Although she was securely strapped in, Violet Woods clung onto the acceleration couch as if her life depended upon it. The rumbling and shaking seemed to go on for an eternity but, in actuality, had only lasted a few minutes so far. It was much worse than the stomach-churning teleport up from Equestria to the faster-than-light starship that had brought the unicorn mare from Equestria to the new world of Chakona. The hours spent traveling the many light years here had been boring but smooth, but when you were in a vessel with a reactionless drive, that was to be expected. The shuttle down to the colony on the surface of the planet was an entirely different matter. Intellectually, Violet knew that it was a purely routine procedure to bleed off relative speed while transitioning from orbital velocity in the vacuum of space into the life-giving atmosphere of her future home. However, right now she would have traded her life savings for another nauseating teleport rather than this bone-rattling transport.
Then the shuddering and shaking suddenly smoothed out. The mare knew that they were still some time from landing though. They must have slowed down enough to fly at normal atmospheric speeds like the aircraft that had taken her to the spaceport on the first step to her new life. Not that she could see anything. The shuttle was purely utilitarian and made for transporting goods and non-VIPs between Chakona and Equestria. The three dozen or so other passengers were little more than cargo that required special treatment. This amounted to closely packed acceleration couches with plenty of padding and straps but zero amenities. There were no windows or holographic displays to show them the view, even if that was just sky and clouds for now. At least, she had gotten a brief glimpse of the planet through a window on the starship as they had shuffled onto the landing craft. The sight had briefly taken her mind off the upcoming plummet of several hundred miles down to the surface.
Violet sensed the banking and turning and heard the sounds of the engines fluctuate as the shuttle maneuvered for the landing at its destination. Then there was a jarring thump that made her squeal before the engine noise dropped quickly to zero. After about half a minute, the intercom chimed.
“Welcome to Chakona and the Emu Island Spaceport. We had a particularly smooth trip down today so you’ll be able to disembark very soon. You may now all disengage your safety harnesses and get your possessions in preparation for leaving. Those of you who won’t be making the return journey to Equestria, we wish you the best for your future in the New Horizon colony.”
Violet did not know if the pilot had been kidding about the smoothness of the ride down, but she had no intentions whatsoever to make this trip once more. Nothing would convince her to set hoof on a shuttle ever again. She fetched her saddlebag from the locker under her couch, secured it around her barrel, and then waited.
The bulkhead door eventually slid open and a crewpony directed the passengers to make their way to the exit. There was the normal rush to be the first out the door and it took a minute before the unicorn mare emerged from the shuttle, blinking in the bright sunlight. By the time she had made her way down the ramp to the apron, her eyes had adjusted enough to have a good look around. Many of her fellow passengers were doing the same.
Unlike at a modern airport, the shuttle was required to land and park a safe distance from the terminal. A small bus was parked nearby and a few of the passengers had boarded it already. The driver closed the door before the mare reached the front of the line, leaving the remainder of them to wait for his return. That suited Violet as she wanted to have a chance to get a good look around before being hastened away. Not that there was a great deal to be seen from this vantage point, but it was a new world and it deserved a moment to appreciate it.
The mare drew in a deep breath. The air was clean and warm with unfamiliar but pleasant scents. She figured a lot of them came from the dense vegetation that bordered the spaceport. In the distance, she saw long, straight tree trunks rising into the jungle canopy. Violet’s heart urged her to climb them to get a better view of the area even while her head told her no. She could see a few birds but no pegasi, although she guessed that this would be a no-fly zone for them. A short distance away sat the terminal building. It looked fairly utilitarian from here but that was not surprising. Violet remembered why Emu Island had first populated by Equestrians – as a base to fight a war. Although the military compounds had long since converted into a very young colony, most edifices had been built with practicality in mind rather than with expensive artistic flairs. Not that they were dull though – she didn’t think ponies were capable of settling for boring architecture. Still, she reckoned she could sense a touch of griffon brutalism in places.
The bus soon returned and the remainder of the passengers boarded. The trip to the terminal was brief and they soon stepped within to join the lines that had formed in front of two plain desks. A sign located above and between the two desks read: “CUSTOMS & IMMIGRATION”. While the left desk was manned by an earth pony, the right one that Violet had lined up for had a Terran morph official behind it – a raccoon by the looks of him. The mare tried not to stare when it became her turn to be interviewed.
The agent gave her a polite smile and said, “Identification, please.”
Violet hastily fished out the smartcard that she had been issued. It was a combination ID and passport with her visa digitally loaded on it. She passed it to the agent in the glow of her magic and he took it without batting an eye. Obviously, he was quite used to such displays of magic. He tapped it on the surface of the desk and the formerly blank surface lit up with data and images.
The raccoon muttered, “Violet Woods. Unicorn mare. Unmated. Profession – geologist. Status – immigrant colonist.” He compared the photo to the green-coated mare with a mauve mane and peach stripes in front of him. His eyes flicked over various other details before nodding. “Your visa seems to be in order, Ms. Woods. Please turn right at the exit to join the others in the Transit Lounge where you will all be addressed for your orientation. Welcome to Chakona.” He passed the ID back.
“Thank you,” Violet replied.
She made her way through the exit that was located between the two desks. The mare noticed that turning left would take her through a security barrier and egress from the terminal but she turned right as she had been instructed. There were a lot of chairs in the room suited to various body types and Violet chose a quadruped-friendly one. Aside from several other ponies, there was a minotaur, four red changelings, and a griffon couple with two children. She had chatted with a few of them and all were eager to start new lives on this world. Their enthusiasm was infectious and the mare found herself itching to go out and explore.
When the last of the immigrants joined them, two people emerged from a side door. One was the raccoon-morph that Violet had been interviewed by earlier, but the other was a chrome changeling. The former stepped up to a rostrum and smiled at his audience.
“Hello. My name is Paul Iotor and I am a representative of the Chakona World Government. All of you here today are joining the Equestrian colony of New Horizon. Like all the colonies on Chakona, New Horizon enjoys semi-autonomy. That means the laws and conventions of Equestria that you are familiar with apply equally here, up to a point. The Chakona World Government holds ultimate authority over all the colonies. However, it has a strong hands-off – or in many of your cases – hooves-off approach to governing these colonies and it is likely that you will never need to concern yourself directly with us. That said, the CWG maintains a permanent office here that deals with inter-jurisdictional matters and we are here to help if you need it. The office is manned at all times although only fully staffed from Firstday to Fifthday during daylight hours. I suggest you familiarize yourselves as soon as possible with the Chakonan eight-day week and twenty-hour day. As Chakona uses Universal Time, the date and time are the same all over the world, but office hours will look odd to you until you get used to the system.”
The raccoon held up a leaflet. “A summary of local laws which you should be aware of was uploaded to your ID chit upon arrival, but you will be given a copy of this ready-reference that should answer your commonest queries. While your preparations for coming to this world should have familiarized you with them, please take the time to refresh your memories. We truly wish that your introduction to your new homeworld will be a smooth and pleasant one.”
The morph stepped aside to allow his compatriot to take his place. The changeling shapeshifted into anthro form to use the rostrum microphone without adjusting it. “Hello. I am Glistening Path and I am the coordinator for new arrivals. The fees that you all paid entitle everyone to four weeks of free housing at the immigrant hostel. All meals and services are included. After that period, you may remain but you will be charged a boarding fee payable in advance. You have the first week open to settle in and explore your new home. You are obliged to check in with your employers from the start of the second week. Any job orientation and training will begin then. You will be expected to have commenced full-time work by the third week. While we hope that you will find time to enjoy the beauty and opportunities of your new home, you are reminded that this is still a young colony town and everyone needs to contribute fully to its prosperity.”
The changeling’s horn lit up and a box floated over to the rostrum. “I have keys for the hostel here for everyone. Please transfer the details to your ID chits at your soonest convenience. The keys will be deactivated at the end of four weeks regardless of your status. It will be up to you to negotiate an extended stay at the hostel or find new accommodation before that. There are many options for affordable housing available in the colony and, before you ask, I don’t need a pod-buddy.” Violet chuckled along with the rest of the immigrants even as she wondered how many times their host had told the same joke. From the raccoon-morph’s lack of reaction, she had to assume this was a regular occurrence.
The changeling gave everyone a warm smile. “If you have any problems related to the colony services, our main office is located by the CWG office at the east end of this building. However, queries can also be submitted through the hostel manager’s office. Remember that we are here to help you begin your new lives with as little fuss as possible. What benefits you, benefits the entire colony.”
“At the conclusion of this orientation, you will go out that door…” A hoof pointed to the right. “…where you will board a bus that will take you to the hostel. Any goods that you have brought with you will be delivered directly to your accommodation after they are unloaded from the shuttle and processed through Customs. You may expect it all to arrive within a few hours but bear in mind that yours may not be among the first to be delivered. Please do not contact us about your checked luggage unless it fails to turn up before sunset. Any questions?”
One pegasus stuck up a hoof.
“If this is the chakat homeworld, why haven’t we seen one yet?”
Glistening Path chuckled. “While several non-Equestrians live and work in this colony, there are presently just two chakats, and only one works in the CWG offices. Tigerbright is otherwise occupied today but you are welcome to come by and introduce yourselves at a later date. Shi quite enjoys meeting newcomers. Anything else? No? Then let’s get you started on your way. Once again, welcome to New Horizon.”
The changeling shifted back to normal form and carried the box of keys along to the exit door. The immigrants queued up and presented their IDs which were matched to the keys. Violet stuffed hers into her saddlebag and headed outside. The same bus that had ferried them from the shuttle was waiting and everyone boarded as soon as they had stepped outside. This time, Violet was lucky enough to make it into the first group and they were all soon on their way. As they left the spaceport, the unicorn spotted the aforementioned offices and filed their location into her memory.
The bus spent a few minutes passing at high speed through forest which Violet figured was a noise buffer zone. Then they emerged into an area that had been mostly cleared for development. They continued until they reached the firmly established districts. By this time, the mare could smell the salt air of the nearby ocean. The hostel apartments turned out to be fairly close to the beach, much to Violet’s delight. She hadn’t had the opportunity to go swimming for a while.
Everyone disembarked and the bus promptly left to fetch the remainder of the immigrants. By the time the unicorn made it inside, there were already two lines at the check-in counter. As there was very little to do besides confirming their arrival, the lines moved quickly. When it was her turn, Violet registered herself and was given directions to her assigned apartment. It turned out to be on the second floor and a long walk down the hallway, but that was fine by her. The key let her into Apartment 227 and she took in her home for the foreseeable future.
There was a small bathroom, a tiny bedroom with a wardrobe that doubled as a wall between it and a kitchenette, and living area. She suspected that the griffon family would get something a lot larger but this suited her needs fine for now. Drawing back the curtains, the unicorn was delighted to find that she also had a small balcony. It was probably a concession for the winged species that stayed there. Stepping out onto it, she realized that she could see a bit of the beach from there. She looked around and observed the luxurious and well cared for gardens that seemed to be a feature of every place that the mare had seen so far beside the new developments. This might be a very young township but it was obvious that the citizens took great pride in its appearance.
The mare closed her eyes, taking in a deep breath of the fresh tangy air while feeling the sun on her fur. She let out a contented sigh. “Welcome to the first day of your new life, Violet Woods. Let’s see if we can solve the mystery of why House Path thinks this remote island is so special.”
Violet allowed the waves to propel her gently toward the shore. When she felt her hooves touch the bottom, she stood up and waded the rest of the way onto the beach. She paused to shake herself vigorously to get rid of much of the seawater that had soaked into her coat before proceeding further. She settled down with a sigh of contentment under the shade of what passed for a palm tree on this world. That had been a most enjoyable swim in the relatively warm water of this semi-tropical island. A fine way to end her first day in her new home.
The sun was lowering toward the horizon and would soon be blocked by a ridge of hills that sheltered the beach from the prevailing westerly breeze. Ponies young and old were still making the most of the remaining daylight. She didn’t see any griffons but they were not generally known to enjoy bathing in saltwater. She did see a couple of morphs though. Birds cruised around looking for a meal, calling to each other in strange voices. The sun’s rays reflected off a ship entering the bay around which the colony was being constructed. Beyond, Violet saw glinting from the communications tower perched on the highest point of the surrounding hills. It all seemed very peaceful – not bad for a place that had been founded for the purpose of fighting a war. But why this island in particular? Official documents had been a bit vague beyond listing its uninhabited nature. The mare intended to do some research into this in her spare time but, right now, she had a new hometown to explore.
Getting back to her hooves, the unicorn headed toward her accommodation. She passed several nice homes along the way, owned by the fortunate beings who had arrived here early enough to claim some prime real estate for their dwellings. Violet considered herself lucky that the barracks that had been converted to apartments for new immigrants were in the same area. Then there was the small group of shops that serviced this subset of the larger colony town. She had bought a hat there when she found out just how strong the sunlight was In New Horizon. Back at her room, she took a long shower to thoroughly rinse all the salt out of her coat before applying some conditioner. She spent the time needed to dry off making a mug of tea with the ingredients that had been thoughtfully provided in the small pantry.
While sipping the steaming beverage, she considered how to deal with her luggage that had been delivered a bit over two hours after her arrival. No – correct that. It was about an hour and a half in Chakonan hours. She would have to start getting used to the local time measurements. Anyway, some of it could be stored in the wardrobe while the equipment that she needed for her work could be stacked in a corner out of the way. Not the most elegant solution, but what more could you expect from free lodgings? Deciding to put off starting that task until she had eaten, Violet made her way to the cafeteria downstairs. It was always open, perhaps another concession to the wildly varied tastes and needs of the creatures it served. However, some items were only available at certain times of the day. This being the normal dinner hours though, most options were available.
While it was a sit-down restaurant, you had to pick up many items at a buffet counter and put in any special orders with the staff there. The poached mikuriya looked tempting after the violet changeling behind the counter explained that it was a local type of fish similar to salmon. The ’ling was a little surprised at the unicorn’s choice but served it up for her. Violet projected gratitude at him and he nodded and smiled in thanks. After charging the meal to her immigration credit, the mare took the fish, salad, rice pudding, and milkshake she had chosen and looked for a place to seat herself. As it was a busy time of day, there were no empty tables, but there were a few with only one occupant. Recognizing a griffon from the starship that had brought them to Chakona, she asked, “Mind if I sit here?”
The hawk-beaked griffon looked up, his eyes widening in recognition. “No – go right ahead.”
Levitating her items to the other side of the table from the cat-bird, Violet settled into a seat opposite her acquaintance. The griffon eyed the food, an eye ridge rising in curiosity.
“I don’t see too many ponies eating fish, and they are usually pegasi,” he commented.
“Family quirk,” the mare responded. “We all love it.”
“Fair enough. The name’s Lightning Lance.”
“Violet Woods.” She held up a forehoof which Lightning bumped with his balled-up talons. “So, what brings you here?” she asked before taking a gulp from her milkshake.
“I’m a biologist. I was drawn by all the new science to be learned here. Never-before-studied flora, fauna and ecosystem? Count me in!”
“With a name like yours, I would not have picked you for a biologist,” the mare said with a grin.
The griffon chuckled. “Neither did my parents. They were most disappointed with my choice of career. How about you?”
“Geologist. I had some of the same reasons as you to come here, but some were a bit more personal. Frankly, I’m trying to re-start my life with a clean slate.”
“I won’t pry then, although I am very curious why your family likes fish so much. You are obviously enjoying yours.”
Violet nodded but finished chewing the succulent morsel before replying. “Blame my great-grandfather. He was a pegasus and he introduced it to his unicorn wife. They served it to their foals and it’s been a family staple ever since.”
“It’s really surprising more ponies don’t eat fish. It’s a good source of protein and low in fat.” The skin under his eyes crinkled and he winked. “Better than all that sugar you eat.”
Violet giggled. “Ponies have a weakness for sugary stuff, I admit. I try to keep it in moderation though.”
The conversation lapsed as both concentrated on their meals. Lightning Lance bade the mare a friendly good night before departing. After the mare finished her dessert, she returned to her room and finished putting away the last of her gear. Then, with a tired groan, she threw herself on the bed and fell asleep almost instantly.
After breakfast in the cafeteria the next morning, Violet headed into town. While there were plenty of electrically powered single passenger vehicles at her service, she preferred to trot the distance. She needed to keep fit for her job and she had spent far too much of the previous day either sitting or lying down during her travels. Besides, it saved the bits that she had put aside for special occasions. Some of those bits were spent almost as soon as she hit town, drawn by the irresistible aroma of freshly baked goods coming from a shop in the main street. She munched on her warm fruit buns as she walked around her new hometown, getting the lay of the land. She noted where various shops were located (with the bakery on the top of her list!) and found the office where she would have to report for work. That could wait for next week though.
During her travels, she encountered a few more of the non-Equestrian species that lived there. The Caitians reminded her a lot of the Abyssinians but there were no equivalents to the many other morph species. She found the equine morph to be a little unsettling, to be honest. Ponies belonged on four hooves, not two!
Tourism was not a thing here yet so she had difficulty in getting some general information about the area. Undoubtedly, she would receive a lot from her workplace when she reported in, but that was days away. Besides, the mare had her own side agenda and did not want to explain her need. One thing she prioritized was updating her comm service. While the nature of magic-based communications technology meant that her comm worked anywhere on Equestria, she didn’t expect it to do so light years away. After locating the office of the local service, it took only about a quarter-hour to open a new account and have her comm activated.
With all the essentials completed, Violet decided that she might as well make the most of the remaining day. She practically galloped to the beach again. This time, she spent some effort meeting the locals and managed to get invited into a volleyball game. It was both fun and a good workout. When it was time to go back to the apartment, she was a very tired but happy pony.
After dinner at the cafeteria, Violet laid out the equipment that she needed for the next day. Now that she was fairly familiar with the township, it was time to get a good look at the whole area. And what better viewpoint than the communications tower that overlooked the entire settlement and more? Tomorrow, she would hike up there and see what she could see. And, who knew? She might even get a head start on solving the riddle of this island.
Violet pushed aside the undergrowth with her magic for the hundredth time and heaved a sigh of relief at seeing what appeared to be an animal trail that was going roughly in the direction that she desired. She had drastically underestimated the density of groundcover in this type of forest and her hike up the low mountain to her goal was proving to be quite arduous. She paused long enough to drink a gulp of water from the flask that she kept in her saddlebag before proceeding. After following the relatively easy path for a while, she came upon a small creek. It was narrow enough for her to step over but it was probably a vital water source for the local fauna. The trail continued on the other side before turning downhill. It was time to part ways. The mare took a bearing with her GPS and headed into the bushes once more.
About a half-hour later, she noticed moss-covered rocks were getting more prevalent and larger. They had the effect of thinning out the vegetation but making moving forward gradually more difficult the further up she went. Only her field experience let her negotiate some of them even as she grumbled, “I’m a pony, not a mountain goat.”
As Violet wound her way higher, the moss thinned out and vanished, leaving her surrounded by bare rock. Eventually, the unicorn was confronted by an impassable jumble of gigantic boulders. As the mare assessed her options, she realized that she could smell smoke. Violet had noticed some barbecues the previous day but she should not be able to smell any up here. The orientation material told her colonists did not practice slash-and-burn farming. The forest hundreds of feet below saw regular rainfall and was in little danger of burning, so the mare was not greatly concerned about the fire but you couldn’t take it for granted.
“Time to cheat a little,” Violet murmured, lighting up her horn.
The unicorn was skilled in several disciplines other than the basics. In this case, she was particularly adept at self-levitation. The mare rapidly rose above the immediate obstacles only to see even more, so she kept going further up. Spotting the tower that was her goal, she realized that she was very near the top now and the smoke smell was getting stronger. Suddenly, Violet sensed that she was not alone up here. Cresting the last pile of boulders, her eyes confirmed that feeling. A tiger-patterned chakat with short brown hair was relaxing alongside a campfire over which was hanging a small cooking pot. Violet immediately noticed that the chakat had been looking in her direction before she had been visible. Somehow, despite her silent approach due to levitating, her arrival had been anticipated. Judging by the soft smile on the stranger’s face, the mare’s presence was not undesired.
Violet returned the smile as she came in for a landing. “Hello. I wasn’t expecting to find anyone up here, let alone a chakat. I’m told that there are only two of you in the colony.”
The chakat nodded. “That’s right. I come up here regularly though and I don’t usually meet anyone.”
“You seemed to know that I was coming.”
“Yes, I did. Chakats are empaths and I sensed your emotions a couple of minutes ago.”
Violet raised an eyebrow. “From way down there?” she said with an inclination of her head in the direction from which she had come.
The chakat chuckled. “Well, without any other being around for kilometers, it’s not hard to spot the one shining beacon in the psionic landscape.”
The mare grinned wryly. “I suppose not. My name is Violet Woods, by the way.”
“Mine is Tigerbright. I’m making tea; care for a cuppa?”
“Sure, if it isn’t any trouble. Hey, aren’t you the one who works in the Chakonan government office?”
“Yep, that’s me.”
“This isn’t the kind of place I’d expect to find an office worker.”
Tigerbright snorted in amusement. “That’s precisely why I’m here. I like my job but I really need to get away from the office and crowds by the end of the workweek. I’ve always liked hiking and camping so I regularly come up here for the exercise and the view. How about you? Normally, only pegasi come up here to service the communications tower once in a while.”
“I’m a geologist, so I’m used to hiking to places. There’s only so much that you can determine remotely. It takes hooves on the ground to check out the promising sites. Anyway, I wanted to come up here for a couple of reasons including getting a good look at the lay of the land.” Violet stepped over to near the edge of the cliff to take in the view of the vista below. From here, she could see the entire settlement from the original structures near the beach to the new developments. She could even identify her apartment complex. But it wasn’t the artificial features that drew her eye, no matter how pleasingly they had been designed and landscaped. The lush forest that surrounded the colony, the golden beaches, and the turquoise waters were breathtaking. “This is absolutely gorgeous,” the mare said with a broad smile.
“It sure is,” agreed Tigerbright. “The tea’s ready. Got a cup?”
Violet turned away from the view and hauled out her flask, unscrewing the top. It doubled as a cup in situations like these although she had not anticipated needing it on this occasion. The chakat filled the cup before doing the same with hir own. They both took a moment to sip a bit of the very hot brew before Tigerbright spoke up again.
“So, you mentioned that you had a couple of reasons to come up here. May I ask what else besides the view?”
“I wanted to get a look at the mana flow of the area.”
Tigerbright’s eyebrow rose. “What’s that?”
Violet took another sip of her tea before setting the cup on the ground. “Perhaps it would be easier to show you. Give me a moment.” She shut her eyes and her horn began to glow. For several seconds, nothing appeared to happen, then sparkling streams of silvery light appeared from nowhere. Everywhere the chakat looked, even down to the township below, ropes and strings were crossing the landscape, occasionally joining or diverging.
“There! Those are what you might call ley lines. They show the natural flow of mana, the power behind magic. They’re very strong and dense around here.”
“Won’t seeing all that… mana… disturb the people down there?”
“The spell didn’t make it visible – it affected your perception so that you can see it. The spell will fade in a few minutes.”
Tigerbright pointed to the nearby tower. “There seems to be a lot there.”
The unicorn nodded. “It makes sense that they’ve built a magitek device at the conflux of the mana streams.”
“I’ll take your word for that. So – did you find what you were looking for?”
“Yes and no. I kind of expected this result. If I had been the one choosing the site of a colony, I’d want to put it where the mana supply is ample. While we, like all life, can generate mana too, we can suffer from magic exhaustion if we draw on nothing but our reserves all the time. Anyway, it’s a possible clue to the mystery I intend to solve.”
“Mystery? Is this something the Chakonan government should know about?”
Violet laughed. “No, nothing so dramatic. In deciding to make this my new home, I found myself wondering why House Path chose this island in particular.”
“Well, it was uninhabited and unclaimed so far,” Tigerbright pointed out.
“Yes, but so are a great number of others, many of which are located nearer to existing settlements and their resources.”
“Maybe they wanted the privacy?”
Violet shook her head. “Equestria and House Path, in particular, have a policy of bringing races and cultures together in Harmony. Isolation runs counter to that goal.”
“The colony was originally a base for the Equestrian military. Perhaps those in command wanted to maintain a safety margin from other settlements?”
“Sensible but there are still plenty of suitable sites that could have been used which were also a reasonably safe distance from civilians.”
Tigerbright shrugged. “Beats me then. Have you any ideas?”
“Yeah. I’ve seldom seen such a dense mana flux. Either something is causing it or using it, but I don’t know which yet. It does seem likely that it would draw the interest of House Path though, especially considering that Twilight Sparkle, the foremost mage in Equestria, is one of the founders.”
“Sounds like you have quite a mystery on your hooves if she hasn’t figured it out.”
Violet grinned. “Yep. Unlike her though, I will be trekking all over this island doing my job, and I will have the time and opportunity to poke my muzzle into many places she hasn’t. After all, Princess Twilight Sparkle is way too busy with more important tasks to investigate a second-string mystery.”
“I wish you good luck with your sleuthing.” Tigerbright finished the last of hir tea and put the mug away in hir pack. Shi then got up onto hir paws, picked up the pot, and poured the remaining water onto the fire. Shi scraped dirt on top of the steaming remains to ensure that it was thoroughly extinguished. “Well, I’m going to start heading back down now. Care to join me? We can chat along the way.”
“Sure! I’d like that. Just give me a moment to have another look at the view.”
“You probably didn’t notice because you were facing the wrong way when you floated up here, but you can just see the spaceport on the other side of the ridge from the top of that boulder.” The chakat pointed it out.
Violet used her magic to scale the huge rock and spotted the clearing in the forest where the spaceport was located. Aside from the road from there to the township, the remainder of the area appeared to be virgin forest still. The unicorn turned around to look once more at her new home and she smiled. “You made a good choice, Violet Woods,” she murmured to herself.
“Did you say something?” Tigerbright asked from below.
The unicorn levitated herself down again, saying, “I’m just thinking that I’ll have to come up here again soon. It’s too beautiful to take it all in at one time.”
The chakat chuckled. “Can’t say I blame you. I haven’t tired of this view yet despite the number of times I’ve been here.”
“So – do you know a better route than the one that I took?”
“I should hope so! I haven’t just hiked up here without doing plenty of exploring at the same time. Not only have I discovered some quicker routes, but I’ve also found some gorgeous scenery along the way. I’m thinking of commissioning a proper hiking trail so that everyone can visit Tower Peak safely and easily. Anyway, follow me.”
The chakat set off and Violet fell in behind hir. It seemed that this little expedition was going to pay greater dividends than the mare could have hoped for. She might learn a lot from one of the locals, and a chakat at that!
Chatting (Part 1)
Tigerbright led Violet toward the edge of the cliff before bearing to hir left. The mare then saw that part of the cliff had a reasonably broad ledge sloping down the face of it, neatly bypassing the boulders that she had levitated over. A closer look at the rock face revealed the strata where the softer stone had eroded and broken free to produce the ledge. The shelf only ran about thirty meters but it reached a cleft that gave them some natural steps, albeit very uneven ones. Violet had little trouble negotiating them, and they were laughably easy for the feline taur. The mare blushed a bit when they reentered the forest no more than five minutes after they left the hilltop. It had taken thirty minutes to scramble up over the obstacles even with the help of her magic.
Now that she was being guided, the mare noticed the slightly unnatural touches to the route that they were taking. Gaps between bushes were too conveniently aligned, fallen branches were parallel to their route, and so forth. This was soon confirmed when the chakat pulled out pruning shears from her backpack and trimmed an offending growth here and there. Violet decided to do her bit to help and levitated some rocks to the side that Tigerbright had stepped over. Despite this attention, the path was quite faint. This was not too surprising if it was only trodden by one person on the weekends. Nature was a lot more resilient than that.
A fairly sharp bend in the trail made Violet frown thoughtfully. “I think I crossed this trail on the way up. I didn’t take it because it headed toward the cliff and I wanted to go further upward.”
Tigerbright pointed over hir left shoulder with hir thumb. “There’s a gully and boulders that way; nice to look at but awkward to traverse.”
“Yeah, I found that out the hard way.”
“That’s why I want to make this a proper hiking trail, so more hikers can take in the view without dealing with things like that. Not everyone is as enthusiastic about tackling obstacles as people like us.”
“If you like it so much, why have you confined yourself to just this route? You have a very large island to explore.”
The chakat grimaced. “Because they won’t let me.”
“Huh?” The pony raised a puzzled eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware of any such restrictions. I need to know because I have to go off-trail to achieve my goals.”
Tigerbright chuckled. “But you’re not the colony’s Chief Administrator for the Chakonan Government.”
Violet blinked in surprise. “I knew that you worked in the CWG office, but you’re the top authority?”
“Yep. For security and safety’s sake, I’m not allowed to go far from the town by myself, so anything I do has to be completed within a day. And, so far, I have not met anyone else who enjoyed bushwalking and camping for their own sakes.”
“Well, that sucks. I have to admit that you seem a bit young for such a senior post. Not that I’m an expert judge of chakat age or anything.”
“No, you’re judgment is correct. Normally, I would not have qualified for the position because I didn’t have much seniority. However, due to something you brought up earlier, I got my chance. As you pointed out, Emu Island is a long distance from just about everything, and it’s a very young colony to boot. Not only wasn’t it a prestigious posting, it was also isolated from friends and family. Nobody put their hand up for the position except me. I saw it as a golden opportunity because I am very career-minded and it was a way of quickly boosting my status, not to mention my pay-grade. Best of all, it gave me a place to indulge in my bushwalking hobby.” Shi chuckled wryly. “That was before I discovered the limitations that would be imposed upon me. Still, I don’t regret my decision.”
“So, you got the position simply because they had no other choice?”
Tigerbright shook hir head. “Not exactly. The minister could have appointed someone despite their preferences. My volunteering was entirely dependent upon whether there would be another chakat sent along with me. Fortunately, although there wasn’t one in my department, the colony governor had put in a request for a local biology expert to work with the earth pony environmental team, and Morningmist was available. And that’s how I got the job.”
“Why did there have to be another chakat going with you?”
“Because there weren’t any here already.”
“You get lonely?”
The chakat snorted in amusement. “No. It’s a minor problem we have. As I said earlier, I’m an empath – all chakats are. But while that gives us the ability to feel other people’s emotions, it was intended to give our species a sense of community. Unfortunately, it’s too powerful. We actually need empathic interaction on a regular basis for our mental health. We can’t go too long without it before we start having detrimental effects.”
“Hallucinations at first, delusions, then total mental breakdown.”
“Yikes! Seems like a major problem to me.”
“Not really. Back at Amistad, there are chakats around you all the time. Even if you don’t live there, chakats tend to live in clans, with several others in the home. It’s normally a non-issue.”
“So, what do you do here?” Violet asked, totally intrigued by now. “I take it that Morningmist doesn’t work with you?”
“No, shi works out of another office in town. Shi’s also mated to a stellar foxtaur and lives elsewhere.”
“I would have guessed you two would have shared accommodations like us immigrants.”
Tigerbright shook hir head. “Shi and hir mate have three cubs and need a place of their own. We have to schedule a regular meet-up to get in our empathic sessions.”
“How long do they take?”
“If we just have a conversation and socialize, about four hours or more.”
“That seems a pretty large chunk of time to spend with someone just for that purpose.”
“True. Although we’re friends, we don’t have much in common, so finding enough stuff to chat about isn’t easy. Fortunately, we do have an alternative. The effectiveness of empathic interaction is entirely dependent on its intensity. The better we know each other, the stronger our feelings and the shorter the time required. And there’s one activity that can reduce that period to only half an hour.”
“Okay, I’ll bite – what is it?”
Tigerbright grinned. “Recreational sex!”
Violet blinked. “You mean every couple of weeks you go around to hir place and you buck each other?”
The chakat giggled. “I like your euphemism. But yes, that’s essentially it, although shi comes to my place for privacy’s sake.”
“And hir mate doesn’t mind?”
“Hir mate knew exactly what shi was getting into when shi denned up with Morningmist and again when their family moved out to the untamed wilderness. Shi and I are on quite good terms actually.”
“So, Morningmist just comes around and you screw for a while before shi leaves, saying, ‘See you in two weeks’?”
“Well, it sounds pretty sterile when you put it like that, but just because it’s an essential activity doesn’t mean that we aren’t allowed to enjoy ourselves. Recreational sex is extremely pleasant and we have fun switching things up. But a couple of intense orgasms are enough to recharge us mentally, so we don’t prolong the meetings.”
Violet grinned wryly. “That’s something I never expected to learn about your kind. I wonder what other surprises you have in store ?”
Just then, their path opened up onto a ledge which, like the peak, overlooked the township. The way the cliff curved around, it enabled the mare to see the tower they had left behind. It also gave them a view of the colony further east than at the summit due to the lay of the land. The sun was past its zenith and Violet had to shade her eyes, but the scenery was just as breathtaking as earlier. Tigerbright paused there, letting the unicorn take in the sight.
“Whenever I see this, I don’t regret my decision to come here despite the inconvenience,” the chakat said quietly.
“I haven’t been here long enough to have regrets, but I can still empathize with you there. Literally.”
Tigerbright looked at the mare, cocked hir head, and frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that I have some empathic talent too.”
The chakat looked at the mare quizzically. “I’ve never heard of that being a pony trait.”
“It isn’t, normally. I owe mine to my great grandfather.”
“He wasn’t a pony?”
“Nope. Changeling actually. Due to a flaw in the first version of the compatibility spell that enabled him to have children, his foals all had a unique talent. Mine comes from his second daughter, my grandmother.”
Tigerbright looked thoughtful. “Hmm… well, that explains why I’ve been feeling extra chipper. I think I’ve been unconsciously interacting with you empathically since we met.”
“I guess so. I’m not used to dealing with empaths, so I’m not familiar with the sensation.”
“Not even with changelings?”
“It’s different for them. They consume emotions while it manifests another way in ponies.”
The chakat stuck hir tongue out briefly. “Different is right. Meeting a changeling for the first time was uncomfortable for me because they are an empathic void. I can see a living, thinking being right in front of me, but to my empathic sense, there’s no one there.”
“I can see how that would seem weird. Having been around them all my life, it’s something you get used to.”
“I suppose so,” the chakat conceded as shi turned away from the view and resumed the trek.
After a while, Violet said, “If being with me has perked you up that much, does that mean you’re due to get a visit from Morningmist soon?”
“Yep. Tomorrow, in fact.”
“Do you mind if I ask a personal question?”
Tigerbright looked back over hir shoulder with a smirk on hir face. “Bet you I’ve heard it before. Go ahead – I’m pretty easy.”
“What’s it like being a hermaphrodite?”
“What’s it like being only female?” shi shot back.
“Huh? I don’t understand.”
“You Equestrians have this weird image of us being some sort of chimera of a male and a female mashed together somehow. While it’s true that we have both sets of genitalia, we don’t think of ourselves as a mare with a penis or a stallion with a uterus. We are whole beings. Just as you probably can’t imagine what it would be like to possess a stallion’s equipment and temperament, I can’t understand what it would be like to be only male or only female.”
“Oh. You have a point.”
“However, if you want to talk about our sexuality, that’s a different subject. I’m not greatly familiar with your species yet, but I believe that you have a fairly broad range. I mean, you don’t just have heterosexual couples but also mares with mares and stallions with stallions?”
“That’s right, although the latter is rare.”
“Due to the relative scarcity of stallions, I understand. But that spectrum does exist, and the same is true for chakats. I will say in advance that there’s no such thing as a chakat that doesn’t like both sides of hir sexuality. However, having established that, there’s still a huge range of attitudes towards sex. Some prefer female sex most of the time and others love doing the mounting. I’ve also met one who dresses in the girliest clothes but is definitely male-inclined when it comes to sex. Anyway, on a scale of zero to ten where zero is totally masculine and ten is totally feminine, chakats occupy the entire range from one to nine. Most are five or six though.”
“What are you?” Violet asked with a grin.
The chakat returned the smile. “Other than when my cycle swings to my heat, I’d say I’m a two. How about you?”
“I guess I’m an eight. Most mares are interested at least a bit in other mares. It helps whenever we go into season.”
“I hear that’s a lot more intense than when we go into heat.”
“Yeah. It doesn’t matter even if you’re a dedicated fillyfooler normally – hormones make you crave a stallion badly.”
“That’s why your stallions go elsewhere at those times?”
“Correct. Self-control is almost non-existent.”
Tigerbright chuckled. “And you thought I had problems!”
Violet grinned. “At least it’s only about one week a year for me.”
“But I get to have sex,” the chakat countered with a smirk.
They both laughed and continued on their way.
Chatting (Part 2)
The chakat and the unicorn trekked in companionable silence for a while, only pausing occasionally to deal with an offending branch or rock. Then Tigerbright stopped and indicated a small shrub with red-rimmed leaves.
“See this plant? Don’t let its sap get onto you – it gives you a painful rash that lasts for days without treatment. It’s also murder to get out of your fur.”
“Is that a particularly rare species?” Violet asked.
“Heck, no! It’s almost a weed.”
“Then you won’t mind if I do this.” With a burst of her magic, the mare ripped the entire bush out of the ground and deposited it well away from the path.
Tigerbright chuckled. “Now that’s what I call non-contact pest control. Feel free to rip out any others that you see too close to our route.”
“Sure – not a problem,” the mare replied as they resumed their walk. “Please point out anything else that needs to be similarly dealt with.”
“Must be handy having magic to make problems disappear. That ley line trick was pretty impressive.”
“Thanks, but any graduate of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns could have done that.”
“Oh? So you’re saying that the average unicorn doesn’t know how to cast that spell?”
Violet grimaced. “The average unicorn can levitate objects, use their horn light as a flashlight, and that’s about it. The only complex magic they can perform is directly related to their special talent.”
“Well, that explains why I’ve never seen a pony fly without wings before. What other kinds of stuff did you learn?”
“Illusions, transformations, teleportation—”
“You can teleport? I hear that your alicorns once teleported all the way from your world to Chakona.”
Violet chuckled. “I’m no alicorn. I’m pretty much limited to line-of-sight. Useful for getting out of trouble, but that’s about it.”
“I see. What else?”
“Divining.” At the chakat’s raised eyebrow, the mare clarified. “Using changes in the mana field to determine the presence of various substances. While it’s frequently employed to find water, it’s also very useful for my geology work. It was one of my best subjects, although that shouldn’t be too surprising considering that it’s an aspect of my special talent. Anyway, I also know various useful incantations, but I was pretty poor at potions. Can’t be great at everything, I suppose. Unless your name is Twilight Sparkle, of course.”
“With that kind of education, why did you pick geology? It seems to me that you could have gotten into some more high-end jobs.”
“Because I love it. I’ve known since I was twelve that it was what I was going to do when I grew up.”
“I’ve heard about how you ponies get your cutie marks when you discover what you’re best at, but isn’t that limiting? You spend the rest of your life focused on that one thing.”
Violet chuckled. “Not necessarily. How you express that talent can vary a lot. But for me, it was discovered while doing something that I love. I was on a camping trip with the fillyscouts when I detected a vein of diamonds. That’s how I got my geode cutie mark. Now I get to hike and camp frequently while doing my job.”
“Do you always work alone when on one of those field trips?”
“Most of the time. If a site requires a thorough follow-up, I might go with a team, but my primary job is ground surveying.”
“Don’t you ever get lonely? We chakats are very social beings and don’t like being by ourselves for long. And that’s not even counting the empathic interaction we require.”
“Oh, ponies love socializing and we’re incurable huggers. I do miss that occasionally, but I’d rather be out in the field by myself than stuck in an office with people who don’t share my interests.”
Tigerbright gave her a quizzical look. “And you couldn’t do that back on Equus?”
“The trouble with Equus is that it’s a well-explored and populated world. The few areas that are not already checked out or claimed have several geologists vying for the job. Here, though, the colony is always looking for more experts. The colonial authority bent over backward to get me to sign up. Frankly, not too many ponies have a pioneering mentality.”
“New Horizon is hardly a backwater village with huts made of sticks,” the chakat said dryly.
Violet giggled. “It might as well be to their minds. That’s why the majority of ponies here are aligned with House Path. They tend to have the most forward thinkers. It’s also why there’s a higher than average proportion of griffons in the population. They’re a lot bolder about this kind of thing.”
“I guess. Still, it’s a heck of a transition from a comfortable place in your homeworld to this colony. Is your career really that important to you?”
The mare snorted derisively. “Combined with the opportunity to explore a new country, it could easily have been. No, the deciding factors were my parents.”
Sensing the unicorn’s irritation, Tigerbright said diffidently, “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”
“Nah. It’s not as if it’s a big secret. My parents kept nagging me to find myself a stallion, get mated, and give them grandfoals. Mom was especially bad. It’s not as if I was completely disinterested in getting hitched, but I’d never found a male that shared my interests. Oh, I had a couple of friends but they were not suitable mates. That didn’t stop my mother though. She must have lined up every eligible male in town, even those with a large herd of mares already. Call me selfish, but I wanted a stallion who had time to devote just to me. They even arranged a blind date with a griffon once.”
Tigerbright’s eyebrows rose. “I thought you said they wanted grandfoals?”
“You might not have any here yet, but hippogriffs are the progeny of ponies and griffons, courtesy of a compatibility spell. Well, at least the ones that don’t hail from Mount Aris. Anyway, Garth was equally surprised when he found out I was a pony. Turns out it was a blind date for him, too.”
“So, I guess you didn’t go out on that date?”
Violet grinned widely. “Oh, we did. Garth is one of those male friends I mentioned. Dad and Mom were paying for a ‘romantic’ meal at a high-class restaurant, and we made sure to order all the most expensive stuff. I hoped it would teach my parents a lesson in meddling, although that turned out to be wishful thinking. Nevertheless, we had an awesome dinner on their bits. Garth suggested that we pretend to have some interest in each other to get some more high-class free food, but I knew that would only encourage them even more.”
The chakat snickered. “I’ve known a few chakats like that. The biggest difference between us is that we tend to prefer large clans, or herds as you call them.”
“I could possibly agree to adding a mare to the herd after I’ve been married for a while, but that’s something to consider in the future. Anyway, the final straw was when my parents convinced one of my grandmothers that I was despairing of finding a stallion and could she unearth somepony for me? Well, she did. The poor colt was fed some horsefeathers about how I was so desperate for a husband that I was ready to mate with any eligible stallion who turned up on my doorstep. He thought he would be taking on a charity case and treated me with exactly zero respect. I blew up at Grandma, Mom and Dad and left town in the morning. I already had been considering my options and that incident pushed me past the tipping point. I went to see the Chakonan Colonial Authority the next day, sat through a presentation of what to expect, and submitted my application immediately afterward. It took less than a week to be approved. Like I said before, the colony has an urgent need for expert professionals.”
“So it’s only been a few days since you decided to come here?”
“Well, I had to wind up things with my employer first, plus a few other personal details, but yeah, I pretty much came here as soon as I could.”
“Not so far, although this is only my third day here.” Violet grinned at the chakat. “And I’ve made my first local friend. Things are looking good.”
Tigerbright returned the smile. “So, I can persuade you to come with me on an overnight hike sometime soon?”
“Twist my fetlock, why don’t you?” the mare replied with a giggle.
The conversation switched back to the sights along the trail which slowly grew more distinct. Violet paused briefly to get a closer look at a rock formation before they continued. Eventually, they came to a T-intersection and Tigerbright halted there.
“Are you in any hurry to get back to your apartment?” the chakat asked.
“Not at all.”
“Then let’s go this way.” Tigerbright turned to the left. “The right path leads to town, of course, but I have something else I want to show you.”
They continued onward and Violet heard waves breaking and the scent of saltwater was heavier in the air. The pair abruptly emerged from the trees onto an outcrop of rock that jutted into the bay, terminating the beach that fronted the colony.
The tiger chakat took off hir backpack and said, “Put your saddlebag here. It’ll get wet otherwise.”
Curious to find out what Tigerbright was up to, Violet did as she was asked. Then she followed hir to the end of the rocky promontory. The chakat put a hand on the mare’s withers and gestured at the scenery. The mare was a little surprised but not discomfited, and she was soon engrossed in the view her friend was showing her. A yacht was sailing across the crystal clear water which sparkled in the sunlight, and the hills on the other side of the bay were verdant and lush. It was a picture-postcard moment and they both admired it in silence for a minute.
Eventually, Violet asked, “It’s beautiful, but why did you think our stuff would get wet? The waves are hardly making more than a ripple at the moment.”
Tigerbright grinned. “Because we’re going down there now.” Shi pointed to the lee of the outcrop where the unicorn could see several rock pools. It was low tide and the pools were isolated from the sea for the moment, and in them, Violet could see fish swimming. As they emerged from the shadow of an overhang, their bodies shimmered like living rainbows.
“Ooh! What are those?”
“Spectrum fish. Follow me.”
Tigerbright bounded down to the pools. Wary of her hooves skidding on the slippery rocks, Violet opted to levitate down. By then, the chakat was hip-deep in one of the pools where the spectrum fish darted between hir legs. “Come on in,” shi said.
Considering how deep her feline friend was, the unicorn was unsurprised to find herself up to her neck in the cool water.
“Refreshing, isn’t it?” Tigerbright asked with a grin.
“Yep. I notice that the fish aren’t afraid of us.”
“Like most brightly colored animals, they are poisonous to eat, so they don’t have many natural predators. Spectrum fish are curious and playful because they can afford to be.”
Violet held up a hoof and one of the fish gave her frog a nibble, tickling her. “Oh, I’ve got to take a picture of this!” She looked up where she could see her saddlebags and a magic glow lifted one of the flaps. Her comm floated down and then paused nearby. The mare put a foreleg over Tigerbright’s barrel and said, “Smile!”
The comm made a shutter sound twice before floating back to its place in the saddlebag.
“You forgot to take any pictures when you were up on Tower Peak,” the chakat pointed out.
“I know. I have a bad habit of forgetting to take some pics when I’m engrossed in a view. And then there was the unexpected company too.”
“At least, you have a good excuse to go back again.”
Violet chuckled. “Yeah, as if I needed one.”
They climbed out of the rock pool and shook off the excess water before retrieving their packs. The duo then retraced their steps until they reached the trail junction, this time heading toward the township. They emerged at the end of a street that accessed the beach. Rather than walking down the road, Tigerbright led the mare to a trail that paralleled the beach and moved up the pace to a trot. Violet easily kept pace, wondering where her friend was headed. Eventually, they reached a path which the mare recognized as leading to her apartment complex.
“Wait up a moment!”
The chakat stopped and looked back. “What’s up?”
“My place is thataway.” The unicorn pointed with her hoof.”
“Ah. I was thinking that you could stop by my home first for drinks and snacks if you’d like?”
“Oh. That’d be nice if isn’t too much trouble? I’m a bit damp and salty.”
“You can use my outdoor shower. I use it all the time when I go to the beach. Saves tracking sand and seawater into the house.”
“Very practical,” Violet conceded. “Let’s go.”
Five minutes later, they reached a row of large houses with frontage onto the beach. They all looked expensive and the mare figured that they belonged to all the important people in the colony. Therefore, it was no surprise when Tigerbright turned into the yard of one. There was outdoor furniture underneath the shade of sailcloth and a little hut to one side. The chakat led the mare to the latter and told her to go ahead and use the shower first. After a quick rinse, she was then showed a device that blasted her with jets of air to dry her coat while Tigerbright showered. When both were done, they walked up to the door of the house. The chakat held the back of hir wrist up to a disc by the side and the door slid open. Violet’s eyes widened as she followed the chakat inside.
“Sweet Celestia! You have this huge place all to yourself?”
“Yep. When they built the official residence for the future Chief Administrator, I hadn’t been appointed yet and they had to allow for the possibility of a large family moving in. Instead, it was just unmated me. Plenty of spare bedrooms for visiting VIPs though.”
“You certainly have plenty of privacy. Yet still handy to the beach and other people. Pretty sweet deal.”
“I’m not complaining,” Tigerbright replied with a chuckle. “Anyway, I promised you refreshments. What would you like to drink? I make a pretty mean margarita.”
“I have no idea what that is, but I’m game.”
“Okay. Let me grab the snacks and then I’ll start on the drinks.” The chakat took an assortment of cakes out of the cupboard in the kitchen and passed them to Violet who took them in her magic field. “Take these to the table outside. Help yourself to as many as you like – I can easily get more. I’ll join you soon.”
The unicorn found that chairs made for the comfort of chakats were pretty good for ponies too. She selected an oat muffin and was halfway through it when Tigerbright emerged with a large glass carried in each hand. Each had a narrow stem that flared out into a wide rim. The scents of citrus and alcohol wafted through the air accompanied by enough salt to drown out what came off the ocean. Violet pricked her ears forward, showing her interest. Sure enough, a crust of coarse salt crystals decorated the rim. Tigerbright set one glass beside Violet and then settled down in a chair before taking a sip of hir drink.
“Ah! The perfect way to end a wonderful day,” the chakat said with a contented look on hir face. “Thank you for joining me today. It made it so much more enjoyable.”
“I ought to be thanking you,” Violet replied after taking a careful swig of her drink. Along with its taste, the salt added an unexpected tactile dimension to the beverage. “I never expected to learn so much in one day. It’s been both fun and educational. I wouldn’t mind doing it again soon.”
“Me too. Tomorrow is out unfortunately. I have that appointment with Morningmist.”
“An empathic interaction like you mentioned earlier?”
“Exactly. I have to admit that I need it way less than she will. You may not be a strong empath, Violet, but you’re very much adequate for my needs. I can’t leave Misty in the lurch though.”
“We can have a barbecue on the beach in the afternoon, if you like. Maybe organize a game of volleyball if we’re lucky.”
“As long as you don’t start drumming up stallions for me, I’m all for it.”
“Aww! You’ve gone and ruined my surprise!” the chakat whined.
Violet gave hir a flat look before they both burst out into laughter.
They sipped their drinks and munched on the cakes, watching foals and their parents playing on the sand and in the sea. A gentle breeze kept the temperature just right and the mare sighed in contentment. If this was a foretaste of what her life in this colony would be like, she only wished that she had made the move sooner.
Violet spent much of the morning the next day reading on the balcony of her apartment after a luxurious sleep-in. Plenty of exercise before bedtime always resulted in a night of good solid slumber and she was ready to have a full afternoon with her new friend. They had arranged to meet at hir place at noon, by which time shi would have fulfilled hir obligation to Morningmist, freshened up, and prepared for the day’s activities.
Shortly before the appointed hour, the unicorn departed, carrying only a small pouch slung over her neck with her comm and key. Violet first visited a shop before heading for Tigerbright’s home. She approached it via the beachside entrance as she had been instructed, but before she could make herself known, the chakat’s voice came clearly from inside.
“Come in! The door’s open.”
Violet entered, grinning at the apron-clad chakat who was preparing food on the kitchen bench. “Sensed me coming with your empathic talent?”
“Yep. Got the burger buns, eggs, and lettuce?”
The unicorn held up a bag she had been carrying. “Sure did.”
“Awesome. I’ve got the onions chopped, tomatoes sliced, and burger patties prepared. Vege for you, meat for me.” The chakat put the onions into a plastic container which shi stacked on top of others. “Could you put these in the esky along with the stuff you brought while I wash my hands?”
Violet blinked in confusion. “What’s an esky?”
Tigerbright chuckled. “Sorry – Aussie slang for a portable cooler. My parents emigrated from Australia and I’ve inherited a lot of the lingo from them. Anyway, put them in the blue esky – the red one has drinks in it.”
“Okay. I suppose you’re not very familiar with Equestrian slang?” she asked as she put raised the cooler’s lid and placed the containers in it.
“Not much anymore,” Tigerbright replied as shi cleaned hir hands. “I’ve been doing this job for a while now and have heard most of the idioms. I suppose there could be some I haven’t heard before though.”
“Probably. Anyway, I’m curious as to why you wanted eggs.”
“I guess you’ve never had a burger with a fried egg on it before?” When the mare shook her head, the chakat continued, “Again, Aussie style. You may have noticed the pickles, bell peppers, and sweet corn already in the esky – I’m prepared to accommodate a lot of different tastes.” The chakat dried hir hands and took off the apron, leaving hir nude. “Anyway, I believe we’re all ready now. Leave your pouch on the bench, grab one of the eskies, and let’s go.”
“You’re going unclothed?” Violet asked curiously even as she levitated the blue cooler.
“Yep. No point in wearing clothes on the beach. It’s not as if you ponies aren’t nude all the time.” Shi picked up the red esky and headed outside.
Violet followed, saying, “I noticed that the morphs I’ve seen on the beach were wearing bathing costumes though. I thought you all did?”
Tigerbright closed and locked the door. “That’s purely up to the individuals. Most feel more comfortable wearing something, and a lot of females like support for their boobs.”
“Boobs?” queried Violet.
“Breasts,” the chakat explained, hefting one of hirs with hir free hand.
“Oh. So why don’t you? Not that it matters to me.”
The chakat paused to pick up a large beach umbrella that shi had waiting outside. “I normally wear clothes only for protection like when I’m hiking, or my formal office gear. I prefer being nude most of the time. And FYI, while many planets have a nudity taboo, Chakona expressly forbids the making of any laws requiring the wearing of clothing outside of necessary protective gear, formal premises, or uniform. You can thank that law for not compelling you ponies to wear pants!”
The mare grimaced at that uncomfortable idea as they crossed the beachside path and onto the sand. “I’ve read about how our world came into contact with the Federation, and nowhere was there mentioned anything about requiring clothing. None of the photographs taken at that time showed ponies or griffons in anything more formal than a uniform jacket or such.”
“Oh, you can bet that there were plenty of people of several races who were offended by your ‘immorality’, as they would have expressed it. However, Equestria was the great shining hope for defeating the Swarm at the time, and no one, or at least extremely few, were stupid enough to jeopardize the new relationship between our worlds over that matter. By now though, it’s accepted that Equestrian species only wear clothes when they consider it appropriate. Just like me right now.”
Tigerbright had taken them towards a low structure partially under the shade of the trees. Stopping short of it, shi planted the umbrella’s pole firmly in the sand and opened it up. Shi placed hir esky in its shade and then inclined hir head toward the structure. “Bring your esky with us.”
As they trotted closer, Violet got a decent view of the picnic area. Four wooden picnic tables with benches sat nearby, three of them occupied. Between the seating and cooking areas rose a painted steel column that expanded into ribbed wings covered with thatched thin branches that provided rudimentary shade and protection from the weather. It looked somewhat like a strange umbrella tree.
As Violet could already tell from the smoke and smell, the structure covered several simple but sturdy wood-fired barbecues built out of natural stone. There were four of them, triangular in design with one of the points meeting those of the others so that it minimized the size while maximizing the area in front of each for the users. Several ponies, griffons, changelings, and the raccoon morph that the unicorn remembered seeing at the spaceport were already there and cooking their meals.
“Hi, Tiges!” a stallion called out, quickly followed by greetings from the others.
“G’day, everyone!” Tigerbright replied. “I’d like you to meet my friend, Violet Woods. We met while hiking yesterday. She arrived on Chakona just a few days ago.”
“So, you finally found someone to trudge through the forest with you?” the raccoon asked with a grin.
“Told you that I’d find one someday, Paul,” the chakat replied, sticking out hir tongue at him.
The morph smirked. “Yeah, and how long have you been saying that now? Two years or three?”
“Be grateful – I was this close to dragging you up there with me,” Tigerbright replied, booping him on the nose with hir finger.
The others laughed as the chakat turned back to the unicorn. “Violet – this pack of reprobates are my friends and colleagues who live in the area. We regularly meet up on the beach for a barbecue if the weather is fine.”
Violet looked up into the near-cloudless sky. “It’s been nice since I’ve been here, so I thought the weather ponies had been keeping it under control.”
A pegasus mare laughed. “Hon, there are way too few of us to control the weather here. Those of us in the Emu Island Bureau of Meteorology are more concerned with forecasts and mitigating extreme events.”
“Oh, I see. I should have realized that.”
The pegasus shook her head. “Don’t let it worry you. I’m Silver Nimbus, by the way. My hubby here is Sturdy Frame.” She indicated the earth pony stallion who had first greeted them. “And Zipper here is our herdmate.” She used a wing to hug a chrome changeling.
The others quickly introduced themselves. The griffon cock and hen were a mated couple too. They were named Gavin and Grace, indicating that they originated from Griffonstone with their love of names starting with the letter G rather than from Griffonia where they had more descriptive names like ponies. The raccoon introduced his fiancée, Maria, a female morph that looked similar to his species but Violet learned was a ringtail. The final two adults were a yellow pegasus mare and changeling couple, this time the latter hailing from the Green Hive. Unlike the others, Sunny Skies and Artax had no children, but the rest of the adults proudly indicated their offspring playing on the sand or in the water while their parents watched.
One thing that immediately struck Violet was that all Tigerbright’s friends were either mated or on their way to be. The chakat was the only one who was single. The mare chuckled to herself. ‘Looks like I’m hir designated date today,’ she thought. ‘Ah well, I only told hir not to line me up with any stallions.’
“I’ve finished cooking if you want to use this barbecue,” Gavin said.
“Thanks, Gav. Bring the esky around here, Violet.”
The mare brought the cooler to the adjacent bench and started unloading the ingredients while Tigerbright stoked the fire with some more wood. Shi then began putting the food on the grill to cook. Meanwhile, Violet looked for somewhere to put the buns other than the bare bench.
“Tigerbright – have you got any plates?”
“Whoops! Plates and utensils are in a bag in the other esky. I wanted to leave room for the food in this one.”
The unicorn trotted over to where the red esky had been left, opened it, and took out the bag, noting the assortment of drinks surrounded by ice. After replacing the lid, she took the bag back and extracted two reusable plastic plates. Violet used a knife to split four buns and butter them. She put on some slices of tomato, then tore off several leaves from the lettuce, adding them to the buns. She then considered the condiments.
“You want salt and pepper?” she asked.
“Yes, and barbecue sauce, please.”
Violet added them to two of the buns but selected ketchup and mustard for her two. Before long the patties were done and were placed on the buns, then a generous helping of fried onions before being topped off with fried eggs.
Tigerbright grinned when she saw the final result – four huge burgers packed with ingredients. “Are you sure you can eat two of those? Remember there are still sweet corn and bell peppers too.”
“I had a light breakfast anticipating this meal,” Violet replied.
“As long as you don’t get too bloated for the fun later,” the chakat replied as shi served up the foodstuffs.
The two settled down in the shade of their umbrella as the others coped with their children. Tigerbright fished out a couple of bottles of lemon drink to wash down the food.
“I have some alcoholic drinks too, but I was going to save them for later, unless you would like one now?”
Violet shook her head. “I don’t drink much alcohol, but when I do, it’s normally in the late afternoon at the earliest. I prefer this right now.”
They both had good appetites and finished their food quickly. The mare had to admit that she had eaten a little more than she should have, but it was so good! Silver, Sturdy, and Nimbus came over to chat with them while they all let their food settle for a while. However, it wasn’t long before the children dragged everyone away to have a game of beach volleyball. Violet had never played the game before and had to be warned that she could not grab the ball with her magic, only hit it. She wasn’t very good at the game, but she had a lot of fun nevertheless. Then, it was time for a dip in the ocean to cool off.
That turned into another kind of exercise when someone brought out several gaily colored beach balls. A game of tag soon ensued. Violet was so focused on beaning Tigerbright with a ball that she failed to notice a rogue wave come up behind her. It struck her at the most awkward moment, flinging her to the seafloor. As soon as she could get her hooves under her, she rose to the surface, coughing and spluttering.
The chakat was laughing at her friend’s misfortune and the mare glared at hir. Then her frown turned sly. Her horn lit up and Tigerbright let out a squawk as hir feet were pulled out from under hir and shi plunged beneath the surface. Shi rose again a moment later, still chuckling.
“I deserved that. I think we’ve both had enough for one day. Want to relax on the beach and have a couple of drinks now?”
Violet nodded. “Yeah. I’m a bit tired anyway.”
They headed back to the shade of their umbrella where the chakat pulled out four bottles. “I have several flavors of vodka coolers. There’s raspberry, watermelon, guava, and pineapple.”
“They sound more like fruit drinks than alcohol. Surprise me.”
Tigerbright passed the raspberry one to the mare. “Maybe, but they have a bit of a kick to them. I wouldn’t advise you having too many too quickly.” Shi then opened the guava one and chugged half of the contents in one go.
Violet raised an eyebrow. “What about you?” she asked before taking a more cautious sip.
“Chakats are extremely resistant to toxins, and that includes ethanol. I’d have to drink buckets of these to get drunk.”
“That’s awfully convenient. I’ve never heard of any species that could imbibe that much alcohol without harm.”
“It’s not a coincidence. Like all morph species, chakats were genetically engineered. Unlike most others, we were designed to be survivors. We could go places where no other could do so safely. Eat and drink stuff that would kill just about anyone. We could flourish under conditions that would crush most. Even our dual sexual nature was intended to help as every chakat can be a mother and a sire.”
“Overkill much?” Violet asked.
Tigerbright laughed. “I suppose so nowadays. Back when we were first created though, the world was a very different place. Almost every country was still recovering from a global war. I’m grateful to be a species with so many advantages though. And it’s not like I can do magic like you can. That’s pretty cool.”
“Yeah, I do like being able to utilize spells when I’m in a jam.” She took another swig of her beverage. “Mmm! I can tell why you warned me about these drinks.”
“Going to stick to just one then?” The chakat reached for a second bottle for hirself.
“Heck, no! I’m not a one-drink wonder.”
Violet did stop at two though while Tigerbright polished off a couple more. Then they lazed and chatted with the chakat’s other friends for a while. In what seemed no time whatsoever, the sun was setting and all the families needed to head home. The pair collected the remains of their food, packed up everything into the two eskies, then headed back to Tigerbright’s place. After a brief stop at the outdoor shower, they went inside and unpacked, putting the dirty plates and utensils in the dishwasher. With that out of the way, the chakat regarded hir friend.
“Got any plans? I could order pizza if you like?”
The unicorn looked thoughtful. “I dunno. My social calendar is very full.” Then she snorted with laughter. “Nah. Sounds good to me.”
“Great. What’s your preference?”
“Have they got a three-cheese one with olives and onion?”
“I’m pretty sure they could make it if I asked. Make yourself comfortable meanwhile.”
“I’m still a bit damp,” Violet pointed out.
Tigerbright held a hand to hir mouth and replied in a faux conspiratorial whisper, “Don’t tell anyone, but I sit on the government-issued furniture with damp fur too!”
The mare chuckled and chose a lounge chair while the chakat placed an online order. Shi then filled a kettle. “I’m going to make tea. Want some? Or coffee?”
“Don’t go to any special effort for me. Tea will be fine.”
“Okay, but I really don’t mind. Do you know how infrequently I have friends over?”
“What about the people we were with today?”
“Notice that most have children? Evening visits are difficult to arrange. With the way those kids were giving their all this afternoon, they’re going to crash and burn after dinner.”
“I guess you’re right. What about visiting officials? You mentioned the other day how you had plenty of rooms to put them up for the night.”
Tigerbright snorted. “I get maybe two visits all year, and sometimes they don’t even stay overnight. I love my job, but I often feel very isolated.”
Violet could sense the chakat’s mood swing and decided to cut it off before it got too depressing. “I have to admit that I did not expect to meet someone with whom I’m so comfortable so soon after arriving, but I’m certainly glad we ran into each other. I wouldn’t mind spending a few evenings with you. Probably all here though. My apartment is tiny.”
The chakat smiled and giggled. “I know! Places made for ponies are a bit cramped for chakats. At least I can blame the Equian authorities for that. They were initially built as barracks, not a hotel.”
After the kettle boiled, Tigerbright made two mugs of tea and brought them over to the coffee table before making hirself comfortable on the sofa. “So – what are your plans for tomorrow?”
Violet took a sip of her tea before replying. “I’m going back up to Tower Peak and taking my instruments with me to make some measurements.”
“Looking for something in particular?”
“Yes and no. My long-term goal is to uncover this island’s secrets but, to do that, I reckon I will need lots of data. Maybe I’ll find something significant up there, or maybe not. Won’t know until I check it out. Besides, I was hired to perform mineralogical surveys across the island. No reason not to start there, even if I officially check in with my supervisor next week. Actually, they’ve probably checked out that area already but I want my own data. You said you make the trek up there regularly – want to join me?”
“Sure! It’s a three-day weekend for those of us in the civil service. We can work on improving the trail some more along the way.”
“Great! When do you want to set out?”
The two discussed their plans until their pizzas arrived. Then they made small talk until Violet let out a jaw-cracking yawn.
“Sorry – I think I’m a bit worn out too. It’s been quite a day. I’d better head off now.” The mare slid off her chair and went over to where she had left her pouch.
“Okay. I think I’ll make tracks for bed too. Thanks for visiting, Violet.” Tigerbright led the unicorn to the front door to let her out.
“Believe me, it was my pleasure.” She then embraced the startled chakat. “Incurable huggers, remember?”
Tigerbright’s smile widened. “Looks like I owe you one next time.”
Violet waved as she stepped out the front gate. The chakat waved back before the mare set off at a trot for her apartment, both hugely satisfied with a day well spent.
Violet set off at an easy trot, headed into town. She felt refreshed from a good sleep after the previous day’s hike. She and Tigerbright had retraced their steps up to Tower Peak along the trail that the chakat had been working on establishing. They had paused at the top for a picnic lunch during which they got to watch a shuttlecraft landing at the spaceport from an unusual vantage point. After they had packed up, they elected to take another way back down to the settlement.
The unicorn soon discovered why the north route was not one of the chakat’s regular hiking trails. A series of ravines that were challenging to traverse lay across the most direct path. Tigerbright had yet to discover an optimal way of bypassing them, so the duo had to work their way around through dense foliage at times. It was difficult but she loved it. A well-maintained trail was great for traveling far in a short time to take you to highlights along the way, but working your way through virgin territory lets you discover hidden wonders and sights previously unseen by anyone before. The effort required was next to nothing for her and the chakat too. Despite her friend’s greater size, hir feline form seemed to weave its way past obstacles smoother and more easily than the pony.
They emerged from the forest at the edge of an area under development. From there, it was an easy trot into town. This route brought them past Violet’s apartment complex, so she invited Tigerbright in for a cup of tea. She divested herself of all the hiking gear before boiling the kettle and bringing out some cookies that she had bought on Fifthday. Hilariously, they discovered how cramped a one-pony apartment was when a chakat was a guest. Tigerbright ended up lying on the floor causing Violet to threaten to adopt her friend as a throw rug. Ultimately, Violet occupied the single chair. Still, the unicorn couldn’t complain about the far-from-luxurious conditions of her free accommodations.
The two discussed what they would do with the remainder of the day. Because Tigerbright had to go into the office the next morning, shi needed to get to bed early. “We chakats need more sleep than you ponies do, although I’m guessing you’re pretty tired too after today’s exercise.”
Violet had agreed. “I’ve also worked up quite an appetite,” she added.
“Tell you what – why don’t you freshen up while I go home and do the same. Come by my place when you’re ready and we’ll go into town to the Silver Saddle.”
“The best restaurant in town. Well, the only real restaurant in the colony so far. Give this place a few more years and there will probably be others. But it’s good for a more upscale meal than anywhere else on this island. Anyway, we can have dinner there – my treat.”
“You don’t have to spend your bits on me, but I appreciate it.”
The chakat snorted. “I get paid a lot for my job, but I don’t have much to spend it on. My home and utilities are all covered by the Chakonan government. I rarely have the need or chance to spend much, so I’ve just been stashing it away for the future. I sure don’t mind using some of it to have a nice dinner with a friend.”
It certainly had been a very nice dinner. Violet didn’t know why a chef of such high caliber was here in this colony town, but she very much appreciated every course from soup to dessert. Afterward, they walked casually back home, parting ways near the mare’s apartment. That time, the chakat initiated the hug before they bade each other goodnight. The fine meal and the day’s exertion had quickly made the unicorn drowsy. After setting an alarm, she had climbed into bed and was quickly asleep.
And now, Violet breathed in the crisp Firstday morning air as she headed for the bakery. Aside from her saddlebags, she was wearing a dark green vest today, only the second time she had worn any clothes since arriving at New Horizon. The blouse that she had worn to dinner the previous night had been the first. She turned the corner onto the main street where the bakery was located. The mare speculated that it was convenient to all the people coming from the residential area into town for work, and indeed, the shop was fairly crowded with customers seeking baked goods and coffee before proceeding to their jobs. To Violet’s surprise, Tigerbright was among them.
“Good morning,” she greeted the chakat.
Tigerbright turned, hir eyebrows rising in surprise. “Good morning to you too. You’re up early, aren’t you?”
“Yep. I’m going into the office to check-in for my new job.”
The chakat noted the blue stylized globe symbol on the pony’s clothing. “Well, that explains the vest, but why today? You arrived on Fourthday, so that means you still have three free days before you have to report in.”
“I came here to start a new career, not a vacation. I reckon these past few days that I have been spending with you were what I needed to be ready and raring to go.”
“Fair enough,” Tigerbright replied before stepping up to place hir order.
Violet was next, ordering a large café latte and a chocolate strudel. After the chakat received hir coffee and bag of baked goods, shi waited for the unicorn and they left together.
“The shop must do great business,” the mare commented as she headed off in the direction of her office.
“Oh, yeah,” Tigerbright replied, falling into step beside her. “It’s always busy at this time every day.”
“Every day? Even weekends?”
“You haven’t been here long enough to know that the working week is flexible on Chakona. Government jobs like mine, for example, go with five days’ work starting on Firstday plus a three-day weekend. You were lucky to meet me on Sixthday, the first of my days off. Other businesses operate differently. Manufacturers very often use a four plus four week. They have two shifts of workers who spend four days on the job then four days off while the other shift takes over. That way, operations can continue without interruption, barring public holidays. Same for shops which carry enough staff to open every day. Self-employed persons can set their own days. It’s a very convenient system.”
“What happens though if someone urgently needs some government service on your weekend?”
Tigerbright grimaced. “That’s the one major drawback of my job. If the situation demands it, then I’m effectively available eight days a week. That’s one reason why I’ve never been allowed to go off by myself for more than a day’s outing.”
Violet nodded thoughtfully. “I see. But if you were with someone else, say with me, then you’d have someone looking out for you in an emergency, so you’d be allowed to camp overnight?”
The mare laughed. “I see your cunning plan now. You’ve been buttering me up so that you can use me as an excuse to go camping!”
Tigerbright chuckled. “I’m so sprung! My subtle plan has been uncovered. Now I have to look for another sucker.”
“Nah. I’ve already been sucked in. We’ll talk about it again when I know exactly what I am assigned to do on which days.”
“I’d love that.”
Violet stopped outside a building with a sign declaring – ‘DEPARTMENT OF GEOLOGY & ENVIRONMENT’. “Well, this is where I have to report in. Wait – don’t you work at the office at the spaceport?”
“Then, why have you been walking with me? Surely you’re not going to jog all the way to the spaceport?”
“Hardly. I’ll catch a PTV from here.”
“Personal Transport Vehicle. I normally hail one at the bakery. I just wanted to chat with you until we got to your office.”
“Oh, I see. Thanks. I guess I’ll be seeing you sometime again soon.”
Tigerbright’s expression turned serious. “You’re welcome to drop by my place anytime, Violet. I mean it.”
“Thanks, I’ll do that.” The unicorn then gave the chakat a quick hug before turning and heading inside.
There was a pegasus stallion sitting behind the reception desk. He immediately noticed the globe symbol on Violet’s vest before giving the mare a polite smile. “Can I help you, ma’am?”
“My name is Violet Woods. I’m here to report in for orientation for my new job.”
The stallion frowned and consulted the screen beside him. After a few moments, comprehension lit his face. “I see. You’re our new geologist. You weren’t due to report in until Fourthday, you know?”
“Yes, I know, but I’m ready to begin now if that’s not a problem?”
“Let me contact the department head.” He picked up the intercom and pushed a button. A moment later he spoke up. “There’s a mare named Violet Woods here reporting in early for her job as our new geologist. What do you want me to do?” He listened for a moment before nodding. “Okay, I’ll let her know.” Putting the intercom down, he turned his attention back to Violet. “Shady Glen will be out in a few minutes. Please take a seat while you wait.”
“Thank you.” The unicorn stepped away from the desk and made herself comfortable on a bench seat on the opposite wall.
Twelve minutes later, a brown-coated earth pony mare with a dark green mane and tail emerged from a nearby hallway. The middle-aged smiled upon seeing the waiting unicorn. She walked over and held up a hoof. “Violet Woods? I’m Shady Glen, Director of Geological Services. A pleasure to meet you.”
“Glad to be here, Director,” Violet replied, clopping her hoof with Shady Glen’s.
“While we weren’t expecting you for three more days, there shouldn’t be a problem getting you started. Of course, we need to get the paperwork out of the way first. Follow me to my office and we’ll get that started.”
Violet was given some forms to sign after the director confirmed the details of the unicorn’s employment and she formally accepted them. Then she was passed onto a zebra-morph assistant named Maria Causeway who introduced her to all the others in the department who were currently in the office. Then she had to sit through an orientation video. By the time it was finished, Violet’s official badge was ready, plus one other device.
The assistant held up a small dish holding a pill-shaped gadget the size of a grain of rice. “This is an ID implant that has been encoded with your details. With it, you can be automatically allowed access to any place you are authorized to enter. That includes both official and private usage such as to your home or PTV. However, it is completely optional as some ponies don’t like having devices implanted in their leg.”
The unicorn recalled seeing Tigerbright unlocking hir door merely by holding hir wrist to a sensor. “That sounds convenient and it doesn’t bother me.”
“Good. Our medical attendant has been trained in the implantation of these devices and we can get this done right away.”
The attendant was Doctor Hyrex, the violet changeling she had met earlier during the introductions. He gave her a welcoming smile. “I thought I would be seeing you again soon. We can get this done quickly. Sit on that chair and put your preferred foreleg up on the desk.”
Violet did as instructed, placing her left foreleg up. Hyrex levitated over a device into which he inserted the ID implant that the assistant passed to him. “Do you mind if I trim a small patch of your coat? It will make the job faster and easier.”
“Go ahead,” she replied.
He trimmed a postage-stamp-sized area just above the pastern joint which he then swabbed with a strong antiseptic.
“The next step will sting a bit. I could administer a local anesthetic if you prefer, but it isn’t too bad. Some ponies hate the feeling of numbness though.”
Violet chuckled. “I’ve probably done worse to myself on every field trip.”
“Oh dear,” said Maria Causeway. “Our newest employee is a trotting disaster area. An accident or three just waiting to happen. Our poor insurers will have a heart attack.”
If Violet hadn’t recognized the twinkle in the assistant’s eye, her smirk would have given her teasing away. The unicorn mare stuck out her tongue playfully then turned back to Hyrex. “Skip the anesthetic.”
“Very well. Please hold completely still while I perform the actual insertion.” He positioned the device then pushed a button.
Violet felt a sharp sting but managed to refrain from pulling her leg away. Hyrex lifted the device leaving nothing to show besides the trimmed hair.
“Excellent. The insertion has been successfully performed and the incision is completely sealed. You are good to go.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” Violet said, careful to project strong gratitude to the changeling.
Hyrex smiled in pleasure at the tasty emotion. “You’re welcome, Ms. Woods.”
“What now?” Violet asked the assistant.
“Director Glen should have your initial assignment ready by now. You’ve been assigned an office for your use whenever you’re not in the field and you can go over it there.”
Violet was a little surprised to be getting her own office already, but when they got there, she understood why. It had a large range of equipment related to her job installed inside. It was clear that they needed her services badly enough to ensure that she had everything that she required to do her job thoroughly. This was going to be way better than the shared facilities back at her previous job. The catch was that she would have to do it all herself, but at least there would not be any delays waiting for her place in the job queue to come up.
However, the unicorn would not be using any of those today. Instead, the Director had left several folders on her desk with much more on computer files. The assistant helped her login for the first time before leaving the mare to her work. Violet spent all day poring over the aerial surveys, remote analyses, local surveying, and much more, pausing only for a lunch break. Her new colleagues pointed her to a sandwich shop that they liked, and Violet returned to her desk with a foot-long fish (tasted like tuna) and salad sub.
By the end of the workday, the mare knew she would have to spend the rest of the week in the office due to the great backlog, not to mention the training courses. She got the impression that there was much relief that she had begun her job early and her new co-workers appreciated that. At least, her empathic impressions had been overwhelmingly positive. It was good to know that she had started on a high note.
Violet bade everyone goodnight and trotted back to her apartment, filled with the satisfaction of a day of interesting work done. She dropped off her saddlebags and removed her vest before considering what she was going to do for dinner. There was always the cafeteria, but her thoughts inevitably turned to Tigerbright. She shrugged. “Well, she did say to visit anytime.”
Violet approached the chakat’s home from the beach side. Before she even got to the door, Tigerbright’s voice came from inside.
“Come on in!”
Smiling at her friend’s eager tone, the mare opened the screen door and stepped inside. She spotted Tigerbright at the kitchen bench, preparing food, protected by an apron that had ‘HUG THE COOK’ written on it.
The chakat looked up from hir work, smiled, and said, “Dinner will be in fifteen minutes.”
“How did you know I would be coming?” Violet asked.
“I didn’t, but I thought you might and hoped you would.”
“You’re going to spoil me.”
“Good. I haven’t had someone to spoil in ages. There’s only one catch.”
Violet raised an eyebrow. “Oh? What’s that?”
“My kitchen rules,” Tigerbright replied, pointing to the words on hir apron.
The mare grinned and gave the chakat the requested hug. “Best rules ever!”
The cafeteria was about a quarter full. Violet waved to a familiar pegasus mare and the griffon, Lightning Lance, before taking her seat. Today, she had chosen a mixed-greens salad with a sweet vinaigrette dressing. The mare recognized the name of the fruit from the combination back-country survival/bivouacking/orienteering course she had just completed the day before. The classroom course had included photos but not samples of honey fruit and the mare looked forward to her first taste. After chewing thoughtfully, a smile spread across her muzzle. It was just as sweet as advertised.
“Is this seat taken, Madam?”
The mare glanced up to see Tigerbright, tray in hand. She smiled up at the chakat, looked over hir selection, and confirmed her hunch with a sniff. “Poached fish with a topping from the local nuts and an herbal sauce. Not mikuriya this time.”
“Nope,” confirmed the chakat as shi lowered herself into the taur-couch across from Violet. “Chef Reisling has me addicted to his chimichurri sauce. He serves fish every Fifthday and adjusts it for that week’s catch. Today is Golden Moonfish. Want to try a piece?”
“I’d love some!”
Tigerbright lifted an eyebrow. “I thought ponies seldom ate meat and enjoyed it even less often than that.”
Violet shrugged. “Blame it on my mixed heritage. I have a wide palate of what I find both delicious and delightful.”
“Hmmm… Who am I to argue with a pretty mare?” Tigerbright cut off a piece of the fish with hir plasti-steel fork then held it up.
Violet gave the chakat a glare. “What? Am I worth that little to you? Some of that addictive sauce, if you please.”
“Drat. Now I have to share the good stuff.” The bite of fish gained a coating of the green chimichurri before returning to the same spot halfway between the pair.
Violet leaned forward and opened her mouth invitingly. Tigerbright’s ears perked up before shi gently placed the offering into the mare’s mouth. The mare chewed while looking to the side and humming to herself.
After twenty seconds or so of this, the chakat huffed. “So? What do you think?”
Violet swallowed and licked her lips. She looked into Tigerbright’s eyes. “Even better than advertised. I think I’ll have to cut off my field trip a day early so I can clean out Chef Reisling’s stock before anyone else has a chance to get any.” The mare stopped the chakat’s protest with a wave of her hoof. “It’s all your fault for exposing me to such a wonderful delicacy.”
Tigerbright narrowed hir eyes but couldn’t keep the grin off hir lips. Silently, shi selected a much larger piece, slathered it with sauce, and held the laden fork in front of hir. “Tell you what. If you take pity on poor little me, I’ll give you a proper serving of what you want.”
Now it was Violet’s turn to prick her ears. “Is that a bribe or a promise?”
“Yes,” replied her friend.
The mare pursed her lips as she stared at the offered treat. Her pink magic field enveloped the fork and levitated it closer.
Tigerbright let out an exaggerated sigh. “Whew! And here I thought you’d play hard to get. Good thing you’re so easy.”
The fork stopped in mid-air and Violet gave the chuckling taur a mock glare. She waggled the fork back and forth disapprovingly.
The fork accelerated away to the side, leaving a whoosh of air and two broken pieces of fish in its wake. The utensil embedded itself in the wall at the far side of the room with a thud. A loud crack rang out nearby followed immediately by an extended series of crashing sounds near the kitchen.
Violet craned her head to see an earth pony stallion behind Tigerbright. The mare remembered Stone Edifice from an earlier conversation. He had come to Chakona to provide his skills as a stonemason. Right now, one of his forehooves had shattered the granite tabletop, apparently to his immense surprise.
Tigerbright and Violet shared a look and by mutual consent ran over to the source of the cry. Lightning Lance shakily tried to extract himself from the remains of the tray return station. If the spread of bowls, trays, and utensils were any indication, the griffon cock had hit the now bent remains of the station at high speed.
Tigerbright’s comm emitted a shrill tone and shi held it up. Violet noticed a blinking red light on the back as her friend read the message on the screen. The chakat’s facial expression didn’t need any clarification.
“You go,” said Violet. “I’ll learn what I can about what happened and get people over to the medical office.”
“Thanks,” replied Tigerbright before leaving in a run.
Violet had just gotten her scan results when she heard a computer-generated voice echo from a hidden speaker overhead.
“Citizen Violet Woods. Please report to the Chief Administrator’s local office. Citizen Violet Woods. Please report to the Chief Administrator’s local office.”
The mare turned to the familiar medical resident on staff. “Do you still need me, Doctor Hyrex?”
The violet changeling waved a hoof. “Just Hyrex is fine. You and Stone Edifice are free to go.” She turned back to the griffon on her table. “I’m going to keep you here for another hour of observation, Mister Lance. Just to be on the safe side.”
If the griffon gave a response, Violet didn’t hear it. She was already trotting to the small branch office the Chakonan government maintained in town for the citizen’s convenience.
In short order, the mare knocked on the door frame while grinning at the chakat behind hir desk. “Citizen Violet Woods reporting as requested, Chief Administrator.”
Tigerbright’s ears drooped a bit. “Ahhhh. Sorry about that. My comm has been going crazy and I have to keep the line open because of the emergency.”
Violet’s smirk disappeared and she sat down in the only other taur-suitable chair in the small office. “What emergency?”
“Nope. You first. How are you and the others?”
“Stone Edifice and I got a clean bill of health. Some bumps and bruises on Lightning Lance but he’ll be fine. The doc and I have no clue why it happened but we know what happened. Equestrians in the cafeteria using their mana had their magic surge… probably by a factor of fifty.”
The chakat’s eyes widened. “Wow! Is that common?”
“For unicorns? Rarely. It can happen as foals or when somepony gets their cutie mark but that didn’t happen here. I’ve never heard of magic surges for griffons, pegasi or earth ponies, though. Stone Edifice was using a tiny bit of his strength to flatten something called a ‘vegetable Dagwood sandwich’ so he could fit it in his mouth. Lightning Lance was flying at a walking pace to return his tray. You saw what I was doing.”
“And I got reports of a couple of pegasi in flight that overshot their destination by a kilometer. There are probably other incidents that we haven’t heard about yet.” Tigerbright frowned and looked off the side, tapping the fingers of one hand against the desk. After nearly a minute, Violet brought hir back into the conversation. “And the emergency?”
The chakat blinked then looked back at her friend. “Oh… sorry. You know that we keep a primary and secondary mana beacon here at the station, right? They are linked to their counterparts in Equestria to allow for electronic communication and alicorns to travel back and forth.” She let out a long sigh. “They both went offline at the same moment you had the mana surge.”
Violet blinked. “Offline? How exactly?”
“They are now inert. All the mana has been drained from them.”
The mare gaped. “That’s… how is that possible? The magic had to go somewhere.” She shook her head. “No, wait. This is more important. Do you know what happens when a changeling loses all of their magic?”
“I do. We may be very fortunate that no ’ling was actively using their magic right then. Maybe they would have surged and maybe they have been drained. Until we get to the bottom of this mystery, I’m recommending to my superiors that all changelings be evacuated from the settlement. I’m afraid to say I don’t know as much as I should about the beacons. Could their missing magic charge have been transferred to you five and been used up?”
Violet shook her head. “The energy used is the product of the power output level multiplied by the duration of the event – in this case no more than a second. The magic stored in just one of the beacons would have been enough to cause all three of us to surge at that level for days.”
The comm device on the table beeped twice and Tigerbright looked over the scrolling text for several seconds. Shi smiled briefly before returning to a neutral expression.
The mare asked. “Was that word on your request?”
“No, not yet. It seems there is a crisis of some sort happening on Equus right now. They can get messages through to the other mana beacons on Chakona and in the orbiting spaceships but can’t physically bring anyone here for the next few weeks.”
“Is it related to what happened here?”
Tigerbright shook hir head. “No. Something about the Equian sun having a bad case of sunspots which is causing lots of magical interference. Happens every few decades and this one is past due.”
“The timing still seems awfully coincidental to me,” the unicorn said dubiously.
“Perhaps.” The chakat looked directly at Violet and smiled. “While we can’t get an expert in from Equus, fortunately, we already have a graduate of Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns on planet who can investigate.”
The mare narrowed her eyes and gave a warning growl. “I’m all set to leave tomorrow on my first expedition.”
That just made Tigerbright smile wider. “I’m afraid you’ll need to delay your trip into the backcountry, Miss Woods. After all, weren’t you reminded during your orientation in the Transit Lounge that this is still a young colony town and everyone needs to contribute fully to its prosperity?”
After a long pause, it became apparent to Violet that her glare was not fazing Tigerbright in the least. The mare folded her arms across her chest. “The desperation of you chakats. Going to these extremes to keep me around? If you wanted another date, you could have just asked.”
Tigerbright laughed until shi cried, pounding hir desk with a fist.
Violet waited until the chakat’s chuckles died down. “So, what specifically did you want me to do?”
“Actually, I’m not the one you should be asking. While I’m the representative of the Chakona World Government here, I’m not the top authority on Emu Island. As this is an independent colony, you need to speak to the governor. I work at a federal level for such matters as Customs, Immigration, and so forth. Governor Slate is in charge at the Equian level.” Shi got up from behind hir desk and moved toward the door. “Fortunately, Marble Slate and I get on well and I can see her pretty much whenever I need. And while it’s after hours, I’m betting she’s in her office right now. Follow me.”
The New Horizon Town Hall was literally across the street from the CWG office. The security griffon at the front door nodded in recognition at the chakat, merely glancing at the mare before returning his attention to the street. The place was quieter than normal but, considering that it was usually closed at this hour, it was a relative hive of activity. Tigerbright ignored everyone and bypassed what was obviously a private secretary’s desk, currently unoccupied.
The chakat rapped on the open door and said, “Hi Marble. I hear you have problems. Can I come in?”
A brick-red earth pony mare with a silvery mane looked up from her desk and gave the chakat a strained smile. “Hello, Tiger. Yes – I’m still getting reports of the strange mana surges that happened at the same time. I’ve already dragged away our best magitechs away from their families to look into our beacon problem, so I don’t know what you can do.” She seemed to notice Violet Woods for the first time. “Who’s this?”
“My name is Violet Woods, Ms. Slate.”
“Normally, it would be a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Woods, but this isn’t exactly the most propitious moment.” The mare looked back to the chakat. “Why is she here with you? Was your dinner date interrupted or something?”
The way that Marble Slate’s eyebrows rose told Violet that this was not the expected response and she had only been facetious when she asked.
Tigerbright continued, “But to answer your unasked question about what I can do, that’s why I brought her. Violet is a graduate of Princess Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns.”
The governor’s gaze returned to the unicorn with far greater interest. “Is that so? What do you know about tonight’s occurrences?”
“Next to nothing,” Violet admitted. “However, one of my goals when I got here was to figure out why Emu Island was chosen among better situated sites as Equus’ base of operations at first, and colony second. I’ve already noted the large conflux of ley lines in the area.”
Slate nodded. “The whole island is like that which made it an obvious choice for magic-using races.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed how much easier many tasks are here. But it also seems to be related to the surge that sent all active magic out of control, and burned out our mana beacons too, I’m guessing.”
“That’s what we figure too. What we don’t know is why or how.”
“Well, I planned to investigate while I was out in the field—”
“In the field? What is your job, may I ask?”
“I’m a geologist, ma’am.”
“Hmm… That’s convenient. I have very few people that I can send out into the field. It’s hard to get wilderness-rated personnel to leave Equus, much less one from Celestia’s school. I’m going to ask you to help out with our inquiry, Ms. Woods.”
“My special talent is geology. Checking out the mystery of this island was supposed to be a hobby activity,” Violet objected.
“You’re a geologist who undoubtedly has many spells under her saddle. That makes you more qualified than anyone else I currently have available.”
“How did you determine the presence of the ley line conflux?”
“With a spell,” Violet admitted reluctantly.
Tigerbright spoke up. “She showed me. She made the ley lines visible to me too.”
Slate nodded. “My point is that my techs rely on instruments to detect them while you don’t. As you work for a government department, I can have you reassigned to this if required.”
Violet sighed in resignation. “Alright, but I’ll need a bit of help if I’m going to concentrate on my investigations. I was supposed to go out solo into the field on my first assignment tomorrow.”
The governor frowned. “I’ve already sent out everyone with even a modicum of field experience. Tiger, have you got anyone who can assist?”
The chakat shrugged helplessly. “You know if I had someone on staff like that, I would have dragged them off on a weekend camping trip ages ago.”
A smile slowly spread across the earth pony mare’s face. She cocked her head and raised an eyebrow without saying a word.
Tigerbright blinked in comprehension. “You want me to go with Violet? While I’d love to do that, this isn’t going to be a fun three-day trip. You’re asking her to investigate an unknown phenomenon from an unknown source which may or may not repeat. That could take weeks, months, or even never be resolved. I can’t take that much time away from my work.”
“I know you’ve got lots of vacation time saved up. You can put Paul in charge until you return, or a temporary fill-in is sent from Amistad.”
The chakat was going to protest some more before shi realized that shi was being handed a golden opportunity. Nevertheless, shi still had a problem. “I’ll need to clear this with the minister.”
“Do it, please. And give hir my personal request for your help too.” The comm on her desk started buzzing for attention. She glanced at its screen and sighed. “Let me know how it goes. Now, shoo! I’ve got more immediate problems.” She tapped her comm and turned her attention to the caller.
Tigerbright inclined hir head, cueing Violet to follow hir out of the office. The two soon exited the Town Hall, but rather than crossing back over the street, the chakat used hir comm to signal a PTV. When it pulled up, Violet was urged to get in.
“Where are we going?” she asked as the PTV took off on autopilot.
“To my office at the spaceport. The town office is little more than an information center for CWG matters. I need access to my personal equipment to get in contact with my superiors.”
“Not exactly dressed for the job, are you?” Violet asked with a smirk.
The chakat had turned up for dinner in hir preferred off-duty dress – that is to say nude. Shi giggled, “Very unprofessional of me, I know, but forgivable under the circumstances.”
After a fast and brief trip to the spaceport, they were soon in Tigerbright’s office. Paul Iotor was there already but he didn’t stop his current activity to chat aside from greeting the two. This was the first time that Violet had been to the chakat’s main office before. She hadn’t had a reason to leave town yet besides the hikes. A large window overlooked the spaceport’s field which was partially lit up with floodlights. She observed the diplomas and other awards hanging in frames on the wall. There was a shelf of books and some family photos that the mare took some interest in while Tigerbright turned on the big screen on hir desk. Contacting the minister was a little more complicated than making a normal phone call, hence the need to come here, but because it was still morning there, it didn’t take long. A dark grey-furred chakat with medium brown highlights across the face and ears appeared on the display.
Tigerbright explained the situation on Emu Island to Minister Jaguarondi and what they intended to do about it, adding the governor’s formal request. Shi concluded, “I told Governor Slate that I would need to clear this with you but I also indicated that I couldn’t be expected to leave my post on such short notice.”
The minister replied, “We’ve already been getting some pressure from Equus to look into this matter. If Governor Slate feels that you can be of most use this way, then I will approve the leave of absence. Your executive assistant can take charge for the moment. I will arrange to send a temporary replacement for you soon.” Then hir stern voice took on a humorous tone. “Better go back to bed. You and that mare need to get a good sleep.”
“Yes, minister,” Tigerbright replied with a smile. The comm screen darkened and shi turned to Violet. “Well… that was a lot easier than I imagined it would be.”
“Yeah, but what did shi mean by that last remark?”
The chakat giggled. “The minister knows it’s night here, but not the exact hour. Because of my state of undress, shi assumed that we were dragged out of bed by the crisis.”
Violet blinked and then blushed. “You mean, you and me…?”
Tigerbright grinned. “Yep. My boss has urged me on more than one occasion to find a mate. You’re not the only one to have gotten frequent unsubtle hints.”
“You chakats are almost as bad as my parents!”
“Heh! You’ve yet to meet my mom and dads,” shi replied, indicating one of the photographs. “Then again, it’s pretty normal for chakat clans. I’ve never been harassed about it like you were though.”
“Well, the minister did get one thing right – we do need to get some sleep if we’re to get off to an early start tomorrow. But, first, I’m hungry. We never did get to eat our dinner. Think that fish with chimichurri sauce will still be available?”
Violet and Tigerbright strategized over dinner. The mare had already packed for her scheduled field trip but had to rethink her plans under the new circumstances. The chakat, on the other hand, had been caught relatively unprepared.
“I’ve had my camping gear packed away for years. I’m going to have to check it over and add anything else that you think we might be able to use.”
“Not to mention food supplies,” Violet replied with a mouth half full of delicious fish.
“At least some of the stores are still open thanks to the nocturnal species. We can go there straight after dinner and pick up most of what we need.”
“Fresh or preserved? I’ve got a stasis box for the former. It’s only a small one meant for a single person and it might be too full if I add yours.”
Tigerbright nodded. “I have a camping fridge, but its Supastor battery will need recharging if it has to run for more than a couple of days.”
“How portable is it?”
“Not practical for hiking. It’s meant for leaving at the campsite while I went bushwalking.”
“How did you intend to charge it then?”
“From my air shuttle.” At the unicorn’s blank look, Tigerbright explained, “One of the perks of the job is that I have a personal air shuttle that can take me anywhere on this island within half an hour. However, since this is the only township on Emu Island, I’ve only needed to use it twice so far. Anyway, it has a charging port in it.”
Violet frowned in thought. “One of the staff at my office was supposed to drop me off at the survey site and pick me up later. However, it might be more practical in light of my new assignment to use your vehicle. Then we can relocate at a moment’s notice as the need occurs.”
“That makes sense, and I could not only bring the camping fridge but also a few other pieces of equipment that might come in handy.”
“What’s the shuttle’s range?”
“Depending on usage, about five hours. To put that in perspective, I can circumnavigate the island in under an hour.”
“Great! Okay, we’ll do that. I’ll let them know the change in plans when I go into the office tomorrow. I’ll download all the data they have on the ley lines and the rest of the original geological surveys. There were several made when they were checking this island for suitability, even if they were just cursory. I only have copies of the two near my survey site loaded into my datapad.”
“While you’re doing that, I’ll fetch the shuttle from the spaceport hanger where it’s stored. That reminds me – I need to make a call.” Tigerbright took out hir comm from hir waist pouch and dialed a number. It was swiftly answered. “Hi, Paul. Still at the office? … Good. Could you get one of the port staff to give my shuttle a quick service? I’ll be taking it out into the field with me tomorrow morning and I need it ready to go. … Okay, thanks.”
The chakat put away hir comm. “I’ll bring it around to my home and we can load up our gear there. We can bring your stuff over from the apartment tonight and you can stay in one of my spare rooms so we don’t waste any time in the morning.”
Violet was a little surprised but nodded. “That’s a good idea. Besides, I don’t know if there’s anywhere suitable for landing a shuttle at my place.”
Tigerbright chuckled. “Oh, I could, but I’d earn a bunch of dirty looks from the manager and residents.” Then she quieted down and bit hir lip, looking indecisive before she spoke again. “Violet, why don’t you bring everything of yours over? We could be on this assignment for a while and it would be convenient. And… well… I’d like the company.”
The unicorn stared at hir, eyes wide, mouth agape. “You want me to move in with you?”
“Yes. You can have any spare room you like to set up how you want. It’s not as if I need them all. I just would like to have you around more often.”
Violet slowly smiled. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t been thrilled about living by myself either. We were a pretty close family and none of my siblings moved out until they got married or joined a herd. It suited both us and our parents to stay home until then.”
“Right up until they drove you nuts about finding a stallion.”
“Exactly. Otherwise, I would still be living there, I suppose. And I might never have come to Chakona and met you. I’ve missed having a family to come home to though.”
“Well, I’m not family, but would a best friend do?”
The unicorn giggled. “Yes, that will do nicely. I accept your offer, Tiger.”
“Awesome! So what’s next?”
“Dessert,” Violet declared, picking up her empty plate in her magic and heading for the counter.
Tigerbright grinned. “I like the way you think.”
After dinner, Tigerbright took Violet to Midnight’s Gourmet Emporium. Midnight was the chattiest thestral Violet had ever met, happily bouncing around her shop while describing the various raw and prepared foods. The pair settled on a dozen freeze-dried packets, four packages of snacks that resembled rice cakes, and two trays of something called Everything Burritos that the chakat swore by. Only after Tigerbright completed their purchase did Violet notice the sign declaring “We Only Use The Finest Insect Protein” and the fishing bait sat on the “Juicy Snack” shelf.
The duo went back to Violet’s apartment next to gather up her belongings. It did not take long because the mare had unpacked almost nothing to personalize her temporary quarters yet, nor had she purchased much to supplement what she had brought from Equus. Tigerbright had no trouble carrying the field equipment while Violet took her personal luggage.
The unicorn chose a room on the second floor that faced the beach. It opened up to a wide balcony that it shared with the room next door – Tigerbright’s unsurprisingly. Who wouldn’t want such a beautiful scenic view right outside their bedroom window, with the susurrating waves adding a pleasant background sound?
Tigerbright deposited Violet’s belongings on the floor in front of the bed. “I’ll dig out the camping fridge and make sure it’s fully charged, then I’ll whip up some coffee while you unpack.”
“Sounds good.” The mare opened the first of her suitcases and pulled out a beloved body pillow. She looked at the huge bed that was big enough to give three large chakats plenty of space and giggled. Don’t get lost,” she told it as she placed it at the head of the bed with a stack of normal pillows. Her clothing was next to be put away in the wardrobe which was still two-thirds empty when she was done. Toiletries went into the en suite bathroom which had a spa bath as well as a roomy shower. She was considering what to do with some knickknacks when the chakat’s voice came up to her.
Violet trotted downstairs where she found Tigerbright placing two steaming mugs on the coffee table in front of the taur-sized sofa.
“How’s everything? Need anything else?” shi asked before bounding up onto the couch and making hirself comfortable. Shi picked up one of the mugs and took a sip.
“Are you kidding? It’s positively luxurious!” To the chakat’s pleased surprise, Violet also climbed up onto the sofa to cuddle up close to hir before picking up the remaining mug in her magic. She smiled at Tigerbright’s expression and giggled. “I think we both wanted this.”
The chakat put an arm around the mare’s barrel and said, “Yes, we did.”
The pair sipped their coffee in companionable silence, their empathic senses warmed with the feeling of the happiness that had been growing since they had first met. Half an hour later, they reluctantly parted to go to bed. They both needed a good night’s sleep before they headed off early in the morning.
Violet surprised Tigerbright by preparing breakfast before the chakat woke up. Pleading excitement for making her wake early, she figured she would make herself useful as the new roomie. She even cleaned up afterward while Tigerbright took a PTV to the spaceport to pick up hir air shuttle. Violet hauled her equipment outside ready for pickup, as well some of her partner’s gear such as the camp fridge which they had loaded up with food that needed to be kept chilled. Room temperature items were put into the unicorn’s stasis box.
When Tigerbright returned with the shuttle, she quickly appreciated why it had been impractical to land it at the apartments. Not only was it large, but it was also a lot noisier than a PTV. The chakat had to apologize to one neighbor for waking them up early. When they finished packing, Violet used Tigerbright’s video comm to call into the office rather than going in person. After informing Shady Glen about the change in plans with the chakat there to back her up, she requested and was supplied with the extra data she required. Then the duo locked up and departed.
“Okay, what’s our destination, boss?” Tigerbright asked as shi took them out over the bay to avoid causing more of a disturbance in town.
Violet smiled at the appellation. “As you pointed out last night, we know next to nothing about the phenomenon, so I’m going to stick with my original plans. I was intending to set up a few experiments at my survey site, so might as well harvest two trees with one buck and do both jobs.” She held up a datapad in her aura. “Here are the coordinates of the site.”
The chakat glanced at them and set them into the flight computer. Shi then let the autopilot take over control and leaned against the swiveling backrest that supported hir upper torso. “We should be there in thirteen minutes at normal cruising speed.”
“Great.” The mare paused and then said, “Mind if I ask why you’re wearing a T-shirt?”
Tigerbright raised an eyebrow. “No. Why are you curious about it?”
“Well, aside from when you are hiking or at work, you’re normally nude. What’s up with that?”
The chakat chuckled. Nothing mysterious about it. After all, you’ve also seen me wearing an apron when I cook. The fact is that my boobs are a bit sensitive, in particular, my nipples. I hate getting them scratched by branches while hiking, so I usually wear at least a T-shirt or jacket, depending on the circumstances.”
Violet grinned. “Yes, I can see that they’re rather prominent and vulnerable.”
“Be glad you don’t have that problem with your udders! Anyway, I could ask the same of you – why are you wearing that vest? Surely you don’t feel the need to be in uniform while out in the field?”
“Simple. Pockets!” She extracted a couple of items from said pockets to show to the chakat. “Handy little things like these I keep there for convenience rather than digging into my saddlebags. I don’t need them for a short hike which is why I wasn’t wearing this when I first met you, but it’s part of my standard gear when out in the field.”
“That makes sense. Are those what I think they are?” Tigerbright’s attention was on several blue crystalline objects that were held in Violet’s telekinesis.
“If you think they are sapphires, then yes, they are.”
“What are you doing with a small fortune in precious gems in your pocket?”
“These trivial things? I buy them by the bagful for use in magic spells. I have several emeralds too. They’re only a few bits each.”
“Are we talking about the same bits that you use in the shops in town? Because I know the exchange rate into Fedcreds, and while I’m no expert I gems, I’d value them at far more than a few bits.”
Violet giggled. “Yeah, I was told that I wasn’t allowed to take them off Emu Island. Something about crashing the market. You see, gemstones like these are not rare on Equus. Dragons even eat them as part of their diet, they’re so common. If you want bigger ones, you’d either have to buy them from a miner or a rock farmer.”
“A… rock… farmer,” Tigerbright repeated in a dubious tone.
“Yes, or at least one that specializes in growing gemstones.”
“You’re pulling my leg.”
Violet gave hir a puzzled look. “I’m what?”
“You’re kidding me. You don’t grow sapphires on a farm.”
“You do if you want a lot at a cheap price. Or big, high-quality fancy ones.”
“Okay, explain that to me.”
“Rock farmers are all earth ponies whose special talent lies with using magic to form and grow mineral deposits. Gemstones are just one particular type of mineral.”
“Can they grow any type of gemstone?”
“As long as the raw elements are available, yes, although some take more work than others. For example, it cost me a week’s pay to buy this.” The mare fished out a vivid pink oval-shaped gemstone about five centimeters at its longest dimension. Light and dark areas danced inside the faceted gem as the mare held it closer for the chakat’s inspection. “Its carbon lattice structure is uniquely suited to some specialized spells.”
Tigerbright’s eyes bulged. “Is that… a flawless pink diamond?”
“Of course it’s flawless. Why would I pay that much for a defective gemstone?”
“Violet, you could buy a huge mansion, hire a staff, and retire in luxury for life on the value of something like that!”
The mare’s eyebrows rose in surprise. She looked for signs of deception with both her eyes and her empathic sense but realized that the chakat was quite serious. She looked again at her amazing gem and said, “No wonder they were so keen on pointing out the penalty for taking these out of Equian territory.”
“Why did they even let you bring them here?”
“Because they’re common magic tools back on Equus. Those mana beacons that were damaged have large gemstones in their core. Many common magic implements use them. How come you don’t know this?”
“Because I can’t work magic, perhaps?” Tigerbright replied sarcastically.
“Oh. Right. Sorry. I suppose if you don’t use them, you don’t necessarily learn about them.”
“Exactly. Got any more fabulously valuable rocks in there?”
“Just a few medium-size rubies. And before you ask, they’re relatively cheap. I’ll show you what the different gems can do in the hooves of a well-trained unicorn when we get to our destination.”
“I’ll be looking forward to that. By the way, what exactly do you want me to do for you? Besides being your chauffeur, I mean.”
“You can save me a lot of time and effort setting up the campsite and cooking meals.”
Tigerbright blinked for a moment and then gave the mare a flat look. “Is that all?”
Violet grinned at her dismayed friend. “I didn’t expect you to volunteer when I said I wanted an assistant. Those are usually trainees who come along to gain field experience under a professional. However, those chores aren’t the only things I’d like you to do. You can help me with my work and I’ll show you how I use magic to accomplish my tasks. And most of all, you can keep me company. That’s the one thing that I dislike about the job – solo field trips can be a bit lonely.”
The chakat brightened. “That I can manage.”
“I’m counting on it.”
Tigerbright glanced at the navigator. “Just a couple more minutes to our destination.”
“I’d better put these away.” Violet safely replaced the gemstones before turning her attention to the territory they were passing over. Trees had given way to low scrub and grasses.
“Looks pretty arid,” Tigerbright commented.
“This area is in a bit of a rain shadow from those ranges,” the mare replied, pointing toward the offending mountains they had passed over. “You’re not likely to have to worry too much about tree branches but it might get a bit cool at night at this elevation. Your T-shirt might still be handy to keep your nipples from getting chilly,” she said with a smirk.
The chakat poked hir tongue out at the cheeky unicorn.
It was not long before the navigator indicated that they had reached their destination. Tigerbright carefully set the shuttle down on a broad patch of grass next to a small creek that was relatively free from bushes and had no obvious rocks. Violet hopped out and did a quick appraisal of the landing site before nodding to her companion. “All good.”
The chakat shut down the shuttle and climbed out. Shi looked around the area and pointed to an area that was flat and grassy. “I’ll set up our tent there.” Shi then examined the nearby shrubs before declaring, “These are quite woody and dry. I think I can make a decent fire with this.”
Violet smiled as she hauled out her equipment. “Food always tastes better prepared over a proper campfire instead of a portable cooker in my opinion.”
“Yeah, and it’s better for making damper too.”
“A very simple camp-style bread. It’s been ages since I’ve had an excuse to make it. We’ll have it with our dinner tonight.”
“Sounds good,” the unicorn replied. “You’ll have to teach me the recipe.”
“Sure. It’s quick and easy to make.” The chakat came back, grabbed the tent, and began setting it up.
Violet continued unpacking and arranging their gear. She paused after a while to look at the nearly ready tent. “I thought you said that was suitable for two adult chakats. Looks a bit small to me.”
Tigerbright grinned. “You forget that chakats like to snuggle. It’ll fit us both nicely.”
The mare smirked. “And it’s totally not an excuse to get cozy with me?”
“Oh, perish the thought!” the chakat replied with a giggle.
Violet snorted as she choked back a laugh. “Looks like I’ll have to set up my smaller tent to shelter our food and equipment then. While it isn’t likely to rain, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.”
“You need to leave the food in the shuttle. We don’t want to attract animals.”
“Do you know of anything we should be looking out for while we’re working?”
“Fortunately, this island doesn’t have much in the way of predators. About the only critters that I’d consider dangerous are lizard-like creatures we’ve called nibblers. They were named that because they are prepared to take nibbles out of anything, even chakats ten times their size. They were cleared out of the area around New Horizon but there are still plenty just about everywhere else on the island except the colder places. Anyway, while there are snakes and other normal hazards that won’t bother experienced people like us, I’m more concerned about scavengers that will brave our presence to steal anything edible.”
“That won’t be a problem,” Violet assured hir. “I’ll show you why.” She picked up a short rod with a wire cup on one end and a spike on the other. Her magic extended the rod to triple its collapsed length and she thrust the shaft firmly into the ground between the shuttle and the tent. Then she extracted the pink diamond and set it in the wire basket before closing her eyes and murmuring something that the chakat could not make out. The jewel flashed and a translucent pink dome about thirty meters in diameter appeared to surround them.
Tigerbright blinked in surprise before walking up to have a closer look. “Some kind of force field?” shi guessed.
“Is it safe to touch?”
The chakat reached out and found the softly shimmering wall of magical energy to be utterly unyielding. “Very impressive.”
“Want to see a cool trick?” Violet asked. Without waiting for an answer, the unicorn walked past Tigerbright and through the wall without stirring a hair in her mane.
“How’d you do that?” the chakat demanded, hir hands on hir hips and giving the mare a miffed look.
“It’s designed to block all animal life except any that it is specifically tuned to.” She walked back towards the gemstone. “Come here and I’ll add you to the matrix.”
“What do I need to do?”
“Just put a finger on it. Go on – it won’t bite,” Violet added with a smirk.
Tigerbright did as instructed. The unicorn’s magic glowed for a moment before she declared it done.
“Okay – try it now.” The unicorn inclined her head toward the barrier.
The chakat barely hesitated as shi reached the pink barrier but, as promised, it no longer blocked hir. “That is a cool trick.”
The mare nodded. “It was enchanted with a spell designed by Prince Shining Armor, the Alicorn of Protection. It’s virtually foolproof. Also expensive. Worth it though. Back on Equus, there are all kinds of dangerous monsters that you don’t want to worry about while asleep in your tent at night.” Her horn glowed again and the dome disappeared.
“Why did you turn it off?” Violet asked.
“I didn’t. The pink glow is there to ensure that its size and placement is correct and everything is within its boundary. After it’s set up, I normally turn the visible glow off because it’s distracting.”
“Easy to forget that it’s there at all.”
“True. Just remember that if anything is already within the dome, it won’t be able to do anything about that.”
“What about some animal burrowing in then?”
“It’s actually a sphere centered on the diamond so a burrowing creature won’t get through that way either. However, if it’s already here below ground, it’s trapped inside with us. Don’t worry though – I scanned the area underground first. We’re clear, barring some insects.”
“You won’t have to worry about any blood-suckers. The native life doesn’t like the taste of our alien blood,” Tigerbright assured the mare. “Anyway, I’ll keep setting up the campsite; you concentrate on the reason we’re here.”
Violet unpacked what she needed and began assembling some small devices. She was almost done when the chakat wandered over to get a better look.
“What are those for?”
“They detect and measure mana flow. I plan to use the ley lines to map out the flow from various sites all over the island and determine if there’s either a source or destination point for it all. Aerial mapping is useless because the network of ley lines is too dense and strong to distinguish the finer details. That’s why localized readings are of greater value.”
Tigerbright nodded. “I see. How does that tie in with your geology specialty though?”
“Ley lines don’t just occur randomly. There are all kinds of factors that affect their size, placement, and orientation. For example, those factors include mineral composition, strata, and crystal veins. Above ground, watercourses have a great effect, as does the vegetation. Living things produce mana, so a jungle might produce a lot more than a desert, but the density will alter the flow into the ley lines. It’s quite a complex system. But it’s also a great help to me because I can determine with a fair degree of accuracy whether certain minerals are present due to behavior of the ley lines.”
“So, you could locate something like, let’s say, gold?”
“That’s one of the easier elements to detect. While gold occurs in many kinds of deposits, vein quartz is common. If the ley line indicates its presence, then I can dig in that area and uncover it. A trained geologist can tell a lot from the behavior of ley lines if they are able to detect them. As a unicorn, I can use that spell I showed you when we first met to make them visible. Earth ponies can use their innate abilities to sense them in a different way. Pegasi would probably have to rely almost entirely on instruments. Not that I know of any that are geologists.”
“Magic seems to be a great boon to science,” Tigerbright said thoughtfully.
Violet shrugged. “To us, magic is a part of science. It’s also just another tool. I still take rock samples for analysis, especially for the trickier elements and minerals to detect.”
“So, is this site significant then?”
The mare chuckled. “Not really. It could turn out to be, but it just happens to be the place I was being sent to survey, and I might as well start here as anywhere else. Without any more data, one place is no more significant than another in terms of our assignment.”
“Okay. Are you ready to start then?”
“Just about. I only have to pack all this into my saddlebags. What about you?”
Tigerbright smiled. “Oh, I had my gear packed and ready before we even left town. Because we’ll be returning here, my load is light, so is there anything else you want me to carry?”
Violet gave the chakat some of her field instruments to add to hir backpack before donning her saddlebags. “I think we’re as ready as we’ll ever be. Let’s go.”
“After you, boss.”
The day’s activity consisted of hiking back and forth over the designated survey area. Occasionally, Violet would alter course in light of what the ley lines showed her. Several times, she set up her instruments to make more detailed readings. Tigerbright listened curiously as the mare explained how she used the enchanted sapphires to detect and measure the local geology. Much of the magic theory went over hir head, but it was still fascinating.
In between the stops, the two chatted about many unrelated subjects. Violet described how she studied hard to qualify for the entrance exam for Celestia’s school and her parents’ delight at her success. Tigerbright told the mare about hir interest in working with non-Terran races which had led hir to a government career and hir eventual posting at Emu Island. They talked about their home lives and their interests other than their careers. Naturally, hiking and camping came back up and they told each other about the various places they had visited and the sights they had seen.
“I think I’d like to visit Equus someday and see some of those places for myself,” the chakat commented.
“They’re certainly worth revisiting. I’d gladly show you around.”
“I’ll hold you to that!”
Violet smiled. “Not a problem.”
They returned to the campsite as the sun was setting, a satisfying day’s work accomplished.
Tigerbright said, “You can concentrate on collating your data. I’ll get a fire started and prepare our meals.”
“You were going to show me how you make damper.”
“Yes, but I need to have a good fire going to get a bed of hot coals before I’m ready for that.”
It did not take long for the chakat to gather a large amount of suitable firewood. Picking a good spot where the breeze would blow the smoke away from the campsite, shi cleared it of anything flammable, constructed a fire ring from rocks, and built the fire. Once shi had it blazing well, shi washed hir hands in the clean water of the creek and brought out the food supplies and cooking implements. Placing them on the collapsible table, the chakat then fetched water. Shi filled a camping jug first and then a simple steel pot which shi hung on a rod over the fire to bring to the boil. Shi brought over a heavy cast iron pot with a lid and embedded it into the fire. Next, shi selected the ingredients for the night’s meal. When Tigerbright was satisfied that everything was ready, shi called out to hir friend.
“I’m going to start making the damper now.”
Violet replied, “Just two secs while I close up this file.” Before long, the mare joined the chakat at the table. “Okay – how do we do this?”
Tigerbright pointed to the ingredients. “The most basic damper consists of just plain flour, salt, and water. We’re not going to settle for that though. We have self-raising flour and butter for this recipe.” Shi picked up an enameled tin cup. “First, measure three cups of the flour into this bowl.”
The unicorn deftly did as shi was asked.
“Next – a pinch of salt,” the chakat said.
Violet gave hir a flat look. “And how exactly am I supposed to measure ‘a pinch’?”
Tigerbright smiled innocently. “Like this!” Shi put words into action.
The unicorn rolled her eyes. “Smartypants!”
“I’m surprised you know that term. Anyway, butter comes next – about eighty grams.” Shi cut off a portion from a chilled block that shi had taken from the cooler. “Cut that into small cubes so that we can mix it into the flour.”
“Couldn’t we just melt it and pour it in?”
“We could, but the result is better this way.”
“Okay.” Violet eschewed a knife and diced the butter with her telekinesis.
“Neat,” conceded the chakat. Shi dumped the butter into the bowl. “We then rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. You could probably do this with less mess, but I’ll do it this time.” Shi spent a couple of minutes on that task. “Alright. Now we add about three-quarters of a cup of water.”
The unicorn dipped the cup into the pot of water and poured a bit out to get the desired amount. “Is that good?”
“Looks about right. Put it in.” Tigerbright carefully folded it in until the water was completely taken up. Then shi scattered some flour onto the plastic surface of the table before placing the dough on it. “Now, we knead the dough for a minute or two until it’s smooth.”
When that task was completed, the chakat shaped the dough into a disc about eighteen centimeters wide which shi dusted with some more flour. “Lastly, use a knife to lightly score the top into eight sections. It’s not necessary but makes for a better result.” Shi demonstrated the first score.
“Like this?” Violet asked, doing the remaining scores with her telekinesis.
“Show off,” Tigerbright said with a smile. “Take the lid off the camp oven for me, please.” Shi pointed at the cast iron pot.
Violet lifted the lid with her magic and Tigerbright placed the dough inside. The mare then replaced the lid. The chakat scraped some of the burning coals around the pot and added some more fuel to the fire. “There! It will be ready in about thirty minutes. Time to make a cup of tea and get the rest of the food started. The billy is already boiling.”
The unicorn lifted an eyebrow. “What’s a billy?”
“That simple steel pot hanging over the fire is a type of billy. Yeah, it’s another Aussie slang term.”
“Okay. Go wash your hands while I make the tea,” Violet instructed.
Tigerbright waggled hir floury hands in the mare’s direction. “Worried you might get some in your coat?” shi asked with a grin.
In response, Violet’s horn lit up and hoisted the chakat off the ground, propelling hir toward the creek. “Try that and you’ll get a bath instead,” she warned.
The chakat’s timing was excellent and their food smelled delicious when it was time to open up the camp oven to check on the damper.
“Looks perfect,” shi declared. “Want to fetch it out?”
The mare did so and placed it on a plate. Tigerbright gingerly turned it over and tapped the base. It gave a hollow sound. “Yep, it’s done. We’ll let it cool while we serve up the rest of the food.”
Five minutes later, they feasted on delicious warm bread with their meal of hummus veggie wraps and yogurt with dried berries. The chakat declared their first camp cookout to be a roaring success.
Tigerbright cleared up everything after dinner to allow Violet to finish her work. Then they relaxed around the dying fire as dusk faded. The chakat had brought out some cocoa to make hot chocolate which they sipped while chatting. Eventually, the darkened skies revealed a glorious starscape.
“I can’t get over how many stars you can see here,” Violet said, gazing raptly at the sight.
“Yeah. Unlike Equus, Chakona doesn’t reside inside a bubble within a nebula. You can see even more stars here away from the light pollution in town.”
“I could watch it all night, but I suppose we’d better go to bed. We can get an early start tomorrow.”
Tigerbright hauled hirself onto hir paws. “I’ll get our bedroll ready.”
“I suspect we’ll have heavy dew in the morning, so we’d better pack away our stuff in the other tent first,” Violet declared.
“Good idea,” Tigerbright replied, picking up an equipment bag. “Could you bring over a lantern? It’s gotten too dark to see well in the tent.”
The mare grinned and lit up the tip of her horn instead.
“Or you could do that,” the chakat chuckled.
Abruptly, the gentle glow exploded with the intense brilliance of a magnesium flare. Both of them cried out in shock. Violet struggled to shut it off as Tigerbright flung an arm over hir abused eyes. Several seconds later, the glare stopped as suddenly as it began.
“What the hell was that?” demanded the chakat. “I’ve got spots before the spots in my vision. I’m half blind.”
“It was another surge!” the unicorn explained. It was so strong, I couldn’t terminate the illumination spell. Wait! What’s the time?”
“Don’t ask me – I can’t read anything until my eyes recover.”
“I’m going to guess that it’s close to the same time as last night’s surge. If it is, we’ve got another data point. Hopefully, my instruments picked up and recorded some useful data too. Honestly, I only half-expected the surges to happen this far away from the settlement. If it keeps repeating each night at this time, it’s going to make my job a hundred times easier.”
“Just be sure you’re not using your magic then. Use the bloody lantern next time.”
“Sorry, Tiger. Hold still for a moment.” Her horn lit up and the glow of her magic settled around the chakat’s eyes. After a few seconds, she stopped. “How’s that?”
Tigerbright blinked for a moment then smiled. “I’m back to normal. What did you do?”
“Basic healing spell to accelerate your retinas’ recovery.”
“Great. Now, go ahead and record this event while I finish packing up.”
Violet frowned. “Do you think we should call up and ask what’s happened in town?”
Tigerbright shook hir head. “At the moment, there will be the same confusion as last night. If we wait until morning, there will probably be a report on the event ready for us. Besides, there’s not much we can do tonight anyway.”
“That makes sense.”
They both finished their tasks. The chakat hung the lantern on a hook in the tent, then turned around to back into it and settle down on the sleeping pad. Violet then did the same, snuggling up close to the chakat in the confined quarters.
“Tell me honestly – do you have a bigger tent than this?” the unicorn asked.
“I do. Want me to bring it next time?”
“No, I think this one is perfect.”
“I thought so too. Goodnight, Violet.” The chakat gave the mare a hug.
“Sleep well, Tiger,” the unicorn replied with a nuzzle. Her horn lit up and the lantern turned off. Then there was nothing left but the soft glow of the stars and two small moons left to illuminate the two intimate friends as they cuddled together to share their warmth.
The moment Tigerbright woke up, shi noticed with disappointment the absence of the mare who had been nestled up to hir all night. However, shi quickly realized that that had not been what had woken hir. Shi breathed in deeply the delicious scent drifting into the tent and started drooling. The chakat got up onto hir paws and stretched luxuriously before stepping out into the bright morning sun.
“I was beginning to think you were going to sleep until midday,” Violet said with a mock glare. She emphasized the point by levitating a spatula at her companion and waggling it back and forth. Returning to her cooking, she used the utensil to stir the contents of a pan her magic held over the campfire.
“We’re cats – we sleep hard,” Tigerbright explained. “I normally have an alarm set to ensure I get up for work in time, but I get to sleep in when I go camping. What smells so good?”
“Scrambled eggs with cheese and bacon. Also, I’ve toasted the remains of the damper and I have some raspberry jam that will go nicely with it. I’ll let you make the tea – the billy is close to boiling.”
“How did you know I’d wake in time for all of this?” the chakat asked as shi fetched their mugs.
“If the scent didn’t wake you, I figured I’d eat it all myself,” the mare replied with a giggle.
“Oh, no! You do not steal a chakat’s breakfast! Besides, you’ll get fat eating that much. Good thing I’m here to save you from that fate. And you’re eating bacon now?”
“Any meat in modest amounts, actually. To be honest, I wasn’t on board until I smelled the greasy deliciousness for the first time. Besides, who doesn’t like bacon?”
“Good point.” Tigerbright had placed teabags into each mug and poured the now boiling water into them. Shi then fished out plates and utensils for the eggs while the tea brewed which shi placed on the folding table next to the toasted damper. The butter and jam containers were there too, accumulating condensation from being taken from the cooler. “The butter is a bit hard to spread yet,” shi commented.
“I have a solution for that,” Violet said as she carried the pan over. She used a spatula to scrape the contents onto the two plates before setting the cooking implement aside.
The chakat removed the teabags and added some milk to each. “Got a magic trick for that too?”
“Yeah. It’s basically a heating spell. The real trick is to add just enough thermal energy to soften the butter without melting it. It’s actually a two-parter cantrip, the first of which measures the butter’s mass to ensure that the heat is exactly meted out.”
“That’s a weirdly specific spell,” Tigerbright said before tucking into hir scrambled eggs.
“At Celestia’s school, you don’t just learn high-level enchantments. The class called ‘Clover and Trixie’s Great and Powerful Alternatives’ encourages innovative ways of utilizing common and simple magic to achieve more sophisticated results. As I told you, I’ve always loved camping, but if I wanted to bring butter, I needed to not only keep in cool most of the time but also have it useable when I needed it. I threw together the butter-softening spell for a class exercise. It’s been handy ever since.” Violet demonstrated its use before taking a careful sip of her hot tea. “Ah! I needed that.”
The chakat put down hir plate and grabbed a piece of toast. Shi used a clean knife to scrape some butter off the block and found it to be at the perfect consistency. “Score another for magic,” shi conceded as shi spread the butter and then added jam. “Great job on the eggs, by the way.”
“Thang yoob,” the mare replied with her mouth half full.
“So – what’s the plan for this morning? Call back to town?”
Violet shook her head. After swallowing the mouthful, she replied, “Too early yet. I doubt many are up so soon and don’t think anything too drastic will have happened. We’ll find out soon enough if there has. I want to gather the sensors that I laid out yesterday. Hopefully I’ll get some useful data from them. By the time that’s done, we can call the governor with what we’ve learned, if she doesn’t call us first.”
“And after that?”
“That depends on what we find out. However, I think we’ll be moving to another site.”
Tigerbright tilted hir head and raised an eyebrow. “Weren’t you intending to be here for a couple more days?”
“That was before I knew we were going to get a repeat of the surge. Yes, I was originally supposed to be doing a geological survey, but that has become secondary to the governor’s task.”
“I see.” Shi finished the remainder of hir food before lifting hir mug and sipping the contents. “What do you want me to do?”
Violet chewed thoughtfully on some toast for a short while before answering. “Better pack up everything. I’ll go fetch the sensors. It shouldn’t take long as I won’t be pausing for anything else.” She levitated her datapad over and tapped at the surface with a stylus. Then she frowned. “I’m getting signals from only two of the sensors.”
“But we set out a couple of dozen and they were all working when you checked the signals after we returned to the camp!” Tigerbright protested.
“Horsefeathers! They must have been screwed up by the surge too. I think I can remember where most of them are. I’ll check those after fetching the two remaining actives ones.”
“Okay. Finish your tea and go. I’ll clean this up. Give me a call if you need my help.”
“I’ll do that.” She gulped the rest of her beverage and grabbed her saddlebags. She fixed them into place and headed out at a fast trot.
Violet went to the site of the nearest unresponsive sensor on the way to a still-active one. When she found it, there was no doubt about why it didn’t show on her datapad anymore. The casing was scorched and distorted exactly where the enchanted sapphire was located inside. The active spell had suddenly been boosted far beyond the sapphire’s rated capacity and the device was utterly ruined. The mare packed it anyway in case there was anything to be learned from it. There was another sensor nearby whose location she recalled but it was equally destroyed. The still-working unit was next. She noted a slight heat warping of the casing, but it seemed to be in full working order. She used her datapad to interrogate its systems to confirm that impression and downloaded its data before stowing the sensor in her saddlebag.
The unicorn continued to work her way towards the sole remaining active sensor, stopping only at the occasional remembered site to retrieve those non-functional units. Without exception, they were in the same condition as the first. After finding six like that, she gave up on them and made a beeline for the final working sensor. Like the other, it showed signs of thermal stress but was still operating as intended. After storing its data, she turned back and headed directly to the campsite.
The chakat was stowing their tent in the shuttle as Violet arrived. “How’d it go?” shi asked.
In answer, the unicorn fished out one of the dead units.
Tigerbright whistled in surprise. “That’s really cooked, isn’t it?”
“Yep. These are the two survivors. Note that they’ve been affected too.”
“Why did they survive when the others didn’t?”
“As best as I can figure, it’s because they weren’t located near a strong ley line. The others were and they got fried by the surge. Because those two sensors were intended to map geological strata, I had no choice but to place them at promising sites that did not have a good ley line from which to draw power. That saved them. They are rugged field equipment and can take some abuse.”
Tigerbright smiled grimly. “At least we’ve learned something from this mess. Have you discovered anything from the data yet?”
“Yes, although not much. They weren’t designed exactly for that purpose. Nevertheless, I already have some useful readings. Specifically, I have a broad vector for the direction of flow of the surge.”
“Outstanding! If we can get a couple more from other sites, we can triangulate the cause.”
Violet snorted disparagingly. “The vectors are far too broad to learn that easily. The surge follows the ley lines and, akin to an electric circuit, the mana flows in the direction of least resistance. You’ve seen the mana web and the seemingly random meshing. Theoretically, that could mean an arc of about 180°.”
The chakat grimaced. “That’s not a huge help.”
The mare gave Tigerbright a brief nuzzle. “Cheer up – it’s not all bad news. Just like with an induced current, the alignment of the ley line affects the intensity of the surge. I can get an estimate of the strength from the two surviving units by interpolating the data at the time of the event. I reckon I can narrow down the vector by about half. If the surge repeats for a few nights, I can have lots of sensors placed in appropriate spots to record more vectors. The more data I get, the faster I can narrow down the location of the cause of the problem.”
“What if the surge doesn’t repeat?”
Violet shrugged. “We’ll probably never know why it happened. There’s just too little data yet.”
“Speaking of data,” Tigerbright segued, “we still need to check in with the governor. Marble will definitely be in the office now.”
“We can call her on the way there.”
“You don’t want to go to another site first?”
The mare shook her head. “Now that I have some idea of what’s happening, I want to grab a couple of other instruments that I don’t normally need from my office. While I’m there, I’ll construct new sensors that are both more robust and use a smaller mana crystal. Also, I left sensors at Tower Peak and at your house. The one at the peak will be toast for sure, but the other should be okay because there isn’t a ley line going through your place.”
Tigerbright’s eyebrows rose considerably. “Why did you place a sensor in the house?”
“Professional curiosity only. I wasn’t expecting to find anything significant, but I should be able to get another vector from it.”
“Good. How long do you think we’ll need to place sensors all around the island and getting readings?”
Violet hummed thoughtfully. “Still too little data to give a firm answer, but at least a week or two.”
“If we don’t learn anything from Marble Slate to change our plans, I think we had better stock up on extra supplies so we don’t have to return too often.”
“It can’t hurt,” the mare conceded. “Anyway, let’s get going. We’re burning daylight.”
“Did you get all of the sensors?”
“Most of them. I couldn’t remember where a few are located.”
The chakat turned to face Violet. “You have yesterday’s data on your datapad, right? Better to get them now than have to come back later.”
“Actually, I’d rather—”
Tigerbright cut her off. “Ecological regulations are very strict across all of Chakona. Scientific monitoring stations are to be removed as soon as possible when they are no longer in use. That also applies to ones that stop working.”
Violet pulled her head back and blinked a couple of times. “Of course. You’re right.” The mare pulled out her datapad and tapped at it for a few seconds before leaving at a brisk trot.
After Violet passed out of sight, Tigerbright let out a breath. Hir empathic senses revealed how chastened Violet had felt. Shi grumbled, “Some parts of the job I don’t particularly like, but I had to say it.”
The chakat felt relief when her friend returned ten minutes later in better spirits. “Your carriage awaits, milady,” Tigerbright said with an exaggerated bow and a wave at the shuttle.
Violet grinned. “Cheeky driver! I’d better grab my ward device first.”
“Oops. Yeah. I didn’t want to mess with it.”
The unicorn deactivated the protective spell, pocketed the enchanted diamond, and collapsed the pole. “Okay, let’s go.”
The duo was soon retracing their route back to town. While the chakat concentrated on piloting, Violet took out her comm and dialed the office of the governor. She was quickly put through to Marble Slate who had apparently been expecting the call.
“Did you experience a second mana surge at your survey site?” the governor asked without preamble.
“Yes, ma’am,” Violet replied. “I nearly blinded Tigerbright with a simple illumination spell.”
“I trust that shi has recovered?”
“Yes, shi’s fine now.”
“Good. Did you learn anything?”
“A little, but we’re returning to town to resupply in light of this second event. If it keeps repeating at the same time each night, I will be able to get a lot more valuable data.”
“That sounds good, but you should be aware that the second mana surge did not occur at exactly the same time as the first.”
“Oh? You were able to determine their exact timing?”
“Yes, we did. We also have some more news that is likely to be of significance. The Equus Portal monitoring station reported some unusual activity but no one put two and two together until now. The portal moons powered up and shifted without a ship transitioning it. While that is unprecedented since the Chakona World Government established the station, the significant factor is that these incidents occurred at the same time as the surges.”
Violet’s eyes widened and she gasped. “That could tie in with the mystery that I was going to investigate originally.”
“Oh, that’s not the only news from out that way. Mr. Iotor reported that there’s a starship from Equus that is overdue. While that was not supposed to be arriving at the portal until a few hours later, nevertheless I believe this is of significance.”
“If the surges and the portal behavior are indeed related, I would agree. Then there’s the unusual solar activity of Celestia’s sun which is itself a gigantic mana source.”
“I suspect that it’s too much of a coincidence,” Slate said. “That’s why I requested the Chakona World Government to send a ship through the portal to check the other side and monitor any further events. They agreed but it has taken some time to organize it and we won’t get a report for a few hours at best.”
“As long as it’s in place before a third surge happens, hopefully at the same time this evening. Actually, while we may be at the epicenter of this phenomenon, have any significant problems occurred elsewhere on Chakona?”
“Not as such. There’s not a great deal of magitek on Chakona other than Emu Island, but there have been reports of a large number of glitches. Silver Lake City on Didwana is the settlement nearest to us and reported the most problems, while Amistad on Flinders Continent a third of the world away had only a few. Being the seat of government, they also have primary and backup mana beacons. Or should I say ‘had’. They went offline during the second surge. That suggests that while proximity is a large factor, mana-draw is significant too.”
Violet nodded in thought. “From what I know about beacon magitek, they can be very susceptible to irregular mana flux, so it may be a case of being too sensitive. The Cosmic Lotus lost its beacons the first time it passed through the portal. I’d have to check that with a magitek specialist though. My training only marginally covered that area of arcane knowledge.”
The governor replied, “I want you to add that to your investigations. I’ll have a copy of the full report ready for you when you arrive. I’m instructing all services to give you their full cooperation. This is turning into a bigger event than anyone anticipated and, if the surges persist, it could become a major problem for our colony. We are still very dependent on Equian resources and growing our population. These surges are a threat to every Equestrian.”
“Okay. If you haven’t already done so, I suggest you issue an edict requiring all active magic to be stopped when the next surge is due. If it doesn’t happen, our only problem will be looking a little foolish, but if it does as I believe it will, we can save ourselves from something possibly more serious than flying at high speed into a tray rack.”
“Already done,” Slate informed her. “Last night, a unicorn dock worker was unloading cargo from a ship in the harbor when the surge happened. They found the load this morning on the other side of the bay. We don’t want a repeat of something like that.”
“Was the unicorn okay?” Violet asked with concern. “Their horn wasn’t burnt out, was it?”
“He’s okay aside from a massive horn ache. The surge was short enough that there was no permanent damage. On the other hoof, his ego has been massively inflated. He’s boasting to his colleagues about how far he can fling a load with his telekinesis. Port Security shut down a betting pool he started on exactly how far he could toss the entire ship.”
“I guess longshore-ponies are the same everywhere. They’ll bet on anything.” Violet chuckled then grew serious. “In all honesty, he needs to let his horn heal properly or it can be permanently damaged. I hope he won’t be trying that again in a hurry.”
“He’d better not,” the governor agreed. “Anyway, unless there’s anything else you need to know right now, I’ll talk to you later when you come by my office.”
“Okay, I’ll see you then, ma’am.”
Tigerbright had remained silent during the entire conversation but, after the mare had turned off the comm, shi said, “You seem a lot more certain about the recurrence of the surge now.”
Violet understood the unasked question. “Those sunspots not only occur at regular intervals, they tend to last for weeks. If the phenomenon is connected to the surges, then those could be happening for just as long.”
“And the portal?”
“More data needed. We’re still researching how that works.”
“If they are having activity on the Equian side, how come they haven’t reported big problems like ours? I was told only ‘magical interference’. Doesn’t sound anything near as drastic as what’s happening here.”
That made the unicorn pause for a moment. “Y’know, that’s a really good question. From what I recall from History of Magic, sunspot activity causes spell-casting to sometimes fail and glitches in various enchantments. Nothing too major though – it’s mostly nuisance stuff. Another piece of the puzzle to look into.”
Violet was delighted to find that the sensor that she had left at Tigerbright’s house had survived and she was able to get another vector to add to her data. She and the chakat split up to gather supplies – Tigerbright stocking up on more food for an extended stay in the field, and the mare requisitioning every piece of equipment that she thought might come in handy with the authority of the colony’s governor. After stowing everything in the shuttle, they headed back into town to visit Marble Slate. Her assistant told them that they could go right in. What neither expected was finding an alicorn inside with the governor.
The blue stallion with fiery red mane smiled in amusement at their surprise. “Hello. You must be Violet Woods and Chakat Tigerbright. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Tigerbright nodded respectfully but Violet bowed. “It’s an honor to make your acquaintance, Your Highness. May I ask how you got here? We haven’t gotten the replacement mana beacon yet.”
Prince Destined Path chuckled. “I am the master of time and space. I haven’t needed a beacon to get to Chakona since my initial visit, and I have been to this colony on several occasions since.”
“Of course, that’s your special talent. I should have realized. Have you come in regards to the mana surges?”
“Yes. Mom is investigating on the Equus side. I heard that you have been put in charge on this side because you’re a former graduate from Princess Celestia’s school.”
“That’s right, although I haven’t learned much yet.”
The alicorn waved a dismissive hoof. “No worries. I know it’s a bit soon. You probably know more than we do despite that. I’m only here to help out if needed, and provide a link back to Equus until the new mana beacons are installed. By the way, the starship that is overdue is carrying them.” When Violet started to say something, Destined Path interrupted her. “No, don’t worry – we’re back in contact with it. They were caught in a huge mana surge which damaged their equipment including their comms. Also, they overshot the portal by many lightdays in the seconds before the circuit breakers kicked out. Fortunately, both the structural integrity enchantment and shielding also increased in strength. They ended up deep in the nebula and it will take them a couple of days to backtrack to the portal. They’ve had to patch up their magitek warp drive too.”
“That’s reassuring, sir. It also reinforces my belief that these incidents are linked.”
“I agree. Anyway, you’re here to make a report and Governor Slate and I are eager to see what data you have discovered.”
After showing what she had learned so far, the four discussed Violet’s further plans. They ended up agreeing with her course of action and that was the end of the meeting. However, before Tigerbright and Violet left, Destined Path seemed to pull a device out of thin air and tossed it to the mare.
“Use that to contact me to keep me abreast of what you find. It will also let me locate you if you get into any kind of trouble.”
“Thank you, sire,” Violet said. She turned to her companion. “Let’s go, Tiger – we’ve got lots to do today.”
The alicorn said, “I need to leave as well. Thank you for your hospitality, Governor Slate.” He followed the unicorn and the mare out of the office. Just as they were about to exit the foyer, Destined said, “Could I have a private word with you, Tigerbright?”
The chakat was a bit surprised and looked over to Violet.
“I’ll meet you back at the house,” the mare said.
“Alright. Seeya.” After the unicorn had left, the chakat turned back to the alicorn. “What is it you wanted to tell me, sir?”
“I see some of my mother in Violet. She’s likely to obsess over this problem if you let her. Please make sure she doesn’t overdo things. This situation doesn’t call for desperate measures.”
“Don’t worry – I’ll keep an eye on her.”
“I’m sure you will. Look after her well, Tigerbright. She’ll be counting on you.”
The chakat blinked in confusion. “I’m not sure what you mean?”
Destined grinned. “I think you do. Farewell for now.”
The alicorn disappeared in a flash of teleportation, leaving a surprised chakat pondering his words.
Violet needed two hours at her office to construct a new batch of sensors designed to be much sturdier than the regular model. After a short flight, the pair set up camp at the far north-western point of Emu Island for the purpose of maximizing the difference in vector readings. As they had the previous day, they travelled around the area setting up sensors. This time, though, while Violet took the opportunity to check out some interesting geological sites, her placements were chiefly aimed at measuring mana flow at a safe distance from the ley lines. While the office had an abundance of sapphires to enchant, there were only a dozen of the magitek electronics modules left after losing so many to yesterday’s surge. Violet had used up every spare and put in an Alpha Priority order for more.
This time, the land was heavily forested and they’d had to land on the dunes close to the sea. It was a pleasant camping spot and the salt-laden air was refreshing after a hard day of trudging through thick undergrowth. Tigerbright prepared dinner while Violet finished up her notes. The chakat managed to drag her away by enlisting her help in making damper again.
“We’re going to do something different this time,” Tigerbright said. “Here’s a challenge for you. Core and peel two apples then pulp them.”
Violet’s horn glow pulsed as all three operations took a total of five seconds to complete. She looked up sweetly. “Did I do that right?”
The chakat rolled her eyes but couldn’t suppress a smile. “Show off. I don’t know whether to be impressed or scared for my life.”
The mare giggled and leaned into her friend for a couple of seconds.
“Now, we mix in the pulp and I’ll knead the dough for a minute or two until it’s smooth.”
The rest of the procedure was the same except that Tigerbright dusted the dough with cinnamon before it was put in the camp oven. The warm apple-bread was a tasty treat to finish the day.
They were sitting by the campfire sipping hot chocolate when a tiny device on the folding table started chirping loudly. It had been humming almost inaudibly ever since it had been activated about half an hour ago. The sudden surge of mana boosted the volume considerably without going to extremes, just as it had been designed to do.
Violet checked the time. “Just over five minutes later than last night. That’s the same difference as between the first and second surges. If a surge comes tomorrow night another five minutes later, I think we can reasonably fix its interval.”
“But why not exactly one day apart?” Tigerbright wondered.
“Hopefully we’ll find out the answer to that when we discover the cause of the surges.” She finished the remainder of her drink and then got up. “But right now, I’m tired and I’m in need of snuggling and sleep.” She projected a dome of magic over the fire, depriving it of air.
Tigerbright let out a whine. “But I was soooo looking forward to you going crazy downloading and analyzing the data all night long.”
Violet laughed. “You’re thinking about Prince Destined Path’s mom. If Princess Twilight Sparkle was here, none of us would get any sleep over her excited chattering. Her endurance in the throes of scientific discovery is legendary.” She cocked an eyebrow. “Are you complaining?”
The chakat stuck out hir tongue. “Oh, absolutely.”
The mare laughed again then turned her attention to the fire. It quickly died out, but the chakat had turned on a lantern before the light was lost.
Tigerbright hung the lantern in the tent and said, “Your boudoir awaits, madam.”
Violet giggled and joined her companion. “Thanks, but I’m no madam.” She snuggled up beside the chakat and nuzzled hir. “Good night, Tiger.”
“Sleep well, hon.”
“You look thoughtful,” Violet commented as she and Tigerbright hiked their way through the forest to place more sensors.
“Hmmm? Oh, it’s something that Prince Destined said to me. Nothing to worry about.”
“Anything I can help with?”
The chakat shook hir head. “No, I think I need to work this out for myself. However, while we’re on the subject of alicorns, are your prince and princesses always like that?”
The mare gave hir a quizzical look. “Like what?”
“He had no crown or royal outfit. He wasn’t accompanied by several guards. It was more like an acquaintance dropping by rather than a royal visit.”
Violet chuckled. “I saw a lot of Prince Destined while I attended Celestia’s school. He takes after his mother, Princess Twilight Sparkle. Like her, he prefers to eschew the crown and regalia when he’s not in Court or some other formal occasion. As for Royal Guards, not only couldn’t they teleport here like he can, he doesn’t need them. He’s one of the most powerful beings in Equestria, not to mention the Federation.”
“Even powerful beings can be caught by surprise,” Tigerbright pointed out.
The unicorn snorted. “I don’t think he can be caught napping.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like he said, he’s the master of time as well as space. He can see every possible future event if he chooses. He can assess the probability of an event occurring an act accordingly.”
“Then, why didn’t he foresee the surges?”
“Because he didn’t look.” Violet stopped and turned to face her companion. “You have to understand that his talent would drive an ordinary pony insane. His special gift allows him to make sense of all the probabilities, but he still doesn’t dive into the timelines at a whim. If he sees a major event is coming up, or he has to travel across the galaxy for a meeting, he might check out the repercussions. However, while the surges have been annoying, so far they haven’t been disastrous. In other words, he not only didn’t notice them starting, he’s not going to meddle with time unless he perceives a real danger from them. I don’t know much about time magic, but even he has to act with extreme caution. It’s possible to create paradoxes and unintended side-effects that spiral out of control. Add to that where the surges are happening: Chakona and outer space. Naturally, his perceptions are centered around his physical location at that time.”
“I see. But he might still be aware of lesser probabilities happening around him?”
Violet shrugged. “I don’t know everything about the prince. That’s just what I learned about him in alicorn studies at school.” She resumed the trek through the woods.
Tigerbright followed, her mind considering the mare’s words. “That might explain part of what he said to me. Now I just have to figure out the rest.”
“Whoa! Slow down! What’s the rush?” Tigerbright demanded as shi bounded after Violet who was practically galloping through the forest by now.
The mare eased up, blushing a little. “Sorry. I… umm… have a lot of… nervous energy that I’m trying to burn off.”
The chakat pulled up beside her. “You’ve been getting more and more antsy for a couple of days since we left town. What’s bugging you, Vi?”
“Nothing. I’m just need to tire myself out a bit more.”
Tigerbright rolled hir eyes. “Right.”
They continued on at a more sedate pace until they reached their camping ground for that day. Situated in a glade abutting a small lake, it was both practical and picturesque. The pair had set up camp the same as they had the past few days and Tigerbright shucked hir hiking gear beside the storage tent before starting the fire needed to cook their meal. Violet assembled her equipment at a spot on the lush grass that was about as far away from the chakat as she could and still be within the boundary of the protective field covering their campsite.
The mare immediately set to work collating and analyzing the data they had collected that day. While she was still gathering geological data at the same time, she concentrated first on the information she had garnered from the sensors they had collected in the morning before moving here. They had finally gained enough readings to confirm that the source of the phenomenon was definitely on the island and not somewhere offshore. Now it was just a matter of narrowing it down. To that end, they had been installing sensors at two sites per day since leaving town, utilizing half their supply of the instruments at each. By now, they had covered the entire island with the broad-based measurements. The results from measuring tonight’s surge would enable them to begin the second stage of their search, reducing the area to be checked more thoroughly to about a tenth of the island.
Without tonight’s data, that would not be possible yet, but Violet buried herself into work with an unwarranted degree of fervor. This did not escape the notice of Tigerbright who gave her concerned glances even as shi chopped up vegetables for the stew that shi was preparing. After shi had put them into a large pot over the fire to cook, the chakat looked again at the unicorn who staring at her datapad screen intensely. Tigerbright couldn’t help picking up the mélange of emotions roiling off of her friend. Shi bit hir lip, considering hir course of action. Eventually, shi spoke up.
“Want to help me make the damper tonight? I’m thinking of making a fruit loaf. I’ve got a packet of mixed dried fruits to knead into the dough. I’ll let you snack on the remainder.”
Violet did not take her eyes from the screen. “No, thanks,” she replied tersely.
The chakat sighed. “Okay, enough is enough. I know what’s bothering you, Vi. Hell, I’ve been smelling it for a couple of days! You’ve gone into heat and you’re trying to hide it.”
The mare stiffened up for a long moment before throwing her head back and wailing, “It’s worse than that! I’m in Season!”
Tigerbright’s eyes widened. “You mean ‘shut down the town for a week’ type Season? But that happened a few weeks ago.”
“You don’t understand! The mares here are not in synch with those on Equestria. Heck! Even back there, the timing of the Season varied between regions. But I’m not due yet.”
“Then why are you now?”
The unicorn got to her hooves and start frantically pacing back and forth within the confines of their campsite, rife with the nervous energy that came with the major heat. “The immigration authority warned me of this possibility. Chakona has a different climate, seasons, background mana, and other factors. Even the plants add chemicals into the air that can trigger a fertility cycle. By this time next year, I should be in synch with the other mares in the colony but, right now, my body doesn’t care. It’s screaming out for a stallion and doesn’t care that I don’t want to get pregnant.”
“We could pack up and go back to town. I’m sure that we could find someone to help you through this period. You can’t be the first mare to have this happen.”
“No! I can’t afford the time away. We don’t know how long these surges will continue to occur and I would be devastated if they stop while I’m cooped up in the house while getting sexual relief.”
Tigerbright had not expected Violet to go for that idea, but shi’d had to put it forward before offering hir preferred option. “You know how I visit Morningmist to attend to our mutual needs? I could do the same for you.”
Violet stopped and turned to stare at the chakat. “Recreational sex?”
“Yeah. You wouldn’t even have to worry about getting pregnant because we’re not biologically compatible.”
“Tiger, I… are you sure? We’ve only known each other for a short time. This is… ohhh!” The mare shuddered as a surge of hormones hit her at the thought of what her companion was offering.
Tigerbright came over to the mare and laid a hand on her withers. While Violet flinched at the touch, she did not move away. “Hon, I am your friend and I like you a lot. Why wouldn’t I do this for you?”
“Because this is pure animal lust!”
“Violet, chakats have their sexual cycles too. We also get extra horny when we’re in peak female phase. Perhaps nowhere near as bad as you ponies, but at least I know what it’s like. There’s no shame in asking for relief.”
The unicorn gasped. “Oh, Sweet Celestia! I need you badly. Do it, please!” Violet turned around and raised her tail. Her vulva winked at the chakat.
Tigerbright had deliberately not shown the mare but shi was already aroused. Hir penis reached full erection even as shi placed hir forepaws on the unicorn’s back and brought hirself into position. While shi would normally indulge in foreplay with Morningmist before copulating, this was an act of need rather than play. As this was the first time shi’d had sex with any being other than a chakat, shi was careful at the start. However, when Violet groaned passionately when the head of hir cock lightly touched the entrance to the pony’s vagina, shi abandoned subtlety and plunged into the unicorn’s depths.
Violet cried out, but it was in pleasure as she felt the burning desire finally being attended to. Tigerbright empathically sensed that all was well and reveled in the broadcast emotion. Shi let hirself go with the feeling, concentrating on bringing maximum stimulation to hir companion, and not incidentally to hirself at the same time. Shi stroked until the mare shuddered as she was wracked by orgasm, but shi did not cease hir thrusts. Shi stepped up hir efforts knowing that the mare was far from satiated yet, and neither was shi. When Tigerbright sensed the incipient orgasm, shi allowed hirself to climax along with Violet and filled her with hir cum.
The chakat pulled free of the mare who sank to the ground, panting.
Tigerbright lay hirself down beside her and grinned. “Feeling better?”
Violet giggled. “Much. Are we done now?”
The chakat grinned. “Hon – Misty and I do this for about half an hour, only swapping back and forth who mounts whom. I’m happy to give you more if you need it. And don’t say that don’t want it. I can still sense the desire.”
The unicorn smiled almost shyly. “I know. I can feel yours too.” She winked. “In both a physical and psychic sense. I’m glad you could enjoy mounting me.”
“I’ll let you into a little secret – chakats are xenophiles. We are sexually attracted to most species. I’m probably not the first chakat to have sexual relations with a pony. We’ve been interacting for years now, after all. Anyway, it’s not the form that appeals to us most, although I think you are very beautiful. As empaths, we find emotional compatibility extremely desirable. Anyway, that’s the long-winded way of saying that if you’re ready for another round, I’m prepared to do the honors.”
Violet leaned over to kiss the chakat on hir cheek. “Please do. I want more, and that’s not just the hormones talking.”
Tigerbright got up and the mare followed suit. As the chakat got into position behind Violet, shi said, “This time, though, I’m going to take my time now that the urgency is gone.”
Violet giggled again. “You’re the expert. I’ve never been mounted before by a male, or a herm in your case. I’ve only had other mares providing relief. Let me state for the record that this is far better.”
“Nothing that I didn’t know already, hon,” Tigerbright replied as shi teased the mare’s vulva with hir penis before joining with her once more.
Some time and several orgasms later, the pair lay on the grass, panting and basking in the afterglow. For a long time, neither spoke, their empathic interaction saying everything. The fire that burned in Violet’s nethers had been thoroughly quenched for now. Then the chakat sensed a shift in the mare’s emotional output. Guilt.
“Tiger – I have a confession to make.”
The chakat raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“I knew I was going into heat even before we left town. I knew I would need sexual relief within days but I went ahead with the surveys anyway.”
“You already said that you wanted to be sure we don’t miss out on tracking the surges.”
“That was only an excuse. Yes, it was a really good one but not my primary reason. I wanted to be out here in the wilderness alone with you when I came fully into Season.”
“You intended to have sex with me?”
“Yes. I’ve wanted it long before the heat started. For the first time in my life, I was deeply smitten with someone, even though I did not fully comprehend why. However, after all I had told you about rejecting stallions and wanting a life and career unencumbered by one, I felt like a hypocrite in desiring you after having just met you a few days prior. I was too embarrassed to ask. Now, I feel like a fool. I let my hormones do the thinking for me and practically used you. I’m very sorry.”
Tigerbright shook hir head and Violet was startled to hear the low rumble of laughter. “My turn to confess,” shi eventually said. “I’ve known from the day that I met you that I wanted to be close to you. I came up with every excuse I could think of to be around you, right up to and including asking you to move into my house. No, it wasn’t just with sex in mind, although we chakats are not ashamed to enjoy it. There’s something that you should know about our species that has to do with our empathic nature. Sometimes, when two chakats meet for the first time, they are instantly attracted to each other. We believe that this happens when our empathic auras are perfectly in tune. That’s what happened when I met you.”
“But I’m not a chakat.”
“No, but you are an empath, unlike all the other ponies. I can look at them and think they are pretty or cute, but there’s no particular attraction. You, though, I wanted to know better since we met on Tower Peak. But you told me about all your bad experiences with matchmaking and you even fled to another world to get away from that kind of thing. So I shut up and decided to play the long game. I wanted you to grow to feel about me like I felt about you. And then you started to go into heat. Prince Destined must have realized that too and had sensed my desires. That explains part of what he told me. Anyway, I saw it as the perfect excuse to finally be with you intimately, so I made no attempt to hold you back. And tonight, when you were at your most desperate, I took advantage.”
Violet stared at Tigerbright for a long moment before throwing her head back and howling with laughter. The chakat waited for her to finish before asking, “What’s so funny?”
The mare grinned back at hir. “We really are a pair of idiots, aren’t we? Both of us wanting something the other wanted also but too nervous to ask. You’re right – we are perfectly in tune.”
Tigerbright chuckled. “I suppose so. That begs the question – where do we go from here?”
“I don’t know about you, but I’m starving, and that vegetable stew smells awesome,” Violet replied with a grin.
The chakat returned the smile. “Not what I meant, but I agree. Want to make that fruit loaf still?”
The mare smirked. “I have something else for dessert in mind.”
“Ooh. I like the way you’re thinking.”
Tigerbright was glad that shi had finished preparing the stew before being sidetracked. Both of them were very hungry due to their efforts in the field plus their carnal activities. They ate in silence, thinking about what they had just done and why. Although it had been a strange start to a deeper relationship, neither of them regretted it.
The sun had set and the sky was rapidly darkening when they finished cleaning up. Violet settled down next to Tigerbright and nuzzled hir.
“Tiger, we’ve known each other for a little over a week now. Despite all the subjects we’ve chatted about in that time, we really don’t know a great deal about each other yet. While I’m as convinced as you are that we are meant for each other, I also feel that we’re going to have to spend more time talking about ourselves. I so very much don’t want this relationship to be soured by misunderstandings.”
“Oh, I totally agree. We have a good thing going and not only don’t I want to spoil it, I’d like to see it grow even better.”
Violet smiled. “Hard to see how much better it could be while I’m feeling so joyful right now, but that sounds wonderful to me. So, if we’re in agreement, there’s just one thing I want to formally ask. Chakat Tigerbright, will you be my stallion?”
“That’s not something that I ever dreamed of being asked but it utterly thrills me. Yes, I will be your stallion. And I ask you formally, Violet Woods, will you be my denmate?”
“I don’t know yet everything that entails but I agree without reservation because I love and trust you.”
“And I love you too.”
Tigerbright leaned down, closing hir eyes. Violet raised her head so that her lips met the chakat’s and they kissed long and passionately.
When they finally parted, they panted a little to catch their breath, grinning at each other. Then the mare’s horn lit up and the chakat felt hir jacket being pulled open.
“What are you doing, Vi?”
“Now we’re going to consummate our commitment to each other, and we’re going to do it properly. This time, you’re going to undress and we’re going to make love instead of merely rutting. Besides, I promised dessert, didn’t I?”
Tigerbright grinned and allowed hir marefriend to remove hir clothing. They kissed once more before Violet got up. The unicorn gave hir a ‘come hither’ look as she walked over to the grassy verge of the lake. She picked up a blanket in her magic and spread it before her, indicating that the chakat should lie upon it. Tigerbright did as shi had been asked but raised an eyebrow when the mare told hir to turn over onto hir backs.
“What are you up to, filly?”
“Treating my stallion right,” Violet replied. “Besides, I haven’t had a good look at what brought me such pleasure and relief a little while ago.”
Tigerbright chuckled and watched as the mare bent her muzzle between the chakat’s hind legs and breathed in deeply. Then she licked hir sheath, long and sensuously, drawing out what was within. As the penis engorged, she encouraged it with more licks, tasting her lover. Before long, pre-cum started to leak from the cock and Violet tasted that too. Licking her lips, she leaned back and grinned at her mate.
“I’m impressed. I didn’t know chakats were as well-endowed as pony stallions. No wonder it fitted so well.”
“I’m happy that it meets your expectations. Now, would you mind meeting its?”
“Don’t mind if I do.” She bent back down, opened her muzzle, and slowly engulfed Tigerbright’s penis. She began sucking and caressing the member with her tongue. The chakat watched, biting hir lip. Tigerbright’s breath shuddered at the thrills of pleasure until shi could hold back no longer. Hir hips bucked as warm cum filled hir lover’s maw.
Violet leaned back, licking her lips, savoring the taste. “Like that? It’s the first time for me, so I hope I did it right.”
“My beautiful mare, I believe you swallowed the evidence of your efforts to please me.”
“If you liked that, you’re going to love this.” The unicorn got up and moved behind the chakat. She grinned at her lover from between hir legs. “Now, this is something I’ve had lots of practice with due to necessity.”
“Violet, I said I would be your stallion – you don’t have to do this.”
“My stallion has a vagina and it will receive the attention it deserves. So, please shut up unless it’s to ask for more.” She leaned between Tigerbright’s thighs and her tongue pushed through the chakat’s labia, seeking out the nub of her clitoris. A gasp heralded its discovery. Suffice to say that Tigerbright asked for much much more.
Eventually, Violet got up to stretch and noticed the condition of her lover’s penis. “I just got through pleasuring your female half and you still have a raging hard-on?”
“I told you we’re not two creatures jammed together. Stimulate one part and you do so for the other.”
Violet chuckled. “Good, because I am more than ready to finish it off. She then straddled the chakat. With her magic, she lifted the stiff appendage and positioned herself above it. Then she slowly impaled herself upon the penis, eliciting a groan of pleasure from both of them. Once her buttocks met Tigerbright’s torso, the delightful shaft could go no further.
“You’re in me, a part of me now,” Violet said.
“I’m in you, what’s mine is yours,” Tigerbright responded.
“We are one!” they chorused.
Then the mare set about stimulating hir as enthusiastically as the chakat had done for her earlier. She rode her lover until they both came with cries of ecstasy.
As Violet rested on the chakat’s heaving barrel while they both panted, she laid her head on Tigerbright’s chest. She found her head pillowed by the chakat’s plush bosom, a nipple an inch from her nose. Curious, she lifted her head and gave it a lick. Her lover squirmed and giggled.
“Oh, you liked that?” Violet asked.
“I told you that they’re sensitive.”
“Now I’m really curious,” the mare said with a mischievous grin. She started licking and nuzzling the teats, making Tigerbright writhe and then start to moan with pleasure. Emboldened, Violet started suckling on one and was startled to receive a mouthful of fluid which she reflexively swallowed. “You’re lactating!” she accused.
Tigerbright shook her head. “No, I’m not. But when chakats aren’t producing milk for cubs, our breasts store what we call milkwater. It’s mostly water fortified with vitamins and minerals. It serves as an emergency reservoir which we can re-absorb in times of need, but it can also be given to others, as you just found out. Feel free to drink more if you want.”
Violet couldn’t resist the invitation and suckled anew. She was rewarded with more of the sweet, warm milkwater. As Violet nursed, the chakat's moans grew louder and broadcast hir pleasure freely. The mare stopped and said, “Does breastfeeding your foals always give you orgasms?”
The chakat giggled. “While it’s pleasant, no, we don’t have orgasms. My nipples only get this sensitive when I’m making love and, hon, I am still buried deep within you. This is turning me on something fierce.”
The unicorn grinned. “Well, it looks like I’ve discovered one of your kinks already.”
“Getting humped by the lover that I crossed a galaxy to find.”
“Your wish is my command!”
Tigerbright threw a foreleg around Violet and rolled her under hirself whereupon shi began to stroke hir engorged phallus deeply and quickly, making the mare groan in delight. Violet did her best to use her vaginal muscles to grasp and tease the cock that was bringing her so much pleasure. With no more restraints or secrets between them, they let down their empathic guards and their auras meshed. It was both the most comforting and erotic feeling each had ever felt. Then, as if both were struck by lightning, they experienced an intense simultaneous orgasm which wracked their bodies for several long seconds before they were released and left gasping.
Tigerbright slumped to Violet’s side, still impaled in hir lover but too exhausted to withdraw. Neither spoke for a long time, their panting gradually easing. Then Violet nuzzled the chakat.
“Like your dessert?” she asked in a tired voice.
The chakat snorted weakly. “I think I ate too much.”
“We’d better go to bed.”
“Yeah, I agree.”
Neither moved an inch. Eventually Violet spoke up again.
“On second thought, I think I’ll take a nap right here.”
“Good idea,” Tigerbright responded.
Not another sound was heard from the campsite for the rest of the night as the light of the moon, Ka’turna, shone down on the exhausted lovers.
Sunlight in Violet’s eyes woke the mare. She quickly discovered that she could hardly move because she was firmly in the grasp of the tiger-striped chakat beside her. Despite the chill of the morning air, she felt quite warm in the arms of her mate and disinclined to wake hir. Violet settled her head back down, putting a hoof in front of her eyes to block the sun, and dozed off again.
When she woke once more, Chakastra had risen significantly more into the sky but Tigerbright was still asleep. The mare pouted. She was ready to get on with her day! Her horn lit up and its glow surrounded the chakat, lifting hir up and away. Violet got to her hooves and gently set her lover down again. Then she went to their tent, grabbed a towel, and headed for the lake, grateful that it harbored nothing more exciting than some small fish. Ten minutes later, the damp but much-refreshed mare returned, hung her towel up to dry, and started fixing breakfast.
Unsurprisingly, Tigerbright was woken by the smell of pancakes, eggs, and bacon. Violet’s habit of rising earlier than the chakat had led her to believe that her mate’s alarm clock consisted of a device that released the smell of breakfast foods rather than making a noise. When Tigerbright hungrily approached the enticing fare, the unicorn sternly pointed hir towards the lake. After a very quick bath, the chakat returned, still dripping, but Violet allowed hir to take a plate of hir eagerly awaited breakfast.
Between mouthfuls, Tigerbright asked, “So, what do we do from here?”
“Well, I didn’t finish collating the data from yesterday and we missed the surge last night, so I’m going to work on those while you pack up the camp.”
“Oh, yeah, but I was more thinking about us.”
Violet smiled and kissed the chakat on the cheek. “I know. We have a lot to talk about, but that can wait until we go around picking up the sensor equipment.”
“Fair enough. How’s the heat this morning?”
“Feeling a little horny but that’s normal. I’ll be fine until we make camp tonight. Not that I wouldn’t mind a quickie right now, but I’d rather we take our time. And speaking of time, we don’t have a lot to spare if we’re going to get today’s placements done.”
Tigerbright pouted. “Y’know, this is the first time since I hit puberty that I’m really miffed that I can’t have sex when I feel like it.”
The mare giggled. “I’m totally empathizing with you. Being a responsible adult sucks, doesn’t it?”
The chakat nodded glumly but brightened when Violet kissed hir again, this time empathically pushing her feelings of love at the same time. Tigerbright echoed the emotion and then went back to finishing hir breakfast.
Half an hour later, the pair set off to collect the sensors. Tigerbright started the conversation once more.
“We committed ourselves to each other last night, but how do you want to proceed from here? Chakats have flexible customs, but the commonest one is that we tell our friends and family that we are a mated couple. We’d only have to register ourselves for legal purposes. I’m open to other ideas though.”
“I would like a simple marriage ceremony. By Equestrian standards, you are my fiancé because I’m your first mare. It’s normal for a stallion to marry the first mare, but if they add any mares to the relationship, it’s just a private commitment usually. Sometimes they have a marriage ceremony too, but that’s not obligatory.”
“Do they ever add a stallion to the herd?”
“Very rarely, and normally only in a large herd. After all, that’s why herds exist. The gender imbalance requires it. And that’s not even counting the colt cuddlers.”
“The what? Wait. Is that what they call homosexual stallions?”
“Yep. They aren’t common, but they do exist. In the bad old days, they would have been considered to be deviant and selfish and forced into relationships with mares as little more than a slave. That doesn’t happen nowadays. Princess Celestia spent a lot of effort stamping out that prejudice. It did add to the gender-imbalance problem though. That’s why it’s so important for a stallion to pick the right mare as his wife. She gets to vet other candidates if they don’t choose monogamy.” Violet smirked at the chakat. “So, you had better be sure you chose wisely because you’re going to be stuck with me for the rest of your life.”
“Violet, my love, I have never made a wiser decision in my life. When do you want to get married?”
“First, I need to inform my parents that we’re engaged. Do you plan to do the same? I don’t know your practices but I’d want them to know too.”
“Yeah, I’ll let them all three know tonight. What about you though?”
Violet frowned. “Normally, it’s something we do face to face. That’s a little impractical right now. I don’t like to do it over the comm though. I’ll think about it.”
“At least you won’t have the pressure of pregnancy adding to the urgency. After last night, you would almost certainly have been fertilized if we weren’t biologically incompatible. Which brings up my next question. How do you feel about having children?”
“I’m in no hurry. When the time is right, we can get a compatibility spell and have a foal. You know about those spells?”
Tigerbright nodded. “Remember Sunny Skies and Artax? They plan to have a foal next time Sunny is fertile and they’ve already arranged a compatibility spell to be made for them.”
“Yeah, they need to plan ahead because those spells are tricky for changelings. Each one has to be custom-made.”
“And I know of at least one griffon-zebra couple with a hybrid child. She’s quite a cutie.”
“Well, you obviously know the score. We’ll have to look into it later because I’m sure that with our very different physiology, it won’t be easy to make a compatibility spell for us.”
“So, you do want children?”
The unicorn stopped and turned to face the chakat. She smiled and nuzzled hir. “Love – one day, you and I are going to be very proud parents. I don’t know when that day will be, but it will come and we’ll be a very happy family.” She stepped back. “But right now, we have more important things to do.”
Violet continued on her way while Tigerbright followed with a silly grin on hir face.
They came to the first sensor. The unicorn downloaded its data, giving a cursory glance over the information before nodding in satisfaction and stowing away the device. They continued on their way toward the next.
“Y’know,” Violet suddenly spoke up, “there was one occasion where a compatibility spell wasn’t used but lots of foals were conceived.”
“Oh? What happened?”
“It happened far in Equestria’s past. It was not terribly long after the union of the tribes and the creation of our nation. It was Mating Season and, as usual, the mares and stallions were strictly separated. Businesses were shut down and the city was virtually at a standstill.”
Tigerbright nodded. “I’m familiar with that. The colony was nearly a ghost town a few weeks ago.”
“Well, back then, Equestrians were in frequent conflict with Griffonia. Minor wars and skirmishes were a constant occurrence. Then, somegriff realized that the ponies were preoccupied and thought it would be the perfect time to launch an invasion. As anypony could have told them, mares and stallions with raging hormones are not to be messed with. Not only did the invasion fail spectacularly but many griffons were also captured. Then the mares worked off their frustrations with the males and the stallions with the females.”
“Raped them you mean.”
“Yeah, it was basically rape, but those were less civilized times. Anyway, much to the shock of everypony, every mare conceived. Also, many of the griffon hens.”
“How did that happen?”
“The consensus is that there was so much love magic occurring in one place that a spontaneous mass-compatibility enchantment was cast over the city. And that’s how the hippogriff race was created.”
“What happened to the griffons though?”
“Normally, when a war ended, prisoners were sent back to Griffonia and reparations made. This time, the invasion was over almost as soon as it started, but there was one huge difference – the fate of the prisoners. Griffons were and still are extremely proud creatures, and very beholden to their system of status and rank. By losing to the ponies, every soldier, male and female, lost status, but by conceiving a child with the enemy, they were now considered the lowest of the low. None of them could return home. Instead, after they were released, they left to find someplace else to re-start their lives. Some chose to settle in Equestria and they were the forebears of the nation’s griffon population. However, the majority established a colony that later grew to be a stronghold named Griffonstone. While they regained their pride eventually, those griffs never challenged Equestria again.”
“None of the griffons stayed with the mares that bore their children, I suppose?” Tigerbright asked.
“None of the males ever did. However, some of the hens returned to the city to submit to the stallions who got them pregnant.”
“Why would they do that? Was it because they knew they would give birth to bastard children?”
Violet shook her head. “While that might have played a part, it wasn’t the ultimate reason. You see, you have to understand the mindset of griffons of that period. While it’s a lot more civilized nowadays, back then, a hen had to be won. If a cock was interested in her, first he had to have at least the same level of status or he would not even get a look. Then, if it seemed that there would be a chance of a relationship, he had to win her in some fashion. Sometimes that meant defeating a rival suitor, and sometimes it was in a more symbolic way. Well, in this case, it was a literal win by an enemy defeating her in battle, and as her status was utterly trashed, he had the right to claim her by Griffonian standards. Also, the stallions had risked getting raped or worse when they pulled hens away from mobs of vengeful mares. The males’ bravery impressed the hens, further fulfilling the cultural norm of winning a battle for their favor. Many of the stallions did keep those hens, although as the most junior in their herds. I don’t think any actually married them though.”
“So, the city had quite a population explosion,” Tigerbright pointed out.
“Oh yes, and it made things quite difficult for a while due to resources being diminished. And it was a good thing that so many hens had returned because they were vital in educating ponies in the different needs of the hybrid species.”
“How did Equestrians feel about all those hippogriff foals?”
Violet grimaced. “I wish I could say that it was all love and roses, but it wasn’t. Prejudice reared its ugly head. All too often, the young hippogriffs were ostracized, despite Celestia’s best efforts. Eventually, when they reached adulthood, they chose to leave en masse and create a home for themselves. They settled on Mount Aris and that grew into the Hippogriff Kingdom that we know today. Well, excluding their ability to turn into seaponies but that happened much later. A tale for another time.”
“That’s quite an origin story. Chakona is similar in that it was colonized to give a home not only to chakats, but also all the species that suffered from prejudice and mistreatment throughout the Federation. Whatever our child eventually turns out to be, shi won’t have to ever deal with the hippogriff problem.”
“Shi? You think our foal will be a herm?”
“Almost certainly. We have several hyper-dominant genes, one of which determines our offspring’s sex. Every child of a chakat has always been a herm irrespective of the species of the other parent.”
“You don’t need a compatibility spell?
Tigerbright laughed. “We’ve never had spells before you Equians came a few years ago. And while there are ways to genetically engineer a hybrid of two incompatible species, I was referring to those we are compatible with, such as foxtaurs, wolftaurs, skunktaurs, and ordinary felitaurs.”
“Hmm… that’s something to think about later. Here’s the next sensor.”
After that instrument was dealt with, they continued on their way to the next device.
Violet started the conversation again. “So, tell me what it was like for you to grow up on Chakona.”
When all the sensors were collected, the pair headed back to the campsite. They paused briefly to have a drink and a snack before flying away to the second site to be cleared. While Tigerbright piloted the craft, Violet concentrated on analyzing her data. Their conversation resumed while traversing the grasslands at the new location. Then the chakat made them lunch while the unicorn pored over the wealth of information that they had collected.
“Good news, Tiger!” Violet said as the chakat brought over a plateful of food.
“Oh? Found our mystery object?”
“Not quite, but I have enough data to narrow down our search considerably. I’ve eliminated every other possibility down to this area I’ve circled.” She pointed to the map currently displayed on the screen of her datapad. “Somewhere in this mountainous region is our elusive target.”
“That’s still a pretty big area,” Tigerbright pointed out. “Maybe a couple of thousand square kilometers.”
“True, but from what I’ve learned from the survey site readings, I can now fine-tune the configuration of the sensors. I’m optimistic of pinpointing it within a couple of days.”
“So, that’s our next destination? I’d better break out our climbing gear. That’s pretty rugged territory.”
“Sounds like fun to me,” Violet said with a grin. “I need something to keep my mind occupied anyway.”
“That horny already?” Tigerbright asked.
“Some of it is anticipation rather than just hormones.”
“I know what you mean, hon.”
The duo wasted no time setting about redistributing the sensor equipment. Choosing a base of operations was tricky in that area due to needing to find a suitable place to set the shuttle down as well as setting up camp. This time, they did not rely completely on hiking because it would take them too long due to the crags and ravines that were common to the location. Instead, they did short hops to places where bare rock allowed them to settle down and place a sensor or two.
On a few occasions, Tigerbright hovered the shuttle while Violet levitated herself down to accomplish that task. They managed to place their entire complement of the devices before sunset and made it back to camp at dusk.
With no more data to work with that day, Violet helped her mate to prepare their meal. Both were highly aware of their desires but they were also very hungry from their efforts of the day. However, with the food prepared and set on the fire to cook, the couple finally found the time to make love.
They were finishing off their evening meal with the fruit loaf that they had finally made when Violet’s surge alarm beeped very loudly. Then, with a loud pop and flash of light, it went silent.
“What happened?” asked Tigerbright as shi rubbed hir abused ears.
“Overloaded, obviously,” Violet replied as she looked at the smoke pouring out of the device. “We’re closer to a ley line than I preferred due to our limited camping options, and we are a lot nearer to the target. I should have thought of decreasing the alarm’s sensitivity like I did the sensors. Oh well, I only lost a cheap ruby. I can replace that easily enough.”
Tigerbright rolled hir eyes. “Ah, yes. That flawless ruby the size of my pinkie claw worth more than our house, plus several others.”
The mare laughed until her emphatic senses brought her up short. “Wait. You’re serious?”
The chakat shifted hir weight to raise one of hir back legs. “My pinkie claws are quite… large. They can also do magic.” Shi waggled hir eyebrows while flexing hir footpad. “Care to be my stage assistant? As in right now?”
Violet cracked up. “I’m in heat and I thought I was bad. You’re awful.”
Tigerbright shrugged while lowering hir rear foot. “I guess you’re a bad influence.”
“Guilty. Makes me wonder how sore I’m going to be when you go into your rut.”
Tigerbright beamed. “It’s a date!”
The unicorn howled with laughter. Eventually, she wiped her eyes, cleared her throat, and took a couple of deep breaths to get her concentration back.
The mare put the defunct device in with the equipment stores to salvage parts later. Then she rejoined her mate and they finished their dessert in front of the campfire. The mountain altitude made the night air a lot cooler and it was pleasant to snuggle together while warmed by the flames. Eventually, they retreated to the tent to get some sleep. Another busy day was ahead of them.
Reclaiming all the sensor devices took almost as long as deploying them. When the last had been retrieved, Tigerbright set the shuttle down on the next suitable open area. The chakat made them both a mug of tea while Violet crunched the data. Tigerbright bounded up to rock ledge that overlooked a canyon to sip hir brew. The unicorn levitated up to join hir about an hour later.
“How goes the hunt?” the chakat asked with a grin.
“The prey is elusive, but I’ve narrowed down its location to about twenty square kilometers.”
Tigerbright nodded and pointed at the highest peak – an impressive spire of sheer granite. “It’s there.”
“Umm… that is within the search parameters, but what makes you so sure it’s there?”
The chakat shrugged. “Just a feeling.”
Violet smirked. “I thought we ponies were supposed to be the ones with the weird mumbo-jumbo?”
“How do you even know that phrase? Anyway, I’ve been sitting here for a while looking at the scenery, but something keeps drawing me to that peak.”
“Well, I can’t argue with that, can I? Still, I think we had better set out the sensors anyway.”
“Bet you a blow job I’m right.”
Violet giggled. “You know I’d give you one anyway if you wanted it?”
“Exactly – I can’t lose either way.”
The mare snorted. “Come on, lover-kitty, we have work to do.” She turned and headed back down to the shuttle.
Tigerbright grinned and followed, watching hir lover’s pert hindquarters.
They were soon on their way once more. The chakat piloted the shuttle to a ledge on the southern slope of the peak that shi had pointed out. It was roughly in the center of the area that the unicorn had mapped out and would serve as their base camp for the remainder of the day. After securing the site, they started hiking.
The terrain was exceptionally rugged. The only saving grace was the sparsity of vegetation capable of obstructing their progress. Unfortunately, a deep crevasse proved to be a challenge. Normally, both would seek ways around it, but time was of the essence and Violet decided to cheat.
“How do you feel about teleporting?” she asked Tigerbright.
“I’ve never teleported. Can you do that for me as well as for you?”
“Short distance and easy line-of-sight, so no problem.”
“Okay, I guess.”
Violet grabbed her mate around the waist and lit up her horn. A moment later, both stood on the opposite side of the chasm. Tigerbright stuck out hir tongue and clutched hir belly.
“Is it supposed to make me feel queasy?”
“The first time is the worst. You get used to it quickly.”
“Not so sure I want to.”
But they did – twice more for crevasses and once for a frigid river. The chakat had to admit that hir companion was right though.
Violet was leaning on her mate by the time they made it back to base. She sank to the ground beside the shuttle with a groan of relief. Between the arduous trek and the multiple teleports, she was feeling drained. The energy drinks that Tigerbright had thoughtfully packed had helped, but she wanted a proper meal now.
“Let’s make something simple tonight. I’m not in the mood for anything fancy.”
Tigerbright smirked at her. “I bet I know what you are in the mood for.”
Violet opened her mouth to shoot off a smart-ass reply but then paused, a puzzled frown crossing her face. “I am, but not as much as I should be.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think my heat has eased up.”
“I thought that’s supposed to last a lot longer? The town normally shuts down for over a week.”
“It is supposed to be still in full swing.”
“Then what would make it fade?”
“Nothing except drugs. Or pregnancy, but we know it can’t be that. You couldn’t fertilize me due to biological incompatibility.”
“What about those hippogriffs though? They were born despite that problem.”
“I told you – that was due to a massive conflux of love magic.”
The chakat gave her a serious look. “Or a single extremely amplified instance?”
The unicorn’s eyes widened and she gasped. “That enormous orgasm we had that first night – it must have happened during the surge!”
“So, you think you’re pregnant?”
Violet looked at her mate with a mixture of uncertainty and wonder. “I don’t know, but it’s the best explanation I can think of right now. I’m going to have to get a check-up.”
“Do you want me to fly you back to the colony right away? We would have to pack up everything first, but it won’t take too long to get back to the town.”
“Doctor Hyrex has been evacuated along with all the other changelings, remember?”
Tigerbright fixed her with a stern look. “We do have more than one doctor in the colony, not to mention a hospital.”
“It’s not an emergency. I can wait until tomorrow.”
“As you wish. What would you like to eat?”
“You cook it and I’ll eat it. I’m famished!”
Violet helped, selecting and preparing the ingredients while Tigerbright built the fire and fetched fresh water from a nearby stream. The rock pool formed by a small waterfall looked inviting and the chakat imagined that they could both have a nice bath later. Shi figured they would need it.
Later that evening, the lovers huddled together, staving the chill off their damp fur with a blanket wrapped around them. They quietly watched the moon, Cha’turna, chasing its larger sister orb across the night sky. Eventually, the chakat broke the silence.
“What happens if the test proves you’re pregnant? How will it affect you – affect us?
Violet turned her head to give the chakat a reassuring kiss. “My feelings for you haven’t changed. As for having conceived, I really don’t know yet. I suppose that’s why I didn’t want to see a doctor immediately. Until it’s confirmed, then it isn’t quite real. It could be just some other unknown factor and we’re both speculating about nothing.”
Tigerbright sighed. “Who do you think you’re fooling, Vi? Even without my empathic sense, I can tell you don’t believe that.”
“Well, what about you?” the mare evaded. “You’re going to become a parent too.”
“Love, I grew up in a typical chakat clan where it’s normal for a newly mated couple to want to have a cub as soon as possible. Not that it was required but nobody I knew ever desired putting it off longer than necessary. I fully expected to do the same when I found my denmate. The fact that she turned out to be a pony had me thinking it might be delayed for a while and I was prepared to wait if I had to, so having a cub immediately is not a problem for me. I can’t say the same for you though. Considering your previous antipathy to getting married, I’m sure that having an unintended child could seriously affect your plans.”
Violet nodded slowly. “Even if this proves to be a false alarm, I realize now that I need to think about being a mother. It’s always been something vaguely in the future for me. I promised you that we’d have a foal in time, but I really didn’t think much beyond that. Our relationship was too new – too unusual. And yet, I should have thought of the possibility. Never in the history of Equus have there been so many mixed-race marriages. Coming to Chakona only increased the possibility. I indulged in blissful ignorance. Now, I’m paying the price.”
“Would it help if I told you that I think you’ll be a great mother?”
The mare snorted in amusement. “You can’t know that.”
Tigerbright smiled confidently in return. “That feeling that we are ideal mates extends to more than just sex and snuggles. You’ll be fine when the day comes.”
“I’m glad you’re so confident. I need some more certainty though. As soon as we’ve collected the sensors tomorrow, we’ll head into town and get some answers.”
“Anything more I can do for you in the meantime?”
Violet nuzzled the chakat. “Just love me.”
“Easily done,” Tigerbright replied, then kissed her.
Once the mare was suitably distracted, the chakat picked her up and carried her to their tent. After closing up the flaps to keep out the chilly night air, shi snuggled up to the mare, an arm and a foreleg protectively around hir mate.
“Pleasant dreams, my beautiful unicorn.”
Collecting the sensors was done entirely from the air. They had purposefully positioned them so that Violet could telekinetically retrieve them, obviating the need to retrace the difficult paths they had taken the previous day. As soon as they had fetched the last one, Tigerbright immediately set course for New Horizon. Meanwhile, Violet started downloading data. It wasn’t long before she started frowning.
“What’s wrong,” the chakat asked.
“It’s all useless! The mana saturation is so great that I can’t discern any flow patterns. I can’t calculate a directional vector from the reading.”
Tigerbright pursed hir lips. “Maybe the sensors are right.”
Violet blinked. “Wait, what? How?”
“The stakes all have self-leveling mounts. What will the readings be if the source is displaced vertically from their location?”
“I…” The mare stared at the shuttle flooring and furrowed her brow. “We installed the devices at higher elevations to make retrieving them easier in this rugged terrain. If the source is on the valley floor… Yeah. That might explain it.” She looked up. “But mana lines criss-cross all up and down the sides of mountain valleys. Unless we put a sensor directly on top of the source, I don’t hold out much hope for valid readings at the lowest elevations.”
The unicorn mare tapped at her datapad. “Now you’ve got me thinking. We’ve been assuming the origin is a point source. Maybe it’s spread out over a larger area.” For a few minutes, the only sounds were the hum of the engines as Violet continued to work.
Eventually, she sat back with a sigh. “The data support both possibilities. More importantly, it doesn’t rule out either one.”
“I suppose we’ll have to go with my hunch then.”
Violet gave hir a flat look. “How am I supposed to put that in a scientific report?”
“Got a better idea?”
“No, but give me more time.”
The chakat chuckled. “You can think of something while we hike to Mount Destined.”
The mare blinked. “Is that its actual name? I thought it was something else.” She checked her map on the datapad.
“It must be,” Tigerbright replied confidently. “Have you seen the horn on that thing?”
Violet hit hir with a saddlebag. Luckily, the autopilot was engaged.
Doctor Bon Médecin cast a diagnostic spell on Violet before frowning and entering something on the datapad on her desk. Then the unicorn cast another spell before muttering something under her breath and tapping the datapad for a long while with her stylus.
Violet couldn’t stand the wait. “Well, doctor?”
“Hmm? Oh, you are pregnant, ma jeune fille,” she replied in her heavy Prench accent. “Eet is these odd results that I find fascinating.”
“Consider the sire,” Violet deadpanned.
“Ah, oui. I have not seen anything like this since ze fascinating report from Doctor Zubon of the Cosmic Lotus. Did you know that ze human admiral that they first met when they arrived here has sired les enfants with no less than three species including chakats without a compatibility spell?”
“Are you telling me that chakats are fertile with ponies without a spell?” Violet asked doubtfully.
“Non! Non! Beaucoup majik was involved. Rakshan deities, eef you can believe that.”
“Maybe the Rakshani have the equivalent of alicorns?”
The doctor looked thoughtful. “That ees an interesting possibility. I may have to look into eet.”
“You do that,” Violet said. “Meanwhile, what am I supposed to do?”
“Oh, ma chère fille, I realize that this eez your first and you are understandably concerned, but there eez nothing to worry about. My diagnostic spell tells me that you are in perfect health and condition to have a foal.” Bon Médecin opened a drawer in her desk, extracted a pamphlet, and levitated it over to Violet.
“My First Foal,” the expectant mother read. She looked back to the doctor. “Shi’s going to be a hybrid though.”
Bon Médecin blinked then smiled sheepishly. She opened the drawer next to the first and pulled out a second pamphlet.
After taking it in her magic, Violet read off the title. “My First Chakat Foal.”
“Eef there are any difficulties, we will deal with them as they come up. Not that I anticipate any at this time. Meanwhile, I recommend frequent check-ups. Eef nothing else, we will gain some valuable knowledge of ze chakat-pony pregnancies.”
“I see. Thank you, doctor.”
Violet made her way out to the waiting room where she had left Tigerbright. The chakat brightened upon seeing her and shi got up to give her a nuzzle. “What’s the news?”
“Congratulations – you’re going to be a dad.”
“Woohoo!” The chakat gave her a fierce hug before backing off sheepishly. “Oops. Sorry. I know you’re still trying to adjust to the news.”
Violet rolled her eyes. “I’m not that delicate. Anyway, do you want to have lunch before we go back to work?”
Tigerbright gave her a lascivious grin. “Let’s work up an appetite first by breaking in our bed back home.”
The unicorn blinked for a moment before cocking her head and raising an eyebrow. “Seriously?”
“Hey, I’m a horny male-phase chakat and you’re a sexy mother-to-be mare – what better way to celebrate?”
Violet couldn’t find a good reason to argue with that.
Violet sighed and nuzzled Tigerbright’s chest fur as she basked in the afterglow of their lovemaking. She was pretty sure they had wrecked the chakat’s bed in their enthusiasm. Her head rubbed against Tigerbright’s boobs, causing her lover to chuckle.
“Thirsty, are you?”
The mare giggled. “Not everything is a hint. Besides, aren’t you satisfied yet?”
“Hon, I honestly can’t get enough of you.”
Violet’s heart nearly burst with happiness. So many things in her life had changed in the short time that she had been on this world, but her mate was certainly the best. Before meeting hir, the mare had not realized how much she had been missing out on. She was beginning to understand why her mother had been so determined to find her a stallion. Not that it excused her poor choices that had put Violet off dating. Then this chakat had practically stormed into her life. From the moment that they had met, the mare’s life had changed for the better in all its aspects. The most obvious was her sex life.
Until now, Violet’s experience with sex had consisted of exchanging favors with other mares in heat during Mating Season, but that was more about relief than pleasure. She had gotten more of the latter from a copy of Playmare Magazine and her hoof. But as of less than three days ago, Violet had gained a lover who knew exactly how to take her to the heights of ecstasy and was unstinting in its application. Also self-admittedly horny, but when you’re an empath and can share your lover’s pleasure, who wouldn’t want to do it often? She certainly did. The fact that her new indulgence had led to pregnancy had been a surprise and the mare had yet to figure out how she felt about that. However, bolstered by the feelings of loving fulfillment while in the secure embrace of her mate, Violet confronted her feelings.
The momentary shock was forgivable – the mare hadn’t had a reason to contemplate pregnancy when she didn’t even have a coltfriend until then, and Tigerbright’s supposed inability to fertilize her certainly hadn’t changed that preconception. But did the unplanned nature of the conception matter to her? True, Violet hadn’t been given the chance to plan it, but was she opposed to the idea? She searched her feelings and came up with a distinct negative. Okay, having a foal was a nice idea. But how it would affect her career? Lots of mares worked right up until they were due to give birth. Perhaps Violet wouldn’t be doing extended hikes when she neared term, but the vast majority of her work would be unaffected. So that wasn’t really a factor. How about what was good for the foal? Shi would have two working parents, so there were no financial problems, but what about time spent with hir? Again, not a problem. Mares had been arranging crèches to look after foals in pony communities for centuries. Violet knew she would be able to spend a lot of quality time with her foal while doing her share of helping to care for those of the other mothers. More opportunities would arise also, just as they had done for her own parents when she was still very young. In summary, Violet could see no real downsides to this pregnancy. So, did she genuinely want the foal?
“Yes, what?” Tigerbright asked.
“Do you want this foal as much as I do?”
The chakat purred, “Yes!”
Some answers seemed obvious in retrospect.
After a lengthy ‘celebration’, the pair figured that they had taken too much time to spend more on making lunch. They opted to pick up something from the cafeteria instead and head back to the spaceport. Tigerbright had asked for the shuttle to be given a quick service while they went into town. The chakat dropped into hir office first to let Paul know that they were leaving again but was surprised to find a chakat sitting at hir desk.
“Who are you and what are you doing in here?” Tigerbright asked.
The leopard-spotted newcomer stood up, smiled, and said, “Hello, shir. My name is Willowbranch. You must be the Chief Administrator. I was sent over by Minister Jaguarondi to assist Mister Iotor while you are on leave.”
“Ah. Right. That makes sense. We were busy enough before I left, so you’ve probably been a big help to Paul. How have you been finding the job so far?”
“I’m enjoying it. I’ve met so many interesting people in such a short time.”
Tigerbright grinned. “You like the ponies, I take it?”
Willowbranch blushed a little. “Actually, a sexy griffon has caught my eye.”
“Oh? I’m afraid you’re going to have to work a lot longer at getting their interest than this temporary assignment will grant you.”
“I know.” Shi grinned slyly. “But I’ve been wanting to come here for months, and the minister reckons that the colony’s growth might justify a small increase in personnel if requested.”
Tigerbright smirked at the younger chakat’s transparent desires. Then shi realized that this was a perfect opportunity for hirself too. “I think that is a strong possibility.” Willowbranch’s smile grew. “But there’s one duty that I would like you to take over for me if you do stay.”
“What’s that, shir?”
“The only other chakat currently in the colony is Morningmist who works at the local BioGen office. Shi and I have attended to each other’s empathic needs for a long time although neither of us is much more than acquaintances. I’d like you to take that over if it suits both of you.”
Willowbranch’s eyebrows rose. “I thought I’d have to do so with you. What about your needs?”
Tigerbright grinned widely. “I’ve very recently acquired a denmate who is also an empath and, believe me, she has been attending my needs… several times a day!”
The leopard chakat snorted as shi tried to restrain a giggle at both the words and the emotions of hir boss. “I’ll look into that, shir.”
“Good. Welcome to the team. Umm… where’s Paul?”
“He went out to lunch.”
“Ah, okay. Let him know I’ve left again. Tail high!” Tigerbright turned and headed out of the office.
The shuttle was about halfway to their destination when Violet facehoofed. “Doh!”
Tigerbright glanced at her. “What brought that on?”
“It only just occurred to me that I don’t have to rely on tracing mana surges anymore. Any arcane object that can control all that power will almost certainly register on a mana detector at short range. If I reconfigure one to be highly directional, I bet we can shorten the time it takes to find our mystery object.”
“Like a radio tracking device?” the chakat asked. When hir mate nodded, shi continued, “Makes sense. Hopefully, it works out that way.”
As soon as Tigerbright found a suitable landing site, Violet got to work modifying one of her devices for its new purpose. As soon as it was ready, she tested it, turning around in a circle while watching the readout. Eventually, she came to a stop and sighed.
“Well?” Tigerbright queried.
“I’ve found a strong signal.”
Violet sighed again. “The mountain.”
The chakat gave her a huge grin.
Violet rolled her eyes. “I owe you a blow-job.”
The grin impossibly grew bigger.
The mare growled. “Come on, horny kitty. We’ve got a bit of hiking to do. Unless you can land the shuttle on a steep slope?”
“Not risking it,” Tigerbright replied as shi grabbed their saddlebags. “Besides, I had supreme confidence in my intuition. I parked the shuttle at the clearing nearest this face of the mountain. Let’s go!”
The unicorn mare grumbled, “Cheeky chakat.” She made sure to talk just loud enough for Tigerbright to hear.
The terrain was rugged, but for the two experienced hikers, that only added to the fun, especially as they had no established trail to follow. They only paused occasionally for Violet to take more direction readings. Those finally brought the two to the bottom of a rockslide that had exposed the underlying strata. Violet stopped to examine it more closely.
“Hey! Check this out!” she told the chakat excitedly.
“What am I looking at?” shi replied.
“This is a vein of gold-bearing quartz.” The mare looked around and pointed. “There’s another.”
Tigerbright’s brow furrowed. “Aren’t they what you said affects the ley lines?”
“Exactly! These can act as conduits for mana and run directly into the mountain.” Violet switched on her detector and checked its readout. She nodded in satisfaction before turning back to her mate. “Keep your eyes open for caves or deep gullies that we could use to go underground.”
“So, you believe our target is under the mountain rather than on it?”
“Yep. And because it’s almost certainly an artificial object, considering the effect it’s having on the portal, it had to have been placed there. That implies a way to access it again.”
“The portal has been around for centuries – anything could have happened in that time,” Tigerbright pointed out. Shi looked up. “For all we know, there could have been a twenty-meter high tunnel entrance here that has since collapsed.”
“True, so cross your hooves… paws… that the route remains open.”
Using the veins as a general guide, the pair forged onward. Violet would pause occasionally to chip away at the rocks to examine the geology and adjust their course accordingly. However, because she was so focused on the immediate neighborhood, it was Tigerbright who spotted the cave upslope from them.
“Hey, Vi – does that look worth checking out?” the chakat said, pointing at the dark hollow high overhead.
The mare looked. “Yeah, that could be a way in. Let’s check it out.”
Violet had to levitate herself, but Tigerbright leaped easily up past some boulders, stopping at a ledge partway to their target.
“Looks like a landslide happened here a long time ago, judging by the weathering of the rocks,” the chakat commented.
“I think you’re right and that could be a stroke of luck for us because it has exposed more of the cave entrance. We might have missed it otherwise. Of course, it may yet be a dead end. Let’s find out, shall we?” Violet forged ahead.
“Yeah, but if it doesn’t pan out, I suggest we go back to camp. We’ve only got a couple of hours before tonight’s surge. I spotted a place I could squeeze in the shuttle tomorrow, so we can resume the search with a head start.”
The unicorn nodded. “I suppose so. Still, I’m feeling optimistic.”
Violet chuckled. “Nah. The mana intensity has been growing quite sharply and it’s making me a little antsy.”
They reached the mouth of the cave and peered within. Besides some wind-blown debris, it seemed to be a normal creation of nature if it wasn’t for the slight glow illuminating its depths.
“Where’s that light coming from?” Tigerbright asked.
“There’s a quartz vein running through the wall. Normally, the background mana would not be strong enough for it to manifest significant illumination, but this is far from a normal situation.” She started stepping inside but was restrained by her mate.
“Whoa! Can you check it out for inhabitants first?” Shi sniffed the air a few times. “I can’t smell any carnivores, but I’d like a second opinion.”
Violet blushed. She had gotten too focused on her goal and neglected a major precaution. “Thanks, Tiger.” She scanned the cave before nodding. “I detect some very small life-signs – nothing for us to worry about.”
“Good. Let’s hope it stays that way. Let me take the lead. My vision is excellent in low light and I’ll be able to spot trouble before you do.”
“Okay. I’ll keep scanning.”
After rounding a corner, the chakat’s eyes adjusted to the dim glow and shi confidently headed further in. While the cave walls closed in on the sides, the height remained fairly consistent, allowing even the taller chakat to walk without needing to duck.
“This passage appears to have been carved by water a very long time ago,” Violet said. “Judging by how dry it is now, the stream must have broken through into an easier route.”
“At least it makes for a smooth path,” Tigerbright replied.
The passage continued in an upward direction, occasionally widening and narrowing again, then bending around some harder rock. At no time, though, did the way become particularly difficult. Then they reached a fork in the path.
“Which way?” Tigerbright asked.
Violet examined the rocks and then pulled out her directional sensor. Nodding in satisfaction, she pointed to the left tunnel.
The chakat started off but was immediately brought to a stop by the mare.
“Just a moment. Let me mark the path.” She levitated a pea-size sapphire out of her pack and placed it on the cave wall a couple of yards before the junction. Her horn flashed briefly, leaving the gemstone adhering to the rock, pulsing slowly with blue light. She then repeated the action a similar distance down the left tunnel. “There! Now we can be sure of the route in either direction.”
“Good idea. We don’t have any breadcrumbs anyway.”
Violet blinked in puzzlement. “What the hay are you talking about?”
Tigerbright chuckled. “An old folk tale. I’ll tell you about it later.”
Violet shrugged and let her companion take the lead again.
The unicorn had to repeat her actions several more times. Once, they came to a junction with three alternatives. There was no clear indication of which was the more preferable and it turned out that their initial choice narrowed down to impassibility. They wasted valuable time retracing their steps. The unicorn removed the sapphire from that path and reset it on their second choice. That one seemed a lot more promising as they forged on.
“Do you hear that?” Tigerbright asked.
Violet halted so that her hooves would stop making noise. Her ears swiveled. “Water. We may be coming to the stream that formed this cave ages ago.”
They continued on. Due to the sound reflecting down the hard rock walls, the watercourse proved to be some distance away, but they eventually came upon the torrent. It cascaded through a crevice crossing their path, leaving a narrow ledge to one side of the rivulet. Violet lit up her horn to peer down into the inky depths downstream.
“Well, we’re sure not going that route. No way we can navigate that.”
Dipping a finger into the water, Tigerbright declared, “Icy cold too. Care for a drink? I’m pretty thirsty.”
The mare realized that she had gotten absorbed in her quest again and nodded. “Yeah.”
The chakat took two mugs out of hir saddlebags and dipped them into the water, passing one to hir mate. Tigerbright took a sip before asking, “How much further do you think we’ll need to go?”
“Aside from the fact that we don’t even know for sure yet that this is the way to what we seek, we might be at this for hours. In fact, some cave systems take days to explore.”
“Oh. Do you think that’s going to happen here? We might have to go back and get an early start tomorrow.”
Violet shook her head. “Those tend to be limestone caverns – a different geology. I’m confident that this cave system will be a lot shorter.”
“So, we follow the ledge upstream and hope it doesn’t disappear? I don’t feel like wading through that.”
“Me neither. Let’s hope it won’t come to that.”
They finished their drinks and the chakat put the mugs away before heading upstream.
While the ledge did get awkwardly narrow at a few points, the pair managed to avoid getting paws and hooves wet. They had to climb a couple of short drops where the rocks were slippery from the spray of small waterfalls, but while they were slowed down, they were not really challenged. Three times, they encountered branching tunnels, but they elected to keep following the stream. Then they came to yet another fork and Violet pointed upward with a hoof.
The mare indicated the ceiling which had risen considerably since they had first encountered the water. Tigerbright only then noticed several bands of glowing stone all headed in the direction of the dry tunnel. The chakat then examined the route.
“Vi – you’re the expert; does this rock look odd to you?”
Violet nodded. “This shaft doesn’t look water-carved. If I was to guess, I’d say that this has been artificially widened.”
Tigerbright grinned. “I was hoping you would say that. We may have found our goal.”
“Only one way to find out.”
The mare started trotting up the tunnel. It was barely wide enough for her saddlebags to clear. The chakat was broader and had some difficulties until shi removed hir saddlebags and slung them over a shoulder. The passage proved to be fairly short and there was a strong glow ahead. They turned a bend and the tunnel suddenly opened into a large cavern. Both stopped just within, squinting due to the intense illumination. After such a long time navigating by the dim glow of either the quartz veins or the unicorn’s shining horn, their eyes had to readjust. When they did, they both gasped in awe.
In the middle of the cavern was a huge, six-sided pyramid, illuminating the entire room. It pulsed with barely-restrained power. Tigerbright was mesmerized by the sight. The chakat dropped hir saddlebags to the cave floor, forgotten. Mouth slightly agape, shi padded forward, reaching out to touch it before a pink glow enveloped hir arm and restrained hir.
“Uh-uh! No touching the arcane object of immeasurable power!” Violet scolded.
Tigerbright froze then shook hir head to clear hir thoughts. “Whoa. What was that?”
“You were overwhelmed briefly by the enormous amount of ambient mana in this chamber. I’m guessing your empathic talent must be sensitive to it.”
With a bit more caution, the chakat started examining the artifact. Walking around it, the first thing that shi noticed was that each of the six facets had a symbol set upon it. “Hey, aren’t those the same markings as the ones on the portal moonlets?”
“Yes, they are,” Violet agreed. “And look at the base.”
The pyramid stood on a black marble platform that was heavily veined with gold. The outside surface was copiously inscribed with more of the strange markings.
“What are those?” Tigerbright asked with a frown.
“Magic runes,” the unicorn replied. “They’re an ancient method of controlling spells. They were discontinued ages ago when arithmancy allowed unicorns to calculate structured spells that were more easily cast and controlled.”
“If they’re that ancient, how come they’re still working?”
“That’s where runes are superior to cast spells. While even the most powerful of enchantments will fade eventually, rune spells are indefinitely self-sustaining once they’re activated. Unless the runes are physically damaged, they will continue to work centuries later as good as the first day of operation. And that’s probably why this artifact is in here. There’s nothing to affect it – no weather, no plants, no animals, and up until now, no meddlers.”
“So, what does that all mean?” the chakat asked, waving a hand in the direction of the markings.
Violet shrugged. “I can only guess. We touched on the subject of runes in the History Of Magick at Celestia’s school, but we didn’t really delve into it. We were being taught far more advanced modern magical theory there. To be honest, I don’t think even Celestia knows more than the basics of rune magic. It fell out of favor well before her time.”
Tigerbright pondered that for a while. “Considering how it ties in with the portal, I’m guessing that this thing charges it up with all the mana it draws in.”
The mare nodded. “I think that’s very likely, especially considering that the starship incident points to it doing the same on the other side. Mana is only thinly available in space and the portals have to be consuming it constantly to remain active. This world is not only rich in mana, but life is also constantly creating more. Chakona is a battery for the portal and this is its terminal.” Violet’s horn lit up as she cautiously probed the pyramid. “Hmm… the diamond’s structure seems to have a focusing enchantment embedded into it. That’s how it sends the collected mana to the portal.” She made a few notes on her datapad.
The chakat blinked in shock. “Are you telling me that this huge crystal pyramid is solid diamond?”
“Yep,” Violet replied. “Obviously artificially grown for its purpose, and carefully too as it seems to be flawless. Considering the load it must carry, it needs to be big.”
“You could buy a planet for this!”
The mare snickered. “Don’t tell the rock farmers that. You’ll start a stampede on real estate.”
Tigerbright rolled hir eyes before resuming contemplation of the object. “If we assume that the focusing sends the beam of power straight up through the apex, then it must point directly at the portal briefly every evening.”
“Hence the daily cycle,” Violet agreed. “But why the slightly later time every day?”
“Because Chakona moves in orbit around its star. Allowing for our change in position, alignment happens a few minutes later each day.”
The unicorn face-hoofed. “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”
“You’re a geologist and magic expert – you can’t know everything. And I’m not just a pretty face. And a sexy body.” Shi grinned and wiggled hir hips at hir mate who giggled.
“Granted. Anything else you can figure out, O Wise One?”
“Yes, actually. The portal is located 3.1 light-days away on the plane of the ecliptic. While I don’t have a way of checking at the moment, I’m willing to bet that because of Chakona’s axial tilt, our location passes through the ecliptic when the surges happen.”
“That makes sense.” Violet made some more notes.
Tigerbright leaned closer, a lascivious grin on hir face. “If you really get turned on by nerd talk, I’ll work in the precession of Chakona’s rotational axis for you.”
Violet smiled and pushed her mate’s face away with a hoof. “Behave or I’ll sic Auntie Twilight on you. There are few experiences more terrifying than being caught up in one of her manic episodes of scientific discovery.”
“You think there’s another array on Equus?”
“There haven’t been any reports of surges there, but its sun is going through a period of sunspots. It’s not a star like Chakastra though – it’s an immense mana source. You don’t want to draw power down from there to the planet unless it’s somewhere very isolated. My guess is the focusing array is on an uninhabited island. Or perhaps on the moon. We’re going to have to have a chat with Princess Luna and Twilight Sparkle to see if they have discovered it yet.”
“Do you think Twilight will understand these runes?”
The unicorn mare tapped a button on her datapad and made a complete circuit around the platform. “She’s been actively studying the gateway for years. Besides, I don’t think that there’s anything that she doesn’t know about magic. It’s literally her special talent!”
“I suppose that the sooner we report this find, the sooner we get some answers. How much more data do you need —”
The chakat was interrupted by a pulse of light and a deep throbbing sound from the artifact.
Violet’s eyes widened to the size of saucers and she glanced frantically at her datapad. “Oh, buck! We lost track of time. The surge is about to happen!”
There was another brighter pulse and the bass thump shook them both to the core.
Tigerbright stooped to grab hir saddlebags. “We’d better get out of here!”
“It’s too late. We’re about to become immersed in power to rival that of Celestia’s sun.”
A third, longer pulse nearly blinded them.
“We can’t just do nothing!” the chakat protested.
Violet grabbed Tigerbright around the waist. “I… I’ve got to risk it.” Her horn lit up but it was drowned out in a river of light. Then everything went black.
The light and sound were gone except for the panicked breathing of two beings.
“Are we dead?” Tigerbright asked.
“No, I don’t think so,” Violet replied.
“What did you do?”
“I tried teleporting us to safety.”
“I thought you only could do short-range line-of-sight jumps?”
“I was desperate. Now my horn aches like crazy. I think the spots are clearing from my eyes.”
“Where are we then?”
“Let me give us some light… Ouch. Horn-burn. Let’s try that again but at minimum power.”
The tip of the mare’s horn lit up with a very weak glow. While not enough for Violet, it was sufficient for the chakat’s eyes and shi blinked in surprise.
“We’re in a bedroom.” Shi stepped over to a lamp on a nearby desk and switched it on.
Violet blinked and then her jaw dropped. “What the buck? How…?”
The room had a pony-sized bed, neatly made and ready for someone. Besides the lamp, the desk had only a photograph of some ponies on it. On the wall was a framed poster-sized class photo featuring Princess Celestia and several young-adult unicorns arrayed around her. In neat letters underneath were the words: “Class of 1240”. While neat and clean, the room had an air of disuse.
“Do you know where we are, Vi?”
Before the mare could answer, there was a loud clatter of hooves from beyond the door, and then a green unicorn stallion burst through the door, his horn lit and his stance ready for trouble.
“Who are you and how did you get—?” His jaw dropped as he recognized one of the intruders. “Violet?”
“Hello, Dad. Hi, Mom,” she added as a blue pegasus followed the stallion into the bedroom. “I’d like you to meet my fiancé.”
In hindsight, Tigerbright realized hir mate never had a chance.
The pegasus mare swept her husband aside with a flick of a wing, crossed the room in a flash, and bowled over her daughter with an exuberant flying hug. Violet’s laughter from her spot on the floor alleviated the chakat’s immediate concerns for her safety. That and the cheerful jabbering coming from both mares simultaneously. Tigerbright was fairly skilled at picking relevant sounds out of background noise. For instance, the telltale clicks of a failing actuator over the continuous roar of the hydroelectric plant’s generators. But the similarity of the two voices completely stumped hir. All shi could make out were a word or two without context.
“Proud… you remember… neighbors… Whitetail Woods… your father… did you really?”
The chakat looked back toward the door in time to see Violet’s father struggling to get back to his hooves. Shi took a step forward with an open paw to help him up. Tigerbright’s offer died on hir lips at the glare shi received.
Before the chakat could figure out what to say, Violet and her mom pushed their way past hir.
The pegasus smiled. “Stop dawdling, you two!” She had one wing wrapped tightly around her daughter’s barrel, almost as if she were afraid Violet would slip away.
For her part, the unicorn mare called out over her shoulder. “Meet us in the living room, dear!” Despite the doorway barely being wide enough for one pony, somehow the two mares slipped through without losing contact with each other.
Their conversation faded as the pair walked down the hallway. Time to try again.
The chakat turned to the frowning stallion. “I—”
With a flash of light and whoosh of inrushing air, Tigerbright was left talking to hirself.
After a heavy sigh, shi followed hir mate.
Tigerbright frowned while looking down at hir tail, stroking the end tuft with a hand. Shi could hear Violet’s parents talking in the kitchen, just out of sight. The living room had the appearance of the central den of hir parents’ house: soft lighting, family photos on the walls, a sunken area in the center with several oversized pillows. This should have made hir feel more at home, more at ease.
Violet kissed her mate on the cheek. “I don’t need my empathic sense to know how nervous you are. Just relax. I can guarantee you that my mom is over the moon… both of them if we were on Chakona.”
The chakat looked up sharply. “I notice you didn’t say anything about your father.”
The mare shrugged. “He’s a bit of an overprotective grump. Just give him time. He’ll warm up to you.”
“Eventually,” finished Tigerbright with a sigh.
First hir ears then hir head perked up. The two adult ponies came into view, only one of them smiling. Violet trotted forward to hug and nuzzle each of her parents in turn.
Hir mare gave hir a joyous smile. “Tigerbright! I want to introduce you to my wonderful parents, Fireball and Starshine!”
This was the chakat’s first opportunity to really study the parents. Violet’s mother was a light blue pegasus with a pink mane streaked with medium blue. Fireball moved with the fluid grace that some of her tribe possessed, seeming to flow forward more than trot. In less than a second, the mare was at hir side. “Oh, I’m so glad to meet the stallion that won over little Vi Vi’s heart! Did you know my husband and I had given up hope of her ever finding that special someone? And all it took was for our little filly to move a billion light-years away! And such a rugged specimen! And those legs! I just bet you’re as quick as the wind. Tell me. Did my little darling foal have to levitate you to keep you from running away? She can be a bit presumptuous but that’s part of the family charm! And your pretty eye color! Reminds me of this handsome colt she knew in primary school…”
As the pegasus chattered on, Tigerbright tuned down hir empathic senses. So much joy and love were radiating from the mare that the chakat’s senses were overloading. Tigerbright relaxed slightly as the mare’s wing hugged hir lower back. “I do hope you don’t mind hugs. I understand ponies and chakats have that in common. In fact, no one is a bigger hugger than my husband, are you dear?”
Tigerbright straightened up, tension crawling up hir spine to take root in hir neck. Shi glanced to hir right to see an extremely skeptical unicorn stallion scrutinizing hir. Violet’s father had a medium green coat with a darker green mane and tail, streaked with pink. The chakat felt his huffs across hir bare arms. If Starshine’s frowning muzzle had been any closer, he would be wearing hir T-shirt.
“Sooooo…” said Tigerbright to break the uncomfortable silence. “How did you get your cutie marks?” That was a safe question, wasn’t it? Didn’t all ponies like to talk about that?
Starshine’s frown only strengthened.
Fireball let out a delighted laugh. “Well, I don’t like to show off…”
“Oh, no. That’s never happened,” snarked her daughter.
“Behave, young lady. This perceptive stud did ask.”
Tigerbright didn’t think it physically possible, but the unicorn stallion’s frown got even deeper.
The pegasus stepped away. “Now pay attention, dear.”
Grateful for the excuse to break eye contact, the chakat looked up to see Violet’s mother holding both wings outstretched. “Presto, change-o and voila!” Green flames swept over the mare’s body, leaving the pegasus covered with tiny interlocking black scales. “Ta-da!” Fireball’s voice was unchanged, but the fangs and red eye sclera were new.
Tigerbright’s eyes went wide. “Wow! That’s amazing!” A cough to hir side reminded the chakat of the inspection shi had momentarily forgotten.
“Such a smart stallion,” cooed Fireball. She turned to her daughter. “So much brighter than that griffon you had the hots for. I’m proud of you, dear.” The chakat didn’t miss Violet’s eye roll as her mother returned her attention to hir. “So yes. While pegasi are practically immune to lightning, I can put up with all types of fire in my alternate form. As to how I got my cutie mark… well…” Her wings drooped a bit. “… there are some things a lady doesn’t discuss.”
Violet smirked. “It was a dare. There was this one—”
Fireball tapped her chin with a hoof. “Let’s see. Where did I stash that photo album with tiny little Vi Vi bathing in the sink?”
Her daughter grumbled as she lowered her head. “Shutting up now.”
The pegasus’ happy mood returned. “So I’m the go-to pony for anywhere you need a fireproof and heatproof agent. That pretty much makes me the only flyer who can approach the southern volcanos because all the darling, cute dragons positively hate the cold.”
“Cute?” asked Tigerbright. “I saw Matriarch Cinder when she visited thanks to Destined Path’s teleportation abilities. She’s bigger than my house with fangs longer than me!”
Fireball waved a hoof dismissively. “Oh, that sweetie pie? She’s just a dear. Won’t shut up about her children… all sixteen of them.”
While the chakat blinked to process this, Violet came up and rested her chin on her mother’s shoulder. “What Mom isn’t telling you is her special place among the dragons. She’s their favorite celebrity judge. Even Celestia doesn’t draw the crowds that mom can!”
A throat-clearing came from next to Tigerbright. It didn’t have any effect. Intimidation would have to wait until shi got the whole story about Violet’s dam.
Fireball shifted back to her un-armored form and scraped a hoof along the floor while looking down. “Well, yes, that’s also true.”
Tigerbright’s marefriend grinned. “Mommy got her cutie mark thanks to her temper. When in that form, she can let out curses like a caffeinated sailor, but a sailor with a doctorate in lyrical music! Dragons compete to be the biggest loser when she is judging a contest. Sales from books of her ‘greatest hits’ insults among the dragonkin paid for our vacation house on the Cloverleaf Peninsula and my college education.”
The chakat imagined watching a vidcast focusing on the black-armored mare growing more and more irate until she exploded with a stream of insults directly into a dragon contestant’s face. Internally, Tigerbright shifted hir focus from trying to impress Starshine to never, ever making Fireball angry.
Shi turned to regard the disapproving stallion at her side. “And how did you impress her, exactly?” The frown lessened slightly and was accompanied by an ear flick.
Fireball came up to hug the chakat around the waist again. “Oh, I’m sure you can guess. He’s the first pony that didn’t shrink down when I really cut loose on him. That’s when I knew he was crazy about me and winning my hoof in marriage.” Tigerbright saw and felt the happiness radiate across Starshine’s eyes before THE GLARE returned full force.
Tigerbright heard hir marefriend say, “Mom, is Daddy constipated again?” That got a moment of wide-eyed surprise out of the stallion.
The pegasus answered. “No, dear. Just the same stick as always.” The two mares giggled as the unicorn’s cheeks turned a light shade of pink. Tigerbright fought very, very hard not to smile.
Violet forced her way between the two males, wrapping her father in a hug. “A-a-a-anyway… Mom and Dad have made us dinner. Mom insisted when she heard that we hadn’t had supper yet. We can tell them how we met while we eat.”
This drew an excited gasp from Fireball. “Oh, I just have to hear all about this! Take me through every single moment!”
Her daughter grinned at her mother. “This is going to be great!” She looked at her father and gave him a shake. “Isn’t it, daddy?”
Starshine lifted his chin and muttered darkly. “We will see.”
The foursome headed to the dining room, the two mares in the lead.
Tigerbright and Violet ate their meal while Fireball bombarded them with questions. The meal consisted of a dish that resembled crispy tofu and vegetables in a black pepper sauce along with a baked squash filled with a cheesy bean dip. The chakat realized by now that they had arrived late in the evening by Equestria time which explained why it had been so dark in the bedroom. Between the night and thick curtains, not a trace of light got in. When shi inquired, hir mate informed hir that the bedroom faced east and she hated being woken by the sun streaming into her room. That reminded her mother about their unusual arrival.
Fireball said, “So, tell me, dear, did you make this trip all the way back to Equestria just to tell us that you got engaged? That would have been enough of a surprise without sneaking into your room.”
“Actually, Mom, we were both on Chakona less than an hour ago.”
The pegasus mare blinked in surprise before her eyes widened. “Oh! That’s right – you’re working on that project for Prince Destined Path. He teleported you here, didn’t he? That was very considerate of His Highness. That stallion really should have stayed for dinner. He of all ponies should know I’ve never had waffles catch fire after that one time…”
Starshine cleared his throat.
“… or at least frequently.” “Umm, no Mom, he didn’t. I teleported us here from Chakona.”
Starshine had just begun taking a drink from his glass of juice when he choked and started coughing and spluttering. After he got himself under control, he frowned at his daughter. “Come on now, Violet, stop pulling both our left legs. Your mother and I know the limits of your teleportation ability and you’re certainly not alicorn-level.”
Tigerbright spoke up. “For a moment, she was, sir. We were at the center of the surges which have been amplifying active magic throughout the colony. That must have boosted the power behind her spell enormously.”
Violet nodded. “And I have the horn-ache to prove it. And because my hasty casting wasn’t properly focused on a target, my vague but strong desire to go someplace safe brought us here.”
Her mother’s face was the picture of amazement. A smile spread over her face and she wing-hugged Violet. “It’s wonderful that our little foal still thinks of our home the safest place to go when you’re in danger.”
Starshine scowled. “You didn’t teleport to your fiancé’s home though. Shouldn’t his house be your safe place now?”
“Dad! I literally just moved in! I haven’t even finished unpacking half of my stuff yet.”
Tigerbright muttered under hir breath, “Yeah, because we were too busy wrecking our furniture.”
The chakat underestimated the ponies’ hearing though because Fireball giggled and said, “That sounds like our first night when we moved into this house, doesn’t it, dear?”
Her husband blushed and looked away.
Fireball continued, “So, when are you going to give us a grandfoal?”
Neither Tigerbright nor Violet was surprised by the question – the chakat had been forewarned about hir mate’s mother’s desires.”
“Sooner than you think, Mom,” Violet answered with an enigmatic smile.
“Oh? Will you be getting a compatibility spell while you’re here?”
“Let’s just say that I want to consult with Auntie Twilight soon.”
Fireball squeed and hugged her daughter. “I’ll give her a call in the morning.”
Tigerbright interrupted. “Wait. You really do call one of the leaders of Equestria ‘Auntie’? I thought Violet was pulling my tail… again!”
The pegasus mare smiled. “Of course we know Twilight. She made the base for the first changeling-pony compatibility spell for my great grandfather. Since then, she’s taken such a keen interest in our family.”
Violet smiled. “That manifests as a few hours of testing every year as our pony-changeling hybrid abilities develop.”
Fireball rolled her eyes. “And as your magic studies counselor plus Hearthswarming gifts, tours of the moon and Griffonia…”
“OK! Fine! Yes, she truly is our Auntie in every possible way!”
The chakat recognized the you-should-know-better-by-now-than-to-argue-with-me look that Violet’s mom gave her daughter. That was quickly replaced with an expectant smile. “You’re staying here tonight, of course?”
Tigerbright tried to imagine how both shi and hir mate would fit on the single pony-sized bed in Violet’s old bedroom. Cozy but not conducive to any carnal activities. Shi put that thought off when Violet replied to her mother.
“Actually, I need to report to Prince Destined. He supplied me with a special comm to contact him as soon as we found the source of the surges.”
“It’s rather late, dear. The prince may have gone to bed by now.”
“I know, but he must have known that New Horizon’s time of day and Equestria’s were unlikely to line up conveniently, and yet he didn’t give us any limitations on when to notify him. For all I know, he might have it set up to take a message.”
Starshine said, “In that case, it would be wise to follow the Triarch’s directive to the letter.”
“I’ll do it now.” Violet started to use magic to fetch the comm from her saddlebag, then winced. Instead, she got off her chair, went over to the bags and pulled it out by hoof. The device was a small black box with two red buttons. However, considering that it was supposed to contact the alicorn over a gulf of many lightyears, it was probably more sophisticated than it looked. She poked the ‘CALL’ button and the comm chirped. Mere seconds later, a tinny voice radiated from the box.
“Destined Path here. Is that you, Violet Woods?”
“Yes, Your Highness. I wished to let you know that we’ve found what we were searching for.”
“Excellent! I shall join you immediately.”
“But, Your Highness—” Violet began before being cut off by another chirp from the comm. “Umm… company’s coming, I think.”
Before her parents could react, a blue alicorn stallion materialized in the room. He blinked and looked around for a moment before fixing Violet with a puzzled look. “This isn’t Chakona.”
“No, Your Highness – it’s my parents’ home in Whitetail Woods.”
Her mother and father had hastily risen from their chairs and were bowing toward the Triarch.
“Please rise,” Destined said. “This is an informal visit and I’m an uninvited guest, apparently.”
Fireball straightened up and said, “It’s wonderful to see you again, Prince Destined. Your timing is impeccable! I’m fairly sure dessert is ready – baked crystalberry cobbler with white jasmine ice cream.”
Tigerbright caught the brief moment of fear radiating from the alicorn before he got it under control.
Destined bowed slightly. “That would be wonderful, Fireball, thank you.”
As Violet’s mom skipped into the kitchen, dragging her husband along by the ear, the chakat made a note to get the whole story about the flaming waffles that could strike terror into an alicorn.
Destined looked back to Violet who had joined Tigerbright. “Would either of you two care to explain what you’re doing here?”
Violet poked her mate. “Your turn to tell the story.”
“Gee, thanks, Vi.”
After a lengthy explanation accompanied by Violet’s datapad recordings, Destined shook his head in wonder. “You’ve both made fantastic progress; well done. As for your alicorn-level teleport, Violet, that is unprecedented. It’s an amazing accomplishment for a unicorn, and also a perilous one. A poorly structured teleport like that could have gone wrong in so many ways.”
“Still better than the alternative, sir,” the chakat pointed out.
Destined chuckled. “I suppose so. I guess I’m going to have to teleport you back to Chakona and retrace your steps.”
“It’s nighttime there now,” Violet said. “The surges always happened after sunset.”
“Good point. I’ll come back in the morning after breakfast and we’ll head there then.”
“Actually, Destined, could you let Auntie Twilight know that I’d like to see her before we leave?”
“Sure. May I ask why?”
“Tiger and I need to talk to her about my pregnancy.”
The alicorn gaped. “What? Already?!”
“Already?!” echoed Fireball, only much louder.
She threw herself at her daughter, practically tackling her to the floor. Only the fierce hug let the poor unicorn keep to her hooves. Meanwhile, her mother showered her with kisses before letting her go and pouncing on the chakat next. From that day, Tigerbright swore that the pegasus mare had twice as many limbs as hir, all of them trying to hug the taur all over.
“Such a wonderful stallion!” Fireball gushed. “Oh, I am so looking forward to being your child’s grandmother. She’s going to be marvelous foal with such a virile sire and strong, fertile mother.”
“MOM!” Violet protested.
The pegasus mare ignored her daughter and fixed her gaze on a rather bemused alicorn. “And so unexpected! Did you have anything to do with them getting together?”
That was a far as he got before he was cut off by a flying hug and kisses on the cheek.
Tigerbright couldn’t help chuckling at the sight of the mighty alicorn rendered helpless by a pony half his size. In a fit of daring, shi turned to Starshine and asked, “Can’t you control your wife?”
That earned the chakat a snort and a laugh. “Oh, innocent stallion – you have so much to learn.”
Tigerbright counted the brief smile as a win, even as shi worried a little over the comment.
Meanwhile, Violet tried to extricate her mother from the alicorn. “Mom! Stop assaulting the Triarch. Auntie Luna and Auntie Tia will get jealous if they hear that Destined got all this attention.”
“Let them. If they had anything to do with this miracle, they’ll get theirs too.”
The chakat extended one claw and lightly poked hir mate in the shoulder. “I thought you said Prince Destined was supposed to be all knowledgeable about the future. As it is right now, I’m ready to wager my paycheck against his crown in a game of poker.”
Destined laughed long and hard. “Oh my. That’s great. I needed that.” He gave the chakat a very warm smile. “Let’s just say the consequences of wearing an Equestrian crown might be more than you bargain for. And yes, I’m speaking from experience here.”
Violet pursed her lips. “So, all of these surprises tell me you have been distracted. Care to tell us why?”
The alicorn drew in a quick breath and looked directly into Violet’s eyes. Tigerbright inferred that hir mate’s insight had been spot on. Then Destined’s form grew fuzzy on the edges for a couple of seconds.
After his form stabilized again, the alicorn stood up straight. “You’re right. There’s something on the time-space horizon that is very big and very important. I don’t know what it is yet, but the closer it gets, the more it swallows up alternate timeline pathways. Soon, there may be no other future other than that one and it is a black hole to my perceptions at this distance.”
Tigerbright gripped hir mate’s shoulder. “Not related to the surges?”
“No. Not that I can tell. A moment ago, I checked to see if telling you two would affect the time-streams negatively and the answer is no.”
All three ruminated in their thoughts for several seconds. Violet said, “Well, let us know if we can be of help.”
Destined smiled. “Thanks. Keep following up on leads to your current investigation and let me know when you want to return to Chakona. For now—”
Fireball brushed past the triarch of Equestria. “For now, everyone needs to try my cobbler!” Her smile slipped a bit. “Although I have to apologize, Your Highness. I have the worst luck whenever you’re around. The crust got a bit over-caramelized.”
Tigerbright caught the telltale scent of burnt crust at the same time shi saw the alicorn shiver. The chakat turned to hir mate and raised an eyebrow. Violet smiled and nodded.
Thank goodness! Violet had promised to clue her in. Tigerbright didn’t think shi could last another day without hearing about the Waffle Incident that scared the horseshoes off one of the most powerful beings in Equestria.
Violet was woken by morning sunlight shining directly on her face. Unlike her old room, the dawn’s devilish beams weren’t blocked by blackout curtains. She groaned, turned over, and buried her face in her lover’s belly fur. The mare smiled at the memory of last night spent on the large bed in the guest room. Hopefully, they hadn’t disturbed her parents. Actually, come to think of it, her mother would probably have been delighted at the demonstration of their desire for each other. Violet went back to sleep until her mother’s voice woke them both.
“Violet, dear, Auntie Twilight is here! Breakfast is ready for you both.”
“I was hoping Twilight Sparkle would be a late riser,” grumbled Tigerbright as shi rolled off the bed and onto hir paws.
“You don’t know her like we do. I’ll bet ten flawless rubies to your one that she’s been up all night researching all the implications of what her son told her.”
The chakat snorted. “I’ve known you for two weeks and I already know better than to take you up on that bet. Also, stop trying to bankrupt me with your common Equestrian gravel. Rubies don’t grow on trees or rock farms or whatever like they do in this magical place.” Tigerbright stretched and yawned. “I take it that the Princess of Magic visiting your home is not uncommon?”
“Auntie has always been excited to visit us at any excuse. I half-feared she would teleport here last night as soon as Destined told her about us.”
“I still can’t get over how your family is so close to the ruling class of Equestria,” the chakat said as shi tried to tame hir bed-hair.
“House Path is like that. Even Auntie Luna prefers informal socializing when she’s away from Canterlot Court.”
Violet giggled. “When you grow up with alicorns visiting frequently, it becomes the norm.”
“So, should I bother with a shirt then?”
“Suit yourself. What’s normal in the colony is just as normal here.”
Tigerbright decided against any clothing – shi figured shi would be overdressed for the company.
As soon as the pair stepped into the kitchen, they saw the purple alicorn seated at the table with a mug of coffee and a short stack of pancakes. Fireball had insisted on feeding her guest although they were untouched yet. As soon as Twilight noticed Violet, she cried in delight, jumped up, and went to hug her. She was met halfway by Violet and they embraced enthusiastically before the alicorn turned her attention to Tigerbright.
“So, this is the chakat who caught Violet’s eye like nopony could. Welcome to our extended family. May I give you a hug too?”
“I’d like that,” Tigerbright responded.
The embrace was only marginally less enthusiastic than Fireball’s.
“Well,” the alicorn said, turning back to her niece. “Let’s get a good look at you.” Her horn lit up.
“Let the couple have their breakfast first,” Fireball interjected.
“Oh. Right. Just a quick scan for now. We can do the more thorough tests later.” She put words into action.
Violet gave Tigerbright a ‘told-you-so’ glance before seating herself at the table. Her mother promptly piled her plate with pancakes, a mushroom omelet, and a side-serving of six slices of toast with butter and jam.
“I’m not starving, Mom,” the unicorn said drolly.
“You’re eating for two now, dear,” the mare replied before serving up the chakat’s share. Tigerbright smiled when the pegasus loaded down hir plate with an equal amount of food .
“I only conceived a few days ago!” Violet protested.
“And it will be interesting to discover how that happened,” Twilight said enthusiastically.
“Didn’t Prince Destined tell you?” Tigerbright asked.
“Of course Des did, but I’m skeptical that the surge was solely responsible.”
“Isn’t a similar event the reason why hippogriffs were conceived?”
“It certainly was a factor, but unlike chakats, griffons have far more in common with ponies. For starters and very importantly, we’re both magical species. Chakats most definitely are not. However, Violet, like all her forebears back to Whirring Cogs, has the benefit of changeling genes in her DNA. My working hypothesis is that these worked in combination with the enhanced mana field to enable conception.”
“Aw! And here I thought I was a super-stud,” Tigerbright said in a mock bitterly disappointed manner.
Twilight chuckled. “Maybe you can hang onto that hope. After your exposure to so much mana, you may have been changed too. I’ve already devised a series of tests.”
“Can’t say I didn’t warn you,” Violet mumbled through her mouth half-full of food.
Tigerbright was surprised by how much precedence Twilight Sparkle gave to hir mate’s pregnancy over the reason they were together in the first place.
“Oh, that’s easy,” the alicorn explained. “The surges aren’t much more than an inconvenience, although a most intriguing one. Your mate’s family has fascinated me since I first became involved with them. And now you have joined their ranks.”
“I don’t suppose you just mean that I took her as my denmate?” Tigerbright asked as Twilight removed some sensors from hir torso.
“Nope. Exposure to all that mana affected your cells. I don’t know what exactly it is yet, but you’ve been changed. I’m so excited about this. While all living things generate mana that can be utilized with the correct tools, you are the first chakat to exhibit true magical potential that I’ve ever encountered. I’ve already planned a few weeks of tests and trials—”
“Auntie Twilight,” Violet interrupted, “I’m afraid we can’t spare the time right now. Tiger and I are still working on the surge mystery, and after that, shi has an office to run and I have geological surveys waiting for me.”
“Nonsense, Violet! I’m sure I can pop over to Chakona and squeeze in some studies during your downtime.”
This time Tigerbright interrupted hir mate. “It’s okay, Vi. I think I’d like to know what has happened to me. We’ll find some spare time.” Violet gave hir a “you don’t know what you are doing” look that the alicorn missed.
“That’s the spirit!” Twilight enthused. “And if you leave me a genetic sample, I can even get a head start on the process.”
The chakat raised an eyebrow. “Genetic sample? You’ve already taken some of my blood and several swabs.”
Violet’s frown disappeared behind a hoof and she snickered. Tigerbright looked at her suspiciously. “What am I missing?”
Hir mate replied with an innocent smile, “Nothing much. We’ll be able to provide that sample later this evening.”
“Why not now?”
That sent both Violet and Twilight into a fit of giggles.
“Well, if you insist, Tiger,” the unicorn said as she nuzzled the chakat and projected lascivious thoughts.
It suddenly occurred to Tigerbright exactly what kind of genetic sample the alicorn wanted. “Umm… no. I think it can wait.”
“Oh, pooh,” Twilight replied in mock disappointment.
“Why do you need that anyway?” the chakat asked.
“Are you aware of the Kline hybrids?”
“Hmm? Oh, yes. He’s the human that has sired children by several different species, including chakats. There’s been much speculation about how that was possible, although in light of meeting a whole world of magical races, the rumor of intervention by Rakshani deities sounds a lot more plausible now. You want to know if something similar has happened to me.”
“That’s one possibility,” Twilight conceded, “but far from the only one.”
“Well, I want to know whichever result you get.”
“Naturally. And while I’m happy with your mate’s condition, Violet should make a point of seeing a specialist in a few weeks to check for any medical problems.”
“Don’t worry, Auntie Twilight – I’ll be sure to do that. However, if you’re done poking me and Tiger, could you tell us if you’ve made any progress deciphering the Gateway runes?”
Twilight grimaced. “Not as much as I had hoped. They were obsolete long before Celestia was born and they were barely touched upon during her magical education, so I’ve been searching all over Equestria for any ancient manuscripts that could help me. However, right now my best bet is to wait for Star Swirl to return from wherever he and the others went.”
“Are the runes on the array on Chakona of any use to you?” Tigerbright asked.
“Every bit of new information is helpful. How much help remains to be seen. I definitely want to go see them for myself.”
The chakat frowned in thought. “We could go back now but we’ve already used a large portion of the day, and we would need to be flown out to the mountain and retrace our steps. I strongly recommend that we get there early tomorrow if you want time to study the object. You don’t want to be caught in a surge like we were.”
Violet added, “Besides, Destined wants us to keep investigating the surges from this side of the portal. Have you discovered any instances on Equus equivalent to what Emu Island is experiencing?”
Twilight shook her head. “None whatsoever that we’ve been able to detect, but I have an idea about tracing the surges in another way. How would you like to take a little jaunt into space with me?”
Despite being not only an Equestrian Princess but also a founding member of one of the most powerful and influential Griffonian Houses, Twilight Sparkle had some trouble getting the use of a starship. While both her House and the Equian World Government had embarked upon programs of building ships with the new warp drive technology, it took time to construct them. So far, besides the refurbished Cosmic Lotus, two others had been completed. Unfortunately, the government-owned starship was currently orbiting Earth after bringing a delegation to the Federation Council General Assembly. House Path’s was engaged in business with the Faleshkarti, and the Cosmic Lotus itself was Goddess knew where in the galaxy, fulfilling its mission of exploration. Nevertheless, that did not mean that she was out of options. Equus had become a profitable port for traders and there were two currently in orbit around the planet. This despite the embargo placing strict limits regarding gems and precious metals leaving the planet. The captain of the first starship apologized, saying that their schedule precluded a side jaunt at this time. Their corporation had them on a strict timetable. However, the second was an independent trader and was interested in earning a little extra on this leg of their itinerary.
Twilight teleported Violet, Tigerbright, and herself up to the Lunar Shipyards where the Star Phoenix was in orbit. The mana beacon at House Path’s office at the yards made that the easy part of their task. Then they shuttled over to the ship where they would meet with Captain Yote who had been negotiating some deals with the Lunar City authorities. They were met by a herm tiger morph who introduced hirself as Anastasiya Tartikova, the ship’s Security Officer. After taking care of formalities, shi passed them over to a female rabbit morph who identified herself as Madeline Cottonfield. She asked them to follow her to the captain’s office.
Tigerbright was disconcerted by the long-eared bunny. Hir empathic senses could not detect the presence of anyone, and by the look on Violet’s face, hir mate was feeling confused too. Then shi realized that shi couldn’t scent her either. “Excuse me, but may I ask you something?”
The rabbit paused and turned with a knowing smile on her face. “Certainly, but let me save you some time. You can’t sense me because I’m a holo-projection. The real me is elsewhere.”
“May we ask why?” Violet asked.
“Sure. I was involved in an accident that ruined my body which is kept in a special life-support unit. However, by interfacing with the ship’s systems, I can have a nearly normal life. I have a career, a family, and even a girlfriend.”
Twilight’s eyes had lit up. “That sounds utterly fascinating! I have so many questions. How did you decide—”
Madeline laughed to interrupt the purple mare. “I don’t mind talking about myself, but we better not keep the captain waiting. Time is money in our line of work.”
“Oh, of course.”
They continued on, occasionally passing other crewmembers engaged in their business. The rabbit didn’t bother knocking on the door before opening it to let the visitors inside. Tigerbright figured that if she was that tightly integrated with the starship’s computers, she had already informed the captain of their approach.
Inside, they saw a male coyote morph behind the desk with a grey fox vixen standing beside him on one side and a female Caitian on the other. The coyote stood up and bowed his head slightly in respect to Twilight.
“Welcome aboard the Star Phoenix, Your Highness. I am Captain Martin Yote and these are First Officer Bethany Oakwood, and M’Rarrtikar, our Purser.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Twilight replied. “Please feel free to call me Twilight. My companions are Violet Woods and Chakat Tigerbright. We’re hoping that you can help us with an investigation.”
“Depending on how much time we have available, we are always amenable to any paying job if it’s within our means.”
“I believe it is. We are researching the phenomenon that is restricting the times that starships can currently travel between Equus, the Gateway Portal, and Chakona.”
“Seeing as that’s what will cause us a departure delay, I would say that it may be in our best interest to help you in this matter,” Yote smoothly replied.
M’Rarrtikar added, “Recompense for our services will help offset the cost of the delay.”
“Of course, you will be paid a fair price for what I have in mind.”
“And what service could we provide that requires a starship to accomplish?” Oakwood asked.
“Efforts to trace the source of the surges down on our world have so far proven fruitless. Therefore, I intend to do the reverse. I wish to position myself between here and the portal at the moment a surge occurs and track it back to its source. For that purpose, I need to start a significant distance from Equus. The shuttles that go between the moon and the planet do not have the necessary range.”
Yote nodded. “I see. However, wouldn’t that put the Phoenix at the very risk we’re supposed to be avoiding?”
“It would, but your ship need not linger in the hazard zone. The mana surges mostly affect magic-based systems, but warp drives are one of the non-magic constructs that are also susceptible to them, which is why the current curfew is in place. However, I believe your shuttlecraft will be fine, especially if non-essential systems are turned off. I propose that you take us out to the desired position, then we would exit in your shuttle while you move away to a safe distance. After the surge has passed, you can collect us and continue on to the Gateway.”
“You don’t want to be taken back to Equus?” Oakwood asked.
Twilight shook her head. “I can teleport us back after you retrieve the shuttle.”
The captain looked at Oakwood who nodded in approval. Yote turned back to Twilight and smiled. “I believe we can accommodate you. Let us discuss terms of the deal.”
Twilight smiled. “Excellent! I checked your current ship’s manifest and your standard hiring contract for your ship’s time. You are currently sixteen-kilograms shy of your gold export quota. I can provide seven nines purity bullion and taking into account the current exchange rates at the seven largest Federation trading houses...”
As the conversation shifted to the dry details of currency exchange and the Star Phoenix rental contract, Tigerbright began to lose interest. Only then did shi notice a strong source of curiosity to hir right. Turning, shi saw someone shi hadn’t noticed when they had entered the office. He resembled a snow leopard crossed with a lynx morph, if such had wings and were 2.3 meters tall. The being barely fit in the room. He was also clad in little more than a loincloth instead of the ship’s uniform that everyone else shi had seen had been wearing. The being seemed intensely interested in what was going on and Tigerbright wondered why Captain Yote hadn’t introduced him.
“Hello,” shi said. “May I ask who you are? I’ve never seen anyone quite like you before.”
The winged being turned to look at hir with a startled expression. Then he grinned. “Fair greetings to you, wayfarer. Thou may call me Sojourner.”
“Forgive me, but you seem rather out of place here.”
Sojourner chuckled. “Yes, thou speak the truth. I am merely a passenger on this ship of the stars, a tourist seeing the greater universe. Somewhat like thee at this exact moment.”
The chakat nodded in acknowledgment of the point. “You’re not a Terran species, I take it?”
He shook his head. “I hail from the planet thou call Raksha.”
Tigerbright examined Sojourner critically. “Aside from being felinoid, you don’t look much like any Rakshani I have ever met.”
“That would be because I belong to a far older race than the Rakshani. My appearance manifests from your cultural norms and expectations.”
“How come I have never heard of your kind before?”
“Oh, thou might have, although not in the way thou may think. Try asking some of the crew about us,” he said, waving a hand in the direction of Yote and the others.
Tigerbright looked away from Sojourner and suddenly became aware that all conversation had stopped and everyone was staring at hir, including Violet. “What’s wrong?” shi asked.
“Why are you talking to thin air?” hir mate asked.
“I’m… not. I’m talking to Sojourner here.” Shi gestured towards the alien from Raksha.
“There’s nobody there,” Twilight said.
Sojourner grinned, irritating the chakat. “I’m not imagining things. He says he comes from Raksha, but he’s not a Rakshani.”
M’rarrtikar jerked in shock. “You are describing the elder race, the ones that the Rakshani call deities.”
Tigerbright blinked in recognition. “You mean like the one that supposedly gave Admiral Kline the ability to breed with any species?”
Sojourner said, “That was the result of a sincere desire expressed during the Fertility Festival. Some of my kind have a playful sense of humor. Perhaps more than some.”
M’Rarrtikar obviously could not hear him because she started talking through him. “Those are the ones. Are you telling us that you can perceive them and one is on our ship?”
“I came aboard the second-last occasion this ship visited Raksha,” Sojourner said. “I would have told them but none can see or hear me, I fear. Only the one linked to the computer can do so, and then, only in her sleep which she dismisses as dreams. It is most curious that thou can.”
“Perhaps I can clear things up,” Twilight stated as the winged being was still speaking. Her horn lit up and her lips moved as she mouthed a spell that she created on the spot. A glow surrounded Sojourner and, a moment later, there were cries and gasps of surprise as the deity was revealed.
“You can all perceive me now? And hear me as well? I thank thee, Princess Twilight Sparkle. It is a pleasure to finally meet one of thy kind properly. I hope thou will forgive me for stowing away on your ship, Captain Yote.”
“We’ve got quite a mixture of species onboard but adding a Rakshan deity is one thing I never thought to include. May I ask why you are on our ship?” the coyote said.
“Where once we were the shepherds of the Rakshani race, our children have grown beyond the need for our constant stewardship. Traveler was the first to leave Raksha and, since then, she has regaled us with tales of her experiences whenever she returns. Many of my kind have since expressed the desire to explore beyond our world. I am but one of several now journeying between the stars.”
Oakwood gave Sojourner a keen look. “Have you had a hand in any of the good luck we have had lately?”
The deity smiled benignly. “My fortune is tied up with yours while I share your journey.”
“How come Tiger could see you when we couldn’t?” Violet asked.
“I would say that is because shi can perceive magic in a manner that you all lack.”
Twilight nodded thoughtfully. “That would jibe with what I detected during my tests. We just didn’t know how it could manifest until now.”
“Hear that, Vi? I’m magical too,” Tigerbright said with a grin.
“You always were to me, Tiger,” the mare replied fondly.
“I’d love to talk with you more if I may?” the alicorn asked.
“Unless the Captain chooses to oust me from the Star Phoenix, I will continue to journey with them. Another time, thou may ask me questions. However, I may not always answer. There are some things thou are not ready to know yet, Princess of Magic. Perhaps in a few more millennia. Tell the same to your son.” Sojourner then disappeared.
Yote said, “Did your spell fail, Twilight?”
The alicorn shook her head. “No, I think he canceled it.”
“Oh. Well, I hope he realizes that he’s welcome aboard our ship, especially if he helps in our times of need.”
Tigerbright didn’t bother telling them that shi still saw him after the others could not. The deity winked at hir then stepped through the wall as if it wasn’t there. “I think he knows, Captain.”
Twilight arranged for a special dispensation for the Star Phoenix to travel during curfew. After clearing the gravity well of the planet and its moon, warp drive was engaged and they were on their way toward the Gateway. One thing had Tigerbright very curious though.
“Why do we have to travel so far from Equus to trace the surge back to there?”
“It’s really quite simple,” the alicorn explained. “At the moment, we don’t know for certain whether the surge is coming from Equus or its moon. While I’m leaning toward the latter, we also need to completely eliminate the former. However, this close to either, I cannot be certain of being in the path of the surge. Therefore, we are traveling to a sufficient distance that it will not matter. We know where the ship that was propelled into the nebula was positioned when it got hit, so that’s a safe bet. I calculate that we will have at least a half-hour to spare to allow the Star Phoenix to drop us off in a shuttle we can use as a base while they warp a safe distance away.”
“So, you have a spell that will still trace the surge accurately from lightyears away?” Violet asked with interest.
“I devised one that should narrow the area down to a few square miles, much as you did on Chakona.”
“And if it’s on the moon?”
Twilight levitated a special comm unit from her saddlebag. “Then I will call up my herdmate and tease her. She’s so insistent that it has to be on Equus because she’s never seen anything that might fit the description on the moon.”
Violet chuckled. “Auntie Luna will be miffed if she’s wrong.”
Tigerbright asked, “Will it be safe for us to accompany you in the shuttle, or will we have to wait here in the ship while you do your thing?”
“That is an excellent question, and the answer is yes. Probably. While I haven’t been able to decipher a lot of the runes that control the portal, I believe I have identified the purpose of several. I intend to ward the shuttle with those runes as a precaution.”
“So, your attitude is, ‘Well, if I can't use these ancient runes to make magic, I can at least use the runes to not make magic happen!’ ” the cheeky chakat said.
Twilight rolled her eyes. “While I am confident that it and you should be fine without them, I believe in taking extra care. And besides, I’ll get to learn more about how the runes work while in use. You two will just have to refrain from using magic for the duration of the surge.”
Tigerbright grimaced. “Umm… I didn’t even know I was doing magic until I talked to Sojourner. How do I turn that off?”
“Ah… well… just don’t think too hard about intending to do anything!”
“Right. That’s a big help, Your Highness.”
The alicorn shrugged. “You might want to consider enrolling in a beginner’s magic class to learn the basics.”
“I have a full-time job and a new relationship to preoccupy my time,” the chakat replied, putting an arm around hir mate’s withers and giving her a kiss.
“Don’t worry, dear,” Violet said with a smile. “I’ll give you lessons.”
“Yes, but in what?” Tigerbright asked with a waggle of hir eyebrows and a leer.
The mare giggled. “We’ll work our way through the entire curriculum.”
“A-a-and time for a change in subject,” Twilight interjected. “Ms. Cottonfield – are you there?”
“I’m always around if you need me,” the rabbit’s voice came from a nearby speaker.
“Can we have that talk now?”
“Certainly. Let me guide you to the mess hall where we can chat over coffee.”
“That brings up a question: can you actually enjoy a cup of coffee?”
The four were still conversing when Captain Yote announced that they had reached the designated location.
“My name is Ceres and I will be your designated driver,” the all-black foxtaur cheerfully told the three as they stepped aboard the shuttle. “Please take your seats. I have already configured them to suit your needs.”
It was obvious to Tigerbright which had been adjusted to suit hir taur form. As shi settled on the couch and buckled in, shi asked, “You’re a starwalker, correct?”
“Spot on. The Captain figured that I was best suited to this odd mission.” The herm foxtaur assisted Violet who was the least familiar with acceleration couches. “Let me help you buckle in. It won’t be for long but this is standard protocol while I maneuver the shuttle out of the ship.”
Once everyone was secure, Ceres called for clearance. Once given, the bay doors opened, leaving only a force field to retain the air. The starwalker guided the shuttle through the field as it conformed to the vessel’s hull, keeping the precious air inside without wasting it or time trying to pump it out. Ceres took them a safe distance from the huge starship before the Star Phoenix engaged its warp drive to take it away on a path perpendicular to the route to the portal.
“Okay, folks, you’re free to do your thing!” Ceres announced. “What are you going to do anyway?”
“First,” Twilight said, “I need to set up protection for the shuttle just in case. However, because a spell could be counterproductive in the surge, I will be using runes instead. I hope you don’t mind if I draw on the walls of this craft?”
Ceres shrugged. “As long as it can be easily cleaned off later, I suppose it’s okay.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll remove them afterward.” The alicorn set to work.
“What about you?” the foxtaur asked the unicorn and chakat.
“We’re here just to observe for now,” Violet replied. “Twilight is helping to trace the surge so that we can continue investigating its source. We’ve already found the one on Chakona.”
Tigerbright added, “It’s our hope that when we have all the pieces of the puzzle, we’ll be able to figure out exactly what is going on and what to do about it.”
“Sounds like fun. But seriously, are those squiggles you’re defacing the walls with supposed to do something?”
“More than you know,” Twilight replied.
Tigerbright looked at what the alicorn had drawn so far and gaped. The runes glowed with dormant power. Shi was seeing magic again! The chakat wondered what they were going to be like when they were activated. One of them seemed a bit off though. “Twilight, are you sure you got this one right?” Shi pointed at the offending rune.
The purple pony came over to examine the marking and compared it to her notes. “Oops. You’re right. Forgot to add this.” She put a tiny crossbar on one line and the rune instantly shifted in hue to match the others.
“That fixed it,” Tigerbright said.
“Good. Glad you spotted it. Wait! How did you spot it? No. Tell me later. More runes to scribe.”
Twilight completed the rest of the runes without a problem that Tigerbright could detect. She put away the felt-tip pen that she had been using to make the marks. “There! They would work better if they were carved in, but this will do for a one-off job.”
“What’s next?” Ceres asked.
“Time for some extra-vehicular activity. All this was just to ensure everyone is safe while I am outside and away from the shuttle where the runes won’t affect me.”
“I don’t see a spacesuit,” the foxtaur commented.
“I don’t need one. Observe!” A soft magenta field englobed her. “This shield was designed by my brother and is optimized for protection from all space hazards while retaining a comfortable environment within.”
Violet asked, “Won’t that be adversely affected by the surge?”
“Nope. I’ve taken that into account. I’ve been able to recreate the mana surge at a smaller scale. Already tested my shield and locator spells in similar conditions. They’ll hold up fine.”
Ceres said, “Nice trick. Okay, I will accompany you and ensure you’re tethered safely.”
“You don’t need to tether me. I will use my magic to bring myself back on board.”
“You misunderstand me, Princess – you will wear a tether. That is standard safety protocol and is not negotiable. I trust your shield can handle that?”
“Right. Sorry. No, it won’t be a problem.”
“Good. How long is this E.V.A. going to last?”
“The surge will occur in twelve minutes and sixteen seconds. I will re-enter the shuttle immediately afterwards.”
“Okay, we’ve got plenty of time then. Let’s get you ready.” The foxtaur hit a button that opened the airlock door. The two stepped inside followed by the door closing again. Violet and Tigerbright watched through an observation window. Ceres fitted a harness around the alicorn’s barrel and then attached a tether which paid out from a large reel. Then shi did the same for hirself. Microphones and speakers in the walls allowed Tigerbright and Violet to hear the foxtaur’s instructions and converse with hir and the alicorn.
This time it was Twilight’s turn to ask, “Don’t you require a spacesuit if you’re going to be out here too?” She glanced at Tigerbright when the chakat chuckled but shifted her attention back to the foxtaur when shi replied.
“Like you, I won’t need one for such a brief time.” Ceres slowly blinked and when shi opened her eyes, they were a solid gold in color. “See? Got my shades already,” shi said with a grin.
Tigerbright explained, “Starwalkers are adapted to space. Shi can survive for over an hour out there without a spacesuit. You couldn’t be in safer hands, Twilight.”
The alicorn smiled. “I’m learning so many new things today. And there’s no time to ask follow-up questions!”
Violet said, “Pure torture, isn’t it, Auntie?”
Ceres laughed. “Well, I learned a pony can spacewalk without a suit, so l think we’re even. Anyway, back to business. While I’m keeping my eyes on the Princess, you two watch both of us for problems. If anything goes wrong, use the shuttle’s comm to call the Phoenix. Don’t try to help otherwise. Leave it to the experts.”
“Umm…” Violet said hesitantly. “Can I point out a possible exception to that?”
The foxtaur lifted a curious eyebrow. “And that would be…?”
“I could use telekinesis to pull Twilight back if needed.”
“Hmm, like Zelkie can. Okay, but only if it’s absolutely necessary, and only after the surge has passed completely. You might unwittingly exacerbate a problem otherwise.”
“I don’t want to interfere – I just want to let you know that I’m available in an emergency.”
“Always good to have a backup plan. Space is very unforgiving,” agreed the foxtaur. “Okay, let’s get this show on the road. Evacuating airlock now.” Shi lifted a translucent safety panel and pushed a button.
A green status display changed to yellow. The sound of pumps removing the air thrummed through the craft. Violet noticed that the starwalker’s muzzle was firmly closed, lips compressed into a seal. Hir nose was wrinkled as it too closed off. Unseen were all the other orifices shutting themselves off from the dropping air pressure. It did not take long for the process to complete and the status light change to red, stating “VACUUM”. Then the only sound that the observers could hear was the tap of Twilight’s hooves transmitted through the metal floor as she moved toward the exit. They watched as Ceres opened the outer hatch and they could see the stars beyond. Twilight stepped to the edge of the doorway and then pushed herself off. Now free from the influence of the shuttle’s artificial gravity field, she drifted smoothly away as the foxtaur paid out the tether line.
“How far is she going to go?” Tigerbright asked.
“Not far,” Violet replied. “She just needs to be a safe distance so that any corona effects from interacting with the mana surge won’t reach us.”
“I thought that shield of hers was supposed to stop that kind of thing?”
“Without knowing exactly how that spell was constructed, I can’t tell you definitively how it works, but I do know that when we’re talking about Auntie Twilight, trivial leakage means a whole lot more when you’re the Alicorn of Magic.”
They estimated that Twilight was fifty meters away when she raised a hoof. Ceres brought her to a halt so smoothly that there was no back-drift, and the alicorn hung stationary relative to the shuttle.
“Now we wait,” the mare said without taking her eyes off her Auntie.
Of course, when standing around waiting for something to happen, seconds seemed to crawl by. However, when the surge arrived, there was no mistaking it. The shuttle cabin grew brighter as the protective runes lit up, but they were nothing compared to the light show outside. A pulse of energy radiated in all directions from the alicorn as her coat brightened to a near eye-searing level before the observation window automatically darkened. Then the duo could see that Twilight’s mane and tail had grown into an enormous raging fire containing every shade between deep purple and pure white. Her eyes emitted lambent beams that seemed to focus on something distant. Then the chakat saw a coruscating ray of magic shoot out from her horn then disappear in an instant.
The incredible display of power continued for several long seconds before the mana surge ended. The alicorn’s pyrotechnics were slower to die down but, eventually, she seemed to have her magic firmly contained once more. At a signal from Twilight, Ceres began to reel her back in.
Violet stepped back from the window. “Whew! I’m glad that worked as planned. At least I hope Auntie Twilight got that location we need.”
“Would it have anything to do with that beam of magic that she shot from her horn? Maybe she locked onto the array.”
“What beam? You saw something I didn’t? We really have to check out that magic vision of yours sometime soon.”
Tigerbright grinned. “Oh, I’m sorry. Did somepony get jealous that another female outshone them for a few seconds? Don’t worry, I’ll regale you with tales of your boundless MRRFFF!” The last word was cut off by a hoof gently placed in the chakat’s mouth.
The unicorn mare chuckled. “Don’t let your silver tongue dig yourself a deeper hole than you can jump out of, my dear.”
Tigerbright spat out the hoof but hir smirk remained unchanged. “Oh? Do I detect a hint of caution in this warning?”
“Just that alicorns sometimes take compliments very personally.” Violet smiled and turned back to the observation window. “Playtime is later. Right now we are supposed to be keeping an eye out for trouble.”
They waited impatiently for the alicorn to enter the airlock and for the pressure to be restored within while Ceres untethered her. When the inner hatch opened, Twilight stepped through with a triumphant smile and she vibrated with excitement. Her eyes were still glowing from the lingering effects of exposure to the surge.
“Found it! It’s on the far side of the moon!”
“Hidden away from easy discovery just like the one on Chakona,” Violet said.
“Was that a tracing spell that you shot from your horn?” Tigerbright asked.
“Oh, much more than that!” The alicorn clopped her hooves in excitement. “The spell had to work against the torrential flow through the arcane ether, thus requiring a propulsion component. The spell package was also designed to mark the area for exploration and send back location data which is now contained in this enchanted orb.”
Twilight held up a tennis ball-sized sphere and the chakat peered at it intently. “Ooh! I see craters. That’s the general area where the array is hidden, I gather?”
Twilight’s smile grew a little manic. “You can see that too? Ooh! I’m going to love testing your new abilities! We’re going to have days and nights of endless joy and discovery!”
Violet put a foreleg around the alicorn’s withers. “Calm down, Auntie. You’re jittery with an excess of mana. Let’s go through Celestia’s meditation and breathing exercises.”
“The Princess of Magic has been exposed to a level of power few beings can keep under control, let alone utilize,” came a familiar masculine voice from beside Tigerbright.
The chakat turned around to see the Rakshan deity squatting in the cramped confines of the shuttle, watching with interest as Twilight fought to contain the raging energy within her. At Tigerbright’s raised eyebrow and unasked question, he shrugged. “I was curious too.”
“Is she going to be alright?”
“The alicorn is strong and her will shall prevail. Nevertheless, I believe I shall help ease her struggle.”
Sojourner reached out with one of his long limbs and a finger touched Twilight’s horn. The alicorn sighed and slumped to the deck, the glow fading from her eyes. “Ooh, I’m not in a hurry to do that again,” she said fervently.
Ceres said, “Well, if you’ve done everything you intended to do, I’ll call the Phoenix to come pick us up.”
Violet replied, “Yeah, we’re good.”
Twilight grinned. “And I’ve got a comm call to make to a certain Alicorn of the Moon!”
Tigerbright said, “So you can tell her she lost a bet?”
The purple mare chuckled. “Precisely!”
Tigerbright and Violet could clearly hear Luna’s response through Twilight’s comm which she had put on speaker. The two looked at each other and chuckled. This was the third time the Night Alicorn had said the word.
Twilight winced and held her comm a bit further from her ears. Belatedly, she pressed the volume down button a few times. “I assure you that my tracing spell was accurate.”
“I know my moon intimately! Art thou trying to tell me that it hath secrets that I have not gleaned in over a millennium?”
“ ‘Art thou’?” the chakat questioned hir mate.
“Auntie Luna falls back to archaic speech when she gets upset.”
The comm crackled. “Pshaw! I insist with great fortitude my lack of vexation!”
Twilight tried again, “Please, Luna, you have to bear in mind that the array may have been deliberately concealed to avoid interfe—”
“Nay! 'Tis inconceivable that such doth escape my notice!”
Tigerbright laughed and said, “That word – I don’t think it means what you think it means.”
“Who speaketh? What art thou talking about?”
Twilight glared at the chakat before responding, “That was Shir Tigerbright. Look, Luna, I’ve narrowed the location down to a small area, and we—”
“Let this Tigerbright speak! What doth shi find so amusing?”
“My apologies, Your Highness,” the chakat spoke up. “Your use of the word ‘inconceivable’ was a running gag in a classic Twentieth Century movie.”
“Ah, you speak of the Terran entertainments! I am familiar with your all-time classic named Black Beauty. And what is this movie which you found so amusing?”
“It’s called The Princess Bride.”
“And you find royalty amusing?”
“The movie was, not the royalty. I recommend that you watch it for yourself. The fact that it is still popular centuries later speaks for its quality and entertainment value.”
“I shall, and if I do not agree with your assessment, we shall have words. Princess Twilight, make arrangements for a family movie night. Right or wrong, thou art bringing the popcorn!”
Twilight sighed. “Okay, Luna. Now can we discuss what I discovered?”
The sound of the Alicorn of the Moon taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly came through the speaker. “I suppose you must check this lead out before you are satisfied,” the Moon Princess grumbled. “However, I will not concede the wager until you show me the evidence.”
The purple alicorn grinned confidently. “We’ll find it as soon as we get back from Chakona.”
“It was my impression that you intended to return immediately after your experiment?”
“Change of plans. I’ve requested that we stay aboard the Star Phoenix while they travel to Chakona so that I can have a conversation with a Rakshan deity.”
There was a pause on the other end of the call. “A what?!”
“Tell you later. Love you! Bye!” Twilight turned off the comm and grinned at her companions. “Let my herdmate wonder about that for a while.”
“Looks like I’m going to have to get my hands on a copy of The Princess Bride,” Tigerbright said.
Madeline Cottonfield had been listening with interest to the conversation. “I’ve checked our video library and we have a copy that we can supply you.”
Violet said, “Thanks. How much will it cost?”
Madeline chuckled. “Talk to M’Rarrtikar about that. She’ll give you a good deal if you buy several.”
“Of course. Always on the lookout for ways to make money,” Violet replied with a smile.
Tigerbright said, “I’ll take you up on that. There are a few that I’m sure that Violet will enjoy when we get the chance.”
“Excellent!” Twilight said. “Now, I wonder how to contact Sojourner? Is he here at the moment, Tigerbright?”
The chakat looked over to the corner of the room where shi could see the felinoid lounging on a chair that was a bit small for his frame. Sojourner smiled and nodded. “Yes, he’s right there.” Shi indicated with a wave of hir hand.
The alicorn’s horn lit up and soon the deity was visible and audible to everyone.
“Please be seated, Princess Sparkle. Thou have many questions and but a few hours to sate thy curiosity.”
Madeline said, “While they are talking, would either of you be interested in a tour of the ship? The Captain has permitted me to show you around.”
Violet bit her lip, torn between two desires. Then she nodded. “Okay. Auntie Twilight will write this interview up and I’ll read about it later. Let’s go, Tiger.”
“Have fun, you two!” Twilight said before immediately turning her full attention on Sojourner. “So let’s start at the beginning. I’d love to hear about your parents.” The deity’s eyebrows rose and Tigerbright felt his surprise. Apparently, he did not expect the Princess of Friendship to begin with a personal question.
“Follow me, guys,” the rabbit morph said. “I want you to meet some of my family while we’re walking around.”
“You managed to have children in your condition?” Tigerbright asked as they exited the cabin.
“The whole crew is my family,” Madeline replied with a laugh. “But my girlfriend and I have something more personal in mind for the near future.”
“Ooh! Tell us more!” Violet gushed.
“I’ll let Penny tell you,” the rabbit said, gesturing toward a full-figured mouse morph who was approaching down the corridor.
“Hi!” Penny greeted them. “Maddy says she’s taking you on a tour, so I’m here to be your cheerful tour guide.”
Judging by her face and twinkling eyes, Tigerbright and Violet reckoned that the mouse never stopped smiling.
“I thought that was Madeline’s job?” Violet asked.
“We’re a team on some things. Besides, if my attention is needed elsewhere, I won’t have to leave you stranded,” Madeline explained.
Neither of the visitors missed the look that passed between the two. They were intimately familiar with that feeling.
“Let’s start with the holosuite,” Penny suggested. “The children are having a volleyball competition with their parents at the moment.”
“Sounds great,” Tigerbright replied.
Violet and Tigerbright had managed to meet everyone on the starship by the time they went into orbit around Chakona. Twilight had been reluctant to finish her conversation with Sojourner but the deity said farewell and terminated the spell that enabled her to perceive him. The conversation had drawn the interest of several of the off-duty crew who were fascinated by their hitherto unseen passenger. Therefore, there were more than a few disappointed sighs when their guest departed.
Twilight thanked Captain Yote for his and the crew’s hospitality and then teleported Tigerbright, Violet, and herself down to the colony. It was well into the evening by then, so the chakat invited the alicorn to stay at hir and Violet’s home overnight. They made sure to give her the guest room furthest from their own though.
The next day, the three visited Governor Slate’s office to report on the status of the investigation. There, they also requested a shuttle take them out to the array site because Tigerbright’s was still there awaiting hir and Violet’s return. Due to the rugged nature of the area, the pilot of the shuttle had to hover the craft nearby to drop them off before heading back to town. The mates walked straight into the campsite but Twilight paused with a frown. She lifted a hoof and tapped the invisible wall in front of her.
Violet said, “I’ve got a shield in place to protect our stuff. It’s tuned to only let Tiger and myself inside. Give me a moment to shut it off.”
“Don’t bother,” Twilight responded, lighting up her horn. A moment later, she stepped past the shield’s boundary. She saw Violet’s expression and said, “Don’t you think I’d know my brother’s handiwork inside and out?”
The unicorn had to concede that the Alicorn of Magic certainly wasn’t going to be stopped by such a simple construct. The shield was designed to keep out animals, not mages.
The explorers set about replenishing their saddlebag supplies.
“How do you want to go about this, Twilight? Scenic route or cheat a bit?” Violet asked.
The alicorn replied, “As much as I would enjoy the scenery, I would rather spend as much time at the array as feasible. The problem is that with all the overlapping leylines overlaying the difficult terrain, it’s difficult to find an unseen focus point in these conditions to target a teleportation spell to get us closer.”
“Maybe I can help,” Violet said. “I’ve been wanting to try this since we ended up on Equus.” Her horn lit up and she disappeared in a flash.
Moments later, she reappeared. “Yes!” She pumped her hoof. “My teleportation ability has improved exponentially. I can teleport us to the mouth of the cave. I don’t think it’s wise to go directly to the array.”
“That’s a sensible precaution,” Twilight agreed. “However, why didn’t you try teleporting here from town?”
Violet opened her mouth to reply, paused, and then she grinned wryly. “I didn’t think of it. I’m not used to having that kind of range.”
Twilight chuckled. “Quite understandable. I still remember what it was like when I ascended to an alicorn. The power gain took a lot of getting used to, not to mention the wings.” She fluttered said appendages.
“Okay. If you’re ready, let’s go.” Twilight and Tigerbright pressed up against her sides. At the nods of her companions, Violet teleported them away.
After checking for any new inhabitants, the party entered the cave. The alicorn was impressed with their thoroughness in marking the way but wished she had more time to explore the side tunnels. Tigerbright did not find it surprising that geology and spelunking were passions of the inquisitive purple mare. Having done the route before, Violet and Tigerbright set a faster pace than their initial exploration. There was still plenty of time to converse along the way and the subject of the Rakshan deity came around.
Violet asked Twilight, “Did you happen to ask Sojourner why he was equinoid rather than a felinoid while you were conversing with him? You’d think a precursor race would have more in common with their descendants.”
Twilight began, “No, he—”
“Wait! What?” Tigerbright interrupted. “What are talking about, Vi? He resembled a mixture of a lynx and a snow leopard with wings. Nothing like an equine at all.”
Violet stared at hir. “Tiger, he looked like a biped horse morph with a light blue coat that softly glowed and he had a golden mane and tail that shimmered. Aside from his wings, he was very much an equine being. He could easily be the god of the pegasi.”
That stunned the chakat. “I know what I saw, hon. In fact, I could see him before Twilight’s spell showed him to you, remember?”
The alicorn spoke up. “You’re both equally right and wrong. Sojourner is an ascended being, at least a couple of levels higher than an alicorn. Rakshan deities have transcended the need for a physical body. How anyone perceives him or any of his kind depends on species and cultural expectations. Tigerbright saw him as a felinoid while we saw him as an equinoid. If we were to ask the crew of the Star Phoenix what he looked like, I would wager that we would get different answers yet again.”
The chakat nodded thoughtfully. “That makes sense, I suppose. Makes me curious what his species really was before they ascended.”
“There were some subjects that Sojourner did not choose to answer, so we may never know.”
As it was obvious that line of conversation was a dead end, the subject was dropped.
Tigerbright said, “So, Twilight, did you arrange that movie night with Princess Luna now that we have a copy of The Princess Bride?”
“I did that last night before I went to bed. I knew that my herdmate would be up then. We have a Casual Friday coming up and we’ll play the movie after dinner.”
The chakat raised an eyebrow and cocked hir head. “What’s a Casual Friday?”
Violet answered. “That’s a House Path tradition. Each Friday, everyone is invited to dinner at all House Path branches. The catch is that there’s absolutely no rank or privilege at them. It’s a purely social affair where a foal can chat with a king as equals. No business is allowed to be discussed. However, every week includes several forms of entertainment. We’ve had pony singers, zebra acrobats, griffon dancers, illusionists, and sometimes movie nights. Auntie Twilight has taken me to many of these events.”
“I see,” Tigerbright said. “Not only fun but also an excellent way to improve social relations with other countries and species.”
“Exactly,” Twilight replied. “The founder of the House and my herdmate, Long Path, instituted the practice very early, and it has been a mainstay of the House ever since.”
“I’m looking forward to experiencing it, if I’m allowed,” the chakat said.
“I meant it when I said everyone is invited,” Twilight pointed out. “As long as you can leave your prejudices at the door, no one is turned away.”
“Awesome! I wonder who else I’ll get to meet there.”
The conversation continued, only interrupted when Twilight stopped occasionally to examine some features of the cave along the way. If not for those pauses, they would have gotten to the array at least half an hour sooner. Nevertheless, they still had several hours to spare when they finally reached their destination. Everything looked the same to Violet as it had when she and her mate had first come there. However, Tigerbright frowned in concern.
“Vi, do those runes look like they are glowing to you?”
The unicorn shook her head. “Nope. More of that magic sight of yours?”
“I suppose so,” the chakat conceded. “I certainly didn’t perceive anything like this the last time I was here. Glad it’s just me and that thing apparently isn’t about to do something unexpected.”
Twilight had made a beeline for the mystic artifact, but she noticed their exchange. “Tigerbright, you can help me. Tell me which of the runes are active and which are passive at the moment.”
“Sure thing, Twilight.”
The chakat pointed out which of the markings were glowing, and let the alicorn know if any turned on or off while Twilight examined them, making notes on her datapad. Then she set aside her instruments and started constructing a spell.
“Is that wise?” Violet asked.
“While nothing is completely without risk, this spell is designed to take an impression of the magic matrix within the pyramid,” Twilight explained. “It’s not supposed to do anything to it, just map it. I need it to correlate the rune statements with the current activity. I would have liked to cast it when the array activates, but you’ve seen for yourself what it does to active magic in its presence.”
Tigerbright looked puzzled. “Statements? I thought they were spells?”
“One moment…” Twilight replied distractedly. “There. That should do it.” A sparkling web of magic formed at the tip of her horn and then drifted down to where the purple mare’s datapad lay. It sank into and the device beeped happily. “That was a holographic reproduction of the mana matrix. I’ll be spending days analyzing it. I haven’t had a challenge like this in a century!” she exclaimed while prancing on her tippyhooves. She then noticed Tigerbright’s expression. “Oh. Right. What was that question again?”
“Why do you call the rune spells ‘statements’?”
“I’m glad you asked. That’s because that is how runes work. They are the precursor to articulated spells. You see, each rune makes a basic statement of truth about reality. Are you familiar with Neighponese writing? Each pictogram is a word and, when combined with other pictograms, can create other words. Runes are similar except that each encompasses a sentence, but combining the runes can change the meaning of the sentences. The positioning of the runes also affects their interpretation. With the correct runic symbols in the optimum order, literally anything can be achieved because they are statements of how something should be. For example, theoretically, I could write a series of runes which, when activated, would change your stripes to spots. And the interesting bit is that you would be on record as always having had spots.”
Tigerbright gulped. “That sounds faintly terrifying and seems like extremely dangerous magic.”
“Oh, it is! I have had some wonderful discussions with Discord and my son, Destined, about metaphysics and the nature of reality, all spurred by my studies into runes.” Twilight enthused. “It’s also ridiculously difficult. That’s why it’s going to take me so long to analyze these. And frankly, if my initial assessment is correct, this isn’t a particularly complex spell matrix. Its purpose appears to be gathering mana and sending it to the portal, although I sense that there’s some secondary function in there too. Anyway, it probably took Merlin, Faust, and Morgan a long time to devise these. Although, what it’s doing here on Chakona instead of Earth, I have no idea.”
Violet said, “I read all the reports from the Cosmic Lotus and Techbird voraciously and one thing stood out – Merlin and Morgan were intense rivals and it was a miracle that they cooperated long enough to achieve their goals, despite the dire necessity. However, Merlin said Morgan had cast the portal adrift. What if she had fooled him and instead of just sending it away, she deliberately anchored it here for whatever reason? That’s a large part of why I wanted to come to Chakona. I want to figure out this mystery.”
The alicorn nodded thoughtfully. “That sounds plausible, although we may never know Morgan’s true motives.”
“How about focusing on creating a whole world of beings capable of wielding magic in one form or another who could master this particular branch of arcane science to advance her goals while foiling the efforts of Merlin and Faust?” Tigerbright suggested.
Twilight gave hir a funny look. “Well, if she did, it sure backfired on her. We know far less about this obsolete form of mage-craft than back then.”
“And yet, someone whom I’m told is the greatest mage in Equestrian history, the Alicorn of Magic, is now figuring out how it works with the benefit of modern computing devices to assist her.”
Twilight’s eyes widened and her mouth opened in a silent ‘Oh’. Violet looked a little shocked too. The alicorn and the unicorn looked at each other in dawning comprehension.
“We’re going to have to keep this research under wraps,” Tigerbright’s mate told hir. “While we will still announce the results of our investigation, we’ll omit some details from the report. We don’t want anyone getting any dangerous ideas, even if with the best of intentions.”
“But think of what we would lose if we don’t master this science!” Twilight protested. “The Gateway has maintained a stable wormhole between here and Equus for centuries. As just one example of rune-craft’s benefits, we could build more portals to other worlds while ours becomes a hub of commerce and culture.”
“There’s the ‘best intentions’ part,” Tigerbright pointed out. “Nevertheless, you’re right. You’d be giving up an enormous benefit for fear of a remote possibility. The fact is that knowledge always gets out somehow. The most that you can do is guard it to the utmost of your ability.”
Twilight nodded. “I think I’m done here. Let’s pack up and go.”
Tigerbright looked at Violet and sensed that they were thinking the same thing. The alicorn would normally spend hours poring over what she had learned but, right now, she was a little spooked.
“I’ll make us dinner when we get back to our shuttle,” Tigerbright volunteered. “You can enjoy some genuine camp cooking.”
“I’ll make the damper,” Violet added.
Twilight perked up. “That sounds lovely. I look forward to discovering what this ‘damper’ might be. I accept your invitation.”
While the trio did have that rustic meal and relaxed by the fire while enjoying some stargazing, they nevertheless teleported back to town to sleep. The lack of a tent for Twilight and privacy for the lovers necessitated it. They returned in the morning to retrieve the shuttle and then the alicorn teleported them all back to Equus.
Twilight immediately set about making arrangements for her companions to explore the lunar site that the alicorn had identified. However, the Casual Friday arrived before those were finalized.
Tigerbright was no newcomer to large formal affairs, but this even larger informal one nearly overwhelmed hir empathic senses. Shi briefly wondered how hir mate was able to cope, before realizing that she had grown up experiencing Casual Fridays on a regular basis and was well-practiced in dealing with it. Still, once shi managed to tamp down the emotional tsunami to a bearable level, shi began to enjoy the experience. Chakats were still relatively rare on this world, so Tigerbright quickly found hirself the center of attention from many different beings, but children especially. It made hir realize a little of what shi was in for when hir and Violet’s child was born. Shi could hardly wait!
The impromptu entertainment was a marvel. Anyone who wanted to do so could take a turn on the stage to entertain the crowd. While some were amateurish, they were nevertheless enthusiastic and granted due applause. The act that stunned the chakat the most though was the bawdy duet sung by the crownless Princesses Celestia and Luna which brought the house down. Shi tried and failed to imagine the heads of the Federation Council doing the same. This world was crazy but in the best kind of way.
A movie night was announced for those who would like to stay and enjoy it. Billed as a new import of an old classic from Earth, it drew the interest of a fair crowd. Tigerbright somehow found hirself acting as a backrest for Luna. It didn’t bother the chakat but it greatly amused hir mate. A playful glare from the blue alicorn promised retribution if the entertainment did not meet her standards. “If I am sorely disappointed, I don’t want to have to search every hiding spot to find Violet’s mate!” Copious amounts of popcorn were distributed to everyone before the movie started, not to mention plenty of everybody’s favorite drinks.
It didn’t take long for the laughter to get started despite every character being a human. Some things transcended species. Luna was startled when Vizzini first declared, “Inconceivable!” but was chortling by the fourth time. At one point, she started howling with laughter and her “Princess-Size” bucket of popcorn went flying. Violet snatched it in midair and saved all but a few kernels while Tigerbright grinned at the alicorn’s reaction.
When the movie was over, Luna faced Tigerbright with a smile, merriment still sparkling in her eyes.
“I have never been so amusingly reminded that nopony can always be right and, as such, the fact that you have traced the mana beam to my moon is not so inconceivable after all. Nevertheless, I may yet utilize the quote upon suitable occasion. Anyway, I shall provide you with whatever resources are within my power to procure in order to expedite your exploration. In return, I ask that you provide me with a full report on what you may find before you release said information to the public. After all, one must preserve one’s image as the all-knowing Alicorn of the Moon.”
The chakat grinned. “Of course, and thank you for your help, Princess.”
“Nay, ‘tis still Casual Friday, friend Tigerbright. You may call me Luna and it has been a pleasure meeting you.” She got up onto her hooves. “Sadly, I have to attend to the needs of our subjects and I must depart. We shall meet again soon, no doubt. Farewell.” Then the alicorn was gone in a flash of teleportation.
“Well, although no business is supposed to be done on Casual Fridays, this has been a productive evening,” Tigerbright said to Violet.
“Never underestimate the power of friendship, right, Auntie Twilight?”
“That and a good movie,” replied the Princess of Friendship with a wink.
“This is something I never dreamed of doing,” Tigerbright said conversationally to Violet.
The two of them trundled over the grey dust of a lunar plain toward a low range. Twilight had determined was a likely place to hide the array that was the twin to the one on Chakona. They were in a rover on loan from Magitek Incorporated’s Lunar Branch and, as it had been designed primarily for pony use, Violet was driving it. The vehicle had been constructed for the harsh conditions on the surface of Equus’ moon and its self-contained life-support system was good for at least a month without replenishing air, water, or food. Its mana-based power supply was rated for years of use and was of zero concern to them. It had an airlock that allowed the explorers to make forays in their spacesuits to investigate sites for a hidden entrance to a cave or tunnel that concealed their quarry. While getting the use of the rover had taken the intercession of Luna herself, that had not been the primary hold-up to beginning their quest. Providing the chakat with a spacesuit had been difficult in a locale where hir kind was still a rarity. And as Violet had no intention of proceeding without hir, the mates had taken care of other matters in the meantime.
“Neither did I,” the unicorn mare replied. “But here we are on yet another exciting adventure. And we’ve learned so much already. We’re going to have a lot to tell our child when shi’s old enough.”
Tigerbright smiled fondly at hir wife. “I’m betting you won’t wait that long.”
Violet giggled. “You’re right. I’ll tell hir bedtime stories from the day shi’s born.”
It had been a great relief to both expectant parents to have Twilight provide further insights into their pregnancy.
Immediately after returning from Chakona, they had forestalled Twilight’s attempts to put them both through the scientific wringer by holding a simple wedding ceremony for the benefit of Starshine and Fireball. Tigerbright’s three parents attended via Twilight’s diplomatic videofeed with the promise of a second ceremony for Violet’s new chakat family at the earliest convenience. After that, the alicorn had whisked them away to her laboratory. While the unicorn was quite familiar with the place, the chakat was a little intimidated by the mad scientist vibe it had. Assurances from hir mate that the decor was mostly just Twilight’s private joke did not greatly reassure hir. In particular, the ‘mostly’ part.
After dozens of meticulous measurements and samples, the alicorn had presented her findings, first to the unicorn mare.
“To start with, I can confirm the New Horizon doctor’s diagnosis. You and the fetus are in perfect health.”
Violet and Tigerbright had hugged each other joyfully at that news.
“Next,” Twilight continued when she had their attention again, “while the exposure to the mana surge has given Tigerbright the ability to visualize magic in ways I hope to explore in great detail later, it’s had no effect on hir genes. I suspect the activation of a hitherto dormant chromosome region. Analysis of hir semen sample shows perfectly normal chakat genes.”
Violet said, “So I was correct when I said that it was amplified love magic that enabled hir to fertilize me?”
“Yes and no. While the surge undoubtedly magnified its effects, it was the activation of your changeling genes by the love magic that did the trick. From my analysis of your current genetic structure, I can tell you that you are now interfertile with chakats. This is a permanent change, so you will be able to have more children without needing the amplifying effect of the mana surge.”
“That’s wonderful news, Auntie!” the unicorn said with an enormous smile and a hug.
“Depending on your desires, it might not be all good news,” Twilight said seriously.
Violet pulled back. “Oh, no. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong, per se. It’s just that you will never know what your children are going to be like due to the adaptive nature of your changeling genes. Also, when I say you’re now fertile with Tigerbright, I mean that you are going to have to practice some serious birth control. Your fertility index is sky-high! Tigerbright could just about impregnate you with a sexy thought when you’re on heat.”
That made both the chakat and unicorn snort and laugh. Tigerbright said, “In that case, we’re going to need a bigger house.”
There was more laughter before Violet said, “All joking aside, Auntie, we’ll be careful. I’ll just have Tigerbright wear hir body-condom at all times.”
The chakat laughed. “You mean my spacesuit?”
“Yes, that.” More laughs all around. “And whatever I give birth to, I know that shi will be a wonderful blend of both of us.” She hesitated for a moment. “The foal will be a herm, right?”
Twilight nodded. “Tigerbright was correct in saying that it’s a hyperdominant trait. Any foals you have with hir will all be herms too. But as shi well knows, physical sexual characteristics aren’t necessarily what will define hir gender.”
The chakat added, “What Twilight means is that our child might see hirself as female, male or some combination, just as I’m very masculine-oriented. We will have to see how shi grows up to be.”
“I fell in love with an alien from another world – I have no preconceptions,” Violet stated firmly.
However, it had not stopped either of them from speculating, and they were still talking about it when they had departed on their lunar trek. Twilight had regretfully bid them farewell for now because she had too many other obligations that could no longer be ignored. While the time she had spent out in space and on Chakona was justified, exploring the lifeless lunar surface for days was not. She promised to rejoin the duo if possible when they located the array.
Tigerbright found out that hiking in a spacesuit was nowhere near as much fun as their trips on Chakona. And while Violet was interested in the geology, it didn’t take long for the chakat to get bored with endless basalt and dust. It did help keep hir focused on their main mission while hir mate got distracted several times.
“How come we’re not setting up sensors like we did back home?” shi asked.
“No ley lines,” the unicorn replied. “Or virtually none. Besides, we’re pretty sure that this array doesn’t draw mana from the environment like on Chakona. It’s the Equian sun that’s the source, hence the solar storms.”
“So, there’s no way we can track it down then?”
“Oh, it’s not quite that bad. The mana beam leaks a little and that raises the background level a tiny but measurable amount. I’ll set up a directional sensor for tonight’s surge and try to get a rough bearing. If one isn’t enough, we’ll try again tomorrow. Just like on Emu Island, patience is the key. Hopefully, you won’t get bored.”
Tigerbright shrugged. “I’m never bored when I’m with you. It may not be a thrill a minute, but I get to share your excitement at exercising your passion even while we search for the array.”
Violet gave hir a sly smile. “So, you’ll help me sort and catalog my rock specimens when we get back to the rover?”
Her mate chuckled. “Pass. I’ll cook us up a fancy meal. I mean, it won’t be damper cooked on a campfire but I think I can tickle your taste buds.”
The mare giggled. “Okay, deal!”
Unsurprisingly, the pair did not find their quarry that day. Tigerbright cooked some cheese and mushroom omelets for dinner, followed by Sweet Apple Acres apple pie a la mode. When an alarm that they had set forewarning of the next surge rang, they ensured that any active magic systems were temporarily shut down to play it safe. Violet managed to get her reading and, although it was just as vague as predicted, it did enable them to cross off at least one area that they had planned to visit. Then it was time to go to bed.
In space, no one can hear you scream in passion.
On the sixth day, they found it. Or more precisely, Tigerbright did. Hir peculiar ability to see magic had been practiced a lot lately and, just by squinting, shi was able to see ley lines like Violet had shown hir on the day they had met. The weak lines on the moon meant that shi had been paying closer attention to the faint signs, and that enabled hir to notice a dim glow in a place that should have been in shadow. When the two investigated, they discovered a concealed entrance to a tunnel. Unlike the cave that they had traversed on Chakona, this passageway was of consistent size and much shorter. The tunnel opened into a cavern a bit smaller than its counterpart on Chakona.
“No animals or elements to protect the array from here,” the unicorn commented as they stepped up to the twin to the huge diamond on the other side of the portal.
However, while the glowing blue crystal had the same six sides inscribed with the identical glyphs, the chakat immediately noticed that the runes carved into the base were different. Shi pointed this out to hir mate.
Violet nodded. “That makes sense. It has to perform several different functions and its target is forty lightyears away rather than three lightdays.”
“Well, you’d better start recording while I set up the mana beacon. Twilight will want to check this out as soon as possible.” The beacon had been specially prepared for this situation. A purely electronic timer and control system enabled it to shut down the beacon minutes before a surge and re-initialize it a safe time afterwards. It also had some hefty magic insulation. Hopefully, those measures would enable it to survive proximity to the arcane device. By the time Tigerbright had installed and tested it, Violet had completed the recording.
“Ready to go back to the rover?” Violet asked.
“Yep. I’m going to break out the special treats I’ve been saving to celebrate finding the array. But first – selfie!”
The two posed in front of the array and took a photo that they later sent to a certain Lunar Princess.
Tigerbright and Violet considered themselves fortunate that they managed to eat their breakfast before Twilight Sparkle called and asked if they were ready to meet her at the Lunar Array. The purple alicorn was not known for being a morning pony but both knew how eager she got when involved in an exciting project. Nevertheless, she had to be patient while the chakat and unicorn suited up. Spacesuits were not something you threw on in a couple of minutes. The two made very sure that all systems were hooked up and working properly before they stepped out of the airlock.
They had moved the rover as close as was practical to the tunnel entrance, so it did not take the explorers long to get to the array. They found the alicorn there already, wearing a spacesuit despite her ability to shield herself with magic.
“It lets me concentrate on my investigatory spells,” she explained when queried. “Plus it’s so much easier to communicate with you two via the in-suit comm system. Now if you’ll excuse me.” The alicorn turned to face the blue crystal.
To Tigerbright, it seemed that Twilight was just standing there, staring at the array while her horn glowed, so shi decided to try something with hir new talent. Focusing on the mage, the chakat tried to visualize what the alicorn was doing, much as shi did when looking at the ley lines. After a few moments, shi succeeded. Tigerbright gasped and staggered, overwhelmed by what shi perceived. Drama shows that Tigerbright had watched had used special effects to represent magic spells at work, but they paled in comparison to what shi could see the Element of Magic using. Arcane structures filled half the room, some static while others flowed around and through the pyramid. If the changing colors and symbols were any indication, Twilight was adapting or rewriting multiple enchantments on the fly. How any one mind could generate so many spells at once let alone control them was far beyond what the chakat could comprehend.
Violet put a hoof on hir mate’s shoulder and asked, “Are you alright, darling?”
Tigerbright shook hir head dazedly. “Not exactly. I made the mistake of looking at Twilight’s spells.”
The mare nodded in comprehension. “Oh, yeah. We learned long ago not to focus on Auntie’s spellwork when she is engaged in something complex. There are maybe two or three ponies capable of merely keeping up with her, let alone comprehending everything she’s doing simultaneously.”
“Then why are we here, Vi? What use are we now that we’ve found the array?”
“Because Auntie Twilight knows that it was a team effort to get this far and she won’t leave us out of this moment. And, also, a lay person can sometimes notice things that an expert can overlook as inconsequential. Remember when I dismissed your assertion that the array was within that mountain on Emu Island? I was the magic expert there but you were the one who sensed its presence. Sure, you thought it was a hunch but, in hindsight, it was an ability that we could have utilized sooner if we had understood it better then. Why do you think I let you do the navigating while I drove the rover?”
“I thought it was to give me something to do. You could have told me about that.”
“No, you would have tried to force it because you don’t understand it. I let you play your instincts instead. We could have been out here for weeks without finding the tunnel.”
“What about that tracking device you made?” the chakat countered.
“It narrowed down the search area, true, but it was much too imprecise to zero in on the site.”
“I think I’m going to have to take some lessons in handling this talent of mine,” Tigerbright said with a sigh.
“I’ll arrange for you to attend magic kindergarten,” Twilight said with a grin. “Anyway, I’m done for now. If I need to test for anything else, I can use the mana beacon to go back later. Let’s head back to Equus.”
Violet said, “We have to return the rover first.”
The alicorn replied, “Don’t worry about that – I will arrange to have it picked up. Just put it into stand-by mode and then I’ll teleport us to House Path’s Griffonia base.”
The three left the tunnel and headed for the rover. After Tigerbright and Violet secured the vehicle and gathered their personal items, the alicorn teleported them all to Equus. They divested themselves of their spacesuits only then and Twilight had Violet and Tigerbright’s put into storage after being given a standard service. The custom-fitted protective gear would not suit most other ponies or chakats but would be available to them if they ever needed it again.
“I’m going to go to my backup intermediate thaumaturgical studies laboratory and get to work on this data. I’ll leave you in the hooves of my herdmates,” Twilight told the two as she guided them to the mansion’s entryway. While both had been there for the Casual Friday, this was a separate area of the vast structure.
They were shown into a dining room where several people were eating lunch. They immediately recognized Prince Destined, an earth pony stallion named Long Path, and a male griffon named Free Agent. There was also a female hippogriff that the chakat had not met yet.
Violet gave a respectful nod to the prince but Tigerbright said, “It’s a pleasure to see you again, Your Highness.”
“Please,” the alicorn responded, “This is not Canterlot and I’m not on duty. Call me Destined.”
Long Path said, “It’s good to see you two once more. Tigerbright, I don’t believe you have met my granddaughter yet as she was out of town at the time. Gisela, this is Chakat Tigerbright, Chief Administrator of the Emu Island colony, who recently married Violet Woods. Tigerbright, this Gisela Path, current Lord of House Path.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Gisela said with a kind smile on her beaked face.
“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance at last,” the chakat said.
Gisela chuckled. “Sadly, my position keeps me busy enough here on Equus that traveling to Chakona is only an occasional indulgence, and normally to visit my counterpart in Amistad. The colony is the baby of my grandparents, hence my lack of official visits. Not that I haven’t been updated on its progress regularly.”
“If informality is your preference, Violet and I would enjoy extending you our hospitality,” Tigerbright offered.
“I think I would like that.” The hippogriff turned her attention to Violet. “When Gramma Twilight told me about your move to New Horizon, I admit that I was taken aback by your decision. You’ve continued to surprise me, first by your involvement with the mana surge investigation and now your marriage to Tigerbright. Events have happened so rapidly of late and you’ve succeeded in every sense of the word! Whirring Cogs would be very proud of his descendent, I believe.”
Violet blushed. “I got lucky – right place at the right time kind of thing.”
“Perhaps, but what someone does at such propitious moments determines their destinies.”
“Sit down and have a bite to eat or drink,” Free Agent said. “Twi rushed off in such excitement this morning that she neglected to let us know what she was intending to do. I gather that your mission was a success?”
“It was,” Violet replied. “I think Auntie Luna is going to be miffed.”
Path laughed. “She’ll get over it. Now, let’s hear the juicy details.”
“What are your plans now that you’ve completed your task?” Path asked the couple.
Tigerbright replied first. “While this has been a wonderful and long-overdue holiday, I’m afraid that I will need to get back to my primary job.”
Violet nodded. “And while I was assigned to this special project, now that it’s done, I’ll be expected to begin the work for which I was hired for in the first place.”
“Good thing you got your honeymoon in before the marriage then,” Free Agent said with a wink.
The unicorn blushed a little but the chakat shared a grin with the impertinent griffon.
Destined rolled his eyes. “I’ll take you both back to Chakona tonight. I suggest you make the most of the rest of the day. The House is open to you. Violet can show you around, Tigerbright – she’s been here often enough.”
“That sounds good, but why not take us back right now?” the unicorn asked.
“Mom wants you to observe the effects of the surge on the portal. You’ve been involved in this since the beginning, so you ought to see the whole picture. And, as the next surge won’t be until late this evening Griffonia Standard Time, there’s no point in leaving before then.”
The chakat nodded. “Sounds like a plan to me. I’ll contact my assistant to advise him that I will be returning to duty tomorrow so we can arrange our schedules.”
“Excellent,” the alicorn said. “I suggest we meet here for dinner. The time difference between here and Chakona will allow you to have a leisurely meal before we need to leave.”
“Okay, we’ll see you then, Destined,” Violet replied. “Come on, Tiger – I’ve got lots to show you!”
Tigerbright had been fascinated by the behind-the-scenes look at the famous House Path, but the thing that had made the greatest impression on hir was meeting a dragon for the first time. They ran into Cinder in one of the large conference rooms. Introductions had to be cut short as the dragoness was setting up a wargaming tournament among the teenage members of the house. While Tigerbright had heard that dragons had helped establish New Horizon when it was built for the war effort against the Swarm, none had been in residence since shi had been assigned to the new colony as its Chief Administrator. And while Cinder had been a marvel to meet, she had been immediately eclipsed by the Matriarch. The gigantic and ancient dragoness had been remarkably cordial, but she had puzzled the chakat after introductions were made.
“Ah, yes, I remember now,” the Matriarch rumbled. “It’s a pleasure meeting you again at last. Congratulations on your and Violet’s lovely foal.”
Tigerbright tilted hir head and raised an eyebrow. “Thanks, but shi hasn’t been born yet and I don’t recall ever meeting you before. And, believe me, you’re not readily forgettable!”
The dragoness chuckled in a deep bass. “No, but I have changed a bit since then.” She turned to look at Violet. “You have not told hir my history, have you?”
“Not yet, Matriarch,” the unicorn replied with a smile.
“I will let you elucidate hir then. Until we meet again, Shir Tigerbright, farewell.” With two flaps of her wings that generated gale-force winds, the dragoness then retired to her loft.
The chakat turned to hir mate. “Okay – what am I missing?”
“I’ll give you a few hints. First – you met the Matriarch only a short time ago. Second – that’s her title, not her name which is actually Shaikhan-Gal. Want to guess what that loosely translates to?”
Tigerbright frowned in thought. “I’ve only met Cinder before the Matriarch… does Shaikhan-Gal mean the same thing?”
“The Matriarch was joking because she has the same name as the younger one. Although that doesn’t really explain how she knew that we were having a foal.”
“You’re halfway there. Another hint: Cinder’s real name is Shaikhan-Gal.”
“Are dragons in the habit of naming children after honored elders?”
“Not that I am aware of. I’ve never heard of two dragons with the same name.”
“Then they’re the same dragon? How is that possible? Can Cinder grow huge at will? I don’t know if Equestrian magic can do that or not.”
“Yes, Cinder did grow, but it took a couple of thousand years for her to get that huge.”
Tigerbright blinked, trying to reconcile seemingly contradictory facts. Then hir eyes widened. “She’s from the future!”
“Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner!”
“But how… Wait. You told me that Prince Destined is the Alicorn of Time. Does he have something to do with this?”
“Right again, and it’s a long story and involves alternate timelines. However, you worked it out. The Matriarch met you first as her younger self. She has an excellent memory although she slipped up a bit with the timing of the birth of our foal. Honestly though, that is more reassuring to me than all the medical pronouncements. She has seen the birth already and it seems shi’s going to be fine.”
“That is good news. Anyway, let’s hear the whole story now.”
Both of them had worked up quite an appetite by the time dinner rolled around. Tigerbright found hirself seated next to Destined Path on hir right with Violet on hir left. The alicorn was expounding on how in rare circumstances, two temporal paradoxes can nullify each other, allowing time to flow unfettered. The chakat was inexplicably fascinated by what the stallion was explaining despite not understanding half of what he was saying. Nevertheless, hir attention was riveted and shi drew closer before pushing hir muzzle into his mane, sniffing, and purring.
The startled alicorn was momentarily at a loss for words and, before he could respond, Tigerbright reached up to start scratching him behind the ears. Destined’s eyes rolled up and he groaned in pleasure.
By this time, the chakat’s antics had attracted the attention of everyone at the table, and Violet’s in particular. At first, she was just as stunned as the alicorn, but when hir mate reached up with hir handpaw to begin massaging the stallion’s back even as the ear scratching continued, the unicorn began to grow annoyed. While every mare had to be prepared to share her stallion with other mares, hers was getting frisky with another stallion! And right under her nose without even the courtesy of informing the mare of hir interest! … Which… really didn’t make sense. Her husband was as masculine as can be, as she was happily able to attest. But here the chakat was practically making out with a male in public.
Violet had learned long ago to mute her empathic abilities or get driven nuts by the constant blare of unrestrained emotions. Now though, she opened her senses fully to her mate… and rocked back by the wave of raw lust coming from hir. Feminine lust. Violet’s jaw dropped and eyes widened in comprehension. Tigerbright had gone into heat! She slapped a hoof over her mouth to stifle a laugh. “Snrrk!”
Destined’s head flopped onto the table with a silly grin on his face. “Ooh! That’s just… wonnnnnnderful.”
By the looks on some of the others’ faces, they had caught on too. This was the first time Violet had experienced a chakat going into hir female cycle but, even so, she suspected that Tigerbright’s swing was extra intense due to hir being so relentlessly male most of the time. However, her mate was in for disappointment.
“Tiger, dear!” Violet said in as near to a conversational tone as she could manage under the circumstances.
“Mm-hmm?” the chakat responded without ceasing hir ministrations.
“While I think Destined will be grateful for what you’re doing, I’m afraid you’re not going to get what you need back.”
Tigerbright’s efforts faltered and the alicorn whined in protest. “Why not?” shi asked dazedly.
“Because the prince is a colt-cuddler.”
Free Agent spoke up. “It’s an Equestrian euphemism. I believe you would say he’s gay.”
The chakat stared at Destined for a long moment. “You are?”
“Yesss, don’t stop,” the alicorn replied.
“Oh. I’ll mount you if you do me first.”
Free Agent fell off his chair laughing.
Twilight was blushing when she interjected. “Violet, I think Tigerbright has been hyper-sensitized to stallion pheromones. Shi’s not thinking rationally right now.”
“You reckon, Auntie?” Violet replied sarcastically. She got off her chair and enveloped her mate in a telekinetic glow, lifting hir away from the disappointed stallion. “I’m taking Tiger to our guest room and availing myself of the Mating Season toys to alleviate my mate’s needs.”
“Don’t forget the time. I have that presentation on my preliminary findings about the arrays to make in two hours’ time.”
“I’ll try. Send someone if we’re not down five minutes before you start.”
“I’ll do that,” Twilight promised.
Violet was old enough to have gone through many Mating Seasons and having to deal with the burning desire for sex with a stallion, so she was well versed in methods of soothing raging hormones. Intellectually, she had known that this time would come, but her mate’s unfailing maleness had lulled her into a false idea of the permanence of that trait. On the plus side, making hir yowl in passion as she mounted hir with a strap-on stallion member was almost as enjoyable. She could see that the next couple of nights were going to be a lot of fun learning the ways hir mate liked to be thoroughly bucked.
“… take advantage of how each carbon atom is in a rigid tetrahedral network. The orientation of the four covalent bonds connecting an atom to its neighbors is constant throughout the crystal. With this in mind, microscopic channels on each face of the diamond perform a very specific function. Precise modulation of femtosecond pulses on opposite faces build one-atom wide connections through the crystal along three of the four covalent bond vectors. This allows rapid thaumic storage by excitation of the four electrons in the second shell of each carbon atom. The fourth vector is utilized to discharge the crystal upwards. The Sandy Mane – Golden Bell principle of thaumic self-attraction is utilized to provide beam steering of approximately .023 radians. Any questions?”
Tigerbright looked around the lecture hall from hir place on stage behind and to the left of the speaker, Twilight Sparkle. While the alicorn claimed this was to allow the couple to answer any questions sent their way, hir mate voiced a differing opinion. The couple was put on display like stuffed waterfowl to highlight their importance to the research project.
With difficulty, the chakat had stifled any yawns through the hour-and-a-half lecture by the Element of Magic. Tigerbright followed the chemistry easily enough, but ninety percent of the lecture consisted of mind-numbing thaumaturgical equations and constructs that sailed way over hir head. Violet had not felt the pressure of over a hundred eyes and dozen video cameras pointed toward the stage. The unicorn mare had leaned up against her mate’s side and started snoring even before Twilight displayed the first graphic. The chakat almost wished shi was back in the haze of sexual desire but shi had already made enough of a fool of hirself for one day.
The purple mare smiled. “No questions, then? I expect to have four to six scientific papers out for peer review in the next few weeks. I have the contact information of the physical and virtual attendees so I will let you know when publishing dates are set. Thank you everyone for coming.” The sounds of footsteps and muffled conversations echoed through the lecture hall as the audience headed for the exits.
Tigerbright roused hir mate as Twilight reached the stairs exiting the stage. Just after the last video camera red light went out, the purple mare stopped. “By the waaaaaaay…” She turned to face her herdmate in the front row. “I believe an unnamed Alicorn of the Night, Lunar Mistress, and Senior House Path member… lost a bet.”
“Pshaw!” Luna stood up and stretched. “You said yourself the effort spent hiding the array plus the miserly amount of magic leakage…”
Twilight cleared her throat.
“… Add to that the location on the far side of the moon…”
A gentle cough.
“… knowledge of anything in such an unfashionable, uncouth place cannot be…”
Twilight used a touch of the Royal Canterlot Voice. “Pay up.”
The two House Path alicorns stared each other down until Luna sighed. “Oh, very well, if I must.”
A silver disk the size of a medallion appeared in Luna’s magic. It rotated in the air, both sides reflecting light off their mirror-like surfaces. Luna’s blue magic increased in strength for several seconds before it resumed its previous hue.
As the object began to float toward the purple mare, she motioned with her head. “That one goes to the happy couple. You need to make two this time.”
Luna paused and looked over Tigerbright and Violet. “By definition, alicorn challenge coins have only been bequeathed amongst ourselves. That being said, I concur.”
Violet caught her breath. The wash of emotions cascading over her let Tigerbright know the magnitude of this privilege. Luna gently placed the surprisingly heavy medallion in the chakat’s hands. Shi realized it must be made of pure silver! With hir mate pressed up along her side, Tigerbright flipped the coin over.
Twilight said, “And thank you for my copy, dear Luna.” She gave a mock bow and smirked. “Now I can put it with all the other reminders of when I was right.”
Tigerbright had an epiphany and looked up. “That’s what these are, aren’t they? Immortal alicorns use these to fix memories so you can always remember your times together.”
The room fell silent. Only then did Tigerbright noticed that everyone else had left, leaving only the four of them.
Luna gave Tigerbright a sly smile and walked around the chakat. The blue mare stopped between the couple, placing each under one wing. “Violet, dear. I think this clever creature is a bit too much for you to handle. Don't you think shi is better suited for an alicorn?”
Violet stepped free of Luna's embrace. “Ha, ha. Thanks but no thanks, Auntie.”
Tigerbright embraced Luna with both arms and smiled. “Don't you get it, my dear mate? With the coin and now this offer? Luna was proposing to make you an alicorn.”
Violet sputtered for a few seconds. Before she could get a word out, Tigerbright held up a hand and closed hir eyes. “Too late. You already said no. Pity. Still, you had your chance.”
Twilight and Luna snickered in amusement while Violet gave her mate a very dark stare. The chortling ended abruptly as the unicorn mare deliberately stepped closer. Tigerbright felt Luna’s wing leave hir back as the Mistress of the Night retreated. The chakat fidgeted, spooked at the prospect of anything that could intimidate an alicorn.
Violet walked right up to Tigerbright and gave hir a predatory smile. “Oh, you cheeky chakat. One day, your mouth will get you into more trouble than the rest of you will be able to pay.”
As the unicorn mare walked away, the two alicorns now laughed at the terrified expression on Tigerbright's face.
The couple looked around curiously after Destined Path teleported them aboard the Gateway Portal Observation Station. While it had originally been established purely for scientific purposes, the ever-increasing use of the wormhole had turned the station into the de-facto traffic control center for the route. However, it still functioned to observe the portal’s behavior and the surges had attracted a great deal of attention lately. Thus, the room that they entered was crowded with equipment both technological and arcane.
A male fox morph came over upon seeing them and nodded politely to the alicorn. “Welcome, Prince Destined Path. Are these the guests that you warned me that you would be bringing?”
“Yes, Director Vulpes. This is Chakat Tigerbright, Chakonan Chief Administrator of the Emu Island colony where the first array was found. And this is Violet Woods, Tigerbright’s wife and co-discoverer of the array.”
“Thank you for your contributions to this project and welcome aboard,” Vulpes said with a slight smile. “I have reserved two places for you to observe an event. From there, you will be able to see the portal both directly through the observation window and also a close-up view via the vid-screen.” He gestured toward the designated area. “Please do not stray from your positions or distract the staff. Each event is too brief to make conversation while they are happening.”
“Understood, Director,” Violet replied.
They did not have to wait long. A chime announced the beginning of the surge which struck all six moons that delimited and controlled the portal. Through the window, it seemed as if each of the satellites started glowing softly. However, the close-up view of one of them showed that the glow was a result of the runes illuminating them as they were activated. Then the show was over. The researchers had recordings that they would review in detail later but it felt a bit anti-climactic to the visitors.
When Vulpes came over to them, the chakat and unicorn figured that they were free to ask questions now.
“Can you tell us anything about what happens during these surges?” Violet asked.
“Certainly,” the fox replied. “We’ve determined that all six moons act like a battery. After every surge, they each show a stronger magic potential. Basically, they’re recharging.”
“Is that all?” Tigerbright queried.
Vulpes shook his head. “While it wasn’t obvious, those satellites shifted position slightly. The first time there was a surge, the movement was far larger and quite obvious.”
“Do you know why they moved?”
“Simple enough. They’re realigning themselves. We found that the Gateway is aimed directly at Chakastra, hence why it has always been visible from Equus. But even the most precise placement needs to be adjusted for perturbations and natural drift over time. The volume of traffic it has seen lately has increased the rate of drift from alignment, but that is still too small for you to see. Only our instruments can pick that up.”
Violet asked, “How much have you been able to figure out regarding how they work?”
“Very little so far, but we are optimistic about Princess Sparkle’s latest analyses. We’re looking forward to seeing what she has learned from the Lunar array.”
“Me too,” the unicorn mare admitted.
Destined stepped up. “Time to get you two back to New Horizon. Thank you for your hospitality, Director Vulpes.”
“Anytime, Your Highness.”
“Are you ready?” the alicorn asked.
Violet frowned thoughtfully. “Umm, can I ask a favor?”
Destined raised an eyebrow. “What would that be?”
“I want to test my range. I’ve never teleported this far without the surge amplifying my performance.”
“Okay, but just yourself. No need to risk Tigerbright.”
“Is that wise, sir?” Tigerbright asked.
“A failed teleport spell will leave her woozy, but the same could have a lot more serious effect on anyone she tried to take with her.”
“Gotcha. I’ll sit this out.”
Violet tilted her head up to give the chakat a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll be fine. See you soon.” She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and disappeared.
The alicorn nodded. “That seemed smooth enough—”
Violet popped back in again. She grinned. “It was easy, but as I stood in the lounge room of our home, I realized that you didn’t know where that was, Destined.”
“True,” he replied with a chuckle. “You can show me later. Let me take you both to the governor’s office. She’s staying back late to see us and listen to your report. You won’t have to visit her in the morning.”
“Good idea,” Tigerbright agreed.
A moment later, they were gone.
After updating the governor, Destined accepted the couple’s offer of coffee and cake. Violet teleported them all to their home, the distance being trivial to the unicorn now, even with two passengers. After he departed, they unpacked their bags before showering together.
“Ready to go back to the grind?” Violet asked as she scrubbed the chakat’s back.
“I like my job, so I don’t really think of it like that, but it’s still going to be dull compared to the last few weeks.”
The mare nodded. “I admit that I am looking forward to working on those surveys. The time we spent in the field only whetted my appetite.”
Tigerbright turned hir head to show a lascivious smile on hir face. “Want to know what I’m hungry for?”
“I don’t have to guess, sexy kitty. Now, how does that chakat saying go again? Tail high, darling!”
“How was your first day back at work?” Tigerbright asked as Violet walked in the door.
The unicorn mare snorted. “You know all those analyses that I put off so that we could hasten to the next site to set up more sensors?”
“Yep. Got stuck with them, I gather?” the chakat asked sympathetically as shi poured them both a drink.
Violet wearily unbuckled her saddlebags, levitating them upstairs before flopping on the sofa. “Uh-huh. Not that I mind doing them but the boss wanted at least half of them done before I went home today. I was informed that they were very overdue now. The fact that I had been on a special assignment that took priority meant little to her. Even if you love your job, turning it into a grind just makes it unpleasant and tiring.”
“Here – this’ll perk you up,” Tigerbright said, passing her a large glass full of some kind of liquid concoction.
“Thanks, love.” Violet took a sniff. “What is it?”
“Just try it,” the chakat replied before taking a swig out of hir own glass.
The mare shrugged and took a generous sip. It was both sweet and creamy. She drank a bit more and sighed in pleasure. “This is lovely.”
“Family recipe for a kind of fruit smoothie. It’s both refreshing and gives us energy. You’re going to need it.”
“Oh? Is someone feeling extra frisky?” Violet asked with a smirk.
Tigerbright gave an exasperated sigh. “It’s bad enough that I’m on heat right now, but I also had to lock myself in my office for most of the day.”
“Your work piled up too, I gather?”
“Not really. Paul and Willowbranch coped well in my absence. There were only a few items that required the Chief Administrator’s authority left for my attention. I had those attended to in a couple of hours.”
“Then what was the problem?”
“Because every time I saw or got a whiff of a pony stallion, I nearly lost my mind with lust for him!”
Violet winced. “Ouch. Sounds like you have it as bad as we do during our yearly mating season. But you have a cycle that is measured in just a few weeks. Don’t you take days off then?”
Tigerbright threw up hir hands. “That’s just it! I didn’t use to have to do that. Sure, I got horny in female peak, but at worst it was an annoying distraction. Now, I can’t even think about a stallion without fantasizing about how good it would feel with his cock inside of me!”
Violet nearly snorted her drink out of her nose and she had to swallow hastily to allow her chuckles out. “Oh yeah, you’ve got it bad. Need me to work off your horniness?”
“Why do you think I prepared that energy drink?” The chakat then finished off hirs.
“What brought this on anyway? Auntie Twilight didn’t mention any physiological changes in you except perhaps for the sensitivity to pony pheromones.”
“I don’t think that’s the problem. It’s because we are both empaths and we empathically bonded during the surge. I’m guessing that I’ve been turned into a hippophile!”
“Is that a word? And are you sure you aren’t just having an exceptionally bad heat?”
“It’s a word now! And no, I’m not. Males of other species or even other chakats don’t have the same effect. Willowbranch didn’t seem any more attractive than during normal heats, and neither did Paul, but when one of the spaceport’s stallion employees came to the office, I was just about ready to jump his bones. I think I frightened the bejeebers out of him before he scooted out of there.”
“Well, you were a big scary predator who was just about ready to eat him up right then.”
Tigerbright stared at hir mate for a long moment before they both burst out laughing.
“Okay, finish your drink, come up to our room, and strap on that awesome toy of yours, hon. We’d already be up there if I didn’t want you prepared for a long session.” Shi turned and headed up the stairs.
“You really know how to lift my spirits after a hard day, don’t you?” Violet replied with a giggle, following her mate eagerly.
“Just like you know how to lift my tail!” the chakat called down.
The mare laughed as she trotted up the steps. “Wishful thinking! Fortunately for you, I excel at making your wishes come true!”
The two lovers lay together on their bed, watching a gorgeous sunset through the open blinds. Neither had thought to close them before they made love and they hoped that no passing pegasus or griffon had noticed. Then again, they were both feeling so good that neither was greatly bothered by that possibility.
“That was better than yesterday,” Tigerbright murmured.
“Still learning how best to please you, darling,” Violet replied, her voice muffled a little as her muzzle was nestled between the chakat’s boobs.
“I think I’ve learned a thing or two also which I’ll have to try when I get off this heat.”
“How long will you be like this?”
“Every other time, I would say just a couple of days, but what with all that has happened lately and bearing in mind how I feel around ponies, I’m not willing to bet that’s the case now.”
“Going to take tomorrow off if you’re still horny?”
Tigerbright shook hir head. “I got through today and I don’t feel like staying home without you.” Shi stroked Violet’s belly with hir handpaw. “Without both of you.”
“Feel like having one of your own now?”
“Yeah, but that’s the hormones talking. Ask me again when I’m back to normal.”
Violet chuckled. “I don’t think that there will be anything normal between us ever again.”
Her mate grinned. “You may be right, and I don’t regret that one bit.”
“Me neither. Now, I seem to recall a certain chakat telling me that it was impossible to arouse one side of hir sexual nature without the other side getting stimulated too.”
“Truer words were never spoken,” Tigerbright admitted.
“Good, because it’s my turn now.”
“Am I going to need another energy drink?” the chakat asked with a leer as shi moved to oblige.
“I think we both will, love.”
Fortunately for Tigerbright, while shi still felt the desire for stallions the next day, it was nowhere near as overwhelming as it had been. Shi was able to have a near-normal workday and indulge in some conversation with the staff. Shi brought home the interesting news that Willowbranch had hit it off with Morningmist and hir mate, Evening Shade. Shi had been going out with them regularly since the new assistant had visited the chakat for the necessary empathic interaction. This suited Tigerbright because it released hir from the obligation and let hir concentrate all hir time on hir mate.
The two spent their first weekend socializing with friends, but the second saw them revisiting one of their favorite camping spots. They spent a couple of days exploring the area and making love frequently.
Fifteen days after they returned to Chakona, the surges stopped. Three days later, the authorities were confident that they would not resume and life returned to pre-surge normality.
The next evening, the couple was surprised by the doorbell while they were snuggling on the sofa. Tigerbright looked down at Violet and asked, “Were you expecting someone?”
The mare shook her head and slid out of her lover’s arms. “I’ll get the door.” A moment later, the chakat heard, “Auntie! Come on in. What brings you here today?”
A purple alicorn walked into Tigerbright’s view and shi got up to meet the mare, opening hir arms in invitation.
Twilight Sparkle hugged the chakat like she had just done with Violet. “I’ve come to officially close the book on your special assignment and update you on our findings.” Seeing the expressions on both their faces, she giggled. “No, I’m not going to lecture you, although it wouldn’t hurt to study my official report.”
“Would you like some coffee while we chat?” Violet asked.
“That would be lovely, thanks.” The alicorn levitated a folder out of her saddlebag and put it on the coffee table before she settled into a chair. “That contains our official findings and I’ve left a copy with the prime minister and Governor Slate. Read it at your leisure; I’ll just give you a summary.”
Tigerbright fetched a cookie jar and offered the treats to Twilight who selected one with thanks. The alicorn waited until Violet brought over her coffee before beginning.
“For starters, we have confirmed most of what we had already surmised. Both of the arrays were designed firstly to recharge the portal gates – the Chakonan one from the plentiful local supply of mana and the Lunar one from Celestia’s sun. Secondly, they corrected their alignment. It validates our theory that it was intended that we could always see Chakastra from Equus and that someone would eventually notice the star’s anomalous nature.”
“Which is what Starry Path and Techbird did, which eventually led to the development of our space program,” Violet commented.
“Exactly,” Twilight confirmed.
Tigerbright said, “Since the surges have stopped, I assume that the portals are fully charged. How long before that needs to happen again?”
“That’s uncertain,” the alicorn replied. “The array on the moon was definitely drawing mana from Celestia’s sun which we can now confirm was the cause of the solar storms due to the disturbance of its magical matrix. Those happened on a predictably regular basis right up until the latest. Normally, those events occurred every 127 Equian years but this one started twenty-three years early. Now, what do you think caused that to happen?”
“The portal started to be used regularly, thus depleting the mana stores in the portals,” the chakat replied.
“Precisely!” Twilight exclaimed, delighted that shi had figured it out. “So, to answer your question, bearing in mind past usage and projected future traffic, I would estimate that the next charging event will occur between thirty to forty years from now. Further data from the portal monitoring station will enable us to refine that estimate considerably.”
Violet said, “New Horizon will have to make plans to take that into account.”
Tigerbright nodded. “A committee will have to be formed to figure out how best to deal with it and I’ll work with the governor to implement any safeguards that will need to be placed both here and elsewhere on Chakona. Fortunately, we should have plenty of time on our hands. Or hooves, as the case may be.”
Twilight said, “And I will ensure that they get all the most up-to-date data to work with. However, due to there being no apparent warning for a charging event, it would be wise to have standard procedures in place well before the earliest predicted recurrence.”
“Considering the cost in damaged equipment due to the initial surge alone, that would be a wise idea,” agreed the chakat.
“Have you made much progress with deciphering the runes?” Violet asked.
The alicorn nodded. “After a slow start, once I got access to Pif’s computational analysis team, I began getting some very significant results. There are still months of works ahead of me due to not being able to spend all my time on the project, but the Chrome Changeling will manage in my absence.”
The unicorn mare raised an eyebrow. “So, you’re not concerned that this dangerous knowledge will escape onto the datanet?”
Twilight smiled and shook her head. “Pif assures me that it will be under the tightest security, and you know what she’s like.”
“That’s reassuring,” Violet admitted.
“Good. I don’t want any stress affecting your foal. How is your pregnancy progressing, by the way?”
The mother-to-be gave the alicorn a sharp look. “Did you really come here today to check up on me?”
“No! Not at all.” Under the unicorn’s continued flat look, Twilight’s ears folded down partially. “Well, maybe a little.”
Both Violet and Tigerbright laughed at the alicorn’s sheepish admission.
“I haven’t even had any morning sickness yet,” Violet informed her. “But if you’re that interested in the foal, why don’t you come around for dinner in a few weeks and we can update you. And if anything of significance comes up in the meantime, I’ll send you a note.” When Twilight seemed to want to say something more, the unicorn held up a forehoof to forestall her. “Yes, you can bring along your testing gear.”
Twilight let out a relieved sigh. “Thank you, Violet. Now, I suppose I had better head back to Equus. I’m scheduled to give a lecture at the Crystal Kingdom’s House Path branch in an hour and I need to go over my notes.”
Violet got up to give the alicorn a hug. “Thanks for the visit, Auntie. It’s always good to see you.”
Twilight beamed and hugged her back. “I’ll be waiting for that dinner invitation.” She gave Tigerbright a hug too before teleporting home.
“Now – where were we?” the chakat asked.
“I don’t know about you, but I was about to ask you to try to get me doubly pregnant,” Violet replied with a wink.
“My favorite pastime!” Tigerbright declared, picking up hir mate and bounding up the stairs.
The months passed blissfully. While there was the occasional disagreement between the couple, their empathic bond made it impossible for them not to find compromise and a resumption of their idyllic lives. Violet never got more than the mildest of morning sickness for about six weeks, but when her food cravings kicked in, they were unrelenting. Tigerbright had no desire whatsoever to find out what gherkins and ice cream tasted like with soy sauce topping.
Violet’s ever-growing belly hardly even interrupted their lovemaking but it did add increasing difficulty to the mare’s use of the strap-on dildo during the chakat’s heats. Tigerbright continued to get excessively horny during those days and they learned to work around them. However, after one such night of assuaging her lover’s needs, the mare was surprised to hear hir scream out as shi came into orgasm, “Yes! Fill me with your seed! I want your cubs!” While the artificial organ could hardly accomplish that, it seemed to Violet that her mate’s subconscious was expressing itself. She decided to broach the subject as they lay in bed after their lovemaking.
“Tiger, love, do you want to be a mother someday too?”
The chakat was startled. “That’s an odd question. You know how I’m normally like when I’m not dealing with heat hormones.”
“I do, so why did you yell out that you wanted to bear my cubs?”
Tigerbright looked stunned. “I did?”
“Yes, you most emphatically did. Be honest with me – does it bother you that I can’t sire a cub for you?”
The chakat hesitated. “Vi – you have to understand that my species was designed with a strong reproductive drive. It’s only to be expected that I might have such desires under these circumstances.”
“So, that’s a yes then?”
“No! I mean, I don’t let chemical changes make decisions for me. If you were a chakat, we would have already discussed this and made decisions on who got whom pregnant and how often.”
“I notice that you still haven’t denied wanting to be a mother. Just because I’m female doesn’t mean that your wants and desires aren’t important.”
Tigerbright groaned. “Darling, right now my masculine side has been repressed and my feminine side is making up for lost time. Of course I feel the desire for a cub right now.”
“I’m not talking about right now. I’m talking about when everything is normal and you’re not in heat or rut. How does Chakat Tigerbright feel about bearing hir mate a cub someday?”
There was a lengthy moment of silence before the chakat finally responded. “My beloved Violet, if you asked and if it was possible, I would give you a cub in a heartbeat. I just never allowed myself to consider it due to a certain lack on your part.”
“I suppose it would have been handy if I was a herm too, but perhaps all is not lost. Next time Auntie Twilight comes over for dinner, we’re going to broach the subject.”
“As you wish, darling. Meanwhile, can we practice for the possibility? I’m horny again.”
Violet rolled her eyes. “The work of a chakat’s mate is never done! We’re doing it sixty-nine this time though.”
Twilight’s fork paused in midair, the morsel of curry tofu impaled upon it threatening to fall off as the alicorn got lost in thought. “Hmmm. How serious are you two about this?”
“Violet and I discussed it again after I got over my heat so that I wasn’t influenced by hormones. We came to the same conclusion. I meant every word when I said I wanted to be able to get pregnant by her and bear us our second child.” Tigerbright spread hir hands and shrugged. “Turns out that even though I love being her stallion, giving us a cub still sounds like a great idea. And it’s not as if I don’t get turned on by the thought of Violet knocking me up with a big pony appen—”
“I get the picture!” Twilight interjected with a blush. “Violet – do you really feel the same way?”
“Face it, Auntie – Tiger and I are more than a little kinky. I’m kind of excited by the idea. I just don’t know if it’s anything but a fantasy.”
The alicorn sighed. “You’d think I’d be used to situations like these after being married to Free Agent for so long.” She finally ate the food and put down the fork while she chewed thoughtfully. Time stretched out and the couple’s anticipation grew. Finally Twilight swallowed and gave them a serious look. “The big problem is not the shape-changing; that’s easy. The hard part is making you inter-fertile. If you were a stallion wanting to become a mare and have a foal, that would be doable. In fact, while rare, it has been done before. The reverse is the problem. You lack a Y-chromosome, Violet. I could change you into the physical likeness of a stallion with all the right… umm… equipment, but you would not produce sperm cells. If transformation was that simple, our gender imbalance would be slightly better. Not many mares want to become stallions, but enough would if they could.”
Violet said, “There’s really a way to change a mare into a stallion and have happy fun times? Why haven’t I heard about it before?”
“Have you ever asked at your local sex shop?” Twilight countered. “It’s an expensive and uncommon spell, but it can be bought readily enough. Some mares choose to use it as a way to bypass Mating Season. Sometimes, one mare in a lesbian relationship will do it for kicks.”
Violet was chagrined. “I never really got into anything but the basics because I wasn’t interested in a relationship until I met Tiger. You seem to know a lot about it though. This would seem more along Cadance’s specialty.”
Twilight gave her a flat look. “My husband is a changeling queen – believe me, I’ve been educated.”
Tigerbright snorted as shi unsuccessfully held back a laugh.
The alicorn rolled her eyes. “Anyway, I trust you see the problem?”
Both of them nodded with disappointment.
“I guess we can put that idea to bed then,” the chakat said.
“Well, I never said that,” Twilight clarified with a smirk.
Violet frowned. “What haven’t you told us, Auntie?”
“There is a way if you are prepared to compromise a little.”
“How do you get around the Y-chromosome problem?” Tigerbright asked.
“A donor, of course.”
“No, I want to bear Violet’s cub, not a surrogate’s.”
“Ah, but you haven’t heard the details yet,” Twilight said with a mysterious smile.
Tigerbright turned to face hir wife. “Don’t you hate how immortal alicorns take literally forever to get to the point?”
“Stop teasing us and spit it out!” Violet demanded.
“I learned that it was possible a long time ago. My counterpart in an alternate timeline became male to impregnate Free Agent when she went into queen breeding mode. She learned the trick in the same way another Twilight from a parallel world did – from a flower.”
The unicorn stared at the alicorn in disbelief. “How can a flower or a potion made from one give a mare a Y-chromosome?”
“It can if that flower is poison joke. A Royal Guard mare was accidentally exposed and turned into a stallion. He never tried to turn back though because, as a mare, she suffered from gender dysphoria. Once he became a stallion, he restarted his social life, met a mare, got married, and sired several foals.”
“What’s poison joke?” asked Tigerbright.
“It’s a magical flower that causes all sorts of random effects to those it touches, usually very unpleasant but not normally dangerous.”
Violet folded her forelegs over her chest and gave Twilight an impatient look. “Sounds like you just described Discord but with a stem and petals. So, how did the poison joke do it when you couldn’t?”
“It took us a long time to figure it out, but as I said earlier, she got a donor. The mare was in a squad on assignment in the Everfree Forest. She was not the only one to be affected. Among them were male Guards. Genetic testing of the new stallion showed that he had a Y-chromosome identical to one of those males. The poison joke borrowed it from him to give to her.”
Violet brightened. “So, you can replicate that? We only need to get an appropriate donor stallion and I can become male and impregnate Tiger?”
“Yes. But this would not be a simple overnight procedure. You would have to remain male for a few days to build up a sperm supply before attempting insemination, and then you will need to repeat for however long Tigerbright is in heat to maximize hir chance of being fertilized. Then you may want to wait until you’re both sure that you succeeded before changing back, possibly another whole chakat fertility cycle.”
“If Tiger is willing to be pregnant for months, I reckon I can live with being a stallion for as long as it takes,” Violet declared.
“That may be, but while I am sure that you’re kinky enough to enjoy sex that way, you may find yourself suffering from gender dysphoria the rest of the time. It’s a major reason why the practice never caught on much, or is offered by a sex therapist.”
“If Tiger is prepared to go ahead and bear a cub, I will grin and bear any drawbacks. I’m more concerned about who we would want to donate the necessary Y-chromosome.”
Twilight smiled. “As you said earlier, this is more in Cadance’s purview. I suggest you try asking her if you want suggestions. Oh, and she also knows the sex-change spell.” She resumed eating her meal.
Violet and Tigerbright looked at each other and nodded. “How do we go about making an appointment?”
“You want to bear Violet’s cub? That’s so romantic, and in such a new couple like yourselves!” Cadance gushed. I can sense your love for each other and I’ve seldom encountered such strong feelings. I bet it was a case of love at first sight, correct?”
Tigerbright nodded. “Yeah. She knocked me for a loop the moment we met. It took a lot of restraint for me to not proposition her on the spot.”
“It didn’t stop your hands getting familiar with me soon after,” Violet said with a smirk.
“Don’t think I didn’t notice that you really liked what I did with them,” the chakat retorted.
Cadance giggled. “Yes, I can tell that you are in tune to Sigma Five level of compatibility. While Twilight was a little hesitant about you doing this, I believe you will be fine. So, the first thing we need to do is find a desirable donor stallion. Did you have anypony in mind?”
Violet shook her head. “I’ve made a few stallion acquaintances on Chakona, but none of them even remotely interest me as a donor.”
“Perhaps I can offer a candidate?” Cadance said coyly.
“Oh? Who did you have in mind?”
Violet blinked in shock. “Prince Shining Armor?!”
“Did I hear my name called?” asked the snow white alicorn stallion as he walked into the room.
Tigerbright snorted. “Okay, that’s too much of a coincidence. Were you just waiting for your cue, Your Highness?”
The stallion chuckled. “Yep. My wife explained to me what was required. As there’s no actual sex involved, I am certainly willing to make the necessary donation. It’s hardly the strangest thing the Alicorn of Love has asked me to do.” He gave Cadance a wink and she giggled. “Anyway, would you two find me to be an acceptable donor?”
“Would we? Heck, yeah!” Violet exclaimed.
“What she said,” Tigerbright added with an amused grin. “And who said actual sex wasn’t involved? I don’t remember saying that. Ouch!”
The last exclamation was courtesy of a light rap on the head administered by Violet. “Behave yourself, chakat! Unless you want to sleep alone on the couch… in the basement!”
Tigerbright shrunk in on hirself, clasping hir hands together in supplication. She squeaked out a meek, “Yes, dear.” The sincerity of the apology was somewhat ruined by hir wide smirk.
The two alicorns got a chuckle out of the young couple’s antics. “Excellent! When do you wish to try for a cub?” asked Cadance.
The chakat looked up and replied, “Violet and I have decided that we will wait until after she’s given birth. When she’s recovered from labor and we’ve had a chance to settle down with the new foal, then it will be a good time to impregnate me. So, let’s say four weeks after the birth?” Shi looked to hir mate for confirmation which was given with a nod.
Cadance said, “While I was hoping it would be sooner, you’re wise to take it easy. Shiny and I know very well how tumultuous those times are.”
“I have one question,” Violet said. “What’s this going to cost us? Auntie Twilight implied it wasn’t cheap.”
“Oh, quite a lot,” Cadance replied cheerfully. “Or you could just let me visit on a regular basis and enjoy your growing relationship. I want to see what kind of children you bring into this world – both of you.”
“How about you come along to our regular dinners with Auntie Twilight?” Violet suggested.
“That’s a wonderful idea. I’ll coordinate it with her. And now that we’ve got that arranged, tell me what kind of foal do you think you’ll be having? The first chakat-pony hybrid sired by a mare is certain to be marvelous!”
The big day finally came.
Tigerbright’s parents wanted to bring their entire family over for a birthing party as was the common practice for chakats. Violet balked hard at the thought of being on show for a couple of dozen people even though her husband was all for it. Eventually, they settled on allowing Tigerbright’s three parents to be present for the birth.
Violet had never had a foal before but, even so, she knew that this would not be a normal event. Their child was a hybrid and, while they had assiduously monitored hir health, both parents wanted hir exact nature to be a surprise. Therefore, everyone expected the unexpected. After a period of labor that was a little longer than normal for a pony, their child was safely delivered.
The foal was a taur like hir sire, but while hir upper torso was feline, hir lower was all pony. Hir hair and tail were multi-hued like hir mother’s but hir eyes were the same blue-green like hir sire’s. And while hir fur was all orange and white like Tigerbright’s, only the feline portion was striped with black. When Violet brushed hir short mane back, they could see the very small nub of what would grow into a unicorn horn.
“I want to call hir Tiger Lily,” Violet said as her foal suckled on her teats for the first time.
“That’s a beautiful name, but we’re going to have to call hir Lily for short. Tiger’s already taken,” her mate said with a fond smile for the new mother.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” the unicorn replied, following it up with a kiss.
(Lily as a young teen.)
There was never any issue about whose responsibility it was to look after their foal – everything was shared equally, right down to feeding Lily. Because of hir chakat heritage, shi required the chakafertizine hormone that was only present in Tigerbright’s milk. Immediately after the foal’s birth, the chakat had emptied hir breasts of their normal milkwater content with the very willing assistance of Violet. A medicinal dose of CKF started the immediate production of mother’s milk and Tigerbright fed their child just as often as hir mate. That meant that at least one of them got a full night’s rest while the other did the mid-night feeding.
Naturally, there was a period of settling in while the new parents learned the routine that worked best with the new addition to the family. After a couple of weeks of maternity leave, both went back to work, leaving Tiger Lily in the care of New Horizon’s crèche. While this was still a fairly young community, the crèche had always been a priority to cater to the needs of a species where working mothers were the norm. The young ponykat was the center of attention for a while by the staff and certainly didn’t lack for love.
Tigerbright’s next heat occurred about three weeks after Lily was born but neither shi nor Violet were ready for their second child. Not only was their life hectic, but the mare belatedly realized that she would have to give up feeding her foal while she was in male form. Therefore, they waited another full cycle before taking the plunge. A message was sent to Cadance, and she and her husband arrived that evening.
“Now, it would be unprofessional of me not to confirm your commitment to this endeavor,” Cadance said, despite the couple both empathically sensing that the alicorn was barely restraining her eagerness. “Are you absolutely sure that you’re prepared to be a stallion for as long as required?”
Violet replied, “Only our commitment to the welfare of Lily has held me back so far. However, Tiger and I want to give hir a sister not too much younger than hir. So it has to be now and I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Very good. Final check – have you conserved your mana and had a good meal?”
“I ate while feeding Lily about an hour ago, and I’ve barely used my horn today.”
“Excellent. You’re going to need those reserves.”
Tigerbright raised an eyebrow. “I looked into that first poison joke transformation and I saw nothing about requiring all that to achieve the change. Why does Vi need it?”
Cadance gave the chakat a knowing smile. “My dear Tigerbright, it is my intention to give you the stallion a chakat deserves,” she answered mysteriously. “Okay, let’s do this. Shiny, dear – would you please make physical contact with Violet while I cast the spell? A wing over her back will suffice.”
“Of course. Pardon the familiarity, Violet,” Shining Armor replied as he did as his wife instructed.
The mare waited nervously as Cadance fished out an amulet from Shining Armor’s saddlebag. She then placed it over Violet’s neck. “What’s that for? I thought you said you need to cast a spell?
“I do, but that amulet has been enchanted to help guide and modify the spell to give you more… options, shall we say.”
“What do you mean by that?” Violet asked, but the alicorn princess lit up her horn and cast the transgender spell.
A bright blue glow enveloped the mare, obscuring her from sight for a long moment before starting to grow.
“You can step away from Violet now,” Cadance instructed her husband.
The alicorn stallion did so and he joined Tigerbright to watch the magic field expand and then begin to fade. When it cleared, the chakat’s jaw nearly hit the floor. Violet was indeed male now, but what a stallion! He was at least fifty percent larger, with strong, well-defined musculature. His fetlocks were heavily-feathered and his mane and tail had changed into a masculine style.
He also had another outstanding feature. The old Earth saying ‘Hung like a horse’ drifted through Tigerbright’s head. “I’ve never been so turned on by a male in my life,” shi murmured.
“I feel weird,” Violet said in a deep bass voice before his eyes widened in surprise. “I sound weird.”
“Believe me, dear, your voice suits the new you,” the chakat said as shi came over to have a closer look at hir spouse.
Violet craned his head around to try to look at himself. “Whoa! I need a mirror!” He hastened upstairs, his hooves thundering on the steps.
Cadance grinned. “Do I deliver or what?” she asked smugly.
“No complaints from me,” the chakat replied, still staring in awe in the direction that hir wife, now husband, had departed.
“Don’t you think you might have overdone it a teeny bit, hon?” Shining Armor asked with a smirk.
“I don’t think Tigerbright thinks so. Besides, Violet needed to be bigger for the task ahead of him.”
“Granted. Good thing I’m not the envious type though.”
The pink alicorn kissed Shining on the cheek. “You’ve always been perfect for me, my love. My clients have different needs and desires though.”
“Princess, you never said a truer word,” Tigerbright said. “Now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to join my mate.” Without waiting for a reply, the chakat bounded up the stairs. Shi found Violet in their bedroom, standing in front of the full-length mirror, taking in his new appearance.
“I look like somepony who belongs in the centerfold of Playmare Magazine,” the buff stallion said in wonder.
Tigerbright put hir arm around his withers and shi gazed at their reflection. “No, you look like somepony who belongs in my embrace.”
“I don’t know what exactly I expected when I turned into a stallion, but it wasn’t this… this… hunk.”
“Were you anticipating just a swap of sexual organs? Believe me, love, I think Cadance knew better than both of us what we needed.”
Violet turned his head to look at hir. “What do you mean by that?”
“You know that I’ve never been much interested in males except when I’ve been in heat. Well, that’s still a couple of days away but I’m really aroused right now by you. Hon, you are breathtakingly sexy to me and your new size will work so much better when we do the deed.”
A slow blush spread on the stallion’s face. “Now that I’m paying attention, I can sense your arousal. Oh, crap! I think I’m getting an erection.”
Tigerbright stepped away from hir spouse. “Think calming thoughts – anything but me or sex. We still have guests downstairs. Try exercising your new body – feel those muscles of yours.”
It took a few minutes but both Violet and Tigerbright managed to get their emotions under control. They then went back downstairs to find Cadance and Shining Armor enjoying a cup of coffee and the snacks that had been prepared for their visit. The alicorns smiled at the couple’s reappearance.
“I hope you’re satisfied with the result?” Cadance said.
“Well above my expectations,” Violet replied in his warm bass voice. “It’s going to take a bit of getting used to, but I am happy with this body.”
The pink alicorn shot her husband a ‘told you so’ look before asking, “What have you said to your co-workers? They’re going to be surprised when you turn up at the office.”
“I didn’t even try to explain what was going to happen. Instead, I’ve arranged a field trip to coincide with the time I’ll be trying to impregnate Tiger. I’ll send in reports online so nobody will ever know of this change.”
The chakat added, “And I’m taking some personal leave time to go with her– him. It’ll be just the three of us out in the wilds of Emu Island.”
“It seems you’ve thought this through quite well,” Cadance said.
Violet nodded. “Yeah, although there’s one thing I need to ask – how do I change back again? Do I give you a call and arrange another visit like this?”
“Let me show you something,” Cadance replied. She levitated the amulet off of Violet and its golden cover popped open. Inside was a large deep-blue sapphire. “This enchanted gemstone not only stores mana but also holds your body pattern. Now that I have cast the transformation spell, that is recorded on it too. That’s your key. Tap it twice and say ‘finité’ and you will become a mare once more. It takes a couple of days for the gem to recharge from ambient mana though, so you won’t be able to use it to change back yet. If you have a problem before then, you will have to call me.” She snapped the amulet shut and placed it on the coffee table.
Violet looked at Tigerbright. “It sounds as if we’re as ready as we’ll ever be.”
The chakat nodded and said, “Thank you for everything you’ve done, Princess Cadance… Prince Armor.”
The alicorn mare waved a hoof dismissively. “It’s my calling, dear. Nothing makes me happier or gives me more satisfaction than enabling lovers to be fulfilled.” She wing-hugged Shining Armor and kissed him. “Right, darling?”
He kissed her back. “Indubitably, dear.” He then faced the others again. “And I think that’s our cue to leave you two to explore your new dynamic. And may I say, Violet, from one stallion to another – good luck with your endeavors.”
Cadance giggled. “Endeavors!”
“Oh, hush you,” Shining replied before both their horns lit up and they teleported away.
Tigerbright turned hir attention back to Violet. “You can relax now.”
The stallion shot hir a look and smirked. “Oh, no – I’m going to be anything but relaxed, and you’re going to help me deal with it!”
The chakat grinned. “Time to calibrate your new equipment?”
“Gotta make sure it’s up to spec,” Violet agreed as he lit up his horn and carried Tigerbright in his magic up the stairs with him.
It was a considerable amount of time later before they were both satisfied. Tigerbright reflected on how much better it was to have a lover hir size mounting hir as compared to the mare with the strap-on dildo. Violet was running through his memory of the new sensations he had experienced and how they compared to those of a mare. They rested a while before Tigerbright mentioned that they ought to clean up and get some sleep for the day ahead of them.
Violet agreed. “I need to take a leak first.”
A minute later, the stallion’s voice floated out from the bathroom. “Pissing is weird!”
“You’ll get used to it!” Tigerbright responded with a laugh.
The couple spent the next few days on site at the south-west end of the island. They took turns carrying Lily around while the other hauled water, snacks, and the equipment Violet needed while hiking around. Tigerbright had the sole feeding duties now that Violet lacked udders. The stallion let his mate sleep in and prepared the meals for them. This allowed the chakat to get more sleep.
Then, Tigerbright went into heat. With a stallion as hir lover, hir hormones drove hir to passion beyond any that Violet had experienced before, but his new body was up to the task. He silently thanked Cadance for the forethought even as he enjoyed the hell out of putting his increased endurance to use.
The next morning, the couple woke up before the baby and luxuriated in each other’s embrace.
Tigerbright said, “You know, we need to come up with a different name for you in this form. Just ‘Violet’ is, you know, kind of vague.”
The stallion in question cocked an eyebrow. His mate was giving off the telltale aura of mischievousness. “I suppose I could settle for a nickname like ‘Studmuffin’ or ‘Heavy Load’.”
The chakat smirked and looked down at the unicorn’s crotch. Shi then whispered softly into the stallion’s ear.
Violet broke out in laughter, somewhat restrained to keep from waking Lily. “Silly chakat. I’m not like that for you only in the morning. Speaking of which…” The stallion rolled over on top of his mate and nipped at hir neck, drawing gasps from Tigerbright.
“Time for you to take care of that for me.”
Three days later, the heat faded at last. That didn’t stop the couple from making love, but it was more deeply emotional and less physical than the past couple of nights. Violet fervently hoped that the chakat had been successfully fertilized, but Tigerbright gave him a reassuring smile.
“There’s one thing I haven’t mentioned before – chakats know when they are pregnant. Obviously, I’ve never experienced it before, but every chakat who has been a mother has told me that I will know when it happens.”
“And when will that be? A few days? A week?”
“Right now, actually. Well, I thought I felt it earlier, but I’m certain of it now. I’m going to be a mother, love.”
Violet bellowed in joy and hugged Tigerbright enthusiastically.
“Can’t… breathe…” the chakat gasped.
The stallion released hir with an apology. Then he looked a little regretful. “I suppose this means it’s time for me to change back again. I admit that I’ve been enjoying being a stallion for you, and I don’t mean just the sex.”
Tigerbright put an arm around him and gave him a loving squeeze. “I might not be in heat anymore, but I’m still in female phase. Besides, I’ve been enjoying our time like this even discounting the sex.”
Violet brightened. “So, you want me to stay a stallion a little longer?”
The chakat nodded. “Wait until we get beck from this field trip. Let’s make the most of this opportunity.”
And that’s what they did. Back home, they made love one last time before Violet ended the spell. The mare blinked and shook herself. “I feel weird. Why?”
“You got used to being a stallion, but I’m glad to have my mare back again. Wanna break your old body back in?” shi asked with a leer.
Violet shook her head in wonder. “You’re insatiable!”
“And you love it,” Tigerbright replied unrepentantly.
The mare had to admit that shi was right.
“I’m so happy that you were successful,” Cadance said, radiating joy like a bonfire.
“We’ll keep you appraised of the pregnancy,” Tigerbright promised.
Violet levitated the amulet over to the alicorn. “Thank you again. It was a wonderful experience.”
“Keep that, dear – it’s of no use to me now.”
“What do you mean?” Violet asked.
“It’s keyed to you and won’t work for anyone else. Besides, you might want to use it again.”
Tigerbright blurted out, “You mean it’s re-usable?”
Cadance nodded with a smile. “I told you before that the spell is recorded on it, and so is Shiny’s little contribution. As long as you wait for it to completely recharge, Violet can become a stallion whenever it suits her. All she has to do is tap the sapphire twice and say ‘execute’.”
The chakat and the mare stared at each other, their smiles growing into broad grins. Then they simultaneously pounced on Cadance and hugged her wile thanking her profusely.
The pink alicorn laughed ecstatically. She so loved these moments!
When Tigerbright’s pregnancy became obvious, naturally all hir acquaintances wanted to know who the sire was. Shi always replied that Violet was the father but never explained how that was possible despite their skepticism. At the most, shi would reply, “Magic”, and leave them to speculate.
Chakats almost never have problems carrying a child and Tigerbright was not an exception. Shi worked right up until the moment that shi knew shi was going into labor. Hir parents were already guests at the house in anticipation of the event, plus a few more of hir family. As shi was the one giving birth this time, shi had insisted on the privilege of a larger birthing party. When Starshine and Fireball arrived, they picked up right where they had left off, integrating into the chakat family just as easily as the last birthing party. Therefore, there were many witnesses to the birth of the newest hybrid cub and they all craned their heads to see what shi looked like.
Their second child was a sphinx, although not of the Equestrian variety. Shi had hir grandmother’s coat color and wings, but while shi had a pony’s head, hir torso and legs were feline. While shi had tiger stripes, hir tail was that of a pony. Unlike hir sister, shi was not a taur. However, the wings gave hir a total of six limbs too.
Their second child was an unrelenting bundle of joy. The cub was named Azure Ace and shi was a handful/hoofful from the moment shi learned that shi could fly, so much so that they nicknamed hir Crouching Mischief. Thankfully, Violet was able to levitate and teleport herself after their hyperactive daughter whenever shi eluded the mare’s telekinetic grasp. The couple was occasionally exhausted by coping with hir as well as Lily but the love shi exuded for them made it all worthwhile.
It would be difficult to prove that they were the happiest family in the colony, but anyone would be hard-pressed to deny it. The extraordinary mixture of races in New Horizon from both Equus and the larger Federation ensured that the unusual children were never singled out as freaks. Despite a year’s difference in age, the sisters grew up close. They even started double-dating when they reached the age when hormones stirred their loins. Their parents kept a gentle watch on their children, letting them find who they were and what they wanted of life.
And every few months, ‘Morning Wood’ came to visit for a couple of days.
Equestria, canon MLP characters, and other My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic elements are © 2020 Hasbro.
All other original characters and story copyright © 2021 Bernard Doove.
Art is © 2021 Kat Miller, Margony, Aravais Edelveys, and Blackbloodqueen.
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