Dawn rose on the land of Caballus…or what used to be the land of Caballus. In less than a month, a third of the nation had fallen to the Black Ponies and was now the land belonging to the Queen of Magic. She hadn’t named the land yet; in fact the only thing that had been named since the gypsies had returned to their homeworld was the nearly-complete castle, Bright Eyes’ Citadel. Most of the jagged, crystalline structure had been finished, and the sculptors had begun work on the masterpiece, the gold-and-marble statue of Queen Bright Eyes that would adorn the top of the castle.
From her position in her room, Rainbow Dash, the Queen of Magic, watched as her subjects built the monument to her ancestress. Once complete, the statue would be placed in a way to forever watch over the ruins of Canterlot, a fitting honor for such a wronged queen. Rainbow Dash could only wish that she’d have met Bright Eyes in the flesh; the two would probably agree that such an honor was well deserved. There was even a tiny mausoleum under the left forehoof of the statue, so that when Celestia and Luna were killed, they would be forever interred there, destined to spend eternity under the hoof of their better.
As she sat up in bed, a cooing sound emanated next to her: the young mare that had spent the night with her; quite a few, in fact. A beautiful earth pony with a rose-colored coat and honey-colored mane, she was willing and eager and didn’t care what others thought. She wore the manacles of a lesser, a native of this world; due to her position as the queen’s plaything, her manacles were an ornate silver and gold affair. In the week since she’d chosen Rose Hills to be hers, she was under no illusions: Rainbow thought of her as fondly as she would a pet, and Rose was probably seeking a way to escape the fate of so many of the other lessers. Looking at the mare’s still, beautiful form, Rainbow thought that maybe once the war was over and everything was rightfully hers, she could perhaps consider a longer relationship with Rose, but that was for a future time.
There was a knock on the door, and Rainbow called out, “Please, come in.” Minty walked in, followed by two other mares: a gray pony with a fiery orange mane, and a magenta one with an amber mane. “Ah, my generals. Welcome, my friends.”
As Rainbow made to get up, she felt a tug on her shoulder: it was Rose. “Do you have to leave so soon?” the mare pouted.
Rainbow bent down and kissed her. “Duty calls; I shall be back shortly.” Slipping on a robe, Rainbow Dash said to the others, “Let us talk in the tea room. I’m sure it’s private.” The four left the room, heading to the next. As they sat by the table, Rainbow smiled. “It’s good to see all of you, my friends.”
“First off, Waterfire and Star Song apologize for not being able to make it, but they’re both currently involved with field operations,” Minty said. “Second, it’s good to see you smiling again. Your fillyfriend there has got you wrapped around her hoof.”
“Hardly. I’m fond of Rose, but I’m hardly picking out matching accessories.” Minty just gazed at the queen before she answered with, “Okay, I do find her attractive. Is there anything wrong with that?”
“Yes, there is,” Amberlocks said in a huff. “If you were looking for comfort in the bed, you could have called me. You know I’d sleep with you in a heartbeat.”
“Amber, you know I don’t feel that way about you; I consider you a dearest friend, but you’re not my type.” But the argument wasn’t done. “And I see you have a complaint, Autumn, darling?”
“What you do with your free time is your call, Rainbow, and as your friend, I’m happy for you. But as your general, I must point out to you the danger of treating a lesser as an equal. The more you stay with her, the more you equalize your relationship, and the more you put a lie to all our tribe has ever known about this world and its inhabitants.”
“So what would you have me do?”
“Kill her and make it publically known she was there to please you and only that. If you don’t have the heart to do it, I’ll do it for you. Or we can let Amber do it – Amber, I’m sure you’d be more than happy to off the little minx that took your spot, correct?” The way Autumn phrased it, had not Rainbow been sitting there, Amberlocks would have went straight in the bedroom and ran her sword right through Rose, if not worse.
“No. She is mine and that is all there is to be said of that – and if something happens to her, you two are the ones I will doubt most of all.”
“She’s a weakness that can be exploited, Rainbow. If you must have somepony to keep you warm at night, take one of our own tribesponies. There are plenty of mares who would jump at the chance. Even a few stallions too, I daresay.”
“No. We are done with this conversation.” Before anypony else could say further, she changed the subject. “How long will it be before we march on Trottingham?”
“Truthfully? We could be there in a week. But as your orders were to go slow and steady, we will take the rest of the country first. That will slow down the march another three months, presuming no major offensives from Caballan forces or those of its allies. That should give plenty of time for panic to set in as well as the ability to fortify our position on the other fronts until we have the entire northeastern continent under our hooves.”
“What about the southeastern and great eastern continents?”
“I will swing south and start eliminating any sense of organization in the southeastern lands,” Amberlocks answered. “From what we know, the nations there have historically been disorganized, so it should be foal’s play to sweep any combatants off the battlefield. The challenge will come from the sheer size of the great eastern continent. It will take all five of us to put down that beast of a landmass: the nations there have, unlike the southeast, a history of warfare and being brutally good at it. The nation of Inari, in fact, has had nothing but a history of internecine warfare up until their emperor solidified power a little over a hundred years ago. We can beat them, but to do so thoroughly will take at least a year, and that’s without any assistance. I would count on that being the biggest issue of our fight to take back our world.”
The Queen of Magic mused. “That would mean a timetable of three, possibly four years to take this world back.” She looked at her generals; save for the two absent, they all nodded in agreement. “Then so it shall be. We waited three years to find our home, another two years of preparation and that’s atop the three years of war against the Hierophant. Another hoofful of years is a small price to pay to ensure we regain what is rightfully ours.” She stood up. “So be it. Take Trottingham in three months, then settle down for the long haul. All of you, relax and enjoy the day while you are still in our lands. As for me, I have my own duties to attend to.”
“Oh?” Minty asked. Though the others didn’t speak, it was clearly on their minds as well.
“Of course. The large-scale use of the Afflicted on one of the Equestriani cities last week proved to be quite a boon in the terror department. I intend to create more, and start scaring Celestia’s allies as well.”
“Necromancy – I don’t care for it,” Amberlocks answered. “It feels a step too far, Rainbow.”
“Perhaps. But when I swore I’d lead my tribesponies home, I vowed to do everything in my power to do so. And if that means damning myself to ensure the future of our tribe? So be it. All of you dismissed, save for Minty. Minty, darling, I need to talk to you in private about something very important.”
“As you will, my Queen,” the three said in unison.
A house in Ponyville, dark as night, lights out: an oddity for the midday; also an oddity that it was a house and not a home. But a week ago, it stopped being a home, would never be one again. And if Noteworthy had anything to say about it – or rather, drink about it – it’d just end up as his mausoleum.
But not if Macintosh had anything to say in that matter. “Notes, git up, git sober, an’ let’s git goin’. Y’ can’t jest lay here an’ die.”
Noteworthy drank the fifteenth? Sixteenth? Whatever number of cider and stumbled away from the fridge. “I can’t, Mac. She’s gone. The love of my life is gone.” His hooves gave out from underneath him and the blue earth pony collapsed to the floor, the can of cider spilling all over the place. “CB….” he moaned, burying his face in his hooves.
“Ah said, git up, Notes. She woudn’ wanna see y’ like this.”
“Do you know what the funniest part of all this is?” he slurred in an almost dreamlike voice. “All the years I was in the EPG and she was a civvie, she was constantly afraid of something happening to me. So when she joined the Fleet and I got out, we joked that nothing was ever going to happen.” His head seemed to bob on the way down. “I’m a fool, Mac. We should’ve married last fall, like I wanted, but she wanted a summer wedding, and….” Depression gave way to the moan of a soul, completely lost.
Macintosh reached down and pulled the other stallion back to his hooves. “Y’ want at those buckers who done y’ wrong? Ah’ll break th’ world t’ help ya wit’ that, Blues. But Ah won’t help ya wit’ drinkin’ yerself t’ th’ grave, got it?” Noteworthy looked at him with bleary eyes before nodding. “Good. Let’s get y’ cleaned up, an’ we’ll go put th’ hurt on them.” He left the drunken pony standing there while he walked to the door. “He’s back,” he told those waiting. “Might not be perfect, Ah reckon, but ‘ts better than th’ alternt’ve.”
Cheerilee stood with Bon-Bon at the front door, relieved at the news. “That’s great to hear, honey,” Cheerilee said.
“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Bon-Bon promised. “He and CB were a perfect couple…it’s hard to believe she’s gone.”
“War does that,” Mac drawled with a tone of regret. “Gotta git ‘im cleaned up an’ ready t’ go.”
“You two go do whatever you need to; I’ll take care of it,” the cream-colored earth pony replied. “I’ll toss him in the shower and get him spiffed up – nothing I haven’t seen before.” Suddenly, she found both her friends staring at her. “Well, I, uh, experimented in college,” she explained, “dated quite a few stallions before I found what I really wanted in a mate. Just don’t tell Lyra – she thinks she’s the first.”
Cheerilee giggled. “Your secret’s safe with us.”
“Excuse me,” a young pony said, catching their attention. He was in his early 20s, well-built and had the mane cut of somepony in the EPG who still stuck a bit too much to the regs. “I’m looking for a Mister Noteworthy.”
“An’ ya are?” The pony was easily half Mac’s age, reminding him just how old he’d become while the world caught up to him.
“Sergeant Irontail, EPG, 114th Infantry, out of Fort Whinnypeg.” He sighed. “I’ve got…I’ve got something to give him.”
“Y’ can give it t’ me,” Mac said, intervening. “Major Noteworthy’s not up t’ seein’ anypony at th’ moment.”
“And you are?”
“Brigadier Macintosh, 1st Destriers.”
Irontail’s eyes went wide open; despite both being in civilian attire at the moment, the younger pony saluted. “Sorry, sir! But I was asked specifically to give this directly to him, from Fleet Petty Officer Chocolate Blueberry.” The mares standing there turned away, and the mood went darker. “I guess you already know, then. It’s been a week, so….” He opened his saddlebags and pulled out her ID tags. “She wanted him to have this.”
Mac took it, passing it to one of the mares. “Bon-Bon, make shure Notes gets this when he’s good ‘n sober. No likely knowin’ whut he’d do wit’ ‘em otherwise.”
“Absolutely,” she said, taking them.
Meanwhile, Mac looked at Irontail. “Well, c’mon, Sarge, we got work t’ do.”
“Sorry, sir – I’m only in town to pass this on to him, then I have to return to my unit.”
The russet earth pony shook his head. “Not anymore. Y’ were sent as th’ sniper, so way Ah sees it, y’ owe Blues. Only way t’ fix that is t’ be wit’ us. Ah’ll take care o’ it – yer with th’ Destriers now. Fer now, Ah need ya t’ round up a few more ponies in town. After that, yer headin’ back an’ get yer family – yer movin’ t’ Ponyville.”
“Um…how’d you know I have a family, sir?”
Mac’s only answer was to shake his head while Cheerilee spoke up. “You smell like baby powder, sergeant. Only newborn parents have that smell.”
“I…see. That’s how she knew.” As they looked at him, he explained everything, from his running into CB to her sacrifice. “I wouldn’t be standing here if it wasn’t for her. I owe her everything.”
“Trust me,” Mac said in a voice with no humor, “we’ll make shure yer paid up.”
They stood at the edge of the gangplank, the five remaining Knights, along with Scootaloo, who had just arrived the previous night. Not wanting to distract the military ponies from their duty, both Celestia and Luna opted to remain at Canterlot, having said goodbye to their friends earlier. But now it was just the five, spending the final moments together before they would be separated by war.
“Fluttershy, I must say, you look incredibly dashing in that flight suit,” Rarity commented. Like Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy was now wearing the PGF flight suit. Strangely enough, it looked better on Fluttershy than her friend, and Rarity wondered if the part-time model was embarking on a new venture as a military mascot. “It gives you a rakish sort of flair.”
The yellow pegasus blushed, a color nearly matching her mane. “Well, the Admiral wanted everypony on staff to be suited in uniform, combatant or not,” she explained. “Even though I’m just on the operations staff as a post-conflict planner, wearing a uniform is supposed to be good for morale. I’ve also been given a commander’s rank as well, probably for the same reason.”
“That part’s different,” Rainbow Dash clarified. “Our knightly ranks are way too high, so we’d inadvertently spook the brass that way; and we can’t be commodores, because that would step on the toes of fliers who’ve been in long before us. The Admiral thought commander ranks were the best compromise and it still gives us room to grow into our jobs.”
“Well, look on th’ bright side,” Applejack drawled. “Y’all don’t have t’ spend th’ next few weeks learnin’ t’ use a sword, like me an’ Twilight.” She unconsciously rubbed her arms in anticipation of the long days of sore muscles to come. “Rarity got lucky; ‘cus o’ her heavy magic trainin’, she gets ta skip all the sword hooey.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Twilight grunted. “Now I’m wishing I could have learned at least the basics from my brother when I was a foal.”
“That’s right: Ah fergot about him,” Applejack replied. “Well, too bad he c—”
The officer of the deck yelled down from the gangplank, interrupting her comments. “Commander Dash, Commander Fluttershy, Lieutenant Scootaloo, we’re departing in five minutes, so you’ll need to finish up and report to stations.”
“What, can’t you give us any more time?” Scootaloo shouted back.
“Sorry, Lieutenant. Not my call to make,” he commented.
At that pronouncement, all embraced as one. There had been nothing said, nothing needed to be said – they had been through so much together, anything that had ever been voiced had already done so years ago. Nothing was also said about their missing member and how much her absence tore at them. They merely held and found comfort in one another’s presence; friends, sisters, family.
Finally, they all let go, unable to delay the pegasi forever and bound to their own duties. As they separated, Twilight voiced the words that were on the minds of the three remaining behind: “You three take care of yourselves, okay?”
Dash, true to her nature, waved it off. “Fluttershy’ll be aboard the whole time, and while Scoots and I’ll be out there in the battlezone, there’s nothing fast enough to catch us.” Unmentioned by all was the human weapon that Pinkie had summoned the month prior, likely because it would have brought up memories of Pinkie, something none of them wanted to broach.
“Don’t worry about it, Twilight,” Scootaloo bragged, pointing a proud hoof back at herself. “I’ll make sure they’re in good hooves.”
The OOD reappeared. “Sixty seconds to launch, mares.” With that, the three winged ponies walked up the gangplank, waiting on the outer deck by the rails as the airship prepared to take off.
“I hope they’ll be okay,” Rarity whispered.
“Ah agree wit’ ya, Rarity,” Applejack admitted. “This ain’t nuthin’ like what we’ve e’er dealt with in th’ past.”
“They’ll be fine and back in a few weeks,” Twilight answered, not entirely confident in her own words but having to say them to assure the others. “We’ll see them again soon.”
Removed from the bitts, the hawser lines were pulled aboard the great airship by its crew. The Sword of Equestria, unfettered by the bonds that kept it tethered to the earth, rose and turned as the great propellers swung the ship about, headed on its course. The great pegasus carrier was but one of the battlegroup being sent on the mission to aid their fellow ponies. Lifting beyond the confines of the fleet base, it was joined by fourteen other ships, from other carriers such as the Shield of Canterlot and the Spirit of Manehattan to interdictor combatants such as the Sirius and Clover the Clever, all bristling with onboard weapons and complements of pegasi squadrons. As the ships of the PGF Task Force Alicorn’s Roar slipped into the distance, shrinking from great aerial structures to mere dots on the horizon, the hope of peace was for once and all shattered, replaced by a hope the war would not be protracted and bloody, and that peace would return soon.
Standing on the weather deck by the cannons, Rainbow Dash, Scootaloo and Fluttershy watched until the base disappeared from view, lost in the mountain range that was itself becoming diminished as the ship moved on towards its destiny. As the began to swing east, Canterlot came into view, a speck of ivory, bright and beautiful against the drab gray and deep greens of the mountainside.
“And so the fun begins,” Scootaloo said, rolling up the sleeves of her flight suit. “Should be pretty interesting.”
“Do…do you think they’ll be okay?” Fluttershy asked.
Rainbow clapped her friend on the back. “You still worried about that? Angel’s pretty smart for a bunny, and with some help from Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle, he should have things well in paw.”
“I…wasn’t thinking about that.” Fluttershy smiled; it was the kind of smile that indicated that wasn’t the thing on her mind and that Rainbow had now given her something else to worry about. “I was talking about the others.”
“Oh.” Dash was quiet for several more minutes as even Canterlot disappeared from view. “They’ll be fine, I’m sure of it. I think I’m the one who got dealt the worst cards, and I’ll manage.” That being said, Rainbow Dash walked over to the metal hatch sealing the ship’s insides from the elements. “C’mon, let’s go find our bunkroom. We can be roomies again, just like Summer Cloud Camp when we were foals!”
“I’ll stay out here for a few more minutes,” the yellow pegasus answered. She did not take her eyes off the receding ground, even as they were high enough now that the mountains were a mere gray line on the earth below as it started to run up against the deep blue of the Eastern Ocean. Her body language made it clear: she would have done anything to have stayed down there with her friends and family, instead of marching off to war – well, flying on a giant airship, really.
The two veteran pegasi stood there by the hatch, not knowing what to say, merely watching their friend. “Rainbow, you’re not going to let her just sit there like that?” Scootaloo asked.
“Did you think I would? We don’t let each other down – you know that.” Rainbow immediately went behind Fluttershy and hugged the other pegasus. “Look, I’m not going to lie to you: this is probably harder than anything any of us have ever done. I don’t doubt the princesses are blaming themselves for letting the war occur. But we have to believe in each other and in our friendship.” Pointing a hoof past Fluttershy, she continued. “Somewhere out there, Pinkie’s risking everything to get the elements. It’s our job to make sure she has a place to come back to, okay? I dunno about you, but I’m looking forward to Pinkie’s ‘Yay I’m Back’ party, followed by her ‘I Got the Elements’ party and the ‘Let’s Win the War!’ party.”
Fluttershy smiled slightly as she turned to face her old friend. “I guess you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right! We’ve known each other since we were just little fillies and I’ve never steered you wrong, right?” Rainbow boasted as she let go of her friend. “Okay, well, not much, anyway. C’mon, let’s go inside. We’ve got a lot to do before we get back and this adventure’s just gettin’ started.”
The antiseptic scent annoyed Vinyl Scratch. She’d smelled it one too many times in all the clubs and raves she performed in, and too often in some of the recording studios she made her albums in. Contrary to her rock star image as DJ P0N-3, in private Vinyl lived a pretty quiet and sedate life. She’d picked that up from her best friend and it probably saved her from the pitfalls of the high-flying celebrity lifestyle. But her house smelled of violets and vanilla, not isopropyl and other disinfectants.
But that didn’t matter right now. Normally, she went out in public as DJ P0N-3, all the better to be able to hide when she needed to – but not today, not when said best friend was dying. It was enough for her to put on a button-up shirt, tie her long two-tone mane in an intentionally unfashionable bun, and put on her eyeglasses (few knew that her famous shades were actually prescription lenses) that revealed her magenta eyes. Although she would rather be wearing her shades right now; it might hide the tears.
“Vi, don’t bother with the brave face; I know you too well. You, of all ponies, are allowed to break down,” Lyra said as she sat next to the white unicorn. There were four of them in the room, three friends keeping a watch over their fallen companion. When Lyra had found out about it, she immediately headed to Canterlot, pausing only to get messages to the other two of their circle: Vinyl, who cancelled several dates she was supposed to be playing on the other side of the country this week; and Licorice Pizza, the rock guitar pegasus and vocalist for the band HUFSTOMPR; he put a halt to the recording of his band’s latest album to be here.
Licorice tugged at his tie and tailed mane; like Vinyl, he’d dressed himself up to look more presentable at the hospital and less conspicuous; he probably didn’t do quite as well a job, considering he still had his trademark goatee. Looking at Lyra, he asked, “What happened? I mean, obviously it’s bad – she’s in a bucking coma, for Celestia’s sake – but she just didn’t get this way normally.”
“I don’t know much,” Lyra admitted. “I found out the same time Bon-Bon did. Apparently she got caught in an assassination attempt on her sister. Blinky was seriously injured, and they barely got her here in time.”
“Who’s her sister? I don’t keep up on the news much,” he admitted.
“Pinkie Pie – the Knight of Laughter,” Vinyl replied. “Blinky told me about it a couple of years ago, but it really didn’t mean anything until Pinkie became important a few years back. They look so different, you wouldn’t know they’re related. Plus, from the few times I’ve run into Pinkie, she doesn’t strike you as anypony serious, much less a senior government official.” She looked at the pegasus, and her eyes were growing red from the tears being restrained. “But you’re right. This shouldn’t happen to her – or anypony at all.”
“Well, from what little Twilight was willing to tell me, Pinkie made it through okay, but got sent out a month ago on a special assignment,” Lyra said. “She couldn’t tell me anything more, but the look on her face tells me it has something to do with the war. Twilight was able to get me a visitor’s pass for the Infirmary, but she insisted she couldn’t tell me anything further and if it’s big enough that the enemy’s trying to outright murder VIPs, whatever’s going on is serious business.”
Vinyl shrugged. “I only know Rarity and Pinkie on a casual basis, not anywhere near as much as you do; and I only met the others at the wedding a few years back, since I got hired to be the entertainment. I swear, Blink’s sister or not, I will never let that lunatic near my decks again.”
At that point, a nurse poked her head into the room. “Visiting time’s over in ten minutes, folks.”
“Well, I guess that’s it,” Lyra said as she rose from her seat. “I’ll be in town for a few more days. What about you guys?”
“Haven’t even checked into a hotel yet,” Vinyl admitted. “I’ll have to do that.”
“I’m staying at my parents’ place,” the celeste unicorn replied. “Why don’t you stay over? I’m sure they’d be glad to see you again. What about you, Lic?”
“Unfortunately, flying back to Las Pegasas tonight. Record label’s really pushing for the new album, because they want to release it on that new format – cassette tapes.”
“Really? New format?” Lyra sounded interested. “You’ll have to tell me about it.” The pair walked out of the room, leaving Vinyl alone with Blinky.
“Yeah. The label thinks this new format will take off and even replace records, believe it or not. As for me, I like records. Heck, me and Vi were named after records, and I can’t see anypony naming their foal ‘90-Minute Double-Side Cassette.’”
“Well, what about that one colt who played the bass guitar back when we were in the conservatory? Eight Track?”
“Yeah, okay, so you have a point,” Licorice conceded, “but that rolls off the tongue better. Either way, music sounds better on vinyl, case closed.”
Meanwhile, Vinyl Scratch sidled up closer to the unconscious Blinky’s bed, and went and stroked the gray earth pony’s mane. “Blinks, you’d better come out of this. I need you, you’re my best friend and my stable,” she said, voice quavering and tears soaking the fur near her eyes. “I wanted to tell you: I wrote a song that I wanted you to play cello on and sing – your voice is so much better than mine.” She put her head down on the bed, then started to sing, keening notes in a broken voice, lyrics which soon gave way to broken sobbing.
“Never quite said what I wanted to say to you,
Never quite managed the words to explain to you,
Never quite knew how to make them believable,
And now the time is gone,
Another time undone…”
“Please come back,” she whispered, completely breaking down.
The singing didn’t go unnoticed as her friends stood outside. “Vi’s really taking it hard,” Licorice said. “She gonna be okay?”
“Yeah, I’ll make sure of it,” Lyra promised. “But can you blame her? She grew up with three brothers, and she and Blinky have been as thick as thieves since they first met. If it wasn’t for the fact that Vi’s had a string of boyfriends, I’d almost swear they’re like Bonnie and I.”
“A nickname for my fillyfriend, Bon-Bon. It’s a human name that’s simi—”
“That human junk again?” The pegasus laughed. “Lyra, someday that load of horseapples is going to get you in trouble – worse trouble than getting kicked out of the Royal Orchestra. In fact, I’ll bet if anything useful ever comes out of it, I’ll eat my prize ’65 Rickenbucker guitar.”
She huffed, crossing her forelegs. “I’ll hold you to that.” But she looked at the distraught musician and said, “Let’s get her out of here. Can you at least stay for dinner? There’s this great place over on Steeplechase Road that opened up fairly recently.”
Licorice looked again at their distraught friend. “Looks like she’s going to need all the support she can get – and she’s not the one in a coma. Let me get a note to my producer that I need to stay a couple more days. Know where I can find a flamefax messenger?”
“Form it in your claws,” Bauxite told his pupil, “and the minute you are ready, point and release – but you can’t just let it go; you have to push it and give it direction with your mind. That is the power a fully-invested magic dragon has, and by luck of your bonds that you have.”
Spike held the pulsating, sparking sphere in his claws. Just holding it hurt like nothing before, and he knew why. He was a dragon, used to fire and the heat of magma. But this…this was a ball of lightning, made of plasma, burning thousands of times hotter than anything he ever experienced before. He remembered Twilight once told him Celestia’s sun was made of plasma, and that it was powerful enough to radiate the 93 million miles away from the world. Such a ball of energy would be incredibly powerful. And right now, he held a relatively microscopic version.
“Spike, release it before it damages your claws – you don’t have the training to keep holding one just yet.” At his mentor’s command, the young dragon pushed the ball forward with his right claw, like throwing a ball. The thunderball wobbled and waved as it rocketed forward, burning the ozone in the air until it crashed against its target, shattering and scorching the wooden dummy in a spray of sizzling embers. Bauxite looked at the target and grinned. “Well, at least this time you hit the target.”
He looked embarrassed. “Look, I’m sorry I set your tapestry on fire. I’ll find some way to make it up to you.”
The larger dragon chuckled. “It’s no problem, Spike. You should have seen me the first time I threw a thunderball – I shattered a precious glass statue that was to be given to the gryphon king the following day. My mother was seriously angry with me, and as punishment she forced me to learn the art of potirimancy – magical glassmaking. Oh, did my claws hurt for weeks!” He shook his head at the memory, a fond smile coming to his snout. “But on the bright side, it comes in use for impressing foreign dignitaries.” He snapped his claws, and a second later a perfectly formed glass rose sat in his palm.
“Actually,” Spike said, “I wouldn’t mind learning that.”
“I’ll teach you once we get to the geomancy portion of your training. Glass is nothing but liquid sand, so it is necessary to learn geomancy first.” With that, he stood in an august pose once more, and said, “Now, create another one and this time see if you can hit the center of the target.”
There was a knock at the door, and a servant poked his head in. “Please forgive the intrusion, Lord Bauxite, but you have a visitor.”
“Thank you, Borax. Please see them to the meeting room and I will be there shortly.” Bauxite looked, and his pupil was creating a second thunderball; it was still painfully slow, but as a beginner, it was expected – a well-versed Trueborn could create one in seconds. “Spike, keep at it until I get back. If you get tired, then take a short break and read some of the texts on fulmimancy.” Seeing that the young dragon had all well in control, he headed down to the meeting room.
When he arrived, he found a surprise; another servant was setting down tea in front of a very familiar purple unicorn. “Ah, Twilight, it’s good to see you again. How have you been?”
“Busy,” Twilight responded, floating the teacup to her lips. “With the war commencing, I’ve been running around the country and doing other things for both the princesses. And how about you?”
“Between dealing with the initial strikes on our former allies in Alasxaqa and training Spike, I’ve had my claws full. Speaking of which, you should be very proud of him – he’s learning at a pace on par with the strongest of young Trueborns, and I suspect you have much to do with that.”
“I can’t thank you enough for tutoring him in magic,” she said, gratitude clear in her voice. “If I’d known he had magical abilities other than his flame, I would have started training him ages ago.”
“Well, you didn’t have a dragon such as me to see the Unborn bonds between you and he.” Bauxite drew in the air with a single claw, the magical lines traced was a simplified picture of Twilight and Spike, with a two-way arrow between him. “As you’ve grown stronger over the years, it’s how his bond developed. If you were someone of lesser talent, say, like the current Star Swirl, there would be no strong bond enough to draw magic from.”
“No, it’s more than that, Bauxite,” she said, an unreadable look in her eyes, “and you know it.”
“The apprentice is as smart as her teacher, I see. Celestia has taught you well.” Bauxite looked straight at her as he asked, “How much do you know?”
“Enough. Since you started training him, I’ve put it all together. My question is, have you told him yet?”
“I would think that it would be better that it came from you, Twilight. You are his sister, after all, and even if you weren’t, he loves and respects you.”
“But I’m just his sister because I hatched him; the imprinting was natural! But y—”
“No. Now is not the time,” Bauxite said, the look in his eyes pleading. “You must understand: you see me as a cultured, traditionalist dragon, but amongst my kind I’m very progressive, perhaps radically so. I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing at all. At most, I should have told you about his potential and left it up to you to decide.” He took another sip of tea. “Do you love him?”
She rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe you’re even asking me that. I’ve never really been close to my family, and it’s mostly been just Spike and me. Of course I love my little brother with all my heart. How could I not?”
“If that’s the case, then you must take responsibility for this. If I tell him, it will have serious – perhaps disastrous – effects on the political relationship between Draconia and Equestria. Our nations have been allies since Equestria’s founding. Are you prepared to shatter that?”
“No, no, I’m not.” She felt as if a great weight had been dropped on her. Again. As usual. “But now I know…and he doesn’t. And it’s not fair to him.”
“Then tell him when you know it’s right. You know him like no other; you’ll know when it’s time.” Finished with the tea, he rose from his chair, looking back down the hall towards the magic training chamber. “By now, he should be completely exhausted if you’d care to take him home. He’ll need a decent night’s rest since tomorrow’s training will be extremely intense.”
“He’s not the only one,” she sighed. “I start sword training tomorrow.”
The brown dragon arched a brow. “Sword training? You need that as a Royal Mage?”
“No – as the Knight Commander Elemental.” She smiled wanly. “Very long story.”
“Oh, buck, the Commodore is going to kill me….” the pegasus whined. He sat in the middle of a large space on the Sword of Equestria, surrounded by crates, pallets and other equipment. Dozens of pegasi junior to him were looking through the crates, and they hadn’t reported any good news. “Keep looking,” he said nervously. “There’s gotta be the right ones in here somewhere….”
“Nope, sorry, L-T,” one of the other pegasi said, shrugging. “We haven’t gone through all the cases yet, but it doesn’t look too hopeful, sir.”
“Thanks, Petty Officer,” the lieutenant replied, mumbling under his breath, “Oh, I am sooo dead.”
“Sir?” another pegasus spoke up, sympathy in her eyes. “All the other crates contain ship gear, not uniforms. Unless there’s something we missed, it looks like that’s all of them.”
“Great, great – may as well plan my execution now,” he moaned to no one in particular. “I wonder if they still bind wings and make ponies walk the plank, or if I’ll just get fired out a cannon. I’m done for!”
“Perhaps I can help,” Fluttershy said as she walked in. “Is everything alright?” The pegasus had his back to her, and his histrionics were on full. He somewhat reminded her of Rarity during her worst drama queen periods.
“Nothing that assigning me to the most remote guard base on the planet couldn’t fix,” he moaned as he turned around and saw the pony asking. “I…uh, good evening, Commander! Lt. Supply Chain; I’m the ship’s Acting Supply Officer. Lt. Commander Wishlist normally did the job, but she was reassigned just before we got underway. And you are?”
Fluttershy smiled demurely. “Oh, I’m Fluttershy. I mean, I’m Commander Fluttershy. Sorry, I’m not used to ranks, Mr. Chain. I mean, Lieutenant Chain.” She felt horrible for screwing up his rank and mumbled a quick “Sorry.”
“What can I do for you, ma’am?”
“Oh, I’m just looking around. The admiral assigned me as the new ship Supply Officer, so I’ll be working with you.”
“Oh, good! Someone else can take the blame!” he blurted aloud, then realized he just inadvertently set his new superior officer up for a fall. “Sorry, ma’am. Anyway, let me introduce you.” He pointed at each pegasus in turn. “The cyan stallion over there is Chief Petty Officer Diamond Dust; Chief Dust is our senior enlisted flyer. The lilac mare over there is Petty Officer Violet Meadow; she’s responsible for ensuring each of the ship’s departments get what they need. The red mare is Petty Officer Songbird; her job is to make sure that the other ships in the battlegroup let us know what they need. Lastly is our newest teammate, Aviator Wheatstalk. This is Wheatie’s first assignment, so we’re getting him used to Fleet life. We have a few more ponies assigned, but they’re working in other spaces right now.” Looking at the team, he said, “Everyone, this is Commander Fluttershy. She’s the new Supply Officer.”
“Hello, it’s nice to meet you all,” Fluttershy said in a quiet voice. She was feeling very nervous right now, but in the back of her mind she knew that if she tried to hide or anything of the sort, she’d lose the respect of these new ponies. Rainbow Dash had been right; she was in a very different world now, one that Fluttershy wasn’t used to and her nature wasn’t fit for. So instead, she just shut up and tried not to let her panic show.
Wheatie peered intensely at her, as if he recognized her. “Commander, you look familiar, for some reason….” A second later, it hit him. “Now I know who you are! Wow, and I thought this cruise was going to be boring, but hey, my commander’s the Knight Elemental of Kindness!”
“You’re one of the Knights?” Supply Chain repeated in a shrieking voice. He was definitely a goner now, he thought in his panic-absorbed mind; of all the ponies he had to complain to, and he picked one who even outranked Admiral Upper Reaches himself, a pony who only answered to the princesses themselves! I’m going to die, and then they’ll resurrect me so they can kill me again!
“Oh…no, please, I’m just using a commander’s rank for now,” Fluttershy said, realizing the situation had already gotten worse. From what it seemed, Supply Chain was completely worried that she wouldn’t perform the duties she was assigned. “You don’t need to worry about my knightly rank; I won’t be using it while I’m on the ship,” she explained, hoping it wouldn’t make her sound even more cowardly.
“I…uh…I….” Supply Chain’s mind had completely shut down by this point, imagining death by crossbow firing squad, a guillotine and being burned at the stake all at once.
“Wheatie, looks like th’ lieutenant’s a mite stressed at th’ moment,” Chief Dust spoke in a lazy drawl that reminded her of the Apple family. “Escort him t’ his bunkroom, wouldja?”
“Aye, Chief. C’mon, Lieutenant.” Grabbing his arm, the junior enlisted flyer took the beyond-frazzled officer out of the supply spaces.
“There. Y’ hafta excuse th’ L-T, ma’am. He’s bin under a ton o’ stress since we prepped fer th’ mission, an’ Ah think he’s bin given a bit too much responsibility. Some ponies jest can’t do th’ job, Ah guess.” The older stallion leaned against the wall, crossing his forelegs. “But Ah’m sure y’ know ‘bout that, bein’ a Knight an’ all.”
Fluttershy wasn’t sure how to answer that; it was probably better to change the subject before she made a terminal mistake. “So, what was the problem that Lt. Chain mentioned?”
Dust’s face broke out in a wide grin from ear to ear. “Getting’ right t’ th’ deck – Ah like that, show’s y’ know whut yer doin’. Anyway, Lt. Chain’s buzzin’ ‘bout th’ flight suits. Each combat flier’s s’posed t’ be issued five flight suits, but we have a problem that’s preventin’ us from issuin’ out th’ rest o’ the suits today – we got a bad shipment o’ spares. Songbird, show th’ nice Commander whut Ah mean.”
“Got it, Chief!” As befitting her name, the red pegasus had a beautiful, musical voice; while her flightsuit covered her cutie mark, Fluttershy figured it was probably musically-based. “There must have been a problem of some kind when the Mage Guild made the new flightsuits for us, because these won’t work out very well for the PEGRONs and PEGFITRONs we’ve got onboard the ship.” She reached into the crate and pulled out one of the flight suits in question, it was sable black, as dark as night and would stand out starkly against the sky. “I’ve no idea what they were thinking when they created these.”
“But they can switch between clear and cloudy colors?” Fluttershy asked. She had a bad feeling she already knew the answer, but she had to ask.
“Well, I think Meadow should show you. Care to do the deed?” Songbird said to the other pony, who was already wearing one of the spare suits.
“Yeah.” She put a helmet on, fastening the locks to the neck. The helmet itself was enclosed like the normal flight helmets, but its visor was a bright red vice the clear of the usual ones. The helmet, like the suit, was colored in a flat black. Through the helmet, she could hear the petty officer’s voice. “Okay, switching colors…now.” The suit began to fade, but unlike the regular suits which went from a sky blue to a hazy gray, this one went translucent, leaving behind a dark, diaphanous pegasus-shaped blur. “The blur is still clear enough to see in the daytime, so it makes these outfits useless. Plus, with the red visor, it miscolors everything.” With a pop, she removed the helmet. “Honestly, I have no idea what the uniform mages were thinking when they created these.”
“No idea either. I suppose we could just throw them away, but….” Songbird shrugged. “Your call, Commander.”
“Well, put them aside for the moment – the Admiral mentioned that we were supposed to get a unit of mages onboard once we reach Inverneighs, so hopefully they can fix this,” Fluttershy said, thinking that this was what Twilight would have done in this situation. “For the meanwhile, send fliers to the other ships and see if they can spare any extra suits. It’ll leave them with less spares, but it’s only until we get these fixed, right?”
“See, folks?” Dust had a huge grin on his face as he pointed at Fluttershy. “Now, she’s a milit’ry expert. Y’all learn from her, y’ll get yer jobs done right.” They all beamed hopeful smiles at their new superior officer, and as Fluttershy smiled back, a part of her screamed that this was wrong, that she should really be focusing on a way to stop the war. But at the same time, to do so would be to lose the respect of everyone who counted on her. So she opted to focus on the supply duties, hoping that she’d find a way to fix everything before it was too late.
Celestia sat outside on the terrace, looking into the nighttime sky. Pegasus combat patrols filled the air, special reserve squadrons that had been reactivated to add to Canterlot’s defenses. And as the Princess of Day looked at the CAPs, she felt a huge amount of shame welling up in her. For the second time in her long life, she felt like a failure. Not since the day she’d banished Nightmare Moon – with Luna still trapped inside – did she feel like she’d been undeserving of being a princess. And not unlike that last time, ponies were going to die as a direct consequence of her actions. But this time it was worse, oh so much more worse: last time, it was just her younger sister who suffered. Now, it was her whole family.
She smiled briefly to herself; her mother had told her one of the worst things about being immortal was that she would never have a family. Well, Mother, I am proud to say you were so very, very wrong. First it was Luna, and though it tore Celestia apart to send her away, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Because hundreds of years later came the focal point of everything: her student, Twilight Sparkle. But even on the day Twilight impossibly hatched the dragon whelp that became Spike, Celestia knew her one and only student was special. She just didn’t know how special it truly meant.
Over the years, Twilight became so much more: she became like the daughter Celestia could never have, or considering Luna’s upbringing, at the very least another younger sister. When the day came that Nightmare Moon would return, she sent Twilight out, hoping her young student could somehow do the impossible and save Luna. Though she’d never admit it to Twilight, it was one of the stupidest things Celestia felt she’d done in her long life, risking someone so very precious on a thin hope that she might be able to undo a thousand-plus years of sorrow and despair. And if she lost Twilight, at the very least suffering the loss of her beloved student would have been the very least the sun princess would have deserved.
But Twilight survived and did more than the impossible: she found Faust’s Elements of Harmony, the weapons belonging to Celestia’s mother that the sun alicorn used against Discord and lost when she’d used them against Nightmare Moon – and Luna, in the process. Twilight had found five friends, ones who embodied the abilities of those Elements, and together they brought back Celestia’s dear sister. After that, Celestia reluctantly let Twilight live in Ponyville, mainly because the sun alicorn had a new burden: a stunted sister that needed help returning to normal. She missed her student very much, but at the same time, Twilight deserved to be out of the shadow of her mentor and to have a life of her own.
But over the course of the following year, so much more came to pass. Discord’s return and defeat, all at the hooves of the six. That next week, the five defended Twilight against Celestia herself when the unicorn had the inevitable CMFIS breakdown and was to be punished for her use of black magic; the fact that they were willing to face off against their ruler showed how strong their friendship with Twilight was. Luna’s return to public life, aided by Twilight; upon her return to Canterlot after the week spent with Twilight, Luna had told Celestia “I know why you care about her so much, Tia. She was never a replacement for me – she’s an addition to our family.” It was the first time that Celestia was able to admit it, but it was true: Twilight was more than just a protégé, she was truly family.
That year faded into the next and the next: the six’s defeat of that noxious creature of hate and destruction called the Smooze, as well as several more adventures and time spent with the others; while the six hadn’t defeated the Changeling Queen, they’d played a very instrumental part in their defeat. As she got to know them all and they got to know her, walls fell, titles stopped being used. To them all, she and Luna were no longer princesses, but friends who just happened to be princesses. And the time of the Hearths Warming Eve of two years ago, they spent it together as one. When Celestia woke that morning to raise the sun, only to find Luna and Twilight beside her, she felt complete, but it was Twilight’s words that crystalized it: she snuck out of the room quietly as to not wake “the rest of the family.”
By then Celestia desired giving them what the six had also so very much earned on their own: noble titles and the first knighthoods in hundreds of years. But there was a problem: while they had most certainly earned sobriquets, they were all very close to her, so nepotism was a concern. However, it had been Blueblood’s mocking comment about how tragic it was that six “mere commoners” protected the land that urged Luna to insist Celestia issue those knighthoods and upgrade the titles just to stuff it in his face. Once they were, the nobility in Equestria nearly had a collective seizure: the six were all made duchesses, meaning they were now above all save for the princesses and (technically) Prince Blueblood. But it was the knighthoods that were the killer statement – with that pronouncement, they were the highest ranking government officials in the land, again, save for the princesses and Blueblood as their seneschal. The uproar would have pretty much started a riot amongst the gentry had it not been for two things: the first was the wholehearted support of Baron Fancypants and his wife, Baroness Fleur de Lis. The two knew Rarity very well and supported her ascension, declaring that should any insult the newly-minted Knights Elemental, they would deal with him first. Having formerly been the highest noble in the land, he held a lot of sway with the other nobles and turned their opinions around in short order.
The second was the in-depth story that the newspaper Equestria Daily did on the knighthood/investiture event. The astute reporter had picked up on how the six, Spike, the younger fillies and the princesses acted when together; and the when the EqD’s photographer asked them to sit together for a picture, it was no surprise that it seemed more a picture of a large extended family than an official picture of the princesses, their right-hoof assistants, and a few other important dignitaries. Along with the interviews and other pictures that had gone in, the whole thing had become a multi-part story entitled, quite fittingly, “The Royal Family.” It had earned the EqD the Foalitzer Prize that year, as well as a private thank you to the Editor in Chief from Celestia herself. She even had a copy of the paper with the first part, complete with their picture, framed and hanging on a wall in her office.
So you were wrong, Mother. I have a family now. Luna’s back, and I have wonderful surrogate siblings in Twilight and the others. I love them all and they love me just as much. And that means more to me than you can imagine.
And now everything was going to Tartarus in a hoofbasket. Her world was under invasion by ponies her mother had exiled, and they weren’t going to stop at anything short of total domination or utter defeat. After finding out that she was related to the invaders, Pinkie went off to find the missing Elements in the hope of saving them all from war. But that had failed and in the month since her disappearance war had come. Now, she was sending the rest of her family out to battle, sacrificing them to their duties even as she had her own. Even now, a reminder faced her: in the near-midnight evening, Rarity trained with one of the Guild Academy professors in order to master combat magic; while the unicorn didn’t originally care to do so, the urgency of the situation had spurred her, and now she was becoming adept at the basic spells, though she might never become a mage.
“So, you couldn’t sleep either,” Twilight’s voice sounded from behind her, tired but cheerful.
“Shouldn’t you be asleep right now?” Celestia told her protégé. “I hear Pumpkin’s going to be a taskmaster at teaching you both swordfighting, and that’s just to get up to speed before Applejack’s brother reports to Goldengrape in a few days.”
Twilight moved into view and slumped in the seat next to her mentor and friend. “Just too much on my mind right now, moreso than normal. I got up to take a walk; Luna’s busy with readiness reports, or else I would’ve talked to her. I didn’t want to disturb Rarity’s training, but then I noticed you were sitting here.”
“And so you came to keep me company,” the sun alicorn said in a grateful voice.
“Just like a little puppy,” Twilight smiled to herself while looking at the stars. “Do you remember the first Gala you asked me to come to? The others, they had all these great and grand dreams they wanted to fulfill. Me, I just wanted time to spend with you. Maybe I’ve always been like that.”
Celestia caught the near-imperceptible catch in the unicorn’s voice. “Twilight, is something wrong?”
“Yes, yes there is…and you’re not telling me.” Pupil turned to teacher, and there was sorrow in her eyes. “Luna and I have been worried about you the past few days. I can say in all my years I’ve never seen you like this. So, as a wise pony told me once: shut the buck up, cut the trot, and spill it. Now.”
Celestia looked at her protégé with new eyes. No one had ever spoken to her like that, with the exception of Luna. “I see my sister’s starting to rub off on you.”
“Yes, because we love you both, Tia.” Other than the occasional joke, Twilight had never called her mentor by the diminutive before. “I…I mean….”
The look on Celestia’s face was somewhere between touched and wonderment. “Twi,” she said, because she’d never used the diminutive either, “you, of all ponies, long since earned the right to call me that.”
“I never have, because I always wanted to treat you with respect,” she admitted. “Of course, look how long it took me to stop calling you Princess in private. I’ve never really been good with my feelings.”
“That’s my fault, because I’ve never been good at it either and I think you picked that up from me. Everyone’s seen noble and regal Princess Celestia, but only you and a few others have seen Celestia,” she admitted as well. “And it’s only been recently that I’ve been able to put that aside and just be Tia.”
“Then will you tell me what’s bugging you? Please?”
The Princess of the Sun sighed. “Do you know what I secretly wish for at times? What I really wish? That I could just give it all to Blueblood, and then you, me, Luna and Spike could just settle down in Ponyville with the rest of our family. That I could have the hassles of rearranging the library with you or watch Luna make cupcakes with Pinkie. That we could spend all those precious moments together. That I could hold you all close to me and never, never let go…instead of watching you all march off to die.” She looked at Twilight, and while there were no tears yet, the sorrow was clear and palpable. “Pinkie’s been gone for a over a month now and today Rainbow, Fluttershy and Scootaloo departed for the fighting in Inverneighs. Rarity’s over there learning war magic, and you and Applejack have to learn the arts of war as well as your own war magic.”
Twilight said nothing, just rose from her seat to embrace Celestia. “Do you really have that little faith in us?” she asked, her tone firm. “Do you have so little faith in all the training you’ve ever given me or Luna, or in the courage and comfort you’ve given to the rest of us?”
That was not the answer she’d been expecting. “No, it’s not that – I’m afraid of not being able to protect any of you. I know your skills, Twi, I’ve trained you myself, and then you went beyond that training; I couldn’t be more proud of you. But remember that I told you how much it hurt when I banished Luna? Death is worse: it’s permanent, and no deity, whether a god or a divinity, has the power to bring someone back from the afterlife. If there’s a way, my mother never told me.”
“Well, that’s simple: I don’t plan to die. I don’t plan to lose this war or my life or anyone I love.” In a meaningful reverse of what had been the norm for years, Twilight reached up and kissed her mentor on the forehead. “Bauxite once told me about how his kind call me the Halfborn Alicorn, and that some fear me. It’s rather interesting being feared, but I’d rather our allies not do so. I’d rather nopony ever fear me, but that option is long gone.
“Tia, you’ve been everything to me. A friend, a mentor, a mother, a sister. I don’t think there’s a word in the dictionary to sum up how I feel about you. But I know this: through everything, you’ve taught me to stand up for what’s right. And I am your Knight. And whatever it takes from me to bring our world back to normal, well, all I can do is just thank the stars that you’ve always taught me that.”
The two embraced again, finding comfort in each other’s presence.
“Well, I’m quite glad that’s settled, whatever it was,” Rarity commented from the distance, a beatific smile on her face. “Neither Twilight nor Celestia really know how to express their feelings, so it’s always a beautiful moment when they do.”
“Huh?” Woody said, looking at the scene. “I don’t get it.”
“It’s probably why you didn’t get far in your relationship with Twilight,” she said with a smirk. “Celestia and Twilight have an extremely complicated relationship. They are mentor and protégé, but also like mother and daughter and sisters as well. Between the two of them and Luna, it brings to mind that old nursery rhyme, the one we learned in school when we were just in kindergarten.”
“I learned a lot of nursery rhymes back then,” he teased.
Rarity fished it out of the memories of old then canted it: “In day there is the golden sun, and then the moonlit night. But ‘twixt the two, bridging their views are the violet hues of twilight.” The white unicorn looked at the brilliant spot of glowing white not too far away, with the purple spot in front of her. “I wonder if the pony who wrote that ages ago was just writing doggerel or prophecy.”
“Well, since you’re in a thoughtful mood, let’s call it a night,” he said with a smile.
“That sounds fine. But if you don’t mind, could we skip tomorrow evening? I’m feeling frightfully drained the past few days.”
“Absolutely!” he chirped nervously, before he stammered, “Um, since we’re, uh, not, then, would you…uh, would….”
She looked at him with a smile brighter than Celestia. “I was wondering when you were going to come around to that. Pick me up at 8pm tomorrow night?”
What th…YES! Autumn Wood’s mind screamed as he simply said, “Sure! I’ll be here sharp!”
Rarity leaned in and gave the earth pony a kiss on the cheek. “I knew you would, my dear Woody. I’ll see you then.” With that, she walked off towards Twilight’s tower while Woody just watched her leave before he bounced off on his own, cantering like a colt.
The alicorn and unicorn watched him bounce away merrily. “Well, I see they finally got together. Good for them.”
“It doesn’t bother you that Rarity’s seeing your old coltfriend?” Celestia inquired.
“Oh, Woody and I were never that serious, honestly, and he’s got a thing for Rarity…and she does too, considering she’s always asking about him and details about when we were dating.”
“Well, if you’re….” The words trailed off as a meteor shower filled the sky. “That’s new. Never seen this shower before.”
Twilight moved back to her chair. “Luna mentioned there weren’t enough meteor showers as she liked, so I guess she decided to improve on things.” The two watched silently as the meteors fell, a light display that seemed as if just for them.
From her spot at the window, Luna observed everything. It seemed Rarity and Woody had hit it off; Good, she thought, I haven’t found a decent way to tease Rarity yet and this might just be the thing. It was all in good fun, of course; she still enjoyed the good joke when Rarity had designed that extremely (and intentionally) chiffon pink and pearl dress for last year’s Gala that completely clashed with her own dark colors.
But more importantly, it was good to see that Twi and Tia had cleared the latter’s issue…neither Celestia nor Luna were good at expressing their feelings and that had been an unfortunate thing that the sun princess had instilled in her student. But it was a good thing they were together there; both of them loved each other very dearly and Tia had been the central figure in Twi’s life, probably always would be. Luna knew how that was, because she’d been raised the same way by her older sister.
In fact, she thought, that sort of makes Twi my little sister, doesn’t it? She then remembered the line of poetry she’d written about fifteen hundred years ago, the one kids were now taught as a nursery rhyme. At the time, she was simply writing about how sunset – or twilight, the word she’d used – bridged the part of the day between sunlight and moonlight. But it turned out to be prophetic: the namesake mare had bridged the gap between the two sisters, she’d bridged the gap between a displaced Luna and her subjects, and between their friends and the alicorns. She was truly Twilight, in both name and deed.
Then the crowning moment was the new meteor shower. She set it up six months ago – one had to plan for these sort of things – and had planned on it occurring some time the following week, but now, now it was perfect.
“Your highness?” a servant behind her spoke. “The guards would like to see you and give you the watch report.”
“Thank you,” she said without turning her view from the window. “I’ll be down shortly.” As much as she wanted to be out there with them, to pretty much give everything over to Blueblood and just take them all to Ponyville where they could have normal lives, life itself didn’t work out that way. For better or worse, she was the Princess of the Night, and she had a war to help prosecute.
Pleasant evening, my sisters, she thought to herself as she walked away from the window, a wide smile on her face.
The following afternoon, Rarity strolled into Archmagus Gainsboro’s office in an incredibly chipper mood. “It is a beautiful afternoon, dear Gainsboro, and I am ready to learn the next lesson, my good fellow!”
She found him, sipping from a flute glass, a clear green drink. “Unfortunately, Rarity, I am unable to do so today, my apologies. You see, today is the day I mourn the loss of my beloved wife, Chantilly Lace.”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” Rarity said. “My apologies for not knowing.”
“I wouldn’t worry, my young lady,” he said with a nostalgic tone. “She died long before you were born, fifty years ago this very day.” He smiled gently, but the look in his eyes was of pain fresh as the day it was minted.
Rarity could not leave a poor soul in such a state, so she immediately sat down. “Please, if you feel the need to talk about it, sir, I am all ears.”
“That is very much appreciated,” he said, pouring the green fluid into a second flute. “Would you care for some perry?”
“Perry?” Rarity asked. “I’m not familiar with it.”
He grinned. “It’s like cider, but it’s made from pears. I was not always the Archmagus, you see; long before that I was born into a family of pear farmers. My family is nowhere near as famous as the Apples, but still, we were prosperous, enough so to let a young unicorn born to the family see his dreams of joining the Guild. So I went to study here in Canterlot, and eventually became the student of my predecessor, Archmagus Alakazam Lulamoon, a true gentlestallion and one of the finest magic-users I have ever known.”
“Lulamoon? Was he related to…?”
“Yes,” he said with a chuckle. “He’s the great-grandfather of Senior Mage Trixie Lulamoon. I’ll be the first to admit that her attitude is rather lacking, but I promised him I would watch out for her, and though it’s been a strain at times, I’ve kept to that. I would hope most of all that she ends the feud between her and Royal Mage Sparkle, but they’re more alike than either cares to admit.”
Rarity took a sip of the perry, it was sweet and tart at once, the full flavor of pears coming in. “This is quite good.”
“I thank you for that; the perry is one of my family’s prized products. My nephew runs the main family farm now and every year sends me some of the best batch, and I only share with certain ponies. Vice Archmagus Blue Danube tries to coax a bottle out of me every year, and it’s always fun teasing her about it.”
“I’m quite sorry to have interrupted. Please, tell me more about your wife.”
He leaned back in his chair, swirling the perry in his flute and letting the memories come to mind. “It was my first assignment, a posting to Cloudsdale, to assist in the setting up of the Guild Office there. The Fleet had requested one be created if possible; since it took the most talented of unicorns to set up the facility, I felt proud that Alakazam assigned me to this special duty. For four years I had constant use of ensorcelled shoes that let us live on the clouds. Some of the more adventurous of us used a Papilio Alis spell – it’s a spell that lets you create temporary wings.”
“Really?” Rarity inwardly flinched at the memory; her own vanity would have gotten her killed had it not been for Rainbow Dash.
“Yes, it’s not a very safe spell, however; the wings are extremely fragile since they’re based on the structure of butterfly wings, and no one, as far as I know, has ever been able to improve upon the spell. In any case, I never used it.” If he noticed her discomfort, he didn’t mention a thing. “It was during my first day off that I was looking around town, when I happened to come across this very peculiar pegasus, a gray mare with a light-pink mane and white lace as her mark. She was walking down the street, just playing a saxophone, not caring who saw. She had a pretty face, her hair was in a simple tail, a giggle in her talk and a wiggle in her walk.”
“I realize it does sound rather odd, but those are my first memories of her, so let an old stallion have his fantasies, please,” he chortled. “Anyway, because she wasn’t paying attention, she bumped into me, and apologizing gave us a chance to talk. She told me her name was Chantilly Lace, and that she’d wanted to be a musician, but since saxophones weren’t taught at the Music Conservatory at the time and her family couldn’t afford to pay to send her there anyway, she worked in the rainbow factory just like her parents did. She hated it, though, and played her sax every time she could.
“Over the four years I was assigned to Cloudsdale, Chantilly and I became extremely close, and on the day I learned I was going to be reassigned to the facility at Oatmaha, I asked her to marry me, and she happily did. After a quick honeymoon in Hoofalulu, we arrived in Oatmaha. The office there was in terrible need of leadership, and I’d been assigned as the head mage there, so I took it with gusto. Chantilly, not wanting to be bored, found work with the local weather team; they were missing a rainbow specialist, so she happily took the job. For three years there, it was joy and bliss, and our life together was grand.
“But then came that day fifty years ago. Princess Celestia was visiting Oatmaha for the first time in a hundred years, so everypony was obviously celebrating. The mayor asked the Guild to come up with a fireworks display, so I tasked my pyrotechnics specialist, Firecracker, to come up with something. The EPG was working with the city sheriff’s department to come up with a secure parade route, and the regional weather facility in Colts Town, where Chantilly worked, was ensuring clear skies and gorgeous weather that week. We were all proud that the Princess of the Sun would be meeting us at our city.
“When she arrived, it was a grand festivity; we’d created one to practically rival the Summer Sun Celebration itself. We mages were gearing up for the evening’s fireworks displays, the local pegasus squadron assigned to the city was doing aerobatics displays with colored smoke, and the parade was a sight to behold; I think we even managed to impress the princess. The mayor told me that she’d been very impressed with all the planning, and that everyone was looking forward to the display that evening.
“As for Chantilly, she’d felt ill that week, but even still took off towards the skies to ensure that rainbows would be available for all. She took her duties so seriously; to see the ponies smile from a well-constructed rainbow, she said, was as much of a value to her as ponies clapping from her occasional sax solos in the park. That morning, I didn’t want her to go; she’d been sick when we awoke and felt dizzy; she’d gone to see the doctor a couple of days prior. But she promised that as soon as the rainbows were released that day, she’d head straight back to bed. She teased me about something, but at the time, I’d forgotten what it was, since my mind was on the planning for the whole event.
“The day was perfect, etched into my mind as one of the high points of life. Then it happened. Tell me, do you know what a ‘bolt from the blue’ is? And I don’t mean that pop singer Blue Bolt.” Rarity shook her head and Gainsboro continued, but now his voice grew hard. “It’s a very rare weather phenomenon, so much so that it falls into the ‘freakish’ category. What it is, is an extremely powerful bolt of lightning, so strong that it will launch from a cloud miles and miles away, to eventually land in a cloudless area, hence, ‘from the blue.’” Rarity immediately put two and two together, but let him continue.
“There was a sudden blast of lightning above us, and a blackened pegasus plummeted from the sky, crashing down straight through the roof of city hall. Celestia noticed and rocketed towards the building immediately, everyone swore they’d never seen anything move so fast. As for me, I’d seen it myself, and headed over – while I didn’t know who the downed pegasus was, I knew that my magic would probably be needed. But as I approached, I was blocked by one of my wife’s friends, a co-worker of hers named Barrel Roll. Roll begged me not to come closer, and in doing so revealed to me the victim. I pushed her aside and galloped as fast as I could to the city hall, but as I arrived, it was too late. In the center of the shattered city hall, a body had been covered by a white sheet that was already staining with blood, and Celestia looked at me and said that she’d tried to save my Chantilly, but that the bolt of lightning had done its job while she’d been airborne and that she was already dead by the time she’d hit the roof.
“I don’t remember what happened immediately afterwards, but that night I do remember that my friend Quick Fix was there. He was also our doctor, and it was his sad news to tell me everything, though Chantilly had begged him to keep quiet until she could tell me. She’d been sick because it was morning sickness; she’d been with foal, and Fix was so very sorry he couldn’t do a thing to help me in my time of pain. What he said mattered little to me: in that moment I’d lost both my loving wife and a foal I’d never know.
“Celestia, to her credit, stayed that week for the funeral; she also asked the Guild reassign me as soon as possible so that I wouldn’t have to live with the pain of remaining in the town where my wife had lost her life. Unfairly, I blamed her for not being able to save my wife; I knew that Chantilly had been dead from the moment she’d been struck, but Celestia was a divinity, couldn’t she have brought my love back from the dead? I didn’t know at the time that even she cannot do that. As for my friends, they did everything they could to cheer me up, but I was disconsolate, and it wasn’t until three months later when I was reassigned to the Guild Research Base in East Portillo that I uncovered that I was able to uncover more of what really happened.”
“What really happened?”
“There had been a huge stormfront moving northwest towards Detrot at the time, and several pegasi from various regions had been dispatched to break it up, as it would have caused some serious damage to the city otherwise. However, a report had come out about Celestia’s tour of the country, and the decision had been made to just push the storm out of the way, because otherwise breaking it apart on-site it would have delayed the Princess’ convoy. By pushing it over a sparsely-populated part of the country, the huge storm could safely rage over the land while specialized teams from Marelena and Coltgary could be dispatched to break it up. But by doing so, because Celestia couldn’t afford to be delayed, they pushed it aside, letting the storm inside build to monstrous proportions, enough so to create a bolt from the blue.” His voice sounded angry and raging; he clearly blamed someone, but it was as if he was forcing himself not to blame Celestia rather than blame somepony else, if any pony needed to be blamed at all.
“I…” Rarity was lost for words. The only other pony she’d ever seen this angry before was Nightmare Moon, and that was in that creature’s nature, nothing at all like her inadvertent creator. But this, this was a nurtured and cultivated animosity, a ravenous beast that had been caged only by Gainsboro’s better nature yet still hoping for a day of horrific freedom.
“Rarity,” he said, his eyes narrowed in unconscious viciousness, “I’d like…to be alone right now, if you don’t mind. We can continue tomorrow, and I apologize once again for the inconvenience.”
He probably needed the time alone. “Understood, and I hope you have a pleasant evening, dear Gainsboro,” she said as she departed the room, leaving the aged unicorn archmagus to his pet odium.
Rainbow Dash, the Queen of Magic stared out the window. Tomorrow, she would ride out for the first time, sally forth into battle herself. Her spy in Canterlot informed that Equestria was moving against her forces at Inverneighs, and that they were intending to strike a very punishing blow and take the port for their besieged Caballan allies. Well, she would have none of that; while Star Song was already on site, Rainbow would soon join her and tear apart that attacking fleet.
With that, she looked at the new armor created for her, sitting on its stand; the armory mages had done nothing less than their finest work for the Queen. The armor was a deep black, with trim that glowed with a rainbow hue. The helmet also had the same look, designed to protect her head from the worst of attacks. But it was the cloak that was the masterpiece: a shimmering, shining cape of soft, comfortable iridescence that was actually a strong metal that would ward off any attacks; in a pinch, it would even transform into a magical pair of wings to let her take to the air for brief periods. Between the three, her sword and the voluminous array of magic at her disposal, she would bloody that incoming attack and show Celestia how powerless she was.
Rainbow suddenly felt two soft forelegs encircle her from behind. “Are you coming to bed?” Rose whispered in Rainbow’s ear. “You look so stressed…you need to unwind. Let me help you.”
“Rose,” Rainbow asked, “Do you wish to be here?”
“In the arms of the Queen of Magic? Do I need answer that?”
The spectrum-maned gypsy pony turned to face her lover. “Please tell me the truth, no varnished lies.”
Rose was silent for a few seconds before speaking. “Before you arrived, I was the daughter of the most prosperous florist in Stalliongrad, the scion of a wealthy family. But that was a lie. Mom had died years ago, and Daddy…well, let’s just say he loved his daughter a little too much.”
Rainbow’s eyes narrowed. “That is…sickening. If you’d like, I’ll have him killed.”
She smiled brightly. “You already did; he was one of the ones you killed very publically when you sent your ‘message’. When you did that, you immediately won my respect; others called you an invader, but all I saw was a shining savior. When it was discovered that you were looking for…whatever I am….”
“The term is Royal Consort,” Rainbow said. “Some prefer the term concubine, but those with royals deserve a better name.”
“Ah, I’ll have to remember that. When it was discovered, I played every little trick to ensure I’d be chosen, and when you did, it thrilled my heart. By that point, I’d already vowed to myself that my body was yours because you saved me from my father. But in the last month, you’ve received more than that – you’ve gotten my heart.” She nipped Rainbow’s ear lovingly. “Promise me something, would you?”
“I cannot make promises, Rose, but I will do my best.”
“Promise me that should I die, that it will be by your hooves. Not Minty or Amberlocks, or any of the others. By yours.” The Queen of Magic looked at Rose suspiciously and Rose leaned her head against Rainbow’s shoulder. “No, I didn’t spy on you, but I’ve seen how deeply Amberlocks hates me, and when you were yelling at them in the other room yesterday, I had my suspicions. And I know that you are trying not to love me, because of your tribe’s traditions. But I suspect that if we were just two mares, you would.”
“Rose, you must—” Rainbow began, before she was silenced by Rose’s tender hoof.
“You can never say it, I know,” she said, dragging the gypsy pony towards the bed. “But you can always show me, and tomorrow, when you head out to battle, think of me. And when this world is finally yours, maybe as Queen of All you will have the strength and ability to defy tradition and let me be yours publically.” Rose kissed Rainbow deeply and she fell back on the sheets, she said, “Now show me what you can never say.”
The room had been dark, but not for long. The room filled with blaring klaxons and red lights as voice spoke over the intercom: “THIS IS NOT A DRILL, THIS IS NOT A DRILL. GENERAL QUARTERS, GENERAL QUARTERS. ALL PONIES REPORT TO BATTLESTATIONS. NOW SET CONDITION ZULU ONBOARD SHIP. REASON FOR GENERAL QUARTERS: PREPARATION FOR ATTACK ON AREA DELTA BLUE. NOW SET GENERAL QUARTERS.”
In their bunkroom, Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash jumped out of their beds and slipped on their flight suits. They’d been practicing this regularly onboard ship for the past few days, as had the rest of other vessels. Even now, as they raced out of the rooms, galloping for their assigned stations, it didn’t seem real, like everything had been nothing but imagination for the past few days. But now, with dozens of ponies filing out of their rooms, and racing towards their assigned spots, this was the new reality and everything they’d left behind in Equestria was the dream.
As the two pegasi filtered into the passageway, they ran into Spitfire and Bamboo Grove. “You ready for this, Commander?” Bamboo said, proudly wearing her new flightsuit embroidered with her name, rank, and the uniform patch of the Wonderbolts.
Instead, Rainbow Dash joked with Spitfire, “Hey, how’d she get on the Wonderbolts and not me?”
“Shut it, Dash – you had your pretty princess friend make you a squadron rather than earning a place on one,” Spitfire replied with equal humor. “Fluttershy, when we get back, you make sure the ciders are ready, okay? I get the biggest mug for taking down the most baddies.”
“No way! I’m gonna get that!” Scootaloo said as she raced up to them. Seeing the newly-minted combat flier, she said, “Lookin’ good, Ensign Grove.”
“Thanks, Lieutenant!” she chirped.
Finally the group reached the junction in the passageway where the fliers would head down the right passageway to head to the flight deck, where Fluttershy would head up the stairs towards the infirmary, where her position was medical assistant. By this time, she knew she was a failure, because they were minutes away from throwing the first strikes of war, and she’d failed everyone, by her cowardice and pacifism. The look on her face was one that she feared her friends would die, and if they somehow managed to make it back, they would hate her forever.
In truth, they misread her face…at least part of it. “Fluttershy, we’ll be okay,” Spitfire insisted. “I’m the one used to this the longest, and I’ll keep an eye out for everypony. I promise.”
“Gotta get into position,” another pegasus shouted as she ran past the group.
“See ya when we get back, Fluttershy!” Rainbow Dash waved as the rest of them ran down the hall, leaving Fluttershy to reach out to them as they raced into the distance, and down another passageway, out of site.
“Rainbow…no….” she whispered before dropping her foreleg. She held onto the rails of the stairway, unable to believe that her friends were now gone. She shivered as she held the rail; ponies would be dead by the end of the day, and she would have failed them. She was undeserving of her military rank, underserving of her knightly rank and ducal title, underserving of the faith and friendships the princesses had in her. She was nothing.
Another pegasus came up from behind and saw Fluttershy shaking. “Commander, are you okay?”
“No, no I’m not,” she whispered. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be again.”
As the four raced into the passive platform that was the flight deck, the pegasi squadrons were already grouping up in the teams of twenty-four that made up each squadron. As Rainbow and Scootaloo reach the place on the deck where the Starbolts were meeting, the squadron XO, Lt. Commander Dewdrop Dazzle tossed them their helmets. “About time you joined the party, mares!” the pegasus joked.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, Daz,” Rainbow said as she put on her helmet. “Do you have the intel on what we’re up against?”
“Yeah, got it right here,” he replied, placing a map on the deck. “We’ll be in the center of the whole attack, right next to the Wonderbolts, with the Jetstreamers and the Cloud Dancers right behind us. We have ninety minutes to secure the port and eliminate the enemy, or else the long-range bombing squadrons have orders to saturate the place.”
“So, it’s time,” she said, standing back up. “You guys ready to put down some baddies?” None had actually said the word that was on everypony’s minds: kill. By the end of the day, they would take lives, and some amongst them would lose theirs. It was a sobering thought, and part of the reason why the “k-word” had been unofficially banished from the vocabulary.
For minutes they sat there in silence, waiting for some word, some sign to start the operation. In many ways, this was worse than anything else: anticipaton dragged on the mind, and a mind with plenty of time to think had plenty of time to panic, which was not what anypony needed right now. So instead, there were small conversations that broke out, a couple of ponies singing and the like, normally small infractions of military protocol but understandable given the situation.
At last, a flicker of light appeared before them all, and the princesses appeared before them; not actually the two alicorns, but instead an illusion prepped by an ensorcelled crystal; similar crystals were playing the illusion throughout the whole battlegroup. “My little ponies, my brave fliers,” the image of Celestia spoke, with Luna seated behind her to her right; Rainbow swore she could see the faint image of Twilight sitting in the distance behind the sisters. Celestia walked up to the lectern and began: “First off, I must apologize to you all: we are at war and I have failed to prevent that. It has never been my desire to see any of my ponies – or any other beings – lose their lives to the senseless violence of war. But invaders from another world have brought it upon us, and we now have no other option than to fight.
“In minutes, you will all be engaged in a fight to recapture Inverneighs on behalf of the Principality of Caballus. Many of you know that Caballus is the cradle of ponykind, and many of you also know the truth: that the invaders are also ponies – that we will wage war against our own kind to save the world. But make no mistake: the group we call the Black Ponies have already killed thousands of Caballans, not just ponies but other residents of that nation, such as wyvern dragons and gryphons. We cannot allow this to continue. We must stop them.
“Many of you will face difficult moments while down in the field of battle. Many of you may not come back from this. Princess Luna and I have both been combatants at one time or another in our lives against forces that could have killed even us, so I understand what you all face. But I know you will do us proud, do Equestria proud, and perhaps by your blow even bring an end to the potential for future conflict.” She paused, and then said, “And now a few words from Princess Luna.”
As Celestia stepped back, Luna walked towards whatever had recorded the message. “I am nowhere near as notable a speaker as my sister is, so I shall be brief.” A smile that many who knew the moon alicorn had seen often flashed on her face as she casually leaned on the lectern and said, “So, in the words of a wise pony, ‘Get out there, kick some heads in and show ‘em Equestrianis don’t buck around!” Though she couldn’t see the look on her sister’s face, every viewer was treated to a rare sight of their ruling princess facehoofing at Luna’s words. Luna, however, continued. “So we’ll see you all when you get back and remember: every time you hurt them, they can’t hurt you. Luna and Celestia, signing off! Good luck out there!” The illusion vanished just as quickly as it had appeared, leaving a bunch of very confused pegasi.
“What was that?” Scootaloo asked.
“Knowing Luna, it was probably planned. I swear, she loves going to extremes,” Rainbow commented; she knew that after that recording the younger alicorn probably got a mouthful from her older sister; despite Celestia’s casualness, Luna went from utter formality after her return and settled on just pure bluntness.
There was a deep clank of metal from in front and behind, and the flight deck opened to the sky. Below them were dozens of clouds, and in the distance, framed by the creeping rise of dawn, was the dark shore of Inverneighs. There was a flash of light atop the newly-opened hatchway, the signal to launch.
“Okay, Starbolts,” Rainbow said, “Stay on chatterbox channel six and don’t forget your callsigns! Let’s go, go, GO!” With that, hundreds of pegasi boiled out of the ship, all racing at top speed towards the land below. Around them, the other carriers did the same, and the combat interdictor ships moved into position in order to start their attack runs.
The war for the survival of the world commenced.