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Tales of the Winter Magic Academy

by Storytayler

Artwork by Karzahnii of DeviantArt

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, its characters, setting, and story all belong to Hasbro, Lauren Faust, and present directors and artists. Please understand that much of the content of this work is due largely to their work and creative genius. I take very little credit for anything else besides storyline; consequently, if you enjoy this work, I believe you should support the original masterpiece of the show tenfold, if not more.

Table of Contents

(Separate chapter links below; that massive document was probably getting annoying, sorry!)

Episode 1 - The New School of Magic

Chapter 1: Rude Awakening

Chapter 2: Island on the Equestrian Sea

Chapter 3: Commencement

Chapter 4: Late Night Endeavors

Chapter 5: The Walls Have Life

Chapter 6: Cave In

     Chapter 6.5: Collywobbles

Episode 2 - Timidity, Thy Name is Starlight

Chapter 7: Burden of Charcoal

Chapter 8: Conflagration

Chapter 9: Fresh Kindle

     Chapter 9.5: Pyrotechnics

Episode 3 - The Ardent Adventurer

Chapter 10: In for the Thrill

Chapter 11: Cavernous Conundrum

Chapter 12: Light at the End of the Tunnel

     Chapter 12.5: Crescendo

Episode 4 - Grand Expectations

Chapter 13: DJs Don’t Take Notes

Chapter 14: Stranding Ovation

Chapter 15: Piú Mosso

     Chapter 15.5: Downtime

Episode 5 - Mystery of the Western Wood

Chapter 16: Rowdy Rumble

Chapter 17: Talking of a Winter Wonderland

Chapter 18: Twists and Turns

Chapter 19: A Semblance, then Remnants

Chapter 20: Crimson Eyes and Iffy Lies

Chapter 21: Pony Relic

     Chapter 21.5: Exegesis

Episode 6 - To Touch the Sea of Dreams

Chapter 22: Shilly-Shallying

Chapter 23: Like Water Like Soul

Chapter 24: Facing the White Horse

     Chapter 24.5: Surveillance

Episode 7 - Mare of Disguise

Chapter 25: Where Inquiry May Lead

Chapter 26: Improvisation

Chapter 27: Strike!

     Chapter 27.5: Moonstruck

Episode 8 - Cause and Affection

Chapter 28: Hopeful Hearts but Empty Hooves

Chapter 29: Something Stolid This Way Comes

Chapter 30: Winds of Change

     Chapter 30.5: Calamity

Episode 9 - Snowstorm of the Century

Chapter 31: Locking Horns

Chapter 32: Snowy Snare

Chapter 33: Lost and Found

Chapter 34: Game of Hide and Seek

Chapter 35: The Secret Within

Chapter 36: The Phantom’s Omen

     Chapter 36.5: Assembly

Episode 10 - Lifetime Grudge

Chapter 37: Revisiting Past Annoyances

Chapter 38: Remembering Past Conflicts

Chapter 39: Returning to Abnormal

     Chapter 39.5: Incredulity

Episode 11 - Bully-Buster

Chapter 40: Happy Pokey

Chapter 41: ?


Index

EPISODE 1: THE NEW SCHOOL OF MAGIC

Chapter 1: Rude Awakening

The Winter Magic Academy.

Just the mentioning of it poured a waterfall of thoughts into Twilight's pool of a mind. The cascading waters overflowed the mare's consciousness to the point where even her dreams brimmed with beautiful preconceptions of the school. Her latest stupor took her to the sky, circling around the crescent-shaped isle as gracefully as a falcon in flight.

The bird's-eye view laid out the ideal picture Twilight had formed in her head over the past few months, however fictional it were. She had not seen the island herself, but she knew the time would come soon enough. All her recent thoughts had centered around the mere concept of the awe-inspiring school.

But as the sun rose in the backdrop of her dreams, Twilight's mind drifted to the realization that the real morning drew near. The image she worshipped faded slowly away, melting until dripping like thick paint from the blank canvass it occupied. As Twilight fell back into her conscious state the tangible morn welcomed her.

Gentle rays of light poured in through her bedroom window as the autumn wind sang a waking melody. The feel of it all brought a peaceful smile to the mare’s face. She opened her eyes with a bit of reluctance, aware that the second she beheld reality once again, her fantasizing would be swept back into the dream world.

Her bedroom hadn’t changed since she before she drifted off to sleep. Laid out before her was the charming interior of her bedroom, from the large ovoid window and soft, wooden walls to her personal bookcase and nightstand. Books and bookmarks, tidy notes, and used parchment covered every square inch of her orderly residence.

A sigh of great pleasure escaped through the student's nostrils as she lazed in the warmth of the sun that spread across her room. She closed her eyes again. The delightful coziness of her abode left Twilight lying still with any thoughts of moving about kept at bay by her contentment.

But a curious thought crossed her mind like a disgruntled whimper.

Why’s the sun up so early..?

All of a sudden Twilight sat up straight. Her eyelids shot back open as her heart skipped a beat. Her eyes locked onto the little wooden clock on her nightstand.

A horrific gasp made the violet of her eyes shrink. “Quarter to nine!?”

The mare scrambled out of bed as though she were under attack. Her eyes darted in search for some kind of escape route. In her hysteria she found herself entangled in the thin layers of her bed, resulting in a face-first collision with the wooden floor. In one last effort she flailed her hoofs until finally escaping the snarl of her sheets. Once freed, she gathered herself and gaped at her clock again. The minute hand advanced by one.

“Ooh, how could I have slept in!?” she cried.

Her voice rang through the library as though resonating in a mocking manner. The mare scanned over the area, eyes covering every inch of the chamber below. Everything sat in complete disarray; books scattered across the floor, some in small piles, others wide open, and even more put on a cart ready for re-shelving. She had let things go recently thanks to the constant daydreaming.

“SPIKE!” she yelled as she turned in aimless circles.

When her eyes met the usual spot where his basket sat, there was nothing.

“Wha-? Where is-? But I-!” the mare stammered, until suddenly it struck her.

That's right! Rarity's watching over him while I'm gone.

Twilight sighed as relief massaged her tense muscles. Panic slowly leaked out and let the frazzled mare rest her eyes for a moment. In the blackness behind her eyelids, though, her memory brought forth the image of the clock.

“Ah! I'm still late though!” Twilight screamed as she returned to her hysteria. “The last chariot for the academy leaves in less than fifteen minutes. That should give me enough time to grab the bare essentials.”

Twilight's head started to swivel again as her eyes bounced off of every object in the library. Every object, that is, except for that which she searched. The mare flung herself down the stairs to the main level of the library as she hunted for her favorite traveling bag. Finding it on the bottom step, Twilight rolled her eyes.

“Oh dear,” she whined as she picked up her satchel, “where did I put my checklist?”

She scoured the room inch by inch only to find pieces of empty parchment and unused quills bunched together. She caught a glimpse of the nearby podium Spike always used and rushed over to it. Sitting on top of its slanted surface was what appeared to be a long piece of parchment with ink boxes drawn along its side.

“Perfect! Now to go down the-” Twilight began, but immediately stopped.

The first item on the checklist read:

Prepare a checklist for all things needing to be packed for tomorrow.

After that line, the page was blank. Disbelief blurred the unicorn's eyes until her senses returned. She reared on her hind legs and wailed in frustration before starting her rampage. Fraught, she flipped over books and dug through bookshelves in search of any sign of a list of things she needed to bring along. Minutes slipped by faster than books Twilight could flip through, until the unicorn stopped to stare at the clock once more.

Five minutes to nine!?

Suddenly, a soft couple of knocks interrupted the chaotic air. Twilight jumped clear across the library, her eyes set on the round entryway upon landing.

“Twilight? A-Are you awake?” came a familiar voice.

In her anxiety Twilight couldn't put a face to the voice. The purple unicorn, trying to pull any hints from her memory banks with each hesitant step, made her way slowly to the door as the issue of time frazzled her mind. With a gulp she pulled open the door and peered outside.

Standing before her door was a male unicorn, his gray coat glimmering with a light hint of violet. His rugged, wavy mane and tail were goldenrod with pale yellow streaks, as if to reflect the rays of the sun itself. His jagged hair ran not long down his neck nor his tail below his knees, very well kept overall. His green eyes were wide open as a nervous smile crossed his face.

After a pause of two-way head-to-toe inspection, he started, “Twilight! Uh, a-are you-?”

“Starlight! Uh, sorry, can't talk, need to pack!” the mare shouted desperately as she turned away, and then proceeded to slam the door behind her.

Twilight returned to her clutter, distracted more than ever. She started to sort through the nearest books again, her mind a complete mess like the disorder of the room surrounding her. Suddenly, from among the muddle in her brain sprang forth a realization.

Wait. Starlight Hooves is going too!

The mare turned full circle, took in a huge breath, and swung open the door.

“Starlight! Listen, I need your help, could you-?”

But before she could continue, her sights revealed that the stallion was no longer standing in front of her. Rather, he was lying on the doorstep with unfocused eyes and his tongue hanging from his mouth.

“What are you doing on the ground?” she asked, puzzled.

The stallion stumbled to get on his hoofs again. Once he managed to stand his eyes were still rolling about in their sockets.

“Y-You threw the door closed rather violently; I guess I didn't realize how close I was-”

“That's nice, you'll feel better soon, I'm sure!” Twilight laughed skittishly and continued without pause. “Say, you're going to Luna’s magic school too, right? Do you remember what all we need to pack?”

“You haven’t packed yet?” Starlight asked as he walked after Twilight, who promptly scurried back inside the library.

Twilight turned around quickly and revealed a most unpleasant glare. Her nose crinkled and her eyes narrowed in a threatening gaze.

“Would you just help me?” she growled, then let her sneer churn into a nervous frown. “I've never been late, and the first time I am can't be for the last chariot bound for the school!”

“Okay, okay,” Starlight shied away. “All we really needed to pack were some winter clothes. At least, that’s all I remember reading-”

“Winter clothes! Of course!” Twilight laughed maniacally. She bolted up to her bedroom and scoured through the oak drawers.

She sorted through her clothes to pull out a scarf, her winter saddle, a pair of boots, and other various accessories. With her attire packed, Twilight looked back at Starlight with an edgy grin across her twitching face. “What else do I need?”

Starlight stared at the ground as he nervously patted the wooden flooring with a hoof.

“T-That's all.”

“That's it? I should've known it wasn't a big list,” Twilight bawled. “Otherwise I would have remembered to have packed the night before.”

“Twilight, are you okay? Usually you're so organized-”

Twilight cut in, “I don't have my assistant, Spike. He's the one that makes my checklists, helps set my alarm, and keeps me from staying up late studying. Now let's go!”

The mare hopped from the second floor down and sprinted for the door, making her companion jump to get out of her way. In the freshness of the autumn air, Twilight took not even a second to admire the beauty of the day, and then headed straight for the central square, head low and horn pointing onward.

A chilly breeze blew against her as Twilight galloped through the town. Though squinted eyes she could see ponies already out and about tending to the town. The marketplace bustled with activity and gave off its fresh fruit scents. The fragrances tickled at Twilight's nose; her stomach grumbled its complaints. Twilight, however, pictured the last chariot taking off without her, missed only by a minute or two. She refused to stop for even a second and even think about food.

Up ahead Twilight could begin to make out the sight of some of her close friends, as well as others, standing in the central square. The resistance of the wind began to die down as her pace came to a stumbling stop. As she drew closer Twilight could not spot any royal chariots or escorts. Her heart began to pound inside her chest as she suddenly put her hoofs to the ground as quickly as her body allowed her.

I couldn’t have missed it!

As she approached the open plaza its entire image sank beneath the shadow of heavy clouds. The houses and stores, even the facade of Sugarcube Corner, seemed to dolefully frown. There were no luxurious chariots or vehicles of any sort awaiting her. All Twilight could see were a number of familiar figures, her closest Ponyville friends, and a few others. While Twilight bore a heavy heart reflected in her drooping and sorrowful face, her friends appeared as carefree as usual.

“Mornin', sugarcube!” said one, named Applejack. She tipped her hat up and squinted to clarify her friend's melancholic expression. “Why so glum, Twi?”

“Yeah!” another one of her friends, Pinkie Pie, added. “Aren't you excited about going your super-duper-special-decial magic academy? You’ve been talking about it all month!”

Twilight lifted her neck painfully to look at each of the two as a sigh of lament emptied from her gaping mouth.

“I missed the chariot ride,” Twilight pouted. “It must have just taken off! That or my clock must be behind or something-”

“You mean that chariot?” Pinkie Pie yelped as she pointed directly upward.

Surely enough, flying through the upper atmosphere was a white and golden chariot, its transporter a light blue pegasus with a rainbow-colored mane and tail. Trailing right behind was another pegasus, one much larger and slower, adorned in shining armor. His deep voice barked unpleasant hollers as he shook a hoof. Twilight's mouth dropped open when the pieces began to connect.

“Rainbow Dash?” Twilight gasped. “What's she doing?!”

Starlight, breathing hard from catching up with his acquaintance, spoke between short breaths. “I t-told her... if you were running late... that s-she would need... to buy us some time.”

Twilight continued to watch as a trail of color with golden accentuation streaked across the heavens, followed by a blur  of dark gray. Only after watching the pursuit pass over several times could Twilight remove her attention from the action.

“By the way Twi, yer not the only one who's runnin' late,” Applejack smirked as she pointed over to a couple of ponies nearby.

Twilight immediately recognized the two Ponyville residents. One was Lyra, the other Bon Bon. The first was a unicorn of minty color and a flowing, powder blue mane and tail. Her hair was dashed with white streaks, her eyes golden like the setting sun. The lyre on her flank was a similar dandelion hue, though at the moment a storm of tears clouded the color.

“Take care Bon Bon,” Lyra said to her friend, Bon Bon, a cream-colored earth pony.

“I'll miss you!” Bon Bon replied. “Enjoy your time away from... here!”

The two wept a little more before Lyra could contain herself enough to speak again. She held onto her friend's shoulders and looked straight into her friend’s aqua blue eyes.

“I'll come back and visit sometime, Bon Bon.”

“I'll b-be waiting!” replied the friend, who then began to back away slowly.

After a minute or two of sorrowful farewells, Lyra turned and slogged over to the others with eyes gleaming and nose snuffling. The minty-colored unicorn let the sadness run like waterfalls until her eyes went dry as a desert.

Seeing her reflection in the puddle of tears below, Lyra wiped her face and sniffled the last bit of sadness out of her senses. She looked up at the group of five standing before her. After a final sniffle, she hopped into a charging pose and locked eyes with Twilight.

“Are you ready to see the academy, Twilight?” she asked with sudden excitement. “I can't wait to get to the island! It'll be so exciting!”

Her fellow unicorn watched with perplexity. “Uh, sure, Lyra. Can't wait!”

A great gust of wind cascaded straight down from the sky. Gales swayed the grass in waves like ocean waters beneath powerful winds. Once the peals ceased, a gold chariot plopped onto the ground with a loud clank in front of Lyra and Twilight.

Its exterior was by no means ornamental. The coach consisted largely of Cloudsdale's marble, its total weight less than a feather's but its sturdiness like that of diamond. Polished gold lined the edges of the coach as well as made up the shining wheels. The crimson seating inside seemed most comfortable with spongy padding lining the entire interior. Twilight's heart began rapidly beating as her eyes embraced the miraculous sight.

“Held 'em off as long as I could,” came the voice of Rainbow Dash as she landed gracefully beside the vehicle. She leaned against the back of it with a hoof. “Easy as pie.”

“Oh thank you Rainbow Dash!” Twilight said as she jounced in frivolous glee. “Thank you thank you thank you-!”

“Whoa there, darling', don't you hurt yerself,” Applejack laughed. “You need to be in yer prime if yer hopin' to be all spruced up an' ready for this here magical academy.”

“Yes, do be careful,” added Rarity, who had just come from her shop with Spike at her side. “I'm sorry if I missed anything, I was busy.” She lifted her nose to the sky and continued. “You'll want to look your very best when arriving. Do you think that you're all ready, Twilight? You haven’t packed very much.”

Twilight glanced over the sights of Ponyville around her, then at each of her friends. “I think I’m ready.” But one look over her circle of friends twisted her heart. “I don't know what I'll do without you guys, though.”

“You'll be fine,” Spike said. “After all, it's just another semester of school. You like that kind of stuff, don't you?”

“Well yeah,” Twilight said, “but it's not the same if you all aren't there with me. And thirteen weeks just seems so long-”

“Come now, Twilight, you said yourself that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Rarity said. “It would be quite a shame if you decided not to go now.”

“And besides, yer not the only one from Ponyville, Twi,” Applejack remarked. “A few others should be there, like Colgate and Pokey Pierce.”

“And me!” Lyra exclaimed. “It'll be like Celestia's school all over again, but this time with Princess Luna!”

“Hopefully she's changed some,” Spike mumbled. All the ponies around him gave unpleasant glares. “What? She almost got rid of Nightmare Night!”

Twilight rolled her eyes. She wondered what she would do without such a witty assistant.

“Just be sure to make good first impressions,” Rarity said as she covered the baby dragon's mouth. “Don't be shy like you were when you first arrived, all right darling?”

“Yeah, you don't wanna go acting all weird on all those other smarty pants ponies!” Pinkie Pie said. “Just be yourself and you'll have a blast this winter!”

Twilight blushed as the exciting thought of her adventure came to mind. Light daydreaming brought back the dreams she had fallen into that night about the island, the academy, her teachers, even studying under the headmaster, Princess Luna. With every expectation that dawned upon her, Twilight's grin started to spread until covering her entire face.

“Will you be okay?” Fluttershy – who had remained quiet until that moment – asked.

The yellow pegasus could not hide her heartache behind her pink, streaming hair. Twilight felt tears of her own beginning to well up.

“Oh girls, I'll be fine. But I know that I'll miss you all more than I can say,” she said, and the six were soon in a big group hug.

“Where's that rainbow-colored pony!?” came an interrupting bellow.

The eyes of the six in the huddle shot open. Their irises shrunk to the size of itty bitty peas.

“Well, have fun Twilight!” Rainbow Dash quickly chuckled as the giant hug broke up, and briskly flew out of sight in the blink of an eye. The only trace left of her presence was the rainbow of colors that marked her trail, but even that dissipated quickly.

“Confound it, she's made me late!” said the old stallion that had yelled out the mare's name. “Are all remaining Ponyville students bound for the Winter Magic Academy present?”

He walked to the middle of the square and looked about, his brown eyes chilled of a cold and unforgiving nature. The armor he wore seemed especially lustrous as it radiated a special flaxen in the sunlight. His black mane and gray coat seemed to disappear beneath the shining helmet and saddle that covered most of his body, except his flank, which was decorated with the Canterlot coat of arms.

The stallion harrumphed at the sight of the silent group before him and shook his head.

“Enough sniveling and rabble rousing, we have a schedule to stick to!” he shouted, and soon Twilight, Starlight, and Lyra were lined up ready to board the large chariot.

The sizable stallion moved to the front of the vehicle and prepared his equipment. He cracked his thick neck and leaned his head back to shoot each of the three a one-eyed gaze. The dark brown of his eyes lit up for a brief moment.

“All aboard!” he called, and the three unicorns stepped onto the chariot.

Twilight caught sight of Lyra looking back to find her friend. She too turned around and looked back, catching a glimpse of the six who had come to see her off.

Thirteen weeks until I come home. I'm already counting them down.

As the thought crossed her mind, she could feel her eyes begin to moisten again. She tried her best to take a mental picture, to remember exactly how everypony looked in that moment. Her friends’ faces hinted at sadness while still showing hopeful smiles that sent forth strong wishes. Sunlight suddenly emerged from behind a cloud, and Twilight could spy that her own eyes were not the only ones watering up.

“Be sure to close the door back there. Don't want you falling out!” the driver ordered.

Obediently, Twilight used her magic to secure the golden panel shut, encasing her and her two companions inside the embellished chariot. When she looked up again, the group on the ground gave their final waves.

The mare smiled one last time for her friends. But before Twilight could return the gesture, the chariot suddenly jolted, flying forward with wheels rolling over the smooth grass. A strong wind began to blow as the transport lifted off the ground and started its course into the sky. The stir in the air threw Twilight off balance for only a second; the coolness she welcomed with the mixture of warm sunlight.

The mare turned back at the shrinking scene of Ponyville, and then at her friends.

With one last inhalation Twilight cried, “Goodbye everypony!”

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 2: Island on the Equestrian Sea

As the chariot soared over the magnificent land of Equestria, the view was not what made Twilight beam with delight. Rather, the faces of her two companions were what made her giggle and smile. Lyra constantly shifted inside the coach as elation coursed through her veins. She constantly leaned over the edges of the chariot as if to stare at their own shadow below. Every once in a while she would point to a landmark or feature, natural or pony-made, never caring to check to see if the others paid her any attention.

Though Starlight did not move around as frantically as Lyra, his mouth, hanging wide open, made Twilight giggle at him still. Certain things caught the stallion's sights, such as the tallest buildings of towns that they passed by, or storming river rapids whose choruses reached up to even their altitude. His gaze seemed especially concerted when the forests drew out the rich green of his vibrant eyes.

“Look, look! The Everfree Forest! Even when the sun's out it looks all dark and gloomy!” Lyra said, leaning over the limits of the coach. “Oh, and look at the Canterlot Mountains! You can see the castle and everything so clearly!”

She rattled on and on like a filly abusing her new-found ability to speak. The other two did not mind, though, as both had their attention already stolen away by the sight of the upcoming city of Bloomburg.

It was a fairly large city, supposedly larger in area than Manehattan itself. Most of its buildings showed similar colors of white and pale yellow, held together by stone foundations and dark, shingled roofs. The edifices, stacked no higher than three stories, reveled in fanciful architecture and design as ancient styles covered the building facades. The tall clock tower rang in welcoming a new hour as the chariot flew over the bustling city square.

Cobblestone roads weaved throughout the municipality, holding within its bounds more ponies than Twilight could even guess. Much to Twilight’s surprise there was little to no air traffic cluttering the skies, permitting swift passage over the massive city.

“Twilight, Starlight, do you two see all these ponies?” Lyra gasped as she continued to shuffle about the coach. “I just can't, it's so... oh, Celestia!”

Twilight rolled her eyes playfully and smiled. Since she had traveled to and from Canterlot a number of times – and even to the city of Bloomburg on occasion – Twilight was not entertained by the sights for very long as the others were.

“Canterlot looks so close from here!” Lyra exclaimed, pointing to the south.

Surely enough, on the steep slopes of the mountainside stood the kingdom of Canterlot. Basking in the rich sunlight, the domain glowed like a multicolored diamond. Waterfalls cascaded from its foundation. Pearly white and golden colors emanated from its very walls. The castle reached out as if in greeting, waving to those who headed eastward. Pointed towers and large domes stretched out from all over the edifice as it displayed a complexity none could explain but all mysteriously admired.

“You know we've been able to see Canterlot since leaving Ponyville, right Lyra?” asked Starlight, who began to recover from his shock and awe of the expansive view of Equestria.

Lyra laughed and bounced up and down, “I know, I know, but right now we're so close-!”

“Please refrain from hopping inside the coach,” barked the driver, to which Lyra suddenly sat.

Her golden eyes stayed on the move with unstoppable animation. She glanced over at Twilight and smiled. “Can you believe it? We're gonna be some of the first in all of Equestria to attend Princess Luna's school for unicorns!”

“I can hardly believe it,” Twilight agreed. “This whole thing does explain a lot, though. I was wondering what Princess Luna was up to after we defeated Nightmare Moon. She just disappeared for some time, even during the return of Discord... well, aside from when we saw her on Nightmare Night.”

Starlight cleared his throat as her words jogged his memory. He glanced at the driver and then waved the two closer.

“Have you two heard about the island?” the stallion asked with shifting eyes.

Lyra and Twilight were suddenly all ears as their mouths shut and eyes bore into his.

Starlight proceeded, “Apparently, during the restoration of the island, Princess Luna encountered some monsters. It kind of makes sense with the island having been abandoned for a thousand years.”

“Why wouldn't Princess Celestia have taken care of it?” Twilight pondered aloud as she glanced back at the castle over her shoulder.

“Isn't it obvious?” Lyra laughed. “She has a magic school of her own! Remember?” She threw Twilight a merry wink. “That's where we met!”

Twilight smiled timidly, “Y-Yeah, I guess that’s the reason.” She shook her head to try and clear it of fresh, thorny questions. “So, Starlight, you don't think we'll run into any trouble on the island, do you?”

The stallion patted his muzzle pensively for a minute, then shook his head.

“I-I don't think so. Princess Luna must have chased out whatever things were lurking there. I'm sure she chased them all out. Why else would she let us come to the island?”

Twilight nervously nodded her head.

I sure hope that's the case.

“Are you young ponies talking about the island?” yelled the chariot driver in a rough but good-natured tone.

Twilight and Starlight realized the volume to which their voices had risen. They blushed and looked in opposite directions.

Lyra, unabashed, leaned forward and replied, “Yes sir!”

The chauffeur gave a hearty laugh as he threw his head back. His wings flapped powerfully, giving the chariot a brief burst of speed. The stallion shouted back, “You have no reason to fear. Princess Luna is quite capable of dealing with whatever trouble resides within that island. She is Princess Celestia's younger sibling, after all.”

Within the island..?

The guard added, “You all just focus on your studies, and don't get worked up about some spooks lurking about. Your imagination might start to toy with you. Trust me, I once was a curious colt myself!”

“See, you guys? Everything's going to be just fine,” Lyra proclaimed optimistically. “This is going to be the best winter magic school ever, and that means absolutely no mishaps. Right? Twilight? Starlight?”

The two looked at one another as Lyra pulled them into a cheery embrace. Neither Twilight's nor Starlight's crooked grin was reassuring to the other.


An hour passed before finally reaching the Equestrian coastline. The northern woods and southern mountains shrank until bowing to the crystal clear sea. A light breeze blew salty air from over the ocean inland, swarming the flying chariot with a pleasant smell of the sea. Twilight's head lifted as her nose swayed to the bobbing scent of the sea salt.

The sun could not have shone any brighter. In addition the sea could not have shown off its vivid azure any more magnificently. Waves crashed onto the sandy shores now behind them, echoing their repetitive, calming chorus. Twilight turned her body back to watch the waves drift up and down the spine of the seaboard, then caught herself staring at Lyra instead.

Her friend was staring northward. Lyra’s shining amber eyes blazed like the sun itself as she stared at the waters with mouth agape. Her powder blue hair matched the color of the shallow waters, its long white stripe like the foam on the seashore. When Twilight looked back at Starlight, he too was watching the captivated unicorn with curiosity.

“How much farther until the island?” Starlight asked the driver.

“What are you, a two-year-old colt!?” the chauffeur barked back. “Ugh, it's there on the horizon, see? Crescent Island. Home of Pony Relic, the Winter Magic Academy.”

The three passengers leaned forward in the coach and narrowed their eyes. Along the skyline of mixed blues a gray form started to take distinctive shape. Like a hill on the plains the island stuck out from the flowing waters of the deep ocean; but as the group drew nearer, the bump soon became mountains, and the flat shape morphed into a crescent figure with ends curving to the northwest and southeast.

Coloration began to seep from the black void, filling in the shape of the island as though poured on like chocolate on a candied apple. Majestic purples streaked the mountains while shades of green coated the patches of forest. On the southern edge of the island a strange tower stood out from the rocky terrain. At the base of the near cliff-side sat an entrance to a cave.

But most important was the school that sat straight ahead just as Twilight had imagined it. Its monumental structures were extremely similar to those of Canterlot's as the chateau-esque anatomy created a most unique form. Its dark brick complexion emanated a sense of mystery that encouraged a sense of fascination more than one of uneasiness. Nearly a third of its building material consisted of glass; glass windows, glass domes, glass walls. There was even a glass tunnel connecting a wing to the main hall.

Beyond these buildings sat a giant rectangular field with two metal arches crisscrossing over it. A titanic metal ball sat atop the intersection. The driver headed straight for it as he picked up his speed.

“Hold on tight!” the driver yelled. “We'll be landing soon enough!”

The three passengers obeyed and themselves in their seats. Not a second after the driver bowed his head and descended toward the southern field. As their altitude dropped the travelers could spot along the pathways colorful forms that were ponies already arrived. A stream of mares and stallions, all unicorns, flowed slow as honey from the giant field out into a circular commons area separating the eastern cliff and shoreline from the academic buildings.

The chariot swooped through the metal archways. Once past the span of the field the driver spun in a semicircle, as graceful an eagle, and then straightened up their course for landing. His wings beat with tremendous control, pulling the chariot carefully down to earth. The vehicle lowered ever so slowly until finally touching down on the tidy lawn. The wheels of the chariot screeched as they rolled across half the length of the giant field. Then, with a great flap of his wings, the driver brought the vehicle to a complete stop.

Distant chatter filled the air, replacing the sounds of the rushing air currents. The warmth of the setting sun met their skin. The driver, tired but relieved, let out a deep sigh and glanced back at his passengers.

“You're free to exit the chariot,” he announced with a grin. “Have a good first term at the Winter Magic Academy.”

The three said their thanks as they got out of the vehicle, and no sooner after they set foot on solid ground did the driver shoot up into the sky and disappear out of sight to the west.

“He wasn't kidding about being on time,” Starlight murmured, to which his two companions laughed.

Twilight looked around the field. “I don’t see any other chariots. It looks like we might be the last bunch here.”

There were in fact no other vehicles in sight, but there were crowds of young ponies standing about. They mingled with one another with beaming faces, clustered in groups of familiars and unfamiliars, carrying out their introductions, small talk, and catch-up conversation. Twilight secretly wished that she had woken up on time. It felt as though everypony already knew each other.

“I wonder where all of the others from Ponyville went,” Lyra said as she scanned the area, her delight nearly lifting her hoofs off the ground to which she had just returned.

“I think I see a few of them by the gate,” Starlight said.

The trio inspected the field’s northern entrance to which Starlight motioned. A black metal fence twisted atop large, brick columns to form a sound arch over the exit. In the gap underneath it were surely enough a number of familiar faces.

“Twilight! Starlight! Lyra!” one of them called, bouncing up and down in place as the three made their way over.

The thin mare that approached had a pinkish lavender body and very straight, silver hair. Her rose-colored eyes glowed like her body as a bonfire does on a sunny day. A smiling theatre mask with three question marks around it was her beaming cutie mark. Twilight knew her name to be Quirky Q, a cousin of Pinkie Pie's.

“What took you all so long to get here?” Quirky asked the three newcomers.

The three looked to one another, silently arguing as to who would have to speak up first.

“I accidentally slept in,” Twilight finally said with a blush.

Lyra raised her head to the sky and wailed, “It was such a sad goodbye for me, I could hardly manage!” Her eyes dropped back down to the others as her crying quickly changed into joviality. “But I made it. Here we are!”

The two looked over at Starlight, whose eyes widened upon realizing it was his turn to give an reason or excuse of some kind.

He stammered shyly, “I, uh, I was just seeing-”

“You sly stallion, you were waiting for these two mares, weren't you?” Quirky Q teased. “Starlight, you're so thoughtful!”

“T-Thanks, I guess,” Starlight mumbled, jittery. He glanced over at Twilight, who showed an appreciative smile, then asked, “When did you guys get here?”

“A few hours ago. I came with Gallant and Vinyl Scratch.”

Twilight's ears perked up suddenly as she looked over in surprise at the mare behind Quirky, one of white color and vivid blue hair. Cyan stripes lined her frazzled blue mane and tail and a pair of gleaming purple glasses hid her eyes. Her cutie mark was a solid black musical note. The mare was surrounded by a number of ponies, but briskly excused herself upon spotting Twilight and the others staring at her. She trotted over and flipped her hair aside.

“What's up Twi?” said Vinyl Scratch.

“Vinyl Scratch! You came!” Twilight cheeped. “I thought you were too busy this winter to come to the academy. Didn't you have some concerts lined up?”

“Nah, I decided to chill out here for the winter, try somethin’ new,” Vinyl answered. “Only had two shows, and they were in some random po-dunk towns I’d never heard of.” She motioned at the large stallion beside her. “You met Gallant before?”

“Briefly,” Twilight said, looking over at the third familiar face from Ponyville.

“Being new to Ponyville, I haven't had time to get out much,” commented the strong stallion in a spirited, confident voice.

He had a fairly bulky body and sharp, dark blue eyes. His coat was a shaded white and his mane and tail a dark silver. A glowing shield and helmet was on his flank. Had he worn some kind of armor, Twilight felt she would have mistaken him for a royal guard.

“I'm Twilight Sparkle,” the mare introduced herself.

“Student of Princess Celestia, I've heard. Pleasure to meet you,” the stallion said. “The name is Gallant. I hope we can become good friends.”

“Aren't you guys excited?” Quirky Q broke in. “We're in the first class of Princess Luna's in years! What are the chances we would make it here?”

Twilight glanced about the field carefully, seeking more faces and figures she could recognize. After not seeing any amongst the shrinking crowd, she turned to face the others again.

“Are there any more from Ponyville here?” Twilight inquired.

Gallant smiled and answered, “I've heard there are nine present, which is apparently the smallest representation of any town or city at the academy.”

“Nine? So there must be others we have yet to meet,” Lyra remarked with a delighted gasp. “But where are they? Oh! Colgate is one of them, isn’t she?”

“Yeah, Colgate's around,” Vinyl confirmed. “That's just 'cause she loves her adventures. She said she came because of somethin’ about exploring the island and whatnot. Pokey Pierce’s here. He’s just in for the ride, really. And then there’s that other guy...”

Her voice drifted off. Gallant finished for her. “Windchaser.”

“Yeah, him,” Vinyl said with a clap. “He seems interesting. Didn't talk much. Anyhow, you guys wanna check out the castle? It's pretty sweet.”

“Were you guys waiting for us?” Lyra asked. “That's so thoughtful! Oh, we're going to be the best group of friends ever this winter! I can't wait!”

“I know, right?” Quirky chimed in. “We're gonna have tons of fun, and study together, and...”

Quirky’s theatrical voice trailed off as the sight of the academy captivated Twilight. She looked over the nearest building, an amazing assortment of five floors with picturesque, pointed windows and sturdy walls covered in mason's decorations. It reached for the sky with steep pointed rooftops buried beneath long, dark shingles. Blends of violet-hued charcoal and midnight black covered the entire edifice. Twilight had never seen any building so majestic up close since her last trip to Canterlot.

As she and the others left the field the front of the building edged into view. A large stained glass window of magnificent, dark colors sat in the center of the facade. Its fusion of dark-colored panels portrayed the raising of the moon, with Princess Luna lifting the silvery crescent shape into the sparkling heavens.

“This is the dorm,” Gallant said, motioning toward the very building. “To the right is the main hall, where we'll be having our classes. On the far side to the back is where the dining hall and kitchen branch out.”

The main hall of the castle looked even more impressive with its incredible height and amalgamation of intricately-connected pieces. Its color scheme was similar to that of the dormitory, but its strange shape was completely different as some floors receded and others stuck out; some corners were rounded while others were square. Towers stretched from all over topped with turrets shaped like wizard’s hats. The circular stained glass window sitting above the titanic entryway portrayed Princess Luna's creation of the night, with the stars and moon forming from a gentle ray of light.

Twilight looked away to distract herself before becoming completely entranced. The circular park in which the group walked stole her attention away like a new dancing partner at a ball. Its ring consisted of two semi-circles, one of giant cloud-colored brick and the other of lightly wooded pasture. Fir trees scattered the earthy section like stars in the early night sky. The smell of the sea brushed across the central annulus as a breeze poured the cool ocean air across the commons lawn. Beyond the edge of the little park was the horizon of the sea, its surface glistening as the sun continued its descent in the sky.

“Twilight Sparkle?” a voice called. “Is that you?”

The unicorn faced the direction in which she heard her name. A yellow-colored unicorn leaned forward from her spot a few trots away. Her azure eyes hid behind a long, cyan mane, unsure of their recognition. When the stares of each pony locked, however, the doubt melted away.

“Lemon Hearts!”

“Twilight, it is you!” said the mare as she trotted over. “I thought I might find you at the academy.”

“You know me, I’m always wanting seeking new ways to be a student. Now that I think about it, when was the last time we saw each other?” Twilight asked as the two could not stop their happy hopping. “Was it at the school?”

“Yes, at Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns,” Lemon Hearts confirmed. “At least, that was the last time we spoke. I'm not even sure we really talked that much. I still remember how much of a shut-in you were.” She glanced over Twilight's shoulder and spotted the group of five gazing at her and Twilight. “You never did formally say goodbye. The princess sent you to Ponyville and that was that, hmm?”

“I'm so sorry, I got completely caught up with the return of Nightmare Moon and everything, and I figured I’d return to Canterlot shortly after the princess assigned me to make some friends-”

That's why she sent you?” Lemon Hearts laughed. “You could've stayed in Canterlot and done that. You do have a chance to redeem yourself, Twilight Sparkle.”

The violet unicorn raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“Well, as it turns out, we're roommates for the winter!”

“What? Just us two?” Twilight asked in disbelief, another surge of excitement bursting in the midst of a day of thrills.

Lemon Hearts' eyes rolled up in a corner as her mouth twisted in a pensive pause. “No, there's another pony with us. I think her name was... Rhododendron? She's from Bloomburg. No pony I've asked seems to know her.”

“That could be good or bad,” Twilight remarked snidely.

“Indeed. Say, do you want to see the room?” Lemon Hearts asked, to which Twilight showed a delighted smile.

“Would I?” she asked, but then suddenly stopped and looked behind her where the five who had been waiting on her for the past few minutes. “Well, I mean, I'm not sure. I should ask the others what they're up to before I-”

“Hey!” Lemon Hearts shouted at the Ponyville crowd, whose ears perked up in response. Twilight blushed, but her friend continued unabashed. “I'm taking Twilight to her room. I'll get her back to you before dinner.”

The others stared, a few nodded. Before any verbal reply came their way the two roommates headed into the dormitory with Lemon Hearts leading the way.

“You seem as dynamic as usual,” Twilight remarked.

“My cutie mark's a few blue hearts, what do you expect? Kindness coupled with boldness,” Lemon Hearts remarked, her nose lifted in the air. “Makes for the perfect doctor, wouldn't you say?”

They approached the dormitory building and entered. The open doors led into a square foyer decorated with multiple shades of blue and violet. Large arched windows spilled light across the entrance hall. Shadows shaped like crosses stretched across the dark marble floors and carpeting.

Five hallways branched from the enormous chamber, one on each floor. Each was connected by a marble staircase which spiraled down the center of the grand interior. Its entire frame glowed of cloudy white, artistically contrasted with the royal gold and purple carpeting on its steps. Masterfully crafted tables, seats, and assortments of plants and paintings occupied the dormitory corridors.

“The mares' floors are the odd-numbered ones, and the stallions' the even-numbered. We're lucky enough to be on the third floor; not too high, not too low,” Lemon Hearts said.

“How big are the rooms?” Twilight asked as the ascended the spiraling stairwell. “The doors look really far apart.”

“They're enormous!” her friend replied with a grand smile, teeth shining in the light coming through the giant windows. “You could fit a family of seven in one of these suites, easily. Each suite has three rooms, one for each of us.”

“Is that the same for everypony else?”

“Well, since there are less stallions than mares, they put two of them to a room. I've heard they get slightly smaller rooms, too. But as long as I get my own sizable chambers I could care less about the rest!”

“How thoughtful,” Twilight smirked with a roll of her eyes.

The weary traveler, edged on only by the sheer thrill of it all, was glad to finally be close to her room. Her back had started to ache after carrying a bag the entire flight as well as around campus. She tried not to think about the throbbing in her spine as Lemon Hearts slowly showed her through the hallway, pointing out the random plants and paintings one at the time.

After crossing half of the corridor, the yellow unicorn finally headed for a door on the left and opened it. As she waltzed inside, Twilight could hardly believe her eyes. The large common room was a homely setting, a welcoming sight for the tired mare. Its dark colors and regal ambiance was very similar to those of the rest of the castle. A few low, round tables and accommodating cushions were organized in the corners. A large square window sat at the opposite side of the room, revealing the horizon over the darkening sea to the east. Four doors lined the remaining two walls.

“One thing you’ll have to get accustomed to is the seating. Princess Luna only seems to favor these cushions,” Lemon Hearts said as she poked the pillow beside her. “Now, the two rooms on the left and the near right one are bedrooms. The far right chamber is the lounge. Wonderful set-up, don’t you think?”

“Wait, another lounge?” Twilight uttered. “Isn't this main room a lounge?”

“Well, we can make the other room a study,” Lemon Hearts corrected herself. She cleared her throat. “I forgot who I was talking to for a moment. In any case, you should get unpacked soon. Placement exams are in just a half hour!”

“Exams!?” Twilight shrieked. “Already?”

Lemon Hearts looked taken aback for a moment, and then laughed.

“You would be scared of an exam you can't study for,” Lemon Hearts snickered.

Twilight still could feel the hair of her mane standing up as one of her eyes twitched uncontrollably.

“Come now, it'll be easy, right? No matter what, you'll be studying at this luxurious academy for the next few months, I’m sure.” Lemon Hearts stopped and turned to look back through the door. “Oh, I just spotted a friend of mine. I'll be right back, okay? Quit worrying and unpack your things!”

And with that, Twilight could hear the hoofs of her friends trotting away out the room and into the hall. Unnerved, the mare walked over to the wide window of the lounge and stared out. Ponies still wandered the grounds outside, not worried in the least bit as they explored and chatted in a charming euphoria.

Twilight, suddenly unable to identify, let out a sigh. “No worrying? Y-Yeah, sure, that'll be... easy.”

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 3: Commencement

by Storytayler

Twilight closed the door behind her, sealing the classroom off from her sights. The feeling of choking anxiety, however, did not stay behind. Having finished her placement exam, Twilight could not think of anything else other than the unknown outcome. She had no clue which class she would end up in.

Minutes passed as she stared at the carpeted floor. Weighed down by immeasurable unease, her eyes hovered over the dark shades of purple, leaving her brain to wander the abyss symbolic of space itself.

The door to the classroom suddenly opened behind her. With a jolt she backed away from the entryway and watched as Starlight slowly backed out. Wearing a blank expression, he closed the door as quietly as he could. Pleased with his noiselessness, he nodded and turned at once, bonking heads with the onlooker right behind him.

“Ouch!” he yowled, rubbing his forehead. “Oh, Twilight! I'm sorry, I didn't notice you were right there. A-Are you all right?”

“No, no, I shouldn't have been just standing in front of the door,” the mare insisted. “I guess I’m all right.” She paused. “Say, Starlight, how do you feel about that exam?”

The young stallion tapped his chin and stared at the floor, much like Twilight had not a few seconds ago.

“It was fine, I guess,” he said with a glint of confidence in his eyes. “I don't know how they can measure what class we'll be in based on some of those questions-”

“Doesn't that make you nervous?” Twilight interrupted. “I mean, here we are at this advanced magic school, and instead of teaching us right away they’re just testing us? What if I don't pass!?”

Starlight's relaxed face suddenly gained a look of apprehension as his even lips turned into a fearful frown. His trembling eyes collapsed between the squeeze of his cheeks and eyebrows.

“W-Wasn't this just for placement?” he asked skittishly. “I don't think we can fail-

“But what if you do? What if I do? Everypony will notice if I fail. Being Princess Celestia's faithful student I'll probably become the laughing stock of all of Ponyville!” Twilight moaned as her dragged her hoofs across her face. “Oh, Starlight, what do we do?”

“I think all we can do is wait,” he tried to say nonchalantly, but his words came out with quivers jiggling his words.

“I don't think I can! I’m not sure I've ever been this nervous before; well, maybe except for when I was testing to get into Celestia's magic school... aha!” Twilight suddenly grabbed Starlight's face, smooshing his muzzle between her hoofs. “Starlight, it's a pattern! I always struggle with entrance exams!”

The door opened behind Starlight this time, but the individual exiting did not back into him as the stallion had bumped into Twilight. Rather, the unicorn walked around the two, only to stop and stare with curious, blue eyes.

“Twilight, Starlight,” came the deep voice of Gallant with an acknowledging nod. His eyes narrowed after a double take. “Are you two... feeling well?”

They turned to face him. Starlight's face was still squished together between the trembling hoofs of his peer. Gallant investigated the peculiar pair and narrowed his eyes in contemplation.

“Don't tell me,” he started, but then allowed his voice to trail off before adding anything more.

The wide-eyed gazes of the duo did not change; instead, they continued to stare down the bulky unicorn before them.

Gallant added, “You're not worried about the placement exam, are you?”

Twilight immediately let go of Starlight's face and began flailing her hoofs in the air. “I can't help it! Being a diligent student my whole life hasn't prepared me for times where I don't get to study for a test. What do you expect?”

“I expect that there won't be any grades,” Gallant stated stoically, “so you two should have nothing to fear.”

He turned and began to walk away with a regained air of confidence, which soon was polluted by the fear of his two followers.

“But Gallant,” Starlight pleaded, “don't you understand the weight of these exams, of how important they'll be to the rest of our winter term?”

“You two don't seem to understand: this is not a pass or fail kind of exam,” Gallant stated. “If you paid close enough attention, you would have realized that those questions did not contain any right or wrong answers.”

When he threw a glance back at his companions, Gallant beheld two sets of gaping eyeballs, one set purple and the other green. Both irises had shrunk significantly as the rest of their faces seemed completely frozen. The silver stallion rolled his eyes and snickered.

I’ll try and explain as clearly as I can: I don't think this exam was for evaluating your magic knowledge,” Gallant explained. “It was probably to test your main area of interest-”

Probably?” Starlight asked nervously.

“You mean you're not one hundred percent sure?” Twilight added, leaning uncomfortably closer.

Gallant stared at the two, whose desperate gawks had not changed in the slightest; in fact, their faces seemed far more filled with anxiety than before.

“I think you two need to calm down,” Gallant said. “Whatever happens, happens.”

The stallion descended the staircase leading into the main hall's foyer, a spacious chamber reaching from floor to rooftop. The majestic violet rugs and curtains lining the dark marble floors had grown darker since the sun took its course far into the west. Black and blue decorations, from artistic portrayals of the moon to delicately shaped torches, hung all over the walls like shadows reaching outward as the darkness of the evening set in.

Visible over the horizon of the western mountains was the descending sun which took its vivid color and light down with it. A trail of dark blue swarmed the sky from the east over the ocean like tainted water filling a glass pan. Stars began to poke their heads into the approaching darkness, giving their small lights as a joint effort to replace the majesty of the sun. Their gentle blinks welcomed a new night.

Twilight, however, could not think upon the delicate night that lathered the setting. Rather, all she could take from the scene was the darkness, the ominous movement of the unknown swarming her. She picked up the pace of her stride as if to escape it, hurrying to catch up to Gallant as the three approached the dormitory.

“So, Gallant, are there any other things going on tonight?” Twilight asked with ears twitching.

The gray unicorn breathed out his concern and smiled.

“Dinner is to be served shortly, I believe,” Gallant answered. “Aside from meeting the rest of the Ponyville folks then, I cannot think of anything else important that is to happen today.” He looked over at Twilight, whose teeth were gritting restively. “Is that a good or a bad thing?”

“Good!” Starlight chimed.

“Good? GOOD!?” Twilight shouted. “If there isn't anything else going on, I won't be able to stop thinking about this whole dilemma!”

“What dilemma?” asked a nearby voice from within the dormitory.

The three ponies entered in and saw the eager face of a pink and silver Quirky Q. She stood just inside the door, leaning on the tips of her hoofs.

“The placement exam!” Twilight asked, when suddenly puzzlement skewed her face. “Wait, when did you finish? I don't remember seeing you leave.”

“It only took me a few minutes,” Quirky replied, cocking her head to one side. “Why? Do you think I should've taken longer?”

“Twilight thinks that she might fail the exam,” Starlight said. “What if one of us fails?”

Gallant massaged his temples with his hoofs and groaned.

“What if one of us fails it!?” Quirky repeated suddenly, the color in her pink eyes shrinking as the others' had. “What will we do? I just got here, I don't want to leave already!”

“Would you all just calm down?” Gallant murmured. “No one's leaving because of a simple placement exam.”

“You said it was probable yourself,” Starlight noted.

Gallant clicked his teeth in suppressed frustration. “No, I said that probably-

“What? Gallant said it was possible? And he's one of the geniuses who knows all this stuff about royalty and magic tests and stuff!” Quirky cried.

“I've only attended the royal knights' school in Equestria for a year. That doesn't make me an expert-”

“We're doomed, doomed!” cried another unicorn that staggered into the foyer.

It was a tearful and whimpering Lyra. She carried her head high, leaving it to sway back and forth like a thin tree in a mighty squall. Her eyes fixed on the ceiling as a hoof caressed her faint head.

“Lyra! Are you nervous about the exam too?” Twilight asked the newly arrived unicorn, who leaned her body against the nearest wall in the corridor and covered her face.

“I overheard what you were discussing back in the main hall,” Lyra remarked. “At first I was doubtful, but it suddenly struck me that the same thing had happened to Sparkler! Remember, Twilight? Back at Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns? The horror of it all!”

The whole group paused and stared at Twilight, who cocked her head and twisted her mouth.

“Actually,” Twilight said slowly, “Sparkler made it into the school just fine.”

Lyra lifted a hoof from her face to gaze at Twilight, as though checking for the confidence in the mare's response. The minty mare suddenly laughed and let out a sigh of relief. “Now that I think about it, she did make it in. She's probably here now!” She smiled and pondered the idea, then looked up at the others. “What were we crying about again?”

“We weren't crying, we were panicking. We still are!” said Starlight. “What if one of us has to leave the academy for failing the exam?”

Lyra gasped, “What if is right! It could be me, or you, or Quirky! It could even be-” She stopped and glanced at each pony. “-me!”

“Hey gang,” interrupted Vinyl Scratch from the entryway. The darkness behind her emphasized the blue in her otherwise cloud-white coat. “You all headed to the dining hall? I think it's dinnertime and I'm starving.”

“We can't eat! We're too-!” Starlight began, but was stopped briefly by Gallant's hoof muffling his muzzle.

“Too hungry!” Gallant finished. “Yes, that. Lead the way, Vinyl.” He motioned for the others to follow with teeth clenched and eyes directed towards the door. “We’re right behind you.”


Nighttime set upon the island as darkness began to swim across the atmosphere. Light turned into shadow, and shadow into a gateway to the mysterious land beyond. The main hall appeared especially dark from the outside with its smokey brick and dark roofing. In the backdrop of the scene stood the bumpy silhouette of the eastern mountains, sticking out like jagged waves of the ocean that cut into the very fabric of the sky.

As Twilight and others headed back to the main hall a single door stood out from the surrounding darkness. Within the doorway glowed a fire like that of a warm and welcoming fireplace. Happy to escape the dark, the group of six entered the main hall and followed it to an angled wall in the far right corner of the foyer. Tucked away, the entrance took the form of a large arch, four times the height of even the tallest pony, with thick doors under its span.

“Is this the way to the dining hall?” Starlight asked as the group passed the middle of the faintly-lit entrance. Even darkness could not hide the glazed white of his eyes.

Vinyl answered, “Yeah, the door's between those torches in the corner. Did you see the annex sticking out when you flew over? That’s it.

Twilight recollected the sight of the northeast wing branching out from the castle from above. They had seen it during their chariot flight. The whole island came back to Twilight's mind, the sight of the entirety of Crescent Island returning to the mare's memory. In the daytime it was a most splendid spectacle; during the nighttime, however, everything seemed to take on a new personality. However, with the mix of majestic buildings in an otherwise haunting environment made up for the spookiness in Twilight’s mind. She could stare and study the castle grounds day and night.

Upon entering the banquet hall Twilight took a moment to observe it. The ceiling reached up high and peaked like the mountains visible through the windows, stretching for the heavens. The thick rafters above could hardly be seen as they faded to black beyond the reach of light from hanging chandeliers and hundreds of candelabra. Tables scattered across the far half of the hall, leaving half of the shiny tile floor untouched and, for the most part, squeaky clean.

Gallant and Vinyl led the others into the mass of fellow students. Their eyes scanned the area until they spotted a table occupied by familiar faces. As the Ponyville group drew near, the three seated smiled and greeted the newcomers that squeezed their way past occupied tables of hungry ponies. Twilight could recognize two of at the round table. The third pony she was not sure she had actually seen before.

The first of them was a stallion unicorn of slate blue color and light hair. His horn was especially pointy, warned by the spiky safety pin Twilight knew was pictured on his flank. His name was Pokey Pierce. The other, named Colgate, was a light blue unicorn, with dark blue and ice-streaked hair flowing like spring-clean waterfalls from her head and tail. An hourglass adorned her flank.

The third individual was one she had not seen much of, but had heard of from her friends in Ponyville. He had light gray fur and a dark violet mane and tail, colored like the misty top and dark underpinning of a storm cloud. His cutie mark was a twisting tornado spiraling down from a single cloud. With a tightly shut mouth and deep, platinum eyes, Twilight knew she would have to gather courage before speaking with him.

“We were wondering where everypony had disappeared off to,” Colgate said. “Here I thought I might be missing out on an adventure.”

“You know we couldn't leave on one without you,” Vinyl smirked.

“Some were fretting a bit too much over the placement exam,” Gallant stated, looking back at the guilty party behind him.

Colgate laughed. “You wanna know something? I was thinking about bringing up a secret tunnel we could explore, but I happen to have some inside information about the results-”

Look, Princess Luna is entering!” Lyra gasped, quickly grabbing a seat of her own. The others soon followed suit as a disappointed growl crossed Colgate's face.

“Ugh, I'll tell you guys after. Just wait, it's so awesome,” she added last second, and then the entire hall filled with hushes and a growing silence.

Twilight, now seated herself on a firm cushion, was almost as equally disgruntled. Trying her best to put curiosity aside, she looked beyond the arrangements of tables about the room and spotted the elevated platform near the front. Standing on it was Princess Luna, and to her sides three very familiar faces, two mares and a stallion, all adults. Twilight thought she could recognize them, but the images faded before she could distinguish them as the princess's enchanting figure strolled to the front and center section of stage.

Tall and lean, the princess was ever graceful. The soft blue colors and glow of her glistering mane and tail only accentuating her poise. Her violet coat seemed to glow itself as the princess stood graced with her sparkling black neck-piece and sparkling blue glass slippers. With noble composure, she cleared her throat, lifted a hoof to her chest and opened her mouth.

GREETINGS, ONE AND ALL!” the princess declared loudly with her voice clear as the night, and quite nearly deafening.

Seems like the princess has practiced her wording... but not her volume.

Princess Luna continued, “WELCOME TO THIS FIRST YEAR OF THE RESTORED WINTER MAGIC ACADEMY. I AM OVERJOYED TO SEE THAT SO MANY YOUNG MARES AND STALLIONS HAVE COME TO FURTHER THEIR TALENTS AT MY NEW SCHOOL OF MAGIC THIS WINTER.”

Twilight saw the princess's eyes suddenly bearing into her own. Her voice gently echoed in the student's head.

“Especially thou, Twilight Sparkle.”

The princess's eyes opened wide for a moment, then closed as a smile escaped her lips. She continued aloud, “To begin, it has become known to me and some of my subjects that my ways are much more accustomed to those of older traditions, such as the manner in which I speak. For this, I merely ask for your forbearance. It appears that even my own sister did not think to forewarn me of the cultural alterations that occurred in my absence.”

A few in the audience giggled, to which Princess Luna gave a grin of approval.

“However, such adjustments are of no major significance; for now, I bid thee welcome to Crescent Island! I hope that all have found the academy in acceptable conditions, is this so?” A few in the crowd nodded, others whistled or cheered, to which Luna seemed slightly irritated for a second. “It took over a year since my return to restore this place to its former glory. When I found it, very little had remained.” Her eyes began to glow white as her voice grew louder, “This brings me to the first rule of this semester: there shall be no venturing off WITHOUT THE EXPLICIT PERMISSION OR PRESENCE OF A TEACHER OR MYSELF!

Twilight shook as power erupted from the command. The unicorn could feel what little curiosity she had escaping through her aching ears. Her eyes had closed in reaction to such force of vocalization, but when they reopened the princess's eyes had returned to their normal, sapphire coloring, and her face resumed its more pleasant appearance as an amiable smile crossed Princess Luna's muzzle.

“I can sense the hunger with which some have arrived today,” the princess proclaimed, the volume of her voice more controlled again. “Enjoy thy first night's feast for now. The remaining edicts shall be discussed after the banquet.” Luna clapped her hoofs together and raised her head proudly. “Chefs, bring out the dishes!”


“Dear Celestia, I am stuffed!” Lyra said merrily, nearly falling over before even crossing the castle foyer. “If I had eaten one more thing, somepony would've had to have carried me out!”

Her eight compatriots laughed and agreed as each walked alongside her, stomachs full.

“That was some sweet cuisine,” Vinyl said. “I think I'm ready to hit the hay soon.”

What!?” Colgate exclaimed. “How could you want to go to bed? There's so much to do around here! We could go out and explore, or check out some secret-”

“Uh, you do remember the rules Luna just gave everypony, right Colgate?” Twilight asked abruptly. “There's no sneaking around after midnight, especially without Princess Luna's or a teacher's consent. And the princess did say that she and the teachers would not be available tonight.”

“Yeah, we don't wanna make Princess Luna mad,” Quirky Q said. “Remember what happened when she came to Ponyville a few months ago? She nearly cancelled one of the biggest pony holidays, forever!”

“She sure doesn't seem to have changed, either,” Lyra said as she rubbed her ears. “Is it just me, or was she especially loud tonight?”

“Louder than when she visited during Nightmare Night?” Quirky asked. “I thought she was just trying to speak up for everypony. That was a giant dining hall, after all. I mean, did you see the size of it?”

Twilight rolled her eyes, “It was only half full.”

“Give her time,” Gallant said. “Princess Luna said herself that she's still adjusting to Equestria's ways. Hopefully you have more patience with her than you do those exam results-”

“The placement exam!” Twilight screamed, along with Colgate. The two looked at one another as all eyes fell on them. Unlike Twilight, Colgate had a giant grin on her face.

“I totally forgot! You'll never believe what kind of a lead I have,” Colgate began. She quickly scanned the area and waved everypony closer. She lowered her voice and continued, “I overheard some ponies talking about the results being posted at midnight, tonight!”

“Tonight!?” Twilight asked anxiously.

“Well, we're not supposed to leave the grounds after dinnertime without permission, but I suppose that doesn't apply since it’s still on the grounds,” Gallant stated. “But, we also aren't supposed to leave our rooms after midnight. If the notice is posted past that time, then I refuse to go.”

“Aw, come on guys!” Colgate begged. “It'll be fun! We can sneak out, find the results, and then head back. It's no big deal! Like Gallant said, we're not leaving the grounds or anything.”

“But the other rule still applies-” Gallant tried to get out, but the group had already moved on behind an eager, fast-paced Colgate. “Ugh, forget it.”

The troupe marched their way through the extension from the main hall to the dormitory. Its walls were made of glass, with dark brick ribs lining the otherwise crystal clear corridor. The familiar wine-colored carpet ran over the glossy floor in the middle of the hall, granting safe passage like a pegasus's soft walkway through the shimmering sky. Plastered across the sky was a wallpaper of the galaxy, stars and planets glowing against a black background. Its lucidity made it nearly impossible to believe one's eyes.

While most were occupied gaping at the panorama above, Twilight found herself walking closer and closer to her blue friend until they side by side.

The mare inquired slyly, “So, Colgate, exactly where are they posting the results?”

Colgate, then distracted, did not hear her friend's request. But Twilight would not settle as she poked at her friend sheepishly. One prod did not do, so she tried again, and again, until her nudge was more of a jab.

“Ow! What!?” Colgate shrieked.

“You said you knew of the teachers posting the results, but you didn't say where,” urged Twilight.

Colgate shrugged as she observed the school campus through the glass walls. She spotted something and pointed a hoof at the main hall entryway that was just in sight.

“Probably on the castle doors,” she said. “Given my knowledge of smart and sneaky teachers, I would think they don't want us to see the results until tomorrow, and no pony would dare walk across the commons outside.”

“Didn't you say you wanted to go, though?” Twilight asked from behind clenched teeth. “You do like a good adventure, right Colgate?”

The blue mare guffawed, “Duh! I'm always up for some fun and danger. I figured none of you wanted to join me, though.”

“Of course not,” Gallant stated. “If we were found out, we might get kicked out after our first day here. I wouldn’t want to risk that.

“Y-Yeah, I don't think it's a good idea,” Starlight agreed.

Pokey Pierce nodded in agreement.

Vinyl clicked her teeth. “Who cares about some lame exams? I need some shut-eye for tomorrow when the party starts.”

“I'm with Vinyl... minus the partying,” Lyra remarked. “I'm in need of some beauty sleep after all that traveling.”

“I really want to venture about, but I'm too scared that I’d get carried away,” said Quirky Q. “Actresses tend to have this problem. That, and they’re very loud. I’m not that loud, am I?”

Understanding this was rhetorical the group finally looked to Windchaser. The charcoal color making him nearly blend in with the shadows around him. He shook his head.

“Well, I'm not going alone,” Colgate sighed with shrug. She glanced at Twilight with a chagrined gaze. “Everypony needs at least one friend to come along on an adventure. We’ll just all have to go back and go to bed, I guess. No sneaking around for me. Nope.”

Though the group continued on their merry way, Twilight could not stop the thought that plagued her mind. Her senses tingled every time the mysterious results popped into her head. She figured she would get used to it after some time, or at least manage to cope with the disquietude somehow.

But even after Twilight returned to her lodging the fear crawled beneath her skin. As though for some kind of guidance she opened her window and leaned out to gaze at the stars she had ignored minutes ago. A coolness swept into the room, passing by her gently. The distressed unicorn let out a drawn-out sigh.

I can’t wait. I have to do something... but what?

Next Chapter >


Index

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Chapter 4: Late Night Endeavors

Twilight tossed and turned in bed. Anxiety poked at her brain in a terribly teasing manner. Though she desperately wanted to drown out the feeling, Twilight hadn't felt the weight of her eyes grow heavy in the slightest. Her body begged for rest, but her mind was utterly restless.

Until I see those results, I'll never get to sleep!

Twilight rolled on her side and wiped her wide-open eyes, hoping the motion would dry or tire them out, if even in the slightest. She shifted her head on different sides of her pillow and shuffled beneath the warm bedding. With a pout she stared at the ceiling for hours, waiting for some kind of answer to pass her by.

What if I did something wrong? What happens then-?

Twilight’s ears twitched. The mare sat straight up in a heartbeat. She could barely hear them, slow and soft steps, coming from the corridor. Her brain began juggling consternation and curiosity.

What if that was Colgate? No, no, it was probably a guard. But, if it was her...

“That's it!” Twilight said aloud, before suddenly covering her own mouth.

After a pause, the unicorn conspired in whispers to herself, “If I went out there and got caught, I could just say I was following whoever is out there, trying to warn them that they can’t be out this late. Whether or not I see the results, I won't get in trouble!”

The second the steps passed beyond her heightened hearing Twilight was up against her bedroom door. She carefully opened it and peered into the common room. Weak candlelight sat upon the nearby table and the distant desk adjacent to the suite exit. With this feeble luster lighting a way, the mare started her silent journey as her last hoof slipped from the safety of her uneventful abode.

Twilight reached the door to the corridor and took in a large gulp of air. Already sweating, she turned the doorknob, which opened with a faint click. The door eased open without a sound, and ever so slowly the mare stuck her head out into the darkness. Her eyes, already adjusted to the dimness, followed along the smooth, blurred surfaces of the hall. There were no ponies in sight.

Come on Twilight, you can do this.

She swallowed hard and took her first step, aware that there was no turning back. She crept along the nearest wall, her neck to the floor and her tail between her legs. With her own dark coat and mane she hoped to sink into the darkness, but when she looked over herself from time to time she felt completely transparent. Her imagination played games with her, back and forth, as fear and reassurance ran a relay race inside her brain.

Little by little Twilight snuck closer to the foyer. Its palatial size and low lighting made it appear more like a black hole than a central, homey chamber. The mare crept along with light hoofsteps toward the open space and stopped to scan the entrance hall. The only light in the entire interior came from a torch hanging over the northern entryway leading out to the central circle. Even this did not reach far from its relatively small glass box.

As Twilight stared at this single light she started to feel strangely drawn to it. Her eyes fixed upon its contrast against the ever-present darkness. The amazement lifted her onto the tips of her hoofs and lured her into leaning forward. The second Twilight realized that she was inches from exposing herself to the foyer she dragged herself back against the near wall.

What was that?

Twilight took a deep breath and looked around with caution. There was still no sign of movement nearby. Ever so carefully, she snuck a peek just as she had before leaving her room, with narrow eyes and her muzzle kept low. Her eyes pierced through the darkness as best they could.

She glanced to the left. Nothing was moving. Then she looked to the right. Not a couple lengths away stood a heavy-set guard bearing dark armor and a stone-hard gaze. He nearly blended into the darkness, but Twilight's alert senses immediately detected him. The mare snapped her head back behind the corner where her waiting hoofs muffled her muzzle.

A step sounded from around the bend, followed by another. Armor clanked along with them.

“Who goes there?” the guard asked with a voice as raspy as sandpaper.

Twilight’s mind swarmed with thoughts faster than raindrops forming in a downpour. Every escape plan had a flaw of some sort. She couldn’t hide. Running was pointless. Soon enough ideas of excuses were cast into the mixture, making matters only worse. All of a sudden, one idea stood out from the rest.

An invisibility spell!

With swift concentration Twilight cast the enchantment she had learned not long ago. The light of her horn glowed dimly as she closed her eyes to focus.

When Twilight opened her eyes again, the guard was standing in front of her. His eyes, dark and penetrating, locked onto her like a falcon spotting its prey. The large gray figure took a step closer. The mare felt her blood go cold as her heart froze. The guard’s stare lasted for a few seconds, until his eyes gradually started to scan to the left, and then to the right.

Twilight dared not move a sliver. Instead, she let her eyes slide around in their sockets. Upon looking up she couldn’t see her own mane or horn. Her quavering gaze then crept down to reveal that her hoofs were also out of sight. Her gaze returned to the guard, who hesitantly turned his back to the hallway and ambled over to his position just around the corner.

It worked!

Despite her success, Twilight felt hesitation shaking through her body. She had lucked out on one instance, but she feared not finding such good fortune a second time around. Without much consideration, however, Twilight found herself proceeding toward the staircase straight ahead. The test results remained at the forefront of her mind. Her mania drove her onward.

Twilight stared down where her hoofs should have been visible as she snuck along, astonished to see nothing but their successive imprints on the rug. She quickly remembered that she was not alone. With a swift glance she looked over her shoulder and spotted the guard, who still held an ice-cold look on his square face. His eyes never indicated inquisitiveness, nor did his ears ever twitch. Regardless, Twilight watched in wait for some sign of his detecting her.

Once at the staircase, Twilight took a break from her turtle-paced advance. Her muscles complained about the sluggish pace almost as much as they did after a long gallop. Her breaths grew longer and more controlled as she stared out again at the single torch in the foyer. It was nothing out of the ordinary, but she could not peel away her eyes from its dull dazzle.

What an incredible, amazing light-

Something from behind gave Twilight a great shove. Losing her balance, the unicorn tumbled down the staircase, head over hoof. All Twilight could hear was her body crashing against the marble stairs and the high-pitched resonance that rang in her ears once her rolling stopped.

In her panic Twilight tried to stand, but she tripped over her own hoofs. Behind closed lids her eyeballs spun like weather vanes in a windstorm until finally coming to a stop. Once settled, they stared at the ceiling, unable to react. Twilight’s brain was still rattling like an obnoxious noisemaker.

A familiar face of multiple blue hues popped into view.

“Colgate?”

“Twilight!? Where’d you come from?” squealed Colgate in delight. “One minute I'm headed down the stairs, and the next thing I know I run into something, and now... Wait, was that you?”

“Was what me?” Twilight asked, irate. “You mean the thing you blindly ran into at the top of the stairs?” She paused. “Well, I guess I did have an invisibility spell cast-”

Twilight suddenly covered her mouth as her cleared hearing revealed her indoor voice cascading through the hall. Twilight's gut wrenched with every echo. She shrieked upon noticing that her invisibility spell had worn off. Colgate tittered at the sight of her frightened friend.

“What, are you scared the guards will hear you?” she taunted.

Duh!” Twilight hissed as she finally managed to get back on all fours. “Now we'll both get in trouble, and Princess Luna will send us back home, and-” She watched as Colgate's smile only widened. “How can you be so unconcerned!?”

I guess you haven't noticed yet,” Colgate said as she puffed out her chest. She faced the corridor directly behind Twilight. She motioning with her muzzle toward a guard lying propped up against a nearby wall. “Take a gander.”

“Colgate, what did you do!?” Twilight screamed, then threw her hoofs over her mouth again. More quietly, she repeated herself, “What did you do?”

“Nothing that bad,” Colgate laughed as she strutted over to the body. She poked at it and smirked. “Remember that sleeping spell you taught me a while ago?”

“You mean the one that was supposed to help with your insomnia last month?” Twilight inquired.

“What? Insomnia?” Colgate replied with one eye narrowed in uncertainly, followed by a widening of both. “I mean, uh, yeah. That.”

Twilight sighed, “You didn't really have sleeping problems, did you?”

“Nope! I just wanted to learn it as a safety spell in case of emergencies. Same with the enchantment spell.”

“Enchantment spell..?”

“Haven't you looked at the lighting at all?”

Twilight blinked. “You mean the torch?”

“You got it. I put a nice little ‘Want It Need It’ spell on it,” Colgate bragged. It was a weaker version, but I guess that turned out to be good. I didn't want the guards trying to grab the little light anyway.” She polished an invisible badge on her coat with pride. “Glad I learned it for whenever I run into danger like this.”

“You know you weren't in danger, right?” asked Twilight.

“Who was the one complaining about getting kicked off the island a minute ago? Oh, that's right. You. Now, let's get on over to the main hall and see if we can find some secret passages or something-”

Twilight swiftly interrupted, “You mean find the exam results?”

At first Colgate remained still and speechless, but after a moment of tapping on her muzzle, she nodded in compliance.

“We could do that first, I suppose. Then we can venture about-”

A stomp and deep feminine voice cut in, “What are you two doing out here!?

The duo’s heads swiveled and a dark figure on the spiraling stairwell met their eyes. It drew closer with each thunderous step, until only a few steps away. Another figure emerged, similar in size but silent. Its head bowed low and body quivered, making an eccentric couple of silhouettes.

Twilight suddenly spotted on the nearer one a familiar cutie mark of a theatre mask and question marks.

“Quirky! What are you doing!?” Twilight scolded with a contained scream.

The lavender unicorn laughed heartily. “Just messing with you troublemakers. I thought I heard something outside my room, and surely enough it was somepony. I followed her out to the stairs, even around the entire dorm. She kept on casting this weird spell that made the guards go limp, so I was worried she might get me too. But there’s no need to fear; it was just Colgate here.”

“Who's that behind you?” Twilight asked, trying to peer over Quirky’s shoulder.

“This? Its just Starlight,” Quirky answered.

The stallion stepped down a few stairs to reveal his farouche face. “I-I thought I heard something in the corridor, so I peeked out. I don't know how, but Quirky saw me from the balcony area when she was following Colgate. S-She ran over and dragged me along.” His nervous smile almost looked more like an accidental frown turned upside-down. “I also wanted to see what you all were up to. I-I was kind of worried-”

“Wait a minute, how long were you guys following me for?” Colgate asked the newcomers.

“Since you passed my door on the top floor,” Quirky divulged, which brought Colgate to clear her ears. The lavender unicorn continued cheerily, “Why? Didn't you know I was behind you the whole time?”

“Nevermind that,” the adventurer snapped. “We need to get to those results. All the guards in here are asleep, but the spell won't last too long, so we better hurry.”

Colgate started a dash down the stairwell again, with the other three right on her tail. With no concerns about noise the party flew through the foyer, their hoofs barely touching the flooring. Upon reaching the main floor they all paused. Colgate, the ringleader, looked to both exits multiple times.

“Which way should we go?” the intrepid pioneer asked.

“Aren't all of the doors locked?” Starlight asked.

Colgate merely smirked and held up a polished ring of even shinier items. They jingled as the mare shook her prize. “Not as long as one of us has a set of guard's keys.”

Twilight gasped in horror. “Colgate! Don't you realize how much trouble you'll be getting into when they find all this out?”

If they find it all out,” Colgate corrected. “And no, I have no idea. But that's the way I like things: dangerous and mysterious. Now, which way are we going?”

“Left!” Quirky said. “I wanted to see that cool glass tunnel again!”

Colgate sighed. “You know we're gonna be going through that all semester long, right? Well, whatever, somepony answered. Hopefully the exam results or whatever we’re looking for are inside. Left door it is!”

The large western exit spoke its warning in the size and black color of its doors. It obstructed the section of wall as a painting conceals a crack in a partition. The arched frame pointed up to a circular window which allowed little trace of light inside. Colgate fumbled with the keys with her magical hold as she examined the titanic lock. She drew one out and it fit perfectly, and with a strong push the heavy portal opened.

Colgate and company moved as swiftly as shadows. Twilight, however, felt the pressures of their possible consequences growing larger than her curiosity. The thoughts slowed her down down until her headway was at a snail’s pace. She looked up and observed the clear night sky that witnessed her exploits through the glass corridor ceiling. Twilight felt as though she were walking straight into a trap, and the natural beauty was saying its final farewell after only having met her hours ago.

Twilight’s eyes fell back down to earth and scanned the commons area between buildings. Three ponies in black cloaks near the main hall entrance caught her eye. They all stood around the doorway, staring.

Wait.

Twilight could still see the ponies’ legs, and the colors she saw seemed oddly familiar. The two bulkier individuals had coats of light grey and of slate blue. The smallest of the trio was a bluish white.

“Guys, come here!” Twilight tried to yell, aware that guards may be nearby. The hoofsteps ahead halted and returned in a matter of seconds.

“Is that Pokey Pierce? And Vinyl Scratch?” Twilight asked as she pointed outside.

The others leaned against the crystal wall facing westward. Their jaws all dropped open.

I think the other one’s Windchaser. What are they doing?” Quirky asked.

“Probably checking the placement exam results,” Twilight said, then gasped. “We should be out there, not in here!”

“Oh! Is that why we're sneaking around?” Quirky asked as she cocked her head to one side.

All eyes fell on her. Quirky just shrugged.

The group returned their attention to the commons area. Twilight and the others could only see the walls that reached out and above the entryway, which concealed the doors themselves. None could bring themselves to move back down the hallway just yet. They watched in anticipation as their three friends stood frozen in their tracks.

Twilight spotted a figure in the distance directly beyond the three outside. She pointed again. “What’s that over there?”

Quirky Q laughed, “That's Windchaser, silly-”

“No, past him,” Twilight described.

Approaching in the distance was a dark figure, taller than any of the students Twilight had met thus far. It came from a long ways off, even beyond the edge of the castle to the beginning of the northern hills. Its pace was quick and its steps proceeded without faltering. It was headed directly for Pokey Pierce and the others.

“It's coming straight at them!” Twilight shrieked in terror.

Colgate turned and started a mad dash back toward the dormitory. “We have to warn them! Come on!”

The group charged back toward the main hall. Upon reaching the foyer Colgate pulled out the stolen keys and fiddled with them, using her magic to pick the right one on her first try again. She halted before opening the large entryway door.

“Did anypony see how close that thing was to the others?” Colgate asked carefully, though her voice seemed donned with more excitement than alarm. Every pony present shook his or her head. “We'll just have to run and drag them back as quickly as possible. Ready?”

This time they all nodded, however reluctantly. Colgate placed a hoof on the door and gradually shifted her weight against the thick wooden boards, until finally pressing with all her might. The door eased open, even with the mare's full strength pushing against it, and a metal creak of the bolts sliced the air.

Colgate sprinted out, with each of the others trailing one behind the other. Twilight emerged last, pulled as though harnessed along with the others, her own will no longer in control. The coolness of the night struck her face, then her entire body, until she could feel the icy sensation from horn to tail. With her mind entirely occupied Twilight didn't shiver even once. She looked back at the doorway the four had just left, longing to return to it. She was in for the ride, and there was no turning back.

All of a sudden her chest hit against something. It nearly knocked the air clean out of her. Her head snapped back to see Starlight right in front of her, tumbled on the ground. In front of him were the other two, Quirky and Colgate, their heads jerking back and forth with bewildered gazes.

“What's going on?” Twilight coughed, catching her breath. “What are you guys doing?”

“They're not there anymore!” Colgate said with a hushed holler.

Twilight looked beyond her companions and to the castle door. Its large frame no longer harbored the three Ponyville loiterers. She spotted an unrolled scroll pinned dead at the center on the door, but no one examining it. The results were right there before everypony's very eyes, hidden only by the curling of parchment. Their friends, on the other hoof, were nowhere to be seen.

“We need to get back!” Colgate ordered with a lowered voice, turning and pushing her nearby friend Quirky toward the dormitory. “That thing's still coming!”

Twilight peered into the darkness and spotted the blurred figure now headed straight for them. She thought it was a pony, but it its body seemed too large. Whatever it was, it continued walking at an eerily unhurried pace.

In her staring Twilight forgot to run, but surely enough the invisible reins that dragged the unicorn out hauled her back as her five companions darted to the dormitory doorway. Twilight didn’t look back once but could picture the mysterious thing riding on her hoofs. The unicorn felt a wail rising in her throat but held it back with all her might.

Twilight leaped through the door. The cool air of the foyer swarmed her and the door closed with a groan behind her. The sounds of the night crickets faded as quick breaths sounded in rapid succession. The darkness which Twilight feared to gaze into before was now her shade of safety.

Starlight stood with knees knocking together and teeth chattering. “Is it still-?”

“Shh!” Colgate hushed him, covering his small mouth with a hoof. “Listen.”

The leader put her ear up against the smooth wood of the door. For a minute the group stood in uncomfortable silence, ready to run, though unsure of where to exactly. Twilight, unable to stand the lack of planning, began pacing back and forth.

What do we do, what do we do? If that thing saw us it'll definitely come this way. How can we escape? Do we split up? Think Twilight, think think think!

“It's not coming this way,” Colgate suddenly uttered.

Twilight looked up to see her blue friend peeking out through a crack between the doors.

“What are you doing!?” Twilight chided.

Colgate threw a smart glance in her friends direction. “Just being a little daring. No worries, Twilight, that things headed down to the beach.”

“Phew! What a relief,” Twilight said with an unsettling laugh. Now, let’s all just head back to our rooms and pretend none of this-

Colgate interjected, “Why run away now? We're so close! Didn't you see that scroll on the door? Those have to be the results!

“But what happened to the others?” Twilight asked. “What if they got caught?”

No one had an answer at first, leaving the four in a speechless state. They looked at one another, unable to give any explanation; that is, until Colgate's gaze met Twilight's.

“Aha!” the blue mare said. “Maybe they used an invisibility spell like you did, Twilight. They could be right outside, or maybe they're hiding near the door somewhere.”

Then shouldn't we wait for them and ask about it?” Twilight suggested.

“Time is of the essence,” Colgate said as she walked behind the bookworm. She began pushing Twilight toward the door. “If you find any trace of them, lead them back here. If not, check the results yourself. You're the most spell-savvy here, Twilight, you have to go!

But Twilight did not feel up to the task; all she felt was a huge lump in her throat, as though she had eaten too much dry hay and couldn't swallow.

“I dunno guys,” she objected, but soon enough Quirky and Starlight were helping nudge Twilight closer to the door, until her flank started to sting of rug-burn.

Twilight felt pressures inside and out pushing and pulling her toward the door, a mess of emotion and reason finally caving in as the mare's brain could no longer process everything, or rather, anything.

“You guys-!

Before she could finish, Twilight found herself out on the steps, cold and alone. She looked back and saw three pairs of eyes peering out from the doorway, each full of concern but also a glimmer of expectation. Trying to ignore their stares, Twilight gazed over at the main castle entry and the scroll fixed upon it.

Okay Twilight, you can do this. Just walk on over, check it, and hurry back. No one will see you, no one will get in trouble. Then you can finally get some sleep.

She knew she was lying to herself, but by that time her brain bought its own fabrications. With no filter of reason - broken by the irrationality of everything that had happened within the past half hour - Twilight could no longer distinguish right from wrong. All she could think about was the scroll.

Twilight scanned the entire commons a fair number of times. After seeing nothing but the shrubbery move after a minutes’ inspection, she crept along the dormitory facade. She hid behind whatever she could, pausing each time to check the circle of the commons for life. She made it past the glass corridor connecting the main buildings until making a mad dash to the corner of the castle. Once again she stopped and searched, but nothing was out and about but figments of her imagination.

Twilight felt her heart beating at a terrible pace, faster than it had ever pulsated in months. What she had been fretting over was just a few steps away. In spite of having faced far scarier situations Twilight could hardly stand the tingling sensation that shook her like a rag doll.

“Guys?” Twilight called, but her whisper could barely reach over the wind. “Any of you out here?”

No response. Twilight sucked in all the air she could and jumped out to face the doorway. Up close it felt as tall as a clock-tower. Even the scroll nailed into the wood seemed larger than Twilight had imagined. The parchment's ends wrapped into curls that met at the middle as a long, thick stake stuck out from the very center. The unicorn had never seen something posted so strangely before.

Delayed by apprehension, Twilight debated which end to uncurl first.

Is it alphabetical, or by towns? How would it be best organized?

After enough squabbling with herself, Twilight gave up the matter altogether and used her magic to unfurl the paper all at once. Twilight winced as though it were going to blind her; but then she eased open one eye, and finally both. Centered on the paper was a single word, written in rough lettering:

Surprise

“Surprise?” Twilight read in a whisper.

All of a sudden the mare could not feel a thing beneath her hoofs. The doors before her disappeared as a black wall encircled her. All she could sense was the feeling of gravity pulling her down; down a long, long way.

Next Chapter >


Index

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Chapter 5: The Walls Have Life

Twilight hit the ground with a terrible thump. Echoes swirled down a narrow hall, carrying the howl father than the sound of her landing. A cold, damp air surrounded her as though she had stumbled into a freezer. As Twilight lie with the air knocked out of her lungs, she quickly noticed two things: first, that the cry that had echoed sounded like that of a deeper voice than hers; and second, that her landing felt unexpectedly cushioned. She was grateful as it possibly protected her from any severe injury.

What was that?” came a feminine voice from the darkness nearby.

Something... just fell... on top of me,” groaned a deeper voice, reverberating whatever it was Twilight had landed on.

Gasping for air, Twilight managed to whimper, “Vinyl? Pokey?”

Twilight?” questioned Vinyl in wonder. Her hoofsteps against the compact soil drew closer, though the pattering of her steps suggested more wandering than drawing close. “Where'd you come from?”

“I don't know!” said Twilight after finally catching her breath and lifting herself off of Pokey. The scent of the earthy air filled her nose, which she did not mind in the moment. “I’m sorry, Pokey Pierce. First I was looking at the scroll on the doors outside, and next thing I know I was falling down-”

“Same with us!” Vinyl exclaimed. “What the hay is going on here?”

Twilight looked up in hopes of seeing exactly where she had fallen from. To her dismay nothing greeted her eyesight but the same blackness that encompassed her and her company.

“Do we have any clues about where we are?” Twilight inquired.

But the others stood in complete silence.

“Have you been able to look around?” she pursued.

Once again, no answers.

“You mean none of you know how to create a light with your horn or anything?” Twilight asked dully, feeling both confused and yet unsurprised. She continued, disgruntled, “All right, I'll do it.”

With a deep breath, Twilight focused on igniting a ball of light just at the tip of her horn. She remembered the exact spell – a very elementary one – and closed her eyes, focusing on it as best she could. After a moment she opened her eyes again and saw the figures of the others standing not a few hoofs’ reach away. Their faces turned away for a moment and returned, revealing heads lowered in shame and eyes heavy with fatigue.

Twilight’s nose crinkled as her eyes crossed to observe the light she created.

“Why isn't this brighter?” she murmured nervously. “Usually it's about as strong as any old torch.”

You’re probably as worn out as the rest of us,” Vinyl said. “Our energy's runnin low from the trip and all. Let's just figure out how to get outta here.”

“Easier said than done,” said Stormchaser, revealing his cold, tenor voice.

“Well, we can't climb back out the way we came,” Twilight stated, to which the others gave unimpressed stares. Twilight tried to laugh to ease the tension, but saw that no spirits were lifted. “Have you guys explored the area at all?”

“In the dark?” Vinyl asked, which made Twilight blush. “It looks like the end of the line behind you, so there's only one way to go.”

Twilight took a moment to examine the space, noting the wide semicircular passage surrounded by tightly packed earth. She walked along its course and noted the wide gap beginning to narrow. After a minute of careful treading the group encountered faded grays and smooth surfaces of a pony-built corridor. The brickwork was basic and broken up, appearing similar to the dull rock that spotted the underground passageway.

It offered little in terms of comfort as the shabby tunnel seemed ready to collapse on itself. Rigid columns held the stone ceiling panels in place, though a number were chipped or altogether broken. The odors of the buried soils began mixing with ones far more foul. Twilight ceased breathing through her nostrils as much as she could to avoid the stench of something rotten. The stink became so heavy that it touched against her tongue, to which Twilight nearly gagged.

“What do you suppose all this is?” asked Pokey Pierce as he inspected the place. He seemed hardly affected by the reek.

Twilight shook her head slowly. “I don't know. Does the castle have a basement of some sort that we may have stumbled into?”

“Maybe Princess Luna knew that students would try and peek at the results, so she built this all as a trap!” Pokey conjectured.

The group stopped and stared at him for a moment, unsure if he was serious. When Pokey simply stared back, the others rolled their eyes and continued down the hall.

“Pokey, I really don't think Princess Luna would make some brand new tunnels look like this,” Twilight thought aloud.

Crunches reverberated through each pony's body as they began treading atop broken pieces of stone. Each one felt the unpleasant sensation of pebbles sticking to their hoofs. Piles of dust swam through the tunnel like grains of sand disturbed in water. It caused Twilight to cough after inhaling too much of the sooty air, and as a result she slowed her pace to follow behind the others at a slightly longer distance.

“Maybe this is part of the punishment,” added the Pokey Pierce suddenly. “It wouldn't be discipline if we just fell into a nice little hallway that led us back up into the castle.” He gasped. “What if it leads us straight to Princess Luna's chambers? We'll get kicked out of the academy for good!”

“In case you didn't realize, Pokey, we're already out past midnight,” Vinyl stated, “and we left the dormitory. I feel like we're in enough trouble already.

“Look,” said Stormchaser.

His hoof pointed to the right wall. Twilight walked closer to reveal a vast collection of carvings in the stone. Faint words, large designs and simple drawings all contributed to the blend of etchings. They spread across the wall from the ceiling to the floor with a sparse number empty gaps in their midst. Twilight briefly aimed her light at the opposite wall to behold the exact same plethora of pictures. Twilight wished she had read a book on ancient symbology and carvings.

“What is all this?” Vinyl asked in awe. “Looks pretty cool.”

“And important,” Twilight said.

She paced along the walls, examining every feature possible with the limited time Twilight felt she could afford. Though she desired to examine every square inch, the cold discouraged her from staying put. In passing she saw rough depictions of ponies carrying out daily duties, of boats both sailing and docked, even of farming and giant harvests. Exactly where it all was taking place Twilight could not tell. There were no pictures of a large city or any notable landmarks. There was, however, one recurring setting of a small town near the water’s edge.

“Why aren't there any clues on here about where we are now!?” Twilight growled.

A map,” Stormchaser uttered in the darkness behind her.

At some point during the group's stroll he had paused. Directly before his eyes was a picture of a crescent moon with jagged features carved all over it. The others retraced their steps and examined the image from top to bottom. Even Twilight could not understand most of the etches or symbols that scattered around the moon shape; however, a few things did stand out to her.

Is this a map of the island?” Twilight asked. “It has the mountains, the forests, the tower to the south, and... Is that a town to the north?” When she looked closer, she could make out small words beneath the shapes of what looked like houses and ponies. “New... Trottingham?”

“Is that where we are?” Pokey asked as he nudged his way into the huddle examining the section of stone wall.

“I don't think so,” Twilight said. “It's hard to tell. The academy isn't drawn on here, but I think it currently sits a little to the-” Twilight stopped as she spotted strange symbols sitting directly where her hoof had pointed south of the collection of homes. “What's this?”

Everypony leaned in even further, their faces almost touching the stone. Right before their eyes were jagged lines crossing the central part of the island roughly where the academy resided. Other small carvings sat around these zig-zagging features. Among them Twilight spotted a distinctive crescent shape.

“Guys, I think that's a moon!” Twilight said. “If only we knew how old these carvings were... Do any of you know how long was it after Luna's creation of the academy that it was abandoned?”

She glanced at her companions, but each either shifted their eyes up and away or simply stared at the carvings some more.

“Psh, like we'd know,” Vinyl smirked. “We're not history buffs. That's your job, Twi.”

Twilight moaned, “If only somepony else were here to help me remember.” All of a sudden an idea struck her like lightning. “Of course! Why don't we just use a telepathic spell to communicate with one of the others?”

Vinyl looked at the two stallions, and then at Twilight. “And you expect one of us to know how to do that?”

Twilight dropped her head and grumbled, “Ugh, nevermind. I don't know it either. Lucky me, it was next on my checklist of spells to learn.

“Couldn't you just teleport out of here?” Pokey Pierce asked.

“Okay Pokey, so far I've tried to be nice and consider your ideas, but now-” Twilight stopped mid-sentence. “Wait a minute... Pokey, that's brilliant! Of course! I'll just teleport back to the entrance and head for the dorms. I'll get the others to come help and we'll pull you guys out!” She dug her hoofs into the ground. “All right, try not to hurt yourselves or each other when I'm gone.”

Twilight’s ball of light diminished as her horn glowed a dark violet. The mare's focus went into the spell which she had practiced many times in Ponyville. She carefully formed the image the dormitory facade in her head. With a final lift of her head, she closed her eyes tightly and put her energy into teleporting out onto the lawn. The soft burst of magic sparks gave Twilight a tiny din of triumph.

But when she opened her eyes, it was still pitch black.

“So, she's gone, right?” came the voice of Pokey Pierce, still right next to Twilight. “What do we do now?”

“Find the way we fell in, I guess,” Vinyl answered. “Too bad we couldn't check out the walls more. They were pretty sick-looking.”

“Why didn’t she take us with her?” asked Windchaser.

Silence followed for a moment, interrupted by Pokey's quaking voice. “W-What if Twilight forgets about us? What if she gets selfish and takes the results to her room and just goes to sleep-?”

“First of all,” Twilight growled, “the scroll on the door didn't have any results. Secondly, I couldn't possible leave you all behind because I'M STILL HERE!”

A deep rumbling started to shake the tunnel. Twilight closed her mouth, surprised by what she thought was the power of her voice. Bits of rock from the wall and ceiling started to fall off and skip across the floor. A cacophony of broken stone showered the unicorns' ears like rain as pebbles abounding like drops of water continuously tapped against the floor and the ponies’ bodies. Above the clamor of the trembling arose a deep and menacing laugh.

“You thought you could escape that easily, did you little one?” questioned the rich, powerful voice of he who laughed. “Think again, pony wanderers, for your work here is not done.”

The quaking died down until the chamber was still and silent. Twilight hesitantly lit the tip of her horn again and braced herself for any unsightly things. The dull light revealed no such scares, but nonetheless the four backed into each other. Their flanks were safe at the very least.

Pokey gulped. “What was that?”

“Show yourself!” Twilight shouted.

No immediate answer came, but Twilight did not stop casting glances in every direction. At the end of her faint light’s reach she thought she saw the stone walls cracking and crumbling. After closer examination and boosting her magic light, the unicorn saw that the walls were not the only things falling apart. The pictures spread across them were frantically shaking and shifting as well.

The carvings of crowds of ponies moved about as though they were real. Some galloped about and grabbed their things while others carried on ignorantly with their activities. Some jumped off the wall and shattered into tiny pieces on the ground. Etched houses crumbled as the earth swallowed endless fields of crops. Ships on the sea began to submerge, followed by the collapsing of the waves themselves.

Twilight backtracked through the tunnel in search of the island map. When she stumbled upon it all of the features had fallen off, including the mountains and the houses, the tower and the forests. All that remained was the outline of the isle itself, a barren and unoccupied land. The earth’s shuddering began to die down, and the carvings on the walls turned into lifeless objects once more.

“You weren't looking at ancient history now, were you my young mare?” said the voice. “Come, follow the tunnel, and your minds you’d best prepare.”

Pokey asked in a witless whisper, “Why does he rhyme like that zebra back in Ponyville?”

Twilight withheld from answering. Instead she squinted to pierce the darkness ahead of them in search of more important answers. She peered down the length of the tunnel she had not yet dared to venture through but could not make anything out beyond a few paces ahead of her. A new layer of darkness lingered about as the dust and dirt that now sailed through the cold air obtruded the unicorns’ view.

Guys, what should do we do?” Twilight asked.

“Gotta go with the flow, it seems,” Vinyl voiced. “I sure as hay don't wanna, but I think we have to.”

Twilight swallowed the rock inside her throat. She didn't want to begin imagining what awaited them. Nonetheless, with no other options, she started down the collapsing cave. Her eyes never once looked straight ahead, but instead distracted themselves by breezing over the walls countless times. A number of carvings still stood along the broken surfaces of the enclosures, though many broken like shattered clay pots.

But the farther the group pressed on, the greater the presence of whole images along the walls. Pictures of boats started to fill the walls, their enormous sizes spanning half the height of the wall and much longer. The interiors were visible, revealing the hull of each boat and the rooms inside. Some figures looked like the ones the group had seen seconds ago, while others looked as though they had slanted lines etched across them, crossing their bodies and faces.

Beyond the boats was a gap with spaced carvings in the stone. At one point long lines swirled and swam about, intersecting and ending at random spots. Deep holes were cut around them, sometimes along the deep, thick lines. Jagged shapes and hundreds of circles littered the stone canvass. No matter how long or hard Twilight stared in passing, she could not make sense of the giant mess.

Recognizable symbols and shapes gradually returned. They formed small clusters of scenery, from forests to plains to mountains. In each setting, like a picture book, the focus was around four different figures. Two seemed like regular ponies, while the other two were the creatures with the strange markings all over them. The figures were pictured in various landscapes, until suddenly they dangling in the middle as if hung from their front hoofs. To the sides Twilight could make out a lion’s paw and a bird's talons, ready to squish the suspended bodies between their claws.

After this picture was a break from all of the etchings, followed closely by a scene of a town similar to the one Twilight saw earlier. The entire set-up, though, was completely destroyed and abandoned. Everything lay in ruin, with plants and vehicles in disarray, homes picked apart and fields trampled. Not a single pony was pictured. As this disturbing image faded into the darkness, the walls lie completely bare.

Minutes passed and nothing else showed up on the walls. Twilight felt as though she were walking in circles, until something on the floor ahead caught her and the others’ attention. From afar it seemed like a few scattered lines, but up close they formed a single word:

RUN

Twilight felt her heart stop. It didn't even have the chance to skip a beat as the rumbling of the earth began anew.

“Make fast your advance, ponies, why do you dawdle about?” the deep voice teased. “Make haste right now and meet with me; perhaps I'll let you out.”

Twilight turned to her friends and saw the petrified looks on their faces as the tremor passed through as before.

“What do we do?” she asked, but not a single one seemed to notice she was speaking.

Okay, you can do this, Twilight. You've faced worse things before... right?

She lifted a hoof and stomped it onto the rocky floor. She started forward again into the darkness hoping the others were following her. She dared not look back to see frightened faces that would suck every last fiber of courage out of her.

The rumbling grew more severe until it felt shakier than the earth beneath a stampede. Twilight feared the tunnel would cave in, trapping her and her friends in the dense, cluttered earth. She tried to ponder the meaning of the word she saw, run, and how it could possibly help. They couldn't turn back, nor could they flee in any other direction. The only running they could do was toward the direction from which the voice bellowed.

A drop of light suddenly gleamed in the distance. It was a single light, soft and pale blue. Its reach did not stray from the single course it ran as it formed a beam of blue against an otherwise black backdrop.

“Guys! I think I see something!” Twilight yelled as the ground continued to grumble.

The ray of light grew longer as the ceiling began to rise. The tiny tunnel expanded into a taller, wider square as the dense air thinned out. A terrible chill hit the ponies like a wall, causing each to shudder and stumble.

As the group drew near to the radiance another blue blaze popped into view. The new light, more concentrated, hovered a ways off to the right. It glowed and spat like a hungry flame, growling like a raging wolf. Another lit, and then another, repeating until a circle of cobalt blazes encircled the group. The conflagrations snarled like a pack of wolves surrounding their prey, lighting up when fiercely snapping.

The quavering ceased suddenly, but an ensuing deep laughter kept the wanderer’s bones trembling.

“Welcome, my young ponies, to this dark and dreary cave,” said the stranger. “If you know what is good for you, then you had best behave. Cast no spells or you'll regret, for a second chance you will not get.”

“Who are you?” Twilight yelled. “Or, what are you?”

“Were you all to see me, you'd all surely freeze with fear; but know that I've been certainly awaiting for you here. I led you through to show the truth: those walls you saw displayed the proof.”

“What do you mean?” Twilight shouted as the riddle went in one ear and out the other. “What proof?”

“If I were a mighty owl, you'd be the tasty mice. Listen to me carefully for some small - but good - advice: only demise lingers on this isle. You'd best escape before things get vile.”

Twilight recalled the etched word on the floor. Her blood went as cold as ice.

“H-How are we supposed to leave when you've trapped us here?” Twilight questioned, her voice echoing faintly.

The voice replied, “I only wait for the time opportune. I expect that my visitor shall stop by soon. All things considered you four ponies really mean little to me; should my guest fail to show, it's the light of day you'll never again see.”

Twilight felt her limbs lock in place. There was nothing she could do, or so the voice said. Thoughts started to shoot across the sky of her mind like meteoroids in a meteor shower. She and her friends had overcome greater obstacles before; there had to be a key to escape.

An invisibility spell! If I can just reverse it, maybe we'll be able to see where and what it is...

Without thinking twice, Twilight put out the light of her horn and started a new spell.

“Twilight, what are you doing?” Vinyl berated.

Twilight whispered, “If we can just see whatever this thing is, maybe we can figure out an escape plan.

Vinyl jumped over in front of Twilight to stop her. “Twi, he already warned us about trying to escape-”

But it was too late. A new light flashed from Twilight's horn, blinding the caster for a moment. Upon regaining her vision she glanced over at Vinyl and gasped. Her friend was staring straight at the ceiling of the cave, pale as a ghost; even her white coat appeared unnaturally bleached. She shook as though the earth beneath her shook her like a dice. A shriek drained her lungs through a wide-open mouth.

The deep voice chuckled. “You'd be better off not looking where your friend here dared to stare. Can't you see just what has come of this poor, careless mare? Don't turn back, with the stallions it is all quite the same: don't you regret breaking one of the rules of my little waiting game?”

Twilight kept wanting to glance upward, now more than ever, just to capture a glimpse of whatever it was she had revealed. Before she could, though, the image of Vinyl and her pallid state frightened her into staring at her own hoofs. The conflicting fear and curiosity left Twilight quivering like a leaf in autumn winds.

“You have til three to contemplate. It seems your friend might be too late,” the voice said. “I had really hoped that she would show, it's simply quite a shame. This just means I’ll have to extend our little cat-and-mouse game.”

“Who are you waiting for!?” Twilight cried as tears flowed in fear. “What do you want from us? We didn't do anything!”

“One! You ignored the walls, the life they show. Had you paid attention, even when running you'd know.” He chuckled to himself. “Two! It's nothing personal, I simply dislike your kind. Just seeing any ponies and such brings terrible thoughts to mind.”

A deep breath left the lips of the mysterious thing. Twilight could feel it from where she stood as the gust blew past her with great power. She clenched her teeth in preparation for whatever pain was to come; her cries could not save her, and her magic had reached the end of its line.

“Three.” He paused and roared at the cavern ceiling. She hasn't come, that villain, she's nowhere in my sight. What a pity, so ignorant, your princess of the night-!”

A thunderous boom shook the chamber and a wave of air swept the scene. Twilight could not help herself any longer as she lifted her eyes upward. Her sights met a strange glowing swirl of violet and dark blue spinning in the middle of the cave. Like a black hole it sucked in her sight as it radiated a mystifying light. From it launched sparkles of navy and purple that flung themselves into patches of darkness, fading after shedding light in every corner.

The magical spheroid began to shrink until taking form in the blink of an eye. Twilight covered her face as it flashed, and then peeked out with caution. Her sights beheld a most familiar figure standing in the middle of the giant cave. Her wavy mane and tall figure were nothing but unique. Paired with a dark coat and lunar cutie mark, the individual was indistinguishable.

Princess Luna!

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Index

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Chapter 6: Cave In

by Storytayler

“GET BEHIND US, TWILIGHT!” Princess Luna ordered as her eyes flashed white and hair grew pitch black. “SHIELD THINE EYES IMMEDIATELY!”

Twilight fell immediately to the ground as Princess Luna's voice shook the cave more so than the stranger's ever had. With eyes cast downward the student could see the nothing but the shadow of the academy headmaster, its figure tall and hair flailing like a flag in a brewing windstorm. The building zephyr whipped around Twilight and the princess like a cyclone. It nearly swept the student off her hoofs, but the headmare stood her ground like a tower.

SPEAK NOW, FIEND! WHAT ART THOU, AND WHAT IS THY PURPOSE HERE?” Luna roared.

The stranger chuckled as he had before, but the explosion of laughter felt half as powerful compared to Princess Luna's vocal strength.

“Alas, after longest years you've finally decided to come! Are you prepared to listen to all the evil that you've done? My name is simply Specter, though it has not always been. I have last words to speak to you before my string of life grows thin.”

Princess Luna howled, “ON WHAT GROUNDS DOST THOU INTENDETH TO SCOLD US AFTER THOU HAST WRONGLY ABDUCTED OUR OWN STUDENTS, TARAXIPPUS?”

Taraxippus?

Twilight had studied the monster before. Ancient stories told of competitions that went terribly wrong because of the mysterious beings. The ghastly things were said to strike fear into any ordinary pony that spotted even an inch of its form, freezing any onlookers in their tracks. Remembering the pale state of Vinyl and the others, Twilight shut her eyes tightly and protected them with shaking hoofs.

“Such is true, dark alicorn, but it brought you here nonetheless,” the Taraxippus teased. “Now listen to what story I have to tell in the midst of this mess. There was a time long, long ago when this whole island defined peace. Diverse individuals lived in harmony without cease. They thrived in their own settlement for many, many years. But those who thought the times too good found answered their own fears.

“Along came a vicious devil that encouraged disarray. He turned the waters salty and made rotten all their hay. He made the strangest scene of their tiny, humble town. Every delighted grin soon turned into a dreadful frown. To the dismay of the townsfolk he claimed the isle as his own. And for some time he had no fear for sufficient opposition had not yet grown.

“But as time passed four brave souls stepped up to face the brute. They tired of all the hardships and sought to rip apart the root. Little did the heroes know that this was the devil's plan, for the moment they set hoof in his trap was the second it all began.”

An eerie silence filled the cavern. The high-pitched ringing in Twilight's ears suddenly became painfully noticeable.

“What began?” Princess Luna demanded, her tone calmer as telling voice’s had died down too. “Is that all thou has to tell?”

The Taraxippus gave a great cry, “It was sheer horror, princess, yes the horror that began! An appalling spell enveloped the heroes before they turned and ran. Cries of agony pierced the sky as storms began to rise! And their faces were never again seen by their friends' and families' eyes.”

What is thy purpose of telling this tale?” Princess Luna interjected indignantly.

The Taraxippus moaned, “All this time I've waited, and this is all we get? An impatient princess that was waited on, no sign of regret?”

“If thou suggests that we were that devil then we must inform you that you are mistaken,” Princess Luna declared.

The voice shook the room with greater power. “You weren’t the devil I described, but you are one nonetheless. How could you ignore your name being called by hundreds in distress? The savior that failed to show her face, who left her mark behind? What a waste to believe in your noble name he enshrined.” The Taraxippus gave a terrible screech, like the a cry of an eagle, and shouted, “As my final act for all while I’m yet in this cursed form, I'll bury the one who never came to clear the devil's storm!”

The ground began to shake with terrible vigor. The grinding of rough boulders scratching against one another cracked the air as chunks of earth rained down from the cave ceiling. Twilight turned and looked back with alarm as piles of dirt and stone piled up around her three motionless friends. Before she could run to them, a great gust began to spin. Thunder sounded throughout the room as bursts of explosions swarmed the chamber. Titanic rocks dropped from the ceiling and dirt flew into the air like clouds. Twilight could suddenly hardly see, let alone breath.

Keep covering your eyes, Twilight!” ordered Princess Luna.

The student obeyed, though reluctantly. The darkness behind her eyelids did not shut out the quaking nor the collisions of giant rock; in fact, the fear that choked Twilight only grew exponentially. But suddenly a light brighter than the sun flared throughout the cave, visible even from behind closed eyelids. Almost simultaneously was a tumultuous crack that split the air.

The din of crumbling suddenly faded. The ground was soft. The air was thin and refreshing, though still terribly cold. Shivering, Twilight tried to peel one eye open, but the persisting terror had drained almost all of her energy. Ever so slowly her senses gave way, leaving her lying in a scatter-brained blanket of silence and senselessness.

Something nudged her.

“Twilight Sparkle?”

Her own name echoed through her head, a bottomless chasm, hollowed by the panic that had racked her brain. It was empty from the crashes that pierced her eardrums, letting her last thoughts ooze out like water from a hole in a barrel. But her senses had not entirely escaped, for Twilight could begin to retain the fluid information of her own name.

“Twilight Sparkle, are you all right?”

Twilight knew it was the voice of Princess Luna. The unicorn tried her best to nod, but the throbbing in her head made every inch of movement in her neck feel like a terrible contortion. She could not even open her eyes.

You need to try and remain conscious. We have to get you and the others back to the academy immediately,” Princess Luna explained.

Twilight winced at the thought of the others and their pallid states. The tighter she closed her eyes, the farther she felt herself disconnecting from the real world. Her mind slowly began to drift off until the unicorn could not help but submit to the comatose that devoured her.


A gentle light streamed across Twilight's face. Her coherent thoughts and senses returned as the mess that plagued her mind fled to the mare's subconscious. A warm, comfortable bed cushioned her back and side. Clean blankets covered her entire body. A wrap around her ears muffled what little sound she could make out, most of it being her own shifting in the sheets.

Her eyes eased open to reveal an unfamiliar room. It certainly wasn't her bedroom - it was too large and filled with fine furnishings - but it looked very similar. The dark coloring around the room covered all kinds of familiar shades. Violet curtains dotted with golden and silver stars donned the wide-stretched windows that practically made up the far wall. Rows of portraits and paintings, each one outlined by golden or silver frames, fit across the faces of the walls like puzzle pieces.

The air was still cool, but not chilling like that of the tunnels. Twilight shuddered at the memories that leaked into her brain, from the moving walls to the last moments she could remember before fainting. It left her shaking to the point where even the bed itself wobbled.

“Be still, Twilight Sparkle,” came the strong voice of Luna, even though whispered. “Thou art safe within the royal guest room at the academy. There is nothing of which to fear.”

The student ceased her trembling and looked to her right where the princess sat a hoof’s reach away. Her dark blue eyes pierced through Twilight's being, drawing out a vulnerability that brought out tears to the unicorn's eyes.

“P-Princess Luna-”

“As your princess and headmare, I shall speak first,” Luna stated emotionlessly. “Thou hast much to explain, my new student. As a former pupil of Celestia's, I can only trust that thou had good reason to be out so late. Whether you led this expedition or not, it matters little; all that does matter is that you relay everything with accuracy.”

The thought of being sent back to Ponyville seemed unavoidable. All excuses and stories that had developed were now inadequate, melting into mere puddles of worthless, dirty water no pony would dare to offer or take in themselves.

Twilight stuttered, “It was all because of the exam, and I... Back in my room, I tried to sleep, but I couldn't! This noise, I went to check... and next thing I know I'm outside. I fell down a hole... And then that tunnel! Princess Luna, I couldn't even-”

SILENCE!” Princess Luna ordered. Her eyes flashed for a moment, but then returned a calm state again. “I understand that thou art feeling quite tempestuous. However, I am in need of thine experiences regarding exactly what happened last night. That monster we encountered was no hoax; thou and thy friends are most fortunate to have escaped alive.”

I heard you say Taraxippus,” Twilight mentioned, leaning toward the princess with wet eyes. “Why would it be on the island-?”

“That is not crucial as of this moment, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna scolded. “For now, thou must relay to me what occurred this past night. That is of utmost importance.”

The princess sat and stared as Twilight tried to collect herself. Though out of harm's way, she had not escaped any kind of punishment after enduring the trial of breaking the academy rules. Twilight accepted the fact with great consternation.

“In all honesty, I was so worried about the exam results that I couldn't sleep,” Twilight admitted with plenty of sniffling. “I heard from a friend that the results would be posted tonight, and I couldn't wait. I heard something outside the door and found an excuse to leave. I ran into some others who had snuck out, so we searched for the exam results. We spotted a scroll on the entrance to the main hall.”

The princess forcefully interrupted, “There are two things that thou must clarify. Firstly, explain how thou managed to escape past the guards. Secondly, what is this scroll of which thou speakest?”

“Somepony put the guards to sleep,” Twilight said. “When I walked out into the foyer, every guard was slumbering but one. I used an invisibility spell before he could spot me.” The student paused and looked around. “About the scroll... is there nothing on the castle door anymore?”

“I hath seen no such thing on the doorway after our return last night. What was on it?”

Twilight gulped, recollecting the sight of the one word. “There was only one word when I opened it. 'Surprise'.”

Luna's eyes narrowed again, this time a spark of mystical ire shooting through the royal blue of her irises.

“Twilight Sparkle, it pains me to say this,” Princess Luna began, and her student began to choke up worse than before. She knew the words that were coming with the intensifying look of disappointment. “But I would very much encourage thou to remain on the island.”

Dashed, Twilight felt herself fading away from the fabric of reality, falling into the net of fears and mortification that had formed over the course of the night. All of her woes had indeed finally come true. Until she realized what the headmare had said.

“Wait, remain on the island?” the unicorn asked.

Princess Luna nodded slowly. “I understand that this was a most taxing experience for thou; however, I may be in need of thy assistance. As my sister is overseeing her own academy while watching over the whole of Equestria, she does not have time to come to my aid so readily, even when the matter at hoof concerns such a devilish fiend as that which you witnessed.”

Twilight felt her insides churn. “You didn't defeat the Taraxippus? Even with your powerful magic spell?”

“No, I did not vanquish it,” Luna stated. “It destroyed itself. As thou might already know, spirits such as the Taraxippus live for many years, but they too grow old and pass away. Since that ghost - which called itself Specter - knew it was drawing near to its end, it gave up its remaining energy to try and bury us. Though I sensed a strong magic spell to prevent teleportation, its power was no match for my magical ability.”

“It kept me from teleporting,” Twilight said. “I tried to escape and find help.”

The princess nodded with closed eyes. “Again, I am most sorry that thou had to experience such a trying and mysterious phenomena.”

“What about the story it told? About the four ponies and the... devil? Aren't all of the ponies on this island in danger if it returns?”

“I do not know. I felt the presence of something when I arrived to rebuild the academy a year ago, but I never directly encountered anything. Now that I have found what I was sensing, I must find out what it wanted to communicate through telling that disturbing tale.” Princess Luna let out a sorrowful sigh. “Troublesome things were expressed. Even I have not solved the puzzle the Taraxippus handed to me. For the time being, Twilight Sparkle, I would rather not see my revived school close so soon.”

Twilight looked at the headmaster, whose violet figure grew brighter as the sun began to rise. “But what will happen now, Princess Luna?”

“Do not fret. That monster is gone and it was little to fear in the first place, save for its trickery that thou witnessed first-hoof. If I sense that things are getting too dangerous, I shall summon my sister. We are in contact almost every day. She knows about thy exploits even now.”

Twilight's face grew terribly hot, afraid to hear just what Celestia's reaction would be like.

Luna smiled, to her surprise. “She says that ever since thou were sent to Ponyville thou hast seemed to turn into quite the inquisitive one, or so declares Celestia. She thinks thy friends have had an influence on thou.”

“Do I really get to stay?” Twilight asked excitedly, almost ignoring the previous comment. “What about all the rules my friends and I broke?”

“Though something very important has been revealed through this event, it indeed does not exclude thou and thy peers from chastisement. I have considered certain disciplinary measures for the breaking of the statutes, and believe I have found something suitable.” She took a deep breath, giving Twilight a second to sweat over it. “Thou shall not be able to leave the island during the first winter break.”

Twilight's heart sank, but quickly recovered at the thought that far worse things could have been said. Though she had made arrangements to see her friends during that time, she could have been faced with being stuck in Ponyville with no chance to revisit the academy. Ever.

“Will we be allowed to leave our rooms during the break?” Twilight asked sheepishly.

Luna laughed gracefully and smiled again, “That I have yet to settle. It shall be contingent on how thy Ponyville friends fare over the next few weeks.”

Twilight, with a regenerated spirit, giggled nervously. “I don't think we'll have any more problems.”

“I expect as much,” Luna said as she rose and headed for the door. “Do try to refrain from blushing too much when I make the announcement at breakfast time this morning.”

“You're telling everypony about this!?” Twilight squealed in horror.

But the princess looked hardly concerned. “The declaration shan't be too specific. It shall be for every student's good to be warned not to linger about at night. It shall also indirectly inform thy friends of what they should expect for their punishment, should they not hear from thy mouth first.”

“I-I understand, princess.”

Princess Luna stood before the door of the royal guest room and halted.

With one last breath she turned her majestic head and said, “Rest well, Twilight Sparkle. Feel free to return to thy room when thou feelest well enough.”

Twilight nodded with a smile, and the princess walked out, her flowing tail the last thing visible before the wooden barrier between chambers shut. The violet mare did not stay in bed for long, for curiosity – one not so dangerous – got the best of her and led her to doors nearby that connected to other identical guest rooms. She found an occupied bed in one of them. Twilight peeked at the head sticking out of the dark comforter and navy blue sheets. The electric blue mane made Vinyl's character indistinguishable.

“Vinyl? Are you awake?”

The white unicorn opened her eyes, revealing the dashing red irises, and let a large grin cross her muzzle.

Duh, heard the whole thing,” she said, sitting up. “She asked Pokey, Windchaser and I the same stuff. I was hopin you wouldn't lie to get out of trouble or something. It would've been your word against ours, and with you being Celestia's student and all, I think I know what Luna would've done.”

The other two stood from their hiding place on the other side of the bed. They each had been listening quite intently since Twilight’s awakening.

“You guys! I couldn't lie to the princess!” Twilight retorted brusquely. “What kind of pony do you think I am?”

Vinyl smirked, “The kind of pony that heads out alone to check some lame exam results.”

Twilight let out an uneasy chuckle. “Well, do I dare ask what you and the others were doing out there? Pokey, Windchaser?”

“Vinyl made me,” Pokey said. “She said she wanted a 'scapegoat', whatever that means.”

Windchaser nodded in agreement. Twilight rubbed her face with her hoof and laughed silently with her face hidden.

“I guess I pressured them into it,” Vinyl said. “I was hoping we'd run into you guys somehow. It would've made the adventure more interesting. ANYWAY, sounds like you and the others had a good time. I mean, you put the guards to sleep, yeah?”

Surprised, Twilight asked, “Hold on a second, how did you three get past them?”

“We didn't, really,” Pokey answered. “We went around the back of the castle. Windchaser helped us float down from out of our windows. Who'd have thought he's really good at controlling the wind?”

Windchaser looked away as though his face were flushing.

Twilight laughed and sighed, “Well, I think I'm feeling well enough to go back to my room before anything else crazy happens. Princess Luna must have cast a healing spell on us.” She unwrapped the cloth from around her head and examined the clean white strip. “Shall we?”

They headed for the exit, Twilight leading the way.

“If we want to avoid suspicion, we'd best get to our bedrooms before everypony wakes up and sees us,” she said.

The mare pushed opened the door and nearly screamed; standing crowded around the door outside was every student on campus. Their eyes all stared straight at the group of four inquisitively.

Before her jaw dropped to the floor Twilight quickly collected herself. “H-Hey everypony, nice morning, isn't it?”

Stares.

“Well, we're just going to get moving here, if you don't mind,” Twilight said as she nudged her way into the crowd, never once looking back.

She lowered her head and shuffled through the crowd until finally finding enough space to not be rubbing shoulders or stepping on another's hoofs with every stride. With a hot face she looked at the other three behind her, their eyes tapering in humiliation.

“Twilight! Guys! There you are!” Starlight called from afar.

The five others from Ponyville were talking toward the door Twilight and company had just left. Their eyes and smiles spread wide, the white of their eyes and teeth bare.

“You're all okay!” Twilight said with relief. “What happened to you guys?”

“We went and found Princess Luna!” Quirky stated as she took in a huge breath and unloaded. “Well, first we didn't know what to do, because you disappeared. But then we went and found Lyra and Gallant, and they told us to find Luna, so we did! And then the princess got this angry look on her face and her eyes turned all white, and I thought she was going to banish us! But then she just told us to go back to our rooms and we did, and now we found you!”

Though the words flew out faster than bees from a broken hive, they passed through a cognizant brain. As Quirky panted with excitement, Twilight looked at the others, who displayed a mixed set of emotions, from regret to relief.

“What happened to you guys?” Quirky asked.

The four looked at one another, unsure of how to reply. They had created stories for when a guard had caught them, but not when one of their friends asked.

“Well,” Twilight began, “we sorta got lost. That's all.”

“Lost? But you completely disappeared!”

“Invisibility spell?” Twilight said, though her tone emerged as that of a question.

Quirky looked over each one of the skeptically, but then smiled and started her usual bounding. “Phew! Here I thought you were all in big trouble. As long as we're all here and not banished by Princess Luna, we're a-okay!”

Twilight faked a smile, as did the others.

“You guys saw the results right?” Starlight asked. “Isn't it great?”

“Is what great?” Twilight asked. “You mean they're up?”

Starlight looked taken aback as his gaze darted back and forth between the crowd and Twilight. “D-Didn't you all just come from that doorway? It should’ve been posted there.”

The four's faces started to redden again. To hide them as best they could the group turned to face the door swarmed with other students. Surely enough, Twilight could make out above the huddle of horns a piece of parchment hanging on the door.

Oddly content, Twilight shook her head and laughed to ease her tension. Strangely, it worked. The horrible thoughts that had kept her up last night simply faded away.

“I don't need to see the results of the exam,” Twilight said happily. “I'm just happy that everypony here is safe-”

“Why wouldn't you want to know?” Quirky asked, puzzled. “It just says what class you'll be taking for the winter.”

Twilight sat down, dumbfounded. “Wait, what?”

“The results. They weren't grades or anything,” Starlight explained. “They were just to see what magic class we'd be best suited for. You know, like one of those fun quizzes to see what occupation you'd fit in best? That's pretty much all it was.”

One of Twilight's eyes began to twitch.

I guess I’ll just tell you: you, Lyra and I are in the Light Magic class,” Starlight said with fervor. “Vinyl and Windchaser, you guys are in the Elemental Magic class with Gallant; and Pokey, you're in the Shadow Magic class with Colgate and Quirky. We're evenly spread!

Quirky covered her mouth and erupted with a snarky laugh. “Boy, it's a good thing we didn't go through a whole heap of trouble to figure that out, right guys?”

All Twilight and the others could do was stare. Not at the others, but at thin air. Their tails ceased to move and their bodies felt jiggly as jam. Twilight especially started to drift off in thought, the voices of those disappearing around her, as they were drowned out by a single thought.

All that worrying... for nothing!?

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 6.5:

Collywobbles

by Storytayler

Twilight stood before one of the many tables in the banquet hall, her violet eyes captivated by a long piece of parchment sitting atop the smooth surface. Signatures of all sorts crossed the lines of the list, leaving only one spot left under the heading 'Advanced Astronomy'. With a decisive gaze she removed a quill from the sack she carried and neatly wrote her name on the last open line.

“Picking your electives, Twilight?” asked Starlight, who had been standing next to her without her knowing it.

Twilight turned her head to face the stallion. “Oh, hey Starlight. Yes, I’m finishing up my decision-making. I got lucky enough to get the last spot on the astronomy list. Have you picked any courses yet?”

Starlight eyeballed the list and frowned. “Well, I was thinking astronomy as well, but it looks full as you’ve just suggested. I guess I could give ice fishing a try...”

Twilight caught a glimpse of the list nearby. Only two names were under the heading, and a rough sketch of a gray fish sat beside the title.

Starlight,” Twilight said as she faked a laugh, “were you possibly thinking of trying anything else? I heard that particular course wasn't all too popular. How about a music elective? Or maybe a magic dueling course? I heard Gallant signed up for one of those.”

“G-Gallant's also an experienced fighter,” Starlight remarked with a nervous frown. “I-I don't think I'm meant to be a duelist of any sort. I prefer my peace and quiet.” A near-full list on the table to the left caught his eye. “What's that? Is that an advanced art course?”

“Ah! I forgot that I saw this,” said Twilight, bringing the paper over with her magic. “It's advanced painting. I forgot that you liked the arts. Looks like you found one elective for the winter.” She placed the parchment on the table nearby. “Do you plan on taking any more?”

“As much as I would love to take a number of these extra courses while I'm here, I don't want to distract myself from my main classwork.”

“Not a bad choice. From what I understand, the professors here won't be giving us an easy time, either.”

Starlight picked up a nearby quill with his magic hold and signed his name amongst the others sitting beneath the delicately written words 'Advanced Painting'. With a smile he backed away and looked about the banquet hall. Rings of tables with ponies crowded around them filled the grand hall. A few teachers stood about in the middle of the chamber eyeing the students carefully. Their moderation assured no pony would have the chance to toy with the lists.

“Say, Twilight,” Starlight started, “do you know any of those teachers?”

Twilight looked at the three teachers that stood in the middle of the room talking amongst themselves. Once in a while one would cast a glance over another's shoulder, eyeing a student in the distance with slight speculation.

“Don't you recognize them from Celestia's school?” Twilight asked.

Starlight's ears retreated as his head lowered. “I-I never went to Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns.”

The mare gasped, but covered her mouth swiftly. “Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't... With your studious demeanor and knowledge of spells, I thought that you had attended her school in Canterlot at some point in time.”

“No need to apologize,” Starlight mumbled. He blushed. “I guess it's more of a compliment, if you put it that way.”

Twilight bit her lip and let her eyes sail away for a moment, until they got caught up in the sight of the teachers again.

“Those three are the main professors, I believe,” Twilight said as she motioned in the three's direction subtlety. “Madame Lonsdaliete, Professor Yorsets, and Doctor Marie.”

“W-Which one's our teacher?” Starlight asked.

“I don't know yet. I can't remember which one taught Light Magic courses back in Canterlot.” Twilight looked back at Starlight, who trembled more than a colt with stage fright. “Starlight, are you shaking?”

“W-What? No,” Starlight replied as he locked his knees. “I'm just... cold. Yeah, cold. I-I think I''ll be heading back to my room now.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow, but waved nonetheless. “All right. Take care, Starlight!”

The stallion took his leave straightaway and trotted into the foyer. As he made his way to the dormitory he stopped multiple times to shake his body free of the jitters. He could feel the anxiety already creeping through his skin at the thought of a new teacher. It only reminded him of the looming fact that the first day of classes was just around the corner.

And first days never go well.

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

EPISODE 2: TIMIDITY, THY NAME IS STARLIGHT

Chapter 7:

Bundle of Charcoal

by Storytayler

Starlight Hooves sat shaking as he stared at the classroom entryway. Though it had grown colder overnight, it was not the temperature which made him shudder. Rather, it was the unbearable weight of his invisible baggage. The dashed hopes and weights of fears Starlight hauled around felt like a trunk full of bricks.

Over the years the burden had only grown as he could recall each ‘new beginning’, even as far back as magic kindergarten. He was grateful for his education nonetheless; after all, his parents gave all they had for him to attend decent schools of magic throughout the years. But each day had consisted of constant teasing, of intimidation brought on by unfamiliar teachers, and of doing homework he would had otherwise enjoyed had he not been plagued by the former two things.

It was because of all this that Starlight sat gazing at yet another entryway that would introduce a whole new semester. He dared not touch the doorknob yet, nor even approach the door itself. To his relief a stream of classmates soon approached. Their faces beamed with anticipation as enlivened tones told of their hopes for the winter.

As they leisurely filed in Starlight rose to join the parade. His hoofs, however, refused to lift off the carpet as though they were caught in quicksand. The stallion shifted his weight from one pair of hoofs to another as a storm of silly questions - though not silly to him at the time - blew his mind about.

Should I go in? No pony else seems to be going in alone... so should I wait until one of the others gets here?

Starlight removed his gaze from the door to calm the squall within his head. To the left was a single window that stretched across the corridor’s end. A single cloud swam outside in the pale blue sky. Sunlight slid through the crystal panels and spread across the nearest wall, a sign to Starlight that morning was not even close to being over. For as strained as the stallion felt, one would think he had endured at least half of one day’s troubles.

“Hey Starlight!” came a greeting, to which the startled unicorn jumped.

His sights landed on the familiar faces of Twilight and Lyra, whose happy expressions contrasted deeply with his own current emotion.

Oh, h-hey guys,” he mumbled as a shy smile came and went.

Lyra's eyes narrowed until like those of a hawk's. “Are you feeling well, Starlight?”

The stallion patted the carpet with his hoofs. The uneasiness was beginning to make itself more and more apparent. Starlight tried to widen his grin.

“Y-Yeah, why wouldn't I be?” he asked. “First day of classes, and stuff.”

“Were you waiting for us?” Twilight asked with a twinkle in her eye. “That was very thoughtful of you.”

Starlight said nothing, and instead looked back at the window where the sunlight squeezed in. He waited until the flushing on his face disappeared, then returned his gaze with the same awkward smile.

“Yeah, that's it,” he finally said, then gulped.

“We should head on in,” Lyra suggested, motioning at the large group of students headed their way. “Early students gets the best seats, you know!

Starlight nodded and walked over to the door, his thoughts still swirling in the storm inside his head. So far, so good.

But which desks are the best?

Although Starlight was the first of the three to the door – a mere accident caused by his own uneasy pace – he dared not take a step through. He waited until Lyra and Twilight were right behind him to give him a hint at where they were headed. All Starlight saw as he glanced back, however, were a couple of displeased looks plastered on the mares’ faces.

Starlight inspected the classroom hurriedly as he noted its strange set-up. The desks aligned to form a large, curved rectangle that appeared more like the shape of a slightly straightened horseshoe. In the center of the formation was the teacher's podium and a large presentation table. The far wall was lined with a long set of windows, reaching from the tile floor to the smooth brick ceiling. All other partitions were left bare aside from the paintings of historical figures and scenes from the island. He couldn’t find the ‘best seats’ of which Lyra spoke.

He looked back to the two. Their dissatisfied expressions had not changed. In fact, they looked more irritated than just a few seconds ago.

“W-What is it?” Starlight asked as his ears retreated.

Uh, Starlight, do you plan on standing in front of the door much longer?” Twilight asked with a raised eyebrow.

The stallion glanced behind her and saw a large group of fellow students lining up to file in. Their expressions were not much more pleasant than Twilight and Lyra's. Starlight tried to laugh it off as he jolted forward, but none who passed through gave a very appreciative smile. Starlight felt sweat already forming.

“Over there!” Lyra exclaimed, pointing at the desks in the far left corner. “The good seats are still open. There’s a perfect view of the ocean from over there.”

The two paused and looked at her. Twilight asked, “You mean perfect view of the front of the class, right?”

“Huh? Oh, um, yes,” Lyra said with a wave. “Whatever you say.”

The three made their way over to the left-most side of the classroom. The middle three desks in the row of five were unoccupied; that is, until a body plopped down in the front-most one.

Lyra stomped a hoof. “Oh, bother.”

She continued her advance regardless and sat at the farthest back of the three desks. She closed her eyes and stretched as a smile of success succeeded a great yawn. When she realized the desk in front of her was still unoccupied, she glanced back to where Twilight and Starlight stood nearby.

What are you two doing?” she asked. “Hurry and sit, the teacher's probably right outside.”

Twilight looked over at Starlight, who simply looked to Lyra. The minty unicorn rolled her eyes in response.

“Oh come now,” she said, “it's not like these will become assigned seats. One of you sit in front of me, and the other can sit nearby. It's not the end of the world; we’ll just make sure we get here earlier next time.”

Starlight knew what was coming. He had experienced the ‘maybe next time’ routine in previous years. With great reluctance he turned and searched for the nearest unoccupied desk. By that point, however, every seat was taken. Every one, that is, except for the desk at the far side of the room. He glanced back at Twilight and Lyra, who by then were contently seated and eagerly exchanging their final words before the upcoming classtime began.

Starlight figured he could manage one day with not sitting next to ponies he knew.

It’s just one day. I can manage that.

With heavy hoofs Starlight trudged to the neglected desk in the corner. The weight of his disappointment transferred to his legs, dropping his bottom onto the cushion seat. This new beginning of yet another semester was turning into more of a slip and slide down a mountainside than a victorious climb to the summit.

A new voice brought his gaze and ears up.

“Welcome, students, to your first light magic class at the Winter Magic Academy,” said the teacher, who closed the classroom door behind him with a magic touch. “For those of you who do not know me, my name is Bastion Yorsets. Please address me as Professor Yorsets from here on out.”

He walked down the center aisle in a manner that seemed to suggest he were gracing the room with his presence. Yorsets held his head high, showing off a tidy mane and short-cut tail of light gray. His coat was a rich blue color, complemented by a golden laurel wreath cutie mark. An orderly stack of thick books hovered alongside him until reaching the front of the classroom, where the teacher gently placed them down.

Let’s not waste any time,” Professor Yorsets stated. “Our first exercise shall begin today shortly after class introductions. I want every student to state his or her name, as well as the city from which you come. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Starlight gulped. Every teacher seemed to call for such an initiation process.

“We will start in the front and to my right. Miss Moondancer, if you please,” the teacher instructed.

And so it began. Without hesitation every pony stood and announced their name and city of origin, some with great pride and others a hint of shyness. Regardless of how bold they all got out their answers just fine. Starlight, remembering every introduction he had done to that day, could only think about how many others had yet to go until his turn arrived. Introductions had never been his forte.

It was soon his friends' turns, signaling the halfway mark. Twilight stood and cleared her throat, and with great pride declared, “My name is Twilight Sparkle. I come from Ponyville, to the west.”

After this clean and simple gesture, Twilight sat down with a smile. She made it look so easy that Starlight felt emotions mixing inside. If she – a bookworm, much like himself – could overcome a simple introduction, then surely he could as well.

One of the few from the West at the academy this semester,” Professor Yorsets stated before the introductions carried on. “I believe only nine of you came, is that correct? That would make your particular region the least represented part of Equestria present.” A few of the students giggled in reply, bringing a frown to the teacher's squared face. “Nevertheless, I am glad I could see one of my former students again.” He lowered his head and sighed as he peeked over Twilight’s shoulder. “Speaking of former students... Miss Heartstrings, if you please.”

Lyra stood and gave a theatrical smile. “My actual name is Lyra. I'm from Ponyville as well.”

With a brush of her mane and a confident simper she seemed even more comfortable than Twilight. Starlight’s jaw dropped at the simplicity. For years he had never managed to find things so easy, especially with the butterflies in his stomach. This time around the critters had returned, and in greater numbers too.

More classmates continued with the formalities, until suddenly Starlight found the teacher staring straight at him. The gold and blue hues of Professor Yorset's eyes were the most intimidating sight the young stallion had ever seen.

“Next?

The heaviness in Starlight's hooves and neck had gone unnoticed for a short while, but made itself well-known in that moment. The unicorn tried to stand, but his lower half would not cooperate. He fell back into his seat like a newborn unable to balance. A few nearby giggled at his lack of grace. Starlight felt all eyes bearing on his klutzy physique as he managed to stand on all fours.

“U-Um,” he tried to begin, murmuring. “M-My name is Starlight. Starlight Hooves. I-I’m from Ponyville...”

Starlight felt his throat shrivel as his lungs deflated like popped balloons. Still stone-faced, Yorsets stared long and hard, until finally releasing to sail over the sea of students. “Thank you all. Let us begin.”

Starlight let out a sigh of relief.

That wasn’t so bad.

This magic track focuses on light-based magic,” Professor Yorsets began. You are in this class because, based upon your placement exam results, this is the area of magic in which you hold a fair amount of interest, but also indicated a low level of experience or familiarity. Princess- er, Headmare Luna designed the test to evaluate such strengths and weaknesses, so that you all may become more well-rounded in your everyday magic abilities.

“You all should be prepared for quite an academic experience this semester. Of the three tracks offered this winter, the light magic course is the most difficult, and it is not simply because I am teaching it. Can any of you tell me why?

Starlight knew straightaway; it had been one of the first things he remembered reading about light magic. He dared not raise a hoof, though; past experiences taught him that it only invited trouble. He peeked about sheepishly, waiting for a peer to reply instead.

Twilight finally answered, “The sun is the source of light magic, and winter is the season when Equestria is farthest from it. As a result, light magic spells will be the hardest to cast during our time here.

The teacher nodded. “Very good, Miss Sparkle. To remind those of you who may have forgotten, winter is the season of weakest light magic casting due to Equestria's temporarily extended distance from the sun. Unicorns with gifts that rely upon this type of magic usually require more energy for casting, and thus perform fewer spells of this variety as much as possible so as to preserve their energy.

“Those of you who have had class with me before know that light magic is also commonly called the creation magic, for it spawns life and growth. In comparison, elemental magic draws from and manipulates the very elements themselves, from wind and earth to fire and water. Shadow magic, taking its source of power from the moon, has many uses as well. Can any of you tell me some of the spells categorized as light, or creation, magic?”

Starlight could name a variety in his head like a shopper with a memorized laundry list. But again, he dared not let the words wander anywhere near his throat.

“Telepathy?” one pony half-answered, half-inquired.

The teacher shook his head slowly, “Telepathy, along with telekinesis and teleportation, are shadow magic spells. Any other thoughts?”

Twilight raised a hoof. “Healing?”

“Yes, Miss Sparkle,” the teacher said. “Healing is indeed one. Miss Heartstrings?”

The minty unicorn grumbled, then flipped her mane. She snidely replied, “Creating?”

A few students giggled. Professor Yorset's eyes rolled to a corner pensively, cautious in reply. “Well, that technically is correct; however, the name of the spell itself is not simply referred to as 'creating' since the word is far too general. This 'creating' you may be alluding to can be divided into two subgroups: ‘Fabrication, or creating items using the magical power of light itself, and ‘Synthesizing, or creating something with two or more existing things. Other thoughts from those we haven’t heard from yet?”

Silence ensued. Starlight could still think of many more.

“Hopefully you all won’t remain this quiet throughout winter,” Yorsets mumbled. “Other spells include growth magic, illumination spells, revealing spells, and much more. One general spell we shall begin with this semester was one that we mentioned. The spell I speak of is called ‘Fabrication.”

Small white mats floated front and center, stopping right before the teacher whose horn was glowing a light blue color. His eyes brushed across each thin rectangle, their smooth surfaces completely clean. Satisfied, Yorsets divided the sheets throughout the room as they floated through aerial arches and landed gently upon each desk.

“For those of you unfamiliar with the magic spell of Fabrication, its quite simple on a smaller scale,” he began. “Like many spells, it merely requires a bit of focus. What you need to concentrate on specifically are your creation's attributes. In today's class, in order to demonstrate how the sun’s distance affects casting, we shall observe and practice direct and indirect fabrication on a very small scale. Though it is a relatively simple spell we shall try, it will take quite a bit more energy than one would initially think.”

Professor Yorsets approached a large table beside the podium in front. “Now, direct fabrication is the creation of material from magic itself. Observe.” His horn lit a light blue color again, and soon a tiny red candle and a fire lighter flashed into sight on the tabletop. “These items were temporarily made using the resource of pure magic. You draw from light as a source to make something tangible. Indirect fabrication, on the other hoof, is using these fabricated items to create something else. In this case, I shall create a small, contained fire.”

The teacher lit his horn again and lifted the end of the lighter to the wick of the candle. With a press of the button the lighter exhaled a tiny flame. The red candle caught and began to glow, followed ever so slowly by a sweet peppermint fragrance.

Another student raised a hoof, “Professor Yorsets, isn't creating fire an elemental spell?”

“It can be, Miss Chisel,” the teacher said. “But elemental fire spells does so with the concentration of heat. Today you all shall practice lighting a small fire, but by means of light magic, or by creating items to start it.

The class suddenly filled with animated murmurs as ponies began sharing ideas. Groups began divulging their masterful plans while others bragged of excessive experience with such spells. Starlight could hear it all from his quiet spot in the back row.

“Be sure to keep your eyes on your own work,” Professor Yorsets ordered, his voice suddenly very grave. The students ceased to talk as their eyes locked onto the solemn visage of their teacher. “For your own good, do not look about the classroom. In addition, there should be no talking amongst yourselves until you have lit your fire. Have I made myself clear?” Starlight, along with his peers, nodded their agreement. “Then you may begin.”

Heads immediately lowered and hoofs began to scuffle. Horns lit up and the soft explosions of spells erupted across the room. Starlight watched as fading shapes of stars streamed across the classroom. Tiny explosions of color tinted all parts of the floor, desks, and ceiling. He looked down at his own desk, its surface empty aside from the white place mat.

Starlight's mind kicked into action. There were so many possibilities of performing the task that he could hardly decide which to use. Idea after idea popped into his head, each one seceded by a new notion.

Then the realization struck him: he had never actually started a fire before.

The young stallion had seen it done many different ways, but had never tried himself; not without elemental magic, that is. Starlight had passed on the opportunity to learn such techniques in the past; after all, he knew an illumination spell for the dark and could create fire with elemental spells besides. He had never been in a situation where anything beyond these measures was needed.

Only after his ears caught the sound of others' ecstatic chatter did Starlight realize he hadn’t even started. Panic ceased the flow of thoughts in his brain as a dam blocks up a river. He gulped as his mouth grew dry. His heart throbbed quickly as his eyes darted about his empty desk. He envisioned all of the possible formulas he had gone through seconds ago, only this time with far less confidence.

He could picture a box of matches, a block of flint, even old instruments used in starting fires. Unfortunately for him all of these things had been made for others to use. He himself had never struck a match nor used a file and flint. More talking started to fill the classroom. More thoughts got stuck in his head.

Starlight couldn’t help himself any longer; he had to look around. His eyes crawled across the edge of his desk and to the left, following the floor over to the desk next to him. Suddenly the teacher spoke up.

“Remember to try and keep your eyes on your own work until finished,” Yorsets ordered. “Getting your tiny flame started as best you can is what matters today – ah! Which reminds me.” The professor left his spot behind the podium and started pacing the aisles. His hawk-like eyes glowed as they examined the tiny contained fires all around. “This weekend, as many of you already know, is the Winter Solstice. The academy shall celebrate with Luna’s raising of the moon. A grand fireworks show over the forest shall follow, and the year’s first snow will begin.”

The students' small talk suddenly intensified into excited exchanges and enlivened gasps.

But Professor Yorsets wasn’t finished. “Furthermore, one student from each class is to help with the lighting of the fireworks. The manner in which this class shall assign its representative shall be an evaluation of originality. That is to say, whichever one of you can create the strongest flame in the most original manner by the end of this week shall help light fireworks during the celebration of this year’s Winter Solstice.”

Starlight felt more choked up than ever. As he stared at his desk he could feel the pressure squeezing his chest as though he were wearing clothes that were far too tight. At this point he felt he had no choice; he created everything he had been considering, from a matchbox to a bow drill. The flashes of magic burst in rapid succession until his desktop was full. Starlight examined each option quickly as contemplation dried his eyes.

Which should I do? Which can I do?

He picked the matchbox first and lifted it above the middle of his desk. Six slivers of wood sat inside of it, each topped with a head of phosphorus. With his magic he drew a match out and examined it closely.

“Mister Hooves, I believe?” came the voice of the teacher nearby, his rounds ending in the corner where the stallion sat. “Where is your fire?”

Starlight’s eyes fearfully lifted to meet those of his teacher. Professor Yorsets gave a harrumph.

“I see you have items for ignition, but nothing which to light.”

Unable to move, Starlight felt an imaginary hoof bucking his head. With the professor's gaze still locked onto his own the young stallion could not move a muscle.

“You have one minute remaining,” Yorsets said before walking away, releasing Starlight from his petrifying stare.

The young unicorn gasped for breath as though he had held underwater. Starlight put the matches back down and panicked, thinking of exactly what he should light. A small piece of wood? But what kind? Would it be allowed to touch the mat, given how clean it looked? He thought of what to put beneath this small fire if he were to do it. A multitude of things swarmed his mind, mostly worries and concerns of whatever sort, until the river that had been dammed overflowed.

I-I’ll just make some-!

“Time is up,” the teacher announced.

Starlight's heart stopped. Everypony in the classroom released their eyes from their work and let out sighs of relief. Their untroubled chatter started to grow but never burst forth as all eyes eventually settled on the desk void of any fire. Even the teacher held a judging gaze that Starlight could not shake. The stallion’s face turned a new shade of deep sanguine.

The giant bells tolled in the distance, stirring murmurs throughout the class.

“Congratulations to most of the class for finishing this first task,” Professor Yorsets said. “I hope you all are aware of how much energy this kind of magic can consume during the wintertime. Keep practicing this over the week to prepare for Friday's test, and be back after lunch for your light magic historical studies introduction. Class dismissed.”

Every pony filed out through the door in back, including the teacher himself. As Starlight sat and gazed about the room he spotted Twilight and Lyra’s vacant desks. He sat all alone at his desk in the corner with a new burden hung around his neck. A dispirited moan escaped his trembling lips.

Same thing every year...

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 8: Conflagration

by Storytayler

Starlight skipped lunch altogether. Instead he returned to his room and locked his door. He found himself staring outside his bedroom window the entire time as his eyes lingered on the vivid jade woods to the north, their shades of pine green soft but strong. Though this captivation persisted for quite some time, it couldn’t remove the stallion’s mind from the classroom. After drawn-out minutes of silent contemplation the peace he thought he had found transformed into dread.

The bells tolled from the main hall tower at the end of the hour. With great reluctance, Starlight returned to the classroom. As a result of arriving just before the period began Starlight found himself in the back corner seat once more. He glanced over at Twilight and Lyra from time to time, but in their unawareness neither seemed to throw the lonely stallion a glimpse of concern. Starlight’s spirits slowly dwindled like candlelight without air to breath.

Professor Yorset's afternoon lecture covered the ancient history of light magic, but Starlight was far from absorbed. He already knew the basic content of that day inside and out; after all, Yorsets had stated it should be review. However, whenever the professor posed a question for the class, Starlight dared not raise a hoof. One more embarrassment was the last thing he wanted.

When the bell rang to end class time Starlight didn’t waste a second. He dodged his way through crowds and sped up and down stairwells until finally making it back to his room. He hurriedly - but gently - shut the door, hoping to draw as little attention as possible. Starlight leaned back against the door and let out a long exhalation.

He was alone once again. The only sound he could hear as he passed through his suite’s common room was the howling of the wind outside the window. The solitude he sensed both hurt and helped; on the one hoof, he no longer needed to worry about being ridiculed. On the other hoof, he felt as abandoned as a colt forgotten by its busy parents.

With a sigh Starlight tromped over to his bedroom and plopped himself down at the foot of his bed. He mulled over just how to cope yet another poor start of a semester.

I could always just paint.

Starlight’s sturdy easel and color-filled palette sat beside his bags by his bedroom window. The wooden frame stood facing the south, holding a canvass on which Starlight had been releasing his artistic ability since moving in. He had been painting the mysterious gray tower to the south. The belfry stuck out from the spotted texture of the coniferous woods surrounding it, and a calm sea brushed the foot of the precipice on which it stood. So far it looked like a splendidly realistic replica, if Starlight could say so himself.

But as the stallion looked out the window then, the northern woods called more for his attention. With the sun hiding behind a thick blanket of clouds and the seas rustling ferociously below, the southern edge of the island appeared far less pleasant than how it did in the painting. Starlight looked back and forth between the scenes, until soon enough a clean, new canvass sat upon the artist’s easel facing the forest to the north.

The stallion lifted his paints from his bags with his magic and emptied tiny blots of green, brown, and white on his palette. As preparation was a mindless to Starlight, his mind occupied itself with other things. It drifted off into a sea of memories, leaving behind the stallion’s body as a marker for where in time his soul would return.

His mind took him back to his first days of art. He was somewhat of a bold colt when he was young. He frequently explored the fields and forests just beyond the boundaries of Port Delamare, for the city itself was no place for him. The buildings were too fancy, the ponies were too fancy, even the common tongue was called Fancy.

Starlight and his family had little in common with the elaborate setting in which they lived. His parents were minimum wage innkeepers, receiving the opportunity only by means of inheritance. The building, located at the northern edge of the Port Delamare, was one of the few substandard edifices in town; after all, what wealthy pony in his or her right mind would help pay to renovate a second-rate lodge for sailors?

As a colt Starlight never fully understood the social contrast. His young mind couldn’t grasp the notion of selfishness as he watched his parents work their hardest each and every day. Though he had asked his parents about the difference numerous times, Starlight never received an answer. Rather, his parents would gift him with whatever artistic utensils they had on hoof - be they a quill and parchment or a paintbrush and paper - and request that Starlight occupy himself.

With nowhere else to go, young Starlight often traveled a block down the main road to where an extensive prairie and neighboring forest co-mingled beyond the city limits. The quietude and solitude left him alone with mother nature, which nurtured him with colors and life so vivid that the colt could never overcome its intricate beauty. In this amazement Starlight began his drawing and painting.

A knock on the door jerked Starlight’s mindfulness back to the present. The stallion looked at his artwork thus far, a mix of greens spread throughout the center of the picture like a blooming emerald flower, its shades bright despite the cloudy sky outside. He then stared at his bedroom door as if trouble were waiting for his answer.

“Hello?” came a voice from the other side. “Starlight Hooves?”

It was a deep stallion's voice, one slightly dopey but initially intimidating nonetheless. Starlight knew it to be Pokey Pierce’s. He propped his ears up, but dared not to move any other part of his body.

Another round of soft taps sounded, followed by Pokey’s voice, “Starlight, are you asleep?”

“Y-Yes,” Starlight stuttered, followed by a slap to his own face.

Oh,” Pokey slowly replied. “Okay then.”

The big stallion’s steps faded until the door to the suite closed, after which they were out of ear’s reach. Starlight sat dumbfounded for a moment.

What just happened..?

Starlight closed his eyes and shook his head to collect himself, wiping clean his mind of the the nonsense. Though the slate in his brain would not completely clear, Starlight returned to his work of art. His mind gladly took to the board that Starlight had tried to clear, drawing upon what vestiges that had remained.

One such lingering piece was the sound of a knock on the door. His brain began painting pictures of the past, beginning with the first related recollection. A visiting lawyer showed up at the inn, one from within Port Delamare but not very well-known. He brought with him shocked his parents, and soon Starlight himself: along with the inn they inherited, there was a fair share of gold bits to claim. It had somehow been forgotten over the years.

Another memory emerged as Starlight could picture another set of taps on his door. The clarity of it all was far better than the image his magic could paint as his brain drew the image of his parents. They stood within his old bedroom doorway bearing heavy but happy looks on their faces. They told him of how they planned to put all of the money toward his education. Starlight could almost feel the tears of joy from the past wetting his face again.

Though grateful as he was, Starlight quickly learned of his parents’ plan. They weren’t speaking of sending him to an art school; they were planning on sending him to a magic academy.

He dared not complain, but deep down he wished that his parents had reconsidered. He was an artist at heart, especially after all his time spent wandering the forest and plains, sketching and painting everything, from colorful flowers to vast landscapes. After years of going along with his parents’ plan, Starlight’s opinion of their decision grew less favorable.

Coming from a family of his standing, Starlight felt nothing but out of place at school. Though he was not attending magic academies for the rich, he went to a number in the area of fair standing and respectability. As far as Starlight knew, they were much better than any other schools that ponies his age and status could afford.

Throughout the years, however, Starlight never enjoyed this particular uniqueness. Everypony at school seemed to have some reason to point and poke fun at him, whether it was his status, artistic inclination, or lack of friends. There was hardly any ‘downhill’ as he never ascended anything in the first place. His only relief was when he finished his schooling a few years ago and took a job in Ponyville as a an interior designer’s assistant.

Starlight felt feel his memories fade away as his awareness returned again. But this time there was no sound disturbing him. Rather, the hotness of his face was what brought him back. The flushing and terrible memories combined to stress the memory of his failure earlier that day.

The stallion gently placed his brush and palette on the windowsill. Then in frustration he gave his bed behind him a hard kick.

I never get a chance,Starlight murmured to himself as he looked out the window. “I’d have to make the biggest fire or something to impress them. Then they wouldn’t laugh anymore. They’d see that I’m just as good as them.

Make the biggest fire; that’s it!

Starlight could see himself in class, front and center, feeding the most magnificent flame. Its great size reached beyond the bounds of his desk, stretching all the way up to the ceiling. He could feel the grin beaming on his face, the burning sensation of his smile nothing short of fulfilling. His peers would stare with admiration and awe. His spirits would shine more than the distinguished flame that rose from the ashes of past failures.

It was decided. Starlight closed his eyes hard and focused, re-fabricating the items he had made earlier. First was a large circular place mat to protect the carpet from specks of wood and burning embers, followed by a matchbox, a slab of flint, and lastly a bow drill and canister of fuel for good measure. Starlight felt sweat forming across his forehead as the burden casting made itself known.

The unicorn snatched up the most interesting instrument to him, the bow drill, and created a block of wood beneath it. Starlight recollected what he had read about using the tool as his expectations began to soar. He held everything in place as he pictured himself mimicking the pictures he remembered within the ancient tools manual he read some time back.

“It’s the only way I can get through this winter,” Starlight said to himself. “I have to prove myself. Then they’ll see.”

He pushed and pulled the bow with his magic hold, rubbing the bottom of the wooden pole against the plank on the floor. Tiny bits of wood began to shed as the stake drilled a small crater in the timber. Starlight thrust the tool back and forth, faster and faster, as shreds of wood fluttered down onto the mat. His eyes focused on the hole that formed, waiting for the friction to set in.

Suddenly, the pole sank through the board. There was no sign of an ember; no tiny trail of smoke nor little red glow. Starlight removed the drill from the wood and examined the area around his work with his breath held. He had drilled through the plank, unsuccessful.

With a pause, Starlight looked at the tool he held, and then at his other instruments. With a roll of his eyes he dropped what he had and picked up the slim block of flint instead. As he fabricated a metal file to strike it with, the stallion thought to himself how he hadn’t really wanted to use the bow drill. It only wore down his energy.

Starlight kicked aside the plank with the hole and created a small bundle of tinder in its place. Once ready, the stallion held his flint and file up to the pile of flammable material and slowly slid one tool against the other. He looked away with twitching eyes as the sound of scratching irritated his ears. Starlight peeked at the tinder; no spark.

He tried a few more times, skimming the flint with his metal file. He tried to speed up his strike, but the faster and stronger he tried, the more he missed. After a number of attempts he never saw a hint of a spark. His magic energy had dwindled even more.

Refusing to give in, Starlight dropped the flint and file and lifted the matchbox close to his face. With a bite of his tongue the stallion examined the small white box and its charcoal-colored sides. He drew one of the sticks from the box in preparation and lifted the fuel can to douse his tinder; he needed everything he could get his hoofs on for creating his dream fire.

But something strange lingering in the backdrop suddenly stole away his attention from his work. The view from outside the window seemed off, the unicorn’s artistic eye could sense it. He spotted something near the heart of the forest: a large and dark figure, irregularly tall and lean, was wading through the woods.

The sight sucked Starlight’s breath through a quick gasp as he jumped away from the window. The sound of liquid bobbing in its container then deflated the stallion’s lungs completely.

The fuel!

Starlight quickly found himself atop his bed. He watched helplessly as gasoline spilled onto the carpet between him and the window. It spread across the dark carpet like black food coloring in a berry juice mix; the smell, though, was repulsively different. Just when Starlight thought he could breath again, he shrieked once more.

A flickering light hovered above the spill.

Somehow Starlight had struck the match, turning the black bulb into a tiny red ball of flame. But with the stallion’s air, energy, and concentration all diminishing at once, his magic hold on the match was slipping. Starlight’s brain sent orders to every limb of his body, but his nerves were in an incurable state of shock. All he could do was watch as time briefly slowed down as if to scorn him.

A giant flame erupted before Starlight, to which the unicorn finally managed to move and cover his eyes. The dark puddle on the ground spawned a wall of red, orange and gold that split between the bed and the window, reaching from one wall to the other. Starlight’s heart began racing as his breaths grew shorter than those of a stranded swimmer.

Starlight frantically searched for any way out as the predatory fire crept around his room. Behind him was an open passage along the wall. The stallion’s senses screamed that it was his last chance to escape. Gathering what little courage he had left, Starlight vaulted over to the gap as flames licked at his body, their burning tongues singeing parts all over his cloudy violet coat. In desperation he hurled himself toward the door to the common room, straight through a blazing screen.

The intense heat passed, and a pool of coolness wrapped around him. Starlight opened his eyes and looked over himself; a new coat of black and dark grey covered his purple body like patches on a used cloth. When he looked back at his bedroom door, the flames were still reaching for him.

“H-Help!” Starlight cried as the fire refused to let go of his sight. “Somepony, please!”

His mind went blank. He called again and again but could not gather himself enough to do anything more. He failed to flee the scene as the fire kept him on an invisible leash of terror. The flames drew nearer until they reached out beyond the frame of the doorway. Starlight shouted even louder, until suddenly a terrible realization silenced him.

Everypony’s away eating dinner.

Thick smoke covered the ceiling of the room. With the windows closed the horrific black smog quickly filled the entire suite. A terrible scent of burnt cloth rained down from the billows of smolder, throwing Starlight into a fit of coughs. The thick air started to sink low enough that the stallion found himself taking in copious amounts, to the point where Starlight felt he was drinking it in. His sights grew hazy and his limbs went weak.

A door suddenly burst open with a great kick.

ARR! What in blue blazes!?” came a strange voice.

Starlight glanced about but couldn’t make out a body nearby. With fading sights and bulky puffs of smoke no pony could have seen farther than a hoof’s reach away.

“Hallooo!?” called the stranger.

Starlight tried to reply, but his smoke-filled lungs only caused a greater fit of coughing.

“Ah, you who be coughin’! Who goes there!? Speak up, matey!”

Again Starlight coughed again, but this time managed to get out a weak, “H-H-Help!”

“You there, try ‘n’ open yer window! I’ll push the smoke right through!”

Starlight glanced around. He couldn’t even tell where the window was anymore. The monotonous billowy gray left him disoriented as a country filly in the big city. He searched desperately for clues, high or low, until finally stumbling into the giant window. Starlight’s hoofs shook uncontrollably as he fumbled with the handle, but he just managed to undo the lock. He threw the glass panel open.

With a large breath of the cold outside air Starlight yelled back, “Go!”

“Arr, ye need to stand clear o’ the window!” the stranger shouted.

Starlight ducked just as a great gust blew over his head. Another flew past, then another, until a stream of currents swirled and sucked in the smoke out like a vacuum. The suction continued until the room was nearly clear of the smoke, revealing the stranger on the far side of the room.

Starlight had never seen the character before. He looked about the same age, though his build was slightly bulkier and taller. His entire body was covered in blue, from his long, ruffled mane and tail of navy to his coat of baby blue. One aqua eye showed narrowed in concentration while the other hid behind an eye-patch. He spotted the flames spewing out from Starlight’s bedroom and gasped.

Arr, what’s the meanin’ o’ this!?” he questioned, his voice carrying a strange accent like that of a pirate or sailor.

“I-I don't know, I just-!” Starlight began to stammer again, worse than ever before. “I-I-I had to start a fire, b-but, class... I-I didn't think about-”

“Get yer cap from out o' the water and speak the princesses' tongue!” the stranger interrupted as he approached the flames. “Methinks I can help ye stop this mess, but I'll be needin’ yer help. Turn on yer bathtub faucet, and hurry!

Starlight, confused, backed into his bathroom and did as ordered. With a twist of the faucet wheel water gushed into the bathtub.

“Do ye have any buckets, matey?” the stranger shouted.

Starlight yelled back, “Why would we have buckets?”

Arr, looks like we’re in fer a bit o’ magic, then!”

Starlight watched as the spurting water ceased to touch the bottom of the tub, and instead lift into the air. The stream of liquid stretched into an invisible hose that then shot out into the lounge. Starlight stuck his head into the common room and watched as the tube of water spiraled over to the flames. With a piercing strike the fire hissed fiercely in reply. Clouds of steam began to fill the entire chamber.

“More water!” the stranger shouted.

Starlight turned back to the faucet. With a gulp he gathered the strength in his rear legs and gave the metal piece a strong buck. The silver piece shot off and water streamed out. The stallion watched as the hovering tube of water grew bigger. He gazed back into the lounge, finding only a heavy mist from the dying fire thickening to shroud the lounge. Soon the fierce shrieks of the elements subsided, leaving the room in silence and filled with a light gray mist.

“Is it out?” Starlight asked.

It’s as dead as a fish out o’ water,” said the stranger as he cleared the room as he had before with his magic, and in seconds the two could see each other. Now, I don’t mean to pry or nothin’, but what in the world were ye doin' with fire at this hour? Cookin'!? What's so bad 'bout the food 'ere!?”

“I-I wasn't cooking,” Starlight admitted. “I was... I was trying to start a fire.”

Arr, well ye did it just fine, matey. Burnt yer whole room, ye did.

“I-I didn’t mean for it to get so out of control,” Starlight muttered. “It’s just... I've never done it before. Not without a fire spell.”

The stranger lowered his head and nodded. “Aye, fire’s a tricky thing to handle.”

“I was practicing because our first class exercise. Everypony else made it look so easy, a-and I just couldn't do it. I, I...

“Couldn't stand the embarrassment, could ye?

Starlight felt his heart skip a beat. Something in the stranger's voice seemed extremely understanding.

“Wait, why aren’t you at dinner?” Starlight asked with hesitation, for the stranger seemed as despondent as himself with his long face.

The blue unicorn let out a long sigh. “Arr, a sailor can’t eat when too much is on his mind, and it occurs every year like the tides every day. ‘Elemental magic’... rubbish, the whole of it.” He shook his head and reached out a hoof. “The name's Seven Seas.

“Starlight.” The two shook. “You’re a sailor? You sound more like a pir- um, nevermind. Say, that water spell you cast was incredible. Why are you in the elemental track if you’re already good at it?”

“Aye. They say I need to expand my ‘horizons’ beyond basic wind and water spells, whate’er that means. I’ve ne'er been much of a land lubber, so why bother? Imagine to my misfortune that our first test o' the elements today was bout the earth, too.”

“They tested you on... earth?”

“Aye, had to identify difrent soils and... what was the word, classerfy? Like I'd know the dif'rence 'tween the richer soil and the lifeless dirt. Means nothin' to a sailor.” Seven Seas dropped his head even more as the memory bogged him down. Starlight knew the disheartened posture. “I s'pose we're in the same ship, matey. First days are the worst.”

Rushed steps approached from the corridor and stampeded into the the suite. A troop of guards stormed in and blew the remainder of the steam away by the force of their hurry alone.

“We heard cries for help!” one of the guards yelled. “What's the matter?”

Roughly six or seven of them spread across the lounge, their stares all falling upon the sight of Starlight's bedroom doorway and the mix of steam and smoke that continued to rise within it. Eventually they all ended up looking to Starlight and his companion as they stood speechless before them.

And then Professor Yorsets entered, his gaze most fearfully expressionless of the group.

“Just what is the meaning of this?” he asked.

Starlight swallowed hard. His entire body began trembling. “L-Little accident?”

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 9:

Fresh Kindle

by Storytayler

The floor was unnaturally appealing to Starlight’s eyes. At least, it seemed far more inviting compared to the unimpressed faces of the guards standing around in his suite. But even these intimidating figures, clad in shining pieces of armor and bearing razor-sharp gazes, were the preferred alternatives at which to bashfully stare when compared to the stone-cold countenance of Professor Yorsets.

What is going on here?” asked the teacher, his tone nothing but cross. Starlight continued his stare at the floor in reply. Yorsets growled, “Mister Hooves. I have asked you a question.”

Starlight let his words spill. “I-I tried the indirect fabrication spell.”

“To create fire? Inside?” Yorsets scorned. Alone?

Starlight closed his eyes and nodded slowly. His teacher began to pace about as he did in class, though there were no desks to guide his every step. Even so his strides came one after the other, purposeful and strong as his following instructions.

“Guards, you may return to your posts,” Yorsets ordered. His command was swiftly followed, leaving just the two students and professor in the common room. “I want you to think through this situation thoroughly, Mister Hooves,” Professor Yorsets proposed as he looked at the bucked-open window, and then at Seven Seas. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to help ‘im,” said Seven Seas. “Helped clear the smoke and put out the fire, sir.”

Yorsets stared at the blue stallion, from eye-patch to unkempt hoof, with curiosity. “Are you... a pirate?”

“Arr, just a regular sailor,” Seven Seas uttered. “Came on account of me fam’ly. Learn from the great princess Luna. Li’l cousin says she’s his favorite princess-”

“Yes, that’s all good,” Professor Yorsets broke in. “Mister Hooves. From what I can collect, you started a fire for a reason not yet known to me, and in addition you have completely damaged your room and even parts of the lounge in the process. Though it seems none were gravely injured, this could have easily been a life-threatening situation. Do you understand?”

Starlight could indeed understand, but failed to find the nerve to even move a muscle in response. He felt like an ignorant colt belittled by a simplified lecture on right and wrong.

His teacher continued, “The question, then, is this: what in all of Equestria made you do this? What possessed you to think that lighting a fire indoors was a good idea?”

The young stallion couldn’t take it any longer. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go!”

Professor Yorsets, taken aback, stopped his pacing and stared long and hard into his student's green eyes.

“Repeat what you have just said.”

Starlight, realizing his outburst, collected himself again and timidly repeated, “I-I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

Yorsets narrowed his eyes. “Explain yourself.”

Starlight, covered in smokey ash, shook his head slowly as black powder fell from his head. “You saw how I failed the exercise in class this morning. I couldn't even start a simple fire.

Professor Yorsets stepped closer with a gaze quite speculative, but also curious. “You had the first step done with creating sufficient materials. If you were stuck, why did you not simply ask for assistance?”

Starlight nervously answered, “You said we couldn't talk at all.”

My instructions were that students may not talk to one another until a flame was started,” the teacher corrected. “It seems that there has been some miscommunication; my intentions were to assure that students would not distract one another, for fire is a dangerous thing. Would you not agree?”

Starlight stared at the ground again. “Y-Yes, professor.”

Yorsets watched his student’s eyes fall to the floor as Starlight’s escaped spirits left him looking nearly dead. “There seems to be something else that is the matter, judging by your general melancholia. If you do not mind sharing, I would like to hear what else is on your mind.”

The young stallion felt he had his chance. Starlight didn’t know how, but it seemed as though Yorsets was poking and analyzing his very being. There was no use in hiding behind a facade as the student had done for so many years.

“I've never had a good first day of classes,” Starlight sniveled. I-I always make some dumb mistakes when I introduce myself or have to go through some introductory exercise. I just get so nervous since it happens every year, and I feel like I can't help it. My image is always screwed up somehow, and I feel like I can't do anything about it because no pony understands, and trying to explain it all just makes it WORSE!”

The young unicorn finished with breaths cutting short, but his heart and mind felt mysteriously at ease. For some time Starlight stood exhaling the frustration, until suddenly realizing what had escaped his lips. Though it felt refreshing as a morning breeze Starlight looked to his professor with fear.

        The professor took in a deep breath himself as he approached his student. “Starlight Hooves, what happened in class earlier today must indeed have been rather hard, especially on your first day.”

That's an understatement.

Professor Yorsets continued, “But bear this in mind: your image is not determined by what others think of you, Mister Hooves, but rather how you see yourself.” Starlight's eyes slowly shifted from the floor up to meet the gold and blue mix in his professor's. The authoritative perception suddenly fell behind one more compassionate. “The struggle you have is not with the class, or your classmates. It’s with yourself. Tell me, how tired do you feel?”

Starlight thought through the various parts of his body. Everything felt as though he had gone for a few miles' run without stop. He replied, “Exhausted. I’ve been casting way too much magic for one day.”

Casting is almost completely a physical tiredness,” Professor Yorsets said. “Undoubtedly you feel more tired than in past first days, am I correct?” Starlight nodded. “That is from a battle inside of you. Tell me, what is it that you're fighting?”

Fear.

The answer echoed in his head. Before it could reach his mouth, though, Professor Yorsets turned to Seven Seas, who had been listening intently the entire time.

“What do you have to say?” Professor Yorsets inquired.

Seven Seas shied away and laughed nervously, “Who, me? Arr, I can't add too much meself, but it seems more o' an inner skirmish, one side o’ me versus the other... I had me own aches today.”

“Indeed, I believe Professor Marie was speaking of you at lunchtime,” said Yorsets. “I want you both to heed a simple piece of advice that has been down for many years: if at first you don't succeed, try, try again.” He glanced at the smoked bedroom door and the black stains on the wall and floor within. “But be sure to do so with caution. Mister Hooves, will you be able to fix all of this damage?”

Starlight chuckled nervously. “I know some restoration spells that should clean things up pretty well.”

Good,” Professor Yorsets said as he turned and headed for the suite exit. “I shall request new sheets and furniture be sent right away, and we shall call this all an accident. Should you be caught practicing fire spells inside the dormitory again, though, there shall be dire consequences. Is that clear, Mister Hooves?”

Starlight nodded as he and Seven Seas watched the professor briskly turn to leave. But before Yorsets could make a full exit, Starlight stopped him.

“Professor Yorsets, wait!” the student called as he ran after his teacher. “I have one request.” Professor Yorsets turned, his gold and blue eyes locking with his student’s. Starlight, despite being met with the intimidating stare, took a big inhalation and took a strong step forward. He refused to back away in the slightest. “I request to meet with you and practice the indirect fabrication spell. Properly.”

His teacher chuckled. “I shall grant your request, Mister Hooves. After our afternoon lectures for the rest of this week we shall practice various forms. This shall disqualify you from the end of the week test for lighting the fireworks at the Winter Solstice celebration, though. Does this seem fair to you?”

Starlight gave a ready grin. “Yes, professor. It does.”


Next thing Starlight knew, the end of the week arrived. He sat in class surrounded by his peers, sitting once more in the back corner - a challenge the unicorn gave himself to face his fears. Though the week had flown by faster than a Wonderbolt derby, so much had changed; at least, things felt different. Starlight played his professor’s message in his mind time and time again until the advice was imprinted on his brain memory.

It’s all about confidence.

But as he sat in the back corner, Starlight could feel his senses tingling. A blend of worry and excitement created a most dizzying mind game. One moment he held within him the faith to light the sun itself. The next instant he was wondering if he could ever safely hold a simple matchbox again. The battle of sentiment seemed impossible to cease.

He watched as Professor Yorsets patiently stood at the front of the classroom with set eyes and a concentrated frown. The gaze was of such seriousness Starlight felt his stomach churn; he had not seen such an expression in his practice sessions. The student had witnessed a number of reactions to his successes and failures, but never as somber like the one he perceived then. The bells rang to signal the start of class.

“As discussed at the beginning of the week,” Yorsets began without any delay, “today is your indirect fabrication exam. You all shall have a set time limit on starting a fire using only light magic. Remember that it is only the most creative demonstration that shall be awarded. The winner shall partake in lighting the Winter Solstice fireworks tomorrow. Have I made myself clear?”

Every student nodded his or her head, including Starlight. Especially Starlight.

“We shall go across the rows, one by one,” the teacher stated. “And we shall begin with...” He scanned over the classroom, his eyes meeting those of Starlight's for a frightening split second, but then settling on one of the unicorns in front. “Miss Moondancer. Show us what you have.”

Starlight felt himself shaking. He murmured to himself, “Why am I always last?”

Practice had allowed him to consider several means by which to start a fire with the specific spell. Starlight had been reviewing everything about a flame's properties and dynamics throughout the week, even more so in depth than the class ever went. He knew the ins and outs of fire, what made it burn and what put it out. With the demonstrations having begun, however, Starlight felt his fiery memory suddenly smothered.

He watched as every single manner of building a fire was utilized student by student. Rubbing sticks, striking flint, even matches for the lazy were used. Magnifying glasses and sparks from electricity lit students’ remarkable displays. As fires were lit Starlight couldn’t spy a single face that lit up more than he felt his did at the thought of starting off the Winter Solstice celebration. However, his current expression did not show this as his ears slowly retreated and his mouth drooped until no longer forming a smile.

While passing through the final rows, some students could no longer devise new manners in which to start their flames. Some went with quirky reenactments of former techniques. Starlight felt the urge to give in as they did, but each time the thought entered his brain he quickly scolded himself. He had not practiced for nothing.

It was finally Starlight’s turn. All eyes fell on him as he clumsily rose from his seat and stared at the clean desk before him. A place mat hovered over in his direction and centered on the dark wooden surface.

“Our last demonstration for the day now, students. Please continue to give your fullest attention. Mister Hooves, you may proceed,” said Professor Yorsets.

Once again techniques wheeled through Starlight’s head like hues on a rainbow-colored roulette machine. Each spin, however, landed on a color already selected before by his peers, leaving Starlight spinning the mental machine over and over. No matter how many attempts the thought that popped into the stallion’s head had already been used. Starlight swallowed hard and looked up at his peers, faking a smile symbolic of preparation.

Apprehension slowly snuck into his system as he debated trying his back-up plan, one he had never tried it before. It wasn’t much of a back-up plan, really; Starlight considered it more of a concept. When the stares of his peers began to grow cold, Starlight let anxiety light the fire inside. Cogs inside the stallion's head spun faster than ever before as the mechanics of Starlight’s body followed in perfect motion. The onlookers’ stares faded in the backdrop as the young stallion went to work on his creation.

I’ve got nothing to lose!

In a flash Starlight fabricated a piece of paper, a couple of paints, and a brush, all of which set down on his desk in an orderly fashion. He opened his eyes, looked over his materials, and nodded in approval. He then lifted the brush and swirled shades of red and orange, mixing their tones into a dusk-colored sphere centered on the piece of paper.

Whispers began to flow around like tiny breezes through the field of students. Conditioned to block it all out, Starlight's ears did not lead the unicorn’s focus astray.

Upon finishing his art Starlight lifted his painting into the air. Murmurs continued to flow in waves as stares of perplexity ensued. The artist, not yet finished, stared at his work with caution until he closed his eyes and clenched his teeth tightly. His horn glowed a deep violet, tinted like the midnight sky, and his paper soon was surrounded by a similar rich color.

But his paper did not remain a shade of purple for long, for the purple faded away until the paper hung suspended in the air with no visible grip holding it up. Suddenly, the red and orange drawing came to life on the paper, sparking and spitting as though the flame of a torch. The paint strokes flowed from bottom to top, rising and thinning out into curling tips like a real fire.

The class gasped in amazement.

Professor Yorsets interrupted their drawn-in breaths, “Mister Starlight, though you are in fact using fabricated materials, this specific test requires that an actual fire be made-”

Just then the drawing burst from the surface of the paper, transforming from a flat circle into a ball of red and orange. The remaining white of the paper crumbled as the ball of fire began to glow a brilliant gold. Soon there was no paper floating about over the desk, but rather a shining golden orb that made those nearest squint at its sight. Even Yorsets from the front of the class watched with narrowed eyes.

After nearly a minute of silence the shining sphere dissipated, as did the rest of his created materials. Not a trace of the flaxen fire’s existence remained, not even an ounce of ash. All that Starlight could see when he opened his eyes were everypony’s eyes opened wide and jaws reaching the floor. Starlight stared back at each of his peers as his face started to turn red.

“D-Did it work?” he asked.

“What was that?” one of his peers asked.

Starlight looked about his empty desk. “I-I used the indirect fabrication spell to create helium and hydrogen. The combination should have consumed the piece of paper to prove its properties-”

“Hydrogen and helium?” Twilight chimed in.

“Y-Yes,” Starlight said. “I created an invisible magic barrier to contain the reactions first. It took a lot of energy, so I couldn’t hold the flame for very long...”

Professor Yorsets lifted an eyebrow, “Flame? Those elements make a star, Mister Hooves!”

The classroom burst with chatter. Starlight couldn’t tell whether they were remarks of ridicule or praise. At the moment, however, he wasn’t paying much attention to the matter; he was too baffled that his untested notion had seemingly worked.

“Though I admit your knowledge and creativity have exceeded my expectations,” Yorsets stated, “I’m afraid that, as discussed at the beginning of this week, you cannot claim the prize due to private lessons on the usage of indirect fabrication spells.” More clamorous prattling filled the room, until Yorsets raised his voice, “THEREFORE, I am happy to announce that the most creative display today was Miss Sparkle’s exposition with the three magnifying glasses.”

All small talk ceased as everypony’s eyes fell on the mare. Twilight blushed and stood at her desk. “I really am grateful, professor... but I think Starlight deserves the honor for lighting the fireworks this weekend.”

The professor nodded and smiled, “Yes yes, good-” His face suddenly contorted. “W-Wait, what did you say!?”

“I believe Starlight deserves the reward,” Twilight stated without faltering. “He did come up with the most creative solution to your challenge.”

“B-But it had to be a flame, and it had to be with indirect fabrication! In addition there are other circumstances-” Yorsets paused and stretched his neck to compose himself. “Miss Sparkle, if you would please just accept this reward for your creative genius-”

“I see nothing wrong with Starlight’s thinking,” Lyra interrupted gracefully. “He did burn the paper to show that it was the equivalent of a flame.”

Others in the class started to voice their agreement, until Yorsets was backed up against the wall behind his podium in shock. He looked Starlight in the eyes; for the first time, the student felt his gaze as the more powerful.

“V-Very well,” the teacher said, laying down his argument. “If you all insist.” He threw Starlight a smart but compliant grin. “Then I pronounce Mister Hooves as the winner of this contest. Congratulations.”


When Starlight promenaded out into the foyer everything seemed wonderfully brighter than usual. The sun glowed especially radiant, filling in the deep chasms of dark walls and flooring like water, until every tile glimmered like shallow pools of violent and blue. Every window looked more like a panel of light rather than various shapes of the dark sky all around the hall. The carpet felt softer, the air seemed lighter, the atmosphere warmer. Starlight reveled in the glory of it all.

“Hey Starlight,” said Twilight as she approached the stallion just outside the classroom door. “Congratulations on winning!”

Starlight smiled with not a care in the world on his mind.

That really was something else!” Lyra remarked cheerily. “Say, you're looking different than earlier this week. Weren’t you acting strange at the beginning of this week?”

The stallion scratched his head bashfully. “Yeah, it was a rough start to the week. It actually started when I was right here, staring at the door before our first session. I was so nervous when you and Lyra arrived. It's kinda silly, but when we three couldn't sit together I started to feel like we were being separated. And then I couldn't make fire that exercise-

You were the one that couldn’t even make a simple fire?” Lyra asked skeptically, to which Twilight elbowed her.

“I never realized you were having such a hard time,” Twilight reticently remarked. “I feel bad for not noticing how bad things were going for you.”

“Don't be,” Starlight said with a smile as he shook his head. “I was too embarrassed and shy to say anything. But I’ve finally managed to face my fears. Thanks again for handing off the reward; are you sure you don’t want it? I did get help from Professor Yorsets with indirect fabrication and whatnot.

Lyra rolled her eyes, “Cheeeeating.”

Twilight shook her head, “Given the professor’s reaction, he certainly didn’t teach you how to make miniature stars. It’s yours to keep!” She smiled. “So, are you coming to lunch-?”

“Starlight! Arr!” came a shout from down the hall.

The stallion looked to his right to see a familiar blue figure running toward him, until the panting pony stood just a few inches away panting.

“Seven Seas! Howd it go?” Starlight asked. “You had your test today too, right?”

His friend's head drooped at the mentioning of the test, his breaths deep and heavy. “Arr, the earth... ‘twas a hard thing to master in a mere couple o' days.” He paused and hid his face, only to lift his head up to reveal a smart grin. “But o' course the land ain't as tough as the sea. I passed it better than I did me ol sailing tests! Course, I studied more fer those-

So you'll be helping set off fireworks at the celebration tomorrow?” Starlight asked.

“O' course!” Seven Seas replied. “What bout yerself?”

Let’s just say... I’m burning with anticipation,” Starlight said, then stopped. “On second though, that sounded a lot better inside my head...”

The two shared their laughs and high spirits as they started their ridiculous prancing about. Starlight could care less what the onlookers thought at that moment; his success trumped anypony’s opinion of him. After a minute though, one particular part of his body began to grumble, a complaint that the stallion did not mind heeding to.

“So, time for lunch?” Starlight asked, looking to the others, who by then were unable to contain their giggling at him and Seven Seas.

Twilight, once recovered, motioned for the dining hall, “Let's go. You certainly deserve a hearty meal today.”

The group of four walked on down. Starlight glanced over his shoulder only once at the classroom door he had only days ago stared at with restlessness. The image was nothing now but a frame of wood, a physical item marking the entrance to his home away from home for the upcoming winter season.

And to his delight, Starlight had no reason to fear the sight anymore.

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 9.5: Pyrotechnic

s

by Storytayler

A grand explosion lit the air like sparks of metal flashing in the dark. Tiny dots of gold and red faded into the night sky, only to be followed by a giant burst of aqua and green. Following each thunderous blast were exclamations of amusement and admiration that erupted from the academy commons lawn. Every pony present, from student to staff member, sat gazing at the late night sky and the phenomenal fireworks that shone against its jet-black blanket.

Every pony, that is, except for Starlight and a few others. The three class representatives lighting the fireworks had headed out after Princess Luna raised the moon from the academy lawn to start the Winter Solstice celebration. The group made their way to a designated spot close to the where the beachfront and Northern Woods met half a mile away. Accompanying the trio was one of the teachers, Doctor Marie, who taught the elemental track.

“Be sure to pace yourselves,” Doctor Marie had told the three students, her voice somewhat motherly but peppered with a coat of authority.

Starlight's task consisted solely of lighting the fireworks. Having practiced all week, Starlight found his job simple; it was coordinating everything with his two fellow students that took some getting used to. Seven Seas seemed to have absolutely no trouble with finding soft spots for planting the randomly shaped and sized fireworks carried over to him. The third student, though – a stallion by the name Gadgeteer – worked at a pace too quick for the others' liking. Even Doctor Marie did not seem comfortable with every demanding “Next!” the stallion  from Hoofington gave.

While preparing for the next rally, Starlight looked over to his friend. “Hey Seven Seas, how is it that you're working with the earth so well, especially in the dark? Weren't you saying at the beginning of this week that you'd never worked with the element before?”

Seven Seas stomped on a patch of ground nearby and marked the spot with a big X with a stick he found. “Starrrlight! Don't ye know why a sailor wears an eye-patch?”

The young stallion shook his head.

Seven Seas continued, “Keeps the covered eye ready fer seein' in the dark. Surely a studious pony like yerself already knew that?”

Starlight chuckled, “Well, I've never really studied sailing and stuff before.” Gadgeteer lifted a giant firework over to Seven Seas's mark and plopped the wooden post into the ground. Starlight stared at the device that stood taller than himself, then spoke as he started to light its thick wick. “That brings up a question; what's a sailor like you doing at this academy?”

The titanic firework rocketed into the air, shrinking as it shot up and over the bay of the moon-shaped island. The entire color spectrum shot out like a ring, mimicking a sonic rainboom over the water. White swirls spun out and away from the center, then dove down to the water below.

“Arr, to be honest,” Seven Seas began, “I came to master me skills with the water and the air. I've got me a plan to become the greatest sailor in all o' Equestria! And, o' course, as me family don't have it very well in terms o' gold, the only way to improve our sailing is to use magic. Control the winds, control the waters. You know, stuff like that.”

“So... you want to become the best transporter of goods?” Starlight asked.

Seven Seas looked to Gadgeteer, who held a batch of smaller fireworks with his magic hold, and draw a long line across a patch of dirt nearby with his stick. “Arr, Starlight, ye be mockin' me. I plan to be in the great Equestrian Sea Race someday. If only someday. Winnin' first in that would help me fam'ly recover from our most recent losses.”

“Recent losses?” Starlight asked.

“Aye, business has been slow for sea travel,” Seven Seas told. “With these new hot air balloons and fancy flyin' machines, it's hard to compete. Pegasi have always been able to fly great distances, but earth ponies and unicorns depended on travelin' along rivers and the wide waters for years. Well, now they don't. The fam'ly doesn't know what to do; we all used to live close t'gether, but now relatives are movin' off. I told ye of a little cousin of mine from Trottingham-”

“Next,” said Gadgeteer in a bored tone.

Starlight looked at the line of pyrotechnics lined perfectly along Seven Seas's line. With a fabricated matchbox he struck eight matches at once, lighting the bunch of fireworks simultaneously. When the wicks burned down they whistled off into the night sky, erupting into a flurry of white sparks and flashes, their bursts the loudest of any the group had lit yet. Starlight could hear ringing in his ears, but he smiled at the bright display nonetheless.

“Excuse me!” yelled the professor, Doctor Marie, suddenly. Her soprano voice was very rich but sounded somewhat silly as she rarely spoke above her 'indoor voice'.

Starlight turned his neck quickly to see whom she addressed, but as soon as he looked he could tell it was not himself. It wasn't one of the other two lighting the fireworks, either. When the stallion looked into the distance he could make out a a figure facing the edge of the darkened forest.

“You're not allowed to venture in there at this time!” Doctor Marie shouted at the stranger, who turned to face the four onlookers.

“Why not?” came the reply, the voice one of a female.

“It's Headmare Luna's orders!” Doctor Marie replied. “Would you be so kind as to step away from the woodland's edge and come over here, please?”

“Okay, okay. Sheesh.” The stranger backed away from the tall line of trees and approached the group.

“Next,” said Gadgeteer monotonously.

Starlight turned around quickly and lit another firework that had been planted. He didn't bother to watch it go off as he turned to identify the newcomer; her voice had sounded familiar.

When his eyes fell on the figure again the pony was drawing closer. When the firework he had lit exploded Starlight could make out a dissatisfied-looking mare of blue hues and a white stripe on her mane.

“Colgate!” Starlight said in surprise. “What are you doing over here? Isn't everypony up at the commons lawn watching the show?”

“Yeah yeah, it's nice and all, but I think I've seen enough,” Colgate replied, brushing off the idea as if it were unappealing. “What I really wanted to see tonight were the Northern Woods; I heard they're quite a sight when it starts to snow-”

“Young mare, I will have you know that the woods are currently off-limits to students and staff alike,” Doctor Marie said with a huff. “And in any case you would have to request permission to be venturing about in this area so late. Judging by your lack of knowledge regarding the current state of the woods, I'm assuming you failed to receive such permission from an instructor?”

Colgate rolled her eyes, which went unseen in the dark. “So... maybe I forgot. Why're the woods off-limits? Aren't students encouraged to explore them at least once this winter?”

“The Northern Woods are undoubtedly going to be a beautiful sight during the winter. The Headmare has said it herself!” Doctor Marie suddenly declared with sudden delight, which slumped away in a second. “However, recently there has been a possible spotting of strange activity inside the forest.”

Starlight nodded fervently, “I-It's true, Colgate, earlier this week I saw-”

“Now what kind of ridiculous pony could possibly think that something weird is going on in there? Who reported that!? Hasn't this island been abandoned for a thousand years?” Colgate growled. She let out an angry exhalation and quickly tried to compose herself. “Starlight, were you saying something?”

The stallion gulped. “N-Nope. Nothing.”

He looked over at his fellow two peers, the latter of which stood staring at Colgate and Starlight with a smirk on his face.

Not missing a beat, Seven Seas glanced over Gadgeteer and gave a mimicking, “Next.”

Gadgeteer's grin quickly turned upside down, and he turned to retrieve more fireworks with a snarl. Starlight and Seven Seas contained their laughs behind pressed lips.

Colgate looked at the two and shook her head slowly. “Sometimes I worry about you, Starlight. Anyway, I'm headed back to the castle. If there's no adventuring to do out here, then I'm not interested in staying. Have fun lighting the fireworks.”

“All right, see you around!” Starlight said, then returned to his work.

Colgate headed back in the direction of the academy with a heavy burden of small shame and burly boredom on her neck. He tried to shake the weight a number of times but couldn't get it off. Once she arrived back at the academy grounds, she stopped and turned to look north one last time for the night. Her eyes followed the colored silhouettes that sat in tiers, from the low olive plains to the middle emerald forests to the tall smokey mountains.

Is there anywhere I can go on this island..?

Next Chapter >


Index

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EPISODE 3: THE ARDENT ADVENTURER

Chapter 10: In for the Thrill

Mighty waves brushed and beat the rocky walls of the eastern cliff, their echoes resounding a powerful chorus. Relentless swarms of swishes beat against barricades of jagged rocks, as well as the base of the crag hiding behind them. Breakers crashed like the roar of rapids as waters bubbled and foam fizzled. Just the sound of it all could stir the heart of anypony that listened for long enough.

There was one pair of ears that pricked up in reply, one heart that was moved by these recurring resonances. With excitement stirring inside, Colgate leaned out through the large window to her suite’s common room and took in a deep breath of the chilly winter air. Her light blue coat glowed like the hues of the shallow tide, the dark blue of her hair shimmering like the depths of the sea. The white of her mane glistened white like the first snowfall that had spread across the landscape overnight.

Colgate let out a glum groan. Her breath turned to steam and glided away as it blended into the backdrop above of the mackerel sky. Despite the clouds, the sun fought to cast what light it could onto the isle and Equestrian Sea. But to the mare, the struggle was in vain. None of the precious daylight hours were being spent immersed in the beauty of the island outside of the academy.

All that Colgate longed for a chance to touch the water, to venture the rocky coasts she couldn't see, even to simply behold the magnificent view of a new vista along the ocean. Awe-inspiring images popped into her mind as she scanned the length of Crescent Island time and time again; but none of these perceptions were of actual places. They were mere dream destinations.

A secret field in the forest, a hidden mine in the mountains, even a concealed beach would have fed the mare's starving soul. Unable to spot such a scene that remotely fit those of her daydreams, Colgate slid her hoofs off the windowsill and backed into the room. As she closed the window the warmth of the common room swarmed her like bees across a field of flowers. Colgate did not care much for the tickling embrace.

“Why are we stuck indoors all the time?” Colgate whined with a stomp of her hoof. “We have this whole island around us, and yet we're stuck at the academy every day. I can’t even check out the forest a little ways off since that’s apparently off-limits too. Don’t get me wrong, magic has its uses; but books and classrooms are portable, and landscapes aren't. Am I right, or am I right?”

Colgate’s roommate, Lasso Tussle, who had been sitting in the lounge occupied with pretending to read history, looked up with a heedless gaze from the stiff couch in the corner. Her brown eyes slid back to reading the thick book she held as she muttered, “Sure. Now go get yer rump outside and out of mah sight.”

“Lasso, I don't think you understand; going outside only makes it all worse,” Colgate retorted. “All you can do from that little lawn between here and the main hall is stare at all the beautiful landscape you could be exploring.”

“How’d yer explorin’ turn out for ya last time?” the roommate said smartly, twisting a straw in her mouth that she drew from her hat.

Colgate sat and stared out the window again as her mouth crumpled into a crooked but pensive frown. Her last so-called 'adventure' had been the night when the Ponyville pack had snuck around. Their penalty was simply that they couldn't leave the island during their first winter break. To Colgate, this was the opposite of punishment, unless she were to get into trouble again. One more strike and the mare would not only be stranded on the island, but also limited to the academy grounds.

Being locked up would not do for Colgate; however, her current edginess wouldn't simply subside, either. She knew when her hoofs were twitching for a gallop, and they were at that very moment. Over a week had passed since her last taste of adventure. To her, blazing new trails was as important as eating breakfast, lunch and dinner.

With her dreams set on becoming the next Marco Pony, Colgate just knew that her ticket to fame hid within the confines of Crescent Island. The idea sparked a fiery interest the second the Winter Magic Academy had been brought up. Ever since this first instance, though, not a hint of anything more specific had been found.

But the spark reignited as a new idea came to mind.

“Wait a second!” Colgate gasped. “Lasso, you know Tall Tale, right? The one who knew about the exam results last week? Do you know if he has any new leads on secret stuff?”

Lasso Tussle gritted her teeth, biting off the head of the straw she had in her mouth. “Ah reckon he does. It's a darn shame Ah'm feelin' too lazy to ask, though.”

Colgate was at her roommate's hoofs in a second. “Please go ask him for some kind of lead! Anything! Please? Please please please-!”

“Git yer lousy lips off mah boots!” Lasso exclaimed as she nudged Colgate away with a sneer. “Yer 'bout as hooked on to these 'leads' as pa was to happy hour.  Just what's in this fer me?”

Colgate glanced about the room in a desperate search for easy answers. Their lounge room, however, was empty; that is, bare of any of their possessions. The cushions and furniture pieces were clear of any of the ponies' items, leaving the dark blues and violets of the main room to consume the chamber in even in the early hours of afternoon.

There seemed to be no sign of luck, until suddenly Colgate's sights crossed her roommate's door. The door to the room hung wide open, revealing the terrible mess of clothes and 'essentials' within it. An idea went straight from thought to talk.

“Say, Lasso, haven't you been wanting to change rooms with me since day one?” Colgate inquired with a sly tone.

Lasso, wearing a straw rancher's hat with wide brims and a high crown, tipped her cap to see the whole of her scheming acquaintance's face. Colgate's muzzle showed a most curious smile of contorted delight and taciturnity.

“Ah'm listenin',” Lasso said with one eye narrowed.

“Well,” Colgate continued, “we both know that I have the biggest of the three rooms in this suite, and one of the only two with a breath-taking view. I happen to recall you mentioning that you wish you had it... right?”

Lasso narrowed her gaze further. “Maybe.”

Colgate began pacing in front of the couch on which Lasso sat slouched. “Then I propose that, should you go talk to your good pal Tall Tale, we'll switch rooms. You'll get the nicer place for the rest of the semester, and I'll have a new adventure to look into. Deal?”

Lasso tapped her snout thoughtfully. “Only on one condition.”

Colgate's dark blue eyes grew substantially like a filly getting her first ever birthday present.

With a smug smile Lasso Tussle peered over at her open bedroom door, and then back to the anxious pony standing anxiously before her. “You gotta move all mah things into mah new room by tomorrow afternoon.”

Colgate leaped into the air higher than a volleyball player. “DEAL!”

With a snicker Lasso Tussle rose to her hoofs. She placed her book on the couch and adjusted her tall hat after a shake of her wavy, gold mane.

“Ah'll be back soon enough,” she said as she pulled another straw from her hat and put it in her mouth, replacing the other she had chewed to bits. “Don't get too excited, though, you hear?”

Colgate waited, still shaking, until her roommate was out the door. The moment the door closed completely behind her, Colgate started bouncing off the walls uncontrollably.

Finally, something to do!

“COLGATE,” scolded a mare nearby. “What are you doing?”

Colgate ceased her dancing immediately and stood with her back to where she knew the voice came from. Colgate didn't need to turn to see who it was that spoke to her; she also preferred to hide her face until the flushing faded and its regular blue tones returned.

“Oh... uh, nothing,” Colgate said with a faked laugh.

“Nothing indeed,” came the reply. “You were just cavorting as one does upon winning the lottery not five seconds ago. Just what nonsense are you up to?”

“What's it to ya, Melodia?” Colgate asked with a smirk.

She turned to face her other roommate, whose long white hair absorbed what little sunlight still came into the room, making her mane and tail the only bright things inside the lounge. The five piano keys on her flank glowed brightly along as well. The dazzling appearance seemed only suitable as Colgate knew her to be a rather showy individual. Melodia swung her head around in a rather dramatic fashion, then turning her back to her roommate.

“If it's so personal, I suppose you need not tell,” said Melodia. “I was simply looking out for you.”

“Looking out for me?” Colgate laughed. “That's the last thing I need. I can take care of myself, you know. All great adventurers do.”

“All 'great adventurers' are also careful where they get their information from,” Melodia noted with a raised nose. “Don't you remember the last time you asked one of Lasso Tussle's friends for secrets?”

“Pssh, yeah! Do you have any idea how fun it was to wander the halls that late?”

Her roommate stuck out her tongue as if she had just bitten off a piece of rotten apple. “I would dare not tempt fate as you did. One of these days if you keep on 'adventuring' you're going to find yourself trapped and alone.”

Colgate clicked her tongue. “It's not like there's anything on this island that's going to kill me, Mel. Quit your worrying.”

The pale purple unicorn swurved full circle and came muzzle-to-muzzle with her roommate, who was so taken aback by the confrontation that she couldn't move. Colgate found her sights suddenly locked with two frighteningly small lilac irises.

“As I've been in show business since I was a filly, I shall personally warn you: always look before you leap,” said Melodia. She then turned and trotted off as if nothing had happened. Not a moment later her door was closed, leaving Colgate standing in shock.

A minute passed before the mare could crack the cold burst that had frozen her veins. She had never seen her roommate so startling before. The musical mare had indeed come off as a rather sophisticated and serious one, but never threatening. Colgate moved her hoofs to assure her senses were still working, until finally shake the strange sensation that had reverberated down to her bones.

Laughing off such matters as Colgate usually did seemed improbable. Instead the mare tried to distract herself as she walked back over to the window and watched the sun slowly make its way westward. She opened the glass and listened to the waves again, their sounds more docile than before. The air seemed strangely still. It was unable to distract the mare from the words that began repeating in her mind.

Always look before you leap..?

Feeling her muscles tighten, Colgate chuckled to herself. “Whatever. An adventure's an adventure. It's all about the thrill.”

[br]

Breakfast the next morning was nothing short of spectacular. Like all other meals, dish after dish was set before the students as they sat in their violet cushion seats in anticipation. The strong aromas of syrups and oatmeal filled the atmosphere like those of autumn leaves during the harvesting season. Had anypony plugged his or her nose, the smell would still manage to seep in through their hanging open mouths. Of course, none had any reason to try and block out such sweet scents.

The Ponyville gang was content as ever could be as they munched away on the delights set before them. Plate after plate came and went as servers picked up silver platters nearly as soon as they set them down. The food silenced the group of eight at the table for a good while; that is, until the ninth pony entered the scene.

“Guys, you'll never believe this!” Colgate announced as she careened down the aisle of tables. She stopped in a snap behind an unsuspecting Windchaser and a very startled Lyra. The blue mare reached over her two companions' shoulders and gave an embrace in her excitement. “I have the best lead on a super cool secret nearby!”

Lyra, with her face squeezed between a hoof and cheek, said with pressed lips, “Colgate, you're all sweaty! What's going on!?”

Colgate let go and zipped over to sit at the last open spot at the table. She looked everypony in the eye before taking in a great breath.

“The sweat? Oh, I was just moving some stuff in our suite. Anyway, I heard a rumor about this really cool cave that's sort of close to here 'cause it's over the mountain pass to the west a bit and it's supposed to have some really cool old stuff like ruins that we can find in it and I think we should check it out as soon as possible, as in today!”

A grand smile covered her entire muzzle. But as she glanced at each of the eight faces before her, the grin gradually faded to a questioning glare. No pony quite mirrored her sheer enthusiasm.

Quirky Q at least held a feeble smile on her face. “Sounds... exciting?”

“I know, right?” Colgate said with fading motivation in her voice. “So, when do you guys wanna go check it out?”

The others looked at one another and whispered amongst themselves. Colgate could not make out the talk hidden in low voices and behind hidden hoofs.

“I dunno, Colgate,” Twilight finally said, “last time you heard something about a 'lead' it got us all in pretty big trouble.”

“I-I'll get permission!” Colgate rejoined. “You guys okay now? No breaking rules or anything, just pure innocent fun.”

“That sounds like quite a trip, going to the cave to the west,” Gallant mentioned as he wiped his mouth with a table napkin. “How long would it take to get there, and when would we depart?”

Colgate rolled her eyes, “Oh come on, you guys don't have that much stuff to do, right? We can wait until this weekend and go then if you really want.”

“You're suggesting it could take an entire day?” Gallant raised as doubt began to cloud his eyes; Colgate could see it like a house cat spotting a mouse. “That seems pretty tiring to me. Don't get me wrong, I'd be very much riveted by the news, but judging by the others' expressions it seems like not many others here are very interested-”

“So you'd still go if I could find others?” asked Colgate.

The silver stallion rubbed his chin as his clenched teeth began to show. He looked at the others, at his plate, then back at Colgate. “... Maybe?”

“All right! That's one. Who else is in?” Colgate asked. “Come on guys, it'll be tons of fun! It's not like we're gonna get lost or anything. It's just over the mountain path west of here.”

The group started to murmur amongst themselves again, this time with a hint of worry glimmering in their colorful eyes. Colgate's mouth dropped as the eight eventually fell as silent as they had been before her arrival moments ago.

Colgate shrugged, “Next week?”

A light flashed in Starlight's eye as he gasped, which jump-started Colgate's dying pulse.

“I know! Why don't we go during the first semester break?” he proposed.

Colgate's joy turned to misery as quickly as her smile turned upside down. Starlight and the others began exchanging more pleasant expressions as their murmurs turned to delighted chatter. Colgate slammed a hood on the table and stood.

“No!” she shouted, which stopped all of the Ponyville table talk. In fact, it stopped all of the table talk throughout the banquet hall. Colgate shrunk as she leaned into the table to hide her face as heads all around turned. Nonetheless, she continued, this time in a whisper. “I need an adventure, now! I can't wait that long!”

“I-It's only a couple of weeks away,” mentioned Starlight, puzzled. “Can you really not wait just a little-?”

“Ugh, look,” Colgate interjected, “if you guys don't wanna go check out the cool secrets on this island, fine. I'll go get some other ponies to go with. Happy?”

Without another word exchanged Colgate flipped her tail and stormed away, the echoes of her heavy steps the only sound in the hall. The mare didn't care about the attention that followed her; it was about as bothersome as a single pebble in a thick block wall. The wall, of course, was the stubbornness of her friends, the one obstacle that then stood at the forefront of her troubled mind.

Colgate knew she could skirt the obstacle. Though it wouldn't be convenient, putting her Ponyville friends behind her seemed the only way to press on. It was the last thing Colgate had expected, though, as she felt as though she had just run into a wall face-first. Instinctively she rubbed her muzzle as she made her way back to her suite.

Step after step Colgate felt her pace picking up. Her walk turned into a quickened stroll, then into a trot, and finally into a gallop as she scaled the entire dormitory stairwell in seconds. A breeze began to follow her until she reached her suite's door, where Colgate slammed it shut. In her isolation the mare let out a terrible grouse.

A voice inquired, “Somepony's got her boots on too tight.”

Colgate's eyes darted in the direction of the sound. It was Lasso Tussle once again, sitting on the lounge room couch as usual, her tan coat glowing as the sunlight reached the corner of the room.

“Or not on at all,” Colgate uttered.

“Aww, yer friends don't wanna tag along to check out that spooky cave?” Lasso inquired as she looked up from the rope she was tying.

Colgate let out a sad sigh. “No.”

“Tsk, tsk. What's their reasonin'? They too scared?” Lasso asked.

“No. Maybe? Sort of. Ugh, I don't know how to explain it, it's stupid.” Colgate looked to the closed window, its clear glass allowing what little hint of sunlight there was outside through. “They don't wanna go until the first semester break, I guess.”

“That's not fer another week and a half!” Lasso laughed. “Guess li'l ol' you can't wait that long, huh?”

“No way! I remember seeing that cave you told me about when I flew in from Ponyville. I wasn't sure what it was exactly, but I could tell it was going to be fun to check out with some friends. Of course, now it seems like I'll just be going alone.”

“No way, no how!” cut in Lasso Tussle as she tossed the rope she played with aside. “Goin' alone ain't any fun, every good adventurer knows that.” Colgate nodded with a hint of sadness in her eyes. “Ah'll let you in on a li'l secret of mine, somethin' I learned out on the ranch, you hear?”

Colgate left the sight of the hidden sun and sky to stare at the roguish face of her roommate. She gulped and nodded.

“Ah'll let you in on this fer free, seeing as you offered me the room and all,” Lasso said. “When Ah was a filly out on the ranch, Ah had three older brothers. They were bigger and stronger than Ah was, so you can guess which one was thought to be the weaklin'. Course, they expected me to be about as smart as I was strong, which worked to my advantage. Just imagine the looks on their faces when Ah told a fib about a wolf attacking our herd, or a fire starting in the house just to get them in trouble-”

“A fib?” Colgate asked.

“Don't you Ponyville folk know any vocabulary?” Lasso questioned, then shook her head. “Look, Ah lied 'bout so many things, but my brothers never knew any better. Ah had 'em runnin' around like chickens with their heads cut off, if ya know what Ah mean.”

Colgate rubbed her throat and swallowed as if to reassure herself that her own head and neck were still attached.

“Just what are you getting at?” asked Colgate slowly.

“You're about as blunt as a butter knife,” Lasso sighed. “What Ah'm sayin' is, if they won't go willin'ly, just add a little 'spice' to yer reasonin'. Or story. Whatever it is you told 'em.”

“By 'spice' you mean lie.”

“Not a complete lie. Twistin' the truth ain't exactly lyin'. After all, there's still some truth in it, right? Plus, you get what you want.”

“How am I supposed to lie?” Colgate asked. “No matter what I say, they'll never be interested in going on a little adventure with me.”

Lasso Tussle stood and stretched. A satisfied moan followed the sounds of limbs cracking in relief. Lasso straightened up her posture and gave a sly wink.

“That's fer you to figure out, Colgate.”

And with that, Lasso Tussle left the room again in her mysterious manner. Her blond tail flowed out of sight and the wooden door to her new room closed with a click. Colgate's eyes drifted toward the lounge window again. With little thought she approached it and opened the panels once more, parting the two glass doors to let the sun shine in. A chilly breeze greeted her as well as the beautiful sights of the scenery she wouldn't be waking up to anymore that winter.

Something strange lingered in the air. Colgate glanced about as every noise seemed directed toward her very ears, causing her head to turn about like a weathervane in the changing winds. The trees far off brustled and shook as the breeze whistled a curious tune. The waves beckoned without stop, their crashing a continued invitation to touch the water's edge.

In the midst of it all was something different, but Colgate could not make it out. She let her ears try and track it as one would let his or her nose guide the way to a delicious treat. The blue mare couldn't help but feel as though the mystifying melody were humming from the west. Only one thing she knew of beyond the castle grounds was in that general direction.

That, of course, was the cave.

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 11: Cavernous Conundru

m

“Guys, guys! We have to go help Quirky!” Colgate shouted as she burst through the foyer entrance.

Some in the crowded entrance hall loaned their brief attention, but only three completely stopped to listen to the huffing and puffing mare. Though the three had been en route to the dorms, Gallant, Windchaser and Lyra confronted their friend with perplexed ganders.

“Colgate, you look exhausted!” Lyra gasped. “What is this you’re talking about with Quirky?”

Colgate looked around the hall several times as she bit her bottom lip anxiously. “You guys haven't heard yet? She took off for the cave over on the west end not too long ago!”

Gallant’s head tilted as a frown of disfavor slipped across his muzzle.

“And just what is she doing there?” inquired the stallion.

Colgate’s eyes rolled upward as she fidgeted fretfully. “Umm... uh, I-”

Gallant tapped his forehead with a hoof and sighed. “Look, Colgate, about earlier. We know you're excited and all, but-”

“Quirky was probably excited too! That’s why she went,” Colgate shouted as she pounded her hoofs against the carpet. “Question answered, right? So let’s get going-”

“Just a minute, Colgate,” Gallant said, stopping the eager pony before she could fully turn. “Exactly how do you know that Quirky went off to see this cave?”

“I heard it from some other pony. Grapevine or whatever, now let's go-!”

Gallant refused to budge. “From whom, if I may ask?”

The blue mare felt the ice thinning beneath her. “I don’t know-! I mean, uh, Rarity. Yeah, her.”

“Rarity?” Gallant asked, taken aback. “She's here?”

“Did I say Rarity?” Colgate laughed uneasily. “I meant, uh, Charity! Y-Yeah. Her.”

Lyra glanced over her shoulder and pointed. “Hey, I think that's Charity over there. We could just go and ask her about all this-”

“Lyra, there’s no pony here named-” Colgate suddenly choked to a pause. With a grunt of frustration she stormed over behind the three and began pushing them toward the exit. “Just forget about it, we have to go!”

“Did you get permission?” Windchaser asked.

“Is that really what you're worried about!?” Colgate growled. “Ugh, yes, I got permission, you're in good hoofs. Now let's get going before something bad happens!”

As if in reply to a race-starting gunshot Colgate sped off, her swiftness like that of a hawk’s. Her excited smile beamed as her hoofs carried her to the foyer exit; that is, until the mare’s ears perked up. There was a strange lack of sound in the air. The pioneer slowed down and looked over her shoulder to see none of the others following.

“Come on!” Colgate moaned. “Quirky's out there! Don't you guys care about helping her out?”

I care!” Lyra said, decidedly stepping forward. “And no matter how confused I am, I know that whatever I feel compelled to do is the best choice, and right now-!”

“That’s nice, Lyra,” Colgate interrupted. She looked to the other two. “Are you two stallions coming along or what?”

Gallant and Windchaser looked at her and Lyra as pets do at their owners when a new trick is introduced. Eventually each one trotted over as perplexity began to sink through their filters of reason. The battle showed on their warped faces with eyes shrunk in doubt and frowns wide with apprehensiveness.

“You said a... cave, correct?” Gallant asked. “I-I’m not so sure I feel comfortable doing this.”

Colgate tilted her head down. “You aren’t comfortable with caves? Aren’t you in heavy duty guard training at Canterlot or something?”

Gallant grumbled, “I’ve only been there for one year, why does everypony keep bringing this up-?”

“Just join us, we need all the help we can get,” Lyra begged.

“Couldn’t have said it better myself, Lyra,” Colgate said. “Now let’s get going!”

She charged through the exit and out into the wintry air as the others soon followed behind. A heat of excitement lay beneath the mare's skin, protecting her from the chill. For the first time in weeks Colgate felt the addicting rush of exhilaration coursing through her system like water through a busted dam.

The four headed west across the pathways with their heads lowered and horns pointed at the sun slowly setting in the sky. Spread below this sphere was a glorious topography of stunted mountains and extensive forests, both covered in snow yet darkly tinted by the oncoming shadows. A single path extended beyond the black fence marking the academy grounds, dipping into a valley below and then up along the slope of the near mountainside.

Three unicorns approached the gateway from this trail, their faces and hoofs marred with a thick layer of dirt. They carried along with them saddlebags that dragged along the trail. Colgate did not care to stop and say hi, until one's distinctive mane stood out to her.

“WAIT A MINUTE!” Colgate screamed as she dug her hoofs into the ground.

She came to a complete stop, only to be run over by the other three that were closely following her. Colgate moaned as she became trapped, only able to move her head. She stretched her neck and glared at those coming from the mountain trail ahead.

“Er, hey guys!” came the voice of the Twilight from one of the dirt-coated unicorns. “You all seem like you’re in quite the rush. What's going on?”

Colgate muscled her way out of the ponypile and gritted her teeth. “Well, I was okay, but now I’m wondering... what's 'going on' with you?”

Twilight looked at the two accompanying her and smiled. “Oh! I guess it's hard to recognize us with all of this grime.” She motioned to the two behind her and added, “This is Starlight, and his roommate Giant Geode-”

“I didn't ask who you were,” Colgate snarled. “I asked where you've been.”

With a nervous laugh Twilight replied, “We were just down the path a ways. Starlight and I were helping find some gems for Giant Geode's collection. He needs a couple of samples for a project, and since I learned a tracking spell from my friend-”

Down the path?” Colgate interrupted. “You mean you went off the grounds... without me!?”

Twilight backed away slowly. Starlight and Giant Geode stood as speechless and shivering as the mare, but dared not move at all.

Colgate growled as her eyes closed tightly. Her head began to shake as her jaw couldn’t clench any more tightly.

“Colgate, what's gotten into you!?” Lyra wailed. “We have to hurry and save Quirky!”

The blue mare felt her blood turn cold. Her anger suddenly disappeared in a dense mist of shock. Disoriented, Colgate watched through clouded eyes as a confused Twilight drew near again, this time with hesitant hoofsteps.

“Wait, what’s going on with Quirky?” Twilight questioned.

But Colgate, suddenly able to find her bearings, blew past Twilight with a powerful gallop. The others, now more bewildered than ever, followed right behind as a three-pony stampede careened down the mountain trail.

“Wait, you guys!” echoed the faint voice of Twilight. “Are you looking for Quirky? I think she’s-”

“Trapped, yeah!” Colgate shouted over her shoulder. “We're gonna go get her. Later!”

Colgate pressed on as the group made their way down the hill and then up to the jagged mountain path. The incline of the trail grew steeper and steeper until only a few trees could survive on the slope. Once at an altitude higher than the academy reached, the trail began to level out. The group rounded their first wide bend, when suddenly Colgate slowed to a trot. Her eyes fixed on a peculiar sight.

A faded trail leading down the slope sat just a few meters ahead. It was only wide enough for one pony to pass through at a time as it zigzagged down to the base of the mountain. Lasso Tussle had told Colgate of the trail less traveled, and the adventurer was completely taken by the thought. When the four reached the split, Colgate didn't hesitate in heading down the narrower path.

“Colgate, where are you going!?” Lyra protested. “We need to keep on the trail!”

“The cave's this way!” Colgate shouted without even looking back.

Gallant, panting, shook his head as he stopped. “Actually, I think I recall seeing this trail when we flew over. This original path should lead us close to the mouth of the cave.”

“I don't know what you're talking about,” Colgate said with only a brief pause. “If you wanna save Quirky, you'll want to follow me. Trust me, I'm an adventurer.”

Despite the dangerously slim course Colgate returned to her daring speed as she tore around the tiny bends in the path. Tears of joy dried as the dry winter air brushed against her face. The energy that surged through her then only encouraged her to run faster.

After twisting through the turns of the path the group made it to even ground. There no longer was a path, but the edge of the snowy forest and mountainside created a straight line leading westward.

“It's just over here!” Colgate yelled.

The gap up ahead between the trees and base of the mount approached like the light at the end of a tunnel, but at a snail's pace. The emerald and white forest to the right passed tree by tree as the giant conifers crowded the way. The mountain had little to see but the snowy summit and the edges of the trail they would have otherwise taken.

At the end of the stretch between terrains was a long, sparkling beach. A layer of snow covered the nearest sands while the tide, then rising, slowly ate away at the snowbank. Colgate laughed in sheer delight as she gracefully took her final galloping steps and leapt out onto the beach to stop and take in the spectacle.

“Watch out!”

Colgate's head slammed straight into the blankets of snow and sand. Her nostrils abruptly filled with the unpleasant grains of sand rather than the delightful sea air. The mare pushed helplessly against the loose terrain to free her head, only to submit to the weight that squirmed atop her. Once the burden grew light enough, Colgate threw her head up and gasped.

What are you guys doing!?” she shouted as she turned around.

Her three companions dawdled about tripping over themselves as their eyes continued to spin. Colgate rolled her own and began treading across the beach toward the shallow waters.

“It's so... beautiful,” Colgate said softly.

Lyra slowly rose to her hoofs and whined, “Indeed it is, Colgate, but shouldn't we be more concerned about Quirky? I certainly don't see a cave nearby; do you really know where we're going?”

“Quit your worrying, Lyra, you're getting all moody and worried again,” Colgate replied. After a few steps through the snow and sand she took off into another gallop. “We're close now, just follow me!”

But the group's once-firm steps became flimsy pats as their pace slowed down to a struggling trot. Colgate, however, refused to give up. With great determination the mare began hopping through the snowfall, pouncing like a cat on its toy. Minutes passed until she came to a breathless stop.

Out of nowhere Windchaser trotted past her. His hoofs didn't sink even an inch into the snow.

“What!? How are you doing that?” Colgate asked, fuming. “What sorcery is-?”

“It's the 'Light as a Feather' spell,” Windchaser answered. “I'm looking ahead for the cave.”

The mare couldn't decide; her desire had been to be the first to see the cave up close, but her brain told her she didn't have the energy. She looked at Windchaser floating atop the snow, and then at her own hoofs sunken into the white sheet of flakes.

“Wait, can't you cast that spell on the rest of us?” Colgate inquired with a giant smile. “Please?”

“Only one pony at a time,” Windchaser said.

Colgate ground her teeth to chew her words, but they burst through pressed lips, “Fine! Go on ahead.”

Windchaser took off northbound, his hoofs hardly making a sound. He soon disappeared behind the ragged cliff-side ahead. Meanwhile, Colgate kept trying to press on, only to find herself budging an inch a minute. Lyra and Gallant were soon by her side.

“Can you move?” Gallant asked.

Colgate blew a heated exhalation through her nostrils. “Of course I can move, Gallant. I'm simply choosing not to.”

“But you should choose to, Quirky's counting on us!” Lyra implored, pressing on through the foot-deep snow despite her shivers.

Suddenly, Windchaser's gray figure emerged from around the corner of the rocky precipice ahead.

“Over here,” Windchaser shouted, though his voice was not all too loud.

Nonetheless, the three heard him; there was hardly any other noise aside from the calm waters. Colgate felt a new energy coming on as her dream finally seemed within reach. She started her leaping again through the snow as she quickly closed the gap.

Just around the corner of the crag stood a giant aperture in the cliff face. The black orifice shaped a perfect arch. Stemming out from its base was a giant slab of rock that spread across a great portion of the beach. Puddles of melted snow spread across the slate-colored surface, but their cold touch went unnoticed by Colgate as she stood on it.

Colgate took in the view of the dark portal towering before her and laughed. “I knew it! I knew it was here. I knew it, I knew it I knew it!”

Colgate pranced in circles like a sugar-stuffed filly, and the others watched as concerned parents would.

“Did you find Quirky?” Lyra asked as she and Gallant arrived.

Colgate's facial expression went blank.

… What do I tell them now?

“Um not yet! But we should go in and look for her,” Colgate stated.

“G-Go in!? Now, that's not entirely necessary, is it?” Gallant asked, shaking. “S-Shouldn't we just c-call in first?”

The three accompanying him stared.

“Don't tell me,” Colgate uttered. “You're actually afraid of caves?”

“WHAT? No, nonsense,” Gallant said with a cough. “It's just cold, that's why I'm shaking.”

“Enough fooling around! We need to head in!” Lyra declared as she lit her horn. “I'll lead the way!”

The mint-colored mare charged into the darkness of the cave until its curtain of darkness covered her. Colgate, herself surprised by Lyra's zest, followed with Windchaser and Gallant on her tail.

The light in front guided the way as it grew brighter and the one behind them shrank. The walls and ceiling hid behind the screens of the shadows that even Lyra's powerful light could not reach. Colgate felt as though she were charging head-first into an endless abyss of blackness. The only reassurance of barriers were the echoes of the unicorns' hoofsteps and the trickling of water from the ceiling.

They continued charging for some time, until Lyra's pace slowed down. The light behind them was no larger than the size of one's hoof. Its faint light served as a barrier separating the outside world from the cavern.

A low growl suddenly reverberated through the cave. The four wanderers stopped dead in their tracks.

“W-What was that!?” Lyra asked.

Colgate, trembling, stared into the darkness surrounding them. “I-I dunno. What lives in caves?”

The rumbling soon ceased. Colgate could still feel her bones vibrating beneath her twitching muscles.

“Orcs? Moray eels?” Gallant gulped. “Dragons!?”

Suddenly, a strange voice erupted, “Or a TROLL!”

Lyra fell to the ground as the light of her horn went out. Screams pierced the stale air swarmed, throwing everypony into a frenzy. Colgate glanced back but could barely make out the mouth of the cave a ways back, but she could not tear herself away from the others.

“What's going on!?” Colgate shrieked; her only answers were more terrified howls and cries. Her body shook uncontrollably until suddenly a light lit up the area.

Standing in the middle was a familiar pinkish lavender pony. Her silver hair glowed beneath a magic spotlight hovering above her and her pink eyes dazzled like garnets.

“What's going on, Colgate, is what I'd like to ask you!” came the voice of Quirky in a most dramatic tone.

“Q-Quirky! You're safe!” Lyra squealed.

“Well of course I'm safe, why wouldn't I be?” asked the actress. “I came here looking for you three. I heard my name being called several times earlier, until I ran into Twilight. She told me you were all headed here.”

Twilight told you?” Colgate asked, dumbfounded.

“Well yes, she told me you were looking for me. She then pointed out that you were headed for the caves, so I took the trail.”

Three glares suddenly directed at Colgate, who failed to back out of the light's grasp in the cavern. Her nervous grin left the others nothing but suspicious. She tried to laugh, but the lump in her throat stopped any contraction of her lungs.

“Y-You're just messing with us, right Quirky?” asked the blue mare, desperate. “You couldn't have made it here before us if you left after us!

“You must have taken the wrong trail,” Quirky said quite matter-of-factly. “I followed the mountain path and arrived just north of this cave. Since I found none of you here, I decided I'd surprise you all. Oh, you should have seen the looks on your faces-!”

Colgate broke in, “Well, what about that roar we heard just a few seconds ago?”

Quirky laughed as she gazed into the shrouds of darkness around them. “That was me. All performers must practice some kind of roar or strange sound.”

Lyra glowered at Colgate. “Is that... so?”

The deep bellow sounded again, shaking the cave as it did before, this time with greater power.

“That's quite a skill,” Windchaser said.

But Quirky was as speechless as her face was pale.

The four watched as the roar sounded even louder. Quirky's mouth wasn't moving except for the twitching corner of her lip. Soon all were shaking in terror.

Lyra turned and screamed, “RUN!”

The five bolted toward the exit as fast as their hoofs could carry them. The rumbling continued even after the roar, coming in waves of vibrations all around. All of a sudden, large pieces of rock bega crumbling down from the ceiling.

As the group drew near the exit, their eyes met the sight of fallen boulders blocking large sections of the entrance, until only half of the space was obstructed by stone.

Gallant, the most reluctant to enter, had already made it out.

“Hurry!” he cried from behind the curtain of light outside the cave. “The entrance is caving-!”

But his voice faded beneath the clamor of scraping stone until the final block had fallen, and the last bit of worldly light was sealed away. All that remained was the faint light Lyra held, a beacon around which the other three gathered in silence. All that sounded in the cave was the continued dripping of water.

“We have to find another way out,” Colgate whispered, panting harder than a marathon runner.

“Over here,” said Windchaser as his head directed toward a portion of the wall nearby.

The four made their way over to the entrance of a small tunnel they had not seen upon first entering. Windchaser led the way through the darkness with the little help he could get from Lyra's light, which now was as weak as an unguarded torch in a midnight rainfall. Dodging stalagmites and holes that swarmed the narrowing passageway, the unicorns made their slow advance as silently as possible.

The stallion's pace came to a halt. A fork in the path stood in the group's way. From what Colgate could see, both passages dropped down into shallow pools of stagnant liquids littered with algae and small stones, the sight of which blurred as the surface of the water shook.

Each pony exchanged helpless expressions. Windchaser, then the leader of the pack, held the most clueless appearance of them all.

“What do we do?” Colgate asked.

Lyra stepped forward and lifted her ears.

“Wait a sec!” she exclaimed in an excited whisper. All eyes fell on her as silence ensued. “Do you hear that?”

The group reluctantly allowed the eerie silence to prevail. A faint noise began to echo throughout the tunnel, its repetitive drawl and fluid resonance familiar.

Colgate felt life returning to her. “Is that-?”

“Shh!” Lyra quickly cut in. She noiselessly treaded over to the divide at which Windchaser stood and lined one ear along each separating tunnel. She exclaimed with excitement, “Waves! This way!”

A huge roar blared not twenty feet behind them. The group shrieked in horror and took off down the right tunnel with Lyra leading the way. Each one hurled themselves into the shallow waters and waded through the flooded path. But Colgate, last in line, felt herself losing energy; her earlier galloping and euphoria had nearly drained her without her hardly noticing it.

The monster roared again, this time slamming the earth with a terrible strike. More rock began to fall into the flooded passage, until the ponies found themselves doing more climbing than wading as they scampered on through the passageway.

After another terrible blow to the earth, a heavy wall of stone fell from the ceiling, separating Colgate completely from the others. In her panic the mare tripped over a rock and fell, submerging her entire head in the water. She inhaled a lung full of water, bringing on a fit of terrible coughs upon regaining her hoofhold.

“Quirky!” she tried to yell, but her lungs permitted nothing more than a groan. She hacked and tried again. “Lyra! Somepony-!”

The cave shook once more, throwing Colgate into the near wall. She tried to cast a light spell, but her energy was fading. Her eyes grew weary as the back of her eyelids became indistinguishable from the blackness of the cavern. Colgate, feeling her last bits of consciousness coming on, could feel whatever it was that chased them drawing near.

Colgate, unable to move, felt tears flooding her eyes.

Pounding on the stone wall blocking the way, she cried, “I never should have left!”

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 12: Light at the End of the Tunne

l

Trapped. In all her years of trail-blazing, climbing, even spelunking, Colgate had never felt as stuck as she did then. Whatever the mysterious monster was, its deep breaths sounded through the damp air like growls in a lion's den. The cavern's pristine darkness shrouded the figure's image entirely, but the cornered mare could sense how large the monster was just by listening – and even feeling – its exhalations.

“S-Stay back!” Colgate cried as she feebly lifted a hoof and shook it. “I'm w-warning you!”

The deep breaths ceased, much to Colgate's surprise. Her wince faded as she listened to the drops of water echo through the cave. Suddenly an ensuing roar blew her back against the stony barrier that stood in her way. Jagged bits of rock jabbed into her backside as her eyes closed tightly in pain.

Colgate fell to the rocky ground with a splash, then staggered back onto all fours. When she managed to open her eyes again, there was still not a single hint of escape in sight; there was only darkness. Defenseless, Colgate fell further victim to her fading energy as her weak legs started to collapse beneath her body's wavering weight.

In desperation the mare lifted her head as though to seek directions from the stars. But the darkness inside was not like that of the night; with no clear view of the sky, there were no stars by which to navigate. Only a tiny ray of light streaked overhead across the coarse ceiling of the tunnel.

Light!?

“Colgate!” came a muffled shout. “Colgate, are you in there!?”

The mare turned to face the barrier and the hole near the top of it. The tiny ray of light suddenly expanded, until the hole it squeezed through grew almost big enough for her to crawl through.

“Colgate, where are you!?” called the voice again.

The mare, dazed, shouted back, “I'm right here!”

The mysterious beast let out another deafening howl, though this time its sound and echoes began much farther away. Colgate turned her head to quick try and catch a glimpse of whatever it was, but the pinch of light that streamed in couldn't reach far enough to reveal an inch of the unidentified cave-dwelling creature.

Aware that she was not safe just yet, Colgate returned her attention to the rocky divide. She felt the surface of the barrier with shaking hoofs, until finally finding a spot out of the water's reach to step up to. The mare jumped up and secured her balance on one rear leg, though for a moment she felt as though she were falling back. She leaning forward to recover, and then gazed up at the hole in the wall again. It was only a short climb away, but Colgate felt as though she had miles to go.

“Hurry!” the stranger cried.

“I'm trying!” Colgate yelled as she blindly searched the wall for another hold.

In her skittish search the unicorn finally found another spot to step on and then another to help pull herself up. With her hoofs situated Colgate lunged for the hold straight above her. She caught hold of the wedge and barely hung on. Her body started shaking violently.

With a final drive Colgate raised herself up and reached to feel the rays of light that poured in through the hole higher up. Its warmth, though weak, felt like the heat of the sun on a cold winter's morning. The warmness faded, however, as a shivery hoof reached through the gap and grabbed the mare's.

“Push!” the stranger yelled.

Colgate took a deep breath and gave one final vault. With a push on her part and a pull from the stranger, Colgate swiftly hurdled into the breach of the barrier. A breeze of cold but fresh air blew through the hole, crystallizing the sweat and water all over Colgate's shaking physique.

The mare lifted her head. Not a short distance ahead was a bend in the tunnel from which an abundance of light poured in.

Gathering the last bits of vigor she had, Colgate scrambled out of the hole. She stopped at the base of the ceiling-high stack of stone and glanced about to see where the helping hoof had come from. When she glanced behind her a pale purple mare with a wet and dirty mane was slowly making her way down the mass of boulders. Her long tail dragged along the rocks, but nevertheless the unicorn constantly brushed her hair aside and shook out her hair as though still trying to look good while covered in grime.

Melodia?” Colgate shrieked. “What're you doing in here?”

“I told you not to look before you leap,” Melodia snapped. “Just follow me; I'll explain everything later. If we get out of this mess first, that is.”

If? Please,” Colgate said with a weak smirk. “'Persevere' is my middle name!”

Melodia shook her head. “That doesn't even make sense.”

She sprinted for the exit, and Colgate immediately followed. With her energy still running low, Colgate felt her pace significantly slower than what she had hoped; her full-on gallop felt more like a trot. It helped for the time being, though, as the two made their way across spills of fallen rock and through the murky waters that flooded the passage.

The sound of waves grew gradually louder as the smell of fresh air became stronger. Melodia and Colgate made their way through the mess of the cave until finally rounding the corner and thrusting themselves through a white curtain of light.

Colgate stumbled out into the open air. The late afternoon light made Colgate's eyes sting whenever the mare attempted to part her eyelids. Beneath her hoofs she could feel a thick layer of snow with smooth sands hidden underneath it. Waves broke softly in the distance as seagulls warbled overhead. The scent of the sea filled the unicorn’s nostrils to the point where she thought she was drinking it.

“Colgate, youre all right!” came the cry as Colgate continued to stumble forward. “Its me, Lyra!”

“W-Whats going on?” Colgate asked, still unable to open her eyes. “Is everypony safe?”

“Yes, and thank goodness! We all made it out of that dreary cavern,” Quirky remarked as she stopped her friend from blindly wandering into the sea. “Here we thought we'd lost you! We sent Gallant to go and get help.”

“What happened?” Windchaser asked. “One minute you're behind us; the next minute, you're gone.”

Colgate slowly opened her eyes as they finally began adjusting to the illumination. “I-I dunno. One moment I was behind you guys, and then next thing I know we were separated-”

What happened to the monster?” Lyra gasped.

Colgate paused. She couldn't hear nor feel any sign of its approach. She hadn't noticed that the ground had ceased its shaking. Regardless, the mare backed away further from the mouth of the cave and shivered at the thought of its coming.

“I guess we must've lost it,” Colgate observed, though wielding disbelief. “Celestia, I thought I was gonna die in there!”

Colgate lifted her head and let out a sigh of deep relief. Her eyes wandered across the split sky, its plane half covered in gold-coated clouds and half clear and blue as could be. As the weary mare stared, however, she could feel something nudging her back on the ground. When her sights fell back down, they caught sight of all the otherseyes directed at her.

Their unpleasant scowls held furrowed eyebrows and ferocious frowns, with Quirky’s gaze the exception. She stared with a rather blank expression.

“Well, that was enough adventure for one day,” Quirky said with a stretch, hoping to ease the tension she suddenly detected.

But the rest only narrowed their eyes further, Lyra especially, as the size of her golden irises swelled. “I believe now is a good time we clarify exactly what is going on. Wouldn't you agree, Colgate?”

The self-proclaimed adventurer leaned away like a colt from gross vegetables. Colgate's limbs were far too strained and worn out to react in any other way. The mare had no excuse, and when surrounded on an empty beach, there was no escape as usual. Escaping from the pointed sights seemed impossible. Her only hope was some kind of distraction – anything – that would let her hobble away.

Without warning a deafening blast blared from the direction of the cave. Colgate froze as her body, prepared to run and hide, ceased to budge even an inch. She watched as a grimy black and brown fog consumed the mouth of the cave she and the others had entered. A terrifying roar blustered a terrible zephyr which echoed across the sea.

All Colgate could manage to do was continue her staring, and none of the others could muster any movement themselves. They stood at the water's edge gaping at the billows of fumes waiting to see if whatever had been chasing them would manifest itself. Colgate felt her heart stop as a lightheaded sensation set in.

A chorus of laughter pulled her from her stupor. Colgate couldn't believe her ears; it was the last thing she had expected to hear at the moment. At first she could only deny her senses. She looked at those closest to her, from Quirky and Lyra to Melodia and Windchaser. All of their mouths hung open wide enough to fit two apples between their teeth, but even so none of them seemed to be breathing.

As the smoke near the rock-face grew thin enough, Colgate could spot movement within it. Kicking and rolling about twisted and gyrated the bleak vapors about. The swift twirling of the smoke intensified when the laughter grew heartiest. Voices soon accompanied the hooting and hollering.

“That was awesome! Did you see them running away?” said one.

“Quite. Very nice show, if I may say so myself,” said another.

Went just as planned,” laughed a third. Had 'em screamin' like cows bein' branded!

Colgate's ears twitched. She knew the last voice all too well. The mare's lips moved to mouth the name, but her vocal chords, too shaken, couldn't even begin to voice a syllable.

Lasso?

Soon enough the figures within the dissipating fog stepped out into the evening light and revealed themselves. The first to step out was Lasso Tussle, her smile twisted in a devilish sneer. She brushed her blond hair to the side and smirked as her coffee-colored eyes met Colgate's baby blues.

“Well, well, well. Looks like you did drag yer friends out here after all,” Lasso laughed heartily. “What'd ya tell 'em? One of yer friends got eaten or somethin'?”

The two behind her guffawed and giggled as the discombobulated bunch before them backed away in shame.

“Just y'all wait 'til ev'ryony hears about yer little 'expedition',” Lasso continued. “Colgate and her Ponyville pals, sneakin' away to try and check out the caves. Just about cried their way all the way through!”

“There's nothing to laugh about! Don't you realize that somepony could've died?” Lyra screamed with a stomp. “Trapping ponies inside of a cave is not funny business!”

Lasso laughed even harder, as did her companions. The two behind the wrangler started to roll in the snow and sand, kicking up flakes and grains into the air.

“You think we'd really make a cave collapse? Especially on ourselves?” Lasso asked. “Gimme a break! This was all a nice li'l illusion put together by the masters.” Lasso motioned to herself and, with a brief swing of her hoof, to the others. “Diamond Chisel and Gadgeteer here made some pretty nice artificial rocks; you know, from plastic 'n' stuff. If y'all would've stopped, you'd have realized how hollow and harmless they were. I'm glad you didn't, though; y'all made this quite a spectacle!”

“But why?” Colgate asked.

“Why what?” Lasso replied with the whip of her tail in Colgate's face. “Why lure you out here? Come on, toots, Ah couldn't pass up a chance to mess with you, especially when you were asking me for somethin’ to do. Plus, you Ponyville folk had it comin' sooner or later, bunch of you-know-what's coming who-knows-where.”

“Is there a problem with Ponyville folk?” Windchaser asked threateningly as he came face-to-face with Lasso in the blink of an eye.

“Let's just say y'all weren't the greatest hosts for a friend of ours,” Lasso answered. “Do y'all remember chasin' out a certain somepony a while back?”

The Ponyville bunch simply looked at one another in confusion.

Lasso continued, “We’re from Hoofington, the same town as her. Does that ring a dinner bell?” She rolled her eyes. “Ah should’ve guessed as much-”

“Who cares about Hoofington?” Lyra smirked. “No pony even knows where that is, or cares to know, for that matter.

Lasso narrowed her eyes and snorted. “Guess they don't teach geography in Ponyville. Should've assumed as much with how clueless y'all seem to be.”

“And I'm guessing they don't teach manners in Hoofington,” Lyra retorted. “I should have known by how boorish you all act.”

Lasso dug at the ground as if preparing to charge. The two behind her mimicked the action.

“I figure y'all don't wanna start a brawl o' any kind,” Lasso warned, “so y'all best high-tail it back to the academy with yer tails between yer legs 'fore it's too late.”

Suddenly, Lasso's hoofs lifted off the ground. A light blue aura surrounded her and carried her a few feet into the air. Flailing her limbs, Lasso stretched her neck and squealed, but it was all to no avail. Her wide eyes glanced in every direction as her head jerked about. Her straw hat fell off and drifted to the ground in the midst of the mare’s struggle.

Everypony looked around to see who was toying with the mare. Initially they all looked to Lyra or Colgate, but their faces showed just as much confusion as the rest of them. There was nothing back at the exit of the cave, nor anything down the shining seaside.

What is the meaning of all this?” came the voice of an older mare.

All eyes directed at the end of the mountain path, from which approached Madame Lonsdaleite, the shadow magic teacher. Walking behind her was a rather sheepish-looking Gallant. The professor's horn was shimmering the same blue color that held the subdued Lasso Tussle in the air. Maintaining the hold, Lonsdaleite leisurely made her way over to the rabble-rousers.

She shook her head in disbelief. “What a number of students out here making trouble. What are so many of you doing down here?”

Colgate knew Lonsdaleite, her own professor, well enough to not be the first to speak. The professor's violet eyes were sharp as a sword and glowed brilliantly like purple sapphires. Her yellow coat was like dull gold, and the three diamonds on her flank seemed particularly fitting to finish off the magisterial appearance. Her  short, poofy mane and graying purple tail added the elderly appearance to her overbearing image no pony dared to answer.

“Are none of you going to explain anything to me?” Lonsdaleite questioned coldly.

“It was my fault,” Colgate admitted.

All eyes fell on her; even Colgate was surprised she had fessed up. The confession had somehow escaped her lips. When she thought about it, Colgate felt after all the thoughts that had stored up, it was about time she gave them a chance to pour out. She stepped forward from the crowd of her friends and gulped.

This all started because of me. I just wanted to check out the island a bit, but I didn't think anypony wanted to join me. I wanted to explore the cave, but no pony would join me, so I lied to my friends to get them to come along. But everything turned out to be some big hoax of an adventure, and-” Colgate turned to glance over her shoulder. “I’m really sorry you had to experience this, you guys.”

Professor Lonsdaleite lowered Lasso back to the ground. The student's legs wobbled as her hoofs touched the cold surface of the beach again. Her balance, thrown off by the floating, failed her as she fell and got a mouthful of snow and sand. The teacher paced about with her mouth twisted into a curious smirk.

“Interesting, Miss Colgate,” Lonsdaleite remarked. “Then what was all the shaking that I felt, and the roaring that I heard as I drew near?”

“That'd be us,” Lasso remarked proudly, to which the others did not look so gratified. In fact, they held looks of horror. Lasso added, “We had quite a show goin' on. We wanted to teach Colgate and her friends here not to go off and wander about. It's against the school rules and all.”

Lonsdaleite nodded, “I see, that seems like quite a way to deal with the situation.” Lasso and her friends nodded in agreement as their imaginary halos formed. The teacher then added, “If I may ask, from which professor did you receive permission to put on this so-called 'display'?”

Lasso and company's nodding ceased as all eyes shot open. They each looked to one another, speechless.

“Oh my, it seems that you all broke the rules yourselves,” Lonsdaleite said. “Since you all know and enforce the rules so well, you must understand that you are to abide by them as well.” As the troublemakers stomped and growled at one another, the professor turned to face Colgate. “Allow me to ask, Miss Colgate: after having rushed out here quite thoughtlessly, have you learned your lesson?”

The blue unicorn nodded vigorously. “No way I couldn't have, professor. After that scare, I don't think I could ever bring myself to lie to my friends again about something so... foalish.”

“Good,” said Lonsdaleite with an abrupt turn to face the path from which she came. “Let us head back to the academy before darkness sets in. Would you care to lead the way?”


A cold breeze swept along the mountain path to push the travelers forward. The exhausted bunch was ready to return to the comfort of their beds, away from dark caves and whatever mysteries lie within. Even Colgate felt more inclined to return to her familiar, uneventful room rather than explore more of the mysteries of the island. In essence, her mind was finally in sync with her body.

Colgate's spirits, however, were not where her mind had imagined before the journey began. As she walked alongside her professor, she could only stare at the ground and project the pictures of her dreams concerning the cavern against the smooth dirt of the pathway. What had happened was far different than what went on in her daydreams. Everything had collapsed and crumbled into failure in her mind.

A beautiful moon started to rise behind the group, but Colgate did not care to look at it. There was no need to use it to guide the group back to the school as they followed the length of the proper mountain trail. She figured that the others probably preferred that she not give any more suggestions, anyway. Her muzzle dragged lower and lower to the ground as the time passed by, until a hoof abruptly poked her in the side. She raised her head and glanced over to see Melodia pacing alongside her.

“How do you feel?” Melodia asked.

Colgate sighed. “About as dumb as a climber without an inch of rope.”

“You should be,” Melodia stated, to which her voice suddenly softened. “Er, that is to say, I know how you feel.”

Colgate looked at her roommate a raised eyebrow. “You said something about show business the other day. What was that all about?”

Melodia looked to the moon and smiled. “I recognized the enthusiasm you had yesterday when you were ready for another one of your 'adventures'. When I was younger I had been offered a chance to play in a well-known orchestra. Of course as a filly every unique chance seems like the best possible thing; but as time went on, this was not so.”

Colgate waited for the rest, but Melodia did not continue for some time. The blue unicorn cautiously inquired, “So then what happened?”

“I was swept away,” Melodia carried on calmly. “The orchestra consumed my life. I played organ day in and day out, never missing a performance, never having time to myself... never seeing my family. What I thought to be my dream soon became a nightmare. Had I thought about how much time it would take of my young life, I never would have done it.”

“So that's why you told me to think about this whole thing,” Colgate uttered.

“It's not directly related,” Melodia admitted, “but nonetheless it all seemed suspicious to me. After all, last time you asked for a lead you ended up in trouble. I was only trying to help.”

Colgate smirked, “It's not easy taking advice about fun stuff from somepony who seems a little to high-strung.” She paused and looked at Melodia. “I mean, uh-”

“Don't worry, I know what you mean. I once was as adventurous as you; but that's back when I was thoughtless.”

“Oh, so now I'm thoughtless, huh?”

The two laughed, and were soon joined by the Ponyville gang as they began trotting alongside the two roommates.

“So, how's it feel to have gone on that adventure you hungered for?” Gallant asked.

“I don't even know what to call whatever this was today,” Colgate moaned. “It was all just one big mess.” She paused. “H-How mad are you guys about all this?”

“I'm slightly agitated,” Lyra answered outright. “But if I may say, I never realized how desperate you were for a bit of venturing about. I feel as though I didn't respond to your request in the best way by outright refusing to join earlier.

“I thought you were making everything up,” Gallant said. “I didn't realize you actually had a destination in mind. I guess I must admit that I thought you were a complete liar.” Upon realizing just what he said, Gallant rubbed his head and tried to laugh the uneasiness off. “But, in all honesty, this turned out to be more interesting of a trip than I anticipated. Even if it did involve... caves.”

“I really am sorry about dragging you guys into this mess,” Colgate apologized. “There’s no way I could’ve predicted things would turn out the way they did today.”

“You never can,” Windchaser said.

Lyra let out a sigh and whimpered, “I just wish we weren't all getting in trouble for this. Now Gallant and I won't be able to leave the island during our first break, either, and you all will be stuck in your rooms for a week and a half!”

Colgate revealed a devilish grin. “What makes you think we're in trouble, Lyra?”

The minty mare rolled her eyes, “Is it really not that obvious? We left the grounds without permission, and then nearly got into a fight. How do you possibly expect to get out of this mess?”

“Funny you should mention that,” Colgate said, “because I did in fact ask for permission. Right professor?”

Lonsdaleite gave the group a knowing wink. Everypony but Colgate's mouth dropped open.

“The only ones in trouble here are the others that scampered on ahead of us,” Colgate said as she motioned to the trio trailing behind. “But I don't think we're too worried about them, are we?”

The Ponyville gang suppressed their giggles as best they could, but even still their Hoofington peers could hear the mockery. Lasso, at the back of the line, shook her head and groaned, much to the delight of the Ponyville gang at the head of the caravan.

“I'm somewhat glad we had this little excursion,” Quirky said, “even if we did think we were going to get trapped inside a dark and mysterious cave for days on end. Wouldn't you all agree?”

The others, unsure of how far they'd actually agree, nodded reluctantly with uneasy smiles. Colgate felt lifted from the dump she had fallen into back at the cave. Her spirits started to rise like the ride as the night progressed, glad that not everything was a failure.

“Oh! I almost forgot,” Quirky exclaimed. “I did see some strange markings inside the cavern as I was waiting for you. They looked like old carvings of ponies in the stone, amongst many others things. We might have been rudely chased out of the cavern this time, but do you think you’ll be heading back sometime soon to check it all out?”

Colgate felt her interest piqued; the swarm of dream-like images began filling her head as usual. She imagined what kind of fame the discovery would lead her to, what kind of fame she could get, even what the symbols might mean. History books, scholarly articles, plaques with her name on them, everything jumped out from the previous calmness of her mind.

The mare’s legs suddenly started to tremble, and her stomach cried out in a mighty growl. Colgate looked at the others, their faces displaying a range of hopeful and curious expressions. Melodias, however, held a smart grin, to which Colgate laughed and shook her head.

“I think one adventure's good enough for now,” Colgate stated. “Maybe some other time. You know, when you all would like to tag along.”

Adventures are meant to be shared, after all.

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 12.5: Crescend

o

Thick notes hummed through metal pipes in accordance with a musician's touch. Melodia, whose stature was miniature compared to the massive organ she played, directed the sounds with a graceful dance of her hoofs. The tune ran up and down the keyboard with tremendous control, blending the sounds of the heavy notes like caramel and chocolate; its delicious din was as exquisite as music could get.

Colgate, though initially taken by the instrument's power, paid little attention to her friend's prolonged play with the black and white keys. The adventurer was too occupied studying the artwork that decorated the newly-discovered performance hall.

Though a very adventurous sort, Colgate had an unfortunate, hereditary forgetfulness. Such places as the hall in which she and Melodia sat had escaped her restless mind as newer places to explore took priority over time. The fact that the students had never needed to enter into the indoor amphitheater did not help either. Its existence was rarely mentioned, if even at all, over the course of the semester’s opening weeks.

But now that it had been found, the chamber filled with beautiful song. Melodia, a musician and admirer of all things rich in sound, hadn't even observed the room beyond the shining silver organ that sat front and center in the giant chamber. Since she first touched a key on the organ Melodia hadn’t stopped; similarly, her roommate hadn’t removed her gaze from the wall since first spotting a cluster of hoof-drawn maps.

After ending her song with a drawn-out finale, Melodia listened to the closing tolls travel through the hall. Content, she stepped back and gazed at the entirety of the colossal organ and drew in a long inhalation. A graceful smile crossed her lips.

“Isn't it beautiful, Colgate?” she sighed as her eyes locked on the pipes reaching skyward.

Her roommate, who had still been staring at a the assortments of maps, stole a glimpse of her friend and the organ.

“Yep, it's huge,” Colgate said unemotionally. “Pretty impressive.”

Melodia flipped her hair to the side and murmured, “I was referring to the sound, but the size is indeed tremendous.” She glanced at Colgate, who still hardly seemed to be listening. “What does the music make you think or feel? Awe-inspiring? Motivating?”

Colgate’s eyes rolled up. “Good.”

Melodia's shoulders slumped. “Just... good?”

“Yeah, it was nice.”

“You weren't even listening, were you?” Melodia pouted with a stomp. No, you must have heard it all! It's too loud to simply ignore.”

Colgate returned her gaze to the array of charts hung before her. “You'd be surprised at my selective hearing.”

“I'm not sure you know exactly what 'selective hearing' is, Colgate,” Melodia uttered. “I suppose I should've guessed that you were somewhat deaf, though. After all, your last 'adventure' was really a result of your-”

“That's nice,” Colgate said absent-mindedly. She waved a hoof to shoo her away.

“What are you looking at?” Melodia asked crossly as she trotted over to her roommate.

Hung all across the walls were portraits of all sorts, varying in content, shape and size. Directly in front of Colgate was a map with a black outline of the island, its underlying parchment a faded tan texture. Features across it were roughly sketched like ink applied to a rough surface; the end result had been blurred images that neither pony could make out very well. Landscapes were crudely marked with quick repetitive lines and covered a good half of the geographic guide.

Other things had more clear indicators, such as the two buildings for the academy and a large black hole for the western cave. One depiction, however, just as clear as the others, was not quite as familiar as the rest. Its detail included a cluster of buildings, each one drawn out with strange precision. The curious picture was located northeast of the school, its area roughly the size of the academy's.

The doors to the performance hall suddenly burst open. Short breaths followed the echoed creaks of the heavy doors.

I dunno what I just heard, but it wasn’t all that bad,” declared the newcomer. “It just needs some base, that’s all.”

The two roommates glanced over their shoulders to see the familiar white and cyan figure of Vinyl Scratch. She stood staring directly at the silver organ and its metallic brilliance gleaming in the torchlight surrounding the hall.

Whoa, sweet organ!” Vinyl remarked as she lifted her violet glasses, revealing her red irises. “Didn't even know we had one here.”

“Oh, did you hear the music earlier?” Melodia asked, feigning bashfulness.

“Sure as hay did, that was pretty intense,” Vinyl said with small nods of acknowledgement. “I was thinking about what kind of mix I could throw that into more than anything. Sounded kinda big, or maybe... evil?”

Yes, that was some of Johann Stallion Bach’s darker work,” Melodia said. “You seem to me quite the musically-inclined!”

Vinyl looked at her own cutie mark and shrugged. “Gee, what gave that away?”

“It's something every good artist can sense,” Melodia remarked with a swift brush of her long mane. “Might you be an organ player too, perchance?”

Vinyl laughed. “Psh, no way. I don't think I could work that. I prefer scratching 'n' stuff; stick to my guns and all.” She glanced over at Melodia, who simply gave a puzzled gaze. “You know, remix? DJ? Electronic, trance, dubstep..?”

Melodia continued to stare.

“Don't tell me,” Vinyl murmured as she let out an irritated sigh. “Either you’re as hard of hearing as a geezer, or you’re from Canterlot. Or both.”

Well, yes- er, I mean, you guessed correctly that I’m from Canterlot,” Melodia confirmed.

Ugh, look, I don’t have any personal beef with you, but all I've been getting recently from your kind are complaints,” Vinyl said.

My kind? Complaints?”

Yeah, complaints. I've been havin’ my own jam sessions too, ya know. Lemme ask this: did anypony barge in here and tell you stop playing today? Anything like that?”

Melodia raised a hoof to her chest in shock. “Of course not.”

Vinyl growled and clicked her teeth. “Figures. Everypony at this academy's got bad taste, I tell ya. Of course they'll stop me when I'm rockin' out, but not the blasting organ this late in the evening.”

“Perhaps you should practice in here; then no pony would bother you,” Melodia said.

“You're tellin' that to somepony with way too much sound equipment,” Vinyl smirked. “There's no way I'm heaving everything here and back every time I want to mess around on the turntable. That's why I pay others to do it for me.”

“Well, perhaps you should consider carrying a lighter load,” Melodia suggested, her obvious lack of understanding displayed through a condescending tone.

Vinyl massaged her forehead and tried to laugh away the tension. “Look, I don't think you understand: I don't play a dinky little violin or flute. I don't have the luxury of just putting my stuff in a single case and wandering out of the dorms to wherever I please.”

“I don't either; this organ's set in stone.”

Vinyl cocked her head to one side. “Is every Canterlot pony's understanding as bad as their taste in music?”

Melodia gasped. “We have a perfectly fine taste in music, thank you very much!”

“Oh really? What's so great about Canterlot music?”

Melodia, challenged, felt taken aback. “There's no easy way to describe it. Its complexity is too great to merely summarize. If you really wish to know, you'd come to Canterlot and see such a venue for yourself.”

“That's too much time and money I really don't have to spare,” Vinyl said with a smirk. “I'll stick to Ponyville and other places nearby, thanks.”

“I assure you it would be worth the effort.”

“Whatever you say,” Vinyl said, rolling her hidden eyes. “Colgate, I'm headin' to dinner. You comin’ along?”

Colgate's ears did not even twitch, she was so absorbed. Vinyl simply shook her head in reply and sighed.

“Whatever. See you two around, I guess.”

… If I don't die from overexposure to complete dullness first.

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

EPISODE 4: GRAND EXPECTATIONS

Chapter 13: DJs Don't Take Notes

Vinyl Scratch stared at the blank paper slanted across her otherwise empty desk. Her quill hovered above the blank surface prepared for action. The DJ’s brain, however, had no signals to send. Information poured in through her ears as the teacher, Dr. Ingrid Marie, had started yet another lecture on elemental magic. But to Vinyl, it was all starting to sound the same, from the lecture content to the snooty Canterlot accent that delivered it.

The only records Vinyl made were mental notes warning herself to never visit Canterlot as long as she lived. If ignored, a new kind of disaster would be discovered.

From time to time Vinyl’s ears twitched at a few interesting things mentioned in passing. Using earth spells to shake the ground and water spells to drown out sounds had caught the attention of the musician. Unfortunately for her, though, these things were rarely explored beyond their simple mentioning. Vinyl had tried to hint at an interest on a number of occasions, but each instance was blown away by Doctor Marie like a hair that hung out of place.

After that instance, Vinyl felt obliged to return the sense of an iron will. A mutual disliking ensued.

Deep down all Vinyl cared about was getting to the unit on wind. The concept of controlling air currents and other atmospheric modifications simply piqued the mare’s interest; after all, she figured acoustics might come into play. However, four weeks into studies, the class had just finished studying the element of earth and was moving on to water. Even less excited to study this, Vinyl felt her mind grow restless.

To deal with the growing restiveness the musical mare slipped away into the vast secrecy of her imagination. Usually the arena of genius emerged through music, but due to certain limitations - such as turntables being banned from classrooms - Vinyl had to settle with another form of expression. Thus, for the hour or so she was creatively stranded in lectures, the DJ turned to fashioning ink illustrations.

Vinyl escaped from the jawing and monotony of her professor’s voice with a few strokes of a quill at a time. Though she wasn’t all that talented at first - a stick pony usually sufficed - in time she could sketch various things in greater detail. Practice always began after the first few minutes of each class passed, and this day was no exception. After learning what the next boring lecture was about, Vinyl snuck into her habit of doodling, drawing notes instead of jotting them down.

Heh. Notes.

As minutes passed the feathery writing utensil swayed with greater detail and determination. Vinyl's creative spirit, commandeering her magic, twirled traces of ink all over her paper. The tiny scratches, though barely audible, sent chills up Vinyl’s spine. She drew circles, zigzags, lines short and long; each made a distinct rhythm that reverberated in the DJ’s sharp ears.

Vinyl began bobbing her head as a grin slid across her face. She felt carried away like a swimmer in the riptide, but rather than panic Vinyl reveled in the feeling. She wanted to be sucked away into the sea of creativity, to be drowned in her creative powers.

“Miss Vinyl Scratch,” Doctor Marie interrupted, “would you care to repeat the last few points that we’ve discussed, seeing as you’re bobbing your head in excitement?”

The mare’s bubble popped, she felt the beat drop, and Vinyl stared up at the doctor in a daze. Expecting eyes met her wandering gaze no matter where she looked in the classroom. With a shrug she placed her quill on her desk and cleared her throat.

“I honestly would, doc... if it was worth repeating,” Vinyl replied smugly, to which Dr. Marie's beige face turned bright red.

“Well! I- Don't let me catch you fooling around again, Miss Scratch,” the teacher threatened, frazzled for a moment. “Pay attention, for your own sake.” Her nose returned to the dusty book atop her podium as she carried on with her enlightening. “Now, we were discussing the movement of tides. Can any of you tell me...”

But before she could yak any more Vinyl's ears were once again set on the steady beat of her quill. She tapped it on her desktop, four taps at a time, as a catchy tune started to catch on in her brain. As the beat carried her away, the DJ looked down at her masterful drawing. Her sights sunk into the world she rendered. She could almost hear her weapons of mass conduction blasting music with more sound and power than a jet engine.

Vinyl stopped. The ink on her quill had run out.

Nabbed from her own little world once more, Vinyl glanced around from the prison that was her desk and glanced at her fellow peers. Their noses hovered inches from their writing as quills shook as though in fear. Their eyes fixated on every last letter they recorded as if their lives depended on them. Vinyl laughed to herself and shook her head slowly as she prepared to return to her own work.

“That will be all for today,” Dr. Marie cut in. The sound of just the words alone, despite the horribly bland cadence, was as sweet as a remix to Vinyl’s ears. “Practice what we have discussed and be sure to check out a book on oceanography for your research essays due next week. For now, you all are dismissed.”

“Wouldn't have it any other way,” Vinyl muttered.

The DJ folded her sheet of ‘notes’ and gladly trotted out from the crowded classroom. Halfway to the main hall staircase she stopped and exhaled her boredom through an extended, relieving stretch. As she finished her moans and straightening out, Vinyl spotted two familiar figures approaching.

“Seems as though somepony needs a break,” said Gallant with a smirk.

Vinyl lowered her head and mumbled, “You know it, Big G.”

The mare reluctantly placed the concealed picture she had inside one of her saddlebags. Although she wanted to observe the entirety of what she had made, Vinyl knew that the current conversation wasn't going to end soon.

“You don't care much for the ocean, do you?” Gallant asked. “Or perhaps for the element of water, for that matter?”

Vinyl cocked her head from side to side. Meh, I dunno. Waterfalls are pretty cool. Every element has its purpose, I guess. I personally don’t think it’s the greatest for inspiration.”

Windchaser raised an eyebrow. Inspiration?

She gave a sideways glance to Windchaser, who looked away shyly in reply. “You know, the main reason I came here? Don’t tell me I need to spell it.”

“Of course I can spell,” Windchaser hissed, then returned to his quiet self.

Though the stallions paused, Vinyl went on her way without missing a single beat. She headed down the central staircase, rolling her neck to relieve the tension as she stepped down the stairs to a beat. Her two Ponyville classmates stumbled on down and returned to their usual positions on each side of the celebrity.

“I've noticed that your attention span in class has been decreasing,” Gallant said as they made their way across the main floor. “Is there a reason behind this? One that perhaps we could help you with?”

It’s about as obvious as a two-piece puzzle,” Vinyl said. “This place is BORING with a capital 'b'. Twi talked this school up like it was the place to be this winter. From what I’ve seen - which quite frankly is depressing - this all sure as hay isn't what I had in mind.”

“You should have known Twilight was speaking in regards to academic activity when ‘talking up’ this place,” Gallant laughed. “Socially, well... from what I've heard, Twilight didn't even stay long at her own welcoming party.”

For the new colt on the block, you sure act like you know everything,” Vinyl remarked. “If you haven’t noticed, Big G, Twi’s kind of a big deal in Ponyville.”

“O-Of course, you’re right,” Gallant said, backing off. “But why are we talking about Twilight? We were talking about you. Is there something you’d like to say?”

“Sure, how about... ‘I get enough of this lecture garbage in the classroom’? Doc Monotone’s already got me tying a noose. Don’t make me actually consider using it.”

What do you want instead?” Windchaser inquired, to which Vinyl stopped paused.

The three stood frozen in the middle of the chilly foyer as fellow unicorns passed by all around them. Their pastel colors were mesmerizing compared to the black and white Vinyl had been staring at for the past hour. Even the dark blues and violets of the entrance hall seemed to flicker like flash photography.

“Look, I just wanna do something interesting for a change. Something fun,” Vinyl finally answered. “I'm sick of studying, I'm bored of these books... basically, anything this place is about.

“This institution isn't all about academics,” Gallant insisted. “Do you have anything specific in mind that you'd like to do?”

Vinyl shook her head. “Psh, I dunno, they probably don't do concerts here. I'm up for anything that gets the blood goin', ya know? I feel like I'm just sleeping away my winter here.”

Gallant puffed out his chest. “Well, Vinyl, in my personal experience I look to sports to get the blood pumping.”

Vinyl threw a curious glance. First off, what sports? Secondly, aren’t stallions on steroids banned from intramural play?”

Why you-” the stallion growled, but quickly contained himself. “I’m talking about things such as magic dueling. It's an elective offered this winter, and I happen to taking it. It’s really not that bad once you get used to spell recollection and focus-”

“Pass.”

“Um, well... Windchaser! You have some ideas too, don't you?” Gallant asked as he nudged his friend.

The light gray stallion shook his head.

“You must have something to do for fun-!” Gallant growled behind clenched teeth, but then took a deep breath and laughed. “Well, Vinyl, I'm sure there's something here that could entertain you. Maybe you just haven't found it-”

Vinyl stomped and snarled, Forget it, Big G, this place is just flat-out LAME!”

The exclamation echoed through the hall, drawing looks from anypony within earshot in the entrance hall. The three paused and look around, noticing the clusters of peers that stared from every floor to the center of the main floor.

The DJ could feel all eyes bearing down on her, but she didn’t care. She flicked her tail and continued her walk with a hint of stubbornness in every assertive step. Her two shadows ceased their following, and the eventual beat of hundreds of hoofs on carpet was all that Vinyl could hear.


Sitting in the corner of the suite lounge were a glorious pair of turntables. The sheer glory they emitted in their light blue luminescence gave Vinyl a sense of pride and zeal. They had served the DJ perfectly well across the years, from one intense concert to the next. They were obnoxious things to lug around at times, but all the trouble was worth it in the end.

Stood out like roses in a dark part of the woods as a mess of things spread across the lounge. Vinyl had taken over the commons from day one, leaving anything from jotted-down notes to food taken from the dining hall wherever she deemed acceptable. To the DJ, it was all a means of expression. Though most would disagree with her, no pony ever really said a word. Sometimes being a well-known celebrity paid off in terms of respect.

In other cases it just brought up trouble.

Vinyl made her way over to her treasured instruments and stared long and hard at their lack of use. When testing them before classes began, the DJ discovered the lounge made a wonderful studio. The sharp sound of mixing rebounded throughout and the bass couldn’t escape the stone walls. An excitement ignited like electricity as the mare’s eyes shone like neon lights. For hours she messed with the speakers and mixer, until a knock sounded during a pause.

To her surprise she realized that there were more knocks than just those on the door; from the walls and floor they sounded until filling the room with obnoxious pounding. Complaints spewed out from angry neighbors demanding that whatever bombs, broken machinery, and angry monkeys in her room be contained. Vinyl refused to stop unless some authority came to her door.

Minutes later, guards ordered she shut down her things. Though Vinyl begged to at least have the chance to move everything, all she received were cold looks of disapproval.

Weeks had passed since this incident, but Vinyl hadn’t gotten over the dispute, not in the least bit. Others’ instruments played freely throughout the day; from cellos to violins to an organ. No pony complained about those sappy tunes. Vinyl pulled out the drawing she had made that day and looked over the scene of the massive stage.

Vinyl closed her eyes to recall the scene of a few weeks in the past. Not a long ago she was giving one of her biggest performances yet. She could feel the power of the opener and the vibrations of the bass. Her speakers blasted with intoxicating booms as the crowd cheered energetically in reply. She remembered them chanting for more.

DJ! Pon-3! DJ! Pon-3!

Vinyl opened her eyes again as reality dragged her into its hold. She was still stuck at the school. No bustling crowds, no lively shows, no stimulating music.

Exasperated, the DJ kicked the wall behind her as she gave a loud grunt. Her breath grew hot enough that it steamed even within the coolness of the lounge. The door behind and nearest her opened and a head slowly peeked out. A white head topped with a long, pink and curly mane stuck out, and a turquoise pair of eyes stared curiously.

Vinyl stared back with narrowed eyes hidden behind purple shades as neither spoke for nearly a minute.

“Um, Vinyl Scratch,” began the white mare quietly, “are you okay?”

The DJ exhaled through clenched teeth. “What does it look like, Twink?”

Vinyl's roommate drifted out into the lounge, staring at the mare and her turntable. Her cutie mark of three blue stars stood out from her small white figure like paint splatters on a canvass. As she lowered her head she softly requested, “Is there something I can help you with?”

“Yeah,” Vinyl said as she knocked her head against the wall behind her. “Riddle me this: why is everypony at this academy so stuck up!?”

Twinkle, her roommate, shyly backed away into her room, but did not completely leave the confines of the lounge. She looked at her friend with a careful eye as answers rolled around in her slow-swaying head.

“What do you mean?” Twinkle finally asked.

Vinyl moaned, “Do I really have to spell it out for you, Twink?” She leaned forward against her magnificent machines and observed every square inch of their polished surfaces. “To be frank, life sucks. I came here to have a good time. I wanted to chill out, find some inspiration, and maybe come out with a sweet new album or somethin’. You know, with a chilly theme, puttin’ in a wintry mood and all that jazz. You follow?”

Twinkle’s expressionless face didn’t change a bit.

“I'll take that as not a all’. Let’s try and make this understandable for ya,” Vinyl muttered. Twink, what's your passion?”

The petite mare gave a little smile. “Astronomy.”

Vinyl eyed her roommate’s three-star cutie mark and rolled her eyes. “Sheesh, isn't anypony around here in the least bit interesti-” She caught herself just in time. Well, let's talk astronomy then. Okay, let's say... you're looking for some new stars, right? Astronomers do that stuff.” She clapped her hoofs together sharply. “You still with me, Twink?”

Twinkle nodded.

Now... are there different types of stars? I feel like there are-” Twinkle nodded again. “All right, name your favorite kind, then.

Red dwarf.”

“A what now-?” Vinyl began, but stopped again. She let out a deep breath. “Whatever. Let's say that you're look for little red dwarfs in the sky. And let's say that you aim your little telescope at this specific galaxy waaay off in another system. Not a single red dwarf was found. What do?”

“I suppose I would try and find a blue giant star, if I could-”

“No no no no no, you're losin’ it, Twink,” Vinyl uttered as she waved a hoof in front of her roommate's face. “You’ve had your heart set on finding one red dwarf in this entire galaxy. You can’t find it. Period. What do you do?”

“Point the telescope somewhere else?”

BINGO, I think our brainwaves are starting to sync,” Vinyl said in relief. “Now, think of that whole red dwarf thing as my situation, but instead of red dwarfs, I'm lookin' for a different kind of guiding light. If I can't find any somewhere, then I take my telescope and point it elsewhere.”

Are you aware that red dwarfs could pop up in time?” Twinkle mentioned.

Are you aware that I really don’t care? Oh wait, you’re talkin’ about the analogy and all,” Vinyl smirked. “Well, I dunno if that applies. Does inspiration come out of nowhere after searching for weeks at a time?

Twink paused and looked around the chaotic room, it’s character reflective of the current conversation. Are we discussing inspiration now, or are we still on red dwarfs?”

Vinyl tilted her head back as her eyes grew wide. Honestly... Twink, I’m looking for inspiration here. Red dwarfs mean about as much to me as Sunday specials at the bowling alley. Look, what matters here is that I just want to see some sweet stuff and make even sweeter music out of it. How's that?”

“Music?” Twinkle chimed. “So you’d be interested in a musical performance taking place at the academy soon?”

“I mean, there’s no concerts on campus to my knowledge, so I can’t really say yes, but-” Vinyl paused. “Hold the phone; is there something you know that I don't?”

Twinkle swiftly turned her head away, signaling a hint of hesitance. “Um, well, there is something coming up, but it's somewhat exclusive-”

“Exclusive? Sounds like quite the club,” Vinyl smirked. “What could possibly be so exclusive that even a popular artist like myself couldn't get into? Huh?”

Twinkle cleared her throat and bit her lip. “Well, you see, there's a concert tonight at the performance hall. It's a special occasion only for students from the North, though-”

For ponies from Canterlot? Oh, I get it. A little snob get-together,” Vinyl said. “I think I remember somepony mentioning that the other day. You all gonna gather to listen to screeching violas and dead organs?” Twinkle smiled uneasily. “You’re killin’ me, Twink. This is what I’m talkin’ about with the musical tastes here being completely outta whack-”

“No!” Twinkle stated strongly, leaving Vinyl startled for a second. “It will certainly not be like that. It is to be a very captivating performance, and for your information there will be ponies from Bloomburg as well.”

Vinyl lifted her glasses and narrowed her gaze. “Well then, Twink, do inform me of how Bloomburg’s music culture varies from Canterlot’s. As far as I’m concerned the two are twin cities - double trouble, to say the least. But by all means, convince me otherwise; I'm all ears.”

Twinkle's own gaze intensified, revealing an assertive nature the DJ did not expect from such a hushed individual.

Though the troupe has not been announced,” Twinkle admitted, “I know that this won’t be a waste of time. To my understand a group from Bloomburg is coming, and no artist that I know personally from my hometown has ever let anypony down. I may love the stars more than anything else, but music is a component of life I can’t live without, from the moment I first heard the beauty of it all. Music simply moves me in a way that not many other things do.”

Vinyl looked at her roommate with surprise.

Oh..?

The roommate continued, “There’s always an energy that flows like the incandescence of solar flares. Even the softest parts are like the dazzling stars; it may seem harmless from where you’re standing, but up close there’s a force to be reckoned with. My spirit has been lifted like the sun in its ascension as glorious sounds pour down on my soul-”

Holy hyper-drive, Captain Twink, now you're startin’ to sail!” Vinyl shouted. “That right there is how I wish more ponies acted when talkin' music. Everypony else at this place is about as bent out of shape as a broken chariot, but YOU... you’re one heck of an exception! What do they even play in Bloomburg?”

Twinkle shrugged. “I didn't even realize my tone had become so-”

“Don't apologize,” Vinyl cut in as she walked over to her friend. “Just tell me: is there a way that a pony like myself could get in on this crazy 'secret showing'?”

Twinkle returned to her shy state as her head and eyes lowered to the ground.

“Well, you see, everypony was told that they were allowed to take a friend of theirs,” Twinkle said. “And I would love to offer you the seat, bu-”

“All right then, it's settled,” Vinyl said as she hooked Twinkle's head an arm and pulled her closer. “You're not half-bad for a Bloomburger. When's it at?”

“Tonight at nine, and it's actually Bloomb-”

“All right, Im down!” Vinyl interrupted. Her mind was fixed on the thought of finally getting some music flowing through her system. “What time are you planning on leaving, then? You know, so we can squeeze in the mosh pit and all?”

“Mosh pit?”

“You know, the front.” Vinyl spanned a mental model of a typical concert set-up with her hoofs, but Twinkle did not follow. “What, dont you get as close to the music as possible? The way you described things, it sounds like the music’s got some serious gravity to it. That’s how physics works, right? Gravity draws stuff together..?

Yes, that’s correct, but I prefer the middle seating. Something about the front is just unnerving-

Vinyl cut in after examining her roommate’s thin build, “Equestria to Twink: it's super crowded at the front. A pony as tiny as you may or may not be trampled - trust me, I’ve seen it. The back's for all the late-comers, though, so I guess stickin’ to the middle’s pretty smart on your part. Anyway, we'll chat about the details when the time comes. For now, I'm gettin' hyped for one heck of a jam session!”

She winked at Twinkle, who gave a nervous smile and nodded. “Quite. It'll be... awesome?”

“Twink, you’re finally startin’ to speak my language.”

And Vinyl didn't need to hear anything else. Getting the passion out was one thing, but to discover Twinkle was the ticket to private shows was another. The DJ shuffled into her room, thoughts of upcoming tunes already forming in her head. Though she grew tired of songs simply replaying in her mind, Vinyl guessed she could tolerate the nuisance a little bit longer as long as she felt something big was coming up.

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 14: Stranding Ovation

Vinyl glanced at the grandfather clock in the lounge of her suite as seconds clicked away like the measures on a metronome. Darkness blanketed the sky outside, leaving candles to try and replace the job of the sun, but their effort went mostly in vain. The DJ, for one, overlooked the lack of lighting as she wore her dark goggles despite the dimness.

The faint lighting was hardly on her sprightly mind. Instead flashes of color flared against closed eyelids as the projector in her brain never turned off. Vinyl could picture the scenes of past shows, from the craze to the colors to the crowds. Weeks of forced fasting from concerts – or just good music in general – had brought Vinyl to her knees like a starved wanderer in the desert.

But now the DJ could sense hope rising over the horizon like the moon. The expectancy floated like a scent in the air that, when inhaled in copious amounts, could almost be tasted. The intensity only grew as Tinkle walked out from her bedroom.

An elegant dress saddle adorned Twinkle's spotless, snow-white coat. Her suitemate stared dumbfounded at the frilly attire, and then down at the collection of glow sticks tied around her own neck.

Vinyl reluctantly began, “Uh, Twink?”

Her suite mate returned the confused stare and replied just as slowly. “Y-Yes?”

“What's with all the ritz?”

“Well, it's what I always wear to concerts. I suppose everypony in Bloomburg tends to overdress.”

“Oh, I gotcha, Twink! You're donnin' some Bloomburg swag. I like!”

“Bloomburg... what?” Twinkle peeped as she blushed.

“It's cool, it's cool,” Vinyl said. “I won't judge or anything. It's really throwin' me off, though, to be honest. I mean, who'd have thought the shy mare would be all dressed to the nines? Anyway, you ready to roll?”

Twinkle glanced at the towering clock in the room as Vinyl had over the past fifteen minutes, only the shy mare's glance lacked an element of desperation. The hands signaled eight o’clock, which brought a confused frown to Twinkle's face.

“Don't you think it's a bit... early?” asked Twinkle.

“Psh, early my flank,” Vinyl smirked as she headed for the door. “If this show is anything like the ones you were describing, ponies'll be poppin' up like fans in line for an autograph signing. Let's go!”

In an eager trot Vinyl exited the suite, and Twinkle followed unable to voice any further protests. The two made their way from the dormitory over to the main hall, taking the glass corridor to avoid the wintry slush and snow outside.

Frost stuck on the glass between the stone spine of the hall as the two passed through to the foyer. The sight of the winter, though, passed by with hardly a thought given of it as Vinyl could only imagine a roaring concert.

Once in the spacious entrance hall a long line of ponies formed starting from a guarded door in the corner. Vinyl looked back at Twinkle with a smirk and pointed at the extensive queue reaching halfway across the main floor.

“See? Told ya there'd be ponies pourin' in already,” Vinyl said.

As the two trotted over to the line Vinyl realized it consisted completely of well-dressed individuals. Many were even much older than the two, the majority being new faces at the academy. The DJ's eyes shifted from her suite mate to the others with slight unease.

“Look, I'm still trying not to judge or anything here,” Vinyl whispered to her suite mate, “but everypony else waitin' around seems dressed a little to posh for my tastes. Is there something I should know about?”

Twinkle shook her head slowly. “I don't think so. In Bloomburg, this is what everypony wears to any musical venue.”

Vinyl continued to observe in silence as she wondered what sea of a crowd she was diving into. She had never in fact been to Bloomburg before, nor had she heard of concerts in the area. From what the DJ knew, the city was akin to Canterlot, a place she was not all too fond of for various reasons.

If Bloomburg's anything like Canterlot... and the ponies are all dressed up-lookin'... does that mean Twink's takin' me to-?

“What's up, V? Twinkle?” came a familiar mare's voice.

In the midst of the unfamiliar faces emerged two recognizable ones. Colgate and Pokey Pierce sauntered over to the the restless suitemates, interrupting Vinyl's train of thoughts.

“Not much going on right now, Brushie,” the DJ replied. “Just waitin' in line for a sweet show. Do you three know each other?”

“We're all in the shadow magic track,” Tea Time explained.

Vinyl clicked her teeth. “I'll bet it's more fun than the elemental garbage I'm stuck with. I'll never figure out why I ended up there. Heck, I don't even know why I'm still at the academy.”

“Sounds like somepony's having her mid-semester crisis,” Colgate smiled smugly.

Pokey held up a hoof. “Wait, wait, that can't be. We're only three weeks in, right?”

They all paused. Vinyl glanced at the other two mares; each held a look of understanding.

Anyway,” Vinyl laughed, “Tonight's concert's hopefully gonna turn this frown upside-down. All I'm gonna say.”

Colgate's eyes rolled over the lineup of ponies in which her two friends stood. A collection of well-dressed personages made the lineup look rather smooth. There was a hiccup, however, as Vinyl, wearing her violet glasses and a glow stick necklace, stood out like a beach ball in the snow.

“Looks like it'll be fun,” Colgate remarked sarcastically. “Knock yourselves out.”

“I dunno, Colgate, that doesn't sound like a good idea,” Pokey remarked. “Knowing the concerts V goes to, getting knocked out could be dangerous. They'd trample her!”

“No worries Pokey, I'll party reasonably,” said Vinyl. “But if I dare ask, what are you two up to?”

“I helped get Pokey Pierce to the infirmary,” Colgate replied, to which Pokey turned around to reveal a bandaged bottom. “He sat on some round glass vase thing in the classroom.”

“Sat on a what?” Vinyl laughed as she looked at Pokey's wrapped rear. “How'd that happen?”

“It was crystal clear! I couldn't see it,” Pokey moaned in defense. “Who sets see-through stuff on those little pillows we sit on in class, anyway? It probably that sinister Tri-”

Vinyl suddenly spotted from the corner of her eye movement in the line and jerked her head away from the talk. She watched the dresses and suits moved along with their clone-like models, their steps in mirrored motion. Another pulse passed through the queue.

“It's go time!” Vinyl said with a nod and salute.

“Oh, well have fun at the talent show,” Pokey said with a dopey smile, after which he suddenly yelped.

Concert,” Colgate corrected after nudging the stallion in the side. “See you guys around!”

The two turned and left, leaving Vinyl and Twinkle to sink back into line. Every minute or two the duo advanced a few steps, until finally they were next. A broad-shouldered stallion Vinyl had spotted earlier stood holding a lengthy piece of parchment and quill. He seemed strangely well-dressed for a bouncer, but his hefty build and deep voice fit the role perfectly.

“Name?” he asked sharply.

“Twinkle,” came the immediate reply.

His checklist floated up to the bouncer's heavy eyes and rolled down the list of names as it had with every guest before. Near the end of the list the scrolling stopped.

The guard nodded his head and lifted his quill as he started to scribble, “Miss Twinkle. Very good. And this is your guest, Miss Viol-?”

“Vinyl,” Twinkle cut in with a squeak. “Miss Vinyl Scratch.”

The DJ stepped forward with a stomp. “Maybe you know me better by... DJ Pon-3?”

With great pride she threw her shimmering cyan mane to the side, flickering the shades of blue in her hair like flowing flames. Her excessive spirit was met only with a stare.

The stallion raised an eyebrow, then returned his attention to the checklist. “She's your guest, I suppose.”

Vinyl growled, “What!? Why you little-”

“Thank you, sir, that's all!” Twinkle cut in as she jumped between the two. “We'll just be on our way.”

Though Vinyl tried to continue the eye-to-eye contact, Twinkle's urge shoved the two into the performance hall before anything more could happen. In time what met the DJ's eyes were rows of cushions lined up all around her. The seating strung across the gentle slope of the floor, with an ornate balcony hanging overhead.

Ditch the pillows and this could make one sick mosh pit.

Encircling the stage was a navy blue curtain glittered with golden constellations. It stretched from the stage all the way up to the ceiling, its silky surface smooth as still waters. The barrier, though impressive, couldn't keep Vinyl's imagination from seeing through the vivid fabric.

The DJ could picture speakers hiding on the left and right parts of the stage, with equipment scattered across the platform. Wires and cords would twist and curve all over the bandstand as lights would hang up above.

Caught staring at the chandeliers above, Vinyl suddenly bumped into Twinkle halfway to the empty front row.

“How's this?” Twinkle asked.

Vinyl glanced around the spacious room. Hardly any of the seats had been filled yet. Though Twinkle had warned Vinyl of her fear of the front, the DJ could hardly contain her excitement.

“A-All right,” Vinyl finally concurred. “We'll do this your way this time. We'll see if you don't move up in time, though.”

As the two shuffled toward the middle of the row Twinkle started beaming in anticipation. Vinyl could feel a similar feeling rising, but she wasn't as ready to show her pearly whites. She was too occupied considering what kind of music she'd be dancing to.

When she scanned the crowd that started surrounding her, Vinyl felt her insides churning. The excitement was blending with confusion, and the result felt like an upset stomach.

“What kind of music did you say this was, exactly?” Vinyl whispered to Twinkle as she scanned over the rather elderly crowd again.

Twinkle tapped her snout in contemplation. “It's, um, what would you would call... awe-inspiring?”

“You mean awesome?”

“That, yes,” Twinkle said. “Regarding what genre, I feel as though you'll-” The lights flickered on and off; Vinyl knew the action was coming, as did Twinkle. “You'll see soon enough!”

Vinyl's heart started beating faster than it ever had in the past few weeks. The only instance it had gotten even remotely close to beating as hard as it was then was when hay fries were suddenly being served in the midst of all the “classy” lunch food.

Everything was set. The curtains would open to reveal the biggest speakers even seen by pony eyes, and a single note would blast away the awkwardness. The seats would migrate toward the back and sides as ponies crowded the stage. Lights would flash all over the walls, reflecting off the chandelier as though it were a crystal ball.

Vinyl felt a tap on her shoulder.

“Excuse me, miss?”

The DJ glanced over her shoulder and spotted an old gray mare, wrinkled to the bone, pointing at her neck with a shaky hoof.

“May I please ask you to put out those... lights of yours?”

Vinyl looked down at her glow stick necklace tied around her neck. “You mean these?”

“Yes. It's hard on my old eyes.”

“S-Sure thing, old-timer,” Vinyl answered. She lifted the colorful accessory from around her neck and stuffed it under the cushion on which she sat. “You're aware that if this bother you, this show might give you a seizu-?”

“Shh!” another pony behind hushed, to which Vinyl quieted down immediately.

The curtains began opening from one side to the other, and Vinyl quickly turned around. Seats hooked around the back of stage in rows with music stands set before each one. A spotlight flashed on and highlighted a raised box and podium near the front of the arrangement. To the back was the silver organ stretching up to the ceiling and beyond.

No speakers, no big lights, no cords.

Vinyl felt her heart stop and face freeze as a look of horror locked in. The expression grew worse as musicians began filing in with their instruments. They wielded cellos and violins, oboes and trumpets, and one pony sat before the silver organ. Hoofs tapped against the marble floor in welcoming as one by one the performers sat themselves in their respective spots. Vinyl's frozen gaze then turned into a wide-eyed look of shock.

She brought me to watch an orchestra!?

Everything suddenly became horribly obvious. Vinyl realized all of the signs she had disbelieved in order to remain excited. Worst of all was the fact that Vinyl felt stuck knee-deep in a tough crowd. She'd prefer being stranded in Froggy Bottom Bog than suffer sitting through what she now imagined would meet her ears.

She peered over at Twinkle, who retained her excited gaze. Her flashy dress and formal talk both should have been obvious indicators. Being from Bloomburg had been the concept in question; it quickly became the issue at hand.

What the hay possessed me..?

Defeated, Vinyl let out a drawn-out sigh. She had never willingly been to an orchestrated performance. As a filly she had been forced to go to some; however, in time she made it quite clear that she was as out of place in such musical shows as a palm tree in the tundra. With enough crying and screaming – both before, during, and after the show – Vinyl escaped all future performances.

The present case, however, was a different matter. She plunged head-first into what turned out to be a puddle. Aside from getting her face shamefully soaked, there was not much else to note; that is, until an awfully familiar figure graced the stage front and center with her bold and graceful presence.

The beating hoofs of applause grew louder as the light gray mare prepared her instrument of choice: a sturdy and spotless cello. A disgusted snarl from Vinyl went unheard beneath the pats of praise.

Octavia.

Silence swept the chamber as the conductor made his way front and center. He was a short and stout stallion colored with white and black. Baton raised, he spread his forehoofs outward like an eagle spreading its wings, and the audience fell silent. He turned to face his musicians and tapped his music stand in preparation. As he drew in a large breath to start the show, Vinyl could only hold her own.

The conductor waved the baton downward, then swung it gracefully to and fro. Light plucks on the strings began a soft and steady beat. Vinyl felt as through she were listening to an elementary school band concert.

So... slow...

With all her might she held her complaints behind tightly clenched teeth. In her fight Vinyl peered over at Twinkle, whose eyes gleamed and mouth hung open in utter reverence. She was already lost to the sappy song after it was only seconds in.

Vinyl examined the lines of instrumentalists though the range of vision pained her protected eyes. She gagged at the sight stand the bow-ties and other attire the musicians wore to appear 'sophisticated' and 'smart'. The dramatic motions accompanying every single note was as painful as watching a soap opera.

And the worst of them all was Octavia.

Vinyl had had her fair share of run-ins with the mare, and neither was too fond of the other. They were symbols of their respective musical genres, and so were constantly compared and contrasted. To Vinyl's knowledge, comparing Octavia's sappy string music to her own hoof-tapping tunes was like comparing work to play. For some reason or another, though, there were always a bunch that called her music 'barbaric' or 'unsettling'.

All of a sudden Vinyl spotted Octavia's dainty purple eyes pass right over her. The DJ could spy a smirk cross her smug little snout.

I swear, if that snob gets a solo, I don't think I'll-

Octavia started swaying back and forth, drawing the bow slowly against the strings. The humming resounded through the hall like waves as heavy notes drowned the crowd in a nauseating noise. Sniffles started to emerge in response as the crowd pulled out their hankerchiefs.

The only crying for Vinyl was that going on inside. Listening to such plain, boring notes made her want to break her own ear drums.

The consideration of self-inflicting pain only increased as the featureless piece dragged on and on. Vinyl constantly checked to see if her ears were working as she thought she was hearing repetitions of the same wishy-washy verses and chorus. But finally, after a prolonged close, the song arrived at its end.

“D-Did you like it?” Twinkle whispered with a gleeful grin.

With clenched teeth, Vinyl grumbled, “I'm game for something a little more... catchy.”

The music started again, and right off the bat Octavia was at it with another lengthy solo. When Vinyl's eyes painfully crossed the stage again she suddenly spotted the cellist staring back at her.

A devilish smirk crossed Octavia's face as she slowly dragged her bow against the strings. The grin only grew as she closed her eyes and lifted her head in dramatic fashion. Vinyl felt her face grow unbearably hot. She tried to control herself with a stretch of her neck, but when the tension wouldn't leave the frustration squeezed out an explosion from her lungs.

“FOR CELESTIA'S SAKE!” she screamed. “YOU CALL THIS MUSIC!?”

The entire orchestra stopped. All eyes fell upon Vinyl as she sat covering her ears. The burning sensation that covered her skin turned into an ice cold chill. In panic she looked to Twinkle, whose joyous, dancing eyes had stumbled and fallen in fright.

“If you'll excuse me, miss,” came a familiar deep voice from the aisle. Vinyl glanced past Twinkle to see the bouncer standing at the end of the row. “I must ask you to leave.”

Vinyl, still chilled, glanced at everypony around her, from Twinkle to the crowd to the orchestra. She spotted a faked look of shock on Octavia's face on stage.

“Tch, not much to listen to anyway,” Vinyl muttered. “Buncha lifeless geezers and snooty rich ponies... I'm outta here.”

And without further delay the DJ rose and marched out with her eyes closed and nose held high.

Whatever. Didn't wanna stay anyway.


Vinyl slammed the door to the suite shut. A frustrated growl erupted from the mare's lungs like bass from a speaker being tested. A pair of beige eyes on the opposite side of the room arose from a book in reply.

“Vinyl Scratch,” the mare acknowledged nonchalantly in a nasally, high-pitched voice.

The DJ stared at her young suitemate, Tea Time, with a threatening spark in her bare eyes. She was a light brown mare with long brown hair, and her figure was the most petite Vinyl had ever seen. A teacup and and plate made up her cutie mark, mirroring the things set on the table beside her.

“I don't need your attitude right now, Double T,” Vinyl snarled as she threw her goggles against the far wall.

“Sounds like somepony else gave you a proper dose already,” Tea Time retorted. “Enjoy yourself at the concert?”

“Sucked,” Vinyl snapped. “Last time I trust Twink's tastes.”

“Tongue twisting as usual, I see,” Tea Time said. “You left early then?”

“What does it look like? Only took one song to get me outta there. No pony stood or even tapped a hoof-” She paused as the sight of the neglected turntable in the corner of the lounge caught her eye. “Now that I think about it, there wasn't even any real beat to it. I'll show them what a beat is.”

Vinyl approached her mixing machine and began powering everything on.

“Just what do you think you're doing?” Tea Time inquired with squinted eyes.

“What does it look like? I'm in need of some real beats, Double T. If you can't stand it, leave!”

She flipped the switches of the turntable on and placed a record on one of the stands. With a few minor adjustments to some dials and nods she looked over her control board with determination. She kicked a speaker and it sputtered to life. Without hesitation she counted herself in.

The speakers blasted to life as vibrations reverberated the DJ's revived vitality. Booms of the bass bounced through lounge and shook every square inch of stone. Vinyl's gut loosened as the music massaged her stomach, squeezing the queasiness from her memories out. The light of the candles grew greater and dwindled, its swishing in sync with the shaking speakers.

Vinyl closed her eyes and let her imagination run. The feel was familiar despite the missing visuals, and so her mind filled in the blanks. The pictures of her adoring crowd flashed in her head. The shining lights changed with every boom of the bass. The disappearing darkness was but a powerful pause, a moment to prepare for the next bang.

Not long after starting Vinyl felt her heart racing, its speed quick enough to scare her into stopping. She heaved as though she had finished carrying the heaviest load from one side of town to the other. Having unloaded, the mare stepped away from her cargo and leaned against the back wall in exhaustion and relief.

The door burst open, but Vinyl's head felt too tired to react quickly.

“What was that?” barked the newcomer, the voice like that of a peer. “Tea Time, are you all right? And... YOU!”

Despite the tiredness Vinyl's head jerked up enough to see who was addressing her. Standing in the doorway was the mare that had been playing the organ earlier on in the week. Her tidy appearance and dress matched those of Tea Time's, though the newcomer's light purple coat and white hair contrasted with the browns of Vinyl's suitemate.

“Oh my Celestia... you're like clones,” Vinyl groaned.

“We are not clones, we're sisters. My name is Melodia.”

“Mare of the Organ, sure, sure,” Vinyl said. “Vinyl Scratch, but you can call me Vinyl, V, or just DJ.”

“'V' for 'vexatious'!?” Melodia snapped.

“... I'm not even sure what that means, but sure.”

“It means frustrating, nitwit. Do you realize what you've done!?”

“Enough of the yelling, drama queen. My ears only accept the good kind of loud noise.”

“I sure hope they accept the truth more than anything else,” Melodia retorted. “I don't care about that blasting music, personally, but what you did at the concert was unacceptable.”

Vinyl paused in shock. “Y-You were there? I mean, heh, should've guessed. All the rich ponies were there-”

I was outside, thank you very much,” Melodia said. “I had an invitation but readily declined. I don't think I could stand to go another concert featuring... her.”

Vinyl saw a familiar spark in Melodia's eyes that she had felt many times before.

“Octavia.”

Melodia's eyes narrowed like a hunter's. “It seems we have something in common, Vinyl.” The shared stares of understanding were suddenly broken by a pair of furrowed eyebrows from Melodia. “Regardless, my overall impression of you is not positive, not after today.”

“Leaving early is quite inexcusable, Vinyl,” Tea Time said as though understanding.

But Melodia shook her head and snorted. “She did more than leave early, Tea Time. She interrupted a song and even had the nerve to storm out!”

Tea Time stared with horror. The combined terror and disappointment from the sisters left Vinyl backing against the wall.

“What?” Vinyl asked with a shrug. “I'm over it, and by this point all those ponies are asleep anyway. No one cares anymore. It's all in the past.”

“What about Twinkle?” Tea Time asked, standing as if ready to spring into action.

“Not involved, and I was especially nice to her through most of it, thanks for asking,” Vinyl riposted. “And whaddaya mean by 'forcing my way'?”

Melodia looked over to her sister whose face was hidden by lack of candlelight. Suddenly, she backed to the door through which she entered and uttered, “I-I think I'll take my leave...”

She backed out of the room and into the corridor, then quietly shut the door behind her. Vinyl looked over at Tea Time, who then was staring with piercing red eyes.

“Twinkle didn't tell you everything, did she?” Tea Time asked as she put her drink aside. “Let me fill you in, DJ: Twinkle was planning on going with a dear friend of hers. Your barging in on the situation left her no choice but to submit to your will before inviting her actual intended guest.”

“Y-You're makin' that up,” Vinyl said, unable to back away any more. The horror of the floating red dots that were Tea Time's eyes repelled her. “We can exchange snooty remarks all day long, but when you start bringin' in the lies-”

“Don't let your guilty conscience muddle the matter!” Tea Time barked. “I can usually tolerate your so-called 'Debbie Downer' demeanor, but imagining what that poor Twinkle is feeling after her guest left a private concert after one song...” She blew steam through her nostrils. “DESPICABLE!”

“Y-You stay out this, Double T! Since when did you care about Twink anyway?”

“She lives with us, you dubstep-loving pleb!” Tea Time said as she turned and headed for her room with indignation. “You're too busy with your head in the clouds, dreaming more than you are paying attention to where you are and who's around you. I may be nosy at times, but at least I know what's what around here.”

With this out the light brown mare slammed her door shut, leaving Vinyl alone in the main room, fuming. The DJ paced about the lounge with heavy stomps as her rage couldn't go anywhere else.

All of a sudden, music started playing within the DJ's head. To her disgust the tune did not have the electronic sounds which had taunted her across the past few weeks; rather, the music was like that which she had witnessed not long ago. The strings, the sappiness... everything. Vinyl violently shook her head to clear her ears of the muck as one would try and drain water from within the inner ear.

But no matter how hard she tried, the strings continued to rumble in her head, from bass to violin, with the bellowing of the brass. It sounded so ugly, like the music used for melodramatic play sequences. The ooziness made her squeamish.

The image of Twinkle flashed past her brain's inner perception. Vinyl ceased her bucking about as the realization finally struck her.

She had been a total ass.

With the greatest reluctance Vinyl tried to convince herself things were fine. She had made it out of the terrible concert and that was that. She usually could lie to herself about such petty matters; she had blown off plenty of things before. But not this time.

She approached her turntables once again, but couldn't lift a hoof to flip any switches. The dead devices remained off as Vinyl's brain was anything but inactive. She through closed eyes and the active imagination she began reliving the scene. Though the pain it brought was nearly insufferable something inside forced her to keep on watching. The longer that she thought about it all, the more Vinyl felt herself submitting to the guilt that swarmed her like mosquitoes on vulnerable flesh. Her tail swatted at the pesky twitching of her skin, but the sensation simply would not leave.

Unbearably aggravated by the regret, Vinyl pulled herself over to Tea Time's door.

“Yo, Double T,” she called with a knock on the door. “You still awake?”

“Go to bed!”

Vinyl rolled her eyes, unsure of what she was even doing. “I gotta ask you something.”

Hoofs plopped onto the floor and approached the door from the other side. The wooden barrier opened a crack, revealing the beige eyes of Vinyl's baggy-eyed suitemate.

“Look, not that I really care, but what do you think I should do?” Vinyl asked as her gaze fixed on everything around the door frame but Tea Time's eyes.

“Besides go jump off a cliff?” Tea Time inquired, to which Vinyl threw an unsatisfied stare. “Ugh, do I really need to say this?” Vinyl stood and stared. “Are you familiar with the term 'apologize'? Hopefully you are; it's the only thing you really can do, unless you want to try and avoid her for the remaining ten weeks you have together.”

“So, what, you want me to wait until she gets back? That could take hours given how long just their first song dragged on-”

“It's not what I want, but it's what you should do. If you can't wait a couple of hours, then I guess you really aren't that sorry then, are you?”

And with that she closed the door on Vinyl's face. The DJ, head spinning, leaned forward against the doorway and let her head thump against it.

Tea Time barked from inside her room, “Get your greasy mane off my door. Good night.”

The DJ sluggishly did as ordered. She meandered to the couch nearby and sprawled across the comfortable cushions. Facing to the left provided a wide open view of the door. With a deep breath Vinyl sat unprepared for Twinkle's return, and so the waiting game began.

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 15: Più Mosso

Faint chirrups caught the ears of Vinyl, who had laid undisturbed on the lounge couch for hours. After a long stretch the DJ sat up against the soft cushions and listened to the medley of birds' songs outside her window. Their choruses signaled a brand new day, though the sun had not yet risen above the ocean horizon.

Vinyl glanced about the room with tired eyes, until a single thought shot them open.

Twink!

An eternity had passed before the DJ submitted to the weariness of her eyes. She waited for the sound of the doorknob to turn, but the noise never clicked, not to her knowledge. But anxiety could only take the forefront for so long, and in time tiredness had taken its place. As a result Vinyl fell into a snooze that never went interrupted.

Vinyl held her breath and looked to Twinkle's room. Its doorway sat wide open as it had all night, not an inch more open or closed. The mare, still in a mental mess from the night, rose and plodded over into the chamber to confirm her assumptions.

Twinkle was nowhere to be seen. In the midst of a tidy bedroom decorated with drawings of constellations and solar systems not a trace of the mare could be found. Her clothes and accessories were neatly stored, and her books were shelved alphabetically. Not a thing seemed out of place but a couple of discomforting souvenirs in the corner.

Leaning against the far wall was a large cello, much like the one she-who-must-not-be-named wielded. It glowed a mahogany hue as it leaned against its shimmering black case. Music sheets sat atop a nearby stand. The paper on top had strange writing across the middle in a style all-too-familiar to Vinyl.

She sorted the papers - an assortment of music scores filled to the brim with notes - and reread the writing on the first page. Across the middle read:

“Shoot for the moon; if you miss, you may still land amongst the stars.

                                                ~Octavia”

“Cheesy,” Vinyl snarled with a click of her teeth. “Classic.”

When she let her magic hold on the papers go, they flipped in the air like leaves in autumn. They landed all over the bedspread, covering the dark sheets with white patches. Suddenly, something caught Vinyl’s attention as a sheet landed upside-down atop the others. The mare spied the paper and reluctantly picked it up. On the back were clustered sets of bullet points, written in unfamiliar hoofwriting:

- Lots of scratching? Sounds like repeated “ch” noise; very catchy

- Low bass... rounded tuba sound? Hits the gut (in a good way!)

- Strong, string-sounding interludes

(Ask Vinyl Scratch about record-playing machine?)

The list went on to the end of the paper, but Vinyl could not read anymore. Her jaw dropped to the floor where the sheet she held had fallen to as well.

She took notes about my tunes!?

A colossal bell rang off in the distance, bringing Vinyl out of her trance. The deep chimes echoed from the main hall in rapid succession. While the rich rings continued through the air, knocks suddenly hammered on the door to the DJ’s suites.

“Meet down in the plaza! Everypony to the plaza for a campus-wide exercise!”

The tone was vaguely familiar, but Vinyl couldn't put a face to the older voice. She lifted an ear to the door to the hall to have another listen; however, the sound of the stranger’s hoofsteps was accompanied by countless others that walked out or let their murmurs spill into the corridor. Vinyl removed her ear at the sound of one of the doors in the suite clicking open.

“What's going on?” Tea Time grumbled, sticking her head out angrily.

Morning exercise?” Vinyl replied. “I dunno. I'm checkin' it out.”

“Don't enjoy yourself too much,” Tea Time muttered.

Vinyl stepped back to pull her roommate along with her, but a click indicated Tea Time was one step ahead of the DJ. The white mare picked up her violet goggles from off the floor nearby and headed for the hall.

Killjoy... but then again, I guess I'm no better.

[br]

The giant bell continued its ringing from the tower of the main hall. Every student congregated in the circular park of the grounds, which overnight had filled with another foot of snow. The alert and unaware were separated by their winter accessories and saddles; while the ready wore their boots, scarves, or other select clothing, the less fortunate shivered in their spots with bare coats and messy manes.

The wind taunted the latter with chilling blows, and the clouds refused any warmth from the morning sun. The smell of fresh snow and icy air blew through the area without cease. Ponies gathered with their familiars as groups huddled for warmth outside. Vinyl spotted the Ponyville crowd in a small huddle of its own. The majority of them seemed ready for the cold, though they all were still shivering nonetheless.

“H-H-Hey Vinyl,” Twilight greeted with chattering teeth. “H-H-How's it going?”

Vinyl dug herself into the huddle head-first and uttered, “Fine, I guess.”

“H-How was the c-c-concert?” Colgate asked with a smirk as she ignored her own laughable shivering. “Fun like you thought it’d be?”

Vinyl stared at the ground, her eyes cold and lifeless as the chilling atmosphere in which they stood. “I don't wanna talk about it.”

The bell ceased its ringing. Everypony started to quiet down as a bulky brown stallion, wearing only a blue and white baseball cap, exited the main hall doors to the right. His dark brown, narrow eyes silenced those he passed by, leaving all to stare at his uncovered coat and horseshoe cutie mark. Following behind him were a few more older ponies, their faces a mix of familiar teachers and other less-known leaders. Only the sturdy stallion did not don a hefty amount of clothing to protect him from the cold.

“Is that an instructor?” Starlight asked as he lifted his head from the Ponyville huddle.

“He teaches the magic dueling course,” Gallant replied. “Very respectable unicorn.”

Upon reaching the front of the crowd of students, the older unicorn stopped and stared at the crowd as the other teachers filed in behind him. He took in a deep breath and exhaled with a sort of snarl on his face.

“Good morning, students!” he announced gruffly. “You may be wondering if your shivering and shaking is worth the torment in the end. The answer is ‘maybe’.” He scanned over the crowd of students that now stared in cluelessness. “My name is Coach Pony Dungy, but you all can just call me 'Coach'. You've been summoned today by order of Headmare Luna to participate in some mandatory fun and games. Since the Headmare herself is on official business in Canterlot for the morning she left me, the academy’s physical activities instructor, in charge of runnin' this show.”

Lyra mumbled to the others, “Doesn't getting us up before sunrise defeat the purpose of this being fun?”

“Sounds nothin' but lame to me,” Vinyl uttered in agreement.

Coach continued his announcement, “The game that is to be played shall be, by order of the headmare, a scavenger hunt of sorts. All students will participate. If any of you try runnin’ off... well, good luck trying to outrun me.

The students started to murmur amongst themselves, some in excitement and others in dismay.

“Last I checked we were at an academy for advanced magic studies, not magic kindergarten,” Lyra muttered, adding to the dismay.

“Beats studying,” Colgate said, instead contributing to the excitement. “I don't mind going on a little hunt.”

Lyra rolled her eyes, “You would.”

“To add to the fun,” Coach stated, the winners shall receive a special prize to be announced at the end of the game. If I told you now, you might lose incentive for trying this activity at all, and I can’t have that.Much of the unhappy muttering turned quickly into curious whispers. “Participants are to gather in groups of two or three according to your suite. When you’re ready, wait in silence for further instruction.

With a new energy, the body of students quickly organized itself into groups of three mares or two stallions. Vinyl, however, stood alone with her head on a swivel. She couldn't spot either Tea Time or Twinkle in the midst of the hustle and bustle. Once a majority had ceased their shuffling about, Coach raised a piece of parchment he had been carrying underneath his cap and read it over a number of times. When the crowd fell completely silent, the broad-shouldered stallion began.

“Your instructions are relatively simple,” he said while reading over the parchment one last time. “You’re gonna bring me the item or items that are described in the following riddle created by a few of your instructors. The first group, and only the first group, shall awarded the grand prize. Students ready?”

Most of the students nodded however rigidly from the cold. Vinyl rolled her eyes as she stood alone in the midst of ready trios. The coach then read aloud:

“Fill this artifact with water, from any source or sink,

Once filled to the very brim, you'd best not from it drink.

The number which to bring back is not really all that high:

How many full moons since you've arrived have crossed the evening sky?”

Coach, not wasting a minute, raised his hoof and waved it down. “Begin!”

A sudden stampede trampled Vinyl like a mosh pit high on music overdose. Groups of three charged past her in every direction, to the dormitory and main hall as well as the beachfront and northern trails. Vinyl, however, was stuck to the snowy ground as though it were glue.

Now left behind in a cloudy haze, Vinyl found herself worse off than before trying to find either of her roommates. She tried to peer through the frosty fog, but with hardly any sunlight piercing the clouds she could barely see past her own snout. She waited until the white dust settled, prepared to try and sneak away somehow. But as the environment slowly became unveiled Vinyl realized the line of instructors staring straight at her.

“Tryin to sneak out, huh?” asked Coach. “Or did you lose track of your roommates already?”

Vinyl shook her head. “Couldn't find em in the first place.”

Coach looked left and right, then pointed. Is she one?”

On the opposite side of the snow-covered lawn stood Twinkle. Her turquoise eyes were stuck to the ground though she knew the others were gazing in her direction. Vinyl felt herself drawn to the lonely figure across the way. Her heavy steps dragged through the snow, but her heart wouldn’t let her stop.

As Vinyl drew closer Twinkle’s eyes lifted ever so slowly. When their eyes locked Vinyl felt her blood freeze colder than the air that had been chilling her coat. The two watched one another, eyes locked, as their quick breaths puffed into clouds of steam.

Vinyl inhaled a cold breath of air to cool down the painful heat in her chest. She knew just what she had to do, but the thought of it made her tremble, more so than the chill made her shiver. With a nervous gulp she walked over to Twinkle, who watched with growing eyes.

“H-Hey, Twink,” Vinyl began reluctantly, “you never came back last night.”

Her roommate gave a cold stare in return. Vinyl stopped and took a step back and tried to laugh off the unease. The awkwardness shook her bones more than the cold.

“Look, Twink, uh...” Vinyl scratched her head and sighed. “I know what I did yesterday was stupid. Really stupid. I mean, I don't expect you to forgive me or anything anytime soon. I know how much you like those string concerts and stuff-”

“Do you know, Vinyl? Do you really?” Twinkle snapped. “It sure didn't seem that way when you tagged along just wanting some kind of a... a... rave!”

Vinyl started backing away as Twinkle's eyebrows furrowed dangerously.

“I know, I know, it was dumb. I went in with my own expectations. Big mistake,” Vinyl said. “I can look back and say that I totally regret everything. E-ve-ry-thing.

Everything, you say?” Twinkle asked angrily.

I-I’m apologizing as best I can, Twink,” Vinyl stammered. “What more do you want from me-?

I WANT MY CONCERT BACK!”

Vinyl's eyes felt permanently widened as though a propeller were blowing gusts at her face. Her eyes managed to slip a sight of Coach and the other instructors, all of which had been watching the entire time. Even their faces were full of surprise with dropped jaws and widened eyes. None of them moved an inch nor shifted their tightly-shut lips, their expressions frozen from the shock.

Twinkle wiped her eyes and snout and continued with her sobbing voice, “I could barely stand everypony staring at me throughout the evening. Some kept pointing at me, others were whispering about how ashamed I should be. I even saw the orchestra staring at me! They all knew I had brought you along.” She choked for a second but managed to clear her throat. “I couldn't stand the stares for much longer, so I...”

Vinyl felt herself suddenly choking too. “Don't tell me you left-?”

“Halfway through,” Twinkle cut in. “I got up and walked out. Everypony watched me, even Octav-”

Her crying finally drowned her voice in sorrow as her words even failed to form. Twinkle gave up the fight to get them out, giving in to the gasps for air that accompanied the streams of tears that froze halfway down her face. Vinyl, watching helplessly, could feel the weight of the situation falling upon her. The heavy gazes of Coach and the other instructors bearing down on her again did not help at all.

“But you didn't come back last night,” Vinyl said. “I stayed up waiting in the lounge the whole night so I could apologize.”

Twinkle regained her ability to speak and uttered, “I felt so nauseous from the frazzle that I went to the infirmary. I ended up sleeping there for the night to avoid any more... awkward encounters.”

The final blow landed. Vinyl felt her spirits beaten to a pulp as she held back her own tears behind hidden eyes.

“I-I'm sorry Twink!” the DJ said nearly bawling. “I was only thinking about myself last night. I wanted something fun to do, and you made that performance sound like the cat's meow! It drew me in, Twink. You might be into astronomy and all, but you have a secret passion for music, and I couldn't ignore it.”

Twinkle looked up into her roommate's eyes. “D-Do you mean that?”

“Look, I didn't mean to pry, but I saw the sweet sheet music in your room. You know, the piece-” Vinyl choked for a second. “-Octavia signed?”

“T-The one that I composed?”

Vinyl's eyes widened. “You wrote that score!?”

Twinkle sniffed softly. “Y-Yes, I did. You... didn't happen to look on the back of those pages, did you?”

“Boy, did I! Were you secretly taking notes about my jams?”

Twinkle gave a tiny smile. “I did find some appeal to the strange sounds you were making back when you first arrived. It was rather – what was the word? – 'awesome'?”

Vinyl laughed and winked. “Thanks, Twink. I'm startin' to think your taste aren't really that bad.”

Twinkle giggled as well.

Glad to see you two resolved your, uh, issue,” Coach said from afar. “For your information, the game's still ago. Feel free to jump in, though I’m not sure how far you’ll get.”

Vinyl looked to Twinkle, whose eyes were suddenly dancing. “You really wanna do this, Twink?”

“Well, I do enjoy a good game,” Twinkle replied. “But, if you’re not feeling up to par, then I suppose we don’t have to-”

“Not another word. Doesn’t matter if I want to do this or not.”

“Are you sure?”

Vinyl laughed. “Normally I’m a little on the competitive side, but I'll try not to get my hopes too high or anything. How’s that sound?”

Her friend nodded. After a second, though, teams began pouring in from all around. They carried with them a variety of items. As they approached the teachers the two roommates turned away and walked to the edge of the park nearest the main hall. When Vinyl glanced over at her frail friend she noticed Twinkle's smile had turned into a contemplative frown.

“What's up?” the DJ asked.

Twinkle inquired softly, “What was the riddle again?”

“Something about a bowl you wouldn't drink from, and bringing the full moons we've seen so far.”

Twinkle rolled her eyes and giggled. “Not much to go on, I suppose. Although, the mentioning of glass bowls seems oddly familiar.”

The two stood and looked at the sheet of snow blanketing the lawn. Suddenly, the two looked at one another. The two exclaimed in unison, “The glass vase from yesterday!”

“The one Pokey Pierce sat on!” Vinyl added.

“Yes, given what Colgate said about it being quite big, it was probably not a vase, but rather a... a...”

“Fish bowl!” Vinyl said.

“Yes, that's it!” Twinkle said excitedly. “And if Pokey sat on one in our shadow magic classroom, then I know just where to go!”

Vinyl galloped toward the main hall with Twinkle at her side. “All right, first half solved! Now what about the second half?”

Twinkle dug her hoofs into the ground, coming to a complete stop in a split second. Vinyl slid on the icy surface but caught herself. She trotted back to where Twinkle sat staring directly at the clouded sky above.

“What did you say the second clue was?”

“Something about bringing the full moons we've seen-”

“Maybe that's the clue about how many bowls we need to bring back,” Twinkle remarked. “Since our arrival, only one full moon has passed, and that was a little over a week ago.”

“Perfect! One fish bowl, coming right up. Lead the way, Twink!”

The dainty mare led the duo as she charged into the foyer with a speed that surprised Vinyl. They passed a number of groups wandering about, some running around as they were and others sitting on their bottoms, clueless. A few exited the hall with items on their backs or in their mouths; but the two knew that if they were right, then the others were dead wrong. They still had a chance.

“Up here!” Twinkle said as she rushed up the staircase.

Vinyl felt her head spinning faster than a record until they finally stopped on the third floor. Without a second to lose Twinkle headed for her classroom with a dizzied companion trailing behind. The second Vinyl stumbled ahead to the doorway she was greeted by a head-on collision.

Ow!” Vinyl groaned, stumbling backwards. “Watch it!”

Watch yerself, partner!” came the voice of another pony.

“Sorry Vinyl, get better soon!” came the voice of Colgate. “Hurry up Lasso, let’s go!”

Colgate... you’re as good as dead...

The two, along with another, made a full-on sprint toward the staircase. Vinyl got up with her head still spinning, the sensation worse than a headache after one of her intense jam sessions.

“Vinyl?” Twinkle's voice called.

The mare’s eyes slowly refocused as she leaned against the wall. Her roommate stood with a glass container balanced on her back.

“Are you all right?” Twinkle asked.

“Don't sweat it, I had it coming,” Vinyl muttered as she stood on all fours again. “Let's hurry up, Colgate and her minions are ahead of us.”

Before Vinyl could make a mad dash, Twinkle shouted, “Wait! Don't push yourself!”

“Please, I've been through worse,” the DJ said with a smug smile.

“No- that is to say, it won't be necessary,” she said. “The others that were in there, they grabbed too many!

“Say what?”

“They grabbed three,” Twinkle stated.

Vinyl felt a dumb smile coming, which turned into a goofy laugh. “Well, let's get goin' then.”

The two leisurely descended the staircase as they caught one last glimpse of Colgate and her crew charging out the foyer. Ponies around them stopped and watched as the three cried victoriously all the way. Much of the crowd started searching more rampantly as others started to give up. Twinkle and Vinyl, however, continued on their merry way down and through the main hall doorway, not caring what the others thought or said.

Other groups had gathered in the park circle, some wielding rather strange items and in odd numbers. Seven beach balls surrounded a rather disappointed group, while twenty-one ceramic bowls were stacked beside another. A small line stretched back from Coach and the teachers, who had rejected each trio and duo that had approached them so far.

By the time Vinyl and Twinkle were within hearing distance, Colgate and her company had made it to the front of the short line. The blue mare wore a proud look on her face as she presented the glass bowls. Coach surveyed the three vessels carefully.

With a lift of his head and a smirk she said, “Not quite.”

Colgate fell over as limp as a dead fish. Her group immediately began growling at the other one as the insults began to fly. Satisfied with the sight, Vinyl and Twinkle approached the teachers themselves.

“One, uh, fish bowl, Coach,” Vinyl said as her roommate placed the crystal clear bowl on the ground.

He smiled immediately and nodded, “THE GAME IS OFFICIALLY OVER! ALL STUDENTS REPORT TO THE COMMONS LAWN!”

Though slightly deafened, Vinyl had never felt happier after such a random feat. As ponies poured in from around the grounds – most empty-hoofed – the two roommates stood front and center. Twinkle was nearly bouncing with joy. Vinyl could feel a similar thrill inside, but in the cold she kept her cool, and instead let the triumph beam through an ear-to-ear grin.

“Say, where's the third?” Coach suddenly asked.

Vinyl felt her ears twitch. “Tea Time? Oh yeah, almost forgot about-” She paused as Coach and Tea Time stared her down. “She, uh, she slept in.”

Coach looked down on the two with a frightening gaze and threatening frown. Vinyl felt herself melt into snow mush.

“I suppose that isn't your fault,” Coach said with a hint of discontent. The troubled look quickly changed to a smart grin. “And I don't see anything in here about a student's absence. If anything, you've shown two heads are sometimes better than three. Now, to address the matter of your prize.” The roommates started shaking in their boots, though Vinyl was not actually wearing any. “The Headmare informed me of an incident at last night's concert, and so wishes for another to take place. Your prize, as a result, is to choose the artist that shall perform, as well as the audience that may come.

Vinyl's heart started pumping faster than a the crazy beats to her music. Her brain scrolled through the playlist of possibilities. Images of how crazy a real concert would be like at the school flashed through her mind like the lights glistening in sync with the booms. But when she looked over at Twinkle, the desires all started to blend into a blur. She knew first and foremost what she had to do.

“Seeing as to how I should expand my musical horizons, I'll let Twink here decide,” Vinyl said, to which Twinkle gasped.

“Really?”

“Yeah, why not? I ruined the last show for ya. You sure as heck deserve whatever kind of music you wanna listen to next, and with whoever you want, too.”

Coach looked at the two with a grin. His eyes, as well as all of the teachers, eventually rested upon Twinkles tiny white figure and fluffy pink hair.

“I have a special request,” Twinkle said after a minute of contemplation.

“The Headmare said any artist and audience you desire,” Coach stated. “Have at it.”

Twinkle inhaled and puffed out her tiny chest. “I know it may pain you to say it, Vinyl, but I would like a performance given by an artist I personally know.

Oh no.

“Um, y-yeah,” Vinyl complied. “Go ahead. I know where you’re going with this. Like I said, I’m ready to try something new.”

Twinkle nodded. “Very well. Instructor Dungy, I would request that all be allowed to come to the next concert here at the academy. Regarding my choice of artist, I would like to see-” She closed her eyes and lifted her head. “-an artist named DJ Pon-3.”

Vinyl's purple glasses fell off her face. Twinkle laughed at the sight of the two tiny red dots that stared at her in disbelief.

“I'll put in the request,” Coach said as he turned to the crowd of students behind the roommates. “The decision has been made: the artist known as DJ Pon-3 shall be performing at the academy’s next concert! All students are cordially invited.

Cheers went up from the park in a number that surprised the two. Vinyl looked over at Twinkle once more, who bashfully smiled once more in reply. The two then turned and watched as a surprising number of ponies were stomping merrily.

“Not all ‘rich ponies’ are so bad, Vinyl,” Twinkle stated. “Don’t let the loud few represent the whole.”

I’ll take it to heart, Twink!” Vinyl said gladly with a smirk. “You- I- I don’t even know what to say! Wait, what was with that apology before?”

“Well, with this you won’t be able to expand your horizons, as you requested,” Twinkle giggled.

“From what I saw in your bedroom, you may still be able to help.”

“I’ll give you some things to listen to. Maybe a bit of classical music?” Twinkle winked. “I think your spicy taste buds use some mild taste testing before your next ‘rocking’ show begins.”

Vinyl let out a hearty laugh. “Now you're speaking my language!”

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 15.5:

Downtime

Vinyl examined her masterful sketch from earlier on in the week. Sitting dead center in the once-white paper was a large semicircular grandstand with an audience of ponies crammed around it. Standing speakers overshadowed the set like skyscrapers on each side of the stage. Musical notes blasted from the towers, blowing away the encompassing crowd like wind molding waves across the face of the ocean.

Above the scene hung rows of lights that pointed in each and every direction. The musician Vinyl drew – essentially a black-and-white copy of herself – was as white as the untouched portion of paper could get. The performer, centered on stage and within the image itself, was like a blazing bonfire emitting a light around which ponies gathered and danced. Exposure to the luminescence was marked by shades of gray that turned black near the edges of the paper.

The enlightened artist of the image was surrounded by a mixing table, accompanied by countless electronic devices, sound system equipment and synthesizers alike. They formed a horseshoe around the blissful performer, laying wires beneath her hoofs to form a carpet of cords.

With a deep breath Vinyl looked up from her drawing. From where she stood near the entrance of the performance hall the real life stage was almost a complete replica of her sketch, only that which stood before her was much more colorful with its settled dark blues and violets. When she had requested that everything fit her layout as closely as possible, she hadn't imagined that the academy maintenance crew could stir up almost an exact copy. From the towering speakers to the strings of lights, almost everything was there before Vinyl’s very eyes.

Beaming with pride and anticipation, the DJ glanced over at her roommate, Twinkle, who also stared with widened eyes and an astounded smile.

“You ready for this, Twink?” she asked.

The stage crew began testing the lights as they buried the hall in black and then began flashing the entire spectrum of the rainbow across the chamber. First they went off one by one, and then they blinked in perfect clusters of color.

“If I make it through these blinding tests, I should hope that I’ll be prepared,” Twinkle replied with a quick succession of blinks.

“Look on the bright side: even if you're blind you can still appreciate my show,” Vinyl said with a smirk. “Hopefully things'll turn out like I want. I'm only a bit nervous 'cause of havin' to tie in an organ and all. Tell me again, why did you include that other mare in all this?

You mean Melodia? Well, even though I want to hear your specific music, Vinyl, I thought it would be nice to have a mare like her be able to 'strut her stuff' while she’s here.”

Vinyl laughed. “Mare of the Organ? Please, she gets heard by anypony who’s not deaf and lives in the dorms. She plays almost every other day in the afternoon.” The DJ shook her head and dropped the topic. “Whatever, in any case I didn't think wed mesh that well, but since we had somethin in common, things worked out all right.”

Twinkle cocked her head and grinned. “That's wonderful! If I may ask, what is it that you two share in common?”

Vinyl scratched her head. “Do I say it? Eh, I guess: we have a mutual hate toward that snob from the performance the other night.”

Twinkle gasped, “O-Octavia!?”

“Yeah... sorry Twink,” Vinyl shrugged. “I know you idolize her and all, but there's just some history you have to understand: I've been compared with that snooty-nosed 'artist' my whole music career. Now, I don't know about Mare of the Organ, but in my case I'm kind of a big deal in my circle of music-”

“My full name is Melodia, thank you,” came a voice from behind, to which the roommates swirled around. “And I'll have you know that I'm not a fan of hers for the same reason: Octavia nabs all the attention. The difference, Vinyl Scratch, is that I am in the same realm of music as her. That unfortunately talented mare-

That and youre not that popular,” Vinyl added as she poked her fellow musician, who snorted in reply. “Whatcha think of the set-up, Mel? Looks different now than when we practiced just a few hours ago, yeah?”

“For the hundredth time, please call me Melodia,” the mare corrected with clenched teeth. “Regarding the lay-out, I suppose it's... interesting. Here I thought your drawing was exaggerating the look and scale a bit, but it seems the stage crew took your rendition quite seriously.”

“Well, set-ups no joke for me,” Vinyl stated with a puff of her chest. “I’ll have you know I take my stage presence and everything just as seriously, too.”

“Apparently you aren't taking that into account with mine,” Melodia whined. “Why does the organ seem so isolated in the back? Can't you open things up a bit so that I can be seen at least a little bit?”

Vinyl glanced at the organ which sat to the rear of the stage, a position from which it could not move. Its silver shimmer hid beneath the shade of the curtains, and its distant position made it feel more as though it were hiding nearby behind a hill rather than far away on a level plane.

“Trust me, I appreciate your participation and all, Me-lo-di-a,” Vinyl jeered, “but this is a DJ Pon-3 concert, not a duo. Don't you pee your pretty pants; ponies'll see you back there on your pedestal, oh mighty organist.”

“You mean on my stationary bench?” Melodia growled. “Humph. I suppose it'll help me save face and escape more easily should your little experiment fail tonight.”

“Don't say that, Melodia!” Twinkle begged like a frightened filly. “The last thing I want is for this concert to fail. You two put in so much effort, I’d hate to see you discouraged... especially Vinyl.

“Aww, thanks Twink,” Vinyl said. “But don't you worry; as long as I get one pony bobbing a head out there tonight – which I know I'll see tons doing anyway – I think my hope in all you bookworms'll be restored.”

“Vinyl Scratch! Wow!”

The triangle turned to face a violet unicorn enter into the performance hall with violet irises shot about until the entirety of the morphed chamber – unfamiliar as a new wing in the castle – had been taken in. Her tinted coat matched the darkening hues of the night, with remnants of the pink retreating skies lying within light streaks in her mane. She carried a saddlebag loaded with books but meandered as though the bundle were as light as a feather.

“Speakin' of bookworms,” Vinyl mumbled. “How's it goin', Twi?”

“Things are going pretty well,” Twilight answered. “I came a little early to see how things were going, and it looks like it’s coming along pretty well. Are you guys ready?”

“Ready as a bee in a field of flowers,” Vinyl said as she struck a pose. “I've got my work cut out for me, too. You gonna swing by and check out the show in an hour?”

“Will I?” Twilight asked. “Of course! With Hearth's Warming Break starting tomorrow morning, I really don't have much to do.”

“Huh, what's that sayin'? You wouldn't have come otherwise?” Vinyl asked as she pretended to cover her aching heart.

“That's not what I meant!” Twilight gasped. “What I was trying to say was that-”

Twi, Twi, Twi! Don't sweat it,” Vinyl cracked up as she patted her friend on the back. “I think we're gonna test some stuff out for now, though, so you might want to disappear for a bit. Otherwise, be back here in a few, okay?”

“Sounds good to me,” Twilight said as she backed her way out into the foyer. “Have fun getting ready!”

“When it comes to jammin', I always have fun,” Vinyl said. “Later!”

The DJ closed the door to the wing, the sound of the heavy wood door a statement of closure. Twilight stared at the detail on the door for a moment, unsure of what else to do, before turning to face the open space of the entrance hall behind her.

A few ponies were walking in and out of the foyer, their expressions all delighted. Twilight felt the same as her peers; some time for independence had finally arrived in the form of a week-long break. Twilight's independence, of course, was spent on simply more reading and studying, but the feeling of choosing what work to cover next equaled any other pony's passion regarding escape from the daily grind.

With the thought in mind, Twilight lifted a book from her bag and cracked its spine. The pages of the tome flipped to one side or the other, leaving the mare with the middle two pages between which sat a bookmark. She sat herself down, placed the book on the ground, and found exactly where she had left off last.

“Page two hundred and twenty-six,” Twilight read to herself aloud. “Wonder how far I'll get this hour!”

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Episode 5: MYSTERY OF THE WESTERN WOODS

Chapter 16: Rowdy Rumble

“Twilight?”

The unicorn’s head jerked from out of the thick volume hovering before her eyes. The string of words that flowed through her mind ceased as Twilight’s comprehension was put on hold. Behind the visual barrier of the book stood a couple of familiar faces, those of Colgate and Lyra, which immediately stole away the reader’s attention. The pair of dark blue and brilliant amber eyes that awaited her created a contrast that left Twilight staring speechless for a moment.

Oh, hey guys!” Twilight welcomed as she closed her book and rose from her seated position near the door to the performance hall. “Are you two coming to Vinyl’s concert, too?”

“What else is there to do?” Lyra asked with a growl.

Colgate elbowed her mint-colored friend in the flank and laughed, “Oh come on, Lyra, like you dont want to be here.

It's not as though I could escape the noise even if I were in my own bedroom,” Lyra mumbled. “Knowing Vinyl, this concert won’t be very mild.”

What do you mean, Lyra?” Twilight inquired, noting her friend's vexed stare cast down on the floor. “Haven’t I seen you at some of her smaller performances in Ponyville-?”

Lyra, removing her cold, amber eyes from the ground, revealed the entirety of her exasperated emotion in an alarming gaze. “I’d rather suffer through two straight days of our professor’s lectures than go to one of those explosive ordeals.

“Oh. Well... you know you don't have to go, right?” Twilight posed.

But Lyra shook her head with a hefty hint of stubbornness. “What kind of a friend would I be if I simply deserted Vinyl Scratch in her time of need? You know that she needs us to go in order for her to feel accepted and whatnot.”

Twilight watched as a large crowd of ponies began pouring in from all around. From the glass corridor, the park outside, and the stairwell nearby a sudden rush of students began pouring into the foyer. Most wore rather excited expressions, while others tpassing through meandered as though afraid to admit their intrigue. Others still passed by the open doors to the performance hall with curious glances, some never actually entering the venue.

When did the doors open?” Twilight asked as she cocked her head in puzzlement. She shook her head and continued, “Listen, Lyra, it would be nice to go and support Vinyl, but in all honesty its not like she’ll see-”

“Oh I’ll manage, Twilight, don't you worry!” Lyra said, suddenly chipper. “Now that I think about it, our break begins tomorrow! Whatever I must endure tonight won't be nearly as bad as the upcoming break will be wonderful!

Twilight rolled her eyes and giggled. Her friend’s characteristic up-and-down demeanor never ceased to surprise her.

That’s easy for you to say, Lyra,” Colgate suddenly remarked. “You aren't stranded here for the whole break. Think about all of us who have to stay and do whatever Luna has in store for us! We’ll probably have a bunch of reading and writing...

“Reading and writing?” Twilight gasped, turning her lighthearted smile into a giant grin. “You really think so!?”

Lyra and Colgate looked to one another. Both shook their heads slowly.

Oh, Colgate, isn't that just heartbreaking,” Lyra said as she gave Colgate a faked pout. “It's not my fault you all decided to go and break some of the academy's rules before classes even started. Besides, wont you two really end up enjoying your time ‘stranded’ here for a week?”

Colgate's eyes rolled pensively upward. “Now that you mention it, I might be able to get some time to go check out the island with some other ponies. That might not be so bad.”

“And I'll have plenty of time to do some more reading and writing, mandatory or not!” Twilight added cheerily. “Wow Lyra, you really know how to turn things around!”

“It's all in the mood swings,” Lyra bragged as she flicked her powder blue mane.

Twilight and Colgate quickly exchanged glances. Their confused countenances reassured the other of their friend’s rather puzzling statement.

Anyway,” Colgate finally said after a cough, “should we head in? Looks like everypony else is. Don't wanna be last.”

“Oh, yes, let's head in!” Lyra said as she turned and trotted on in. “Now that I’ve talked myself into going. Hopefully it’ll be quite the treat!”

Twilight placed her book inside one of her saddlebags and followed her friends into the stream of ponies squeezing in through the hall entrance. Her heart started racing as the excitement within her rose. Twilight had been to some of Vinyl’s performances before, but only when the mare was a hired DJ or when her initial shows were smaller in scale. To see a concert given by Vinyl, a popular artist Twilight knew herself, seemed like the perfect way to start the winter break.

As the three from Ponyville made their way into the heart of the performance hall Twilight began noticing the finished set-up. A blanket of galactic ornament covered the bare bones of the layout. The stretch of lights attached to the ceiling were hidden by a hanging barrier filled with golden stars and crescent shapes. The stage itself hid behind a curtain that curved around the semicircular platform, its designs like constellations spotted across the midnight sky.

What struck Twilight the most was how packed the chamber was despite its massive size. Earlier that day she had only seen crew members waltzing about the spacious area; this time the mare beheld an entire swarm of ponies pushed all the way up to the edge of the stage. Even getting in proved to be a challenge. Twilight and the other two only made it to halfway to the stage before the audience grew too packed to push through.

The sea of students spread conversation that filled the chamber with a hum of its own. Excitement made the drone buzz like bees. Twilight felt the electric sensation passing through her, though she herself was not contributing in her silence. The mare never considered herself a very lively individual, but she considered herself a conductor of liveliness nonetheless.

“I didn't know this many ponies even went to the academy,” Twilight said.

Lyra looked around in disbelief, until suddenly she spotted an especially noisy bunch pressed up against the stage.

“I think you're onto something, Twilight,” Lyra scoffed. “I don't think they're students here.”

Near the front stood a group of ponies with glow sticks hung around the necks and attached to bracelets tied around their hoofs. Their odd-colored manes were cut into strange styles, from long mohawks to extremely short buzzes. Some had earrings up and down their ears, and their cutie marks seemed to Twilight very eccentric, to say the least.

“Maybe ponies outside of the academy were invited?” Twilight suggested. “They did let in a number of visitors for the last performance, after all. At least that’s what I heard.

“I think we should avoid those strangers as much as possible,” Lyra suggested as she backed out of the middle of the crowd.

“Why?” Twilight asked. “It's not like they’re going to do anything unruly-

Suddenly the lights went out. A collective gasp sounded through the hall, accompanied by a few screams. When the murmurs settled a low hum began vibrating throughout the chamber. Twilight could feel her eardrums pulsing a thousand times per minute until the volume of the low pitch began to rise. The curtains slowly opened just enough to reveal the source of the deep, drawn out drone: the organ.

Sitting at the expansive keyboard to the back of the stage was who Twilight knew to be Melodia. A mare of great musical talent, she took on a new look as her pale purple coat turned dark violet and her white hair silver in the dimness of the hall. Her back was to the audience, but with the mare’s hoofs dug into the keys of the grand instrument Twilight could sense the intensity that emanated from the concentrated musician.

The deep, prolonged notes came to a cease, and a following solo brought a wow over the audience like a wave. The intricate melody flew up and down the keyboard, following the precise movements of Melodia's hoofs. The quick presses and releases made past concertos Twilight had seen seem like mere colt's play. The feel of the amazing musical run flowed forth like a fast-paced villain’s theme.

The musical notes finally landed on a chord during which the curtains flew open the rest of the way. A pair of towering speakers suddenly came into view, and the second their great black rectangular shapes completely emerged a rippling roar blasted through the air. Lights flashed onto the ceiling above and out into the crowd, coloring the audience bright blue and silver. The sound of the organ’s chord and electronic noise carried on for some time in perfect unison before coming to a complete stop.

There was no silence, however, as a number of those inside the hall were already hooting and hollering.

“DJ PON-3!”

“YEAH!”

“ROCK IT, V!”

The strange bunch at the front of the crowd started jumping and yelling as a spectrum of colored lasers shot out in every direction. The focused lights then fell to form a circle around Vinyl to the front right section of stage. Twilight watched her white friend smile as the DJ adjusted the goggles on her face. She lifted her hoofs up, paused, and then slammed both down onto one of her devices as the speakers boomed once more.

Undulating notes created a speedy aria like that of the organ. Tones flew up and down the scale as the speakers cranked out a futuristic resonance that Twilight felt was somehow glowing. She continued to watch her friend on stage as Vinyl grinned and toyed with dials. A crazy drumbeat blared a racket of sound that made Twilight cover her ears.

Soon the organ was at it again as Vinyl threw in accompanying sounds. Twilight felt her gut pulsing as though somepony were massaging her stomach too hard as the beat hit time and time again. The explosions of the bass beat through her body and shook her more so than any music had before.

For a while the mare tried to adjust to the feel, but after the first ten minutes of the performance Twilight felt a headache coming on. Its intensity was worse than that of one she had gotten from having an anvil – among other things – accidentally dropped on her head from the sky. Unsure of whether or not the discomfort was normal, Twilight glanced around to see other ponies' reactions.

Those in front, familiar and unfamiliar faces alike, were bucking and screaming with sheer joy abounding. Their eyes were closed and hoofs raised high or otherwise swinging wildly about. Near the middle of the crowd was a mix of actions; some jumping as well as others cheered, while some were confused as to what they were to do. Near the back where Twilight stood a number were bobbing their heads, but more seemed to be covering their ears or gritting their teeth in pain.

“WHAT DID I TELL YOU, TWILIGHT!?” Lyra yelled angrily; though standing side-by-side, the felt miles apart with all the sound. “THOSE PONIES UP FRONT ARE UP TO NO GOOD! THEY’RE... THEY’RE BEATING EACH OTHER!”

LYRA, RELAX!” Colgate exclaimed. “THEY’RE JUST GOING CRAZY!”

WHAT!? ARE YOU SAYING THAT’S OKAY!?” Lyra shrieked.

SURE IS!” Colgate shouted. “AND I’M GONNA JOIN ‘EM!”

The blue mare pranced her way through the crowd until she reached the front, where she too went crazy with all the bucking and bellowing to the bass. Twilight and Lyra stayed near the back with a number of other ponies looking just as lost or traumatized as themselves. The twisting sound of electronic dubstep soon shook up the entire room like an earthquake.

Lyra shook her head, hoofs covering her ears, as she turned to leave. “VINYL WILL UNDERSTAND, I’M SURE. THIS IS SIMPLY TOO MUCH TO BEAR! WHOEVER TALKED ME INTO DOING THIS ANYWAY!?”

“I THOUGHT YOU WERE GOING TO STAY AND SUPPORT VIN-?”

NEVERMIND WHAT I SAID EARLIER!” Lyra cut in. “ARE YOU STAYING OR COMING WITH ME?”

Twilight looked back at Lyra, who neared the door which hid a far less noisy atmosphere behind it. She glanced at Vinyl, who stood on stage playing her music as happily as any mare could possibly be. The contrasting feelings of loyalty started tearing Twilight in two.

I THINK I’LL STAY!” Twilight finally replied, to which Lyra shook her head.

“IF YOU DON’T GO DEAF BY MORNING, LISTEN FOR A KNOCK ON THE DOOR. I DON’T WANT TO LEAVE WITHOUT SAYING GOODBYE!” Lyra said, and then made her way out to the foyer.

Twilight, having made her choice, stood her ground and let out a deep breath. The violent vibrations that beat inside the mare’s ears continued on as the volume never stooped down even a notch. Even when Melodia returned to a solo on the organ Vinyl was toying with the sound in some manner, adding drums or an accompaniment of an electronic orchestra. Breaks between songs seemed nonexistent as Vinyl hopped or scratched her way from one tune to the next.

After a while Twilight began wondering if she made the right decision. She glanced back at the large doors leading out, but her heart wouldn’t let the stare last for long. Her ears, however, kept begging and begging, until Twilight could hardly make out her own thoughts.

Must... stay... in the name... of friendship!

[br]

        There seemed to be a ringing noise following wherever Twilight went. Her ears throbbed as the shrieking note occupied the mare's hearing, its pitch intolerable and unfluctuating even a half hour after the music stopped. Aside from the single tone there was little else that the mare could hear in the foyer, save for the small groans of those accompanying the mare who suffered a similar sense of deafness.

        Vinyl had told Twilight that the concert would blow her mind, but really all Twilight thought it had done was blow her eardrums. She couldn't hardly hear her own hoofsteps as she tromped her way back to her room, which took far too long as Twilight constantly paused to massage her aching head.

The sound of her door opening and closing actually made its way into the mare’s ears, but the faint sound was like a brief wisp of wind in volume and duration. The seeming lack of noise - aside from the unbearably high pitch - was almost eerie. It was possibly less preferable than the actual ear-splitting sounds of the concert that brought on the painful phenomenon in the first place.

        As she walked into the confines of her bedroom Twilight began thinking of a way to eliminate the resonance. Pages of spells and studies flipped through the mare’s mind as quickly as a librarian scans through books on a library shelf. To Twilight’s dismay, her mind was not as vast a resource, and as a result nothing came to directly to mind. She didn’t have a clue of where to begin.

        Twilight felt guilt weighing her down as she paced in front of her bed; she really had enjoyed the concert altogether. The lights were stunning, the tunes were very well composed, incorporating the organ and Vinyl’s instruments in incredible ways. Unfortunately for Twilight, the sound was - put nicely - overwhelming.

The approaching night did not help in the slightest as it offered no means of escape from the aftereffects. It drove Twilight crazy as the minutes passed. The ensuing weariness was like that from too much magic casting; the headache was worse than any Twilight had felt after too many hours of intensive reading and critical thinking.

        Eventually the heaviness dragged Twilight’s head down upon her soft, fluffy pillow. The mare hoped the physical comfort would outweigh the mental discomfort, but even the comfy bedding could not take Twilight's mind off of the ringing in her head; in fact, lying down seemed to make all of it worse. Before long the mare was sitting up with thoughts spinning in her head incoherently.

        “This is what I get for not doing thorough research on ‘dubstep’,” Twilight mumbled as she rose and walked over to her bedroom window.

        With a tired push Twilight opened the glass panels and let the cool wintry air seep in. Its chill spilled onto her face like water moving in slow motion. The refreshing feel and mixed scents of pine and the sea momentarily brought a smile to Twilight’s face. She breathed in the night air and closed her eyes as she leaned her head back in an attempt to relax her mind.

Though calming, Twilight’s mind still felt as restless as storm not halfway passed. The strong winds of thoughts pushed the unicorn’s eyes to move left and right, up and down, as they beheld the vista of the island outside.

The scene had fallen beneath a blanket of darkness and of snow. Parts of the eastern coastline had frozen as thin sheets of ice reflected the dim moonlight hanging above. Wispy clouds came and went across the sky, but none could hide the dominant light of the night. To the north were the rolling Western Woods, their pine trees and other plants covered in beautiful, glimmering snow.

        But something seemed to be moving against the whiteness.

        Twilight rubbed her eyes and stared again. She glanced around the middle of the forest where she thought she had seen the shifting, but there was nothing out and about then. She stared long and hard for any sign of strange movement, but the trees were as still as the air - at least, as still as the air should have sounded.

The ringing in Twilight’s ears returned to her attention, forcing the mare to tap her head in hopes of breaking the resonance’s hold on her ears; however, the ringing sound ensued. Frustrated, Twilight let out an irritated growl.

“I give up,” she muttered, but suddenly a thought flew through her mind.

Wait a minute; no I don’t!

Twilight remembered there was somepony else who could help. Though she usually didn’t like others to solve her problems, the aural agony quickly became an issue she just wanted fixed. Her hopes began lifting her head back up until suddenly curiosity caught her eye once more.

Out in the middle of the forest was something big and black, the top of it reaching just below the evergreen treetops. The flora around it shifted as the strange thing barged its way about. Its progress through the woods was not all that clumsy; in fact it appeared more willful, though slow. Twilight felt if her hearing was halfway decent she would be able to hear the rustling of the trees.

        The mare, slowly peeling her violet eyes from the sight, turned and headed for Lemon Heart's room across the suite. She knocked and waited with jitters shaking her body. She hoped her friend would get up rather than call out from behind the door, since she could hardly hear even the knocks on the wood she made. After a minute's pause her yellow friend's head popped out into the lounge and her azure eyes settled on the shaking mare.

        “Yes, what- TWILIGHT!” Lemon Hearts gasped, suddenly flinging the door all the way open. “What happened to you!?”

        Twilight, now shocked herself, looked down at her own hoofs as well as over the rest of her violet physique. “N-Nothing, I think?”

        “But your face is so pale. Your ears are twitching, too!”

        Twilight paused and waited for the involuntary movements of her ears. Every few seconds one would shiver, then the other, followed by brief pauses in between. She hadn’t noticed the convulsing of her ears; only the clamor within them.

        Twilight blushed. “Oh, well, I guess that concert took more of a toll on me than I thought-”

        “You went to that concert tonight? Are you trying to inflict pain upon yourself!?”

        “What? No! I mean-” The image of the movement within the forest suddenly shot into Twilight's brain, breaking a link in the mare's chain of thoughts. “Listen, I have to tell you something more important first. I think I just saw something moving outside.”

        Lemon Hearts narrowed her eyes and tilted her head upwards, a sign Twilight knew of her roommate when skepticism arose.

        “Just what did you see moving?” the yellow mare asked.

        Twilight walked over to her friend's window and opened the panels. “Look down at the forest. There was something in the middle of all the trees. It seemed really big, almost like a-

        Twilight couldn’t even finish as the image in her head began projecting onto the nighttime landscape of the forest. Lemon Hearts, keeping her expression of doubt, slowly made her way over to her friend's side and stared out the window as well. She tilted her head back forward and gazed out like an eagle staring down at the Western Woods. She scanned the treetops with great intensity as they ran across the span of the woods.

        Twilight tried to repeat her friend’s examination, but her eyes were far less acute. Her drooping head didn't help in the attempt, either, as soon enough the mare’s hanging head left her tired eyes staring down at the windowsill.

        “I don't see anything, Twilight,” Lemon Hearts concluded with a shake of her head. “And... by the looks of it, you seem nothing short of exhausted. Are you sure your senses aren't playing tricks on you?”

        “I'm sure I saw something!” Twilight pleaded. “Just look one more time! It was big and black, and all the trees around it were moving. It even looked like it was swimming around-”

        Lemon Hearts covered her friend's running mouth with a hoof. “Now, now, Twilight. I know you hate being wrong, but I really think you imagined this whole thing.” Twilight opened her mouth again, but Lemon Hearts continued first, “It all makes sense when you think about; from what I understand, Vinyl Scratchs performances are more like light shows. Celestia knows if I had gone I might have had a seizure. With all that flashiness it’s no surprise that your eyes may be deceiving you.”

        “You really can't see anything?” Twilight asked as she stared out the window, but her neck could hardly support her spinning head anymore.

        “Nothing out of ordinary. Do you see anything now?”

        Twilight bit her lip as her head began lowering again. “I can't see it anymore...”

        

        “That's because your face seems to be attracted to the windowsill,” Lemon Hearts remarked as she lifted her friend's head from its slouch. “You should really get some rest. There's nothing out there in the forest, Twilight. If there is, Princess Luna will deal with it.

        “Ugh, you're right,” Twilight finally gave in. “But somepony has to tell her-!”

“I’ll tell her,” Lemon Hearts said as she started pushing her friend toward her bedroom. “Don’t worry about this at all. I’ll say something before I leave tomorrow. You just focus on getting some rest before you go crazy. Heaven knows what’ll happen then.”

“Right,” Twilight began slurring, “I'm just gonna go to sleep before I start seeing other things.”

        “You do that,” Lemon Hearts said. “Don't sleep in, though! I would like to say goodbye before I head out tomorrow.”

        “Huh? Oh, right,” Twilight replied. “Good night.”

        She left her roommate's abode and clumped slowly back to her own. A chilling air greeted her as the windowpanes hung wide open. Twilight approached aperture and paused, giving the vast scenery one more stare. As her eyes started to close against her will she failed to see anything moving anymore. But the sight of the mysterious thing in the distance would not leave the vision in her mind.

        “Maybe I am seeing things,” Twilight muttered to herself as she crawled into bed. The ringing in her ears returned to the forefront of her mind. Oh! I never asked Lemon Hearts about this ringing.”

But the second she slapped her forehead with a hoof, her head felt heavy as a rock. Her eyes started spinning in an exhaustive dizziness, and in seconds she was lying down on her bed. The moment Twilight's head touched the pillow the mare’s body gave in to rest.

Her mind, however, was anything but restful.

What was that thing I saw..?

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 17: Talking of a Winter Wonderland

        

        Twilight awoke to a warmth that gently touched upon her face. An accompanying gleam pressed through the mare's eyelids, waking her from the dark mist surrounding her world of dreams. The gleam only caused the unicorn's eyes to stir into closing tighter than they already were, but even then the light shone through stubbornly. It didn’t take long for the mare to understand it was the morning’s first light.

Normally she would have delighted in the drop of sunlight that signaled a new day; this time, however, the night did not seem to have lasted its typical span. With a groan Twilight rolled to her side, hiding her face from the incoming luminescence. The beams then covered her violet neck and dark mane with a heat too strong to ignore in the winter. Reluctant, the mare crawled out from her bed and stood on all fours.

Though she swayed upon first touching the ground, she managed to balance herself. The throbbing in her head had not disappeared. To Twilight's delight, though, the ringing had ceased. She could hear the morning birds in their usual song as well as the echoes of the sea off a ways. Her ears picked up sounds of hoofsteps and conversation coming from outside her room.

        Oh! I need to say goodbye to Lyra and Lemon Hearts before they go!

        Though tired, Twilight still felt she had some energy to hurry to at least find out her friends. As she opened the door to the suite, however, her brief burst came to a halt. No pony was inside the suite, but rather crossing by in the corridor. There was something awaiting her, however, on the ground just outside her room.

Laid on the carpeting were two white envelopes with Twilight’s name written on their covers. On the reverse sides were the words 'Read First' and 'Read Second' written in fine cursive, the former of which also had a note attached to it. Obeying the directions, Twilight held the first paper package and its attached message up to her weary purple eyes.

        On the note, in less careful hoofwriting, read:

        “Twilight,

                Guess that concert must have taken its toll on you! I WARNED YOU! See you in a

        week, and don't get into any more trouble!

                ~Lyra”

        Twilight felt as though her heart had tripped and fallen on its face. The first emotion to strike her was despair; somehow she had missed Lyra’s departure. Shortly after despair was wonder, specifically concerning why Lyra did not wake her up for any form of farewell. And finally, as though the two sentiments were somehow not enough, a sense of anxiety regarding the two unopened letters struck Twilight enough to place the sadness and confusion from earlier quickly aside.

        Without much hesitation Twilight tore open the first envelope and unfolded the paper inside. Not much of the sheet was filled with ink; in fact, with the small writing as it was, Twilight started wondering if some were tiny accidental ink blots rather than actual words. The style was similar to that in which the ‘Read First’ and ‘Read Second’ instructions had been written.

When her eyes managed to adjust to the tiny quill-strokes she read aloud to herself:

        “Dear Twilight,

                You should hear yourself snoring as I write this! I saw that you were tired last night, but

not that tired. Although I would love to say farewell and such, that would involve waking you

up, and at this point I feel as intimidated by this as I would if I were trying to wake a hibernating Ursa Minor. (Yes, I heard about that story!)

                Lyra tried to wake you with a number of things before I got back from breakfast, or so         she told me. When she fabricated a tape recorder and told me there was some of Vinyl Scratch's         music on it, I felt the need to stop her. I understand goodbyes are nice, but we'll all be back in a         week, right? Time will fly by quickly enough.

                Try not to get into any more trouble!

                Sincerely,

                Lemon Hearts

        P.S. I saw a letter in our suite's mailbox and thought I would save you the effort of having to get         it yourself!”

        Twilight let out a whimper. “So they all left already.”

        She looked over Lemon Hearts's note again and let a weary smile flash for a second.

        It is just one week, I guess.

        In an attempt to brush off the sadness Twilight shook her head and held up the second envelope. Its size was similar to the first, only the unopened letter appeared a bit bulkier. On the front right corner was a stamp of the Equestrian Postal Service, and to middle was her name written with a magenta crayon. Twilight immediately recognized the calligraphy.

        She gasped and quickly ripped the top off the second envelope, and a tiny explosion of confetti burst from the opening. As the colorful bits of paper floated through the air a happy tune started to play. Twilight giggled at the surprise that had ruffled her mane and nearly made her jump back through her bedroom door. Without further delay the mare pulled out the note inside and closed the envelope, turning off the musical jingle and leaving the suite to fall silent once more.

        As excitement swept over Twilight she began reading the letter aloud again, this time with more energy:

        “Dear Twilight,

                Hello from Ponyville! Spike here taking a letter for all your best friends (they were

fighting over who would write until I stepped in). How is everything going at the Winter Magic         Academy? Are you making lots of new friends? Everypony misses having you around!

                We would have written you sooner, but somepony forgot to tell us all the news earlier         that you weren't coming back for Hearth's Warming Eve (I won't tell you who because I have a         crush on her). We were hoping you would come back so we could go to the Hearth's Warming         Eve performance we were in last winter! Although Celestia didn't offer us parts this year, she did

give us tickets for the show. It won’t be the same without you!

                You still have a second break, though, right? Applejack says to write back and tell us

about when it is so we can plan your returning party. Rarity says you should try not to get into

any more trouble. Fluttershy wants to know if there are cute creatures on the island. I think Rainbow Dash is talking about the Wonderbolts... and Pinkie Pie wants to know if they serve cupcakes there. At this point everypony's getting distracted, but know that we all are thinking about you every day!

                Hope to see you soon!

        Your Truly,

        Spike, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, and Fluttershy

                

        Twilight felt her eyes watering up. With all of the homework and other things to do at the academy she had lost track of writing her personal letters to each one of her best friends. She couldn't even remember how many of them she had finished, or if she had actually completed any, for that matter. The guilt made her head go dizzy, bringing Twilight out of her bliss and back to reality where her head ached as though a stacked bookshelf had fallen on top of her.

        The feeling of homesickness did not help with the pain as the spinning only got worse. The dizziness did not shortly go away, either, as soon Twilight found herself backing into her room, shutting the door, and laying down on her bed with a groan. The strange and sudden illness was something the mare had not experienced so strongly before.

Twilight knew exactly what it was: she had never left Ponyville for extended periods of time, especially not without her best friends. With her two closest companions – Lyra and Lemon Hearts – gone for an entire week, Twilight felt a deep loneliness that hit her gut harder than the music at Vinyl’s concert the night before.

        For a while Twilight wallowed in the sensation, unsure of what to do. Usually she knew whom she could go to for help, but this time all that stood at the forefront of Twilight's mind was a veil of utter uncertainty. The insecurity shook Twilight like a rag doll in its powerful grip until the mare pushed herself to find a way out of its grasp.

        To battle the feeling Twilight began searching for some kind of escape within her room. There was not much that caught Twilight’s eye at first; at first all she could see was the furniture. But atop one structure – her desk in the corner – she suddenly spotted her stack of books that glowed gold like a holy grail.

        “Maybe some reading will get my mind off of things,” Twilight murmured to herself as she stumbled onto her hoofs and over to the stack of books.

        Without even examining the titles Twilight snatched a book with her magic and headed straight for her door. The moment her head was through the wooden frame, though, Twilight’s hoofs felt suddenly glued to the floor.

        Her eyes knew just what her subconscious was thinking; they inched back to gaze at the sight of the letters sitting on her bed. With tears still forming at the mere sight of it Twilight tried to push through the invisible barrier before her and leave the letter from her friends behind. No matter how hard she tried, though, Twilight could feel something deep inside pulling her back, never allowing her to set hoof outside the door.

“Ugh, fine,” Twilight muttered, though unsure of who she herself was addressing.

She took the note from her friends, placed it in the thick book she carried, and headed through her bedroom door with no problem.

        I’ll get over this homesickness... somehow.


        With the first winter break's arrival came decorations of cut-out fireplaces and fir trees. The lines of paper shapes strung across arches and wrapped around columns. Accompanying reds and greens squeezed their way into the originally blue and violet halls as every square inch of the academy was decorated for the upcoming holiday.

        The decorations, however, were on display for very few to behold. Most of the students that were able left the academy for the week, leaving the select few who chose or were ordered to stay on the island a staggering minority. The quietude in every room of the hall left Twilight feeling as though she were inside an abandoned castle. She expected to find somepony she knew wandering about, but after an hour of exploring the main hall not a soul seemed to be around. The chilly feel of the emptiness only multiplied the cold that lingered in every room.

        The only comfort Twilight managed to find was by the fireplace within the dormitory commons room. Located near the back of the building, the chamber was a cozy location with a perfect view of the southern span of the island. Hills covered in pine rolled until peaking into mountains in the distance. Snow covered the span of scenery and sparkled in the sunlight that gleamed throughout the late morning hours.

        Within the room itself was a roaring fireplace that kept the furniture-filled chamber warm and well-lit. Twilight situated herself near the toasty fire with a blanket draped over her to add to the cozy sensation. The scent of burning lumber lingered about with the fragrances of holly, while the only sound the unicorn could make out was the popping and flickering of the flames.

        Peace and quiet... a perfect place to lose myself in some reading.

        The book Twilight had snatched, 'History of the Speak-No-Evil Spell', turned out to be a perfect page-turner. She had never even heard of the spell. However, even after hours of burying her muzzle in the worn pages of the tome, the mare could not completely distract her from the melancholy she hoped to forget. Each time she caught of glimpse of the note – which she used as a bookmark – a recurring sadness put a brief pause to her reading.

        Every so often when diving into the pages Twilight would picture what she might have doing if she were back in Ponyville instead. She had been looking forward to doing all of the winter activities she had discussed over the past year with her friends. Pinkie Pie had told her she would give her skating lessons. Rainbow Dash said she would clear the skies to allow a few sunny days in. Rarity had even planned an appointment for designing some school winter accessories to replace Twilight's older things.

        But with Twilight and the others' punishment, none of it was to happen that week. Rather than bouncing from place to place back home, the mare found herself sitting in silence. Reading to pass the time became less and less of an enthralling task the more Twilight thought about a snow-filled Ponyville.

        A disruptive call shook the unicorn from her pity, “Twilight! What's up?”

        The mare wiped her eyes and turned her head to peer over the couch on which she read. Standing in the doorway were Vinyl Scratch, donning a pair of large headphones and her signature tinted glasses, and Quirky Q, wearing a strange white saddle with abstract symbols of basic colors sewn into the fabric. Each wore content smiles and bore a pair of curious eyes as they wandered on into the warm room.

        “Hey guys,” Twilight said. “What are you two up to this early in the morning?”

        “Early?” Vinyl asked, taken aback. “You do know it's noon, right?”

        Twilight glanced up at the grandfather clock beside the entryway. Both hands pointed directly upward.

        Twilight laughed. “Oh dear. I guess time really does fly when you're having fun.”

        Vinyl smirked, “Which is exactly why these past two days have been the fastest in all of pony history.”

        “You really seemed in your element last night, Vinyl,” Twilight said as she rubbed her own ears and squinted. She glanced at her other present friend, which turned into a prolonged stare. “Quirky Q... may I ask why you're dressed like that?

        Quirky looked over the modern-like attire she wore. With a bounce she giggled, “Just practicing for a part in a play I'll be auditioning for once I get back to Ponyville.”

        “I didn't know they planned shows this far in advance,” Twilight said. “Which show is it?”

        “Bridle of Show. Are you familiar with the comedy?” Quirky said.

        “Never heard of it before,” Twilight said. “What part are you trying out for?”

        “The piece of paper. Isn't that what I look like?”

        Twilight skimmed over the strange saddle again and shrugged her shoulders. “Well, sure, I suppose.”

        “What's the matter, Twi?” Vinyl asked as she walked over and warmed up by the fire. “Got somethin’ on your mind?”

        Twilight closed her book and hid the letters inside of it. She laid her head on her hoofs and mumbled, “Nothing.”

        Vinyl clicked her teeth as she stared Twilight in the eye. The red irises accentuated through the glasses with the fire glistening off to the side. “You sound as heart-broken as a sappy string concerto. Come on, you can tell us.”

        “Yes, do tell!” Quirky demanded.

        Twilight stood from her spot on the couch and approached the fireplace, its warmth failing to reach her shivering heart. “If you really wanna know... I really miss my best friends back in Ponyville. I thought getting a letter from them was the best thing ever, but now that I’ve read what they had to say, all I can think about is home.”

        “Oh, you miss them,” Quirky said with sympathy. “That’s understandable. It’s not unnatural, Twilight, there’s no need to be ashamed.”

        “I just wish I could do something about it,” Twilight uttered. “Instead I’m here on the island for the next week with nothing to do but read.”

        “Wouldn't be that way if we hadn't snuck out,” Vinyl said. “And don’t you like reading?”

        “I love reading, but doing it for a whole week would probably get old. I really regret sneaking out and everything else that happened a few weeks ago,” Twilight confessed. “At the time I thought either I would make it out just fine, or else I would get caught and sent back to Ponyville. In either case I figured I would see my friends over the break, though I wasn't exactly thinking about that at the time.”

        “And now you're stuck here,” Vinyl said.

        “Well, yeah,” Twilight muttered. “Now I can't get my mind off of Ponyville and everything that's probably going on there.”

        “Not even your books can save you from that,” Quirky stated. “But I think theres something that we can do to help!”

        Twilight raised an eyebrow in doubt, though also with a hint of interest.

        Quirky continued, “The only way to get your mind off of something like this is to keep yourself busy.” Twilight glanced at her book, then back at a most enthusiastic Quirky Q. “So let's do something!”

        “Like what?” Twilight asked as dejection remained in her voice.

        “Well, for starters, I’ve still got to go eat,” Vinyl mentioned. “Wanna join?”

        “I... I guess,” said Twilight with a sigh. She picked up her book and joined the other two as they made their way over to the main hall.

        Twilight followed with her head held low as the other two trotted ahead content as could be. As she looked around the grounds felt utterly abandoned as the trio made their way through the glass corridor and to the grand dining hall. Not a soul was in sight as the three passed through except for a couple of guards on duty.

The dining hall did not change the feeling of vacancy in the slightest. Compared to the vast number of occupied tables and the noise of daily chatter that sounded from them, the mere two tables that were taken seemed about as lively as a cornfield in the winter.

        Twilight looked at the table nearest the entrance. She didn't recognize the three that were silently eating at the half-occupied table, and so passed by simply staring. The group seemed quite content with their grazing as they sat with their eyes closed or otherwise resting on the sights of their own plates. Once in a while they mumbled a word or two, but on the whole they seemed rather unsociable.

        The choice to sit elsewhere was made easier as Windchaser occupied the second table all by himself. Though he was not appear much more energetic than the other table, he at least was a familiar character. As a result the Ponyville trio that entered in for lunch went to join him immediately.

        “How's it goin', Windy?” Vinyl asked as she plopped herself in the cushion right beside him.

        He watched as Quirky and Twilight sat on the opposite side of the table and then looked back down at his food, a plate full of cooked vegetables and a bowl of soup.

        “Good,” he replied softly.

        “Any plans for today?” Quirky inquired in a merry mood. “Everypony else seems to have some.”

        “Practice some spells,” Windchaser replied. “What about you three?”

        Vinyl patted her stomach and smiled. “Well, first we gotta eat. Then we'll be distracting Twilight for the rest of the day.”

        “Distracting?” queried Windchaser.

        “Yeah, Twi's got the blues like a jazz singer,” Vinyl said as she waved her hoof about slowly. “We're lookin' to spice things up a bit. You got any ideas?”

        Windchaser looked down at his steaming soup and stared at his reflection in the bowl. He stirred the mixture with a silver spoon and took a sip before replying, “Explore the island.

        “Ha ha, Windy. Where the hay are we supposed to go?” Vinyl asked as she leaned her elbows on the table. “And don't you tell me you're thinking about that cave Colgate took us to a couple of weeks ago-”

        “The woods!” Twilight shrieked, then suddenly covered her mouth.

        

        The others stared for a moment while Twilight recovered from her own shock of the outcry. The mare released her hoofs from in front of her mouth and revealed her tightly shut mouth. Her eyes jumped back and forth around the dining hall, until finally excited mare waved for the others to lean in over the table.

        

        “I think I saw something out in the forest last night,” Twilight whispered.

        The others looked at one another and blinked.

        Twilight continued, “When I got back to my room from the concert, I think I saw something moving out in the Western Woods. What do you guys think it could be?”

        “What did it look like?” Quirky asked.

        “It looked really big, even as tall as the trees! And I think it had a black color to it.”

        “Just a black color?” Vinyl chipped in.

        Twilight shook her head slowly and closed her eyes. “I... I think so. I don't remember anything else besides it looking like a moving shadow. Everything around it was moving. What do you guys think could it be?”

        “A figment of your imagination,” Windchaser answered.

        “No, I really think I saw something!” Twilight exclaimed, suddenly raising her voice again. “Lemon Hearts said the same thing, but now that I think about it all the image was too clear. I know my eyes wouldn't deceive me, even after a blinding light show. No offense, Vinyl.”

        “Eh, none taken,” replied the DJ with a smirk.

        “So, you really think you saw something,” Quirky reiterated. “Do you want to go check it out? I guess that would distract you enough for today, right?”

        “Assuming we find something,” Twilight said. “But I don't want to go alone. Would any of you be interested in going with me to check things out?”

        Twilight looked to the three that joined her at the table, each of their faces seemingly blank. The looks her friends' held were like those that could change into approval or disapproval in a simple stomp of a hoof.

        Vinyl went first, “I don't think I'm game, Twi. I'm bushed from doing the concert and all yesterday.”

        Twilight's ears drooped. “I understand.”

        “I'll go!” Quirky declared suddenly, raising a hoof in her usual dramatic fashion. “If you're absolutely sure that you saw something, then I'll see to it that you find whatevers out there. But wait!” Quirky gasped and quickly turned away, then turned back around to reveal a thoughtful gaze. “Are the woods still off-limits by order of Princess Luna?”

        “Not anymore,” Windchaser said.

        Twilight and Quirky's faces lit up. “Really!?”

        “I asked the headmare if I could explore the Western Woods,” Windchaser stated. “Supposedly they’re beautiful this time of year - or so I heard one of the professors say. As long as theres daylight and ponies travel in groups, Princess Luna said she had no issues.”

        Twilight felt her hopes and spirit rising. “Perfect! We have a few hours still, and I won't be going alone! Just out of curiosity, Windchaser, did you really ask her yourself?”

        “Yeah,” Windchaser answered hesitantly. “Why?”

        “Just... wondering,” Twilight replied. “Anyway, are you interested in going too?”

        Windchaser nodded.

        “It's settled!” Quirky yelped and she leaped out from her seat. “Let me go change real quick and we can be on our way. Hurry up and eat Twilight, today we have a thing to find!”

Next Chapter >


Index

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Chapter 18: Twists and Turns

        Twilight could feel a sense of reluctance rising inside as she and her two companions neared the emerald forest's edge. From a distance the Western Woods had been a rather pleasant sight, from the strong, towering pines to the shimmering snow that wrapped around them. The great span of trees flowed like a wave over the hillsides as it reached northward, bordering the western mountain range and the long, eastern coastline.

        A single trail supposedly looped through a better part of the expansive woods, but from where Twilight stood atop the hill - just a few steps away from the southern gate of the school grounds - she couldn't find a single divide in the stretch of the forest. All she could make out of the trail was its beginning, a hole in the bulwark of trees at the base of the hill.

        Although Twilight always saw the Western Woods as a beautiful landscape, certain elements began standing out as she drew closer and closer to it. With dark clouds brewing over the Equestrian Sea and winds growing stronger and colder with every passing minute, Twilight thought twice about her little excursion.

        Her wondering gradually turned into a mental list, its contents an inventory of ‘reasons’ as to why the three should turn back. Twilight’s eyes were weary after a long night of restlessness. Lunch had hardly filled her stomach. Her saddlebags, though hardly filled, felt heavier with every step she took. Her boots and scarf were beginning to feel insufficient as the cold grew only worse.

        But the moment Twilight removed her sights from the beginning of the trail and back to Quirky and Windchaser, she couldn't even begin piecing together a sentence regarding one of her excuses.

        “Do you by chance remember what area of the woods you saw that mysterious thing moving about?” Quirky Q inquired.

        Twilight, shook from her panic, stopped and looked over the stretch of pointed treetops. With a blurred vision the mare could hardly distinguish one section of the forest from another. Guessing which direction her bedroom window faced, Twilight could picture the nocturnal activity in various parts of the green and white jumble.

        “I think it was... over there?” Twilight said as she looked and pointed to the east.

        Windchaser and Quirky surveyed the vague area at which she motioned. Their eyes lacked what little detail Twilight's memory held; that little detail, however, was the difference between a thoughtless gaze and shivering stare. To them, they were in for a lighthearted trip; to Twilight, they were out on a mission.

        “We need to make sure we're heading northeast as much as possible,” Twilight said. “It' a good thing I brought a compass.”

        The mare drew out the round instrument with her magic and held it before her eyes. She tapped the bronze case and watched as the white and red arrows spun inside. When the red needle pointed north, Twilight lifted her head and took in a deep breath in preparation.

        “This way!” she announced, then marched on forward.

        Not after taking two steps, however, she was shortly stopped.

        “Hold the phone!” interrupted Quirky with a dash of excitement as the pink in her eyes grew bright. “What if we skirted the woods and followed the coast a ways? It could save us some trouble in case we get lost.”

        “That would take too long,” Windchaser stated in his usual reserved voice. “And we risk getting distracted, which would only make the trip last longer.”

        “Distracted?” Twilight asked slowly.

        Windchaser glanced at the sea where a frozen sheet of ice covering the shallow waters glistened like the sandy beach it bordered.

        “Colgate and a few others headed that way, or at least they said that was their plan yesterday,” he said.

        “How do you know all these kinds of things?” Quirky asked, amazed. “I rarely see you around, and when you are hanging out you're always so quiet.” The lavender unicorn gasped. “You're a sneaky little eavesdropper, aren't you?”

        Windchaser smirked, “You can call it what you like. I call it ‘being informed’.”

        “Oh, how did we forget about Colgate?” Twilight mumbled to herself. As the other two fell completely silent, though, the mumble turned into a disappointed notice that all three heard clearly. “I mean, i-it would've been nice to have somepony along who knows what she's doing.”

        “Come now, we won't be getting lost in some vast wilderness,” Quirky laughed. “Like you said, we're just following a trail. Nothing dangerous about that, right? And as long as you have the compass we should manage just fine. Now, onward!”

        But as the group made their way down the hill Twilight's heart was far from beating with enthusiasm. The unicorn felt her steps moving in accordance to a reluctance that clenched tightly to her heart and brain as every step was a dragged hoof across the snow-covered earth. The feeling was tiring itself.

        The group carefully made their way through the snow to the trailhead at the foot of the hill. The organic doorway was an unnerving sight altogether with its bare branches twisted into an arch. With a gulp Twilight stared at the lifeless trees which sat on both sides of the portal. When she looked down the trail the mare could spot a number of similar dead-looking flora spread throughout the otherwise vivid pine and other lively conifers.

        “What are you waiting for, an invitation?” Quirky inquired with a giggle. “Let's get moving before it starts getting dark!”

        Twilight hadn't even realized that she came to a complete stop with all her staring. With a long inhalation – as though she were diving deep into the sea – Twilight trudged through the natural gate and onto the trail.

        Once a few steps in the earlier bone-chilling atmosphere had almost completely disappeared; in its stead, however, an eerie ambiance gradually took its place. The forest seemed much more silent as the howling of the wind died at the wood’s edge. A darkness from the shade of the giant trees multiplied the further in the three dared to venture.

        “My, it's so peaceful!” Quirky remarked with wonder, her echoing voice an active example of the tranquility. “It's such a beautiful place. No wonder ponies have been trying to set hoof on this trail!”

        Twilight wished her nerves would calm down. The strained feeling made her outlook on things turn from enjoyment to skepticism. The narrow trail was not a unique sight to enjoy, from its beautiful trees to the ice crystals and snow that occupied them; rather, it was a winding trap with a monster inside, like a maze with a wrong turn somewhere down the line.

        Twilight's head drooped with the weight of the frightening thought. Her eyes darted back and forth in a frenzy. “It’d be more enjoyable if I could get that thing off my mind. What if we run whatever it is? Is it friendly? Does it even come out during the day?”

        “Nonsense, Twilight,” Quirky said with a carefree gesture. “I doubt Princess Luna would let anything dangerous exist even remotely close to the academy. I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.”

        “Well,” Twilight uttered, “we're not exactly close to the school grounds-” Suddenly a thought struck her mind, jolting her into leaping back and stare into space with widened eyes. “Luna! I forgot to tell the princess about all this! Lemon Hearts told me last night that she would say something, but she didn't mention anything about it in her letter-!”

        

        “Princess Luna left,” Windchaser stated.

        Twilight paused and looked at the grey stallion. His expressionless face had a hint of confidence within it, though it looked no different than usual.

        “Do you know why she left, or where she's headed?” Twilight questioned. “Was it about the forest?”

        “She's headed to Canterlot, probably to see Celestia,” Windchaser said. His eyes suddenly motioned a few times toward Quirky, who was paying attention to a pair of blue butterflies that were flying around. “It's not about the forest though. I think it's about our encounter...”

        His voice drifted off as Quirky jumped back into the talk. “What was that? What were you two talking about?”

        “Nothing!” Twilight replied with an uneasy laugh. “Nothing at all. W-We were just talking about the, uh-”

        “Trees,” Windchaser cut in. He nervously grinned.

        Quirky looked at the two and blinked. “I didn't know you two were into... trees.”

        All of a sudden a scream pierced through the still air. The voice was like that of a mare, its volume signaling that she was not far off.

        “W-What was that?” Twilight asked as she stopped and glanced at the others.

        Windchaser faced the right portion of the woods. “It came from over there!”

        “But there's no trail,” Twilight said, shaking her head. “Maybe the path curves up ahead-”

        “There's no time to lose, Twilight!” Quirky declared, suddenly playing the part of the heroine as she puffed out her chest and squinted in focus. “We'll break through the trees, whatever it takes!”

        Normally the comment wouldn't have seemed so bad. But, with the evergreens stretching wide with pointed needles on their branches, the rows of trees were like a palisade of prickly spikes. Twilight backed away, stammering.

        “I-I don't know, you guys,” Twilight said. “We don't even know who's out there-!”

        “That's why we need to hurry and see!” Quirky said, grabbing Twilight and throwing her into the thick barrier of trees.

        Twilight stumbled into the mess of snow-covered brush as blinded as a filly playing pin-the-tail-on-the-pony. Her hoofs tripped over one another. A number of branches slapped across her face. Every other step fell into a dip in the ground, tripping Twilight until she lost complete control of herself. She tried to stop and open her eyes multiple times, but either she staggered into another pile of snow or Quirky – right behind her – pushed her onward against her will.

        After a tiring blunder through the thick of the woods Twilight felt a gap in the bunches of branches. She opened an eye and found herself in a clearing. Its circular shape was large enough to fit a house in its circumference. Across the way sat a mare with eyes wide and mouth trembling as she stared at the three that approached. Her coat was white as the snow and her curling mane and tail a purplish pink. Her dainty figure and cutie mark of a statue and chisel mark were strikingly familiar.

        “H-Help!” the stranger cried. “I-I think I’m being chased!”

        A series of slow stomps suddenly began shaking the ground. Sections of snow on the trees fell off piece by piece until the pines were stripped clean of their white apparel. Storm clouds began swarming the sky, casting darkness upon on the opening.

        The stranger cleared through the open space and stopped before the three with eyes dashing frantically here and there.

        “I was just wandering through the woods, when suddenly these things came after me!” she cried, panting. “Get me out of here, please!”

        Twilight looked at the coral-colored eyes that stared at her. She knew she recognized her face from the academy.

        “Diamond Chisel?” Twilight asked, unsure of the exact words to her name.

        “Y-You recognize me!” she smiled, but the twinkle in her eyes disappeared as soon as they emerged. “I thought you three looked familiar! Please, just get me back to the grounds! It's not safe out here anymore!”

        But the loud stomps grew even closer, until they were sounding at the very edge of the glade. Diamond Chisel fell at Twilight's hoofs and pleaded, “Please, we have to get out of here!”

        Twilight looked to the others, but their eyes were just as wide and expressions just as clueless as hers. The goal had been to find whatever it was that wandered the Western Woods; the newcomer begged for the opposite. Twilight had no idea what to do, nor any time to think.

        “W-What is it!?” Twilight asked the first thing on her mind. She looked down at Diamond Chisel and then back up at the trees and growing darkness around them.

        “It? No, the question is what are they!” Diamond Chisel said hurriedly, urging the three to turn tail and run. “I think t-they're... they're... timber wolves!”

        Seeing the desperation in the mare's eye, Twilight turned to make a dash for the trail. But the moment she caught a glimpse of the forest behind her, she stopped dead in her tracks.

        A pair of red eyes glowed amongst the trees.

        Twilight shrieked and jumped away from the sight as her heart started throbbing like mad. Before she knew it, another pair began glowing close by. Then another, and another, until the entire clearing was surrounded by pairs of evil eyes staring inward.

        “We need to get back to the trail!” Twilight exclaimed as she glanced in every direction.

        “But which way do we go?” Quirky asked.

        Twilight wheeled around until she found herself standing flank-to-flank with the others. She bit her lip and cried, “I don't know!”

        “Fear not my petrified peers!” came a voice of yet another stranger.

        It sounded like another mare, but this voice seemed nothing but confident with a shout that filled the clearing. Before Twilight could look around a figure leaped clear over her head. The newcomer stopped and stood directly in front of her, showing off a dark, flowing mantle that reached from her neck down over her tail.

        The stranger's horn lit a light violet as the mare declared, “Watch in awe as I, the Great and Powerful Trixie, send these hideous beasts back to their dens!”

        Twilight felt her heart stop.

        … TRIXIE!?

        The newcomer's horn glowed brighter and brighter until it shot forth pale purple beams and golden sparks. She dug her hoofs into the snow and lifted her head. A thundering roar rumbled overhead in response. Bolts of lightning flashed within the banks, until suddenly striking down at the red eyes that encircled the group. The blinding bolts blasted one by one as their booms struck in rapid succession.

        Twilight covered her ears but the sound was hardly blocked out. Her eyes closed tighter and tighter until she was on the ground groaning in pain. She waited breathlessly as shocking resonances exploded in a circle around her. In time the bolts of lightning ceased, but Twilight felt safe only sneaking a peek of the scene.

        All of the stalking red eyes had vanished. Their vanquisher, a familiar blue pony, stood before the huddled four rubbing the light blue jewel of her cape-piece with pride. Her eyes were closed and nose held high in an aggrandized, victorious pose.

        

        “Looks another tremendous rescue by the Great and Powerful Trixie,” she stated coolly. “There's no need to thank me you helpless ponies, but if you feel compelled-”

        “Trixie!?” Twilight gasped, finally grasping just who stood before her.

        Taken aback, Trixie opened her eyes and examined the four in shock. “You again!?”

        “You know her?” Windchaser whispered, to which Twilight frowned and nodded.

        “Unfortunately.”

        “I heard that you ungrateful simpleton!” Trixie snapped. “What business do you have being saved by the Great and Powerful Trixie?”

        Twilight rolled her eyes. “We were just exploring, until we heard a cry for help-”

        “Exploring? How foalish,” Trixie retorted. “The headmare should have locked you all up in your rooms so you wouldn't cause any problems as you all obviously have. Do you know how troublesome it was for the Great and Powerful Trixie to come out here and save you all? Of course, it was hardly a challenge to defeat those fiends. Are you four really this helpless on your own?”

        Twilight glanced over at Diamond Chisel, who was snickering. The moment their eyes locked, though, the sneer disappeared and Diamond Chisel looked away.

        “What's going on here?” Twilight asked suspiciously.

        “The Great and Powerful Trixie has just saved you from a blood-thirsty pack of timber wolves, you mule!” Trixie declared.

        Twilight narrowed her eyes. “You wouldn't have happened to have planned all this, would you Trixie?”

        “What!? Apparently you're dumbstruck from watching a tremendous feat of the Great and Powerful Trixie! Your puny little head is fooling you into imagining things, I'm sure,” Trixie remarked with a harrumph. “Is this the thanks the Great and Powerful Trixie gets for saving your sorry-”

        “How’d the glowing eyes thing work, Trix?” came a call of another familiar mare nearby. A light brown unicorn emerged from the woods with a giant grin across her face. “You see 'em scared out of their boots-?”

        The straw hat and accent gave away Lasso Tussle in a stomp of the hoof. When Trixie threw the newcomer a threatening gaze, Twilight began connecting the dots in her head.

        “So, Trixie,” Twilight began as she stood on all fours, “you said you saved us from a real pack of timber wolves?"

        Trixie lifted her nose. "Was there ever any doubt? Did you not see their blood-colored eyes scattered among the trees? Or has my beautiful performance left you utterly blind as well?"

        “Well, that was a lightning spell you used to scare the creatures away, right?”

        “A very powerful lightning spell, you unobservant dolt. The Great and Powerful Trixie would never settle for less.”

        “Then how come we didn't hear anything running away?” Twilight asked.

        Trixie opened an eye and looked to Diamond Chisel, and then Lasso Tussle. “Well, that is to say... Y-You obviously have fallen deaf at the might of the awesome power of the Great-!"

        Twilight quickly interrupted. “Not to mention, how is it that you three, assuming you each received permission to enter the woods from Princess Luna, came into the scene separately, when in fact the headmare ordered that ponies travel in groups?”

        Trixie continued to stammer, “Well, see, that's easy to explain-”

        “This was all a set-up, wasn't it?” Twilight finally stated, to which the three non-Ponyville individuals stared at one another.

        A pause ensued in which every pony on the scene began exchanging confused expressions. After a minute of speechlessness Trixie stomped her hoof and grunted.

        “Not an ounce of gratitude for the works of the Great and Powerful Trixie? Fine then!” Trixie barked. “Don't come running to me anytime soon when you're in desperate need of help.”

        She flipped her cape and turned, heading straight into the forest with her head held high. Diamond Chisel and Lasso Tussle looked at one another in uncertainty, until they too disappeared into the depths of the woods, unable to utter a single word.

        The clearing fell silent, and Twilight felt her head suddenly empty though it swarmed with a volume of thoughts.

        “That was it?” Twilight asked herself. “The monster was just... them?”

        “Ugh! What incentive would a performer like her have in pretending to save us from a pack of monsters?” Quirky remarked with a snort. “She sure has potential for a flashy show, but abusing the skill is frowned upon by all things theatre.”

        “I don't understand her myself,” Twilight said, giving up. “She claimed to have vanquished an Ursa Major when she came to Ponyville a couple years ago, but I don't get why she tried bragging about it.”

        “Boost her credibility?” Windchaser wondered aloud.

        “I guess, but ever since she was caught lying then I thought she would change-”

        Another scream shot through the air, this time accompanied by two others. They emerged from the direction in which Trixie and the others had stormed out. Twilight looked to Windchaser and Quirky, both of which stared back as cluelessly.

        Windchaser cocked his head and smirked, “Should we go this time-?”

        “I wouldn't bother,” Quirky stated firmly. “They're probably trying to pull the act twice in a row. I would expect no less from such an inexperienced actress like herself.”

        “HEEEEEEEEEEEELP!” came the cry of Diamond Chisel again, not very far off this time.

        The three didn't dare move a muscle. The scream sounded different than the first, though it came from the same mouth as before. Twilight looked over to Windchaser, and then to Quirky, the latter of which shook her head slowly.

        “T-They probably worked out the kinks and want a second chance to 'impress' us,” Quirky stated. “Let's just head back to the trail and ignore them. Sooner or later they'll give up trying.”

        Twilight looked around for a moment. Her heart started beating rapidly as her ears retreated. “Wait... which way did we come in from?”

        “Check your compass,” Windchaser mentioned.

        She pulled the instrument from her bags and laughed off the tenseness, “I guess today's been a bit more eventful than I anticipated. Adventures like these can really put my on edge-”

        The ground began shaking once more, this time more violently than before. Twilight looked down at her utensil, its arrows spinning madly about without ever having settled. The mare's eyebrows dropped as a displeased frown combined form her typical unimpressed expression for the other two to see.

        “Trixie, we know it's you guys-”

        Suddenly the three that had screamed burst through the wall of trees and into the opening. Each one stumbled blindly, one over the other, until they either fell or ran into the three onlookers. Lasso Tussle got to her hoofs first and ran clear through the dell into the other side of the forest, while Diamond Chisel shook the pine needles off only to fall back into a different part of the woods.

        Trixie, who had bowled over the Ponyville pack, hardly wasted a second as she got up and continued her gallop. She disappeared into the forest opposite of where she entered, leaving Twilight and the other two in a daze from their collision.

        Twilight looked to the others, dizzy from the impact, until Quirky's and Windchaser's eyes drifted up and then shot open. Before she could look herself Twilight felt a shadow hide what little light came down from the clouded sky, shrouding herself and the others in a darkness they had not yet felt within the woods. But the darkness was something beyond a lack of light; she felt her blood go cold. When the unicorn dared to look upward at the obstruction, she wished she had simply turned and ran like the others.

        A tall monster stood towering over them, its appearance like that of a large, skeletal stallion. Its eyes were a frightening crimson and its teeth were sharp like a great white shark's. Every step of its hoof emitted a thunderous boom as it slowly paced right toward them. Its tall, lanky legs were like flexible stilts on which the emaciated figure of the hunchbacked horse rested.

        W-What is that thing!?

        Twilight leaped to her hoofs and took off in the opposite direction of the beast. She did not need a second more to examine the terrifying image; she knew it was what she had seen moving through the woods that night. Upon breaking through the first barrier of trees and charging through the bundles of branches thereafter Twilight glanced left and right. Not one pony was in sight.

        “Windchaser! Quirky!” Twilight screamed, hoping the others would come to her.

        The branches continued to hit against her body as a breeze blew against her face from her speedy haste. The only sound that met her ears was the whistle of the wind and her own hoofs beating against the ground. Every time she had the chance Twilight glanced around again, near and far, never actually stopping.

        After what felt like miles of frantic retreat, Twilight felt she couldn't run anymore. She rested for a few seconds and listened; the stomps of the monster had faded away. In addition she couldn't feel earth shaking beneath her quaking hoofs. Twilight turned in circles in hopes of detecting movement or sound, to hear something moving or somepony calling. She dared not speak a word herself in fear of the strange creature finding her out.

        Anxiously Twilight waited; she could not and dared not move an inch. The eerie silence settled once again. Twilight bit her lip tightly and whimpered.

        What am I supposed to do now..?

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 19: A Semblance, then Remnants

        

        An hour passed by as Twilight waited as still as the evergreen trees that surrounded her trembling self. No winds, no animals, no activity whatsoever made a sound in the heart of the forest; the mare dared not break the code of silence herself. With no sign of a trail Twilight felt trapped as a bird in a cage that had been stowed away and utterly forgotten.

        The unicorn waited fretfully for something to jump out, though she hoped the opposite every anxious second. Perspiration carpeted Twilight's coat as the sheer cold froze it into an uncomfortable shell around her. The strap and sides of her saddlebag soaked as the pouches slipped centimeters up and down her back. The sensation caused her spine to shivered with bone-chilling fear time and time again. Twilight dared not shed either the frost or the bags; one movement would stir trouble beyond her sights. 

She could only see within the confines of the cleared patch she had found. Its radius was hardly a hoof's reach in radius. In time the space grew unsettling itself as the clouds above thickened over the hours. Daylight slowly lets its might slip away as snow drifted to the ground in celebration. The frosty festivities grew until flakes flew about like little white parasprites. Fresh new layers of snow spread atop each other until they rendered Twilight's hoofwear inadequate.

        

        All of a sudden a rustling in the distance began, sweeping the mare clean out of her boots in one flinch.

        Twilight’s head started spinning worse than ever that day. Her eyes moved more frantically than ever before. Not an inch of scene went uncovered by her eyes, but she feared something sneaking up on her nonetheless. Twilight could feel her breaths leaving before even entering her lungs; the heat of her exhalations turned instantly into steam.

        

        Sections of trees nearer and nearer began shifting and shaking about. Clumps of snow shook off from their branches, plodding onto the thick layers through which the oncoming creature rushed. Against the stillness of the air the noise was an overwhelming cacophony, its sound a disturbing warning. Twilight felt the instinct to run beating her so-called logic to a pulp until she panicked and judged which way held her best chance of escape.

        No, if I stand still it might not hear me... but what if it already knows I'm here!?

        The brushing against the pines drew closer and closer, its direction straight where Twilight stood frozen. The mare's ears retreated as she shrunk in her spot, hunkering down as though hoping to blend into the onsetting darkness. But against the piling snow on the earth Twilight stuck out like a vivid painting against a brick wall.

        A body shot out from the swarm of branches, tackling Twilight to the ground. The unicorn stumbled in her attempt to retreat and fell into a cluster of spiky boughs. As quickly as she blundered into the mess Twilight immediately sprang out from it; the pokes of the pine stung like pins and needles. Blinded by the pain, Twilight fought the twinge to try and spot a way out of the clamor.

        Suddenly a groan met the mare’s ears.

        “Ugh, stupid pine! What traps could possibly stand in the way of the Great and Powerful-”

        “Trixie!?” Twilight yelped.

        Twilight managed to force open one of her eyes. Surely enough with her head stuck in a cluster of branches nearby was the struggling, violet-caped figure. The combined dark of the forest and moisture from melted snow had made Trixie's coat turn navy blue. When the mare pulled her head out from the snow-covered limbs of the evergreen a messy, light azure mane completed the pony's physique.

        Twilight continued to stare in a state of shock until Trixie managed to open a single eye herself. The two stared at each in their strange half-blinded states, both at a loss for words.

        Twilight finally summoned the only thought on her mind. “W-What happened to the monster?”

        Trixie gasped for air and brushed off her coat. “I, I don’t-” She then cleared her throat and harrumphed. “As if the Great and Powerful Trixie would care! It was hardly a task getting away from that beast-”

        “Trixie!” Twilight shushed as she stared at her staggered companion, “would you drop the act and talk like any other decent pony?”

        “Ugh, why should the Great and Powerful Trixie be limited by your pathetic phraseology?” Trixie asked, offended.

        How does she even know these words...

        An echo sounded in the distance. Both of the unicorn's ears shot up, but the noise was too far off to identify. The two waited for something else to follow, their hoofs ready to leap and gallop away, but the forest fell dead silent as the two unicorns that sat listening.

        “Look, Trixie, I don't really care about what you say,” Twilight said in an irritated whisper. “Just try not to yell, okay?”

        “How dare you-!” Trixie gasped, but then covered her mouth the instant she realized her own volume. She continued in a whisper, “How dare you speak to the Great and Powerful Trixie in such an undignified manner!”

        Twilight brushed off the scold with a roll of her eyes. “Look, Trixie, instead of arguing we need to try and find a way out of here. I remember reading a book on survival skills; I think it said to try and find a landmark which could potentially help your location stand out. The alternative is a clearing, but I’m not so sure I’d wanna hang around one of those at this time of night.” She shivered at the thought of the frightening number of red eyes, real or fake, that she had witnessed that day. Are there any landmarks you can think of around here?”

        Trixie took her turn in rolling her violet eyes full circle. “The Great and Powerful Trixie sees no point in answering such a stupid question.”

        Twilight groaned, “Unless you want to walk in some random direction in hopes of finding an exit without encountering that... thing, I suggest you share whatever things comes to mind.”

        With a frustrated exhalation, Trixie declared, “Well then, if you insist. I just hope you actually know what you're talking about, though I'm not sure I can trust your-”

        “Just tell me!” Twilight growled, her crossness nearly bring her whisper straight up to a shout.

        Trixie's eyebrows furrowed, but she answered regardless of her exasperation.

        “Straight back from where I just came were some random piles of rocks,” she explained. “Is that of any importance to you?”

        Twilight lifted her eyes to the sky and let a deep, cold breath flow through her lungs.

        “I don't think you understand, Trixie, I'm talking about real landmarks. Things that stand out more than others? Specifically from a distance? There are rocks all over the woods-”

        “I know what a landmark is you foal! Maybe they weren’t random piles of stones,” Trixie retorted. “Maybe they were organized piles, like markers. Whatever it is lame and helpless explorers make.

        Twilight rubbed her forehead. “Uh huh. So... how many of these mysterious stacks of stones were there?”

        “The Great and Powerful Trixie has no time to count rocks. An educated guess, I suppose, would be roughly enough to build a replica of your pathetic little Ponyville,” Trixie jeered.

        Twilight felt her face beginning to burn even in the eerie cold of the evening. Though her face was freezing every muscle within moved to form an irked scowl across the mare's face. From dealing with the barrage of insults and intolerable word choice Twilight felt herself ignoring more of what came out of Trixie's mouth. While she wanted to believe that something noteworthy was indeed nearby, she kept close her doubts concerning who she knew to be an habitual liar.

        “What are you carrying in a saddlebag out here in the middle of the woods? Don’t you have anything useful inside?” Trixie pried as she examined the violet packs Twilight carried.

        “Nothing that would concern you,” Twilight murmured, until suddenly the bag's contents crossed her mind. “Wait a minute, that's it!”

        Twilight lit her horn and summoned forth the compass that she had taken along for the trip. She couldn't feel the rustling in her bags as she had continued to shake in fear – finding Trixie had not been particularly relieving nor helpful in the slightest. When the mare looked back at her packs, though, not a thing budged inside either of them.

        “I know I packed a compass in here somewhere,” Twilight uttered as a cold chill only brought on more sweating.

        She slid the bag from off her back and dug through the few contents inside with her hoofs. There was no sign of the compass inside. She suddenly realized she had mostly likely dropped it back in the large clearing where the entire pack of ponies had split.

        What was inside, however, was another item which had nearly slipped Twilight’s mind: the spell book 'History of the Speak-No-Evil Spell'.  The mare picked up the tome and held it with her magic with a smile, but the grin quickly turned upside down.

Water dripped from the thick book’s edges. A look of horror slowly emerged. Twilight brisked through the ruined pages and then examined the cover; surely enough, moisture had reached at least half of the volume.

        “Just what are you up to you now?” Trixie asked as she observed a book lifting from her acquaintances bags. “This is no time to be reading books.”

        “I... I damaged it,” Twilight said breathlessly. “I've never damaged somepony's else book before...”

        Twilight flipped through the pages of the spell book from which she had hardly read a word. It was a recommendation from her professor, Yorsets, as a 'casual read' over the break. But with the bottoms of the pages soaked and ink smeared on a number of pages, the book was no longer in a pristine state. Fixing it would take hours upon hours, but only after a scolding from a professor, or worse: Princess Luna.

Twilight felt her heart shatter into pieces.

        “It's just a book you absentminded dolt,” Trixie said. “Who ever had much use for books anyway? Not the Great and Powerful Trixie, that's for sure. Why don't you think of a way to get us out of this mess rather than sob like a pathetic filly?

        Twilight glanced over the title page again when a thought suddenly began stirring in her mind. The twirling soon turned into a strong tornado until it twisted a devilish grin across Twilight's face.

        “Say, Trixie, I think I have a spell that could help get us out of here,” Twilight said.

        “Well then use it,” Trixie replied. “The Great and Powerful Trixie has better things to do than be stuck in the middle of nowhere. Especially with the likes of you.”

        “Oh I'll use it, all right,” Twilight said as she flipped to the end of the hardback she held.

        The spell should be at the end here somewhere...

        Though she had never used the ‘Speak-No-Evil’ spell, Twilight felt confident enough to follow simple instructions. On the last page was a description of manipulation spells and warnings of their side effects. She skipped over the list of related spells and mix-ups and instead focused on the magic casting instructions.

        The instructions read:

        “For absolute truth, cast to hold one's tongue

        For forcing lies, tongue and heart;

        Observe that the two can be held apart

        To risk lies, hold neither one.”

        The wording was more vague than any spell description Twilight had encountered, but with a special gift in magic the mare knew she could do it.

        Might as well give it a shot.

        Twilight closed her eyes and lit her horn as Trixie stood by, clueless. A golden light began glowing from the tip of her horn until they formed the shape of a clamp. It snapped away at the chilly air until Twilight opened her eyes and directed its movement. Trixie watched with a skeptical stare until her eyes shot wide open at the sight of the device headed straight for her.

        In a flash the clamp dissolved right into thin air, but Trixie continued to back away with her eyes closed. She coughed and sputtered as she spun in circles avoiding what Twilight assumed to be the hold of her spell.

        Twilight smiled and asked smartly, “Now let's test this enchantment before continuing on. Trixie, why don't you tell me whether or not there were actually timber wolves attacking us earlier?”

        “I accept to play this game!” Trixie said, upon which her eyes opened wide and stared down at her muzzle. “What, what's not the matter!?”

        “Answer the question, Trixie,” Twilight ordered.

        “T-There were... many... timber wolves,” Trixie said as she continued to look about nervously. “T-There, are you dissatisfied?”

        Twilight smiled and nodded, “That's what I tho- wait, did you say many?”

        “I most certainly did not, and that's exactly what I intended!” Trixie replied as a scowl began to show.

        Twilight looked no different with her eyes wide open and mouth hanging. “Did my spell not work..?”

        “Judging by my normal speech, it seems it apparently did not!” Trixie barked. “Unless you intended for me to sound just fine!”

        “Stop yelling!” Twilight pleaded in an exemplifying, but strong, whisper.

        “I can help it!” Trixie snapped. “Obviously you've done nothing to make me this way!”

        “Trixie! It's going to hear you-”

        Suddenly the ground shook. Then the trees shook. Soon enough even the still air shook. Twilight and Trixie exchanged horrified glances. Trixie bolted off in the direction from which she came.

        Twilight shouted in protest, “Trixie, I think it'd be better if we stick together!”

        “Sticking around with a sane intellectual like you is on the top of my list of priorities!” Trixie shouted back, then grunted in frustration. “I'd rather survive running with you than get attacked by that mysterious thing!”

        “Then why are you heading that way?” Twilight yelled, but her call fell beneath the storming beats of the beast’s steps. “TRIXIE!”

        A shrill neigh blared, breaking the silence of the wood altogether. Noises big and small suddenly swarmed Twilight as she started in a gallop from what had been her hidden post. Her instinct screamed to turn completely around and run, but something else held the reins in her mind. Something inexplicable steered the mare off through the forest. As far as she could tell it was away from the monster.

        

        Twilight dared to turn her head as she caught a glimpse just over her shoulder. A terrible pair of crimson eyes followed behind hovering above the snow-capped treetops. Against the charcoal sky the silvery head would have been rather easy to make out; however, with the heavy snowfall ensuing, it blended with the flurry of snowflakes that stirred in a wind above the woods. Twilight was not sure which would struck more fear, the heads or the head completely; she surely didn’t care to check.

        While looking back Twilight tripped over a root and tumbled head over hoof. She crashed into a strong, uneven surface, and a lump of snow spilled down over her body. The freezing sensation was a jolt, to say the least; but in the heat of the chase it felt like mere lukewarm water flowing like crystallized honey.

        Unable to move Twilight could only listen as the stomping beast drew near. Its steps approached until Twilight could sense the mysterious monster passing directly above. She held her breath despite her pleading lungs until the violent trampling passed by.

Ever so slowly the treading faded away, until Twilight could no longer hear nor feel the earth trembling.

        Though Twilight wished she could stay within the safety of her cocoon of clumpy snow, she knew she would have to move sooner or later. Reluctantly she wiggled her way out and shook to try and release some of the built-up tension. But with racked nerves and a frame of frazzled muscles the mare could hardly extend a limb. The tightness of her body matched the stress in her brain, which by then was so behind on contemplation that images of the monster's eyes were still stuck in her mind.

        The image gradually faded away as Twilight examined just what it was she had run into. Standing not much taller than the mare herself was a rough, broken section of dark stone wall. Mortar sat along the edges of the round, rocky bricks while former pieces hid scattered in the snow. Twilight carefully looked over the single formation until a familiar figure paced along into sight.

        “See for yourself, halfwit,” Trixie said as Twilight held back a shriek. A sparkle suddenly lit up in the blue mare’s eyes as she approached the startled unicorn. “Wait, did that come out as I meant? Aha, your pathetic spell has already worn-

        “Trixie,” Twilight interrupted, looking around, “is this the area you found earlier? Don't you realize that these could be more than just random piles of rock!?”

        Trixie stammered, recovering from her sudden excitement. “W-Well of course, obviously this shows certain signs of-”

        “The town,” Twilight said as the shock made her cold all over again. She shivered at the thought of the carvings on the walls that she had witnessed days before classes began.

        “What!? How did you know about all this?” Trixie asked suspiciously.

        “There... There was a town on a map of the island,” Twilight recollected. “I remember seeing it in the cave-”

        She suddenly stopped and looked over at Trixie, who listened intently – for once.

        “Wait... how do you know about all this?” Twilight asked.

        

        “Wouldn't you like to know,” Trixie said with a huff as she disappeared behind the standing section of mortar and stone. “You may be an open book, you mule, but the Great and Powerful Trixie is far more complicated.”

        With that Trixie turned tail and walked off out of sight behind the stone structure. Twilight, driven by bland curiosity, followed the trail of hoofprints around the corner of the damaged partition. The moment her wandering gaze lifted from the tracks, however, Twilight could hardly believe her eyes. Scattered in the midst of the thick of the woods were spreads of rock structures, all mostly crumbled save for their foundations. Blankets of snow covered piles of stone that spilled from broken arches and walls.

        The words escaped Twilight ever so slowly, “Is this what I think it is?”

        “Didn't believe the Great and Powerful Trixie, did you, foal?” jeered her irritable companion who looked over the debris without a care in the world. “Let this be a lesson to you about doubting-!”

        “Trixie, keep it down!” Twilight shushed pleadingly. “We don't know where that monster is.”

        “What are you, scared?” Trixie mocked. “So much for the mare who vanquished the Ursa Minor.”

        Twilight gave an unconvinced glare, to which Trixie simply looked away and raised her nose stubbornly.

        “I didn't want to have to do this again,” Twilight said as she drew out her spell book. “On second thought, maybe I did...” 

She scanned over the instructions once again but read over the notes on the preceding page. A few examples of failed casting filled up the entire page, but Twilight only searched for one specific situation.

She found the category and simply solution:

“What to do if the target continues lying:

        Remember to focus your energy on the target’s tongue without looking an answer of your own.

Otherwise conflicting words may emerge that neither please the target nor the caster.”

        

Twilight lit up her horn again as a golden color began to emit.

        “W-What do you think you're doing?” Trixie began, but was quickly cut off by a twist of her tongue.

        Twilight's reattempt at the 'Speak-No-Evil' spell followed just as before as a golden clamp formed and floated in the air. Trixie threw a grimace as she tried to escape again, but the magic thrust at her and grabbed hold of her tongue again. The golden glow then dissipated, leaving Trixie violently to shaking her head in vain. After a minute she gave up the scuffle as Twilight watched the mare slump onto the snow.

Trixie, unimpressed with the spell herself, threw a furious glowering with her violet eyes.

        “I need to know, Trixie,” Twilight stated seriously, “how did you know that this town existed?”

        Trixie shut her mouth as tightly as possible, but her lips forced their way against her will. “When some of you Ponyvillians went to inspect the seaside cavern a while back, I had a few of my underlings scare them off. After they returned they told me about strange markings they had found, so I went to see for myself.”

        “Did you see carvings in the walls?”

        Trixie tried to resist again, but the attempt failed faster than the first as her mouth yanked open. “THERE was a map and some other things, I didn't care to look at everything. I saw a map first and looked at it, and right next to it was this etching of a town of ponies in a forest. There was something written warning of a Tigbalan.”

        “Tigbalan? What's that?” Twilight asked with an eyebrow raised. Her clear speech turned briefly into a murmur, “I remember everything in the tunnel but that last thing.” She looked up at Trixie, who continued to glower. “Trixie, do you know what a Tigbalan is? That sure sounds made-up to me.”

        “I had forgotten the word until you forced it out of me just now,” Trixie commented, to which Twilight narrowed her eyes. “I didn’t care at the time, and still don’t now.”

        “How do I know that you aren’t lying-?”

        “You have this spell cast on me, don't you!?” Trixie asked irritatedly.

        “I'm not sure it was working correctly before, and it stopped worked after a while,” Twilight observed. “There's only one way to know: Trixie, how many Ursa Majors have you defeated?”

        Trixie suddenly captured a second burst of resistance as she turned her head away and shut her mouth. Her faced turned a terrible blue as she held her breath and closed her eyes.

        Her final fight, however, ended in vain as the answer flew out with a gasp for air.

“NONE!”

        Twilight released the spell with a wave of her horn. Groaning, Trixie rolled her tired tongue back into her mouth and wheezed from exhaustion. She slowly rose to her hoofs with a terrible temper growing as steam floated up from her head.

        “How dare you treat me so brutishly! I have a spell of my own I would cast if it weren't for-!”

        The ground started shaking once again. Its might was more powerful than earlier. Twilight and Trixie looked at one another until a frightening whinny tore through the atmosphere. The two suddenly looked straight into the darkness ahead.

        A horrid pair of large, crimson eyes blinked. Their sights were fixed on the shivering mares.

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 20: Crimson Eyes and Iffy Lies

        

        Twilight felt her body go whiter than a skeleton. A chill slithered up and down her weary spine, jingling her joints and shaking her limbs as though they were nothing but hollow bones. The trembling echoed through the chattering of the mare's teeth, a drum-roll awaiting the moment the red-eyed beast would make its next move.

        But the beast held a pause of its own. Its blazing red eyes stood out from the unpigmented countenance, piercing through the smoky black atmosphere with a mysterious energy. They shone through the snowy haze like fiery lanterns. Their strength made Twilight feel as though they were only inches in front of her nose.

        This fear held on through an uneasy stillness. Twilight felt her mind in time free itself from its state of shock. It ate its way out of the cocoon of horror surrounding it, only to find itself encaged in a state of confusion.

        Why isn't it moving..?

        Thoughts of escape began formulating behind contemplative eyes; but even then Twilight dared not remove her gaze from the eyes ahead. In her wait a violent breeze began, stirring and swirling through the ruins like a rapid through a broken blockade.

        Twilight kept her eyes open as best she could, until all of a sudden something slapped onto her face. The mare shrieked but closed her lips in time to contain the scream from gushing out. She lit her horn quickly and removed the thin object that had draped across her eyes and held it a foot away for inspection.

        It was an envelope. More specifically, it was the one with Twilight’s letter from her Ponyville friends – the one she had been using as a bookmark. The flap in back was open and the sheet inside stuck out, revealing the tiniest bit of Spike's writing on the decorated paper.

        Vivid memories began twisting through Twilight's head more wildly than the wind. She had been through her fair share of frights, from her encounter with Nightmare Moon to the parasprite infestation. Each instance she had made it out alive, and many times it was thanks to her planning or whim.

        She recalled the images of the stained glass windows within Canterlot of her and her friends' victories. Ponyville's numerous escapes from utter ruin ran through Twilight's brain as well. Deed after deed that passed through her brain the mare felt her confidence growing. She had been through worse. She had come out on top. Overcoming fears was not something unusual to Twilight Sparkle.

        “You can do it, Twilight!”

        Twilight closed her eyes; she could picture her friends' faces, their confidence and kindness emanating in their energetic expressions.

        “We believe in you!”

        “Don't give up now!”

        Twilight let out a deep sigh.

        I won't.

        Twilight felt her consciousness return to the present. She placed the envelope back in the book in her bag and fixed her sights on the mysterious creature ahead.

        But the glowing red eyes were missing. Not a trace of them remained.

        Twilight glanced around the edge of the clearing, waiting for the eyes to show again. As she searched and searched, however, no sign of them emerged. Without a moment to lose she began gathering together a list of ideas of what to do next. She thought through her previous encounters with the Tigbalan, as well as her past escapes. Every detail manifested in her mind.

        As minutes passed and no sign of the beast emerged, Twilight stretched deeper into her memory banks. She thought all the way back to the first few days on the island, of every clue or sign she could muster.

        Signs... The last two places mentioned to contain signs of monsters were in caves. There might be an underground entry in the ruins. We could hide down there as long as we get away here first. From my studies of larger creatures in Equestria, a majority of larger creatures take on a predatory stance when something nearby runs away. If I can just communicate this to Trixie...

        The mare stole a split-second glance of Trixie, who had not yet moved an inch herself. The violet color in her irises turned gray as her eyes mirrored the haze around her. Unsure of the showmare's abilities, Twilight began rethinking her plans.

        What if she refuses to listen? I doubt she's up for taking orders from me, though I could maybe fix that with another spell-

        Twilight's ears twitched. A shake of shrubbery broke the silence, followed by a rustling bushel of branches. The company of noises grew slightly louder until Twilight felt herself pulled from her state of concentration.

        Her awareness heightened, Twilight felt the cold of the winds and snow abruptly return. She shivered to shake off the sensation altogether, but the chill swallowed her up as raging waters do a swimmer.

        Suddenly, the mysterious racket sounded again, barely audible above the howling of the wind. It came from out in the forest, beyond where Trixie to the side. The blue mare continued to stare where the monster had stood, her irises shrunk and mouth agape. Twilight wondered if she was just hearing things.

        “Twilight! Where are you?” came calls off in the distance. “Trixie? Twilight!

        Trees near the edge of the clearing where the mares stood began shaking, followed by the emergence of four familiar characters. One by one they revealed themselves, each displaying relief upon breaking free of the forest's maze. Their joy in freedom, however, quickly turned into wonder as each stumbled into the great span of the ruins. They wandered like deer through overwhelming pasture, their eyes big and attention taken. They meandered through the piles of stone until spotting Twilight and Trixie across the way.

        “Twilight! You're okay!” Quirky said as her sights locked onto the frozen purple figure. She trotted over to Twilight with an unsettled look. Twilight, you look paler than the moon! What's the matter? Is something wrong?”

        Twilight couldn't think of anything to say, and instead began searching the edge of the woods again, hoping to convey her message. The group approached her and Trixie cautiously as the four inspected the duo head to hoof.

        “Is it out there?” Windchaser asked.

        The others stared with nothing but worry in their eyes. Twilight nodded.

        Diamond Chisel lowered her head and her eyes and whispered, “Where?”

        Twilight brought her head lower as well and whispered, “I don’t know right now, but it was just here. Can any of you see it?”

        The others reluctantly scanned the perimeter. Their stares turned to squints, and then to looks of incertitude.

        “I don't see anything but snow, stone and trees,” said Quirky after a mutual pause.

        “Maybe it walked off,” Windchaser suggested.

        “No, we would have heard or felt it,” Twilight groaned as her heart started pumping, “Trixie, you were staring at it too, right?”

        But the blue mare continued to stare off into the distance, blinking sparingly. Diamond Chisel approached the blue mare and tapped her on the back, to which Trixie squealed and leaped clear over a wall of rubble behind her.

        Lasso Tussle tipped her hat back and squinted an eye. “Trixie? Is somethin' the matter?”

        

        “What's going on?” Trixie yelped. “Where did you come from!?”

        “Trixie, isn't it true that the Tigbalan was just here?” Twilight asked.

        “What are talking about!?” Trixie whispered with a hiss. “It's probably still out there!”

        But the moment she turned and glanced out at the darkness near the woods where she and Twilight had been facing, nothing stood out from the blurry vision of the edge of the forest. Trixie gulped.

        “I-I was just staring at it,” she uttered. “When did it disappear?”

        Diamond Chisel uttered, “M-Maybe it's hiding.”

        “I dunno,” Twilight said skeptically, “every time we've ran into that monster it's made its presence known one way or another. With its size, especially in this forest, I think we'd hear something.” A spark in Twilight's brain cut her off, only to ignite a new train of thought. “Wait a minute, hearing. That's it!”

        Her murmuring shot into a shout, to which the others glared. Her pallid face kept any signs of blushing from emerging, though the ensuing excitement revealed itself through a confident grin.

        “Not only has the Tigbalan shown up making lots of noise, it's also only been seen when lots of noise is made,” Twilight said, hushed. “I remember spotting it on the night of Vinyl's concert. We all saw it shortly after the thunder and lightning Trixie summoned, and then Trixie and I saw it later after we got into an argument. It only comes out when something loud happens!”

        “What 'bout when it was first seen?” Lasso Tussle interjected. “Wasn't that some weeks ago? Don't remember anythin' loud back then.”

        Twilight tapped her muzzle. “Well, it couldn't have been the fireworks show; that was after the first spotting. All I can think of is the cave in.”

        Quirky tilted her head as her eyes rolled up. “Cave in? What cave in?”

        Twilight felt herself turn almost as pale as she had gone earlier. She glanced over at Windchaser, the only other present that was aware of what she spoke. He held a weight of concern in his platinum eyes. Neither had told anypony about what had happened that first night on the island. Princess Luna had ordered them not to.

        “I-I'll tell you guys later, if I can,” Twilight said. “For now, we need to find a way out of here, together.”

        Twilight looked at the others, all visibly weighed down with exhaustion and worry in their faces and postures. The riskiness of running off began putting measurements and estimates through Twilight's brain. She ran through the mathematics until they turned into words that spilled out for everypony to hear.

        “The chances of escape are minimal unless we stick to going one direction. Based on the area of the forest I calculated before coming out here, it should only take approximately an hour and a half at most to arrive at any edge of the woods. Once we reach that, we can judge where we are based on the surrounding geographic features...”

        “But what pace is that at, smart-alec?” Lasso Tussle asked brusquely. “And in just what direction do we even start headin'? What if that monster shows up 'n' throws us off course?”

        

        Twilight paused and looked to the others. Soon their faces were reflecting the concern that emanated from Lasso's words.

        “Well, the way I see it, there's no other way out,” Twilight stated. “I think that monster somehow is scaring us out of our senses-”

        “Last I checked, every monster does that,” Lasso remarked. “Tell us somethin' we don't know.”

        “No, I mean it literally is scaring us out of our senses!” Twilight rejoined. “Don't you remember when we first split up? Why is it that none of us ran in the same direction? Wouldn't it have made more sense to run together, or at least in small groups?”

        Lasso had no reply this time, though her teeth were bare in preparation for the second something struck her brain. The others held looks of amazement as they realized the truth in Twilight’s words.

        “Every time that thing gets close, it somehow makes us do almost the opposite of what we normally would react,” Twilight said. “I don't know about you guys, but I haven't felt myself since I walked into the woods.” The others, including Lasso, gave in to showing some degree of agreement, whether it was a nod or murmur. “As much as I wish I could test my hypothesis, I don't think that will help us out, especially now that we're all together. What we do need is to pick a direction and stick with it.”

        “How are we supposed to do that?” Quirky asked helplessly. “There's no telling where we are, and we can't even see a stone's throw ahead of us except for in these random clearings.”

        Twilight looked to the grey stallion. “Windchaser, I need you to fly above the treetops and try and look for a landmark. Got it?”

        Windchaser shook his head immediately. “Are you crazy? What if it sees me? I'll just be leading that thing right to us.”

        “I know it seems like that, but hear me out: I don't think that monster detects things by seeing them. It only knows by hearing,” Twilight explained, strained. “Since you use magic for flying, it shouldn't be able to hear you, at least not above the winds.”

        “She's tryin' to get us caught!” Lasso declared as she began backing away. “Listen, y'all can pitter patter and wait fer help. As fer me... I-I ain't stickin' 'round here!”

        “Wait, Lasso!” Diamond Chisel shrieked. She looked at the others with mouth agape. “What is she thinking?”

        “She’s not thinking,” Twilight said slowly. “Which means that monsters nearby-!”

        Surely enough, as though cued in, a crying whinny cracked the air like a whip. Lasso, not even caring to turn and check and see, started a full-on gallop through the ruins and into the woods opposite where it approached.

        “Stick together!” Twilight shouted. “Whatever you do, don't run off on your own!”

        The others took off right behind Lasso, not one daring to look over his or her shoulder; the shaking ground was a big enough clue. Twilight only looked back once to see how far back the Tigbalan was. The second she saw the crimson eyes bobbing about, though, she immediately regretted her decision. When she looked back forward, the red was imprinted on the back of her eyelids.

        Lasso maintained an incredible pace as she wove through the thick of the trees. Twilight was more surprised by her own stamina, though what truly drove her was the fuel of fear. All the mare could focus on was the nearest pony in front of her and how far off the sound of the monster's steps seemed. Ever so slowly she thought they were pulling away.

        Tree after tree threw branches against the ponies' faces as they struggled to find their way out. Not a break waited between huddles of pine, nor smooth ground beneath piles of snow.

        “This way!” Windchaser suddenly called from above. “I think I see a trail!”

        Twilight dared not stop, but lifted her head enough to see the grey unicorn hovering overhead. He continued to gallop as he soared through the air, his hoofs free of the forest's natural traps, twists and turns. Twilight wished she had studied a similar spell before; it was another to add to her list.

        Suddenly Twilight broke free of the branches and found herself in a narrow clearing. The way did offer a view of where they were headed, but it was not part of the official trail. As the six pressed on they formed a line as they galloped through the slender passage. Windchaser touched back down on the ground in front of Lasso at the head but continued running.

        “Twilight,” he called back as quietly as possible. “I think we lost it. Should we keep going this way?”

        “Why would Twilight know?” Diamond Chisel broke in. “Trixie, you saw that map in the cave. Which way should we go?

        “You saw what-?” Windchaser began, but then shut his mouth and faced forward in his charge.

        Trixie, who was panting louder than the rest, managed to reply, “I... I don't know!”

        “Don't you remember talking about what we saw?” Diamond Chisel yelled. “I know we read something about that thing written on the cavern wall-”

        “I-I didn't read anything, that was just you!” Trixie replied. “I forgot the whole thing as soon as I got back to my room.”

        “You WHAT!?” Diamond Chisel cried, digging her hoofs into the ground to come to a sudden stop.

        The others halted just as quickly, but they did not stand patiently after doing so. They watched, hopping uneasily as though dancing an antsy ballet, while Diamond Chisel stomped back to Trixie. The approached bit her lip as the mares' eyes locked.

        “What exactly is going on here?” Quirky asked, desperation in her tone. “We need to get a move on!”

        Diamond Chisel exhaled, though her breaths continued on very short and scattered. “Trixie, don't you remember that week when I was working on my sculpture of Sapphire Shores?”

        Trixie stammered, “Well, I, of course I do-”

        “And remember just before I finished carving out her hat I was talking to you about reading up on that 'Tigbalan' thing?”

        Trixie shook her head slowly as her face slowly went flush, “I may have been present, but perhaps not listening-”

        “I told you about how odd it was that a monster, that thing that's following us, wouldn't attack if we did something strange in particular. But what was that something!?”

        Windchaser stomped and faced forward again. “This is a waste of time, we need to keep moving-!”

        “No! I know that I even went and got the book on mysterious creatures and read the whole passage out loud,” Diamond Chisel stated. “Trixie, you have to remember. What was that something the mythological creatures book mentioned?”

        Trixie looked around, from the two she knew to the Ponyville bunch, a nervous frown and shrunken eyes pleading innocence.

        “Why can't you remember, Diamond Chisel?” Twilight asked, confused. “If you read the book, wouldn't you remember it better?”

        “No,” Diamond Chisel snapped. “I happen to have a terrible memory when it comes to reading. I have more of a picture memory, thank you very much. It's the main reason I'm such an excellent sculptor.”

        “Wait!” Trixie stammered. “D-Didn't it have to do with... mountains? T-That's the only thing I can think of.”

        Twilight felt a sense of doubt boiling deep down. She knew that tone in the showmare's voice; she had heard it earlier that afternoon.

        “Trixie, you can't just make stuff up,” Twilight said. “We have to know for sure what to do.”

        “I-I told you, it has to do with the mountains!” Trixie replied helplessly. “We need to... climb one! Yes, that was it!”

        “We need to climb a mountain,” Twilight repeated, unimpressed.

        Trixie nodded with her nervous grin, but the others' tired, clueless faces did not change in the slightest.

        “I'll see if I can find a peak nearby,” Windchaser said, suddenly shooting up above the height of trees.

        “What!? No! Stop!” Twilight ordered, stopping Windchaser before he could lift himself high into the air. “Let's be logical. Are you guys really going to believe what Trixie's saying? Somepony who's known for her tall tales?”

        The others looked at Trixie, and then back at Twilight. The overall confidence was split in half as an ax chopping a block of wood.

        “Well, what else would you suggest?” Lasso Tussle inquired.

        Twilight pulled out her spellbook, the sight of which made Trixie jump away.

        “No, no! Don't you use that spell on me again!” the blue unicorn objected. “Stay away!”

        “Trixie, it's for the good of the group,” Twilight said, then directing her words to the others. “The spell in this book helps draw the truth out from a liar's mouth.”

        “What good is that, though?” Quirky asked. “If Trixie doesn't know what we should do, then she doesn't know, period. Right?”

        Twilight growled, “While that may be true, I just want to show that she's lying so we don't go climbing a mountain for no reason.

        Thump. Thump. The ground began shaking closer and closer.

        “It's coming!” Windchaser exclaimed as he hovered back down. “I think I see mountains nearby!” He restarted the gallop down the narrow path. “We just need to keep going this way!”

        Twilight exchanged glances with Trixie for a second. All Twilight could spot was an expression of fear and perplexity consuming the mare's face. She let her spellbook slip from her magic grasp and drop back into her saddlebag.

        Trixie... you better not be making this up, too.


        After a swift gallop the barriers of branches and trails of trees ceased and the terrain shifted from a level forest to a giant mountain. The base was bare and full of boulders with hardly a plant growing on its rocky slope. The peak above disappeared into the low-hanging clouds. Winding down from it were two possible paths, each consisting of boulders stacked upon one another like steps.

        “Which way do we go?” Quirky asked as she examined both ways. “Is there even a difference between the two?”

        Twilight shook her head faster than her eyes could shift back and forth. “They both look the same to me.”

        Right between the gaps a dark orb suddenly appeared. In the blink of an eye it flashed and blinding rays of light shot out, forcing Twilight and the others to quickly shade their eyes as they grunted in pain. When the shining ceased, one by one each of the six managed to open their stinging eyes. Twilight, the last of the group, heard terrified gasps that made her stomach twist.

        Standing in the middle of the split between paths was the white, ghostly-like horse. Its back was hunched and neck curved like a crooked arch. Its red eyes were all too familiar. Before any of the ponies had a chance to let out a scream it rose onto its hind hoofs and let out a thunderous whinny; the shrill sound brought each one's hoofs over their ears.

Twilight, fighting the resonance against her ears, made a dash for one of the paths. With a sprint she passed the giant figure, and shortly after its shrieking ceased. She turned around to see the others just past the figure which now looked left and right, contemplating its next step.

        “Either way leads up!” Twilight shouted back. “Hurry!”

        Twilight turned around and headed up. The slant and the snow swept Twilight's hoofs from underneath her time and time again as she made her advance up the natural steps. With the height of the mountain three times the size of the academy's hill, Twilight felt as though she were headed for the heavens. A quarter of the way up Twilight glanced back down again. Trixie and Windchaser were behind her. Right on their tails was the Tigbalan.

        Its advance was slow but steady as every one of its steps dug into the slope. For every stride it made Twilight managed to make several, though half were slips and stumbles rather than steps in the right direction. In time her pace started slowing down.

        “It's getting closer!” Trixie screamed, to which Twilight looked back again.

        It was just steps from reaching the two. Twilight prepared to jump back down as a spell entered her mind. But the second she turned to hop back down, Windchaser stood tall and turned around himself.

        “I'll distract it!” he exclaimed. “You two hurry to the top!”

        Not listening for a word of protest the stallion slid down head-first as his horn began glowing a silvery color. His coat began shining like that of his magic as he jumped off the ground and over the monster's head.

        He stayed in the air as he hovered around, swooping past the monster's head again and again. The Tigbalan, however, didn't budge an inch. Though it stalled for a moment and watched him fly about, it never swatted or screeched or scowled. Twilight, catching herself staring back at the sight, felt a hoof shoving her rear from behind.

        “Keep going!” Trixie ordered. “We didn't make it this far for nothing!”

        Twilight looked at the peak of the mountain where Trixie has said to go. Clouds swarmed the top as though the mountain were a needle poking into the fabric of the sky. The chilling sight of the snow-pouring clouds seemed hardly the direction in which to head in case of emergency.

        Twilight glared at the blue mare behind her. “If you were lying about all this, Trixie, just admit it already! I know it's not easy to say that you made this all up, but wouldn't you rather live than have us all freeze or something because of your lies?”

        “I told you, I remembered!” Trixie said. “Diamond said something about mountains when she was reading that book she had out loud. Why don't you just believe me?”

        Twilight's eyes snuck a peek of the contents of her saddlebag; the spellbook stuck out from its leather hold, the letter from her friends stuck between its pages. Conviction and doubt began spinning in the mare's head; the altitude did not help the matter in the least.

        “What are you waiting for?” Trixie stated.

        Twilight bit her lip and struggled with her churning her stomach, its pain worse than that of a cramp.

        How else can I get her to admit the truth? There’s nothing up here but clouds!

        The winds blew with a greater might, chilling Twilight's coat all over. She shivered in her boots as her scarf began tugging tighter around her neck. The cold and choking sensations left her stranded where she stood, pondering, caught between the monster and mountaintop.

        As Twilight's gaze wandered down the slope, when suddenly that of the monster suddenly lifted. Twilight felt her blood suddenly red hot with fear.

        The mare sprinted up the slope without another moment of hesitation; the heat inside pushed her on like a steam engine against the stale, wintry air. Trixie, who had been pushing, fell flat on her face but recovered and trailed right behind. The new energy pushed Twilight all the way to the top, until she found herself completely surrounded by clouds.

        The air was thick and dense with water as flakes poured down like grated ice. The cold fought the blazing terror inside of Twilight until the fire was completely put out. With the guiding flame dead and gone, Twilight found herself shivering and staring in every direction, no sign of another spark. To Twilight, though, the cold was preferable to the sight of the stalking eyes.

        Feeling the last bits of energy gradually draining, Twilight felt her rear hoofs slipping back down the slope. Before they could fall back a couple inches they hit against something and stopped.

        “Oof! Watch where you're going!” Trixie protested.

        

        Twilight tried to turn and shush the loudmouth, but the clouds suddenly began sweeping in a dizzying circle, its curved edge just behind the two mares. The gales that carved the gray fog kept the two from falling out, but that did not stop the two from being utterly terrified. Rather, it was the very presence of the lanky, phantasmal horse before them, centered in the cleared cavern within the clouds.

        Twilight tried to look away, but the strange sight caught her off-guard; the creature was no longer hunched over and skulking. It was sitting, much like one that is meditating, with its rear legs crossed and front hoofs extended outward. Its eyes and mouth were closed as its countenance faced skyward.

        “Weary wanderers, fortunate few,” came a slow, deep voice, “welcome to these sacred grounds.”

Next Chapter >


Index

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Chapter 21: Pony Relic

        Twilight's eyes ricocheted off the spherical chamber, its solid cloud walls similar in appearance to marble. The air inside stirred like a calm breeze playing within the bounds of a much larger area. Its tingling chill was but a tickle compared to the numbing sensation Twilight felt just by looking at the pale Tigbalan.

        The creature's closed eyelids hid its most frightening sight, but this only brought more attention to its fearsome physique. Its front hoofs stretched out twice as long as its rear ones. Pointed spikes stuck out from its neck like a mane as its bleached tail swung from its body across the snowy ground. Even when sitting the Tigbalan looked taller than the highest tree in the Western Woods.

        After a drawn out pause it opened its eyes. A golden color glowed instead of the red.

        As it aimed its gaze down at Twilight and Trixie a deep voice flowed from its monstrous mouth, “It has been many years since this island last saw outsiders. My name is Dragoman, overseer of this forest. Tell me, what are your names, and from where do each of you hail?”

        Twilight stepped forward with reluctance. “My name is Twilight Sparkle, and this-” She glanced at Trixie, who still wore a terrified expression on her face. “This is Trixie. We're both from the land of Equestria, just a few miles west across the sea.”

        

        “Equestria?” Dragoman repeated. “Yes, that name is most familiar.” Twilight nodded as slowly as the beast did, until it finally spoke up again. “Nothing good comes from the land of Equestria... not that this island has ever seen.”

        Twilight felt her blood go cold. “W-What do you mean?”

        The Tigbalan suddenly growled. Twilight jumped back as the rock shards beneath her began shaking and scraping against one another, but soon the trembling passed. The mare looked back again at Trixie, who had also leaped a fair distance back. Her paralyzed stare was the same look that she wore back in the ruins of the forest.

        “Either you have no respect for the Tigbalan, or you are simply ignorant,” Dragoman remarked, calming himself with deep, controlled breaths. “Which of the two should I assume?”

        “W-We've never heard of a Tigbalan before,” Twilight explained quickly, looking to Trixie for confirmation. The blue mare merely stared.

        Dragoman lifted his head and groaned, “Very well then, I shall explain. We, the Tigbalan, are a race cursed into habit. We give chase to those that invade our forests, but grant wishes to those who meet us on high grounds. It burns our very hearts to be asked questions, and our tempers flare as quickly as the flash of a spark.”

        “So, no asking questio-?” Twilight cut herself off immediately. “Er, n-no questions. Understood.”

        The Tigbalan closed its eyes and resumed its peaceful stance once more. “There is little I wish to say to either of you; the scent of Equestria, now fresh in my memory, only intensifies the pain of past recollections I relive every single day.” Dragoman drew in a shaking breath. “Bound to my habits, I am obliged to give each of you a single wish. Ask whatever of me, and it shall be done. After you have obtained what you want, be gone from my sight.”

        Twilight and Trixie exchanged nervous glances. They could only stare in shock as their lagging minds processed just what was being offered.

        Dragoman opened an eye slowly and examined the speechless duo. “Dig into what your hearts desire. Now is your one chance to get what you've always wanted. Fame. Fortune. Happiness. If you seek answers or knowledge, I can only grant a glimpse of what I know. Now, ask and be gone.”

        Twilight looked back at Trixie, who suddenly had a twinkle in her eye. Twilight turned to face the beast and laughed uneasily, “Could you excuse us for just a-? I mean, please excuse us for a moment.”

        Twilight pulled Trixie back and lowered her head.

        “Trixie, we have to really consider what we're about ask for,” Twilight asked. “I'm not sure I believe all this just yet, but we have to give it a shot. Do you have any ideas about what to wish for?”

        “I already know what I'll be doing with my wish,” Trixie stated.

        Twilight blinked. “You do?”

        “But of course,” Trixie whispered in a menacing tone. “I'll use my wish to make myself into the most powerful mare in all of Equestria!”

        Twilight exhaled a tired groan.

        “Listen, Trixie, I know that offer seems tempting, but we really have to think about a sure-fire way to get out of this situation after finding out as much as we can about this island. This is a library of knowledge we're dealing with!”

        

        “What would you propose, hmm?” Trixie asked. “I see nothing wrong with the current plan; you wish for information, and I'll wish for the power. And then, with my new magic capacity, I shall banish this beast from the island, forever.”

        “But what if you can't?” Twilight raised, vexed. “What if even the 'most powerful mare in all of Equestria' can't banish that? You'd be risking the lives of everypony on this island!”

        “I'm waiting,” Dragoman stated, his deep voice like a sonic boom.

        Twilight looked back for a brief moment, then returned to the two-pony huddle. “Trixie, please? I know I should be the last one to say this, but sometimes there are limits to what we can do.”

        Trixie remained silent as she stared at the ground, now suddenly perplexed to the point of speechlessness. Twilight stared long and hard at her acquaintance's face, but the state of irresolution never faded from Trixie's face.

        

        “Have you made your decisions, then?” Dragoman questioned.

        Twilight turned around and felt her heart pumping as though she had just climbed the mountain again. Her mind ran through a premeditated list of mysteries and questions, an inventory she had started writing weeks ago. One concept seemed linked to almost all the others; Twilight was sure of it.

        “I wish to know about the inhabitants of this island,” Twilight said.

        The Tigbalan straightened out his back and began waving his hoofs about. “A glimpse of the past I can show you, but a glimpse is all I can grant.”

        A black orb began glowing between the beast and Twilight. The mare could see her reflection on the surface of the rounded mirror, until suddenly she felt herself getting sucked in. The circle grew until it became a tunnel, its walls pitch black as she was pulled through. Straight ahead a small light approached, until it grew large enough to consume the mare.

        Twilight closed her eyes tightly in preparation for the sting, but the prickling pain never began. Hesitantly she opened one eye, only to open the other in immediate shock.

        She found herself standing in the middle of a dirt road as ponies all around passed by. They walked and trotted in every direction, passing in front of – and sometimes right through - her. She looked down at her body and noted its ethereal state as she could see straight through her own limbs.

        Twilight looked back up and all around, taking in the scenery with her jaw dropped in disbelief. The brilliant sun overhead cast its rays upon perfectly-carved stone buildings and collections of colossal tree-homes. The edifices lined up perfectly along the streets with tiny lawns and gardens in between. Tall trees of all kinds surrounded the edge of the town, which itself was not much larger than Ponyville in size.

        In front of Twilight stood a building larger than the rest, its facade partially occupied with a wide set of stairs connecting its doors to the street. Doric columns stood at every corner and fluid carvings decorated the walls. Mixed homes and shops surrounded it, their styles varying so much Twilight thought it dizzying for a moment.

        Doors and windows on every abode sat wide open as business signs swung in the gentle breeze above them. Carts and stands filled the avenues swarmed with ponies of all races and ages; even zebras were in the mix. Cheery discussion and hearty laughs filled the air through which the carefree crowds passed. Not a single face went without the tiniest grin; Twilight herself smile in amazement.

        “What you see is the ancient Pony Relic,” said Dragoman from behind, to which Twilight turned to face the creature. His eyes were open but staring straight out into space. “A town of perfect harmony, this paradise was the secret destination to which zebras and ponies alike fled from the pandemonium of their homeland.”

        “Pandemonium,” Twilight uttered. “That means these ponies came from all of the ancient kingdoms.”

        “Ancient kingdoms? No, no, young one,” Dragoman remarked. “These are refugees from your homeland: Equestria.”

        “What? But how?” Twilight asked. “There wasn't any pandemonium within Equestria; harmony was its foundation. All of the races got along just fine after that.”

        “Harmony between races is not that to which I refer,” Dragoman stated. “Be silent and see for yourself.”

        “Hide! Everyone hide!” shouted one of the townsfolk from off in the distance.

        Twilight turned along with the ponies and zebras surrounding her to see a group of older mares and stallions galloping straight toward her and the majestic building. A great number soon followed directly behind, pouring in from nearby streets and their homes. Those that gathered, young and old, soon shed their smiles as concerned frowns grew in their places.

        The doors to the large stone building opened and two ponies hurried down the stairs. The first of the two was a middle-aged unicorn of a light silver coat. His white hair flowed like bushy clouds, and his sky blue eyes seemed able to peer into one's soul.

        “What is it? What's the matter?” the unicorn asked in worry.

        “Prince Platinum! H-He's returned! He's coming straight for the town!” one answered.

        The unicorn scanned over the crowd, which now trembled with a strong collective panic. They waited anxiously for a reply from the stallion, who at first merely paced across the circle of the crowd in dismay. The second pony that had emerged, a dark gray pegasus, followed right behind him as silently and as swiftly as a shadow.

        Prince Platinum finally stopped and examined the crowd, revealing a worry that had sprouted within his eyes. He turned to the stallion following him.

        “Silver Shield, gather the other leaders,” Prince Platinum murmured, then held his head up to address the attentive audience. “We shall divide what resources we have and hide. We are not yet prepared to face that foul beast.”

        Murmurs arose, followed by shocked susurrations. Soon, objections rose from the mumbling crowd.

        “We can't stand losing our crops like this anymore!” said an earth pony. “With our crops getting destroyed again and again, everything's only getting worse. Soon we won't even have reserves in case of a long-lasting attack!”

        “Yes, I am aware of this,” Prince Platinum stated. “I have summoned the other two leaders-”

        “Quick my friends, scatter like roaches!” a zebra cried. “On the horizon, the beast approaches!”

        The leader could no longer contain the mass. Ponies and zebras turned to spot the sight of a black silhouette rising over the hilly horizon. After the first few turned to run, the drain seemed pulled and the assembly quickly dissolved. Every inhabitant ran into a home or store as windows and doors slammed shut. After the multitude had completely fled the scene, Prince Platinum stood in the middle of the circle, alone. A deep sigh escaped his lips as he gazed into the distance.

        “Prince Platinum,” called Steel Shield from the hall, “the others are coming. What's our plan of action?”

        Prince Platinum squinted as he glared one last time at the oncoming monster, which Twilight could not yet distinguish herself from the street. “Protect Pony Relic for now. Should we survive this time through, as we have for years, we'll plan to do more than shield the people: we shall save them.”

        He ran back to the town hall where his guard awaited, and soon the strong doors clanged shut behind him. With not a living being in sight, the entire scene of the town was dead. Twilight, though not directly present herself, felt out of place stranded in the middle of the street.

        She turned and watched as a black object approached from the horizon. It slowly made its way down the lightly wooded hill in the distance. As it drew near Twilight thought she could see things changing as it passed by; trees shrunk, flowers grew. Rabbits grew extended legs and caterpillars chewed fast enough to devour pieces of foliage in seconds.

        The mysterious creature paused and stood tall. It reached out its arms and let out a laugh that sent chills down Twilight's back.

        That laugh... could it be?

        With a snap the clear skies suddenly crowded with clouds, but rather than grey the masses were pink. Rain began to trickle down, then pour, until puddles formed in even the most level parts of the plains. Twilight looked down to examine the precipitation. She knew it wasn't water that made puddles of thick, brown liquid.

        Twilight felt her lungs squeeze until the word sprang out of her throat: “Discord!”

        Everything suddenly came to a complete stop. The rain paused mid-fall and the approaching villain's advance paused. Twilight's heart started beating through her chest.

        Dragoman raised his head and his voice, “How is it that you know this foul beast?”

        “My friends and I faced him when he was released from his prison,” Twilight explained.

        “Prison?” Dragoman questioned. “You mean to suggest that he was once subdued?”

        “He was- He is!” Twilight stated strongly in an attempt to calm herself. “Years ago, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna turned Discord into stone, releasing Equestria from its state of chaos. He managed to escape not long ago, but my friends and I defeated him a second time.”

        “By order of these... princesses,” Dragoman said. “You said one of them was named... Luna?”

        “Y-Yes,” Twilight answered. “She's one of the royal sisters of Equestria. She's the one running the academy on the island.”

        Dragoman raised his chin as his eyes shut tightly. “You should know that this name, Luna, is not unfamiliar to this island.”

        Twilight suddenly recalled, “Now that you mention it, that other monster had mentioned her, too.”

        The Tigbalan suddenly opened his eyes again, only their united color was no longer a brilliant gold; it was a burnt orange, an in between of the two hues Twilight had seen glowing within the beast's orbs.

        “What is this 'other monster' of which you speak?” he growled.

        Twilight jerked her head low, expecting a swipe or something else in its anger. She cautiously replied, “W-We encountered a ghost-like being in a cave. A Taraxippus.”

        “What? Where?” the Tigbalan barked.

        “N-Near the school, in a cave of some sort-”

        “Was she there? This... Luna?”

        “Y-Yes, she's the one that saved us.”

        The Tigbalan's eyes suddenly started glowing a familiar crimson. Twilight cautiously backed away at the sight until all of the sudden, in the blink of an eye, they switched back to gold. Dragoman closed his eyes and massaged his forehead with his long, lanky hoofs.

        The environment slowly began to morph as the darkness of the strange storm changed into the light whites and grays of the cloudy mountaintop. Everything remained without motion, as though time itself had come to a complete pause.

        The Tigbalan began once more in his deep, steady voice, “Young one, I shall grant you a rare opportunity, but you mustn't tell a soul. Because you have answered many questions I myself have had, I shall grant you the chance to ask me one more.”

        “But what happens to Pony Relic? What about the townspeople? Did Discord destroy everything?”

        Dragoman leaned forward and snarled, to which Twilight felt her head retreating into her body. “Too many questions you ask at once; do you wish to try my temper?” He took a deep breath and exhaled the irritation. “I have shown you a glimpse of the past. Why not ask one of the future?”

        Twilight stared at the ground, which had changed from the dirt road back to rock. Questions flashed in her brain, each one significant in its own way. None seemed more important than the others. Not many were of the future.

        As Twilight stared at the ground a memory triggered from within her memory banks. The familiar feeling of panting, of exhaustion, staring at the ground unable to look up, brought a memory to forefront of her mind. The last time Twilight had felt so lost was during her encounter with the Taraxippus.

        “I-I think I know what I wish to ask,” Twilight said, gathering herself.

        Dragoman bowed his head and held out his arms. “Ask away, young pony.”

        Twilight stared the beast in the eyes and said, “I wish to know... are there any more harmful monsters on this island that anypony should know about?”

        The Tigbalan stared at the sky as he leaned back and opened his hoofs to the sky. “Alas, young one, nothing occupies this island that shall bring you any harm.” He suddenly started laughing. “That is, nothing but I.”

        Twilight's eyes shot open.

        “Oops! Did I say that out loud?” the Tigbalan asked with a chuckle. “Good thing your friend did not hear that.”

        Twilight looked to her right. Trixie stood exactly where she had been before the flashback. However, she was not moving in the slightest. She was frozen in time just like the environment.

        “What?” Twilight asked. “What did you do to Trixie?”

        “It is not what I did to her,” Dragoman replied, “it is what I did to you. Our adventure to the past was not something we did together. No, I merely projected it within your mind; ah, the capacity of your mind. Quite a powerful thing, if you ask me. Powerful enough to make me... concerned.”

        Twilight tried to back away, but the beast's eyes only glowed all the brighter. “You mean-?”

        “Yes, I can see your thoughts, Twilight Sparkle,” Dragoman stated, laughing. “While you were distracted by the vision of the past I took the liberty of exploring your mind. I must admit you have valuable information that I've been just dying to figure out.” He threw his head back as an evil laugh echoed through the inanimate air. “Now that I've finished picking at your memories, I'll take us back to the present. But what good would all this be if you managed to tell the tale?”

        Twilight felt a clutch in her throat, throwing the mare into a fit of coughs. She gasped for air until her lungs were filled enough to shout.

        But when she opened her mouth, not a single word came out.

        “What's that?” Dragoman taunted. “You want your voice back? I'm afraid I cannot allow that. You see, I overheard your conversation concerning your use of your wishes. You want to get rid of me, do you not? Unfortunately for you, you're clean out of wishes yourself, and your friend isn't going to help; what was it she asked for? To become the 'most powerful mare in all of Equestria'? Ha! As if a mere pony could defeat me.”

        The Tigbalan roared with laughter as he returned to his still meditating position.

        “I thank you for the news of Discord, as well as word of Luna. You've given me the hope of revenge I've been thirsting for so long!”

        With a clap of his hoofs things suddenly returned to their active state. Clouds in the backdrop swirled about while a gentle breeze stirred within them. Twilight tried to grunt and growl, but not a sound came from her throat. She glanced over at Trixie, who was staring at her with a squinting eye.

        “Do not waste any time, blue mare,” Dragoman said, drawing Trixie's attention. “Your friend's wish has been granted. Tell me now, what is yours? Anything you desire, and I shall grant it. Money... fame... power.”

        Trixie stole another glimpse of Twilight, but the violet mare couldn't utter a single word. She couldn't move her lips, nor even her head. Her entire body felt locked in its joints. She watched with unmoving eyes as Trixie narrowed her gaze and looked to Dragoman.

        

        “I know what it is that I wish for,” Trixie stated, prepared.

        Dragoman sniggered, “Go on.”

        Trixie took one last breath as she paused for the breeze across her face, a strange expression of triumph and something else that Twilight could not make out.

        “I wish... that you would be banished from this island!”

        The Tigbalan opened its eyes as the gold gradually faded into the depths of crimson.

        “What? That is your wish!?” Dragoman exclaimed. “What about power, about success? Fame, fortune? Do those not appeal to you?”

        “I... I wish that you'd be gone!” Trixie yelled.

        Dragoman growled, his voice rumbling the boulders on which the mares stood. He leaned forward until his ghastly form was no longer in its peaceful position, but rather its threatening stance.

        “I offer you power, young one. Magic beyond your wildest dreams!”

        Trixie closed her eyes tightly and fought the breeze that began stirring with a craze. “I said be GONE!”

        Trixie's words shot power like gales of wind. The white beast fell to the ground and stumbled backwards. He shook his head and examined each of his hoofs, all of which began slowly dwindling. His limbs broke off into tiny bits like shattering glass. The pieces then floated off like leaves in the autumn winds carried up and away out of sight. A final whinny escaped like a thunderous shriek, after which his head gradually dissolved into thin air. The last pieces to go were his deep red eyes, which shot one final gaze down at Twilight.

        What you should fear is Princess Luna.”

        And with that, the pair of crimson eyes dissolved in thin air, leaving no trace of the creature's existence behind. The storm faded away as though its last bits of snow drained out the last of the clouds. The small wind in the sphere grew to powerful gales as they broke through the clouded barrier. A fresh mountain air embraced the two mares, wrapping them in an icy chill neither could feel in their numbness.

        Twilight felt her lungs released as she gasped for air. Her eyes fell on Trixie who had dropped to her knees and stared with a blank expression.

        “Trixie?” Twilight managed to ask, free of the beast's spell. “Are you okay?”

        Trixie looked up at Twilight with heavy eyes. “I-I'm not sure what just happened.”

        Twilight, still gasping for air, shook her head slowly. “You wished the Tigbalan away. I was almost sure you'd wish for power or fame or something.” The mare felt guilt suddenly weigh down on her head. “I-I'm sorry I ever doubted you, Trixie. Today I haven't been very pleasant with you. It was wrong of me to never give you a second chance.”

        A pause ensued between the two during which neither looked the other in the eye. Twilight waited for a response, but with the hollow eyes and unmoving mouth Trixie seemed unable to gather herself.

        Twilight continued, still somewhat embarrassed, “Trixie, what made you change your mind? Weren't you going to wish to become the most powerful mare in all of Equestria?”

        Trixie shook her head. “I-I don't know. Something didn't feel right. It's as though... I could hear a voice inside my head. It told me not to do it.”

        Twilight tilted her head. “Huh? A voice inside your head?”

        Trixie looked backed down with her puzzled, defeated stare. When she looked back up at Twilight, though, her expression suddenly returned to its vain appearance, nose lifted and eyes closed.

        “Hmph. That was draining enough for one day,” Trixie said. “I'd say we best get out of here before anything else happens.”

        “Twilight! Trixie!”

        Familiar calls resounded from down the slope. The two walked over to the edge near where they stood and gazed down at their four companions standing on the stony path.

        “Thank Celestia you guys are okay!” Quirky said in relief. “We were worried after you two had disappeared, especially along with that thing.”

        “What happened? Where's the monster?” Windchaser asked.

        Twilight looked over at Trixie, who answered smugly, “The likes of it won’'t be seen on this island ever again.”

        “W-What? How did you two accomplish that?” Diamond Chisel asked.

        Twilight giggled as she started her descent from the peak. “We'll tell you guys on the way back. With clear skies and a little light, I think it'd be best if we start heading back now.”

        And with a breath of fresh air and a lighting of their horns, the group of six started their return journey, hoping for the most uneventful trip ever.


        The dark sky spread a blanket of violet and navy over the crown of mountains encircling the forest. Twilight, having reached the foot of the final hill, felt her body giving in to the thought of rest. Though she and others were still minutes away from the southern gate, Twilight could picture herself already snuggled up in her cozy bed, free from the chill of snow that had lingered on her coat all day.

        She glanced back at the others. Their faces hung with exhaustion as they constantly panted for air, tired from their round-trip across the island. Twilight wondered just how exerting the adventure had been for the others. Encounters near and outside of Ponyville had prepared her for such long-winding adventures, but even she felt ready to collapse. She recalled how each time she would put off the tiredness as she prepared a letter to Princess Celestia.

        “I would prefer that thou address a letter of today's happenings to me, Twilight Sparkle.”

        The student stopped dead in her tracks. The others, all right behind her, came to a halt as well.

        “What's the matter, Twilight?” Quirky inquired.

        Twilight laughed nervously, “That's strange. I could have swore I just heard Princess Luna's voice inside my head-”

        “Indeed you did, my heedful student,” came the voice of the princess again; only this time, it was outside of her head.

        Twilight looked to the top of the hill. Surely enough, standing before the group was Princess Luna. Her dark coat had blended in with the silhouettes of the trees atop the hill just near the academy gates. Her tail flowed gracefully down to the grass as her mane blended in with the starry sky. The spark in her eyes looked like two particularly shining stars, though they were not twinkling with pride or joy.

        “Explain to me, my students, what is the meaning of this,” Princess Luna asked.

        Twilight stepped forward. “Princess Luna, I can explain-”

        “Was it thou who proposed to venture about the woods at so late an hour?” Princess Luna questioned.

        Twilight bowed and answered, “Yes, Princess Luna, it was my idea-”

        “No, it was my idea!” Quirky interrupted.

        Windchaser stepped up as well, “I'm just as guilty.”

        With the three from Ponyville front and center, the other three remained where they stood, kicking at the thin layer of snow on the ground, simply looking away or whistling. Princess Luna looked over each of the three in front of her with speculation. “Art thou three not aware of the commands I had detailed concerning exploring the island this week?”

        Each of the three nodded with a weight of guilt upon their shoulders.

        Princess Luna skimmed over the sights of the three, but her eyes came to rest upon Twilight in particular. “I sense that only thou, Twilight Sparkle, hath more to tell than the others.” Princess Luna's eyes suddenly flashed white as she glared at the others. “But do not grow hopes of escaping chastisement. Thou shalt meet with me soon enough. Come, Twilight.”

        With that, Princess Luna turned began toward the academy grounds with Twilight, but halfway to the gate she stopped and turned around.

        “Trixie, I sense thy presence in this discussion is imperative. Thou shalt accompany me as well.”

        The blue mare looked at the others and gulped. Reluctantly she stepped from where her feet had seemingly frozen into the ground and approached the princess and Twilight.

        “The rest of you shall await my call in thou separate chambers,” Princess Luna commanded. “Come, my students, there is much to discuss.”

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 21.5: Exegesis

        Twilight stared nervously into space, her knees knocking even when sitting. The chilly atmosphere, trapped within the foyer by the colder wintry air outside, contributed minimally to the mare's shivering. Rather, a preoccupying fear was what shook the mare's bones until she no longer could sense her own shuddering.

        The grand doors to the headmare's hall were intimidating enough; located on the topmost floor, the wooden barriers were dividers between the common main hall and the mysterious, innermost chamber. Once in a while, when able to escape the memories of Luna's disappointed expression, Twilight would examine the doorway from top to bottom. Its wood was an interesting charcoal color, and the frame was lined with silver.

        Violet gemstones planted in the black wood blinked like dark stars against a pure night sky. Their shimmers in the dull light made them seem as though they were watchful eyes. Twilight felt a sense of conviction coming from them, as though they were individual entities that stared into her mind.

        

        I know what we did wasn't wrong. There's no way Princess Luna wouldn't understand everything.

        One of the giant doors suddenly creaked open, and out from the gap walked a worn out Trixie. Her steps were lethargic and her head drooped low. The moment she spotted Twilight, however, her head immediately raised as she closed her eyes and stuck her nose up in the air.

        “Princess Luna wishes to see you,” Trixie stated in her usual dynamic tone.

        Twilight tried to swallow her anxiety, but it only stuck inside her throat. “What happened? Are we in trouble?”

        “Nothing really to worry about. Not for myself, at least,” Trixie replied. “Just answer her questions honestly, otherwise who knows what might happen next.” With a swing of her light hair she started for the stairwell but paused and remarked over her shoulder, “Should we not run into each other before classes begin, I'll see you in class.”

        The sentence bounced through the hall, but more so through Twilight's head.

        We're not even in the same magic track...

        But without another moment's hesitation Twilight turned and headed through the gap between the colossal doors. The second she immersed herself into the headmare's hall the portal slammed shut behind her.

        “Come hither, Twilight Sparkle,” echoed Princess Luna's voice across the hall.

        Twilight spotted the dark indigo figure on the opposite side of the long chamber. As she made her way over Twilight couldn't help but take in the sights of the stunning room, both with anxiety and in awe. Giant stained glass windows lined each of the walls much like the royal courtroom in Canterlot. Large glass panels made up the entire ceiling, allowing a great span of the night sky to stare down as Twilight slowly made her way through the dark but majestic hall.

        When Twilight drew close she noticed Princess Luna staring straight up, squinting, her teal eyes in perfect focus. The student slowed her pace in fear she was somehow interrupting, and soon joined in looking above. Overhead was a giant dome of glass through which a multitude of stars could be seen.

        “You know why it is that I wish to speak with you, do you not, Twilight Sparkle?” Princess Luna suddenly stated, to which Twilight could only nod. “Then let us not tarry. Praytell, what is thine explanation for having returned from the Western Woods at so late an hour?”

        

        Twilight felt her heart leaping inside her chest though she had expected the very request.

        “Princess Luna,” Twilight began, “my friends and I left this afternoon to explore the Western Woods. I thought I had seen something moving around the night of Vinyl's concert-”

        “Dost thou have fair reason for not having told any instructor or myself of this?” the princess interjected.

        

        Twilight felt her heart sink. “N-No, your highness.”

        Silence followed, until Princess Luna's voice once more broke the air. “Continue.”

        

        Twilight tried to breath normally again but felt her lungs and heart falling out of sync. “I wasn't going to do anything at first, but eventually some others and I decided to see if we could find any trace of the activity in the forest.”

        “Relay to me your findings,” Princess Luna ordered, drawing her eyes from the stars down to Twilight.

        Though she did not wish to revisit the memories in her brain, Twilight obeyed as she broached the subject of the quest.

        

        “We first encountered a strange monster, a ghostly creature with dark red eyes. It had long hoofs in front and looked taller than the any of the trees in the Western Woods. It wasn't that fast, but I think it had a spell that toyed with everypony's instincts. As a result, it managed to split the six of us up; but, in the end, we all managed to regroup.”

        “Trixie mentioned ruins within the forest,” Princess Luna remarked. “What hast thou to say of this?”

        “There were in fact ruins, princess. I can remember them pretty well,” Twilight said. “There were piles of stone spread across a certain part of the woods. Trees have spread across it now, though, so I don't think I could spot it from the academy.”

        Princess Luna stared out through one of the windows to the side facing north. She nodded slowly and narrowed her eyes. “What became of the fiend that gave you chase?”

        “Trixie and one of her friends said that they had read up on the monster before; it was called a Tigbalan. The two said we had to climb a mountain to escape it, so we tried. I didn't think it would work, but it all turned out to be mostly true.”

        “All Tigbalan are bound to grant a wish to those who meet them on high ground,” Princess Luna commented. “There was reluctance in coming to believe what Trixie told; however, since thou hast told a similar tale, Twilight Sparkle, I cannot refute both of your accounts. It seems my intuition was correct.”

        Twilight blinked. “Your intuition? What do you mean?”

        “I interjected halfway through your struggle with the monster,” Princess Luna stated. “I returned to the academy late this evening, and the second I set drew near I could sense danger present. Upon examining the northern part of the island it became apparent that something dangerous lingered. Before hurrying out I tried to contact those that I could sense in deep distress; however, the only one whose mind I could project my voice into was Trixie's.”

        Twilight felt her throat go dry.

        “Dost thou have an explanation for this?” Princess Luna inquired. “Trixie herself stated that thou were right beside her; yet, I could not sense your distress.”

        “What you should fear is Princess Luna.”

        Twilight heard the words echo through her mind; rather than fading away, though, they only seemed to grow louder. The unicorn's eyes twitched but the mare quickly closed them to hide the disturbance from the headmare's notice. Twilight fought the repeating voice of Dragoman as she repeated a piece of her own logic in her head.

        There's no way I can't trust Princess Luna!

        “The Tigbalan,” Twilight said, struggling to refocus, “it said that it was occupying my mind.”

        Princess Luna suddenly looked down at Twilight as an intensity made her eyes flicker white.

        “I understand that the Tigbalan granted you each a single wish,” Princess Luna said. “I used a telepathy spell to instruct Trixie to banish the fiend. I am curious, though, my student: what was it for which thou wished?”

        Twilight's eyes darted about the room in an attempt to avoid the narrowing gaze, but no matter where she looked the light blue of Luna's eyes shone brightly in her sights. Unable to escape, Twilight locked eyes and gave in to the stare.

        “I wished to know about the island's past,” Twilight answered. “I wanted to know about the ruins, and who used to live in them.”

        Princess Luna stared back up at the stars as she took a long pause. “And what didst thou come to discover?”

        “I... I saw a place called Pony Relic,” Twilight answered, to which Luna's eyebrows raised. “I saw ponies and zebras living in harmony. They all looked so happy... but then Discord showed up.”

        “Discord?” Luna asked, shocked.

        “Yes, as he was coming all the townsfolk gathered around their leader, a unicorn named Prince Platinum. He couldn't keep their attention, and soon enough all of the ponies and zebras had scattered and hid. After that the vision ended.”

        Princess Luna stared Twilight in the eye once more. “And that is all that happened?”

        The second wish.

        “The monster, he-” Twilight felt her tongue sprinting beyond what her thoughts could hold it to say. “-he asked me questions about Discord, and then about you. In return for answering his questions he granted me another wish.”

        “What was thy second wish?”

        Twilight felt backed into a corner; she knew she couldn't hide the quote that now echoed louder than ever before in her head. She had no doubts about sharing until she saw the princess's reactions to her discoveries. Twilight wondered just how much the princess knew herself, and pondered whether or not she should share the last bit.

        Why... Why shouldn't I tell her?

        Twilight looked Princess Luna in the eyes and shut off her brain, allowing for the words to flow out without hindrance. “I wished to know if there were any other monsters on the island.”

        She paused as Princess Luna's eager eyes showed an urge that her royal composure would not. “Pray tell, Twilight Sparkle, what was its answer?”

        

        Twilight gulped. “He said no.” A look of relief drowned out the yearning in Princess Luna's eyes. Twilight suddenly feared her following words would ruin the consolation. “But, if I might add, your highness, when Trixie wished him away... he told me something else.

        Twilight felt a lump grow so large in her throat she could no longer speak nor even breath. The anxiety choked her until the princess's insistent eyes shook the apprehension clear out of her system.

        “He told me the only thing to fear on this island was... you.”

        Princess Luna stared, her eyes suddenly frozen. Twilight couldn't tell just what emotion was covering her majestic face. Ever so slowly she raised her head until her eyes were looking straight up at the moon and stars above.

        “I thank thee for thine honesty, Twilight Sparkle,” Luna said. “Now, I understand that thou art undoubtedly taxed from thy extensive travels this afternoon. Go and rest, my student. Should the need arise, we shall speak again before classes begin.”

        Twilight bowed and began to turn, but paused under the pressure of her guilt. “Princess Luna, is everything all r-?”

        “'Twas not the fault of you six for the trouble you encountered,” Luna stated. “Shouldst thou see the others, feel free to inform them that an interview shall not be necessary... not for the time being. Now good night, my student.”

        “But, I-”

        “Good night.”

        Twilight hesitated as she turned to leave, but gave in after the princess's commanding stare did not change. Driven by unease of just what the princess could be thinking, Twilight turned and headed for the chamber exit. She slowly stepped, waiting for an interruption, but all that met her ears as she crossed the dark hall were her own hoofsteps against the soft carpet.


        The night had passed in restlessness. Thoughts and images haunted Twilight when she sat wide awake, and then followed her into her shallow dreams. As hours passed the mare felt ready to give up on even trying to close her eyes altogether. Her own physical exhaustion, however, begged that she keep trying to sleep.

        The mix of light dreaming and fathomless thoughts visited Pony Relic, especially the peace that had turned into horror. Memories returned of running from the Tigbalan as well as of the terrible encounter upon the mountain. Thoughts of her mind being invaded made her skin prick; thoughts of Princess Luna's mysterious mood made her mind go completely numb.

        Eventually rays of the morning light spread across the walls in Twilight's room. The mare stared at them with bitterness though they were not the last thing she wanted to see. On the one hoof Twilight desired for the night to pass; on the other she thirsted for more than scattered spurts of five minutes' sleep. When the birds began chirping and the sunlight grew stronger, Twilight felt her alert senses refusing to allow her brain rest.

        Body aching, Twilight rolled out of bed and groaned. She squinted as she stared at the purple carpet and wished she could sink into the darkness it portrayed. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted her unpacked saddlebags.

        

        Guess I could unpack...

        Twilight opened the packs and first drew out the “Speak-No-Evil” spellbook and examined its damaged cover. She had hoped that her panic from the past evening had merely blurred her vision; but with stains on the leather cover and smeared ink on the pages, her eyes confirmed that the mess was no trick of her alarmed state.

        Guilt began beating on her conscious as she looked over the book. Not even two seconds later it overtook her mind, until the only thing she could think about was getting it fixed. With nothing else in mind to do, Twilight carried the book with her magic and set out straight for the library.

        The moment she threw open the door to her suite, though, a familiar mare greeted her.

        “Twilight! I didn't even have to knock on the door!” came the voice of Lyra. “Have I got a surprise for you!”

        

        Twilight, catching herself staring at the floor, glanced up at the mint-colored mare.

        “Is the surprise that you're back already?” Twilight managed to ask.

        “How did you know?” Lyra asked as the happiness turned to curiosity.

        Twilight's face didn't move a single muscle. “Lucky guess.”

        Lyra looked over her friend with her rich amber eyes, turning the giant grin upside down. “What happened to you, Twilight? You look awful!”

        “Thanks,” Twilight murmured. “Rough night.”

        “I see, I see,” Lyra said. “Up late thinking about stallions again?”

        “When have I ever-?” Twilight started, but stopped upon realizing who she was speaking with. “Yes, Lyra. Stallions. Lots and lots of stallions. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm heading for the library-”

        “Oh of course!” Lyra chirruped merrily. “I would love to join you!”

        Twilight inhaled, but let the breath escape as quietly as it was drawn. Lyra looked down the hall as she backed from the door, allowing Twilight to exit her suite completely.

        “A lot of ponies left this break,” Lyra said. “How have the six of you been holding up?”

        Twilight's eyes rolled up in their weary sockets as she carefully contemplated a response.

        “Let's just say it's been... thought-provoking.”

        The two walked on through the dormitory halls. Lyra rolled her eyes about with energy, constantly glancing over at Twilight, who did not fail to notice the bounciness.

        “What is it, Lyra?” Twilight finally asked.

        “Well, aren't you going to ask my about my break?”

        “Oh, right... sorry. Lyra, how was your break?”

        Lyra shook her head quickly. “I-I don't wanna talk about it. Can we talk about something else?”

        The mint-colored mare looked away as she occupied her eyes with the sight of the glass tunnel ahead. She thought of something else to move on to, but the memories of her visit home occupied her mind. Anxiously she waited for Twilight to strike up a topic, but in her tired state all she seemed able to do was stare at the floor.

        I don't think I can tell her... not yet.

Next Chapter >


Index

< Previous Chapter

Chapter 22: Shilly-Shallying

        “Just my luck,” Twilight murmured crossly as the set of doors before creaked in their refusal to open. “Since when did the library close before midnight?”

        Lyra glanced about the foyer, curious if its seeming abandonment – from the locked windows and doors shut to to the unusually deep silence – went unnoticed by her weary friend. Every corner within the chamber hid in pockets of darkness as the moon, visible through a long window nearby, was well beyond its halfway mark across the sky.

        “You are aware that it's almost an hour past midnight, don't you Twilight?” Lyra inquired.

        Twilight's general look of irritation dissipated. Her ears retreated as she blushed for a split second.

        “Well, judging by the fact that I can’t keep track of time anymore, as well as that I'm beginning to believe I have x-ray vision and can see through these doors, it's obvious that I'm in need of some sleep.”

        Lyra nodded. “Indeed you are. You're practically the epitome of a shipwreck!”

        Twilight glowered at her friend, who held a look of lighthearted assurance. “Anyway, I'll be back here a few hours before noon tomorrow... well, technically it's 'today'. Would you care to still meet up then? We can talk all about your trip while I browse for a couple of books.”

        But that only gives me tonight to think...

        “Yes,” Lyra suddenly blurted out. “We can talk all about my... my trip. All of the troubling- I mean, wonderful times.

        Twilight lowered her head to spy the distress in her friend's eyes. “You don’t sound too good, Lyra. Is there something on your mind?”

        The mint-colored mare jerked her head back up and stepped away quickly. “What? I’m not implying that I have something urgent to say about my trip! Who said that?” Twilight blinked. “Let's, uh, let's just wait until morning to talk. I’m just dandy, of course, but you look so worn out; I'd much rather not overwhelm you.”

        Twilight gave her usual unconvinced stare, to which Lyra began sweating bullets.

        “If you say so, Lyra-

        “And say so I did!” Lyra cut in anxiously. “Now, be sure not to stumble into the wrong room or anything on the way back. Watch out for strangers and don't listen if anypony tries and bribes you with a cake.”

        Twilight examined her friend, who now showed a smile beaming from ear to ear. “Lyra, I'm just walking back to my room. It's not like I'm leaving Equestria.” She turned to go but stopped halfway through her circle. Wait, aren't you heading back to your place, too?”

        Lyra paused as she looked around the great span of the foyer, its vacancy and darkness something she sought. To get away from the world and its noise was all she wanted for the moment. With Twilight having gone and planned their discussion to take place in less than twenty-four hours, Lyra knew she would need all the alone time she could get; it was the reason she had already returned to the school. Running into Twilight had been somewhat of an accident.

        “No, Twilight,” Lyra finally managed to answer, “I-I have some things to do before settling down. Rituals and whatnot.”

        “Rituals? Like what?” Twilight asked. “You just told me a few minutes ago that everything here closed at midnight.”

        “Well, yes, we both know that, but-” Lyra caught sight of the moon, at which point an idea clicked in her head. “I'm going to see if I can have a word with Princess Luna. Yes, that was my plan all along. It just slipped my mind for a minute.”

        Twilight began massaging her forehead. “Wait, you see Princess Luna every night as a ritual?”

        Lyra watched with a nervous smile as her friend's eyes raised to the top floor where the peak of the towering doors stood. She could sense something unsettling in Twilight's gaze, something beyond – or maybe part of – her exhaustion.

        “You may not want to go visit the princess tonight, in that case,” Twilight warned as her her violet eyes glimmered with concern. “I think some things came up recently that may have put her in a strange mood. Plus, I'm not sure she would be open to visits; not at this hour, at least.”

        “Silly Twilight, this late for us is early for her! After all, Princess Luna is the ruler of the night and whatnot,” Lyra laughed, waving a hoof as though without a single care. “You, on the other hoof, shouldn't be up this late. Off to bed now, good night!”

        “But I-”

        Lyra began shoving her friend toward the staircase without allowing another word. She had run out of excuses or reasons and knew her friend to pursue things to the end. She hoped Twilight's exhaustion would prevent her from continuing to flounder; there seemed no other way to keep her investigative ego at bay.

        Her plan worked all the way to the staircase, where she gave Twilight one final shove. Lyra, still fearful of further interrogation, watched as the violet mare stared down the spiraling stairs. Twilight’s expression seemed as confused as a fish taken from the sea and dumped into a glass bowl with nothing but water.

        “Lyra, are you sure you're okay?” she asked, her words beginning to slur.

        The amber-eyed mare nodded, sensing success was near, and motioned her friend onward.

        “Yes, Twilight, believe me. I'm as 'okay' as a... a... well, you know. Good night!”

        Twilight shook her head and sighed, “All right. Good night, Lyra.”

        Without another moment's hesitation Twilight waddled her way down the stairs, every step more like a struggle of keeping her head from hitting the carpeted treads. Upon reaching the main floor Twilight's pace picked up to a swerving stagger, until her bumbling figure disappeared into the glass corridor. Lyra wiped her forehead.

        “Phew. Oh, just look at me,” said the minty mare to herself. “Lying to my own friends. Well, I was thinking about seeing Luna, but seeing as how I couldn't even tell Twilight! It’s hopeless.”

        Her wandering mind released her body to venture off with its own independence. Her steps led her slowly down the stairs as her mind distracted her eyes with recent memories. Once her attention returned to the present minutes later, she found herself standing in the glass corridor. She faced the eastern coast, the most calming of sights to the mare; Lyra knew her senses were getting at something.

        The vast ocean was a sight she had admired since she first saw it on the chariot ride over; it was the foundation of all her dreams. Ever since day one she often stared at the waters late at night, their navy surface sprinkled with white. It was something about water that left her in a trance; even the mere sight of the sea simply calmed her soul. Lyra herself could not explain it.

        

        As she stared out then, like many times before, she could feel the sea calling her name. Its voice was mysteriously familiar inside her head; yet everything it had spoken before eventually faded away like sights and sounds within a dream. On various occasions she put her talent to work and tried to put words fresh in her mind into song; seconds after consciousness, however, the chords were all that would remain.

        There was, however, a single phrase that escaped the forgetful cycle. She remembered it as she stared out at the sea:

        Like the water, calm, my spirit...

        It was as though the ocean had a power of its own. What it said could stand out like a powerful dream rather than like a forgetful fantasy. She had not experienced the sensation in years; Ponyville was nowhere near the ocean.

        

        Ponyville.

        It had only been hours since her second departure. She hadn't planned on returning so soon, either; everything had happened so quickly. The memories unfolded in her head like a storybook, returning to where she had earlier stopped.


        Bon Bon's house was as delightful as always; a clone of the other town houses, perhaps, but its location near the lake unique. With the forest bounds nearby it was a most peaceful place, one Lyra went to in times of boredom and of tension. The homely sight atop its own hill was usually something at which to stop and stare; with a new layer of snow covering the rooftop and lawn, the fire glowing inside was a beacon for her wandering soul.

Bon Bon had greeted her in her usual manner, with a warmth only best friends could share. Lyra felt it from her words and her touch, but the heat only skimmed the surface. Her own heart had gone cold, her blood frozen and still. Her shivering soul hid beneath a content facade, but Lyra knew it was only a matter of time before its unveiling.

        “So, how are you enjoying your time at Luna's school?” Bon Bon began excitedly as the two entered her living room. “Tell me all about it!”

        Lyra smiled and replied, “Oh, it's all right.”

        “What? 'All right'? Lyra, I thought you'd be ecstatic!” Bon Bon asked. “What's going on? Did something bad happen within the past few weeks? Or maybe-” She gasped. “Did you find... the one!?”

        Lyra breathed anxiety in, then out. What her body absorbed went straight to her head. “N-No, Bon Bon, don't be silly! It's nothing like that, really!”

        “Have you been homesick, then?”

        “Somewhat, I suppose.”

        “Have your classes been too difficult?”

        Lyra remembered pausing and looking her friend in the eye with a smirk. “Bon Bon, you do know who you're talking to, right?”

        Despite the brusque manner in which Lyra said it, Bon Bon merely smiled; she always understood just what the minty mare meant. “I suppose your lessons haven't been tough enough then, huh? What are you studying again? You didn't say anything about your classes in your letter.”

        Lyra could only look her friend in the eye; Bon Bon was sharp when figuring her out.

        Bon Bon tried to continue, “You're not studying light magic again, are you-?”

        “Yes, Bon Bon,” Lyra said, the truth squeezed out by guilt. “I'm studying light magic. Again.”

        “But you're a master at that stuff,” Bon Bon commented with her growing look of concern. “How did you end up in that track? You said in your letter that Luna wasn’t putting students in tracks-”

        “My parents told me to.”

        Bon Bon's face lit up with shock. “Don’t tell me-

        “They want me to study light magic, Bon Bon. They always have, you know that. We both know it’s supposed to strengthen the musical talent-

        “We both know that's horseapples!”

        Lyra watched as her friend stood and began pacing the floor, a common action of hers whenever distressed. All Lyra could do was sit and watch, aware something unpleasant was coming her way.

        “Lyra, we've been friends for a long, long time,” Bon Bon began. “I've known you since we were both little fillies. I know that you're smart – really smart – and that you can do whatever you put your mind to.” She took a deep breath as the two mares' eyes locked. “But I also know that you can give up on the things you actually want too easily.”

        Lyra felt an arrow shoot straight through her heart. The emotion bled from within through her entire being. Though nothing of the sort showed on the surface, Lyra knew that Bon Bon could sense the terrible feelings inside just through a look in the eye.

        “Bon Bon-”

        “I've been watching for years as you let your parents go around telling you what to do,” Bon Bon stated. “Remember when you got your cutie mark playing around on the lyre?” Lyra hesitantly nodded. “Did your parents ever make you play that instrument?”

        “... No. They wanted me to play the flute.

        “That should be a big enough clue! They don't really know what it is that makes you you,” Bon Bon said. “Light magic making you better, hmph! You know what makes you better? Doing what you love. And I know you love the water. This was your chance to study elemental magic, right?

        “You make it all sound so easy,” Lyra murmured. “I can't just tell my parents that I want to switch courses. You know they call elemental spells ‘the harmful charms’! They wouldn’t help pay for such a thing if their own instruments were hung over a cliff.”

        “You think they would really think that? You don’t think they’ll give you a little freedom, just for a couple of months?” Bon Bon said, her voice beginning to raise. “I never thought your parents were that uptight. Or are you really that afraid of facing your own parents?”

        Maybe.

        Bon Bon placed a hoof on her friend’s shoulder. “I know you just saw them, but please... please go see your parents tomorrow, okay? Tell them what you're thinking. I'd help you with the money stuff myself, but we're in the same boat there. I’m just a candy maker’s assistant, after all. You have to come up with something, Lyra, otherwise you’re just gonna end up wasting these next few months. I know you can think up a solution. You're smart like that!

        The memory began to fade, which Lyra didn’t mind in the least. She couldn’t stand the sight of her friend’s gentle blue eyes, much less stand the sense of hope Bon Bon displayed in that very moment.

        I really thought I could do it, Bon Bon. I really thought I could.


        “Lyra? Lyra!”

        The mare shook her head to release herself from the memory, her eyes shot open once free of its hold. The ocean still stood in front of her, but it no longer sat beneath a dark sky. Confused, she looked left and right and found Twilight standing beside her, hoof planted in her lyre cutie mark.

        

        “Are you okay, Lyra? You looked like you were shaking pretty bad. Were you having a nightmare?”

        “A nightmare?” Lyra asked, taken aback. “But I didn't fall asleep-”

        She suddenly felt a hint of sunlight warming the side of her face. A faint light caught the corner of her eye. The sky, though mostly clouded, shone with a gentle glow of grey as sunlight cast its rays through the sheet of clouds. The waves of the ocean were docile, their undulations colored grey like the clouds above.

        “What time is it?” Lyra asked, befuddled.

        “It's about nine in the morning,” Twilight replied. “You weren't out here all night, were you?”

        Lyra looked back at the main hall from within the glass corridor and noted the change in tone; the dark walls were now brimming with a cool light of their own. The marble texture of columns and the stairs glimmered like scattered rays of light in shallow water. She felt as though she had washed up from the dark depths onto a sunny shore, though the sunlight was not the brightest she had ever seen it.

        “Me, up all night? Absolutely not! The guards would have said something, I'm sure,” Lyra said, though she failed to spot one at which to point. “Are you suggesting I look as though I need more sleep? Is this some ploy to trick me into not joining you to the library? You must have some rendezvous of sorts set up and you need me to stay away.

        Twilight rolled her eyes and laughed, a sight Lyra had grown used to from her confidante.

        “I'm not trying to rendezvous with a special somepony, Lyra,” she said. “I'm serious though; judging by how you look right now, I'd say you could use a little more rest-”

        “Ugh! Do I seem that hard on the eyes?” Lyra remarked, offended, with a narrowed gaze. “Just what are you suggesting about my complexion?”

        

        “It’s nothing bad about your complexion,” Twilight replied quickly as she began walking circles around Lyra, “it's just, your eyes seem really unfocused. Your speech is kind of off, too. Are you sure you don't want just a short nap?”

        “Nap SHMAP,” Lyra barked. “I'm as awake as an Iron Pony competitor at the tie-breaking event. As strong and driven, too!”

        She stepped toward the main hall and suddenly tripped over herself, planting her face straight into the carpet. Twilight walked up beside her and helped her back on her hoofs.

        “I guess I can't make you go to sleep,” Twilight said under her breath.

        “That's right!” Lyra confirmed with confidence, straightening up as she stood. “Not even a sleeping spell could knock me out.


        Lyra found the surface of the oak table strangely comfortable, but the soft pages of the books Twilight placed nearby felt slightly softer in comparison. She tried each one that Twilight brought to the square table, opening to its middle pages and laying her head atop the volumes. They progressively felt so much larger and softer, until one felt just like a pillow.

        “I'll just need to borrow that for a second,” Twilight said as she suddenly yanked the book Lyra had in her possession.

        Lyra's head clunked onto the table. With a jerk she sat back up, rubbing her nose, and glared at her clueless companion. Unable to relay her unspoken angst, Lyra snatched the nearest book she had tried out and sunk her face into its cracked-open spine.

        “What are we doing here again?” she murmured, words muffled.

        “I'm trying to find any clues about lost colonies that broke off from Equestria,” Twilight stated.

        Lyra tried to read a word at point-blank distance, but her own shadow rendered the text unreadable.

        “Don't you remember in our history classes, Twilight?” Lyra remarked. “No ponies cared to leave Equestria after it was founded. There, done and done, I’ve saved you hours of reading. How about we go take a nap?”

        Twilight continued on, oblivious to Lyra’s last suggestion, “Well, there were some ponies who did leave, Lyra, I know that now. It just happened during Discord's reign. Say, Lyra, didn't you do a lot of historical studies at Princess Celestia's school, too? Would the name 'Prince Platinum' happen to ring a bell?”

        Lyra raised her head and rested it on one hoof as her eyes swung wearily left and right. “I happened to have paper my written final- I mean, written my final paper for Ancient Equestrian History on the Platinum lineage. Lineage, what a strange word.”

        Twilight removed her gaze from the book she held with her magic. “Can you remember anything particularly interesting about the prince?”

        Lyra looked up at the ceiling with stars in her eyes. “Well, for starters, he was most definitely one hunk of a stallion.”

        “No, Lyra, I'm talking about his history. You know, birthplace, upbringing, maybe even his passing?”

        Lyra pouted as she rested her head on both hoofs and blew her hair to the side. “You're no fun. He was Princess Platinum's brother, obviously. There's actually not much to say of him otherwise; he disappeared before his sister and the other leaders discovered Equestria years ago.”

        “Would you happen to know why he disappeared?”

        Lyra shook her head and sighed. “So many questions, my head’s beginning to hurt! From what I recall, it's all a mystery. Some rumors say he was crazy, and that eventually he ran away to seek a land where all ponies would be considered equal. His family disowned him the second he left.”

        I almost know that feeling...

        “Everything about that fits, except maybe the crazy part. If I can just find some other records of similar thoughts or actions in one of these ancient history textbooks, then maybe I can find a link.” Twilight patted her muzzle, her thoughts suddenly sinking down to a depth Lyra had not seen them go for some time. After a minute's pause, however, they suddenly surfaced as though for a break. “Lyra, I need you to be completely serious for a moment; it's about yesterday.”

        Lyra felt her heart suddenly stop.

        Yesterday... No! Is she suspicious of me!?

        “Whatever do you mean, Twilight?” Lyra said with an accompanying – and somewhat unsettling – laugh. “I’m always- er, what did you say? ‘Serious’, yes.”

        Twilight approached her friend’s side of the table as the two soon came face-to-face. “What we're doing right now, I think it would be best if we didn't tell Princess Luna.”

        Lyra searched the area with a snap of her neck and swift scan of her eyes. Not spotting a soul, she replied, “Why, what's wrong? Did she murder somepony!?

        Twilight held her breath as she too looked around for a brief moment. “No! Don’t be crazy. I just think there may be something strange going on with her. Remember when I told you it would be best not to see Princess Luna last night? I said that because I had just spoken with her, and she was acting sort of strange.”

        “You don't say?” Lyra said. “I'll say nothing of it, Twilight my friend.” She raised her head with confidence and crossed her heart. Her hoof hovered over her heart, however, as something within it reached out and took hold of her.

        Now’s my chance. Say it as it is.

“I-I guess, since we're talking about secrets and whatnot, I have a something important to say myself-”

        “Good afternoon, my students,” came the unusually soft voice of Princess Luna. “It gives me great pleasure that you two act in such a considerate manner with thy soft, careful whispers.”

        Lyra caught a glimpse of Twilight's face, which had turned deathly pale, as the princess stood right behind her. The violet unicorn quickly beamed a fake but brilliant smile as she turned to face the headmare.

        “Oh, hello Princess Luna! Didn't know you were here,” Twilight replied, continuing with her whispering. “What brings you to the library this morning? Nothing exciting is going on at this table, just admiring the smell of old parchment and the mint conditions of some of my favorite works!”

        She grabbed one of the books on the table and began sniffing its pages. Lyra buried her face into the soft pages of yet another book, unsure of what else to do. Princess Luna merely stared.

        “I am in search of a comprehensive text that contains the ancient history of Olde Equestria,” Princess Luna explained. “Pray tell, wouldst either of you perspicacious students happen to know the exact location of such a tome?”

        Twilight lifted the book Lyra had buried her head into yet again and hovered it over to Princess Luna with her magic. Lyra’s face smacked into the wooden surface once more, but this time she couldn’t react; the princess stood right before her, flipping through the thick pieces of parchment. 

After the princess scanned thoroughly through the index a number of times Twilight began slowly edging away.

        “Well, I think I should be going now,” Twilight said as she stood and started for the exit. “Things to do, ponies to see. I hope that’s what you were looking for, princess! Have fun with all your books, Lyra.”

        

        “But these aren't my-” Lyra tried to object, but Twilight winked and took off before she could finish.

        Lyra continued to stare at the gap where Twilight had stood, her heart reaching out in hopes that the mare still stood in its place. Though tired, Lyra had finally felt ready to share what had been on her mind since she arrived back at the school. The opportunity slipped from her hoofs; her head went suddenly empty as a filly’s toy ball.

        “Lyra Heartstrings, yes?” came the voice of Princess Luna. “Hast thou something to say?”

        “What? Me?” Lyra laughed. “Oh, no, nothing! I was just going to tell Twilight that... lunch is coming soon!”

        “Lunch? But that is not for another two hours,” Princess Luna stated. She suddenly looked Lyra in the eye and squinted. “I sense something else occupies thy mind. If thou feelest a sufficient level of comfort to speak thy mind to me, I shall lend my ears most willingly.”

        She stared down at Lyra, whose heart nearly pounded out of her chest. Telling Twilight about her predicament was one matter; speaking with the headmare was another entirely.

        “I, well,” Lyra fumbled, “there's a little something on my mind, but I don't know. It's somewhat of a private issue-”

        “Then consider me thy mentor,” Princess Luna offered, though the kindness suggestion felt more like a command.

        Lyra gulped nervously and tried to laugh again, but the air coming from her mouth could not even conjure a sound.

        “Princess Luna,” she finally said, “I really would love to speak with you, but I feel... I need to think through my thoughts first. Yes, that's it! Think through my thoughts. Thinking thoughts. That's always good.”

        Princess Luna glanced around the library. “Very well, my student. Dost thou have plans for this evening? We can meet and discuss that which bothers you then, if you so choose-”

        “This evening!?” Lyra burst, only to quickly cover her mouth. “Well, that's maybe too soon- er, I mean, I have plans.”