Being overburdened is the most unholy thing it seemeth!
But the Royal Word is the Royal Word! As ye can't get the proper episode, let alone the chapter yet... ye shall get a teaser at least!
20. Nightmare Knight (chapter teaser)
“Is everything okay, Lulu?” princess Celestia glanced across the table at her sister. “You are smiling quietly for the whole day… I know it’s your rightful holiday, but still… bit unusual, blueberry…”
Luna indeed was mysteriously cheerful: in the morning, when she passed the court to Celestia with that tiny smile, and then later in the evening, right after getting up, preparing for her nightly duties, which included the special holiday activities on that day – all the time she was subtly enjoying some idea. Even knowing her love for the Nightmare Night – the day when pranking was officially encouraged – princess Celestia looked puzzled; she couldn’t remember her regal sister being so inspired the last year for example.
“Simply anticipating,” Luna daintily sipped her usual coffee with the most innocent look, but the sparkles dancing in her deep blue eyes told her sister at once, there was anything but simple in Luna’s expectations. “I have so many plans for this night, so many places to visit. It’s always exciting, even more befalling once a year, sunny!”
“Like every year, dear, when you try to cover all the significant places of Equestria,” noticed Celestia casually. “Do you plan to visit Ponyville again?”
“Yes, Tia, like a good old tradition,” smirked Luna, putting her cup away. “Alas, only Ponyville is getting the special treatment tonight…” she sighed with a tint of disappointment. “It would be quite difficult to bring this trick to every place…”
“Don’t overdo it… you two,” Celestia looked at her fixedly, while Luna was musingly observing the darkening sky behind the arched windows.
“What? Oh… thou knowest us, sister, we are prudence embodied,” the big blue filly pretended to wake up from her thoughts and shrugged. “No casualties!”
“We?” with a wry smile the Solar princess rolled her eyes. “Does “we” mean you – Luna Selena of Equestria… or is my primary assumption correct?”
“Either way is valid, sunny!” Luna only smiled, wishing puzzled Celestia a good night.
That day finally came; shorter than every previous one, while the nights fell each one darker and longer. The air misty and humid at night, was crystal clear in the daylight, subtly bringing the chillness of upcoming season. Managed to survive the Running of the Leaves, the golden and red foliage fluttered in the light wind from the western mountains.
The spirit of general anticipation filled the air: the foals got their day off school, despite it was only Thursday; the adults prepared to deliver them a long-awaited holiday and, truth be told, to enjoy the process as well, remembering their own adventures during Nightmare Nights. Thus Ponyville reminded some noisy beehive long before the actual celebration started. The activity was noticeably centripetal and reached its maximum at the Town Hall square – the largest open place of the town, where the majority of Ponyville-wide celebrations were usually held. Mayor Mare was extremely supportive of the event, even taking not the least part in it; her only stipulation was to aim pumpkin-catapults away from the actual Town Hall. The latter was easily affordable, aiming them towards the creek, skirting Ponyville from the south, so, the aquatic friends of Fluttershy could have personal part of Nightmare Night feast, when an accidental projectile missed the targets and smacked into the waters instead. However, Mayor Mare never got tired to repeat each October 31st – “No pumpkin stains on the Town Hall, okay!!!”
Applejack was to hire a few stallions to help with the loaded wagons, otherwise she and Big Mac would never manage to deliver in time all the treats Apple Farm usually supplied for the celebration. Harnessed like the others, she pulled the next overloaded cart, huffing tiredly. Her head was occupied by the dilemma: to put on her Nightmare Night costume meant to reveal it beforehoof and probably bedraggle on the road, but lingering with that could lead to having no time to put it on or forgetting something important. Applejack secretly regretted not following brother’s advice; Big Mac already had a word with Rarity, whose boutique was almost next to the Town Hall, and brought his packed costume, leaving it at unicorn fashionista home. Not doing that herself now looked even more stupid to Applejack, as the last stroke of her own disguise needed Rarity’s help anyway.
Big Mac pulled his burden almost relaxedly and looked content, chewing as straw in the corner of the light smile. Applejack threw a quick glance at him; perhaps he thought about the better ways to set up the holiday attractions, he was going to help with after delivery. Or, and Applejack had a strong suspicion of that, McIntosh heard out of the corner of his ear about the most likely being prepared surprise part of the party… But trying to pull a word about that out of his mouth was like watering the sand in Appleloosa desert.
“Where are the fillies, Ah’d want to know?” Applejack pushed her stetson to the nape and wiped her forehead.
“At the clubhouse,” shrugged Big Mac, still in his thoughts. “Last time Ah saw them there, with Babs. Making final touch to their costumes…”
“Ah certainly hope they know, what they’re doin’!” smirked Applejack.
Babs, Apple Bloom’s cousin, came to visit Apples on the holiday. Applejack was still unsure if the fillies were entirely safe with their older friend… or not, as that mischievous short-maned filly could equally keep the girls in hooves or serve as an exact detonator in their TNT pack. But apparently, it was either sending them four to the clubhouse or putting all the watching after the colourful hurricane (plus Winona naturally adding to the rush) sweeping around the farm on the shoulders of Granny Smith.
“Hmmm… Rares, I still don’t see the point in the costume being quite alike the dresses you usually make,” Pinkie’s voice sounded muffled because of her own Nightmare Night disguise; she stepped back and looked evaluatively over Rarity’s long dress. “Maybe a bit more extravagant than usual… The bow and the whole length of it… Are you sure, you can walk normally? I mean, this should definitely get under your hooves.”
“Besides,” she snorted quietly. “Nopony will probably doubt that is you, knowing your artistic tastes…”
“Oh, stop it, Pinkie, and help me tighten the belt properly!” Rarity rolled her eyes, batting the carefully outlined eyelashes: the whole dark and red makeup advantageously contrasted against her pale coat and she cocked her head graciously, boasting the high complex hairdo her mane was constructed into. “You should educate yourself better, darling. That’s not “one of my extravagant dresses”! I’m the neighponese geisha assassin, dangerous mare fatale…”
“Fotefeff! Ff fu fure, fu fan freaff wif ffat?”
“What, sorry?” Rarity was too busy estimating the result in the large mirror.
“I said, are you sure you can breathe fine with that?” Pinkie released the belt, when Rarity nodded contentedly, tightening her already shaped waist and letting Rarity fix the rest with her aura. “And… What if you need to run… I doubt you can in such a long dress…”
“Hmpf!” huffed Rarity, she opened the hem cut and stretched her hind leg out, demonstrating a pack of throwing knives strapped to her thigh instead of the answer. “I won’t run from anypony! They should run,” glanced she at Pinkie with emphasis. “…and more of them instead of the hairpins, yes.” Rarity winked. “By the way, with all due respect, I doubt I can see something creepier than your costume tonight… Unless you plan to throw the same trick as three years ago, dear. But I’m sure everypony is prepared.”
“You know that was a mistake,” Pinkie Pie pouted jokingly. “And… scaring the hay out of others is the point of Nightmare Night, isn’t it?”
“One of the points…” corrected her Rarity.
“Another is to GET MORE CANDY!” Exclaimed Pinkie, at that moment the large sundew-like floral maw slammed shut, making her owner sound muffled again. With a tiny effort Pinkie opened the large raptorial plant flower, the centre of which being her head and giggled, making the numerous green tentacles and leaves on her neck and shoulders shake; Rarity watched that scene with the mix of reproach and carefully hidden shiver. “I decided that dressing as chickens and stuff was irrational, when it came down to candy,” Pinkie raised one brow. “Omnivorous monster-plant is way better for that purpose! With that I can gather tons of it literally with little to none effort,” she sported a wide grin.
“I’m sure you will,” muttered Rarity aside. “Would like to see a suicide refusing to pay that thing off.”
The opening door revealed a small part of Fluttershy’s muzzle and her turquoise eye cautiously focused on Rainbow Dash. Obviously, the yellow pegasus girl expected somepony else and a certain dose of anxiety added to recognition and reserved joy in her glance.
“Oh… Th-this is you, Dash,” Fluttershy opened the door a bit wider and Rainbow almost saw, how her friend scanned the landscape behind Dash’s back carefully. Pink Angel’s nose peeked funnily from her sumptuous mane between Fluttershy’s perked ears; it was so funny, Rainbow couldn’t hold a snort.
“Of course, it’s me, pal! Who did you expect – hurricane?”
“Is there a difference?” Fluttershy let out a tiny smile. “Slip in!” she slammed the door shut the second after Rainbow Dash squeezed through.
“Heh! You can rally, mate… That’s not bad!” she hugged Fluttershy tight, making Angel leave his cover and hop into the living room. “What’s going on though?”
“Oh, you know,” Fluttershy rolled her eyes tiredly, welcoming her guest after the bunny; automatically Rainbow noticed the unusual silence in the cottage. “I thought it’s already started… l-like each year.”
“I thought you have grown over this fear, Flutters, and wanted to bring you back with the herd tonight,” chuckled Rainbow Dash, flopping into one of the armchairs and glancing at the hostess slyly. “Especially since you are friends with… wooooo!” she made scary eyes and waved her fore hooves in the air, “princess Luna… Oops!”
“Sorry, mate!” Rainbow cupped her mouth with her fore hoof, throwing a guilty glance at Fluttershy.
“Oh, that’s okay, Dashie,” with a more relaxed smile Fluttershy brushed away sudden awkwardness. “We are friends with her, no matter what.”
“Then why not have some fun indeed?” after a momentary thinking Rainbow cheered up again. She examined Fluttershy’s mane with interest. “You know, Flutters… We could… Really, we could paint you into Chrysalis! What?”
“If I didn’t know you, I’d have thought you were joking…” Fluttershy stared at her friend bemusedly. “But this is a bit… much, Dash.” She picked up Angel and rested on another armchair, keeping him on her knees and shaking her head.
“Why not?!” Rainbow seemed quite inspired by her idea. “You have mane and tail long enough, you can fly… better than you think,” she squinted at Fluttershy, “ don’t deny it. And you can be quite… persuasive, if you want. And that would bring a fresh breath into the celebration, if you ask me, scaring the whole town shitless!” Dash sported a wide grin.
“Thanks!” Fluttershy wasn’t sure the idea was that bright. “I can’t… hiss like her. Yeah, definitely!”
Rainbow Dash burst laughing, making both Fluttershy and Angel jump on the spot.
“With the proper disguise that wouldn’t be necessary! Telling ya!..” she kept snorting for a while. “Anyway, that’d be super awesome…”
“Who are you going as?” Fluttershy interested politely, stroking Angel behind his ears soothingly.
“Oh!” Rainbow Dash puffed proudly, clearly telling Fluttershy’s method worked. “I think it won’t hurt if I tell you… especially as you’re not going to tell everypony,” she made a face and shrugged. “I’m going as Meteor-Mare. Kinda suits, right?” the cyan pegasus smirked.
“I’m absolutely positively not telling anypony,” assured her Fluttershy with a kind smile. “Especially as I’m not going. But…” added she, not letting her friend to object, “could the superhero start helping those in need already?”
With those words Fluttershy pulled a huge and seemingly quite heavy bag from behind her armchair, presenting it to silent Rainbow.
“Can you place that next to the garden entrance, please. And that note on the gate, Dash,” Fluttershy smiled apologetically. “I’m afraid we’re under siege tonight…”
Dumbfounded Rainbow Dash picked the announcement, written on the hard carton.
- take the treats you need (from the bag)
- don’t forget others may need as well
- main request: do not disturb the animals
Thank you very much and enjoy the holiday!”
She still chuckled, shaking her head, while nailing the note to the gate.
19. Far-fetched plans Boomingly spreading in the thick morning fog, the hits of the maul sounded, as if they were filling the entire field around the old smithy. But for some weird reason, at the same time it was completely impossible to tell, where the exact source was. Willsmash stopped and looked around: his house was visible behind him, the second storey protruding above the fog blanket covering the ground, and clearly denoting the smithy location; but a couple of yards further and everything dissolved in the milky veil, barely lit by the rising dawn. The blacksmith swore inwardly and tried to remember, where that large rock was relative to the house; they chose that place specifically last evening, but he wasn’t sure, if he could find it in the cold morning mist, despite the place wasn’t overly distant from his yard. In addition to that, the booming hits ceased and the white haze became silent. “Uncle Will, are you coming?” Alex’s head, followed by the shoulders and the rest of him soon, emerged from the mist almost opposite to the direction the old unicorn was peering into. “I’m almost done here!” “Are you absolutely sure about sacrificing your old armour for our demonstration?” asked he, when Willsmash followed him closely. “I’m asking, because I don’t know if something remains after, as I need to make the strongest impression on the princess. We could make another one or use a simple metal plate of the same characteristics.” “Yeah, I am,” the blacksmith inhaled the cool dampness deeply, before answering that seemingly simple question; he even nodded slightly. “You’re right, it’s the last thing materially connecting me with my military past… Sometimes it makes me wonder, which miracle it survived by; I could disassemble it billion times, yet didn’t.” Will smirked to his musings. “And while it carries some brighter memories – you know, not my entire past was gloomy, son – even so, the sad memories prevail. Yes, I’m ready to give it to our experiment, even knowing about the most possible outcome… or because of that…” “You see, it finally gives me an opportunity to get rid of that artefact of the past the most useful way,” Will shrugged, levitating the old, but finely preserved armour piece – chest plate and shoulder straps of pony size. They stopped, observing two large rocks, revealed to their sight and forming a natural stone corner in the field: two wooden crosses were hammered into the ground at a short distance from each other, a large mallet was leaning on the rock wall, telling about the source of the recent noise. Willsmash sent the armour to the left cross, slowly hanging it over, so the pole came through the collar. “It’s about time to begin,” Alex shuddered in the mist, ruffling and folding his wings tighter. “Celestia is rising the Sun already…” “Isn’t it a bit early?” muttered the blacksmith. “Princesses don’t like early duties,” he chuckled. “Besides, all that fog getting into the view.” “The earlier we start, the earlier we receive our answer,” Alex was biting his lip pensively. “The earlier we finish and the less unnecessary attention we attract. I had more than I would like to after that fire!” He took a look around. “The Sun shalt evaporate the fog shortly and… Besides, it was her, the princess, who approved the early morning demonstration for some reason.” The sound of wings made both human and unicorn look up expectantly; however, there was only one pair of wings, not the largest one. A blurred lilac spot appeared above them and Twilight popped from the fog, landing and shaking small drops off her wings, frowning upon the weather. “Mo-o-ohrning!” it took her some effort to stifle a yawn. “I barely found you,” Twilight looked up at Alex meaningfully. “The house roof and a few rocks in the field are the only things peeking out,” she poked her fore hoof into the haze. “The smelter evaporated it around the smithy, but the rest hides in that milky mishmash!” she shook her head. “I wonder, who gave you and Celestia that idea.” “Is she coming?” Alex transformed his concerned expression into a tight smile. “I told you, she agreed to have a look,” Twilight sighed; obviously, it wasn’t the first time Alex asked. “I extend mine hope she was at least half as enthusiastic as thou made it sound!” “Look, I know how important it is for you,” Twilight stroke his elbow lightly. “And I called for all of my eloquence, maybe more than ever before, two days ago to make Celestia believe it could be important for her as well. She decided to listen to you, as soon as she had time for that. Which makes it today. That was all I could do, now it’s up to you… and your diplomacy and her willingness to give the whole thing a try.” “Excuse us, miss Twilight,” Willsmash let out a small smile, he checked the armour to be firmly fixed on the cross, yet listened to their talk with the edge of his ear. “We both are a bit nervous today – too much is on the stake.” Alex nodded. “Sorry, Twi, I really pin high hopes onto that new armour… For the number of reasons. But I don’t know if Celestia is nearly positive about it, let alone shares my enthusiasm,” sighed he. ‘Especially after that fire and the looks full of anxiety, she gave me!’ Inwardly Alex returned to the recent events… “Thanks… for deciding in mine favour anyway!” he met Celestia’s eyes, giving her a very long understanding look. The princess blinked, the attentive glance of her light magenta eyes slid all over the human, as she evaluated his words and stance. He couldn’t be joking, not under the given circumstances. Finally, Celestia nodded, still watching him thoughtfully. “I’m glad nopony got hurt.” “Well…” Alex groaned, getting up and trying to clean himself a bit; touching his side heavy-handedly made him visibly wince. “Mostly. I’ll be fine though.” However, the active movement caused another fit of cough in an attempt to clean his lungs completely. “I’m sorry…” squeezed Alex out. “Look,” Rainbow Dash was unusually quiet, her nose started flushing again. “I regret saying… things about you… that you were hostile and… Nopony risks their life to save ones they are hostile towards.” She sneezed, making a small cloud of ash rise from her chest, and sniffed loudly. “And, you know… the other things…” “Yeah, I’m definitely not a trampoline, regardless to what you think I’m guilty of,” muttered Alex, rubbing his ribs and looking at her fixedly. Rainbow blushed even harder, her cheeks becoming magenta. “And… don’t you look at me like that…” she stumbled, “dare to remind me of that… kiss,” she squeaked barely audibly, then added firmer, “and I swear, I’ll hit ya…” “Kiss? What kiss?” the pristine white ear turned to them, despite Celestia looked busy observing the ashes and a few ponies rushing to them from the herd. She kept looking towards the former school, but small rose spots appeared on princesses cheeks, while Rainbow Dash turned flaming red. Alex couldn’t hold himself from snorting. “Ummm…” Rainbow glared at him, trying to sound casually. “It’s a very long story, Your Highness…” “Oh, you are right,” Celestia agreed mercifully. “I have duties to attend, my filly. But we need to get back to the scene of the accident, while all the witnesses are there… And before the whole herd run here,” with a tiny smile she watched Twilight, Fluttershy and Applejack galloping to the hill. “You can tell me that story some other day, perhaps.” Rainbow gasped, then turned to Alex again. “Anyway, don’t relax yet… I still think you’re dangerous. If not for others, then for yourself; I mean it, Alex,” she stomped her fore hoof, seeing a smile curling Alex’s lips. “One must be mental to throw out a trick like that, what if…” “I didn’t have time to work out a better method!” Alex chuckled, seeing the usual Rainbow Dash slowly returning, but before he could add anything else, he was almost knocked over by two other girls. Twilight squeezed him quickly, making Alex grunt again and examining him; she made sure he was in one piece still and let him go. Alex found himself in a soft feathery cuddle: Fluttershy wrapped her legs and wings around him, covering Alex’s face with fast small kisses, paying no attention even to the princess’ presence, let alone to the wet ash and dust staining her yellow coat. Alex felt her cheeks being wet even before she rubbed her muzzle on his hair and neck. He stroked her mane and shoulders awkwardly, trying not to drabble her even more and whispering soothingly into her ear. Applejack stood on the reserved side, giving Alex a warm encouraging smile; her gratitude was rather written in the eyes, despite all the shocking revelations of the day. “Glad you’re okay, partner!” “So am I,” Alex wiped his forehead, suspecting that he was only making it worse, spreading the dirt. “Thanks for your efforts, Jackie. I saw how you let the school stand for a few minutes more and I can’t tell, how grateful I am for that.” “Twilight, I’m very sorry,” Alex could finally put Fluttershy down to the ground, but she kept holding on him, as if her human could melt away suddenly. “For all the trouble it brings… and the explanations to be given now…” he shook his head. “Yeah, definitely! Ah mean… Guardian Spell, eh?” Two sparkles lit into Applejack’s eyes, when she nudged Twilight lightly and jokingly. “Oh, come on, pal, that doesn’t make me think of ya less,” added she with a smile, when Twilight flushed to the roots. “Ah know it wasn’t yar secret. You are a great mage, Twi, we would have been dead anyway, if not yar shield.” “Wait!” suddenly her green eyes widened, glancing at Alex in realization. “That means all that time you…” “Yeah,” Alex downcasted. “I was practically guarding the town nightly, since… since the dam…” he fell silent, returning the strong mare her hug. “Okay,” he changed the topic clumsily, “I think Her Highness is right, we need to check the ashes. I personally want to get some answers!” “I’m afraid there isn’t much to examine,” sadly stated Celestia. Getting down the hill they approached the ruin; Alex followed the princess closely, thankful for her simply walking there, so he could keep up without flying as well. However, almost feeling the tensed glances on his back he realized the futility of his attempts to avoid attention. What was done, was done and the silently watching herd clearly told him – they would ask their questions later anyway, nothing could stop them. The sight was truly horrendous: the collapsed school turned into a heap of debris thrice lower than the former building was, yet about double human height. The smell of wet ash filled the air with its bitterness, ruling out all the other scents around and making Alex cough again; ambers hissed here and there, dying in the pools of water and producing faint trails of steam and smoke. His wings ruffled, being buried under the tons of debris didn’t appear a calming thought. “Merlin’s pants!” he totally forgot about his footless precautions and soared in a twinkling, landing on the top of the unsteady mass with protruding wooden beams and making the wet ashes champ. He stumbled, but regained balance, keeping his wings unfolded and raised high not to drabble them. To his surprise, Celestia followed without fear of getting her gold-shod legs dirty and landed next to him; the debris threateningly sank under their added weight, but endured. “Hmmm… I’m sorry, but it will be problematic to distinguish anything in that mess,” she leaned her long neck over his shoulder, observing the burned ruins. “Especially if it’s at the very bottom… and managed to survive. You are looking for something specific, right?” “Yeah… Something… was to explode that hard…” slowly and quietly said Alex, he looked under his feet perplexedly. “But I rather have another concern now, Tia. How shalt Ponyville…” he stumbled. “The school is completely ruined and… If only I could…” “Oh! That’s the problem I can actually take care of!” Feeling crystal in her voice Alex glanced at Celestia to notice how she smiled actually; with his best efforts he couldn’t imagine, how it could be helped or appear amusing. He opened his mouth to say something and had another fit of cough because of the strong bitter smell. “I can revert everything, which made the school, to… ummm… its pre-fire condition,” mercifully explained Celestia, when he regained his breath. “A kind of time-spell variation, very effective. For the inanimate objects!” added she meaningfully. “But… The Seeker…” Alex alternated between her and the debris under his feet. “Don’t worry,” the princess interpreted his concern properly. “As I said, only the school and its equipment will be restored, nothing else.” “It would be quite unfortunate to find that creature inside again,” muttered Alex. “This magic doesn’t work with living creatures, fortunately or unfortunately, depends on how to look at it… On somepony’s magical creations either, as one needs to know exactly, how they operate. Thus we are totally safe.” “So… If you please…” Celestia unfurled her wings, taking off and distancing from the ruin a bit; she looked at Alex expectantly. “Oh… Of course…” Alex nodded confusedly; with a few powerful flaps, making the drops and ash whirl, he joined her in the air, promptly keeping behind the princess. Celestia arched her long neck, inclining the horn in almost attacking manner; the golden aura flowed along its length and Alex felt the hair standing on the ends on his nape, he could literally sense the magic being cast next to him – she wasn’t joking, the spell must be truly powerful. The aura enveloped the whole shapeless heap of debris below, golden sparks ran on its surface, discharges snaked all over the mass with audible zapping, making the herd instinctively step back a little. The ruin trembled, like a mirage in the heated air, sighed heavily and started moving. The steam and smoke streams ceased at once, as if being turned off; the bitter smell of burned wood faded, while the whole mass of the ruined building started to spread and straighten in height with crackling and snaps. The wooden beams rejoined in the eyesight, lightening up and sucking in the ashes as they restored their form and colour. Planks and window frames fixed themselves and flew up, sticking to the quickly growing carcass of the building. The glass shards flocked together, fitting their places in former shine and glory of the untouched glass. The loud audible rumble from inside the school, embraced and sculpted by Celestia’s magic, signalled about all the interior remnants undergoing the same blessed changes. Alex felt the gust of wind, swirling up his hair; the air was pushed by the restored structure, suddenly regaining its entire mass and volume. Then it blew back towards the school; the air filled the building again. Finally, the broken tiles swirled up, clicking back together and forming the shingled roof, as if nothing happened to it. The reaction of the ponies almost deafened Alex, hooves stomping in the equestrian equivalent of applause, amazed whistles and hollers; even the students, who appreciated the possibility of tests cancellation, raved and roared cheerfully, greeting that miracle. Feeling dumbfounded Alex shook his head, risking to lose height, and threw a bewildered glance at the princess. “I must admit, it takes quite an effort,” Celestia sighed, regaining her breath, yet allowing herself a small victorious smile. “But the result is worthy sometimes. For example, when it comes to foals and their education.” Alex blinked several times. “That was… impressive!” he could finally inhale the completely untainted air, nothing told that there was a fire site minutes ago, except the unrolled hose on the grass and the firefighters’ presence. The princess bowed her head slightly, watching the human amusedly, yet accepting his clumsy appraisal. “Let’s see what’s inside then…” Landing in front of the entrance Alex spotted that the window on the second floor was still broken, making a mental note of the time stamp being actually crucial for the freshly demonstrated to him magical spell. His hair ruffled, disturbed by the air from Celestia’s wings; the herd calmed down, letting the cautious silence take over again. “I can’t feel anything,” Alex looked over the shoulder, noting to himself the new necessity to turn with his whole upper body, as otherwise the folded wing obstructed half of his view. “We can assume it’s safe enough… but I’ll go first anyway, sorry.” Celestia nodded, folding her wings and watching the human intently. The double doors barely creaked, his steps boomed in the empty hallway in silence. Alex took a look around, amazed yet another time how perfectly everything was restored, like nothing happened to the school, which he saw laying in charred ruins: specks of dust danced in the sunlight coming from behind him, a pencil, dropped by somepony in a hurry, rolled on the floor, touched by his boot. The shadow dimmed the light, Celestia slowly entered, catching up with Alex, when he stopped next to the storage door. “Here it was,” Alex examined the handle propped by the broken frame plank. “Ahem…” he flushed lightly, throwing a glance at his alicorn companion; he caught himself on the thought that it could have hardly stopped the monster from breaking through anyway, but at that moment it looked a worthy idea. However, the princess was rather looking at him, even through him, than at something as prosaic as a broken door frame. She nodded shortly, telling him to proceed. The first thing gaining their attention, when the door opened, was a large pile of pitch-black ash or dust right in the middle of the aisle between the high shelvings, which occupied most of the room. Alex’s feathers ruffled, the chills rushed up his spine: he knew what it was, but he could imagine the last seconds of the creature to be far from nice; then the mental image of the ponies falling from the dam overshadowed his view, making Alex grit the teeth, his jawline hardened. “As far as I know, we never keep anything dangerous enough as a part school equipment,” Celestia squeezed through behind him. “Even studying alchemy… The school course doesn’t suppose that level of…” “It’s nothing initially explosive hither,” Alex moved along the shelves, examining the items fluently. “At least among those things I can identify,” his quickly scanned through, pursing his lips. “I admit, some substances can explode mayhap… properly mixed in certain conditions, but…” he turned to the princess. “I don’t see something, which could blast that hard, princess!” “Whatever it was, it must be a part of the Seeker somehow,” Celestia watched Alex kneeling over the pile of ash; he poked it lightly, making the completely inert dust flow under his fingers. “Now ruined by the explosion and fire.” “We shan’t find out now!” Alex frowned, wiping his hands. “Was ‘t deliberate? I assume thither are some magical ingredients in this storage, correct?” “Not too many, but yes,” Celestia nodded shortly. “You think something could react accidentally to the Seeker’s “natural” effects.” “Methinks we have more questions than answers now,” slowly said Alex, making a wry face. “Why hither? What could these monsters look for in the peaceful town school?” The princess shook her head. “No idea. But I think it’s safe now!” she watched him fixedly, like trying to read Alex’s rambling thoughts. “The guards will remove that,” with a tiny shadow across her muzzle Celestia pointed at the ashes. Alex slowly nodded, thinking that currently it might be safe, but the whole story was far from being over. Meanwhile, Celestia threw a quick look over the shelves, the narrow aisle; she took a small step back, something tingled. With a sigh the princess lit her horn again, vanishing with a flash; Alex could barely cover his eyes. Having nothing better to do, he headed to the exit on foot, still trying to imagine what the Seeker could need in the building full of ponies amidst the day. “…and the school is safe now!” Celestia’s voice sounded from outside, when Alex crossed the hallway. “I think you can return to the study routine… after the Headmaster performs the necessary examination, with the help of the guards, of course.” “Personally, I would advise dismissing the students for today though, but it’s up to the decision of school’s directorate of course…” Another blast of cheerful approval rolled through the herd, overshadowing the tail of Celestia’s phrase, half of the students wouldn’t mind the princess being their mentor at that moment. Alex smirked. ‘Indeed, what’s the point of keeping the foals in? Anyway, the whole town will know everything till the end of the day.’ He ran into the Headmaster in the doorway; covering his eyes from the bright sunlight Alex looked over the aged stallion huffing through his moustache. The Headmaster’s thoughts were already occupied by the school safety and work, so he winced throwing a bewildered glance up to the winged human figure. “I’m sorry for the broken door, sir,” Alex pointed toward the storage room, making the stallion chuckle or cough, when he squeezed past Alex with a short gawky nod. Once again Alex found himself in a warm feathery cuddle, when Fluttershy darted to him, raising onto her hind legs and squeezing him around the chest; he snuggled the girl softly, looking into her turquoise, shining wetly eyes. “I’m okay, okay,” whispered Alex, he wanted to stroke those perky fluffy ears, but quickly reconsidered after another glance at his hands. Celestia took Twilight for a short word, Alex saw the princess telling something quietly into the strained lilac ear. The rest of the girls surrounded him with Fluttershy, as the students didn’t need their attention anymore; many of those already guessed, when they could pick back their belongings and head home, resembling a buzzing beehive again. “We need to take you home,” Twilight hurried to them, as soon as Celestia departed. “And quick!” “I’m with you… if… if you don’t mind,” quietly said Fluttershy, Alex squeezed her tighter around the shoulders. “Naturally, we all are comin’, later today, if you don’t mind,” smirked Applejack alternating between them and Twilight. “Ah’d like to get some answers, partner!” She watched Alex and Twilight exchanging glances and nodding almost synchronously. Alex noticed the fillies making their way through the herd towards them, the ears of all three were perked, they definitely heard Applejack and planned to find out more; anything they could fish out by hook or by crook. But before Apple Bloom could even open her mouth, Applejack spoke ahead of her. “No, no, no, girls! Not this time… You’re goin’ to the farm now and Big Mac will keep eye on you until Rarity and Dash could walk two of you home. And Ah mean it, girls,” she sounded stern and serious. “Ah suppose it’s safe for them to go, as the Seekers don’t appear one by one shortly, right?” added she in half voice, addressing Alex. “So far they truly didn’t,” confirmed he quietly, while Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo groaned plaintively and almost synchronously, yet submitted to the mare’s request. That evening Alex told the girls everything they didn’t yet know about his peculiarities, thus mostly about his ability to handle objects while sleepwalking and control fire almost thoroughly. He couldn’t deny, that aspect was the most crucial and, despite everything Fluttershy’s friends knew about the human, the hardest to accept… at least accept calmly. However, after the first minute of bemused silence, girls’ reaction was better than Alex expected; later he was to admit that they were already prepared finely for that last revelation. Rainbow Dash couldn’t hold shaking her head a little after finding out those Alex’s abilities were received practically with princess Luna filing, moreover, with her approval and guidance. Evidently, she suspected this couple – for herself Dash inwardly paired them long ago – of more surprises to come. Alex saw, there was a long road to go yet, but at least she didn’t frown in his presence. “Well… Ah think it’s somewhat natural,” Applejack took his fire-controlling the easiest, almost as given. She remembered his story. “You’ve come here by fire and storm, so Ah see nothin’ strange in you having some… special bonds with ‘em, partner.” “Ah definitely have nothin’ to complain ‘bout!” she glanced at Alex meaningfully. “Without your “strangeness” Ah, Twi and the fillies would have been worse than dead…” “Yeah, about the fillies…” their disappointed curious muzzles stood before Alex’s inner view. “Don’t worry, darling!” Rarity emerged from her dreamy state for a moment and gave him a reassuring smile, Alex inwardly strained from. “We’ll try to explain them things mildly and prevent from further… ummm… investigations.” Applejack and Rainbow nodded in agreement and Alex thought that it could probably calm him down. If he didn’t know the fillies better. “I wonder…” Pinkie rubbed her nose musingly, examining the human, as if she saw him for the first time. “We know, what happens if you are objected to magic, right? Well, more or less… And what if you get under some spell while sleepwalking…” she stared at Alex without blinking. “No way! I don’t even want to imagine!” Alex winced from the mere thought about the possible outcome, recalling his experience at the Tree of Harmony and feeling how Fluttershy snuggled tighter to him. She spoke less that evening, but didn’t leave Alex for a minute, even sliding into the shower with him. Twilight only flushed and gave up on them, but Alex was to admit that without Fluttershy gentle help he couldn’t have properly brought his wings in order. He wrapped his arms around the pegasus girl, comforting her. “While I’m in control of the situation, I won’t dare to run such experiments definitely!” Twilight’s nod of approval, the same Twilight, who always preferred to dig down to the roots of every phenomenon, was the best confirmation of his decision being right. She glanced up at her horn meaningfully and winked; Alex made a face, looking away. “Well, it was natural to suppose, mate,” Pinkie shrugged with a smile. “Not that I suggested you do that.” Other ponies were less relaxed about the incident at Ponyville school and Twilight took the duty of talking them through with all the diplomacy she was capable of. Next couple of days she calmed down the witnesses, coming to the Library with inevitable questions, and the neighbours concerned about the human’s revealed powers. Twilight preferred to use a more neutral term, making the pill easier to swallow, something like “paradoxical abilities boost during the sleep”, but Alex saw that in a few cases it didn’t quite work – some ponies looked deeper than given. Alex could swear he heard them asking at least twice, if it meant that the human could appear in their dreams as well. That was quite thought-provoking. ‘If that’s happening in their heads, while ponies tend to take things easily… What, pray tell, may Celestia suspect, given her usual concerns of the subjects’ safety?..’ “Alex. Alex!” Twilight’s loud whisper pulled him out of the concerned memories; he looked, as if he was seeking the answers in the quickly brightening sky, where Celestia’s Sun raised, evaporating the fog little by little. “Alex, do you hear me? The princess is here already…” “Huh… Ah, yes, indeed…” Alex winced and turned around fast to face her highness in pony landing behind Twilight’s back, on the edge of the glade promptly mowed by Alex on the eve. Two usual pegasi guards followed the princess: not that she needed extra protection, Alex was sure about Celestia’s capabilities, but as the tradition of honour. “Good morning, Your Highness!” he changed the concernedly pensive face to the best semblance of polite diplomacy, he was able to produce fast enough. Especially considering they distracted Celestia of her morning court that early. Especially seeing that vivid enthusiasm wasn’t written across the princess’ muzzle. “I’m glad, you could find time to attend our small demonstration…” “I could,” Celestia nodded to him reservedly. “But for the obvious reasons I have about half an hour only. So, you can count on that, no more, Alex…” Frowning inwardly, as he mentally added “the human” and was sure that Celestia did the same highly likely, Alex nodded with a barely audible sigh. He learned some of her habits well and that particular one wasn’t the good sign. Nevertheless, Alex had no choice but doing what he planned, wondering what exactly the princess could conclude basing on Twilight’s words. Actually nopony, not Twilight, not even Willsmash knew how exactly the armour was going to be tested. “Okay… The time and place were chosen on purpose as I’d prefer to keep any foreign eyes away from it yet,” Alex noted the fog dissolving around the rocks, visibly getting thinner above the field as well. He took a deep breath, preparing to advocate his idea to the end. “We gathered hither for a little demonstration of our current work, which, I believe, may appear useful for the royal guards, if not lifesaving in certain circumstances. We aimed at increasing the personal safety of the owner during… operations and… I suppose Your Highness may find it beneficial to equip the guards with the improved armour of our making from the advanced materials instead of the common steel.” “That’s quite interesting,” curiosity fought scepticism in Celestia’s eyes, when she approached, and Alex thought that he still had a chance for success, “but can we move straight to business, please?” She glanced at Alex unequivocally. Instead of an answer he turned around and pointed at the wooden cross at the foot of the rock; the long sheets of fog swirled around it and the time-worn armour, slowly dissolving in the still warming up air. Twilight followed his gesture, she opened her mouth, but reconsidered, staying silent. “Tis the most common equestrian guard’s armour,” dropped Alex over the shoulder. “It’s a zilch dated, but I believe it hardly changed drastically syne, so it shalt serve a trustful proof of the idea.” Without further ado he raised the hand, a small clot of flame appeared in Alex’s palm, dragged from the smelter, which hummed and threw out a cloud of thicker smoke. The flame curled into a small ball, resting in human’s fingers and visibly heating up, changing its colour from bright red to almost white. That casual gesture brought palpable silence, barely broken by the grasshoppers, chirring in the drying in the bright sunlight grass. Everypony, even those unsuspicious, realized at once that Alex came there sleepwalking. A tiny shadow ran across Celestia’s muzzle. With a short well-aimed swing Alex launched the fireball at the armour; the projectile buzzed, drawing a bright trace in the air for a moment, making everypony blink. It was absorbed by the steel plate completely, like butter on freshly baked bread, leaving a small notch and turning the metal flaming red at the small spot of contact. In a few seconds the smell of heated steel reached their noses. “We discussed it with Willsmash and chose that place specifically,” Alex turned to the stunned princesses, the old blacksmith looked a little less surprised – he suspected the possible method of experiment. “That prevents the projectiles from ricocheting, making them break up on the rocks and dissolve anyway.” “As you can see, the fireball affects the common armour instantly. A couple more tries can make it melt at that point methinks. And even without penetrating it, I don’t envy one, who is wearing that quickly heating thing!” Alex looked at his audience meaningfully. “Of course, this armour can stand against the majority of simple contact weapons in Equestria, arrows and spears, giving up under the heaviest of the latter only. But it’s not that well prepared for the magical impact, which isn’t a rare case hither I suppose.” “The more powerful impact can easily provide a serious threat,” dropped he, pulling another orb of fire out of the smelter. “Let me show you.” Even a fluid glance was enough to spot the difference: the bright candent orb slowly rotated in Alex’s palm, coating it with the glow, the flames swirled inside, impatiently throwing small protuberances between his fingers. Alex squeezed the sphere lightly, it pulsed, glowing brighter and humming audibly. Twilight felt how warm the air became, driving away the remnants of mist around them; Celestia’s eyes narrowed, she kept them on the human silently, while old Will watched the princess’ reaction with interest. The new projectile hit the armour right in the middle of the chest plate, burning a large hole with brightly glowing edges in it, making usually reserved guards produce a couple of bewildered grunts. The metal started melting right afore the observing eyes, dripping on the ground and scorching the grass; the whole armour looked askew and the wooden cross underneath caught on fire, throwing sparks and smoke through the neck opening. “Ugghhh… That brings certain kind of a problem,” muttered Alex in the thick silence, which filled the glade. He looked around for the buckets of water, promptly brought by him and Will to aid in that case, and levitated one, pouring it right on the fire. The wood kept smouldering even after the second bucket. “Uncle Will,” Alex turned to the blacksmith inquiringly, making Celestia raise one brow subtly. “Can you please…” Without hesitation the unicorn picked another armour piece from somewhere outside of their view, levitating it to the still smoking testing spot. That chest plate was visibly different: it weighed lighter, despite being of the same size and construction, darker surface shimmered with the fancy pattern of thin lines in the morning light. Willsmash placed it accurately on the second cross, making sure it hanged fixedly, and stepped back. “We didn’t have time to recreate the typical armour completely, Your Highness,” Will shrugged almost apologetically. “So it’s merely the chest plate and shoulder straps to keep it in place, but that should be enough.” “I have a completed piece of human size already,” confirmed Alex. “But we decided to keep the experiment as pure as we could, thus both these pieces are equal in form, size and thickness. We took the previous armour as the prototype and tried to replicate the necessary parts.” Princesses eyes narrowed, she examined the newly brought armour fixedly, catching the details noticeable from that distance; Celestia even leaned forward, but only made a couple of steps closer. Her muzzle turned grimmer with each second she looked at that chest plate; the princess swayed her mane getting into the view. However, Alex got the anticipated permitting gesture of the gracious white head. “By your leave, I would like to skip the first part,” Alex took a look around, noting that the remnants of fog couldn’t hide their meeting any longer. He nodded towards the armour “I can assure you that it can easily endure simpler fireballs.” “But for the safety reasons… I’d like to ask you all keep some distance!” Alex made a few steps towards the crosses, not waiting for the reaction of the audience. “Just in case…” Willsmash joined Twilight in the “auditorium”, leaving Alex’s shooting range clear. Celestia huffed barely audible, but stayed on her place, catching each move of the human. That time he pulled much larger fireball from the smelter, which hummed louder, constantly throwing sparkles from its neck. Alex caught it on the palm and pensively rolled for a second, as if deciding which part of the armour to aim at. Streams and stripes of flame swirled inside the orb, which seemed to be made of liquid fire. Alex squeezed the bright sphere and it flashed like a nova, equaling the daylight for a moment; the heat wave reached everypony almost instantly and it wasn’t pleasant anymore, rather barely endurable, despite he did his best to shield most of the radiation. Alex inhaled deeply and launched the candent orb with one lightning-fast throw, it buzzed across the glade, swirling the remnants of fog in its trail and boomed into the chest plate audibly. But the armour stood intact, it didn’t even change colour, as if nothing just tried to scorch it. The fiery projectile hit the metal and split, fell to pieces, spraying the grass around and setting it on fire; even the ground seemed to be burning now. With a tiny cringe, Alex quickly pulled all the flame into one small spot at the wooden cross base. He picked up the armour, levitating it closer to everypony, while Willsmash extinguished the flames with more water. “As you can see, there isn’t a tiny notch on its surface,” stated Alex, welcoming all the present to see for themselves; Twilight couldn’t hold back a tiny smile upon the barely hidden pride in his voice, but the human and unicorn had full right to be proud of their work. “While the old armour piece is something colander alike now.” Princess Celestia blinked, alternating between the human and his creation. The thin linear patterns on the dark metal fascinated almost hypnotically, but she didn’t hurry to touch the armour presented for her royal assessment. Celestia’s eyes narrowed, her nostrils trembled lightly; Alex waited patiently, when she circled slowly around him still levitating his product. “I admit, of course, that simple arrows and even spears are much weaker than a common fireball,” he continued proving his point of view, “yet they can provide certain danger to the older armour… especially at the joints and plate seams. The enchanted weapons, let alone spells, are a completely different story, they can penetrate simpler armour at ease. I can only imitate their impact, but you could see, what happens in that case.” “Thus I took small liberty to offer the new armour, made by us,” Alex nodded towards Willsmash, “of advanced alloys, improved and capable to stand against not only all the common Equestrian threats, but even high temperature and pressure plasma clust… ahem… fireballs, to Your Highness attention. Supposedly it can be used by the Royal Guards with benefit to both their safety and efficiency!” he finally put the chest plate to Celestia’s hooves, when she appeared in his view again. The princess stopped, in silence everypony could hear the dying embers of the first wooden cross and the heavy thud, the old crumpled armour hit the ground with. “Mhm…” Celestia cleared her throat and asked, picking the words carefully. “Speaking of high-temperature fireballs, how hot was that… “advanced high pressure plasma… thing?” “Two thousands centi… ahem, kelpigrade, princess,” Alex let out a small smile explaining. “I have actually reached four inside the smelter core, but wasn’t sure that it was entirely safe, I could shield it nicely yet and… But, as you could see, the armour can take it and even a zilch more for a short time,” added he quickly. “While it’s not enough to send the guards… to the Sun conquest,” Alex chuckled. “It can perfectly protect them from the majority of hazards and threats Equestria can commonly provide and…” he slowly fell silent mid-word, raising his eyes to both alicorns. “What? Did I…” Celestia’s left ear twitched up and down, Twilight opened her mouth and forgot what she wanted to say. Alex looked at old Will inquiringly, the unicorn’s moustache trembled from the stifled laughter. “Who in Equestria, pray tell, will launch… how you call them… “high-temperature plasma clusters” at our guards?” There was sincere interest in her question, but Celestia seemed looking through Alex. “Errmmm… Unless you plan to do that…” she raised one eyebrow, but Alex could hear the concern behind her irony. “I know well all the threats Equestria can provide,” the princess shook her head slowly. “We don’t have any ongoing conflicts anymore. I’m sorry to disappoint you, Alex, but I find your suggestion excessive, not reasonable, as hardly anypony…” Alex threw a quick glance at Willsmash, who headed to the crosses and poured the last bucket of water onto the embers, taking the remnants of his armour from the pile of ash. “Mayhap the changelings still pestering the southern borders?” asked he in half voice, but his wings flapped convulsively from badly hidden indignation. “As I already said,” Celestia quietly shook her head again. “I have to disappoint you, but my decision stays. I doubt the need for such complex and excessive measures.” She sighed with mixed feelings. “I take my leave upon this!” the princess soared, followed by her guards. “Twilight, Willsmash, Alex… Have a nice day!” “Alex! Are you okay?” When the flash of the portal took the royalty away, Twilight looked up into his eyes. “I… I’m sorry it went that way! I did my best to convince her…” “What art thou talking about, Twi?” Alex stopped examining the armour at his feet and glanced at the girl. “It’s not thy fault…” He tried to smile normally, felt that he failed drastically and waved his hand. “Mayhap I simply overdid with mine demonstration a zilch… scaring Tia as a result. She was definitely worried about something, even upon arrival. But I only tried to help…” “I know, Alex, I know,” Twilight touched his arm lightly. “And I’m truly sorry… But, it’s not the only product you and Willsmash can offer.” “Miss Twilight is right,” the old blacksmith joined them, he tried not to take that fiasco to heart. “Life doesn’t end on that, son. Even without that armour we have loads of work to succeed, let alone stay afloat. All thanks to you,” he glanced at the human meaningfully. “I shall try to talk to her again,” Alex muttered dully, looking morose with shoulders drooped and feathers ruffling up. “Can’t believe, she closeth her eyes at the obvious…” “Of course,” nodded Willsmash lightly. “And nopony will deny you tried your best. I’ll take care of this,” he picked up the new armour as well, heading to the smithy across the field heating up in the sunlight. “Miss Twilight, I would like to ask for your help with…” “Yeah…” Twilight threw a slightly worried glance at Alex. “I… errmmm…” she faltered and fell silent. “It’s okay, I shall be there shortly.” Alex watched Will telling Twilight something as they reached the road, the blacksmith properly read his mood, distracting Alex’s alicorn friend, so she didn’t try to stay from the best intentions. Alex looked away, clenching his fists helplessly – the single cross symbolically towered over the pile of wet ash, shaded by the large rock. The light wind delivered a bitter smell, spreading it in the warm air. ‘What doth she fear?! Did I ev’r harm anypony? Merlin’s pants, I completely can’t understand Celestia oft!!!’ Alex thought so “loud” in the falling silence that he wondered if he didn’t shout it; he gritted his teeth. ‘Fuck it! First I am… tested, then monitored closely and yet mine credit of trust is next to non-existent! I simply wanted to lessen yet another foal’s chances to become an orphan…’ Without realizing what he was doing, Alex spread the wings and soared, making a frantic angry loop, then hovering in the air. A new flaming orb formed in his palm by itself, the smelter was at his service. Squeezing it so hard that it flashed brightly and crackled audibly, Alex tossed the fireball at the rock, putting all the frustration and fret into that throw. The fireball bit into the cold stone, falling apart with a loud crash and a cloud of hot sparks; the rock hummed from the impact and suddenly gave up. The long crack ran across the dark burned spot on its surface. Alex exhaled, letting the air out with a hiss. The tension released him slowly, unwillingly. At the backstage of his conscious he fancied somepony’s holler. It sounded rather surprised than fearful and Alex quickly scanned the surroundings to find the peacebreaker. At first glance nothing disturbed the surface of the grassy sea, turning yellow already, yet still lush and soft. The sun lit seemingly every square inch of it, dispelling the morning fog completely, warming the field and evaporating remnants of the cold dew. Some small bird whistled melancholically in the distance, hiding in the grass, which came so close to the few rocks scattered across the field, that Alex thought, he could hardly see anypony hiding in the thick shade at their foot. His nostrils twitched, he definitely heard somepony; without much concern, as Alex didn’t feel anything specific he usually did near the Seekers, he flapped the wings harder, raising in the air. The entire field between clearly visible now smithy and snaking away railroad seemed deserted. Finally, he spotted some movement, the grass at the edge of the mowed glade stirred, releasing an olive filly with a large light crimson bow in her amaranth mane. She jumped out of the foliage and sat straight on the ground, watching the human with a mixture of bewilderment and curiosity. Her pale grey and light saffron friends followed shortly, leaving their cover more cautiously though and joining the filly on the ground; they watched Alex with their heads tilt and ears curiously perking. “Errmmm… I’m sorry about that… if I scared you. That was,” seeing their almost identical poses Alex couldn’t hold back a tiny smile, but he didn’t know, how friendly they considered him at that moment, “that was unintentional, in the earnest.” “Morning, Alex!” even if Apple Bloom was a bit nervous, her friendly greeting sounded sincere. “So this is how… how you… command the fire.” “Yeah, we saw it only briefly at school… that day, you know…” added Sweetie Belle a little confusedly. “It was a total mess then,” huffed Scootaloo with a shrug. “We could hardly understand, what was going on… And had a feeling girls didn’t tell us everything later!” she squinted at Alex meaningfully. “I think we could know more…” Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle quickly nodded in agreement. “So what happened here?” Sweetie Belle glanced at the burned spot at the foot of the cracked rock. “We couldn’t catch much,” confessed Scootaloo, trying to sound routinely. “Found you here, when princess Celestia left…” She couldn’t keep the face and flushed brightly, flattening her ears. “First of all,” Alex landed, heavy flaps made the short straws swirl in the air; three fillies watched him with wide eyes. “I wanted to say that I won’t harm you, girls, or anypony around.” “Of course, you won’t,” smirked Apple Bloom. “At least if you are the same Alex, I know, right?” she glanced at him, raising one brow. “Even Rainbow Dash admitted, she was wrong about you being hostile,” added Scootaloo meaningfully. “She said that you are dangerous anyway, mostly for yourself, because of your… unpredictability…” she stumbled, then her muzzle lit with some brighter idea. “But she was smiling, telling that, so… we kinda don’t know which part she was serious about, if any. We decided to see for ourselves!” Scootaloo cocked her snoot. “Oh, that’s possibly the best I could hope for!” Her expression made Alex laugh heartily, he bowed theatrically. “It’s already rich, coming from Dash.” “Back to your question,” he nodded towards the sooty rock. “Princess Celestia thinks that I should… keep the less militaristic course of mine development, let’s put it like that. Obviously, I can’t understand her refusing some nice armour for the royal guards, especially at the face of the recent events, you know about. Those creatures and so on…” “I actually want to help…” Alex sat on the ground, crossing his legs, it was smarter to let the girls make that decision and the first steps themselves: if they considered him safe enough. After a moment Apple Bloom approached him, her two friends followed closely. “You put your soul into that work…” slowly said Apple Bloom. “No wonder that you are disappointed,” Sweetie Belle tried to look up into human’s eyes. “I know well, how it feels, when your best ideas aren’t accepted.” “I should have kept myself in hands better anyway,” sighed Alex. “Sorry again, if I scared you.” He looked at the fillies. Without saying anything else, Apple Bloom climbed onto his lap and squeezed Alex tight across his chest, butting into him softly; Alex returned the hug with relief, stroking her head. Not falling behind her friend much, Sweetie Belle snuggled to him as well, so Alex was to wrap another arm around her shoulders. Scootaloo was more reserved: she came closer and sat at his feet with the signature independent look, Alex knew the origin of so well. “Rarity told me, that you would have tried to save the students anyway, but both of you rushed into the school, thinking we got stuck in that basement,” Sweetie Belle blinked fast. “I’m glad… that you are fine!” She sniffed, hiding her pinkish nose on his neck. “And didn’t Rarity tell you that you shouldn’t sneak in the cold wet grass?” smirked Alex. “You should give yourself some time since that cold.” “Yeah, yeah, I suspected you trying to find out everything you can, ever since Twilight heard you in the field that night,” even Belle’s ears became pinkish then; Alex wrapped his wings around the fillies, causing them to squeak surprisingly, and freeing one hand. “Couldn’t tell for sure, but…” Before she could do anything, Alex stroked Scootaloo’s short mane softly; the filly froze at first, but when the fingers started scratching behind her ears, Scootaloo squinted and the expression of extreme appeasement flooded her muzzle. That change was so amusing that Alex barely kept a serious face. However, despite all the fence-mending, or maybe because she was twenty percent more curious than her friends, Scootaloo opened her eyes soon and looked into Alex’s demandingly, stomping her fore hooves on his lap. “Still… we want to know, what is going on… how all this is possible!” her ears perked and the tail swept impatiently a couple of times. “We know that the Tree of Harmony refused to send you from Equestria and… you got wings, somehow…” nodded Apple Bloom. “They told us… and we could actually see… that you can manipulate objects, moreover fire. But…” she looked sincerely confused. “But how? You can’t cast magic, right? At least that’s something we were told all the way… Of course, it’s hardly stranger than…” she glanced over the shoulder at the wing supporting her softly. “But still… how?” “Yeah, even being friends with princess Luna doesn’t explain everything!” added Scootaloo. “Okay!” with a sigh Alex estimated his chances and surrendered. “But that’s quite a long story…” “Well, if you don’t want us to “sneak in the cold wet grass”, you’ll need to tell us anyway,” with a giggle Sweetie Belle batted her eyelashes the familiar way. “We have some time, if you do.” “It’s better to start from the roots then,” Alex looked at the fillies seriously. “I’m a sleepwalker…” * ‘Oh dear, it’s quite past that time I need to be at home!’ Fluttershy listened to the sounds of darkening forest: leaves whispering in the wind somewhere far above her head; cicadas screeching endlessly, while the still warm nights allowed; quiet sleepy chirping of some birds, who didn’t fly away in autumn and nested for their night in the treetops; owls, whose rollcall echoed deep in the woods. She stopped for a moment on the narrow, barely visible and known to a few ponies only overgrown path. The sky darkened fast and it was specifically noticeable there, under the lush trees of Everfree, when the narrow stripe of dusk turned from crimson into dark bloody, painting the rest of the sky into all kinds of deep blue tints, as the last ray of Sun glowed brightly from the horizon and faded, obedient to Celestia’s will. ‘Sure it must be safe enough here, but I must hurry. I don’t want to scare poor Angel,’ the pegasus girl smiled to her thoughts, inhaling full chest of sweet night air and continuing her walk in the quickly thickening darkness. Normally she wouldn’t have come there at that time of the day, as the night forest wasn’t an entirely welcoming place for a pony even in Equestria. Especially if it was Everfree, which lived by its own laws and rules, despite being formally under the princesses’ reign. Especially as the memories of her purely accidental salvation from the nasty timberwolves were fresh enough. But when it came down to the wellbeing of her animal friends, Fluttershy’s usual cautiousness became debatable, as her priorities quickly changed in that case. Just like that time, when she went to the fringe of Everfree, despite the coming night, simply because twilight was exactly the time she could help, not disturb, those who needed her aid. Making her way through the shrubs and ducking under lower branches, quietly huffing away leaves becoming wet from condensing dew, Fluttershy covered about the half of her way back to the field. The nest was at the fringe of the woods, but not at the very edge of it, so it took a while to make it to and from the place between the dark trees. Suddenly some movement made her stop, backing up into the shade of the nearest large trunk, and listen carefully. Fluttershy fancied some large shadow sliding fast above the crowns, but she didn’t know about any flying beast that large in that area. ‘All the pegasi must sleep already,’ pondered she after calming down her startled at first heart. ‘Either should you!’ sarcastically noticed her small inner voice, making the girl smirk. ‘There are no dragons that far from the mountains… well, except Spike. So… either it’s a Night Watch patrol, I wonder, what they forgot in our backwoods, or…’ She kept listening, but the cicadas were still abusing their rattles mercilessly and it didn’t feel like the deadly silence fell upon the forest; the birds going silent may have fallen asleep simply and the owls kept calling in the distance. Finally, calming down completely Fluttershy decided to leave her cover and cross the small opening, but before she did, some large, darker than the starry sky figure landed at the glade with a thick feathery rustle. Fluttershy didn’t have time to get scared, as the gust of air from two giant wings brought the faint smells of metal and machine oil, clearly telling her, she had nothing to fear. “If I expected to see somepony here at that hour, the last one was you definitely,” barely chuckled Alex, softly folding his wings, which became smaller in some incomprehensible way as he did. “What are you doing in the woods that late, Shy, dear?” He took the girl into an embrace, when Fluttershy stood on her hind legs and put the fore hooves on his shoulders, nuzzling gently and looking up into Alex’s eyes. “You know, I’m not a fan of night walks in the forest, love, but sometimes… things are stronger than us,” Fluttershy let out a tiny smile, resting her chin on Alex’s chest and squinting from the loving kiss on her snoot. “When my little friends need me and they can’t go without my help, I feel the urge to rethink my habits for a while. Doesn’t matter if I know them well or simply saw an animal in need.” “There is an owl family here at the edge of the forest,” explained she in a moment. “You can call them my old friends, Alex. Of course, their nestlings grew up and are quite independent, but when they felt unwell…” she shrugged lightly, as if it explained everything without extra words. “Must have eaten something wrong, foals are foals regardless their species,” another smile lit Fluttershy’s muzzle. “So, I’m taking care of them for a while. Owls are nocturnal birds, thus I don’t disturb them at the day time naturally.” Alex only shook his head with a smile. “And what are you doing here?” Fluttershy glanced at him with genuine interest, when they walked side by side through the forest slowly. “I thought you were checking the town nightly and the nearest outskirts only. Your impression of Everfree was hardly the brightest as well… By the way, are you “sleepwalking” again?” “No, not this time,” simply said Alex, he ran his fingers through her flowing mane, gently touching her head between the ears and sliding along girl’s neck; Fluttershy closed her eyes for a moment, she leaned on the human, feeling the electricity running through her skin, while her cheeks flushed. “You see, Rarity and Applejack were so concerned of that… timberwolves problem, they finally started fidgeting nervously at every thought about the woods…” “Well, it’s natural,” Fluttershy let out another tiny smile, while they followed the path, stepping over the fallen trees and making the chirping cicadas in the grass shut shortly. “It’s autumn already, timberwolves start sneaking closer to Ponyville, as to any dwelling naturally, hoping for… easy prey.” She shuddered, but only a little, like from some small draught. “That’s why I decided to check the nearest forest,” said Alex, stroking her shoulders lightly, making the girl relax again. “But I found nothing dangerous, either they are farther in the woods or it’s not their night… or our friends are exaggerating a bit.” “Thankfully there was that glade, when I saw you,” Alex threw a quick glance at Fluttershy, lifting a large lush branch to let them both pass under; he picked a couple of leaves from her mane, when they came through. “I’m not that an experienced flyer yet and don’t dare to land in the dense forest usually,” he ruffled his hair confusedly. “Now I need to walk to the field, as I can’t probably soar hither. But it hath its benefits!” Alex broke into a smile. “I can walk thee home, Shy.” “Not that I objected,” Fluttershy giggled like a school filly, bumping him playfully with her flank, which made Alex heart jump and his blood rushed momentarily. “But the rumours of this part of the forest being dangerous are really exaggerated. I heard from Zecora that venomous snakes became very rare near Ponyville for a while already… and she can’t remember last time she even heard a cockatrice here. I wonder why…” Alex coughed, clearing his throat and examining the grassy path under his feet very fixedly, while Fluttershy added. “I know they are dangerous, poisonous in case of the snakes, but at the same time they are still living beings,” she looked at Alex and shrugged. “They aren’t guilty of their nature. Just like timberwolves, to tell the truth… They simply live as they can, as they are able to… If only they were not that nasty sometimes,” muttered she pensively, “and persistent in their nastiness.” “What?” she noticed that her human stopped and examined her with the deep thoughtful expression. “That made me think about one thing,” said Alex after a long pause, when Fluttershy was ready to ask him again, concerned by his silence. “You come hither at night, because of the owls, without any second thought about the possible dangers, you still think about timberwolves and venomous critters as about someone, who deserves its corner, despite all the terrors brought to you and your friends by them…” “That’s simply…” Fluttershy began flushing brightly again. “I know you for quite a while, Fluttershy,” Alex came closer and kneeled to the embarrassed pegasus, taking her by the shoulders gently. “Since my first days in Equestria, right? And you still manage to impress me daily with your virtues.” Fluttershy squeaked and curtained half of her muzzle with her amazing mane, but Alex continued. “Right when I think I know everything about you, I open a new page, my love. And there aren’t many ponies, I can say the same about. Considering all you’ve done for the peace in Equestria and for your friends in particular…” he cupped her cheeks lightly, brushing away the wave of the mane and looking in the turquoise eyes. “I know that ye all are special, but… thinking of all what befell, I’d say thy capabilities are versatile forsooth. Which maketh me wonder why thou ain’t yet a…” He couldn’t deliver the result of his reflections, Alex’s mouth turned out to be tightly locked in a passionate kiss; swaying her mane aback the girl leaned to him, wrapping her fore legs around the human’s neck and completely conquered his lips, his breath, his mind. “Mmmffff…” tasting her tender tongue Alex felt that he was completely losing the trail of his thoughts, running his fingers deep into her mane instead and stroking Fluttershy’s neck, her sensitive ears, perking hard as steel at that moment. The floral aroma made his head spin, the heart was beating seemingly somewhere under the throat. “Oh! Okay, okay…” Alex took a honey-filled breath, when they parted. Fluttershy’s bottomless eyes were still inches from his, their noses almost pressed together; she twitched her ear, stroking his shoulders with her fore hooves. “I shan’t touch that topic, if ‘t be true thou object that much…” The girl huffed lightly, snuggling closer to him, her lips barely touched Alex’s again. “Or, mayhap I shall on contrary…” slyly smirked Alex. Quite surprised of not being weak in his knees upon rising, they walked for a while in complete silence. Alex thought about that incredible mare’s eyes, about the sparkles in them, when they were so close; actually, they were even closer at that moment, filling his entire view, so he rather felt than saw the path. Fluttershy smiled, she seemed to be listening to herself, but she touched Alex gently a couple of times, seeing that he was about to stumble on something on the ground. In a moment the forest became less dense, the openings between the trees revealed the dark field and the deep starry sky above it. “Fluttershy,” Alex finally woke from his thoughts, “I’d like to know, what is your favourite gem? If you have one and if I may ask?” “What? Why…” Fluttershy looked completely bemused by that sudden question, she laughed quietly, blinking a few times surprisedly, then looked at Alex apologetically. “I-I’m sorry… Well, I find sapphires, emeralds, diamonds very beautiful… But, I think… yes, emeralds are the prettiest…” she nodded shortly and determinedly. “Why are you asking, dear?” “Let it be a surprise,” Alex sported a mysterious smile, his eyes aimed at something distant, most likely something he was projecting inwardly. “I will tell, when I can show!” he glanced at his puzzled marefriend. “Listen, Alex…” after a prolonged pause Fluttershy raised her glance; the unusual determination was written in her eyes, Alex saw it even in the darkness. “I know things look and run safer the way they are currently… More appropriate.” She sighed, then looked at him with a tiny hopeful smile. “B-but… I wouldn’t mind you returning… Y-you know, to my place and…” Alex held his breath, waiting for the continuation, which followed shortly. “I… I promise I won’t try to… Squee… To babysit you again and…” she fell silent almost scared by her own resoluteness, then quickly added. “I’m not trying to put any pressure, no-no, I… just thought that…” “Never mind,” added she after another pause. “I simply… w-wanted to know, if you’re okay with that…” girl’s ears flattened of hesitation. “Have you decided anything yet?!” blurted she out in one breath. “Forgivest me, Shy! It’s not easy,” Alex shook his head slowly. “Each nearly acceptable variant leaveth at least somepony arrant heartbroken… The more I think of it, the less painful even the status quo looketh.” His regretful glance met Fluttershy’s; she nodded reluctantly admitting his rightness, then gave him a tiny reassuring smile, touching his arm lightly. “It’s okay… I said, I wasn’t going to push, and I won’t!” She leaned to him, when Alex put his hand on her back, inwardly wishing this moment to last. When they continued on, both the human and the mare did their best to master their feelings. Meanwhile, the trees parted completely, in a few more steps Alex and Fluttershy left the dark shadowy cover of Everfree, diving into the grassy sea surrounding the town with its neighbourhood. They entered a narrow open stripe of the stream bank, the creek took its beginning somewhere deep into the forest, emerged from under the green blanket further to their right and came very close to the edge of Everfree in that place. Shorter and softer grass covered the curvy bank and a single large tree spread its crown above the turn, where the creek sharply streamed into the valley, past Fluttershy’s cottage, Ponyville and to its aim in the familiar lake. The human and pegasus stopped unwittingly, enthralled by the view opening to their eyes: the grassy surface waved slightly in the flooding moonlight, pierced here and there by the dark silhouettes of the trees, like one they stopped under; the spring snaked its dark rippled metal through the field, gleaming with occasional moon glares; the velvet of night sky full of diamonds, big and small, spread out above the land. To their right the pitch-black mass of the clock tower stood out even against the dark tints of the sky, only the very edge of it glistened in the moonlight with its cold stones covered in dew; nothing broke the solid darkness of the ancient ruin as the clock face was on the other side, hidden from Alex’s and Fluttershy’s eyes. The cicadas went completely insane, rattling at their loudest greeting the Moon, which rose and lit the valley further, revealing apple orchards squeezing the field from both sides. Ponyville slept at the far edge of that scene, with its rare lights, moonlit roofs and houses darkening against the foliage. Halfway to the town Fluttershy’s cottage, surrounded by a larger group of trees, was visible thanks to a couple of small but bright electric lights. “Your energy turns out awesome, when it is aimed at something peaceful!” Fluttershy threw a jocose glance at him, nodding towards the cottage; Alex fancied the distant rhythmic sound of the waterwheel in the pauses of cicadas concert. “Well, some ideas come out as brighter and are, evidently, better accepted,” smirked Alex, sinking on the grass under the tree. The mare approached saying nothing, Alex saw own reflection in her widely open eyes; Fluttershy’s hot breath touched his lips, when her spread wings overshadowed the Moon for him. Their lips met softly and Alex felt her fast-beating heart, running his fingers along her sides, stroking Fluttershy’s strained back and arched neck, travelling to her mane and digging deep into its fragrant silk. She let out a quiet fitful moan and leaned closer to her human; the small tender hoof slid down his chest, undoing a few buttons on the shirt as if accidentally. Alex could feel Fluttershy’s heating coat against his skin; she snuggled into him, folding her wings and nuzzling Alex between kisses. Without much effort his large wings flapped open and the girl happily submitted to the warm feathery embrace, sharing her breath with her human. Dancing in her deep turquoise eyes the moon sparkles laughed triumphantly, when two small but suddenly very strong hooves rested against Alex’s chest, pushing him down to the grass… * “Oh dear! That must be one of the days when I feel each year of my several thousands,” princess Celestia examined herself in the large bathroom mirror. Naturally, the small wrinkles in the corners of her eyes were not denser than those of any mare, who didn’t avoid to smile, the silky coat kept its pristine whiteness, her walk didn’t become less gracious – the habit worked out by the aeons of court and galas presence, and her flowing mane still streamed softly, spreading the thin aroma of roses. Maybe only her eyes gave out fatigue from that day’s troubles. However, Celestia seemed to herself the most tired, ancient and shaggy at that moment; despite the late hour she was quite sure, she couldn’t fall asleep easily. Not after the recent events, which took so much effort and nerves of both sisters to manage. But there was nothing a good hot bubble bath wouldn’t probably fix: at the end of the day even the princess could afford the same as any common mare in similar circumstances. Hot water ran from the tap, whipping fragrant foam and filling the tub with bubbles and room with soothing steam. The princess could only dream of her soul to fill with serenity and confidence that easily that night; the reality told her, they did less than perfect, could have avoided more harm being done. With due self-criticism Celestia admitted that they failed to react fast enough: the information reached them too late, the guards couldn’t effectively control the situation and the moment the princesses arrived their acts could hardly change the course of events, only lessen the damage a little. They were lucky, mildly neighing… If subjecting, even if involuntarily, quite a few ponies to the numerous injuries of varying severity could be called “luck”! But Celestia knew well, things could easily go morbid, considering the tough situation they all get into. Thankfully the workers were evacuated fast enough, as there was probably no single pony in Equestria uninformed about certain mental impact, the meaning of it and urgent measures to take in that case. The princess didn’t want to imagine, what could have happened, if somepony had been left in the building. They could hardly do more for the factory personnel, being tight on time. But the guards getting fewer wounds with better protection could have been quite realistic. If only all the solutions were simple enough. That was what differed the princess’ duty and responsibility from such of any officer, for example. The latter saw and dealt with only part of the problem, naturally seeing easier remedies. But the ruler must keep the whole image in mind, think in perspective, weigh each step and the whole multitude of consequences it might bring. Often leaving themselves under the pressure of doubts and concealed regrets regardless of the decision. So did Celestia; she got used to thinking about the benefits of the whole Equestria first, keeping in mind the past and foreseeing the future. Simply for Equestria to have that future. Moral dilemmas became a natural part of her life; the princess saw many bright ideas turning into calamities. Musingly watching Philomena sitting on the basin side, Celestia almost let the tub overflow, stopping the water, when the large cloud of bubbles, rainbow in the candle light, trembled above the edge. Hopping onto the tap the phoenix continued preening calmly. “Am I overcautious? Even overreacting?” it was a rhetoric question, as the princess could hardly expect her phoenix to answer, not without Fluttershy at least. “Que?!” asked Philomena in “pure Prench”. “Skrrrrr-chak-chak!” she unfurled her fiery tail, tilting the head and glancing at Celestia slyly. Then the phoenix caught a few last drops from the tap and scratched her beak with the paw with the most thoughtful look. “Yeah! I’m as troubled…” chuckled Celestia. She stepped out of her golden hoofwear, taking off the necklace and crown, leaving both beside the basin, and finally sank into the fragrant softness. “Ahhhh!” The pleasant warmth enveloped her, getting under the coat; Celestia closed her eyes almost feeling how the hot water soaks her strain, blessedly taking it away and making her relax at least physically. ‘I would stay here for the whole night, if I could.’ The stress slowly released her, loosening its grasp and turning into thoughts, which needed their solution. A few blissful minutes Celestia sat motionlessly, leaning on the tub edge and listening to quiet Philomena’s chirping and sough of the foam; she gave herself completely to the soothing warmth spreading all over her body, caressing her legs and wings. She dipped, leaving only her muzzle above the water, not caring about the lush flowing mane getting wet. For a moment she remembered a long lost feeling of their mother bathing little Lulu and Tia, inwardly wishing for that memory to last, before the woes of that day made it fade. ‘If only we could come earlier…’ With a heavy sigh she pursed the lips and shook her head slowly. Preparing to its nightly rest the large city embraced most of the long gulf shore. Tall buildings watched their reflection in the calm waters; only slight ripple puckered the golden path drawn by the setting Sun from the gulf to the open ocean, where it dissolved in the distance. The air was still and clear: too late for the cacophony of sounds and flying herd of local pegasi, too early for the usual evening fog, coming from the ocean and flooding the industrial district separated from the coast by the narrow stripe of the forest. Showing exemplary and very rare in the world harmony between nature and urban, the place was considered one of the quietest in Equestria; even despite the large old prison, mostly empty those days and serving rather an architectural and historical monument of the city, than actively functioning detention facility. The factory on the gulf edge wasn’t any different from the rest, like others it turned its lights and machinery off, preparing for the night, workers finished their daily duties. Tired talks, anticipated dinner and well deserved rest; that evening resembled all the others, nopony could predict something extraordinary to happen the next second. A sudden strong gust from the ocean made the coast line of old overgrown elms tremble and whisper anxiously, dropping the yellowish leaves, which flew over the narrow rocky shore and fell into the water. A distant muffled bloop made them tremble, spreading small ripples around, as the air palpably fluttered. The thick brick walls of the factory made the sound unnoticed by the ponies inside, maybe only two-three of them perked their ears surprisedly at the thin tingle of glass in the large windows. Everypony shrugged that away, busy tidying their workplaces not to waste time on that the next morning. Then came that feeling: approaching from the gulf and the coastal forest it crawled into the buildings subtly and slowly, little by little flooding them in the growing tide. First increasing fatigue, not comparable to the actual daily work, slight anxiety, similar to one somepony could experience remembering if they took the kettle off stove or not; ponies started to exchange inquiring glances, frown at the unusual feel, some asked if others felt the same and took alarm even more, getting positive answers. They began gathering near the building exit instinctively, when far doors blast opened and the warehouse workers rushed in; the latter looked on the verge of sanity. “We locked everything,” reported one, swallowing convulsively, to the shift chief, “but it’s impossible to stay there any longer! It comes from the shore… Fast… My colts are nearly fainting!” He didn’t look any better than the others and needed no more words as the mentioned terror and despair crawled behind them into the factory building already. A loud hoot from the outside ripped apart the following oppressive silence, making everypony wince hard. The main building doors opened, letting the alarmed guards inside. “Evacuation! Evacuation! Leave your belongings fast and calmly proceed to the exit!” they hastened the dumbfounded workers. It took only a couple of seconds to print in, as everypony was ready and happy to leave the suddenly becoming so terrifying place. The guards watched for no chaotic ramble, panic and inevitable in such cases jam to occur. They managed to extract most of the herd, gathering the workers on the small hill near the factory fence wall, waiting for the further orders, when the loud crash reached their ears from the warehouse area. All the ponies herded tight, realizing that they were perfectly visible against the setting Sun; long shadows stretched to the building, the air seemed to freeze and silence fell again. The mental pressure could be experienced even there, making it hard to wait for unknown. The next moment two consequential flashes almost blinded the herd in the thickening twilight, revealing two regal alicorns to the overwhelmed ponies. The taller white one quickly stepped forward, scanning the herd for somepony. “Commander,” Celestia focused at the senior officer, “have you finished the evacuation?!” “Mostly, Your Highness!” the stallion saluted shortly, nodding towards the large mass of the factory building gilded by the low Sun. The last ponies hurried out, running towards the hill under the cover of remaining royal guards. “We cleared the storage area, which adjoins to the back wall of the main…” He couldn’t finish, interrupted by the deafening explosion, which sent the warehouses airborne; the whistle of flying debris reached their ears and the ponies running up the hill neighed, stumbling and falling. Unfurling her wings and aiming the horn, princess Luna leapt forward: the quickly spreading dark blue aura floated above the hill, the herd, the struggling below workers and guards, shielding fast the wounded and healthy with the shimmering magical dome. More bricks and wooden parts battered on the shield, reflected and inflicting no harm. “Your belated message…” Celestia shook her head, stepping towards the factory and inclining the horn, lightening up with powerful magic. “We were short on mages here…” muttered the officer, he and a few more guards rushed to help those ascending the hill under the debris shelling flashing and vanishing against Luna’s shield. “Anon with that, officer!” waved it away Luna, following her sister and keeping the protective spell. With another loud blast the closer wall of the factory collapsed, sending another wave of shrapnel towards them. Larger chunks of the wall rammed into the shield boomingly, making the Night Princess concentrate on the front edge more. The dust settled a bit, revealing three dark horse-like figures in the gaping hole, which appeared instead of the building wall. They quickly climbed on the pile of debris, another one tried to climb out of the rubble, which buried it to half. “Lead them outside the territory!” Celestia threw a quick glance over the shoulder, her horn glowed blindingly, ready to send the spell towards the intruders. The sudden knocking on the door pulled Celestia from her memories. Quiet and unobtrusive it none the less made the mare instinctively sink lower into the fading foam, throwing a quick glance at the bathroom entrance; Philomena stretched her neck, listening for the noise. “It’s me, Tia,” Luna’s calm voice made her sister relax again. “May I…” “Yes, dear, come in!” Celestia rubbed her forehead with the back of the fore hoof, driving away the sleepy lassitude. “I wanted to know, how the big sis was feeling,” with a soft smile Luna entered the room, her mane flowed, filling the air with soothing lavender, but the Moon Princess looked tired as well, despite the young night. “Naturally, not seeing thee in thy bed with some book that late, I thought I could find thee hither…” “It seems that every single part of me hurts. The hot tub may take away most of the bodily pain, but it takes no regrets or doubts…” Celestia slightly shrugged, looking at her sister almost apologetically, but Luna knew like no other that the necessity to be always strong was the heaviest burden; she simply nodded, showing that no explanation was necessary – she was there herself. “Well, sunny, mayhap I could help a zilch. Sit straight, please. So I can reach the strained parts,” Luna slowly approached, placing herself behind. Gathering all the remaining strength, which didn’t yet dissolve in the hot tub, Celestia tried to rise and sit higher. With some effort she finally emerged, the water running down her neck and chest, sweeping down the remnants of foam from the soft coat. The princess tried to stretch her wings, but reconsidered with a sigh, as the first gentle touch of her sister hoof caused almost a whimper. “I know, I know… Be patient please,” Luna sounded lulling, massaging sister’s neck, shoulders, between the wings, very tenderly first and stronger then, her efforts slowly made the strained muscles soften and relax. “No wonder we both feel quite beaten, sunny. Today’s incident was nasty, mayhap the more because we befell less prepared than we imagined.” “I wouldn’t have made it without you, Lulu!” quietly said Celestia, throwing a thankful glance over the shoulder. “Like in good old times, Tia?!” Luna’s eyes shimmered in the bathroom twilight, she gave out a little smile. “Yes, like in good old times,” repeated Celestia, huffing quietly under her sister’s careful hooves. She chuckled. “You cover, blueberry, I strike. You were always better at tactics than me… Feeling rational support does wonders indeed.” Luna continued kneading sister’s back, absently watching the phoenix, who perked up noticeably with the new pony arrival. Melting from pleasure Celestia stretched her hind legs, rubbing one on another and making small clouds of fragrant foam float in the air; Philomena poked the rising bubbles with her beak for a while, squinting when they burst and making her master smile. Then she hopped from the tap to the basin edge and glanced slyly at Luna, who was still thinking something over. “Mayhap we could actually lessen the damage,” pensively started Luna, but her eyes shone, “at least for the guards involved… If they had better, more durable armour… It befalleth that I know about one being… projected.” “Hmpf!” sarcastically huffed Celestia, waking up at once and perking one ear. “No, no, it’s okay, Lulu! Go on. What did you want to suggest?” “Well, I heard that from thee, Tia,” Luna continued tranquilly, “thither were no hurt ponies during the school incident… despite the devastating fire…” Luna’s hoof slid off Celestia’s shoulder, when the latter noticeably winced; the white alicorn downcasted confusedly. “I mean that Alex… Art thou okay, sunny?” It took Luna the second try to gain sister’s attention, as Celestia looked frozen; finally, she rose her eyes with something strange hiding at the bottom and nodded shortly. “There was only one Seeker in the school, blueberry!” Celestia rolled her eyes with a sigh. “I still suppose Alex knoweth better, how to deal with them,” stated Luna carefully. “One or more of these scoundrels, he isn’t affected by the Seekers… and that doth count.” Celestia kept expectant silence and Luna added. “Methinks we could give him some trust… at least when it cometh down to these monsters. More freedom of action and some support. Dost thou think that not, Tia?” “Oh! I gave Alex loads of trust already!” parried Celestia, noticing that Luna’s hooves suddenly became especially tender and caring. “Probably way more than necessary… I’m still undecided.” “One thing I know for sure,” she looked directly into sister’s eyes. “He is easily the most trusted human for all the history of Equestria. Same with the support, Lulu. Anypony else can hardly brag that amount of princesses’ involvement and attention to their problems. As for the freedom of action…” Celestia fell silent for a moment, “I tend to think otherwise, and this is why. Remember that nightmare, Lulu!” Luna listened, tilting her head, she even stopped massaging sister’s shoulders. “Alex is already much closer to that image from my dream, than it would be safe to observe calmly!” Celestia shook her head with concern. “Following his latest ideas looks dangerous to me, dear.” “You was there with me,” she threw a quick glance at Luna. “The pony army from that dream, they were all armour-clad… And that armour looked similar to what Alex suggested, at least visually… by the thin patterns on the metal and…” Celestia choked on words. “Oh, Tia!” Luna sighed at her sister stubbornness. Then she wrapped her fore legs around Celestia’s wet shoulders, cuddling her tight and kissing on the cheek with a tiny smile. “How many times must I tell thee? Thine dream is not a prophecy… not necessarily one. Dreams ain’t always predictive, nor they are always the reflection of befalling events. Quite a portion of them is the reflection of thy own concerns and outlook, sunny.” “Besides,” Luna slyly insinuated, “the portal didn’t work, recallest? Somehow Alex is needed, by the Tree of Harmony… I don’t know, but he isn’t considered a threat definitely, otherwise She would send him away.” “I remember, dear,” Celestia’s eyes gloomed. “But what is beneficial for the whole Equus, isn’t necessarily beneficial for Equestria.” “But we definitely could avoid many wounds today and even more in the future, who knoweth…” Luna added unequivocally. “… and supported your “special somehuman” ideas effectively!” pouted Celestia, causing Luna’s silvery laughter. “Mayhap!” the Night Princess batted her eyelashes, rising to the hooves. “But that’s not the main aspect… Comest on, Tia, thy bed is missing thee. It was a long day, sunny. I know, thou can make the correct decision, but that’s another day’s burden forsooth.” Celestia looked at her with almost foalish hope, that she didn’t need to go anywhere, but could fall asleep right in the tub. But Luna was adamant. “Tia! The water is cooling down and thou can catch a cold! Imagine, the sneezing Sun is a calamity…” she levitated a large fluffy towel. Sitting sleepily at the edge of the tub till that moment, Philomena opened one eye, noticing one of the alicorns getting up, she quickly soared, landing on Luna’s back; there the phoenix nested with all the possible comfort, sniffing lavender scent and almost producing a satisfied smile. “Ohhhh,” princess Celestia was still unhappy about being picked out of the warm tub. She stretched her shapely leg out of the bath foam, examining deliberately; water and bubbles ran down the white coat exposing it. “Ummm, don’t you think I need my hoofcare fixed, blueberry? It looks awful to me!” “Comest on, Tia,” chuckled Luna. “Dost not try to trick-talk me…” She finally managed to drag the sister out of the water, with another pleading glance Celestia emerged from the fragrant bath, stretching her legs one by one and magically tumbling her wet mane and tail, making them wetly flow again, when she stepped out of the basin. “Excellent! Good filly,” Luna covered her sleepy sister with the large towel, drying her up, then bringing a warm bathrobe closer. “Thy hooves look perfectly fine, thy mane doth the same, thou art in the habitual order, sis!” Stated Luna, examining Celestia, when they reached the dressing table with a big foldable mirror on it. “But dost not try to convince me thou ain’t sleepy. Thou hast forgotten something arrant!” with sly sparkles in her eyes she nodded to the reflection. For the whole minute Celestia watched her own muzzle through half-lidded eyes, then shrugged passionlessly and picked Luna’s crown with her magic, putting it on her own head, while Luna’s aura pulled something from behind. Naturally, it appeared to be Celestia’s crown, left by her in the bathroom along with the hoofwear; raising one eyebrow Luna mounted it on herself without delay. Both sisters stared at their reflection for a while, estimating that exchange, until finally Celestia started snorting quietly, as Luna tried her best to mimic sister’s majestic expression from official events, cocking her snoot and putting on the wise and dispassionate look. Curious about the reasons of her master laughing, Philomena didn’t take long to perk and stretch, taking a look. When her puzzled reflection appeared from behind Luna’s neck, both sisters broke giggling like school fillies. “I love thee, sunny!” Luna took her sister into feathery embrace spreading one blue wing over. “Mutually, dear!” sleepily breathed out Celestia, leaning to Luna and nuzzling her cheek tenderly. * “…so, we’re almost there,” said Pinkie, when they turned left into a short overgrown alley; the large trees of the opposite gardens almost shared their branch-shakes. However, despite the overgrown look the houses there were perfectly kept, just like everywhere in Ponyville, owners’ love was visible through careful painting, accurate fences, flowerbeds free of weeds. Alex took a look over the house they approached, it sank in the foliage, the upper floor floated on the green waves, already tinted with yellow and red and lit by the flaring up morning. “I promised to walk you here,” his pink guide nudged him lightly, so they steeped on the paved walkway. “But then you’re on your own, Alex, I have lots of work today. Well, you are a big colt!” Pinkie giggled. “Nopony’s going to bite you in that house. Actually, you won’t find a calmer, more reserved and punctual host in the whole town… Lily’s cousin may probably compete Twilight in meticulousness. Probably…” she winked, picking the bell string in her mouth and pulling. The simple yet cheerful bell sounded from the depth of the house, interrupted by quick, determined hoofsteps. Alex heard a surprised huff of the light on hoof owner behind the front door. “Good morning, Pinkie! Good morning… errrm… Alex, right?” the grey earth pony stallion with sandy mane and sealed envelope cutie mark welcomed them inside. “Good morning, Daily Mail!” Pinkie Pie almost pranced forward impatiently, Alex barely greeted their host. “How’s it going?” Alex let the stallion’s answer slip past his ears, observing the room; the furnishings were kept in exemplar order, each thing had its place, which, he guessed, it was returned to right after the usage. Taking a look over the shining cleanness around he unwittingly glanced at his boots – bringing some dust into this kingdom of order and purity looked like real crime. Alex thought that he could never upkeep that condition of the belongings, the amount of effort put into that must be quite impressive, unless it was the natural or professional habit of the owners. “… we would like to see Lily-Rose, if you don’t mind.” Alex woke, catching the tail of Pinkie’s phrase touching the aim of his visit, and nodded. “Of course, you do!” chuckled Daily Mail. “Normally we don’t have lots of guests every day, so today’s morning looks almost herded.” Raising one brow Pinkie forgot about hurrying to attend her business, the curiosity took over for a while. “I’m sorry, Daily Mail,” Alex decided to test the veracity of his guess. “Are you working at Ponyville post office? Mail sorting and delivery organizing, right?” “Absolutely!” with a smile Daily Mail followed Alex’s another glance around the room. “And I do my best for the mail always to be delivered to the addressee and in time,” the stallion winked. “Well… unless Derpy mixes something up…” however, the latter was said warmly, without a shadow of vexation and Alex thought that those two must be good friends, despite all the shenanigans of the klutz mail-mare. “Follow me, please,” the stallion headed upstairs. “I wonder what a… tech-head like you, forgive my bluntness, could need from the born artist like my cousin?” he glanced over his shoulder, making sure Alex and Pinkie were right behind. “The same as her other visitors and customers,” simply said Alex, “her art. I saw Lily drafting and wanted to see other works.” “She drafted a portrait of Alex,” smirked Pinkie playfully. “Yeah,” Alex rubbed his nose, feeling the flush. “In a few strokes, but with great semblance. Naturally, I was impressed. But how...” “It’s easy,” chuckled Daily Mail. “Most of the time I see your name near Canterlot Steam Company logo on the envelope and… you are the only human in Ponyville,” he shrugged, then stopped and turned to his visitors. “Errmmm… as you both came here… I wanted to ask anyway. What exactly happened at the town school last week?” “An unfortunate accident,” Pinkie put in quickly, alternating from hoof to hoof. “It’s really a miracle that princess Celestia was able to intervene fast and patch things up, really-really!” “It was one of those creatures, the authorities warned about,” Alex met the attentive glance of stallion’s eyes. “The school itself had nothing to do with it. And, as Pinkie said, thankfully the princess could fix everything perfectly.” “My son goes to school next year,” explained Lily’s cousin. “And… You know…” he finally moved on. “It’s the first time in my memory, when the school,” Daily Mail paused with emphasis, “in our quiet town is burnt down completely.” “Not because of the school staff themselves!” said Alex and Pinkie simultaneously; Alex let out a small smile, adding soothingly. “The evacuation was done almost perfectly in the circumstances they got.” “Hmm… I was told differently, but…” Daily Mail raised his glance at the human as they passed a couple of doors in the long, neat as the rest of the house, corridor and stopped at the last one. “They say, you put your… hand to the rescue as well,” he took an evaluating look over Alex’s wings. “A little bit,” Alex kept the poker face; Pinkie snorted quietly behind his back. “You and Rainbow Dash… Well…” the stallion knocked the door, making two muffled voices in the room fade. “Lily! More guests coming to you, hun!” “Then let them come in, bro!” the door opened, enveloped in the azure aura and letting out the smells of paper, canvas and paints. The surprised expression of Lily-Rose transformed into a smile. “Oh! You decided to come. Good morning, Alex, Pinkie!” she waved her mane energetically. Alex noticed Lyra behind her back, examining some papers in the sunlight coming through the large window; every free spot in the room, as he could judge, was occupied with paintings, drafts, graphics and different tools. Lily-Rose definitely was a productive artist. “If you excuse me… Need to go, loads of work as usual and I don’t want to run late,” letting the guests forward the cousin nuzzled Lily-Rose tenderly. “Have a nice day, you all!” “So, you wanted to take your portrait, Alex,” Lily-Rose turned to them, when her relative left. “Or maybe you let me turn it into something… less schematic,” she chuckled with audible self-irony. “It won’t be a problem, especially now, when I need more practice.” “And what do we have here?” before Alex could answer, Pinkie sang out, appearing behind Lyra’s shoulder and trying to peek into her papers. “Tell Lyra, what our history and naturalist mare is plotting.” “It’s not ready yet,” Lyra quickly rolled the sheets with her aura, leaving Pinkie’s curiosity dissatisfied. “I asked Lily-Rose about a few illustrations for my work… a scientific project, if you want. But it’s a secret yet, while it’s not completed.” “Scientific project?!” Pinkie snorted, staring at Lyra. “Let me guess…” “Hi, Alex!” waving away from Pinkie, Lyra glanced at the human with a bright smile, which slowly faded as her glance slid along his large black wings. “Woah… I heard about them,” she slowly squeezed out, “but the rumours don’t give you due…” “Yeah,” Alex shrugged clumsily, his wings ruffled slightly. Trying his best to make less unnecessary moves not to knock something over, he noted inwardly that they definitely shrunk, when he entered the room. “I’m still in the process of telling them, who’s the boss, Lyra.” At the word “boss” Pinkie’s sneering expression, she examined Lyra with, turned to concerned one, her eyes rounded. “Oops!” cotton candy mane seemed to puff even more, while pink ears flattened. “I totally forgot… The Cakes will burn for sure! Sorry, mates!!!” the last phrase sounded, when Pinkie’s silhouette faded in the doorway. Alex blinked a few times, driving away the impression that Pinkie simply teleported upon remembering about her own work at Sugarcube Corner. Both Lyra and Lily-Rose giggled. “So… Hmpfff… Sorry. Back to your portrait,” Lily-Rose leaned to her table, when they stopped snorting. She sought through her papers, looking for the proper draft. “You can surely take it as it is… or let me add some detail, if you have some time and don’t mind.” “Thanks, Lily-Rose,” Alex watched her azure aura shuffling the papers. “I would like to see your other works, if you don’t mind of course…” “Ahhh, here it is!” the unicorn artist straightened levitating Alex’s graphical portrait, making the original wonder the great level of detail and semblance again. “Hmmm,” Lyra dived under his wing and threw a glance at the sketch. “You know, Alex, she is right. Why let it be the head only? Maybe you can turn it into the whole torso, Lily? Show the wings and maybe… hands!” Alex snickered. “What?!” “Of course, you can, Alex. Feel free to take a look!” Lily-Rose let out a smile, levitating the paper to the easel and clipping it on, going to invest some more work into the portrait. “Won’t you need me to stay still though?” wondered Alex. “It’s okay, if you move and look,” the girl swayed her mane, making the pendant swing and her glowing strands shimmer. “Let me throw myself a little challenge – we’ll see how many details I can add out of the memory.” Alex nodded and moved along the walls of her room, examining the drawings and paintings on them, while Lyra subtly took the place behind Lily, tilting her head and watching the work. The collection was quite impressive: Alex even came across a couple of foal’s drawings, Lily didn’t scruple to exhibit; he wondered how accurate and vivid were the images, despite the foalish strokes. Some artworks were hanging on the walls, those obviously found their residence at Lily cousin’s house; the others stood leaned on the walls – current work of Alex’s new artistic acquaintance. He noticed that everything ponies said about Lily was true, the level of detail and realism was stunning, making him walk from painting to painting slowly, admiring the quality. The portraits looked photo-like: there were foals caught at the peculiar natural moments, playing and laughing; a few young mares, light, ethereal and dreamy, some in their party dresses and hats, some at work, gardening, dragging carriages. Alex spotted a portrait of miss Cheerilee at the blackboard, explaining something to the class. Stallions caught at their work: delivery workers, builders, a fisher with his rods, guards at their posts. A happy married couple, nuzzling each other. Alex couldn’t hold back a smile, seeing that collection of totally unknown ponies’ memories fixed on paper and canvas. He was to admit that many older portraits, while being almost photorealistic, looked like vignette – their background, simple and pastel, blended out into the canvas. However, Lily-Rose worked on that diligently, newer samples offered complex backgrounds with visible effort and mastery invested. Alex examined a few landscapes for quite a while, recognizing one view from the lake they met at the first time. One more unfinished work depicted two mares on their walk through the park, still in the draft, they strongly reminded Alex of Luna and Fluttershy somehow; he let out a quiet sigh. The table was hiding under the heap of drafts. Alex dug out a folder with graphics and dived in, one sheet caught his attention at once, making come closer to the large window, framed in juicy foliage from outside, and peer into the image under the brightening sunlight. It was a grayscale draft of a large ruined tower, peeking like a tooth from the remnants of the wall amidst the wild forest. “Errmmm… Apologies, Lily-Rose…” Alex cleared his throat. “Is it the Sister’s Old Castle? Looketh very familiar to me,” he showed her the opened folder. “This. Oh, no, that’s not the Old Castle,” Lily-Rose interrupted her work, coming closer and picking the folder from his hands. “It seems I draw that ages ago,” a smile lit her muzzle. “I was sketching on the wooded hills, north-west to Canterlot. There are some fort ruins at the mountain foothills, so…” “There is not only one ruin in Equestria, Alex,” sounded Lyra from her place near the easel; she glanced at him with mentor look. “Many old fortresses are scattered across the land, gnawed by time and falling apart. Those monuments of old, less peaceful age…” she fell silent for a minute. Lyra’s next phrase made Alex shudder from the memories. “Remember the Clock Tower, Alex? It’s a part of an old bastion. Well, we don’t need buildings as large and fortified anymore!” Lyra let out a bright smile. Willsmash and Sil stood in front of Alex’s inner view, the blurred image of a Seeker, the unicorn stallion in Canterlot medical facility. “That’s debatable methinks!” Both girls stared at him in confusion… * Approaching Canterlot Alex threw a quick glance at the Sun, automatically noticing its position in the sky: among the things, which ceased to follow him through the portal to Equestria, he probably missed the hand watch the most. Spending about half a year there he didn’t yet bother to get any replacement, despite, Alex knew it for sure, some ponies used hand, or better say leg watches; to perform some strap fitting was a matter of minutes. However, being almost constantly occupied with other sorts of fitting, solving, accommodating, he didn’t ever keep that thought for long, even if it struck him from time to time, using the common clock at home and resorting to quite ancient time definition methods when outside. The life-giving celestial body had passed zenith already, but was high enough to warm up the mountain side – it was yet far from sunset. The contrast with the humid forest below was palpable and Alex’s wings subconsciously ruffled, drying in the sunlight. Alex got washed by the rain covering the last span after the nearest to Canterlot small station. He wasn’t yet overly sure in his flying abilities, thus despite it would be immensely easier to navigate by simply flying higher and following a beeline to the capital, he preferred to stay closer to the ground, following the railway not to get lost – the mountain wasn’t clearly visible everywhere due to low clouds. Naturally, Alex was to follow each turn and run of the rails, spending more time and enjoying each type of weather on his nearly four-hour road to Canterlot. Thankfully he could easily reach the express speed at that moment, thus it didn’t take him much more time. The road was quiet, except a few passing and opposite trains, Alex did his best to avoid the larger cities and towns on his way, staying near the tracks the rest of time and rising above the clouds rarely, when he needed to check the proper direction at the forks. At the foothills following the rails became an uneasy task as the road started tacking between the cliffs, diving into the tunnels; that and the large industrial zone at the mountain foot, Alex spotted approaching the stone mass, made him leave the tracks and pierce the grey clouds, breaking into the tender sun rays. Alex enjoyed that opportunity, he felt like dipping into a hot tub at once, leaving the autumn chill down in the forest. Shielded by the clouds from the accidental eye, he crossed the last mile and started ascending along the scarp, habitually trying not to look back. After a few minutes of determined racing along the mountain side, Alex reached the edge of Canterlot, its living part. Once again he couldn’t but admire laconic, elegant and noble beauty of the city; he saw it several times and each time certain comparison came to mind at the sight of the mighty white walls, high thin towers, colourful roofs and streets bathing in verdure. Exactly the complex architecture and also the ponies herding the streets at that hour made Alex take a breath and rise higher. He couldn’t find his way to the castle from the ground, in the circular web of the large and small streets, despite it was his fourth visit; conscious visit at least. Besides, that way he could avoid unnecessary attention from below, even if somepony noticed a fast passing shadow, the human was far away the moment they looked into the sky. Making a mental note of the large waterfall, shimmering with billions of diamonds in the sunlight, the adjacent railway station (trains from Ponyville usually arrived to) behind the city wall, Alex aimed directly at the white shiny walls of the castle, speeding up even more. Finally, he could probably say that he began enjoying that new method of travel to a certain extent. Easing the duty of the royal guards at the castle courtyard entrance by soaring higher and buzzing above the outer wall, which surrounded the large gardens and the rest of the castle territory, Alex passed the gates unseen. Fluently noticing, how the pegasi guards fought their boredom and sleep with alternating success – it had to be the long day shift before night guards taking their posts – he inwardly smirked. ‘Old Will must have been right – the long period of relative peace weakened at least their vigilance,’ Alex rolled his eyes, deliberately looking away from the white three-storey building subtly peeking from the foliage to his right. ‘Let’s hope it didn’t affect their efficiency much… I have a bad feeling, we will need all the resources soon!’ He thought that applying some sort of the sentinel magic, some shield, which can keep the unknown intruders away, could have been handy; however, judging by him entering “the castle airspace” at ease, either there wasn’t any, or it didn’t affect him… unless it was supposed to simply warn the guards about the intruders. Anyway, no ground activity had to be seen yet. Next moment, seeing the approaching castle wall with pylons and high arched windows, Alex made a vertical loop, dropping the speed significantly and heading to the actual castle entrance at the top of the high wide stairs. He hoped that at least the castle guards were warned about his arrival, so he wouldn’t waste much time stomping at the front doors. “Sweet Celestia! It seems endless,” one of the armoured ponies alternated from hoof to hoof, using that chance, free of the officer’s attention, to dispel his sleepiness. “A few hours more, till the Night Watch batties step up, and my head is already like a bee-hive…” “It’s raining down there,” noticed another one, with a shrug of utter boredom. “No wonder it is. Be thankful, it’s washing the factory districts, not us here. And don’t break the charter too obviously, pal! I don’t want to catch a penal duty because of your shenanigans.” The wide yawn swallowed his partner attempt to retort, causing the guard to chuckle involuntarily; suddenly the large shadow covered the upper landing of the castle stairs. One guard choked on his chuckle, another slammed his mouth early almost with the sound of some shutting chest, risking to dislocate his jaw. “What the!..” The large dark figure appeared out of nowhere, huge wings overshadowed the Sun for a short moment; Alex landed, too hard maybe, lowering on one knee to quench speed. The dense wave of air poured over the guards, then another one, when the human shook and folded tightly his wings. In a moment, forcedly coping with their shock, both unicorns stepped forward, barring his way with their spears with the most determined expression they were capable of at the face of given circumstances. The guards’ eyes narrowed, scanning the human figure for the possible sign of threat; one of them visibly swallowed, but both looked quite ready to reflect an attack if necessary. Stepping towards them first Alex stopped then in bewilderment, something didn’t compute in his head: he negotiated about that audience with the princess and got an official invitation, it was logical to think the guards should be at least informed about his arrival, let alone let him in at the designated time. Then Alex took a look down over himself and almost laughed out loud in relief, he would have slapped his forehead even, if not the light, but very durable steel glove on his hand, so that slap would have come out palpably unpleasant. ‘The armour!’ His new armour, what he managed to complete till that moment; Alex spent almost an hour putting everything on and fixing it properly, even without the helmet it was quite the task. Obviously, it would take him twice more, if it was even possible to finish, without the help of Willsmash and Sil. That was the weak spot of his creation yet. However, the planned pony version would become naturally easier to handle, due to pony physiology and supposed help of magic, he was sure guards would turn to, equipping it in the future. ‘If Tia allows the production!..’ Alex reminded himself. He put on his own armour merely for demonstration purpose, didn’t take any weapon with him: the latter wasn’t necessary, besides, his glaive wasn’t entirely ready and being unsatisfied with the current result Alex, frankly speaking, was slightly ashamed to show it yet. Naturally, the necessity to notify the guards about his armour slipped out of Alex’s mind completely, the result of that he was to deal with at the moment. Alex sighed, he could imagine how he appeared before the royal guards: the clawed boot parts looked one with greaves, thanks to flexible joints hidden under the outer plating, spiky knee-shields went into the plated thighs – it was a proper armoured suit, not some Greek skirt, serious business! The chest part was flexibly attached to the plates protecting human’s sides, pelvis and crotch. All flexible seams were promptly covered with extra plating, leaving a small chance of penetration, even if the owner was standing still in his armour against the attacker. Heavy looking scapulars protected the shoulders, the upper arm and forearm parts connected perfectly tight, providing necessary flexibility at the same time. The finely made gloves ended with claws as well and the guards kept constant eye at them. Some sort of very dense mail covered the narrow stripe of Alex’s neck, visible above the scapular parts; the same mail formed all the hidden flexible seams and the inside of his gloves. The huge wings protruded through the narrow gaps on the backplate, the rest of which was rock solid shell. They were to double their span to cope with additional weight and even then Alex trained for a while before taking that trip to Canterlot; no wonder they overshadowed the view of poor guards, when he landed. Highlighted subtly, the dark metal of the armour snaked fancifully with the pattern of thin lines and curves, it seemed to flow slowly in the light of the setting Sun. The whole shape was unusual for Equestria: the plates were rather represented by flat faces and almost sharp edges, than some rounded surfaces. But the main thing was the spikes, they covered the shoulder plates, formed thorny ribs along the arms, nested on the knees, ran along the middle edge of chest plate; the most impressive row stood along the spine, thorns long enough for some foal to use them as a ladder, climbing onto the human’s shoulders. Trying to look over himself with the guards’ eyes Alex was to admit that having no helmet wasn’t a bad idea: at least they knew, whom they faced, although, that didn’t add to his credit seemingly. They surely knew about the human, were possibly informed about his arrival, but definitely doubted, the figure dropping almost on their heads was trustful enough to let into the castle. Alex started thinking up some alternative ways already; he just pondered the rationality of soaring to one of the windows, even maybe to the upper gallery (despite that would take him a long way down to the throne hall), when the rattle of quick hoofsteps sounded, approaching the doors from inside the castle. The appearing Night Watch officer in the face of extremely sleepy bat-pony served the long-awaited life-saviour, right in time. “Ah, here he is…” the newcomer did his best to suppress the yawn tearing out. He addressed the dumbfounded unicorns. “Let him through now. The human must be escorted to the throne hall. Order of the Night Crown… And the Day Crown as well!” added the officer meaningfully, predicting certain wry muzzles. Some, mostly harmless, level of competition between Day guards and Night Watch was already a tradition, which managed to outlive even the Sisters reunion. With a light grunt both unicorns obeyed, the Highest Order was delivered by somepony of higher rank, despite what they may personally think of it and the visitor. They pulled back the spears, freeing the way. “Sorry, guys!” Alex accurately squeezed between the guards, not to scratch anypony, and headed after his guide, who immediately turned around and trotted inside the cool shade of the castle, yawning openly as no keeping face in front of the privates was necessary. “An important guest, eh?” squinted he at Alex over the shoulder with a faint grin, it sounded rather friendly though. Nearly half a year in Equestria, but it was the first bat-pony Alex ever saw. Of course, he heard from the corner of his ear something about some of the Night Watch guards being… slightly different, but seeing that with his own eyes was another thing. Alex used the moment to examine his collocutor subtly, but as thoroughly as possible while following a pony busily trotting in front of you. The main and striking difference was obviously his wings: leathery, with a claw at the upper joint, they grew from their owner back exactly where the common pegasi have them, but otherwise these wings were obviously of bat origin. If one could imagine a bat that large naturally! Alex noticed the eyes were different from ones of common ponies as well, showing the nocturnal nature of the guard. Hardly it was a fitting moment to interest if the guard could easily hang upside down on the ceiling, despite Alex felt very curious about that. Meanwhile, the guide elaborated his assumption. “Normally our duty is about 4 hours later, and the daytime is resting time for the Night Watch,” the guard shrugged casually with his folded wings, while they crossed the narrow hall. “But today Her Highness, princess Luna woke some of us personally, ordering to keep eye on your arrival. I guess, predicting certain… rust of Celestia’s guards. Well, Her Highness was right… I wonder…” the officer smirked to his thoughts, but didn’t reveal the assumption – they reached another large door. The familiar spacious hall appeared behind the opened doors, Alex noticed the double thrones on the elevation at the far end of it, when his guide left him alone, vanishing subtly and soundlessly in the shadows of the columns lining up along the walls. ‘I wonder if Luna put her hoof to that audience success majorly…’ Alex inwardly voiced his version of the night guard idea; he fancied a distant talk in a second. “… and I haven’t yet decided finally, if we should give him the open road for this,” the deeper quiet voice sounded from shadows of the opposite part of the hall. Alex sniffed the air slowly, the mix of roses and lavender reached his nostrils; hoping it wouldn’t be a breach of some etiquette, Alex headed closer to the thrones. “Oh, Tia! Why don’t thou believest him still?” another cheerful silvery voice followed. “If not his good will, listen to mine reasons then… Thou knowest, the majority of these recent injuries could be avoided, if ‘t be true our folks were better protected. And if he findeth the way to shield them mentally, wouldn’t that be wondrous, sunny!” Alex’s face lit with a warm smile. ‘Surely, it’s mostly her, who convinced Celestia to listen and see the real profit of my idea. Never understood, what Tia was so cautious about.’ “Well, Lulu, while seeing the benefits of some advanced armour,” Celestia showed amidst the far row of the columns, looking over her shoulder, “one shouldn’t forget about dangers of somepony being armoured… too advanced!” meaningfully stated she. “Besides, it’s still the question of influence…” “Comest on, Tia! We discussed that numerous times already and thou finally saw the correctness of the idea!” exclaimed Luna pleadingly and at the same time persistently, catching up with her sister. “Dost not backtrack halfway for Harmony’s sake…” “Ahem…” Alex reached the centre of the hall already, he paced up a bit to reach the princesses, before Celestia let her doubts occupy too much of her mind. Seeing the smile on Luna’s muzzle, Celestia threw a glance into the hall and froze at the spot facing the visitor, Alex was in a few steps from the elevation and clearly seen in the sloping sunrays, coming through the high windows. “Sweet Ce… errmmm… me…” trying to return her eyes to usual shape, Celestia cleared her throat. “What is that, pray tell? Alex, for Harmony’s…” Alex watched how her dilated eyes travelled along his figure, reflecting the deeply hidden concerns; unconsciously he ruffled his wings, somehow empathizing her uneasiness, maybe because it was drawn on princess’ muzzle with hard visible strokes. Celestia’s ear twitched. ‘Please, dost not tell, thou reconsidered!..’ he braced himself before long explanation. From the corner of his eye he noticed, how Luna lowered her head, concealing the smile caused by the sister’s reaction. That gave some hope, everything wasn’t that bad, but it took Alex some effort to keep the diplomatic face. “Your Highness, princess Celestia, princess Luna!” he bowed slightly, as much as the armour allowed. “Good… evening,” he threw a quick glance through the window. “I extend mine hope I’m not late for the audience. Of course, I can explain everything…” “Yes, please, do us a favour!” the older princess recovered from the first expression, making a welcoming gesture with her fore hoof. With a momentary hesitation she approached, examining Alex closer. Meanwhile, Luna took her throne at ease, producing a muffled snort, when her sister slowly moved around Alex counterclockwise, habitually pondering on the go. Alex sighed, the analogy with great white shark circling its prey remained, despite Celestia’s warmth and fluffiness. “In the face of recent events… I mean the Seekers, especially them coming in the material form, I came to the conclusion that I needed to protect myself. Regardless of the royal decision about the armour production…” Alex shrugged slightly. “Regeneration or not, receiving extra holes on thy body is far from being pleasant.” “I thought that it would be a natural and nice chance to demonstrate our production in details and actual working conditions. So, I combined mine armour… errmmm… field testing and that demonstration into one.” Celestia huffed behind his back. “Mayhap it wasn’t the best idea not to warn anypony about me bringing it with… let alone on myself,” Alex suppressed the strong wish to look over the shoulder, standing still, until the large white silhouette appeared in the corner of his right eye. “Mine apologies for that small disturbance. Your guards showed commendable vigilance stopping me, despite agreed audience and me being unarmed, princess!” “However, nopony noticed or intercepted you, until the very castle entrance…” Celestia huffed again, rather pensively than with reproach. She kept thinking aloud. “Maybe I should attach more importance to the training of my guards… something Lulu always keeps telling me about.” Finally, she turned to Alex. “The armour you made looks quite bulky…” “This one isn’t the final and best version, Your Highness,” Alex afforded a tiny smile, Luna nodded on her throne with visible satisfaction. “I can assure you that it’s lighter than it looks like, besides we look for the ways to improve constantly. The pony version shalt be even lighter and easier to handle…” Celestia finished her second circle around him, watching Alex appraisingly. “Not to be light-worded…” Alex stretched his hand and pulled off the metal glove. “You can see for yourself, Ti… princess. Tis the only part easily detachable.” He smirked apologetically. “Hmmm…” Celestia weighed the glove on her hoof. “Indeed. That’s impressive, I thought, it would be much heavier. But…” she raised the glance on the human again. “The shape. All those edges and… thorns. It looks rather strange, unusual… if not to say intimidating.” “Well, making the armour pleasant for potential enemy’s eyes wasn’t mine aim, in the earnest,” Alex raised his brows at the obviousness of the answer. “Besides, this armour is some sort of weapon at the same time.” Seeing the lack of understanding in Celestia’s eyes he elaborated. “I can easily cope with my usual enemies hither by simply touching them. For the first Seekers it was enough… But they started to change, materialize. Thus some aren’t so easy to take down, in addition to their increased dangerousness. I need to wound them physically to make the contact with so-called Dark Mist forming them possible. Spiky armour maketh that achievable and… they shall “think” twice, afore trying to perform the first attack.” Celestia nodded, admitting the rational core of that idea; she finally stopped circling Alex, which he was endlessly happy about – it might be princess’ favourite way of thinking about some problem, but sometimes it brought a feeling of her distrust into the collocutor’s soul. “And the shapes designed specifically to interfere possible enemy’s weapons,” Alex alternated from one foot to another. “Everything made to cut or hit shalt meet the sharp edges and slide along the angled plates off, not doing much harm. While bumping into any part of the armour shalt bring certain pain to the attacker. So, yeah… that’s both the protection and weapon.” “And what about the actual weapon, Alex? Dost thou have any?” Luna’s eyes lit with interest, Celestia threw a quick glance at her sister. “Thou came unarmed.” “I work at something indeed, but…” Alex’s obvious cringe attracted both princesses’ attention. “It’s yet too far from the desired condition, mildly speaking. Not something I could proudly show others yet,” Alex chuckled sarcastically. He elaborated, seeing the two pairs of inquiring eyes still set on him. “It’s a glaive. A double blade glaive. Something that must be familiar to you, as you definitely have… had simple glaives, not only spears and swords, as I could have noticed, judging by the statues in the Old Castle.” “We stopped on that variant, as it fits what I remember of fighting the best,” he shrugged simply, but seeing Luna’s bright smile added. “We are improving it, but I couldn’t find enough impudence to show myself afore royal eyes with that shameful prototype yet!” Catching a moment without Celestia’s attention, Alex winked at Luna jokingly. “Besides, I just saw that coming to the castle with some weapon wouldn’t be a smart deed anyway; I would waste too much of your time, trying to convince the guards it wasn’t some fraud.” “Thou said about thy armour being both protection and weapon,” Luna leaned forward with a content smile. “Dost thou think not that leaving thy head uncovered can easily undermine the very idea of it?” “That naturally came into my mind, my… princess!” Alex quickly evaded with a vague gesture; seeing Celestia quickly alternating to Luna made him inwardly chuckle. It took Luna some effort to nod with the straight face to continue. “There is a certain problem with delivering a decent level of protection and at the same time unobstructed view from the named helmet, regardless of how banal it sounds.” Luna and Celestia exchanged glances. “You see, in our world we use glass-like transparent materials for the face shields, but durable enough to stop a bullet,” Alex tried to explain his idea the simplest way. “Plastic composites… Well, nev’r mind. The problem is – in mine case a direct hit to the head or face practically nullifies all the advantages of mine regeneration ability, thus needs to be solved urgently.” Luna nodded quickly and Alex continued stifling a smile. “In your guards’ case, I’m afraid, it’s even worse. I’m not affected mentally by the Seekers, unlike all of your kin are to various degrees. Protecting the guards from that influence is a must, princess,” Alex threw a serious glance at Celestia, who even stopped trotting left and right. “For the moment I have no idea how to protect their heads physically, protect them from direct visual contact with such enemies like the Seekers… and still make them able to see, what goes around them. So, it’s globally a question to answer yet.” Watching her reaction Alex noticed from the corner of his eye, how Luna’s muzzle lit with some brainfoal, and the familiar bright, enthusiastic and withal sly sparkles. “I see…” slowly stated Celestia, staring at Alex intently. “And I see, you took the problem quite seriously.” “It would be impossible to achieve without the guidance and help of uncle… mister Steel, Your Highness.” “How did you get to Canterlot, Alex?” suddenly asked she, princess’ eyes examined the multitude of spikes on the armour. “I hope travelling was hassle-free for you; your armour hardly made you a subtle travel-companion for others.” “Oh, I simply flew here, Your Highness! I needed some practice anyway, as it’s the only fast enough means of travel I can use,” the question and her concern amused Alex greatly, unconsciously he unfurled the wings, totally forgetting that they adjusted themselves to the increased weight; they towered behind his back, stretching to the ceiling. “I did my best to avoid unnecessary evidence…” Celestia took a couple of steps back to take a complete look over him, a shadow of unease ran across her muzzle, lingering for a moment longer in the widened eyes. Luna, on the contrary, let out a silvery laughter, not paying much attention to sister’s concern. “Apologies!” Alex became confused, he definitely said or did too much. ‘What if she reconsiders now!!!’ “And apologies for… I have heard the tail of your talk, princess…” Alex spoke hotly. “Some new incident must have befallen… Am I correct? I only want to protect your folks, Tia! The victims of mine lingering to react, I had them enough for life. Please, allowest me…” “Enough, Alex,” Celestia waved her fore hoof in the air. “I’m not saying “no”, mind that,” added she, nesting on her throne finally. “But I need some time to think. I hope you can occupy yourself for a little longer, be our guest…” Wondering how Celestia didn’t object the accidental “Tia” slipping from his tongue, Alex watched Luna raising from her seat with a bright smile. “By thy leave, sister, I shall take him for a talk,” she threw a spear glance at Alex, who was gunned before the actual shot. “Comest on, Alex, I have something to show thee!” She graciously headed back to the gallery behind the thrones. With a sigh Alex followed, feeling the fixed glance of Celestia with his entire back, even though it was heavily armoured. However, he forgot about it in a wink, as soon as his eyes fell on Luna, catching her glance over the shoulder. They entered the long gallery running behind the throne hall and lit with the torches to dispel deep shadows, as the high narrow windows couldn’t cope with that task even at day time – the wall opposite to the throne hall faced the mountain. A cool draught ran past Alex’s legs, the gallery was insanely long, with numerous turns and forks it snaked through the entire castle – he didn’t know that part of the castle well and was to rely on the mischievous dark-blue guide. However, that wasn’t a task hard or unpleasant to accomplish; Alex caught himself upon staring at Luna’s hypnotisingly swaying flanks and barely held from stroking them gently. Passing the narrow window and the beam of dim light with rare motes dancing in it, the ancient painting in the partition, thick stone column, Alex felt strong déjà vu; subconscious memories of their last meeting there during the gala made his heart beat and blood run faster despite the chill of the dark gallery. “Thither is one serious disadvantage, I see in thy armour, Alex!” Apparently, he wasn’t single in those thoughts; when they distanced into the gallery enough not to be heard from the throne hall, Luna suddenly stopped and turned to him with a gamine look of the half-lidded eyes. “All those thorns… They don’t allow me to do what I want…” “… pounce thee and snuggle tight!” She slowly approached him and placed a tender and at the same time very passionate kiss, stretching her neck and accurately avoiding all Alex’s steel precautionary measures. “I missed thee quite, mine love!” Alex sighed, inwardly wishing that kiss to last longer, even if it resulted in his dizziness and distraction. “So did I, Luna… but… This armour, I was to showcase it and…” Alex let out another sigh, pulling off one glove and touching Luna’s cheek lightly. “…it will take quite some time to take off and, alas, probably twice more to put back on. Even with magic.” Luna closed her eyes and instead of an answer Alex felt another touch of her soft lips, making him almost regret equipping that armour instead of simply visiting the castle under some made-up excuse; as foalish as it was. “What did you want to show me, my love?” Alex tried to switch from regret with that casual question, calling all the remnants of his prudence not to hug his marvellous princess, as it was definitely not safe for her. “Patience, lief!” Luna made a visible effort to part. “I don’t yet know if ‘t be true it worketh as I planned, but… Thou needst to see it.” She nodded him to follow. “I must admit that I’m intrigued,” chuckled Alex. “A bit. As you are already here, Luna, I can hardly get a brighter experience.” “Flatterer!” the princess huffed, but waving her starry tail with visible pleasure, while they passed seemingly endless columns, windows and torches. The next turn revealed a shorter part of the gallery attached to a round tower containing the spiral stairs; Alex stopped for a moment, shaking away the unpleasant semblance with his experience of towers and stairs of that kind. This one was brightly lit and so wide it could fit a few alicorns climbing up simultaneously; Alex smirked unwittingly – that castle was definitely built not taking armed conflicts into consideration. The majority of spiral stairwells he knew from his past life (distantly, as his acrophobia allowed) were narrow and couldn’t fit more than a couple of ascenders. “I supposed, thou art dealing with that effectively,” noticing him stopped Luna turned and glanced with empathy over Alex. “I am… But thou can’t get rid of that arrant, not that fast, mine love! I’m still having them frequently, those nightmares…” Alex swallowed and squeezed out a smile. “I’m okay, Luna. That was rather an uncalled memory.” “I know well, what thou art talking about. Mayhap better than anypony,” Luna nodded, then swayed her mane, dispelling the gloomy thoughts energetically. Her smile seemingly lit the gallery around them even brighter. “But we can’t get to mine room otherwise… unless thou wantest to go back and fly up to the balcony instead.” “No, no, I’m fine with it as it is. Lead the way!” Unexpectedly for him Luna giggled like a filly and rushed upstairs; stunned by her trick Alex froze and lost a few seconds. He woke up only seeing her flowing tail disappearing behind the central trunk of the tower. ‘What?! She is plain teasing me!’ Alex huffed and rushed after the girl, his unpleasant memories and associative threads torn to small pieces at once. Their steps boomingly echoed in the tower, weaned of these sounds long ago. Right the moment Alex was about to catch up with that fluffy mockingbird named Luna, his right foot lost the support all of a sudden. Frantically flapping his wings not to fall and roll down the stairs, thankfully the wide stairs allowed him spread them, Alex put out a couple of torches, but managed to regain balance. “Merlin’s pants!” he regained his breath, holding on the nearest wall, his ruffled wings slowly smoothing. “What was that?” “Oh, apologies,” Luna returned a few steps down, offering her shoulder for support. “I arrant forgot that these stairs can be quite mischievous at times… calling for extra attention, beest thou on two legs or four regardless. Art thou fine, mine love?” “Yes, it was… just… unexpected. Yeah,” Alex chuckled. “I almost fell…” “Well, anyway… what do you want me to see, Luna, seriously?” asked Alex, when they calmly covered a few flights more and exited to the new gallery; this one brightly sunlit was considerably higher by his perception. “I’m sure, you don’t simply want to tease Tia a little more…” “Of course not!” Luna huffed theatrically, playfully luring him right into the gallery. “But for each is own time.” Turning right and facing the long hallway (the farther end blurred in distance) with columns, chandeliers and banners Alex finally recognized the place, flushing lightly upon the memories – it was the gallery he sneaked through, looking for the way to redeem afore Luna’s eyes, in other words for Celestia’s roses. Alex coughed bemusedly, recalling his shenanigans, and made Luna giggle-snort quietly, throwing a quick glance at him. In a few steps more they reached the familiar, night-coloured large double doors, watched over by two armoured guards; the nearest chandelier across still carried the signs of those adventures, slightly bent it made Alex feel the blood rush to his face again. The guards saluted the Night Princess, but Alex appearance took them by surprise. On the one hoof, seeing him as Luna’s company they were to let him through, on the other hoof, a large heavily armoured figure appearing in the twilight of the gallery (the doors of princess’ room faced the solid wall with the banner) didn’t inspire much confidence. Alex noticed how both stallions subconsciously leaned forward, ready to make a living barrier between him and the princess, to stop him; his eyes narrowed and the large wings flapped open, outspreading to the arched ceiling and making the banner sway in the gust of air they produced. Watching the guards Luna was having much fun, they didn’t look so sure about the outcome of potential confrontation. Confused by that sudden problem Alex alternated between her and the guards; he could easily “knead” both guards for some pies, but that was hardly the effect he desired. Noticing his inquiring glance, Luna stopped giggling into her fore hoof finally, with a regal head move she commanded the guards to let him in and almost pranced into her room. “Surprisingly, I saw more vigilance and readiness in Tia’s guards, than I could have expected,” dropped she over the shoulder, when the doors closed behind them; Alex noticed that there were the Day Guards on duty indeed. “Recallest their muzzles, at which hour they saw thy wings fully open! Tis the view I shan’t trade for anything,” she let out another loud snort, turning to Alex and presenting him an extremely joyful glance. Unwittingly Alex broke into a wide smile as well. He took a look around her room, heartily greeting the bookshelves, the large hearth, the large mirror and princess’ study, which shared some memories connected. It breathed Luna in spirit and literally, full of lavender scent, the long curtains fluttered in the light breeze coming from the unclosed window, leaving the room in mild twilight, dispelled by a few candles; if Alex could take off his armour boots, his feet would drown in the soft thick carpet. He felt some clumsiness in his steel shell, as if not completely fitting there, but the feeling ceased, when Luna waved to him to come closer. “So, about thy armour, Alex,” she seemed to intercept his look over himself. “As we concluded it wasn’t arrant complete with thy precious head being unprotected.” Prancingly she approached him and nuzzled his cheek, making Alex inhale deeply the short moment his face bathed in her lavender mane. He stood still amidst the noble furniture, suddenly realizing his inability to simply sit without completely ruining something; inwardly Alex sighed, well, that was the price of being properly armoured. “Alas, my princess,” Alex shrugged with a tiny smile. “That appeared to be more of a problem than I hoped. As I said I can’t reach the necessary combination of durability and transparency of the helmet yet.” “Methinks thither is a solution!” Love, pride and some faint sadness mysteriously mixed in Luna’s voice. “I have a present for thee, Alex. Hopefully it worketh the correct way…” Alex stared at her, guessing what could sort seemingly the unsolvable problem. “Hast a closer look, thither on the dressing table…” princess’ voice trembled, when she turned away as if deliberately watching something through the window. “That’s… mine father last… last work, Alex. And I suppose it is exactly what thou needst, mine love!” added she firmly, regaining her composure. Coming closer to the dresser Alex could observe something he recognized as a pony helmet indeed: specifically shaped to let the ears and horn through, it looked quite similar to what Alex could remember Nightmare Moon wearing in the movie, making him inwardly smirk at the paradoxical irony of life. Different in colour though, it almost tingled, making Alex feel at once – that thing wasn’t as simple as it looked. “Luna!” with a heartwarming smile Alex turned to the princess, trying to find proper words. “I’m… I’m touched, in the earnest… That’s… But the magic, how can I use it?” he blinked in bewilderment. “Not mentioning that I can hardly fit a helmet obviously made for an alicorn.” “Alex, Alex, didn’t I say that the helmet was made by our father?” Luna took a look over the human with strangely shimmering eyes, yet with a victorious smile. “And that is exactly why it hath certain features and it simply must work for thee.” “Tis an artefact of exceptional power forsooth,” she started explaining, seeing that Alex subconsciously kept fair distance from the helmet. “Without false modesty I can say, mine father didn’t make any others! But…” she emphasized. “It’s arrant safe for thee as it hath only so-called passive magic. It shan’t try putting some spell on thee,” elaborated Luna, as Alex looked doubtful, examining the armour piece. “About these features,” insensibly she appeared next to him, quietly persuading. “First of all it… well, I don’t know how to explain simpler… listens to its owner. It kenth the owner, shaping itself to its… understanding of one. Conforming to the owner, if ‘t be true thou like it better put that way. Moreover, nopony can take it from thee forcedly or command ‘t, unless thou pass it by thy free will!” Luna let out a little smile, enjoying Alex’s stunned face in the mirror. “Yes, mine love, thou heard well – command, as ‘t can be worn subtly and come in hoofy in combat at which hour necessary.” “One more thing, quite important methinks,” feeling that the pause might drag on Luna continued. “The helmet can “feel” the evil intentions and denieth any of such, it can’t be used to fulfil malice. I… I couldn’t use it, at which hour Shadow ruled mine deeds, despite how much I desired,” her nose became pinkish, while she quietly said. “So, I know, what I’m talking about.” “Mayhap it is capable of more, it must depend on how ye both manage to negotiate… But the main thing,” she shook her mane, sounding more enthusiastically, “it is arrant safe for thee to use, rest assured.” “But… Luna…” Alex cleared his throat and tried again. “Luna, I’m not sure I can and I must accept it… Thy father’s last work… What if…” “Shhh…” Luna accurately covered his mouth. “I couldn’t find the strength to try is as a filly,” her eyes shone treacherously again, “I couldn’t use it as Nightmare Moon… for the obvious reasons. But now I feel that it can serve thee much better than it could ever do in mine case. I want thee to take it, Alex! For it to keep thee safe, at which hour I can’t!” finished she emphatically. “Obviously, I must officially entrust, hoof it to thee!” added she casually with a smile, taking a couple of steps back. Completely abashed, unwittingly red as a carrot, as he didn’t feel that he earned such a gesture, Alex turned around, trying not to knock something down with his wings, and kneeled afore Luna, when her blue aura enveloped the helmet, lifting it from the dresser. In a moment it floated right above his head and a seditious thought flashed in Alex’s mind. ‘What if that magical helmet denies the new ownership now?’ As if dispelling his doubts, silvery shimmering helmet started changing upon approaching Alex; the latter didn’t feel a specific connection, but apparently there was some – the shape, repeating the pony head first, transformed, turning into a thin argent circlet, firmly resting on Alex’s head. Alex caught himself on feeling no additional weight or tension, the supposed new part of his armour fit as a glove; at the same time he definitely felt some presence, like one could feel an encouraging hand, or a hoof in this case, on their shoulder. With a smile Luna nodded and stepped back. In the mirror Alex saw his still surprised face and a silvery thin metal band around his forehead, glowing in the candle light and slightly going down to his bridge with an arrow-like shape. It reminded him the cord, blacksmiths used to prevent their hair from falling into the view. “So, this is how thy peaceful form looketh. Hmmm…” with a smile stated Luna. She answered the mute question in Alex’s eyes. “The helmet can change with time, as I said, it tryeth fitting thee the best way it can.” “With all respect, mine love… Don’t get me wrong, I…” Alex examined himself in the mirror. “But how is the circlet supposed to protect me, being a… passive artefact, as you said?” “Oh, Alex!” Luna’s reflection behind his back facehoofed jokingly. “Thy disbelief is incorrigible oft!” “Exactly as I said, it listens to thee…” patiently, like to the foal, explained she once again. “Simply ask it to… well, to protect. To prepare for the battle! It’s thy task to find the common tongue with it now!” Feeling that the task didn’t become easier after her explanation Alex tried to imagine, how one can address the “encouraging hoof” and ask it about something. Trying to concentrate on the circlet, to imagine himself in some trouble, to cause that sense of danger which called the adrenaline rush, Alex turned to Luna after a few minutes, shrugging with the most puzzled expression. “I feel nothing…” As usually, it occurred all of a sudden, Alex mostly felt, how the circlet started flowing, as if becoming ductile. Something definitely was happening over his head: he quickly turned to the mirror to observe, how the circlet began to change. At first it shimmered, as if was thinking over the best form, then the metal started darkening, resembling the rest of his armour in a moment. The thin peculiar pattern of lines flowed, spreading on the transforming artifact. It grew sharp leaf-like plates which raised above Alex’s brows, embracing his head and going down at his face sides, forming a proper closed helmet. Meanwhile, the nasal plate stretched forward and widened, eager to provide the protective visor: for a few seconds, which seemed the eternity to him, Alex struggled with that panicking feel of drowning, realizing that the effect spread to his face. When he risked inhaling, his relief was almost palpable: whatever the construction was, it allowed air get under it freely. Alex had to guess about the protective value of the helmet, looking at Luna through the barely visible film, like from inside of the giant soap bubble or as if there was some slightly refracting glass in front of his eyes. “Hmmm… Fascinating!” Luna raised one eyebrow, her ears perked from curiosity. “But I must admit, it fits thee quite… Correlates with what we know of thy reaction to magic.” “What?” own voice sounded a bit strange to Alex, like coming from the barrel, so he concluded that the helmet indeed covered his entire head and face. “See for thyself!” Bracing himself inwardly Alex turned to the mirror again. The helmet transformed entirely, from the thin circlet into a proper headpiece, flexibly attaching itself to the steel mail on Alex’s neck. The sharp spikes protruded from both sides and on top of the head, forming there a semblance of long, stretching back horns or some menacing crown. But the faceplate was something Alex expected the least: the endless surreal tunnel stared at him from the large mirror – the surface was smooth and glassy, made of the perfectly polished reflective material. “Merlin’s pants!” squinting involuntarily Alex poked himself lightly into the cheek with his steel glove – the spikes slid off with the thin shivers-provoking sound, not leaving a single notch on that strange “glass”. “I may say, thou makest the enemy taste their own dish aplenty, if ‘t be true I properly read that allegory.” Turning around Alex saw Luna, comfortably nesting in the armchair and watching him with genuine interest. “Well, let’s see if everything goes that cheerfully in the battle as it paints,” Alex pointed to his head. “Comest closer, lief! Yes, aeons did nothing to exquisite work!” exclaimed the princess, adding quietly aside. “Thank you, father…” “Thou knowest,” Luna tilted her head, “it’s so strange to talk to “myself”. Last time I did it over a thousand years afore… within much less peaceful circumstances,” she smirked. “It’s, no doubt, awesome,” Alex shook his head. “But what if I want to… see my own face again.” “As simple as afore!” Luna rolled eyes at her own reflection with a sigh. “Simply command it to open.” The second time it went easier indeed, but with totally unpredictable nuance. The rainbow veil slid out of Alex’s sight, he felt the circlet nesting on his head again and… at the same time the unusual lightness throughout his entire body. With a sense of irreparable Alex took a look over himself; thankfully he put on a decent shirt and pants – the entire armour set was gone, like non-existent. The only thing remaining was the damned circlet on his head. With widened eyes he examined his arms, bringing the hands closer to the face in disbelief. “What the flying…” Alex started in shock, but Luna raised with a triumphant smile. “Now command it to prepare for the battle again, Alex!” she stated in a resolute voice, not giving him time to realize what happened or protest the sudden deprivation. Alex threw a venomous glance at her; nevertheless, the shock of evident losing the result of a few months of hard work was so strong, he followed her advice doomedly, not hoping for anything remarkable. He closed his eyes and asked for that incident was his imagination, for all the armour to return, not seeing his body enveloped in the silvery glow again. The higher was his amazement, when the armour returned, in all its weight, hardness and glory, accompanied with the weird spiky helmet; Alex froze on spot and Luna jumped joyfully, sparkles danced in her eyes. “I heard of it having more features!” she looked like a filly finding more presents under the Hearth-warming tree than she expected and even her next phrase couldn’t spoil the joy of her discovery. “Father didn’t have time to tell us the details…” “It’s so wondrous that we found out about them in such prodigious circumstances!” Alex retorted with sarcasm. “I admit, losing some armour is, no question, better than losing the head, but what if…” “Alex!” groaned Luna. “When dost thou learn to trust me? If I said it was safe, it was safe…” she blew a raspberry. “I didn’t simply expect it to have such advantages.” “But thou suspected… Confess ‘t!” dropped Alex jokingly grumpy. “Oh, I so adore others experimenting on me…” “I’m sorry, Alex…” Luna downcasted. “I should have remembered…” started she apologetically, when the trumpeting sound from under the helmet made her stop; Alex simply laughed. “Thou! Incorrigible mocker, thou…” Luna stomped her hoof, realizing that grabbing and squeezing Alex wouldn’t be smart, while he was in his armour. “Well, I shan’t deny, I suspected something… spectacular…” She let out a teasing smile, then added simply. “Tryest to remove the helmet only, mine love!” It worked easier with each iteration and in a second Alex stood as he was at the beginning of their talk – in his armour and with the familiar now circlet on the head. “Knowest what,” musingly said Luna after a moment of silence. “Tryest to remove the armour now… I saw the notable marks on thy shoulders, lief! Whatever thou may tell, that armour is heavy enough…” “I can’t do anything yet,” shrugged Alex, after another glow wave running over him and taking away the steel, so he stayed in his usual pants and sleeveless shirt. “It’s still hard for me to use common shirts with my wings,” he glanced shortly at the reddened skin on his arms, where armour pressed too hard. “I need to adapt, the sooner the better. You simplified my life greatly, my love, if I don’t need to spend hours to pack myself, it’s just awesome! But… what if I need to change or replace some armour piece?” “Oh! Methinks it can be done easily,” with a laughter Luna joined him in front of the mirror. “Simply bring on the armour, then take off or replace what thou needst. The armour isn’t a part of the helmet, it only hideth the armour for thee, at which hour necessary.” She nuzzled Alex’s hair gently. “I can’t thank you enough, Luna!” Alex shook his head, squinting from the warm lavender breath tickling his neck. “Dost not thank me but mine father, lief!” said Luna lightly, like a silver bell rang. “And I… I shall be happy seeing his work living and doing its job, as he desired.” “What will Tia say about that, I wonder?” watching their reflection Alex fell into deep thoughts. “Sometimes it seems, she fears me, no matter how fantastic it sounds. Sometimes – what I may become probably… She will feel uneasy at the very least with anything adding to my capabilities.” “I heard about… the school, Alex,” added Luna quietly. “And thou shan’t deny, Tia is on thy side after all. She may have her concerns, but that doth not prevent her from treating thee adequately.” “But…” Alex stumbled, throwing a quick glance at her eyes he said. “Yes, you’re right, my love!” “Thou shan’t take it onto thy account only, Alex,” Luna cuddled him from behind softly, the warm embrace comforted, promised relaxation. “Methinks that’s not only and mostly thee, whom, as thou tellest, Tia feareth,” added she mysteriously, then added, foreseeing Alex’s question. “Me neither, despite the thoughts of the past and that I can “play up as the older sister”,” she chuckled at that idea, “definitely visited her cute head. Well, the latter was reconsidered since the gala!” Luna in the mirror glanced at her human slyly. Alex was about to melt in her cuddle, almost lulled, when she decided to elaborate. “But it’s not us bothering her, even now. Methinks she is feareth to not prevent, not notice something, she should notice no matter what… as she is convinced by the popular neigh. The failure itself, making a mistake, which can backfire, while being easy to avoid if noticed in time,” Luna met Alex’s glance in the mirror. “Ruling the whole country, even more than that, thinking about thy folk daily, without holidays or vacations, that’s nev’r an easy job.” “Shalt she succeed or fail… Only the consequences can show,” added Luna pensively. “But regardless of what others can say, to what befalleth, she always hath one more judge, the strictest one – herself!” “Constantly under the pressing of that possible mistake, not because of the consequences, but simply because she “could have done better”… And considering the past…” she sighed. “Thou appeared as the perfect occasion for that mistake to befall. Tis not the only reason, but a quite strong one, mindst that, Alex.” “Yeah, I don’t envy her…” slowly said Alex, throwing a mischievous glance at Luna. “Ruling the country brings some stress definitely, but on top of that… Having a sister, who sees a bit deeper than desired, knows all the dark corners of yourself… better than you at times. That must be quite a life experience!” “Well…” Luna blinked modestly. “I have no idea…” Alex burst out laughing, making the mirror quiver, but the next moment choked on it, Luna’s lips touched behind Alex’s ear slowly travelling down his neck to the shoulder, turning him breathless at once. “Thou knowest, what’s the best advantage I value…” breathed she out. “This!” not waiting for an answer Luna squeezed him tighter, snuggling into Alex and wrapping her fore legs around his chest. “As long as thy armour isn’t an obstacle anymore…” she almost purred, playfully biting his ear. Feeling her heating touch Alex wanted to say something, but the next Luna’s move tore a meaningless whimper off his mouth – slowly and tenderly the alicorn girl started preening his wings margins, slyly watching his reaction in the mirror. Luna’s eyes shone, while Alex melted in her embrace, subconsciously half-spreading the wings and biting his lip at each her caress. “Now thou knowest, what I was talking about!” giggled she in joking revenge, watching cross-eyed Alex arching his back in chills, as she nuzzled and rubbed his wings again. “What?” Alex breathed out something, almost moaned, Luna could only make out “temptress”. “Wantest me to use that polymorph magic again, like at the Gala, mine love?” she breathed into his ear, snuggling into Alex. “No,” by titanic willpower Alex managed to turn around in her fore legs and focus on Luna’s shimmering eyes. “I love you as you are!” whispered he, before the princess covered his lips with a fervent kiss, pulling with her… “Ah, here you both are. Finally! You gave me more than enough time to think!” Celestia turned and glanced meaningfully at Luna and Alex entering the throne hall behind her back. “Ahem…” The mixture of concern, slight reproach and at the same time carefully yet unsuccessfully concealed understanding amusement in her eyes seemed funny to Alex, but he made the maximum effort not to break out; Luna kept modest silence arching one eyebrow and rendered Alex’s effort twice harder. Princess’ eyes stopped at him in the casual clothes instead of the armour, almost making Celestia drop a little scroll she held with her magic. The Sun Princess alternated blankly between her sister and the human, when she finally noticed another, significantly more important detail about the latter. She peered fixedly into something dimly glowing on Alex’s head – the thin silvery “circlet”; Celestia’s eyes widened, ears flattened and her mouth turned into a classic surprised “o” for a second, when recognition made her aura fade for a wink and the scroll fell, rolling down the steps. “LUNA!” The blue alicorn girl cocked her head with an expression of polite and keen interest in her slyly shimmering eyes; the flowing lavender mane drew an “?” sign in the air for a moment. “Did… did you give him the…” Celestia seemingly dealt with herself, yet still stumbled on words a bit. “Do you know…” “Naturally!” calmly stated Luna, heading towards the thrones and nodding Alex to follow. “And of course I know, sunny!” she chuckled, throwing a meaningful glance at her sister. Alex prudently stopped in front of the elevated steps, while Luna placed a pacifying kiss on sisters cheek, nuzzling her lightly to calm. “First of all, it’s mine heritage, Tia, and I know what the artefact is capable of…” ‘Now even better!’ inwardly smirked Alex, watching the sisters. “… and it’s mine choice – whom to gift it with,” added Luna softly, but nopony could deny adamant confidence of her words. “But, answering the rest of thy questions, I can explain,” she presented Celestia with a bright smile. “Methinks thou shan’t deny that it can solve Alex’s problem perfectly. Well… at least for now,” Luna subtly winked at Alex, “until he starteth making pony helmets. Besides, I find it wondrous that something gathering dust for over a thousand years finally findeth its use.” Celestia opened and closed her mouth, still unable to believe her eyes; her sister wasn’t a filly, but that looked an act of pure emotions, whenever Celestia tried to find another explanation to the deed. “And to dispel thy doubts arrantly…” Luna glanced at her sister meaningfully. “I suppose thou recallest the main feature of that helmet, correct?” Celestia nodded shortly and Luna continued. “The mere fact that the helmet accepteth Alex as its owner telleth us that… that thy worries are exaggerated and far-fetched, to neigh the least, sunny!” Instead of an answer Celestia let out a deep sigh, but her magenta eyes returned to their usual size and shape and her ears didn’t express the extreme anxiety anymore. She looked at Luna, then shifted to Alex watching him for a few long minutes fixedly, while Alex did his best to look an epitome of peacefulness and safety (inwardly fearing that he failed drastically at that anyway), then at Luna again… “Okay!” inwardly bracing herself the princess picked up the scroll with her aura again. “I admit that those Seekers started providing some serious threat lately rather than some accidental damage. Making us all overly nervous and suspicious at times and…” Celestia pursed her lips at the decision. “And must be confronted by capable and correspondingly equipped soldiers and mages. Your invention indeed can provide necessary protection for them, especially if you invent some protection from the mental influence of the monsters either. Hopefully, your armour can save some lives.” ‘And I hope it will be used for that only…’ added she inwardly. “So…” Celestia fell silent for a moment, then continued with a little sigh, levitating the scroll to the human. “By the Royal Word…” With a sinking heart Alex broke the seal and unrolled the short document, brushing through quickly. ‘By that Sun and Moon duarchs… Celestia… Luna Selena… permit… Permit!!!’ Alex’s eyes shone, he let the scroll roll back and bowed to the princesses. “Thanks! Your Highness… you shan’t regret that decision, in the earnest! I… We shall do our best! Old Willsmash…” he choked on words with feelings. “Yes, Will… Surprisingly, you managed to do something I failed for many years!” with a tiny smile Celestia waved her fore hoof in the air permissively, while Alex stepped forward catching it and holding for a second, making the pristine white cheeks flush. “Thanks, Tia!..” he dropped passionately, then stumbled unsure about the reaction, but Celestia quickly nodded, flushing a bit more and subtly pulling her hoof, visibly relaxing, when he let it go. “Ahem…” Celestia’s nose funnily twitched, when she tried to keep the straight face under the smiling glance of her sister. “I must apologize, but I need to get back to Ponyville,” Alex looked at the windows meaningfully, the Sun almost reached their level, shining into the hall directly and painting everything into various tints of gold and bronze. “Before the sunset preferably, as I usually check the surroundings…” “Thou dost not have very much time for that, lief!” Luna passed her sister graciously, approaching the human with a smile. “Art thou sure…” “Pretty much. Now the road… the flight back will be even easier. Thanks to your gift, mine… princess!” Alex broke into a smile as well, then glanced at Luna slyly. “I bet I’ll be there, before you raise your light, Luna!” “We shall see,” with a silvery laughter Luna sat in front of him, putting her head on Alex’s shoulder and nuzzling his neck softly; she wrapped her fore leg around him tight, while Alex stroked her shoulders lightly. Celestia quietly coughed, looking aside and doing her best not to let the eyes return to her sister and Alex sharing a tender kiss. Instead of that, she kept pretending of watching her Sun with exaggerated interest, right until the quick steps told her the human finally left. She almost winced of surprise, when Luna’s soft wing held her in the warm hug. “Thou shall see, thou didst correctly,” murmured Luna, snuggling to the sister and nuzzling her cheek. “I would like to be as positive about all that as you are, Lulu…” Celestia slowly shook her head. “Are you absolutely sure that the helmet’s… “intuition” can always be trusted?” Luna smiled, somehow regret and lightness mixed into her expression. “I am, Tia, for I have reasons. It didn’t let me use it, while being Nightmare Moon… nev’r… no matter how sincerely I believed that mine reign would be beneficial for the whole Equestria!” * ‘There must be something connecting all these events, something common…’ That question occupied Alex’s mind for the last couple of days; when he wasn’t occupied otherwise, Alex inwardly returned to summarizing the Seekers incidents, or tried to. Admittedly, information at his disposal wasn’t enough to conclude something confidently. Given they knew that the Seekers were literally searching for something, it was natural to assume their aim should have been that common motive sewing all the cases in one logical array. Recalling them Alex had the old mill incident, the one he dropped amidst and was to improvise fast, the warehouse – when he at least knew what to do with the intruders (despite them starting to materialize provided a big surprise for him). Then he was to follow Twilight to save the fillies in the Apples’ orchard, then the dam… Alex inwardly shuddered at that memory, it never ceased to haunt him, fresh as if it happened yesterday, not over a month ago. The last one, Alex witnessed personally was the Seeker at Ponyville school causing the fire. At the same time he knew about a few incidents from princesses words and assumed there were more minor occasions, unmentioned due to commonness. ‘Commonness…’ Alex wryly smirked to his thoughts. ‘That’s not the routine everypony would wish for Equestria. Alas, I must admit it becomes regrettably common indeed. Common, even if arrant abnormal!’ Another thought bothered him. ‘How many Seekers may roam Equestria at the moment, unnoticed if arriving in some inhabited area?’ Deep in his thought he slowly mingled with the herd at the market, grateful for his, wholeheartedly approved by Twilight, habit to make a shopping list. Otherwise his bucket would be a complete mess, as Alex hardly watched carefully its contents, automatically following his own program of purchases. However, he had a faint suspicion that he stopped at the same stall twice already, considering by the strange glance of the vendor – the stallion served him with an unspoken question in the eyes. It was an early morning, the Sun lazily lit the treetops and roofs, leaving the ground and stalls in a light shade; the time was chosen by Alex specifically as he supposed the market place would be mildly herded giving him space and time to proceed calmly. Unfortunately, it looked like half of Ponyville assumed the same, filling the square, yawning and cringing lightly from the morning chill, the breeze unequivocally reminded of approaching October. With a sigh Alex once again checked his list, trying to build the optimal path across not to jostle with the herd more than absolutely necessary. Apparently, his absent-mindedness played a bad joke on him and he failed his task, passing the same row of stalls again. However, Alex had more important things to concern about. ‘…The first registered incident happened not in Equestria at all, but in the Crystal Empire,’ Alex hunched over his thoughts, his wings almost touched the ground, his speed halved. “I’m sorry…” muttered he to the mare he touched lightly with his bucket. ‘I must ask Tia for details, I know almost nothing about the initial events there… then that case leaving the… “mind-flushed” unicorn, the last occasion making Celestia change her mind about the armour. I’m sure there were more and I know nothing about them…’ ‘Assumingly, considering what I know about those bastards, magic or some certain kind of it could attract them. What else could the magically created drones look for in the land permeated with magic in every living aspect?’ he scratched his nape. ‘But that doesn’t compute then… What brought them to the orchard or school in that case?’ “Hey, move on, you overgrown pegasus!” a light nudge in the back, softened by his wings, returned Alex to the reality. The grumpy voice wasn’t hostile, but it appeared that Alex stopped in the narrow passage between the stalls, completely blocking it for the mid-age stallion and his wife. Obviously, they didn’t plan to keep watching the large black wings for the rest of the morning, seeing that their owner not buying anything. “Excuse you?” Alex turned around, not hearing the surprised whoop; his absent glance slid over the ponies’ heads there, where the familiar cerise coat and light mane near the grocery stalls attracted his attention at once. Muttering an apology Alex squeezed past the dumbfounded earth ponies and rushed, as much as the herded place allowed, towards the mare; thankfully it wasn’t hard to keep her in sight from his height. Crossing the square he did his best to keep the wings tightly folded, thinking that his rush gained too much attention already. “Excuse me, Miss Cheerilee!” catching up with her finally Alex took his breath and hid his excitement behind the neutral polite mien; he hoped for his voice not jumping an octave. “Good morning!” “Oh… Good morning!” startled of surprise first the mare relaxed, when her recognizing glance stopped at his face, bringing a kind smile on her muzzle. “How can I help you,.. Alex?” Giving her time to pay for her purchase and turn, devoting him all the attention, Alex asked the question, which bothered him lately, but the most subtle way not to draw the attention to what yet remained his unproven theory. “You probably can indeed, miss Cheerilee,” Alex leaned closer to her ear, lowering the tone – the word dropped at the market could spread across the town like a bonfire. “You see... I am partially guilty of what befell at the school methinks. Well… locking that creature in the storage room, etcetera…” The mare let out another smile, rolling her eyes jokingly, as if asking the human not to fixate on such conventionalities, but Alex wasn’t going to give up easily. “Of course, princess Celestia… errmmm… restored everything to its usual state,” he shrugged, as they slowly walked through the square. “But if anything’s gone missing during the incident… I would like to compensate for the loss, I unwittingly brought. So, I thought you may know, what was lost during the fire… If you do, of course.” Miss Cheerilee blinked, not catching the thread of his thoughts completely; amused by Alex’s suggestion she gave a heartily laugh. “Oh, you shouldn’t worry that much indeed!” she shook her head, looking up at the human. “The storage held pretty common things, I assure you. Nothing particularly crucial or irretrievable, Alex. Besides, as you properly mentioned, Her Highness was so kind to restore everything that suffered from the fire…” miss Cheerilee faintly shuddered from that memory. “Of course, I know approximately what was there… Thank you, by the way, for concerning…” “Yet anyway…” Alex was softly insistent. “Okay…” the mare sighed humorously and hoofed her chin remembering. “Let me see then… different sorts of educational supplies mostly. Well, microscopes and lancets, different vessels for biology and alchemy classes…” she started enumerating, jokingly meticulously, still puzzled by Alex’s question, providing him a long list of quite common things for every school, but Alex caught and paid attention to every word, causing another smile on miss Cheerilee’s muzzle. “… loads of alchemic ingredients… I hope I don’t need to remember the exact list,” she chuckled softly. “Obviously, we store everything which can easily react separately. Old maps and atlases. Maybe a couple of mops… and… Yes, that’s pretty much it. Everything is back obviously. But…” Alex shook his head, nothing from her list rang the bell for him yet. ‘We know that the Seekers don’t attack ponies on purpose, their effects are mere… byproduct, in the case they can’t avoid the contact. So, that one hardly was attracted by the students’ herd there. It should have been something else…’ “Oh, there was one more thing,” suddenly remembered miss Cheerilee, making Alex wake and prick up his ears. “We got a party of magic crystals for the practical experiments shortly before the accident. You know, they are used as energy sources and so on. Well, those have gone missing indeed. Don’t know why, but princess Celestia couldn’t restore them with the rest of the things. And… it’s unusual indeed, if you ask. So, we need to wait for the replacement.” “But you shouldn’t worry, Alex,” repeated she. “The school has already ordered everything necessary. We should thank you and Rainbow Dash for help, not expect any compensation!” she slowly shook her head. ‘The crystals… That must be them… If Tia couldn’t restore… then they must have… reacted with the Seeker somehow… I don’t see any other explanation. But how doth that correlate with all the other cases?..’ Alex inhaled deeply, mentally counting to ten while trying to calm down his heart and breath. “Well, anyway…” Alex shrugged, masking his excitement behind a smile. “Then you need to talk to the Headmaster,” miss Cheerilee rolled her eyes jokingly. “That was the plan actually,” Alex made a wide indefinite gesture. “And… ordered? Are they a problem to obtain. I thought they should be common here, in Equestria.” “…and discuss with him the details. If you insist that much… Yes, we have a few places they are produced, but somehow our usual manufacturer apologized for the delay this time. Don’t know why…” she glanced at him puzzledly. “But that’s such a trivia. The main thing is – everypony’s safe!” “I extend mine hope, all the students are fine, specifically from your class, miss Cheerilee. That experience should appear quite traumatic.” Nodded Alex; together they slowly passed the stalls and as both completed their shopping lists, insensibly left the market place. “Oh, surprisingly yes,” miss Cheerilee exhaled with sincere relief. “I thought the whole incident would affect a few of them more… but, they were rather high about the delayed test. You know those school-foals,” she smirked, but without any reproach for the hay-heads. Involuntarily Alex remembered his own first teacher, inwardly admitting, that was exactly the ideal image of one for the younger classes: she was vivid, cheerful, young and kind, not bored by her profession, always ready to discover something new and share it with her class – right like miss Cheerilee. Both easily conformed the task of being kids’ and respectively foals’ second moms at school; that rare luck lit only some children’s life. However his thoughts quickly slid down the habitual for the last few days route: Alex came to the conclusion, he needed more information about all the incidents, especially those he didn’t take part in. At least more information about the places they happened – the idea there must be something common for all the cases was too unconstrained to avoid his mind. Alex totally missed that fact, they were walking in complete silence for quite a while; he was deep in his inward research and miss Cheerilee simply kept quiet politely, noticing the human’s concerns. “Well… I’m sorry, but I really need to hurry…” miss Cheerilee cleared her throat unobtrusively, throwing a quick glance at the Clock Tower. “It was a pleasure, but the studies won’t wait. And, thank you again, Alex! Alex?..” He finally woke, realizing that they reached the western edge of the town already. ‘How long did I keep silent? Oh, the awkwardness…’ “It’s there to the school for me from here and… supposedly north to the Library for you,” the mare smiled understandingly. “Have a nice day, Alex. And… don’t take that incident close to the heart, you really did what you could.” Alex returned the smile apologetically, waving her goodbye. Miss Cheerilee crossed the bridge, heading towards the grove on the other side hiding the school from the direct sight; Alex watched her automatically, while his thoughts circled the usual things: the school, the dam, the apple orchard, other places amidst he had no idea where… the crystals… ‘Maybe… I should check the places from the geological point of view…’ the sudden idea seemed so beguiling it made his wings unfurl; Alex broke into a smile. ‘I know, where I need to be at that moment!’ Without losing a minute more he rushed north up the street, holding his bags tight and paying no attention to the surprised looks of the ponies, who turned after him seeing off his receding wings, which no doubt slowed down their owner’s run. * The letter caught Alex in the evening: when everypony paid due attention to their dinner, Twilight levitated an envelope across the table. Even through her aura Alex was able to notice the familiar logo from the first sight. He wondered what Steam Company could need, with Will they managed to complete their job in time and current problems were sorted. The envelope looked relatively thin though, Alex tore the flap, extracted the folded message and ran the text through. “It’s cool that he is using the common methods of delivery,” casually dropped Spike, throwing a sly glance at Twilight. “The last but one letter looked quite large and thick to me…” “Oh, come one, Alex doesn’t send or receive too much mail anyway!” Twilight couldn’t stifle a laughter, properly reading her dragon aide insinuation. “Well, of course, nopony can top you, Twi, in using letters,” chuckled Spike. “No chance! Still I’m glad to be free of burping blueprints. Lots of them!” The muffled snicker made them both turn to the human, but Alex didn’t hear them, being ears deep in the message. “What do they write?” Twilight’s voice became wary, she leaned forward a bit. “Everything is okay, I hope…” “Yeah, definitely!” Alex emerged from reading, but his eyes looked through the girl and his expression seemed strange, a mixture of surprise, light shock and… Twilight wasn’t sure what else it was. “Canterlot Steam Company offers me a job officially. They want me to work for them directly, suggesting to take a whole metalwork department… and further a separate factory,” finally explained Alex with a nervous chuckle. ‘That must be one of the guards. Damn!’ swore him inwardly. ‘Somepony let out the information, to the wife, close friend… and as a result it reached the corporate fluffy ears finally,’ Alex sighed. “There is one aspect though…” That factory wasn’t different, compared to any other situated in the industrial area of Canterlot at the northern mountain foothills, so the accidental smoke or another emission wouldn’t reach the living district high on the mountain face. Owned by Canterlot Steam Company or any other, they all were similar, some even like twins, as the main purpose was the utility, not the visual appeal – so, one may find out which one they got into by the signboard at factory entrance only. The only noticeable difference was, when all other facilities in the area finished their daily work, that one only started its shift, due to some strange reasons, ponies from the nearby facilities got accustomed too very soon. Despite the natural curiosity, nopony aspired to find out why, as the object was classified. The only thing citizens knew – the foundry produced advanced materials for the Steam Company since the day one of its opening. Thus when other plants opened their gates in the evening, spilling out the tired, satisfied or not, work pony masses, this one only prepared to let in its nightly crew. They worked in a few shifts, as it was quite hard for ponies to go without the sunlight for a long while. Last rays of Sun shone softly on the brick walls of the giant building, swept almost lovingly its closed territory with auxiliary facilities behind the high fence wall and faded in all the tints of golden, pink and crimson at the west edge of the sky, denoting the end of Celestia’s daily court. Slowly falling evening chill suppressed the persistent smells of oil, coal and heated metal, which filled the area during the day so densely, that one could probably hang an axe on them. Waiting for the twilight only, thick evening fog leisurely slid from the mountain to be evaporated by the heat as soon as the factory started working at full power. The bright electric lights turned on, flooding the whole territory around the main building, welcoming the coming through the main gates stream of ponies. The latter resembled Luna’s Night Watch: mostly stallions, having a good sleep at day time, rested, they lively talked, diverging to their workplaces. Greeting the next shift like giant guards, the blast furnaces and rolling-mills lined the walls of the huge long hall, so large that its far wall faded in the view, when one stood at the entrance. Everything was lit like by daylight, offering the perfect conditions for production; machinery ready to go, tools in exemplar order – that was the natural rule for the previous shift, otherwise the chief (work ponies said that word with unplayed respect) “could be upset”. However, they all waited for something or somepony, not starting their duties; furnaces remained barely ignited, the mode they were kept all day long not to cool them down completely. Some noise reached everypony’s ears from outside, the loud wings flapping changed by the steps on yard gravel, all the heads of workers turned to the entrance unwittingly. The large double doors flew open, revealing the dark against outside lamps bipedal figure. It stepped into the lit hall, folding the black wings seemingly more than of six yards spread. His heavy steps boomed in the long building as the human passed the machinery by; he was clad in some kind of armour, made from dark metal with wavy patterns all over its surface. All by themselves the double doors closed. However, the workers greeted the newcomer cheerfully, no fear or concern was caused by that arrival. He nodded to everypony in his turn, pacing up and heading to the far end of the hall. The first pair of furnaces passed by that human huffed softly, but sonorously, and started heating up, entering the working state. Ponies picked up their tools and got ready to process the metal, while the endless bands of conveyors under the high ceiling jerked and ran, speeding little by little, yet idle, but preparing to deliver ore components. Each machinery the human passed started working, heating up and gaining momentum; out of place tools slid to their destination, loosely closed tray of one furnace shut tight with a loud clank. The hall ended with a stepped elevation and a semblance of specifically durable armchair on top of it. Reaching that platform the human turned to the facility and, throwing one more evaluating glance around the foundry, took his seat. The wings spread a bit not to get cramped in that “throne”. As if obeying some unvoiced order blast furnaces hummed juicily, throwing out beams of light – the work night started. He had little time, before he would be addressed with different work questions, Alex sighed and rested his chin on the fist, watching his domain. “Ughhh!” Alex shook his head, dispelling the vision, then noticed Twilight addressing him. “What? Sorry, Twi!” “I asked, if you were going to accept their offer,” repeated Twilight, her eyes scanned him with curiosity and specific attention. “Are you okay, Alex? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” “Nearly,” Alex exhaled. “I just imagined something… No way, I’m perfectly fine as I am. Not mentioning that it would be extremely unfair towards Willsmash, simply treacherous… I’m not going to trade his… our smithy for being the chief and at the same time the engine of their facility. Huh, “King of the Factory”?! What do they even think about?” Alex’s huff was an epitome of frustration, he turned the letter over, ready to write his answer immediately. Twilight’s concern vanished, making the way for a warm smile. --- Author's note: Cookies to one guessing the area, attacked factory was situated in!!! --- If 't be true you like the story (and have FimFiction account, otherwise, you can't vote), please, take a minute to support the book hither: https://www.fimfiction.net/story/370173/the-guardian "Thumbs up" are very welcome, comments either. Mine most sincere gratitude in advance! A shoutout to the caring friend, good author and simply valorous pony - @Longhaul Read his stories, please: Same story on FimFiction: https://www.fimfiction.net/story/412124/lighting-the-dark-path Support the author thither please (thumbs up) they are really good