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Cold Comfort [Closed: Steel]

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Daedalus made a face of mock horrified surprise. “I didn’t realize you were into that sort of thing!”

 

Of course, he could not keep the mask for long. It quickly degenerated into laughter. Twilight couldn’t be serious about eating him. Could she? Alicorn biology was indeed mysterious to him, but Daedalus preferred to think he knew enough about Twilight to know she wouldn’t make a meal of him even in desperation.

 

Playful wink and banter was nothing new to Daedalus. Past clients had made plenty of such advances. It was novel, however, to have it come from Twilight, someone far more honest than any Kastroti Head Daedalus had ever spoken with. Even in his short time in her employ, she had demonstrated herself to be mostly business, albeit not without being amicable about it. More flirtatious banter was something novel, indeed. Curious.

 

He shook his head as he chuckled and reached for the rest of the MRE package, fishing the wax-paper wrapped biscuits out. With a bit of light magic, he removed the macaroni tin from the fire, setting it upon a nearby rock to cool. Finally, he broke the first biscuit, handing half to Twilight.

 

Flour, water, and salt made for biscuits that kept well but had little in the way of flavor. If this was what soldiers subsisted on in the field, then surely soldiering must have been the most joyless of professions. Yet another reason Daedalus could add to the list of reasons not to enlist.

 

“A bit stale, even for hardtack,” he jokingly remarked as he downed his first bite. “We’re getting proper wine and olives after we get back to Equestria. My treat!”

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Daedalus proved himself good company to a greater degree with every passing moment between them and every word from his lips. A tremendous amount of pain and heartache had led her here but in the great scheme of things, she was happy with the day. And she was pleased that her trust and faith in hr Keepers was being rewarded once more, even if this was decidedly not in his job description. 'Cooking for the Princess while trapped on an island' didn't sound quite as delightful a his normal job description anyway. Hunting down relics of great power and cataloging them for the safety of Equestria, and al the while having access to the greatest magitech and spells in all of the land was a far more exciting description of their roles and generally more accurate. Better after tonight, Keeper Lord of the Mac and Cheese Meal Ready to Eat would not be an untrue title to hoof out.

“That sounds like a good idea. I have a nice Prench wine for just such an occasion,” she offered, sighing as she imagined being able to pour a glass and slip into the warm bathwaters of her own private bathroom. Wine, soapy warm water, a nice book on the celestial-arcane mechanics written by a half-mad genius from fourteen hundred years ago? That was her idea of luxury. She'd have to be okay until then and subsist here for the night. It could work well enough thanks to Daedalus. Of course he couldn't share the waters with her- well- no, no. That was very highly improper. Keepers were kept in the Keep when they were close to her, locked up and behind aetheric protection, because all sides needed to have a clear mind when the topic of magical items came about. She needed to banish he foolishness of fancy and send herself quickly to rest.

In other words, she finished her food in about twenty seconds tops and looked at her cook. “Well, considering what you had to work with I'd say you did an amazing job, Daedalus. I wouldn't have expected any less though! I'm going to go to bed, get my energy up for the day ahead. When you make your way in, just remember that this tent will be locking itself from the outside once you enter,” she said, trotting into the small tent. Once inside she set herself up with a relatively (she was a big pony, with her wings and all) small sleeping space, and lay down. As she lay down her horn lit up, casting several spells one after another. One was a perimeter alarm for creatures marked sentient or dangerous. Another would, in due time, completely dull the image of the tent and eventually blend it into the area around it, at least from a distance. The third would, once Daedalus was in, prevent the tent from being opened from the outside. Safety was important!

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“So lavish with the compliments, princess!” he teased.

 

Again, spoken in jest. Mostly. Compliments flowed like fine wine in the high houses of Kastrot. But as always, there were strings attached. Honeyed words signaled deals that shaped the course of Assembly-aligned houses while simultaneously affording their speakers some measure of personal indulgence. Gifts of materiel in exchange for influence and intelligence with lusty escapades on the side were not uncommon. Granted the phenomenon was not confined solely to Kastrot. But thus far, Equestria had seemed to have far less of it; at least with regards to Ponyville.

 

Suddenly, flashes of color exploded before his eyes, fuzzy shapes, indistinct voices drifted in and out of his ears. His hoof shot to his forehead, his skull seeming fit to explode. Trying to focus just made it hurt more. At the height of the sudden paroxysm, he grasped a singular image. Twilight stood in a grand hall observing some function. Feeling eyes upon him, Daedalus snapped his gaze to the interloper, a hooded pony with curiously indistinct features.

 

Just as quickly as it came, the fever dream passed. The audible stimulus faded, but the vestiges of the image remained burned into his memory. Daedalus ducked his head, panting as he struggled to get his bearings again. A quick glance back to the tent showed him that Twilight had already made her way inside, seemingly oblivious to his momentary fugue.

 

“I’ll be along shortly. I’ll see about finding a coconut or something in case the warp sickness hasn’t quite worn off yet.”

 

Daedalus shuffled to the tide mark. The lapping waves washed over his hooves, tickling them with cool water and salty spray. He sighed. Oracle he was not. Visions were not a part of his repertoire be they psychometry or prophecy. Warp sickness was wont to induce strange effects on an unshielded brain, but in a world of magic, premonition was not out of the question.

 

For several minutes he stood on the shore as the waves lapped at his hooves. The visions did not return. A blast of dissatisfied breath escaped his nostrils, his exasperation sending him into an abrupt about-face. As he trotted back, he idly scooped up a stray coconut with a cracked shell and set it atop his saddlebags. Sliding into the tent, he closed the makeshift flap behind him and nodded as Twilight’s wards activated.

 

“Let it not be said that the Princess of Magic could not a fine ward make,” he chuckled softly.

 

Twilight seemed asleep, or at least on the cusp of it, by the time he arrived. Gingerly stepping around her, Daedalus slid onto the bedroll next to her slowly exhaled, trying to relax himself. Both he and Twilight were battered and exhausted and in serious need of rest. The new developments could wait until tomorrow. Hopefully...

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Twilight allowed herself to get comfortable inside of the tent, the warmth provided enough for the night but likely to diminish. Pony pelts were excellent at retaining heat though so she was sure they'd be fine. She was also a pony who was quite adept at falling asleep fast, and by the time she was joined by Daedalus, she was already well on her way out. She noted his entrance but found herself too tired to really acknowledge any of it. The day to follow was going to have a host of problems for her to confront, but the night could pass by easily enough if she simply allowed it. A good night's rest was one of the greatest guaranteers of a perfect following day, at least for her, and while some may have scoffed at her sharing her tent with Daedalus she was more than confident that anypony who mattered wouldn't bat an eye. It was simply the most efficient method and she knew that efficiency-


- the hum of activity that dominated the entrance to her castle would have been overwhelming, but Twilight found herself at peace. Her castle was busy. Streamers of great and elegant design fluttered about from their holdings while her guards, dressed in the purple and white that was her standard, did their best to not get distracted by the throngs of excited attendees. Fine drink and food lined the walls, while the echoes of laughter and excited jabbering drowned out whatever dignitaries were deeper into the main hall of her expanded castle. Twilight could faintly hear several musical acts ranging from classical to pop playing in the various rooms. It was a pleasant party, a large gathering, a chaotic shuffle of people, all rolled into one. Twilight felt immediately as if she had succeeded even before she could try and take stock of what was happening. When she did have that moment to reflect, she understood wy there was a sense of pride tickling its way up her spine.

She was vaguely aware that this was a dream, though only in the far off sense that you were always aware of a dream. She looked at the decorations and knew this was part of her idea for a more general public acceptable Grand Galloping Gala. Not one to replace in its entirety the one held at the caste in Canterlot, but one that more ponies could attend. It didn't lose its glamour in its entirety and there was still the matter of needing invitations. The invitations were more broadly given out but it was still supposed to be an amazing experience. Twilight had already done all the greeting (wouldn't be a dream if she had to do that part of it) and was now free to experience the party. Her friends were all there and she made a beeline for them, but along the way something happened. Or, as it could be more accurate to say, somepony happened...

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Daedalus was no stranger to parties and high society functions. Maretonian politics involved many a function for both pleasure and business. That being said, it has been a long, long time since he had gotten to enjoy such finery. The life of a freelance mage and now the employ of a Princess made sure he was either in the field or in the lab for much of his time. As often as Pinkie Pie threw parties, he found himself often absent.

 

He took a sip of his wine. “Solstice Riesling. It’s no Hipposton 398, but it will do. I suppose I shouldn’t look a gift in the mouth,” he mused.

 

Daedalus savored the taste as he glanced out the window. The glint of the chandeliers in Twilight’s castle partially obscured the stars; less so to the faint glow of residential lights in Ponyville outside. While the rest of the town was likely preparing to bed down for the night, the area around the castle was still buzzing with activity.

 

“Well, if there was one thing Twilight’s an expert at, it’s planning events,” he chuckled. “Though perhaps we have Pinkie to blame for some of these rooms…”

 

He glanced at the streamers and other less formal elements included as he passed through a vestibule on his way to the main hall. The cider mug floated lazily next to his head as he entered the room. Out of the corner of his eye, Daedalus spotted the unmistakable silhouette of Twilight Sparkle.

 

Threading his way through the crowd, Daedalus suavely maneuvered alongside Twilight. Flashing his best smile, he greeted her with his usual humor. “Fancy meeting you here, Princess!”
 

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Twilight saw Daedalus approach and her heart leaped in a manner very much unlike her. Not that she didn't have very strong emotions, but she normally wouldn't allow herself to feel so...out of control, even small and forgivable ways. A Keeper like Daedalus was rare. A stallion like him was also rare. She was more than happy to have invited him to this event, an event she wasn't entirely sure how or why was happening but in the moment felt confident in the sheer righteousness of everything involving it. He was dressed well tonight. Well, at east for the setting. At least for the dream even if she wasn't able to fully grasp that concept- he was looking fantastic tonight, and she noticed. Her white and purple dress seemed to contract in her mind, showing more leg than she would have thought appropriate in real life. Dreamscapes played with you in ways good and ill it seemed, a circular race he was pleased to participate in. He sauntered up to her, and she smiled.

“Yes, imagine that. I hope you're having a good time?” She said, her eyes half-lidded as her breath easily grew warm in his presence. The party was mostly faded around them, the words, daughter, music, sound having become distinctively background in volume and condition. “The wine selection is notable for its properties native to the Bridleback! Keeps blood flow to the entire body warmer than usual. It creates a particularly exciting, somewhat light, feeling throughout the body. I think you'll enjoy it,” she said, zapping some into a glass for herself. She drank it quickly, taking in the warm liquid as she took in the view in front of her. She was happy about the party overall, but most importantly, she was happy he was here. “So, my little Keeper, who did you bring with you to share this night with?”

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As if the universe itself were framing the moment, the background chatter and music slowly faded away. The river of time crystallized into a solid glacier. Wine in hoof and fuzzy feelings in head, Daedalus trotted -- nay, drifted -- toward Twilight. How perfect a moment it was!

 

Too perfect. It had to be a dream. Though the lucidity in dream meant he supposed he could take some liberties… so long as whatever transpired remained in dream only. It wouldn’t do to wake the actual Twilight Sparkle in the tent next to him with delirium-fueled ramblings and wandering hooves.

 

He raised his glass. “A most excellent time, yes. Despite almost being waylaid by one of Pinkie’s party decorations on my way in, it’s absolutely lovely in here.” He plucked a bit of confetti out of his mane that had escaped prior inspection and sipped his wine.

 

“Subtle enchantments to enhance the flavor. Interesting.” he mused.

 

Subtle enchantments indeed. His eyes fell upon Twilight yet again, and this time she seemed to positively glow in the chandelier-light. Her half-lidded eyes straddled the line between coy and ferociously unlady-like, an enticing, sultry smolder that tugged on all the right strings. “Believe me, I've been enjoying every drop...”

 

While he was never one to stumble over questions about certain kinds of entanglements, Twilight’s presence changed things. Twilight changed things. It had been a very long time since Daedalus had felt the kind of tugging he felt now. He was not serving her in an official capacity. He was not tending to her needs for coin. Without obligations weighing him down, he still found himself drawn to her.

 

Twilight was no lavish wine to be consumed in a night of debauchery, nor was she a delicate flower to be locked away and protected behind glass. Despite her seemingly naive appearances, nothing could be further from the truth. Nay, the youthful spark was not the glint of doe-eyed naivete but a touch of passion yet unsullied by cynicism and resentment. The tug Daedalus felt was that of a yearning for bygone days when he and Acantha felt they could take on the world -- together. Now was his chance to reclaim that feeling, that security, that sureness in his place, something that had been absent for many long years.

 

“I’m afraid I don’t know anypony quite as well as you, Princess,” he simpered. “So I’m afraid nopony has accompanied me. Unless of course you’d like to accompany me for the rest of this evening?”
 

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What a poor night for him. A stallion such as Daedalus deserved to have fine company tonight. He had done so much for Equestria and would so so much more. His bravery and sacrifice for his adopted home was noble in so many ways, yet denied the light it properly and richly deserved. That was the inherent tragedy of his work as well as the work of other Keepers. They were destined to live and die in the shadows, their good works obscured by secrecy, their failures mythologized as acts of evil. It took a special breed to truly commit to such an ideal when it meant a life of service without fanfare, success rewarded by more service. It took a special stallion to come from Kastrot and an upbringing so tightly wound into fulfilling personal desires and reject it, instead choosing to labor for a nation of utopian idealism.

A special stallion- like Daedalus.

She took another drink. This time it seemed heavier and she felt herself get immediately drunk, as if she had decided that the drinks were of a much more decisive category. She knew that she wouldn't normally serve such drinks at a party like this but alas, she apparently had and all of the lightness and tang that had existed earlier seemed to melt away by the demands of the power inside her head which was constructing this fantasy. “Well, I suppose I could be your company for the evening, Deadalus. I'd hate for such an incredible stallion to be left alone and sad at my party,” she cooed, bringing him tight. The warmth, the smell of sweet alcohol in the air, the burning of incense which she hadn't remembered. Steam seemed to roll in from the sides from bathing rooms on the sides. It was all so uniquely perfect.

She motioned to nothing in particular. There were far fewer ponies than before she felt like, which was perfectly fine considering that Daedalus had increasingly become the center of her world. “How do Kastroti parties tend to go? Do their royalty try to take advantage of their positions relative to their subordinates?” Twilight asked, her seduction skills no finer tuned in fantasy than they would be in reality. But for all of that, the mere attempt was something beyond she could conceive of in real life. The world was certainly strange when you owned it.


 

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Subtle enchantments? It seemed more than subtle now. With uncanny speed, the noise of the party-goers faded to a dull murmur in the background and the room became curiously indistinct, dissolving into a warm haze of incense and steam that hugged the floor. Despite his peripheral senses twitching in discomfort, the sight before him grew ever more inviting.

 

Twilight led him forward by the hoof, stars in her eyes and honeyed words flowing from her lips. When he looked in her eyes, Daedalus’ suspicions melted. It was his dream and a lovely one at that. Indulgence in the deep of his subconscious would kill neither of them; not tonight. He downed his glass in an instant, the collected alcohol and flavoring instantly seeping into his body, sending him into a dizzying moment of delirium. The glass behind him dissolved into nothingness but Daedalus cared not.

 

“There is no Kastroti royalty,” he laughed. “Well, not by name! The Assembly is meant to be representative of the ponies it governs, but they may as well be kings and queens of the isles of Kastrot. They could very well raise their own sun if they felt it was in their best interests. If only I could be so grossly incandescent!”

 

The incense tickled his nostrils and left a buzzing in his head and a ringing in his ears. The steam gently caressed his hooves, immediately evoking thoughts of a long soak in hot springs with Twilight by his side. “This… seems like a great spot. I could go for a soak.”

 

“But to answer your question, subordinates are not merely there to sate the materiel needs of their employers. They are also privy to more… intimate needs.” His voice dropped in tone, a twinge of somberness creeping in. “More than just carnal needs. Deeply emotional needs. It’s… rare that true confidants can be found. It’s amazing that in a land with so much physical contact, very little true intimacy is had…”

 

Maybe someday he’d go over with Twilight in real life. Maybe some day he’d not have to hide behind a mask of snark. Maybe.
 

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Twilight Sparkle was getting more drunk every moment that passed, even when she wasn't drinking. It was like the delayed effects of a whole night were compounding quicker and quicker. She was looser. Warmer, more inclined to give credence to the thoughts rolling around her head. Inhibitions died quickly as concerns, raised intelligently, were discarded irrationally. She abandoned all real thought slowly but surely. The feelings inside overwhelmed the parts of her brain given to more conservative decisions. She was excited and drunk and unwilling to allow the night to die without fighting for actual, real happiness. Maybe in reality she had more than enough to qualify for that but sometimes dreams could redefine what it meant. And for now, happiness was found outside of herself with the aid of another. She would be made happy by night's end, and so would he.

The lighting around them was changing. As they spoke the world seemed to grow darker, lit less and less by the bright light orbs used for large gathering and more by candle light, bright orange flame illuminating in decreasing rings. Other ponies had started to vanish entirely, leaving fewer and fewer until it seemed like it was just them. The sounds of the party had vanished all together, with the flickering warmth of candles and a few fires in the corners providing them what they needed against the cold which seemed to increasingly infect everywhere else not immediately near the flames. She felt herself being drawn closer to him and it was all so worthwhile. She was in the mood for mistakes and regrets but she felt like there would be no mistakes or regrets about what was coming next.

But he needed to talk a little less. Now was not the time for his calm, cool, and calculated responses. Now was the time for passion and for strength, for tender care and rough ideals. She was willing and able and so was he, at least she believed and hoped, and now was the time. Alone and together, isolated and bonded in this fantasy. She put a hoof up to his lips as he continued speaking, her eyes half-lidded as her mind raced down a track from which there was no real defense. “Daedalus, no more talk,” she said, pulling him in for a passionate kiss. When it was done, and it wasn't short, the door to her private quarters appeared just a few feet away. “Where we're going, words are...exceptionally optional,” she said, hoof in hoof leading her charge into the room, horn alight and eyes wild.

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Daedalus’ words were silenced by the press of Twilight’s lips against his own. His eyes went wide with surprise before closing in bliss. The prior realization that it was a dream only further dissolved his inhibitions. Indulgences here would reflect little on the real world unless he made it so. With the last of his shackles released, Daedalus dove deep, meeting the kiss with just as much enthusiasm. Wisps of incense seemed to reach out from the haze and goad him onward, steam bearing his hooves until he was literally floating alongside Twilight. Bodies pressed close and hooves already wandering, Daedalus drifted into the Princess’ chambers entranced.

 

******

 

Daedalus awoke with his face buried in the partly caved face of the coconut he had brought into tent the night prior. He coughed and sputtered, spitting out strands of coconut husk as he finally shook himself fully awake. The cool aftermath of evaporating sweat and heated breath lingered in his coat. This wasn’t the sweat of fever or sickness. It was earthier, healthier, as if he had been on a long walk for pleasure rather than trying to save his own life like the previous day.

 

He felt strange inside, a lingering warmth that floated in his chest. This was not illness; the nausea from warp sickness was long gone. No, the warmth he felt was something else altogether -- a feeling that had eluded him since the last days with Acantha before his final departure from Kastrot: belonging.

 

Consciousness’ return brought with it other revelations; specifically that he was not in fact face first in coconut. He was instead face first in Twilight Sparkle’s mane. Their limbs lay intertwined, bodies still pressed against each other in satisfied afterglow.

 

His first instinct to recoil was countered by the fact that Twilight herself had not done so already. Checking himself over quickly, he found both he and Twilight seemed to be whole and hale. The wards of the tent were still in place and there were no signs of anything untoward that had happened the previous night. Everything was, at the moment, in order.

 

Daedalus wasn’t about to do anything to Twilight without her express consent. As raunchy and frivolous as the jokes and teasing were, he knew he was not entitled to her affections, physical or otherwise. The dream was an indulgence he could afford to make but little else. When Twilight awoke, it would be back to the status quo -- back to just business.

 

With a heavy sigh. Daedalus rolled over, separating his body from Twilight’s and feeling the pang of sudden loneliness when her scent finally left his nostrils. Next dream, perahps...

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Twilight came to with a soft jolt, her brain pulled entirely from the lewdness that had taken ahold of it. Her body was matted with sweat, as if she had been resting under a blanket in the sun. her breath came in more ragged and short but exuded more excitement than pain or shock. She was warm. very warm. Every part of her tingled with unknowable energies. Her horn was magically leaking her purple aether, giving the tent a slight tinge she otherwise would have been blinded to. Within a flash of a moment she regained her breath and the tingling started to fade with unbelievable swiftness. She had been in an excitable dream and showed the impact of it across her features, but it wasn't the first nor would it be the last. She would be less ashamed of herself had she not been sharing the tent with another.

 

Dreams tinted with excitement of this sort weren't uncommon for adults. Perhaps more common for teenage fillies ad colts going through all the changes their bodies were want to, and indeed, she had another spat of them when she became an Alicorn. The mind was a place of fancy and indulgence and it was no secret that few barriers existed there between desire, need, and what could be. And when an adult had such a dream, it was only common for it to include valued coworkers. Teenagers had crushes and the first burgeoning desires of the body, and Twilight had a stallion uniquely qualified to appeal to her. It was no shock that he would be the one, was it? Shouldn't have been. He was a special stallion, yes. And he was a coworker, somepony brave. All things that appealed to her fantasy, even if she knew that was all it was.

 

Just a fantasy.

He was turned away from her which was good because if he hadn't been turned away she could almost have doubted it. She took a deep breath, moving a little further away from him. Her position was intentionally solitary. Issues weighed on her that could drown others and the realization of immortality made a mockery of any real attempts at a long-term relationship. And even if all that stood in the way, she knew there had to be a thousand reasons it wouldn't, could't, be Daedalus. The one she clung to was his position as a Keeper meant he may at some point be put into severe mortal danger and she wasn't sure she could make the call with somepony she cared deeply about. And even as she tried to bury that thought with all the reasons she needed to ignore it, all the ideals that were threatened by it, she knew that she did indeed care deeply for him.

 

It kept her up an hour or so longer, staring into the back of his mane as she ran rings around herself mentally. Finally as the light started to break through the trees she got up, quickly undid the wards, and fluttered out on soft wings to allow herself to be greeted by the sun.
 

"Twilight!" the sun shouted- no, not the sun, the Princess of the Sun.

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She landed with soft, graceful hooves on the sound, flanked by half a dozen guards. Celestia wore a look of concern, though hidden well by her regal calmness as the sun shone at her back and filtered through her wings. Twilight was partially blinded by the light but embraced its decisiveness against the dark, hugging her mentor.

 

"Princess celestia, you found us! Well, I guess that saves me time. I was going to get us home later today, but this is much easier."

"Us?"
 

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Daedalus’ half-slumber was disturbed by shouting outside the tent. It had been no more than a day since their displacement and not long after their expected return; indeed they were still within their arrival window. Even if word had returned to Canterlot and Stalliongrad that they had been left behind at the crash site, there would still have been lead time for a decision to be made and search parties to be assembled. That a rescue party would find them so soon and with such precision was… suspicious to say the least. Now might be a good time to wake up Twilight.

 

“Twilight,” he whispered, rolling back over. “Twilight--”

 

The space that Twilight had blissfully slumbered in mere moments ago was empty. Daedalus froze. The murmurs outside continued. Quietly, with as little movement as possible, Daedalus reached out an aetheric tendril to check the front flap of the tent. The wards had been undone, an act that could only be done from the inside. Seeing as how there was also little sign of struggle, Twilight was not forcibly extracted from the tent.

 

By all accounts it was safe. But Daedalus still didn’t feel right and something had to be done. He sighed and donned his harness, leaving the tattered remains of the cloak behind. If Twilight was being debriefed by a rescue party he supposed it best to show himself so that they would not assume him hostile. He nosed open the makeshift tent flap and stepped outside.

 

Blinking back the brightness, Daedalus stopped dead in surprise. Standing before him in all of her solar majesty was Princess Celestia herself. Though he had yet to meet her in person, Twilight had gushed endlessly about her mentor and reigning diarch of Equestria. This was certainly a treat -- just not after the escapades of the previous night and the tribulations of the previous day. Having a shower and the opportunity to groom himself into something less disheveled would have been nice.

 

Having the opportunity to collect himself more would have been nicer. One glance at Twilight was enough to put a twinge in his cheeks, partly out of the still-fresh memories of the previous night and partly out of the egregious self-awareness that such a thing was happening. This wasn’t like him. He didn’t get emotional, attached -- infatuated. It was a jumble of emotions and racing thoughts that Daedalus was not used to at all. He had little time to hesitate, however.

 

Twilight embraced the princess warmly, leading Daedalus to dismiss the last of his doubts about the nature of their rescue party in spite of his suspicions. He put on his “game face” on and stepped forward. The sudden clink of metal and shuffle of hooves stopped him dead in his tracks. In an instant, the guards had formed a spear wall between him and the princesses.

 

“Now, now, let’s not be too hasty,” he said, holding up a single hoof in a halting gesture. “Princess Twilight? There appears to be a… misunderstanding here.”

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Twilight looked at Daedalus as the guards formed a defense around Celestia. The Princess of the Sun herself looked non-plused but Twilight could tell by the movement of her eyes that there was some deeper thoughts going on than the passivity of it. The Guards themselves looked on edge. How long had they been searching? They were within the normal timeframe for return, even with something wrong. But then again based on how they had left off it would make sense if the alarm had been signaled. It was exceedingly rare for such a magical event to take place and nopony was known to survive it. Yet with their survival even basic aetheric detection gear would be able to surmise they were on the material plane, even if the exact location was elusive. Such an incredible series of events would inspire anyone, especially the Princess', to launch a large marehunt. It was a little puzzling how they had been found so far but it wasn't puzzling that the marehunt would be launched in the first place- at least, it made sense to her.

“That's my companion. He was with me when the aether broke around us,” Twilight replied quickly, putting her hoof on the right shoulder of one of the guards. After a moment the guards lowered the spears and backed off, resuming their business. Twilight sighed, moving her hoof through her mane which still had some of the sweat from the night causing certain hairs to stick together. It had been a dangerous mission but they had accomplished much and she was sure that Celestia would be proud of the work, even if she didn't approve of the methods used. “How did you find us so quickly?” Twilight asked, her mind running with all of the possibilities. The Princesses' were mares of extreme power and vast resources but, for all of that, they weren't nearly as omnipotent as ponies believed they were. Even with all of that power in her hooves Twilight found id strange to believe that Celestia did this completely thoroughly and found the pair so easily and quickly.

Celestia considered her former student and her charge briefly before deciding that there was no harm in revelations of this nature next to a stranger. She was a permissive Princess, after all. “We were making little progress until my sister informed me that she may have located you via your dreams,” she began, her tone pleasantly warm. Twilight froze for a second- Luna saw her dream! Of course she did! She was the mare of the night, the strider of the mental wastes. Of course she saw everything! Twilight looked down and blushed, yet Celestia continued. “Strangely, your dream was...obscured, it seemed artificially in some manner. It told us you were still alive without a doubt, while the oddities involved with aetheric tethering gave us an idea of where to look. From there it was an easy enough search to find you, though there was no indicate of a second pony here via the dreamscape,” Celestia answered, which by itself brought Twilight a thousand more questions. But she was fine enough not delving into the fineries of her dreams for now. Celestia sensed it and imparted mercy upon the two of them. "While obviously very interesting, I think any discussion of the finer points of the unusual nature of the past day can wait. No doubt the both of you would return for the mainland and get some...rest and relaxation?"

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Daedalus released the breath that he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding. Confident as he was that Twilight would manage to talk them down, having weapons pointed at him would never be a comfortable scenario. As the guards backed off, Daedalus stepped forward, stopping just short of Twilight but being careful to remain mostly behind.

 

The mention of dream-walking made his ear twitch. Ah yes, the constant nightly panopticon. Statistically, it was of no threat. Powerful as Princess Luna was, she was still one mare whose reach was limited by the fact that she was still an individual pony. That said, the ability to be nearly anywhere at anytime, even if it was not specifically in his head, gave the illusion of omniscience, which was enough to present as practical omniscience. On levels both pragmatic and philosophical, it was unsettling. That native Equestrians would see it as an everyday occurrence was beyond him.

 

There was also the subject matter of the prior night’s dream and the admission that they had been located via the dreams. Daedalus did his best to keep a straight face, but it was clear he preferred not to revisit the dream in polite company. At the addendum of Twilight appearing to be solo, Daedalus cocked his head. If they were both in the same location -- presupposing Celestia’s honest and accurate recounting -- why would only Twilight be detectable? Daedalus ran through a number of possibilities in his head but arrived at the conclusion that dreamwalking was outside his area of expertise. He sighed and filed a mental note to investigate further at a later date.

 

Twilight on the other hand seemed to react with much more apprehension. Perhaps she had not had nearly as much practice play-acting before a court? That would certainly explain the nervous posturing, but the blush threw him off. She couldn’t possibly have… could she?

 

Daedalus’ tail flicked in a nervous tick. Perhaps he could discuss it later with Twilight, but preferably not in front of the reigning monarch of Equestria. Daedalus was not quite that comfortable or shameless with Celestia just yet. Celestia -- old gods be praised -- seemed content to let her initial inquiries hang as empty musings.

 

Daedalus bowed his head at Celestia’s offer, masking his discomfort with displays of deference. “Your magnanimity knows no bounds, Your Majesty. I cannot speak for Princess Twilight, but rest and a proper meal would be most welcome to me.”

 

He glanced briefly at Twilight, anticipating that she would take the lead when dealing with Celestia.

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Celestia's eyes betrayed little of the knowledge she had. Such things were better kept private after all, or detailed only in more vital circumstances. No need to go further in that regard right now. Both of them had been through a particularly harrowing magical experience and while neither showed any mental strain or stress from it, the thrill of adventure and survival could block such things. She would desire greatly for the both of them to relax and then come back to her with what they had learned about the event that brought them here. “Agreed, Daedalus. I'd be very interested in what led to all of this,” Celestia said, her voice hovering between honest curiosity and the start of a command. Her suspicions were aroused greatly by the missing details.

Twilight knew why. Celestia did not know the Keepers existed. The Princesses all had their own secret program or two to help Equestria and all understood to a certain degree that the others were keeping such secrets from them. Twilight did not know about the Agent of the Sun or the Whispers in the Dark. The two elder sisters knew nothing of the Keepers, and nopony knew about what Cadance was doing. For ponies who were so close it was unusual; puzzling to most. But the fewer ponies who knew of each program the less likely Equestria's enemies were to discover the scope of efforts. S.M.I.L.E was an example of what happened to a program that had been forced public. The Princesses would never really pry unless that believed there was a danger that threatened their beloved ponies.

“...Yeah, a meal and some real rest would be great. It has been a rather exciting twenty-four hours,” Twilight said, a nervous laugh escaping her as she wondered who knew what or where and how. She was a nervous mare by trade, but was so certain she had conquered that with the dual swords of experience and resources. But between that dream, the event, and now Celestia- it was a bit too much for her if she was telling the truth. The guards nodded and started to hover as Celestia did. “I will meet the both of you...the day after tomorrow, perhaps? That should give you plenty of time to...recover,” she said, her words a little more playful than perhaps intended. She and her guards soon gave flight, leaving the pair alone on the beach. The way back would be easy now that the Princess was assured of their safety.

“Well, that's..good. Excellent! Are you ready to return home, Daedalus?”

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Daedalus had half expected Celestia to catch them up in a whirlwind to bring them back to Canterlot. Thankfully, this was not the case. Her curiosity sated and the safety of her protege assured, Celestia departed for home, leaving them alone again. Daedalus brushed the sweat from his brow with a fetlock. Was it Celestia’s glare or the dawning sunlight? Or perhaps they were one and the same?

 

“I’m ready to return home and ensure void exposure hasn’t scrambled my insides yes.” As if to drive home the point, Kyanaster woke from her armor compartment and gave an animated chirp. “Kyanaster is ready for portal generation. We just need set up a proper ritual site.”

 

He could almost smell the wine and olives. Just the thought of hors d'oeuvres and drink brought his thoughts back to the strange dream and the stranger implications. Was it merely subconscious lusts playing out in sleep? Celestia’s earlier remarks about dreamwalking led him to believe otherwise.

 

Daedalus began taking down camp and cleaning up after his attempts at cooking the previous night. It wouldn’t do to litter a pristine beach after all. “Twilight. I have to ask. Were you feeling alright last night?”

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Twilight let out a sigh of relief. She still felt wildly discombobulated and hadn't been given but a spare moment to consider the oddness of the night. It was a state of being more than an accusation but she would have greatly enjoyed Celestia whisking her away. It would have made her return home easier on all involved. As it stood she allowed herself some solitude but only briefly. She would have time to reconsider the events as they had transpired once she was home. For now she was a Princess and a friend, and they were still on an island and in need of a way home. Ways both of them could now easily push forward and do it were plentiful. And with the knowledge that the danger was well and truly passed for both of them, she was willing to bet that home was first and foremost on both of their minds.

 

He asked her if she had been feeling well last night. She thought about her answer briefly. "Fine enough. I think the aether played havoc on my mind, had some unusually vivid dreams. Nothing that dramatic however. A ritual site, you say? Well, I suppose we could try that style of portal generation. I was thinking of a simple multi-phase teleportation, but Kyanaster deserves to get into the fun a bit more," she said playfully, masking her earlier worry. She didn't want to dive into the events of last night's dream with the pony whom the dream had concerned. Just seemed like a rather poor idea. Speaking of a poor idea, she went about creating the ritual site. She first cast a shield over the area to stop wind from ruining the runes and lines she ten proceeded to work into the sand. After a minute she did all she could. "Seems like a nice enough site for Kyanaster's taste?"

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Stonewalled. Daedalus was nonplussed, but did not show it, instead nodding before going about clearing away volcanic ash from Twilight’s selected site. The entire situation spoke of clandestine activities and half-hidden truths. Celestia was clearly suspicious of him, even if she chose not to immediately act. Specifically mentioning his lack of presence while scrying and Twilight’s scrambled signature must have been a play. While this had been their first meeting, Daedalus was certain the Princess of the Sun was no naive filly.

 

Kyanaster detached from her socket and chirped as she circled the ritual site. Laying down the initial outer ring for a portal. Satisfied with site selection, she beeped twice and dropped low to the rocky sand. Spokes of aether reached out from Kyanaster’s position, connecting with the outer ring. The spokes began a slow, methodical rotation, a series of runes flashing as the aether was collected and arranged.

 

“She agrees. Kyanaster, dial coordinates: The Keep, primary teleportation circle.”

 

Given the circumstances, it would likely take some time before the primary location could be dialed in and after that it would require manual fine-tuning to ensure that transport would not encounter the same issues as their last attempt. While Kyanaster went about her work, Daedalus slowly pondered Celestia’s words and Twilight’s mannerisms. Well, if he was unable to get a direct answer, perhaps he could figure out something indirectly.

 

“I will admit, upon first hearing about Princess Luna’s dreamwalking abilities, I was skeptical.” He finally said. “I thought perhaps it was a certain empath’s link spell or modified scrying sensor blown out of proportion, but from what I hear, it is something entirely different.”

 

As the individual runes began to take shape, Daedalus lit his horn and carefully anchored them into the aether manually. He continued, “I am still uncertain as to the mechanism of its operation. I’m also uncertain as to when I’ll be able to seek an audience with Luna or if one for research purposes would even be granted. With how well you know them is there any insight you’re allowed to share, Twilight? If only to sate my curiosity!”

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Twilight allowed Kyanaster to go ahead and do the hard work today. She felt righteously lazy at this very moment if only because she had spent considerable time and effort on everypony other than herself recently, and watching a relic do relic like activities was always delightful. That was the half the reason she first became aware of Daedalus in the first place, the rumors of Kyanaster's continued existence and ownership. Everything else came afterwards showed the pony who had Kyanaster was far more interesting of course, but that didn't mean Kyanaster wasn't intriguing. She watched Kyanaster do its thing, taking in even teh most minute movement as she learned everything she could through observation.

Not a thing she could honestly say regarding Luna. She knew the basics of it firsthoof and had a theory beyond it. Whether that was accurate or not was a matter entirely separate and she wasn't sure whether or not it was even proper to share. The things the Princesses knew about one another was not as interesting as she imagined most ponies believed, but still there was enough there to form theories. She had started formulating hers only after a few night time visits had allowed her greater insights as to the nature of Luna's dreamwalking. Even that was mostly fleeting. Perhaps in time she would have a greater understanding of the power involved but just as Celestia's magic was beyond true magical science knowledge currently, so was Luna's dreamwalking.

"Hmm..." Twilight replied simply at first, her hoof to her chin in thought. "I can't say I fully understand it either. The important thing to understand is that she fully materializes in some sort of dimensional aether space that allows her to transit from dream to dream. She is capable of altering her own aura enough to allow passage into your mind during a dream while still maintaining control of herself. In effect she does become part of your dream. She is very literally in your head! The why of this and even the how elude me. I do know that things can be masked or obscured from her. Powerful wards can refuse entry. Being aware that it is a dream before she makes her entrance can also weaken her ability to enter. Extra dimensional entities who operate on the same plane are theoretically possible and could interfere."

Her brows furrowed.

"Strange that you didn't appear and mine was in some way scrambled. It is possible that Luna's worry made the proper aetheric adjustments to perceive and enter my dream more difficult. Could also have focused so hard on finding me that other dreams faded from her aetheric view. Perhaps distance plays a part as well. I know she can't, or at least has great difficulty, trying to reach the dreams of Maretonian and Neighponese ponies even though they share the same aetheric anchor as Equestrians," she postulated, then shrugged her shoulders. "I'm sure Luna could provide more insight but I doubt much more could be confirmed. There are no other test cases to compare with and their magic works on a somewhat different fundamental basis anyway,” she sighed. Truth was that there was still much about magic she didn't know and was starting to think she would ever know.

That was okay, she had come to accept. Some questions had more value in the asking rather than the answering.

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The explanation was about what Daedalus had expected. The elder Princesses were inscrutable to even the ones who had lived with them for their entire mortal lives. That even Twilight herself did not know them in their entirety was neither surprising nor distressing. His ears perked up and turned in distinct interest at the mention of extradimensional entities.

 

The epiphany struck like a meteor impact.

 

Dimensional entities. Dimensional anchors. Dimensional princesses in dimensional dreams. If the magically inclined were wont to project their souls into an aetherically charged demiplane during their sleep, then perhaps Luna was merely interacting with it in a conscious and lucid manner. But if Luna could enter it and do… whatever moon princesses did in dream… then it would stand to reason that something -- or someone -- else could as well.

 

“Dimensional entities,” Daedalus muttered, mostly to himself but still within earshot. “Twilight. I don’t believe I ever asked you properly about the artifact. Do you remember anything strange about it; any unnatural aetheric signatures, any live auras, anything perhaps… extradimensional?”

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Did she remember much of all about that artifact's weird and wild trip? It was the only thing that could fit that puzzle. Her eyes furrowed in momentary concern, then twinkled. She nodded. “Yes, I believe so. I was traveling through some version of time, though I was unable to interact with anything. As I did so I noticed a singular figure that was there in every stop, always doing something it seemed to help those in need. It was all connected to the creation and implementation of the relic, I believed at the time. The final stop was the most puzzling. In this one, the figure seemed to look right at me- then it spoke, and everything fell apart.

I haven't had a great amount of time to consider what it was, who it was. It didn't seem hostile however. I got a sense of...comfort, warmth even. But it felt like a distant sun. Far away even when it was close. It also felt absurdly powerful. Invasive...not so much, but like somepony was watching over me. Like a parent, kinda. Strange to describe. Comforting, but fleeting. Once it spoke all of it was gone. Ever since then we've been too busy to really sit down and think about it much. Perhaps it is some sort of entity from another dimension that was manipulating events regarding the artifact.

Could also have been playing the part of ponies who had existed or been removed from existence via magical means. Aether erasure of lifeforms can create gaps in space-time that have to be filled. Dark energy is one answer, but perhaps that creates a space between space? Could have been interacting accidentally with our reality via the artifact,”
Twilight postulated, her face riven with concern. She was grasping for answers and not sure how to fit the pieces. An overview could perhaps help but she wasn't in much of a mood for an objective overview. A sense of unease had overcome her and she wanted to get out of there.

“Perhaps we can discuss this more in depth once we return to the Keep, Daedalus.”

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Kyanaster sounded a soft tone and shifted her emitted color, turning a bluish-green. The runes on the teleportation circle flared brightly and fired bright beams of light into the middle of the circle. What appeared to be a miniature sun ignited in the midst of the rune ring before quickly fading into quiescence. In its wake remained a floating sphere with mirror-smooth surface, holding an image of the receiving room of the Keep.

 

“Yes. Safety before discourse with regard to these matters.” Daedalus said.

 

Key words from Twilight’s musings lingered in his mind, however. Distant sun. Parents. Observing. Manipulation. Aether erasure. Dark energy.

Uncertainty gnawed at Daedalus. The Anchor had brought them to the cusp of untapped potential, potential that they could unlock if they only but tried. But the Maretonian in him warned heavily of the watcher, whoever they were. Being comfortable around someone was a privilege that had to be earned. That Twilight would feel comfort around an entity she knew nothing about --  that Daedalus knew nothing about -- tripped all of the warning alarms in his head.

 

“The portal is ready. Shall we?” Daedalus forced a smile and gestured toward the portal.
 

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Twilight's horn lit up as she took a deep breath, more than happy to be finished with this part of her life. The sense of unease, of tension, it rose within her as it had done since she had finished telling Daedalus of what she had felt regarding that entity. It was as if the mentioning of it had caused the aether around her to tense up. And whatever the cause of it, she wanted out. And out now. Within a few seconds a portal had appeared, and she trotted through it. Thankfully, unlike their last entrance through a portal, nothing prevented them from taking the easy and clear way through. Their hooves hit the portal and would come down in the Keep, the click-clack of their hooves echoing in the headquarters of the secret organization they were Overseer and Operative of, by order of royal title.

She took a deep breath, a bead of sweat falling on the floor as they ascended the staircase to the main room. One other Keeper was there- a stern mare no older than Applejack, her face buried in almost two dozen times as she took determined but silent notes. She looked up and bowed, lifting her books and notes up and trotting decisively to a more private part of the room. Not that it mattered much. The room was silent, large, and empty. Voices carried. Not that Twilight much cared what another Keeper heard. They rarely shared or worked closely together but weren't obligated to keep secrets from one another. Twilight quickly took a seat and sighed, her head laying down on the mahogany table while manechurian food appeared before them. “Hungry, Daedalus?” she asked, not waiting for his answer. She started to dig in. An Alicorn's appetite was rarely sated after all!

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“And here I thought it would be wine and olives,” he said with a wry grin.

 

He nodded in acknowledgement to the other Keeper as he passed, trotting to a seat opposite Twilight at the table. Shedding what remained of his tattered robes and traveling gear, Daedalus breathed a long sigh of relief and soaked in the cool, dry, air of the Keep. For the moment he could enjoy a modicum of safety to relax.

 

Kyanaster detached from her armor socket and idly floated by Daedalus’ head, making a soft chirp to indicate she was ready to receive commands again. Daedalus placed his saddlebag on the table next to him and gestured with his head. “Kyanaster, catalogue remaining reagents.”

 

Daedalus withdrew a notebook from the main pocket of the bag and opened it to a blank page with his magic. Kyanaster glowed blue, letting out a beep to acknowledge the command. A stream of runes scanned over the saddlebags, a second one reaching out to the tome and transcribing item names and quantities into an arcane ledger. While she attended to the mundane task, Daedalus finally turned back to Twilight; for the moment ignoring the food.

 

“I would at this point prefer a long soak in the tub. The warp sickness seems to have expired, but that does not change the dirty and sweaty part. Being thrown down a mountainside can be such a hassle.”

 

 lock of hair fell in his face. It was onlythen that he realized his usual braid had all but come entirely undone. With a resigned sigh, he began slowly putting it back together with a combination of hoof and magic.

 

“I would be entirely happy to retire for the next day or so to recuperate. That said, I cannot let the mystery of the Anchor go un-pursued. I have a hard time believing that there was not some intelligence to how it attempted to interact with you. I aim to find out why.”
 

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