The shrill blast of the whistle could be heard clearly over the cheering of the twenty or thirty ponies gathered around a raised padded ring in the middle of a sparsely decorated building. Inside the ring lay a dazed unicorn, gasping for breath. His sweat soaking through his short gray mane. Another unicorn stood over him, examining the results of her handiwork. Her bright purple coat and long mane stood out among the ponies who frequented the gymnasium, most of whom sported dull, earthy colors and manes trimmed short or shaved off entirely. Between her bright coloring and small stature, most ponies tended to underestimate her.
It wasn’t a mistake anypony made twice.
“The winner, by knockout, Twilight Sparkle!” declared the pony who had blown the whistle. The crowd cheered even louder than before, and the drumming of their hooves against the floor was deafening.
Twilight extended her hoof to the pony who had just regained his senses.
“Good match, Phalanx!” she proclaimed cheerfully. “That was a really cool trick, stacking up your wards like that to deflect my Dragonfire Beam.”
“Uh-huh” replied Phalanx. He studied the youngster in front of him, but wasn’t able to make out what she was saying over the ringing in his ears, a side effect of taking repeated magical blows to the head over the last few minutes. The training amulets they wore absorbed the worst of the impacts and usually prevented any permanent damage, but it still hurt. A lot.
Twilight, undeterred by her opponent’s monosyllabic reply, continued her friendly chatter as she helped Phalanx pull himself up off the mat and stumble his way to the side of the ring.
“It probably would have held up against that second shot too, but I think you had a little bit of destructive interference going on with the overlap between the third circle of the kinesis-based one and the sixth node of the thaumaturgical level of the other.”
Phalanx stepped onto the ramp leading off the raised platform. He noticed a moment too late that his legs were not quite ready to start cooperating with the rest of his body and tumbled forward. Twilight winced as he landed with a painful-sounding thud at the bottom of the ramp. The crowd burst into laughter as one of the spectators helped the unfortunate unicorn stumble over to a recovery area.
“Oh dear,” said Twilight, “I hope I didn’t hit him TOO hard.”
A tall unicorn stallion at the bottom of the ramp turned to her with a smile. His coat was the dusty orange-brown of newly fallen autumn leaves, other than a pale line arcing from the middle of his ribcage along his side, bisecting the Equestrian banner and crossed swords that made up the pony’s cutie mark. It was an old scar that he’d refused to tell Twilight how he’d gotten, insisting that "civilians don’t need to worry about such things."
“I’ve seen Phalanx bounce back from worse, Sparkle,” He said. “He’ll be fine by tomorrow morning. One of the colts here will make sure he gets home OK.”
Twilight smiled. “Thanks, Captain Reinolds, I really appreciate it.”
The captain offered her a hoof as she descended from the ring. “Now it’s about time we got you home. Celestia will have my flank tanned if I let you stay out past your curfew again.”
Twilight glanced at a clock that hung upon one of the bare concrete walls. 11:30 already?
“Yes, sir. I’m ready when you are.”
After stopping briefly to say goodnight and exchange pleasantries with a few of her other sparring partners, Twilight and Captain Reinolds stepped out of the musty and humid warehouse that served as a gymnasium for the Royal Guard into the cool dry night air.
Reinolds glanced down at his young ward as they trotted along the streets of Canterlot, more or less deserted at this late hour. She was breathlessly recounting a blow-by-blow of the night’s battles, as if he hadn’t been there himself to witness it. The Captain couldn’t help but smile.
In some ways she was still the same filly he’d met last year. He’d been patrolling one of the seedier areas of the city that night when he’d heard screams coming from a side alley and a blinding flash of magical energy momentarily illuminated the dark streets. He’d sprinted around the corner to intervene, expecting the worst.
What he hadn't expected was to see a small potted fern sitting in the middle of the alleyway, a switchblade laying at its base. A young purple unicorn stood at the far side of the alleyway, Tears flowing from her eyes as the light faded from her horn. She stared transfixed by the plant, beginning to shake and tremble as the rush of adrenaline ebbed away.
“Are you alright, miss?” asked the Captain.
She looked up at him, noticing him for the first time.
“I’m sorry! I... I don’t know what happened!” She shook even harder now, the tears flowing freely down the side of her cheeks. “I didn’t see him! And then he came out and told me I had to give him my money or he’d... he’d do terrible things... and he had a knife. I just wanted to use enough magic to push him away but... but I think I used too much and... and...” she broke down completely, unable to do anything but sob as the reality of what had happened finally overcame her.
Captain Reinolds walked over to her, glancing around the alleyway for any other attackers. If there had been any others, watching their accomplice get turned into a plant had clearly dissuaded them. He gingerly stepped around the fern, taking care not to disturb it or the knife. He placed a gentle hoof on her shoulder. “What’s your name, Miss?”
“Twilight. Twilight Sparkle.” She looked up at him and sniffled, trying to blink away her tears.
“You’re going to be just fine, Ms. Sparkle. You didn’t do anything wrong,” said Captain Reinolds.
“I know, but, I didn’t want any of this to happen. I just... I just wanted to go home...”
“Oh, I’m staying at the palace.”
Reinold’s eyebrow twitched upward in surprise for just a moment. Who was this pony, exactly? Even if she had specialized training of some kind, transformation magic wasn’t the easiest thing to pull off. To just do it by reflex in a moment of panic? And she was staying at the palace? The Captain studied her for a long moment, unsure of how to proceed.
It was clear that the poor filly was upset, and in the end that overcame all of his reservations. Whatever power she might have she obviously wasn't accustomed to using it under these sorts of conditions.
“Well that’s quite a coincidence, Ms. Sparkle. I need to bring this evidence back to my office over there anyway. Why don’t I walk you back?” asked Reinolds.
Twilight smiled through her tears for the first time. “I’d like that, Captain. Thank you.”
Carefully placing the knife in an evidence bag and gathering up the fern to be dealt with later, Reinolds and Twilight began the walk back in the direction of the royal palace. Despite the earlier trauma, Twilight brightened up considerably as they walked and began chatting away in earnest. It wasn’t long before she’d told Reinolds all about her recent move back to Canterlot from the rural town of Ponyville. It was obvious that this pony was homesick and dearly missed the friends she’d left behind. They reached the station just as Twilight finished recounting the time she had watched one of her pegasus friends single-hoofedly wrestle a bear ten times her size to the ground and snap its neck. Reinolds tried to conceal his skeptical smile. She seemed a little too old to let her imagination run away with her like that, but after what she'd just suffered Reinolds was more than willing to indulge her. He was glad to see her happy again after the incident in the alley so he kept his thoughts to himself. As they approached the station, he noticed the golden chariot parked immediately beside the front door, and became aware of the commotion coming from inside the reception area.
“I don’t CARE how many off-duty guards you need to call up, I want you to FIND HER!”
Reinolds heard the voice of the desk sergeant on duty, the normally unflappable Rapid Dispatch, who now sounded like she was on the verge of complete panic. “Of course ma’am! It’s just that given the hour, and without any idea of where to start looking it may take a little time to...”
“Then stop wasting time and DO IT!” ordered the commanding voice of the other pony. Reinolds burst through the front door, only to stop dead in his tracks.
The white alicorn spun around, her mane billowing furiously outward despite the lack of any appreciable breeze in the building. Her eyes were narrowed with frustrated rage. Reinolds’ life began to flash before his eyes, but before he had even gotten to the memories of his first day on the guard he was shoved aside as Twilight ran past him towards the enraged alicorn.
“Princess!” She ran up to Celestia and nuzzled their ruler’s neck, much to Reinolds’ shock. Great, Twilight had survived a mugging unharmed, and now she was probably about to end up spending a century or two on the moon for treating the Princess so casually. Not that he’d ever figured out what the Princess actually did to anypony who didn't show her the proper reverence. In his mind, that only made the prospect that much more terrifying.
If he had been surprised before, it was nothing compared to the shock of seeing the Princess wrap her leg around the filly and return the gesture of affection. “Oh, my faithful student. Where have you been? I expected you back at the castle hours ago. I was about to send out a search party!” The pieces rapidly began to fall into place for the Captain. Why Twilight was living at the palace and why she had been hesitant to tell him who she was studying under suddenly made much more sense.
Twilight bowed her head and her face flushed with embarrassment. “Well you see Princess, there was, um, a minor incident as I was coming back from the apothecary down by the airship docks. I didn't mean to worry you like this.”
“She was mugged,” interjected the Captain. Having recovered from his initial bout of shock he was determined to take charge of the situation and reassure Princess Celestia that everything was under control. “Luckily, nopony was hurt and Twilight managed to subdue her attacker. As well as turning him into some sort of house plant.”
“Twilight! Are you OK?” Twilight looked up at her mentor and nodded. Celestia turned to glare at the fern Reinolds had carried into the station. Maybe it was the Captain’s imagination but he could have sworn that the plant actually wilted a little.
“Yes, just a little shaken up. I’ll be fine, you don’t have to worry about me. My magic will always keep me safe.” Twilight assured Celestia.
Captain Reinolds winced inwardly, knowing he should probably keep his mouth shut and let the two of them return home. But he couldn't help himself. “Respectfully, Ms. Sparkle, I disagree. I’m glad you’re alright, of course, but frankly you got lucky. If that mugger had known what he was doing you could have ended up seriously hurt, or worse.” Reinolds could tell he had upset Twilight, and only had a few more seconds before she burst into tears again. He also felt the weight of Celestia’s full attention focused upon him. He chanced a peek up at her face. She wore an unreadable neutral expression. Reinolds was sure he could sense the gears of her mind turning as she seemed to be weighing his words and, the Captain noticed with some anxiety, sizing him up as well. “You have a lot of raw power, no question, but there’s more to winning a fight than just who the stronger pony is. If you’re going to wander around the city late at night, there are several techniques and magical arts that can be used for self-defense. I suggest you study a few of them and make sure that, heavens forbid something like this were to happen again, you would be prepared to deal with it.”
The two mares stared at him for a long while, more than long enough for Reinolds to consider just how far out of line he had stepped by implying that the Princess hadn't taught Twilight to protect herself properly and had put her in danger. He was in the process of wondering what it would be like to be reassigned to a frigid guard post to monitor some mountaintop on the border of the griffin kingdom when a mischievous smile formed on Celestia’s face.
“I believe that the Captain is correct, Twilight. While your studies on friendship have enabled you to accomplish amazing things, it couldn’t hurt to supplement them with a little combat training just to be on the safe side. After all, your friends might not always be around and there may come a time when you must be able to rely on your own strength to protect you. In fact, I know just the pony you can train with.”
Twilight furrowed her brow “What pony would that be, princess?”
“Why, I believe Captain Reinolds has just volunteered his services as an instructor.”
Whoops. That wasn’t exactly what he’d had in mind when he’d made the suggestion. “Er, Princess, I’m honored of course but surely there must be some other pony more qualified than myself for this sort of thing?”
Twilight sat back from the princess and stared at the floor. “I wouldn’t want to be a burden on the Captain. I’m sure he has more important things to do than teach me. He doesn’t need me getting in his way all the time.”
Celestia was undeterred. “Captain, I would consider it a personal favor if you would consider my proposal. After all, you’ve trained dozens of guard ponies have you not? I think you’d find Twilight to be an excellent student. I know I always have.”
Reinolds knew when he was beaten. He had to admit, he’d taken a liking to Twilight. And the political pony in him pointed out that having a royal protegee training under him would probably come in handy during budget negotiation season. “It would be no burden at all Twilight. I’d consider it a privilege to train you.”
“Really? I’d like that very much, sir.”
“I have to warn you, though, I’m not one to go easy on my new recruits. Learning magical combat is a lot of work, physically and mentally. You sure you’re up for it?”
“I won’t let you down, Captain!” Twilight was eager to prove to Captain Reinolds and Celestia that she could take care of herself, and the prospect of learning something new was always exciting. “Thank you very much!”
“Wonderful, then we’re all in agreement. Twilight will report to the training barracks first thing tomorrow morning,” declared the Princess. “Now you had better get ready for bed, it’s been a long evening and you have a big day tomorrow. Thank you again for looking out for her, Captain Reinolds.”
“Just doing my job, Princess.” He watched Celestia escort the bouncing unicorn out the door and into her chariot for the return trip to the palace, wondering what exactly he had managed to get himself into.
The months passed by in a whirlwind for Twilight. Instead of spending every morning in lessons with other students discussing the finer points of conjuration spells she found herself reporting to the barracks of the royal guard by sunrise. The Captain hadn’t been kidding when he’d told her that the training would be draining; The royal guard were expected to be in peak shape and Twilight was no exception.
“Faster, Twilight, you’re falling behind!”
“You call that a push up? Do twenty more, and do them RIGHT this time!”
“I don’t care WHAT time it is, Sparkle, nopony is leaving this room until everypony has completed a chin up, and that includes you!”
It frustrated her to no end and reduced her to tears more than a few times. She came to the brink of quitting a half dozen times in the first two weeks alone, but the Captain was always there with a few words of encouragement and reassurance. If he ever got too mean for her, he reminded her with a wink and a smile, she could always just turn him into some sort of topiary. Twilight also decided against asking her brother to speak to Reinolds about going easy on her. She valued the Captain’s respect too much.
Twilight found the intellectual portion of the training far less taxing. She’d always picked up new material more quickly than most, but she took to this field like a seapony to water. Blocking and channeling the flows of magical energy were her special talent, after all, and more than once reading about a new technique just gave her a name to attach to something she’d already been doing strictly by instinct. Still, there was lots to cover. Twilight learned how to create and maintain up to three different wards at a time, each one tailored against the different magical properties of attacks an opponent might try to strike her with, as well as how to recognize the elemental properties of wards and strikes constructed by others. She refined her grasp of telekinesis to a degree of precision and flexibility she hadn't known was possible. She discovered that most problems could be overcome with enough fire, lightning, or some combination of the two.
Despite the extra work piled on top of her usual lessons from the Princess, Twilight still managed to occasionally get back to Ponyville to see her friends. They were always happy to see her, of course, and Rainbow Dash especially seemed impressed by the training regimen she was undergoing. “almost as tough as my Wonderbolts training!” she’d finally conceded. The pegasus was eager to swap training tips and had plenty of horror stories of her own. Twilight was happy to have somepony to commiserate with, and found she'd developed a newfound respect for the friend who she’d always considered to be a bit on the lazy side before she experienced firsthoof how draining a marathon workout session could be.
Her other friends were happy to help her with her training as well. Even the Captain’s workouts didn’t compare to helping Applejack haul barrels of cider around the farm. And while the captain didn’t understand exactly why “playing tag with Pinkie Pie” was so much more effective than his own obstacle courses (Twilight had long ago given up trying to explain anything having to do with Pinkie Pie), he couldn’t argue with what it was doing for her reaction time and agility.
Even Rarity had seemed eager to help when Twilight had come to visit her boutique.
“You know Twilight, I took some self-defense training myself back in my school days,” said Rarity.
“Oh yes, every young gentlemare needs to know the proper way to fend off plebeian ruffians that might accost her. Here, let me show you.” Rarity walked over to her sewing table and picked up a pair of scissors. “Now, imagine I’m some terrible ruffian of a pony, and I’m going to take these scissors and I’ll... I’ll... ooh! Yes! I’m going to trim your mane!”
“Well, I guess it has gotten a bit shaggy lately...”
“What? No, dear, that’s not what I mean. I’m not actually going to cut your mane, you’re just supposed to pretend that I am,” said Rarity
“Oh, do you like it longer like this? I was worried that my schedule was so full that I’d kind of let it go a bit, but you think it still looks OK?” asked Twilight. Rarity gave her mane an appraising look, the scissors momentarily forgotten, and bit her lip.
“...That’s not important right now! The point is that I’m an attacker! I’m going to trim your mane! In a manner that’s not at all fashionable!”
“Oh! I think I’ve got it now. Well, the first thing I would do is immediately put up a quick ward against conic blasts, then I would try to use the terrain to get into a flanking position...”
“No, no, no Twilight, that’s all wrong,” said Rarity. “You have to SAY something first! The very first thing they taught us was that a sharp tongue cuts far deeper than a sharp horn!”
Twilight was unfamiliar with any studies from the New Equestrian Journal of Medicine that indicated a correlation between tongue sharpness and magical aptitude. She was also beginning to suspect that Rarity’s self-defense training had not been quite as thorough as Rarity believed.
“OK, let’s try this again from the top. I’m the attacker and I’m coming at you with a weapon, and I say something like ‘Grr, you call yourself a unicorn? You fight like a farm pony! Grr!’” Rarity waved the scissors around in what was probably supposed to be a threatening manner.
Twilight weighed her possible retorts. She had skipped the chapter on trash talk in her copy of ‘Dirty Tricks and Unsportsmanlike Conduct: A Combat Pragmatist’s Guide’ but she would obviously have to make sure to read it later in case it showed up on some future exam. Finally she settled on a response.
“How appropriate, you fight like a mule!”
Rarity’s eyes widened with shock and the scissors fell to the ground.
“How could you? You... You think I fight like an ugly old mule? Why I’ve never been so offended in all my life!”
Twilight’s efforts to explain that there were actually several schools of martial arts that were derived from mule culture fell on deaf ears. Rarity threw her out of the boutique to stew for the remainder of the afternoon.
Twilight's first few sparring matches against other unicorns went poorly. They usually did for newbies, Reinolds was quick to point out after an especially painful loss. It wasn't that she didn't have the raw power the other trainees did, but she wasn't quick enough on her hooves. In the library she was free to sit back and spend a few minutes considering, for example, whether the extra power a hexagonal deflection charm offered outweighed the improved efficiency of a Ponderer's All-Purpose Pentagram when it came to avoiding an energy blast composed of 70-80% frost affinity. Stopping to do so when another unicorn was actively trying to hit her with one was borderline suicidal. Reinolds was quick to remind her that while in theory there was no difference between theory and practice, in practice there was.
Twilight was if nothing else a quick learner. She picked up the techniques and fighting styles of the other fighters she watched, and never made the same mistake twice. It wasn't very long until she'd learned enough to start fighting opponents with years more experience than her to a draw. Not long after that, a lucky shot blew her opponent out of the ring and halfway across the gym. Twilight had claimed her first win by knockout.
From that moment forward, there was no stopping her.
Luna sat on the balcony outside her bedroom, looking up at her handiwork. She loved nothing more than to come out here in the quiet hours between when she raised the moon and filled the night with her beloved constellations and when she had to return to the throne room to rule over the night court. It gave her an opportunity to reflect upon her life, all the weighty issues she was responsible for as Princess of Equestria, and the great mysteries of the universe.
Or, as on nights like tonight, on how incredibly bored she was. It wasn’t that she didn’t have anything to do. There was a stack of reports and her subject’s petitions that was slowly taking over every square inch of the surface of her desk. She just couldn’t bring herself to engage with any of it. She’d been back from the moon for several years, but she still felt like an outsider looking in on her sister’s perfect little kingdom. Celestia had been so perfectly understanding, and so had the other ponies she dealt with every day. Or at least they faked it well enough. It still didn’t feel like they were equals. Her own public audiences attracted maybe a tenth as many ponies as those of her sister, and if anything seemed to draw an even greater share of noble ponies who clearly only cared about her as a means to improve their favor in Celestia’s court. The “real” court, in their eyes.
Naturally she had played along, not revealing her true feelings to any pony. She knew that any one of them wouldn immediately run to her sister at the slightest hint of dissatisfaction; “Hey, remember how you thought your sister felt before she turned evil and tried to kill you? Well she might be feeling that way again now.” No, that wouldn’t do at all. Better to pretend that she was content with the situation and try to resolve it privately with Celestia later on. Still, it wore on her. The doublespeak that ponies in her court transparently flattered her with. The thoughtless whining of ponies who expected her to magically resolve their personal problems. None of it was worth her time.
Luna’s ears perked up as she became aware of some pony coming towards her bedroom. Her room, like Celestia’s, was thoroughly insulated from everything else in the palace by an entire wing of guest bedrooms that were barely ever used. Not that Luna was complaining, since it allowed her a great deal of advance warning whenever any pony tried to corner her in her own bed chambers. She turned her focus towards the approaching pony. Her ears, capable of listening in on the whispers between the stars billions of miles from Equestria, were more than up to the task of picking out the voice of the approaching pony, and even the words he thought he was mumbling only to himself.
It was one of her bureaucrats, Pencil Pusher, who she had spoken to in the last few days. And based on the speech he was rehearsing under his breath as he approached he wanted to speak to her about the current level of agricultural subsidies and why the nobles from rural provinces felt they should be increased.
She suddenly felt the irresistible urge to go for a midnight flight over Canterlot. She chose to indulge it.
Sending a quick telepathic message to the pair of guards by her bedroom door that she would be unavailable until future notice, she spread her wings and leapt into the night sky. Soon, the Princess of the Night was soaring over the city, invisible to her subjects below against the jet black sky.
Luna couldn’t help but admire the view. The simple pleasures of rulership were always the greatest, and she never tired of soaring above the city her sister had constructed for them in her absence. Even late into the night, there were ponies walking the streets. Restaurants were open and businesses thrived on the patronage of ponies who were out and about, enjoying her night. Her pleasure quickly turned toxic. Even this had been handled more effectively under her sister’s rule. Before her exile, ponies barely gave her night a second thought. Now there were plays, movies, restaurants, art galleries, all sorts of entertainment open to ponies who wanted to do more than just sleep through the magnificent display she devoted herself to providing for them every single night. None of which, she noted with a touch of resentment, she’d had anything to do with.
Banking around in a wide circle, she pointed herself back towards the palace. There was a great deal of work to be done, and only a little time before her court opened and the nobles began demanding answers on the proposals that she hadn’t yet bothered to read.
Luna had almost reached her balcony again when she was roused from her reflections by a loud cheer from somewhere below her. Glancing downward, she saw that one of the buildings on the palace grounds that was still lit up and noisy with the sounds of combat. Weighing her responsibilities to her court against her desire for some diversion from that dreadful tedium, she quickly decided that the commotion below was well worth investigating.
“And the winner, by TKO, is Ironside! Let’s hear it for our victor, everypony!”
Cheers went up throughout the gymnasium. While his opponent had fought well, the winner of the match had been clear by the end of the third round. The two combatants gave one another a respectful bro hoof and stepped out of the ring to meet with their supporters and discuss the results of the match with their respective trainers.
Or rather that’s what would have happened had the Princess of the Night not chosen that moment to burst through the roof.
Debris rained down on the ring as the Princess descended into the center of the ring. She glanced around at her shocked subjects with a small smile; she had always known how to make a dramatic entrance. “GREETINGS, PONIES OF THE GUARD!” she began, oblivious to the ponies closest to the stage who were now clutching their ears with their hooves. “WE HATH TAKEN TIME OUT FROM THE ROYAL SCHEDULE TO DESCEND AND BLESS THEE WITH OUR PRESENCE! WE WISH TO CONVEY OUR APPRECIATION FOR THY LOYAL DEVOTION TO THE THRONE OF EQUESTRIA!” Luna paused to look around at her audience. If Celestia had been here addressing them, they surely would have burst into cheers by now. But these so-called “elite guard ponies” were practically wallowing on the ground, covering their heads. Luna began to wonder if, perhaps, this visit might have been ill advised. “SO, LIKE I WAS SAYING...” she continued, desperate to regain the initiative “KEEP ON... UM... KEEPING ON, AS THEY SAY, IN THE MODERN VERNACULAR!”
Luna was now sure that she had made a huge mistake. Cursing her idiocy under her breath, she made a note to ask her sister how she improvised in situations like these. Glancing around desperately for something, anything, that would help her to salvage this ill-advised visit, she suddenly spotted her sister’s protegee, Twilight Sparkle, amongst the ponies present. What luck!
“AH, TWILIGHT SPARKLE! ‘TIS GOOD TO BE IN THY PRESENCE ONCE MORE! UM... HOW ART THOU DOING?” She asked.
“Just fine, Princess!” Twilight answered “”Would you mind, um, not using the Royal Canterlot Voice? Just for now?”
“WHAT? OH, CERTAINLY, BUT OF... But of course! It would be no trouble at all.”
A sigh of relief went up throughout the room. It was almost as if they didn’t like the Royal Canterlot voice! Luna chuckled to herself at the ridiculousness of the very idea.
“Princess Luna, thank you so much for coming to see us unexpectedly in the middle of this, your most glorious night” began Twilight again, having had enough experience with the Princess to know when she needed to be thrown a lifeline. “It honors the royal guard that you would visit them here, the gymnasium, in which they spar with one another and train to hone their combat abilities, the better to protect the Throne of Equestria.”
“YES! I mean, yes! The gymnasium wherein our elite guard ponies hone their abilities! That is, of course, the building that we knew we were visiting when we came in through the roof. It is exactly the building which we were entirely meaning to visit, and certainly not one that we chose at random!” Luna felt much more at ease. Surely no pony would be able to see through such a clever lie. She was suddenly struck with a bolt of inspiration; the perfect plan to salvage this situation. “So... now that we are here, we feel the need to test the mettle of our guards! Nothing would invigorate us like a round of hooficuffs! What pony here feels able to challenge their Princess in single combat?”
The more Luna considered the prospect, the more sure she felt that this was the right call. Why not challenge the guards to come up with a champion to face her one-on-one? Perhaps it could even become a tradition. Heaven knows Celestia had set up enough of the damn things, accursed yearly obligations she’d been dragged to and forced to sit through year after year. It was about time she started to establish a few of her own.
Shockingly, no pony seemed eager to volunteer. What had become of the guard in this modern age? Luna remembered a time when it was common for a pony to go up against some sort of mythic beast for even the slightest chance to earn the title of Royal Guardpony. Obviously the last millenium had made them all soft. Still, Luna wasn’t about to give up her new tradition so easily. She would just pick one of the ponies in the room and challenge them directly. Of course, there was only one pony in the room whom she actually knew.
“TWILIGHT SPARKLE, WE CHALLENGE YOU TO A MAGICAL SPARRING MATCH! YOU WILL FACE US IN GLORIOUS COMBAT!” Luna promised herself she wouldn’t crush her too badly. She was sure she could get her sister to forgive her later on for any semi-permanent damage the match might cause. She also resolved not to do anything the young unicorn couldn’t recover from within a year or two. After all, she wasn’t a monster. Not anymore, anyway.
Although the gym had been packed to capacity a moment ago, Twilight suddenly found herself several feet away from any other pony in the room. Refusing a direct challenge from a princess was out of the question. Seeing no other choice, the unfortunate unicorn trotted up to the ring, and the Princess within it.
“JUDGE!” demanded the Princess as she turned to address Fair Fight, the gymnasium’s referee. “Tell us, what are the limits of combat in this arena? May we assume that the Marequis of Queensbury rules are still the order of the day?”
“Well, Princess, this is an elite military facility with the goal of preparing soldiers for the most brutal combat conditions, so we don’t really have that many formal rules. Pretty much anything goes, fighting wise. The match ends either when one of the competitors is unable to continue fighting or the referee decides that the danger to the participants is too great to continue.”
“Very well, we can... adapt. We are nothing if not adaptable! Twilight prepare yourself for no-holds-barred magical combat!” proclaimed the Princess.
Luna watched Twilight step up to the ring, but before she could cross into it two dull orange hooves yanked her away and dragged her over to a corner of the gymnasium where a poster of the legendary boxing champion Rocky Mareciano was hung beside a speed bag. The two seemed to be in the middle of an animated discussion. This wouldn’t do. She’d need another distraction soon or she’d be faced with another awkward silence. Perhaps if she set something on fire...
Even with her mind occupied trying to pick out the most flammable object in the room, Luna couldn’t help overhearing a few snippets of the whispered discussion happening on the other side of the room.
“... a freaking goddess...”
“... outclasses you by several orders of magnitude...”
“...dumbest idea I’ve ever heard...”
Ah ha! This must one of those “pep talks” Luna had read so much about! This other stallion must be Twilight’s coach or instructor. She made a mental note to compliment him for the training Twilight had received after Luna had ruthlessly crushed her. Suddenly the unicorn stallion Twilight had been speaking to called out from across the room.
“Princess, while I’m sure any of us would be honored to face you, Our code is quite clear. Doing harm to a princess or any other pony under our protection would be an unthinkable breach of duty. So while I know Twilight would just love to accept your challenge...” Reinolds began to subtly push Twilight towards the door.
“Fear not!” called out Luna from inside the ring “I hereby decree that any violence or crime committed against me by Twilight Sparkle in the course of this challenge is preemptively forgiven and pardoned! Is there any other objection you wish to raise?”
“...No princess, none that I can think of” said Reinolds.
“Wonderful! Then let us begin without further delay. Come now, Twilight, we are most eager to ‘throw it down’ with you” said Luna.
Sensing that she was out of options, Twilight grudgingly approached the arena and stepped inside. She took the Training Amulet offered to her by Fair Fight and placed it around her neck. The judge offered another identical amulet to Luna, but she waved it off. What a ridiculous notion! The idea that a mortal unicorn would be able to seriously hurt her? It was laughable. “I am glad for thy sake that thou shall be protected, for we do not intend to hold back! Nor would we expect you to do so” said Luna.
“Princess, I was just thinking. You know what’s way more exciting than magical combat? Chess! In fact, I think I have my emergency chess set in my saddlebag so if you wanted-”
Twilight’s last ditch attempt to escape was cut off as the bell rang to signify that the match had officially started.
Luna smiled and lowered herself into a wider fighting stance. “Come now, my little pony. Let’s begin.”
Twilight’s mind raced to keep up with the events unfolding around her. A few minutes ago she had been trying to decide what flavor of post-workout shake to drink and now she was in the middle of the ring with hundreds of ponies watching her. All of them surely expecting to see her demolished by the Princess. It was completely unfair.
She was so dumbfounded that the match was nearly over before it began. The Princess hadn’t hesitated at all, and it was only the combat instincts the last year of training had instilled her with that allowed her to leap away before Luna’s deadly energy beam cut through the space she’d occupied a moment ago.
“Twilight Sparkle, we would appreciate your full attention for this matter, if you do not mind” said Luna conversationally. “now, en garde!”
Twilight didn’t need another reminder. She reached into her mind and manifested a trio of familiar wards, her go-to defense for the beginning of a match. She’d spent months agonizing over the most effective possible combinations and eventually settled on one that would offer her the greatest possible protection against a wide array of potential attacks.
“Ah, yes, defenses! Forgive us, we had forgotten to put up our own before beginning” said Luna. Three wards appeared around her, none of which Twilight recognized.
Twilight cursed under her breath. First she’d nearly been caught off guard by Luna’s initial attack, then she’d failed to notice that her opponent had been unprotected? She had to get her head in the game. Yeah, the situation was unfair, but moaning about it wasn’t going to change a thing. The captain always said, “At the end of the day, the tip of your opponent’s spear won’t care if he beat you fairly or unfairly. Only that he beat you.” Twilight resolved not to let any more opportunities slip her by. Maybe she wasn’t going to win this, but she could at least go down fighting.
A fourth ward appeared around the Lunar princess.
“Well,” Twilight thought to herself “I suppose that isn’t all that surprising” She had heard legends of the most elite archmages using arrangements of four wards in magical duels and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the princess would...
A fifth ward appeared.
“But... she... No, she’s an alicorn, you can’t expect her to only be limited to...”
And a sixth.
“Oh, come on!”
“Much better!” exclaimed Luna. “Now, I think we can begin in earnest, can we not?”
Twilight’s reply was to fire a bolt of lightning in her direction. It struck one of Luna’s wards and ricocheted off towards the magical grounding field inscribed around the ring. But in mid-flight it suddenly changed course and redirected itself towards Luna once more, this time from her side. Luna flung another of her wards into position just in time to reduce the blast to a harmless shower of sparks.
“Chain lightning! We LOVE that trick!” said Luna, her horn glowing again. Twilight’s skin prickled as the air around her began to ionize. She dove away a moment before the lightning struck, shedding her momentum with a combat roll that left her standing on the other side of the arena. Anticipating the princess’ next move, she directed all of her wards into position and caught the redirected bolt. Even through three levels of protection, it felt like being struck by a speeding carriage and the force of the blow pushed her back. It was very obvious to Twilight that a head to head slugfest would not go well for her.
Twilight decided that her best bet was to stay agile. The ring was large enough that she had plenty of room to maneuver, and she made the most of it. She zigzagged her way to the edge as Luna’s attacks went wide. Luna gave chase. Her longer legs would have given her an unbeatable speed advantage in a straight up race but were a hindrance as she tried to change directions to match Twilight’s movements.
Twilight assailed the pursuing alicorn with blasts of every size, shape, and energy type she could think of. Bursts of frost, cones of flame and arcs of darkness-infused energy flew between the combatants, only to be dodged or deflected every time. Luna slowed as she diverted a portion of her attention to shifting her wards from one type to another to better defend against the onslaught. It was clear that despite her combat experience, Luna was rusty enough that running, maintaining her defenses, and firing accurately at a moving target simultaneously was beyond her. Twilight spun effortlessly around, over, and under the deadly obstacles Luna created in her path, and even ones that did require deflecting didn’t have nearly as much force behind them as the lighting had. Spells flew wildly in every direction, but none found their target. Still, she was only delaying the inevitable. Twilight wracked her brain trying to think of some way through Luna’s defenses, but couldn’t come up with anything that seemed likely to work.
Once it was clear that Twilight wasn’t go to be immediately curb stomped, the crowd went nuts. Each time she dodged the princess’ attacks or deflected them harmlessly into the floor there was a fresh surge of cheers. She even threw in an unnecessary backflip as she leapt away from a poorly aimed concussive blast. She felt unstoppable as she expertly wove through the thicket of deadly energies. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, and every time she predicted the spread pattern of a magically-generated crystalline missile barrage or stepped away from the spot she knew an attack would land before Luna had even fired it she felt a fresh surge of confidence and joy.
After 10 minutes, Luna was gasping for air. She stopped chasing Twilight and backed away to catch her breath, keeping a wary eye on her opponent as her chest heaved.
“Why do you... refuse to... stay still?” she was able to gasp out between breaths.
“What’s the matter, Luna? A few too many moon pies since you got back?” taunted Twilight.
“We may need to... amend the royal schedule... to allow for more jogging” Luna admitted grudgingly. Twilight noted that she seemed to be recovering quickly. “Still, thou cannot avoid us forever. We will allow thee to concede now and forfeit our challenge with honor, if you wish, in recognition of this display of thy skill.”
An easy out. Twilight considered the offer. While she was doing well now, she still had no idea how or even if she could land a hit on Luna. In the corner of her eye she saw Captain Reinolds at the back of the crowd waving his front hooves in the air and exaggeratedly nodding. Every rational part of her mind told her that forfeiting would be the smart call.
“Sorry princess, but I’m going to have to decline.”
Luna sighed. “We suspected as much” she said, then crouched back into her combat stance again.
The fight resumed in earnest once more, Twilight tried to revert to her previous strategy of dodging and harassing her opponent, but this time Luna had realized that chasing her was folly. Rather than try to pursue, she planted herself in the center of the ring and stood her ground. Her defenses were still as impenetrable as ever, but now her attacks were more focused and better directed.
Luna was relentless now that she could aim effectively. Beams of energy slammed against Twilight’s wards, and even with the training amulet absorbing some of their impact each one was like being struck by a sledgehammer. A fireball struck the ground beside her and exploded. The heat singed her coat and the shockwave threw her off balance, knocking her to the edge of the arena. As she tumbled she lost track of the princess for a moment and only avoided a flurry of smaller flame strikes by sheer chance. Twilight threw out a few desperate strikes of her own, but Luna’s wards blocked each one without breaking her concentration. Twilight found herself forced to merely react to whatever the princess threw at her rather than planning her dodges several steps in advance. The ringing in her ears had drowned out the gasping crowd. Her earlier feeling of prescience was shattered, and it was all she could do to catch the slightest glimpse of the blows flying in from every direction and fling herself in random directions. Suddenly, she spotted a gap between two columns of flame Luna had called down to try to fence her in. Twilight leaped between them without hesitation. For an instant it felt like the heat would broil her alive but a moment later Twilight found herself in the clear, with a clear shot at Luna.
Summoning up all her strength, Twilight lowered her horn and poured forth a blast of pure concussive force straight towards her opponent. It streaked towards one of Luna’s wards, and all of Twilight’s hopes went with it. If she could just break through one or two of them...
Twilight’s attack struck the ward’s center, and the clashing energies warped and twisted as they tried to annihilate each other. Twilight’s heart surged. Her blast wasn’t being deflected or dispelled. She did have a chance! She could-
The energy of her blast suddenly surged up and outward, breaking into pieces and flying in several directions away from the princess and straight through the grounding field that should have prevented it from crossing the boundary of the ring. The fragments of her spell streaked out over the audience for a moment, until each one burst simultaneously into vivid colored sparks and streaks. Her deadly blow had been turned into an impromptu fireworks display. The crowd oohed and ahhed appreciatively. What kinds of wards were those anyway? Changing a spell’s energy type, direction, purpose, all on the fly like that? None of it was possible.
Her back legs gave out and Twilight slumped down. She looked over at Luna who was wearing a contented smile. Twilight recognized it as the same smile Celestia wore when she pulled off a prank she found especially amusing. Twilight realized that she was gaping and shut her mouth. “How long was she just playing with me for?” She’d thought she was doing so well.
“You did very well, for a mortal. We found this little exercise to be truly bracing” said Luna, shocking Twilight out of her trance as she seemed to read the unicorn’s thoughts.
Twilight wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out. She deserved better than to be toyed with this way. Luna should have just blown her away from the get go if she was so much more powerful.
Twilight’s humiliation was quickly consumed by the anger welling up within her. “You think this is over? I haven’t heard a whistle yet.” She stood up and turned to face the princess, who was still smiling as she watched the sparks of her firework display fading into nothingness. Luna looked over at her, and her smile fell away.
“Twilight? What art thou doing?” she asked.
Twilight didn’t reply. She just glared as her horn began to glow.
“Twilight, cease this ridiculous display at once!”
Twilight’s horn continued to gather power. The concentration of magical energy warped the space surrounding it, and the shape of the the magical charge seemed to dance as it distorted the light around it.
Luna’s wards swung around so that all six of them were directly in front of her, between herself and Twilight. Six impenetrable barriers, that had already withstood everything Twilight had thrown at them. “Twilight, please, we do not wish to have to hurt you...”
No answer. Luna braced herself for whatever was coming. Twilight screamed in rage...
And teleported to the other side of the ring, behind the princess.
For the second time that night, Twilight felt like her world was moving in slow motion. The teleportation had sapped away most of the energy she’d gathered, but she’d traded it for something much, much more valuable. For the first time that night, none of Luna’s defenses stood between the two of them.
As soon as the princess realized what had happened, she would re-arrange her wards again and this opportunity would be gone. There wasn’t any time for fancy spellcrafting or trick shots. Twilight poured as much raw power as she could into a single shot, and loosed it against the princess. She watched it streak away from her, and saw Luna turn her head and her eyes go wide in the moment before the blast struck her unprotected flank.
The explosion was deafening. The force of the blast sent Luna tumbling out of the ring and into the audience, where she landed hard in the middle of the crowd. For the first time that night, the crowd had gone entirely silent. They seemed unsure whether to cheer or arrest her for regicide.
A moment later, Luna stirred and rose to her feet. Spreading her wings, she flew back to the center of the ring, although Twilight noticed that when she landed she shifted her weight off of the leg that Twilight’s blast had struck. A large bruise was already beginning to form, nearly invisible to the crowd under her dark coat. Her matted, sweaty mane was a far cry from its typical glory, and there was a small trickle of blood slowly running down her side from an unseen cut.
“We will admit that we forgot you could do that” said Luna, a bit shakily “Nonetheless, though your trick was clever, we believe that this match is over. You will forfeit now, or we will be forced to make an example of you.”
Twilight narrowed her eyes and glared at the princess. “No,” she said simply “I’m not finished yet.”
Before Luna could respond, Twilight had teleported to another part of the ring.
“Don’t you remember how I learned to do this in the first place?” asked Twilight “I copied it off of you, the last time my friends and I kicked your plot up and down the Everfree Forest.”
Luna frowned “the Elements of Harmony-”
“Oh, they were very helpful” said Twilight “but as I recall, my friends and I evaded every one of your little tricks and illusions before we even found them. When you get right down to it, isn’t that a little sad? Six ponies with no special equipment or training against a self-proclaimed goddess riding high after her big return to Equestria. You really thought you were going to conquer the world? For all your supposed power, you went down awfully easily” continued Twilight. “It might be funny if it weren’t so pathetic.”
Luna’s attempts to focus on Twilight and launch a fresh wave of attacks were stymied as she teleported from one point to another, refusing to stay still long enough for the princess to launch a concentrated assault. It was all the regent could do to keep an eye on her, spinning around as Twilight disappeared and reappeared at random points around the ring. “Cease this useless prattle!” Luna shouted. Her magic lashed out at the spot Twilight had occupied a moment ago, but not quickly enough to catch her before she disappeared again. “I have survived more than a millennium for every year that you’ve existed. Do not presume to lecture me on the nature of power, Twilight Sparkle.”
“If Celestia went evil, do you really think any of us would be able to stop her?” continued Twilight “She would have crushed us with a single thought. But you couldn’t. I always figured it was just because a part of you didn’t want to kill us and was holding back, but that wasn’t it, was it? You just couldn’t beat us! Looks like you still can’t, when it comes down to it. No wonder every pony thinks of you as the lesser sister...”
“I said SHUT UP!” shouted Luna.
Twilight ignored the princess’ demand. “Know what would have happened if you’d never come back to Equestria, or if the Elements had killed you instead of dispelling Nightmare Moon from your body? Nothing. Celestia can do your job. She handled the sun and moon by herself for a thousand years. You were completely forgotten, barely even worth a footnote in the history books. Honestly, I suspect that she only even keeps you around out of pity. None of your subjects actually like you, or your precious night either. They’re all just too scared to tell you that to your face.” Twilight continued, teleporting from place to place before Luna could attack her again.
As Luna seethed with barely contained rage over Twilight’s mocking and her own inability to strike at her, one of her wards unwound itself and dissipated without the princess’ attention to maintain it.
“I guess a sharp tongue really DOES cut deeper than a sharp horn. I owe Rarity an apology when this is over” thought Twilight.
“Twilight Sparkle, that teleportation ability that you’re so fond of was invented by a student of mine, more than 5000 years ago.” Luna grinned joylessly “did you know that he also invented a countermeasure?” She muttered an incantation under her breath and stamped a hoof down on the floor of the arena. Twilight braced herself, expecting a surge of energy or, well, something to happen. But nothing seemed to have changed. As she looked around, confused, Luna turned to face her once again. “Playtime is over. You will pay dearly for the words and actions you’ve loosed this night, we assure you.”
Twilight made to teleport once more, aiming to end up on the other side of the ring. She disappeared, only to reappear a mere few inches from where she’d began. Instead of the comfortable, familiar feeling of successfully landing her teleportation ability, she felt like her entire body had been wrung out and then thrown through a wall. As she stumbled about trying to reorient herself, she reached out with her senses trying to determine just what had gone wrong.
Twilight felt around the spot where she had just appeared. There was an unfamiliar aura about it that hadn’t been there before. It was like some sort of chest-high ethereal rope or wire strung across the arena.
Twilight caught a glimpse of Luna moving into position to throw another attack. She was limping, trying not to put her weight on the leg Twilight had struck earlier. Luna’s magical energy streaked towards Twilight nearly catching her off guard, but she leapt forward to dodge it, passing through line of force like it was only empty air.
“I guess it only blocks things that are teleporting” she thought. Now that she knew what to look for, she reached out again with her senses. Sure enough, there were dozens of lines criss crossing the ring in all directions. Twilight had no desire to experience being wrenched back into the real world mid-teleport again. She prepared herself to jump away from Luna’s next attack and return to weaving and dodging until another opportunity presented itself.
Instead Luna’s shadow burst up off of the floor and wrapped itself around Twilight’s neck.
Twilight was completely unprepared for the attack, and too stunned to react before the prehensile shadow yanked her downward, slamming her face into the arena floor. Dazed from the blow, she was helpless as the shadow dragged her over towards where Luna waited and lifted her up until she was face to face with the princess. The princess’ eyes glowed with a harsh, angry power. The crowd let out a collective gasp.
“Please, Twilight, tell us again how weak and pathetic we are” she said in a deathly calm tone that was so much worse than the Royal Canterlot Voice would have been. “Do go on some more about how inferior we are to the perfect and wonderful Celestia. Or perhaps you’d like to make a speech about the wonderful power of friendship. You always seem so fond of those.”
The black tentacle tightened its grip and the only sound that escaped Twilight’s lips was a raspy, choked off gasp.
“No? But you were so very chatty before. What a pity. Now, how about we do a little experiment together? Usually a choking pony will turn purple. I’m sure you knew that, Celestia tells us that you very much enjoyed studying physiology at her Academy. But you are already purple. I wonder what color you will turn? Any hypothesis?”
The tentacle squeezed Twilight’s throat closed entirely. Panic seized her. An abstract, detached portion of her mind reminded her that she’d read just last week that depriving the brain of oxygen would lead to unconsciousness in 8.3 to 12.1 seconds, on average. Sure enough, she felt darkness creeping in around the edges of her vision. She had to get free. But how? She doubted any attack she’d be able to use now would break Luna’s control over the shadow or drive it back. She could feel the teleportation blocker things Luna had set up behind her, in front of her, and off to both sides.
Of course, there were other directions. A quick check confirmed it, there weren’t any barriers ABOVE the ring. “What have I got to lose?”
Luna’s shadow suddenly found itself crushing empty air where Twilight had been a moment ago. She had reappeared directly over Luna and was falling towards her back.
Twilight didn’t know it, but Luna’s defensive wards had been hoof-crafted by the diarch during the pre-classical era 1700 years ago, when magical duels were a common and highly ritualized affair. Luna had taken it up as a hobby. One of the very first rules the unicorn nobles had all agreed upon when crafting their dueling code was that physical contact between combatants was strictly verboten. And since wards could only protect against a limited number of attack types at once, it certainly wouldn’t make sense to waste any of the precious space in the spell matrix protecting against something a duelist would never have to face, right?
The upshot of all this was that none of Luna’s five remaining wards had anything that would counter a unicorn falling from the sky. Twilight passed straight through them and landed on the princess’ back, wrapping her hooves around Luna’s head and neck to balance herself. Her mind still clouded from the aftermath of being choked, she knew she had no hope of summoning up enough energy for a proper attack. She charged her horn with as much energy as she could quickly gather and without bothering to shape it into any sort of spell touched her horn’s tip to the most sensitive place she could reach; the base of Luna’s horn.
Luna screamed in agony as raw magical energy ripped through her unprotected mind. She instinctively bucked forward, flipping Twilight off her back. As Twilight fell the tip of her horn cut into Luna’s forehead, gouging down to the bone. Blood streamed into the princess’ eye.
Twilight lay stunned on the floor, her vision swimming as her mind tried to catch up with the events happening around her. That much energy channelled directly into the brain would have sent most unicorns into a coma. How was the princess still standing? She was even still keeping three of her wards up. Still, at the very least she must have completely overwhelmed the other ponies magical senses. She could exploit that. “But only if you get up before she recovers enough to just walk over her and snap you in half. Move!”
Twilight rolled over and staggered to her feet. A sharp lance of pain greeted her effort to put weight on her front right hoof. Twilight tested it gingerly. She must have landed on it poorly, and it was likely sprained.
Luna was across the ring with her hooves to her head, trying to shake off the aftereffects of Twilight’s attack. Before she could look up. Twilight threw an invisibility spell over herself. Usually invisibility wasn’t nearly as useful in a fight as one might think. Any opponent worth hiding from could sense the magical concealment field and track you down easily. But it was a lot more useful against a pony who had just been blinded to magical energies.
Luna recovered enough to look around, and was puzzled to find herself apparently alone in the ring. Her eyes passed over the spot where Twilight stood, and the unicorn felt a wave of relief when they moved on without any glimmer of recognition. She watched silently as Luna wrapped her horn in shadow, where it took the shape of a three-foot blade protruding from her forehead. It looked sharp.
Twilight considered her options. Any projectile or directionally based attack would give away her position to Luna, invisibility spell or not, and once Luna knew where she was that shadow would be wrapped around her neck again in no time. Or something even worse. Twilight seriously doubted anything she could do right now stood a chance of piercing Luna’s remaining wards. She needed some kind of distraction.
Twilight smiled. Her mind flashed back to last summer, when Pinkie drafted her to put on a puppet show for Pound Cake and Pumpkin Cake. Twilight had used the opportunity to research a new spell for the occasion. Specifically, a ventriloquism spell.
Twilight took a moment to recall the workings of the spell, then focused on a point at the edge of the ring behind Luna.
In a flash, the alicorn spun around and brought the edge of the shadowy blade down on the spot Twilight’s voice had sprung from. It cut deeply into the stone floor, tearing it apart like streamer paper. In doing so, she broke open the circle in which the runes that bound the magical grounding field to the arena were inscribed. Every pony in the room felt the protective energies waver then vanished entirely. The ponies in the audience muttered to one another as they began to realize there was no longer anything preventing them from becoming collateral damage. A few began to scoot towards the nearest
“COME OUT AND FACE US, COWARD!” shouted Luna “YOU CANNOT HIDE FOREVER! WE WILL TEAR THIS BUILDING APART TO FIND YOU IF WE MUST!”
“I’M the coward now?” said Twilight’s voice from another part of the ring “Where were you when we fought with Discord? Or when the Changelings tried to invade Canterlot during my brother’s wedding? Hate to break it to you, princess, but YOU’RE the coward here, not me.”
Luna snarled and flung another blast in the direction the voice had come from. Without the grounding field to catch it, the force of the blast continued until it struck a wall, sending masonry raining down on the unprotected ponies below and shattering a nearby window. The audience snapped back to reality, all realizing simultaneously how much danger they were in. The stampede towards the exit began.
Twilight’s voice popped up in another part of the ring. “It all makes me wonder, have you ever actually won a fight? I mean a fight with somepony on your level of raw power? Or do you just prefer to beat up on weaker ponies to compensate for your total lack of actual skill?”
Luna spun around and let forth a wide cone of fire, scorching the spot where the noise had come from and everything else on that side of the arena for good measure.
With her attention diverted in the direction Twilight had chosen, Luna didn’t notice the purple glow of Twilight’s telekinesis wrap itself around a folding chair that had been recently abandoned by a fleeing spectator. With a tug, she pulled it into the ring and swung it downward, brutally slamming it into the distracted princess. Luna crumpled to the ground under the force of the blow. Twilight brought the chair around for another blow, but from the ground Luna was able to maneuver a ward to block it. The chair shattered as it struck the magical shield.
“Ch... cheater...” She gasped out as she slowly rose up again once more. She gave a hacking cough and spat at the floor, staining the white canvas with blood and phlegm. Her left eye was clenched shut to keep any more of the blood from her gash from irritating it and her breath came in staggered heaves“Nopony told us... we could use a weapon.” Luna’s face screwed up in concentration as she teleported something to her side. Twilight didn’t recognize it, but it looked like a fishing net with heavy black weights tied around the perimeter.
Luna looked upwards and fired beams of energy at the exposed ceiling. The blasts tore through the support beams, and pieces of debris began to rain down around them.
“WE TOLD YOU WE WOULD TEAR THIS BUILDING APART TO FIND YOU, DID WE NOT?” shouted Luna, her voice carrying over the sounds of rocks crashing to the floor.
Twilight began to panic. She’d have to drop the illusion of invisibility to have any hope of deflecting the falling stones. Looking up, she spotted a heavy-looking chunk of marble facade plunging straight towards her. She just reacted without thinking, pushing off from where she was standing to jump to a safer place. She landed with most of her weight on her injured leg and collapsed, shouting out in pain.
In a moment, Luna had thrown the net on top of her. Twilight hadn’t noticed before but it was barbed. The tiny hooks cut into her as she struggled to push the netting off of herself. With every thrashing gesture she became more hopelessly entangled.
Twilight became aware something else. The net was growing hot, burning her wherever the fibers touched her flesh. And she felt so weak all of sudden, weariness like she’d only ever felt the time she had foalishly pulled back-to-back all nighters to prepare for a test.
“It’s called a grounding net” Luna said in response to Twilight’s unasked question. “We used to use them to restrain enemy unicorn mages on the battlefield in days gone by. Those fibers are magically superconductive, pulling any magic around them into the weights, and from there back into the Earth. Including the magic from your body.”
Luna kicked at the helpless unicorn with one of her front hooves, sending Twilight rolling away. She landed on her side, and the netting’s grip on her tightened again. She tried to cry out in pain, but she didn’t even have the energy for that anymore.
“We find it interesting. Neither you nor we can cast magic at the other through that netting. In your case, that handicap reduces you to a sniveling whelp who cannot even beg for her life. But us? We remain a goddess.” Luna turned and bucked Twilight with her back hooves, sending her flying out of the ring until she crashed down into a pile of rubble. Luna watched the rubble for several seconds. It did not stir.
Luna wiped the sticky half-dried blood covering her face away from her eyes. She stepped down from the ring and began to limp slowly over towards the rubble to finish this for good.
Luna’s ears perked up at the sound of the whistle. Since their audience had evacuated a few minutes ago, she’d assumed that she was alone with Twilight. She turned to see a dull orange unicorn stallion standing behind her, holding the referee’s whistle to his lips.
“You... we remember you speaking to Twilight Sparkle before the match. What is your name?” asked Luna.
“I am Captain Reinolds of the Canterlot Royal Guard, your highness.” Reinolds bowed deeply to the princess. “Congratulations on your victory. I apologize that the match wasn’t stopped sooner. Fair Fight and I are going to have a very frank discussion about his future as referee in this gym, I promise you that.” Reinolds walked past Luna and over to the pile of rubble covering Twilight. His horn shone with a gentle yellow glow as he tossed the top layer of debris aside and uncovered the passed-out unicorn underneath. “She’s still breathing, and it looks like that net tore open or fell off her in the landing.”
“Step aside and leave her to us, Captain” demanded Luna.
“No.” Reinolds turned to face her, placing himself directly between the two mares.
Luna’s eyes narrowed “Captain, that was not a request. We are ordering you, as your sovereign ruler, to stand down.”
“My apologies, Princess Luna. The charter of the royal guard is quite clear; In life or death circumstances we are permitted, indeed, required, to disregard any order that might put our charges in jeopardy. And make no mistake, this mare IS under my protection.”
Luna’s mouth hung open at the guard’s audacity. She was in no mood to be patient. With a scream she lowered her horn and channeled all that pain and fury into a deadly burst of magic.
Reinolds was ready. Three wards he’d had at the top of his mind sprang up and converged on the point where Luna’s blow would fall. He endured the assault as Luna’s magic continued to pour forth, driven by the frustrations of that night. Finally, Luna broke off her assault.
“CAPTAIN, WE ARE PRINCESS LUNA OF THE NIGHT, MAIDEN OF THE STARS AND MOON, AND RULER OF THIS LAND! IN TIMES OF WAR AND STRIFE, WE HAVE TORN THE VERY SOULS FROM OUR ENEMIES’ BODIES AND LEFT THEM AS NOTHING BUT LIFELESS HUSKS. WE HAVE THROWN THOSE WHO OPPOSED US INTO THE FURNACES OF DISTANT STARS TO BURN ALIVE FOR ETERNITY. WE HAVE ENTERED THE MINDS OF OUR FOES AND INFLICTED UPON THEM THE EXPERIENCE OF SUFFERING FOR DECADES, WHILE ONLY MOMENTS PASSED IN REALITY. NOW WE ARE GOING TO GIVE YOU ONE FINAL CHANCE, DO NOT THROW IT AWAY SO LIGHTLY. MOVE! ASIDE! NOW!
Reinolds staggered under the force of Luna’s wrath. Blocking her attack had been harder than he’d expected it to be. Twilight had made it look easier in the ring. He drew himself back up. “Again, I apologize if I was unclear last time you asked, Princess Luna. I told you, you can’t have her.”
Roaring with anger, Luna resumed her bombardment. Despite the captain’s best effort he was slowly being overwhelmed. His defenses were slowly withering away under the raw force of the assault. He poured more and more of his own energy forth to try to shore them up. There was a sharp pain spreading along the length of his horn. It was beginning to crack apart under the strain. Just when he thought he could hold out no longer, Luna stopped again.
“We do not understand you, Captain. Surely you realize that you will not be able to hold us off forever. I will destroy you if you continue to resist, and then I will do whatever I like with Twilight and your sacrifice will have been for naught.”
Luna watched the unicorn drop his exhausted head. He seemed to be sobbing, obviously he knew that she was right and he should give up. But a moment later she recognized that he wasn’t sobbing in pain at all. He was laughing.
“Oh, princess, who said anything about holding you off forever?”
“WHAT IN TARTARUS IS GOING ON HERE?”
Luna jolted upright at the familiar voice behind her. “Celestia? Um... we can surely explain-”
Celestia descended from the same hole in the ceiling Luna made when she’d entered the gym. Instead of her crown and usual regalia, she was clad in just a white bathrobe and a pink nightcap. “Yes, please DO explain, sister, why I was just woken up by servants who are insisting that the palace is under attack?”
“We suppose that our match with Twilight Sparkle may have become a touch more spirited than we meant it to.”
Celestia looked over and spotted Twilight’s prone, unmoving form in the rubble. Her eyes suddenly went wide. “LUNA, WHAT DID YOU DO? I SWEAR TO MOTHER AND FATHER, IF YOU HURT HER-”
“She’s OK! She’s unconscious right now but she’ll be fine once we get her bandaged up.” Reinolds interrupted “I just checked on her”
Celestia closed her eyes for a moment, willing herself to regain her composure. When she opened them again she wore the same practiced regal expression she usually did. “Luna, go back to the palace and clean yourself up. We will discuss this at length tomorrow, I promise you.”
Luna didn’t need to be told twice. She slunk away and spread her wings, flying out through the ceiling once more.
“We do have a door you know” said Reinolds, more to himself than to any pony around him.
“Captain, once again you have my thanks for your efforts to protect my student. Your dedication is commendable. When you feel up to it, I would like a report from you on the night’s events as well.” said Celestia
“You’re welcome, princess” said Reinolds. His legs suddenly trembled and Celestia noticed that he hadn’t actually moved from the spot where he was standing since she’d entered. “Actually, one more thing?”
“Yes, captain?” prompted Celestia.
“Requesting permission to lose consciousness, your highness.”
She smiled. “At ease, soldier”
Captain Reinolds was out cold before he even hit the ground.
Twilight woke up in a bright white room. The first thing she noticed was that it reeked of bleach and disinfectant. She tried to open her eyes further, but the light sent a splitting pain through one side of her head, and she squeezed them shut again. Now that her head hurt, every other part of her body apparently decided it would be alright for them to join in as well. She groaned miserably as she felt the chorus of aches and pains begin.
“Ah, good morning Twilight!”
Twilight opened her eyes the tiniest sliver that she could and looked towards the voice. As far as she could tell she was being addressed by some kind of fuzzy white blob. An annoyingly cheerful fuzzy white blob.
“How are you feeling this morning?”
Twilight groaned again. “Terrible”
The fuzzy blob chuckled. “Can’t say I’m surprised. You were pretty beat up when they brought you in. I’m Nurse Helping Hoof, by the way, but most patients just call me ‘Nurse’ or ‘Helping Hoof,’ it’s up to you. You’re in the Canterlot Castle Infirmary and before you ask, you’ve been here since they brought you in two nights ago.”
“Two nights ago?” said Twilight.
“Yep! You’ve been asleep for coming up on 36 hours now. Princess Celestia will be so glad to hear you’ve finally woken up. She’s such a sweetheart, wanted to know the minute you came to. Before I go, can I get you anything? Extra pillow?”
“...Painkillers” moaned Twilight “lots and lots of painkillers.”
Helping Hoof chuckled. “Well, I’ll see what I can do. Rest up, we’ll let the princess know you’re back amongst the living.” The mare walked out, leaving Twilight with only a softly beeping machine and her thoughts to keep her company. Memories of her fight with Luna began to return in drips and drabs. The things that she’d said! She didn’t feel that way about Luna at all. What made her say those awful things? She could only remember how angry and frustrated she’d felt, and now in the harsh light of day those feelings seemed so petty and ridiculous.
Twilight passed an unhappy hour wallowing in her misery and racking her brain to try to think of some way, any way, she could convince Luna to forgive her. Nothing she came up with seemed remotely sufficient.
She had just mentally sorted “Stand outside her window holding up a boombox” into the quickly-growing category of “Terrible ideas that would never work” when Princess Celestia entered with Helping Hoof in tow.
“Twilight! I’m so relieved that you’re all right. When they brought you and Captain Reinolds in I wasn’t sure if there would be any permanent damage, or even if you’d wake up at all.” Celestia went to hug or nuzzle the unicorn, but thought better of doing anything that might exacerbate her injuries.
“Captain Reinolds was hurt? Is he...”
“He’s alright. He woke up yesterday. There was some pretty bad damage to his horn and it’ll be awhile before he’s casting spells again, though” Helping Hoof chimed in.
Celestia mentally added “Review patient privacy rules with infirmary staff” to her already overlong to-do list, but let the moment pass without comment. “I’ve already discussed matters with him. Captain Reinolds will be given disability benefits and pay until such time as he is fit for guard duty once again. There is an excellent outpatient facility in Pensacolta, and I suspect a few months at the beach are exactly what he needs. Now more than ever”
“Well, he always talks about buying a boat when he retires. I hope he’ll finally get those sailing lessons he’s wanted.” said Twilight.
“I suspect he will. When I left he was already picking out ship names. I believe his current frontrunner is Serenity, or perhaps it was Tranquility, something along those lines” said Celestia. “Now, Helping Hoof, there are a few things I’d like to discuss with Twilight in private. Would you mind looking in on some of the other patients?”
“Oh, naturally. I’ll leave you two alone, just buzz if you need anything” said Helping Hoof as she left the room, leaving the princess with Twilight. A heavy quiet descended over them.
Twilight was left wondering if she should speak up first just to break the awkward silence when the princess beat her to it. “What the hay were you thinking, Twilight? What in Equestria possessed you to do so something so stupid?”
Twilight opened her mouth to respond, somehow, but couldn’t find any words. Celestia went on undeterred “Years of progress. Years where I watched my sister grapple with her inner demons, encouraged her to extend herself beyond what she thought she could do, held her as she cried over setback after setback. All undone in a half an hour. And for what, Twilight? Tell me that. Tell me why you would ever do something like this.”
SHE challenged ME!
She HUMILIATED me!
She tried to KILL me!
A thousand possible answers ran through Twilight’s head. The worst part was that she knew exactly how hard life had been for Luna. She might not be as close to Luna as she was to her teacher but they’d been on friendly terms, spending an occasional evening together talking about the latest ideas coming out of the Advanced Magic Research laboratories or just listening to Luna’s stories about how she came up with the original ideas for her constellations. It was that familiarity that Twilight had drawn upon when she’d reached into the most hateful parts of her mind and pulled out the comments she KNEW would hurt Luna the most.
“I didn’t mean for it to go that far! I just... I wanted to win...” she trailed off as she heard exactly how pathetic that sounded.
“It doesn’t matter what you intended for your acts to do. What was at stake that could possibly justify that sort of sadism? I wanted you to learn how to fight in order to protect yourself! That is the only excuse for violence that I am willing to accept. Your training is OVER. You will not set hoof inside that gym again, do I make myself perfectly clear? This time tomorrow you will come to the throne room and Luna will decide how you are to be punished” she continued.
“But-” began Twilight only for Celestia to hold up a hoof to cut her off.
“This is not up for discussion. I am aware that Luna is not blameless in all this. Both of your behaviors were completely unacceptable. But the betrayal you committed against her is the sort of breach of trust that can destroy a friendship”
“FOREEEEEEEEEVER!” shouted Pinkie Pie, bursting forth from a cabinet full of medical supplies. Pinkie looked over at the two ponies who were now staring at her. “Oh, hi Princess! Hi Twilight! Don’t mind me, I’ll show myself out” and bounced out the door without another word.
Pinkie’s entrance momentarily derailed Celestia’s train of thought. After a moment she seemed to decide that nothing more needed to be said for the time being and turned to leave. At the door, she stopped.
“I never thought the day would come when I would be ashamed to call you my student” she said without turning. Feeling the knife in her chest give one final twist, Twilight could only watch her mentor walk away as she lay back in her bed. The various bruises and sprains she had suffered no longer seemed significant next to the pain in her heart.
The next day, Twilight entered the throne room in a despondent mood. She had half expected the chamber to be empty except for Luna and herself, but the court was in full swing, with both princesses on the thrones discussing different matters with their subjects. Ponies milled around talking to one another along the sides of the rooms, or leaned up against the thick marble pillars that supported the room’s vaulted ceiling, decorated with gorgeous murals commemorating the two royal sisters’ greatest battles and accomplishments. Even with all that was on her mind the sight of the magnificent architecture took her breath away, as it alway had.
She looked down again just in time to see Luna’s eyes come up from the pony she had been speaking with and spot her. Luna’s nose wrinkled and she grimaced like she had just bitten into something revolting for a brief moment before turning her attention back to the farm pony she was speaking to about his inability to get his concerns taken seriously by the local weather teams.
Twilight stifled her urge to turn and flee the room, and possibly the entire kingdom, at that moment. Screwing up her courage, she resolved not to shrink from the consequences of her actions, whatever they ended up being.
“Ah, Twilight, you’ve arrived. Thank you for coming. Please approach” said Celestia as she finished speaking to a trio of pegasi. Twilight stepped forward and found herself alone in the middle of the room before the princesses. She’d never really been comfortable being the center of attention, and the circumstances of her audience only enhanced her discomfort.
“Twilight Sparkle” Luna began “you stand accused of assaulting the throne, sedition, and treason. The usual penalty for such things is life imprisonment or execution, and even taking into consideration your heroic service to the kingdom in the past, a lifetime exile would not be out of the question if you are found guilty.” Twilight’s jaw dropped. This was far worse than she had anticipated.
“Luna, please-” were all she was able to get out before the princess interrupted her once again.
“Do not address us so informally, Twilight Sparkle. That is an privilege we reserve only for our friends.” said Luna. “Still” she continued “we are aware that just as our blood is upon thy hooves, our hooves are tainted as well by the violence we committed against thee.”
“Lu- Princess! I’m so sorry! I don’t know what came over me, but I don’t believe any of those things I said, and you shouldn’t either! You’re not subpar, or inferior, or anything like that at all! You’re one of the most wonderful ponies I’ve ever met! Even if... even if you have to send me away, please don’t think I ever hated you. How could I hate you? You’re... you’re...” Twilight broke down sobbing, overcome with the idea of never seeing her friends and family again, and by how deeply she had hurt a pony who had once viewed her as a friend and confidant.
“We... I am sorry as well Twilight Sparkle” said Luna “I should have been more considerate of your feelings, I did not realize that you would see my actions as mockery and disdain. They were not intended as such.” She paused for a moment “Also, I probably wouldn’t have let you suffocate, I’m fairly sure I would have released you after you fell unconscious. But I too am familiar with making mistakes when lashing out in anger.”
Twilight looked at the princess, and through her tears could see the conflicted look on Luna’s face.
“Still” said Luna “if this is the sort of pain that comes from opening our hearts to friendship with mortal ponies, then we would prefer to have no part in it. We have no need of it.” Twilight noticed Celestia shift uncomfortably on her throne. “But as to your charges...” Twilight closed her eyes and braced herself for Luna to hand down a sentence. In that moment, she found herself hoping for death. It would be less cruel than forcing her to live apart from every pony she had ever loved. “...we will hold to our word and pardon you for them.” Twilight opened one eye, not sure she could believe what she’d just heard. “We promised before the match began that we would pardon you for any crimes committed upon us in the course of the fight, and we are not the sort of pony to go back on our word” Luna’s eyes lit up with rage for a moment before she brought herself back under control “...no matter how much we would like to. In all honesty, we would prefer that you just leave and allow us to put all this behind us”
Twilight roused herself from her shocked stupor. “Princess Luna...” she began, but Luna was looking off to the side of the room, feigning disinterest. “...thank you, princess, I’ll just...” she trailed off and turned to go. This didn’t make sense. She wasn’t facing any charges for her actions. She was, by any account, getting off far more lightly than she deserved. So why was she still so upset and disappointed?
“Twilight, hold” Twilight turned around at the sound of Celestia’s voice.
“What now, sister? We were more than fair with your apprentice’s case” said Luna.
“Oh, I agree, you were more than fair. Too much more than fair, by my reckoning” said Celestia. “Twilight” she turned to address her suddenly-terrified student “I will accept my sister’s judgement, if she wishes to pardon the slights committed against her she may.” Celestia’s usually neutral expression morphed into the slightest hint of a mischievous smile. “However, it has been brought to attention that, once your battle with my sister brought down the grounding field around the ring, the gymnasium suffered nigh-catastrophic damage due to your magic.”
“Well...” began Twilight, suddenly struck by the urge to choose her words very carefully “I suppose that we both caused some damage, but I couldn’t tell you who did more.”
“Oh, don’t be so modest, Twilight! I have it on good authority that at least one folding chair was destroyed when you picked it up and used it as a bludgeon. Is that incorrect?” Twilight said nothing, so Celestia continued “Destruction of royal guard property is vandalism, Twilight, and vandalism is punishable by up to six months of community service.”
“But... but...” said Twilight, not quite able to keep up with what was happening.
“I sentence you to the maximum allowable punishment, six months of community service. In fact, I just happen to have the perfect assignment for you. You seem to be so very talented in the area of magical combat, and my sister has demonstrated a failing of judgement in the opponents she is willing to heedlessly challenge. For the next six months, you will be serving as her personal bodyguard.”
“WHAT?!?” exclaimed Twilight and Luna in unison.
“For the next six months, you will stay by her side and protect her from any threats that may arise, as well as following any commands that she might see fit to give you. Hopefully, this will teach you that your magical ability should be used to protect other ponies, rather than heartlessly inflicting pain upon them.”
“But... I... my studies...” babbled Twilight.
“Oh don’t worry about that. I don’t want your new position to distract you from your school assignments. Which is why you are also hereby suspended from my Academy for the duration of your sentence.”
“NO! But... you can’t...”
Celestia raised a eyebrow “I think you’ll find that I just did. I will include all the information pertaining to your new assignment in the very long, very detailed letter I’ll be writing to your parents”
Twilight went pale. “To... my parents?” she manage to squeak out.
“Oh yes” continued the princess “I imagine that they’ll want to know exactly why their daughter is moving into the palace’s servants quarters. Be sure to pack some warm pajamas, by the way, I’m told that it gets a bit chilly down there.”
Twilight was now beyond being able to give a coherent response, or taking any action beyond standing there slack-jawed. Luna, however, was still somewhat more alert.
“Sister, I’d really rather not-” she began
“As for you, dear sister” Celestia began over sister’s objection “if anything unfortunate befalls Twilight while she is in your service, I will be reviewing the circumstances very, very carefully. Do I make my meaning clear?”
“...Crystal clear, sister. But I really have no interest in-”
“You will learn to forgive and tolerate, my dear Luna. Do whatever you need to in order to do so, but I will not see you give up hope on achieving a real and lasting friendship, even if it is only with a mortal pony” she muttered in a voice that was only for Luna’s ears. “Now, Twilight, you are dismissed” decreed Celestia in a voice her entire court could hear.
Her entire court except, apparently, for a single purple unicorn sitting in front of the thrones, too dumbfounded to move.
“Twilight! I said you are dismissed!” Celestia tried again.
This seemed to penetrate Twilight’s haze just enough to get her to stand and stumble back the way she came through the doors to the throne room, passing several ponies along the way who had witnessed the entire exchange.
One of those ponies, a lesser baron from a small province outside of Trottingham, turned to his companion as Twilight left the room to face her new fate.
“Remind me never to break one of the Princess’ folding chairs.”
SIDE CHAPTER AUTHOR’S NOTE
Remember that conversation Twilight was having with Captain Reinolds before she stepped into the ring with Luna? How do you think that went? Probably not quite like this. A chapter that didn’t actually happen (unlike all the other chapters of this fictional story that totally did happen *cough* *cough*)
Also, I was ready to declare the story complete after the chapter 5 and start working on a sequel that would pick up after a bit of a time skip in a new place and begin a new plotline. It would be a direct continuation of this, so I wanted some input on what people would prefer. New chapters of this story? New story altogether? Throw my laptop into a fire and never write again? Leave your opinion in the comments.
New chapters it is!
“Twilight! What do you think you’re doing?” said Captain Reinolds as he pulled her away from the ring where the Princess of Night and Darkness had just challenged her to a sparring match.
“She challenged me to a fight. If I don’t accept she’ll just pick someone else, and at least I might be able to hold my own against her” said Twilight.
“Hold your own? She’s an alicorn, and a freaking goddess! There’s no way to fight her.”
“Well that can’t be true. Didn’t you tell me once that the Royal Guard had created a secret plan to deal with a rogue alicorn after Nightmare Moon returned?” she asked.
Reinolds suddenly seemed embarrassed “Secret plan. Well, yes we have one but it’s the kind of thing that’s sort of on a need to know basis” he stammered.
“Look at what’s happening! I think I qualify as needing to know!” she hissed angrily.
Reinolds sighed. “Alright, fine. But this is extremely classified information so we’ll need you to keep it a secret, even from the princesses.”
“Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye” said Twilight, going through the familiar motions.
Reinolds nodded, satisfied by the solemn oath. He’d once had a young recruit who foolishly broke a Pinkie promise. The recruit had gone missing, only to turn up in an alley behind an arcade in Baltimare, unconscious, covered in cake batter and streamers. When asked he was unable to recall anything that had happened over the last three days, but he had suddenly developed a crippling fear of confetti.
“Alright Twilight, here’s our plan” said Reinolds, as Twilight produced a quill and parchment and prepared to take notes. “If Celestia or Luna turn evil, the entire force makes a rapid, strategic withdrawal to a series of highly fortified bunkers and secures them. From the inside. Then we wait for the bearers of the Elements of Harmony to come and clear everything up.”
Twilight stopped writing “So... you provide support for my friends and I while we handle it for you?”
“Moral support, absolutely, but not any assistance or resources as such.”
“You run and hide? That’s a terrible plan!”
“Yes, that’s the main reason we try to keep it a secret, actually” said Reinolds
“Do you have plans for dealing with other kinds of things? Like, what if Discord got out again?” asked Twilight.
“Run, hide, wait for the bearers” recited the Captain. It sounded like something he had said many times before and committed to memory.
“What about if the Changelings attack again?”
“Oh, well, that would be different. Your brother would empower the city's magical defenses again...” Twilight perked up at Reinold’s words “...THEN we would all run away and hide until the bearers came and fixed everything” Twilight pressed a hoof against her forehead to try to prevent the headache that she felt coming on
“Well, what if the Elements aren’t available? Or one of the bearers can’t use their Element for some reason? Is it really smart to put all your eggs in one basket like that?” asked Twilight.
“Hey, give us some credit! Of course we thought of that. That’s why there’s the Emergency Backup Plan if the Elements are unavailable.”
“Yes! A backup plan, perfect! What’s the backup plan?” asked Twilight.
“We run and hide in the bunkers, and wait for Celestia to fix whatever’s gone wrong!” said Reinolds triumphantly.
Twilight could no longer contain her frustration “Well why do we even have a royal guard then, if all you do is run away and hide at the first sign of trouble?”
“To keep the crime down, of course! And if I may say, we do an excellent job. The crime rates are very low” said Reinolds.
“I didn’t realize that crime had been such a problem before the creation of the Royal Guard.”
“Oh, it wasn’t. Crime rates were just about as low back then as they are now.”
“Then how do you know that you’re even doing anything?”
Reinolds looked at her like she had just asked why one plus one was two “We’re out patrolling every night, and the crime rate is low. Obviously what we’re doing is working.”
“You can’t just assume causation from correlation like that! It’s completely specious! That’s... that’s like saying my old saddlebags were preventing alicorns from attacking me! I bought a new set last weekend and now Luna wants to fight me” said Twilight.
Reinolds seemed skeptical “how would that even work?” he asked.
“It wouldn’t! They’re just old bags! But as soon as I stopped carrying them around, Luna challenges me, so by your logic they must have been them keeping her away the whole time, right?”
Reinolds considered this. “So... what you’re saying is... that you want me to stall Luna while you run home and get your old saddlebags!”
“NO! THEY’RE JUST SADDLEBAGS! Why can’t... How can you...” Twilight trailed off, her eye beginning to twitch.
“Are you sure? They sound like they would be really useful right about now.”
Twilight’s mouth worked, but no words came out. She sputtered helplessly before a sudden wave of calm seemed to roll over her and she turned towards the ring. “Thank you for the offer, Captain. But now I think I would rather risk having a goddess unmake me from existence with the raw energies of creation than continue this discussion.”
She walked away from the confused Captain, who had taken off his own saddlebags and was examining them closely. He waved them in Luna’s general direction, but seemed disappointed when nothing happened.
Twilight stepped into the ring and approached Luna. There was no way anything that was about to happen could be worse than what she had just endured.
Captain Reinolds leaned back as far as the bar stool he was seated upon would allow. It had been a very good day so far. Up at dawn to take the Tranquility out for a few hours of sailing, then a visit to the local clinic to continue his physical therapy. His horn was healing well, and he’d almost remastered basic telekinesis. The doctors assured him that he was making excellent progress and, if anything, was recovering faster than they had anticipated. That had left the whole afternoon free for laying in a beach chair with a cheap paperback novel. He had to admit, he could get used to this.
This bar had quickly become one of his regular evening haunts. It was always lively without being crowded, just far enough off the main streets to avoid the tourist element. The owner and bartender, Thirsty Throats, had a keenly honed sense of which patrons needed a sympathetic ear for their troubles and which ones wanted to just drink undisturbed.
Speak of the devil, Thirsty Throats slid a fresh beer in front of him. “Compliments of the two mares at the end of the bar. Enjoy!”
Of course, just because the day had been good so far didn’t mean it couldn’t get better.
“Thanks, Thirsty” Reinolds said before lifting the beer with his hoof and raising it to the two cute pegasi, who raised their drinks in response with shy smiles. Reinolds took a deep gulp of the brew and got off his stool to approach them. He took his time heading over to them, and noticed the pink one with a strawberry blonde mane whispering something to her friend, an aquamarine pony with a seafoam green mane, who blushed and giggled by way of reply.
“Thank you for the beer” said Reinolds as he sat down in the barstool they had left open between them. “Don’t think I’ve seen you in here before, I’m sure I’d have remembered mares as pretty as you two. My name’s Reinolds. Captain Reinolds. It’s nice to meet you...”
“Cherry Blossom” said the pink one, reaching out to bump Reinold’s hoof in greeting before continuing “and this is Seashell. No prize for guessing what her cutie mark is.”
“Charmed” said Reinolds, reaching out to bump Seashell’s hoof in turn, who giggled coquettishly and replied “Likewise, Captain.”
“Are the two of you from around here?” asked Reinolds by way of small talk as he lifted his beer for another sip.
“Well, I am” said Seashell “I sell seashells down by the sea shore. Cherry Blossom here is one of my sorority sisters from back in our university days. We try to get together every year or so for our own little ‘spring break.’”
“That’s great” said Reinolds “I’m actually from Canterlot myself...” he tried to lift his beer using his magic as casually as he could, but a sudden stabbing pain in his injured horn made him drop it back to the bar, luckily without spilling the half-full mug.
“Oh, your horn!” said Cherry Blossom “It’s all scarred! What happened to it?”
Reinolds winced and rubbed the base of his horn while he waited for the wave of nausea to pass before responding. “Well, that’s kind of a long story...”
“...and then Princess Luna bucked her out of the ring, still wrapped in the net! I knew that if I was going to protect my faithful student, whom I had personally taught everything she could ever need to know about magical combat, I would have to intervene myself. So I stepped between them and refused to let the Princess harm a single hair on Twilight’s mane any further!” said Reinolds, gesticulating wildly as he recounted the tale to the two mares, whose expressions hovered somewhere between amusement and skepticism.
“Uh-huh. So then what happened?” asked Seashell, casting a ‘can you believe this guy?’ look at her friend.
“Right, well, like I said, the Princess was absolutely furious by that point. She was even willing to take her anger out on me! But I wasn’t about to back down when Twilight’s life was at stake. I summoned up the most powerful defense I could muster and blocked her strongest magic. It might have hurt, but my devotion to pure, helpless Twilight burned brightly within my soul. The princess tried not once, but twice to bring me down with her most potent spells, and she even managed to crack my horn in the process, but she couldn’t take me out before Princess Celestia arrived to put her in her place!”
The pony who had been drinking at the table behind them stood up suddenly enough to knock over her chair, and bring the attention of all of the bar’s patrons directly onto her. Casting off her cloak, she revealed a horn, as well as a pair of wings and a coat as black as the night itself.
“ENOUGH OF THIS!” shouted the alicorn in the booming Royal Canterlot voice “WE SHALL NOT TOLERATE ANY INACCURACIES IN THE TELLING OF THY TALE!” The two mares shrank before the rage of the newcomer, and even Reinolds seemed shocked by her outburst.
“AS WE REMEMBER, WE TRIED AT LEAST THREE TIMES TO BREAK THINE DEFENSES, NOT TWO, BEFORE WE WERE ABLE TO EXHAUST THEE” shouted the Princess “WE WILL NOT HAVE RIDDLING THY TALE WITH INACCURACIES!”
“Wait, Princess... you mean... this actually happened?” said Cherry Blossom as she recovered from her shock.
“BUT...But of course! You did not think that a Royal Guard would lie about his accomplishments, did you? Everything the Captain described occurred, in precisely the fashion he described it! Surely, the bards of ages to come shall sing his praises for his courageous actions. Now if you will excuse us, we must go attend to royal business... somewhere else” said Luna as she rose and walked out of the bar. A hooded figure tossed a few bits onto the bar to cover her own drink and slipped out after her.
Seashell and Cherry Blossom turned towards Captain Reinolds, who allowed himself a small smile at their looks of shock and disbelief.
“Did I mention that I also own a boat?”
The hooded figure crept up silently behind the Lunar Princess.
“Ah, Twilight Sparkle” said Luna “What took you so long?”
The cloaked figure removed her hood to reveal a horn and lavender coat. Twilight shook her head and let her mane fall back into its normal shape, unencumbered by the cloak she wore. “My apologies, Princess Luna, I was afraid of being spotted if I followed you too closely.”
“Are you absolutely certain that such actions were befitting the role of... what did you call it? A ‘wingmare?’”
Twilight glanced back towards the entrance of the bar. Reinolds had just stumbled out of the bar flanked by Seashell and Cherry Blossom. All three of them were laughing as they trotted in the direction of Reinold’s apartment.
“Very sure, Princess Luna. I think you’ll find that by tomorrow morning, Captain Reinolds will be quite satisfied by your performance back there.”
“You are certain that we did not lay it on with excessive thickness?” asked the Princess.
“Completely certain” confirmed Twilight. “You did great. Although I can’t help but noticing that every time Reinolds tells that story the amount of property damage seems to increase.”
“Indeed, We cannot believe any of our citizens would actually believe that we could reduce a building to an uninhabitable crater that still continued to give off deadly levels of magical radiation to this day” said Luna as she turned to go, and Twilight followed.
“You really have no experience picking up stallions at bars? As long as you’ve lived?” asked Twilight.
Luna considered the question for a few seconds. “Would ordering attractive stallions to report to the royal bed chambers for our pleasure be considered experience?” she asked.
“No, not really” replied Twilight, sparing only a moment to reflect on how odd that question might have seemed to her three months ago.
“We do not have any experience in this area” said Luna, definitively.
Twilight followed her Princess in silence. It had been a struggle to return to something like normalcy after their duel, and Celestia’s sentencing her to six months as Luna’s personal attendant and bodyguard. Twilight could still feel the gap between them, and the Princess’ hesitation to share her feelings with her after Twilight’s betrayal, though it still hurt the unicorn to think of it in those terms.
The first few days after Celestia had assigned Twilight to her new duties had been awful. Her very first assignment had been to escort Luna to Celestia’s room, where Celestia’s lecture on the proper treatment of their subjects had devolved into a three-hour screaming match between the two sisters. Twilight shuddered at the memory. It was always awful to sit and listen to an argument, but when both arguers had access to the Royal Canterlot voice? Twilight was surprised that she was still able to hear anything by the following morning.
For the next two weeks, Luna had seemed resolved to entirely ignore Twilight’s existence. Though Twilight spent the full 12-hour shift each day following the Princess from place to place, Luna refused to directly acknowledge her in any way. Indeed, she seemed to take pleasure in slamming doors behind her so that Twilight had to reopen them to follow her. Or worse, walking out onto balconies and suddenly taking to the air, forcing Twilight to find a way to track and follow her from the ground.
The first turning point had come when Luna had left for another meeting with Celestia, ordering Twilight to remain in place. After an unhappy half hour sitting in the alicorn’s office staring at the walls, Luna had returned in a bad mood followed by two servants hauling carts full of paper behind them.
“My sister seems to think that if I have enough free time to challenge commoners to duels, I have enough time to overhaul the entire Equestrian tax code. All 740,000 pages of it.” said Luna bitterly.
Twilight was unsure of how to respond, or even if Luna was addressing her at all, so she decided to remain silent for the time being. The next two hours were spent watching Luna, hunched over her desk, muttering to herself as she tried to keep track of the mathematical formulae inherent in the nation’s finances. The more she read, the more frustrated the Princess seemed to become. “Carry the 37... minus 10% of the difference.. so that would be 35 times 23 which is... which is... ARGGGH!” Luna shouted in frustration.
“Eight hundred and five” said Twilight, before she could think better of it. She immediately realized her mistake and covered her mouth with her hoof. “I’m so sorry Princess, I didn’t mean to interrupt your concentration. Please forgive me.”
Luna opened her mouth to yell at Twilight, but then sighed and thought better of it. “No, you’re right Twilight. That is the correct answer after all. We just get so frustrated when we have to deal with the Gymkhana formula for compounded interest. We didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
Twilight furrowed her brow, confused. “The Gymkhana formula? Why wouldn’t you just use the Buckskin method instead?”
Luna slammed her hooves down on her desk “Yes! Thank you! That’s what we’ve been wondering this entire time!” she waved Twilight over “Look here, at how those idiots in the treasury have been doing these calculations for the last three decades...”
An hour later, Celestia came up to check on her sister’s progress. A part of her regretted assigning her sister this sort of menial busywork, but after remembering how cruel she’d forced herself to be towards her most faithful student she hardened her resolve and thought better of it. Even though Celestia knew she had to be seen publicly supporting her sister and fellow princess, that was no reason to let her off the hook in private. Besides, her sister had been clamoring for more responsibility since she’d returned from the moon. “Be careful what you wish for, dear sister,” Celestia thought grimly “It just might be granted to you.” Still, the entire Equestria tax code? Even for her, there were limits. She was about to knock on Luna’s office door when she heard strange noises emanating from the room. Was that... laughter?
“No, Twilight Sparkle, plee hee hee hee hee heese... please stop... our sides... we cannot breathe... HA HA HA HA HA!”
“And then... and then the second accountant says... ‘that’s no depreciation formula, THAT’S MY WIFE!’”
Both voices burst into a fresh round of hysterical laughter.
Princess Celestia allowed herself a small smile before leaving to inform her treasurers that the new tax code might take a few more days to draw up than she had originally anticipated.
Twilight had arrived to her duties the next day in a happy mood, hoping that maybe Luna was ready to forgive her entirely for her actions during their duel. Unfortunately, the alicorn seemed to have hardened her heart once again, and returned to barely acknowledging Twilight’s existence. Still, she had at least stopped slamming doors in Twilight’s face, which Twilight considered to be some small degree of progress.
The worst part of this punishment, Twilight was coming to realize, was the raw and all consuming boredom that accompanied it. Her suspension from the Academy meant she no longer had access to the school’s library, and since she now spent 12 hours a day standing at attention or following the Lunar Princess from one part of the palace to another she didn’t have nearly enough time to read anyway. An hour or two with her texts back in the tiny little room she had been assigned in the servant’s quarters wasn’t nearly enough for a voracious bookworm like herself.
That’s why what Luna had prepared for her on the one-month anniversary of her service had come as such a pleasant surprise.
Luna had called her into her room like any other day. Twilight expected nothing more than a boring assignment like “watch the door” or “fetch me something from the kitchen” the likes of which had become her daily routine. But it seemed today was different.
“Hello, Twilight Sparkle. Our sister feels that we should become acquainted with the modern popular culture. To that end, she has given us this ‘Daring Do’ novel and requested that we read it. However, we find ourself bogged down in reports and other official business. We were hoping you would read it and write us a report on-”
Before Luna could go any further, she was startled by the lavender blur that streaked past her and pounced on the book in question.
“OfcourseprincessI’llgetonthatrightawaythankyoufortheassignmentseeyoulaterbye!” said Twilight as she darted out of the room with her prize. In minutes, she located an out of the way corner in an unused but well lit room deep within the castle and made herself comfortable. She had completed the book by sunrise and stumbled back to her room, exhausted but more satisfied than she’d felt in weeks.
The next afternoon, on one of her all-too-rare days off from her duties, she met Rainbow Dash for lunch before the pegasus went to see the Wonderbolts performance scheduled for that evening. When Twilight had mentioned what Luna had given her to read the previous day, Rainbow Dash had nearly choked on her sandwich.
“You got to read Daring Do and the Spear of the Windigos? That’s doesn’t even come out for another two months! I’ve had a copy pre-ordered for weeks!” she exclaimed “You have to tell me everything! No wait, don’t tell me anything! Is it good? Does Daring finally hook up with Bravado? No, don’t spoil it for me. Arrrrgh!”
“I guess the publisher sent the palace a few advance copies” said Twilight casually. “It was pretty good, I guess.”
“You beat up a Princess and they punish you by letting you read the book I’ve been dying to get my hooves on for nearly a year? If I punched Princess Celestia, like, right now, could I get in on this too?” asked Rainbow Dash, slightly too earnestly for Twilight’s tastes.
“Sorry, Rainbow, I’m pretty sure it was a one time thing. Tomorrow I’ll probably be back to boring old guard duty.” Twilight grabbed the check and paid it, waving off Rainbow’s protests and offers to split it.
She hated to be going so soon, but she had so many errands to run and only a single afternoon to accomplish everything. She hugged her friend goodbye. “It was good to see you again, Dashie. Give my best to everyone back in Ponyville. And may the winds of change blow forever in your favor.”
“Huh?” said Rainbow Dash
“Oh, sorry, that last part will make more sense once you’ve read the book.” She walked away with a subtle smile as Rainbow Dash’s face went through a fresh series of twitches and contortions.
As her sentence wore on, Twilight and Luna got more and more comfortable being around one another. Some days it would have been easy to mistake them for very close friends. Whenever Luna ordered her around, she at least had the grace to seem embarrassed for doing so, and Twilight was sent on frequent assignments that gave her opportunities to walk around Canterlot. Better still were requests to deliver a message to Celestia that almost inevitably led to Twilight having a long conversation with the Solar Princess about whatever was on her mind, or a question about a theory she’d uncovered from some textbook during her free time. Even if Twilight wasn’t technically a student of hers for the time being, Celestia seemed almost as excited about their conversations as Twilight was.
Still, there were setbacks as well. One day, about two months after the beginning of her servitude, Twilight had shown up to Luna’s room only to find the Princess crying into her pillow. Without thinking, she had dashed up to her and asked her what was wrong.
“Why do you want to know, Twilight?” asked Luna between her choked out sobs “so that you can can use it against us later? Leave us alone.”
The Princess refused to speak to her any more that day, and Twilight was forced to sit outside her bedroom and listen to Luna’s sobbing for an entire shift.
It was a few weeks after that when Luna had suggested a trip down to Pensacolta to visit Captain Reinolds. Twilight had eagerly agreed to accompany her. She had only gotten to see him once before he’d left the infirmary. Their reunion had been a happy one, and the three had shared a low key dinner at one of Reinolds’ favorite restaurant, Luna’s identity hidden behind a illusionary persona to avoid attention. They swapped stories and caught up with events in one another’s lives in the manner of old friends, the unpleasant shared past temporarily forgotten.
All this had led up to Luna and Twilight walking along the streets of Pensacolta late that night, wending their way back to the hotel room where a stack of paperwork awaited Luna’s attention. Even traveling this far from the capital granted no reprieve from the endless deluge generated by the palace bureaucrats.
They didn’t realize they were being observed by a shadowy figure on the nearby rooftop, who was utterly befuddled by this development. Why was the Princess here, and why now? Did she know? Countermeasures would have to be implemented, and superiors informed. This could ruin everything they had worked for so long to accomplish.
Princess or not, no pony would interfere with their plans. This additional complication would be dealt with by whatever means necessary.
Luna and Twilight emerged from the hotel room into the bright morning sun. Twilight yawned. Even though she had grabbed a few hours of sleep while Luna had been working on paperwork, she was still pretty beat. She felt a slight twinge of jealousy that her companion functioned just fine on an hour or two of sleep in the mid afternoon. “Where to now, Princess?” she asked.
Luna thought for a moment. “If we remember correctly, Captain Reinolds stated that he would be attending an unusually lengthy therapy session on this morn. However, we have heard that the Smithponian museum has just opened up a new exhibit, perhaps you would like to accompany us there?”
A museum! Twilight’s eyes lit up and she nodded vigorously at Luna’s suggestion “That sounds like a great idea, Princess! I’d love to!”
“We believe it is in this direction, come along.”
Twilight and Luna walked through the street, Luna greeting passersby and made small talk on the way over while Twilight stayed alert and scanned the streets for any pony that might be a threat. The fact that Luna stood out from the crowd and drew attention wherever they went made her task doubly stressful. Every pony wanted to come up and bump her hoof or just gush about getting to meet a princess. Studying every one of them for body language or movements that might indicate they were aggressive and making a snap decision as to whether or not they could be trusted within the span of a second was draining. She was happy to finally reach the museum without incident.
It was the major downside of travelling with Luna as her body guard. The streets of Pensacolta were gorgeous, lined with colorful stalls and merchants selling local treasures to the tourists and local ponies. Palm trees had been planted in the middle of the wide thoroughfare, and their big broad leaves offered a shady refuge from the heat. If she had been traveling alone or with her friends she would have enjoyed taking in the local color and browsing the stalls. But as things stood she couldn’t let her attention wander for a moment. As crazy as the idea of a pony trying to attack the princess seemed to her, Luna was trusting her to be vigilant and Twilight had no intention of letting her down.
A huge banner hung above the main entrance. New This Month At The Smithponian, Come Discover The Lost Treasure Of Ouroboros! it declared. The facade of the building looked to be under renovation as well, the stonework near the top of the building had been partially disassembled and was covered in scaffolding. The two walked into the main lobby, Twilight paused as they passed from the bright outdoors into the more dimly lit lobby of the building.
“Welcome to the Smithponian Museum!” said the attendant at the information desk. “Wait... Princess Luna? I wasn’t told that you were visiting today.” Twilight recognized the very early stages of a panic attack in the young blue mare, barely more than a filly really, with a cutie mark depicting an information pamphlet. After months in Luna’s service she’d come to realize just how quickly most ponies would panic if they thought they had disappointed one of the Princesses in even the most minor way. Luna’s desire to lock herself away in the palace most of the time rather than always dealing with that had made a little bit more sense to her afterwards.
“Fear not, we are not here in any official capacity. What is thy name?”
“My name is Fact Check, your highness, it’s a delight to meet you!”
“Likewise! We are most pleased to make thy acquaintance. We heard of your wonderful new exhibit and wished to come by in order to view it.”
“The Ouroboros exhibit? Oh, yes of course! I’ll go get the curator who put it together right away. I’m sure he would love to give you a tour personally!” said Fact Check, overflowing with enthusiasm as she picked up on an opportunity to atone for her imagined slight.
“There is no need for that, we do not wish to be a bother-”
“Oh it’s not a bother at all! I’m sure the curator will insist as soon as he meets you, in fact, let me take you over to his office right away!” said Fact Check.
Luna looked down at Twilight, who just shrugged. There probably wasn’t a graceful way out of this situation without at least meeting the curator, might as well just go along with it for now. The two of them were led through the halls of the museum, Twilight catching glimpses of other interesting exhibits as they went. She knew she was lucky to have this chance to meet the curator, but she also wished that she could linger over the exhibit on ancient print and typography. Just for a few hours. That kind of thing couldn’t be rushed if you wanted to really appreciate it.
Fact Check stopped in front of an office door and pounded on it with her hoof. “Professor Secrets?” she called out “Would you come out here please?”
“Fact Check, I told you I didn’t want to be disturbed!” said a voice from inside the office. The door swung open to reveal an older earth pony stallion, his coat had once been a vibrant crimson, but now there were enough gray hairs mixed in to give the overall impression of a lighter scarlet color. “What could possibly be so... important... that...” his voice faded away as he saw the two ponies who accompanied Fact Check.
“We did not mean to disturb you, professor” said Luna “Twilight and I were just eager to see the new exhibit on Hippocamp culture and religion. We do not want to be a burden or inconvenience”
“What? No, it’s no trouble at all! It’s a privilege to meet you, my name’s Buried Secrets, and welcome to the Smithponian. I would be honored to show you around the exhibit, your highness. In fact we both will. Bronze! Get out here!” said the professor as he spun his head around to call back into his office, his blonde mane whipping around and into Twilight’s face. She spat out a few stray hairs.
“Just a sec, professor! I’m on my way” came a voice from the back of the office. It was crowded around the door, and Twilight wasn’t able to get a good look at the stallion the voice belonged to.
“Princess Luna!” exclaimed the voice. Professor Secrets moved aside to let the new pony through. From beside Fact Check and Luna, all Twilight could make out was the young unicorn stallion’s head that poked through the door frame. He seemed to be much younger that the professor, and his coat was an understated gray except where a stray beam of light happened to fall on it. That one spot burst forth with a vibrant silver glow that dazzled and surprised Twilight.
“We are very happy to meet you both. Allow me to introduce our associate, Twilight Sparkle” said Luna. The two stallions turned their attention to Luna’s companion, apparently noticing her for the first time.
“Charmed” said Professor Secrets before returning his attention to flattering Luna again. The other stallion wasn’t quite so hasty. Twilight noticed that the expression of awe-struck reverence he’d had while speaking to the princess had morphed into more of a goofy, lopsided grin.
“Hi” he said “I’m Bronze Bell.” He slipped past Buried Secrets out into the hallway, revealing a cutie mark that, sure enough, depicted an ornate bronze bell. Fact Check, apparently satisfied that the Princess was in good hooves, left to return to her post in the lobby. “Just call me Bronze, though. Everypony else does”
“Twilight Sparkle. But I guess you already heard that. I’m travelling with the Princess” said Twilight, bumping Bronze’s hoof. She was more than a little surprised that he was even addressing her. Most ponies ignored her entirely and fixated on Luna. “So what kind of special talent goes with a bronze bell?”
“Oh, this? I do artifact restoration for the museum, I have since I was a colt. Helps pay my tuition for graduate studies over at the local university”
“Wow! That must be so amazing to work in a museum! You’re a student too? My special talent is magic and back in Canterlot I study-”
“Twilight, we’re heading to the exhibit now. Care to join us?” Interjected Luna from a little ways down the hall.
Twilight blushed a bit at how caught up she’d gotten in her conversation. “Right behind you, Princess!” she said, trotting down the hallway after her and the professor. Bronze Bell turned to follow her.
The professor was going on and on about his credentials and career to Princess Luna, while Twilight mostly tuned out what he was saying while she looked around. Every once in awhile she would glance back towards Bronze Bell and catch him looking at her, but whenever their eyes met he just blushed and looked away.
He probably thinks you’re just some pampered noble filly travelling with Princess Luna. Twilight thought to herself. Too bad, he’s kinda cute.
The foursome reached the gallery where the new exhibit was on display. Professor Secrets cleared his throat to attract their attention. “Thank you for coming to visit our new exhibit here at the Smithponian” he began “The story of Ouroboros the sea serpent is one that pervaded the Hippocamp culture throughout the ancient era. The legends speak of him as a great beast that would raid their villages and attack their ships, stealing away their wealth and devouring their people. However, this all seems to have stopped when their fishing village made contact with the Kingdom of Equestria. At that point the elaborate cultural myth of Ouroboros broke down as trade with Equestria increased. More enlightened ponies such as myself have concluded that the tale of the sea serpent who robbed ships of their treasure to increase its hoard was, in fact, an elaborate metaphor for piracy and the negative effects of colonialism, which depleted the outer provinces of... um.. yes, Princess? Do you have a question?”
Twilight turned to look at the Princess, whose front hoof was raised into the air.
“More of a comment, really” said Luna “We are quite certain that Ouroboros wasn’t a metaphor.”
The professor scoffed “With all due respect, Princess Luna, I have devoted the last fifteen years of my life to deciphering the culture of the Hippocamp. I am the only living pony who can even begin to translate the now-extinct language they once spoke, and I am the foremost expert on their history. What makes you so sure his banishment was not a metaphor for stabilized trade relations?”
“We are eminently impressed by thy devotion to the Hippocamp people and their culture, Professor...” began Luna
The professor’s chest swelled with pride at the perceived comment. “Thank you, Princess! Now if you’ll turn your attention over this way-”
“...However” Luna continued “There is one piece of evidence that you have overlooked that convinces us that you are not entirely correct”
The professor’s face fell “What might that be, Princess?” he asked
Luna smiled. “We were there. We were the one who provided assistance to the Hippocamp people and banished the great serpent Ouroboros, who had raided their oceanic trade lanes for generations. It was the condition they gave for allying with Equestria.” she said “Celestia may have helped as well” she muttered as an afterthought, waving a hoof dismissively.
The professor was momentarily rendered speechless, but quickly recovered a moment later “That’s... that’s quite the tale, but since no pony can read the written record the Hippocamp left behind before their language died out-”
“We can read Hippocamp” said Luna “Speak it, too. We find it a most enjoyable language to curse in when the servants disappoint us. What a shame that no other speakers exist, we are sure that by now our accent is atrocious due to disuse”
Professor Buried Secrets could only gape at her, but was still unwilling to concede entirely. “That’s... that’s not possible. I sent a request to the palace for any materials on Hippocamp language over a decade ago...”
“Oh, Celestia doesn’t speak Hippocamp anymore, we suspect” said Luna “She’s only fluent in about a dozen languages or so, and knows enough to get by in a few more,” she smiled “We, on the other hand, have a bit more of a talent for it. We must not have been back from the moon when your letter arrived, or we suppose we could have saved you some time”
The professor glanced wildly back and forth around the room as he took all of this in. “So... I suppose that the story of the three artifacts that were brought together to seal him away and then enshrined in this land to maintain it isn’t actually talking about the importance of maintaining an even division of powers between the three branches of government” he continued.
“Nope, actual artifacts. Since we couldn’t take them too far away from the seal itself or risk them falling into the wrong hooves, we built a bunch of temples with lots of puzzles and traps and locked them away, as was the fashion of the time.” said Luna.
“Right! Because if you had all three of those and the ritual, you could either unseal Ouroboros or take control of it, just like the legends say!” said Bronze, who was practically vibrating with excitement “I knew it! I knew it wasn’t just a myth!” He turned to Twilight and stared directly into her eyes. She blushed a little at his earnest intensity, but his enthusiasm was catching “Do you have any idea how frustrating it is? To know, just know that an old story about some terrible beast sealed away over a millenium ago wasn’t just an old pony tale, but not have anyone believe you?”
Twilight giggled. “Better than you might think, actually” she said with a coy smile as she glanced at Luna, who rolled her eyes but wore just the slightest hint of a smile herself.
Bronze Bell went on, wandering the exhibit looking at the artifacts as if for the first time. “All the accounts of the ritual say the three main components are a plate, a bowl, and a knife, and we just restored a gorgeous plate that had been recovered from a tomb less than 50 miles from here! It must be the first one! We just need to find the other two!”
“Actually we think we see the bowl over here as well” said Luna “although for some reason it bears the label ‘Primitive Ashtray’” Professor Buried Secret was crestfallen as he thought about the two weeks of work he’d spent identifying that ‘ashtray.’
Bronze, however, was becoming even more excited. “It could all be here! We could perform the ritual again and-”
“NO!” shouted Luna “ABSOLUTELY NOT!" She took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. “We will not permit that. The ritual presents an extraordinary risk to all of Equestria. It would undo the seal that has held the great serpent at bay for 1500 years. We made a very deliberate choice when we created it. Though the power and wealth the monster had accumulated tempted us greatly, sealing it all away was the responsible choice and one we would not see undone.”
Bronze was still shaken from being exposed to the Royal Canterlot voice. He recovered, but his enthusiasm had waned a bit. “Oh, I’m sorry Princess, I got kinda caught up in the moment there”
Luna put on the kindest smile she could muster “Do not trouble yourself. We admire your enthusiasm and have no wish to condemn you for it. The temptation is great, we will admit, but be assured only terror and darkness lie in that direction.” She extended a hoof to help him regain his footing. “Perhaps we could return to your office, we would be happy to answer any questions you might have about the grammar and syntax of the Hippocamp language?”
Bronze perked up again at the offer “Really? That would be amazing! Wouldn’t it professor?” he said, glancing back at Buried Secrets who muttered something unintelligible but followed along the others as they returned to his office.
Luna spent the next 45 minutes describing as much of the Hippocamp language as she could remember, while the two scholar ponies scribbled down their notes on parchment as quickly as they could. They were deeply focused and silent except to ask a brief question or request some small clarification of a particular detail. She also took a look at the artifacts the museum was in the process of restoring, pointing out whatever details she could remember regarding their use or cultural importance. Her revelation that the “important religious document” Buried Secrets had been struggling to comprehend for the past month was actually an ancient take-out menu finally reduced the poor stallion to tears.
Twilight and Luna took that as an invitation to leave the office waving goodbye to Bronze Bell, who pulled out a well-worn textbook and seemed to be cross referencing something with his new notes and Buried Secrets, who pulled out a flask and took a long pull from it.
Luna and Twilight walked back in the direction they’d come, wending their way through the museum’s other exhibits. “That was most enjoyable. We will have to remember to correspond with the professor about his studies more frequently” said Luna.
Twilight and Luna wandered the other exhibits until they began to grow hungry. Waving goodbye to Fact Check on their way out, they stepped back out into the into the mid-day hustle and bustle of the city. It had been several hours since they entered the museum and the city had sprung to life as the day went on. The once quiet streets were now packed with ponies rushing to and fro. Twilight and Luna stopped at the base of the stairs. “We are feeling peckish. What sort of lunch would you prefer, Twilight?” asked Luna.
Rather than answer the question, Twilight wrapped Luna in a field of her magic and flung her across the street.
Luna wasn’t hurt, even as she landed on her side, but she was startled by the outburst. “Twilight! What is the meaning of-”
She was cut off when the giant slab of rock landed on the spot she’d been standing a moment ago.
Twilight staggered back from where the rock had landed, only inches from her face. There had been no time to explain, she had just reacted after seeing the stone dislodge itself from the facade of the museum. Other pieces of stone, smaller but still heavy enough to crush a pony, were tumbling off the building. There was no way she was going avoid all of them. She pushed all her focus outward through her horn and created a small dome of purple energy around herself.
No sooner had the dome formed than the rocks crashed down over her. The shield protected her from the full weight of the stones but she felt each impact like a punch to her gut. In a moment it was over. Twilight redoubled her focus trying to push the rocks away from her with the shield, but they were just too massive to lift without better leverage. She couldn’t use telekinesis without dropping the shield, but if the shield went down she’d be crushed before she could clear away enough rubble to get out from under the pile.
“Twilight!” she heard Luna scream, muffled by the debris. The rocks began to shift and clatter against one another, then they simply exploded into dust and harmless pebbles. The cloud of dust billowed outwards and Twilight dispelled her shield. She couldn’t see anything but a wall of grey.
“Luna? I’m OK!” called Twilight before she began to choke and cough from the dust she was breathing in. “I’m over *cough* over here!”
Instantly the alicorn was standing over her. she grabbed Twilight and pulled her out of the dust cloud into the fresh air. Twilight coughed a few more times and inhaled the clean oxygen her lungs were screaming for. Finally she was able to look up Luna. She noticed that the dust must have irritated the Princess’ eyes; they were all red, and tears were running down her cheeks.
“Are you OK, Princess?” Twilight asked.
Luna looked at her blankly. “Are we OK? Twilight, you just... we thought you were... you could have been...” she trailed off and began to sob.
Ponies were gathering around the fallen rocks. Miraculously, no other ponies seemed to have been hurt in the collapse. Twilight realized how upset Luna really was, and led her down a quiet side street before anypony else realized she was there and turned to her for leadership. Luna didn’t look like she was in any condition to provide it right now.
“It’s alright now, Luna. I’m fine, see? I’m really good at shields, remember?” She gave a small smile. “Hey, come on, you know I’m tougher than that. Those rocks were nothing compared to some of the stuff you threw at me a few months ago.” Twilight hoped a bit of levity would lighten the mood.
It didn’t. Luna stared at Twilight, a haunted look in her eyes. “That stupid fight. If we hadn’t been such a foalish idiot back then, you wouldn’t even have been in danger today to begin with. It’s... it’s all our fault that you almost died!” Luna broke down again. She wrapped her front legs around Twilight and pulled her tightly against her as she cried. “We are sorry, Twilight, we are so sorry for everything.”
Twilight returned the hug without saying anything, and they stayed there until Luna was able to collect herself
“I think my appetite’s gone now anyway. Why don’t we head back to the hotel and regroup?” suggested Twilight. Luna sniffled, but nodded and managed a small smile. They made their way back to the hotel. Word of the construction accident at the museum was spreading like wildfire in the streets, and they were barely noticed as they walked in the opposite direction of the ponies jostling one another to get a better look at the scene.
A few minutes later they arrived back at the hotel. As her adrenaline rush wore away, Twilight felt a lot shakier on her hooves than she had a moment before. She could feel it dawning on her that she had, indeed, nearly died. It was building in the back of her mind, threatening to overwhelm her. She pushed back the slowly growing desire to hide in a corner sobbing her eyes out, but knew it was only a matter of time. Gotta keep moving, keep thinking about something else she told herself.
Luna pushed open the door to the suite they shared “We do not know about you, Twilight Sparkle, but we feel that we have had more than enough excitement for... one... morning...” she trailed off as she looked at the room.
The room had been torn apart since they had left it. Their belongings were scattered all over the room, and even the cushions and mattresses had been slashed apart. Luna was too shocked to speak, but Twilight asked the question that was on both of their minds.
“What the buck is going on around here?”
PICKING UP THE PIECES
Twilight and Luna gaped at the destruction in front of them. All of the furniture had been overturned or wrecked outright. Even the abstract watercolor that had hung on the wall, a vintage John Marein from the turn of the century, had been ripped out of its frame and crumpled into a ball. Drawers had been pulled open and emptied, and their luggage was dumped all over the floor.
Twilight recovered from her surprise a beat before Luna did. Holding a hoof up to the princess’ muzzle, she indicated for her to stay where she was as Twilight crept into the ruined suite to secure it from any intruder that might still be lurking there. She noted that the door leading out to the suite’s patio had been shattered, reduced to shards of glass half-hidden in the room’s shaggy blue carpet. Even the bathroom had been ransacked, the floral patterned shower curtain pulled down and shredded and the mirror spider webbed with cracks originating from a single impact to the center of the glass, probably with something blunt and heavy.
Twilight reached out with her magic, probing the closets and corners of the room looking for any sign of invisible or magically concealed attackers. At the same time her eyes darted from place to place taking in every cracked table leg and lacerated pillow, turning them over in her mind trying to construct a coherent picture of whoever had done this.
Finally satisfied that they were alone, she called out to Luna that the room was secure.
“Who would do something like this?” asked Luna as she joined Twilight next to the ruined coffee table.Twilight didn’t answer immediately. Her mind was steadily assembling, rejecting and modifying possible scenarios based on the limited information she had available. After a moment she walked over to the broken glass near the shattered balcony door.
“This door was broken from the outside, as indicated by the way the glass shards fell into the room rather than outward onto the balcony. Since the door was locked when we arrived this is the most probable point of entry. This room is pretty high up off the ground so the break in was most likely conducted by a pegasus pony who would be able to fly to the balcony without attracting too much attention from the ground,” she said, half as an answer to Luna’s question and half for her own benefit as she tried to work through the problem.
Twilight tried to reconstruct the path the intruder had taken. Divorced from the shock of having her and the Princess’ privacy violated, it was just a logic problem. The way the drawers and luggage were buried underneath the broken pieces of furniture suggested that the intruder had gone after them first.
“I think they were looking for something,” said Twilight. The more she thought about it the more the scenario made sense. The intruder must have done the rest of the damage either to cover their tracks or simply out of frustration. “We should see if anything’s missing, but my guess is they didn’t find whatever it was. We should call the police, too. Maybe they can find something this pony left behind.”
Luna stepped gingerly around the pieces of a broken floor lamp, that had been adorned with a tacky seaside motif and brightly smiling tropical fish. It would not be missed. “Twilight, in light of what happened here... we do not think the museum this morning was an accident,” she said.
Twilight squeezed her eyes shut. Suddenly she wasn’t in the hotel room at all, but back under the rocks and rubble gasping for air that tasted like earth and dust, her lungs screaming as she pushed every ounce of focus she could muster into the shield that was fighting against the crushing, squeezing sensation of unimaginable pressure from above her and slowly warping and giving way as the stones slowly inched closer and closer to pressing the life out of her if she wavered for even a moment and-
Twilight snapped back to the hotel room, shaking her head to clear away the images that were threatening to overwhelm her. “I think you’re right. They must be connected. But if they are...” Twilight turned the new information over in her head, clinging to the puzzle before her like a raft in a storm.
“Twilight, are you unwell?” asked Luna.
“I’m just trying to think, hang on,” she replied. Another moment passed while Twilight tried to hash out the events of the last 12 hours, and see the bigger picture hidden behind it all. “We went straight from here to the museum earlier this morning, so if we were being watched, which I assume we were, there’s no way the pony monitoring us could have been breaking into our room here and keeping an eye on us at the museum simultaneously. There must be at least two ponies involved with... whatever this is,” she concluded.
Luna looked down at Twilight with a concerned expression on her face but chose to let the moment pass. “We will go speak to the proprietor of this inn, and alert him to what has transpired. However, we do not think it would be wise to remain here for the afternoon,” she said. Twilight agreed. There had already been two incidents this morning alone, and it would be unwise to stay somewhere an assailant had been able to break into once already.
Leaving the room as they’d found it, they went to the general manager’s office behind the front desk in the hotel’s lobby. Ignoring the receptionist who tried to draw her attention, Luna pushed open the door without knocking. Luna ripped into the poor pony on duty about the hotel’s lax security, liberally employing the Royal Canterlot Voice. It took barely a minute to reduce the unfortunate earth pony to a quivering mess, desperately promising to fix everything if the alicorn would just please stop yelling at him.
Luna and Twilight waited in the lobby for the police to arrive. Luna wore her version of the neutral, enigmatic expression that both alicorn rulers had perfected over the centuries, but based on the way she was shifting her weight back and forth and glancing around the lobby Twilight could tell that she was a bit rattled by the morning’s events too. Twilight’s already heightened alertness was in overdrive. Could that pony dressed in a bellhop uniform be concealing knives in his vest? A tourist left his heavy suitcase next to a chair when the receptionist called his name to check in, what if it was actually some kind of explosive device? It was a good thing nopony came up to them to greet the Princess, or Twilight might have thrown them into a wall before they got their name out.
“Breathe, Twilight,” said Luna. Twilight let out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. “Believe it or not this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened to us. We have utmost confidence in the ability of our protectors, and especially in you.”
Twilight said nothing, but nodded in acknowledgement. Of course, the Princess could take care of herself. It was silly for her to even have a bodyguard, really. Twilight wanted to kick herself for being so stupid. Of course the front of buildings don’t just randomly fall apart when high-ranking government officials just happen to be standing under them. Maybe if she’d been a little less clueless she would have spotted somepony, or noticed the glow of unicorn magic when the rocks were dislodged and fell down on top of her where they were just a couple inches away from painfully, agonizingly pressing the life from her body until the shield failed and there would be nothing stopping them from-
“Twilight, the police have arrived,” said Luna. Twilight startled and looked up at the three Penscolta police officers that had just entered the hotel. Two earth ponies with the alert, searching eyes of trained law enforcement wearing police flanked a cobalt unicorn with a microscope for a cutie mark, who wore a pair of sunglasses. The trio walked up to Luna and Twilight.
“Princess Luna, Ms. Sparkle, my name is Horatio Mane. I want to assure you that this incident will be Pensacolta PD’s top priority. We will find the pony or ponies responsible for this, and we will bring them to justice, you have my word. Now, did you touch or disturb anything in the room?” Luna and Twilight both shook their heads no. “Very good. These officers will take your statements, and my team will be arriving shortly to conduct a complete sweep of the hotel room,” said the unicorn. “I just want to apologize on behalf of the city for this trouble. As I’m sure you can imagine, having a visit from such important ponies sullied like this is...” Horatio paused and removed his sunglasses “...a royal pain.”
Hundreds of miles away in the town of Ponyville, an especially muscular white pegasus was struck by the sense that somewhere there was something he was supposed to be doing or saying at that very moment, but the feeling passed as quickly as it had come.
Back in the hotel, Horatio had disappeared upstairs to begin searching the room for evidence while his two companions took Luna and Twilight to opposite sides of the lobby and took their statements. Twilight’s, a purple mare with clashing red and blue highlights in her mane Rarity wouldn’t have let herself to be caught dead with, listened attentively as Twilight recounted the events of the morning and the previous night. Both pairs of ponies finished interviewing after a half hour and regrouped.
“Well, unless you have any questions for us we’ll get back down to the station and start running down leads. Please feel free to contact us if you remember anything new or if you just want an update. In the meantime, you’re free to go,” said the lime green stallion who had interviewed Luna and who seemed to the the senior officer of the pair.
“We will, thank you Officer Latigo,” said Luna. She turned to leave the hotel and Twilight followed her. It was only as they stepped out of the hotel and back into the intense afternoon sun that Twilight realized she had completely forgotten to even ask the other police pony what her name was. Twilight blinked as her eyes readjusted from the dim hotel lobby to the bright tropical sun. The local weather team had been diligent. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. Twilight looked around them at the ponies milling around, most of them wearing light loose clothing and big floppy hats to keep the rays of the sun off of them. The hotel was situated near the beach, and most of the ponies were grouped up, each set just another family on their way to the beach for an afternoon of fun. After the roller coaster of events that had taken up her morning Twilight was most struck by just how normal it all was. Most of these ponies weren’t worried about anything beyond whether they should have a tofu dog from the boardwalk or a wheatburger from one of the many street side diners for lunch. Twilight wished that that were the only thing she had to worry about.
“So, what sort of cuisine should we partake in for our midday meal?” asked Luna, apparently reading her mind. Was that something she could actually do or did Luna just have a knack for lucky guesses? The Royal Sisters had always been coy about the exact limits of their abilities.
“You’re hungry now, after everything that happened this morning? I thought that the... incident... at the museum made you lose your appetite,” said Twilight.
“It seems that we have reacquired it. We still have at least another hour before we are to rendezvous with Captain Reinolds, and there is no purpose to us staying here and impeding the police in their work. Besides, surely you must be at least a little bit hungry as well,” said Luna.
“I’m not hungry,” said Twilight. As if on cue her treasonous stomach growled its own opinion on the matter. “Stupid involuntary smooth muscle contractions,” she thought to herself.
Luna chuckled. “For some reason we find that claim difficult to believe. Come now, I’ll utilize a disguise. Maybe then you will relax a little bit?”
Twilight frowned “Celestia doesn’t like it when you do that, you know. She says it’s better if ponies get used to seeing you around as yourself rather than hidden under a bunch of illusion magic.”
“My sister is not here, and even if she were she does not have final say in this matter, or any other matter regarding how I choose to conduct myself on my vacation,” said Luna with an air of finality, “and even though I actually happen to agree with her on this point for the most part, I don’t think she’d begrudge me taking a few additional security precautions in light of today’s events.”
Twilight knew from experience that there was nothing to be gained from arguing the point with the Princess. Luna pulled out a pair of red horn-rimmed glasses from her saddle bag and settled them onto her face with telekinesis. With a moment’s concentration the pony before her no longer looked like the larger-than-life alicorn who ruled over half the sky and heavens, but rather like a unicorn with an especially dark coat and three stars for a cutie mark. No matter how many times Twilight watched the transformation, she’d never gotten the hang of the switch from one persona to another. Even though she knew the enchantment was there and how it worked, she could barely detect its presence magically.
“So what am I calling you this afternoon, then?” asked Twilight.
“Hmm... We always have enjoyed taking the names of ‘Selene’ or ‘Artemis.’ Perhaps ‘Phoebe’ just for a change of pace?”
Despite her foul mood, Twilight couldn’t entirely suppress a smile. “You know, ‘Phoebe,’ your cover would be a lot more convincing if you didn’t always pick names associated with the moon.”
“We would have you know that they were not associated with the moon before we started using them as identities in ages past. We are hardly to blame for ponies leaping upon such associations at the merest whiff of deific power,” said Luna. “Honestly, we move ONE MOUNTAIN...”
Twilight giggled at the mental image of the Princess trying to nonchalantly alter the local geography. “Well, Phoebe, if you can manage to refrain from any displays of miraculous power for at least a couple of minutes, there’s a restaurant that I’ve heard makes a very impressive carrot and celery burrito just a few blocks from here,” she said.
“Exquisite! We look forward to it. Lead the way,” said the princess.
Twilight and Luna walked through the crowded streets, mixing anonymously with the crowd. Even though they were no longer the center of every pony’s attention, Twilight still couldn’t shake the nervousness and stress that had been haunting her all day. A pair of university age fillies who appeared to have taken full advantage of the local taverns’ half priced lunchtime margarita pitchers stumbled and tripped into Twilight’s side. It took every ounce of restraint Twilight had not to throw the poor mare into a choke hold and slam her into the ground. By the time the pair reached the restaurant 15 minutes later Twilight was sweating and short of breath. It was not from the tropical heat.
Twilight requested a booth in the corner of the room where she’d have a clear line of sight to both the entrance and the kitchen door. The room was decorated with kitschy modern tourist paraphernalia, but Twilight noticed a few details here and there that suggested that the owners might have a genuine Mexicolt heritage which in Twilight’s estimation boded well for the quality of the food. Twilight and Luna had arrived at the tail end of the lunch rush, and only a few other tables were occupied. It wasn’t long before the waitress arrived with menus and drinks for them; an iced tea for Luna and a Coca-Colta for Twilight.
“Maybe we should have told some pony at the museum about what happened after we left,” said Twilight. “Whoever was watching us may know that we met with Bronze and the professor. They might be targeted next.”
“Officer Latigo said that they would be sending police over the museum right away. We are certain they will be fine,” said Luna, taking a sip of her tea. “However, we find your word choice in this matter most interesting. Most ponies would have referred to the pair as ‘Professor Secrets and Bronze Bell’ or perhaps ‘the professor and his assistant’ if we are not mistaken, Bronze made a little bit of an impression on you, did he not?”
Damn it. How could one pony be so clueless and so insightful at the same time? Twilight hoped that the shade in the corner booth would conceal the fact that she was blushing. “It’s not like that Prin... Phoebe, and even if it were I wouldn’t have any time to go meet with him alone anyway. Being your bodyguard is a full time job,” said Twilight.
Luna grinned wickedly. It seemed that Twilight wasn’t getting off the hook that easily. “Perhaps we will be suddenly stricken with the desire to go for a long flight tomorrow evening. Of course, you wouldn’t be able to follow us, not having any wings yourself, so we’d have no choice but to give you some time off. You have certainly earned it,” she said.
“That’s a very generous offer, but we’re only here for another week anyway. Even if we did become friends, it’s not like I could come and visit him down here very often. It would be awfully transitory, wouldn’t it?” asked Twilight.
“Twilight, you are asking the wrong pony that question. From our perspective, all of your relationships are transitory,” said Luna.
“That isn’t true at all!” shouted Twilight, raising her voice a little bit higher than she meant to. “The bearers of the other Elements and I will be friends forever, even if we aren’t always around each other all the time.”
“Not forever, Twilight.” said Luna “Certainly for a very long time, even for a lifetime. However, forever is much, much longer than you realize. As a mortal, we would not expect you to really understand that, but it is the truth.”
“Oh get over yourself, Princess.”
The words slipped out before Twilight even realized she had opened her mouth to speak. She was even more surprised that she didn’t really mind that they had. The barrier in her mind that she’d build up to hold back all the frustration, anger, and resentment she felt over her situation for the last few months had finally been overwhelmed.
“Where in Tartarus do you get off trying to tell me about what friendship with other ponies is worth? Do you have any idea how much you sound like a stuck up, spoiled little brat who didn’t get exactly what she wanted for Hearth’s Warming Eve? ‘Oh, no, my life is so hard, I only have unimaginable levels of magical power and my own kingdom and a sister who wants the best for me! Why must I suffer so? I think I’ll lock myself up and cry about it.’”
Luna was taken aback by the outburst. “Twilight, we did not mean to minimize the importance of your friendships or the things you have accomplished, just that-”
“Yes, you did! You always do! You act like if something doesn’t take a few centuries to accomplish it isn’t worth doing. Well news flash, Luna, some of us don’t have the luxury of locking ourselves away for a couple of years until our feelings aren’t hurt any more. Some of us have to make the most of every single day, because tomorrow I might get killed saving your flank from a bunch of falling rocks. So don’t you dare try to lecture me on what’s important, or what my priorities should be, because no matter how long you’ve been around you won’t ever understand what it’s like to live like that.” Twilight found herself standing up on her chair with her front hooves on the table, leaning over the disguised Princess. At some point she had knocked over her drink without noticing, and the sweet, syrupy beverage dripped off the edge of the table onto the floor. “Then again I guess that as an immortal I wouldn’t expect you to really understand that.”
The ambient conversations at the other tables around them had stopped completely. Twilight became aware that all the other patrons, not to mention the hostess, the waitstaff, and a couple of ponies from the kitchen, were all staring at her.
“I changed my mind again. I’m not really that hungry after all,” said Twilight. She hopped down from the table and pushed past the stunned waitress who had come over to take their order as she trotted towards the front door, fighting every fiber of her being that screamed at her to gallop out of there as quickly as she could. Ignoring Luna’s calls for her to wait, she shoved the door open and stepped out into the Pensacolta sun by herself.
ROOFTOPS AND REMINISCENCE
Twilight paused on the sidewalk as the door to the restaurant slammed shut behind her. Storming out had seemed like the right thing to do in the heat of the moment, but now that she had actually done it she realized she had no idea what to do or where to go. Twilight was used to having a schedule, a plan, or an objective to accomplish. Now she felt adrift in a churning tide of emotions.
She heard a commotion coming from inside the restaurant behind her. Of course Luna would try to follow her. It suddenly dawned on Twilight exactly what she’d just said, and whom she had said it to. Now that the words were out and her anger was draining away she realized that there would be consequences. How could there not be? Nopony talked to the ruler of Equestria like that. Maybe Luna had been too surprised to say anything before, but once the initial shock wore off... Twilight didn’t even want to imagine what the Princess would do to her. Or maybe she would just tell Celestia what Twilight had done, that would be even worse. Her suspension from the Academy would become a permanent expulsion, for certain, and then she’d probably be thrown out of the castle. No, she’d be kicked out of Canterlot, maybe exiled from Equestria completely.
Twilight decided that she wasn’t going to stick around and find out. She screwed up her concentration and channeled a burst of magic through her horn, disappearing in a burst of purple-tinged magical energy. She reappeared a moment later on the rooftop of the building across the street, looking down at where she had stood a moment before. A few ponies were startled by her sudden absence but most of the ponies on the street hadn’t even noticed.
A moment later, Luna burst out of the restaurant, still disguised as Phoebe. Her glasses were skewed and half falling off her face, disrupting the illusion’s full effect and causing her appearance to crack and shimmer around her as the spell tried to compensate for its focus being out of place. “Twilight?” she called out. Twilight didn’t answer, crouching down on the rooftop so she would be less visible from the street. She watched the princess turn to and fro trying to find her in the crowd. After a moment she started to gallop away down the street, calling out again for Twilight as she ran.
Twilight let her hooves slide out from under her and plopped down on the lightly-colored terra cotta rooftop. The flat expanse was lightly dusted with a layer of sand that had carried up from the beach by the sea breeze, but Twilight ignored the itchy grains that slipped into her coat and the searing pain from the tiles that had been baking in the tropical heat all day. The hopelessness of her situation was finally catching up with her and for the moment she didn’t have the strength to do anything beyond laying there and contemplating how thoroughly she had screwed up her life. Maybe she would have been better off letting those rocks crush her after all.
At the thought the memory came flooding back, forcing her to relive it yet again. Without anything to distract her, she finally let herself stop fighting it Twilight curled up into a ball on the rooftop and burrowed her face into her forelegs to muffle her choking sobs. She wasn’t sure how long she had been laying there when she heard a familiar voice. “There you are, Twilight. We should have known to check for the magical signature of your teleport spell.”
Twilight winced and froze for a moment before looking up. Luna was seated in front of her, stripped of her disguise.
Twilight sniffled and rubbed her eyes as she sat up, ready to face the music. “Princess, I-” she began. Before she could get any further, Luna took a long stride over to her and wrapped her wings around the unicorn, pulling Twilight against her and into a hug.
“We are sorry for what we said, Twilight,” said Luna. “We were trying to make you feel better, but we failed. Perhaps you have noticed that we are not very good at this sort of thing. We think that at this juncture we should attempt a new approach. Namely, that we should just shut up.”
Twilight didn’t say anything, but just buried her face into Luna’s chest and let her tears flow. The sat there for a long time in silence with Twilight wrapped up in Luna’s embrace, shielded from the scorching rays of the sun by the shadow of her wings. Twilight noticed that the Princess’ body was cool, almost chilly to the touch. She absentmindedly wondered how she had never really noticed that before. It felt wonderful against her sunburned body.
Finally Twilight was all cried out and her breathing became slow and steady once again. She felt Luna shift and pulled away from the alicorn. “Please understand Twilight,” said Luna “we did not mean any offense with what we said back there. It is just that, well, we do not really understand mortals. You’re all very complicated, a mess of contradictions a great deal of the time. Being immortal is simpler. Everything is much more straightforward, just bigger. Not that we are implying that you are small, or anything of that nature. Well, we suppose you are smaller than us in the most literal sense, not that there is anything wrong with... we think we would like to return to our previous strategy of shutting up now.”
Twilight smiled, her first really genuine one for what seemed like a long time, even if it had really only been since that morning. “That’s very big of you Princess, thank you. I’m sorry about what I said, too.”
It took Luna a moment to decipher the idiom, but when she did she grinned and rolled her eyes. “If you insist on making jokes at our expense, please try to make them a little less painful than that one. We were about to ask if you would like to take the rest of the afternoon off, but now we are reconsidering,” she said.
“You’re serious?” asked Twilight “But I’m supposed to stay with you in case-”
“We are quite confident in our ability to take care of ourselves for a little while, and we suspect that you would benefit from a little bit of time away from us, would you not? We would not even have to mention it to Celestia, what our sister does not know will not hurt her,” said Luna.
Twilight opened her mouth to deny it as a matter of course, but then she paused “Well, yes actually. I wouldn’t mind spending some time away from you... sorry,” she said, apologizing reflexively.
“We understand. We know what it is like to want to be alone once in awhile. We will be meeting Captain Reinolds at the docks to go out on his boat in a little while. You are welcome to join us or not as you see fit,” said Luna. She hesitated a moment before continuing. “Also, if this morning is weighing on your mind, please talk to somepony about it.” With that, Luna turned to go, hopping down into the side alley before turning in the direction of the harbor and walking away. Twilight watched her go, wondering what she should do with her newfound freedom. There had been some art galleries she had noticed the day before that she’d wished they’d had a moment to go into at the time. She still hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, either, perhaps that should be her first stop. Maybe later she could go back to the museum and see if Bronze had time to give her a tour of some of the other exhibits.
Twilight’s train of thought was derailed when she happened to glance across another rooftop and noticed something. A pony, wrapped up in a light brown cloak, was hopping from rooftop to rooftop. Twilight had almost missed noticing their presence until the pony had happened to move while she was looking it the right direction. When they held still they practically disappeared against the rooftops, but sure enough as Twilight watched the pony jumped onto the next roof over before looking down onto the street below. Following the direction of the stranger’s gaze as best she could, she realized that the pony was travelling in the same direction as Luna had been a moment ago.
Twilight’s blood ran cold. Was this pony following Luna? Had they been following her before? Twilight chided herself for jumping to conclusions. There could be a perfectly reasonable explanation for the behavior. Lots of ponies wore shawls and cloaks, especially lightly colored ones, as a means of keeping cool. Plus, given how busy the streets around the marketplace were maybe this pony was just trying to avoid the crowds below. Still, Twilight wasn’t going to go anywhere without checking it out first, even if Luna had just told her to go take the afternoon off.
Rather than testing her legs hopping between rooftops, she teleported over to the roof the mystery pony was standing on the edge of, still peering down into the street below. Not wanting to startle the pony, Twilight called out from the other side of the rooftop. “Excuse me, sir? Or ma’am? My name is Twilight Sparkle, would you mind telling me what you’re doing up here exactly?”
The figure stood bolt upright at the sound of Twilight’s voice. The figure turned their head to the side, staring out at Twilight through the somewhat translucent material of the cloak. Twilight could vaguely make out the silhouette of the pony’s head but not any details. There was a pause where both ponies regarded one another across the rooftop. Neither one seemed eager to make a move, and Twilight wasn’t sure what to do next.
“I only ask because-” Twilight began taking a step towards the other pony.
The moment her hoof left the rooftop the other pony took off like a shot parallel to the street they had been watching a second before. Before Twilight could even react the pony was already leaping over the alley towards the next rooftop, clearing it in a single stride and landing in a full gallop without losing even a bit of momentum.
“Hey! Get back here!” Twilight shouted at the retreating figure. It didn’t matter how fast she was, Twilight thought to herself. Nopony could outrun a teleportation spell. With a surge of effort, Twilight warped herself next to the fleeing figure. “I just want to talk to you!” she shouted at the top of her lungs.
In response the other pony somehow broke into an even faster sprint, quickly leaving Twilight in the dust as they leaped over another gap onto the next rooftop. Twilight decided it was time for more extreme action. Gathering up what she hoped was just enough energy to stun without causing permanent damage, she narrowed her magic into a single beam and let it loose against her target. Unfortunately the beam went wide to the left, reducing a particularly unfortunate weather vane to slag.
“Okay then,” muttered Twilight under her breath, “No more Ms. Nice Mare.” Waiting until the pony leapt to the last rooftop on the block, Twilight called up her magic and teleported once again, this time to directly in front of the mystery pony. She reappeared at the edge of the rooftop overlooking one of Pensacolta’s most heavily trafficked intersections, not some tiny alley that could be cleared with a hop, skip, and a jump.
As Twilight reoriented herself and the burst of magic dissipated, she focused in the pony who was now charging straight towards her, head down and still frustratingly unidentifiable. She held out one of her hooves and shouted in the most authoritative voice she could manage, “Stop!”
Rather than obeying, the other pony leapt early, soaring straight over Twilight’s head. “Oh no you don’t!” said Twilight, leaping upward and wrapping her forelegs around the stranger’s barrel. With Twilight’s weight unexpectedly added to the stranger’s own, both ponies were dragged over the edge and began falling toward the busy intersection.
Two bright pink wings shot out from the stranger’s side and began flapping desperately to regain altitude. From her current position clinging to the underside of the pegasus for support, Twilight’s efforts to get a good look at the pony’s face or cutie mark were fruitless. However, the viewing angle she had from her current position allowed her to confirm with absolute certainty that this was definitely a mare she was dealing with. The pegasus kicked forward with one of her hind legs, striking Twilight’s exposed belly and causing her to double over in pain. Stunned by the blow, Twilight released her grip and began to plummet towards the street below. She forced herself to channel another teleport, converting her vertical momentum into horizontal speed. She reappeared on the far rooftop, rolling and sliding against the abrasive surface until she ground to a halt.
Trying her best to ignore the pain from her bruises and cuts, Twilight recovered as quickly as she could and stood once more to face off with the mystery mare who had just landed nearby. Undeterred by Twilight’s attempts to slow her down, the pink mare took off along the rooftops and away from Twilight. Focusing inward one more time, Twilight teleported once again in front of the mare, preparing herself to grab her with restraining hold and subdue her if she tried to force her way past Twilight again.
It seemed the mare had been ready for her. When Twilight reappeared in front of her she flared her wings and with a single powerful flap brought herself to a standstill. As she did so the sand littering the rooftops billowed upward, spraying into Twilight’s face and eyes leaving the unicorn blind and helpless. Too late, she brought a foreleg up to shield her face but the damage was done. Twilight rubbed at her eyes trying to clear them of irritation, and was only just able to detect a blur of movement disappearing down into the alley from the far edge of the rooftop. Blinking rapidly, Twilight spent as long as she felt she could spare regaining her vision before she leapt into the alley after the stranger, using her magic to slow her fall from the roof and land softly. Looking about over the deserted alley, the only hint of the mare’s presence she could find was a light brown cloak, haphazardly discarded atop a heap of trash. Galloping out into the street, she looked around, trying to catch a glimpse of the pegasus. There were at least half a dozen pink pegasi going about their business. Any of them could have been the pony she had been chasing, or perhaps none of them were and her target had slipped away while she had been rubbing sand from her eyes.
Twilight lashed out, kicking a nearby garbage pail in frustration. She’d lost her. Her only consolation was that the chase had taken both of them in the direction opposite that which Luna had been headed. This mysterious pegasus must be somehow connected to the incident at the museum and the break in at their hotel, Twilight was certain of it. But without any physical evidence there was nothing she could do about it or report to the police.
Her time away from Luna already off to a terrible start before it had even begun, Twilight decided that a walk was the best way to clear her mind. Within a few blocks, she was already feeling a bit better. She had forgotten how much she used to enjoy exploring a foreign city, having gotten into the habit of scanning crowds and passers by for potential threats. She loved magic, and enjoyed the arts of self-defense and magical combat, but taking a step back from it for the first time in months only brought to her attention how much she hated the sort of menial guard duty she’d been forced into. Stopping by a food truck for an afternoon snack, she settled onto a nearby bench for some pony watching while she ate, enjoying the simple pleasures offered by greasy fast food and a bright, sunny afternoon with nothing she had to be doing. With everything that had already happened today, Twilight found herself absolutely exhausted from her expenditure of magical energy and the accumulated wear and tear from three months as the princess’ bodyguard.
“I think I’ll just close my eyes for five minutes,” she thought to herself. Stretching out and making herself comfortable on the bench, she shut her eyes and gave herself permission to relax for the moment.
Twilight woke with a start. The sun hung a good deal lower in the sky than it had been a subjective moment ago, and the streets had emptied of their midday crowds. Twilight realized that she must have fallen asleep on the park bench. “I probably look like some sort of crazy homeless pony,” she thought to herself. She walked over to the park’s fountain and took a look at her reflection in the water. Her mane was in a disgraceful state, tangled up in itself with clumps of hair sticking out at all kinds of awkward angles. One side of her face was all scratched up where it had rubbed against the rooftop during her recent chase, and her eyes were still bloodshot and irritated from having sand blown into them.
Seizing on a sudden impulse, Twilight dunked her head completely under the waters of the fountain. She hadn’t expected water that had been sitting out in the sun all day to be freezing cold, but she quickly pulled herself up again with a gasp. Droplets scattered around her as she shook the water out of her mane. Running a hoof through it, she tried to fix it as best she could but it would take an army of hairdressers to bring it back to anything resembling its normal state.
Twilight sighed. As much as she didn’t want to, she felt it would be irresponsible not to find Luna and let her know about what had happened with the pegasus mare earlier that afternoon. She trotted in the direction of the harbor, hoping to catch Luna and Reinolds before they went out on the boat.
Twilight arrived at the dock a few minutes later, quickly finding the spot where the Tranquility was usually moored, but the boat was gone. Twilight caught the attention of Windy Sails, a mare she had met a few days before who was doing some maintenance on the yacht a few spaces down the pier. She asked if Windy had seen Luna and Reinolds take it out.
“Yes, Ms. Sparkle, they left around a half hour ago. I think they just mean to float around out in the bay for a little while. In fact I believe that’s them out there,” said Windy Sails, pointing to a sailboat about a quarter mile away that had dropped anchor and was bobbing gently with the current.
“Thank you, Windy,” said Twilight, and looked out over the water pondering her options. Teleportation would be the most direct way onto the boat, of course, but a quarter mile was a long distance for a single hop and after all the energy she’d burned teleporting around rooftops that afternoon the prospect of doing so made her horn ache. She knew a few charms that would let her walk across the surface of the water, but that was tricky and uncomfortable in the best of times, like walking through knee-deep mud. Looking at the the bobbing and undulating surface of the water she ruled that out as well. The way her luck had been going today she’d probably get smacked in the face by a wave and lose her concentration halfway out, and the water in that fountain had been freezing.
Remembering how cold the water had been suddenly gave Twilight a burst of inspiration. She worked through the magic the idea would require. She’d never heard of any pony trying this before, but theoretically it was sound. Besides, she knew she wouldn’t be able to shake the thought until she experimented with it. Stretching her senses as widely as she could, she wrapped a large volume near the surface in a magic field. Once she had a firm grasp on it, she began pulling energy away from the water, sucking heat from it like soda through a straw. The water crackled and churned as ice crystals started to form, rapidly coalescing into one larger ice floe. The water expanded as it froze, and the newly created ice platform bobbed up to the surface.
Twilight gave a little squee of pleasure at the results of her hoofiwork. She quickly calmed herself down after her moment of satisfaction. It wouldn’t be long before the laws of thermodynamics reasserted that ‘iceberg’ and ‘tropical sun’ were not things that went well together. If she was going to try this she needed to move. Backing up to give herself more space, she took a running start and leapt off the end of the pier. As she landed on the ice she realized that she hadn’t taken one minor detail into account; ice is slippery. Her hooves scrambled for purchase on the slick surface, but she continued to slide towards the edge of the ice. Out of desperation, she used her telekinesis to grip the edge she was sliding towards and yanked it upward.
The entire platform tilted as she lifted, and she found herself sliding uphill. With an assist from gravity slowing her down, she was able to brace a hoof against a outcropping of ice and come to a stop. Gently lowering the edge of the ice back into the water again, she carefully stood up. So far so good, but she could already see the surface of the ice shimmering as it began to melt. Water began to pool on the surface, and Twilight knew that these pools would absorb sunlight more efficiently than the surrounding ice and heat up, which in turn would melt the surrounding ice more quickly, which in turn mean more pools of water, and so on until she ended up swimming in the bay, in water that thanks to her would be just above freezing temperatures.
She could create another ice floe further out, but she doubted she’d be able to build up enough momentum to jump over to it. Instead, she reached off the side of her ice sheet that pointed in the direction of the distant boat and began to repeat her new trick, slowly fusing the seawater to the existing ice to create a path in the direction she wanted to go. She redirected the thermal energy into the ice behind her, allowing it to melt and break apart. In this fashion she gradually made her way out onto the water, extending her ice bridge, sliding forward, and letting it break apart. As she got the hang of it she allowed the platform to shrink a bit, keeping it just large enough to be stable when the occasional wave hit the side. It took her the better part of 15 minutes, but soon enough she was near enough to the boat to wave to Captain Reinolds.
“Permission to come aboard, Captain?” she said with a grin.
“Granted!” he replied, extending a foreleg to help her pull herself up over the railing.
Twilight looked around the deck of the ship “Where’s Luna?” she asked, “I thought she was with you.”
“She’s in the cabin napping,” he answered. “She’s worried about you, ya know.”
“Oh, before I forget, have you noticed a pink pegasus around today? After Luna left to find you I ended up chasing a suspicious mare who I think might have been watching her from the rooftops. She was wearing a cloak so I could only see her wings,” said Twilight.
“Haven’t noticed anypony, but I’ll keep an eye out. I’m sure we’re fine out here. We’ll see her coming if she tries to get close,” said Reinolds. “Wait, if you only saw a wing then how are you so sure that the pony was a mare?”
“I really, really, don’t want to talk about it,” replied Twilight. “Trust me, she’s a mare.”
Reinolds looked at her with a quizzical expression on his face for a moment, then he shrugged and turned back to working the sails as the wings shifted. Twilight looked around the boat. It was a 25 foot sailboat, not counting the bowsprit that jutted out from the front and came to a point a couple of feet in front of the ship’s prow. It was a lot for one pony to manage, especially a unicorn who couldn’t really use magic, but Reinolds handled it like a pro. Once he was satisfied with his work, he plopped down onto a chair next to a cooler and motioned for Twilight to take the chair next to his.
“So were you hoping I wouldn’t notice that you completely ignored what I just said about Luna being worried, or do you just not want to talk about it?” he asked.
Twilight sighed and sat down. “We didn’t really have the best day. I know she means well and everything, but she can just be such a stupid jerk sometimes,” Twilight said. She looked around like she was expecting Luna to be standing right behind her, but the two ponies were alone out on the water. “I mean how can a pony with so much power and experience be so oversensitive and clueless?”
Reinolds sat back in his chair and closed his eyes, completely content below the tropical sun that was starting to cast long shadows as it descended towards the horizon. “She’s a weird one, I’ll give you that. I think it just comes with the whole immortal alicorn thing. Even Celestia has her moments.”
“She does not!” shouted Twilight, sitting bolt upright. Reinolds motioned for her to lower her voice. “No, she does not.” repeated Twilight, more quietly than before.
Reinolds was unfazed by Twilight’s outburst. “I know you think she’s pretty much perfect, Sparkle, but trust me when I say she has her moments. Did you know that she once set the royal kitchen on fire because she couldn’t figure out how to use the oven?” a distraught Twilight couldn’t believe what she was hearing, and set back in her chair to sulk as Reinolds went on.. “Listen, Celestia and Luna are both great rulers, but when they try to get down into the nitty-gritty details of mortal lives they just can’t process it the way you or I can. You’ll get used to it eventually.”
“But I don’t want to get used to it! None of this guard duty stuff was ever supposed to happen! I’m supposed to be in a classroom or a library somewhere learning more about magic or friendship, not following Luna around making sure she doesn’t get into trouble. I figured that I could just wait it out but after this morning...” Twilight let her voice trail off.
Reinolds opened one eye and glanced over at her. “The museum this morning. Yeah, that sounded rough. Speaking of which...” he opened the cooler besides him and pulled out a pair of bottles. “When a newbie like you sees some action in the line of duty, it’s their superior’s obligation to buy ‘em a couple of drinks. Official royal guard protocol, you know.” He popped the cap off of both bottles of beer and hoofed one of them over to Twilight, who took it.
“You know, technically I’m on duty right now,” said Twilight “I shouldn’t really be drinking.”
“Is that so?” asked Reinolds with mock curiosity. “Well, technically, I don’t actually care. Cheers.” He tapped his bottle against Twilight’s and took a swig. After a moment’s hesitation Twilight followed suit. She had to admit that after the day she’d had the beer tasted awfully good.
The unicorns shared a quiet moment looking out over the ocean before Reinolds spoke again. “So, falling masonry. That must have been scary.”
“Yeah,” said Twilight. She paused for a moment. “Actually, you know what’s weird? When it was actually happening, I don’t think I was scared at all. I mean it’s scary when I remember it but at the time it all happened so fast it’s like there wasn’t really time to realize that I should be scared. All that I really remember thinking... Never mind, it’s stupid.”
She expected Reinolds to press her for details, but he stayed silent. For a long while, neither pony spoke, they both just looked out over the water. Twilight began to worry that she’d somehow said something wrong. Had something happened in the past to Reinolds that had scared him, and now he thought Twilight was making fun of him? Twilight wondered if she should apologize, or-
“You know, about 15 years ago my unit was stationed right on the edge of the griffon territories,” said Reinolds, interrupting Twilight’s train of thought. “I don’t know if you remember, you were probably too young to be following international affairs, but things had gotten pretty tense between our kingdoms. Eventually, the diplomatic types sorted everything out but for a while there’d be skirmishes between our forces on the border every once in awhile. Well, we ended up getting into it with bunch of griffons who were scouting on our side of the border. One of the ponies I knew took a hit from a spear that tore open his... Well, he was hurt pretty badly.” Reinolds took another sip of his beer. Twilight stared at him, but Reinolds didn’t turn to face her. “Anyway, I had to get him back to the medics at our base, about a mile away. So I started carrying him back. I got around three quarters of the way back, before he asks me to put him down. I did, and he grabs my head and pulls me down to tell me something. Of course, I expect him to say ‘tell my mare that I love her’ or ‘take care of my foals for me’ or something like that, but instead what I hear is ‘Sarge, I think I left the mess oven on, you gotta remember to turn it off for me when we get back.’”
Twilight giggled despite herself, and immediately felt awful for doing so. “I’m sorry, that isn’t funny at all,” she said. Reinolds just smiled.
“I don’t know about that. When we meet up for drinks these days we laugh about it too. All I’m saying is that odd things go through your head at times like that,” said Reinolds. Silence descended over the two ponies again for a long while.
“...Is it weird that I was a little disappointed?” asked Twilight. “I mean, my friends and I beat Nightmare Moon and Discord with the help of the Elements of Harmony. The idea that I was going to be killed by a bunch of rocks was just, I don’t know. It just seemed wrong. They’d all be so disappointed in me if I went and did something like that.” Twilight took another long pull from her beer. “You know, I was supposed to meet my father for lunch in Canterlot a couple of days before we came down here, just to catch up. He had to cancel though, had to go out of town on business at the last minute. I remember worrying that if I died down here after that, he’d feel like it was somehow his fault, as dumb as that must sound. He’d never forgive himself for cancelling that lunch, not ever.”
Twilight gave a forced-sounding chuckle. “Listen to me. I guess I inherited that from him, feeling responsible for things that aren’t my fault. Do you know what they said when they got the letter from Princess Celestia saying I was suspended from the Academy and assigned to guard duty? My parents, I mean. They told me I should take this opportunity to meet some cute guard stallion and start a family instead of burying my muzzle in books all the time. I get making the best of a tough situation, of course, but they’re just... I just... I can’t...” Twilight petered out, unable to figure out what she was even trying to say.
“Well, what do you want to do? After this is over?” asked Reinolds.
Twilight was silent for a moment. “You know, I can’t remember the last time anypony asked me that question,” she finally said. Both of them sat in silence for a while longer. “I don’t think I know anymore.”
“Look, Sparkle, you’re probably the most talented mare I’ve ever met. You can do, well, probably just about anything that you want. But you need to figure out what that is. Otherwise some other pony will decide it for you, and it doesn’t sound like that’s working out all that well or you right now.”
Twilight turned to the captain and glared at him. “What are you trying to say, that Celestia and Luna have just been taking advantage of me this entire time?”
Reinolds shook his head. “All I’m saying is that they don’t know what’s going to make you happy. I think the two of them love you, and they both want you to be happy, but they can’t tell you how to make that happen. They can only help give you the tools to figure it out yourself. So stop moping and figure it out.” The sun was about to begin setting in earnest, and Luna’s internal clock would rouse her any moment to begin raising the moon.
Twilight turned the Captain’s words over in her head, unsure of what to make of them. Celestia had taught her everything she knew about magic, and if it hadn’t been for her Twilight might never have met her dearest friends in Ponyville. She had always assumed that the Princess had some grand destiny in mind for her and was grooming her for the responsibility she’d have to take on. Whether or not she would be happy with the job had never even crossed her mind. In retrospect, it was an embarrassing oversight.
“Captain?” said Twilight hesitantly. “...Thanks”
“Don’t worry about it, it was just one beer. You’re welcome to grab a drink from the cooler whenever you’re aboard,” replied the Captain.
“No, I mean-”
“I know what you meant, Sparkle. You’re welcome.”
Twilight was still trying to come up with an appropriately snarky reply when she heard the sound of somepony stirring in the boat’s cabin. A moment later, Luna emerged and yawned sleepily before noticing Twilight.
“Ah, Twilight Sparkle! We are glad that you chose to return here. We hope you enjoyed your time off. Please excuse us for a moment, for it is time for us raise the moon and set the night sky on its proper course.” With that, Luna spread her wings and took off into the evening sky. Twilight watched, enraptured as Luna called forth the primal magics of Equestria, pulling the moon upward into the night sky and setting the constellations in their proper paths. No matter how many times she saw it, Twilight was still amazed by the display.
Luna returned to the deck of the boat Reinolds and Twilight were watching from. “We thank you for waiting for us, Captain. We hope you were not unduly inconvenienced by our sleep.”
“Not at all, Princess,” said Reinolds, bowing before the diarch. “Twilight Sparkle arrived not long after you retired, and I had an interesting and fruitful conversation with her.” Reinolds turned his head to Twilight and winked. “Isn’t that right, Sparkle?”
“Yeah. I mean, yes, it was quite thought provoking,” said Twilight. “Luna, I believe there’s been a new development in our case. I think that we’ve been under observation by a particular pegasus for some time now.”
“Hast thou delivered a description of the suspect to the police?” the Princess asked.
“Well, I don’t really know if I got a good enough look at her to-” began Twilight.
“Nonsense! Any information about the suspect which you can provide will surely prove most useful. Captain, please take us to shore. We must notify the police of this development at once!
Captain Reinolds saluted the Princess and busied himself with the ropes and sails, redirecting the boat back towards the docks.
An hour later, the three ponies sat in the local police station, which seemed to be strangely quiet for a city of this size. Twilight had just finished describing her rooftop encounter with the pink pegasus mare to the officer on duty, who seemed skeptical.
“So, this mare didn’t ever actually say anything that could be construed as a threat?” he asked.
“Well, I guess not,” admitted Twilight, “but she was acting very suspicious and ran off when I tried to confront her.”
“That hardly means she’s guilty of something, though. She may simply be a more reclusive pony, or she may be just a bystander who saw the Princess and decided to fly up to the roof to get a better view of the Princess, or-”
The officer’s words were cut off by Luna slamming her hoof down onto the table they were seated around. “Now see here, if Twilight Sparkle says that this pony was behaving oddly, then she was! We will not sit here and listen to you question her integrity or observational abilities. Your office will file this report in exactly the manner as it was dictated, and will devote all of your energies to finding this pegasus. Unless you have some new development or lead to report?”
The officer was clearly shaken by Luna’s outburst. “Oh, no Princess! I’ll file the report exactly as you say!”
Despite his conciliation, Luna glared across the table at the police pony. “Where is your superior officer tonight? We would like his assurance that thy report will be treated with the respect it deserves.”
“He isn’t here right now, Princess,” said the officer. “All of the other law enforcement ponies are out of the office right now, I was just left here to mind the station.”
“This is unacceptable!” Luna said forcefully. “We were told we have full access to thy resources to determine from whence the attacks upon us have come. Where are your officers now?”
“Oh, I guess you wouldn’t have heard,” said the police pony. “About an hour ago, there was a major break in at the Smithponian museum.”
TWILIGHT SPARKLE AND THE UNDERWATER TEMPLE
Twilight felt her blood run cold at the police officer’s words. “Did you just say the Smithponian was robbed?” she asked somewhat redundantly. She had heard him perfectly well the first time. “Princess-”
“We are aware of the implications, Twilight Sparkle,” said Luna.
“We should get over there. Now,” added Reinolds.
The three ponies spun around and cantered quickly out the door, leaving the young officer at the front desk very confused as he watched them go.
The three ponies broke into a full on gallop down the street towards the museum. There was no doubt in any of their minds that the break in was connected somehow to the other events of the day. Ignoring the confused looks of the other ponies who had begun coming out of there homes and businesses to spend a night on the town, the trio reached the Smithponian’s front entrance in just a few minutes. Usually the museum would have been closed after sundown, but tonight it was still bustling with activity. Rather than scholars and tourists, tonight the crowd was made up entirely of guards unwinding yellow crime scene tape around the perimeter and detectives questioning members of the staff.
Luna nodded to the guards stationed at the cellophane barrier, and one of them lifted the tape to allow them to pass. The three passed under it, Luna ducking her head to avoid catching her horn. As they walked towards the front door, Twilight couldn’t help but glance up at the hole in the facade that had been hastily reinforced and patched over after it had collapsed on her that morning. Gritting her teeth, she pushed forward through the front door of the museum for the second time that day.
Just like earlier that day, Fact Check was seated behind the reception desk. This time, though, she was giving a statement to a unicorn with a notepad and shifting uncomfortably in her seat as the guard peppered her with questions about what she had seen that evening. The agitated mare happened to glance up as Reinolds let the door slam behind him. If her expression had suggested stress before it was nothing compared to the look of sheer horror she wore as the Princess of the Night walked up to her.
“No! I’m sorry, Princess Luna, please don’t banish me to the moon I swear I didn’t do anything I’m sorry please just give another chance I’ll do better next time just please don’t-” said Fact Check before Luna held up a hoof to cut her off.
“Fear not, my little pony, we have no intention of punishing you unjustly for events that were not in thy power to control. Perhaps you could simply tell us what has happened here?” said Luna.
“Right, of course, princess,” said Fact Check taking a deep breath to collect herself. “It was about 15 minutes after sunset and we technically had closed the museum already, but we give ponies about a half an hour after closing to leave on their own before we ask them to leave. It had been a few minutes since I’d seen anypony else so I was just about to start a final walkthrough to see if anypony was still here when one of our security officers came running up and told me there was noise coming from one of the exhibits,” she said.
“Which exhibit?” asked Luna. She was pretty sure she already knew the answer, but hoped against hope she might be wrong.
“The Ouroboros one,” said Fact Check. “So I pulled the general alarm and called the guard, but I don’t think they caught the pony who did this.”
The guard cleared her throat loudly and the assembled ponies looked over at her. “This pony’s statement is consistent with the one I took earlier from the security officer in question. One of the two researchers curating the exhibit reported the noise. He’s back with our forensics unit trying to figure out what was taken. We haven’t been able to locate the other researcher, or anypony who’s able to account for his whereabouts for the last few hours.”
“What? Which one’s missing?” asked Twilight.
“I, uh, the officer didn’t provide that particular detail in his statement,” said the guard. Twilight glared at him and he shrank back a little “I forgot to ask, OK? The detective in charge got a description for the stallion-hunt for the other one, I’m just trying to figure out what happened here.”
“Why don’t we go back to the exhibit? You two were here earlier today, right? Maybe we can help figure out what’s missing,” suggested Captain Reinolds.
“That would seem prudent, we agree,” said Luna. Twilight grumbled her agreement, still fixing her glare on the guard pony. “Fact Check, you did precisely what was called for. You have nothing to fear from us, do not worry yourself unduly.” Luna gave the mare a gentle smile and placed a comforting hoof on her shoulder. Fact Check sniffled and managed to smile back. “Finish giving the guard your statement then go home, you have had a trying experience.”
Without waiting for a reply from the receptionist Luna turned and walked deeper into the museum. Reinolds and Twilight followed her down the darkened hallway. Twilight couldn’t help notice how gloomy the museum was at night. The lights had been turned off automatically a half hour after closing time, and it seemed nopony had bothered to turn most of them back on. Nothing in any of the other exhibits was visible from the dim corridor. Twilight found that she was still annoyed at the guard in the lobby. It was such shoddy police work! How could he not ask who had warned the security officer. That was why she was annoyed, she almost convinced herself. Anypony would be at such an obvious oversight. She definitely wasn’t worried that something had happened to Bronze Bell, obviously. No, it was entirely rational for her to be concerned about the integrity of a witness to a crime. Yeah, that was probably it.
The quickest way to the curator’s office was to cut through the gallery where the exhibit itself was housed. Twilight let out an audible gasp as she rounded the corner and got her first look at the gallery itself. It was obvious that whoever had done this had been more intent on breaking things than stealing anything. Cases had been smashed open and display podiums tipped over. Artifacts that had survived millennia of benign neglect lay in pieces among the shards of glass that covered the floor. Even the posters and tapestries that hung on the walls had been slashed. Ponies from the Pensecolta Forensics Unit milled about taking pictures and documenting the damage.
Luna leaned over and whispered into Twilight’s ear “It is of utmost importance that we locate the plate and bowl we pointed out earlier as quickly as possible. I sense that they remain whole, but I cannot tell where. Our top priority is to secure them,” she said.
Twilight nodded. Stepping gingerly through the glass and trying to disturb it as little as possible, she glanced about trying to spot either of the relics Luna had shown her that afternoon. It was hopeless to try to find anything buried in the wreckage of the exhibit, though. It would be days before they’d know what had been taken, if anything. Twilight felt a surge of anger at whatever pony had done this. She could wrap her mind around why a pony would steal something that would be worth a lot of money, but this sort of random destruction just struck her as the product of some deranged or sadistic mind. It seemed so much worse than the ransacking of the hotel room earlier, it wasn’t like there had been anything there that was irreplacable. She had never met a pony who she’d believed was capable of causing this kind of destruction.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She did know Pinkie Pie
She’d never met a pony who she’d believed was capable of causing this kind of destruction on purpose.
She reached the other side of the room without disturbing anything, but she hadn’t seen any sign of either the plate or the bowl. At least Luna seemed certain that they hadn’t been broken, so there wasn’t any immediate danger to the seal. She rejoined Luna and Reinolds and shook her head. The others did the same. That was worrying, but they were only a few paces from the curator’s office and hopefully some answers.
Twilight pushed the office door open without bothering to knock. Inside were two ponies, a cobalt pony with a microscope cutie mark and a pair of sunglasses, and...
“Bronze! You’re OK!” exclaimed Twilight. Before she knew it, she had rushed over to him and was hugging him tightly. She felt him seize up for a moment, but soon he hugged her back. He smelled like old books and metal polish, comforting but a little bit acrid at the same time.
“Twilight? What are you doing here? Oh, Princess Luna, I hadn’t realized you’d come back,” said Bronze once he’d recovered from the surprise.
“Oh Bronze, I’m so sorry about your exhibit. I can’t believe somepony would do that when you and the Professor worked so hard on it,” said Twilight. At that moment, they both seemed to realize that they were still hugging and they pulled apart self consciously, both of them blushing furiously. “Where is Professor Secrets anyway?”
“That’s what I was just telling Mr. Horatio Mane here, he left a couple hours ago and I haven’t seen him since. Nopony in the museum I’ve talked to remembers seeing him either,” said Bronze Bell.
Horatio nodded and lifted his sunglasses off his face with telekinesis. “Yes, it seems the archeology professor’s trail is...” he put the sunglasses back on. “Ancient history.”
There was an awkward silence. Bronze Bell leaned over to Twilight and whispered into her ear “He’s been doing that a lot. Do you think we’re supposed to say something?” Twilight just shrugged. Horatio glared at a point on the wall, ignoring the glances between the other ponies around him.
After a few moments Horatio went on as if there hadn’t been any break in the conversation at all. “We’ve taken inventory of the museum’s artifacts related to Ouroboros that aren’t on display. Several are missing from the secured storage area, and we haven’t found any evidence of unauthorized entry.”
“Either the Professor or I inventory those every week, and the Professor signs off on the reports” added Bronze. “Last time I looked they were all there. We have a very careful archiving system.”
Twilight looked around at the files and documents scattered over every available surface. Haphazardly stacked files looked like they were one errant breeze away from burying somepony alive. Twilight could appreciate the virtues of a little organized chaos, but if she hadn’t seen the same mess earlier that day she might have believed the intruder had ransacked the office too.
“We’ll know more once we find Professor Secrets and question him, as well as collect evidence from the scene. I apologize that we haven’t had any breaks in the case of your hotel room, Princess,” said Horatio.
“Actually, we’ve had a few developments of our own on that front,” said Reinolds.
Twilight recounted her rooftop encounter with the mysterious pegasus that afternoon for the investigator.
“Interesting. Not to mention disturbing as well. It seems the criminals of Pensacolta are intent on giving you... the royal treatment,” said Horatio.
Luna thought for a moment. “Well, we are a member of royalty so by definition any treatment would be considered ‘royal treatment’ in a most literal sense,” she said.
Horatio seemed confused at having someone actually reply. “Uh, I suppose, I didn’t exactly mean it literally your highness, I just thought that-”
“Oh, are you sure you didn’t? If you did not then that would mean that you were trying to make some sort of jest about a series of incidents that nearly cost a good friend of mine her life. Are you certain that’s what you were trying to say?” asked Luna, somehow keeping any hint of menace out of her tone of voice as she asked the loaded question.
“....On second thought, yes. I did mean it literally,” muttered Horatio, suddenly very interested in looking anywhere else in the room except at Luna or Twilight.
“Oh good, we are happy to hear we are becoming more adept at reading modern conversational cues. We require a full list of what artifacts are missing or damaged before sunrise from your department, consider this incident your new top priority above even our hotel room case. You are dismissed.” Luna’s horn glowed as she opened the office door inward and looked at the stallion expectantly. Understanding his cue Horatio stepped out of the room, pausing and turning from the other side.
“Be careful out there, all of you. It seems that the beaches of Pensacolta... are in the middle of a crime wa-”
Luna slammed the door.
“Well, that was most annoying,” she said before she turned back to the other ponies in the room. “Bronze Bell, have you located either the plate or the bowl that we pointed out to you earlier today? Do you have a description of the ponies that did this?” asked Luna.
“I’m sorry Princess, I haven’t seen either one. After I told the security officer about the noises coming from the exhibit I, er, came back here and locked the door. Sorry,” said Bronze.
Luna exclaimed something in a dialect that Twilight didn’t recognize, but Bronze’s ears perked up. “Was that Hippocampian?” he asked.
Luna ignored the question and began pacing around the room. Her annoyance was palpable, and put the other three ponies on edge. “We must assume the worst, that these intruders are aware of the purpose of these artifacts and are prepared to use them. If they are destroyed or mishandled the seal on Ouroboros will rupture and the results will be catastrophic. Even losing one or two might allow the Serpent to manifest in the material plane. And because of thy cowardice we have nothing to go on!” said Luna, yelling the last part directly into Bronze’s face. The colt stumbled back and pressed himself into a corner of the room, cowering before the goddess’ frustrated wrath.
“Hey!” Twilight stepped between Luna and Bronze, shouting right back at her “That’s not fair, Luna, and you know it. Lay off!”
Reinolds chimed in from behind Luna. “Bronze did the right thing Princess. You saw the kind of damage those ponies did. If he had gone to investigate he may have been injured, or taken, or worse. Then we’d know even less than we know now.”
Luna turned away with a huff, silently weighing their options.
“Princess, maybe it isn’t that bad. If the ponies took the artifacts just to release Ouroboros uncontrolled, they could have just broken them here, but we know they haven’t right? And for any kind of ritual they’re planning they would need the third artifact, I think you said it was a knife? We just have to find the knife before they can,” said Twilight.
“I’m sorry, all of you. If I’d been stronger, or braver I might have been able to help you guys. Sorry I let you down,” said Bronze.
“This isn’t your fault, Bronze,” said Twilight gently, “now before Professor Secrets vanished, did he have any leads on where the knife might be?”
“We know exactly where it is, or at least where it was. We sealed it away in a temple just like we did with the other two artifacts. It was referred to as Atal’Hokoria, which translates roughly to ‘Building of Horrible Death’ in modern Equestrian,” said Luna. She caught the look on Twilight’s face. “We were not exactly trying to encourage visitors when we chose the name, Twilight Sparkle. However, the landscape has greatly changed since we were last here and we are unsure where the temple stands now.”
“The professor said something about Atal’Hokoria earlier today, actually. There was an old scroll he was studying all afternoon,” said Bronze Bell. “He hadn’t had any luck translating it before but he was making progress thanks to, er, thanks to your language lesson this afternoon.”
Luna threw her hooves up and let out a string of angry syllables Twilight didn’t understand. Bronze seemed to catch a few of them though. “OK, that was definitely Hippocampian. Something.... shove... something.... eggbeater... somewhere?” he guessed. Luna just glared at him.
“Bring us the scroll and his notes. We should be able to determine what he may have found, if anything. If the resting place of the third artifact has indeed been located, we must reach it before anypony else can,” said Luna. Bronze fetched the scroll and a notebook from a table on the other side of the room and brought them over to her. Luna flipped through the notebook “Ugh! His notes are in some form of code or shorthoof that I am not familiar with.”
“Bronze, you said you’ve worked with the professor for a long time right? Do you think you could translate the scroll and the notes?” asked Twilight.
Bronze gulped “Oh, I don’t know if I could. I know the professor was wrong about a lot of stuff, but he was really smart. He saw connections between things that even after he explained them to me I could barely wrap my head around. Even with his notes, I don’t think I’m on the same level as he is.”
“Please Bronze, you have to at least try. I’m sure Luna can help you with translating the scroll, but you’re the only one here who can decipher those notes,” said Twilight, looking at him with pleading eyes. “I know it’s been a really rough day for you already, but I believe in you Bronze. I know can do this if you try.”
Bronze tried to protest but with one glance at Twilight’s earnest smile and gentle eyes he knew he couldn’t bring himself to refuse. “I guess it’s worth a shot. Thanks, Twilight.”
Bronze pulled a half dozen other texts and reference books down from various shelves around the office and lugged them all over the the table where Luna was seated with the scroll and Professor Secrets’ notes. Luna began peppering him with questions about the notes and pointing to different passages. Bronze seemed a little hesitant at first, but after a few minutes the two ponies were volleying ideas and suggestions back and forth, cross referencing passages of the scroll with other works and working as a team to unravel the puzzle in front of them. Twilight felt a bit odd to be observing it from the outside for once.
“You eggheads sure know how to bond with one another, don’t you?” asked Reinolds. He sat down next to her and they both watched the two scholars on the other side of the room.
Twilight giggled a bit at the Captain’s gentle teasing. “Yeah, it’s hard to believe she was screaming at him a couple minutes ago, isn’t it?” she asked.
“I wasn’t just talking about the two of them, you know” said Reinolds with a grin and a cocked eyebrow.
Twilight furrowed her brow. “Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked.
Reinolds rolled his eyes and gave an exaggerated sigh. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out eventually.”
Although Twilight didn’t appreciate the condescending tone of the statement, she wasn’t really sure how to reply. They sat in silence watching Luna and Bronze for a few more minutes as the two squabbled over whether a particular blemish on the scroll was a comma or just a watermark. Apparently the answer would mean the difference between translating the passage as a list of geological events or the outcome of a gladiatorial match.
“I can’t believe that Buried Secrets would do something like this, Captain. He was a bit full of himself when we visited this morning, but he spent decades putting this exhibit together. Something just feels off about the whole thing,” said Twilight, changing the subject.
“You did say that the Princess basically told him that all his work was incorrect, didn’t she? Maybe he was too angry about that to think straight. Or maybe he wasn’t involved at all. We just don’t know,” said Reinolds.
“If we wasn’t involved at all then we’re just wasting time here trying to decipher his notes, though,” said Twilight.
“It’s the only lead we have, Twilight. Besides there’s still a chance that this break in isn’t connected to Ouroboros at all and other two sealing artifacts are out in the gallery under all that debris,” said Reinolds.
“Do you really believe that?” asked Twilight.
Reinolds sighed. “Not really, no,” he admitted.
The minutes trickled away slowly as Luna and Bronze worked on the translation. Twilight felt useless. It would usually be her pouring over a book looking for clues, but she knew that if she tried to interject herself she’d just slow the others down. It was frustrating not to be able to contribute, though. Twilight had never gotten the hang of waiting around for things to happen, and the current situation was driving her up the wall. The slowly ticking clock on the office wall assaulted her senses with every tick, like termporal Chineighse water torture. Reinolds, on the other hand, had found a comfortable chair to settle down in and appeared to be napping. Twilight had no idea how he could possibly relax at a time like this.
By the end of the first hour Twilight had degenerated to pacing back and forth across the office. She’d once managed to wear a groove in the Ponyville library’s floor in the same way. She hadn’t worn through the office’s tile floor just yet, but the night was still young.
45 minutes later, just when Twilight thought the last vestiges of her self control were about to finally snap, Luna stood up from the table she had been working at. “We believe that we have found our answer, everypony. The professor extrapolated a location for the reliquary we are searching for based on the Hippocampian records of yore. If we are correctly interpreting his findings it is currently residing in an aquatic environment.”
“It’s underwater. That’s why we haven’t ever found it before,” added Bronze Bell.
“We believe that is what we just stated, Bronze Bell,” said Luna. “We thank you for your assistance in this matter, and we apologize for our earlier outburst, it was uncalled for.”
Bronze Bell flushed with embarrassment at the Princess’ words. “I just hope I translated the notes correctly. I don’t want to send you off on a wild goose chase,” he said.
“We must depart immediately if we are to intercept anypony else who may be making for the same location. Captain, may we requisition the Tranquility for this purpose?” asked Luna.
“By all mean, your majesty,” replied Reinolds. Luna turned and strode out of the office, with Reinolds following her. Twilight went to join them, but stopped when she felt Bronze Bell grab one of her back legs. Twilight turned to face him.
“Oh, sorry Twilight. I just wanted to say.. I just... I mean...” Bronze stumbled over his words, like he was trying to decide whether or not to tell her something important. “Just come back safe, OK?” was what he finally settled on.
Twilight wrapped her forelegs around him again. “I will, I promise”
When she tried to release him, Bronze squeezed her closer for just a moment before he let her go. “I’m holding you to that, Twilight, don’t think you’re getting out of that promise.”
Twilight smiled at him one last time before she followed Reinolds and Princess Luna out of the museum and down towards the docks.
Out on the water, the Tranquility sped towards the point Professor Secrets’ journal had indicated was the resting place of the ancient temple. Twilight was finding that being out on the water in the dead of night was very different than going out during the day. The bobbing motion of the boat was making her nauseous and there was nothing unmoving in the distance she could focus on to counter it. She’d tried looking over the side of the boat. Instead of the inviting blue ocean water she found herself staring into an inky black void that suddenly felt like it must go down forever.
The prospect of diving into that trying to find a single building at the bottom of the ocean was terrifying. Twilight cursed her decision to read Creatures of the Deep the previous week in preparation for their trip down here. It was all too easy for her imagination to conjure up ideas about what could be lurking just under the surface.
Luckily it didn’t take long to reach their destination, a completely unremarkable patch of open water. Reinolds double checked the instruments in the cabin and confirmed that this was the spot the directions pointed to.
“Now what?” asked Twilight. “I know plenty of spells for breathing underwater, but there’s not going to be any light down there at all. The temple could be right in front of my face and I wouldn’t even know.”
Luna looked down and pondered the problem. Even a light spell wouldn’t cut very far through the dark water. “We will clear the skies. The moonlight will be helpful, perhaps we can work out a way to amplify it,” she said. The sky had grown overcast, and clouds had blotted out any light from the stars above.
Luna spread her wings and took off high into the air. Her horn began to shimmer and Twilight watched the clouds melt away from her like somepony had added a drop of soap to a bucket of greasy water, exposing her nightly tapestry against the vault of the heavens. The goddess could change the environment faster than a dozen teams of weather ponies, and Twilight wasn’t surprised that she would jump at any chance to expose the night sky to the world. Partway through clearing the skies she stopped abruptly. Twilight watched puzzled as the clouds suddenly reversed course and flowed back into the area they had just left.
“Princess Luna?” Twilight called out, raising her voice to address the distant pony “is everything OK?”
“We are unsure, Twilight Sparkle,” replied Luna, easily audible thanks to the Royal Canterlot Voice. “We were looking down at the sea below, and there seems to be a patch of water that is somehow distinct. We believe it is glowing slightly. Over there.” Luna gestured in the direction they had originally come from.
Twilight looked back the way Luna was pointing. She didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, or indeed much of anything at all. Now that the clouds had returned the only light was from the lanterns on the Tranquility and the distant pinpricks from Pensacolta itself. Still, Luna had much more sensitive eyesight than Twilight did, not to mention a better vantage point.
If they really were in a race to reach the temple before Professor Secrets, it would be unwise to detour in order to investigate what might ultimately be something completely unrelated. Twilight happen to look down at the water below her again. She quickly decided that anything that delayed her having to submerge herself in absolute darkness was worth checking out.
Luna glided back down to the deck of the boat. The trio quickly conferred and they all agreed that the phenomena was worth looking into. Turning the boat back towards the shore, it only took around a quarter of an hour to reach the place Luna had spotted, only about a quarter mile from Pensacolta itself. Now that she knew what she was looking for, Twilight saw what Luna had. The water wasn’t glowing, but there certainly seemed to be light coming up from something below. She looked over to find that Reinolds was staring down into the water as well, the faint glow lighting them from below gave the scene a washed-out feeling, a sense that what they were seeing couldn’t be real.
“Could it be the temple, Princess? Is there any reason it would be glowing like that?” asked Twilight.
Luna thought for a moment. “If we recall correctly, the builders of this place wove a number of enchantments into each temple, so that they might be more easily defended from foes or serve as a place of sanctuary in times of trouble. These enchantments protect it from the ravages of time, and they may also have reactivated the lighting within the temple if a pony entered. That is all assuming the building was undamaged, of course, otherwise they would likely have failed.”
“Maybe Professor Secrets’ notes were wrong, or Bronze couldn’t translate them correctly. Either way, I’d bet you bits to bagels that we’re in the right spot,” said Reinolds
Luna nodded and adopted a stern grimace of determination. “I concur. We will prepare ourself to go down there immediately.”
Reinolds protested immediately. “Sorry Princess, no way you’re going down there.”
Twilight nodded. “I’m here as your bodyguard, remember? There’s no way I’m letting you walk into a trap filled temple that might be crawling with the thieves and vandals who did that to the museum. One of us will go down, the other will stay up here with you.”
Reinolds gently tapped at his horn, and winced as he poked it. “I don’t think I’m up to casting anything, much less a water breathing spell. Looks like this one’s all yours, Twilight.”
Twilight winced and nodded, but it wasn’t a surprise. At least she’d be able to see a bit better than she’d expected to.
“Very well then, we wish you good fortune if you insist on going yourself. We suggest you acquire the dagger and return as quickly as you are able,” said Luna.
“Be careful, Sparkle,” added Reinolds.
Twilight jumped off the side of the boat and into the water. It wasn’t quite as cold as she’d feared, but it was hardly bathwater. Her treading hooves cast strange, dancing shadows against the hull of the Tranquility as she swam in place. She focused her mind on the foamy sea around her, where air and water mixed. She willed the atmosphere around her to dissolve into the water, wrapping the hyper-oxygenated fluid around her like a security blanket. As long as she held that part of the water close to get nose and mouth she’d be able to pull the gas back out again without even needing to think about it. Within a few minutes, she had what she thought would be enough air to last her a couple of hours, if she needed it.
The worst part about casting any underwater breathing spell was testing it. Twilight stuck her face below the surface, mentally prodding every part of the spell around her and double checking for mistakes. Then, despite hundreds of thousands of years of evolution screaming at her not to, she opened her mouth and inhaled deeply.
A bubble of oxygen wrapped itself around her face like a muzzle, providing a lungful of fresh air before dissipating the rest back into the ocean around her. Satisfied that she wasn’t about to drown herself, it was only a few more seconds work to prepare a simple transmutation spell around herself. Reflexively taking a deep breath, she triggered the spell and felt her body become heavy. Suddenly denser than the water around her, Twilight began to sink quickly beneath the waves.
Opening her eyes, she looked up and watched the boat above her slip further and further away until the murky seawater obscured it entirely. Even with the light infusing the water around her, her vision was cloudy. Twilight could only see a meter or two in any direction, but beyond that she could just make out dark shapes of all sizes moving around. She reminded herself that 95% of all ocean life forms were harmless to ponies.
Which means that one in twenty of those shapes would eat you given half a chance, part of her mind chose that moment to remind her.
Not helping! Twilight decided to look down instead, hoping she’d be able to make out where she was going. The light was growing more intense.
Twilight figured she was about twenty or twenty five meters down when she made out the light’s source. It was an ancient stone building, roughly pyramid shaped, covered in carvings and ancient runes, some of which were glowing. The light was spilling from windows and doorways at every level of the roughly pyramid-shaped structure. It looked like it had originally been assembled out of thick blocks of grey stone, but most of the surface was obscured by plants, coral, and other growths that had sprung up wherever they could attach themselves.
Rather than billowing in the ocean currents, the plants hung lifeless and flat against the sides of the building. It took Twilight a moment to realize why. The entire temple was encased in some sort of air pocket or bubble, with a nearly transparent barrier holding it against the ocean floor instead of bubbling away. Twilight was coming up on the barrier quickly, and she braced herself for impact.
Her hooves went straight through it like it wasn’t there at all. This barrier was made to keep air in, not to keep ponies out. In a flash, Twilight dispelled the spell she had used to sink down and tried to paddle her way away from it. She was too late. Her back legs flailed uselessly against air, and with her back half no longer displacing any water she felt gravity pulling her downwards faster than she could paddle against it.
In a moment she was through the barrier completely and in free fall. She landed roughly against the side of one of the steeply slanted walls and began to half bounce half roll down the side of the building. The slick wet seaweed that coated the walls offered no purchase. She crashed down hard on her side on some kind of balcony or outcropping about three stories above the seafloor, and gasped as the impact knocked the wind out of her. For a few moments, she just lay there unmoving, trying to catch her breath.
There were noises coming from inside the temple, loud crashing and banging sounds echoing down the hallway. Twilight was fairly certain whoever was making them hadn’t heard her arrive. Once she felt up to it, Twilight slowly rose to her shaky hooves and looked into the doorway that led out to the balcony she had landed on. Crystals embedded in the walls glowed with an inner light that was bright yet somehow soft at the same time. The floors were covered in a layer of sand and silt so deep it might as well have been the seafloor itself. There were even a few fish laying on the ground gasping for breath as they slowly suffocated. She concluded that the whole structure must usually be submerged, and this air bubble was a recent development. No doubt it was somehow connected to all the noise.
Moving as quickly and quietly as she could, Twilight trotted down the hallway looking for any kind of staircase of ramp that could take her higher up. Luna had mentioned that the dagger’s usual resting place was a room near the top of the temple, so it would make the most sense to head in that direction.
Lost in her own plans and thoughts, it was only a the last moment that Twilight looked down at the floor she’d about to put her weight down on. A three meter long portion of the hallway had a floor of uncovered stone, with barely even a dusting of sand over it. Beyond that, a layer of sediment reappeared much like the one she had been walking on. There were indentations on the far side. Hoofprints? But the floor behind her had been undisturbed.
Twilight slowly and cautiously placed her hoof down on the stone floor. When nothing happened, she shifted a little more weight onto it. Still nothing. A little more.... A little more....
The stone slab dropped away, the whole uncovered portion swinging down into a pit like a trap door. Twilight gasped and fell back. If she’d been standing on it when that happened...
Twilight looked down into the pit trap. The bottom was lined with wicked looking spines, half buried in the sand and silt that must have fallen in the last time the trap had been triggered. She could a pair of green forelegs reaching out of the deepest pile of sand, unmoving. The spikes around them were coated in blood, so fresh it looked like they might still be wet.
She looked away from the gruesome scene below, trying to suppress the urge to throw up. Luna had warned her that the temple contained traps, but she hadn’t conveyed just how vicious and bloodthirsty they were. A fresh wave of revulsion washed over Twilight as she realized that the triggering mechanism that made the floor fall away wasn’t just triggered by weight if the sand alone hadn’t triggered it. It must have some way of knowing that a living creature was present.
Twilight teleported across the uncovered expanse as the stone slab swung back up and reset itself into place. Even knowing it was there, Twilight couldn’t make out the seam in the stonework. It was either phenomenally precise engineering or some sort of minor illusion to keep it concealed. She’d have to be a lot more careful.
Twilight continued down the hallway, retracing the unfortunate pony’s steps to keep from setting off anything else. She hadn’t been walking for more than a minute or two before she reached a point where one of the walls ended. Instead Twilight found herself looking out onto a gigantic central chamber. Despite what she had just seen, the beauty of the room took her completely by surprise. The chamber walls were covered in paintings and carvings that depicted the history of the Hippocamp empire, depicting rulers and religious figures going back centuries, at the least. Dominating the center of the room was a statue of a gigantic serpent wrapped and twisted around a stone ship that had to be bigger than the Tranquility by itself. Was that what Ouroboros had looked like? The statue glimmered in the glow of the crystal’s light. Each scale was molded separately from different-colored metals, and some even looked like they were carved from gems. The level of wealth and craftponyship the undertaking must have required boggled Twilight’s mind.
Movement around the base of the statue finally drew Twilight’s eyes down to the floor. A team of a dozen or so ponies were working at the statue with tools. Twilight watched one of them pry out a gemstone scale and drop it into a bucket next to him. They were ripping the statue apart piece by piece, probably to melt down for the raw metals.
Other ponies wandered around the room, loading up carts full of statues and other artifacts and dragging them to a hole at the base of one of the walls. The hole must lead to some kind of tunnel or passageway that would take them back to the surface, she reasoned.
Across the room there were teams of ponies in diving suits gathered around what looked like a pool full of water. The temple must have some sort of basement level that hadn’t been dried out by the whatever enchantment had created the bubble of air she was breathing.
Were these just ordinary looters? How could they have possibly found this place?
A voice from below carried up to where Twilight was huddled behind the wall peering down. “Hurry it up, you worthless wastes of flesh! The museum team came back to base hours ago! 1000 bits to the pony who brings me that dagger!” So much for that idea. She looked down at the pony the voice belonged to, who had the air of a pony in charge. She was a pink mare. A pink pegasus mare.
“The mare from the rooftop!” thought Twilight. “What in Celestia’s name is she doing here?”
“Who the hay are you?” demanded a voice. Startled, Twilight spun around to see that a large pony stallion had rounded a corner behind her and spotted her. Looking around, she saw that just down the hall there was a stairwell. Hopefully it led upward, but Twilight didn’t have a lot of options. She bolted for it.
“Hey boss! There’s somepony else in here, she’s not one of our crew!” the stallion called down to the ponies below.
“Well grab her you moron!” came the voice of the pink pegasus mare below. Twilight reached the stairwell just as the stallion behind her gave chase. Luckily, the stairwell did indeed lead up. Twilight began to ascend the stairs 2 or 3 at a time. The stallion had longer legs, and he was gaining on her quickly. After three flights Twilight spotted the top of the staircase. The stallion behind her was nearly close enough to bite her. He was so focused on her that he didn’t spot the odd grooves in the wall, or notice the rust-toned discolorations on the floor where something had been spattered years ago. Twilight did.
When she was just a few steps from the top, Twilight pushed off with her back legs and threw herself forward, sliding along the floor of the landing. A pair of curved blades scythed out from the wall, close enough to take a few hairs from her mane off her head.
The stallion hadn’t been so lucky. His scream was cut horribly short as Twilight felt something wet and hot spatter across her back. She crawled a little further on her belly to make sure she was clear of the blades before she got up. Forcing herself not to look back, she trotted ahead as quickly as she dared. Other ponies would be after her soon, she couldn’t afford any delay.
The hall terminated with the most massive pair of doors Twilight had ever seen. She fired up her telekinesis and tried to force them to move. Pushing didn’t work, neither did pulling. Twilight looked more closely at the symbols on the door. They looked like writing to her, probably in Hippocampian. The door must be sealed with some kind of riddle or password, but she couldn’t read it. Behind her, she heard hoof steps coming up the stairs, a lot of them.
“Buck it. Sorry Bronze, you probably wouldn’t like what I’m about to do,” she said to herself. Gathering up all her energy, she let loose a torrential blast of energy at the doors which promptly exploded, sending pointed shards of rock flying in every direction. Ignoring the nicks and minor cuts the flying detritus had given her, she stepped into the room beyond the now-broken door frame.
The floor was covered in a mosaic of large tiles, all with different patterns and colors. On the far side of the room, resting atop a pedestal, was what had to be her target. Deciding not to take a chance on the tiles, Twilight teleported directly to the other side and stared at her prize. The plate and bowl she had seen earlier had been unremarkable, so she had expected the same from this dagger. Nothing could be further from the truth. The blade was nearly as long as Twilight’s foreleg, made of a single shard of obsidian. As Twilight watched it she could swear that in the corner of her eye she could sense runes skittering across the surface, black lettering on a black background that she could more feel than actually see. The hilt was a rod of dull brass, not something that seemed like it would easy to grip and hold with a hoof but covered with intricate carvings of battles gone by. It positively radiated sheer, unadulterated, power.
Twilight reached out and tested the edge with a hoof. Even though she touched it as lightly as she could, it broke her skin and cut into her, drawing blood. Twilight yelped and pulled her hoof away. Wrapping the dagger in a telekinetic field, she lifted it off the pedestal.
“I found her! She’s up here, and I found the dagger too!” said a voice from the doorway. Twilight turned to see a young olive-green unicorn standing in the doorway. The mare turned back to her. “Look, I don’t care who you are, and I don’t even care what you did to Chester back there. I mean hey, one less pony taking a cut of the loot, you know? Give me the dagger and I’ll make sure you get out of here alive. I’ll even split the reward with you. Doesn’t that sound fair?” she asked. Twilight didn’t reply so the mare continued. “Look, one way or another I’m taking that dagger from you. Don’t think I won’t hurt you to get it.” The mare took a step into the room, depressing a tile in the process.
A hidden panel in the ceiling above her slid open and sprayed a foul-smelling liquid all over the unicorn. She shrieked and began to cough from the fumes coming off puddles of the liquid around her. “Ugh, gross! What in Tartarus is this stuff?”
She got her answer when a small block of flint fell from the same hole and landed on another tile nearby. A tile made of metal. When it struck, a shower of sparks erupted.
An instant later half the room was in flames. The fluid and everything it covered burned with a sickly green flame. Even from across the roof, the heat was unbearable. The unicorn screamed in agony as her skin burned away in a flash. She staggered further into the room, depressing a second tile a few rows down from the first. A column of stone plummeted down from the ceiling, landing directly on her head and silencing her screams with merciful swiftness. The flames died away as quickly as they had sprung up as they consumed their fuel, leaving only a few embers and a pony-shaped slab of charred meat behind. Seeking to get away from the grotesque scene she had just witnessed, Twilight teleported back out into the hallway and galloped back towards the stairs as quickly as she could. She averted her eyes from where she knew the stallion’s bisected body lay. She dearly wished that the other pony hadn’t told her that his name had been Chester. She teleported to the landing half a flight down and turned to continue her descent.
Standing at the base of the stairs were three more members of that pink pegasus’ crew. They seemed as surprised to see her appear in front of them as she was to see them. Before they could recover their wits, she flung a series of quick magic missiles at them, following it up with a barrage of ice shards. Not stopping to see if they were knocked out or just stunned, she continued down the stairs. She made it two more flights without incident, ending up on the same floor she had come in from. Maybe if she could just get out onto that balcony she could-
From nowhere, somepony body slammed her into the railing that overlooked the central chamber. She momentum caused her to flip right over it and tumble down to the floor below. She smashed against the tail of serpent statue and slid the rest of the way to the ground. Somehow she had managed to keep her grip on the dagger, but when she looked up a dozen ponies were surrounding her. There was nowhere to run. Their leader stepped forward.
“I remember you. You’re that unicorn mare who hangs around with the Princess aren’t you? What’s your name?” asked the pink pegasus.
“Twilight *cough* Sparkle,” she replied. Her chest felt like it was on fire and she was almost certain that she’d bruised a rib in that collision with the statue, if not broken it entirely.
“Well, well, Ms. Twilight Sparkle, what am I going to do with you, mmm? First things first, I’ll be taking that dagger you have there,” she reached out to grab it, but Twilight lifted it with her telekinesis and slashed wildly at her. The mare backed away quickly.
“No way. Can’t... can’t have it,” said Twilight.
“One way or another, I’m taking it. You see, my contact at the Smithponian museum told me all about what it’s for. I’ve always known the stories of Ouroboros, and those stories promise untold power for anypony that can harness it. With something like that, I’m going to turn my little crew here into the new rulers of the seas. Everypony will learn to fear the horrible wrath of the dread pirate queen; Captain Gumdrop Giggles!” she said.
“You’re going to get them killed! You can’t control it! Nopony can!” said Twilight.
Gumdrop Giggles shrugged. “Maybe a couple of them, but once I sell all the stuff from this temple I’ll be able to hire a dozen ponies for every one I lose. By tomorrow morning it’ll all be over. You’ll see, assuming I let you live that long. Now enough chit chat, you’re clearly in no shape to fight all of us.”
Twilight’s response was a bolt of magical energy that threw the stallion next to Gumdrop Giggles across the room. The other ponies took a step back from her, but Gumdrop Giggles held her ground. The effort of casting the spell had made Twilight’s vision swim. She blinked rapidly and shook her head until the world stopped spinning.
“Listen, Twilight Sparkle, see that tunnel back there?” she gestured to the hole in the wall that Twilight had noticed earlier. “It goes back to Pensacolta. It’s also rigged up with enough explosives to seal it up and crack the temple’s foundation in half. What do you think that’d do to the spells that are keeping the water out of here? The way I see it you have three options. One, you give me the dagger, my crew and I leave through the tunnel, and you get to crawl your way back to your precious Princess and try to stop us later. Two, you fight us and we kill you. Three, you fight us, somehow manage to get the upper hoof, which you won’t, I blow the tunnel and we all get to drown. So which one’s it gonna be?”
Twilight’s mind raced. Gumdrop Giggles was right. She needed to figure out a way to change the situation, and fast.
Before Twilight could give her answer, a mare wearing a diving suit surfaced from the pool that led down to the temple’s deepest reaches. She ripped her diving helmet off in a panic and started screaming.
“Captain, quick, get me out of here! Help me out of the water. They got that sealed chamber open, but there wasn’t any treasure. They’re all dead, get me out of the water! It was a nest, Captain! it was a nest of Seaponies and they’re right behind-
A tentacle burst out of the water behind the mare. Her scream was choked off in an instant as it wrapped around her neck and pulled her beneath the surface. A stream of bubbles tapered away as a cloud of blood dyed the pool an awful crimson.
SHOO BE DOOM
Twilight found herself momentarily forgotten as the ponies around her gaped at the pool, now churning and overflowing. Water spilled over the pool’s rim creating a rapidly widening puddle on the temple floor.
“Looks like we’ve sprung a leak. Everypony out,” said Gumdrop Giggles. Her words seemed to rouse the others and kick started a stampede of ponies galloping for the tunnel, dragging any artifacts they could lay their hooves on along with them.
Another tentacle, scaly, dexterous and a sickly pale green, slithered out of the pool and reached out probing around the edge, sending ripples through the flowing water on the floor. Not finding anything, the tentacle retreated back into the pool and the creature’s head broke the surface a moment later.
Despite the name, seaponies bore only a passing resemblance to an actual pony. Their faces was dominated by two bulging, milky white eyes that stared blankly out. In place of a mane was a fin, stretchy membrane twitching as sea water dripped off of it. But the worst feature was the thing’s maw, a gaping hole in its clammy flesh filled with row after row of jagged teeth. Twilight could even make out a few scraps of the diving suit the mare in the pool had been wearing lodged between them.
An earth pony stallion who was either much braver or much stupider than the rest of the crew strode towards the pool, the hilt of a cutlass wrapped around his hoof. Sensing movement the monstrous fish creature turned in his direction and hissed, an awful raspy sound. Quick as a whip, the seapony lashed out with one of its tentacles, but the stallion was faster with the blade. The swinging tentacle struck the edge of the cutlass, which bit deeply into it while the creature let out a feral scream of pain. The pony yanked out the now-bloodied sword and stepped up to the pools edge. He raised the sword.
“This is for Deep Blue, you bastard,” he said. He drove his sword straight into the creature’s open mouth. It screamed as the the sword cut deep into the back of its throat and out through the back of its head. Before the pony could pull his hoof away, the mouth clamped shut around his foreleg, trapping him. The creature writhed in pain, its death throes whipping the pony around like a rag doll. The dark shapes of more seaponies appeared below the surface and more tentacles emerged from the water, wrapping around the unfortunate pony and yanking him back and forth over the pool.
“Anyway Twilight, as I was saying... Twilight?” Gumdrop Giggles stomped her hoof down on the stone floor by the mouth of the tunnel, pulling Twilight’s attention away from the horrifying scene playing out in front of her. “Honestly, look at other ponies when they’re talking to you. There’s no reason to be so rude about this. Now give me the dagger and you can come through the tunnel after us. Otherwise I’ll break your legs right here and leave you for those things, and we’ll send a couple divers down for the dagger in a few days.”
Twilight’s mind raced as she looked down at the dagger sitting in the rising water. The prospect of becoming seapony food was too terrifying for her to contemplate. Her horn flickered and she slipped a tiny enchantment of her own onto the dagger. “Fine. You win. I’ll trade you the dagger for the detonator. Then you’ve got sixty seconds to get moving before I’m coming up the tunnel after you.”
Gumdrop grinned at her. “I knew you could be reasonable. Hey, you!” She gestured to a green earth pony mare who was one of the last henchponies heading into the tunnel. The pony came over to her wordlessly. “Bring this over to her, nice and slow. Twilight, you levitate the dagger over to me and we’ll swap them at the same time. If she tries anything funny, bite down on it,” she said. The earth pony took the offered device in her mouth and began to walk towards Twilight slowly. In return Twilight floated the dagger towards the pirate captain as quickly as she dared.
Gumdrops took the dagger and began to trot down the tunnel as the mare reached Twilight. She spat out what she’d been holding in her mouth.
It was just a hunk of grey rock.
“Sorry Twilight! Looks like I lied,” Gumdrops voice echoed forth from inside the tunnel. The room shook as a series of small explosions went off all over the wall around the tunnel. Rocks tumbled down, burying the entrance to the tunnel under several tons of rubble.
The green mare ran over to where the tunnel had been and started to dig through the rocks. “Wait! Captain, I’m still in here! Come back!” she begged.
With the damage to the base of the temple’s structure, Twilight could feel the ambient enchantment keeping the water out begin to weaken and shift. Sure enough the water from the pool was rushing outwards in a small geyser. The water was already up to her knees, and in under a minute it would be deep enough for those things to swim out of the pool. She doubted she’d be able to clear the tunnel entrance before then.
If I survive this, I swear to Celestia the first thing I’m doing is developing a spell that turns falling rocks into cotton candy, she thought to herself. She pulled her thoughts together and took a few deep breaths. She’d manage to recover somewhat from her fall and being knocked around, though she still felt like she might have twisted an ankle when she’d landed. Looking back up at the balcony above her. She focused her mind and teleported, landing on the floor above.
The mare below had turned around when she’d heard the telltale ‘pop’ of her teleport. When she realized she was now alone and nearly flank deep in a pool of water that was about to be invaded by seaponies, she started to sob. “Twilight, please don’t leave me here. Please help me. I’m sorry, please don’t let them get me. Please.” She pulled herself up onto the pedestal the giant statue of the sea serpent stood upon as dark shapes pulled themselves out of the pool and began to explore the murky sea water that covered the floor.
Twilight spared a glance past the railing overlooking the scene below. The water wouldn’t stop rising, not until it flooded the whole temple. It was vital that she get out as quickly as possible, and tell somepony what had happened. She didn’t have the time or the energy to waste trying to save a pony that, up until a minute ago, had been part of the gang that was trying to kill her. She’d brought this on herself, really. Twilight didn’t have any reason to risk her own neck trying to save her after that. She turned and stared down the hallway. She could see the doorway to the entrance that she’d entered the temple through. All she had to do was trot away.
“...I don’t want to die like this.”
Twilight looked down over the railing again. The water was lapping over the edge of the pedestal. Once the seaponies realized there was food there, they’d be on her in seconds. Twilight scrunched up her eyes and focused herself on the statue itself. Her magic wrapped around it and pulled. The metal groaned, but the statue didn’t budge. She pulled harder. Just when she thought she wasn’t going to be able to move it, the statue began to shift. First it moved slowly, but then began to fall faster as she pulled it further off base. She released it, and for a moment it teetered at the edge of balance before it toppled over, the top burst through the railing of the balcony she was on. The statue’s face sank into the floor, forming an awkward ramp from the pedestal to the second floor.
“Climb,” said Twilight as she panted for breath. The mare didn’t need to be told twice. She shimmied up the back of the statue and took Twilight’s proffered hoof, using it to pull herself up onto the balcony. The two of them collapsed onto the floor. The mare stood up and brushed herself off as Twilight took a closer look at her. She had a lime green coat with some sort of coin or dubloon for a cutie mark, and a golden blonde mane.
“Thanks, Twilight,” she said.
“You’re welcome, uh, what did you say your name was? I can’t just call you ‘hey you,’” said Twilight.
“Right, I guess we were never exactly formally introduced, were we? I’m Ample Booty,” she said, “and don’t bother with whatever you were about to say. I’ve already heard all the jokes.”
“OK then, Ample, so you’re some kind of pirate or something, and Gumdrop Giggles is your captain? Do I have that straight?” asked Twilight.
“Hey, when you grow up poor and your name is ‘Ample Booty’ you’ve basically got two possible careers, and trust me when I tell you that ‘pirate’ is better than the other one. But maybe we can talk about this later?” said Ample.
Twilight rose to her hooves again and looked down at the rising water below. The floor was already under several feet of water and if anything it was rising faster than before. Twilight thought for a moment, then lowered her horn towards the surface. A stream of magic blasted out and spread over the water. Ice crystals began to form as Twilight’s spell pulled the heat out of the water. The sheet of ice spread to every corner of the room and grew thicker until the water underneath was sealed off completely, and had stopped rising.
“That should buy us a little time. I’m a hundred percent sure a seapony can’t break through ice that thick,” said Twilight. She slumped down to think of a way out of the temple. She was interrupted by a loud thud from the ice below. She looked down again. She could still see the seaponies under the ice, vaguely, but they’d been joined by something new. Something much, much bigger. The shape receded from the ice, then charged upwards again, throwing itself against it.
“You said you’re a hundred percent sure, right?” asked Ample.
“Well, maybe more like ninety nine percent,” replied Twilight. The shape slammed against the ice again. It cracked. “On second thought? Run.”
The two mares tore down the hallway, Twilight shouting out to Ample with a warning about the pit trap up ahead just in time for both of them to leap clear of it. Behind them, Twilight heard the ice barrier shatter and the sound of water rushing in. The two emerged outside the temple. The dome of magic above them twisted and shimmered as it fought a losing battle against the pressure of the water that was seeping through. Twilight reinforced the water breathing spell on herself and extended it to Ample as well. Still, once the seaponies got out of the temple she didn’t want to be caught paddling around waiting for the water to fill the dome.
“Ample, I need you trust me, and don’t let go of my hoof,” she said. She reached out a foreleg and felt Ample take hold of it.
“Why? What are you going to-”
Whatever Ample had been about to say was cut off as Twilight fired a short blast of energy at the dome above, dispelling it completely. Twilight threw up a quick shield against the first blast of pressure, but was still nearly swept away as the ocean rushed in around her. In just a few seconds the pocket of air had rocketed to the surface and the temple was submerged once again. The sudden change in pressure sent a plume of sand and dirt up from the ocean floor, and Twilight couldn’t even see Ample through the murk, even though she could feel her clinging to her foreleg. Pushing off from the temple, Twilight kicked at the water in what she hoped was the direction of the ocean’s surface. The churning water would conceal them from the seaponies, but Twilight wasn’t sure how long it would last.
The ascent took less than two minutes, but felt to Twilight like it must have been at least ten. Twilight was overjoyed when her head finally breached the surface and she got her first lungful of natural air. The two mares had come up about fifty meters from the Tranquility, which was rocking violently. The giant air bubble Twilight had just sent up must have nearly capsized it.
The seaponies had gotten there first. A half a dozen tentacles were latched onto the hull, and Twilight could see the monsters trying to pull themselves onto the deck of the ship. Bolts of fire and magic erupting from the ship told Twilight that Reinolds and Luna were fighting back, and seemed to be doing a pretty good job of it. Twilight saw Reinolds stick his head over the side and fire one of the boat’s emergency flares straight down into the face of one of the seaponies, which screamed as it fell back into the water.
“Captain! Over here!” Twilight called out, struggling to be heard over the battle and the water. Twilight saw him look up at them and nod. He’d spotted them.
Unfortunately, so had the seaponies. Three more of them that had been clinging to the hull dropped back into the water, deciding that this prey looked a lot more appetizing and a lot less likely to set them on fire. Twilight was desperately searching her mind for something she could do while floating in the water when Luna leapt off the side of the boat, soaring down towards them with a rope dangling from her mouth. She barely slowed down as she reached them. Twilight and Ample lunged for the lifeline and wrapped their legs around it as it yanked them out of the water, just moments before a half dozen tentacles reached out searching for the morsels that had suddenly been denied to them.
The Princess flew back to the Tranquility and the three of them landed roughly on the deck. Luna turned her head and casually blasted a sea pony that stuck its head over the side of the railing. “These creatures appeared a few minutes ago, and we feared the worst. Were you able to find the dagger?”
Twilight shook her head, sending droplets scattering from her soaking wet mane. “Somepony else took it, and then tried to keep me from following her by flooding the temple. This is Ample Booty, by the way. She was working with her.”
“You were able to overpower her and take her prisoner? Excellent work,” said Luna. Prisoner? Twilight glanced over at Ample, who shrugged.
“Sure, let’s go with that,” said Twilight, “what about these seaponies?”
Luna scoffed. “They present little challenge. We do not anticipate that we will have any difficulty dispatching the rest of them.”
In response the water out over the temple began to churn and foam. The seaponies that were clinging to the Tranquility dropped away and fled back to the depths. The mud and sand in the water had cleared enough that Twilight could make out a massive shape moving towards the surface. The thing that had broken through her ice barrier had gotten out of the temple and followed her here.
Twilight’s stomach dropped as the creature emerged and she got her first good look at it. It was exactly what she had been afraid of; a seapony queen.
Seapony queens were sometimes referred to by sailors as “dragons of the sea,” and survivors told of a single one sinking entire convoys of armed ships. Their thick hides shrugged off spears, magic, and arrows alike, and their jaws could crush reinforced hulls in a single bite. Even worse, they were vicious, bloodthirsty, and cunning, sometimes keeping a few victims alive for days in the hopes of drawing in would-be rescuers to ambush. Twilight thought she might, on her best day and with a lot of luck, be able to escape from one alive. Today was not turning out to be one of her best days.
Before Twilight could fully categorize all the ways she was utterly, completely doomed, she was nearly blinded as a column of light plummeted from the heavens and struck the monster. It screamed in pain as the light enveloped it, burning through its carapace like it wasn’t even there and cooking it alive before the creature even knew what was happening. In a flash, the light faded and the seapony queen just wasn’t there any more. A few meaty chunks that looked like they had once been part of it bobbed in the steaming, boiling waves.
Twilight had read the legends of Luna’s moonfire, but she’d never expected to see it in action.
“As we said, little challenge,” said Luna, “perhaps using moonfire was somewhat excessive, but we felt that ‘twas the only way to be certain.” Luna walked over to where Ample was staring out over the water, her jaw slack. “Thou hath a little...” she gestured at her own cheek. When Ample didn’t respond Luna reached down and wiped away a few bits of ichor that had spattered onto her face. “We will begin questioning you in five minutes. We suggest you cooperate fully,” she said and walked back into the ship’s cabin.
Ample Booty was quite forthcoming about Gumdrop Giggles after that. The ‘pirate crew’ was more of a criminal gang based out of Pensacolta than anything else, and one that Gumdrop had been running for some time. While they’d mostly been just a loose knit bunch of local criminals and thugs, it seemed that over the last few years their boss had decided to upgrade, bringing in new muscle from out of town and becoming more ambitious. It was about then that she’d started regaling her crew with the stories of Ouroboros, and how they’d be ruling the seas soon.
While Ample had been willing to tell them what they wanted to know so far, she clammed up when they asked where Gumdrop Giggles was going.
“No way, I’m not going to rat them out. Besides, even if I told you they’ll have moved by the time you get there. You’ll never catch them,” her voice had more than a hint of pride in it.
“So you are useless to us after all then. You attempted to murder Twilight earlier, why should we not simply drop you in the middle of the ocean right now and sail away? You look to be a strong swimmer, you might even have a one in five chance of reaching shore before you drown. Or something catches you,” said Luna. Twilight shuddered. She was pretty sure this was an act, but the Princess was a little bit too good at it for comfort.
“D-do your worst, then. I won’t talk,” said Ample.
“Actually, Princess, we don’t need her to tell us that. Before they took the knife from me, I slipped a tracking spell onto it. I should be able to follow it back to wherever they’re going,” said Twilight.
Luna glanced over at her, expression wavering somewhere between impressed and annoyed at the interruption. “Very well. It seems this is your lucky day Ample. We’re nearly at the docks now anyway. What do you think we should do with you?”
Ample blinked as she processed the question. “Umm... Let me go?” she suggested.
Luna just chuckled. “So you can run home and warn the others that we’re on our way? We think not. We guess it would be easiest to just kill you now. You’ve been modestly helpful, we would make it quick and fairly painless. Unless you have a better option?”
“So tie me up down here then, you can always just turn me in later on,” said Ample. Luna considered this, but shook her head.
“We suspect that you only suggest that because you believe you can untie any knot we come up with. Care to try again?” asked Luna. Ample threw up her hooves and then crossed them over her chest, refusing to answer.
Twilight considered the problem. “Princess, what about an Oath of Binding? She swears not to leave the room, and that way none of us has to stay behind to watch her,” she said.
“That would be acceptable,” said Luna, nodding. “Ample, are you familiar with that sort of magic?”
“A little bit. I make a promise, and you cast a spell that keeps me from breaking it, right?” said Ample.
“More or less. If you swear an Oath not to leave this room, we will allow you to stay here while we deal with the remainder of your ‘crew.’”
Ample thought about this for a moment. “Okay, deal. Do it.” Princess Luna’s horn glowed and sparkled. The sparks of magic coalesced around Ample Booty and hovered there expectantly. “I swear not to leave this room, unless I ask Princess Luna, Twilight, or Captain Reinolds for permission to do so first,” said Ample. As she did the magic flowed into her, and she glowed gently as the Oath took hold.
“Forgive us if we ask that you test it before we go,” said Luna, gesturing towards the open door. Ample got up and tried to walk through it, but didn’t get even a half step beyond the threshold before some invisible force threw her back. Luna smirked. “If you attempt to break the Oath, we will be alerted. Keep in mind that we are being quite merciful in this matter. Cross us and we will reconsider that approach.”
Twilight and Luna walked out of the room and began climbing the stairs back to the boat’s deck. Ample Booty would be confined to the storage room until the following morning, when they could turn her over to law enforcement. “Um, Princess, you weren’t ever really going to kill Ample, right?” asked Twilight.
“It did not become necessary to do so,” Luna replied. The Princess had many good qualities, but Twilight had long since come to accept that her reassuring pep talks were a bit lacking. “Twilight, you are limping. Did something happen to your leg?”
Twilight looked down at the ankle she had turned back in the temple. Now that the rush of adrenaline had faded, she’d noticed that it hurt quite a bit. “Nothing I can’t handle, Princess,” said Twilight.
“Let me see.” Luna took Twilight’s hoof between her own and gently turned it. Twilight winced as pain shot up her leg. “It seems to be a slight sprain. I can heal it, but you’ll need to avoid putting too much force on it for the next half hour or so.” Without waiting for Twilight to reply she channeled a gentle wave of magic into the limb, which immediately stopped hurting.
Twilight pushed her hoof against the ground, testing her weight on it. It did feel a lot better. “Thanks, Luna, but I can’t just sit around here waiting for a half hour before we go out tracking the dagger. The way my night’s been going so far, there’s probably going to be a lot of running.”
“We will address that when the time comes. Now come, if Gumdrop does have all three artifacts she could begin undoing the bindings at any time,” said Luna.
“Princess, she could really have figured out how to control Ouroboros, right? The magic to control something so powerful must be complicated.”
Luna hesitated. “It would not be as difficult you might believe. The most difficult parts of the spell are already woven into the dagger by its very nature. Harnessing that magic would be comparatively simple. Sealing Ouroboros away was the path we chose not because controlling it would have been difficult, but because we feared the consequences of so much power in a single set of hooves. Either way, we cannot take the chance of somepony tampering with the seal.”
The two of them emerged onto the deck just as the boat slid into the dock. Twilight gripped one of the ropes and tied it in as Reinolds emerged from the cabin. “Did she tell you where we could find the knife?” he asked.
“Twilight placed a tracking spell on it. Ample Booty is contained for the time being. The three of us must make haste and find the dagger before they attempt to use it to summon Ouroboros. Captain, Twilight’s right foreleg is sprained. We have placed our healing magic upon it, but she will need time to recover fully. Until then, you’ll need to carry her so she does not slow our progress,” said Luna.
“What‽” cried both Twilight and Reinolds.
“Um, please?” asked Luna.
The two unicorns blinked and looked at one another. Twilight recovered first. “Fine. As long as it’s just for the half hour. And none of us ever speaks of this again,” she said.
“Agreed. Climb on,” said Reinolds, rolling his eyes as he let Twilight clamber up onto his back.
Twilight activated the tracking spell she’d placed on the dagger. It had been a slapdash thing, kludged together at the last second. It would work, but the readings it gave wouldn’t be specific or reliable until she got closer to her quarry. She let the spell point her toward her objective and stuck a hoof out in the general direction of the signal, finding that it pointed her towards the middle of Pensacolta. “That way,” she said and the three of them took off, Reinolds carrying Twilight along the ground while Luna took to the air. Twilight winced. Being carried around like this was humiliating. Still, at least she wasn’t likely to run into anypony she knew from Ponyville, right?
Lyra and Bon Bon stepped out from Pensacolta’s train station into the cool night air. The trip had taken far longer than it should have. Delays along the first leg of the trip had resulted in them missing their connection in Manehatten, and an unexpected three hour layover before the next train. At least they’d finally arrived, even if it was the middle of the night.
“Oh, come on Bonnie. So we had a rough time getting here. We’ve still got all week to enjoy the city! The beaches! The amenities! The restaurants!” pitched Lyra to her filly friend.
“Hmph,” was Bon Bon’s only reply. As far as she was concerned, their vacation together was off to an awful start. It was already after midnight, and she wanted nothing more than to get to their hotel and collapse.
“We’re on vacation! We’re getting away from it all! Celestia knows you need a break. How long did we figure it’s been since you took time off from working the candy store? Nearly three years? We’ll sleep in late tomorrow, OK? Or... Well, we don’t have to sleep late, but we don’t have to get out of bed either. I’m sure we’ll think of something to do, right?” Lyra leaned over and gently bit down on a particular spot behind her partner’s left ear. Bon Bon let out the adorable ‘eep’ that Lyra would never grow tired of.
“Stop that! Somepony might see us,” Bon Bon hissed.
Lyra just chuckled and sidled up to her special somepony. “So? Nopony in this city even knows who we are. Think about it. Spa appointments and sunbathing all day long. We can even go skinny dipping in the ocean!”
“Lyra, we’re naked nearly all the time. We’re skinny dipping literally every time we go swimming.”
“But it sounds so much naughtier when you call it skinny dipping,” pointed out Lyra, undeterred. “Besides, as exciting as the days are going to be, they’ve got nothing on what I’ve got planned for the nights...” Lyra trailed off, the better to let her lover’s mind run away with her. Sure enough, she started to blush again a moment later. “Best of all, none of the usual Ponyville craziness. That’s what you most need a break from, isn’t it? All the monster invasions and crazy stuff that seems to come around every other week. I promise, none of that kind of stuff happens here.”
“This way, Princess,” called out a voice from down the street. A unicorn stallion galloped down the way, a very familiar-looking lavender unicorn riding on his back. The ponies rode up to the train station and stopped. The lavender mare looked around, her eyes falling onto Lyra and Bon Bon. She did a double take and stared at the pair. “Lyra? Bon Bon?”
“Twilight?” ventured Lyra. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, uh, saving Equestria again, I guess. What about you?” replied Twilight.
“Vacation,” replied Bon Bon. A tangible atmosphere of awkwardness descended upon the four ponies as none of them could think of anything to say next.
“Twilight Sparkle,” called a voice from above. Lyra and Bon Bon looked up, and they instinctively dropped down into a bow when the recognized Luna, Princess of the Night, on the edge of a nearby rooftop. “There is no time for petty small talk now. The fate of this city hangs in the balance. We must stop the summoning of the ancient evil that is even now in motion, or every life in this place is forfeit!”
Twilight blanched, and her horn glowed briefly. “That way,” she said and the three took off down a side street.
Lyra and Bon Bon were left gaping at the retreating trio. A moment passed in silence before Bon Bon picked up their bags and turned back towards the train station. “Buck this. We’re vacationing at a ski lodge this week.”
Not much later, Twilight, Reinolds, and Luna arrived at a warehouse in the middle of a seemingly abandoned part of town. “We must be cautious,” said Luna from above, “we believe we felt some sort of magical ritual begin a moment ago. They are beginning to unravel the seal. We are not sure what the consequences would be of violently disrupting it, but we are in no hurry to find out.”
Twilight nodded. If the subtle approach was what was called for, she could do that. She got down off of Reinolds. It had probably been long enough that her ankle was mostly healed. She pushed open the back door of the warehouse, and the three ponies snuck inside. She was struck by how empty the warehouse was. She’d half expected it to be crawling with Gumdrop Giggle’s lackeys, but there didn’t seem to be anypony there. Twilight wondered if she’d found the wrong building, but her tracking spell was shouting that the dagger was here somewhere. She held up a hoof as she spotted light spilling out from underneath a door on the far wall. She crept up to it. Carefully... Quietly...
Twilight wrapped the door in her magic and yanked it off its hinges, tossing it behind her and charging into the room. The room had been prepared for a magical ritual, and Twilight spotted the plate, bowl, and dagger in the middle of a carefully crafted spell circle, candles strategically positioned to channel mana through the artifacts for some nefarious purpose. On the circle’s far side were two cloaked figures. The pink wings protruding from one of them left little doubt that Twilight had found Gumdrop Giggles. She was sure she knew who the other figure was, too.
“The jig is up, Professor Buried Secrets,” shouted Twilight. “I know you’re the one who helped the pirates rob the museum, even if I don’t know how you could let them do something so awful. Then you pointed them towards the temple where they could find the dagger, all for a share of the riches they’ll have once they’ve taken control of Ouroboros.” Twilight chuckled. “I didn’t realize this until now, but you basically just ripped off the plot of Daring Do and the Spear of the Windigos.”
The cloaked figure threw up its hooves. “Spoilers! Come on, that book isn’t even out yet. I was gonna read it.”
Twilight’s heart dropped. The voice was familiar, but it wasn’t Professor Secrets’.
SHIP WRECKED (1/2)
Twilight’s mind spun as she tried to come to terms with the sudden revelation. She had been so sure that she’d had the identity of the mole figured out, she’d blinded herself to the possibility that it was somepony other than the Professor.
Bronze Bell removed the hood of his cloak. He at least had the good sense to look embarrassed and refused to meet Twilight’s gaze. “Hi Twilight. I’m really sorry about all this,” he said.
A million questions came to Twilight in a flash, but she settled on asking the only one that seemed to really matter. “Why? Why are you doing this?”
“Are you kidding? This could be the greatest archaeological find of the last thousand years! Think about all the artifacts and lost treasures that it must have squirrelled away in a hoard somewhere. Even better, think about the kinds of things it must know. If we could communicate with it we’d have a primary source to tell us about tens of thousands of years worth of history. And all the magics to control it are already built into Luna and Celestia’s seal. The potential boon is enormous,” said Bronze, forgetting to look chastised as he got caught up in his excitement.
“As we told you back at the museum, we are not going to allow that to happen,” said Luna, stepping into the back room followed by Reinolds. “Hello, Bronze Bell. Would you like to introduce us to your friend here?”
Gumdrop Giggles removed her own hood. Twilight was surprised not to see even a hint of the arrogance the pegasus had displayed back in the temple in her expression. Instead, she looked like she was on the verge of a panic attack. “Bronze, don’t get close to her! That’s the crazy psycho unicorn who came after us in the temple,” she said.
“What? That’s not what happened at all,” said Twilight.
“We were looking for the dagger and she showed up to stop us. When my crew tried to calm her down she lured them into the temple’s traps and let them die! I only barely got away, and only because my dear friend Amber Booty stayed behind to hold her off while we escaped back up the tunnel. I’ll... I’ll never forget her sacrifice,” said Gumdrop, sniffling through crocodile tears as she wove her tale.
“Ample is just fine actually, no thanks to you. You’re the one who’s psycho around here,” said Twilight, crouching down into a combat stance. The residual magic from the ongoing ritual teased at the edge of her senses. Having that much ambient energy flowing around would make any fight a risky proposition. If she used magic that was too intense it could level the entire warehouse, or worse.
“Hey, Gumdrop is my friend, Twilight. Don’t call her a psycho,” said Bronze.
“She’s your friend?” asked Twilight, incredulous. “Bronze, she’s using you. This isn’t how friends act.”
“She is too my friend! Everypony else just thinks I’m some weird nerd because I like to talk about ancient civilizations and artifacts and stuff. None of them wanted anything to do with me before her, but she thinks that ancient legends about stuff like Ouroboros are interesting. She wanted to be around me and help me figure out the ritual, when nopony else ever did,” said Bronze through watery eyes.
Twilight’s eyes darted over to Gumdrop, standing behind Bronze. Now that Bronze’s attention was fixated on Twilight, her expression of concern had fallen away to reveal a wicked smirk. There had to be some way to get through to Bronze. “Bronze, I wanted to. I wanted to be your friend. I really like you, even now. It’s not too late to stop this and talk about it,” said Twilight, her voice soft and sincere. Bronze’s glare softened a little, and he even gave a small smile.
“Ugh, I can’t believe you’d try to manipulate him like that, Twilight. Honestly, I wish those rocks he dropped on you in front of the museum had finished you off,” said Gumdrop Giggles. Bronzes eyes went wide in alarm as Twilight processed what Gumdrop had just said. When it finally registered, her compassion and sympathy were obliterated by fiery rage.
“You... You rutting bastard... That was you? How could you, you monster,” Twilight hissed as her horn and eyes glowed. Forget the collateral damage, these two needed to die painfully.
“Sparkle! Take it easy,” said Reinolds. It took all of her willpower for Twilight to keep herself from teetering over the edge of self-control and doing something very, very stupid.
“Twilight, I swear I wasn’t trying to hurt you, that part was an accident. I was just trying to scare you guys, maybe make the museum shut down so I could get the information you and Luna gave me over to Gumdrop Giggles. I didn’t want the rocks to land on you, really,” said Bronze, shrinking away from the enraged mare.
“Why should I believe you? Why should I believe anything either of you say? I hate you, Bronze Bell. Both of you are horrible ponies. I can’t believe I thought I ever liked you,” said Twilight. Bronze just whimpered as he took in Twilight’s venom-laced words.
Angry as she was, Twilight decided to press her luck. She reached out with her magic and grabbed hold of the closest of the three artifacts, the plate. But before she could pull it towards her Gumdrop pinned it against the floor with her hoof. "Stop that, or I'l stomp on it right now," she said. Reluctantly, Twilight let it go.
“We will not permit the seal to be undone, even if we did believe that your intentions for doing so were noble,” said Luna. “No pony should wield the sort of power that Ouroboros represents. That sort of concentration of power in one pony’s hooves is dangerous and irresponsible.”
“Oh, that’s rich coming from you, Princess,” said Gumdrop Giggles. “You don’t seem all that concerned about all the power you and your sister have, how is this any different? Seems to me that you just don’t like the idea of having any competition.”
“We will be the first to admit that we have misused our powers at times, but we strive to make responsible use of them and to provide for our ponies. We have learned much about using it responsibly. You are talking about bringing back a power you which do not have the experience or wisdom to understand and using it as a weapon,” said Luna.
“So you get to have that kind of power because you’re just better than us. Good to know. Sorry, but I don’t buy that for a second and frankly I don’t need your approval. We’re done here,” said Gumdrop. Before any of the others could react, she lifted the plate high in the air and smashed it down against the bowl. Both of the artifacts shattered in the impact. “With the power of Ouroboros at my beck and call not even you can stop us, Princess. Ha ha ha ha ha ha!”
Gumdrop Giggles’ evil cackle slowed to more of a nefarious chuckle and then stopped entirely. “Bronze, what’s going on? Why isn't it working?” she asked.
“It is working. The seal is unraveling. It should be undone enough for Ouroboros to manifest within the next couple of hours,” said Bronze.
“The next couple of hours‽ Why didn't you say something? I thought it would be all instantaneous and dramatic and stuff,” said Gumdrop.
“The version of the ritual that does that required a blood sacrifice. I’m not hurting another pony just to save a few hours,” said Bronze.
“Hate to interrupt, but I think it’s safe to say that both of you are under arrest. Princess, can you stabilize the seal?” asked Reinolds.
Luna’s horn was already glowing. “At the current rate of degradation, we believe that we can maintain it long enough for Celestia to get here. Together we will be able to implement a more permanent solution,” she said.
Bronze just sighed and drooped his head. “Okay, I guess we surrender then,” he said.
“Like hell we surrender. You said we just need a blood sacrifice, right?” said Gumdrop, taking the dagger in hoof. “We can use Twilight, or the old stallion in the back there.”
Twilight couldn’t suppress a vicious grin. “Oh, please tell me you’re going to try. I still owe you for back in the temple, and I bet you aren’t so tough without a couple dozen goons backing you up.”
Before Twilight could line up a clear shot, Bronze Bell stepped between the two of them. “Both of you, stop it! I’m sick of ponies getting hurt because of me. Gumdrop, you’re my friend no matter what Twilight says. Twilight... I’d like to be your friend too someday, if you can ever forgive me for what I did to you at the museum. This summoning ritual isn’t worth losing either one of you. Please, both of you, just stop.”
Gumdrop Giggles blinked a few times and looked from Twilight to Bronze. “Bronze, you really mean it? You’d give up on Ouroboros just like that?”
Bronze stood in front of Gumdrop and put a hoof on her shoulder. “Of course I would. Some things are just more important,” said Bronze with a gentle, trusting smile.
Gumdrop Giggles thrust the dagger deep into his chest.
“That’s too bad.”
Bronze staggered backwards in shock, into the ritual circle, as Gumdrop yanked the now-bloodied dagger out and flicked the blade, sending blood droplets spattering onto the floor. Bronze Bell collapsed, and the runes around the circle began to glow.
“Bronze!” Twilight cried out, but she was forced away by a fresh surge of magic rippling out from the circle. The furious rush of light and sound left her reeling.
“The seal is deteriorating too quickly. We are not able to maintain it,” said Luna from somewhere nearby. There was the sound of breaking glass, and a moment later Twilight’s vision cleared enough for her to see again. Gumdrop Giggles was gone, having escaped through a broken second story window. Twilight screamed in frustration.
Bronze bell groaned from the middle of a puddle of blood. Realizing that he was still alive, Twilight rushed to his side, pressing her hooves against the gushing wound in his chest.
“Twilight... I think I messed it all up,” said Bronze, his voice a weak shadow of what it had been.
“No, it’s not that bad. We can fix this. We can fix you up. The Princess knows all sorts of healing magic, right Princess?” asked Twilight, looking desperately towards Luna. But Luna just bit her lip and turned away without answering.
“Anyone ever tell you that you’re a bad liar, Twilight? Maybe I deserved this, though. I knew Gumdrop did bad things, but I thought... I don’t know what I thought. Maybe I was just being selfish,” said Bronze.
“You don’t, Bronze. If anything, it was her who didn’t deserve you. Maybe if we’d met sooner, if things were different, I could have shown you that you’re more special than you think even if the ponies around here never saw it. I saw it. I swear I did. Please hold on, Bronze,” said Twilight through the tears that were beginning to fall, and that were swallowed up into the pool of blood they landed in.
“I almost asked you out earlier, right before you left for the temple. But I had just given you the fake location, and if you’d found out I would have about died of embarrassment. Guess I don’t have to worry about that now, huh?” Bronze tried to laugh, but it degenerated into a hacking, bloody fit of coughs. “Ow, that really hurts.”
“Don’t try to talk if it hurts, Bronze. You don’t have to say anything to me. I understand,” said Twilight, cradling his head in her lap. The light in his eyes was fading away, and they were half shut.
“Just try... I hope you can try to stop hating me for what I’ve done, someday,” said Bronze, letting his eyes close for the last time.
“Bronze, no, I’m sorry I said that, I was just so mad when I found out. I don’t hate you, I couldn’t. Please don’t think that.”
But Bronze Bell was already gone.
For a long minute Twilight just sat there next to his body, staring at her own bloodied hooves and trying to will herself to believe that this wasn’t really happening. Surely she would wake up any moment now in her bed and this would all turn out to be an awful dream. She never did.
“Twilight...” she heard Reinolds say from behind her. A few seconds later she stood up, but didn’t turn around. She could feel the ground trembling under her feet. Something was coming. Something big.
“Luna, try to keep however much of the seal intact as long as you can. If... when Ouroboros manifests, do whatever worked the last time. Captain, let the authorities know what we’re dealing with here. They’ll probably want to evacuate as much of Pensacolta as possible, but it won’t be easy in the middle of the night like this. I’m going to find Gumdrop Giggles,” said Twilight.
“Twilight, we sense that the ritual was successful. Gumdrop will be able to use the dagger to control the Serpent once it has manifested. We must be cautious. Neither of us should challenge her without some sort of plan,” said Luna.
“I’ll figure something out,” said Twilight. With a burst of teleportation magic, she vanished from the room, leaving Reinolds and Luna alone with Bronze's remains.
SHIP WRECKED (2/2)
Twilight reappeared a moment later on a rooftop not far from the warehouse she’d just left. She gasped in pain. Not from the exertion of travelling so far, which was a dull and pleasant ache compared to the emotional tempest that was welling up inside of her chest. She tried to walk to the edge of the rooftop, but her hooves were still tacky with Bronze’s quickly drying blood and she had to pull hard with every step she took. She was only halfway there before she stopped. What was the point?
Twilight let herself just collapse right there, flopping down onto the gravelly rooftop and laying still, other than her slowly rising and falling chest as she breathed.
That’s more than Bronze has now, she thought. She’d been crying before. By all rights she should be crying again now. For some reason, she wasn’t. She couldn’t. There wasn’t any sorrow left in her. She was just so damn tired.
Twilight wasn’t quite sure how long she’d been laying there when she felt the roof beneath her begin to shake. She’d felt this a few minutes ago, but it was getting worse. The revelation was only just enough to get her to roll over and twitch a little. Another tremor, they were definitely getting closer together. Twilight forced herself to get back onto her hooves. From her vantage point she could see the water in the bay starting to bubble and churn, and feel the agitation in the air around her.
At least Gumdrop Giggles would be easy to find. She seemed like the type who would want to rub in the fact that she’d won. Just the name crossing her mind filled Twilight with a fresh surge of anger. It wasn’t the same as the white-hot rage that had swept her up when she’d found out it had been Bronze that had nearly killed her. This was cold. Focused. This she could use.
The magic dancing in the air crescendoed as the seal finally gave way. Ouroboros, now made manifest in a physical form once again, rose from the harbor. Twilight gaped. A head emerged first, and rose upward so quickly that all she had the chance to make out were the overall rhomboid shape and four eyes, two on each side and every one the size of a boulder. The creature towered over the city and even from the rooftop she was standing on she had to crane her neck to look up at it. Its serpentine body was as thick as a half-dozen ponies lined up end to end, and while Twilight found herself staring at its pale underbelly, but as it twisted she could see its side and back were covered in mottled blue and green scales.
Ouroboros snorted, sending a downpour of seawater and something sticky Twilight tried not to think much about onto the Pensacolta rooftops. Taking a deep breath, it let out a bellowing roar that shook the city down to the last tree and brick. Twilight realized that her knees were shaking and closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. She steadied herself, reinforced the defensive wards around her, teleported down to the street and strode forth towards the water.
Twilight arrived at the shoreline a few minutes later, stepping onto the beach. The spot had been easy to find, the serpent’s attention had been fixed on the general area she standing in now. She looked out at the bright moonlight reflected from the waves lapping the shore.
The same light gleamed off the blade of the dagger held by the pegasus a dozen meters away.
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” said Gumdrop. “You lost, Twilight. It’s over. The only part left is to see how far you can run before my new friend here catches and devours you. Not that I don’t appreciate you saving me the trouble of hunting you down. Oh, and before you try whatever little plan you’ve devised, Ouroboros? Block or deflect anything she tries to throw or shoot at me.”
Twilight fired a blast of energy at the pegasus, but the bulky tail of Ouroboros had already shot out of the water and interposed itself between the two of them with impossible speed. Twilight’s attack struck it’s scaly guard and burst harmlessly. A few flaps of her wings later and Gumdrop was perched on top of his massive body, idly twirling the dagger around one hoof. “Wow. Real impressive plan there. My turn to show off my pet’s other tricks. See that beach house a couple blocks over that way? Well, actually you can’t, there’s a bunch of other houses in the way and you’re way down there, but breaking into that house while the owners were on vacation to rob the place was the first time I ever got busted by the cops, spent six months in juvie. Six months! I totally missed my sophomore year spring formal. How is that justice? Ouroboros, smash that house. With your face.”
From high above, Twilight saw the monster’s head freeze suddenly and twitch. It rocked back and forth for a moment before plummeting towards the point Gumdrop has pointed, crashing into it and shaking the ground beneath Twilight’s hooves. The beast’s slack body landed in the space between where its face had struck and the water, carving a path of collateral damage through several blocks of housing. Thinking she might have an opening, Twilight loosed another bolt of magic at Gumdrop, but again the beast interposed its own body between them and the shot was wasted.
“Did you see that? Look, I know you’re all goody-goody and you hate me and all, but can’t you at least try to appreciate how awesome this is for me? How absolutely bucked you are? Did killing Bronze just... break you or something? And this is just you committing suicide so you can be with your beloved little smoochy-kins? Because it looks a lot like that. Bronze was going on and on all afternoon about how wonderful and smart and special you were. Ugh. So annoying! If it makes you feel any better I would have gotten around to knifing him eventually even if you hadn’t forced my hoof but it’s always extra satisfying to kill two birds with one god-summoning blood magic ritual, ya know?” said Gumdrop.
Twilight didn’t dignify Gumdrop’s banter with any response. Instead she focused her telekinesis on a small patch of sand between them. With one sweeping motion, she cleared a trench a few feet deep in the ground, leaving a pile of excavated sand situated on the edge.
“You’re even digging your own grave now? Not that I don’t appreciate the gesture, but frankly you’re starting to bore me. I’ve got a massive, invincible god of the sea and you’ve got a hole. Not even that deep of a hole. So come on, spill it, what’s your plan? I know there’s no counter magic for the summoning, I made sure of that much and if you’d found something like that you would have cast it already. So your brilliant scheme is... what? Gonna give me a big speech about how what I’m doing is wrong, and expect me to suddenly see the magic of friendship and surrender? Did you find some other ancient sea god you can summon to fight mine? Like maybe a super huge oyster or something? Come on, I know you’ve got something,” said Gumdrop.
Twilight looked up at her and tilted her head to the side like she was considering it. Finally, she spoke. “No, I don’t actually have any good ideas that I think can beat you. Just this,” she said.
With that, Twilight wrapped the dagger in telekinesis and yanked as hard as she could.
She would have been overjoyed if she’d actually managed to disarm the pegasus right there, but Gumdrop held on. Though she was jerked forward, once she spread her powerful wings and started flapping them Twilight found that the magic she was able to bring to bear wasn’t enough, and Gumdrop retained her grip on the artifact.
“Tug of war? Your clever plan is to play tug of war? OK, I was wrong. You and Bronze were perfect for one another, you’re both pathetic. Let go and I'll see to it that you die somewhat painlessly,” said Gumdrop, having fought Twilight to a stalemate.
Twilight reached out and tried to extend her magic over Gumdrop Giggles herself. This was almost always a bad idea as ponies, especially when they knew the caster was there and were actively resisting the effect, usually shook off being lifted and moved around. It was a testament to Twilight’s ability that she managed to extend her magic around one of Gumdrop’s wings. Firming up her grip, she snapped her head to the side subconsciously as she torqued her magic, wringing the wing like a wet dish towel. Gumdrop screamed in agony, but Twilight didn’t relent until she’d felt every one of the sixteen major bones in the wing snap at least once.
“You bitch! Ouroboros, ki-” said Gumdrop, but that was as far as she got. Now that Gumdrop had suddenly lost any leverage she’d once had over the dagger Twilight easily yanked it into the hole, dragging the pink pegasus along with it. With a single thought, she also swept the pile of sand back over the crevice she had created a moment ago. Refusing to let go of the dagger, Gumdrop was half-buried along with it, just her rear legs and tail sticking out of the sand. Twilight saw her try to brace and pull herself out with her her rear legs, but she could also feel the dagger she was holding under the sand and kept it firmly in place. Gumdrop could keep holding on to the dagger, or she could breathe. Not both.
Thirty seconds of desperate tugging at the dagger later, Twilight was beginning to wonder which path Gumdrop would choose. Throughout all of this, Twilight kept a wary eye on Ouroboros itself, but the serpent seemed disinterested and dazed without any commands to guide it. Finally, Gumdrop released the dagger and wrenched herself out of the sand, gasping for air.
“What’s the matter, pirate filly? Can’t handle a bit of buried treasure?” asked Twilight, pulling the dagger up out of the sand and towards herself. Despite her gasping for air a moment ago, Gumdrop was a quick sprinter and hot on the metaphorical heels of the dagger. Twilight wasn’t about to raise a shield unless Gumdrop and the dagger were on opposite sides of it, so the two ponies collided at the same moment the dagger reached Twilight.
The two traded blows, wasting no more energy on words. Gumdrop was clearly no stranger to hoof fights, but despite the pain Twilight’s telekinesis kept the dagger away from her scrambling hooves. Twilight scored a lucky hit with one of her rear knees into Gumdrop’s belly, and took the window of opportunity to finally grip the dagger properly and scream. “Ouroboros, return to the sea!”
Ouroboros didn’t stir, and Gumdrop wore a cruel grin as she took advantage of Twilight’s distraction to pounce on her once again, managing to wrap the unicorn in a painful choke hold. “Sorry, the ritual bound it to one pony, and only one pony. Me,” she said as Twilight rolled forward and threw her off of herself, wincing as she took stock of her own wounds. She still had the dagger, at least, but Gumdrop seemed more amused than injured by her attempts to strike at her. “I’ve already won, don’t you get it? I’m bound to a god, and you’re just some unicorn who thinks she’s important. You know what? I’ll even give you a free shot. Stab me. I won’t stop you.
Gumdrop fell back onto the beach and spread her forelegs apart, looking upward at nothing. This was Twilight’s chance. She grasped the dagger in her magic and....
“What are you waiting for, Twilight? Stab me. You win. Take advantage of it before I change my mind,,” said Gumdrop. Twilight raised the dagger. She could solve everything right now. Take her down, avenge Bronze, stop Ouroboros....
She was far too eager. It took everything Twilight had not to plunge that knife straight into Gumdrop’s heart. She knew that it would feel good. She knew that it would end the reign of terror Gumdrop was planning. But it would be wrong. The whole thing felt wrong.
“You only need it to be touching you, don’t you? I touch you with this dagger again and you get the chance to put in another order to Ouroboros,” said Twilight. It was rhetorical. Twilight lowered the dagger to her side as she recognized the trap Gumdrop had very nearly sprung on her. ”I stab you with this dagger and I’m giving you exactly what you want. You take a bad injury, and you tell that thing to kill me? Sorry.”
“NO! I said to stab me! Don’t just stand there, shove that dagger right here,” said Gumdrop, indicating her own chest with desperate abandon.
Instead Twilight took the chance to examine the dagger with all of her senses. She could feel the connection between it, Gumdrop, and Ouroboros.
It was the work of only a few seconds to shatter that connection entirely.
Twilight was watching for any change in Ouroboros’ behavior, and as soon as she destroyed the hold the dagger had over it the serpent began to stir again. “I’m not going to stab you, Gumdrop. But I will tell you you that Bronze was a better pony than you could have ever hoped to be, even if he wasn’t the colt I thought he was.” She looked up at the creature diving towards them, and with a smile looked back down again at her victim. “Goodbye, Gumdrop Giggles,” Twilight said, and in a blinding flash she was gone.
With the unicorn no longer standing over her, Gumdrop Giggles finally got a clear view of the oncoming force of nature that she had once controlled as it rushed in to avenge its mistreatment. “Oh, buck me,” was all she could manage before her former servant crashed down on her.
Twilight reappeared some ways down the beach, heaving for breath. The hoof to hoof fight had taken a great deal out of her. She could only slowly stumble away from the scene of carnage she’d just set in motion. She’d never felt so tired before in her life. Halfway to the beach’s exit she collapsed. She turned to look back at where Gumdrop Giggles had been laying, and saw only a crater. Ouroboros had torn a massive chunk of the beach away when it had bitten down on its former master.
Twilight looked up. She could see the serpent headed towards her as it swallowed the chunk of the beach it had just bitten down on. Clearly, it wasn’t interested in whether or not she had freed it. Ouroboros was ready to wipe out anypony it saw, guilty or otherwise. Too exhausted to do anything more, Twilight closed her eyes and waited for her fate.
Everything went black.
“Twilight Sparkle, that was most irresponsible of you, we would have been more than happy to assist you had you asked. It is fortunate that we arrived when we did,” said an extremely familiar voice.
“...Luna?” ventured Twilight
“Indubitably,” stated the voice.
Twilight opened her eyes again, but her whole world was still darkness. “Um, I’m still kinda blind here...” the ground beneath her shook, as if it had been struck by something massive.
“Our defenses against the forces that rage against thee also block out light. We suggest you deal with it, You have other senses. Employ them. Honestly, who has ever heard of a guardian of the Princess of the Night who could not see in the dark?” Twilight grimaced. “That was most reckless of you, to confront Gumdrop and Ouroboros without a plan, or any backup.”
“Well it all worked out in the end, right? I mean, I think it did. Even if Ouroboros had finished me off, it would have been worth it. Gumdrop can’t hurt anypony now,” said Twilight
Twilight suddenly felt a sharp blow on her cheek, and staggered to her side.
“You stupid foal. Are you really so dense? Are you truly so selfish that you can take such chances and think thy actions weigh only upon yourself, that there are no other ponies who care for your well being? How deluded are you, Twilight Sparkle? We thought you knew by now that you were precious to us.”
“Princess-” began Twilight. The world shook under an unseen blow once more
“No! Cease thy idle prattle and get over thyself, as you instructed us to. Art thou injured by Bronze’s treachery? Well, so are we. Remember that we have been with thee during the whole duration of thy interaction with him. We may not have felt as deeply for him, but we were just as taken in by his act. We did not let it drive us to take such rash action, though. Ouroboros is risen. We cannot defeat it alone, and our sister is several hours away, though we have sent word to her regarding the urgency of the situation. You are the most powerful unicorn available to us within this city, neigh, within all of Equestria. We... need your help. If we are to have any chance at protecting this city, we must work as a team,” said Luna. Twilight just stared. Within the blackness of the hemispherical shield Luna had created, only the glow of the Lunar Goddesses’ glowing horn cast any light at all, just enough to illuminate her glaring eyes.
“I don’t know how I can help, Luna. Ouroboros can shrug off any spell I throw at it. I’m not sure there’s anything I can do to stop it,” said Twilight. As if confirming her claims, something heavy slammed against Luna’s barrier. Luna seemed shaken by the impact.
“The dagger, Twilight Sparkle. It’s original purpose was not to control Ouroboros, but to defeat it. Reactivate the original enchantments it uses, and you may yet have some hope. We have several subtle magics we can employ to gain its attention, and we will keep Ouroboros occupied for as long as possible,” said Luna. A moment later, Ouroboros slammed into the shield a final time, shattering it. Moonlight rushed back into the void and Twilight blinked while her eyes readjusted.
Ouroboros was far more interested in the pony standing by her side. It lowered its head to regard Luna up close, teetering on the verge of recognizing the pony who played an integral role in sealing it away in the first place.
Luna probably edged that process along when she spread her wings and sprung forwards and upwards, driving her horn into the creature’s exposed eye.
The creature’s head whipped upwards and it let out an awful scream of pain, squeezing the affected eye shut. Luna, her starry, flowing mane now coated in a runny fluid, continued upwards and out over the water drawing Ouroboros’ attention away from Twilight and the town. Lancing bolts of moonfire rained from the sky as Luna unleashed her power against the creature, but Twilight didn’t have time to appreciate the display. She puzzled over the dagger, prodding at the enchantments that ran through it and trying to make sense of them all. The spells had held up for a millenium and a half, but for a moment Twilight feared that all the abuses it had been through in the last few hours might have somehow damaged it.
Then she felt it. There was a void deep in core of the spell, waiting to be filled. Twilight couldn’t tell what it would do, but it must be what Luna had been referring to. She looked out onto the bay where Luna was doing her best to keep Ouroboros occupied. The Princess had moved the fight into the rocky shoals some ways down the beach, away from the center of Pensacolta. Storm clouds had gathered from nowhere, and a localized downpour was obscuring her view of the princess except when a flash of lightning striking gave Twilight a quick view of her silhouette. Between the cover and her opening attack to the monster’s eye, Twilight guessed that Luna was just stalling for time. Though her attacks did seem to be hurting the serpent it didn’t look too much worse for the wear.
Twilight took a deep breath and poured her magic into the dagger, filling the void with her own power. She felt it course through the relic, reawakening the long-dormant spell that had been woven into it. The blade began to glow the purple color of her magic. Suddenly light and flame burst from the blade. Purple fire billowed forth and coalesced into an edge. What had once been a dagger just a few inches long became a five-foot long blade of purple energy, hovering in front of her face. Twilight stared in awe at the weapon, wrapping it cautiously in the grip of her magic and tentatively. If anything, it was even lighter now than the dagger had been. It felt like an extension of herself. Before she could think better of it, she reached out and touched the blade’s edge with her hoof. It was sharper than anything she had ever felt before, but it didn’t cut her. After all, Twilight reasoned, it was just her own magic given form.
Twilight suddenly felt a wave of dizziness pass over her. She hadn’t noticed that her horn was still glowing. The blade wasn’t fixed or permanent, it was drawing its power from her. Already stretched to her limit by the day’s trials, she wasn’t sure how long she could keep it up. Whatever she was going to do, she’d have to do it quickly.
“Alright, you overgrown Lumbricus Rubellus,” said Twilight, “let’s do this.”
Reinolds had reached the pier right around the same time Ouroboros had emerged from the sea. He’d been to several different police stations and royal guard posts warning the inhabitants of what was coming. They’d dispatched messengers of their own to spread word that the city was to be evacuated, but after the serpent’s roar nearly deafened him he decided that the rest of Pensacolta’s citizens probably already knew what was coming. He would just get in the way of the evacuation, and there were more important things he could be doing now anyway.
He boarded the Tranquility and began to fuss at the rigging, beginning preparations to cast off. His work was interrupted when he heard a voice from below deck.
“Hey! Luna? Twilight? Captain Reinolds? What’s going on out there? Can I have permission to come out of this room?”
Ample. He’d forgotten she was there. “No, you can’t. Not right now,” he yelled back. He’d have to get her off the boat before he left, but he wasn’t ready to deal with that just now.
So he was unpleasantly surprised a moment later when Ample walked out onto the deck, holding what looked to be a hastily assembled shiv made from a piece of a wooden chair, an edged scrap of metal, and a small strip of leather.
“What? How... Princess Luna said she bound you with an oath to stay in that room-” said Reinolds.
“Right. Unless I asked for permission to come out. I never promised I’d stay there if one of you said no,” said Ample with a grin. “Now, I’m leaving unless you think you want to try and stop me.”
Reinolds thought about this for a moment. “Okay. See you later then,” he said, and turned back to the rope he’d been untying.
Ample Booty blinked a few times, surprised by his nonchalance. “Huh, I sort of figured you’d try to stop me. Aren’t you a royal guard, or something?” she asked.
“I have way bigger fish to fry right now. Literally. Look behind you.”
Ample glared at him, suspecting a trick of some sort. Once she decided that Reinolds probably wouldn’t jump her the instant she looked away she glanced over her shoulder. Getting her first glimpse of Ouroboros, she did a double take back at Reinolds and turned around to gape at the beast. “She did it... She actually did it,” said Ample to nopony in particular. “So what, you’re running away now? Good idea, but maybe now that our crew basically owns the ocean a boat isn’t the way to go.”
“I’m not running away from it. I’m running towards it,” said Reinolds.
“That’s beyond stupid. Why would you do that?” asked Ample. The pair looked up as the monster suddenly slammed its body and head down onto the city, crushing at least a dozen homes under its massive bulk.
“That’s why. Because ponies are getting hurt, and they’ll keep getting hurt if nopony does anything about it.”
“No way. Captain Giggles didn’t say anything about hurting anypony. We were only going to use Ouroboros to rob some merchant ships. Sell the cargo, live like princesses ourselves. You know, the good life,” said Ample.
Reinolds wanted to scream at her, but that wouldn’t help anypony. There wasn’t time to waste arguing. He took a moment to calm himself before he spoke again. “Look Ample, Gumdrop Giggles is bad news. She left you to drown or be eaten by a seapony earlier today didn’t she?” When Ample didn’t say anything in response, Reinolds continued. “Do you have any family here in Pensacolta?”
The two stared at each other for a few moments. Ample sized the Captain up with a long glare. The water around the docks was beginning to grow rougher, and Reinolds wondered if he’d be able to handle the Tranquility in the dancing whitecaps.
“I have a sister, and her husband and their son. My nephew,” said Ample, biting her lip. She had chosen not to mention it, but their home wasn’t very far from where Ouroboros had come crashing down a moment ago.
“Go find them. Get them out of here, and yourself.”
“And what are you going to do? Sail up to that monster and poke it with a stick?”
“I’m going to buy time. If I can distract it for five or ten minutes, the guards will have that much more time to evacuate civilians. That could mean a few dozen lives that would otherwise have been lost,” said Reinolds, pulling at a knot that didn’t seem to want to be untied.
Ample blanched as she realized the implications. “But you don’t stand a chance against that thing. You’ll be killed!”
“Maybe. Probably. Some things are worth it, though. That’s why I signed up with the guard in the first place. Now quit wasting time and get going,” said Reinolds, turning back once again to his work. He channeled his concern and frustration into yanking on the tangled rope. It was better this way. Maybe Ample would be able to help somepony who really needed it.
“...You know there’s an easier way to do that, right? What’d you tie that with, a clove hitch? Here. Get out of the way and I’ll show you how to undo that,” said Ample. She shoved Reinolds off to the side and with a few quick motions, the stubborn knot was undone. Ample felt Reinolds sizing her up with a look. “I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “You can’t handle this boat on your own, you need a first mate, at the very least.”
“I’m used to being by myself. This isn’t something I want to drag anypony else into. You don’t owe me anything, Ample. Get out of here,” said Reinolds.
Ample scoffed. “Well, duh. Obviously I don’t owe anypony anything. On the other hoof, If you think I’m going to let my crew find out the guy who captured me was somepony who can’t even untie a half decent knot you’ve got another thing coming. When do we leave?”
Reinolds could only grin. “Right now. Hold on to something,” he said as he pulled the line to open the main sail. The Tranquility groaned and began to pull away from the dock. Off on a beach in the distance, a purple light flared. They just might have a chance after all.
Twilight panted for breath as she reached the edge of the turbulent, choppy shoal where Luna had engaged Ouroboros. She was fit, but sprinting a half mile to reach the edge of the tempest that was raging in front of her had left her drained and panting for air.
“I said... *gasp* *pant* alright you... you overgrown Lumbricus Rubellus. Let’s... *wheeze* Let’s... *pant* you know what? Forget it. You aren’t even listening to me anyway,” said Twilight. She hoisted her weapon in front of her. It was amazing, and every time it passed in front of her she struggled not to become bewitched by it again. A coil of Ouroboros was only a few lengths away from where she stood, and the beast was still focused on Luna. Twilight wasn’t likely to get a better shot than this.
She brought the cutting edge of the blade down against the scaly body of Ouroboros. She’d expected some sort of feedback or resistance to the weapon, but no. It cut through the monster like it wasn’t even there. The flesh before her split open as the blade passed through it like tissue paper before an open fire hydrant.
Ouroboros screamed. There wasn’t really a better word for it, as unearthly and confounding as the sound was. Some things, it seemed, were universal.
The downside to this, Twilight realized just a moment too late, was that the beast’s full attention was now entirely upon her. Although the cut she’d inflicted looked like an awful wound it was barely more than a distraction to the thing that had suddenly wheeled around to face her. One of Luna’s bolts of lightning struck the side of it’s face, leaving a singe mark but doing nothing to divert its attention as it glared down at her. She could see in its eyes that it knew the blade she wielded.
Seeing little other alternative, Twilight dove through the curtain of driving rain in front of her, taking cover in Luna’s storm. She dropped the bubble and wards that could have blocked out the rain and was immediately drenched. The void would have stood out and Twilight needed every iota of concealment she could get. It was situations like this that reminded her that blades made of solidified, glowing purple magic were really not the most practical things in the world.
Twilight pushed her soaking wet bangs out of her eyes, but this did little to improve her ability to see. All she could see or hear was churning water, the heavy rain and the spraying seawater mixing together to the point where Twilight wasn’t sure where one ended and the other began. Even though the water she was standing in was only a few inches deep she could feel its pull trying to throw her into the jagged, pointy rocks around her.
Twilight half felt a rush of movement, even through the storm. She teleported away just as a thick slab of muscle crashed down on the spot she’d been standing. She appeared somewhere else in the storm, disoriented and not quite able to get her bearings as the wind pelted her face. She landed roughly and began to flail, lashing out with her sword. She felt it nick something, and another scream told Twilight that she’d found her mark. In the confusion, it was impossible to tell if she was doing any permanent damage or just causing pain. Teleporting away again before it could retaliate against her, she found herself... back where she’s started? Somewhere new? It was impossible to tell and everything around her was a dark grey wall of wet.
Twilight felt something lightly touch her back. Falling back on reflex, she whipped around slashing the sword as she went only to feel it stop short, wrapped in a field of dark blue magic and just a few inches from Princess Luna’s face, illuminated by the glow of her horn. Luna glanced over at the sword, then back at Twilight and raised a quizzical eyebrow.
Sorry, Twilight mouthed rather than trying to be heard over the gale around them. In response, she felt herself being lifted up onto Luna’s back and the Princess took off straight upward, carrying her through the haze above and the thick layer of storm clouds that had been pouring rain onto the area around them. Twilight shook herself off as best she could as Luna landed on the cloud.
“Well done Twilight. Our magics are not proving as effective as we had hoped they would. That blade is our last and best hope,” said Luna.
“I can’t tell if it’s working, Princess. Ouroboros is just too big. Just randomly cutting it isn’t going to work,” said Twilight.
Luna nodded. “We agree, that is why you must-” and that’s as far as she got before Ouroboros burst through the clouds and slammed into her from beneath, sending her flying and Twilight tumbling off her back and straight through the clouds. Without Luna’s concentration maintaining it the rain vanished and the skies cleared. Twilight came to her senses tumbling through the air, every moment bringing her further towards the ocean surface. She remembered reading somewhere that beyond a certain speed a pony was better off falling onto cobblestone than water. Something about surface tension.
There was a spell for this, right? There had to be. A slow fall spell, or a turn a few cubic meters of water into downy soft feathers spell. Something. Why couldn’t she think of anything?
Her mind was still racing when she felt the impact. It wasn’t what she’d expected. Instead of the harsh slam of a solid surface, whatever she’d just hit was yielding and stretchy around her. She had almost slowed to a stop when she heard the unmistakable sound of tearing fabric and began to fall again, striking something solid a moment later.
“Nice catch, Captain! But she kinda wrecked our mainsail,” said a voice that Twilight found familiar but couldn’t quite place. She opened her eyes, happy not to be dead even if the collective aches and pains that were catching up with her were making her seriously reconsider that position. She registered that she was on a boat. What kind of idiot would be out on a boat at a time like this?
“Hey there, Sparkle. Anypony ever tell you that you really know how to make an entrance?”
That voice she knew. “Captain Reinolds? What are you doing out here? You should run...” She was more than a little out of it. Her weapon, reverted to an inert dagger once more, had clattered onto the deck of the Tranquility. If that edge was gone, so was their hope of defeating Ouroboros. She had to warn them to get away, that staying out there would only get them killed. She opened her mouth to cry out, but all that escaped through her lip was a feeble whimper.
“Hey, Twilight, are you OK? You’re safe now,” said Ample, appearing at the edge of her vision and poking at her side.
“Why are... you even here?” asked Twilight.
Ample just smiled. “I never really thanked you properly for saving my life back there. We’re even now, by the way, so don’t go counting on me to pull your flank out of the fire from now on, got it?”
“Both of you, shut up,” said Reinolds. “Princess Luna’s in trouble.”
Twilight lifted her head just enough to glance towards the sea monster in front of them. It was twisting and writhing, and Twilight could just make out the glow of Luna’s magic weaving in and out through Ouroboros’ coils. She tried to say something, but it took her several false starts before she could form coherent words.
Reinolds turned to look at her, confused by the request. “Did you say closer?”
“Move closer... to it. I can... I can fix this,” said Twilight as she forced herself back to her hooves. “She needs our help.” Grasping the dagger in her magic, she stumbled towards the prow
Reinolds turned the wheel and the boat turned once more towards the sea serpent. Fighting against the currents, their progress was halting and slow.
“Screw this, we aren’t going to make it there in time at this rate,” said Ample. “HEY LUNA! IF YOU’VE GOT ANY OF THAT WEATHER MAGIC LEFT, WE COULD USE A BOOST HERE!”
For a moment nothing happened, then Luna burst out of the serpent’s grasp and ascended into the sky. For a moment she stopped, her outstretched wings silhouetted in the moonlight. The Tranquility’s sails suddenly filled as the air behind them shifted. They were gliding along the water faster than Twilight had ever felt the boat move, practically soaring on top of the water.
Unfortunately, an unmoving alicorn princess made for an inviting target. Ouroboros surged upward again, snapping its jaws shut around the Princess. The surge of air behind them slowed to a gentle breeze, even as their momentum propelled them ever-closer to the body of the serpent.
Ample and Reinolds gasped, but Twilight let out a full throated scream as Luna disappeared. Grasped by a mix of shock and fury, her exhaustion was forgotten. Her magic flared, and the dagger sprang back into life, longer and brighter than before. No longer concerned for her own safety, Twilight ducked under the guard rail and walked out onto the tip of the prow hoisting the blade before her. She heard Reinolds shout something from behind her before he abandoned the wheel. They were out of control and on a collision course now. Ouroboros looked down at the boat, but its head suddenly jerked upwards, exposing a soft and pale underbelly as the beast fought against the enemy within.
Seconds before the tip of the boat collided with the preoccupied monster Twilight pushed off and teleported one more time, straight upward. The Tranquility continued forward, smashing itself to pieces against the beast.
Twilight reappeared just below Ouroboros’ chin. Whipping her head forward for emphasis, she drove the magical blade deep into the beast’s neck and throat, pouring every bit of energy from her quickly-fading wave of adrenaline into it. There was no scream this time, just a sick and pained gurgling as Twilight fell dragging the tip of the blade with her. She made no effort to slow herself down, but put everything into the strike leaving a long and jagged gash slicing through the creature’s body. Only halfway down, Twilight’s vision began to blur. Seconds later, her willpower finally gave out once and for all. Utterly drained and exhausted, the dagger sputtered and died as Twilight blacked out before she could even strike the surface of the water.
Twilight slowly came to, much less dead than she had expected to be after that last stunt but also wondering if death might be an improvement over how she felt right now.
“Good morning, Twilight. We really must stop meeting like this. It seems it's becoming something of a bad habit for us.”
Twilight’s eyes fluttered open at the sound of the familiar voice. She tried to roll over, but the pain was too much. She lay back down again with a groan as the the voice’s source walked over to her bed, leaned over and nuzzled her forehead. The edge of her ethereal mane drifted against Twilight’s face, sending gentle, comforting tickles of energy radiating out along her nerves. Twilight giggled. It hurt to do so, but it was worth it just to feel the rush of being alive. “Hello, Princess Celestia,” she said.
“You had us all worried there for a while. When Captain Reinolds pulled you out of the water you weren’t breathing. They had to give you mouth to mouth,” said Celestia.
Twilight’s earlier relief vanished. “Captain Reinolds gave me mouth to mouth?” she asked with alarm.
“I believe it was a Miss Ample Booty who did the honors, actually. You and Luna certainly have made some interesting friends down here,” said Celestia, her smile as indecipherable as ever.
“Luna! And Ouroboros! What happened? What did... ow...” Twilight’s attempt to sit up as she realized she’d last seen her charge being devoured by a sea serpent uncovered a whole score of new aches and pains throughout her body.
“Ouroboros is dormant once more thanks to you. It will take it several days to recover from the wounds you inflicted. My sister and I will seal it away once more in that time. As for Luna, I arrived a few hours after dawn and was able to... extricate her from her predicament. There was no permanent damage, beyond what her ego suffered. She was as good as new after showering a few times,” said Celestia. “In truth, I don’t mind saying how glad I am to hear of your concern for her. When I stuck you two together, I’ll admit I wasn’t sure your relationship would ever recover after the fight you’d had. I hope you can forgive me for what I put you through. And for what I said to you that day.”
Twilight smiled despite herself. It was hard to believe that had only been three months, it felt like far longer. “What’s a little attempted murder between good friends, right Princess?” asked Twilight, playing it off. She was surprised at how little resentment she felt over the whole thing now.
“That sounds like an excellent, if somewhat unconventional, thesis for a Friendship Report,” said Celestia.
It took Twilight a moment to process the full implications of Celestia’s statement. “Wait, are you saying you want me to be your student again?”
Celestia beamed. “I do. Very much so. I see no reason to continue the punishment you’ve been laboring under, when it’s clear you’ve grown so much since I levied it. And if you’ll permit me to be a little bit selfish for a moment, I’ve missed you Twilight. I missed you so much.” She placed a hoof against Twilight’s cheek, ever so gently. “Midterms at the Academy start in two weeks, unless you choose to postpone them while you catch up. Whatever classes you’d like to take, I assure you we’ll find the space.”
It was a tempting offer. Part of Twilight, a big part, wanted to leap onto the suggestion that they go back to the way things had been before.
But another part of her knew that would be a mistake.
“I’m not really sure I’m ready to come back, Princess,” she said. Celestia was usually impossible to read, but nopony could miss the look of hurt and disappointment that settled on her face just then.
“I... I see. Well. I suppose, if that’s what you want,” she mumbled.
“I don’t mean forever. I like being your student. It’s an important part of me and it always will be. But I realized over the last few days that there are other parts of me that are important too, and I need to learn more about those. I thought for the next few months, maybe I would go see my friends in Ponyville and then do some travelling. When the new semester starts, maybe I’ll be ready then,” said Twilight. “Does that make sense? I’m not sure I’m explaining it very well.”
“It does. There is a great deal of wisdom in that suggestion, I think. Take all the time you need and know that whatever decision you reach, you will always have my love and support in everything you do,” said Celestia. “Now I think you have earned some rest, and I have lots to do here in Pensacolta. Try to take it easy,” she gave Twilight a gentle peck on the cheek and turned to leave. Twilight watched her go, wondering if she was making the right choice. In the end, though, she’d just have to deal with whatever happened as it happened. She lay her head back down on the pillow, and before long she had dozed off again.
When Twilight woke up it was the middle of the afternoon. The worst of the pains had faded enough for Twilight to get up. She was starving, and realized that she hadn’t eaten anything for a full twenty four hours. Rather than call somepony in to fuss over her, she decided to take matters into her own hooves and gingerly lowered herself out of bed, testing her weight. She wasn’t going to running any races in the near future, but she could walk without too much of a limp. Nudging open her door and peeking through, she waited until a nearby nurse turned away from her before she slipped into the hallway following signs for the hospital cafeteria.
The lunch rush had ended well over an hour ago, and only a few tables had anypony seated at them. The three figures across the room sipping on mugs of coffee stood out and Twilight trotted over to them.
“You guys are OK!” she said. She grabbed Luna in a big hug from the side, causing her to yelp and drop her coffee. She only caught it with her magic at the last second. Twilight realized her mistake and let go. “Oh, I’m sorry Luna, I didn’t mean to-”
She was interrupted when Luna turned and swept her up in a hug of her own. “Do not worry, we were simply surprised. Some of our bite marks are still a little tender but you did us no real harm,” she said. Her mane and coat were scruffy and a little patchy in places, but Luna was probably in better shape than she was right now. Twilight realized she hadn’t seen her reflection yet, and wasn’t looking forward to it.
“Good to have you back, Sparkle,” said Reinolds from the other side of the table once Luna had loosened her grip. “That was a hell of a stunt you pulled back there.” Ample nodded from under a cloak that had obscured her features until Twilight got closer.
“I’m just glad everypony’s fine,” said Twilight. Ample’s face twisted into a sly little smile.
“Actually, Twilight, there’s some bad news. Ample Booty is dead,” said Ample. Twilight stared blankly at her. “Taken from us too soon, at the very pinnacle of her awesomeness. They never even found the body. Tragic, really. It’s all spelled out in the very official press release that tomorrow’s paper is planning to run.”
“Why would you let them do that? You’re a hero. They should throw you a parade or something,” said Twilight.
“Don’t I know it. But I’ve been a bad pony for a very long time, Twilight. I probably have a good seven or eight outstanding warrants, and even if Luna here gave me a royal pardon there are some ponies on the other side of the law that wouldn’t take too kindly to me helping you with Gumdrop. Not least her old crew. My old crew.” said Ample.
“But what will you do? Where will you go if everypony in the city thinks you’re dead?” ask Twilight.
“Plenty of other cities out there. I hear good things about Manehattan. Plenty of ways for an enterprising mare with my kinds of skills to make a living with a dishonest day’s work,” she said leaning back in her chair
Twilight couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She looked over at Reinolds and Luna, who seemed completely unsurprised that the pony in front of them had just blatantly confessed her plans to commit more crimes in the future. “You can’t do that, we won’t let you do that, right Princess?” she looked up to Luna expectantly.
Luna shrugged. “We cannot punish ponies for crimes they have not yet committed, Twilight,” said Luna.
Twilight frowned. She had come up with four different ways she could do just that through the proper application of divination and chronomancy when Reinolds spoke up again.
“Yeah, Manehattan's good. Too bad you aren’t considering Canterlot, though. There’s a pony there who I would have introduced you to. New recruit at the guard. Green coat, blonde mane, picture of a coin for a cutie mark. She’s screwed up a lot in the past, but I wasn’t really interested in that when I signed her up,” said Reinolds, pausing to take a long sip of his coffee. “What was important to me is that she’s clever, brave, and she stepped up to help a bunch of ponies she didn’t know when she could have just run off and saved herself. Frankly she’s a probably a bit overqualified for the job.”
Ample sat there for a long time, letting that sink in. “How do you know that I... that she’s cut out for the whole straight and narrow, legitimate citizen thing?” she asked.
“I guess I don’t know, for sure, but she really came through and helped me out when there was nopony else who could and I think I owe her the benefit of the doubt. I know this Princess, you see, and even though she’s a bit weird...” Luna’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, but she didn’t interrupt him. ”...she and I are both believers in the power of second chances,” said Reinolds. “Wish I could remember the mare’s name though, it’s on the tip of my tongue...”
Ample looked down at her side, staring at the spot where her disguise covered her cutie mark. “I think...I think her name is Golden Heart. That sounds like the name of the pony that she hopes... that she wants to be,” said Ample... said Golden Heart.
“You know, I think that was it exactly. Luna and I can take care of the paperwork, but she better be at training by 7:30 sharp next Monday. She needs to get her mane trimmed down to regulation length before then, too,” said Reinolds. “Oh, and one last thing. If I ever find out she has stepped even a millihoof out of line, or she’s been anything less than the pinnacle of integrity and trustworthiness, she and I will finish the knife fight we nearly started on the Tranquility. Got that?”
“Understood,” said Golden Heart. Reinolds’ glare didn’t relent even a bit. “I mean, understood... sir.”
“Wait, you two were in a knife fight?” asked Twilight.
“For the record, I totally would have kicked this geezer’s flank if he hadn’t chickened out,” said Golden Heart.
“Not even in your wildest dreams, kid.”
The two stared each other down for several seconds, until suddenly they both burst out laughing. “Alright. If I’m moving to Canterlot, I better go see my sister and give her a rundown of what’s really happening. If she sees my obituary in the paper before I can tell her what’s actually going on she might decide to make it come true,” said Golden Heart.
“I’ll come with you. You might need the backup,” said Reinolds. The two of them got up from the table and walked out of the cafeteria together, leaving Luna and Twilight alone. Neither of them seemed quite sure how to handle the moment, and an awkward silence descended over them.
“So, Twilight,” Luna began at last, “I suppose Celestia informed you that you were released from your duties as a bodyguard to us when she spoke to you.”
“Yes, she did mention that,” said Twilight, “I hope I did an OK job.”
“Of all our bodyguards who allowed us to be eaten by a sea serpent, you were the best.”
“You aren’t going to let that go anytime soon, are you?” asked Twilight, a skeptical eyebrow raised.
“Our sister made it clear that she would be reminding us of this incident regularly over the next several decades. So no,” said Luna.
“Do you two really poke fun at one another for things that happened so long ago?” asked Twilight.
Luna smiled a mischievous smile. “Actually, Twilight, allow me to answer that by telling you a story. Quite a long time ago, Equestria was hosting a trade summit with the Draconian empire. At the time, our intelligence about the empire’s internal politics was somewhat limited, but we had just received a very credible report that one of their princes had a powerful crush on Celestia. We decided to take advantage of this fact,” she said.
Twilight frowned. “You took advantage of a young dragon’s feelings? That seems wrong. And also somehow familiar,” she said.
Luna held up a hoof to forestall her protest. “Hear us out. It has been some time since anypony in particular has caught my sister’s eye but when she chooses to flirt with somepony, or somedragon as in this particular case, she is utterly, utterly shameless and heavy-hoofed. For three days, she applied her... charms... to the dragon prince.”
“Did it work?” asked Twilight, unable to resist interrupting the tale again.
“Well, as we discovered later,” Luna said with a smirk as she neared the climax of her story, “the Prince had never been interested in her at all. The whole tale was a rumor about an adolescent drake with a crush on a young rock farming mare in the borderlands that had spun entirely out of control,”
“So the whole time...” said Twilight.
“Exactly. At the end of the third day the prince took her aside, thinking it was she who had a crush on him, with the intention to let her down gently. If the later reports are to believed, he also told her that he wasn’t interested in ‘older mares.’”
Twilight winced in sympathy. “What did Celestia do?” she asked.
“What could she do? She resumed the trade talks as if nothing had happened and nursed her wounded pride in private. If you ever need a laugh, you need only drop the name “Prince Grayscale” into a conversation with her. We recommend waiting until she has just taken a mouthful of tea for maximum effect. Oh, and when you do please make sure you tell her from us that ‘now we are even.’” said Luna.
The two ponies shared a chuckle at Celestia’s expense. By the end of it Twilight felt that the tension between them had diminished just a little bit.
“In all seriousness, Twilight, we wish to thank you most sincerely for your service these last several months. You took on a great burden, protecting us in body and perhaps more importantly restoring us in spirit. We will not forget your efforts. Still... We are certain that by now you are ready to move on with your own life, and surely eager not to be stuck by our side. We would not begrudge you for wishing to... avoid us for some time after all this. We must surely bring to mind many hard times just by our presence,” said Luna, staring into her cup of coffee.
Twilight shifted in her chair, uncomfortable. “Well, Princess. I’m sure you’re sick of me too. There must be lots of things you’ve wished you could do without me interfering or hanging around uselessly. So if you want to go off on your own, or want me to just try to keep away from you for a while that would be completely understandable,” she said.
“Right,” said Luna.
“Right,” said Twilight. Another silence descended over them and both ponies found something more interesting to look at than one another.
“...on the other hoof...” said Luna eventually, “We discovered in one of the hospital’s periodicals that the Pensacolta Public Library recently began a new program displaying ancient tomes of dark magic and eldritch knowledge to the public. We thought we would go visit them. By ourselves of course.”
Twilight’s ears perked up at the prospect of rare and ancient books on display. “I think I’d like to see that too. You know, by myself,” she said.
Luna nodded. “Naturally. Though if we will be attending by ourselves, and you will be attending by yourself, perhaps we could each attend by ourselves... at the same time?”
Twilight couldn’t contain her grin. “I’d like that very much Princess. In fact I think that if we both decided to independently and coincidentally visit the exhibit, say, right now we could even walk over there together.”
Luna’s nervous and tentative smile changed instantly into a wide and genuine one, and Twilight thought there might even be the slightest suggestion of tears in the corner of her eyes. “We would very much enjoy that. We try to make it a point to attend such events ever since a careless librarian accidentally sorted A Newbie’s Primer on Necromancy in the young foal’s selection.”
Twilight grimaced a bit. “Oh dear, that must have led to some serious mental trauma for the poor little things,” she said.
“On the contrary, the foals found the entire experience delightful and exciting. Their parents, on the other hoof...” and with that Luna began to regale Twilight with the tale of the Zombie Gerbil Horde that had menaced Fillydelphia fifteen hundred years ago.
Side by side, the two friends pushed open the doors of the hospital and walked out into the late afternoon sun. Whatever the future held, they’d face it together.
Thanks for reading everypony! I've got two new stories that are somewhat related to this one in theme or content. If you enjoyed Twilight being a bad ass and want to read more of that try Hard Reset. It shares no story continuity with Duel Nature, I just really like writing a flank-kicking Twilight. If, on the other hoof, you want more Luna or something a bit more lighthearted read The Late Afternoon of the Zombie Gerbil Horde. Three guesses what that's about, first two don't count.
Who am I kidding, you all have tabbed browsing. Read 'em both.