Autumn leaves swirled in their collective orange dance across Canterlot’s fall-time streets, painting the city in its classic, calming harvest gold. The cobbled roads were very occupied as ponies, mostly of the horned variety, marched from place to place in their estranged business rituals, adding flair of modern excitement to the old brick flavor of the lower levels. Everywhere about the place preparations were being made for the November harvest festival heralding the beginning of winter with the last feast of the golden months. A pungent sweet aroma of apple pie and gingerbread would strike an assault on the nose of any who passed a bakery, and the sound of butterchurns sloshing was audible from all corners as the ponies in their charge prepared for a bounty of sweet rolls.
Gracidea was one of the ponies out and about this afternoon, fresh off a short lunch break and back on the streets with her flower cart, laden with bouquets arranged in the seasonal horns. Her bright blue eyes sparkled with barely contained excitement as possible patrons passed, occasionally stopping to purchase one of the flowing cornucopias from the young mare. A brown plaid scarf hid the pale golden fur around her nose and held the flowing auburn mane in place around her neck, lest the wind send it astray into her product. Harvest season was a good time for her, not so much as hearts and hooves or candy day, but her own personal flair could capitalize on any season. A mark in the visage of a blooming sunflower bounced on her flank as she pushed her cart down the street, her horn occasionally sparking with auburn magics, hoping to draw eyes to her wares.
Of the larger, more interesting events taking place in the capital city, Gracidea was oblivious, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She would play no part in larger events, and that was how she liked it, plain, simple, easy, doing her own personal business on the nippy Canterlot streets. The closest brush the young mare ever came to impact on the machinations of royalty was the observation of a shooting star, just then, in the glaring light of day, a brighter light passing inexplicably in the sky.
Gracidea paused, letting her cart halt for a moment as the end of the luminous trail faded, leaving a puff of dust like a kicked up cloud or the jet stream of a Wonderbolt, but it was higher than pegasi were known to fly frequently, and certainly higher than bits of earth could float to.
“Huh,” she remarked, a few ponies around her also trained on the sight “That’s interesting whatever’s going on up there. I’d like to know why something was so high up.” She smiled, unaware that she had caused a thought provoking question “Would anypony like to buy a bouquet? Special made for the harvest season and a perfect addition to any home!”
The thing, or rather, the pony, who Gracidea had observed as so awfully high up was on a train of thought going in the opposite direction. In his position, he was flying way too low, crimson red eyes were narrowed in concentration as broad, black wings beat hard at the thin air, pushing fire behind him. His mind was bent half on keeping his body in the umbra where the rock shadowed against the spilling flames of its own creation, half bent on getting the damn hunk of rock where it needed to be.
Shadow Chaser was meteor hunting, and the first goal of that, being personal safety, was being left behind somewhat in sacrifice of his shoddy work. He angled himself forward, totally unable to fight the downward force of gravity, but able to redirect it somewhat more forward. The tilt brought the edges of viridian mane into blaze, wilting and incinerating them before he even had a chance to worry about it, but it resulted in leveling out. He was already low enough over Canterlot City that he would seem like a shooting star even in daylight, a sure sign things were not going well, but with a hint of precision he could make certain that it would not be a catastrophe.
Target below, approaching fast, the only indication a dug rut in the grassy plains around the mountain which was the planned crash site. It would be close, but if he could really punch it he might still be able to land in the circumference of the dozen meter space. He ceased flapping, trying to parachute his wings to add just a little bit more forward drag before releasing the weight entirely.
Going through the comet’s tail of flame wasn’t something he could ever avoid at the end of a hunt, but he had learned where the coolest points were and his wings, long tempered against exactly this sort of heat, made up a burn shield that brought safety into his release. The recoil momentum was enough for him to be flung backwards into the air, shutting his eyes against the force of the drag until he started to actually fall, a blessing after so much forced flying and pushing, then caught himself, gliding down towards the impact zone.
The explosion had occurred right on the edge of the circle, blasting away about an eighth of the determining rut. It wasn’t the only fresh crater either, there were five other distinctive holes, two of which were still hissing with copious amounts of steam and smoke. The newest had lit a wide expanse of grass on fire, which Shadow now had to gallop quickly to trample out. This was why the plains were used as the practice ground, there could be no risk to other ponies so it had to be kept far off.
“Are you alright?”
Shadow snapped his head up, blackened hooves still stamping out the last embers. He had almost forgotten about his ‘tutor’, a tall cyan pegasus with a teal blue mane, Cloudkicker. She had been a starting member of the Wonderbolts at one point and was still rotated in on occasion, but her greatest income was from private lessons with young fliers, like Shadow. The only difference was that in this case the student considered the teacher somewhere between accessory and completely useless.
“I missed the pass high beneath Orion,” said Shadow, changing ‘are you alright’ to ‘what did you mess up’ and answering that “Too sharp of a decline to compensate resulted in an early plunge that had to be made up for in raw speed and ended in a sloppy chase.” He spat on the grass beside him as he finished, his cheeks tasted like sulfur.
“You were right on target,” said Cloudkicker, reaching over to brush some of the singed dead hair out of Shadow’s mane “It’s ok if your form was a little off, it’s the accuracy that counts right?”
Shadow didn’t even bother launching into a speech about the dangers of hyper altitude flying, about how the tiniest mistakes could be life threatening, and the larger ones a menace to other ponies. Even this practice session had to be taken as seriously as the grave lest that be exactly where he ended up. He said none of it, because Meteor Hunting was his sport, and his alone which was why he supposed Cloudkicker was blameless for not understanding.
“I guess,” he said, bringing a hoof down sharply on one more small flame. There would be a few spots of fire remaining but the grass was lively and wet, it wouldn’t spread far.
“You look pretty badly burnt,” said Cloudkicker, wincing somewhat at a particularly bad spot on his ear “I think this practice is over, same time next week?”
“Yes,” said Shadow, giving a curt nod half in agreement, half to dislodge a little more soot “I need to work on my form when that time rolls around, make sure I don’t repeat any silly mistakes.”
Cloudkicker didn’t argue, merely allowing the colt to wallow in his self-loathing, it wasn’t anything new and it wasn’t anything she hadn’t seen in students before. As she escorted him back to the castle, a good half hour commute, she reflected on the headstrong nature of foals. In her mind the discipline and perfectionist attitude of Shadow’s was just his own small form of rebellion against the perceived authority.
Not that she was ever around long enough for her silent opinion to make a difference, especially since Shadow wouldn’t care anyway. The two landed at the path to the castle and Shadow waved her off there, then at last permitted a smile. The sun was still high, illuminating the vivid white, pink, and navy colorations of the castle before him, There was a sound of clamor from somewhere in the great palace, but nearer at hoof was the rush of water somewhere in the depths of the moat, and just perhaps a low roar, hardly audible on the wind.
Two guards stood in position on either side of the heavy spruce slab of wood which was lain across the moat, solid-looking steel chains connected it to the gate at the others side where incredible magical mechanisms regulated access by raising and lowering the great drawbridge. Shadow flashed a forced smile and gave a curt nod to the two golden armored stallions, Celestial or morning guards either terminology was correct and he was proud to recognize it. They waved him across without another look. It wasn’t that he was too beaten to merely fly above the moat, but at that moment he felt too lazy to do so. It was a little nicer this way as well, with the smell of baking bread from the castle kitchens wafting more fragrantly at the slower pace.
Figuring he was well overdue for lunch he trotted through the toothed mouth of the castle gate and into the black and white paneled main hall. There were a few nobles milling about the lobby area, on some annoying high end errand he guessed, they were never in short supply. Fortunately they had at least gained the sense to divert their flank kissing to his mother and aunt not himself.
The dining hall had half emptied when he arrived, the wide wooden table laden with fruits and grains eaten down to the simple tidbits and trifles. The celestial monarch had apparently moved on from her place at the head of the table, yet her lunar sister remained, and her navy eyes were trained on Shadow in a way that to others might signify murder.
To Shadow, it was the look he had grown accustomed to seeing when he came to a meal directly after a practice, and it was reasonably warranted. The hushed gossip and comments of the crowd still settled into the table would be the sort that gave the whole of the royal family a reputation of anti-civility and lack of grace. Again, nothing new, and with an appreciative lack of manners Shadow seated himself at one of the vacant chairs near Luna and reached toward the center for a basket of buttered rolls.
“You couldn’t have at least showered?” Luna huffed, her flowing moonlit mane seeming to curtain her face from the slight embarrassment.
“I was hungry,” said Shadow, dunking an entire roll in his soup, transferring it to his mouth, and swallowing it whole.
“I can tell,” said Luna, sounding cross “If you insist on making a scene I expect you to finish quickly and return to whatever business you had planned for this afternoon.”
Shadow’s eyes glinted with what could easily be mistaken for anger, but in reality concealed a deeper sense of guilt. Luna was, if nothing else, good at a lecture, and her point and the consequence were communicated without threat or even a raised voice. It didn’t construct a child’s usual defenselessness or even baser fear of retribution, but truly made the colt face his current actions under a magnifying glass, and suffer internally of his own immaturity in his own level.
“Sorry.” He mumbled.
“It’s alright,” said Luna, the long spiral horn atop her head glowing a soothing blue, an aura which enveloped a napkin on the table so she might dab at some loose crumbs accumulated on her cheeks “Is there anything you’ll need before I meet with the diplomats from Saddle Arabia?” the finishing words of the sentence were spoken silently, as though she was loathe to let Shadow in on them “Yet again…?”
“Nope,” said Shadow, managing to stifle a burp as he pushed his plate forward, finding it to be immediately collected by a passing butler “I was just going to check to see if there were any new spoilers out for Ponymon, you know, the Onyx and Amethyst remakes?”
Luna, of course, did not know a trifle of what Shadow was talking about, but kept it quiet, nodding sagely to feign the knowledge “Then I’ll see you sometime this evening,” she said “Stay out of trouble won’t you?”
There had been a time, in Shadow’s earlier years in the castle, during which Luna’s warning might have fallen on deaf ears. The colt’s mischievous streak, however, had diminished greatly, so much so that an observer might consider it matured out of his personality. Instead of a counter-argument or some wisecrack to the princess’ forewarning, Shadow stood, then gave a practiced bow, making sure to keep a steady and formal stance.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he said.
“Good,” Luna permitted a sparkle of her own playful attitude by running a hoof through Shadow’s green, and lately very black striped mane “See you tonight.”
“Yep!” Shadow confirmed, rising and pushing his chair in before making a half-dash out of the hall, clearly on some childish agenda, but trying to appear formal in his excitement.
Mind’s eye opened wide as Shadow came back to the lobby, the physical merely having to register the familiar high tapestry and the marble pony statues. He flickered back in memory to the point at which he had first seen this place, three years previous when the statue to the right of the main stairs had been tipped and Twilight, a new princess at the time, had simply rolled her eyes and spoken of how the monument was a magnet for trouble. His stomach knotted at the memory, at who else had been with him then.
There was a brief, futile effort to block the stream of memory as he turned back towards the main gate, but when one sour memory arises, it is habitual to bring others with it. His hooves carried him outside in the direction of the gardens as the flashing backwards could not be stopped.
Ponyville, that was where he had essentially begun, his earliest memory being in that small cabin where his father had raised him. That was a better time, though others might not think it so, the poverty that allowed a sort of freedom and happiness accompanied by frequent exploration into the curiosities in the nearby Everfree Forest, never deep enough to observe the horrors within of course, but plenty to entertain the young colt for days on end.
The cutoff of his early childhood had been short, painful, and clear, when he was a good way through his fifth year of life and starting his first day of kindergarten at Ponyville Elementary. His return home after that first lesson was the beginning of the end, when his father had been conspicuously absent…
Grass, it filled all of Shadow’s senses and dragged him thankfully away from the darkest part of his memory. The soft plant matter beneath him, the wild scent of foliage in the air, and the visage of flowing waving blades of the plant permitting a hypnotic sort of calm all contributed to a quiet tranquility he had grown to love. The pasture ran along the side of the castle from the moat until it reached a cobbled courtyard, the premise to tall, foreboding hedges.
Shadow continued his walk as the comfortable grass changed under hoof to the sensation of gravel, and then to stone as his gaze flickered about the stone statues around the yard. Some time ago, when he was barely old enough to make memories, the lord of chaos had been freed from his prison here. Now it was a quiet place, the unassuming stone carrying a hint of menace since the event as tourists and citizens alike couldn’t help but wonder what the models might be hiding.
His eyes unfocused from the menacing forms and moved back to the hedges, tall and perhaps even dark in stature. Within was one of the most mind bending puzzles known to ponykind, aided with the confusing principles of Discord which had never quite dissipated. It was a place he visited more frequently than his rational mind would enjoy, but it was the part that enjoyed silence that brought him out. It was a calm place, with most of the hustle of the castle safely out of earshot, a place where he could stop and think.
Thinking here, though, wasn’t the most pleasant experience, because the first time he had come out here he hadn’t been alone. Lightning. Like her namesake her memory arrived at times when he least wanted her with destructive force, his mind conjuring the image of a red-coated filly with electric blue in her mane and an unspeakably rare talent emblazoned on her flank.
“Lightning, Lightning Strike,” her words to him, on the first anniversary of his father’s death, and she had come across as annoying and pompous at the time, but she pried and questioned him to fury, and then to sadness when she asked about his parents. To his knowledge then, he was an orphan foal, and he had expected his response to drive her away with a storm of pity, but when he told her of his bereavement her response had been monumental, two words that would alter his world going forward.
They had been in the same classroom that day, and had together made the daring escape. From there it only escalated, the deeper parts of Everfree were just a start, moving to events as wide ranging as train hijacking to interstellar voyaging. It had felt as though the word ‘impossible’ had lost all meaning.
That train of thought was dangerous, and he attempted to fling it off the rails by entering the passage of the darkened maze. The leafy walls seemed to close behind him and only opened enough ahead to allow his progress. The method wasn’t working very well, for despite the claustrophobic atmosphere the memories were even here. When had he come here with Lightning? Specific details evaded him, but he could remember the party, a late affair celebrating his seventh year, and at the same time his ‘return’ to the castle.
His heritage was not a fond thought either, but it was less painful than the others and he latched onto it. The story he knew, and which he had little choice but to accept, was of his father being a former captain of the guard, handing his title to shining armor after a brief love with the princess of the night. That had lasted about a year before he was born a sticking point as his position would have unknown political ramifications. So his father, Umbra Chaser, had taken him to the small town of Ponyville to keep him secret and keep him safe.
Now Ponyville had opened up as one of the fastest growing trade centers in Equestria, now that the castle of Princess Twilight was there the demand for tourism had been uproarious. It had been somewhat quieted the influx of ponies that usually came to Canterlot this time of year. But it was by no means stifled completely, which was why he still sought so much after the garden silence.
Shadow’s hooves seemed to be guiding him on something of a predetermined path, his subconscious treading the corners while his eyes half observed the high masses of foliage, and the tiny round leaves that still clumped to form this walls. Much of this maze still baffled those who explored it, no matter how often the paths were traversed or how frequently maps were made by flying over, the hedges seemed to shift and change as they grew, making return trips difficult. It wasn’t rare that pegasi were sent to hunt lost ponies and guide them safely out again.
On the other hoof, actually being a pegasus meant a certain level of safety for the journey, as it could be ended at any time by simply taking to the air. Shadow was immeasurably confident in his ability to make a hasty evacuation, which was why he dared the place at all. The only place where flight would be of little afford to him, however, was straight ahead.
It was called The Dome, made of natural grass, and from virtually any viewpoint it was just that, a wide, circular clearing in the hedges with several paths joined to it, a huge, thin dome of plant matter hanging high overall. The clearing itself was serene and quiet, meditative even. At the center was a wide, calm pool, clear and smooth enough to see right down to the flat mud at the bottom. Around the edge were several high stone statues, impeccably carved by skilled masons to form the likeness of powerful historical figures. A replacement to the image of Discord, or rather Discord himself, had been erected more recently, along with one more new figure of Twilight who had apparently had some inauguration to the honor. These were just to name a few, the royal sisters were, of course, demonstrated, along with figures as menacing as Sombra or as pure as Cadence. Some of them were so ancient and decrepit that it could be theorized the figures they depicted were otherwise lost to history.
Shadow came to a stop at a peculiar pedestal among the others, peculiar in the sense that the pedestal was all it was. The statuesque figure atop was either gone or had never existed at all. The latter seemed most likely, for there was another such blank slab on the opposite lakeside. Somehow they seemed different than the others, resonating with a quiet power that caused his initial objective of climbing atop the thing to be diverted.
It was from next to this stand that he finally came to a rest, giving in to the stubborn realization that the post traumatic style memory was not about to be stopped. He groaned, falling into the grass on the lakeside as he remembered his seventh birthday party, his adventures with the archaic artifacts, the chaos of the day that had brought Lightning and himself to this same spot. Oh how painfully long ago it had been when they had unlocked the powers of the lake to no greater effect than to reverse a single spell. This pool had power and he had used it with the help of a friend he would never see again.
The pool had power, this thought was enough to bring the self pity train to a grinding stop as the curiosity express barreled along the same path. He hadn’t heard much talk about this pool since the incident, but a little while after that he had the vaguest memory of someone saying something about it. “The Pool of Desires will be inactive for some years.” They had said, or something like that, was this the Pool of Desires they had been talking about? He remembered how Lightning had activated its power accidentally, begged for one thing and had iit granted. Was that what this lake was? a massive, all-powerful wishing well?
It was something to consider, he supposed, something to test? Yes. But how had she done it? He wracked his brains for something, anything, some minute detail that might clarify the inner workings of the water’s magic. She had toppled something, one of the statues, the one of Luna! He swiveled around to see that the stone in question had been replaced, but it was newer looking, somehow different from the others, a quality shared by the depictions of Twilight and Discord also. For this to work the special stone had to come in contact with water, right? That meant these wouldn’t work. For a moment he considered using the empty pedestal as an experiment, but he snapped off the idea at once. Something just didn’t seem right about destroying the thing, the mere though sending shivers down his spine.
The visage of Celestia however, that too was crafted from the original old stone, and he had no qualms about cracking a statue of old sun butt. He walked back around the pool, putting an experimental hoof on one great leg. The weight was something hardly short of tremendous, but the whole mess seemed to be greatly off balance. With the right force he could overturn it with ease. He took a long, slow breath, braced himself on the ground, prepared to push.
“What I want,” he spoke quietly, the ghostly tone of Lightning’s desperate cry coming to the forefront of his memory. “I just don’t want to be lonely anymore… please…”
Shadow grunted, the initial push inadequate, he slammed his shoulder into the side of the imitation princess, and with a shuddering movement the whole of the thing came down into the water with a geyser style rush, flooding the nearby shore. He gasped, taking wing and holding himself there, knowing what would come next. The flood from the splash did not sink into the grass, instead, it continued to rise, even after the water had calmed. The creak of branches came from all sides as the paths in or out of the dome were closed by new, rapid hedge growth.
While hanging, suspended, over the rising water below, Shadow came to a certain dark realization. The pool of desires was so dangerous because of the water, but why set such a precaution? To make sure the desires were pure, so that only those willing to drown would get what they wished for. Only those willing to die for their cause here would have it achieved.
But he had survived the death trap once, he could do it again. While the last time he had been in the dome he had punched and bit at the thing until it gave way just enough for him to escape that would no longer be necessary. He was stronger now, and at least a little bit smarter. While the water was still low he flew close to it, hooves just rippling along the clear surface before shooting up and away from it at comet speed.
The plants never stood a chance. The moment one forward hoof touched upon the top of the dome at such blinding speed the vines practically wilted away to accommodate his passage. What couldn’t be broken away in the shard of a shattered second through which he flew clung to his wings and stuck them against his sides. The next moment after escape was not flying, but falling, tangled in vines of spider silk. But Shadow was calm the whole way down, not even flinching as he hit the ground, shoulder first, rolling with the momentum. He knew the secret of all great fliers, the ability to fall with grace.
The matter of shaking free of the vines was simple as they mostly crumbled at his touch, a task that was vaguely more complicated as he worked around blooming bruises. He’d landed just shy of the maze exit, but the distance had been considerable. Shadow turned, blatantly ignoring the screeching voice of pain on all sides to gaze back to the maze. The water had risen well above its boundaries in the grassy dome and the pressure sent it up, fountain-like through the hole he had formed in his escape. The display lasted mere minutes, however, before the water stopped and the garden returned to its quiet tranquility.
“Stupid idea anyway…” Shadow grumbled, kicking the dirt slightly as he turned, tail flicking behind him as he headed back towards the castle. Behind him, the falling droplets created a prism of color arching across the sky.