Sister, or brother: I hear the term used sometimes in affection among close friends. Sometimes I wonder if they really understand the complexities of siblings.
Excerpts from the Candid Sayings of Celestia as recorded by her friends
"The elements of harmony are a form of magic that unicorns must be at least aware of."
Celestia laid her head against her hoof, bored and slouched in one of the indentation meant for sitting. One of only two students in the class, there was no hiding such blatant displays. The tutor, an old stallion who had decidedly little patience and even less charisma, glanced in her direction with an increasingly irritated look. But for the moment, he continued his longwinded lecture, segueing into a topic only loosely related.
The pink haired pony shifted, glancing over to Luna. Her little sister put up a much better front at remaining interested, sitting soundly in her place, hooves tightly nestled between her legs. She even came to life once the old grump actually covered magic, but her eyes glazed over when the tutor prattled.
"I had first learned of the elements under my sixth master, when I was but a colt and he instructed me . . ."
Luna nodded off.
Their days among the unicorns had fallen into a rhythm, rising in the morning for magic lessons and spending their afternoons under a guide teaching the way of life. Phantom stayed true to his word. Or if he broke it in some way, they never experienced it. The arrangement stuck and a new private teacher was provided each time Celestia and Luna completed the lessons of the last.
But Arcane Pride, the current one, deemed himself doing the two girls a favor, pulled away from whatever his other duties were, and did not appreciate their lack of respect.
"On using the elements!" He raised his voice and stamped a hoof against the wood floor.
Luna started and came awake with a yelp, then sat carefully paying attention once more.
"There are five elements which are utilized: Honesty, loyalty, mirth, generosity, and benevolence. They augment magic and open a vast number of unique spells. Today, you will use one of these elements for a desired effect." Arcane blinked and leaned forward, trying to see passed his poor eyesight. "Ehh, yes, Luna?"
A raised, midnight blue hoof lowered once he called on her name. Another strange custom he insisted on maintaining. "If the elements of magic are emotion, how is honesty or loyalty an emotion?" Questions, at least, guided the topic and made Arcane more tolerable.
"While those values are typically displayed through acts, they are associated with emotional motivators. There is an impulse that drives an individual to be honest or loyal with their fellow pony. It is that impulse which we use as an element." The old stallion cleared his throat to stall for his next thought; a sickly sound. "Will is the base and can be used on its own for most spells. Think of will as water. The elements are herbs. Water alone is very adaptable and useful. It quenches thirst, soothes, or cleans. But when combined with herbs, the water vastly expands its range. Some herbs deaden pain, others bring about a pleasant taste. Think of magical elements in this way."
"Are there other elements?"
Arcane lowered his nose and scrutinized the young mare.
"Oh!" Luna lifted up her hoof.
He motioned for her to lower it. "Yes, there are other elements, but never use one that is not an element of harmony."
"Why not?" Luna hoisted up her hoof again as she blurted out her question.
"The elements of harmony," his voice came at a hushed tone, "are safe in magic." Arcane Pride stared at Luna with an intense gaze, his expression grave as any Celestia had ever seen. "If you use another emotion as your element, it changes you. Don't ever augment another feeling."
A shiver crept down Celestia's spine. The gravity of the moment was out of place on such a dull pony like Arcane. The most she ever seen from him was irritation.
"Now, for your task. " His resumed the deadpan delivery, but it was easier to pay attention as his phrase signaled an upcoming exercise. "Using the element of loyalty, entwine these saplings." His horn took on the color of gold as he brought forward four uprooted, tiny trees that he placed between them. Two in front of Celestia and two in front of Luna. "A chief feature of loyalty is binding two separate things. It should compliment such a spell so that the saplings become like one."
Celestia hoisted herself up from the slouch and into a proper sit. The blue light of Luna's horn washed over the green buds of the saplings as her sister spoke. "I've heard of these elements before. The basis of unicorn society, right?" She called her own will forth and added a pink light to the room.
"That is correct. The elements were discovered by Kong Qiu, that being his name in the old tongue, during the chaotic times, when he tried to unify magic philosophy with societal functioning . . ."
As Arcane droned on, Celestia toned him out, concentrating on the spell. Loyalty, that was the element. It only took a single thought to find that impulse in her: Earth ponies. The herd. Whip Scar, Lightning Kick, all her friends. The binding force that kept even those she didn't like together while living in the danger of the Everfree Forest. Loyalty. Taking that feeling to her will, she felt the magical nature change and she unleashed it at the saplings. Pink magic swirled around the baby trees, and in a flash, the bark meshed so completely that the two appeared as one. "So, they are like suggestions I guess." The act had taken little effort and Celestia showed that by slouching back in her seat.
"For magic, if thinking of the elements in such a w"
"I meant for unicorns."
In confusion, and with a hint of indignity, Arcane blinked and tried to stare passed his eyesight at the mare. "I beg your pardon, young lady?"
"The elements of harmony." Celestia shrugged. "Generosity, benevolence . . . " She lazily poked each thought in the air as if they had manifested before her. "I'd have expected to see more of it, being the ideals and all."
"That is a very momentous statement from the mouth of a foal such as you." Arcane's nostrils flared and he snorted in mounting frustration. "One that makes you look the fool as well. You, of all, could learn much from how we behave. Our society respects the elements."
Celestia flew to her hooves and leveled a glare back at Arcane. "Yet, our cousins in the fields, the Earth pony, are left to fend for themselves. I suppose generosity doesn't apply to them?" Something invisible struck the side of her face and threw her head around. The thing curled around her muzzle like growing vines and pinched her mouth shut so only grunts could escape.
Arcane's chest heaved, his horn wreathed in gold flame."Enough! This is a classroom, and you are a student! You will keep your mouth closed until the end of this lesson, whether you will it or not." He took a deep breath, and on exhaling, released most of his fury, if not his annoyance. "Why, if you had been my filly, I'd have tanned some manners into that hide of yours. Something your Earth pony caretakers evidently failed to do."
Luna sat dead still in shock. Glancing over at her elder sister, whose lips pressed together awkwardly under the binding, she began to smirk, then giggle. Seeing Arcane's, flustered, red face, the giggling turned into out right laughter.
Celestia rolled her eyes.
The rest of the class passed with the muzzle of sorts in place. But she spoke plenty with her eyes, fuming, or rolling sarcastically, or generally holding contempt at her teacher. Yet, she obeyed, casting spells or sitting in silence. Arcane exchanged an occasionally angry glance at the young mare and only once he was already half way out the door, did he loosen his spell.
Luna laughed again as Celestia shifted her tight jaw and worked her lips. "Heh, heh. Wow, you really made him mad this time. I think he even ended class early."
The pink maned unicorn shrugged. "Whatever." But upon setting foot outside, she saw the sun several lengths low, early from its usual place at the end of class. She smiled. "Worth it."
"They won't expect us for awhile." Luna added, echoing Celestia's thoughts.
"Let's go find Ebon."
A frown doured the sister. "I wanted to go see Crescent Change."
Celestia, already taken a step to go, looked over her shoulder at Luna. "Why?"
"All the unicorns are talking about her." Her face lit up. "They say that she made thisthis . . . thing from hair and wood. She's treated the hair and bound it so it's pulled taught by the wood. By plucking the strands, the thing sings. It must have taken her hours and hours to make it just right. Apparently, she never got permission and built it in secret. Phantom is mad, but others are begging to keep it. They say that it's as if she's given the stars themselves a voice and it weaves a magic all its own."
"Huh, that's weird." She looked ahead again, tensing to go. "But let's see Ebon, today."
"What?" Luna sat back, dismayed. "But what if they take it away? This might be our only chance."
Celestia shook her head. "No, not today. Crescent will be in the middle of work, and you want her to stop, dig it out of whatever hidey hole she's put the thing in, and then play it for you. Too disruptive."
Luna pursed her lips in a pout. "Crescent likes talking to me. She'll probably be happy to take a break. And Ebon is at work, too."
"Only probably, not definitely. And Ebon can chat while he works. If we go to Crescent, we might waste our free time. No, we're going to see Ebon."
A deep sigh lifted Luna's chest, and she exhaled dejected. Celestia went, Luna followed behind.
Finding him, at work or even in general, was among the easier tasks Celestia went about. When it came to Ebon, she knew his job and where it took him. The bridges and homes were still living trees, growing and changing as they are prone to do. Given time, they warped at their interconnections and needed routine care, the kind Ebon was skilled at. All she needed to do was remember which places she passed that were still smooth and which were in need of attention. Narrowing the list down, she trotted at a youthful pace across the canopy of the forest, checking them out one by one.
"Ebon!" Seeing the black stallion up above, she broke into a gallop and chose a ramp that would lead to him. Luna came up from behind, galloping just to keep up.
"Celestia, Luna!" He smiled wide and pleasant. White teeth gleamed in contrast to his dark coat. "You're out of class!"
"Yeah," Celestia smiled in return, and giddily trotted her forehooves. "Got out early, and going to see how long I can escape the next duty."
He laughed good naturedly. "Heh, heh! Always keeping your chaperones on their toes, like usual. Walk with me as I work." He trotted to the next interconnection with a pale glow of his horn. "So, what's new?"
"Ugh, so much!" Celestia grimaced and rolled her eyes. "You won't believe what Arcane did to me today! Threw a spell on my mouth to get me to stop talking."
A snort erupted from him as he laughed hard and unexpected. "Wow, I mean, I know each of your teachers must have thought about doing that at least once, but you must have really had Arcane going if he went that far."
She raised her lip in contempt. "Psh, it's been building a while. He goes on and on about whatever, and acts like I should enjoy his blah-blah-blah. Don't get me wrong, I like magic, I really do. I can respect teachers who, you know, teach. But Arcane Pride only gets around to teaching after a saying a bunch of random details and it's soooooo boring."
"Pride may be a little hard to pay attention to, but he's also one of the smartest unicorns in the herd when it comes to magic." He bent low and parted the bridge from its neighbor, molding it in white-colored magic.
"Whatever. He's a hypocrite, too. I'm so ready to be out of his class."
"You may get you wish soon." Ebon chanced a glance at her while he reshaped the wood. "The craft elders are just short of exchanging blows to get the both of you."
"They're doing what?"
"Arguing like mules. You're approaching the end of training. Actually, you've had more than most, especially advanced stuff. You'll be getting into actual crafting now. Phantom had hoped you'd show a specific skill and then you could simply go with that. But if at this level, neither of you have shown leanings, then that's a griffin's hope. He's going to have to make a decision soon, and even if he divides you and your sister, a lot of ponies will be unhappy."
A vague, uncomfortable feeling followed Celestia at the thought. "Why are they all fighting over me?"
The glow faded and Ebon raised his head in surprise. "Are you kidding? As far as I know, nobody has ever seen anyone like you. Just look at you." He turned and gestured over her body with nod of his head. Celestia felt her heart skip a beat as his eyes traveled down then up again. "Your horn is taller than anyone else's, you've got a coat and mane that can only be explained through magic, and you are quite beautiful to boot. Every knows you are special, and your sister too. And that was before you started to show magical talent the likes of which have never been seen in living memory."
Celestia blushed brighter and brighter as Ebon went on, feeling like she grew as red as an apple. Shyly, she averted her gaze from him and tried to resist speaking, knowing it'd come out as a squeak.
"So, anyways," Ebon bent low to his task again, fusing the pieces back together in a seamless join. "Each group wants you for their own reason and are arguing where you'd be best. The sentries are convinced that'd you drive anything short of a dragon away with the volume you can unleash spells. The wood workers believe you will expand our network many fold. The weavers think you'd be able to make new kinds of veils the likes of which are only in imagination. So on, and so on, among all the rest. They go back and forth."
"D-don't I get to decide?" She fought through the flush to say, that idea still making her uncomfortable.
The stallion pursed his lips into a smile, then chuckled. "Ehh, you just might. Phantom might think that'll be the best way to end the fighting."
"I should hope so." Celestia poked Ebon's side. "I just heard today that he was going to destroy someone's toy, that they made on their own. Grumpy Gus is a name well earned for him."
Ebon Swift raised his head and took a glance to both sides before motioning silently for her to keep it down. "I'd rather not have him learn that nickname from me."
Celestia sat down on her haunches, giving Ebon a teasing smirk. "Someone scared of ol' Grumpy Gus's grump?"
"Hey!" He lifted his nose with playful indignity. "I use to have classes under him. You don't know how scary he can be. Phantom was the only teacher who ever got me to stop goofing off. As for the toy, I assume you mean Crescent's invention."
"Who else? If I understand what I've heard, that thing she's built is the talk of the herd. And Grumpy wants to break it."
"Break it? Well, who knows. That's just hearsay. I'd guess he'll just confiscate it. It won't be good for him to leave Crescent's actions unanswered. She spent too much time away from her duties to finish that instrument she made. It'd set a bad example."
"What a serious killjoy! No element of laughter for him." She managed to sit back and cross her forelimbs over her chest with a huff.
"Look, I know you don't really like what he does, but Phantom is a good pony when it comes down to it." With a brief flicker of white from his horn, he merged the pathways. Lifting a hoof, he gestured to the expanse of the canopy. "We owe this all to him. Before Phantom took charge, we were all disorganized. The pathways were unusable, we crowded in the few unbroken hidey holes like rats, food was hard to come by. Unicorns died, Celestia. I was a colt, I remember it happening. Then Phantom stepped forward. He made things work. So many fewer have lost loved ones, now."
"Oh," Celestia slowly placed her hooves back under her. She thought of Painted Hoof and Chosen Oak. Of all the ponies that sent her here at great danger.
Ebon craned his neck, looking back over his shoulder. Following his gaze, Celestia noticed Luna sat quietly at the edge of the limb, some few pony-lengths away. The dark pony stared up at the canopy and tilted her head, flopping one ear as a butterfly of black and turquoise fluttered across a tree's blooming flowers.
"I'll be heading to the next one." Ebon motioned on ahead at another joint, cracked at the seams. "If you give me a moment, I'll meet you up there."
"Alright," Celestia nodded and trotted on.
Ebony Swift turned the other way and closed the distance between himself and the midnight unicorn. "Hey, you." He offered in quiet greeting.
Luna jumped, and jerked her head around, blue eyes large as saucers. "Oh, hey," Her soft spoken voice strained under some hidden unease.
"What's going on?" Ebon chose a spot next to her and sat down.
Luna turned away to gaze at the butterfly once more. She had a curious way of watching it, not marveling at the beauty so much as studying it with interest. "Not much," She shrugged.
"Your sister told me there was some excitement in your class today."
Luna nodded. "Celestia accused the unicorns of being generous only when it suited them."
Ebon choked in surprise and coughed on the saliva, beating his chest with a hoof. "Oh, wow! No wonder Arcane was upset. Do you think your sister was right?"
"Is anything bothering you?"
"No," Only then did she glance at Ebon again, marking him with a curiosity. "Why do you ask?"
"You seem very quiet. You use to come to me with a lot of questions and liked to listen to me as I'd ramble on about them. But recently, you kind of sit by yourself in your own little world. I guess I wonder why. If there is something wrong, I'd help in any way I can."
"Oh," Curiosity gone, she looked away, distant once more. "Not sure why. Nothing is wrong."
The black stallion frowned as he regarded her in silence. It had been some time since he had seen a smile on her face in regards to him. Always in tow of her sister, too, but that could be merely a similar schedule of duties. She sounded honest, at least in her confusion. She wasn't sure why.
"Alright," Ebon stood up. "I've still got things to mend. I'll be just up ahead if you want to talk. Don't hesitate to ask if you need anything." He managed a smile.
"Okay," Luna nodded. "Oh, and thanks."
Ebon's hooves trotted off, down the bridge.
Luna turned over her shoulder and watched him go with a raised eyebrow. But did not think much more on it. Watching the butterfly, she sighed, her mind trying to guess at what stars sounded like and how hair could make sound. As if it heard, the butterfly descended down from the blooms and landed on the tip of her horn, investigating the enamel with a curled-straw mouth. Luna giggled and stared up at the insect. Then blew a puff of air at its wings, causing it to flutter in the air again before landing back on her horn. Giving it another puff, her eyes caught the purple glow of magic shining dimly through the foliage.
With a gasp of delight, Luna was off like a shot, galloping through the trees and down a hidden ramp that led to the forest floor. Hearing the melodious hum from a skilled voice, she doubled her pace. "Crescent!"
The mature mare sat upright and turned in her direction. Seeing the young pony, she smiled softly. "Luna, how good to see you."
When Luna closed, she exchanged a hug. "Crescent! What are you working on?"
"Oh, you know." The mare sent a purple jolt to flop a canvas over, half covered in bark that didn't quite blend. "Making these things, like always."
Luna took a step back to a comfortable conversation distance and sat down on her haunches, keeping her hooves close together. "I heard you made something beautiful."
Crescent smiled with some satisfaction. "That I did, finally following my whim."
"I heard they were thinking about taking it away." She frowned, disheartened.
"Well and so, I am pleased to have built it and it has already been shown off. Let them burn it now, if they wish, for I am happy."
"Not yet!" Luna cried out in horror. "I haven't seen it!"
"Ah, yes! I nearly forgot that." Crescent stood up like an excited filly, prancing off with youthful energy. She must have kept it close, because she returned as quickly as she left. "I thought you'd appreciate this more than most."
Hovering before her in a purple light sat a creation unlike anything Luna had seen, among the Earth ponies, unicorns, or in nature. The wood was shaped like a giant pony's horse shoe, bowing deeply at the center, and fashioned perfectly smooth. At the center, a series of strands, also treated in a way Luna had never seen, sat taught, strung from a bar at the top to the bottom of the bow. Luna touched the strings, in all the gentleness she could muster, afraid to break such a delicate looking device.
"Do you remember those human pathfinders who came through our woods, some months ago?" Crescent broke the silence.
Mesmerized by the instrument, Luna nodded. "I was holed up with everyone else."
"Well and good that you did, we're not suppose to peak out." Crescent giggled. "I did anyways." She smiled, the memory as sweet as honey. "At one point, before they left, they sat down to rest. I heard a sound that I thought came from Moon herself, so I poked my head out to see what such a creature was. In the hand of one of the humans was this." She sent a purple shimmer over the instrument she levitated. "He plucked at it with his fingers and it sang such a lovely tune that I never forgot. That night, I went back to my work and secretly began to make what I saw. It was fraught with problems, but here it is now. A work of pure beauty."
Drawing it close to her body, she held it upright in her hooves and closed her eyes. With magic channeled through her horn, the strings began to pluck and song wept forth as if the wood and strands themselves mourned some loss that no one could understand. Crescent Change hummed with the tune, wordlessly creating a duet, voice complimenting voice. By the time the last note was plucked, both ponies wiped tears from their eyes.
"That's . . ." Luna smiled, cheeks still wet. "That's heavenly."
"Yes, yes." Crescent recovered quickly. "But, enough of it, or my soul will never stop it's anguish. Where is your sister? It's rare that I see you alone."
"Oh," Luna shrugged and sniffled the last song-induced sorrow away. "She's just up there somewhere." She gestured at the trees. "Talking with Ebon."
"Ebon?" Crescent laid down atop folded legs, leaning closer to Luna. "Ebon Swift? And you are not there with her?" She cocked an eyebrow. "Didn't you use to like him?"
Crescent shook her head with a smile. "I mean like him. I saw how you use to gaze at him, so deeply whenever you could steal a glance. I may look old to you, whippersnapper, but I am a mare in my prime, and I know he cuts a handsome figure."
"Oh," Luna averted her gaze, staring down at her hooves. "No. Or . . . I don't know, maybe I did?"
"So, what happened?"
Unsure why, a thought surfaced and propelled itself to Luna's tongue with the piercing force of a needle. "Celestia likes him, you know."
"She does, does she?" Resting her elbows on the ground, Crescent propped up her chin on her hooves. "Did she tell you not to like him?"
"Does she know you like him?"
Luna shook her head. "I don't know."
"Why did you find this important to say, I am curious?"
Luna rocked once, side to side, while looking up at the trees. "I don't know. It seemed important. When you asked."
"So I see." The mare paused to consider what she heard. Looking back at Luna like an aunt, she continued. "He likes you too, you know. He told me he found you adorable."
Grimacing at the word, Luna shook her head emphatically. "Adorable? That doesn't sound like like to me. My parents, and my sister find me adorable." She reconsidered. "Okay, she finds me adorable when not annoying her."
"I know little Swift well, I know how he talks and acts. He likes you."
Her heart beat fiercely in her chest with some icy fear. She stared down in thought. The information Crescent gave sat on her mind like a stick above water, ever floating atop the rapids. But she could not pierce below the waves and understand past the turmoil. "Does he like Celestia?"
Crescent shifted her gaze that sat back up on her haunches. Solemnly, she replied. "He likes her, too. Ebon Swift has a little bit of a reputation among mares here. He's a charmer, that they all know, and he has stolen several hearts before, not all intentionally. However, he often lets a number steal his heart back, for good or ill. He is a kind boy and he means well by his charm. I think it hurts him to have to hurt others. You and Celestia both share his heart right now, and he would not like you giving up on him to defend your sister's feelings. It's not fair to either you or him to act in such a way."
Luna nodded in silence. The tumult ran deep, deeper than Crescent even realized or understood. Thoughts of Ebon swirled the water fiercer and fiercer, until she felt uncomfortable sitting down, agitated and fearful of something in the depths which lurked like a leviathan. She got to her hooves, and shook her body, from head to tail, trying to shake away the lingering thoughts until only silence remained. The tumult faded, as she shifted her attention elsewhere, putting distance between her and that unease.
"LUNA!" Celestia's harsh voice cut through the silence like a shard of obsidian.
The younger sister whirled around, then lowered her head in shame.
"Luna! Where did you go?" Her brow creased in anger and she spoke through teeth half gritted, galloping the last few steps.
Ebon was there behind, but started to give distance as he sensed trouble.
"Because you went off without telling me, I had to lose the last of our spare time looking for you! We're late for the next duty, past any excuse they'll believe. We're going to be in trouble, again, and I've still got a stop to make."
"Sorry," Luna flattened her ears and used her mane to cover her face. She knew well she should have told her sister and couldn't find an excuse that justified her position. It had been a willing choice to leave without speaking.
Ebon's voice jumped in at the slight pause. "Time just gets away from even the best of us, every now and then. You might be alright."
Celestia hissed through her teeth as she turned, rearing up on hind legs as she scouted for a path up. "C'mon, Luna, and hurry."
The sisters left at a gallop, Ebon letting them go on ahead. At this point, navigating the forest's secrets was easy, if slow going. She found a tree with an inner ramp up, and her hooves clattered on the wood in the reckless speed which she ran; up into the forest canopy, across the ramps, the sound of Luna keeping up behind if just barely. Sweat soaked through her back, the sustained and vigorous gallop combined with midday heat. Breathing hard, she peeled around turns with hooves sliding under momentum.
"SORRY!" She yelled while squeezing past a startled old mare on a narrow ramp.
"Sorry." Luna meekly added, herself.
The white unicorn slid to a stop, staring at another hidden door. Luna skidded her hooves against the wood, but too late. The midnight pony bounced off her sister's backside and fell into a heap of fur and hoof. The impact sent Celestia to the ground in the other direction and she cursed allowed. "Horse apples! Clumsy mule!" Though to the air rather than her sister.
Horn aglow in sparkling pink, Celestia rose while channeling a spell that cast off the sweat she collected. Taking a deep breath, she gathered her composure.
Which she lost when the curtain flew open and Phantom Spell stood at the entrance. He, and Silver Spear, came trotting out and stepped around the stunned mares with little concern.
"W-wait! Chief Phantom!" Celestia ran a few paces to keep up, then fell into a trot next to him. "Do you have a moment, I'd like to talk."
Phantom eyed her coolly without slowing. "You have until we make our next destination."
"Thank you," She cleared her throat and let out the words in a hurried gush. "So, I have been studying the elements, and that got me thinking, as I learned more and more about the set, you know, honesty, loyalty, funny, giving, and niceness all that stuff about the part of unicorn life and how it all worked."
"Better out with it, filly, we're almost here."
Celestia took a deep breath and answered in a burst. "IthinkweshouldletEarthponieshere."
Phantom Spell froze in place, turned, and narrowed his gaze. "What?"
She repeated slower. "I think that we should expand our herd to include Earth ponies." But nervousness compelled hasty additions. "Maybe just a few at first until we figure out what to do and then more as we're capable of adding them , I am sure we could-"
"Stop." He raised a hoof, and stilled her tongue with the simple gesture. "Enough. And absolutely not. What would we do with a bunch of powerless ponies?" He resumed his walk, though he went a bit slower, Celestia half in his gaze.
"But, they're not dumb!" She lurched forward to stay at his side. "And they aren't weak. They could help if we find a way, magic or no."
"My answer is still absolutely not. Last thing we need here is more mouths to feed, more hooves tearing up dirt and branch, and more bodies to fill our rooms. Let alone ones who will be as ignorant to our system as you were when you first arrived. Even more so, let alone useless ponies who will have no powers, and no way to contribute."
Celestia's jaw dropped in horrid dismay. "Just one or two, until we give them work. What of kindness, or generosity? Does that have to stop at the end of a horn?"
"Filly, I know it was your home, but the answer remains no. Trees need mending, food needs collecting, and we must watch the skies and ground for threats. Despite how cozy it must feel to you in the classroom, we are ever at the edge of disaster. Every day, there is a battle against the Everfree Forest's propensity to chaos." Stopping at the edge of a door, Phantom turned around while Silver Spear parted the curtain. Using a forelimb, Phantom gestured for emphasis. "One forest fire, one rampaging hydra, one hurricane, and what ground we gained will be lost. I cannot spare ponies for frivolous tasks or flights of fancy. Now," He stepped through the door. "You had your moment. Return to the tasks assigned to you."
The curtain fell closed behind him.
The scolding they received was not at all as harsh as Celestia expected. The chaperone, a mare of middle years, treated the whole affair as more trouble than it was worth and kept it brief. She took the sisters among the unicorns responsible for preparing food and had them pick tree-ripened fruits or gather edible leaves as education on the system of distribution and collection.
But throughout the afternoon, matters weighed heavily on Celestia's mind and pressed down her thoughts. Craft heads, ponies, elements, what she learned had given her a great deal to digest and sort. But with the steady work of picking fruit and the sneaking of an occasional apple for her and her sister came a clarity of mind that allowed her to think and chat about her thoughts to Luna.
By the end of the day, she came to a decision.
The sun had fallen behind the mountains before the pace of life here gave her another spare moment. Luna laid down on folded legs to give them rest after the long day, enjoying the touch of the cool, earthen, forest floor. But Celestia couldn't sit still. She paced back and forth, mouthing words to herself of random thoughts as restlessness prohibited any relaxing.
Phantom would pass by here. She left a message with Silver Spear that she wanted to address something further with Phantom, and she was confident that Silver was reliable. Phantom had to come here anyways on his return from responsibilities.
So, they just had to wait. Maddening, slow, horrible wait.
She tossed up a pink light that hovered in the air and danced like a fairy. Under the thick leaves of the Everfree Forest, moonlight seldom reach this low. It was in that light that that she saw the first shadow of their approach.
Luna jumped to her feet, and Celestia faced the pair of ponies. Only to find that it was more than a pair, but a full half dozen. She swallowed before she spoke. "Phantom? I'd like to make an . . . announcement. Of sorts."
"I trust this is urgent as you implied to Silver." He said in a level tone.
"I believe so, but hear me out and see what you think." She cleared her throat, having prepared the basics of what she'd say many times over. "It's come back to me that the craft heads are bickering over where I should go. And that you, Phantom, are caught in the middle."
Phantom narrowed his eyes to regard her.
"I want to tell you that I'd like to take the decision out of your hands. My sister and I, we will return to the Earth ponies, after you feel our teaching is complete." She paused, knitted her brow, then hastily added. "Oh, we'll work long enough so you, you know, didn't feel you wasted your time. But after that, we want to go home."
The half dozen unicorns murmured to each other in bewilderment, yet still sat back as mere spectators. All save two, Silver Spear, who stood quiet and impassive as a rock, and Phantom, who lifted his forelimb to his head and rubbed before replying. "That's ridiculous. This is your home. What is the point of such a decision?"
"Well, chief Phantom." Her knees shook beneath her and she prayed to Moon and the stars that it wasn't noticeable. "The unicorns here, you have it all together with your systems and things. But the Earth Ponies who raised me, the smallest amount of magic I bring back would do them far more good there then having all my magic here. So, uhh, just sparing two unicorns isn't all that much anyways." She kicked at the ground with her front leg. "So it seems better. Generous and all."
"No, absolutely and unquestionably no." He planted his hoof on the ground and stood firm and unmovable as an oak. "We cannot and will not spare you."
Anger, hot and pent up, boiled inside her. "Don't I get to decide where I go? What is my home?"
Cold, dark eyes stared back at her. "Filly, that is simply a luxury. And a dangerous one."
Something about the situation, about the trade with Phantom Spell, brought a memory to surface from within her. Words echoed, in her father's voice deep and pleasant. But forcing a pony to stay when he wants to go, or work for what is not his . . . that just wasn't natural. The thought lent righteousness to her anger and she pounded a hoof on the dirt. "Well, we are going back."
"Celestia," His voice carried harsh warning, like a biting winter wind. "You belong with your kind."
She planted her hooves firm and shouted without thinking. "You aren't my kind!" Whispers exploded around her, barely contained. When they quieted, she added in a determined voice. "I was born and raised an Earth pony. With no horn. It just came one day." With pride swelling, she stood up straight and tall as a chief, tail arching in defiance.
Phantom raised his hoof to his head and breathed a deep exhale. "Just how thoroughly have they got to you? I was sure the Earth ponies had some plan, but this is perverse by any standard." There was a slight gestured he made to Silver as he lowered his hoof. A shifting of his eyes and a tiny nod.
Luna screamed. In fright and panic rather than pain.
Celestia whirled around, breath suddenly lost and chest tight at the sound. Roots, aglow in silver, burst from the earthen floor and coiled around her sister like snakes, tying legs, waist, and mouth, clamping it shut from sound. A second shimmer, black as water at night, engulfed her horn and snuffed out any light it could emit.
"No, Luna!" Before Celestia could move, the roots broke themselves from the earth and Luna was drug to Phantom's side by an invisible force, kicking and squeaking muffled protest all the while.
"Listen here, filly unicorn." Phantom leveled an intense gaze, harsh and inflexible as frozen iron. His horn didn't glow like others, it only reflected light across its surface in the texture and color of his black eyes. "I had hoped against hope that there was no deception in the Earth ponies bringing you here. But now I see their abomination of a scheme."
Silver already faded into the foliage of the woods, Luna in tow, as the other ponies closed the gap. Celestia surged to follow the gray light, but a level, steady stare from Phantom stopped her, cold sweat breaking out at what she saw. Droplets streaked across his face from that horn, like blood in moonlight, from whatever spell he channeled. Words soft spoken were all the deadlier. "We'll undo what they did to you in time. But until then, you'll have to remain for this simple fact. If you run away or disobey me, your sister will never be seen again."