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- Illustration courtesy of

 Wisdom Thumbs

They were almost there.

Novell sighed with relief. He could finally rest.

The aged, grey-coated unicorn beside him hummed happily. The smile on the other pony's face was just visible beneath the bushy mustache. Spectacles perched on the bridge of his nose as if glued there and brown eyes stared out at the world with curiosity.

The unicorn's horn glowed, sparks appearing from its base. A moment later, a magically deepened voice vibrated in the younger pony's brain.

On a familiar path near a rather well-known town, a quite unusual pony sighed. With a coat as white as the snow that capped the nearby mountains and dull brown hair filled with twigs and other detritus from his travels, this particular pony was not the image that would come to mind when the word ‘adventurer’ was uttered. With a fully grown, if somewhat small, lithe body and finely feathered, folded wings, there was no doubt that this pegasus was something altogether strange. But strangest of all was the hindquarters, for they were blatantly blank, absent of any cutie mark, though he tried his best to hide the affliction with saddlebags. In fact—

Novell stopped. "Professor, I've got enough of a headache already. We're almost there, so please... stop. At least until we reach the town."

The unicorn managed to look sheepish at that and coughed awkwardly into a hoof.

Normally, Novell wouldn't have minded his companion's strange quirk, but they had been travelling for a full night in order to reach the local village. They had skipped breakfast and lunch, something the pegasus was starting to regret. Thankfully, the past week had toughened him up enough that he could tolerate the missed meals and lack of rest.

He glanced up at the mountains to check the sun's progress. He squinted his eyes against glaring rays just beginning to peek above the mountainous horizon.

A chill swept through him at the thought of those giant, winter-capped peaks, but he forced it down determinedly. The consequences of what he’d done there were something he had to take care of—his responsibility. He refused to be intimidated, no matter how difficult his task would be.

An innocuous, white picket fence started along the side of the road. It was a sharp contrast to his troubled thoughts and its quaintness managed to elicit a smile from him even in his tired state.

Seconds after his newfound peace of mind, the humming began again. Novell gave a quiet sigh and closed his eyes. His ears twitched at the tune he'd heard far too much of on this latest leg of his journey.

The old unicorn was an absent minded fellow, for all his intelligence, often humming as soon as he was distracted by something new. Novell had hoped he would be accustomed to it, but thus far the only thoughts running through his mind had involved stuffing a cork in the other pony's mouth.

"Please. Stop. Humming," Novell gritted out irritably.

The Professor glanced at him askance. "What was that, my boy?"

"The humming!" He frowned now, feeling like he was missing something. "It's almost as bad as your telepathy!"

The humming was growing closer now, setting his teeth on edge with its repetitive, tuneless melody. His feeling of confusion increased at that thought, but his exhausted mind gave up quickly. So instead, Novell glowered at the other pony.

“But I’m not—.”

Aaaaruugh!” the pegasus yelled inarticulately, unable to take it anymore. “Why can’t you just be quiet for ten minutes?”

"Novell—," the Professor began.

“Professor Se—oof!”

Something slammed into his chest. He fell backward and shrill voices screeched in his ear. His eyes snapped closed against the sudden pain. Dust kicked up around him and when he tried to regain his breath, he coughed.

When he opened his eyes again, the dust had settled. Unfortunately, there was a small, purple tail clouding most of his vision. Groans of pain came from two other weights on his back.

"You know, I think we run into a lot more ponies than we need to, Scootaloo," a tiny voice accused in a cute southern drawl.

The owner of the voice rolled off of him and stumbled unsteadily with stars orbiting her head. There was an audible rattle as the filly shook her cherry-colored mane, shaking off the helmet she had just been wearing. A bow that almost dwarfed her rustled slightly in the breeze behind her head.

Before he could even begin to clear his own constellations of confusion, another weight fell off his back.

"Yeah, Scoots, do you even watch where you're going?" a prim voice asked archly, though Novell couldn't see her with the tail in his way.

As if in response to his thoughts, the filly on top of his head hopped to the ground with a buzz of her tiny wings. "If ya wanna go fast, we can go fast. If ya wanna go safe, maybe we can get Applebloom to pull the wagon."

Novell shook dust and twigs from his mane, not all of which were from the tumble he had just taken. The forest he and the Professor had walked through hadn’t been kind to him. Though he doesn’t seem any worse for wear. He glared through narrowed eyes at the hefty unicorn's perfect mane.

“I’m real sorry ‘bout that, sir!” Applebloom said with trepidation. “We didn’t mean to hit ya.”

“Though that flip was pretty cool,” the one they had called ‘Scoots’ put in. “Uh, I mean, sorry.”

“Please don’t tell my big sister we hit anyone,” the last of the trio begged, the bobs in her hair reminding him of his friend’s. “Oh! I know! We’ll show you around Ponyville! We can be your tour guides to make up for hitting you!”

“Tourin’ guide?” Applebloom frowned and tilted her head. Novell half expected her to topple over from the weight of the huge ribbon. “That doesn’t sound like much fu—.”

“Maybe we’ll get our cutie marks!” Scoots blurted out.

Novell winced. He sympathized with the younger pony, more than she probably realized. “Well, thank you, but I’m actually just looking for a building called ‘Carousel Boutique’. I was asked to talk to three little ponies about cutie marks and the Pri—.”

“How come ya don’t have no cutie mark?” Applebloom said from behind him.

Novell froze, suddenly aware that in the commotion, his saddlebags had been thrown off his hindquarters. A million excuses rippled through his mind, but all his efforts of catching one and using it were futile. He hadn’t been planning to reveal his problem to anypony in the town just yet.

Defeated, Novell sighed and closed his eyes in an attempt to think up a response. How did he answer a question he still hadn’t figured out himself?

I’ve still got a job to do, on orders from the Princess herself, even if I don’t know exactly why she wants me to. After all, who would want to hear about a pony with no special talent?

He looked up into the concerned eyes of his one, constant companion throughout the last few days. The support he saw there sparked a resolve in him, enough that he was finally able to get his thoughts in order.

“Well, there’s a reason for that, my little ponies,” Novell began sadly, “but first I gotta tell you how I got here. It’s kind of a long story, but it’s got all the things you young ponies love to hear about. All kinds of characters in it. Pegasi, unicorns, earth ponies and even a few other creatures you wouldn’t want anything to do with, like a wild cave troll.”

He shivered at that last memory. “This tale is full of adventure,” he smiled with the feelings the word evoked, “danger,” his voice grew stronger, falling into a familiar groove as he pitched the word in a low tone, “excitement and tragedy,” now a duality of cheerfulness and melancholy, “magic” he said mysteriously, “and, most importantly…”

He could already see the effect his words had made on the little fillies, hanging off of his next word, steadily inching closer and closer to him as he opened his mouth to speak the last word of his little prologue.


“And you call me melodramatic.” The Professor snorted and rolled his eyes.

Chapter 1: Listless Wings

-Illustration courtesy of Wisdom Thumbs

Novell flapped through the sky, wind blowing through his brown mane as he flew,  a feeling of freedom rising in his breast. Clouds of all kinds swept by, fluffy and without any threat of rain to the town he soared over. It was peaceful gliding, the local weather pegasi having done their job well to provide a day free of any disturbances. He felt his wings working as they held him aloft, the familiar ache that came with prolonged flight starting in his muscles.

His eyelids fell as his wings extend outward, enjoying the sensation as he coasted on a thermal. Warm air ruffled his feathers and mane, almost enough to cause him to yawn, but he ignored the impulse as he flapped above the market square. The subtle aroma of fruit and baked goods wafted below him, his nose twitching as he inhaled the fragrances. His stomach rumbled in reply, grumbling for him to join the grounded ponies for lunch.

Smiling, he winged his way to a cloud large enough to hold him comfortably and plopped down on it, admiring the town from afar. Hoofington was bustling with activity as mail mares crisscrossed the lower altitudes, intent on delivering their goods in a timely fashion. Bakers, weavers and farmers struggled through the busy market, buying and selling their wares or just enjoying the ambiance as they rested beneath the shade of trees nearby. Friends stopped to speak to one another, lifting hooves or extending wings in emphasis of their points.

The houses around the ponies were tastefully decorated - dark, neutral colors blended in well with the cobblestone street and surrounding environment. Hoofington was an old town and the decor matched an age of proper architecture long past. Novell noticed the doors to one particular building, the local candy shop, were wide open as young fillies and colts rushed in and out, followed closely by their weary parents. He couldn’t tell which ones were already hyped up on sugar and which ones weren’t with the way they were all bouncing around. Their high pitched laughter reached his ears, thankfully reduced in volume due to the height.

The pegasus sighed as he remembered the carefree days of being a colt, no concerns but keeping up with school and playing with friends. He had done more of the former as the years went by, his friends deserting him to keep away from his ‘curse’. The memories disappeared in a mist as he snorted, intent on enjoying his day. Laughter and the dull roar of many ponies all in one place buzzed in Novell’s ears, the hum lulling him into relaxation.

He laid his hooves in front of him and stretched out on the cloud, yawning and flapping his wings to gently cool them off. The puffy consistency of the cloud beneath him stirred a yearning to just lie down and enjoy the feel of the sun beating down upon his back. A small breeze blew by, tousling his short dark mane and tail as he fell to his stomach. Laying out across the cloud with his hooves under his chin, Novell gazed out over the landscape.

Rolling hills of golden grass dominated most of the surrounding area, leaving Hoofington the lone sign of civilization. Old dirt roads lead of town in four different directions, able to take a pony anywhere in Equestria they desired. Mountains crowded either side of the valley of flatland, far in the distance with forested areas gathering below them. A set of particular peaks guarded the pass into the middle of Equestria, where Princess Celestia resided upon her mountain palace.

Recently, rumors had sprung up that the other Princess, long ago banished, had returned to once more envelope the world in the peaceful glow of the moon. Novell had noticed the silver orb strengthening in both luminosity and size since the rumors had started, a fact he took solace in. Nighttime flying was  one of his favorite forms, the clear air above the clouds offering a beautiful glimpse at the large celestial body.

Not that I really get to fly much at night anymore, Novell grumbled inwardly. His parents had grounded him during the nighttime hours in the thought that a good night’s sleep would help him in his daily toil. Just the thought of the million tasks he had to perform each day caused him to groan in tune with his stomach’s complaining. His eyes narrowed at his white flank, bare as ever, and he sighed. Will I ever find my place?


The morose pegasus glanced up just in time to roll over as an orange blur ripped through the spot he had been relaxing on. His heart hammered in his chest as he glared through the hole the blur had made, watching as a particularly annoying pony tumbled straight for earth. Novell rolled his eyes and tried to plug the tear in his perch with a passing nimbus, ignoring the pony’s plight. As soon as he repaired it, an orange head poked up through the cloud and glared at him, rendering his work moot.

“Not even gonna help a pony in distress, huh, blank flank?” the offending pegasus accused, worming her way up through the cloud until she was standing on the tatters of it. A mane the color of orange cream soda stirred in the breeze, curled at the ends into graceful bobs. The effect was only slightly ruined by the disheveled hairstyle, a side effect of travelling at high speeds into solid objects.

Bandages covered her face, shins, and sides from the many failed stunts she performed on a daily basis, the orange coat ruffled from her antics. Three lighter orange squiggles on each side of her flank represented the wind currents that she could more finely control than anypony else in the city.

However, the most striking thing about the mare was the snail that clung to her mane. It gazed at him with a half-lidded stare, seemingly incapable of falling off as the young pegasus bobbed and weaved over the tatters of cloud beneath her hooves.

Novell arched a brow at her, unimpressed with her harsh look. “Go bother somepony else, Whisper. I’m busy.” He fluffed up his cloud and tried to wing away a few meters, but the other pegasus just followed and casually insulted him.

“Obviously. You trying for a cloud repair cutie mark? I don’t think that’s really a special talent for a pegasus,” Whisper Wind replied sarcastically, rolling her eyes as she flew in a small loop, a concentrated look on her face.

Novell watched unsurprised as one of her wings failed to flap correctly, causing the mare to fall out of sight. A moment later she returned and continued as if nothing happened, her eyes closed. The snail’s expression still hadn’t changed.

“You know, if you actually tried at something, maybe you could actually do it. All you do is quit if things get tough, even if you’re kinda good at it.” She opened her eyes and paused as she realized that was almost a compliment. “Not that you’ve really accomplished anything good,” she finished lamely.

“And your problem is you never quit,” Novell countered, drawn into the conversation despite his wishes. “All you do is fail over and over at every ‘trick’ you do. One of these days, you’re going to fall and not be able to catch yourself. You might even try a dive and not pull up in time, the way you’re going. Not everypony can perform to Cloudsdale standards, Whisper. You’re a weather pony, not a Mare Devil.”

He said the last to empty air as Whisper attempted a cartwheel and fell onto a cloud below her, bouncing slightly on the fluffy surface. Novell wondered at how lucky the other pegasus was, never managing to hurt herself too gravely despite her dangerous stunts. She stuck out her tongue at him as she regained her hooves, raising her voice to be heard. “At least I know what I’m supposed to do!”

Novell watched her fly away to either perform more tricks that were certain to end in utter failure or actually do her job for once and regulate the air currents. He hoped it was the latter, but knew it was just going to be the former.

Peace and quiet returned, his efforts to salvage what was left of his cloud ending in failure as the remnants vanished into thin air. The pegasus sighed as it evaporated, forced to flap once more as dark thoughts for the other pony ran through his mind. A bell tolled below him as the Hoofington clock tower’s hands hit twelve, the sign for him to once more begin the day’s labors. Novell headed toward home with another sigh, winging his way across the sky. So much for relaxation.

Moving swiftly, the pegasus’ house came into view a few minutes later, a solid wooden house rather than the cloud palaces most pegasi preferred. The sturdy home had been built by an old friend of his father’s many years ago, still standing strong despite its age; it hadn’t even required any repairs aside from a fresh coat of paint now and again. Novell was always the one forced to redo the paint, though he didn’t mind as much as he complained aloud. It was relaxing work for somepony who could fly.

As he drew closer, he heard humming coming from the adjoining garden, an arch of white fencing covered in vines leading the way in, premature grapes beginning to grow and add a splash of color to the painted wood. Branches from the nearby forest hung over the garden, rustling in the wind and bringing with it the slight aroma of pine and oak. The twitter of birds accompanying the song grew audible when he landed, watching his mother gently flap and twirl as the breeze carried her to and fro.

His mother was extremely light, with all the weight of a cloud, despite of her shape. She was easily blown away and had to stay indoors whenever a storm was scheduled or she’d end up miles from home, lost, with no sense of direction. Even the slightest breeze could move her, as it was now, brushing her cloud-like mane in easy motions. Her teal body was usually guided gently by the birds around her, all eager to help keep the mare in the garden. A tan feather against a fluffy white cloud floated on each flank, her special talent allowing her to communicate with any avian and create the shapes of the clouds that ponies always giggled at from the ground.

Whereas most pegasi could shape clouds to do what they wished, Feather Light could transform them into full fledged art. She was often asked to design homes for the local pegasi, to which she graciously assented. With hooves clip-clopping against the small, stone walkway into the garden, Novell chose to sneak in before she could see him. His ears twitched as the humming stopped, the door to his home halfway open.

“Good afternoon, Novell!” his mother’s voice said airily, as if she wasn’t completely aware of her surroundings. “Your father’s in the kitchen waiting for you. Have fun, today, will you? And don’t worry, you’ll find your special talent soon enough. Everypony does.”

“Thanks, Mom.” Novell sighed at the encouragement and opened the door the rest of the way. “Let’s get this over with.”

He said the last under his breath, already feeling the disappointment exuding from the kitchen. Wooden furniture at home in any earth or unicorn pony’s house tastefully decorated the living room, a clock ticking on the wall as if counting down the time he had left before his lecture. When he turned the corner into the kitchen, he saw his father standing there, waiting with his back turned.

He was a dark grey stallion, the color of the storms which he stewarded above Hoofington. A black cloud with two branches of lightning forking from each covered his flank, in tune with the yellow streaked zigzags that adorned his mane and tail. Most ponies agreed that it was reminiscent of the stallion’s ferocity when dealing with the chaotic weather patterns. Thundermane turned as Novell trotted into the kitchen, head lowered in shame and waiting for the inevitable reprimand.

“You’re late,” his father said quietly, though Novell could have sworn he heard the harsh crack of thunder in the tone. “We have much to do. You will work beside me today, as a storm is scheduled soon. But first, we must prepare the town. Perhaps you will find your place among the flashes of lightning and pouring rain.” The powerful stallion snorted softly, his yellow eyes staring at Novell with a weary look that seemed more directed inward than outward, quickly erased by a small smile. “Please warn the mayor and citizens before joining me above the storm system. We can’t have Hoofington taken by surprise.”

“Yes, sir,” Novell replied, unease rippling through him at the thought of dealing with a thunderstorm, tempered slightly by the levity his father displayed. Still, Thundermane wouldn’t put him at risk, despite the stern exterior - he was only trying to help, in his own way. Novell slinked out of the room and made for the door, cheered up slightly at the prospect of working beside his dad. His change of heart was almost exciting, as if he were crackling with some inner energy. Flying back into town, the pegasus hoped that meant he was close to finding his special talent.


“Yes, yes, a thunderstorm would do quite well,” the mayor of Hoofington bellowed, stroking his beard with one hoof. Novell winced at the mayor’s volume. “Excuse me, I’m so used to speaking to crowds. Anyway, I must say, we have all become a bit complacent with the calm weather this season. Perhaps this will liven things up a bit. Wouldn’t that be something, livening up Hoofington? Ho, ho. Such a busy place, but where’s all the fun and excitement? Not like Ponyville, no, no.”

The mayor snorted and tapped his brown hoof against the map on his table right on the dot that marked the other town. “I hear they’ve had quite the bunch of interesting circumstances happening there. Parasprites and hydra attacks, by Celestia! But, I digress; you have my word that the town will be warned. Now, I do believe you have a job to do and good luck, young Novell. I know you’ll find your place here in our little town soon enough.”

Novell nodded somewhat morosely at the last, a sigh creeping in before he quashed could the urge. It seemed the task of getting him his cutie mark was the goal of everypony in town, as if they were ashamed of having a fully grown pony without any talent. The constant reminder that he had yet to find any specialty was irking, but he shrugged it off with practiced ease. He nodded to the receptionist on the way out, the unicorn barely registering his presence from behind the large newspaper she held in her hooves.

A steadily growing excitement was gathering in his body as he imagined the tug of the high winds on his mane, the loud cracks of lightning as he and his father worked the clouds to release the rain held within, the smell of the ozone filling the air, and look of the cloudscape from above, grumbling under its own weight. He’d watched from afar as his father performed these duties but had never participated himself. Perhaps this would do the trick to make his flank less bare.

The door to the mayor’s residence opened easily despite its weight, closing with a small thud as he stared into the sky. Dark clouds were just starting to gather near Hoofington, out on the plains. He spied a few pegasi swiftly ducking and diving through the storm clouds, agitating them enough that they crackled and spat with lightning. He counted the seconds before the sound rolled over him, a deep rumble that sparked a million new thoughts in his mind. Was this the key? What could he say to ever do justice to the sound of thunder rippling through the town? How did the pegasi not get shocked themselves? Would he hurt himself trying? Was he going to fail again?

The thoughts began spiraling down into more negative areas, so he broke off the inner monologue with a snort and a shake of his mane. A small puff of dust rose as he stomped his hoof and lifted his wings. Jumping into the air and letting his wings buoy him upward, Novell once again felt the exhilaration of flight as he headed toward the symphony of light and sound. Wind began to clutch at his mane, sending it over his shoulders in random directions, sometimes falling into his eyes despite its short length.

Ponies walked leisurely to their homes below him, staring upward with a variety of different expressions ranging from annoyance to relief as the storm drew closer. A few of the fillies and colts he’d seen bouncing around at the candy store earlier were playing in the square and giggling at the thunder and lightning. One pegasus filly stared up at him with awe in her eyes, her own little wings flapping. He grinned and waved at her as he flew, the town quickly making way to farmland and finally to the fields he had gazed out over just an hour ago, grass waving in the wind.

Without warning, he was suddenly buffeted to the side and lost altitude. His wings instantly shifted into a position to correct the path from years of flight experience, but the impact was still jarring. Wind was fiercely regulated around Hoofington, so there was only one excuse for an errant stream.

Looking around suspiciously, he noticed an orange tail stuck out of a cloud near him, two sets of eyes peering out at him, one set half lidded and the other mischievous. He sighed and continued his journey, ignoring the weather mare’s attempts to annoy him. Acknowledging her pranks would only encourage her to do it again and again. His eyes narrowed as he remembered her killing his cloud for the thousandth time. And again.

The storm front was slowly plodding toward the town, the wind ponies near the back of the clouds beating their wings in unison. Lightning crackled again in an early warning for the townspeople while a female pegasus kicked another cloud, seemingly unruffled by her proximity to the sound. When he looked closer, he noticed clouds stuffed in the mare’s ears as sound suppressors. Nodding at the logical precaution, he snatched a fluff out of the cloud nearest him and stuffed it in his own ears.

The world around him dulled as the cloud muffs did their work, blotting out the thundering roars and whistling wind. With his ears protected, Novell raced to the top of the thundercloud where his father would be supervising the entire operation. A spec of yellow against a black background and gray coat caught his attention, his father’s hay colored eyes bright in the growing darkness. Small sparks of electricity appeared in his mane, uncontrollable bursts of electrical power drawn to the stallion.

His father nodded in greeting, a splotch of white cloud in his ears evidence that Novell had done something right, at least. The winds were fierce up at their altitude, whipping his hair to and fro as he looked side to side, watching the birth of a storm. Pegasi of every color flew through the clouds, lightning trailing them as they bucked and kicked. Lights danced through the scene, bright in the muted cloudscape. The moisture in the air rippled over his coat, transforming into rain, small crystals of ice and back again as they rode the high powered breeze.

The dampness in the air covered him in a thin sheen of slick ice, his wings beating harder in response to heat himself up. Freezing this far up would be dangerous even with the safety crew waiting on the ground for any accidents. His ears flicked every which way in a futile effort to try and make sense of the dull roar he felt in his chest. The storm was almost over Hoofington now, all but trembling with anticipation. A grin spread across the pegasus’ face as he realized that the anticipation was true for both the cloud and the city itself.

A motion from his right alerted him that his father was ready to begin the deluge. Large, dark wings lifted the stallion’s body higher, pegasi all around following their leader. Novell quickly joined the rising tide, knowing what was expected of him from previous experiences watching from below. Without a word, Thundermane stopped and held steady, looking left and right, the rest of the weather team halting in accordance. This was the moment Novell had been worried about—the drop.

His mouth dried as his heart thumped in his chest, but one look at his father’s face quelled the agitation. Lightning veritably flickered through Thundermane’s eyes, a slight smile appearing as he prepared himself for the task. Ponies all around started grinning at one another, their wings beating in rhythm. Everypony was so filled with confidence, the result of performing their task over and over, and the joy that showed on their coordinator’s face only amplified their feelings. Novell felt like nothing could go wrong, the edges of his mouth slanting up in a smirk of his own.

Each pegasus stopped beating their wings, dropping like stones toward the upper layers of the cloudscape. Novell followed a second later, diving for all he was worth and squinting his eyes against the rush of air with his wings pulled in close to his body. The storm grew closer, pegasi all around him scattered across the large surface area in the same dive. It was an awe-inspiring sight to see all the ponies trailing air streams behind them, clouds swirling in their wake. They looked like the shooting stars Novell loved to watch streaming across the night sky. Even though it wasn’t audible, he noticed more than a few ponies laughing in adrenaline fueled excitement.

When they hit the top of the storm cloud, a crack so loud he could hear it through his cloud muffs echoed around him, rattling his bones. His teeth gritted together as he followed, hitting the gray storm and causing a small crack of his own as the clouds reacted to his sudden intrusion. Ice and sleet whipped through his mane, his wings fighting the gales trying to buffet his body back and forth. Separated from the others in sight, Novell felt a hint of his nervousness returning, the cloud lightning up all around him.

What felt like an hour of diving through a soupy mist ended as his vision cleared, the ground still far away, and rain following him as he punched a hole through the clouds. Similar holes all through the bottom of the storm released their own precipitation, bathing Hoofington in a dreary, wet atmosphere.

Novell leveled off, winging on as he tried to make sense of the thousand sight rolling through his mind as he stared at the cloud’s pitted surface. He had seen the start of a thunderstorm from the top, but this was different, the storm roiling around the holes in its surface, rain falling like diamonds at the reflected light from Hoofington. Lightning crackled across the sky, avoiding him entirely and impaling itself on the many lightning rods scattered amongst the city’s rooftops. The rumble of thunder sounded deep in his chest, rattling the windows around him as he flew lower.

Slowing down, Novell rendezvoused with the rest of the pegasi weather team in the town’s square, puddles already forming in the parts of the street where the flagstones were cracked or broken. Lamp posts blazed cheerily against the growing darkness, the flames guttering gleefully, protected from the rain by small glass domes. Smiles broke through the grim atmosphere as the pegasi pulled out the clouds stuffed in their ears, chatting with one another and congratulating those who had pulled off some daring moves.

“I saw what you did there at the end. That loop de loop with the rain following you was awesome!” a red coated pegasus said to his companion, a teal mare smiling coltishly. They both had their cutie marks, rain on the red and snowflakes on the teal.

Another group of three ponies nearby performed a zany series of hoofshakes with each other.  “Nice work, today. No accidents this time, eh?” one said, laughter breaking out from a small crowd of ponies.

Novell watched them for a few seconds, basking in reflected friendship with a feeling of a job well done in his heart. He squinted his eyes against the rain, glancing around for his father. The lead stallion was in the midst of a group of other pegasi, chatting amiably about the weather. No one seemed in a hurry to escape the conditions, despite their coats becoming heavy with the rain. Pegasi didn’t get cold easily, fortunately. His thoughts were interrupted as something poked his side, hard.

“Still no cutie mark, huh? Figures somepony almost as good as your dad can still mess things up,” Whisper smirked, and then dropped her mouth back into a scowl. “Not that you did that, uh, great, compared to everypony else. Like me. Anyway, enough about you, did you see me? I was all like, wham, bam, practicing my moves for the competition coming up, doing cartwheels and flips while still moving that storm along. Everyone was so impressed, even Swirley.” She emphasized her point with one hoof pointing at the snail on top of her head, its eyes lazily blinking one at a time. “That means yes. Anyway, it was almost too easy. Too bad you were too busy not getting your cutie mark to notice.”

Novell’s shoulders rose and fell in a shrug, used to such jibes. The feeling of companionship he had felt a few seconds earlier evaporated as the crowd began to disperse. He didn’t even bother checking to see if his flank was still bare. It was and would always be, even if he did something as exhilarating as what he had just experienced. Listlessly shaking his wings, Novell trotted away, his head lifting toward the sky. The drops of rain tasted sweet as they fell across his tongue. There’s always tomorrow, Novell thought hopefully, not feeling any real confidence.

Whisper made no move to follow, rolling her eyes at the blank flank, the snail on her head lowering its eyes near her own. Swirley stared at her for a few seconds in his half lidded way, communicating silently. She scowled. “Stop staring at me. He’ll get over it.” She shook her head as her pet returned its eyes to gazing lazily at the world. Whisper sighed and turned to the pegasus beside her to brag about her moves. It was such a shame.

Chapter 2: Ice Night for Flying

- Illustration courtesy of Master Shake

A sense of being trapped broke the pegasus out of his slumber. He looked around, disoriented by his surroundings for a fleeting moment. The remnants of an unpleasant dream wrapped around him like a cocoon, causing a flutter of nervousness to jerk him fully awake.  His eyes flitted down to stare at the moonlight filtering through the window, casting his blanket-wrapped body in sharp relief. He could feel his heart thudding in his chest, a swift, even drum.

The pegasus’ eyes closed as he tried forcing the panic down. He rolled over carefully, slowly extricating himself from the sheets. The anxiety slowly subsided as he freed himself and ran one hoof through his mane in an attempt to curb the unruly curls. Sensing no luck at taming them, he shivered and banished the last of the dark thoughts clouding the back of his mind. A yawn escaped his lips as he stretched, the feeling of moonlight on his skin almost like a cool breeze.

Since I’m awake anyway, I might as well fly, he thought, pointedly ignoring his parent’s ban on night time flights. The wooden floor was solid and uncomfortable against his hooves as he dropped down from his bed, his mind eagerly anticipating the thrill of being airborne. Being cooped up in an enclosed space felt too much like being in a cage; the thought sent another tingle of anxiety shooting through him.

His window opened with a slight squeak, a rush of air wafting through his mane and caressing his face. The moon was a crescent, sparkling against the deep, velvet night sky. Stars twinkled all around it, accentuating its beauty. Pale, violet clouds coasted lazily across the starscape, drifting into one another and swirling together into peaceful shapes.

A smile ghosted across his face as his wings lifted him out of the confines of his room and into the open night air. He paused a moment, having the presence of mind to shut the window on the way out.

His mood lifted with each beat of his wings, the pale feathers flying him ever higher. The sound of crickets performing in the forest nearby blended with the wind rippling through the trees and grass, forming a heavenly surge of music. Crisp, clear air filled his lungs, the cold burning the inside of his nose as he swooped and dove languidly above Hoofington, his short tail streaming out behind him.

Rooftops glistened in the moonlight, lamp posts filled with cheery flames still burning bright against the darkness. Grass swayed in shadowy patterns around the town, painting the landscape as mysterious as the light spattered sky above. A mist had sprung up through the cobblestone streets, twisting and twirling in a vaporous sanguinity, a result of the earlier storm.

Novell twirled through the air, taking in all the sights, smells and sounds, closing his eyes and feeling the steady burn of his wings keeping his body aloft. A sense of melancholy swirled inside him, the surroundings matching perfectly with his mood as he flew. Clouds passed him by as he entered the plainland, the moon his constant companion, celestial and unbelievably huge.

He gracefully slowed into a glide, coasting onto one of the more corporeal clouds. The fluffy consistency was a welcome relief under his hooves, compared to the hard, unforgiving floorboards in his home. A slight breeze blew through his mane, cool against his heated body. Novell unfurled his wings to their fullest extent, closing his eyes and savoring the sensation of the wind pulling against his feathery appendages.

Dropping to his hindquarters and reclining against the cloud as it shifted into a chair like shape, the pegasus stared at the moon. He had memorized all the shadows and shades of the heavenly body, the familiar curves and craters sharper and clearer than most nights, even if most of had vanished with the wane.

 A cloud higher in the atmosphere ghosted across the pastel surface, its shadow drifting across his eyes. He yawned again, feeling his melancholy melt away in the pale radiance. His eyes drooped as he relaxed, content to while away the rest of the night there.

 Before he could surrender to the seductive pull of sleep, a small flash of light caught his attention. Both eyes opened again as a shooting star streaked across the sky, followed by three more in quick succession. He watched the lights with awe, his eyes drawn toward the mountains that stood silhouetted against the sky. The stars had seemingly landed there, disappearing in the blink of an eye.

Except... something glimmered near the top of one of the mountains. Novell furrowed his brows as he stared at the phenomenon. For a moment, it winked out, then returned a few minutes later. With his curiosity piqued, he ran through quick calculations, wondering if he could investigate it and make it back to his house before sunrise, using the stars as a guide.

Satisfied that he had enough time to check the glittering light’s source, Novell roused himself. With all four hooves on the cloud, he bounced into the air with a new determination, all previous thoughts of relaxation disappearing in the face of this new discovery. New things fascinated him, his curious mind always trying to find the greater meaning to it all, ideas swirling around until they coalesced into patterns. It was a private endeavor, though, since he knew his father would have little interest in such things. Thundermane was a pony of action, rather than that of contemplation, so Novell never shared his insight into the surroundings.

Shaking his mane, Novell grinned and raised his alabaster hooves in front of his face like he had seen some of the ponies do earlier during the storm. It was an exhilarating feeling, his wings flapping harder and faster as he moved through the air. The sensation of the night urging him onward toward his goal was ever present, even though he knew it was nothing more than his own excitement. Still, for whatever the reason, he was swiftly passing over the forest near his home in a blur, sounds of nocturnal animals running together into a peaceful harmony.

Sweat began to bead on his muzzle and his breath steadily became labored the closer he drew to his destination. He slowed to a stop, his wings aching with the exertion as he flapped in place to catch his breath. The pegasus glanced around, momentarily confused, before noticing the mountain looming over him, clouds gathering near the tip as if drawn there by its immensity.

Surprise filled him as he turned back the way he had come, glimpsing the town far away from the mountain chain he had arrived at. He had never flown so fast in his life. Filing that discovery away for later, Novell turned back to the mountain and searched for the glittering light once more.

Trees covered the mountain for the most part, dense from the forest floor up to its middle, becoming sparse as the landscape transformed from a healthy green to a grey, rocky pallor. The pegasus couldn’t see any evidence of the light from earlier, try as he might. But I’m not going to stop and turn back now, he thought stubbornly to himself. The mystery was calling to him, too interesting to resist.

He flew up higher, feeling the chill in the air begin to grow the nearer he came to the mist blanketing the mountain’s heights. His eyes scanned the rocky ledges and icy waterfalls, intent on finding the light again, an urgency growing in his chest. Where is it? It has to be here somewhere... there!

Novell dove toward the light with a determined expression, having passed it up unnoticed before. His curiosity grew even further as he tried to imagine what kind of object would radiate such a light. It can’t be a campfire, since I would have spotted that when I was flying up, he surmised, so it has to be something that isn’t always there.

He neared his destination, an icy ledge nestled against the mountain and surrounded by two caves, and squinted at the source. He started, realizing what it was. A unicorn! As soon as that fact hit him, so, too, did a deep voice that materialized in his mind.

And so the intrepid explorer steadily lost hope, staring out over the foreboding forest below in bemused bewilderment as he realized his situation was surely becoming less and less likely one he would survive. If only he could reach up to stroke the marvelous mustache one last time as the cold started to creep in, a final act of vanity. If only somepony was around to listen to the last monologue of a heroic, handsome unicorn the likes of which Equestria has never seen before!

“I can hear you!” Novell yelled over the wind, which was becoming stiffer and more difficult to fly through.

Sleet began to pelt his body as the unicorn came fully into view, the stallion’s gray coat almost blending in with the rocky surroundings. There was a bright, almost white light coming from the large horn that sat directly in the center of the pony’s forehead. A mustache the same color as the rest of the unicorn’s body drooped, icicles dangling from the ends.

What was this? Could the suitably old unicorn hear the cry of some creature’s recognition of his speech? He glances around, squinting his eyes against the downpour of sleet that swirled around him but did not touch thanks to the unicorn’s amazingly capable magic, seeing nothing. Was it perhaps just the addled pony’s mind envisioning a welcome respite from the cold despite the hopeless situation?

“No, I’m real! I’m here! Hold on!” Novell yelled over the wind, pushing his wings to their limit in order to reach the unicorn’s perch.

He strained, falling a few feet as a gust blew him down, before rising again with resolute wing beats. The ledge was only a meter away, so he dug into the last reserves of his strength and flew toward it with all his might.

A sudden gust hit him from the top, the rock wall looming in front of him as he veered off course. With an ice cold clarity, Novell knew he was just about to end up splattered across the side of mountain. He closed his eyes and waited for the impact, wondering if it would hurt.

Moments passed and, when he didn’t feel his body slam into the wall with enough force to turn him into paste, he opened an eye, peeking out to see a white light shining around him. The field of energy began to tug on him, pulling his body upward toward the ledge. A sense of relief washed through him when he crested the edge of the cliff.

Instead of the gentle landing he expected, Novell was deposited face first into the snow coating the edge, somersaulting forward and ending up on his back. He gasped against the wind, tucking his wings in so they wouldn’t drag him away like sails and drive him over the cliff. His eyes slid around his surroundings once he had ensured his safety, taking stock of his situation.

“Well, hello there, lad!” a voice came from his right, a shade of the strength that the voice in his mind had owned, but still recognizable as the same one. “You know, I’ve never seen a pegasus fly against a snowstorm like this without any degree of control of the weather. You must have been flapping for all you were worth in order to get through this. In fact, you wouldn’t have made it if I hadn’t seen you at the last second. Has anypony ever told you that your coat blends in well with snow? If not for your rather clashing hair, you no doubt would have been smashed to a pulp! I believe a thank you is in order.”

Novell gaped at the unicorn, trying to make sense of what just happened. He had never felt magic taking control of his body, so that was one thing he was trying to get a grip on, but the other was that the unicorn in front of him was halfway frozen in what looked like a cube of ice.

All four of the pony’s legs were encased in the substance, but the unicorn didn’t look the least bit concerned about the fact, looking at him curiously behind a pair of very old glasses. Novell’s eyes swept to the magnifying glass cutie mark on the unicorn’s flank before tracking back up to those of his rescuer.

His brain caught up to the last thing the unicorn had said, his manners returning. “Oh, thank you. Yes. Uhm. Why are you—I mean, who are you? What? How?”

“You shouldn’t leave your mouth open like that, boy. It makes one look uncouth,” the unicorn replied, his horn pulsing with magic. Novell felt his mouth shut against his will. “Now, you’re very welcome. My name is Professor Renaldo Eduardo Search and I just telekinetically spirited you to this ledge. As to the ‘why’ of this situation, I am currently in quite the pickle, but that can wait until introductions are finished. Your name is?”

“Uh, Novell. My name’s Novell Light.”

The old unicorn nodded approvingly. “Very good, that’s more like it. You’re quite the interesting pegasus, if I do say so myself.” He paused, clearing his throat. “Now, to answer your question of the ‘why’ I’m here, well that is because I was looking into the monster known as the ‘Yeti’. It is a somewhat vicious beast that prefers the cold climes such as the one we find ourselves in now. Its intelligence is so limited that it is almost like that of an animal.” The unicorn had the grace to look embarrassed, looking down at his icicled hooves. “However, it is still dangerous and has the ability create traps that even the most respectable pony can fall into, such as myself.”

The dashing unicorn took that opportunity to look out across the forest beneath them, eyes far off as he recollected a similar experience he had experienced as a young pony in the southern reaches of—

“You said ‘experienced’ twice,” the pegasus interrupted the Professor, already feeling the onset of a headache from the telepathic communication.

“Apologies, you are quite right. What’s a good choice of words? Oh, perhaps ‘participated in’? Yes, that will do. Now, where was I? Ah, yes!”

“Wait, that’s not the point,” Novell replied before the unicorn could start telepathically rambling again. He gathered his hooves beneath him and squinted against the sharp wind. “I sort of get why you’re up here, but why are you stuck in that ice? And why aren’t you using your magic to get out of it? You seemed like you were in trouble from that monologue you were having earlier.”

“Oh, I can’t get out of this ice. This is a magical trap from the Yeti that captured me. It is quite untouchable by unicorn magic such as mine. Perhaps one of the Princesses could release me from the prison, but no ordinary pony has the power to break this ice. I suppose I should have added that into my description of the Yeti before.” The gray unicorn paused, as if realizing something. “You know, lad, you could help me out of this situation.”

“But I thought you said your magic couldn’t break that ice? What can a pegasus like me do?” Novell asked confusedly.

The unicorn looked at the pegasus with an eyebrow raised, as if the answer were obvious. “You can carry me away, of course! There is a Yeti about, you know. I believe he is, in fact, saving me as a meal for later. Now that I think about it, the average time of digestion for the previous meal would have been completed several minutes ago. I’ve actually been wondering what is taking the monster so long. This is simply not according to the timetable I’ve put together from researching the beast.” The Professor sounded put out as he said the last.

“Carry you? Through these winds? I barely got myself onto the ledge with your help,” Novell replied incredulously, beginning to doubt the older pony’s sanity.

“Pish posh, I’ll help, of course. I can keep the winds from bothering us too much, but you will have to do the heavy lifting, unfortunately.” He nodded his head toward his barrel-like body. “Here, grab me by the middle and I’ll cast the spell. It won’t work without physical contact.”

Raising an eyebrow with disbelief, but willing to try anyway, Novell opened his wings carefully and grabbed onto the other pony’s midsection. The winds instantly died around him, the world seeming somewhat dulled, as if he was encased in some kind of shield. He spread his wings, marveling as the sleet passed over his wings without touching them.

“That’s so cool.”

The other pony chuckled. “Interesting choice of words there, lad. I am, in fact, feeling a bit nippy myself. Perhaps it is time to relocate to warmer climates. If you would?”

“Oh, right, sorry.” Novell grinned, his wings pulling him up over the unicorn’s body. With a heave, he lifted the unicorn up, nearly falling back down with the weight. His wings strained against the effort of lifting not just himself, but the unicorn and his icy prison, too. “This. Might. Be. Tough.”

A roar shook his concentration, causing him to drop the Professor back to the ground, the shield around him instantly dropping. Uh oh, Novell thought, just as his wings caught a burst of air that flung him backward toward the mountain, the unicorn’s spell no longer affecting him. He slammed into something furry and bounced to the ground, stars orbiting his head as he lay dazed on the icy ground. Shaking his head to clear the constellations, he looked up at the Professor, who was now facing toward him on his side and unable to move.

“I must say, this is quite an uncomfortable position to watch a Yeti in action in,” Professor Search said over the wind, sounding fascinated. “But that is quite the specimen. Just look at those claws! And those teeth! The size of them, my goodness, just gazing at them makes me want to get a closer look.”

Novell’s eyes widened as he looked behind him and up, up, up. The face of an angry beast looked back at him, black lips open to reveal teeth the size of his hoof. Beady, black eyes stared out from a shaggy white coat, glinting malevolently in the moonlight. One clawed hand reached down for him, slowly, the beast only now reacting to his intrusion. It didn’t seem the least bit fazed by his impact into it, smiling at him as it was, its claws flexing in anticipation.

“Oh, haystacks,” Novell cursed, rolling to his hooves.

Keeping his wings close to his body, he galloped away from the beast and toward the edge of the mountain, careful to avoid slipping and falling. He turned around to see if the beast was chasing him and paused as he took in its actions. The Yeti had stopped reaching for him, frowning and looking confusedly at the space he had just occupied. When it looked up, its black nose sniffed the air until its eyes alighted on the Professor, the smile reappearing on its face.

“Oh, it’s spotted its next meal. Such a dim witted creature, but studiously devoted to something once it sets its tiny mind on a goal. Fascinating insight,” the unicorn sounded awed, snow starting to cover his head as he lay awkwardly on the ground.

Deciding now was the best time to get out of there, Novell rushed toward the Professor before the beast could make its move, grabbing the unicorn around the middle and opening his wings to their fullest extent.

A gust of wind filled them, almost tearing his wings off as it lifted both of them into the air. His heart leapt as his idea worked, the hope of escape dashed almost instantly as he felt a jerk that almost caused him to drop the unicorn. He glanced down to see the Yeti grasping the ice with both hands, roaring at them with a sound that rivaled the heavy winds.

“By Celestia’s Mane, this beast is single minded in its pursuit. I had no idea it could move quick enough to catch us in mid air. And these claws are so delicately holding my legs, not even piercing the ice or myself. I wonder if it is smarter than it appears. This bears further investigation. Let go of me would you, boy? I want to see what it does!”

Novell gritted his teeth as the wind pulled on his wings. “It’s going to eat you, and me, if we can’t get it to let go! Do something before my wings break off!”

“Oh, right, yes, yes, you are correct. I cannot let a young pegasus like yourself come to any harm, especially due to the fact that you are a rare case, what with you having no cutie mark. Such an interesting phenomenon! Now what’s a spell I could use? Teleportation? No, that only works on me. Perhaps…ah, yes! Ahem, this should do nicely! Close your eyes, lad!”

The pegasus complied, a searing brightness piercing his eyelids. Suddenly, he felt himself drawn backward by the wind, sucked greedily into the air. The Yeti roared in what sounded like either anger or agony as they flew away, the image of its huge claws foremost in the pegasus’ mind.

Novell’s eyes popped open as the current spit him out into clear air, not a hint of sleet or snow pulling at his body. He marveled at the ball of white in front of him, seeing the snow and sleet roiling around where the ledge had been. Is that part of the Yeti’s magic?

 His thought process was broken when he realized they were losing altitude at a swift rate, wind rushing through his ears and the mountain slowly returning back to its green state the further they fell.

“Uh, lad, I’m not sure you realize this, but we are currently on a collision course with the forest floor.”

“Working on it,” Novell gritted out, beating his wings so hard he had to close his eyes against the pain. They had been so abused the past hour he didn’t know how they were still functioning. Their pace started to slow, but they were still heading for the ground, his energy steadily fading.

Don’t let go, don’t let go, he thought resolutely, the edges of his vision blackening with the effort. He looked down and saw the top of the trees coming closer, beat his wings through a few more flaps and passed out.


“Lad! Novell! You, there!”

Novell swam back to consciousness slowly, his ears picking up dull sounds as his brain reactivated. His groggy eyes opened and closed, a moan creeping out of his throat. Dirt and grass pressed against his back and wings, something digging painfully into his neck. Novell shifted in response and winced as his wing spasmed in pain. The sudden spike jolted him fully awake just as a deep, melodious voice vibrated inside his mind.

The brilliant researcher stared helplessly down at the young pegasus, unable to move and hanging upside down so that the fantastic facial hair on his face drooped toward the ground, no longer bound by icicles. He looked around, trying to find something with which to poke the pegasus with, spotting a tree branch cracked near the trunk. He cast a spell under his breath, breaking off the branch and—

“I’m awake!” Novell growled against the pain, his eyes still shut. Something heavy dropped next to him, causing his body to jerk away involuntarily. He opened his eyes to spy a giant limb impaled into the dirt next to him. “That could have killed me!”

“Ah, lad, you’re alive. Jolly good. I had thought you were a goner, laying there like that with one of your wings splayed out in such an awkward way. I have to say, that injury looks extremely painful, though I’m no doctor. Just a professor and researcher,” Professor Search babbled on, seemingly unaware of how close he had come to crushing the pegasus.

Novell rolled over on his uninjured side, wincing as his wing jostled against his back. He pulled it in close to his body, glad it still worked enough to do that. I must have sprained it during the fall. He grimaced. So much for getting back to the house before my parents find out. 

Novell glanced around as he got unsteadily to his hooves, trying to figure out where he was. Dark trees that rustled in the slight wind stared back at him. Their branches curved, claw-like, the bark forming into images of grotesque faces that seemed to delight in his misery.

He shuddered, pulling his wing in harder to try and shrink away. He glanced up to look for the reassuring glow of the moon as the Professor continued droning on about a visit to a hospital. To his relief, the moon was still overhead, though the sky had become more violet as the sun started sneaking toward them. It can’t be more than a couple hours away from dawn, the pegasus thought with a groan.

“…and I replied, quite shocked, really, ‘Oatmeal? Are you daft, good sir?’ Such an affront for a nurse to ask me if I liked the food when it was clearly written as an allergy of mine! Humph, the audacity,” Professor Search finished disapprovingly.

Rolling his eyes, Novell broke in before the unicorn could continue on in his ramblings. “Are you okay, Professor?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes, I am quite fine, aside from hanging upside down. Still, it is an interesting perspective from which to view the forest. I feel like an opossum,” Professor Search replied, enunciating the ‘o’ in the last word.

“The ‘o’ is silent,” Novell said under his breath, knowing the unicorn wouldn’t listen.

He stared at the Professor, wondering how he was going to get his companion out of the tree. One of its branches had managed to go right through the middle of the ice in between both sets of the unicorn’s legs, leaving him hanging upside down.

Novell’s mind worked at the problem, eager to ignore the surroundings in favor of a puzzle. Maybe I  fly up there and—no, my wing’s too hurt to fly.

He frowned at the thought of not being able to fly, noticing the ice was starting to drip. “How are we going to get you down? Can’t you teleport yourself over here or something?”

“Unfortunately not, my young pegasus. This ice prevents me from manipulating my entire body like that. Telekinesis and conjuring light are about the limits of what I can perform at this time. Though, I seem to remember reading somewhere that the ice of a Yeti’s trap cannot survive long out of cold enviro—oof!” The unicorn plummeted from the tree, the ice prison melting away into mist.

Novell watched with amusement as the unicorn rolled over and got to his hooves, spitting out a clod of dirt and shaking his mane to clear it of debris. “Well, that was unpleasant, if enlightening. Now, where are we?”

The pegasus reluctantly looked around before replying. “In the forest below the mountain, I think. We’re about four hours away from Hoofington which is.” He paused, staring at the stars through the canopy. “Over that way.” He pointed with one hoof to the town’s direction, double checking himself with a nod.

“Ah, you can travel using the stars? Smart lad, you are,” Professor Search replied warmly, a smile breaking out underneath the gray mustache. “By all means, lead the way, then. I haven’t visited Hoofington in quite a while.”

Novell unconsciously ruffled his wings at the compliment, feeling a twinge as his injured appendage moved the wrong way. Taking a breath, he began to walk in the direction he thought the town was in, trying not to look at the sinister trees. He still felt a little bit woozy, but the night air was steadily curing the affliction and causing the edges of his vision to clear up.

A moment after he started moving, the unicorn strolled up beside him, trotting along and gazing at the forest all around them. An owl hooted somewhere in the distance, causing the pegasus to twitch involuntarily. It set his teeth on edge to be grounded. His wings itched to open and carry him above it.

“Hmm, a stroll through the woods at this hour is quite the experience. I confess I have never had the opportunity,” Professor Search said, seeming at ease as they passed through a particularly murky mist. He looked at Novell with a pitying expression. “Though I suppose this is novel for you, pardon the pun, running around on the ground. You seem jumpy.”

Novell nodded, staring at the ground so he wouldn’t trip over any roots that decided to spring up. He didn’t like being in the woods at night, where anything could get him. The pegasus had heard stories of cockatrices and manticores that roosted in the forest, waiting for young ponies to explore and gobble them all up.

He glanced around nervously, huddling unconsciously closer to the older pony, his ears flicking every which way as they picked up mysterious sounds. The noises had seemed so innocuous when he was flying toward the mount, but now they were transforming into dragons and saber-toothed tigers in his mind.

“Not to worry, lad. I am more than capable of handling anything in this forest, though I suppose a dragon would be a bit above my pay grade,” the unicorn continued cheerily, sobering when he realized what he said didn’t help the young pegasus calm down. “You are safe with me. I promise. The likelihood of a dragon appearing here is quite astronomical.”

“I don’t like this,” Novell admitted, his voice quavering as a branch moved in the wind. “I feel like I’m as taut as a rope about to snap.”

“Oh, ho, quite the vocabulary for one so young. That feeling is natural, dear boy—part of the pegasus’ natural urge to be in clear skies, soaring above all the problems of the world.” He grinned reassuringly. “I once wrote a thesis on it back in the university in Canterlot. Did you know that most pegasi are claustrophobic, as well? I’m sure you do, but I simply must say it’s an interesting fact, especially when compared to a unicorn or earth pony. We have a lower percentage of the fear, whereas you and yours almost entirely seem to have the same phobia.”

Novell slowly relaxed as the Professor rattled on, though he still flicked his ears back and forth, keeping his eyes wide open. The urge to spread his wings stayed the same, but he knew that doing so would only injure himself further. Until I find somepony to take a look at it, I’m not about to let it become a bigger problem, he thought grimly.

The forest steadily grew brighter as the hours went by, enough so that Novell didn’t have to watch his feet as much to avoid tripping over something. Professor Search continued to talk into the early morning twilight about random subjects that ranged from a study he had once performed on pony precognition to an encounter with a teenage dragon. Novell grinned as the unicorn described how he almost had his entire mustache singed off when a dragon had mistaken his study as an effort to steal the jewels it had collected.

Despite his fears, no monsters jumped out to attack them as they made their way to Hoofington, though Novell continually imagined the worst possible outcome every time a twig snapped. Birds began to flit around among the trees as the morning shone through the branches, lifting up their tiny voices in sing song while nocturnal creatures returned to their dens to sleep. Another owl hooted at them as they passed by, burying itself in its feathers inside a hollowed tree trunk. Rays from the early morning sun threaded through the gaps of the foliage and turned the frightening forest into an idyllic one.

“Ah, I think there’s a house over there,” the Professor observed with his customary cheeriness.

Novell looked to where the unicorn was facing, spying the familiar form of the garden gates against his house. Relief washed through him as he saw it, his pace picking up into a gallop as he ran toward his home, leaving his companion in bemused silence.

“What an interesting pony,” Professor Search muttered, watching the pegasus in question rush into the arms of an airy, teal pony whom had been floating in apparent agitation.

The concerned expression on her face melted away into relief as she nuzzled the younger pegasus. A dark grey pegasus streaked with yellow opened a door and stood there, staring fondly at the colt. The absence of a cutie mark on young Novell Light is striking against the two other pegasi’s own, the Professor thought, trotting up with a smile on his face.

         “An interesting conundrum, indeed.”

Chapter 3: A Blustery Beginning

- Illustration courtesy of Wisdom Thumbs

The young pegasus gritted his teeth against the pain as the doctor pony tested his wing, bending it and flexing it to simulate the action of flying. The action of moving it burned through his wing bones, every frayed and damaged nerve in the extremity screaming into his mind to make the pain stop. Wincing against the movement, Novell thought back to his journey through the forest and was glad he had kept it tucked in, as the pain of moving it would have brought him to his knees. Thankfully, the doctor stopped manipulating his wing after a few more moments, writing something on a chart with the pen in his mouth.

The pegasus reflexively tucked his wing to his body and whimpered softly at the movement. Trying to take his mind off of the throbbing appendage, Novell let his gaze wonder toward the other pony, irrational worries floating through his head as he imagined not ever being able to fly again—never able to feel the wind in his mane as he dived. No more reclining on clouds to watch the sun or moon tick slowly across the sky or helping his father with the storms. A cold feeling started in the pit of his stomach, panic causing his heart to flutter faster.

The earth pony glanced at him with a critical eye once he finished writing in the chart, noticing the young pony's frantic breathing. “You’ll heal, eventually. Its a simple sprain, both from carrying a weight it was not meant to and from the fall, but it’ll still require conservative care.. My recommendation is to keep it tucked in for the rest of the day.” The doctor shook his mane in thought, glancing out at the morning sun. “Tonight, you’ll have to stretch and move it before it becomes too stiff, like I just did for you. No flying for at least a week, but continue stretching it once in the morning and once at night for the duration.” The doctor paused, smiling comfortingly. "And no more carrying other ponies, especially ones larger than you.”

Novell felt his head bob up and down in agreement, sagging with relief and letting out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding in. His worst fears were dispelled, even if he had to stay grounded for a week. Still, his mind pointed out, it was a small price to pay, considering the reason I did it. His eyes slid back to his wing, swollen with a slight red blush showing through his alabaster coat, and silently gave thanks that it had held together long enough to get the Professor and him close to the ground. Novell didn’t want to imagine what would have happened had he blacked out sooner.

“Thank you,” he replied, grateful for the good news, his heart returning to a steady rhythm. With a quick smile, the doctor left the room, the voices of the Professor and his parents’ coming to an abrupt halt as the earth pony opened the door. Feather Light breezed in, almost gliding across the ground with her wings flapping in a disconsolate beat of worried agitation. It stirred a cool gust as she nuzzled his neck, crooning and cooing as she checked him over. Thundermane's voice sounded from the living room, quietly conversing with the doctor outside, but the words were lost as the Professor trotted in and began speaking.

“I hear the young pegasus is going to be just fine, despite such rough tribulations,” the unicorn started, coming to a halt at the foot of Novell’s bed. His mother stopped nuzzling long enough to realize her wings were causing her to float away, dropping to the floor with a concentrated expression on her face. “I must once more apologize, Miss Feather Light, for being the cause of your son’s recent injury.”

“Nonsense, Professor,” his mother replied with a smile, fluttering her wings once in emphasis. “He saved your life from a vicious beast and I’m very proud that he was able to do so, even though I am somewhat miffed at him for even being near the mountains.” She turned to look at Novell with a disapproving teal eye, so unlike her usual demeanor that he was forced to look away. “As long as it isn’t permanent, we can just forget this whole thing happened.”

A deep voice from Novell’s left, near the door, broke in. “Indeed. Celestia knows I would have done the same, were I confined for any period of time at his age. Perhaps we were too harsh on him.”

Blinking in surprise as he saw a small smile in the stallion’s normally gruff visage, Novell felt a surge of affection for his sire, but he contained himself in case there was more forthcoming. When nothing more did, his eyes darted between each pony in the room and wondered what was to come next, a slight irritation creeping into his mind. Am I just going to go back to my normal, everyday life as if nothing happened?

"Well, I suppose all is well that ends well,” the Professor spoke up to break the sudden tenseness in the atmosphere. “I really should be getting back to Canterlot. My thesis on the mighty Yeti won’t write itself, you know. Such a fascinating creature,” he paused, staring into space for a moment before nodding to each of them. “At any rate, it was a pleasure meeting you, Novell. And you as well, Miss Light, Mister Thundermane. If you ever require the services of a researcher, no doubt somepony in Canterlot will be able to point you in my direction. You have my thanks.”

“Wait,” Novell interrupted with reluctant hope, dropping off his bed with a slight wince as he jarred his wing. The unicorn stopped and turned, an indecipherable look on his face. “Since you’re a researcher, you’ve probably heard about all kinds of different…problems with ponies, right?”

“I’m no doctor, but I have had the opportunity to explore ailments and curses that ponies have been afflicted with throughout the ages,” Professor Search said, raising an eyebrow as a frown slid across his muzzle. “Would I be correct in thinking that the reason you’re asking me this has something to do with your, ah, ‘special case’?”

The young pegasus’ eyes fell to the side, thoughts running through his mind with all the organization of a whirlwind. He was never very good at discussing his mind or expressing what he was really thinking, especially when most of the townspeople shunned him. Come on, Novell, just ask the pony, a quiet voice said in the back of his mind, clear over the chaos. He blinked, nodding to himself slightly as he worked up the courage to voice his question. More thoughts of possible rejection and depression clouded a corner of his mind like the thunderstorm from before, but he banished them away with a new resolution.

“Yes, Professor,” he began bluntly, “it does have to do with my blank flank.” Novell paused, anticipation roiling inside his stomach. “Have you ever heard of a pony not being able to find their special talent this late in life? Does everypony always have a talent? Am I...cursed?”

Professor Search looked at him for a long moment before responding, puzzlement and interest warring in his russet colored eyes. “Unfortunately, I do not know the answers to those questions, my boy. As far as I know, there has never before been a pony without a cutie mark this long, nor have I heard of a curse that would keep one from finding their special talent.” Novell wilted, a gleeful voice in the back of his mind repeating ‘I told you so’.

"But I might know somepony that could help. An earth pony by the name of Study Mark. He deals directly with research involving the inherent magic in every pony. There’s magic involved in the process of a cutie mark, nopony can deny that, and Mark has all but figured out the how’s and why’s of it, from what I’ve heard. It’s really all quite interesting.”

“Could you tell me where to find him?” Novell asked, hope soaring through his breast as his ears perking up again.

The Professor smiled at him fondly behind his bushy beard. “Of course I could do that. However, I have a better idea. Why don’t you join me on my journey back to Canterlot? Mark should be there and I owe you my life, so introducing you two to each other is the least I could do.”

“Do you believe this ‘Study Mark’ can cure my son?” Thundermane rumbled from the doorway, suddenly intense. The ash colored unicorn looked into the eyes of the pegasus and reluctantly shrugged.

“I am never sure of anything, but if anypony could help this young pegasus, it would be Mark. I would recommend the princesses as the first place to ask, but they are quite difficult to get an audience with on short notice.”

“Then he has my permission to leave. Even if this pony cannot help Novell, perhaps a friend such as yourself will be able to find a place for him in Canterlot.” Thundermane sighed, his head lowering in dismay. “I have done all I can myself and have failed to bring even the slightest spark of interest out in my son.”

“No doubt the change in scenery will be good for him,” Professor Search replied softly, shuffling awkwardly.

“Oh, dear, an adventure,” Feather Light responded in a dreamy voice as if she hadn’t been listening past ‘Canterlot’. Her wings flapped of their own accord until she was floating above the ground, toward the rafters. “I’ve always wanted to leave Hoofington to see the world. I remember being a little filly and wishing so much for my cutie mark to involve exploring. Oh!” Her eyes opened wide. “Maybe that’s what your special talent is! That would be so wonderful, being able to go all over the world, something I could never do. Oh, excuse me for a moment!”

“So I can go?” Novell asked hopefully as his mother glided out of his room, humming to herself cheerily. He was old enough to decide his own fate by now, even if he had no special talent, but he would prefer having his parents okay with the journey.

With a nod of his head and a flick of his tail, Thundermane gave his assent. “You may. I would caution you not to fly muzzle first into trouble, but I would be a hypocrite in that case.” His father smirked fondly before sobering up. “I hope you find what you are looking for out there.”

The Professor grinned around his mustache at that. “Ah, then I suppose we should be going, if the decision has been made. Canterlot is still several days out from Hoofington, so we had best go while we still have sun left to see. With luck, we’ll reach the mountain pass by the end of the day.”

Novell felt the uncontrollable urge to smile, caught up in the excitement of the Professor’s statement. He had never strayed very far away from Hoofington before last night, so the thought of once more venturing from his home was electrifying. The imaginings of what he would see almost made him extend his wings, but he checked himself ruefully. He would have to remember that his normal actions could cause him more trouble than they were worth.

Just then, his mother rushed into the room, humming happily to herself around a pair of light brown saddlebags clutched in her mouth. She floated over to him and carefully deposited them on his flank, perfectly positioned both in comfort and to cover up the fact he had no cutie mark. Novell glanced back at them, noticing the careful stitching and edges frayed from age. A couple of brown buttons kept the saddlebags closed on each side.

"Those were mine when I was just a little younger than you. I couldn’t wait to explore the world, so I went out and bought them with all the bits I had left. My parents found out and stopped me before I could leave, so I never got to use them, but I’ve kept them with me to remind myself of my dreams," Feather Light sighed wistfully, staring at him with a smile on her face . "I hope they can help you chase your own, now.”

Novell felt his eyes fill with tears at the last, his mother’s own responding the same way. She floated forward, nuzzling him and whimpering in  a mixture of motherly affection and loneliness. The alabaster pegasus returned the gesture, a tightness in his stomach appearing as he realized he wouldn’t be seeing his mother every day when he was on the road. A shadow loomed over them, Novell looking over to see his father shifting uneasily. Thundermane joined in awkwardly, resting his head on Novell’s neck and surprising the younger pegasus.

“I’m proud of you, for the things you have done and the things you will do. Even if I failed you here, I hope that you can find yourself out there. You’re an incredible pony, even without a special skill and I can’t ask for a better son,” the elder pegasus whispered huskily, a catch in his voice.

Novell nodded, at once both at ease and awkward with the attention. He stepped back after a few seconds, his mother smiling at the two of them with tears in her eyes, joy and sadness warring there. The pale pegasus closed his own and drew in a deep breath, psyching himself up for what he had to do next.

He glanced over to see Professor Search looking awkwardly out of the window, silent for once. The world outside pulled at him, his hooves moving of their own accord and his ears twitching in response to the sounds of birds singing. He slowly walked out of his room the three ponies behind him following him to the door. He looked back at them, glancing at his parents one more time with a slight smile.

“Thanks mom, dad. I’ll be back soon, with a cutie mark! And I’ll take care of myself.”

The Professor chose that moment to clear his throat and add his own opinion. “Indeed. He’ll be safe with me. This old unicorn still has some fight left in him if something goes sideways. Though I doubt we’ll encounter anything too dangerous. The roads are safer than they have been in a long time, with two princesses to watch over us.”

Thundermane nodded at them, his feelings concealed behind his stern face. Feather Light floated beside the dark grey pegasus, wiping away a tear with one hoof as Novell opened the door. The Professor cheerfully trotted outside, Novell following him with one last glance behind him. He waved at the two pegasi in the doorway, their hooves raised in response, Feather Light’s cheerfully waving while Thundermane’s own moved stiffly. The young pegasus turned back to his companion and trotted to catch up.

“It’s a hard thing to do, leaving behind somepony that cares for you,” Professor Search started sadly. “You handled that better than most ponies would.”

Novell nodded thoughtfully. “I’m sure I’ll feel it later. The homesickness, I mean.”

The two continued in silence for a few minutes, walking down the path that lead to the main road. The young pegasus drew in another breath, the unfamiliar weight of the saddlebags reassuring on his flank. At least with this thing I won’t have to constantly deal with other ponies commenting on my absence of a cutie mark.

Presently, their path crossed with the route heading toward Ponyville and Canterlot, a long series of signs pointing toward the towns in the fork. Novell slowed and glanced once more behind him, the house no longer in sight. He looked back at the road and stepped forward gingerly onto it. A small puff of dust surrounded his hoof as he stomped down. The young pegasus chewed on his cheek, feeling a slight nervousness in his stomach. Novell looked back one more time before setting his shoulders and continuing onto the road.

The Professor stared at him with no expression, closing his eyes and nodding when the pegasus trotted up beside him. Novell felt a tremendous weight lifted off his shoulders, the knot in his stomach relaxing as he moved down the path. With their hooves sending up more puffs of dust, the two ponies began their journey in high spirits.


The mountains that formed the pass into the middle of Equestria loomed in the distance, a violet color against the bright blue sky. Clouds drifted over them, casting shadows across the fields around the road. The wind was stiff, tossing Novell’s mane to and fro. When he looked over at the Professor to comment on it, he noticed not a hair on the unicorn’s head was moving. The pegasus squinted his eyes as he peered at the horn, which was glowing with a slight white aura.

Unicorns...” Novell mumbled under his breath, looking back at the road and lowering his head in disgruntlement.

“What was that, lad?”

“Oh, uhm, nothing. Just muttering about the wind. It got strong all of a sudden,” Novell fumbled in reply.

The grey unicorn looked around at the swaying grass and up into the sky. “Indeed.”

Novell took a double take at the elder pony, mildly surprised at the one word sentence. A sudden gust from his right knocked him to the side, his hooves scrambling to stay under him. He clamped down on the urge to spread his wings to catch his fall, the muscles already tensing in preparation. The Professor reached out a hoof to check Novell’s submission to gravity.

“I know pegasi are supposed to be light in order to fly, but are you sure you didn’t inherent your mother’s predilection for weightlessness?”

Novell looked around suspiciously for a certain orange pegasus before replying. “This wind can’t be natural. Equestria’s ponies regulate the weather themselves. It almost feels like there’s something else directing the wind, but I can’t see anypony around.”

“Magic, perhaps?”

“Not any unicorns’, if that’s what you mean,” Novell said stolidly, shaking his head just as the wind started to fade.

The Professor cleared his throat, the aura of magic fading from his horn. “There are various creatures aside from unicorns that can use magic, lad. Still, the breeze seems to have passed. Come, come, we’ve lots of ground to cover. I think you’ll like Canterlot. Lots of libraries and books, universities everywhere, and its such a sight to behold the valley beneath the castle. You can even see Cloudsdale on the horizon if you look at the right time. I must say, watching the sun set or rise is quite the experience.”

“How did you know I like books?” Novell asked quizzically, the wind forgotten.

“Well, your vocabulary for one. You’re quite the educated fellow, you know. Reminds me of myself back in the day, hah! Ah, those were the days...”

On the precipice of another adventure, the magnificently mustachioed unicorn reminisced about his earlier years. The sensational scent of the soil and grass surrounding the two companions jogged a memory of a journey into the wilds of the wildly dangerous Everfree Forest that lay below Canterlot, to research the crazed cockatrice. Such a wilderness of—

“You’ve been to the Everfree Forest before? Isn’t that one of the most dangerous places in Equestria?”

“Oh, yes, very dangerous. Hydras, Ursas, and Manticores, oh my, it was quite the experi—, ah, trip. There was so much research to be done there that my assistant had to pull me awa—” The Professor stopped at that, glancing to the side and continuing softly. “There was a lot of research there.”

Novell’s ear twitched at the discordant note in the other pony’s voice. “You had an assistant?”

“Yes. Yes I did,” Professor Search replied concisely, trotting forward ahead of the pegasus. Novell watched him for a moment before falling in behind the unicorn, glancing around at the surroundings in lieu of restarting the obviously uncomfortable conversation.

The plainlands that surrounded Hoofington were slowly giving way to forested areas the closer they got to the mountains. The woods around the trail were sparse copses of trees rather than the full fledged forest that bordered his house, but Novell spied the end to the plain lands coming up further along the trail. He looked up and glanced at the sun, noting its progress and performing a few quick calculations. We should be in the forest by nightfall, he thought with a shudder, not looking forward to spending another night under the trees.

The two ponies walked in silence for the next hour, the wind mysteriously intermittent, almost bowling him over one moment and nonexistent the next. Novell couldn't help but get the feeling something was causing the wind to constantly blow him around, but when he looked around there was nopony in sight and not a cloud to hide behind. As the morning wore on into the afternoon, the saddlebags on the pegasus’ flank became heavier and heavier. Even though he was in relatively good shape from flying constantly, he had never tried to trot with a burden this long.

The Professor, now back to his cheerfully ostentatious self, noticed the younger pony’s discomfort. “You seem a bit tired there, lad. What would you say to a quick break? I’ve been smelling carrots all morning from those saddlebags your mother gave you. Good vegetable to have around, improves your eyesight.” The unicorn paused, looking crosswise at his glasses in consternation. “Not that I’ve seen anything to prove that point, but that is what they say. Maybe I should look into that.”

Novell nodded, wearily reaching back to grab the saddlebags as they walked to the side of the road. The two ponies lay down on the soft grass as another, softer wind sprang up. The pegasus closed his eyes and savored the wind against his sweaty mane and heated body. The sound of the Professor clearing his throat brought his eyes open again. He grinned ruefully at the older pony, opening the flap on one of the saddlebags and pulling out four bright orange carrots.

They snacked on the vegetables, Novell’s companion filling the silence with more descriptions of Canterlot. The Professor was quite animated when he mentioned his own office in one of the more prestigious universities. Novell was unsurprised to hear that the unicorn had a class every time he was in the city, which wasn’t very often given his study habits. What the pegasus was surprised to hear was that a great many ponies looking to continue their knowledge of the world showed up whenever he spoke.

“You’re telling me that there’s that many ponies looking to explore the world?” Novell asked dryly, raising an eyebrow.

The Professor looked put out at that, supplementing his carrots with the grass around them. “Well, of course, lad. Equestria, and the lands beyond it, hold wonders both discovered and still hidden. Ponies of all ages dream of seeing these sights, just like your mother said she did when she was younger. I, myself, have only explored Equestria proper and still not seen all it has to offer since I started nosing around. The flora and fauna could take up the bulk of a pony’s life if he or she decided to study them. You’ve seen the Yeti, but there are still many other species quite similar to that mountain ranging beast. The Sasquatch is, in fact, one of the more prominent in the forested regions of this valley.”

“I can’t say I’d like to see anything like another Yeti,” the young pegasus replied with a shaky grin at the thought, “but I think travelling the world sounds like it’d be fun.”

“Ah, it is, lad. Especially when you roam with friends at your side,” the unicorn smiled, wrinkles crinkling under his eyes.

Novell looked up, surprised. “You mean that?”

“Well, of course, Novell. You did save my life, if I recall, and the least I could do is name you one of my friends as a result.”

“But, I don’t have a cutie mark. Most ponies wouldn’t want to be seen with me,” the pegasus replied, his ears drooping.

“That’s part of your charm, lad! You’re an interesting pony, both in personality and the fact that you have no cutie mark. I wouldn’t think less of you just because I happen to have something you don’t. You have wings, after all, something I’m extremely envious of, I admit, yet I do not see you in a hurry to escape the company of a unicorn.” The unicorn rose to his feet, chomping the last bit of the carrot with a friendly grin. “At any rate, we’ve tarried here long enough. We musn’t keep the world waiting, eh?”

The pale coated pegasus tried to hold back a smile of his own, but failed. He nodded and put the saddlebags back on his flank, looking all the world like a normal pony and not caring a bit.


The two companions made good time as the sun slowly sailed its way across the sky, the grassland rolling into low shrubbery beside the road. The copses of trees they passed grew larger until the path was surrounded on both sides by the tall pines and oaks, their leaves orange and yellow as Fall set in and carpeted the path. The crisp smell of the pine needles and berry bushes melded together into pleasing aromas that set his mouth to watering. Novell’s stomach rumbled at the thought of the berries, even though he’d eaten just hours before.

Rays of sunlight from the sinking orange orb shined through the trees in shafts of sparkling light, using the last bits of its strength before it sunk below the horizon. The young pegasus was mystified at what he had been missing sailing over everything, not even knowing such sights existed. I’ll have to start walking more, even when I get my wing back to full strength, the pegasus thought happily as he inhaled the scents wafting around him.

Squirrels stared at them from the path, their big glistening eyes filled with glee as they chased one another through the trunks and branches near the road. The trees shook with their passing, groaning good naturedly against their ministrations as well as the wind that had been following the ponies off and on that day. Moments after he noticed it, the breeze returned full force, rustling through the trees and sending the leaves through the air in an autumnal ballet.

One offending leaf flew right into Novell’s face, causing him to twitch away in surprise. He wiped it off with a hoof in annoyance, glaring skyward to see if anypony was around and playing tricks on him. Unfortunately, nothing but violet clouds greeted his vision, cheerfully floating on the air currents as if in spite of his thoughts. If only I could fly, I’d be able to find out what was going on, he grumbled inwardly, or at least direct the air streams somewhere else. Not that I’m very good at that...

The Professor had pulled ahead, looking around at the trees with an interested expression, no doubt cataloguing each leaf as it fell. His hoofbeats against the dirt path were a reassuring counterpoint to Novell’s own. The pegasus was happy that he didn’t have to travel this route alone — journeying with others was enjoyable, just as the unicorn had said earlier that day. He checked the sky again, noting the progress of the sun as it glowed a mellow orange, part of it covered by the mountains that lorded over the pass.

“Oh, my, would you look at that!” Professor Search exclaimed excitedly, causing Novell to return his gaze back to earth and his mind to break from its reveries. The unicorn was rushing forward and veering into the forest, leaving the pegasus alone on the road, caught off guard. He quickly followed, looking around nervously as he entered the foliage, a tree limb scraping across his short mane. His companion's trail was obvious even to an inexperienced woodspony like Novell, so he galloped through the broken branches and trampled saplings after the unicorn. The road disappeared behind him as he trailed the Professor, trying to keep the elder pony in sight. Roots and bushes rose up to block his way, but he continued on relentlessly, fearing the thought of being alone this close to dark.

“Professor!” Novell yelled, narrowly avoiding a limb the unicorn had unintentionally pulled back. It whisked over his head, the pegasus’ heart already beating fast with adrenaline. “Wait up! Professor!”

He galloped faster, his wing starting to ache with the rough pace he was forced to assume. A few seconds passed before he entered a clearing in the forest, the Professor out in the middle of it and investigating a small grove of yellow flowers. The unicorn looked up as Novell trotted up, managing to look chagrined as he realized what he had done.

“Apologies, lad. I just get so caught up in my research, sometimes,” Professor Search said. The younger pony raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “Yes, well, look here, boy. These flowers are an interesting part of the ecology here in the forest, one of the many plants in Equestria that are amazing in their abilities. These particular ones are part of the family of magivascular plants, flora that has a magic of its own, similar to Poison Joke or the Beneviolet. This one is called the Dazey, quite drolly.”

“A daisy? Well, obviously,” Novell replied, wondering why the Professor bothered even coming out here for a simple flowering plant.

“No, no, it's Dazey, as in 'a daze'. Its pollen has the power to confuse and disorient any creature foolish enough to inhale it. A defense system against predators, you see. These plants are also used quite frequently as a sort of sedative by Zebra and other hedge wizards, since large doses can render one unconscious. There have been other, unsubstantiated rumors that some of the more...unhinged elements of ponykind use the plant as a defense against zomponies, silly as it sounds.”

“Should we be standing near it?” the pegasus asked, slowly backing away from the happily swaying plants.

“No, no, we’re fine as long as we don’t touch them. The defense system is initiated by physical contact. Quite ingenious, if I do say so myself.” Professor Search poked one of the plants in emphasis, a puff of yellow powder floating into the air around the unicorn’s face. The elder pony swayed uncertainly, his eyes growing suddenly unfocused as he fell to his backside, sneezing. “And...potent.”

“Come on, Professor, let’s get back to the road,” Novell sighed, pulling the unicorn to his hooves and guiding him away from the flowers before he could get himself into more trouble. The pegasus idly wondered if the Professor's former assistant had known what he was getting himself into when he started working for the unicorn.

"Probably not," the pegasus mused aloud.

"Probably not what, lad?"

Novell grinned at his friend and shook his head. "Nothing, Professor, nothing at all."

They were just about to exit the clearing when a whistling sound came from behind them. The pegasus looked around confusedly, looking up to where he thought the sound was coming from just as a blast of wind hit him, sending his mane streaming back behind his head and forcing his eyes into slits. The Professor fell backwards, still unsteady and caught unprepared by the force of the torrent.

Whooooooooooaaaaaa!” a familiar voice yelled out as an orange blur tumbled through the similarly colored sky. “Where’s my eject button? Oh, haystacks! Hold on, Swirley!”

Novell watched as the pegasus executed a front flip mid air until her hooves were facing the ground, her wings flapping madly against her rapid descent. The wind picked up on her down drafts, blowing hard against the clearing’s floor as she directed the air currents to give her more lift. It looked like the orange pegasus was going to stop herself in time when a yellow mist sprang up to engulf her from below.

“Oh, gross, what is—achoo! Whoa,” Whisper Wind yelled loudly, sneezing as the cloud enveloped her. Her wings began to beat out of sync as her brain shorted out from the pollen lining her nostrils. Novell’s eyes widened as she stopped flapping altogether, still above the trees, and dropped like a stone.

“Whisper!” Novell yelled, darting forward into a gallop, his wings involuntarily spreading in preparation to fly. Agony coursed through his sprained appendage as it opened suddenly, almost causing him to fall to his knees. The pegasus gritted his teeth against the pain and kept running, jumping forward to intercept the foalish pegasus before she could really injure herself.

He caught the female Pegasus in his front hooves, her breath exploding out of her lungs as he hit her. They tumbled to the earth, rolling together comically in a ball of hooves and tails before hitting a tree at the edge of the clearing. They rolled halfway up the trunk before falling apart from one another to land in the soft grass. Novell stared up at the sky, seeing stars too early orbiting his vision, a steadily burning pain attesting to the fact that his wing wasn’t about to let him forget it was still aching.

“Novell! Lad! Are you okay? Oof,” Professor Search yelled from across the clearing and tripped over his own hooves, still under the effects of the Dazey.

The pegasus shook his head to clear the stars, rolling over to his hooves unsteadily. He glanced over at the cream soda colored pony near him, watching her sit on her flank and weave side to side. Novell rushed over to her, Swirley gazing up at him from atop the mare’s head, eyes as unexcited as ever, though its shell had transformed from a relaxed orange into an irritated red. Whisper looked at Novell, her eyes rolling around in their sockets unsteadily as a sleepy smile stole over her face.

“Oh, there hi flank blank. Did trick my see you?” she babbled, falling backwards into unconsciousness. The snail tumbled from her curly mane into the grass beside her just as the Professor trotted up, his legs spread out as if trying to steady himself in an earthquake.

“A Refferentus Snail!” Professor Search exclaimed, his eyes gradually focusing on the small, color-changing mollusk. “I’ve never seen one in pony before! I wonder if it can eat magic like the books said?”

Novell checked to see if the mare was okay, concerned over her well being despite her usual behavior toward him. A rolling snore came from her mouth, her chest shallowly rising and falling. Yellow dust coated her face as he examined her closer, the young pegasus thinking quickly and rubbing the pollen with a few rolls of grass. It came away easily, the orange pegasus' breath coming easier as he cleared it from her nose and mouth. He dabbed at her eyes, noticing they were already swelling. A voice from his left drew his attention away for as few seconds.

"Very good, Novell. Wiping away the pollen is the first thing to do when exposed to it."

The blank flanked pegasus looked up in concern. "Is she going to be alright?"

"Oh, yes, yes, of course. Even a large dose like the one she experienced isn't enough to harm her. She'll sleep through the night and wake up fine in the morning."

Novell nodded, his heart slowing down as he sat down in the grass, wincing against the throbbing in his wing. He stared at the two ponies, bewildered by the events of the last few minutes. It wasn’t even a day into his journey and already things were going crazy. The young pegasus sighed and raised a hoof to his face, a headache already forming in his skull.

It was going to be a long journey.

Chapter 4: Gathering Chill

-Illustration courtesy of Master Shake

With the sky steadily transforming into an inky black and the stars piercing through in preparation for the night, the clearing was the last bastion of clear air to Novell. He itched to find a cloud somewhere in the heavens to avoid sleeping on the ground again, dealing with the hard surface and creatures that wandered around. However, he seemed to be the only one uncomfortable with the situation, the Professor having no doubt dealt with such adverse conditions regularly and the mare already blissfully catatonic.

“I suppose we could spend the night here,” Professor Search announced, no longer affected by the magic pollen, though his eyes were still puffy and red. “It’s as good a place as any and the Dazies will be a deterrent for any local wildlife.”

“Didn’t you say there were Sasquatches in this forest?” Novell asked nervously, staring around the slowly darkening woods. The sun was no longer visible, its last rays reaching across the auburn sky, staining the clouds with a yellow glow. The young pegasus felt like shrinking into the ground, having no way to fly away from his fears. His wing was still throbbing unpleasantly, as if reminding him there was no escape.

He glared at the other pegasus snoring on the ground beside him, silently blaming her for his troubles. The snail that accompanied the mare everywhere she went stared up at him with a bored expression, its shell a steady orange as it fought to devour a large leaf. He figured that meant it was back to a normal mood.

“Well, of course, but they’re smart enough not to bother a grove that has Dazies in it, just like any other animal. Regardless, they don’t like civilization, so they stay well away from any roads. I expect if we were to venture nearer the mountain and further away from the trail, we could find an enclave of the beasts to study,” The Professor paused, raising a hoof to his mustache and stroking it. “You know, I haven’t finished researching into the mating habits of the Sasquatch. Perhaps we could make a little side trip before moving on to Canterlot?”

Novell fixed the unicorn with a glare, feeling uncharitable at that moment. “No, Professor, no more trotting off task. No more random forays into possibly hostile areas and no more research until we get to the capitol. I’m sure you’re used to such things, but I’m just a regular pony with no talent and I sincerely doubt that almost getting myself killed is going to get me a cutie mark!”

“It was only a suggestion,” the ash-colored unicorn mumbled in reply, sitting on his hindquarters and staring at the orange pegasus currently sawing logs. “By the way, you never introduced me to your friend.”

“She’s not my friend,” the alabaster pegasus grumbled, crossing his hooves in front of his chest as he sat down. “Her name’s Whisper Wind. She’s annoying, domineering, thinks she can do anything, and frequently gets herself into trouble. Supposedly she’s a weather mare, but she goofs off so much I’m not even really sure she has a job. The snail’s name is Swirley.”

“It is very nice to meet you, Swirley,” Professor Search said in greeting to the mollusk. The snail looked up from his meal and shifted through a spectrum of blue, yellow, and green before returning to his customary orange. “Ah, marvelous. He’s communicating with me. You see, these mollusks are a rather strange breed, capable of astonishing sentience. According to research done by one of my colleagues, these animals are native to—”

“I’m going to go get some firewood,” Novell muttered, walking away as the Professor regaled the snail with its own history and habitat. He rolled his eyes as he neared the edge of the trees, mocking the stodgy, old professor with an exaggerated expression and silent mimicry. The young pegasus sighed, his wings itching to open up and get him to the edge faster. All this walking is getting old really fast.

Staying within sight of the Professor, Novell ranged around for firewood and chewed on some grass while he was at it. The ground was shrouded in warm colored leaves, forcing him to nudge the carpet aside with his hoof or nose as he looked around. Finding a suitable stick, Novell grabbed it in his hoof and flung it over his shoulder to land in his open saddlebags. He lowered his head back down to search for more when a slight breeze sprang up, bringing with it the hint of the mountaintop frigidity.

Novell frowned at the wind, inwardly glad that he couldn’t feel chill like other ponies did. There was definitely need for a fire for the Professor at least. Not that I’m being entirely selfless here, the young pegasus thought as he looked around at the shadowy forest. The trees around him were less sinister looking when there was still light enough to see more than five hooves in front of his face, but that wouldn't be the case for much longer.

He spent the next few minutes gathering more wood for the fire, the comforting drone of the Professor’s voice in the air. After amassing as many twigs and branches as he could hold, Novell trotted back to the group. He felt more cheerful at the prospect of a fire keeping the darkness at bay.

“Ah, good, you brought the wood,” The Professor said, pausing long enough in his long winded explanation to look at the sticks Novell had brought with him. The young pegasus gathered them in a neat pile like he’d been taught to after his father had taken him camping in the forest near their house. Satisfied, he nodded and stared at the sticks for a second before realizing he hadn’t brought any flint or tinder with him.

“Uhm, do you have a fire spell in your repertoire, Professor?”

“Oh, yes, yes, apologies,” the unicorn replied, a concentrated expression coming over his face as his horn glowed white. A second later, a flame sprang up from the wood, wavering in the chilling breeze. “And not a second too soon. I tell you, lad, I dislike the cold months. Though I suppose it makes no difference to you, seeing as you’re immune to the temperature. Yet another ability I envy in pegasi.”

The pegasus laid down by the fire on the opposite side of the Professor, near Whisper, and stared at the flames. The warmth of it made his face itch, but he inched closer just the same, trying not to look into the forest. He relaxed and listened to the sounds of the night begin to arise as the last vestiges of light disappeared. The scent of the burning wood made him drowsy, his eyes drooping and his mind cataloguing the weird day he had experienced. A yawn escaped him as he realized he had been up since before Princess Celestia had pulled the sun into the sky.


Novell woke up with a start, his brain instantly active the moment his ear twitched. He opened his eyes, his heart beating in his chest like a drum, looking around for the sound of wood snapping. The pegasus glanced at the fire, now nothing more than embers, then to his two companions. Both of them were asleep, the professor laying with his hooves in the air, mumbling and twitching as he dreamed. Whisper was in the same spot she had been, snoring loudly with her snail perched in slumber on her curly mane, the leaf only partially eaten.

Another crack sounded to his left. The pale pony raised his head, looking into the woods with his eyes widening further in panic. His imagination automatically transformed the shadows in the foliage into frightening figures as he watched. The air was dead in the clearing and the moon bleached his surroundings the color of his coat, the celestial light filling him with comfort despite the night’s best efforts otherwise.

“Search,” Novell hissed, picking himself up, keeping his eyes on the forest and his ears high in alert. “Professor.”

A light appeared in the trees, distracting him from his attempts to wake his companion. His eyes followed the pale radiance as it twirled through the trunks. He couldn’t see a distinct shape, just the general glow that rivaled the moon’s bathing light. The young pegasus felt mesmerized as he watched it, frozen in terror as the luminosity grew closer. A mist sprung up in the trees as the thing glided toward the clearing. He trembled, one hoof moving by itself toward the illumination, followed by another.

The pegasus’ brain felt like it was frozen over, all his thought processes dulling as if covered by a thin sheen of ice. A whispering chill entered his thoughts, a seductive melody filling his head with its soft song, pulling him toward the edge of the clearing. His eyes glazed over, the sound of his mother’s lullaby echoing in his ears, pulled from the back of his mind with a cold calculation.

There was another crack of wood to his left, causing his head to instantly swivel toward it, the spell broken. A shower of sparks greeted his vision, the wood stirring in a collapse as it burned. Novell stared back at the forest, the white light no longer showing through the branches and the haunting tune no longer playing. The sound of its absence tugged on his heartstrings like a friendship withered away. He stood there for a few more minutes, waiting for the melody to reappear, unable to move his body even he slightest bit as the mist dissipated. What was I just doing? He glanced down at his hooves, confused as to why he had moved.

“Just my imagination,” he laughed nervously, his whispering voice loud in the quiet, still transfixed by the darkness. A stuttering snore broke his trance, the orange mare annoying even in her sleep. Novell nudged the wood with a hoof, trying to get the flame started again. Thankfully, it caught, burning brighter as the fire once more gnawed on the fuel, casting color into the pale night. The pegasus lay back down closer to Whisper and stared into the forest, waiting for any hint of the light to show up again as he hummed his mother’s lullaby.


The next morning came, the sun blaring into Novell’s eyelids enough to make him stick his hoof in front of his face. He groaned against the sudden illumination, opening his drooping eyes with reluctance, still feeling the effects of little sleep. The pegasus rubbed them, groggily sitting up and taking stock of the situation.

The fire next to him was nothing but ashes now, the outer edges of the sticks blackened from the heat. Shafts of light danced over the remains, streaking through the branches of the trees all around them. He glanced around at the edge of the clearing, the will o’ the wisp still clear in his mind from the night. Nothing but the warm shine of the sun flashed at him, a slight tugging sensation on his hindquarters causing him to turn around and investigate. He blinked at the image of Whisper Wind chewing on his tail, still asleep and drooling all over it with a cute expression on her face.

“Hey!” Novell yelled, standing up instantly to get his tail out of the orange pegasus’ mouth, his mind suddenly becoming lucid.

“Huh, wha, what’s there that?” Whisper replied, sitting up herself and wiping the drool from her mouth with one hoof. She stared at him for a second, one eye still closed and the other blinking confusedly. Suddenly they both snapped open, surprise in her face as she fell backward, her hooves scrambling in the air and her wings fluttering in panic.

“Wha-wha-what are you doing in my room?” the orange pegasus cried out, the snail on her head burning bright red in surprise, yet still managing to hang onto his leaf. The mare suddenly spit into the grass. “Pthew, wha’s on muh thongue!”

“Uh, uh,” Novell replied, his mind not ready to handle the information overload. He stamped his hooves in a nervous tempo, some dried grass falling out of the saddlebags he had never taken off for the night. “Hay! Yeah, hay! That’s, uh, my hay! Stop eating it!”

“Did somepony say breakfast?” the Professor said groggily. Whisper looked at the unicorn in surprise, suddenly glancing around at her surroundings.

“This isn’t my room! Oh, mare, oh, mare, I am so gonna get it,” the cream soda maned pegasus panicked, shooting into the air and instantly falling back down. Whisper looked around again, confusedly, raising a hoof to her face. “Whoa, my head. Why is everything spinning?”

The Professor chuckled as he stretched. “Why, you’ve been exposed to a yellow Dazey, dear. Quite a full dose, I must add. It’s a wonder you’re not still soundly asleep. The pegasus metabolism is truly astonishing sometimes. Now, you were saying something about breakfast, I believe, lad?”

“Uh, yeah, hay,” Novell replied absently, staring at Whisper as her eyes crossed and uncrossed again. She pointed a hoof in front of her and shook it, glaring hard at it, no longer worried about her tongue. The pale pegasus sighed and rummaged through his saddlebags, finding two more carrots and a couple of hay sandwiches. He pulled them out one by one, setting one of each in front of his two companions.

Whisper Wind looked up from her foreleg and stared at the food for a few seconds. “Carrots? Do I look like a rabbit to you? What about apples, do you have any of those, blank flank?”

“My name’s Novell and you’ll eat what I give you or not at all,” he growled in response, the headache from last night returning with full force at dealing with the mare. She looked at him in surprise, blinking a few times before looking down and picking one of the sandwiches demurely, avoiding his gaze.

The Professor, happily ignoring the two, crunched into one of the carrots with simple joy. The pale pegasus picked up a sandwich of his own and bit into it, the grass tangy against his taste buds. Remembering the doctor’s orders, Novell stretched his damaged wing in a slow motion of flapping. Pain shot through the appendage, but it wasn’t as bad as before, even if it did feel a little stiff. I guess I forgot to stretch it last night.

They ate in silence, both pegasi glowering at one another and the unicorn deigning to graze when the carrots ran out. Novell closed his eyes as he finished his sandwich, his lids heavy and a yawn escaping once again. I really need to go to sleep earlier, Novell thought, rubbing his eyes again. He looked around to spy the Professor inspecting the Dazies once more, writing in a notebook with a quill, both pulled from nowhere and held aloft with magic. That reminds me...

“Professor?” the alabaster pegasus called to his friend. The unicorn finished writing one last sentence before closing his notebook with a snap and sending it behind him to disappear, turning around to look at the pegasus. Novell squinted his eyes, wondering where the items had gone before shaking his head and muttering ‘unicorns’ again.

“Yes, lad?”

Novell glanced over at the other pegasus trying to feed bits of her sandwich to the snail. Swirley looked up at her in annoyance and ate more of his leaf with a determined expression, ignoring the mare’s offer. Novell rolled his eyes and trotted over to the elder pony, out of her range of hearing. “Have you ever heard of a light appearing in the trees at night? In this forest, I mean.”

“Mysterious lights?” Professor Search asked in a conspiratory whisper, not nearly soft enough.

“Yes, mysterious,” he replied, glancing back at Whisper to make sure she wasn’t listening. “I woke up in the middle of the night this morning and I saw some kind of light through the trees. I vaguely remember some kind of tune before the fire crackled next to me, but when I looked over, I was further away from it than before.”

The Professor rubbed his chin with a hoof, staring into the foliage for a few moments. “I can’t say I’ve ever heard of something like that happening in this forest. If we were in the Everfree, I’d suggest you saw a sprite of some kind, but they don’t live anywhere near here. Are you sure you don’t remember anything else?”

“I think I remember feeling cold,” Novell began, screwing up his eyes and trying to remember. “It felt like an icy claw was...”

“Yes, yes, was what?”

“What was I saying?” the pale pegasus asked, suddenly confused.

“You were talking about an icy claw, boy!”

“Icy claw?”

“You don’t remember, do you?” The Professor lifted a hoof to his chin again, looking back and forth from the forest to the young pegasus. “Perhaps we could stay another night and find out? There are certain magical entities that might fit the description you gave me, but I can’t be sure until I’ve seen it for myself.”

Novell suddenly felt the urge to leave, his hooves pawing the grass nervously. “No, I think we should go. Right now.”

“Whatever for?”

“I...I don’t know, I just feel like we need to leave.”

“Well, alright then, I suppose we do have to get along to Canterlot. We should be able to find shelter in Ponyville for the night if we hurry. Just let me make a few more notes on these Dazies and we’ll leave.”

Novell nodded, walking over to Whisper and wondering what she was doing here. The mare glanced up at him for a second before pointedly ignoring him, grabbing her snail and arranging him on her mane like a hat. Swirley stared at him with his customary expression, his shell a ruddy red as he clutched his half eaten prize.

“So, we’re leaving to go to Canterlot,” Novell started, raising a hoof to help her up. She glanced at it and hesitated for a second before standing up herself.

“That’s nice. I’m going to Cloudsdale for the week, to watch the Wonderbolts practice. Not that you need to know.”

The pale pegasus sighed, shaking his head as he marveled at her stubborness. “Alright, well, you’re free to come with us if you want company, but do what you want. You always do, anyway.”

“Fine, I will,” she replied haughtily, flapping her wings to start flying when she fell over onto her side. “Ow, my head.”

“Look, you’re in no condition to fly like that. At least come with us until the effect wears off, Whisper,” Novell grudgingly said, not really sure why he was offering to help one of the most annoying things in Equestria. He offered his hoof again, which she glared at before accepting. He pulled her to her hooves, where she wobbled unsteadily.

Concentrating hard, she widened her stance and took a step forward. And then another. Novell watched the mare struggle to take another step and almost fall to her side again. He rolled his eyes and walked up to her.

“Lean on me.”

“What?” she snapped, eyeing him warily, or at least trying to with her eyes wobbling in their sockets.

“It’ll be easier for you if you just accept help every now and then,” he replied in the same tone.

“I don’t need your help!”

The pale pegasus stared at her hard for a few seconds before shrugging and continuing on ahead. Professor Search had finished his notes and was waiting at the edge of the clearing, glancing around with interest at everything. After a few steps, he heard a sound from behind him. He glanced back to see Whisper staring at the ground with a grimace across her muzzle.

“What was that?” he asked innocently as she took another step and fell flat on her face.

She glared up at him when she regained her hooves, a bit of dirt on her forehead. “Help me.”

“I thought you didn’t want my help?”

Please,” she hissed, the snail on her mane rolling its eyes and shifting through a spiral pattern of blue, red, and pink.

“Swirley just added ‘Help the mare before she falls and crushes me’,” Professor Search supplied helpfully from behind Novell.

“Traitor,” Whisper said to her pet just as Novell reached her and helped her up again. She leaned against him and Novell opened his undamaged wing to enfold her. “What are you doing?”

“Making sure you don’t fall the other way,” he replied, luxuriating in the feeling of having his wing fully extended, even though he still felt awkward at the situation. They walked slowly forward, Whisper stumbling slightly but not falling down. Novell moved with her, supporting her gently on both sides. “See? Much easier.”

“This is just until I can move by myself,” she growled, falling against him as she lost her balance again. The pale pegasus shook his head and continued on toward the road, Professor Search happily bringing up the rear.


By noon, Whisper began to shake off the effects of the Dazey, enough that she had been able to walk unaided. Unfortunately, that was also the time the bickering began in full as their hooves ate up the miles.

“Were you the one who kept buffeting me with those winds?” Novell asked, the question on his mind all day. The other pony turned to look at him with a roll of her eyes, prancing ahead and sending a cloud of dust into his face.

“Well, duh. I was bored on my way to Cloudsdale, so I thought it’d be funny to mess with you, especially since you couldn’t fly and catch me,” she glanced at him mischievously as soon as he wiped away the dirt. “I was right.”

Novell glared at the mare, his normal irritation reemerging. “You are the most ann—”

A cough from behind him interrupted his line of speech, the Professor stamping forward heavily in between them.

“Now, now, younglings, enough of your fighting. Since you seem intent on not getting along like you have been for the last few hours, allow me to regale you with the tale of how I researched and wrote a thesis on the tiny parasprite race.” The dapper old stallion harrumphed in preparation for his speech, prancing with his eyes closed and his mustache quivering with each breath. “I was giving a speech at one of the universities at Canterlot, discussing the reproduction of the small, insufferably cute ball of insectoid when the hall erupted in uproar. Reproducing by just eating? Madness! The potential destructive capabilities of such a race would be terrifying to behold and that leads me directly into my next point which is, you see, one of the better experiments I’ve run, although the Princesses did not take such a liking to the insects when I released them into Canterlot square in an effort to see exactly which-”

“Oh my Goddess, my ears are going to fall off,” Whisper groaned aloud, covering both ears while simultaneously lifting off the ground with no effort. A breeze formed as the orange pony rose into the air, her eyes screwed closed. Novell looked at her with surprise, the look mirrored in the Professor’s face, as if the older stallion hadn’t even heard the insult.

“Astonishing, Miss Whisper,” Professor Search said around a slackened jaw. “You shouldn’t be anywhere near recovered from the Dazey. Marvelous.”

“Huh, what?” the orange mare replied, opening her eyes and then instantly spiraling from the sky. She landed in the middle of the road, kicking up a dust cloud on impact. Novell shielded his eyes, waving his hoof in the air to get rid of the particles.

The sight of Whisper with a mouthful of dirt and eyes crossed to glare at the ground made the alabaster pegasus guffaw. He raised one hoof to his mouth in an effort to stop the mirth from bubbling forth, succeeding only in muffling it. Unfortunately, the mare’s ears were sharper than he thought.

“What’s so funny, blank flank? You want some of this?”

A blast of air threw Novell backwards, both of his wings opening in panic and taking the full brunt of the current. He fell onto his back, twisting his body so he didn’t land on the injured wing. Grunting with both the impact and the pain of the fall, the young pegasus felt tears gather in his eyes. The wind took on a chilling temperature as it tousled his mane and tail.

“Miss Whisper, that is quite enough,” the Professor’s voice cracked out, causing Novell to wince at the tone. “This pegasus has suffered quite enough pain on my account. I will not have you adding further injury to insult.”

The pale pegasus got to his hooves, keeping one eye shut in pain and cradling his wing close to his body. “I’m fine, Professor.”

“No you are not, my boy. Miss Whisper, I must ask you to apologize to Novell this instant. And enough with that breeze. It is cold enough without having to deal with wind chill, too.”

“But I’m not—”

“Apologize and divert the wind, dear. As you know, his wing is damaged and I can only imagine you’ve lengthened his recovery time with this stunt,” Professor Search said humorlessly, moving forward down the trail. “Hmmph, the gall of ponies today - basic kindness is a teaching Celestia herself imparts daily in Canterlot.”

Novell started after the other pony, wincing as his trot jostled his wing. A gentle touch like the feeling of a hoof on his shoulder caused him to look back momentarily, Whisper standing where she had been with her head down. He felt the wind ruffle through his damaged wing, gently stroking it.

“I’m sorry,” the mare began, looking up at him suddenly and staring him in the eyes in her customary way. However, unlike her normally hardened agate gaze, this glance was filled with regret and sorrow. The snail on her head turned a solid blue, shifting slowly through a leafy green and ending back with blue. “I didn’t mean to, uhm, hurt you. I can’t imagine how much not being able to fly...”

The young pegasus sighed and walked toward her, bumping his shoulder into hers. “It’s fine. Let’s just get going. You can pay me back by keeping the Professor out of this wind you keep stirring up. We may not be able to feel it, but he definitely can.”

“I’m not creating this wind,” Whisper replied quietly as they started trotting to catch up with their companion. “That’s coming from the mountains. But I can still divert it around us.”

Novell looked up at the mountains around them, their looming forms foreboding and dark. He noticed the tell-tale signs of snow in the higher reaches, clouds lapping at the rocky ridges. The pegasus shivered despite not feeling the cold, Whisper keeping her promise of diverting the winds around their little party.

Still, even that didn’t stop him from the feeling of discomfort threading its way through his body like the clutch of icy talons.


Contrary to their calculations, the three ponies did not make it through the pass that day. The sun was just beginning to set on the second day of their journey, the shadow of the mountain bringing an early end to the rays. Clouds swarmed above them, roiling around in irritation as the wind blew around them, diverted thanks to Whisper’s natural control over the currents.

Yet even with the breeze no longer hitting them, the biting chill and sudden snow that plagued the land outside their bubble of comfort could not be stopped. Novell glanced up to look futilely for the sun, its warm glow hidden by overcast clouds and the curtain of snow falling all around them.

“I never expected the mountain pass to be this clogged with snow so early in the year. Such an interesting behavior for the weather, though I suppose mountains can be somewhat unpredictable in their patterns. Wild magic roams through those heights,” Professor Search confided aloud, lifting his hooves higher to traverse the snowy ground. The older pony was puffing mist from the long climb they had undertaken as the path threaded its way higher, but was still moving at a swift trot.

Novell and Whisper, on the other hoof, were barely keeping pace with the gray pelted unicorn, despite the difference in age. They stared ahead, wearily lifting one hoof in front of the other, unused to such walking. The pale pegasus’ legs were growing harder to move with each step and he idly noticed his counterpart’s own were wobbling. Conversely, the snail on top of the mare’s mane had withdrawn into his now-purple shell, tucked into the warm hair and insulated from the chill.

“But it’s just the middle of autumn,” Whisper breathily replied, almost back to her grumpy self.

Novell raised his head to look at her. “Well, we are higher in elevation than usual. Up here, autumn is pretty much winter. Still, you’re right, it shouldn’t be this bad. Why aren’t the local weather ponies doing anything to stop this, Professor?”

“Ah, there are two reasons, my young assistant,” Professor Search began, his horn glowing almost imperceptibly as he weaved a spell. Novell rolled his eyes, knowing what was coming next.

The mysteriously magnificent unicorn looked up to the toweringly terrifying heights above their heads, recounting with gusto the reasons why the pegasi cannot brave such dangerously disasterful...

“Domes?” Novell put in, noticing the Professor’s floundering.

“Well, they’re not really domes, but I suppose that could work,” the unicorn replied grudgingly. “Victim of my own literary genius. At any rate, back to the reasons!”

“Can’t you just tell us?” Whisper complained before the elder pony could continue his telepathic rant. “My head is fuzzy enough without you vibrating my brain inside it. Even Swirley is annoyed.”

The snail chose that moment to peek out from underneath its shell, swiftly transforming through various patterns and colors. The Professor smiled at the small mollusk, nodding and responding in kind. Novell’s eyes widened as the unicorn’s horn shifted through the spectrum and designs like Swirley’s shell had. After a few moments of silent communication, and Whisper staring suspiciously at her pet, the Professor spoke again.

“Very well, the reasons are twofold. One, like I said before, the magic in these mountains is wild. Princess Celestia’s own mountaintop is the only one in the chain that even has moderate weather and that is only through her force of will. Not even a fleet of pegasi could control these clouds. The second is because mountains are naturally cold and have formed an ecosystem around such a temperature—breaking that environment would have adverse effects on the flora and fauna. Combined, that is why the weather is left well enough alone.”

“Well right now, this place is having an ‘adverse effect’ on me,” Whisper said, mocking the Professor as she wobbly took another step forward. “Is there anyplace for a pony to rest? I’ve been controlling these currents all day and walking isn’t helping me any.”

Professor Search nodded and pointed with one hoof at the hill they were even now cresting. “Just beyond this should be a rest stop for travellers. I would normally continue on, myself, but I suppose younglings like you two are not used to such conditions. We’ll spend the night there and continue on tomorrow.”

“Rest would be nice,” Novell added, looking up at the darkening sky as thunder clouds gathered above—there would be a snowstorm soon if he was any to judge. “Being out of the snow will be great, too. Even if I don’t feel it, I hate walking through it.”

“Just so, my friend,” the Professor replied happily, trotting off at a swifter pace. The two pegasi kept up, their eagerness to find shelter outweighing their weary limbs.


Novell’s eyebrows rose appreciatively at the large, wooden inn that served as a rest stop for ponies in between townships. A chimney spewed smoke into the air, valiantly battling against the whipping wind and thickening snowfall. Scorch marks coated the top of the chimney, testament to the heat provided by the fire inside. The roof was made of slatted ceramic tiles carefully arranged by hoof to be both neat and insulating, looming out over the deck and supported by large wooden columns. Halfwise hewn logs served as steps to the abode, covered in a thin sheen of ice. An old earth pony with an enormous beard and unkempt mane rocked back in forth on a chair, smoking a pipe and nodding at them as they carefully ascended to the porch.

Novell glanced at the door and was surprised to see how elaborate the designs in the heavy oak were, depicting ponies mining, panning for gold, and having a seat around a warm fire. The fire, especially, caught his eye. The wood was chiseled just so to make the flames seem to be alive, dancing hypnotically. He stood there, mesmerized, until Professor Search pushed open the door.

Whisper followed quickly after the unicorn, leaving the alabaster pegasus in their wake. He shook his mane as he went inside, his gaze lingering on the design for a few more seconds. The young pony was already thinking on how to create something like that himself, more elaborate possibilities stretching before him in his mind’s eye.

As soon as the door slammed shut with a flick of Professor Search's magic, the temperature rose and caused the unicorn to start perspiring in the sudden heat. Novell glanced around at the surroundings, the acrid stench of smoke attesting to the fact that the chimney wasn’t completely open. Pillars throughout the establishment looked to keep the roof in place even if it snowed heavily—Novell guessed it going to later that night. He rustled his wings unconsciously as he glanced up at the wooden beams and  arches, the construction seemingly sound to his eye.

Banishing thoughts of the roof caving in on top of him, he stared through the slight haze, round wooden tables littering the room. There were four other ponies in attendance, all gathered around the fireplace to ward off the chill. They were all earth ponies like the one outside, though they were dressed in winter clothing and seemed to know what bathing meant. The dull murmur of conversation and the oppressive heat started to make Novell’s head swim and his eyes droop just as they reached their destination.

"Well, howdy there, travellers,” a plump unicorn said from behind a wooden counter, her horn glowing as she cleaned a metal cup. “Oh, Professor. Stopping in for once, are ye? Always nice to have a handsome unicorn like yerself show up in my inn.”

The pegasus hid a grin at the elder pony’s expression, a blush creeping across the Professor’s face. “Yes, well, the pleasure is mine, Miss Hops. I see you’re as charming and delightful as always. How's your husband?”

“He's out in the back, choppin' firewood and gettin' things ready for tonight.  Ye know how Chipper is,” the purple pony tittered, setting the rag down and placing the cup on the table in front of her. “And call me Florid. Now, what can Ah do ya fer? Lookin’ for a room for the night or are ye just stoppin' in to say hello?”

“We’re here for the night, Florid. My young companions are less resilient when they're forced to walk rather than fly. Do you happen to have anything available for three?”

“Hmm, got two rooms open right now. You and this stallion can share a room and the lady can have her own. It’ll be fifteen bits for the lot of ya, but only because Ah like ye, Search,” the innkeeper replied, magically spiriting out two more tin cups and eyeing Novell with a smirk. The pegasus looked away, blushing for some reason—obviously the Professor had good reason to be flustered. “Anything Ah can get ye for now?”

“I’ll take some spiced wine,” he replied, counting out bits and plopping them on the counter.

“Just some water for me,” Novell said as the innkeeper looked politely his way, her smirk gone. He waited for a reaction to his bare flank, but she just nodded and shifted her eyes to the other pegasus. For a second he was confused, but the weight of his saddlebags reminded him his curse was covered.

“Mead, two cups,” Whisper replied briskly as she threw some bits of her own down, causing both Search and Novell to look at her with widened eyes. She glanced over at them, the defensive expression on her face matching her snail’s suddenly down turned eyebrows. “What? You think I can't handle myself?”

“My dear, you are still under the effects of the Dazey. I’m not sure you should be drinking as much as you’re asking for—,” Professor Search started, raising a hoof in objection.

The glare on the orange mare’s face was enough to stop his sentence cold. Novell wisely said nothing, not wanting to be the reason for another fight between the two of them. Miss Hops smiled and turned around to ready their drinks, humming all the while. With nothing better to do, the pegasus examined the columns he had noticed earlier, more designs chiseled into them like the door.

Monsters of all kinds littered the mosaic, from dragons and gruesome depictions of yeti to more mysterious figures that seemed like a blend of pony and ice sculpture. He lifted one hoof to trace the whorls of the wood, marvelling at the craftsponyship. The pegasus idly wondered if he could even come close to the skillponyship shown here.

“Like my work do ya?” a voice said from behind him, the pegasus instantly turning around in fright. A tall, built out pony with a beard that reached up to his mane stared back at him, imposing in size. Despite the horn that marked him as a unicorn, muscles rippled under his coat, an unusual sight to the pegasus.

“Oh, uhm, yes,” Novell replied nervously, shrinking down and backing into the pillar.

An apologetic smile broke out on the pony’s face, the massive unicorn sitting down on his haunches to bring himself to equal eye level. “Sorry ‘bout that. Sometimes Ah forget my size can be startlin’ to newcomers. Ah’m Chipper Hops, the co-owner of this ‘stablishment. Like what ya see there?”

“Novell,” he replied, relaxing now that there wasn’t a mountain of pony towering above him. He glanced back at the carvings. “You made these?”

“Indeed Ah did,” the unicorn replied with a nod. “Ah’ve always been an artist at heart. Those monsters are just some of the things Ah’ve seen in my life around these mountains. Don’t worry, though, none of ‘em come down this far into the pass and even if they do, Ah’ve fought off a few of them in my time.”

The pegasus nodded, lifting a hoof to his chin before pointing at the half pony, half ice sculpture. "I've never seen something like this. What kind of monster is that?"

"Hmm," the chestnut colored unicorn said as he investigated the design. "Ya know, now that Ah think about it, Ah'm not sure what that thing is. Kinda looks like a pony, but Ah don't rightly recall seein’ anything like it out there. Might be a—."

“Stop scarin' the customers and go put some more logs on the fire, Chipper,” Miss Hops yelled across the room and interrupting her husband's ruminations. “Yer water’s ready, dearie.”

“Yes ma’am,” the two ponies both replied, sharing a knowing glance between them.

“If yer interested, Ah could show ya a few things later. Not sure how well a pegasus can do with just his hooves, but it’s definitely possible to work wood without magic,” the unicorn offered amiably as he walked off to do his chores.

“Thank you,” Novell called out after the pony, Chipper nodding without looking back.

With a smile, the young pegasus turned to walk back to his drink, Whisper already finished with one of her cups and well into the second one. He rolled his eyes at her back, wondering if the mare knew what she was doing. Pegasi had a high metabolism—they had to in order to fly—but drinking that much after everything that had happened that day didn’t seem like the best plan.

The touch of concern for her well being surprised him—he had never really thought about her in a worried light. He had usually dismissed her accidents, knowing the pony always managed to keep herself from serious injury. Mostly he’d just wanted to be as far away from her as possible, but she always managed to find him and show off more doomed to failure tricks. As he picked up the cup of water in his hooves, Novel wondered for the first time why she always found him, when everyone else was worried of catching his curse.


As the evening drew on, the sounds of the snowstorm outside increased to a whistling roar. The pony that had been sitting outside had long since retreated to the comfort of the inn proper, struggling up the stairs on old joints to the guest rooms. After downing two drinks in the space of ten minutes, Whisper went on to order two more, not even the slightest bit dizzy. Novell watched in awe as she quickly made her way through the third cup, slowing as she reached the fourth. The snail on her head had taken up residence within one of the other cups, to the owner's dismay, lapping up the last bits of mead within.

Wondering at the thought of how a snail could lap up anything, the young pegasus shifted his attention back to the co owner of the restaurant as he demonstrated how to wood work with hooves. The process was difficult for the unicorn, Chipper repeatedly resorting to using magic to steady the knife or the carving as one or the other slipped out of his hooves. Novell watched the pony's actions diligently, the piece of art slowly forming itself.

"The key is to release the sculpture already in the wood. It's just a matter of removin' the chaff. Goin’ into this with any other thought is just gonna end in substandard work. Ya have to have the image ya wanna create firmly in yer mind before ya even make the first cut," Chipper was instructing, putting the finishing touches on the piece he had been using as an example. The wooden image of a pegasus similar to Whisper greeted his eyes as the unicorn completed the work of art. "See? Ain't my best work, but it's still somethin' interestin’. Here, you take it and give it as a gift to yer little friend over there."

Taking the sculpture with a glance at the orange pegasus, who was now talking loudly with the Professor and slurring her words, Novell ruffled his feathers. A slight twinge of pain from the motion reminded him he still needed to stretch for the night. I suppose I can stretch it and sculpt at the same time, he thought, painfully extending his wing.

"Do you think I could try?" the pegasus asked, another piece of wood next to the unicorn's hoof calling to him as he placed the sculpture in his saddlebags.

Picking up the small piece, Chipper gave him the knife and tossed the wood for Novell to catch. The pegasus' hoof shot out to catch the falling object, picking it out of the air with a small smile on his face. The unicorn raised an eyebrow in appreciation, motioning him to go ahead and start.

“Remember, there’s an image in that wood yer holdin’. Bring it to life.”

Novell nodded, holding the knife awkwardly in his hooves as he made the first cut into the wood, the potential of the carving already revealed to him as soon as he touched it. He stuck out his tongue in concentration, spending the next few minutes gingerly making more incisions, shavings piling up around him as he worked. He almost dropped the knife a few times, but he was more proficient with it than his voluntary instructor, having no magic to fall back to. A clanging from the left caused him to jerk in surprise, cutting deeper than he intended.

Before he could investigate the noise, the unicorn’s deep voice caught his attention. “Don’t worry about yer surroundings. Continue as ya were and let the mistake serve as a lesson in future attempts.”

Forcing himself to focus on the tiny object in his hooves, the pegasus went back to it, time flying past him. There was nothing but the act of shaving away the excess wood, releasing the creation trapped inside. The wood grew softer as he went deeper, his hoof instantly reacting to this fact by drawing back the power with each stroke. He heard a grunt of approval in the back of his mind, an ear twitching his only response to the outside world.

Presently, the shape manifested itself into coherence, Novell taking a break to examine his efforts. A three dimensional flame danced in front of him, his eyes following the designs to make it seem as if it were alive in his hoof—the effect was similar to what he had seen in the door earlier. With a warm glow flickering inside him, Novell picked up the knife for the last stroke, a piece near the top still unblemished.


The pegasus slashed forward, his trance broken and a cold wind blowing snow into the heated room. It hissed in the air, alpine aromas floating on the breeze to combine with the heady scent of the sheared wood in his hoof. Frustration flowed through the young pony, his eye twitching as he turned to look at what had interrupted his carving and reduced it to so much kindling.

A stallion in a white cloak had entered the inn, a pale teal magical glow exuding from under the hood as the door slammed shut once more. With a flourish, a matching colored hoof threw back the snowy hood, a pale blue-white mane spilling out in a haphazard fashion. It settled into long, spiky locks that seemed as though they were frozen solid, the unicorn’s tail similarly styled. Eyes the color of ice stared out coolly at the assembled ponies, a spark of interest appearing in the orbs as they settled on Novell.

However, the young pegasus was not even paying attention to the gaze, nor the seemingly frozen mane, nor cursing the newcomer for the dramatic entrance that caused him to ruin his carving. There was one thing about the pony that drew his attention more than anything else. A fact that became even clearer as the cloak was magically deposited on the rack next to the door.

This unicorn’s flank was completely devoid of a cutie mark.

Chapter 5: Not So Novel

Novell’s jaw dropped as he stared at the new arrival, all thought of admonishing the distraction forgotten as he stared at the unicorn’s blank flank. He’s...just like me, the pegasus thought, his mind working in overdrive and still going nowhere. It felt like his brain was spinning its wheels, none of the gears catching to make sense of the revelation.

“Howdy there, traveller,” Chipper greeted the teal pony, drawing those piercing eyes away from the pegasus.

“Good evening,” the pony replied in a warm, honeyed voice, a sharp contrast to his appearance. Without another word, the unicorn moved forward to the counter, placing a few bits on the wood in front of the astonished innkeeper.

“Uh, uh,” Miss Hops said, her eyes drawn to the blank flank. Novell looked over to see Chipper now staring at it, too, his eyebrows raising slightly in surprise. The teal unicorn glanced over at the Professor and bleary orange pegasus, dismissing them with a polite nod.

Recovering quickly, the owner of the establishment cleared her throat. “Wha- what would ye like, friend?”

“Iszzit my imagination or dozzat pony have no cutie merk,” Whisper blurted out in a slur, pointing out the obvious. Everypony in the room drew in an audible breath, but the mare didn’t seem to notice as she waved at Novell, a lazy smile on her face. “Hey, blank flank, you’ve...gotta shee this unicorn. He’sh like you!”

All eyes shifted to the pale pegasus then, including those of the mysterious stranger. Of course, that was the moment when his saddlebags decided to fall down, revealing his own lack of any special talent. Chipper furrowed his brows and then backed away slowly toward his wife.

“What in the hay’s goin’ on here?” the co-proprietor pony asked, his horn glowing subtly in readiness to fight.

Novell panicked, his mind still locked in a stuttered state. He glanced around the room, looking to Professor Search in silent support. The unicorn looked back at him and nodded, ready to lend his magical talents as his horn glowed in response. However, before anything untoward could happen, the honeyed voice of the stranger filled the air.

“Forgive me for my entrance, everything. I realize now that my appearance can be quite startling, especially considering there happens to be another thing here with the same affliction. However, I am not here to fight. I am simply seeking a place to spend the night.” the piercing slate eyes stared at the ponies around the room, Novell furrowing his forehead at his strange way of speaking. “If you wish me gone, however, I will acquiesce.”

Shaking his head in bewilderment, Chipper lowered his guard as the glow slowly faded from the horn. “Ya didn’t deserve that kind of treatment, traveller. Ah’m just surprised, is all. One pony without a cutie mark is odd enough, but two...”

“I should have told you,” the pale pegasus started, looking down at the ground in consternation. Way to go, Novell, you managed to make even more ponies hate you just by showing them your stupid curse.

“No, it’s fine, lad. You bein’ different ain’t yer fault,” Chipper replied, blowing out a breath and glancing at the other pony. “Y’all are free to stay.”

“They’re unnatural,” a voice shouted from the corner of the room where the four earth ponies resided. Everypony in the tavern shifted their attention to the source of the claim, aside from Whisper, who picked that moment to pass out on the counter. Three of group were staring at the ground in uncertainty, nervously glancing up at both untalented ponies before returning their gaze to the floor.

The pony who had spoken stepped forward, pointing at Novell angrily. “There ain’t nothin’ good that can come from a pony with no talent. For all’s we know, it’ll spread, seein’ as how there’s two ponies here with nothin’ on their flanks! I ain’t stayin’ here a minute longer, even with a blizzard outside! I don’t wanna go and catch this...this curse!”

Novell flinched as the pony spat at the floor in front of him, the chilling blizzard caressing his coat as all four of them filed out. One of the ponies cringed away from the challenging stare the teal unicorn was giving him, seemingly unaffected by the verbal abuse. As the last pony disappeared into the snow, the door slammed shut with a thudding finality. In the wake of their exit, the only sounds in the room were coming from the guttering of the flames and the rambunctious snore from the passed out mare.

A hollow feeling started in the young pegasus’ chest, his vision blurring as his eyes filled with stinging tears. Gritting his teeth in an effort not to break down in front of everypony, he turned toward the stairs and galloped up them, choked sobs issuing from his mouth. Why am I crying? he thought as he ran, one part of his mind clear and examining his reaction with a cold impartiality. It’s not like this is the first time I’ve been hated.

With barely controlled melancholy welling up against the bulwark he had created against the world, Novell opened the door to the room the innkeep had issued him, the slight sheen on the golden ‘3’ standing out as a blurry light on the dark wood. The welcome sense of solitude came as he slammed the door shut, what felt like a constriction in his throat falling away as the tears ran down his muzzle. The howl of the wind was a wicked counterpoint to the sorrow in his soul.

Why do you cry?

Novell looked up from his hooves, glancing around the room to pinpoint where he heard the question from. A single flame guttered in a lamp on a stool nearby, burning cheerily against the darkness. His rush of tears halted for the moment as he responded audibly. “Because everypony hates me, no matter what I do. All because of this stupid talent I’m supposed to have that I can’t ever find.”

And this bothers you?

“Of course it does,” the pegasus replied bitterly, wiping his runny nose with a hoof.


Novell blinked at the query, his sobs subsiding into sniffles as he thought about it. “I don’t like being hated. I just want to be able to trot down a street without ponies looking at me like I’m a disease.”

Other things are not you - why should what things think matter?

“Well, I....” he trailed off, not sure how to answer the question. Why did he care what other ponies thought of him? None of them were ever going to see anything but a worthless waste of space anyway, so why did it matter? The questions gnawed at him, his thoughts seeming to wind in a circle without end. Fortunately, a change in his surroundings roused him from the infinite loop.

The pegasus looked up as a glow suffused the room, the unicorn from earlier appearing in front of him - or at least, the head of the pony. Novell’s eyes widened in surprise at the sight of the pony’s neck sticking through the wall, quickly followed by a vaporous hoof. A few seconds later, the strange unicorn was completely in the room, transparent enough to see through to the wood behind him.

Novell backed up, fear knotting his stomach as he glanced at the door, now behind the spectral image of the teal pony. He considered calling for the Professor, but before he could open his mouth to call for help, the unicorn coalesced into solidity once more. He was caught by the gaze in the intruder’s face, curiosity rather than ill intent reflected there. They stood staring at each other for a moment before the pegasus’ own curious nature overwhelmed his fear.

“Are you...a ghost?” he squeaked, his voice still weak from sobbing. The thought didn’t bother him as much as he thought it should. Acting as if he had heard the pegasus thinking, the unicorn tilted his head to the side, the long, pale mane hardly moving as he moved. After a moment of silent deliberation, the pony replied in his smooth voice, more vibrant as it resonated in his mind.


Novell blinked, moving forward slowly to touch the other with a hoof. To his surprise, he felt resistance. The unicorn felt like any other pony would. The unicorn looked down at the hoof and then responded in kind, pressing his own into the pegasus’ shoulder. The innocuous action brought a smile to the alabaster pony’s face, mirth bubbling inside his chest to replace the hollow melancholy.

“A strange custom for a thing,” the unicorn noted, speaking for the first time since he had strangely entered the room and returning his foreleg to the ground. “I have been away for quite some time if this is how things greet one another.”

“It’s not a greeting. I was just...wondering if you were telling the truth,” the pegasus replied slowly, unsure of the conversation. “About you being a ghost, I mean.”

“I have no reason to lie. Why would you assume that I would?”

The pegasus ruffled his wings uncomfortably at the question, glancing toward the bed. “Well, uhm, I’ve never seen a pony come through a wall before. I didn’t think there was a spell for that.”

“I see. You would have preferred I come through the door, like before?”

“I don’t know,” Novell sighed, rubbing a hoof against his head and sitting on his hindquarters. “Why are you here?”

The pony copied his actions, tilting his head the opposite way as before. “I heard sorrow.”

“You mean you heard me crying, from downstairs?” the pegasus wondered, taken aback. He hadn’t realized his voice was loud enough to reach the lower level. At least Whisper isn’t awake to laugh at me crying, he thought wryly. I’d never hear the end of it, then.

“Perhaps it would be better to say that I felt sorrow,” the unicorn explained in a softer tone of voice. “A tolling of discordant bells radiates from you and resonates within me. I was curious as to what would cause a thing to feel this way.”

“Uhm, okay,” Novell responded, not entirely sure what the pony was talking about. He decided to change tack. “What’s your name?”

The teal pony looked into his eyes, suddenly intense and glittering with some inner light. A moment later, he lifted a hoof in front of his face and stared at it, his horn glowing in the dully lit room. A swirl of energy appeared in the same color as the pony’s body just above the hoof, his expression changing to one of deep thought.

“I have never had a name. A thing does not need such in the mountains. It is simply enough to call one ‘thing’. The word is a catch all term that serves the purpose for addressing others.” The energy above the pony’s hoof flared briefly before returning to its former shade. “Still, I have thought of a label for myself, as an exercise in freedom. If I were to be called, I would be Pensive Coalescence.”

“Pensive, then,” the pegasus replied after a few moments of deliberation, suddenly feeling an attachment to the other pony despite how strange the unicorn was. He held out a foreleg, continuing, “My name’s-.”

“Novell,” the unicorn interrupted, placing his hoof on the pegasus’ own and shaking, the magical light fading away. Novell opened his mouth to ask how the pony knew his name already when Pensive went on. “This is more the greeting I expected. I am glad to see it has not changed. It is less strange than your earlier action.”

“How did you know that?”

The unicorn looked at him strangely, confusion in his eyes. “Hoofshakes have been around for a very long time, Novell.”

“No, no, I meant my name. How did you know my name?”

“You thought it,” the pony replied straight faced, as if it were the most obvious thing in Equestria. Pensive’s ears twitched and he looked to the side at something beyond Novell’s ken. “I should be going - your friends will be coming up soon. Good night, Novell. We will talk more in the morning.”

Before the pegasus could open his mouth to reply, the unicorn vanished into thin air. A second later, the sound of hooves came to his attention outside his door. With a creak, it opened, the Professor’s head peeking in and a concerned expression on his face.

“Are you alright, lad?”

Novell furrowed his brow, staring at the spot where the other unicorn had vanished. He had so many questions spinning through his mind, so much he wanted to know. Suddenly, a heavy weight settled on his eyes, his exhaustion from the day’s exertions catching up with him. The pegasus raised his head wearily in the Professor’s direction.

“I’m fine,” he said simply, picking himself off the floor and moving to crawl into the bed supplied for him in the corner of the room furthest from the door. The window cast a brilliant pale radiance as the moon shone through the trees and around the looming mountains. He glanced up, surprised to see the blizzard had died down, clouds no longer coating the entire sky like a heavy fog.

“I can’t excuse those ruffians downstairs,” Professor Search began, his voice rising slightly in outrage, but Novell held up a hoof, diverting his attention away from the outside.

“It’s okay, Professor. I’m...used to it,” he replied bitterly, the question of why their opinions mattered floating in his mind’s eye. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Well, of course it d-, ah, it does matter, my boy. Reacting to how people treat you isn’t something a pony can just turn off. It’s only natural you might feel grief or bitterness, but I urge you not to give in to those feelings. I know only too well how turning away from your true ideals can eat at you.” Novell felt a hoof on his shoulder, but he shrugged it away. The unicorn continued in a more sorrowful tone. “You have friends, Novell, myself among them, who would never dream to hurt you. Always remember we’re here, if you need us.”

With two ideals warring in his head, the pegasus closed his eyes in consternation, wishing everything would just go away. Fortunately, a few moments after he crawled under the sheets, unconsciousness blissfully claimed him.


“Come on, Novell, up an at ‘em!”

The pegasus groaned against the sound of a voice so close to him, using his hooves to shutter his ears against the disturbance. His head was fuzzy with half formed thoughts and memories shuffling through his awakening brain. Right then, he wanted nothing more than to return to the peaceful state of non-being he had experienced unconscious. Despite his wishes, the voice continued to grate against his ears.

“Enough sleep, lad! We’ve got to get an early day behind us if we’re to make Ponyville by tonight. Breakfast is being served by Miss Hops downstairs, so I imagine you’ll want to eat before we start on the road again. As a pegasus, you really do need quite a few calories in order to do anything strenuous.”

Uuughh,” Novell replied incoherently, a hoof rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He opened them to see the Professor’s face looking concernedly at him, no trace of tiredness in the unicorn’s expression. An impolite thought ghosted across his mind at his friend, remembering Professor Search had worked even harder than the rest of them yesterday and was still completely fine.

Blinking and shaking his mane, the Professor continued. “Ah, well then, I see you’re awake. Now I have to find out if that mare is in any shape to continue on the journey. Hmmph, even if not, I have a few spells to cure hangovers. Ah, brings back memories of my time in Uni...”

Moving with purpose while still seeming to be completely absorbed in his thoughts, the unicorn left the room, a hammering sounding from next door. “Whisper! Wake up, my dear. We’ve a long road ahead of us today!”

“Lemme alone,” the response came back, groggy if still high in volume. Novell grinned at that, levering himself sleepily out of his own bed. Even though he felt bad from the night before, he didn’t even want to imagine how the cream-soda colored mare felt.

Yawning and stretching his wings in his now daily routine, the young pegasus winced against the twinge in the appendage. At least it isn’t hurting like it was before, Novell thought as he watched his damaged wing shift through the motions. The white feathers were bright and vibrant, even if he wasn’t feeling the same way - the redness and swelling looked to be almost entirely gone. Maybe I’ll be able to fly tomorrow.

That thought made him smile again, humming under his breath as he shook his mane to clear his head. When he looked in the mirror hanging on the wall, he noticed it was curling into horns now and again. Ruefully trying to regulate his hair into something resembling civilized style, the pegasus walked out of the room just in time for Whisper to look out of her door.

“Ugh, it’s morning, isn’t it?” she questioned him, yawning and bringing a hoof to her mouth. Aside from the slight bags on her eyes, she seemed perfectly fine. “I’ll be downstairs in a few minutes. Swirley just needs to take care of a few things.”

Novell stared at her for a few moments, her jade eyes hardening into agates as the seconds went by. “Well, what are you lookin’ at, blank flank?”

“You’re not sick?” he asked, scratching his mane with one hoof.

Whisper rolled her eyes and walked back into her room, her voice trailing behind her. “Of course not, now go away. And save me some breakfast, or I’ll pound you into the ground.”

Novell shook his head in bemusement, turning and wandering downstairs. The steps creaked as he strode down them, the wood hard and springy beneath his hooves. When he reached the ground floor, he looked around for the pony he had met last night, noticing the tavern was empty save for Professor Search stuffing his face with eggs and asparagus. As he moseyed over to the unicorn, he heard humming coming from behind the counter where the Professor ate. A moment later, Miss Hops came into view, an apron tied around her front and her horn glowing softly as she prepared a dozen things in her kitchen at once.

Eggs cooked on a frying pan over a wood burning stove, sizzling spectacularly as she scrambled them with a wooden spoon. A slice of butter fell from above the pan, the rest of the stick and the knife that cut it hanging in mid air. Next to the frying pan, a big cast iron pot was filled with what Novell assumed was more asparagus, judging by the smell. However, there was a stronger smell of honey and alcohol mixing in with it all into a heady combination that seemed to suffuse the whole area.

“Mornin’, dearie,” the innkeeper cheerily greeted the pegasus as he took his seat at the bar. A plate magically whisked in front of him, a healthy measure of eggs shuffled off the frying pan, and a few stalks of cooked asparagus to round it off. “Would ya care for some orange juice?”

“Uhm, please,” Novell replied shyly, looking down at the plate instead of meeting her eyes. He didn’t know where he stood with her, especially with the way he had reacted last night.

A ‘tsking’ sound from in front of him caught his attention, his ear twitching as the matronly unicorn spoke. “Now, now, like Chipper said, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with bein’ different, dearie. Just surprised us, is all. Those ol’ trappers are just superstitious about things. They didn’t mean nothin’ by it. Now, don’t worry about all that, because you can’t eat a hearty meal with a frown on your face. I’ll grab some orange juice. A little citrus is enough to brighten anypony’s day!”

With her piece said, the unicorn levitated a tin cup and a couple of oranges next to his plate, a concentrated expression appearing on her face and her horn lightning up brighter. With her tongue sticking out for luck, the unicorn stared at the oranges as her horn sparked. A second later, both oranges shriveled up into small balls and a large globule of orange liquid bobbed over the tin cup.

“There ya are, honey,” Miss Hops declared, letting the orange juice fall into the tin with nary a splash. She popped one of the shriveled fruits into her mouth and offered the other to the Professor, who accepted it gratefully.

“Thank you, Florid. As always, you’re magical culinary skills are impressive as they are functional,” the gray coated unicorn droned in a proper voice, placing the dried orange next to his asparagus.

The other pony smiled at him fondly. “Aren’tcha still a smooth one, Search? I envy whoever ends up with a stallion like ye. Don’t tell my husband I said that,” she whispered mock conspiratorially to the pegasus, who grinned in reply. “Whatever happened to that marefriend of yers? Oh, what was her name? Caramel Stone? No, that’s silly...what was it, again?”

“Amber Fossil,” The Professor supplied, his voice curiously absent the gleeful tone that normally occupied it. Novell blinked, stopping mid chew on an asparagus wrapped in egg, and glanced over at his friend. He was startled to see a frown on the normally jubilant pony’s face. “She’s moved on to better places. I was always too distracted for her.”

“Oh, well isn’t that a shame? Still, you’re a handsome unicorn, Professor. I’m sure you’ll find someone else to spend yer time with. At least you have these two youngsters to look after until ya do, though.”

A fond smile appeared on his friend’s face at that, banishing the sadness evident in his face. “You’re right there, my dear, but my research is the only love I’ll need. The wanderlust never died in this pony and I doubt I’d enjoy settling down to start a family this late in life.”

“Just the same, I wish ya well,” the proprietor replied, turning back to her duties, the sounds of the kitchen resuming.

Novell picked at his food, at loss for words at the moment. Thankfully, he was saved from filling up the awkward silence as an orange storm tore down the stairs. Their hair ruffled as the pegasus slowed herself down, her wings beating hard. Unfortunately, the mare hadn’t taken into account the amount of speed she was putting behind her and ended up colliding with a stool next to the white pegasus. The crash took Miss Hops by surprise, the eggs in her pan flipping into the air as she flung it upward in surprise.

“Ow, ow, ow,” Whisper complained from the tangle of wood and pony. Novell, however, wasn’t paying attention to the collision prone pegasus. His eyes were riveted on the eggs heading directly for his face. He lifted up his hooves to shield himself from the omelette onslaught, already thinking unkind things about the annoying mare devil next to him.

After a few seconds of not feeling poached egg plastered across his face, he let his hooves drop, sighing with relief at the familiar, gray aura of the Professor’s magic surrounding the breakfast. A plate appeared under the mass of yellow food, which the unicorn dropped with an even wider smile.

Whisper had, by then, returned her stool to it’s rightful place and, after placing yet another bandage on her scraped knee, was staring hungrily at the egg. Swirley stared out at the world without any reaction evident in his eyes, glancing between all of the surprised looking ponies and ending with Novell’s scowling visage.

“I suppose you’ve finally gotten the Dazey out of your system, Miss Wind,” the Professor put in mildly, lifting another piece of food into his mouth as if nothing was wrong at all in the world.

“Sorry about that, dearie,” Miss Hops murmured to Novell, wiping a bead of sweat from her forehead. The pale pegasus sighed in reply, looking around the room again for Pensive while trying to ignore Whisper’s strident inhalation of her breakfast.

“Looking for someone, lad?” Professor Search asked, glancing over at the fidgeting pony.

Novell nodded slowly, giving up when he saw the other blank flanked unicorn was nowhere in sight. “That unicorn that showed up last night. I really wanted to talk to him about...”

“Ah, I understand. He was quite the interesting pony. I’ve never heard of a pony without a cutie mark before you, so to find another one so soon afterwards set my imagination afire. I wonder if it’s just not spoken of or hidden throughout Equestria instead of a rare ailment.” The Professor smiled at the young pegasus, continuing, “If that’s so, then perhaps there is an easier fix, or at least research made on it somewhere in the Canterlot Royal Library. Study Mark would know right away, of course, where to find it. I wonder how his two assistants are doing anywa-”

A deafening roar interrupted their conversation, startling Whisper so badly she began to choke on her food. Her snail shifted through a rapid paradigm of colors, obviously alarmed even though his eyes remained unexcited as ever. Novell himself nearly fell from his stool, exchanging glances with the grey unicorn beside him as they recognized the sound.

“There’s no way that could be a...” the pegasus began, fright billowing in his breast like a startled bird, his wings ruffling nervously. The Professor dropped from his stool, heading for the door where the sound came from. Leaving Miss Hops to care for the orange mare, Novell swiftly followed.

“I’m afraid it is, lad,” his friend replied, using one hoof to push the square rimmed glasses further up his muzzle. “There’s a Yeti hereabouts. I wonder what it’s doing so far from the wilds.”

Keeping close to the Professor as another roar broke out, they rushed through the door into the overcast morning, another familiar sound coming from across the road the inn sat next to. Novell’s eyes widened as Chipper appeared from the forest, taunting the beast.

“C’mon, ya overgrown furball! Chipper’s got yer dinner right here! Hah!”

The unicorn said the last as he jumped into the air over the swipe of a massive, clawed fist. Instead of striking the pony like it meant to, the Yeti’s paw slammed into a small tree and sheared it in half, so powerful was the blow. Novell’s eyes almost fell out of their sockets at that, his wings spreading as his flight instincts kicked in, prancing backwards. Only the hoof of the Professor and the twinge of pain in his wing stopped him from making the mistake of flying before he was ready.

“I reckon ye can do better than that! Git over here before I come after ya, myself!” Chipper yelled, standing in a wide stance right in front of the slavering beast.

Bellowing with rage, the Yeti sprang forward in a vicious facsimile of a hug, both paws reaching out to shred the unicorn into pieces. Laughing despite the danger he faced, the bearded stallion jumped into the air and bucked, slamming both of his powerful hind hooves into the beast’s abdomen. Its attack stalled, the heavy fists reaching down to hold its wounded stomach. Novell winced in sympathy, wondering why he could feel the emotion for something that would gladly eat him if he let it.

With a growl, the massive gorilla-like animal shot out a paw, catching the snorting stallion in the side and sending Chipper into a snowbank, a puff of snow shooting out as the pony impacted. Roaring in victory, the Yeti stalked toward the pony-shaped hole in the snow, one paw still clutching its stomach. Novell’s throat tightened as he tried to figure out what to do to help the unicorn. He glanced at the beast, Professor Search’s words coming back to him as he struggled to remember the first time he’d encountered one. Something about its intelligence being lower than the average animal tumbled out of the fuzzy memories.

Before he could come to his senses, Novell shot forward toward the slavering brute, a half formed plan already starting in his mind. With his breath coming in gasps from the adrenaline racing through him, the pegasus jumped into the air on a collision course with its furry legs. He clenched his teeth as he impacted the right one with his shoulder, bouncing off like he had the first time.

Fortunately, that was enough to distract the monster. Unfortunately, it was enough to distract the monster and turn it’s attention to the new challenger. Novell looked up, getting back to his hooves and backing away a few meters, glaring up at the monster and trying to ignore the small voice in his head calling him a lunatic.

What in the hay are you doing, Novell? Get out of there before it grabs you! Are you daft?

With a blink, he realized it wasn’t just his inner voice - it was the vibrant tones of Professor Search’s telepathic voice, unrefined in fright for the younger pony. Shrugging the thought aside, he stared into the Yeti’s eyes, noticing a flicker of slow recognition build up in the dark, beady orbs. It grinned at him, serrated teeth too big for its maw promising a painful end. Raising a paw, which had almost halved claws, it shook its fist as if to demonstrate the damage.

No, it couldn’t be, Novell thought, this time in his real inner voice. Is this the same Yeti as before? Well, I guess that means I can still outsmart it if it’s as dumb as it used to be!

The pegasus went to move his hooves to enact his plan of attack, which was a series of fast, bewildering jumps, running between its legs, and, finally, a kick in the rump. As big as it was, it would still be off balance trying to catch him and topple with the right amount of force. Hopefully by the time it recovered, Search or Chipper could drive it off with their magic.

Novell fell over as he tried to jump, his hooves suddenly becoming heavy and immobile, landing in the snow. Laying on his side, helpless before the Yeti, he looked down at his legs and realized he’d fallen into the same trap Search had before. They were covered in a block of pale blue ice, feeling starting to recede from his extremities. Oh, this is bad.

You are a troublesome thing, Novell, a cold, honeyed voice commented in his mind, sudden and shocking. The pegasus in question looked up as Pensive appeared in front of him from thin air, transparent for a moment before solidifying. The teal unicorn cocked his head at him in his odd manner, oblivious to the confused Yeti behind him.

“Behind you!” Novell yelled, his relief with seeing the other pony drowned out by the concern of the situation.

The unicorn turned slowly, staring up at the beast as his tail drooped near the pegasus’ face, shining slightly in the light as if made of crystal. Momentarily distracted by the sight of the strange tail, Novell furrowed his brow as he tried to figure out how he was going to get out of this mess. A second later, he had his answer, Pensive’s strong, icy voice directed at the Yeti.

“You are not wanted here, thing. You may not have this thing behind me, nor the other things around here. Leave,” the teal pony commanded.

A low, keening sound came from the Yeti at that, shifting into a high pitched growl halfway through. Novell watched those massive teeth gnash as the beast acted as if it were speaking. With a start, he realized that’s exactly what it was doing as another hacking sound came from the creature’s throat.

By Celestia, it’s communicating with him! Such an amazing discovery this pony has made, watching the discourse between two unlikely conversational partners, came the Professor’s silky telepathic tones, awe evident as he reflexively went into a monologue. Obviously anything under Celestia’s sun can communicate to some effect, but the sheer amount of speech the Yeti knows is astonishing.

“Leave, thing,” Pensive commanded again, pointing a hoof at the treeline. With eyes flicking over to Novell, filled with anger, and back to the pony in front of him, the Yeti growled in frustration and raised its paws as if to strike away the unicorn. A moment passed with the pegasus’ heart in his throat, waiting for the blow to fall.

Instead, it roared and stalked away, bypassing the hole Chipper was only now crawling out of. The chestnut unicorn held a hoof to his head, eyes spinning in their sockets as he tried to make sense of the surroundings. Novell, on the other hand, was staring in absolute amazement at the blank flanked pony in front of him.

You are troublesome, Novell, but I will show you the way through the mountains. Otherwise, you would only fall into more trouble by yourself, Pensive’s voice resounded through his mind as the unicorn turned to stare down at the pegasus. A light the same color as the teal pony’s coat flashed into existence, the ice melting from Novell’s legs. With his mouth gaping open, he got to his hooves, his brain struggling to understand what he had witnessed. A thought on the forefront of his mind sprang out of his mouth.

“But the pass-.”

“Is snowed in,” Chipper interrupted, wobbly walking over to the two ponies. Novell glanced over at the muscled stallion, happy to see he was physically unhurt aside from a bruise growing on one eye. “That’s what I was checkin’ this mornin’ before I ran into that furry critter. Heard y’all wanted to head toward Ponyville, so I had to make sure ye had the chance instead of walking around in all this snow for no reason. This pony,” he pointed at Pensive, “was standin’ in front of the pass like he was examinin’ it. He told me to leave and when the Yeti came out of the treeline, I got the hay outta there.” The co-proprietor of the inn looked around confusedly with his unswollen eye. “What happened to that beast anyway?”

“The thing has gone,” Pensive replied simply.

Chipper looked surprised at the other unicorn. “Gone? Ye mean ye fought it off?”

“Not exactly,” Novell said, hesitant to tell the pony what exactly had occurred. Coincidentally, the Professor chose that moment to join the conversation.

“It was quite amazing! This unicorn actually spoke to the Yeti! Spoke to it! I always knew words carried more power than any weapon, but to convince a Yeti to leave with its chosen meal untouched...this is impossible! How did you do it? What is your secret? Did you use magic?” Professor Search asked without pausing for breath.

“You are curious why the thing left, elder?” Pensive replied uncertainly, as if he expected the researcher to already know the answer. “I simply asked it to leave. There was no magic.”

“But- I- How?” the Professor stuttered, for the first time since Novell met him at a loss for words.

“We must leave, Novell. The passes are dangerous at night, so we must be through to the cave before Luna’s moon rises,” the mysterious unicorn said, ignoring Professor Search’s questions. With that, Pensive turned and headed off into the forest in the direction of the nearest mountain, one that towered over its neighbors.

“That there is a strange pony,” Chipper commented, rubbing his head with one hoof. “Well, I better go see Florid afore she comes out with a fryin’ pan.”

With a thudding sound of the inn door slamming open, all ponies present turned to behold Whisper in a fighting stance, her mouth open in a feral grin. Swirley managed to look angry with a red shell and his normally half lidded eyes slanted toward the middle of his body. Miss Hops came out from behind her, dual frying pans floating above her, horn glowing and her face thunderous. As soon as they noticed nothing out of the ordinary was happening, they looked around in confusion and spoke at the same time.

“Where’s the big, giant beast I need to beat up?” Whisper growled and squinted her eyes suspiciously.

“Chipper? Who did that to your eye? I’ll smash ‘em to smithereens!” Miss Hops veritably roared, her frying pans making a cringe-worthy, high pitched screech as she scraped them together.

Novell, the teal unicorn said sharply in the pegasus’ mind at the same moment. Novell glanced around and started to laugh out loud, falling to his back in the snow. Everyone joined in after a few seconds, the eerie mountains ringing with joy.

Pensive Coalescence shook his head at the things and sighed, waiting for them to join him as he stared at the peak above, the clouds about it growing darker and grumbling against the mirth.

Winter is coming, the unicorn thought emotionlessly.

Chapter 6: Frostbitten  

“So we’re following somepony you just met last night?” Whisper asked in a flat tone, snow falling around them as Pensive lead their small group up a trail on the mountainside. The four ponies had been travelling the ridges and escarpments for the last few hours of the morning, the sun hidden behind the dark clouds looming over their heads. Yet, despite the rumbling curtain of snow above them, Novell felt free for the first time since he had hurt his wing.

He glanced to the side, where Whisper was flapping gently next to him above the cliff face they were striding upon. Past her, through the evergreen pines and conifers, the golden leaves of oak and elms painted a picture of absolute beauty, autumn showing itself off before the clutches of winter could clean the slate. His breath caught at the sight of the endless landscape laid out beneath him, the groves of forest near the mountains giving way to the flat plainlands of the valley. From this height, he felt he would be able to see Hoofington sprawled out in the middle, were it not for the trees blocking his sight.

A familiar euphoria filled the alabaster pegasus, the feeling of seeing the world below him causing his wings to stretch out momentarily. Despite his injury, only a twinge of pain ran through his wing as he opened it to its full extent, letting the cooling winds ruffle his feathers. It had been too long since he had been allowed to fly, the urge to jump off the cliff and soar through the sky hard to resist.

Shaking his mane to distract himself from the compulsion, Novell returned his attention to the ground in front of him, thinking on how to reply to the mare’s question as he tucked his wings back in. The hooves of the two unicorns in front of him left tracks in the snow - the pegasus had been making a game of stepping in Professor Search’s hoofprints as a result of having nothing better to do.

Novell nodded with exuberance as he followed the unicorns, both of whom were deep in discussion regarding life in the mountains and the species that resided there. He had tried to join in earlier, but they seemed like they didn’t even hear him.

Adding to his non-verbal confirmation, the pegasus said, “Yep.”

“A pony that snuck into your room...” the mare replied slowly, staring at him with narrowed eyes, the mollusk on her mane gazing with her in an unblinking expression, as if disinterested in everything.

“That’s correct, yes.”

“...can teleport and reappear without any noise...”

“Seems like it.”

“...and can talk to Yeti.”

“Well, I don’t know if talk is the right word. More like command,” Novell replied cheerfully, knowing the distinction would irritate the other pegasus. Her eyebrows drew down as she glared at him, butting her shoulder against his. The alabaster pegasus grinned cheekily in return, still high on euphoria from surviving his near-death encounter earlier.

“You’re annoying when you’re happy, Blankie.”

“Blankie?” he replied in askance, raising an eyebrow.

“Calling you blank flank is getting old. So, Blankie.”

He snorted at her logic. “You could just call me Novell, you know, my name. I call you by yours.”

Growling in her throat, the cream-soda coated pegasus performed a quick flip. Unfortunately, in her frustration, the mare managed to clip her wing against the side of the mountain, sending her body careening into a tree. Novell glanced at her unsympathetically as she shook her head and regained her wings, quickly catching up to their group. The mare alighted next to him, tucking her wings in close to her side with a bruise already appearing on her forehead.

“Don’t say a thing,” she hissed at him, rubbing her face with one hoof. Swirley’s shell went through a colorful transformation that seemed to be filled with disapproval at the pegasus’ actions, but Whisper couldn’t see it. Not for the first time, he wished he understood what the snail was saying. There was a slight niggling in his brain, as if he almost had it figured out, but it was ultimately lost on him.

Complying with her wishes, Novell turned back to examine the mountainous landscape around them. The rocks around them were covered in a thin sheen of snow, revealing their true color where the powder didn’t stick and contrasting nicely with the paleness. Green showed here and there on the rocky surfaces, the lichen and moss clinging resolutely to the granite despite the conditions. As he hopped lightly into another of the Professor’s hoofprints, he noticed the green of grass beneath the snow.

His stomach grumbled at the sight, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten anything since the eggs and asparagus that morning. Just thinking back to the aroma of the warm meal was enough to set his mouth to watering, regret filling his mind as he realized he wouldn’t be getting anything like that for lunch or dinner.

Before they had left the inn, Miss Hops had filled his saddlebags with a wide range of foodstuffs from her stores, as thanks for helping Chipper against the Yeti. Novell had, at first, refused her gifts, objecting that he hadn’t done anything but stand there and almost get eaten by the beast. The unicorn, however, was adamant, backed up by her husband and Professor Search’s logical advice that they were short on supplies. Running through the mountains, the research pony had said, was dangerous enough without adding starvation to the list of potential troubles.

So he had reluctantly accepted the gift, still feeling as if he hadn’t deserved it. The weight of his saddlebags was reassuringly heavy, both with the food and his mother’s thoughts. With a twinge, the pegasus realized he hadn’t thought about his parents in quite awhile. He once again looked out over the plainland, trying to spy Hoofington through the trees and wondered what they were doing right now.

The light touch of Whisper’s wing against his brought his attention back to where they were walking. The mare glared at him with slitted eyes at the contact, moving in front of him on the narrowing trail and snapping her nappy tail at his face. With a roll of his eyes, Novell brought up the rear of the small convoy, careful where he was putting his hooves on the icy rock ledge, Pensive in the lead and looking back every now and then to answer another of the Professor’s questions.

Not for the first time that day, the pegasus wondered why exactly the strange unicorn was helping them. He hadn’t questioned Pensive when he had the chance, as the others had distracted him before he could organize his thoughts, and now, with Professor Search plying him with questions, there was no way for Novell to ask.

Obviously, the teal pony knew his way around the mountainside. What little information the unicorn had revealed to him last night meshing with what he had said. Pensive was sure footed and seemed to be kind enough, if somewhat detached, but volunteering to be their guide was strange. Even with Celestia’s teachings, helping a pony you’ve only just met is unusual, especially to this degree, he ruminated as he picked up his hoof and placed it down carefully to avoid slipping.

There are always ulterior motives.

The random thought broke through the rest with a sharp clarity, his right ear twitching as he digested the words. Novell glanced up at the puffy tail in front of him, half white and half orange, furrowing his brows as he wondered what the mare was doing here. She could have flown off and left us to go to Cloudsdale at any time today, he thought suspiciously. Unless she’s just here to annoy me, which would be just like her.

The good mood he had built up that day fell into a brooding melancholy as they trotted up the mountain. The wind grew stiffer as they rose in elevation, the softly falling snow beginning to swirl around in harsh eddies. More than once, Novell was buffeted to the side, almost falling off of the cliff before catching himself. The other three seemed unaffected by the streams of air, Professor Search’s horn glowing with the same spell he had cast so long ago on another mountain. Whisper was trotting easily, her wings half open as she directed the wind around her unconsciously. Pensive, on the other hoof, seemed not to even notice the problem, walking steadily forward with nary a hint of magic to ward off the chilling breeze.

Grumbling under his breath at their disregard for his well being, the pegasus trudged on and tried to avoid being thrown off the mountainside. His mind wandered into the dark wellspring of frustration and simmering bitterness from the night before. No pony ever willingly interacted with him, aside from his parents and even then they looked at him with pity in their eyes. The kind words of his father were growing fuzzier in his mind while the disapproval and weary resignation grew stronger.

Suddenly, he stepped down on bare earth, devoid of all but a few flakes of snow - the sudden change in scenery broke him from his reverie. Novell shook his mane and looked around as they passed beneath a massive ledge of rock jutting out from the mountain’s side. When he glanced upward, his jaw dropped in awe, all his dreary thoughts washed away by the brilliant sight above. The rock above him was cratered in many places, as if a giant had smashed its fist into it from the bottom, but that wasn’t what drew his attention.

Glittering as if from some inner light, pale white crystals of varying sizes and shapes hung from the holes in the rock face, forming natural chandeliers. He heard Whisper and the Professor gasp as they realized what they were seeing.

Blinded by the sheer beauty of the beaming stones that almost outshone his own radiance, the hugely handsome unicorn sat down to take in the sight. The image of a dozen craters filled with jewels reminded the marvelously mustachioed pony of a certain adventure in the depths of Equestria’s cave system as he explored the spawning grounds of the giant eels looking to gather more knowledge in his already incredible base of...

“Field experience,” Novell muttered distractedly and not even bothering to admonish the unicorn for the run-on. His eyes were still riveted by the crystals above, which were almost as brilliant as the moon. With a start, he realized that was exactly what the craters were, some only halfway filled with crystals. They were designs of the moon as it waxed and waned!

“Professor!” the pegasus began excitedly, but Pensive beat him to it.

“Yes, those are the phases of the moon,” the unicorn said emotionlessly, seemingly unenamoured by the beauty above him and quickly changing the subject. “We shall rest here, so you things can gather your strength. There is still far to go before we reach the safety of the caves.”

“Phases of the moon, you say?” The Professor whispered with awe. “I wonder if this was done in homage to the Princess or if it is just a naturally occurring formation. There are stranger coincidences in the world, so I simply cannot rule the possibility out. Perhaps it is the work of some sentient being that roams the mountains, or the long forgotten relic of an ancient race of two legged monsters! Or perhaps it was just a prank by party ponies. Hmm, either way, this is a rare find!”

Novell ignored the rambling pony, instead stepping forward until he was directly under the crater that was completely full of the crystals. He stared up at it, entranced as the gentle swirl of pale, inner light becoming brighter. A flash whipped through his mind as he saw himself touch one of the crystals, the false moonlight dimming in response. A second later, one of the the stones lay in his hoof, still glowing brightly despite its siblings’ fate.

There was an anticipation stirring in the crystal, one Novell could feel deep in his chest as he stared at it. The light inside seemed to yawn open into endless space despite the small shape before resuming its steady glow. A name came to him, then, whispered on the breeze quite unlike the one that had assaulted him throughout the day.

“Oh, my. A moonstone,” Professor Search whispered in Novell’s ear.

The young pegasus jerked away in surprise, dropping the crystal to the ground. His heart hammered in his chest as he glared at the unicorn, his suspicions and dark mood returning with a vengeance. A whispering chill threaded its way through his mind, clouding his thoughts. Novell’s mouth moved, words spilling from his darkened imagination filled with bitterness tinging their tone.

“What do you want?”

The Professor furrowed his eyes at the reaction of the young pegasus, picking up the stone for himself. “I was simply describing the object you held. This is a moonstone, young Novell, a rare crystal I’ve only read about in the tomes in the Royal Library. Some ponies say it is a piece of Princess Luna’s tears, fallen to earth during her imprisonment on the moon. Others say it is simply a token of her favor upon a pony, a gift of clear thought and sweet dreams - a relic of her original purpose. Simply amazing, really. These other stones littering the ceiling seem to be similar, but they’re nothing more than a clever imitation from what I can see. I must say, I’m surprised you were able to find this among the copies. Here, it is yours.”

“I don’t want it,” Novell replied sharply, glaring at the Professor, who cocked his head in confusion.

“But you found it, la-.”

“I said I don’t want it!” he replied, grabbing the stone with one hoof. He reared back his foreleg, intending to cast the stone into the abyss when a calmness suffused him. The crystal quivered in his grip, his body becoming rigid and his mind flowing like a melting stream. Novell blinked in surprise, staring out at the snow swirling around above the emptiness. “I- what? What was I doing?”

“You were just about to chunk that piece of rock over the edge,” Whisper supplied from where she was feeding her snail bits of grass seeds. “Kind of being rude about it, too.”

Pensive said nothing, instead gazing across the wintry wastes from the edge of the cliff nearby. Even so, Novell felt a cold, querying thought wriggle through his mind from the unicorn. The pegasus shook his head and fell to his haunches away from the edge, staring at the crystal in his hooves.

“Is it the same as before?” Professor Search asked quietly, causing Novell to look up at him. He wondered what his friend was talking about before remembering their conversation in the clearing yesterday. The sensation of an icy claw digging through his memories and...something. After a few seconds of trying to pinpoint the feeling, he shrugged inwardly. The thought of not knowing didn’t bother him as much as it should have.

“Yes...” Novell began hesitatingly, “...and no, too. I felt cold, but this time it was stronger and...more shaded than before.”

The Professor lifted a hoof to his mustache and stroked it, gazing at him in contemplation. “Here, let me have the moonstone.”

Reluctantly, the pegasus handed the crystal to the unicorn. Suspicion clouded his mind as he looked at the pony staring back at him with a gleam of interest. The only thing he’s interested in me for is because I don’t have a cutie mark, he thought savagely as his eyes narrowed. Why else would he be bringing me to Canterlot? He’s probably going to experiment on me! How stupid can I be?

“Stay away from me,” Novell said, his eyes widening as he imagined the tortures he would experience. Tortures? he thought dimly before it was swept away in a tide of black dread. “I won’t let you hurt me!”

“Hurt you?” Professor Search replied, a frown appearing on his face. The pegasus felt a fierce glee at predicting the unicorn’s designs, his wings spreading with fright all the same. “Why would I hurt you?”

“Go away!”

“Novell, calm down,” The Professor said sharply, suddenly intense. His horn glowed and Novell felt his body immobilize. Panic gripped him, his mind howling as he tried to escape the unicorn’s magic, tears streaming down his muzzle as he fought futilely to escape.

Suddenly, a pale light appeared in his mind, breaking through the despair. His chest heaved as he looked around, suddenly feeling tired. Whisper looked at him with concern in her normally competitive face, her hair still disheveled and the bruise from earlier a small lump on her forehead. Pensive looked at him with furrowed brows, while Professor Search stood in front of him and held the moonstone against Novell’s chest.

“Keep this with you, my boy,” the grey unicorn said worriedly. “Something is interfering with your thoughts and the moonstone is the only thing that can keep you calm.”

Novell glanced down at the stone in his hoof and clutched it closer. “My thoughts? Is it some kind of spell?”

“Hmm. I do not know of any spells that could cause such fear and distrust in a pony - no pony would want to come up with such things,” The Professor replied slowly. The unicorn glanced over at the teal pony staring at them with an impassionate gaze. “Tell me, Pensive, have you encountered anything in these mountains with the ability to deceive a pony into seeing things that are not there? Perhaps a siren or other spirit?”

“There are many dangers in these mountains,” Pensive replied carefully. “But I have never had trouble before with such things. However, once we reach the caves, we will be safe. They are protected from the beasts that roam the-.”

The unicorn stopped with a pained expression on his face and raised a hoof to his horn, which was glowing slightly. Novell rushed forward without thinking, the crystal held out in front of him. Pensive drew in a sharp breath as the moonstone came in contact with his coat, eyes widening in surprise. Jerking back away from the stone, the unicorn started breathing heavily, confusion apparent in his expression - it was the first hint of genuine emotion that Novell had seen from the other pony.

“Are you okay?” the pale pegasus asked, reaching forward to press the crystal back against his friend’s body.

“I’m fine, Novell,” Pensive replied, shooing him away with one hoof and wincing as Novell pressed on despite his objections. A second later, the pegasus found himself unable to move for the second time that day. A field of pale gray surrounded him, the familiar color of the Professor’s magic evident.

“Enough, my boy. We don’t know how the moonstone will effect everypony and it doesn’t seem to be making our guide here very comfortable,” Professor Search admonished, setting him down.

“But you held it!” Novell objected, wondering why it would be hurting Pensive.

“As I said, everypony reacts to things differently,” the grey unicorn replied and sighed. “Well, I believe we should be going. It will be the dark soon, especially this far up in the mountains.”

“‘Bout time we get moving. I was getting bored, even if it was kinda funny to watch you go all loco in the coco,” Whisper put in, placing Swirley back on her mane and adjusting him until he was directly in the middle.


With the crystal in his possession, Novell no longer suffered the dark thoughts he had been victim to the entire day. Unfortunately, the wind had still not abated - the constant danger of being thrown to the depths below was at the forefront of his mind. When he’d asked Whisper to do something about it, she’d looked at him like he was crazy.

“What in the hay d’ya think I’ve been doin’? There’s a whole bubble around us right now. I should know, since it’s kind of tiring moving entire breezes around a pocket of space.”

Novell looked around, widening his stance so he didn’t get caught off guard by another breeze. “Then why have I been getting blown around the whole time we’ve been moving up the mountain?”

“What do you mean?” Whisper asked suspiciously, just as another gust of wind hit Novell. His wings ruffled in the stream as he gritted his teeth and held onto the ground as much as his hooves would let him.

“That,” he replied with a grimace as it passed.

The orange mare looked absolutely bewildered. “That doesn’t make sense. There shouldn’t be a single stream of air anywhere near us.”

“Well, there is.”

“Get in front of me,” she ordered, pointing ahead. Professor Search and Pensive were still moving along the trail and disappearing around a corner. Novell complied, careful to keep close to the mountain wall. He looked over the side and then instantly regretted it, wishing intently that his wings were fully functional.

With the mare behind him, Novell felt a little bit better, which wasn’t a thought the pegasus had ever thought would cross his mind. However, since he’d been travelling with her, his opinion had changed to include more of her quirks. Despite her constant showboating, Whisper was dedicated once she started something.

The first step of friendship is trust.

His ears twitched in surprise as the words sprung up in his mind. Oh, great, not only am I in danger of falling off a cliff at any moment, but I’m also hearing voices. Even so, Novell had to admit that this new one was a better alternative to the one he’d heard throughout the day. Suddenly, he was blown over to the side, caught unprepared with his thoughts. He tripped over his hooves, falling down to the edge.

Before he could fall, another gust, stronger than the one that had hit him before, slammed into him from the right. The force of the breeze propped him back to his feet, but he fell to his knees from the shock still coursing through his system.

“Ha! Got it. Sneaky little breezes were getting through from the top. Didn’t expect that to happen, but nothing can get past me for long!” Whisper crowed cockily, coming up from behind him and offering a hoof. “You okay, Blankie?”

Novell stared at the hoof for a few seconds before grinning widely and accepting it. “Thanks to you, I am.”

As she pulled him up, a joy-filled smile appeared on her face as she closed her eyes. Then, as if realizing she was being too nice, she pushed him back down. Novell fell, surprised by her sudden reversal of moods.

“Heh, no wonder those little streams were pushing you over. Don’t worry ‘bout them anymore. I’ll keep them off of ya!”

With that, Whisper continued up the path, turning the corner and sticking her tongue out at him. Swirley swiftly went through a variety of colors and patterns, staring at Novell until he was no longer in sight almost disapprovingly. Frowning, the pegasus lifted himself up and followed, shaking his mane with a sigh.



As the Professor had said, darkness came quickly on the mountainside. Novell knew that had something to do with the fact that they were on the side not facing the sun. The clouds that gathered around the summit didn’t help, either. The pegasus looked up at the wispy clouds, their grumbling barely audible as they released the ever present snow. Though Whisper was able to keep the worst of the breezes away, the snow was still able to fall around them and coat the ground, making the rocky paths slick and dangerous to traverse.

Sighing with boredom, Novell quickened his pace. He passed by the mare and the grey unicorn, both of whom stared after him curiously. A few seconds later, he reached the pony he had been meaning to talk to all day. He trotted up beside him and gave Pensive a friendly smile.

“Seems like you’ve been avoiding me today,” Novell joked as they travelled up another set of stones that were arranged suspiciously like steps. They had to hop in order to travel up the large slabs of rock, which was difficult enough without the thin layer of ice on them.

Pensive looked at him from one step above Novell and cocked his head. “I have simply been busy speaking to the elder. Things here do not often ask questions of me as much as he. Admittedly, I may have been unintentionally avoiding you due to that.”

“It’s fine, I was just joking with you,” the pegasus replied as he stuck out his tongue in preparation for another hop. He landed on the next step beside the unicorn with ease, his stance wide enough to keep him from slipping. “He does talk a lot, but he’s the first pony to ever really talk to me outside my family and enjoy my company. Most ponies try to get away from me as fast as possible.”

“Because of our affliction?”

Hopping to the next step, Novell nodded. “I haven’t met anypony else with the same curse before you. You know how ponies act around us, I’m sure.”

“I confess that I have only just realized that things are wary of our blank flank,” Pensive replied with a thoughtful tone. “But chaos is never welcomed with open hooves, as I have noticed. Things enjoy their structured lives and preconceptions.”

“Mmm,” Novell said noncommittally. “You know, I never asked why you were helping us. Not that I’m ungrateful, by why are you guiding us through these mountains?”

Pensive hopped to the next stone before answering, making the action seem dignified rather than awkward like the leaps Novell was making. “There is no other way to the middle of Equestria, of course. No other thing knows these mountains as I do - were I not to guide you, you would no doubt try to scale them yourself, a dangerous feat even for a pegasus. Things such as you have that quality.”

“Quality?” the other pony blinked.

“The ability to envision a goal and not be deterred by obstacles,” he answered simply, sounding vaguely wistful as he offered a hoof to the pegasus. Novell took it, climbing up the shallow stone stair. “If I may, I have a question for you, as well, Novell.”

“I’ll answer it to the best of my ability,” he replied warmly, sticking his tongue out in concentration as he hopped to the next step. Thankfully, that was the last one for their current path, from what Novell could see. He glanced around at the swirling snow outside their small ‘bubble’ Whisper had created, the flakes softly falling inside it in a strange juxtaposition.

“Why is it that you do not have a cutie mark? You seem to be focused on your goal and at ease with yourself, even if you wish you were otherwise. I do not understand why you lack one.”

“That’s something I’ve asked myself a lot,” Novell answered honestly as he returned offered his own hoof to the teal unicorn. “I don’t know why I never got one in the first place, but I’m just so filled with the possibilities, I guess, it’s just hard to choose what I really want to do. And is it really a choice, or is it something we’re born with? I mean, what if I get stuck with something I don’t like? Everypony says they love what they do, but they’ve always found their talents when they were fillies or colts. I’m just...scared. Of everything.”

Pensive looked at him with an unreadable expression as they trotted alongside one another. “May I see the moonstone?”

“What?” Novell returned, confused by the sudden change of subject. “But didn’t it hurt you before?”


“Not as you would think. It would be more accurate to say that the effect was surprising and...different. I...wish to experience again. May I?”

“Okay.” He pulled the moonstone out from under his damaged wing where he’d stored it earlier and held it out to the other pony. The crystal trembled in his hoof as Pensive drew nearer. At first, the unicorn just stared at it, studying it with an unblinking gaze that Novell had come to associate with deep thought. Then, hesitantly, the unicorn lifted his hoof and pressed it against the moonstone. The pegasus twitched as the moonstone moved in between their hooves.

Pensive drew in a sharp, quiet breath at the contact. Novell made to draw his hoof back, but the unicorn shook his mane and stared at their hooves. A few seconds passed, the heat from his guide’s hoof surprising given the teal unicorn’s icy appearance. Suddenly a whisper without a tone swept through his mind.

Understanding another is the next step.

And then Novell fell into an expansive mind, his surroundings featureless except for the pale water rushing toward him. Instinctively, the pegasus opened his wings before he could tumble into the vast pool of water, already bracing himself against the pain he knew would come. With a great rush of air, Novell rose into the air without a single mote of agony assaulting him. He glanced back, his jaw dropping when he saw the massive feathers and gigantic wings more fit for an alicorn than himself.

His wings flapped of their own accord toward an unknown destination, despite his best efforts to alter his course. For lack of anything better to do, Novell examined his bare surroundings, seeing nothing but the perfectly smooth, white ocean beneath him. He looked up and his eyes widened for the second time since reaching this place.

Overhead, close enough that he could touch it if he flew twenty hooves higher, was the pitted surface of the moon. The massive celestial object took up the entire sky, deep shadows from the mountains on its surface at odds with the directionless light that suffused the entire area. Words not unlike Professor Search’s purple prose flew through his mind, not enough descriptions to explain the majesty he sailed under.

What seemed like both hours and seconds at once passed as he flew through empty space, his pace unwavering and his wings untiring. And then, almost as suddenly as he appeared hurtling through the air, he was standing on the water’s surface. Novell blinked as his wings folded into his body, their size seemingly at home on his body. The pegasus wondered at his perception before a sound caught his attention.

It was the scuff of a small hoof against the surface of the water, the owner of which was a small, teal unicorn. Novell couldn’t tell whether it was male or female, as the long, blue mane would look at home on either gender. But what drew his attention the most was a small, ethereal chain attached to one of the pony’s hind legs. Suddenly, as if appearing from nowhere, he noticed a gigantic pillar of ice connected to the chain, its peak almost but not quite touching the moon in the shape of a huge claw.

“I’m alone,” the small pony said, looking up at him from behind the solid-looking mane.

“I’m here with you,” Novell replied, his voice warmer and filled with more emotion than he had ever heard before. It reminded him of the Professor’s telepathic voice. “Why are you chained?”

The unicorn lowered its head and hid its face with the mane. “I can’t tell you. Things hurts when I tell things I’m not supposed to.”

“Then I won’t ask. I trust you.”

“You do? Why? Things are always suspicious.”

Novell thought about that for a few moments. “Because you are a friend.”

The small pony looked back up at him and stared, its mouth twitching at the edges. Suddenly it’s eyes opened wide, the blossoming smile falling to the wayside as a pained frown appeared. To his horror, the chain materialized into solidity and pulled the little unicorn into the pillar with a squeak of fright.

“Thank you, Novell,” Pensive’s voice said sadly, from everywhere at once. Novell looked about as the scene faded away, the whiteness transforming into snowflakes that fluttered around his eyes. He blinked and found himself back at the ledge, the moonstone in his hoof and the unicorn across from him staring out at the mountains. “We’re here.”

“Uhm,” Novell replied, almost asking what had just happened before he remembered his promise. He put the crystal back in his wings and joined the pony at the edge, glad the journey up the mountain was finally over. His legs had been killing him for the last hour. “You’re...welcome.”

“I felt like I could think clearly for the first time, like my thoughts were my own,” Pensive rambled on, suddenly frowning and a tear appearing in his eye, as if trying to explain something in a hurry. “I was my own self with my own decisions. I’m- I-.”

The pegasus’s eyes widened as the unicorn’s horn glowed blue, Novell’s muscles no longer under his control. Pensive’s eyes widened in surprise at the magic, seemingly in pain. Novell’s body turned around stiffly, where Whisper and Professor Search were just beginning to crest the stone stairway. He wanted to call out, but he felt his face lift into a smile instead, the Professor grinning back.

“Bracing walk, eh? I can’t remember the last time I climbed a mountain like this. It must have been when I was exploring the Eyries of the Gryphons. Such a fascinating race of creatures, but their homes were quite difficult to reach. I lost quite a bit of weight on that trip. Did you know that gryphons eat meat as well as nuts and berries? It was quite shocking to see it for myself, but- say, what’s-.”

Suddenly, the Professor stood stock still as he was surrounded by a field of blue magic, frozen with a shocked expression on his face. The horn on his head glowed faintly against the ethereal outline, as if the unicorn were trying to fight against the trap. A second later, a thin film of ice rose from the Professor’s legs up, reaching and covering the unicorn’s head almost immediately after. Novell’s mind shouted out in horror as his friend’s fate, frantically railing against the magic holding his body in place.

Whisper, after watching the Professor turn into an ice cube, fell into an attacking stance and snorted, with Swirley running through an alarmed variation of his normal relaxed color changes. Her eyes were livid with anger, the mare flapped, causing the bubble around their party to instantly dispel. Wind screamed into the space with a whirlwind of vengeance at being kept at bay for so long. Icy shards pelted the ponies in the immediate area, but Pensive seemed unaffected by the maelstrom of snow, for the field around Novell’s body remained in place.

Screaming, the orange mare rocketed toward Novell, catching him in the chest and rolling together with him over the edge of the cliff. Her wings spread open as they fell, rising quickly despite the cargo she was carrying. He looked into Whisper’s panicked eyes as their descent halted completely, the mare torn away from him by an invisible thread. Slowly, a blue line coalesced around her, trapping her wings to her side. She closed her eyes and wiggled, but try as she did, she couldn’t free herself from the clinging magic. She can’t fly!

“Novell,” she said in shock, staring at him as she realized she was helpless with no hope of rescue. Atop her head, Swirley’s shell bleached of all color, his eyes open wide for the first time Novell had ever seen. Then the field around him pulled him away from her, back to the ledge. He watched, unable to move or speak, as the mare fell into the snowy fog that surrounded the mountain, the storm grumbling with triumph as she disappeared. Novell’s breath came in quick gasps as he struggled mightily against his bonds. I have to save her, she can’t be- she’s not!

“Whisper!” he yelled in agony, breaking free from the magic momentarily with a surge of heat from beneath his wing. Pain filled him, both of the loss and from the burning sensation of the moonstone as the magic returned, stronger than before. It coursed through him, eating up his thoughts as they descended into regret and self recriminations. I have to save her!

We can’t have that, my little pony, a voice whispered in glee.

And then the world turned white.

Chapter 7: Tw


“Oh, look, he’s alive.”

“You think?”

Novell clawed his way back to consciousness slowly, the pit of nothingness vastly preferable to the splashes of memories beginning to spin through his head. A hollow feeling in his stomach coincided with his last thoughts before losing sight, sound, and awareness back on the mountainside. The image of a bold, annoying, funny, messy, orange pegasus stood out in his mind, grinning in fierce joy - a vibrant embodiment of life despite her flaws.

And now she was gone.

“No, I know. He’s obviously still breathing, Scrolls. Now be quiet,” a feminine voice admonished, trembling only slightly.

You’re the one who started talking, Quills!” the response came in the slightly lower tenor of a colt.

“That’s because I’m the oldest. I get to talk and you get to be silent!”

The pegasus stirred as the voices once again pierced the haze he was living in, enough for him to twitch his weary muscles. His legs burned from the arduous trek, but aside from that, and the faint ache in his chest where the mare had tackled him, his body seemed to be in one piece. In fact, as he thought about it, he didn’t feel a single twinge of pain in his wing, even while laying directly on it. Rolling over groggily as he opened his eyes, Novell opened the damaged appendage and felt more than heard something fall.

Instantly the pain returned, along with a creeping tentacle of shadowy ice wending its way through his thoughts. Shivering in terror, the pegasus stamped down on the stone before he could succumb to the dark whispers and seductive suspicions. A white light seared away the shadows and pain, though his wing still throbbed with the remnants of the psychological intrusion.

Suddenly, he noticed his saddlebags were gone. His eyes flew open wide as he glanced at his bare flanks, searching the wall in front of him to see if they were perhaps leaning against it or hanging up. The thought of losing his mother’s gift was crushing. They were nowhere to be seen.

“Hey, you,” somepony called out from behind him before he could begin to panic. Novell started, having momentarily forgotten that he wasn’t alone. He twirled around with one hoof still on the moonstone and looked up in confusion at two earth ponies standing above him in what looked like bird cages made of ice. Icicles drooped down sinisterly from the cages, their wicked points glistening in the pale, white light above them. Novell looked up for the illumination, but spotted nothing that could be making it in the domed room. More magic. Great.

“Who are you?”

He flicked his eyes back toward the feminine voice, the earth pony looking at him with suspicion in her expression, and not a little fear. She was crouched down with her face near her front hooves and her hindquarters in the air, the innocuous action at odds with her demeanour. Her creamy peach coat was similar to the color of parchment, the image only exemplified by the three white quills adorning her flank. Teal hair styled in a bun and long bangs that almost covered her eyes contrasted well with her coloring. Novell’s eyebrows raised as he noticed her body was lean and not yet fully grown, the epitome of a teenage pony, around which was a stylish saddle the color of her mane. Fluffy cotton garnished the ends of it in a look that bespoke both a sense of fashion and practicality.

“Maybe he can’t talk. Havoc does that to people,” the caramel colored colt put in, roughly the same body height and weight as the other. The darker colored teal of his parted mane and tail were evidence that the two ponies were related. A scarf with two shades of orange decorated the teenage pony’s neck, matching well with his coat. Novell noticed a pile of three scrolls on his flank as the earth pony shuffled around in the suddenly swinging cage, seemingly agitated. “I don’t want to lose my voice again!”

“Oh, if only you would,” the one called Quills replied through gritted teeth, loud enough for Novell to hear. Her angrily slitted eyes moved from the pony back to Novell. “Anyway, answer my question, pegasus. Who are you?”

“Novell,” he replied in turn, tucking the moonstone back under his now pain free wing in a manner that hid the item from the two caged ponies.

Both of the ponies above him twitched in surprise at that, the male falling and slamming his face against the bars while the filly jerked back until her head hit the top of the rather small cage. Novell blinked at them, wondering what was so surprising about a simple name.

The filly recovered first. “Y-you mean, Novell, as in...omigosh, you...he...Scrolls! It’s him! It’s-.”

“- the blank flanked pegasus! The one he’s been searching for!” the colt completed her sentence excitedly, instantly forgetting his pain as he looked down in wonder at the new arrival.

“What? Who’s been looking for me?” Novell asked confusedly just as the siblings began to chatter, only pausing when the other took up the sentence.

Quills pranced in her cage excitedly as a smile appeared on her muzzle. “He’s the one that he’s been needing! I can’t believe that-.”

“- they finally found him! Oh, I wonder if this means we’ll be able to get-.”

“- out of here? Once he finds out Novell’s here, we’ll surely-.”

“Excuse me, can one of you ponies please tell me exactly what’s going on here? And where are we?” This time, the pegasus was the one to interrupt their sentences. They both looked down at him, their faces alight with happiness and the tell tale reflection of tears in their eyes. Novell felt another punch in his gut at the looks, so full of energy and life. He shoved it to the back of his mind in an effort to think rationally, which only slightly worked. There was still a dull ache in his heart, but he wasn’t focused on it due to the steady thread of comfort coming from the moonstone under his right wing.

“We,” the filly began, pointing at herself and her counterpart with one hoof, “are in cages, while you are free to move in the room for some stupid reason. We’re inside the mountain, as I’m sure you’ve guessed.”

“Why does he get to walk around anyway?” the colt responded petulantly before she could continue the explanation.

Quills eyed the other earth pony evilly until he shrunk down in his cage. “As to what’s going on, you’re here! The pony he’s been looking for! If you’re here, that means we might be able to finally get out of here!”

“Who’s this ‘he’ trying to find me?” Novell questioned confusedly. “Who would want to look for a blank flank pegasus?”

“Well, Professor Study Mark, of course!” the colt replied from his cage.

“Be quiet! I’m the one talking here, Scrolls!”

“You’re only five minutes older than me! I should be able to get to talk, too!”

“If you don’t shut your face-.”

“What? Are you going to reach through the cage?” Scrolls said, suddenly bold and sticking out his tongue at his sister.

“I’m going to pound you when I get out of here,” Quills replied frostily, her voice pitched low. The caramel colored pony winced at the tone in her voice, shrinking back down to his former position.

Novell watched the exchange with barely controlled frustration. He didn’t have time for a couple of young ponies to keep bickering - he needed to get out of here and find the Professor and do...something. He frowned as he tried to imagine what he could do to unfreeze the unicorn. Maybe the magic is like the Yeti’s and would go away if I take the Professor off of the mountain. His wing was strong enough and Novell shoved the thoughts of re-injuring it to the back of his mind. Friendship was worth the pain, especially when the alternative was worse - his one living friend being frozen in stasis forever.

“Study Mark is looking for me you said?” the pegasus prompted, idly looking around the small room to find a way to escape. Unfortunately, nothing stood out to him - it was as if the room was completely sealed away from the rest of the universe. The thought of being separated from the sky unsettled him, but he stuck it in the back of his mind with the rest of his worries and troubles. It was getting kind of full back there.

“Yes. We’re his assistants. We heard there was somepony in Hoofington who didn’t have a cutie mark and we told Professor Mark and then he said we should go find you, since you’re the one who had no cutie mark, but then the snow covered the pass so we went up the mountain and-.”

Novell held up a hoof to quiet the pony’s words, his headache growing with each passing second. “Please, breath when you talk.”

“Fine. We. Were. Going. To. Hoof-ing-ton. When.”

“Quit being silly, Quills, you know what he meant!” Scrolls said from the other cage, rolling his eyes at his sister. “I’m sorry about her, Novell. She can be annoying sometimes.” When the filly growled at him, he ignored her and continued, “Anyway, as she was saying, we were travelling to find you when we found the snow was blocking the pass. Professor Mark didn’t want to wait until the spring, so we decided to try and climb over the mountain. We were doing good, too, except-.”

“Except we’re here now, in cages, and Professor Mark is gone,” Quills said sharply, looking away with a tear in her eye. Novell frowned - obviously the two young ponies were more fearful than they let on.

“Gone? Where did he go?”

The two earth ponies looked at each other with a frightened glance then, both speaking simultaneously. “We can’t, well, tell you.”

Their message became clear, then, as Novell figured it out. Something was controlling them, or at least had promised them the same punishment Pensive had been speaking of before- he grimaced, continuing his thought despite the pain. Before he killed Whisper.

“I can tell you everything you need to know,” a soft, familiar voice came from behind Novell, as if summoned by his thoughts. The two ponies in their cages gasped in fright, huddling near the backs of their cages as they recognized the speaker. The pegasus gritted his teeth as he turned around to look at the teal unicorn.

“Pensive,” Novell said quietly, struggling to control the urge to scream and rage against the pony. “I trusted you. I-.”

“I am aware that you hate me,” Pensive interrupted, his eyes crinkling with sadness. “Most things do when they find out what I really am.”

The pegaus looked down, the moonstone a bright spot in the black fury threatening to overtake his brain. He latched onto the single golden thread, letting it fill his mind until it pushed back the dark clouds. They were still present, grumbling against his willpower, but it gave him room to think. His thoughts spun around furiously, debating back and forth on how to deal with the situation at hoof.

The image of Whisper’s wings being pinned to her sides and her last words as she stared at him in helpless surprise appeared in his head - he recognized it as a last ditch attempt by the darkness to lay claim to his mind. However, the image of a pillar pulling in a frightened young pony rang in response, the chain on the unicorn’s hind leg cold and heavy. Novell grimaced inwardly as he imagined how it would feel to be forever linked to something that would take over at the slightest disobedience. A sense of anticipation grew within him as he went further down the line of thought.

What is it? Novell couldn’t shake the feeling that something was prodding him toward a solution to his problems. He tightened his wing to check the moonstone, but aside from the steady stream of comfort it provided, he felt no hint of an answer within. Even so, a spark of interest grew in him as he thought, not dissimilar to the one he’d felt when he had first laid eyes on the wooden sculpture of flame at the inn.

A tugging sensation came from both his wing and the direction Pensive was standing in, the reverberation in his chest filling his head with possibilities. He looked up at the unicorn, seizing on the feeling and allowing a plan bloom in his head. There was little chance it would work, but it was the best he could come up with at such short notice.

“...I still trust you,” the pegasus continued in a hushed tone, glancing back up into the unicorn’s eyes and boring into them with his stare. “It’s not your fault. I know it isn’t. I saw...I know.”

Isn’t this quaint, a sinister voice said from everywhere at once, dripping with sarcasm. Novell’s eyes widened as he recognized the tones - they had been following him ever since he’d climbed the mountain. Oh, I’ve been with you longer than that, young pegasus. Bring him to me, now.

The last order was directed at Pensive, who fell to his knees from the power of the voice’s command. The two ponies in the cages whimpered and closed their ears with their hooves, too afraid to even look around as the cavern shook. Icicles fell from the bottom of their prisons, striking the ground around Novell. The pegasus didn’t move a muscle, already having predicted the paths the icy blades would take as they fell. He chewed his lip in an effort not to think of his plan, hoping whatever was looking into his thoughts hadn’t seen it.

Pensive stared at him for a moment before lifting a hoof as if inviting the pegasus to dance. He hesitatingly accepted it, noticing the unicorn close his eyes and grit his teeth at the contact. A faint blue light grew from the horn in the teal pony’s forehead, semisolid ethereal loops expanding and slowly covering them.

“I trust you,” Novell repeated as the magic swirled around the two ponies. Pensive looked into his eyes with a distressed expression, so unlike his normally neutral demeanour that the pegasus cringed inwardly in sympathy. After a few more seconds, the magic shut out the world around them until they were standing in a nimbus of blue energy. Novell didn’t know how much effort the task of transporting two ponies required, but he was impressed by the power displayed by the unicorn in front of him. Even in this hopeless situation, his analytical mind filed everything away for future use.

A moment later, the wall of Pensive’s magic dissipated, leaving them once more in the cold heart of the mountain. Novell blinked, looking around at the room, stalactites and stalagmites made of ice and rock all around the edge of the room like some giant beast’s mouth. He shuddered at the mental image and turned around to behold a block of ice with a familiar face within it.

“Professor!” Novell cried, his composure forgotten as he raced toward the pony. He was stopped by Pensive’s magic before he moved far at all, his body straining against the immobilization to get closer to the frozen pony. Professor Search stared back at him sightlessly, his face a mask of indignation and surprise and his mouth open as if to utter an angry protest.

Fantastic expression, isn’t it? a voice said in his mind, sibilant and wheedling while still maintaining an aura of power. I do so love the reaction ponies have when they feel betrayed. It’s so...gratifying.

Novell looked up from the Professor to find out exactly where the voice was coming from.

Follow the cold shiver streaming down your spine, it hissed. Novel froze, a shock of cold running from the base of his skull to the tip of his tail. He turned with widened eyes and heavy breathing, spying the source. His eyes alighted on an icy formation, his skin feeling as if it was staring into the brittle bareness of deep winter. Only the warmth from the crystal under his wing kept him from sharing the Professor’s fate it seemed to him. Stairs the same color as the icy walls around him lead up to a raised platform, upon which a throne made completely of clear crystal resided. Cracks threaded their way through the chair, lending it the thought that the slightest touch could turn it into rubble.

A single mote of white light gently bobbed in the middle, right above the seat, vapory contrails radiating out from it and misting away as it moved. The will o’ the wisp, the young pegasus thought, remembering what he had seen in the woods. It’s been with me that long?

Laughter, slow and seductive, came from the direction of the ball of light. You’re getting warmer, it whispered ironically as another wave of chilling air swept over him. While he didn’t feel the cold, his wings frosted over from the temperature and seemed to almost sap the strength from them. He ruffled them uncomfortably, the muscles in the appendages weak and sluggish. The motion jarred the stone under his right wing, the warmth from it melting the ice.

Despite the action possibly giving up his one advantage in the situation, Novell fiercely thought of other things. Thankfully, it wasn’t too hard, considering his mind had been filling with more and more questions as time within the mountain plodded slowly onward.

“What are you?” the pegasus gave voice to his most pressing question.

Oh, there are quite a few names for me, and a few descriptions as well. Suffice it to say, I’m a being willing to make a deal - one which a pony such as yourself will no doubt find immensely fascinating, the voice began.

“You killed my friend and imprisoned another. Why should I give you anything?” Novell countered, inwardly hoping he wasn’t making a mistake. He gritted his teeth against the unwanted thought of Whisper’s passing, but continued on regardless. Mourning could come later, when he had freed his friends.

Again, laughter rang in the back of his mind like the tolling of bells, their rings chaotic and tuneless. Because I have the power to make the one thing above all in your mind happen!

A flutter of nervous excitement ran through his breast at those words, making it hard to breath for a few seconds. He resisted the urge to look toward his bare flank, focusing instead on the image of Whisper disappearing into the mist. The thought of his friend gave him the ability to fight against the temptation, even as it pierced another hole through his heart.

She was only going to break it later, young Novell, the wisp said in his mind, brightening at the thought. The opportunity to travel with her one source of entertainment and then laugh at you in spite of your efforts was simply too much for her to resist. A mare after my own heart.

“No,” he muttered as he thought of her insulting him above the skies of Hoofington so long ago. “She was my friend.”

Was she? Tsk, tsk, tsk, so naive. I don’t recall one moment where she did anything but laugh and make fun of you, ‘blank flank’. In fact, I never saw a hint of friendship in her mind, unlike your rather pathetic reasoning that she followed you because she was having fun with you around. Though, I suppose you were right, in a way. She did so enjoy laughing at your face.

The pegasus winced at the accusation, his will faltering in the face of the wisp’s words. Dark clouds kept at bay began to circulate through his head once more. Before they could get a hold on him, Novell stomped his hoof against the icy floor and snorted. The voice couldn’t be right. Could it?

“Tell me your deal or let me go back to my cage,” he responded with a frown on his face, suddenly afraid that the whole situation was hopeless.

Such harsh words for your only real friend.

“You’re not my friend.”

But I’ve only told you the truth, never leading you astray. Have I not always been right? Have my words of advice not been revealed as truth along your journey? I’ve even helped you remember your mother’s lullaby when you were lonely. Don’t you remember?

The hum of Feather Light’s voice resounded through his mind and a peace washed through the pegasus’ chest. Novell closed his eyes and joined the lullaby with his own voice as he forgot everything but his mother’s tune. Her love, her heady smell, the constant reminder of her in the saddlebags he kept on his flank filling his mind. It was-.

I’ve kept them with me to remind myself of my dreams. I hope they can help you chase your own, now, the memory of her words broke through the tune. His dreams, his hope to find out what he was meant to do. A sense of purpose came over the pegasus, Novell’s ears twitching as he noticed a slight difference in both sets of his mother’s voice. The melody faded as he examined it in his mind, a cold, implacable intent behind the notes at odds with how he remembered the lullaby - the real one. And then the spell broke.

The pegasus ruffled his wings again and glared at the ball of white bobbing innocently over the throne. Get out of my head, Novell growled inwardly. He felt a small feeling of surprise from the voice in his head, followed by a chilling amusement.

As you wish, young Novell, the wisp replied, departing from its throne and circling once around his head. He stared straight ahead, ignoring the mote of white centimeters away. More amusement rippled from it, followed by words as it returned to the throne. My deal is as such: In return for giving you the knowledge of your purpose in this world, I want you to find a way out of this prison for me.

“You expect me to believe you know what I’m supposed to do when I don’t?” Novell asked, quelling the temptation to give in. He wasn’t exactly sure the wisp wasn’t telling the truth about knowing his special talent, but he wasn’t entirely convinced it did, either. Involuntarily, he gave a quick glance around the room to see if he could find any escape, but he resolutely closed his eyes and turned back to the bob of white in front of him.

Why, of course. That pony, Study Mark. He knew quite a bit about your...what did he call them? Ah, yes. Cutie marks, the voice said sarcastically. I gave him a similar deal to your own for information on you, young pegasus. He gave me the knowledge you so sorely seek, and I gave him knowledge in return. I am admittedly quite interested in exactly how you would react if you knew. But before I indulge in my curiosity, you must find a way for me to escape. Is such a simple request so much to ask?

“You’re powerful. Why can’t you get out yourself?” the pegasus replied heatedly, looking at the icy prison around him again. He clamped down on the curiosity, cursing his natural inclination to examine and extrapolate. Instead, he focused his thoughts inward - he didn’t know exactly why the entity was cajoling him into finding an exit when he wasn’t exactly sure where in the mountain he was.

Oh, I can, but not fully. Your ‘friend’  behind you is evidence of that. Why don’t you ask him about how he knows so much about you when you’ve only just met.

Novell glanced backwards at Pensive, who looked down to avoid his gaze. Things clicked into place, then, as he put all the information he knew about the unicorn came together. The way he seemed to be able to appear and disappear at will, the fact that he had no cutie mark, the way he was able to slip into pony’s minds, and finally, his words that Novell would hate him when he found out what he was. Suddenly, the chain and icy pillar made sense, a new loathing forming in his mind toward the wisp as he realized the implications of his realization. Pensive Coalescence...thought realized.

I see you understand, then. But I can also see you need time to think this over. I will grant you that, the wisp continued, still amused. Put him back with the others.

Novell felt the pressure on his mind he hadn’t known was there go away as the unicorn came up beside him, the wisp no longer focusing his mind on the pegasus’. Gasping and breathing hard from the effort of the mental exchange, the white pony looked into Pensive’s eyes, seeing himself reflected there. He spoke before the unicorn could transport them away, magic already forming at the base of the horn.

“You’re a thought. His thought!”

Pensive nodded, careful to keep his expression blank though they both knew he was in pain behind the mask. “Yes, as my name suggests. Though I wish you had figured it out sooner.”

“Me, too,” Novell grinned at the unicorn with a cheer he didn’t really feel, his expression eliciting a faint surprise in his friend’s face. “I really should have thought of the synonyms. Pretty clever, in hindsight. ”

Pausing slightly in his magical teleportation, the unicorn furrowed his brows and frowned. “Thank you.”

They descended into silence after that, the pegasus looking wistfully at the Professor still locked in the ice. I’ll be back for you, Novell promised the explorer as the nimbus of ethereal energy once more surrounded them. A few moments later, they were back in the room with the two caged ponies, both of whom looked at him curiously through their bars.

Ignoring them for the moment, Novell spoke to the unicorn before he could disappear, his voice pitched low. “You can help us get out of here. You’re a pony, just like me, whatever your origins.”

“I am the creation of my originator, bound to him as a slave to a master. I can no more rail against him than if I were still part of the collection of thoughts,” the unicorn replied, as if by rote, his horn already glowing to transport himself elsewhere.

“I can’t accept that, and I know you can’t either,” the pegasus replied, making a decision that could have catastrophic effects if he was wrong about this. He opened his wing to let the moonstone fall into his waiting hoof and held it in front of him, his one lifeline in the den of insanity threatening to take hold of him. “I trust you.”

The unicorn looked even more distressed than ever now, staring at the crystal in the pegasus’ hand with dismay. “Keep it hidden. He does not know of it and it is the only way you can resist him!”

“And why doesn’t he know about it, if you’re part of him, Pensive?” Novell pressed, moving closer to the other pony. “You’re separate, now. This is evidence, right here, that you’re your own pony. That you’re my friend. You can be more than a thought!”

Pensive winced away, but the pegasus continued and placed the stone in his friend’s hoof. He had to do this, whatever the consequences.

Friendship sets free the shackles of fear.

Calm assailed them both as their minds linked once more, the dark clouds in their thoughtspace drawing away to reveal the full moon overhead. The pillar of ice emerged from the still, white water below them, the small pony looking up at him with curiosity and fear warring in his eyes. The pegasus returned the glance, offering a key the color of crystal to the slave, his magnificent wings ruffling against the cold.  

The unicorn’s fear brightened, the pillar behind him giving off a ghastly glow. Novell didn’t blink, still holding out the key to their freedom. In a faint part of his mind, the pegasus thought he heard a voice telling him not to do this. He couldn’t tell if it was the voice from the moonstone or the wisp’s foul whispering, but he ignored it either way. This was the correct path to take - the only one that mattered.

Slowly, hesitantly, the tiny unicorn reached for the key, the glowing increasing the closer he came. The waters around them grew turbulent as Novell released possession of the key, dark clouds threatening to overshadow the glow of the moon above them. A second later, the shackle holding the hind leg of the pony opened and blurred into mist, disappearing into thin air. With a sudden crash of splintering ice, the pillar fell into the waters around them and the clouds once more were banished from the heavens.

Novell’s heart pounded as something shifted in his world, as if the universe slotted itself into focus. And then the feeling passed, the unicorn in front of him no longer small, no longer weak and helpless. Pensive stared at him in wonder, still holding the key as it transformed into a swirling eddy of magic, twisting through the air between them before moving with purpose toward the unicorn’s flank. The dust adhered to the coat there, forming a pattern of glittering dust as the glow of the moon enveloped them both. A soft, pale light flashed and then they were both back in the real world.

“Pensive,” the pegasus said as reality reasserted itself, pointing with one hoof at his friend’s flank. Novell’s eyes were wide open as he stared at what had appeared there, surprise and triumph echoing through his mind at the sight. The unicorn’s eyes were glazed, but he twisted around to stare where the pegasus was pointing. After a moment of looking at it, the teal pony’s eyes flew open with realization.

The image of a cloud obscuring half of a crescent moon had appeared, as if it had always been there. A cutie mark.

“I knew it!” Novell crowed, a smile gracing his dazed face. “Well, I didn’t know, but I knew something was going to happen. You got your cutie mark, Pensive! You’’re not just a thought anymore!”

“I-, I-,” Pensive stammered, tears appearing in his eyes and running freely down his perplexed face. “What is happening? Am I...not well?”

“Those are tears,” Novell looked down at his hooves, his mood tempered by recent events. On one hoof, he was extraordinarily happy for his friend, while on the other, his own flank remained suspiciously bare. He mentally kicked himself for worrying about it when there were still things to be done, but continued on regardless. “That’s something, right?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never...been free. I will have to...think...,” he replied softly, rubbing his eyes with fascination as he stared at the tears in his hoof and blinked, “ myself...? It’s so...clear and...quiet.”

With a start, the pegasus realized his own mind was still clear from the wisp’s control. He could think clearly, perhaps more clearly than the moonstone itself had provided. A small grin appeared on his face as he glanced toward his friend’s flank, thanking whichever goddess was listening for giving him this small gift.

“Hate to interrupt, but could you get us out of here now that you’re one of the good guys? Or do you not have a plan?” a frustrated female voice cut into his thoughts.

“Just a second and, well, no,” Novell admitted, looking back to the two earth ponies staring strangely at them from their cages. “I’m kind of winging it as I go along.”

“Ah aha,” Pensive laughed in a monotone, his muzzle still absent of a grin, though his eyes showed the faintest hints of mirth. “That was a joke, was it not?”

Despite himself, Novell let his grin grow wider and ruffled his wings in embarrassment, inwardly glad his friend was displaying more emotion - it boded well for the future. “Unintentional, but yeah. It was a joke. Any suggestions on what to do next?”

        “Getting us out of here wouldn’t be such a bad start,” Quills repeated sarcastically from her cage, her voice huffy. “Maybe I’ll even tell you what he is if-.”

        “Tell him?” Scrolls exclaimed, looking at his sister as if she were nuts. “He would turn us inside out just for the fun of it if we told hi-.”

        “Calm down, you don’t need to tell me anything,” the pegasus assuaged their worries with a dismissive hoof. “I just need to get the Professor out of that ice and he can tell me what I need to know. Before that, though-.”

        “The Professor is still here?” Quills and Scrolls screeched at once, dread plain on their faces.

        “Sorry, I meant my Professor. Professor Renaldo Eduardo Search,” Novell supplied absently as he tried to come up with a plan. Honestly, he figured they would be able to get out with Pensive’s help and avoid fighting anything. The idea of trying to go up against that wisp in the throne room was enough to make him despair. So they needed a distraction.

        “You brought that...that...poor excuse for a pony here?” Quills asked in a tone that broke the pegasus from his planning. Novell looked up at her, confused.


        “Nothing,” the filly said, sticking up her nose and managing to look snooty despite her current location. Novell rolled his eyes, looking over to the male twin, hoping he would be more helpful.

        “You don’t have to tell me anything specific,” the pegasus said slowly, scratching at the ice floor with a hoof, “But I do need to know if it’s possible to beat...whatever he is.”

        “Anything is possible, I suppose,” the colt replied, raising a hoof to his chin. “But a Drac-.”

        “Don’t say it!” his sister hissed from her hanging cell.

        “But he,” Scrolls emphasized the word, glaring at his sister, “is an incredibly powerful...thing. Unless you have an object of great power, I would suggest getting us out of here quietly.”

        “Helpful,” Novell replied, turning to his friend. “Pensive, you know what he is. Do we have a chance at fighting him?”

        The unicorn managed to look embarrassed, looking down at the floor. “I’m afraid most of my knowledge of my creator was lost when you severed my link with him. I am...only able to tell you that he was imprisoned here by...something long, long ago. Everything else is...fuzzy.”

        “By Princess Celestia?”

        Pensive looked up and shook his mane negatively. “ wasn’t an alicorn...”

        Suddenly, Quills spoke, her voice monotoned and her eyes vacant. “Long before the Princess of the Night’s banishment, two entities of chaos ruled the world. One, by the name of Discord, was the incarnation of playful chaos, a Draconequus who had chosen to enjoy his pony playthings in Equestria-.”

        “-While the other, Havoc, was the incarnation of the darker side - a brother from the far reaches of the world, who cared little for any race,” Scrolls intoned in the same manner, staring into nothingness. “Lording over others was his passion, placing deer against zebra, pony against camel, and buffalo against moose in an effort to amuse himself. War shrouded the lands outside Equestria and Havoc reveled in the chaos that resulted.”

“Yet even as the foundations of the empire created by the two crumbled into warring tribes intent on destroying one another, Discord sought a way to extend his rule - a way to continue his ‘fun’ - and came up with one solution. Tricking his counterpart into an icy tomb was simple for a master manipulator, and thus was Havoc trapped within this mountain to seethe for eternity,” Quills finished, falling to the floor of her cage, breathing hard while her brother mirrored her.

        “What...was that?” Novell asked, surprised and perturbed at the effort the simple pronunciations had seemed to cause the twins.

        Suddenly, Quills twitched and cried out in pain, the cage around her brightening with an evil light. Scroll’s voice issued from the other, where the same thing was happening. They screamed together as their prisons grew to a blinding radiance, Novell having to shield his eyes with a hoof.

        “Pensive! Get them out of there! Now!” the pegasus yelled, gritting his teeth against the light. As the unicorn disappeared in his unique way, Novell stood there, helpless to relieve the twins from their pain.

        A second later, the light winked out as the prisons shrunk to the size of a small snowball, falling to the ground with a muted thunk against the ice. Still blinded, the pegasus tried to blink away the afterimages, a headache forming in between his eyes. The pain increased steadily, until all he could see was white. He felt himself drop to the floor, his hooves automatically pressing against his skull in an effort to keep it from splitting in half.

        A horrible thought occurred to him, then, as a sinister chuckle drifted through his mind. He’d given the moonstone to Pensive, where it had dissolved into his friend’s flank as a cutie mark. And now his friend was nowhere near him.

        A distraction? Havoc’s voice whispered, amusement crackling through their mental link. Trying to outwit a god, are we? I admire that in a pony, but the time for thinking has passed - it’s time for you to do what I’ve asked for you. Whether you like it or not...

A blue miasma surrounded the pegasus, pulling him into a senseless dimension of swirling snow and fragmented thoughts.

Chapter 8: Frozen Moments

Novell woke up to insanity.

The atmosphere from when he’d been sucked in had changed, if only a little. Instead of the constant, snowy nothingness that he’d been adrift in for the past...

How long have I been out?

The question fragmented as soon as he thought it, rattling off in the dark corners of his mind, the echo teasing him as it faded away completely. He struggled in vain to reassemble what he had just lost and was unable to concentrate enough to do so. Instead, the scene before him diverted his attention away from his efforts. Nothing but fire filled his vision, searing his retinas like he had been staring at the sun too long. His heart quivered in horror, recoiling from the sight before him, wishing he could close his lids to block out...everything.

Equestria was burning.

Flames had sprung up everywhere below him, his body far above it, watching it, feeling the heat even from this height. The smell of smoke clawed at his throat, causing his lungs to struggle heavily to pull in even the smallest bit of clear air. He was soaring through the ash choked air, pain and a great weariness slowly infecting his entire body. He knew if he kept flying much longer, his wings would just stop flapping and he’d spiral toward the greedy flames below.

The thought of rest, the need to find some kind of bastion to ward away his exhaustion became the foremost in his mind. He automatically sought out clouds upon which to land, even if only for a few moments, but when he glanced around, panic gripped him. None remained in the sky - just the awful, intangible smoke from the fires consuming the land. Cloudsdale! It can’t be destroyed!

He looked over toward where the magnificent city in the clouds would be, home to most of the pegasus in the lands under the Princesses’ rule. He hoped against hope it would be there, his eyes caught before they even arrived by a sight that was worse than anything else previous.

Canterlot Castle was in rubble, the proud and pristine towers crumbled to the valley floor. The ethereal gardens were filled with blackened stumps and twisted vines, a coat of pale ash covering every surface. Statues of great pony scholars and teachers were littered across the once verdant park like the pieces of a chess board flung away in anger. Colleges, schools, and libraries were smashed to pieces, books strewn about with a casual disregard for the knowledge within.

He noticed all of this in the space of a few seconds, a worm of absolute misery squirming in his gut at the loss of so much potential. Before he could even begin to reconcile the feelings, his vision zoomed impossibly to behold a monstrous, red demon. The beast was holding an orb of fire and standing in the remains of the Canterlot throne room, the stained glass cracked and warped by the heat.

Glowing, black eyes flickered with glee from the fire that danced along the monster’s body, the orbs staring at the two once regal alicorns bowing before him. The stone form of a collection of random body parts from a dozen different animals sat next to the broken throne, trapped in the midst of an expression of terror.

“How do you like the world you gave me, Discord?” A hissing voice called out from the inferno, more akin to the crackling of a flame than the icy whisper Novell recognized from the mountain prison. “Chaos abounds, just like we’ve always wanted! Equestria dies, thanks to your...distractions and, of course, my servant. These ponies will be put to the torch and after civilization crumbles into dust, l will remake the world as I see fit!”

The statue of Discord trembled, flakes falling off as the other essence of chaos reacted to the havoc surrounding it. The tail was the first to be released, twitching as it regained its life, twirling agitated in the air as the being trapped inside waited to be freed.

The massive beast reared up, standing on two widely different legs - one was hooved and furry not unlike a goat’s, though rippling muscle showed through beneath the fur, while the other was reminiscent of a bird of prey’s. A large, snakelike tail whipped in barely contained fury, fire running the length of it to meet at the inferno at the shoulders. Novell could see the similarities between the two as he stood next to the statue, but from the waist up, they were very different creatures.

Large arms ending in claws of obsidian gleamed balefully against the guttering light all around, gripping the statue by the neck. The look of panic on the stone face seemed to increase as more chips flew off, the tail squirming even quicker.

“Now, now, Discy, freeing yourself without permission is just rude, wouldn’t you say? Stay awhile and listen to the world burn. A gift from one half of another.” Havoc chuckled madly as the tail resumed its petrified state.

Energy crackled through the air, the pieces of stone that had fallen reassembling themselves like a puzzle, burning from the alabaster marble to a glassy black stone. The beast threw the statue tumbling down the steps with its heavily muscled arms, stepping into the firelight after it to complete the dreadful sight.

Havoc’s torso reminded Novell of a Yeti’s, but instead of fur, there was a metallic substance that the pegasus realized wasn’t armor, but skin. The head drew his gaze the most, though, surrounded on either side by flames, a curled horn akin to a ram’s on one side and a two pronged horn that swept backwards from his head on the other. One large fang jutted out from his upper lip, so like the statue’s own. A sneering smile appeared on the darkly handsome face as Havoc stroked the small goatee on his chin.

“Novell,” the seductive voice whispered out softly, even though he could hear it from where he was in the sky. “Come down and say hello to our new subjects!”

The pegasus felt himself obey, his wings tucked to his side as he fell into a dive. A feral grin slid across his face, to his abject dismay. Before he could slam into the molten ground, his wings stretched outward, the full span of the blackened feathers larger than his own, white ones. Hooves covered in the same obsidian that coated his master’s claws slammed into the stone where the two alicorns lay. They shrunk away at Novell’s presence, the princesses staring up at him with fear and betrayal. The smile grew as he stepped toward the smaller of the two.

“Princess Luna,” the transformed pegasus felt his voice begin, almost as beguiling as the master’s. “Thank you for your gifts. They served this land well.”

“Thy gifts were for a creative, little pegasus. Not a monster like thou hath become,” she snapped back in her strangely accented voice, suddenly defiant.

“Oh? Such fire,” he responded, his lips moving against his will. “Perhaps you would enjoy a bit of my own?”

He felt a flash come from his horn - his horn!? - and fire shot out from his forehead, engulfing the area in flames. The rest was lost as Novell’s mind skipped, the scene rewinding itself until he once more flew above Equestria.

Long plumes of smoke polluted the sky, fields, trees, and towns falling beneath the fire. The urge to vomit hit him, but he could no more control this body than before. He was trapped, doomed to stare out across the land of flame and brimstone. Thankfully, his eyes didn’t glance toward Hoofington, but his imagination was more than willing to fill in the blanks.

Finally, his brain simply couldn’t process it all and shut down, blissfully succumbing to the darkness. It chilled his soul, as if he were frozen solid - he couldn’t remember ever feeling in his real body.

This is my real body...isn’t it?

The horror returned tenfold as he realized he didn’t know if it was or not.


A second ticked by as he existed in the nothingness, thoughts forming and slipping away with frustrating regularity. He tried to flap his wings, to move his hooves, even wiggle his nose. Nothing happened.

Slowly, a blue dot pierced the inky infinity, a spot of color in the nothingness. He was drawn toward it, his mind already beginning to spin into sensible patterns. With excruciating sluggishness, the dot grew until it replaced the emptiness he had been floating in. Sensations returned as he fell into the field of bright blue energy.

First came touch, the chill of ice surrounding him, his coat registering the change in temperature with nary a twitch. An intermittent breeze blew across his back, disturbing the fur and his wings enough to irritate them. Aches returned in most of his abused muscles, but Novell savored every ounce of it as a welcome respite from his previous condition. Just the ability to move was a blessing.

Smell was the next as he drew in a shuddering breath - the fresh sourness of grass filling his nostrils. His stomach rumbled as he imagined the taste, his tongue running over his parched mouth to look for any hint of moisture. Bizarrely, his imagination went straight to Miss Hops’ orange juice, the citrus tangy across his taste-buds. Unfortunately, that just made him thirstier.

The sound of a flickering flame caused his ears to twitch toward the source, his body wearily standing up despite the complaints from many of his muscles. He shrugged it off and winced as he gathered himself for the first step, his hoofsteps echoing in what he imagined was an enclosed space. Heavy breathing fell into the same rhythm of the wind across his back as his ears recovered completely, the thought of something big next to him not doing anything to increase his comfort level.

Sight was the last of his senses to return - nothing but a glaring whiteness viewed through blurry eyes greeted his rebooting brain. He moved forward another step, his hoof clattering into something not ice. His head fell as he glanced down, his recovering eyes picking out green in the midst of the colorless world. Again his stomach rumbled as he quickly sank to his knees, pulling the grass into his mouth with an almost reverential bliss, a hollow pit of fear forming in his heart despite the gift.

Where did this come from? Did Pensive save me?

The crackling came again, his ears twitching toward the sound and causing him to look up from his ravenous hunger. He stopped chewing as he beheld the thing in front of him. It was sitting on the throne he’d seen earlier that day, staring at him. Or, at least he thought it was earlier that day. He wasn’t really sure how to tell time in the mountain.

A glance to his right confirmed his suspicion that he was in the same room, the Professor still frozen in a block of ice. Then that means...

“So, you’re awake,” the voice observed aloud, no longer wheedling as it had been coming from the wisp. He glanced back at the Draconequus on the throne, the wild ménage of animal pieces merged together to create a fearsome being. There was a certain, sinister handsomeness to the beasts’ jaw, its eyes glinting with a hard earned intelligence at odds with the brutish features. The metal that served as Havoc’s torso gleamed as if covered in a thin sheen of frost while his tail gently twitched in his lap, encased at the tip by solid ice. “I wonder, pony, what you saw.”

“Can’t you just read my thoughts and find out?” Novell replied bitterly around a mouthful of grass. After a few seconds of chewing, his brain swiftly fell back into normality as he realized what he had said. He blanched, filled with dismay at his disrespect to something that could snap his neck as easily as snapping a twig.

“I could, yes. Would you prefer that?” the Draconequus asked, looking at him with those cold, calculating eyes as a small smile graced its face.

Novell shuddered involuntarily, wondering what game the essence of Chaos was playing. “No.”

“Ah, progress. You’re being honest with me. How refreshing to hear the ring of truth behind your words. I had thought that lying to me would become something of a habit for you,” the bipedal monster replied amiably, shifting its hooved and clawed legs against the ice to a more comfortable position. “What do you want, little pegasus?”

“What do I want?” Novell parroted, taken aback by the sudden turn in the conversation. Even in his befuddled state, though, an answer sprang into his mind. “I want  you to let me and my friends go.”

“True,” Havoc replied with a slight chuckle that sent a chill down the pegasus’ spine. “But not the want that weighs most heavily on your mind. Besides, my errant thought already escaped with two of my prisoners. I benevolently let them go, as another example of my good faith with you, my little pony. Is that not enough freedom before you’ve even agreed to my deal? Before that, however, I see you still have questions - tell me, what is on your mind?”

“Where was I? What was that...nightmare?” he blurted out before he could think his response through. He mentally kicked himself for mentioning it, especially when it felt more real than any dream he had ever experienced.

“A nightmare, you say?” Havoc answered irritatingly before steepling his glistening blue claws, the black eyes shining with barely contained glee. “I only brought you here, where you began to shudder and scream. As interesting as your torment sounded, I had nothing to do with it. Now I’ll ask again. What did you see?”

“I saw you trapped here, forever,” Novell lied quickly, trying to keep the image of Equestria burning out of his mind.

Havoc smiled sadly, snapping his claws together with a clack. “A lie. But one I’ll let slide for now. Very well then, about our deal? Have you come to a decision? Think carefully before you refuse me. Being locked in ice for eternity is extremely...unpleasant.”

The edge of simmering anger tinged the last part, but the frozen facsimile of the demon in Novell’s nightmare covered it well behind a feral grin. Something welled up inside him, a faint feeling at the back of his mind that he needed to keep Havoc talking. He glanced over at the Professor, wondering if perhaps the unicorn was sending him a telepathic prod of some kind.

“I need information,” he began slowly, another plan slowly building in his mind. Hopefully this one will work, he thought dryly. “On this prison, I mean. If you want me to find a way out, I need to know who built it and how it was created.”

Havoc stared at him for a few moments, unblinking, his gaze boring into the pegasus’ eyes. Novell glanced to the side, unable to hold that ageless stare as sweat began beading on his brow. He wondered if he had gone too far, too fast. The thought of being imprisoned in ice brought a lump to his throat - being closed in on all sides terrified him.

Thankfully, the smooth voice of his captor dispelled that notion.

“Very well. As those earth pony twins told you before they were stolen away, I was imprisoned by my ‘brother’, Discord. He was a Draconequus, similar to myself - a beast of many united into one. We ruled Equestria and your kind from shortly after its founding...until the alicorns arrived, at least. He was intelligent - deviously so - but I had no cause to distrust him, as he usually left me to my own devices,” a hint of amusement crept into his voice as he said the last, swallowed by the neutrality once more.

“I was tricked into coming to this prison, one he built without my knowledge. I saw nothing amiss, but I was naive, then. You cannot trust a soul in this world, I’ve come to find,” Havoc stared pointedly at the pegasus as the beasts’ tail thrashed with irritation for a moment. “I raged against these walls to no avail and in doing so have found no weakness that I can exploit. Discord planned well, for between the two of us, I was physically the stronger. He knew I would find my way out if he created this place by such mundane means, and so he cast a spell on the entrance.”

“What kind of spell?” Novell asked, though he thought he already knew the answer. Havoc’s next words confirmed it.

“One to take away most of my powers,” the beast growled, his eyes lighting up for a few seconds in anger as steam appeared above his shoulders. “And so he was able to keep me here, bereft of all but the slightest bits of my strength. It has not returned in all the time I have stewed here, so my powers must have been drawn-,” Havoc paused a moment before continuing. “But this has no bearing on our conversation. Is what I have specified enough for you to find the way out?”

“Almost,” the pegasus returned, filing away the Draconequus’ slip of the tongue. Obviously, Havoc wasn’t as smart as he thought, even if he could read minds. Another useful tidbit of information. “I just need some help to figure it out. The Professor knows all about magical prisons.”

Novell put on a big, fake smile for the beast, hoping there was enough truth to the statement that there would be no suspicion. Havoc stared at him, raising an eyebrow slowly as a bead of sweat dripped down the pegasus’ face. They sat there, looking at each other for several, very agonizing moments. He continued smiling cheesily, not sure if he should stop or keep the expression on his face.

Finally, Havoc snorted, though whether it was in amusement or agreement, Novell couldn’t tell. He let the grin drop from his face, more beads of sweat appearing as he glanced around the suddenly heated room. A cracking sound caused his ears to twitch, his head automatically swinging in the direction of the noise, thoughts of doom tolling in his mind.

“- going on? Why are you- wait, this isn’t the mountainside,” the voice sent a thrill of triumph through the pegasus’ chest, a genuine smile breaking out on his face. “Novell? What are you doi- why am I frozen? Wait, is that an Afrit? Why are you talking to an Afrit? Why didn’t you let me talk to it first? I’m the Professor here, after all, not the assistant!”

This one is every bit as annoying in pony, came the voice in his mind, exasperated for once. Ask your questions, pegasus, before I decide to silence him for good.

“He’s not an Afrit, Professor. He’s a Dragonini- Dracoquizno-,” Novell stumbled over the word, shaking his head irritatingly. “That’s not the point. I need you to tell me everything you know about magical prisons.”

The Professor furrowed his brows. “Why would I know anything about magical prisons? That’s not my field of study.”

“But you knew about the Yeti magic prison thing!”

“Oh, well, yes, but that’s only because I was researching the creature that makes the traps. You pick up some things-.”

Novell felt like exploding right then, but he held it in with effort and took a deep breath before interrupting. “Can you teleport us out of here?” He winced as he heard Havoc snort behind him at that.

“Hmm,” the Professor replied, looking down at the rest of his frozen body. “Nope! This ice is like the Yeti’s magic trap, coincidentally. Can’t do anything about it!”

A smile ghosted across his face as he remembered thinking the same thing about his friend’s icy prison earlier. It quickly fell as he wracked his brain for what to do. He couldn’t stall much longer and he didn’t see anything that coul-. No, no, stop looking, he admonished himself, not trusting that he would actually find the way out.

“Professor, I need you to keep Havoc busy,” he whispered, casually looking away as if examining the walls. One particular point drew his interest, near the ceiling, causing his eyes to linger there for longer than he would want. Thankfully, Professor Search proved to be an able distraction.

“Havoc? Is that the Afrit’s name?”

“He’s not an Afr-. Yes, sure. That’s his name. Just keep him talking!”

The pegasus forced his eyes away with a determined effort from that little spot in the ceiling. There was a prickling sensation in his shoulder blades, right where his wings met his body. He bit his lip to avoid opening his wings to investigate, bringing his hoof up to examine it in confusion. If there was ever a time not to submit to his curiosity, that time was now.

He glanced back at the ceiling anyway.

“Excuse me, Mr. Havoc. How are you? I must ask, what kind of an Afrit isn’t made of ice? Though I can see you’re very nearly covered in it, I do not see evidence of the factors I read about in the books.”

“I’m a Draconequus, pony. Perhaps you’ve heard of Discord? The one who very nearly took over Equestria again but didn’t even bother to check on his dear ‘brother’?” Havoc’s voice rose several octaves until the steam issuing from his back clouded the frozen throne. “So many years and he didn’t even have the nerve to say hello? What kind of brother is that? I mean, honestly, he nearly stomps the Elements of Harmony and then doesn’t even try to taunt me in the process! It’s not like he can’t be in several places at once. I’m glad he’s back in his stone prison. Serves him right for what he did to me!”

Novell’s attention broke from the ceiling at that, his ears twitching with curiosity of a different kind. The Elements of Harmony? He inwardly fished for information on them, knowing he’d either read or heard about them somewhere. It had something to do with Princess Celestia...

“Discord? No, no, I’m afraid I have no idea who that is. Is he an Afrit, too, by any chance? Wait, I do seem to recall something happening in Ponyville!” Havoc’s face brightened at those words. “Yes, yes, it was horrible, I remember. Ponies were all in such an uproar, you could hear it from Canterlot! I say, Parasprite infestations are not that bad. One must simply know how to control them! Music, of course, but only from a full band!”

“Parasprites?” the Draconequus growled, suddenly lacking the slight smile he had been wearing.

“Indeed! You would not believe the chaos those tiny things can create given even the most minute amount of food. Of course if they keep eating, food won’t be the only thing they’ll devour. One almost tried to eat my glasses when I unleashed them in Canterlot! The nerve!”

“Parasprites?” Havoc repeated as his face grew darker and the steam increased. “Of all the troubles your puny land has experienced, Parasprites are utmost on your mind?! Discord almost defeated your princesses’ champions and Parasprites are the first thing you think of?! If I had my powers right now, I would turn you into a Parasprite!”

“Oh, my. That sounds regrettable. I admit, I’m not a fan of being imprisoned in other bodies,” the Professor paused and coughed, glancing down at his legs, “but I seem to have a habit of getting myself into traps and magical transformations on an alarmingly regular basis. You know, Novell here is quite adept at finding ways out of things like this. Though he did get trapped that one time with the Yeti...hmm, but that’s unimportant. At any rate, where was I? Ah, yes, are you allergic to oatmeal by any chance?”

“What could oatmeal possibly have to do with anything? That’s it, you’re going back into the ice, pony!” Havoc exploded and bared his one huge fang, heating up again as he leaped from his throne.

Several things happened at once at those words, all which came as a complete surprise to everpony present. Novell’s jaw dropped as a blue hoof and leg poked out of the Professor’s forehead, close to the horn. After a certain amount of wiggling, a head poked through, revealing Pensive’s concentrated countenance and another foreleg. Without another word, the rest of the strange unicorn’s body tumbled out of the Professor’s head to land unceremoniously next to Novell.

At the same time, one of the stalactites above the throne grumbled and cracked due to the heavy amount of steam and heat coming off of Havoc. It fell, slamming into the frozen throne and smashing it to shards that flew every which way. The Draconequus roared in pain at that, his eyes veritably lighting up with the power of his anger. Flames sprang into existence, causing the steam to increase and fill the entire room.

During all of this commotion and surprise, Novell felt his heart lurch and his wings snap open. Now was the exact moment he needed to leap into the air - the decision coursed through him like he’d been inside a stricken bell, his entire body vibrating. His heart hammered in his chest as he took flight for the first time since saving the Professor, squinting his eyes against the suddenly heated room. If he didn’t make a vent right now, they’d all be boiled alive.

Time seemed to stop to Novell as he realized what he was about to do, his mind suddenly as clear as a freshwater spring. The clouds that had been unnoticed until that moment evaporated, the subtle control on his mind weakened both by Havoc’s distracted pain and Pensive’s aura of clear thought.

His wings fell through another stroke with excruciating slowness, his left foreleg raised and ready to press into the indention in the ceiling - one shaped suspiciously like a hoofprint. There were only seconds before he reached the objective, but that was plenty of time to decide in his time-altered state.

If he touched the print, he would save his friends from the rage of the Dragonequus’ flame, opening a vent for the steam to escape through. Novell could fly out with it and Pensive could take the Professor with him and everypony would be safe.

But at the same time, the opening would be exactly what Havoc had been wanting him to create. Another step forward to the nightmare Novell had experienced.

Save your friends, pegasus, a sickeningly sweet voice wheedled, or fall with them.

Another beat of his wings and another second closer. Novell’s mouth dried out as he fought against the voice, his wings pausing in their ascent. He couldn’t let them die, not the Professor and certainly not Pensive, who had only just begun life as a real pony. That would just be too cruel, cutting the unicorn’s freedom off only hours after it had started. But if I save them, everypony else will...

Equestria would burn.

Or his friends would die.

And what about you, pegasus? Don’t you want to know what you’re meant to do before succumbing to the flame? Havoc’s voice taunted. Do you want to die without the knowledge of what you’re meant to be?

Novell’s mind clicked to a stop at that as his wings traveled upward to deliver one last downdraft to bring him to the opening. It wasn’t fair. Why did he have to die when he was so close to finding his talent?

 Anger coursed through him, a counterpart to Havoc’s own as the heat increased tenfold around him. He felt his skin start to sweat as the humidity rose to uncomfortable levels, hearing the pained yells of his friends below. They didn’t deserve to burn. He didn’t deserve to burn just for something he saw in a dream. Havoc doesn’t even have any powers! What can he do?

Everything sped up to normal as a Novell completed his last flap, slamming his hoof forward into the ice with enough force to jar his whole body. He needed to find out who he was!

The whole world around him exploded as the pressure of the steam in an enclosed space blew outward with the wall of rock and ice. Novell’s body shot upward like a cork on the high pressured stream, a tremendous hissing sound accompanying him as the heat met the frigid mountain air.

He slammed headfirst through a cloud, tearing it to shreds as he passed. It felt like his stomach was still back in the chamber as his body careened into another cloud, slowing his ascent just enough to reach the arc’s peak. Gravity took hold of him as he hung in mid air for a few seconds, the steam behind him dispersing. Novell felt a rush of air stream behind his body like a speeding snowball, freezing his wings for a second before he could start flapping it away.

Thank you, Novell, the voice exalted with an evil laugh that resounded through his mind. You’ve played your part perfectly! You ponies are just so easy to manipulate! Who knew free will was a factor in opening my prison? Oh, Discord, you sly little snake! No wonder my previous attempts failed so miserably.

“What about our deal?” the pegasus yelled into the night, his simmering anger still present. He flapped through a few beats before the voice returned, fainter than before.

What about it? Havoc whispered sinisterly, a shadow detaching itself from the mountain across from him. It was the Draconequus, one batlike wing and the other feathered like Novell’s own. The moonlight from the crescent above them gleamed against his fang as the smile widened with each beat of those ghastly wings.

Novell sucked in a surprised breath, suddenly terrified, but he managed to stammer his question out. “M-my special t-talent. Wh-what is it? What am I supposed to do?”

The beast drew closer, no longer speaking in his telepathic format, the powerful rush of air from each downstroke keeping the large body aloft enough to shift the winds around the pegasus. “Ah, ah, ah. I never said when I would tell you, my little pony.”


“Bu-bu-but!” Havoc imitated, cackling insanely and breathing in a deep breath. “Ah, you ponies amuse me. No wonder Discord locked me away to continue his fun! To be free again...maybe I’ll even keep a few of you around as pets. How would you like to be my servant, Novell? You could be as powerful as your silly regal duo! Imagine, never being laughed at or cursed again, controlling ponies with an iron hoof!”

The beast ran a claw along Novell’s jaw, cradling his chin between two of the sharp nails as he tried to shy away. “To have everything you ever want, to see all the things that can be seen, and to know it is all at the wave of a hoof. I’ll even tell you now what you’re meant to do if you join me. Come now, does this not tempt you?”

Yes, Novell wanted to say, more than anything I have ever wanted. The key to the mystery of his entire existence was in the draconequus’ claws, dangling there. All he had to do was say yes, to give in again. It wouldn’t be so bad, having all that power, would it? He could even make it so his friends could live beneath him, slaves, but at least alive. Was freedom such a big price to pay for life?

The key shifted into a chain as he watched, so similar to the one around the colt’s hindleg when he touched Pensive’s mind. It called to him, offering him purpose and promising little more than a cage. The cage was gilded, surely, with almost unlimited power, but at the cost of his free will and that of his friends’.


He had lost a friend to this monster, already. Whisper, her eyes searching his as she fell, wrapped in magical chains. The bleached shell of her pet as Swirley realized his owner and he were done. Helplessness as he was trapped in a field of blue energy, unable to even twitch in the pegasus’ direction.

Professor Search trapped in a pillar of ice, suspended in the animation that he embodied, forever doomed to a frozen existence. The imprisonment was counter to everything the unicorn was, fiercely adventurous and boisterous, always learning, always teaching. Stagnation did not suit the unicorn in the slightest.

Could he really make such a decision for them? Friendship was new to Novell, who had always been cursed and pitied by others. His friends accepted him without reservation, without an attempt to change who he was. Help was offered freely because they cared for him, regardless of what he did or did not have.

But even so, the pegasus still felt himself drawn to the power, the ability to create anything. Magic. Control. Secrets. The possibilities were far greater with access to it. To be a god... Novell felt himself breathe heavier in excitement, drawn to it. All it took was one little word. Everything else in his mind fell away to his imagination. He opened his mouth just as the decision was taken away from him.

“Think about it,” Havoc interrupted his thoughts with a dark chuckle as the moment passed. “Better to let you stew on it. Cya later, pegasus. I’m sure we’ll be seeing each other again real soon.”

With a jaunty wave, the monster flew away into the night, disappearing from sight seconds later. Novell stared at the spot for several minutes, thinking and feeling a steady pull from the draconequus’ direction. After another two beats of his wings, the longing faded, replaced by nothingness. He had released an essence of chaos into Equestria, but he just felt numb to everything, frozen in the moment.

Time ticked by as the mountains below him cleared of all their clouds, calm and peaceful despite what had transpired. The stars above twinkled in the darkness, shining down with all their splendor. But the moon drew Novell’s attention the most, the silver crescent vanishing into darkness as if dipped in blackness. A new moon, his mind whispered.

But was it for a new world or a part of the cycle for the one he had now?

Chapter 9: The Thaw

Eventually the timeless moment passed for the pegasus, his thoughts resolutely returning to normal speed as he turned away from where Havoc had vanished. The breath of the wind around him was little more than a light touch, the frigidity kept at bay by his indifference to temperature and the warming beats of his wings. Nothing but the sound of wind-swept peaks below him echoed in the dark of the night, so much deeper now that the moon had fled.

        For the first time in several days, Novell felt as though his mind was as clear as the air he was breathing in. It burned his lungs to stay up so high, floating there, thinking. It was what he was best at, after all. Just thinking, planning, remembering. Feeling sorry for himself, if he had to be honest.

        With a jolt, he realized his friends were still below in the cavern, the echo of Havoc’s laughter in his ears as he picked out the hole in the roof of one of the mountains. The steam that had shot him out of the mountain and nearly cooked his friends alive was no longer in evidence - it was completely dissipated by the freezing breezes that stalked the heights.

        Novell let his body drop as he headed for the opening, just now beginning to feel a deep sickness spreading through his chest. It felt as though he had eaten something wriggling and alive as he fought the urge to give voice to his sorrow. Stinging tears formed in his eyes, knowing now that he had done something unforgivable. He would have been able to console himself if he had been thinking of saving his friends, trading a possible future for their survival.

But the truth was, he hadn’t. He had given into his momentary weakness all because he wanted to survive. Not for the Professor, not for Pensive - for himself. It didn’t matter that he had initially sought to save them, nor did it matter that he had been manipulated by an evil far more cunning and powerful than he realized. He had opened the possibility of Equestria’s final hours just to find out his purpose in life.

“And look what that got you,” he muttered bitterly as he descended through the hole in the mountain. Water dripped incessantly in his ears as he entered the cavern, the entire floor flooded with meltwater and the aftereffects of the steam. Even as he noticed it, the environment was already hard at work returning it all to its icy origination as patches began to gloss over.

        The darkness was surprising to the pegasus, at first, but then he realized the magical light, like so much else about the prison, had no point if there was no prisoner. He felt the chilling thrill of panic fluttering in his throat as he glanced around, still flapping and ready to dart away at a moment’s notice. His heart hammered in his throat as stared at the impenetrable darkness, thoughts of slavering Yeti and other monsters already beginning to prey in on his mind.

“Professor?” he whispered with a slight tremor in his voice. “Pensive?”

A flash of light from the corner of his vision appeared, causing his head to snap in that direction fast enough to give him a slight headache. It was a pale glow, one that almost reminded Novell of moonlight, both in color and the comfort it provided. Not only was he now no longer alone in the dark, but he knew which unicorn the light belonged to.

“By Celestia’s magnificent mane, that was an incredible experience!” the Professor’s rumbling voice echoed in the cavern. “I have never seen such intense pressure explode outward like that, nor have I ever been in the vicinity to watch an Afrit fly!”

“He is a Dracone-,” Pensive interrupted the Professor before being overridden by the other unicorn’s overenthusiastic tones.

“I have never known that their species could fly, let alone on such tattered wings! I must record this in my journal! Those snooty ponies back at Canterlot University will be knocked out of their fetlocks at this discovery!”

As Novell descended to rest his hooves against the steadily cooling water on the floor of the cavern, the Professor pulled his dilapidated, old notebook from behind him as if from nowhere. Dismissing it as an inexplicable peculiarity of his friend, the alabaster pegasus rushed forward and hugged the stallion.

“Hold on, my boy, just wait a minute, you’ve almost made me drop my notebook! Oh, there we go, back to normal,” the Professor exclaimed excitedly as he dashed an instantly appearing quill across the page, leaving ink in its wake. Even before the unicorn could stash the logbook away, Novell felt himself shudder and blubber against the other’s coat. A tiny voice in his head reprimanded him, reminding him that he was a grown up pony now and there was no reason he should be crying!

“I-, I let him escape! He got out and its all my fault and now the world is going to-.”

Novell felt a foreleg encircle him as the Professor shushed him and then hold him at hoof’s length. “Calm yourself, lad. What’s your fault? What did you do?”

The pegasus drew in a ragged breath and tried to ignore the feeling of his tears freezing on his cheek. “Havoc! He’s out and just because I was so selfish and I’m so stupid and, and-.”

“You did it to save us,” Pensive’s voice interrupted quietly from Novell’s right. He stared at the unicorn for a second, uncomprehending. And then the full weight of what he had done rushed in on him and all the pegasus wanted to do was fall down and try to drown himself in the water below.

“But I-,”

“Hush,” Professor Search admonished, drawing the pegasus’ attention. “I don’t know what you did, but it doesn’t matter. Right now, we need to figure out a way out of here before we expire. I’m afraid I’ve had just about enough of frozen hooves this week.”

But that only set Novell off even further, because it reminded him that Whisper was no longer with them. And it was his fault, again, that she had followed him up the mountain, trusting him despite her instincts.

        Stop crying, blank flank. You’re embarrassing, the orange pegasus’ voice criticized in his mind. Novell felt himself drawn back to the memory as her annoyed tone faded away, trying to snatch the last echo of his friend before it disappeared.


Novell watched with a twinge of sadness as the memory played out in front of him, looking on it as if from the side. The edges of the scene were indistinct, leaving only the arena where two young pegasi were currently arguing.

“I’m not embarrassing!” a white pegasus colt gritted out, staring at the younger orange one in consternation. Tears glistened in the colt’s eyes but none of them fell as he widened his stance in anger. “I’m Novell!”

A burst of air came from the filly as she glared at him, the small snail on top of her head staring at him without interest. “Psh, like I care! You’re just a cryfilly blank flank!”

“At least I can fly!”

“Oh yeah? You want me to pound you?” Whisper growled, stepping forward with a bruise already beginning to swell up on her forehead from the fight she had gotten into. She had accidentally crashed into one of the others that were taunting him in another failed attempt to fly. Needless to say, she had won, being the toughest foal of their class.

Her little wings fluttered and a strong gust picked up, enough to send a small tornado of dust toward the colt. Novell dodged it and flew up into the air as the orange filly tried to tackle him, a smile breaking out on his muzzle.

He laughed and buzzed away just out of the other pony’s reach, the tears long forgotten as the scene fell away to whiteness. A chill ghosted across his back as the scene cleared enough to show snow all around, an adolescent pegasus almost blending in with the flakes. Breath misted out in front of the pony as he gave a huge sigh and stared morosely from a cloud overlooking a frosted Hoofington.

Without warning, a ball of orange fell through the sky, almost exactly repeating the scene Novell had experienced only just recently before finding the Professor. He stared at the two ponies as they argued again, feeling a lightening of his mood as the moment went on.

“Would you please stop bugging me?” the younger Novell said in exasperation, throwing his hooves in the air. The pegasus took a double take as the snail on the mare’s head shifted through a variety of cool, blue and violet colors.

Whisper just grinned. “If I stop bugging you, who’s going to do all the work for me today? Aren’t you supposed to be moderating the snow to see if that’s your cutie mark? I mean, you’re the same color as snow, so maybe you just can’t see your talent.”

“I think I’d know if I had my cutie mark or not and I’ve never seen a pony with one that blended in. That’s just silly!”

“Sillier than not having one?” she rejoined, a gleeful look in her eye as she caught him in her verbal web.

Novell snorted and rolled his eyes, trying to distance himself from the pony while still tugging on the wind streams that directed the snowflakes. “Go away, Whisper, I’ve got work to do. And so do you!”

A grin tugged on the older pegasus’ face as the scene disappeared, a flash of teal appearing in his peripheral.

You miss this mare despite the bickering that takes place when you are together, Pensive stated simply.

Novell didn’t even pause in his response as another scene appeared - a more recent one. “Yes, I do.”

This is good, the unicorn continued as they watched the pegasus awake to find Whisper chewing on his tail. Since you will see her soon.

What? Novell recoiled from the other pony, the memory in front of him exploding into mist as a dark thought ghosted into his mind. Pensive stared at him with a furrowed brow, not looking the least bit hostile.

Ah, I see, his friend let a smile slip across his muzzle and closed his eyes momentarily. I only meant that she is still alive and you will see her soon. The things I rescued from the cages are with her and caring for her.

Wh-wh-what? How?!

She is alive.


“What do you mean alive?” Novell asked incredulously, barely daring to believe it as he whirled on the teal pony. He was just about at his wit’s end after all that had happened and now the unicorn was bringing this up? “I saw her fall. I saw her fall!”

“She survived the fall,” Pensive said, deadpanned.

“What’s all this about? Who fell?” Professor Search broke in between the two as Novell tried to keep from falling down. His head was swimming with relief and confusion battling the depression at the corners of his mind.

“Whisper...fell,” the pegasus returned with a catch in his voice. “It was after you were frozen. Whisper tackled me to get away but Pensive- no, Havoc caught her with his magic. He- he pinned her wings and she...”

“By the Goddess, Novell, I’m- I can’t imagine how you felt.” Professor Search concernedly gazed into the pegasus’ eyes as the tears began to return. Novell gritted his teeth just like he had when he was little and held them back - he could cry later when they were all safe. “She’s alive. That’s what counts, my boy.”

With a quick, calming breath, Novell let his eyelids droop before steadying himself. “Can you teleport us there now?”

“I...want to,” Pensive confessed, sweat beading between his eyes and sparks beginning to fly from his horn. “But I am out of magic. I could barely teleport my body here. Creating this light is...taxing enough on its own. I am no longer connected to my originator’s source.”

Concern for his friend overwrote his worry as he glanced around at the seemingly growing darkness. “The Professor can light the way, but we need to get out of here. I don’t like this place.”

“Now, that begs the question of where exactly to go,” Professor Search spoke, rubbing a hoof along his mustache and glancing around. “There appears to be no other way out of here aside from the hole you made in the roof, my boy and you are the only one who can fly.”

Novell floundered for a moment before an idea blazed to life in his thoughts. “Professor, do you have some sort of lightening spell?”

“Lightning spell? I don’t see how that would help us, unless you mean to fill this room with water from a thundersto-,”

“No, no, no,” the pegasus quickly replied, stifling any attempt on the unicorn’s part to drown them inside a mountain. Novell paused for a moment, wondering at how odd that sounded in his mind before shrugging it off and continuing. “I meant a spell that makes you lighter. So I can carry you.”

“Oh, that,” the Professor managed to look put out. “I suppose I do have something like that, but I doubt you could carry both of us even with the spell.”

“Don’t leave me alone, please,” Pensive said, his voice tinged with the slightest bits of nervousness. Novell felt himself shudder involuntarily at the thought of being stuck inside the mountain by himself. His ear flicked around as he thought of another plan, catching the sounds from the water collecting on the floor in a mesmerizing rhythm.

The weariness he had kept at bay throughout the encounter with Havoc suddenly returned as his knees buckled. He caught himself with a splash, managing to stay aright just as his ears picked up a new sound. A buzzing noise was rippling through his brain and making it hard to concentrate on all but a single point in front of him - the wall of the cavern. As he stared at it, whispers began to echo all around him as an ethereal light appeared to suffuse the area.

The hum increased as white, ethereal shapes coalesced around the three ponies, Professor Search abnormally silent and staring all around with a slackened jaw. The journal the unicorn carried with him appeared within an eyeblink, the quill already scribbling away.  Novell glanced around, the ghosts’ strange eyes staring at them with an intensity that made the pegasus uncomfortable.

Soundmaker, one of the more feminine whispers rose above the others as a calm fell along Novell’s entire body. He was vaguely aware that he should be frightened out of his fetlocks, but he couldn’t bring himself to focus on anything but the scene in front of him as the ice blazed with a soft, white light. You have driven away That-Which-Binds.

“I did it to save myself,” Novell felt his mouth move as the whisper drew the truth from his innermost self.

Nevertheless, That-Which-Binds is no longer. A shape appeared through the icy wall, contrails of white sliding away into nothingness from its form. Within the space of a thought, the shape defined itself and withdrew from the wall to stand in front of him, staring at him uncannily with its snowflake shaped pupils. They darted to and fro, taking him in before boring into his own.

His mind made the connection with the ghostly thing in front of him as it resolved itself into a pony. It’s just like the one Chipper carved into that pillar.

“The Originator will not stay away forever,” a voice devoid of all emotion said from the pegasus’ right.

You must stop this from happening, Soundmaker, the whispering chill of the snowpony’s voice proclaimed to Novell. We shall not be chained to a single will again.

“I can’t.” Novell was almost sure of that. “I’m just one pony without even a single talent. What can I do?”

What can I do? The thought resounded through his mind, picked up by the hundreds of increasingly agitated whispers.

You can see and shape, Soundmaker, the snowpony clarified as the rest fell completely silent. We see, but cannot shape as you can. Promise us to halt That-Which-Binds and we shall show you the way through our mountains.

“And if I refuse?” The voice that issued from his throat was deep and deceptively calm, the echo of possibility.

Then you shall join us amongst the mountain’s bones.

Not much of a choice, he thought wryly, still distanced from his feelings. With the snowpony’s effect on him as well as Pensive’s, Novell felt like he could understand and examine all the possible paths without any emotions affecting his decisions - which was a good thing, considering if he was in full control of himself he would have fainted from sheer terror. He stared into the leader’s eyes, noticing the beauty inherent in its unique pattern of ice crystals, and nodded.

“I promise I will do my best to keep him from bringing this mountain under his thrall again, though I do not know if I can.”

The pact has been made, she replied cryptically, nodding her head with a flash strobing through her body. The effect streamed from her to the rest of the assembled snowponies with what Novell assumed was satisfaction with the arrangement. One of the shapes appeared through the wall, a familiar splash of light brown evident on its flanks.

“My saddlebags,” Novell whispered with a grin stretching across his face. He felt a bubbly sensation as the snowpony carrying it smiled and draped it across his flank.

The memories stored here are a treasure, the bearer of his saddlebags whispered in a deep vibrato. Never let them leave you.

        With a bow to the retreating snow stallion, Novell returned his attention to the one who had first spoken, remembering the effect these entities had on Chipper. “I will forget this promise, won’t I? Forget everything here?”

        The snowmare dipped her head in affirmation. But the promise shall not be forgotten entirely. Simply look upon the carving in your pack and the whisper of our pact will remind you.

        “How do you know I’ll remember to look at it?”

        A faint humor rippled through his mind at that. We can see, Soundmaker, as we have said. Now it is your turn to shape.

        “I wish I could stay,” Professor Search said longingly, his first words since the encounter. “Forgetting something like this...”

        It is our curse, just as it is our blessing, Soundmaker, the telepathic voice came again, referring this time to the grey unicorn. But the pursuit of knowledge is your dream more than any thing we have encountered and you would eventually move on. So pursue it.

        “Have you things any recriminations for me?” Pensive asked apprehensively, pawing the watery floor of the cavern.

        You were bound more than any of us -  we cannot fault you now that you are separate from That-Which-Binds.

        “I suppose we are family, in a way,” the teal unicorn replied wistfully, staring around at the others and momentarily becoming transparent. Before Novell could blink, the sparks in Pensive’s horn appeared and he fluttered back into clarity. A blend of happiness and loneliness issued from the teal pony’s mind to wash over everypony present.

        The snowpony nodded and gestured to the wall she had appeared from as the forms around them disappeared into the floor and ceiling. This is the path to the others who wait for you. Walk it and return to them.

        “Interesting. I suppose this is a form of teleporta- ah,” The Professor’s excited gleam died before he could finish his thought, a slight smile appearing on his muzzle. “I suppose it doesn’t matter what it is. Thank you for letting us go, madame. You are truly a beautiful creature.”

        She is not lost yet, Soundmaker, she replied cryptically, staring at Novell as the Professor did a double take. The pegasus started at the sudden change in the conversation, wondering if the snowmare was talking about Whisper. Furrowing his brow, he continued walking toward the wall as Pensive calmly trotted through, the ice rippling strangely as the unicorn was completely swallowed. As he came to a stop before the portal, a sense of unease appeared in his chest. He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to go through the-.

        “In you go, lad!” The Professor’s subdued voice came a second before he was shoved through. “What do you know of...”

        The rest was lost as Novell’s world twisted nonsensically, his body feeling as though it was being simultaneously stretched, squished, and swirled all at once. A sense of nausea overcame him as he slid forward, a sudden light appearing a second before he felt the temperature drop and the feeling of ice slipping under his hooves.

        “Oof!” His breath expelled outward as he slammed into what he recognized was Pensive’s form a moment before he hit the other pony. He lay there for a few seconds, stunned by the abrupt turn of events. As he fought to regain control of his diaphragm, a thought occurred to him that filled him with panic enough for him to glance backward to where he had come from.

        A heavy weight slammed into his chest as Professor Search rocketed out of the wall, knocking them both over Pensive’s prostrate form. Pain exploded between his eyes as he tumbled with the unicorn into a wall before falling into a pile. Stars and miniature versions of Havoc spun around his vision, the latter giggling in a high pitched tone.

        For the second time in as many minutes, Novell’s mouth gaped open like a fish out of water, willing his lungs to draw in a breath as he rolled off of the Professor.

        “Nice crash, Novell,” a voice the pegasus never expected to hear again snidely remarked. “Taking lessons from me, I see.”

        “Whisper?” he gasped out, still trying to pull in some oxygen. His eyes flicked around what he figured was a cave in the side of the mountain. An orange, flickering glow was lighting his surroundings and the smell of smoke was enough to make him dizzy, but he was too light headed to make out anything clearly.

        “Does he do that a lot?” another, younger female voice asked contemptuously. “He’s not anymore impressive from outside a cage than in one.”

        “He saved us, Quills! Don’t be so mean,” Scrolls replied from above Novell, having entered his field of vision to investigate the pegasus. His parted hair bobbed as he cocked his head and offered a hoof.

        “Correction, the teal one saved us. And he was the one who captured us in the first place.”

        “Would you two please shut it?” Whisper’s annoyed tones returned, though she was more subdued than usual. There was something off about the way she was speaking, but he couldn’t concentrate enough to conjure the reason.

        Finally, Novell was able to draw in a breath and roll over with Scrolls’ help, regaining his hooves with little difficulty after that. The first thing he noticed was both of the twins were unharmed, thankfully, with Whisper sitting near the fire facing him. A scrape of Pensive’s hooves from his left echoed from near the wall that had...wait, what? Wall?

        Before he could pursue that line of thought, his gaze fell upon Whisper and the snail that was just as tall as her shifting through a full spectrum of colors. Novell’s jaw dropped at the sight, his mind unable to reconcile Swirley’s new size with the previous image of the mollusk. It stared back at him and slid toward him quicker than he thought possible, leaving a trail of neon blue slime that glowed in the low light.

        A second later he was glomped by a giant snail, the slimy, slippery underside running along his forelegs. He was left momentarily paralyzed, the blue goo sticking in his fur as Whisper’s pet turned and started toward the Professor. Search was just beginning to pick himself up when Swirley bumped into him and flashed through a quick spectrum of purples, blues, and greens.

        “You did what now? Astonishing! You can grow that much just from that bit of magic?” the Professor asked incredulously as the snail responded in more rainbow colors. “You’ll be back to your normal size soon, I expect. Have no fear, my little mollusk.”

        “Oh, great, it’s you,” Quills’ voice distracted Novell, his gaze drawn to the adolescent pony curled up behind Whisper’s back. The earth pony was holding something long and white in her hoof, gently winding it around in a peculiar motion. The mare’s face contorted in pain every few seconds, but she forced it away and continued staring at him.

        “You just going to stand there and not ask?” the orange pegasus asked softly, firelight flickering in her eyes. Novell was entranced, the beat of his pulse deafening in the following silence and thundering painfully in his neck. As his heart sped up, he asked his question.

        “Are you okay?”

        Whisper managed to look cross for a few seconds before a grin crept upon her face. “No, but I’m glad you’re here to be annoying anyway.”

        “What do you mean? I saw you fall. How did you-,” he began before being cut off.

        “The round thing saved her,” Pensive put in, butting into the conversation with his normal abruptness. “It ingested Havoc’s magic and freed her.”

        “What?” Novell asked, but it was already coming back - the night in the clearing when Whisper had first joined their band. What was it that the Professor had said? As if summoned by the memory, the wise unicorn rolled into his lecturing voice while planting a hoof against his chest.

        “The Refferentus snail has a remarkable attribute of being one of the few animals in the world capable of absorbing magic. From what I’ve read, the species devours magic in times of trouble, such as famine and the like, to make finding mates simpler!”

        “Which means that since this ‘Swirley’ and its owner were falling to their demise, it was able to call upon that skill...,” Scrolls continued the Professor’s explanation. The young earth pony’s eyes found his sister’s and blanched at her expression.

        “I’m not going to finish that sentence,” she growled, glaring at Professor Search.

        “Anyway,” Whisper cut the argument off with a roll of her eyes, “I flipped myself over and caught some air before slamming my wing right into a sharp piece of rock. I barely got myself and my new giant Swirley to the ground before I crashed into a pile of snow. That stuff isn’t as soft as you’d think, even if it saved me.” Novell winced in sympathy, his own wings rustling reassuringly.

        “Your wing-,”

        “Is damaged,” Pensive supplied helpfully, sidling up to inspect the mare’s injury. “With enough magic, I could attempt to heal it, but...”

        “You’re cut off and used your own stores,” Novell finished sadly, glancing over at the Professor. “Could you teach Search?”

        Pensive’s eyes fell to his hooves and grimaced. “I do not know how my spells work other than that they do. There is no...formula to memorize. It is instinctive.”

        “So how bad is it?” Novell feared to know the answer, but his concern overwrote everything else.

        Quills stared coolly at him and nodded over to the side of the cave, motioning for him to follow her. With a quick twist, the parchment-colored pony finished her wrapping and trotted with him. Novell glanced backward to see Swirley shrink in a puff of blue mist, which set the Professor into a coughing fit. The little guy wasn’t quite back to his regular size, but the fact that he was returning to normal was another weight off of the pegasus’ mind. He returned his attention to the filly in front of him as she began speaking.

“The wing muscles were torn when she hit the cliffside, as well as quite a few of her feathers, too. Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do here other than stemming the bleeding, without unicorn magic.” Her voice was clinically detached as she listed off the problems. “There are several herbs and such that would heal her, but we don’t have access to any in these mountains. I would recommend finding the closest town and finding a healer there.”

Novell digested that for a few moments, glancing back at the linen wrapped wing and wondered idly where the wrapping had come from before dismissing the notion. The ponies in this party had a habit of pulling items out of nowhere. As he stared at the wing, a thought occurred to him.

“We have a time limit on this, don’t we?”

The filly had the guts to look him straight in the eye as she answered. “Yes. If we don’t find her a healer very soon, her wing will not be able to be healed completely by even unicorn magic.”

“How long do we have?”

Quills squinted into the mid distance, the wheels visibly turning in her mind. “I’d say a couple of more days. Two at the most, but the sooner the better.”

“You sure know a lot about this kind of thing,” Novell pointed out, trying to think of where they were in relation to Ponyville. That was the closest town to the mountain, less than half a day away, but he didn’t know if they had any medical ponies there. Of course, Hoofington was a further distance, but he knew there was a healer in the larger town.

“I transcribe books and scrolls in my library, so I know a lot about everything,” she boasted easily, not batting an eye.

“Thank you,” Novell earnestly replied. A slight flush came over the young pony’s muzzle, but she just nodded and walked back to her patient.

With the thought of Whisper’s imminent disability, Havoc’s escape, and now that he thought about it, the caretaking of two young ponies, Novell felt his eyelids droop and his knees shake. Even so, he waved it away with as much determination as he could muster and tried to get the group’s attention.

“Everypony? Excuse me?” Novell called out to the other five ponies, all of whom turned to stare at him. A nervousness suddenly suffused the pegasus and he gave a cheesy smile, not at all confident. “We have some problems.”

“You’ve got that right,” Quills snorted before being cuffed by her brother. She glared at her twin, but she remained silent all the same.

Novell decided to come right out and say it. “Havoc escaped.”

“What!?” the twins shouted in unison, their eyes darting around in panic. “How, but why-.”

“Who’s Havoc?” Whisper interrupted the two in her customary tone of annoyance. Novell was about to open his mouth to tell her when a buzzing he knew all too well appeared in his mind.

Havoc is an Afri-

“Draconequus,” Pensive broke into the Professor’s monologue. Novell noticed the twins stand stock still and stare wide eyed at the old unicorn.

-is a Draconequus imprisoned within the mountain we reside upon. Or, I suppose, was held here, since our meddling in immortal affairs caused the chain reaction of events that cascaded down into the one outcome that Havoc wished - escape from his icy tomb. This reminds this stunning stallion of sanctimonious searching of a time when he released a Gole-

“Get out of my head!” Quills screeched, falling to the ground and covering her ears with her forehooves. “Go, get away, go away!”

“Quills!” Scrolls yelled, holding his sister close as his eyes once more began rapidly shifting from place to place. Novell’s eyes widened as his exhausted brain tried to reason what was going on.

“My dear! I apolo-,” Professor Search began, a stricken look on his face.

He was interrupted by a glaring, tear-filled gaze. “Don’t ever get in my head again! Never! horrible pony!”

She descended into sobbing, Scrolls protectively directing her gaze away from the Professor. Novell’s fuzzy brain was trying hard to reconcile any particular reason for the earth pony to have come unhinged like that, especially after her cool diagnosis of Whisper earlier. As he worked through the problem, Pensive strode up and touched his mind.

I can tell these things the rest, if you would prefer to sleep.

Novell took a deep breath and shook his head, feeling like he had to let them all know himself. “Thank you, Pensive, but this is my fault. It’s my responsibility.”

Before the Professor could get himself into further trouble, the pegasus stood in between him and the twins. He glanced into Scrolls’ eyes, but he found no answer there, though several ideas presented themselves. They had been locked up with Havoc for awhile before he had joined them inside the mountain.

“Havoc escaped,” he repeated, “but we have more immediate problems. Whisper is in trouble, as I’m sure we all know by now and if we don’t find her a healer soon...”

“I’ll lose my wings,” the mare finished, her voice thick with grief. Novell’s eyes found the Professor’s and he nodded at the empathy the older pony displayed in them.

“So we need to make a decision,” Novell’s voice broke at that as tears filled his vision again. He shoved the feelings down and continued. “To continue as we were to Ponyville or return to Hoofington.”

Quills spoke up from the pegasus’ right. “Ponyville is closer. And we-.”

“-need to warn the Princesses about Havoc before he causes any trouble,” Scrolls finished softly, but firmly.

“Is there a healer in Ponyville we can rely on to help Whisper?” Novell asked, hoping the answer would be yes. He was disappointed by the filly’s next words.

“I don’t know.” The pegasus could tell how much the admission annoyed her, but at least the question seemed to have lifted her mood a bit. “We didn’t stay long enough to find out.”

Novell worked his jaw as he thought about that before nodding. “Alright, so we don’t know if there’s a healer there. I do know there is one in Hoofington, though.”

“We don’t have time to wait on me if this ‘Havoc’ is as bad as you say he is,” the orange pegasus said fiercely as Swirley cuddled up beside her. “Let’s go to Canterlot and you can drop me off in Ponyville on the way.”

Pensive chose to weigh in at that. “My Originator will rest for a few days before attempting anything. I...don’t know much about his power anymore, but at the moment, I believe he only has as much as a regular unicorn.”

“Even a normal unicorn’s power is enough to cause turmoil in the right places,” The Professor countered softly, sighing as Quills winced away from his voice. “I believe we must warn somepony in authority, and soon, but I cannot in good conscience just abandon a wounded friend.”

“Could you fly to Canterlot, Novell?” asked Scrolls with a hopeful expression.

“I would,” the pegasus replied, looking down guiltily, “but I don’t know if I could even get to see the Princesses or if anypony would believe me if I did. I’m just a blank flank...”

A snort from the mare in the midst of all this drew Novell’s attention. “And you probably wouldn’t know the way if we pointed you in the right direction.”

“Hey, I have a sense of direction. I’m not the one who-,” he cut himself off before he could say anything that would hurt her feelings. “I’m not the pony who got lost in a cloud that one time.”

A blush appeared on her orange muzzle, tinting it a bit darker than normal, but there was still a twinkle of amusement in her eyes. “I oughta pound you for mentioning that. You’re lucky I’m so tired.”

“So it’s decided,” proclaimed the Professor with a smile under his bushy mustache. “We leave together.”

“Toward Ponyville,” Novell nodded. And then to Canterlot to tell the Princesses that I just released an agent of chaos into the world.

The pony broke out in a sweat just thinking of it, but a touch from Pensive’s hoof calmed him. He gave the unicorn a weak grin, which his friend tried to imitate. This involved the corners of one side of Pensive’s mouth to turn up while the other twitched upward, resulting in a grimace. Mirth bubbled up in Novell’s throat at that, but he kept it inside, glad to see the teal pony trying to show emotion.

“Who made you the leader?” Quills asked bitterly. “Maybe we should just go to Canterlot by ourselves, Scrolls. We don’t need them.”

“My dear, I don’t think travelling alone at your age is-,” the Professor began.

“I don’t need you to tell me what I can’t and can’t do, Professor Research!” she yelled at him as her pale muzzle turned red. Her saddle shook with her rage, its fluffiness a counterpoint to her attitude. Wow, I really am getting tired if I’m making analogies like that, Novell thought as if in a fog.


“Shut it! I don’t care. I’m going to bed!” the adolescent pony replied before trotting off to the other end of their small cave and turning her back to them. She plopped down and began muttering to herself, Scrolls following a second later with a mournful look on his face. Novell couldn’t imagine what kind of trouble the young pony went through with a sister like that.

That thought brought him up short as he looked to Whisper automatically. The mare patted her pet and gave the snail a quick hug before settling her head on her hooves in front of her.

“I do so detest that nickname,” the Professor seethed next to Novell, careful to keep his voice low before breathing a deep sigh of resignation. “A good rest will do us all good, I suppose. We will handle all of this on the morrow, lad. Good night.”

“Yeah,” the pegasus responded absently, letting his saddlebags fall as he sat down on his haunches. He yawned and turned toward them, glad to have them back. He hoped the dreams his mother told him they would help him chase would be part of his slumber tonight. After everything that had happened, he really needed something pleasant to occur.

Something caught his eye as he settled down to rest, a bit of brown that differed from the lighter colored saddlebags. He examined it closer, curious as to why he felt a connection to the thing. With a muted sound of leather sliding across itself, he opened one side of this saddlebags and pulled the object out.

I promise I will do my best to keep him from bringing this mountain under his thrall again, though I do not know if I can.

        Novell stared blankly at the crudely made sculpture of a pegasus in flight, a spark alighting in his eyes. He needed to stop Havoc, whatever the Princesses said.

        Then the pact is made, a voice whispered from the carving as he turned it on his hoof.

        With a renewed purpose in mind, Novell glanced over at Whisper once more. The promise was his to keep, but he was going to make sure his friend was taken care of before he did anything else. With a smile, the pegasus nodded off next to the steadily dwindling fire, his companions already beginning to snore as slumber overtook them. Just before he let his mind free from mortal worries, a whisper echoed through his mind.

        We would have it no other way, Soundmaker.

Chapter 10: Evergreen

        Warmth coated the young pegasus’ face as he groggily drew himself to wakefulness, a welcome, orange light just visible behind his closed eyelids. His head felt light and bubbly from the sleep he had been able to catch, an urge to just snooze in the sunlight almost overpowering. A second later, one of his ears twitched as it picked up a sound, an unpleasant reminder that he couldn’t stay asleep forever. As if in accordance with that thought, his mind steadily becoming aware of the stiffening muscles and unyielding solidness of what he was sleeping on.

        With these sensations came the reminders of all the things that needed to be done that day, not the least of which getting his oldest friend to somepony that could help her. Just five more minutes, he grumbled inwardly with a strange regret heavy on his mind. There was no going back to that kind of thinking, not with somepony’s life in his hooves.

        Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and pushed the exhaustion away with by now practiced ease. I don’t think I’ve had a full night’s sleep since before I found the Professor, Novell thought as he checked his surroundings. Whisper was still asleep, snoring far softer than she had when the Dazey had effected her. A movement drew his eyes as Swirley scooted out from under her good wing, back to his regular size and heading directly toward a half-eaten leaf.

        A flicker of recognition scratched at the back of the pegasus’ mind as he stared at the snail’s prize. Swirley ignored him other than a shake of his eyestalks in his direction, leaving Novell to wonder how the snail had hidden the snack. His morning daze was interrupted by raised voices near the cave’s mouth, where two silhouettes stood against the sunlight.

        “We should leave him here!” Quills’ voice growled loudly.

        “You know very well we can’t leave the mare by herself and he goes where she goes. You couldn’t leave her if you wanted to,” her twin responded, sounding reasonable and placating.

        Novell’s ears strained against the sudden pause before the filly began speaking again. “Fine. Just keep him away from me. And tell that pegasus to tell him to keep a lid on that unicorn’s...everything.”

        “You know it wasn’t really him tha-,” her brother began hesitatingly before being interrupted.

        “I know that. It doesn’t make any difference. Now shut it before somepony wakes up.”

        “Kind of hard to sleep when you two are bickering,” Whisper’s voice called out as she yawned and picked herself up. Novell noticed her wince as she stretched her wings involuntarily, a prick of deja vu affecting him. Her pet had noticed the mare’s movement right away and was already racing toward her hooves with as much speed as it could muster. A smile fell across her muzzle as she picked the mollusk up and placed it neatly on top of her mane.

        The alabaster pegasus couldn’t help but grin at her gentle handling, careful to keep it concealed behind a feigned yawn of his own. Truth be told, that yawn isn’t all acting, he thought ruefully as he placed his saddlebags on his flank. They felt reassuring and served to galvanize him into motion. He joined the mare as she walked toward the cave’s mouth and shook his messy mane.

        With the sunlight streaming in, Novell was surprised just how chilling it was outside, his body naturally ignoring the bite. He didn’t envy the two earth ponies even now grumbling against the weather. Fortunately, their clothing seemed to keep the worst away, Scrolls allowing his sister to adjust his scarf with her back turned toward them.

        Still, Novell wasn’t paying any attention to them as he reached the ledge that overlooked the valley in front of him. It wasn’t his own, to his surprise, instead surrounded only on a few sides by mountain peaks that rose higher than he imagined he could fly. Rolling hills and trails crisscrossed the kingdom, all reaching toward a center point that the pegasus recognized as a town.

However, a large swath of green amongst the burgundy and golden colors that marked the nearing of winter drew his attention the most, the branches waving in defiance against nature’s course. The strangely out of place forest directly below their cave seemed to almost absorb the light in some places, a sense of foreboding entering the pegasus’ mind just from his perch. There was a name for this forest, but his sleep addled mind couldn’t procure it.

“The Everfree Forest,” Professor Search’s voice tolled out in a strangely subdued voice from behind the four ponies. Novell felt himself jump at his friend’s sudden entrance, a pair of snickers from the two females beside him evidence he was the only one not to see the unicorn coming. He felt his face blush, but there were more important things on his mind.

“That’s the Everfree?” asked the young pegasus, allowing his brows to furrow in consternation. “But weren’t we on the other side of the mountain from it?”

“At first, yes,” the Professor admitted, gazing out across the forest in question with more wrinkles than Novell remembered him having. “But when our guide brought us up the mountain trails, we trotted the entire way around. I confess I wasn’t sure, what with the snow and clouds surrounding us on the last leg of our journey, but I had a suspicion.”

The pegasus chewed on that for a few moments, watching as Quills examined Whisper’s bandages. A redness was seeping through the white, enough to make his stomach turn and further compound his guilt. She was like this because of him.

With a sigh and a sudden stomp that sent a bit of snow a few inches away, Novell replied. “So that’s Ponyville, directly across the forest?”

“Hmm. Yes, yes, I do believe it is,” the unicorn replied with a sudden grin appearing on his face. “An interesting place, to be sure, filled with all sorts of zany ponyfolk. I once conducted a study there on the antics of a particularly strange pink pony, but for some reason, I never finished the research. It might have been all the parties,” he paused and looked back at his paunch. “Though I did gain quite a few unwelcome pounds from those parties, at any rate.”

“How far away would you say we are if we cut straight across the forest?” Scrolls asked in an effort to bring the unicorn back to the main point of discussion. Novell glanced at the earth pony and noticed that while he seemed to not want to meet the Professor’s gaze, he wasn’t actively ignoring him either.

The Professor choked a bit at that, coughing behind his mustache. “Cu-cut through the Everfree? My boy, that’s...not the best solution.”

“Well, what other choice do we have? Can we go around it?” Novell asked curiously, though he felt like he already knew the answer. Putting aside the fact that judging from the distance, they wouldn’t be able to make it to the road and then head to Ponyville, the pegasus also felt a strange draw toward a few of the more darkened areas of the forest. It was as if they were reaching toward him with their shadowy branches.

“No. The mare shall not regain her ability to fly, should we travel around this place,” Pensive’s voice appeared out of nowhere, followed by a slight seam in the air before the pegasus. The unicorn’s head popped through with a burst of blue magic in a repeat of the scene Novell had witnessed back in the mountain. The pegasus felt his eyes slide toward the Professor, who was staring at the teal pony with a mixture of discomfort and interest.

Popping out of somepony’s head would definitely do that, Novell thought wryly, a grin sneaking onto his face. It quickly fell as his friend’s words registered.

“Wait, what do you mean?”

        Pensive pierced the pegasus with his gaze. “I simply am saying that we will not make it in the time limit given if we go around. Doing so would take several days of travel, only one of them in the right direction.”

        “So, what, are we just going to sit here while the mare looses her wing?” Quills put in as caustic as ever. Everypony swiveled their heads to glance at her and caused her to puff up in self importance. “We could just go through the stupid forest and make it to Ponyville in plenty of time. It’s right there!”

        “My dear, regardless of your feelings toward me, I must tell you that the Everfree is an extremely dangerous place to be, no matter the experience even I have. Going through there would expose us to all kinds of creatures, hardly any of them benevolent.”

        “So? It’s not like we have a choice.” Her scowl deepened at the unicorn. “Besides, we’re a big group! Nothing would mess with us if we’re together and if anything does, you can just use your zappy magic powers to turn them into bunnies or something!”

        The Professor raised a hoof to his chest as if insulted. “‘Turn them into bunnies or something’? Who do you think I am, Starswirl the Bearded? Even if I were to know such spells, which I definitely do not, I doubt I have the magic reservoirs to deal with everything in this forest.”

        “What about you, icy?” the teenaged filly twirled on Pensive. “You can turn them into ice or teleport us all away with your horn, can’t you? I saw you do all sorts of things for Havoc when we were in the mountain!”

        Pensive blinked at her and cocked his head. “I have the same circumstances as the Elder, little Quills. I am cut off from my Originator’s ma-.”

        “Ugh, I heard you the first time,” the earth pony groaned and raised her hooves to the air. “Is there anypony who’s useful in this group?”

        “Well, what do you do?” Novell asked her pointedly as she turned around toward him with a glare already on her face. He was tired of her constant needling of his friends. “I mean, you’re just an Earth Pony, after all, and a young one, too! How are you any more useful?”

        “I’m a genius.” She sniffed haughtily, turning around with her nose in the air and trotted down the path that led to the forest below. “I’m going through this Everdumb forest with or without you. Come on, Scrolls!”

        With a pained look, her twin trotted off in pursuit. Novell snorted, shook his mane in irritation, and stared at his circle of friends. Pensive was staring off at nothing while the Professor huffed to himself and followed the filly, grumbling under his breath about ‘youngsters having no manners’. Whisper glanced at him curiously and stood a bit closer to him with a faint ruffle of her wings.

        “I hate not being able to fly. If I could, we’d be there in ten minutes,” the mare said with a scowl.

        “Well, if you could fly, we wouldn’t need to be there this soon.” The words were out of his mouth before he could control them, his irritation speaking for him. He saw Whisper stiffen just as his words splashed over his head like a bucket of ice water and instantly stammered an apology. “Whisper, I-.”

        “I owe you a pounding.” She glared and raised a hoof to cuff him across his shoulder. As soon as she swiped at him, she winced and almost fell over before righting herself, waving away his helping hoof with a shake of her curly mane. Swirley blinked accusingly at Novell as she stalked away in the same manner Quills had assumed. He stared after her, feeling like an idiot as Pensive stirred in front of him.

“Friendship is strange,” the unicorn said after a time, following after the group of ponies.

For a few moments, Novell mulled over those words and his own reactions toward the mare. Why did they always seem to annoy each other? If he was honest, her annoyances cheered him up more than anything, but why couldn’t he do the same to her?

“Well, my cutie mark definitely has nothing to do with knowing when to speak and when not to,” he sighed to the empty air as the smell of the forest wafted around him. His stomach grumbled at the thought of the grass that had to be in the Everfree, with its seemingly perpetual greenness. The sound of gravel and snow crunching beneath his feet drew him out of his thoughts, now a few feet from where he had been standing.

He glanced to the forest again, wondering how he kept missing moments of time. Ah, well, I’m too hungry to think right now. Maybe after I eat something. With a nod to himself, Novell followed the party of five other ponies and imagined being back at the Hops’ lodge. He was really beginning to miss that orange juice.


        The Everfree Forest was a lot more frightening in my mind, the pegasus thought as he followed his friends through the light spattered trail they’d found. So far, nothing save a few squirrels had assaulted them with bits of twig and leaves as animals scurried through the trees above. Even so, Novell kept a look out, though he felt less on edge than he would be normally. Perhaps it was the dull pulling sensation in his chest leading him further along the trail, constant and insistent.


        “Well, this is dangerous,” Quills interrupted his thoughts sarcastically, trotting along in the lead. She stopped and feigned fright by bringing a hoof to her forehead and theatrically sighing at a suspiciously gigantic sunflower. Its black seed face moved around and around in a mystifying dance as the petals flicked back and forth, following their progress.

        “Ah, that plant brings back memories,” the Professor put in, momentarily brought out of his uncharacteristically silent mood. “If you ask it a certain question, it will even play a few notes. What was it called again? Oh, yes! A Sunlyre. I’ve seen a whole grove of them in here once, forming an absolutely stunning orchestra. In fact, I was almost caught by one of the Everfree’s many denizens as I stood there, shellshocked by the magnificent flowers dancing and playing in front of-.”

        “Yes, yes, you’ve seen everything and know everything and blah blah blah,” the earth pony growled, pushing the Sunlyre backwards. Suddenly it began to chime, surprising the filly enough for her to take a few steps away from it. Novell smiled as the flower danced and rang like the sound of the wind bells that decorated the porches of many a Hoofington resident.

        The Professor chuckled and winked at Novell as they moved past the flower, Pensive examining it for a few moments before nodding and following. “What are the odds that she’d use the phrase they respond to?”

        “Blah, blah, blah?” asked Whisper with an arched brow as the Sunlyre resumed its one flower symphony.

        “Why, of course! It only makes sense,” the charcoal-colored unicorn responded with a winning smile as he trotted away with a skip in his step.

        “It’s a wonder it doesn’t sing more often,” she mocked, to Scrolls’ delight. The colt chuckled at the joke as he pulled his sister along with him. Whisper gave him a curious glance at the sudden outburst.

        “Oh, if only you knew Professor Mark,” Scrolls explained, Quills following sullenly behind him. “He made fun of all the stuffy old codgers in the universities all over Canterlot, but he always said Professor Search was his favorite bumbling researcher. They were friends at one point, too.”

        Curiosity assailed both pegasi as the colt trotted between them, asking the same question at once. “Friends? What happened?”

        “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you two were twins, too,” Scrolls smirked at his own wordplay. “But, yes, they used to be friends. Professor Mark worked jointly with Search on more than a few projects when they were younger. I remember him even telling Quills she reminded him of the unicorn.”

        “He did not! Shut it, Scrolls!” Quills objected from behind them, eavesdropping on their conversation.

        “Ignore her. She’s just mad because she was outsmarted by Professor Search,” the male earth pony taunted, running around Novell as his sister chased after him. With a flap of wings, the pegasus flew upward enough to not be bowled over by the other pony’s ferocious charge. The twins raced through the group, Scrolls always one step ahead as Quills tried to strike him with her hoof.

        As he touched down again, Pensive slowed to join the two pegasi. As if remembering she was still mad at Novell, Whisper scowled and trotted forward to break up the earth ponies even now caught up in a fight.

        “I confess I do not understand these things,” the unicorn started as they watched the orange mare separate the twins. “We are in a hurry, yet they play and act as though time means nothing.”

        “Sometimes ponies just have to have fun and forget all their troubles. Even in a forest like this, its just a natural reaction to stress,” Novell explained, though he hurried his own pace unconsciously.

        Pensive sped up to match the pegasus’ stride and nodded. “I see.”

        “How are you doing?” asked Novell, giving the unicorn a sidelong glance. “How are you acclimating to all this?”

        “I do not know,” Pensive admitted as he glanced around the forest. “I have never been alone inside my mind before. It is...different. It feels like I can do whatever I want, but at the same time, I lack direction. I do not know what my purpose is, even though I have this mark upon my flank, something I find most troubling.” He paused in his speech for a few moments as he took in their group. “These things we travel with seem to have found their places in life, yet I feel as though I am simply looking in from the outside. Emotion and purpose...I wish to have these concepts I see as Life.”

        The two fell silent as they became absorbed in their thoughts, Novell barely paying attention to his surroundings as he digested what the unicorn had said. The pronouncements mirrored his own concerns - he felt as if he had no purpose either beyond his promise. His life had only been one task set forth by another, over and over, in order to find his place. Direction had been given in the past, but the future was filled with freedom to choose. The thought terrified him. I don’t know what I want to do or even if I have a talent, the pegasus despaired.

        Right now, at least, he was still being directed. His promise to stop Havoc was a general goal, though it was currently subsumed by Whisper’s predicament. Wearily, he put aside his fears and roused from his reverie to work at the problem. Where in the world is Havoc?

        “Wherever there is chaos to be had,” Pensive said suddenly, intruding upon his thoughts.

        “That’s really creepy, you know.”

        The unicorn cocked his head as they entered a clearing, the sunlight momentarily blinding Novell. They’d been under the foliage’s canopy for so long, his eyes were unused to such brilliance. Blinking his eyes against the glare, the pegasus examined his new surroundings.

He recognized some Dazies in a circle near the edge of the clearing along with a few more Sunlyres rustling in the breeze as their seeds swirled about. To his left there was some kind of strange rock laying in the grass, a hint of moss already beginning to cover it. It reminded him of a rabbit if he had to be honest. Before he could investigate it, his stomach chose that moment to remind him it hadn’t had food in quite awhile.

“Alright, everypony, let’s go ahead and take a break here,” Novell called out as the twins and Whisper messed with the dancing flowers. Notes chimed through the air as one of the ponies spoke the silly phrase. The Professor was almost at the edge of the clearing already, staring off into the more darkened areas with a troubled expression. The unicorn turned when he heard Novell’s voice and dipped his head in acknowledgement. Even so, he stayed where he was and pulled out his journal again.

As Pensive and he bent down to tear into the grass below him, curiosity took hold of the pegasus. “Do you know what’s wrong with the Professor?”

        “The Elder?” the teal pony asked, chewing and staring over toward the other unicorn. “No, I cannot see into his mind like I can yours. He is an Elder, though, and could be using magical shields to keep me out. Still, even if he was not, I would not dare to enter his thoughts without permission.”

        “Why’s that? You do it to me all the time,” Novell retorted around a mouthful of good, old-fashioned daisies.

        “We have touched minds once before,” Pensive said carefully, pausing in his meal. “There is a sort between us. I cannot help but see your thoughts, regardless of my own will. I find it comforting at times, though, since I can tell if you are troubled and react accordingly.”

        “‘At times’?” he asked curiously.

        A blush appeared on the pony’s muzzle and he looked away. “There are...certain moments...when you think of the mare. It is too private for this one to eavesdrop.”

        “Wh-what do you mean by that?” His friend’s drop into more formal language was endearing, but the words were troubling. He didn’t think of Whisper at all, did he? She was like a sister - an annoying, brash, abrasive sister. Kind of like Quills.

        “Yet another emotion I wish to experience,” Pensive sighed with genuine regret tinging his tone. “By myself, I mean. It is a warm feeling, similar to friendship, but deeper and...closer.”

        “Ah.” Novell dipped back to the grass, at a loss for what to say.


        The hours passed quickly as they travelled through the forest, though Novell had to admit he had a hard time telling exactly how fast. The canopy above them had become steadily darker, which could either mean the sun was going down or just that they were entering one of the more shadowy reaches of the Everfree. Along with his assumptions came his old fears of being grounded in a forest after dark. Even though his wings were healed and he could fly, there was nowhere to go with how tight the branches were interlocked above him.

        As if to compound his terror, new noises had been scratching at his ears, strange cluck-hisses and even a few roars further in the background. Their party had collapsed closer involuntarily until Novell was hip to hoof with Quills and the Professor.

        “Professor Search,” the pegasus gulped, his ear twitching with each crack of a branch beneath their hooves. “You don’t happen to know what’s out there do you?”

        The unicorn harrumphed as he stared out at the darkness. “Well, there are many kinds of things that could be out there. I do know we have a cockatrice nearby, along with what I believe might be a...large beast roaring out there in the distance. Could be a Manticore or even a Sasquatch. I can’t tell.”

        “A cockatrice?” Novell asked, thinking back to the stone in the clearing. Had it actually been a bunny?

        “Quite so, my boy. Have no fear, though. As long as we stay together, like Miss Quills suggested before we came in, it shan’t bother us. The beasts are cowards for the most parts, only picking on something they know they can fight and only then if it’s small or alone. We are neither.” Professor Search gave him a wan grin. “Though I would be more concerned with whatever beast is making that racket. I don’t believe we’ve been discovered, but it is unsettlingly close.”

        Whisper furrowed her brows as her ears flicked this way and that. “I thought you said it was still far away?”

        “Being anywhere close enough to hear its cries is a bad thing,” Scrolls put in, seemingly unruffled by the knowledge they could be assaulted by any manner of beasts at a moment’s notice. Novell wondered if the colt was just putting on a brave front - either way, the effect served to quell the dark thoughts a bit. If the teenager could be brave, so could he.

        “Let’s keep going. Just be careful and stay together,” Novell said unwaveringly, proud of his attempt not to sound like he was scared out of his mind.

        Unfortunately, that was the exact moment being frightened out of his fetlocks was perfectly understandable.

        With a roar that sent their manes flapping behind their heads, a massive form peeled itself from the nigh impenetrable tree trunks. A furry body, two wicked, ivory horns, and two great hands with three fingers each were the only things he noticed before it roared again.  Novell involuntarily squinted his eyes against the rush of hot air, disgusting breath, and sticky saliva that pelted their group. A growl from behind him caused the already pumping adrenaline in his veins to increase rapidly as he twisted around to behold another gigantic monster pounding its chest.

        “By Clover the Clever’s Crafty Cerebellum, a Sasquatch and a Minotaur in the same space?” The Professor nearly squeed in glee, hopping from one foot to another in a bizarrely out of place dance. “I’ve seen them separately, but challenging one another to get at a meal? New behavior! I would never think the Sasquatch would strike out on its own, let alone fight a Minotaur!”

        “We’re the meal, you blabbering moron!” Quills yelled over the din as they all backed into one another’s flanks.

        “Any ideas?” Whisper hissed as she accidentally moved her wings.

        “We could run?” Scrolls offered.

        Novell shook his head and wracked his brain for some kind of solution. “No, running would just make us lose each other. I don’t want to blunder into anything else by myself.”

        “Well, are we just going to sit here and wait for them to chow down, then?” the parchment colored filly asked sarcastically.

        Before they could enact any of the half baked plans in their minds, the Sasquatch rushed forward directly toward Novell. Despite his fear, the pegasus set his hooves in the ground and growled. He wasn’t going to let anything take his friends!

A faint memory came to him - something the Professor had said about Sasquatches being similar to Yeti. A concentrated expression crossed his face as he ran toward the beast, diving through its legs as it reached down to swipe at him with its giant claws. This better work better than last time, he frantically thought as a feeling blossomed in his chest that this was the moment to seize.

        Sliding to a stop, he dug his front hooves into the dirt and bucked the Sasquatch right in the left leg. His hooves bounced off the furry appendage, pain lancing through his hind legs as if he had hit a brick wall. Luckily his efforts were worth something - the beast roared in pain and fell forward the same way Novell had envisioned. A prickling between his shoulders warned him a moment before he heard a rush of something huge slicing through the air. The pegasus ducked, his hooves shielding his head as he fell to the grassy forest floor.

        Without a thought, he sprang up into the air and opened his wings just below the wicked branches that consisted of the canopy and surveyed the scene. His friends were running and jumping away as the Minotaur pounded the ground with its meaty hands, the light from the Professor’s and Pensive’s horns aglow in the gloom. Even as he watched, a gray light took hold of one of the horns on the beast and dragged it to the side directly into a tree, which splintered under its weight.

        The Sasquatch he had bucked was nowhere to be seen, though there was a sizable hole in the forest near him. Dismissing it for the moment, he dived toward the Minotaur, which even then grabbed a tree in its massive hand and brandished it like a club. It roared again, the sound enough to dull Novell’s hearing as he zipped across its vision in an effort to distract it.

        The pegasus heard a whistling coming from behind him, panic filling his chest as he realized he was about to be pulverized by a swing from the monster’s new weapon. Gritting his teeth, Novell shifted his wings to bring him into a tight loop that gave him the opportunity to watch as the tree trunk flashed under him like a speeding train. The wind following it helped to complete his loop, leveling out and managing to get his hooves under him before he slammed into a nearby tree.

He used his momentum to bounce off the springy wood just as the Minotaur swung its club back around with surprising speed and cracked both trunks into splinters. An angry growl greeted him as he flew directly at the horned head and stopped with a wing wrenching quickness. Its eyes shifted upward at him as he floated there in front of its head, a glittering intelligence evident there. The pegasus was momentarily stunned by what he saw, a ‘what’ running through his mind.

“Novell! Move!” Pensive’s voice yelled out both inside his mind and out, breaking him out of his distraction to twirl around and see the fist heading right for him. Before he could bring his wings down to escape, the three fingered appendage caught him around the middle.

Oh, haystacks, he thought a second before he felt the hand compress him and bring his body to one of its big eyes. It opened its maw and Novell thought for sure he was about to be its next meal.

“Little pegasus,” it grumbled instead and for the second time in as many seconds, the pegasus was surprised. “Why attack Minh? Minh save!”

“It talks?” Whisper blurted incredulously.

“Attack you? You attacked my friends!” Novell responded, ignoring the mare’s question.

“They hurt Minh first!” it roared, shaking him enough for an audible rattle to come from the pegasus’ head. After a few seconds of his eyes spinning in their sockets, he shook his head and responded.

“Okay, okay, stop shaking me!”

The Minotaur growled at him.

“What did you mean you ‘save’?” he asked, hoping the beast wasn’t going to accidentally, or even purposefully, crush him in its grip.

“Squatch mean and stalk,” Minh replied, turning him around and pointing at the unconscious beast laying amongst a bunch of cracked tree trunks. “Minh hit and it fly but then magic hurt Minh! Unicorn ungra- ungrit- not thankful.”

“Oh, dear, he means me, doesn’t he?” the Professor said from below, who was currently stroking his mustache. “I apologize, good...Minotaur! I only wished to protect my friends and I did not know you were here to help us!”

A great snort came from the beast and washed over Novell with enough of an aroma to cause him to gag. “Unicorn sorry. Minh say no worry. We had good fight. Ponies full of spirit. Minh like that.”

“So, uhm, can you please put our friend down?” Scrolls called up to the Minotaur.

“No. Minh like pegasus. Minh bring home,” it responded, turning and stomping off toward one of the darker parts of the forest. He heard his friends trotting after him, but he couldn’t turn around to see them.

“Wh-what? Why are you bringing me home? Where is home?” Novell asked of his unwanted protector.

It knocked over a tree with a negligent backhand before responding and chuckled. “Pegasus ask too many questions. Pegasuses make good pets. Just need clip wings. Then they quiet.”

“C-c-clip wings!?” he cried out in terror. “Uh, no, Minh, no. That’s not necessary. I, uh, I like my wings just the way they are.”

“Pegasuses always say that. Then they sad. Maybe Minh no clip wings. Just use chain instead!” the Minotaur replied amicably.

“Professor!” Novell yelled, trying to wiggle out of the beasts’ clutches.

“Hold on, lad, we’ve got a plan!” his friend called out from behind him.

A plan? I’m going to be chained! What kind of plan is that?! Novell wanted to yell at them, but he kept silent. He had to trust them. They were his friends. Still, that didn’t stop him from worrying.

        The darkness of the forest grew as the Minotaur stomped his way through the forest, his friends’ hoofbeats reassuring as they followed. There are some benefits of travelling with something as big as this, I guess, Novell thought. Nothing bothered them, though there were more than a few roars from the distance. A few times, Minh even roared back, stopping in place and smacking a tree near him. Each time, the pegasus’ hearing descended into a dull buzzing, a headache steadily growing between his eyes.

        “Are we even going the right direction?” Quills complained breathily, the first time any of the ponies had spoken in the last hour. She sounded winded and Novell hoped they were close to Minh’s home, if only so his friends could take a break. Trotting for an hour wasn’t the most pleasing sensation for someone who wasn’t used to it.

        “Indeed we are, my dear,” Professor Search responded in a cheery voice. “All part of the plan. We should only be six hours away from Ponyville. We’ll reach the town by tomorrow if we hold to this course.”

        “Thank the Goddesses. I can’t wait until I can fly again,” Whisper’s labored voice came, causing Novell to wince in sympathy. All this running couldn’t be easy on the mare.

        “If ponies follow, ponies be quiet!” Minh growled threateningly, none the worse for wear from the trek. “Minh sleep here. Quiet now!”

        Without aplomb, his captor fell to the ground and planted his back against a sturdy oak that only slightly creaked with the weight. The grip around his body loosened for a split second, but before he could even attempt to wiggle himself out, it tightened once more. Trapped against a smelly monster that’s going to clap me in irons. Wonderful.

        Patience, Novell, Pensive’s voice echoed in his mind and suddenly Novell was glad the unicorn was skilled with telepathy. As soon as this thing falls asleep, we will free you.

        Can’t you make it fall asleep? he directed his thought irritably at his friend. Or freeze it in ice like you did the Professor?

        A flash of amusement flickered through his mind, but the unicorn didn’t answer. Frustrated, Novell tried to make himself as comfortable as he could being squished by the large fist. Night couldn’t come fast enough for him.


Wake up.

        The pegasus jerked awake at the mental prod, his eyes flying open and glancing around at the almost pitch black forest. The sound of steady breathing synced with the rush of sickening breath flowing over his mane. How he had fallen asleep with that lovely aroma surrounding him he didn’t know.

        A click of hooves against a stone drew his attention to the left as a couple of shapes moved across the darkness. With a stuttering breath, Minh grumbled in his sleep at the sound, scooting back and forth momentarily into a more comfortable position. Novell held his breath through it all, hoping he wouldn’t squeak at an inopportune moment if the fist tightened too much. His ears twitched nervously at the sound of owls and crickets and hoped they weren’t enough to wake the minotaur up.

        “Quiet!” Scrolls’ whispered voice cut into the darkness, far too loud in the pegasus’ opinion.

        Quills’ customary growl was all that came in response and the sounds of the forest once more reigned over the silence. A second later, something pushed on Novell’s flank and almost caused him to yelp in surprise. He swallowed the impulse and felt his body rise accompanied by grunts by whoever was pushing on him.

Eventually, after stopping several times whenever Minh fidgeted, Novell wiggled out enough to open his wings. With their help, the pegasus flew upward and out of the Minotaur’s clutches, suddenly filled with relief at being free. He hadn’t noticed how on edge he had been with his wings pinned to his sides.

“Mmmm....pony pet...” Minh grumbled and shifted his hand to his chest, accompanied by a squeak as he squeezed some- wait, what? Somepony traded places with me?!

Panic filled the pegasus’ chest as he dove back toward the Minotaur’s sleeping form, intent on trying to save whichever of his friends was moronic enough to trade places. How was this a plan?

Go, Novell. Do not worry, Pensive’s voice echoed in his mind.

Don’t worry? Don’t worry? Of course I’m going to worry! Nopony should ever trade places with me! I’d rather be the one caught! he thought fiercely just as something grabbed his tail and stopped him on a dime. He hung there, swinging like a pendulum as the pale aura of the Professor’s magic pulled him toward the forest. No, no, no!

He futilely flapped his wings, glad they were mostly soundless as he struggled to get out of the magical grasp. Being maneuvered around against his will was getting old really fast. Seeding unicorns, he cursed inwardly.

“Calm down, my boy,” whispered the Professor as soon as he was brought through what he recognized as bushes. He could just make out the forms of the unicorn and Whisper, their eyes shining slightly against the glare of Professor Search’s magical field.

“Calm down? How am I supposed to calm down when there’s another pony with Minh? If he wakes up and doesn’t find me, they’ll be crushed! Who switched with me anyway?” Novell hissed, trying to keep his voice low.

The sound of bushes rustling interrupted any chance of a reply, the pegasus already opening his wings in fright. Fortunately, the rustling wasn’t the work of a horrible, pony-eating monster.

“You are the loudest filly I know, Quills!” Scrolls muttered as they worked their way through into what Novell now realized was a small, hidden grove. Bushes surrounded them on all sides, enough cover to make sure anything sniffing around had a hard time finding them.

“If there wasn’t a giant beast that could crush us if we woke it up, I’d pound you so hard you’d wake up on the moon,” the other twin replied heatedly. As it was, there was a thwack as a tree branch whipped around and hit Scrolls in the face.

“Ow! What was that for?”

“Serves you right!”

“Quiet!” Whisper growled at the two teenaged ponies. “Can we go now, Professor? My wing is starting to feel stiff.”

A pinprick of guilt seized Novell’s heart at the last. They needed to keep going and here he was, slowing them down again.

“Of course, yes, of course. Off we go, my little ponies. I do hope all of you are rested, because we must unfortunately keep a rather swift pace.”

“What about Pensive?” the white pegasus asked, realizing now who had switched with him.

A snort came from the Professor’s outline as the unicorn twirled in a circle before his horn lit up. “He’ll be along shortly. Have no fear, young Novell, it is all part of the plan. Now, if my magical compass is correct, we must head this way!”

With that the Professor’s form exited the small grove, his horn lighting the way with a gentle ambiance. Novell swallowed his concerns about Pensive and followed, hoping the unicorn would be okay. Despite his powers, the pony was still just a regular unicorn now, mortal and able to be hurt.

I shall be fine, Novell, the pony in question whispered mentally as they passed the hulking minotaur. Minh shifted in his sleep again, mumbling about pets and how he’d take care of them.

I’ll hold you to that then, he thought, pulling his wings in tighter against the growing darkness, glad he had friends like these to travel with him. Ten minutes later, Pensive joined them in a glow of pale blue, the roar of a Minotaur far behind them.

“Off we go then, everypony,” Professor Search said, looking nervously over his shoulder. They hurried their pace, sticking together under the cover of the malevolent trees, thoughts of being hounded spurring their efforts. They had less than a day to reach Ponyville.

Chapter 11: Storms

        Sunlight was just beginning to peek through the tightly clustered branches above the group as they trotted on, their pursuit shaken sometime during the course of the night. The ragged breathing of Novell’s companions buzzed in his ears, but even so they didn’t flag. A few times in their flight, Whisper’s wounds had reopened and forced them to stop in order to halt the renewed bleeding. Each time they did this, the mare’s face grew paler and paler beneath the Professor’s magical glow, but she kept the forced pace with a grim determination.

Even with his eyes burning from lack of sleep, Novell worried over his friend’s worsening condition. He didn’t know how long Whisper could continue galloping like this before she finally collapsed. Come to think of it, I don’t know how long any of us can, his tired mind put in.

    A slight squishing sound came from the top of his head as Swirley repositioned himself for the umpteenth time, setting his teeth on edge. Little more than an hour after they escaped Minh the Minotaur, he’d offered to take the little mollusk and relieve Whisper of the burden of carrying him. Since then, a small part of him was beginning to regret it, but he waved away Pensive’s attempts to take turns. Better he be tired than the others - they were all smarter, faster, and stronger than he was, after all.

Another squish brought his wandering mind back on track. I don’t know how she deals with this, Novell thought with a shiver. It’s so...slimy.

Their hoofbeats blended together into a dull background noise that lulled the pegasus into a half comatose state, barely capable of keeping his eyes open. A burning sensation in his neck from his newfound cargo was a constant irritation, though the stitch in his side and cramping leg muscles were a close second. Thankfully Pensive and the Professor had taken the lead, giving the rest of the party ample time to locate any roots or rocks that seemed ever present. He didn’t fancy the thought of tripping and adding a broken nose to his pains.

Finally, they all stopped as if in unspoken agreement, falling over onto the grass with little care where they landed. As Novell closed his eyes and the snail tumbled off his head, he noticed that the sounds of the forest were no longer present. All that his ears picked up was the heavy breathing of his companions, from the wheezing inhalations of Whisper to the rumble of the Professor’s barrel chest.

Naturally, the grey coated unicorn was the first to recover his voice. “I say, that was quite the jog. I’ve not had to run for so long since the time I had a half blind Diamond Dog mistake my horn for a jewel.” He paused to take a deep breath for another ramble. “That was quite the adventure, let me tell you. Nearly drooled all over my precious mustache when he finally caught me! Disgusting creatures and none too bright, if I might add!”

“Shu...shu’p...” Quills wearily got out between breaths.

A bubble of mirth rose through Novell at her words, so stubbornly against the Professor even now. Spots danced before his eyes as he laughed around his diaphragm’s attempts to suck in more air. A few seconds later, Scrolls added his chuckles to the din, followed quickly by Professor Search’s deep chortling and Whisper’s pained snickers. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Pensive smirking, though whether it was because he understood the joke or because their laughter was infectious, the pegasus couldn’t tell.

Eventually the moment passed, their bodies slowly recovering from the abuse they had been put through during the night. New sounds began to occur as they rested, birds just beginning to sing in the morning’s light, jays and sparrows flocking through the trees. Raccoons and other nocturnal creatures were retiring to their dens in a grumbling resignation as the sun rose. Surprisingly normal for a forest said to be magical, Novell noticed, flicking his eyes around to examine the life.

There is little chaos here, despite its reputation. Even though it is mystical, there is a certain order here that my Originator would find most unpleasant, the familiar voice of a certain teal unicorn whispered in his mind.

“Tell that to the Minotaur we met last night,” Novell said out loud, wondering if there was some kind of system the unicorn could see but he could not. A new thought occurred to him, grimacing as he realized nopony else knew he was talking to Pensive. Still, either they were ignoring his crazypony talk or they didn’t hear him, because there was no scathing reply from either of the girls.

Moments passed with a relaxed pace as he stared up at the branches above him, no longer seeming to reach for him like he thought he had seen under the cover of darkness. In fact, if he were to think anything, it would be that the forest was quite beautiful in the light. Not that I want to stay here any longer, he thought quickly in case anything malevolent was listening. Who knows what other kind of things wake up during the day.

As if in answer to his ruminations, a sudden wind picked up around him, whipping his mane to and fro. With panicked urgency, the pegasus stood back up to his hooves, the rest of his small party following his lead. They all stared at the branches above as the light shafts died and finally guttered away like a candle deprived of oxygen.

The trees began to groan in a wicked counterpoint to the rustling of their leaves, the birds that had but recently been flitting about returning to their dens with frightened squawks and titters. Even from beneath the shelter of the trees, Novell could understand what was happening, his eyes finding Whisper’s just before the wind hit them full force. He only had time to scream one word before the storm exploded around them, lightning charring trees left and right while sleet, rain, and snow swirled and pierced the ground.


Novell squinted his eyes against the sudden deluge, his wings fluttering almost uncontrolled until he tucked them tight against his lean frame. The Professor was glancing about worriedly while the twins clung to one another and stared as fire began to issue from a tree nearby. The merriment that had filled their corner of the Everfree had vanished, replaced with fear and confusion.

He tried to open his mouth to speak again, but the wind stole his words away from him, a small dust devil whipping around his body. A glimmer of panic gripped him as he realized what was going on, his light body already beginning to leave the ground. He flailed around and tried to steady himself with his wings, which proved to be a mistake.

As soon as they extended, they billowed outward painfully and pulled him along in a tight circle. Nausea overtook him as he swirled around and around, flashes of grey and orange and grey again meeting his blurred vision. A glimpse of teal was his only warning before something slammed into his body and knocked him out of the miniature whirlwind.

What little breath he still had whooshed out as they impacted the ground, his oxygen starved brain trying to reason why Whisper hadn’t used her talent to shut off the wind. Whisper!

He spied the pegasus being sheltered by both Scrolls and the Professor, the unicorn standing firm against the wind with a faint shimmer of white magic surrounding them. A second later, Quills’ off-white coat filled his vision, her screams dim in his ears against the storm.

Even with the noise, her words seemed to have an effect on the stallion currently straddling him, because Pensive’s horn lit up like a Hearth’s Warming tree. A field of blue materialized around the three ponies, the wind instantly cutting off and leaving them breathless.

Concentration was etched over their shield pony’s face, though the unicorn still had the presence of mind to let Novell regain his hooves. He did so unsteadily, coughing a few times before his speech returned.

“Thanks,” Novell started hoarsely, blinking his eyes to remove the dust that had adhered to them during his not so merry-go-round. The world spun nauseatingly as he looked around, a headache already beginning to form from the abuse.

“Where in the hay did that come from?” Quills screeched, echoing painfully in the bubble of magic enough for it to flicker slightly. The adolescent pony winced as Pensive gave her a frown, toning her voice down a few octaves. “Sorry.”

“Well, this is the Everfree,” the pegasus returned, staring outside their shelter as the storm raged on. The fire that had started had morphed into a green tint, warring against the varieties of water raining from the sky with unrestrained vigor. Before he could process that strange sight, it shifted into a blue flame and then back again. He shook his head worriedly and let his gaze drop back toward the filly.

Quills seemed to think his words over for a second before the splintering of wood drew her attention. “Look out!”

Novell turned just in time to see a weeping willow’s trunk break apart at the middle and lurch forward toward them. Its vine like leaves rushed at them as if eager to choke their life away, the tree itself seeming to have a grim visage engraved in its bark. With his heart in his throat, the pegasus dove to the side with the other two ponies, the shield thankfully holding as Pensive fell with them.

The ground rocked beneath their hooves as the trunk crashed so close to them, the first thought on the Novell’s mind for his friends. He jumped to his hooves and let his eyes flit around to encompass the group. Quills was beside him, already beating against the shield and screaming for her brother while Pensive sat on his haunches, closing his eyes as sparks began to flash into existence where his horn met his head.

“Scrolls? Scrolls!”

Tell her they’re fine, Pensive’s strained voice echoed in his mind. He blinked as he stared around the tree, eager to confirm his friends were still in one piece. A choked gasp came from the pegasus as he saw Whisper laying on the ground, her damaged wing twisted alarmingly in the wrong direction. The pegasus began hyperventilating as he imagined how much pain that must have caused the mare, worry worming through his gut with all the subtlety of the raging storm beating against their shield.

He reached for his head as it began to swim, thanking the Goddesses that he wasn’t carrying the sna- Wait, where’s Swirley? His eyes shot open as he looked for Whisper’s pet, his mind already drawn to the worst possible outcome as he stared at the fallen willow. Oh, she’s going to kill me if Swirley’s-

His thoughts were drowned out by another flash of lightning slamming into the tree between the six ponies, the crash of its passing rattling through his skull and blinding him all at once.

Blinking away the glare, Novell swiveled his ears to get rid of the buzzing in them and wondered why he didn’t have cloudmuffs to help his father today. Thundermane was going to kill hi- wait. He glanced around, confused as to why he was on the ground before everything rushed back to him at once. Sight, hearing, memory - all of it returned with a sickening suddenness - he wasn’t in Hoofington, but in the Everfree!

Even as he recovered, he noticed all the hair on his body was standing on end, Quills and Pensive equally affected as their unfocused eyes glanced around dumbly. Novell noted idly that not only was the shield around them no longer present, but neither was the sinister weather that had just plagued them. Even so, the woods were still dark, the currents of air whipping his mane to and fro enough for him to sense the storm was only biding its time.

“Is everypony alright?” the Professor’s voice came suddenly, snapping the pegasus out of his trance. His eyes stared toward the trunk of the tree on the ground next to them, the grey unicorn’s head poking through the canopy of snake-like tendrils. Worry was etched across his friend’s face, which brightened considerably when Novell nodded his head and reached to help Quills up.

“What in the hay was that?” the earth pony repeated, her anger already resurfacing as she waved away his hoof.

Pensive chose that moment to recover, adding his guess in answer. “I believe that was a Mana Vortex. The storms sometimes come about in the mountains nearest this forest.”

“Quite so, lad,” the Professor answered gravely, his eyes fixed above at the gaps in the canopy that revealed a blue-tinged gray sky. Novell could feel the clouds roiling above, grumbling unnaturally with a foreign energy. “Still, that is the least of our problems.”

“What do you mean?” the pegasus asked, but his nose answered him before anypony else. The acrid stench of smoke wafted by and he swung his head toward the direction of what was beginning to become a crackling blaze. An irrational nervousness filled him at the sight of the flames, as he was no longer protected by the storm or a unicorn’s shield. His wings fluttered anxiously and he fought the urge to take to the sky in a full-blown panic.

“We need to get out of here,” Novell gritted out as Quills clambered over the trunk to get to Whisper and her twin. “Which way is Ponyville, Professor?”

“Ah, that is but one of the problems I was just about to mention,” said the Professor delicately. “My compass has been ‘shorted out’, as it were, by the mana vortex, as well as most of my directional and teleportation spells. Pensive and I were lucky we could create a shield to withstand the worst of it with all the confused leylines, magical conduits that cover the globe, everywhere.”

A despondent feeling came over the pegasus then. “How much longer does Whisper have?”

“Less than a day, now,” Quills replied from behind the tree trunk, sounding stricken. “That storm hurt her even more. I don’t know...she’s shaking. I remember reading somewhere that bad weather affects pegasi differently than other ponies?”

Novell opened his wings and quickly flapped over to Whisper, a bright note against the darkness as he saw Swirley was nuzzling her cheek. Even with that, the alabaster pony still felt an almost crippling sense of disaster when he saw her shallow breathing and pained expression. Her eyes were closed, but moving rapidly under her eyelids.

“Which way is Ponyville? Do we have any idea?” he asked hollowly, as if listening from outside his body.

“That general direction is my best guess, lad,” the Professor said softly, Novell following the unicorn’s hoof to where it pointed. He stared at the direction for a few seconds before glancing upwards. It’s too dense to fly through, he despaired. No, no, focus. Move now. Worry later.

He drew in a deep breath and nodded, feeling the weight of the responsibility on his shoulders. “Then that’s the way we go.”

“Whatever we do, we need to do it now. I think she’s descending into a feverish state,” Quills put in tremulously, drawing his attention. There were tears in her eyes, but her customary fierce expression was back in place. Gone was the frightened young pony, a feat that he admired.

“Before we do leave, I believe a litter wouldn’t go out of place. I’m sure she would be more comfortable in it than being slung across one of our backs,” Professor Search’s kindly voice interjected.

With another nod, they set to work, continuously monitoring the fire in case it decided to spread. Despite their attention, the little flame was sitting resolutely in the same spot, shifting through various colors as it burned through the strange wood. Novell had noticed Swirley’s own shell responding as the snail stared into the dancing embers.

Within minutes, they had arranged the unconscious mare in a litter made of vines and sturdy branches they’d found broken off from the storm. The sky grumbled above them as they finished their work, the party setting off into the Everfree once more. Novell hoped they didn’t run into any other troubles, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was staring and laughing at his misfortunes.


The rain had started up again an hour after they had left the site of the mana vortex, the party wearily trudging through the mud and puddles it had kicked up in its passing. Moisture coated the air in a dense humidity that set them all to sweating ‘as if they were in a tropical rain forest near the borders of Dromadry, the kingdom of the camels’.

That last bit of knowledge was courtesy of their resident adventurer, who had recounted for the second time now his encounter with the crafty desert folk. Novell felt his worries dulling as he listened to the old unicorn and wondered at the effect the stories had on the group.

Quills and Scrolls were listening, enraptured, even if the filly periodically tried to turn her head away, only to turn it right back around. Pensive just stared ahead as he pulled Whisper in the litter, nodding every now and then at the Professor’s words.

“There I was, in the midst of the mosquito ridden forest near the deserts of Dromadry, no food, no water and nothing but my wits to keep me from being a python’s next meal. Those reptiles certainly were unfriendly, I must say, eating anything that moved, even somepony as large as me!” the Professor exclaimed. “But I digress, the Rainberry Rainforest, silly name as it is, was just like this, filled with predators of all kinds! As I reached the end of my rations, I found myself beginning to snack on whatever I could find. Tree bark, the thin strands of grass every now and then, and, of course, the wondrous berries the forest is named after! Ah, but that could not sustain me for long and it felt like everything around me knew it! As I grew weaker, the others became bolder...”

Professor Search looked at them all, theatrically waving a hoof in front of him as they trotted, his voice a whisper. “And then, right when I felt myself slipping away and with a mighty panther bearing down on me, the Dromadaries showed themselves!” Novell’s eyes were as wide as saucers at that, such was his friend’s spellbinding vocal talent, but the unicorn wasn’t done.  “Despite their ponderous looking shapes, these camels were fast! With a wild, growling war cry like the sound of gravel running on gravel, my rescuers launched themselves at the panther with abandon! It tried to claw them, but they drew back their heads and spit right into its face!”

        “What?” Quills cried out incredulously. “They spit in its face?

The Professor harrumphed at the interruption of his story, taking only a moment to check on Whisper’s sleeping form before responding. “Well, of course, my dear. They are camels, after all. But that wasn’t the end! After they blinded the beast with their precision expectoration, they surrounded it on all sides but one, honking and growling and stomping their ‘feet’, as they call them. The panther, disoriented and outnumbered, retreated with little more than a mewling whine. I only found out much later that they are not a very warlike people, as they told me, but that they know well a deception is just as good as the real thing.”

“Isn’t lying against Princess Celestia’s teachings, though?” Novell asked, reminding the old unicorn of what he mentioned shortly before they had met Pensive. He sneezed as they entered some kind of grove with strange purple flowers, but Professor Search didn’t seem concerned by it, so he ignored them.

“In some cases, my boy, lying is survival. Take, for instance, this stick,” the Professor pointed at a strange stick with too many smaller branches to be natural. “This is a bug, but it looks as if it were made of wood. It is a defense against predators, such as birds or toads. That is not to say you should lie regularly, but sometimes it is necessary. It takes experience to learn when it is the right time. At any rate, they, the camels, I mean, do not live under our Princesses’ domain, though they acknowledge her and send gifts yearly for her efforts in raising the Sun. Their sultan makes their own rules.”

"Your stories are interesting, Elder. I wish to experience these lands you speak of some day," Pensive said matter of fact, also sneezing.

       "Perhaps when this is all over, I'll take you, my boy! You're an intelligent young fellow and I have been meaning to make another trip to see the Dromadaries again."

When this is all over, Novell thought suddenly, what am I going to do?

It all came back to that one, single thought, but looking at Whisper made him realize it should not. With a crook of his head, the pegasus furrowed his brow. Was it his imagination or had he just- oh, wow.

“That would be satisfactory, Elder, though I must before confess, I would enjoy seeing, what you call a palace,” Pensive said in response.

The Professor just grinned and nodded his head, saying, “Of course, my boy, though it’s more magnificent than I said. As is the capital, the wonderful Lok-Zed.”

“Can you two please stop rhyming? It’s making me too, rhyme in my head until I’m as annoying as you,” Quills interrupted before they could go on, pawing her hoof with a yawn.

“But you’re doing it too!” Scrolls was quick to point out. “You’re rhyming like them, oh no, now I’m just as confu-”

“Don’t finish that sentence, my little pony, or you’ll break up the meter the forest bestowed thee,” a melodic voice said from up high, causing the party to stop and look to the sky.

“Interesting,” Pensive said as his mouth moved even more, “I cannot stop myself from continuing.”

“Now that was quite novel, if I might add, you broke through the meter and into a new one I never have had,” the voice said once more, Novell picking a shape out from the branches as she moved down to the floor.

“Can you please make it stop? If I keep having to hear this, I might just decide to drop,” Quills said irritably, causing her brother to grin cheekily.

“I dunno, I think I like it, having you rhyme. It’s refreshing not listening to your constant, annoying whine.”

“I’m going to pound you if you say one more word, be it rhyming or not, you smelly little curd,” she growled back at him, while a squirrel chattered musically from above on a limb.

“Hold fast, little ponies, before you go on. I must ask that you, at least in this forest, remain calm,” the voice admonished, leaving not only Novell, but the entire group, astonished. For standing right there, black and white as can be, was none other than-

“A zebra!” the Professor exclaimed excitedly. “I’ve not met one of your people in quite a long time. In fact, the last time I did, it was extremely sublime. Tell me, my dear, do know your people’s alchemy? Because we have wounded and her recovery is, unfortunately, unlikely. Without your help, I mean, for we need a healer, as no doubt you can glean.”

The zebra had the grace to look concerned as she pawed her hoof and turned. “I do, indeed, know many remedies, and may know one to cure her maladies. Let us go to my home, so I might see, what can be done, for this pony.”

Without aplomb and with a graceful trot, the strange zebra moved forward from her shadowy spot.


The home of the mysterious zebra had mentioned was little more than a hut, requiring the twins to remain outside in the dark forest. The little neck of the woods the zebra had decided to call home blocked what little light had made it through the storm clouds that had hung over them all morning, to Novell’s intense distaste. As soon as they came within sight of the hut, the twins had volunteered to remain outside, their faces somewhat uneasy at the strange masks adorning its exterior.

Thankfully, Novell was one of the four allowed inside the well-lit abode, candles burning cheerily and throwing shadows from hanging objects on the walls. Even so, his fear of dark forests was the last thing on his mind. Since the vortex of magical energies had twisted her wing even further, Whisper had grown worse. Even through her fur, she seemed to grow pale, her breathing fast and shallow with pain laced undertones. Every so often, her good wing extended to its full length, the remnant of her injured one barely twitching.

         “Put her on the table in the center there, while I get the ingredients to help this mare,” their guide told them in her peculiar way. He wondered idly if it was a habit for the zebra, since the strange effect had worn off on him and the others.

        Brushing the thought to the side for now, Novell moved toward the table and began clearing it of the many different bottles and dried plants that resided on it. The task was quickly accomplished with the Professor’s help, the unicorn’s magic pulling the bottles toward him for a curious look and then sending them sailing to a counter on the opposite side of the room.

A moan came from behind him as he finished moving one last pot of what looked like mold, held gently with his teeth as he set it down with the rest of the items. His ears pricked as he gazed with concern at the orange mare, her pet looking up at him with sadness, an expression that surprised him. In all the time he’d known Swirley, there had only been a few moments where it lost its half-lidded stare. That fact drew a fresh wave of panic, his wings fluttering involuntarily again.

As the Professor and Pensive carefully lifted the mare with their magic, Novell decided to distract himself by watching the zebra. Luckily, she was quite accommodating in that respect, her tail flicking up to drop a half dozen ingredients into a single wooden bowl with not even a glance at them as they fell. Working quickly and quietly humming to herself, the zebra stirred and poured an interesting combination of herbs and liquids into the bowl, mashing it all together with a pestle she held confidently in her mouth.

She must have noticed him staring at her, because she glanced up from her work and smiled around the object in her mouth, dropping it to the side and scooping up the bowl in one hoof. “Tell me, young pegasus, what brings you into these cursed and dangerous forests? Forgive me for nosing about, but I admit I’m quite curious to know without doubt. Are you simple travellers, lost on the way? Or are you here for other reasons, of which you cannot say?”

Novell grimaced. “We’re lost travellers. A magical vortex shorted out our guide’s pathfinding spell and our friend was injured as we climbed up the mountains from Hoofington’s side.”

“Climbing a mountain, you say? What could bring you to perform such a foray?” she asked curiously, dumping the sludge into a bubbling cauldron.

“The pass was blocked by snow, so we had to go up and around.” Novell sniffed at the brew. “What are you making?”

“Like I said, ‘tis a healing brew. Now one more question, I have for you. What is your name and that of your friend? It is only polite after I’ve invited you to my den.”

        “Her name is Whisper Wind,” he began, suddenly abashed at his manners. “And mine’s Novell.”

The zebra smiled at him, her mohawk of white and black hair shivering slightly as she cocked her head. “A pleasure to meet you, Novell of Hoofington. Healing your friend will be a breeze, if you pardon the pun.”

        “Ah aha,” a chuckle devoid of any humor came from behind him. “You are wise and humorous, striped one.”

“Call me Zecora, for that is my name. Now, pardon me please, so I may administer to her pain,” she replied, unstopping a flask and dipping it into the goop.

Novell stepped out of her way as she agilely walked past him, her hooves not even making a sound on the hard wooden floor. He bit his lip as he watched the zebra lift Whisper’s head up with one hoof and whispered something to the Professor. Nodding in understanding, the unicorn’s horn began to glow, the mare’s mouth opening wide with the tell-tale glow of magic all around it.

Quickly, the zebra leaned close to Whisper’s mouth, tilting her head and allowing the contents of the flask to dribble out of it. Novell watched with barely contained worry, thousand of possibilities floating through his mind. What if she choked? Could she be allergic? Would it even work at all?

He needn’t have worried, for aside from a momentary gurgle, the unconscious mare swallowed visibly. Seconds later, the magic hold was released and the pegasus’s chest rose and fell with calm, measured breaths -  a far cry from her previous wheezes.

            Zecora watched for another minute before examining the mare’s wing and nodding her satisfaction. “Her fever is broken, and her wing no longer damaged. However, I still recommend keeping this bandage. The tissue will heal as good as new, but only over the time of a day, maybe two.”

            “Thank you, Zecora,” Novell’s breath whooshed out all at once, the lightness in his head evidence he’d been holding it in longer than he thought. “I don’t know how to repay you-.”

            She held up a hoof, forestalling his offer and shaking her head. “Bits are not needed, my dear.” A smile curved on her muzzle. “But I would enjoy your story, to explain how you arrived here.”

“Okay,” Novell agreed, remembering the Professor’s words from earlier. Telling this zebra the whole truth would just cause her to panic or for word to get out. He wasn’t sure what the Princesses would do to him, but he couldn’t imagine they would want the knowledge of Havoc being out and about common knowledge. At least, that’s what he hoped. “But first, can we bring everypony into your hut? We’ve been running through the forest all night and would like to rest somewhere warm.”

“Of course,” she nodded. “The danger has passed, so room is not needed as I previously asked. No doubt all of you are hungry, so I’ll put on a stew.” With a pause, she looked around curiously. “Now where did I put the roux?”

“Over here, my dear,” the Professor spoke up, floating the item in question to the zebra. She gratefully accepted the item and turned to her task, followed by the grey unicorn. Seconds later, they were in deep discussion on the art of cuisine, both of them adding ingredients with nary a pause.

        I will get the others, Pensive sent a thought his way, walking outside to speak with the twins. Judging by Quills’ shrill voice, there was going to be an argument, but he was confident the unicorn could convince the filly.

Of course, failing that, you could drag her in anyway, he thought toward his friend, a ripple of amusement coming in response.

With a yawn, Novell wearily walked over to the table Whisper was sleeping peacefully on, smiling at her. He closed his eyes and laid his head against the table, falling to his haunches as he thought on how he was going to tell Zecora how they’d gotten here without mentioning Havoc. His saddlebags fell off, no longer a burden on his aching body.

        He must have dozed off, because the next thing he knew he was jerked awake by the sound of a wooden bowl plopped next to his head. The delicious aroma of some kind of stew met his nose and set his mouth instantly to watering. Blinking open his bleary eyes, he tried lifting his head up before feeling a familiar tug on his mane.

        “Oh no,” he whispered. He glanced up at Whisper to find her chewing on his mane, wincing as she pulled too hard on it. A giggle from behind him set his face aflame as he realized he had an audience.

        “This is rich,” Scrolls said. Another stifled chuckled came from the young pony, but Novell couldn’t turn his head to look at him. “Does she do that a lot?”

        He groaned in defeat as the mare pulled on his mane again. “Can you please help me?”

        “I dunno, this is kind of funny to watch,” the colt replied. “You know, Quills used to do the same thing when we were foals, mom used to say.”

        A second later, he felt his mane freed, allowing him to finally glance around at the hut. The candles were still brightly banishing the darkness while the outside was still as gloomy as ever. Professor Search was still talking with Zecora as the zebra pointed to a bunch of different herbs and other miscellaneous items, the gentle hum of their conversation reassuring in the otherwise creepy house.

        Novell noticed a grin on Scrolls’ face out of the corner of his eye, feeling his blush continue even further. Why did the mare have to be so embarrassing all the time? Studiously ignoring the earth pony, the pegasus picked up the still-warm bowl in his hooves and took a sip. Herbs and unfamiliar flavors assaulted his tongue, a surprising spiciness causing him to instantly look for a glass of water.

        Unfortunately, the only one seemed to be in the hooves of the earth pony beside him.

“Here you go,” Scrolls said cheerfully as Novell gratefully accepted the water. “I know how you feel, you know.”

Novell furrowed his brows. “How I feel?”

Scrolls nodded. “Yes. Unable to control her, embarrassed and annoyed by her all the time, but still able to love her anyway”

“L-love her?” the pegasus sputtered, wincing as the mare twitched in her sleep. “What do you mean?”

“Sisters are almost more trouble than their worth, huh?” the earth pony continued, staring fondly over Novell’s shoulder. The pegasus followed his gaze to see Quills sitting outside with Pensive, the two of them talking cordially. The unicorn was looking at the young pony seriously, listening as she went on and on about something and waving her hoof for emphasis. The saddle she normally wore was beside her, hanging from a branch and swaying in the wind.

Novell turned back to his companion, feeling the confusion had gone on long enough. “We’re not related.”

“I know,” Scrolls said, surprising him and running a hoof along his scarf. “Being related has nothing to do with being family, though. That’s what mom always said. ‘Family is whoever you feel at home with, Scrolls.’”

Whisper yawned and rolled over, grumbling slightly in her sleep as Swirley deftly maneuvered himself from being crushed. One of the snail’s eyes blinked open and stared at Novell for a second before closing again, wiggling to get comfortable.

A warm feeling came over the pegasus as he watched his friend sleep. “Your mom was a smart mare.”

“Of course. Where do you think I got it from?” Scrolls replied sardonically, causing them both to laugh.

“Oh, my, what do we have here? A pegasus pony with no mark upon his rear?”

Novell froze mid-chuckle, the familiarity of the situation already pressing in on his thoughts. “I-.”

“He’s unmarked,” Scrolls interrupted. “And we’re trying to find our Professor to figure out why.”

Zecora simply nodded, staring at his flank curiously and remaining silent. Her scrutiny made him uncomfortable, but he submitted to it, wondering if she was about to throw him out or not. She drew closer, putting a hoof under his chin and lifting it up as she stared into his eyes for a few moments. Seemingly satisfied, she returned to her original position and spoke.

“There is something about you I cannot see, something deep inside that you’ve hidden from me. Perhaps you’ve hidden it from yourself as well, but for right  now, I cannot tell. Now, for the question in your eyes that I saw, ‘do I know anything about this at all?’” The zebra sighed and brought a hoof to her chin, closing her eyes. “Unfortunately, I have never heard of such a thing, nor can I fix it as I have your friend’s wing. But do not despair, for there is surely a cure. The trick is just finding it, of that I am sure.”

Disappointment shrouded Novell’s mind at her words, but he smiled at Zecora anyway. “Thank you for trying, at least. Most ponies would just throw me out.”

Her eyes opened with a softness in them. “I understand your situation, for once I was looked upon as an aberration.” She returned his smile, continuing. “Very well, I shall not ask for your tale, for I see you must soon be back on the trail.”

“Speaking of, how is your magic, Professor?” Novell asked, secretly glad he didn’t have to tell her about his failures on the mountaintop.

The Professor, who had been standing and watching the exchange with interest, jumped and looked up at his horn. “The storm is still present and messing with the leylines, unfortunately. However, as I was talking with our gracious host, she mentioned that she knows the way to Ponyville and gave me the directions. We can leave as soon as Whisper is recovered.”

“Alright, but we’re leaving Pensive and Whisper here,” Novell decided, glancing at the zebra. “If that’s alright with you, Zecora. I don’t want to move her anymore than she needs to.”

“Of course they may stay,” she smiled and nodded amicably. “But no more than a day. After that, I shall run out of the food I have so carefully accrued.”

“Perfect, but I wouldn’t mind staying if you’d like, Novell,” Scrolls offered.

The pegasus shook his head. “No, I need you and Quills to help me around Canterlot. Your sister said you both worked in the Royal Library, didn’t she? Can you get in contact with one of the Princessess?”

“I don’t know if we can ‘get into contact’ with them. Mostly they just show up to ask us to find a book or a scroll for them,” responded the earth pony. “But I’m sure one will ask for us when we’ve returned, if only to talk to Professor Mark. Princess Luna is the one who mentioned the rumors that drew us to Hoofington in the first place, after all.”

Novell was stunned. “The Princess herself was wondering about me? But I’m not that important.”

“It was just a rumor she told us about. She didn’t seem entirely concerned with it,” Scrolls assured him.

“Curious,” the Professor spoke up. “But if we are going to make it to Ponyville to catch the last train of the day, we simply must hurry.”

“Maybe we’ll even reach Canterlot this time,” Novell joked lamely, still uneasy about being the object of attention of the Princess. Especially given what he was going to tell her. “Alright. Let’s go.”

Chapter 12: Decisions

        With Zecora’s directions, the party of four quickly found their way through the forest, stopping only once to avoid a patch of Poison Joke. Even with the day slowly shifting toward dusk, Novell's spirits were higher than they had been since he had started out from Hoofington. Even though he had to leave two of his friends behind at Zecora's hut, the fact that they were okay was a relief. With any luck, they'd be no more than a day behind them heading toward Canterlot. 

        Pensive had promised in his usual manner of seriousness that he would escort Whisper safely out of the forest, looking strangely nervous as Novell told him to continue on from Ponyville to the capital. That was when the pegasus had realized that it would be the first time his friend would come in contact with a large group of ponies all in one place.

        Thankfully, Zecora had dispelled his concerns with a smile and an explanation of how nice everyone in Ponyville was, even to her. It was one of nicer towns she'd visited in Equestria, she had said. Even so, Pensive had summoned the white cloak Novell had first seen the unicorn in, hiding under its distinctively out of place color.

        Not wanting to trouble the unicorn any further, Novell had smiled and followed the twins in the direction Zecora had pointed out, the Professor at his side. Search had almost seemed sad as they left, muttering under his breath and sighing. As they trotted further away from the hut, the old pony’s mood had considerably improved almost back to his normal self, though there was still the shadow of something he’d noticed since they’d left the mountain.

        Novell made a note to talk to the grey-coated pony about what was bothering him, realizing he'd already made a note before and had never followed up on it. He chewed on the inside of his cheek, deciding he had to make time to talk to all of the ponies in his party.

        "Oh thank the Goddesses, we're finally out of that forest," Quills said reverently, drawing the pegasus out of his thoughts.

        The filly was staring with glistening eyes toward the lights from the town ahead, her brother smirking at her out of her sight. Novell stretched his wings at the large, open space between where he was standing and the town. How long had it been since he'd been able to fly freely?

        "Go ahead, Novell. I'll stay and watch the twins," Professor Search's voice came from behind him.

        He glanced at the elder pony. "What?"

        A mote of amusement danced in the unicorn's eyes. "I can see you're dying to fly and I daresay you've had few opportunities to these last few days. Go ahead and enjoy yourself. We'll head toward the town on hoof."

        Novell scuffed a hoof against the trail, his eyes shifting toward the twins as they bickered back and forth over who had seen Ponyville first. A grin tugged on his muzzle as he stared over their shoulders at the lavender curtain of dusk blanketing the sky. Pale, violet clouds strode across the sky in stately paces, their fluffiness inviting him to rest on them and leave his troubles on the ground. Remnants from cumulonimbus clouds were always the best kind to relax on.

        Just the thought of closing his eyes as he reclined on a bed of soft cloud was enough to make him whimper inaudibly. The feeling of his wings burning in flight, soothed by the cool, night air. Cutting through the darkness and seeing everything for miles, satisfying his curiosity from atop his fluffy perch.

        He opened his eyes, not even realizing they'd fallen as he reminisced, instantly finding the yellow and white lights shining on the side of a mountain on the opposite side of the valley. That's Canterlot, isn't it? he thought, the feeling of peace he had experienced evaporating as he remembered the reason he was even near Ponyville.

        "No, we need to go," Novell said regretfully. "We don't have time for me to fly around."

        After a few moments of silence, the Professor sighed. "You're right, of course. The last train out from Ponyville will be leaving soon. I apologize for reminding you about it, my boy."

        "Come on, you slow pokes," Quills called out from further down the road, her brother following sheepishly. 

        "Off we go, then?" Novell imitated his friend's favorite phrase.

        The unicorn managed to look pensive at the words, nodding after a moment of staring into space. "Off we go, my boy. Off we go."


Even though Novell had refused to enjoy a flight on his own, that didn't stop him from taking wing close to the ground. It felt wonderful to stretch his wings after spending so much time underneath the impenetrable boughs of the Everfree. 

        Being so close to their home seemed to put a skip in the twins’ step that hadn't been there before. Quills had slowly become less irritable, happily humming to herself and even speaking a few words to the Professor when he asked about a book in the Royal Library.

        "A book about magical prisons? Well, yes, there are several on the subject. I've copied a few of the older ones when I was younger. Why?"

        The Professor shrugged. "I was curious. Perhaps Havoc's prison was recorded there. If we're ever to put him back in it, we need to know how it was made."

        Quills' eyes took on a glazed look. "Havoc, prison, maximum security, loss of powers-"

        "-Discord, thousand year banishment, free-will-escape-clause. Wait. Spell capture design by...Warden of the Stream?" Scrolls finished, cocking his head in confusion.

        Novell dropped to the ground beside them. "Warden of the Stream?"

        The Professor traded a glance with him before raising an eyebrow. "Now what, my little ponies, was that?"

        "You asked for a book, so I 'looked' for one," Quills said simply.

        "Looked for one?" Novell asked as they group continued walking.

        Scrolls nodded at him. "Yup! My sister and I are the caretakers of the library for a reason. We've memorized every single book we've ever read or, in Quills' case, transcribed. At the very least, we know every title of every book in the library, if not the contents. It's our talent. That's how we could tell you about Havoc. He was in a book the Princess Luna asked for."

        "Memorization?" the pegasus wondered aloud.

        "Useful, isn't it? And it's not just books. I can remember just about everything I encounter. Photographic memory," Quills bragged.

        Professor Search picked that moment to interrupt. "I don't suppose you've read or transcribed the book by this...Warden? What was the title?"

        "I've never read it fully-," Scrolls started.

        "-but I remember there was a letter with it!" Quills completed her brother's thought triumphantly. “It wasn’t addressed to anyone, but there was a magical lock on it. From what I read, it reminded me of a spell-parcel. A message keyed to a certain type of individual magic effect, or IME.”

        The pegasus brightened up at that. “You mean that light every unicorn has when they do magic?”

        Professor Search harrumphed approvingly. “Right you are, my boy. I’m surprised you know that, though I suppose I shouldn’t.” The old unicorn glanced at him with amusement. “After all, I was honest when I said you were an intelligent lad.”

        “I learned a lot of different things trying to find my cutie mark,” Novell sighed, ruefully wondering if that fate had been the easier. Though, I suppose the easier is not always the best. Besides, I have friends now. Something I probably wouldn’t have gotten if I hadn’t found the Professor or stayed in Hoofington.

        “At any rate, we need to hurry and get to the train station if we’re going to arrive at Canterlot before tomorrow,” Scrolls put in and broke into a trot. “Race you there!”

        “You’re on!” Novell said, laughing as he opened his wings and soared past the colt.

        “Wings?! No fair!” the earth pony yelled, falling into a gallop behind the pegasus. The Professor grinned and followed, leaving an annoyed Quills to trot after them.

        “Stallions,” she snorted.


The two of them stopped when they entered Ponyville’s city limits, Quills and the Professor far behind them. Novell looked back once to see just the slightest bit of movement on the darkened horizon before glancing curiously around at the town they had tried to hard to reach.

        Ponyville was larger than Hoofington, though only because of the sprawled nature of it’s outer limits on the rolling hills of the valley. The houses were similar, but different in his eyes. The lightning rods that stood a bulwark between the sky and his home city’s rooftops were not evident here and while Hoofington had a burgeoning market street, Ponyville had only a square around what he assumed was a town hall. A single light was on in the building and he could just make out the silhouette of a pony working on a desk. The mayor must be a busy mare here, from what his own said this city had gone through in the last year.

        “Cozy little place, isn’t it?” Scrolls pointed out from beside him.

        Novell nodded. “It’s so spread out, compared to Hoofington.”

        “I’ve never been, actually. Ponyville is really the only place I’ve ever visited, aside from Canterlot,” the earth pony admitted. “Which is why I was so happy when Professor Mark asked me and Quills to come with him. He travels a lot, but he always said we were too young to go with him. Until last week, anyway.”

        The pegasus floated down to ground level and walked beside his friend for a time. “You miss him, don’t you?”

        Scrolls sighed after a few moments. “I do. I’m hoping we find him when we find Havoc. Or before.” The colt looked worried. “I don’t know what he did to the Professor, but I need to find him.”

        “Havoc said something about giving him knowledge of something,” Novell got out, only now remembering what the draconequus had said. “He also said Study Mark knew what my cutie mark was and that was the knowledge he asked for in return.”

        “I wished I had asked him,” the earth pony wistfully replied. “Because no one deserves to be lost in this world.”

        The pegasus stopped in his tracks beside an alleyway, those words echoing in his mind. Something flickered in his chest, a tingling warmth settling over his body as the colt looked curiously back at him. Novell smiled and was just about to say something when somepony slammed into him from behind.


        He jumped into the air with a squeak and turned around mid-air, his wings keeping him aloft. Below him was a frantic, lavender pony levitating books off the ground. A couple of tomes lay across her back and in her saddlebags, which themselves bore a star burst pattern. Snickering reached his twitching ear from behind him as his companion joined in the amusement. Flushing with embarrassment, the pegasus lowered himself back to the ground just as she finished picking up her things.

        “I’m so sorry about that. I was just caught up in all the things I need to remember to do and I just-.”

        “No, it’s fine. This happens a lot,” Novell interrupted her, waving a hoof in dismissal.

        “Oh, I see. Um, you’re new here, aren’t you? My name is Twilight Sparkle.” The mare smiled warmly, her eyes glittering in the dusk shine.

        The pegasus grinned back at her uncertainly. “Uh, my name’s Novell. Nice to mee-”

        “And my name, mon cheri, is Scrolls Parchment,” his companion responded suavely, grasping one of her hooves with one of his own and planting a kiss it.

        “Oh,” the mare awkwardly laughed in surprise. “A Canterlot gentlecolt, aren’t you?”

        Scrolls grinned impishly at her statement. “I recognized your poise and manner as a mare of our fair capital, m’lady. ‘Tis is only fair I give you the greeting you deserve.”

        Twilight smiled fondly back at the colt. “I’m afraid I’m a bit of a klutz, actually, but thank you, Mister Parchment.”

        “Please,” the earth pony said with a wink, “call me Scrolls, Miss Sparkle.”

        “Twilight,” she responded before acting as if she remembered something. “Oh, my goodness. Sorry, I unfortunately have quite a bit of studying to get to for a novel I’m writing. I hope you enjoy your time in Ponyville, sirs!”

        Novell’s mouth was gaping open as he watched the mare take off before turning a corner. He stared at the spot she had been before glancing over at Scrolls, who looked vaguely wistful.

        “You know, she’s the student of Princess Celestia,” the young pony said after a time. “Element of Magic, too.”

        “Wha-, what,” the pegasus choked out. “As in one of the Elements of Harmony?”

        Scrolls nodded and continued walking toward the train station. “The same.”

        “But, I-, you-, she-,” Novell gave up and followed his friend.


        Luck was with them that evening, because they made it to the train station just as the sun was shining its last rays over the horizon. Novell was still reeling from meeting the element of Magic herself, while Scrolls seemed a bit sad after she had left. Even so, both were recovered by the time Quills and the Professor strode up the wooden steps to the station itself.

        The pegasus smiled at them as they joined him before returning his attention to the contraption before him. He’d seen trains before in Hoofington, though they were little more than cargo haulers rather than the passenger vehicle in front of him. Still, his interest in the locomotive’s mechanisms hadn’t waned.

        “All abooooooooard, I said all aboard that’s going aboard! Last train out from Ponyville to Canterlot, all aboard!” the conductor called robustly, his voice carrying in the near silence of twilight.


        As he did, a few groups of ponies strode into the assortment of coaches, followed quickly by the four of them. Novell and his friends handed over the boarding passes they’d attained at the kiosk at the steps of the train station and found their seats just as the train whistled its farewell to the town they had raced through.

        “Well, that was a pleasant enough town,” Professor Search commented. “Just like the last time I passed through. A shame we couldn’t stay long enough to mingle with the populace, but I suppose they were all asleep anyway.”

        Novell nodded absentmindedly as he stared out of the window next to their seats, momentarily forgetting his encounter with the lavender mare. Ponyville gradually fell away to fields, forests, and finally mountain terrain. The tracks rose in pony-made hills above the forest floor, the tips of conifers whizzing by in a manner not unlike the pegasus saw when he was flying.

        “Ugh, Novell, stop staring out at the window. You’re distracting,” Quills complained weakly from beside him.

        He glanced backward to see the filly was a little green instead of her normal parchment color, eyes unfocused and teeth gritted. Her hooves were digging into the seat and every time the carriage shook, she swiftly shut her eyes. Novell glanced over at Scrolls, cocking his head in confusion.

        “Motion sickness,” the colt mouthed, adding a barfing face to further reinforce his point.

        Novell felt a grin tighten across his muzzle, careful to keep it hidden from Quills with one hoof. For all her self seen perfection, she obviously wasn’t good at everything. A second passed after his thought, his mind strangely blank as he waited for something. He blinked and glanced around, wondering why he felt so off put by the silence.

        Oh, right, he remembered in a flash. Pensive isn’t here right now. The thought filled him with a melancholy he hadn’t felt since before meeting the Professor, his eyes automatically gravitating to the window again. Absentmindedly, he stared at the star speckled sky, glancing around for the moon before realizing that, too, was no longer going to be there for the next few nights.

        The pegasus sighed and relaxed his suddenly weary body, wondering again if him finding friendship and purpose was worth setting Havoc free. Maybe I would have been better off being stuck in Hoofington. Everypony would have been better off...

        Over the course of the next hour, Novell fell into a fitful doze regularly disturbed by the strange motion of the train and Quills’ frequent headbutts as she tried to hang onto her dinner. By the time they reached the Canterlot train station, both he and Quills were equally drained. The two stumbled out of the carriage to the concrete station floor, the filly's legs shaking as she regained her senses while Novell leaned into a sympathetic Professor Search's shoulder.

        "Come on, lad. We'll go find an inn to bed down for the night. I'd normally take you to my house, but that's quite a bit further up into the city."

        The pegasus nodded absently, still beating himself up. It seemed the closer he came to actually telling the Princess what he had done, the more his actions haunted him. Perhaps she would smite him as soon as he told his story - Novell almost wished it instead of living with the shame of releasing the chaotic being.

        Promises, he thought against the darkness like a lantern in the night. I made a promise I have to keep, regardless of how I feel. After that, I can ask the Princess to banish me or...something.

        He passed through Canterlot's nighttime streets in a daze, barely glancing at the sights the city held glittering in the light of fireflies and torches. A faint breeze whispered through the air around them and gently tousled his feathered wings. A gentle buzz of conversation even this late penetrated his haze, but he couldn't make anything specific out.

        Eventually they made it to a building, all but the Professor almost asleep on their hooves. Both of the twins yawned loudly behind him, the rumbling voice of the old unicorn soothing in his ears. Leaning against his friend reminded him of when he had been a little foal, his father scooping him up and holding him. Along with the welcome memory was the unwelcome twinge of homesickness, but he was too tired to worry about it.

        The lights in the establishment were darkened to a small glow, Novell’s mind turning them to stars against the shadowy ceiling. It only occurred to him after a minute of staring at it that his impression was exactly what the rafters were supposed to remind him of. A grin stretched across his face as he marched up the stairs, followed the Professor into their room, and fell instantly asleep. Tomorrow was a big day.


        Novell sat bolt upright as he awoke, light peeking through the airy curtains covering the tiny window. He was momentarily confused as he all but tumbled out of his bed, the hardy wood reassuring beneath his hooves. Wait, that’s not right. Zecora had an earth floor and I never liked my house’s flooring.

        He glanced down at the floorboards, noticing the differences between them and his home’s own springy wooden floor. The pegasus would have stood there for another few minutes thinking through his morning sluggishness had a noise not caused his ears to perk up.

        Another snore came from the other bed in the room and Novell finally realized where he was. He was in an inn in Canterlot with his party to meet with the Princesses to tell them about Havoc. With a satisfied nod, the pegasus walked over to the Professor and shook him awake. A second later, he realized exactly what he was going to do.

        “Hmm, what, huh?” Professor Search muttered as he jerked awake suddenly. “Oh, Novell. You look like you’ve seen a ghost, my boy. Or am I seeing things? Hmm, where are my glasses anyway?”

        The pegasus wasn’t listening, but fighting the nervousness that was just beginning to fill his chest. Novell paced the small room as his friend removed himself from the bed and levitated a pair of glasses to rest on his muzzle.

        “Are you okay, lad?”

        The pegasus opened his wings in surprise before settling them back down. He shook his head. “No, no, not okay. I- I don’t know if I can tell them about Havoc. The Princesses, I mean. Maybe we should just forget about telling them. I’m sure they know. I’ll just go back to Hoofington and everything will be fine and dandy. Perfect, even! Perfect is just...great.”

        “Ah,” his friend said simply.

        Novell looked at the Professor’s impenetrable gaze, almost on the edge of hysteria. “Ah? Don’t you know what they’ll do? I’ll be banished! Maybe even imprisoned.”

        “Or imprisoned in the place you’re banished to?” Professor Search said wryly. Novell stopped and looked at the unicorn in sudden horror, not even having considered that possibility. “Wait, wait, lad, that was just a joke. Don’t look so frightened.”

        “But, but-,” he started before being cut off.

        “But nothing. Don’t worry, Novell. The Princesses are fair and just rulers. You know this.” The unicorn smiled. “I know what you’re going through here, to a point,” he added at Novell’s attempt at objection. “Trust me, lad. I’ll take responsibility for this if they decide to levy any punishments.”

        The pegasus shook his head vehemently. “No, you won’t. I won’t let you. It’s my fault he’s out and it’s my fault ponies are going to get hurt!”

        “Then the only thing you can do is be honest with them so they can do what must be done to rectify the situation,” Search said gently.

        Novell held the Professor’s gaze for a moment before sighing and letting a frown creep up on his face. “I’m being silly, aren’t I?”

        “No. You’re reacting like anypony would had they just unleashed something awful on the world. I know I was just as tempted to not come forward when I let loose all those parasprites on Canterlot, but I did it anyway. Honesty isn’t always easy, but it is usually the best decision when it comes to making mistakes.” The unicorn paused and stroked his mustache thoughtfully. “In a way, however, Havoc being released is partially my fault. I brought you away from Hoofington and to that mountain. So I will stand by you and accept my share of the blame.”

        With a nod and a deep breath, the pegasus cleared his mind of worries. “Alright. You’re right. Thank you, Professor. I don’t know much about friendship, but I’m glad you’re with me.”

        “You did save my life and I do enjoy your company, my boy,” the unicorn replied jovially, standing up to all fours now that the trouble had passed. “Let’s go wake the twins and have them escort us to the library. I do know the way, but I daresay they’d be angry at us if we went without them.”


        Novell goggled out at the sights around him as they trotted their way up the cobblestone street toward the royal district. Chariots and stagecoaches of all kinds threaded through the roads around well-dressed ponies going about their business. The air was filled with the sound of mares and gentlecolts conversing with one another, a constant presence as they ascended through the market district.

        Though the pegasus was from a fairly large community, the size of the market they walked through was boggling. From what he could tell, most of Hoofington could fit in just this district, which was even more stunning when he realized that this was all on the mountain, gently curving upwards to the crowning jewel of Canterlot - the royal palace.

        Along with the mass of ponies and their well-to-do jibber jabber, a mosaic of aromas and smells sifted through to delight his senses. From apple pies to fresh salads and spices from foreign lands being sold by all kinds of denizens, the scents were enough to make his mouth water. The fact that he had yet to eat that morning may have had something to do with that, he had to admit.

        “Apples here, get yer apples here, fresh plucked from Sweet Apple Acres down in the valley. Homegrown and darn tootin’est the best apples ya could ever have the pleasure ta taste,” a green mare with a friendly, freckled face and a robust voice called out to him, holding up a bright, red apple.

Novell had to admit it did seem to be the ‘darn tootin’est’ apple he had ever seen, but he shook his head with a polite smile. She winked at him before shouting back into the market place with her homely accent, not deterred by his rejection in the slightest and blending in with the rest of the storekeepers hawking their wares.

        As they walked, Novell felt himself grow more and more light hearted, the pleasant feeling of the sun on his coat and the general good cheer in the air even this deep into the winter. More than a few of the ponies they passed and saw had boots, saddles, and scarves on them while pegasi of all colors hovered overhead with various message bags trailing their flying forms.

        Decorations littered the stores and houses that rested along the street, festive and somehow regal at the same time in preparation for the Heart’s Warming Festival in Canterlot. Brightly colored lights streams from the roofs and around gigantic candy canes already submerged in a light frosting of snow.

        A few ponies they passed were working on creating an entire ice sculpture of a giant heart, standing on ladders and chiseling away at the frozen art peace by piece. He paused for a second to watch their hooves and horns gently hold the chisels, working together to release the art inside of what had been nothing but a huge block of ice.

        “Impressive, isn’t it lad? I admit I’ve become used to such sights during my time in Canterlot, but it’s always nice to see the amazement on a pony’s face when he sees it the first time,” Professor Search said.

        Novell stared at it for a moment more, longing to be part of the project. He could see the heart exactly as it should be and winced when one of the workers accidentally dug too deep into the ice. Luckily, it was nothing more than a minor imperfection, but it was still there. How can’t they see how much force they were supposed to use? It’s so obvious.

        With a sigh, he continued on, the light chinking sound of their chisels striking the ice like bells in the air.

        “Ugh, it’s so cold,” Quills complained suddenly, the first of such that day.

        “You have a saddle, at least. I just have this scarf,” her twin replied in a wounded tone of voice. “Besides, we’re almost to the library.”

        The filly snorted. “All this Hearth’s Warming Eve stuff is making me colder! I’m already outside when it’s just above freezing. I don’t need to be reminded that the snow is coming later tonight.”

        Scrolls just grinned at her. “‘Hearth’s Warming’ makes you cold?”

        “Yes, the irony isn’t lost on me, you oaf,” she replied with a growl. “Can we stop talking about it?”

        “The fire of friendship lives in our hearts. As long as it burns we cannot drift apart,” a few carollers started to sing as they entered a circular plaza with a frozen fountain in the middle.

        Quills groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Though quarrels arise, their numbers are few

Laughter and singing will see us through (will see us through)

We are a circle of pony friends.”

“So many friends.” The filly’s eye twitched.

A circle of friends we'll be to the very end,” the ponies finished in tune, giggling warmly after they recited their verses.

A few of the passersby who had stopped during the middle of the song were stomping the ground in applause, Novell among them. He heard Quills sigh and reluctantly stomp along with the rest of them, the Professor chortling as Scrolls started to sweet talk one of the younger mares in the audience.

After a few minutes, the weight of their burden returned, though Novell’s nervousness was all but gone. With his friends beside him, he was confident that everything would turn out better than he had imagined that morning. Even if he was banished, at least the Princesses would make sure that all of the happiness and love being shared in this city would continue to grow. At least his friends would be safe.

Eventually the crowds grew thinner as they reached the royal quarter of the city, more tophats and monocles in evidence the further the party trotted. As they went, Novell watched his companions change from their normal pace and poise, falling into a stiffer and more regal mode of walking. He caught himself doing the same thing unconsciously, chuckling ruefully as he regained his normal walk.

“You find something amusing, Novell?” Quills asked, her nose tilted up just enough to make her appear imperious.

“It’s just I noticed everypony started walking differently when we came to this part of Canterlot,” the pegasus explained with a smile. “You’re carrying yourself differently, almost like these other ponies we’ve been passing.”

Scrolls looked down at his body with surprise. “You know, you’re completely right. I never even noticed that, myself.”

The Professor decided to weigh in at that. “Ah, yes. It’s peer pressure, in a way. As you start to see everypony carry themselves differently, your brain feels as if you have to do the same. Quite a fascinating bit if psychology, even if it’s never been my particular forte. A nice observation, lad.”

“I just notice things,” Novell replied, waving it off with a hoof. “When you don’t have friends, you think about a lot of different ideas, like ‘how would I make that better’ or ‘the way they do that is interesting’. It kept me busy.”

Professor Search stared at him thoughtfully for a moment as they walked. “You know, I don’t believe that has anything to do with you having no friends, my boy. After all, you’ve always been that way, have you not?”

The pegasus thought back and shrugged. He didn’t understand why it was important. “I guess so.”

“Interesting,” the Professor replied with a nod. “Oh, my, we’re here already. That was quick.”

Novell glanced up at the building they were standing in front of, massive columns of twisting, white marble holding up a triangular sculpture of books stacked as if they were on a shelf. Below the well-worn art was the phrase ‘Learning is Magic - The Canterlot Royal Library’.

        “I always look at that sign and I think to myself ‘is everything magic’? I mean, friendship is magic, learning is magic - what about ponies. Are we magi- ow!”

        Quills slapped Scrolls over the head with a hoof. “Quiet, you. I’ve heard you say this like a bazillion times.”

        “They haven’t!” her twin objected as he rubbed the back of his head. “Besides, what if-.”

        The colt shut his mouth with an audible click at the glare his sister gave him. Novell brought a hoof to his muzzle, trying to hold back a chuckle. The Professor held no such compunctions and chortled heartily.

        “Ah, younglings. I miss being your age. Now, let’s go in before you two start a snowball fight. As much fun as that would be, we do have a schedule to keep.”

        “Yes, Professor,” the twins said in unison as they walked forward toward the library.

        Suddenly, Quills froze in her tracks. “Don’t do that.”

        Scrolls stopped and looked over his shoulder in confusion. “What do you mean? I didn’t do anything.”

        “Not you,” she replied, her head drooping down. “Him.”

        “What?” Novell put in, totally lost.

        Quills turned around finally, tears in her eyes, and pointed at the Professor. “You. Don’t say anything else while we’re here.”

        “Quills, don’t be unrea-,” her brother started.

        “I’m not being unreasonable! The Professor, our professor, is gone and I don’t want to be reminded of him,” she ground out between clenched teeth.

        Now it was Scrolls’ turn to be angry. “Professor Mark is not gone. We’re going to find him, Quills, and you can’t take this out on Professor Search. It’s not his fault that our professor is missing!”

        “But he sounds just like him! And I don’t blame Research,” she replied heatedly, swiping a pile of snow off the concrete path leading to the library with fervor. “Professor Mark left us. He left us alone in a cell, Scrolls. I don’t care about him and I don’t want to be reminded of another pony like him ever again!”

        “Do we sense discord between ponies in this place of learning?” said someone behind Novell in a strange, familiar accent. His eyes opened wide as he realized who it belonged to, his assumptions and fears justified as he whipped around and stared into the startling blue eyes of Princess Luna.

        “P-p-princess!” the Professor stammered out, bowing low beside Novell. A second later, he followed his friend’s example, closing his eyes as his heart quickened. This was who he was here for, the reason he had come to Canterlot. The pegasus’ pulse pounded in his ears and sweat began beading on his forehead.

        “I apologize, Princess,” Quills said demurely from behind Novell. He didn’t turn to look, frozen by the sight of Luna’s silver-clad hooves. “I was...overcome.”

        The hooves shifted slightly. “There is no need to be wroth, Quills Parchment. Especially with your brother-twin. Now, what ails you this day?”

        “Our Professor was ponynapped, m’lady,” Scrolls spoke up. “I-, we- there are some things you should know, Princess.”

        “It has do with a being named Havoc,” Professor Search said gravely.

        A sudden intake of breath was all Novell heard, but he was still frozen. “Where didst thou hear that name?”

        Novell closed his eyes and gulped. This was it. He had to tell her - now. With a deep, steadying breath, the pegasus rose from his bow and stared forlornly into the Princess’ eyes. Those lustrous blue orbs stared back at him with the deepness of the night sky, comforting and calculating at once.

        “I know that name,” he started in a whisper, “because I’m the pony who freed him.”

        The Princess went rigid. “What didst thou say?”

        Novell shied away from her gaze, wishing he could just shrink and be carried away by the breeze. “Havoc is somewhere in Equestria and it’s my fault.”

        “We-,” Princess Luna started before becoming more hesitant. “I see.”

        “I am as responsible for Havoc’s freedom, Princess Luna,” Professor Search’s weary voice issued from Novell’s left. His gaze shifted to the old unicorn’s muzzle, wrinkles that hadn’t been there before suddenly appearing. “I brought this young pegasus to the mountain in which he was imprisoned.”

        Silence descended on the group of ponies aside from their breathing and the mournful sound of the wind. The pegasus was frozen again, his heart thundering in his breast as time seemed to slow. He stared at the cement beneath his hooves, noticing a crack in the corner just as something white drifted in front of his eyes.

        Snow, he thought, just as another flake whipped by the breeze joined the first. The temperature was falling even as they stood there in the small garden before the library. Finally, the Princess spoke, her words a knell that tolled within his mind.

        “Come with us.”

        Novell looked up and once more found himself transfixed by those eyes of hers, cold and as intense as her tone. She walked past him, the sound of her silver shod hooves clicking across the ground and her mane rippling through the air like a curtain of stars.

        “Off we go, eh?” Professor Search said with a forced grin, gently bumping the younger pony. He looked up and nodded, meeting with the twins’ eyes individually. They stared back at him with silent support, falling into step behind him and the Professor as they followed the Princess inside the library.

        Despite the situation, the warm glow he experienced around his friends intensified.


        The door to the library closed with a solid thunk, the wailing wind instantly cutting off in favor of the quiet and peacefulness that only a room full of knowledge could provide. In spite of himself, the pegasus surreptitiously glanced around the library in awe, rows and rows of bookcases extending as far back as he could see. The red, gold embroidered carpet he strode on took up the center of the aisle they were walking on, splitting into two at a desk and continuing toward the back of the building in two more aisles.

        As they came to the desk, the Princess stopped. “Quills, Scrolls. You both may resume your duties as the caretakers of the library.”

        “We would, uh, rather stay with Novell, if that’s okay, Princess,” Scrolls spoke up in an unsure voice.

        Another pause, followed by a warmness in Luna’s voice. “Very well. Your commitment to your friend is admirable and compelling. Follow as you please.”

        “Thank you, Princess,” uttered Quills with appropriate humility in her voice.

        “Come,” she responded simply, continuing to the left path.

        As they passed the desk, Novell sent a grateful glance back at the twins. Scrolls flashed him a smile in return, while Quills just scowled at him. Even with her outward display, Novell knew that she was worried, but was willing to go along with her brother’s decision. The pegasus idly wondered if she was as dominant over her twin as she seemed.

        His attention was quickly diverted as they came out from beneath the ceiling that had been hanging over them. He exhaled in quiet relief, instantly inhaling as he looked up into the library proper. The ceiling he had seen was nothing but a second floor to the massive building, his eyes almost falling out of their sockets as he stared at the golden railing that circled the gigantic openness that covered what he imagined was the center of the library.

        He glanced to the left, his eyes naturally following the ovoid shape of the atrium, which swung back around and continued to his right an almost equidistant from his location. Massive glass windows made up the ceiling, interspersed with an actual rooftop painted with an otherworldly beauty of days gone by.

        Gilded columns rose from his the ground, reaching up to support the massive roof, inlaid with gold and silver and designed hoof-chiseled centuries ago. As he stared out at the sheer size of the library, he noticed other ponies inhabited the place. Pegasi flew from the first floor to the second and across the atrium carrying books and empty carts while unicorns and earth ponies trotted around with their own stacks of tomes.

        “This place is huge,” Novell gasped, unable to believe so many books existed in the whole world, let alone in this one library.

        “Well, it is the Royal Library,” Quills whispered sarcastically. “It holds every book ever made or so they say. Princess Celestia cared about knowledge too much to ever let anything go to waste and Princess Luna was just as consumed by the need of a repository for all books everywhere.”

        “Just so, young Quills,” the Princess replied in her accent as she continued toward the back of the library. “Though our- my sister was more concerned with the ideas of ponies, it was our idea to include that of the other races that inhabit this world. Even those whose ideals might not necessarily mesh with ours. After all, knowledge is knowledge, regardless of its source.”

        The pegasus skipped a step and almost tripped on his face. “And you’ve read all of this already, Quills?”

        She looked at him and rolled her eyes. “Of course not, that’s impossible at my age. I’ve only read a quarter of all the books in here. But I do know every title, thanks to an invention by a griffin. It’s this monocle that lists the name of every book in a stack if you just look at it and since I have perfect memory, I know the title and location of every single one!”

        “How does that work?”

        “The monocle? I dunno. Ask the griffin who made it, Valyn Pinfeather.” Quills snorted. “That’s kind of a silly name, if you ask me.”

        The party fell silent after that, though the Princess stopped to greet any pony who walked by in her formal turn of speech. Novell could tell some of the ponies were unnerved by Luna’s manner, but he didn’t exactly blame them for it. After all, it was jarring to hear somepony talk to you like they came out of the ages when knights and their squireponies existed.

        Eventually, they left the large atrium-like space, the oppressive ceiling returning along with Novell’s discomfort. As they walked further into the back of the library, the path they had been following split into four more aisles. Luna walked steadily ahead, purposefully marching down the rightmost path that ended in a bare wall between two shelves of books. He heard a gasp from behind him that was quickly cut off and he looked backward to investigate.

        Quills was staring at her brother in confusion, who seemed to be the source of the sudden inhalation. The earth pony gulped and looked away from both of them, keeping his mouth firmly shut. Before he could figure out what was going on, the pegasus bumped into the Professor, who had somehow gotten in front of him.

        “Scrolls,” Princess Luna said. “Thou mayest perform the necessary arrangements.”

        “Arrangements?” Quills asked suspiciously.

        Her brother managed to look guilty as he shuffled forward passed the party to the bare wall they had stopped in front of. “Ah, yes. Yes, Princess.”

        Without another word, Scrolls strode up to the bookcase near the wall and leaned his forehooves against the shelf, grabbing one of the books with his muzzle and pulling it out an inch.

        The sound of something heavy sliding from overhead caused Novell to flutter his wings nervously. He glanced up, instantly noticing the tell-tale line in the seemingly seamless ceiling and wondered with a shiver exactly what Scrolls had just disarmed. A trap, for sure, but what kind?

        A second later, a scraping noise came from in front of him, drawing his attention to the wall just as it began to raise upward. Scrolls stood by the wall, awkwardly trying to keep his eyes away from his sister’s glare.

        “Thank you, young pony,” Princess Luna said, stepping into the wall without another word. Scrolls darted in after her, quickly followed by Quills. Novell winced as he imagined the words the filly had for her brother, already knowing that the colt had been keeping this secret from her.

        With a shared glace, he and the Professor walked through the threshold, the hidden door shutting slowly behind them. To Novell, it felt like he was entering his own tomb, but he quickly shook that thought away. The Princesses wouldn’t do something like lock ponies away. Would they?

        As soon as the door shut completely and the light from the library proper disappeared, a glow came from Luna’s horn that filled the small room they found themselves in. The walls on all sides were covered in books - even the entrance was part of a bookshelf almost indistinguishable from the rest of the shelves. With a quick glance upward, he noticed a bulge that covered all but four small corners of the ceiling. Novell’s wings fluttered involuntarily at being stuck in the cramped space, but he ignored the urge to panic and returned his gaze to the Princess.

        “Selene,” Luna spoke and instantly the ceiling sparked to life, filling the chamber with a soft, pale glow. They all looked up to see the moon shining down at them, its shape filling the entirety of the bulge, eerie and comforting all at once. “Now we may speak without being overheard. Recount how Havoc has been released from his prison, pegasus, for what thou hast done bodes ill for Equestria.”

        Even with his throat dry from both guilt and his fears of what the Princess would do, Novell told her. He told her how he found the Professor on the side of a mountain, how he had rescued the unicorn from a Yeti. How that same Yeti had found them soon after they had met up with Pensive Coalescence. From there, with only a few mentions of Whisper up to that point, he told Luna how Havoc had taken control of Pensive and forced him to almost kill the mare.

        His voice cracked as he remembered that moment, but he continued on regardless. With every word, his heart felt lighter, as if confessing was cleansing him of the guilt and depression that had clouded the edges of his mind. Havoc’s deal interested the Princess the most, though she allowed him to keep going after a few questions. Finally, he told her how he had allowed the draconequus to escape.

 “I didn’t want to die,” he admitted hoarsely. “I wanted to find out who I was, even more than I wanted to save my friends. I didn’t want to die, so I let him go to save myself. Free will of a pony was the required key to unlock his prison and I willingly turned it for my own future. He offered me power after that, the ability to become a god like him.” His head fell until he was staring at Luna’s hooves. “I almost said yes before he left.”

“But you didn’t!” Scrolls interjected before anyone else could speak. “You kept quiet! You saved the Professor and Pensive!”

Novell allowed himself to look into his friends’ eyes just as Quills spoke up. “My dumb brother is right for once. You didn’t accept his promise like our Professor did,” she said disgustedly.

“That’s not fair, Quills!” her brother objected heatedly. “Professor Mark had to have a good reaso-.”

“Enough, our little ponies,” Princess Luna said quietly, all eyes turning to her and silence reigning. “Regardless of thy feelings, Havoc has escaped and we need to return him to his prison before he regains his powers.”

“Pensive said Havoc would rest for a few days before doing anything. Today should be the first day he shows himself,” Novell offered.

The Princess nodded. “Yes, there have been isolated incidents around the world that have come to our attention and that of our sister’s, most notably the griffin kingdoms. We have dispatched envoys to investigate these places. Celestia wishes to use the Elements of Harmony should anypony find evidence of Havoc’s presence.”

Professor Search sighed with relief. “The Elements are being brought into play? Then we should be safe, should we not? After all, there is no greater power in Equestria, aside from yourself, m’lady.”

“We disagree with our sister’s assessment,” Princess Luna said with steel in her voice. “The Elements are needed here, to safeguard Equestria. Should Havoc release Discord, we will need our strongest shield against their evil, for though one is enough to cause war, both would mean the return of the time before our rule. This cannot be so.”

“But if the Elements can’t be used against Havoc, who is going to stop him?” Novell asked with dread creeping down his spine.

“For now, Havoc is weak,” the Princess said, stomping the ground with one hoof in emphasis. “We can still recapture him, if we have to do it ourselves. Our royal guards and magi shall be enough to return him to his prison.”

Novell sighed in relief. If the Princesses themselves got involved, everything would be solved quickly. At least his efforts to warn them hadn’t been in vain. There was only one more thing to discuss.

“What of me, Princess?” the pegasus asked, his chest hollow and numb.

“Nothing. Thee and thy friends are free to leave,” she replied simply.

Novell was incredulous. “But I released Havoc! You’re not going to punish me for that?”

The Princess cocked her head. “Thou wishest a punishment for being controlled, when we were forgiven for our crimes as Nightmare Moon? We are the least able to mete out any punishment. Thou art free to go, young Novell.”

“There has to be something I can do,” the pegasus started, off balance by this twist in events. “It’s my fault he’s out...”

“Hmm.” Luna stared at him for a moment before nodding to herself. “Very well. Thy shall help Quills and Scrolls find their Professor. Perhaps thou wilt find information on Havoc in thy endeavor. Should any be found, report it to-.”

“I made a promise,” Novell interrupted, causing the Professor and the twins to look at him in horror. “I made a promise that I would stop Havoc. I can’t just break that promise and not help. Let me find him and help you stop him.”

Princess Luna stared at him with an unnervingly calm face and this time he returned her gaze. He wasn’t going to back down now. With a start, he realized he wasn’t ever going to stop, regardless of whatever punishment the Princesses would levy.

“A promise...,” Luna trailed off, staring at him. “I see. I do see.” She turned toward the twins. “Quills, Scrolls, thou mayest use the Southern Belle to find your Professor and help this young pegasus find Havoc.”

        “The Belle?” both of them gasped in unison.

        Luna ignored them, instead staring at the unicorn. “Professor Ronaldo Eduardo Search, I trust you will find chaperoning these young ponies on their quest to be an appropriate punishment for your hoof in all of this?”

        “Yes, m’lady,” the Professor replied with a smile beneath his mustache, bowing deeply.

        “And finally thee, young Novell Light,” Princess Luna pronounced regally, surprising him with knowledge of his last name. “Thou will find Havoc and report any of thy findings to one of our embassies stationed around the world. We would ask that thou dost not engage nor consort with this draconequus in any way, but let our trained Equestrian forces handle it. Is this acceptable to thee?”

        “I...yes, Princess,” Novell nodded several times. “Yes, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

        The look on her face softened then. “Such earnestness. No wonder one of our moonstones found its way to thee.” She nodded as he blinked in surprise. “Yes, we do know of its fate and we support the decision that was made. One more thing before we leave. There are three fillies in Ponyville who might be interested in thy story. Tell them of thy trials with thy cutie mark before thou leavest on thy journey. Thou will find them at the ‘Carousal Boutique’. Now, we must return to our duties. Scrolls, thou mayest show them out as it pleases thee. The Belle shall be ready for thy departure as soon as you wish to leave. Farewell, to all of you, and good luck.”

        With a flash of blue, the alicorn disappeared. Novell half expected the room to descend back into darkness, but after a few beats of his heart, the moon remained above them as silent and majestic as the real thing. He sighed and fell to his haunches, tired beyond words after everything. Not only had he not been punished, he had been given the opportunity to do good for Equestria and repent for his wrongdoings. It was more than he could hope for. Still, her last request confused him - even so, he’d do as she asked.

        “Wow,” Scrolls said into the silence. “I’ve never seen anyone interrupt the Princess like that. It was-,”

        “-kind of brave,” Quills continued with a smile he hadn’t seen from her, well, ever. A second later, she scowled. “But it was also stupid. You don’t interrupt the Princess if you want to keep being a pony. I heard, back when she last ruled Equestria, she turned ponies into frogs for stuff like that.”

        Novell laughed at her words, feeling like a weight was lifted off of his shoulders. “Maybe my cutie mark has something to do with defying the odds, then.”

        The twins shared a glance and arched their eyebrows before returning their gazes to him and shaking their heads. “Nope!”

        “Well, before we go anywhere, I’d like to take a look at that book you mentioned yesterday, Scrolls,” Professor Search said.

        Scrolls nodded, pointing one hoof at his sister. “Quills knows where it is.”

        “So do you!”

        “Well, yeah, but I figured after I totally overshadowed you by knowing about this room, you’d feel like being useful,” the colt responded sarcastically.

        Quills growled at him. “That’s it, you’re getting pounded!”

        The twins were just about to start fighting when the Professor prompted them with a cough. “Quills, if you please.”

        With a glare at her brother, she responded grumpily. “Fine.”

        A few minutes later, they were once more in the gigantic library, walking toward the middle of the building. A sense of longing dominated the feelings in the young pegasus more than anything else, staring out at the veritable sea of books all around him. His eyes glazed over as he imagined spending his days in this vast repository of the world’s words, but a quick prod from the Professor reminded him they still had a job to do.

        Maybe after all this I can come back here and help Quills and Scrolls, he thought fondly, following the twins to one of the twisting stairwells that would take them up a floor. With a look at the steps, Novell opted instead to fly up to the second level, waiting patiently for the flightless ponies as they ascended. While he waited, he glanced curiously around at the plaques that adorned the side of every row of bookshelves.

        This one says history, he thought and moved his glance over a few rows to the left, and that’s fiction. Oh, mare, I wish I could stay here.

        As soon as the others joined him on the second floor, Quills set off toward the right, continuing past long rows of bookshelves and passing a few ponies who smiled and waved at the filly. Novell looked to his right to stare down into the atrium, spying a few tables in between the shelves in some places. There were even a few pillows arranged in a circle in one clearing, their scarlet color matching with the red carpet beneath them.

        Their hooves clicked against the marble on the top floor as they went, their guide unerringly taking them into the maze of stacks of books, turning right, then left, then left again. The directions soon left Novell completely lost, but he was confident he could navigate the library. After all, he could just fly over the labyrinth if worst came to worst. Being a pegasus has its advantages, he thought with a small smile.

        Presently, the filly came to a stop in front of a particular shelf, Novell snatching a quick look at the wooden paneling and noticing it said ‘Locks, Traps, and Prison Magic’ on the plaque this time. He shook his head in amazement at Quills’ accuracy, further impressed by her perfect recall.

        “Well, there it is,” she pointed at a small sliver of a book, little more than a couple of pages thick tied with black and gold intertwined string. As the Professor levitated it out of its place, Novell noticed a strange symbol on the front cover, though it was bare of all else. With a quick flip of magic, Professor Search opened the book to the first page and began reading.

        “Spell Capture and Design by Warden of the Stream. Caution: the spell found within this book is classified as high level magic and should not be used by either an inexperienced unicorn nor any other type of magical creature without the proper experience to handle such spells. In fact, it is best if the practitioner include friends or associates to help with the spell, as a single unicorn is hardly enough power to inscribe the runes.”

        Novell arched an eyebrow at the Professor as he paused, but said nothing, allowing the unicorn to continue. “Furthermore, should any magical creature use this spell upon another pony, the runes will not work, nor will it work on any kind of magical creature aside from specific forms of chaos that shall not be mentioned here. The key to finding which form of chaos are susceptible to this spell can be found within the enclosed letter, which is spell-locked to a certain unicorn who shall not be mentioned here.”

        “That’s all there is to it, aside from some diagrams and runes which I assume are part of the capture system,” Quills said after Professor Search had finished. “Of course, there’s also the letter, which is under the last page in the small pocket.”

        Professor Search quickly paged to the end of the book, a subtly glowing parcel sticking out of a pocket in the center of the back cover. “Interesting. I’ve seen spell-locked messages before, but this one seems older than any I’ve encountered. Perhaps centuries old, at the least. I wonder which unicorn is was keyed to, back then. Starswirl? Clover? Hmm...”

        Novell stepped closer to look at the magical message - that strange pulling sensation in his chest was happening again. “Is there anyway to open it if it’s keyed to somepony else?”

        “There are a few tricks I’ve picked up in some old scriptures back when I was researching magical communication,” the Professor muttered distractedly, pulling the parcel from its pocket and floating it in front of his face. “I could try tho-.”

        The unicorn’s words were interrupted by a flash of light and a sickeningly disoriented feeling as though he were being shaken and spun around all at once. Cold assailed his body, followed by heat and then a mixture of the two that left him feeling half frozen and half burnt to a crisp. Just as soon as he tried to rationalize what was happening to him, he felt like he was being stretched and then snapped back into realism like a rubber band. And then he began falling.

        Panic seized the pegasus as the wind rushed past his ears, his wings instantly flapping to right himself. Thankfully he managed to do so, but unfortunately he was already to close to the ground to stop his ascent the easy way. Instead, the ground did that for him, rattling his brain as he hit the ground.

        He lay there, stunned, staring up into a bright blue sky and a green forest surrounding the small clearing. For a few seconds, he couldn’t breath, spots dancing in his vision as he tried to pull in a breath. The sun blurred his vision as a passing cloud moved away, frantically managing to get his heaving diaphragm under control.

        “Professor!” he called out, once he was recovered enough to. Wincing, the pegasus rolled to his knees and looked around, still unsteady. For a second, he saw nothing but the forest around him and worry began to crowd the edges of his thoughts. Then one of the trees wiggled, leaves thrashing against one another as something heavy moved through the branches. A flash of grey caught his eye before the unicorn fell out of the tree like he had been spit out.

        Leaves followed him, lazily coming to rest on the groaning pony. The Professor’s glasses were askew on his snout but undamaged otherwise. Novell picked himself up and walked unsteadily over, checking to see if his friend was alright.

        “Oh, my everything,” Professor Search grumped as he took the hoof the pegasus offered him. “That was quite a teleportation spell. Old one, too.”

        Novell furrowed his brow as the unicorn dusted himself off with one hoof. “Why did we fall out of the sky? And where are the twins?”

        “As I said, it was an old spell. Leylines have moved since the location was specified, so it was off by a few meters. Up, as it happens,” the Professor explained before glancing around. “As for the twins, I believe they were far enough away from us to not be caught in the spell. The real question, however, is where did this teleportation take us?”

        “Don’t you have your compass magic?” he asked, hoping the twins really were okay.

        Search nodded. “Indeed, good point, my lad. I must still be shaken up from my rather...ungraceful landing. You know, this reminds me of a time when-,”

        “Later, Professor, please,” Novell begged, not in the mood for another story right now. “Let’s find out where we are before something finds us.”

        The unicorn harrumphed at the pegasus’ interruption, but complied all the same. His horn began glowing as he turned around in place with his eyes closed. Novell ruffled his wings nervously as he looked around, keeping watch on their small clearing. Why would the spell bring them here? There was something about a key, he remembered, to identify chaos that the capture system would work on.

        “Ah, here we go!” The Professor’s voice drew his attention away from his thoughts. “We’re in a forest near Ponyville.”

        Novell’s heart went cold. “The Everfree?”

        The unicorn shook his head. “No, no, another one nearby. Whitetail Wood, I believe. We’re too far east to be in the Everfree.”

        The pegasus sighed in relief. “Okay, that’s okay. Nothing dangerous in the Whitetail, right?”

        “Well...,” the Professor trailed off and looked away from Novell to stare at something behind him. “I, ah, wouldn’t say that.”

        Novell felt like crying, then. “There’s something behind me, isn’t there?”

        “Something, yes. Ah, I, ah, wouldn’t move if I were you, my boy,” Professor Search said hesitantly, still staring behind him with a carefully blank expression. Novell could hear heavy breathing in his ear now, along with a faint sulfurous odor.

        “Boo!” a sibilant hiss said into his ear, causing Novell to squeak in fright. He stayed where he was as a strange hissing sound came from the source of his terror, gulping and managing to glance backward.

        Sitting there with a claw held to one eye was a tall, golden dragon with scales that glittered like the ocean at sunset, laughing at him. A second later, a snort from in front of him brought his attention back to the Professor, who was holding both front hooves to his mouth in order to stop the laughter from bubbling out.

        Novell glared at the unicorn, knowing he’d been tricked when both the dragon and his friend began guffawing loudly. “Oh, I see how it is, Professor. That was...I was so...”

        “Sssssearch,” the dragon’s voice said between bubbles of hissing laughter, “it issss good to sssssee you again. I have misssssed your jokesssss.”

        The Professor chuckled for a few more seconds before it subsided to a smile. “And you, Slyth. It’s been far too long. But why are you out here in the Whitetail? I thought your nest was near the griffon kingdoms?”

        “You remember well my placcccesssss, Ssssssearch,” Slyth responded with a flick of his forked tongue. “But I am here assssss a messssssanger. It wassssss a command of my ssssscalessss and my blood to come here. Imagine my ssssssurprissssse when I find none other than you and this pegassssussss.” The dragon paused, swiping its tail through the air to thump the ground. “It issss thanksssss to the Warden of the Ssssstream I am here.”

        Novell’s curiosity overcame his embarrassment. “The Warden? You know him?”

        The hissing came again as the dragon thumped his tail again in what the pegasus now knew was a variation of a chuckle. “You are assss funny assss Sssearch, young pegassssusss. No, I do not know the Warden, but her command isss to be heeded.”

        “The Warden is a she?”

        “Isss that what I sssaid? Forgive me, I do not know,” Slyth said as he scratched the bony ridge just above his eyes with one claw. “I mussst be gone sssoon, as Cccelessstia granted me leave only for a few daysss in this Equessstria. It issss a tempting place to sssleep, I musssst admit, sssssso I will heed the Sun Princessssessss’ command. The key isss thusss: The Warden of the Sssstream.”

        “The key is the Warden? But if you don’t know this Warden, how do you know it is the key? And how do we find the Warden anyway?” Professor Search asked his draconic friend.

        The dragon thumped its tail again and rustled its wings like the sound of paper rasping against itself. “I do not know, but it isss funny to sssssee your confusssion. Find the Warden - that isss my messsage and sssso my tassssk complete. Until we ssssspeak again, may all your treassssuresss sssshine.”

        With that, Slyth opened his wings to their fullest and leaped into the air, his tail narrowly missing the two ponies as it sliced through the space between them. With his hissing laugh, the dragon flew off in what Novell guessed was a northwestern direction. A moment later, not even a speck was left of the Professor’s strange friend.

        “Well, that was weird,” the pegasus said. “Why could the note just have said ‘find me’ instead of transporting us all the way out here?”

        “It could be that this Warden is showing us how much power he or she wields, to be able to direct a dragon to a specific spot at the exact time we would arrive here,” the Professor offered. “If so, I must admit I’m impressed.”

        Novell thought that over, squinting at the sun overhead to track its progress. “I don’t like magic, but I guess we should get moving and not worry about it for now. How far is Ponyville?”

        “No more than an hour away, actually, if I’m any judge. Though you could fly up and take a look,” his friend pointed out.

        Conceding the point, the pegasus opened his wings and leaped into the air like Slyth had done moments before. He quickly ascended, the bank of trees in front of him cutting off close by and the beginnings of Ponyville visible as he found a cloud to perch on. Alone for the first time in the last week, Novell thought over his journey. There were a few things he had noticed when he’d told his story to the Princess that he hadn’t when they were happening, but he felt something niggling at the back of his mind, like there was one more piece to the puzzle.

        “Hmm,” he sighed aloud and peeked over the edge of the cloud to see his friend far below. “I guess we better head to Ponyville. Hopefully Whisper and Pensive were there and they could meet up with the twins back in Canterlot.”

        And then? he asked himself, staring back out across the horizon, toward the northwest. Princess Luna had said the griffin kingdoms were experiencing some kind of trouble. Maybe Havoc would be there.

        Only one way to find out, I guess, the pegasus thought, allowing himself to drop off the cloud and rejoin the Professor. Just one more thing to do.

Chapter 13: In Medias Res

        A pastel, orange glow covered Ponyville’s streets, lending the town a pleasant atmosphere of warmth despite the temperature. A light breeze whispered across the rooftops from the far away mountains, bringing with it the chill of winter’s breath. The last errands of the day were being completed and the town was readying itself for the night. Ponies of all kinds and colors were beginning to return to their homes with the setting of the sun.

On the wooden deck beneath the circular town hall, an elder unicorn dozed with the wind tousling his steadily graying mane and relived the adventure he had experienced through the words of his companion - a white coated pegasus seated on the steps below him. Three fillies listened from the ground, listening intently as the pegasus’ story wound down and ended the spellbinding effect of the tale.

        “And then we ran into you three,” Novell finished with a fond smile at his audience. They had been patient throughout his tale, though a few times he’d seen them look away or yawn in boredom as he described a particularly dry part of his journey. The small pegasus in particular seemed to almost vibrate with the urge to move. The irritated rustle of her wings had amused him, reminded of Whisper’s own impatience.

        With a buzz of her tiny wings, Scootaloo jumped a few feet into the air. “That’s it? The story’s not done, though!”

        “Well-,” he began before being cut off by the unicorn filly.

        “Yeah, she’s right. What about Havoc? And the Warden? And Whisper!”

        Applebloom chose that moment to weigh in, rubbing a hoof under her chin. “Ah wanna know what the twins are gonna do with you up an’ disappearin’ like you did.”

        Novell closed his eyes for a moment and allowed himself another grin. “You’re right. The story isn’t done. But that’s partly why I’m here in Ponyville. Aside from telling you three about cutie marks,” he added hurriedly as the orange one eyed him suspiciously.

        “Speaking of, you never told us about yours! Why don’t you have one?” Scootaloo paused, with a look that said she’d just thought of something terrible. “Wait, do you steal pony’s cutie marks? Is that why you don’t have one, so you have to find somepony else’s?”

        He winced and opened his mouth to correct her when Sweetie Belle spoke up. “Scootaloo! Didn’t you even listen? You’re no better than those bullies he met at the inn!” The unicorn looked up at him. “I’m sorry about what she said.”

        The white pegasus waved it away with a hoof. “I’ve heard worse. Though a cutie mark snatching pony would make for a good story. Maybe I’ll work on it and tell you when I come back to Ponyville someday.”

        The pegasus filly was already onto another thought, standing on her hindlegs and punching forward with both forehooves. “I could have taken that Yeti all by myself and that Minotaur, too!” She jumped into the air and performed a flying kick, grunting with the exertion. “Bam, wham, lights out for both of ‘em!”

        “I wonder if I’ll ever get to make a shield like you did, Professor,” Sweetie Belle sighed and kicked at the ground. “All I ever do it make things catch fire.”

        The grey unicorn laughed softly, his eyes crinkling with amusement. “You’re a youngling yet, Miss Belle. It’ll come, in time. Just keep practicing.”

        “So did you ever find anythin’ about your cutie mark, Mister Light?” Applebloom asked in her cute Apple family drawl.

        “You can call me Novell,” he offered. He stared off into the sunset, piecing together how to answer that particular question. It was one he had asked himself several times during his journey, with no success - until now. “And I think I did figure something out about my cutie mark. It just took me repeating the story a second time to really get it. I-.”

        Professor Search interrupted him from his right with a polite cough, standing up from his relaxed position and pointing a hoof toward the road leading into the city. “I do believe I spy one of our little troupe trotting in as we speak. Perhaps they should hear what you’ve discovered, too, lad?”

        The three fillies turned at the unicorn’s motion, each squinting down the road at the approaching figure. Novell opened his wings in subdued surprise, following their gazes and spotting the silhouette of a figure walking down the road toward them. Looking closer, he realized that the pony was wearing some kind of cloth over its head that fanned out behind it with the wind. A flash of white pierced his thoughts, a half remembered image from several days ago, and then he understood.

        Pensive? he hesitantly asked in his mind, watching the shade pause and look their way. Novell beamed, sure it was his friend. With a flap of his wings, he jumped down to the ground and walked over to meet the unicorn, a puff of dust rising in his wake.

        It is good to see you, Novell, the familiar voice echoed in his mind, like ice water bubbling into his head. His grin grew wider as the unicorn raised a hoof to throw off the hood it was wearing, flourishing the white cloth into nonexistence with a flick of a wrist. He heard gasps of astonishment from the three fillies behind him.

        “I’m glad you’re back,” Novell said. He reached out a hoof of his own and the unicorn stared at it for a moment before taking it. Something clicked inside his mind, like a sigh of satisfaction, and the pegasus knew things were as they were supposed to be once more. When they finished their greeting, his friend flicked an in recognition and bowed.

        “Elder Search. I see you are still well.”

        The older unicorn strode up with a smile and a wink, nodding in return. “Of course, lad, of course. A hardy and handsome adventurer like myself will ever be young on the trail. You seem to be just fine as well, if a little overwhelmed.”

        Pensive glanced around uneasily before sighing. “I admit, I have never been in a city before. It is unsettling. So many... things.” He stared at a couple of ponies walking across the plaza and then looked away when they waved at him.

        “Well, don’t be nervous! Ponyville is one of the nicer towns to visit,” the Professor chuckled and gestured toward their audience. “Speaking of which, why don’t you introduce our friend to these fillies, Novell? I’m sure they’re bursting with questions.”

The white pegasus started and looked guiltily up at the grey unicorn. “Oh, yeah,” he said lamely, turning his attention to the Crusaders. “Applebloom, Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, meet my friend Pensive Coalescence.        Pensive, these are the ‘Cutie Mark Crusaders’, a group of fillies dedicated to finding their cutie marks.”

“I see,” the teal pony replied seriously. “It is a pleasure to meet all of you.”

“Can you do that thing you did with the cloak again? It was so cool.” Scootaloo hopped toward him on her wings, catching Pensive off guard. Novell met his uneasy gaze and grinned, letting the unicorn know he was on his own for this one.

“I, ah, yes. I can. It is a simple magic-,” Pensive started.

“So you just got your cutie mark, right?” Sweetie Belle asked.

The teal pony frowned slightly and nodded. “Yes, I did, though I am not sure of its meaning.”

“What did it feel like when you got it?” Applebloom edged closer, forcing the unicorn to take a step back.

A soft look came over the unicorn’s face as he gazed into the mid-distance. “It was a warm feeling, similar to the sensation of the sun on one’s coat. A blissful moment of togetherness with something special, a peek into a greater purpose, and a freedom....” Pensive trailed off and blushed suddenly, looking to the side. “But still, I do not understand its full meaning.”

Everypony was silent for a moment, until Scootaloo’s wings buzzed in annoyance. “Well that was useless.”

“Scootaloo!” Sweetie Belle scolded.

“What? It was!” the pegasus filly replied with a scowl.

The small unicorn sniffed and looked imperiously at her friend. “Well, I thought it was a romantic way of describing it.”

Scootaloo mock gagged, but Applebloom just nodded and looked thoughtful. “A moon behind a cloud, huh? Maybe you control the weather or somethin’?”

Pensive seemed to debate that for a moment before shaking his head. “No, I do not believe that is it.”

“Is Whisper with you?” Novell asked suddenly. He only now realized he hadn’t seen the orange pegasus anywhere and began glancing over Pensive’s shoulder to peer down the road he’d come from.

“She was, though she flew ahead as soon as we came within sight of the town,” the teal unicorn explained. He nodded toward one of the clouds floating near the town hall as innocent as a fluff of whiteness could be. “Right now, she is lounging on the cloud above us. I suspect she is waiting to surprise you.”

An orange head peeked from the top of the cloud at that, a scowl on her face reflected in Swirley’s down turned eyebrows. “You just had to ruin it, didn’t you?”

“I do not see what I could have ruined, other than to worry Novell overmuch,” the unicorn replied mildly.

The pegasus flew down from her perch, gracefully flaring her wings and coming to a smooth landing behind the three fillies. They turned toward her at her approach, Scootaloo whistling appreciatively at the touchdown. Truth be told, I’m a little amazed myself, Novell admitted in his head.

Ever since her wing was healed, she has gained a grace not previously shown, Pensive added at that thought. However, she did run into a tree when she tried it out shortly after awakening from her slumber. It was amusing.

Novell tried to keep a straight face, but failed as a smile broke out. He strode up to the other pegasus and held out a hoof, the worry he had experienced when he hadn’t found her earlier disappearing. The scowl didn’t fall from the mare’s face as she lifted a hoof of her own.

A second later, she slugged him in the shoulder.

“Ow!” Novell exclaimed. He backed up and began rubbing the already swelling bruise. “What was that for?”

Whisper glared at him. “That was for that crack back at the cave. I told you I owed you a pounding.” She walked closer and hit him again.


“And that was for being dumb and leaving me behind, ya big dummy. You can barely function without me, being all wishy washy when you met the Princess and getting all scared when you said you met that dragon.” She raised a hoof and he shied away, expecting another hit, but she dropped it a moment later and softened her voice. “Don’t do it again.”

Novell scowled. “We were kind of in a hurry an-,”

She got into his face and glared. “Don’t. Do. It. Again.” Her hoof tapped his chest with every word.

He gulped and nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good,” the mare said. A smile broke out on her face and she looked to his side, waving a hoof. “Hey, Professor. Swirley’s missed you.”

The unicorn in question chuckled and eyed the mollusk’s color shifting shell. “I gathered from his rather long stream of color combinations. He’s just finished recounting everything you and Pensive have been up to since we, ah, decided to split up.” The unicorn’s horn glowed in the same manner as Swirley’s shell for a moment, the two communing silently for a few moments. Finally, the Professor nodded and spared a fond smile for the mare. “I am overjoyed to see you back in one piece, as it were, Miss Whisper.”

She rolled her eyes and gave a frustrated sigh. “You have no idea how annoying it was not being able to fly. But thanks.”

“I do.” Novell objected softly. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”

Whisper glanced at him with an unreadable expression before snorting. “Not your fault. I probably would have done it to myself eventually.”

“It was, though,” he replied regretfully. “Which is why I want you to go ahead and continue to Cloudsdale and see that Wonderbolt show you mentioned. You don’t need to come with us any further.”

The mare looked at him incredulously. “Did you replace your brain with a cloud while you were away? Didn’t I just tell you not to leave me behind again?”

“Well, yes,” Novell floundered, taking a step back. “But I don’t want to waste those tickets and I’m not leaving you behind so much as asking you to do what you were going to do anyway and-”

“I lied about the Wonderbolts, okay?” Whisper admitted with an irritable expression. “I was just bored and saw you leaving town, so I followed. You probably would have gotten yourself eaten by some kind of monster if I hadn’t come along when I did.”

The other pegasus frowned. “But-.”

“Perhaps it would be best if you told us your discovery, lad?” the Professor prodded. Novell glanced up at the unicorn to see a warning expression on his face.

Frowning even further, the pegasus took in the expectant faces of all of the ponies around him. Correction, at least my friends and Applebloom, he thought dryly. Scootaloo was more fascinated with Whisper, a look of adulation on the younger pegasus’ face, and Sweetie Belle was sneaking looks at Pensive. Applebloom was the only one paying any attention to him, though she had a far off look in her eyes.

Novell closed his eyes for a moment, readying himself for what he was going to say. He didn’t imagine that there would be any change by saying the words, but just letting people know his suspicions was... difficult. He hesitated, his mind echoing back and forth, thoughts trailing thoughts like a snake eating its own tail. Was this it? Did he figure at least some of it out?

An icy clarity came to his thoughts, stilling his worries and thrusting back the doubt and guilt always eating away at his mind. Novell opened an eye and nodded appreciatively at Pensive before closing it again. He still didn’t get all of it, but the pegasus was sure he was on the right track. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes just as the sun fell completely below the horizon.

The stars above caught his eye, just beginning to show themselves in preparation for Luna to raise her moon, companions to that lustrous celestial object. Was the Princess watching him now, waiting for his own admission? Or was he just imagining himself being more important than he was?

The pegasus smiled easily and slightly shook his head. It didn’t matter, really, whether or not anypony else heard what he was going to say. But as he stared at each of his friends in turn and even the three Cutie Mark Crusaders, he understood that this was all he needed - just his friends. They had helped him understand himself in their own ways, to understand who he was and what he was meant to do.

“My cutie mark,” Novell began, still staring at the sky and spotting a dark blot against the darkening curtain, “My special talent. I think I finally get a little bit of it. Understanding the possibilities and reaching out to make them happen - realizing potential. Whether I’m seeing the figurine inside of a piece of wood,” he smiled at the memory of the carving he had made with Chipper and then looked into Pensive’s eyes, “or understanding somepony has the chance to be more than they are.”

He paused, feeling a tug in his chest as the blot grew closer, a steady hum beginning on the night winds. “It was thanks to all of you, even you Crusaders. Luna, the twins, everypony we’ve met up until now. Even Havoc gave me a hint back in the mountain.”

“And your cutie mark? You still don’t have one.” Applebloom asked.

Novell chuckled, a feeling of lightness swirling through him. “You’re right, but now I’m on the right path to finding it and it’s thanks to my friends I’ve gotten this far. I’m confident that I’ll earn my cutie mark soon. I just need a few more pieces to the puzzle.”

Just as he said that, the wind picked up profusely around the group of ponies, dust kicking up into the air as the humming Novell had noticed earlier reached a crescendo. The pegasus grinned wider than ever before as he stared straight up, watching a ship drop toward them, a massive balloon holding it aloft with ropes wrapped around it.

Everypony followed his gaze as the massive airship came to a steady halt next to the town hall, the golden words ‘Southern Belle’ written on the side of it. Steel and silver wrapped around the exterior in tasteful decoration, hatches and windows barely able to be seen in the low light of the town’s lampposts. The figurehead of the magnificent behemoth was a unicorn splashing from the waves, holding two bells in its forehooves and glittering beautifully with reflected light.

Finally, twin turbines protruded from each side of the ship, the wind caused by its whirring blades sending everypony’s hair in all directions. They hummed with barely constrained power, the vibration resonating in the pegasus’ chest. Ponies were beginning to come outside to find out what all the racket was about, gathering around the town hall and gaping in astonishment at the floating ship.

“Novell? Professor? You all down there?” a familiar voice yelled over the sound of the growing crowd and the gigantic turbines.

“Scrolls?” Whisper asked incredulously, the wind suddenly cutting off around them as she manipulated the air currents with a flick of her wings.

The twins' faces peeked over the side of the ship. A second later, a rope ladder smacked into the ground beside Pensive, who had re-donned his hooded white cloak.

“Get up here already. We’re waking up the whole town!” Quills shouted irritably. Novell glanced around again, noticing even more ponies were beginning to show up. A flash of lavender in the crowd drew his attention and he remembered one of the other reasons he had come to Ponyville. He turned to the Crusaders, who were standing off to the side and watching the airship bob above them.

“Applebloom,” he said. The earth pony drew her gaze away from their transportation and cocked her head. “I need you to tell Twilight Sparkle everything I told you. She might not believe you, but somepony needs to know what’s going on, just in case.”

The filly saluted smartly. “Ah’ll do it, Mr. Light.”

“Good. From what Scrolls told me, she’s the... leader of the Elements of Harmony, right?” Applebloom nodded a bit unsurely. “I want her to know about Havoc in case we fail. The princesses underestimate him, I think, but I don’t want her to. Because if we don’t stop Havoc soon, he’s going to regain all his powers. Only it won’t be illusions and tricks like Discord. It’ll be mayhem and fire.”

The little filly seemed troubled at that prospect, but nodded again, this time more confidently. “Ah’ll let her know. Thank ya for tellin’ your story to us. Ah don’t know what comes next, so ya better come back and finish it, alright?”

Novell beamed at her. “I’ll do that. Say goodbye to the other two for me. I’ll be back as soon as Havoc’s back in his cage.”

With that, the pegasus opened his wings to their fullest extent. He glanced back at them fondly and then with surprise - the pearlescent feathers seemed to shimmer into a larger size, similar to the ones he had flown with in Pensive’s mind. They glowed for a second and then subsided back to their normal white plumage. When he glanced around, nopony seemed to react to it.

Taking that as a sign he was doing the right thing, Novell jumped into the air, buoyed by his confidence. He passed Pensive climbing up the rope ladder with a look of concentration and zipped over the side of the ship to see the twins standing to the left with an unfamiliar pegasus mare. The Professor was talking to the rowdy-looking pony, but Novell couldn’t hear anything over the noise of the engines.

Quills noticed him land on the deck and walked over. “You didn’t get vaporized by that magic envelope, huh? Guess I owe Scrolls a couple of bits.”

“It’s nice to see you, too, Quills.” Novell grinned at the earth pony, watching as Whisper hovered next to the airship with a look of wonder on her face. “But I hardly think you would have bet on us being vaporized, especially with your smarts.”

“You caught me,” she admitted in mock defeat, turning and sending a glare toward the Professor. “Though I kind of wish somepony had been vaporized.”

He frowned. “You don’t mean that. The Professor saved your life several times in the Everfree. Can’t you at least tone down on your-.”

“No. No, I can’t,” she replied with gritted teeth. “Scrolls won’t admit it, but it’s your Professor’s fault that somepony close to us is gone now. It’s his fault she’s gone and I don’t even want to try and forgive him for it.”

A cold sensation came over the pegasus, something clicking in his mind. “What do you mean, somepony close to you? A sister? Aunt?”

“Mom,” Quills whispered wistfully, momentarily allowing her mask of irritation to drop and reveal how hurt she really was inside. “Mom’s gone because of Professor Search, because she just had to follow him everywhere, like a little puppy, dad said. She thought he was so cool and wanted to be just like him. Before she met dad, I think she was even in love with him. She used to tell us stories of the places she’d been with him.”

“What was her name?” Novell asked mechanically, already knowing the answer. Everything was starting to make sense, from the Professor’s melancholy to the protectiveness his friend showed the twins.

Quills looked up at him and gritted her teeth. “Her name was Amber Fossil.”

        “Cast off, gents! We’ve a long way to go!” a voice called out, cutting off their conversation with its sheer volume. The pegasus Professor Search had been talking to earlier was standing at the raised platform that held the wheel, shouting orders at her crew. “Rigs, Clank, get those engines moving. Up and away! Make sure you don’t hit the town hall on the way out! Up, up, up!”

        “Yes’m, Cap’n Crash!” a chorus of voices answered from various parts of the ship. Novell watched with wonder as pegasi tightened ropes and checked the engines, careful to keep themselves from being sucked into the massive turbines. A unicorn stood by the wheel, keeping a magical hold on the large, wooden steering column.

        The whine of the engines increased and the ship began to rise into the air, slowly at first, but then with swifter speed. A rumble started under Novell’s hooves, the deck vibrating so much that he almost wondered if it was going to fall apart. Quills must have noticed his concern, because she spoke up.

        “Don’t worry about the vibration. You get used to it. The Belle is a well built airship.”

        “Aye, she is,” the pegasus captain boomed with the Professor at her side. “She’ll hold together long after any other airship in the royal fleet will. Built to last, she is. A gift from the griffons, coincidentally. They sure know how to make ‘em.”

        Now that he had the opportunity, Novell examined the other pegasus. The captain’s coat was a solid blue with a shocking white mane that was caught under a leather cap. A pair of grey goggles were fastened around her head. She wore an eyepatch the same color as her mane and a sash with the colors of Celestia emblazoned on the shoulder over a brown flak jacket. The most striking feature, though, was the pegasus’ left wing, which was mangled so much that it left little more than a twisted facsimile in its place.

        “Like my wing, eh?” The captain grinned at him. Novell looked away, embarrassed at being caught staring. “Another gift from the Kingdoms, only this time from a Hippogryph. Nasty pieces of work, those things. Almost looks like us pegasi, in a way. Body of a horse, head and wings of a bird. Tribal, nasty, and altogether too territorial.” She paused and snorted. “After my injury, I got out of there and returned to Equestria where anypony belongs.”

        The Professor coughed politely and inserted himself into the conversation. “Novell, this is-”

 “Name’s Skycrasher,” the pegasus interrupted with a challenging grin at the unicorn. “Mates call me Cap’n Crash, on account of me not bein’ able to fly under my own power no more. You’re Novell, eh? Got a last name?”

“Light,” he replied, holding out a hoof.

The captain took it with a wink and nodded with appreciation. “Nice grip, for a city colt. You’d fit in around here with these blokes. Heard you got an eye for things. Care to take a look at our engines, see if you notice anything out of place?”

        “I, uh, sure,” Novell agreed. He took a step back, looking uncertainly at the Professor. The unicorn just winked and turned to speak with Whisper, who had just landed as they moved off from Ponyville. Without even a chance to acknowledge his friend, he was whisked away by the overeager captain.


Captain Crash had left him in the care of the two mechanics as soon as she found them, claiming she had to write an apology to the mayor of Ponyville for all the noise. It took his eyes a few minutes to adjust to the dimly lit hallways, but by then a grumpy old unicorn with a mechanical foreleg had begun to explain the intricacies of the airship’s engines. Eventually they had moved on further into the ship, the other unicorn taking the reins, droning on about the ship’s capabilities.

        It was strange feeling, the pegasus decided, flying without being under his own power. Even with his interest in what the engineer unicorns were saying wasn’t enough to keep him from noticing the subtle shifts in the air currents as the airship soared through the skies. Such was his distraction that he didn’t realize the pony in front of him had finished speaking until he felt a sharp jab in his chest.

        “Yoohoo, Equestria to pegasus. You awake in there?”

        Clank snorted and clicked his mechanical arm in amusement, the contraption issuing a batch of steam as it moved. “Bah, you know well as I do featherfolk get all strange when they first board the Belle, Rigs. Let him alone awhile and stop boring him with your riveting discussion on this bucket of nuts and bolts.”

        The other pony managed to look wounded. “He listened to you rattle on about the engine. I get my turn, don’t I?” As he said that, the unicorn levitated out a wrench from his apron and absently tightened a bolt as they continued through the ship. When it finished it’s job, the metal device trailed along behind them like an obedient pet before falling gently back into its assigned place.

        Another loud clack and a hiss of steam. “What d’ya think, boy? You feelin’ all featherbrained sittin’ here with us old unicorns?”

        “A little bit,” Novell admitted, wistfully staring outside through a portal in the side of the hull. “But I do enjoy listening to the two of you talk. Sorry I’m so out of it.”

        “S’fine, boy, s’fine,” Clank waved the trouble away with his steam-belching foreleg. A steady clicking was beginning to form in the background - pistons, the peagsus guessed. Along with the rumble of the engine, their hoofbeats, and the noises coming from the unicorn behind Novell, it all blended together into a resonant beat. A moment later, he found himself humming along with the strange melody.

        Rigs stopped in front of the pegasus, ramrod straight and one ear flicking like a metronome. The unicorn turned around with a wicked grin. “Clank, what say you an’ I make this trip a bit more fun for the pegasus?”

        “Oh, no, I know that grin,” the other mechanic said warningly. Clank snapped his mechanical appendage at his friend and shook his head. “An’ I ain’t doin’ it.”

        “Doing what?” Novell asked, confused. He glanced between the two ponies as they began to beat their hooves against the wooden deck. Rigs winked at the pegasus before opening his mouth and began to sing.

        “Pistons ‘re pumpin’, and the engine’s a thumpin’,

        Steam is a belchin’, and the oil’s a squelchin’.

        Two unicorns find themselves all alone,

        but two, is more, than e-nough for this zone!”

Clank just glared back at Rigs, his grease-spotted brown coat shining dully with sweat and oil. “I ain’t doin it.”

        The other pony shrugged and turned back around, whistling a tune that was perfectly in rhythm with the clicks, clacks, and hisses going on around them. Novell followed the slender unicorn around a corner and stopped in his tracks, his jaw dropping at what he saw.

        The room in front of him was as wide as the airship, six large pistons on each side of a slender walkway hissing and pumping with the effort of keeping the balloon’s twin turbines running. The smaller unicorn paused in his whistling long enough to glance back at the stunned pegasus with a manic grin. Clank just snorted behind him.

        “Impressive, ain’t it, boy?” the large unicorn asked, momentarily stopping and eyeing a particular piston before his horn lit up. Novell tore himself away from the spectacle of the room long enough to examine the piston as Clank maneuvered a pin out of the machine and smoothly inserted a new one from a slot on his mechanical arm. The old pin swiftly made it’s way to the old unicorn’s mouth, where he began to chew on it and nod with satisfaction. “Gotta make sure this baby runs all nice and tight. Sometimes gets a little dicey when you don’t treat her proper.”

        “Is that safe?” Novell wondered aloud.

        The burly unicorn furrowed his brows for a moment and switched the pin over to the other side of his mouth before understanding dawned on his face. “Och, ya mean replacin’ the hardware while it’s movin’? Yeah, perfectly safe.”

        Rigs chuckled at that. “Sure is, long as one of us are the ones changing it. Otherwise, the whole thing’d fall apart. Beauty of being a unicorn, ya know.”

        “Oh, don’t you start that either,” the other unicorn grumped. “Rigs here is all sorts o’ superior ‘bout bein’ able to use magic. I say anypony, and especially a griffon, is just as good as any fancy magic. Just about bein’ quick and knowin’ your machine.”

        “True that,” Rigs admitted with a self-deprecating nod. “I bow to yer superior intellect, Clanks.”

        The other unicorn half growled in assent. “Better. I took care o’ plenty o’ buckets ‘fore you were even born.”

        Novell found himself grinning with Rigs at that. They continued their journey through the bowels of the machine and with a hissing stomp, Clank followed. The old unicorn was grumbling something under his breath that sounded suspiciously melodic. As they turned another corner, Rigs’ compatriot stopped with a stomp that jolted the immediate area. Both Rigs and Novell turned around, knowing grins on their faces.

        “Fine, I’ll do it,” he said grudgingly.

        Novell noticed the Rigs’ sudden expression of innocence and grinned even wider. “You sure? Wouldn’t want to strain yourself trying to keep up with me.”

        With a glare, the unicorn stomped again. “Bah, I’m the one who taught ya the song!” Clank cleared his throat with a sound similar to the grumbling engine he watched over and sang in a deep baritone.

        “Throughout the night, the Belle does rock,

        but with our unicorn might we work ‘round the clock,”

        Rigs lifted a hoof to his chest and added his marginally higher voice to the cacophony of sound.

        “We hardly get paid to do it and that’s all there is to it,

        but even if we weren’t, we’d still work!”

        Novell stepped aside as the two unicorns barged passed him, back into the room with the pistons. The pegasus followed along, humming with the mechanic’s song. Both of their horns lit up and a dozen tools came flying out of their pockets, twirling around before being sent out among the pistons.

        “As we tighten this bolt, we thread in this nut,

        We follow through with even more,

one step ahead of disaster, this chore is never a bore!

Even as those pistons keep their rhythm,

One trot ahead from total schism!”

        Clank, hiss, bang. Clank, hiss, bang. The sound of their tools thundered through the space, the engine seeming to roar with delight at their work. The pistons moved faster as their parts were replaced, fixed, hammered, and repaired all with the swift flick of a horn and the end of a verse.


        “Those pistons are a pumpin’, and the engine is a thumpin’,

        Steam is still belchin’, and that oil’s still squelchin’!

        Without us two, the Belle would never fly true!”

        Rigs jumped on the side of the railing and raised a hoof to the ceiling.

        “We hardly get paid to do it!”

        Clank stomped the walkway with enough force to startle Novell into flaring his wings open.

        “And that’s all there is to it!”

        With a final burst of magic, both unicorns turned toward the pegasus and finished together.

        “But even if we weren’t, ‘specially if we weren’t, sp’ifically if we weren’t!

 We’d!” Their horns flashed. “Still!” Rigs jumped into the air and landed beside Clank. “Work!”

        The two ponies were breathing hard, their chests puffing in and out in time with the hiss of the machinery around them. Both of them were smiling at the pegasus, one hoof around each other’s shoulders. Novell was just about to tell them how much he enjoyed the display when a voice came from behind him.

        “Well, well. I’ll keep that in mind next port o’ call.”

        Clank fell forward in surprise, bringing Rigs down with him. The two unicorns collapsed in a pile and looked wild eyed up at the speaker, who was grinning widely at them with her eyepatch switched over to the other side. She winked at Novell as she noticed him staring at her unblemished, blue eye.

        “Cap’n!” the burly unicorn shouted. “Uh, we was just showin’ the lad around and, well, ya know how Rigs gets all carried away sometimes. Gotta keep him in line by singin’ with him or he’ll just be mopin’ all over the place and makin’ ponies all depressed an’-”

        “Hey! You’re the one-,” Rigs objected.

        Captain Crash held up a hoof and smirked. “Stow it, both of ya. Y’all did your duty well, seein’ as how the kid here’s brightened up considerably since I last saw him.” The maimed pegasus turned her attention to Novell. “The Professor asked for you, colt. I don’t suppose you’ve had enough of these two horn-heads’ singin’, eh?”

        Novell glanced back at the two mechanics, both of whom wore guilty expressions. “I had fun. More fun than I thought I’d have.”

        The mare arched an eyebrow and then nodded. “I’ll let ‘em off the hook, then, this time.” She made a shoo-ing gesture with her hoof at the other two ponies. “Off you two go. Belle’s left turbine’s a little faster than ‘er right. Steerin’s a mite hard without having to worry about that.”

        “Aye, cap’n, we’ll see what we can do,” Clank nodded.

        Rigs gave a flourishing bow. “Back to work.”

        The two moved off without a look back, the larger unicorn grumbling under his breath as his mechanical leg hissed and clunked against the wooden walkway. Novell and the other pegasus sat in silence for a few moments before Captain Crash looked his way.

        “Ready to go then?”

        Novell nodded. “Yeah. I am.”


        The deck of the airship was lit by lanterns hanging from the ropes that crisscrossed the outer edges, tied in sturdy knots to keep them in place. A few pegasi were flitting about, checking each rope individually and examining the state of the balloon that held the entire thing aloft. A soft wind was blowing, causing the lanterns to flicker and dance with the shadows. Aside from the creaking of the ropes and the steady hum of the engines and turbines, which Captain Crash told him were magically shielded so as to avoid busting somepony’s eardrums, the deck was peacefully quiet.

        Novell walked out of the portal leading further into the ship, his hoof-beats muted against the wood. He nodded to the helmspony at the wheel above him on the raised platform, the captain excusing herself to talk with her crewmate.

Somewhat bemused, Novell walked toward a grey form sitting near the edge of the ship. When he was close enough to the unicorn, he noticed another shape was sitting beside the Professor, almost intangible yet vaguely luminescent and reminiscent of a pony.

It whispered something just out of the pegasus’ hearing, causing the unicorn to sigh and nod as if in response. Novell took another step forward, his curiosity piqued. The shade shifted what he thought was its head toward him before drifting away in the breeze, leaving nothing but empty space beside the old unicorn. He blinked, wondering if he’d imagined it.

        Chalking it up to his weary mind, the pegasus walked to his friend’s side. Professor Search looked up at his approach and smiled wanly behind his bushy mustache. The unicorn’s hair waved with the wind, for once unshielded from the elements.

        “Chilly night, isn’t it?” the unicorn observed, shivering slightly and staring out into the night.

        The pegasus nodded wordlessly, allowing himself to sense the temperature with a quick flick of his wings. It was cold so far up in the air, sailing above the earth like a leaf on the wind. Novell glanced down at a passing cloud, its fluffy shape distended as the Belle cleaved it in two. A thought occurred to the pegasus, something he’d been meaning to talk with the unicorn about.

        “Are you alright, Professor?”

        Novell felt his friend’s gaze on him, but he continued to stare out over the side of the airship. A sigh reached his ears, causing them to flick slightly toward the other pony. “I am troubled, to be honest. But it’s not something I should trouble you with, my boy.”

        Now the pegasus did turn toward his friend. “My friends’ problems are mine, too. I know enough about friendship to know that.”

        The Professor nodded reluctantly. “I suppose that is true, but letting you know these things... it’s difficult to share.” The unicorn sighed. “Study Mark was one of the few friends I’ve ever had, you know. Ah, you seem surprised, but you shouldn’t. I’ve met many ponies in my travels, most who know nothing more of me than a bumbling scientist. Only two ponies ever really could be classified as more than an acquaintance. As I said, Study Mark was one, but the other...”

        “Amber Fossil?” Novell asked, his gaze focused up at the sky again, marveling at the stars.

        “You’ve put the pieces together well, lad,” Professor Search congratulated him. “Yes, Amber Fossil was one of my confidants. Bit of a firebrand, that one, but fiercely dedicated to finding out more about the past and its mysteries. Loved studying bones and ancient ruins. She accompanied me on quite a few of my adventures, though truth be told it wasn’t always for the sake of learning, I’ve come to find out. If I had been younger, perhaps...” The grey coated pony snorted. “Ah, but I’ve always said my work is my only love.”

        The pegasus hummed the mechanics’ song under his breath for a moment, thinking. “You said she was ‘in a better place’, back at the inn. What did you mean by that?”

        “She’s moved on to better places,” Professor Search corrected. “Or so I thought, though the meaning is the same. I lost contact with her. She left me after one trip where I got so caught up in my work that I didn’t even notice she hadn’t followed me down a particular stairwell inside an abandoned castle. I found her much later in the throne room, furiously pacing back and forth. Said I’d worried her, that I didn’t care about anything but my work.”

        “I received a letter six years ago with her writing - a note telling me she was going to explore one of the places we found together. It never said which one and I never investigated, because she made perfectly clear she didn’t want me around when she left. I was angry, too.” The Professor sighed and with a creak of wood, stood up. “A few months later, Study Mark came to tell me she’d disappeared, not a trace or clue left behind. Mark had been friends with her, too, you see. He also told me she had married and given birth to two foals, whom he had taken on as apprentices in the Royal Library in order to lighten the load her husband was left with.”

        “Quills and Scrolls,” Novell supplied.

        The unicorn nodded and sniffled against the cold. “Indeed.”

        “So what changed when we left Havoc’s prison?”

        “I found a clue,” the Professor whispered just loud enough for Novell to hear.

        The pegasus backed up in surprise and looked incredulously at his friend. His agitation must have reached Pensive, because he felt the questioning probe from the other unicorn in the back of his mind. Nothing, I’m fine. Tell you later, Novell thought dismissively.

Out loud he said, “What do you mean, you found a clue? You know where she is?”

        “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, lad,” Professor Search replied hesitantly. The unicorn looked to the side and awkwardly scratched an ear. “She’s in the Griffon Kingdoms. I don’t know where or how long she’s been there or even if she’s okay. But I do know she’s still alive and I owe it to the twins to find her.”

        “I know we have to stop Havoc or nopony will be safe, which is why I was considering not telling you.” The unicorn stared into the pegasus’ eyes with conflicting emotions on his face. “But this is something I need to do, Novell. And I wanted to ask you to help me, as one of my few real friends.”


        Novell woke up early the next morning, clear headed for once. The rocking of the ship had been comforting - it reminded him of his midnight naps on a cloud beneath the moonlight. As a result, the pegasus was in a moderately cheerful mood. His friends were all safe, he had found his place, and he was about to explore the world. What could be better than that?

        He walked out onto the deck, pausing a moment to let his eyes adjust to the blinding sunlight. The wind was stiff, brushing past him and whipping his mane to and fro. The pegasus let his wings flare out, enjoying the sensation of air sliding through his feathers - it was a feeling he’d had too little of the last few days.

        “Oi, you’re up early, boy!” Captain Crash’s voice called out from behind him. Novell craned his neck around to see the maimed pegasus at the wheel, hooves holding steady the course. “Fancy a fly around? We were leakin’ a bit from the balloon early this morning. Could do to have your eyes on the prowl, as it were.”

        The white pegasus yawned and stretched his hooves in front of him. A early morning flight sounded perfect to him. “Sure thing! Any particular place?”

        “Nawp. Had one of me mates check it over and they found one of the leaks on the left side, but I’d like to make sure there’s nothin’ more. Wouldn’t do to land anywhere but the Aeries once we reach the Kingdoms,” the mare responded over the wind, slightly turning the large wooden wheel. The airship shifted in response, skirting the edge of a particularly large cloud.  “Your mare’s been up for awhile flyin’ around like a caged bird set free. Gotta say, her way with the air currents sure makes Belle slice through the sky like I’ve never seen.”

        “I’m surprised she hasn’t crashed into a mountain,” Novell muttered, stretching his wings out to full length and jumping off the side of the ship. The wind filled them, his light body falling back behind the boat with the slipstream. He flapped once and shot up further into the air, coasting on the thermals rising from the ground far below.

        He kept pace with the balloon for a few minutes, taking in the sights all around him. The land beneath him was filled with forests and fields, glittering blue lakes gaps in the greenness. Mountains out in the distance were topped with snow and clouds huddling around them, a particular chain in front of the airship seeming to clutch toward the sky like light lavender claws.

        The Southern Belle matched the beauty she sailed through, the twin turbines on either side gleaming dully in the sunlight. Her wooden finish was sturdy and endowed with bells here and there that wouldn’t look out of place on the dress of a southern noble. The great purple balloon holding it up was stitched with designs that reminded Novell of a fish swimming through the sea. He grinned at thought, remembering the last time his parents had brought him to the ocean when he was just a foal.

        Dismissing the memory away with another yawn, the alabaster pegasus dove under the airship and performed a small barrel roll. The thrill of flying was still there and he laughed with the bubbly sensation it always evoked in him. He passed the ship up, flapping hard and then darting up once more, spotting a familiar orange form relaxing on the top of the balloon itself.

        “Hey, Whisper!” Novell shouted as he flew by her. The mare opened an eye, her wings dipping and flaring like she was directing a symphony. Swirley mirrored her ocular action and flashed quickly through a red, orange, and yellow pattern that Novell imagined was mild annoyance.

        Whisper yawned at him before stretching her forehooves forward and shaking her wispy mane. “Hey, yourself. Finally wake up, huh?”

        The white pegasus nodded distractedly, perusing the balloon with a critical eye. “Just a few minutes ago. Not that you can talk, nappy.” He maneuvered himself so that he flipped over to the other side of the balloon, the mare’s gaze lazily following his movements. “Working as hard here as you did back in Hoofington, huh?”

        “Yeah, yeah,” she waved her hoof in dismissal. “For your information, I’m speeding up our journey. Takes long enough to get to where we’re going without having to deal with the wind the whole way.”

        Finding nothing wrong with the other side, Novell glanced into the mare’s eyes. “You know, I’m glad you’re here. You remind me of home.”

        Whisper flicked her eyes away, flustered for some reason. “Even after you tried to leave me back in Cloudsdale? Incidentally, the city was pretty cool to see in the moonlight last night.” She looked back at him with a disapproving gaze. “Not that you would know, cooped up with those foul-smelling things down there.”

        “Rigs and Clank don’t smell that bad,” Novell objected, flapping over and landing next to the cream-soda colored pegasus. She chuckled at his joke and lay back down, the snail turning on her mane to keep Novell in sight.

        “I was talking about the engines, but they work, too.”

        The white pegasus chuckled, too, and lay next to her a respectable distance away. “How’s your wing?”

        Whisper close her eyes and smiled. “I dunno, you be the judge.” Her renewed wing flicked, sending a burst of air in his direction enough to roll him completely over once. Novell flared his wings to keep his balance as he began sliding off, returning to his spot a moment later.

        “Just as annoying as before,” he decided aloud, closing his eyes and tilting his head to the side to let the wind caress his cheek.

        The two lay there for awhile, relaxing and enjoying the sun on their backs. They talked about Hoofington, about her parents telling her she needed to go out and see more than just her home city. Novell was surprised to hear that, knowing the mare’s parents were a bit protective of their daughter.

        Whisper rolled her eyes. “And I was like, ‘Mom, what am I supposed to do, join a circus or something?’ and she said ‘Well, that is where I met your dad’.”

        He laughed at her imitation, talking with her a bit about his own parents. His voice caught as he described what his dad had said the day he left, but he kept smiling regardless. Looking out over the world with a friend at his side was definitely worth the bouts of homesickness he suffered now and again.

        Eventually, they stopped talking, sitting in companionable silence. Novell watched the clouds drift by the airship, his muzzle on his forehooves and his wings splayed out to catch the warmth of the sun. Gradually, the landscape changed, leaving behind the fields and forests in favor of mountains and narrow valleys. The cloud cover began to thicken as they went, hiding the sun behind its gray curtain.

        By unspoken agreement, the two pegasi rolled off the sides of the balloon and rendezvoused on the deck of the Belle. The captain was nowhere to be seen, though Quills, Scrolls, and the helmspony from last night were out and about. He waved to the twins, trotting over with Whisper at his side.

        “We’re entering the mountains now,” Novell said by way of greeting. The twins shared a look between themselves before smirking at him.

        “Gee, you think? I thought-,” Quills began.

        “-we were heading toward the ocean,” her brother finished with a wink.

        Whisper chuckled at their antics and stuck her tongue out. “You two are pretty sarcastic for ponies who can’t fly. What do you think would happen if I accidentally bumped you toward the railing?”

        Quills snorted at the playful threat. “One of the crew will catch us, no doubt about it. I’ve known all of them for years and I know for a fact they wouldn’t let a single hair on my head come to harm.” She lifted a hoof and glanced at it from multiple angles, seemingly disinterested. “It’s nice when you have everyone wrapped around your hoof.”

        “Bahahaha! Well said, Quilly,” Captain Crash laughed boisterously, appearing from the doorway leading to the lower decks and gently smacking the filly on the back with a hoof. “I hear we’ve left Equestria behind, eh?” She sniffed the air and glanced around. “Yup, smells like the Kingdoms. Feathers and avian scents all around, I can tell!”

        Novell looked at the captain curiously. “You can tell all that from a sniff?”

        The blue pegasus looked at him like he was crazy before laughing again. “Course not, lad, I was just makin’ jokes against the griffons is all. You’ll see when you meet ‘em in their Aeries. Might smell nice to a meat eater like them, but to a pony like you an’ me, it ain’t the best aroma in the world, if you catch my drift.”

        Professor Search and Pensive chose that moment to exit the lower decks, talking with one another in low voices. Novell glanced over at them curiously, sending the teal unicorn a questioning thought. His telepathic companion started and looked up.

        Ah, Novell. I was just conversing with the Elder about these things you call griffons, Pensive’s voice echoed in his mind. This seems a likely place for Havoc to inhabit. There are many unused caves throughout the Kingdoms and from what the information I have gathered, there appears to be some unrest amongst the populace. I feel the edginess that comes before chaos and our enemy would have, too.

        The white pegasus winced as the unicorn finished, a headache forming between his eyes. He had forgotten how much telepathy vibrated his head. No wonder Quills doesn’t like it when the Professor goes into his monologues.

        “I apologize,” Pensive said aloud. The two unicorns joined their little group on the deck, huddling against the sudden chill.

Novell shook his head. “It’s fine. Did you notice anything else?”

The Professor nodded, lifted a hoof and twirled it in the air for effect. “Yes, indeed. Apparently the gossip is that a treasured object of the Matriarch has been stolen, a scepter with a glowing jewel at its peak. It’s said that the staff has strange powers and has been used since the days before the Princesses came to choose the new Matriarch.”

“A staff, huh?” Captain Crash asked rhetorically. “I remember hearin’ about it when I was last in the Kingdoms. Big hubbub about the coronation of the current leader. Bit of an upset, from what I could tell.” The mare snorted and flared out her undamaged wing. “But who can tell anything about griffon politics?”

Novell was about to reply when the airship was suddenly kicked out from beneath his hooves. A great, splintering noise overwhelmed his ears, trying to make sense of the world as he rolled across the deck. Before he could even begin to throw out his wings or stop himself, the pegasus slammed into the wooden railing. It knocked the breath out of him, leaving him stunned and disoriented.

Whisper fell next to him, her body bent forward over the railing and Swirley nearly falling overboard as he lost his grip on her mane. Acting quickly, the mare caught the snail and hugged him to her, squeaking slightly with fright. The deck shifted again and leveled out, the two of them regaining their hooves. Novell’s heart went cold as he looked around and didn’t see Pensive or the twins.

“Status report!” the Captain barked out, pulling the Professor up and glancing around with an angry expression. “What hit us?”

A couple of the pegasi crew began to flit about, checking for damage and searching for any signs of danger. Novell frantically cast about for his friends, even looking over the side of the ship. Don’t tell me they fell! Just the thought of them falling with no wings to catch themselves was enough to send ice through his veins.

They are fine, Pensive’s voice echoed in his mind. The white pegasus whipped his head toward the source of the mental voice. He spied the unicorn with the two fillies in the shadow of the threshold leading down into the lower decks. Novell let out a shaky breath and traded glances with Whisper. She was several shades whiter and still held her pet to her chest with one hoof, but she nodded and waved away his concern.

“I don’t see anythin’, Cap’n!” one of the pegasi crewmembers shouted from the right side. “Not a mountain in sight.”

“And the damage?” The mare scowled and flapped her one good wing uselessly.

“Not too bad, Cap’n,” the same pegasus responded. “Just a hole in the side of the ship. Lucky we aren’t sailing on the sea.”

“Alright, keep a look out! Confounded wing,” she muttered the last and twisted around to gallop up to the highest point of the ship’s deck - the wheel’s platform. The unicorn there nodded his head in front of him at her approach.

“Lot of cloud ahead, captain. Want me to go lower?”

She shook her head and continued past the pony, to the side of the ship. “No, hold the course. Better not to be seen if we’re damaged. Makes us a target, it does.”

Novell followed her, peeking over the side that had initially been hit. He blanched at what he saw, a large hole in the side of the ship, wood splintered and broken. As he watched, a piece of timber fell away to spiral toward the harsh grey mountains. It disappeared, the air becoming moist and unclear - the airship had entered the cloud bank.

A growl from behind him drew his attention. The captain was pacing across the deck and glancing out at their surroundings. “Can’t see a blasted thing. Pack it in, pegasi! Don’t want to lose anypony out here!” When nopony answered, Novell traded a glance with the mare. Her eyebrows knitted together in confusion. “Cloudy? Kicker?”

        “I’m here ma’am,” somepony called out from the mist. A moment later, the pony landed near them with a thump of hooves against wood.

Captain Crash sighed with relief. “You see Cloudy anywhere?”

The maroon colored pegasus ruffled his wings nervously and shook his head. “No, ma’am.”

Novell watched as she pursed her lips and looked over at him. “Get you and your friends inside. Could be dangerous out on deck.”

        He nodded at her suggestion and turned to leave when he noticed the misty air move oddly. Furrowing his brows, he opened his wings halfway and checked the breezes. Nothing. It was dead air around them. So what was causing the distortion? Novell stared harder into cloudbank and caught the faintest hint of a shadow.

        A screeching cry came from the disturbance, sending the pegasus backward toward the other three ponies behind him. His heart sped up and his pulse pounded in his ears, Captain Crash cursing behind him. The sound of a struggle came, two pairs wings frantically beating at the air. A second later, silence reigned again.

        “That was a hip-,” the unicorn’s voice started to say.

        “Quiet,” the captain hissed. They sat there, completely still, nothing but the creak of ropes and the turbines’ muted whirring. The minutes passed by, Novell frozen with fear and his thoughts whirling through his head. What was that? What had happened? Were his friends okay? He didn’t dare even move his eyes to glance over at the deck itself where he had left Whisper and the Professor.

        After another minute, the mare behind him let out a pent-up breath. “Stand easy, lads. We seem to have lost whatever it was.”

        “What about Cloudy?” the pegasus crew member whispered. Novell let himself look away from the spot he’d been staring at, finding little solace in the captain’s face.

        “Nothing we can do except keep goin’ to the Aerie. Get us out of the cloud bank so we can check our cour-.”

        A thump sounded behind them along with the click of claws on wood. The four ponies whirled around, fearing the worst. What they saw caused Captain Crash to sigh with strained relief, a nervous chuckle following it.

        “You had me worried, griffon,” Novell heard the captain say, but he was too busy staring at the thing in front of him to really listen to the rest.

        The griffon towered over him, eyes flicking from one pony to the next and beak clicking slightly. Her, for he realized it was female, feathers were pristine white with three black spots just beneath her left eye. In one clawed hand, she held an unconscious pegasus, while the other was stained with something dark and slightly purple. Blood, he thought, strangely disconnected from his mind - normally he would be fainting at the sight of it.

        “You’re entering Hippogryph territory, captain,” the leonine animal said, clacking her beak in emphasis. “I spied a scout near your airship just before you entered the cloudbank. It was carrying your friend here,” she tossed the pegasus to the deck and continued, “and was no doubt planning to add more meat to its meal tonight.”

        Captain Crash seemed to be slightly put off by that, eyeing the griffon warily. “Thank you for rescuing him, then...”

        “Rell,” the griffon replied and clicked across to the side of the ship. “Your ship is damaged, I saw. Magic.”

        “I thought Hippogryphs only used their magic for healing?” a voice said from Novell’s left. He glanced over to see Quills at the stairs, one hoof on the deck and the rest on the steps, seeming not at all surprised by their guest. A nervous looking crewmember was standing over her, avoiding the captain's eyes since his job was to protect the filly - not let her move around in a potentially dangerous situation.

        Rell clicked her beak and trained her predator’s gaze on the filly. “Used to. Something changed a few days ago. They’re getting violent and even more territorial than before. Some talk of war.”

        “Well, we’re here to stop that from happening,” Novell chose that moment to break into the conversation, mustering up all the courage he had. “We think we know the reason why things are happening here.”

        The griffon flicked her eyes over to him and pinned him with their sharp, yellow stare. “Ponies always think they know the reason behind everything, teaching friendship can overcome any obstacle.” Her beak clacked together and she looked guiltily at her claw. “I don’t know if that’s true, but if you say you know a reason, then I will see you safely to the Invention Aerie. Anything is better than war."

        “But we’re heading for the Matriarch’s Aerie,” the captain objected.

        “The Invention Aerie is the only aerie we are allowing to be open to outsiders, Captain,” Rell elaborated sharply, her tone brooking no disagreement. “You will land there, just like your Princess' emissaries did before.”

        Captain Crash set her mouth in a frown, but acquiesced. “Fine. We’ll shore up there.” She shifted her gaze to Quills. “Sorry, Quilly, but it doesn’t look like I can bring you where you wanted to go.”

        Scrolls came into sight and bumped his sister aside before she could begin to argue. “It’s fine, Captain. My sister and I won’t disagree with the good Rell."

        “Good.” The griffon clicked her beak and shook blood from her claw. It impacted the deck with a wet smacking sound, staining the timber a dark purple and causing everypony present to flinch. "Welcome to the Griffon Kingdoms.”

Chapter 14: The Invention Aerie

With the griffon’s dire pronouncement heavy on their minds, the captain invited Novell and his party to her quarters. A single window set in the far wall illuminated the sparse, almost spartan accommodations - a cloud hammock under the window and a desk set directly in the center of the room.

 Rell padded in behind them, her eyes flitting from one face to another in perpetual motion. Swirley shrunk into his shell at the first sight of their leonine escort, while his owner had just glared right back at the griffon, impetuous as ever. Pensive and the Professor nodded politely but otherwise did not react to their guest.

The captain was standing behind her desk, one hoof on the table and staring sourly at the griffon. “You realize that divertin’ toward the Invention Aerie will cost us more fuel than my stipend covers, I hope?”

“I cannot promise reimbursement, if that is what you are asking, Captain Crash,” Rell said. Her tail lashed with irritation and her claws dug into the soft wood.“But I understand the annoyance you feel. Were it up to me, I would have let you continue on your way. Unfortunately, it isn’t. The Matriarch and her consorts are nervous about bringing in anything to their Aerie, fearing a Hippogryph ploy.”

        Quills snorted at that and gently shook her head. “Hippogryphs are not nearly so intelligent as to come up with a plan like that. They’re little more than animals, from what I’ve read.”

        “They are more dangerous than you realize, little pony,” the griffon replied. She waved a claw at the captain. “Your friend here seems to know this first hand. Don’t underestimate them or you’ll end up with more than a mangled wing. Hippogryphs usually go for the throat.”

        “She’s right,” Captain Crash confirmed reluctantly. The mare sighed and rubbed her skull with both hooves. “But even I have to partly agree with Quills. They aren’t clever enough to come up with that kind of plan by ‘emselves.”

        Rell’s beak clicked together, her eyes glancing toward Novell for a moment before closing. The young pegasus traded glances with Pensive, raising an eyebrow in a silent question. His friend shook his head. No clues to what she’s thinking, I suppose. That would be too easy.

        After a moment of inner deliberation, the griffon opened her eyes. “Had you told me that several years ago, I might agree. But now, no one can be sure, because that’s exactly what happened two days ago.”

        Everypony in the cabin bristled, shock heavy in the air. Scrolls was the first to recover, gulping and raising a hoof. “Wait, do you mean they actually tried to attack the Matriarch?”

        “Yes and no,” Rell admitted. “It is true that a few hippogryphs infiltrated the Aerie through some magical means, but they weren’t there for her. They stole an artifact we’ve safeguarded ever since your Princesses wrested rule of Equestria from Discord - a peace offering between ponies and griffons when we came close to war.”

        “The Scepter of Will,” Professor Search spoke up, drawing everypony’s confused eyes toward him. The unicorn looked apologetic, elaborating further. “The item I mentioned before we were attacked.”

        The griffon’s tail ceased its flailing. “You know of it then?”

        Novell winced, feeling the air in the room chill at her words. “We do, but the Professor is a researcher. He’s even spent time in the griffon kingdoms before. Right, Professor?”

        “Yes, yes, I have. Perhaps you’ve heard of me? Professor Ronaldo Eduardo Search, at your service, my dear.” The unicorn bowed, catching onto the warning in the pegasus’ voice. “I deal with the various flora and fauna in the world and I simply heard the name of your artifact in passing with an acquaintance of mine. A Kalyn... oh what was his last name? Swiftfeather? Featherfall?”

        Rell stared at the Professor in surprise. “You know Kalyn Pinfeather?”

        The unicorn brightened up at the mention of the other griffon’s name. “Ah, yes, that’s the one, Pinfeather it is! Last I saw him, he was just a lad, but inventive and brilliant as any of your finest machinists. In fact, I believe he built my first pair of glasses.” Professor Search smiled fondly. “Dreadful things, they were, but it was the thought that counts. I still have them on a shelf back at the university.”

        Novell let out a soft breath as the atmosphere returned to normal. The griffon’s tail was no longer still and she seemed marginally happier than she had been a few moments before. A polite cough from behind them brought the griffon’s attention back toward the captain.

        “Well, I s’pose I can’t complain about being shunted toward the Invention Aerie, but I do have some paperwork to do.” She grimaced, glaring balefully at the quill on her desk. “Hopefully the Princesses’ banker understands the situation as well as you and I.”

        Rell nodded and clicked her beak again, the matter closed. “Then I will fly beside your ship and keep watch for any threats. Thank you for your cooperation, Captain. With your permission?”

        Captain Crash sighed again and waved her hoof dismissively. “I doubt I could stop you if I wanted to. Quills, you stay with me for a moment. The rest of you, return to your cabins for the rest of the flight. I don’t wanna risk another ponynapping.”

        Everypony filed out of the room, the griffon to her escorting duties and his friends to their shared quarters. Novell stayed behind, wondering what the captain could be talking to Quills about. The mare had seemed more disturbed than she let on. Thankfully, he didn’t have to wait long.

        The door creaked open behind him, the filly starting slightly when she saw him. “Waiting for me?”

        Novell nodded. “I was just wondering what the captain was talking with you about. She seemed worried.”

        “You’re too perceptive for your own good, you know that?” she said with a hint of humor. “The captain is just shaken at having one of her crew taken away as easily as what happened. It reminded her of losing her wing, in a way. She just needed some comfort from an old friend.”

        “You don’t seem shaken by it,” Novell pointed out.

        Quills smiled weakly up at him, betraying a bit of unease. “I just hide it better than most ponies. It’s... well, I don’t really feel comfortable talking about it.”

        The pegasus took the hint. “That’s fine. You know I’m here if you ever do want to talk about it, though.”

        “Yes, you are,” the filly murmured to herself. “What about you? How are you feeling?”

        Novell chuckled, mildly pleased at her concern. “Nervous. A little frightened of Rell and what we’re going to find when we reach this Invention Aerie. There’s so much hitting me all at once, I’m kind of just trying to hang on and wait for the squall to pass.”

        “All natural reactions,” Quills replied clinically.

        “On the other hoof, I feel like I’ve finally found what I’m supposed to do. Seeing potential and all that like I told you before.”

        The filly snorted. “But you still don’t have your cutie mark. Are you sure that’s the right way to think?”

        Novell paused and thought about it for a moment. Was he sure? It felt right, especially during the moment he’d mentioned it. He’d been able to see things most ponies didn’t and that was a skill - his talent. Isn’t it? No, I can’t let myself think otherwise. I have to be right. Just the thought of him being mistaken would be even worse than not having an idea in the first place.

        “I’m sorry,” Quills apologized suddenly. The pegasus to look at her in surprised confusion. “I shouldn’t say things like that, to you especially. If you think that’s the way your talent lies, then I believe you.”

        “No, you’re right to be skeptical. That’s who you are,” Novell said. “I need that candor when I do something especially stupid.”

        The earth pony smirked. “Like take on a Sasquatch all by yourself?”

        “Well, yes.” He chuckled lightly before sobering up with a sigh. “Things are going to get harder from now on, it feels like. On all of us.”

        “Another perception or just a fear?” Quills asked.

        Novell stopped in front of the door to his bunk with Pensive and the Professor. “I don’t know... and that’s what I’m afraid of.”


        Though they were confined to their quarters, time passed quickly with the Professor gathering all six of them to give a run-down on griffon history, politics, and behavior. Novell and Pensive listened intently to every detail the old unicorn gave them, interesting despite the subject’s dryness. The pegasus had to admit it was mostly due to Professor Search’s oratory mastery than his own wish for information that he paid attention to it all.

        Despite that, or perhaps because of that in Quills’ case, the two females were only half listening. Instead, the small filly was attempting to teach Whisper how to play chess, with Swirley and Scrolls wearing matching expressions of disinterest in everything. Novell spared a moment to wonder at the mare’s interest in the game - she didn’t seem the patient type. He was proven right ten minutes later when the orange pegasus growled and left the room in a huff of annoyance.

        Scrolls yawned and sent a pointed glance toward his sister. She just waved a hoof and sighed, prompting the other earth pony to follow Whisper out. Novell wondered at the action - his female counterpart and Scrolls didn’t seem to have much in common. They had never really talked to one another, aside from Whisper’s usual admonishments, either.

Maybe he’s just trying to be friends with her, he thought. Now that I realize it, these ponies are mostly friends with me than each other.  Novell filed that thought away for a later date, the Professor’s voice drawing him from his short reverie.

“Griffons are more militant than ponies, with a strict caste system, but I’ll get to that in a moment,” the Professor started. “As a chick, griffons are arranged by ‘clutches’, based on who they shared their nests with during their birth, watched over by Nestmaids until they are old enough to fly. After they gain flight, they are subjected to several tests and evaluated by the Matriarch and her consort. Some of these tests include setting a mouse loose in the chicks’ vicinity while also exposed to an invention of some kind. Depending on which object the chick’s attention focuses on, they are given appropriate ‘points’. Eventually, the points form a pattern of interest and the chicks are then separated based on their behavior.”

Pensive raised a hoof. “So these things are told what they are to do? Assigned, as you say, to their talents?”

Professor Search nodded. “Quite right. As they have no ability to gain cutie marks like we do, they are instead put where they are most useful. The sharpest minds to the Invention Aerie, the fiercest to the Aerie of War, and so on and so forth as the tests display.”

“So you’re saying this Matriarch meets every single griffon that’s ever born?” Novell asked skeptically.

Another nod. “It is true. Griffons communities are not as numerous as our own and they are brought in clutches of five or six ‘nestmates’ before the Matriarch. Aside from that, the Matriarch does not have many other duties, as griffons see their children to be of the utmost importance. Day to day affairs are handled by her consort and the Council.”

“The Council is made up of a spokesgriffon from each aerie, before you ask,” Quills added before Novell could form his question. “The Aerie of War, the Invention Aerie, the Scholar’s Aerie, and the Nesting Aerie.”

“Quite right, my dear, quite right,” Professor Search smiled approvingly, pushing his glasses back up his nose.

Quills scowled. “I’m not ‘your dear’, Research.”

The Professor glared at the earth pony. “Now listen, young mare, whatever our problems, there’s no call for name calling. You’re more mature than that.”

“Why do you fight?”

Everypony in the room turned at Pensive’s words, uttered in a soft voice. The unicorn looked unhappy, but resolutely stared back at them and set his jaw. His horn glowed, a wisp of light blue the color of his coat floating into the air before them. It grew as it elongated, forming a window through which images began appearing.

A flower was the first distinct shape that Novell could pick out in the mystical window, large and dancing. The tone of a bell tinkling flitted through his mind and the smell of the Everfree forest permeated the room. The pegasus’ eyes, as well as everypony else’s, were glued to the screen, as an image of Quills not quite smiling at the moving sunlyre appeared. A smile tugged at the corner of the apparition’s mouth and her eyes flicked to the side where the Professor was talking heartily with Whisper and Novell.

A sense of happiness emanated from the image, fading momentarily with a swirl of teal mist. Replacing it was the Professor at an earlier date, his glasses reflecting the light of a fire as he stared at a sleeping form with guilt and self recrimination both in his eyes and hints of it threading through Novell’s chest. The pegasus recognized that they weren’t his feelings, but they were still very real.

The form turned over, mumbling something in her sleep as Quills’ face was illuminated by the flame. A start of intense bittersweet emotion rocked everypony in the room, happiness and melancholy twisting together until they became inseparable. Then, with another swirling cloud, the magic faded, leaving the room silent.

Novell held his breath, expecting an outburst from either the Professor or Quills at any moment. When no such outburst came, he sneaked glances at the two ponies. Professor Search was staring at the spot the images had occupied, his jaw clenched and his eyes squinted. The pegasus wondered what was going through the unicorn’s mind, but remained quiet.

“Family shouldn’t fight,” Pensive whispered to break the silence. “Even if you’re not related by blood, you’re related by emotion. Severing such a is...not good. Not good at all.”

Quills got quietly to her hooves and left the room, not speaking or looking at the rest of them. The Professor sighed when the door shut and finally looked down at his hooves.

“You’re right, my boy, we shouldn’t fight,” the old unicorn said after at time.

“Then what is the reason that you do?” Pensive asked.

Professor Search looked up at the other unicorn with a thoughtful expression. “Because of the past. Mistakes were made and the consequences were dire.”

“You should tell her about her mom,” Novell interrupted.

The grey unicorn looked at him and shook his head. “And give her false hope? No, lad, I can’t do that. Even if I believe the clues might have been true, there’s still the very good possibility that she’s not actually in a place I can reach, let alone rescue her from. It’s best not to mention anything.”

Novell frowned. “But she’s just going to be blaming you and constantly arguing with you this whole time. We can’t be fighting, especially if we’re going after something as powerful as Havoc. That’s what he wants, after all.”

“Be that as it may, the problem cannot be corrected now,” the Professor said mildly. “Once we reach the Invention Aerie, I plan to ask around for the griffon I mentioned earlier, Kalyn. He lives there, after all, and should be more than apt to guide me to my destination.”

The pegasus rustled his wings uncomfortably. “I don’t know if we should go looking for her when we have bigger problems, Professor.”

Professor Search sighed. “In my mind, I know you’re correct, but my heart is another matter entirely, my boy. I can’t let Amber stay where she is, trapped or frightened, and I will look for her whether or not you come along. I asked you before if you would join me, but I will understand if our paths diverge. Stopping Havoc is no small thing, but right now I have something even more important I need to take care of.”

“And if you find her? What then?” Novell questioned sadly.

“Then I will rejoin you once I make sure she is safe.”

Pensive had remained silent since they had begun talking, but now he spoke. “Novell, we do not know where this artifact is. Perhaps once we talk to these ambassadors about the thing Rell spoke of, we can make a decision? They could look for the scepter while we save the friendship between two ponies we care about.”

Novell glanced over at his friend in consternation. What Pensive said made sense, but even sidetracking for a small amount of time gnawed at his sense of responsibility like a dog on a bone. He frowned, closed his eyes and sighed, wondering if the decisions he made were all going to be this difficult. Both of them seemed like they were the right way to follow and he was split on the issue. Abandoning one of his friends to a quest all on his own wasn’t what he wanted to do at all.

Finally, the pegasus reluctantly nodded. “We will decide once we meet the ambassadors, but if they have the information we need, we have to go after it. I’m sorry, Professor.”

Professor Search adopted a kind face. “It is a hard choice, I know. I feel the same way, lad, but Amber is like a daughter to me. I would never forgive myself if I did not do something to save her.”

“I get it,” Novell replied somberly. “But that doesn’t make it any easier.”


They arrived at the Invention Aerie an hour later, the clunk of their ship against something hard announcing their destination. Novell leaned out of the doorway and looked both ways before stepping out. The creak of a door to his left drew his attention, Quills peeking out before walking toward him. Her brother and Whisper followed a moment later, the two unicorns behind Novell making the small corridor even more claustrophobic than it already was.

        “Looks like we’re here,” Scrolls said happily, squeezing in between the Professor and Whisper. “Lead us to the deck, if you please, dear sister.”

        Quills grunted in agreement, stepping in front of Novell and marching down the hall. The rest of them followed, Novell attempting not to shudder with how close everyone was to him. His wings ruffled until they were all puffed up in nervousness, a fact that cause a flush to creep down his neck. The Professor was learned enough to understand what puffed wings meant, but he wouldn’t say anything to draw attention to it. Unfortunately, there was another with them without such tact.

        “Scared there, puffball?” Whisper prodded Novell’s wings with a taunt. He gritted his teeth, trying to ignore her. Thankfully, she didn’t add another comment, but her snicker followed him as he sped up to turn a corner Quills had just gone down.

        Eventually they made it out onto the deck, sunlight managing to weakly penetrate the clouds above them. The shadow from the balloon that had carried them all this way covered the mountain’s side, leading Novell to believe it was late afternoon. Clank and Rigs were already on the smooth surface of a rock formation that jutted out of the Aerie’s side, a cavernous maw leading into the mountain’s interior drawing the pegasus’ immediate attention.

        He gulped. Why does it always have to be caves and enclosed spaces, he complained inwardly. A brush of cool reassurance from Pensive touched his mind, soothing him enough that his feathers no longer looked like a hatchling’s. With a nod to the teal unicorn, Novell followed Quills and Scrolls to the side of the ship where the railing had opened up like a door for them to step down on solid rock.

        “Welcome to the most interesting part of the Griffon Kingdoms, kid,” Captain Skycrasher’s voice called out from near the cave entrance. She winked at him and trotted over. “I hope the ride wasn’t too bad that you won’t come back for a repeat performance?”

        The Professor chuckled behind him. “I believe we will return, though I would rather skip the excitement we enjoyed on this trip. How is the damage, at any rate?”

        The mare shrugged in reply. “Better than I feared, worse than I hoped, as they say. Still, I think we can fix her up with what bits we have.” A gleam appeared in her eye then. “Of course, we are taking donations, especially if you plan on leaving anytime soon.”

“When will the repairs be completed?” Quills interrupted.

Captain Crash eyed her speculatively. “We’ll be dropping off the cargo we brought with us and loading up some trinkets and other miscellaneous items to bring back to Canterlot. Should take a couple of days, but after that, we’ll be ready to fly, hole or no hole, little missy.”

        Quills nodded appreciatively. “Thank you, Captain. You’re just as punctual as ever.”

        “Aw, don’t be so formal, Quillsy,” the mare replied, draping a foreleg around her shoulder and grinning mischievously. “I’m sure there’s a few things you and I can get up to in the Aerie. Girl’s night out?

        The filly snorted with amusement. “I’m sixteen, Captain.”

        Captain Crash grinned even wider and pressed her cheek against Quills’. “We’re in the griffon kingdoms, girl. Live a little. Ages are are ages like, Clank?”

        The mechanic pony looked up from tying the airship to the dock and shifted slightly, releasing a puff of steam. “Ah, ages are like...uh, I’m not sure, ma’am. Rigs?”

        “Ages are just a number, Cap’n!” the slim pony replied from halfway inside one of the turbines, his voice echoing.

        “Ya see, Quillsy? Ages are just a number. No? How about you, Scrollsy? Strapping lad like you could probably take a few ciders.” She swiveled to face Novell. “You game?”

        Novell shook his head. “We’ve got to meet with those ambassadors Rell was talking about. Where did she go, anyway?”

        The captain released her diminutive filly friend and shrugged. “She left a few minutes before we pulled in to port. Something about ‘going back to patrol’. Poor griffon could probably use a drink as much as I do. Ah, well, more for me. I’ll be in the bar if anypony needs me, having a good time.”

        “We’ll be along shortly, Cap’n,” Clank called after her. The captain swished her white tail in acknowledgement but otherwise didn’t respond.

        Novell took in a deep breath of the evening mountain air and nodded, readying himself for entering another enclosed space. “Alright, everypony, let’s see what we can dig up on the scroll. We also need to talk to the ambassadors, so we’ll split up to save time. I’ll head to the ambassadors and I’m sure the Professor can find something out when he meets his friend here in the Aerie.”

        Pensive raised a hoof. “I will go with you, Novell.”

        “Me, too,” Quills said with a small yawn. “I’m sure it’ll be better if I’m there with you, since they probably know me.”

        “Scrolls will come with me,” the Professor rumbled. “He said he was interested in what kind of gadgets Kalyn makes, so I said I’d take him when I met with him.”

        Quills’ eyebrows knitted in worry. “Are you sure you want to go off without me, Scrolls?”

        The suave, young colt nodded and gave her a wink. “Sure as sugarcubes, Quillsy. Besides, I can’t very well chat with any nice mares or griffons we meet with my sister hovering over me all the time.”

        The filly rolled her eyes. “Fine, do what you want.”

        “I plan to, sister of mine.”

        Novell looked over at Whisper, who was talking softly to Swirley and staring out across the mountainscape near the edge of the cliff. “How about you, Whisper? Wanna come with me?”

        The pegasus mare twisted around, staring at him in surprise and a flush appearing on her cheeks. “Uh, what? Go with you where?”

        “To see the ambassadors. Find out if they know anything about Havoc,” Novell answered.

        “Oh, that. Right,” Whisper replied lamely. “Uh, no, I Food. Yeah, Swirley’s hungry, too, so you know...gotta feed him.”

        The pale pegasus raised an eyebrow doubtfully. “Okay, well, I’m sure the Professor and Scrolls will stop by somewhere to eat with Kalyn.”

        Professor Search nodded enthusiastically. “I know a place that serves ponies who live in the Aerie. Some of the best poinsettia and broccoli souffle around the Kingdoms. Kalyn always enjoyed it as a youngling, as an appetizer to his real meal.”

        “Sounds perfect,” Whisper replied quickly, muttering something under her breath a second later.

        Deciding it best to ignore that for his own good, Novell nodded and gestured to the two companions who offered to go along with him. “Off we go, then. We’ll meet at the restaurant, if it doesn’t take too long with the...” He trailed off as a thought occurred to him, but was stopped from voicing it by Pensive.

        “I can find them,” the teal unicorn said softly.

        The pegasus glanced at Pensive. “I don’t know what’s weirder, the fact that you did that or that I’m used to it.”

        “Your mind is malleable and open to new ideas. My ability is... stranger,” the unicorn replied seriously. “May we depart? I am interested in how these griffon things make their homes.”

        “The restaurant it is,” the Professor said sagely, pawing at the ground with a note of finality. “Come along, Scrolls, Whisper. I am simply famished after those dry rations aboard the airship.”

        Novell followed in their wake, Quills and Pensive behind him as they entered the Invention Aerie’s halls. Torches hung at even spaces along the walls, their flickering flames casting everything in an orange tint the further they moved down the stone corridor. They hissed and sputtered as the ponies passed, a pair of griffon guards standing sentry on either side of the hall.

        They eyed the party suspiciously, but made no move to block their entrance. Quills sniffed at them as she walked by, holding her head up as imperiously as if she were in Canterlot. Pensive simply stared back at the griffons before looking away to glance at the decorative brazier up ahead.

        Novell felt the heat increase as they grew closer to the metal bowl of glowing embers, the barest flickers of fire rising from the depths. Sweat began to appear on his brow, but a sudden gust of wind whistling through the passageway cooled his temperature resistant skin. He glanced back at his two companions, wondering how they were dealing with it.

        Pensive’s horn was shining dully in the flame brightened darkness, a shimmering incandescent shield barely visible around his body. Novell felt a grin tug on the corner of his mouth, wondering if the unicorn even knew he had casted the spell. When no response came to his mind from his friend, he realized Pensive was mesmerized by the etchings above and around them.

        Novell followed his friend’s gaze, his eyes flicking from one carving to another with curiosity driving him to see as much of it as possible in a short amount of time. He felt his stride begin to slow until Quills bumped into him from behind.

        “Hey, move it, pegasus. You can look at all the pretty carvings when we’re not trying to save Equestria from an insane, old embodiment of chaos,” the filly grumped.

        “Sorry,” Novell replied sheepishly, continuing forward. Pensive followed without a word, still engrossed in the carvings, but ambulatory all the same.

        Eventually they reached a point where two other passageways converged on their larger one, their angle and the strengthening of the wind letting Novell know they were also connected to the outside of the mountain. He opened his wings a few inches, letting the air flow through the feathers, and sighed contentedly. Even though he was so deep inside the mountain, the fact that there was air was enough to keep his fears at bay.

        They walked for another few minutes before sounds began to echo through the tunnel, strange squeaks and roars issuing from further along. More passages began to connect with theirs until they arrived at an even larger corridor with traffic both griffon and other denizens of Equestria.

        Unicorns and earth ponies walked together with camels and even a few buffalo while pegasi flitted above with the leonine griffons. Novell noticed immediately that the ceiling was far higher than he thought possible inside of a mountain, but the presence of large, solid columns holding silver arches reassured him that the sheer weight of the rock wouldn’t collapse on him. The engineering that went into this must have taken forever, he thought in silent awe.

        The sound of a hundred voices speaking to one another bounced off of the walls and resounded in Novell’s chest, turning into a hum of life and civilization.

 It is as if we are the lifeblood of this mountain, Pensive’s mental voice interrupted his thoughts. It is very different from the cold, dark reaches of my birthplace. I feel overwhelmed but at the same time welcome. I wonder...

Novell wasn’t able to ask what the unicorn was wondering, because his attention was captivated by the sight in front of him. If the tunnels that crisscrossed through the mountain were the veins that life flowed through, then the enormous space in front of him was its heart. The pegasus’ jaw dropped as he stood dumbstruck by the sheer size of the city that sprawled in front of him, the crowd drifting around him and his two friends.

From the terrace they stood on, Novell could see the entire Invention Aerie, suddenly feeling incredibly small. Liquid rock oozed in the center of the city, gigantic buckets of thick iron held by equally massive chains dipping into the lava to scoop it up to be used elsewhere. Griffons, pegasi, and what Novell thought were large eagles flapped through the airspace of the hollowed out mountain, little more than dots next to the city’s immensity.

Lit as it was by the orange glow of the molten pit in the center, even more impressive was the number of lanterns and other sources of light that littered the mountain’s heart. Homes and buildings were carved out of the sides of the rock, seeming at once separate and one with the walls. Giant statues of Griffons stood on what Novell realized was the cardinal directions of north, south, east, and west, holding braziers that put the one they had seen earlier to shame with their size.

Even with the large variety of heat sources, the inside of the mountain remained a steady, moderate temperature as the fires warred with the cold outside. Clanking from chains and whistles from pipes echoed back and forth with the physical tremble of conversation being carried out in the Aerie. A hundred conflicting smells filled the air, from the aroma of cooked meat to the freshness of summer grass.

Large avenues and streets formed neat angles through the tiered structure of the city while stairs and mechanical lifts provided for the ground-bound folk. All of it was raised from the center pit of lava, which was ringed with more than a dozen different forges tinkling with the sound of metalwork. Large bellows serving to cool the metal and stoke the furnaces almost seemed to Novell to be the rush of the mountain’s lungs.

“Celestia’s Mane, this is...huge,” the pale pegasus said reverently.

Quills affected an air of nonchalance. “Canterlot Library is better.”

“I do not see how this was made possible,” Pensive admitted, scratching his head with a hoof.

“It must have taken decades or centuries to make all this,” Novell replied, ignoring the filly’s comment.

“Two centuries and three decades, to be exact,” the earth pony put in. “Almost all of the Aeries were built at the same time, so it took longer than if they had worked on just one.”

Novell blanched at the amount of effort that must have gone into it all. “Griffons did all this by themselves?”

Quills shook her head. “No. Ponies and camels served as contractors and architects for the Invention, War, Scholar, and Matriarch Aerie. The Nesting Aerie was the only one the griffons did themselves and, as a result, is much smaller than the other four. There was also another Aerie, but it was a failed attempt. I don’t remember exactly what they had planned to name it or what it was even for.”

“You, not remembering something?” Novell asked skeptically. “I thought you had a photographic memory.”

She glared at him. “I do. What I meant was nopony knows what it was for. It was never recorded, so I never got to read it. So I don’t know.”

“Okay,” Novell acknowledged, blowing out a pent in breath. “Where’s the Equestrian embassy?”

Quills opened her mouth to answer, then furrowed her brows. Again, she opened her mouth, holding a hoof up, and close it again. A blush appeared on her cheeks. “I... don’t know.”

“No one ever told you, did they?” the pegasus asked quietly.

The filly looked away, the blush increasing. “No.”



The next several minutes swept by in a whirl to Novell, bombarded on all sides by all sorts of interesting and incredible sights. After they had descended from the main entrance terrace, the three ponies had entered the city proper. The streets were obsidian, covered in claw and scuff marks from years of use, but still shining resolutely in the ruddy orange light of the fires.

All manner of the mountain’s denizens filled the street, filled with exotic tongues - screeches, clicks, brays, and whistles lit the smoky air. A pair of donkeys pulled a wagon filled with cabbages, the cart’s wheels rattling above the caucus. Griffons and ponies dressed in heavy brown and black aprons worked together on outdoor forges while tables filled with brews of every kind were watched over by garishly decorated zebras.

One of the latter wore a bewitching smile, gesturing over to anypony who passed by his small stall. His ears were filled with all sorts of piercings, jade and obsidian jewelry littering his throat and forehooves. Instead of the mohawk hairstyle Zecora wore was a series of jeweled tufts extending from his head, as if he had cut blocks off of the original hairstyle and bound the rest with golden bands.

“Come to my stall and be amazed!” the zebra’s warm voice called out in a familiar accent. “I have trinkets and potables upon which none have gazed!”

“Ominous,” Quills commented quietly, just enough for Novell and Pensive to hear. “But I doubt he knows where to find the ambassador’s residents.”

The pegasus was about to agree when the zebra’s voice came again. “Do my ears deceive me or is there doubt? Come, little pony, and see if there’s knowledge I am without.”

        Quills stopped in her tracks and turned toward the voice, surprise on her face. “How did you hear me?”

        The zebra grinned and raised a hoof to his ear. “I am sorry, you must come nearer, for from where you are, I fear your words could be clearer.”

        Huffing with annoyance, the filly strode confidently in front of the stall. “How did you hear me?”

        “Practice and patience are all is required for a good watcher to find what is desired,” the stall owner replied cryptically, waving a hoof through some smoke issuing from one of his flasks.

        Quills’ eyes faded to slits. “You just read my lips.”

        The zebra nodded in respect. “Intelligent as you are beautiful, madamoiselle.”

        “You didn’t rhyme that time,” Pensive pointed out in his usual monotone, though Novell could hear a bit of interest in the words.

        The zebra nodded again and raised his hooves to encompass the city around them. “An act among thousands of actors and actresses, some even more convincing than I. It is simply a way to grab attention - easy for an oddity such as myself, as there are few of my kind who treat with the griffons.” He smiled his brilliant smile again. “And attention invites opportunity.”

        “What kind of opportunity?” Novell asked carefully, not entirely sure he could trust the zebra. With Zecora, there was an air of ease about her, that of a healer looking to mend that which was broken. But this zebra was different. The pegasus felt uneasy around the exotic stall owner, like he was being appraised by the eye of a predator.

        The zebra shifted his attention toward Novell, the smile on his face glitteringly mischievously in his gaze. “Information and the profit of ideas, for words are more powerful than claw or beak, as the griffons say.”

        Novell felt a shift in his saddlebags when the zebra finished speaking, turning around and catching sight of a griffon youth scurrying away with something clutched in one claw. “Wha-”

        Suddenly, a surprised squawk came from the crowd, followed by the griffon he had seen running away being lifted in a miasma of teal-tinted energy. Novell glanced over at Pensive to see the unicorn’s horn lit up and his friend’s face a thundercloud of anger. The pegasus recoiled from that look, surprised and somewhat dismayed that the normally emotionless unicorn could come up with such an expression.

        A moment later, the griffon was deposited in front of them, squirming and growling in the grip of magic. “Hey, let me go, willya?”

        Surprise filled the pegasus as he realized the voice was younger than he thought, the last word falling into a squeak. Before he had an opportunity to speak, warm laughter spilled from behind him. He craned his neck to look at the zebra, who was wearing a broad grin.

        “Intelligent beauty and a quick-thinking magi as well. You interest me with the company you keep, pegasus.”

        “Release the object you hold, little thing,” Pensive growled at the griffon in his telekinetic hold. Novell turned back just in time to see a miniature figurine of a pegasus tumble to the obsidian floor. His heart leapt at the sight, instantly scooping it up in his hoof and staring wide-eyed at the young griffon in front of him.

        She avoided his gaze and clicked her beak together. “I let it go. So let me go, horn-head.”

        Pensive dropped the youth none too gently, but she still landed perfectly, twisting around in mid-air to all fours. Her piercing green eye glared at the unicorn before swiftly facing the pegasus. “Keep it. It’s probably useless anyway.” With that, the griffon departed, instantly swept up by the crowd.

        Pensive snorted dismissively before adopting his normal expression. “This one is disliking this place thus far.”

        “Yet you would fit in well here, young unicorn. Ah, but where are my manners? I am Akun’la’tunad, but you may call me Akun,” the zebra replied modestly. “And yourselves?”

        Quills held up a hoof to stop Pensive from speaking. “Pretty free with that information, aren’t you, broker? Names are power in the right places, you know.”

        Akun held a hoof to his chest in mock agony. “Ah, you wound me, fair filly. Very well, very well, I will not ask any more of you, young Quills.”

        The earth pony didn’t skip a beat. “Where’s the Equestrian embassy?”

        The zebra seemed caught off guard at not provoking any reaction toward his reveal, but smoothly deflected the question. “What knowledge can you offer in return?”

        “Nothing you don’t already know,” Quills sighed in frustration. “I’ll just ask somepony else. Thank you, oh so much for your time, ‘Akun’la’tunad’.”

        They turned to leave when the zebra raised a reluctant hoof. “Wait.”

        “Just tell us what you want,” Novell blurted out, irritated at all the twists and turns both physical and conversational.

        Quills sighed, but the pegasus ignored it and waited for the zebra to respond. He didn’t have to wait long. “You came with another pegasus who wears a strange snail-like creature upon her head. I would very much like to know what kind of animal it is, as well as where it can be found.”

        “It’s a Refferentus snail,” the pale pegasus replied, wondering why the information would be even remotely useful. “I don’t know where she found it.”

        Akun’s eyes tightened at the last, quickly covered up with a nod. Even so, Novell spotted it. Obviously that information was valuable and he wondered if he hadn’t just made a mistake by offering what little he did know.

        “Very well, I will point you toward the embassy in return for your kind explanation,” the stall owner said with a twinkle returning to his eye. “Twist right and twist left, walk two blocks to the south, and you will find the place you wish for at The Mouth.”

        “‘The Mouth?” Quills echoed. “The Mouth of what?”

        Akun grinned at her and pointed one of his hooves behind them. The three ponies followed the motion, instantly spotting one of the gigantic statues protruding from the walls of the mountain. Novell squinted his eyes and picked out an almost invisible stairwell leading up from the highest terrace, along with a lift hanging from one of the sculpture’s massive wings just above the head.

        “Oh, that Mouth,” the earth pony continued in the same tone. “Thanks.”

        The zebra gave them a wink and flashed another smile. “Until next time, my little ponies, whether information or fate brings us together.”

        “Thank you,” Pensive said seriously, bowing his head toward Akun.

        After delivering his own goodbye, Novell lead the rest in the statue’s general direction. The party wound its way through the bustle of the late afternoon rush, trotting steadily. For his part, the pegasus felt constricted being on the ground. His eyes were constantly drawn to the messenger griffons and pegasi that flew from one end of the massive cavern to another, his own wings ruffling impatiently on his side.

        Quills’ voice drew him out of his reverie. “I wish I had wings, sometimes.”

        “I do not know if I would enjoy being so high,” Pensive admitted softly to the earth pony, “though I wonder why you would wish to be other than you were.”

        The filly’s voice grew exasperated. “There’s nothing special about being just a regular old pony. I can’t fly and I can’t do magic. I don’t like feeling powerless.”

        Pensive’s face softened. “I understand how you feel, Quills. Havoc used me for his own ends for my entire existence. I oftentimes wonder how I dealt with having no say in my actions. I...constantly fear that my freedom will be taken away, to be chained to another’s will...”

        “That’s the first time, you know,” the earth pony replied after awhile, not looking at the other pony.

        Novell watched confusion work its way into the unicorn’s expression. “What do you mean?”

        Quills finally looked into Pensive’s eyes, a warmness visible that hadn’t been there before. “That’s the first time you’ve said my name. Or any name other than Novell’s, now that I think about it.”


        “Ah, I see,” the unicorn nodded seriously. “I will refrain from it if you wish.”

        The filly shook her head and gave him a smile. “No, I like it. It makes you seem more pony.”

        “Am I not already a pony?” Pensive asked innocently - a little too innocently in Novell’s opinion. The pegasus hid his snicker behind a fake cough.

        Unfortunately, Quills didn’t notice anything amiss. “Well, I mean, you are a pony, but you’re always so...” she trailed off and looked suspiciously at the unicorn. “Wait, you’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?”

        “I am not pulling anything, Miss Intelligent and Beautiful,” Pensive murmured smoothly, imitating the zebra’s sulky tones.

        Novell finally burst out laughing, drawing strange looks from the crowd. Flushing slightly with embarrassment, he continued in a quiet chuckle. “You’re definitely getting a sense of humor, Pensive.”

        Quills sniffed and looked away, her back stiffening. “I didn’t think it was funny at all.”


        They arrived at the foot of the great griffon statue in short order, having navigated toward the object with little difficulty. I suppose it helps that you can see it from everywhere in the city, Novell thought, staring up toward the top. It was a long way up, so they had eschewed the stairs in favor of the lift, its metal chains clinking against one another in a rhythmic metronome. Somewhere above, a mechanical device was pulling the lift up a few meters before pausing and then raising once more, steam belching in an audible hiss at each slow halt.

        Quills sat in the center of the metal contraption, trying not to stare down through the detailed, metal grating, shivering with both terror and her motion sickness. Novell felt for the filly, but he knew any attempt to console her would result in an irritable growl. Instead, he settled for asking her a question.

        “So how come you didn’t get sick when we were on the airship?”

        The earth pony glared at him through slitted eyes. “Because it doesn’t move in fits and shakes or constantly clatter underneath you. Plus, I know nopony on the ship would have let me come to harm. On trains and this dumb lift, I don’t have such confidence.”

        “You don’t think I’d come save you?” Novell asked in a hurt tone.

        She closed her eyes and huddled closer to herself. “Please be quiet before I barf all over your white coat.”

        The pegasus shuffled slightly further away from her, trading a glance with Pensive. Amusement rippled through his mind, but the unicorn kept up his neutral facade, staring out over the city. Novell joined him at admiring the view, a light, floating feeling overcoming him.

        The general hubbub of many hundreds of voices that had followed them throughout the Aerie’s streets was little more than a faint whisper at their height. The acrid smoke was strong enough to cause the pegasus to wrinkle his nose but was so far tolerable. He glanced up at the massive brazier they were just about to pass, the massive coals glowing a soft orange. It crackled at them when they passed, shifting like a slumbering dragon - Novell wouldn’t have been surprised if there had actually been one inside, but he didn’t see one.

        They spent the rest of the ride in quiet solitude, interrupted by Quills’ gagging every now and then. Novell yawned, blinking sleepily up to the top of the dome to look for the sun before catching himself. Oh, wait, inside a mountain. Can’t see the sun. He shivered, thinking of the sheer amount of weight crouching over his head, supported only by the four griffon statues and a handful of columns arranged between them.

        The creak of the lift coming to a halt startled the pegasus out of his reverie. He glanced back and followed Quills to the landing carved next to the Equestrian Embassy. Ignoring the earth pony’s frantic, thankful prayers, Novell looked the embassy over.

        Banners hung from the open beak with Celestia’s colors on them, ragged with age, while newer looking ones with a moon’s sigil on them hung in between them. Novell was somewhat surprised by how quickly even the embassy in another country responded to the return of Princess Luna. Hopefully that means they’ll be receptive of the ‘mission’ she gave us.

        With their goal in sight, the three ponies broke into a swift canter toward the entrance. A couple of dour pony guards stood on either side of the massive iron door. One was a stout pegasus with leering eyes, while the other was an earth pony with a friendly, if bored looking face. The latter’s face lit up as they approached while the former likewise grew even more dour.

        “Evening there, ponies,” the earth pony guard said politely, standing straighter and removing his rump from the wall where it had been resting. “What brings you to the embassy at this late hour?”

        “We’re here to see the ambassadors the Princesses recently sent here,” Novell said confidently.

        The guard almost deflated, but before he could speak, the short pegasus interrupted. “They’re busy. Come back again tomorrow. Or better yet, never.”

        “Oh, come on Windshear, don’t be like that,” the other guard admonished. “I’m sorry about my friend here. He’s just tired. We’re at the end of our shift and-”

        “Quiet, you foal,” the one called Windshear hissed. “I’ve told you more than once not to give away our shift change times to anypony or griffon that happens to walk by. And stop telling them my name, too.”

        Quills barged passed Novell, impatience written across her face. “Look, you two bumbling oafs, we’re on charge by the Princess Luna herself. We were asked to report here when we arrived.”

        The pegasus guard eyed the filly with a glare, his companion even allowing a little doubt to creep into his own eyes. “Oh, yeah? Got any proof of that? Can’t tell you the amount of times some griffon scamp has tried the same line on me.”

        “Yeah, I do, bub,” Quills returned scathingly, walking behind Novell and rummaging around in his saddlebags.

        “Hey!” the white pegasus objected.

        “Shut it and hold still. The paper is in here somewhere,” the filly told him, finally pulling out a neat scroll tied with a deep blue ribbon. Novell blinked at it in confusion, wondering when that had found its way in there.

        Despite that, he held his silence as Quills presented the paper to the suspicious guard, who glanced over it carefully. After a few moments of looking between the scroll and their party, the armored pegasus growled and returned the parchment.

        “Fine, you can go in.”

        “Don’t sound so pleased by it,” the filly snarked as the two guards opened the heavy door. The short one bristled and shot a glare at her, but otherwise remained silent, to the delight of his comrade.

        With the door open and the interior invitingly lit, the three ponies made their way in. Immediately afterward, the door clanged shut, the guards’ muttering barely audible behind the heavy metal. Novell investigated his surroundings, interested in what kind of furniture an embassy would employ.

        He was disappointed to note that nothing exotic stood out to him - instead, there was simply regular old chairs and a toasty-looking fire blazing in the fireplace. The scene could have been transported from anywhere in Equestria, but Novell guessed it made the ponies staying in the Aerie feel at home, however boring it was to him.

        A door to their left led to a tidy little kitchen while a staircase on the far wall looked to be chiseled directly out of the rock. They moved toward it, hearing raised voices and hoofbeats from the level above them. Anger tinged one of the voices, while the other seemed calm and reasoning. The pegasus ruffled his wings nervously, hoping the reasoned voice would keep the other in check.

        “We do not have time for this waiting around, Darkmoon! Let us find this ‘Havoc’ and put an end to it before it has a chance to stir up another war. Equestria cannot weather what would happen should the griffons fall or become this entity’s sinister pet.”

        “As ever, I preach patience as the key to unraveling the location. You are too eager to vanquish this threat, my friend. You know as well as I that overconfidence leads to defeat.” The calmer voice was barely audible through the door in front of them.

        The other in the room stopped pacing, his hooves no longer drumming against the floorboards. There came a sigh. “Perhaps you are right, as ever. I just do not wish to wait around for this chaotic being to grow in power. You saw what happened to Ponyville when Discord was released. From what little you’ve uncovered about this Havoc, its presence will be vastly more destructive. I do not know if the Elements would even be enough to destroy it if it regains its full power.”

        “They imprisoned Discord. This Havoc may be the physically stronger, but he is no more immune to the power the Elements hold than the other. Have faith, Steelfeather.”

        “Faith? I do have faith, it is ju- wait, we have visitors.”

        “In the hall? I sensed them as soon as they entered the embassy,” the one called Darkmoon uttered amusedly. “I imagine they are tired from their long journey. Come in, will you three?”

        Novell sheepishly opened the door and entered the room with his two friends splayed out behind them. A couple of chairs stood at the opposite wall while a large table took up the center of the room. The large pegasus in stylized guard armor, minus the helmet, looked up from his pacing near the table. As soon as they entered, Quills rushed passed him and into the hooves of the old, bearded unicorn sitting across a chair.

        “Darkmoon! I didn’t know you became an ambassador!” the filly said once she had released herself from the other’s forelegs.

        The unicorn chuckled. “It was a recent promotion, if you can call it that. Lady Luna teleported right into my tower to ask for my help, if you can believe it. I’ve never been so startled in my life.” Darkmoon sighed and raised his glance to Novell and Pensive. “Welcome, Novell Light, Pensive Coalescence. As glad as I am to see Quills, I know you are here not for the pleasure of my company. Have you any news?”

        “You really believe these ponies can find Havoc when we cannot? This pegasus is nearly as scrawny as you, magi,” Steelfeather scoffed, eyeing Novell up and down.

        The white pegasus ruffled his wings uncomfortably at the description, despite its accuracy. “We have no news of Havoc, though we do have a suspicion he is here in the Griffon Kingdoms. Our ship was attacked on the way in by a hippogryph. While that may have been coincidence, I don’t exactly want to take anything for granted with chaos.”

        Darkmoon nodded sagely and extended a hoof to get his companion’s attention. “You see, Steelfeather? Patience rewards us with its gifts.”

        The other ambassador snorted and began to pace again. “I do not see how their words help us. We already know Havoc is here.”

        “Our information was based on a guess, my friend,” Darkmoon chided gently. “That they were attacked and that they came to the same conclusion merely reinforces our choice to come here.”

        “You think the attack is connected? Why would a hippogryph attack be anything but coincidence, with how stirred up they are these past few days?”

        The bearded unicorn looked directly into his friend’s eyes. “Because chaos is the source of coincidence. The random chance of meeting somepony else, defying the odds despite their overwhelming numbers against you, as you’ve experienced. All of this is because of chaos - chance. But where chaos is directed, you can see the hoof of a higher being in it, such as this attack on their transport.”

        Steelfeather glanced between Novell’s party and shook his head. “Whatever you say, magi. This is all too complicated for a simple soldier like me.”

        “You underestimate your own intelligence, my friend.” Darkmoon chuckled before sobering up and looking at Quills. “Tell me, Quills, of what other knowledge you can share, for I see more than what has been said lies behind your eyes.”

        The filly looked away momentarily. “We think Havoc is behind the stealing of the scepter.”

        A sharp intake of breath from the armored pegasus drew their attention. “How do you know about this?”

        “A griffon told us when she escorted us in. She saved one of the crew from being ponynapped by a hippogryph,” Quills replied.

        Steelfeather stared at her in silence, a thoughtful expression stealing across his face. “This scepter...I remember being told of it. That it cannot be...stolen?”

        “It cannot be given except through the exertion of free will,” Darkmoon corrected. “Such is the nature of the Scepter of ‘Will’. Yes, I remember the rumors. But that would mean the Matriarch gave it away, rather than had it taken from her. I have suspected it, but I do not like the implications. I would rather think the powers the scepter holds have weakened.”

        “Then she is working for Havoc!” Steelfeather cried, rushing to his helmet and donning it. “We must confront her.”

        “Patience!” Darkmoon’s voice cracked like a whip. “Think before you fly, my friend. We cannot simply rush to the Matriarch’s Aerie and demand anything of her. This is a political matter, not a martial one. It must be solved with words rather than conflict. Besides, we have little more than a guess to back our suspicions. Would you go to her with anything less than certainty?”

        The pegasus ambassador paused and gritted his teeth. “No. You are wise in your counsel, as ever.”

        “So what can we do?” Novell asked, his mind whirling at the thought of a head of state betraying her country. The idea was so foreign to him that he could hardly wrap his mind around it.

        Darkmoon looked up. “For now, we do nothing. We sit and we wait for Havoc to make a mistake or for more information to come to us. There is little else to do.”

        “I can’t just sit here while Havoc is out there,” the white pegasus replied, looking down. “I made a promise.”

        “I agree,” Steelfeather said, “though I also know Darkmoon’s decision is the correct one. Go into the city and see if there is anything you can find, but do not leave the Aerie. Right now, as my colleague implies, the Kingdoms are in uproar. Your presence anywhere else but where it was requested to stay will become a diplomatic incident. One which I would have to mediate.” He paused and glared at the floor. “And I do dislike to mediate without sword in mouth.”

        Quills sighed and returned to Novell’s side. “Well, if that’s all, we should return to the rest of our merry little band. It was nice to see you again, Darkmoon. I miss your stories.”

        The unicorn grinned widely. “And I appreciated your company. It is rare to find anypony your age willing to listen to an old pony’s tales. Farewell, until we meet once more.”

        Steelfeather just bowed stiffly. “Return if you find anything, but otherwise do not interfere with our own investigations.”


        Novell stepped off the lift once it reached the bottom of the statue, Quills hurriedly rushing past him to get off the contraption. He yawned, glancing at the city and wondered where the Professor and the others would be. Hopefully somewhere with food, he thought as his stomach grumbled.

        “They are to the east.” Pensive nodded toward the right before Novell could ask him where to go. “The Elder is telling stories, I believe, so his mind is easier to find than usual.”

        Novell nodded and started off. “Stories from the Professor are always interesting. Let’s see if we can get to wherever he is before he finishes for the night.”

        They passed through the nearly deserted streets quickly, a sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of the earlier crowds. Novell figured everybody had found their way home, though there still were a few of the city’s denizens wandering through the streets. They seemed friendly enough, smiling or waving as they walked by. All in all, it felt like being back in Hoofington, though with more than just ponies milling about.

        Pensive lead the way and the pegasus followed, wondering at all the changes the unicorn had gone through since he had freed him. At first, his friend had been confused and frightened of the world, though he did not show his feelings except in private conversations. Now, he was confidently striding through a city full of all kinds of creatures without much nervousness. In fact, lately he had even seemed to be showing more than his normal facade of neutrality. A feeling of pride swept through Novell’s breast at how far the unicorn had come.

        “I am actually very nervous,” Pensive said aloud, though subdued so only his companions could hear him. “I wish for the open roads and skies we have previously travelled through, with less things around me. It is still uncomfortable.”

        Novell smiled at his friend. “But you’re not hiding yourself, even so. That takes more courage than I have, to be honest.”

        The unicorn gave him a perplexed expression. “I have noticed displays of courage from you, despite some of our more dire circumstances. Even if they exceed your ability to handle, you still attempt actions that I would not think ordinary ponies would perform.”

        “I’ve always been scared stiff whenever something like that happens,” Novell admitted. “I just know that if I distract something for long enough, at least one of my friends will be able to help, too. I’m just the sidekick here.

        “Selling yourself short, as usual,” Quills entered the conversation. “You’re always the one saving us. I mean, think of how you met all of us. You said that the goofball Professor was trapped in some ice and being refrigerated for a Yeti’s dinner, but you pulled him out of there.”

        Novell shook his head. “Search did all the work. I nearly got both of us killed.”

        The filly stared into his eyes with a sudden intensity. “What about Whisper?”

        “What about her?” the pegasus asked.

        “She told me that you caught her in mid-air, despite having a sprained wing.”

        He shuffled nervously at that, but before he could respond, Pensive interrupted. “The twins owe their lives to you. As do I.”

        “But you teleported them out,” the pegasus argued halfheartedly, already knowing how the other two would respond.

        “And that wouldn’t have been able to happen if you hadn’t broken Havoc’s control over Pensive,” Quills said flatly.

        Novell sighed heavily. “Well, we’re even. You’ve all saved my life a dozen times over. Each. I’m just somepony without a cuti-”

        “Can’t use that excuse anymore, Novell,” the filly taunted him. “You said potential is what your talent is and explained why your flank is blank.”

        The pegasus rustled his wings, exasperated at their arguments. “Are we almost there?”

        Pensive flashed him a quick grin and nodded toward a building across the street, situated on a corner. It was built from the same obsidian that the streets were made of, shaped into a two story building with a wooden sign hanging above the entryway. A griffon holding a steak on a fork was painted on the sign, an image that caused Novell to shudder involuntarily. Even though he knew some species needed meat to survive, it didn’t make him happy to be reminded of it.

        Before he could begin to cross the street, an explosion rocked the building, the door falling open with a rush of smoke and fire.

Chapter 15: Secrets and Forbidden Places

- Illustration by me

“Whisper!” Novell screamed, fear gripping his insides. Beside him, Quills cried for her brother while Pensive broke into a full gallop. Shaking off his shock, the pegasus tore through the air after his friend, tucking his wings close to his body as he darted through the open door. He came to a stop with a powerful downstroke, swirling the smoke clear directly around him, still aloft.

The inside of the tavern was a mess, from what little he could see. Smoke whirled mysteriously in the room, cloaking everything in a gray sheet. Tables and stools were strewn everywhere, broken glass and plates littering the floor. Fires burned menacingly around the bar, crouching and hissing as if alive. Novell’s ears twitched this way and that, searching any kind of sound.. When none came, dread crept into his mind, thoughts of- Don’t think about that now. Focus.

With a clatter of hooves against wood, a grey coated pony leapt to the top of the bar. Before Novell could even ask if everypony was okay, the pony’s forehead lit up, magic suppressing the fires with methodical efficiency. The pegasus descended to the wooden floor, frantically looking left and right in an attempt to find Whisper. Pensive walked in behind him, instantly following the other unicorn’s example while creaks and coughs began to enter the silence.

Ponies and griffons started to peek out from behind tables and the bar itself, none of them seeming hurt. A few of the tavern’s occupants groaned at the amount of damage, but otherwise seemed rather...cheerful? The pegasus glanced around uselessly, searching for some rhyme or reason to the strange scene.

“Professor?” Novell asked when the smoke cleared enough for him to recognize the unicorn on the bar.

Professor Search glanced over at him in surprise, his glasses askew on his nose. “Oh, there you are lad. I was wondering when you’d show up. Did you meet with the ambassadors?”

The pegasus opened his mouth to reply, but then caught himself and waved the question away. “What happened? Is everypony okay? The bar exploded!”

“Oh, yes, perfectly fine, perfectly fine. In fact, we had plenty of time to take cover. Whisper and Scrolls are upstairs, I believe,” the grey coated pony said, craning his neck to look up.

“Up here, actually, trying not to die...again,” Whisper called sarcastically from above. Novell looked up to see her orange face covered in a pattern of soot that suggested the chandelier hadn’t protected her from all of the explosion’s smoke. “By the way, thanks so much for blowing us up, Kalyn.”

“It’s not my fault!” the griffon beside her said, peeking out from the other end of the chandelier. His face was also covered in soot, though a couple of rings around his eyes showed his soft, brown feathers. A pair of goggles rested on his forehead, their blackened forms the origin of the griffon’s eyespots. Two long feathers poked out from beneath the goggles, their tips a deep black, as if they’d been singed one too many times. The griffon smoothed them out distractedly with one claw.

“What do you mean it isn’t your fault? You’re the one who set up the still!” Scrolls interrupted the grooming and clip clopped his way down the stairs. His sister met him at the bottom, giving him first a hug and then a cuff to the ear. “Ow!”

The griffon waved his claw in dismissal and fell to the floor, catching himself with a burst of downdraft. “My still was perfect. It just suffered from a little flaw, which wouldn’t have even occurred if there hadn’t have been a fire nearby.”

Whisper dropped down beside the griffon and trotted over to a sack of wheat, pulling Swirley out of it and setting him on her head. The snail was shaking, his body pulled into his protective shell and his two eyestalks peeking out from under it. Cooing reassuringly to her pet, the mare turned her attention back to the griffon and pointed at him with a hoof.

“Not very perfect if there’s a flaw. You’re the inventor, aren’t you? You’re supposed to think of these things! Swirley’s still scared stiff from that broken top you put on his shell earlier. Does everything you make explode?”

“Well, yes, my inventions often have slight...imbalances in their combustible areas,” the griffon called Kalyn admitted sheepishly, “but that’s not important! What is, is that I created the perfect blend of Lunashine.”

He held up a flask of liquid that glowed a deep blue that was almost black, pinpricks of light dancing within it. Kalyn looked at his creation with adoration, his beak turned up in a smile.

A second later, the flask was swept away by a large griffon with a wide waistline, who downed it in one gulp. The big griffon screwed his eyes shut and coughed before belching appreciatively with a clack of his beak.

“Almost worth the amount of damage you put my inn through, Kal’,” the inkeeper announced.

Kalyn was staring at the other griffon with a scandalized expression written across his face. “That was- you just- my invention-”

A loud, boisterous laugh echoed through the bar as the big griffon slapped his claw across Kalyn’s back, the rest of the tavern joining in. “You’re lucky I like you, tinker. Fine, I’ll only make you clean up this mess instead of paying for it, but only because of that sweet ‘shine you just made. You figure out a way to make more, you come talk to me and we’ll sell it here at the inn. Sound good?”

Novell fell to his rump, mystified by the events playing out in front of him. It was so disconnected from what he thought he would be dealing with that his brain just couldn’t keep up. The throbbing of his veins slowed with the ebb of adrenaline, a sense of exhausted relief washing over him.

He felt a poke from his side and looked up to see Whisper and Swirley staring at him. “Hey, blankie.”

“Hey,” Novell sighed, letting his head hang toward the floor, watching the customers right tables and help Kalyn sweep up glass. The general din of conversation churned the air while they cleaned, the jovial atmosphere of any tavern in the world reappearing. He idly wondered how the mood would change if he took off his saddlebags and they noticed his unmarked flank. That thought brought him up short, because he hadn’t thought about it since Ponyville. “You haven’t called me that in awhile.”

        The mare sat next to him, out of the way of everything. “Yeah, well, I gotta change it up sometimes. ‘Novell’ gets old.”

        Despite himself, the white pegasus smiled. “Thanks a lot.”

        “You’re welcome. How’d the thing go with the ambassadors?” Whisper asked.

        “They told us to stay out of the way, basically,” Novell replied, looking over at the mare. “Not much to do until Havoc makes a move, I guess.”

        Whisper yawned, her pet mimicking the motion atop her mane. “So that means we’re going to go snooping around anyway, right?”

        “No, not this time. But we will be doing something.”

        “Oh, yeah, what’s that?”

        Novell glanced over at the Professor, who was already engaged with a few of the tavern patrons, telling a story about his times in the Old Kingdoms. “We’re going to help the Professor save a friend.”


        The unmarked pegasus paced inside the large central chamber that served as Kalyn’s living room, the whirring of various gadgets a constant background noise. The griffon had invited them to stay at his house for the night in return for the troubles he had put them through. The Professor had graciously accepted his old friend’s request, though Novell wasn’t sure he wanted to sleep anywhere near the pyrotechnic inventor.

An acrid stench issued from what the griffon called his ‘Room of Creation’ as if in reminder of an explosion being a second away, but the pegasus had already grown accustomed to it from its constant presence throughout the Aerie. The cost of invention, he mused.

        At the moment, his friends and their interesting host were scattered about the room, waiting for him to speak. Their eyes tracked his progress back and forth, aside from Whisper, who was playing a game with Swirley that involved changing the snail’s shell color. He stopped and glanced at each of them in turn before his eyes came to rest on a certain grey unicorn.

        “Professor,” Novell began, “I think we had better tell the others about your friend here in the Kingdoms.”

        “One of your friends in trouble, Professor?” Scrolls asked curiously, staring at the unicorn.

        The old researcher winced and nodded, looking away from the earth pony. “Indeed. She was last seen here in the Griffon Kingdoms, from the clues and hints I’ve gathered, wandering through old ruins. A dangerous occupation, as I know only too well, especially alone.”

        Novell noticed the omission of who the pony was, but he kept his mouth shut. Like the Professor said, sometimes keeping secrets kept other ponies from being hurt. Another lesson I need to learn carefully, he thought morosely, averse to the idea of keeping secrets from his friends. He glanced at each, wondering if they all had secrets they were keeping from him.

        “She in the Griffon Kingdoms?” Kalyn questioned from his perch, a wooden stool covered in claw marks.

        Professor Search nodded. “She is. The only thing I do not know is where she is, specifically. I have a general idea, but, well, it’s not somewhere ponies are particularly allowed.”

        Quills snorted. “Going against the law, now? Especially at a time like this?”

        Novell’s breath hitched at that, wondering what the filly would say if she knew who the friend was. Cursing the necessity of keeping secrets, the pegasus nodded. “It’s important, both for friendship and...” he hesitated, “...and because it’s the right thing to do.”

        “The right thing to do?” the earth pony looked at him suspiciously. “We don’t even know who we’re trying to save.”

Novell sighed. “I’m going to help the Professor find his friend, regardless of who she is, because it doesn’t matter. Somepony is in trouble - that’s all I need to know. You can stay if you want, but waiting around for something to happen has never been something I enjoy.” He raised a brow at the filly. “Something I don’t think any of us enjoy. That said, none of you have to come if you don’t wish to. Our main goal is finding Havoc and Professor Mark, after all, so I’ll understa-.”

        Whisper snorted and waved a hoof, her pet’s shell shifting through a pattern of green and orange. “I’m coming with you and so is Swirley. I doubt you’d be able to handle anything if we’re not there, weak as you are. Besides, doing nothing is boring.”


        “I shall accompany you as well,” Pensive said simply. “The Elder friend, as is any thing that he holds that same friendship for.”

        Quills sighed, looking none too happy. “Okay, I guess Scrolls and I will go, too.”

        “Actually, I think I’ll stay,” her brother replied quickly, causing everypony to stare at him in surprise. The earth pony shrugged and grinned sheepishly. “I do want to go, but it’s probably better if someone stays behind and helps track down some leads on Havoc or Professor Mark. Two apples with one buck.”

        Novell rustled his wings uncomfortably, thinking the decision over. It was the obviously correct thing to do, no question, but not necessarily the one the twin would have chosen if he knew all the variables. The colt deserved to be there if everything worked out, at least. Unless she’s not really there. False hope, he thought glumly. A quick glance showed the Professor looking miserable, but the old unicorn held his peace, not looking in Novell’s direction.

        “That’s a good idea,” the white pegasus said after a time, reluctantly siding with the young pony’s side. “It is.”

        “Maybe I should stay here with Scrolls,” the other earth pony started, but her twin shook his head.


        “No, Quills, you need to go with them. They might need your photographic memory or your knowledge of everything.” He rolled his eyes and gave her a lopsided smile at the last. “Don’t worry, your little brother will be fine by himself. If I get into any trouble, I’ll find Captain Skycrasher.”

        Quills still looked reticent, like she was trying to reconcile some big, inward debate. Novell felt for the younger pony. She hadn’t been without Scrolls for more than a few minutes since he’d met the twins.

        After a few more moments of inner turmoil, the filly seemed to calm down, nodding in mute agreement. With one hurdle down, Novell breathed a sigh of relief. He caught the Professor’s eye, giving the other pony the opportunity to speak.

        “Very well, since we’ve all come to a decision, I have some information on my...friend’s whereabouts. Kalyn here,” Professor Search nodded to the griffon, who had been watching everything with interest in his raptor-like eyes, “gave me a few more possibilities based on the clues I’ve gathered over the ye- that is, since my friend disappeared.”

        The unicorn paused, levitating his battered old logbook from somewhere behind him. Novell resolved to ask the pony where he kept it, but held his questions for the moment.

        Setting the notebook gently on the table, Professor Search cleared his throat and pushed his glasses further up his muzzle. “One area is a valley near the Hippogryph’s traditional gathering ground, where their young perform a rite of passage once they reach adulthood. The second is near that area, an old aerie that was never completed, and the last is where the Hippogryphs are currently making camp in preparation for what looks to the griffons to be war.”

        They all blanched at the last, none of them the least bit happy with how events were turning out. Novell and his party knew the cause was Havoc, which was why they had to find clues, and quickly. The pegasus glanced over at Scrolls, secretly glad the scarf-wearing pony had decided to stay behind. Hopefully the young scholar would be able to find something to help the two ambassadors with their investigations. Not to mention avert a war, Novell thought with a hint of apprehension.

        Quills’ voice drew his attention back to the discussion. “It can’t be where the Hippogryphs are gathered. Nopony would survive anything like that and it says here,” she pointed with her hoof at the notebook, “that your friend’s location is somewhere high. A valley wouldn’t exactly be the highest point in the Griffon Kingdoms, nor would where the Hippogryphs are now. I think it’s the old aerie, if anywhere.”

        Scrolls broke in, pointing at the notebook again. “But it says here that she was exploring old ruins. This ‘traditional ground’ place the Professor talked about has some ruins. I remember reading one of the books in the library about Hippogryphs and their culture. It was an old building project by the Griffons to help civilize the Hippogryphs. Maybe it’s one of the towers there?”

        “Doesn’t seem like civilizing them worked,” Whisper put in dryly.

        “Both of those possibilities were my top guesses as well,” Kalyn said, tapping a claw against the Professor’s book. “We can scratch out where the tribes are gathered now. No way we’d get there without a fight even if she was there. Might as well check the other two places first.”

        “You’re coming?” Professor Search asked, flabbergasted. “But you’ve a job and- and a sister to take care of! You don’t have the time, lad!”

        The tinker shook his head stubbornly. “You need me to guide you wherever you go. A map just won’t cut it, if that’s what you were thinking of asking for.”

        “Well, I was thinking along those lines, yes, but-,” the Professor backtracked before being interrupted.

        “Besides, you’re can’t fly. How did you expect to get there?”

        The unicorn looked away, a bit of color rising to his cheeks. “I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but I was thinking of walking-”

        “No, that won’t work,” Kalyn forestalled his friend’s idea. Novell snickered behind a hoof, never having seen the Professor thrown off balance so badly. “I can guide you there and with three fliers, we can carry you, the filly, and, what was your name, Pensive?” When the teal unicorn nodded, the griffon continued, “This is the best way, Professor. Trust me.”

        “And what of your sister, then? Young Valyrie, I believe her name was?” the unicorn asked gravely.

        “She’s-,” the griffon stopped mid-thought, cocking his head.

        A second later, Novell heard what drew Kalyn’s attention - the subtle scrape of claws on obsidian. His ears pricked and he turned toward the door just as it began to swing open on its soundless hinges.

        “Kal’, I’m ba-,”

        “You!” Pensive burst out angrily, his horn glowing and pulling on Novell’s tail. The pegasus was helplessly dragged behind his enraged friend, caught between surprise at the griffon who had just walked in and a prickling fear for the unicorn’s behavior. “Here to steal more possessions from this one’s friends? Things are brave here, to sneak into a occupied ho-.”

        The Professor made to move forward, but was beat to it by Kalyn. The older griffon gracefully leaped between Pensive and the thief from earlier, lifting a claw in a conciliatory manner. Novell noticed both of the griffons’ feathers bunching up around the neck and wings, their forms seeming to grow larger.

        “Wait,” Kalyn told the teal unicorn.

        Pensive’s eyebrows furrowed, but the magic aura faded from his horn regardless. “This thing has stolen from Novell! This one- I will not allow her to steal more from this place.”

        The thief’s eyes slitted, a rumbling growl emanating from her throat. Her tail was lashing back and forth like a maddened snake, ready to strike at any moment. Kalyn simply closed his eyes and sighed, turning toward the accused party.

        “Val’,” he said the name softly, but gained an edge as he went on, “have you been stealing again?”

        “You mean she’s-,” Novell started, but was quickly shushed by Scrolls, who had come up beside him. The pegasus’ mouth formed a line, but he held his tongue and turned his attention back to the two griffons.

        The younger griffon was avoiding her brother’s eyes and Pensive’s cold glare. “I was just testing myself. I was going to give it ba-.”

        “You’re not a chick anymore,” Kalyn replied firmly. “You can’t just take things that don’t belong to you. Besides, what could you possibly test by stealing?”

        Valyrie looked up then, her gaze unwavering. “Stealth for the war. I’m not strong, but I’m quick. So I have to be silent.”

        The older griffon adopted a pained expression and lashed his tail in frustration. “Val’, there’s not going to be a war. This will all blow over and-.”

        “You don’t see it, Kal’, but it’s there. Everyone is in waiting for the feather to fall. The Matriarch, all the Aeries. Even Rell knows it’s coming. I’m just preparing for it,” she countered brashly.

        Kalyn stiffened at those last words. “Rell doesn’t believe that. Neither do I. Neither should you.”

        The would-be thief’s beak twisted into a scowl and she circled her brother like a lion stalking its prey. “You’re wrong. She doesn’t want it to happen, but she knows it’s going to.”

        “There’s not going to be a war,” Novell finally spoke up, determination he was surprised to actually feel backing up his claim. “We know the reason the Hippogryphs are becoming hostile. We’re going to stop that from happening.”

        “You six ponies are going to stop a war?” Valyrie asked, doubt plain in her tone. The griffon snorted, the beak transforming it into a shrill whistle, and shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. Even if you could somehow figure out the cause, you won’t be slowing the war down a single day. The Hippogryphs are a menace, to any species! They need to be brought into line or banished from the Kingdoms.”

        The pegasus involuntarily took a step back from the griffon’s fervor, surprised any creature could harbor such feelings. Sure, Yeti and other monsters were always a danger, but they were just animals. Princess Celestia’s guardsmen kept them away from the towns and roads, protecting everypony - but going on the offensive seemed...wrong.

        Steeling himself, Novell returned to his original position, muzzle to beak with Valyrie. “That’s not the right way to do things. War doesn’t help anypony! There’s no reason for it.”

        “Oh, yeah?” the griffon taunted, tapping his chest with a claw. “You expect us griffons to just let them continue and hurt our communities? Hurt our chicks and civilians? Hurt everyone who inhabits the mountains, ponies included?” She continued tapping his chest with every question and growled. “Griffons do not wait for conflict to come to us. We safeguard what’s ours in whatever way we can.”

        The griffon twirled, leaving Novell with his mouth open in a retort. Valyrie padded past her brother, looking up at him and pausing by the doorway. “You’re a griffon, Kal’, so act like one. I am.” She paused, glancing away and continuing in a softer tone. “So is Rell, even if she doesn’t realize it.”

        With that, she left, not even bothering to close the door. Kalyn stared at the spot she had just occupied, his face emotionless. Professor Search walked up and put a hoof on the griffon’s shoulder, leaving the rest of the ponies to look awkwardly at the ground. Novell avoided everypony’s gaze and kicked one of his forelegs ineffectually, stirring up a bit of dust. How could she be so cold at her age? How could anyone?

        I do not like that thing, Pensive interrupted his thoughts.

        Are you okay? Novell asked inside his mind.

        The unicorn didn’t react physically, but a frustration echoed in the pegasus’ mind. She stole from you. That is not right.


        “Sometimes I wonder if that opinion isn’t right,” Kalyn said before Novell could reply. When everypony looked at him in shock, he shook his head and waved a claw. “I don’t. But I still disagree with it, still argue with less allies by my side every day. It’s as if none of them see the consequences of fighting. Peace has always seemed the better alternative to me than to use these claws we have to war.” The griffon sighed. “I suppose that’s why I became an inventor - to help, rather than harm.”

        “Your temperament is rare, but valuable to your species, Kalyn. Do not fret overmuch, as your current Matriarch seems to share it.” The Professor cleared his throat. “But there’s nothing we can do for it now, as we’ve said. If you still wish to help me find my friend, we must decide to which area we dedicate our search. There is little time for various reasons to dither.”

        “I still say the old aerie,” Quills supplied resolutely.

        Novell nodded his agreement. “It feels like the right place to look, if that helps any.”

        Professor Search glanced at the pegasus, his expression troubled. “I was afraid you’d agree with that, my boy.”

        “Huh? Why?” Novell blinked in confusion.

        “Because the aerie is off limits even to griffons,” Kalyn said ominously. “It was abandoned because the mountain they hollowed out was unstable. Earthquakes, bad stone, or something else, no one really knows. It’s taboo to even speak of it in public.” The griffon smiled humorlessly. “Reminds us of a failure - it is something any griffon would rather be left forgotten.”

        Whisper chuckled, drawing everypony’s attention. She shook her head, cream-soda mane bobbing with the movement. “Forbidden mountains, huh? Can’t be any worse than the ones we’ve already been to.”

        Novell grinned at her despite his worries. “Yeah, I guess you’re right about that.”


        They spent the rest of the evening going over the logistics of travelling toward the aerie, including gathering food and gear that they would need on the way and inside the mountain. Quills directed everypony with a refined grace, sending the Professor and Whisper out to buy the supplies they would need, while working with her brother and Pensive to set up a few ideas and leads Scrolls could follow when they left. Kalyn was not idle, either, locking himself into his laboratory and creating something he only described as ‘something that would help.’

        With little else to do, Novell pored over the map of the Griffon Kingdoms. From what he could figure out with the foreign letters and markings, the aerie they were going to was little more than an hour or two away by flight. Valleys, lakes, and high mountains littered the intervening space, all of which would have made hiking to the aerie stretch into a week long venture.

        Names such as Featherbeak Lake and Two Talon Mountain stood out to him, scrawled with the Professor’s magical writing in Equestrian alphabet. The former was a body of water near the latter, which had been the mountain’s name before it had been scheduled to be hollowed out and made an aerie. The pegasus idly wondered what it would have served as had it been completed.

        Their host returned to the living room only once that night, showing them where they would be sleeping. His apartment was only three rooms, with a loft above the main room serving as the griffon’s quarters. Kalyn offered the twins and Whisper that room, claiming his workshop had an extra pallet he could sleep in whenever he was deep into his inventions.

        “Are you sure it's fine to take your room?” Quills asked politely, though Novell knew she was only going through the motions. The subtle way her face blanked and her eyes crinkled gave her away.

        Kalyn paused at the door, goggles covering his eyes. “Yup, it’ll be fine. Besides, I’m not done with my work down here and I’ll probably wake up early to finish it in the morning.”

        “Thank you,” the filly said simply, gathering Whisper and her brother to usher them upstairs.

        “Well, I suppose we should also be getting to bed. Early morning tomorrow, new adventure to be had,” the Professor said after a time. The unicorn tucked his notebook away somewhere behind him, but the pegasus was too tired to investigate. As soon as he settled in on the rug near the fire, his eyes closed and he was fast asleep.


        All of them woke to Kalyn and the Professor’s urging, the ponies groggily coming to terms with not being able to tell how much time had passed inside the mountain. They gathered their things and left the house, leaving Scrolls with a heartfelt goodbye and a wish of luck. Their griffon companion carried a weird contraption slung across his leonine back, leather and rings of iron swinging back and forth as he instructed the earth pony to remember to lock the doors.

        Quills and her brother shared a moment together next, quietly talking to one another in the doorway while the rest of the group slowly roused themselves from the last clutches of dreamland. Novell watched the two out of the corner of his eye, once again feeling sympathy for both of them. Even so, both of the twins looked relatively cheerful.

        Only a few citizens of the Invention Aerie were out and about in the city, which further reinforced Novell’s opinion that they should still be in bed for the next several hours. Still, despite his tiredness, a surge of excitement was working its way through him. Being out of the mountain was one thing, but he was looking forward to the flight more, even if he had to carry one of his companions.

        The party swiftly entered the large, main entrance to the Invention Aerie, a few caravans beginning to make their way in and out of the city. The further they went, the brighter it became in the cavernous tunnel, crystals illuminated with a golden light increasing in frequency. Quills helpfully explained the phenomenon, saying it was a means to prepare for everypony who was leaving or entering the mountain by steadily adjusting their eyesight. That way, she had said, nopony would be stumbling around blinded by the darkness of the inner city or the brightness of the sun outside.

        Eventually, they reached the end of the tunnel, the sun searing their eyes despite the adjusting crystals. It hung directly in front of them, enfolded on both sides by mountains and clouds that began to evaporate with the light of Celestia. It seemed as if the edges of the clouds were becoming undone, constantly churning into invisibility as it parted from the body.

        Despite the hour, vendors were already shouting at the caravans moving in and out of the mountain. It was almost like the market in Canterlot, though much smaller as a result of the space the wide, rocky ledge provided. The pegasus was mildly surprised that there would be places to shop even outside of the Aerie, but it made a certain amount of sense. It was a last minute stop to pick up supplies on the way out and a good place to buy a meal before setting forth into the mountain proper.

Novell yawned, inhaling the thin mountain air with a rush of giddy amusement. The wind was blowing against his coat, ruffling his feathers and threading its way through his brown mane. This was where he was loved to be, high in the air with the bottomless sky above him and the ground far below.

They walked to the edge of the cliff, Novell curiously investigating the winding trail that lead from the valley below to the Invention Aerie’s doorway. A few balloons were anchored next to similar platforms of jutting rock, figures milling about around them, but none as big as the zepplin they had rode in on. Even with its size, however, the pegasus couldn’t spot the Southern Belle, its form hidden behind the massive mountain that housed the city behind them.

He regretfully tore himself away from the sight and returned to his companions, watching as Kalyn heaved the device he had brought with him off of his back. It clattered to the stone, separating into three pieces with the griffon’s quick manipulation of straps and hooks. The pegasus stared at the items, one large piece of double-bonded leather with three leather straps dangling from the sides, two on each edge and one crossing the middle.

“What are those?” Quills asked suspiciously, nudging one of the iron hoops at the end of a trap with her hoof.

Kalyn looked up from his ministrations with his beak curved up in a smile. “These are a way to carry you and the other two flightless ponies.”

The filly’s eyes narrowed to slits at that, looking none too happy. “What do you mean?”

The griffon’s smile descended into a sly smirk and he held up one of the doubled leather rectangles. “This goes around your waist, similar to the way a saddle goes on your back. It’s made of two pieces of leather sewn together with heavy duty twine, so it’s very sturdy.” He held up one of the leather strips next. “Then, we can wrap these three straps around your body, all ending in a loop with a piece of metal to go through the holes I cut into the leather earlier. It’s like a belt, you understand. After that, we hook a rope in this large loop of iron here,” he poked the hoop with a claw, “and tow you around. Safer and easier than carrying you in our arms.”

        Quills glared at the griffon for several seconds. Finally, she spoke, “Why can’t we just get a chariot and have the pegasi pull it?”

        Kalyn held up a claw and opened his mouth to speak, but stopped and looked away as he realized his error. “I...I worked all night on these...”

        “Now, now, my boy, it’s perfectly fine. Your idea was sound,” Professor Search assuaged. “Would you happen to know where we may find a chariot? I confess I forgot about them until now. Failing that, perhaps one of the smaller balloons over there?”

        The deflated griffon followed the unicorn’s hoof to the vehicles bobbing gently in the wind. “I can rent one... I guess.”

        “You definitely should, my boy. You definitely should.”


        Kalyn negotiated a price quickly, demonstrating haggling skills that even Quills admitted she admired. Regardless of his monetary victory, the griffon was in a sour mood, reluctantly guiding the balloon inside the basket with Quills, the Professor, and Pensive. Whisper and Novell flew beside them, delighting in the joys of flying despite the slow pace of the balloon.

        The white pegasus dipped below the rest of his friends, marveling at the clouds whisking by below him, sending their shadows rippling across the mountainous landscape beneath. Small lakes and rivers shined brightly, standing out amidst the green trees and gray, snow covered rocks.

        Trails sinuously snaked their way across fjords and forests, over hills and beside lakes, caravans from every land journeying the well-traveled routes. A few of those below glanced up at them, but otherwise paid them no heed. Novell arched a brow at that. If we saw a balloon in Hoofington, ponies would be staring into the sky with wonder. It’s strange that such a sight could be so common here.

        Despite the balloon’s wallowing pace, they made good time once the Professor asked Whisper to delegate the air currents to push them along. Novell flew beside her, helping as best he could with his own wing power. Every pegasus could control the weather, to an extent, but the mare put him to shame with her mastery over the breeze.

        He watched the orange pegasus out of the corner of his eye, noticing the slight movements she made with the tips of her feathers. It was almost unconscious for her, or so it seemed to him from her bored expression. Swirley was resting contentedly atop Whisper’s bobbing mane, staring out at the world with that half-lidded stare, uncaring where he went and trusting his owner completely.

        Novell tried to mimic her motions, but he did little more than annoy her with his errant gusts, smoothing his attempts out with a contemptible flick of her wings.

        “You’re not very good at this,” Whisper said after they had been flying for an hour.

        The white pegasus sighed in exasperation as he sent yet another eddy into the wind that jostled the balloon. “Wind was never my forte, in case you hadn’t noticed back in Hoofington. That’s why I never joined you and the other pegasi moving the larger clouds.”

        “I know that, but your dad’s the weather coordinator for the whole town. The captain of the sky, reflexes like lightning, and an eagle eye,” she described his father almost reverently. “You had to have gotten something from him.”

        Novell scowled. “I take more after my mother than my father.”

        Whisper rolled her eyes. “At least she can shape a cloud, even if she gets blown away with the smallest gust.” She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “Sometimes I wonder if you’re even really a pegasus.”

        “Hey, who learned to fly first?” he shot back heatedly, buffeting her with a burst of wind. “That was me, remember? And even when you learned, you just kept crashing into trees.”

        “I was practicing advanced techniques!” the mare objected, flicking her wings and sending him into an involuntary barrel roll.

        Novell snorted and sent a stream of air from below, forcing Whisper upward and ruffling her feathers uncomfortably. “Advanced techniques on how to break a wing? Likely story.”

        Anger glittered in her eyes, Swirley’s shell shifting into a ruddy red color, and that’s when he realized his mistake. Before he could stammer out an apology, a heavy weight pressed onto his back, forcing him to flap harder. Then, before he could recover from that, two opposing currents of air hit him from the sides, spinning him in a tight circle.

        The pegasus panicked, trying desperately to control his sudden spin, and plummeted. Air rushed past him and suddenly the world around him turned white. Novell flapped his wings, not knowing which way was up or down in the miasma of what he assumed was a cloud. But why am I still falling? It should have at least slowed me down!

        Well, well, well, what have we here? A little pony, far from home. Come to accept my offer, perhaps? a familiar voice whispered in his mind. Novell’s eyes grew wide, no longer feeling the sensation of falling. He glanced around frantically, trying to pinpoint the source of the taunting.

        “What’s going on?”

        A chuckling laughter echoed around him. Oh, oh, you amuse me, pegasus, as ever. Panic, flap your wings! You’re still falling after all!

Novell found himself doing just that, the air whipping his mane and tail around as the world reappeared. The ground was close, uncomfortably close. Before he could become little more than a stain, the pegasus flared opened his wings and fell into a glide. He slowed enough to begin to flap again, the very tips of the trees teasing his hooves, and looked around.


Nothing but the rustle of the trees returned in response. The pegasus shivered as a chill creeped up his back, like twin icicles walking up his spine. He twisted around in mid-air, seeing only a phoenix staring back at him from a branch. It cocked its head and let out a coo.

“I don’t suppose you’ve seen a draconequus around, little guy?” Novell murmured, holding up a hoof to wipe away some sweat. It was shaking. He took a breath, realizing his entire body was shivering uncontrollably, his heart beating hard in his chest like it was about to explode. The pegasus closed his eyes and alighted on a nearby branch, his wings splayed out to keep his balance, and worked to slow his racing pulse. What is this? Why am I barely able to move?


        “Waaaah!” Novell cried out, nearly falling away from the sudden noise in his ear. With a quick flick of his wings, he regained his balance, this time laying down on the branch instead of standing. He looked toward the direction the sound had come from with his breath coming in short gasps.

        Sitting on the branch was a small, baby phoenix staring quizzically at him. It cocked its head at him, similar to how the- the parent! He swung his head back to where he had last seen the other firebird, a bit of trepidation coursing through him. While he couldn’t feel the heat a phoenix made, it would still affect his body like any fire would.

        The other one was still where it had been, casually picking at something underneath its wing. Novell breathed a sigh of relief. Dealing with a burn when he needed to be at his best wouldn’t be conducive to a successful mission.

        “You don’t care that I’m right next to your baby, huh?” he asked the bird. It paused in its actions and stared up at him with its yellow eyes. “Well, I’m glad you decided not to come after me right now. I don’t know that I could defend myself or even fly away.”


        The pegasus looked down to see the chick nuzzling him. Remarkably, there was no burning from contact with the fiery feathers. Novell grinned involuntarily at the action, feeling the cold fear being driven away by the phoenix’s warm embrace.

        Gingerly, he reached down to stroke the chick with one of his wings. He noticed the parent staring at him now, but there was no animosity there - just an interest in his actions. The pegasus wondered how intelligent the phoenix was, because as far as he knew, they were just birds.

        “Most birds are usually protective of their young, not letting anypony near them,” he confided aloud. “But you’re just sitting there and watching, aren’t you?”

        The phoenix opened its beak and let out a soft coo, the orange crest on its head bobbing slightly. He stared back at it, wondering if it actually understood what he was saying. Suddenly, it flapped its wings, sending sparks shooting down into the underbrush, and looked upwards.

        “Noooooooovell!” Whisper’s voice rang out through the forest. “Nooooovell! Where are you?”

        Novell reluctantly looked down at the chick and gave it another stroke. “I guess I better get back to my friends. Thanks for the support, little guy.” He glanced at the other phoenix. “And thanks for letting him.”

        It winked at him.

“Did you just-?” the pegasus asked, then stopped and smiled. “Thank you.”

Making sure the chick was far enough away that his downdraft wouldn’t send it tumbling, the pegasus lifted off to rejoin his friend.


Novell and his friends made good time after the little accident, Whisper uncharacteristically apologetic. The pegasus had shrugged it off, delving into his thoughts as they moved toward their destination. A lot of things bothered him, not the least of which was Havoc’s telepathic taunting. Then there was how the mare had reacted to his admittedly poor choice of words.

Normally he wouldn’t expect anything less than a slightly harder shove than the ones they had exchanged before the incident, but the deep anger that he’d seen in the mare’s eyes was something new. He wondered if that was Havoc’s fault, too, affecting the minds of his friends like his own back on the draconequus’ mountain. The other possibility was decidedly worse, though - that she was resentful toward him because it had been his fault she’d lost her wing.

True, she had waved his guilt and concerns away when he had found her alive again, but what if that had just been an act? He glanced at the mare out of the corner of his eye, noting her bored, zoned-out expression and Swirley’s natural orange shell color. The two seemed fine now, at least.

Eventually they arrived at the aerie, the two pegasi gently shepherding the balloon toward the sinister looking mountain. It was vastly different from the green and white-clad Invention Aerie’s soft peak, jutting out from the earth like a black talon, twin peaks clawing at the heavens. A valley surrounded it on all sides, dark green foliage covering the ground except for a thin strip of brown immediately at the aerie’s base. Novell shivered, unpleasantly reminded of the Everfree.

“Bring us down further, everypony!” Professor Search called out. “The only entrance is at the foot of the mountain!”

Novell obediently added his wingpower to Whisper’s while Kalyn decreased the amount of flame holding the balloon aloft. Moments later, they touched down in a clearing in front of the forbidden aerie’s threshold, runes etched into the stone around the tunnel’s mouth.

The white pegasus glided to the dirt, his hooves leaving imprints in the light brown soil. He glanced around and tucked his wings in to his sides, staring with a morbid fascination at the darker brown ring stretching around the mountain and out of sight.

Behind him, the rest of the party disembarked from the balloon or landed like he had, each walking up beside him. He looked at them and noticed Quills wasn’t among their number. The pegasus craned his neck to see the earth pony being noisily sick at the forest’s edge.

“Poor filly,” Kalyn observed. “Never seen someone become that ill just from riding a balloon.”

Novell sighed sympathetically. “She gets motion sickness easily. Even riding a train does that to her.”

“I might know some herbs that could help her recover,” Kalyn offered as the filly began wobbly walking toward them, her face a subtle green.

“Please... anything,” Quills said weakly, “anything to get rid of... this. I would do it. Even kiss... a minotaur.”

Professor Search chuckled while the griffon flew off to collect the herbs. “Well, I suppose we do know one, should that ever be the cure.”

The earth pony stared through tired eyes at the unicorn. “I’m... going to... pound you.”

“I’ll do it for you,” Whisper said cheerily, slugging the Professor in the arm with a hoof. Novell winced, knowing how hard the mare could hit, but the old unicorn just rubbed his shoulder and snickered.

“I suppose I deserved that.”

Quills’ mouth twitched, a grin creeping into the edges. “You did, Professor.”

Kalyn returned with a cluster of green tubers and plants clutched to his feathery chest, seeming a little flustered. “Here. Eat one of these.”

The filly accepted the offering gratefully, biting into the tuber and making a face while she did so. “These are disgustingly bitter.”

The griffon clacked his beak and whistled humorously. “It’s supposed to be that way. If it were good, it wouldn’t be helpful.”

“Okay, so we’re here,” Novell pronounced, watching Pensive study the ground near the entrance. “What now?”

“Well, we could go in now, once we get the balloon tied off and battened down,” Kalyn said. “I’ve never hunted around this aerie, but I’m sure it’d be better to go inside before it gets dark. Lots of things aside from Griffons prowl the forests in the Kingdoms, including the Hippogryphs. I don’t fancy trying my claws against one; especially not during the night.”

With that hanging over their heads and the sun still high in the sky, the party went to work. Novell and Whisper flew up and guided the balloon itself as it deflated, supervised by Kalyn, who was most familiar with the mode of transportation. Quills watched from nearby, still feeling shaky from the long hours in the air while Pensive and the Professor lent their magic to keeping the basket steady. Once the task of stowing their ride away and hiding it underneath the brush, Kalyn and the ponies stood together at the rune-inscribed passageway.

“What does it say?” Whisper asked.

“‘Seek not to disturb the Twin Talons’,” the Professor intoned at the same time Kalyn did. The unicorn grinned at his old friend. “Bit of a dire warning there, but griffons have always been a bit grandiose when it comes to their places of history.”

The griffon bowed in recognition of the jab. “At least our towns and cities aren’t terrible puns.”

“Well, I’m going in,” Whisper said suddenly, striding forward with a purposeful trot. Swirley glanced back at them with his eyestalks and blinked before staring ahead again.

Novell followed the impetuous mare before she could disappear into the darkness, the sound of hooves and claws following him. As soon as he entered, a musty aroma hit him, echoes already beginning to play havoc with his hearing.

“Whisper, come back here! Let the Professor go first,” the pegasus said as caught up to the mare. “We need to...”

He trailed off as they entered a large cavern bathed in a cool glow of phosphorous green light. Directly above them were hundreds of tiny, glowing forms hanging from the ceiling, looking all the world like stars in a midnight sky. Novell glanced at his foalhood friend and felt his breath rush away.

Her eyes were glowing in the soft illumination, a look of wonder on her face he hadn’t seen since she had first learned to fly. Whisper’s feathers glistened as she opened them, stirring the cavern with a small gust that caused the lights to slightly sway.

“Ah, glowworms. I never ceased to be amazed by the beauty of the world, even in a foreboding place like this. Life finds a way, I suppose,” the Professor broke Novell out of his trance. “ Come along now, everypony, off we go.”

        Novell shook his head slightly, sneaking another glance at the orange mare as Kalyn passed by between them. A jab in his side drew his attention away and down to his attacker.

        “C’mon, lovercolt, let’s keep moving,” Quills whispered in his ear.

        The pegasus felt himself turn red, hoping the mare hadn’t heard that. He glanced back at her, watching as she followed the Professor further into the mountain’s depths. A sigh came from his side, followed by a snort as the earth pony continued on, shaking her head.

        He moved to follow her, hanging his head to hide his embarrassment when he felt a questioning probe in his mind. “Pensive?”

        “I am confused, Novell,” the unicorn started, coming up beside him.

        “Uh, a-about what?” the white pony asked nervously, hoping his friend wasn’t monitoring his thoughts at that moment.

        Pensive looked at him. “I cannot help but listen and feel what you do, Novell, but that is not what I am confused about. It is something... else.”

        Novell blinked, his embarrassment forgotten at the unicorn’s tone. “What’s wrong?” The teal pony looked away momentarily, as if hesitant to say anything. He prodded further, curious now. “Did something happen?”

        “Yes. No. Both.”

        “What do you mean both?” Novell asked gently.

        Pensive glanced back at him with an aggrieved look. “It involves the Elder... and Kalyn. There are... things that are not right.” When the pegasus said nothing, the unicorn went on. “The Elder has an... aura around him that is not his own. It is small, but I have noticed it since you found your mate alive and well.”

        “M-mate?” the pegasus sputtered. “You mean Whisper? We’re not mates! We’re not even... we’re just friends! She’s like a sister to me.”

        “I can read your thoughts, Novell,” Pensive replied matter of fact.

        The pegasus sighed, giving up. “What do you mean an aura? Is it dangerous?”


“Not dangerous.” The unicorn shook his head, then paused and considered. “Well, I do not know why I say that, but I know it is of no harm to us. It is simply a difference between most things we see. A ghost, almost a thought... like me,” he said the last in a small voice.

        That caught Novell’s attention. “You mean another of Havoc’s... slaves?”

        Pensive looked away, frustration a discordant tone in Novell’s mind. “No, not like that. It is... confusing. Suffice it to say, it feels like a memory of something close to me that I am within reach of, but cannot hold. Like-,” the unicorn looked at the pegasus out of the corner of his eyes before looking away again.

        “Like what?”

        The unicorn coughed. “It is just confusing.”

        Sensing his friend was avoiding the subject, Novell gracefully changed the subject. “Okay, what about Kalyn?”

        “Ah, this one is even more confusing to me,” Pensive said, his horn lighting up. Novell felt a tug on his saddlebags and looked back just as the unicorn pulled a feather out of it. The pegasus opened his mouth to ask how that had gotten in there when his friend continued, “I found this feather at the entrance of the mountain.”

        Novell stared at the levitating object, wondering what was so mysterious about it. “A griffon feather. It probably just fell from Kalyn while we were outside. Their feathers shed, just like mine do, and-”

        “This feather is not Kalyn’s,” the unicorn interrupted gravely.

        The pegasus furrowed his brows. “What do you mean it’s not his?”

        “Kalyn’s feathers are brown. This feather is white.”

        “But that would mean that another griffon has been here, recently,” Novell said slowly. “So either he lied or he doesn’t know some other griffon is here.”

        Pensive frowned. “I believe he does know. When I picked this feather up, I noticed more near the edge of the forest where he picked the herbs for Quills. He hid them in a bush.”

        “He hid them?”

        The unicorn nodded fervently and began walking toward the rest of the group. “Yes, but that is not all. I also spotted smaller, black feathers in the same area. I was not able to collect one of them, but they were much smaller than either a full grown pegasus’ or griffon’s.”

        Novell followed his friend, puzzling it out in his head. “So... maybe it was a griffon and its chick? Or it was hunting?”

        “The Elder said that griffon chicks are not let out of the Nesting Aerie,” Pensive replied with a shake of his head. “Regardless, I do not believe that a griffon would let a chick near a mountain that is forbidden to visit.”

        The pegasus sighed and walked around a stalagmite that thrust up from the floor, water dripping onto it with an echoing plip. “Why would Kalyn lie? He’s been nothing but helpful since we came to the Kingdoms and he’s the Professor’s friend.”

        “I do not know, Novell, which is why I am confused. I do not wish to doubt the word of the Elder that this griffon may be trusted, but your safety and that of the ponies we travel with is paramount in my mind,” the unicorn said, scraping his hoof against the stone as they ascended stair-like rock formations.

        “I don’t think he wants to do us harm, Pensive,” Novell said slowly, wincing and flicking his ear as a drop of water hit him. “He’s too...”

        “Naive?” the teal pony offered.

        The pegasus glanced at his friend sidelong. “I was going to say open, but that works, too. Not that we can really talk.”

        “I have learned a lot since joining you, Novell,” Pensive replied quietly, almost a whisper. Even so, it echoed in the confined space, the tunnel no longer as tall as it had been. “I am no longer as naive as you seem to still believe.”

        “What do you mea-,” the pegasus began to ask, stopping at the top of the stairs, when a scream issued from the direction the others had gone and  interrupted him mid-sentence. “What was that?”

        Novell turned away from the teal unicorn, hearing hoofbeats behind him as the two raced through the narrow passageway. The scream came again, a sharp shriek, one that reminded the pegasus of the ones he’d heard in the mist just before meeting Rell. A Hippogryph? Inside the mountain?

        His heart thudded in his chest at the possibility, not sure if he was ready to face something like that. He narrowed his eyes, thinking as swiftly as he broke into a gallop, wishing he could take wing and get to his friends quicker. The Hippogryph will be at a disadvantage here in the tunnels, he thought, already beginning to formulate a strategy. It can’t fly, but it still has claws longer than a griffon’s, based on what the Professor told me last night. Even so, it won’t be used to fighting in such close quarters. Maybe we can stop it with magic before it causes any dama-

        A shriek so loud it elicited a wince from him echoed all around, the short tunnel having opened up without him noticing. Instead of the narrow corridors, he found himself in a cavernous space, larger than the one with the glowworms in it before - much larger. Darkness enshrouded the inside of the unfinished aerie, aside from a point of light to his left where the others were and the glow of Pensive’s magical effect around his immediate area.

        He wasted no more time in awe at the large space, saving it for later as he opened his wings and soared forward, leaving the reassuring circle of illumination. He aimed his body upward, hoping he wasn’t about to hit anything. As he flew, he caught the faintest whiff of mouldering wood below him. Wood? In a mountain? He shook his head. Nevermind, not important now.

Another wail pierced the cavern, directly ahead where the light of the Professor’s horn lit up a small sphere of wooden planks.  A second later, he was among his friends, dropping with a loud thunk to the wooden scaffolding, ready to fight.

Instead of the vicious beast he had expected to find, however, there was a small puff of black and raven-colored feathers. He drew back from it as it opened its mouth, the wailing cry emitting full in his face. The stench of meat washed over him and he felt a hoof on his shoulder.

“Stay back, boy,” the Professor hissed, “we’re at fault here. Where there’s a Hippogryph youth, there are more. Back away, slowly.”

“The mother should have answered it by now, shouldn’t it have?” Whisper asked worriedly from the side, thankfully unharmed.

Kalyn glanced around nervously. “It doesn’t matter. We should leave, right now. Go back the way we came. We can explore later.”

Novell froze, understanding washing over him as he stared at the griffon. The feathers, the griffon’s actions when he had found them, the secrets. He did know what was going on here and he was trying to hide that fact. He just hadn’t expected to run into the chick here. The Hippogryph shrieked again, though less loudly now, as if it were calming down.

“Kalyn,” the pegasus uttered, staring at the Professor’s old friend. “You know the other griffon here, don’t you?”

“What?” the brown-feathered griffon replied, his eyes flashing with surprise. “Wha- what other griffon?”

        Novell frowned, noticing Professor Search staring at him strangely. “Pensive found a griffon feather, but it wasn’t yours. This one was white.”

        “Lad, I-,” the old unicorn began, his own eyes flashing guiltily.

        The pegasus stared over at his friend now. “Wait, you... knew?”

        “I guessed,” the Professor corrected, gesturing at the griffon. “But I trust Kalyn not to lead us to harm. He was careful, but I’ve known him since he was just a youth, so I understood that he was hiding something, if not what exactly it was.”

        Another cry, this time much muffled.


        “What’s the secret, Kalyn? Why is there a Hippogryph chick here, in this mountain?” Novell asked, feeling the slightest bit betrayed by the Professor’s withholding of information. Lying is necessary, sometimes, to protect, the old unicorn’s voice came to him from the past.

        “I trust the Professor’s word,” Pensive said as he trotted up into the field of light, expanding it as the two magics fed on each other. “We do not need to ask. Trust is part of friendship, Novell.”

        Before any of them could reply, a blur of white entered the lit area, flashing toward the unicorns. Pensive and the Professor doubled over, their magic dousing itself and leaving them in darkness. Novell heard Whisper grunt to his right before a rush of air hit him from that direction.

        A surprised squawk came from their assailant at the unexpected resistance, followed by the renewed screeching of the Hippogryph further ahead. The pegasus stood stock still, fear paralyzing him. There was something out in the darkness, maybe the mother, and he couldn’t even see anything.

Before he could shake himself out of his paralysis, something gripped his throat and raised him from the ground. Claws scratched his neck, leaving painful pinpricks as they began to contract.

        “Stop!” Kalyn called out. The grip slackened just a bit. “Rell! Stop! It’s me!”

        “Kalyn? What are you doing here? And why are these ponies with you?” the familiar voice of their griffon guide asked incredulously.

        The light returned as the Professor recovered, a rapidly swelling bruise appearing just below his horn. Novell fell to the wooden deck as the white-feathered griffon dropped him, backing up and glancing between all of them.

        Kalyn’s beak fell into a frown, his tone placating. “We’re here to find a friend of a friend. I didn’t mean to bring them to the nest-,”

        The griffon cut off as Rell speared him with her gaze. “You gave your word that you wouldn’t tell.”

        “I didn’t betray anyone!” Kalyn said frustratedly. “I didn’t expect you to have moved so close to the entrance of the aerie! That’s stupid, even if this place is taboo to explore.”

        Rell looked away uncomfortably at the last. “I had to teach Rez to hunt.”

        “Can somepony please tell me what’s going on?” Whisper growled, her wings open in preparation for another blast of wind. “Are we fighting or what?”

        The female griffon started to speak when a small, black shape entered the sphere of light. The Hippogryph stared suspiciously at them, huddling close to Rell. Instantly the griffon’s face softened, one claw stroking the chick behind its feathery ears.

        Now that Novell had a chance to examine the chick, he realized it was larger than he had originally thought. Black feathers with a blue tint covered most of its body, aside from the legs and the back half of its body. The pair of legs in the front were claws reminiscent of a birds, while the back two ended in hooves. Novell’s eyes widened, remembering Captain Skycrasher’s description. Body of a stag, head and wings of a bird. The description was an apt one, he noticed. A long, sharp beak unlike a griffon’s short, curved one extended from its face and wings similar to Novell’s own were tucked to its sides, large on the Hippogryph’s young form.

        But the most interesting feature was the two nubs of premature antlers protruding from the top of its skull. Hippogryphs could use magic just like a unicorn could, though at a lesser effectiveness, thanks to the antlers. Even now, Novell could see they were glowing faintly as they reacted with the unicorn’s weir light.

        “We’re not fighting,” Kalyn said, matching glares with Rell when she was about to say otherwise. “We’re not fighting, because they can be trusted to keep your secret just as I did.”

        The white griffon’s eyes glittered dangerously. “I could stop them from ever talking. No one would miss them here in the mountain.”

        Kalyn moved in between the ponies and Rell. “I won’t let you. You’d have to draw your claws on me, too, and I know you wouldn’t kill a nestmate. Not you.”

        Novell held his breath, watching the stand off between the two griffons. The ghostly grip of a paw around his throat caused him to gulp involuntarily. This was dangerous in so many more ways than he thought their rescue could get. The tense moment continued for several minutes interrupted only by slight warblings from the Hippogryph.

        Finally, Rell relaxed, though she still carried a wary look in her eye. “They’re here for a friend? There’s nothing in this mountain except me and Rez. I checked.”

        “But you don’t know everything about this Aerie, Rell,” Kalyn replied, his tail no longer swishing in agitation. “The Professor here has studied the old maps. He knows about the inner quarter.”

        “It’s impossible to get into,” the other griffon growled, drawing the Hippogryph tighter to her.

        Kalyn shook his head. “No, you just need to know the trick to get in, something we griffons don’t even have.”

        “And these ponies do?” Rell sneered.

        “Indeed, Lady Rell.” Professor Search nodded with an easy smile. “It just takes a bit of magic.”

Chapter 16: Tombfeather

        The doorway was large, even moreso than the entrance that led into the unfinished Aerie. It looked ancient, much older than the rest of the mountain’s ruins with its weathered stone chipped and pitted from the picks of builders, treasure hunters, and thrill seekers alike. Strange markings adorned the sides of it, the doors themselves carved in the likeness of what vaguely seemed to be a winged animal. Privately, Novell was unsettled by how similar most of the shapes were to a Hippogryph.

    Muttering drew the pegasus’ attention away from the strange archway, his eyes alighting on the source of the noise. Professor Search had been laying in front of the doorway with his tattered notebook floating beside him for the past few hours, glancing between the two objects every so often before making another scribble.

    Novell wearily rubbed his eyes, staring up at the low ceiling of the corridor they had entered in search of the ‘inner aerie’. Rell had compliantly led them to it after extracting a promise from each of them not to speak a word of her ward. That the griffon was willingly bringing up an enemy of her people was shocking, but at the same time it was heartwarming. Her behavior had to mean not all griffons wanted war, nor the amount Kalyn’s little sister seemed to believe. At least, that’s what I’m hoping.

    Shaking the thoughts away, Novell let his eyes drop to the two griffons talking quietly to one another near the entrance to the Aerie’s proper. Kalyn had immediately pulled his nestmate aside, arguing quietly with her. The hippogryph youngling, however, was curiously roaming back and forth down the hall, inspecting the walls and watching the rest of Novell’s party from afar with its curious eyes.

        “It’s looking at you again,” Quills whispered from beside him.

        The pegasus nodded, giving the hippogryph a small smile. It- he, Novell corrected himself, gave a tiny squawk and glanced away, retreating toward his surrogate mother. Novell’s grin widened at that, remembering how shy he himself had been when he had been just a foal.

        “What are you thinking?” the filly asked quietly, the fifth time she had repeated the question.

    Novell glanced at Quills out of the corner of his eye, wondering if this was how she expressed her boredom. “Just remembering how I used to be. That little hippogryph seems like any other youngling I’ve met.”


    “Except it’s going to grow up to be something even griffons dread.”

        The pegasus stretched his wings out, flapping them gently to feel the air between his pinions. “I think you know that’s not true. Rell’s a warrior, sure, but she seems to love Rez. That has to have an effect on how he’ll grow up.”

    Quills sighed. “I don’t know if it’s true or not. There have been some documented cases in the past that detail the way one is raised to be the most important factor in how any animal or being grows up to be. But it’s not always true. Nature takes its own course.”

        “But life finds a way,” Novell mused. “You told me before that the hippogryphs were intelligent, right?”

    “Actually, I think Skycrasher told you that,” the filly corrected, “but yes, that is a fact. They can speak and reason, but they are little more than savages compared to a griffon or a pony.”

    Novell nodded absently at that. “Has no one tried to raise a hippogryph before?”

    Quills hesitated, the far off look of her rummaging around through her photographic memory returning. “No attempt has been documented.”

        “Why not?”

    “Hippogryphs would never let an outsider take their eggs. They guard them fiercely and any that are stolen are quickly brought back by whatever means necessary,” the filly replied. “Some say that there’s magic involved, that hippogryphs can sense an egg or a youngling for an unprecedented distance. Still, no exact measurement has been recorded, so it can’t be confirmed.”

        “So why is this one different?” Novell muttered to himself, puzzling out the problem in his head. He was supposed to have an eye for potential, to see how things worked. But I don’t see anything when I look at this hippogryph chick. What were the possibilities here? Why could he not see them?

        Those thoughts bothered him more than any difficulties they could face trying to rescue Quills’ mother. They were doubts, chipping slowly away at the certainty that he had finally found his place in life. As always, it reminded him of Havoc’s offer above the mountain prison. To have everything you ever want, to see all the things that can be seen, and to know it is all at the wave of a hoof...

            Novell gritted his teeth and expelled the thoughts from his mind. There was no use thinking about such things. He wasn’t about to let himself become a pawn for Havoc just because he felt a few anxieties. After a moment of peace, though, he could feel the doubts worming their way back in, balefully chipping away at his determination.

        A cool, familiar feeling resonated in his mind then, cutting away his worries with detached precision. The pegasus sent Pensive a grateful glance, but the unicorn was paying him no physical attention. Instead, he was looking up at the snail on his head with an air of bemusement. Whisper was curled up close by, having fallen into a boredom-induced slumber.

Novell crinkled his eyes together, the burning sensation he had been feeling only increasing as he blinked. Sleep was sounding ever more enticing the more he sat there and waited for the Professor to finish...whatever it was he was doing. Guess I better check on him to make sure he’s not being distracted by something, Novell thought with a yawn.

            Sighing, the pegasus stood up and hopped to the floor from the rock platform he had been laying on with Quills. His wings flared open, steadying him as he stumbled on numb legs, circulation slowly returning. Ruefully glad Whisper wasn’t there to comment on his graceless landing, the pegasus walked toward the old unicorn.

    “Professor?” Novell asked.

        The unicorn ignored him, muttering incessantly as he peered at the strange runes. Frowning, Novell strode closer, ever bemused at the singular interest the Professor took to his work. The moment his hoof touched the cool, onyx floor, a glint of light caught his eye from the left. His step faltered as he realized what he was seeing, a sense of familiarity rushing through him.

As if it had always been there, another pony was sitting next to the unicorn, staring intently at the door and quietly responding to the Professor’s muttered words. Its voice was like a windchime in the cold winter air, dulcet tones pleasing to his ears. Strands of the pony’s mane blew in some kind of invisible wind, whisping away at the edges as if a cloud in morning sunlight. A silver outline with a nearly transparent coat gleamed in directionless light, the softness reminding him of a full moon uncluttered by the lights of a town.


Along with the sights came a slight chiming hum and a feeling of memories being unlocked in his mind. The promise he had made flitted through his head, the pegasus now totally aware to whom it had been made. Novell gasped.


Just like that, the spell was broken. The chime fell into a discordant note, both of the ponies turning to stare at him; one was the ageless gaze of a timeless being and the other an old stare filled with memories of a long life. He felt small under their combined attention, pinned in place. Then the former faded away into mist, Novell’s memories likewise slipping away from him.


The pegasus stood in place, frowning, glancing at the Professor’s left side. What am I looking for?


“Novell,” the unicorn said, his joints creaking as he regained his hooves. “Was there something you need, my boy?”


Still staring at the spot, the young pony’s frown deepened. “Just wondering if you were almost done...”


Professor Search glanced at his right, following the pegasus’ gaze. “Something wrong?”


“No,” Novell said after a moment, dismissing the strange feeling and meeting the unicorn’s gaze with a strange sense of discomfort. “Have you found a way inside?”


The Professor brightened up at that, nodding and gesturing toward the doorway. “I have! In point of fact, I figured out the way to open it hours ago. I have just been studying the runes on the side of the door to make sure it can be opened safely. Old ruins such as these have a ghastly amount of traps, you know.”


Novell had just been about to object, but he stopped himself at those last words. “That would probably be nice, not having something exploding when we open the door.”


“What’s this about exploding?” Kalyn asked, suddenly right beside the pegasus.


“Wah!” Novell shouted, his wings opening up instinctively as he jumped a foot in the air. When he landed, he glared up at the tinker. “Don’t do that!”


Kalyn managed to look apologetic. “Sorry about that. Force of habit in places I’m not familiar with. Helps with hunting.”


Professor Search cleared his throat, drawing their attention. “Yes, yes, igniting ourselves so early into this endeavour would be rather regrettable. Therefore, as I was saying, I have been studying the runes and found the key to opening the doorway without triggering anything. I have also learned that this door has been opened at least twice in the last ten years.”


“How could you possibly know that?” Quills wondered aloud, joining them.


A look of guilt passed over the unicorn’s face, but was quickly hidden. “Because the runes tell the story of the entrance. Its creation, its use, its list of traps - even how many times it has been opened.” The Professor pointed at one of the markings on the right side of the door. “See here, for instance. This one is newer than the others, less pitted and marred. It’s a date - a recent one.”


“You said it’s been opened twice lately?” Novell repeated curiously. “What did you mean by that? Your friend was one, but how long ago was the other?”


Nodding, Professor Search moved his hoof up to the marking above the bottom one. “This one, here, is another date. I believe it is the one that lists my...friend’s entrance.”


“How recent is the last one?” Quills asked pointedly, squinting at the rune in question. “Wait, that’s an old pony glyph. One from...”


After she trailed off, Novell spoke up with a feeling of dread, “From what?”


“From when,” the Professor corrected gravely. “It’s from the time before the two Princesses ruled Equestria. It took me longer to understand than the other ones, because it was so old, despite being the most recent. Judging from how the magic works, the language used to mark your passage is one from which you know most intimately. For Amber’s, it was the language she studied most intently - Ancient Camelic. But for this one, the being who passed through the door had to be either an expert on the language, or is ancient enough to have used it themselves.”


Novell drew in a sharp breath, though not at the last mystery. His attention was on Quills, whose face had just become even paler than a sheet of parchment. The filly stood stock still, her eyes glazed over and her mouth hanging open in realization. Then her eyes moved, a rage blazing inside of her that the pegasus could feel from where he was directed at Professor Search.


“Your friend...” Quills whispered waveringly, vibrating with anger. “Your friend?”


The old unicorn froze, his face draining of color as he became aware of his slip. “My dear, I...”

        The filly gritted her teeth, spitting the researcher with the force of her glare. “Your friend is named Amber? As in Amber Fossil?” Her voice only continued to increase in volume, catching the attention of the rest of the party. “You’re telling me that the pony we’re trying to save,” Quills thundered, taking a threatening step forward and prompting the Professor to move backward defensively. “The pony you are keeping so secret,” Search’s flank bumped into the nearest wall, but his head was forced to continue as Quills got within centimeters of his face, “is my mother?”

        Whisper finally woke up at the last, gazing blearily at the scene while Pensive transferred the snail to her head with a flick of magic. The unicorn moved to stop the fight, but Novell shook his head.

        “I trusted you!” the filly’s voice continued full blast, causing Search to flinch, before lowering once more, her anger seemingly subsiding. “I...trusted you, finally.” Her gaze averted from his, and she backed off. “I thought Novell was right, that maybe you weren’t to blame for...for my mom.” She stopped talking and glanced at the floor, her bottom lip trembling.

            Professor Search started to speak, “Quills, I-.”

        “Shut up! Shut up! Just... shut up,” the filly said the last in a whisper before glancing up at the old unicorn with cold determination. “We’re going to save my mother. You’re not going to speak to her. You’re not going to say a thing to her. Then we’re going to leave. Me, Scrolls, and my mom. We’re going to go back to Canterlot and you’re going to stay away from her forever.”

        The following silence in the room was as dead as the aerie’s empty halls. Finally, the Professor nodded, his face stone. “I understand. I’ll not speak to her again.”

            Quills gritted her teeth again, her brow furrowed with scorn. Novell could tell she was fighting another outburst, but she just sighed instead. “Just open the door and let’s get on with this.”

            “You’re going to have to trust me for the rest of the way,” the unicorn said matter of factly.

        The filly glanced up at him, weariness out of place with her age plain in her eyes. “I’ll trust you with my life until we find my mom, because I have to and I know you want to rescue her as much as I do. But you’ll not have my friendship.”

        The Professor seemed at a loss for a moment. Novell felt his own heart break at her words, but the unicorn just steeled himself and nodded. “Those terms are acceptable, then. I’ll open the door.”

           Novell and the rest remained quiet as the unicorn walked around Quills and stopped in front of the entrance. Closing his eyes, the old pony’s horn began to glow, softly at first and then with increasing luminosity. After a few moments, tiny sparks flared to life at the base of the Professor’s horn, popping out like tiny shooting stars before winking out when they left the field of magical energy.

        A grinding sound came from the door, the markings and carvings on the massive threshold glowing, casting the assembled party in an eerie green light. The etched forms of hippogryphs seemed to come to life with the light, moving and squirming as if trying to break free from their prison of stone. Novell’s stomach turned at that, wondering not for the first time who had really built this place - this tomb in the heart of a broken mountain.

        With a rumbling reluctance, a seam appeared in the middle of the doorway, the two massive sheets of rock scraping the floor on their way open. A few seconds later, the slabs were gone, seemingly devoured by the doorway’s frame. A rush of air passed them by, carrying with it the mustiness of a place forgotten. A small part of the pegasus sparked to life at the smell, curiosity blooming in his mind at the possibilities of what they’d find inside.

        He clamped down on his excitement, tempering it with the remembrance that although there might be heretofore unseen wonders hidden within, there were also traps and pitfalls to keep ponies like him from finding them. Not to mention the fact that we’re here for Quills’ mom, not treasures, Novell thought with a glance at the filly.

“Follow me, step where I step and be careful,” the Professor cautioned, moving forward into the darkness with nothing but his horn to light the way.

The rest of them followed him in single file, looking nervously around as they entered. Another light, this one teal, sprang up from behind them as Pensive brought up the rear. Their hoofsteps echoed loudly in the enclosed space, the rasping click of claws joining them from their avian companions. Novell looked backward, surprised to see Rell and Rez continuing with them. The pale griffon stared back at him challengingly, her eyes saying what her beak did not - I’m staying with you until we find what you’re looking for.

        Novell grimaced, but acquiesced silently to Rell’s choice, even though he was more concerned for the young Hippogryph than any threat the griffon made. Judging from the way the Professor had warned them to follow him exactly, any deviation had the potential to be fatal. Chicks weren’t known for following orders well or stifling their curiosity. He sure hadn’t been that way when he was a foal.

        “The door will close in a few seconds. Do not be alarmed,” Professor Search said, just as the sound of grinding stone echoed toward them. “It can be opened the same way from the inside.”

        Rell was the first to ask the obvious. “And if you don’t make it back with the rest of us?”

        The unicorn looked back at the griffon. “Pensive knows the spell now that he’s seen it. If worst comes to worst, well, there were never any guarantees.”

        “Oh, wonderful,” Whisper grumbled, the first she’d spoken since waking up. “I’ve always wanted to be trapped in a mountain.”

Novell waited for somepony to send a sarcastic comment back at the mare’s words, but none came. The atmosphere in the party was cold, trust and warmth between the members small with the argument that had preceded their entrance. The pegasus held back an exasperated sigh - all the work that had gone into forming bonds was weakening.

        They continued on, the blank walls adorned every few meters with sconces that had once held a cheerful flame but now only clutched at the darkness they had been in for centuries. Novell shuddered at the thought of being trapped inside the mountain for those many years, nothing but spiders and cobwebs to keep him company. He noticed Whisper and the two griffons react the same way, their wings bunching up with nervous energy. Rez, however, just followed at his adopted mother’s heels, unaware of the danger or troubled by dark thoughts. Novell envied him.

        The griffon caught him staring at her adopted son, but instead of glaring at him like before, she spoke with a curious tone. “Pegasus?”

        “My name’s Novell,” the pegasus supplied cautiously, starting to feel a little queasy in the tomb’s dank air.

    “Novell, then,” Rell repeated. “Why do you not have a mark like the other ponies I have met? It is...curious.”

        He smiled humorlessly. “Curious, huh? That’s probably the nicest thing anypony’s ever said about me when they found out I don’t have a cutie mark.”

        “Then it is rare for ponies?”

            Novell shook his head, glancing down at the stone floor and noticing the designs inlaid there. “Rare’s an understatement. I’m the only pony I’ve met who hasn’t had one as an adult. But in a way, I believe the blankness is my mark - potential to do anything, to ‘see and shape’ as somepony told me once.” The pegasus frowned and furrowed his brow. “Though I can’t remember who told me that.”

        “Your talent is everything?” Rell asked skeptically, the click of her claws sending shivers down Novell’s back. “That seems either wishful thinking or the height of arrogance to me, but then I do not understand how you ponies work. We griffons know our place through the wisdom of our Matriarch, rather than the magic that illuminates your path.”

            “Poetic, for a warrior,” the pegasus returned, her words eating at him.  “I don’t think I’m arrogant. At least, I’ve never thought I was better than anypony else. Usually I just imagine I’m less than anypony.”

            Novell heard the griffon click her beak together. “Wishful thinking then.”

            Before he could open his mouth in retort, the pegasus ran into Kalyn, almost knocking off the griffon’s pack. “Err, sorry.”


        “Do you feel that?” Kalyn asked, causing the Professor to stop and turn around curiously. “Something’s watching us.”

          “Something? I don’t feel anything,” Whisper’s voice called from the back of the line.

  Novell glanced backward at Rell and gave her a questioning look. The griffon nodded and growled deep in her throat, grabbing her son and placing him on her back. “Kalyn’s right. Call it hunter’s instinct.”

        The pegasus rustled his wings uncomfortably, peering at his surroundings with a hint of nervousness. He didn’t feel anything – but then, he also wasn’t a hunter like the griffons were. Suddenly, he felt the urge to spread his wings and dash away as fast as possible. Novell quashed the impulse with difficulty.

    “Well, there’s nothing to do but go on,” Quills ventured. “Let’s keep mo-.”

    Before she could finish, something black wrapped around her hoof and pulled the filly unsteadily forward. Kalyn reacted first, leaping forward to slice at the thing holding onto Quill’s leg with a claw and severing it. A second later, more rope-like cords shot out to grab the griffon, latching on to a wing and paw.

    “Kalyn!” Rell roared, leaping forward as the tentacles began to draw her clutchmate into the darkness. Whisper ran forward to help, sending a quick burst of wind in the direction the cords were coming from while Pensive sliced at one reaching toward the mare. A great hiss erupted from the darkness, mixing with the pained roars from its would-be captive.

        “Get off of me!” the tinker gritted out as he rolled and struggled against the shades. Rell finally caught up to her friend, slicing with quick precision and freeing the suddenly weak griffon from his entrapment. Whisper flexed her wings again, pushing back against the sudden mass of snake-like forms long enough for Rell to half-drag, half carry Kalyn back to the rest of the party.

    “Everypony, inside the light!” Professor Search called urgently to the two ponies covering the retreat. “Pensive, shield spell!”

        “As you command, Elder.” A pale blue aura of magic came from the younger unicorn, forming a bubble that surrounded all of them in its protective envelope. Immediately, the cords began to lash at the semi circle of magic, snapping like a whip with each strike. Then the Professor’s light grew brighter, momentarily driving back both the gloom and the hissing shades.

    Novell huddled near the two griffons, staring out at the deadly shadows with Rez tucked between his forehooves. “What are they?”

    “Nightvines,” the Professor supplied ominously. “They frequent tombs and graves, feeding on the bodies of both dead and living. Draws out your life force. It is another species of the magivascular plants - one of the deadliest kind. They’ll stay at the edge of the light, though, at least for awhile. They hate it.”

        “If they’re plants, why are they moving like that?” Whisper asked, her voice strained. “Plants are supposed to stay in one place. Not grab you and drag you away.”

        “Some vines move,” Novell argued. “Why do you think they creep up fences and houses?”

        “I don’t know. I never thought about plants,” she spat. “They’re supposed to just be food.”

        “I wouldn’t suggest trying to eat these,” Kalyn put in with a wince. “You’re bound to end up on the other side of the hunt. My wing’s gone numb and I can’t feel my claw either.” He shifted his focus to the earth pony he’d saved. “You okay, Quills?”

    “F-fine. I’m fine,” the filly snapped, her eyes wide and body shuddering. “Scrolls...”

    Suddenly the shield collapsed around them, the hissing growing louder. Before any of them could react, the brilliant teal field lit back up. One of the swifter Nightvines was severed as it attempted to grab at them, the twitching end falling to the ground in front of Novell and eliciting a small scream from Quills. He stamped on it without thinking, instantly feeling a cold pull on his hoof. The pegasus sprang back with a cry, into Rell’s waiting claws.

    “Thanks,” Novell muttered, shuddering as he stared at the twitching vine. A second later it disappeared into a black smoke with one last hiss. “Pensive?”

    “Concentrating is...difficult,” the teal unicorn replied with difficulty. “But I have it now.”

        A small warbling cry came from behind Novell and he craned his neck to look back. He saw the hippogryph chick suddenly on Rell’s leonine back, clutching tightly to the griffon with sharp claws. Novell grimaced and said, “Don’t worry, little guy. They won’t get you.”

        Rez looked up at him with wide eyes, light from the shield and the Professor’s horn reflecting the curiosity there. “Scared.”

    “ can talk?” Quills asked hysterically, still shaking uncontrollably.

        “Yes, he can talk,” Rell muttered angrily at the filly while keeping her eyes on the Nightvines. “All hippogryphs have the ability. They just prefer to speak in their own tongue.”

    Quills glared at the griffon, redirecting her fear. “I know that. I meant, it- he’s a chick. I just didn’t expect him to be able to speak yet.”

        “Not that important right now,” Whisper broke in over another blast of wind. “We’re kind of being attacked by plants that want to eat us. Argue later. Run now.”

        “But then... you will... miss... the shortcut,” a slow, labored voice called from the darkness, bringing everypony to a halt before they could even move.

    Novell stared down the corridor where the Nightvines were coming from, the tendrils of shadow suddenly subdued and no longer lashing about furiously. Slowly, a shape materialized out of the darkness, the click of claws against stone loud in the sudden silence. A whitewashed claw stepped into the light, followed by a large, straight beak pitted with worm-ridden holes. Twin pinpricks of green light stared out at them, a barely constrained hunger visible in their depths.

        The body stepped further into the light, dragging a ragged cloth behind it that looked like the remains of a burial shroud. Ghastly smoke the color of its eyes poured out of the beak with each slow breath. Bone shone white where skin should have been, a miasma of unnatural magic shining from the rib cage and along the rune-carved set of antlers towering above its head. One of the Nightvines twisted sinuously around one set, weaving in and out of the may prongs with an easy familarity.

    Warning growls from the two griffons beside him rumbled on the edge of hearing, their instincts kicking in with the new shape stopping just before the shield. The monstrous ghoul lowered its head until its beak was almost touching the field of energy, its green eyes swiveling in its sockets like two jade crystals as it took them all in. One of its claws absently petted the tendril curled on its head.

        “Good morrow, little... ponies,” the skeletal hippogryph grated out with a touch of morbid humor. “Or... is it still dark? One can... never tell under... the... mountain. Troublesome the... the ways time moves... within the stone and... and rock.”

        “What are you?” Quills asked brusquely, coming within a millimeter of the shield separating them from the ghoul and staring right into its ghostly orbs. Novell was once more amazed at how the filly seemed to break through her fears with an iron hoof, this time coming literally face to face with one of them.

        The monstrous form drew back its head until the antlers on its skull scraped against the ceiling, sending a shower of thousand year old dust falling about its decrepit form. A deep, rolling chuckle interrupted by wheezes and coughs echoed queerly in the small space, keeping in time with the exhalations of noxious smoke. “I? I... am Tombfeather. And you... my fiery little... pony?”

        “I didn’t ask who you were. I asked what you are,” the filly snarled in reply, a faint trembling in her legs betraying how frightened she actually was.

    Tombfeather clicked his beak and exhaled another batch of green miasma, which dissipated when it touched the shield. “Apologies... little one. It is often... difficult... to hear or see after death, such... such as it is.” He paused, turning his head to the side so it could focus its one green eye at the filly. “I was a... shaman... in life. A Hippogryph... before being... being interred here. As I was... in life a guide, so too am... am I one in that which... comes after.”

        “A draugr, then?” Professor Search piped up, his formally neutral tone holding some interest in it now.

        The skeleton swiveled his eye toward the unicorn. “I do not... know that word. Suffice to say... I am here as you are. Might I ask... why you disturb my race’s... rest? Especially with these... griffons.”

        “They are... guides, too, of a sort,” the Professor said placatingly. “We needed someone familiar with the Aerie to help us find our way around.”

    Again, that bone-chilling chuckle resounded through the hallway, the Nightvines’ hissing growing in volume before settling down once more. “No... griffon has been down... has been down here before. Magic is... required to... to open the way in. The eggbreakers... do not have such things.”

        “We are not eggbreakers!” Rell cried out fiercely, causing the Nightvines to momentarily thrash in an agitated frenzy.


        “Is that... so?” Tombfeather glared at the griffon through the shield, tapping the field with one ghostly claw. A few of the tendrils coiled about the leg hissed from the contact, shying away into the dark recesses of the ghoul’s body. “A trade was... made. A pact... was broken. So the griffons... became eggbreakers. You cannot... deny this. It is... written in the bones of these... halls!”

        With a stomp belying the slowness of his speech, the ghoul twisted around and nodded his head toward the wall, antlers touching old stone. Sickly green magic began at the base of the hippogryph’s skull, travelling up the bony projections with a faint glow. Suddenly the wall seemed to pulse with the same haunting illumination, rivers of phosphorus light flowing into the cracks and pits Novell had noticed before in the walls.

        Then he realized the lines were too defined to be natural, creating shapes and figures enticingly familiar to the pegasus. He recalled the door on the way in, remembering how the carvings seemed to almost breath and move in their stone prison, forming the memories of times long forgotten by all but the earth. These forms were one and the same, remnants of a master crafter’s depictions of hippogryphs, griffons, and even dragons.

        The last surprised the pegasus more than the other two, the mystic smoke taking the shapes and causing them to move, twisting and roaring with phosphorous fire spewing from their gullets. Mountains were swarmed by thousands of the draconic shapes, carved out and used as little more than treasure hoards. Griffons and hippogryphs fought against them in their ghostly forms, falling to talons and crushing jaws.

    Echoes of the battle rumbled through Novell’s mind as he watched the events play out in front of him, all thought of his immediate danger leaving his mind. Fire guttered and burned the forests that spanned the valleys between the frosty peaks along with their residents. Wooden villages built into the very trees and swamps crackled in the heat, hippogryphs roaring in rage as they returned to find their homes nothing but ash.

        Their eyes lifted skyward, where the many shapes of leonine griffons swarmed the massive bulk of a dragon, scores falling to the earth and dragging the reptile from the air. Storms and lightning speared through the wings and bodies of dragons both large and small, directed with purpose by the antlered shapes flitting about.

        Then the scene fell away, the steady hiss of the Nightvines all that remained of the roaring of dragons and screams of rage. Novell took a deep breath, suddenly finding himself light headed.

        “You see? You see!” Tombfeather growled. “We fought... beside them. Trusted the griffons! Formed... a pact! Traded our eggs as faith! Yet that, too, was broken!”

        Again the ghoul touched his antlers to the stone, banging and cracking one of the prongs in his furious haste. Once more the sinister magic darted into the shapes, filling the stone with its astral projections. This time, the scene shifted more rapidly.

        Two ovals Novell recognized as eggs were held outstretched by both races, lightning diving between them and causing the scene to disappear with a flash. The next images came swiftly - more fighting, time passing, the tender peace holding. The dragons were sent back through combined efforts, martial strength and magical might working together.

    Shadows appeared between the claw and the antler, the faint echo of gleeful laughter following one of the eggs, grasping it, and crushing it with a sickening squish. Rage flew through the images, green light flashing red, griffon and hippogryph raking at each other with their claws while the dragons brooded from their mountaintops.

        The images disappeared with a slice of a claw through the smoke, Tombfeather’s features glowing ominously in its place. “Eggbreakers! Traitors! You let them in, you let them-”


        The cry of the hippogryph hatchling cut through the tension like a knife, silencing even the omnipresent hissing. Tombfeather froze in place, his claw hanging above the shield, poised to strike. Kalyn and Rell had already darted forward to ward away the attack, Quills suddenly behind the two predators. But the sound of Rez’ voice brought everything to a standstill.

    Novell’s heart caught in his throat as he glanced at the living hippogryph shivering in the center of the bubble, Whisper holding one wing over him in protection. Pensive and the Professor were both concentrating on their respective spells, their eyes squeezed shut.

    “A... hippogryph... youngling,” Tombfeather’s resonant voice whispered in awe. “With two griffons? Has the world... so changed since I last... was alive? My kind would not... allow one to be... taken from its... mother.”

        “I am his mother,” Rell snarled. “You will not harm him, beast.”

        The ghoul drew back in surprise, the hissing returning. “You? Why would I... no, no... this is... but what else... could it be?” Tombfeather clicked his beak together and turned around, muttering to himself. “I must... prepare. This sense... it is time. Of course... it is time. So she said.”

    “Wait! Where are you going?” Whisper called out after the hippogryph disappointedly. “I thought we were about to fight!”

        The monster didn’t answer as it disappeared into the gloom, the tendrils of the Nightvines remaining where they were. Novell watched them for a few moments, wondering if and when they would attack again. Deciding it was better to not find out, he turned to the others.

        “We should follow him and get away from these... plants while we can.”

        Rell whirled around in surprise, raising a claw to hug her adopted son when he ran toward her. “Are you crazy? Follow a hi-,” she paused, glancing down at her son. “A dead thing? That’s madness.”

        “I agree with her, Blankie. Following it seems like a dumb thing to do,” Whisper said seriously. “And that’s coming from me.”

    “Well, there’s no sense sitting here and arguing while we wait for the Nightvines to attack us again!” Novell argued. “Besides, Tombfeather said he was a guide. Maybe he knows where Amber is!”

    Quills cleared her throat. “We don’t have much of a choice aside from going forward anyway. We need to find my mom. After that, you can go on your little ghost hunt.”

“I agree. Amber Fossil has been imprisoned for far too long due to my foolishness,” Professor Search said sadly, his voice strained with effort and loss.


“Off we go then,” the filly grunted, turning and marching after the hippogryph.


Novell stared after her for a moment before exchanging a glance with the Professor. The pegasus gave his friend a weak smile. “Off we go, then.”



    “Pensive, light. I’ll take the shield!” Professor Search yelled over the din of the battle taking place around them. A moment later, the soft glow of white light tinged teal with the younger unicorn’s own aura of magic, the bubble around the group evaporating before instantly being replaced by a grey bulwark.

    Novell ran beside his friends, his heart thudding in his chest and his breaths coming in gasps.  At least I’m not in any danger of wearing out, the pegasus thought, jumping over a piece of masonry with a quick flap of his wings and remembering how unfit he had been at the start of the journey.

        A cold touch on the top of his head caused him to jerk away, almost stumbling into the wall. It was a touch he was unfortunately becoming gradually familiar with, his life being sucked greedily by the pursuing Nightvines. Ever since they had decided to follow after Tombfeather the plants had grown increasingly bold and powerful. A few strands had even managed to penetrate Pensive’s field before the Professor had taken over.

    Novell couldn’t spare a glance for his friend, instead sending a burst of confidence in the unicorn’s ability through his mind. A brief acknowledgement came back, but it was nothing more than that. All of the teal unicorn’s concentration was in keeping up the magical light. Thankfully, the magical tradeoff seemed to be working so far, because the pegasus couldn’t hear any of the uncomfortably close hissing in his ear.

    Unfortunately, there were other problems to worry about.

        “I think... I just stepped on something,” Whisper yelled after sending another burst of scattering wind into the enemies behind them. The Nightvines dissipated with a screeching hiss, but would soon re-coalesce and return as they had before.

        “Like wha- whoa,” Kalyn began before being interrupted by a barrage of darts passing directly above his feathered head. One even ripped through the griffon’s blackened feather tips, plucking two of them with its speed and disappearing into the opposite wall. Novell noticed this just before slamming into the tinker’s flank, unable to stop himself in time. The Professor and Pensive stopped with them, both of their faces showing extreme strain from their spells.

    “Nopony move,” Novell said, following his own advice as he examined the floor. With the Professor indisposed, the pegasus had to be the one to find the pitfalls and traps. His eyes darted across the floor, stopping on every suspicious stone and carved relief set in them. Nothing stood out for the moment, but he traveled to the front of the group, careful to keep his body within the shield and light. “We need to move slower.”

        “We can’t move slower!” Rell rumbled, Rez clutching tightly to her neck and staring fearfully into the gloom. “These dark shades will break open this shield if we don’t outrun them.”

    Quills groaned at that. “Where is that ghoul, anyway? Whenever he was here, the Nightvines stopped attacking.”

        “I told you we shouldn’t have followed it!” Rell replied sharply.

    “Blaming each other isn’t going to help anyone,” Novell said, stepping in between the two. “Whisper, how are you holding up?”

        The orange pegasus turned from her sentry position at the back of the group, her wings unfolded and ready to send another blast of wind. “Okay, for now. The wind is easy to move down here where there’re no conflicting currents. But I can’t run and scatter them at the same time. If we move slower...”

        “No, we have to keep moving quickly,” the white-feathered griffon replied with a stamp of her clawed foot. “The ones in front and at our sides will still attack us if we-.”

    “Quiet!” Kalyn hissed, holding up a claw. “Do you hear that?”

    Novell strained his ears, flicking them back and forth but nothing came to him. “I don’t hear anything.”

        The male griffon turned in the direction they were moving toward. “Something’s coming from up ahead and the Nightvines haven’t returned. Why would they disappear when we’re so weak?”

    “Havoc!” Pensive said suddenly, sweat dripping down his suddenly furious face. “I can sense him!”

        Fear shot through Novell’s breast at that, his body beginning to tremble as he stared ahead. The sound of hoof and clawsteps were beginning to echo down the passageway, far heavier than any pony’s would be. A darkly sinister voice cropped up, the words lost in the distance but the tone laced with familiar impatience.

        “What are we going to do?” Novell whispered, his mind furiously working to find a way out of the situation. His eyes combed the walls for any kind of switch or secret passageway they could hide behind, anything to defeat Havoc with. But there was nothing.

    “Pensive, turn out the light,” Professor Search commanded in a low tone. The younger unicorn glanced askance at the grey-maned pony, but complied regardless. With the magical light gone, nothing but the soft glow of the Professor’s shield lit their immediate area. To Novell, it felt like the darkness was eagerly closing in, ready to snatch him up as his old fears returned.

        Then even the shield disappeared, trapping them in the darkness. Immediately, Rez began to keen a sharp wail, only to be gently shushed by his adopted mother. Novell was petrified, unable to move, his eyes moving this way and that as Havoc’s voice grew clearer and louder. He didn’t want to be anywhere near the draconequus, near those sinister promises he could barely resist.

        “What are you doing?” Quills hissed out of the darkness. “The Nightvines-!”

        “Will not assault us while Havoc remains in our vicinity, just as the ghoul’s presence calmed them. Chaos and evil renders them insensate,” the Professor replied sharply.

    Quills huffed. “How could you possibly know that?”

    “Because of her,” Professor Search whispered, a soft silver light beginning to coalesce in the middle of their group.

    Again, memories rushed into the pegasus’ mind as he saw the translucent pony, its form almost fragile. A sense of resignation emanated from the shape, along with a final determination that caused Novell’s heart to simultaneously ache and thud in awe. The snow pony’s eyes traveled across their group, lingering slightly on Pensive’s face with a timeless sadness.

        Be still and quiet, brave ones, a feminine voice lilted inside their minds like wind through the reeds. I shall safeguard your presence from That-Which-Binds.

        A feeling of lightness touched Novell, a sensation similar to what he felt when he was flying high above the land. His spirit rose and his worries receded, a sense of peace radiating through him. He couldn’t move but at the same time he knew there was no reason to. His eyes stared into the soft glow of the snow pony’s aura, only tangentially aware that his friends were disappearing from sight, cloaked in concealing magic.

        Then the light disappeared, the shape of the pony in front of him unraveling until it evaporated like mist in the morning sun. Loss swirled through Novell’s mind, the echoes of Pensive’s feelings, but the pegasus did not react. He barely even breathed as Havoc’s voice became clear. A soft, green light accompanied it, illuminating the corridor and revealing itself to be their wayward guide.

        “I do not see them, Tombfeather,” the draconequus muttered gravely. “Are you distracting me, by chance? Letting them have the opportunity to find what they came for and escape?”

        “I would... never... dare,” the ghoul replied with a tinge of fear in his tone. “They followed me... like you... asked.”

        Havoc snorted impatiently. “Yet they are not here. Why did you not stay to lead them to me? They could have turned back and left!”

        “They search... for something I... do not believe... they would leave without… finding the inner… chamber.”

        The two entities stopped in front of Novell, Havoc suddenly turning and grabbing the skeletal hippogryph by the beak with his obsidian claws. With a twist, the draconequus slammed the ghoul into the wall near where the pegasus had last seen Kalyn, a crack of what sounded like wood echoing in the hall.

“I did not ask you what you believed,” Havoc started ominously, pinning the ghoul against the cracked stone. “I asked you to bring them here, weakened and weary from the Nightvines. While I may not have my full power yet, I still have enough to render you little more than a meal for the plants you look after. What do you suppose they would do to if they saw you lying before them so helplessly? Devour you quickly or take their time over the next millennia?”

    “I... apologize...”

        Havoc barked out a laugh and let go of the hippogryph, turning back toward his original course. “Save your apologies for the Nightvines, ‘Tombfeather’. I’m sure they’d listen well as they feed on your moldy corpse. Return to the inner chamber. Wait for them there. When they arrive, lead them into a trap. I have more important endeavours to chase after than to deal with an errant thought and its new ‘friends’.”

        “What of... the unmarked... pegasus?” Tombfeather asked, much more subdued than before.

        “As useful as he could be to me, I do not need him,” the draconequus replied with a dismissive wave of a hand, examining the runes inlaid in the stones. “If he can outsmart you and find his way out of the tomb, I’ll pay more attention. But until then, do your best to destroy him. It’ll do him good to have someone after his life. It did for me.”

        The ghoul bowed low, one of the antlers broken from the impact with the wall. “As you...  command.”

        Havoc snorted satisfactorily. “I do so love hearing that. Now... back to deal with that blasted shaman.”

        The draconequus’ form shifted and blurred then, teal magic enshrouding his body like a cloak. Little more than a moment later, a pair of magnificent antlers appeared, followed by dark claws and grey armor covering a stag-like body. A pair of decorations hung from each antler, made of feathers and bits of bone. The magic retreated into the false hippogryph’s eyes, floating there like the green orbs that Tombfeather used to see.

    “Magnificent... as ever,” the ghoul complimented his master in awe.

        Havoc glanced back at the other in his new body and examined a black claw with disgust. “This uniformity is repulsive. I do not know how you mortal races deal with one matching shape. There’s no... art to it.”

        “As you... say,” Tombfeather replied. “We are beneath... your majesty.”

    “Compliments do not lengthen what you now call life, you old bag of bones. Results do,” the living ‘hippogryph’ said darkly. “And remember my little promise. I always keep them.”

        With that, the two separated and headed off in opposite directions - Havoc to the entrance and Tombfeather to the end of the supposed ‘shortcut’. Eventually the sinister light fell away, leaving Novell in darkness once more. Having nothing more to do but think, and with his fear locked away by the snow pony’s spell, the pegasus began coming up with a plan to thwart whatever machinations Tombfeather could entrap them in.

    Eventually, the paralyzing peace of mind receded from Novell’s body, leaving him shaking and weak in the darkness. His breath came in slow gasps, the rasp of his friends’ breathing all around him reassuring despite everything. After a few moments, he leveraged himself to his hooves, mindful of the Nightvines returning at any moment.

        “Professor?” he whispered.

        In answer, a light appeared, though it was teal rather than the gray. “He is fine. As are we, thanks in part to... my sister.”

    Novell glanced around at the rest of the group instead of replying, his eyes automatically falling on Whisper. The mare was pushing herself up from the ground with both wings, one foreleg still bent and her teeth gritted from the effort. The others were in similar conditions, only Pensive able to stand up tall.

        “What do you mean, ‘sister’?” Quills asked the teal unicorn with a grunt as she heaved herself up to her hooves. “Aren’t you just a thought?” The young pony blushed. "I, uh, I mean, you're more than just a thought, but- I'm going to stop talking."

    Pensive glanced over at her and nodded, sending their shadows dancing. “Yes and no, but that’s not important right now since you will not remember. Professor, if you can manage the shield.”

        “Yes, yes... one moment... my boy,” Professor Search replied through ragged breaths. “It’s difficult... to recover from magic... of that magnitude for an old pony.. like myself. In fact, it rather reminds me... of this one time I was exploring some ancient ruins quite similar to the ones we’re-.”

    “Professor,” Pensive repeated, more urgently. The hissing of Nightvines was beginning to slither through the darkness.

        A gray field popped up around their party. “Right, the shield. Apologies.”

        “Just in time, too,” Rell said, clutching Rez to her chest. “Our friends are back.”

        The Professor winced as one of the Nightvines struck against the shield and bounced off, rejoining the rest of the tendrils thrashing irritably at the edge of the light. “We need to hurry if we’re going to make it out of here alive. Whisper, my dear, if you please?”

        The orange pegasus grunted and planted all four hooves solidly on the ground. Her wings snapped open, Swirley retreating into his shell on top of her mane, and the mare snorted challengingly. “Alright, everypony hang on. This should clear them out for at least five minutes.”

    Novell made sure his wings were tucked in securely to his sides, the memory of the mountaintop where he’d first met the Professor bouncing into his mind despite the situation. He’d been in danger then, too, and his own stupidity had almost got them both killed, even if it had worked out in the end.

    Whisper snapped her wings forward with a heavy grunt. For a moment, nothing happened. The Nightvines continued to hiss and sporadically strike against the shield while the party braced against what was coming. Then Novell felt the current, his innate pegasus instincts telling him to hunker down. He complied, gritting his teeth, as the wave of air hit them.

        Sound was totally blocked out by the screaming rush of the whirlwind whistling through the small passageway. Through slitted eyes, Novell watched the Nightvines completely disappear, his tail and mane slapping sharply against his head and body. He felt himself sliding to the side from the sheer force of the wind.

        A few moments later, it passed, Whisper gasping loud in the silence from the display of power. Novell opened his eyes and glanced around, his ears twitching this way and that to pick up any sound of the Nightvines. When nothing came, the pegasus relaxed.

            “Alright, let’s keep moving. We need to find Quills’ mom and get out before Tombfeather finds us,” Novell said, taking charge while the moment offered him the chance. “You all heard him back there - he’s working for Havoc and he’s a powerful hippogryph. Kalyn, you seem to have the sharpest eye, you lead us forward.”

        The griffon raked a claw through the air and ruffled his wings. “I can do that.”

    Novell turned to Whisper. “You keep doing what you’ve been doing. If you need to stop to send them flying, let us know. When we get to Amber, I’m going to need you to hold off any Nightvines we find. I kind of have a bad feeling that the root is exactly where we’re heading.”

        “That would be just our luck,” the orange pegasus replied sarcastically. “But I’ll do what I can. I think I have an awesome idea, too.”

            “Rell, I’ll need you to-.”

        “Why would I take orders from you, pony?” the female griffon interrupted rudely. “So far, all you’ve done is cower in the corner while we’ve done all the work.”

           Novell bit his tongue, holding back a scathing reply. Diplomacy was called for here, not anger and harsh words. “You don’t have to take orders from me. You can do anything you want, even try and find a way out by yourself. But two things are stopping that from happening - your son and the magic required to exit this tomb. So the party’s safety, specifically that of Pensive and the Professor’s is the utmost priority, wouldn’t you say?” When she didn’t reply, he continued. “Besides, I was just going to ask you to keep Tombfeather busy if he decides to attack. Fighting is something you’re good at, from everything I’ve seen and heard about you.”

        Rell narrowed her eyes at him before glancing over at Rez. “Fine, pony. I’ll take your orders, but only for my son’s sake.”

            “Thank you,” Novell replied with a nod, his ear picking up the faintest sound of hissing. “Now, let’s move. I’ll let everypony else know what they need to do while we walk. Kalyn, lead the way.”


        With the keen eyed tinker in the front, they made good time through the halls, often skirting past one or more vicious traps in the same area. As Novell thought, the griffon’s analytical mind was more than up to the task of finding the best places and triggers for the variety of traps they encountered, which left the pegasus free to think about what lay ahead.


        Dart shooters, pitfalls, and even a ceiling covered with a paralyzing agent similar to that of a Dazey were all disarmed from a safe distance through quick uses of magic by either the Professor or Pensive, who had been trading off between keeping the shield up and lighting the way.


        Even with their swift pace and relative safety from traps, the constant threat of the Nightvines was swiftly tiring not only the shields, but the party’s stamina. Every time one of the tendrils found its way through the mystic field, it whipped across a leg or a claw with brutal effect.

        “Are we... almost there?” Whisper grunted between ragged breaths, having been on the brunt of the life siphoning attacks. Swirley, thankfully, had been able to protect her from the worst of it, his shell acting as a lightning rod for the magic-infused plants. Strangely, though, he didn’t seem to be growing as large as he had when he ingested the magic that saved Whisper on the mountainside when Novell had thought he’d lost her.

            Novell nodded tiredly to himself, speaking out loud when he realized the mare wouldn’t be able to see it. “I see... light ahead. Just hold it together a little longer.”

        Up ahead, the ever pervasive gloom of the halls’ twists and turns lit up with an eerie green glow. Wary, but relieved to see some kind of light after all the darkness, Novell followed Kalyn down the last stretch.

        Soon enough, they entered a large cavern, one that seemed impossible to fit inside the Aerie they’d entered from. Then the pegasus recalled how far they’d traveled down the old tomb’s tunnels, ignoring the side branches in favor of the main hallway. It had been miles down in the cold dark, time passing by without evidence of its presence. We could be in a whole different mountain, Novell thought suddenly, surprised by the revelation. Not only had the abandoned Aerie been hollowed out, but a second one in secret had been as well.


          Kalyn’s voice halted their forward pace, Novell carefully attentive as he had been the last few hours. When he glanced around the griffon to see the reason they had stopped, his heart leapt in his throat. The massive space was even larger than he had originally pictured, a sudden drop off leading into an unknown darkness below.

            Whisper came up beside him, kicking a loose stone into the pit. There was no sound of it hitting the ground. “Pretty far down.”

            “Aren’t you supposed to be guarding the rear?” Novell blurted out, confused and disoriented by the size of the place. The mare raised an eyebrow at him, which was a far cry from how she would have reacted not so long ago in Hoofington. “I mean, what about the Nightvines?”

        She shrugged, her hair bobbing slightly. “They stopped coming a few minutes before we got in here. Wherever here is.”

            Novell looked back to see she was right. Pensive, who was holding the shield up at the back of the group, opened his eyes with a seemingly titanic effort. “May I... release my hold on the shield?”

            “Would you be able to bring it back up if the vines come back?” the white pegasus asked, reluctant to lose any protection. Still, both unicorns were beginning to flag and they eventually needed to return the way they’d come, not to mention deal with anything Tombfeather cooked up.

        The unicorn nodded an affirmative and Novell waved a hoof in assent. The field of teal energy fell from around them, a coldness filling the pegasus’ heart as he stared at the darkness. He shook it off, appraising the rest of his companions.

            Quills was laying on the ground, catching her breath. As he watched, the earth pony shifted her winter saddle, revealing a red mark underneath. Working quickly and without even wincing, the filly pulled out a bandage roll and attempted to tie it around her. When she failed, she just twisted around and tried again with a determined look on her face.

            Novell was just about to help when a teal glow took hold of the bandage and neatly wrapped it over the cut. Quills managed to look surprised, her gaze lingering on Pensive’s for a few moments before she nodding. “Thanks.”