A summer night, and afterwards
Curtains billowed in the gentle nightly wind. All was quiet in the Palace now with the exception of the infrequent servant at these hours. Virga had been highly infrequent since the settlement of the Disaster Opera, coming and going at random intervals that made little sense, as if to say his entire world had been thrown into disarray. In truth, it had. Change of departments, change of daily life, the expedition in the Empire. He had too much happening at once, and the night was the best time to return to the Palace. The black pegasus emerged from the dark of the night and silently touched his hooves to the floor.
"You have been difficult to track, lately," Nightshade says, emerging, as always, from the shadows of the pillars. She is as is always is, aloof, distant, calculating, looking over the pegasus with a discerning, investigative (some would say interrogative) eye. "You are managing yourself, I hope?"
With all the things that happened, Nightshade's emerging from the shadows evoked in Virga a defensive response. The pegasus quickly turned about to face the unicorn, his wings snapping out with the searing crackle of pink voltage. His posture: defensive; his wings: ready to strike. The time since his wife's passing had genuinely been horrid more than good. That Nigthshade stood before him without a weapon drawn required an uncomfortably long moment for him to ease.
Nightshade makes no move, no sound, no reaction whatsoever. She simply looks at him with weighty calm, assessing and judging and contemplating his face. "It's your move, Mr. De Soleil," she finally says after an interminable moment.
Virga's wings slowly closed and dispelled the charge they carried. In the lantern light, the new gem in his forehead shimmered once, the only bright thing about him now. The pegasus's face was incredibly hard to read, yet contained so much behind it. "You don't have to address me as Mister or by surname," he said., slowly hoofing back from her. "I'm not especial. Just a pegasus..."
"So it would seem at first," says Nightshade, gazing pointedly at the gem on his forehead. "Let us be frank. You have been...problematic as of late, and I am concerned."
"Concerned?" Virga repeated, tucking his wings tight. "You're the first to bluntly say so...other than Princess Cadence and Princess Luna upon the Viewing."
"Then I suppose I shall become the third," Nightshade replies tersely. "Granted, it is not within my sphere to medle in such affairs, but it certainly lies within my expertise to see to it that the Realm's defenders are capable of their duties. After all, they must be ready to ward off threats to Equestria, whether changelings or Nightmares or...Sombran recividists." She looks at Virga again, but this time her eyes are fierce and determined. "I would like to hear your point of view."
Virga, meanwhile, had subtly backed himself against the nearest wall. It wasn't that he didn't trust Nightshade--she had the best interests for Equestria. More so, it was the peace he needed, which he hadn't known since the incident. "You refer to Halite."
"You are perceptive," Nightshade says, remaining where she is. "We are only beginning to understand the dynamics at work in the Empire. The encounter with Halite, while surprising, was not totally unexpected. Nevertheless, if you do not wish to say anything in this regard, you have a right to silence; we can reconstruct the events by other means."
"She is an utter disgrace," Virga said, remaining where he was. "Intelligent, but not without cultist beliefs. Halite affirmed her belief that Sombra desired to conquer this world, and a parallel world in which the benevolent counterpart of himself ruled an alternate Equestria. If Sombra had such plans. She was there to terminate me, Princess Cadence, and to revive Sombra. That's the second shard of his horn I've encountered this year."
"Many more may yet be found," Nightshade states. "I am more interested, though, in the ruins you discovered... it was of Orbello's time, wasn't it?"
Virga eyed her then. Discovered? No. The pegasus's posture didn't prove positive, a subtle shaking in the hoof here, a twitch in the wing there. It wasn't nervousness in front of Nightshade, but signs that his nerves had suffered recent emotional shots several times. "My home, from Orbello's days."
Nightshade nods lightly, looking downward, pensive. "I must apologize; this is understandably a sensitive matter for you. Perhaps some time for recuperation is necessary." She makes indefinite motions to back off and move away, her hooves tilting like hinges on the floor, but she herself doesn't actually move. It's unclear whether she is indecisive, or trying to lead Virga on. Perhaps it is both.
When Nightshade indicated she may leave him he, Virga lowered his wings to the floor and nearly slumped. He never looked so defeated in the Palace before, or was it a display of vulnerability that he didn't show to just any pony? The pegasus slowly hoofed towards Nightshade and stopped face to face. "I am able to do what I'm supposed to, but I don't look that great do I?"
"If you must ask, then probably not," says Nightshade, twisting her feet so that she fully faces Virga again. "It is best if you, ah, relaxed, then. Should I summon the tea service?"
"Yes, please," Virga answered as he rubbed his face with the elbow of his wing. A brief glint flickered from the streamlined satchel underneath and a cubic crystal clacked against the floor, coming to rest between them. The pegasus paused and stared down at it. Normally he wouldn't keep his satchel so loose. "I'm sorry, I'll pick that up."
Nightshade's horn glows dark purple as she sends forth summons. When Virga drops the seemingly inocuous gem, though, her eyes dart towards it with predatory attentiveness. "Just another bauble, I suppose?" she says calmly, but already there is a barely perceptible sharpness in her tone.
Virga carefully took the crystal and pushed it deep into the satchel, which he properly tightened. "Depends on your definition of bauble," he answered, knowing she'd no doubt have an interest in it. For him it was a bauble, a very personal bauble, but to any pony else it was more likely a highly prized relic if they knew what it was. The pegasus met eyes with Nightshade for once. It was the same Virga, yet a tired Virga. "I do have something stored in the Palace that should be at your attention. It is dangerous in the wrong hooves."
"It just might be," says Nightshade, something heavy in the way she pronounces her words. "Perhaps it would be best if I make an assessment?"
"Normally, yes, I'd suggest an assessment...yet, I know of this object myself," Virga answered, his voice even more tired than before. Was it fatigue, or something else? He'd been absent since the expedition in the Empire, and aloft so much that even the Royal Physicians had nothing on him since before he originally left. "While within the Empire, the confrontation with Halite resulted in my confiscation of a material known as Morphistal, or morphic crystal. It is a rare alicorn-made crystal, though Equephelians rediscovered the means to produce it--such means lost with Equephel. Halite was known for her ribbon dancing, which derived from her mastery of chain weapons. The Morphistal she had embedded in a combat-grade, aura-sensitive ribbon. With it, the Morphistal at the ribbon's end could become any weapon she commanded so."
"I know perfectly well what it is," says Nightshade, showing uncharacteristic impatience. "Our Chronicles speak of such things, but only in the voice of legends. To see a true piece of Quintessence is...quite the opportunity, as you may understand."
"Something is bother you, I trust?" Virga said as he quietly hoofed by the unicorn. He needed to sit, and sit on the matts near the balcony is what he did. "That particular Morphistal I gave her long ago, before I met my first wife. Back then, Halite hadn't yet taken an Imperial name. She was Derecho. It made her happy, and later became the instrument she wielded under Sombra. Would you truthful wish to see it, knowing her use equated non-combatants as acceptable collateral loss?"
"I am...fine," Nightshade states, her posture relaxing noticeably. Once again, she is as steady as ever. "Yes, there is much darkness in the history of this object, but I fear that the circumstances necessitate an examination. If you indeed have it, I would presume to see it, if you please."
"You are not as fine as you wish me to believe," Virga intoned as he watched her, the ever-mysterious unicorn that she was. "Are you that concerned for me? If so, it is flattering...but I will retrieve the Morphistal for you. With exception of the Princesses, I know of no other who can be trusted with it."
Nightshade pointedly ignores Virga's sympathies and jumps straight to the point. "Better yet, if you tell me where it is, we can, ah, take a shortcut, as it were." She steps away from the balcony and towards the interior of the palace, but stops a few steps in to look back. Her foreleg lifts up and extends towards the pegasus, her cloven hoof making a curious, dainty waggle. "If you please."
Virga faintly narrowed his eyes. "Might I inquire the urgency?" he said, shifting his wings in a similar fashion to her hoof waggling. "You usually are not so eager to see what I have to share, like that one time you saw me in the shadows."
"The significance of your... paraphernalia varies," Nightshade insists. "In this case, however, it it clearly something of vital importance, something in which we are very interested in accounting for. Now...you did make an offer." Her hoof is still extended, in fact.
"That I did," Virga responded as he reluctantly got to his hooves. His body language wasn't so appreciative regardless of how he sounded. As he passed by Nightshade to lead her on he gave into a non-admitted urge. "If I died tomorrow, then what?" he said, his voice just as heavy as her own.
Shadow seeps from Nightshade's horn as her eyes grow dark. "Then we will feast on your memory," she warns, suddenly grabbing his hoof and...something. Somewhere. Light melts away into the natural void of creation, slipping past them like dust in a breeze. Ideas degrade into mere words, and objects fall away from reality into the world of possibilities. Then, as quickly as it happened, it bounces right back. Color solidifies into definite forms. The natural flow of principle to practice becomes clear to the mind's eye as the natural progress of time reasserts itself. When truesight returns to Nightshade once more, she finds herself in a different place.
When she said 'guide' her, he didn't think or expect it to mean teleportation. The pegasus was slow to react to her hoof-grab, but quick where the magic concerned. Once they had shifted planes, Virga stumbled forward on dreadfully unbalanced legs, his maw clenched in apparent discomfort. He gasped, flattening himself against the nearest pillar. The gem in his forward flashed once and he slumped onto his haunches. There had been more change to Virga than anticipated. Where he kept the scroll became obscure, clouded in dust disturbed after centuries of layering. Of all the places he could hide something, it was in the lower recesses where few ponies, if any at all, roamed: an empty room full of ruined benches, book cases, and desks. Cobwebs were strewn everywhere. Virga shuddered, holding his hooves to his chest. He was not so...well. "In..the wall...behind that bookcase..."
The shadows wick off Nightshade like fading mist as she surveys the room, accounting for its shape, its structure, its secrets. Without another word she takes heed of Virga's indications and walks towards the bookcase, her horn glowing as she tries to shift it inside and reveal its hidden treasure.
Virga closed his eyes as she focused so intently on finding the Morphistal. He wasn't one for easily affected emotions, but her focus on that object was too...single-minded. The bookcase easily shifted aside, revealing the space in the wall where Virga had removed a couple of bricks. A wrapped cloth lay in the hole. No object, just the cloth. And only the cloth.
Nightshade blinks twice, her brow furrowing. She reaches forth to touch it... Suffering. The sense of losing control as the body decays, hardens, crystallizes. Pride and honor. Duty. Ideas and images come but vague to her perception, but she knows what it is. "This is...a bandage," she states.
"Curious," Virga mumbled, loud enough for her to hear, "that a bandage distracts you so easily whereas I do not." He turned his head and questioningly gazed at her. Slowly, he reached for his satchel and drew the same cubic crystal he dropped earlier. A spade suddenly embedded itself into the brick next to Nightshade's head, a crystal spade. His little 'bauble' was the Morphistal, not the memoric crystal which he commanded it to mimic. That was safely tucked away, out of Nightshade's reach.
Nightshade cranes her neck around, her once-calm visage suddenly afire with obvious irritation. "There was no need for this deception," she said. "I am not one for silly games, Mr. De Soleil."
"Neither am I," Virga answered as he lay against the pillar. "Neither is Halite. Consider it a demonstration of how well it can mimic other objects." He slumped a tad, wincing again. "Yet it showed me a flaw in you, the same Halite possesses. Once your mind is focused on one thing, you seize it. Everything else becomes tertiary. It showed me how easily another can manipulate you in the pursuit of items such as that one. If you are seeking to lead investigation about Halite, she'd have used your interests to her advantage. The only difference is that instead of the irritation you now have, with her it would have been that Morphistal spade in your neck."
Nightshade gives Virga a hard stare for several moments, her lips tightening, and for a moment it seems like alher tension is about to spill out, to bubble outward in violent pulses. But, at the critical moment, she seems to relent, her head turning aside as her features slacken and her eyes grow heavy. She moves towards the side of the room, silent, fixating upon an ancient bookshelf.
"Not the best way to teach a lesson in the modern day, I know," the pegasus [Virga] added as she nearly fumigated the place with upset. "I just...don't want to see you in coffin." He breathed deep and partially looked away, wondering what she saw in an old bookshelf. Ever since that first day they met, when she used her shadoweaving and saw the things she did, Virga felt a protectiveness for Nightshade that he couldn't see to due to duties. Halite was a personal problem as much as a security matter, and he didn't want her suffering for getting involved in his own unresolved mess.
Whatever suffering Nightshade might experience, it is not apparent from where Virga stands. Her head is bowed down slightly as she traces outlines on the floor with her hoof, her mane partly concealing her face. "I can manage my own safety," she states, "but the safety of the Realm is my paramount concern. Whatever sentiment I may hold otherwise, this is what is of ultimate importance."
Virge lightly narrowed his eyes. "Like you managed it just now?" Virga said. "If you cannot protect yourself, you cannot protect the Realm."
"You do not know what I have given up to protect the Realm," Nightshade asserts, holding her head higher, but she still faces the bookshelf. "You act as if you have the right to test me, but I have already been tested, Virga de Soleil. I do not need your judgment."
"So you say now," Virga answered, unsure if he should be trusting her at that bookshelf. "But when things involve my own past, I do have the right to test you. Unless you fancy tampering with alicorn relics far more dangerous than the amulet Trixie so cherished." He pressed his back against the pillar and shuddered. "And while I don't like thinking myself above others...or that I'm worth anything at all...who are you to tell a seven thousand year old pegaus anything about judgment?" No, Virga didn't like saying that. Even if most of his years were i magical sleep, he'd not deny the period he was born 'in' despite it not having been the time of his 'home'.
"Peoples far more ancient have thought likewise, to their doom," Nightshade retorts, turning at last to face him straight on. Something of her confidence has returned as she keeps her composure to the full. "I do not seek your knowledge for my own purposes but only for the sake of larger plans. If you do not wish to share this with me, then so be it. I would have accepted a plain refusal."
"So...your want of knowledge is purely utilitarian, with no self interest?" he asked, curling his wings around himself, into a shield of pinions. "You have to be interested in something for yourself. At least, the fact you haven't hit me yet tells me as such."
"My interests are my own business," Nightshade replies. "Now... are you going to persist in prying into my psyche, or shall we be off?" She definiteyl sounds a smidgen irritated.
"We?" Virga said, raising his ears. "You probably don't need me from here. Don't trouble yourself teleporting me." His shield of wings tightened a bit. "You have what you wanted."
"Our interactions have only just begun, Virga de Soleil," Nightshade states, her horn sparking as she pries the Morphistal out of the wall with magic. Carefully, she wraps it in shadow until it disapparates into whatever strange realm she draws her power from. "Your tea is getting cold back at the Palace, you know."
He had just started wondering about that tea, though he didn't mind it cold. "If our interactions..." the pegasus answered. "...Whatever it is you do I must make one thing clear." He slowly got to his hooves and shakily approached Nightshade to ready for teleportation. "The Realm is your concern. While it is my concern, Princess Luna is priority for me as she was for Firefly. What ever task she puts for me, no matter how questionable, I must engage it. Even if she becomes Nightmare Moon again, I will still be at her side. I am entirely sworn to everything she is--even if it puts me against your plans."
Nightshade looks at Virga with great knowing as she draws closer. "I wouldn't expect any less of you," she says, holding her hoof out for him to accept.
Virga held his hoof out to her and paused before they touched. "Just...keep in mind I'm still not myself after the loss. Without Princess Cadence, I'd have entirely broken by now." And then he accepted her hoof.
"I know," she whispers, before the world fades yet again. The experience is not so jarring this time, even though the colors wash away and the necessary connections between the patterns of life seem to unravel all the same. This time, they both have a memory of their destination. As soon as they re-emerge in the regular world, they find themselves right beside a fresh tea cart, still hot and piping and ready for them.
They re-emerged, and when they did Virga's wings had found their way around Nightshade. Her little whisper was something he needed to hear...from one who was not a Princess or prone to the influences and use of Heart Magic. The pegasus slowly withdrew his pinions and looked away. "My apologies...was that an appropriate response?"
Nightshade gives Virga a long, cold gaze before shuffling aside, away from the pegasus. "You presume too much," she says, using her magic to help herself to a cup of tea. "Now, we ought to see to your bedraggled state. I am prepared to initiate the process of granting you leave for a certain period."
Virga quietly tucked his wings in appropriate manor and then helped himself to tea. One full cup, small sugar, light lemon. "I've been on leave for too long," he answered.
"Your leave does not seem to have had the effect of granting you rest and relaxation, as is plainly obvious," Nightshade replies, settling into one of the cushions next to the cart which has been laid out for them. "Unless you can explain to me how you can properly serve the Princess in your state?"
"My leave was assigned to the term I spent in the Empire," Virga said as he reclined on his own set of cushions. "It was not supposed to have gone sour." He sipped from his touch and stared at it for a long moment. "If I must fight, how I appear matters very little. I'm more capable than I look."
Nightshade looks at him yet again, keenly and perceptively. "That is within your judgment, a privilege I am more wont to allow you than yourself," she states sternly. "In any case, the Princess shall decide if you are fit to serve." She sips her tea as it is, black and bitter. "I pray that you will not overestimate yourself."
"The night I took the Oath for Luna, it was in my own words." He didn't meet her gaze, keeping it on the tea, neither approving of himself or deceiving towards Nightshade. "It was that I would fly with shattered wings and run on broken legs. An Oath from me is quite literal."
"A hazardous oath is sometimes more dangerous than treachery," Nightshade states, as if reciting an old proverb. "And often one has a duty to do nothing, to allow matters to develop by themselves." She magics something from the cart: a jar of sweet, condensed milk and a baguette. Pouring some of the syrupy milk into a bowl, she takes the baguette and dips it, eating it and chewing carefully.
"My relations with Princess Cadence aside, Luna is all I have now," Virga replied. Another sip of the tea and he set it on the nearest surface. "The fact I've lived this long is an unspeakably improbable feat. You were correct about ancients dooming themselves. Seven thousand years ago, a kingdom that is not in any records reigned the extreme North. It destroyed itself in civil war. Wendigos set its leaders apart, my sire among them as a guard. My mother, exposed to the essence...I learned of this in the Empire. My...hazardous oath...is just another hurdle after being born so weak that I should have died within mere hours of being." Virga stared off into space while he spoke. The truths he learned were just now settling in after a period of constant activity. "I think it's time you saw something very personal."
Nightshade's ear flickers as Virga tells his story, reveals his past, and, most notably, offers to show something much more. Her mouth imperceptively quivers, and a few breaths are more deep and heavy than the others, but the motions are there. Slowly, she sips her tea, downing everything in a few large helpings, but always politely, always carefully. She sets her cup on the tray along with her snack of bread. Her motions are so deliberate and precise that it is almost as if she's deliberately delaying a response. Finally, after seemingly interminable moments, she speaks. "Are you certain? This is... a large significance."
A deep breath in and Virga's nostrils gently flared. This thing, it was more personal than the Morphistal and may change the way others thought of him for good or bad. The stoicism in the pegasus's face then was palpable, and then his featureless eyes focused on her, the unicorn. He wasn't sure how she'd react to it at all, that large significance. Luna hadn't been informed as there hadn't been a chance yet. Only Cadence knew. He gingerly raised a wing and pulled from the satchel underneath a small Imperial tube wrapped in a cloth of hearts. "I can't guarantee what you'll think when you open this," he said, offering it to her.
Already Nightshade can sense the raw power emanating from the satchel, granting only a glimpse of its true nature. Her face displays a rare moment of alarm for a vanishingly brief moment. "I...I surmise that you obtained this from those ruins," she says, her voice quavering very slightly as she pries the satchel open to behold the contents.
The fragmented horn rolled out in the cloth and lay there before Nightshade as if it wanted to be found, inspected, and likewise inspect the inspector. "That is mine, " Virga said. "Where the gem in my forehead now sits."
Nightshade's eyes widen in unadultered expressiveness. She steps back, her breathing growing heavier, more rapid, until with a surge of magic she thrusts the horn back into the satchel, closing the drawstring tightly. For several second she just sits on the cushion, breathing and recovering, thinking and musing, worrying. Slowly, her expression slackens and she regains her stoic nature, and only then does she deign to notice Virga once again. "This changes everything," she states baldly. "I must summon the others; we must effect a plan as soon as possible." She stands up, her horn glowing purple as she summons the palace stewards to take the tea set away. "You must come with me," she demands, extending her foreleg once more.
Virga hadn't known what to expect from Nightshade, but either way he wasn't wrong about how much it could change the way others saw him. "A plan for what?" he asked, staring at her. She hadn't harmed him or shown reason not to trust her so far...his hoof reached out to hers just as before.
"For the future," Nightshade says, as light drops away yet again. The feeling is familiar, but the stretching and dissolving does seem to reverse life before. Instead, it intensifies, reality (or what substitues for it during this journey) is pulled farther and farther apart until, quite suddenly, it reverses upon itself. Colors flip over completely and the air seems to rush inward, as if to fill a vacuum. Or can it be called 'air' to begin with? With a loud snap they emerge in a strange place, a dim chamber of stone, round and cozy. Behind them is a large white obelisk, the only bright thing in this realm.
Whenever Nightshade teleported, the feeling was disconcerting, unbalancing as much as it was invigorating. And the place where she took him this time equally beheld the same aura at first. The pegasus stumbled about in his footing like he had the first time, unaccustomed to the weirdness that was this realm she had trafficked him too. "Where have you taken me?" he asked, holding his wings half open to steady himself.
"Our sanctum," Nightshade explains, stepping towards the dark table in the centre. She places her hoof on the surface and whispers a few words, her horn glowing not with shadow but briiliant starlight. The table seems to grow brighter, star-like lights emerging from within its form and rising up, and around her hoof rays of cosmic energy swirl about until, at last, they form something resembling her cutie mark on the surface. Soon other symbols appear spaced around the table: a pedestal leaking shadow, a leaf dripping darkness, a book borne by its own shade, a vase/pony illusion. Four tendrils of black energy, one for each other symbol, surge into the room through the hole above, striking each symbol on the table in a flash of blinding light. Then, quite suddenly, they are not alone: four other unicorns stand around the table, and they look at Virga curiously. "...This is certainly very important, if you're bringing him in here," says the stallion to Nightshade's right. His coat is alabaster-white, his mane silvery-blue, and on his flank is the symbol of an ancient pedestal, black tendrils seeping out of the cracks upon its surface.
Sanctum? He didn't approach the table. He couldn't approach the table. He wouldn't approach it unless she told him to do so. Virga peered about her with the inquiring gaze of a scholar having seen the unseen. when the other unicorns appeared he took a few steps back as he didn't know these creatures. He still didn't know where the Sanctum was, its purpose, or what these ponies intended. Had they been expecting him?
"Indeed, what he has brought me is of grave importance, not only to our goals but to the safety of the whole Realm, and all realms present and future." Her horn glows - again, with starlight rather than shadow - and the satchel appears before them on the table. Undoing the drawstrings, she carefully deposits the horn on the surface. The other unicorns are immedietely piqued, and one of them, a slight stallion with a forest-green coat and a silvery-green mane, has produced a strange, cube-shaped machine that buzzes and blinks rapidly. "It's confirmed. This is an Omega-class artifact: alicorn. And...it's his." He turns and points at Virga with an outstretched hoof and an incredulous face, and from this angle one can see his cutie mark: the symbol of a leaf dripping a dew drop, except that, instead of glistening in the light, the dew drop reflects darkness. -- Nightshade nods solemnly. "Virga, if you please, stand among us...and explain."
Certainly, that was the last thing he expected to hear. These sorts of...soirees...tended to end with cultist fire-waving and cries of blasphemy. Slowly, Virga hoofed closer to the dark table and eyed each one of these strange ponies. "The Machine," he started. "Orbello's Machine, that he used to place me into sleep for centuries at a time, and augment me to survive, activated once I stepped onto its platform with a scroll he gave me upon his death. Every time I awoke from the sleep, I was stronger and he was weaker. It is likely he desired me to be his successor as an alicorn, as he was to Kosma."
The unicorns are still and silent as they listen closely, cautiously. Another one to Nightshade's left, a mare with with an amber-orange coat and a braided roan-red mane, speaks. "Kosma...so that's the connection! Professor Brightstar's work is finally vindicated! I...uh, please continue." She coughs a little, perhaps embarassed by her enthusiasm. Her cutie-mark is curious too: a picture of a black vase on a white background. Or is that two white ponies on a black background?
These ponies had queer marks. What was he thinking? His mark was just as unlikely, strange, and unique. "The Machine tore into my soul, turned me black, restructured my wings, and gave me a horn, the same which is now before you. It broke soon after, leaving the gem in my forehead," Virga explained. "Nightshade, you recall my suffering crystallization? Celestia and Luna cured it, but to do so I was spiritually bound to Celestia. A piece of her resides within me. The Machine's design may not have considered this element, thus ending in failure to create myself an alicorn."
"Did you read what was on the scroll?" the last unicorn blurts out, a stallion. His golden-brown mane is unkempt and shaggy, and even his cinnibar coat is rather dishevelled. "What did it say!?" -- "Ah, if you'll excuse Whisperwhirl here," Nightshade states. "He is our expert in...interception and was charged with overseeing your trip to the Empire." -- "That I was!" says Whisperwhirl, who seems to have the mild shakes. "It was a break too, from reading all of Cadence's mail about how much the crystal ponies loved her." His cutie mark is a sigil depicting an open book etched into it, which seems ordinary enough until one realizes that the book's shadow is busy editing the words on the pages.
Virga blinked. What an eccentric hobo of a scholar--Virga couldn't help but blankly staring at him--what species of hobo was this? His nose twitched. Brain Hobo with an editorial of shadows. "No," he answered flatly. "Orbello meant its message for me alone, and I've had little time to read it since. Halite and her retinue appeared after I regained conscious, and battle ensued."
"What! No!" Whisperwhirl declares, exceedingly disappointed. -- "Please ignore our colleagues excitibility," the alabaster stallion condescends. "This machine...you say it malfunctioned before Halite and her group attacked?"
Virga knew he'd rest well, having defeated the Hobo King by denial of records. His attention shifted to the stallion, then Nightshade, and then the stallion once more. "The scroll could have activated it. The Machine may have done what it was supposed to. Orbello never told me everything about his plans for me."
"Thus we are at an impasse," Nightshade states reflectively. "We cannot delve into the shadows of memory in this case, since alicorn magic is impenetrable to us. No, it appears that we must see this for ourselves. We are organizing an expedition." A hushed silence fills the room as the implications sink in. Even Whisperwhirl is completely still. "That is, if you judge us worthy of accompanying you to the ruins, Mr. De Soleil."
"I will venture with you to the ruins," Virga answered, eyeing each one of them. "But you must not step onto the platform under the central mechanism. I can't tell you what the Machine would do to an outsider. It accepted me, naturally, but also accepted Cadence's presence."
"That will be taken into consideration," says Nightshade, her horn glowing with starlight once more as she summons a holographic map of the Crystal Empire out of the table. "The machine's capabilities will also be considered, as will our plan of action...which may including attempting to destroy it." The map emits a series of 'blip' sounds as a red-coloured pathway wends its way from the train station in Crystal City, through the wilderness, and at last the approximate location of the ruins.
"If it isn't already," Virga added. He glanced over the map. They needed it more than he did. "You may run into areas that are still burning, boiling pools of various fluids, charred bodies...." What a travel agent he was!
"If Halite's goons are still around they might've made off with the bodies already," says the amber-coloured mare, magicking a folder which she dumps on the table. There are photos of Halite and all her companions, including some Virga may have killed during the whole ordeal. "If any of them show up, we'll be ready."
Virga quickly went through the photos, searching them for what he recognized and did not. As such, Changelings. Rogue Unicorns, Sleet, Graupel...Cirrus. Upon the first image of Cirrus Virga paused and bit his lower lip. "This one," he said, tapping his hoof on a picture of a white pegasus. "Cirrus...died defending Cadence from a lethal bolt....but these two?" He pointed to the picture of a red pegasus. "Graupel, a trainee on his way to the rejection table...Gave his life to a shard of Sombra's horn at Halite's command, and this one," he said, pointing to a blue pegasus. "Sleet. I didn't like what he said, so I killed him there and then."
"Count yourself lucky that extrajudicial slaying is not within our purview," says the alabaster stallion, looking obviously haughty. "We have basic profiles on all these ponies already, and we have some idea of their movements. Our party can defend itself easily enough even without an escort. The /real/ question is what those ruins have in store for all of us."
Virga blinked and looked up at the alabaster stallion. "I'm rather curious how you have ideas of their movements when her band of unicorns are dead, as are most of the Changelings. Those that survived have hopefully returned home," he said. "Sleet's death was not extrajudicial. That pegasus had a history of problems after becoming enamored with the Sombran Aerial Knights. The last thing he said was how much he longed to see Shining Armor's anguish after murdering Cadence."
"Hers is not the only group that yearns for the King," says Nightshade mysteriously. "In any case, the matter will not settled by discussion; we must preparations immedietely. I believe we can be ready in three days, at least." -- "Yes, Miss Nightshade," says the forest-green stallion who has remained mostly silent. "Approximately 68 hours, to be precise, if Amber Alacrity can convince Professor Brightstar to grant her leave." -- "He won't be a problem," says Amber Alacrity, the one other mare. "I'll just tell him that I have an angle on his Ancient Alicorns theory, which is technically true." -- "Very good. Then, it's settled," says Nightshade. "In three days time we shall convene at the Gem Cut Inn at the outskirts of the Crystal Empire. I shall provide details via shadowfax."
"I must also add another note of my traveling back to the ruin," Virga intoned. "Should we encounter any more Crystalbolt survivors, either for the Crown or against, they fall in my jurisdiction, and that of Princess Cadence and Shining Armor. I must also inform you that I've been rebranded in the modern age as their Crystalwing when on Imperial land." He slowly backed from the altar and sat, wings tight.
"We are aware of this as well," says Nightshade, "and the full breadth of your authority will be respected. Meanwhile, we shall do our part to end this crisis. Let us see it." Her horn glows again, and this time the table is wiped clean in a burst of starfire. The other unicorns head off to see to their own preparations: the alabaster stallion and the forest-green stallion head into their respective rooms, while Amber Alacrity and Whisperwhirl walk over to the obelisk and, touching it, are whisked away through the in-between to Celestia knows where. Only Nightshade remains in the central room. "If you wish, I can delay this trip until you are rested enough," she states.
When the other ponies had left, Virga's tenseness eased. Of them all, Nightshade was the most level headed and unassuming that he could tell. "A short rest, perhaps," he answered, eyes on his hooves. "I am confused about his crisis you refer to. I am not aware of any crisis at this moment."
"This is a crisis," Nightshade asserts, magicking the satchel into the air before sending it away in a sprinkle of starlight. "The Society knows least of that ancient era when alicorns ruled this world, fitful dreams of power and might that lifted mountains and gouged out valleys, that spun the cosmos and the spheres like playthings of gods, that sparked wars terrible and great whose last trumpets of battle still resonate into the nightmares of the chosen. No, this is a crisis of great significance, and we are to put a stop to it."
"I need my horn, Nightshade," Virga said. "It is something I must personally have assessed by Luna the next time she summons me. Neither myself, Cadence, know what the gem in my forehead is for." He rubbed his face with the leading edges of his wings. "Your Society has a strange idea of things...Orbello told me recollections of his younger days with Kosma. It doesn't match what you describe. His devices and means had no desire to wield the power you suggest, nor did Kosma's according to his recollections. Must have been different alicorns." He breathed again. "I won't deny though...the horrible thing about the Machine is not what it did to me in Cadence's presence..." The pegasus raised his head a tad, but did not see eye to eye. "It was being...put to sleep after making friends with a pony my age at the time, only to wake up and learn from his great, great grandson about his life that I never got to share...this happened several times."
"When knowledge is mediated, there is a danger in the interpretation," Nightshade states. As Virga lays out his experiences, though, she listens, and learns. "We may never discern what Orbello's true plans were, but I am duty-bound to assess his vision within the context of the safety of the Realm. I cannot afford to be sentimental."
"So, I must ask of you a question then," Virga said. "What am I to the modern pony?"
"An opportunity," Nightshade states plainly, "or a threat. What you become will depend on what you choose to do, how to decide to effect the story of the world." She steps towards him, looking him over with a discerning eye, but there is tension borne of possibility in her movements.
Virga slightly inclined his head when she stepped closer. "I've already chosen," he answered. "Yet there is much demand on me that has never been present. Things were more dire when Sombra took over, but this is more demanding."
"Every moment of living is a choice," Nightshade says softly. "When the moment of crisis comes I pray that you will be able to choose wisely." She lifts up her hoof once again towards Virga. "I can return you to wherever you need to be, for now."
Virga looked at her hoof, then her face. Eyes. "I am strong for others...cannot burden Cadence with my weakness. There's no other I can freely show myself when I'm not at my best."
Nightshade slowly puts her hoof down. "We shall see," she says. "Then perhaps you can enlighten me on how you wish to go about that."
"You wish to know how weak I am, though I fight it off by mere will?" Virga asked. "As I feel I must?"
"Is will enough?" Nightshade says. "Many have relied on will alone. Many have failed."
"Many are not me," Virga replied. "I'm an instant away from collapsing out of necessity, have been since I first landed, yet you see me as I am. Why?"
Nightshade gives Virga a hard gaze, as if challenging a reprobate pupil, but soon her features soften in resignation. "Then, we shall see the wisdom of your choice soon enough," she states. The unicorn turns about and heads back towards the table. "You cannot remain here long. Already the shadows grow disquieted by the presence of an outsider."
"You came for me," Virga said. "You had a need. Even when you're finished, there is more need you have." He hoofed around before approaching the table. "That is why."
Nightshade is grimly silent, her hoof resting upon the table as if to cradle it. "I think...that you have had enough inquiries about this place for today," she warns.
"Have I?" Virga said. "Then it is fine if I stop?" He didn't wait for her to say yes or no. The pegasus kept his eyes on her as he swayed and sank. His wings spanned out and brushed the ground; he coughed and sharply inhaled air. A thin, black substance dripped from his maw. He had enough inquires for certain. "So tired..." And just like that, he collapsed where he sat.
Light and shadow, real and unreal, the discourse between thought and action; all thi and more seems to happen in the mysterious realm of unconsciousness. Starlight and darkness: two sides of the same coin? No, a contradiction, but perhaps only in terms of the earthly? The mundane? Mundane, indeed, is the mere sunlight that flits through a window, like a clever insect, bristling with dust and vapor. There is the clatter of glass, and the whisper of voices, and a splotch of red and white. A pegasus mare watches over Virga, inspecting a machine with leads and wires taped across his prone form. A constant beep punctuates the silence.
Virga's eye opened, his vision at first blurred. The last thing he remembered was Nightshdae's face in the other realm, blackness, fatigue. He breathed and peered at the pegasus mare before settling back. Just great, a physician's lair, and spectators. "Where am I?" he finally mumbled.
"Military hospital," the mare replies with a definite alto, her orange mane and mottled pink coat looking rather immaculate. "Dr. Astral Aspirant here. You were in pretty bad shape when they rolled you in."
Virga took a deep breath and for once did not try to sit, up, stand, stretch his wings, or move in any way except to gaze at the doctor. "Military?" he asked. "I'm not military...and I'm sure an enlisted or officer may need your services more than I."
"Normally yeah," says Astral, tapping her clipboard with a pen. "But they rolled you in here with a scroll stamped with the royal seal so I'm not of the mind to contest this special case. Anyway, you're here until I say you're good to go, and... you're not good to go. Not for a while."
Virga then stared at the ceiling. "If I disappear without warning, know it is Princess Luna's summon," he said. "Until you clear me, I will not attempt to leave, doctor." It was time for the waiting game. Did any pony know he was here aside from Nightshade? Even so, it didn't matter. Virga didn't expect guests. Who, aside from A Princess or, maybe, Nightshade, would even visit him? The pegasus closed his eyes and let his body ease. He didn't know any pony in the military except Shining Armor or Scope.
"Good to hear," says Astral, grinning as she scribbles on her clipboard. "Wouldn't want you dripping that weird black goo everywhere." As Virga slips into slumber, she sighs aloud, pondering her lot in life, but there's no room for complaint. She /did/ sign on the dotted line, after all.
Monday, June 29, 2015