High on the side of Mount Equinox, on the lip of the tallest spire of Canterlot Castle, was a balcony from which, on a clear day, one could see all of Equestria. In a literal sense, that is, not merely poetic; with no neighboring civilizations of comparable size and sophistication to hem the land with treatied borders, the legal definition of Equestria's territory was in fact everything Celestia surveyed, by naked eye, from her lofty palace — aside from a few divots of land ceded to lesser but respectable thrones, such as Minotauros, Flutter Valley, and France.
The actual balcony from which the law was defined was three stories down, in truth, but the principle remained. The only notable difference between the views was a glen on the far side of the aptly-named Quibble Hills, anyway.
It was not a clear day. As much to the contrary as possible, it was a heavily overcast night. While the local clouds had been cleared over Ponyville, far below, the wise and aloof pegasi of the upper reaches were keeping a thick sheet of cover high above the mountaintops, in accordance with long-term weather plans.
Celestia, Princess of the Sun, didn't care much for cloudy weather. Partially pegasus (and even less inclined to discuss the whole fat-layer thing), she wasn't bothered by rain and mist in themselves, but her solar regimen was always more difficult when she couldn't actually see the Sun. Like a foal whose mother was out of sight, the mischievous orb would take the opportunity to play, dawdling as long as it could before setting to bed, or pretending to sink down while in fact sidling north.
Unlike a foal, it was made of pure elemental fire and weighed about seven hundred billion tons. 'Playing' with it was no way to relax. After finally wrestling down the restive Sun and dimming out the last raspberry traces of sunset, Celestia drooped, letting her wingtips sag to brush the floor and giving a deep, weary sigh.
Behind her a shadow of night separated from the dark skies, and came into view as dusk-coated Luna, gliding to a graceful landing on the balcony. Hearing the soft tap of silver-shod hooves, Celestia turned with a smile and stepped down from her tiled platform. Rather than greeting her sister as intended, though, to her embarrassment she found herself yawning cavernously right in the younger Princess's face.
"Oh goodness, do excuse me, sister..." Celestia said, sheepish. "I'm just so much more tired than usual tonight."
Luna's lips twitched around a smirk, and then she too burst into a yawn, covering her mouth and giving Celestia a dirty look as she finished.
"I too feel rested less than I would like. I blame this heavy air, it fosters sloth." Luna looked up to the dull canvas of the sky and sniffed. Fond of flying far and wide over the kingdom by night, she took even less delight in low-visibility wet weather than did Celestia. "At least the stars need no great art tonight."
"No, I suppose not... I didn't put on the most elegant sunset, either. A copy from yesterday, to be honest," Celestia admitted. She fought back another yawn, but it powered through her defenses. "Oh, my, I really am exhausted."
"You filly, get to bed before you drop — so does the throne of Canterlot decree!" Luna swept her hoof imperiously toward the tower's door, the impish bright crescent of her grin robbing the gesture of offense.
Celestia rolled her eyes and bowed her head, with a slight quiet smile. "Well, as my liege commands."
Before she could walk away, however, Luna paused at the platform's edge and called, "Oh, sister, wait — if I could trouble you..."
"Trouble away, my sweet, so long as you don't need any great feats of wakefulness."
Luna gave a hasty nod. "Of course. I only ask, if you should see a kitchen steward as you're passing through, to have a coffee service sent up here?"
"Poor tired Lulu. Shall I have them bring up some of those chocolate-drizzled cream puffs as well?"
Luna tossed a narrow glare toward Celestia's overly innocent smile, recognizing another move in the long-running debate concerning who ate how much, of what, and when; and whose cutie mark region was of greater disproportion in consequence. In tones of great and costly concession, she said, "... why yes, that would be lovely, sister dear."
"My pleasure," Celestia said, not quite chuckling.
With their backs to one another, the royal sisters both paused at the same moment for another deep yawn, with identical curves of their necks and the same soft squeak on the exhale, before Celestia descended into the tower and Luna took a stance on the platform, raising her head to breathe deep the chilly air as she extended her senses out toward the sleeping Moon.
Neither were strongly enough affected to find anything suspicious in their mysterious urge to fall over and do nothing useful.
Princess Cadance and Shining Armor had found the time, somehow, to share a quiet evening, a roaring fire, and a summer-sweet sparkling strawberry cordial. It was almost a disappointment when the rain let up, so perfectly had it framed the atmosphere of their cozy chamber.
Neither said much as grey light from the windows faded and gave way to flickering amber from the hearth. Slumped side to side, they conversed as much as needed by the rhythms of their breath. Armor had a book of magic-improvement exercises he was theoretically reading, while Cadance was quite deliberately doing nothing but watch the fire dance. Both were trying not to think about work, and largely succeeding.
At close to the same moment, both frowned thoughtfully and raised their heads. Armor caught Cadance's expression mirroring his own, and waved a hoof in the general direction of his desk.
"Did we have some sort of appointment this evening?" he asked cautiously.
"Nnnooo..." Cadance's eyes swept back and forth as she considered, eventually shaking her head with a shade more confidence. "No, I really can't think of anything. There shouldn't be, I moved mountains to clear out this evening for both of us. But I know what you mean... I have the strangest feeling that we were supposed to be somewhere."
"Yeah, like we should be making some kind of token appearance, at a party or something...?"
After musing a moment longer they shrugged, mutually baffled.
"Well, I hope it's nothing important," Cadance said, in a tone untouched by concern.
"Eh, if somepony thinks it is, we'll hear about it in the morning. I don't hear any explosions and I don't think your aunt has dropped the Moon, so..." Shining Armor slipped his hoof around Cadance's shoulders and drew her closer, nuzzling the sunrise-pink curls of mane around her ears. "... it can't be more important than this."
"You big softie," purred the Princess.
Down in Ponyville, in a darkened bedroom, Lyra Heartstrings opened her eyes wide, though she remained fast asleep. Staring blindly into the shadows, she gave a soft moan, and then another, lips gradually forming the sound into repetitive words. With each recitation her voice grew louder and more insistent, until she was all but shouting in a droning, hollow voice.
"rrr... rrraaarrre... rrraaarrr'tyyy... rrraaaarrriiityyyy..."
The earth pony sleeping beside her woke, fuzzily, and blinked with the grumpy uncertainty of the newly awakened, turning rapidly to concern at Lyra's eerie somnolent chanting.
"Humm? Lyra? Wha's... wha's goin' on?"
Lyra's eyes gazed at nothing, unblinking, still calling out hypnotically into the night.
"Are you talking in your sleep? Hey, c'mon, you're creeping me out."
Poking Lyra's shoulder did nothing to stop the strange chant, but a more energetic, frankly frightened shaking finally produced some response. Lyra's head turned, slowly and mechanically, and an uncanny smile spread on her lips. She fell quiet for a heartbeat, then spoke again, softer but still in a weird toneless croak.
"Rarity is soooo wooooonderful..." she crooned.
A couple of seconds passed in silence.
Lyra awoke at last, with a startled squawk, as she was kicked from the bed and hit the floor.
Chapter Five: All's Well That Ends Eventually
The strange fog cleared from Rainbow Dash's eyes with a nearly audible snap, and she twitched in surprise to find herself right up in Fluttershy's face, lips just a shadow's width away from Fluttershy's muzzle.
"Whoa!" She backed off hastily, shaking her head. "What's goin' on? I was just... uh, sorry about that, 'Shy. Whatever it was. I don't know what just happened."
"It's okay." Fluttershy flew forward and squeezed Dash in a quick hug. "I'm just glad you're not a zombie."
"Um, sure? It's one of my many awesome qualities," Dash said, uncertainly, then gaped downward. "Hey, what happened to Spike?"
Fluttershy covered her hooves with her mouth. "Oh no, he's hurt!"
"SPIKEY-WIKEY!" Rarity screamed. In a flash, she was kneeling by the dragon, who lay partially buried in books at the foot of the shelf against which he'd been thrown by the blast. She flung aside the books with an impatient flash of magic and lifted his head, careful not to jostle or squeeze, cradling him to her chest. "Oh, my little hero!"
Twilight jumped off the stairs and pelted across the room, heedlessly scattering bunnies. Midway there, though, she staggered, legs suddenly rubbery beneath her and head swimming, and when she reached Spike it was by tumbling heavily to her knees beside him.
To the others it probably looked like pure emotional collapse, and that was indeed the major part of it, but the dizziness and physical faltering was caused by the sudden arrival, inside her mind, of a complete additional set of memories for the previous hour. Even stranger was the crawling feeling that some of her internal models of her friends now had an extra hour of memories of their own, a bizarre mental sensation for which there was no proper word, despite the fact that a fair number of other unicorns before her had felt it.
The disorientation was nothing, though, beside the sheer weight of guilt. The whole mess, from one end of this strange day to the other, was entirely and inescapably the responsibility of Twilight Sparkle, but it was Spike, her little baby dragon, who had paid the price for it.
It was her, only her, who had cast an untried spell without following procedure. She had failed to check for unwanted influences and failed to clear the ambient etherium. She had left a dangerous book lying around, and even though it shouldn't have been possible for an untrained filly to summon anything just by sounding out words without intention and throwing together only those components that were available in the kitchen, there was still no evading the blame. She should have been aware that Sweetie Belle was actually that bad at cooking.
On top of all that came piled the burden of guilt her duplicate felt over her treatment of Rarity, both the toy and the real one. The boulder of remorse crushed her to the floor and squeezed burning tears from her eyes. She pressed her face to Spike's, weeping.
"It's my fault, all my fault," she moaned. "Oh Spike... my number one... how can I ever forgive myself?"
She dissolved in helpless choking sobs. Rarity had been tempted to channel her own worry into anger at the scholar, but the hopeless sorrow in Twilight's voice tore at her heart, and she reached her forehoof over Spike's chest to stroke Twilight's mane. The gesture only made Twilight feel worse, reminded that she — some version of herself, at any rate — had intended the blow for Rarity, and been willing to lie to a scared and confused echo of the white unicorn to accomplish it.
Shaking with grief, she whispered, "Please be all right... please..."
The others gathered in a loose circle around them, not wanting to crowd too close, biting their lips, shuffling uncomfortably, chins trembling and eyes shimmering in sympathy.
There are those in the surroundings of Equestria — among the griffins, among the dragons, and especially among the diamond dogs — who look on the ponies with spiteful jealousy. The ponies live the good life, some would say, in so many words, while every other being that doesn't kiss up to them gets the short end of the stick.
Blessed with magic to command the elements, graced with rulers of uncanny power and unparallelled benevolence, even given clear signs by forces beyond mortal kenning of their personal purposes in life, the ponies go through their days happy and well-fed, without nearly as much effort as many other beings must go through. They're so well off they burst into spontaneous city-wide musical numbers on a daily basis, and it's not like they ever did anything to earn their luxury except to be born with big eyes and pastel hides.
What these envious souls don't realize — and really, there's no way they could — is that, while it is true the ponies are unusually well-favored by fortune, all the creatures of their world are still, among all possible universes in the grand cosmic panoply, residents in one of the most merciful.
Twilight Sparkle's tears flowed down her cheeks and onto Spike's.
Spike's eyes opened.
"Wh... what happened?" he rasped. A glassy, sozzled smile dawned across his features.
"Oh Spikey!" Rarity squealed, joyfully peppering the dragon's face with rapid-fire kisses, which didn't really help him get any less dazed. "My dear, brave protector, how do you feel?"
"I feel... I feel so... friendly," he muttered. Twilight let out a sound something like a watery laugh and hugged him close, barely restraining herself from squeezing with all her might. Spike gave her a glowing, somewhat perplexed smile, and gently pushed aside her embrace, not in rejection, just wanting to get off the floor. His little claw held her hoof reassuringly as he got to his feet. The roomful of ponies burst out in cheers and laughter, stomping their hooves and dancing in delight, much to the consternation of the bunnies.
Spike's eyes gleamed with a fresh brightness, as though the world were a wonderful new thing, and he wavered slightly as he stood. Whether it was the Harmony blast, or all the books to the head, or Rarity's kisses, he looked like he'd gotten into the secret supply of aged cider in the Apple family's cellar.
Twilight and Rarity together helped him stand, neither willing to move an inch from his side. Spike gave them a saintly look of good cheer and clasped his hands over his heart. With the dignified sincerity of a happy drunk, he declared, "I... love you guys."
He pointed at them, then reached up and clasped their shoulders, carrying on. "I love all you guys. And I love Pinkie... wow... real friendship..."
Humoring him with gentle agreements as he continued to expound on the topic, and grinning themselves at the sheer radiant joy in his eyes, they turned him around and walked him toward a place to sit.
"He's never going to wash his face again," Twilight remarked, and Rarity laughed, assuming it was a joke.
A little more than an hour later, the Library was still alight and alive with bustling ponies.
Neither Applejack nor Rarity had been in any hurry to get home. Both seemed to feel they'd missed out on the fun part of the evening, and Applejack couldn't bring herself to leave the front door lying in the road while it was in her power to fix it. Rainbow Dash had needed to hurry off to finish up with her weather crew, but with that taken care of, she'd seen Applejack still at work on the door and flown back down to help. Rarity, not to be outdone in the department of generous gestures, stayed with the excuse of repairing Pinkie's mangled dresses.
Scootaloo had been picked up by her parents, a fine upstanding pegasus couple with respectable jobs and no major personality disorders. Twilight rather liked them; they rarely got caught up in the periodic mass hysteria that characterized life in Ponyville. She wouldn't mind seeing more of them.
Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle stayed along with their sisters, thrilled at the opportunity to stay up past bedtime. After cleaning the kitchen and bathroom, both had promptly passed out atop a large square cushion, curled up back-to-back with their tails draped over their noses, as though posing for the dictionary illustration of 'adorable'.
Spike had recovered swiftly from the grogginess, still unusually chipper and energetic, but no worse than he sometimes got after too much sugar. Ignoring his protests of feeling fine, Twilight had subjected him to every magical scan she could think of, with some help from Rarity, who lacked formal education but at least possessed certain fundamental magical senses. Between the two of them and all the resources of the Library, as far as they could tell the only effect of the Harmony blast had been to sweep clean any dark and evil side he might have had. Once the initial euphoria died down, he seemed entirely the same as ever, which when she thought about it gave Twilight a certain warmth of pride for the little guy.
After the magic examination, Fluttershy had given him a thorough physical inspection as well, with a determined attitude that brooked no objection. As firm as her fear of dragons remained, she had been outraged after Spike's birthday to learn how indifferent Ponyville's medical professionals were about their own inability to help an entire sentient species, and taken it on herself to study every resource on dragon physiology Twilight could dig up. Given the distressingly slim state of Equestrian research in that area, combined with her extensive knowledge of veterinary care she probably qualified, ironically, as one of the country's top dragon health experts.
Of course, the top expert would likely be somepony able to actually approach an adult specimen, though Twilight had a strong suspicion that nothing would stop the yellow pegasus if she ever came across a grown dragon who was sick or wounded.
Fluttershy's bemused conclusion was that, contrary to injury, the Elements had left Spike in a state of uncommonly perfect health, without so much as a split scale or a strained muscle. Nonetheless, she had chided Twilight for carelessness, in a soft gentle way that stung like lashes of fire. Every now and then, Twilight thought that if Fluttershy had been any more comfortable by nature around other ponies, her cutie mark might have been that of a school principal, or possibly a prison warden.
With Angel Bunny having taken over herding the other rabbits away, or more precisely scaring the grass out of them until they fled into the night, Fluttershy stayed behind complaining that now she was wide awake and restless. Hearing the full ridiculous story behind all the fuss hadn't improved her mood, nor her estimate of anypony's sanity. Grumpy 'Shy was a little unnerving, like a pillow with a hissing fuse, but Pinkie had, with greater than typical diplomacy, cajoled her into cheering up. The two of them were now off to one side quietly playing with Pinkie's dolls, or at least, Fluttershy was quiet. Twilight couldn't make out what sort of stories they were spinning, but she did notice the others occasionally wandering into earshot and backing away quickly, disconcerted and blushing.
For her own part, Twilight sat in an undeclared but firm bubble of peace, buzzing away at her long-delayed essay. Being left alone to work without actually being alone made the previously onerous task feel a lot more agreeable, and with a genuine new experience of the Elements of Harmony in action — however peculiar the circumstance — she had more than enough inspiration to fill a thousand words, and then another thousand. Realizing that she had zipped past the three thousand word mark, she brought the essay around to a tidy conclusion and reviewed it with a glow of satisfaction. She could have gone on quite a bit longer, but decided that it couldn't hurt to save some observations on the nuances of Similarity and Narrative, to draw on for future assignments.
Assured that every dot and comma was in place, she rolled up the long essay scroll and lifted a separate sheet to add a letter for her teacher.
Dear Princess Celestia,
Today I learned that sometimes you get more done by taking a break to have fun with friends than by working too hard all alone. I also learned that being in a good mood doesn't mean you can ignore workplace safety rules... which isn't a friendship lesson, but it's something I won't forget in a hurry!
On a related note, I'm afraid I have another item for the Dangerous Artifacts Vault. It's safely contained for now, though, and I wouldn't rate it more than a Category 3, so it can wait till tomorrow at least. If you could send somepony to collect it who is also qualified in magical medicine and willing to examine a dragon, I would greatly appreciate it. We think everything's okay but I would really like a second (or, technically, a fourth) opinion.
The attached essay should explain the connection between these requests and the lessons above better than I have space for here.
Your Faithful Student,
Now Imagine the Closing Theme Playing Here!