A Prelude of Disappearances
“You look lovely, your highness.”
Luna turned her head to gaze into the mirror that had been placed beside her. Hoofmaidens paraded about, attacking the dress she wore with needles and thread. I definitely look regal enough, Luna thought as she admired herself. Nestled between her wings sat an off-white saddle, each of its buckles and straps adorned with a metal pin that resembled a crescent moon. Smooth silk flowed out from the saddle and cascaded down her flank. Its color had been specially picked to match her coat. Against her skin the cloth looked like the night sky, dark purple and faintly marked with blotches of white to create an illusion of stars. Luna’s mane was bound together by a veil of woven black beads. White metal stars acted as clasps, holding the mesh together. Around her neck she wore a simple pendant of a crescent moon, fastened together by a choker of black lace. Atop her head she wore her polished obsidian crown, affixed with smooth onyxes
Even with the specially tailored dress, Luna couldn’t find it in herself to cheer up. Today was one of the few days that she disliked; she was to attend court with her sister, Princess Celestia. Even though she wasn’t quite old enough to rule beside her sister, she was still a princess. And being a princess means I must be in the public’s eye. Luna would always grow bored sitting upon her throne for the long hours that the court stole away. She would’ve much preferred to spend the time within the walls of the palace’s library, reading about the great histories of Equestria and its wonders. The last time she had done that, however, Celestia had scolded her about minding her royal responsibilities. Better to just get this over with.
With a sigh, Luna turned away from the mirror and walked towards the door. Her hoofmaidens bowed low as she made her way out of the room. Pushing open the door she exited into the antechamber of the main hall. Beyond, she could hear the muffled sounds of the court waiting for her arrival.
Curtains of black velvet hung as a barrier between the antechamber and the main hall. Below them stood a herald. He wore a crisp suit of black cloth and he nodded to Luna as she made her approach. As she stopped in front of the velvet barrier, the herald pulled the curtain aside for her to walk through. Passing underneath the cloth portal, Luna stepped out into the main hall.
Thousands of ponies were in attendance within the stone walls. The hall was built to accommodate such numbers, though. High ceilings, supported by tall, rigid columns, gave a sense of the open air. Light shone down from glass windows between the columns, reflecting off the polished white marbled floor. A long red carpet stretched down to the end of the hall, hundreds of feet away. At its head towered the twin thrones of Equestria.
On the right rose a large chair of white marble. Wires of gold wrapped around its surface, creating intricate designs. Affixed to its head was a sigil of white gold beat into the shape of a sunburst. Beside it stood another throne of similar shape and size; this one however was black in color, onyx in place of marble. On its head stood a sigil, the same material as its twin, hammered into the shape of a crescent moon.
Behind the two, seats a large banner of deep red cloth hung down from the ceiling. Stitched onto its surface was the symbol of Equestria, a sunburst and crescent moon eclipsing each other. Similar banners hung down in between the columns within the hall, flanking the crowd on both sides.
“Ladies and Gentlecolts, Princess Luna!” The herald’s abrupt shout startled Luna as she had forgotten that the pony still stood beside her. The crowded hall quieted as she made her way into the light. Spotting her sister already sitting on her throne Luna hurried over to join her. Celestia regarded her with a faint smile.
“I’m glad that you could make it, sister.”
Luna blushed as she realized that she had been holding everypony up. Returning Celestia’s smile with a quick one of her own, she took her seat. With Luna in position, Celestia rose and cleared her throat. Her voice echoed down the long hall as she called the court to order.
The court convened twice a year, designed to address matters and reports that were too important to be handled by the royal council alone. Celestia left the task of small matters to the royal council so that she could can handle more important duties. Despite this, the councilponies attended to act as advisors. The five ponies that made up the council were seated at a long table beneath the thrones.
Councilpony Zuriel, an elderly stallion with an emerald green mane and a yellow coat, took the seat farthest to the right. A renowned merchant, Zuriel was given the title Master of Bits, and was responsible for keeping the Equestrian coffers filled.
Sitting beside him was Guard-General Gautier. A wiry brown mane hung down on his deep red coat. Younger and wider of chest than most of the other ponies on the council, Gautier was both the commanding officer of the royal guard as well as the leader of the Equestrian army.
On the far left sat Councilpony Illyen, another elderly pony. His coat was white; the color of bleach bone and his once yellow-blond mane was starting to fade. Illyen dealt with issues concerning foreign nations, whether it be conversing with national leaders himself or dispatching diplomatic envoys to do it in his stead.
Sitting next to him was Councilpony Ara, the only mare on the small council. Her coat was dark brown, much like the color of mud. Long flowing locks of beautiful auburn hair kept her face half hidden. She handled domestic affairs, which could vary from education to issues brought forth by village heads.
Sitting in the middle of the table was the last of the ponies on the council. Magister Alitti was a curious unicorn. The hair on his mane was thin and white, almost the same color as the marble floor; which seemed in opposition to his charcoal-black coat. Smaller than the average unicorn, Alitti was also the youngest of the ponies on the council. He had b,ecome head of the Royal Unicorn Society after the recent passing of his old mentor, Magister Ashford. His eyes were light blue, so faded that they looked to belong to a pony more advanced in age. They reminded Luna of small circles of ice.
The court dragged on for hours as Luna tried her best to stay awake and alert upon her throne. Each council member came out in turn and brought forward varying degrees of problems. Zuriel reported on the current state of the Equestrian coffers and the increasing prices of grain and wheat. Coming next were representatives of cities and villages all across Equestria. They brought forward complaints that varied from drought, famine or bandit attacks. Celestia deftly handled the problems, dispatching help where it was needed.
Luna on the other hand was desperately trying not to yawn. Sensing the court was coming to an end, she forced herself to alertness, intent on looking somewhat like her regal sister during this procession.
As she sat up straight she watched the large red pony, Guard-General Gautier she recalled, step out from behind the bench and make his way to the center of the hall. Turning abruptly, he gave a military salute towards the raised throne.
“Your highness, I bring a dire report from the northern border.” He waited for Celestia’s acknowledgement before continuing. “My pegasi scouts have sighted an increase in Griffarian troops along the border. The forts and garrisons that were empty a few years ago are now being filled again.”
Celestia took a moment to think before turning towards her diplomatic aide. “Councilpony Illyen, I trust that communication with his grace has not been cut off.”
The elderly pony coughed violently, the sound echoing through the lofty chambers. Clearing his throat he looked up at Celestia.“I have talked with his grace, the Griffarian King, about the concern. He has assured me that the increase of military power is to drive off bandits that have been plaguing his southern towns. He reminded me that it is allowed under the current treaty.”
Celestia looked displeased. “That is true.” She turned her attention back towards Gautier, who was still standing in the middle of the hall. “Double the number of ponies in the garrisons along our border, while his grace may be telling the truth about the matter I don’t want Equestria caught off-guard, not again.”
Gautier nodded before returning to his seat at the long table. Celestia rose from her throne. “Are there any other matters that need to be addressed at this time?” she asked in a loud voice. The crowded hall was quiet. For a few moments the audience held their breath collectively.
“If I may, your highness?”
Celestia glanced down at her council table as she noticed Councilpony Ara standing up. “Very well Councilpony Ara.”
Ara walked out from behind the wooden table and out in front of the thrones before turning to face them.
“Your highness, I come with news regarding a recent string of missing ponies. There are whispered rumors that the disappearances are the work of Wranglers.”
The ponies in the hall gasped collectively; turning to their neighbors they began to whisper remarks. Luna could make out only one in ten words, but the majority of what she heard was either disbelief or panic. She had heard the term used before. Wranglers were usually the creatures of bed time stories, the kind of thing to threaten a misbehaving foal with. That wasn’t the origin of the word though. Wranglers were real, albeit less monstrous than their storybook counterparts. The term had been given to ponies that captured others during the War of Sun and Moon, to be sold off as ransom.
“Are you suggesting that some coincidentally lost ponies are the work of bedtime story monsters?” Magister Alitti asked, his voice cold and mocking. The rest of the council chuckled at the remark.
“I might have brushed them off as coincidence if not for their numbers. Your highness, in Canterlot alone two dozen ponies have gone missing within the past couple of months,” Ara replied, trying to shift the conversation back to Celestia.
Alitti chuckled from behind the bench. Leaning back from his seat he raised his hooves up in a helpless gesture. “What would you have us do? Make it illegal to go missing within the borders of Equestria?” This got most of the crowd to start laughing.
Luna was startled by the magister’s tone. You’re taking this news rather personally, Alitti. Ara looked furious, Luna could see the mare taking deep breaths to try and calm her anger.
“Send out a group of ponies to look into this. Whether it be Wranglers or not I can assure you this is an urgent matter.” Ara turned her head back to Celestia. Luna thought she could see the last gleam of hope in her eyes. “Your highness, I implore you to see the importance of this predicament.”
“Your highness,” Alitti said as he turned around to look up at the throne. “I’m sure that Councilpony Zuriel would agree with me when I say that we simply do not have the resources to waste on a wild goose chase.” The elderly pony to his left nodded. “Let us leave this talk of Wranglers where it belongs, scaring little foals to sleep.”
Celestia waited for Magister Alitti to finish before once again standing from her seat. As she did, Luna caught Celestia’s normal, regal, mask break into what looked like a queer smirk. Is that the look of satisfaction or fear? Luna mused between the two but the visage was gone before she could come to a conclusion.
“I’m of a mind to agree with Magister Alitti on this. Councilpony Ara, if you are able to bring forth any more compelling evidence on the matter I will happily reconsider my decision.”
Ara lowered her head and bowed to the ground. “Thank you, your highness.”
“Now,” Celestia said as she scanned the crowd, “if there are no more matters then I will call this court to a close.”
Celestia abruptly turned away from the thrones and made her way out of the main hall. She had left so suddenly that Luna felt like she had been forgotten. The other ponies within the large room started to make their exit as well. The crowd slowly filed out back into the city while the members of the council also dispersed. Luna watched Magister Alitti rise from the wooden bench and follow after her sister. Now where do you think you’re going in such a hurry? The passage that her sister had taken led back to her chambers.
That will have to wait, Luna thought as she spotted Councilpony Ara shuffle off dejectedly down one of the side corridors. The last case had intrigued her deeply. Surely the cost of such an investigation wouldn’t be too much of a burden.
Rising from her throne, Luna took a quick look around to make sure nopony was watching before yawning and stretching her cramped muscles. Taking her time, she made her way towards Ara’s direction. If my sister won’t assent to it then I suppose the responsibility falls to me.
“Councilpony Ara, a moment please?”
The brown-coated mare whipped around as Luna called out to her. Up close, Luna could see the mare’s features better. Her dark green eyes looked more hazel up close and underneath she could make out the beginnings of crow’s feet and other wrinkles. To Luna she looked both tired, and surprised.
“Your highness,” Ara said as she bowed low to the ground. “I did not expect that you would grace me with your presence after that little... performance.”
“I was actually impressed with your passion.” Luna smiled at the mare, trying to reassure her. “In fact, I was wondering if I may lend my assistance in helping solve this mystery.”
“The help would be a luxury that I cannot indulge in. It would be improper to have your highness deal with such... mundane tasks.”
Luna waved her hoof in the air, as if to brush the matter away. “Nonsense, just tell me everything you know about the missing ponies and I’ll figure out how best to proceed.”
Ara still looked unsure, her hazel-green eyes swaying away from Luna’s. After a moment she relented, perhaps thinking it best not to continue refusing her princess’ aid. “I fear that I know little more than you do about the disappearances. I’m starting to doubt even my conclusions and that it could all be just coincidence.” She sounded distraught, her voice was hollow. “Since you insist though... I can have the reports brought to you, maybe you can find something that I’ve overlooked.”
“I will have somepony bring them to your study within the hour.”
That was less helpful than I had imagined, Luna thought despairingly. Standing up from her resting place, she closed the last of the documents. Even with the abundance of information, she wasn’t able to draw any conclusions. The ponies in question were of varying ages, came from different backgrounds and lived nowhere close to each other. The only thing she noticed was how different each individual was from another, almost as if they were trying to not cause a trend. Luna racked her brain for a solution, or a clue, or just anything.
Her desk was cluttered with the paper reports. Twenty-four different files that held an answer somewhere in their depths, barely eluding her. Using her magic she started to collect the papers and stacked them in an orderly pile. A knock upon her chamber door interrupted her progress. “You may enter.”
The door creaked open. Nudging aside the panel of thick wood, a large pegasus entered her room. Cobalt was the captain of Luna’s personal guard, and one of the biggest ponies she had ever seen. She had heard whispered rumors from her other guards that Cobalt must have had Clydesdales for parents, and she wasn’t about to doubt them. Even amongst the stocky pegasi that made up her guard, Cobalt stood a head over the largest of them. Despite his advanced age, he still had the fit body of a royal guard. His chest was wide and showed defined muscles. His legs and hooves were large and thick, looking more like tree trunks than appendages. His wings were just as large and burly, in order to accommodate his structure.
Cobalt’s coat was a deep blue, and where his mane would have been a lighter blue, it was now almost faded completely grey in his old age. He kept his mane and tail cut short in the fashion of the other guards, a precaution so that it wouldn’t hamper his vision in flight. His eyes were ice-blue in color, cold and penetrating yet holding a wisdom that he had gained over the years. The mark over his flank took the shape of a large silver kite shield.
“Your highness,” Cobalt said in his gruff voice as he made a quick bow, “you summoned me?”
Luna kept her eye on the pegasus as he stood back to attention. Cobalt had always been by her side ever since she was a foal, guarding her after the death of her mother. She needed to be sure that he could be trusted though. “Yes, I have a task for you, if I can trust your loyalty.
“Your highness, you have my loyalty and more, all you need to do is command it.”
“I was hoping you would say that,” Luna said, smiling faintly at her captain she levitated the stack of papers over in his direction and placed them on the ground before him. “I need you to do some investigating.”
Cobalt looked through the reports, his hooves flipping over the pages as his eyes scanned the contents. Reading through one of the documents his eyes widened and he pressed his nose closer to the paper. Looking up from the reports he gave Luna a confused look.
“Your highness, these papers-“
“Yes, I know what they are. I want you to keep this investigation confidential between you and I.”
Cobalt nodded slowly, keeping his eyes on Luna. “I understand, your highness. I will handle the matter personally.”
Good. “I’m counting on you,” she replied, smiling.
Cobalt picked the documents up from the floor with his mouth. With a short bow he turned around and made his way back out of the room. As the door closed behind him Luna let out a sigh of relief. She hadn’t slept since the court two days ago and she could feel sleep’s creeping hand crawl up her spine. Now is the time to rest. The matter was in competent and more importantly, trustworthy hooves.
Bright rays of morning sunlight beat down upon the expansive forest. The ground of the thicket saw little of it though; the trees had grown packed together, their branches creating an impenetrable green phalanx. The sound of wildlife resonated throughout the undergrowth; birds roosted atop tree limbs while small mammals poked their heads out from their dens.
Pushing aside young green branches and bushes, a unicorn stepped out of the dark forest and into a small clearing. Her coat was a shade of dark blue, and her purple mane swooped down to cover part of her face. Safe from the forest’s oppressive darkness, she looked up into the bright clear sky before turning back to where she had come from, her lilac eyes probing the growth.
“Are we there yet?” She waited for a reply but none came. Growing impatient, she started to walk back into the green growth that she had come from. She was startled when the shrubs to her side started to rustle. Emerging from the thick bushes a pegasus moved into the clearing to join his companion. His coat was the color of buckskin. Underneath a black mane his green eyes stared at her with annoyance.
“It will be at least another half hour, and will be even longer if you insist on going ahead in the wrong direction.”
“Well, maybe if you weren’t so slow I wouldn’t have to.”
“Someponies actually have to move branches out of their way,” the pegasus returned. “We aren’t all blessed with a magical horn to do all the work for us.” Biting down on a rather springy branch, the pegasus held it aside as he walked through before before letting it go to smack the blue unicorn in the face.
“Ow!” his companion yelped as she reeled back from the pain. Rubbing frantically at her whipped nose she looked angrily back towards the pegasus; he had already moved on ahead.
“Come along Sapphire, it will be even longer if you sit around like that.”
Why did I ever agree to bring her along? Solarin asked himself. The two of them had grown up in a small village on the outskirts of Canterlot. Unfortunately the town backed up against a large and uninhabited forest to the west instead of the highway heading east into the capital. Because of this, the region was used mostly for farming and rarely saw visitors.
Solarin had spent much of his youth exploring the edges of the forest behind his hometown. Countless excursions through the green depths had taught him how to spot signs of wildlife. The soft and shallow indentations of animals were all known by him. It was those days of exploring and discovery that made Solarin realize his skill in life. Three grey hoofprints were marked in a line upon his flank, the sign of a tracker.
His childhood friend was another story though. Where Solarin was gifted with a natural sense of direction, Sapphire wasn’t so blessed. He recalled how in her youth Sapphire would often follow him into the woods, most of the times getting lost in the process. The town had been in an uproar as he returned one evening, the adults all worried over where she might be. Solarin had galloped back into the forest as fast as he could. He searched high and low for Sapphire only to find her already making her way back towards the village. She was levitating a large piece of tree bark in front of her and when she spotted Solarin she had giggled and showed him her work. “It’s quite easy when you know which way is which.”
Solarin looked at the surface of the bark. Drawn in detail was a small map of the immediate area; just as Solarin had found his calling, so had Sapphire. A cardinal rose affixed itself over her rump, signifying her skill in cartography.
Ever since that day Sapphire had stopped following him into the woods, choosing to spend the time instead on drawing maps of Equestria, which was why Solarin found it curious that she had asked to travel with him on his next excursion. Solarin had originally refused her, telling her that the region was far too dangerous for him to take her. She kept going on about some waterfall that, by her calculations should’ve been in the forest; eventually Solarin consented before she pleaded his ear off.
Fortunately, to Solarin’s surprise, Sapphire had handled the trek with little complaint. It’s starting to approach midday, Solarin noted as he looked up at the sun through the tree cover. The falls should be somewhere around here. Pushing through a thicket he began to hear the faint sound of rushing water.
“We’re almost there,” he told his traveling companion as he pushed on through the dense brush.
“How do you know?”
Sapphire stopped in her tracks and looked like she was trying to hear the flowing water. After a few seconds she gave up. Glancing back to Solarin she gave him a doubtful look. “I don’t hear anything.”
“Well, then just look,” Solarin answered as he walked out of the forest and into a clearing. Away from the tree’s protection the noise was deafening. Coming up behind him Sapphire pushed aside the branches and bushes with her magic to look out on the clearing.
She gasped; the forest ended abruptly in a wide and verdant meadow. Wildflowers and grasses spread beneath the blue sky. To the north and east, cliffs rose high up from the ground, closing the meadow off with forest on the other side. Hundreds of feet from the ground the large and rushing Equis River flowed out from the cliff side to fall to the meadow below with a crash. Thin tendrils of mist wrapped around the roaring cascade, obscuring the water with a white blanket of vapor.
“Wow.” Sapphire stared in awe at the scenery, eyes wide and mouth agape. Seeing his friend so amazed, Solarin couldn’t help but smile.
“Yeah, it certainly is amazing.”
“It’s not amazing, it’s historical!” she whinnied. Turning her head around she rummaged through her saddlebags before pulling out a tightly bound scroll, and opening it with her magic. Solarin peered over the tracings. Drawn in detail was the large forest; most of it lay blank and unmarked. tasks for another day, he thought gloomily as he realized Sapphire would most likely drag him along again. The forest wasn’t the only thing; far to the eastern side of the map was a small dot with Canterlot written on it. Running through the forest out of Canterlot was a thin black line that snaked and bent its way across the scroll heading west.
Sapphire traced the black line with her hoof. “You see, here is the Equis where it runs out of Canterlot.” Her hoof continued on down the river’s line where it stopped in the forest’s blank area. “Judging from how long we’ve been out that puts us here.” Solarin examined the map more closely, lowering his head further to the document. Seeing his interest, Sapphire smiled at him. “I knew that there had to be a waterfall or something here. The difference in elevation in the lands was too vast.” Her head turned around to stare at the deafening cascade in front of them. “But I never would have guessed it would be this big, I need to get some measurements.”
You can tell all that just by looking at this piece of paper? Solarin had to admit he was impressed with the unicorn. He navigated his way through the dark depths of the forest on memory alone, using landmarks and such to make his path. To him the map looked nothing more than a sheet of paper with lines drawn on it. Raising his head from the parchment he watched Sapphire rummage through her saddlebags, pulling out numerous tools and objects. Each was stranger looking and more foreign to him than the last. Levitating the many items above her head, Sapphire galloped off down to the water’s edge, all the while trampling the wildflowers under hoof and sending the small animals scurrying in fear.
Solarin forced himself to lie down; it had taken the two ponies hours to reach the waterfall and he would need his rest if they were to make it back to town before nightfall. Trekking through the forest in the dark was not something he wished to do; underneath the verdant canopy, danger awaited. The forest was notorious for poisonous plants and lethal animals. Running into either would spell disaster, doubly so if a they cannot see them. Content on watching Sapphire his eyes began to grow heavy. With a yawn he closed them. A quick nap will help.
“Eww, I think I stepped in something!” Sapphire exclaimed as she raised her hoof from a puddle of mud. Staring at it in disgust, she gave it a quick shake to get rid of the filth.
“Then quit dartin’ your head back and forth like some frightened foal.”
“I can’t help it,” she complained weakly, shying away from the dark bushes around her, “everything is making noise.”
Solarin’s short nap had turned into a restful doze; consequently, it had also lengthened their trip. Now the two ponies had to do what Solarin had hoped to avoid: find their way back through the forest in the dark. Thankfully, Sapphire made the trek easier with her magic. Soft light radiated out from her horn and flooded the surrounding growth. With her magic and his tracking prowess they should be able to return home without incident. Hopefully.
As Sapphire noticed however, the light did little to deter the forest’s wildlife. Solarin could hear the soft footfalls of the animals around him. Every so often a tree branch would snap or the bushes would rustle unexpectedly, setting his nerves on edge. Every sound could herald the coming of danger; these woods were known to be deadly in the day; and now that the sun’s rays were no longer present, Solarin felt uneasy.
He knew they were close to their village; familiar landmarks dotted the grove’s floor. Turning around to face his companion, he did his best to offer encouragement. “Almost there Sapph, you’ll be able to see the town’s lights soon enough.”
His encouragement fell short. Sapphire looked tired and unhappy. “I’ll believe that when unicorns learn how to sprout wings; my hooves are killing me.”
Solarin rolled his eyes and pushed on. Keeping his head forward, he looked for more signs that would mean they were close. Within a few minutes he spotted it, the trees began to thin and he could make out flickering lights in the distance. Waiting for Sapphire to catch up her gave her a smug smile.
She frowned at him as she spotted the faint orbs; after a moment the frown was replaced by a wicked grin that snaked its way across her face. “Race ya.”
She was already galloping off out of the forest and into the village before Solarin could respond. Sapphire had forgotten that she still provided light for the pegasus and with a sigh, Solarin followed slowly after her, taking care not to injure himself in the darkness. It took him a few minutes to finally pass the last tree. Trotting out into the clearing he noticed Sapphire on the ground, trying to catch her breath.
“I….beat….you...” she said in between deep breaths.
Big surprise. “I can see that, now go home. I’m tired of foalsitting for the day.” Sapphire stood back up and glared at Solarin defiantly. She always hates it when I baby her. She stuck her tongue out at him in response before heading east back towards her house. Solarin made his way north to get to his own small residence.
There is something comforting about the night, Solarin mused. The dark makes you feel alone and serene. Walking through the empty streets he soon came upon the town’s tavern, a small and dusty place where the voices of loud ponies could still be heard, singing bawdily from their cups. Night doesn’t have all the comforts though, Solarin realized as he thought about joining the others for a drink.
A cry broke his train of thought. Solarin thought that he had imagined it; pausing he tried to cancel out the sounds of the rowdy ponies within. There it was again. he hadn’t imagined it; the sound was a high-pitched scream. It could have belonged to anypony, the town had many of them living in the surrounding abodes. Solarin had a sinking feeling though; deep down in his gut he knew who the scream belonged to. Sapphire.
Turning around, Solarin dashed off in the direction that he had come from before veering off into the direction of Sapphire’s house. Coming upon the unicorn’s home he noticed that the windows were still dark. Despair slowly crept up on him as he hurried over to the door.
“Sapphire! Are you in there?” Solarin asked frantically as he hammered his hoof against the wooden entrance. No answer came, and his worry grew even more prevalent.
Climbing down from the door’s front steps he scoured the ground for any signs of clues. A flash of blue caught his eye from underneath a bush. Rooting through the shrubbery he pulled out a small saddlebag. Sapphire’s saddlebag, he realized with dread. The straps had been broken and as he scanned the foliage he could see the contents of the bag strewn across the ground. Pushing aside some of the items, he found an indentation in the earth. As he scoured the ground feverishly he soon found more, dozens of hoofprints pockmarked the soil around the front door of Sapphire’s home.
One…two, and three. Solarin counted the different sized hoofs from amongst the clutter. The smallest of them, he wagered, belonged to Sapphire. Examining the area closely, he found more signs of struggle. Leaves and broken branches from some of the bushes lay strewn about on the ground. Solarin followed the tracks until they decreased in number to two sets and continued off, the dirt brushed aside as if a heavy sack was being pulled between them.
Please be safe, he pleaded as he galloped on after the trail. Whoever it was that had taken Sapphire hadn’t thought to hide their presence; for that, Solarin was thankful.
Passing the houses that marked the end of the village, Solarin spotted two dark shapes making their way into the forest beyond. The silhouettes looked big and demonic to Solarin as he ran after them. If he wasn’t certain that the two figures belonged to ponies he would’ve hesitated on confronting them. They wore long black cloaks that hid their features. Drawing closer he noticed a net being dragged behind them; underneath its brown coils Sapphire struggled against her bonds. He wondered why she didn’t scream or call out for help, but he soon saw that the two captors had gagged her.
“Sapphire!” Solarin called out to her. She stopped in her struggling and looked back to him. She tried to answer but through the gag all Solarin could hear were mumbles.
Having not noticed him before, the two ponies were startled by Solarin’s sudden yell. Summoning his courage Solarin growled at them, “Let her go!”
One of the figures motioned at Solarin to his partner; the pony nodded slightly and trotted out in his direction. Solarin didn’t wait for the stranger’s invitation, charging forward he moved to avoid the pony coming at him and headed straight for the one holding Sapphire.
He was cut-off halfway there though. The approaching pony stood in front of Solarin, blocking his way. Solarin gazed into the stranger’s face and thought he was white coated. No, too featureless. the pony wore a stark white mask that covered his face. It looked almost like the pony had no face at all, the mask shaped and colored to look like bleached bone.
The masked pony reared up on hind legs, towering over Solarin, and tried to slam his forehoofs down upon him. Solarin was much quicker than him though, pushing off with his hind legs and rushing at the pony’s chest. His shoulder slammed into his opponent’s gut and Solarin whipped his head around to strike at the neck.
The masked pony fell backwards from the force of the blow;,collapsed on the ground he lay stunned and wheezing from where Solarin had smashed his throat. Solarin circled around the fallen pony. He needed to finish this fight quickly; there was still another figure that could jump in at any moment.
“Sol, Help me!”
Solarin whipped his head around instinctively at the sound of the voice. His gaze found Sapphire still entangled underneath the netting. Her struggling had removed the gag from her mouth. He quickly realized his mistake. Fool, one thing at a time. Quickly, he tried to turn back to the fallen captor. The pony was nowhere to be seen. A sharp pain rocked the side of his head as a hoof caught him in the temple. Bright lights flashed in front of his eyes as he stumbled and fell to the ground. The world was spinning and Solarin could taste fresh blood, warm and metallic, in his mouth.
He could hear Sapphire screaming somewhere in the distance. “No! Please, Solarin, please get up!” Solarin tried, but no longer had the strength to stand.
Where are you, Sapph? Solarin’s vision began to fade, darkness crept up from the corners of his eyes.
“No, no, no, no! Solarin, answer me please!”
Darkness embraced his consciousness, its thin tendrils wrapping around his mind and pulling him into oblivion.
I’m sorry Sapphire.
Dark Cells and Darker Discoveries
The hot summer sun beat down oppressively on the streets of Canterlot, baking the crowded cobblestone roads to a blistering degree. Today, the weeklong celebration leading up to the summer solstice would commence. This year would mark the thirtieth since Celestia’s coronation. And twenty-five years of peace; everypony always seems to forget that one, Cobalt brooded as he walked down the streets to the market district.
Both vendors and celebrants alike were out in full force. Large throngs of ponies moved in between stalls and shops, painted masks and costumes adorning their bodies. Passage into the market district was lined on both sides by retailers selling everything from sweets to extravagant dresses and explosive fireworks.
Cobalt couldn’t have asked for a better convenience than the jammed streets. The ponies, too distracted by the festivities, paid no mind to their surroundings, perfect for him to move about unseen. Being a tall and broad pegasus usually meant he was easily spotted while walking through Canterlot. His princess had requested that this investigation stay confidential, which meant he had to be a shadow in the crammed roadways.
Deciding it best to leave his armor and other equipment back at his quarters within the palace, Cobalt had instead opted for a long black cloak. Gliding through the tightly packed roads he soon regretted his attire. The large number of ponies coupled with the torrid sun made the journey uncomfortable. Beaded sweat fell from his face to boil on the cobblestones below. He could see that the other revelers were suffering from the heat as well; the pungent odor of hot bodies wafted from the packs of ponies. The sweat only helped to make the air feel humid, adding to the discomfort. Nonetheless, Cobalt pulled the cloak’s hood farther down over his face.
He moved slowly, weaving and pushing his way through the crowds. Those that had been nudged out of the way would sometimes turn around to curse at him. Most of the time however, they just ignored the interruption and continued with their merriment.
His destination was just ahead, a small boutique that resided near the southern end of the market district. This will be the last one, he reminded himself as he squeezed through a blockade of vendor stalls.
Without the cluster of ponies surrounding him, Cobalt soon found the boutique. The shop was placed with its back up against the high walls that surrounded Canterlot, its condition was in great disrepair. The paint that would have once been considered a beautiful forest green was now chipping away and dirtied so much that it resembled a swamp. Shutters on the windows barely clung to their hinges and screeched sharply as the wind blew past them. Flanking the dress shop on both sides were larger and more extravagant businesses.
Cobalt strode towards the smaller store. As he neared, he noticed the paltry sign that hung above its door. Much like the rest of the building the board was also dilapidated. The wood was old and falling apart and the once bright paint was chipping away in pieces, the exfoliated lettering spelled out the shop’s name, Appaloosan Apparel. Cobalt started the short climb up to the front door. The wooden steps that served as a porch creaked and protested under his weight. Approaching the entranceway he tried the door; finding it unlocked, he nudged it open. A small bell tied to a string above the portal chimed as he made his entrance, shaking a small layer of dust off onto Cobalt’s head.
“I’ll be right with you,” came a voice from the direction of a back room. The vocalization sounded feminine as well as stressed and excited.
Cobalt took the time to look around the small boutique. Rolls of cloth of all sizes, shapes, and colors were stocked on shelves which lined the walls. Sewing needles and other tools were haphazardly strewn across tabletops; even more lay around on the floor. What a mess. Noticing a set of mannequins near the back of the cluttered shop he walked over to examine them more closely.
Most of them stood bare of clothing, some were missing limbs and one had even lost a head. The ones that had clothing on weren't in any better condition. Moths had eaten holes through the fabric draped over their inanimate backs. Thick layers of dust accumulated over the clothing, turning the once vibrant colors to a dreary grey. He began brushing one of them off when a loud crash from behind startled him.
The noise seemed to have originated from the back room. Turning around, he cautiously walked towards the doorway. A mare stumbled in through the doorway. Her dappled grey coat was draped with a number of haphazardly hung bolts of cloth. Her black mane was tangled and frizzy, stray hairs springing out in various places like coiled springs. The shopkeeper’s state seemed to match the interior of the boutique.
Cobalt cleared his throat as the mare walked out of the doorway, trying to get her attention. “You are Madame Kora, I presume?”
Noticing Cobalt standing by the mannequins, the disheveled mare sauntered over in his direction. The spools of fallen cloth dragging behind her like a multi-colored train. Finally taking notice of them, she shook them off hastily.
“You may call me Kora. What can I help you with? A new suit perhaps?” As she stood in front of Cobalt he noticed just how small the shopkeeper was compared to himself. Standing up straight, the mare’s head would have been in the middle of Cobalt’s chest, and he was easily twice her width. As she spotted the size difference she began to circle around Cobalt. Grabbing a length of rope from the ground she began to measure him from every angle. “A little bigger than most ponies, but I believe I have just the thing.” The mare’s emphasis on his size amused Cobalt.
Kora turned away from him and started towards a small blue trunk near a corner of the store. Rooting through the contents she pulled out dresses and saddles and other varying items of clothing before throwing them aside. It’s no wonder that the store has reached this state, Cobalt sighed. There is no reason to skirt the issue. “I’m not here to buy anything.”
The shopkeeper glanced around at him, a pale blue dress hung from her mouth. She let it drop to the floor. The inviting smile that she had worn before was replaced by an annoyed scowl. “Well then, what do you want?” she snapped.
Temperamental and rude. He ignored it nonetheless, he had dealt with much the same from the others he had questioned earlier. Striding towards the mare, Cobalt introduced himself. “My name is Atrius,” he began, “I’m from the office of domestic affairs. I’ve come to ask you a few questions about Aerin.”
Kora recoiled slightly from Cobalt’s question. Her face looked both shocked and puzzled. Licking her lips she replied cautiously, the words seeming forced. “Aerin? What do you want with her? She hasn’t come into work for a few days now, I wonder if she got sick.”
“Ma’am, you filed the claim that stated Aerin went missing three weeks ago.” Cobalt pulled the scroll out from a pocket he kept inside his cloak. Unrolling it he handed it over to the mare.
“Did I?” The mare seemed reluctant to reach for the document; after a moment’s hesitation, she grabbed the scroll from his grasp. Her eyes moved across the writing on the paper. Her face softened and her body looked drained of all the energy it had previously contained.
“Yes, I remember now. It was the start of the month when I sent her home late at night. After she didn’t return to work the next day I went to her house to check in on her.” Kora’s eyes began to tear up, small droplets of moisture rolling down her cheek. “The scene within was one which I do not care to remember.” The shopkeeper wiped at her eyes, trying to clear away the salty streams of water.
Cobalt waited patiently as the mare did her best to cheer up. Over the past few days he had seen a lot of ponies cry their grief away. It’s to be expected. The mare placed the scroll down upon a table before walking towards the shop’s window. She stared through the hole and onto the streets outside.
Cobalt followed her gaze. Trotting down the cobblestone road towards the boutique was a small pony. Her coat was light brown and her mane strawberry blond. Glancing at Kora he noticed that the shopkeeper looked excited, her expression changed as the pony turned towards one of the larger stores beside them.
“Curse them!” she barked, turning away from the window. “Those ponies open up four months ago and now I can’t get a single customer.”
Kora stormed off and around the store’s interior. Her hooves banged and resonated against the wooden floor as she continued with her tantrum. Cobalt was curious about the mare’s sudden mood swing. Patience, he reminded himself, but after a few minutes of the continued fury he could stand no more. He cleared his throat loudly, trying to direct her attention back to the previous conversation.
Madame Kora seemed startled as she noticed Cobalt still standing in the middle of the store. Her confused stare was soon replaced by a wide and excited grin. “Welcome! How may I help you today?”
Cobalt stared disbelievingly at the mare, dumbfounded. If it’s not one thing it’s another. Doing his best to ignore the last question he instead tried to get back onto the previous conversation. “We were talking about Aerin.”
“We were? Sweet girl, she always helps me remember things. Haven’t seen her in a few days though, did she get sick? Perhaps I’ll send some flowers.” Growing tired of the charade Cobalt sought to end the topic before he lost his patience.
“Never mind that, was Aerin a unicorn?”
Kora eyed Cobalt with a puzzled look, as if she didn’t understand the meaning of the question. “She is. Not the best at magic I must admit, but a great help around the shop”
Another unicorn then; the trend is starting to show. Cobalt turned away from the mare and made his way towards the door.
“Hey wait! Aren’t you going to buy something?” Kora called out after him, but he was already through the door and out into the street. The sun was starting to set in the west, great washes of orange and red painting the sky above.
I’ll have to convey this information to the princess. All the ponies that went missing were either unicorns or those related to the missing unicorns. Cobalt tried puzzling together what that meant, but it got him nowhere.
By the time Cobalt had reached the palace gates, the moon was already in the sky overhead. He had stopped in the streets as it had risen in the darkness, watching the white body move its way across the heavens, bringing with it the stars. Each small circle came to life one at a time until the dark sky was a veil of ghostly lights.
Looking up at the stars reminded him of when he was young. She had loved those stars, and I grew to love them as I stood beside her. Cobalt had to stop himself; thinking of the past would only open up old wounds. That was another time, and another duty. Pushing the memories away he strode towards the tower entranceway that led up to the library. Guarding the stony portal stood a white-coated pegasus, his shining armor reflecting the light coming from the torch above him.
“Halt! What is your business here at this hour?” the pegasus held out a wing to block the entranceway as he glared suspiciously at Cobalt. Cobalt knew the pegasus; a new, and young recruit that had been recently assigned to the royal guards.
“Are you blind or do you just have a bad memory?” he barked as he walked towards the light, pulling the hood of his cloak off to reveal his face. Recognizing his commander, the guard stumbled over himself to unblock the passageway, hastily mumbling his apologies.
“C-Commander Cobalt, s-sir! I’m sorry; I didn’t know it was you.”
“Just return to your post.” Cobalt passed by the young pegasus and started his climb up the long spiral staircase. The tower that held the palace’s library was a tall structure. Constructed decades ago by the late Queen Selena, it had been designed and built specifically to be the tallest building of its time. Quarried stone had been stained to an alabaster white and then placed to spiral up from the eastern wall of the palace.
The library was located at the top of the structure and climbing the long set of stairs proved to be a tiring task. By the time Cobalt reached the top, his legs were growing sore and his breath came in short gasps. I’m getting too old, he grumbled to himself as he shuffled over to the library’s entrance.
The double doors that opened up into the library were an artistic wonder. The wood was mahogany, polished and stained to a deep hue. Carved and painted onto its surface was a mural: a rugged mountain range spanned across both doors, its tips snowcapped and sharp. The foreground was different for each door. To the left a wide and green meadow was painted onto the wooden surface. Grasses and wildflowers basked underneath a bright blue sky. Rising from the left edge of the door was the sun. The yellow orb arced through the clear sky until it reached the far end of the door. Where the left door was in daylight, its twin was in shadows. A black sky dotted with small stars hung over a peaceful lake. Reflecting off the calm water surface, the moon rose from the right. Arcing over the lake, the moon waned to a crescent where it met in the middle with its solar counterpart. The two orbs melded together within a carved out circle: a sunburst and crescent moon eclipsing each other, the sigil of Equestria.
Cobalt gave a quick knock upon the painted wood before pushing open the large doors and entering. Stopping after he passed though the doorway, he took a moment to scan the chamber.
The library was a large room, circular in design. Bookcases filled to the brim lined the walls. Built to hold more books than a normal library, two additional floors had been constructed, each tiered outwards in a circle to show the large collection of tomes. Nestled in between bookshelves and in corners were desks and seating areas. Cobalt spotted his princess in an alcove on the second floor. Behind her, a large bay window looked out onto the city below. He could see the moon off in the distant sky; thousands of stars shone around it like a veil of tightly woven beads.
Luna lay sprawled out on a number of pillows. Books were propped up and left open for her to read. Engrossed in her studies, she hadn’t noticed Cobalt enter. She was reading from three books at once, her eyes skimming across one section before sifting through one of the other two. To Cobalt, it looked like she was searching for something. Several more books were kept nearby; using her magic, she levitated the tomes around in a circle above her head. Cobalt remained silent and waited for her to notice him. After a few minutes of no change however, he decided to speak up.
Luna gave a frightened yelp, she lost concentration on the spell holding the books aloft. The dozen tomes came down with a crash on her head. Cobalt flinched as she disappeared beneath a mountain of pages. Luna slowly lifted her head from the fallen literature and rubbed it tenderly.
“Cobalt, you startled me. I didn’t think anypony would look for me here.” Using her magic, she began to lift the books off of her and propelled them back to their places atop shelves and tables..
“I’ve been with your highness since you were very little. I know you often don’t sleep in your room,” Cobalt answered with a faint smile. “My apologies though for interrupting you, but I have new information on the missing ponies.”
A small scroll and eagle feather quill appeared magically beside Luna, ready to take down notes. She nodded to him.
“Of the two dozen some reports I was given to investigate, I located the ponies that had filed fourteen of them.” The quill scribbled hastily across the scroll’s surface, its passage marked by faint scratching sounds. “Questioning those ponies led to a trend with the disappearances, twelve of the ponies were unicorns.”
The quill halted as Luna began pacing around in a circle. The sound of her soft hoof falls occupying the silence in the feather’s absence. “What about the two cases where the ponies weren’t unicorns?”
“Those involved were related to one of the missing unicorns. The first was supposedly accompanying one of the aforementioned unicorns when they both went missing.” Luna had stopped pacing and was instead staring intently at Cobalt. Her eyes didn’t seem to see him though; her vision was somewhere far off in thought. “The second disappeared after witnesses said he would search for one of the missing unicorns.”
“So it is reasonable to say that all the disappearances involve either a unicorn or somepony related to one of the missing unicorns?”
He nodded in response. Luna started pacing around in a small circle again. She seemed distraught as she tried to mull over the news, Cobalt stood by patiently. He had hoped that Luna would know how best to proceed from this point, but it seemed that she was just as confused as he was. She stopped suddenly in her tracks. Her head snapped over in his direction, a puzzled look upon her face. “Wait, you said that you questioned only fourteen ponies?”
“That is correct, your highness.”
“What of the other ten? There were two dozen reports.”
“They-” Cobalt paused mid-sentence to clear his throat and gather his thoughts. “They could not be found.”
Luna’s look of puzzlement changed to disbelief as he finished. “Are you saying that even more ponies have gone missing? Like the unicorns?”
“I don’t think so. After suspecting as much I questioned their neighbors; some claimed that they saw the ponies leaving Canterlot by early light. Where they went however, I cannot say.”
Luna nodded slowly as she digested the information. Walking slowly to the left, she made her way down the stairs to the lower level of the library. “I see. Though we do not have the evidence I had hoped for, this should still help persuade my sister. I will go and speak with her about forming a more thorough investigation.” She made her way over to where Cobalt was standing. Her cyan eyes peered deep into his own. He had to look away from her to avoid eye contact. He couldn’t meet her gaze. She has her eyes. Cobalt pushed the thoughts of his past out of his head once again. “Cobalt, I would ask that you continue your search and find where these ponies have disappeared to.”
More sleepless nights, Cobalt thought with despair. “Of course, your highness.” Bowing low to the ground he turned around back to the doors of the library.
I think it is time I visited an old acquaintance.
Darkness was all around Solarin. As far as his eyes could see, the terrain was flat and as black as pitch. He strained his eyes and stared out into the murk.
“Why didn’t you help me?”
The voice came from behind him. Whipping around, he came face to face with Sapphire; her lilac eyes peered into his own, sad and lonely.
“What are you talking about? I’m right here.” Solarin moved to stroke her face, to comfort her, but she turned to smoke and blew away in the wind. He stared out into the darkness, a perplexed look plastered on his face.
“Solarin, please, help me!”
He turned around again; Sapphire was standing further away. Warm tears streaked down her face as she stared at him. He ran towards her. “I’m here Sapph, you’re safe.”
No matter how hard he galloped the distance between them never lessened, Solarin continued forward nonetheless. Relentlessly, he pushed onward against the murky landscape. He galloped until his legs were weary and he collapsed ungracefully to the dark ground. Looking up, he saw Sapphire still standing in the distance, staring at him with those crying purple eyes.
“Solarin, please answer me!”
He tried to call out her name but his voice was gone. He looked at her helplessly, unsure what to do. He tried to push himself back on his feet, but his body wouldn’t respond to his commands. All he could do was watch Sapphire’s tears drop to the blackness to be sucked up greedily by the expanse.
“Please Solarin, get up!”
Solarin tried once again to stand but was met with no more success than his last attempt. I can’t. He’d never felt so helpless before. Pinned to the ground he could do nothing to help his friend.
He looked back up to the unicorn. Below her the darkness seemed to bubble; black chains rose up from the inky ground and wrapped themselves around her hooves. She didn’t seem to notice though, her eyes never leaving Solarin’s. Her tears stopped, only to be replaced by a black liquid that ran down and stained her face. The chains continued to wrap themselves around Sapphire, snaking up her legs and winding tightly until it made her coat look completely black. The chains stopped at her neck, leaving her face to continue looking at Solarin with a voiceless plea
“No, no, no, no, save me please!” Sapphire’s voice cried out. She sounded hopeless and afraid, black tears continuing to stream down her face.
I’m sorry, I can’t. Solarin lay on the ground defeated. It’s all my fault, I’m sorry.
The black chains started to glow red. Solarin watched on in horror as the tight bonds became links of fire. The flames blazed up the metal, the bright conflagration eating its way up Sapphire’s back. She cried in pain as the inferno engulfed her body, her tears vaporizing into a black steam. The fire continued to grow until it formed a wall of flames high up in the air. He could feel the heat of the pyre as it started to move closer to him. The greedy inferno that had consumed his friend now moved into position to devour him as well.
I’m sorry Sapphire, this wouldn’t have happened if I had saved you.
Solarin awoke upon the grass outside his village. Warm rays of sunlight beat down upon his face. Cold sweat beaded its way down his neck. Probably from the nightmare. His head throbbed and he wondered how he ended up outside. The dream puzzled him even more; he dreamt that Sapphire had been abducted. It was all just a dream though.
He tried to stand but the effort made him dizzy and light-headed. Pain echoed through his head and he could taste dried blood in his mouth. He did his best to spit it out. Wincing from the pain, Solarin tried once more to stand. The dull throb changed to sharp lances that threatened to split his head. A sense of vertigo hit him as he looked down at the ground. Enduring the pain, Solarin attempted a few small steps.
One hoof in front of the other Sol, it’s easy. Despite his efforts, the vertigo was too much; his legs buckled underneath him and he fell to the ground with a head-splitting thud.
Solarin snorted in frustration, blowing dust into his eyes. He blinked and rubbed at them to try and remove the small particles of dirt, the stress made his eyes red and watery. Feeling the dust gone, he chanced opening them. Bright sunlight flooded his vision and drowned out the scenery. Slowly regaining focus, he examined the landscape around him. The ground was dusty with sparse patches of torn up grass. In front of his nose was a large indentation, barely noticeable in the hard-packed dirt. The shape seemed familiar.
I’ve seen this before. He moved into a better position to examine it. The mark was relatively fresh, probably only a few hours old. The shape was immediately distinguishable: a hoofprint.
Realization swept over Solarin’s mind, bringing horror and despair with it. The events hadn’t been a dream, they had happened. He remembered the two ponies, their faces and bodies obscured by bleach white masks and cloaks. He couldn’t shake the way that Sapphire looked at him with such hopelessness, the way she stared at him in the dream. She had counted on him to rescue her, but he hadn’t. I failed. He pushed the melancholic thoughts away; they would have to wait until later.
Glancing down at the prints again, he tracked them to where they entered into the forest. Solarin tried to come up with a plan, perhaps rousing the villagers to start a search. That would take too long though; the village ponies would be hesitant in following the trail into the forest and would only slow him down. Solarin knew what he had to do, and he would have to do it alone. Please, let me not be too late. He galloped off after the hoofprints as fast as his legs would take him.
The trail wasn’t difficult to follow, as the captors hadn’t been careful in their passage. The hoofprints stayed fresh underneath the dense canopy, far away from the sun’s drying rays. Broken branches and trampled plants marked where the ponies had strayed and Solarin ran after the trail without fear of losing it. The abductors had a head start on him, but he knew these trees well. He would catch up with them sooner or later.
Solarin finally came to a stop after a few hours of running at a rigorous pace. His legs were weary and his breath came in ragged gasps. He followed the prints into a small clearing, the midday sun shining brightly above him. He watched the prints circle around the clearing before heading off south-east into the forest again. He had to double check the direction to make sure that it was right. We just came from the south-west though. Why take such an extraneous route?
It didn’t take long for him to come upon the answer; as he searched around the clearing, he came upon an interesting observation. There were four sets of tracks within the clearing, instead of the two sets that he had previously been following. Upon closer examination, the trail that headed south-east no longer showed signs of Sapphire being with them. The two parties must have met up here and handed her over. Who were the new ponies though? The new tracks disturbed Solarin greatly. No matter how much he searched, he couldn’t find where they had entered in from the forest, nor could he find where they exited the clearing. The indentations looked heavier and deeper than the previous. Shod hooves, Solarin realized finally. He wasn’t used to the sight; nopony in his village was extravagant enough to shoe themselves.
He pondered the new information but nothing seemed to come together. Feeling hopeless he looked up towards the sky, perhaps to find inspiration. Wait, the sky? Having been under the tree cover all day, Solarin hadn’t given the clearing any special thought. That’s the answer! The two new sets of prints belonged to pegasi such as himself. I’ve never heard of any shod pegasi other than the ones who serve in the royal army. He pushed the thought from his mind though; he would find the culprits and rescue Sapphire, no matter who they were. He followed the tracks to where they ended in the middle of the clearing. Heading east, he noted.
Solarin mentally and physically prepared himself. He had never flown much when he was a foal. Having been born with wings that were larger than normal had made the first attempts end disastrously. The extra weight and wingspan made the appendages cumbersome to maneuver and caused him to crash frequently. He didn’t feel comfortable flying and didn’t want to have to resort to it but there was no other way. This isn’t the time to be grounded. The pegasi had a lead on him by at least a few hours and if he didn’t fly, his hope of catching up would vanish.
Unfolding his wings slowly from his sides, Solarin gave them a few test beats against the ground. Unused to feeling the wind ripple through his feathers, he found the sensation queer. As he continued to flap, downward pressure kicked up dust from the ground. He soon became tired; the unused wing joints were stiff and sore from the exertion.
Taking a deep breath, Solarin calmed his shaking nerves. Kicking off from the ground with his back legs, he gave his wings a strong thrash and was soon airborne. Wind flowed through his coat and mane as he rose higher into the air. The sensation excited him. I could get used to this. He spoke too soon perhaps as his acceleration lowered, the wind no longer whipping past his face. Instead he could feel himself falling towards the ground. In his excitement, he had forgotten to continue using his wings. He panicked as he continued to fall faster. He thrashed his wings against his sides, trying to stay aloft. It took him a few moments to get a rhythm going but he was soon steady. He was so tired from the exertion that it felt like his wings were going to fall off, but he didn’t have the time to rest. Pushing on east, he glided through the air; he would either catch up to Sapphire or collapse trying.
The decision was made for him sooner than Solarin would’ve liked. The hours had melted away as he flew due east. Doing his best to pass the time, he gazed down at the forest below him, looking for any signs that might mean the pegasi had landed. His searches led to little success; even after staying airborne for so long, the trees were still tall and tightly packed together. He wondered how long they would continue on like this before thinning out.
Movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention. Darting his head to the left to try and find its origin, he noticed a small object flying in his direction. A bird, he reassured himself, but the object was coming at him faster than an avian would. It slammed into his left side, causing him to flinch from the impact. He tried to continue flying but his wing wouldn’t open. Panicking he snapped his head around to see what was wrong. The object that had hit him was a projectile of some sort, lengths of cord tied together with rocks acting as counterweights. The contraption had wrapped itself around his left wing and hind leg, binding them together. Solarin tried to bite the bonds off from his leg but he couldn’t reach. He began to fall.
Solarin tried desperately to stay in the sky, flapping his one unbound wing with twice the power. It only caused him to spin in circles as he fell. He braced himself as the tree line came fast upon him and he crashed through. The branches snapped underneath him, breaking his fall, to an extent. Solarin hit the ground with his left shoulder, pain lanced through it as he continued to skid across the dark soil. The impact made him pitch forward, smacking his head hard against the earth. His vision began to blur and eventually disappeared as he lost consciousness.
Solarin woke up to find himself within a cage. His first vision was blocked by long metal bars. From the low light level he had to guess that the hour was somewhere close to dusk. He took the time to go over his injuries. His shoulder throbbed dully; each second a new pulse of pain would resonate from the damaged area. His head was in little better shape. Carefully moving and prodding his legs and wings he found, to his relief, that none of his bones seemed to be broken. He had somehow managed to cradle his wings to his chest before hitting the ground, preventing the fragile limbs from snapping.
“So yer awake?” asked a voice from outside the bars.
Solarin looked up from his enclosure to find the speaker. Standing just beyond the bars was a small, barrel-chested pony. His mane was a dark brown and his coat was mustard yellow. Sweat and other scents wafted in Solarin’s direction
“Yer comin’ with me,” the foul smelling pony said. “There is somepony that wants to see you.”
“And if I refuse?” Solarin returned defiantly. He wasn’t feeling the most cooperative of ponies after being knocked out of the air. The pony gave Solarin a smile; several of the his teeth were either broken or missing.
“You either come as you are, or, I can drag you there bound, gagged, and bloodied.” The way the pony spoke made it sound like he would prefer it if Solarin picked the latter.
Solarin begrudgingly assented to the less violent route, his body still sore from the crash. The pony opened up the gate to the metal enclosure and held it open for Solarin to walk through. He did his best to look tough but he was soon forced to favor a limp to accommodate his damaged shoulder. His guide took no notice of the injury and continued on ahead, forcing Solarin to match his pacing.
Solarin took in his surroundings. From behind the iron bars, he hadn’t seen Sapphire nearby but he had to guess that she was around here somewhere. Why else attack and imprison me?
He followed the yellow pony through a grove of tall trees and into an even bigger clearing. Several tents and cook fires were spread out, covering the grass within the clearing’s perimeter. He watched several ponies move in between the tents and the forest behind them. On their backs they carried either bundles of dry branches for firewood or other provisions found within the green depths.
Solarin kept his eyes peeled for any tent that looked suspicious, hoping to find wherever they held the other captives. After minutes of walking through the clearing, he hadn’t noticed anything that looked of the sort. She is probably off in a secluded cell like I was. Abandoning his previous plan, he instead searched the camps for a suitable escape route. If the chance presented itself, he would find Sapphire quickly before fleeing.
His guide led him to a large tent near the back of the clearing. As Solarin walked closer to the pavillion’s entrance, he could make out the sound of faint voices within.
“I’m telling you, coming here was a mistake. They never use the same routes for long, especially after Trottington.” The voice was loud and husky.
“We’ve had reports of movement though,” countered another.
“Bah! We get similar rumors every day that say they are in several other places, what makes this one anymore reliable?”
A third voice joined the others, this one softer, more feminine. “What of the pegasus that we captured earlier?”
“That’s right! Did you see the wingspan on him? I’d bet all my bits that he is one of their scouts. I’m telling you if we just stay here it’s only a matter of time-“
The conversation ended abruptly as Solarin was unceremoniously shoved through the tent’s cloth entrance by the mustard-coated pony. He limped in slowly as his guide passed by him. The short pony gave a crude bow.
“I brought him just as you asked, m’lady”
Adjusting slowly to the dim light within the tent, Solarin took in his surroundings. At the back of the tent, three ponies gathered around a low wooden table. On the left stood a burly pony, his coat deep red and his brown mane was cut short. To the right, a thin white-coated pegasus lay on the ground. His dark blue mane grew long and flowed down in waves, covering part of his face. Between the two sat a mare that seemed older than the others, if only by a little. Her coat was as dark as night and from her head a deep purple mane cascaded down. She stared at Solarin fiercely with dark blue eyes. They seemed to penetrate him, as if she were reading his thoughts and secrets.
“Thank you, you may go,” the black mare said, excusing the small yellow pony from the tent. She watched him leave before snapping her attention back to Solarin; her eyes continued to see through him, it made him feel uneasy. “Now then, who are you?”
Solarin kept silent. I owe nothing to these ponies, he told himself. I just need to buy enough time to come up with an escape. Instead of speaking he returned the glare. Seemingly unphased, she continued with her questioning.
“Where were you headed?”
After you, he wanted to reply, but he kept quiet and continued to stare at her
“Answer her, boy,” growled the red pony on the left.
Solarin whipped his head around to face the burly speaker. What did you call me, you haggard old mule? He could feel his blood boiling, anger rising. No, Solarin reminded himself, stay calm, find Sapphire, escape. Those are your priorities.
“You see, he doesn’t talk. He has to be one of them, why else continue with his silence?” stated the blue-maned pegasus. Solarin had no idea what the pegasus claimed he was, nor did he care much. In an attempt to calm himself, Solarin gazed around the tent, trying to find some item to occupy his mind with.
His eyes glanced over the table that rose above the ground in front of the three ponies. On it, a map was pinned down. Its black lines and labels reminded him of the one Sapphire had shown him. Thinking of her made him realize how much he missed his unicorn friend. I’ll find you soon enough, I promise. Solarin examined the map more closely. After all of this is over, I’ll have Sapph teach me how to read one of these things. The thought brought a sad smile to his face. The map resembled the one that Sapphire had asked him to help her finish. The soft marks all felt familiar to him, as if he had known them his entire life. He soon found out why; scribbled at the bottom of the map was Sapphire’s signature, hastily done and barely legible. There was no doubt in his mind that it was hers.
Solarin’s calm broke like a dam. Spilling out from behind it, waves of anger flowed into his head, drowning out all thoughts of control. How dare they! They take her away and use her hard work, how dare they! HOW DARE THEY!
“Where is she?” he growled at the ponies in front of him through clenched teeth. The black mare recoiled slightly, shocked by Solarin’s sudden outburst
“What are you on about?”
Liars, thieves. “You know exactly what I’m talking about.” Solarin pointed a hoof towards the map on the table. “Where are you holding her? Where is Sapphire?”
“Calm down, boy-“
“Shut up!” Solarin screamed; his loud voice cracked and set the ponies on edge. “You stole her away from me just the other night. Now tell me where she is.” He glared at the mare in front of him, his eyes narrowing. “Or I’ll make you tell me.”
Silence fell over the tent. Solarin did his best to try and tense up his muscles for a quick charge; if it came down to it he would rush the mare first. The aches in his body hampered his progress; pain throbbed through his chest and shoulder. The next moments felt like an eternity but nopony spoke. Finally, breaking the silence the white coated pegasus cleared his throat.
“It would seem that we’ve all been too hasty in our judgments.”
“We ain’t no Wranglers.”
“No,” the black mare said, with her piercing eyes still on Solarin she gave him a faint grin. “You may call me Primrose. And we, we are what Wranglers should fear.”
Solarin, please, help me
Sapphire did her best to stifle her crying. She had been locked away within a small room. It was dark, wet, and smelled of musk. The walls that flanked her crept in close to her sides, making the prison too narrow for her to face anywhere other than the front.
The majority of the small confinement was shrouded in shadows. The only light came through a small, barred window above the door. Sapphire did her best to stay within the light’s radius.
The darkness frightened her. Not because she was afraid of things unseen, but because she knew that there was nothing in that void. Loneliness was a constant companion within her cramped prison. It would bite and prick at her with every chance it got. The terror of being alone grabbed at her mind and heart like tentacles of writhing darkness, threatening to pull her away into the black depths. She knew that if she were to give in, she would lose herself.
For Sapphire, that small hole of light was her only hope. It was the only portal to anything outside her cage, her only connection to a better world. Just as the light was her hope it was also her jailer. As the light beyond flickered and danced across the iron bars, it cast shadows over her, a constant reminder of her own imprisonment.
Her cell was bare of any comfort. The floor below her was rock: smooth, cold and constantly wet from the dampness of her jail. Behind her, a thin pile of hay had been placed on the ground. She wasn’t sure if it was meant to be used as a bed or as a latrine. It didn’t matter to her though; the moisture had crept its way into the grass, turning it green and spoiling it. Even if it had been dry she still wouldn’t have used it, for it lay out of reach from the light’s protective rays.
In the dark and lonely cell, she had no idea how long she had been contained; it already felt like years had passed. That can’t be right, though. Her mind was deteriorating: slowly but surely, the constant dread of being alone ate away at her sanity. She could no longer look at the anything other than the faint beams of light that cascaded into her prison, could no longer think of anything but the darkness. Her only reprieve from the isolation came with her meals. With nothing else to look forward to, she eagerly awaited the soft click of the door’s lock sliding open. That simple metallic sound would sweep over her like a wave of magical elixir, washing away her fears.
The noise woke Sapphire from her rest. She had dreamt that the walls around her had grown tighter, that the darkness had finally come out to drag her away and devour her.
Shivering from having slept upon the damp rock, she looked up with excitement to the door that was being pushed open. The rusted hinges on the wall protested against the strain; the shrill metallic screech shattered the silence as the door was forced open. Bright light flooded out from behind it and into her room, blinding Sapphire as she tried to look at the face of her visitor. The light was too much; all she could see was the pony’s silhouette. A small metal bowl came out from the light, it slid across the floor before coming to a stop in front of her. She wasn’t interested in the food though, the meal would only be a momentary relief from weariness. All she wanted was the pony who stood in the doorway, somepony that would talk to her.
She assailed the darkened pony with countless questions, not stopping to listen for an answer. “Where am I? What am I doing here? How long have I been here?”
The silhouette gave no response. Fearing that her questions were ones that couldn’t be answered, she tried to switch them over to the other pony. She tried her best to keep her voice from being interrogative. Sapphire didn’t care if the pony gave a correct answer; she just wanted him to respond, to acknowledge that she was there. “Who are you? What’s your name?”
Her questions were once again met with silence. The shadowy figure had given her no lifeline to latch on to. Feeling desperate, she tried to grab hold of something, anything that would make him notice her. I need to see his face. Sapphire squinted through the bright light, trying to make out the features of the pony standing a few feet in front of her.
From what Sapphire could see, the pony was male. Short in stature his head would have been just above her own if she were to stand. His coat seemed dirty, like the color of a white washcloth used to wipe off a dusty countertop. His mane reminded her of oil, a black so deep that it shone, almost as if it sucked in the light around it before casting it back outwards. He wore it short, the tufts of hair creating a wave along the ridge of his neck. In the torch light, Sapphire could make out markings on his coat. The first was a black splotch that appeared over his chest. The black mark spread out to his shoulders to form a triangle before running down in a line towards his underbelly. The second marking was on his snout; its color was a fainter black than the one on his chest. A long blaze that extended down from his hairline to his nose. The markings made his face look like a mask.
I want to see his eyes. With the light behind him, the pony’s eyes look like circles of black. From the ground, she tried to adjust her position to get the light to reveal his eye. The pony started to turn away from the doorway. No, wait, please don’t go. She wanted to call out to him, but she couldn’t put the thought to words. She rose up slowly from the floor as the pony closed the door to the cell. She walked over towards the opening and peered through the small barred portal. Looking between the metal obstructions, she could see the pony’s eyes better.
The iris was a dull yellow color, and in the light outside her room it looked like shining gold. No! Despair gripped at her heart as she gazed upon the pony’s face. She realized the reason why she had been unable to see his eyes clearly. He had never looked at me; I was right in front of him and he never saw me. She felt betrayed, pain piercing through her heart like a spear. Look at me, please, don’t ignore me. “Don’t leave me alone,” she whimpered. The black and white paint walked off down the hallway without answering her.
As the pony left, so too did Sapphire’s willpower leave her. She felt sick; tears welled up at the corners of her eyes. She turned away from the doorway and back towards the square of light on the ground. The bowl of food was still on the stony surface but the thought of eating made her feel nauseated. She pushed it away as she lay back down on the rocky ground.
Her chest felt like it was going to burst, but she could only curse her own fragility. What would Solarin think if he saw you like this? Thinking of her pegasus friend only made the pain worse. Choking on the sobs that wracked her entire body she fell asleep crying.
Solarin, please help me.
The voice awoke Sapphire from her dreams; she had dreamt that her friend had come to rescue her. Solarin? The voice sounded familiar. Her eyes were swollen and red from crying and bright light flooded into her vision as she opened them. The door to her cell was open and a dark figure stood outside. Adjusting to the light, she noticed another silhouette standing above her. The outline belonged to a large pegasus, plates of hammered steel covering a majority of his auburn coat. It’s not him.
“I said git up!” The pegasus aimed a kick in her direction to reinforce his point. The hoof caught her just below the ribs and forced the breath from her lungs. She coughed and gasped for air as she tried to stand. The task proved to be harder than she had imagined. Her muscles were cramped and dehydrated and forgoing food had left her legs weak and shaky. The auburn-coated pegasus didn’t seem to notice her difficulty as he turned back towards the doorway to join the other figure.
“Come,” the shadow commanded from outside the room. Sapphire obeyed and stumbled weakly towards the two ponies. It took all her effort to keep from collapsing. As she exited into a narrow hallway, the two ponies flanked her on both sides and guided her down the corridor to the right.
As she was led down the cramped artery, Sapphire noticed several more doors, much like her own, placed at intervals on either side. There were so many of them that she soon lost count. She couldn’t even be sure if there were others in those small rooms, for no noise came out as they passed. Torches placed high above her head gave the corridor its light. Their dancing flames, had once been her source of courage, but were now just another tool of discomfort. The black smoke that came off of them collected in the air above and stung her already reddened eyes.
The hallway floor was the same smooth stone as her prison, slightly damp and cold. Small indentations along the pathway collected the moisture and created small pools of water. Sapphire soon became disoriented as she was guided down numerous side-passages and hallways.
The journey was a silent one, the ponies’ faces grim masks, neither talking nor smiling. Before, she would have tried to talk to them, but after the incident with the paint she no longer had the courage. Sapphire wondered where she was being taken. It can’t be any worse than being alone. At least she hoped so.
The trio halted as they came upon a metal door at the end of a larger hallway. The auburn-coated pegasus strode up to the metallic entrance and rapped on its surface. “We’ve brought the next one.”
An audible click broke the silence of the lonely corridor. Pushing on the door, the pegasus opened it. Turning around to face Sapphire, he gestured to his partner and she was quickly pushed inside.
The room was large, and brightly illuminated compared to the dark and cramped passageways that she had just traveled. She blinked and squinted her eyes against the light as she tried to adjust to the new luminous cavern. The room resembled a large square; the stone floor expanded out from the doorway and then rose up thirty or forty feet to a grey stone ceiling. The stone walls were the same light grey that she had seen in the hallways. Its surface was bare of any features except for one thing: lying in the exact middle of the room was a large boulder, easily thrice the size of Sapphire in both height and width.
As she stared at the rock, confused, her two guides walked past her and over to the smooth wall on the left. Pushing on some hidden panel revealed a secret closet. Inside was one object, a large harness. Picking up the tack, the pegasus walked back over to Sapphire. Long coils of wire hung from the harness, attached to metal plates on its exterior. The wires ran from the contraption back towards and into the wall.
She was held down as the harness was placed upon her back. The contraption was heavy and crudely made. Leather and cloth were bound together by iron clasps. Metal studs affixed to the inside of the harness dug into her coat, the cold metal poking at her from numerous spots along her back and underbelly. The two ponies inspected the harness, cinching it down to accommodate for her size. Apparently finding the work acceptable, they turned around and made for the exit, leaving Sapphire, confused and weak, standing in the middle of the floor. She could hear the metal door slam shut and the loud click as it was locked into place.
Uncertain what to do, Sapphire stayed where she was. The air inside the room was stale and frigid. The cold metal studs that rubbed against her coat made her shiver, which made her weak legs start to wobble. She started to contemplate lying down on the stone floor when a loud voice broke the silence.“Lift the rock.”
The voice seemed to have come out of nowhere. Sapphire’s head darted back and forth, trying to find the speaker. The room was completely empty except for her and the rock which was too big to lift.
“I can’t, it’s just too big,” she whimpered. She was scared and tired, and the disembodied voice made chills run up her spine. Her weakened legs started to sway from the exertion of standing, but she was too afraid to lie down. Trembling with fear, she awaited a response from the haunting voice.
Lances of pain coursed through her body from the harness, white hot and terrifying, like lightning. Sapphire screamed out as the shock tensed and constricted her muscles, making them spasm involuntary. She tried to gasp for air through the pain but the electricity forced the wind from her lungs and made her throat raw and parched. As abruptly as it had come, the pain left.
Sapphire lay on the floor, her exhausted legs having crumpled underneath her during the shock. The metal studs that had once been cold were now burning into her skin. She could still feel the lingering effects of the current through her body. She cried out in pain in between haggard breaths, each one was paid for dearly as the circulating air made her raw throat sting.
Why? she wanted to ask. I’ve done nothing wrong. The memory of the pain was all too fresh in her mind. Please, stop, no more.
“No more, please,” she wasn’t sure if whoever was listening had heard her; her voice was weak and no louder than a whisper. Regardless, the haunting murmur echoed through the chamber
“Lift the rock.”
No, no I can’t. Gazing upon the boulder in front of her, Sapphire’s heart sank; the task hadn’t become any easier. She tried to stand, but her crumpled legs remained powerless, too weak to lift her up from the cold stone floor. She was too tired and hurt to lift the boulder, and even if she had been at full health the effort would still seem impossible. She dare not voice her opinion though, lest she incur the voice’s wrath again.
Doing her best to at least sit up straight, Sapphire began to work her magic, hoping that somehow her desperation would win through. She first visualized the boulder within her head, concentration being the biggest component of spellweaving. She focused the entirety of her mind upon the rock, pushing aside thoughts that would distract her. She imagined thousands of small threads pouring out of her and flowing over to cover the rock.
With the preparations complete, the next task was the buildup of magical energy. Sapphire let the power well up within her. Slowly, she moved the energy from within her chest up towards her forehead where it would collect in her horn. The spiraled appendage glowed a deep blue to signify that the spell was successful. The easy part was over at least.
Using magic was a continual effort. Once the spell was cast, it would have to be continuously regulated in order for the magic to take effect; this meant that energy used would have to be channeled or else the spell would fail. Sapphire had planned to try for a powerful burst of magic instead of a prolonged flow, but her tactic failed. As she released of the built up magical energy, the earth remained motionless.
The spell acted like a floodgate, each second draining more energy from Sapphire’s already debilitated body. She let the mental gate open up further, increasing the flow of the spell’s power to the rock. The effort brought no further results. Concentrating harder on her spell she willed the mass to rise, her head throbbing from the exertion as the spell continued to drain her strength. The boulder remained inanimate.
Not enough. She raised the power again, her head hurt more than ever. She couldn’t succumb to the pain. If she were to lose concentration, the magic would falter and the earth would stay on the ground. She would fail, and with failure came punishment.
She pushed forward, bringing the spell’s power to another level. Her head felt like it was going to be cleaved in half, but still she did not falter. Sapphire put all of her effort into keeping the magic stable, but it wasn’t enough. She lasted only a few moments longer. Completely drained of all energy, the spell cut off, her horn stopped glowing and she collapsed. The mass of stone had won; she had failed to lift it.
I tried, please, it’s impossible. I did what you said; I tried, please no more. The voice was merciless; her punishment drove the pleas from her mind. The harness sent the painful currents of power through her body for a second time. Blinding pain shot through Sapphire’s head as the current arced its way up to her spell-weary brain. She didn’t even have the strength to scream in pain; the spell had sapped all of it away. She retched, warm bile coating her mouth and throat, burning her raw flesh.
“Get up.” The voice sounded impatient and cold.
No more. Sapphire tried to move, but her muscles wouldn’t respond to her command. I’ll do what you want, please no more. She panicked as she realized she was still immobile. No, no, move, get up. Her body didn’t listen; she lay upon the stone floor, scared.
The third shock came swiftly, but she didn’t feel the pain. Darkness swept over her as she fell unconscious, welcoming the mercy of numbness.
Sapphire awoke cold and wet inside the darkness of her cell. Her mouth and throat were still raw and dry but there was no water to be found within her narrow room. A dull throb resonated from her chest. Looking down,she noticed numerous burn marks on her coat, matching the places where the metal studs had poked into her flesh. When the current had passed through them, the hot metal studs burned away the hair and blistered her skin. The memories of the harness and white room brought back the fear and Sapphire hastily tried to push them away.
Whoever had brought her back to her cell had set her down upon the wet floor, and the moisture had accumulated into a small puddle underneath her stomach. No, the darkness. Sapphire realized that she had been placed out of the light’s protective square. She panicked, desperately trying to squirm out of the darkness and into the torchlight. Pain shot up through her tired muscles.She gave up on it, the agony of moving too much for her. Helpless and weak, Sapphire curled into a ball upon the stone floor and cried.
“Sol, please help me.” She choked on the words in between sobs. Fresh tears streamed down her face onto the ground.
“He isn’t going to come.”
A chill ran down Sapphire’s spine. Memories of the room and disembodied voice came back. No more, please. She cowered as she anticipated the electric pain, but none came. Uncertain what to do, she tried answering, her voice faint and timid. “W-what?”
“I’ve heard you cry out his name at least a hundred times,” the voice continued mockingly, “ ‘Sol, where are you? Come save me, please!’Honestly, I’m sick of it. He isn’t coming to save you; how could he?”
Sapphire began searching around her small cell. Nopony else is here. She had suspected as much; the voice wasn’t the same as the one in the white-washed chamber. She noticed a small crack in the wall behind her, faint light flowing out of it.
“H-how do you know?” Small choking sobs still interrupted her speech.
“Face it, whoever this Sol pony is,he will never be able to find you here. That is if he is even trying to.”
The words cut into Sapphire like knives. No, Solarin is different. He’s coming for me, I know it. She wanted to speak the words defiantly at the voice, but they wouldn’t come out. “Who are you?”
“My name is Aerin, and I have a way to get out of this nightmare.”
Tea and Gryphons
The sound of hooves echoed through the lonely corridor. With each new step, the silence that had once prevailed, was shattered. The day was growing older. As the skies darkened, so too did the long hallways of the royal palace, leaving them to be illuminated only by torchlight, casting shadows that flickered and writhed along the walls, performing a queer dance to the resonating beat of hooves.
Luna made her way through the faintly lit corridors alone; magical light emitted softly from her horn, parting the darkness before her. Though she had been offered an armed escort, Luna had declined. She had done so partly because the palace was a safe place to walk alone, even at night, but mainly because she wanted to think.
The deserted hallway that Luna walked down was similar to the others within the palace. Her magical light cast aside the shrouds of darkness to reveal its features. Floors made of grey marble shone as they reflected the light off their polished surface. The ceiling rose high above Luna’s head, so high that even her own light couldn’t fully penetrate the darkness. White marbled columns were set along the walls at precise intervals, rising up from the floor to support the ceilings high above. Statues and pieces of art decorated the walls. Each carefully sculpted pony had its own history and significance, most having been lost somewhere along the passage of time, as easily forgotten as their creators. Passing through several marble archways,Luna reached the end of the hallway. As she stepped out from the secluded corridors she found herself within the palace’s interior gardens.
The gardens had been constructed in the middle of the guest quarters of the palace. Housed in a square structure, the quarters were for honored guests from all parts of the world. Envoys and royalty alike had stayed within these rooms, but for the moment they remained empty. Each room had a window that looked out on the gardens. Built to amaze guests, its hedges and rose bushes were trimmed to create floral sculptures. Purple pansies mixed with fragrant peonies. Orchids and lilies blended together with long trails of foxglove. Out here, the plants combined together to create a piece of art that rivaled the works inside.
The sky opened up above the gardens, high over Luna’s head. As the sun lowered, it brought life to the air. Vibrant colors danced their way across the sky: orange and green; pink and violet; but most of all, red. It seemed the sky had grown jealous of the gardens below and had decided to mirror them. The walls surrounding the gardens drank in the sky’s colors, turning the whitewashed to dark pink.
Luna paid no mind to the sky above, nor to the gardens that lay out before her. Lost in thought, she passed by the natural wonders. As she strolled, she reflected on her objective. After she had sent Cobalt, her Captain of the Guard, out a few days ago she had spent the hours going over the collected information. Long nights spent in thought had made her reach only one conclusion, this mystery was too big for her to unwind by herself; she needed her sister’s aid.
But how should I go about getting it? It seemed to her that acquiring Celestia’s assistance wouldn’t be possible by simply requesting it; that much had been made apparent after Councilpony Ara’s plea had been left unfulfilled. I have the proof now though; the majority of the ponies that disappeared had been unicorns. Sister must see the urgency in the matter now. There was still doubt in her mind though. What if I don’t have enough evidence? Did I make sure that everything was correct? She stopped walking, pausing a moment to consider the question before shaking her head. No, I mustn’t think like that. If I just stay confident then I can convince her.
Crossing through the gardens, Luna made her way north through the guest quarters, once again pressing deep into the dark and empty hallways. Her destination was close; Celestia’s room resided near the top of the northeastern tower. Luna quickened her pace. Evening was coming on quickly and she had business to attend to before the vibrant colors in the sky faded to black. The moon would rise late tonight.
As she rounded a corner, she came upon the winding staircase that led up to her sister’s room. Torches were affixed to the walls at the foot of the stairs, their flickering flames fighting back the encroaching darkness. Underneath the torches stood two guard pegasi, powerful ponies that looked fearsome in their armor. The two ponies had been playing at dice and chatting happily between themselves. Upon noticing Luna’s magical light, they snapped to attention.
As the two ponies stood, erect and vigilant, Luna could make out the differences between them. The first, which stood closest to Luna as she approached, was short and wide of chest. His coat was an emerald green while his mane was the color of straw. His companion was taller, by about a head, and leaner. His helmet seemed to be too large for him though, forcing him to tilt his head slightly upwards to keep it from falling down over his face. His coat was the same color as the marble hallways. His mane however was more vibrant, bright red in color with tendrils of orange made it look like fire. Luna wasn’t sure if the color was natural or if the pegasus had it dyed to look that way. It made no difference though, she had more important things to do than contemplate a pegasus’ looks.
“I wish to see my sister.”
“Yes, your highness. Please, follow me.” It was the tall pony with the fiery mane who answered her. Taking one of the torches off the wall above him, he walked towards the staircase. Luna followed him up, extinguishing her illumination spell.
Luna shuffled closely behind her guide as he led her up the staircase. The ascent would be long; though not as tall as the tower that housed the palace library, the northeastern tower was still a large structure. Stone steps spiraled upwards for hundreds of feet. Luna’s guide took his time in climbing; she was forced to slow her pace considerably so she wouldn’t walk into him. She wasn’t sure if the reason he moved so slowly was because of the armor he wore, but it definitely sounded heavy. It shook with each step, making the metal plates scrape and bang against each other. The pegasus’ helm was another problem; where his breastplate rattled, his helmet fell down over his eyes, forcing him to continuously throw back his head to try and reposition it.
Luna was thankful for the company and extra light though, as the staircase was only faintly lit. Torches had been placed only at intervals marking different levels, which made the areas in between dark and treacherous. A slip on these steps could spell a long fall back towards the entrance. She watched the torchlight reflect off the pegasus’ armor. The dancing light made the metal come alive with bright flames. The guard’s oversized helm transformed into a fiery crown. The blaze continued down the pony’s mane until it reached the breastplate. As they walked into the light on the last level the flames hanging on the walls made the pegasus look like he was encircled by an inferno. This image lasted only a moment as he stepped out of the light. Without it, the pegasus turned back into a skinny guard with a helmet that was too big for him.
He led Luna down the hallway to a large set of doors. He waited until she walked up beside him before rapping on one of them. “Your highness, Princess Luna is without and requests your audience.”
“Send her in.”
The pegasus strode forward and opened the doors, holding one open he motioned for Luna to enter. As she crossed the threshold into Celestia’s room the door was closed behind her. She could hear the faint sounds of hooves walking away and back down the staircase.
Celestia’s room was extravagant to say the least. Twin marble statues of ponies reared up upon polished marble columns, left to guard the entrance for eternity. Beyond the pedestals, the floor concaved downwards to a fountain made of polished white marble, water bubbled out and flowed down to slotted drains in the floor. Beyond the fountain, on the wall, a large mural depicted a battle.
Luna knew the painting well: On the Plains of Dusk the piece was called. It romantically portrayed one of the biggest battles in the War of Sun and Moon. To one side, the Lunarian host were clad in armor of gleaming ebony. On the other stood the army of Solaria, adorned in barding of white gold. Between them, pegasi flew high in the air and dived at each other in aerial combat. Luna found it curious that the mural was within Celestia’s room. When the art had been presented to their parents as a gift over two centuries ago, the king and queen had it locked up within the palace’s vaults. She pushed the musing from her mind.
To either side of the mural the room then continued to extend outwards. On the right, the room opened up to the outside, a large terraced balcony looming over the ground below it. The balcony had been built with Celestia’s ceremonies in mind; facing out towards the northeast, it was the first place that the sun’s light hit as it rose over the mountains to the east.
To the left of the main room rose another level that served as Celestia’s study. A small staircase rose a few feet into the air and led up to the new level. At the top, her sister lay on an assortment of pillows, eyes scanning a scroll held aloft by her magic. Finished with its contents, she rolled it back up and levitated it to a small desk filled with similar scrolls behind her. Rising from the pillows, Celestia strode down the staircase towards Luna, a graceful smile lighting up her face.
“Sweet sister, how nice of you to come visit me.” Luna smiled in return as Celestia nuzzled her. “Now, what did you wish to talk about? Surely you didn’t disrupt your studies to simply enjoy a chat with your big sister, however lovely that may be.”
Quick as ever sister, Luna thought as her smile faded. Opening her mouth to speak she fumbled over herself trying to find the right words. Celestia cut her off before she could talk.
“There is no rush, dear Luna,” she chuckled softly. “Would you care to talk over tea?” As Luna nodded in agreement, Celestia levitated a small bell off the desk above her and rang it. Two serving ponies walked into the room from behind a curtain. One carried a small table and pillows upon his back. The other held a silver tray with a tea kettle in the middle, surrounded by two cups and numerous small cakes. The pony carrying the table walked towards the sisters. Bowing, he let the slab of wood slide off his back and land on the ground. Pulling the pillows off one by one, he set them down at opposite ends of the table before walking away. His companion walked over and set the gleaming tray down upon it, the teacups clattering faintly as they met with the wooden surface.
Dismissing the two servants, Celestia walked over to the table, Luna followed closely behind. Picking the pile of pillows closest to the balcony, she sat down. Luna watched her sister upend the tea kettle magically over one of the cups; dark liquid flowed out from its spout and fell, with a splash, to the mug below. As Celestia moved to fill the second cup, Luna tried one of the small cakes that had been placed on the tray. Delicious. It tasted of cinnamon and the middle was filled with honey. She lowered the delightful cake as Celestia levitated the teacup towards her. Accepting it gratefully she placed it down next to her half-eaten pastry.
Looking up, she watched Celestia stir her tea magically; the black liquid resembled a whirlpool, spinning around upon itself. Speed is the essence of victory, Luna reminded herself, or so it said in a book she had read once. “Sister, I wish to talk about what happened at the last court.”
Celestia took a sip from her tea, with a look of displeasure she placed the cup back down on the table. “Court?” she inquired softly, as if she wasn’t sure what Luna was referring to. Glancing towards the silver tray, she picked up a small porcelain container filled with sugar cubes. Luna took the opportunity to continue.
“The instance with the missing ponies that Councilpony Ara brought forth.” Celestia listened as she chose three cubes from the container; the first cube fell into the tea with a plop. “You said that you would reconsider your decision if more evidence was discovered.” Splash, the second sugar cube followed the first into the dark liquid. “Well, I took it upon myself to gather more information, and... I found it.” The third cube missed its mark. It bounced off the rim of the teacup with a clang and rolled out into the middle of the table. Luna looked at her sister’s face; she was staring at her cup, eyes widened.
“You investigated the disappearances?” Celestia asked, her voice sounded hollow and furious.
Why does she sound so angry? Luna wondered. she hadn’t thought that her sister would be mad; she had even hoped that she would be praised her for her resourcefulness.
“Yes,” Luna replied meekly.
Celestia took a deep breath and closed her eyes, as she opened them her face resembled the one that Luna was accustomed to, graceful and welcoming. Her smile didn’t return however. “This isn’t a matter that a princess should bother herself with.” Her voice still had a hint of anger in it, but more of a scolding. Luna still didn’t understand why her sister was rebuking her.
If not me, then who?
“Do you mean to ignore this problem after all I’ve done to try and solve it?” Celestia picked up her teacup once more and took a quick sip before returning it to the table.
“I’ve already ordered an investigation to be conducted,” she replied.
What? Since when? Luna thought to say, but she held her tongue; instead, she continued to sit and look at her sister with a puzzled look. Celestia seemed to catch the notion of Luna’s stare. “I spoke with Magister Alitti after the court was convened. I’ve since left the investigation under his and the Royal Unicorn Society’s care.”
Alitti? Why give the investigation to him? The disappearances are a domestic issue, which means they fall under Councilpony Ara’s jurisdiction. It didn’t make any sense to her.
“Why so openly refuse Councilpony Ara’s claim? Wouldn’t it have been easier to agree and let her investigate the matter?” Luna saw her sister smile at her from across the table; it was the same smile that she used whenever Luna came to her with something she had learned.
“Sweet sister, you know nothing of the court. Some things are better left... secret,” Celestia’s smile faded as her face hardened. “Now, I want you to stop with your investigations and leave them for Magister Alitti and his unicorns. Do you understand?” Luna didn’t, but she nodded anyway. A warm gust of wind came in through the open windows leading out to the balcony, the teacups and dishes rattling faintly before the gale subsided.
Luna looked out across the balcony and into the eastern sky. In the fading light she could make out a wave of thunderheads, black as pitch, as they moved towards Canterlot. There is going to be a large storm tonight, she thought. Celestia stood up from her pillows and walked towards the open doors, closing them and turning back towards Luna.
“Dear sister, I think that it would be best if you take a vacation. Go out into the country and cleanse your mind of these awful disappearances. By the time you return, I’m sure that Magister Alitti will have everything back to normal.” Luna had to admit that some time off would be appreciated; between her studies and the missing unicorns, she hadn’t slept much.
“Thank you, Celestia; I’ll do just that.” Luna stood up from the pillows and stretched her cramped legs before walking over to hug her sister goodnight. She left and made her long walk back to her own room where she would raise the moon before falling asleep. I should probably ask Cobalt to accompany me when I leave; he has been putting just as much work into this as I have. It was then that Luna realized that she had neglected to tell her sister about her guard captain. Oh well, some things are better left secret, she chuckled to herself.
“I don’t know squawk.”
And I’m the queen’s lover, Cobalt thought bitterly as he glared across the table towards his griffin associate. He picked up the mug that had been placed before him and tried its contents. Warm. B But he drank it anyway. Owner doesn’t even have the decency to keep his beer cold. Not that it would be any better if it were. The drink was popular among the locals, most likely because it came in large quantities at a cheap price. The swill had been given the name Lion’s Tears in honor of the aptly named bar that served it, The Lion’s Roost. Lion’s piss would be more fitting.
Outside, the rain came down heavily, flooding the streets and forcing ponies and other creatures to seek shelter. The Lion’s Roost was one such shelter. The bar was filled to capacity with patrons. Some talked quietly with their friends in corners and alcoves while even more sang loudly on the tops of tables. From what Cobalt could gather, the drunks were stumbling through the chorus of The Copper Counter’s Daughter, a bawdy song of a stallion that wooed a young filly to get back at her father who he owed a debt to.
The Lion's Roost much resembled the other buildings within the griffin slums: dirty, loud, and impoverished. The slums had sprung up in a matter of years, nestled in the mountains high above Canterlot. They were called home by hundreds of griffins that had fled their country after the end of the Griffarian War. Masons, traders and many other honest workers had brought their families over in order to build a new life for themselves.
Cobalt’s associate however, was none of those things. Gworren was short, fat and crass of tongue, and even though he had spent many years in Equestria, his voice still carried the strong northern accent of Griffaria. The griffin posed as an honest merchant that provided safe transportation of goods through Canterlot; it was common knowledge that he was instead a smuggler, and a notorious one at that. Gworren was most commonly known by his nickname, the Painted Eagle, and Cobalt could see the reasoning for it. The feathers on top of Gworren’s head were each dyed a different color, pinions of green and blue intertwined with plumage of red and purple. Feathers that were left with their natural color were instead decorated with silver bells or turquoise beads. The surplus of gaudy trinkets would rattle against each other as he moved his head, a chorus of clinks that seemed to follow closely behind his every word. He looks more peacock than eagle, Cobalt mused as he took another swig from his mug.
The griffin stretched his fore claw out across the table, palm up. “The night is young though, maybe I remember something.” Gworren’s voice was light and airy; Cobalt didn’t like it, it sounded too much like the smuggler was mocking him. He glared at Gworren from across the table, his ire rising as he set the drink down. The griffin regarded his stare with a faint smile, he chuckled slightly. “Or, maybe I don’t.”
Cobalt knew what the griffin wanted, but he didn’t have any to give. Of the small purse of silver that he had left the garrison with a few days ago, nothing was left. The coins had been used already to bribe and buy the information that had gotten him this far. He knew that money wasn’t the only way to get what he wanted; he need to try for a more direct approach.
Pretending to rummage through his cloak for the money, Cobalt leaned in closer to the table. Looking below, he noticed Gworren’s other talon, yellowed and scaly, halfway between them. He was glad that he had decided on reattaching his steel shoes before he had left on his search. Leaning even further over the table Cobalt placed his forehoof underneath the table and over the griffin’s scaly leg and pushed down.
He glanced up at the smuggler as he pressed down harder. He could hear the griffin’s claw crack, the joints popping from the pressure. Gworren’s eyes had grown wider and his smile was starting to twitch from the pain; he was doing his best to hide the discomfort from the pegasus. Cobalt was impressed by the smuggler’s willpower, but he didn’t want to be impressed; he wanted the griffin to talk.
“It is stated by royal decree that smuggling be considered the same as stealing from the crown,” Cobalt said as he added more pressure on the griffin’s claw. “When a pony is caught stealing, it is usually punished by taking off a hoof.” Smirking at the smuggler, Cobalt smashed his steeled shoe down on the scaly appendage.“In your case though, I could just as easily take your talons.”
Gworren’s calm smile faded. “Stop, you’ll break it!” he cried out, panic in his voice. That’s the idea, you feather-brained fool. Cobalt eased up nonetheless; he wouldn’t be able to hear the griffin clearly if he continued to scream.
The griffin’s cries were starting to catch the attention of other patrons. Pegasi and griffins sitting at the other tables risked looks in their direction before returning to nurse their drinks; it was wise to not get caught up in another pony’s business. Cobalt returned to his questioning, intent on getting the information he wanted even if it meant throttling the fat smuggler. “Where have you taken them? Smuggling them across the border to sell as slaves perhaps?”
Gworren’s face reddened. Cobalt wasn’t sure if it was because he was embarrassed or, if it was simply induced by his questioning technique. The griffin’s voice sounded shocked nonetheless. “I would never! I may be a smuggler, or a thief or whatever you claim me to be. But, I am no slaver; I have my standards.”
I find that hard to believe. Cobalt could feel the griffin struggling to remove his claw from underneath his hoof. The effort was wasted though; Cobalt was both larger and stronger than the griffin, and he wouldn’t be able to wriggle free.
“I want the truth,” Cobalt said as he pushed down harder on the claw. He could hear the floorboards underneath start to crack and buckle from the strain. The smuggler cursed under his breath as he tried to move free from Cobalt’s grasp, the bells in his feathers jingling each time he jerked backwards. The griffin’s voice sounded hollow as he pleaded to Cobalt.
“I have no talon in this, I swear it! I know who you’re looking for though. They kicked me out of a cave I used as a hideout not two months back. Now, please, let me go!”
Cobalt wasn’t happy to hear that his quest wasn’t at an end. It’s a start though. Cobalt let go of the griffin’s claw. Gworren quickly brought it back towards his chest and cradled it there, intent on keeping it as far away from the bulky pegasus as he could. The appendage was all but mangled; in several places the surface had been cut and fresh blood dripped down to the wooden floorboards. The claw would be bruised badly for the next week but Cobalt had been careful enough not to break any of the bones, a reward for the given information.
“What were they doing there? Who were they?”
Gworren chuckled at him, stroking his injured claw. “You should know better than I.”
“What do you mean?”
“They were guard pegasi much like yourself; big, strong-” Gworren turned his head and spat on the ground- “and content to use force to get what they wanted.”
Cobalt grew furious. Lying sack of feathers, I should’ve made a bloody ruin out of that claw while I still had the chance. As much as he wanted to believe that the griffin was lying, he knew deep down that the fat smuggler was telling the truth, he could tell that by just looking at him.
“Where is this cave?”
“About three miles south of the city. The entrance is big, but it’s close to five hundred feet up the mountain, you’ll need wings to get in,” the griffin answered.
Three miles in this weather? Cobalt snorted in displeasure. Outside, the rain still fell relentlessly. Strong winds roared and crashed against the outer walls of the bar, making the ceiling overhead shake. He didn’t like the idea of traveling out in this storm, especially while it was dark. Not much of a choice though. His princess had commanded him to find the culprits, and he wasn’t going to leave anything to chance.
Cobalt checked his saddlebags for warmer clothing but found little. He had a small chain vest, light armor that was lined on the inside with wool for warmth. He hoped that with his cloak it would be enough to keep him dry. Cobalt looked back up at the smuggler. Uncertain what to do, Gworren had remained at the table, cradling his injured claw towards his chest as he regarded the pegasus with a cautious stare.
Cobalt turned his back on the maimed griffin and made his way towards the door. He could feel the eyes of the other patrons on him, frightened onlookers that were just as uncertain on what to do as Gworren was. As he arrived at the doorway, a thin griffin approached him from the side. His feathers were ruffled and dirty and he smelled of smoke. As he came closer Cobalt could see that he was trembling faintly.
“B-beggin’ pardon s-sir, your drink. You need pay for it.”
Cobalt raised an eyebrow at him. Even if he drink wasn’t worth the coin he still owed the trembling griffin for his hospitality. Turning his head, he motioned towards Gworren who still lingered at the table behind him. “My friend over there will be happy to pick up the tab.”
The barkeep nodded quickly several times. “Just so.” He managed in between head bobs and did his best to get out of Cobalt’s way as fast as he could. Cobalt watched the frightened griffin hurry over to the table that Gworren presided over.
Pulling the hood of his cloak over his head Cobalt opened the door and walked out. Large drops of rain pelted him with frightening force and the wind whipped around him, threatening to yank the cloak he wore off. As the door behind him started to close he could hear the smuggler yell after him.
“You bastard, I hope you colic!”
Ignoring the griffin’s parting words, Cobalt lowered his head and braced himself as he walked out into gales.
Pushing through rain-slicked trees, Cobalt emerged into a clearing. His cloak was soaked through and dripped evermore into his light clothing. The sky remained as black as ever; behind the clouds somewhere, the moon shone like a mirror. Cobalt could only guess that the hour was somewhere close to midnight. The journey had taken many long hours, and the torrential downpour had made it even longer. Wind and rain berated him at every chance. Cobalt risked a look up the mountainside to his left. The wind ripped the hood of his cloak from his face, leaving his head exposed to the rain. The smuggler hadn’t been lying; the mountainside rose up from the ground at a high degree, more like a cliff than a climbable ridge. Through the rain, wind, and darkness, he could just make out a small hole in the side, flickering light spilling out from its entrance. He was relieved that he had been able to find the cave so easily. During his long walk, he had come up with only one idea on how to proceed, and he didn’t like it one bit.
Twisting his neck to the side Cobalt undid the metal fastening that held his cloak together. The wind pulled it greedily, ripping it from his shoulders and sending it flying through the air like a dark ghost until it was caught in the branches of the trees behind him. He was loath to part with the extra layer; already the rain soaked through his light armor, the wool lining becoming damp and cold. He stretched out his wings; the wind and rain pelted the feathers, making them heavy and wet. If this had been any other time, Cobalt would have chided himself for his stupidity. He had come too far to back out now; he needed to finish this tonight.
Turning westward, away from the mountainside, he broke out into a gallop. Beyond the clearing, the land spread out into a vast expanse of grass called the Plains of Dusk. The grass swayed in the winds, making the large expanse resemble the sea, small hills rose up from the ground and crashed down like raging waves.
Cobalt continued to gallop through the sea of dark grass until he felt the tell-tale signs of a gust. He had been waiting for it and unfurled his wings. Kicking off from the ground he gave a few strong beats before letting the weather do the rest. The storm roared past his ears and he moved his wings to accommodate, catching the draft and accelerating quickly into the air.
Breaking through the first line of cloud cover, Cobalt was met with another strong gust, this one in the opposite direction. The flurry sent him somersaulting through the air and he quickly lost his orientation. He had hoped to fly west before circling back east to get to the cave’s entrance; now, it took all of Cobalt’s attention just to stay airborne. He couldn’t see anything within the dark clouds. Pulling his wings back to his sides, he accelerated towards the ground in a dive. Pushing down through the cloud cover, Cobalt once again leveled off. Twisting his head from side to side he searched frantically for the mountain range.
Before him loomed the dark cliffs and spires that marked the mountains. The rocky terrain rose up like obsidian fingers towards the sky, as if to grab the very heavens. Cobalt flew frantically for them, flapping his wings with renewed vigor. He could see the light of the entrance ahead of him, only a few hundred feet away.
Cobalt pushed on ahead, doing his best to reach the cave’s light. The storm’s force howled in his ears and threatened to rip his wings off target. He tried with all his might to fly straight but the gales wouldn’t comply, and he was soon forced to come up with a different approach. Flying straight into a headwind, he slanted his wings upwards and rode it to gain altitude. At the peak of the incline, he folded his tired appendages back towards his body and with a flowing corkscrew, dove down to the cave’s entrance at an angle.
The cave opened up below him as he made his speedy descent. Without his wings, the flurry had nothing to grip at and he was able to stay on course. The only problem lay in landing; diving down in a free fall had accelerated him to dangerous speeds.
He crossed through the stony portal and into the cave’s interior. Hoping to come to a skidding stop, Cobalt lowered his hooves onto the rocky floor. The storm had been perilous in more ways than one: the downpour had left the rocky surface slick and wet, and his hooves slid across the surface without losing speed. He cursed silently to himself as he spotted the cave’s back wall, lined with large wooden crates. With a loud crash that echoed throughout the cavern, he smashed into them head-on. Cobalt could hear the sound of hoof steps approach him as he lay stunned amongst the rubble.
“Wow, you were right, there are ponies stupid enough to fly in this weather.”
Cobalt raised his head from the splintered remains of the containers. It throbbed and his right forehoof felt sprained. Turning his head, he saw two ponies standing over him. Both were about an average height, which meant that he would loom over them if he stood up. Both were adorned in a black cloak, the borders trimmed with cloth, blood red in color. One had removed his hood to reveal a long face with high cheekbones, a lilac colored mane flowed down to partially cover his grey coat. For a male, his features were quite feminine. From his forehead rose a large grey horn, the same color as his coat. The other pony kept his hood up. He could barely see the hooded pony’s face. Most of his features were hidden by a long shadow that hung over his face, obscuring it like a veil.
“What are you doing here? Where is your shipment?” the hooded pony asked as he eyed Cobalt queerly. The voice was barely audible, just barely above a whisper; it sounded hoarse and ghastly.
Cobalt stared at him with a confused look, his mouth agape. Shipment? Not knowing how to answer Cobalt remained silent. Better to seem confused and say nothing than blurt out something that may condemn you.
The only visible portion was part of the pony’s mouth. His teeth were clenched firmly together and he looked impatient. “What luck! To be given another pegasus half-wit!” the hooded pony cursed to himself. The grey-coated unicorn chuckled at his companion’s misfortune.
Cobalt wasn’t sure what animosity the hooded pony had towards pegasi but he wasn’t about to confront him on it. It’s not the most flattering of things to be looked down upon, but arguing about it will only raise suspicion. Better to just play along.
“Give me your name; you should be able to remember that much at least.”
Cobalt sprung up from the pile of broken wood and made a sloppy attempt to stand at attention. “Atrius, sir!” He hoped that the hooded pony didn’t know the names of the pegasi that came in regularly. Thankfully, his ruse worked. The pony grew even more annoyed at him.
“Don’t address me as sir! Do I look like an oaf of a pegasus commander?” he hissed.
“N-no, s-sir. Uh, I mean, sorry.”
The hooded pony glared at him but otherwise didn’t comment on his blunder. Perhaps deciding it better to hurry up he continued on with the questioning. “Now I’ll ask again, where is your shipment?”
“Oh! Well it kind of, got lost, in the storm.” Cobalt hoped that he had picked that right words, he still wasn’t sure if the shipment was supplies or the missing ponies
The hooded pony seemed to get even more agitated, Cobalt could see his mouth begin to twitch. “Then why didn’t you go after it?” The pony emphasized every word through clenched teeth.
Cobalt could have laughed, the fool just gave me the answer I needed. This is definitely the place.
“My partner went after it. He told me to go on ahead and report the incident.”
The grey-coated unicorn started laughing. “You see? This fellow’s partner seems to handle him much better than you can, Casimir.”
“Shut up,” spat the hooded pony. Seeming content on Cobalt’s answer he turned around and started walking back towards the cave entrance. Still laughing, the unicorn turned back to Cobalt.
“Well, go on. You’ll find the head researcher within his office.”
He nodded to the unicorn and started walking in the direction that had been pointed out. Behind, he could still hear the grey-coated unicorn laughing as he tried to talk to his dour companion.
Cobalt walked for some time down the cave’s interior. The immense doorway narrowed down into cramped corridors that seemed to honeycomb throughout the entire mountain. Finding the aforementioned head researcher would prove to be impossible, and Cobalt counted his blessings that he didn’t need to. Hearing voices ahead of him, Cobalt ducked down a small side passage and hid behind a pair of crates.
He waited for a few minutes in silence, watching the corridor. Three figures walked down the long hallway. Two were large pegasi, arrayed in assortments of armor and matching helmets. Between them stumbled along a small green unicorn. The unicorn’s hooves were manacled together, preventing her from taking all but the smallest of steps. From his vantage point, Cobalt could see the unicorn’s rib bones sticking out from the sides of her ruffled and dirty coat. As she walked out in front of the crates that Cobalt hid behind, she tripped over the iron restraints. The small unicorn fell to the ground with a frightened yelp. Cobalt watched on, expecting the two pegasi to help her back to her feet; he was mistaken.
“Git up,” The pegasus furthest from Cobalt said. Not happy with the pace, he kicked the unicorn in the stomach to help reinforce his point. The small pony gave a muffled cry as the hoof connected; after a moment’s struggle she finally got to her feet. The three continued on down the hallway that Cobalt had come from.
He couldn’t believe it, and never would’ve believed it if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes. The two large pegasi that had just passed had worn the sunburst sigil that marked them as royal guards. The fat griffin had been right. Cobalt didn’t want to speculate as to what that meant. They must be imposters, stole the armor, or something, he thought to reassure himself.
Stepping out of the shadows behind the crates, Cobalt walked back out into the corridor to continue searching. His wing caught one of the crate’s edges and it fell over with a crash. Flinching from the noise, Cobalt hoped that nopony would come in search of the origin of the disturbance. He moved to push it back down the small side passage and out of the way when a colored symbol caught his eye. When he had been hiding behind the crate he hadn’t noticed it before because of the light, but now he could see it clearly.
Painted onto the sides of the crate were large squares of black, and in the middle of them a single eye was painted in gold and then outlined in red. Cobalt gasped as he examined his discovery; he knew the sigil. It belonged to the Royal Unicorn Society and was used to mark their documents and possessions. While the pegasi could’ve been a coincidence these crates weren’t.
This is much worse than I had expected.
Plop!… nine-hundred and thirty-five… Plop!… nine-hundred and thirty-six… Plop!…
Sapphire counted the water droplets carefully, trying not to miss one. The exercise calmed her, kept her mind away from the loneliness and the dark. Plop!… nine- hundred and thirty-seven… Plop!… nine-hundred and thirty-eight. She kept her eyes closed, better to hear the droplets as they splashed against the grey-stone floor. Plop!…nine-hundred and thirty-nine… nine-hundre- Her counting stopped and she panicked. Did I not hear it, or did it not fall? Sapphire was uncertain what to do; her rhythm had never been interrupted before. She waited, her eyes still shut, straining her ears to catch the faint stir that would signal her to continue counting. A moment passed, followed by another, yet no sound broke the silence.
Sapphire opened her eyes, her small pupils slowly opening to take in as much of the little light that her narrow cell provided. The room was dark and featureless. She turned her head towards the front of the cell, hoping to look out on the flickering torchlight that penetrated into her unlit dungeon. The light wasn’t there though. Her prison remained as black as before, as if her eyes were still closed, though they were open. She blinked to double check.
The torch went out, Sapphire realized gloomily. She looked around at the walls, as something black slithered across their surface. They were barely distinguishable from the cell’s sides, dark as pitch against deep grey stone. The shady objects grew slender, and more numerous, like the tentacles of a giant octopus. No, the light didn’t go out, it was devoured… nine-hundred and forty… nine-hundred and forty. With each mental chant, she willed the inky tendrils to dissolve away. As she looked up though, the shadows were still all around her, poised to attack like a scorpion’s tail.
Chills ran up her spine as she followed the black tentacle’s path behind her. Fear grabbed at her mind as she laid eyes upon the monster that controlled them. Nine-hundred and forty. Its head was large and triangular, small serpent-like eyes glowing like red coals from above a gaping mouth. Nine-hundred and forty. Black ichor ran down from its jaws and smoke billowed out each time the creature exhaled.
The beast drew closer to her. Large talons that shone like onyx scratched at the stone floor beside her. Nine-hundred and forty. It loomed high over her head. The black ichor fell from its maw and dripped down to land in large globs on either side of her. The body stretched out farther into the darkness; its end couldn’t be seen but a whip-like tail extended out and curled around its claws. Nine-hundred and forty. The monster opened its mouth in a voiceless roar; large fangs glowed blue and crackled like lightning.
Lift the rock.
The creature’s mouth came down over her, its lightning-made teeth hissing as they closed in around her body. Nine-hundred and forty, nine-hundred and forty, NINE-HUNDRED AND FORTY. The black jaws snapped down on her body. The crackling fangs passed through her and disappeared into the void. No pain came…nothing came at all, which only made her more uneasy. Void had become her reality, and she became nothing.
Yes, I remember now, my name is Sapphire.
I must always remember my name, Sapphire, my name is Sapphire.
I am Sapphire the mapmaker…
I am Sapphire the mapmaker… and Solarin is coming to save me.
“Sapphire, wake up!”
Pale light spilled into her vision as she opened her eyes. Grey walls and bars. She was still within her cell. Her breath came in short gasps and her heart fluttered rapidly against her chest. Light fell through the small window above her door, faintly illuminating the narrow room. Beyond her doorway, she could still hear the persistent drip of the water. I am Sapphire the mapmaker, and Solarin is coming to get me. He wasn’t there though; she only had her small rays of torchlight and Aerin. Sapphire crawled over to the small crack in the stone wall that connected her to her friend. “Aerin, w-what?”
“You were crying out in your sleep again.”
“Was it that dream again?”
Sapphire let the silence speak for her. While she was awake, talking with Aerin helped keep the loneliness and dark at bay, but when she fell asleep... I must have dozed off without knowing it. The practice of counting the dripping water was soothing. Sometimes too soothing. Reminding herself of sleep only brought back the memory of the nightmarish creature, its deep red eyes and crackling blue fangs. Tremors of fear quaked through her body and she fought to drive them away. Drip!… one… Drip!… two… Drip! She recited the numbers in her head like a mantra, trying to keep her mind steady.
“How long has it been?” Sapphire asked keeping her head close to the small crack. In the silence of her prison, Aerin’s voice could always be heard through the small opening, but being closer to her provided additional comfort.
“They’ve passed by for a fourth time not too long ago.”
The method had been thought up by Aerin. Outside, the guard ponies patrolled the hallways at set intervals. Neither of them was sure how much time passed in between; after four cycles though, their food was brought to them. With this system, the two were able to measure their imprisonment. Four patrols before a meal, three meals for a day. Today would mark the sixth day since Sapphire had met her new companion.
The echoes of beating of hooves resonated through the stone hallway outside her door; the sound was softer than the usual loud clash that the guard’s shod hooves made. The blind pony has come with food.
The black and white paint that acted as Sapphire’s jailor wasn’t truly blind; the name had been given to him by Aerin. Because he looks without seeing. Most of the nicknames had originally been Aerin’s ideas. She was also the one that insisted that their captors be referred to as them. She had said that she didn’t want to look at them as ponies after what they’d done.
Sapphire knew that seeking solace in the paint was useless. He is the same as them. Each time he would open the door to her cell, though, some small part of her would hope to be recognized; that hope only led to more pain.
The wooden door opened with a soft click. Pushing the entranceway open, the blind pony walked into Sapphire’s cell. She could see his dull yellow eyes as the light from outside reflected off them. The jailor dropped a container of food on the floor. The metal bowl clattered against the rocky surface, spilling some of its contents in the process. Without speaking a word, he turned around and walked back out into the hallway, slamming the wooden barrier shut behind him and locking it.
Sapphire crawled over to the metal bowl, careful not to spill anymore of the contents, and began to eat. With a sigh of relief, Sapphire noted that the container was small this time. It had become an ill omen if she or Aerin received a large portion, because it often preluded a trip to the white room with the rock.
To call the off-white paste in the metal dish "food" would be a courtesy. Sapphire sniffed at it; she wasn’t certain what the mixture was made of, but for the most part it was tasteless and odorless, though she wasn’t sure if that was a blessing or a curse. Her stomach growled and she choked the stuff down as best as she could.
“We just need to save our strength for a few more days, and then we can escape,” Aerin whispered through the small crack that connected their two cells. Sapphire wasn’t as confident as she was about the plan. Aerin had confided the details to her days ago, It was simple, to a fault: the plan centered on Sapphire being able to unlock her cell door with her magic. Aerin said that she wasn’t skilled enough in spells and her attempt to escape on her own had failed. If only it were that easy. The biggest component of spellweaving is concentration, and concentrating on opening a lock you cannot see is almost as impossible as levitating a boulder that is thrice your size.
“Even if we do get the doors open, what then?” Sapphire was starting to hate these conversations. She had expressed her concerns about the lock and the plan but Aerin had only brushed them off.
“We’ll hide away from them and find our way out of here.”
Sapphire wasn’t convinced. “How? You’ve been through those hallways; it’s like a bee’s nest. You can’t navigate out of them.” If only I had my compass, or even the sun. The plan was foolish. “They’ll find us in no time, and when they do…” Memories of the white room flooded to the front of her mind.
Lift the rock
Her heart stopped in her chest. No, remember your name, remember who you are. I am Sapphire the mapmaker. She repeated those words in her mind until the white room faded away and the disembodied voice no longer called out.
Aerin’s voice rang out from the crack in the wall. “I’d rather try than do nothing and wither away in these dark rooms!” she paused, “do you have any better ideas?”
Wait and obey, they won’t hurt me if I listen. Solarin will come rescue me soon. Sapphire didn’t dare voice her opinion. Aerin was stubborn and confident in her plan, and she grew angry every time Solarin was brought up.
Scraping the bottom of the metal bowl, Sapphire tried to get every last bit of the tasteless paste as she could. Finishing it, she pushed the empty saucer towards the door. The blind pony would switch it out with the next meal. She hoped that next time the bowl would be just as small.
Sapphire lay upon the stone floor of her jail in silence, tired and uncertain what to do. It would be easier if I had the same confidence as Aerin. Her companion reminded her of Solarin, always pushing on ahead despite any consequences. “How are you able to stay so confident in your plan?” she asked, whispering through the small porthole.
“I don’t know, maybe because it is the only thing I can do.” Aerin’s voice sounded faint and sad. Sapphire had never heard her talk like that before; she was used to Aerin’s usual confident tone.
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t either, I just hate feeling powerless.” Her voice died off and Sapphire moved closer to the small crack to hear her better. “I can only accept reality and then do everything in my power to change it, even if it turns out to be useless.”
“So at least I can tell myself that there is hope.”
Hope? Sapphire didn’t expect her companion to use that term, especially not in in this environment. The thought of accepting reality was just as confusing. In the silence of her dark cell, she began to ponder what Aerin meant. Accept your situation, I’m locked in a dark cell and I do not know why. I’m scared, I don’t like this place.
Then why not escape?
They’ll catch me. They’ll put the harness back on and give me commands, and if I disobey they shock me.
They give you impossible commands.
But if I do listen they’ll be nicer to me, if I’m good they won’t hurt me.
Is that the truth?
Then why not escape?
Solarin will be here, he’ll come for me and then life will go back to normal.
I-I don’t know, he has always come for me.
Face reality, stop clinging to him. Where are you?
Locked in a dark cell, scared, hurt, tired, and alone.
Alone, that’s right. How is he supposed to help you when he isn’t here?
I don’t know…
Stop lying to yourself.
Solarin isn’t coming to rescue me; all I have is myself and Aerin.
The truth hurt Sapphire more than she thought it would, but it felt good to finally face the facts.
I am Sapphire the mapmaker, and there is no such thing as fairy tales. “Aerin, I’m going to try and unlock the door. We’ll get out of this somehow.”
The Night’s Rebellion will continue in Part 4:
An Eye for an Eye and a Hoof for a Hoof