 

                “You all feel it too?” Viator inquired. He received a round of nods. Whatever it was, it was getting stronger by the second. “We should probably move.” The unicorn’s voice began taking a far more authoritative tone. As fascinated as he was as to the strange magical feeling, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be anywhere near it when it arrived.

 

                “But which way? We don’t know where it’s coming from!” cried Surprise in a growing sense of panic.

 

                Without warning, a bright arc of white energy pulsed in front of them and then vanished. Followed by another, then another, then two at once.

 

                “I think it’s time to run, little ponies!” Discord shouted, before spinning on the spot and launching into a brisk sprint. The rest took his advice, and didn’t take long at all to mimic his actions.

 

                It was however, too late. The arcs of energy rapidly multiplied, until a huge swirling mass occupied the entire width of the canyon. An incredibly odd sensation came over each of the travellers, as space time itself was bent and manipulated by the terrifying maelstrom quickly growing behind them. And then another sensation overcame them, though a more familiar one, and one they could identify: suction.

 

                It was slight at first, but much like the vortex had, it grew quickly. What started as a slight tug on their coats soon evolved into a vice-like grip that refused to let them leave the canyon without first consuming them. And it wasn’t just the travellers who were caught in the vortex’s irresistible hold. Small pebbles and insects, which had no hope of escaping the magical cyclone, flew past and often hit the ponies, who were trying desperately to reach cover behind various stoic boulders, which even in the face of the vortex refused to move.

 

                Slowly, one by one, they each managed to drag themselves behind one of the boulders. That is, each of them but the pegasi. Both Surprise and Bright Eyes had been hovering when the vortex had appeared and, in a state of panic, had tried to escape its pull while remaining in the air. Now, even the weakest of pegasi are usually capable of achieving speeds exceeding that of their ground-dwelling cousins, and both ponies did manage to make some ground before the pull of the vortex grew too strong, but without the solid earth to help anchor them in place, the two pegasi were left, just short of the protective boulders, beating their wings furiously in a stalemate against the ever-growing whirlpool of magic. Celestia, Discord, and all the other travellers were quick to realise their friend’s plight; neither Surprise nor Bright Eyes had succumbed to the vortex’s pull, but neither were they getting any closer by themselves. Without hesitation, Celestia’s horn began to shine, intending to drag the two telekinetically. The white alicorn quickly regretted the move however, as a bolt of magical energy, one of many crackling around the vortex, blasted her horn like it were a lighting rod. Celestia was blown off her hooves, but she couldn’t hear her sister’s screams over the intense roar of the swirling magical storm. Though even if she was physically able to hear, it’s unlikely she would have been able to mentally; her brain could only focus on the gut-wrenching feeling she had for the two pegasi.

 

                The vortex pulsed with energy once more, and it screamed and pulled at the pegasi yet again.

 

                “H-HELP! PLEASE!” It was all she could do. Scream, cry, and beat her wings harder than she had ever beat them before. And no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t win. Safety was so close, yet no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t get any closer, on the contrary, it began to slip slowly away as the force pulling at every part of her being grew stronger and stronger. Her wings started to tire, they couldn’t keep the intense effort up. Time seemed to slow down as the boulders and her friends head began to move further and further away.

 

                “…I don’t think SO!”

 

Surprise blinked. The image of her friends being motionlessly taken away had been suddenly replaced by Firefly’s face. And the balance of forces pulling at her body shifted once more. She was moving forward again. Tilting her head, the pegasus saw a chain, flailing in the hurricane-like winds. At its start were Celestia, Luna and Discord, heaving and pulling on Dawn’s rear hooves. Dawn was then grasping for dear life onto Firefly’s rear hooves, who was in turn holding her tightly. Slowly but surely, Surprise found herself being pulled closer and closer to the boulder. Then she was there. Safe.

 

“I-I… T-THANK YOU!” she cried, tears of fear quickly replaced by tears of joy. She hugged Firefly, and she hugged Dawn and she hugged everypony she could reach without leaving the stone sentinel they hid behind. Her affection was not returned however, and she soon noticed that despair wracked everypony’s face. Even Firefly was sobbing freely and hitting the ground in frustration. “…Wha… What? What’s wrong!? I’m safe! You saved me Fire!”

 

All she received in response was a hoof pointing her to look across the narrow path. Hunched behind another boulder was Craggy and Viator. Whereas Viator shared the same, regretful, anguished expression as the ponies surrounding Surprise, Craggy was staring at something in horrified disbelief. The white pegasus followed his gaze, and poked her head over the lip of the boulder. There was Bright Eyes, staring back, an expression of panicked confusion frozen on her face as she was mercilessly pulled closer and closer to the glowing maelstrom of magic, and there was nothing any of them could do.

 

Bright Eyes disappeared into the vortex. It simply consumed her. One moment she was there, looking at them all with a pleading expression, and then she was gone.

 

Seemingly satisfied, the vortex began to collapse in on itself. It pulsed and flared erratically as it began to die, then with a single burst of intense light, it too, was gone.

 

Silence fell over the mountains once more.


Of Harmony & Chaos

Written by: Brightwel

Edited by: DustyGrrl

Cover art by: Iopichio

 

Chapter 13: Trouble at Every Turn

 

It was a long time before anypony spoke. Nopony wanted to speak, and even if they did, nopony knew what to say. Eventually however, one did.

 

                “…What happened? Wha’ was that… that thing! What’d it do ta Bright Eyes!?”

 

                “I don’t know, Craggy.”

 

                “Don’ you dare give me that! You… you the Grand an’ Mightyful Via-tor! Where’d she go!? Answer me, darn it!”

 

                “I said that I don’t know!” the showstallion roared. Silence fell over the valley once more, as the ranger and sorcerer glared at each other.

 

                “…Then we search,” Craggy spat before quickly checking and organising his gear and saddlebags.

 

                “You won’t find her.” All eyes turned to Discord.

 

                “S’cuse me?”

 

                “You heard me. You won’t find her,” the draconequus calmly replied.

 

                “An’ how ya figure that, huh? S’pose ya know where she is, then?”

 

                Keeping his expression neutral, Discord padded over to where the vortex had been, and began to trace the scorched rock with his paw. “Less a case of ‘where,’ more a case of ‘when.’ Of course, it’s just a theory, but I’ve felt that sensation before, when that vortex was open.”

 

                Luna, who had been worrying over her sister’s charred horn, looked up and frowned. “…What do you mean, brother?”

 

                “I mean, little Luna, that feeling as if you’re getting older and younger at the same time. ‘Time’ being an important word there.”

 

                “Discord… you think that was some sort of… time portal?” Celestia asked, despite the pain in her horn.

 

                “Precisely, dear sister. I remember a time, when I was much, much, younger, where me and… well… my birth mother, met another one of my kind. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember that he entertained us by making small, magical jumps through time, making copies of himself, all those sort of things. But I distinctly remember that same, strange sensation when he would cast his spells.”

 

                Before any more of Discord’s story could be told, he was interrupted by Firefly taking centre stage by flailing her hooves. “Just hold on a minute, guys! Time travel!? Is that even possible?”

 

                “Theoretically, yes, the same way teleportation is possible. In fact, I believe Uncle looked into it at some point, but I’ve looked myself, and there’s seemingly no prior research into it,” Dawn explained while rubbing her chin in thought.

 

                “Now jus’ back up a minute! Y’all sayin’ tha’ no matter how hard we look, we ain’t gotta hope of findin’ Bright Eyes?” The question made them all face the hard reality of the situation. None of them, baring Craggy, had known Bright Eyes for long, nor had they known her particularly well in that short time. Yet even so, potentially becoming lost in time was not a fate any of them wished on anypony.

 

                Wordlessly, Surprise floated over, sat down next to the quivering earth pony and gave him the most comforting hug she could muster. Luna soon joined her, and even Viator gave the ranger a gentle pat on the back, albeit somewhat awkwardly.

 

                “…Well, technically, that isn’t true.” The disheartened eyes of the group shot up to stare at Dawn, who was still rubbing her chin thoughtfully. “If it was a time portal, then it’s unlikely it would move her location in space, just in time. Now, the fact that we haven’t already run into her future-self means it’s more likely she was sent to the future, in which case, she could appear in this spot at any moment.”

 

                “So… all we have ta do is wait?” Craggy asked, hope returning to his eyes.

 

                Suddenly, Dawn looked down to the ground, and began idly kicking a few stray pebbles. “…Yes. If she was sent to the future… But…”

 

                “But what?”

 

                She looked up again, showing that there was very little confidence in her expression. “It’s impossible to tell for how long we’d have to wait. She could have been thrown anything from an hour to hundreds of years along the timeline. You could wait here for the rest of your life and not even come close to seeing her again.”

 

                Without a moment’s hesitation, Craggy firmly placed his flank upon the ground and crossed his fore hooves. “Then ‘am waitin’. These mountains are home anyway.”

 

                “Craggy, don’t be silly. You heard Dawn, you could be waiting here for years. Wouldn’t it be better to just move on, and let her find you?” Though faint, there was but the slightest hint of annoyance in Celestia’s voice. She admired Craggy’s resolve, but what he was doing was completely irrational.

 

                “Nope. She’s a friend, and I ain’t abandoning her.”

 

                By this point, the white alicorn had risen to her hooves and was slowly walking towards the ranger. “Craggy. Listen. I know you don’t want to leave her, none of us do, but what you’re proposing is ludicrous. You could waste your entire life just waiting.” Her voice grew sterner by the moment.

 

                “Way I see it, if it’s time used waitin’ for a friend, then it ain’t time wasted. I’mma doing it for her, and I’d do it for you.”

 

Something had changed in the stallion, that much was clear, no longer did he have a perpetual goofy grin, and no longer did he incessantly talk over other ponies as if he wasn’t listening to them at all. But it still wasn’t enough to stop Celestia’s words. “We aren’t friends.”

 

A hushed silence fell over the group, as each looked at her in shock. Even Celestia herself seemed surprised she had said what she did. “Sis…” Luna bubbled from beside the grief-stricken ranger.

 

“…I’m sorry, Craggy, I didn’t mean-”

 

“Nah, I heard it clear as day. Nopony says that without good reason. What ya mean?”

 

Another moment of quiet as the two locked eyes, finally, Celestia sighed. “I don’t like you, Craggy. We don’t like you. None of us want to see you hurt, or spite you, and we’re all grateful for everything you’ve done to help us, but… you’re just… difficult. You’re annoying and talk over us, you don’t listen when we speak, and no matter what we do, there’s just no polite way to make you stop following us!”

 

Craggy frowned, and his face contorted as his mind tried to process what he had heard. Celestia felt awful for making the admission, doubly so for the time and place. But she couldn’t bring herself to lie. “I don’ git it… why didn’t y’all jus’ say so?”

 

“Well… because we didn’t want to hurt your feelings! Why else?” Surprise sounded as confused as the others looked. Despite all that Celestia had said, Craggy seemed to not be too concerned.

 

“You don’t hate us, do you Craggy?” Luna squeaked.

 

“’course not! Not everypony’s a perfec’ match for another. Now I don’ know what it is I done ta upset ya, bu’ If ol’ Craggy’s was drivin’ y’all cuckoo, ya should have jus’ said! Ya ain’t hurt nopony’s feelings, nope, wha’… wha’ happened ta Bright Eyes…” the stallion looked mournfully over at the scorched ground where his friend had vanished. “…that’s gone hurt ma feelin’s. An’ they gonna hurt even more if I jus’ abandon her. I respec’ that ya told me what y’all really think, jus’ so long as ya respect what I really think. An’ that’s that I can’t leave.”

 

Just like before, nopony knew what to say and Celestia was not the only one to shuffle her hooves in discomfort. Unlike the others however, the alicorn was taken by surprise when she felt something cool and smooth brush against her hooves, something that gently rang like glass when tapped. Looking down, she allowed herself a smile as two perfectly cut gems sparkled back up at her. “…We understand, Craggy. I’m sorry, for everything. Goodbye.” The two exchanged smiles and nods, before Celestia turned back to her companions. “Everypony, let’s push on.”

 

Most looked uncertain with Celetia’s decision, but soon followed suite with their own goodbyes once Discord and Dawn had quickly made their own, Discord’s in the form of a casual salute.

 

“Wait.”

 

Eyebrows raised, the group turned to look at Viator.

 

“I’m staying as well.”

 

He stood vigilant in the face of their stares.

 

“What do you mean, you’re ‘staying’? As in, staying staying?”

 

“Yes, Discord, staying. I’m not leaving this place, yet.”

 

“You’re not coming with us, V? Why?” Although she was the only one to voice it, Firefly’s question was one they all wanted an answer to.

 

The showstallion took a moment to look down at Craggy. “That spell, that took Bright Eyes. Whatever it was, it was powerful. There’s still traces of it… residue, and I want to study it. That and… well, Craggy here might be able to find his way through the roughest of mountains, but he’ll need my help if he wants to find somepony abducted by magic.”

 

                The friendly smile plastered on Viator’s face soon disappeared when the aforementioned ranger leapt up to give the sorcerer a tight hug. “I jus’ knew I could count on ya, pardner!” Even though he tried to maintain his scowl, Viator could not help but let an awkward smile return to his lips.

 

                “So you’re really leaving us?” Luna glumly asked, her face a picture of childish disappointment.

 

                “Yes, Luna. I know what I said about the Elements, that I wanted to help hunt them so as train myself, but… I think this journey has already taught me enough. Time I put these new skills to use,” the stallion explained as he continued to try and push off the ecstatic earth pony. “I’m sure we’ll meet again sometime. After all, I am the Grand & Mightful Viator! If our paths don’t cross again naturally, then I’ll make them cross.” With that, grins spread around the group. “Now go on, get moving. You’ll have to find somewhere good to make camp before night falls.” Night was indeed falling fast. They had been walking for hours, and had made excellent progress, but would have to find a suitable place to lie for the night, or be forced to wander, exhausted, in the dark.

 

                Each pony approached their friend and in turn, gave him their farewells, starting with Dawn.

 

                “You’re an incredible magician, Viator, and a real inspiration. I might not be able to use magic, but seeing a unicorn as young as yourself stand up to somepony like Uncle, well… it just shows how much one can achieve if they set their mind to it.”

 

                “I’ll be sure to share what I find, next we meet Dawn. Perhaps one day, when you’re up to the highest standard, we can go into business together?” He did not get a true reply, simply a mumbled goodbye before Dawn trotted away, cheeks ablaze and a goofy grin on her face.

 

                “Catch you later, V. Keep practicing, alright? I wanna see another awesome duel between you and gramps!”

 

                “Oh, it’ll be more than awesome. It’ll be the greatest thing you ever laid eyes on, Firefly.” The two competitive souls exchanged hoof-bumps and wide smirks, before the pink earth pony left to join her waiting companions.

 

                “Aww, I’m going to miss having you around, V! You stay safe and happy, promise?”

 

                “Safe? Promising makes it sound as if I would have to try. Goodbye, Surprise.” The occasion was marked as the proud stallion let the blond pegasus hug him without any resistance on his part.

 

                Next was Luna, who walked slowly up to the sorcerer, sniffling. “P-promise we’ll see each other again?”

 

                “More promises? Luna, you have my absolute guarantee that at some point, we will meet again. I’m not sure when, but we will,” he responded, giving the blue alicorn a comforting pat on the head. Her face soon lit up once more, and she nodded, sealing their agreement before running off to stand by the others.

 

                “Ah, Viator, what can I say? You and me, together we would have had so much fun potential. Such a shame!” Discord cried in his staple melodramatic fashion.

 

                “Together? Oh no, you should know by now that I don’t share spotlights, Discord. When we see each other again, maybe we should duel, see who is worthy of it!”

 

                “Ha! Sounds like a plan! I shall bet you right now that it’ll be my name that gets the bigger place in history!” the draconequus chuckled, his face an image of mischief and humour.

 

                “We’ll see, Discord, we’ll see.” The two shook hoof and paw, then Discord snapped in and out of existence, teleporting to the others.

 

                “Viator, everypony. Before we go, I’ve found something I think we’ll all want to see” Celestia called from the front of the group.

 

                The showstallion’s horn suddenly lit up as he spoke. “I can guess.” Celestia blinked, but soon felt the tug of magic on something in her saddlebags. Before she could react, the two gemstones, one red and the other a light orange, she had scooped up from the ground shot from her pack and floated over to Viator, for all to see. He examined both for a moment and he seemed to have an epiphany, a slight smile curling his lips. “Honesty and Loyalty, just as I thought. Funny, I joined you all in your search because I thought these trinkets would give me a good opportunity to become more powerful, to learn. Turns out all I needed was some mountain ranger.”

 

                “…What do you mean?” Celestia asked while the others gawped at the Elements and Discord stood smirking.

 

                The unicorn looked at Celestia for a moment, deciding on his words, before simply shaking his head. “You’ll understand someday, I’m sure. Now go on, it’s getting dark.” With a flick of his head, the two mysterious stones were returned to their place by Celestia’s side. “Goodbye, all of you.”

 

                A small chorus of “goodbye” and “farewell” rang out, and no pony stopped waving until their one-time travelling companions were completely out of sight. The party travelled on, and soon began to find the tall mountains shrinking back down into simple hills. Before they left the Western Range proper however, a loud bang and colourful flash drew their attention back to the labyrinth of peaks and valleys. What they saw was a grand, magical fireworks display. Arrows of magical energy flew into the starry sky and lit it up with a prismatic display. They all knew who it was from, and it was a farewell gift truly worthy of the Grand & Mightful Viator.

 

______________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                “…he…alright…?

 

                “…Fine… regaining conscious…

 

                “…idiot.

 

                Though at first, the stallion had not been sure where he was, or even if he was awake at all. All he knew had been the disjointed voices, seeping slowly into his mind from the darkness. However, that final, berating voice confirmed several things. Firstly, he was not dreaming; that illusion, created by the voices of several mares fawning over him, had been shattered quite quickly by being called an “idiot”. Secondly, the ache that was gradually growing around his stomach and the occasional sensation of a stinging salve confirmed his suspicions that he was in some sort of medical bay, or at the very least, was being treated on. One by one, Coin Bag’s memories began to piece themselves back together like a jumbled jigsaw.

 

                When the darkness had been shaken to the point of collapse, Coin Bag opened his eyes. Another set of big, worried eyes met his gaze, eyes that quickly bubbled with tears at the sight of him waking up. Before he could utter a word, the air was forced from Coin Bag’s throbbing chest as two striped legs wrapped themselves tightly around him.

 

                “COIN BAG! You’re… you’re okay!!

 

                “…By… by golly, lass… you didn’t think a gang of… ruffians would take me out of the game… did you?” the merchant wheezed, struggling to draw breath from the pain in his chest and the ecstatic zebra crushing him with affection.

 

                “Ms. Kromi, please, if you could move. I can’t treat my patient’s wounds with you in the way. That, and you may be suffocating him,” a caring though professional voice politely asked from somewhere close by. Kromi darted her head back, then quickly withdrew from her dangerous embrace.

 

                “Sorry… I’m just so glad he’s alright!” she apologised while scratching the floor sheepishly.

 

                “That’s fine, Ms. Kromi. We all are. But he still needs treatment,” the other voice replied. Coin Bag assumed correctly that this voice was the doctor on one particular pony’s ship.

 

                “I’m not especially pleased about him using up our medical supplies. But better this than him getting blood all over my ship and stinking up the holds.”

 

                A particular pony named Sharpsail.

 

                Despite the sharp pain it caused him, Coin Bag managed a chuckle. “See you’re still as loving as ever, Sharpsail dear –Oh, oww…”

 

                “Shut up Coin Bag, you wimp. I know members of my crew who lost hooves to sharks, only to then beat the overgrown fish senseless, yet you faint after a fleshwound. Still…” Though Coin Bag’s vision was still a little blurry, he was sure he saw something come over the fierce sailor as she looked over his bed to the zebra on the other side. “…You managed to protect something precious. So I’ll let you off this time.”

 

                Kromi frowned and looked about, confused as the room’s attention was suddenly focused on her.

 

                Sharpsail did not let the silence last for long. “Calm Beat. When will he be out of bed?”

 

                “Not long, Captain. I’ve just got to apply some more dressing, and he should be fine. Won’t be in any condition to work for a few days, and he’ll probably have the scar for the rest of his life, but otherwise, he’ll be fine,” the doctor, Calm Beat, swiftly reported.

 

                “Did you hear that Coin Bag? Your first big scar. Though knowing you, it’s probably your first ever scar. Anyway, we’ll be arriving in Ploughmouth soon, so I want you up and ready to get off my ship as soon as possible.” Her expectations given, Sharpsail promptly left, leaving Coin Bag and Kromi alone with the doctor, who was too busy applying bandages to Coin Bag’s stomach to talk.

 

                “…So, Kromi. I hope you’re doing better than little old me?” the merchant asked after watching Sharpsail leave.

 

                The young equine nodded vigorously, and seemed itching to give Coin Bag another hug. “Only because of you!”

 

                He smiled and nodded in response. “I don’t think you know how glad I am to hear that!”

 

                “And as much as I hate to break up the moment, I’m going to have to ask you to leave, Ms. Kromi. Mr. Coin Bag here needs his rest, if he wants to be able to walk on his own four hooves by the time we get to Ploughmouth,” the doctor dutifully informed them both.

 

                The stripped equine looked back and forth between the Calm Beat and Coin Bag, unsure whether to protest, or do as the doctor told her. To her disappointment, the bed-ridden pony nodded in agreement. “…Go on, Kromi. You’d best do as the good doctor says. Can’t say a bit of shut-eye would go amiss.”

 

                “Oh… okay then. You’ll get better soon, right?” she asked with a hope-filled voice.

 

                “Oh, I should think so. Sharpsail isn’t in the habit of taking on anything but the best for her crew. Forty winks and Calm Beat here should see me right as rain. Now off you go, I’m sure you can see Ploughmouth from the deck.”

 

                Reluctantly, Kromi nodded, and trotted away after snatching another quick hug, much to Calm Beat’s disapproval. She could hear Coin Bag’s snores before she even left the sick bay. The moon greeted her, however, as she emerged out onto the open deck. Despite the chaos that had wracked it earlier that day, an intense feeling of calm had returned. Barrels were smashed, weapons lay discarded everywhere, and there were even a few drops of dried blood here and there. And yet, the crew carried on cleaning up and attending to their normal duties as if nothing had happened, the same confident grins and smiles plastered over their lips as they casually talked and worked. The only pony to look troubled was their captain, who stood at the ship’s wheel. She wore a frown and distant expression, the two of which were magnetic for a caring individual like Kromi.

 

                “…Sharpsail?”

 

                Almost immediately did the veteran sailor snap from her trance to face the zebra. “Kromi. I’m glad you came. There is… something we should discuss. About Coin Bag.”

 

                Kromi blinked. “…W-what about him?” she stuttered.

 

                The brown mare took a moment to scan Kromi’s face, as if she wasn’t sure what she herself should say. “…What do you think of him?”

 

                “Of Coin Bag? He’s… he’s the kindest and most wonderful zeb- I mean, most wonderful pony I’ve ever met!” she beamed with unbound honesty.

 

                “Hmm.” Once again, Sharpsail began to stare off into the distance, her hooves automatically adjusting the wheel as necessary as if it were by reflex. “Kromi,” she finally spoke, “there is something you should know about Coin Bag. Something that I worry he is too much of a coward to tell you himself.”

 

                “I don’t understand…? What do you mean?”

 

                Sharpsail sighed and looked straight into Kromi’s eyes. “My dear, dear Kromi. It… it was Coin Bag who was responsible for whatever happened to your village.”

 

                The captain’s words hit like a ton of bricks. She didn’t know what to say, not that she was capable of saying anything in her stunned state. Eventually, she managed a garbled “what”.

 

                “I’m sorry, Kromi. Let me explain… Your village, I presume, was well hidden, and it was too far even for the griffons to hunt in normally. Something led them there, showed them that there was something there. The only thing it could have been was Coin Bag, sailing in from the north. I’m sorry Kromi, but it was that… idiot, who led them to your village.”

 

                Things started to click in Kromi’s mind. The how’s and why’s all started falling into place. “…Did… did he mean to do it…?” she whispered, head down.

 

                Sharpsail remained silent at first, trying desperately to retain her composure. “I… no. Coin Bag is a fool who shouldn’t so much as swim in the sea, no doubt, but neither would he intentionally cause so much suffering. They must have followed him without his realising.” She waited, but didn’t get a response from the zebra. “…I imagine you’ll want to talk to him. You don’t know how much it pains me to tell you this, when by all rights he should be, but it’s something I simply cannot leave buried.”

 

                The wind whistled calmly around them, and the chatter and noise of the crew sounded distant to the point it may as well have not been there at all.

 

                “…Thank you for telling me,” Kromi muttered, before turning on her hooves, intending to leave Sharpsail be. Her face never rose from the floor.

 

                “Kromi, stop,” the earth pony called tenderly. It was an odd tone to hear from Sharpsail, and it would normally have earned the captain a whole round of frowns, but Kromi was the only one to hear it, and the zebra was in no mood to appreciate the rare event. Nevetheless, it was enough to catch the stripped equine’s attention, and she turned her head to look despairingly at Sharpsail, who sighed once more. “Kromi. You… you mustn’t blame him. I know I did, at first, and it drove me to the edge of wanting to beat him to within an inch of his sorry life, then throw him to the sharks. But you and I both saw the way he protected you against those griffons. He cares for you, Kromi, more than I’d care to admit, and while his mistake cost you a lot… that is what it was, a mistake. I’m sure if he could take it all back, he would. If anything, blame the ones who chose to take your village away, not the bumbling jester who accidentally brought them.”

 

                First, there was the silence. Then the sniffling and bubbling eyes came. And finally, the floodgates opened, and the young zebra rushed into Sharpsail’s hooves, sobbing and wailing. The two rocked back and forth as the normally fierce earth pony gently stroked little Kromi’s mane. “Shh, shh… there, there…” she softly cooed.

 

                There they both stood, pony and zebra together, for nearly half an hour. During all that time, the rest of Sharpsail’s crew knew better than to interrupt them, even though several of the officers had reports to make. When it became apparent to Sharpsail how long Kromi needed, she carried the crying zebra to her private cabin, and gave control of the wheel over to the first mate. In the cosy confines of the captain’s quarters, they both sat on a lush sofa by a porthole

 

                “…I don’t know what I should think…” Kromi finally squeaked after her eyes had no more tears to give, and her lids were red raw.

 

                One of many sighs sounded from Sharpsail’s throat. “I understand, my desert flower. Even I struggled. A part of me still wishes to maroon him on Gryphos, but I know atonement when I see it. Coin Bag’s hatred for himself is more than enough, were we to add yet more hate to that pile, then he would surely be crushed.”

 

                “…But… what about the Taloned? Should I…?”

 

                “Should you hate the griffons?” Sharpsail finished for her. “No.”

 

                “But…!”

 

                “But nothing, Kromi. Coin Bag annoys me to no end, and has done a terrible thing to you. But do I hate all of ponykind because of it? No. Hate those griffons which have torn at your heartstrings, but for the griffons as a whole? They deserve only pity.”

 

                Once again, Kromi opened her mouth to protest, but her mind managed to process Sharpsail’s words before she was able to respond, and instead she buried herself into the earth pony’s fur, pondering on the wisdom she had been given.

 

They both lay there for sometime, mulling over their own circumstances, before a gentle tapping on the cabin door snapped them from their mental wanderings. “Enter!” Sharpsail yelled.

 

The door swung open to reveal Calm Beat, the ship’s chief medical officer. “Captain. I just thought you and Ms. Kromi-” The doctor suddenly stopped mid sentence, and looked awkwardly over at the young zebra cuddled up closely to her captain. “…I apologise, was I interrupting…?” she asked, a nervous hint easily detectable in her voice.

 

Sharpsail frowned, and followed the doctor’s gaze down to the beautiful equine, who, despite the captain’s loud order for Calm Beat to enter, had managed to fall into a peaceful sleep. Her deep thoughts had prevented her normally keen senses from even realising when Kromi had drifted off, and the sight of the exceedingly cute zebra curled up beside her, combined with her own incredible loss of spatial awareness let Sharpsail’s composure slip, if only just slightly.

 

“…N-No… you aren’t… uhh… G-Go on. You were saying…?”

 

Calm Beat blinked a few times, and had to hold back the incredible urge to comment on the situation further, but she knew her captain well, and also knew she’d be better off leaving it. “Yes… Anyway, I thought I would inform you that Mr. Coin Bag is conscious again, and is making a quicker recovery than I originally thought. First Mate Salt Hoof also asked me to tell you that we should be arriving in Ploughmouth within the next few hours, around the break of dawn. He recommends you get some sleep before then, though… Ms. Kromi has obviously taken the initiative.”

 

“…Thank you, Calm Beat. Dismissed,” the captain informed her officer.

 

Calm Beat dutifully nodded. “Captain,” she respectfully added before turning to leave.

 

“Oh, and Calm Beat?” the immensely comfy earth pony hastily added.

 

“Yes, Captain?”

 

“Not a word to anypony about… this.” she quickly gestured to herself and the sleeping zebra, just the slightest hint of a blush lighting up her cheeks.

 

Calm Beat couldn’t help but let a grin escape onto her muzzle. “Of course, Captain, of course,” she assured before leaving the two in peace and shutting the door firmly behind her.

 

Yet another sigh sounded around the cabin, though it was one more of tired humour than of anything else. “Ah, sweet little Kromi. Whatever am I going to do with you…?” Sharpsail allowed herself a small chuckle, before resuming stroking the zebra’s mane softly and eventually drifting off to sleep herself.

 

Sadly for Captain Sharpsail, she was denied the pleasure of a full night’s rest, due to the frantic banging that sounded from her door not long after she shut her eyes. Wearily, she rubbed her eyes and gently manoeuvred herself out from underneath the still slumbering zebra. Kromi stirred, but did not awake, and Sharpsail was able to trot to her cabin door without any guilt for waking her.

 

What?” she droned after pulling open the door with some reluctance. Surprisingly, it was her First Mate, Salt Hoof, standing on the other side of the threshold. Sharpsail’s senses became instantly alert. Salt Hoof, more than any other pony alive, knew not to disturb his captain’s rest unless in vital circumstances.

 

“Sharpsail, ma’am. I think you ought to come see this,” Salt Hoof calmly informed her.

 

The captain took a moment to scan his face for any hint that the situation wasn’t serious, though she knew she wouldn’t find any, and she didn’t. Normally, she would not even consider doubting any of her senior crew like that, but that time she had somepony else sleeping in her cabin. “…Of course. Lead the way.”

 

Salt Hoof did just that, and Sharpsail soon found herself at a table surrounded by her best pegasi scouts and navigators, grim expressions all around, who were furiously calculating movement for some other ship, or entity. “Cap’n, we’ve got some worrying reports. Massive flock heading our way from the south. Rate they’re moving at, they’ll get to Ploughmouth maybe hour or two after us,” the pegasus, Scope Sight, quickly informed the commanding earth pony.

 

“Flock? Griffins? They wouldn’t dare attack a city as large as Ploughmouth, there’s not a tribe on Gryphos big enough.”

 

Despite the confidence in the great Sharpsail’s voice, the mood of the room did not improve. “You’re right, Cap’n. The problem is… it’s not griffins. It’s worse. Much, much worse.”

 

_____________________________________________________________________________

 

 

                The moon and stars shone brightly over the Everfree forest, and not a single animal stirred. Even the wind was still, freezing the landscape in a still, silent state, like that of a masterpiece hung on the wall of an empty museum. The heavenes were not, however, the only source of light on that cloudless night. From the window of a stone library, a warm, orange glow lazily shone from one of the windows. Within the old, ivy ridden structure, Equidae Aumean sat, staring into the crackling flames of a fireplace. The powerful alicorn was not alone, at least not physically, as Star Swirl the Bearded lay on a pile of cushion nearby, snoring loudly. As much as she enjoyed company however, the mare was thankful for Star Swirl’s lack of consciousness. She wanted to be alone, with her thoughts, regardless of how much those thoughts were tormenting her. She knew something bad, terrible even, was going to happen, and yet she did nothing to stop it. She had seen everything that had happened after Star Swirl cast his spell, saw how much danger her children and their friends had been put in because of it, and seen how an innocent pony had been scooped up and displaced from her very own time. Even Aumean’s powers were not great enough to divine that pegasus’ fate, and while she doubted the world would become such an awful place, to be taken from everything and everypony you knew and loved was a horrible thing to endure.

 

                “…Ughh… Change those runes… zzz…” Star Swirl quietly mumbled in his slumber, his brain still reviewing his experiment even during sleep.

 

                Aumean looked in her friend’s direction and smiled weakly. She was also glad he hadn’t seen what she had seen. Star Swirl wasn’t an irrational pony by any means, but the red-maned mare worried what the guilt would do to the ancient magician’s focus and drive if he found out. Of course, she wouldn’t tell him, because he wasn’t to blame. The responsibility was solely in her hooves. She had chosen not to relocate the vortex when she had the chance, despite knowing it would end in tragedy. She had been afraid, afraid of once again shouldering the responsibility of guiding the young ones, of pulling at their strings from afar, an inevitable result of interfering when she had altered her own spell to give up control over when and how the Elements would appear.

 

                A sad chuckle escaped the alicorn’s lips. Things hadn’t quite gone as she had envisioned. Of course there were supposed to be times of difficulty, hurdles for them all to overcome. It was even intended by the powerful mare for her protégées to encounter danger on their journey. That was the whole point, so they could let their experiences teach them the true meaning of friendship, so that one day they may be able to guard and wield the Elements with wisdom. It was only then however, that Aumean realised that she herself could perhaps do with a refresher course. Had she lost confidence in them? Or in herself? Either way, she doubted that the ancient artefacts would bend to her will as easily as they had once done; that she could muster all that was needed to wield that awesome power.

 

                It was funny, she thought, how ponykind, when it still remembered what an alicorn was, had looked up to their ancestors in awe, as gods even. She could not blame them for it, as it was easily understandable how the alicorn’s natural affinity for magic, and their immense longevity would give such an impression. What never failed to amuse her however, was how wrong they were. The alicorns were, despite their pow