Rites of Ascension

by CvBrony

Cool Comfort

“Okay, we all here?” Twilight looked around her room at her friends, and put on a smile. “Good! Now we can begin Cloud's merciless hazing.”

Cloud's eyes turned into pinpricks. “Wut?”

Everypony else caught on in a nanosecond, and a spontaneous chant of “New-bie! New-bie!” materialized from the group.

Twilight silenced them with a raised hoof. “Lieutenant Cloud Burner, your initiation task shall be to fetch us… a shrubbery!

Cloud blinked. “Huh?”

“Gasp!” Trixie blanched. “How cruel!”

“You monster!” Spike stomped his foot.”How could you?”

“Not the shrubbery!” Rainbow wept.

“Back up a second.” Cloud said with a tilted noggin. “Did Trixie literally just say ‘gasp?’”

At that, the dam broke, and the entire group save Cloud detonated in a fit of giggles.

“Am I missing something here?” Cloud’s wings drooped. “I really feel like I’m being left out of the joke.”

“Kind of the point, really.” Twilight swallowed back the rest of her snickers. “We’re just being silly. It’s kind of our thing. Going to have to use that, working with us.”

“Oh, man.” Rainbow sighed. “If snark could kill, we’d all be dead a million times over.”

“If snark could kill, Twilight here would already be Empress of Equestria.” Spike said, examining his claws. “Instead of, you know, waiting for the alicorn summits.”

Cloud looked around. “Um, 'alicorn summits'? Did I hear you right?”

Twilight wished she had a rolled-up newspaper handy. “Yes, you did, though revealing that was supposed to be my job. They're the process by which a powerful pony transforms into an alicorn. Very few ever get the chance to do it, and most don't seem to survive.”

Cloud Burner stared off into the distance, gears spinning at Mach speed in his head. “Uhhhh…”

“It's not something you're ‘chosen’ for. It just happens after your wellspring hits a certain threshold, though actually going through all four summits can take centuries in some cases. It's even possible to have them slip away, leaving you in a limbo between being a full alicorn and a regular pony.

“The princesses think I'm well on my way. Less than a decade to go to complete the process, which only increases the danger. Danger I'm going to be relying on you all to help me face.”

Cloud’s jaw hit the floor. “You're kidding me. You have got to be kidding me. There's only — I mean, there was one, then two, but they were sisters and—”

“They're ten thousand years old.” Twilight interrupted. “Nine of which have been spent as full alicorns. They are sisters by blood, yes, but at their Ascension they were only two among many others. Discord eliminated the rest during the Chaos Wars, and all the other candidates since have failed to achieve full Ascension.”

Cloud’s wings went from 'professionally groomed' to 'raging mess' in three flaps. “Other candidates? What, did the other Grand Mages all get to—” He paused to read Twilight’s expression. “Oh Frick on a Stick, that's what happened, wasn't it? They were all... and then…”

Twilight sighed and slunk to her bedroom floor. “Starswirl went insane after he learned he'd never complete his Ascension. The end result was a catastrophic spell that detonated and created the Everfree Forest. It's the same spell that I stopped in Zebrica, though we still don't know how the zebras found it.

“Crimson’s death was much more… simple. Luna defeated him during the Lunar Rebellions. Stellar Horizon, meanwhile, perished stopping a massive wave of thaumic contamination that threatened to subsume nearly all of Gryphonia. All of them died heroes.

“I don't intend to die. I'm prepared to lay down my life if I absolutely have to. Almost did in Zebrica. But I certainly won't just let it happen. That's where you guys come in.

“I know there are some things we'll run into that only an alicorn ascendant can handle. Leave those to me. For everything else, though, I'm counting on this team to help me through. There's only a few of us, but the talent we have here is something special. Together, I want us to show the Majestics what happens when you hurt our ponies.”

While the rest clapped — with only a bit of sarcasm — Cloud Burner put his ears back and bowed. “You'll have my everything, Lady Sparkle.”

“Good. Cause I'm going to need it at some point. For now, though? Spike, would you get my big sketch pad?”

Spike saluted and dashed to the cloud closet, pushed it open, and pulled out a stack of blank paper almost as tall as he was.

“Wow.” Cloud whistled. “Who the hell made this place?”

“Luna.” Twilight pulled out a sheet and laid it on the smooth floor. “Okay, so, I've been flying around in basically whatever I could get my hooves on, including a cart in San Palomino that was held together with twine and a prayer. I'm thinking it's time for me to get an upgrade appropriate for a Grand Mage. Celestia knows I got the funds for it.

“So, Rainbow, Cloud: you two are the flyers in the group. I'll need your input on a new chariot design, since you'll be hooked to it. It'll need to be able to be flown with just one of you in a pinch.

“Trixie? I'll need you to double-check the wards and spells I want on it.”

Trixie scratch her head. “You want me to double-check your work? I'm no Grand Mage.”

“Don't sell yourself short. You're talented. Far more so than most unicorns. And besides, I'm good, not flawless. Even I make goofs sometimes.”

Spike snorted. “Especially when cooking.”

“Speaking of, Mr. Loudmouth…” Twilight poked him with her pencil. “you're on snack duty. Go to the kitchen and bother some ponies. We need coffee, lemonade, and cookies.”

Twilight took a step forward into the beams, the spells rubbing a mild bruise against her skin as any changeling illusions that might have been suspected were disproven. It was a crude mechanism, but necessary given the special guest in the dungeon. Nopony knew what Chrysalis would do to recover or destroy a drone that had left the Hive.

Moon Petal had combat training and left the Hive after a swift strike from Luna. That one the Queen could assume lost.

This latest defector, however, had no such luxury.

She was in the cell farthest back, beyond multiple sets of guards. Undoubtedly they were there at least partially to keep their guest confined for the time being, but it was far more to prevent infiltration from outside. The being lying on the hospital bed was in no shape to be moving, let alone attempting to make a daring escape.

Much like in Rainbow's case, her head was covered in bandages. Unlike Rainbow, though, she had a mini cast where the remaining part of her horn was. A tiny hole had been dug into her thorax to insert the specialized IV drip, and a cabinet on wheels had been brought in to hold all kinds of medical tools and supplies for any number of possible scenarios.

“Is this how you treat all your guests at the castle?” the patient choked out.

Twilight waved a guard over, and he opened the door so that she could step inside the cell. “Only when we think Chrysalis might be after them. This is temporary until we can get you on your hooves and into a place where you can go incognito. Until then, we need to take precautions so you can stay safe.

“Besides, that was a major surgery. You shouldn't be going anywhere just yet. You could wind up bleeding out through your horn, and that does not sound like a particularly pleasant way to go.”

She nodded. “Fair enough.”

Twilight sat down and put on a smile she hoped would give the same kind of warm reassurance she always got from Celestia. “Have you thought of a name?”

The drone shook her head, though it was a little hard to tell; it was so slight. “I think I did right before I fell asleep, but I can't remember it now. It's too fuzzy.”

“That's anaesthetics for you. My dad told me that they can make it so that you can't form long term memories until it's mostly out of your system. He's a doctor, so I assume he would know.”

“It's frustrating,” the drone grumbled. “I wanna finally be me.”

“Just keep at it; I'm sure it'll come to you. In the meantime, can I get you anything? Any special requests that the nurses couldn't do?”

The changeling started to shake, trembling in her blankets. “Love. I need love to heal. And more painkillers.”

Twilight chuckled to herself. “Oh, don't worry too much about that. I arranged for a very special pony to come by to help nurse you back to health.”

The drone’s eyes opened all the way for the first time. “You did?”

The lightest of hoof steps echoed from down the hall.

“In fact, I think I hear her now.”

“Oh my!” Fluttershy swooped through the hall when she saw the drone lying in the hospital bed. “This looks far worse than I imagined. Had I known, I would have taken the earlier train.”

“It's unfortunate, but necessary. Had we not removed her horn, Chrysalis absolutely would have forced her to self-destruct.”

“Well, I don't want you to worry about a thing, Miss Drone. I'm going to help the nurses take very good care of you.” Fluttershy pulled out a hot water bottle out of her large bag. “And the first step is some nice, topical, herbal medicines.”

A lump of pride swelled in Twilight's chest. “Meet Fluttershy, Element of Kindness. When it comes to tender, loving care, there's nopony better. Bonus, she has medical training and an extensive knowledge of herbal medicines. And sewing, oddly enough.”

The drone hugged the hot water bottle through her blanket. “She's trained in medicine?”

“Yes, she’s a, erm, veterinary nurse,” Twilight coughed and mumbled under her breath.

If the world ever doubted that a changeling could convey indignation with a single look, it doubted it no longer.

“But she’s spent her whole life caring for other creatures without reservation, and that comes straight from her heart. I don’t think you’ll find love like that anywhere else in the whole world.”

The drone sighed, melting into the bed. “I suppose you’re right. If nothing else, I can feel it.”

Twilight blinked and switched to her magic sight. There was a subtle aura around both of them, cycling around like a weak convective current. She couldn’t quite peg the colour down, as if it was something that wasn’t really there. Something that she couldn’t see when looking directly at it, much like a dim star in the night sky. Huh, she thought. I didn’t think an alicorn could actually see the feeding process of a changeling with the Sight. If I could document this, I might be able to write a paper — no, no. We can leave that for later. There are other things to do.

Even if Fluttershy wasn’t a nurse for ponies, she could have fooled most anypony the way she was moving around the cell, checking every last little thing from the state of the bandages to a full reading of the chart. “Oh, um, Miss? The name here just says ‘patient.’ Don’t you have a name?”

The drone shook her head. “I haven't thought of one yet. Only the queen gets a name in the Hive.”

“Oh no, that simply won’t do!” Fluttershy opened the tap on the IV a tad. “Everypony needs a name, and you’re one of us now, so you do, too. What do you like to do?”

The changeling looked at her as if she just asked her to juggle flaming chainsaws covered in cyanide. “I’m an infiltrator drone. I infiltrate. That’s just kind of what we do.”

“Well, you’re not that anymore. Is there anything you’d like to do for fun?”

“That’s not how it works in the Hive. There’s no clear ending to our minds, no clear beginning to the others’ minds. We don’t do what we ‘like.’ We do what the Hive needs of us. Recreation is a… foreign concept.”

Twilight stifled a giggle mixed with a dollop of horror. “Sounds like you need to talk to the Cutie Mark Crusaders.”

Fluttershy nodded. “That sounds like a wonderful idea! I’ll get Apple Bloom to help you find something you’re good at. Then we can get you a cutie mark, too!”

Some unknown, chittering sound came from the changeling. “I’ll still need a name before then,” she sighed. “This is just all new territory. I mean, I know some of it, because we have to pretend when we infiltrate. But doing it for real? Just, wasting time on something for fun? This is all so new.”

Twilight stood up, trying to look strong for her new subject, though her brain said that was silly given her vertically-challenged nature. “It’s a new day, with new challenges aplenty.” A little bell rang in her mind. “Hey, how about ‘New Dawn?’ That’s an appropriately pony name. You can always change it later if you really want.”

The drone presumably did the changeling equivalent of a “hmm” for a few seconds. “It’ll work. Maybe just ‘Dawn’ for short?”

Twilight put a hoof on her shoulder. “Welcome to Equestria, Dawn.”  

Twilight was wearing pyjamas. This much she knew.

She also knew coffee hadn't happened yet. Which meant she should not be walking around, let alone doing anything of importance. However, she also knew that she was following both of the princesses, so odds were that it was important.

The cold shock of an ice krene’s presence drove her eyes open. She might as well have dived into a giant tub of ice water. They must have teleported at some point.

When she thought back on it, she did remember a bright light.

Nonetheless, they were clearly now in Sanctuary. Thus, they were there to see one pony in particular.

“Is Rose okay?” Twilight said through a yawn. “I think I might have missed any conversation before now.”

There was the barest of a hum from Celestia, but little else in the way of reassurance. “We aren't sure. If Luna was correct about what she found, I'm not certain what to make of things.”

They arrived at Rose's room and went right in, strolling by the nurse watching them. Rose herself was twisting and writhing in her bed, but not screaming. Rather, she merely whimpered into her pillow.

“Poor Rose…” Twilight wanted to cry in sympathy. “Can we do anything?”

Celestia spread her wings out, pinions touching Luna's side. “That's what we're here to attempt. Are you certain of what you saw, Sister?”

“Dead certain.” Luna's skin rippled, crawling up her back. “Wraiths. An endless sky of pain. Lightning that stretches for hundreds of skies. And the final proof? Blue threads of fate attached to her body. There is no question, Tia.

“Rose isn't just having a nightmare. She's dreaming of Tartarus. To her, she is in that realm, that hell.”

Sweat dripped from Twilight’s brow as her heart twisted inside itself. “You have to be kidding. How is this even possible? Nopony just knows what's in Tartarus. Not unless you've… been…”

“Impossible.” Celestia rubbed a clinical hoof along Rose's side, then felt along the way with magic. “A regular pony can't escape Tartarus without far worse physical and psychological damage, and even if they could, there would be another sign.

“They need to cut their threads of fate to escape, and when that happens, there's always some left on you. Like a loose thread you can't get rid of no matter how much you pull.

“Simple fact is, she's never been there physically. Yet somehow, she's there mentally. The question is, why?”

Twilight plopped her rump down onto the cold floor. “Elixir has magic in it. Magic supposedly including ingredients from the Everfree Forest, which was created by an explosion from a dimensional portal that was destroyed. Could it all be linked?”

Both of the princesses looked away, gears obviously turning in their heads. Celestia was counting something, while Luna was making a few dozen faces at different things.

“No,” Celestia said after some time. “At least, it doesn't seem likely that she built up enough power for that to happen. The amount of energy needed to break into Tartarus is many orders of magnitude greater than for most other hyperdimensional realms. If she had absorbed that much power, we'd be able to see it in our Sight.”

“'See it', nothing.” Luna blew a quick raspberry. “That kind of energy condensed into one pony’s wellspring would threaten to create a Kugelblitz singularity!”

“I think you're mathematically off-base there, Lulu," Celestia replied, "but you'd be correct to say that it would be painfully obvious.”

Twilight chewed on her lip. “Back up a moment. What if it's not her that's linked, but the magic elements of the ingredients? An explosion like the one that created the Everfree would have plenty of power to connect small pieces of matter with the Tartarus realm. She eats those pieces, and then…”

Celestia lit up her horn. “That's a possibility, but why aren't others that are addicted going through the same? Have they not ingested enough, or is there some other connection we're missing?”

“She was on it for a long time, I think…” Twilight shivered, wishing she could give Rose a hug. “How do we stop it?”

“First, I want to see something.” Celestia pulled out a little, blinking cylinder-ish device from under her wing and waved it over Rose. It beeped and whirred and made all manner of quiet noises, and the lights on either end shifted colours every couple seconds. “Okay, one moment.”

A spell formed around Celestia's horn, tiny symbols etched into the circle orbiting it. The device whirred in a kind of harmony, and a matching circle appeared around it. After a few more beeps, the oddity floated into the air on its own and an image bloomed around it.

The image was a spherical area, with a little star in the center that had tendrils stretching out to the outer edge of the sphere. Some of the light was silver, and the rest was a light blue. A cluster of lines danced between each point where the tendrils crossed each other or the outer edge of the image. The vertices often had alien text next to them. In the center, however, more text appeared in an ominous red.

“Princess…” Twilight swallowed. “Where did you get that gadget?”

Celestia closed her eyes, cheeks red in embarrassment. “I shouldn't even have it. Somehow, against all odds, it survived the end times of the Chaos War. Normally such technology would not be something I would allow to continue to exist, but it's too useful a diagnostic tool to abandon.

“Besides that, Luna and I are the only two who can even read the output, let alone use it. I felt it harmless enough to keep, and it's saved a number of lives along the way.”

Twilight folded her forelegs. “Diagnostic tool? And those colours? We're looking at Rose's wellspring, aren't we? Literally the interior structure of something to date only described in abstract thaumic script.”

Luna smiled. “I knew she'd figure it out.”

Celestia sighed. “Correct. Most importantly, the device has detected an anomaly in its core, here.” The Princess waved her hooves, zooming in on the center. A tiny thread of red light was attached to the wellspring’s core. “And I've never seen anything like it.”

“Wait!” Twilight stood up, and mimicked what Celestia did. The imaged zoomed in a little farther, though not at much as she liked. She put her head in the hologram, and squinted.

The thread wasn't just vanishing into thin air. Rather, the other end led to a tiny point in space that formed a frustratingly dim spiralling cloud. She had to not quite look directly at it to see what was happening.

Luna put her face next to Twilight's. “It… It looks like the accretion disc around a black hole. Only… It's going in reverse, somehow.  A white hole, perhaps? But it's hard to see...”

Twilight paced around the little room, going back and forth after just a few steps. “Black holes and white holes are two sides of the same coin. Much like a magic portal, they can be a bridge through spacetime. However, no matter can get through either in one piece without magic to intervene and reduce the stress on the particles from the gravitational forces at their center.

“But magic itself? Just energy. It can slip through no problem, as long as the hole is rotating at an appropriate speed to maintain a size larger than a few Planck lengths. Since this is likely a magic portal instead of a real white hole, I'm very certain that her wellspring is being contaminated from energy leaking into our realm via that.

The princesses shared a look, then lit their horns. A series of small magic circles appeared on the ground around Rose, each golden with enough Chron symbols to tell Twilight that the spells had something to do with time.

Celestia spoke first. “If your theory is correct, Twilight, then we have an easy way to stop the nightmares. Portals like that, even when small, interact with time. There is, however small, always some level of dilation. It needs to be there to exist.”

“Which means,” Luna continued, “we can use the same spells we use to prevent a pony from using Passage in an area. Basically, a quick and dirty temporal anchor. Puts the brakes on anything trying to mess with time.”

“I get it!” Twilight quickly put the circles to memory. “This will likely eat a lot of magic over time, and could be overwhelmed by something more powerful. But this portal is tiny, and the power consumption of the anchor is tied to its area of effect. A small area like this will be much more efficient. And I'm guessing you tied the versions in the castle to the nearby mana krenes to keep it functional.”

Celestia almost beamed. “Correct, Twilight. We can come in a couple days to recharge the spell easily enough. But for now? What I want to see is if this works.”

Moments later, the spell was complete. A subtle gold glow danced continuously on the floor, encircling the sleeping pony. In seconds, the tortured Rose was still and quiet, breathing at a slow, steady pace. Moreover, the hologram no longer had the tiny portal at its center.

Twilight whispered, “I think we finally cured her nightmares.”

“About time, too.” Luna cast another quick spell over her. “This should give her good dreams tonight. She's been through enough, and it chafes me to no end how long this took. I'm going to investigate this further. Something just doesn't smell right about all this.”

“Agreed.” Twilight tucked Rose’s blanket back in, getting her as snug as possible. “Let's get going. Hopefully she gets all the sleep she could want.”

“Thorough, as always, Twilight.” Celestia put the final report of Twilight's adventure in Manehatten on the meeting room table. The two of them were alone, save for Raven, Celestia's seneschal. “I concur with your recommendation for the Duchess. However, what should happen and what can and does happen are often two different things in politics.”

Twilight put her ears down in a pout. “So you're not going to kick her out of the Empyreal Hall?”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Celestia pursed her lips as she sipped her tea. “It will depend on what the rest of both the Hall and the Manehatten nobility are willing to accept without raising too much of a stink.”

 “Let them raise as much of a stink as they want. It's not as if they aren't doing it already!” said Twilight “Besides that, there needs to be accountability if the Compact is going to actually mean anything. Seriously, how many of these guys do I need to throw in jail before we get to trigger an emergency dissolution?”

“Don't be hasty, Twilight. Dissolving them only means they get replaced, and under the current Compact, I must choose other nobles from their Duchies before I renegotiate a new Compact. I'm deliberately trying to avoid that.”

Twilight raised her eyebrow. “Okay, Princess. It's time to put your cards on the table. It's just us; I promise not to leak your plans. What is your goal here?”

Celestia frowned before looking around the room, then lit her horn to saturate the chamber with magic. “I'm pretty sure you've gathered that I want to reduce the power of the nobility, correct?”

Twilight nodded. “That much is obvious.”

“Herein is the conundrum. Replacing a pony or two might help some, but the power they hold pales in comparison to the power of the system. Changing a system is much harder than changing who is in charge. 

“Right now, most power is situated at the level of the Duchy. This is the case for both Duchy-level decisions and Crown-level decisions. If a Duchy wants to make a law for themselves, it falls to a Duke's perview. If ponies want a Crown law changed, it's the same perview. I want to separate the link. That's the key conflict I've been working on for the last few decades.”

Twilight chewed on her cheek a little. “That's… I fail to see how this will solve all our problems.”

Celestia sighed and laid down in front of Twilight, wings drooping and ears flat. “This is something most ponies don't understand, Twilight. Politics isn't a sprint, it's a never-ending marathon. A generation of ponies might fight and struggle for one key change, but that won't ever be enough.

“Cultures change over time. We, as immortals, can guide things, but we can't control it. Not totally at least, and after a certain point, you get extremely diminishing returns. Not to mention the change technology can bring. 

“As a result, the needs of the ponies change all the time, and thus, new movements are created while old ones either die or try to keep things the way they are.

“What I'm trying to do won't solve all our problems, no. It's a subtle change, but an important one, and it's a step towards progress.”

Twilight murmured something to herself. She wasn't sure what. It was likely her thoughts overspilling her mind and getting extra rumination in her mouth. “So, what's the new structure supposed to look like?”

“In its simplest, there would be two different ponies per Duchy. One represents the region in the Empyreal Hall, another stays home and manages the region directly. 

“But that isn't enough, I'm afraid. There's one other element missing, and that's responsiveness.”

A chime sounded in Twilight's head. “You're going to make the Dukes democratically elected, aren't you?”

There was a glistening in Celestia's eyes. “Kind of. Before a few hundred years ago, a more... pseudo-feudal system was more effective, especially given the wild threats that existed at the time. The ratio of workers to nobles was more equitable. Rule by fiat was fast and simple.”

“The ratio got out of hoof, didn't it?” Twilight ran numbers in her head. “Faster than you predicted.”

Much faster. My ponies proved far more capable than I gave them credit for. For one, the wild threats - giant timberwolves and the like - were crushed earlier than I thought they would be. They also got an earlier-than-expected lead on health, as I didn't expect the Empyreal Hall to be so gung-ho on getting sewers and clean water installed. I was planning a phase-in, but they went and did it on their own in almost every city outside San Palomino.”

“So now what?” Twilight took out her notebook and drew a quick chart of the organization of the Manehatten government. “I can't imagine having a hierarchy with ratios like that of times past. The depth would be… um… unwieldy.”

“No, that wouldn't do. The current system is untenable-long-term, but sudden change would be unworkable in the short term. Fortunately, innovations in both technology and legislation make larger ratios feasible with the correct systems in place.

“My plan was to use San Palomino to test this, but somepony went and found an acceptable Duke before I could do that.”

Twilight stuck out her tongue. “Your fault for not including me.”

“I suppose so. But your actions in Manehatten give me another test bed, and just in time. The difficult thing will be to get the new system in place there. Organizations tend to have… inertia, for lack of a better word. 

“But a democratic system in a large territory won't take long to out-compete the likes of, say, Prance, which is almost exclusively controlled by nobility.”

Another chime sounded in Twilight's head. “You're going to play the inequality against them, aren't you? Manehatten gets catapulted ahead, the reforms get popular, and ponies literally everywhere else start clamouring for the same rights and abilities.”

Celestia almost cringed. “Yes, I am. I don't like that tactic, even if it will work. And Charlemane knows this by now, so he’ll likely fight me on it.”

“It's hard to believe your support hasn't climbed more than a few points. After all that's happened? It should be sky high by now.”

“I know from your perspective, this all seems so obvious. However, we must remember the perspective of the everyday pony. They don't know most of what you do; they only know of the public fallout. Some things we can trumpet about, and some things are too obvious to deny. But some of your actions as they happen must remain at least reasonably secret for your protection and your missions’ success. 

“Also, I'm afraid it's not a zero-sum game. Just because the nobility has stumbled does not mean that the common pony likes me any more. Rather, lately, polling seems to indicate that they like neither them nor me. It is at times like these that political risk is at its greatest—but so are the rewards to the pony who’s shrewd enough. Large changes can go through in an instant if the time is right. We must be ready to act when that time comes, but unfortunately, predicting exactly when that time will be is next to impossible.”

“Just let me know when you need me and what you need me to do.” Twilight stuffed her notebook away in her bag. “In fact, keep me up-to-date on those things ahead of time. Guess if you have to. If I don't know what you're planning, I can't act in concert with you.”

Celestia stood and stretched her wings. “I understand. Come, let's go talk to Charlemane about what to do with our naughty Duchess.”

“Roast her over a spit for all I care.”

Twilight looked over to Celestia, who seemed as stunned as she did. “Come again?” Twilight asked.

Charlemane plopped his rear down in his chair. “I'm getting as frustrated as you over these idiots. I've told them time and again to rein in the nonsense, but clearly I'm not getting through to some of them. If Demesne won't be a model, make her an example.”

Celestia scratched her chin with a feather. “Charles, if you don't stand up for them, they could rightly call for a vote of No Confidence.”

“Let them!” Charlemane shrugged. “There's only two… three of them that are either talented or connected enough to be my match, and guess what? One tried to cover up a changeling invasion, another used a slur in the Hall and would go into office as the least popular Chairpony in history, and the third wouldn't take my job for all the wine in Prance.

“So let them cry crocodile tears and boo-hoo-woe-is-us all they want. Either they shape up under me, or they get crushed under your gilded hoof. I win either way.”

Celestia’s face looked like she had just eaten a bowl of lemons. “I ran through two dozen scenarios on how this conversation would play out. This wasn't even remotely in any of them.”

“It's not so bad, though, right?” Twilight asked. “This gives you carte blanche, pretty much.”

“Not without consequences, though. I don't know for sure how the rest of the nobility will act as a result of this. I might have to keep Demesne around in the Hall to keep things balanced… or not? I'm not even sure right now.”

Charlemane yawned and stood up like a ton of time lag was about to hit him with a hammer. “Just let me know what you're doing at some point. My back is sore from the train ride over, and I need sleep. I'll see you in the morning, Tia.”

Twilight watched him leave, then turned to her teacher, who was still as a statue for quite some time.

Finally, Celestia let out a sigh. “Well, now I'm really lost.”

Twilight put her ears back. “I can't say I have much insight to offer. What does Luna think?”

Now it was Celestia’s turn to put her ears back, apparently.

“You haven't told her, have you?” Twilight gave her a poke. “Tia, you promised.

Celestia slipped down to the floor. “I did. But I very much do not want to broach this topic with her. It is… sensitive.”

“Tough. You're going to. Because if you don't, I will.”

“It has to do with the Lunar Rebellions.”

Twilight opened her mouth, but every possibility, from all possible universes, for things she had thought she was about to say  collided together in a train wreck of a noise. “U-buh-watdo?”

At the very least, that embarrassment served to elicit a chuckle from the Princess. “The central issue that started the war was this: when to transition to full democracy. I argued for a measured approach over centuries, with the pair of us as absolute rulers until we could put the pieces in place a little at a time. This would have the advantage of being the least economically disruptive, and protect against backlash if something unexpected happened to throw a monkey wrench in the works.

“Luna all but wanted to abdicate her crown then and there to install full democracy immediately. No compromises. I refused, and the nobility as it was supported me.

“When Luna seemed to accept the decision, I thought that was the end of it. But she did something I hadn't foreseen. She bypassed the current power structures entirely.”

Twilight blinked at that. “How?”

“Well, at towns she visited, she showed the communities how to organize together. They started making their own unwritten rules, meeting at night to decide on the goals the town had, working together on them.

“It went undetected for months. It might have lasted years had it not been so successful. A few of the towns had so removed themselves from the need of their nobility — save for military protection — that they started to laugh when their nobles made new rules. Laugh right to their faces and ignore them.

“Somehow, without even really trying, Luna had sparked a revolution. When the nobility tried to crush this auxiliary power structure, she flew into a rage and personally intervened. News of this quickly spread, and towns began replicating on their own what Luna had started.

“To her, it was proof. Proof that her way could work. I scoffed at her. It was proof of nothing at the scale we needed, and like a fool I sided with the nobility instead of reaching a compromise.”

Twilight pressed against her panicking stomach. “And Luna sided with the peasants. Neither of you would budge, so they took up arms and rebelled against their masters with an alicorn at their side.”

Celestia nodded, lowering her head to the floor. “The revolution spread like wildfire. Entire cities were lost in days. We—I had the military, but the knights at the time were very wary of fighting mere peasants. Worse, Luna had the bulk of the blacksmiths and others who the knights relied on.  Those that I had didn't exactly support me enthusiastically.

“Eventually, I started sending Crimson into the battle to put down the rebellion where it was spreading. I had hesitated up until that point because I knew he could be brutal. Yet, he was effective. At least until Luna sent… her.

Twilight wondered if she should back out of the conversation then and there, but the only thing she could think to say was her guess as to who Celestia meant. “The Lunar Grand Mage. Evening Tide. She stopped him cold, didn't she?”

Celestia nodded. “I never thought it possible. A brand new ascendant out of nowhere. One who laughed at the training and experience of Crimson Spectre and nearly killed him multiple times — and each time, I'm convinced she missed deliberately.

“That couldn't stand. It was dangerous, but I had to enter the battle personally. We manoeuvred our armies so Luna's rag-tag mass of peasants would be facing off against us in two groups. I gave Crimson spells and tech he shouldn't have had at the time in order to give him an edge, and I knew I could beat my sister if I had to. With luck, we knew we could beat both of them and put a stop to the madness.

“I was a complete failure that day. I met my sister, and a hundred kilometres away, Crimson met Spectre. We offered a peace deal if they surrendered, and they refused. My side ran so that I could step into the fight without them getting hurt, and I lunged forward.

“Luna flew at me, and in the shock of my life, the illusion around her broke. It wasn't Luna I was fighting — it was Evening Tide. She brought her sword against me, cutting my side. All of my spells short of ones that would destroy my army and the city nearby were useless against her. She cut through them or shrugged them off with an adaptive shield. A moment in, I realized what they were really up to.

“I teleported to Crimson Spectre, but I was too late. All those advantages I gave him were utterly useless against a pony of Luna's skill and knowledge. He lay dead, engulfed in the enormous fire of his own wellspring, his blood dripping down Selene.

“If I had any sense at all, it would have ended there. Maybe admitted that Luna had a point. But we were both too far gone at that stage.”


Both Twilight and Celestia turned to the corner of the room, where Luna stood, watching them.

“You couldn't have stopped me then, Tia. Not without killing me. I was bound and determined at that point. You would have been proud of Crimson, though. He faced me with true courage, and had I not caught him by surprise, I daresay some of the things you gave him might have wounded me.”

Celestia closed her eyes, shedding the tears welling up. “We were such fools.”

“Indeed. Our ponies would have been better off without us then.”

Twilight put her ears all the way back when she tried to say she disagreed. The words never came out.

“Perhaps you are correct, Sister,” said Celestia. “But all the more reason to make things right. Tell me, do you still have your hobby from a few years back? I know you were thinking up various democratic structures for our Duchies.”

Luna's eyes widened. “Oh! Do… do you really need them? Are you… going to use them?”

Celestia pushed herself to a sitting position. “Perhaps. I want to put one in place for Manehatten, and we have a prime opportunity in the here and now. I don't know which to choose, but you have many available, if I recall correctly.”

“I do! Just, give me one moment.”

Luna dashed from Celestia’s chambers, presumably to her own for a second, before returning with a few legal-sized notebooks. “I'm afraid they aren't organized at all.”

A voice in the back of Twilight's mind said “Ew.”

“That's okay, it needn't be pretty.” Celestia opened the first, and an avalanche of papers fell out of it. “Twilight is going to have to give you lessons on organizing, Luna.”

Luna blew a raspberry in response. 

Celestia skimmed a few of the sheets, quickly discarding several. Most weren't especially detailed, but included diagrams and light philosophical musings on the margins. “This one will do.”

Luna craned her head over to see. “The bicameral parliamentary one? You skipped over a lot of others…”

“I could do a deep analysis on all of them, but this has all we need for now. The important thing is to change the power structure so there's more democracy. Exactly how it’s structured isn't as important as whether it accomplishes the task and whether it can be changed in the future if we need it to be.

“Of course, we'll probably make a few changes as we translate this into formal legal language. I rather doubt we should include the line ‘Throwing a bone to the nobles ugh’ next to the House of Lords’ responsibilities.”

Twilight snickered. “I dunno, I'd probably pay money to see their reaction to that.”

Luna lit up. “Oh! I should have my Guard take a picture so we can sell copies!”

Celestia let out a happy sigh. “What am I going to do with you two?”

“And thus concludes my report. Thank you for your time.” Twilight switched off her microphone in the Empyreal Hall and sat back in her seat, Spike next to her. 

Charlemane pulled his chair forward. “The Council appreciates your efforts, Lady Sparkle. Your cross-examination will happen at a later date. Right now, I would like to immediately deal with one clear fact: Duchess Demesne failed to fulfill her obligations under the Compact. She knew of a threat from the changelings, and failed to inform the Crown.”

“I reject your framing, Chairpony.” Demesne yelled before turning on her microphone. “The threat never gave an indication of being as bad as it was. Moreover, given the propensity of RGIS to leak to our enemies, there was the risk of the information getting out, leading to a panic. From our perspective, things were well in hoof.”

Luna flapped her wings. “So you admit the central issue — that you withheld information from us.”

Demesne sat up straight and nodded. “I do. I felt that action prudent given the circumstances.”

Celestia's gavel rang out twice. “Whether or not it's prudent isn't your choice. If you were really so worried about it, you could have asked for a private audience with me and I would have taken whatever precautions needed. Instead, you kept it all hidden and placed the whole city at risk, including your secretary.”

Demesne pulled in a breath. “I stand by my judgement, Your Highness. So do the nobility of Manehatten.” She reached under her desk, and pulled out a letter. “I have here a letter signed by the entirety of the nobility within my Duchy. They demand I remain as Duchess, and refuse to nominate any of their number for a replacement.”

Luna's horn aura snatched up the letter, bringing it to her perch at the top of the Empyreal Hall. “Bluffs don't impress me much, Duchess. They're sharks. They'll feast on your carcass the minute we throw it to them.”

The Duchess replied with a subtle “harumph.” “I'm better at managing my Duchy than anypony else in this room, and that includes my subordinates.”

“Nonsense!” Suisaiga - the Duchess of Neighpon, also known as Watercolour - slurped at her tea. “The best of us there is—”

Naponion interrupted with a loud, rumbling snore.

Watercolour flopped her head into her desk and covered her ears. “Ugh. And the thought is depressing beyond reason.”

Celestia’s horn aura wrestled against Luna's for a moment, before the younger sister yielded and allowed her elder to read the note. “I see.” The letter floated down to Spike and Twilight. “Spike, be a dear and show the Duchess what I think of her bluster.”

Spike picked it up and blushed from the weight of the eyes of the entire Empyreal Hall watching him. “Um…”

Twilight leaned over to him. “Torch it,” she whispered.

Spike froze. “Really?”

Twilight nodded.

Spike shrugged. “Alrighty then.” With a single breath, the green flames turned the paper to ash.

The colour in Demesne's coat drained out, followed by that of the rest of the dukes.

Celestia banged her gavel. “I have some small measure of respect for how your subordinates view you, Duchess, but your actions mean I can no longer trust you to manage your Duchy in accordance with the Compact. That's not something I can overlook. As such, I have no choice but to remove you from control of your Duchy.

“Out of respect for your service thus far, however, I'm willing to allow you to stay at your post within the Empyreal Hall, albeit at a reduced rank of 11th.”

The entire gaggle of politicians within the Hall looked like they wanted to explode into gossip like a high school assembly. Even Charlemane was whispering to Duke Buckheart of the Hinterlands.

Celestia sipped her tea, and somehow did so in a way that told the room, “Yes I said that.” It was an ellipsis before she dropped the next horseshoe. “Since the nobility won't see fit to give me a pony I can rely on to fulfil their obligations, I shall have to find a different solution.

“Duchess, you will remain in your current position for three months. At that point, the Duchy of Manehatten will hold elections for representatives in a new Parliament that will serve as the civilian authority for that region, and you will transfer control to that Parliament and their new Premier over a period of two weeks.”

Watercolour spit out her tea, raining down saliva onto the Duke of Marelaysia.

“Hey!” The duke stole her napkin to wipe himself off.

“Sorry…” Watercolour meeped.

Charlemane stood frozen for a moment. He wasn't at a loss; caught off guard, certainly, but his gaze was thoughtful, calculated. “I'm assuming you won't be limiting the election candidates to only the nobility.”

The ground shook from Luna's laughter. “Oh, you assume correct, Chairpony. After all, the nobility refused to nominate any of their own.”

“Congratulations, Demesne, you old tart.” Bismare slammed her copy of Twilight's report down on her desk, sending a strangely satisfying slap through the air. “You played right into Celestia's strategy. Want to lick her hooves next?”

“Shut it,” Demesne growled through clenched teeth. 

Bismare was about to open her mouth again when Celestia banged her gavel. “Order! Save the insults for later, ladies.

“The qualifications for candidacy are as follows: A pony or other citizen must be at least thirty years of age, not be currently incarcerated for a crime, must have principally resided in Manehatten for at least the last three years, and must submit at least one thousand signatures of the citizenry in support of the candidate within one month’s time from now. They must also liquidate all their assets, save for a primary residence, to prevent conflicts of interest.

“The election will be ranked choice, so you are ordered to have sufficient personnel to conduct this operation. I expect the election to go smoothly. Once the members are elected they will elect a Premier to lead the Duchy domestically, while the Duchess will be charged only with representing the Duchy here in the Empyreal Hall. You will convey the will of the Parliament, not just your own desires. If you fail at this, the Parliament will nominate a new Duchess. 

“As for other details, Luna, if you would?”

Luna nodded and pulled out a large stack of documents before passing them around to everypony. “This is the formal charter for the new government, along with outlines and support diagrams and documents.”

“Princess,” Duchess Bismare asked. “Is this what we can all look forward to? Obsolescence of our great traditions in the nobility?”

Luna narrowed her eyes. “One can only hope.”

Celestia cleared her throat. “There are no such plans at this time, Duchess.”

“And if we object?”

Celestia leaned forward in her seat. “Considering all that's happened in the last year or so, you have two choices. Either accept this solution and get your act together, or I will issue an emergency dissolution of the Compact here and now and fire every single one of you.”

“Your Highness!” Duke Earthen Pride stood. “I have had no time to fulfill my—”

“And I regret that, Duke, but it's not my fault this batch of nobles has been infested by incompetence and literal treason. Know that if I must go to such lengths I will not hold you to your promise, as this is well outside your control. But I'm not going to sit back and just let this Council dishonour the Empyreal Hall any further. Am I understood?”

The duke bowed. “Yes, Your Highness. Please forgive my outburst.”

“Of course, Duke Pride.” Celestia sat back with a small sigh, and a little tendril of smoke rose from her back. “I think that's enough for today. You all need time to digest this change and, in the case of Demesne, inform your citizens. 

“Please see Pulsar or Raven if you need any additional documentation. This meeting is adjourned.”

Time for the moment of truth. Twilight sipped from her tea, and it was from a teacup she hadn't used in ages. It was even in a little kitchen she hadn't used in quite some time.

A couple years ago, this had been her home. A living tree-house, which was also the area’s library, nestled in a sleepy town. She had her friends and all the books she could cram into her head. Being back left a note of sadness crying in her heart.

Even the tea was playing a different song on her tongue than what she was used to. Maybe it was from being brewed in a tea bag instead of an infuser? No, such a thing was too simple a solution. The tannins agreed, sharing in her melancholy.

She shook herself in a fake shiver to throw off her listless thoughts. She had a judgement to pass. “Not bad, mother.”

Twilight Velvet all but melted in relief. “So, you're not mad?”

“Mad? No, not at all.” Twilight flipped to the next letter. “If Celestia were the one doing this, she'd be ‘disappointed.’ But she's obscenely busy, so you get me, and I know you better. I honestly expected less, but you've proven my pessimism wrong.”

The relief looked like it had turned into a whirlwind in Velvet’s stomach. “‘Disappointed…’ I suppose I deserve that.”

“Maybe. Progress is progress, but I’m afraid I’m not comfortable authorizing your return to Canterlot. If I did, Celestia could well overrule me.”

Velvet sighed. “It’s just as well. I can’t go back there. Not after what happened, and especially not now.”

“The so-called friends of yours who won’t welcome you back were never really your friends, mother. You were a shark in a ocean filled with sharks.”

“No, it’s more than that.” Velvet took in a deep breath. “Twilight, I’ve been diagnosed with Sungold’s Syndrome.”

A metaphorical bolt of lightning struck Twilight in the gut, punching a hole right through her. “No… Mother, why didn’t you tell me?”

“The fate of the nation rests on your shoulders. This is not something you should be concerned about.”

“Like hell it’s not! You’re my mother, and even if I am Grand Mage, that doesn’t stop me from caring about my friends or family. Does Dad know?”

“He does. Having a doctor for a husband means it’s hard to hide medical things. But it also means he can help me figure this all out. And one of the things is that I can’t go back to Canterlot. Thin air exacerbates the symptoms.”

Twilight squeezed her midsection with her forelegs. “And Canterlot is on a mountain. You might as well be living in a cloud city if you live there.”

Velvet nodded. “Ponyville isn’t really ideal either, nestled in all these mountains. At some point I might have to move to Manehattan, but for now, ‘better than Canterlot’ is sufficient.”

“How… Have the mental symptoms started yet? Like, aphasia?”

“No! No, thank the stars. And I’m on the new medications.”

Twilight sighed out an enormous ball of anxiety, letting her muscles relax. “Good. The new medications are said to delay symptoms by 20 years or more. With any luck, even better medicines will be available by then.”

“And I’ll have an in-house doctor to care for your senile old mother. I bet that’s what you are thinking.”

“More that I’ll have another few decades with you, as a minimum. Who knows, maybe I’ll get a doctorate and find the cure myself.”

Velvet raised an eyebrow. “You don’t need to go changing careers on account of your mother being sick. You’re the Grand Mage. That’s way more important than just one more doctor in the world.”

“Hey, it’s not any less likely than some of the other things I’ve been doing lately. Last week I was dining with griffins trying to bring a cease-fire to the civil war. Last month I protected Fillydelphia from a parasprite infestation. Last summer, I led an operation that wiped out basically the entire population of changelings within the city of Manehatten. Oh, and did I ever tell you I’ve ridden the seams within Cloudsdale? Didn’t even wind up dying.”

Velvet turned a few shades whiter. “There are some things a mother just isn’t meant to know.”

Twilight giggled. “When this is all over, I’ll let you read a redacted version of my journal. Give Dad a crash cart to keep next to your bed.”

“Well, at least you’re in good spirits. Suppose that’s a positive sign.”

“It is, but we’re getting away from the more important topic at hand. Your letters. As I said, you’ve exceeded my expectations. However, you are near what Celestia would expect. There are some hidden truths I would’ve hoped to have covered by now.”

“Hidden truths? About friendship? Twilight, dear, I’m twice your age. What could I possibly—”

“Don’t argue with the ultra-studious pony who did this for more than a decade under the explicit direction of Princess Celestia. I say, if there’s anypony in the world who qualifies as an expert on this, it would have to be me. You’ll just have to figure out these facts on your own. They’ll mean more that way.”

“I suppose…”

“Indeed.” Twilight finished her tea, which had grown cold during their talk. “I should get going. That winter storm is coming, and the weather ponies say there’s little they can do to stop it. You’re well stocked on food?”

Velvet nodded. “I think I stuffed your little fridge to capacity. And your father learned a new spell to help clear our walkway.”

“Good. Sorry to run so soon, Mom, but the weather doesn’t wait for anypony anymore. Not even the Grand Mage.”

“Oh, wait just one moment!” Velvet sprang up and dashed to the cupboards before rummaging through a few dozen cans of stuff. Eventually she pulled out a glass jar of a dark golden honey with an envelope attached to it. “Almost forgot this. Honeybee came by, said you helped her get out of Cloudsdale. She wanted you to have this and said it's ‘orange honey.’”

Twilight picked up the jar, mulling over its heft in her magic. “Aw, that's sweet! No pun intended… mostly. I'll put it in the Royal Kitchens and ask the chefs if they can do anything special with it. Thanks, Mom.”

The two shared a hug before Twilight stepped through the door and waved goodbye.

Outside the library was Celestia’s chariot, on loan for the time being, along with four of her Day Guard charioteers. Her own guards were inside, save for Cloud Burner, who was standing by the door to the library.

“All clear to go?” he asked.

“Yup. Next stop, Canterlot. I want to be next to a fireplace when this storm hits.”

As she approached, Spike hopped out of the chariot, holding the door open for her.

“Thanks, Spike.” Twilight shivered as she climbed into the vehicle. Even though her coat could protect her from really getting cold, the wind and dark clouds on the horizon were enough to make her hindbrain sound an alarm.

Inside the chariot, the rest of her guards were already sitting and waiting for her return. There was an oddly cozy element to it all. It wasn’t the plush seats, though. Each time she sat in the seat that was meant for her mentor, the little voices in her head cried out “Impostor!” Rather, her heart was warmed at having so many friends around her at once. They may not have been the Elements – save  Rainbow, of course – but that didn’t stop the feelings from rushing through her veins.

“Oh, looks like you got a treat! Come to Rainbow!”

Spike planted himself between the pegasus and the jar of honey. “Nope. It’s hers. She gets to decide what to do with it.”

“What’s with the envelope?” Trixie asked.

“Prolly just a thank you card.” Twilight held it up to the light, then pulled it open with her magic. Inside, however, had no design, signature, or declaration of gratitude. Instead, the only words were a time and place, three hours from that moment and at a café in a little town on the other side of Canterlot.

“Knew it!” Rainbow laughed.

“You did not.” Cloud Burner huffed. “You just saw it in your precognition.”

“And that means I knew it.”

“Quiet, you two.” Twilight got up and opened the little window facing the Day Guard pulling the chariot. “Gents? Change of plans. Head to Point Crowne. I have an appointment.”

“Who do you think wrote it?” Trixie said, eying the note. “Smells like a trap.”

“I don’t think it is,” Twilight said, sitting back down. “If it’s who I think it is, then this is a meeting I won’t want to miss. I’ve got some questions for them.”