"Zecora? You in there?"
Apple Bloom's voice echoes in the empty cottage, but no reply comes. She wanders around to see if the zebra was somewhere else, but finds no sign of her. She begins to wander into the forest, trying to remember some of the paths that Zecora likes to take when she goes herb collecting.
After a few minutes of following the path they'd taken the previous week while searching for meadowsfoot, Apple Bloom begins to wonder if she's gotten her days mixed up somehow. This is supposed to be the day for their regular study sessions, and she hates missing out on anything she can learn from her new friend.
She stops and heads back toward the cottage, hoping that her friend will be there. As she comes closer to the door, Apple Bloom can hear something from inside. The faintest hint of shifting light beneath the mostly closed door confirms that somepony is definitely inside. She comes up close and lightly taps a hoof on the door.
Again, there's no answer, but there's also no change in the low murmurings coming from within. She eases the door open just a bit with her hoof, peeking in to see what's going on.
Zecora is standing at the table, her rump to the door. Apple Bloom can see that she's studying something on the table, but she has no idea what it is. A delicate sniff of the air introduces her to a spicier incense than she's ever smelled before. The beeswax candles that Zecora has come to favor, thanks to Twilight Sparkle's welcoming gift, add to the interesting smell, as well as explain the flickering light.
Apple Bloom takes a cautious step into the room and nudges the door closed with a hind hoof. She waits with a greater patience than she's ever felt before; it only lasts a moment or two as she falls under the spell of Zecora's soft words. Coming closer to the table, she can see several brightly colored cards spread out on the surface. Without thought, Apple Bloom stretches out a hoof toward the closest card.
"Apple Bloom, no!"
The sound of Zecora's startled, imperious voice stops the young filly from actually touching the card, and she lowers her hoof sheepishly.
"Sorry, Zecora," she replies, feeling the flush of embarrassment heating her cheeks. "Ah know ah'm not supposed to touch without permission, but ah got caught up in yer chantin' an' all. What're ya doin'?"
"Silent movement you have learned, so an explanation you have earned." Zecora steps back from the table, and Apple Bloom follows suit. "Early you have appeared, but it is not as I feared. Time steadily moves toward the future on silent hooves."
Confusion crosses Apple Bloom's face for a moment, and then she smacks a hoof against her forehead. "Ah forgot that we got outta school early today. Ah am here early, ain't I? Sorry 'bout that, Zecora."
"No apology is needed when my words you have heeded. Tell me now, Apple Bloom, how you came to sneak in my room."
"Ah knocked an' called for ya, but ya didn't answer. Then ah went looking on that path where we found the meadowsfoot last week, but ya weren't there neither. When ah came back, ah could hear the chantin' an' see the candlelight. Ah called for ya, but ya didn't answer, an' ah kinda let myself in. Ah'm sorry for that, Zecora."
"You were wise to search without, but I never left, have no doubt. But we have other things to learn, things for which you clearly yearn," Zecora replies as Apple Bloom's eyes slide toward the cards on the table again. "You wish to know their origin, and that is where we will begin."
Zecora motions toward the fireplace, prompting Apple Bloom to put on water to boil for tea. The regularity of their schedule helps toward calming her curious mind from its dizzying speeds. The zebra adds a few fragrant leaves to a pair of cups. When the water boils, Apple Bloom fills the cups, then hops from hoof to hoof as the tea steeps.
"With all this energy, one might think you've an allergy."
The gentle rebuke calms the young filly quickly. She grins and blows on her tea. "Sorry, ah'm just excited, that's all. Ya know ah love it when ya teach me this stuff."
"This is true, my young friend, so here is my story right to its end. In the land where I am from, magic beats in us just like a drum. The cards you see are from that land, they intrigue but will you understand? Just like with my walking stick, explanation here will do the trick."
Apple Bloom sips her tea and watches intently as Zecora uses her magic to lift and shuffle the deck of cards. She fidgets, wanting to touch them, but knows better than to do so without permission. "So what're they used for, Zecora?"
"The world is full of invisible signs, offering wisdom to any so inclined. When studies are learned, their secrets are earned. Of these cards of seventy-eight, the first twenty-two for you will be great."
"Seventy-eight cards? Yer deck don't look that big! How do ya remember all of 'em?"
"Memorization is the key here, but personal association also helps the seer."
Apple Bloom watches as the deck is shuffled while Zecora chants again in her native tongue. The first card rises up to hover in the air between them.
"This first card is your initial tool, to many practitioners, it is known as The Fool. The Fool is on a journey, of that you can see, preparing for travel and always busy. He carries a stick with a kerchief on it, carrying within it all he can fit."
"Why, that sounds like Derpy Hooves!" Apple Bloom says with a grin. "She's always flying around Ponyville with her mailbag filled with important stuff fer everypony."
As she speaks, a second card begins to appear next to the first. Everything Apple Bloom says is rendered in this spectral card.
"She's always out an' about early in the morning, makin' sure that she can get everypony's mail to them when they need it. Ah cain't count the times ah've been helping Mama an' Pa on the farm, an' there's Derpy checkin' the mailboxes an' sayin' hi. Why, ah could remember that meaning any day!"
"Your words hold a ring of truth, a trait so admirable for such a youth," Zecora says with a grin.
The card from her deck returns to the table, while Apple Bloom's card of Derpy Hooves decorated like a fool disappears in a puff of smoke. The next card floats to hover between them while Zecora sips at her tea.
"The Magician?" Apple Bloom asks, looking at the card. "There's lots of magical stuff in that card, but different from the things you've been teachin' me to use. This looks more like the stuff that Twilight likes to use, an' maybe Princess Celestia. Ah don't really know how the princess uses magic, but ah've seen what Twilight does, so can we stick with that?"
"Whatever coaxes the spark from the ember is what will help you remember. What else in this card can you find that will help to keep its message in mind?"
"Well, Twilight wouldn't be outside to do her magic, she's always in the library. An' she don't use none of these fancy things, but she's always got torches an' feather quills around to help her out. But ah know that she's really scary when she gets all involved in her magic an' stuff. Does that work, Zecora?"
"A fine description you have found, imagination in you does abound. Take a look at this next card and guess, who do you know that resembles The High Priestess?"
Apple Bloom stares at the card for a long moment, and then smiles and laughs. "Why, this looks like you, Zecora! Ah know ya like to stand out in the forest an' salute the moon at night. An' ya've always got yer walkin' stick when you go wanderin' in the far reaches of the Everfree Forest."
As she speaks, this card also appears between them. The image is of Zecora in her golden baubles, carrying her staff and staring up through the bare branches of the trees in the Everfree Forest. The crescent moon in the cloudless sky is surrounded by the pinprick points of stars and shooting stars.
"Oh, Zecora, it's beautiful." She pauses for a moment, then prances happily in place. "Do ya think I could remember all the cards if I found ponies here in Ponyville that shared the same traits?"
Zecora smiles at her enthusiasm and turns to rummage in a trunk across the room. "That is a distinct possibility, as your descriptions show your clear adaptability." She pulls out a small pouch from the trunk and brings it back to the table. "Take this deck with you and study it well, discover your meanings if you wish to excel. And on the next time we meet, we'll discuss your choices over a tasty treat."
Apple Bloom takes the pouch and reverently puts it in her saddlebag. "Thank you, Zecora. Ah'll be ever so careful with these cards." She takes one last fond look at the card depicting her version of The High Priestess before it fades away. "Ah'm gonna go home an' start studyin' right away."
"Farewell, my eager young friend, go off to your studies and chores to tend."
As soon as Apple Bloom leaves the cottage, Zecora turns to study the spectral card still hovering there, now joined by the two previous cards Apple Bloom's imagination created. She smiles as the physical versions of all three appear on the table next to her own deck. Rummaging in the same trunk again, she pulls out a pouch that matches the color of Apple Bloom's eyes perfectly. The three cards find their way into the pouch, then into the trunk.
"When all is said and done, this perfect gift you will have won. Until such time as we are through, I'll keep this deck a secret from you."