More dust wafted into a cloud above Gem's head as she realigned the stack of dusty tomes to read and the stack that had been read. The blue glow of her magic captured the next book and moved it towards the pile on her right, hesitating a moment to make sure it was the right pile, and set it on top.
"Almost halfway through, and nothing to show for it," Gem harrumphed to herself, glancing at the stack of read books almost as tall as the stack that had yet been read. The beginnings of a sneeze started in her hooves and threatened to only stir up more dust around her. She held her breath in hopes for it to pass, only for it to practically explode out of her muzzle.
The dust heavy, her eyes watered in both irritation (of the physical sort) and defeat (of the mental sort). "The ancient wing of the library was supposed to help, but I only feel like I've wandered into a deeper maze," she whined.
Declaring the finality of it, she left the table with its piles, shaking herself to get as much dust off as possible. Perhaps her mentor would have an alternate idea. She trotted back slowly to the entrance of the oldest wing in the library. The heavy, leaden doors squeaked in only slight resistance as she magicked them to open. The hallway held a chill this far from the main entryway, and Gem shuddered at its emptiness, almost hauntingly so. Not even portraits of royalty claimed the walls this far from a pony's eyes. She glanced down at herself and attempted to shake out the rest of the dust motes that contrasted easily against her cobalt body. A flip of her tri-colored mane showed it relatively free of dust within its tresses of a plain white, midnight blue, and mint green. After another pat at her vest pockets, she continued down the old hallway discouraged but a bit relieved to be done with the lonely and dank room for now.
"Princess Esmerald requests your presence," the voice of a stationed guard spoke from a dark corner.
Gem jumped back in a startle but immediately recovered with a nod towards the colt. Instead of veering right, towards the steady flow of tourists and students of Canterlot, she aimed to the left towards the double-staircase upholstered in royal blue velour. The base of the stairs was wide enough for a dozen guards; its height reached halfway up the wall before splitting along each side to meet again as the second floor. The rails were polished and adorned with intricate carvings so small, few noticed. Gem glanced at the bottom of the railing to recognize an event of the Second Ogre War. She grimaced. That was a disastrous part of history and a reminder of the imminent threat.
After reaching the mid-point of the grand staircase, Gem paused a moment in quiet adoration at the royal portrait. She admired the work dominating the wall, showing the current living family of Princesses Esmerald, Lunelle, and Apollette, along with the Princes Brighton and Kamau. All were outlined in a glow with a backdrop of the Canterlot castle at sunset. The blues and oranges of dusk settled more heavily around the Princes. Both of the alicorns' eyes pierced through the portrait with a ferocity and passion to match their physical selves. Brighton had eyes that were stoic and deep orange, and Kamau had a similar shade of orange but with a unique ring of an even brighter hue framing it. They were a physical testament to their prowess as soldiers and leaders to the East and West Equestrian Armies. Prince Kamau adorned himself in dark leather armor inscribed with runes of war, reflecting his leadership and shaman heritage of the West. His wings flexed out to show the barely-hidden knives that made the plumes more like weaponry than an appendage. Gem knew he also had a fearful collection of attachments to his horn for battle. She thanked whoever had decided that might be a bit much for a royal portrait. Prince Kamau was stockier than his brother but just as tall. His brindle coat complimented his armor while his black mane and tail were both tied in a cue. His fellow general, Prince Brighton, stood just as arrogant but less primal when he chose the more formal of uniforms: double-breasted jacket decorated with medals and insignias for bravery in battle. A gold beret framed his spiraling horn to match the gold cords at the base of his wings tucked close to his side. His light blue coat stood out against the dark blues of dusk, and his chestnut mane held what appeared to be strands of yellow more gold than bright. Both emanated a masculine pride for their feats in war. Although for Gem – that violence brought peace hundreds of years before she was born. The scars of the consequence of war were all but faded as far as she was concerned.
Mirroring the princes on the other side of the portrait, the pearl white of the city basking in the sun's last rays only emphasized the glow of the princesses' coats, twin sisters Lunelle and Apollette. The twins each had a pure white coat, but whether it be by nature or magic, one couldn't be sure. Each glowed with their relative power. Even through paint, one could tell Lunelle held the power of the moon through the dream-like glow of white – almost hazy like a reflection; while Apollette's body held the white light of a candle or fire of the sun, but not any kind of orange or yellow to the actual flame – yet light itself. Standing close to each other, wings outstretched, the twins mirrored the ying and yang of day and night. Lunelle's mane lay straight and cropped short in a turquoise that was more like moonlight off of the water's edge. Her face was set in a passive serenity, and her eerily lilac eyes were half-closed in meditation. In the ways that she was soft and peaceful, Apollette balanced it with a wild garnet mane, woven like rubies and fire in massive, flowing waves, barely contained by the golden gauntlet holding the tresses and directing them to lie against her flank. Where her sister's profile exuded peace, Apollette's face was caught in a cheerful smile of joy, her shoulder more muscled and right hoof a bit raised, as if tempted to prance in happiness. Aside from a white coat, the only other trait that the twins shared was lilac eyes.
Raised above the two sets of princes and princesses by only a step, Princess Esmerald held the center of the canvas between the colors of the setting sky and the reflective castle walls, complimenting the most beautiful green coat any equine had ever seen in centuries. If an emerald was a living being, it would be the best description for the princess' coat. The artist did a fine job of showing the moving waves of green that wavered across the alicorn. It even glowed with an almost living fierceness, forcing the eye to accept the princess' great power even at a glance. Her mane was like snow, pillowed and driven white. The tall, spiraled horn peeked out of the softness and her simple, golden crown settled in front of it. Her wings arced above her body, allowing those final rays of light to shine behind her and spotlight her beloved family. Her eyes held the viewer's attention, almost intimately personal, in a sea of blue. Every blue that passed over the surface of any water was held in that gaze. Princess Esmerald was a thing of living beauty, a physical symbol of her reign.
Whispers in the huge foyer shook Gem out of her reverie. A look behind showed a group of tourists in awe of the stained glass art, ancient stories painted in the cathedral-like ceiling, and, of course, the royal portrait. She regained her posture and continued up the right half of the spiraling stairs to the second floor of the castle.
She thought about the seemingly impossible task ahead of her and the research required to help the royal family. Gem feared they were all running out of time. Her visions never did well with dates or time, but she felt it, in her heart, that the vision was coming soon. She could not let that happen to Equestria. She recalled her dream of a never-ending swarm of mythical beasts, large enough to cloud out the noontime sun, destroying every thing, and every being, in its path. Never before had such gore and horror overpowered her other senses in any of her visions. She shuddered at the vividness of such carnage. Earlier that morning, she recognized many beasts in illustrations of several different tomes, but only singularly. Many seemed minor in comparison to a few terrifyingly powerful creatures: the haggard Carroh Wizard, a decrepit bipedal giant hidden under a robe with immense magical skill; the Minotaur's Wife, a deceitfully beautiful heifer with shapeshifting ability; the Lochland Beast, a creature rarely seen that has total manipulation of water in any form – only speculative illustrations accompanied that entry, but one seemed close enough to what she had seen. While there was reason aplenty to fear each separately, they seemed manageable for even the Princes' armies, but there was never any indication that these monsters would rally together in chaos. If the little history she gathered proved anything, it was that these creatures are incredibly greedy. Gem lost so much time today in hopes to find an answer in a book. She felt like Equestria had already lost, and dismay filled her as she approached the royal corridor.
The guards magicked the opulent doors to open before Gem needed to pause in wait. She continued her gait across the plush carpet and lifted her head in masked resolution for the court. The murmur of the crowd did not waiver at Gem's presence. The royal court's audience of nearly every equine being and a few bipedal cousins gathered in groups throughout the great room and in between the large pillars. Almost every breed and nation was represented among them. Gem raised her chin a little higher, allowing her tri-colored mane to fall against her neck rather than hide her face. Her light green eyes turned up to face the royal dais as she tried to hold a confident canter. She could not show fear here. Her vision was still only secret between herself and the royal family. To alert the public would only hinder her and the royals. Once she was at the distance that etiquette allows, Gem halted and bowed deep directly in front of Princess Esmerald.
"Your majesty requested my presence," the words of formality flowed easily, "I, Gemstone, royal student of magic and harmony to the princes and princesses, am your humble servant to do willingly as you say."
"Your princess is pleased, and you may rise," the gentle voice echoed softly with a heavy weight of power throughout the court. Gem lifted her front legs to stand at the princess' request. "Follow me to my study. You may report to me there," the Princess ordered.
The four remaining members of the royal family each nodded or smiled in greeting to the familiar student but stayed on the dais to continue any business of the court. Gem followed quietly behind Princess Esmerald as she led a slow trot to a double set of doors to the rear side of the court behind the dais. The doors glided open with magic and shut gently behind them as they wandered through another corridor towards the royal study.
This corridor was held on the far side of the castle overlooking the gardens and was lined with floor to ceiling windows. Gem's attention wandered to the castle grounds and beyond the walls to Canterlot itself, bustling with midday activity. Rooftops varied in color and texture, allowing Gem to single out the oldest buildings and those that had been rebuilt within the last century or two. The view of Equina's Peak made it all seem serene until one noticed the ruins of the first castle of Canterlot peeking at the other side of the mountain. The sun shone brightly and the weather was positively cheery all around. Gem's mood fell a bit more in realizing that this may be one of every pony's final days of sunshine, and a grim thought passed through her mind – the first castle ruin may not be the last one.
"My dearest student," Princess Esmerald's voice chided through the dark clouds of Gem's mind, "what has you so downcast? I can feel your sadness like a fog through the entire hall." The Princess came to graceful stop to turn around and face the small unicorn. She lovingly nudged the side of her face against Gem's muzzle, a maternal gesture as well as a small invocation of confidence for the young filly. "Please, Gemstone, do not fret. For I know what weighs heavy in your heart, but you are not alone." The Princess smiled in reassurance, and Gem couldn't help herself from a small grin. "Come, let us speak."
The two turned towards the last doorway of the hall, the doors opening almost ceremoniously as they came near. Potions and incense breezed out from the room and comforted Gem. She knew every nook and cranny in this room. Being out of the maze of unknown books and tomes and back in the loving arms of the knowledge she understood was a brief comfort from the anxiety that remained weighting on her back.
Princess Esmerald promptly eased her way onto her usual cushion, aged with decades of use in the same spot. Gem sat herself opposite her mentor across the tea table and onto a smaller, newer cushion that complimented the greens of her eyes and streaks in her mane.
Sipping the tame, white tea, the Princess sighed in relief and faced her beloved pupil with a smile. "Gemstone, I had requested your presence very early this morning, only to be told you were within the oldest wing of the library. I did not want to disturb your research and, instead, posted a guard to notify you when you were complete. My dear child, you were in there for hours. Did you find anything helpful?"
"No, your majesty, I can't express how saddened I am to report that I have failed you and Equestria." Gem whispered another sigh of defeat and continued, "I've thought through my vision so many times. I tried to see if I could find any metaphorical or metaphysical links to anything I had seen, but I found nothing in written history to help guide me. I can only offer the hope that this vision is not within the near future; although, I must be honest and express the feeling I have that it is, indeed, coming soon." Gem held back tears. She had to remain strong in the face of her teacher. She had to face the princess' guidance and the problem ahead with strength she wasn't sure she had. "Princess, I saw no hope in my vision, but I am trying dearly, not to despair. We can not be doomed to such an ultimate disaster. Surely the vision would not come as anything but a warning to prepare, not a proof to concede everything we love." A tear escaped one eye as her head stooped to look at the carpet beneath them, staring intently for the answer to her problems in the weave.
The Princess nodded in agreement, "I believe you're correct, student. The few ponies who have graced our histories with the gift of sight do not have their visions wasted as a disaster nears. The Goddess Equina would not abandon her children with the fears of things to come, but offer them the tools of wisdom in preparation and strength. The problem we face may be new in detail, but this is a story retold for every royal family and their subjects." She smiled warmly at Gem, her billowy hair levitating at the movement and settling slowly like falling snow. "I believe in you, Gemstone. I believe in your strength and passion. You come from a great line of the most powerful magicks in Equestria. Together, we will not fail the ponydom. We have worked hard in the couple of days since your vision came. We have time yet, even as you feel it, so do I. As Princess, I would be able to feel the press of evil on my kingdom. As long as there is time, there is an answer."
"I promise – I won't give up, Princess. I plan to return to ancient wing of the library in hopes to find a hint," her stomach growled in protest, "uhm…after I eat lunch." She blushed a deep purple under her blue coat, but continued her thoughts, "I, too, believe the Goddess has placed a path to the answer, likely in plain sight. I want this desperately resolved before coming to fruition." She recalled the deadly armor of Prince Kamau in the portrait. "I trust in our armies, and even more in the Princes, but I do not wish for violence, even in aiding. No one living, save for yourself and the other Princes and Princesses, remembers war in our time or our close generations. Even the ruins of war have been rebuilt and its monuments nearly forgotten. To be pushed violently and quickly into the carnage that my vision has suggested," Gem blanched at the mere thought, "I wish it upon no creature."
The Princess was solemn but nodded in agreement. "I fear the Princes look forward to even the suggestion of such a battle. They were blessed by Equina to be royal during a great time of war and suffering for all races. Neither is wholly thankful for the centuries of peace with which we have been graced." Her face held an edge of sadness or disappointment. "At one time it was unavoidable, the many wars. Even I barely remember when the armies were first formed out of necessity. Equestria was peaceful for such a long, long time, but then the Great Unknown Battle occurred. It was so utterly destructing that the royal family of the time was killed in its wake. That is why so little is known about it. It is the only known pause of royal rule to Equestria, for there was nothing to rule, and the Goddess let the scattered survivors slowly rebuild."
As each nation rebuilt over the decades, civil wars and disagreements occurred almost daily. It was a very dark time for all. No one remembered that they were once all living happily together. Yet still, each nation grew into its own power, pushing the boundaries of their neighbors. There were many races united, but only for their own kind."
The Goddess grew tired of the incessant bickering among her children. Why should the Griffons battle the Pegasi? Once, long ago, they were close friends and shared the sky in peace and sport. How can the Earthen seek and destroy the Dragonkin like a pestilence? Before the Great Unknown, they left each other in peace and even helped one another in times of crisis. Even the Ogres were kinder in ancient history."
Princess Esmerald held a sea of knowledge and history behind those oceanic eyes. Gem was lost in her storytelling. It was not often that the Princess felt comfortable enough to tell such stories. More often, Gem would read about them and receive small corrections from one of the other members of the royal family. The royal alicorns' personal history was in murky, unknown history. The subjects of Equestria knew the Goddess had blessed them, but like so much, the histories and knowledge faded and became more legend behind these powers that ruled.
The Princess continued, "Even I, as a young filly, before my days of rule, remember the darkness of constant wars." She smiled at some faded memory of her former self. "I was an Earthen. Have I ever told you that?"
Gem shook her head, mouth agape and eyes wide at this new morsel of knowledge on her mentor.
Smiling more to herself, the Princess whispered almost reverently, "Sometimes I forget what I once was. When so much time passes…it is difficult."
This was probably the most personal moment Gem would ever see of her teacher, her idol, her princess. Right now, Princess Esmerald never looked so vulnerable. It did not settle well with the image of power and enigmatic royalty that was iron cast in every memory Gem had ever formed. Gem wondered idly about the consequences of living forever. She imagined the last royal family before the Great Unknown went through similar trials together.
Gem stood and slowly approached the downcast royal in silence. She placed her muzzle at the neck of the tall and slender alicorn, returning the comfort given to her only moments before. "My Princess, I can not comprehend the immense responsibility and honor to be blessed by the Goddess Equina, and I know you have mentored many before me and have seen things that I will pray to never even envision." She looked up above her into the deep-watered eyes still recovering from memories older than she knew. "But I promise I will use everything you have taught me to avoid battle against this mysterious force."
"I know, my dearest student. My siblings and I have counseled much together since you told me of your vision. It has stirred many memories I forgot existed. My brothers are eager, but understand even better than I that no battle will also mean avoiding loss of life, above all else. My sisters continue the peace of nature's cycle and do not wish to disrupt it. All of us," Esmerald looked into Gem's young face with wise, old eyes aged more quickly with the gift of sight, "the six of us do not want what awaits us. It has, indeed, been centuries since the last small battle and even longer in ancient history since the battles that urged the Goddess to renew the royal ruling once more. I fear nothing, in even our long-lived memories, will help us with the possible foes ahead. It was not the legendary and mythical beasts that my brothers fought but more often their children or former nation of followers. Nonetheless, they would suggest to be a pale comparison to their more monstrous legacy when your vision arrives."
"Do the Princes have fears against what I saw?" Gem dared to ask the gravity of opinion of the royals.
"They fear what they can not scout. Their battle-heavy knowledge of warfare has no defense against a mass of foes that would just appear."
A heavy silence granted Gem the time to think over this. Princess Esmerald offered, "There are wise ones in other parts of our land. They do not have the gift of prophecy, but I have heard of at least one individual gifted in augury. I will continue to search the corners for answers outside our historical resources here in the castle." The Princess paused for a moment then nodded to herself. "Also, although mostly destroyed artifacts, you will be granted access to the Vaults of Archaic Times." The prior intimate moments between student and teacher passed. Princess Esmerald the royal leader returned back to her usual stoic stance of majesty, a resolute mask to face what was before them.
"Thank you, your majesty. I was, in fact, going to ask for access." Gem felt her mentor's returned sense of propriety. Still beside the Princess, she bowed her horn to touch the frayed edge of the carpet. "After a brief respite, I will continue my search and report back." In the now open doorway she reverently spoke the formal dismissal, "Goddess be praised."
"Goddess be praised," echoed the Princess as Gem edged her way backwards, still in bow to the royal, leaving Esmerald in her study while Gem found some nourishment before returning to the dark recesses of the castle library.
Princess Esmerald's faith in Gem bolstered her confidence back in place. As a united front with the powers of the royals, how can they fail? Even with their worries of the unknown, they would never run.
Gem knew she still had time. Every hour was precious until her vision came to pass. Empowered by her mentor and a sahred cup of tea, Gem vowed not to feel failure before the beasts of her mind's eye came to fruition. She needed to continue to seek answers or a path to answers, at least. Why were the monsters in such number? Where did they come from? Why were they destroying all of Equestria? Did another magicker summon them? Dozens of questions crowded her head, many only created from the fruitless research of the morning. The Princess was right, there is still time.