Nineteen: A Mouthful Of Love
Comet Tail The Intractable strode with silver shod hooves through the ancient halls of the Royal Unicorn Corps sacred Guildhouse. Her gray coat was mottled by fine white hairs; her once crimson mane was entirely white; age had gradually touched her despite the powerful and questionable spells to ward it off - there was only so much even one of the greatest unicorn mages could do.
She had lived three times the span of other unicorns already; she knew that she could not escape the Pale Mare forever. But long before that bony hoof touched her, she would have the honor of the Royal Unicorn Corps restored. It was a matter of principle, and what had happened had shamed all of unicorn kind in Comet Tail's mind.
That it was a pegasus that had brought shame upon the Corps, this did not surprise her. The pegasai had always been trouble; not that it was considered proper to speak such realities in public. Her opinions were her own, and she kept them, like everything within her, completely guarded.
The mages had been scouring the ancient tomes for any works of magic that might aid in correcting the error of the Corps; the princess had made it clear that it was their job to find and retrieve the lost newfoals, and that is exactly what would happen. The first task was to locate the lost ponies; a problem indeed, for they had been scattered at random across an ever-increasing space. Not an easy task, but neither was it impossible. Where there is magic there is always a way. This truth had constantly guided Comet Tail.
The small scrivener humbly approached Comet Tail. He was almost half her size; extended life and proximity to magic had made Comet Tail's legs long and her bearing regal. The scrivener's silvern saddlebags carried scrolls and letters; the scriveners themselves carried messages and great burdens for the Royal Mages. "Great Mage, I bring word." The scrivener bowed his head and lowered himself slightly, the traditional greeting.
"I will hear it." Hopefully those foals in the research department finally had something to show for their efforts. It had certainly taken long enough.
The weary little unicorn levitated out a scroll; opening it before him he summarized the contents - it was well known that Comet Tail had no time for florid language or pompous missives. "Milady: they have found a spell." The scrivener bowed again, after folding and replacing the lengthy document, filled with endless 'by your graces' and 'for the illustrious causes' and other such fluffery.
"Thank you, scrivener. About your duties." The little unicorn left, bearing his overladen saddlebags. Briefly, Comet Tail tried to remember his name, then recalled that she had never bothered to find out - there really wasn't much point, none of them lasted that long; either they retired or they died. Some were better than others, but in the end, they were not all that different from one another.
The stone steps led down to the Secret Library; Comet Tail knew that this would be where anything useful would be found, and where the researchers must be. The Secret Library was known only to the Corps and to the Princesses; in it were books and artifacts from before the Conquest Of Discord and the Rise Of Harmony; indeed, there were chambers that contained things, strange and terrible things, that predated even Discord himself. Some of these would only open for the princesses alone; even the Corps were not allowed such knowledge.
"Comet Tail!" The hushed voices repeated her name in surprise and reverence; it was all such a sham, they had sent for her had they not? Bowing and scraping, the lot of them would just as soon she met the Pale Mare so they could move up in rank.
"Can you find the newfoals?" It was a simple question. It was the only question.
"Well, your gracious wisdom, we have searched through the most ancient of texts with the most careful of eyes to finding a solution, and after great effort - but a greater resolve, of course - we..."
"Can. You. Find. Them." She said the words clearly and precisely; they were not a question, they were a command. Night Watcher the Ponderous would babble endlessly trying to curry favor through florid verbiage. Comet Tail had run out of 'favor' a generation before Night Watcher had been foaled, and had grown weary of political machination within her first decade of heading the Corps.
Night Watcher coughed once, obviously aggrieved at being interrupted; though her face remained grim, inside her mind Comet Tail smiled at his frustration. "Yes. Your Wisdom, we... believe that we can discover the whereabouts of the lost newfoals."
"They weren't 'lost', the newfoals were deliberately abandoned through an act of treachery and sedition." Comet Tail bored her eyes through the old goat of a stallion and enjoyed watching him shrivel slightly. "I do not want your 'belief', I want them found and rescued. What can you show me."
The assembled department heads of the Royal Corps Of Unicorns shifted nervously; this was always the case, Comet Tail never would settle for anything less than results. Far worse than this, though, the results actually had to be useful; such a condition really made things ever so much more difficult than they really should be.
"Well?" Another day in the mines, thought Comet Tail. Inside her mind, she sighed. Outwardly, she tightened the perpetually stern look that acted as her face.
"We have succeeded! Oh, happy day, such a grand success!" Night Watcher gave his aged hooves a tiny prance, Comet Tail could practically hear his joints creaking like weathered wood.
"Have you begun the rescue of all the newfoals, then?" It was far too much to hope for; of course they hadn't. But it would serve to deflate and utterly crush Night Watcher's little tantrum of misplaced joy, and that was good enough for the moment.
"Um.." Night Watcher became crestfallen, the rest of the staff pressed nervously against the walls of the underground library "...Not... as such."
Comet Tail could smell the ineptitude, it permeated the room. "How many newfoals have you located, then?"
Night Watcher looked down, and a little to the left, perhaps at a moldy spot on the ancient stone floor. "Exact figures are hard to come by, of course, Your Wisdom, but you can be assured that..."
"How. Many. Exactly." It was like dealing with children. Comet Tail detested children.
"Exactly, Your Wisdom?" Night Watcher seemed especially unhappy today. Good. Still, Comet genuinely wanted results.
"Yes, exactly. How many?" Maybe things would be better in the Everfree. She could conjure a cottage, collect a menagerie of horrible monsters, put them in conjured cages. Feed them department heads. Then the bodies. Smile.
"Well..." Night Watcher shifted his hooves nervously, still studying the splotch on the floor "... accounting for various errors such as false readings, the topology of Equestria itself, and of course the extreme difficulty of dealing with an exponentially expanding..."
"Number." Comet Tail didn't have all day. Well, actually she did, but she'd be the daughter of a mule before she'd spend it listening to this old foal.
"So far, as of today, well..." Night Watcher swallowed, audibly. "One. We are proud to announce the discovery of our first lost... um... cruelly abandoned... newfoal."
Comet Tail had been prepared for pathos, but this was too much. No, she must have misheard. She was becoming ancient, after all. "Only one single colony. That is what you have found?"
"Um. No. Not precisely." Night Watcher not so subtly backed up towards the wall a few steps; the rest of the staff pressed against the wall moved left and right as if to be more distant from any association with the aged unicorn stallion.
"You mean you have found exactly one single, individual newfoal?" If her face were not a frozen perpetual mask of disdain already, it would have become one, as it was, it became more so.
"Exactly! Well put, Your Wisdom!" Night Watcher dared to smile at Comet Tail, as if actually congratulating her. Had the old foal become senile? Suddenly, Comet Tail almost began to feel the faintest whisper of pity for the wretched thing.
Almost. "Would you care to explain that?" Night Watcher looked excited at this, Comet Tail instantly realized that her words were a mistake. If there was one thing that silly old unicorn liked it was explaining things. "No, on second thought, allow me to explain it." Better. Night Watcher now looked like a shriveled lily. Excellent.
"You have a spell that can locate newfoals, but only one at a time. Doubtless you are relying on Brokenhoofs Listening Heart as a basis, and doing Call Of Desperation as a seeker. Stripehorn's Enhancer to increase the range?" It was the most obvious thing to do, and required the least amount of actual work; Comet was fairly certain she had nailed this shoe right to the hoof.
"Your Wisdom!" Night Watcher seemed truly impressed - this of course meant that he wasn't. The staff heads clopped their hooves in admiration, nodding vigorously; they were undoubtedly upset at being found out. "Your brilliance shines upon us all!"
Oh Celestia, those were the spells exactly. It was like biting hay in a haybale. "The rescue?" A part of Comet Tail wanted to roll her eyes in disgust, but she'd spent so much time constantly looking with disdain that she'd rather forgotten how to.
"We are set to dispatch a single unicorn to retrieve the lost newfoal, Your Wisdom!" Night Watcher seemed almost proud. Mistake.
"You do realize that where one newfoal exists in the expansion, the rest of an entire colony almost certainly surrounds them? That was how they were originally transported. In colonies." Comet Tail enjoyed the storm of emotions subtly rippling over Night Watcher's muzzle, no, of course he hadn't thought of that, why would he?
"Ah! I... see your point." Night Watcher looked as if he felt like an old, doddering, completely inept idiot; it was pleasant to see some light finally shine into these dark, forbidding stone halls. Comet Tail inwardly grinned; score!.
"Arrange a class one rescue mission, I want it in the field in one hour; failure will mean permanent dismissal from the Corps with dishonors." That ought to stir them up! She hadn't used a threat so severe since dead old Greythunder The Impulsive had been suckling an udder. It felt soooo good.
The Corps staff heads were in shock. Night Watcher peed himself, right there on the stone floor, in the middle of the sacred underground Secret Library. Oh, Celestia!
Night Watcher, wet and ashamed, found himself looking up to see a truly legendary horror.
Comet Tail The Intractable was physically grinning.
The desert stretched to eternity in every direction. The hills were brown and grey, the grass long since dead; it rustled as the tan stallion with the white mane dragged himself through it. His burgundy eyes no longer shone brightly, they were sunken in his weathered face, his skin clung to his bones as if in fear of falling off.
In his bulging cheeks was water, it was not clean but brown with dirt, and it tasted of salt and metal. As he crawled from the cracking, dried out remains of what had once been a lake, the young stallion fought with all of his might not to swallow the water. Every instinct in his body demanded him to swallow; his mind reeled as if with madness as he fought to deny his flesh.
There was another pony who needed the water more, and that pony was more important to him than his own life.
Hoof by agonizing hoof, the tan stallion pulled himself forward on his belly; he was going downhill now, which helped. The dry soil was hot and burned his belly. He had lost a lot of his coat there, from crawling, so his stomach was a mass of red scrapes and stinging grass cuts.
Finally he made it to the shade of the crates. The sky remained an implacable white, yet the vague glow from above beat down - it was never truly cool, not even at night. But shade mattered; at least it was less hot.
The stallion crawled on his belly, past the body of a fallen pony. She had named herself Brightwish, because she saw coming to Equestria as the beginning of a life of shining wishes come true. Her glazed, shriveled eyes stared blindly up at the obscured sun. Celestia's terrible sun.
Finally, the tan stallion made it to his lover, his life, that which was more important to him than his own existence.
The gray unicorn with the blond mane lay on his side, barely breathing. His blue eyes fluttered half open, sticky with dried tears.
The tan stallion nudged the unicorn with his head. He put his lips to the unicorns lips and forced the head to a more vertical position. He began pushing the water in his cheeks into the unicorn's mouth, trying desperately to get it all in, to not let any dribble to the ground. The grey unicorn began reflexively swallowing, then began choking. As the unicorn coughed, precious drops were lost, spattered onto the ground, or into the tan earth pony's face.
"Summer. Please summer, it's water. I brought as much as I could hold. Please hang on, Summer. Please." The tan pony tried to cry, but there were no tears available.
"Sand... sands. Sandcastle... you should... don't waste it on me. Jus... just stay where the... water is." The grey unicorn had stopped coughing, his raspy voice somewhat soothed by the water. He licked his cracked lips. "It's really... good.. though... so sweet. So sweet. Like you." Summer Raincloud's blue eyes fluttered again, half open, as he drifted back to whatever place he went most of the time now.
Sandcastle began licking Summer's half-open eye, trying to get any moisture he could to sooth the orb. The eye was sticky and gummy, but with continued licking it began to shine again, wet once more from Sandcastle's efforts.
"Listen, Summer. Just keep hanging on. I'm going to go for the other lake. There might be some water left there. You have to hang on. Please. I love you Summer. I love you so much. So very, very much." Sandcastle was crying now, jerking with grief, even without tears his body was wracked with sobs. "I'll get you more water. I will."
Sandcastle shifted to look at the area near Summer's stifle; there was no sign that the unicorn had urinated at all. Sandcastle smelled the dirt; there was no smell either. This was bad; if Summer's kidneys had shut down then... no. No. There's no thinking that. Water. More water is the only answer.
Sandcastle began to turn his exhausted body around, to begin the crawl to the far lake. It would be brutal, but he had tried all the others within range. Suddenly he felt an intense pain in his chest. It was terrible; he curled instinctively, his forelegs pulled tightly to him. Oh god, oh god, was it his heart? It felt like it. Oh god it hurt. Gradually, as he lay still, the pain subsided. No more crawling, no more crawling today. Sorry Summer, oh god I'm so sorry.
When the pain was a dull ache, Sandcastle managed to shift until his head was touching Summer. He wasn't sure what part, but it didn't matter. Just so long as he was touching him, touching his beloved, dearest Summer.
Suddenly he realized this might be the end. If he couldn't crawl, there would be no more water for either of them. If it was his heart, then he might not last in any case. Despite the pain, he pushed himself closer to Summer Raincloud. He could smell his stallion, he could smell the scent. That was a blessing. The spattered water had given Summer a scent again, for a while, and Sandcastle sniffed the comforting perfume of his lover in.
Sandcastle found himself panting now. He felt short of breath. That wasn't good. He felt panic, he began looking wildly around; the body of Brightwish, the carcass of Swifthoof, still hanging, pinned by his own horn halfway up the side of the crate he had charged in a desperate attempt to save everyone, the front hooves of his beloved Summer, the bright, multicolored spire of lights forming in the flat land between the hills...
Ha! So this was death as a pony! They had an afterlife here, or something! Sandcastle watched the spire become a tower of sparkling, shimmering energies, spiraling into the sky. The shapes of ponies, unicorns, began forming in the light; their bodies made of stars coalescing into solid flesh. "Beautiful!" he croaked out between his parched, pained lips. He and Summer would go to pony heaven! How delirious! How astonishing! Celestia really was a goddess! So... beautiful.
When Sandcastle awoke, he felt confused. He was in some kind of billowing structure, a great pavilion covered in shimmering golden silk. Delicately engraved ivory-like posts supported the rippling fabric. The most delightfully cool - oh so cool - breeze crossed his belly. It was so nice. Sandcastle could smell beautiful flowers and he began to hear distant laughter and talking.
He found that he was laying on a soft bed of some kind, the covering smelled soft and sweet, and it was white as snow. The bed was very low to the ground, just perfect for a pony, and there was something beside it, something gray... he knew that gray. It was his favorite shade of gray in the world, the exact shade of a raincloud in summer.
"Summer! Summer!" His voice was no longer scratchy; he felt so much better! "Summer! Welcome to pony heaven, Summer!"
The gray unicorn snapped his head up, tears just beginning to pour from his eyes "Oh, sweet Celestia, Sands, oh Sands!" He just kept repeating Sandcastle's name over and over while kissing him everywhere.
"Summer? Are you OK?" It was a silly question, being in pony heaven and all, but Summer was carrying on so.
"I thought I'd lost you, Sands! They said you'd had some kind of cardiac thing from all the heat and the crawling. They had to do serious work on you. Oh, sweet Celestia, sweet Luna, you're going to be alright, you're going to be alright." Summer was crying again. Slowly Sandcastle began to interpret things more coherently.
"We... we were rescued, weren't we. This isn't pony heaven, is it?" Sandcastle felt silly all of a sudden.
"Pony... what? NO! We're alive, Sands! We're in Canterlot! The Royal Unicorn Corps came back for us. Were in an infirmary; they have a whole bunch of these tents set up in some gardens or something. There's a really fancy palace right out that way!" Summer pointed with his nose "You'll love it. You just have to see it, it's amazing, very storybook, very posh. I'm so glad you are alright!"
Sandcastle lay back again, he still felt very tired. "I was so afraid, Summer. You... you weren't doing very well."
"Says the heart attack pony!" Summer gave Sandcastle the most fragile, delicate kiss; love mixed with fear. "Sands, we almost lost you. I just needed water and... some stuff with my kidneys or something. But you... Listen. The medical unicorns - they have the best in all of Equestria here, hoof-picked by the princesses themselves - the unicorns said they can regenerate all the damage to your heart. You'll be good as new when they're done. They've already magicked you up one side and down the other, but they need to do a few more spells on you over time. Just relax, rest, and I'll keep you company."
"I'd like that. Actually, I really need that. Please stay with me, Summer." Sandcastle couldn't help himself, he must sound like a plaintive little foal.
"It's the only place I ever want to be. By you. Don't worry. They couldn't pry me off with a crowbar. Made of real crows!"
Sandcastle laughed, and the sight made Summer want to cry again. Just to see him laugh, it was everything in the world.
"Summer... what happened. Why were we left there, why...?" It was a question the 160 ponies had all asked constantly since the day that pegasus had left them on the plain.
"Windfeather. He was a rogue pegasus. A racist or something. He did this to us. They've been looking for us. It isn't just us, though. Windfeather stranded a lot of newfoals. Dozens of groups or something like that. It's a huge scandal. But we're safe now. We're one-hundred percent safe now." Summer nuzzled his mate tenderly, but also delicately, as if he were afraid the earth pony would break.
"How many. How many of us made it, Summer?" Sandcastle tried to mentally brace himself. They had all tried so hard. They had all tried to help each other, they just didn't know what to do. Nopony knew anything. They couldn't open the crates no matter what they tried. Maybe if they'd had even one pegasus in the group... after all, pegasai could supposedly control the weather. But they were 160 earth ponies and unicorns, and no pegasai.
"Um... maybe we could discuss that later, Sands, the important thing is that we made it." The look on Summer Raincloud's face was not encouraging.
"I can handle it. I have to know. How many." Sandcastle tried to put on his bravest face.
"Not a lot, Sands. Forty-three of us. One still might not make it. Jewelstone. She's in pretty bad shape. They've got her on some kind of magical life support or something. It's way beyond me, but they are doing what they can."
"Starbright? Deep Purple? Stoneskipper?" Summer just sadly shook his head, his blond mane flopping from side to side.
Sandcastle began to cry. He couldn't help himself, it was just so sad, and so terrible, and so wrong. Summer put a leg over him, gently, and Sandcastle rolled into Summer, pressing his body into Summer's as best as he could.
"Sands... I don't know what to say, except that it's going to get better now. We have the best care, the best of everything here, all the water, all the food... it's the capitol of Equestria. They intend to take care of us, to try to make it up to us. It will get better." Summer felt helpless. He wished he could somehow make everything all right.
"Can they bring back the dead? Can they do that?" Sandcastle's eyes were filled with anger and horror.
"I don't know. I don't know anything like that." Summer stared intently into those angry eyes, trying to soften them with sheer love "I only have one thing that I know, the thing that kept me alive: I love you Sandcastle. I will always love you."
The silk pavilion rippled with a gust of cool breeze, the smell of delicate flowers filled the tent. Sandcastle could hear birds, singing and chirping outside, and he could smell the sweet scent of Summer Raincloud, pressed tight against him.
"I love you too. I love you so much."