Life, Love, and Death in the House of Path
by Bernard Doove


This is the sequel to Quantum Gallop.




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{21HP} (21st year of the House of Path) Nightmare Chrysalis is defeated.


 

Destined Decrees

 

{22HP}

Destined Path still felt an air of unreality as he entered Canterlot’s throne room to hold court. It was just the third time that he had the duty since he had started taking instruction on how to perform princely duties from Princess Luna and Princess Celestia. While it was true that he had already learned a lot, he still felt totally inadequate compared to the two elder alicorns. Thankfully he still had advisors to help him perform his duties on these occasions, and tonight he had his father by his side.

Long Path sensed his son’s reluctance, and he gave the young alicorn a reassuring smile. “Stop worrying so much. Luna would not have given you this duty tonight if she felt that you could not handle it.”

“Easy for you to say, Dad – you’ve had decades of experience.”

“And just how much do you think I knew about being a lord and running a Noble House when I won the title from Ravenwing?”

“Good point. So why don’t I feel any better?”

“You won’t until you’ve done it enough times to become inured to it. So buck up and smile. Your subjects want to see a confident Prince Destined.”

Destined gave his father a smirk. “Actually they still expect to see an even more confident Princess Luna.”

“Well, that should make for a pleasant surprise when they see you instead,” Path replied with a cheerful grin.

The alicorn colt snorted. “Yeah, sure.” Destined came to a stop by the Sergeant-at-Arms. “Good evening, Brass Shield. Are we ready to start Night Court?”

Brass Shield gave Destined a short bow. “Ready when you are, Prince Destined.”

“Let’s get this show on the road then. You can let the audience in.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

As Brass headed for the large double doors to the room, Destined ascended the dais, nodding politely to the thestral Royal Guard stationed one level down and to his right. He made himself as comfortable as possible on the throne, feeling as always that he had not earned it as yet. The one change that had been made was a cushion in House Path colours replacing Luna’s more sombre midnight blue one. Path took his place at Destined’s left side and retrieved the list of supplicants for tonight’s session from his saddle bag. Although he had already reviewed them well before the court was due to begin, he refreshed his memory on the first. He gave Destined a summary as ponies, changelings, and a couple of griffons streamed into the throne room to take seats to witness the night’s events. It had amused Luna to notice that Night Court had become a source of entertainment for the night owls of Canterlot. For Destined though, they were witnesses to any potential mistakes he might make, and he tried not to think about them.

When the last of the audience was seated, the Sergeant-at-Arms called out, “All rise! Night Court is now in session – Prince Destined Path presiding!”

The audience rose from their seats, bowed politely, and then sat down again after Destined acknowledged them.

Brass Shield nodded to the Royal Guard standing by the door of an antechamber where the night’s supplicants awaited their turns. He called for the first petitioner from the waiting room, and the night’s proceedings began. The mare was momentarily surprised to see Destined on the throne rather than Luna as she had expected, but she gave him a big smile as she stopped before the throne and bowed.

“Good evening, Your Highness,” she said.

Destined smiled back, happy to start on a positive note. “Good evening, my little pony. How can I help you tonight?”



The evening was going quite well, with all the petitioners going away satisfied so far, and Destined felt more comfortable than on any of his previous occasions as the Royal in charge. It helped that all the staff were not only quite experienced, but they knew how to unobtrusively assist him whenever he encountered a minor problem. While his father and others served as his advisors, Brass Shield was in effect his teacher for a number of courtly procedures, and Destined had a lot of respect for his patience and wisdom. The thestral Royal Guard was a familiar friend – Leatherwing – Luna’s personal guard of many years who was acting as Destined’s for tonight at the request of the Moon Princess. More than anything else, these ponies helped put him at ease with the job of dealing with hopeful petitioners.

Destined’s good mood was soon shattered by the grumpy earth pony that was shown in next. The stallion scowled at Destined and asked, “Where’s Princess Luna?”

Destined was about to reply, but was stopped by a soft touch on his foreleg by Path’s hoof. He looked at his father who shook his head almost imperceptibly.

Brass Shield sternly said, “Citizen, you will bow and show respect to His Highness, Prince Destined Path.”

The stallion’s scowl deepened, but he gave the sketchiest of bows before once again asking, “So where’s the real royal? I need Princess Luna to sort out my problem.”

Again Brass Shield replied, “Citizen, Prince Destined is fourth in seniority in all of Equestria, and third highest authority in the Canterlot Court. He is also the Royal Alicorn presiding tonight and will be considering your petition. May I suggest that you mind your words and proceed with your business?” The Sergeant’s tone made it clear that his ‘suggestion’ was more like an iron-clad command.

Destined thought that it was time to step in. “What can I do for you, my little pony?” he asked the ritual formality.

The earth pony snorted contemptuously. “Little pony? I have two sons older than you!”

Destined was feeling more than a little irked by now. “As fascinating as that may be, you have come to make a petition, I believe? What is your name, citizen?”

The stallion sighed and replied in a manner that made it clear that he felt very imposed upon. “My name is Stony Structures, and I am a building developer. I’ve been contracted to build an extension to the Canterlot Grand Theatre, which will double the number of stages available, providing venues for more plays and concerts. This will not only be of great social benefit to the Canterlot community, but it will provide work to a lot more musicians and actors.”

Stony was obviously getting into the swing of his pitch now, for which Destined was grateful.

“Also, the project will provide employment to stonemasons, carpenters, plumbers, and so forth, further benefitting the economy. This is a major project with major advantages to Canterlot and its citizens, but the city council has refused to grant me a permit to build on the land that is needed for it. You must surely see that this is outrageous! Please overrule the council and grant the permit so that this great project may proceed.”

Destined looked towards his father who passed him a document. The alicorn looked it over carefully before saying, “Ah, yes, I see the problem. The land that you wish to build upon is part of the West Canterlot Recreational Reserve.” He down at Stony and frowned. “You wish to take away some prime parkland just to build a bigger theatre?”

Just a bigger theatre? No, the most magnificent theatre in Equestria! Surely that’s worth a bit of sacrifice of unused real estate?”

“First of all, it’s hardly unused. It is a very popular family recreation ground. Second of all, it’s the only open parkland in the immediate neighbourhood. Canterlot is built on the side of a mountain, and there is nowhere to create more parkland except on the plateau in Lower Canterlot, much further away.”

“I only require half the park. There will still be plenty of room for ponies to use.”

“Half is too much. Anything is too much. The city council was right to refuse your permit. Canterlot is not merely a place of buildings, one more magnificent than the other. It’s a community, and the aesthetics are important too. As the city continues to grow, that parkland will be needed more than ever for the citizens to enjoy, and as its name suggests, recreate.”

Destined could see that the stallion was starting to get very angry again. He headed off a tirade by speaking before Stony could. “However, I can propose a solution.”

Stony looked surprised. “What?” he asked suspiciously.

Destined held up the document in his hoof. “I see that it was the owner of the Canterlot Grand Theatre, Lord Goldbrick, who contracted you to do this extension. By coincidence, I see that his estate is directly adjacent to the theatre. I suggest that you ask him to donate the necessary land for the project.”

The earth pony stared at Destined as if he had gone mad. “Are you nuts? I can’t ask him to do that!”

Destined gave Stony a sly smile. “Why not? As you said, it is a project that will contribute many benefits to Canterlot and its citizens.”

Stony sputtered in anger and frustration. “This is bucking ridiculous! Get me a real Princess! I want this sorted out now!”

Brass Shield’s face was thunderous. “Citizen Structures – you will apologise to His Highness immediately!”

“What? This foal who’s pretending to be royalty? He’s not even a real Princess! How dare you foist a child upon us…”

ENOUGH!” Destined commanded in the Royal Canterlot Voice, cutting off Stony’s tirade. At the same time, he sent a small magic shockwave in Stony’s direction, making the earth pony stagger a little. “I’m tired of your bluster, Stony Structures. You sought to blindside me, and by extension, Princess Luna, with your self-serving plans to defraud the citizens of Canterlot of their priceless parkland. I might be young, but I am not stupid, and I have very wise people to advise me too. You have tried to deceive me, and you have continually insulted me. Your petition is rejected, your permit will never be issued, and you are hereby banned from this court for a period of no less than three months.”

“What?! You can’t do that to me!” Stony protested.

“I most certainly can. Be thankful that I don’t fine you also for Contempt of Court. Sergeant, please escort this pony from the castle forthwith.”

“With pleasure, Your Highness.”

Brass Shield’s horn lit up, and Stony Shield felt himself being dragged away. He did not go quietly though. He got even more vociferous when Luna stepped into the throne room.

“Princess! Listen to me! That foal on the throne is making stupid decisions in your name. You have to overrule him!”

The Sergeant-at-Arms continued to try to eject the stubborn stallion, but Luna held up a hoof and stopped him. She gave Stony a cold stare. “It takes two alicorns to overrule a decree made by the third. Also, such things are done only for matters of great importance, and I will not be waking my sister for thy petty desires.”

“But he wants to ban me from the court. I need access for my petitions!”

“I did overhear – three months’ ban dost seem incommensurate with the offence.”

Stony flashed a smug grin at Destined. “Ha! Just as I said.”

“Make it a year,” Luna added. “Sergeant, I believe that thou hast a task to finish.”

Brass Shield nodded. “Of course, Your Highness.” He resumed dragging the dumbstruck stallion out.

Luna walked over to the dais, and Destined stepped down to meet her.

“Did you come here to check up on me, Princess?” Destined asked quietly.

Luna smiled. “Nay. I was taking a break from my task, and I thought that thou might wish to join me.”

Destined nodded. “I could do with one after that jerk.”

“We do not call our little ponies ‘jerks’ in public, Prince Destined.”

The alicorn stallion grimaced. “I still have a bit to learn.”

“Thou art doing fine,” Luna reassured him.

Brass Shield returned just then after passing on the responsibility of ejecting Stony Structures to another Royal Guard. Destined turned to him and said, “Sergeant, we’re taking a break for fifteen minutes.”

The Sergeant-at-Arms nodded. “Very well, Your Highness.” He turned to face the audience. “This court is now in recess!” he announced loudly.

Excited talk started up immediately as the audience members discussed the entertainment that Stony had ironically given them.

Path and Leatherwing joined Destined and Luna, exiting through the door at the rear of the throne.

Destined said, “I used the Royal Canterlot Voice tonight, Mama Luna. I surprised myself by pulling it off properly.”

Luna nodded. “I know; it was what drew my attention to the throne room. I heard what thou had to say to that insufferable fool.”

“Heard what you had to say,” Destined corrected. “You’re still slipping in the thees and thous too often.” While Luna had been teaching the young alicorn how to handle court matters, he in turn had been coaching Luna on proper modern idiom. Her habit of centuries was proving hard to break though.

Luna giggled. “It seems we both yet have much to learn, my son.”

 

 


 

Creating A Gem

 

{36HP}

When Pif’s comm rang, she almost did not notice at first, absorbed as she normally was in her work. The ringing persisted though, and one of her assistant drones brought it over to her. Finally focusing on the device, she was puzzled as to who might be calling her at this time. She touched the receive button and a familiar voice grumpily said, “It’s about time you answered, Pif. Come and fetch your wife before she causes more problems.”

Pif blinked with surprise. “I thought a bouncer is supposed to fix problems, not cause them.”

Malt Brew chuckled. “Normally she does, but this is one of those exceptions.”

“You’re not making sense, Malt.”

“Just come and fetch her. She won’t be working the rest of her shift.”

Pif sighed. “Okay, I’ll be there soon.” She shut off the comm and as she headed out the door, she let her mind roam the hive network until she found a chrome changeling who was patronising the pub. A quick request for information only left her more confused. The harvester drone seemed to think that Citrine was not having any problems, although she seemed to be unusually popular with the stallions this afternoon. Pif hastened her steps. The sooner she found out what was going on, the sooner she could get back to work.

Ponyville had more than one pub nowadays, but The Bucking Mare Tavern was the original, and to Pif’s mind, still the best. Just because her wife worked there serving thirsty ponies at the bar, and occasionally evicting rowdy ones, did not mean she was biased. Nope, not a bit. She entered the pub and looked around. The usual suspects were there, enjoying a brew and a salt lick, and a couple of griffons were in the corner, laughing raucously over some harder spirits. However, there was a knot of stallions over near the end of the bar that drew her attention quickly, especially considering the emotions that were oozing from them. Suddenly Pif had an inkling of what was going on. She trotted over to join them, shifting her form to her most imposing.

“Excuse me, gentlecolts, but that’s my mare you’re ogling,” she said gruffly.

The nearest stallion started turning around, saying, “Who do you think you are…?” He got a good look at the large changeling princess glaring down at him and gave her a sickly grin. “Aah… moving right along now!” The stallion beat a hasty retreat.

The others had failed to even notice, and Pif sighed in frustration. She could hardly blame them as Citrine was positively awash with pheromones, and what full-blooded stallion could resist a mare in heat? A mare that appeared to be just as swept up in her season as the stallions. That wasn’t like Citrine. She always made it a point to keep her ‘mare-time’ medicine close at hoof because she got such strong heats. Perhaps something had happened to it and she was caught out while on the job? Oh well, wife to the rescue!

Pif lit up her horn and grabbed hold of the four remaining would-be Roameos, levitating them all away from Citrine. Startled and angry oaths soon abated when they saw who was magically spoiling their afternoon. Aside from being royalty, Pif was also one of the more powerful people in Equestria, let alone Ponyville, and the stallions left to commiserate with each about the mare that got away.

At least, all but one did.

Almost as soon as she put down the dark green earth pony with an orange mane and tail, he came stomping back to Pif. “Listen, bug-pony, you can’t just barge in here and hog all the mare action!”

There were several chuckles from the patrons around the room as Pif stared at him in disbelief. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

“Tartarus, no! I’m an honest miner from down south, here on business. Never seen so many bug-ponies in all my life!”

Pif rolled her eyes. How much of a recluse did you have to be to know next to nothing about changelings when they had been part of pony society for several decades now? “Listen, Mister Miner, you get one warning. I’m not a common drone, and that mare is my wife, so don’t push things unless you want to reap the consequences.”

The miner stallion curled his lip contemptuously. “You think that just because you’re bigger than me, you can threaten me? I’m an earth pony and a miner. I got muscles on my muscles, and I’ll squash you like the bug you are!”

“Seriously? Back off, jerk.”

“Better listen to her, Copper Seam!” one of the other stallions called out.

Copper Seam ignored both of them and tried to barge past Pif. She impeded him and he took a swing at her. She was not stupid enough to try to block his blow, but deflected it as per her House training. Even so, she felt the magnitude of the brute force behind it. He wasn’t holding back! So be it – neither would she.

Pif trapped the stallion’s limb when he threw a second punch, and pulled him in close enough to touch her horn to his head. She then did what only queens could do, and fed emotions to him rather than taking them. But not kind and gentle emotions. She drew on her past experiences and fed him fear, uncertainty, and hopelessness. In seconds, Copper Seam was a blubbering heap quivering on the floor. She looked over to where Malt Brew was watching her and said, “See – no blood or broken bones this time.”

Malt just shook his head in resignation. “Somehow I think he would have preferred that option, Pif. Why the extreme treatment?”

Pif’s expression turned dark. “I tasted his intentions, Malt. He was planning to have his way with my wife, whether she wanted it or not.”

Malt nodded in understanding. “Better take her home now. I don’t want a repeat of this tonight.”

Pif turned to see Citrine watching her lustfully. She smirked, thinking that she had probably aroused Citrine even more by her defence of her spouse, even if it wasn’t actually needed. The day Citrine couldn’t fend off half a dozen horny stallions was the day she met Mort! The crystal pony liked her loving with a bit of an edge. Still, this was unlike her. Time to get her back to the castle and find out what was going on. She gave Citrine a cuddle and a kiss, and then opted for teleporting them home. Her range had improved a little over the years, and the pub was within her limits. Moments later, the two were in their bedroom.

As Citrine sprawled on the bed, Pif asked, “What happened back there? Did you forget your medication?”

Citrine gave her a lascivious grin. “Nope.”

Pif frowned. “What do you mean by that?”

“It means I did not want to suppress my season this time.”

“You wanted a bar full of stallions lusting over you?” the changeling asked incredulously.

“Nah – that was just bad timing. I thought I’d be okay until I got home so you could ravish me.”

“You know that pony pheromones don’t work on me like that, don’t you?”

“Uh-huh.”

“They why?

“Don’t be dense, Piffy. I want a foal!”

Pif froze and surprise. “You? A foal? I thought you weren’t interested in being a mother? Said you were going to wait until I went into breeding mode and you’d use a sex-change spell to impregnate me.”

“Yeah, I did, but I got tired of waiting for you.”

“With three queen changelings in the hive, it suppresses the need to breed…”

Citrine interrupted crossly, “I already know that! I also know that you can breed voluntarily if you wanted to, but you haven’t! So if you don’t want to have a foal, it looks like I have to be the mother.”

Pif sat down abruptly on her haunches, her ears drooping. “I… I never realised that you felt so strongly about having a child. We’ve been married for fifteen years and I’ve never noticed you getting broody before.”

“Pif, I’ve been dragging you away from your work nearly every day for fifteen years to make sure you have a life. I expected this, and don’t regret it because once you’re with me, we’re great together. But you’re oblivious to so many things in between! I started getting envious of your siblings’ foals years ago, but you were always too busy!”

“Why didn’t you say something? You always take such pride in being the tomboy mare who keeps the roughnecks in line at the tavern, and I love that, but where’s any hint of maternal leanings there?”

Citrine’s eyes lowered to the floor and her ears laid back. “I know – it’s my fault too. Keeping up appearances became second nature to me. I became so good at fooling you that I fooled myself too.” She looked back up at Pif and gave her a serious look. “But I recently realised what I was doing to myself, and I decided that I would do something about it next time my season came around. So here we are. The question is – do you want to have foal or not?”

“You really want this, don’t you?” Pif asked softly.

Citrine nodded. “I really do.”

“You realise that our lives will change once the foal is born? I’m not going to leave a child of ours in the care of others all the time.”

“I know. I saw how Lucida’s and Hype’s changed when they had Ajax, but when Silk and Des had their daughter, Aurora, I really started to warm up to the idea. I think I’m ready for it now.”

Pif smiled gently. “Then it seems I won’t be getting back to my work today.” Green magic flame engulfed the chrome changeling, leaving behind a blue crystal pony stallion with a purple mane. He was strongly built and well-hung too. Pif posed for Citrine and asked, “You like? I’ve never been a crystal pony for you before.”

“Because a species match might have resulted in an unwanted pregnancy, I know. I think I should have asked you to become one long before this. You’re one hunk of a crystal stallion!”

Pif put a foreleg around Citrine and drew her to himself and said, “And you’re one knock-out of a mare.” Then he kissed her deeply.

The kiss soon turned into a tongue wrestle and some serious groping. Then Citrine pushed Pif back to take another look at him before licking her lips in anticipation. She hauled Pif up onto the bed beside her, pushing him onto his back to watch his penis engorging. She leaned down and gave it a long, slow lick, and Pif shuddered with pleasure.

“Careful, Citrine! Between the lust that’s pouring out of you and your touch, I might come too soon.”

“Oh, no – you’re not gonna come until momma says you can!” She fondled his balls, gently giving them a squeeze and eliciting a moan from Pif. “Oh, yeah – you’re primed and ready.”

Citrine straddled the stallion and slid her sex along the length of the now fully engorged penis, the fluids leaking from her vagina lubricating it. She did it again before reaching down to lift the rock-hard horse-cock as she positioned herself above it. She lowered herself upon it until the head pushed apart her labia, and then she thrust herself down until it filled her utterly. She whinnied in joy and Pif echoed it with a groan of pleasure.

Pif had long ago learned exactly how thick and long that Citrine liked his penis, and they were joined together perfectly. They paused there to gaze into each other’s eyes. This was what they called ‘The Moment’. In a brief but intense instant, she poured her love into him, and he did the same to her through that most intimate of connections.

Citrine grinned and said, “Let’s make a foal.”

Pif returned the grin. “Ready when you are, darling.”

They abandoned themselves to the pleasures of sexual intercourse, resulting in her almost certain fertilisation.

And again to make sure.

One more time, just to be thorough.

What the heck – four times for luck!



Citrine continued her job almost up until she was due to give birth. The few rowdy customers who made the mistake of tempting the pregnant mare’s wrath soon learned that being gravid did not slow her down in the slightest. The only concession she ever made was being more careful to protect her belly.

The day that she was due to give birth, Lucida, Hype, and their son, Ajax, came over from Griffonia for the occasion, as did Luna and Destined from Canterlot. The entire family was gathered as Citrine was wheeled into the delivery room, grinning fiercely to cover up the discomfort of her contractions. Forty-seven minutes later came the cry that everyone had been waiting to hear, and Pif emerged to invite the family in to see the newborn not long after.

“Mother and filly are doing great!” Pif said proudly as she led the curious horde inside.

The foal was swaddled in a blanket, but the soft purple coat and yellow mane were still visible, as was one other salient feature – she was crystalline.

Free clapped Pif on the shoulder and said with a grin, “It’s obvious who she takes after.”

Pif smirked. “Are you sure about that, Dad?”

Free lifted an eyebrow. “Oh? What haven’t you told us, Pif?”

Pif looked at Citrine who smiled and nodded. She carefully unwrapped the blanket from the foal, and suddenly two tiny pairs of crystalline changeling wings sprung up.

“Ooh!” Twilight cooed. “She’s a hybrid like Wandering! I can’t wait to examine her!”

Pif laughed. “You’ll have plenty of time for that later, Mama.”

Twilight blushed and nodded. “Have you thought of a name for her as yet?”

“No, we…” Pif started to say.

“Amethyst!” Citrine interjected. The look that she gave Pif was simultaneously firm and pleading.

Pif smile and nodded before turning back to the rest of the family. “I am proud to introduce to you for the first time, Amethyst Path, daughter of Citrine and Epiphany.”

An annoyed nurse had to come by and quiet down the cheering and celebrations coming from the delivery room.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Amy is a little older than newborn in this picture, obviously. Also, unlike her mother, she's always in crystal form. Her wings can lay flat against her back so they are not obvious. Yes, she can fly - she has the flight magic in the wings. Mom and Dad soon found that out!

 

 


 

Crystal's Wanderings - part 1: First Steps

 

{39HP}

Whooooooooooot! Whoooooooooooot!

The sound of the train’s steam whistle shook the waiting unicorn from her reverie. She watched as the Crystal Kingdom Express pulled into the station, knowing that her moment had finally arrived. She patiently waited as the passengers disgorged, most of them tourists heading for the hotels or Glimmer World, the kingdom’s foremost attraction. The train was not scheduled to depart for its return trip for another twenty minutes, during which time it would be loaded up with fuel and water for the steam engine. There was talk of replacing the locomotives with something newer and cleaner, but she had to admit that she liked the classic engines. She had been dreaming of listening to its whistle blowing as she left her home of so many years, and it would not have been the same if they had changed it.

Station staff worked to replenish various items for the outward bound journey – food for the dining car, fresh linen for the sleeping compartments, and various other necessities for a journey that took most of a day to complete. The station master and the train conductor finally allowed passengers to board, and Crystal picked up her luggage in the green glow of her magic.

With a dramatic sigh, she softly said, “And so my new life begins, stepping alone into a journey of self-discovery.”

“What am I? Chopped spinach?” came the voice of the pegasus standing beside her.

Crystal turned to him with a pout. “Hush, you! I was trying to be dramatic. Besides, it’s not as if I asked you to come along with me.”

The burnt-orange-coated stallion with red & white-striped mane just grinned back. “No, you didn’t, but I noticed that you stopped arguing with your parents who wanted to send a minder with you after you found out that it was me that they had nominated.”

“Yeah, I thought Dad and Mom were trying to stick me with one of their stuffy Royal Guards, not my former House Path training partner.”

“I got a bit of a surprise too, you know? I was told that I had to play bodyguard for this sexy-looking unicorn without being informed that it was you.”

“It’s not as if I need a bodyguard – I’m stronger than you and have magic also.” She paused and then added, “So you like my new looks?”

The pegasus gave Crystal another good look-over and smiled appreciatively. Her coat was light blue, while mane and tail were subtle shades of medium-blue with eyes to match. She sported a cutie mark of three hearts in red, yellow, and green, but the most outstanding feature was her tall and lean build. “Like I said, very pretty and sexy. However, if you’re trying to be inconspicuous, you fail big time.”

Crystal chuckled. “I’m trying to be incognito, not inconspicuous. I modelled the shape on Queen Polistae’s pony alter ego which seems to be well appreciated. By the way, Thumper, my name is going to be Crystal Blue in this form, not Princess Crystal Path. Please don’t forget that.”

“No problem, Your Highness,” Thumper replied with a smirk.

“Oh, ha ha! Very funny. Don’t do it again,” Crystal said as they mounted the steps of the First Class carriage. She might have been stepping out into a new adventure, but at least she could do it in comfort. She checked her ticket for the compartment number and moved down to the doorway marked with it. She opened the door, levitated her bags inside, and looked around. Typical of a train, it was very compactly laid out with a nicely upholstered divan, luggage rack, fold-away table, and a fold-down double bed. She put the bags in the luggage rack and said to Thumper, “This is more than enough for me. Where’s your compartment?”

Thumper stared at his ticket in disbelief. “I think there’s been a mistake.” He held it up to show her.

Crystal saw the compartment number and blinked in surprise. It was the same as hers.

“Do you think they know?” Thumper asked.



House Path training was the same for all warrior-scholars, no matter their rank. When Crystal went on her first field trip with her training squad at the age of sixteen, she was randomly assigned a partner – an orange pegasus stallion named Cloud Thumper.

The field trainer bellowed at them, “From now on, you do everything together with your assigned training partner. You march together, you fight together, you eat together, you bathe together, you read together, you sleep together. If one of you screws up, you both screw up. If you’re given a task, you both work at that task equally until it’s done. You’re going to work your partnership until you know how each other thinks. Then when you really understand the meaning of cooperation, we’ll move on to the hard stuff.”

Crystal had to believe that the squad’s trainer had a sense of humour, considering what he threw at them over the next few weeks. If not, she dreaded to find out what he considered to be ‘hard’. She wasn’t about to let her parents down with anything less than one hundred percent effort though, and she did have one advantage. If there was anything that changelings could do well, that was cooperate. Thumper might not have been a changeling, but he came from a military background which helped. They soon mastered their teamwork and moved up the nominal rankings of the squad. Both were very happy with their working relationship and were good friends, but that was all they were besides fellow students. Then came another field exercise about a year later.

Crystal and Thumper settled down for the night after a hard day of training, thankful to be able to rest at last. Except that Crystal couldn’t rest. She was tired, but something was stirring her up – an unfamiliar desire, but one she soon recognised. She was horny, and getting hornier by the moment.

Nobody knew for sure when this was due to start, but they did know that it was inevitable. Free Agent had gotten a reputation for being quite the ladies’ stallion starting from his late teens, stemming from his innate need to breed. Crystal was a queen changeling too, and one of their main purposes was to build hives and breed drones. Crystal had no intention of doing either at this time, but that meant nothing to her body. It was ready for sex, and was making sure she knew it. She groaned in frustration.

“What’s wrong, Cryssy?” came Thumper’s tired voice.

Of course he was going to be concerned. If nothing else, their training in cooperation made them very aware of each other’s needs. However, this was not what their trainers had in mind. “Nothing. Go to sleep.”

Thumper propped himself up on one leg and stared at her in the dim light. “That has to be the worst lie I’ve heard you say all year. Now, what’s really bothering you?”

Crystal considered prevaricating, even as her hoof unconsciously reached for her nether region. “Nothing that you can do anything about.”

Thumper sighed. “Crystal – I’m your partner. You can tell me.”

“I’m horny – okay? My body is demanding sex! Happy now?”

“Oh. Umm… yeah. I can… help?”

Crystal stared at him. “Thumper, I don’t think you can help with this.”

“I disagree. We’re supposed to help with our partner’s needs. I want to do this.”

“What if my parents find out? You know how protective Dad is.”

“I won’t say anything, and I know you won’t. All that matters is what you want.”

A surge of hormones made Crystal groan again. “I’m not sure what I want, but I do know what I need. Are you sure you want to have sex with a changeling? I can become a crystal pony for you…?”

“You’re not just my partner, but my closest friend. Do you think it bothers me that you’re a changeling? Plenty of ponies have changeling partners nowadays anyway.”

Even if his words were not persuasive, his delicious emotions of friendship and concern were just making her decision easier. She shuddered with anticipation and leaned over to kiss him. “Ever done this before?” she asked softly.

“When have I had the time for a marefriend?” he asked, kissing her back.

She pushed him onto his back. “Me neither. Just let me do this, okay?”

He smiled. “Okay, Cryssy.”

She eyed his sheath, and his penis was already halfway showing. She leaned down and licked it, and it rapidly engorged to its fullest. It might not have been as big as an earth pony’s, but right then it looked perfect to her. She straddled his form and saw his face filled with anticipation. She grinned and lifted his cock in her magic to push against her labia. Shivering in pleasure at the mere touch, she felt her sex oozing its fluids over the tip of his penis. She pushed back and it slid into her, making her groan again with delight. It felt right. It felt more than right. She started rocking back and forth, making it thrust in and out, and the pleasure just kept building. Her eyes squeezed shut as her arousal built to a peak, and then she orgasmed. Jolts of pure pleasure rocked her and left her gasping. When they eased up, she started humping him again. This time was just as pleasurable, but with a difference. She felt Thumper’s penis throb, and the stallion moaned in ecstasy. She felt her vagina fill with a spreading warmth, and she came again also.

Crystal just laid on Thumper’s barrel for a long moment, enjoying the afterglow while consuming the pleasure that flooded off him. After a while, she finally asked, “Want to do that again?”

“Practice makes perfect, as our instructors keep telling us.”

“Never ignore the instructors’ wisdom,” Crystal replied before kissing him thoroughly.

They had sex for another half hour before Crystal was fully satiated. They then made themselves comfortable on their mats in preparation for some sleep at last. Before they did though, Crystal had a question to ask.

“So – that was your first time?”

“Yep.”

“It won’t be your last.”

Thumper grinned. “Awesome.”



The duo had sex at every opportunity after that. Experimenting and a sense of adventurousness added spice to their nights and skill to their efforts. After returning from the field trip, Crystal arranged clandestine meetings for the purpose of maintaining their sexual relationship while keeping her parents ignorant of her activities. She did not like to deceive them, but her father was famously over-protective sometimes, and her mother would not keep a secret from him. Life had been pretty good up until she had made the decision to leave the Crystal Kingdom to seek her place in life. She had not been happy when she had been told by her parents that they would be sending a minder with her. That had changed drastically when she had learned that the minder was Cloud Thumper.

Crystal stared at the ticket a moment longer before she looked up at Thumper. “Mom made the travel arrangements. She doesn’t make that kind of mistake.”

“How’d she find out about us?”

“Mom’s the Alicorn of Love, remember?”

Thumper looked at Crystal intently. “You think she’s trying to tell us something?”

“But we’re not lovers,” she protested. “We’re just friends with benefits, right?”

“Yeah, but your Mom doesn’t usually make those kind of mistakes either.”

“This time she has. Not that I mind.”

“Yeah, me neither. At least I won’t have to sneak between compartments.”

Crystal snorted. “You wouldn’t need to sneak anyway. You’re travelling with Crystal Blue, remember? Not Princess Crystal Path.”

Thumper pouted. “Pity – I would have liked to bang a princess.”

Crystal bit him on the ear.



This was hardly the first time that Crystal had made the journey from the Crystal Kingdom to Equestria. However, when the train passed from the green fields and into the eternal snow that surrounded the kingdom, it had a different feel about it. This was no mere visit to her aunts, or a vacation. It was not even a field trip for her House training. She had just made the first step toward finding where she fitted in this world. It was kind of scary. She sat in the compartment and just stared at the snowy landscape for hours until Thumper dragged her away to the dining car for dinner.

With nightfall, she could not see the snow anymore, and oddly that cheered her up. They chatted with the other passengers for a long while, many of whom were making the trip for the first time, and they talked about what they hoped to see and enjoy. Crystal told them of her journey of self-discovery, and she received a lot of genuine support from them.

They had drinks at the bar as a nightcap, and after a few drinks, Crystal gave Thumper a nudge. “See the earth pony mare at the end of the bar? She has the hots for you.”

“Hmm? She’s cute, but I’ve got a date with a unicorn tonight.”

“Aww! I’ve always wanted to be your wingmare though! I can tell her how much of a stud you are in the sack, if you like?”

“Crys! I don’t even know the mare!”

“That’s why you should start off with some of your best qualities. Get her intrigued and reel her in.”

Thumper sighed. “I think you’ve had one too many drinks. Come on – let’s head back to our compartment.”

Crystal giggled but complied. When she and Thumper finally retired for the night, she was brimming with the energy of all the positive emotion that she had consumed that evening. She made sure that she used a lot of it enthusiastically when she had sex with Thumper that night.

When Crystal woke the next morning, she lay in bed watching the scenery pass by. Gone was the wintry scenery, replaced by the verdant woodlands of the southern Unicorn Ranges. They had apparently slept through the stop at the junction with the Vanhoover line where the train took on more fuel and water before continuing. The forest soon opened up to the fields that lay west of Canterlot before Thumper also woke and declared that he was hungry. They both made a quick trip to the bathroom first before heading to the dining car for breakfast. After they were replete, they went back to the compartment and lounged on the bed while Crystal groomed Thumper’s coat for him. Then he insisted on doing the same for her.

“You so rarely stay in pony form that I don’t ever get the chance to do this for you. You can’t groom chitin, after all. Besides, if you’re going to stay in unicorn form, you’ll have to keep up appearances.”

Crystal didn’t point out that all she had to do was exert her transformation power to get a perfectly groomed coat once more. She knew that he enjoyed being groomed though, and she quickly understood why when he started on her.

When they were done, they watched the scenery once more. They saw Mount Canterhorn loom up and Canterlot Castle was soon distinguishable. It was nearly time to get ready to get off the train.

With a cheery toot of its whistle and ringing of its bell, the locomotive pulled into Mount Canterhorn Junction Station, located at the base of the mountain for which it was named. While Canterlot was located on the mountain itself, it was another hour’s journey for it to wind its way up through the switchbacks and tunnels to reach the city and castle. Crystal could have flown up there in a fraction of the time if she had been in winged form. However, she was not headed to Canterlot, so they needed to change trains to head off to Ponyville. Because Canterlot was so central to the nation of Equestria, Canterhorn Station served as a hub for the many lines going to various destinations, such as Manehattan, Baltimare, Appleloosa, and Las Pegasus.

The Dodge City line was the one that they needed, but it was three platforms over. Crystal and Thumper hastened over there with their luggage, but they might as well have taken their time because their train was running late. Nevertheless they were soon enough on their way to Ponyville. It was only a two hour trip, so they did not need a compartment, and they spent the journey looking at the landscape from normal seating. The train pulled into Ponyville station at 10:15am, and Crystal alighted and eagerly set off for Princess Twilight’s castle, with Thumper struggling to keep up with her long-legged gait.

After all these years, Twilight’s castle still did not have any overt Guards protecting it. It was a symbol of the friendship that the resident alicorn espoused that it was always open and welcoming to all. Of course if a real enemy was to try something, they would have had to deal with a whole hive full of soldier drones who would have responded instantly to the threat. It was one of the perks of being married to the hive’s Queen, and with changelings, you never could be sure if you were being watched.

Crystal knew that she had been seen and identified before she got halfway to the castle. Her disguise was not able to fool Princess Epiphany’s surveillance network for a moment, but then again it was not intended to do so. It did mean though that her arrival would not be a complete surprise. Sure enough, a grinning griffon stood at the doors of Twilight’s castle, waiting to greet them. Crystal dropped her luggage to trot up to Free Agent and give him a hug.

“Great to see you, Crystal. I like the new look.”

“Thanks, Uncle Free. Better get used to it because I’m sticking with it for a long while.”

“Oh? Has it anything to do with the surprise visit?”

“It has a lot to do with it, actually. I presume Auntie Twilight is here too? I’d like to talk with you about it over lunch.”

“Sure. Path and Roseclaw are here also.”

“Even better; I can tell you all at once.”

Free looked at the pegasus who was patiently waiting for the two to finish talking. “Who’s this?” he asked with a smile.

Crystal replied, “This is Cloud Thumper, a warrior-scholar of the Crystal Kingdom branch of House Path. My parents sent him along with me as a minder.”

Free cocked an eyebrow at her. “Just a minder?”

Crystal giggled. “He’s also my best friend.”

Free grinned at Thumper. “Any best friend of Crystal is welcome in our home. Come on in and make yourself comfy. Your usual room is cleaned and ready for you, Cryssy.”

“What about Thumper?”

“What? Isn’t one room enough for the two of you?”

“Uncle Free! That wouldn’t be proper.”

Free smirked. “Don’t blame me if Thumper is leaking his emotions all over the place. He particularly likes your flank, I notice.”

“UNCLE FREE!”

Free just laughed and headed inside.

Crystal glared at Thumper who just shrugged and smiled innocently. “He’s right – you do have a gorgeous flank.”

Crystal rolled her eyes, grabbed her bags in her magic, and headed after the griffon.

They dumped their luggage in Crystal’s room, and Thumper looked around it.

“Nice. Fit for a princess, I’d say.”

“There’s no such thing as a second class suite in this castle. All guests are treated like royalty.”

“I’m going to get spoiled if this is what it’s going to be like for your entire trip.”

Crystal grinned. “Don’t get too used to it. If what I have in mind goes through, we might have to deal with far less appealing accommodations.”

“I’ll enjoy it while it lasts then.” He paused before he began again. “I noticed that you call Lord Free your uncle, but that isn’t really true, is it?”

Crystal’s mood soured a little. “I’m aware of the biological relationship, but that has nothing to do with the real me. He’s married to Twilight Sparkle, sister to my foster father, so that makes him my uncle, okay?”

“Got it. Won’t bring it up again.”

Crystal nodded, satisfied with his promise. Thumper was one of the very few who knew her true origin, and she intended to keep it that way. As far as everypony was concerned, Chrysalis had been destroyed in the battle against the Nightmare many years ago, and in a very real sense, it was completely true. Crystal was not Chrysalis and she swore she would never be that evil person, but when she had first learned the truth about herself, it had nearly devastated her.



“Crystal, could you come and have a private talk with your mother and me?” Shining Armor asked.

“Sure, Dad. Has it got anything to do with my cute-ceañera tomorrow?” She might be a changeling that did not magically gain a cutie mark, but that only meant that she got to choose one of her own design that she used her changeling ability to apply.

“Not really, but it is something that we had promised ourselves that we would tell you when you turned fifteen if circumstances didn’t force us to tell you any sooner. We didn’t want to spoil your big day though, so we want to talk to you about it tonight instead.”

“Sounds serious, Dad,” Crystal said as she followed him into his study where she found her mother waiting for them.

Shining Armor closed the heavy oaken door that blocked almost all sound, and Cadance’s horn flared briefly to establish a privacy spell. Then she came over and hugged Crystal, with Shining Armor joining them moments later. Some private parts of the castle were always shielded from the influence of the Crystal Heart specifically so that the changeling could grow up feeding on her parents’ love rather than from the magic artefact, and right now Crystal drank in the love that they were freely giving her. Despite that though, she was a little uneasy because she could also taste their concern.

“I love you too, Mom and Dad, but will you please tell me what’s going on?”

Cadance sighed and said, “Truth can really hurt, and we wanted to reassure you that our feelings for you are as strong as ever, and what we are about to tell you changes nothing. In fact we would rather never tell you, but the truth has a nasty habit of accidentally getting out, and usually at the worst possible time. That’s why we committed to telling you this now.”

“You’re creeping me out, Mom. Please tell me what’s bothering you two.”

“It has to do with how you were adopted,” Shining replied. “You remember how we found you?”

“Sure! I was an unbonded princess nymph from Queen Chrysalis’ hive that you found after the defeat of the Nightmare in Zebrica. Mom said she wanted to raise me, so you two adopted me into your family and House Path, hence my name Crystal Path.”

“That was the truth, but not all of it,” Shining said. “Very few people know the entire story of the Nightmare’s defeat because of the enormous power being thrown around in that battle. Only the main participants witnessed it, and a few others told of it. As you learned in school, the new Element Bearers used Harmony to destroy Nightmare Chrysalis, but that isn’t completely accurate. They exorcised the Avatar of Destruction from Queen Chrysalis, which left her without the power to fight us anymore. Chrysalis was not destroyed because Harmony does not kill; it brings balance. Harmony chose to do something different with her, and perhaps through Prince Destined’s special talent, the changeling queen was regressed in age until she was no more than a nymph.” Crystal went rigid with shock. “No,” she said in barely whisper. “Please don’t tell me…”

Cadance gave Crystal another hug. “Yes, Crystal, that nymph was the one we adopted.”

“No, no, no, nooooooooo! I can’t be Chrysalis! I can’t have done all those horrible things!” Tears began streaming from her eyes.

Shining sternly said, “You are not Chrysalis. Your mother sensed that right from the beginning, although I’m ashamed to have to admit that I didn’t. You proved me wrong though, and you grew up to be a beautiful and loving child. Chrysalis did die that day, but her rebirth gave us a wonderful daughter.”

“But how can I ignore what I did in the past now that I know?” Crystal wailed.

“Because Crystal Path is not Queen Chrysalis,” Cadance replied. “You have nothing in common with her except your physical body. As your father said, Chrysalis ceased to exist that day, and a new person was born. Under no circumstances can you be held responsible for her actions.”

“That… that’s easy for you to say, Mom. You’re my foster parents and have to say things like that.”

“We say it because it’s true. And you want to know something else? Half the people coming to your birthday celebration know the truth also, and it doesn’t matter to them either. Your Uncle Long Path wanted to kill that nymph that day, but even he soon accepted that he was wrong. Tell me what your changeling senses have told you about him.”

“He always likes to see how I’ve progressed. He has always helped me with my House Path lessons. He really cares for me.”

“Correct, but Lord Path was killed in battle with Queen Chrysalis, and barely revived but at the expense of all his magic. His daughter lost her wings in the fight with Nightmare Chrysalis, and many of his family and his students suffered. Many of the House Path warriors died in battle both here and in Zebrica. Of all ponies, he hated Chrysalis the most. But he doesn’t hate you. He is proud of what you have become, and he expects that you will do great things for House Path in the future. He believes in Crystal Path, almost as much as we, your parents, do.”

“You really mean that? It really doesn’t matter to him or you?”

“It doesn’t matter to anyone in the know. Your Uncle Free despised his mother, but he loves you.”

Crystal was stunned. “Uncle Free is actually… my child?”

“Queen Gossamer is your biological daughter. Free Agent is your uncle. He hated being related to Chrysalis, but there has always been that bond between you. He was a huge help to us while you were growing up, even sending us one of his nursery drones to assist us. So if those two aren’t enough to persuade you that you’re not Chrysalis, I’m not sure what will.”

Shining added, “Other than the fact that people from all over Equus have come here to celebrate your birthday.”

Crystal sniffled and wiped the tears from her face. “You’re right – I’m not Chrysalis. I would never do anything to hurt you or them. I am my own person!”

“You are indeed, my daughter,” Shining said fervently. He and Cadance gave Crystal another love-filled hug.

When they parted, Crystal asked, “Do you want me to keep this a secret?”

Shining replied, “While we strongly recommend that you do keep it a secret, it’s up to you now to decide if you wish to tell anyone. We will never do so.”

Crystal nodded. “I’d like to go to my room now. I have a lot to think about.”

“Are you going to be okay, Crystal?” Cadance asked.

She gave them her most reassuring smile. “I promise that if I have any problems, I will come and talk with you, but I think I’m going to be fine. I just need to get my head around this a bit better.”



She had slept on it, and by the morning she had virtually accepted that Chrysalis was in the past and would not play any part in who she was now. Crystal truly enjoyed the celebration of her rebirth knowing that the attendees all cared for her, and that restored her confidence in herself. She never told anyone her secret until recently when she and Thumper had been particularly intimate. As best friends, they shared everything, and eventually she had decided that he deserved to know. He had taken it well, more curious than anything else. Having never experienced any of the conflicts with Chrysalis, it was just an intriguing footnote in history to him. She had banged him extra well that night for vindicating her trust.

“We had better head down or Uncle Free will really be convinced that we’re having sex.”

“But we are having sex,” Thumper pointed out.

“Yeah, but I don’t want anyone else to know that yet!”

“I think your mother knows, and I’m pretty sure Lord Free is certain we are. How much longer do you think you can keep up the pretence?”

“As long as it matters,” Crystal answered vaguely before heading out of the room.

Thumper shrugged and followed.



Free had informed Twilight that Crystal was there, and she stopped what she was doing to greet her. Because Path and Roseclaw were away from the castle at that moment, she agreed to wait until they came back for lunch to talk about what had brought Crystal to Ponyville. That left the changeling and her companion some time to kill, and Crystal decided to wander around Ponyville and reacquaint herself with some people. Thumper had never had an excuse to be there, so he was quite curious about the domain of an Equestrian Princess.

“So is this Princess Twilight’s holiday retreat or something?”

Crystal gave him a flat stare. “What on Equestria are you talking about?”

“Look, I know that this is where her castle is and all, but this is a rural township; shouldn’t the Princess be set up in a city somewhere?”

Crystal snorted derisively. “This town represents Auntie Twilight better than any city. Its inhabitants are among the friendliest in the nation. It’s also the home of all six original Element Bearers.” She stepped inside Sugarcube Corner and waved to the earth pony behind the counter. “Hi, Pinkie!”

“Hi, Crystal and stallion who’s totally not your coltfriend,” Pinkie replied brightly. “What can I get you?”

“Just some treats to take back for my aunts and uncles, please.”

“I know just the thing!” In a moment, the mare had packed a couple of bags of baked goods for her.

After Crystal paid for the baked goods and exited the shop, Thumper said, “Okay – so how did she know that it was you? Did you let her know in advance?”

Crystal grinned. “Nope.”

“And what was that about me?”

“Pinkie Pie is the one who knows.”

“But how?

“Because she’s Pinkie. Ask anyone and you’ll get the same answer.”

“Aren’t you worried that she’ll blab then?”

“Nope.”

“How can you know that?”

“Auntie Pinkie would never do that to me.”

Thumper fumed for a moment before he gave her a flat stare. “You took us in there just to get back at me for being disparaging about Ponyville.”

“Well, I did want the treats, but yeah. Now you’ve begun your initiation into the weirdly wonderful domain of my Aunt Twilight.”

“It’s just begun?

Crystal’s grin just grew larger.

“Oh, horsefeathers!”



Crystal took Thumper on a quick visit to the public section of the Chrome Hive. While the pegasus was barely noticed, Crystal kept getting surprised looks from the undisguised drones until they were apparently updated over the hive network. Thumper was fascinated by the structure of the hive and the organisation of the drones. Crystal explained how the hive worked together with the Ponyville citizens for their mutual prosperity, and promised to take him into the restricted areas one day when they had more time to spare. She wasn’t surprised when a random drone suddenly turned and spoke to her.

“My Queen wishes me to inform you that Lord Path and Lady Roseclaw have returned to the castle, and lunch will be served in fifteen minutes.”

“Thank you,” Crystal replied before turning back to Thumper. “Come on – I don’t want to be late.”

Thumper broke into a trot to follow Crystal. “You can’t possibly be hungry – this town must be oozing positive emotion for you to eat.”

“It sure does, but I still wouldn’t mind a daisy sandwich anyway. But that’s not why I’m in a hurry; I’m eager to explain my reason to visit.”

It took them only about ten minutes to make it back to the castle, leaving her plenty of time to properly exchange greetings with Path and Roseclaw. Pif joined them too, taking a break from her research in her workshop in the hive at the insistence of her attentive wife, Citrine. Then Crystal introduced Thumper to them.

The pegasus had been nervous enough about meeting Princess Twilight earlier, but he was overwhelmed to be welcomed so enthusiastically by Lord Long Path, the founder of House Path, that he stuttered almost incoherently.

Path put a reassuring foreleg around the young stallion and said, “Think of this like an Informal Friday. I know you have them in the Crystal Kingdom because I’ve attended some there.”

“Um… yeah. I’ve seen you there.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“A-heh. Bad case of hero-worship?”

Path chuckled. “I’m just a pony, Thumper. Without Free, Roseclaw, and Twilight, there would not have been a House Path. It’s the sum of us that makes us great, and you’re a part of that too. Think of us as one big family, and as my niece’s best friend, I’d say that you certainly belong here.”

“Thanks, Lord Path.”

“Just Path – this is lunch, not a ceremony.”

The castle staff started rolling in the trays of food and drink, and Path ushered Thumper to the table, seating him beside himself as Crystal grinned and seated herself next to her friend.

Path said, “Just so you know, no business talk during meals. So, tell us about yourself and how you became Crystal’s best friend.”

Thumper was still nervous enough that he was slow to start off, but with a bit of prompting, he warmed up to the subject. Path let him off the hook long enough for the stallion to actually eat something while Crystal took up the conversation, updating them on how things were going in the Crystal Kingdom.

The meal was completed and they were all enjoying tea or coffee to finish up before Path allowed Crystal to bring up the reason for her visit.

“This isn’t just a family visit, as you might have guessed. A few weeks ago, I made the decision that I needed to leave the Crystal Kingdom and find my own place in the world. As I said to Dad, as much as I loved growing up there, I don’t really have a future there. However, I really don’t know yet what I really want to do with my life. Starting a hive of my own will be inevitable, I know, but until then, I feel the need to go out and discover what I can do, and what I can be. Then I learned that you are intending to begin a new expedition to continue your work on exploring new cultures, and I want to join you.”

Twilight said, “You do realise that we tend to go into dangerous unknown territory?”

“Of course, but not only am I a pretty powerful queen changeling, but I’m also House Path trained as a warrior-scholar. All I lack is some real experience, and that I can only get if I can go on things like one of your expeditions.”

Roseclaw asked, “Do your parents know what you intend to do?”

“Yes, I told them all my plans. The rest is up to you. Will you let me join you?”

Path grinned. “Frankly we’d love to have you with us. That’s the true spirit of House Path – to want to explore and learn.”

Pif said, “Moms and Dads have been bugging me to go with them too, but I’m in the middle of something that I don’t want to drop for a few months. Maybe they’ll be satisfied with you along.”

Citrine pouted. “Aw! I wanted to go!”

“We’ve been on the last six expeditions, love – I’d like to sit this one out for a change. You can go with them if you really want to.”

“And leave my snuggle-bug? Not a chance!”

Citrine gave Pif a big hug, and Crystal tasted the crystal pony’s love radiating off her. She grinned, knowing full well that they were never apart for long.

Free said, “It’s okay, Citrine – you’ve done a fine job of keeping Pif from getting too buried in her work all these years. We’ll let her get away with it this time.”

Citrine grinned. “At least I won’t miss the Ciderfest this year. Me and Applejack have a big blowout planned.”

Path chuckled. “Sorry we’re going to miss that. Let us know how it went when we get back.”

“I will – it’ll be awesome!”

Path turned back to Crystal. “I’m glad that you came today. We will be having a guest for dinner who will be assisting us for this expedition. She’s a well-known explorer who made the first inroads into the Amarezon, and she will be discussing our plans with us after the meal. We’ll introduce you then.”

“Who is this explorer?”

“You’ve probably heard of her. Her name’s Daring Do.”

Crystal’s eyes opened wide. “The Daring Do? She’s a legend! I remember how awed I was when I first learned that A.K. Yearling’s books were actually novelizations of Daring Do’s real-life exploits. I can’t wait to meet her!”

Twilight giggled. “I think you’re in for a few more surprises when you do.”

Crystal looked at her suspiciously, sensing that the alicorn was hiding something from her. “What do you mean by that, Auntie Twilight?”

“You’ll see,” was all Twilight would say.

“So let’s discuss some of the things that you might need to know for the expedition,” Path said.

Pif said, “I’ll be getting back to my project then.”

“And I’m due back at the pub for my afternoon shift,” Citrine added.

“What about you, Thumper?” Roseclaw asked. “Did you want to hang around for this business talk?”

Thumper gave the griffoness a flat stare. “I thought it was understood – where Crystal goes, I go.”

Roseclaw smirked. “Good. That’s what I wanted to hear.”

Thumper wondered exactly what she meant by that.



After a couple of hours of discussions, Path indicated that they would need to get back to other business. Thumper expressed the desire to stretch his wings, and Crystal took pegasus form to join him. When they were gone, Path turned to Free.

“Am I wrong, or does Thumper have strong feelings for Crystal?”

Free smirked. “You’re not wrong – Thumper is in love with Chryssy, but she doesn’t realise it.”

“So that’s obviously why Cadance informed us about Crystal’s plans. She sent Thumper to travel with Crystal, hoping that her daughter discovers his love as well as her purpose in life, and she’s gambling on us being able to help her.”

“Yeah, but it’s a little trickier for queen changelings than drones. When a pony falls in love with a harvester, it overloads the drone’s ability to consume love, so they can feel and express the same back. Queens can store a huge amount of love energy though, so she’s never been pushed past that point. Intellectually she knows that she cares for him a lot, and there’s certainly the love of friendship in her, but she has that blind spot towards romantic personal love.”

You didn’t have that problem,” Twilight pointed out.

Free shrugged. “I’ve always been different, and the same goes for Pif and Hype. In fact I think anyone with my mutant gene might be the same. My whole hive has become something that Equestria has never seen before. But just because Crystal is biologically my mother doesn’t mean that she’s the same though.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to remember that our niece was once someone else,” Roseclaw said. “But we must always keep it in mind when discussing her. I have a good feeling about Thumper though. If he persists, and I believe he will, I think Crystal will eventually fall in love with him.”

Path sighed. “I hope you’re right, Rose. But we do know a lot more about changelings than we did decades ago, and it isn’t too encouraging. Queen Carpacia likes and respects me, and she believes that I have been an excellent father for Fifi and has indicated that she would seek me out to sire another princess if necessary. She has even bluntly told me that she would enjoy non-procreational sex with me. However, at no time has she ever expressed any true love for me. In fact my enquiries have never indicated that any queen of any hive has ever had anything more than a strong fondness for their partners, with the possible exception of the Yellows, but the way they care for everybody kind of blurs that line. I have my fears for Crystal.”

“She loves her parents,” the griffoness pointed out.

“She’s bonded to Cadance,” Path rebutted.

“She didn’t bond to Shining Armor, but she loves him too. And her sister.”

“I think that’s due to Cadance’s love talent. If I were to guess, I think she somehow shared that bond. Also, familial love is still not the same as being in love. However, I still agree that it indicates the possibility that Crystal can learn to love another. I hope she does, not just for her sake, but for Thumper’s too.”



Crystal took Thumper on an aerial tour of Ponyville, and then headed over toward the nearby apple orchards. They spotted Big Macintosh ploughing a field, and several ponies working the orchards or tending the other crops. Nestled among the trees was a nice homestead with a rather simple treehouse adjacent to it. As they circled nearby, a voice came from above them.

“Hi there, strangers! Would you be looking for the Cutie Mark Crusaders?”

Turning their attention upwards, they spotted an orange pegasus mare with pinkish-purple mane and tail.

Crystal smiled and said, “Hi, Scootaloo. Just visiting, actually.”

“Do I know you?” the mare asked with friendly puzzlement.

“Let’s land and I’ll introduce us.”

The three alighted in front of the homestead, and Scootaloo folded the magitek wing extensions that enabled her to fly despite her handicap.

Crystal looked around for witnesses with both her eyes and changeling senses before transforming into her natural body.

Scootaloo’s eyes widened in recognition. “Princess Crystal! I didn’t know you were visiting.” She came forward to give her a hug.

“I’m travelling anonymously, Scoots. I’d appreciate it if you kept it hush-hush.”

“Sure thing, Cryssy. Who’s your friend?”

“This is Cloud Thumper, my minder and best friend. Thumper, this is Scootaloo, one of the founders of the Cutie Mark Crusaders.”

“Honoured to meet you, Scootaloo,” Thumper said as he hoof-bumped the mare.

“Bloom is working the orchards today, but Sweetie is home between concerts. Wanna come in and say hello?”

“Sure thing. I was hoping to see you anyway,” Crystal replied.

“Why? Got a problem for the CMC?” Scootaloo asked eagerly.

Crystal grinned. “Maybe.”

The Cutie Mark Crusaders Guild had spread throughout Equestria, and into a few other nations by now. Although not all their clients had cutie marks to find or properly understand, the CMC’s services were quite sought after. Scootaloo was a little excited about the prospect of having a changeling queen as a client.

“I’m mostly looking for your opinion on my course of action.”

“We can do that,” Scootaloo replied as she entered the house. They were met by a pony with a medium-blue coat and dark-yellow mane, but with the addition of a chrome changeling horn and wings. “Hey, Mimic, can you find Sweetie? We have CMC business.”

“Of course. She’s in her studio working on her next song. I’ll fetch her.”

Thumper stared at the changeling pony. “May I ask about him?” he said, inclining his head in the direction that the odd stallion had taken.

“Sure! Mimic’s our herd stallion.”

“How did that come about?”

“He was the first chrome changeling harvester to come to us to see if we could discover a special purpose in life for him. It was a kind of experimental thing because House Path was curious to know how far our talents could extend. We thought it was worth finding out, and we gave it our best shot. We spent a lot of time trying out all our techniques, but didn’t really come up with a positive result. However, we ended up spending a lot of time socialising with him, and we got to look forward to it more each day. After a couple of weeks, we realised something – we were enjoying the socialising more than our job, and so was he.”

Scootaloo made herself comfortable in a chair, indicating that the others should do so also. “Sweetie Belle, Apple Bloom, and I had grown up together and pretty much decided to stay that way, so we built this house next to our old clubhouse, and it serves as CMC headquarters. But between CMC stuff and our other jobs, we never got around to dating much. Mimic was always fun to be around, and he really appreciated each of our talents, and it finally occurred to us that we were more than just socialising. When we did, we asked him out on a proper date with the three of us. One thing led to another, and we eventually formally asked him to be our herd stallion. He agreed, and we’ve been a happy foursome ever since.”

“So you actually did discover his special purpose after all,” Thumper declared.

Scootaloo grinned. “Yep! His purpose was to bring us together as a family, ain’t that right, Mimic?” she asked as the changeling returned with Sweetie Belle.

“As you said, hon,” Mimic said, giving her a kiss.

Sweetie came over to give Crystal a hug. “Hi, Crystal. Long time, no see. How have you been?”

“I’ve been very well, Sweetie, but I’ve reached a turning point in my life. I thought I might pay a visit to you and ask for your CMC opinion of what I’m planning to do.”

Sweetie Belle smiled. “Well, that’s considerate of you, although I have to point out that we’ve not been that successful with changelings up until now.”

“But Crystal’s a changeling queen,” Scootaloo pointed out. “I think that would make a difference.”

“Good point, Scoots. So – what have you got to tell us?”

Crystal described her decision to leave the Crystal Kingdom and ask to join the House Path expedition.

Sweetie nodded thoughtfully. “That sounds a lot like one of our approaches to discovering what your special talent is. I think you’ve made a good choice. If nothing else, you should gain a lot of experience and open up other possibilities.”

Scootaloo added, “That’s right. And if you still have problems, see us when you come back and we’ll try some other techniques.”

“I’ll do that. I’m glad to know that you think I’m doing the right thing though. Despite committing to this course, it’s a little bit scary.”

“It wouldn’t be life if there weren’t challenges, Chryssy. I think you’re going to….” She was interrupted by a wailing sound coming from a nearby room.

“I’ve got that!” Mimic declared, heading off towards the sound. Moment later, he returned with a foal cradled between his wings. “He’s hungry.”

“Bloom should be back soon to feed him,” Scootaloo said.

“Who’s this?” Crystal asked curiously. “I hadn’t heard that you were expecting another foal.”

“This is Apple Slice,” Sweetie said proudly. “Apple Bloom felt the urge to be a mother again, so Mimic got a semen donation from an earth pony stud service to sire a foal with her. He was born six weeks ago. Mimic’s a great foal-carer because he can always tell exactly what’s wrong with the colt.”

Scootaloo said, “One cry sounds just like another to me. I’m glad that Mimic’s talents extend towards more than in the bedroom.” She gave him a broad wink.

He grinned back. “I like being a father. This is my third foal, but I’m hoping for a few more, actually.”

“Nope!” Scootaloo said firmly. “Still not interested. I’m happy just to be a co-parent.”

Sweetie said, “I’ll probably have another one next, but I’m not in a hurry. Maybe when this foal has grown a little bit.”

“Are the other foals here?” Thumper asked.

“It’s the middle of a weekday, and they’re at school,” Sweetie pointed out.

“Oh, yeah. I should have realised. So – fillies or colts?”

Scootaloo answered, “Both fillies. We’re happy that Bloom had a colt this time.”

“Things have come a long way since the time when changelings siring a foal with a mare was known as the ‘Loving Deceit’,” Thumper commented.

“Yeah, no,” Scootaloo replied. “We don’t use that term anymore, at least not here in Ponyville. With so many changelings in open relationships with ponies, it’s well known how we mares can have foals with them. Twilight says she’s close to figuring out a compatibility spell, but the sticking point is how harvester drones are infertile.”

Mimic said, “Princess Twilight says she got some encouragement when Watchful Eyes evolved into a fertile Princess after becoming an Avatar of Harmony, but the catch is that she’s not a drone anymore. She’s a queen, and although she has yet to start a hive, she will eventually. She plans to do so in Griffonstone where she lives with her husband, but there isn’t a hive there already to cause problems. If all drones became queens when they became fertile, that could be a major headache. There’s only so much room for more changeling hives, let alone all the drones that would come from them. So far we have a very comfortable balance.”

“Yes, that’s a problem that I’ll face one of these years,” Crystal said. “That’s one thing that I hope to learn how to cope with in my travels. However, it’s likely I won’t have to worry about it until decades in the future.”

“Oh? How does your coltfriend feel about that?” Mimic asked, inclining his head towards Thumper.

“He’s my best friend, not my coltfriend,” Crystal retorted.

Mimic was a little taken aback. “Oh. Okay.” He looked at Thumper who laid back his ears and raised one hoof in a helpless shrug when Crystal was not looking.

Crystal got up from the sofa. “We had better get going now. Tell Apple Bloom that I’m sorry that I missed her.” She shifted to her unicorn form. “If you need to find me, I’m travelling incognito as Crystal Blue.”

Scootaloo got up and headed to the door and opened it for Crystal and Thumper. “Thanks for visiting, Cryssy. Don’t forget to check in with us when you get back from your expedition.”

“I won’t, I promise!”



As Thumper and Crystal meandered down the dirt road leading away from the CMC homestead, the stallion asked, “Isn’t there a representative of the Cutie Mark Crusaders back home?”

Crystal nodded. “Yep.”

“So why didn’t you check with them before coming here?”

The changeling mare smiled. “Because they’re my friends. I met them years ago on one of our visits to Auntie Twilight.”

“Ah – that makes sense. Did you know about their herd stallion?”

“Of course; they invited me to the celebration of their union.”

“How do you feel about that?”

Crystal looked at him curiously. “How am I supposed to feel? They’re happy and he’s happy; what more could you ask?”

“True. So what’s stopping you from doing the same?”

She stopped to stare at him. “Why do you ask?”

“I keep seeing ponies with changeling partners all over Ponyville. Three of your friends thought a changeling herd stallion was their best option. Obviously there has to be a lot to be said for changelings as a special somepony. However, you have never done anything to hint that you’re interested in that sort of thing.”

“I suppose it’ll happen one day. It’s not as if I’m in a rush. I have good friends, and I have lots of great sex with my best friend.” She grinned and gave him a hip-bump. “The only thing that I want is a purpose in life. Even you have that covered.”

Thumper cocked his head in puzzlement. “What do you mean by that?”

“You’re a warrior-scholar of House Path. Your skills qualify you to be a minder for a princess, and said princess enjoys having sex with you. So you have a career that you enjoy, while I’m still trying to figure out what I’m good for.”

“Not picking up on subtle hints, that’s for sure,” Thumper muttered.

“Sorry – I didn’t catch that.”

Thumper sighed. “Never mind. So how many other friends have you got in this town?”

“Oh, plenty. When your aunt is the Princess of Friendship, you tend to get to meet a lot of people. Of course they were primarily ponies my age, but there were lots of exceptions like the Crusaders. There were the inevitable formal events too where I had to be a bit more princess-like.” Crystal giggled. “I think I frustrated Mom and Dad a few times when I kept calling out liars and sycophants before I learned a little diplomacy.”

“Kind of hard to hide your feelings from a changeling, especially a queen who didn’t like people deceiving her parents,” Thumper commented, keenly aware of her one blind spot.

“Exactly. Of course I still do it, but now I’m a lot more subtle about it.”

“How many ponies tried to court you?”

“Six or seven. I think I mentioned some of them to you?”

“Yeah, a couple of those who irritated you enough to complain a lot about them to me later.”

Crystal giggled. “Sorry about chewing your ears off. I don’t know what irritated me more – the fact that they were trying to use me for their gain, or that they thought that they could deceive a changeling as to their true intentions.”

“What about the others?”

“Not really worth mentioning. Nothing malicious – just the normal political manoeuvring and upper-class nonsense. Those kind see nothing abnormal about such activities, but I’m totally uninterested in that kind of thing.”

“So – nopony has come to you with genuine intentions of dating you and getting to know you?” he pushed.

She shook her head. “Not that I am aware of. After one of those other idiots tried, I asked Mom if it was always going to be like that. She told me that she’d had similar problems, but there were nice stallions out there. She fell for a classmate who was nervous and bumbling whenever he was around her. Dad apparently was not exactly a ladies’ stallion by any means. However, she insisted that I keep an open mind, and the pony of my dreams might just be right under my nose.”

“I suppose she would know that kind of thing. So did you look?” he asked hopefully.

“No. Like I said earlier – I have everything that I want except a purpose in life.”

And we come full circle,’ Thumper thought glumly. ‘One of these days….



While being incognito restricted her ability to introduce Thumper to all her acquaintances, Crystal still managed to get him to meet a large percentage of them that afternoon before they had to head back to the castle for dinner. Crystal definitely did not want to be late for the meeting with Daring Do! Their arrival was well-timed as her aunts and uncles were all gathering in the family room at that time. She had a few minutes to chat with them about what they had been doing that afternoon before Spike came in to make an announcement.

“Hey, guys! Your guest is here!”

“Show her in please, Spike,” Twilight said.

Crystal eagerly watched the doorway for the anticipated arrival of Daring Do, only to be surprised when a rather nondescript mare wearing a large purple cape, floppy grey hat, and large red-rimmed glasses entered instead. She did seem oddly familiar though.

“A.K.! I’m so happy to see you again!” Twilight exclaimed as she trotted forward to give the mare a hug.

“Good to see you too, Princess.” A.K. Yearling looked about the room with a bright smile. “And the same for all of you. I can’t tell you how excited I am for this joint project of ours.” Her eyes rested on Crystal and Thumper. “And who might these two be? Are they going to be part of the project?”

“Yes indeed. This is my niece, Crystal, and her friend Cloud Thumper.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

Crystal gaped in awe. “You’re A.K. Yearling, the author of the Daring Do books! I’m such a fan! So that’s what Auntie Twilight meant by meeting her. She made me believe that I was going to meet the real explorer.” She looked accusingly at Twilight.

The alicorn merely smiled mysteriously, and Crystal was puzzled by the mixture of emotions that she could taste coming from not just her, but all the people in the room.

A.K. Yearling looked at Path and said, “As you might recall, my work for House Path requires a certain degree of discretion. How deeply are these two involved?”

“All the way, A.K. My niece requires the same,” Path replied. “Crystal, dear, would you please show our guest your secret?”

Crystal blinked in surprise. “Are you sure, Uncle Path?”

“Trust me.”

“Okay.” Green magic flames engulfed her, revealing her natural changeling form.

A.K.’s eyes widened in recognition. “Ah! That Crystal. I should have guessed. I’m rather surprised that Princess Crystal Path wants to go on our expedition, but I certainly don’t object. I suppose an exchange of secrets would only be fair, especially as we’ll have to work together.” She took off her glasses and hat, then unclasped her cape and shrugged it off, revealing wings, an extremely recognisable cutie mark, and trademark olive-green shirt. “Sorry I’m not carrying my pith helmet with me at the moment,” she said with a wink.

Crystal boggled at the sight. “You’re Daring Do?! This is so awesome! But why do you write those books about yourself when you could spend that time doing more adventuring?”

Daring Do chuckled. “My dear Princess, then as now, expeditions cost money. The further and more difficult they are, the more bits I need to finance them. I hit on the idea of trying to sell the story of one of my more exciting expeditions as a novel to raise the funds for my next one. Admittedly I had to adapt it a bit to make it read better, but making it look like a work of fiction also helped keep my professional work and my writing separate. Imagine my surprise when not only did it sell, but it was also a number one hit! So between expeditions, I wrote more novels under the name of A.K. Yearling. The rest is history.”

“That makes so much sense. So A.K. Yearling is a pseudonym?”

“Kind of. The A.K. parts are the initials of my foal name, hence the Yearling part. So in a sense it’s a real name too.”

Twilight spoke up. “Crystal asked to join our expedition to the Amarezon because she’s trying to find her place in life. Thumper is her best friend and guardian, so obviously he comes with us too.”

Daring smirked. “I’m almost surprised that Prince Shining Armor let you go, and with just one minder. I would have thought that his protective nature would have had him trying his best to prevent you from going at all.”

Crystal nodded. “Normally you’d be right, but I told Dad that I needed to do this, and while he and Mom did raise some issues, neither of them actually tried to stop me.”

“Good. They knew that it was time for you to leave the nest. I approve. I’ll try to make this a good experience for you.”

Twilight said, “You can chat with Daring over dinner, Crystal. We’ll be talking business afterwards.”

“Okay. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that I’m going to be working with you, Daring Do!”



Twelve days later, the Skyshark arrived in Ponyville from Griffonia with a squad of griffon warriors. They were joined by a number of warrior-scholars from the Ponyville branch of House Path, whose task was to supplement the security of the expedition when necessary, but mostly to provide support for the team leaders. The last of the provisions were loaded onto the airship before Twilight, Free, Path, Roseclaw, Daring Do, Crystal, and Thumper boarded and the Skyshark began its journey.

Captain Kerbarok gazed at the maps that Daring Do had spread out on the chart table, and then said, “Are you sure we’re going to need this many warriors just for a trip into a jungle?”

Daring Do grinned and adjusted her pith helmet to a jaunty angle. “Captain, I barely managed to get out alive after my initial forays into the wilds of Amarezonia. Why should I deny these warriors the fun?”

The Red Changeling nodded thoughtfully. “Considering that we’re talking about griffon warriors, you make a valid point. A scary one, but valid.”

Crystal gulped. She was committed now. Every single person on this expedition had more experience at this kind of thing than Thumper and herself, and she could tell that they used humour to gloss over the seriousness of their commitment. She had chosen to dive into the deep end though, and if she was tested by it, then perhaps she would learn how she might fit into this world. At least she would be doing it with family at her side, not to mention her best friend.

Speaking of best friends, maybe it was time to for more of those side benefits to help work off her case of nerves? Yeah, that might be great way to get this adventure off to a flying start. “Hey, Thumper….”

 

 


 

Crystal's Wanderings - part 2: Daring Discussion

 

“Permission to use the observation deck, Captain?”

Kerbarok looked over to the visitor and smiled. “Of course, Your Highness.”

Crystal returned the smile. “Just Crystal, please. I might be a Princess of the Crystal Kingdom, but here I’m just Crystal Path travelling with my family’s expedition.”

“Certainly, ma’am, but as an officer of the Equestrian Navy, I must adhere to certain protocols. Nevertheless I am quite familiar with Princess Twilight’s desire for informality, as well as House Path.”

“I see. How long have you been commanding this airship, Captain?”

“Nearly four decades. I was appointed Ship’s Commander upon commissioning of the Skyshark, the first changeling to be openly serving in such a position.”

“You must have been proud of that achievement?”

“I was and still am, but more importantly, my appointment at that time was a demonstration of faith on behalf of Princess Celestia and Princess Luna in their Hive allies. Ironically, my first major action was against Queen Chrysalis in the Battle of Crystal City.” Kerbarok chuckled. “And now I’m carrying another Blue Changeling queen on an expedition.”

Crystal could not help thinking he did not know half of how ironic that was. “I can promise you, Captain, that when I finally get around to rebuilding the Blue Hive, it won’t be anything like Chrysalis’s.”

“We will be looking forward to that. Equestria is the lesser without the Blue Hive. The Chrome Hive is not the same.”

Crystal grinned. “I’m of House Path – do you really think I’m going to be completely traditional either?”

“You have a point, ma’am.”

With a grin on her face, Crystal made her way to the front of the bridge and gazed out the window of the observation deck. They had been under way for about an hour heading south-southwest, and they were already coming up on the Macintosh Hills. The speed of the airship impressed her, and she watched the scenery pass swiftly below them. She was mesmerised by it and never noticed someone approaching.

“Great way to travel, isn’t it?”

Startled, Crystal turned towards the voice. “Daring Do? Oh… umm… yes. It’s my first time in Auntie Twilight’s flagship.”

Daring chuckled. “Me too. Beats the alternative. I’m not getting any younger.”

“How long have you been doing this now?”

“Best part of half a century.”

“Wow! How did you get to be so successful?”

“Hard work, study, and a dollop of good luck. Right place at the right time. The trick is to recognise the opportunity and make the most of it. Then after I started to get a reputation, I wrote my first book. Let me tell you, that was a huge boost to my career. It has let me do more than most archaeologists.”

“Something tells me that you enjoy the adventuring as much as the science,” Crystal said slyly.

Daring snorted with laughter. “You got me there. Most of my colleagues spend months carefully excavating sites, and I thought that would be my career too. That was until I discovered my talent for tracking down clues to ancient sites and rediscovering them. Dangerous work, and some of the artefacts are too.”

“Yet you still go back for more.”

“Of course. And despite you hearing this, you’re coming along with me on another possibly dangerous adventure,” Daring pointed out with a smirk.

“Remember what you said about being in the right place at the right time?” Crystal asked, one eyebrow arched. “Well, sometimes you have to make the effort to be in the right place first.”

Daring nodded. “True. It’s a good start anyway.”

“I convinced my parents that it was the right thing to do.”

“Smart ponies! What was it like growing up with the Princess and Prince of the Crystal Kingdom?”

Crystal smiled fondly in memory. “Near perfect. I was never hungry for love anyway. Although they did make a few missteps in raising me. Not that I blame them – they certainly didn’t have a handbook on raising changeling queens.”

“What sort of missteps, may I ask?”

“Well, for example, when Auntie Twilight and Uncle Free first visited after I was adopted, they wondered why I hadn’t grown any despite the fact that I was full of energy and apparently healthy. Twilight asked Mom and Dad what they were feeding me, and Mom said she had been giving me plenty of love to feed on.”

“Huh? What about actual food though?”

Crystal giggled. “You spotted something that eluded my parents all that time. Sure, we eat positive emotions, especially love, for our energy needs, but…” She tapped her carapace a couple of times. “We need physical food to grow our body mass, not to mention vitamins. Without actual food, I would have gotten sick and died. They were mortified, so the first thing that they did was stuff me with enough baby food until I puked on them. They learned moderation very quickly after that.”

“Learning the hard way makes the lesson stick. So you started growing normally after that?”

“Yep. After that silly mistake, they handled me pretty well. They had to be reminded to feed me some sort of meat occasionally too. I gave them an amusing reminder about that once.”

You did? How old were you by then?”

“I was still barely more than a nymph, but I was very active. I got away from my carers on more than one occasion. Apparently I was hungry because they would often find me hunting bugs, but one day I caught a mouse. I had half-eaten it before they got to me though, but somepony had the presence of mind to take a photo. They used it to remind themselves that my diet was different. Uncle Free never had that problem because he was raised by griffons.”

“I’ve hung out with griffons too often to be disturbed by obligate carnivores, but mice are going a bit too far.”

“What do you think the hives fed their nymphs? All sorts of small wild animals and lots of tasty insects are in the diet of every growing drone. Yum-yum!” Crystal licked her fangs exaggeratedly.

Daring Do stuck her tongue out in distaste at the thought. “Yeah, no. Enough about food. I suppose that sort of thing made raising you a lot harder though?”

Crystal shook her head. “Apparently they had a hard time raising my sister, Flurry, and I was actually a little easier for the most part. Different problems occasionally, but this time around they had the experience to improvise.”

“What about school? Did you have a tutor?”

“Oh, heavens no! I was sent to a normal school like any other foal, just as Flurry had been. Just as Mom and Dad had to. They’re strong believers in being able to relate to the common pony. They’re desperately trying to keep the snobs and sycophantic nobles out of the Crystal Kingdom. We don’t envy Auntie Celestia having to put up with them all the time. Auntie Twilight insisted on me making some friends of my age at school, but what else could you expect of the Princess of Friendship? At least I had an advantage that most ponies don’t have.”

“Something to do with being a changeling?”

“Yeah. I could taste my classmates’ real feelings, so I knew which ones actually wanted to get to know me better, and which were just sucking up to me just because of who my parents were. I made some really good friends there. You can bet the suck-ups were insanely jealous when they missed out on being invited to my birthday parties held at the palace.”

“Ha! I bet they were. I know that type all too well. I went to far too many fund-raisers with ponies like that before I got financially independent of them.”

Crystal’s face fell. “I suppose you think I’ve had it easy? I’m the daughter of royalty and I get to indulge my whim to go off adventuring with my powerful family.”

Daring smiled and shook her head. “Nah. Your folks are good people, and there’s nothing wrong with growing up with privilege. It’s what you do with it that makes the difference. House Path is helping me pursue my goals in partnership with me rather than as haughty sponsors expecting a return on their investment, and you’re on a worthy quest of self-discovery. One day, because you’ve been raised right, I expect that you will make as big a difference in the world as your parents and Lord Path.”

Crystal blushed at the compliments. “I hope so. I have a lot to make up for Chrysalis’ sins against the reputation of changelings, and destruction of the Blue Hive.”

Daring held up a hoof with a frown. “Whoa there! No one is responsible for what Chrysalis did except Chrysalis. It’s a fine goal to rebuild the Blue Hive, but it isn’t an obligation. There’s no onus on you just because she was the one who laid your egg.”

Crystal sometimes wished she did not know the truth about her origin, but Daring was otherwise right. Knowing it and feeling it were two different things however. “I’ll keep that in mind. I want to stand proud among the other Queens one day and show what I have accomplished.” She snorted lightly. “One day. First I have to find out what I do best.”

“Well, if it turns out that you’re a good adventurer slash archaeologist like me, I’ll take you under my wing,” the pegasus said with a wink.

“Thanks, Daring. I’ll hold you to that. Hey, have you ever had a changeling on your team before?”

“I’ve dealt with them, but never had one actually on my team… to my knowledge anyway. I know some drones still live among ponies incognito.”

“So Uncle Free and I are officially your first then. I like that.”

“Your uncle is so much a griffon that he almost doesn’t count. You, however, don’t seem to mind being yourself, aside from when I first met you in unicorn guise.”

“Crystal Blue is my alter ego for when I want to be incognito. I might like to be just one of the common ponies, but as royalty, I sometimes don’t have the luxury of travelling without a huge amount of fuss made. I wanted to depart the Crystal Kingdom quietly, and I didn’t want everypony making a big deal of my presence in Ponyville. I was on a personal journey, and that wasn’t something to be shared with the general populace. Other than that though, I’m not ashamed of what I am. Mom and Dad loved me for what and who I am, and I think it would be a slight against them if I wasn’t proud of that too.”

“See? That’s the right attitude. None of that obligation to make up for others kind of stuff. I think I can tell that you’re going to do alright, Crystal.”

“Thank you. I really hope so.”

They were quiet for a long moment, watching the scenery slide by. Then Daring Do resumed the conversation.

“So you had a happy childhood. Any other problems being a changeling foster child?”

“Of course not – I was the perfect little princess,” Crystal said with a completely straight face.

Daring stared at her until they both broke out into laughter. “Okay, tell me the juicy bits,” the pegasus demanded.

“Well, there was this one time….”



Crystal and Thumper shared a two-person stateroom. Like on the train, it was compact and efficiently arranged, and they had to be careful not to make too much noise as they had sex that evening. For Crystal, it was not easy.

“You seem to be extra energetic tonight. You’ve worn me out,” Thumper complained with a smirk.

Crystal grinned back at him. “I had an extra good day. Daring Do and I had quite a long chat.”

“I know. I came to find you at one stage, but left you to your girl-talk when I realised how engrossed you were in your conversation.”

“Thanks, Thumper. I really enjoyed chatting with her.”

“So what did Daring Do want?”

“She came to feel me out, of course. Once we got past that point though, we just chatted like any two normal people would.”

“There’s nothing normal about either of you. Did it bother you that she was checking you out?”

Crystal shook her head. “Not at all. Not only did I know, but I knew that she knew that I knew. She’s a smart pony who has survived many dangerous adventures by not taking things for granted. I expected her to test me in some way actually.”

“You’re a House Path warrior-scholar – didn’t she think you could take care of yourself?”

“I don’t think that’s what concerned her.”

“What? Was it because you’re a changeling?” Thumper asked indignantly.

“Yes, and I totally support her concerns.”

“Huh? What the hay?”

“She told me herself that she’s never worked with a changeling before, and I’m a novice in the field. Under those circumstances, I’d check me out too. It was nothing personal. Believe me, I could tell.”

“Oh. I suppose that makes sense.”

“I’m glad that you worry for me, partner, but I’m not a delicate flower.”

“I noticed that while doing some ploughing,” Thumper replied with a leer.

Crystal smirked. “So, you’ve got your second wind, stud? Let me show you what you can do with that pole.”

 

 


 

Crystal's Wanderings - part 3: A Treasure Found

 

“Why are you smiling so much, Crystal?” Cloud Thumper asked.

“Why shouldn’t I be smiling?” the changeling Princess replied.

“That’s the third patch of quicksand we’ve had to extricate ourselves from, we’re all scratched from thorns and razor-sharp leaves, the leeches have been having a feast, and the insects have been driving us insane.”

Crystal smirked. “Having chitin does save me a lot of bother from the leeches and cuts, but I admit that I could do without the insects.” She swatted a particularly nasty-looking one from her flank with her tail.

“And yet you’re still smiling,” her companion pointed out.

“I’m having a grand adventure!” Crystal replied with a grin. “You’re a House Path warrior, so be a stallion and ignore these little problems.”

“I wouldn’t have to if Daring Do would let us fly,” Thumper grumbled.

Twilight chuckled. “I think you’d soon have bigger problems than a few bugs if you tried that.”

The harried pegasus sighed. “I know, I know. But we’ve been trudging through this jungle for days and only covered a distance we could have flown in a couple of hours.”

“And you would have quickly discovered the lost thestral tribe the hard way.”

“A pegasus can outfly a thestral any day. You could outfly one.”

“Not the point. We need to find their hidden city and complete our quest, not fly away with dozens, if not hundreds, of angry thestrals on our tails.”

“I know that, but how much longer are we going to have to keep this up?”

“No one knows for sure. It’s not called a hidden city for nothing,” Crystal pointed out.

“Cheer up!” Daring Do said with a smirk as they caught up to her. “If what I learned from my previous expedition holds true, we’ll be seeing signs of civilisation within half a day. Then you’ll have to worry about the thestrals that aren’t in the air for a change.”

“Has anypony ever told you that you’re a barrel of laughs?” Thumper griped.

“Doctor Caballeron does all the time. We’ve been butting heads for decades, and he alternates between dire threats and complaining about how I’m always upsetting his ambitions. He even had the gall to disparage my sense of humour last time we had dinner.”

“You had dinner with your arch foe?” Crystal asked incredulously.

“Weird circumstances – I’ll tell you all about it later. Right now, we’d better pick up the pace. We do not want to encounter the hidden city at night.”

Despite his grumbling, Thumper did have the discipline of his House Path training, and he managed to do as Daring asked.

After pushing on for several hours through the vine-choked undergrowth, climbing over rocks and stumbling into hidden streams, the few glimpses that they managed to get of the sun through the canopy showed it to be getting low. The expedition leaders were beginning to fear that they would have to spend another night encamped in the hostile jungle. They could not even cook a decent meal for fear of attracting attention with the smoke from the campfire. However, that soon turned out to be the least of their worries.

“Halt!” Free Agent ordered in an urgent but low voice.

Daring Do looked back at the griffon changeling. “What’s wrong?” Although she was a little annoyed, she still took Free’s unexpected order seriously.

Instead of answering her, he looked at the other changeling in their group. “Crystal, do you taste it?”

Crystal’s tongue flicked out, seeking something she had not been properly alert for. She mentally kicked herself even as she replied quietly, “Emotion sources – lots of them. We’ve almost walked right into a group of thestrals.”

Daring muttered something under her breath before speaking up. “Right, we may have run up against a patrol, or a guard post. Either way, they may have heard us already. Thestral hearing is ridiculously good. Everyone be prepared to defend yourselves. Twilight Sparkle – be ready to shield Long Path. You know what to look for. The rest of you are with me. If we’re spotted, we run interference for them. Be smart and don’t let them engage you. Blockade-busting tactics only! You’re faster flyers, so use that. Let me tell you that they are nasty fighters in the air, so keep ahead of them at all times, but if you are forced to fight, do not inflict anything fatal upon them. And for Celestia’s sake, don’t get yourselves killed!”

“We know all that already,” Crystal said. “Let’s get on with it!”

Daring scowled. “Don’t get cocky! You’re a novice at this. And we’re still a little too early. Timing is everything if we’re to succeed.”

Path said, “While you’re correct, if we are delayed too much by the thestrals, that could be a problem also. Better we get started and rely on our defences if necessary than to have to make up time.”

Twilight said, “As long as I can get a clear look at our goal, I can teleport us the rest of the way.”

“That assumes that we’ll be in a position to go with you,” Daring replied. “I strongly doubt that will be the case though, so unless we run out of time, stick around to help with defence.”

“Got it. Anything else?”

Daring grinned. “Yeah – just a reminder that no plan of action ever survives engagement with the foe, so be alert and be prepared to improvise. It’s how I survived long enough to write all those books!” She turned around and resumed moving towards their goal.

Free said, “If either Crystal or I yell out to run, don’t hesitate. We can tell if the thestrals are coming for us.”

Crystal already had her senses wide open for even a whiff of the scent of anger or any other emotion that would indicate that they had been spotted. It was not a matter of if but of when they would be noticed, and they were at a serious disadvantage in the thestral’s home territory. They proceeded as quietly as possible, putting off the confrontation as long as possible. Then there was a flare of emotion.

“We’ve been spotted!” Crystal called out.

“From the left!” Free added.

The cautious approach was immediately abandoned, and they started charging through the foliage as fast as possible. Almost immediately they hit a trail which explained why the thestrals had been close by. It did give the group one advantage though – they had an exact heading now for their destination. Path charged down the trail with Twilight close behind and Roseclaw taking protective position overhead. Free, Daring, Thumper, and Crystal took to the air and spread out a little in defensive formation even as dark shadows flickered through the forest toward them. With piercing shrieks, a band of russet-brown thestrals fell upon them, and Daring’s team members dodged and weaved to avoid them.

One chose to land on the trail in front of Path, spear raised to stop the pony. That was a bad mistake. Path did not even slow down his charge, but instead leapt into the air and did a forward flip, knocking aside the weapon with one hoof while another hit the thestral squarely between the eyes. Path’s foe was unconscious before he hit the ground and the earth pony completed the flip and landed on his hooves galloping. The Lord of House Path had never slackened his training since the Time War despite stepping down from the leadership role, and while his original teacher, General Warfist, had died, Path’s own son and new Warmaster had assumed the role, and was a hard taskmaster. Between his earth pony strength and rigid training, Path was one of the most dangerous unarmed foes that you could ever meet. One thestral did not even slow him down. The next two fared no better. Twilight’s shield only served to protect them both from projectile weapons.

Meanwhile the airborne members were being kept busy. While the group had apparently been detected by a small band of the thestrals, their cries had quickly brought reinforcements. Two charged head-on at Roseclaw, but the much larger griffoness actually accelerated toward them, then angled slightly up and between them, snagging a leathery wing of each bat-pony in her talons. She used her superior mass and strength to slam them together, and they dropped dazed and injured to the forest floor. Free was making good use of his talons also, although he was using his greater manoeuvrability to dodge the weapons before slashing the wing membranes, forcing the thestrals out of the air.

As Daring Do had said, the pegasi were faster than the thestrals in the air, and they used that advantage to dodge and weave, and only striking with their hooves when it was safe to do so. Crystal was not a pegasus though, and her natural changeling form could fly in a manner different from any of the others. She zipped back and forth, up and down, and left to right, in a seemingly random and unpredictable manner. She also had a horn to use, and she was stunning every thestral that came at her with blasts of her magic. The showy display and the trail of unconscious bat-ponies was drawing the ire of the thestral warriors, and more and more, they swarmed the particularly annoying bug-pony. That suited Crystal fine. The more they concentrated on her, the fewer would be attacking the others. She was the second-most powerful in the group, and she was well charged up and ready to fight after days of inaction.

The moving battle broke into two – the first trying to stop the relentlessly charging earth pony, and the second trying to deal with the aerial invaders. Even as Twilight stunned a couple more thestrals, she realised that as they had feared, the team was being split up. Half of them were too far away to teleport now. They would have to try to regroup. Moments later, they burst out of the jungle into a wide open clearing – and looking directly into the setting sun. Twilight squinted and her eyes watered, unable to deal with the sudden change of light conditions after the gloom of the forest. Tall triangular shadows loomed ahead as Twilight and the others tried to orient themselves, and in the confusion, some thestrals managed to get past their defences.

A hastily thrown-up dome shield managed to protect Twilight, Path, and Roseclaw, although it prevented them from moving any further. A couple of thestral warriors that had slipped through before the shield went up were quickly dealt with by Roseclaw who had recovered her sight the quickest, but not before they had left some nasty gashes in Path’s flanks. It took far more than that to incapacitate the earth pony though, and he stood there snorting and panting lightly as he impatiently waited for his vision to clear.

When they could finally survey their surroundings, they realised that the triangular shadows were pyramidal stone buildings. Although they did not know what their function was, they did know that none of them were their intended destination. They had to move on again to move past the pyramids and hopefully get the sun out of their eyes to find their target, but they had lost the momentum of the charge and were being swarmed by ever more thestrals.

Meanwhile the aerial team were having similar problems. They too had burst out of the jungle, but a bit further down from the lead group. The one advantage that they had was that they hadn’t stared directly at the sun and were partly shaded by the buildings. Nevertheless, their eyes had to adapt, but the thestrals did not seem to be having similar problems. Crystal was the one to solve that conundrum due to her superior hearing.

“They’re echo-locating!” she shouted.

The others struggled to defend themselves as they adapted to the changed light conditions. They caught glimpses of the bat-ponies with their eyes closed, attacking without hesitation or confusion. Like the ground team, the flyers had lost momentum and the advantage of their greater speed and manoeuvrability. Thestral warriors slammed into them, and they were all fighting hoof-to-hoof for their lives.

Twilight saw the situation and screamed in anger. The dome shield rapidly expanded, stunning some of the nearer bat-ponies while scattering the rest far away. Free to move once more, they headed toward the aerial combat. The change of perspective revealed something else though.

“Look!” Roseclaw yelled, pointing with a talon. “There’s the Temple of the Moon!”

In the midst of the stone pyramids, a tall, thin, ivory tower stood, dominating a grassy square. There were no doors or windows except for an opening near the top that was only accessible by air.

“That’s where we need to go, but we’re still too early!” Twilight cried out. “The sun hasn’t set yet!”

“We have to help the others – get the group together to teleport up there,” Path said. “Once we’re there, you can stave off any attacks until moonrise.”

Twilight and Roseclaw forged a way through the swarming warriors and tried to help their airborne allies. But while they did greatly alleviate the pressure upon them, they could not get them gathered together close enough for Twilight to teleport them all. Then after several long frustrating minutes of desperate fighting, the light started dimming rapidly as the sun sank below the horizon.

Daring Do managed to break free of the pack long enough to shout down to Path and Twilight, “Get to the tower! You can’t teleport us without getting just as many thestrals. Go!”

Twilight screamed in frustration, but she knew that Daring was correct. Thrusting away their nearest foes, she threw a bubble shield around Path and herself. Roseclaw had joined the aerial battle and was just as much out of reach as the others, so it was going to have to be just the two of them. With the thestrals kept at bay, Twilight could concentrate on the teleportation spell, and a moment later, they popped out of existence and materialised at the top of the Tower of the Moon. Inside the opening, there was a metre high onyx plinth with an ivory crescent moon mounted upon it, obviating the name for the tower, but not its purpose.

From that vantage point, they had a clear view of the city, but they only had eyes for the battle being fought on the eastern side. From that distance, even Twilight could not do much except stun any thestrals heading to join the mêlée. That achieved little except attract attention to the two intruders on the tower. Twilight threw up a shield to protect them and turned to Path.

“The moon will be rising soon. You have to be ready!”

Path nodded and reached into the pouch at his side. He extracted a device and placed it upon the plinth, a gem set into one face of the gadget was turned toward the east. The earth pony looked toward the horizon impatiently. “Come on!” he murmured.

The moon peeked over the horizon, and the first rays of moonlight fell upon the device. The gem glowed, softly at first, but brighter and brighter as the full moon rose further to bathe it in its refulgence. Magic potential grew in the air, and Twilight and Path stood well aside. There was a flash of lightning and the crack of thunder, and suddenly a large dark form stood between them.

A black-pelted alicorn with enormous wings, slit eyes, and vicious fangs had joined them, her nebulous mane and tail flowing in a magic breeze. She wore silver armour of ancient design, but a crown rather than a helmet adorned her head. The being once feared as Nightmare Moon, stepped to the edge of the tower floor and spoke.

BY THE COMMAND OF YOUR RIGHTFUL QUEEN, ALL FIGHTING SHALL CEASE!

Although the words had not been spoken in Equish, Path understood the language well, and obviously so did the thestrals. The Royal Canterlot Voice, as it was euphemistically known, carried to every bat-pony within sight, and probably in the nearby jungle as well, and it drew their attention to the tower. They did indeed stop fighting, and they all swarmed toward the spire. However, they stopped short, hovering there to gaze upon their queen of legend.

Just as she had been doing since being freed from the curse of Nightmare Moon, Luna had been reuniting the thestral tribes all over Equis. Re-establishing contact with the Grand Colony had been one of her greatest achievements decades ago, but there had been lots of smaller tribes scattered around the world since the time of her Fall. This lost tribe was the last and had been the most difficult to locate. Daring Do had been commissioned to use her particular skills to track them down, and the expedition was launched to determine the city’s exact location so that the special mana beacon could be set to activate by the light of the moon. This enabled Luna to teleport directly from Canterlot and make a grand entrance that firmly established her identity. A relatively new invention, mana beacons had not been available when she had first revisited the Grand Colony, but she made good use of this one.

My subjects, although it has taken me over a thousand years to return, I have kept my promise to come back and lead you all to greatness again. The world has changed much though in that time, and my emissaries will teach you so that you may join your brethren and take a place of honour at my side once more.

There were shouts of joy and triumph from the thestrals, and they started an elaborate aerial display.

“What’s going on, Luna?” Path asked from the sidelines.

“It’s a dance in honour of me,” Luna replied quietly without taking her eyes off the thestrals. “After all these centuries, they remember the rituals perfectly.” A tear rolled down her cheek. “I am so proud of them.”

“So the danger is over?”

“It is. See to the others while my thestrals and I complete the traditional ceremonies.”

Twilight lit up her horn, and a moment later, she and Path stood on the ground near the site of the aerial battle. They looked around, spotting Roseclaw, Daring Do, Thumper, and Free all watching what was happening at the tower. There was someone missing though.

“Where’s Crystal?” Twilight asked.

Thumper’s head whipped around, and he started looking around frantically. He leaped into the air to get a better view, searching desperately for his partner. The others followed suit until Roseclaw spotted a prone form half-concealed by shrubs and gave a shout, pointing with a talon. Thumper power-dived, coming to a heavy stop beside Crystal, and immediately he saw the array of injuries that had been inflicted upon the changeling princess.

Changeling eyes were better suited to dimly lit hives than bright sunlight, and Crystal had been more dazzled than the rest by the setting sun. During the mêlée, the thestrals had taken advantage of her disorientation to swarm the most troublesome of the invaders, and Crystal was soon overwhelmed despite her best efforts. The others were too busy with their own foes to notice when Crystal was stunned by a hoof to her head, and she crashed to the ground. Several thestrals followed her down and inflicted numerous severe injuries despite her chitin armour before Luna’s voice brought the fighting to an abrupt halt.

Thumper bent down to lift Crystal’s head, tears flooding his eyes. The changeling groaned in pain, barely conscious of the pegasus until he started wailing in distress.

“No! No-no-no-no-nooooooooo! Crystal, speak to me!”

Crystal tasted the flood of emotion, automatically consuming it and using it to start healing her wounds. This was no mere affection and concern though, and it just kept coming. Pure love – the most powerful of emotions – soon had her completely recovered even as she sensed it filling her energy stores. Always the tastiest of emotions, she had known it all her life, but now it made her perplexed. She loved her parents and her sister, but why did she not love her best friend, the friend who had done so much for her for years and had now saved her very life? This was wrong! She tried to stop consuming his love, and it slowed to a trickle, but she still could not feel it. What was so different about what she felt for her family and what she wanted to feel for Thumper? Desperately she reached into her heart and felt the affection that she had for them, and then fortified with that, she reached out to Thumper. It… was not working. She saw the growing disappointment in his eyes, and her face contorted in anguish. “I… I lo…” She could not say it. Why couldn’t she say that one simple thing?

Thumper’s eyes closed for a moment and he took a deep breath. When he opened them again, they were filled with resolve. “I love you with all my heart, Crystal. I have loved you for a very long time, and I will love you until the day I die, even if you can’t love me back. I promise you that.” He then leaned down and kissed her, deeply and passionately.

Sweet Celestia! How could one pony be filled with so much love?! She drank it in, clawing away at it greedily, trying to slake a thirst that could never be quenched. He started trembling in her grasp, and abruptly she realised that she was on the verge of totally draining her best friend, leaving him a soulless husk. She screamed in horror as he slumped bonelessly. NO! Not Thumper! Not the one who meant more to her than anyone! How could she do this to him? She was not Chrysalis! SHE WAS NOT CHRYSALIS! She… loved him. A new feeling burst into her heart, and she poured it into the pegasus. After several long desperate moments, he groaned and pushed himself up again to look her in the eyes.

“I love you so much, Crystal Path.”

“I love you too, Cloud Thumper – now and forever.” Crystal felt the new bond that had grown between them, and started to cry. They were tears of joy though, and she smiled and kissed him softly and sensuously. “We are one heart now, until death do us part.”

“Let’s try not to let that happen anytime soon, okay?”

“That’s a deal, Thumper.”



“Thanks for the offer, Auntie Twilight, but Thumper and I are going to enjoy taking the slow way back,” Crystal replied after the alicorn had suggested that she teleport them back using the mana beacon in her Ponyville castle. “Daring Do has agreed to accompany us back to the Skyshark while you and Uncle Path work with Auntie Luna to begin the task of bringing the lost city into the modern era. We have a future together to discuss along the way.”

“Not to mention a wedding,” Thumper added with a grin.

“Hey!” Crystal objected. “It’s the bride who’s supposed to be super-enthusiastic about the wedding!”

Thumper shook his head. “I’ve been dreaming of this for a couple of years, but never had the nerve to ask because I knew that you weren’t in love with me yet. Now that that’s changed, I’ve got all these plans to make reality.”

Crystal gave him a flat look. “Do I get any say in this?”

Thumper’s grin grew wider. “Maybe. Let’s talk about it on the way, okay?”

Crystal smirked. “Who’s smiling non-stop now?”

“You came on this trip seeking adventure; I came seeking a treasure. I think we both got we were looking for, and I think that’s as good a reason as any to smile.”

“Not getting any argument from me, my Love.”

He held out a forehoof and she took it in hers before they took off, both of them forgetting all about the others.

Twilight giggled. “Were we ever like that, Free?” she asked her husband.

“Nah – we were worse. I might have to lift my game though or they might soon exceed me in the sappy love talk department.”

Twilight gave the griffon changeling a punch in the shoulder before immediately nuzzling him. “Idiot,” she murmured.

Free chuckled. “I found my treasure long ago.”

 

 


 

Ad Astra - part 1: The Challenge

 

{41HP}

It was a general rule that the Greater Equus Council met twice a year to go over the various inter-civilization affairs. Griffonia had decided to create an alliance with Equestria, but along with the changeling hives and the Crystal Kingdom, they were still very independent. Various other nations had joined the GEC over the years, but House Path had scrupulously maintained its neutrality and retained the position of impartial mediator in the Council’s affairs. For these reasons as well as to keep the topics flowing, Lucida was the moderator. However, this time House Path also had business, but since she wasn’t representing a country, Lucida addressed the gathered members last.

“House Path has some exciting news to announce. Working with Magitek Corporation, we have brought you many technological improvements, especially in advanced communications, such as voice with the Multi-Frequency Modulated Trotty network and the GemVee video system. We thought we outdid ourselves with the quartet of the very first communication satellites – Cel-1 servicing Equestria, Glim-1 serving the Griffonian territories, and Hive-1 & Hive-2 serving intercontinental communications, but we have now decided to make the next jump.”

She tapped a crystal and an image of a massive towering object lit up by floodlights appeared in front of everyone.

“This is what the House’s Advanced Sciences team has been working on. We call it the Triad III. This consists of the original launcher, the one that lifted all the communication satellites, but we attached two of our magitek core boosters to the sides. What we are planning is to put the first Equians into space without alicorn assistance. They will become the first true aethernauts.”

She pressed a button and the image zoomed in on the apex of the launcher.

“At the very top of the launcher, in that pointy module, is where the crew will reside for their first mission. We are still working on the mission specs, but it looks like it will last anywhere from 3-5 days for system tests, community outreach and science experiments. When this mission is successful, it will be a stepping-stone to greater missions of longer durations. Our present goal is to be able to travel to the moon and put an exploration team down there. This has only been made possible by the contribution of the Council’s member nations, and as such we invite candidates from all of you to apply for our aethernaut training program.”

Lucida sat down with a satisfied smile as all of the ambassadors started talking amongst themselves. Then they started shouting.

“Who should go?!”

“Clearly a griffon should be the first. It is our nation that birthed House Path!” the large Griffonian ambassador yelled.

“A changeling is the obvious choice! We made up most of the R&D wing, and we helped construct the launch complex,” Fidelitas shouted back.

“Without the Equestrian forces, none of this would be possible. A pony should be first!” Equestria’s representative loudly responded.

“If this is truly an international effort, Saddle Arabia should be represented!”

“Prance has been in the Council for longer! A Prench mare should be an aethernaut!”

Lucida banged her gavel on the table to get them all to calm back down.

“As I was saying, we called the launch vehicle the Triad III, not only because of the three boosters in the first stage, but because it will carry three aethernauts. We have already created a short list of our own candidates, but it is up to you to pick your own finalists. The clock is ticking; launch is in two years. The comprehensive details are in the report that my husband is now passing out to you.”

Hype moved around the table, passing a professionally bound copy of the report to each of the Council’s representatives who glanced through it before returning their attention to Lucida.

When everyone’s eyes were back on her, the hippogriff continued. “As the life module will need to be customised to suit the species of the chosen aethernauts, the sooner that you can send us your candidates, the sooner that we can determine the final crew and work on the module’s final design. Now, if there are no other questions, I think our meeting is concluded?”

One after the other, each of the ambassadors nodded and Lucida banged her gavel once more.

“This session of the Greater Equus Council is adjourned. I look forward to seeing you all again in six months.”

The main doors opened up. Fidelitas, Hype, and Lucida were the last to leave, and once they were outside, Path slinked up beside them.

“Aren’t you glad I told you to plan for three?” the earth pony asked with a grin. “It makes figuring out who goes first a lot easier.”

The hippogriff rolled her eyes. “I hate meetings.”

Path laughed. “Nah - you know you love them. I’m going to head back to the centre and work with Pif and Free. Then maybe I’ll go golfing. Ta-ta!”

Path veered off in a different direction and Lucida grumped.

Fifi just chuckled. “Oh, dad – he knows just what to do to tease you.”

Lucida rubbed her beak in frustration. “He does; he really does.”

Hype gave his wife a reassuring wing hug. “Just think of it this way – even he doesn’t know the full extent of Pif’s plans for the space program.”

Lucida thought back to Pif’s enthusiastic presentation when soliciting resources from her as Lord of House Path. The stellar anomaly that excited the changeling princess’s imagination was a mighty goal, but if anyone could achieve it, she would. Lucida was convinced by how neatly it fit into the House’s goals of exploration and discovering other civilisations. What could be a greater triumph than answering the question – were the people of Equus alone in the universe?

 

 


 

Ad Astra - part 2: Perspective

 

{44HP}

The clock showed 0557. It was nearly time for the culminating moment of this mission.

Her suit was on and helmet cinched down tight. The pressure, heating, oxygen, and water regulator spells were checked and rechecked by her other two aethernauts, the griffon commander, Carnot Highstrike, and the changeling medical officer, Quorn.

“You are going to be in the history books for this one, the very first extra-vehicular activity,” Commander Highstrike told his comrade. “Once you are outside and you stabilize yourself using the mana thruster system, we will establish communication between you and Mission Control.”

At 0600, she pulled herself into the airlock. At 0608, she opened the outer airlock door and gently pushed off with her hooves. She floated slowly out of the open door until she had reached half the length of her tether, then rotated herself and used her thrusters to move in an arcing pattern around the ship. The two other aethernauts waved to her from behind one of the windows, and she smiled and waved back. After a few moments, she heard the commander on the comm.

We are nearly at periapsis. Mission Control wants you to go out a bit further before we turn on the uplink, then everyone down there will see what you do.

The mare acknowledged the order and with a flick of her hoof, the mana jets let out a brief thrust and she started to pull away. Gently coasting further from both the capsule and the world of her birth, she payed out her tether until she neared the end, whereupon she turned around killed her momentum. At this distance, the spacecraft was as small as a toy off in the corner of a room. Mission control came on the line.

We are going to begin radio silence for fifteen minutes, so that the techs down here can get sensory data from your suit and check the video link… and so that you can contemplate what you are seeing. Then we will open up the comlink to the GemVee networks.

“Roger, Mission Control.”

She floated in near silence except for the quiet beeping sound of a data uplink/downlink being started or ending.

…..

Finally the voice of Mission Control returned. “Are you ready to address those whose futures you will shape?

“Yes, but first, I need you to transmit what my camera is seeing, maximum resolution possible.”

Mission Control acknowledged her request, and soon this image was being transmitted down to Equus.

In colleges, universities, high schools, elementary schools, and on larger GemVees in city centres like Manehatten, all of them saw what she did – a pale blue marble floating in the void, Luna’s moon just about to disappear behind it, and in the distance barely in the frame there was the command module. Nothing was said for a nearly a minute but then the smooth Prench accent of the artist started to broadcast to the world.

“Close your eyes for a few moments. Now look again at that marble. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it is everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every being of Equus who ever was, and lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every princess and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar’, every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our many species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a void.”

“Equus is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this marble on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.”

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this small pale marble. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

“Equus is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our races could migrate. Like it or not, for the moment, Equus is where we make our stand.”

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of Equish conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”

“This is Madame Gala Neighan signing off.”

Gala's speech is a tribute to the late great Carl Sagan.

 


 

Ad Astra - part 3: Ready To Go

 

{86HP}

The GemVee and associated technologies took the world by storm. For better or worse, one could press a button and be flooded with moving pictures from any series of transmitting stations. It was this magitek invention alone that was providing enough royalties to Magitek Incorporated and, by extension, House Path, for them to fuel the exploration of space without need for much support from other governments. There were all kinds of shows, news, variety, comedy, dramas, documentaries and more available at any time. And with the recent addition of House Path communication satellites, it was all beamed everywhere on the planet at all times of day and night. It was almost an overload.

However there were two beings that were always at the sidelines of all the innovation taking place across Equus. They were the pair of heroes that started it all, but they had descended from their formal positions where they had been called Lord Long Path and Lord Free Agent. Having grown up in decidedly middle-class society, neither had been totally comfortable with their titles, and Path had willingly ceded control of the House that he had founded to his daughter when she proved that she had surpassed him. As always, Free Agent was ever by his side, and they fostered a casual relationship with the public that made a more approachable face to House Path. Somewhere along the way, they acquired the nicknames of ‘That Old Horse’ and ‘That Old Bird’ which they encouraged with grins and laughter whenever it came up. While they didn’t make formal appearances very often, desiring instead to push their daughters onto the centre stage, when it came to popularising one of the House’s projects, they were the go-to people. So when CDN (Canterlot Daily News) heard they wanted to come on the show to announce something new, the producers jumped at the chance and heavily promoted it. Everyone on the news crew wanted to know what was going to be said and what they were going to do. The pair normally only did these things when they were about to make a big splash. Oh how right they would be...



During the early dinner newscast, the anchorpony looked over off-camera and smiled. “I believe it’s time for That Old Horse and Bird to have a talk with us!” Breaking Headline said as the two walked in from the side and waved to the camera. Path was grinning and Free was waving a wing. “Welcome, Long Path and Free Agent. I hope that you are not going to keep us in suspense much longer about your announcement.”

“You won’t be disappointed, Headline,” Path reassured him before beaming at the camera. “Nearly three decades ago, Commander Highstrike, Artisan Neighan, and Medical Officer Quorn made history by orbiting our planet for seven days, and trust me it was quite an accomplishment. But that’s the thing about the races of Equus, we are always looking further, wanting to expand our horizon, to explore the unknown. To that end is why seventeen years later we created the E.S.S. – the Equus Space Station.”

Free spoke up then, idly tapping his claws on the desk. “And that was a huge step. What we learned about ourselves and our place in the universe only spurred us to go further, to learn more. For eleven years, the space station has served us well, bringing us scientific discoveries we could never hope to achieve on the surface. The new, smaller GemVees that you are most likely watching this program on is proof of this. High-capacity mana batteries, medicines, vaccines, materials and engineering breakthroughs all came about due to the space station. However, it’s time to make the next big step.”

Free looked at Path who nodded and tapped on an old large crystal com that he had brought onto the set. Soon they heard another familiar voice on the line. “Princess Luna here.”

“Luna – did the Greater Equus Council approve?”

There was an expectant silence for a moment. “The motion to go public with the project has passed unanimously. You may tell them, Path.”

“Thank you, Luna.” Path shut off the crystal and looked at Breaking Headline with a grin. “Please have your producer connect us with Highstrike as I arranged.”

For those watching at home, the scene switched to a view of Commander Highstrike in his space suit. The camera was at a strange angle so that all they could see was his brightly lit face inside the helmet and darkness beyond. There was a delay before he spoke, but the sound was clear and the image was sharp.

“Hello, Lord Path. Was the motion approved?”

Path grinned. “It was, and now everyone is watching you. Once they realize what’s going on, I imagine that viewership is going to spike.”

Highstrike laughed after a tiny delay and started talking.

“From the very beginning, we knew that the Triad Program was just a stepping stone, and we were right. After the program reached its peak, we started the space station, but now it too is starting to reach its limit. What we need is a permanent base, one that could grow by itself, work on science by itself, without the need to be constantly supplied. We need this next step to be self-sufficient.”

The griffon smiled.

“About twelve days ago, the space agency launched seven craft from its facilities. You might not have heard of it, primarily because while it wasn’t hidden, neither was it publicised. Those craft hold supplies and material for our latest great project. Would you like to know what it is for?”

There was a silence before the Headline nodded and said, “We’re all dying to know, Commander.”

Highstrike chuckled and said, “I had been on the space station for the past six months, and twelve days ago, I was reunited with my first aethernaut team members, Quorn and Neighan. However, I can tell you right now that we are not on the space station.”

The camera then slowly rotated and Highstrike left the view of the camera. At first there was nothing but darkness, but after a few moments, the surface of the moon came into view. The features such as the craters and maria that slowly rotated past were all too close and too detailed for Highstrike to be in Equus orbit. Far from it – he was in orbit around the moon!

“This is the next step – a Lunar Colony. Approved by the Lunar Aspect and the GEC, this project should be ready in five years, which is when the space station will be decommissioned.”

The camera turned back around to show the griffon in his spacesuit again. “I’ll bet that you are asking yourself: why am I telling you this live as opposed to a press release? Well the reason is simple: do you want to come along?”

The griffon paused for that question to sink in.

“Scientists, metallurgists, farmers, artists, astronomers, these and so many more are going to be needed to make this colony a success. It will start out with just a few hundred specialists, but we are going to need all kinds of people from all races to make a fully functioning society. If you are interested, go to a House Path office near you to sign up. We won’t be sending colonists up here for a few years yet, so you have plenty of time. Those that will be graduating high school this year might consider this as a possible career. However, I am not going to sugar-coat it; the screening process will be rigorous and only a few hundred will be accepted in this first round of migration to their new home, but it couldn’t hurt to pursue the dream, right?”

There was com chatter for a few moments.

“That’s all that we planned to announce, but everyone needs to see this before the transmission ends. My final argument…”

The camera panned back to the moon and held steady as the world witnessed its first Equusrise.

“The only limitations we have are the ones that we place upon ourselves. Rise above them for the betterment of all Equus. This is Commander Carnot Highstrike, signing off.”

The transmission cut, and the anchorpony as well as the production team were staring at Path and Free in awe.

Path started to chuckle. “Highstrike always had the flare for the dramatic. Nevertheless, that was what we came to tell you.” He looked directly into the camera and into the eyes of the audience. “Now who’s going to join us?” he challenged.

He and Free stood up and waved to the camera before walking out casually.

For a few moments there was dead air. Headline, the camera crew, the director, and the rest of the crew were all stunned by the monumental project and its implications. Headline was the first to shake it off, resuming his professional demeanour.

“Breaking news! House Path begins the screening process to become a Lunar Colonist!”



Free looked over to Path as they left the studio. “Was that really the best way to announce it?” he asked with a smile.

Path just chuckled. “Hit the ground running, I always say.”

 

 


 

Ad Astra - part 4: The Goal

 

{104HP}

The Lunar Colony was nothing short of a new wonder of the world, even if technically it wasn’t even on Equus. The six giant habitat domes nestled in the craters and the three scientific domes on the far side of Luna’s moon were all protected by a combination of alicorn magic, Griffonian metallurgy and changeling composites. Each dome was home to close to three hundred of the bravest and cleverest colonists that the planet had to offer. While a large proportion worked to feed and support the colony, the rest were taking advantage of the environment to discover new alloys, invent new technologies, and find new ways to apply magic and mathematics. It was rapidly becoming the innovative capitol of the Equus system. Owned by no one person or nation, it was run by a council of nine – Earth Ponies, Unicorns, Griffons, Changelings, Diamond Dogs, Arabians, Crystal Ponies, Zebras, and Thestrals. The nine were the elected representatives from each of the primary races that called the domes their home. Although there were some pegasi and dragons, neither race were generally comfortable in the lunar environment, and did not have sufficient numbers to qualify for direct representation.

The council was advised by its resident alicorn, Starry Path. While her brother, Destined, was becoming a master of time and space manipulation on the grandest of scales, she was also coming into her own, branching out into cosmology and astronomy. It was only common sense that she was on the team that was working on what was called ‘The Pif Anomaly’. The VLLA (Very Large Lunar Array) finally completed its survey of a strange signal, and now she was summoned by the council to give a final report about what had been discovered.



Besides Starry, most of the House Path investigative team were in attendance, as were the nine councillors and their assistants. Even Princess Celestia and Princess Luna were present for this session. Needless to say, the large room was filled almost to capacity, and all were eager to hear what the team had found so far. The current chairperson was a crystal pony, specifically Amethyst Path, daughter of Citrine and Epiphany Path, and she called the meeting to order.

“So – what is it?” Free asked, derailing the conversation before it even began.

“Ah... it’s not so easy to explain in simple terms,” Starry began. She started to fumble around with her charts and diagrams.

Free leaned over to Path. “This reminds me of when you were giving Luna your speech on quantifying love all those years ago.”

Long Path shrugged. “Like father, like daughter,” he opined.

Starry cleared her throat. “Okay, for starters, this signal is distant. I mean really distant. We had to do several reference observations, and compared it to what Luna told us about the NSF and FSF. Anyway, it turns out that we weren’t measuring it exactly enough; it was still so very, very far away. Last summer we took an accurate measurement of its angular position. When I say accurate, I mean accurate up to nine digits, using the VLLA. Then we had to wait until winter and do it again.”

Path caught Starry’s attention and quietly reminded her to explain the acronyms to the attendees who were starting to get confused.

“Ah, sorry. VLLA is the Very Large Lunar Array, a set of three telescopes each with a primary mirror fifty meters in diameter. They are only able to be created and used in the moon’s low gravity. They would be crushed by their own weight on Equus. The NSF is short for the Near Stellar Field, these are the stars that Luna creates and controls, and it also makes up about 95% of the stars you can see on an average night on Equus. The FSF is the Far Stellar Field, These are so dim that only a few of these stars were catalogued by the Old World thestrals, but primarily we were only able to map them out once we left the atmosphere. They are just too far away and dim to be seen from the ground.”

Celestia and Luna raised their eyebrows, realizing just what she was starting to imply.

“We had to create two new units of length because standard ones were giving us meaninglessly large numbers. First is the Equus Unit or E.U., the average distance from Equus to the red dwarf star that our world with its sun and moon orbits*, was decided upon because we needed a new larger unit when dealing with local astronomical distances. The second is the Light Year, the distance light travels in one year, which we use for cosmology. We had several different teams, both in the Lunar Colony and Equus-based, crunch the numbers and the observations. One Light Year is just a little less than half a million Equus Units.”

Starry looked over at Pif.

“Your signal is the furthest thing we have ever catalogued. When we processed all the data, we found a pattern. There is a rough halo of stars that surrounds Equus at a range from twelve to fourteen light years. Then there is a second that’s about twenty-eight to thirty light years out. Their emission spectrum is fairly constant – hydrogen, helium, plus oxygen in a few of them; all fairly common but beautiful stars. But your signal – it’s forty-two light years plus or minus three light years away. I was not expecting that.”

She held up a series of sixteen different charts, all showing different sections of the Anomaly’s spectrograph. “While this one also shows traces of the usual hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, then we get the signature of carbon, methane, argon, plus some elements we don’t recognize! We even compared the spectral lines to the millions of known molecules we have in our database, both organic and inorganic. Nothing matches!” Starry exclaimed. A close inspection showed some of the gaps on the charts were labelled with question marks. She started to pace back and forth, talking to herself as well as those watching her. “When you have what are likely new elements on top of the extreme distance and these light spectra, how do you explain such complex and unforeseen observations?”

Three of the council members raised their hand – the diamond dog, the Prench stallion, and the Arabian mare. The mare that spoke up. “We don’t understand what you’re talking about, Starry. Can you explain it to us before you work yourself up too much?” the mare asked with an apologetic smile.

“Oh no, here we go.” Path rolled his eyes while he whispered to Luna and Free. “Go get some tea and a donut for when she calms down.” Free chuckled in response.

Starry’s horn lit up brightly. “First things first: how we calculated the distance!” A chalkboard appeared and slammed onto the ground as she started to write in a frenzy. “To do this, we apply basic geometry. A triangle has three points, and each point has an angle which when you add them all together will always equal 180 degrees.”

As she wrote, the chalkboard was starting to creak under the pressure of her overenthusiastic writing, and the chalk began to crack.

“So for this formula we use a right triangle, which means that one of the three angles is ninety degrees. The problem is that we needed a massive baseline, the distance from vertex point A to point B. Point A is where the right angle of the triangle is. That we set as the red dwarf star which Equus and its sun orbits. We measured the signal in January and established that as ninety degrees, as well as accurately measuring the distance to the star. Then we had to wait until we were exactly on the opposite side of the orbit and made the measurements again. The baseline was therefore the sum of the two distances to the star. In June when we looked back up at the signal, its angle had changed, but it took three more observations to get a number accurate enough. The angle measure at vertex B was 89.99997 degrees. You might ask why we needed so many digits in the answer, but that is because the closer to ninety degrees you get on the second point, the closer you to get zero on the last point. We ended up with 0.00003 degrees, which for those who are astronomy buffs is less than one one-hundredth of one arc-second. But I’m straying from the point. Using mathematics, we can figure out the lengths to each point since we know their angles, and it comes out to roughly forty-two light years away, give or take about three light years. Again I cannot narrow it down any further because of just how incredibly steep the angles are.”

“Calm down, honey,” Path warned as Starry took a few deep breaths.

Undeterred, Starry exclaimed, “Next topic!” The chalkboard disappeared. “Experiment time!”

She lit up her horn and a sphere of light formed in front of her. “This is our distant star. Would you say this is bright?”

“Y-e-s?” The Diamond Dog council-dog said warily.

The chalk moved to a new clean board that appeared. “Okay so let’s draw a graph. The vertical axis is brightness, the horizontal axis is time.” She passed the chalk to the diamond dog. “Start slowly drawing a line, then make the line dip when it dims, and rise when it brightens.”

Starry waited for the diamond dog to start to draw, and as he slowly moved across the board, she would dim the light at regular intervals, and the graph would show a dip.

“Okay!” Starry exclaimed as he reached the end of the board. “See how it seemed to dim, then brighten back up at a normal pace?”

“Yes?”

“Now look back at the ball.” This time she levitated a ball smaller than the sphere, spinning it around the light and passing it between the simulated star and the diamond dog at the same interval she had used before. “The dimming is caused by something passing in front of it. That is how we can detect worlds orbiting distant stars. And there is one more effect.” She dimmed the ball of light down and motioned for everyone to move in, and they noticed the mini sun was off centre, it had a wobble.

“That is caused because the object has mass, and is pulling at the star while the sun pulls on the object. If you know the mass of one, you can figure out the mass of the other. When we were studying the star with the Longshot VI probe, we looked back at the anomaly just before the probe ran out of power and we were able to accurately measure the wobble.”

She clapped her hooves and the two balls and the second chalkboard disappeared. “What am I forgetting…? Oh! Emission Spectroscopy 101! Let’s see...” She paced around a few times before her horn lit up again, and a red ball floated in the air in the midst of the audience. “Okay, this is a proton.” Her horn sparked and a blue smaller ball started to orbit it. “And that is an electron. What element is this?”

“Hydrogen,” the Saddle Arabian replied.

“Yes! Okay, so this is it in its normal state, but when we add energy to it…” The electron jumped to a higher orbit, stayed there for a few moments and then dropped back down, emitting a very bright red flash of light. “That flash that you just saw is a very specific kind of red. Only that exact reaction causes that exact colour of red! If you split up the light from any star using a prism and you look at it close enough, you can see a dark band in the spectrum exactly where that red should be. The element absorbs that frequency of light. Other elements and molecules absorb different frequencies, and that’s how we can determine the composition of stars. We have identified the common things like hydrogen, helium, oxygen, argon, neon and nitrogen, and we are currently working on a massive catalogue of identifying every known element and molecule on Equus. Actually I believe that Resonate Facet and Regolith are the two chief scientists on that project.”

She shook her head a few times to re-focus on her explanation.

“Anyway, once we can figure out the exact colours of light it absorbs, we can correlate it to a known substance. However, that signal has bands that we can’t identify!”

Starry shuddered a bit as she went over to the podium and slumped against it. “There are so many inconsistencies! There is something missing and it’s such a large piece that identifying it will bring about a change the likes of which I can’t predict!” she yelled and slammed her hoof into the podium.

Path looked at the overexcited alicorn with some concern.

The anomaly has no wobble!” Starry shouted. “You can’t have a massless planet orbiting a star made of things that don’t exist! What elements are there that don’t exist here and why?! Things don’t have negative mass! The concept of negative mass causes so many problems, but I cannot mathematically rule it out! That signal is mocking me from the very edge of our observable universe! Oh wait, I’m sorry. It’s the signal that actually defines the edge of our universe!” She started to fret and whimper as she sat down petting her tail.

Path walked over and sat next to her, nuzzling her a few times to calm her down before he spoke up. “That’s where we are going next.”

Starry just laughed. “You don’t understand how far that point is. If we used the strongest rocket we have, it would take us forever to reach it. We just don’t have the power.”

“Can you teleport to it?” he asked.

She shook her head. “It’s too far away. The only way we could is if there was a mana beacon already there so we have something to grab onto, so to speak.”

Path tapped his hooves on the table. “We have to have something that can get us there fast enough.”

Starry shook her head. “We do not.”

Path stared at her for a few moments as he thought. “We are going to that signal. We need to know what’s there.”

“Dad… we keep calling it a signal, but it’s not really one. A signal implies that information is being transmitted. Based on everything that my team and I have researched, I can tell you what I know with relative certainty. Number one: it is a star. Number Two: it has elements that I can’t identify. Number Three: it has no wobble but it dims. Number Four: it is around fifty light years away and defines the edge of our observable universe.”

Path nodded. “Right. I want you to take half of your team and explore new ways to accelerate ourselves there, the faster the better. All the crazy ideas you thought up while drunk, I want to hear about them. Take the other half and figure out how to keep Equian lifeforms alive long enough to reach it and come back.”

Amethyst reached over to Path and poked him with her gavel, making him jump.

“Sorry,” Path apologized. “You know how I get about exploring. But I feel that this will mark the crowning achievement of the Lunar Colony, and for all Equians.”

The crystal pony chuckled a bit. “I know. I know. And I agree with you, Grandfather.” She turned back to the rest of the councillors. “It is proposed that all of the scientists on the lunar colony that are working on low priority projects should be moved onto this project. I am not going to give a deadline like Lord Long Path would, because this doesn’t have tangible milestones, but I would like to meet up in a year to oversee any progress if we don’t have a breakthrough sooner. I call for a vote. All in favour, please raise a hoof, paw, or claw.”

The councillors voted, and Amethyst nodded in satisfaction.

“The motion carries seven votes to two. Gentlebeings, we are going to the stars.”

 

 


 

Ad Astra - part 5: The Puzzle is Solved

 

{107HP}

When the project was first started, the best and brightest flocked to it, wanting to be part of the team that solved the riddle of how to get to the ‘Far Star’ as the media had named the stellar anomaly. Starry and her entire team had been working for nearly half a decade on the puzzle. From the first, the idea of trying to reach that distant star was taken as a challenge. Part of the team was devoted to figuring out what materials they had at their disposal that were suitable for the project, and what others could be developed to suit the long-term needs of the craft. Some were only found on Equus, some were only found on the moon. A lot of them held promise, but none of them panned out. Other people were working on the innovative engineering designs that would be necessary. The hardest task though was to determine how to actually get the starship where it needed to go, and Starry Path and her personal assistants consisting of some of the finest minds in the space industries took that on.

However, Starry became more and more reclusive as progress was stymied, and soon it took intervention by her parents on a regular basis just to get her to eat and sleep. Even her dreams mirrored her laboratory. Luna and Path were unsure as to what to do. In order to make the mission possible, there were three huge hurdles: First she had to come up with some means of propulsion for the craft that would get to the anomaly in a reasonable time, then design the craft to suit, and finally figure out how to build it. Progress on the last two was predicated on the viability of the first, and so far she had not been able to crack that problem. If she didn’t make progress soon, she felt she would go mad.



Inside the Chrome Hive where Starry had the resources of the hive network at her beck and call, the alicorn stood at her collection of chalkboards, all kinds of equations written over partially erased other ones. For those who did not know her thought processes, it was complete and utter chaos. Cups of coffee and plates of half-eaten food littered nearly every surface, not to mention magitek tablets, open reference books, pages torn from notebooks, and some napkins with hastily scrawled ideas on them. The alicorn was not okay, but everything was driving her to make a breakthrough.

“Chemical… thaumaturgical… electro-thermal… pulsed thermal… mana fusion… none of it is enough!” She started screaming at one of the chalkboards as if it could talk back to her. “Why do you mock all my attempts to solve you?!”

A voice came from behind her. “The puzzle has broken many a being. Every few generations, a piece is revealed, with no known beginning, and no known end. Everyone thinks it is in reach, but will it ever be solved?”

Starry turned to see who had entered her lab, and her eyes widened in surprise. “Techbird? But you never leave Pif’s Central Processing Cluster anymore!”

The griffon smiled softy as she slowly started to walk toward Starry. Her body was old – very old. By all accounts, she should have passed long ago, but still she stood there, bolstered by the best technology that Magitek Inc. could offer. Clear white and blue crystals covered part of her body, and her left foreleg and one of her wings were replaced. The parts were old and worn out, needing to be replaced long ago. Some considered her an abomination, and that she should have passed on when her body started to fail. However, Techbird was adamant that she would not pass on until the puzzle was solved.

Techbird embraced Starry before replying, “True… but now we need to have a talk. Come on… let’s go.” The catbird started to slowly walk out of the room. Apparently given little choice, Starry followed behind her.

As they walked along the corridor from Starry’s lab, Techbird said, “When I was working on my first innovations for House Path, I hit a wall. No matter what I did, I could not figure out how I could power Lord Path’s wings. Back then mana batteries were in their infancy, and one that was needed to power the wings would have been bigger than Path. I finally took a step back, and it was when I did that, inspiration finally hit and I was able to bridge the gap.”

The pair walked by one of the staff playgrounds where a bunch of griffon chicks and pony foals with their drone companions were playing dodge ball. Techbird sat down and gestured to Starry to sit beside her. Together they watched the children play for several minutes.

Eventually Techbird resumed talking. “Maybe you should relax for a while and get your mind off of the problem, then eventually another piece may reveal itself to you. More breakthroughs have been made over a cup of tea than a calculator.” Techbird chuckled a bit and then carefully stood up. “Ah… the charge is getting a little low. I’ll have to go now. I suggest that you just keep sitting here for a while and let your thoughts wander. If you need me, you know where I’ll be.” The old griffon walked off back toward her domain.

Starry settled down on the ground, laying her head on the sweet grass. She had almost forgotten what it smelled like. She closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth of the sun that she had been shunning for too long, tuning out the world. For a brief time, everything turned into a dreamy haze until something bumped her hoof. She opened her eyes to see a red ball.

“Hey, toss it here!” A griffon waved at her a few times.

Starry smiled, grabbed the ball in her magic, and tossed it toward the griffon. Instead of simply catching it, he turned just as it was about to reach him, grabbing the ball in his talons and adding his own momentum to it, sending it at the other team with more force than he could have thrown it by himself.

Starry stared at the ball, squinting into the lowering sun behind the players. Then her eyes abruptly went wide as realization struck, and numbers in her head began to calculate at a rate that would stun most queens.



Path was lying down on the couch in his office, reading a book when Luna walked in.

“Path, I need your help again. I think our daughter has gone off the deep end.”* She sighed as her ears folded back. “This is starting to get out of hoof,” she said with a shake of her head.

Path rolled off the bed and onto his hooves, stretched a little and then said in a resigned voice, “Okay, let’s see what she’s up to now.”

When the pair reached the playground, they watched the fillies and colts laughing and giggling as they were levitated in the air and spun around in seemingly random patterns. Starry’s horn glow showed that she was responsible for the display, even as she wrote her observations on a levitating chalkboard. Then she set the children down, claimed another pair of eager foals, and then began doing it all again.

“Starry, I’m going to need you to put those foals down and talk to us,” Path said calmly as Luna stood next to him, looking stern.

His daughter nodded a few times a little distractedly before setting them down and smiling. “I have had a breakthrough!” she exclaimed before her horn lit up again, and the three of them disappeared along with the chalkboard.

They reappeared back in her workshop, and Starry wiped the board clean. Then she started to draw.

“I kept over-thinking it! I forgot the basics! I kept thinking about how I was going to get everything there at once and by a single means. Rockets are not what is needed, or rather… it’s not the only thing needed.”

She drew the Equus system. “I forgot about two known features – the Oldbird Effect**, gravitational slingshot, and one other obscure technique!”

Path blinked. “Say what…?”

Starry continued as if she had not heard him. “So the biggest problem that we were running into is that we couldn’t get enough speed to reach the Far Star in a reasonable amount of time. However, this amalgamated method makes it so much faster!”

Luna was beginning to get caught up in Starry’s enthusiasm that had been so long absent. “Can you show us how?” she asked with a smile.

Starry’s horn glowed and a holographic model of the Equus system appeared in mid-air. She indicated a point which twinkled next to the moon. “There it is. That’s the yet-to-be-constructed starship. We build it in orbit around the moon. Then we use booster rockets to break it out of orbit, launching it toward a rendezvous with the Dim Star***. The boosters are discarded when they are exhausted. The ship drops down to within two to four stellar radii of the Dim Star, and we fire the main engines, the Oldbird Effect magnifying our returns on the burn.” As Starry spoke, the starship dived down to nearly graze the dwarf star, and then shot away again at a much faster rate.

“But it still won’t be enough to get us there,” Luna commented. “That’s always been the problem.”

“True, but we aren’t done yet. If we time it right, as it shoots out, it will head for Auntie Celestia’s sun, and it is that last slingshot that tilts its trajectory directly towards the Far Star.” The starship approached the glowing representation of Equus’ life-giving sun, and its trajectory was bent sharply even as it whipped out faster than ever.

“I suspect that despite all this, the starship will still be going far too slow,” Path said. Then he smiled slyly. “So – how do you plan to accelerate it more?”

Starry smiled back smugly. “I was thinking about it all wrong. I kept thinking that it had to be a tiny ship with a massive amount of fuel, but not only wasn’t that possible, but it would also not leave adequate space for a crew and its support systems. What we really need is a large ship that needs virtually no fuel from that point.”

Path blinked. “Now you’ve lost me.”

Starry grinned and kept talking. “It was initially proposed a long time ago, back during the beginnings of space science, that light could be like wind. Much like a wind-sail is used for the sea, a solar sail is used for the stars. You will need an enormous sail for our craft, proportional to the mass of the starship.” The starship image that she was displayed slowly unfurled a series of gigantic fins that made it resemble a flower opening its petals.

Luna said gently, “Daughter, the sun’s wind is far too weak to accelerate the starship significantly.”

Starry’s grin grew wider. “That’s where the final piece of this puzzle comes into play. Remember the hyper-velocity tunnels that were first utilized during the Nightmare Chrysalis War? That the spell that enables it to work effectively reduces inertia to near zero?”

Luna frowned, her ears laying back as she had her doubts about the application. “Of course I do. I also remember that only an alicorn or a mage-level unicorn can utilize that spell because it is far too mana-intensive. That is why the hyper-velocity tunnels turned out to be a dead-end for mass transit applications.”

“But that was when it’s used in conjunction with the transit spell. I calculate that if used by itself, it would be possible to maintain that spell for considerably longer. In fact, if I had a mana storage device of sufficient capacity, I believe I could keep it going for ten to twelve hours!”

Path’s eyes widened in surprise before narrowing again in concern. “Wouldn’t that be dangerous for you to maintain such a high-powered spell for so long?”

“Uncle Shining held his city-sized shield for far longer,” Starry replied dismissively. She started drawing on a floating chalkboard again, marking three circles which she labelled Equus, Moon, and Sun. She then drew the path of the starship, showing it grazing the sun and then whipping out. She made a mark on the path. “As soon as it is safe to do so, we deploy the solar sail, and its proximity to the sun will allow it to become very effective, very quickly. The inertia-cancelling spell will be cast at that time, and then because its mass is reduced to almost nothing…” She wrote the well-known equation F=MA and then transposed the values to write A=F/M. “…the large Force divided by the minuscule effective Mass results in a gigantic Acceleration!”

Luna sighed. “While we are quoting laws of physics, should I mention the inverse-square rule? The applied force will reduce exponentially as you get further from the sun. Despite the enormous boost, you still won’t get anywhere near fast enough… and why are you grinning?”

Starry’s smile was threatening to split her face by now. “Because the boost from the sun will only be the first part of the final stage. The second part will also enable a large portion of the population of Equestria to contribute to the mission’s success.”

“I’m all for that,” Path said, getting caught up in his daughter’s excitement. “What have you got planned?”

“A mana boost! Using all our alicorns as focal points, unicorns of all power levels can feed their magic into them, and they can send a directed beam at the solar sail. Because the beam is coherent, the inverse-square rule does not apply, and the thrust from a mana beam is far stronger than from sunlight! Virtually no steering will be required because the ship is already heading in the desired direction. With proper timing of the orbital manoeuvres, Equus will be almost perfectly in-line with the starship’s path, maximizing the thrust.” She started scrawling figures under the diagram. “In fact, my rough first calculations show that if we can maintain that thrust for at least eleven hours, we can achieve the desired velocity. And while it’s impossible to reduce the effective mass to zero, we can come very close. I firmly believe we can reach 97% of the speed of light! The trip becomes possible!”

The chalkboard clattered to the ground as Starry shut down her telekinesis.

“I NEED TO GET EVERYONE ON THIS NOW!” With a loud pop she was gone.

Luna looked over to Path with a grin.

“They grow up so fast,” the stallion said.

“Only eight decades ago, she was begging you for rides,” Luna said as she gave him a fond nuzzle. “Now she’s getting ready to ride into the unknown. She is indeed her father’s daughter.”

# # # # # # # # #

NOTES:
*Luna has learned to speak modern Equish properly at last! ... Okay, it was actually a few decades back, but this is the first time that wasn’t in the far-flung future that we’ve heard it.
**Oldbird Effect = Oberth Effect. Look it up!
***The ‘Dim Star’ is the Equestrian name for the brown dwarf star that the Equus system orbits.
****Photonic propulsion - see this Youtube video. This is the basis for the alicorn-powered thrust, but magic is far more powerful than photons.

 


 

Ad Astra - part 6: Thinking Big

 

{115HP}

Everyone was starting to wonder just what was going on. News reports were coming in of a massive Chrome Changeling exodus. They were travelling en masse to the moon, although not to the main lunar colonies but to somewhere on the far side. Seven out of ten 'lings were leaving, and when they were questioned, they all gave the same response: “We cannot say why, but our Queen will be making an announcement shortly. We won’t be gone for long, but trust us, it's going to be amazing.”

The explanation was late; days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into nearly a month. It was only then that Free Agent and Roseclaw approached a Griffonian broadcast station. All they said though was that while the subject that they had talked about years earlier was important, it was but a stepping stone to this announcement. It would take place in the main hall outside where the Friday informal dinner was held. House Path never gave exclusivity, but on a rotating basis they gave each news centre an advantage. The last time it was to the ponies, and this time it was to the griffons. However, there was an added surprise on this occasion.

When it came time for the conference, most of the House Path team leaders were gathered and staring at GemVee cameras and voice recorders. On cue, the cameras turned on and the griffon host started to speak while others translated in hushed tones.

“Almost a month ago, the world saw a mass movement of Chrome Changelings to the moon. However, it was not just them but others as well, including composite specialists, doctors, botanists, and scientists from many other fields. We asked why but we have not been given a response until now.” He turned to Free Agent. “Can you now explain why your drones and the specialists have moved to the Moon, and what you are doing on the far side?” he asked Free Agent.

The griffon-changeling grinned and looked over to Starry. “I could, but this is really Starry’s moment, so I will let her give the explanation. The Equus Council gave us clearance, so go ahead and satisfy the viewers’ curiosity, Star.”

Starry stood up and, as the cameras focused on the alicorn, her horn started to glow brightly.

“To explain fully what we are doing, I will first recap what we have already learned and released to the public before we get to the good part.”

She made an image of Equus, and then it zoomed out to show Luna’s moon and Celestia’s sun.

“This is how almost everyone sees the Equus system, and for thousands of years this model was fine because everything we were doing was within its confines. This all changed when we started to observe outside our little region of space. Now, if these three objects were the only ones influencing the paths of our probes, this is how they would travel.”

Several star like points spiralled out of the system into parts unknown, their paths becoming straighter and straighter. The only things anyone could tell were affecting their orbits were the sun, moon and Equus.

“However, when we plotted their actual paths, we got this.”

The Paths were all curved and warped, bending around an unknown point far away from the three bodies.

“We were confused at first – how could something be there that we could not see? For a few years we were scrambling to explain that strange gravitational force, but when a Diamond Dog chemist and astronomer discovered a new kind of light called infrared, we did a sky survey and found what we now call the Dim Star. It’s much larger than Celestia’s sun, but only emits infrared radiation. Once we gathered sufficient data to factor into our orbital projections, we then came up with this model.”

The system changed so that a large maroon star was in the centre, with Equestria, Celestia’s sun and Luna’s moon orbiting far away from it. “With this completed model, we could then move on with our plans.”

The griffon commentator spoke up. “But we already know about this; what about the migration?”

“I am getting to that,” Starry replied patiently. “After years of research into the nature of non-Luna stars, we realised that although the Dim Star has a lot of hydrogen, it’s not massive enough to burn brightly in the visible spectrum. However, it is nonetheless a star, and if it can have worlds orbiting it, then so could the far distant stars that we can see. Thus started our search for exoplanets, and find them we did! However, in doing so, we also discovered the anomaly that we call the Far Star.”

“That is the star that astronomers say is neither controlled by Princess Luna, nor belonging to the background stars, correct?” the host enquired.

Starry nodded. “That’s right. The Far Star has exhibited several unusual qualities, but the ones that fascinate us the most hint at the existence of life – the first life that we know of outside of Equus. Because of that, we at House Path began an ambitious plan to learn more about the Far Star. Well, now we can tell you what that plan is.” Starry paused dramatically. “We are going to go to the Far Star and find out what lies at the edge of our universe.”

The griffon squawked in surprise. “But how? Princess Luna herself has said that none but her can reach the stars that she controls, and yet those are much closer than the background stars. Is the secret project on the moon related to this?”

Starry smiled. “Indeed it is. I know that you are aware of the solar sail concept as it was leaked a while back, and I know you were wondering what we were going to do with the concept. Well, this is it.”

“But to propel a ship of any reasonable size, you would need a sail of gigantic proportions!”

The alicorn grinned. “Oh, not quite as big as you think – only about fifty kilometres across, give or take. Now, building something like that would take a sizable workforce willing to unite under one banner, wouldn’t it?”

The griffon nodded in understanding. “You have started the single biggest project in the history of Equus since the moon colonisation effort. How long before you think you will be ready?”

“Between eight and ten years. There is an enormous amount of work to be done, with new materials, new spells, new techniques, and so forth to be created specifically for the project which we have named Cosmic Lotus. Over two thirds of House Path’s Chrome Changeling staff has been assigned to this task, along with specialists from all over Equus and the Lunar Colony. We will be seeking even more expertise over the coming years.”

The griffon host smiled confidently. “House Path and Magitek Inc. have produced remarkable results for over a century, so I am sure that if anyone can reach the Far Star, then you can. Is there anything else you would like to announce at this stage?”

Starry idly tapped her hooves as she smiled back to the camera. “I know that a lot of the viewers are in universities, colleges, and various scientific institutions, and many of you will have questions.” She pulled out a crystal comm unit. “Our temporary comm code is 732-44312-110, and for the next hour, I and the others on the team will be answering any and all relevant questions before I give my closing statement.”

 


 

Ad Astra - part 7: Q & A

 

The comm in Starry’s magic field started ringing, and the alicorn answered it, automatically connecting it to the GemVee feed for the benefit of both the audience and the other House Path members.

“Cosmic Lotus Q and A. Who is calling, please?”

This is Traveling Soul speaking. I was wondering how many crew members do you plan to send to the Far Star?

“While the exact number will have to be determined by the final design of the starship and the mission parameters, in order to cope with the length of the journey, hibernation pods will keep a large portion of them asleep so that they only need experience a couple of years on the job. That means that there will have to be many more available to take their place as they finish their tour of duty. At this point we anticipate that there will be about a hundred or so crew members. This will consist of a mixture of races – ponies, griffons, zebras, and so forth, but especially changeling drones.

Are you planning to send one or more major member of House Path?

Starry smiled. “I expect to be the one leading this mission, but if any of my family want to come along, they have to earn their position.”

How will the crew and Equus communicate during the mission?

Twilight Sparkle spoke up. “I’ll answer that. All our current communication technology is still based on the sympathetically linked crystal system that I first developed over a century ago. These work irrespective of distance, and we will be able to communicate even when the starship has reached the Far Star. The newest and most advanced version will be used to transfer data as well as voice and images.”

That’s reassuring. My final question is: do you have a name for the new space craft as yet?

Path replied, “The project is named after the starship – the Cosmic Lotus.”

Starry spoke up. “Thank you for your questions. Let’s move on to the next caller.” She tapped a couple of buttons and then said, “Cosmic Lotus Q and A. What would you like to ask?”

What do you plan to do about cosmic hazards such as micro-meteors and comets? How will the ship and crew deal with them, especially as the journey will take so long?

Pif caught Starry’s eye and the alicorn let her sister reply. “We are well served by our current wealth of experience with space travel. However, due to the extraordinary length of the mission, the protections will be multi-layered. First of all will be a mana deflector shield that will push aside material far in advance of the starship’s path. A second shield will deal with larger matter that is not deflected sufficiently, or comes in at an angle. The hull will be constructed of multiple sandwiched layers that can self-heal in the event of punctures. Airlocks will isolate sections of the starship, and finally, there will be protection spells included in the uniforms. The exact details will be available once we have actually worked them all out.”

That sounds as if it would take an immense amount of power just for shielding, let alone for the rest of the ship’s systems. How are you planning to supply that much power when you will be isolated from everything?

Pif grinned. “An excellent question, and one that would not have been able to be answered as yet except for the patronage of Princess Celestia. Her Highness will be working with us to create and then efficiently harness a miniature version of her sun that will provide more than enough power for all our needs and for far longer than the most pessimistic of anticipated durations.”

Starry said, “We’ll take another caller now. Hello, you’re on the Cosmic Lotus Q and A. What is your question?”

Hi! I’d like to know how you will get this Cosmic Lotus to the Far Star just with a solar sail. And even if you do get there, how do you plan to stop once more?

Starry replied, “While the solar sail by itself would be an extremely slow way of getting anywhere, fortunately we are not limited to that. Between a mass-reducing spell and a currently prototyped means of providing an enormous thrust, we will be able to achieve a velocity close to the speed of light. Braking will be trickier because we won’t have the same thrust to slow us down, but we are working on contingencies for various scenarios that we might find when we get there. We might not even be able to slow down enough to stop at the Far Star.”

If you are unsure of even being able to brake, how can you ensure that you can get the ship back from the Far Star?

“We might not be able to return the ship to Equus,” Starry admitted. “But before you panic, that does not mean that the crew will be stranded. We will be able to teleport them back.”

What?! From that far away?” The caller was clearly sceptical.

Starry looked at her older brother. “Destined – do you want to handle this?”

“Sure, Starry. As an expert in the theory and practice of teleportation, I can tell you that there is no theoretical limit to the range of teleportation. Studies indicate that we could literally go anywhere in the universe. Right now you’re thinking that most teleporters can barely cross the street, and even the better ones are quite limited. Well, while that is true, it’s not because of the teleportation process itself. For want of a better word, it’s how you target yourself. Alicorns such as myself and the Equestrian princesses can conceptualise a destination far better than others, hence why we can travel between continents, or even between Equus and the Moon. However, because we know nothing about the Far Star and what it’s like in that locality, we simply cannot form a viable target. Fortunately there has long been a solution to this problem – mana beacons. These specially designed devices shortcut the conceptualisation process and enable us to lock onto them despite being in unfamiliar locations. Once again, distance is irrelevant – one point in space-time is drawn together with another point, and presto! – You’ve teleported forty-two light years. Best of all, this works in both directions, so we will be able to go to the Lotus as well as return the crew to Equus. Admittedly it will still take an alicorn or a mage-level unicorn to do it, but we have enough of those to cover our needs.”

“Thanks, Des,” Starry said. “Next caller, please.”

How long will the trip to the Far Star take?

“Even at near the speed of light, the ship will have to travel around forty-two lightyears, so allowing for manoeuvres and braking, it’s going to take about forty-four years.”

What about supplies for a journey that long? How can you provide food, water, and heat for over four decades?

Pif spoke up again. “We are already working on that, but basically we will have a water-recycling system, hydroponic gardens, and artificial protein manufacturing. Heat and light will come from the energy supplied by the miniature sun system. In fact we will have as much power as we like to run whatever devices that we need, so all that is required is to work out the optimum set-up.”

“Thanks, Pif. Next caller!”

Hello. I'd like to get back to the teleportation idea mentioned earlier. If you can use a mana beacon to go that far, why not just send an unmanned ship and teleport to it when it's within range?

Starry smiled and nodded. “Actually we did consider that option. There are two main reasons why we have discarded that idea though. Firstly, building a spaceship that is capable of achieving our extreme goals is difficult enough, let alone without a crew to monitor and maintain it if necessary. Because so much of what we are doing is new, having at least two crew members not in hibernation at all times reduces a huge amount of risk for everything we can't anticipate. Additionally, we cannot be accurate enough in our calculations of how distant the Far Star is, and we run the risk of an automated ship overshooting it. Course corrections that might be trivial when done soon enough, might be excessive if done too late. Frankly it adds an enormous amount of reliability to have a full-time crew. However, that accounts just for ship’s operational staff and not the researchers that will be an integral part of the mission.”

Starry paused and chuckled.

“When we first started discussing who to send and how many, we got quite a shock as we were inundated with expressions of interest. To make a long story short, there are many scientists who would do just about anything to be on board the Lotus, both during the journey and at the destination, but many of them would not be able to wait up to forty-four years for the privilege in addition to the eight to ten years before it even departs. They would rather spend a significant part of the journey in hibernation than to give up the possibility of being a part of this mission. And this is even before we formally call for applicants for the mission! So, while we are certainly leaving the teleportation option open, right now we are planning on taking a fully-staffed starship from the start.”

Then how do you plan to deal with being isolated for so long?

“An excellent question! Lord Free Agent – would you care to answer that?” Starry asked.

“Sure, Starry. As a changeling, I am more than familiar with how ponies and griffons respond to situations like this, and the Yellow Changelings are even more expert. First we will be choosing crew candidates with a suitable psychological profile for this mission. Special emphasis will be put on encouraging friendships during training, and lots of thought will be put into providing entertainment and intellectual stimulation during the journey. So, while professional abilities are very important, the ability to socialise with their fellow crewmembers and deal with the isolation will be even more significant.” He looked back to Starry. “I believe that’s your cue,” he added with a grin.

“Thanks, Papa.” Starry smiled at the camera. “Let me end this Q and A session with an official call for candidates for the Cosmic Lotus mission. House Path is looking for experts in several fields to apply for the initial induction period. If you feel that you can contribute under the conditions that we’ve just talked about, contact your nearest House Path branch for details. We’re looking for a new breed of aethernauts to go where no Equian has gone before. Won’t you join us on this grand adventure?”

Starry looked over to the griffon host who took the cue.

“Thank you, Starry, and all the members of House Path who have brought us this magnificent project. I’m sure that our viewers will agree that this will be the highlight of our world’s achievements, and even though it’s decades away from fruition, I am already eager to learn what they will discover at the edge of our universe. This is Harper Ironclaw signing off for the Griffonia Worldwide News Network.”

The camera lights turned off and the camera operator indicated that they were off the air. The griffon host turned back to the Path members with a grin on his face.

“Thanks again for this exclusive. I admit to being both surprised and excited.”

“Want to come along?” Starry asked.

Harper chuckled. “No, I’m not the right type for that kind of thing. I’d miss soaring through the skies far too much. I’m surprised that anyone with wings would commit to being confined for years.”

Starry half-spread her wings. “You’re right – it won’t be easy, but when you’ve dedicated so much time and effort to this endeavour as I have, a little sacrifice is worth it.”

Wandering Path stepped over to join them. “I agree with my sister – some things are worth it.”

Starry looked at Wandering. “I’m a little surprised that you joined us for the interview. You’ve spent most of your life wandering the world and not showing much interest in research.”

Wandering grinned. “Just because we have different approaches to how we contribute to House Path, doesn’t mean that we don’t have the same goals. While you have the technical expertise, I have a wealth of experience in exploration and dealing with unusual cultures. So, just a head-up, sis – I’ll not only be applying for the crew, but I’ll also be aiming to lead it.”

He winked and walked off, leaving his stunned sister gaping in surprise. Then she slowly started to smile.

“Oh, it is on!”

# # # # # # # # #

 

This is the final episode in the Ad Astra arc. It is only a prequel to the next major story – “COSMIC LOTUS”.

 


 

Friendship is Eternal

 

The grey skies poured a steady stream of precipitation upon the lavender alicorn as she sat in front of the grave. The headstone read:

 
RAINBOW DASH

Beloved Mother
Wonderbolt Captain
Dearest Friend

The dates underneath indicated a lengthy lifetime, and yet still far too short for Twilight Sparkle. Rainbow Dash was the last of her five great friends to die, and perhaps because of that, it hurt the most. The rain trickling down her face concealed her tears though, just as the prismatic pegasus had intended. ‘I don’t want to see tears at my funeral. I was awesome, and that’s what I want you to remember,’ she had said on her deathbed. The weather ponies had ensured that a steady rain would fall on the cemetery to fulfil her final wishes.

So Twilight recalled her friend’s life – her rise through the ranks of the Wonderbolts, her missions flown in the service of Equestria, her marriage and the foal that resulted. Her strength when her husband was killed in action. Her appointment to the captaincy of the Wonderbolts. Her semi-retirement as a trainer right up until her failing health finally claimed her life. But she never neglected her friendships with Twilight, Rarity, Fluttershy, Applejack, and Pinkie Pie.

Twilight was the last of the Mane Six, as they had been tagged by general populace. Having saved the kingdom so many times made one quite notorious, apparently. Sometimes Twilight wondered if becoming an alicorn princess had stolen some of the fame that her friends had deserved, but they had never begrudged her. Certainly Rainbow’s ego had more than coped. She was going to miss her friend’s brash personality. She was going to miss a lot of things about the pegasus, even her stupid pranks. In some ways, Rainbow Dash had struck Twilight as a female version of the alicorn’s husband, Free Agent. Her love of life and free spirit had appealed to Twilight just as Free had done. She wondered what might have happened if she had never met Free and Path.

Twilight took in a deep breath and sighed. “Goodbye, Rainbow Dash.” Her final farewell. This chapter in her life was closed forever, but it would live in her memory for as long as she lived, and for an alicorn, that would be for a very long time. The Alicorn’s Curse, they sometimes called it. To watch your friends grow old and die while you continued on. They were wrong.

Twilight turned away from the grave to see all the ponies, griffons, changelings, and dragons who were patiently waiting for her to make her final parting. Herdmates, children, and friends – so many friends. She smiled softly. Life was not about waiting for your friends to die; it was about making as many as you could to fill your days with the joy and camaraderie that only came from those friendships. As they came over to join her, she was filled with the strength of those bonds.

The weather ponies took the cue to clear the rainclouds, and a rainbow split the sky in final tribute to her friend. As the graveyard lit up with sunshine, Twilight knew without a shadow of a doubt that friendship was not only magic, but it was also eternal.

# # # # # # # # #

 

Author's Note: This is my take on the Alicorn's Curse. Yes, the death of her friends would be sad, but even sadder would be if she had never made any more friends since those first five. That is not what the Princess of Friendship is to me.

 


 

Free Spirit

 

{316HP}

“I’m so sorry that this came up, Free, but Luna really needs my assistance tonight,” Twilight said for the fifth time.

“My apologies too,” Luna contritely.

Free chuckled and gave Twilight a hug. “It’s not your fault, Sparkles. Path will keep me company until you get back.”

Twilight fussed over the griffon’s greying plumage until Free gently stopped her.

“It’s okay, Twi. Now scoot along.” He gave her a long kiss nuzzle with his beak which she kissed in return. “Goodbye, Twilight. Love you forever.”

“Love you too. Bye!”

A moment later, Twilight and Luna teleported away to Canterlot.

Free sank to the floor with a groan, his form flickering with green magic flame, revealing his true appearance beneath. The Chrome Queen’s formerly shiny chitin was dull with extreme age, her mane lank and faded, and over three centuries of life weighed heavily upon her face.

Long Path stepped up to Free and held out his hoof to her. “You barely held together long enough.”

Free looked at the proffered hoof and reluctantly took it. Path helped her to her hooves and said, “Care to explain what just happened?”

Free sighed. “I’m dying, Path.”

Path closed his eyes and nodded. He took a deep breath before opening them again and gazed into his soulmate’s eyes. “I know. I’ve known for a while.”

Free lifted an eyebrow and snorted softly. “I should have known I couldn’t hide it from you. Could you walk with me to the meditation room so we can talk?”

Path nodded. “Of course.”

The walk to the meditation room was more a case of Path supporting the ancient Queen as she used her remaining strength to make the short journey. Several benches were placed around a stand that supported a softly glowing sphere, and she climbed onto one with a sigh of relief while Path settled down beside her. She was breathing hard, and the earth pony waited patiently until she settled down, pouring his love into her to bolster her strength.

“Thanks, Path. How did you find out that I was dying?”

“Aside from the fact that you’re 337 years old which is a lot longer than changeling queens usually live, I’ve noticed that you’ve lost your griffon form a few times while we were sleeping. I know that’s an indication that your body is failing. You always woke up in time to become a griffon again though.”

“Yeah, I don’t need as much sleep as you guys because you feed me so much love. But how come you woke up to see me like that?”

“Put it down to our bond, I suppose. I might have been woken by your distress. Anyway, it happened often enough that I knew what was happening. So why did you let your wife go away tonight?”

“I couldn’t do that to her, Path. I couldn’t tell her that I was dying and probably wouldn’t make it through the evening. You know how torn up she was when Roseclaw died. Then Blue and Lucy. Thank Celestia that Pif has had a long life like mine, and Des is immortal. Each time one of our family has died, she has taken it very hard, but at least it has been quick. Can you imagine what it would be like for her to sit here like you are, watching me die? She would be a total wreck, and it would tear me up to see her like that.”

“You arranged with Luna to have her take Twilight this evening, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I did. I knew Luna would have the strength to deal with the fact that I was dying as she has had to cope with loss for millennia. She still cried, but we made our final goodbyes.”

“And what about saying goodbye to Twilight?” Path asked with concern.

“Were you there long enough to hear what I told her? I did say goodbye, and told her that I would always love her. She did not have to know that it was our final parting. She’s going to be hurting when she finds out, but you, Luna, and the rest of the family will be there to help her grieve. Tell her that I am sorry to have tricked her and don’t blame Luna. I was thinking of how to make this easier for both of us. It was the least that I could do for the mate of my heart.”

“Do you think that is what she would have wanted?”

“Maybe not, but it’s what she needs. She’s immortal, Path, and she’s going to see a lot more family die. Her parents, her five first friends, her children, and now her grandchildren, her great grandchildren… you will need to be her strength through those times.”

“How am I supposed to do that for an alicorn, Free? I won’t be there for her forever.”

Free snorted derisively before breaking into a hacking cough. When it finally settled down, she said, “When are you going to stop deluding yourself, Path?”

“What are you talking about, Free?”

“You’re not going to die. If you didn’t trim your beard, it would be dragging on the ground by now, but that’s the only thing that has changed about you in three centuries. You’re still as fit and healthy as you were when we went adventuring with Daring Do for the first time.”

“Well, I always figured that Mort had extended my lifespan in order to accomplish what I was destined to do.”

Free chuckled and shook her head. “I remember what you told me that Mort said. Quote – ‘We will not meet again for a very long time, Long Path.’ Correct?”

“I suppose so. It’s been over three centuries.”

“Trust me – I remember. Best part of having access to the hive network is that nothing important gets forgotten.”

“So? Your point?”

“Mort is the guide to the afterlife, and has been doing that task since there were sapient beings to guide. He’s been in existence so long that he makes Celestia look like a foal. Beings like that don’t think in terms of time like we do. A day is a blink of the eye to him. A year is next to nothing. A decade might be noticeable. So when an immortal being like that says he won’t be seeing you for a very long time, that is more than significant. Path – you are just as immortal as Twilight.”

“What?! No! That’s impossible!”

“No, it isn’t. You know that there was a lot of speculation that you were the one who was supposed to have become an alicorn instead of Shining Armor that day. I believe that’s true.”

“So where are my wings and horn, Free? I don’t even have any magic!”

“Ponies can’t survive long without magic, Path. You were never totally devoid of it, and I’ve noticed that it has been slowly returning.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’ve sometimes picked tiny things up by tactile telekinesis without even noticing it. Your language talent has been enhanced again. Your strength in the training arena has grown. In several more years, I believe you will be back to normal earth pony level. Mort only knows where you go from there.”

Path just sat there stunned for a long while, and Free took the opportunity to rest for a moment. Eventually the earth pony nodded in acceptance.

“So… immortality… It’s something that I am going to have to get used to. I’ve just been counting myself lucky to have had a long life.”

I’ve been counting on you being immortal. When I’m gone, you will be there for Twilight, and for Luna too. She can finally have someone close to her heart that she won’t outlive. You are more than their herd stallion, Path. You should ask them both to formally marry you.”

“Do you think that Twilight would even want to consider that, Free? You were her first true love, and she might not wish to re-marry.”

“It’s precisely for that reason that she should. She must not pine for me forever after I’ve gone. Life goes on, and so should Twilight. She needs someone to hug and kiss her, to comfort her when she is hurting, to laugh with her when she is happy, to be proud with her when her family does something wonderful. She would have an immortal husband and wife to fall back on whenever someone close to her dies. Twilight needs someone to love who is not just a memory. She is so strong in so many ways, but she wears her heart on her sleeve. I would like to think that I know what is best for her after all these years. Please say that you’ll do this for me.”

“I promise. I won’t push her though.”

“I’m not asking you to push – just be quietly persistent. She’ll almost certainly say she wants to be loyal to my memory, but if she truly wants that, then she should do as I suggest. Nothing means more to me than her happiness… and yours, Path, my soul-mate.”

Path put his left foreleg around Free’s shoulders and hugged her, pouring more of his love into the changeling. Free closed her eyes and enjoyed the delicious taste of true love, but despite the invigorating energy, she still felt herself fading.

Several long minutes passed in silence before Path spoke up.

“Free – I’m glad that you did not do to me what you did to Twilight. I want to be here with you in your final moments.”

Free looked up to him with heavy eyelids. “I know, Path. You’re not Twilight though. We’ve been together virtually our entire lives, and now shouldn’t be an exception. One last duty for Captain Cluck.”

“If I could order Commander Trotty to stay with me, I would.” Tears started leaking from Path’s eyes.

“You’re the best thing that ever happened to me. Thank you, my beloved. I’ll always be with you.”

Free closed her eyes again, and Path laid his head on her neck. Over the period of about an hour, he felt her breath coming slower and slower, until finally she exhaled in a deep shuddering sigh and failed to breathe in again.

About a quarter hour later, Epiphany entered the meditation room. She was showing her age also, but she still ruled the Chrome Hive with great strength. She looked at the two on the bench, Path’s tears soaking Free’s mane. She walked up to them, her heart filled with concern for her father.

“Dad, you realise that Free has passed on, don’t you?”

Path made the smallest of nods in acknowledgement.

“I felt Free’s connection to the hive network fail and knew that my mother had died. It’s time for the final rite.”

Curiosity drew Path’s eyes to meet with Pif’s. “What rite?”

“Something unique to the Chrome Hive, but you need to be part of it.”

Several drones entered the room with a gurney. Pif levitated Free’s body upon it and the drones started to wheel it out. Path began to follow, but stopped when he noticed Pif taking the glowing sphere off its stand before turning to follow.

“Why are you bringing that?” Path asked.

“The Soul Sphere is an important part of the rite,” she explained. “You’ll see soon enough.”

“Did you know that Free was dying?”

“Yes. Mom had me make some preparations in advance.”

“What else do you know?”

“Did you discuss staying around to support Mama Twilight?”

“If you mean that Free explained that I am immortal, yes.”

“Good. I was supposed to do that if Mom did not manage to do so. I’m glad that you two were able to share your last moments together.”

“You seem to be handling this well?”

“I bawled my eyes out when Mom told me a few days ago that she figured she only had days to live. I’ve had a bit of time to get used to it. I know how you feel, Dad, even without being able to taste your emotions. I’ve had to block yours because the negative emotions were getting too much for me.”

“Sorry, Pif.”

“Don’t be, Dad. You’re grieving, and that is normal. But I hope to make that better.”

“How so?”

“The rite. Again – you’ll see.”

They made their way deep into the Chrome Hive until they finally turned into a room that was a strange amalgam of changeling construction with modern technology. Pif put the sphere into a cradle on a device that was strange to Path, and then she levitated Free’s body onto an adjacent tabletop that resembled an altar. The drones then brushed her mane and tail and rearranged her limp wings to make her more presentable. They then exited the room as Hype arrived, along with her and Pif’s daughters and granddaughters. They nodded respectfully towards Path and waited for Pif.

The Chrome Queen stepped up next to Path, laying one wing along his back as everyone gathered around the altar table. “We are gathered to pay our respects to the First Mother. Although her birth name was Gossamer, and her family name Cirrus Ironbeak, her true name was Free Agent. She always did things her way, and with the love and support of her family, made the Chrome Hive the great centre of learning and innovation that it is today. Her rejection of stale tradition and centuries of narrow thinking enabled her children to do what no hive had done before. We commit her memory to the Hive.”

“We commit her memory to the Hive,” echoed the others.

Pif nodded to the one remaining drone, one of her personal assistants. The drone touched a button and the altar glowed, as did the sphere.

Pif then turned to Path and said, “Please sit down over there.” She indicated a spot near the sphere.

Puzzled, Path complied.

Pif then levitated a circlet attached to the machinery by a cord which Path recognised as the magitek means by which non-changelings could safely communicate with the hive network.

“What’s going on, Pif?”

“Please, Dad, just go with this.”

Path let them put the circlet on his head, and Pif’s horn glowed for a moment. Path found himself in the normal virtual staging room where a drone would usually come to guide the visitor safely through the stored accumulated knowledge of the hive. The door to the room opened, but no drone came through. Instead a grinning griffon stood there.

“Hello, Path. Didn’t I promise that I would always be with you?”

Path could not stop laughing as he hugged his soulmate.

 


 

House Path ventures into space in Cosmic Lotus

Equestria, canon MLP characters, and other My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic elements are © 2017 Hasbro.
Original characters Long Path & Free Agent created by AlaskaIsCold.
All other original characters and story copyright © 2017 Bernard Doove.
Art is © 2017 Kat Miller.

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