Equestria from Dust

Celestia awakens to see an empty world, white sandstone stretching the horizon. She wanders the world as she builds it from her imagination, filling it with life, but as time passes, the world that she created begins to seem like little more than a lucid dream, conjured from the dust.

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10. Part 10: Departure

Departure

 

 

Equestria from Dust, by soundslikeponies

 

The Captain of the Guard and Celestia march back to his office at a rushed canter, neither of them paying the ponies they pass mind nor heed, both looking ahead toward their destination.

Arriving at his office, the Captain opens the door for Celestia, allowing her in before following inside and shutting the door behind them. “What did you mean, ‘one of them returned’?” Celestia asks, fearing she knows exactly what he means.

“I mean exactly that: one of them has returned early. They were supposed to spend a minimum of two days investigating the disturbance. I haven’t managed to get a single word out of the guard who came back in regards to where the other two members of her squad are.”

The Captain leans against his desk and studies the wood grain. “Her state of mind is disturbed. She goes on about the strangest things, and she keeps saying that the sky falling and other nonsensical babble. She’s refused food and water since she got back, keeps saying she doesn’t want to eat anybody.”

Celestia freezes. “You said in your reports there were ponies who were turned into sheep, and corn turned into pumpkins. Do you think...”

The Captain’s eyes widen. He puts a hoof to his muzzle as his brow furrows in thought. “If ponies had been turned into bread, fruit, or something else, it could be possible that... that someone could eat them, not knowing that they’re—”

“Let us hope that this is not the case,” Celestia says, cutting him off with a queasy look upon her face. The Captain gives her a nod. “There were reports from Hay Burrow and Gallopelago, where else?”

“Only those two so far, but if the person responsible for all this is able to travel such a distance in so short a time, they could be anywhere. Finding and arresting them would prove to be nearly impossible if they are as capable as these reports suggest. If we sent more guards, it would be far too easy for him to catch wind that a garrison of troops were headed his way, but at the same time, I’m don’t like the thought of putting my soldiers at risk by sending them out in smaller groups like the ones that I sent out to investigate.”

“I agree, that would accomplish nothing.”

“So what do we do then? We’ve had cases of small villages being destroyed by a disturbed dragon or ursa major before, but those could be written off as natural disasters, while it looks very likely that whoever did this will attack again.”

Celestia straightens, an idea coming to her. “Luna and I would be able to deal with this ourselves. We have wings to travel great distance and magic powerful enough to subdue whoever this may be.”

The Captain’s eyes widen, and Celestia knows him to stand and protest before he even does. “Th-that really shouldn’t be necessary, Your Highness. Me and my troops can handle any threat that might—”

“It would put more ponies, both civilians and guards, in danger to not involve myself in this matter personally,” Celestia says, quelling his outcry and making him retake his seat. He stares at his desk with a frown, Celestia’s wish to involve herself a wound to his pride. “This is not final, but it is a thought. One I would ask for your input on.”

The Captain stares at his desk for a while longer, then he uncrosses his hooves and looks up at Celestia with a sigh. “Hay Burrow is both the closest and is the most recently reported of the two towns. There may be some chance that he is still there.”

Celestia nods and reaches up to adjust her gold necklace, admiring the amethyst embedded in it. “Captain,” she says, watching the way the light bounced off the jewel.

“Yes?”

“Were there any reports of what color magic is effecting these towns?”

Biting his lower lip, the Captain flips through a stack of papers on his desk, bringing up one of the reports. “No, nothing. The color of the magic wasn’t mentioned. I’m not sure if anyone still sane has even seen the magic that cast these spells.”

“Then maybe someone who isn’t sane has,” Celestia says, her lips forming a thin, thoughtful line.

The Captain of the Guard gives Celestia an uneasy sidelong glance. “You want to speak to the guard that came back?”

Celestia gives an affirmative nod. “It is our best way to find out more about what happened at Hay Burrow. I also may be able to cure whatever spell or dementia it is that ails her.”

“She’s been...” the Captain quickly replies, his eyes shifting nervously. “She was the youngest of the squad sent out. We’ve been keeping her in a cell for her own protection.”

“Take me to her.”

The Captain nods, standing up from his desk and walking briskly around it to the door. Before opening it, he gives a quick look at Celestia over his shoulder. She’s standing there, waiting on him. His lips tighten as he opens the dungeon. “I think it’s only fair to warn you she’s not in the right sorts. I also think that at best, talking to her will yield nothing. At worst it could be dangerous.”

Celestia follows him around a corner down spiraling stairs leading underground. She gives him a curious glance. “In what way do you think it could be dangerous?”

“We don’t know how the magic works or how dangerous ponies infected by it are.” The Captain looks at her out of the corner of his eye. “They say madness spreads to those who are too close to it.”

Celestia comes to a stop as they arrive at a closed cell door, a faint shuddery weeping coming from inside. “I didn’t figure you to be one for superstition, Captain.”

The Captain of the Guard levitates a key off the belt around his waist, placing it in the door and unlocking it with a soft click.

“I’m not.”

The cell door groans open, revealing a figure, the source of the weeping, curled in a ball in the corner, crying to herself. Black chains trail from a metal bar embedded in the far wall to her hooves, clasped in thick metal cuffs.

For a moment Celestia simply stands there, looking at the mare. “What’s her name?” she asks quietly.

“Carolhymn,” the Captain replies in a low voice. “Or so she thinks,” he adds with a shrug.

Celestia steps into the cell; a few steps closer to the mare, she can see dried blood around her hooves, dirtying her alabaster coat.

“Carolhymn?” Celestia calls out hesitantly. The mare’s weeping stops, her whole body tensing. Celestia takes another step closer. “I came to ask what happened to you.”

“Me?” a cracked voice replies. A shaky bark of laughter comes from the chained mare. “Me? But I’m so boring and plain. You should try talking to my friend, Cherryjuice. I ever tell you what happened to Cherryjuice?”

“No.” Celestia takes a seat on the cell floor. “Tell me about her.”

“Cherryjuice lived with her boyfriend, Tom Sawer. He was a carpenter. He works with lots of tools—” Carolhymn cuts off, turning away with a sob and biting her lip till a trickle of blood trails from it. “He worked with lots of tools. WorkedPast tense.” She lets out a hysterical and broken laugh, throwing her head back with a wide smile. “Tom was really sweet before everypony went mad. After everypony went mad, well...” Carolhymn suddenly hangs her head, leaving where she trailed off.

Celestia gives an uncertain glance back at the Captain. He looks away down the hall, a clear unease written on his face.

“Tom!” Carolhymn abruptly shouts, bursting into a fit of giggles. “Tom works with tools! He was really sweet before everypony went mad. Then Tom became a very, very angry pony.” A wide, toothed grin spreads across Carolhymn’s face and a few more broken chuckles escape her. “Tom worked with tools after everypony went mad, too. Just not the way he used to.”

Celestia swallows the lump in her throat, looking at the shadow left of a mare before her. She tries to look at Carolhymn’s eyes, but the darkness of the cell makes it difficult to see little more than the wide grin she sports. “How did Tom use the tools?”

“How do you think?” Carolhymn snaps, jolting toward Celestia with a wild grin, coming within an inch of her face before the chains pull at her. Celestia jumps back and tenses. As Carolhymn stands on her rear legs, leaning forward while the chains around her forehooves hold her back, Celestia sees her eyes. And in them she sees definite madness, an unnatural and twisting madness born from something dark and inequine.

Forcing down her slight fear of the mad mare in front of her, Celestia—although already knowing—asks, “What did Tom do?”

Carolhymn pales, looking as though she saw a ghost, and walks back to her corner before curling back up into a ball there. “I don’t talk about Tom. No-no-no, I never talk about Tom. We don’t speak of Tom.”

Celestia stares at her silently for a few minutes, watching her rock back and forth with quiet tears trickling down her face.

Suddenly Carolhymn spots Celestia, as if it is her first time seeing her. Her mouth widens in a smile. “Hello.”

Celestia’s lips turn down in a slight frown. “Hello.”

“Did I ever tell you what happened to Cherryjuice?”

The Captain of the Guard sighs and hoofs the bridge of his nose. “Princess, I don’t believe this is going anywhere.”

“No, I don’t believe it is.” Celestia stands, Carolhymn looking up at her with curious, almost child-like eyes. “I’m going to look inside her mind for the magic corrupting her... It may take some time.”

“I will stand guard,” the Captain says. Celestia expects no less from him.

She turns to Carolhymn and kneels to get a better look at her. The earth pony stares back at Celestia fearfully, her eyes bloodshot and tired. Gradually, a soft glow illuminates Celestia’s horn.

“Rest,” Celestia commands.

Carolhymn’s eyes slide shut, the force keeping them open gone, leaving a wave of drowsiness and missed sleep to overtake her.

Celestia leans forward with a soothing glow of magic emanating from her horn and touches it to Carolhymn’s forehead, closing her eyes.

 

 

 

Floating. That’s the word that best describes what Celestia feels at the moment. The world is black with an enigmatic green tint, and she is stuck somewhere in it, in the middle of a grand castle hall, floating.

Her mane falls in front of her face, floating in the same weightless manner she is and waving as though she’s underwater. In front of her, faint blips of color occasionally dance in the dark. Blues, reds, yellows, and brighter greens try to poke through the hall, only to be muted by the bleakness of the world. At the center of it all sits an alabaster pony with her head hung low and her ears drooped.

Celestia swims towards her with sluggish movements, the mind of the guardsmare resisting her every stroke. Eventually she crosses the hall to where Carolhymn sits and touches the ground, feeling the resistance lessen slightly.

“Carolhymn?”

The pony raises her head slightly, staring at Celestia in a daze.

A luminescent glow surrounds Celestia’s horn as she lowers it to touch Carolhymn’s forehead. “It’s time to go home now.”

As Celestia finishes uttering those words, the muted colors spring to life around them, dancing around vibrantly as the dark gives way to light.

The darkness doesn’t disappear though. It changes into a cloud of black dust beyond Carolhymn. And the dust changes into a familiar—and dreadful—haunting visage. Across from her the apparition of her dreams stands cooly, its head held high and the same expressionless mask as always on its face.

“You.” Celestia’s breath hitches in her throat. “What are you doing here?”

The apparition tilts its head, staring at Celestia with what she imagines to be the closest it will ever show to puzzlement. Starting from the hooves and traveling up, it dissipates back into a swirling cloud of ash, before the ash suddenly rockets towards Celestia and engulfs her.

 

 

 

Celestia is brought back to the castle dungeon, her eyes snapping open with a gasp. A trail of black magic streams from Carolhymn to her horn, before sealing itself in Celestia with the same cold, poisonous feeling as the other times she’d touched it.

Carolhymn lies unconscious, still bound in chains, a bit of luster having returned to her coat with the dark magic gone.

Celestia turns to the Captain of the Guard, who stands by the cell door, watching Celestia with apprehension. “Princess?” he asks uncertainly, stepping towards her. “Are you alright? That black magic...”

Celestia shakes her head, holding out a hoof to halt him from coming any closer to her. “I will be fine.” She looks to the unconscious mare being held prisoner by her own kingdom. “Unbind Carolhymn and give her a clean bed to rest on. She should no longer be a threat to herself or anyone else.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“Things are far more dire than I thought.” Celestia turns, lingering in the cell for a moment before marching out of it. “I need to contact my sister at once. We’ll be leaving the castle as soon as possible.”

“Tomorrow at first light?”

Celestia shakes her head, walking back up the winding staircase leading out of the dungeon. “Tonight.”

With that, Celestia leaves the Captain to tend to his fallen guard, knowing she’ll be in good hooves. Her thoughts race to more pressing concerns: the dark magic, and the fact that someone out there also has it and is using it to cause chaos.

On the way to Luna’s room, Celestia runs into none other than the mare herself. Celestia crosses the hall at a trot towards her sister.

“Sister,” Luna says, eying her with concern. “You should be getting to rest early. You have only been up for a day and—”

“We need to leave,” Celestia says, cutting Luna off. “Something’s out there has the same dark magic in it as I do, and it may hold some answers to what this is and why it’s inside of me.”

Luna shakes her head and gives Celestia a perplexed look. “Slow down, Sister. What’s happening?”

Celestia took a breath and started again. “A few outer villages were attacked. Hay Burrow and Gallopelago. There was a guard who returned from a scouting party sent out to one of them, who had a spell cast on her mind. I broke the spell, but the magic that cast it was the same kind that overwhelmed me before I fainted.”

“And the magic did not come from you?” Luna asks

“No,” Celestia answers, shaking her head. “Something out there is using it to destroy villages and drive ponies mad.”

“You wish to pursue them?” Luna asks. Celestia gives her a quick nod. “I do not think that is wise in your current state. You only just woke up after having been unconscious for days!”

Celestia gives Luna a resolute stare, ignoring her advice. “This is important.”

Luna glances around the hallway, seeing if anyone may be overhearing their conversation before letting out a defeated sigh. “I can tell when I’ll be unable of talking you out of something.”

“I want you to come along,” Celestia says, causing Luna’s eyebrows raise in surprise. “You wished to help me with this burden. I understand if you do not want to come along, I am only trying to respect that wish.”

Luna tsks Celestia and holds her snout high. “You won’t forget me that easily. I’ll come.” She pauses and arches an eyebrow, a smile slowly spreading across her face. “We could bring Rose Flame and Storm Gale. You spoke before of traveling with our apprentices.”

Celestia blanks for a moment, before putting on an incredulous glare. “No! Absolutely not! They would be in far too much danger!”

“With us there to protect them? What would they possibly have to fear?”

Celestia’s mouth opens and closes a few times trying to form an argument, but eventually she just bites her tongue and shoots Luna an annoyed look. “I do not like the idea of this, but I do suppose they would be safe with us. Storm Gale was to spend the coming week with her father.”

“She will still have a week when she returns, safe and sound,” Luna says in a soothing tone.

“Yes. That she will,” Celestia says, defeated.

Luna straightens and clears her throat. “Now, when had you planned on leaving?”

“Tonight.”

Luna’s face fell. “Oh dear, I suppose one of us needs to go wake Rose Flame and Storm Gale then?”

Celestia nods in the affirmative. “I will. I’ll need you to go and prepare a few basic supplies for the journey.” She starts past Luna, only to pause and glance back to her. “Meet me at the front gate in half an hour’s time.”

Luna nods, turning and walking off towards the kitchens and servants’ quarters, while Celestia heads back towards their students’ private rooms. They are spread somewhat far apart, each at a different corner on the south wall of the castle. Celestia hastens her steps.

She goes to Storm Gale’s room first, barging in through the door with the hopes that it might wake the pegasus. An obnoxious snoring greets her, and on the bed Storm Gale lies on her back with her hooves sticking up in the air, her sheets a mess.

Celestia looks at the display and sighs, wondering how her student failed to pick up any of her habits.

Imbuing her voice with magic, Celestia takes a deep breath. “Storm Gale!”

Storm’s snoring abruptly stops and she rolls over to her chest, opening her eyes and blinking at Celestia. “Huh? What’s going on?” she mumbles sleepily.

“Pack a few small, basic things. We’re going on a trip away from the castle.”

“Away?” Storm asks, sitting up and rubbing her eyes. “To where?”

“There’s an urgent matter Luna and I must attend to. It was her idea to bring you and Rose along.” Celestia’s nose wrinkles in distaste of the idea, still.

“Oh, okay.” Storm hops out of bed, glancing at her bathroom. “I guess I’d just bring basic stuff? Like a hair brush and whatever?”

Celestia nods, sending Storm Gale to go inside her bathroom and look for what things she needs to bring.

As Storm Gale drops a saddlebag open on the floor and begins to put things in it, she glances back over her shoulder at Celestia. “So... uh... how long are we going to be gone for?”

“The flight there may take about two days.” Celestia lowers her head slightly. “And I’m not sure how many days it will take to resolve this issue once we’re there.”

Storm slows putting things in her pack, coming to a dead halt by the time Celestia finishes. Her face falls and her ears droop. “Oh.”

Celestia walks over to Storm and rests a wing gently touching her shoulder. “It should not be long. You’ll get to visit your father when we get back same as before, just at a different date.”

“Well, yeah, but I told him in my letters myself that I’d be visiting him next week.” Storm rubs her foreleg. “And he said he was really looking forward to it.” She bites her lip, pushing a few soap bars off the counter and into her bag with a wing. “He was lonely before without mom around, but with me living in the castle, too, it seems like it’s really been getting to him from the letters he sends.” Storm pokes the floor with an uneasy frown. “And I’ve missed him, too.”

Celestia lowers herself to Storm Gale’s eye level. “I won’t force you to come. Family is important, and I know I would feel the exact same way you do if it were me and Luna in your position.”

Jumping up and down on her hooves, Storm Gale lets out a long moan. “B-but Rose Flame is going and I’ve always wanted to go on a trip away from the castle. And besides, what if something totally awesome happened and I wasn’t there?” She bites her lip. “Five or Six days?”

“It may be longer,” Celestia reminds gently.

The frown on Storm Gale’s lips stretches. Walking over to a window at a far end of the bathroom, she rests her hooves upon it and looks out at the city, even as the encroaching dark begins to obscure it. After a moment of staring out, she climbs down and looks back at Celestia. “Can I write him a letter before we go?”

For a moment, Celestia second guesses her decision to rush their departure. But then she remembers the guardspony in the dungeon, Carolhymn, her hooves blooded around her shackles, and just how very tired she looked. “No,” Celestia says. “I’m afraid we don’t have that much time. I’ll leave instruction with one of my advisors to send a letter explaining the delay to your father.”

Hearing this, Storm takes a deep breath, puffing up her cheeks and letting it out slowly. Her gaze, however, remains determined still. “Okay. I’ll go.” She turns back to the bathroom counter, reaching in a drawer and tossing a towel in her saddlebag before closing it. “Should I bring blankets? Or...?”

“We will be fine without. Luna or I can keep a campsite warm with magic if need be.”

Celestia walks out of the bathroom to her student’s desk, picking up a quill and parchment and writing a brief note to the Captain concerning Storm’s father. Setting the quill down, she rolls up the parchment and makes it disappear in a puff of smoke, teleporting it to the Captain’s desk.

Storm walks out of the bathroom, tightening her saddlebag’s straps with her teeth. She spots the faint dust of magic from Celestia’s spell. “Was that for my father?”

Celestia nods, turning towards the door and beckoning Storm. “Come, let us wake Rose Flame.”

They step outside, Storm’s door swinging shut echoing loudly throughout the castle. Seeing the halls dark and without lamplight, Celestia summons magic to her horn, creating a glow for them to walk by. The sun sets late over Everfree. And when it does, the night grows dark quickly.

Celestia and Storm Gale arrive at Rose Flame’s room, Celestia taking more care with the door this time, and walks quietly as she can over to Rose Flame’s bed.

“Rose Flame!” she hisses, causing the pony to stir and blink up at her listlessly.

“Princess Celestia?” she mumbles. She raises her head slightly, spotting Storm Gale standing back by the door. “Did something happen?”

“We’re leaving on a trip west to take care of some urgent matters. Luna suggested we bring you and Storm along,” Celestia answers. “We plan to leave tonight and fly. It will be a bit less than a week’s journey.”

“Oh, okay.” Rose gets out of bed, standing before Celestia and rubbing her eyes.

“Take anything you may need from here, but do try to pack light. We hope to make good time.”

Rose Flame gives her a stiff nod and walks off to a dresser on the opposite side of the room, opening it and taking out a nearly-empty, warn saddlebag and tightening it on with her magic.

“Ready,” she says, standing at attention.

Celestia gives the skinny saddlebag a doubtful look. “Are you sure that’s enough?”

Behind Celestia, Storm Gale chuckles. “Yeah, ‘cause if you start to stink, you’re sleeping on the opposite side of camp from me.”

“I don’t need much, Princess. My brains and my magic serve me well,” Rose Flame answers the Princess, formally. She then gives a cool, sidelong glance at Storm Gale. “But I suppose those of us who have neither may not be able to pack so light.”

A growl starts deep in Storm Gale’s throat, but Celestia cuts her off before she manages to start. “Good,” she says. “Then we may head down to the front gate. Luna should be already be waiting for us there with some basic supplies for our trip.”

Rose Flame and Celestia join Storm Gale by the door. Storm can’t help but snicker and point a hoof at Rose’s bed-razzled mane that one can liken to a hedgehog that had one half run over by a cart. Rose blushes and puts a hoof over her head to flatten it. “Oh, shush.”

The three of them begin to head down to the courtyard, Celestia walking at a brisk pace while the other two stumble sleepily on either side of her, staying close to the light she emits. It isn’t long before they step out into the cool night air. Crickets buzz, and off in one of the trees an owl hoots as the castle doors close behind them.

“So, uh... hey, Princess?” Storm asks, looking up at Celestia out of the corner of her eye. “Think you could tell us a bit more about why we’re going on this trip?”

Celestia stays quiet for a moment before answering, thinking her answer through. “A few of the outlying towns have been attacked recently. We believe it to be the work of a powerful magic user, capable of teleporting great distances.” She hesitates for a moment, glancing at Rose Flame and Storm Gale in turn. “Also, the color of the magic they use was black.”

“Black?” Rose Flame asks in surprise. “But how can someone’s magic be black?”

“I don’t know,” Celestia answers, her brow knotting in worry.

Beside her, Storm Gale looks between the two at a loss. “Huh? I don’t get it. Why does the color of the magic matter?”

“You really don’t study much, do you?” Rose Flame says, arching an eyebrow at her. Storm’s face reddens and she looks at the dirt. “The color of a unicorn’s magic is said to be a reflection of their soul. Mine is yellow, Celestia’s is white, while Luna’s is deep blue.” Rose Flame looks straight ahead, her ears twitching. “For somepony to have black magic, it says something about them.”

“Yes,” Celestia says, averting her eyes to the ground as the front gate, and Luna with a half-dozen saddlebags, comes into view. “It does.”

The three of them stop, standing apart from from Luna in an uneasy silence.

“Huh.” Storm Gale looks back at the castle, smiling. “I’ve never actually left Everfree.”

“It’s not that glamorous out there, believe me,” Rose Flame says, blowing a stray piece of her mane out of her face.

Storm doesn’t let Rose’s sourness affect her mood. “Still! Ha! We’re going on an adventure! Isn’t it exciting?!”

A smirk finds its way to Rose Flame’s lips, even as she shakes her head at Storm’s excitement.

Luna levitates the saddle bags, two each onto her and Celestia’s back, and one each for Storm and Rose, fastening them tightly around each pony’s saddle. “It is best if we are off while the wind is still,” Luna says, glancing up at the sky.

Celestia and Storm stand by as Luna lowers herself to allow Rose Flame to climb onto her back. Seeing them, Celestia turns to Storm. “Would you like to ride on my back so that you may get some rest?”

Storm Gale looks up at Celestia with a smirk. “No way, I totally got this.”

“Very well,” Celestia says with a knowing smile.

Luna and Rose take off, with Celestia and Storm quick to follow. They start by ascending high into the night, before leveling off and gliding on the higher currents. The entire city lies below them, shrouded in dark aside from a few dozen lamplights, candled windows, and torchlit city walls. The last of which, they are flying over now as they leave the city behind.

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