Twilight's consciousness slowly re-emerged from the blessed sleep that she had managed to find and she found herself wrapped up in feathery wings and warm softness that made it increasingly hard to move.
With effort that would rival her battle with Tirek, the mare's eyes fluttered open, only to find herself staring at the bumpy ceiling. She blinked and glanced around for buy a second to find the objects of her love snuggled against her, wings wrapped around her and their heads nuzzled up against the crook of her collar. Judging from their calm looks, they were still deep asleep.
She couldn't help but smile at the pair of ruffled and knotted manes, finding them a stark contrast to their ethereal versions of their future selves. Glancing between the two, she realised that this might be their last little bit of calm for quite a while. The thought was partially sobering, considering the battle they had gone through not long ago.
"Love you two..." Twi whispered, leaning as far as she could without disturbing them and pressing a kiss to the tips of their horns. "I have a lot to make up for."
Even now, in this delicate moment, Twilight felt the pang of guilt rear its ugly head and tried her best to push it down, to erase it, but she only succeeded in fortifying it inside herself.
Leaning back against her pillow, she laid there and gazed up at the ceiling. Her still sleepy mind raced over everything they had done and why she had even lied in the first place.
Each time it had been so the timeline didn't change the future, but her very own actions did that. She couldn't say she had the high ground when she had replaced entire ponies' lives. Nopony had even noticed. Would she have even noticed if she teleported to her destination.
Would she even care for a few ponies changing in a few centuries? She knew she wasn't like the Princesses; she loved those ponies she knew more than anything, but could she love every pony under her rule?
'I don't deserve either of them...' she thought, clenching her eyes shut. 'Even after so long, they still cared for me.'
Suddenly, a light groan pulled her out of her mood and Luna's shifting forced her eyes to flutter open once more.
Luna's own were now gazing up at Twilight's with a twinkle of happiness. Her smile had returned and she nuzzled against Twilight's chest her hoof running over that taut stomach while sighing.
"Moon," she whispered, having noticed that her sister was still asleep. "You are rather comfortable to sleep upon."
Twilight's own smile began to grow at the words, despite the deep self-loathing that was bubbling up inside her. "I'm glad you think so. It took a lot of work to get this way."
"It must have," Luna mumbled, feeling her warm pillow up. "My sister might not have noticed it... But you returned to the future in Stonewall, didn't you?"
Twilight nodded. "I did. I had to think and the city wasn't the best place to do it."
Luna simply stared at Twilight, watching her while she slowed her hoof. After a few seconds, she asked, "You saw us as well?"
Twilight hesitated, but nodded in response. "I did. You were actually the one that trained me," she said, a smile appearing. "It was harsh, but it helped me develop as an Alicorn. Without it, I doubt I'd have even stoped one of those shells."
"I can't imagine myself doing something like that... it sounds more like my sister."
Twilight brushed her magic along Luna's cheek. "You give yourself too little credit. The things you'll go on to do. My regret is that I won't be around to see them."
Luna closed her eyes and rested her head on Twilight's chest. "I still can't believe you're actually from the future," she sighed, glancing over to her sister. "What did you show her?"
"I showed her exactly what she needed to see. How things turn out... and," Twilight paused.
Twilight swallowed nervously. "And the ending of our date."
Luna blinked and raised a brow. "Pray tell, my dear moon?" Luna began, a playful smirk growing. "What sort of excitement did you provide my sister?"
"We, uh..." She mumbled, trying to think of the right way to describe what they did. "I took her to what is essentially a play, then we spent some time within the local grove."
"By some time you mean...?"
"You know what I mean," Twilight mumbled, finding her cheeks flushing darker and darker by the second.
Luna's grinned and chewed on her lip. "I do," she giggled, snuggling closer. With a sigh she continued, asking, "And my dear Moon. What do you do to woo us?"
Twilight once again swallowed nervously, though this time was more out of fear than anything else. "Well..." she muttered, averting her eyes. "My wooing was slightly non-traditional."
Luna gave a confused look and gently pushed herself up into a sitting position to stare into Twilight's eyes. "What do you mean, non-traditional?" she asked, rather hesitantly.
Twilight bit her lip replied rather sheepishly, "We kinda, maybe, had a fight and waited a few months to make up..."
Luna blinked, the raised a brow. "I see," she said, glancing to her sister. "So my sister is taken to a play, then frolics through a beautiful grove, and I am wooed by us having a... fight?"
Twilight's eyes widened and she shook her head, trying to be careful to not wake Celestia. "Well, when you put it like that," she replied, wincing. "I, uh, didn't tell you that I had come back and I was still unused to everything that being an Alicorn would entail and there were a few mistakes on both of our sides," she explained, sighing. "We did beat up giant monsters together though, if that counts as a date?"
Luna listened intently, unsure of how to take the news, but nodded. "I guess I shouldn't be too annoyed. It's not like it was actually me. Besides, fighting giant monsters might make for a fun date. 'Tia was always more of a romantic after all... I don't care as long as I have fun."
"Oh, we had fun alright..." Twilight sighed, staring off at the wall with a dopey smile.
"I bet we did, my moon," Luna giggled, leaning in and kissing her cheek. "Though, we really should get up and clean ourselves. As happy as I am to sleep in a bundle with the two most important mare's in the world, it does leave us rather hot and sweaty."
"Not always a bad thing," Twilight mumbled, pouting. She ignored Luna eye-roll and gently rocked Celestia awake. "'Tia, it's time to get up. We need to get clean."
The solar mare let out childish groan and snuggled deeper against Twilight. "Mmmno!" she moaned, rubbing her face against the mare's side. "It's too early!"
Twilight chuckled in response and opened her wing to let the cold air wash over Celestia, causing her to yelp and shoot her eyes open.
"Ah! Moon!" she gasped, before narrowing her eyes at Twilight. "How dare you... I was having the perfect dream... You and Luna were there and we were enjoying a nice cuddle. Nopony around to interrupt it."
Luna simply provided her sister with a deadpan gaze. "Oh behave, sister. We have to rise nonetheless, if only to help George set the wagon correctly. It must be horrible to get anything done without unicorns or magic."
"Earth ponies make do," Twilight interjected, using her own magic to gently lift the sisters off of her and next to the bed, before climbing off herself. "Either way, let's get clean and ready, okay?"
With more effort than what should have been needed, Twilight and Luna had dragged Celestia down to the nearby lake to get some much needed cleaning. It was no surprise that the trio had no idea exactly how they looked but they had suspected that they weren't the noble Princesses which Twilight had made them out to be.
The sun had just started to rise upon the horizon, blasting the surrounding mountains with fiery bronze light and scorching the sky a bright red and yellow. The air itself was awash with the smell of lilac, Juniper berries and a slight hint of dew.
Stepping down to the waterfront, being the first to test the sparkling waters, Twilight tentatively dipped her hoof in and hummed in delight at the temperature.
"At least it's not super cold," she announced, sliding the rest of her body in as the lukewarm water rushed in around her feathers. "Mmm, I've needed this," she groaned, stopping once the water had risen up to her neck.
Luna laughed and followed Twilight into the water with Celestia close behind. Once every pony was in, Twilight rolled her neck and felt several pops ring out.
"Ah," she sighed. "A chance to relax before I inevitably rend time asunder," she mumbled, a hint of playfulness oozing through, despite her morbid words.
"Don't be so silly, Twilight," Celestia chided, shaking her head. "Have faith that everything will go as it should."
Celestia drifted a leg over and ran her hoof up and down Twilight's neck. "But enough of this. We shall speak of more pleasant topics."
"Indeed, let's," Luna agreed, leaning in and pressing her lips to Twilight's own, slowly deepening the kiss after a few seconds, despite the shocked response from both of the other mares.
Celestia could only stand there and watch as the pair kissed, then began to make out. A warm flush crossed her face, but she didn't look away and she became immensely thankful they were in neck deep water.
Luna pulled away from the stunned Twilight and smirked. "How did I compare to myself?" she asked, having leaned in to whisper in Twilight's ear.
Twilight stood there gaping like a fish as she slowly rebooted. "Uh..."
Luna glanced over at her sister with a raised brow and a smug smirk. "Still got it," she said, pulling away.
"We're here to get clean, not become even dirtier, Lulu. We can have our fun after we've saved the world, okay?" Celestia groaned, closing the gap between the three of them. "Moonlight, my dear, perhaps you could rub my back?" she asked while tilting her head slightly and fluttering her lashes.
"Now who's having fun," Luna mumbled, pouting.
"Oh hush. It's not as if she won't scrub you as well," Celestia chided, then let out a sigh.
Twilight blinked and sheepishly nodded. "Uh, sure," she agreed, wading around so she was standing behind Celestia then levitated one of the sponges from the shore over. Pressing the sponge to the mare's back, she began to scrub up and down, cleaning the solar mare.
Celestia closed her eyes and smiled while humming a low gently melody that barely grazed Twilight's ears yet set her heart aflutter.
Luna levitated her own sponge over and began to gently scrub Celestia's breast, causing the mare to open her eyes and smile lovingly at her sister. "Did you think I could let Moonlight have all the fun, dear sister?"
Celestia closed her eyes once again and allowed the pair to scrub and clean her. "I don't deserve you two," she whispered.
"If anyone doesn't deserve this, it's me, 'Tia," Twilight mumbled, bringing the sponge up Celestia's neck. "Having the two most beautiful mares in the world here."
"Moon," Luna started, sighing. "Let's move past this. It hurt us, but we still have a long way to go. We have yet to collect one artifact let alone even start on our journey towards Eden."
"I know, but-"
"I do not wish to hear of it any longer," Luna interrupted, huffing and glaring at Twilight. "As far as I am concerned, you saved my life and we are even," she continued, her tone softening. "I cannot speak for my sister, but I am sure she would simply wish to move onto more pleasant topics, especially since she actually saw the future."
Twilight went to open her mouth, but closed it quickly after she saw the look that Luna gave her. "Okay," she mumbled. "I won't bring it up again," she finished, receiving a smile from Luna.
"It wasn't so much the future as a possible future me," Celestia corrected, chuckling before her eyes widened. "Moonlight, do I really become that large?"
Humming, Twilight nodded. "Well, yeah. Alicorns grow and shrink over time as we gain and lose power," she explained. "I fell in love with your personality though. Being the little spoon was just a benefit," she teased, winking.
Luna chuckled, while Celestia shook her head and smiled, her cheeks flushing slightly
"I guess I'm the little spoon now," Celestia laughed, leaning in and nuzzling Twilight's cheek.
The trio returned to the house to find George packing barrels and sacks of grain onto the back of his worn down cart. Nearing, Twilight could see that the cart had a rather bulky underside that she assumed had been hastily nailed on during the night.
"Ah, I see you three are cleaned up. Good. Good," George said, having heaved the final sack of grain. "There's a storm rolling in from the Badlands that will help us get into the city. No Gryphon wants to look over soggy grain."
"Soggy? Won't you have a tarp?" Luna asked.
"We will for most of the trip, so the water doesn't weigh us down but once we get near to the city, I'll release it. If the grain is waterlogged, the guards have to haul it off the cart. They're less likely to notice you three, if they even do their jobs. Most will simply wave us through... I hope."
"That's encouraging," Twilight mumbled, glancing to Celestia for a second before looking back. "Alright. I assume we'll be underneath?"
"Oh, yeah. Here," George started, rushing about the cart and pulling out a camouflaged clip on both sides of the undercarriage. "I got to work after we had dinner. It'll probably be a little snug. Slide in and try it out!"
Celestia neared the cart and leaned down to gaze inside the darkened cabin. The inside didn't look especially roomy but it contained several air holes that slanted down so the three of them didn't get wet. The floor of the undercarriage was ever so slightly padded so they didn't hurt themselves. Slowly, she lowered herself and slowly wiggled herself into the cabin letting out numerous grunts until she was fully in.
"You won't be in there all trip. Besides, one of you can help me pull," George added, looking over at Twilight who simply sighed, then shared a hesitant look with Luna, but nodded nonetheless.
Despite the annoyance that she'd have no doubt get wet during the storm, she placed a hoof on her chest and bowed ever so. "Thank you, George. I know you're risking so much for us and I can't express how much I appreciate it."
"I'm only doing my part as a sane Gryphon. The king must be stopped," he replied, puffing up his own chest with pride. "War has gone on for far too long."
Everyone looked down at where Celestia had climbed into the cabin and found her back legs wiggling back around and wings flapping aimlessly.
"I think I'm stuck..."
Slowly the cart slowed to a crawl, then stopped as the first inkling of a proper downpour began to make itself known. The gentle pitter-patter of rain began to multiply and George, Luna and Celestia jumped off the cart and into the thick sludge at the side of the path. Twilight let out a groan as she threw off the harness and wandered around the side, her front legs splattered with mud, then used her magic to tug on one of the hidden bolts holding the back panel closed. Predictably, the panel swung down against the path to allow the three occupants inside the coffin-like space.
"The bright side is that we're all together," Twilight said awkwardly.
Luna was the first to climb in, with Celestia, then Twilight settling down last. The space was far more cramped than it looked and the three kept wincing as their horns scraped along the wooden roof.
"It won't be for very long. Possibly one or two hours at most," George said, trying to reassure the three ponies. "There's some eye holes for you to see out of." He went to close the panel but stopped and leaned back down. "I doubt I have to remind you, but don't make any noise."
Twilight nodded as best she could. "Of course. We'll be as quiet as possible."
George closed the panel up then locked it before wandering around and uncovering the grain. He pulled the tarp off and threw it into the bushes before heaving himself into the harness. It took him a few minutes to make sure he was connected properly then set off towards the Capital as quick as he could.
As the cart trundled along the muddy path, Twilight gazed out of the eye hole to try and see anything interesting. There wasn't specifically anything outstanding for them to see during their trip from the farm, so she felt a little starved for information.
Once the cart eventually exited the tree line, she let out a gasp. As far as she could see were rice paddies that covered half of the valley and stretched across untold amounts of land. Twilight didn't know exactly what she was expecting, but the capital wasn't like anything she had seen before. Where the valley began to near, it grew exceedingly deep and bolted onto the sides of the valley walls sat thousands of buildings of all shapes and sizes.
The buildings on both sides were connected with various walkways made of wood or stone, or were connected with tunnels carved into the side of the rock face itself to allow passage. A small number of larger bridges connected both sides of the valley to allow traffic and carts across.
Everywhere Twilight focused on was covered with colorful plants. The Gryphons adorned their buildings with wall-creepers which bloomed into vibrant purples and yellows, while off the bridges hung various vines that attracted wildlife into the city.
The trail which the cart was on began to slowly dip down and into the valley where Twilight's view was obstructed by the growing foliage. With a huff, she turned away from the hole and found Celestia watching her with a warm smile.
"Oh, nothing. Just enjoying the view," Celestia replied, keeping her smile. "What did you see?" she asked, opening her wing up when Luna snuggled up against her.
"It's so remarkable... I haven't seen a Gryphon city so beautiful!"
"Are they not in your time?"
Twilight shook her head. "Oh, they're nice I guess. Not like what's out there though," she started. "So much green, so many flowers! If I didn't know better, I could have mistaken it for a Kirin village."
"Kirin?" Celestia asked, tilting her head. "They sound familiar."
Twilight bit her lip, realising what she had said. "They're the same as us, really, just a little hotheaded at times," she replied, before turning back to the hole. "It's not what I thought it would be though. Though, considering that most of the pegasi had their roosts within the gorge back at Stonewall, it's not that surprising."
"Will it be a problem for us? Other than not being a Gryphon, that is?" Luna asked, peeking over Celestia's back.
"No. My magic is fine. We'll be able to sneak about using a low level photon refraction field... uh, otherwise known as an invisibility spell," Twilight explained, having turned back to smile towards Luna. "It's a hard spell to keep up, even for an Alicorn, but it'll be better than a sword through the chest."
Turning back once again, Twilight found the cart entering the shade of the canyon, having angled down to enter. The cart itself had begun to tremor and jostle about, with Luna having turned green from the constant rocking from the suddenly cobbled path.
"Hold it in for a little bit, I think we're coming up on the first set of checkpoints," Twilight hissed, giving the younger sister a sympathetic smile.
Barely twenty seconds later, the cart began to slow to a stop and Twilight could spot three guards on her side, each of which carrying short-swords along with intricately cut plate-mail. They took several long, tedious minutes checking the cart and the water-logged grain before scoffing.
"You call this a haul?" Twilight heard one of them ask, before throwing a barrel lid onto the cart. "This wouldn't even get ten bits in the market."
"It's all I could bring. The tarp was blown off during the storm and there wasn't enough time to go back for more before the market opens," George replied, letting out a huff while the soldiers wandered around the cart.
"Fine. Keep going. I'm not going to be responsible for writing up why I stored a tonne of soiled grain in our inventory," the guard said, quickly letting out a sharp grunt. "Just keep your head low, old-timer. The king's been acting even stranger than before."
The guard paused for a second, then continued. "He just ordered more troops to be stationed in the city, so you might get stopped a few times."
It wasn't long until the cart trundled deeper into the city and Twilight's vision was swallowed up by the buildings closing in around them. From the outside, it seemed as if the city was simply buildings clamped onto the side of the valley, but whole streets were carved into the sides and dug in as tunnels wound around, connecting various areas together.
Twilight's eyes flicked to and fro, the mare trying to absorb as much information as she could before their relative rest would come to an end. Merchant stalls which were unlucky enough to be outside while the downpour started had just finished packing up and moved inside some of the larger tunnels to set back up. Despite the rain, everyone's spirits didn't seem to dampen and they moved with a swiftness that would have made Twilight envious if she didn't have magic.
"I certainly wasn't expecting this..." Luna said, her face pressed up against the side to gaze out. "Are you sure your spell can hold up?" she asked, glancing over to Twilight with a slightly worried expression. "I doubt they'd be as merciful as back in the badlands."
Twilight nodded. "No, I suppose they wouldn't be. But you shouldn't worry. The invisibility spell is robust enough as long as we stick to dark areas. It doesn't render us completely invisible though, it bends the majority of light around us, so we'll tend to ripple if there's too much."
"Darkened areas and sneaking about..." Celestia mumbled. "What fun."
Twilight turned her attention to Celestia. "Well, look at it this way. Once we get that crown we can quickly leave," she said, leaning against her side and wincing as her horn scraped the roof. "I'll teleport us out and we can continue on our way."
"Speaking on which," Luna interjected. "Where do we go after?"
Twilight opened her mouth to speak, but realised she didn't know. Closing her mouth, she looked down at the hastily made floor and sighed. "I don't know," she replied, feeling a lump in her throat. "We need to go after the Orb of Séance."
The compartment quietened, but Celestia broke it by saying, "That's across the ocean to the west. Though, we have to actually reach the ocean first. We can go to Thatchholm, they have a bustling port and I'm sure that we'll be able to find someone crazy enough to take us closer."
Twilight nodded while looking over to Luna. "I think that's a good plan for now. Once we get the crown, point me in the direction and I can teleport us out of the castle, assuming there's no interferance... which knowing how it's going so far is probably bound to happen."
Celestia chuckled softly. "Don't be so pessimistic, my moon."
"I wouldn't be if things went the way they're supposed to. The antagonist is supposed to show up eventually and do something to stop us getting this crown and we're suppossed to fight back through some means and save the world," Twilight replied, letting out a huff and grumbling to herself after.
The two sisters shared a look, then turned their attention back to Twilight. "This isn't a book, Twilight... what makes you so sure it's supposed to be that way?"
Twilight rested her head on her forelegs and closed her eyes. "It's happened before."
"In the future. Some bad people make themselves known and my friends and I stop them. It's happened like that every time and I'm starting to think that's just how it's going to be," she stated, opening an eye to look up at them, then sighing. "Though... I've never had you two there with me. Maybe I'm just being silly."
Not long after, the cart begins to slow to a crawl then stop entirely. The outside light fading from existance as the stormclouds overhead blot out the sun and the crashing thunder echoed throughout the various cavers and mined out streets.
George unhitched himself from the harness and rushed around to the back. He wandered off for a second, a loud clamp slamming down, before he came back to unhook the compartment. "Come on, quickly!" he hissed while waving his claw for the ponies to crawl out.
Luna was first, then Celestia and finally Twilight, to climb out of the compartment, each of them stretching and popping their backs. "Ugh," Celestia grunted, flaring her wings to make sure they weren't too badly ruffled.
The three of them had emerged inside of a large grain cellar, filled to the brim with crates, barrels and sacks. The floor was of traditional cobble and the entrance was locked tight with a clamp.
"That door will hold for quite a while, but it's not meant to be locked, so you'll have to be quick," George said, gesturing to it, then to another doorway that stood at the top of a set of stairs behind them. "If you go up there, you'll find the servants entrance to the castle."
Upon seeing Twilight confusion, he shook his head. "Don't worry. The servants are the least likely to rat you out. It's well known that they're treated the worst in the castle."
"And what of the king?" Luna asked, moving closer and finally standing tall beside Twilight. "Are we to assume that he's highly guarded?"
"Of course. The guard was right; there were many more soldiers inside the city. Something spooked him hard. I've never seen that many outside the castle..."
"No matter. We shall find a way through," Celestia said, speaking up as she made her way towards the stairs. "But we should go. I'd hate to waste time," she continued, taking a few steps up.
Luna and Twilight nodded. "Yes, of course," Twilight mumbled, trying to think of the best way to go about their plan, then turning back to George. "Thank you. You have no idea how much you have helped us," she said, bridging the gap and wrapping her wings around him in a hug.
"I, uh, no worries," he chuckled. "Go, now, before a patrol comes by," he said, motioning them towards the stairs.
With the three of them having rushed up the stairs, they found themselves within a maze of Servant corridors that ran around the more secure areas of the castle. The majority of the construction was crafted out of bland granite, but was furnished with various paintings, crude or otherwise, which were dotted about here and there. Every so often there would be a lit sconce to light the way while also signalling a branching corridor.
"Alright, left or right?" Luna asked, glancing to Twilight.
The mare hummed and tapped her hoof on the stone floor. "I'm not sure... I can send out a pulse of magic to get a small layout of the castle, but it'll set off any magical items..." she replied, looking to the others. "It's a gamble."
"It might be one we have to take," Luna said, nodding.
"I must agree. We can't find the crown if we're lost and he'll be alerted at some point anyway," Celestia added.
"Okay, give me a few seconds," Twilight asked, trotting a few hooves away and bracing herself.
Her horn began to glow a soft violet, which increased in intensity as arcs of magic fizzled along the surface, until it flashed bright and an invisible buffer filled the corridor and expanded to fill every inch of the castle.
Twilgiht relaxed and opened her eyes. "He's above us. I would suspect in his own chambers. If nothing goes wrong, there'll be twenty six guards between us and him," she explained, having turned around. "Let me prepare the invisibility spell and we can start."
The sisters nodded and Luna moved closer to Celestia to lean on her. "This won't be easy, will it?" she asked, nuzzling against her neck.
"No, Lulu. It won't be. But we'll get through it, like we always do, as long as we have each other."
Twilight's horn suddenly touched against Celestia's own and the older sister tensed up while the alicorn magic flowed between them and down deep into her body. She could feel the effect it had on their physiology and brought up a hoof, only to see it begin to fade away and grow transluscent.