I arrived in Glimmerhorn Vale a day ahead of schedule, when Celestia's sun was low in the sky.
I'd like to say that it had something to do with a sense of professionalism, or that I wanted to be punctual for the sake of my student. But I've always had a brutally inescapable sense of self-honesty, and I knew very well that I just wanted a vacation alone. While my social skills had improved considerably during the course of my stay in Ponyville, social situations were still taxing to me. The only thing that could recharge that particular store of social energy was solitude.
There were few better places to be alone than Glimmerhorn Vale. It's a natural bowl, fairly far from civilization, ringed with trees but mostly grass inside. I set up camp near the lip of the valley and promptly fell asleep.
I awoke knowing that I had the rest of the day ahead of me to relax. I caught up on some recreational reading that had fallen by the wayside in the course of my studies; I futilely tried to put my meager artistic skill towards sketching the trees lining the Vale; I grazed on the sweet grasses that grew abundantly. As much as I love my friends, I can never be quite as relaxed as I am alone, and the isolation was just what I needed.
My pupil arrived just as the western sky began to glow faintly orange. I could hear her coming up the valley pass, the jangling of her backpack and baubles mixing with her soft footsteps on the unpaved forest track. She was speaking to herself, or perhaps singing, but stopped before I could make out any words.
The first thing I saw of her was her magnificent blue hat cresting over the valley rim, cocked jauntily low as always. Her amethyst eyes held a little more indignation than usual (not surprising, given the lengths she must have gone to get here) but despite the journey she looked none the worse for wear.
"TWILIGHT SPARKLE!" she shouted, the words echoing like a formal declaration of war. "I, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL TRIXIE, HAVE HEEDED YOUR SUMMONS AND BESTED THE CHALLENGE POSED TO ME!"
I smiled as brightly as I could, given that kind of introduction. "Trixie, I can hear you just fine. Go ahead and set up your camp; as soon as the sun sets, we can start." Trixie passed by me without another word, marching over to the other side of the valley and setting up her tent. Her tent was made with the same clever miniaturization as her old stage; it appeared as an unusually large saddlebag, but popped out into a single-person dome tent when a string was pulled. I was a little disappointed that she felt she had to be on the other side of the vale from me, but her pride was slow to heal.
Sunset came and went, and Trixie was still inside her tent, so I got a length of twine out of my own saddlebag and got to work. I first carefully paced out a circle in the middle of the valley, laying string around the circumference as I went; then I began to add chords and radial spokes in precisely geometric configurations. I worked by hornlight, only the soft purple glow and the luminance of Luna's moon guiding me as I traced the ancient signs.
Trixie came out when I was about halfway done. I was partly worried that she would ask questions and break my concentration, but she merely watched me with those unreadable eyes of hers. When I was clearly done, and about to put the twine away, she spoke.
"Trixie would like to know just what you plan to do here. For a year, all of your lessons were at the library in Ponyville. Why make Trixie come all the way out here, Twilight Sparkle, two days' journey from anywhere?"
I sighed. I knew I'd have to deal with this eventually, but I'd been hoping to put it off. "You haven't heard of Glimmerhorn Vale?"
She shook her head. "And I am a storyteller."
"Right. Trixie, I don't know how to ask this, but..." I dithered for a bit. "...were you raised by unicorns?"
This was the part I was afraid of. You see, Trixie gave every indication of having been raised in a nonmagical home. While she had formidable raw talent with magic—more than almost anypony I'd seen—she had little of the control that unicorn parents usually teach their foals. Add to that that she hadn't heard of some fairly well-known unicorn legends, and a seed of suspicion was planted in my brain.
Of course, I wouldn't think any less of her for not having been raised by unicorns. All that unicorn supremacy nonsense was already getting dated when my parents fought against it in college. I didn't even have a good idea of whether she was sensitive about it or not—I knew some very happily adopted ponies, as well as unicorns with an earth pony father and unicorn mother who were raised by the former. But if she did take offense, it could shatter the tenuous and uncertain bonds of friendship that had started forming between Trixie and myself.
For a while she just looked at me, with a hard glint in her eyes that usually meant she was trying to think of something cutting to say. Luckily she thought better of it—or at least, as far as I could tell—and shook her head. "No. Trixie had an...unconventional upbringing."
I smiled, relieved that she was willing to take me into her confidence, if only slightly. "That's fine. It's just that there are stories that unicorn parents tell their colts and fillies, about what it means to be a unicorn." I swept my hoof at the surrounding vista. The red shimmer of the western sky painted fall colors all over the trees on the eastern lip, providing an excellent backdrop for a dramatic speech. I smiled inside at that—Trixie would certainly appreciate a bit of showmareship on my part. "Earth ponies listen to the song of the earth from the ancient forests of Equestria. Pegasi feel the breath of the wind from atop mile-high thunderheads. Unicorns are no different; we watch the ebb and flow of pure magic as it encompasses the land, and we do it from our own sacred places. This is one of them. Follow me."
I tossed the ball of twine towards my tent and started walking to the middle of the valley, careful to avoid treading on my sigil lines. I could hear Trixie following behind me, her irregular pattern of steps indicating that she was doing the same.
The Vale was a small place, and so we reached the basin quickly. The bottom was not completely flat, unlike the slopes up to the lip of the valley; it was studded with small hills, each of them about half the height of a full-grown mare, and each of them with a small cluster of variously colored flowers growing on top. The sweet floral scent was nearly overpowering. "This is a resting place," I whispered. There was no real reason to be quiet, but the air hummed with old memories that it would do no good to disturb. "Some of the greatest mages in Equestrian history lie here."
Trixie shuffled around curiously, apparently looking for some kind of marker stone. "There are no markers," I continued. She looked at me, startled that I'd apparently read her mind. "There's no need for them. The Vale itself remembers them, and holds their memories."
I sat and closed my eyes, merely content to wait for the main event, but Trixie clearly wasn't satisfied. "I fail to see how The Great and Powerful Trixie can learn about magic here. There's nothing left."
"Not everything about being a unicorn is about magic. For that matter, not everything about magic is about horn magic." As the sky darkened, the air itself began to grow translucent and hazy, like a fog bank settling into the depression. "Just wait for a few more moments, and I can answer your questions after."
Trixie obviously wasn't happy. Still, she sat beside me (of course, not too close, not Trixie) and waited. As stubborn as she could be, she'd learned that I can be even more obstinate, especially when I've decided to be mysterious. My parents always said I was a wise old witch born into a filly's body.
The fog intensified, reducing the visibility to a few paces at most. Vague shapes moved in the mist, matching indistinct sounds of hoofsteps in the middle distance. I glanced over at Trixie, who was looking around with poorly concealed trepidation reflected in her deep violet eyes.
I held out a hoof to her. "It's alright. Nothing's dangerous here." She just huffed and turned away from me, ignoring my proffered hoof.
Suddenly, a chill breeze flowed through the valley, carrying the fog with it. Within seconds, the fog had lifted, leaving Trixie and myself just as we had been before. But this time, we were not alone.
Three figures, all pale and ghostly and translucent but unmistakably unicorns, stood around one of the mounds. It was one of the larger mounds in the valley, and had two different colors of flowers on top: small cerulean blooms and sprays of brilliant yellow daisies. The flowers were obscured now, though, by the resting forms of two very old unicorn stallions. One was pale blue, the other brilliant yellow, just like the flowers on which they lay. They were both lain out in traditional burial shrouds, on their backs with fore and rear legs crossed.
One of the three standing figures, a blue-haired white mare with a striking resemblance to Rarity, stepped forward. "We gather here to celebrate the lives and commemorate the passing of Forget-Me-Not and Sunflash," she said, her voice echoing hollowly from the hills. "They lived long, and through their founding of this very coven they touched the lives of many ponies." She levitated a pouch of seeds from her saddlebag and sprinkled them all over the two figures in repose.
The second figure, a tall brown stallion, stepped forward as well. "Their love for each other was deeper than life itself," he rumbled. "They passed within minutes of one another, so fitting for two whose souls were so tied." He, too, removed a pouch of seeds and scattered them over the bodies.
Trixie raised an eyebrow. "So they were coltcud—"
I shushed her, and she looked back to the ceremony, not precisely chastised but at least willing to hold any objections until the end.
The last of the three ponies performing the ceremony was a wizened and gray old mare, who looked no younger than the two on the ground. Her eyes were completely blank and milky-white, but she moved with no obvious sign of blindness. "We speak here today to commit their spirits to the flow of magic, and to store their memories here in this hallowed place." Her horn glowed, and with a motion so subtle I'd almost swear it was natural, the earth rippled and engulfed Sunflash and Forget-Me-Not.
The first mare stepped forward again. "I, Crystal Star, pledge my magic to the Vale and to the fallen, that they may forever watch this hallow." Her horn shone brightly, bathing Trixie and I in ghostly light. I could feel a tug on my magic, like something was drawing it out of me. I released my hold on my magic and let it trickle out.
The stallion came forth as well. "I, Sequoia, pledge my magic to the Vale and the fallen, that they may forever watch this hallow." His horn glowed, bringing the light level up to a nearly unbearable intensity. My magic began draining faster, just as I expected, but something felt wrong. When I glanced towards Trixie, I saw her face contorted in pain, and felt no magic coming from her.
My legs were unsteady, but I was able to stand and move over to her. "Trixie? Are you all right?"
"They...will...NOT...take...the Great and Powerful Trixie's...MAGIC!" she growled through clenched teeth.
"Trixie, you have to let go." Ahead of us, the oldest of the three stepped forward, forming a close triangle around the burial mound.
"Easy...for you to say...Twilight Sparkle." Her breathing was labored now, and her eyes were bloodshot.
"I, Albedo..." the blind old witch began.
"Trixie..." I growled in frustration. "Just let it go."
"...pledge my magic to the Vale and to the fallen..."
Trixie turned away from me, stubborn pride in her eyes. I spotted a trickle of blood coming out from one nostril.
"...that they may forever watch this hallow."
There was no time. I grabbed Trixie's head in my hooves and, gritting my teeth, touched my horn to hers. Her pent-up magic burned through me and out the other side, frying my nerves and knocking the wind out of me. I couldn't feel my legs, nor control them, and I slumped against Trixie as the third mage's horn lit up and the rite was completed, ripping the soul energy out of us.
I don't remember when I made it back to my tent, and I don't remember how I got there. The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back with a splitting headache. Somewhere, somehow, I found the strength to stand and peek outside.
Trixie had set up her tent right next to mine, but she was packing it by the time I awoke. I had a lot of things to say to her, but—true to form—I ended up starting with the most inane.
"Tour schedules do not go on hiatus just because the second-most-powerful unicorn in Equestria has a lesson to teach." I noticed she was using her hooves a lot—her magic must have been as weak as mine felt. She turned towards me, conflicted emotions in her brilliant purple eyes. "Twilight Sparkle, I..."
"I know." I hung my head. "I shouldn't have brought you out here. I didn't think it'd be...I didn't think you could get hurt."
"Don't assume you know what Trixie was going to say," she replied peevishly. "I was going to thank you for showing me this place. There is a lot to magic that even The Great and Powerful Trixie does not know, and you are...acceptable company."
Some part of me, a hopeful part, thought that I saw a blush spread across her cheeks when she said that. Either way, I just chuckled, playing off my own embarrassment. "Acceptable company? I can deal with that. Good luck with the rest of your tour, Trixie. We can have the next lesson in another month, at the library in Ponyville."
"Actually..." She finished assembling her gear and carefully half-lifted, half-dragged it onto her back. "Are there any places like this closer to the Ponyville area?"
"Hallows?" I nodded, surprised. "A few. None of them are this...intense, but there are nice surprises if you know where to look."
"Perhaps Trixie would like to see one of those some time." She turned away from me and headed for the road. "Farewell, Twilight Sparkle."
"Have a good journey, Trixie, and see you soon," I called out.
Not soon enough, but a mare can hope.
I left Glimmerhorn Vale a day behind schedule. I had unfinished business.
The rest of the day, after Trixie left, I relaxed some more. Still, it wasn't as refreshing as it could have been. Every time I turned a page in my book, I had to fight off the memories of Trixie's magic coursing through me, our souls connected by a bolt of arcane fire. Every time I stopped to eat, I found myself hoping that a pointed blue hat would crest over the rim of the Vale. I couldn't write coherently in my journal, either, without devolving into schoolfillyish fantasy about that frustrating mare.
As the day wore on toward evening, I got my ball of twine out again. The lines I'd traced the day before were gone now, burned out in the storm of magic, and in any case the new circle I had to draw was more complex. I finished it just after nightfall, and was still walking through the Vale to the center when the magical fog came once again. I kept walking until I sensed the vague shapes of the burial hills around me. Then I waited.
The mist cleared, just as it had before, but this time many more figures were left behind in its retreating wake. A whole crowd of phantoms, sixty at least and all of them unicorns, all stared intently at me.
Before me were some faces I knew. Crystal Star and Sequoia were there, just as I'd seen them the previous night. Albedo appeared as a middle-aged mare instead of an ancient one, but she was still blind. Next to them, a pair of handsome young stallions stood shoulder-to-shoulder. I recognized them as Sunflash and Forget-Me-Not.
"Thank you," I said simply.
"It was our pleasure," replied Albedo, grinning.
"We know how much it means," Sunflash said. "After all, it's the same way that Forget-Me-Not here nabbed me."
"Right," Crystal Star said, rolling her eyes. "Using an ancient burial ground as a hookup spot."
Sequoia jabbed her in the ribs. "You didn't have to go along with it, you know."
"I'm sorry your friend got hurt," Forget-Me-Not said. His voice was surprisingly quiet, even for a ghost; he almost sounded like a masculine Fluttershy. "We didn't mean for something like that to happen."
"It's no problem, you had no way of knowing." I hung my head. "You all probably had better things to do than play matchmaker anyway..."
"You'd be surprised." Albedo approached me and gently reached out a hoof to feel my face. I could feel it, but only gently, as if it were a strong breeze and not a solid touch. "You're an amazing mage, Twilight Sparkle, and she is as well. The cause of magic could only be forwarded by such a union." She stepped back and began to fade, along with the rest of her extended coven. "Be well, Twilight Sparkle. And don't let her go."
I watched the specters fade and moonlight return to the valley, another whispered 'thanks' dying on my lips.