Amber Rose had no presentiment of her future—not this time—although her life and that of countless others was to depend powerfully on this day.
She walked right through the center of the gate into the Great Hall of the Library of Canterlot, the filly seemingly lost like a red and lightly yellow mote of dust against a firmament lined with thousands of books. She was not lost.
Stained-glass windows that reached all the way to the ceiling bathed the rows of innumerable shelves and cabinets in iridescent light. The colors played on her coat, her blank flank, and her mane, seemingly setting it ablaze when she passed under one of the ruby rays. It was a colorful spectacle that, despite its light, would strike her years later as a portent of her darkest hours. She turned left and headed straight for the librarian at the reception desk.
The main vessel of the library stretched into a distance at least twice the length of the main square in Ponyville. Even though it was narrower than the square, it yet held rows upon rows of richly ornamented shelves that ran from its central aisle to both sides all the way to the piers that separated the main vessel from the outer aisles. These aisles were each wide enough for two royal chariots to pass them abreast and stretched upward to the height of Ponyville’s town hall until their pointed arches terminated in the triforium. These aisles extended to the far end of the library but were cut short on the near end by the reception area to the left and the cloakroom to the right. Amber reached the reception.
“We need a print of an old-looking map of Equestria as prop for a theater play. It has to be rather large. Do you have something like that here?” Amber asked. She kept her voice low as etiquette demanded.
“Hi there! What’s your name? I’m Fleur.” The librarian smiled at her. She was a tall unicorn, and her physique reminded Amber of Princess Luna, but that was where all semblance ended. Her coat was all white, but she had streaks of the lightest pink in her mane, a mane that looked like it had not seen a brush in days and was carelessly clipped back, probably so it would not bother her when reading. Her cutie mark showed three fleurs-de-lis.
Amber frowned. “I’m Amber. It’s rather urgent.” Can she please cut out the singsong voice? I’m not a toddler.
Then she noticed several maps and posters hung on the wall that separated them from the left aisle. “The map over there looks old, the top-left one. It’s just a reproduction, right?”
“Yeah, I can get you that one.” She furrowed her narrow eyebrows. Passion flamed in her eyes. “Actually, no. It virtually breathes impurity! Lots of little mistakes: You see that island there in the southeast, for example? Well, it’s too small to be seen from here, which is all for the better because neither does it exist! Hah! There is no Apple Cider Island! They just made it up! I eclectically hate it when ponies sully maps like that, just to mark them as their own. Like dogs pissing on, uh, maps.” She started to nod repeatedly.
Was it the light or had her coat reddened? How was that even possible? Amber would have been amused by the odd outburst had she not been in such a hurry. Some other guests threw her compassionate glances before they returned to their books.
“I’ll get you a better one.” With that, Fleur vanished downstairs, off limits to mere visitors. Amber envisioned extensive, dusty archives. Minutes passed. Only thirty more to the performance, and she still had to get back to the castle.
She had worked so hard and risked so much to get the lead role. Her understudy might not even know her lines, one of the risks Amber had accepted. All her friends depended on her. No, Amber decided, I’ll just take this map. No one will notice or care about its imperfections.
The poster was high up, even by adult pony standards, and clipped into a rail along with the other prints. Amber tugged at it with her magic, but it wouldn’t come loose. Ripping it off was not an option. She would even insist, she decided, that they only fasten it with magnets for the play, not tape. She had to return it unscathed after their final performance in three days.
When the tugging was of no use, she tried to press down on the hidden mechanism that was holding it in the rail. She wished she had feeling in her magic like she had in her hooves so she might be able to understand how the clip worked. As it was, all her pushing and pulling was to no avail.
All the ladders she could see hung in rails fastened to their shelves. She remembered Juniper Berry’s lessons in carpet flight, and looked around. It was of no use. The only carpets were the ones along the aisles, narrow and much too long to be useful for the purpose. In any case, Juniper had often warned her that indoor flight required considerable skill lest you launch yourself right into the ceiling.
There was, however, a single wooden shelf at that wall, filled with many copies of the same dictionaries and encyclopedias, which must be in high demand. Even though it didn’t have its own ladder and looked much newer than all the other shelves, Amber surmised that she could climb it and use it to reach the map that hung to its right.
She pressed her head against the wall to peek behind it. The wall was not as cold as she had expected but she paid no heed to it. At the top of the shelf, she could see two angle brackets pinning it to the wall. That was all the reassurance she needed. With a few dexterous moves, she hung high up on the face of the shelf. Her hindhooves were securely propped on a lower shelf while several rows up her forehooves were always scrambling to find enough friction.
Then she reached the top. She ignored all the dust and the pieces of trash that had accumulated there and leaned onto it to balance her weight away from the drop. She had lost all fear of heights when she trained with Juniper a mile above Ponyville with only a thin carpet protecting her from the pull of gravity. Now she was up only four or five times her own height and looked down without alarm. With her right hoof she reached over to the rail that held the precious map. From this perspective she could see the mechanism. She had to slide a nob against a spring and the map would come loose.
The moment she touched the clip, a deep throbbing sound filled the library, interspersed with loud cracks. For a moment she could not see where it was coming from, then she felt something akin to vertigo. Gravity seemed to be going out of its way to pull her off her precarious perch. It was a puzzling sensation.
When the angle brackets were sheared out of the wall with a puff of gypsum, she understood what was happening. The wall that filled her vision and that she had assumed to be as solid as the rest of the colossal building was a thin sheet of drywall, visual cover for the reception desk. Some fastings had broken away, and now it was tumbling toward her. The heavier shelf fell even faster.
Time seemed to slow down for Amber because she had enough of it to decide that she would bolt. She would help clean up this mess after the performance. Her friends depended on her! Maybe she would even have time to retrieve the map from the detritus. Books slid out and fell toward the ground far below.
Amber envisioned the trajectory of the shelf and the wall. The shelf with its tons of books would hit the ground first, then the wall would fall on top of it, breaking, probably. If she managed to fall right next to the shelf, it would shield her from the impact of the wall.
But time did not slow down enough. She could no longer kick off. She was already in midair, shelf and wall crashing toward her.
“Hey! You must be, uh, Rose Bud? Did you know that roses have all sorts of funny meanings? Like, y’know, love and happiness and innocence and all that junk! So cool, y’know? My boyfriend keeps talking about that stuff? Total flower nerd if you ask me.” The pinkish unicorn planted herself next to Amber in the crowded lecture hall and started to rummage in her bag with her magic. Her cutie mark was stylized bird, probably a magpie, Amber mused. “Oh, hold that quick, will you?” With that she hovered a paper cup of steaming coffee right in front of Amber and let go to better concentrate on her rummaging activity.
Amber tried to grasp the cup in her magic. Her horn cracked and sparked, an auburn aura flickered around the cup, then it fell through and spilled hot coffee over Amber’s legs before it hit the floor. With some effort, she managed to right the much lighter cup on the ground. She bit down the searing pain along her legs. First she would correct the other pony’s misapprehension of her identity.
“You guessed that from my cutie mark.” It was no question. “And no, my name is Amber Rose.” She broke eye contact only for a second to indicate the puddle of coffee with a glance. “I would appreciate a towel or tissue.”
The deadpanned remarks caught the magpie pony off guard. She stared a moment too long, then started rummaging with greater urgency until she found a pack of tissues. “So sorry about that. What’s wrong with your horn?”
“I had an accident some eight years ago. My magic has never been what it was,” said Amber.
The magpie pony dabbed at some of the spilled coffee. “Oh, so sorry to hear that, Rose Bud,” she said. Her face was a caricature of concern.
“It’s Amber Rose.” She took another tissue. Some ponies made her wonder whether she had chosen the right degree. How could she make a difference in the world when she was surrounded with colleagues who could not even get her name right?
“Hmm, so there are limits to these prophetic abilities of parents? Y’know, when they, like, totally predict their children’s cutie marks when they pick the names?” the magpie pony who had still not introduced herself said. “Now, if your name is Rose, you know what that means, right? Once that bud there blossoms, it’ll totally be like a beautiful yellow rose, y’know?” A smile, then it faded. “Except, y’know, cutie marks never change, now do they? But don’t you let it get you down that you’ll never blossom, you hear me!” She tried to make her voice sound belligerent.
The pain from the hot coffee lessened. “There’s nothing prophetic about it.” Amber looked her in the eyes while she quietly enjoyed to again ignore the latter half of the magpie pony’s verbal effluvium. “Ponies’ physiology allows them only once in their lives to form a cutie mark, and this usually happens as they enter adolescence. At that time, their interests are still very much inspired or influenced by their families and their immediate environments, the same factors that often inform their parents’ choice of their names. Their own names probably even influence them. Many ponies switch occupations later in their lives and find that they are just as or more gifted in their new vocation.”
The magpie pony looked at her blankly.
Moments before the lecture was about to start she turned toward Amber again. “I’m Mag Pie, by the way.” They shook hooves.
It was the first lecture in Mass Communication 101 in the first semester of Amber’s journalism degree. The professor introduced herself as Ms. Butterfly Peak, almost like Amber’s mother’s name, and stressed that she would prefer to be addressed with her first name, keeping the “Ms.” but that she did not insist on the academic title.
The stale air made Amber drowsy, but she looked up when Ms. Butterfly concluded the introductory section of her lecture with a first question.
“Here’s a case in point. Who knows what the great astrophysicist Tenderhoof is known for?”
When no one dared to speak, Amber answered without so much as raising her hoof. “He was a fraud. Till his death he made millions selling his stupid cutie mark readings to gullible parents, companies, even academic scholarship programs. Countless students were barred from their dream jobs when proper vocational counseling would’ve revealed their real aptitudes and interests.” She kept her voice calm but her passion shone through.
Ms. Butterfly looked askance. “No, that must be a different pony. The Tenderhoof I’m referring to is astrophysicist as I said. He’s still alive. He made an important observation of Starswirlian physics, the Tenderhoof self-consistency principle, which bars us from using Starswirlian time travel to change the past. But it’s not so much the principle that I wanted to mention but the way he …”
“You’re right,” Amber interrupted. But before the lecture concluded, she would actually get to correct the professor a few times on issues outside her field.
There were no bat ponies in the audience, so when the professor touched on the founding of Equestria in one of her examples, she felt she had to stand up for them. “You’re forgetting the bat ponies. Equestria would not have flourished without their high technology. They already had their cities inside the mountains when the three tribes settled this land.”
Then the lecture was over, and Amber wanted to leave. She waited for Mag Pie to clear her seat at the aisle. Mag Pie, however, turned around and looked at something right below Amber’s chin. “Uhm, Amber Rose? I’m sorry about what I said earlier, y’know? That you would never blossom? I’m sure you will.”
Amber quietly decided that she was all right after all.
“Can you tell me how you got your cutie mark?” Mag Pie asked.
“I was in a coma when it happened,” Amber said, “due to this accident.”
Mag Pie seemed uncertain how to react. Amber wanted to reassure her that there was no reason to feel sorry for her, that she had won at least as much as she had lost that day, but then Mag Pie just nodded a goodbye and dove into the stream of students along the aisle.
Amber did not mind much. She expected to see her again the next day.
Amber stepped outside of the department wing and was greeted by the smile of her older brother, Damask Rose.
“Hey bubs!” she exclaimed.
He had called her sisko for as long as she could remember. When she had just started school, he was abroad on a student exchange where he must have picked up the foreign term—and he was not known to forget things.
Amber cleared the stairs with one jump and embraced him.
“How was your first day, Amber?”
“It was fun!” She slumped against him as they walked and felt the irregular bobbing of his limp. Thankfully, it did not cause him pain anymore. “I think I’ll have some fun debates with the professor. And someone spilled coffee over me.”
“That was fun too?”
“Did they survive?” he quipped.
She laughed. “The professor or the filly with the coffee? Both survived. She was alright.”
“The lakelet with the spouting fountain is nearby. You remember it, right? The one where we inaugurated your first model ship, the shallop, when we visited Canterlot the first time? We can take a swim. The coffee stain will wash off.”
“Oh, bubs, that reminds me. You won’t believe what I saw the other day!” Amber did not wait for a reply. “You remember that model ship I loved so much back then?” It had been eight years since that vacation, but she knew her brother would remember it. She had entreated her parents for days to buy it, but it was much too expensive.
“Of course. A three-masted, lateen-rigged xebec.”
“Yes! Yes! With the weird figurehead. I saw it again in a store the other day, it was even on sale,” Amber said. “The bowsprit was as long as I remembered, almost as long as her foremast, but I had forgotten that it was raked forward just as her mizzenmast was raked back. But I immediately recognized her when I saw her there.” She enjoyed reminiscing about the stay even though it had ended in disaster for her—and her brother also had a painful encounter with hotel furniture, she recalled.
“Did you buy her?” Damask asked.
“Naw. It would’ve been just another piece of memorabilia.” They walked in silence for a moment. Then Amber remembered her brother’s suggestion to go swimming in the lake and said, “I’ll go straight home, shower, and unpack some more of my moving boxes.” Hastily she added, “But please tag along.”
“Aw! What’s the difference between a shower and a bath in the lakelet? Soap is overrated.”
“Not at all,” Amber said. “Soap is lyotropic liquid crystal, it’s like bathing in gems!”
“But do be careful that you don’t end up like our Ponyville soap shop, burned to a crisp because somepony forgot about the no magic rule.”
“C’mon, I was just a toddler!” She knew he was just teasing her with the old story but quickly changed the topic anyway. “Say, what courses do you have this semester?”
“We have mandatory math and physics courses, but I’ve also signed up for a course in plant engineering. Dad recommended that I specialize in that direction, and it does sound interesting.”
At one point on their walk home, when they were passing a hypnotherapist’s practice, Damask noticed a tail—they giggled about the pun. He thought they were being followed when he repeatedly saw a pink tail vanish around corners when he turned. But why would anyone want to follow them?
At Amber’s apartment they hugged goodbye.
The next morning, Amber awoke to the soft rays of the morning sun playing on her face. Or maybe it was just the flap of the newspaper falling through the mail slot.
Sips from her hot cup of espresso washed new life into her limbs while she read the latest news. After years of advocacy, Princess Twilight Sparkle’s campaign for a greater role of bat pony history in school curricula had reached its tipping point and was finally gaining broad support from teachers and parents. Amber still remembered the librarian fondly from the time they both lived in Ponyville so many years ago.
But there were also bad news. Crop failures were wreaking havoc in the Griffon Kingdom for the third successive year. Their reserves had long run out, and they depended on donations from Equestria, Prance, and other nearby nations. According to the latest estimates, over eight million griffons suffered malnutrition. The article concluded that if only they had been able to predict the catastrophe a few years in advance, they could have held back greater reserves.
When Amber turned the page again, a flyer sailed to the floor. She bowed down and picked it up. It was much too unprofessionally printed to be from the newspaper press she decided, but it did promise a hundred bits for just a quick questionnaire. That was more than usual but not so much as to reek of scam. The room would be crowded.
Thanks to the comprehensive social security in Equestria, Amber never thought of herself as poor. She had everything she needed and could even engage in many of the cultural activities Canterlot provided. A few extra bits were still always welcome.
Amber was amazed to notice that it was perfectly timed, too, as if the organizers of the study had predicted her course schedule. She would stop by the department of post-Starswirlian magic, take the questionnaire, and most likely still have enough time to get back to the journalism department at a leisurely trot.
She recognized that the address was on the premises of the university, so she found it easily. She had expected to find a Rainy Day–style building mirroring in its architecture the outlandish spirit of the department it housed. Instead she found that the address just lead to another part of the same plain and functional building that also held the department of Starswirlian magic as well as several other schools of magic. She stopped herself from double-checking the flyer. Room 023. That must be on the ground floor.
Although Amber was barely a minute early, only a single pony waited in front of the room. She was a tall, white unicorn with bluish mane and tail, and heavy glasses. Her cutie mark were three fleurs-de-lis. A hundred bits for a simple questionnaire? Scores of ponies should be milling around that door. Or are they already inside?
The door was ajar. Amber decided to just walk past for now as if she was headed for the lecture hall, but peek inside the room from the corner of her eye.
“Hi! Are you here for the questionnaire?” the other unicorn asked.
Amber’s heart raced. Darn, I used to be better at this. “Uh, yeah.”
“Wonderful! The room is taken by another group unfortunately, but we can go to my office.”
“Shouldn’t we wait for others, Ms. …?” Amber wondered whether it was wise to ask two questions at once if you wanted answers.
“Uhm, yeah, we can wait a few more minutes. You can call me Liz.”
“What are you investigating with the questionnaire? Empirical studies, or any interest in the real world, is rather atypical for post-Starswirlian research, I understand.” She had not intended to make the question sound disrespectful. Neither did she care. White fur, fleurs-de-lis—who does she remind me of?
“Oh, don’t tell me about the ‘real world’!” the researcher said much too loudly. “I’ve been a model, a nurse, and a cartographer; I know everything about this so-called ‘real world.’ Change the projection and you got a completely different ‘real world.’ And all of them are eclectically awful.” She wheezed. “Ponies go hungry, are hurt, or fall sick, the causes so complex that no pony can make sound predictions. We sully our models with our arbitrary simplifying assumptions then measure the awful precision that remains, giddy like the foal who drew a watch on her wrist and saw that it gave the right time once a day. There is just no escaping the eclectic impurity once you put units in your magic.”
“Twice.” Amber was already starting to enjoy this batty conversation. Was she really using forms of eclectic as general-purpose swear words? “So your conclusion is to cloister yourself in your imaginary realms of pure, theoretical magic and forget about the real world?”
“Once this is all over.” The unicorn nodded slowly and repeatedly, her eyes suddenly downcast.
Amber was ready to either chide her for abandoning her fellow ponies or encourage her to let actual problems give focus to her abstract pursuits, but this cryptic statement caught her off guard. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, I mean just this particular, uh, project of mine. It has been occupying my mind for some years now.” She seemed to notice her nodding and stopped it. “For which I’m glad, don’t you worry. It has given my life purpose. I often picture myself on my deathbed evaluating my life’s accomplishments and deciding whether it has been worth its while. I don’t want to breathe my last breath in the knowledge that I let the impurity prevail, Amber, that my life had been in vain.”
“Yes, that’s why I chose to study journalism—well, apart from the stuff about impurity.”
“But you are aimless! You’ve been searching the whole ‘real world’ for any kind of purpose you can appropriate for your life, and yet here you are: aimless!” She took a deep breath and forced a calmer register. “And it’s all my fault. I’m so sorry.”
Amber considered that. As crazy as it all sounded, it was not without merit. “Why is any of that your fault?”
The researcher started to nod again for a few seconds. “I think we’ve waited long enough. Let’s go now. My office is over in the castle.”
Way to change the topic, but seriously, she has an office in the castle? The royals don’t let just anyone have an office in the castle! Amber wondered again where she might have seen her before. Maybe at a Summer Sun Celebration? Or at Twilight Sparkle’s coronation years earlier? She wished she had her brother’s memory. But something else was still on her mind as well. “So why do you conduct empirical research?”
“Oh, believe me, it has taken me some years of soul-searching, and I don’t think I’ll do it again. Appreciate it!”
Evasive answer number two. It was exhausting to try to get straight answers from that pony. Amber decided to just get the hundred bits and forget about it.
They walked in silence until they reached the castle. The researcher produced a key and lead the way through a side entrance and then through a maze of hallways, staircases, and a few more locked doors. Amber noted with relief that some of the guards even greeted her, so she was not just some grifter who somehow got her hooves on the right keys.
They were walking past many simple, functional offices now, each with a window in the door that allowed Amber to inspect the interior. Not much was there for her to see since most were empty, but the wide windows overlooking a courtyard admitted much of the morning sunshine and even bathed the hallway in inviting hues.
She was again levitating her key in front of her when she turned to Amber. “Pardon the mess. I used to collect newspapers back in the day. I stopped when I missed an issue, but I couldn’t bring myself to trash them yet, so I dumped them all in here.”
The researcher opened her office and asked Amber to take a seat in front of her desk. Amber noted at once that there was only one chair there. Between the stacks of old newspapers, books, scrolls, maps, and desultory miscellanea, hardly another chair could have fit into the place. Most striking, however, was the magical equipment that lined the walls and even the ceiling, devices completely inscrutable to Amber.
“Let’s get right down to business,” said the researcher. She took a notebook from a drawer and wrote down the date. “You haven’t told me your name. Don’t worry, I will not publish it in any fashion, but I would like to be able to get back in touch with you should the circumstances require it.”
“Amber Rose.” While she spoke, she looked her interviewer in the eyes but her attention was absorbed by a strangely pulsing apparatus that hovered above the researcher’s head.
“Where did you grow up, Amber?”
“How long have been living in Canterlot?”
“For about a month.”
She scribbled into her notebook. “Hmm. Okay. That would be all, but please wait a little moment longer. I have something for you.”
Amber cocked one eyebrow. That’s it? Already?
The researcher removed a hundred bit bill from her wallet and levitated a large tube from the wall over to Amber.
Amber noticed with a little surprise that she made no indication for Amber to take the tube into her own magic. Surely, it would have been much too heavy for her. Instead, the researcher leaned it against her chair and set the bill in her lap. In that one apprehensive moment, however, when Amber thought the tube would crash to the floor next to her, she noticed a framed certificate on the wall where it had leaned. It was a PhD certificate in cartography and geovisualization for a certain Fleur de Lis.
Fleur! Of course! Now she remembered who that pony reminded her of—apart from the mane, which she may have dyed.
“Amber, do you sometimes wish you could go back in time to undo your past mistakes?”
Amber had not considered it in a long time. She was still reeling from her epiphany and trying to disentangle its possible implications. She could not reminisce about past mistakes now. She looked at Fleur quizzically.
“Well, today is your lucky day,” Fleur continued as if Amber had answered. Then, not wasting a second, she shot a ray of magic energy from her horn into the contraption above her. A cone of light cut outward from it and through air, desk, books, newspapers right toward Amber. When she wanted to jump away, it had already enclosed her on all sides.
Amber groaned under a tremendous pressure, as if she were diving much too deep. Then a throbbing headache set in that knocked her unconscious within seconds.
“Did you feel that, too?” her sister asked from the bed.
She nodded. It had felt like a surge of strongly amplified magic somewhere nearby, probably within their castle. She had never felt anything like it before. Two ponies had been involved in it. She would recognize their magic.
Soon guards would arrive and report to them what had happened, she thought.
She heard a rustling of sheets. So her sister had felt something as well.
It had felt like a surge of strongly amplified magic somewhere nearby, probably within their castle. She had never felt anything like it before. One pony had been involved in it. She would recognize her magic.
Soon guards would arrive and report to her what had happened, she thought. They must not disturb her sister. She was still so fragile. “Sweet dreams,” she whispered and left the room to intercept them outside.
Moist. Sticky. Her head lay in a puddle.
Amber woke up with a start to a bare, twilit room. The sudden motion let the migraine explode and knocked her right out again.
This time she dreamed.
“Amber, could you help me with something?” Cheerilee asked.
Amber was back at school in her old classroom. The other students were filing out while she was still packing her books and quills. Cheerilee walked toward her against the flow of the students.
“Some of the students are falling behind on Starswirlian magical theory. I don’t have the time to give them extra lessons, but you seem to be intimately familiar with the material.”
She did not have to think this over. “I’d love to!”
Suddenly, Amber felt that she was dreaming, and she also remembered the episode the dream was showing her.
Back when she still attended Juniper Berry’s carpet flying lessons, Amber sometimes envied her the position of authority that her skills afforded her. Now Amber would become like a second teacher of Starswirlian theory to the other students. The discipline of magic would be taught by an earth pony and a unicorn who was barely able to lift her quill. Amber loved it.
A few years earlier, her accident had seemed like a curse, but it had opened her so many doors she would otherwise not even have noticed that she now thought of it as nothing short of a blessing.
Then she remembered that she had also betrayed her friends that day. Her classmates all blamed Little Cedar for it. She was no longer at Amber’s school and did not know that her name had become a curse, so Amber let them. She was too afraid that their wrath would turn upon her.
The classroom faded.
“Morning sisko! I bought you some quills. The tiniest and lightest Davenport could find,” her brother greeted her.
“Morning bubs.” She yawned involuntarily although she did not feel tired at all.
“Have you been reading all night again?”
She lay on her bed, one hoof holding open a paperback book. “I’ve been thinking that the weight of the quill might be only part of my problem. I’ve always tried to draw single letters, and then I was exhausted after two or three of them. But really I can envision whole words and even fragments of sentences, so I tried to write in greater chunks.” She closed the book to reveal a page full of nonsensical sentences underneath. “It works like a charm. No pun intended.”
“That is amazing!” Her brother gaped at the page. “You’ve never written that much or such long sequences.”
“I know!” It was exhilarating to be able to write again. “It’s all in this book. Discoveries that go back to Starswirl the Bearded, although the authors apply them to traditional unicorn martial arts.”
Amber again realized that she was dreaming. This one was a real memory too. Amber could hardly remember the dream sequence at school but she felt that she had traveled years further into her past.
Damask and the page of scribbling faded. Her journey continued.
“But Amber, our parents aren’t unicorns, and neither would they want to be,” her brother said.
Walking was still painful for him, but he limped over to her anyway. It had been their first night back at home. The Ponyville hospital was severely damaged, so she had to stay in a hospital in Canterlot until her injuries had healed sufficiently, and the doctors released her.
She no longer had attacks of panic and disbelieve whenever she remembered that her horn was useless now. The attacks had burned her out and left her in an ash cloud of despair. It did not help that she had singlehoofedly ruined her school’s theater play and received an inauspicious cutie mark in the process. She lay on her bed flaccidly, weighted down by a blanket of down and a blanket of regret.
But this was not the Amber she wanted to be.
“You’re right, I don’t need magic, but still,” she brushed her metaphorical ashes away and threw off the blanket, “I will regain it if only to prove to myself that I can do it.”
Damask’s face lit up. She saw that he recognized his dear old sister again, the one both had thought lost after the accident—and Amber recognized herself as well for the first time in weeks.
Then Amber gained distance again and saw the dream for what it was, another memory. Within a year she would relearn writing the unicorn way but she would also find joy in mastering her daily chores the earth pony way.
When she was a child, her dad never thought it necessary to teach her all the little tricks and mnemonics that earth ponies use to paint, clean dishes, and cook magnificent meals; nor did she notice them. A whole new aspect of her culture revealed itself to her, just like the curtain that parted for the first performance of their theater play, still in Ponyville.
The bedroom faded.
Town Hall was crowded with parents, siblings, teachers, and a few guests.
“Today’s performance,” Cheerilee addressed the audience, “is also a dress rehearsal for the two performances in Canterlot in two weeks. I have received permission to extend the school holidays by another week, so we can fully concentrate on our play, and show Princess Celestia what the students of our little town are capable of.”
After a few more words of introduction, Cheerilee left the stage. Amber gave Juniper a sign, then she levitated the black backdrop of the stage to one side to reveal a large aerial picture of Ponyville, Canterlot, and vicinity that was painted on the wall behind it. At the same time, Juniper activated the spotlights and bathed the stage in light.
All six of the main actors, Amber among them, and a few in supporting actors filed out into the light. Some of them were the understudies of the students who would play in Canterlot. They took turns, so everypony could play at some point. Amber had personally overseen the casting and made sure that everypony felt at home in their role—except for her own understudy. Amber had picked Little Cedar because she had stage fright and was happy that Amber generously volunteered to play in all performances and rehearsals.
Pangs of guilt cut the dream short and shook her awake.
Amber’s second attempt at waking was a little more successful than her first, but the headache ran all the way down through her spine and engulfed her body and mind. There was no room for thoughts. She lay in complete darkness, but she had long not attained the level of consciousness that would allow her to wonder about her whereabouts.
Light good. A first observation pierced her mental cocoon. It was dawn.
The throbbing of her head seemed to lock out any sense of time, but it abated gradually and soon she remembered the darkness and her minimalistic greeting of the new day. Memories of the meeting with Fleur returned as well.
She lifted her head and was relieved to find that she lay in a puddle of her spittle, not blood. Her head hurt doubly, once from the receding headache and once from lying on concrete for the better part of a day and a full night.
She brushed off her spittle as best as she could and looked around. The room looked exactly like Fleur’s office but may just as well be one of the other empty offices on that level. An assortment of slashed and singed detritus that she recognized suggested that it was the same room: stacks of newspapers and books, some cut in half by the cone of light, the section of Fleur’s desk that had been cut out as well, even a piece of the concrete floor, and right next to her the chair, the tube, and one hundred bits.
So far she had only raised herself enough to lean her head on a hoof. Now she sat up. Another surge of headache made her queasy. When it lessened, she tried standing.
Something was weird.
The ceiling was higher, the chair bigger. The disorientation lasted only a second until she looked at her hooves and legs, then her flank. Her legs where shorter, her cutie mark gone. Bummer.
The the realization set in. My body! Fleur stole a decade of life from me!
The adrenaline blocked out the ache in her head. A vignette of red shrouded her vision. “Give me my life back!” The cry echoed from the bare walls and stone floor.
She bucked hard and hit the chair at random. It skidded a few inches and tumbled slightly. All that I’ve learned, all that I’ve been through, it can’t be all lost! All my memories! She started to cry.
Then she realized that she did remember her life. If I had lost my memories I wouldn’t notice a thing right now, would I?
The realization calmed her down. Building model ships with Damask, performing in Ponyville, rediscovering the joy of writing, teaching her class in Starswirlian magic, moving into her own home, all the pleasant memories of her past were still there. So were the unpleasant ones. She did not linger on those.
She wiped away her tears. She often cried of joy or sadness, but it had been years since she had felt such panic. Surely some gifted magician could restore her adult body to her, or if not she may get to live a few years longer. She had not lost her personality, her identity. That was what mattered most to her.
She looked at her short legs and shook her head. Her eyes still burned, and the headache was slowly encroaching on her senses again. She did not want to think anymore. She dragged herself to the wall and slumped against it.
What if Fleur actually sent me back in time? The implications seemed overwhelming in their complexity. Amber did not feel like thinking at all. No, there are no time travel spells that would’ve lasted so long.
She felt like dropping off to sleep again and forgetting about all this nonsense. She wanted to just close her eyes and wait for it all to go away by itself. The thought even struck her as logical for a moment, which gave her pause. Was my brain affected after all or am I just confused?
A few minutes later she felt strong enough to stand again. The mysterious tube still lay next to her. It gave her an idea. An auburn aura enveloped it tenderly—then smashed it against the ceiling. Whoops.
Magic. She had full access to it again, or at least that of the average unicorn. She should be overjoyed. She felt something akin to it, but it was not joy. It was something vicarious. It was just as if someone had gifted her that model building set of the ship with the strange figurehead, a kind of mediated joy for her filly self who had still pined for her lost magic, joy translated for her adult self only through nostalgia.
But magic was useful, especially since she had no backpack to carry this weird tube in—whatever it may be good for—so she was glad to have it back.
More so she was curious. She lowered it to eye level and peeked inside. It was empty.
No, there was something tightly wrapped along its inner surface. Of course, Fleur PhD would give her a map, she should have known that at once. She pulled it out and unrolled it in the air.
It was as if meeting a long lost friend or old enemy again. Both maybe. Most of Equestria’s towns and villages were pictured disproportionately large, the whole thing was a little skewed, and now she could see the phantom Apple Cider Island too. She rolled it back into the tube together with her hundred bits. It was time to find out what else Fleur’s spell had changed besides Amber’s body.
Still swaying, she walked to the door. The headache was getting more bearable and the vertigo it caused faded, but the suddenly so different proportions of her body still made it difficult to walk. The door was not locked and the hallway was empty. On the one hoof, she would have welcomed the sight of guards there, or of anypony, so she could ask them what year it was, but on the other hoof, she was not quite sure how common it was for a lone filly to cross through these parts of the castle, which were most likely off limits to visitors.
She had memorized part of Fleur’s zigzag route through the building, but tracing it back proved more difficult. Her memories of the past days seemed almost years distant while memories of her foalhood shoved their way back into her consciousness.
After a few turns that only lead her into less and less familiar passageways and galleries, she felt a flash of fear at being lost, something she had not felt in years. She shook away the childish emotion and changed her strategy. If she managed to go in the same direction long enough, she had to reach an outside walls at some point. Even if it should be one overlooking nothing but the great drop along the cliffside, she could follow it until she reached an exit toward the city.
With rooms to both sides of the hallways, she could never be sure whether she was in the midst of the structure or in fact already close to an outside wall, but she felt confirmed when she came upon a door like the ones Fleur had to unlock for them. From this direction, it had a handle and opened readily for her, so most likely her route was outward. She had to strain a little to reach up to the handle with her forehooves to depress it. Only when she watched the door swing shut with finality behind her did she realize that she could have used a certain freshly restored function of her horn for the task.
Another door and she left this more plain and functional wing of the huge building and entered one of the many towers. Her hoofsteps echoed more loudly on the marble tiles than in the carpeted hallways. A path of lighter tiles circled a staircase in the center of the tower and lead out onto a wide balcony that boasted an ornate balustrade much too high for Amber to peek over. She walked out into the fresh mountain air and stuck her head through a gap between two mythological creatures chiseled out of the sandstone of the balustrade.
She could not see the windows in the tower itself, but judging from nearby buildings, she must be on the height of a fourth floor. Beneath her lay a plaza she recognized. The morning sunshine played on a squat structure almost like a temple in its center, which lead down to what her brother had called the Hypogeum Abscititious, where busts of many great ponies of history were on display. If she could get down there, she would find her way home easily.
But what if she had not just transformed into her younger self but actually traveled back in time? Surely that was impossible. No known time travel spell could have lasted this long. But what if? Where would “home” be for her? Miles and miles away in Ponyville and already occupied by her doppelganger. She dismissed the thought. The paradoxical implications of time travel were something she would consider if and only if it should turn out that she had actually traveled back to her foalhood.
In her reverie, she noticed the hoofsteps only when they left the winding staircase and reached the platform. She turned.
“Young lady,” a guard said with mild surprise. She hesitated while she looked from Amber to the tube hovering next to her and back to Amber. “Unless you have a letter of safe conduct on you, I don’t think you are allowed in this part of the …” She checked her watch. “Eh, scratch that, quitting time. You looking for someone?” She took off her helmet and tucked it under her wing.
“I am a little lost,” Amber said. It might be true in a comprehensive, four-dimensional sort of way, she realized. “Say, what year is it?”
“Hah! Everypony keeps asking that. What do I know!”
Amber stared. “Really?”
“Just kidding.” The guard told her the date. “So you time-traveled here or something?” She did not even seem surprised.
She shuddered. So I did go back in time. I don’t want to have to relive, what, eight years! Aloud she replied, “Naw, a ten-minute walk away through the corridors over there.” Amber was indicating the direction with the tube when she realized that the here was more likely meant temporally. “I’ve been trying to find a way out of this labyrinth.”
“It’s simple enough when you get used to it. Come, tag along, I’m going home anyway,” said the guard. She lead the way back where she had come from.
This last part of the way was simple enough indeed. Amber thought she could have found it easily on her own, but with the guard at her side, she did not have to worry about running into any other less jovial guard ponies. What she did worry about were her chances of getting back to her present, or what she still considered her present. Could Fleur help her? The current Fleur—even assuming she was willing to help her—might not know the first thing about time travel spells. Amber dismissed the idea.
“You’re not stealing some sort of painting there, are you?” the guard asked when they reached the exit of the tower.
Why painting? It’s a map. It took her a second to realize that the guard could not have known that. It felt as if her adult brain were at war with her filly brain.
“No, it’s a map someone gave to me.” You could not have been more vague, Amber, could you? Why are you thinking in the second person anyway? What if she asks me who gifted me the painting? A librarian from the future? She shook away the thoughts. The burden of proof was not upon her. She had been caught trespassing, not stealing.
“Cool. By the way, I’m Praetoria.” The guard clapped her on the shoulder. “You got someplace to go?”
Amber hesitated. The headache was fading, but she could not possibly walk all the way to Ponyville in her condition. The fading pain in her head also admitted feelings of hunger and thirst for the first time.
“I can invite you to the guards’ commons,” Praetoria continued after a moment as if reading her thoughts.
“I’d love that!” She sounded more euphorical to herself then she had intended. “I’m Amber.”
The castle used an interleaving system of many different shifts so that no collective changes of guards could open windows to intruders, however unlikely those were. As a side effect, the great hall of the commons did not have any set peak hours. Apart from random fluctuations, its long rows of antique tables and chairs were always lined with a comfortable number of off-duty guards, all of them elite troopers ready to fend off changeling hordes at a five- or ten-minute notice—because who could waste such yummy food?
Anything would have tasted yummy to her in her state, Amber thought, and she had to exercise great restraint not to eat too hastily. Praetoria also brought several bottles of water to the table and finally mango lassis for both of them.
They took a few sips, then Praetoria indicated the entrance with one wing. “Oh, look who’s coming!” She winked. Three ponies walked into the hall, escorted by two guards in armor.
“Bubs! Mom! Dad!” Amber was delighted to see them, but her delight was dwarfed by theirs. They were all so much younger, especially her brother!
“Hei sisko!” A moment later they collided halfway in a big ball of fur and feathers and hugs.
Praetoria walked up to them a moment later. “Your parents had asked the royal guard for help when you didn’t come home overnight. Another day and we would’ve launched a full-scale search. I took the liberty of calling them here.” For a moment, she observed at the four ponies with tears of joy in their eyes. “No family issues then I assume.” She looked relieved.
Amber was surprised how deeply this reunion touched her. She had not believed them lost for a long, wakeful night as they had, in fact she had not expected to see her parents again for several weeks.
Praetoria waved away everypony’s thanks and guided the family out. The four of them walked in silence for a minute, very close to each other, until they were out of earshot of the castle. The tube was bobbing in the air between them.
Her mother folded a wing over Amber, who wondered how much she could tell them without worrying them even more. She herself hardly knew what had happened or how she was supposed to get back.
“Amber, where were you?” Her mother asked the obvious question. “You went into the hotel bathroom, and ten minutes later you were just gone.”
“It’s a long story.” Eight years and a few months.
“All right?” her mother encouraged her.
“Hmm, I’m not precisely who you think I am.” At this, her parents looked at her. Not her brother, however, but surely he also mentally reviewed the last few minutes. “I am Amber, but, as crazy as it sounds, someone sent me back here from the future.” Hopefully they’ll think I’m just talking about a few days or weeks. How would they react to having missed eight years of my foalhood?
“You don’t look any older,” her father said.
“I don’t entirely understand how or why either,” Amber said. “I think the spell imprinted my brain, this brain,” she tried to nod upward, “with the knowledge and impressions of my future self.”
“Do you know who did that?” It was her brother who asked. Amber saw that he already had his cutie mark of fountain, ship, and rose.
“A librarian here in Canterlot. But I doubt her current self knows anything about it.”
“We have to find her anyway, but how far in the future did all that happen?” It was her father who asked the question Amber had been afraid of.
She hesitated for a moment. “I’m a little over eight years older than the Amber you knew a few days ago.” No pony replied. “This must come as a shock to you; my character must’ve changed radically; I never meant to take the Amber you knew away from you; I’m sorry this …”
“Hey, hey, easy there. I’m so glad we get to skip your puberty,” said her father flatly but could not suppress a slight smile. “Oh, you don’t happen to remember any lottery numbers?”
“I don’t have bubs’s brains unfortunately. Besides, those are all time travel proof. Each ticket influences the order in which the balls are inserted into the lottery machine.”
“Do you feel up for the theater play today? If not, Little Cedar can always take over for you, you know?” her mother asked.
“That’s today‽” Her mother must have flinched at the sudden outburst because Amber felt a tug on the wing that enveloped her. Both of course remembered how much effort young Amber had put into the play, but it had even deeper significance for Amber than her family could guess.
“No, mom. Little Cedar hardly knows her lines and cues. She never expected that I would… I mean, she completely counts on me showing up.” Amber realized that she could not recall any of her lines and cues either. “And she’ll just disappear back to Cloudsdale or whatever before the final performance. Cheerilee will be forced to cancel it.”
“Why would she do that?” her mother asked, but Amber suspected that she was worried about something else entirely.
“She never wanted to be on stage, and maybe she just felt little responsibility for our play from Ponyville. But then again I never reminded her that even I could be dis… unable to make it, even though it was part of my responsibility.”
“It is part of your responsibility, you mean. All this time travel stuff has also afforded you another chance to change, uh, …” Her mother gulped. “What exactly happened to you in the future? Or is about to?”
“It’s not going to happen again. This time I have a show to put on!” Fleur had been wrong to think that Amber still wanted her magic back, but even a painted watch is right twice a day. What Amber had learned from the previous iteration of this day was that it was not about getting past such an experience. It had to become a part of who she was. The only aspect that she refused to make a part of herself was the missed and ultimately ruined play, the sadness in the eyes of her friends, and that Little Cedar would become the school’s anathema when it had been Amber’s wager that was to blame. Her mother was right. This was Amber’s chance to correct her mistake.
Amber was ready to turn on her heels. “Bubs, do you know where I keep the script?”
“It’s in the hotel room on the Chippendale escritoire partially covered by a ‘do not disturb’ sign.”
“That would take too long. I’ll go back to the castle. Somepony will have a copy for me.” Amber ducked from under the wing, gave her family hugs, and hurried back the way they had come. The event would start at noon and run till the evening. Even if their class was among the last to present their performance, she’d only have a few hours to relearn her role.
The venue was an oblong hall that could serve any number of purposes but had been set aside for three days for the theatrical spectacle. It was shaped like a nave with a wide space where soon rows upon rows of parents, teachers, and guests would mill, save for a narrow aisle through the center. This nave, however, culminated in a round platform where the chancel would be, the stage. On this stage the groups of students were taking turns rehearsing. The rest of the place was teeming with all the other groups who either waited their turn or had set up impromptu stages between the columns that lined the walls.
It had been hard enough to find this place in the labyrinthian castle. She thought she would remember the way, but it had been too long ago. Now it proved similarly hard for Amber to find her classmates. The maroon carpet that marked the aisle worked like a magic force field in that it sliced through the agitated masses of fillies and colts to allow Amber to pass. She scanned the faces left and right. No pony seemed familiar. Halfway through the hall, she found them. They had just finished a rehearsal and were removing their minimal set and props from the stage.
“Amber! Where’ve you been?” Cheerilee darted toward her.
“There was a contingency. Do you have a script for me? I didn’t have time to fetch mine.”
“You could’ve sent somepony to tell us. We’ve been sweating blood and water! Here, take mine,” she shoved a small stack of pages against Amber’s chest, all filled with scribbled notes. “I think I know it all by heart at this point.” She was about to dart off again. “Oh, and find Juniper. She was looking for you.”
Amber had no time to reply. Cheerilee was already on the other side of the hall comforting Featherweight. The colt claimed Twist had called him an idiot, which she vehemently denied. He was sniffling and sneezing, so that Amber made a mental note to ascertain that his understudy was well-prepared. She stored the tube with the heap of her class’s props, and went looking for Juniper Berry.
As she had expected, Amber found the unicorn backstage in the fly loft, where she acquainted herself with the lines and blocks. It was a small shock each time she saw a good friend reverted into a filly, but they had been close friends throughout most of their time at school.
Amber must have felt, even as filly, that Juniper was more mature than most of the other students, and that she could learn a lot from her. Thus, she had been privileged to take part in Juniper’s inofficial carpet flying lessons for unicorns. Juniper always enjoyed telling the anecdote of her parents’ surprise when she came home with a small image of a flying carpet ringed by a magical aura where they had expected a bunch of berries to pop up.
“Hey, Juniper, did you have time to fly around Canterlot already?”
Juniper looked at her askance. “You insisted that we focus on the play and wait with the flying until after the last performance the day after tomorrow, don’t you remember?”
Amber had no recollection of it. “Yeah, I’ll trust you on that. There’s a bunch of things that I need to tell you, but first, you were looking for me?”
“It’s all rather badly planned here. All the groups want to use the stage, but we only have a few more hours, so we only do the scenes where we need this stuff at all,” Juniper said, pointing at the lines all around her. “Could you go through the play scene by scene and see if there’s anything we forgot, any missing props or missing ponies?” She giggled softly, but Amber knew that behind that shy giggle stood a pony who met her ostensible limitations with pure irreverence, something she taught Amber just as she taught her class of unicorns flying.
Amber had often applied the wisdom this young pony had conferred to her, and it seemed unappreciative to undo the key event that had enabled Amber to glimpse its full significance. Yet she had made the decision hours ago, and now she would carry it through.
“Juniper, I already noticed one missing item. The Ponyville town hall had this picture of our region of Equestria where we indicated our town and the Everfree and the old castle; this stage does not. But I brought a map with me.”
Nothing changed. She could still remember her accident and the years that followed. Evidently, this was a completely new mode of time travel, one that allowed you to have your cake and eat it too, or more likely they were two cakes on different timelines. But Amber did not mention these observations to Juniper just yet.
“Oh, and, Juniper, you should look into finding backup for yourself too, somepony else who can also work these ropes. I’ll go down where the others are and learn my lines.” Juniper stared questioningly, so Amber added, “I forgot them. I’ll explain later. It should be a breeze to relearn them since I knew them once.” Amber hugged her sideways in a way that she hoped would inspire confidence. “We’ll have a whole lot of fun today!”
“Does my crown no longer count now that I have been imprisoned for a thousand years? Did you not recall the legend? Did you not see the signs?” Diamond Tiara’s impression of Nightmare Moon was almost as spine-chilling as the original. The cone of a flashlight pointed at Ponyville on the map. Soon it would edge deeper and deeper into the Everfree Forest.
“I saw them, and I know who you are,” Amber took a step toward her and looked her in the eyes, “Nightmare Moon!” After an hour of futile learning of Twilight Sparkle’s lines, Amber had decided to refresh herself on the gist of the play and then just improvise the rest.
From the corners of her eyes, she studied the audience. It was just early afternoon, and the room was not any darker than in the morning, but the stage was now so brightly lit that all the guests were almost hidden in the relative dimness beyond the stage. She could however see the gleams of hundreds of attentive eyes all the way to the end of the hall. The adrenaline rush was exhilarating and she enjoyed every second of it.
Despite the size of the hall, the ponies were packed so tightly that ventilation was becoming a problem. Most of them were friends or relatives of the ponies in the plays, and some had traveled with them from as far as Vanhoover, Las Pegasus, Baltimare, or Manehattan. The festive mood was only disturbed slightly during the intermissions when parents who had shoved to the front for their own child’s performance pushed all the way back out. Amber could not make out her family, but she was sure that they would respectfully stay for the whole event.
“Elements of Harmony, Elements of Harmony, …. How can I stop Nightmare Moon without them?” Amber was pretending to search through rows of encyclopedias. Rainbow Dash, your cue! She threw Noi a furtive glance.
“And just what are the Elements of Harmony? And how did you know about Nightmare Moon, huh? Are you a spy?” Noi rushed at her. There was not only mock anger in her eyes, but Amber ignored it.
Soon their performance neared its end. She had done it. Two cakes, one eaten, the other one still in front of her. All the formative experiences of her past eight years were still with her, her treasured memories of studying theoretical magic with her brother, her better understanding of the perspective of earth ponies, and her realization that it was just as full of possibilities. Now she would undo the effects of her betrayal of her friends.
The curtain fell, everypony grabbed some props, and they scrambled out through a backstage door into an adjacent hallway. Cheerilee congratulated the group on a performance well done, but as the group dispersed, a few remained behind and ringed Amber.
“What the buck was that about, Amber? Because you had to be creative with your lines, we almost missed our cues. The audience will think we’re the ones who messed up,” Diamond Tiara said.
“You got to be a bit flexible, silly filly, think on your hooves,” Amber countered.
“Well, when you didn’t say ‘Elements of Harmony’ the final time, I wanted to enter anyway, but I wasn’t sure. That’s why I hesitated,” Noi said.
“Okay, it won’t happen again. I promise.”
They did not seem entirely satisfied, put their tribunal was cut short when Cheerilee took Amber aside. When they were out of earshot, she put a hoof on Amber’s shoulder.
“You’re good at improv, Amber, but, as you know, the others relied on your lines as cues. They didn’t expect you to ad-lib them. And you knew them well-enough a week ago in Ponyville. Why the changes?” Amber saw that she was angry but allowed herself only to show her concern.
“I mentioned a contingency earlier that caused me to be late today. That was an understatement. I’ve forgotten a lot, including the lines, but I tried to relearn them as best as I could.”
“Oh,” Cheerilee looked her up and down as if trying to find any hint as to what Amber might be referring to. “What, uh, contingency could do that?”
“I would prefer to keep it private.”
“Okay, but if you have any problems you would like to talk about, you know you can always come to me for that.” She waited for Amber to nod her understanding before she proceeded. “As you know, the next performance is the day after tomorrow already, and that’s the final one. The princess will be there to see it.” She gulped. “Amber, I know how hard you have worked for this and how much you love the stage, but you can’t learn that script in one day. Little Cedar should take over your role.”
Oh no! “That would not be a good idea,” Amber said, deciding, as she spoke that she would not snitch on Little Cedar, especially not after she had knowingly cast somepony who never wanted to be on stage.
“Many other ponies have made arrangements to share one of the performances with their understudies. It’s only fair.”
Maybe Cheerilee had looked through her plans all along. No, she would’ve intervened. “She doesn’t want to be on stage. I will know my lines, I promise.” Was there a chance Little Cedar would leave before the final performance despite the changes to this timeline?
“No, Amber. I’ve made my decision. I’ll brief Little Cedar as soon as I find her.” She looked around. “She must’ve gone home already, but I’ll catch her tomorrow.”
There was more rehearing on the next day. After Cheerilee had talked to Little Cedar, the filly suddenly had tremendously important errands to run or fly and vanished for the rest of the day. Amber filled the role again during the rehearsals and impressed Cheerilee when she bungled her lines less and less frequently.
Then the day of the finale was upon them. Amber left the hotel early, proud that she would be on time for once. She was just out the door when she heard crashing and cursing from their room and then her father’s terror-stricken shriek. She ran back upstairs.
Her dad sat propped against the wall and fanned himself fresh air with the hotel restaurant’s menu to keep from fainting. A few steps away from him lay her brother. Her mother was bent over one of his hind legs feeling his ankle. The sunlight from the window played on his black and white body. Damask only looked annoyed with his own clumsiness.
“Bubs! What happened?” Amber asked.
“It’s nothing. I just wanted to look into the upper drawers of the Chippendale escri—grr, argh—toire,” and Amber admired that even in his pain he never considered saying desk although there was precisely one in the room, “so I climbed it. Most drawers were empty, but the uppermost left drawer contained three goose feather quills and one swan feather for titling. The drawer below it contained a jar of lampblack ink.” Amber’s mother was carefully moving his hoof. “The last drawer I inspected—grr, argh—held a letter opener. Even while I jumped down, but still before I landed so clumsily and sprained my ankle, I noted that while the blade was of stainless steel, the quillons of the ornate cross guard had been fashioned from Bakelite, possibly because the material was more readily engraved.”
But Amber did not have to filter his explanation for the relevant bits. She knew exactly how it had happened. Her brother had told her the story many years ago when she asked about his limp. A sprained ankle was a serious injury for a pony.
What was worse was that she had known it would happen. She might not have been able to reconstruct the exact date from memory, also because she had been in coma the first time, but she knew that it had happened shortly after her own accident. It was probably something about the unusual lighting situation with the window drawing a sharp contrast between light and shadow across the desk that led him to misjudge the height.
It would have been easy for her to avert the accident. She could have moved the desk or she could have simply told her brother not to climb it. She could have figured out how to remove the drawers, so she could levitate them down for him to inspect and memorize. There was so much that she could have done to save her brother’s ankle if only she had thought to do so in advance.
Amber took a step back and slumped against the wall next to her father. Her mother said something along the lines of “Not you too,” but Amber hardly heard her.
Was there anything she could still do for her brother? Could she find Fleur to send her back in time again? No, the current Fleur would not have the first clue how to do that. Maybe Fleur will end her back again in eight years? Not without the accident that disturbed her precious purity.
It is too late for my brother, for his ankle anyway, but, adrenaline erupted into a prickle throughout her chest, but I remember so many other accidents that have yet to occur. So many other ponies, like my brother, who I can save! Who I must save, because I can. The prickling sensation expanded to her thigh.
Her family was looking at her. Her dad was no longer covering his eyes, her mother had looked up from the wound she had just disinfected, only her brother had been looking at her throughout. What?
Her cutie mark was a beautiful yellow rose in bloom. A short stout stem, vicious thorns, and countless petals of a strong, dark yellow that radiated in equal parts determination and joy.
“Unless your cutie mark gives you the ability to lay magic healing eggs, there’s nothing you can do for me now. Your classmates, however, they count on you.”
Amber would have stayed with her brother, but he would not allow it. Finally, she conceded that his logic was sound and left the hospital. On the way out she peeked into the room where she had lain for over three weeks while the hospital in Ponyville was rebuilt.
She trotted toward the castle. By this time Little Cedar may have already thrown in the towel—if she was still to do so on this timeline—and Cheerilee may be panicking with no cast for the most central role.
Amber would have liked to enjoy the euphoria that this new and so much more auspicious cutie mark bestowed, but her brother’s accident overshadowed the occasion even though he took it least seriously of them all.
On her way to the castle, new feelings started to gush into the already heterodox potpourri. It was obvious that her cutie mark was connected to her epiphany. She had an ability, her foreknowledge, that distinguished her from most ponies, made her special. Now she understood that it was also an obligation. It allowed her to wield great power, but now she also felt its weight of responsibility.
She should record her memories of accidents in some fashion, record everything that she remembered about them. Her memory was surely above average, but Damask would have been a much better choice for the job. She reminded herself that the universe did not choose, and Fleur had her own unrelated, purity-ridden motives. This was her job and hers alone.
When Amber arrived, lost in thought, her class had the stage and was in the middle of rehearsing the scene at the bridge. She was hours late. Cheerilee scowled at her.
“What’s it this time? Another ‘contingency’?”
Amber squatted next to her. “Yeah.”
Little Cedar was on stage. Light coat and red mane and tail had always made her Amber’s mirror image, only with wings instead of the horn. Her gift for aerial navigation, evident in her compass cutie mark, was another distinguishing feature. She knew her lines well enough, but then she only had three in this scene. Evidently she had not left for Cloudsdale as Amber had expected.
Amber disapproved of her own feelings toward Little Cedar. After the epiphany, the whole question of whether she got her role back, her scheming and conniving for the spot in the limelight, and the play itself seemed even more childish to her than before. Her feelings, however, did not reflect this reality. She still yearned to act in front of the princess and scores of royals. The only thing that held outright envy at bay was the fact that Amber herself had brought this situation upon herself so many years earlier, a situation Little Cedar hated as much as Amber did.
After a little while, Cheerilee broke the silence again. “Congratulations on your cutie mark,” she said in a strikingly even tone. “In retrospect, how was your life before you got it?”
Amber pondered that. “Pointless.”
“Preparatory. You know, your cutie mark is sort of like a black belt in life, or in your particular life that is. A first dan of sorts.”
“You’re reminding me that it’s only the start of whatever journey it signifies?”
When the scene was over and her class yielded to the next, the students began to notice Amber’s new cutie mark too, but no pony was surprised to find an amber rose, so the inspections were short enough. At least the questions about what she had been doing when it appeared and what she thought it meant kept Amber’s mind off the performance and the role she yearned to play.
Noon came, and Cheerilee remained steadfast in her casting decision. If Amber did not get to play for the princess, she at least wanted to use the opportunity to talk to her.
The atmosphere was subtly different from that the previous afternoon. Only a limited number of ponies had been invited, most of them royalty and the parents or guardians of the actors, so the main aisle remained open and everypony stood in orderly rows. The front rows were reserved for the princess and her attendants, and chairs were brought in for them.
Twelve classes would present their performances and Ponyville’s was among the first. A few minutes before the first play was set to start, Princess Celestia slipped into the hall rather inconspicuously and sat down. Amber walked over to her and bowed.
“Your Highness, I hope our play will not offend. We have taken great care to represent the events that have taken place in Ponyville as accurately and respectfully as our humble skills allowed.”
“Then you must be one of the fillies from Ponyville. Your teacher, Cheerilee I believe, submitted the premise a few months ago for approval,” Celestia replied. “I’m sure it will be delightful.
“As it happens, I will make a casual visit to Ponyville tomorrow. I just hope they’re not making a great spectacle out of it again,” Celestia said and smiled. “Who do you play?”
“I’m Twilight Sparkle. In today’s performance, however, a friend of mine will fill the role.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing the real Twilight tomorrow. You know her, I trust, Ponyville being the small town it is?”
“I do. She has often lent me books.” To Amber, she was mostly the princess now, but she remembered how she had thought of Twilight at the time. “I don’t know her very well beyond that.”
The spotlights bathed the stage in light to indicate that the play was about to start. Amber excused herself and left for the hallway that doubled as backstage area. She somehow remembered this “casual visit” Celestia had mentioned, but she could not quite put her hoof to it.
Backstage she was being expected. Little Cedar stood to the right of two ponies oddly dressed for the season—dressed at all that is. All three were pegasi, and all three beamed at Amber, who responded with an askance scowl. They stood in the order of their shoulder height.
“You must be Amber,” the tallest pegasus said. After a nodded confirmation from Little Cedar she continued, “We are Little Cedar’s parents”—at which Amber mused that their names must be Big Cedar and Average-Sized Cedar—“and we just learned that she has been accepted into a prestigious aerial navigation program of her Cloudsdale school. She has been on the waiting list of three years. Now a student didn’t show up in time, and she gets to take their place. Unfortunately, we’ll have to leave for the Crystal Mountains right away to be there by dawn.” She looked at her partner to continue.
“Cheerilee tells us that you were eager to take the role anyway, so this should not be a problem for you. We apologize, however, for the short notice,” she said.
Now Amber smiled mildly. “Even if there were no second cast for Little Cedar’s role, you would not allow for this chance to pass her by, would you?”
“No. It is her true calling,” said the pegasus who had spoken first. Neither of the others contradicted her.
“What her cutie mark is telling her,” Amber said in a dreamy voice, then more firmly, “I’ll gladly accept.” So that’s what happened last time. Mystery solved.
They did not even leave Little Cedar the time to say goodbye to the rest of the class. With a hurried thank you they rose and flew off, even still within the building.
Amber decided to go through her lines a few more times before the final performance.
These royals were jolly fellows! Amber was surprised to find that some of them knew the lyrics of the little ditty Cheerilee had worked into the play and accompanied at least the slow passages. She thought she even heard some stallions with impressive falsettos.
After that scene, the students quickly plunged the stage into what darkness the slightly filtered daylight allowed. The cone of the flashlight on the map indicated a spot deep in the Everfree Forest. They removed several tripods with paper foliage that had represented trees and rolled a band of blue across the center of the stage toward the audience. A river.
Or in fact two rivers, because they were in the lucky position to be able to use the same setup for two scenes. The cone of light moved slightly to the south, where the first of the rivers cut through the green.
This scene was entirely Wind Turner’s. He was the little colt of the enigmatic Turner family, but his demeanor was everything but enigmatic. He was a born entertainer, outgoing and unself-conscious, and while he was too nearsighted to see the audience, he could hear their roaring laughter over his performance.
The circle of light moved southeast. The second river scene had Amber speaking again. “There it is, the ruin that holds the Elements of Harmony. We made it!” This time, she knew she got it right, verbatim. A moment later she added “We’re almost there. Whoa!” She had to pretend to almost fall into a narrow band of cloth. Nothing easier than that.
Noi had drawn the real Rainbow Dash’s cutie mark over her own. Just as her understudy, she was an earth pony, but the cutie mark made clear whom she represented. The coming minute would belong to her, and Amber had time to wonder about her last few lines. “The ruin that holds The Elements of Harmony.” For the second time that day, she was reminded of the ruined Ponyville she returned to when she woke up from coma. The amulets had probably been in a safe somewhere in Canterlot already, but the six ponies lived and Ponyville and helped rebuild it after… What exactly had happened? It was Amber’s turn again.
“Rainbow, what’s taking so long? Oh no. Rainbow! Don’t listen to them.” She charged her voice with so much urgency that she could hear sharply indrawn breaths throughout the audience.
Oh, right, the parasprites. For a moment, she was glad. Another mystery solved.
Oh no! That started the day before Celestia’s “casual” visit! Ponyville might already be under attack! They might have already infested a dozen homes, and a day later they will be gobbling up Sweet Apple Acers, Town Hall, and her parents’ place!
But she may be able to forestall the invasion right where it started with the single parasprite Fluttershy had found. That may have happened during the early afternoon of the day.
If it is already too late for that, she may still be able to mediate between Pinkie Pie and the other five who seemed to have had trouble communicating. She knew where the school kept the instruments. There was so much she could do to prevent the disaster! It’s also what my cutie mark is telling me—my true calling.
“See? I’d never leave my friends hangin’,” Rainbow Dash told her. It was the end of the scene. But what if you have to choose between your friends on this stage and your friends in Ponyville? Amber remembered a newspaper article she had read about the event. And the friends you have yet to meet in Fillydelphia!
One thing was for certain, just as Rainbow Dash just told off the Shadow Bolts out of loyalty to her friends, Amber would not forfeit any of her friends for her own ambitions either. The rest of the equation was simple enough too. A ruined play or two ruined towns? She felt awful about what she had to do.
The stage required some reorganization to represent the interior of the castle. The river had to go, and five boulders had to be arranged in a circle. One jump and Amber was off the stage, a second and she stood in front of Cheerilee.
“You know all my lines, right? You’re the new Twilight!” She did not wait for Cheerilee to reply. Her teacher would be able to tell from Amber’s voice that she was dead serious.
Seconds later, Amber slipped backstage. “Juniper, you got yourself an assistant, right?”
“I wanted to be involved in some fashion at least.” It was Featherweight who answered. He still sounded sick.
“Cool, you take over. Juniper, we’ll need two carpets. Direction: south-west to Ponyville. Time of departure: right now. I’ll explain when we’re airborne.”
Juniper looked shocked for a moment, then scrambled to find two carpets among the heaps of props.
Seconds later the play resumed and they levitated the rugs out to the backstage area. Amber caught a glimpse of Cheerilee on the stage. She could not see how the audience reacted to the unexplained transformation.
“Whatcha doin’?” A colt had followed them out.
“We have to leave for Ponyville, urgently,” Amber said. She tried to recall his name. He was the understudy of Noi and had played Rainbow Dash in their first public performance in Ponyville.
“On carpets, awesome! I saw a large lenticular cloud above the mountain this morning, probably due to moist winds from the eastern sea, so you need to be careful not to get into the leeward turbulences but you can also use the wind to travel faster for a while, then correct your path at the last moment.” He looked from one unicorn to the other. “Actually, can I come with you? I’m preternaturally bored, and flying sounds awesome. I’ve never done that before.” It seemed like a statement of the obvious to Amber until she reflected on her own wingless nature.
“You’ll go with Juniper. She’s better at this. Let’s go!” Oh, right, September was his name!
Amber knew that she had not used a flying carpet in over eight years, but she had not expected to be so clumsy. Juniper’s carpet glowed with her golden aura, straightened, and lifted into the air with one swift and controlled motion, Amber’s lift-off equaled it only in swiftness. The carpet would have crashed her into the ceiling had she not released her magic at the last moment. Then carpet and pony were in free fall.
Juniper shot up and headed directly for the falling ball of Amber and carpet. Right before they made contact, she converted her upward momentum into a downward one roughly half of Amber’s and caught her softly. Then they were blind-sighted as Amber’s carpet enveloped them. Juniper remembered their height and speed and landed them blindly. The whole ordeal took only seconds.
September spit out Juniper’s tail and danced on her carpet. “Woohoo! That was fun!”
Amber jumped back on her carpet. “I’ll try again!”
This time she managed to lift the carpet more carefully. The way to the southern gate lead around a few more corners and through narrower hallways. Accordingly, Juniper chose a slow pace and Ambr matched it.
“Why do you have to hover a carpet?” September asked. “Can’t you just hover yourselves?”
Explaining the intricacies of carpet flight was Juniper’s forte. Her inofficial lessons often included a theoretical portion. “It is possible to hover yourself directly, but this sort of recursive application of magic, a levitation applied to your own whole body, is of a level of skill beyond the ken of most unicorns.
“Levitating a carpet beneath your hooves is greatly easier, although it is different from other levitation magic in that you can’t feel the progress with your magical proprioception—you know, the sense for the position of your own magical aura—because it always remains at a constant distance to you.
“I usually recommend that they imagine levitating the earth away from them. That’s not actually the case, but it helps them. Then some unicorns have problems not to get confused about up and down. It takes some practice. Maybe you can learn it too.”
“Earth ponies are not known for their flying skills,” September said.
“Neither are unicorns,” Juniper countered.
“There are a lot of jobs in the weather patrol that don’t involve cloud kicking. I’ve been hoping to join the planning teams when I’m older, but those are traditionally jobs for pegasi too.”
“Buck tradition. The average colt your age wouldn’t know what a lenticular cloud is, even a pegasus. It’s your brains they’ll need in the Weather Patrol, not your wings.”
Amber sensed that her young self must have seemed embarrassingly immature to Juniper. To distract herself, Amber started to experiment with her speed. She liked speed.
With one burst she doubled it, slanting the carpet forward for a second so not to be swept off. Then she whizzed around the two, three, four corners to the entrance. She knew that Juniper could easily catch up to her but prudently chose not to.
Amber was lucky that the gate was open. Braking her carpet down from this speed would have been possible yet highly unhealthy.
Outside, Juniper caught up to her at once. September stared in amazement at their height, their speed, but mostly the cloud formations that seemed to whisper to him.
He pointed. “You see the tapering of the lenticular cloud? That’s the leeward side. We have to stay away from that.” He thought for a moment while they soared over the roofs of Canterlot. “Head slightly north of Ponyville, this direction,” he pointed again, “so the wind can drive us a little or we can match its speed, so we can talk.”
Juniper followed his instructions and accelerated in her uniquely smooth way. Amber followed with one burst of acceleration that knocked her legs out from under her as it pressed her against the slanted carpet. They cleared Canterlot and the plateau, and were gliding above a mile of nothingness.
Amber was still fighting with nausea when Juniper swerved to her side. “You alright? You used to be better at this two weeks ago.” She was worried, not teasing. “Remember to increase your speed in small increments.”
“You didn’t speed up in increments,” September told Juniper.
“That’s true. I accelerated at a constant rate over several seconds, but I haven’t been able to teach that to anyone else yet. There are other carpet flyers who have mastered it, but none in Ponyville unfortunately. I’ve never met them.
“All unicorns learn to levitate things at some point, and moving something at a constant speed comes naturally to them too, but there’s something about acceleration that makes it more abstract to them. It’s one step further removed in a way. It’s hard for them to take that extra step in their imagination.
“What they do is that they tilt their carpet forward and at the same moment command it to a higher speed. It complies within a fraction of a second. If the increase was too great, though, the pony gets slammed into the carpet.”
September was satisfied with that explanation.
“Oh, and what are we doing here anyway?” Juniper added.
Amber had recovered and sat comfortably on her carpet. “We have a few minutes till we reach Ponyville, so I guess I’ll use them to tell you my eight-year-long tale.”
It was closer to an executive summary of her time travel, her faux epiphany that she was sent back to fix Fleur’s or her own perceived mistakes, and her real epiphany that it was up to her alone to choose her purpose in life, starting with using her eight years of foreknowledge to avert every catastrophe she could. She concluded with the bit about the parasprites that were about to gobble up their home town, when it came into view. A tiny splotch at the rim of the Everfree.
September paid attention to wind and clouds and birds, and had not spoken throughout Amber’s explanation. Now he looked at her. “Wouldn’t it be better to send the royal guard rather than trying this alone?”
Amber cocked her head. “I haven’t thought about that. A bit late now. Besides, I have a plan. Let’s just hope we aren’t too late already.”
Landing had always been a challenge for Amber because she had to decelerate in time, so she would neither be crushed by the bursts of deceleration nor by the ultimate deceleration that the ground affords. Now, however, as Amber experimented with her carpet, she noticed that she could in fact gain glimpses of this higher level of abstraction that was home to acceleration and deceleration. It was a feeling just like the one, months after her coma, when she suddenly gained the ability to funnel her remaining magical trickle in just the right way to produce whole sentences again with her quill. Her grasp on it was tenuous and would require much more practice, but then as now, her discovery made her giddy and proud. She had to show it to Juniper at once. The landing was an ideal opportunity.
First they only changed their trajectory southeast and down toward the town, but soon they would have to brake to sail down into one of the streets or squares at a comfortable speed. As they veered left, they were hit by the wind whose speed and direction they had matched, and Amber could feel why the Cedar parents had worn jackets. She shivered.
“Let’s land close to Sugarcube Corner,” Amber shouted over the noise of the wind in her ears.
When Amber could just make out the ponies in the streets, Juniper started to fall behind, slowly at first, then more rapidly. She had begun to gracefully slow down. Now it was Amber’s turn to show what she had learned.
She had to concentrate very consciously to regain the control over her levitational magic that she had grazed minutes before, concentrate on an activity that was completely unconscious to most unicorns. She was already countering a constant acceleration, that of the earth. Now she just had to replicate the same kind of force in a different direction while maintaining the first.
The weight on her legs told her that it was working, but she wanted visual confirmation. The ground was too far away for her to use as reference point, and she dared not look around lest she lose her concentration. Come on, Juniper can move freely on her carpet too. Try it!
She turned her head just in time to see Juniper right behind her and closing. Juniper banked hard to her left, Amber reversed her thrust.
They missed each other by a hoof’s width, but Amber accelerated too hard. Her hooves lost friction, and she tumbled to the stern of her rug before she could react and slope it upward.
Her hind legs were already hanging over the abyss and she wished for claws for the first time in her life, when something forced her magical aura off the carpet as well. She was too preoccupied to fight back.
A moment later the bow of the carpet dove back underneath itself and caught Amber from below on its underside. Then she regained her magical hold of it.
Juniper hovered next to her. “I think you just accelerated at a more or less controlled rate. Congrats! Hardly anyone can do that.” She seemed completely collected. Only September’s firm bite to her tail betrayed the dramatic carpet acrobatics moments earlier.
“Did you just fly two carpets at once? How…?” Amber started at her.
Juniper just shrugged and nodded in the direction of her cutie mark.
“Let’s not waste any more time up here!” September had released his bite to speak.
Without another comment, both carpets dove toward Ponyville.
Amber used her new trick again to brake before they set down. This time she took care to keep Juniper and September in front of her and at a safe distance.
Ponyville had not been devoured yet.
Sugarcube Corner was open, and Mr. Cake welcomed them.
“Hey Carrot, is Pinkie Pie in?” Amber asked.
“One moment.” He vanished into their kitchen. Moments later Pinkie Pie bounced toward them.
“Pinkie Pie,” Amber began, “I don’t have enough time to explain the how and why of everything, but you have to trust me. We need your help.”
“Lemme guess! You want to buy prosthetic hands!”
“Okay! Adorevil little creatures are about to overrun the town, and you need me to assemble my one-pony band and fly with those fillies to Fillydelphia to save the day!”
Amber was a little confused each time this happened. “Precisely. September here has some crazy meteorology knowledge and can guide you. Juniper is probably the best carpet flyer alive. You’ll be in good hooves.”
“Let’s …,” Pinkie Pie started.
“One more thing. I’ll need your party cannon.”
“It’s right here!” Although the cannon was about the same size as the whole pony, Pinkie Pie shook it out of her mane with one practiced motion. “Now let’s go!”
Amber turned to Juniper and September. “Pinkie Pie will have to collect some supplies before you leave—you have my permission as, uh, student to pillage the school’s stash of instruments—and Fillydelphia is to the east, so you’ll have to fight the wind all the way. The town may already be full with the creatures by the time you arrive. I hope that I can prevent that here.”
“Not necessarily,” September said, “I saw a few stratocumulus castellanus that hardly moved. We might escape the wind to a higher altitude, but we’ll need warm clothes.”
“Good. We’ll meet again right here. Take care of each other and good luck!” With that, Amber grabbed the party cannon in her magic and galloped toward the edge of the Everfree Forest.
“Then suddenly this filly, Amber Rose, jumped out of the bushes where she had lain in hiding motionlessly for half an hour. ‘Fluttershy! Stand back!’ she commanded.
“I jumped back, I fluttered, I scrambled, I almost fell. Then she stood over me—actually, uhm, I think I’m the taller one but, uhm… She stood over me with fiery mane and fiery tail, her eyes burning with determination.
“That’s when the little creature, a voracious parasprite, tried to escape, but the filly caught it in the auburn grip of her magic and shoved it down the barrel of her cannon—uhm, can I maybe say ‘party cannon’? It sounds less, uhm, threatening?
“A second later she shot it far out into the forest, together with all the usual streamers and confetti, never to be seen again.
“Don’t you think it’s a little, uhm, overly dramatic?” Fluttershy asked and put down the slip of paper with the report Amber had asked her to recite for the Foal Free Press.
Amber bit her lip. “Actually, scrap that.” She took the slip out of Fluttershy’s hooves and hovered it into a waste bin. “Old Amber would’ve wanted to be celebrated in the papers, but that’s not what my cutie mark is telling me.” Amber saw that Fluttershy was inspecting the yellow rose, uncomprehending. “It’s telling me to help ponies because I can, nothing more. Just tell it as it happened, including our silly chase of that thing if you like.”
“Okay. I’m much more comfortable with that.” Fluttershy breathed a sigh of relief.
“But you can still mention my name, alright?”
Amber had been waiting at Sugarcube Corner for a few hours and felt well nourished when she saw the carpet closing. First it was just a dot against the darkening sky, then she could make out Juniper, who stood at the bow, her horn aglow. She stood very rigidly, Amber noticed.
The carpet swooped into the street, landed softly in front of the bakery, and Juniper collapsed at once. She was huddled in a blanket in addition to her jacket, but the whole bundle shivered violently. Pinkie Pie wanted to get her to Nurse Redheart immediately.
“No, just a cold,” Juniper whispered. “Need to get to Canterlot. My parents. Amber, you need to fly us.”
Amber and September assured Pinkie Pie that they would seek medical attention right away when they arrived, and Pinkie volunteered to return the instruments to the school. Then they took off.
Juniper did not feel like speaking, so Amber had no idea whether she had a headache or nausea in addition to obvious chills and fever. Still, she took care to launch as softly as possible. She wanted to ask about Fillydelphia, the parasprites, what happened to Juniper, but first they had to get airborne.
The wind was pushing against them from starboard bow, and the further Amber accelerated, the harder it became for them to hear each other. They were cold too. Juniper was drifting in and out of sleep, hardly conscious of the maelstrom around her. Even September seemed a little drowsy.
“Try putting up a protective field,” he shouted at Amber. She barely understood him. “Juniper did it on the flight to Fillydelphia!”
Control the carpet, which moved so heavily with three ponies on it, and a magical field at the same time? Juniper has done it!
It took Amber countless attempts. Always the spell threatened to disrupt her focus on the flight and she had to abort to secure her hold on the carpet. This time Juniper could not catch them if she messed up.
She kept the parameters of the flight as simple as possible. Constant speed, slightly slanted against the wind. Darkness had descended in full when, after many more attempts, she managed to erect a simple shield on just the windward side. It looked as if it might collapse any moment. Once it was in place it took little attention to maintain. For now they were safe from most of the wind and noise, and Amber could ask the questions she had been burning to ask.
“September, what happened in Fillydelphia? Did you get rid of all the parasprites? Why is Juniper sick?”
He put his hoof over the shaking bundle of cloth and pony. “Juniper put up a shield much like yours, but all around her carpet. That helped a lot when we rose through the surface current. We hardly noticed any of the storm around us. But then we reached a region of windshear and crazy turbulences. The shield kept the wind out, but from the inside we could’ve easily fallen through it when one of those gusts whirled us around or pushed us down.
“She parried them with lightning speed, and always slanted the carpet just right to keep us and the instruments from falling off. It was pretty rad actually. We were still trying to rise higher where I suspected a slower, more uniform current because of the clouds there. The downdrafts kept pushing us back.
“It took us at least half an hour to get through that layer. We’ve all been sweating blood and water, literally. Well, except the blood part. Especially Juniper was worn out from the concentration. She pulled down the field and let the gentle breeze up there cool us. But it was really cold actually, and then she even doffed her jacket. My mom always warned me against that.
“Anyway, near Fillydelphia the aerial situation was more peaceful. Near the ground it was anything but. The parasprites weren’t eating the houses yet, but the farmers and the vendors in the market were all up in arms. Many unicorns also struggled to hold up fields to keep them out, but other ponies were defenseless unless a unicorn volunteered to help them. Some were trying to shoo them off. It was chaotic.
“Juniper helped with some of the fields, but she was already feeling weak. Meanwhile Pinkie Pie put together her one-pony band, and the rest was routine, or for Pinkie Pie anyway. She lured them into a forest to the south of the city, and then the ancient magic that keeps all the beasts in there must’ve taken hold of them.
“Juniper had already stayed behind during that tour. When we came back, she lay on the carpet half asleep. Somepony had brought her some tea and a blanket.
“When she noticed us, she forced herself erect. With her last ounce of strength brought us up into the air and up to the right speed to sail on the wind. Luckily Ponyville was almost straight west from there, just the direction of the surface current.
“Somehow that last ounce lasted almost a full hour until we reached Ponyville.”
They were almost upon Canterlot. Amber corrected their altitude slightly upward—the city was that high on the mountain—and braked softly. Juniper appeared to be asleep and her shivering had ceased. Amber wanted to keep it that way.
Much slower this time that she had guests on board, Amber steered her carpet through the hallways of the castle. The gate at the back of their hall was fully open now, and ponies were removing chairs and decoration. Only a few of the students were still around, and their parents were chatting with Cheerilee as Amber, Juniper, and September approached.
“You!” Two of the parents were charging toward her when Amber had hardly disembarked. Then they saw Juniper. “June! There you are!”
“Shh, she’s asleep,” Amber whispered to them.
“What have you done to her?” one of them whispered back.
Amber ignored the accusation. “We think she caught a cold. She has been shivering quite badly for a while. Probably fever too. We tried to bring her back here as quick as possible.”
Juniper’s parents took her upon themselves—she only groaned softly in response—and scurried off without another word.
That’s when her own parents noticed the commotion. Her brother must have been still in the hospital, she surmised. It only took a moment until she was hugged by two wings and legs.
When all welcoming hugs had been administered, Amber turned to Cheerilee. “How did the play go after I left?” She could have affected contrition but she found that she would make the same decision again, so such an affectation would have struck her as insincere.
“I’m the Element of Magic now. Quite a promotion for an earth pony.” Then Cheerilee looked more seriously. “You’re not the type to get stage fright. What happened?”
A few of the parents who were still around edged closer.
“I don’t know how secretive I should be about this. Can we talk in private, just you, September, and my parents?”
They found a little cranny in an adjacent hallway where they could sit down. Amber repeated much of what had happened over the last few days, and told Cheerilee about their campaigns in Ponyville and Fillydelphia.
“I understand why you decided that the play was less important. It had been very important to you personally, so it must’ve been a hard decision too. Don’t you think, though, that their struggle with the parasprites and the rebuilding of the town may have also held positive, formative experiences for some ponies, that some ponies may have learned important lessons from them?”
Amber had not considered that but neither did it seem relevant to her. “I can’t allow a definite catastrophe to be visited upon countless ponies just for some hypothetical and probably not even commensurate good it might bring for some of them.”
Cheerilee only nodded. “But I’m afraid you won’t be able to convince your classmates through rational argument. Many of them seemed rather hostile earlier when they talked about you. You better think of a good cover story.”
“In a way I deserve it,” Amber said.
“You could not have known that Little Cedar would be taken out of school.”
“Not that, but I picked her because she had no interest in performing. It was awfully selfish of me, of past me.” Now Amber’s contrition was sincere.
“I know. Such is the way of the limelight.” She sighed. “But you learned your lesson.” Cheerilee had already turned away when she hesitated and turned back to Amber. “Actually, you learned several lessons, didn’t you? Remember when I said that your cutie mark was like a first dan in your life? Maybe you took another step in that direction today. You weighed your priorities there on the stage and decided to defend our town against the parasprites even though no pony would know to thank you for it. You may even become an anathema to your classmates for almost ruining their play.”
Now it was Amber’s turn to nod in silence.
After a moment of silence, Cheerilee turned to September. “You haven’t said anything. Aren’t your parents waiting for you?”
“Naw, I don’t have a dad anymore, and my mom runs a huge soap business in Manehattan. She only comes to Ponyville on weekends. Some weekends. I’m staying here alone too. I like the solitude though. Lots of time to watch the clouds.” Amber couldn’t tell whether he sincerely liked it; he always had a smile on his face, but at some times it seems more rigid than at others.
“I can walk you home, to the hotel, if you like,” Cheerilee said.
The other parents had gone during their conclave. Outside the castle, the Roses, and Cheerilee and September also wished each other sweet dreams and went their separate ways.
Amber was tired too, but sleep was not on her agenda for this day. When she had had a few hours to spare waiting at Sugarcube Corner, she had made a mental list of catastrophes, calamities, and similar doozies that she remembered had befallen her family and friends. As soon as they reached the hotel, she got to work writing them down.
At one point there had been that series of accidents in Ponyville that this mysterious Mare Do Well alicorn prevented before she vanished again. She could still remember her feats, but there was nothing for Amber to do there.
There was also the time Twilight Sparkle’s dragon got big all of a sudden. She might read up on dragon physiology to see if there’s anything that could be done to prevent that, but the literature on dragons was limited to begin with.
The lightning bolt that struck Town Hall? The roof structure had been awfully ramshackle. It had been a stroke of luck that it collapsed when no pony was inside rather than during a session of the senate. She dismissed that one.
She remembered the time when Twilight Sparkle was visited by her future self and got everyone worried about some impending disaster when all she had tried to tell herself was not to worry. She could warn Twilight, or unwarn her, as it were. Naw, better not mess with time.
For a few more hours, Amber went farther and farther into the future, her past, and jotted down pages of notes. Her recollection was full of holes. Especially dates were hard for her to recall, often even the relative order of different events. Then she remembered the time when Discord wreaked havoc on Equestria. Their house had floated around for a while, so she could not get out.
When she tried to think of any way in that she could prevent or influence this event, it occurred to her that Discord had not just toyed with Ponyville but with much of Equestria. All the catastrophes on her list had imprinted themselves so strongly on her brain because they concerned herself or friends and family, all of them ponies from her home town, ponies she knew personally. This was the first event that broke out of these limited confines.
Amber knew that she had read about countless accidents and a few outright catastrophes in the newspapers throughout the years, but her memory of them was even more hazy. There was not a single such accident that she could recall in sufficient detail to even begin to think about ways to avert it.
It was so fundamentally unjust. The majority of the ponies in her country would have to suffer all their hardships again because their misery had not left enough of an imprint on Amber’s memory, because Amber’s empathy had been too selective.
Amber could not imagine what it would be like to dedicate her coming years to saving her friends from a few falling flower pots while on some far away ends of Equestria dam failures swept away a whole towns. She felt like she was condemning all these other ponies—almost all ponies throughout all of Equestria—as second-class equines just because they had not been lucky enough to be born in her home town.
It would be more just of her to sit back and let all the catastrophes strike again, Amber thought, but it was a justice that served no pony. She cursed her past self for not memorizing all the papers like her brother did. If only she had had some sort of written record on herself when Fleur sent her back. No, I’m not an “if only” pony. I’ll just have to remember harder!
Remembering harder, however, she soon got too drowsy to keep her eyes open. Her parents’ soft snoring mingled into intermittent flashes of dreams she still tried to shake off. Soon she felt the top of the something-dale desk under her head. Dream ponies whispered to her. She thought she should move over to her bed.
I do have a written record! It was early dawn. Amber had only slept for a few hours but she was wide awake. She was proud to have come to this realization while she was still in Canterlot.
There was another thing she would have to do in their final week of vacation there. A calamity that she could prevent almost whenever she wanted. A very convenient calamity. But for that she first needed more information, more than she could remember.
Once she had a more thorough record of the future, she could intervene in catastrophes from the San Palomino Desert to the Neighagra Falls, and it would also help her plug holes of half a year or more that gaped in her scribbled pages from the previous night. A pony with her calling could not possibly be forced to waste half a year just waiting. She burned to get to the castle.
She left a note for her parents and brother not to worry while she engaged in trespassing and theft. She elided the last part.
She emptied her backpacks on the floor, put them on, and galloped off to Juniper’s hotel.
A minute later and halfway there she braked hard, hooves raking through the dust. She stood in front of the hypnotherapist’s practice that she would pass eight years from then on her way to the university. She stepped to the door and knocked.
A middle-aged pony with calm, confident eyes opened for her, and soon they sat on a cushy couch sipping vegan mango lassis. If lassis were a time measure, then Amber did not want to stay for more than one of them, so she got straight to the point.
“I need to remember a lot of things that happened over the past eight years and I need to recall them in detail. Can you hypnotize me and then make me wander back there and recount them on tape?”
The hypnotist shook her head. “You’d be much more likely to make up fake memories that would be indistinguishable from real memories to you. You don’t want that.”
Amber pondered that for a moment. Her glass was not even half empty, so she had time. And then she had a new idea.
“There’s something else you might be able to do for me.”
Half an hour later Amber reached Juniper’s hotel and learned that Juniper’s parents were still blaming her for their daughter’s cold. They told her to scram, and Amber complied rapidly when she saw a potted petunia being levitated out their window. It crashed to the ground inches behind her flying tail.
She only knew September’s hotel, not the room number, but the colt was already up and was dreamily glancing out of his window when Amber approached.
The performances were past and the weather must have been very ordinary as well, because he was excited to learn of Amber’s new plans and eager to escape the boredom of the empty hotel room.
Armed with empty backpacks, both ponies trotted to the castle.
The backdoor to the executive wing that Fleur had taken to get to her office had hardly changed over the eight years no matter the temporal direction. Amber recognized it and with it recognized a crucial flaw in her plan. The door was locked just as it would be in eight years, and of course she had no keys. She pressed the handle and rattled the door, all to no avail. How had she imagined they would be able to rob a governmental building with nothing but backpacks and good intentions?
She stared at the lock as if she could scare the driver pins into the hull. She cursed under her breath. “Darn, we’ll have to find another way in.”
Just as she turned to leave, September tried the door a final time. It opened.
“How’d you do that?” Amber asked.
Up the staircase and then left. Or was it straight and the next one left? All the hallways looked the same, gray carpets, white walls, and doors to the many offices every ten or twenty steps. Amber did not want to waste time vacillating. She took a left turn. After a few score steps she realized her mistake and they turned. So straight after all.
The new route looked more promising. A few ponies passed them by, but they seemed to be on important errants and hardly took notice of the two young ponies. Soon they came upon one of the hallways that was patrolled by a guard. Amber thought that maybe the guard would let them pass if only they exuded the right kind of routine confidence. She was not sure if September could pull off an act like that, and due to their age, they would probably seem out of place no matter what they did, so she decided to wait in a smaller, arching corridor until the guard was out of sight. Didn’t Fleur have to unlock another door on our way here? It must’ve stood open or we would’ve noticed it.
The guard would not go out of sight. He walked a few hundred steps to the far side, then returned. When he threatened to pass the door to their corridor, they retreated back a few steps until they were hidden by the curve. His hoofsteps passed the door.
A few seconds later Amber thought she heard voices, many of them. The guard still had his back turned on the the mouth of their corridor, so they peeked out to see where they were coming from. A pony with a loud, clear voice was walking ahead of maybe a dozen others, explaining various aspects of the castle and of Canterlot. The visitors, tourists probably, were either listening or chatting among themselves.
When they passed the door, Amber felt a tug on her backpacks. “Come, this is our chance,” September whispered to her.
A minute later they still walked among the group, pretending to listen attentively. The guide even flashed them a smile when she saw them. This part of the castle must be so boring that she had to fill the time with general factoids about the architecture and later the intellectual heritage of the city. Another minute later, Amber indicated to September that it was time for them to excuse themselves again. They were almost there.
Amber definitely saw one of the previously locked doors standing open now. They were lucky indeed. The office itself was of course as unlocked as she had left it a few days earlier.
They swiftly scooped up all the detritus of partially singed newspapers and deposited it in their backpacks. Amber observed with dismay that they bulged conspicuously.
Now they only had to get out. It should be possible to avoid the patrol, Amber thought, since there must be many ways out. She led the way along the hallway. Looking through the windows in the doors she saw that only a hoofful of the offices seemed to be in use, just as she remembered it from eight years from then.
They passed a hallway to the right, and Amber recognized it as the one she had mistaken a few days earlier for the hallway through which they had just come. On that tour she had not met a soul in the whole wing until she came upon the tower where Praetoria found her. It had been earlier in the morning then, but maybe it was always as empty. She yearned for the safety of the public streets outside. If only she had been able to learn teleportation. Buck “if only,” she reminded herself.
In her reverie she walked out into an intersection of two hallways, and as if to punish her doubly for her carelessness, not one but two guards stood only a few doors away. For a moment she forgot to act suave, stopped dead in her tracks, then stumbled forward when September bump into her.
“Hmm. Are you lost, madam?” the guard still wearing her armor asked. “Sir?” she added when she saw September.
“Depends,” Amber replied. “Is this the correct direction to the archivist’s office?” She pointed at random, straight as it happened. There got to be archivists here, right?
“Hmpf. What archivist?” the guard asked. Her intonation was so flat that Amber could not tell whether she wanted to know which of several archivists Amber meant or whether she did not know of any.
“The one of …” Amber searched her memory for anything she knew about the place that did not sound utterly inane. “… of the Hypogeum Absciticious.” Thanks, bubs!
“Hmm. Oh, you mean the curator of the gallery?”
“Or curator, yeah.” She intoned it as if it were an inconsequential distinction.
“Hmm,” the guard started, and Amber thought how expressive that sound could be if only she put any sort of intonation into her voice. “Hmm. I think that’s this way, don’t you think?” she asked her colleague.
“Whew, Hypogeum Ab–, uh… Lower certainly. There’s a staircase this way.” He tried to be helpful. “But weren’t you part of that tourists group a few minutes ago?”
Oops! Why do all those guards have to look so darn similar in those helmets! Amber started to sweat. She hated to lie, but this seemed like a situation that demanded it. She tried to think of a believable cover story.
September was quicker. “Nah, we were just interested in what the guide had to say. We’re on an errant for the c-archivist.”
That was a fib that Amber could build upon. “Yeah, she mentioned that the prevalent architectural style that was used for most of the governmental buildings in the city is a reproduction of the style of a much earlier period, long before the reign of the royal sisters. They discovered the ripped, ogival vaults and arches, the flying buttresses, and the ornate stained-glass windows during archeological explorations of their own, and much later decided to fashion their palace in the same spirit just as they reused many names from earlier periods as well. We found that fascinating and followed her along for a little while.”
After that, the guards were silent long enough for Amber and September to pass them. But they did not get far.
“But your packs were empty earlier. Can we have a look what you’re transporting there for the archivist?”
So he can’t recall a simple word like abscititious but he does remember the state of our backpacks. Darn again. “Only some scraps of old, scorched newspapers, see.” Amber levitated one side open. She hoped they would not look any closer and discover the dates years in the future.
The guard on duty levitated one of the scraps to her eyes. “But this is years in the future. Where did you get this?”
“Uh, they’re just …” Amber looked at September for help, who looked back wide-eyed and helpless. “Run,” she whispered.
Amber grabbed the scrap from the guards magic before she could react and both of them raced along the winding corridor closely followed by both guards.
“Alert the guards at the entrance to the Hypogeum! I’ll follow them!” The armored guard shouted.
So let’s not run that way. Amber took a sharp right turn at random, hoping it would not lead them into any sort of cul-de-sac. Outward, upward, and find a carpet!
Amber had already noticed that doors favored them that day, but what happened then was hard to attribute to mere chance. The moment September’s tail passed one of the door that somehow always stood open for them, it slammed shut in front of the guard. Amber only heard the double umpf. Not a second later a light blue aura played around hinges and frame of another door to their left, then ripped it free and slammed it outward in a dust cloud of mortar. Through the hole, Amber recognized the tiles and ornaments of a tower. “This way!”
The door had come to a crashing halt at the balustrade of a balcony. Amber could not tell if it was the same one where had met Praetoria. Most of them probably looked the same.
“I’ve never tried this before,” Amber called to September over the noise of their hooves on the tiled floor, “but this door already proved it could fly!”
A second later she just threw a short glance behind her to ascertain that September was on board, then accelerated under several times their own weight outward and upward. They were pressed against the unyielding material of the door. Amber understood why Juniper preferred soft carpets. For a moment she thought she saw Celestia’s mane wave from a window in the tower, then the city vanished behind the curve of the mountain.
She had recognized her magic as she knew she would. She was also the one who played Twilight in the theater play. Now she somehow thought it necessary to steal something from an empty office in the castle. I should’ve asked her name.
The door opened. “Your Highness?”
“It’s probably not important, but a filly and a colt just escaped us on a door, in a way. They seemed to be able to make it levitate underneath them. Anyway, it looks like they stole burned scrapes of newspapers that are dated in the future.”
“Yes, I saw them fly past. Interesting.” She could not suppress the flicker of a mischievous smile at her elisions. She had felt no ill intent from these ponies, but what was their intent? “Please find them. I would like to know what they’re up to.”
It was like a sojourn in the land of Cockaigne for Amber. The scraps they had harvested contained reports on countless little and larger calamities, much more than she could possibly have remembered anymore. All she had to do was to make sense of the sometimes partial and partly burned articles and organize them in an efficient fashion.
Her brother helped her, even though he had been released from the hospital mere hours earlier, and September had chosen to stay at the Roses’ hotel for a while.
After they had rounded the mountain, they landed the door in the outskirts on the opposite side of Canterlot, then furtively made their way back to the hotel. There had been no pegasus guards following them, none of the guards had asked their names, and with their bulging backpacks they might just pass for really studious little ponies who were not at school for some reason. Still they decided to strip the backpacks as soon as possible and then lay low for a while.
Money was not an issue for September. He pondered talking a room in the hotel and paying somepony to move his belonging over, but Amber assured him that it would not be necessary.
They were making good progress too. Damask read all the articles and fragments of articles, marking each that seemed relevant however tangentially. September and Amber then categorized them, building little heaps of all articles that touched on the same event, which Amber sorted by how many ponies and other sentient beings would get hurt if she did not intervene. If none of the articles provided hard numbers, she would make her own estimates.
All the while, they also protocolled these data for each heap on a notecard and agreed on titles for each card. The nature of the incident, as well as the date, location, and their best estimate for the harm it caused were crucial. In some cases it so happened that the scraps were so large or an article so encompassing that it was relevant for more than one event. In those cases it was helpful to quickly assess whether it actually added new information about one of the events. Amber would compare it with the collected data on each of the relevant cards and assign it to the heap where she felt it provided the greatest new insights. That way, she had to add cross-reference on the cards in only a hoofful of cases.
Early in the process already, Amber noted with some surprise and embarrassment that during her own brainstorming she had overlooked one particularly devastating and lasting catastrophe that she should have been perfectly aware of. The sorts of incidents that she had scoured her memory for were sudden, like plagues, fires, and breaking dams. They were also all within Equestria. All the while she had failed to recall the thousands of griffons who had to sell their beautiful eyries to be able to afford some of the last overpriced food for their families. They still had five years to build reserves for the drought period—if Amber could warn them. Again she was glad she was still in Canterlot.
They worked until late into the night while Amber’s parents supplied them with food and drink.
“Well, Amber, it seems your dad has assumed control of the hotel kitchen. Don’t expect to see him again tonight,” her mother said and set down a tray of poêlée with fennel, Brokaw avocado pudding, toasted cashews, pea tendrils, and sweet pepper vinaigrette. Her dad took food seriously.
“He’s so cool. He’s been nerding out with the chef all day!” September said. He had not yet learned that it was inevitable whenever they visited a restaurant or checked into a hotel that offered quality cuisine.
It should turn out that Amber’s mother was right once again. Amber woke up first again and found her dad sleeping on the couch, his bed being occupied by September. She carefully draped her duvet over him since he only seemed to have found a thin quilt for himself. She did not have to wake anypony for what she had planned for this new day.
Thanks to several newspaper clippings, she finally had enough data to tackle the calamity that she had concluded was one of the most convenient for her to avert. It was still almost a year till it would torment—or annoy—her home town, but with a little luck she could forestall it right away.
She went through the newspaper clippings again to ascertain that the notecard was not missing any important bits. “I Thought It Was Just a Unicharm!” titled a national daily paper. It was a direct quote as the subtitle revealed: “An interview with the merchant who sold Ponyville for a satchel of gold.” The text did not contain any pertinent information, but on one of the many embedded photos, Damask had recognized an alley in Canterlot that they had passed on their way to the hotel.
One borough of the city lay in a wide vertical cleft that ran all the way from the top of the mountain to the plateau that formed the foundation of the city. As such, it only saw direct sunlight during a short period of the day—unless clouds occluded the sky. Since it also lay on the windward side of the mountain, moist air from the ocean was constantly pressed upward along its sheer face, soon condensated in the thinner, cooler air, and thus nurtured thick clouds, fogs, and almost daily rainfalls. Amber would wrap herself in her cape and fill all her bits into the pocket. She shuddered at the thought of trotting there alone.
Then she trotted there alone.
As she rounded the mountain, the early dawn was first blocked by the granite of the cliff wall, then shrouded in fog. A few of the stores were already open. The deeper Amber went into the borough, the more frequent became the stores and pubs that had not yet closed. She saw a few ponies reeling and staggering homeward from the bars, or so she guessed, but they were too far gone to reciprocate the seeing. She felt as if her dark, hooded cloak camouflaged her against the tenebrous backdrop. Then the rain started.
Not half an hour later she found the shop. It was dark but the door was unlocked. A bell chimed when she opened it, but no pony appeared to welcome or intercept her.
The rain had soaked through the seams of her cloak and more water had splattered up her legs. She shivered, yet she would have to leave the door open to have any light inside and to keep the bell from chiming again.
The interior was filled with carelessly piled up assortments of lamps, books, and useless séance paraphernalia. Amber tiphoofed the narrow path along the center of the room. Meh. I’m never going to find it here.
The narrow path widened and transitioned into a wider area littered with smaller heaps much like an estuary. Amber reached the bay, a mostly uncluttered semicircle around a long counter. The items behind the counter looked more valuable and were arranged with greater care. High up, the metallic gleam of the Alicorn Amulet caught her eye.
The light came on. Before Amber could bolt for the door, a calm voice spoke from the shadows.
“May I help you, young traveller?” the voice asked the young traveler. A bespectacled pony stepped from the shadows. Amber could not place the accent. Was he from Mane? Or from Rode Island? She had never been there. Or was it a posh Canterlot affectation?
Her heart was still beating double time, but she forced her voice to equal calmness. “I see you have a unicharm in stock.”
“Oh, that is no unicharm, young lady. That is the legend’ry Alicorn Amulet. It is one of the most mysterious and powerful of all the known magical charms.”
“Pff! Pull the other one! I know a unicharm when I see one,” Amber said. As if to accentuate her words, a gust of wind slammed the door shut.
“I see you are versed in the dark arts far beyond your years. Still, few have the skill to forge a unicharm anymore, so each is worth its weight in gold.”
“What spell does it enhance?” Amber was bluffing. She barely knew what a unicharm was.
“That is for the owner to find out.”
“So you’re saying you lost the manual? There are millions of magical spells. No pony can try them all out to find the one spell it would boost. Without the manual the thing is scrap metal.”
“Oh no, the ruby alone is worth more than the rest of the rubble in here!”
Good, at least she had knocked him down to the raw material value. She had one hundred fifty-five bits on her. “20 bits.”
“Hah! One kilobit and not a bit less!”
“I don’t have a thousand bits. I have thirty bits on me. Take it or leave it.”
“Nine-fifty and I’ll gift-wrap it!”
“Forget it,” Amber said. “Next item on the list: books on amniomorphic spells. Do you have any?” That would buy her time until she knew what to do next.
“Sure, the whole shelf over there.” He pointed. “Some are almost undamaged. Thirty bits if you take all of them.”
Amber climbed over a moraine of rubble until she could read some of the titles, grabbed one at random, and levitated it to her. She leafed through it, pretended to read. The shop owner waited and watched. She put it back and selected a second one. He was still watching. She actually read a chapter of this one, the only one that had not molded away. Just when she was about to put it back, he seemed to get bored of staring at nothing. Amber saw from the corners of her eyes how he turned and vanished into another room. Careful not to trigger a loud rubble avalanche, she climbed down.
The Alicorn Amulet was inside a glass cloche. She hovered it toward her, opened it, and deposited the amulet in the inner pocket of her cloak. She hesitated, the cloche still hovering. Finally she put the one hundred bits from Fleur where the amulet had been and lowered the cloche.
Her next destination was the castle. She would prepare an anonymous letter for Celestia and Luna asking them to lock the relic into a safe forever. She would seal it in an envelope to be opened by the princesses alone and deposit it right at their tower so it would not be intercepted. Hopefully, no pony would recognize her. She snuck to the door.
“Young traveller!” The merchant stood behind her halfway between the door and the cloche. He made no attempt to intercept her, which scared Amber more than a running tackle would have. “You are not from around here, are you, silly filly.” It was not a question.
Amber did not ask what he was insinuating. She jumped up the steps to the door. At the same moment she passed through into the open, a shrill whistling set the house and the very earth vibrating. Amber’s legs gave way for a moment and she fell into the mud.
She jumped up and threw a last glance at the merchant. It was a simple whistle that had caused the sound; surely it was magically enhanced. He stowed it back into his work coat. Still he made no attempt to pursue her.
The rain splashed in her face and the mud spluttered up from the soaked ground wherever she stepped.
Seconds later she noticed the effect of the whistle. Half the borough must have heard the signal, and all the shop owner, bartenders, and their bouncers stepped before their doors. It was too late for Amber to switch to her lost filly act. Everypony’s eyes were on her. They knew her for the whistlee.
They were in no hurry. They blocked the street ahead of her and closed in behind her. The closest street corners were cut off behind walls of a dozen ponies in both directions.
To her left she saw a narrow gap between two houses. It was just wide enough for a pony to pass through but more likely intended to keep fires from spreading.
She jumped, spun ninety degrees in the air, braked hard with her hindhooves, and dove into the cleft before the owner of the house could close in on her.
She had to jump over the trash ponies had thrown into the dead interstice. Every jump had her scraping along one of the walls if she did not keep precisely in the center. The raw bricks and mortar ripped her cloak and grated her flanks.
No pony had thought to conveniently discard a carpet in the gap. Amber cursed herself for not having prepared her escape while she was in the shop. C’mon, think of something!
Then she reached the other side. A last jump and she was out in the open. In midair a muscular foreleg caught her around her neck, blocked her momentum like a tree trunk, and slammed her to the ground. A coal gray stallion of Big Mac’s proportion loomed over her. A dozen more joined him.
The crash to the ground had paralysed her and sent her vision spinning. The huge stallion was thorough though and also pinned her down with one hoof. She could hardly breathe.
“Caught it!” he shouted.
“Thank you, good sir,” came the voice of the merchant from far away.
Amber labored to turn her head in the mud. Vertigo and the rain falling in her eyes made it hard for her to see him.
“First I need to take something back that is mine,” the merchant added, much closer now, “then she’s yours.”
Amber was not eager to find out what that meant. She had never managed to teleport, and with the pain blurring her vision and derailing her thoughts she might not be able to sustain a simple levitation. If she attempted to use magic to fight back, half a dozen unicorns around her would block her attempts. She had only one option.
Would the amulet force her out of her body and take over the reins? Or would she be able to control it? Had Trixie just been easily corruptible? Would whatever happens happen instantaneously or gradually? Would she first have to learn to use the amulet before she could do anything with it? Amber decided it was time for certainty.
With one swift magical motion she levitated the amulet from her inner pocket, along under her cloak, and toward her neck. She almost missed for dizziness, but when it touched her neck it righted itself.
The healing spell worked instantaneously. Her pain was gone. Her vision was clear.
Still covered in mud, pinned under a mighty hoof, and half strangled in a ripped cloak, she enjoyed for a moment that these dozens of ponies thought themselves her captors when in reality they were all at her mercy now. She noticed without judgment that her eyes narrowed and that a mischievous smile reached her lips.
The merchant stood over her now. “Please remove her cloak,” he told the bulky stallion.
“Bored now,” Amber said instead. Slowly she let fire emanate from beneath her like a lake of burning lava that flowed outward frictionlessly. She observed with delight that she had tinted it in yellow and red hues, just like her coat.
The stallion jumped away and stomped his hooves to extinguish the flames around them. The merchant took a step back as well. The rain evaporated when it hit the ground, so Amber was soon shrouded in a thin cloud of vapor.
Applying magic recursively, she levitated herself, turned herself upright, and set her hooves down in the center of the flames. They lapped up to her knees but did not harm her. Her erstwhile pursuers retreated several more steps.
Amber observed that she did not have to learn to use the amulet. It just did exactly what she wanted it to, even before she knew that she wanted it.
From one second to the next, the sea of fire sent out filaments that split before and met behind all the ponies that ringed her. Then they widened and coalesced until each pony was standing on just a tiny islet in an expanding sea of flames. Amber had to giggle at the beautiful symmetry. First they had caught her; now she had caught them. Tit for tat!
Four pegasi leaped into the air at once, but not two beats of their wings later, they were slammed back to the ground by Amber’s magic. She was amazed at her own swiftness. Her magic was precise yet fast as a reflex, and it took no conscious thought.
A few unicorns tried their tricks on her, but she never even learned what they had in mind. The moment the faintest aura shone around their horns, she had already stifled it in her magic grasp. Again she only truly noticed what she was doing when her magic already engulfed their horns. It was automatic, just like the times when she galloped down some steep stony slope and her hooves seemed to find the stable stones and plain patches before she even saw them.
Or did the amulet take hold of her in exchange for the illusion of control? She could pose the question but it was hard to think about it. Then she saw the flames again. Light yellow and dark red, almost unnaturally dark. Those had been her favorite colors for as long as she could remember. This had to have been her choice.
They had been captured for about as long as she had been captured under the iron hoof. Her business here was done.
Teleportation was based on a pony’s ability to not only convey magical energies into the temporal world but also to convey elements of the temporal world, themselves, into the realm of pure magic. This eversion of the boundary between the worlds was what made teleportation fundamentally different from other sorts of magic and inaccessible to most unicorns.
It was also dangerous. If ponies did not protect themselves with sufficiently strong magical shields while immersed in the seas of energy, their hair would be singed and scorched upon ejection.
Amber paid no heed to the intricacies of the technique until after it was all over. With one poof of red, she stood in her hotel room. Then she gaped. Naturally, she had never experienced anything like it.
“Oh, there you are,” her mother greeted her. “When did you learn to teleport?”
“It comes with age,” she replied without hesitation.
“And what’s with the necklace?”
Amber materialized a scarf around it. “Just a trinket. Where is the rest of the family?”
“Your dad’s back in the hotel kitchen, and your brother is getting a blowtorch for him for a crème brûlée. He should be back any moment.”
Then it struck Amber. Her brother was the enemy. He, and only he, had the power to divest her of the amulet although he did not know it. He must never find her!
“Actually, I’m just on a quick sojourn here to pick up some of my cards.” Amber tried to quickly scan the notecards they had prepared for future events. “Or I’ll just take all of them.”
That moment the door opened. “I got the blowtorch, but do you know where I can get a gas tank?”
With one magical swipe, Amber snatched and bundled up all the cards even while she already jumped out of the window. Once in the air, she levitated herself, her aura glowing vivid red, and shot up far above the city almost the height of the mountain summit.
The nothingness beneath her hooves made her queasy, so she materialized a carpet for herself to sit down on. Then she went through the cards.
Eight million starving griffons. Eight million. She could not grasp that huge number but the numeral with its googly eyes looked kind of cute for a moment. She turned the card ninety degrees to see it better. Then she got bored and tossed it out into the wind.
Bat pony filly discriminated against during school baseball match. She wanted to kick some juror’s tail! But then a mental image of a bat pony stared her into her mind’s eye. Those narrow pupils! Just like Nightmare Moon’s! She tossed the card out in panic.
Dam failure. That one was similar to the one Mare Do Well repaired, but she had the advantage of foreknowledge and could prevent it before any water could break free. This one, however, was far away from Ponyville. She did not even know where that town was. The name sounded completely unfamiliar. She tossed the card away.
Ten minutes later she had reduced the stack to a few cards. “Perfect!” she exclaimed.
The famous River Eddy’s little dog would go missing during the Equestria Games in Manehattan only a few days from then. She remembered the adorable Yorkshire terrier from billboards and she had also seen a photo in the newspaper the day before. She even knew his name. New Amber could not believe that Old Amber had completely dismissed this card. Tsk-tsk, Old Amber.
Manehattan was a bit too far for teleportation but the flight was quick enough. A strong shield protected her from cold winds and low pressure as she overflew Foal Mountain. Hollow Shades and its northeastern peak lay to her left and she could already see the skyline of Manehattan dimly through the atmosphere. A few more minutes and the suburbs passed by underneath her. She could even see the great tanks of September’s mother’s company where the liquid soap was stored.
She would never be allowed to work there. Liquid soap production was a job almost completely reserved to earth ponies, bat ponies, and pegasi, because so close to such great amounts of liquid soap, even a small magical sparkling, be it only of a unicorn that sneezed a little clumsily, would be amplified by the liquid crystals and sent out like a beacon over half of Equestria. Dragons—as well as a certain Ponyville fashion designer—had a fine sense for the scent of gemstones in the magical field, and when they arrived to find only soap, they sometimes burned the factories to the ground in their wrath.
Once she arrived in the city center, she materialized a few bits and rented a hotel room. Her family would be worried and start a search for her. She felt guilty about that. But then she remembered the adorable critter and his owner all distraught. Priorities, Amber!
“Your Highness, the ponies you requested to see.”
“Thank you,” Celestia said, and when the guard was about to leave she added, “You may stay, Praetoria.” Wide eyes looked at her. Hehe, it always catches them off guard, as it were, when I know their names.
She looked at her guests. A pegasus with scarlet mane; a thin, slightly pinched-looking earth pony; a unicorn colt with the blackest coat she had ever seen but white, almost luminescent mane and tail; and another earth pony with pink coat and brown mane, who, she could tell from their faces, must be September, the colt who stayed with the Rose family. He seemed scared.
“Not to worry,” Celestia said to the group. “I’ve asked you here because I need your help in finding your daughter and friend, Amber Rose.” She gestured for the ponies to sit. “A few hours ago, the Berry parents wanted to file a restraining order against your daughter.” She allowed some time for the parents to gasp. “They claimed that your daughter infected their daughter with a nasty flu. These are already unusual grounds for a restraining order, but moreover their daughter, Juniper Berry, was vehement that the illness she suffered was due to her own negligence. Further evidence in favor of her version is that Amber was—and continued to be—perfectly healthy when Juniper fell ill. Her parents’ version was only supported by their assertion that ‘Somepony had to be behind it.’
“Needless to say, the case was complicated enough that soon a small legion of my staff, including several guards, became involved as they deliberated the proper course of action. It was then, that some of them noticed that the family’s description of Amber Rose fit exactly that of a filly I’ve been observing on and off over the past few days.
“Only two days ago, for example, staff members alerted me to a strange sight, a pony who fit her description hovering over the city on a carpet, so high that only with a telescope I should see her clearly. Unfortunately she soon flew away.
“But I understand that that must’ve been around the time when you last saw her. You started the search a day later. According to the records, you saw her last when she leaped out of a second-floor window and then flew upward unaided. You also stated that she wore some sort of necklace. Do you remember what the necklace looked like?”
Three ponies looked at the son of the Rose family, Damask Rose. He shook his head. “She was wearing a scarf when I came in. When I saw her, she was already outside the window.”
“Did you see anything peculiar about the color of her magic? She must’ve had a magical aura around her when she levitated herself.”
“Allow me to go back for a minute,” he said. This confused the princess at first but then she saw that he drifted off into a state of reverie. First his unfocused eyes shone and a smile played around his lips. It was just of the sort of joyous expression she had often seen ponies wear who just obtained a working blowtorch at an economical price. A moment later she saw a colt’s recognition of his mother mirrored there, then an expression of confusion and concern. Damask returned. “Yes, her aura was vivid red, not auburn as it used to be.”
“Did any of you notice something strange about her eyes by any chance?”
It was the mother who answered. “Now that you mention it, yes. I thought it was just an optical illusion, but there was one moment when for a brief second her eyes seemed to shine reddish.”
“Then my suspicion was likely correct, namely that your daughter is under the influence of an old magical artifact that I believed destroyed, the Alicorn Amulet.” Then the one I destroyed must’ve been just another unicharm. I never can tell those things apart.
She counted only two gasps. “You are not surprised?” she asked Damask and September.
They hesitated. Finally September replied. “Well, we had been reading about the Alicorn Amulet and it was clear that earlier or later she would try to find it to destroy it or give it to you for safekeeping. She did not tell us about her concrete plans.”
“Good. I will have more questions about that later, but for now I would like you to travel to Manehattan to continue your search there. Praetoria will accompany you.” The ponies looked uncomprehending. “When the filly I now know to have been your daughter first hovered over the city and then took off, her direction was that of Manehattan. In between the only sites of importance are a mountain range and the Hollow Shades, so I think it is likely that she was headed for the city.
“The Berry family refused their assistance in the matter. The parents did, to be precise. They seemed relieved about Amber Rose’s disappearance and explicitly specified that they would not allow her daughter to be in contact with any of the Rose family.” She looked significantly at September. The colt seemed just confused.
The stadium was easy to find. From her hotel window, Amber could already see its lighting towers, and after a few minutes of walk, the oval of its membrane roof became visible over the roofs of the city.
A long double line of ponies wound around almost half the stadium when Amber arrived. She thought she should have come earlier, maybe even on the day before to sneak in and hide overnight, but she had not made any plans that she was aware of. She would have to improvise. It had been working out well for her over the past days.
Getting in line and waiting for half an hour or more only to be told that no tickets were left did not feel right at all. Amber just moseyed past all the sports enthusiasts hoping that some idea would occur to her. Many of them wore items of apparel that expressed their allegiance; others were more formally dressed but still wore a tie pin for the same purpose.
Soon she saw a black stretch carriage drawn by two steeds in black come to a hold on the stadium’s carriage parking lot. The two black-clad unicorns removed their harness and one of them opened a door. Amber hurried to get closer.
There she was! The famous River Eddy stepped out of the carriage, cradling her dog under one wing. She wore an extravagant dress that made her look like some sort of exotic plant.
Amber teleported on the opposite side of the carriage. That allowed her to get close to them quickly without having to fall into a hurried, undignified gallop. She also appreciated that she had materialized a gown for herself in imitation of a silken dress with red seams that she had taken a liking to when she inspected the ponies in the line.
She walked around the carriage. “Oh! Can it be? River Eddy! It’s such an honor to be able to welcome you to our stadium today!” Our stadium? Amber was not sure where she was going with this, but it had felt right. Yet she felt a slight flinch within.
The ponies in black spun around. River Eddy turned more slowly. “Yes, it’s quite an honor for me as well. I’ll be holding a speech later.” She inspected Amber. “Do you work at the stadium or did you mean your city’s stadium?”
“My dad’s the catering manager.” Amber again felt that flinch she could not comprehend.
“Oh splendid! Every stadium I’ve been to either had a great chef or a great medic!”
Amber wanted to correct her that he was the catering manager not the chef, but since it was a lie to begin with, she let it slide. Then she noticed the joke.
They reached an inconspicuous door that was promptly opened for them from within by a pony in livery. “Ms. Eddy. An honor. Welcome to the Manehattan Stadium. I will escort you to your suite.” He hesitated for a moment. “According to my list, you wanted to come with two bodyguards, but the filly is not listed.”
“We just met. She’s the daughter of the catering manager,” River Eddy replied.
“I didn’t even know she had a daughter! Great to get to know you then. What’s your name?” the liveried pony asked. At the same moment, Amber noticed how Ms. Eddy’s bodyguards looked at their client who winked to them in reply.
“It’s Amber.” She felt that River Eddy’s gesture had been significant but she did not understand why.
On their way to River Eddy’s suite, they passed a number of different luxurious rooms, all high up and all with floor-to-ceiling windows out onto the field. Some of these rooms could easily accommodate several score ponies. Others would be crowded with even a mere dozen ponies in them, but to make up for their smaller size, they were decorated even more lavishly and equipped with large, cushy couches.
It was one of those latter rooms that they eventually entered. The corner to the right of the door was reserved for the catering. A number of fixtures for preparing fresh food were installed there, but more trays on heating elements as well as yet unused heating elements indicated that more food was brought to the room from some central kitchen.
Thanks to her father’s influence, Amber recognized and could have named most of the dishes. For just a short moment, she considered reinforcing her cover story by presenting them to River Eddy, but a feeling swept the thought away. The feeling told her that it was unnecessary. She let herself fall into one of the couches.
The opening ceremonies had hardly started when one of the coordinators came up the aisle to escort Ms. Eddy down to a podium they had erected at one side of the stadium. She set her dog on her couch, told him to stay put, and went down to the podium together with her bodyguards and the coordinator.
Amber noticed the waves of laughter going through the audience, but she did not pay attention to the speech for long because after a few minutes the dog hopped from the couch and followed some whiff that Amber could not smell out of the door to the hallway. She followed.
The dog paid little attention to Amber, so she followed closely. A minute later, they were in a large room that was furnished like a restaurant. At that moment, however, hardly anypony was interested in eating. Most of the ponies were gathered at the fieldward window front. Amber saw that another speaker had taken Ms. Eddy’s place on the podium. He was talking turns reciting a prepared speech together with a filly, probably his daughter.
Amber was about to follow Ms. Eddy’s dog out through an inconspicuous door when she saw his owner fly down to the podium and land with a loud thud. Her bodyguards were hurrying to keep up.
“I’m going to let you finish,” she said to the speaker, “but this is an emergency.” She turned the microphone toward herself. “Citizens of Manehattan, valued guests! It is with a heavy heart that I have to inform you of the tragedy that has befallen us on this day of celebration.” She paused dramatically. “My dog has vanished. If you see the little Yorkshire terrier desperately searching the confines of this stadium trying to find his way back to me, please lend him your guidance and bring him back to my lounge.” She indicated her suite. “I promise a thousand bits for whoever finds him and brings him back to me. He listens to the name …,” but Amber could not hear the rest of her sentence. At the mention of the thousand bits finder’s reward, the stadium erupted into chaos as thousands of ponies started to search all niches and crannies for the pet, and pagasi circled outside and even within the hallways.
For a moment longer, Amber watched the other speaker hopelessly trying to gain the audience’s attention back, then she turned to follow the diminutive dog through the door it had managed to press open.
She entered a part of the building where a laminate floor replaced the soft carpet she had grown accustomed to, and where the walls were of béton brut and no longer hung with series of framed photos. She caught up with him just as he entered the kitchen.
The dog stopped close to the entrance, where at least a dozen trays of fried soy cutlets filled the air with spicy odors. They were too high up for him to reach them.
A waiter restocked a cart with a few of the trays and was already hurrying off again when she noticed Amber. “Dogs are not allowed in here.”
As if he had heard her, the terrier abandoned the trays on the table and followed the cart instead.
“Uhm, we’re about to leave, I guess,” Amber said, following the dog.
The waiter took a staff elevator one floor up. Locked in the small room, Amber had to tug the dog softly on the tail to keep it from pilfering the soy cutlets.
The waiter brought trays to a few of the luxury suites. Soon Amber recognized one of them. An exuberant pegasus flew toward her.
“Amber! You are an angel!” Ms. Eddy swept up her dog while landing in front of her. “Wherever did you find him?”
“Uhm, I kind of just, uh,” Amber explained.
“Come on down! We have to bring these glad tidings of joy to the world!”
River Eddy grabbed Amber in one foreleg, her dog in the other and flew all the way down to the podium again. The speaker with his daughter were still unable to continue their speech, but the stadium security had booted enough ponies from the premises to restore some first signs of order. Many of the rows were almost empty now.
“Ponies of Manehattan! Ponies of Equestria! Nonponies of the world! The state of emergency is hereby lifted: My dog has been restored to me!” Slowly, hundreds of disappointed ponies returned to their seats. “This filly, this fairy, this angel, has granted my dearest wish and has reunited me with him.” She held her dog up on one hoof and Amber on the other. Amber tried not to look as floppy up there as the dog did. “Amber! Please tell the world how you granted this dearest of wishes to me, my dear.” She held her toward the microphone.
“It’s just what I do,” Amber said. Her voice reverberated back to her from all sides. A stadium full of thousands of ponies had just heard her voice. It was intoxicating.
“Granting wishes is just what you do. A little fairy indeed!”
Amber yearned to say more to this stadium full of attentive ponies, but she could not think of anything. Then she noticed the other filly, the daughter of the other speaker, craning her neck toward the microphone.
“Amber?” she asked. “If you grant wishes, could you grant me one wish too?”
“Of course. Anything you’d like. What is it that you wish for?” Amber again enjoyed hearing her voice from all sides and seeing the thousands of spectators in rapt attention.
“I wish to see a real live dragon!”
“Of course. I will show you a real live dragon before these games draw to a close!” As much as she enjoyed herself, Amber was also shocked at her own promise. Where would she find a dragon? Those large, pleading eyes with three reflections—she could not possibly let that poor filly down.
“Thank you,” the filly said.
It was time to yield the stage to the legitimate orators. With a heavy heart, Amber followed Ms. Eddy up the stairs back to the suite. Climbing the stairs, she suddenly remembered the soap factory she had overflown. She knew how she would get that filly her dragon!
When she heeded her surroundings again, Ms. Eddy was climbing next to her. She folded one wing over Amber. “Who are you? I know you’re not the daughter of the catering manager.”
How did she know! “I’m just another filly.”
“C’mon.” A glottal fry accentuated her disbelieve.
Amber felt uncomfortable in the situation. Spontaneously she teleported away.
She found herself on the roof of the stadium again. The membrane was so taut that it hardly gave way under her hooves and the view of the city was glorious. Her position was tactically advantageous as well, because from this higher vantage point, she could make out the soap factory.
Even with her amulet-enhanced magic, it took her some concentration to shape a tornado, but when it hit the ground, she was satisfied with the result. Two of the tanks bust into shreds of metal and the liquid crystal was sucked up into the clouds. A minute of maneuvering later, the mass of soapy water reached the patch of sky above the stadium, held in place by a gigantic aura of red.
A third speaker, maybe some Manehattan politician Amber did not know, occupied the podium when the sun was blotted out by the vivid red cloud. A few ponies in the audience noticed the filly at the edge of the roof, her horn shining and sparkling in the same distinctive tone of red. Some may have even noticed the amulet glowing in the same color beneath Amber’s silken dress. The politician interrupted her speech and stared skyward.
Amber was sweating. The exercise was demanding even with amulet, and she was glad that she could now just release her hold. The red aura vanished, and the cloud shone in thousands of iridescent colors in the sky.
She had not expected that it would take so long for the soapy water to reach the ground. The scintillating play of the sun on the crystal structures captivated the audience for half a minute longer, then the politician could gain their attention back. A few paragraphs later, the stadium, the field, a third of the audience, and Amber herself were bathed in soapy rain. Everything shone in brilliant colors. It was beautiful.
A few ponies realized what it was and ran toward the exits. Most were trying to contrive of actual or magical umbrellas to protect themselves from the sticky downpour. The politician ran for cover.
Soon Amber saw the first dragon on the southern horizon. She teleported to the podium. “Within a few minutes, a dragon will arrive at this stadium. Your …,” Amber looked around but could not find the filly who had wished for a dragon. “The filly’s wish has been granted.”
Amber noticed a commotion behind her and turned to see September come through a gate. Praetoria was talking to some of the security guards.
The dragon was faster than she had expected. While Amber’s back was turned on much of the stadium, he arrived and circled it twice. He noticed the ruse, and he did not enjoy being fooled.
His fiery breath set several sections of the roof membrane ablaze. The thin film of soapy water hardly slowed the fire down. “Bucking soap!” he roared.
Now thousands of ponies ran toward the exits and onto the field, countless pegasi took flight, often with loved ones in their grasp. A few dexterous unicorns merged their fields to shield the masses from the drops of molten roof membrane.
The little filly had wished to see a dragon. Amber had granted her wish. That was all that counted.
Another burst of fire melted some steel cables, and a lighting array came crashing down next to the stage just as September reached it. It missed him by inches.
“September! What are you doing here?” Even though she had her back turned to it, the microphone picked up her cries. Three more ponies emerged from the gate and ran toward her. “No! Damask! Don’t come closer!”
“Hei sisko?” he said tentatively.
Amber did not reflect on what she did next. She walked straight toward her brother and stopped inches from him looking him straight in the eyes, their noses almost touching.
With a quick motion of her right hoof she ripped the amulet off her neck. “There you go.”
He took it into his magic.
Not at once but within just a few seconds Amber’s world collapsed twice. First the posthypnotic suggestion collapsed. No! My amulet! Then the power of the amulet itself collapsed. No! What have I done!
Amber looked into the stunned faces of her parents, the security ponies, and some of the audience who heard the exchange over the din of the conflagration. She wanted to apologize, she wanted to flee to some part of Equestria where no pony knew her name, she wanted to escape into the past again and make it all undone.
She decided that it was not the right time for any of these plans. She shot lines of fire across the floor of the podium while she turned toward her young earth pony friend.
“September, rally up some pegasi and coordinate them to create a huge deluge over the stadium. Try to find something acidic to mix into the water. We need to extinguish the fire, and dissolve and dilute the soap.” She jumped over one of her fiery lines. “I’ll distract the dragon.”
The lengths of carpet had burned through along Amber’s lines of fire and she ripped a segment from the floor, pulled it taut, jumped onto it, and shot out over the field.
“Nothing but bucking soap!” the dragon shouted in a voice almost too deep for ponies to perceive, except by pallesthesia. He kicked a lighting tower. The half-molten trusses bent and snapped. The tower hit a burning section of the stadium roof. It caved in on itself and scattered debris across the field.
Amber dove down to the field, dodged a falling floodlight, flew so low that the carpet scooped up some of the puddles of soapy water, then gained altitude again and concentrated hard to recreate the complete shields that the amulet had allowed her to hold during flight. It was not a question of raw magical power, she found, but of technique, and she remembered some of the technique that she had used so effortlessly when she was under the curse.
A second, smaller dragon stopped with two powerful beats of his wide wings and regarded the stadium from aloft. “What is your substance, whereof are you made, that millions of strange shadows on you tend?” he rumbled.
“Just bucking soap!” the first dragon replied.
“I know. It felt too big anyway.”
The first dragon tackled the stadium and deformed the elliptical structure into an egg. The remaining sections of roof membrane snapped. “I hate soap!”
“Dude, chill. It’s not like they spilled all that soap on purpose.”
“Yes they did! They just love messing with us! Don’t believe their lies!”
The shield appeared around Amber. Now it was simple to shape it to resemble the sharp edges of a cut gemstone and opaque it from the outside in ruby colors.
The second dragon pointed. “Look! Where did that come from? Ruby, ruby, ruby, ruby!”
“Another ruse, I’m telling ya! Rubies don’t fly.” He stared at the gem. “It’s mine!”
“Whoever catches it first!” the second dragon countered.
Amber saw the two dragons dive at her from the front, slightly to port. They had come from a southeastern direction, so that’s where she had to lure them back to.
Upward acceleration hurt the most. Amber aimed just slightly above the outer edge of the stadium wall, right through the structure that had held the stadium roof only minutes before. The dragons changed their course to intercept their gem.
Amber was pressed into the slightly slanted carpet with two times her weight. She could no longer stand, yet it seemed to her that the first dragon would intercept her anyway. She slightly corrected her course, then bit her teeth together and cranked the acceleration up by another notch.
“The gem’s escaping!”
Her ribs compressed her lung painfully. The carpet, although magically tautened, bent under her multiplied weight. She shot through the bare roof structure.
One outstretched claw grasped for her. The longest talon scraped along the shield. Suddenly she was high above the city.
Amber continued accelerating but reduced the force enough so she could scramble to her hooves. The dragons lost time changing their course, but a few flaps of their muscular wings later they were in pursuit again.
Shortly later Amber dared to look back again. Manehattan lay far behind. Thick dark clouds were building up above the city. Good job, September.
But the dragons were also farther away than she had expected. They were already flying as fast as they could. She had to make sure they did not give up on the chase.
She braked the carpet and turned to the bow again.
A third dragon was dead in front of her, on collision course, her mouth wide open. Amber shot upward at almost forty-five degrees, having her body squeezed against the carpet again. The remaining soapy water was pressed off to the sides.
“Just soap again in Manehattan,” one of the pursuers warned the newcomer.
“But this one looks yummy! Why does it fly?” she asked.
“It’s mine!” the largest dragon shouted at her.
The new dragon reacted immediately and climbed at an even steeper angle while she spiraled around her own axis.
Amber whizzed past above her, but as she passed, the dragon turned again and engulfed the flying ruby in her fiery breath.
The carpet and Amber’s dress steamed in the heat and caused her eyes to tear up. She blinked it away. “Shields holding,” she reassured herself.
Beneath her was only the wide ocean now. If the shield collapsed, the airstream would knock her off the carpet at once. To the right, almost behind her, she could see the skyline of Fillydelphia. Baltimare was already visible as well.
All three dragons were behind her now, the female one much closer than the males.
A second burst of fire hit her from behind.
The aft shields failed at once and the carpet, Amber’s tail, and her formally elegant gown were set ablaze. She ripped off the clothes and waved her tail to extinguish the fire, but the carpet was almost dry again and the burning material filled the remaining shields with noxious smoke that burned in her eyes and lung.
“It’s just another one of those ponies!” The first dragon joined into the fire-spitting.
Amber stood at the bow of the almost consumed carpet when she saw the third wave of fire roll toward her.
She felt her consciousness on the verge of slipping away as she gasped for air, still she managed to jerk the remaining carpet up behind her as a flimsy substitute for the shield. The airflow hit it much harder than it hit her, and she was catapulted out into the air.
The third wave of fire burned the carpet away within the second but it shielded the heat enough for Amber to get away with some more singed hair. Now she had fresh air as well, too much of it, in all directions.
The first dragon drew breath again, but the others stopped him.
“She’s not gonna survive this anyway,” Amber heard one of them say. Then she had fallen too far to hear them.
She tried frantically to levitate herself like she had with the amulet. The gasses still burned in her lungs, her eyes burned worse, her head hurt. She tried to find something out on the open sea that she could levitate up to her as a carpet substitute. She could see nothing and even if she did, it would have been out of her reach until it was much too late.
Still dazed by the gasses, she appreciated the foreboding ambiguity in the term terminal velocity. She shook her head. No, don’t give up!
She tried to create a shield below herself to use the air resistance to slow down her fall. If it had any effect, she did not notice it. The waves, their surface surely hard as stone at her speed, became visible. Mere seconds away.
One slip in her concentration and the shield lost its precarious balance against the airflow and spun about setting Amber spinning as well. Up and down changed too quickly, she could not recreate it.
Sky flashed past, then the water, sky again, water. The surface raced toward her. Amber held her breath just on the off-chance that she might survive the plunge.
Something touched her softly from below and stopped her spinning. Then less softly. A second more and it was hard as a brick wall.
Her vision was reeling, she could not see where she was, but it was not water, she could breath. Then the force of the brick wall increased further and she could not breath anymore.
Then it was all over. The brick wall was soft again, and she hung limply from its edge. She puked into the water below. It was so close, she could almost touch the wave crests with her hooves.
A different hoof touched her shoulder.
“Amber, you look awful.” It was Juniper who greeted her so politely.
At once the two hugged.
“How do you do that, saving my life all the time?”
“September said they would go looking for you in Manehattan, he and your family that is. I was feeling better and wanted to come along, but my parents wouldn’t allow it.” Juniper made a spiraly gesture toward her head. “I snuck out on the hotel mattress as you can see. Good thing too, so I could catch you much more softly.”
“Why weren’t you with my family at the stadium then?” Amber asked.
“They had a few hours head start. When I got there, Damask told me that the three dots on the horizon were you with two dragons in pursuit, so I figured you might need help. When I saw you fall from the sky, I went so fast my shield started to glow. So cool!” She beamed at the scorched and dizzy Amber. “Oh, keep an eye out for your mom on the way back. She couldn’t keep up.”
“Your Highness, you wanted to see me?”
“Amber Rose, yes.” Princess Celestia motioned for her guard to close the door through which she had escorted Amber. “I want to thank you for finding the amulet for me. In the wrong hooves, it could’ve caused great harm.”
The princess set down a plate of cloud cake and gulped down her last bite. She indicated a zafu next to the one she was sitting on. Amber sat down.
“It has caused great harm in my hooves,” Amber said. “Did anypony get hurt?” Of course they did. Her mother had treated Amber’s shallow burns on their train ride back to Canterlot because the hospitals in Manehattan were all over capacity.
“Many burns and bruises but nothing serious. The evacuation went very smoothly.” The princess looked out of the window at her beautiful sunset. “However, rebuilding the stadium will take a few years, and the Equestria Games will have to move to a different city this time if they can even still take place.” She turned back to Amber. “You better stay away from Manehattan for a few years.”
“Then I’m not going to prison?” Amber felt constricted as if she were pressed into a carpet during a strong acceleration. What will be my punishment?
“Punishment has no place in restorative justice. The taking of a pony’s freedom is an extreme measure that is reserved as a very last resort when there is no hope that the criminal will amend their ways and they pose a threat to society. There have been very few cases throughout the centuries that required such extraordinary means.” She gulped, then her aspect lightened up. “And I don’t think you would do all that nonsense again.”
But Amber was only partially relieved. “It must seem as if the amulet had controlled me, but throughout I always felt that I was controlling it, not vice versa.” Now Amber gulped too and continued in a sotto voce she had rarely heard herself use. “Some things I did even now seem natural to me though of course I would never actually do them.”
To her surprise Celestia just nodded. “Yes. I think I’ve gained some insight into the way the amulet works. Central to its ability to channel such tremendous magical energies through common unicorns appears to be that it forces extreme spontaneity by suppressing some conscious functions—and thereby also the conscious parts of what in the past has been termed the superego, the ethical component of your personality.
“But no one component of your personality makes you. It takes all of them to form the Amber that stands in front of me, and that Amber I trust to make decisions that are loving and rational.
“Just as I trust that without the amulet, Trixie will stop short of enslaving a whole town, ignoring the fact that she won’t be able to anyway.”
“You know about that?” Amber was not actually surprised this time.
“Your brother briefed me on your plans, which is the main reason I wanted you to visit me here. We should put your endeavors on a little more, dare I say it, professional basis.
“I have established two teams, one to investigate the unusual mode of time travel that you have experienced and one to do what you did, to try to avert any catastrophes that can be reconstructed from the material that traveled with you. To redeem yourself, you will be required to advise both teams in any way you can.
“I also restored your graduation from school. If your advisory functions should bore you, you will be required to pick up your studies again, so you can continue to redeem yourself past the eight years in which your memories will be of value.”
Amber was an itsy bit overwhelmed. “Thank you. I will assist in any way I can. Has my brother also briefed you on the problems that will befall the Griffon Kingdom in about five years? You should be in a position to warn them.”
“Good to know the amulet has left no permanent damage,” Celestia said. “Yes, he has and I will, as soon as I have evaluated the evidence. Your brother is already with the second of the teams recreating your notecards from memory. You should join them. My guard will show you the way.”
“Yes, I’ll double-check them. Sometimes his memory plays tricks on him, though he doesn’t like to admit it.”
A few valedictions later, Amber was on the way to pick up where she had left off a few days earlier. Eight years seemed like a very long time to her, but what did Celestia expect her to do once she could no longer predict any disasters? Or would she have to watch the decades of her life dwindle away all in the knowledge that the only eight years of her life that had held any purpose were gone? Life like that seemed utterly pointless.
They passed the guarded door to Luna’s bedchamber just when the night shift took over. The guard who escorted Amber greeted all of them, then she guided Amber down a staircase and they were out of sight again.
No, there were a million ways for her to leave a positive impact in the world even without her foreknowledge. She could support campaigns for bat pony rights, organize marches against cutie mark readings, expose companies that cut corners in dam safety, and further the research into earth pony magic. Amber had her work cut out for her, finally.