“May Celestia guide you to your eternal rest, you who were taken from us too soon, Lightning Storm,” Nurse Ivy said, gently closing the pegasus foal’s blue eyes. She paused a moment, resting her hoof on the foal’s green shoulder. Motherly instincts demanded she gently brush a lock of his flame-red mane from his eyes. Then, with a practiced flick of her hoof, she drew the sheets up and covered the colt’s remains, then stood back from the table upon which the little one lay in repose.
“I’ll notify the parents,” Doctor Whisper said with a quiet sigh. “I’d so hoped to have good news… he was doing so well, for a while.”
Dr. Coltle shook his head. “No parents, Whisper. The poor foal was housed in one of the orphanages after they died several years back. Honestly, I don’t think he had any fight left in him. When he got sick, he just… let go. He had nothing to hold him here I suppose, and the prospect of the Summer-Lands must have been too much to resist.”
“Maybe, but I honestly thought we’d saved him. We’re good… we’re very good,” Whisper complained. “I’d go so far as to say we’re the best medical team in the hospital. We don’t lose often, especially when a patient rebounds as well as little Storm had.” Looking at his hooves, Whisper closed his eyes. “I can’t help but wonder if I did everything I could. Was there one more idea I could’ve gotten that might have tipped the balance? Something? Anything?”
“I don’t know, but I do know that we did do our best. We may have lost this fight, but there’ll be another.” Wryly, Coltle added, “There’s always another.”
Their contemplation was cut short by the scent of ozone and a soft electrical crackle. Looking up, they saw a spark of electricity blossom against the concrete ceiling centered over the table.
“Get back!” Coltle yelled as he took his own advice. “The last thing we need is to get electrocuted!”
They shared uncertain glances as the spark grew in size and began to emit a more ominous crackling buzz. The scent of ozone was joined by that of melting insulation from the smoldering ceiling tiles, resulting in an acrid odor that stung the eyes and nose of those in the room.
“Shouldn’t we get out of here?” asked one of the nurses.
Whisper disagreed. “No… wait, look. It’s gone. What the hay was that? I think we’d best get Maintenance in here to check it before something really bad-”
The ceiling exploded into a whirling silver-blue vortex of energy, coring out a perfectly circular hole centered over the deceased foal. Screams of terror and pain that could not have come from any pony was heard from the other side of whatever it was; this was enough to send the medical team bolting for the door. As the doors swung closed behind the medical staff, a last burst of small metallic debris came through and peppered the table. Thankfully, the screams were cut off abruptly as the vortex disappeared as quickly as it had arrived, leaving only the evening’s rain to fall through the ceiling.
Fire alarms began to flash and klaxons began to howl, adding greatly to the chaos that was rapidly consuming the ward. This served only to irritate Dr. Coltle, who had happened to be the last pony out of the treatment room.
“Foals! You’re all foals!” yelled the gravelly-voiced old earth pony doctor. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on! Our responsibility is to our patients!” the old stallion growled. “Whisper! You head downstairs and get on the logistics of finding more beds for this ward.” Seeing one of the interns who hadn’t fled, he yelled, “You! Chamomile! You go get the rest of the residents back up here and start evacuating the ward in an orderly fashion.”
The unicorn mare nodded and turned, running off towards where the residents had fled. “Right away, Doctor Coltle.”
Dr. Coltle watched her depart a second, and then shook his head. “Amazing. She’s got more stones than the boys do, put together. Least I know who to make Chief Resident, now.” He turned to the chaos and with the expertise of a long life having served as Chief Medical Officer in the Royal Equestrian Guards, started making extremely short work of the situation.
Under his watchful eye, order was restored with almost as much rapidity as it had been lost. All the ambulatory patients had been escorted to another ward, and the more critical ones had been wheeled off. The ward was evacuated except for himself, Chamomile, and two orderlies that had come back up from another floor to see if more help was needed.
“Alright, that should be it,” Dr. Coltle said with a satisfied nod. “We’re done. Let’s head downstairs and see about settling things down.”
The doors to all the stairwells burst open, disgorging squads of golden-armored guardsponies, all of whom were storming towards them.
Hearing a soft squeak from Chamomile, Dr. Coltle whispered softly, “Deep breath. Don’t worry about them. I can handle it.”
One of the guards had a red crest on his helmet, Dr. Coltle noted, placing him at the rank of Captain. This stallion came over and saluted. “General Coltle,” the stallion said formally, despite his grin. “Causing trouble even in your dotage, eh?”
“Now that voice, I know,” grumbled Doctor Coltle. “They finally screwed up and promoted you to Captain, eh, Cobalt?”
“Well, it’s your own fault, you old coot. That last glowing fitness report you sent over to the Board certainly made it easy. But aside from all that, what’s the situation?”
“We’re fine, Captain,” Dr. Coltle replied. “The staff that witnessed the event are down below seeing to the patients. From what little I’ve seen, it was probably an explosion due to magical interaction, or maybe chemical. I’ve been warning these idiots to be more careful in…”
Captain Cobalt shook his head. “It wasn’t from inside, General. Let me tell you what little I know. It was a beam of energy the likes of which we’d never seen before; the instant it lit up your roof, the Canterlot defensive spells were tripped. That beam blew right through the shielding and simply detonated seven of the ten arcane crystals that powered them while fracturing the other three. Canterlot is utterly defenseless; that’s why we were activated. General, this is the first full-scale military mobilization Equestria has seen since the King and Queen departed some twenty five hundred years ago. We don’t know if this was an attack, or what. All the Grand Magus was able to tell us is that whatever that thing was, it was not magical. Aside from that, we’re clueless.”
“How in the name of Luna’s buttocks did that happen?” For the first time in memory, Doctor Coltle was actually shocked, and slightly scared. “Why are you here and not getting the Princesses out of Canterlot?”
“Because the Princesses can’t find anything wrong. Princess Luna is being moved to a fallback location in Ponyville with two companies of Royal Guard. Princess Celestia has the entire staff from the Gifted Unicorn Academy working on regenerating the shielding. She herself detected no invasion, and no further ‘events’. She authorized the full activation of Royal Guard and reserves, assigning a division to secure Canterlot itself and two companies to secure the hospital.”
Coltle shook his head. “There’s nothing to secure, Captain. Aside from blowing the hay out of my roof, absolutely nothing is going on over here. We’ve no casualties, just structural damage.”
The two stallions continued to talk, but Chamomile began paying attention to something else entirely. She could’ve sworn she’d heard something hit the floor a moment ago in a room that by rights should have been silent and empty. Quietly walking away so as to not disturb anypony, she put her ear to the door of the treatment room. Something was moving around in there. Carefully, Chamomile nosed the door open and peeked inside, grimacing at the destruction therein. Spotting something, she stepped inside, quietly letting the door close behind her.
Treatment room three was an unmitigated disaster. A perfectly circular hole about two or three lengths wide had been bored through the ceiling, allowing the rain to come in and soak everything. There was oddly shaped metallic debris scattered all over the room, with some of it still glowing with heat and hissing when the patter of rain splashed upon it.
Perhaps most notable of all was that the table in the center of the room, which should have supported a recently deceased foal, was empty. The thump that Chamomile had heard was the foal sliding off of the table. That foal, rather than being deceased, was wrapped in a sheet against the rain and sitting in a corner watching her intently.
Smiling gently, Chamomile slowly walked towards the poor thing, who hunched down, and folded his ears back.
“Shh. It’s okay, little one. I won’t hurt you,” Chamomile said, pausing a moment to try and look a bit less threatening.
While he didn’t reply, the foal did lift his head up a bit, swiveling his ears back and forth as he listened to her. It was strange, almost as if he couldn’t understand her.
Advancing a little closer, Chamomile noticed that the sheet was doing far more harm than good in keeping him warm and dry; the linen was completely soaked and the foal was shivering underneath it. Despite that, he was unwilling to leave that spot, protecting three small objects that lay between his forelegs.
The foal’s eyes welled up with tears, and his ears folded back as he looked down to those small scraps of metal. Looking up at her, the foal nudged one of the shards to the side. With surprising delicacy, he tapped it with a hoof, then rested the hoof to his chest. Somehow, his eyes softened still further as tears ran down his muzzle.
When Chamomile nodded, the foal then tapped the other bits of metal and then to the hole in the ceiling. He nudged the three pieces of metal together, and though they didn’t really fit any longer, it was rather obvious that not only should they fit, that when they did a heart shaped object would be formed. Smiling sadly up at her, Storm folded his ears back and then rested his chin upon the melted heart.
Chamomile understood. Nodding, she turned and went over to a supply cabinet, withdrawing a waterproof warming blanket. She used her telekinesis to pull the sodden sheet from the foal, who was shivering quite badly as the evening grew cooler. The foal looked at her and smiled gratefully as she wrapped the blanket around him and activated the warming charm.
His immediate needs tended to, Chamomile left the foal under the blanket and went to speak to Dr. Coltle and the guard Captain. Nosing open the door, Chamomile poked her head out into the corridor. “Excuse me, Sirs. But we have a little bit of a problem.”
“What sort of problem?” Dr. Coltle and the Captain asked simultaneously. Both were, after all, used to being in charge of any given situation. The two stallions shared a grin before turning back to Chamomile.
“Somepony needs to be sent back to medical school and learn how to take a pulse, sir.”
A dangerous expression crossed Dr. Coltle’s muzzle. “What. Did. You. Say?” Coltle demanded, eyes sparking with wrath. “I’ll have you know, resident Chamomile, that I took that foal’s pulse myself.”
“Well, you might just want to check it again, Doctor, because that foal is very much alive and is currently resting under the blanket. Also, the foal appears to be nearly totally aphasic. He doesn’t understand spoken language. He can’t speak. But he is mobile, and he is very much alive.”
“Aphasic… brain damage?” Dr. Coltle said, shocked.
“It… seems so, Doctor.” A loud snore came from behind her, and she stifled a soft giggle. “Well, he WAS fully conscious before falling asleep. His eyes and ears tracked properly, and he could certainly hear me. He has trouble walking… he can, but must be unrealistically careful about it. Perhaps it is just a transient ischemic attack.” At the Captain’s lost look, Chamomile clarified. “A temporary stroke. It’s a brief deprivation of blood to the brain. Something that will clear up on its own, as well.”
“The question now is, of course, what next?” the Captain asked. “We’ve got to do something with him.”
“And with me,” Coltle spat, anger and derision in his voice. “If that colt has brain damage because of my incompetence...”
Turning to Chamomile, Dr. Coltle forced himself to calm down. “You’ve already got chief resident in the bag, but there’s more to the position than ability in medicine and leadership; there’s also politics. Tell me, what do you recommend?”
“That’s easy.” Chamomile shrugged. “The Captain was dispatched here in command of two companies of soldiers on the authority of Princess Celestia, and not the Council of Lords. Therefore, legally and politically, the report should go directly to her. She’ll want very much to speak with the foal, I’m certain. He had a ringside seat to whatever happened in there.
“In the meantime, he is our patient once again. We can’t leave him in there; he will get sick from the cold and rain despite the blanket. We can begin the process of assessing the true extent of the damage, if any, once he’s settled in.”
“Cobalt, if you would be so kind, pass the word directly to Princess Celestia or Princess Luna about the foal’s survival. She’ll decide when… and if… the Magi get their turn to talk to him.” Coltle shook his head dismissively. “Assuming they don’t set themselves or something else on fire before. Also, if you could put in for a Royal Investigation, I’d appreciate it. I’ll work with your investigators and put them in contact with our own internal affairs staff.”
Captain Cobalt nodded. “I’m on it, General. The guards will remain on station here, until the Princess orders their withdrawal. That likely won’t happen for a few weeks; she’s got to let the Magi have their way. Investigations, interviews, that sort of thing.” He grinned, shaking his head to interrupt Doctor Coltle before he could say anything more. “Don’t worry. The report and recommendation will be done in private. The Magi wouldn’t hurt the foal, but the Princess definitely has the more delicate touch.”
“Heh. Good. Knew there was a reason I let my senility get the better of me when I recommended your promotion. Now get the hay out of my hospital,” Coltle grumbled, with an amused glint in his eyes.
The Captain departed with a half-salute and a laugh as the doors closed behind him.
“Alright. You’re two for two, Chamomile. What’s next?”
“Besides getting a pay raise?” Chamomile said with a cheeky grin. When she received the obligatory negative snort and laugh in reply, she continued. “I’d recommend the pediatric ward. It’s brightly colored, well lit. It has a wide-open floor plan and a gorgeous view of Canterlot, so he’d not feel boxed in. He’d have plenty of exposure to other foals, and perhaps a good bit of play would help him recover more quickly.”
Coltle nodded. “Toss in some physical therapy so his flight muscles don’t atrophy, and you’ve a solid idea.” He chewed his lower lip a moment. “He’d recognize you, Chamomile. I’d like you to transfer to Pediatrics for a while. Maybe a familiar face will help.”
“Might I recommend a pediatric ketamine dose, so he doesn’t panic when we wheel him over? Probably would help him to make certain he gets a good, long sleep. He fell asleep under a warming blanket in a room with a hole blown through the roof; he’ll wake up in a soft bed, brightly colored, and warm,” Chamomile suggested, looking in on the foal.
“Good idea. I’ll get you the dart and have the other nurses prep a bed for our guest.”
The ketamine arrived in short order and Chamomile snuck back into the room; since he was still sleeping, it was easy to jab him in the rump with the dart. The foal didn’t even have enough time to wake up; he just made a few sleepy noises and softly kicked his hind-leg before the ketamine made sure he went to –and stayed- asleep for at least three hours.
Once Chamomile was certain that the little one was out like a light, she levitated him onto a gurney and covered him again with the warming blanket. Knowing how important it was to him, she picked up and put the charm he valued so much on the gurney next to him so it’d be there when he finally awoke; it’s presence undoubtedly would soothe him. After making sure Storm was snug and secure on the gurney, she wheeled him through the hallway and onto a patient elevator, selecting the stop for the pediatric ward.
Protocols had the temperature and humidity in Pediatrics set higher than the adult wards since foals needed the warmth. One of the other nurses had drawn a bath for the colt; that was good thinking, for he was still soaking wet and a trifle dirty from the debris. After a thorough warm bath with obligatory drying and grooming afterwards, the now clean colt was put to bed.
Instinctively, the foal curled up in a tight ball, his red tail draped over his nose. His little green wings fluttered slightly as Chamomile covered him with a fuzzy blanket. She spent a moment just watching him, a soft smile on her muzzle.
“Well… you certainly made one hay of an entrance. I wonder what you’re going to do for an encore?” Chamomile chuckled and gently nosed the foal’s ear. “Sleep well, Storm… I’ll see you in the morning when you wake up.”
Lightning Storm not only slept through the night, but straight through the next morning’s breakfast as well. While this didn’t sit well with Doctor Coltle and Chief Resident Chamomile, they decided that perhaps a touch more sleep trumped food. Besides, they could easily make up the lost meal at lunchtime.
Storm woke abruptly as a burst of nearby laughter startled him. He looked about in a panic until he found the remains of his charm. Sighing gustily, he nosed them, then looked around to find little ponies sitting in a semi-circle around the nurse He’d seen last night. There was also a group of four unicorns off to the side that spent their time glaring at the others. One in particular looked like bad news; he was a bit larger than the others, having a black mane and a shining white coat.
Fortunately, the ones enjoying themselves either were ignorant of the fact or simply didn’t care. They clustered about the nurse, who was somehow levitating a book in front of her, which she began to read from. He couldn’t understand the words of course, but he could see the pictures from where he was at with remarkable clarity. It had something to do with two winged and horned horses, arranged in a Daoist Yin-Yang symbol, if the pictures were any indication. Since the story held no draw to him; he sighed gustily and put his head back down, closing his eyes to lose himself in his own mind.
After an unknown period of time however, a gentle pressure on his shoulder interrupted Storm’s melancholy thoughts. He flinched a bit, jerking his head up, but found that the nurse had set a different book on his bed, and was gently wiping tears from his face and muzzle. He could see compassion in her eyes, an acknowledgement of his own hurt.
Chamomile smiled a bit, and gently nosed Lightning Storm’s ear. “Alright. I know you can’t understand me, but we’ll work on that right now. My name is Chamomile.” She tapped her chest with a hoof. “Chamomile.”
“Ca..mile?” the foal tried, as if unused to speaking.
“Close! Try again. Cha. Mo. Mile,” she said with a bright smile.
“Chamomile.” Moving his hoof to his own chest, the foal looked up at her expectantly.
“Light. Ning. Storm.” Touching her hoof to her chest again, she pushed the lesson home. “Chamomile.” She touched his hoof. “Lightning Storm.”
“Light..ning Storm?” the foal said, ears folding back uncertainly.
“Well, we’re off to a good start! Now let’s teach you a little bit more, shall we?” Chamomile opened the book, propping it up on her hoof in front of him. “ ‘A’ is for apple. Ap. Ple. Can you say apple?”
“A… aphul,” Storm tried to say.
“Very close! A. Pull. Apple,” Chamomile encouraged.
The language lesson was interrupted by cruel sounding laughter coming from the other side of the room. “Hah! He’s just a little foal. I bet he’s a retar.. no, Uncle Blueblood said I shouldn’t use that word in public. Even if it is true. I bet he’s… challenged. Just like that drooling idiot that staggers by Uncle’s mansion now and then.”
“Prince Alabaster,” Chamomile growled. “You will maintain a civil tongue in your head. Relative of Prince Blueblood or not, you will not speak like that here. Is that understood?”
Smirking, Prince Alabaster gave a derisive bow. “By all means, Nurse Chamomile. My most sincere apologies for interrupting your special patient’s drooling lesson.” Alabaster’s ‘gang’ snickered from behind him.
Slamming the book shut with enough force to make Storm flinch, Chamomile rounded on the Prince, getting right up in his face. “Now you listen to me, you little haystack…”
“Ah, ah! Temper, Nurse! Uncle Blueblood is a patron of this hospital and it would be such a shame if I had to tell Uncle about the horrible treatment I received here. Why, he might just withdraw his patronage and then where would this place be?”
Fairly fuming, Chamomile gritted her teeth, though her eyes flashed with anger. “Now you listen to me, Alabaster. That colt died, do you hear me? He died and was nearly to the Summer-Lands before he came back here.”
“Then he is a retard because only a retard would want to come back here from there,” Prince Alabaster said, visibly shaken a bit. He turned and looked at his cronies. “Let’s leave the… special… colt to his lessons, shall we?” He turned and ignored Chamomile entirely and went back to doing whatever it was he had been.
One of these days, you little horseapple. One of these days you’ll get what’s coming to you. Shaking with rage, she walked back to Storm’s bed.
The language lesson continued at a swift enough pace where Chamomile began to have her doubts. Since his learning was unimpaired and his speech was not slurred, it was not following the usual path brain damage usually took. Something wasn’t adding up.
About thirty minutes later, an earth pony orderly came in, pushing a tray of food. Chamomile smiled and put the book away in order to start setting down the trays; one went in front of each bed. Once the food was distributed, she pushed the cart out into the hallway and left the foals to eat.
Sniffing at the offering and finding it not to his liking, Storm scrunched his muzzle and pushed the tray away a bit with a hoof. He was almost grateful as a loud burst of laughter erupted from the bed next to his. Turning, Storm discovered the troublemaker from earlier harassing the little pegasus filly with the bandaged wings on the bed next to his own.
“Oh dear. Glimmer, shall I get the nurse for you?” Alabaster asked in a kind tone of voice that was decidedly at odds with the glint in his eyes. “You seem to have spilled your lunch all over your bed. Just like breakfast.”
Glimmer didn’t answer. She just lowered her head in shame while picking the scattered burger from her blankets.
“Really. It wouldn’t be any trouble at all. Wouldn’t a nice clean bed and a fresh lunch be so much better? Why, I’d even help you by levitating it for you, just so you wouldn’t waste it. Again.” Alabaster smirked.
“N.. No thank you,” Glimmer said, barely able to keep back the tears.
“It won’t be any trouble at all, I assure you! See? Open wide!” Alabaster snickered as he levitated over one of his fries over to Glimmer and dangled it in front of her muzzle.
“P…please. Just leave me alone…” Glimmer begged, unable to hold the tears back any longer. “Please?”
Alabaster shrugged, but kept right on smirking. “As you wish. Just remember… I tried to help. I offered, but you turned me down.” He turned back to his own lunch, ignoring Glimmer completely.
Glimmer cried softly, until she felt a thump on her bed. She turned angrily, but blinked in surprise when she saw Storm looking at her, his eyes soft and understanding. He’d tried to put his tray on her bed but had dropped it, scattering most of the fries and vegetable burger onto her covers.
“H… Hey!” Glimmer said, sniffling. “What are… you’re giving this to me?” Her eyes widened a bit.
Storm smiled a bit, then walked to the far side of the girl’s bed and sat there, making sure that he was between her and Alabaster.
“So the commoner decides to help? I don’t know why you bothered to try, seeing as you made the mess even worse,” Alabaster chuckled.
Lightning Storm simply sat there, staring at him; slowly mantling his wings albeit in little fits and starts as he tried to get the muscle coordination right. His eyes focused on the colt with a steady and even gaze.
Not getting any reaction was tantamount to a hoof to the face to Alabaster, though. “Really. You should know better than that.” He folded his ears back and put his nose a fraction of an inch away from. “Explain precisely why I shouldn’t call for the doctor and have you dealt with appropriately.
Storm narrowed his eyes and gritted his teeth. Instinctively, his wings spread and his head lowered just a smidge.
Alabaster’s horn began to glow, and a sneer spread across his muzzle. “I am so going to enjoy this,” he whispered. “I’ll teach you to ignore me…”
“What in the name of the Sister Princesses is going on in here?” Chamomile demanded, stepping into the room from the hallway.
Quickly extinguishing his horn, Alabaster affected an air of personal injury and affront. “He threatened me! This barbarian threatened to attack me!”
“That’s not true!” Glimmer yelled, which caused Storm to flinch. “He didn’t…”
“Glimmer. Please be quiet a moment. I will ask you what happened after I hear from him,” Chamomile said patiently. “Please, Prince Alabaster, do continue,” Chamomile said, keeping her tone even and reasonable.
“Well! This is a pleasant surprise, Nurse! But yes, this ruffian threatened to attack me! I have witnesses!” Alabaster said, smugly.
Chamomile turned to the three unicorns standing behind Alabaster. “Is this true?” When they nodded in agreement, Chamomile sighed. “I see. Prince Alabaster, I will return straight away with Doctor Coltle. I’m sure he will deal with this appropriately.” She turned and left the room.
“Oh, this is fantastic, you retard! I don’t even have to beat you down; Coltle will do it for me!” Alabaster laughed, turning his back on Storm and walking back to the corner where his friends were waiting.
Lightning Storm simply turned and walked unsteadily back to his bed, flopping down on it with a gusty sigh.
Two minutes later, Doctor Coltle came in with fury in his eyes, but somehow managed to keep an even tone of voice. “Prince Alabaster. Nurse Chamomile tells me that you have an issue I need to address?”
“Indeed, Doctor Coltle. I was just accosted and threatened by that foal, there. Lightning Storm, I believe his name was,” Alabaster said, surprisingly politely.
Coltle arched an eyebrow. “He did, did he? Well, I can’t have that, now can I? Your uncle is always one to ask for clarity and I would surely be remiss in not following his example, wouldn’t you say? So, why don’t you tell me precisely how he threatened you?”
“Of course, Doctor Coltle. That is a most reasonable idea,” Alabaster said, buttering the commoner up as Uncle had been teaching him. “He physically imposed himself between myself and Glimmer when I was only trying to be friendly. He verbally threatened me to stay away from her.”
“Verbally threatened you?” Coltle arched an eyebrow and flicked his glance to Alabaster’s friends. “Did you three see and hear this? Is this accurate?”
When they nodded, Coltle walked over to Glimmer’s bed. “Now then, Glimmer. What did you want to say?”
Glimmer lifted her muzzle and nodded. “He didn’t say a word, I promise!” she said earnestly.
Coltle gently ruffled her mane with a hoof, and his muzzle split with a smile. “I know he didn’t. That’s why I didn’t want you to say anything. If you had, then Prince Alabaster might have realized his mistake.”
“Excuse me!” Alabaster said, affronted.
Calmly, Doctor Coltle lifted his head and glanced over in the Prince’s direction. In a dangerously cool tone of voice he said softly, “Prince Alabaster, if I may, I’d ask that you sit down and be quiet. ”
Turning back to Glimmer, he smiled again. “I know Lightning Storm hasn’t said a word, sweetheart. Because he can’t.”
“You mean…” Glimmer gasped, covering her mouth with a hoof.
Prince Alabaster paled, realizing now that he’d truly stepped in it this time.
“That’s right. That’s why he’s here. Because of the kind of hurt he’s been through, he can’t talk. If you’d said that he hadn’t said a word, that idiot there might not have done what he did. You’re a big girl and have been to school. Tell me, did you ever cover Equestrian law at all?”
Wide-eyed, Glimmer nodded. “Yessir!”
“Do you know what ‘false accusations’ and ‘bearing false witness’ means?” Coltle asked, slowly grinning.
“Um… it means that they lied to you?” Glimmer asked, biting her lower lip.
“Yes it does. It means that Alabaster lied when he said that Lightning Storm did something. That’s ‘false accusations’. When his friends went along with him? That’s ‘bearing false witness’. That’s almost as bad as the other one,” Coltle said. “Chamomile? There’s a squad of Royal Guard down at the end of the hallway. Could you ask them to come in here for a moment?”
With an absolutely evil grin and an ‘I told you so’ spark in her eyes as she glared at a visibly pale Alabaster. “My pleasure, Doctor Coltle. I’ll be right back.”
“R... Royal Guards? What happens now?” Glimmer began to tremble, but Dr. Coltle gently nosed her ear.
“Well, that depends on you, sweetheart.” Coltle leaned in and whispered to her for a minute.
When the Royal Guards came in, the squad leader snapped a salute. “General Coltle! I was told you needed us, Sir?”
“I do indeed, Corporal. Little Glimmer here has something she would like to say.” Doctor Coltle stood up and gestured to Glimmer.
The Corporal smiled down to her, eyes warm. “Yes, Miss? How might I help you?”
Blushing, Glimmer fidgeted a bit, but looked up at the stallion as best she could. After glancing at Alabaster, who by this time had managed to grasp the severity of the situation and was sweating slightly, she began to speak.
“Prince Alabaster,” Glimmer said in a quiet, but steady voice. “You are under arrest for... for…” she scrunched her eyes a moment then blinked. “Oh yeah! You are under arrest for making false accusations. Your friends are under arrest for bearing false… um…” She looked at the Corporal who had arched an eyebrow and was now looking at the Prince. “Sir? What’s the word when somepony sees something?”
“I believe, Miss Glimmer, that the word you’re looking for is ‘witness’,” the Corporal supplied.
“That’s it! Thanks!” Glimmer beamed up at him again, then turned back to Alabaster’s group. “Your friends are under arrest for bearing false witness.”
“Those are heavy charges, Miss. Did anypony else see this?”
“I did, Corporal,” Doctor Coltle answered. “Prince Alabaster even confirmed to me that Lightning Storm verbally threatened him… and the colt can’t talk.”
“That seems pretty cut and dried then, General.” In a far less polite tone of voice, the Corporal rounded on Alabaster and his cronies. “You four are hereby placed under arrest for the previously mentioned charges. You will be brought to Juvenile Hall, and your parents and or relatives will be notified. Your names will be entered into the official record, and due to your royal lineage, the Princess will be notified. Come with us, now!”
Alabaster and his friends were marched out of the room straight away by the guards but Captain Cobalt remained. After they had been led into the hallway, Cobalt grinned. “Bearing false witness, Coltle? On something like this?”
“You know as well as I do that even if the charges were legitimate that knothead Blueblood would actually get them out of trouble. As it is, he’ll have to head to Juvenile Hall and sign them out after hearing what they did. They won’t be in trouble from US, but I bet Blueblood will have a word or two about it!”
Cobalt laughed softly and nodded. “Who knows? Might scare the brat straight. Anyway, I’d best be about it.” He exited, linking back up with his squad and leading the foals to Juvenile.
“Glimmer, I am very proud of you,” Chamomile said with a soft, gentle nuzzle to Glimmer’s ear. “That was a very good thing you did.”
Her stomach growling audibly, Glimmer squeaked and blushed. “Sorry, Miss Chamomile. I spilled my lunch again, I’m sorry. Storm gave me his, but he spilled it on my bed!”
The fries had long gone cold, and the burger was obviously somewhat worse for wear. Chamomile grinned and ruffled Glimmer’s mane. “Heh. I’ll get you some more lunch. For him, too.” She gestured over to Storm, who started to snore.
“That colt,” Chamomile shook her head with an amused grin. “Glimmer, did he have any lunch at all? Anything to eat or drink?”
Glimmer shook her head. “No, Ma’am. He gave it all to me, or tried to.”
Chamomile frowned to herself. That meant the foal has gone without food or water for almost a day. While it was good he was sleeping well, she was still going to have to put an IV in to prevent dehydration and give him a little bit of nutrition. If the foal didn’t eat dinner though, Coltle would be coming for the both of them.
Storm didn’t even wake up when Chamomile started the IV line.
Having seen him sleep through another story reading and a coloring activity, Glimmer began to wonder if Storm was going to wake up at all. She was supposed to be taking her before-dinner nap, but maybe this one time she wouldn’t get into trouble for it. She quietly slipped out of her bed and carefully walked over to Storm’s.
“Pssst… hey, Storm! Storm, are you awake?” Glimmer whispered, putting her muzzle right by his ear. “Hey, Storm? You’re shivering. Are you cold? Do you want another blanket?”
Glimmer didn’t understand why Storm would be cold, since the room was already rather cozy. Still, Storm had tried to give her his lunch and the least she could do is lend him a blanket! She dragged hers over and tugged it on top of him, but it didn’t seem to help.
“Maybe if I get him another blanket from Miss Chamomile he’ll be warm enough…” Glimmer whispered to herself as she walked over to the door and nosed it open, looking down the hallway in both directions. Thinking she saw her, she headed down the hall.
“Miss Chamomile? Miss Chamomile!” Glimmer called out.
“Glimmer! What are you doing out of bed, young lady?” a gravelly voice said with an odd hint of compassion.
“I was looking for Miss Chamomile, Sir. Something’s wrong with Lightning Storm. He won’t stop shivering even after I gave him my blanket. Can I have another one, please?”
“Of course, sweetheart. Let’s get you back to bed, okay?”
Doctor Coltle tucked Glimmer in, but then turned his attention to Storm. Deftly, he flipped the covers back and gaped at what he saw; the foal’s ribs were showing and that simply shouldn’t be. Even a pegasus didn’t have that fast a metabolism. Disbelieving what his eyes told him, Coltle rested his hoof over the femoral artery, which not only woke the foal up, but also revealed a pulse that was easily forty percent faster than it ought to be.
Coltle looked down at Storm apologetically. “Sorry, little guy. I’m no unicorn and have to do things the old-fashioned way. Old, but effective… like me.” He wrapped a blood-pressure cuff around Storm’s leg, taking a reading.
“Storm, what are you doing?” Coltle muttered. “Heart rate high, blood pressure high enough that I’m surprised you haven’t stroked out yet… and you’re hot to the touch, too. Let me get your temperature.”
When Coltle produced what was obviously a glass thermometer, he found himself looking down at one very unhappy foal. “What’s the problem now?” he sighed. Taking a step forward only resulted in Storm taking a hesitant and very cautious step backwards.
Storm, for his part, made his concern and position abundantly clear; he fixed Coltle with a glare that could have shredded plate steel, and sat down.
Realization came quickly to Doctor Coltle; a glance at the now seated foal and the fixed gaze at the thermometer left little room for misinterpretation.
With absolute mischief in his eyes, Dr. Coltle laughed and shook his head. “What the hay do you think we are, barbarians? Just don’t bite the damn thing.” He opened his mouth and gestured to under his tongue.
Storm, for his part, had the good grace to cough a bit and grin sheepishly. He opened his muzzle and took the thermometer under his tongue… but remained seated just the same.
“Mm. Temperature’s high too,” Coltle sighed. “Now how the hay am I supposed to convince you to let me draw blood?”
After a little bit of pantomiming that seemed more interpretive dance than anything else, Storm seemed to catch on to the idea of the blood draw. The vial was taken down to the laboratory while Dr. Coltle saw to getting dinner delivered a touch early.
Foals are almost always hungry, so there were no complaints. Trays piled high with pasta, bread, and side-salad were placed in front of each occupant of every bed including a somewhat stubborn Storm.
“I don’t understand,” Chamomile said, frustrated. “He’s clearly hungry. Starving, literally. He just won’t eat. I know hospital food isn’t that great, but it isn’t that bad! He’s got to be the pickiest eater in all of Equestria!”
“Could be, could be.” Addressing Storm again, Doctor Coltle pointed at the plates of dinner and then at Storm. “Eat it. Dinner.” He pantomimed eating it, and then back again at the food and at Storm.
Leaning forward, Storm sniffed at it. He snorted and stuck his tongue out and shook his head vigorously.
This did not sit well with either Chamomile or Doctor Coltle. At all. Coltle sat down by the end of Storm’s bed, and looked him directly in the eyes. “Now you look here, Storm. You are going to eat that tonight. There are two ways for me to get that food into you. The normal way like every other pony, and the way that will only be mildly less unpleasant for me than it will be for you.”
Storm simply glared at Doctor Coltle, with an unwavering gaze. The strange thing was that to Coltle, it didn’t seem like the gaze of an adolescent. There was something else in those eyes; a depth of experience and knowledge that belied his age. Well, Coltle could play that game too. He leveled his gaze and stared at Storm. It was quite obvious to Chamomile that neither of them intended to blink.
Fortunately, Glimmer giggled. “Doctor, you’re silly!” she proclaimed. “Didn’t you say he couldn’t understand?” Glimmer set her plate in front of Storm’s, and then flopped onto his bed, facing him. “Maybe he just wants company!”
Glimmer took a bite of her dinner, and then looked at Storm who was watching her now, instead of Doctor Coltle. She then swallowed the mouthful, watching Storm. When Storm didn’t start eating and her belly let out a loud rumble of complaint, she stared at him, her eyes widening and her lower lip trembling. When Storm still wouldn’t eat, she sniffled a bit and her eyes started brimming with tears.
With a sigh, Storm lifted his head and gently nosed Glimmer’s cheek, then turned to his own supper, albeit reluctantly, and began to eat it. Glimmer rewarded him for taking a bite with a smile warm enough to melt ice.
Under the watchful eyes of Glimmer (as well as Coltle and Chamomile), he took a tentative bite of the spaghetti-like thing. Every time he sought to stop, she stopped too and simply stared at him again until he started eating again. Eventually, the dinner had been finished, much to everypony’s surprise.
Glimmer beamed at Storm, and that smile almost made her non-verbal guilt trip worth it. Stomach gurgling in contentment, Glimmer yawned and curled up at Storm’s side. Within moments, she was sound asleep and snoring softly.
Captain Cobalt came in a few moments later, along with two other guards. Walking up to Coltle, he snapped a salute. “General?”
“What can I do for you, Captain?” Coltle said. “Is this about Alabaster and his friends from earlier?”
“No, sir. It’s about Princess Celestia. When she got the report from last night about that little guy,” Cobalt said, gesturing to Storm who was watching them curiously, “she not only cancelled all her other meetings for the rest of the night, but also called in the Grand Magus himself… and his wife. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her want to talk to anypony that much since Princess Luna came back from exile. She’s on her way up, now.”
Dr. Coltle snorted. “You mean to tell me that Princess Celestia wants to talk to that colt?” He chuckled and shook his head disbelievingly. “How? He doesn’t know enough words yet to complete a sentence, let alone carry on a conversation with the Princess.”
“All I know, General, is that three of the most powerful mages in all of Equestria are on their way up even as we speak, and that little guy is the one they’re very interested in meeting.”
(to be continued)
Dr. Coltle shook his head. “Captain, meeting Lightning Storm is certainly their prerogative, but my responsibility is to the patients within this room. It is my professional opinion that having the Princess interview the foal here would be disruptive to the medical treatment of the other children. Therefore, we’ll find somewhere else for them to meet.”
“Why not one of the medically equipped privacy suites, Doctor?” Chamomile asked. “They’re comparably equipped to a trauma unit, and there are only two entrances. Security would be good for the Princess and Magus.”
“Why, Chamomile!” Dr. Coltle said with a slow smirk. “I didn’t know you had it in you. Well done. Well done, indeed.”
“I’m certain I have no idea what you are talking about,” Chamomile replied primly.
Captain Cobalt looked at Chamomile then back at Dr. Coltle. He folded one of his ears half down, arching an eyebrow, and stated simply, “I don’t get it.”
“Hospital politics, Captain,” Coltle said as his smirk evolved into a full grin. “Prince Blueblood is the primary patron of this hospital. One of his conditions of said patronage was that we construct three privacy suites: one in each portion of the hospital. There’s one in the Adult ward, one here in Pediatrics, and one in Neo-natal and they were not to be used except on his express permission. Chamomile here just yanked his tail but good. There’s no way Blueblood would dare refuse use of the room to Princess Celestia or the Grand Magus since the Magus outranks him fairly substantially.”
“Hmph,” was the only response Chamomile deigned to give as Cobalt looked at her with amusement.
“All right, then. I’ll go get them settled in the privacy suite,” Cobalt said with a chuckle. “I’ll see you two shortly.” The guard turned and headed out, moving as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the sleeping foals.
“Wake up, Glimmer… that’s my girl, wake up,” Coltle said softly, gently nosing at the sleepy filly’s ear.
With only a little bit of fussing, Glimmer was moved back into her own bed and tucked back in. She was asleep so quickly, it was doubtful she’d even remember having been moved in the first place.
Chamomile looked at Coltle with a mix of bemusement and affection. “I really don’t understand you, Doctor. On the one hoof, you’re crotchety and cantankerous. On the other, you’re downright sweet and protective.”
“Heh. It’s the adults, Chamomile,” Coltle answered as he finished tucking in Glimmer. “The adults should know better. Generally, they do know better but screw up anyway and wind up here. The foals don’t know better yet. They’re learning, and sometimes learning can hurt. Besides, Glimmer reminds me of my granddaughter,” he admitted in a moment of candor.
“You have a granddaughter?” Chamomile gasped with delight. “You’ve never mentioned her before!”
“Because I don’t have a granddaughter… anymore,” Coltle said, almost inaudibly. “It’s why I retired from the Guard and took a position here. I wasn’t there to help save my daughter or granddaughter after the accident, being off on deployment at the time. No… I wasn’t able to save my daughter or granddaughter. But I can save somepony else’s.” He cleared his throat and glanced over to Chamomile. “It’s also why I don’t suffer fools willingly. Too many don’t pay attention to the important things in life and because of that, they miss their grandchild’s last smile.”
Chamomile was silent for nearly a minute before she managed to whisper, “I’m sorry.” She walked over and gently rested a hoof on the old Stallion’s shoulder.
“Don’t be,” Coltle sighed sadly. “Besides, I should be apologizing to you.”
“For what?” Chamomile said in surprise. “You haven’t done anything, and you clearly needed to talk!”
“Oh, I’m not going to argue that,” Coltle said. “I did need to talk. No, I’m apologizing not for what I’ve done to you, but what I will be doing to you.”
“What… will that be?” Chamomile asked, with no small amount of concern.
“You, Chamomile, remind me of my daughter. She had your courage, your fearlessness, and your competence. I am going to be hard on you, girl, because I will see that you realize your potential. You can easily be one of the greatest doctors of your time, and you will not squander that opportunity under my watch.” Coltle nodded sharply. “Now, get Storm ready. I’ll meet you there.” He turned and walked slowly to the door.
“Doctor? Are you alright?” Chamomile asked, quiet worry in her voice. She never would have guessed that the seemingly invulnerable Doctor Coltle was so fragile, deep down.
“Fine, fine. Don’t worry about me, Chamomile.” Coltle smiled slightly. “I just need a minute in my office to regain my composure. I’ll meet you there soon.” Coltle stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind him, leaving Chamomile to stare for several minutes at the door in surprised silence.
“Here we are, Princess,” Captain Cobalt said as he opened the door to the private room. He held the door as Princess Celestia entered, followed by the Grand Magus and his wife.
“Thank you, Captain. That will be all. Please wait outside, and let us know when the foal has arrived,” Celestia said with a smile.
“Of course, Your Majesty.” Cobalt quietly closed the door behind him.
The privacy room itself looked like a larger version of a trauma room. There was a large and comfortable looking treatment bed, with an entire bank of medical equipment right beside it. What set it apart was that the room had a well-appointed meeting area off to the side of the bed, with a large circular table and plenty of adult-sized seating around three sides of it. Those seated at the table would then have an unobstructed view of the bed.
Princess Celestia took a moment to consider the two unicorns she had arrive with. She had known the Grand Magus, Lost Cause, for a bit longer than his wife. His mane, once a violent shade of orange, had faded to grey, but his coat was still the same dusty brown it had always been. Though they now were behind gold-rimmed glasses, his green eyes were as observant as the first day Celestia had met him. He had the air of a distracted scholar about him, and she occasionally found herself wondering if this was how Twilight Sparkle might turn out in a few decades.
The Magus’ wife, Daylight Shade, was a few years younger than her husband. Rumor had it—and Celestia had been able to verify it was true— that the blue-maned and white-coated unicorn mare had met her husband in the Library of Canterlot when she had been a Teacher’s Assistant. Lost Cause had actually managed to get lost in the stacks of books, and Daylight Shade had gone in to help him find his way back out again.
Despite the ignominious start, the two had hit it off brilliantly, and Celestia herself had performed the marriage ceremony some fifty years ago. She well remembered the day when she’d appointed Lost Cause to the post of Grand Magus, and the ceremony that had followed. Naturally, he had appointed his wife to the position of his assistant; it helped that they were as powerful as each other, albeit in different spheres of magic. Where the Magus had excelled in abjuration, transmutation, and conjuration, his wife had been blessed with the exceedingly rare gift of the magic of the mind. She was second to none with regards to illusions, emotions, memories and thoughts.
Celestia shook her head slightly to return her thoughts from the past to the present. “Thank you for coming, Lost Cause and Daylight Shade.”
“Quite welcome, Princess, quite welcome,” Daylight said with a grandmotherly smile. She might have been a fraction of Celestia’s age, but she was still old and rather treasured her carefully cultivated image of everypony’s grandmare. “Now, dear. Tell us how we can help.”
“I need your assurances that what I say does not leave this room,” Celestia stated flatly. When both the Grand Magus and his wife nodded, she continued. “It is believed by most ponies that when they die, either Luna or myself come to take their souls to the Summer-Lands. This is, in fact, the case.”
Lost Cause nodded his head. “Yes, Princess. I know.”
“… you know. How do you know?” Celestia said sternly, narrowing her eyes as she focused on her Grand Magus. “I have in fact made it a point not to spread that about.”
“Perhaps, Princess. Perhaps. But then, I am your Grand Magus. Part of my job is to know what happens around Canterlot, magically speaking at least.” He grinned, pushing his glasses up his muzzle. “Did you really think a spell such as you use to usher a soul to its rest would not leave a trace? Every time you take a soul, there’s the faintest little remnant attached to you or your sister. It’s how I’ve known when my former professors passed. You’d come back from delivering them to their rest, and I’d pick up the faint ripple as you crossed the border into Canterlot.”
“I had no idea you kept such close tabs on me,” Celestia said, arching an eyebrow. “I do not know if I should be disturbed or not.”
“If I were you, I’d be more disturbed if he didn’t, Princess,” Daylight said with a smile. “After all, he’s supposed to look after all the magical goings on in Equestria. Putting up a screen around Canterlot is the least of what he should have done.”
“Princess, it’s also how I knew that what happened was not magical in nature,” Lost Cause said. “That beam, whatever it was, was anathema to magic. The shields literally warped and conformed to whatever it was. It was blunted slightly, but only slightly. Perhaps if our barrier had been raised, it might have done more. As it was, it seemed to merely take the edge off of it.”
“What then of Lightning Storm?” Celestia asked pointedly.
“Yes. Little Lightning Storm,” the Magus said, eyes closing for a moment before he met Celestia’s gaze steadily. “If there is magic that can restore the dead to life, then I do not know of it. If such magic existed, I’m not sure I’d want to know it. Such things are fraught with the potential for misuse and abuse. As old as I am, I do not consider myself wise enough to wield that power.”
“And yet something has not only brought that foal back to life, but has put a different soul in that body,” Celestia said with a gusty sigh. “There is a viable presence inside.”
“Princess, forgive me. This is not my area of expertise, but is it not possible that it’s an echo? A remnant of the soul that was there before?” Daylight Shade asked curiously.
“If only that were the case,” Celestia said with a slight smile. “But no, unfortunately. Such things have happened in the past when a soul feels it has business that must be completed before it moves on. Invariably, it has the full and complete memories of the pony it had been, before. Lightning Storm was far too young to have that degree of binding to a cause.”
“Then I am at a loss, Princess,” Lost Cause admitted frankly. “If it is not magic, then I do not know what it is.”
Celestia withdrew two vials filled with a silvery substance. “Tell me, Magus… what do you make of this?”
Lost Cause levitated one of the vials over to him, where he examined it closely. Turning the thing upside down, he made a non-committal noise. “Well, it’s not quicksilver. There’s nothing magical about it.” His expression sharpened a bit. “In fact, it isn’t precisely anti-magical, but it is at least passively resisting me.”
“Open the vial,” Celestia suggested. “Watch carefully.”
“Alright,” Lost Cause agreed. He magically popped the stopper and blinked as the silvery substance began to evaporate. Thin tendrils of mist wafted from the vial and faded away almost as soon as they cleared the neck. “My word!” he exclaimed. His horn flared, and he paid very close attention to the mist. “It’s purely elemental in nature! Iron, magnesium, phosphorous, carbon… not a single combination.” He turned his glance to Celestia. “Some of that is impossible, I’ll have you know. I might be a mage but I am up on my chemistry. Some of these elements cannot exist in this configuration. Oxygen, for example, is always paired at least with itself. What precisely was in this vial, Princess?”
“Three vials of blood were drawn from Lightning Storm today, for analysis. They were normal in appearance… at first. By the time they arrived at the lab, all three looked precisely as that one did.” Celestia sighed. “It is not natural. If it is not natural, and it is not magical, then it must be something else. It is that something else that concerns me. There is indeed an option other than magic.”
“And that is…?” Lost Cause asked, leaning forward with a gleam in his eyes.
Unable to resist, Celestia grinned a bit. “Goodness. Something you do not know, already? Then let me share an unwritten bit of Equestrian history.” Her eyes growing unfocused, Celestia seemed to stare off into the distance. “Have you ever wondered how we got to where we are today? The strange and eclectic mix of magic and very limited science that we have?”
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying, Princess,” Daylight said. “Everything works as it should.”
“It was not always that way, you know,” Celestia said. A pained expression crossed her muzzle. “Three thousand years ago, you would turn on your oven, and something other than magic would make it heat.” Closing her eyes, she continued her story. “Three thousand years ago, when my parents were still present, Equestria stood at a crossroads. Choose one path, and Equestria would follow the path of magic. Had we chosen the other, we would have followed the path of something called ‘technology’.”
“What do you-?” Daylight started to ask before being interrupted by a raised hoof from Celestia.
“This is difficult for me to speak of. Please… no interruptions.” Celestia inhaled deeply, then let it out in a long and calming sigh. “So. As I was saying, three thousand years ago, Equestria had a choice between technology and magic. King Helios and Queen Nebulae, my parents, consulted with the best and the brightest minds of the era about which direction to go.
“The scientists and the mages came together to discuss possibilities, probabilities, and ramifications. They lasted well over a month, so fine was their focus and thorough their analysis. It was decided that technology would mostly be abandoned, if it could not be adapted to magic. Ovens, for instance; that was easy. Magic heats them. But what of other things? What of non-magical ways to fly? Or non-magical ways to move a wagon or cart?”
“You… can do that?” Lost Cause asked, incredulously. “How would that even work? That doesn’t make sense!”
“That, Magus, is precisely what I wish the ponies to believe.” Nodding firmly, Celestia drove home her point. “Back then, though, that capability was very close. It was decided that technology was too dangerous, and far too resource intensive. While even non-pegasus ponies could be made to fly, it took a lot of effort and material goods to make it happen. King Helios decreed that technology was to be abandoned, for the most part. The scientific community disbanded, and the scientists were heavily compensated and assisted in finding new lines of work.”
“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” Daylight said with a sigh. “Let me guess: not everypony went along with the edict?”
“You would be correct in that,” Celestia said, nodding. “For a decade, technology was slowly forgotten by most. There might be the occasional advance, but it was along approved lines… incandescent lighting, for instance. Better furnaces and warming techniques.” She gestured to the array of monitors and medical sensors. “Medical advances too; but instead of being technologically based, it was magic. That sort of thing goes on, to this day. There were two scientists, however… to be fair, they never agreed to the ban nor were they present to hear the decree. They teleported themselves out before the edict could be announced.
“Ten years after the edict, they were discovered. They had continued their research, and had made some form of breakthrough. Precisely what they had discovered, I do not know, since the King and Queen didn’t tell me. However, I do know that the scientists in question were given a choice; agree to the edict, or be banished from Equestria.”
“They chose banishment, didn’t they?” Lost Cause asked quietly, a haunted look in his eyes. “The scientists refused, and forced Helios to banish them. That couldn’t have been easy on your father or mother.”
“The decision caused them great emotional pain. Then one day, my mother locked her private study and departed with my father. Luna was still young, but I was old enough, they said, to take their place while they were away. Mother had done some research into the nature of the discovery the scientists had made before their banishment and realized that, if allowed to proceed unchecked, the technology could be used to return to Equestria despite the order of exile. They left to go deal with the situation; I suspect they hoped to bring the scientists back home. However, they never returned.”
“Dear, our Goddess and Princess you may be, but you do have emotions like the rest of us,” Daylight Shade said, softly. She rose, walking over to Princess Celestia and offering her a warm grandmotherly hug. “Right now, you’re fairly radiating fear that this is related.”
Goddess or not, Celestia was not above a hug when it was offered. “I am. The beam that blew the arcane crystals powering our shields was not magically based. It was not magic that returned Lightning Storm to life and placed a different soul inside. It was not magic that made the foal’s blood turn to silver and evaporate into its component elements. If it was not magic, then I believe it was technology… and technology far more advanced than what had those two scientists banished.”
Daylight released the hug after a long minute and then fixed Celestia with a look. “Princess, if it is technology that brought him to us, what happens next?”
“Then I will give him the same choice my parents gave the scientists. He will either abandon all technological and scientific research, or be banished from Equestria,” Celestia said plainly.
“Princess! He’s just a foal!” Daylight gasped in horror. “How could you?”
“Patience, my love. Patience.” Lost Cause smiled gently to his wife. “Do not be so quick to judge. Consider a moment; the body might be that of a foal, but there is no way to tell at the moment if the mind matches the body. If one looks at it a certain way, it is at least possible that the mind inhabiting the body of the foal might just be one of the scientists in question. If that were the case-”
Sighing, Daylight nodded. “Then the scientist would be in violation of the banishment and would have to be re-banished.” Her head shot up and she looked at Celestia, folding her ears back in sympathy. “If that was so, they might have some knowledge about your parents…”
“And how to bring them home,” Celestia agreed. “That is a slim possibility; it is far more likely that this is a random occurrence. But… I would be lying if I said I did not hold out some hope.” In a quiet voice, reminiscent of the younger mare she had been when her parents had departed, she whispered, “It has been so long.”
Daylight Shade gave Princess Celestia another hug, whether or not she wanted it. Fortunately, the Princess did want it, and Daylight did her best to comfort her sovereign. “Let’s not worry too much about that just yet, Princess. Lightning Storm will be here soon, I suspect, and then we can start to get to the bottom of this. Just… try to keep an open mind?”
“I promise, Daylight. I promise,” Celestia said with a more normal smile. “I banished Luna myself and have no wish to banish any pony ever again, if I can help it. I must keep the option open, however. There are circumstances that do warrant it.”
A few moments later, there was a polite knock on the door. Cobalt poked his nose in and said, “Princess? Lightning Storm is here. Shall I show him in?”
“Yes, thank you, Captain.” Celestia turned to the Magus and his wife and whispered softly, “So it begins.”
Lightning Storm walked into the room, albeit on very unsteady hooves. Doctor Coltle was right by his side to provide assistance should balance require it; having that shoulder to lean on prevented him from falling over at least once.
“Alright, let’s get you in bed,” Coltle said. Pediatric beds were arranged so that it was very easy for even an Earth pony to tuck a foal in; they had to be, since not all doctors were unicorns. He made sure that Storm was comfortable and propped up so that he could look over to the Princess and Magus before stepping over to the meeting area.
“Thank you, Doctor… that will be all for now,” Celestia said politely.
Lost Cause leaned over to Daylight Shade and whispered so only she could hear, “This ought to be interesting.”
“Princess, if I leave, Lightning Storm is coming with me,” Coltle stated, turning to look calmly into the eyes of his sovereign.
“Oh?” Celestia perked her ears up in curiosity. This was one of the reasons she treasured the Magus and his wife, as well as Doctor Coltle. They treated her with respect and deferred to her judgment if she made a proclamation, but she was as any other pony in every other situation. The feeling was refreshing. Most of the time.
“I know for a fact that you have not actually obtained a medical degree in the last thirty seconds. If you had, my signature would have adorned the diploma,” Coltle said firmly.
Lost Cause covered his muzzle with a hoof, and tried very hard to stifle the laughter that threatened to boil forth. It wasn’t easy; when Coltle got on a roll, he didn’t do things by half measures.
“Moreover!” Coltle said, raising a hoof to actually cut Princess Celestia off. Celestia sat back down, a slow grin spreading across her muzzle as the old doctor continued. “Moreover, Princess, with all due respect to Lady Daylight Shade, she married Lost Cause! Surely that would call her judgment into question, since he has the rather unpleasant habit of setting ponies on fire.”
Nearly doubled over with laughter, Lost Cause was barely able to levitate his glasses off and set them on the table. Tears streamed down his face, and he managed to gasp, “Once! I set you on fire once! Fifty years ago!”
“You set my flank on fire!” Coltle growled, eyes glinting with amusement. “You set my flank on fire as I was running to my graduation ceremony! I left a flaming trail from the barracks clear to the parade ground, a full mile long!”
Lost Cause was laughing so hard his were hurting. Even Princess Celestia was laughing, though not quite as hard as the Magus.
“Now, now,” Daylight said with a gentle and knowing smile. “The spell Lost used didn’t actually burn you. I also don’t recall any complaints when Jasmine applied a soothing ointment to said flank, my dear. It is your own fault for asking Lost to help you catch her attention.” Eyes glittering, she winked. “It did work, after all.”
“Oh, it worked alright. All eyes in Canterlot were glued to my flaming posterior!” Coltle said plaintively.
Celestia raised a hoof, which did little to mitigate the laughter, but did at least let her get a word in, edgewise. “All right, Doctor. You can stay and look after your patient. I think we have confused him enough as it is.” Celestia gestured to the foal, which happened to be watching them most warily.
“Perhaps we’ve kept him waiting long enough,” Daylight said as she smiled gently at the foal. “His emotions are fairly good, though he’s terribly confused and growing a trifle more scared with each passing moment.”
“Indeed,” Celestia agreed as she closed her eyes a moment and channeled magic through her horn. A wave of warmth projected forward and enveloped Lightning Storm for a moment, before gradually fading away. “There. Lightning Storm, can you understand me?”
Storm looked at the strange creature with the mane and tail that seemed to perpetually move for a moment before nodding slightly and answering. “I can, but I don’t know how good a sign it is that I can suddenly understand gibberish,” he said. “Makes me wonder if my mind hasn’t let go.”
Chuckling politely, Celestia shook her head. “It has not, though you cannot prove a negative. Would you like something to drink before we start talking?”
“He’d like a nutrient shake, Princess,” Doctor Coltle said.
“Ah… I was going to ask for a glass of water, actually,” Storm said as he turned to look at Doctor Coltle.
“And you’re going to get the shake anyway. You’re fur and bones, boy.” Coltle looked over and nodded at the door. When Chamomile poked her nose in, the shake was requested. With a nod, she disappeared back out the door.
“Now that that is settled, introductions are in order. I am Princess Celestia, ruler of the land of Equestria. You already know Doctor Coltle, your attending physician. Allow me to introduce my Grand Magus Lost Cause and his wife, Daylight Shade.”
Storm nodded to each of them in turn. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I wish that I had a name to give you in return, but I don’t remember very much at all. I seem to be called Lightning Storm, so that will do, I think. So, how is it that I can understand you, again?”
Lost Cause looked over to Storm, then to Celestia and his wife. “Storm, you seem to have little idea what magic is, and what it can do. With that in mind, it would be disingenuous of me not to explain a bit. My magic allows me to move things about, to summon things, and the like.” He punctuated his example by gently floating the newly delivered supplement shake over and placing it carefully between Storm’s fore-hooves.
“Please tell me you can teach me to do that!” Storm asked, awestruck.
“I’m afraid not, dear.” Daylight shook her head softly. “You’re not a unicorn like my husband and I. Magic is controlled through a unicorn’s horn. It’s not all bad, though.” She smiled and shrugged. “Give me a minute to explain how my magic works, and then I’ll tell you about your own.”
“Wait, I thought you said I didn’t have magic.” Storm tilted his head to the side in curiosity, one ear flopping down while the other cocked halfway in the silliest look of confusion.
“I’ll explain in a minute, I promise!” Daylight chuckled. When Storm settled back down, she continued. “Now, my magic is different than my husband’s. I can do many of the same things, but not as well. My specialty is the magic of the mind and is mainly emotional based. Don’t worry, I can’t read thoughts.”
“Well, that’s good,” Storm said as he chuckled. “Sometimes you might not want to read my thoughts. Now, you said something about my own magic? I thought you’d said that I didn’t have any.”
“Not like mine, no. You, dear, have wings. You can fly… which is something that I confess I do envy, from time to time,” Daylight said a bit wistfully. “I’ve always wanted to see the sunset from atop a cloud.”
“Fly? You’re kidding, right?” Storm looked over his shoulder and extended a wing to examine it. “There’s no way. There’s just no way. The physics don’t support it! These wings are far too short to generate anywhere near enough lift. It just…” Storm looked up to see Celestia, Daylight, and Lost grinning at him widely. “It’s just magic, isn’t it?”
“Mmhmm. You’re lighter than you look too, but yes. That’s what a pegasus’s magic allows for,” Daylight said. “When you’re ready, you’ll be taught how to fly by one of the Royal Guards, I suspect. As it is, you’ll need to get acclimated to walking and build up your muscles before you’ll be ready to try flight.”
“You will get there, Lightning Storm,” Celestia assured him with a smile and a nod. “Let us now talk about what you were. What do you remember from last night?”
“Not much, Princess. I’m sorry. I remember waking up on the table, and that it raining. I knew I needed to find something that… I think I had dropped it? I’m not sure why it was important, but I do know I had to find it. It took a little bit, but I found it in the debris. Then I found a sheet to cover myself with, and tried to stay dry and warm. That’s when Chamomile came in and gave me a heated blanket.” Storm looked at the carrying pouch that Chamomile had given him.
Daylight looked over to Celestia and nodded slightly; the foal was telling the truth. He truly didn’t remember anything about how he got here.
“I do get the sense that your memories are there. Perhaps we can help you get them back,” Celestia said, rubbing her chin with a hoof.
“Ah, I think I have something to say about that,” Coltle said firmly. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t do anything until he’s regained some strength, and I’m not kidding around this time. This foal’s metabolism is through the roof as it is. Take a look at him: he’s skinny as a stick! I’ll assume you have already seen the results of the blood I drew?”
“I’m going to agree with him,” Daylight said, looking at Storm with concern and no small amount of pity in her eyes. “I don’t think we should force this just yet. I say let the body heal, and the mind shall follow at its own pace.”
“You all seem to be debating my fate, just now,” Storm interrupted. “I don’t suppose it’d be too much an imposition to ask exactly what you’re intending to do with me, if not get my memories back?” He smiled a bit wanly. “Seeing as how I don’t know where I’ll be sleeping tonight.”
“Do not worry, little Storm,” Celestia said with a warm smile. “You are still in need of medical care, after all. I also want you close at hoof so that I might keep a personal eye on you until we get your situation sorted out. I will, if it is agreeable to your doctor, give you a home at the Royal Canterlot Orphanage for the time being. It is attached directly to the castle itself, so I can be nearby. We will arrange for a tutor to assist you until you are ready to join a proper classroom. How does that sound?”
“Princess, that sounds wonderful. Thank you so very much,” Storm answered, with a relieved smile. “As silly as this might sound, thank you. I hope I can prove myself useful somehow.”
“It is not silly at all, Storm, but rather the sign of a good heart.” Celestia turned to Doctor Coltle. “Doctor? If you would kindly take Lightning Storm to his room and get him ready to go, assuming he is up to the trip? I think I would prefer to get him settled in where things are a little less… eventful.”
“Understood, Princess. He’s still my patient though,” Coltle said, somewhat possessively. “He’s up for the trip, if it’s by chariot. He’s not quite able to walk that far just yet, and I’d rather he not expend the energy to try.”
“That will be fine, Doctor. Get him ready to go. I would like to have him at the orphanage tonight.”
“Let’s go, Storm.” Doctor Coltle stood by the foal’s side as he struggled up to his hooves. “Take your time, and don’t worry about it. Balance and strength will come with practice.”
Silence fell as Doctor Coltle and Storm exited the room and the door closed beind them.
Celestia sighed gustily. “That did not go very well at all, did it?”
“No, Princess, it did not,” Daylight confirmed, rubbing the base of her horn and shaking her head.
Looking between Princess Celestia and his wife, Lost Cause rolled his eyes in mild irritation. “Why don’t you two take pity on the only mind-blind pony in the room and tell me why that went so very badly? From my perspective, it went quite well. His health is improving, and he’s willing to work with us. Neither of you challenged him, so it’s safe to say that he was telling the truth. So how, precisely, was this bad?”
“I will go speak with my guards while you answer that, Daylight.” With a nod and a smile to Lost Cause, Celestia turned and exited the room.
Daylight took a moment to lean against her husband and gently nosed at his neck before answering. “The foal is in trouble, dear. Something happened to him that was so terrible, it caused him to willingly forget absolutely everything in his life up to yesterday. That sort of memory block is incredibly fragile, at least at first. If that little colt sees or hears the wrong thing, then that memory block will fail and whatever happened to him will come crashing back down atop him.”
“Ah. And with Doctor Coltle being right about his physical state, the boy might not be able to handle the physical stresses of that revelation, to say nothing of the emotional.” Lost Cause rested his head atop his wife’s. “Why the orphanage, then? Can’t he receive better care here?”
“Mm. Not really. Physically, all that’s wrong is that he is underfed. That can be corrected anywhere, honestly. No, what he needs is a greater degree of peace and quiet. Ponies don’t come and go from the orphanage Princess Celestia is taking him. It’s a place for those that need a little more watching than others, where they can get a bit more direct attention,” Daylight said softly.
“I see. So, he’s being put there to limit what he’s exposed to in the hopes that he can be restored to sufficient physical health before working on the other?” Lost Cause felt, rather than saw, his wife nod as her head rested on his shoulder. “In that case, I wish the boy luck.”
“He most certainly will need it, dear. If he can endure what happens when the memory block comes down, he’ll be all right. But that won’t be the only challenge he’ll face.” Daylight shrugged slightly; she had hope that would turn out for the best, but she was not certain it would.
“Indeed. I noticed that little spot of melodrama there. An experienced intellect grafted onto a brain that is still developing… being torn every which way, and subjected to the emotional stresses of the young? Talk about a recipe for disaster!” He kissed his wife, then chuckled. “Still, he is under the watchful eye of the Princesses now. It won’t be easy, but he does at least have a chance.”
“I just wish we could have been a bit emotionally warmer with him,” Daylight said with a disappointed sigh. “It just feels wrong to have been so cold and clinical with him! And I so wish we could have discussed the blood vials. I’m not certain what that was, but I’m curious to find out.”
“I know, dear, and I agree,” Lost Cause said as he shook his head slightly. “In retrospect, I do know why the Princess was rather standoffish. If the foal turns out to be one of the scientists, then having a closer emotional attachment would make what needs to be done all the harder. As to the blood, there’s really no reason to discuss that right now. We don’t know what it is. The Princess doesn’t know what it is. Storm certainly isn’t in any condition to tell us, if he even knows! So, we’ll simply have to wait.”
Lightning Storm hobbled along slowly down the hallway. It wasn’t easy, but he was at least getting a bit better at walking and balance; his confidence was bolstered by the fact that Doctor Coltle was never far from his side. Such proximity also made it easier to ask a question. “Doctor Coltle?”
“Mmh? What, Storm?” He looked down at the small foal beside him.
“I’m being taken to the orphanage, right?”
“That’s right. Why?”
“I don’t exactly own anything. I’m not leaving anything behind in the room… so why are we heading back?” Storm asked, looking up at the older stallion.
“Not leaving anything behind?” Doctor Coltle asked, raising an eyebrow. “Little Glimmer would beg to differ. You might have spilled your dinner all over her bed when you were standing up to Alabaster on her behalf, but the gesture did not go unnoticed. That bit of kindness earned you a friend, Lightning Storm. A friend that would probably very much like you to say goodbye to her before you go.”
Dr. Coltle opened the door to the pediatric ward, and gestured for Storm to step in. With a nod and a smile, Storm walked in unsteadily to be greeted by Glimmer. She’d evidently crawled out of her own bed and back into his when the nurses weren’t looking, so that she could watch for his return.
“Storm! You’re back!” Glimmer climbed out of the covers and wrapped the colt in a tight hug.
Grinning, Storm hugged her back. “Yeah, I’m back. S’good to see you, too.”
Glimmer’s silver eyes got almost impossibly wide and the joy in them was obvious as a room-warming smile spread across her muzzle. “You can talk!”
“I can! The Princess healed me a little bit, so I can talk now. But I’m not healed all the way. That’s why I have to go with the Princess to the Castle. If I do, she can heal me the rest of the way and I’ll be able to walk right, and fly,” Storm said, smiling back.
“You’re gonna leave?” Glimmer’s eyes grew wider and tears formed in them as she folded her ears back. Her lower lip began to tremble as she mumbled, “But… But I don’t want you to! You’re my friend!”
Before the filly could break into tears, Storm gently hugged her and rested his head atop hers. “Hey, now! You want me to get better, right? If I get better, then I can fly to visit you sometime! And if you’re a really brave girl, do well in school, and your parents say it’s okay, maybe you can come visit me in the castle!”
Tears were completely forgotten as Glimmer leaned back, eyes even larger and wider than before. “Really? You mean it? I can come visit you in the castle, with Princess Celestia and Princess Luna?”
“You most certainly can, my little pony. If you promise to eat your alfalfa and listen to your parents,” Princess Celestia answered, having heard the tail end of the conversation.
Glimmer was practically vibrating with joy. The Princess had spoken to her! “I’ll be good! I promise!” She bit her lower lip and looked at the floor before fixing the Princess with a pleading expression. “Do I have to eat the alfalfa, though? I ha… er, I really don’t like it!”
Celestia covered her mouth a moment with a hoof to stifle a laugh. “My sister does not like alfalfa either, so I suppose I cannot hold it against you. Study a little harder in school, and I will overlook the alfalfa. Deal?”
“Yes, Princess!” Glimmer nodded so hard in agreement that Storm almost expected to hear her brain rattle. “You’ll see!”
“Good girl,” Storm said, laughing. “Now, let’s get you to bed.”
With surprising deftness, Storm folded the covers back as Glimmer crawled back into her bed. He tucked her in, and added a gentle nuzzle to her cheek.
“You sleep well. Write me, okay?” Storm asked, with a gentle smile.
Giggling, Glimmer nodded. “Okay, I will. I promise!” With an adoring smile, she asked, “Can you read me a bedtime story?”
Storm felt mildly dizzy. Something about what Glimmer had said and how she said it... he had heard those words, those precise words delivered the same way somewhere else. His muzzle opened of its own accord and words came tumbling out. “Oh, I can do better than that. How about a lullaby?”
“Really?” Glimmer gasped, eyes wide and happy. “You’ll sing me a lullaby?”
Out of the corners of his eyes, Storm saw a strange flash, and for the smallest fraction of a second, the room looked different. There was a window where a wall should be, and the view overlooked the blackness of space and the star-scape beyond. Everything was shaped and colored differently, too. But only for a moment, before everything re-established itself. His words, however, continued unabated. “Oh, indeed. It’s one I haven’t sung to you before. I don’t think you’d have heard this one! It’s very, very old.”
The other foals in the room were starting to take an interest as well. They perked up, and looked over in Storm’s direction; lullabies were quite popular, even if they felt themselves too old for them. Or just chose to act like they were.
“Hushabye, now it’s time to close your little eyes. I apologize if I forgot to say goodnight!” The world started to disintegrate around him, but the words would not stop. It started slowly at first; little pieces of the wall seemed to fall away to reveal plate steel bulkheads that had been painted a soft, pastel pink with little blue and green flowers. It was an obnoxious color scheme, but one that he knew made its occupant happy. That was all that mattered. She must be made and kept happy. No matter the cost.
“It’s dreamy time and we can find a brand new Paradise, where everyone is nice and we can fly.” The room was gone in a flash. The pink paint with flowers surrounded him, save for the viewport that overlooked Neptune below. The giant blue sphere was the highlight of the view, and the room’s occupant adored staring at it for hours on end. Something deep in his mind fought against this, railed against this. He had failed her. He had failed them all. This was wrong. This was past.
Music, peaceful and serene in perfect counterpoint to the turmoil that was rapidly eroding his mind continued to flow from him. “We’ll be star-struck and sun-blind, cocksure and tongue-tied. As we fly by the choir won’t you please be mine? Hushabye, never mind the bad things in your life. Here’s your lullaby, honey-pie. Goodnight…”
Storm’s head jerked backwards as if he’d been shot in the forehead. In the bed before him was not Glimmer, but a small bipedal little girl with flame red hair, green eyes, and freckles. The little girl looked up at him and smiled brightly. “Goodbye, Daddy.”
“Nnnggh… my head! What happened?” Groaning, Storm sat up, rubbing the back of his head with a hoof.
A voice that was half rumbling purr and half whistling sigh replied in a strange, yet feminine voice. “Huh. You woke up. Doctor Coltle and Princess Celestia said you might, but I was hoping you’d sleep through the night.” Two golden and glowing eyes opened, fixing on him with a decidedly predatory stare.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Storm said, still wincing from the growing pounding in his head.
“Eh. Don’t worry about it, colt. Sounds like you had it rough. So, let me answer your questions before you ask the rest of them. First, you passed out after singing a lullaby to a filly in the hospital. Keeled right over onto the floor, which really scared the hay out of her, Doctor Coltle, and Princess Celestia. Second, you’re in the Royal Orphanage of Canterlot. Third, Doctor Coltle left you a glass of apple juice next to the bed. If you drink it, then you will lose your headache, and the both of us can fall back asleep until late morning, sometime. Fourth, my name is Agate.”
“But I don’t-“ Storm tried to protest, but was interrupted.
“Look. Colt. I know you’ve had a bad few days. But I’m tired, and I wake up really cranky. I do not feel like talking right now, and that headache of yours is only gonna get worse. So be a good foal and drink the nice cold apple juice… or so help me, I will pour it down your throat. The rest of your answers will come in the morning, at breakfast.”
Storm slowly reached for the glass, watched by those unblinking yellow eyes. He drank it quickly, and as he did, the expression in those eyes softened.
“Feel dizzy,” Storm complained, dropping the glass.
The glass never hit the floor; the eyes surged forward, and something caught it before it could shatter. “I know. I know.”
Something warm curled around Storm, and gently pulled him back onto the bed. “Just relax, little guy. I’m watching out for you. You’ll be safe, I promise. Just sleep it off, and you’ll feel better in the morning.”
“Okay...” Storm whispered sleepily, head being guided onto a warm and furred chest. Closing his eyes, he could hear the steady thudding of a beating heart, and the gentle susurrations of breathing. He slipped into dreamless sleep a moment later.
“There you go. Sleep well, kid. We’ll meet more appropriately in the morning.”
Consciousness came slowly, and it brought along a friend. Oh, my aching head! What did we do last night? At least Environmental finally turned up the heat, and the down comforters are certainly welcome.
… Huh? Environmental? Down comforter? What’s that? What the hay…? Something wasn’t adding up, and the nagging need to make it make sense was forcing him to wake up faster than he wanted to.
As he woke up, thoughts began assembling themselves in a bit more order. Um. I don’t know what a station is, but I was on one. Didn’t something blow up? Yeah, something blew up and it really hurt. I woke up in a hospital, and it was really wet and cold. Everything is kinda fuzzy after that, but at least I’m warm now.
Then the bed moved. Storm’s eyes snapped open and he began to tremble with fear. Swallowing hard, he slowly lifted his head and turned… only to discover that there was this thing with a beak and some really wicked looking talons in bed with him.
The results were predictable.
“Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!” Storm screamed as he tried to flail his way out of bed.
“Awwwwk!” screamed a very startled Agate. She flinched, and in so doing pushed Storm right up and out of the bed onto the floor, where he landed with a thump.
Still screaming, Storm scrabbled to his hooves and ran for the nearest door he found, slamming it shut behind him. The door had a bar, and he slid it into place, then curled up on the floor in fear.
After a few seconds, Agate clutched at her chest to still her racing heart. “Aw, haystacks. It’s going to be one of those days, isn’t it?”
Agate had just rolled over onto her belly when the bedroom door was flung open and a very flustered older pegasus mare with russet mane and light blue coat burst in with a harried expression. “Are you okay? Is Storm okay? Where is he? What happened?”
“In order,” Agate said after taking a deep breath, “I’m fine. Storm’s fine. He’s locked himself in the bathroom and won’t come out. As for what happened, he woke me up out of a sound sleep by screaming and scaring the living hay out of me.”
From behind the door, Storm yelled back, “I scared you? You’re the walking death machine! You were gonna eat me!”
Agate sighed, rolling her eyes as she stared at the ceiling. “Celestia preserve us,” she mumbled. With growing irritation, Agate glared at the door. “Kid, you don’t even have enough meat on you to be worth eating. Now will you please unlock that stupid door and come out?”
“Nuh-uh! You’re scary!”
Before Agate could say anything, the older mare raised a hoof for silence. Once Agate nodded and settled back down on the bed, she continued. “Dear? I know you got startled, but Agate won’t eat you. I promise. It’s really uncomfortable in there. Wouldn’t you like to come out and lay down?”
“Yeah, but…” Storm whimpered. “But I can’t. They’ll get me.”
Agate and Sunny Skies shared a worried glance. “Who will get you, dear? There’s nopony here but Agate and I.”
“The… the memories. They’ll get me if I come out.” Storm started sniffling, and couldn’t help a sob or two escape.
“Storm, I promise you, nothing will get you. I promise. If you will trust me, we’ll even go over to Pony Joe’s for doughnuts!” Sunny Skies assured. “We’ll talk a little here, and then wash up before we go.”
“You promise…?” Storm asked quietly, uncertainty clear in his voice.
“I promise, Storm. Doughnuts just as soon as we can get them!”
Cautiously, Storm unbolted the door and peeked out from behind it. Fortunately, the first thing he saw was Sunny Skies smiling down at him. Agate, for her part, realized that scaring the colt perhaps would be counter-productive, and had settled back into the bed with her head resting on top of her hands. She’d even fluffed her feathers a bit, to make her look less imposing.
Sunny Skies extended a soft wing and gently drew Storm to her side. “There, now. Let’s lay down over here and we can all talk.” Once she’d lay down and gotten Storm to curl up underneath her wing so that his head could peek out, she gently nuzzled his ear. “Now, isn’t that better?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Storm agreed quietly. Casting a wary glance over at Agate, he settled down.
“Now, why don’t you tell me what you were talking about? What memories are going to get you?” Sunny Skies asked in her most soothing voice.
Storm shivered and looked up at Sunny pleadingly. “Do I hafta?”
“Well, if you do tell me, maybe I can help! If you’re afraid of something, it’s always best to tell somepony. Then we can find ways to fix it and make it all better.” Sunny cast a glance to Agate who grinned wryly.
“She’s right, kid.” Agate shook her head and sighed gustily. “I was afraid when I first came here. If Miss Skies helped me, I’m sure she can help you, too.”
“You were afraid?” Storm asked, amazed. His ears perked up and his eyes went wide. “Of what? You’re big! You’ve got real sharp claws! I bet nothing could mess with you!”
Agate blinked and smiled slowly as she preened a bit. “Well, not now, anyway. But back then? I was almost as little as you are. When I came here, I was even more afraid than you! But Miss Skies helped me through it and she’ll help you too, if you let her. So, if she asks you something, tell her. She really does need to know.”
Swallowing hard, Storm nodded. He shivered as he took a deep breath, but Sunny Skies pulled him a little closer for warmth and reassurance. “I remembered some things. But I don’t understand them and it’s scary.”
“Well Agate and I won’t let them get you, will we?” Sunny nodded firmly as she glanced again at Agate.
Beak gaping in a wide grin, the gryphoness brandished her talons. “I’d like to see them try.”
This elicited a giggle from the young colt, who then nodded. “I guess it’s okay.” His smile faded though, as he began his tale. “I remember some things now, but I don’t understand them. I mean…” He fluffed his wings a bit, in frustration.
“It’s okay, dear. Just tell us what you remember, alright?” Sunny Skies squeezed Storm, and tried to be encouraging. “Sometimes things happen that we don’t understand. That’s when it’s most important to ask somepony else.”
“I was on a station, but I don’t know what that is. I remember seeing a bunch of strange looking things, but I knew them.” Storm began to tremble a bit, lower lip quivering. “I… Two of them disappeared, and there was a lot of screaming. S… something blew up and it really hurt. I woke up cold and wet, but…” Storm started to cry, tears running down his muzzle. “Something really bad happened, Miss Skies. But I didn’t do it! I swear I didn’t do it!”
“Shh, shhh. We know you didn’t, Storm. It’s okay. Nopony blames you for what happened.” Sunny Skies nuzzled the foal’s neck, but he was pretty disconsolate at this point.
“It hurt, it hurt real bad. I… I don’t remember where I was. I don’t know where I am! I don’t remember anything before yesterday and I don’t understand any of it! I’m scared, Miss Skies!”
As Storm dissolved into tears and sobs, Sunny Skies nuzzled away the tears until the poor foal had cried himself out. “Storm? Would it be okay if you and Agate stayed here while I went to get the doughnuts I promised?”
“You swear not to eat me?” Storm asked, a little hint of a smile on his muzzle.
“Oh, I could eat you. But if I did, Miss Skies wouldn’t let me have a doughnut, and I really want one! In fact, she’d probably not let me have one if something else ate you too, so I guess I’d better make sure nothing eats you at all.” Agate lifted her wing and offered Storm a new place to hide should he choose to.
He chose to. After nuzzling under Sunny Sky’s chin and with a gentle nudge of encouragement from the mare, Storm climbed back into bed and curled up under the proffered wing.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can, you two. Agate, take care of Storm and call for the guard if there’s any problems.”
“Of course, Miss Skies. Fly safe.” Agate gently preened at Storm’s mane a bit as Sunny Skies smiled and left the room.
“Miss Agate?” Storm asked quietly.
“Just call me Agate. What’s up?”
“I’m sorry I scared you, Agate. I didn’t mean to, honest.” Storm rested his head on Agate’s hands as apology.
“Eh, don’t worry about it. I was asleep, and that’s about the only time anypony can surprise me.” Agate grinned, bobbing her head. “I must admit, you did get me good. You want to talk about it some more?”
“Not really. I feel bad when I think about it. Something really bad happened, and a lot of people got hurt. Worse than me, and I got hurt bad.” Storm looked up at Agate. “Are they okay?”
“People? What’s a people? Do you mean ponies?” the gryphoness asked, tilting her head to the side.
Storm shook his head. “No… not ponies. They looked funny. No hooves. They had manes, though. Not as long as mine. They had those,” Storm said slowly as he gestured to Agate’s hand. “But not pointy.”
“But they weren’t ponies? They were… people?” Agate asked, trying to wrap her head around the idea. What creature could it be?
“Yeah. Are they okay?” Storm looked up with pleading eyes. “They were screaming real loud. And they looked scared.”
“I… don’t know, Storm. I don’t think there any non-ponies in Canterlot right now. There might be a few Zebra Ambassadors, a young dragon if Princess Celestia’s student is in town, and me. Maybe Miss Skies would know, or we could ask her to check with Princess Celestia.” Agate squeezed him with her wing, sighing. “Sorry, kid. That’s the best answer I have.”
“Oh. Okay.” Storm fidgeted a moment, and then made a soft peeping noise. “Could… you tell me where we are?”
“Well, we’re in Canterlot. That’s the capital city of Equestria. It’s ruled by two Princesses, though there’s a bunch of nobility that do something. Not sure what they do, though.”
“How did you come here?” Storm asked, curiously.
With a sigh that whistled through her nares, Agate explained. “I know it hasn’t escaped your notice that I’ve only got one wing. Gryphons? Not exactly too tolerant of cripples like me. When I got sick and lost it, I was abandoned by my family and my clan. The Ambassador that Princess Celestia had sent to us had found me two days after I’d been tied up and left to die from exposure as a gryphlet. She brought me back here to Canterlot, and Princess Celestia herself asked the Matron of the orphanage to take me in and raise me. Been here ever since, and that was ten years ago.”
During Agate’s recitation of how she’d come to Canterlot, Storm’s eyes had been both growing wider and his ears flattening to his skull. “That’s so sad,” he mumbled before reaching up and wrapping his forelegs around Agate’s neck in a tight hug.
Agate tensed at the sudden contact, then slowly smiled and returned the hug. “But you know what? I’m here, and Miss Skies and the Princess both look out for me. I’m doing alright, and you will be, too… Just you wait, kid.”
Sunny Skies flew back from Pony Joe’s Doughnut Shoppe with her saddlebags loaded with goodies for Agate and Storm. She was carrying more than she’d intended; when Pony Joe found out that she was the Matron of the Orphanage and that the doughnuts had been intended for the foals, he’d driven an absolutely brutal bargain.
Pony Joe had demanded that she accept a dozen assorted doughnuts for the meager price of a single bit. When she’d protested that she’d had the bits aplenty to spend, he’d insisted she also take an insulated container of his finest hot cocoa. He’d also forestalled further protest by threatening to add another dozen doughnuts each time she complained. She’d finally simply surrendered gracefully and thanked him for his generosity. She would find a way to repay that, somehow. Perhaps a good word to the Princess during their next meeting…
She had just landed and stepped through the front door when she heard, “Why you little…!” in Agate’s dull growl she used when really perturbed about something.
However, before she could panic she heard Storm’s gleeful reply. “Hah! King me!”
“King you?” Agate asked. “I think you mean ‘Prince’ you.”
“Prince me? I thought we were playing checkers,” Storm said, confused. “In checkers, you get kinged if you get your piece to the last row.”
“Nope. We’re playing checkers alright, but if I get to your last row, you ‘Princess’ me. If you get to my row like you just did, I ‘Prince’ you.”
Sunny Skies snuck forward and opened the bedroom door to see Agate and Storm both sitting by a checkers table. Storm was looking at the pieces curiously, then looked back to Agate.
“What about chess? Chess has a king, queen, rook, bishop, knight, and pawns.”
“Sorta. There’s a queen, her advisor, castle, nobles, mayors, and ponies.” Agate grinned. “After you’re done beating me in checkers, maybe I can beat you in chess.”
“Dunno, Agate… it’s all math.” Storm studied the checkers board and pondered his next move.
“I’m back! Pony Joe was kind enough to give us a dozen doughnuts and hot cocoa to go with it!” Sunny Skies said with a smile. “Agate? Would you go get the cups in the kitchen?”
“Sure, Ma’am. No problem, especially since you just saved me from having my feathers plucked by this checkers tyrant!” Agate grinned and ruffled Storm’s mane as he giggled. “I mean it, Miss Skies. He plays a mean game.”
Agate padded off to the kitchen, while Sunny Skies set the doughnuts and cocoa on a convenient table. Storm was right at her side, sticking his nose close to the doughnut box and snuffling at it.
Playfully swatting Storm with a wing, Sunny laughed. “Hey, now! Wait for Agate! After all, she kept her promise and didn’t eat you… or did she?”
With that, Sunny rounded on storm and pounced; wings mantled and a silly smile on her muzzle. She tickled the colt, who gleefully kicked and squeaked and laughed as he writhed on the ground.
“A.. Agate! Help! Please!” Storm managed to gasp in between giggles. His wings fanned a bit as he struggled to get away from Sunny.
“Alright. I can help!” Agate said with a decidedly mischievous grin and a wink to Sunny. “Miss Skies, if you please.”
“But of course, Agate.” Sunny turned to start preparing the treats.
“Noooooo!” hollered Storm amidst another spate of giggles and laughing. “You said you’d help me!”
“Nuh-uh! I said I’d help. I didn’t say if I’d help you!”
“Alright, alright. That’s enough, Agate,” Sunny laughed. “Besides, the snacks are ready!” With efficiency borne of long practice, she placed plates and snacks on the table, then poured steaming cocoa into each mug. “Use both hooves, Storm. Don’t want you to spill it.”
Storm nodded, and enthusiastically, if cautiously, picked up the mug of cocoa. He sipped it, and sighed contentedly. “That’s good.”
“Try the doughnut. Pony Joe makes the best in all of Canterlot. Maybe even Equestria!” Agate stated, gesturing with the doughnut in her hand.
Storm nodded, eagerly reaching out to pick one out of the box. As he did so, he blinked and got a strange expression on his muzzle. Staring at the doughnut, Storm passed it from his right hoof, to his left, and then back to the right. “I don’t get it.”
“Don’t get what, dear?” Sunny watched Storm curiously, wondering what he was on about. “I’m not sure I understand.”
Storm shook the hoof that was holding the doughnut a bit, but not hard enough to make a mess. “It isn’t sticky, so it’s not stuck to my hoof. So… why can I pick it up?” He looked over to Agate. “I mean, I know why you can. You have thumbs. But I don’t, so why can I?”
Agate shrugged. “I always thought it was magic, myself. It’s something that ponies can just do, I guess.”
“Yeah, but how?” Storm’s curiosity demanded satisfaction; he simply had to try picking everything up. The mug and doughnut were easy; the plate the doughnut was on, equally so. He discovered that he could grab onto the end of the table and tug on it but that it was too big and heavy for him to move. “I mean… I can see picking something up with two hooves. Push the hooves together and squish something in the middle. But how can we pick a doughnut up and hold it with just one?” He flailed his hooves around a bit, but the doughnut got too close to Agate; she promptly snapped it out of his hoof and downed it in a gulp.
“Hey! That was mine!” Storm complained.
“Yeah, it was. Wave another one that close to my beak and I’ll eat it too.”
“Hmph! Meanie.” Storm stuck his tongue out at Agate. He made it a point to take another doughnut and finish his cocoa. “Huh…” Storm got up from the table and walked over to the wall.
“Storm? What are you doing, dear?” Sunny asked.
“Well, I had an idea. Since I can pick things up without thumbs, I ought to be able to walk up walls, too. I mean, there’s no real difference between a table and a wall, right?”
Agate rubbed the back of her head and glanced over at Sunny. “This isn’t going to end well, is it?”
“Storm, no!” Sunny Skies yelled as she galloped across the room. Storm had reared up on his hind legs and had planted his front hooves on the wall.
“What? Why not?” Storm looked ready to argue the point as he pouted.
“Because the cocoa is getting cold. You don’t want cold cocoa, do you?” Sunny smiled worriedly, hoping he’d take the bait.
“It’s pretty gross, Storm. You might want to drink it now and climb the wall later. It isn’t like it’s going anywhere.” Agate offered her opinion. “Of course, you could let me have it all. I’d not complain.”
“Hey, no fair! I want some too!” Storm promptly forgot about trying to climb the walls and noisily attacked another round of snacks instead.
“Thank you,” Sunny whispered to Agate as she sidled over to the gryphoness.
“Don’t thank me, Miss Skies,” Agate replied in just as soft a murmur. “You’re the one that told me that colts that age are only interested in food and fun, and in that order. They’ll only willingly sleep when they pass out. He’s nearly done… I’d better distract him before he tries climbing the walls again.
“Hey, Storm? What did you mean when you said that checkers and chess are all just math? I thought it was strategy.” Agate walked over and peered down at the checkers board.
“Hee!” Storm giggled as he walked over to the checkers board. “Strategy is making the math do what you want! Miss Skies? Do we have another board?”
“I think so. Let me get it.” As Sunny opened a cabinet and withdrew another checkers board, she asked, “Why do you need it?”
Storm snickered. “So I can show Agate what I was gonna do to her in two moves.” He took the board out and set it up. “Okay. Agate? This is how it works. When I move this piece up, then it affects these squares. See? You don’t want your piece in any of these places. It’s worth one. Now, the real fun starts when you try and hide what you’re doing. I want you over here, see? So, I make that area look a little weaker and give it a lower value by moving these here…”
Huh, Agate thought. I see what he means. Low value to him, high value to me. He’s literally been dragging me around the board! Aloud, Agate asked, “Okay. I see you’ve been dragging me all over the board by my tail, but what do you mean about what happens in two moves?”
“This is so cool! Okay! Agate, I didn’t want you to see what I was really up to, so I had to distract you, right? That’s what the king piece is. Er, the prince, I mean. Now, what move were you going to make next?” Storm’s wings were practically vibrating with enthusiasm and that grin nearly split his face in half.
“I was going to move here,” Agate said. Then she blinked, and her beak gaped open. “Sweet Celestia. I move there and…”
Giggling, Storm nodded. “Yup. My very next move, I take half your pieces off the board.”
“I never even saw that coming!” Agate grumped, shaking her head in amazement.
“It’s all math, Agate. Math and keeping track of the numbers while making them do what you want.” He sat down, a smug grin on his muzzle. “Want a rematch?”
“Please. But would you teach me what I’m doing wrong so I’d play better?”
Storm beamed with delight. “I’d be happy to! Let’s set the board up and play!”
The next several games all went the same way; Storm easily beat Agate every time, but Storm was quite good at pointing out where he’d managed to sneak something past her or when she’d made a mistake. He’d also helped suggest ways to undo the mistake and put it back on track.
After the fourth such game, Storm sat back with a satisfied nod. “I can’t show you how to win, Agate. Well, I am. But I can’t help you win against me since I already know what we’re doing.” He couldn’t stifle a yawn, and he scrubbed his hoof over his eyes. “But you’re playing a lot better, Agate. Just need practice. Wanna play again?”
“Now, Storm! I saw that yawn, young colt.” Sunny Skies smiled warmly. “I think we should get you a bath and then put you down for a nap.”
“Aww! I don’t wanna!” Storm pouted, stomping a fore-hoof on the floor.
“None of that, now! If you agree to take a bath and nap, you can have one more doughnut.” Sunny winked. “Two, if you’re really good. Run along to the bathroom; I’ll be there in a minute. I just need to talk to Agate.”
“Okay!” Storm nodded and smiled as he turned. He looked over his shoulder a moment and seeing that Sunny had turned her back to him to face Agate, reached up to grab a doughnut. He froze as he saw Agate watching him, but grinned when she winked. Doughnut stuffed into his muzzle, he happily walked to the facilities.
“What do you think, Agate?” Sunny asked quietly.
“Ma’am, I’m not even as old as the Princess’ student. Don’t know what my opinion is worth…” Agate mumbled.
“Agate, I’m sorry for putting it like this. But you’ve been here longer than any of the others. You’ve seen foals come through and you’ve helped me immeasurably with them. I very much value your opinion.” Sunny smiled slightly, and hugged Agate to her with a wing. “I’ll need your help with him, just as I have with the others. You’re important to me, and to the proper running of this orphanage, dear.”
The gryphoness allowed herself to enjoy the embrace a moment, and closed her eyes as she rested her head on Sunny’s shoulder. With a soft sigh, Agate lifted her head and glanced over to the bathroom where Storm was waiting. “He’s going to be a hoof-full, Ma’am. Storm isn’t like any of the others. He’s young, yes… but he’s also old, too.”
“Mmm? What do you mean, dear?” Sunny asked as she gently nuzzled at Agate’s ear.
“That tickles!” Agate mock-complained.
“Just because you’re twelve, does not mean you’re too old for gentle affections, dear. Now, what did you mean?”
“His actions and the way he talks… that’s all foal-like. The words he uses and the concepts behind them? His reasoning ability? That’s old. The thing with the checkers board? That’s what they’re trying to teach my grade. That kind of critical thinking and mathematics. But Storm’s already got that down cold.”
“And his impulse control,” Sunny said with a breathy sigh. “It leaves a lot to be desired.”
“Yeah, but that’s what’s going to make him interesting… a danger to himself and everypony around him, perhaps. But interesting.” Agate chuckled.
“How so, dear?” Sunny Skies cast a glance over to the bathroom; Storm seemed to be getting antsy, if the sounds of movement were any indication.
“He already knows how everything works. He’s wrong, but he already knows. Things are going to get really interesting when something doesn’t behave the way he knows it should. Like picking things up with his hooves. It’s like he has absolutely no concept of magic whatsoever. Magic allows ponies to pick things up; you and I take that for granted. Storm doesn’t. When he saw that he could, he started applying it to everything in order to figure out what it could and couldn’t do.”
Sunny nodded slowly, understanding. “Just as we take it for granted that ponies can’t walk up walls. Storm doesn’t know that, and from his perspective, he ought to be able to.” When Agate nodded, Sunny continued. “He really has no idea how anything works, does he?”
“Not really,” Agate agreed. “He’ll have to discover that as he goes. School doesn’t start up again for a few months and he can’t go out and about yet anyway, Miss Skies. He needs to be fed up a bit and maybe a tutor can come in to help him pick up the basics of Equestrian society.”
“I find myself suddenly glad we’re in Canterlot and not Cloudsdale. If he has no concept of magic, how would he react to being able to stand on clouds? How will he react to that?” Sunny shivered at the thought.
“I dunno, Miss Skies,” Agate said with a grin. She sat on her hindquarters and rubbed her hands together. “But it’s going to be a blast finding out!”
“Ow! Why is the hot water where the cold is supposed to be!” Storm complained… loudly.
“That’s assuming of course that he makes it that long,” Agate added as Sunny galloped to the bathroom to save Storm from himself.
“The Proctor will see you now, Lightning Storm.”
Storm nodded, head hanging low. This wasn’t how he’d anticipated his first day of school going… not by a long-shot. “Thank you, Ma’am.”
Taking pity on the poor youngster, Open Book smiled gently. “She doesn’t bite, Storm. It won’t be so bad as you imagine it. Just answer her questions honestly and things will turn out alright.”
Fortunately, Storm was able to smile a bit at that. Everypony really did like the elderly unicorn mare with mauve coat and pewter mane and eyes. She was warm and compassionate; if anypony needed an ear while at school, then she was the one they’d seek out.
Swallowing, Storm opened the door to the Proctor’s office and stepped in with trepidation. There were many rumors as to what the room behind the solid oaken door was like. Some had it that the office was so austere, that being banished to the moon would be a vacation in Manehattan by comparison. Other rumors had it that it was a terrifying place filled with the empty shells of ponies who’d failed their exams or had been overly disobedient. Storm was rather fearing the latter, under the circumstances.
In reality, the office was remarkably pleasant. A soft but mildly worn carpet lined the room and prevented hoofsteps from echoing off the walls that were lined with bookcases. The lighting was as soft as the carpet in its own way and lent the oaken walls a warm and inviting glow. Here and there were small tables and cushions, with each table having a book on it that had been surrounded by a small pool of brighter light to make reading easier. All in all, it was very relaxing and Storm found himself at ease as he walked towards the far side of the room where an unoccupied desk awaited.
“Have a seat at the desk. I’ll be right there,” called a soft voice from behind a shelf of books.
Storm did as he was bid and sat on a cushion appropriately sized and placed for a foal of his size. The desk was neatly kept but for a single ominous sign; his student file was open and there was a big well of red ink sitting beside it.
“I had wished to meet you, Lightning Storm. Though I confess, not under these circumstances.”
Storm turned his head from the desk and his eyes bulged as he saw the dark blue hued Alicorn with multi-colored mane shifting in even this breezeless room. A quick glance confirmed it; there was no mistaking the crescent moon cutie mark. His mane and tail frizzed and his feathers puffed up as he struggled to squeak out a coherent reply. “P… Princess Luna! I… I’m sorry. You didn’t sound like a Princess!”
Luna arched an eyebrow and grinned slowly. “Dost I sound like a Princess to thee now, subject?”
“Hee! Yeah, now you sound like they said you would, your majesty!” Storm couldn’t help but giggle and smile up at the Princess. She made the silliest faces when she did that!
“Well, Fluttershy from Ponyville has been working with me to tone down The Royal Voice. She says it puts ponies on their guard and makes them uncomfortable. That aside, I find you interesting, Lightning Storm. Every other pony seated where you are now has thrown him or herself to the floor and bowed. You did not.”
“But... Princess, you’d told me to sit down. Why would you tell me to sit down if you wanted me to bow? I’m… not in trouble, am I?” Storm asked, rather uncertainly.
“Yes, Storm. You are… but not for failing to bow. If anything, I found that quite refreshing.” Luna sat down at her desk, and glanced at the file as Storm tried to hide in his own seat. “I have already spoken to your teacher, as well as Alabaster, Diamond Tiara, Silver Spoon, Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Belle. It seems you’ve caused quite a stir. How precisely did you nearly cause a fight in the middle of your classroom while the visitors from Ponyville were in attendance?” She lifted her eyes and arched an eyebrow.
Storm preened his feathers back into place for a moment as he gathered his thoughts. The princess, seemingly approving of feather maintenance, remained silent and waited patiently.
“Here’s what happened, Princess,” Storm began. “We’d just sat down to class when…”
Storm perked his ear and looked up from his textbook. Whatever was going had to be more interesting than this basic mathematics.
“Hey, blank flank! I’m talking to you!” Storm glanced over and saw Alabaster harassing one of the fillies from Ponyville.
“See? I told you. She’s totally clueless!”
“I didn’t think it even possible to be that dull, Diamond Tiara. I mean, Storm being a retard and all is bad enough. But this Apple Bloom of yours? Totally useless,” Alabaster whispered.
“Cain’t y’all just shut up for one consarned minute? Ah’m tryin’ to listen to th’ teacher!” Apple Bloom complained.
Unfortunately, she was a touch too loud and the professor heard. “Miss… Apple Bloom is it? I do not know how things are done in your Ponyville, but here in Canterlot, I assure you that here we are polite when we are guests. Kindly do not disrupt class again.”
While Alabaster and Diamond Tiara snickered, Apple Bloom sighed. “Yes, Sir. Sorry, Sir.”
“Very well. Now then. Long division. Who wants to give it a try on this problem?” the professor continued. Storm felt that the professor was as old and boring as the subject material being taught. Whereas most ponies seemed to be brightly colored with dispositions to match, this one had a dusty brown mane with an almost dusty brown coat. Even his voice was old and dusty… flat… boring.
“Nice going, blank flank,” giggled one of the other fillies.
“Shut up, Silver Spoon,” growled another one of the Ponyville fillies. This one was a pegasus with a short mane and an equally short temper.
Before things could get too far out of hoof, Storm reached out and nudged that pegasus with his hoof. The filly rounded on him. “What’s your problem?”
“Don’t have one. But don’t worry about him, I’ll take care of it.” Storm grinned slowly. “I have an idea. Name’s Storm.”
“Scootaloo.” Scootaloo glanced over at Storm. “You really have a plan?”
“Yup. See, the trick with that type is knowing how to handle them… and how to set them up. Here, watch and learn.” Storm winked and then raised his hoof, waiting patiently.
“Lightning Storm. You have a question?” the dull brown stallion asked.
“Well, Alabaster did, Sir. He asked but you must have missed it. It was… what was it? Something about a retard and a blank flank?” He turned to Scootaloo who was staring at him in utter disbelief. “Wasn’t that what he said?”
“Ah reckon it was,” Apple Bloom said with a sharp nod and a mischievous grin. “Definitely somethin’ about a retard and a blank flank. Maybe he was askin’ what they were?”
“I see.” The professor turned and glanced over to Alabaster. “Is this true, Prince Alabaster?”
“Ah… well… you see, Si-“ Alabaster stammered.
“A simple yes or no will do, Prince Alabaster. Did you or did you not use those words?”
After glaring daggers at Storm, Alabaster replied through gritted teeth, “Yes, Sir.”
“Speak clearly, Prince Alabaster. I did not hear you.” The professor, it seemed never raised his voice. At all.
“Yes, Sir. I did use those words, Sir.” Alabaster said grumpily.
“Very well. I had intended to introduce you all to long division, but thanks to Prince Alabaster’s ill-chosen words, we must instead have the annual cutie mark talk, now. Considering the Prince brought this issue to our attention, perhaps he would be willing to start the discussion? Prince Alabaster, if you please.”
As the Prince walked up to the front of the class, Sweetie Belle leaned over and whispered to Storm. “That wasn’t very nice…”
Storm simply allowed a smug smile to spread across his muzzle. “No. No, it wasn’t, was it?”
Scootaloo and Apple Bloom had to struggle very hard not to burst out laughing, but somehow they managed as Prince Alabaster began a detailed discourse on cutie marks and how one got them.
It was actually rather interesting, especially to an outsider like Storm. While he still had a bit of trouble accepting things like ‘magic’ on faith, there had been sufficient examples of it provided during his recuperation that he couldn’t help but believe in its existence. He still couldn’t accept it at face value, not without poking at it a bit much like one would scratch at an itch that kept coming back.
Unfortunately, the explanation gradually wound down and Alabaster was allowed to take his seat. The professor, however, was not done just yet.
“Lightning Storm. Prince Alabaster has kindly given us a description of cutie marks and how they’re obtained. Perhaps you might shed some light on what his cutie mark means, as well as that of Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara.”
“Oh, this is not going to end well,” Storm murmured to his new friends. He rose and walked to the front of the class, wings rustling a bit with agitation.
“Yes, Lightning Storm,” Alabaster said in a saccharine voice. “I’m so very interested in what you think.”
“I think two things, Prince Alabaster,” Storm murmured softly. “First, that cutie marks are subjective. Your mark might mean one thing to you, but something else entirely to me. In fact, I guarantee it. Second, you really don’t want to know my opinion. Seriously.”
“That may be, Lightning Storm,” the professor interjected. “That very well may be. However, I do want to know. You will tell us now.”
“O-kay. But please remember that you asked for it.” Storm inhaled deeply, then sighed. Glancing over, he discovered Alabaster smirking at him. “You might think your cutie mark of a block of granite, alabaster, or whatever it is might mean you’re strong or noble. What it really means is that you’re even dumber than a sack of hammers.”
Diamond Tiara looked more than slightly nervous as Storm turned his eyes to her. The room was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop as they waited on his words. “You, Diamond Tiara. Yes, you’re pretty and there’s no denying it. Your cutie mark is perfect for you, since you serve the same purpose. Like a tiara, you’re useless as well as decorative.” He felt a strong pang of regret at the look of hurt in her eyes, but she’d been so cruel. Maybe a dose of her own medicine would help.
“And you, Silver Spoon. Your cutie mark is also appropriate. When you were harassing Apple Bloom, you couldn’t even come up with your own insults. You just said the same thing that Diamond Tiara and Alabaster did. No, you’re incapable of anything unless it’s spoon fed to you.”
They’d been wrong after all. The professor could raise his voice, but he normally chose not to. He chose to, now. “Enough! Lightning Storm, go to the Proctor’s office now. I hope you’re proud of yourself, hurting their feelings like that.”
As he turned for the door, Storm spoke just loudly enough to be heard in the otherwise silent room. “No. No, actually I’m not, Sir. But maybe they know what it’s like to be bullied now. Maybe now they won’t be quite so eager to hurt someon- somepony.”
“From there, it was just waiting outside your office while you spoke to everypony else.” Storm sighed quietly.
Luna was quiet for a long moment. “Yes. I should say you’re in trouble, Lightning Storm. While I approve of you standing up to the bullies, you went completely past reasonable bounds. I would suspend you immediately for a full month right this instant had you not been defending others… and if you had not also been repentant of what you’d done. As it is, you’re suspended for a full week. Head back to your classroom and collect your things. Afterwards, Open Book will walk you home.”
Storm rose from his seat, and this time he did bow to the Princess. He held the bow until she nodded slightly for him to rise. “I’m sorry, Princess.” He shuffled quietly towards the door.
“Storm, understand something. You are not being punished for having defended those fillies. That was a good thing. But you must always know when to hold back. Sometimes, hitting them that hard is not the right thing to do.”
Sniffling, Storm nodded his head meekly before turning to the door. “Yes, Princess.”
After he had gone, Luna looked to the side. “Are you still there, Celly?”
Celestia let her curtain of magic drop before walking forward and embracing her sister. “I am indeed, Lulu. You handled that very well. Tell me what you think.”
Luna grinned sheepishly. “I like the foal. He wasn’t afraid of me, and he saw me as a Princess, yes… but also as a pony. And did you notice, Celly? When he was dealing with the bullies, his speech and behavior became a lot more adult than one would suspect. When he was feeling at ease with me, he was very foal-like. He was… open. Carefree. Concerned he was in trouble, but what colt wouldn’t be?”
“I noticed, Luna. I also noticed that the actions he took were not out of anger, which is a very good sign. He also owned up to them without reluctance or prevarication.” Celestia thought about it for a moment. “I think we need to keep him in Canterlot for the time being, but I do believe in time he’ll be alright. He’s still a bit unstable but he is at least making progress.”
“I agree, Sis. Though I strongly suspect that we have not yet seen the last of what is in store for us.” Luna grinned a bit. “Remember Sunny Skies’ initial report? The one that included Agate’s comment? I think the gryphoness was correct.”
Celestia laughed softly. “Agate was quite accurate when she said that it will be entertaining to find out what happens next.”
Fortunately, school was over for the day and the hallways were empty as Storm walked with Open Book to his classroom. At least he didn’t have to face the additional humiliation of facing his erstwhile classmates. Still, something was bothering him. He looked up at the gentle muzzle of Open Book and asked quietly, “Miss Book?”
“You weren’t, dear.” At Storm’s expression of surprise, she grinned. “Lightning Storm, I’ve been doing this for far longer than you’ve been alive. This is not the first time I’ve had to escort a colt or filly back to their classroom after having been suspended. It’s always the first thing that comes to mind. ‘Why was I the only one?’”
Storm coughed softly and looked a bit sheepish. “So… I wasn’t?”
“You weren’t. Now, I’m trusting you not to spread it around, Storm. I’m probably not supposed to tell you this but I’ll make an exception for you.” Open Book waited until she received Storm’s nod of agreement, then continued. “Three of the fillies from Ponyville received notes to their teacher, Miss Cheerilee.” Open Book grinned a bit. “I’ll tell you the story of how she got suspended when she was your age, sometime. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon got notes of reprimand for their misbehavior. Prince Alabaster was suspended for a month for failing to set a good example as well as his misbehavior.”
“I don’t feel so bad about it, then. I mean, it was kinda irritating when I thought I was being singled out. But now that I know that I wasn’t...”
The remainder of the walk to the classroom was done in silence, primarily because they were almost there. Upon arrival, they discovered that the professor was waiting for them… as was Alabaster. The professor was the first to speak.
“Lightning Storm. I owe you an apology.” The professor gestured to Alabaster as he shook his head. “I was unaware to the degree he had been harassing those fillies and yourself, or the extent he had been using unfortunate pejoratives. I cannot alter your punishments, but rest assured, there will be no permanent mark in your record. However, I cannot in good conscience let you fall behind in class, nor can I let you remain at home for five days with nothing to do. Therefore, I’m sending you home with five days worth of math assignments. Do all the problems in chapters one through five.” He turned to glare at Alabaster. “Give him the book now.”
Sullenly, Alabaster handed over the text. “Here. I had to check one out from the library, since you didn’t have one of your own.” With a deceptive smirk, he added, “Good luck with the problems. Hope they’re not too hard for you.”
“That will be quite enough!” said both Open Book and Professor Roads at the same time. With a bit of a smile to each other, Open Book picked up the conversation from there.
“Prince Alabaster, any more from you and I assure you that I will have no compunction against taking you back before the Proctor.” She narrowed her eyes and then nodded sharply. “Leave now.”
Alabaster did. When the colt was out of sight, Open Book turned to Professor Roads with a slight smile. “I would like to speak with you when I return from walking Storm home. Tea, perhaps?”
“I…” the professor swallowed, and then smiled slowly as if he’d nearly forgotten how. “I would like that very much, Miss Book.”
“Excellent. I’ll see you then.” With a smile and a wink, she led Storm from the school and back towards the orphanage.
“What an amazing mare,” Roads murmured to himself, though he blushed when his thoughts were interrupted by a cough.
“Sorry to bother you, Sir. But the librarian sent me over to see if I could catch either Storm or Alabaster before they left,” said a young unicorn mare. “The Proctor is out, as is Open Book.”
“Unfortunately, Lilac, neither is here. Open Book just left to walk Lightning Storm home. Alabaster was dismissed a few moments before. Is there something I might do to help?”
“Well, Sir… I don’t quite know how to say it, but there’s been a bit of a mix-up in the library. It seems that the text that Prince Alabaster had checked out had its jacket swapped with a collegiate level mathematics book.”
His expression darkening, Roads sighed. “Did Prince Alabaster check out two books, by any chance? One collegiate and the other more grade appropriate?”
“Yes, Sir. We’re hoping we could get an explanation,” Lilac said. “The librarian doesn’t take kindly to such things.”
“Neither do I, Lilac. Neither do I. It seems that Prince Alabaster is a bit of a prankster as well. I do not have access to Lightning Storm’s file and so cannot find out where he lives. We will have to wait until Miss Book returns. Then we shall swap the two books and all will be well.”
“Until tomorrow, Sir. The librarian will want an accounting as to what happened. I’d think that Prince Alabaster will have earned himself another trip to the Proctor’s office at the very least.” Lilac looked a bit surprised, one ear folding down whilst the other remained upright. “I wonder how he thought he could get away with it.”
“He’s young and stupid, Lilac. We were all like that, at his age. Though fortunately with a lot less of an air of superiority.”
“I’m very disappointed in you, Lightning Storm,” Sunny Skies said, disapproval spread across her muzzle. “You didn’t even make it through a full day of school without getting into trouble.”
“I’m sorry, Matron. But please-” Storm tried to explain before being cut off.
“No, Storm. No buts. I understand that you were only trying to help. The fact remains that the Princesses have done a great deal for you and I find it a bit inappropriate for you to repay that kindness by getting suspended your very first day.” Sunny Skies sighed, and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Now, you have your homework assignment. You’re going to stay in your room until the assignment is done with the only exceptions being meals and the facilities. You’re lucky that your suspension was lessened to a week. Had it been any longer, and you’d have missed your first flight lesson.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Storm said quietly, staring at the ground. “I’m sorry, Ma’am.” He turned and went into his room, quietly closing the door behind him.
Agate, who had been watching silently nearby, shook her head when his door closed. “I think you were a bit too hard on him, Matron.”
“Excuse me?” Sunny Skies asked, surprised. She hadn’t been expecting that. “That seems a bit presumptuous, dear.”
“Well, you can’t have it both ways.” Agate grinned widely. “I’m either helping you with Storm and the others as they come through, or I’m not. Part of helping you is giving my opinion when I think it’s warranted. Right now, my opinion is that you were way hard on him. Alabaster deserved what Storm dished out and more.”
“That might be, Agate. But it was not Storm’s place to do it,” Sunny Skies rationalized. “The professor should have done it.”
“Mmmhm. But the professor didn’t. Look, all I’m saying is that I think you were too hard on him. That’s all. Make it up to him later with a day trip to the fountains. I mean, c'mon, he's been cooped up in here for two months recovering from... well whatever he was recovering from. He's still a little colt, and needs to get out there under Celestia's sun!" Agate shrugged and chuckled. “As if that wasn’t enough, he had the misfortune to run into somepony like Alabaster. It could’ve been worse, you know. Could’ve gotten into a fight with him.”
Laughing, Sunny Skies surrendered. “Alright, Agate. Alright. You’ve earned a bit of leniency for him. We’ll review things in the morning. Deal?”
“Deal.” Agate nodded, then arched her back as she stretched in a decidedly feline manner. “Besides, he’s been given a week’s worth of work. Keeping him in his room for a week is just plain mean.”
Well, the sooner I get started the sooner I get out. Maybe it won’t be that bad. It’s just math, Storm thought as he set the text out on the table. Opening the book, he found himself staring at the first few pages. That… that is not long division. This looks familiar. What…?
Something was very strange about this and Storm found himself idly chewing on the quill as he pondered. Well, there’s really only one way to find out if I know this or not. Storm flipped to the end of the first chapter, and looked at the problems listed. Here goes nothing.
Storm found his mind beginning to blur a little bit, and he thought briefly about going to tell the Matron about it. After his first collapse, they made him promise that if it ever happened again, he’d let them know. Seeing as how he’d just been sent to his room, he didn’t really think they’d believe him. Besides… the math was making sense. It didn’t really matter if he couldn’t see his hoof anymore, but a pink fleshy thing that looked a little bit like Agate’s hand without the scales and claws.
This is so strange. It’s making more sense, now. This is a third order non-linear partial differential equation I’m working on. Been a long time since I’ve done these by hand. Er, hoof. The last time this sort of thing happened, I collapsed. But this time, it just feels like an old friend is coming back and we’re sharing memories. I… I don’t want to stop. I want it all back. I need this. The problem solved, Storm put his quill down and rubbed at his eyes with his hooves.
I need this, Storm thought to himself. He needed this, and he would have it. Soft noises that only he could hear kept him company; memories of another time, a happy time, when he had done such things as this before.
It was several hours later when a soft knock on the door broke Storm free from his mathematical reverie. “Huh…what? Oh… Come in? Oogh. My head hurts.”
“Storm? Open Book and Professor Roads are here. It seems Alabaster played a bit of a prank on you, dear. I’d never have sent you to your room if I’d known,” Sunny Skies said, apologetically. “They’re here to give you the book you’re supposed to have.”
For his part, Storm set his quill down and walked across the floor to give Sunny Skies a warm hug. “Aw! But I like this book. Can’t I keep it?”
Pleased but confused, Sunny Skies returned the hug. “You like this book?” She quirked an eyebrow curiously before leading Storm out into the common area of the orphanage.
“Hee!” Storm nodded. “Yeah, I really like it. I’m remembering a whole lot more, now. I’ve got almost all my math back!” He turned to look over at Open Book and Professor Roads. “Can I please keep the book? It just started getting good in chapter five! It just got into time-scale calculus!”
Silence settled across the room. First to recover was Professor Roads who coughed. “You… know what that is, Storm? Are you certain?”
“Yeah, it’s neat! It unifies the theory of difference equations with differential equations. I think chapter six deals with fractional calculus!” Storm was practically bouncing in place. “Please?”
“How…” Open Book stuttered. “How can… how can he know these things?”
“He can’t. It’s impossible. He’s just a foal!” Roads said, shaking his head vehemently.
Agate opened her beak to say something but was promptly shut down by a warning glare from Sunny Skies.
Storm for his part simply stuck out his tongue and blew a rude sounding raspberry. “Okay, I’ll prove it. Pick any problem out of that book, and if I solve it, I get to keep it.”
“Sounds reasonable to me!” Agate said before anypony else could say a word. “I’ll go get the book!” She came back, meeting the disapproving glances of her elders. “What? Give the colt a chance. He’ll either get it or he won’t. What’s the worst that can happen, anyway? He gets a math problem wrong?”
“She’s got a point,” Open Book said with a slight smile. “Alright.” She flipped through the pages a bit, and pointed out the problem to Storm. “Here’s the problem for you, Storm. Take as much time as you need, okay?”
“Hah! This one’ll be easy. Fractional conservation of mass!” Storm busily started scrawling equations and solutions on the parchment provided and had the problem worked out in a reasonable amount of time.
For a second time that evening, a profound silence blanketed the room. Open Book handed the math text to Roads, who flipped to the back of the book to check the answer. He shook his head. “Amazing. He gets to keep the book.” He looked over at Open Book, then glanced at Sunny Skies. “He’s got the right answer. He shouldn’t be able to touch this sort of mathematics for another fifteen years or so, but…” His voice slowly petered out.
“We’re going to have to tell the Proctor about this,” Open Book said quietly. “She’ll want to talk to you, Storm.”
Storm’s feathers puffed up, and he swallowed. “I… I didn’t do anything wrong! Professor Roads, tell them! You assigned me five chapters of math homework and I did it!” He began to tremble in fear and worry.
There was no shortage of comfort for the foal. “Shh. No, dear. You did nothing wrong. In fact, you did something very right!” Sunny Skies and Open Book both had lay down at Storm’s side, pressing to the foal warmly. “You’re not in any trouble at all. In fact, I think the Princesses are going to want to see just how good at math you are!”
“Hey, kid,” Agate added with a grin. “Look at it this way. You just proved you don’t need fifteen years of math schooling. That’s something to celebrate, not punish.”
“Promise?” Storm asked, offering a weak smile. If Agate said it was okay, then he knew it was.
The three adults and Agate all answered simultaneously. “Promise!”
Sunny Skies looked at the wall clock and smiled. “Well, it’s just about dinner time. Could I interest any pony in supper?”
“Me!” Storm said enthusiastically. “I’m hungry!”
Everypony burst into laughter, almost downing out Storm’s plaintive, “What?”
No matter how many times a pony visited the Royal Palace in Canterlot, it never ceased to amaze. It was especially powerful the first time one stepped into the main audience chamber and looked upon the halls where history itself tended to unfold. The architecture was physically impossible but for the efforts of the unicorn artisans that perpetually maintained the structure with special magic that had been perfected over hundreds of years. The structure was utterly spotless, with perfectly manicured gardens interspersed with magnificent statues from craftsponies long departed.
It was all quite overwhelming for one young pegasus foal who found himself alternately trying to hide under either Agate’s or Sunny Skies’ wings when he wasn’t investigating this or that whilst the Royal Guard were leading them towards a comfortably small meeting room. Fortunately, the guards were both patient and tolerant; they were family ponies and well understood how it was with a colt that age.
Soon, they were ushered into a space that more resembled a living room with fireplace than a meeting chamber. The guardsponies stepped in and took positions on either side of the door while Agate and Sunny Skies tries to get Storm settled. They managed to get him out of the ‘I’m going to hide under your wing’ phase and into the ‘Just make sure I can see you’ phase just in time to bow as the doors opened and the Princesses both entered.
“Rise, my ponies, rise, please.” Celestia smiled as she gestured. “Make yourselves comfortable.” Once everypony had risen and taken their seats, Celestia looked over to Lightning Storm. “You are looking quite a bit better than the last time I saw you, Storm. How do you feel?”
“F.. Fine, your Majesty. How are you?” Storm looked over at Sunny Skies who didn’t happen to notice. Agate did, however, and lifted her wing so that he could hide underneath it a bit. Storm took her up on the offer, scooting under the proffered wing and peeking out from relative safety.
Luna laughed softly as she settled onto her cushion. “Storm, you’re not in any additional trouble at all. I promise. We’re only here to talk to you about what you did tonight.”
Storm’s ears perked up and he nodded a bit. “Okay…”
Celestia smiled gently. “You are not going to come out, are you.”
“Nuh-uh,” Storm agreed as he shook his head.
“Well, that’s fine, dear. I was wondering if you could look at something for me. I have a math problem I would like you to look at. Would you do that for me?” Celestia couldn’t help but have her heart melt a bit; the foals were so adorable when they looked up at her like that.
This got Storm’s attention. Though he still hid under Agate’s wing, he sat up a bit and peeked out more visibly. “Okay!”
“I want you to look this over and tell me what you think, okay?” Luna slid the parchment over, and Storm reached out with a hoof to unfold it and look it over.
“Um…” Storm said, scrunching his muzzle. “Where’s the rest of it?” He looked up, confused. “It’s missing a lot in the middle here. There’s not enough for me to figure out what it’s supposed to be.”
“Very good,” Celestia said, nodding softly. “That was exactly the case. It was not meant to be solvable, but to tell if you knew what you were looking at. Ready for the real challenge?”
“Uh-huh!” Storm took the next scroll, and looked at it, then giggled. “Hee. I know what this is! May I have a quill?”
“I don’t know,” Luna said, tapping her chin with a mischievous grin. “Are you going to come out from under Agate’s wing?”
“Thbbbt!” Storm stuck his tongue out, but crawled from under Agate’s wing to sit at her side, instead. With much laughing, Luna offered Storm a quill and he set to work. “It’s a Doppler shift equation.”
“A… what?” Luna asked, looking at Celestia quizzically.
“Doppler shift! You know! Like if you were yelling really loud while flying. Your voice would sound higher as you flew toward us, but sound lower as you were flying away. You can use it for light, sound, just about anything that makes a noise or emits anything while in motion.” Storm rubbed his temple a bit.
“Are you alright, Storm?” Sunny Skies asked, watching him with a concerned expression.
Storm smiled and nodded. “I’m fine! Head just gets a bit hurty when I think really hard like that. It’s already gone, promise.”
“What do you think, Celestia?” Luna asked. “His math is good. Very good.”
“I agree, Luna.” Celestia turned to Storm. “I have a favor to ask of you. Would you be willing to take a look at something for me?”
“Of course, Princess! I’d be happy to. What is it?” Storm’s ears perked up; it was rare for the Princess to ask anything of anypony!
“A very long time ago, my mother left. Before she departed, she locked the door to her study with some form of puzzle and also enchanted it so that neither my sister nor I could open the door. Would you like to see if you can figure it out?”
Hope surged within Celestia and Luna both as Storm nodded. “Of course! I’m good at puzzles!”
“Right this way, then. I’ll take you to Mother’s study,” Celestia said in a subdued tone.
The study was right down the hallway from the room they’d been in and yet clearly stood apart from every other structure in the castle. Whereas most doors were finely carved wood, this one was a plain door that was covered in odd symbols and numbers. The hinges were finely polished brass, and the frame itself seemed to glow with an inner light.
Storm rubbed the side of his head as he looked it over. “Ooh. This is complicated…” His eyes narrowed, and he gestured with his hoof as his muzzle mouthed out things silently.
“Do you need anything, Storm?” Luna asked softly. “Anything at all?”
“Mmm. Jasmine, I’m going to need a really big table, a whole lot of paper, and all the pens you can get your hands on.” Storm rubbed his chin. “This is going to suck, but I’m pretty sure I can do it.”
“Jasmine? Who’s Jasmine? Storm, are you alright?” Celestia asked, growing concerned.
“Mmh?” Storm turned and smiled. “I’m fine, Princess. Never better, I promise!”
The guards looked at each other uncertainly, and then over to Celestia. “Princess?”
“If you would, please,” Celestia whispered. “See about getting a workbench and the other things he asked for. I will remain and see if I can figure out what’s going on.”
“Now, if that… then…” Storm mumbled to himself. “Woah. Woah.”
“Storm? What’s wrong?” Celestia said, stepping forward to glance at the door.
“Princess? Why would Jennifer be messing around with two kinds of time dilation? This one is dilation due to a gravitational source. This one here? This one is due to relative velocities.”
“Jennifer?” Celestia glanced over at Luna, who shrugged. “Who is Jennifer?”
Storm didn’t answer but lost himself once more in the math instead. The world was still a little off from earlier, so he slipped into the ‘unreality’ of it without even noticing. He smiled as he caught sight of Agate. “Dee? Could you check on my daughter for me? I was supposed to tuck her into bed, but got wrapped up in work.”
“Um… sure. Of course. Be happy to,” Agate said, worriedly. “I’ll do that right now!” Agate quietly walked over to the Princesses before asking, “What is going on?”
“His mind slipped into itself,” Celestia said with a sigh. “I… did not anticipate this happening. There should have been warning signs before it happened. We never should have tried this!”
“Um. There probably were, Princess… it’s not your fault.” Agate sighed and shook her head as she was stared at. “Probably earlier tonight. He’d just been sent to his room with a cartload of homework. Homework that should have been too advanced for him.”
“Did he say anything to you?” Luna asked, watching Storm as he stared at the door. “Anything at all?”
“No, and he wouldn’t have. He just got sent to his room. Would you have believed him if he’d come out and said that he’d gotten a headache, or things started to go weird? I wouldn’t have. I’d have thought he was trying to get out of doing the work.” Sunny Skies interjected. “He probably thought the same thing and just toughed it out. The question is, what do we do now? Do we leave him like that or do we try and snap him out of it?”
Luna considered. By now, the guards had brought the table, paper, and quills and Storm was busily writing away. She ignited her horn, and watched him for a few minutes, then shook her head. “We can’t interrupt him right now. He’s almost in a kind of dream state, but it isn’t normal. It’s too risky, unless something goes wrong. Something else goes wrong, I mean.”
There was nothing to do but wait. Over the next three hours, Storm didn’t even budge from the table and he went through easily a dozen quills, several stacks of paper, and three large glasses of apple juice. Finally, Storm stopped and simply sat immobile after flipping the last page face-down.
“Storm…?” Sunny Skies asked, worried. “Are you alright?”
“M…Miss Skies? I… I don’t… I don’t feel good. My head hurts real bad. Could somepony help me up? I need to get to the door, but I can’t seem to make my feet work.”
“Oh, no!” cried Celestia as Storm lifted his head. His eyes were all but fogged over with a silver sheen, and small lines of that same silver material were slowly dripping from his nose and ears. “Guard! Get the doctor, now!”
It was rare that Celestia used The Royal Voice and when she did, it got results. One of the guards tore off down the hallway at break-neck speed while the other interposed himself between the Princesses and Storm.
“Please?” Storm asked, weakly. “I can’t get to the door on my own. I need to, to finish.”
“No, Storm. You rest, now. The doctor is on his way,” Celestia managed in a deceptively calm voice. In reality, she was just this side of a panic.
“In…” Storm swallowed, wiping a bit of the silver fluid from his muzzle with a hoof. “In a few minutes, the problem is gonna change. Then I’ll hafta do it all over again. Next time, I might not be able to. It was real hard.”
“Just tell me, Storm. I will solve it for you, dear. You really do need to rest.” Celestia smiled gently, and nosed at Storm’s cheek. The foal was burning up.
Storm thought about that for a moment, then turned his foggy, silver-eyed gaze to Celestia.
Neither Princess was very happy and what made it worse was that there was nothing they could do about it. Storm had passed out immediately after refusing to share the answer to the riddle, and that left the question of ‘why not?’ unanswered for the time being.
Then Doctor Coltle had come and bundled Storm up to carry him to the hospital, but not before delivering the most politely worded condemnation either Princess had ever heard in their thousands of years of life. The upbraiding stung particularly because it mirrored their private fears, that they had put their own desire ahead of Storm’s welfare.
It hadn’t seemed that way at the time, of course. They’d certainly never intended Storm to be hurt. But as the Princesses watched Coltle, Agate, and Sunny Skies head to the hospital with Storm, they could at least acknowledge that it could be viewed that they had rushed the foal into this situation before he was ready for it.
This then led to the current discussion between the two sisters, and it was one that they both agreed should happen in their private chambers. Celestia dispatched a letter requesting the presence of her pupil, Twilight Sparkle, and then poured herself a glass of wine.
“Share your thoughts with me, Luna?” Celestia asked as she sipped the chilled wine. “I have cancelled Court today, so we have all the time needed.”
Luna nodded, and glanced over her shoulder at Celestia as her eyes flashed with restrained anger. In a deceptively calm and rational voice, Luna asked, “I wish to talk to you about lies, Celly. Lies, and betrayal of trust.”
That statement brought Celestia up short. Shocked, she raised an eyebrow and set the flute of wine down, lest she drop it. “That is an unexpected topic, Luna. Is everything alright?”
“No.” Luna gritted her teeth, then struggled to relax. “I am… upset with them. Thanks to their lie about the foal’s condition, Lightning Storm nearly died. Thanks to them, we nearly lost the one pony in over three thousand years that might possibly open that door and finally answer the question that’s been gnawing at us for so long.”
“Lulu… they did not lie. They did not say anything about him. Do you not think you are overreacting?” Celestia asked cautiously.
“I wish I could agree with you, Celly. I truly do. However, a lie of omission is still a lie. They did not inform us of Lightning Storm’s status. Because of that, we pushed the foal into a situation he was clearly not ready for.” Luna hung her head, closing her eyes tightly. “Because of them, we nearly killed a foal, Celly. The ultimate betrayal of trust.”
Celestia moved forward, and draped a wing over Luna, pulling her close as she gently nuzzled her mane. “No, dear sister. It is not that, not at all. Mistakes were made, absolutely. But now we know what to watch for and can prevent it from happening again.” Grinning slightly, she whispered into Luna’s ear, “Also consider how Agate and Sunny Skies feel. Surely they feel like they failed both Storm and us. They are punishing themselves, and do not need any more. Let it go, Luna. We have other things to speak of.”
Though it took a moment, Luna finally did unclench her teeth and nodded as she sighed. “I will try. Because you ask it, and because I want very much for you to be right, I will try.” Her eyes narrowed a bit as she looked at the door. “I will watch more closely, however, and not rely quite as much on what I am told.”
“I as well,” Celestia agreed. “We must be careful not to grow to distrust them, but we also must always temper what we are told with what we see for ourselves. On to other matters. I would like your opinion on giving Lightning Storm a stipend for living expenses. After today, I should think that it would be good to keep him nearby.”
“I agree, and we can take care of that from our personal coffers as opposed to the taxes or levies.” Luna smiled weakly from under her sister’s wing. “After all, we do want him nearby for selfish reasons such as bringing our parents home.” Luna shook her head as Celestia started to speak and interrupted her. “I’m not saying we don’t have viable public reasons to keep him near. His instability is almost reason enough, and when coupled with his frightening grasp of mathematics and the physical sciences it becomes a virtual necessity for public safety.”
Laughing, Celestia nodded again. “And it isn’t as if we ever use the bits in our private coffers anyhow. The ponies make sure we never want for anything. Very well. We can take care of Storm’s expenses ourselves, much like I tend to Twilight’s in Ponyville. What do you think of us taking a more active role in tutoring and raising Storm? It would give us more of an opportunity to observe him directly and get a sense of his personality.”
Luna began to pace around the room after slipping out from underneath Celestia’s wing. Chewing her lower lip thoughtfully, Luna shook her head. “That is tempting. Sorely tempting. It’s also why we shouldn’t do it. I’m sorry, Celly… but I think that’s a bad idea, after all. In fact, I think we should send him out of Canterlot for a while. Perhaps to Cloudsdale, as there is a flight school class starting up soon.”
“Luna, did we not just make the case for keeping him close? Now you’re wanting to send him away?” Celestia asked curiously as she watched her sister pace. “Why?”
“Temptation, Celly.” Luna sighed, lowering her head a bit. “It’s safe to say that we have everypony’s best interests at heart. But Storm might be the sole exception to that, and we might not even realize we’re doing it.” She paced a few more moments before turning to look her sister in the eyes. “Consider. We have already rushed him to solve the riddle of the door. I am, I admit, sorely tempted to move Storm’s hospital bed to the hallway outside Mother’s study and keep him right there until he opens it. We’re so close, Celly! So close it hurts. Add in the fact that this, Storm bringing our parents home… it’s the first thing we’ve actually wanted that another could provide?” She chewed her lower lip again before snorting in resignation. “I do not think we can trust ourselves not to influence him subtly into opening the door before he’s fully healed and ready.” She shrugged, managing only a half-smile. “He’s going to need to go to flight school anyway. Moving him to Cloudsdale gets him into the class sooner and moves him from under our eyes.”
Celestia pondered that for a moment, then nodded slowly. “Away from where we might find excuses to go see him, and to ask him how he is feeling constantly. This would urge him without directly asking him to finish.”
“Exactly. At flight camp, he’ll be out under the sun and getting physical exercise. We can let the flight doctors know about Storm and his uniqueness so they can keep eyes on him and let us know if anything happens,” Luna reasoned.
“This makes sense. I do have some ideas as to what happened, as well. Let me sound them off of you, and if you agree, we can pass it on to the medical staff.” When Luna nodded, Celestia continued. “Let us review what we know. We know that Lightning Storm died. We know that something tore a hole between worlds, and something on the other side of that hole brought Storm back to life and placed a different mind and soul inside.”
“Right, but that does not explain why he’s collapsed twice, or why he bleeds silver. Silver, I might add, that evaporates into nothing soon after being shed.”
“Doesn’t it? I wonder.” Now it was Celestia’s turn to pace while she shared her thoughts. “A soul is either present or not; there is no in-between. The mind can move about, to an extent. Both times Storm collapsed, he was drawing very heavily on what he knew from the other world.”
Luna blinked, then nodded. “First a lullaby to his daughter and then very high order mathematics, possibly related to his profession. Do you think his mind was attempting to return from whence it came?”
“It does make sense, does it not?” Celestia asked, taking another sip from the wine glass. “Since his mind and soul are not fully adapted to his body, nor are they firmly grounded here in Equestria yet, it might just be possible for the mind to literally start tearing itself free from the body and take the soul with it.”
“If that’s the case, then sending him off to flight school just became a necessity. It’s one of the single most defining times in a pegasus’ life! If that doesn’t ground him in Equestria, then it ought to certainly start the process,” reasoned Luna.
“Integrating him with other pegasi would certainly help build a sense of community,” Celestia murmured.
“But that doesn’t explain him bleeding silver. Unless…” Luna blinked. “What if the silver is at least partly responsible for him being alive in the first place?”
“Precisely.” Celestia set her glass back down and stretched a bit, arching her back and wings. “It explains a bit. If his mind was tearing away, then the silver material might be repairing the damage.”
“I daresay that pretty much settles that.” Luna helped herself to a bit of the wine too, nibbling on a celery stalk for a moment while she considered. “Alright, I’m satisfied with that theory if you are. But what now?”
“I think we have done all we can for the moment. We will have to make arrangements for Storm to be taken to Cloudsdale, and start an account for him in the Royal Treasury. Aside from that, I do not think there is much to do.” Celestia grinned slowly. “Aside from one little thing. Pinkie Pie.”
“That…” Luna laughed as the tension of the previous discussion evaporated suddenly. “That would not leave two stones touching each other in all of Canterlot, Celly! If Pinkie Pie plans our parents’ coming home party, there is simply no way the castle will survive intact. I approve.”
A short time later, there was a knock on the door and one of the Guards opened the door a bit and peeked in. “Princess Celestia? Princess Luna? Miss Twilight Sparkle is here to see you.”
“Excellent! Please show her in.” Celestia smiled warmly, and glanced over at Luna. “I do hope you do not mind. I use her as a sounding board for many things, and I value her opinion.”
Luna grinned and mock-sniffed in derision. “Fine, I see how it is, Sis! Value her opinion more than mine. That’s alright!”
Twilight Sparkle walked over to the royal sisters as they were embracing and laughing. She sighed a bit in relief, and smiled herself before bowing. “Princesses. I was a bit worried when I received your letter. You said you had information on that beam of light a few months ago, and I feared the worst. But if you’re laughing, surely the news couldn’t be that bad.”
“No, my dear student. It is not bad at all.” Celestia smiled, tears welling in her eyes. “In fact, many things are starting to go very right. I do not wish to ruin the story or get too far ahead of myself, either.” She inhaled deeply, then let it out in a slow breath. “Alright. To start from the beginning, there is indeed news about the beam of light.”
Luna nodded. “Indeed, Twilight. What happened was that something that was most definitely not magic tore a hole between another world and our own.” Luna managed a more genuine smile. “Now here is where things start to get interesting. Something came across that tunnel and brought a recently deceased foal back to life with a foreign mind and spirit.”
Twilight’s eyes went wide and she gasped. “But that’s impossible! Magic can’t bring the dead back!”
Celestia nodded in agreement. “Technically, it… re-animated the body. Bringing the dead back to life implies the same mind and soul; that is not the case here. The entity residing inside the foal’s body is definitely not the original. Also, it wasn’t magic that did it.”
“But… I don’t understand. Dead? As in… dead dead?” Twilight still looked shocked, but her mind was whirling with the possibilities.
“He had ceased to be,” Celestia confirmed with a little nod.
“I… I don’t understand…” Twilight looked between Luna and Celestia in confusion. She started to ask something else, but was interrupted by Luna.
“He kicked the bucket, popped the twig, bit the du-” Luna ticked off the euphemisms before being interrupted.
“Luna… I think she understands.” Celestia grinned and shook her head.
“Sorry,” Luna said as she stifled a grin. “Anyhow, the foal is alive now. He’s got a terrifyingly strong grasp of mathematics… Remember the locked door?”
“The one to your mother’s study?” When Luna nodded, Twilight continued. “I do. I spent hours trying to figure out what it was.” She grinned sheepishly. “I so wanted to solve that for you but I just never could understand it. I still look at it now and then to give it another try.”
“The foal solved it in three hours.” Luna grinned widely. “He solved it, Twilight!”
Twilight’s eyes grew wide and a brilliant smile split her muzzle. “But… that’s wonderful!” She began to pace instinctively as she went into full-on planning mode. “They’re not here, so obviously you have them in seclusion. Good idea, that. Now, I’ll make it my top priority to complete a dual course of study in ancient history so I can relate to your parents as well as a crash-course in cultural adaptation. I think if I work at it, I can have enough functional knowledge of their time-”
“Twilight!” Celestia laughed.
“… to hold at least two or three reasonably interesting conversations with them inside of a day or two. That’s not even counting things that come up while talking with them! Now, once I have an idea as to how they’re doing, I can come up with-”
“Twilight!” Luna yelled, rolling her eyes.
“… a plan to start re-integrating them into pony society. That’s going to be the hard part, because it’s not just them we need to prepare. But I think with a few additions to the educational curriculum, we can have everypony ready in-” Twilight didn’t even break step as she continued with her planning.
“Canterlot voice?” Luna asked Celestia as she shook her head. “I don’t know anything else will actually stop her.”
“Canterlot voice. It is the only way to be sure,” Celestia agreed.
The Princesses stood far enough apart along Twilight’s path so that the young mare would have to pass between them. When she did, they let her have it. “Twilight!”
“..a few ye-Ahhhhhhh!” Twilight’s hooves slid out from under her and she found herself flat on the floor with a pair of grinning Princesses staring down at her. “Er… heh. I was overdoing it, wasn’t I?”
“Just a bit,” Celestia agreed with an amused smile. She levitated her pupil up and set her back on her hooves. “We were trying to tell you that the door has not yet been opened. He has solved the problem, but collapsed before he could actually open the door.”
“We have also decided to send Lightning Storm to Cloudsdale for flight school once he is out of the hospital. This should help start the process of integrating him with Equestria, and ground his mind and spirit here.” Luna sighed, looking down. “This is both for his benefit, and ours. We fear we would be tempted to urge him to open the door before he is actually ready to do so. Also, Celestia and I have determined that he collapsed due to the strain on his mind when he drew upon knowledge from whence he came. Because he’s not grounded here, yet… his mind tried to go back.”
Twilight nodded a bit, rubbing her chin. “That would cause a great deal of problems. Astral projection always requires a firm grounding lest the mind simply dissipate. Yes, that’s a brilliant idea, Princess!”
Luna arched an eyebrow and could not resist teasing Twilight a bit. “We are glad you approve,” she murmured.
Blushing, Twilight chuckled and rubbed the back of her head with a hoof. “Aheh. Sorry, Princess Luna. But there’s another benefit to this. I know you both have waited so long for your parents to return, but this gives me a lot more time to do research and plan an appropriate course of action.”
Sharing a glance, Celestia and Luna both voiced the same question simultaneously. “Plan? What is there to plan?”
“Princess, you can’t just throw your parents back into society!” Twilight said, shocked. “From what you’ve told me, the only thing even keeping Lightning Storm sane is the fact that he does not completely remember where he came from. So, he has nothing to compare Equestria to. Yes, that’s changing slowly as his mind heals. But it’s happening slowly.”
“I do not understand, Twilight.” Luna tilted her head to the side, which made part of her mane slide over an eye. She brushed it to the side. “Our parents are coming home.”
“Princess Luna, I’m sorry for putting it quite like this, but…” Twilight sighed, and dared to rest a hoof on Luna’s shoulder. “You of all ponies already know why it’s a bad idea. When you were freed from Nightmare Moon, yes… I know. There was no time to prepare you. There was no other option but to toss you into society as a whole. Even so, you secluded yourself for a full year and studied to bring yourself more up to speed.” Twilight winced in sympathy, for bringing up Nightmare Moon always hurt Luna’s feelings.
Luna closed her eyes and nodded. “What you say is true, Twilight. However, I do not understand why the plan is needed, nor why alterations to the educational system must be enacted.”
“Oh, Princess…” Twilight whispered softly. “Since it is going to be some time before Storm is ready to open the door… and I still say that’s good for him, too… we can work on sparing your parents the abrupt changes that you experienced. We can come up with an orderly course of study for them, combining history, politics, economics that will smooth the massive gaps in their knowledge. Rather than do as you had to do, we can structure things and lead them down the most efficient path to get them ready to be in society much more quickly this way.”
Celestia nodded, gently enfolding Luna in a wing. “I wish I had that option for you, dear Luna. I feel Twilight is right. Perhaps you might work with her and formulate such a plan based on your experiences.”
“It really would be best, Princess Luna. Especially when you consider that with the sole exceptions of their daughters, everypony they ever knew passed away long ago. They are going to need you two very badly in the coming years. They are going to need a great deal of your time, and as much of it as you might possibly spare. You two are all they will have to hold on to.”
“And the educational system? What of that?” Luna asked quietly. The joy she felt in her parent’s impending return was being rapidly mitigated by the real problems Twilight was pointing out.
“There’s a very real difference between your parents and yourself, Princess Luna.” Twilight glanced worriedly over to Celestia, but then continued. “You, the ponies knew of. Be it through legends and family stories or in the case of books like the Elements of Harmony, there were at least crumbs of knowledge that linked you to society. They knew there had been another Princess. They knew something had happened to them. You were at least known to them. Not well, but they knew your name. Outside of this room, there may… may… be three or four ponies in all of Equestria that even knew there had been a King or Queen.”
“Twilight, what precisely are you saying?” Celestia asked as a feeling of uncertainty built within her.
“I’m sorry, Princess Celestia.” Twilight sighed and looked up at her beloved mentor with true sorrow in her eyes. “Your parents have been forgotten. Ponies will be absolutely delighted to find out that their beloved Princesses have had their parents returned to them, don’t doubt that for an instant. But along with that knowledge will come some very tough questions for them. Not the least of which will be, ‘What now?’”
Twilight began to pace while gesturing with her hoof. “They will be afraid, and be wondering if you plan to abdicate the throne. They don’t know your parents, but they do know you. Their loyalty is to you and not to them. How could they possibly relate to your parents after an absence of thirty five hundred years? At least with Princess Luna there were some marginal cultural similarities. But thirty five hundred years ago? There’s almost nothing. That’s why we don’t dare pull your parents home without a careful plan to not only educate them but also Equestria. To do anything else would be simply cruel to both.”
After a long minute, Celestia smiled weakly with tears in her eyes. “Twilight Sparkle. When did you become so wise?”
“I’m so sorry, Princess. I didn’t mean to hurt either of you, I promise!” Twilight tucked her head in under Celestia’s, and hugged her. “But as to wisdom, I was taught by one of the best. How could it not rub off on me?”
A few tears were shed, but in the close company of three friends, hurts were eased and comfort provided. The three mares had just managed to dry the last of their tears when a soft knocking came on the door. This time, the guard did not poke his head into the room.
“Princess? We have just received a messenger from the hospital. Lightning Storm is starting to wake up. You had asked that you be informed.”
“Thank you, dear. If you would ready a chariot for my sister and I as well as Twilight, I would be grateful. We need a few moments to prepare and we shall be along shortly,” Celestia said in her warmest of voices.
The guard blinked at the informal address, but slowly smiled. It was always nice to be acknowledged in such fashion. “Of course, Princess. I shall tend to it immediately and have it ready in ten minutes. We shall, of course, await your pleasure.”
The flight to the hospital was fortunately both short and uneventful; the three mares had had quite enough surprises for one day. They were brought up to the private wing, where Doctor Coltle was waiting for them.
“Princesses, if I might have a word with you?” Doctor Coltle asked in his trademark grumble.
“Of course, Doctor. But before you justifiably rant at us again, let us at least outline our plans for Storm’s immediate future,” Celestia asked. When Coltle nodded, she filled him in on their thoughts about sending him to flight school as well as their theories as to why he might collapse after some kind of emotional shock or mental effort and wind up bleeding silver.
Coltle pondered that for a few moments then nodded begrudgingly. “Alright. That makes a fair deal of sense. I’ll draw up a medical dossier and have it ready to go within the week. However, it has absolutely nothing to do with what I wanted to talk to you about.” Coltle gestured with a hoof towards the door to Storm’s room, upon which a clipboard hung. “That is his medical chart as of this moment. It bears remarkable resemblance to the one I made upon his last checkup. In fact, I would go so far to say as it is identical in all the salient details.”
“As I recall, Doctor, his last checkup saw him with a clean bill of health. Would this not be a good thing?” Celestia asked.
“Ordinarily, it would,” Coltle agreed. “However, there are some inconsistencies.”
“Wait. Didn’t you just say that it was identical?” Twilight asked.
Coltle simply turned his gaze to Twilight and stared at her.
Blushing, Twilight mumbled, “Sorry for interrupting.”
“To answer the question, the checkup is a good thing, yes. This one being identical, however, is not. Heart rate varies. His doesn’t. It’s rock-steady. Blood pressure varies. His doesn’t. It is precisely what it was, before. But that is not what is truly concerning to me. It’s his weight.”
“What’s wrong with his weight?” Luna asked as she levitated the chart over. “It’s well within the normal range for foals. In fact, he hasn’t gained an ounce.”
That got Twilight’s attention. “Wait, not an ounce? He’s what, between seven and nine years old? Isn’t he due for his first growth spurt soon?”
“He is indeed, Miss Sparkle,” Coltle confirmed. “And what does that tell you?”
“It means he’s not growing. He should be putting on weight in preparation for that growth cycle. If he’s not, then that means he’s not going to get it.”
“Have you considered a career in medicine, Miss Sparkle? Because you’re right. He’s not growing at all, that I can tell.” Coltle acknowledged Twilight’s thoughts with an appreciative nod. “We’ve even tried getting a look at the growth regions on his bones, but something’s blocking us. X-rays are useless. In that medical dossier I’ll prepare for the flight instructors at Cloudsdale, I’m going to include a request that his weight be checked daily and that he be put on vitamin supplements. I’ll know more in a few weeks. Once he gets exercise, he’ll either start to put on weight like it was going out of style, or he’s going to start to streamline. If he gains weight, he’ll be fine. If he does not, then we will have to take a much closer look.”
“Understood, Doctor. Thank you for informing us,” Celestia said, kindly. “Is it alright to go see Storm now?”
“It is. Agate and Sunny Skies are in there now. Storm’s taking his own sweet time waking up, that’s for certain. I will be nearby if you need me.” Coltle set the papers back on the chart hanger, and then stepped to the side as a guard opened the door for and closed it behind the Princesses.
“C’mon, Storm. Wake up now,” Agate said softly, teasing at Storm’s nose with her wingfeathers.
For his part, Storm simply made a sleepy noise and tried to bat the offending feather away.
“Heh. Come on, kid. The Princesses are here to see you. Don’t want to keep them waiting, do you?”
Agate tried tickling Storm’s nose again, but the foal managed to wrap a foreleg around her wing and roll over onto his side, pinning it. With a soft ‘Aumf’ noise, Storm started chewing on Agate’s wing-tip in his sleep.
“Awwwwww!” Twilight whispered, a sentiment echoed by the Princesses as well. “Isn’t that just adorable?”
Tugging gently on her wing to free it, Agate chuckled. “Yeah, the kid has his moments, doesn’t he? C’mon, Storm… time to wake up.”
“Sis!” Storm complained from around a muzzle full of feathers. “S’mine! Lemme…”
Agate froze, and her cheeks flushed softly. “Sis…?”
Celestia smiled and gently disentangled Agate’s wing from Storm’s embrace. “I think, Agate, that little Storm has adopted you as his big sister. Not a bad choice, I think.”
“Yeah, I.. ah.. I mean…” Agate fell silent as Sunny Skies gently enfolded her in a hug and shared a knowing look with her.
“Come, Storm. Wake up, now.” Celestia gently wrapped the foal in her magic and rolled him onto his belly.
“Mmh..?” Storm’s eyes opened blearily and he blinked a few times. “Princess Celestia?”
“How do you feel, Storm?” Celestia asked kindly.
Glancing over to Agate and Sunny Skies, he snorted softly. “Not hungry, thanks. A little sleepy. But okay otherwise, I think.”
“Are you sure?” Sunny Skies asked with a mischievous grin to Agate. “Agate could go get something for you, if you wished.”
Cheeks flushed crimson, Agate opened her beak to issue some reply when Princess Celestia diplomatically interrupted.
“I’d like to introduce you to my dear student, Twilight Sparkle. Would it be okay if we talked to you a little while?” Celestia stepped forward, gesturing with a wing to Twilight.
“Mmhmm,” Storm replied before yawning widely, tongue curling. He lifted up in his bed a bit, flared his wings, and gave himself a good shake before settling back down.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Storm!” Twilight said softly. “The Princesses told me you solved the door?”
Storm winced, and rubbed the back of his head. “Ow! I don’t even wanna think about that, right now. That sucked!” He blinked and blushed. “Er, sorry, Miss Sparkle. Didn’t mean to be rude.”
Twilight giggled, covering her mouth with a hoof. “That’s okay. The phrase is… oddly appropriate.”
“I know it made your head hurt, and I will not ask you about the answer directly. But I would like to know why you would not let me know what the answer was, if that is okay?” Celestia asked.
Storm stopped rubbing his head. “Because I can’t.”
“Why not?” Luna asked curiously. “Students have been answering math problems from professors for aeons.”
“Not this kind of math. If I told you, then the answer would change.” Storm shrugged. “And I really don’t want to try and solve that again. That hurt.”
“Well, there is some magical precedents for that,” Twilight thought aloud as she rubbed her chin. “I mean, there’s a few potions that require steps done in absolute darkness. A few summoning spells require the caster to be alone and keep their eyes closed. If they open their eyes at any point in time, the spell is guaranteed to fail.” Turning her gaze to Storm, she tilted her head to the side and asked, “Is it like that?”
“Kinda. Um… hm. Oh! I’ve got an idea. Okay, see if this makes sense. Let’s say I’ve got a box. In that box is a book. The box is closed, and no light can get in or out so there’s no peeking. Is the book open or closed?” Storm stretched again, then curled up as he looked at the mares that were looking intently at him.
“We won’t know for sure until we open the box,” Twilight said. “We can’t see it, so we can’t tell.”
“Right. So, in a way, it can be argued that the book is open, closed, or even both at the same time. We won’t know the difference until we look,” Storm agreed.
“But a book can’t be open and closed at the same time,” Twilight said. “It’s impossible.”
“Well, yeah. But it’s only an analogy. There are some things that can be on and off at the same time. Positive and negative. Spin left and right. This is where things can get weird. Sometimes just looking at it can make it change!” Storm giggled. “It’s kinda neat when you think about it. It’d be like me putting a closed book in the box and when you open the box, the book is open too.”
“So, the door’s riddle was the same way?” Luna asked.
“Yeah. I think that’s why it wasn’t solved for so long. Ponies think that math is an absolute. Zero or one. Yes or no. The problem wasn’t really solvable unless you could allow for ‘maybe’.” Storm stuck his tongue out and made a sour face. “It’s also a great way to get the mother of all headaches if you’re not ready for it.”
“I am sorry about that, Storm.” Celestia lowered her head a bit. “I did not intend for you to be hurt.”
“No, it’s okay, Princess! Really!” Storm smiled. “I’m just glad it’s done and don’t really want to do it again if I don’t have to.”
“But you do know the answer?” Celestia asked hopefully.
“Nope.” Storm shook his head emphatically. “I solved the math, but remember… I won’t know until I open the box. Or in this case, the door.”
“But... What about your papers?” Luna asked, almost plaintively. “We looked them over, and they were blank.”
“Oh! That’d mean I did the math right. I think the door erased the parchment so that the answer couldn’t change. But I still don’t know what it is. Remember, the book could be open, closed, or both. I won’t know which until I actually open the door.”
“I’m confused,” Twilight complained.
“Don’t worry,” Storm giggled. “You get used to it after a while.”
“Twilight, Storm will explain it to you later. For now, I think we need to fill him in on the upcoming plans and then let him get some rest,” Celestia said firmly. “Now, then. Storm? My sister and I have reason to believe that part of the reason you have collapsed twice now is that you do not have sufficient connection to Equestria.”
“School clearly wasn’t going to work, considering what happened your first day,” Luna interjected. “Moreover, with your grasp of mathematics and science, you’d probably wind up arguing with the professors more often than not.”
“So we have decided that we will sponsor you to the Cloudsdale flight school. The next class begins in two weeks, and it lasts a month. What do you think?” Celestia asked with a grin.
“Woah! Really?” Storm was fairly bouncing in his bed, now… wings fanning in excitement. His enthusiasm faded a moment, and he looked over to Agate and Sunny Skies. “But… what about Miss Skies and Agate? Can’t they go, too?”
“They can certainly come visit you, if they want! But for the first two weeks, it is generally preferred that the young fliers have no visitors. After that time, they’ll come visit if they can. How would that be?”
Storm kept looking at Agate and Sunny Skies. “Could I? Please? Miss Skies? Agate? You won’t mind?”
Agate blinked slowly, but smiled. “Heh. You’ve got wings. You’ve got to know how to fly. Besides, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be here when you get back!”
Smiling, Sunny Skies nodded. “Indeed. We’ll be here when you’ve finished, dear. Go, and have fun. You can show us what you’ve learned when you’ve graduated. For now, though… I’m taking Agate back home and putting her to bed. She has school tomorrow. You, I think, will be resting here a few days.”
Agate grumbled, but hugged Storm goodnight and went along after preening Storm’s mane into an absolute mess. Twilight also made her farewells, and promised to visit in the morning, which Storm wholeheartedly agreed to.
After they were gone, Luna tilted her head to the side. “One thing I meant to ask. Why do you bleed silver, anyway? My sister and I think it has something to do with you healing, but we’re not sure.”
Storm had been looking away at the time, so only Princess Celestia saw the momentary look of horror that crossed Storm’s muzzle. “I… I’m not sure.”
“Mm. Well, I’ll head back to the castle as well. Coming, sister?” Luna asked as she turned to the door.
“I will be along in a bit, Luna,” Celestia replied. “I thought I might keep Storm company a little while longer.” She glanced back at Storm, then gave Luna a look that clearly said ‘I will explain later.’
Taking the cue, Luna arched an eyebrow in curiosity, but nodded. “Alright. I’ll be waiting in the Castle.” She smiled and nodded to Storm. “Rest well, Storm. We’ll talk again soon.”
When the door closed, Celestia looked down at the now quiet foal. “I thought you might want to talk a bit more,” she began. “When Luna mentioned what she did, I happened to see the look on your face. I know you do not want to talk about it, so I will ask you this instead. Does it pose any danger?”
Storm was silent for a long moment, then lifted his head. Quietly, he whispered, “Does it disappear?”
“After a few moments, yes.” Celestia was using her most soothing and persuading voice as she tried to ease the colt. He was all but radiating worry.
“I do not really remember much about it. Just a few things, and some feelings.” Storm thought about it a moment more, then nodded. “It’s safe, if it disappears.”
“If it is safe, then why do you fear it?” Celestia asked gently, laying down at Storm’s side to provide a warm presence and hopefully a measure of comfort.
“Princess, I…” Storm closed his eyes and sighed. “I know that it was untested. I know that it was kept around for the very worst of emergencies. I feel that I had been afraid of it and what it might mean.”
“What might it mean, Storm? Please tell me. I really do need to know. I cannot keep you and others safe, unless I do.”
At that, Storm laughed bitterly. “Princess, you might not have to worry about me, at all.”
“What do you mean, my little pony?” With a gentle touch, Celestia stroked Storm’s wing with her own. For however ‘old’ he was, he was still certainly a foal in many respects and not the least of which was the desperate need for reassurance.
“Princess Luna was right,” Storm whispered. “The silver stuff does mean I’ll heal. But I know that it doesn’t like changes. At all.”
“What would happen if you took a small statue and set it out of the way on a shelf under a glass dome? What happens to the statue?”
“Nothing, for nothing would act upon it. If it is up on a shelf, then it would remain undisturbed by hooves young or old. Under a glass dome, it would be protected from wind blowing it over or something into it. Barring some unforeseen disaster that damaged either the dome or shelf, it would remain there intact.” Celestia blinked, starting to get an idea of what was bothering the young one.
Storm nodded quietly, looking up at her with soft, sad eyes. “Exactly, Princess. One of the things we were afraid of was just that. The silver stuff might be that glass dome and shelf. That’d make me the statue.”
“Do you know that for certain?” Celestia gently nuzzled his ear which flicked about, softly.
“I don’t know, Princess. I… I don’t know,” Storm sniffled. “But if it is true, then I won’t ever grow old… and I won’t ever grow up, either.”
“How can we tell for sure, Storm? What can we do?”
“I don’t know, Princess. That’s what scares me. I just don’t know. We wait, I guess. Wait and hope something happens.” Storm rested his head on Celestia’s side, trying very hard to suppress a new round of tears.
“Wait for what to happen?” She preened his feathers a bit, reassuringly.
Storm looked up at her and with the most frighteningly haunted expression Celestia had ever seen on one that young, spoke but one word.
“Storm, there is something you are not considering.” Celestia smiled gently as she blotted away the colt’s tears with a soft cloth. “You fear that you are ageless, but you have not asked two very important questions. Let us assume you are ageless for a moment. You fear what it means, correct?”
Sniffling, Storm nodded. “Yes, Ma’am. I don’t want to be alone. It’s scary!”
Before Storm’s tears could renew themselves, Princess Celestia gently tapped the colt’s forehead with a wing. “Neither my sister nor myself are going anywhere. We’d still be here for you.” Her expression saddened for a moment, but was banished almot as quickly as it had formed. “They do not know it yet, but there are others, too. You would not lack for company or friendship. Even so, there is an even more important question to consider.”
“What’s that, Princess?” Storm’s ears perked up; from his point of view, being alone was the worst thing possible. He almost didn’t want to know what might be worse!
“Even if you are ageless, the vast majority of the ponies around you are not. This is your one chance to get to know them. I will not lie to you… yes, it does hurt saying goodbye to so many friends through the years. The alternative of not knowing them at all as they pass through our lives seems quite a bit worse, to me. Every life I get to know enriches me. Every pony has something to teach me and through that, I can make ponies’ lives even better.” Celestia chuckled softly, and looked out the window with a wistful smile.
Storm caught the smile and asked softly, “You still miss them, don’t you?”
“Yes. Of course I do, and I always will. But I still would not have missed it for anything.” After thinking about it for a moment, Celestia added, “The ponies I have met through the ages have made me what I am. They have taught me what I know.”
“I guess… I guess there’s a lot for me to think about.” Storm fluffed his wings, and preened at a feather momentarily. “I didn’t really even think of that.”
“I promised you two things to think about, Storm.” Celestia grinned, her eyes warm and open. “We spoke of what it might mean if you are ageless. What would it mean if you are not?”
Storm’s eyes widened a bit as his ears splayed in surprise. “I’d be doing the same thing, wouldn’t I? I’d be missing my one chance to get to know the ponies around me!”
Celestia nodded, smiling even more warmly as she winked. “What does that tell you? Think about it a moment before you answer.”
Storm did, running through both scenarios in his head before he looked up at the Princess sheepishly. “The answer’s the same. Live. Enjoy the now. Either it’s my only chance to be happy and share what I have to offer, or it’s my one chance to get to know those that won’t be here as long as I might be.”
“Well done, Storm.” Celestia nodded and smiled as she placed the now unneeded cloth on a nightstand. “Now then. You need some rest and I need to return to the Castle to get some work done. We’ll talk again soon.”
“I don’t think I can sleep, after all of that,” Storm disagreed. “I mean… that’s a lot to think on!”
“Oh yes you can. Princess’ orders.”
“But I’m not ti-” Storm never got to finish the complaint as Celestia’s horn glowed. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
“Yes, actually… you are.” Celestia chuckled as she tucked the colt under the covers. “Rest, Storm. All is well, little one.”
Storm couldn’t help but smile as he stood up, scattering the pillows and blankets a bit. The Princess was right, he decided. No matter what, I need to live. And I’m gonna start right now!
With the sense of dedication that only the young possess, Storm clambered out of bed and trotted over to the blinds that evidently had been drawn shut after Princess Celestia had left. He bit the drawstring and tugged firmly, opening the blinds to reveal a display that made his jaw drop open.
Unfortunately, the blinds hadn’t been locked into place and fell back down with enough force to pop them right out of the bracket. They clattered to the floor loudly with a few of the slats snapping entirely and some of the supporting structure splintering into pieces.
Cowering a bit, Storm folded his ears back and mantled his wings as he glanced at the door. When nopony came to investigate the commotion, he breathed a sigh of relief. I’ll apologize for it later. It was an accident, they won’t be too mad at me! With that settled, Storm turned his gaze back to the awe-inspiring view.
The entire wall was a window of extremely thick glass that did absolutely nothing to minimize the brilliant spray of stars on the other side. A sense of peace and familiarity settled over him and a growing sense of belonging began to push aside all his worries..
Storm frowned a moment; something didn’t seem quite right. Then it came to him; the stars were close to but not quite where they ought to be. He pictured the star scape in his mind, and the view before him began to change. “That star doesn’t go there… it’s got to go next to Orion’s belt. Spiral arm of the galaxy is supposed to bend the left, not the right. Lesser Magellanic is completely out of place and is the wrong color!” Then he burst into a small fit of giggles. “The sun isn’t supposed to be green and blue swirls! It’s yellow!”
It took some time, but the stars were eventually where Storm thought they ought to be. There were still two things missing, but he couldn’t quite figure it out. All he could recall is that one was supposed to be weirdly shaped and shiny like metal and the other supposed to be huge and blue.
Though Storm could have sat and watched the stars until dawn, his attention was drawn away from the window by a soft knock on the door. “Come in?” he called out, swiveling an ear in the door’s direction. When the knock was repeated, he got up and nosed the door open. “Sorry! You must not have heard me…?”
The hallway was completely empty. “Huh… wonder what that was?” Storm sat in the doorway a moment before he saw a flash of movement and heard a bright giggle as a green skinned and red maned pegasus foal disappeared down the far end of the hallway, calling out over his shoulder, “Can’t catch me!”
“Oh, so that’s how it’s gonna be, huh!?” Storm grinned and took off after the other pony, hooves scrabbling on the floor with a soft metallic clank. “I happen to be good at hide and seek, as well as chase! I’m gonna get you!”
The chase was a long and merry one; every time Storm thought he’d almost caught his playmate, they’d scrabble around a corner he hadn’t even known was there. Hooves really weren’t meant for this kind of flooring, but the sudden losing of one’s balance and skidding down the hallway a bit more than made up for the lack of traction. There was much laughter and delight on both sides of the chase, which wound its way throughout the hospital.
Storm put on a last burst of speed as his playmate disappeared around the corner, launching himself into the air as he rounded the bend. “Aaaaaand gotcha!” he declared triumphantly.
His playmate was nowhere to be seen. Thus deprived of his target, Storm landed awkwardly, his hooves skidded out from under him, and he landed heavily on his belly. “Ooof! Hey, where’d you go? That’s cheating!”
From around a corner, Storm saw a trembling hoof pointing at a door behind him. With a sinking feeling developing in his stomach, Storm turned to glance over his shoulder at the door he’d slid into. “Aw, haybales…” he whispered.
The door was imposing both in appearance and inscription. It was extremely tall, easily the entire height of the corridor and seemed to be made of a painfully flimsy pane of glass. The inscription was quite direct and to the point: “Do Not Break Under Any Circumstances. Danger!”
Of course, Storm’s hind hoof was touching the pane and there was a crack forming from the point of impact. He watched it for a moment, seeing the crack ease up the pane with an audible crackling sound before turning back to his still partially hidden playmate. “Run! I did this. You shouldn’t get in trouble for it! Go! I won’t tell them you were here, and I’ll take all the blame!”
His mostly unseen friend departed in a clattering of hooves that rapidly faded away down the hall. Nodding in satisfaction, Storm turned back to the glass that had formed an intricate spider-web of cracks along the surface. It was beautiful, because there was a greenish blue light on the other side of the pane that seemed to shine through the cracks. It lent it an otherworld beauty, one with an irresistible appeal.
Storm reached out with a forehoof and gently touched it. Whereupon, of course, it promptly shattered in a cascade of sparkling glass shards. He cowered, mantling his wings over his head and curling up to protect himself from the falling glass. After the plinking sounds of the falling shards faded, he poked his head out from under his wings. The glass shards were nowhere to be seen, but in it’s place was a pony he knew.
“Princess Celestia! I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to break the glass!” Storm looked up apologetically, wings and tail drooping. “I’m sorry, I really am! I’ll do anything to make it up to you!”
Impassively, Celestia looked down at him. “You admit what you have done here? That you have broken Natural Law?”
“Y…yes, Princess. I am sorry. It is my responsibility. I did it,” Storm admitted softly. His gaze fell to the floor. “I didn’t mean to.”
“You knew what you were doing. You knew this might happen. Yet you let your ego triumph anyway. This was the result, because you were convinced that it could not possibly be wrong. What makes you so special?” Celestia inquired, almost as an aside.
“P.. Princess?” Storm asked, surprised and more than slightly hurt. Her questions rang true, but they were entirely unexpected.
“But… the math was right! The numbers were exactly what they should be! This shouldn’t have happened!” Storm was nearly frantic as he rose, walking up to the Princess. “You have to believe me!”
“Whether or not I believe you is irrelevant.” Coldly, Celestia looked down at Storm with a disapproving look. “Consider that your numbers could not possibly have been accurate. If they had been, then this wouldn’t have happened. Yet it did, and here we are. Perhaps it is that you forgot something.”
“I… I don’t know what it might have been,” Storm admitted quietly. “You’re right, I must have done something wrong. But I don’t know what.”
“Regardless, I shall now take you to where you belong. Come.” Celestia led the way, hooves not making a sound as they touched the floor.
Following in silence, Storm’s thoughts grew more morose. He still wasn’t sure what had happened, but he knew that Celestia was right. It was his fault and it didn’t matter if he remembered or not. All the damage done? His fault. All the pain? His fault. Nopony else’s. His.
He looked up from the floor and turned his head to Celestia so that he might apologize once again. As he did so, he noticed the corridors were dingy grey and that the lights were fading slowly. “Princess? Why’re the lights dim?”
“The dead do not need light,” Celestia replied softly. “It is very dark where you left them. Very cold.” Indeed, wisps of mist were puffing from her nose and muzzle as heat condensed into vapor.
“But… I’m not dead. I’m still alive!” Storm protested. He stopped following and glanced back over his shoulder. Off in the distance, there was a single light that seemed to beckon to him.
“You should be. What makes you so special that you should survive? No. I will take you to them, and you will join them.”
“Join whom? There’s nopony here but us!” Storm looked around, but then he saw them. Now there were dozens of pairs of eyes staring back, all equally dull and lifeless but watching attentively just the same.
That’s when he heard the whispers.
‘Why did you leave us?’
‘Oh, God, no… the containment is failing!’
‘Please, by the love of all that is holy! I don’t want to die! Not like this…’
‘Daddy? Where are you, Daddy? I... what’s that hissing noise?’
‘Field stability is weakening… we’re going to get trapped between dimensions! We’re-‘
‘You’ve killed us, you arrogant ass!’
As he listened to the sounds of the voices, he also heard something else. It was an odd sound; a soft metallic pop followed by an almost gentle clinking sound as if a rivet had burst from a seam and bounced across the floor.
“It’s ending, isn’t it?” Storm asked quietly.
“It has already ended, and is beginning again,” came Celestia’s somewhat cryptic reply.
Somehow it still made sense, and Storm was able to follow the logical progression of sounds. The hiss slowly grew in volume and was joined by a low metallic groan as hull fiber-coil alloy was stretched much like saltwater taffy. More popping sounds as the damage expanded followed by more clinking sounds and even greater hissing as the atmosphere was sucked out.
“N.. no. No, I can’t…” Storm gasped as he turned to run away. Maybe if he could make it to that distant light… Then he felt something grab him around the scruff of his neck and pick him up from the ground.
“No. You shall join them. You shall not flee! Not again!” Celestia growled to her captive as she turned the foal to face her.
Storm flinched, since Celestia now looked like a shadow of herself. She was pale, gaunt... quite skeletal. Her eyes glowed a malevolent sickly green as she dangled him before her.
“You will join them. Now.” With that simple statement, Celestia flicked her hoof and threw Storm to the waiting gaggle of hoar-frost covered ponies that eagerly anticipated their prey.
Their hooves were so cold they burned. He could feel the lethargy seep into him, robbing him of both will and volition. It would be so easy to join them. All he had to do was close his eyes, and it would be done. He almost succumbed to that, until he heard a dull rush and felt something impact his chest. Mustering what seemed to be a herculean effort, Storm managed to pry open his eyes and glance down.
It was his heart shaped medallion. This is why he could not give up. This is what he had to fight for. Somehow he managed to raise a hoof and touch it, holding it to his chest. The cold hooves fell away, hissing in fury at being denied their prey. They kept trying, but the amulet somehow kept them at bay.
Then the hospital imploded around him. The screams were unholy and threatened to kill in their own right as pony after pony were ripped from the hospital and flung out into the void around him. He couldn’t move; the amulet held him fast. All he could do is watch the ponies be torn away and watch them die in the worst manner imaginable. They died in the Void.
Storm couldn’t move. He couldn’t even scream though he tried. Oh, how he tried… If only he could cry out. If only he could let them know that he was sorry… but he couldn’t. He could only watch as they died.
“Storm! Storm! Wake up! Storm, come on… wake up! You’re having a nightmare!”
His eyes flew open, but they couldn’t quite focus yet. “Run! Please run! Please… I’m sorry, I’m so sorry!” Storm wailed, tears pouring down his muzzle.
“Shh. Shh, it’s okay. It’s over, now. The nightmare is over. Just hold me, Storm. That’s it… good colt.”
“M… Miss Chamomile?” Storm whimpered as he was wrapped up in warm hooves and pulled close. He threw his own hooves around her and held on for dear life.
“That’s right, Storm. Just relax. You’re okay. Shh.” Chamomile gently soothed the trembling colt in her arms. She gently nuzzled his ears. “That’s it. It was just a nightmare.”
“But… but it was real. I was there. I know it!” Storm insisted, burying his muzzle into her mane. Slowly, the terror began to recede.
“No, dear. You were right here in bed, I promise. I was here the whole time. Just take a few deep breaths and relax. That’s it… there you go.” Chamomile gently rocked Storm as he calmed. “You forgot something when last you were here, but I kept it safe for you. Do you remember what it is?” Chamomile asked gently.
“My charm. The three part heart charm.” Storm swallowed. “I dreamed about that, too. Can… Can I have it? Please?”
“You already do, dear. It’s right there on the nightstand. It was cleaned up and hung on a new silver chain, just for you. We’ll put it on in the morning when you’re ready to go home. Is that okay?”
Storm nodded as he sniffled. “Thanks, Miss Chamomile… for everything.” Storm sighed, finally letting go of most of the horror and tension he’d kept since waking up.
“My pleasure, dear. Now, it’s still the middle of the night. I’d really prefer you get a bit more sleep. Would you be willing to try, if I stayed with you until you drifted?”
Tensing up a bit again, Storm nodded. He trusted Chamomile completely; if she said that it would be okay, then it would be. But… a thought came into his head. “Miss Chamomile? Can… Can Agate come sleep with me? Please?”
“It’s too late to call her over, Storm. She’s already sleeping. Why don’t we try this? I’ll stay with you until you fall asleep. If you can’t in a half hour, then we’ll see about getting Agate here for you. Does that sound okay?” Chamomile smiled reassuringly as she curled around Storm’s form and gently draped a wing over him.
“Okay. I’ll try, but I don’t think I can sleep,” Storm said as he only barely stifled a yawn.
“Just close your eyes and try, dear.” Chamomile was having a hard time refraining from chuckling; Storm was being rather adorable. “I’ll be right here.”
Storm was out in five minutes flat and slept the rest of the night through without incident.
This time, waking up was a much lazier affair and Storm took his time about it. He yawned softly and stretched, perking his ears as he heard voices whispering in his room. It sounded like Doctor Coltle talking to Chamomile.
“Doctor, I was thinking,” Chamomile said quietly as she tried not to disturb the foal she thought was sleeping.
“A bold claim and a laudable enterprise. From you, I’ll believe it. From all the other residents… not so much. What’s on your mind?” Dr. Coltle ‘whispered’.
Hee! Even his whisper sounds like gravel. I wonder why? Storm thought as he listened in.
“I still think it a good idea to send Storm to Flight School, but I’m wondering if it is really wise to have him go alone. We can’t send Agate, for obvious reasons.”
“Mm. Indeed. It’d probably hurt her greatly to be amongst fliers when she can’t. I do see your point. I believe I have just the pony for the job,” Coltle said. “But enough conversation. We have a little eavesdropper, don’t we, Mr. Storm?”
“Nope! I’m sleepin!” Storm proclaimed as he exaggerated snoring as loudly as he could.
“Ah. More’s the pity. If you had been awake, we might have taken you over to Pony Joe’s for a doughnut for breakfast. Since you’re sleeping, you’ll have to have breakfast. I believe it is mush, today.”
“Ewww! No, I’m awake!” Storm said as he crawled out of bed and trotted over to Dr. Coltle. “Mush is icky!”
“Nope. I’m sorry! You’re asleep. You said so! Go on and sleep over there, and we’ll bring you the coldest, clumpiest mush we can find,”Coltle said mock-sternly.
“But I don’t want mush! Please? Can’t I have a doughnut? Please?” Storm pleaded, giving Dr. Coltle his very best ‘Eyes of Cute’ look. Wide eyes, splayed ears, and a pleading look seemed to come naturally to every foal, regardless of origin.
Chamomile hid a laugh behind her hooves; Coltle had so many layers to him. “Doctor, please! Maybe the doughnut might help wake him up?”
“Hm! I hadn’t considered that.” Coltle rubbed his chin. “Alright. If you think it will wake him up. But how do we get him there, if he’s sleeping?” Coltle tapped his hoof to the ground. “I’ve got it. He’ll clearly need a pony ride. You’re the unicorn, my dear Chamomile. If you’d do the honors of picking him up, I’ll carry him myself.”
“Are you sure?” Chamomile asked. “I could carry him…” She wasn’t entirely sure it would be good for him to carry a weight like that.
“Nurse! I’m old… but I’m not that old! Besides, it’s been far too long since I’ve given a pony ride. Now then, let’s be about it… or it’ll be mush for you, too!” Coltle grumbled, with mirth in his eyes.
With that, a giggling Storm was place on the irascible Dr. Coltle’s shoulders. “Hold on tight, now. You’re sleeping, and we can’t have you falling off!”
Coltle carried a happy and giggling Storm through the hallways and to the front doors of Canterlot Hospital. As the trio passed others, conversations stopped and eyes followed them until they were out of sight. Expressions generally shifted to shock and disbelief, for the sight didn’t fit their paradigm; Coltle was irascible. He hated everything and everypony! How could he possibly be carrying a happy foal on his back? Was the perpetually grumpy Coltle actually smiling? Was that odd sound coming from his muzzle laughter?
As the main doors closed behind the three, nurses and doctors went back to their duties. They all were wondering if there wasn’t a wind of change blowing through the corridors of their workplace. They certainly hoped so; seeing Coltle smile and laugh was something they’d hoped to see for some time.
Pony Joe’s doughnut shop was a simple, yet magical place. Tables were arrayed in a sensible pattern that maximized available room while leaving plenty of space for private and whispered conversations. Brightly lit and equally brightly colored, one’s eyes were drawn from point to point in such a way as to belie the relatively small floor plan. It seemed quite a bit larger than it really was.
“Doctor! Doctor Coltle!” called Pony Joe as he looked up from the fryer he’d just lifted a fresh batch of donuts from. “Come on in and sit down! What brings you this way?” Joe’s smile was as wide as it was genuine; when he greeted a pony, they felt like they’d just come home after a long absence.
“Seems I’ve got a sleeping foal on my back and only two of your doughnuts will wake him up,” Coltle said, gesturing to the foal on his back.
Storm stuck his tongue out and shuddered. “He was gonna make me eat mush!” he complained, which elicited laughs from Joe as well as Chamomile.
“Well, we can’t have that, now can we? Not when I’ve got a fresh batch of chocolate glazed doughnuts with crushed peanuts and sprinkles that need eating! Have a seat.”
Having been shown to a seat and having not two but three doughnuts placed in front of him, Storm happily began to chow down on the first while the adults clustered at the other end of the countertop to talk amongst themselves.
Storm was just about to demolish the second, when he heard a sniffling coming from two tables over. He saw a yellow coated pegasus mare that had a red and orange mane crying quietly into her cocoa. Storm chewed his lower lip for a moment, and then bit the edge of the plate his doughnuts were on. Picking it up, he carried it over to the table the mare was crying at.
The mare startled a bit when the plate touched the table. “Mmh? Oh.. oh!” She hastily wiped away her tears and smiled as best she could for the colt. “Hey, kid. Come to get the captain of the Wonderbolt’s signature?”
Blinking, Storm tilted his head to the side. “What’s a Wonderbolt?”
“What’s a Wonderbolt? Kid, where have you been living? I’m Spitfire, the Captain of the Wonderbolts… the premier flying group in all of Equestria. If you’re not here for my signature, why are you…?” Spitfire asked in surprise. Internally she winced at her lack of tact; she’d not intended to snap at the poor kid, but she’d just been dumped by a friend and surprised at somepony not knowing of her!
For his part, Storm looked down at the table. “I live at the orphanage, and I came over because you looked sad. I was sad too, but Doctor Coltle and Nurse Chamomile gave me a doughnut and then I wasn’t sad anymore. I thought that since you don’t have one… if I gave you one of mine, maybe you’d not be so sad anymore.” Storm nosed the plate over and looked up at the mare who had tears in her eyes but a quiet, soft smile on her muzzle. “It’s yours, if you want it, Miss Spitfire. Maybe it’ll make you feel better.”
“Heh. Too late, kiddo. You’ve already made me feel better, and I don’t want to take your treats away from you. You don’t get them often enough as it is.” Spitfire made a move to nose the plate back to the foal, but was interrupted.
“I have two and you don’t have any. Let’s both have one!” Storm picked up one doughnut and started munching on it
“Sorry, Kid. I don’t eat doughnuts with anypony I don’t know the name of. So, you’ve got to tell me who you are, hm?” Spitfire looked at the colt with an easy smile. “Don’t want to waste it, do you?”
“Hee… no, that’d be bad. I’m Lightning Storm! I’m going to flight school next week!” Storm said proudly, wings jutting out as if he were ready to go right this instant.
“Going to be a great flier, huh?” Spitfire said with a grin. “Well, if you work really hard, I’ll fly alongside you when you graduate. Deal?”
Giggling, Storm nodded and wiped a smear of chocolate off his muzzle with a hoof. “Deal!”
The two ponies shook on it, then touched their doughnuts together in parody of a toast before messily devouring them.
“Miss Spitfire? Why were so sad?” Storm asked quietly.
Sighing, Spitfire finished the last of her doughnut, brushing an errant peanut from her muzzle. “A friend was very mean to me, so I had to tell him I didn’t want to see him again.”
“Oh,” Storm murmured softly. He thought about that for a moment, then looked up. “I could be your friend, if you wanted. I don’t have much to share, but if I ever have a doughnut again, I’ll save you half if you wanted?”
“That…” Spitfire swallowed and chuckled. “He was a different kind of friend, Storm. But I’d be happy to be friends with you. You’re leaving for camp soon?”
“Uh-huh!” Storm preened a feather and grinned. “I’m really looking forward to it. I was told it’s a lot of fun!”
“It’s a lot of work too, but yeah… it’s also a blast. I think you’ll do okay, kid. In fact… I tell you what. I’ve got two surprises for you. The first I’ll tell you about right now and the second you’ll find out about soon. Now, you don’t know what a Wonderbolt is… not really. Since I’m the captain and since you helped me out when I needed it… you get a free lifetime pass to every Wonderbolt show. Any time, any where, you get to bring a guest with you and watch from the VIP skybox. How about that?”
“Woah, cool! Thanks, Miss Spitfire!” Storm wrapped his hooves around the mare’s neck and hugged her tightly.
Spitfire nosed Storm’s ears, and chuckled as she relaxed and was eased. Sometimes the most innocent of things is what’s truly needed, she thought. Audibly, she replied, “You’re more than welcome. Kid, you had two doughnuts to your name and you offered me one to help me not be sad anymore. That’s heart. The Wonderbolts? We’re all about heart. So, yeah. You did good. I’ll see you in two weeks.”
With that, Spitfire left feeling a lot better than she did when she came in.
“Well, what do you say we head back?” Coltle said. “I think you’re short a doughnut, but you look awake enough to me. What do you think, Chamomile?”
“I think Storm is doing just fine,” Chamomile said softly. “In fact, I’d say he’s coming along quite well. But it’s my turn to carry him back.”
“Back home?” Storm asked hopefully.
“I’d really prefer you stay a few more days at the hospital where I can keep an eye on you,” Coltle said as he thought it through. “You were in a bad way when you came in. Granted, you’re doing fine now, but I’ll admit you had me worried.”
“But I really miss Miss Skies and Agate,” Storm said plaintively.
“Tell you what,” Coltle said after a minute. “Stay one more day with us. If you’re still doing good, I’ll let you go home to Agate and Miss Skies, but we will come and check on you a few times a day. Deal?”
Storm nodded enthusiastically as he lay atop Chamomile’s back. “Deal!” He extended his hoof, and Coltle chuckled as he shook it.
“Alright, then. Back to your hospital room,” Coltle said.
After a few minutes walking, Storm looked over to Coltle again. “Sir? Could… if it wouldn’t be too much trouble…” He went quiet, fidgeting atop Chamomile a little bit as he ruffled his wings a little.
“Mmh? What’s on your mind, son?” Coltle asked.
“Could Agate stay with me? I didn’t have nightmares when she was there.” Storm looked down at the road as it passed by, feeling a trifle self-conscious.
“We can certainly ask her, but I don’t think that would be a problem,” Coltle said. “Chamomile? How do you feel about it?”
Chamomile was, to be perfectly honest, rather surprised that Coltle would be considering it to begin with. “I think that’s a wonderful idea.”
“Alright then, it’s settled. We’ll ask Agate to stay with you until you’re discharged.” Coltle made a grim but funny face and stared at Storm. “Any other requests?”
Storm giggled at the silliness of the face being made at him, but nodded. “Yes, Sir. Just one.”
Coltle made the silly face even sillier. “And what might that be?”
Storm slipped off of Chamomile’s back and trotted over to Coltle before sitting back on his haunches, reaching up with his forelegs. “Just a hug, Sir. Please?”
“Storm!” Sunny Skies called from the kitchen. “Breakfast time!”
“But Miss Skies!” Storm whined. “They’re coming! I don’t wanna miss it!”
Agate walked into the kitchen as her claws clicked on the stone floor, barely stifling a yawn. “He’s had his snoot glued to the window since five this morning, Miss Skies.” Almost as an afterthought, she tried to brush her crest feathers into some semblance of order… failing miserably. “I don’t think I’ve seen any foal vibrate with excitement, before.”
With an amused glance to Agate, Sunny Skies raised her voice a notch. “Lightning Storm! If you don’t eat breakfast, they won’t let you go to flight camp, you know!”
“Really?” Agate and Storm said simultaneously. Somehow, Storm had contrived to move to Agate’s side in the kitchen, where he peered up at Sunny Skies in disbelief.
“Really. I was a young filly once too, you know. While I was born and raised in Cloudsdale, I still went to flight camp. I nearly was held back a class because of it. Now, set the table and we’ll have breakfast. They’ll be along soon enough.”
As Storm went about setting the table, Agate stretched a bit, rubbing at a sore spot on her back. “Miss Skies? Is there any of the supplement left? Not feeling too good.”
Storm stopped putting the plates on the table and rushed over to stand in front of Agate, pressing his nose to her neck. “Are you sick? You’re not sick, are you?” He snuffled around a bit, which elicited a soft chuckle as well as an ear-rub from Agate.
“No, no. Well, not yet, anyway,” Agate replied with a shrug of her wing. “Might be heading in that direction, is why I asked Miss Skies.”
“There’s plenty, dear. Let me get it for you.” Miss Skies gently nudged Storm into finishing his task in setting the table and then opened a small icebox that stood next to the main one. “Here we go. Hm… I was wrong. There’s enough for one more round after this one, but then we’ll be out.” She withdrew a covered pitcher and poured a glass of the thick stuff into a glass before setting it at Agate’s place at the table.
“Thanks, Ma’am!” Agate said as she took a few steps to her seat. “Need any help with the rest of breakfast?”
“No, I’ve got it. If Storm’s done setting table, we’re ready,” Sunny Skies said with a smile. “But thanks for the offer.”
Storm was indeed done setting the table, but despite the arrival of harvest grain pancakes, haycon and hash browns, he was more interested by the odd smells coming from Agate’s glass. He sniffed at it and wrinkled his muzzle a little as he flinched back. “What’s that?” he demanded.
“That,” Agate said as she picked the glass up and took a long pull of the contents before finishing her statement, “is something I get to have and you don’t.”
“Feeling better?” Sunny asked as she put the pitcher away.
“Much better, Miss Skies. I think this new batch might just do the trick at once a month.” Agate sighed in relief as she sipped at the beverage again while Storm’s eyes watched every move she made.
“Why can’t I have any?” Storm asked with all the moral outrage a foal could muster at being denied something that might just be tasty.
Snorting, Agate gestured with the glass. “Take another sniff and tell me you want some. I dare you.”
“Uh…” Storm leaned forward and sniffed a bit, but the smell was rather revolting. “No, that’s okay. You can have it,” he said magnanimously. “But what is it? And why’re you drinking something that’s so stinky?”
“Because, kiddo, I’m not a vegetarian like you and Miss Skies. I’m supposed to eat meat. This lets me get away with eating the same stuff you do for a while.” With gusto, Agate finished off the glass. “Heh. Just be glad the medical staff finally got it right, and that you weren’t here for their first attempts.”
“Okay, Agate,” Sunny said as she gestured with a hoof. “We do not need to go there. You and I lived through it once and I can do quite well without having to dig it up again.”
Storm started gnawing on a strip of haycon while he considered what Agate had told him. “I don’t understand,” he said as he downed the last of the strip. “Why do you have to drink stinky goo? Can’t you just eat meat?”
“Nope,” Agate said bluntly as she stabbed a few pancakes for her plate. “I know you’ve spent more time in hospital than out and about, but ponies don’t eat meat. Remember the smell of the goo?”
“Yeah,” Storm said as he stuck his tongue out. “It reeked.”
“Well, to me, it smells pretty good. Meat smells even better, but worse to ponies. So, the goo was a good middle ground.” Agate poured some syrup over her pancakes and took a bite. “The goo has stuff in it that veggies don’t, so I stay healthy. It also helps me digest the veggies to begin with so I can make do.”
After thinking about that for a few minutes, Storm nodded. “Oh, I get it. If I drank the goo, it’d give me things I don’t need, right? And that’d make me sick?”
“Exactly!” Sunny said approvingly. “A bit like that time I caught you trying to snack on the poinsettia. Not good to eat at all.”
The remainder of breakfast passed without incident. Storm proved hungrier than he’d first expected and proved it by devouring a full stack of four pancakes on his own. Fortunately, there was always enough, and usually some left over for snacks later on.
A half hour later, Storm’s ears perked and he ran from the table to the front window, pressing his nose to the glass and leaning against it with his hooves. “They’re here! They’re here, Miss Skies!”
“Hey!” Agate yelled. “Storm, it’s your turn to clear the table!”
“Agate!” Storm wailed.
“Just kidding! Just kidding!” Agate protested, as she laughed hard enough to hurt her sides. “I’ve got you covered.”
By the time Agate and Sunny Skies joined Storm in the front room, the chariot had already landed and the scouts from Cloudsdale were unhitching themselves.
“Lightning Storm?” called one of the guards. “Ready to go?”
Sunny Skies opened the door and let Storm out, who ran right up and into the chariot almost before the door was fully open. “Yes, Ma’am!”
Laughing at Storm’s enthusiasm, the mare nodded. “Alright. I’m Holly, and this is my brother, Glider. Before we take you to Cloudsdale, we need to go over a few things, okay? Hop on out and we’ll talk.”
“Yes, Ma’am!” Storm clambered out and sat right in front of Holly, listening attentively.
“Alright! So, first off… you had breakfast, yes?” Holly asked as her brother unpacked a small loop of fabric with a gem-encrusted clasp.
Storm blinked and glanced over at Sunny Skies in disbelief. “Yeah, but… what does breakfast have to do with it?”
“If you hadn’t eaten breakfast,” Glider said as he looked at Storm’s mid-section and made a few adjustments to the loop, “then you’d not have enough energy to fly in an emergency. Something happens, we need to make sure you can land.”
“That brings up the second thing. You’ve been raised on the ground, so you’ve not run into this,” Holly said as she took the loop of fabric from her brother. “This might be your first flight, and it’s perfectly natural to want to flap your wings and fly. The thing is, if you do that at the wrong time in the chariot, you might catch a strong air current and fall out. That’s why I need to wrap this around your middle. It’ll hold your wings still, so you can’t do that.”
“I don’t understand,” Storm said as Holly gently and skillfully restrained his wings. “If my wings are tied up, I can’t fly at all. So if something goes wrong, won’t I go splat on the ground?”
Glider snorted with amusement. “That’s what the gem does. If anything happens to the chariot, Holly, or myself, then the gem makes the cloth fall away. If that happens, you are not to try to fly. You are to only glide to the safest spot on the ground you can find. Clear?”
“Yessir,” Storm said as his wings were secured. “But what about you and Miss Holly?”
“We’ll be busy worrying about you,” Holly said as she adjusted the gem so that it sat between Storm’s wings. “I’ll very likely be following you down while Glider deals with whatever happened to the chariot. Okay, only one more thing to go over and then we can head out. See that white line in the chariot?”
“Yes, Ma’am! What’s it for?”
“When we tell you, move to the right side of the line and stay put,” Holly said firmly. “I mean this, Storm. It’s very important you move to the right side of the line and stay there until you’re told it’s okay to move. Promise you’ll do as you’re told?”
Nodding hard enough to cause his mane to flop around, Storm agreed. “Yes, Miss Holly. I promise!”
“Alright then. Say your goodbyes, and we’ll be off!” Holly smiled as Storm bounded over to wrap himself around Sunny Skies.
“You behave, dear,” Sunny said as she nuzzled the foal’s ears and hugged him tightly. “Behave and have fun. Learn a lot, so you can show us how well you do when you come back!”
“I will, Miss Skies! I promise!” Storm smiled broadly. “I’m gonna fly!”
“You sure are!” Agate agreed with a grin. “Do something memorable, kid… something that they’ll never stop talking about. Show them exactly who and what you are.”
“Oh, they’ll remember me, Agate. You’ll see!” Storm grinned and hugged the gryphoness, lightly butting his head under her beak.
“Alright, Storm… time to go!” Glider called.
“Bye, Miss Skies! Bye, Agate!” Storm waved and then ran for the chariot again… hitting the wall again with another dull thump and a muffled “Ow!”
“Hang on tight, because here we go!” Holly called out. The chariot surged forward and then leapt for the skies.
Storm hung on with one hoof, but turned to wave at the rapidly receding Agate and Sunny Skies. “Bye! I’ll write soon as I can, I promise!” They couldn’t hear him, but they waved back energetically before turning to head back inside.
“Alright, the flight time to Cloudsdale is going to be about two hours since we’ll be taking the lazy way. Figured we’d show you the sights since you’d not been up in the air before,” Glider said as he scanned the skies ahead.
“Hey, how come I can hear you? Shouldn’t there be wind?” Storm’s mane was being blown around by something, but he couldn’t hear it.
“It’s magic,” Holly answered, looking over her shoulder at him to wink. “Enchanted so we can talk normally and hear each other. How else would we tell you to take a look to the right and see Canterlot as we fly off?”
“Woah…” Storm gasped as he propped himself up on the edge of the chariot to stare at the receding city.
“Quite the sight, isn’t it?” Holly said with a wistful smile. “I remember the first time I saw Canterlot like that. It’s beautiful. Just wait till you can fly on your own and can see it on your own terms.”
It is beautiful, Storm thought. But what I don’t get is how that tiny outcrop of rock can hold up that huge tower! They use magic for everything!
“Now, I know Canterlot is beautiful,” Glider said with a grin. “To be fair, the earth ponies and unicorns did a wonderful job working with stone. But it’s just that. Stone. Hard and unyielding. Just wait until you get a look at Cloudsdale. It’s a paradise in the sky, it is. A literal dream come true.”
“Buildings made of soft clouds, warm sun each and every day! Perfect for basking, and it’s always wonderful flying weather there,” Holly added. “Just wait till you get a chance to tour the Weather Factory, someday. Where they make the rainclouds and rainbows. It’s just beautiful!”
“What?” Storm exclaimed in disbelief. “Make rainbows? You don’t make rainbows and carry them off somewhere! It’s refraction.”
“Refraction? What’s that?” Holly asked as she shared a confused look with her brother. “And what does that have to do with rainbows?”
“Sunlight passing through a glass prism or raindrop? Refractive index? Breaking light into its constituent wavelengths?” Storm propped himself up on the rail of the chariot, the better to stare in surprise at the two pegasi pulling it.
“What are you talking a- hold on,” Holly said as she twitched an ear to the side… then grinned widely. “Okay, Storm? Move to the right of the line and stay put, now. We’re about to have some company.”
True to his word, Storm did shift over. Not knowing what was going on, he leaned back on his hind legs and propped himself on the rail again to get a better view.
“Woah, cool!” Storm gasped as the sight unfolded before him. What he saw was a flight of blue and yellow clad pegasi coming up from behind. All but one fanned out, surrounding the chariot at a respectable distance. One, though… one flier surged ahead and with a flaring of red and yellow wings, managed to land on the chariot with him.
Once the mare had furled her wings, Storm’s eyes went wide and a brilliant smile split his muzzle. “Miss Spitfire!” Storm pressed close and rubbed his head under her chin, which had lowered for that exact purpose.
“Hey, kid.” Spitfire smiled, resting her head atop his. “I couldn’t let you be admitted to flight camp with nothing but an impersonal piece of paper. That’d be wrong.”
“What do you mean?” Storm asked, looking up as Spitfire removed her flight goggles.
“Ordinarily, a foal’s mother and father would sponsor them. If a foal has no relatives, then they get a generic City Sponsorship.” Spitfire shook her head. “Breaks my heart, but fortunately it doesn’t happen often. And I wasn’t about to let it happen to you, in any event.”
Storm squirmed a bit, feeling a little self-conscious with the attention. He still smiled though, and looked up in gratitude. “Thanks, Miss Spitfire.” He looked over to the side and waved back as one of the other pegasi waved and smiled at him before he and the others peeled off from the group and headed back the way they came.
Following the direction of his eyes, Spitfire grinned. “That’s Soarin’. When I came back to base and told them what happened and that I intended to sponsor you for camp myself, Soarin’ went a bit above and beyond.” Storm giggled when Spitfire continued. “I think he went to Pony Joe’s for doughnuts, but he insists he was checking into your story about sharing with me. Joe confirmed it, of course.”
“What happened then?” Storm asked, giggling louder. “Soarin’ is really funny!”
“He came back to base with a box only half full of treats. He’d eaten the other half on the way back!” Laughing, Spitfire shook her head. “He’s a good one, though. A mid-air landing like this hasn’t been tried often, so he brought the rest of the team just in case something went wrong. He and the others helped do a few dozen practice runs… and they just wanted to see it done for real.”
“Miss Spitfire?” Storm asked quietly. “What’s it like?”
“What’s what like? Camp?” Spitfire responded. When Storm nodded his assent, she looked off into the distance and smiled. “It’s a lot of fun. You learn how to fly, how to glide… even how to bank and dive. Then there’s Sky Ball.”
“What’s that?” Storm’s ears perked forward as he listened intently.
“Well, most pegasi won’t admit it, but it’s a game we stole from the earth ponies. The earth ponies would have two teams of five to ten on each side. Each one of them would have a ball and they’d throw it at each other. Get hit, and you’re out of the game.”
Storm sat back on his haunches, looking up at Spitfire curiously. “That sounds really familiar. If they caught a ball thrown at them, is the thrower out too?”
“Mmm-hmm. That’s it exactly. You must’ve seen ponies playing it in Canterlot. Now, when we took it, we made it our own. We called it Sky Ball… that very same game, but while flying.”
“How… does that work?” Storm’s right ear flopped over as he thought about it. “I mean, if you missed… hay, even if you hit, the ball is gonna go zinging off somewhere. And then somepony is gonna have to go pick it up off the ground.” Looking over the edge of the chariot, Storm commented, “It’s a long way down, too.”
“Yeah. Used to be that the losing team would have to go retrieve the balls but that generally made for a very short game. Hard to have enough to throw, you know? But ages ago, pegasi asked the unicorns for a bit of help. They enchanted a bunch of gear so now the balls are transported back to twelve storage boxes that float on the edges of the game field. Each team has six, three on the left and three on the right. Also at different altitudes. The boxes near the mid-field were at the lowest allowable level and the ones by the backfield were at the highest.”
“Why’d you put them all over like that? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just have them in back?”
“Nope. It teaches you situational awareness. By requiring you to lose altitude to get a new ball at the mid-field line, it forces you into a really bad position. Remember this, Storm.” Spitfire gently bopped Storm on the nose to emphasize her point. “Altitude is everything. The lower you go, the worse off you are. You have less time to react and less room to evade in. The higher your opponent is, the more maneuverable they are as compared to you. They’ve got more options.”
“Well, why would anypony want to use them if they’re so bad?” Storm demanded. “Why wouldn’t they just go get one from another box?”
“Well, it’s better than nothing!” Spitfire grinned. “If you’re down low, it’s better to have something to work with. If you’ve got a ball to throw, you’re not completely out of options. Looks like we’re coming in for final approach… ready, kiddo?”
Storm grinned widely. “Yeah, I’m ready!” He propped himself up on the chariot again, looking around with excitement and anticipation.
He wasn’t ready, not by a long shot. Storm’s breath caught in his throat the instant Cloudsdale came into view. There was just something about it, something about the way the graceful spires lifted from the puffy cloud base in fairy-tale fashion. Sunlight caught the city at just the right angle to cause the towers and major buildings to glow with a soft golden light. Vibrant silver pathways wandered aimlessly through the multi-colored cloudscape while delicate looking rainbow bridges linked different sections of the city together. Everything was laid out in whimsical fashion; what appeared to be residential structures were freely intermingled with walking paths and what could only be cloud-topiary. The city itself fairly thrummed with potential and excitement, as if the answers to one’s dreams were just around the next bend.
The scientific part of his mind wanted to protest at the impossibility of what he saw, to decry the very existence of any structure that might possibly be supported by condensed water vapor. That part of his mind was firmly set aside by the emotional which immediately grasped the truth of what he saw. Home. He was going home. But he wasn’t going home fast enough.
“And there it is,” Spitfire murmured as she smiled. She at least had known this was coming; she’d seen it before in many other foals that had been raised elsewhere. Storm clearly felt the call, the unquestionably strong pull upon the soul that drew every pegasus to cloudsdale.
Storm began to struggle against the band of fabric that restrained his wings. Spitfire could see the muscles in his chest and flanks bunch as he fought to extend them. She well understood the desire to feel one’s wings bite into the air and fly when that sight came into view.
“Storm! Hey, Storm. Take it easy, kiddo,” Spitfire urged. She wound up having to bite his tail and pull him off the side railing to the chariot.
“But… but I,” was all Storm could mutter before he tried to get back onto the railing while straining to free his wings.
The stern tone had it’s intended effect, and the colt froze in place.
Gently, Spitfire lifted Storm’s chin with a hoof, smiling softly into his eyes. “Cloudsdale will still be there. I promise. What you’re feeling? It’s normal. It’s just a whole lot stronger for you since you were raised on the ground and never saw it before. It’s Cloudsdale calling you home. That feeling never goes away. Pegasi might be all over Equestria, but this is home. It’s where we belong. Earth ponies feel that deep connection to the earth. Unicorns feel it when they see Canterlot, the seat of all magical and higher learning. But this? This place is ours.”
“Home…” Storm murmured. Oh, it felt like home, alright. He felt a burden lift from his heart, and a slow smile began to cross his muzzle. This time, Spitfire didn’t stop him as he lifted back onto his hind legs again to take in the view.
This close in to Cloudsdale, they could see chariots of all shapes and sizes on approach. Four and even five ponies occupied some of the larger ones, but in every case there was one thing in common; they were all occupied by at least one young pegasus colt or filly.
“You okay, kiddo?” Spitfire asked quietly.
“Huh?” Storm turned to look at her curiously. “I’m fine, Miss Spitfire! Why?”
“I saw you looking at the others’ families, and was just worried you’d be unhappy.”
“Well… I do wish Agate and Miss Skies could be here. I’m not sure why they couldn’t be. But you’re here with me, so it’s alright.” Storm turned to look back at the others as they landed. She’s right though, he thought. Something about having family here would make it even better. Turning his head back to look at Spitfire, Storm asked quietly. “Miss Spitfire? Why couldn’t Agate and Miss Skies come?”
“Agate can’t fly,” Spitfire said softly. “Miss Skies was worried that it’d hurt Agate to come here.”
“But… that doesn’t make sense.” Storm pointed over to a nearby chariot. “She can’t fly either, but she’s here.”
Glancing over, Spitfire nodded. “True, but there’s a difference. She’s an earth pony, and was never able to fly in the first place. Agate is a gryphon… she’s supposed to be able to, but can’t. Sometimes it hurts being around others that can do what you can’t.”
“Oh.” Storm thought about that, and nodded. “That makes sense. I wouldn’t want to hurt Agate. I just wanted to share this with her, you know?”
“I know. But brace yourself, time to land!” Spitfire grinned and nudged Storm back onto four hooves.
The chariot came to a landing and was parked in a semi-circle around the stage. There were several ponies that walked along the rows of chariots, making little check-marks off on their clipboards as they took attendance. Eventually, a pegasus mare with alabaster mane and light golden coat walked up. “Well hel- woah! Spitfire? Is that you?”
Spitfire blinked as her jaw opened in surprise. “Cross Current? Sweet Celestia, you ended up here?” Spitfire leapt out of the chariot, and hugged the other mare as tightly as she could. “I tried to find you, mare! I was worried about you! They wouldn’t tell me anything!”
Cross Current hugged Spitfire back every bit as tightly. “Yeah. They don’t. Tell others anything, I mean. And… well, for a time, I didn’t want to be found. Hard to give up a dream, you know?”
“But you’re okay now?” Spitfire asked quietly, eyes full of emotion and concern.
“Yeah. I’m fine. I get to work with the foals and teach them how to fly good and proper.” Cross Current chuckled softly and shook her head. “Speaking of, when did you find time to have one?” She smiled warmly at Storm, who was watching her curiously from the safety of the chariot.
“Mmh?” Spitfire blushed and laughed as she waved a hoof. “No, he’s not mine. He’s a bit of a special case, from Canterlot orphanage.”
“Oh!” Cross Current looked sad for a moment, but then her smile came right back. “You must be Lightning Storm, then!” She looked at her clipboard and then arched an eyebrow over at Spitfire. “He’s covered under State’s Writ.”
“Yeah, I know.” Spitfire sighed and rubbed at her mane with a hoof. “I’ll give you the whole story later, if you want. But take that Writ and burn it. Storm goes on record as having been presented and represented by Spitfire, captain of the Wonderbolts.”
The golden-coated mare spent several minutes locking her eyes on Spitfire’s. After the uncomfortable silence, she simply nodded. “Alright. I’ll take care of it myself.” She glanced down at Storm, who was now hiding behind Spitfire, peering from her flanks. “He must have made quite the impression,” she said before shifting her gaze back up to the other mare. “You’ve also changed a lot. There’s a solid dose of compassion that wasn’t there before.”
“It was always there, Cross,” Spitfire said softly enough to nearly be a whisper. “But we were young, and we were all driven.”
“I know.” Cross Current shrugged a wing as she smiled wryly. “That’s why I’m still here talking to you.”
“Cross, the others-” Spitfire began, but was interrupted by an upraised hoof from the other mare.
“Are going to have to wait.” Cross Current sighed, then put her hoof down. “Spits, look. Seeing you is great. Seeing you in that uniform hurts less than I thought it would, but it still isn’t easy. You’ve changed enough… and I’ve changed enough, to where I’m at least open to the idea of talking to you all again. But it’s got to be on my terms. I don’t know I can handle everypony come barreling back into my life in their uniforms all at once. Small steps, Spits. Small steps. You remember Sunny Skies’ lesson to me.”
“Yeah. I do. ‘Crawl before you walk. Walk before you run. Run before you glide. Glide before you fly. Fly until your heart tells you you’re home.’”
Storm’s ears perked at the mention of Sunny Skies. “Miss Current? You know Miss Skies too?” he asked a bit quietly. He wasn’t sure what had just transpired, but it certainly felt like something that was meant to be very, very private.
“Mmh?” Cross Current smiled sheepishly, as she’d forgotten Storm was even there for a moment. “Yes, yes I do. I also volunteered at the orphanage when Agate was brought in. If… if she’s still there, Storm… do me a favor.”
“Um… okay? What is it?”
“When next you see her, you walk up to her and give her a hug and say this. ‘Hey, Bawk. Big sis says hi.’ She’ll know who the message was from. You do that for me?”
Storm nodded, pressing close to Spitfire. “Yes, Ma’am. I will, I promise.”
“Good colt. I’ve got some others to check in, and things will be starting soon. Best of luck to you, Lightning Storm. I’ll catch you soon, Spits.” With that, she turned and walked further down the line.
After a few moments, Storm looked up at Spitfire and quietly asked, “Miss Spitfire? Who was she?”
Her gaze watching Cross Current closely as she continued on her duties, Spitfire murmured, “An old friend, kiddo. An old friend. Cross, myself, Soarin’, Cloud Kicker, we were all friends as foals. We did everything together. Didn’t matter to us that Cross was an orphan. She was one of us, and we all had the same dream. We all wanted to be Wonderbolts. Three of us made it. Cross didn’t, and it broke her heart. She disappeared after that last tryout.”
“Why didn’t she make it?”
Such an innocent question, yet one with such complexity behind it, Spitfire thought. “In the last try-out, one of the other applicants pulled off a new stunt that edged her out by the tiniest of margins. Thing is, that same pony washed out a few weeks later. Couldn’t handle the training regimen. But by then, it was too late. Cross had missed her chance and it wasn’t even her fault. Haven’t seen her since, until today.”
“Mares and Gentle Colts! Your attention please!” called a voice from the stage. “All camp attendees and their sponsors are to proceed to the stage at this time. Thank you!”
“Alright, kiddo. It’s time. You ready?”
“Yes, Ma’am!” Storm was fairly vibrating with excitement again. “Let’s go!”
“Hah. That’s the spirit.” Spitfire grinned as she led Storm from the chariot and up onto the stage.
The stage itself was quite large, and raised several feet above the assembled ponies in the landing area. It had to be large, as several chariots were drawn up; not all parents were pegasi, after all. The processional was quite large, and the sense of joy and adventure radiating from everypony was nearly palpable. There was a festive, nearly party atmosphere surrounding the area; it was very much as if everypony there was aware of the rite of passage that was now occurring before their eyes.
“Mares and gentlecolts!” Cross Current said as she spoke into a microphone she held in her hoof. “Welcome to Flight Camp!”
The crowd burst into cheers, with many throwing bags of glitter high into the air. The bags burst with soft popping sounds, casting little sparkles over the entirety of the area.
“On behalf of the cleanup crew… thbbbttbtbtbtbt!” Cross blew a rude raspberry into the microphone which elicited a roar of laughter from the on-lookers. “Flight camp is a special time in the life of every pegasus foal. It’s here that one starts to learn not only the basics of flight, but of our role in Equestria!”
Cross Current began to pace on the stage, almost as if she were ‘inspecting the troops’… the foals before her. “It’s here you will learn the basics of not only flight, but how we use cloud shaping and weather control to help the mighty earth ponies grow the food we all depend on. You’ll learn navigation so you don’t get lost, and spatial as well as situational awareness so you don’t-”
“Stormy!” was the gleeful cry of the cinnamon tinted blur that interrupted Cross Current’s speech.
“Wha-augh!” yelped Storm as that cinnamon blur plowed into his side and knocked him right off the stage.
The instant the two foals fell off the stage and were up-ended, the gems that held the cloth bands around their wings disappeared with a bright flash and a soft metallic plink. No longer bound, the fabric strips drifted lazily in the morning breeze.
Looking over the edge of the stage, Cross Current laughed at the sight. A cinnamon pegasus filly was now standing on top of Storm, who was flat on his back with his wings outstretched to either side. The filly’s own wings were extended for balance, and the entire sight was too adorable for words. “As I was saying, and as was so elegantly demonstrated, you’ll learn situational and spatial awareness… so you don’t get glomped by a classmate!”
“Lightning Storm! How could you? You never even wrote me to let me know you were okay! You didn’t write, didn’t get me a message, I didn’t know if you were still sick or if you’d been adopted, or anything!” Glimmer screeched loudly, muzzle barely an inch away from Storm’s own.
“Oi!” yelled a bass voice a few rows down from the two foals. “She’s starting in with the nagging a bit early, don’t’ you think?” This drew an amused burst of laughter from the crowd.
“I… I’m sorry, Glimmer! Really! It won’t happen again, I promise!” Storm managed to gasp as he got his breath back.
“Hah! She’s a natural! Done taught him everything he needs to know in life, right there!” called out one of the pegasi mares.
That comment drew down a rolling wave of laughter so strong and deep that the clouds shook with the force of it.
After several minutes of the laughter, Glimmer deigned to let Storm stand back up, but utterly refused to leave his side. Glimmer was practically prancing as she bounced back up to the stage, whereas (much to the amusement of the crowd) Storm followed with his head hanging a bit in mortification.
“I think this is certainly the fastest this has ever happened, but there are cases of two ponies finding their special somepony here too. They’re certainly off to a fine start, and both they and everypony else here will have memories that will last a lifetime! Now, let’s have a round of applause to start their camp off right!” Cross Current yelled, stomping her hooves on the stage.
To the cheers and applause of the audience, the foals had their wing bands removed and were led off to the nearby dormitory to start their lessons.
The first lesson it seemed was how to make their beds. Literally.
Storm eyed the unshaped blob of cloud the instructor placed in front of him. “You can’t be serious.”
“Hm?” Wind Shear replied in surprise. “What do you mean?”
Folding his ears back in irritation, Storm grumped. “It’s a cloud.”
“Right. We’re learning how to make our beds out of it.”
“But it’s condensed water vapor!” Storm protested. “How’re we supposed to make a bed out of water? Even if we didn’t fall right through it, which we would, by the way, we’d get soaked!”
Wind Shear looked at Storm oddly and opened his muzzle to reply when he was interrupted by Glimmer. “Mister Shear, Storm was raised on the ground, in Canterlot. He’s never been to Cloudsdale before.”
“Wait… Storm? Lightning Storm?” Wind asked. When Glimmer nodded assent, he made a soft noise. “Hang on. That name sounds familiar.” He walked up to his desk, and opened a notice to all the instructors. “Ah, there. Well, this will teach me not to read my mail!” he murmured to himself.
Storm looked over to Glimmer, confused. “What’s he talking about?” he whispered. “What’re they writing about me, anyway?”
Glimmer giggled softly, and nosed Storm’s ear before responding in an equally soft whisper. “You were raised on the ground and didn’t have much contact with pegasi, right?”
“Yeah, but what does that have to do with anything?”
“Silly! It means you don’t know some things that you should! Like clouds. What do you think you’re walking on?” Glimmer simply stared at him, grinning.
“I don’t know. Concrete? Stone? It’s got to be something hard since our hooves echo on it when we walk through the halls here. But I still don’t get-” Storm complained before being interrupted.
“Storm!” Glimmer looked as if it was all she could do to keep from bursting out laughing. “You flew in on a chariot just like I did, didn’t you?”
“Yeah…” Storm said, suspecting a trap was being baited.
“Well, Cloudsdale is floating right?”
Glimmer patted Storm gently on the forehead. “Silly colt! Rocks don’t float, do they?”
Mildly annoyed, Storm batted her hoof away with a wing. Fortunately, Glimmer was far more amused than insulted… especially when she heard his reply. “They can with magic!”
In fact, as soon as the words left his muzzle, Storm face-hoofed. “Urgh… okay. Okay, already. Magic, got it.”
“Poke the cloud,” Glimmer said smugly.
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“Poke the cloud!” the filly insisted. “You don’t believe me, Storm. I can tell. So, poke it with your hoof!”
“Alright…” Storm did as he was bid, and his eyes went wide. His hoof rested lightly on the surface of the cloud. He gave it a little push, and the cloud simply moved a few inches through the air. “Okay, now that’s cool!” He looked over at Glimmer. “But it’s so small. I guess we have to stretch it to make a bed out of it?”
“Well, yeah… but not right now! The cloud’s too small. If you tried to stretch it out, it’d tear. Even if it didn’t, it’d be too thin and fragile and you’d fall through it anyway.”
“So, we need to make it bigger, right?” Storm rubbed his chin. “Well, if a cloud is water… we just need to dump water on it.”
“Nope. That won’t work,” Glimmer said as she shook her head. “If you just pour water on it, then the cloud just absorbs it and gets dark. That’s how weatherponies make the storm clouds! They make a really big and puffy cloud and dump water on it until it turns grey or black, depending on the rain they want.”
Awe creeping into his eyes and voice, Storm whistled. “How’d you learn all of this? This is so neat! Would you teach me?”
Blushing and nodding shyly, Glimmer smiled. “I’d like to. If it’s okay with Mr. Shear.”
Wind Shear had walked back to the two, intending to take Storm aside to cover the very basics with him. However, upon hearing little Glimmer, he shrugged and with a grin gave his permission. “Your mother and father are on the weather team for Cloudsdale, right? You seem to have a firm grasp on the subject. Go ahead and teach him what you know, Glimmer. I’ll have to test him at the end of the period, but I don’t see a problem with it. You make a fine teacher!”
Glimmer blushed even brighter, but this time with delight. “Thanks, Mr. Shear! I’ll teach him right, you’ll see.” She turned back to Storm and grinned. “Okay. So, if pouring it on the cloud won’t work, what else is there?”
“Mist,” Storm said firmly. “We need to condense more water into it to thicken it up.”
“Right! But since we can’t fly yet… okay, we can, but not well enough to condense it with our wings. If we can’t do it ourselves, then what?” Glimmer asked. In truth, she was rather pleased with how fast Storm was grasping this.
“Spray it on, I guess? Is there a bottle around here we can use?” Storm rooted around under the desk until he found a small semi-concealed panel behind which was that very object.
“They hide it so we have to think of it first,” Glimmer whispered. “Not many of the other ponies figured that out. A lot of them just dumped the water on. But my parents told me all about how to make a cloud. They even let me make my own bed at home!”
Looking sheepish, Storm grinned. “Yeah, well, I was almost one of them. But I wasn’t, thanks to you, Glimmer.”
Under Glimmer’s tutelage, Storm’s bed took shape. They made it extra-thick for comfort and easily half again as large as it needed to be for room to sprawl on. It went quite well, and now that he’d gotten the hang of it, they were able to complete her bed even more rapidly than his.
Some number of minutes later, Wind Shear rang a small bell on his desk. “Alright, class! Well done, well done! Now, fillies? You follow Miss Cross Current to your dorms. Colts, you all follow me. We’ll get you all settled for a nap, because you’ll need your rest. We’ll start the afternoon with a round of Sky Ball!”
All the colts and fillies eagerly bit their beds and began to push or pull them in (semi) orderly fashion towards the dormitories. Unfortunately, Glimmer and Storm soon realized that they’d made one minor miscalculation in the constructions of their beds.
By all accounts, the Sky-Ball field in Cloudsdale was an awe-inspiring sight. Foals weren’t to be trusted with precision flying just yet, so of the many things it was, it was large. It was several hundred lengths in length, depth, and height to allow for as much collision avoidance as was possible. This vast expanse was peppered with multi-colored and variously shaped puffy clouds of differing sizes to provide a moment’s cover during a game.
Staggered at different altitudes along the borders of the field were the six floating wooden boxes that held the balls used during the game. They were anchored to the clouds by tethers that prevented them from drifting away and from impact with any rambunctious foal that was paying less than an appropriate amount of attention to their position on field.
The balls themselves were enchanted as well; they had to be, in order for the game to be played. There was an enchantment that ensured honesty; the balls were brightly colored and should they impact a foal, they’d impart that color in a ball-sized circular patch on their hide. Utility was served by the second enchantment, for the balls would automatically teleport back to the storage bin should they impact another foal, a cloud, or should they fall out of the field of play.
Given that the playing field was basically a wide-open space, there was absolutely nothing to block the stunning view of Cloudsdale or the flight school’s facility. The glowing cloud spires of the city proper lifted into the sun, glowing in pastel colors while the only slightly more utilitarian facilities of the flight camp’s buildings enhanced the magical fairy-tale appearance of the entire area. The view was meant to be enchanting, to grab and to hold the eyes as well as the heart of those that lived here.
Flight camp was supposed to be where foals learned to resist that pull until it was safe to let it wash over them. Teaching foals to play Sky-Ball and the intricacies of flight was supposed to be enough to hold their attention despite the awesome vista.
However, one foal in particular was more than slightly behind the curve when it came to that specific ability.
Storm pulled out of his shallow dive, flaring his wings as he traded speed for altitude. He closed his eyes as the sun played across his chest; the warmth across his chest and wings always made him feel like he was where he ought to be. He could, and often did forget everything else when he was in the air.
He bled off speed until he stalled, then twisted in place to re-orient himself to the ground. As he cracked open his eyes, contentment flared across Storm’s muzzle with the sheer joy of such a simple maneuver. However, it was a joy that was short-lived as he was confronted with a wall of foals, each sporting the same evil grin. In each hoof they held a ball, and their candy-colored tails were twitching in anticipation of pelting him.
“Aheh. I, ah… I don’t suppose we can talk about this?” Storm asked nervously as he watched the wall of foals begin to encircle him.
“Hm,” Glimmer replied with far and away too much mischief in her voice. “Let me think about that.” She made a show of tapping her chin with a ball, before sending it at him in a vicious arc that ended with a bright orange circle being placed on Storm’s rump. “Nope!” Glimmer shouted gleefully before flinging the second ball at him.
It was over in a flash; one moment, Storm was frantically trying to break out of the globe of ball flinging ponies. In the next, no less than seventy-eight balls were launched in his general direction accompanied by roaring laughter from student and staff alike.
Storm emerged from the far side of the globe of ponies looking as if his pelt was tie-dyed. Just about every square inch of him bore a color that wasn’t his natural one which made his statement all the more ridiculous. Sticking out his tongue, he proclaimed, “Missed me!”
The patent absurdity of the declaration made everypony laugh, but also dive for the supply of projectiles again as Storm’s words were taken as intended: an invitation for more fun. However, this time things degenerated into an ‘every pony for themselves’ situation with balls being flung every which direction with delightful abandon.
Ultimately, it was a serendipitous ricochet that gave form and purpose to the airborne mob when a ball impacted an instructor. Very rapidly, the instructors found themselves in a forty students against four adults!
Flying uses a lot of energy, and hyper foals burn more than most. Fortunately for the instructors, the lunch chime was sounded and the foals lost all interest in pelting them further and instead focused their attention on the food being wheeled out onto the landing field from the support buildings. The foals landed in a disorderly mob and headed over towards where the food was, but graciously allowed the now multicolored Storm to get to the head of the line.
Storm trotted over to the food cart and grinned up at the serving mare that was smiling while she set out an empty carrying tray. “Storm. I swear, each time I see you, you’re even messier than before! Here you go. Today we have vegetable soup with a daisy and daffodil sandwich for lunch. Lemonade or apple juice to drink?”
“Lemonade for me, please! Thank you!” Storm nodded in thanks as the offered items were placed on his tray and he bit the carrying handle on his tray before carrying it off to a tree-shaped cloud.
Just as he was about to take a bite of the sandwich, Glimmer trotted over and set her tray down opposite his before flopping comfortably on the ground. “Hiya!”
“Hey, Glimmer! Fun game, huh?”
“Especially the part where we get to pelt you with stuff!” Glimmer agreed with a grin. “You really need to stop doing that,” punctuating her remarks by poking him in the chest as his colored spots finally began to fade.
Storm batted her hoof away with a wing playfully. “Doing what? I was just flying!”
“That’s the problem, Storm,” replied Cross Current who had overheard the beginning of the conversation. You fly, but without thinking or paying attention. This isn’t a game, Storm! Ponies could get hurt! You could get hurt!”
Looking down at the ground, Storm scuffed his hoof into the cloud. “I’m sorry, Miss Current! I can’t help it!”
Cross Current lay down beside Glimmer, so she could look intently at Storm. “What would happen if you got distracted while flying in closer formation with others? What would happen if you clipped another pony’s wing in flight?”
Quietly, Storm whispered, “They’d get hurt.” He put his sandwich down and pushed the tray away from him a bit; he’d lost his appetite.
Realizing the foal was already feeling awful, Cross Current tried to be more comforting. “Storm,” she started gently, “why do you get distracted when you’re flying?”
Eyes a bit watery, Storm lifted his head and looked right at Cross Current with intensity that made her ears flip back in surprise. “Miss Current, flying is… It’s like the answer to a question that I never knew I had! I don’t know how, but it’s literally a dream come true! Not having to land? The ability to fly and explore, and be above it all?”
“Above what all?” Current asked, growing concerned. “There’s nothing wrong with earth ponies or unicorns, you know.”
“No, not that!” Storm protested. “Just being able to fly and get away from all the problems where I came from! I couldn’t do that before and I can now, and when a bad memory comes up I just feel better realizing that I’m flying and it can’t get me anymore!”
In a flash, Storm found Current snuggling on one side of him and Glimmer on the other. In a soft voice, Cross Current murmured, “It makes sense. You couldn’t escape before, but now you can.” She gently nosed at Storm’s ear. “But nothing bad will get you here, Storm. I promise. But you’ve got to promise me that you’ll try your best not to get distracted anymore, okay?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Storm mumbled. It didn’t help that Glimmer was snuffling at his other ear and that he couldn’t squirm away from it.
“In fact, I’ve got an idea. I’m going to make you Captain of one of the two student teams. Then you’ll have to focus on the game or your team will lose.”
“But we might lose anyway!” Glimmer protested on Storm’s behalf.
“True, but it won’t be because he wasn’t doing his job. Right, Storm?”
“Yes, Miss Current,” Storm agreed.
“Good. Now eat your lunch so you can fly later.” Current nuzzled Storm’s ear one more time and then rose to continue her rounds. “Glimmer? Make sure he eats everything, okay?”
“Yes, Miss Current! I will, I promise!” When Current was out of earshot, Glimmer turned to Storm and growled. “Eat it.”
“Yes’m!” Storm stuffed half of the sandwich in his muzzle, which both puffed his cheeks out and made Glimmer giggle.
“Oh, and another thing, Storm. You need to stop thinking like an earth pony.” Glimmer pulled up a chunk of the cloud and quickly made a very passable representation of a game board. “You know what this is, right?”
“Mrrfr brr?” Storm was still struggling with the muzzle full of sandwich.
Rolling her eyes, Glimmer sighed. “You are such a colt, talking with your mouth full like that!” She stuck her tongue out at him, blew a raspberry, then pointed to the board with a hoof. “You move forward and back, left and right.”
Having managed to finally swallow the bite he’d taken without choking, Storm nodded and replied, “Yeah. It’s checkers, or chess.”
Glimmer pulled up another chunk of cloud and explained as she formed another checkerboard. “Checkers and chess were made by earth ponies and unicorns. They’re fun, but they only move like they do.” Finished with her example, she placed the second board so that it hovered a few inches above the first. “Sky-Ball also uses up and down in addition to the other directions.” She made a few cotton-ball sized puffs of clouds and positioned them on the lower board. “This is checkers.” She nudged one of the tiny clouds just hard enough that it drifted forward one square and up to the second board. “This is Sky-Ball. Every piece is moving on the board at the same time, too. You don’t take turns.”
Storm’s mind began to churn as he grasped Glimmer’s point. This game was really a lot like three-dimensional checkers, but with projectiles! Each piece moved around within a three dimensional volume and had a limited capability for attack and defense. But with the boxes to the sides, a piece could leave their place, fly over to the box, and grab two more projectiles before returning to station… or advancing on the opponent. The strategies for checkers wouldn’t work at all for this, but they could be adapted. “Glimmer?”
“Mmh? Finish your sandwich and soup, Storm,” Glimmer nagged gently as she sipped at hers.
“I will. But when do we pick teams?” Storm scarfed the rest of his sandwich, swallowing it without chewing it in his excitement.
“Right before the game.” When Glimmer saw Storm’s look of disappointment, she hastened to add, “We get a few minutes to talk before the game starts, though. Why?”
“Because there’s no time to really get a strategy out,” Storm complained. “We’d need a few hours at the least. Best we can do is give a rough idea and hope for the best.”
Glimmer shrugged; for her, it was no big deal. “It’s supposed to be that way. I mean, you can’t know what anypony is going to do, can you?”
“You can, kinda,” Storm said as he poked at one of the tiny clouds on the board. “I mean, that’s the whole thing about strategy… making ponies do what you want them to without them knowing.”
“Huh! That explains it, then!” Glimmer nodded and when Storm looked at her in confusion, she grinned. “Mamma told me about the campout.”
“Campout? What campout? Nopony’s told me about one, yet!” Storm made a derisive harrumphing noise in indignation.
“Silly!” Glimmer ruffled his mane with a hoof. “They’ll tell us after the game, this afternoon. I bet it’s going to be about teamwork.”
“I don’t understand,” Storm said, confused. “What is going to be about teamwork?”
“Tomorrow! You said it yourself that there’s no time to make a plan for today, right? Well, maybe that’s the point! Today we don’t get the time. After the game, they’re going to announce a student versus adult game that’ll be tomorrow. Aaaaaand there’ll be a campout tonight, too, you’ll see! You just start thinking of something neat for tomorrow and let today take care of itself.” Glimmer picked up the rest of Storm’s sandwich, and pushed it at his muzzle playfully. “Eat it! You heard Miss Current.”
“Aumph!” Storm took a large bite, grinning the whole time. “Thanks, Glimmer. I like you. You’re fun!”
Glimmer blushed, but fortunately was spared a reply as Wind Shear yelled, “Alright! Finish up lunch, because it’s almost naptime. Then we’ll have one more game for the day. At the end, we have a surprise to announce!”
Storm and Glimmer looked at each other and grinned; it was no surprise to them.
Fifteen minutes later, Cross Current and Wind Shear were making their rounds to gather up the detritus from lunch when they came upon Storm and Glimmer, fast asleep. Looking at them laying there, nose to nose, brought a smile to Cross Current’s eyes and muzzle. It certainly wasn’t hurting anything, so they were left to nap as they were.
Two hours later, naptime was over and the foals were woken and led back out onto the playing field. Cross Current smiled and raised her voice in order to be heard over the din. “Alright, settle down!”
When the noise had fallen to acceptable levels, Wind Shear spoke up. “Okay! As luck would have it, you all seem to have divided yourselves into two teams. Storm? You’ll be captain of team one. Ginger? You’ll be captain of team two. The usual rules apply; you get hit, drop any balls you’re carrying and fly to the sidelines. Nopony is to fly below twenty lengths above the cloud field; if you do, you’ll be ejected from the game. If you leave the playing field for any reason, you’re out of the game. Any questions?” She paused for several moments, but was met with silence and shaking heads. “Alright then. Five minutes to game time!”
The two teams split up and headed to opposite ends of the field. Storm, with Glimmer at his side, was surrounded by eager fillies and colts..
“We’re gonna win!”
“Heck yeah! We’re gonna kick their flanks from one end of the field to the other!”
Storm grinned as he listened to this, and other enthusiastic statements. He glanced over his shoulder to make sure the adults weren’t nearby before gesturing the other foals in closer. “Glimmer and I know a secret,” he murmured just loudly enough for the others to hear. “Tonight, we’re gonna have a campout and tomorrow we play against the adults!”
“What? No way!” one filly gasped. “They’re adults!”
“So?” one particularly brazen teal colored colt said. “We’ll just have to beat them, too!”
“Shhh!” Glimmer urged, looking at the adults as they were milling around. “We don’t have a lot of time. You’ve got to listen!”
“Yeah, they’ll be starting the game, soon!” Storm whispered. “Look, we don’t have time to really get a plan for this game, but we gotta try. There are twenty of us, so pair up.” After giving everypony a minute to figure out who they wanted to fly with, Storm continued. Okay, ten pairs. Here’s what I want us to do! Each team has three bins, right?”
“Yeah,” Glimmer affirmed. “Three, spaced along the sides of the field. The one at our end is the highest up. The one a third of the way is at the half-height level, while the one at the half-way point is near the very bottom. Why?”
Storm grinned slowly. “You three pairs?” Storm gestured at the six closest ponies. “You fly around by their bins. Don’t throw at them until they try to grab a ball… they’ll be easy to hit! Now, you three pairs have two jobs! You need to fly between our bins and theirs to make sure that these ponies have balls to throw. But you’ve also got to pitch balls at any pony you think you can hit. Make sure you get at least two balls over to the others, though! It doesn’t do them any good to be there if they don’t have anything in their hooves.”
“What about the rest of us?” one of the others asked.
“The rest of us? Our job is to attack anything that moves! Here’s how it works... If one of the ponies by the bins gets taken out, then one of the transporters takes their place. Then one of the attackers will take the transporter’s place.”
“Oh, I get it!” Glimmer exclaimed. “We just have to make sure that the first group is always full up, and fill in the other groups as needed?”
“Exactly! Now, there’s a real important question we need to answer and we can only answer it today!” When the others leaned in and looked at him expectantly, Storm grinned widely. “The bin teams? I need you to bump into them and tell me if they move a little. The bins, I mean. If they do, then the adults are in for a real surprise tomorrow!”
“I don’t get it,” the teal-colored colt complained. “Why do you want to know that?”
“You’ll see!” Storm promised. “It’ll be awesome!”
“Game time, everypony!” Cross Current yelled. “Up into the air! The game starts when the whistle blows!”
“Everypony know what they’re supposed to do?” Storm asked. When he saw all the foals nodding, he grinned widely and sketched a salute. “Then good luck, and good hunting!”
With that, the foals launched into the air and armed themselves with balls before meeting in the back third of their side of the field. With surprising restraint, they circled until the whistle was blown. When that happened, they shot forward to their assigned positions… much to the surprise of the opposing force that launched itself up the middle of the field.
The ‘enemy’ force began to break apart; they’d not anticipated the maneuver. “Alright! Attack squads, let’s go!” Glimmer and Storm yelled as loud as they could. In a rather ragged formation, they plunged head-on towards the others whilst the ‘transport’ teams swept in from the side.
Storm didn’t last past the initial exchange; as he angled his wings to pass between two other ponies, he’d had barely enough time to tag them with the balls he’d carried before he took one to the face and one to the knee. Having nothing to drop, he swept his wings forward and flew to the side of the field to watch the remainder of the game.
“Wow. Storm, your marefriend is good!” the orange-brown filly said. She’d been the second of two that Storm had tagged. “I’m Ginger.”
Storm watched Glimmer gather the ‘survivors’ of the attack group together and implement the rest of their plan. “Yeah. Yeah, she sure is.”
“Sorry to get you in the face, but you did get me in the butt!” Ginger turned her head to look at the bright blue circle that anointed her right haunch. “We must’ve thrown at the same time.”
“Uh-huh…” Storm replied, quite distracted. He was watching Glimmer, and the plan turned out to work brilliantly.
“You’re not even listening, are you?” Ginger complained, sitting down and glaring at Storm before glancing up. “Woah! She’s winning!”
“Heh… yeah. That’s my girl!” Storm grinned, watching Glimmer zip in and out of formation, seemingly turning on a wing-tip to avoid a tossed ball at the last possible instant. “Looks like most of the attack groups are out, but the others are okay. See? My team still has balls to throw… and there she goes!”
Storm watched as Glimmer gathered all her remaining team together and started chasing the remnants of Ginger’s all over the field. As the wild maneuvers became even crazier and balls were seemingly flung with wild abandon, Storm found himself grinning.
“What’s so funny?” Ginger asked as she caught Storm stifling a giggle.
“Just wishing I had a saxophone,” Storm replied as he chuckled. “I remembered a silly tune played on it that really fits what’s going on up there with Glimmer chasing them around like that.”
The game rapidly wound to a close after that; Ginger’s team couldn’t get access to the balls and Glimmer was absolutely relentless in her pursuit. Victorious, Glimmer and her ‘surviving’ ponies landed to the thunderous applause from the defeated as well as instructors.
“Well done!” crowed Cross Current, looking at the assembled students. “Well done, indeed! That was easily one of the best games I’d ever seen! Because of that, I’ve got a surprise for you!”
Glimmer glanced at Storm, causing both of them to burst into a giggle-fit. Unfortunately, it was contagious and soon all the foals were giggling fit to burst.
“I… really didn’t think it was that funny?” Cross Current glanced over her shoulder to Wind Shear who shrugged.
Ginger simply smiled sweetly, having recovered her composure. “No, Ma’am! It’s just that we already know we’re gonna be playing you in a game tomorrow.”
That teal colored colt from before piped in, as well. “And that we’re gonna have a campout tonight!”
“Oh really?” Wind Shear said, eyes narrowing with her own brand of mischief. When the foals glanced at each-other, she grinned a little wider and continued. “So, you knew that the campout would be on the floor of the Coliseum? You knew that the Princesses would be watching?”
Seeing the foals stunned into silence, Cross Current nodded. “Clearly they knew that, Wind. That’s why they’re on their way gather their things.”
The foals didn’t move; instead, they were staring at their instructors with wide eyes and muzzles.
“That’s a hint, dears!” Cross said gently, sending them scattering towards their rooms. “Be back here in ten minutes! We’ll be heading to the Coliseum then!”
Out of earshot from the two, Glimmer and Ginger both rounded on Storm, staring at him. “You’re sure your idea is good, right?”
Ears flipped back in surprise, Storm sat on his haunches as he swallowed. “Well, as far as I know, it’s never been tried before. It should surprise them, at least.”
Sharing a glance, Glimmer and Ginger both nodded a bit. “Good enough… for now. But you better believe you’re gonna explain it to us both and that we’re gonna have to agree it’s good before we do it.”
Storm watched the two fillies walk down the hallway before standing up and slowly following. “What’ve I gotten myself into this time?” he asked plaintively before entering his own room and packing what few belongings were there.
Flight camp was just that: Flight camp. Attendees flew everywhere if at all possible. Since they were still practicing and learning, they weren’t allowed to carry their things with them just yet; a wagon was loaded up with their belongings and hauled away as the foals indulged in a rare evening flight over to the Coliseum.
The Coliseum itself was something to behold, especially in the light of a setting sun. Intricately shaped cloud columns rose into the sky, catching the light and reflecting it in every direction. The darker greens, blues, and reds were reflected down towards the field whilst the lighter colors dappled the viewing stands and reflected again off of the few clouds above.
“Storm! Hey, Storm! Relax!”
Storm blinked, turning his head to the side to see both Glimmer and Ginger grinning at him. “Huh? What? Sorry, I was thinking.”
“And here we are without any balls to hit you with!” Glimmer giggled, shaking her head. “I thought you were gonna be paying better attention!”
“It’s not that,” Storm protested. “I’ve never been in Cloudsdale, but I know I’ve seen the Coliseum before!”
“I see why you like him,” Ginger said with a smirk. “He’s so cute when he’s confused.”
“He is confused a lot, too!” Glimmer added. Despite Storm blowing a rude raspberry at her, she smiled tolerantly and edged her flight path a little closer to his. “You probably just saw it in a book. It isn’t as if there aren’t any pictures of it, you know!”
Rolling his eyes, Storm tucked his wings in and dropped twenty lengths to get away from the two fillies. As he fell away from them, the abbreviated beginnings of a conversation reached his ears. “Heh. So, Glimmer, have you ki—” followed by an indignant squawk from Glimmer a few moments later.
They don’t get it, Storm thought to himself. Not sure I get it, either. I mean, how do you explain that it shouldn’t be made of warm clouds but of cold stone? That it’s scary, not welcoming? And… how could I explain how I know any of this when I’m not even sure how I know?
Now that they were in the airspace above the Coliseum, the foals broke group and streamed into the playing field in multi-colored blurs. Seeing that Ginger and the other fillies surrounded Glimmer, Storm flew a bit off to the side where he could be out of the way.
“Alright, fillies and colts! Gather round, gather round!” Wind Shear yelled. When the foals had gathered, she continued. “You’ll have the free run of the place until tomorrow morning. The only rule is that you can’t leave the grounds! Fly all you like, play amongst the stands, but remember you all have a game tomorrow so don’t stay up too late! Just so you know, there’s going to be a few rules changes for tomorrow. First, there’ll be twenty adults against all forty of you.” She raised her wings to calm the agitated masses. “Now, now! In addition to that, all your bins will be at the highest level and all of the adults’ bins will be at the lowest, to give you a little bit more of an advantage.” Grinning cheekily, she added, “To date, no students have ever won despite these advantages.”
With that, Wind Shear flew off and Storm found himself surrounded by thirty-nine other foals, each staring at him intently.
The teal-colored colt from earlier looked at Storm, and nodded slowly. “I’m Slipstream. You did good earlier with that idea, so I’m thinking you might just know what you’re doing. Before I forget, yeah. They moved.”
It took Storm a moment to shift mental gears and absorb what Slipstream just said. When he did, Storm grinned slowly. “They did?”
“Yup. They did. Now, you gonna tell me why you wanted to know that?” Slipstream asked, flopping onto his belly in the warm clouds.
“You know how we guarded the bins in the last game?” Storm asked.
“Yeah!” Glimmer interrupted before Slipstream could answer. “Why can’t we just do that again? It worked great!”
“Won’t work twice,” Slipstream replied with a shrug. “First, they saw us do it and they’ll be expecting it. Second, they can fly faster for longer than we can and can throw a lot farther, too. If we try and guard their bins, they’ll pick us off.”
“Right,” Storm agreed with a nod. “That’s why I was asking about our bins.”
“I don’t get it,” Ginger complained. “What do our bins have to do with it?”
“Well, remember how Miss Shear said that our bins would be up high and theirs down low?” Storm asked as he rubbed his chin with a hoof. When Ginger nodded, Storm continued. “They’ll be expecting us to do that again. So, we won’t. But what we WILL do…” He blinked, and then grinned. “Hey, Glimmer? C’mere. Can you make me a little box out of clouds?” Storm beckoned the others closer. “We don’t want them seeing this.”
Though they looked a bit confused, the other foals crowded in closer while the odd props were constructed.
“Okay! So, know how the bins work? The balls are teleported once they hit the ground or a pony, right?” Storm asked as the box was filled with the little cloud balls.
“Yeah,” Glimmer said as she nosed the full box over to Storm. “So what?”
“Slipstream? Remember how I asked you if the boxes moved when you bumped them?” Storm’s grin just got wider as he pulled Glimmer’s construction closer to him.
Slipstream looked at Storm warily. “Yeah, I do. Why?” He drew out the ‘why’ for several seconds.
“Ginger, remember the rules change?” Storm began rubbing his hooves together.
“Will you just tell us already?” Glimmer, Ginger, Slipstream and the others bellowed in frustration.
Mane blown back from the force of their exclamation, Storm laughed. “Okay already! Sheesh! Look, we can’t guard their bins. But we can move ours!”
“Why would we want to?” Glimmer asked, muzzle scrunched up in confusion. “I mean, all we have to do is grab a ball and we can fling it. But we’ve got to get in a lot closer.”
“Right,” Ginger agreed. “Moving our bin around isn’t going to help with that.”
“It will, if we turn it upside down!” Storm said, grinning. “We move our bins and float them over theirs.” After picking the box up, he turned it over and let all the little cloud balls fall out. “The balls fall and bounce off of their bin. If the adults try and get one of theirs to throw, they’re hit by one of ours.”
Silence fell as the foals realized what he’d just said. Ginger found her voice first. “The balls hit their bin, they get teleported back to our bin and fall.” Enthusiasm built for several moments, as the possibilities were made evident.
“Won’t they just pick us off while we move the bins?” Slipstream asked as he glanced around the Coliseum. “Seems to me that we’ll be easy targets.”
Before the enthusiasm and optimism could fade too much, Storm nodded. “Yeah, that’s why we have to distract them.”
“How?” Glimmer protested, mashing her foot into the cloud a bit. “How’re we supposed to do that?”
“By doing what they expect us to!” Storm shrugged, drawing a diagram on the cloud with his hoof. “Look, they’re expecting us to do what we did last time since it worked so well. So, we do it. At least, we make them think we are. All forty of us start off in a rush into the middle. Our twenty best fliers have got to see the pass through; they’ve got to distract the adults by doing whatever they have to. The other twenty have got to grab our bins and cross over the midline of the field, like so. Right when you get to the middle, you turn the bins upside down and dump the balls on them.”
Sketching it out on the cloud helped, and soon the onlookers nodded their understanding. “Huh. I think I see your plan,” Slipstream said, eyeing the diagram Storm had drawn out. “Since their bin is going to start down low, they’ll have to fly up to us. We’ll have the advantage of height.”
“Oh!” Ginger exclaimed gleefully. “Then we pelt them if they try to move their own bin or when they try to get a ball!”
“But we’ve got to be careful,” Glimmer said, cautiously. “If we don’t get a whole bunch of them right away, we’re in trouble. They can catch us, but we can’t catch them. How’re we gonna counter that?”
“Easy,” Slipstream interjected. We fly in groups. One on one, we’re easy pickings. But get two or more of us together and we’ll do okay. One of us might get pelted, but odds are the other’ll be able to score a hit. And since we outnumber them…”
Ginger continued Slipstream’s thought. “Since we outnumber them, we can lose a few more so long as we make it count.
“Yeah, but there’s another problem,” Ginger said softly.
“I thought the idea was pretty good! What’s the problem?” Storm asked, surprised.
“You are,” Ginger said bluntly. “You came up with this idea, but you and I didn’t make it through the first pass in the middle. We need you to be around. You can’t be in the first group.”
“Point,” Glimmer said with a sigh. “But then, neither were you. Okay, so here’s how this is going to work.”
“Wait, don’t I get any say in this?” Storm waved his hooves around as he protested. “Hello, my idea?”
“Something goes wrong, we need you to come up with another,” Slipstream pointed out. “We have a real chance of winning here, but we can’t assume it’s going to go perfect.”
Nodding, Glimmer agreed. “Yeah, you’re right. So, Ginger? You fly with Storm and be co-captain of the team. Keep him safe! Slipstream? You fly with me and we’ll lead the twenty that’ll go up the middle to keep the adults occupied. Storm, you and Ginger oversee the movement of our bins. Any of us left after the center run will join up with you after.”
“But I—” Storm tried to protest before Glimmer shut him down with a gentle hoof resting on his nose.
“Storm, I get it. You want to be in on the big rush. But… Storm, I’m sorry. You’re just not one of our better flyers,” Glimmer comforted. “We need those that can dodge really well to go into the middle in order to have the best chance of suriving.”
“Not only that,” Ginger added, “but the middle has got to last long enough for the others to get the bins into position. If we can’t distract them long enough, then we’ll lose.”
“But the thing you are really good at is ideas,” Slipstream said, nodding. “Like as not, those of us going up the middle won’t make it back out. You’ll have to see how many of the adults make it out, what we have left of our team, and somehow make a plan to win.”
“Please, Storm?” Glimmer asked, eyes wide as she stared at him, hopefully.
Seeing that look in her eyes and the general murmur of assent from the other foals made the decision for him. Sighing, Storm nodded. “Alright. But I really wanted to go with you, Glimmer.”
“Aw, that’s so cute!” Ginger mischievously began to chant, “Glimmer and Storm, landing in a tree, they’re gonna start k..i..s..s..i..n..g—”
That’s when the fight started. Storm and Glimmer, both blushing furiously, began to pelt Ginger with chunks of cloud. Not wanting to be outdone, Ginger retaliated and was joined by Slipstream. The melee broadened, until every foal was involved and entire sections of the Coliseum floor were being pulled up for ammunition.
Half an hour later, the Coliseum floor resembled a pockmarked and cratered field littered with sleeping foals. Fortunately, the clouds were self-healing, gradually flowing back into place during the course of dinner that had been wheeled out. Having played a good game earlier in the day and having exhausted themselves in the general melee, they soon fell asleep once more after a filling dinner.
“Storm? Wake up, Storm,” a gentle voice said as he found himself gently rocked back and forth by a hoof.
“Miss Skies?” Storm asked blearily, lifting his head from the cloud pillow. “Where’s Agate?”
“Storm, you’re at flight camp, remember? Agate and Miss Skies are back in Canterlot. Come on now, kiddo. It’s time to wake up. We need to get you fed and cleaned up for the big game!”
Storm managed to pry an eye open and glanced at the mare looking down at him. With a happy squeak, he got out of bed and hugged her tightly. “Miss Spitfire! What’re you doing here? You’ve come to watch us play?”
Laughing delightedly, Spitfire hugged Storm back and ruffled his mane. “Sorta, yeah. Soarin’ and I came by to referee the game since everypony else is going to be playing. Better hurry, or Soarin’ will have eaten it all by the time we get you downstairs!”
“Downstairs? I thought we were in the Coliseum. How can it have a downstairs?” Storm asked as he followed Spitfire and the others out of the arena proper.
“Not hard,” Spitfire shrugged as she descended a staircase. “It’s a cloud, right? So, we just made another level. It’s useful for storage as well as a staging area for games like this one.”
“Wow,” Storm exclaimed as he looked around at the cloud-tunneled hallway. “I would’ve thought it’d be dark down here, out of the sun and all.” He trotted over to an open spot at the table which just so happened to be next to a stack of cornbread waffles as well as Glimmer and Ginger. “Gonna eat with us?”
“Why, thank you!” Spitfire sat across from Storm while the other foals at the table murmured in awe.
Storm felt a hoof poke him in the ribs. “Storm!” Ginger hissed. “That’s Spitfire of the Wonderbolts! You know her?”
By this time, Storm had already stuffed half a waffle in his muzzle, much to the amusement of Spitfire. “Of course he does,” Spitfire replied as Storm struggled to swallow the oversized morsel. “We’re good friends, aren’t we Storm?”
“Mrrf!” Storm agreed from around the second half of the waffle.
The otherwise peaceful breakfast was split by an obnoxiously loud belch coming from the far side of the cafeteria, followed by a spate of giggling from the foals.
Spitfire sighed, standing up. “Excuse me, Storm. I’ll be back in a moment.” She trudged over to the other end of the hall where the foals were giggling even more as Soarin’ tried to look innocent… and was deliberately failing to.
“Soarin’.” A simple statement from Spitfire, and nothing more.
“Yes, Ma’am?” Soarin’ was definitely playing his part.
Much to the foals’ giggling delight, Spitfire asked, “Did you happen to burp a moment ago?”
“No, Captain. I assure you, I didn’t burp.”
“Oh?” Spitfire arched an eyebrow, though her eyes were practically sparkling with barely restrained laughter. “I suppose my ears are deceiving me, then. I could’ve sworn I heard you burp.”
“No, Ma’am. No burp. That was a belch. There’s a difference!” Soarin’ looked smug as the colts cheered him.
“There is, hm? I’m willing to be convinced. Show me.”
“This is a burp.” Soarin’ urped quietly, just barely loud enough to be heard in the room. “And this is a belch.” Soarin’ burped loudly again, enough to echo off of even the soft cloud walls. The foals were beside themselves with laughter, both fillies and colts howling loudly enough to make their sides ache.
When the laughter subsided, Spitfire smirked. “What you call a burp, I call an accident. And that wasn’t a belch, either. This is a belch!” Spitfire belched loudly enough to blow Soarin’s mane back.
The room was utterly silent for a moment before a voice was heard from up above. “… the hay was that!?”
Laughter roared through the room, and Soarin’ completed his role in the vulgar comedy by bowing to Spitfire. “I stand corrected. I need a mane brush, but I do stand corrected!”
“Now that you two are done startling the groundskeeper,” Wind Shear declared, “it’s about time to head upstairs. Finish breakfast, but listen to me whilst eating, okay?”
The foals nodded, tucking into breakfast a bit more energetically.
“Alright, then. There are forty of you. Since the Princesses will be watching, we’re going to walk together in formation. Six rows of six, with an extra on the points of the square. We’ll walk into the Coliseum, turn towards the Princesses, and then bow. After she tells you to rise, head to the far side of the field, and take off into the air. Take two balls from your bin, and then get ready! The Princess will start the game soon thereafter. Everypony understand?”
“Yes, Ma’am!” the foals said enthusiastically.
“Good! Good luck, and have fun! Soarin’? Spitfire? Walk them out, would you?”
“It’d be my pleasure! All right, filles and colts! Let’s get going! Form up, six by six, just as she said!”
Everything was going fine, at first. The formation was a touch ragged, but it was recognizable enough. The foals kept, more or less, in step with each other and walked onto the playing fields of the Coliseum. Steadily, they ‘marched’ across the field to stand before the Princesses who smiled down at them from their royal Skybox. What happened next caused Twilight Sparkle to shoot tea out her nose, Princess Luna to choke on her tea hard enough that a guard had to thump her back firmly, and for Princess Celestia to only barely and only by the most narrow of margins to hold onto her teacup.
Storm’s mind whirled as he looked up at the Princesses. The Coliseum. The playing field. He looked up and for the briefest of moments, he was somewhere and somewhen else. With one hoof extended in salute and at the very top of his lungs, Storm bellowed, “Ave, Imperatrix! Nos morituri, te salutamus!”
Celestia blinked slowly, then extended her own hoof to mirror Storm’s salute. She replied with but a short phrase; “Avete vos.”
It was sufficient. Storm bowed, and then turned to walk with the rest towards the end.
As one, Luna and Twilight turned to Celestia who’s gaze was slowly drilling a hole into the back of one green-skinned foal.
“Who’s he calling ‘Empress’, anyway?” Luna demanded. “As far as I know, we’ve never had an ‘Empress’.”
“We have not,” Celestia agreed. “But in the distant past, other nations have had Empresses. Thus, ‘Imperatrix’ was added to ancient Equestrian so that we might show the recipient a proper amount of respect.”
“Alright, but what about the rest of what he said? I’m a little rusty on ancient Equestrian, so I might be wrong. ‘Nos morituri, te salutamus’. Doesn’t that mean ‘We who are about to die, salute you?’” Twilight asked.
Again, Celestia nodded in agreement. “It does indeed.”
“Why would he say something like that?” Twilight demanded, a look of worry crossing her face.
“I do not know, Twilight Sparkle. However, I certainly intend to find out.” Celestia watched as Storm reached the others, who were milling around him curiously.
“Should we stop the game?” Luna looked over at the foals and at their parents in the Coliseum. “They’d be disappointed, but after that, it might be for the best.”
Celestia thought about that a moment before shaking her head. “No, I do not think it is necessary, dear sister. He does not have the demeanor of a disturbed pony, or one that is expecting to die in the near future. Did you notice his pronunciation? The almost ritualized way he posed, saluted, and spoke?”
Nodding, Luna looked more contemplative than concerned. “I did, actually. Now that you mention it, it almost sounds like he spoke the words because they were supposed to be. A ritual, just as you say. Something that needs to be done because that is the way it had always been done.”
“But Princess Celestia,” Twilight asked, almost plaintively. “You replied to him and answered with ‘fare you well’, I think. Why?”
Celestia smiled gently and winked. “It seemed only polite to wish him luck, considering what he’d just said, don’t you think?” She glanced back over to the foals and discovered that they were beginning their climb for altitude. “Let us enjoy the game. We will sort this mystery out a bit later.”
“Alright, ponies,” Storm yelled as they flew towards their bins. “It’s game time!”
With a roar from the crowds, forty pumped up foals flung themselves towards the middle of the field with seeming reckless abandon. When they were three quarters of the way there, twenty foals dropped the balls they were carrying and peeled off, pumping their wings for as much altitude and speed as they could possibly get.
Faster, faster, must go faster! Storm complained to himself as his breath came harshly in his chest. He wanted to look, oh how he wanted to see how Glimmer and the others were doing but he’d given his word. Out of the corners of his eyes he could see four others flying with him, Ginger right off his port-side wing. With a wink, she gestured forward; the bin was at hoof!
“Let’s go, go, go!” Storm and Ginger both yelled as loud as they could. They positioned themselves on the sides of the bin while another colt undid the tether that held it into place.
“Let’s do this!” Ginger whooped, eyes bright as the tether was secured.
Storm and Ginger began to push while two others began to pull on the tether from the front. With surprising ease, the bin surged forward and headed under power towards the center of the field.
What they saw when they got there wasn’t good. All the adults were swarming in the center, which was good, but the center group was just about mopped up.
Well, time to fix that, Storm thought with a malicious grin. “Dump it!”
The adults never even knew what hit them. One moment, they’d thought they were about to end the game entirely and in the next they were being pelted by a truly shocking number of balls. Now it was their turn to be surprised as the crowd exploded in thunderous applause.
“Storm!” Ginger shrieked. “We gotta hurry… they’re going for their bin!”
Once more, the bins were on the move. A moment later, and they were positioned above the adults’, showering it with a never-ending rain of balls. Two ponies remained behind to guard the up-ended bins while the other ‘survivors’ of both teams flew to their respective areas.
Panting, Storm looked around. “O…okay. What do we… have left?”
“Glimmer, Slipstream, and two others made it out of the middle. It was a real close call,” Ginger replied as she glanced downfield. “Looks like there’s only eight of them left, though!”
“We got demolished,” Slipstream sighed.
“What’re you talking about?” Storm gushed with an evil grin. We’ve got twenty four to their eight! We outnumber them three to one, now!”
“Storm!” Glimmer yelled from one of the bins. “Incoming!”
“Fly in pairs! Rush them! Go!” Storm managed to yell before the adults blew through the foals’ defensive line.
Clearly, the adults were done playing around and were now taking the situation most seriously! Realizing that Storm was behind the utter surprise, the decision had rapidly been made to take him out before he could cause any more damage than he already had. Two adults flying in at top speed and angling in directly towards Storm accomplished this readily enough and lost only one of the two.
“Go, Storm!” Ginger yelled as Storm flew towards the sidelines. “I’ll take care of them for you!”
Ginger, Glimmer, and Slipstream formed up the remaining foals and got them organized into groups. Unfortunately, the adults countered with witheringly accurate tosses from long range and were using their speed and endurance to maximum effect. Over the next several minutes, five more adults were taken down but twenty-one foals were, as well.
It was now four foals to two adults, and the foals were tiring rapidly. Glimmer, Slipstream, and Ginger all grabbed one last load of balls before launching themselves down in a last-ditch manic run up the field.
What followed next was some of the best flying anypony had ever seen before. Ginger, Slipstream, and the other pony flew in front of Glimmer in order to screen her from incoming tosses. The adults, seeing the foals surging towards them, split up to take them from above and below.
Therein lay the mistake that Cross Current and Wind Shear made. They may have managed to tag out Slipstream, Ginger, and the other pony… but now they had Glimmer to contend with and they had only one ball left to throw. Without any ammunition, Wind Shear tried to break off and fly back to the bin but Glimmer was right there in a flash. Wind Shear went into a wild series of dives and twists, but Glimmer matched her turn for turn; if anything, the filly’s smaller size was an asset in the close-quarters ‘dogfight’.
Storm was watching the proceedings from down below, and saw that Glimmer was beginning to tire. Not surprising considering how she could… and ofetn did… literally turn on a wing-tip to change direction without seemingly losing momentum. He might’ve been out of the match, but there was still one last thing he could do for his teammate. At the top of his lungs, he began chanting her name, “Glimmer! Glimmer! Glimmer!”
The crowd caught on… and joined in. The Coliseum was packed, not because of the foals’ games but more to show respect for the Princesses. As a result, thousands of ponies began to scream Glimmer’s name and that energy… that encouragement thundered through the air in nearly palpable waves.
Glimmer’s flight steadied and her movements became if anything even more precise. Wind Shear made a pass that was just a little too close to Glimmer and paid the price; Glimmer tossed herself literally end over end and managed to hit Wind Shear right on her chest.
It was now down to Glimmer, the best flier the students had seen in a decade and Cross Current, the mare who had once been a feather’s width from being a Wonderbolt.
The next five minutes saw aerobatics that was easily on par with a professional sky-dancing troupe. Wind Shear wasn’t as maneuverable as Glimmer, but had the experience and endurance. She kept trying to get a bit of distance, but Glimmer was having none of that. Every time Wind Shear tried to pull away, Glimmer surged in and forced the larger mare into a costly series of aerobatics.
After a particularly vicious series of twists and turns, Glimmer saw her chance. Somehow she managed to pull off a hundred and eighty degree turn as Cross Current flew towards her. Glimmer flicked her hoof forward and tossed her ball at the last instant, but her aim was disturbed just enough by a bright flash on her flank.
Cross Current didn’t miss, unfortunately. Though rather than whipping the ball, she elected instead to gently tag the exhausted filly on the shoulder.
If the cheering was thunderous before, it was absolutely deafening now! The clouds themselves shook with the sound of it, and even the Princesses were applauding vigorously.
The two final combatants landed in the center of the field, and Glimmer collapsed an instant later as she gasped for breath. Storm, Ginger, and Slipstream ran out from the sidelines and surrounded her even as Cross Current nudged them away.
“Give her room, give her room!” Cross Current admonished. To Glimmer she gently murmured, “Deep breaths, dear. That’s it… deep breaths. You’ll be okay. Goddess above, that was some of the best flying I’d ever seen!”
“Yeah, you were awesome! And congratulations!” Storm gushed, smiling so widely his face was nearly split in half.
“For… what?” Glimmer gasped. “I lost!”
“Don’t be silly! You flew better than anypony, and you got your cutie mark!” Ginger said as she gently prodded Glimmer’s flank.
Glimmer turned and looked, her eyes widening in shock and surprise. “My cutie mark! I got my cutie mark!” Sure enough, a little green hummingbird zipping around three little clouds graced her flank. Glimmer squeaked in pleasure, then threw her hooves around Storm before planting a kiss on his muzzle.
This was, of course, done just in time for Glimmer’s parents to come onto the field to see their little girl.
“Mister Storm!” demanded a gravelly voice. “I should very much like to speak to my daughter, if you do not mind?”
Now it was Storm’s turn to squeak. Glimmer broke off the kiss as Storm blushed deeply, looking up into the mock-sterm muzzle of a pegasus stallion mere inches from his face.
Giggling, Glimmer stood up and nosed at her father. “Daddy, stop it! You’re scaring him!”
Chuckling, the stallion lifted his head and extended a hoof. “Sorry, son. I couldn’t resist. I’m Sunshine, Glimmer’s father.” Shaking Storm’s hoof, he tried to set the colt at ease. “Looks like the medics want to take my daughter inside to make sure she’s okay after exhausting herself like that. I’ll talk to you later, don’t you worry. Your parents should be proud of you, son.”
Glimmer was bundled off, and Storm’s shoulders were pounded on by each and every one of the foals he’d ‘led’ into the game and even the adults as well. Everypony was led away to a post-game celebration, but Storm remained out on the field with Soarin’ and Spitfire.
“Kiddo, you’re dangerous,” Soarin’ said directly. “And I mean that in the good way. Nopony has ever done that before! That was brilliant!”
“It really was, Storm,” Spitfire added with a grin. “Because of your idea, Glimmer got her time to shine. Not only did she get her cutie mark, but she drew the attention of the Wonderbolts. We’ll be watching her, and if she keeps up as well as she did today, I can almost guarantee she’ll be wearing the blue and gold someday.”
Storm smiled a bit. “I wish I could too, but… I’m just not that good.” He looked down and kicked his hoof into the cloud.
“Maybe not,” Spitfire said as she wrapped a foreleg around the unhappy colt’s shoulders. “But remember that she wouldn’t have gotten that chance if not for your idea. It’s all well and good to be able to fly with the best of them, kiddo. But us fliers can’t do what we do without the ideas behind it. It might not be as glorious or as visible, but always remember that Glimmer needed your idea. You gave her the opportunity to shine. When you did that, you shone as well. You think what you did here today will ever be forgotten? You came the closest to beating the instructors at their own game!”
“She’s right you know,” Soarin’ added with a smile. “Look, I know I’m never going to be the Captain of the Wonderbolts. But there’s absolutely no shame in being there to support the one that can. Because without somepony as wonderful as me looking out for her, she’d not be able to do what she does.”
Spitfire narrowed her eyes, grinning. “Really! I think you and I have to have a little talk, oh egotistical one.”
Waving a hoof dismissively, Soarin’ ignored Spitfire’s look. “My ego, like my appetite for pies, knows no bounds. We’ll have that little talk, Spitfire… because I have a big question to ask you.” When Spitfire snapped her glance to Soarin’, he simply smiled and patted a small square box that had been tucked under his Wonderbolts uniform. “Yeah. It’s that question.”
“I…” Spitfire swallowed, and then smiled with eyes misting up. “I think we need to clean up the field a bit and get this little guy to the others for the game celebration. But then, I think… I think I’ll have an answer to that question that you’ll like, Soarin’.”
Storm grinned widely. “I’ll go get the bin on the left,” he announced before taking off and flying over to where the bin still dumped balls into the air.
If there is one universal truth that all creatures know, it is that time itself seems to slow to a crawl when something particularly bad is about to happen. It starts as a tingling sensation, a gradual awareness that nothing is happening when something ought to be. Storm first noticed it when he’d put his hooves on the bin and started to pull it upwards into place. He heard a soft ping, and a flash of movement drew his gaze.
Aw, buckin’ haystacks! Storm complained, as the bin’s lid broke free completely and arced towards his wing.
Luna was the princess of the night, and as such knew a thing or two about being quiet. Without the merest hint of sound, she slipped into the antechamber of the guest quarters in Canterlot Castle where one Dr. Coltle met her.
“How is he?” Luna asked in a whisper. No further explanation was necessary, for given the events earlier in that day, there could be only one soul being referred to.
“Settled and sleeping, finally,” Coltle replied. Even whispering, Coltle’s voice seemed to carry far further than ought be possible. “In all my years, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a foal that disconsolate, and I’ve seen foals at some of the worst points in their lives.”
Nodding, Luna sighed quietly. “It is understandable, considering his worst fears have been realized. He is cursed with the same affliction visited upon my sister and I, Doctor. Agelessness is not something to be wished upon one when at such a relatively young physical age.”
“I’m a doctor, not a philosopher, Princess,” Coltle groused. “Seems to me that the purpose of life is to live. You and your sister have put your years and experience to good use by guiding the rest of us. Maybe what that little one is meant for is to remind the two of you of more innocent times and fun.”
Luna looked at Coltle from the corners of her eyes as she narrowed them suspiciously. “’More innocent times and fun’? What precisely do you mean by that, Doctor?”
“I’m saying that Lightning Storm has it better than either you or your sister, Luna.” Coltle stared at Luna intently, lending a certain amount of emphasis to his words. “Consider this. I have been your physician for three years, and Celestia’s for decades now. I know every square inch of your hide. Can we at least agree on that much for the moment?”
Reluctantly, Luna nodded. It was true, after all. “Yes, but I both fail to see and fear where you’re going with this line of thought.”
“Alright, then.” Nodding firmly, Coltle fixed Luna with an extra-intense stare. “Let’s cover some other things I know about you and your sister. First, I know full and damn well neither you nor Celestia have taken a lover. I also know why.”
“Excuse me!” Luna hissed, aghast. “I do not recall this being a part of your duties as physician!”
Coltle smiled gently, a reaction so unexpected that it literally set Luna back a step and caused her to sit on the floor. “Luna. I’m your doctor, but I’m just one of many that came before. You think we don’t keep notes on such things? I’ve an entire library filled with notes on your health, both physical and mental. You haven’t taken a lover for the same reason Celestia hasn’t. It’s too hard to form attachments and then have to lose them. That’s why Storm has it easier. He’s going to be forever too young to form that sort of attachment. It’s also why he’ll be good for you and your sister.”
“He’s someone to care for,” Luna whispered, lowering her head as her mane draped over her eyes.
“Precisely,” Coltle agreed. “He’s someone that it is safe to love, for he’s never going to leave. He can’t. Being so young, if he were to walk out of the castle, he’d be picked up by the guard for school truancy. If he were to try and fly away, then the pegasi would have him corralled fairly quickly and herd him right back here. My advice to you, Princess, is to enjoy him for what he is.”
“What would that be?” Luna asked as she met Coltle’s gaze with her own. The stallion might be mortal, but he had wisdom beyond his years just the same.
“Think of him as a little brother. Pesky at times, but adorable just the same.” Coltle gestured with a hoof to the closed door behind which Storm slept. “Forever innocent. Knowledge beyond his years, yes… and that will be a problem on occasion. As with all things, a balance will be found.”
Luna considered that a moment, then nodded slowly. She brushed her mane to the side and draped it back over her shoulder where it belonged. “That… that feels right,” Luna admitted. “I can see that working quite well.” Managing a chuckle, she glanced at the closed door. “At the very least, we can spoil him and give him what we’ve been denied for so long.”
“From what little I’ve seen,” Coltle said slowly, knowing he was treading on even more unsteady ground than before, “he might just be the key to bringing your parents home. Give the kid some time, Princess. Then spoil the hay out of him. But even if he can’t manage it, don’t hold it against him. He’s going to need you in the years to come. He’s forever a foal, and is going to be dependent upon you.”
“And Cadance,” Luna added with a bit of a smile. “I daresay she and Shining Armor might just enjoy having a foal to look after for a time.” Her gaze became a little hopeful. “Any word on that?”
Shaking his head, Coltle lifted a hoof. “Doctor’s confidentiality, Princess. Not even for you could I violate that. All I can say is that with a sample size of three and all of them mares, we just don’t know.” The old doctor’s eyes sparkled with a tint of mischief as he added, “If there’s even the slightest chance of it working, then it’ll happen given the amount of practice those two are getting in.”
Chuckling politely and thankful for the shadows that hid her blush, Luna nodded as she turned to the exit. “Very well, Doctor Coltle. If you’d be so kind as to let me know when he wakes?”
“Of course, Princess. I’ll send word as soon as he’s ready for visitors,” Coltle assured her.
Silently, Luna slipped back out of the guest quarters and into the hallway beyond. Nodding to the guards, she walked down the hall towards her mother’s study. Ever since Storm had managed to unlock the puzzle, both she and her sister had taken to stopping by every few hours almost as if there was some fragment of hope the door might open and their parents emerge. It hadn’t happened yet, but then they’d also rather given up hope the door could even be unlocked. They’d been proven wrong once before so perhaps they might again.
Before Luna even made it to the proper hallway, the sounds of a commotion met her ears. Perking them forward, she listened carefully as she picked up her pace.
“I don’t believe this!” Celestia yelled in surprise and shock. “Mother! How could you?”
That was all Luna needed to hear before breaking into the fastest run she could manage. Her emotions were running high, and this was reflected in the violent way her mane was flipping about; she hadn’t been this agitated about something since before she’d fallen to the Nightmare.
Wings flared, mane flapping like a flag in a tornado, Luna skidded around the corner, nearly crashing into Celestia. “Where is she?” Luna demanded, almost frantic. “Where is Mother?”
After her initial outburst, it was all Celestia could do to keep from bursting into tears and collapsing in a heap right in the middle of the hallway. She wasn’t even aware of Luna’s presence, so shaken this situation had her.
Seeing that Celestia was unable to respond, Luna followed her sister’s stare. The door, she thought. Of course! Storm must have unlocked it, somehow! Eyes bright, Luna focused on the door herself and never caught the motion of caution from her sister as the door shut behind her.
For Luna, it was a walk back in time since everything in the study was precisely as it had been over twenty five hundred years before. The room was impeccably organized; bookshelves filled with scrolls and tomes of all shapes and sizes lined three of the four walls. A black granite workbench with arcane sigils etched into the surface and inlayed with gold and silver rested directly across from the door and inn the center of a circle on that bench rested a thick tome. Luna knew the book well, for it was the one her mother used to record the results of experiments or projects in.
On the far wall to the left of the door stood an ornately carved archway made of the darkest obsidian that had been etched with silver runes. The archway itself might be blank, but Luna could sense the fierce power contained therein; she wasn’t sure what it was, but was certain it had something to do with her parent’s disappearance.
However, before she could take even four steps towards the archway, Luna was brought up short and frozen in place by a voice she’d not heard in a very long time indeed.
“Luna? Sweetheart, is that you?”
Instantly, tears began to flow from her eyes as Luna slowly, almost reluctantly turned around. “Ma—” Luna swallowed, her voice being choked off by the fierce emotion. She knew the voice, oh yes… there could be no mistaking that which she had only heard in countless dreams for several thousand years. But this time, this time it was real. “Mama? Is… is that you?” Her voice sounded so thin and frail, even to her own ears. But how could it not?
“Oh, my dear little Luna. You always did try and follow your sister everywhere. Especially, it seems, when she was doing something she shouldn’t!”
Luna completed her turn and was both elated and disappointed in the same moment. On the one hoof, it wasn’t her mother after all, but a guardian spell cast in the image of her mother. On the other, it was something that Queen Nebulae had left for her to find; this was meant for Luna and nopony else. Looking up, Luna let her eyes trace over the mother she’d not seen for so painfully long.
Queen Nebulae was considerably larger than Luna but a smidge smaller than Celestia; this wasn’t a surprise given the age difference between the two sisters. Her coat was even darker than Luna’s, and her mane and tail shone even more brightly with multi-colored pinpoints of light that seemed to shift of their own accord. There was no mistaking the mirth in her emerald eyes or the amused tolerance in her grin. “Come here, dear.”
Luna found herself levitated off her hooves and pulled into an embrace that certainly felt real enough. Closing her eyes, Luna began to sob. “I’ve missed you so much!” She couldn’t control herself; the pain and loneliness that had been weighing her down demanded release.
“Shh. Shh, I’m not mad at you, dear. But you do need to be punished,” the image said gently. “You know what the rules are and that you are not allowed in here without permission?”
“I’m sorry, Mother,” Luna choked out in between ragged gasps for breath. Despite the soothing hug provided by the image of her mother, she just could not calm herself. “It’s been so long!”
“Pish-posh,” Nebulae murmured into Luna’s mane, adding a gentle nuzzle. “Your father and I left this morning, and we’ll be back before dinner. My stars, dear! Whatever has you this worked up?”
“Mother!” Luna cried plaintively, squeezing Nebulae even tighter for a moment. “It hasn’t been just a day! It’s been almost three thousand years!”
“Luna, now what have I told you about exaggerating?” Nebulae, still smiling, gently bumped Luna’s nose with a hoof. “It might feel like that long, but it really hasn’t been.”
“But mom!” Luna complained, lifting her muzzle to stare into her mother’s eyes.
“But nothing, young mare!” Laughing, Nebulae gently shook her head. “Such a teller of tall tales, worthy of a bard! All right then, time to put a stop to this for the moment. Since you like exaggerating so much, you’ll be eating alfalfa for the next week, understand?”
“Yes, Mother,” Luna whispered. She could feel the magic binding the image to the study beginning to wane. It made her sad; who knew when she’d have such a chance again?
“Alright, then. Run along, and I’ll be home soon!” Nebulae smiled and hugged Luna tightly. “I love you, you silly little filly.”
“Love you too, Mama,” Luna voice cracking as she realized she was about to lose her mother yet again.
The spell spent, Luna was gently pushed out the door and back into the hallway where Celestia waited with open wings. For several minutes, the Princesses could only stare into each other’s eyes as they brimmed with tears. Which princess broke first is a matter of no debate, for the sisters themselves simply did not care. One moment, the tears were contained and in the next, the carefully constructed emotional barriers came crashing down under the weight of several thousand years of broken hopes and dreams that had been carefully set aside.
Celestia recovered first, wiping first her tears and then Luna’s away with a gentle wing. Swallowing hard and clearing her voice, she achieved something resembling her regular tone. “What’d Mom do to you?”
Misery breaking under a wistful and wry smile, Luna shook her head. Sighing resignedly, she replied, “What Mom always does. Alfalfa for a week. She didn’t say it just now, but oh, how I can hear it anyway! ‘Alfalfa is good for a growing filly!’’ Luna made a gagging sound and shuddered. “I hate alfalfa!”
“You don’t have to, you know. Eat it for a week, I mean.” Celestia smiled and winked. “I could issue you a royal pardon and you could avoid the dire fate of the alfalfa monster.”
With surprising vehemence, Luna shook her head and emphatically stated, “Don’t you dare, Celly!” Luna met Celestia’s surprised gaze and added, “I think I need to. I know I want to, if only to feel a little closer to Mom again. I mean… she… she wanted this. It was her favorite punishment, and today, her sentry ordered it as my punishment for entering her study.” She smiled slightly as she caught a knowing look in her sister’s eyes. “And I bet as awful as it will taste, it’ll never have tasted so sweet. So, what’d mom do to you?”
Celestia turned away, but not before Luna caught the growing flush in her cheeks. “Celly! Come on, I told you what she did to me!”
“She… spanked me,” Celestia whispered, barely loud enough to be heard as her cheeks flushed deep red. “For being a bad influence on you.”
Luna couldn’t have held back, even if she wanted to. After the emotional release that bordered on torment, the reveal that her older sister had been spanked like a little filly was simply too much to be borne.
As the thunderous laughter of the Princesses of Equestria roared up the hallway, Dr. Coltle smiled and made a note in his medical journal: ‘The Princesses have weathered the emotional crisis in good form and appear to be closer to each other than ever before. Recommend several days of rest, but knowing them, they’ll be back at work in the morning. Will attempt to require them to take the rest of the day, however. Even Celestia and Luna need some time to share memories and heal.’
The laughter, much like Doctor Coltle’s smile, didn’t last nearly long enough. As the echoes of mirth faded, he slid the Princess’ medical file into a satchel and withdrew another, this one much thinner than the first. With a soft sigh, Dr. Coltle’s smile faded completely and an expression of deep concern replaced it. Carefully, he opened the dossier and made an addition.
‘Lightning Storm has recovered fully from what should have been a permanent and crippling injury. According to the first responders, the primary structural bone in his right wing had been splintered into multiple pieces by blunt force impact. However, medical staff could not verify this as the wing had literally pulled the pieces back into place before operatives could arrive on scene. Said staff noted damage consistent with a broken bone two or three weeks into the healing process. Visible malformations caused by broken bone and sinew healed literally as staff watched; by the time attending physician and Princesses arrived, the wing had been fully restored in appearance if not in function.
It is due to this fact that I see no reason to not begin monitoring Lightning Storm in much the same fashion as the Princesses; he shows every sign of being as ageless as they. We need not truly fear for his physical safety; he has shown an astounding resiliency rivaled only by that of the Princesses themselves. While the Princesses come by their agelessness naturally, Lightning Storm’s is clearly induced by some manner that has nothing to do with magic. The mechanisms are irrelevant, however; the fact remains that he is ageless.
Storm’s physical condition may not be of concern, but the same cannot be said of his mental condition. The meltdown at the Flight School was the third such incident since Storm’s arrival or perhaps reanimation; I shall research that particular fact later. The foal is showing signs of increasing mental instability as evidenced by these particular episodes. The first of course was when he sang a lullaby to a young filly in the hospital. This induced a fugue-like state that lasted for approximately six hours. The second incident was when he solved the Riddle of the Door using mathematics that should have been far beyond his means. While less debilitating than the first incident, it still resulted in a brief malformation of his eyes and the seepage of a strange silvery substance that evaporated almost as quickly as it appeared.
The third incident, the one at the Flight Camp, is the most severe of all in my medical opinion. The foal was clearly in agony and felt every shift of broken bone and sinew despite every attempt to provide magical or chemical relief. What was worse than that, perhaps, was the mental and emotional damage done when he realized that he was not going to grow older and pass away of natural causes. The foal is simply not mentally equipped for such a burden no matter what knowledge he holds in that mind of his.
This then is my main concern; I theorize the foal is not immortal. Given catastrophic damage resulting in sufficiently severe damage to the brain and body, I believe Lightning Storm both could and would pass to the Summer-Lands. The foal may be sporadic in producing or displaying his intellect, but I believe it is only a matter of time before he puts those pieces together and comes to the same conclusion.
Given the displayed mental instability to date, I fear what the foal will do at that point in time. I am certain that he is fully capable of engineering circumstances that could result in the catastrophic damage I suspect is necessary. I believe he both can and will attempt to do so; it is only a question of when.
Therefore, it is my informed medical opinion that Lightning Storm be monitored at all times. He seems to trust both Sunny Skies as well as her gryphoness ward Agate, so the three of them should be moved into Canterlot Castle. It is also my opinion that he be encouraged to apply himself to whatever lies behind the door that he himself unlocked. This will accomplish two things; first, he shall have something other than his problems to focus on. The second thing is perhaps a bit more morbid; Lightning Storm represents the single best chance for the return of Luna and Celestia’s parents. Should this opportunity be lost, I fear what their reaction might be; it might be sufficient enough to drive them both to despair. As displeased as I am with myself for thinking this, we must encourage Storm to do whatever he can to bring back the King and Queen before whatever madness awaits renders him incapable or unwilling of doing so.
I pray that I am wrong. I pray that I am just an old fool who worries too much. Yet I cannot deny that this entire situation unsettles me beyond words! What am I supposed to do with a foal that doesn’t follow the laws of magic and seems to dance around the laws of science with as much ease as a breeze tosses a feather?’
“Ow!” Storm yelped as he rubbed his ear with a hoof. “What’d you do that for?!” Glaring at Agate didn’t do much of anything, as the gryphoness simply glared back.
“Well, for starters, you’ve been sleeping for twelve hours and I’m hungry. She grinned, preening the ear she’d just bit on him. “You’re still too scrawny to make a meal of.”
“I’m not hungry,” Storm said with a sigh. He flopped his head back down on the bed and mumbled into the covers. “I just wanna go back to sleep.”
Without even missing a beat, Agate nodded and shrugged a shoulder. “Okay. You wanna mope a little more, that’s fine. Me, they’re serving waffles and I don’t want to miss out. I’ll be back after breakfast.” With that, she turned and padded towards the door.
Storm stared at her in shock, and felt a sinking sensation in his chest as the door closed behind her. “Agate?” he called, lifting his head to look towards the door. When no reply came, he forced himself out of bed and walked slowly over to the door. “Agate!” Storm said a bit louder, worry leaking into his voice. Had she really left him?
When there was no reply again, Storm nosed the door open and peeked out into the hallway, where he was promptly pounced and dragged into the hallway by a certain gryphoness that could not stop laughing to save her life.
“No, I’m not gonna leave you, kiddo! But I am also not going to allow you to mope in that room, no matter how comfortable it might be.” Much to both her amusement and that of Storm, she proceeded to drag him down the hallway by his scruff despite his giggles, squirms, and flapping of his wings.
“Okay, okay! I’ll walk!” Storm said when he couldn’t take laughing anymore. “Leggo!”
Agate did, lifting him by the scruff and setting him onto his hooves. “Good, because scrawny or not, you’re heavy!” Together, they ambled down the hallway towards the dining hall.
“Agate?” Storm asked quietly.
“Mmh? What’s up, kiddo?” When she turned her head to look at Storm, he wasn’t at her side anymore.
“This is for biting my ear!” With an evil grin, Storm leaned down and chomped on Agate’s tail-tuft.
“Awk! Why you little… get back here!” Agate bellowed as she began to chase a laughing Storm down the hall.
Storm led Agate on a merry chase that culminated in his diving through the dining hall door and taking a hard right turn that required a bit of a wing flap to pull off as tightly as needed.
Agate, with her greater mass and but a single wing, was unable to make the turn and continue pursuit. Instead, when she tried to follow Storm into his tight turn, her taloned forepaws and leonine hindpaws lost all traction and sent her sliding on her belly across the smooth and polished granite floor… and right into Princess Celestia.
“Aheh… Sorry, Princess,” Agate mumbled apologetically before shooting daggers at Storm. Storm, for his part, stuck his tongue out at Agate and grinned widely.
“Don’t be, Agate,” Celestia said with a quiet chuckle. “It has been a very long time since these halls echoed with such laughter. Too long. You may wish to be a bit more careful, however.” Celestia grinned mischievously and winked to the gryphoness. “After all, I have been known to retaliate in kind.”
Agate opened her beak to reply, but was interrupted by a gravelly voice.
“Ah, Princess Celestia. I was wondering if I might have a word with you and Princess Luna?” Coltle asked, nodding his head in his version of a bow.
Arching her eyebrow, Celestia nodded. “Of course, Doctor.” She turned to Storm and Agate. “If you would excuse us…?”
“Princess?” Storm interrupted before Agate could agree and turn to leave.
“Yes, Storm?” Celestia turned and smiled gently to the colt who stood, uncertain if he should bow or not. His wings were half-unfurled and fluttering slightly, creating the gentle sound of feathers rustling. It was, she decided, extremely cute.
“Agate’s really hungry… could we get some of the waffles to take with us? Please?” Storm sat down and looked up at the Princess with eyes as wide and pleading as he could manage.
Unable to handle it, Celestia burst into laughter. “I am not going to starve you, you silly colt! You and Agate eat your fill. Doctor Colte and I will talk in the gardens.” Eyes bright, Celestia nodded to the doctor. “Shall we?” before turning to lead the way to a different door than the one Storm burst through.
“Of course, Princess.” Before following, he turned to Agate and Storm. “Agate, you stick with him and keep an eye on him for me, alright? And you, Storm… try not to do anything else that’s stupid or dangerous? I don’t think my mane can get any greyer than it is!”
Giggling, Storm nodded and smiled brightly. “Okay, Sir. I promise I’ll try.”
With that, Storm and Agate were left to tuck into the prodigious supply of waffles that still were on the serving carts.
“We need to talk about Storm,” Coltle declared as soon as the guards closed the doors to the gardens behind him.
“Goodness,” Celestia murmured delicately. “This cannot be good if you are starting out that direct, Doctor.” Walking over to the fountain in the center of the garden, Celestia gazed into the serene waters and at her own reflection.
“I’m afraid not, no,” Coltle agreed.
With a gusty sigh, Celestia turned to look calmly at the Doctor. “Very well. Let us summarize so as to save time. Storm is ageless through means unknown, and will remain as a colt for the rest of his days. You fear for his mental state and are convinced that when the burden of agelessness is too great that he will attempt suicide. You are about to suggest that Storm be restricted to the castle and be monitored at all times. Unless I miss my guess, you are also about to recommend that he be encouraged to work on bringing my parents home as quickly as possible because you fear that he may not remain so amenable.”
Doctor Coltle, veteran of the Royal Guard as well as decades of duty in the hospitals, faced his greatest challenge to date as he met Princess Celestia’s gentle gaze despite picking up more than a few traces of disapproval and disappointment. “Princess,” he said firmly as he quelled the desire to apologize, “somehow you make that rhyme perfectly with slavery and criminal neglect. I would have hoped you’d know me better than that.”
Eyebrow arching in surprise, Celestia canted her head to the side a bit. “Am I wrong, then?”
Coltle shook his head and sighed. “You’re not wrong, Princess. Neither, however, are you right. Try and look at it from a medical perspective.”
“I’m listening,” Celestia assured him as she made herself comfortable. I’m not sure where he’s going with this, she thought, but I owe it to him to at least hear him out.
“I’ve got three patients, Princess, and I’m responsible for their health and well-being. You and Luna had put the pain and anguish of your parents behind you over two thousand years ago. All that healing was undone the instant Storm unlocked the door. You were hurt when you saw the spell-cast sentry of your mother.” He narrowed his eyes and stabbed his hoof accusingly to the Princess. “You look me in the eyes and tell me you can contemplate never seeing your mother again, should Storm’s mental state decay!”
Struck speechless, Celestia found herself unable to meet Coltle’s eyes. Eyes misting with tears, she felt an unwelcome clenching in her chest around her heart. “I…” She swallowed, unable to continue.
More gently, but only slightly, Coltle completed his statement with a devastating idea. “That, Princess, is a danger to my third patient. He’s as ageless and eternal as you. You have never asked anything of your ponies. Yet you would be denied the only thing in recent memory that you’ve truly wanted… and needed. If his mind decays to where he can’t or won’t bring your parents back, do you truly think you can look at him forever and not feel bitterness and resentment to him?”
Princess Celestia closed her eyes and lowered her head. “No. At first, I would feel that, but in time I would get over it. I have had experience with that before, as you know.”
“What of Storm then? In the centuries it takes you to forgive him, what would be left of the foal before you today?” Coltle gestured with his hoof towards the dining hall where the foal had last been seen. “Consider the effects on him. He’s an orphan. An orphan that is never going to die and will be facing an endless sequence of foster mothers and fathers. No family to ever call his own. To have the only two constants in his life actively hating him for any length of time will kill him!”
Meekly, Princess Celestia conceded defeat. “What do you suggest?”
“We take care of him, Princess. We love him as he has never been loved before. We encourage him to work on bringing your parents back, because as I see it, that is the only chance any of you three have for a happy outcome. We watch him closely, and we keep him closer than we watch. We do whatever we can to help him remain happy and stable, and to do that, I think we need to keep him here in the castle.”
As soon as he uttered those words, a pinkish-blue flash of light burst into being and when it faded, a scroll levitated in its place. Glancing over to Coltle, Celestia smiled a bit. “A note from my student, Twilight. One moment, please.”
“Of course, Princess.” Coltle sighed; from his perspective, things had gone about as well as they possibly could have. That is, until Celestia started laughing and shaking her head.
“It seems, my good Doctor, that Storm and Agate are both now in Ponyville.” Celestia managed to stifle the laughter, though a smile seemed affixed rather permanently to her muzzle.
“What?” Coltle demanded incredulously. “How’d he manage that?”
“He didn’t, Doctor.” Celestia grinned mischievously. “It seems Agate accidentally set off something in my mother’s study and it transported them to Ponyville. Where they ended up left a bit to be desired, though!”
Agate glanced over at Storm as he read through a book he’d found in the study. He was having the time of his life investigating every nook and cranny in the place and had all but exploded with enthusiasm when he’d found Queen Nebulae’s research notes. Nothing would do but to drag the book to the workbench and begin leafing through it.
She, on the other hand, was bored. “Storm, are you done yet?” Agate complained as she paced the length of the room again.
“Huh?” Storm lifted his head and saw the decidedly vexed look on his gryphoness friend’s face. “Oh. Sorry, Agate, but I’m just getting started. I know a little about what she was doing. The Queen, I mean. But there’s just so much to try and figure out!”
Faking interest, Agate perked her ear tufts and padded over. “Like what?”
“Well… take that arch over there.” Storm pointed with his hoof then flipped a few pages in the notes. “I’m not sure how yet, but that thing focuses some kind of energy and uses it somehow to open a kind of door.”
“Huh!” Agate exclaimed as she padded over to look at it. The obsidian ring was quiet, giving no indication of what its purpose was or how to make it do anything. “Where’s it go?”
“No clue!” Storm shrugged. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I need to know how that thing works before I can piece together where the King and Queen went. The only thing I do know is that is what they used to leave.”
“Any chance of it being used to bring them back?” Agate asked, glancing over her shoulder.
“Dunno.” Storm sighed and tapped the book with his hoof. “The answers’ll be here if they’re anywhere. But it’s just going to take time to sort through. I don’t even know what the thing uses for energy, let alone how to turn it on, yet. Then there’s the matter of figuring out what happened to the King and Queen… and then seeing if there’s a way to reverse whatever they did.”
Storm turned back to his book, and Agate returned to being bored. Staring at the ring wasn’t really interesting when all one could see was the granite wall on the other side. Pacing, Agate wandered the length and breadth of the room, talons and claws clicking on the stone. “Wait a minute,” she muttered. “That’s weird.” She may not have been able to fly, but she still had the instincts and spatial awareness of a flier.
“Something’s not right,” Agate grumbled to herself. “That bookshelf is shorter than the one on the other wall, but the wall’s the same height.” She padded over to the bookshelf in question and, sure enough, found very faint scrape marks on both the floor and ceiling. “Hey, Storm?”
“Mmh?” came the distracted reply. “What’s up, Agate?”
“C’mere, I’ve found something. This bookshelf’s a secret passage to somewhere. I want to see where it goes or what’s behind it.”
That got Storm’s attention. He came over, and looked at the bookshelf. Mildly irritated, he glanced up at Agate. “What makes you think this is a secret door?”
“Look at the corners. See the scratches in the stone? Also, this section of shelf is about half an inch lower on the top and bottom than the other. Looks like a hinge. How do you suppose it opens?”
The answer came when Agate stepped forward and placed her forepaw on a certain section of stonework. There was a soft click, and then the bookshelf pivoted open, revealing a darkened passageway beyond. Hanging on a peg just inside the passage was a pair of panniers.
Agate grinned, beak gaping. “Want to go exploring?”
“Yeah!” Storm enthused. He turned and ran back to the table, biting the tome with the lab notes in it. “Mrrf!”
“You want to carry the book? Really?” Agate rolled her eyes and took the panniers off of the peg. “Fine, I’ll carry it.”
“Oooh! These too! Might need them!” Storm proceeded to pick up and carry over about a dozen scrolls, setting them in the pocket opposite that of the book.
“Hey!” Agate protested. “We’re walking down a hallway! You don’t need to make me carry the whole library!”
“Might need them!” Grinning, Storm nearly pranced into the hallway beyond the door. “Come on!”
Grumbling, Agate followed Storm, but the door slammed shut behind her. “Great. That’s just great!” Agate complained loudly. She flung her wing to the side, and smacked Storm on accident.
“Um, Agate?” Storm asked quietly. After he’d been smacked, he’d stumbled and could’ve sworn he’d heard a stone shift under his hoof.
“I mean, really! Now we’re stuck in the dark in a hallway. Neither of us can cast spells! So, what’re we going to do?”
Glancing down, Storm saw that a soft blue light was leaching in between the stone, and it was growing brighter. “Agate!” Storm whispered urgently.
“What?” Agate demanded. She glanced down just in time to see the blue glow grow even brighter, nearly enough to hurt her eyes. “Oh.”
A second later, there was a brilliant flash of blue light and a sensation of falling a short distance. Fortunately, there was no sense of impact on anything, but it was decidedly cold, and Storm found himself squashed against Agate’s thankfully warm feathers. There was also the sound of crying nearby, but from what, Storm couldn’t tell.
“You alright, Storm?” Agate asked as she tried to wriggle a bit. “I can’t move; my wing is wedged against something and my hands are stuck at my sides.”
“Yeah, I’m fine, I think,” Storm whispered. “I can move a little. Where are we, and what’s that crying sound?”
The darkness that enfolded them was replaced by bright light and what could only be described as a vivid example of the color pink.
“Hi!” said an extremely cheerful and up-beat pink earth pony. “I’m Pinkie Pie! Why’d you scare Pumpkin and Pound, and what’cha doing upside down in my refrigerator?”
Hanging upside down in a refrigerator while staring up at a brightly colored pink pony made for interesting conversation, especially against the audible backdrop of two adults trying to comfort a pair of very scared foals in the next room.
“We’re really sorry, Miss Pie,” Storm said as he curled his legs against his chest and belly in an effort to conserve warmth. “One minute we were in the castle exploring a hallway, and the next thing we know, we’re in your fridge.”
“Aw, you don’t have to call me Miss Pie! I’m Pinkie Pie! Call me Pinkie!”
If anything, Pinkie’s smile grew even warmer by Storm’s estimation. The perceived warmth might very well be there, or it could have something to do with whatever it was that had begun to melt and drip down his back. “Pinkie, could we… get out of here? It’s quite cold and cramped.” Storm did his very best, and gave Pinkie Pie the cutest and most hopeful look he could muster with wide eyes, half-folded ears, and a pleading smile.
“Nope!” With a deft flick of her hoof, she shut the door on a stunned Storm and Agate.
Though they were hidden from sight in the dark, Storm still stared in Agate’s direction and knew somehow she stared back. As one, they both faced the door and begged, “Please?”
“No can do! I mean, if you’d said please when you first asked, then sure! I could’ve let you out right then. But now you need to be extra polite! I’m being responsible and trying to set a good example for Pound and Pumpkin Cake,” Pinkie said firmly. “Besides, you’re plenty old enough to know better!”
“Pretty please, with ice cream—” Storm began.
“And sugar on top?” Agate interrupted.
“Sugar on top?” Storm hissed softly. “You don’t put sugar on ice cream!”
“Well, I wasn’t expecting you to say ice cream to begin with!” Agate retorted. “I thought you were going to say ‘pretty please’! Everypony knows it’s ‘pretty please with sugar on top’!”
Giggling, Pinkie leaned against the door and stage-whispered to the occupants. “First, you haven’t introduced yourselves to me, yet! I don’t know your names! I’m friends with everypony in Ponyville, and that includes you two! Well, We’re not friends yet, but we will be! Second, you’re right! Nopony puts sugar on ice cream! Now, if you make it sprinkles… ooh! No, make it extra sprinkles and you’ve got yourself a deal, mister!”
“Deal!” Storm exclaimed.
Neither Storm nor Agate was ever really sure what happened next. One moment, the refrigerator door was closed and they were upside down in the cold and dark. The next instant, they found themselves standing in the center of a kitchen, covered head to tail in ice cream that had melted due to the arcane nature of their arrival and a layer of brightly colored sprinkles that had been ‘helpfully’ provided by Pinkie Pie.
Wiping a glob of ice cream from his eyes, Storm glanced over at the ever-smiling Pinkie Pie. “I’m Storm, and this is my big sister Agate.”
While Agate whipped her head around and stared at Storm for a few moments, Pinkie narrowed her eyes contemplatively and rubbed her chin with a hoof. Glancing back and forth between the foal and gryphoness, Pinkie nodded. “I see the family resemblance. Rocky Road always has a little bit of vanilla in it, of course. Though I’m really not sure where the strawberry fits in!”
Sharing a confused look, Agate and Storm turned towards Pinkie Pie and were about to ask her a question when another mare poked her head in from the other room. She seemed the matronly sort, and had a very apologetic look in her eyes as she took in the scene before her.
“Oh, dear… I’m terribly sorry about this, but I’m going to have to ask you both to leave, the mare said. “I’m Mrs. Cake, and I know you didn’t do this deliberately, but I simply cannot get the foals calmed down! They’re terrified after the noise earlier.”
“Aw, but Mrs. Cake, it’s not their fault!” Pinkie Pie protested, gesticulating wildly with her hooves, sending another wave of sprinkles cascading around the room. “We can’t be sure our refrigerator isn’t responsible!”
Mrs. Cake smiled a bit sadly, looking with pity and compassion to the two ice cream and sprinkles covered arrivals. “I doubt our refrigerator did anything, Pinkie. I truly am sorry, you two. This isn’t just my business; it’s also my home. I need my foals to feel safe, here… and right now, they’re terrified of you both. You can’t come back to Sugar Cube Corner until we tell you it’s okay.”
Storm nodded quietly, and looked over to Agate. “We should probably get a message to the Princess before she tears the castle and orphanage apart looking for us.” Wings a bit slack, ears folded down, and head hanging down, Storm glanced over his shoulder to a horrified looking Mrs. Cake. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Cake. Didn’t mean to cause trouble.”
“I know! I’ll take them over to Twilight! She can have Spike send a message to the Princess right away!” Pinkie Pie bounced out the door, and a subdued Storm and Agate followed with far less exuberance. The Cakes watched the door close behind Pinkie Pie in silent horror at what they’d just done.
“So, why were you in my refrigerator, anyway?” Pinkie asked as she continued to bounce down the street. She was completely oblivious to the shocked expressions of other ponies she passed; it was unusual even for her to be walking with an ice-cream and sprinkles covered colt and young gryphoness, after all. “I mean, most ponies come to Sugar Cube Corner to shop, but they come in through the door in the front of the store! I guess that’s why they call it the front door, huh? They don’t come in through the fridge! I mean, really! There’s no finished baked goods in there at all. Just milk, eggs, and other things we use to make things with!”
Storm looked over to Agate and smiled slightly. “Agate accidentally bumped into me when we were in a dark hallway. I stepped on a loose floor stone and it set a spell off. Next thing we know, we’re in your fridge.”
Pinkie Pie rolled her eyes and giggled before turning to face Storm. Much to Storm’s surprise, Pinkie’s bouncing didn’t even slow down and even changed direction a few times to avoid oncoming ponies! “I knew Twilight made mistakes with magic before, but this is a first even for her! Pulling a colt and his big sister from Canterlot and stuffing them in my fridge? And she accuses me of being random?”
Agate blinked, and came to an abrupt stop before turning to face Storm. “Wait a second. Big sister?!”
“Duh!” interrupted Pinkie Pie. “I can so see the familial resemblance!” She inspected Agate and Storm, before rubbing her chin with a hoof. “Though you have a teensy bit more Rocky Road than Agate does, I think. Agate has more sprinkles though, so it all balances out!”
Now it was Agate’s turn to roll her eyes. Snorting, she shook a glob of now thoroughly melted ice cream off her beak. “Anyway. Storm, I might have been raised mostly by ponies, but I’m still a gryphon. This is not a joke to me!” She glared at Storm, predator’s eyes flashing with intensity. “Family bonds mean something!”
Storm met Agate’s glare evenly. “You said it yourself. We look out for each other. Miss Skies takes care of us. The Princesses check in on us now and then, but it’s really you, Miss Skies, and I. We’re there for each other. You look after me, and you keep me safe. You also…” Storm swallowed, but kept eye contact with Agate. In a quieter voice, he said, “You always seem to know when I need a hug, or someone to keep me company. If that doesn’t make you my big sister, then I don’t know what does.”
“You realize you’re stuck with me now, right?” Agate murmured, her expression softening with a warmth that belied the cold ice cream.
“If we don’t get a bath soon, I’m going to be stuck to you, as well!” Storm quipped. He bumped his shoulder to Agate’s, and the melted and drying ice cream proved his point; he separated with a glutinous stretching sound.
“Ewww!” agreed Pinkie, Storm, and Agate with delighted if disgusted laughs.
“Whuh-oh!” Pinkie exclaimed as she was suddenly flung up into the air a few feet only to strike an invisible surface and ricochet back down again, but facing in the opposite direction. “Huh! That’s new! Except that it’s not!”
One of Storm’s ears flopped to the side, and the other cocked at an odd angle as he looked over at Agate with confusion. “What’s she talking about?” Storm murmured.
“What’re you asking me for?” Agate asked pointedly as she watched Pinkie Pie’s aerodynamics occur twice more in rapid succession. “What I want to know is how she’s bouncing off of air like she hit a wall.” As usual, her leonine tail flipped about and thumped against the ground, displaying her curiousity as to the goings on.
“It’s my Pinkie-sense!” Pinkie Pie declared. “Something that happened before is going to happen again, but with a little bit of a twist!” She sat in the road where she’d landed, and pondered aloud. “I don’t think it’s going to be too bad. I mean, it doesn’t feel like it did when the Changelings invaded Canterlot.” Shuddering, Pinkie shook her head and stuck her tongue out briefly. “That was pretty bad! Something that happened last year…”
“It’s okay! This way, this way. You just follow me, Mrs. Duck, and I promise you and your babies will be just fine!” The voice was soft, almost timid, but quiet to the point that Storm and Agate couldn’t hear.
Wincing, Pinkie Pie looked at some indefinable point in the sky and complained, “Really? This? Couldn’t we just have ‘The Return of Trixie’ or something, instead?”
“Wha— yeouch!” Agate reared up and spun around, confronting the butter-yellow pegasus mare with pink hair that had stepped on her tail. “Watch it! That hurt!”
Where Agate had reared back and spun about, the mare cowered further down and spun about. This then had her very much looking up into a perturbed gryphoness’ eyes, and the positioning made Agate look quite a lot larger than she really was. “Yeep! G-Gilda!”
Occurring so quickly it was impossible to see, the yellow mare disappeared in a cloud of dust that swept away the baby ducklings as well as the mother and carried the lot away into the library up ahead.
“Pinkie Pie?” Storm asked as he watched the dust cloud slowly dissipate. “What’s a Gilda?”
“No, no, no!” Pinkie shook her head. “It’s not a what but a who. Gilda’s the name of a gryphoness that came to Ponyville in search of Rainbow Dash last year. She was a real meanie and made a lot of ponies really unhappy by being a Meany McMeanypants!”
Agate sighed, following Pinkie Pie as she resumed her trek to the nearby library. “Let me guess. Scared the feathers off that poor mare?”
“Yup, sure did! While she was leading a mommy duck and a bunch of baby ducks through town to a pond on the other side, too.” She rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “Come to think of it, I think it was the same ducks, too!”
“Great. That’s just great!” Agate grumbled. “Not only did Storm and I get kicked out of Sugar Cube Corner, but we scared the color out of that mare in the same way as another did.” She glanced at Storm, who wasn’t looking too comfortable with things either. “At this rate, we’ll be carted back to Canterlot in chains by the end of the day.”
“Nah, that’ll never happen!” Pinkie smiled, lightly booping Agate’s beak and Storm’s nose simultaneously without falling over… or even slowing her walking pace. “That’s where the twist comes in!”
“And that is?” Agate asked warily as the door to the library burst open and a very angry looking unicorn mare came galloping out and towards them.
“You two aren’t Gilda, nor are either of you Meany McMeanypants!” Nodding with certainty, she continued. “You’ll see. That’s Twilight Sparkle coming. Don’t worry! She’s smart, and won’t yell too much before figuring it out.”
Gasping for breath, Twilight came skidding to a stop before Storm and Agate. Seeing them, her eyes got wide. “What are you two doing here?! Pinkie! Where’s Gilda?”
“Oh, relax, Twilight!” Pinkie smiled and bounced in a circle around Twilight. “My Pinkie Pie sense went off a minute ago. It was déjà vu, but with a twist!”
“Pinkie, you’re not making any sense!” Twilight said, exasperated. She reached out with a hoof and stopped Pinkie from bouncing. “What’s the twist?”
“Gilda’s not here! This time, Fluttershy accidentally stepped on Agate’s tail. I mean, really, that’s got to hurt! Agate yelped and spooked Fluttershy, is all.” Pinkie somehow reversed direction without anyone actually seeing her turn around. “It’s just Agate and Storm!”
“How’d they get here?” Twilight asked suspiciously. “Last I saw them, they were in Canterlot.”
“Magic, duh! How else could they get here so fast? That’s kinda what I wanted to ask you about. Have you been teleporting things, lately?”
“Huh? Uh, no…why?” Twilight’s train of thought was once again derailed by Pinkie’s seeming randomness.
“Huh. If you didn’t do it... Can Princess Celestia mess up a spell like you do, Twilight?” Pinkie asked curiously. “Somepony botched a teleport spell that brought them allllll the way from Canterlot only to stuff them in my fridge!”
“What?” Twilight demanded, incredulously.
“I know, right? I mean, really! My fridge! Who’d want to teleport into my fridge? It melted all the ice cream in there, too! Except for the mint fudge ripple. I wonder why that was?” Pinkie Pie got all wide-eyed and wrapped herself around Twilight in a manner that implied she was mostly boneless. “Could you take a look at that? It could be the biggest party discovery ever! Ice cream that does not melt!”
“So, uh… what happened to you two?” Storm and Agate looked down to see a small purple and green dragon looking up at them with a welcoming smile and honest eyes.
As one, the gryphoness and the foal pointed at the wildly gesticulating Pinkie Pie and muttered, “She did.”
“Heh. Yeah, that figures. Anyway, hi, I’m Spike!”
“Lightning Storm, pleasure to meet you,” Storm said as he shook the dragon’s paw.
“Agate, and likewise a pleasure.” Agate shook Spike’s paw as well. “What’s up with that one?” She gestured with her taloned thumb towards Pinkie Pie.
“Eh, that’s Pinkie Pie for you. You get used to her. Anyway, if I know those two,” he said before letting off a long-suffering sigh, “and I do… they’ll be at it for a while.” He looked at the both of them, and at his now ice cream smeared paw with a laugh. “Okay, you two? You’re both a mess. Let’s get you a bath, huh? You stay out in this sun any longer, and you’ll petrify.”
“No arguments here,” Agate said, grunting. “It’s going to be a pain getting this goop out of my feathers and fur. Got a big enough tub?”
“Hm? Oh, yeah, no problem,” Spike said with a wave of his hand. “You’re a bit smaller than Twilight, after all, Agate. Only one tub, though. You’ll have to take turns, for the tub, but I can use the hose to spray the worst off the other,” Spike offered helpfully.
“Agate gets the tub,” Storm said with a nod. “I’ll wait over by the hose.” Turning to Agate, and heedless of the mess, he nosed at Agate’s beak. “G’wan, sis. I’ll wait my turn. Keep the books safe, though!”
“Hooves, kid. You’ve got hooves and I’ve got hands. Easier for me to use the hose. You also take a lot less time to clean up than I do. You get the bath. Besides, Fluttershy is still in there, and she’s not going to be too happy to see me.”
“But—” Storm began, looking over to Agate who simply shook her head and tossed the panniers – which had somehow remained unblemished by ice cream – at him.
“Go on. I’ll be up later.” Agate simply stared at him until Storm grinned sheepishly and nodded.
“Alright, alright!” Storm bit the panniers, only to have them pulled from his muzzle.
Spike shook his head as he slung the bags over his shoulder. “Nothing doing. You’re a guest, and I’ll do the carrying!” He waddled over to the door and opened it for Storm. “Don’t even bother trying to not get it on the floor; it’s kinda going to happen anyway. I’ll clean it up later. But whatever you do, don’t get it on the books, or Twilight will have both our hides! Fluttershy might be upstairs, so wait here and let me go, first.”
As it turned out, the mare wasn’t hiding upstairs, so Storm was led upstairs to the tub. As soon as it had been filled with steaming warm water and bubble bath, a nearly shrill cry came from outside. “Spiiiiike!”
“Oh, for…” Spike rolled his eyes and groaned. “Coming!” He turned to Storm with a wry grin. “Brushes are there, and shampoo is in these bottles. You’re going to smell like an explosion in a florist’s shop, but at least you’ll be clean.” He glanced at the doorway and chuckled. “I’d better go see what she needs before she starts yelling again.”
After Spike ran downstairs, Storm climbed into the tub. It was quite the relief, as the ice cream had become rather itchy. It was quite easy to scrub the worst of the goop out of his mane, tail and off his body, but one thing he realized was that he didn’t have the proper tools to preen his wings. Even the finest of the brushes were too firm for the feathers; he’d have to see if he could borrow some preening equipment.
“Need some help?” came a gentle voice from the doorway.
“Yeep!” Startled, Storm dropped the brush he’d been trying to preen the worst out of his wings with; it fell to the floor with a clatter. He looked over at the door, eyes wide, and saw Twilight covering her muzzle with a hoof as she fought to stifle a giggle. “Oh, Miss Twilight!” Storm sat back into the water, sighing in relief. “Sorry for dropping the brush. You spooked me!”
Horn igniting, Twilight levitated the brush off the floor and hung it on the rack once more. Smiling, she took a few steps towards the tub. “No problem. But do you need some help? With the preening, that is.”
“Please!” Storm grinned sheepishly. “I can’t get my feathers clean without my kit.” He made a face and stuck his tongue out. “Well, I could, but I don’t want to. I like ice cream, but not after it melted all over me!”
Twilight snorted and nodded in agreement. “I can certainly see why. Alright, sit up a bit more and spread your wings a little.” Her horn flared alight again, and she shaped the water into the tools necessary. With practiced ease, she began to preen out the debris from Storm’s feathers. “It’s been a while since I’ve done this, but fortunately Rainbow Dash needed the help a lot. I got quite good at it, what with all the trees and things she’s crashed into.” She shook her head and chuckled. “You’d like her, I think.” Storm winced, and Twilight pulled her magic away from him. “Are you okay? I didn’t tug too hard on the feathers, did I?”
“Uh, no, Miss Twilight. It’s just…” Storm’s voice faded out as he mumbled to himself.
“Hm? What’s wrong?” Twilight started cleaning out his feathers again.
“Nothing’s wrong, really…” Storm muttered, barely loud enough to be heard.
“Now, you’re sounding like the Crusaders when they’ve done something they shouldn’t have,” Twilight said archly. She splashed a bit of water on Storm, and used the water-based preening comb to prod his ribs gently by the shoulder where most foals were ticklish.
After a brief giggle, Storm sighed. “I just feel bad that we scared the Cake’s foals and Miss Fluttershy.”
Smiling maternally, Twilight gently rubbed shampoo into Storm’s mane. “Keep your eyes closed. Don’t worry about the foals; they’re really young and scare easily. I’m sure the Cakes realize you didn’t do it deliberately.”
“I know,” Storm said in a near whine, “but Agate and I still aren’t allowed back to Sugar Cube Corner. That, and we still scared Miss Fluttershy. Agate thinks that we’re going to be dragged back to Canterlot in chains by the end of the day.”
Laughing, Twilight brushed tears from her eyes and shook her head. “Not at all! It was a simple misunderstanding. I spoke with Fluttershy before coming up here. She’s escorting the ducks to their new home and then is going to come back to properly meet you and Agate. But rest assured, there will be nopony being chained and dragged off. My word on it!”
Storm relaxed, and was grateful he’d kept his eyes closed as Twilight rinsed off his mane with a magic bucket full of water. “Why’d Miss Fluttershy get scared of Agate, anyway? Agate is my bestest friend!”
Twilight sighed as she opened the tub’s drain plug, “Fluttershy knew a gryphoness too. Her name was Gilda, and she turned out to have a really bad idea as to what friendship was.” She levitated Storm out of the empty tub and wrapped him in a warm towel. She was silent a moment as she began to dry him off; her magic was pretty much running on automatic. “I don’t know that Dash ever really got over Gilda’s loss. Having to break off a friendship like that is never easy. But to answer your question, Gilda was extremely mean to Fluttershy. When she was startled and saw Agate, she must have thought that it was Gilda come back to hurt her feelings, again.”
“Oh.” Storm nodded a little, as he considered that. “That makes sense.” Storm sighed softly. “I wish she hadn’t been scared, though.” With a hopeful look, Storm glanced at Twilight. “Do you think she’ll give us a second chance?”
Twilight ruffled Storm’s mane with a hoof as she let her magic fade. “I’m sure she will. Now that we’ve got you clean, let’s head downstairs to talk. I’d like to find out how your search for the King and Queen is going.”
Twilight nearly fell down the stairs when Storm replied, “Oh, I already know where they were.”
“You what?!” Twilight gasped, as she caught herself at the last minute. “How?”
Storm slung the panniers over his shoulder and headed downstairs with Twilight. “Queen Nebulae’s research notes are quite specific. She’s got the coordinates they transported to right there in her notebook, and the final version of that equation is engraved on the thing in her lab.”
“You… I… what are we doing here, then?” Twilight demanded.
“Because we don’t know where they are now,” Storm added, shrugging.
Twilight blinked, and then offered Storm a seat at a desk as they walked into the main room in the library. “What do you mean?”
“If you were to open a door, you’d see what’s on the other side of it, right?”
“Obviously, yes.” Twilight nodded, scrunching her eyes a bit as she tried to figure out what Storm meant. Her eyes widened as she caught on. “Oh, I see! If we open it now, we’d see whatever was there now. Since they went through a few thousand years ago, we’d not see them.”
“We might,” Storm corrected. “But it’s not likely at all. If they happened to be there, then we would. But what’re the odds of them being in the exact same spot three thousand years later? That’s not all, either.”
Curiously, Twilight tilted her head to the side and glanced at Storm. “How so?”
“This is where things get really weird. Remember when I was telling you about the book in the box?”
It took a moment before Twilight remembered. “About how it might be open and closed at the same time?”
“Yeah!” Storm nodded and grinned. “Opening the door is a lot like opening the box. In fact, it’s kinda the same thing. If we were to open the door, then we’d know what happened on the other side of it.”
“Don’t we want to?” Twilight asked, confused. “I thought we were trying to find out what happened to the King and Queen.”
Storm’s eyes got really wide and he shook his head hard enough where Twilight could literally hear his mane smacking the sides of his neck. “No! We don’t want to know what happened to them! What if they died?”
“Then they’re dead, and nothing we can do could change that,” Twilight said softly. “I do hope they’re not.”
“Nuh-uh! That’s why we’re trying to find them instead of what happened to them!” Storm looked at Twilight with eyes that seemed to nearly glow with enthusiasm. “That’s why we can’t open the door right now.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m really not following you. Why can’t we open the door now?” Twilight asked, somewhat befuddled. “Isn’t the door just a door?”
“Look at it this way,” Storm said. “If I were to take an egg and just set it outside your door, what would you see?”
“The egg, of course.” Twilight frowned again, beginning to wonder if this was really worth the effort of listening to the colt.
“And if I were to squash the egg right after you closed the door once you’d seen the egg? What would you see if you looked out the door again?” Storm couldn’t help get a mischievous grin on his muzzle; this was fun and Twilight was so close to understanding! He just knew it!
“I’d see a squashed egg.” Twilight hadn’t been born yesterday, and she knew Storm was up to something. The problem was, she didn’t know exactly what. She didn’t care for that much, and it showed with a slight souring of her expression.
“Okay. Now, if you saw the squashed egg and closed the door again, what would happen if you cast a spell that allowed you to open the door and see what was behind it five minutes ago? What would you see?”
Twilight knew there was a catch somewhere. She sat down and rubbed her chin speculatively. “If the spell worked, then I’d see an un-squashed egg.” Then it hit her, and her eyes went wide. “But we wouldn’t be able to take the egg back, because we’d already seen it as squashed! It would cause a paradox! How could we have seen the squashed egg if it had never been there to be squashed?”
Storm giggled, hugging Twilight tightly. “Exactly!”
“That… that explains so much,” Twilight said as she hugged Storm back. “I used a time travel spell by Star Swirl the Bearded, once. A future me appeared and tried to warn me about something. I thought I had tried to warn myself of an impending disaster. But it turned out I was just warning myself to not worry.” She grinned sheepishly, and let the hug go. “So it makes sense. I saw myself come back in time, so I had to go back in time to see myself. It’s also, I’m fairly sure, why the spell won’t take me back there again. To avoid paradox.”
“Yeah, exactly,” Storm agreed. He sighed, and brushed his mane out of his eyes. “That’s why we have to be real careful opening the door at all. We can do it once, safely. But once we do, we can’t ever do anything from before that point. Once we make a change? Then we have to destroy the door, after it’s shut.”
“Let me think a moment.” Twilight paced slowly, head down as she pondered. “Why would we need to destroy the door? You’d think that closing it would be good enough, but you were pretty adamant about that.” She glanced over at Storm, who was watching her as she paced, his ears perked forward attentively. “Okay. I think I see your reasoning. Destroy the door so that nopony else can use it to go back to a point earlier than we did. There’s no point going later than we went, so really, there’s no reason to have the door remain. It’s too dangerous.” Storm nodded; Twilight had figured it out, precisely. She continued, though. “I don’t understand one thing.”
“What’s that?” Storm asked as he tilted his head to the side and shifted in his seat a bit.
“The doorway was already used by the King and Queen, so how can we use it now?” Twilight began to pace back and forth again as she tried to work things out.
“Because they’re the egg. That’s why we want to find out exactly when they went through. If we catch them almost immediately after that point, then we’ve got a lot of flexibility in what to do next. We can’t open the door to before that time. I mean, we could, but I’m really not sure what would happen if we tried. How could they walk through a door that was already open… somewhen else?”
“What would happen?” Twilight asked, sitting back down at the table across from Storm.
“I don’t know.” Storm looked up into a stunned Twilight’s eyes, his own reflecting his uncertainty. “I really don’t know what would happen.”
Twilight narrowed her eyes and stared at Storm as if trying to see inside his head. “Guess. This is important, Storm. You’re talking about Princess Celestia’s and Princess Luna’s parents. The King and Queen of Equestria.”
“I really don’t know, Miss Twilight.” Storm sighed, and rested his chin on the table. “The Universe might come up with a way of preventing us or anypony else from making that sort of paradox inducing change. That’s one possibility. Another is that… hm. Okay, think of time as a bit of yarn. You have a length of yarn and at one point it branches into three separate lines.”
“This I already know,” Twilight interrupted. “The branch in the yarn represents a choice made. The branches represent all possible decisions that might be made.”
“Right. But what happens if you’re on a branch and you do something that causes the decision that made the branch you’re on to not be made?”
Twilight blanched as she considered. “We’d cease to be.”
“Maybe,” Storm admitted. “Probably not, though. We might keep going on as if nothing had happened. We might exist. But everything else before the point of interference might not. Or we’d just not be able to see it.”
“You need to start taking this seriously!” Twilight admonished. “You’re talking about something that could be even more dangerous than Nightmare Moon or Discord.”
“Miss Twilight, I am taking this seriously. Why do you think I’m not just opening doors?” Storm sighed, nudging the panniers that sat on the table before him with his nose. “There’s a lot of research and study that has to be done before we can even begin to get as far as the Queen did.”
Slightly mollified, Twilight stopped pacing and looked at Storm intently. She was still very much worried, but he was at least appearing rational about it. “Such as?”
“We’ve got to study the Queen’s notes to figure out how she did what she did. We need to understand this as well as she did before we can even think about making changes.” Storm snorted, shaking his head. “We don’t even know how to turn the thing on! And that isn’t all.” Storm nosed open the pannier and flipped the notebook open to a series of numbers. “That’s the Queens’ coordinate system. What’s it mean? We can’t do anything until we decipher it.”
Twilight nodded, rubbing her chin with a hoof. “We’re going to have to literally re-create the Queen’s research. Walk it through step by step, testing a lot of it as we go. It’ll be a lot easier since we have her notes; we won’t have to start from nothing.”
Storm nodded, smiling a little bit. “Yeah. It’s going to make it a lot easier to figure out how to change what she did, too. That door is meant to open at a specific point. We have to understand this better than the Queen did. We not only have to open it at that same point, but we have to open it at the same point but a second or two after she got there. That isn’t even the hard part!”
Twilight nodded. “No kidding. Neither one of us are alicorns like the Princesses. You’re not even a unicorn! How are we going to power this thing to begin with? The Queen had the King there, with her. I don’t think one single unicorn is going to be able to do what it took two alicorns to do!”
“We’ll think of something,” Storm said as he sighed gustily. “The Princesses might have to help. They’ll have to, if we’re going to do this.”
“There might be another way,” Twilight murmured. “We might be able to use something similar to the arcane crystals that power the Canterlot shields.” She glanced at Storm from the corner of her eyes. “You might remember hearing about those, since you’re the one who blew them up in the first place.”
Storm blew a raspberry at Twilight before sticking his tongue out at her. “Technically, I didn’t do anything. I was just along for that particular ride, thank you very much! Besides, the crystals might not be the right kind of magic.”
“Wait, what?” Twilight asked, perplexed. “What do you mean, ‘right kind of magic’?”
“Isn’t magic like electricity?” Storm looked up at Twilight. “I mean, you’ve got alternating current and direct current.” He began to squirm as Twilight stared at him as if he’d suddenly grown another eye in his forehead.
“Storm, what are you talking about? What is this ‘electricity’?” Twilight found her doubts being redoubled once again. Storm had made a great deal of sense when talking about the particulars of paradox and causality, but now he was clearly off in some fantasyland.
Storm rolled his eyes and sighed. “I’m being serious, here! You really mean to tell me you don’t know how your own lights are powered, the refrigerator works, or how the oven heats up?”
“Of course I do!” Twilight said, primly. “Magic.”
“Then why do you have the dam?” Storm demanded.
“To extract the natural magic from the water, of course! That, and to prevent flooding of the valley.”
As Storm stared at Twilight, his expression of incredulousness gradually changed into one of surprise mixed with a liberal amount of awe. He whispered softly, “You really don’t know, do you?”
“Storm, you’re starting to scare me. What are you talking about?”
“Miss Twilight, it isn’t magic at all. It’s science. It’s basic electronics. The hydroelectric dam isn’t extracting anything from the water. The water is pushing a series of turbine blades. Those turbine blades are spinning a magnet around a coil of copper wire. When you pass a magnet through a coil of wire, you get an electrical current. That current, when applied to the metal rod in your oven, encounters a high resistance. That resistance causes heat, and that’s what cooks your food.” Storm watched Twilight’s eyes, and saw… not acceptance of what he was saying, but perhaps an increase in her doubt about the status quo. “You can also harness that current to do nearly anything. Build an electrical motor and stick a propeller on the end, and you could fly if it were big enough. Or have a small fan to keep you cool in the heat, if you built it small. There’s absolutely nothing magical about it, and you don’t need to be a unicorn to build or use any of it.”
“I don’t understand,” Twilight murmured. “Why would the Princess tell us that it was magic?” She blinked, and then glanced at Storm intently. “Wait. You said the… electrical... did I pronounce that right?” When Storm nodded, she continued. “You said the electrical current is generated when you pass a ‘magnet’ through a loop of wire. Where does the current go? How would it be transferred from the dam to, say, my oven?”
“The current is caused by the interaction of the magnetic field with the loops of wire. That current is transferred along the wire to wherever it’s going to be used,” Storm replied.
“Then why don’t we have wires everywhere?” Twilight asked rhetorically as she paced. “They’re not buried, that I know of. Unless…” She lifted her head, eyes brightening as the realization struck her. “Unless that’s where magic comes in. Magic is being used to transfer the electricity from the dam to where it’s being used, and not through wires!”
“I don’t know how magic works,” Storm admitted. “For all I know, magic might transfer electricity a lot more efficiently that way.”
“Can you prove any of this?” Twilight asked, almost dreading the answer.
“Yeah, if you have what I need to build something small,” Storm said. “A small light bulb, some copper wire, and a hoof crank would work. Might be able to light the bulb if you’ve enough copper wire.”
“I don’t have that much,” Twilight admitted. “But I can write a letter to the Princess and ask her about all of this.” Looking over at Storm, Twilight found herself becoming almost afraid as to what the foal represented. If he was right, then her world wasn’t what she thought it was. “Are you okay with that?”
Shrugging, Storm nodded. “Sure, I don’t mind. Princess Celestia will probably need to know this anyway, because we’ll probably need to experiment a bit before we’re ready to try and bring her parents home.”
“We?” Twlight arched an eyebrow, smiling slowly.
“Well, yeah.” Storm fluffed his wings, a bit self-conscious under that smile. “I can’t do it on my own. I can work with science, not with magic. You can work with both. If we’re going to do this, then I think that’s what we’ll need… both science and magic, together.”
“Fair enough. Let me go write that letter to the Princess. In the meantime, promise me you won’t talk to anypony else about any of this until we hear back. Okay?” Twilight may not have Fluttershy’s Stare, but she could do a fair imitation of ‘School Headmistress’ when she had to.
The look had it’s intended effect; Storm didn’t precisely cower, but he did scrunch himself up a bit, and nodded. “Yes, Ma’am. I promise!”
“Promise accepted,” Twilight said warmly, ruffling Storm’s mane to comfort the poor colt. “One thing I don’t understand but would like to ask, if I could.” Storm nodded, perking his ears back up, attentively. “Storm… one minute, you’re about as young in attitude and behavior as the Crusaders are. The next, you’re holding a conversation with me that I have to work to follow. What’s up with that?”
“I…” Storm swallowed. “I don’t have any memories earlier than about two and a half months ago. I couldn’t even talk or understand, until the Princess intervened. But… it seems if I’m working on something or talking about something I used to know about, then I get a bit more access to what I used to know. It might be a memory relating to my work, or it might be that I remember a different way of doing something. Doctor Coltle told me that when I stop thinking about things or working on something, my mind back-slides to something a bit more appropriate to my appearance.” Self conscious again, Storm folded his ears back and ruffled his wings. “A foal.”
Chuckling quietly, Twilight nodded and smiled. “That’s not a bad thing, Storm. It might just be what we need to solve the problem at hoof. With a foal’s boundless curiosity and creativity, you might just stumble onto the answer. Enjoy it, too. You’ve no idea how many times in the past I wish I could be a filly again. You’re lucky, in that you get to be. Now,” she declared as she rose from the table, “let me write that letter and get it sent off. If you’re right, I suspect the reply would be fairly quick.”
Even Twilight was surprised by how true that was.
Twilight stood in the doorway of the guest room, looking down upon Storm as he slept. The foal was clearly at peace; he was rolled over onto his back with his legs curled tightly to chest and belly way and wings unfurled to the sides. As she watched, he wriggled a bit in his sleep, yawning hugely with a curling of his tongue before settling back into a deeper repose.
She, however, was anything but at rest… either emotionally or physically. Stomach tying itself in knots for the third time that night, Twilight found herself re-reading a portion of the letter she had received from Princess Celestia… and Princess Luna.
‘A little over three thousand years ago, Equestria found itself at a crossroads. Magic and technology were both in ascent and found themselves at cross-purposes. The unicorns felt threatened by the advent of science and technology as non-unicorns, under the right circumstances, could indeed perform virtually all of the tasks accomplished by magic. Earth ponies relished the idea of technology, as it would lessen their reliance on the unicorns. Pegasi were somewhat upset, as they felt that flight and the ability to control weather were all that set them apart from the others.
The best and the brightest minds of the age came together in order to discuss this and to try and work it out. It was, in all honesty, one of the shining moments of the earth ponies; they opened their presentation with the recommendation that technology not be permitted to flourish and spread unchecked. The costs were too great in material and being the custodians of the earth, they realized that resources were not infinite. Should technology take full hold, the day would come when there was not enough to go around. They foresaw strife brought about by want, and conflict arising amongst friends becoming common.
They proposed that technology not be abolished, as much good could indeed come from it. That they felt that it should be tightly regulated and integrated in a safe manner to Equestrian society is the reason the negotiations were so short; the pegasus and unicorn delegations were anticipating an argument to end all arguments over the issue. Neither ever expected the earth ponies to recommend partial shelving of their ideas!
Indeed, the presentation was magical in its simplicity and forthrightness. It was both recommended and immediately approved that the only uses of this technology should be limited in scope to areas that could actually reduce the impact on our environment as well as medical applications, for all ponies value life. Therefore, the construction of dams and other methods of generating electricity were authorized in order to power things like furnaces for warmth as well as ovens for cooking. Both applications had required the burning of wood previously, but no longer. They made a case for refrigerators, due to the increased preservation of food as well as lessening the impact of the summer’s heat on the elderly and the young. Historical notes have it that they’d built an ‘air conditioner’ for the meeting hall and had it running on magically supplied electricity. That certainly helped in keeping tensions to a minimum; nopony is at their best when baking in the humidity of summertime.
In light of such a noble position, the pegasus and unicorn contingent requested that the earth pony scientists be granted lifetime stipends; it made sense, since they would not be able to pursue their natural talents any longer. This was unanimously approved amongst the unicorns and pegasi, but the earth ponies protested. They felt that they should continue to be contributing members of society, and asked that instead of a stipend, they instead be given jobs to perform in perpetuity. They wished to earn their own way and remain useful rather than be paid simply to remain silent and idle. Respect for the earth ponies reached an all time high, that day. Their request was granted, and the matter was resolved… for the most part.
There were two scientists that did not agree and that left the conference before it was concluded. These two felt, perhaps even rightfully so, that technology had even more to offer than what was being allowed. Their motives were benign; they wished to push ahead on the medical and scientific fronts. They wished to eradicate all disease, suffering, and want from the world around them.
These are noble goals, but unachievable through technology alone. Success came in the careful combination of magic with technology, and the even more delicate integration with the results to Equestrian society at large.
Herein lies the danger that Storm represents. Consider the damage his arrival caused! Only now, months after his arrival, have we successfully restored Canterlot’s arcane crystals. It is theorized that the event that brought Lightning Storm to us was purely technological in nature, and no thought had been put into combining it safely with magic. It is this purity that caused the damage to the crystals, but it is also the same purity that the renegade scientists espoused.
We believe most firmly that Lightning Storm is being completely honest with us; we believe that he does not actually remember what happened in his life before his arrival in its entirety. He has, however, demonstrated a command of mathematics and science that rivals that of even the most educated of ponies at the Gifted Unicorn Academy. Even in his brief conversation with you he proposed giving flight to the flightless, which is one of the very cornerstones of the renegade’s position.
The renegades were finally brought before the King and Queen… our parents. They were given the option of abiding by the accords and giving up their science, or banishment. They chose banishment, but noted that they would indeed return some day to provide the fruits of their labors to the land that they held so dear in their hearts.
With that, they were gone. In their wake, they left worry and tension; would they come back? What would they bring with them? Could science and technology unbridled unseat the more tempered blend? These questions drove the citizens at large to beg answers from our parents… answers that could not truly be provided. It was decided, then, that the King and Queen would replicate the scientist’s line of study and attempt to bring them back home again.
As you know, our parents never returned. Ordinarily, either Luna or myself would perform a dream-walking spell upon Lightning Storm in order to better determine his origins and disposition. However, we cannot in good faith do this. Storm might very well represent the single best chance… perhaps the only chance… of the King and Queen returning home to us. We cannot rule out bias with absolute certainty, and so we turn to you, my most trusted student, to do what we cannot. With eyes open and judgment unclouded, we beseech you to cast the dream-walking spell upon Lightning Storm on our behalf.
We do not ask this lightly, Twilight. You must understand that these are circumstances potentially as dire as any threat Equestria has faced. Everything Storm has told you so far is accurate to a point. The dam on the outskirts of Ponyville does indeed generate electricity in the manner he describes; turbines do spin magnets over coils of wire. As you surmised, the current generated is accumulated and transported to the point of use via magic. It is important to note, however, that his method of transferring the energy is also valid and would work. In theory, wire could be strung across Equestria and provide the same function as the magical transmission.
In reality, Storm is only wrong in that the dam is not extracting magic from the water. Magic is everywhere, and with the proper knowledge and with care, it can be obtained from nearly anything. Take the crystals that power Canterlot’s backup shield; were we to have unicorns recharge them, then the poor ponies would literally be sucked dry of all arcane energy and left an empty husk.
We must ask you to determine if Lightning Storm is one of the scientists returned, or if he is an innocent caught in events beyond his control. If he is indeed an innocent, then he might hold the key to bringing Mother and Father home. It is for that reason we ask that you do this for us, Twilight. We might overlook many warning signs in our desire to have our parents back, and we trust that you will not be so blinded.
With deepest respect,
Twilight sighed, levitating the letter over to the nightstand next to where Storm lay, oblivious. There really is no choice, is there? Twilight thought. I mean, their concerns are valid, and if the Princess’ fears are realized, the danger is appalling. I have to use the dream-walking spell.
Mind made up, Twilight opted for a cup of calming tea before starting. She was a bit too wound up, and doubted her own ability to cast so delicate a spell. Thus, a few minutes later, Twilight found herself back in Storm’s room, sitting at the head of his bed with her hooves resting gently on his temples.
What happened next was beyond anything she’d ever experienced before.
One moment Twilight was standing on all four hooves in the guest bedroom of her library, looking down at a sleeping foal. The next instant she found herself standing on two leg-like appendages looking out what had to be the most detailed painting of a star-scape she’d ever seen. Glancing down, Twilight saw that she was holding onto a railing of sorts with two hand-like appendages. Huh. No scales or fur. Four fingers to Spike’s three, but still has an opposable thumb. She wiggled her fingers in sequence. Good dexterity, too. Fantastic sense of touch! Twilight noted as she ran her fingers through her long, ginger-colored hair. Glancing down at her chest, she smiled wryly. Obviously female and mammalian. Glad for that, not even sure what I’d do if I were cold-blooded or male.
“It never gets old, does it?” asked a voice right by Twilight’s side.
Twilight flinched and spun around, only to now find herself face to face with another one of these strange creatures. This one had a brown mane that was close-cropped but tinged with grey at the temples. He wore a moustache and beard, also tinged with grey, but the soft green eyes and gentle smile at least softened her surprise. He was wearing a uniform of sorts that wasn’t too far off from her own; there was also script written on it, though she couldn’t decipher it.
“Wh…what doesn’t?” Twilight swallowed hard; heart pounding oddly in her chest. This has got to be Storm in his native form!
Chuckling as the corners of his eyes crinkled in amusement, Storm lifted his hand and offered her a steaming cup of something. “Here, have some coffee. Looks like you need it, Liz.” Once she’d taken the cup, he lifted his own and gestured towards the painting. “The view. You and I always did come here when we were stressed or we needed to remind ourselves what we were working towards.” Storm paused a moment, sipping from his mug before continuing. “Now we come here when we’re stressed and to remind ourselves where we’re trying to return to.”
Since it seemed expected of her, Twilight sipped from her own mug. The brew was strange, being both bitter and sweet at the same time and with the distinct aftertaste of a small amount of alcohol. Well, I can’t imagine he’d give me something like that if it were bad for me. Perhaps whomever I am here liked it? Regardless, I need to start finding out what’s going on. At least I can clearly rule out him being a pony! He’s definitely not one of the scientists.
Storm sipped at his mug and stood next to Twilight, gazing out at the darkness. A look of sadness crossed his face, and Twilight could swear he aged another decade in those few seconds. “Five billion dead,” he muttered. “All because someone didn’t follow containment protocol. We cured it, though. Took four years, but we cured it.” He sighed, emptying his mug in one long pull. “Four more years, and they’ll be home,” he murmured. “I received the latest telemetry from the shuttle fleet about an hour ago. The automated systems are functioning perfectly, and the stasis chambers are all in the green.”
Not knowing what to say, Twilight just stared into her steaming mug and nodded. This is so very strange! I don’t know what to say, or to do! Celestia help me, what if I say the wrong thing?
Fortunately, her nervousness was precisely what was expected. A gentle hand rested on her shoulder and shook it, accompanied by the words, “Hey. I miss them too, but we had to save those we could. Once we cured the plague, there was no reason for us all to stay here and die. You did a bang-up job on building the stasis units. Max and Irene gutted the shuttles and turned them into cargo haulers. The station AI took it upon itself to redesign the shuttle’s computers so that it could copy it’s functions and fly the shuttle fleet along the course I plotted.”
“But…” Twilight choked up, unable to continue. So much is making sense, now. Storm and his people were trying to fight a plague. But how does that relate to him arriving in Equestria?
“I know.” Storm grinned sheepishly. “We never intended to have our daughter, but I’d not change it for anything. I just wish we could have had that blessed accident nine months earlier so I could have put you two on one of the shuttles.”
“What?!” The exclamation burst out of Twilight before she could stop it. “Daughter?”
Storm turned to her, expression going cold as he stared at her. “Excuse me? What did you say?”
Oh, haystacks! Twilight thought. Okay, Twilight. Improvise, improvise! How can I get out of this mess? Sighing, she set the cup down and turned to face Storm. “Sorry. I… I had a dream that we’d managed to get another shuttle built and evacuated some of the others. I guess I wanted it to be true so much that I just believed it.”
Expression softening, Storm even smiled as he took Twilight’s hands in his. “If we had managed to get another built, you know full and damn well I’d have put you on it even if I had to bolt your stasis pod to the outer hull!”
“As if!” Twilight said spontaneously as she squeezed Storm’s hands in hers. “You need me here, and you know it!”
The tactic worked. Storm laughed and nodded, letting her hands go. “Yes. Yes, I do. Your work has been nothing short of brilliant.” Folding his hands behind his back, Storm turned to face the stars once more. “It’s because of you and Jen that our food supplies lasted as long as they have.” He shook his head, looking at Twilight over his shoulder. “We could have tried the grand experiment several years ago, but decided to test and review until we were just about out of supplies.”
Twilight nodded, mental gears whirring away. Makes sense. If there’s that much on the line and no reason to rush, why not run the clock out a bit? Refine the data, test and re-test everything. “You’re sure it will work?”
Storm nodded, eyes sparkling a bit. “As sure as I can be. The math works out perfectly. Ivan assures me the reactor can handle the output necessary. If this works as well as the simulations do, then we’ll be back home this time tomorrow. A brief respite, then our real work begins.”
Feeling her cheeks grow warm, Twilight stifled a cough as she turned away from Storm as well as the expanse before her. With so many dead, he can only be talking about repopulation. I don’t even want to think about two aliens reproducing and how they might do it! It’s bad enough I’m wearing somepony else’s body!
With a snort, Storm wrapped his arms around Twilight’s waist and pulled her so that her back was against his chest. “Yes, there’ll be plenty of that, too. I’ll have you know I was more referring to teaching and preserving knowledge! It isn’t all about procreating. Though now that you mention it…” Lifting his head, Storm leaned over to kiss his wife’s neck, but stopped when he caught the look of horror on her face, reflected in the pane of glass. Blinking, his eyes went wide and his hug loosened. “Liz? What’s wrong?”
Flinching, Twilight pulled out of Storm’s arms and staggered forward a few steps before catching herself on the railing. “Let go of me!”
Confused and more than a little hurt, Storm lifted his hands and backed slowly away. “What’d I do? Liz, I’m sorry… whatever it was that I did or said, I’m sorry! What happened?”
Twilight turned to face Storm, unable to completely mask the revulsion completely. “I’m sorry. I just…” She couldn’t bring herself to complete the sentence, as a shudder shook her.
Heartbroken, Storm’s hands dropped to his side. “I…” He swallowed hard, then sighed. “I’ll be in the lab, all night. Don’t worry, I won’t be back to our room. Tell our daughter that I love her, and I’ll see her soon.” Feet shuffling across the carpet, he opened the elevator doors and stepped in. Before the doors closed behind him, he turned and looked at Twilight strangely. “Liz? Did you ever have déjà vu before something happened? I could’ve sworn that we had this discussion before. Just… that it ended differently.” He cast a look at a nearby table and a slight ghost of a smile quirked the corner of his mouth upwards. “Very differently,” he murmured as the elevator doors closed in front of him.
The doors aren’t the only thing closing, Twilight noted. It’s not the spell ending, Twilight decided. Whatever I just did triggered some kind of defense. Storm doesn’t want me in here, anymore.
Reality re-asserted itself for Twilight; the walls began to melt and re-shape themselves from cold grey metal to the soft earthen tones of her bedroom. She herself began to change, much to her relief; being in a strange bipedal body was disconcerting, and she found herself grateful for having two of her four hooves firmly planted on the ground. Twilight was still standing at the foot of the bed Storm was sleeping in, her hooves gently pressed to his temples. Storm sighed softly as Twilight took a step away, breaking contact. Smiling down at him, she chuckled then whispered, “I’m sorry, Storm. I’ll make it up to you when you wake. I’ll get some cupcakes from Sugar Cube corner, but sleep now… you must be exhausted after that.”
Deftly, Twilight tugged the covers up over Storm’s shoulder; the foal didn’t even move. As quietly as she was able, Twilight went downstairs to find a very put-upon Agate resting her head face-down on the tabletop while Fluttershy pestered her and Spike tried to stifle a worsening case of the giggles.
“I’m really very sorry!” Fluttershy said, nearly frantic with the need to be forgiven. “I didn’t mean to step on your tail. I thought you were—”
“Miss Fluttershy,” interrupted an aggrieved Agate, “please by the light of the Royal Sisters, stop! For the thirtieth time—”
“Thirty second!” Spike snickered. I might get yelled at for that later, but it’ll be worth it! When Fluttershy gets on an apology roll, she does not fool around!
Agate continued after a long-suffering sigh. “For the thirty second time then, there’s nothing to forgive. My tail is fine, the ducks are safely at their pond, and we’ve got the ice cream and sprinkles out of my feathers and fur. This Gilda doesn’t sound very pleasant, and after your last experience with her, it’s understandable that you’d be a bit twitchy. I startled you, after all. Please, I beg of you… Let. It. Go!”
“Okay,” Fluttershy whispered. Agate sighed in relief just in time for Fluttershy to continue by murmuring, “If you’ll forgive me…”
In frustration, Agate made a strangled gargling noise before lifting her head.
Before the young gryphoness could begin to bash her own head against the tabletop, Twilight walked over to Fluttershy and rested a hoof on her friend’s shoulder. “Fluttershy, it’s okay. I think it’s fairly clear Agate doesn’t hold anything against you.”
Agate glanced over at Twilight, expression so grateful that the mare had to grit her teeth to keep from dissolving into mirth. Spike had no such compulsion; the little dragon collapsed on the floor, paws holding his belly as he howled with laughter.
“Okay,” whispered Fluttershy, now fully self-conscious about the goings on. “If you’re sure.” Without waiting for confirmation, she turned to look at Twilight. “How’s Storm doing? Spike said that you were using a magic spell on him.”
At Twilight’s arched eyebrow, Spike sat back up, rubbing the tears of laughter from his eyes. “You’d have wound up telling them anyway, Twilight,” he pointed out. “That, and it kept them down here so you’d not be interrupted. Even I know that it’s dangerous to interrupt that sort of spell.”
“True,” Twilight admitted. “I’d have wound up telling you all, really. I’m sure the Princess would approve. After all… Fluttershy, you’re one of my best and closest friends as well as the bearer of the Element of Kindness. I need your opinion on the important things we deal with. Spike, you’re my number one assistant and have helped quite a lot when I get stuck on something.” Having acknowledged her two friends, Twilight turned to Agate. “You probably know Storm better than most of us, anyway. It wouldn’t be fair to keep you in the dark, and you might know something we don’t.”
Twilight sighed as she took a spot at the table. “What I’m about to tell you has got to stay in these walls. Don’t tell anypony else, not even the others; I’ll take care of that when they get back.” She waited until she got nods of acknowledgement from Spike, Fluttershy, and Agate before continuing. “The short form is that the Princesses were worried that Storm was actually a renegade scientist from long ago. She asked me to find out.”
“Um… I don’t understand,” Fluttershy said, softly. “Why didn’t she find out herself? Weren’t he and Agate staying at the orphanage at the castle?”
“We’d been brought to the castle proper, once Storm was well enough,” Agate said, settling back down. She ruffled her one wing instinctively, which drew another pitying glance from Fluttershy. “I figured it was because Storm had opened the study door.”
“Partly, yes.” Twilight levitated over a pitcher of water and poured glasses for everyone. “But there’s a few things you need to know, and it’s going to bring up a whole lot of questions. I’ll give you the history later, but I’ll answer the big questions first. For now, just accept that there was once a King and Queen of Equestria and that they were the Princess’ parents. They left some three thousand years ago in search of a few renegades, but never made it back.” Twilight glanced into the eyes of those assembled around the table meaningfully. “The reason why the Princess didn’t use the spell herself was a good one. She was not only concerned that Storm might be one of the renegade scientists, but also worried that he might hold the key to getting her parents back. She didn’t want to take the chance of overlooking any sign that Storm might be a threat.”
“Wait,” Spike said as he waved a hand and lowered his head in disbelief. “You mean to tell me that the Princess was willing to give up any chance of finding her folks again just on the off chance Storm might be dangerous?”
“Not only willing to,” Twilight murmured, eyes slipping out of focus at the thought of it. “Not only willing to, but that’s precisely what she did. That’s why she asked me to use the spell.”
“Is he?” Agate asked, bluntly. “One of those scientists or a danger, I mean.” Idly raking her talons over the table, Agate glanced up to where Storm was sleeping. “None of you were around the first few days after he got here. He was so painfully lost, and I don’t just mean he didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know who he was, where he came from, who we were, or anything else. I just can’t believe he’s any of those things.”
“That’s where things start to get even stranger,” Twilight sighed. “The spell let me into his dreams, and I can tell you beyond any shade of doubt that Lightning Storm is not one of the renegade scientists.” After taking a sip of her water, she looked around the table again. “The problem is, I don’t know what he is.”
“What do you mean, Twilight?” Spiked asked. “He’s a pegasus pony, about as old as the Crusaders… maybe a year younger at the very most.”
“That’s just it, Spike. He’s not only a lot older than the Crusaders, but he’s not even a pony. Not in his mind, at least. He was old enough to have grey in his mane, moustache, and beard, and he had a wife… and daughter. I don’t think it ended well for them.”
“Oh no!” Fluttershy gasped, covering her muzzle with her hooves. “That poor pony! To lose his family like that… it’s just horrible!”
“But Twilight just said he’s not a pony!” Spike protested. “We don’t know what he is.”
“Yes, we do!” Fluttershy disagreed firmly. “Whatever he was before doesn’t matter. Now he is a pony that has lost everything. He’s going to need a lot of rest, care, and friends to get through this.”
Twilight recognized that tone; Fluttershy had all but adopted the foal in her quest to see that he was properly healed. Smiling gently, Twilight nodded. “Yes, he will. That’s part of why he was allowed to stay after the magical accident brought him to Ponyville.”
“If that’s part of it,” Agate asked as she preened her chest feathers idly, “what’s the rest of it?”
“He’s unstable.” Twilight rubbed between her eyes with a hoof as she heard gasps around the table. “Storm is a non-pony stuffed into a pony body. He’s already had a few meltdowns and some brutal shocks. Doctor Coltle is worried that he’ll slowly start losing his mind.”
Spike got a strange look on his muzzle, and slid off the table. “I’m going to check something, Twi. I’ll be right back.” Barely audible, Spike muttered, “Now where did I read that?” before he disappeared into one of the stacks of books.
Agate looked at her talons, then raked them over her crest feathers. “I guess I’ve got to disagree. If anything, Storm seems more solid than ever. Consider that those ‘meltdowns’ as Coltle called them happened pretty much after he got here. The first was even before I met him, and I met him on day two or three. The one at the door was from him being over-worked, and the one at flight camp shouldn’t even count.” She looked meaningfully at Fluttershy. “Come close to losing one of your wings and see how you react.”
Fluttershy nodded a little. “Oh, I could do quite well on the ground. I spend most of my time there, anyway!” She shivered, hugging her wings tight to her sides. “But I get your point. I don’t even want to think about what Rainbow Dash would do if she lost her wings!”
“The tales would be legendary, and each one would be worse than the previous. It’s the stuff of nightmares, to be sure,” Twilight agreed with a shudder. “Fortunately, I really doubt that’d ever happen.” After shaking her head to clear it of those awful thoughts, Twilight glanced at Agate and Fluttershy. “No, it’s a bit worse than that.”
“Yeah, no kidding,” Agate agreed. “He’s going to live as long as the Princesses.” When Twilight and Fluttershy shot her a look of shock, Agate simply shrugged a shoulder. “Storm and I are attached at the hip. You think Doctor Coltle wouldn’t tell me? Storm’s stuck, exactly as he is right now.”
“You mean he’s not ever going to grow up?” Fluttershy asked, aghast.
With a mildly sour expression at having her thunder stolen, Twilight nodded to Fluttershy. “No. No, he’s not. We’re going to live maybe another sixty or seventy years. But his life is measured in thousands, now. That’s a heavy weight for any pony to bear.”
About that time, Spike came out from behind a stack of books with one particularly dusty tome clutched to his scaled chest. “He might not have to worry about that, Twilight,” he said a bit quietly. “I think we might’ve hurt him.”
All eyes turned to Spike, and not a soul blinked. After a long few moments, Twilight found her voice. “What do you mean? How could we have hurt him? And what’s that book you have, there?”
“Twilight, d’you remember when you were trying to figure out Pinkie Pie’s Pinkie Sense?” Spike waited, until he saw her nod of affirmation. “Well, one of the things you were talking about researching was a way to see what Pinkie sees, and maybe experience that Pinkie Sense for yourself.”
“I remember,” Twilight said. “But that would’ve been a mindreading spell and not a dream-walking one. Pinkie would have been awake, and Storm was asleep.”
“But they’re kinda similar,” Spike insisted. “In both, you’re putting one mind in contact with another, right?”
“Right…” Twilight admitted reluctantly.
“Look at this, in the Codex Mentis. It says that you shouldn’t read a mind of a pony that is already being subjected to a mindreading spell.” Spike put the book down in front of Twilight, having bookmarked the requisite page.
Twilight’s mind started to whirr as she read the paragraph. “Right. That’d be three minds in collision, rendering the host mind unstable. The host can hold three, but only for a very limited time. Mere minutes, before damage starts taking place.” She looked up from the book and glanced at Spike. “What are you thinking?”
“Well…” On the spot and with so much at stake, Spike found himself suddenly self-conscious. I can do this, he told himself. Twilight is taking me seriously for once! Spike inhaled deeply, and then sighed. “Storm is a non-pony mind in a pony body. We don’t know how he got in there. The original Storm’s mind might’ve been gone, but there’s still another mind in there. What happens if the ‘empty’ one still counts?”
Twilight mulled it over for a moment, and glanced down at the book. “I was in there for a good twenty minutes. If you’re right…” She felt a growing sense of worry, and saw that it must have carried over to her eyes for Fluttershy left the table and practically flung herself upstairs to where Storm lay sleeping. “I hope you’re wrong, Spike. But if you’re not, then you might’ve just saved his life.”
Spike shook his head. “I don’t know about that, Twi. Read the next page.”
Twilight paled as she did. “Oh, no…”
Agate looked from Twilight to Spike, without receiving so much as a syllable in explanation. Librarian and assistant were locked in a pitying gaze with each other, which made Agate feel a bit annoyed. With a gusty and whistling sigh, Agate reached over and started to pull the book away from Twilight.
“Hey!” Twilight protested, horn igniting as she sought to levitate the book back.
Agate simply grinned slightly and waggled the talons on her free hand. “Gimme, or the book gets it.” She shook her head slightly, letting the unicorn know she would not, in fact, shred the book. Slightly mollified, Twilight let the book go and watched cautiously as Agate read it over.
A few moment later, Agate nodded. “Bad, but not that bad. Not as bad as you two were making it out to be.”
“How can you say that?” Twilight gasped. “It says quite clearly that only a family member can enter a mind-locked pony! Storm’s an orphan. He has no family!”
“Don’t be silly,” Agate said as she snorted derisively. “Of course he does. He’s got Miss Skies and myself. You ponies and your weird ideas as to what constitutes family!” Fixing Twilight with her best piercing stare, she continued. “After all you’ve been through, you don’t consider Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, or any of the other heroines of Equestria to be family? You don’t consider Princess Celestia family? You don’t consider Spike family?”
“Of course I do!” Twilight retorted. “That’s different. We’ve known each other for years and have been through a lot. You’ve known Storm for a few months, and are family?”
“We’ve been through more than you think!” Agate said heatedly. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, letting the breath out in a slow, even hiss. “Sorry, Miss Twilight. Still working on the famed gryphon temper. Look, we might not have been through things together, but we’ve been through the same things.” A bleak look began appearing in her eyes as she recounted the similarities. “I was left for dead… I can’t ever go back. I at least can see a gryphon fly by, but Storm will never see his people again. So, we’ve both lost our kind.” The bleak look became one of almost despair, as she continued. Her claws began sinking into the heavy wooden table they all sat around, but nobody could see fit to interrupt her as she bore her heart for all to see. “Storm’s wife and daughter are dead. His parents are likely, too, if he was as old as you hint at. My family bound my legs together and bound my wings, dragged me out of our aerie, and left me in the cold winter’s air. I’m dead to them, and them to me.” Agate’s breath caught in her throat, but she held up a hand before either Twilight or Spike could interrupt. After a moment to gather herself together, she looked at the unicorn and dragon. “Sorry. It’s why I tend not to think or talk about it, much. Still hurts.” She shuddered, gritted her beak, then made an effort to relax a little. She had a small measure of success, and was able to add, “Storm cried under my wing, those first few nights at the orphanage. I was there to comfort him, and to keep him company as he adjusted to being a pony. I helped him learn about Canterlot and Equestria. Miss Skies, Storm, and the Princesses are the closest thing I have to a clan.”
“I’m sorry, Agate,” Twilight murmured, offering a comforting hoof. “Sometimes I think we ponies forget that not every race believes or behaves as we ponies do. I can see your point, though. You and Storm have been through similar things, so you two can relate with each other.”
Agate nodded slightly. She tugged her talons from the table and rested that hand over Twilight’s hoof, giving a small squeeze. “It also helps that he considers me his big sister… and no creature values family more than a gryphoness given a second chance at one.”
“I can’t fault that,” Twilight said with a slight, but comforting smile. “I’d be the same.”
“If anypony is going to try,” Spike offered quietly as he wrung his hands, “then it ought to be Agate. The book said it was dangerous for anyone other than family to.”
Fluttershy came downstairs with tears flowing freely down her muzzle. “Twilight, I’m so sorry. I tried so hard, but I just can’t wake Storm up! He’s in a coma, and I tried everything I knew, but he just won’t wake up…” The rest of her words disappeared in little gulping hiccups, she was so distressed.
Spike, Twilight, and Agate all surrounded the crying mare and offered gentle hugs. Agate covered them as best she were able with her wing as well; a gryphon gesture of affection. “We know,” Twilight whispered. We know. It’ll be okay, Fluttershy. You’ll see.”
“You’re… you’re sure?” Fluttershy managed to whisper in-between wracking sobs that shook her frame.
“As sure as we can be,” Twilight affirmed. She turned to Agate and smiled slightly. “You sure you’re up for this? If things don’t go right, this could be dangerous.”
“He’s my kid brother,” Agate said firmly. “I wish he could go a while longer without getting folded, spindled, or otherwise mutilated in some fashion, but he’s my kid brother. Besides, if he doesn’t let me in, who else is there?”
“Even if there was,” Twilight sighed, “there’s no time to get them here.” She pointed at the book accusingly, as if it were responsible for the information contained therein. “We have only a few hours to get started. You sure you’re up for this?”
“I’m sure.” Agate nodded resolutely, and rose from the table.
As Twilight followed Agate up the stairs, she tried her best to prepare the gryphoness for what awaited her. “It’s going to be strange, Agate. It’s like nothing you’ve even thought of, before. Deal with it as best you can, but try and get Storm to come back with you as quickly as you can. You can’t force him, but you can persuade him to go. He’ll probably be the first thing you see when you get in, so try and play up the bond you two share.”
“Right,” Agate said as she curled protectively around the sleeping Storm. Draping a wing over his side, she could’ve sworn she saw him smile a little.
“Just close your eyes and relax, Agate. That’s it, deep breath…” Twilight’s horn flared, and Agate’s head landed next to Storm’s on the pillow. “And there you go. She’s in.”
“It’ll be okay, Twilight,” Fluttershy said reassuringly, giving her friend a gentle hug and nuzzle. “You’ll see.”
“I hope so, Fluttershy. I just… I just wish I could go in Agate’s place to undo everything I did wrong the first time. I hate making mistakes!”
“I know, Twilight,” Fluttershy soothed in her trademarked gentle voice. With a knowing smile, she gently prodded Twilight’s chest with a hoof. “But not every adventure will be ours to have. Nor will every problem be ours to solve. Sometimes we have to take a step back and make way for another pony to fix things. We can still be here for her, though.”
“Welcome to my world, Twilight,” Spike grumbled as he folded his arms across his chest with a perturbed expression on his face. “What you’re feeling right now? That’s what I feel. Every… single… time you girls go off without me. And no, it never gets any easier to deal with.”
Twilight had no real reply, so she just levitated her grumpy assistant over to her side, whilst she leaned against Fluttershy for comfort. “Then we’ll stand vigil, together.”