“Lieutenant, I want an actual report, not a string of uneducated guesses! Get back out there!”
Shining Armor, Captain of the Canterlot Royal Guard, was living through the longest day of modern Equestrian history. The pegasus he had just told off was now flying back out into the hell that he, by all rights, should still be in. Having to sit on the sidelines and direct during a crisis was one of the biggest downsides to having his job.
He hadn’t been at the castle during the accident. Most of the guard had been given the night off by Celestia herself for services performed while Discord rampaged, and that was shaping up to be the only silver lining to this cloud. He had a hundred well-rested guardsmen to rely on.
The Guard had commandeered several of the closest private homes to the castle for triage centers and barracks. Shining Armor had personally asked his parents to open up their tower home, and it was now the temporary Guard headquarters. His familiarity with the area, and its proximity to the castle, made it easier to coordinate the growing rescue effort.
It also allowed him to keep a personal eye on the most important things in his life.
Shining Armor sighed and stepped further out onto the shaken skyway that linked most of the towers in the neighborhood. From here he could see the entire extent of the damage in its entirety – everything he had ever known was reduced to ash and ruin. The courtyard where he had used to parade in when he was just a lowly private; castle walls he had guarded on long, lonely nights; the magnificent hedge maze that was older than any living pony; Celestia’s throne room where he had been honored with a captaincy…it was all gone. Castle Canterlot had been stomped into the rock of the mountain as surely as grass underhoof. Skeletons of the once-great Canterlot spires were deathtraps to any pony that went into the ruins as the entire debris field was still settling.
“It certainly is a mess.” Luna was sitting at the edge of the walkway looking out over the mountain, but not in the direction of the ruined castle. Instead, she was watching a dark blot that had appeared on the horizon in the last thirty minutes. Shining Armor didn’t even want to imagine what it was and so far Luna hadn’t offered an explanation. When the stallion walked over to her she broke her gaze. “That was flippant, wasn’t it? Forgive me.”
“There’s nothing to forgive, Princess.” Shining Armor resisted the urge to look back into his old home. “Staying calm is the most important thing right now. Half the battle is fighting a general panic.”
Luna nodded. She went back to focusing on the dark blotch that was obscuring a few stars in the night sky. By morning everyone would notice it against the dawn sun that she would have to raise. “I’m cheating by sequestering my feelings from my waking mind. It’s useful now, but I will be of no use to anyone once the full shock of this night sets in. You will learn, in time, to do the same.” She glanced at the stallion again. “It is a mark of character that you are not showing your own emotions without my years of experience.”
“I couldn’t have done it without knowing Twilight was safe,” Shining Armor replied, slipping into a too-casual tone with his ruler. He frowned and straightened up. “Princess, I cannot thank you enough for bringing her here. When I saw the light and the magic, I…well, I wouldn’t be standing here if you hadn’t brought her.”
“Do not thank me yet, Captain. You will curse me in a few moments when I tell you what your sister must do after I leave.”
The sudden news shocked the commander. “You’re leaving? Princess, Equestria needs you! Now more than ever, the men need to see their ruler! Without Princess Celestia—”
“Celestia is precisely the reason I need to leave and the reason I need you to rouse your sister as quickly as possible,” Luna interrupted. She rose to her full height. Suddenly Shining Armor was reminded of who he had just admonished. “The presence of my sister kept many things stable, Commander. Without her constant touch, ancient spells are starting to unwind themselves. That,” Luna hissed, stretching her wingtip out at the darkening blot far from Canterlot, “is the most pressing thing for me to attend to.”
He had wanted to ask about that ever since one of his men had brought the news to him. However, between the rescue efforts, and his own distinct fear of adding to his worries, Shining Armor had put it out of his mind. “What is it, Princess? Some of the men have been asking and I didn’t know what to tell them.”
Shining Armor blanched at the word. Every pony of every age knew of the ancient prison deep within the frozen mountains of the north. Every few years spectacular guards were rotated out to the prison. Shining Armor had known one or two from his days as a cadet, and the stories they told, the stories they were allowed to tell, scared him. From the monsters that were inside to the giant three-headed dog that helped guard the place, no pony wanted to willingly think about the prison. If something was going on there then he knew it’s where Princess Luna should be.
Yet, the princess wasn’t gone. She had sat on the skyway and watched for hours. That was probably even more frightening than a disaster at Tartarus.
He had an inkling of what it was, though. The stallion crept closer to his ruler so that none would overhear their conversation. “Princess Luna, what’s happened to Princess Celestia? When will she be coming back?”
The look Luna gave him was empty. Shining Armor had his answer. “You don’t know, do you? You’re playing catch-up just like the rest of us.”
“Not precisely,” Luna answered, her voice as low as Shining Armor’s. “I can still feel my sister’s power in this place. It’s stifling, even this far away from the center of the spell. Twilight Sparkle and Celestia did something to disrupt Discord’s trap. If they hadn’t, the spell would not have stopped with simply the castle. All of Canterlot would have been consumed.”
“Then, what you need Twilie to do…”
“Twilight Sparkle was the last pony to see Celestia. I need her to find my sister in the ruins and discover what it is that is keeping her from reestablishing her power over the sun, Tartarus, and other matters. Larger than Celestia at the moment are the things that she has helped pacify in the last thousand years. The prison is in real danger of being unleashed upon Canterlot if I do not directly intervene.”
This was so far over Shining Armor’s head that he couldn’t even see the light of day anymore – figuratively speaking. Luna had dropped out of the sky an hour ago with an unconscious Twilight, and now she wanted his sister to go out into a place Shining Armor wouldn’t even send grown stallions? But, if Twilight didn’t and something was seriously wrong with Princess Celestia then there was a chance that Tartarus would open.
“You can’t ask me to do that,” he said, pleading. "Twilie is special, but she’s only one pony. Asking her to mount some kind of rescue in her condition is too much. You know that she’d kill herself to find Celestia.”
Luna’s wings flicked out to their full span. “And I hate to ask this of her, but at the moment she is our best hope for success. What I can do, what you can do, what any of us can do pales in comparison to what your sister has done in the past and what the country needs her to do now. You must come to accept this, just as I have.”
Luna gave a mighty flap and leapt gracefully into the night sky, leaving a morose Shining Armor with nothing left do other than dread his baby sister's awakening and contemplate the ever-growing black blotch on the horizon.
Yesterday is Today: Chapter Two
“Do you think she’ll be awake soon?”
“I…I don’t know. I’m just a veterinarian. Ponies are, um, above my pay grade. A bit.”
The haze of sleep was thick about Twilight, but the voices of her two friends cut through to her.
“Oh, oh! Her ear just moved! Did you see it?”
“We shouldn’t push her, Rarity! Oh, we could do so much more harm to her like this.”
Twilight groaned as she roused herself enough open her eyes. Even with the burning pain of her sleep-accustomed sight, the little unicorn was glad to see two of her best friends at her bedside. “Hi girls,” Twilight groaned, though she was smiling. Even the pain in her body receded when the two wrapped her in a hug; the happiness Twilight felt at seeing them both was better than any rest.
“I was worried that you weren’t ever going to wake up,” Rarity sniffed. “When I first saw you just lying there…well, I didn’t know what I should do!”
Twilight just enjoyed the feeling of knowing two of her friends were alright for a moment. They helped her sit up in her bed after a moment and Fluttershy put a few pillows behind her back.
“Did the other girls get out of the castle?” Twilight asked, looking around. “Are they here?”
“Applejack broke a leg,” Fluttershy murmured. Her eyes were puffy and red; she’d been crying. “She’s at the hospital with Rainbow Dash and Pinkie. They’re not as bad off as Applejack, but everyone has to take it easy for a while.” Now that her attention was focused, Twilight could see nearly a dozen bandages all over Fluttershy’s back. Noticing the concern, Fluttershy explained: “The little animals were afraid when I flew them out of the castle garden.”
“Only Applejack is worse-off than you are, Darling,” Rarity added.
Twilight followed Rarity’s eyes. Her right haunch had a large bandage that covered her entire cutie mark on that side. She ran a hoof over the injury, remembering when the shattered stained glass had cut into her. At the time she hadn’t thought the injury to be that bad, but she could feel the sting just under the soft fabric. It was damp with blood that had seeped through.
Surprisingly, Fluttershy flapped over the bed and started peeling away the medical tape. Twilight had to grit her teeth when her skin pulled a bit with it. “I’m sorry; I wanted to wait until you woke up to change it.” The unicorn panted a few times when the bandage was completely off. It didn’t feel so bad, but it looked horrible. There was a massive gash going straight through the center of her star cutie mark.
“It’s going to scar, isn’t it?” Twilight wondered, although deep down she already knew the answer. Not even the best healing magic could fix something like that without leaving lingering proof of the injury.
Fluttershy let out a muted, “Sorry,” as she dabbed at the cut with antiseptic. Twilight didn’t know if the pegasus was apologizing for the scar, the sting of the medicine, or just in general. Either way, Twilight patted her friend on the hoof.
“It’s not your fault, Fluttershy. I know I couldn’t be in better hooves.” She did her best not to wince when her friend put a new bandage on; there was no reason to upset Fluttershy any more than she already was. “So, Doctor, am I cleared to walk? I really want to get started helping with the rescue effort!”
“Well, not exactly. You really shouldn’t even be awake in…in your condition. We just thought that you’d want to wake up to friendly faces. The guards can be so intimidating.”
Rarity huffed. “They can be down-right rude! Did you know they practically drafted myself and Fluttershy off the street? They had me sewing tents! Not that I minded, they were going to the homeless ponies that lived close to the castle, but still, they could have been a bit more considerate. Poor Fluttershy had to act as a nurse for hours! All of that blood!”
“I didn’t mind,” Fluttershy murmured as she settled down back beside Rarity. “Your brother asked so nicely that I couldn’t say no.”
That started Twilight. “You met Shining Armor?”
“He was the one that brought us to you, Darling! Why did you never say you had such a dashing older brother?” As she spoke, Rarity’s lips curled in an enthusiastic smile that Twilight wasn’t sure she liked. “He’s the only calm in this horrid storm, what with the princess’s condition and everything.”
Fluttershy gasped and turned on her friend. She wasn’t quite using the STARE, but it was enough to get the white unicorn to quickly hush. “We promised not to mention anything, Rarity!”
Twilight looked at the two with growing alarm. Promised? Promised what? To whom? Rarity’s eyes were wide and frightened. She had slipped up and Twilight recognized it.
She was in no mood to beat around the bush. “Rarity, what aren’t you telling me? What’s happened? Is…is Princess Celestia alright? She made it out of the spell. I saw her do it, Rarity! I saw her nullify the magic myself before...” Before what? Before she had passed out? Before she had let exhaustion and weakness prevent her from doing her duty?
“Twilight, please! It wasn’t your fault!” Rarity’s sudden shout broke thought Twilight’s panic attack. She had been mumbling aloud.
Twilight lunged and grabbed Rarity by the shoulders despite the lancing pain that raced through her haunch at the sudden movement.
“I need to know! I can’t just be sitting here, doing nothing, while Princess Celestia is hurt! Oh, I just knew that I had felt something wrong with her! Why didn’t I tell Princess Luna when I had the chance?” Intent on not wasting another second, the unicorn let go of her rattled friend and rolled out of bed. Her entire body was aching and Fluttershy was telling her to get back in bed with as much force as the pegasi could muster. She couldn’t, though. The pain was bringing her mind to one sharp focus – her teacher was still in trouble.
As she stumbled to the door, Twilight finally realized where she was. This was her old room. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t recognized the dark purple wallpaper or the various knick-knacks littering the shelves even though it had been a year since she’d been a permanent tenant. Even her expensive orrery was still in plain view.
Twilight suddenly rounded on her friends. “My parents – are they here? Are they alright?” she asked.
“Mom and Dad are fine, Twilie. You’re the one that needs to be taken care of.”
That was a voice Twilight was more than happy to hear. She met her brother at her bedroom door with a relieved smile and a fierce hug. He was wearing his “work” armor, and it looked like he had been digging around in a mud puddle, but Twilight fine with clinging to his neck anyway.
“She got the princess’s condition out of me,” Rarity quietly admitted. “Sorry, Mr. Captain.”
“My sister could talk a worm out of an apple. You don’t need to feel bad,” Shining Armor said with a chuckle. “And I’ve already said you don’t have to keep calling me that. Twilight’s friends are my friends, and as far as I’m concerned all of you are already heroes three times over. Accolades like that make ranks seem rather perfunctory, don’t they?”
“Oh, if you insist, Shining Armor.”
Twilight stamped her hoof. “Stop that!” she hissed, giving her Rarity a warning look over her shoulder. The other unicorn demurred slightly, but she was still smiling. Twilight was going to have to nip this in the bud, but later. “Where’s Princess Celestia, Shining Armor?”
The good humor drained from the stallion’s face. “Twilight, I think you should lay back down and let me handle things. I mean, you just got done with Discord and you’re injured.” He poked the bandage over Twilight’s cutie mark hard enough to make her leg fold up on its own. “See? You need to rest. Let me do my job as Guard Captain.”
He started nudging the pained unicorn back toward the bed with his snout, but Twilight was having none of that. One bright magical flash later and she was on the other side of her exasperated brother.
“I’m not stopping you from doing your job,” Twilight argued. “I can help! Find Princess Luna and she’ll tell you to let me help!”
“Twilight, this isn’t negotiable. Canterlot is dangerous right now and—”
“—and nothing, Shining Armor! Rarity said that the princess is missing. I know that you have a complete mess out there right now. I was in the middle of it.” She snorted and gave her brother a flat look that invited him to bicker. “You want me to sit still while you and my friends are out there? You honestly think I can do that?”
Shining Armor grimaced. “It’s not the same thing. I’m a guard. I’m supposed to go into harm’s way.”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “And I’m Princess Celestia’s student. Tell me what part of that means I’m supposed to hide under the covers in my room while there are ponies out there I could be helping. While I could be helping her, Shining Armor. Helping the princess.”
“I could keep an eye on her,” Rarity suddenly piped. She flashed a winning smile at the stallion and stepped up to Twilight, all the while ignoring the withering look said unicorn was turning on her. “Truthfully, I am just as worried as Twilight about how things are going with Princess Celestia. She is our princess was well, after all.”
Shining Armor looked between the two unicorns with a sour expression. He knew that his sister wasn’t going to back down, especially now that she had support. Luna’s prediction drifted back to him and his heart sank. In a way, his sister’s commitment made him proud, but a larger part of him was still terrified of her wandering out into the ruins, friend or no friend.
A splash of gold behind Twilight caught Shining Armor’s attention. “Sir, Lieutenant Mayweather is back from patrol,” a guard called out. “He’s requesting permission to report.”
Twilight watched her brother stew for a few moments before lowering the boom on him. “I’m leaving with or without your permission, Shining Armor. Now, do you want me out there running around without any information or do you want to help?” It was wrong to box him in like this. Twilight knew that, and she felt guilty, but she also knew that once her brother set his mind on something he wouldn’t let go – especially if he felt he was justified in his thinking.
“Get Mayweather,” Shining Armor finally groaned. The guard saluted and scurried away. “Twilight, listen to me. I’m only letting you do this because the situation is much more strained than anyone knows it is. What I’m about to say doesn’t leave this room. Understand?”
“A-Are things really t-that bad?” Fluttershy asked, speaking up now that the tension between the siblings was somewhat resolved. “The magic…thing is gone, right?”
Twilight was surprised when Shining Armor turned to her for an answer as well. She had to scramble for an answer. “I think so. What happened in the Element Hall can’t happen again. It was caused by the Elements of Harmony interacting with Princess Celestia’s magic. She managed to stop the reaction somehow.” Twilight was confident now. She remembered the warmth she had felt after being thrown out of the reaction. “I saw her end it myself. A giant column of the princess’s magic nullified the entire thing.”
Shining Armor slowly nodded. “That’s what the court magisters thought as well. They weren’t aware of the Elements of Harmony, though.” His sounded disturbed, and Twilight felt much the same – she had no idea where the Elements were or why she hadn’t felt them when she’d gone into the reaction to help Celestia. .
“The problem right now, though, is Princess Celestia herself,” Shining Armor continued when Twilight didn't add anything. “She hasn’t been seen since she left with my sister after the medal ceremony. We don’t know where she is.”
Twilight was still for a moment, stunned, and then she exploded. She stormed over to her brother and pushed on his breastplate. “You don’t know where she is and you wanted me to just sit here? You didn’t tell me that she was missing!” Every shout was punctuated with a fresh shove on the stallion’s chest. “I can’t believe it! You’re in here worrying about me when Princess Celestia hasn’t even been found yet? What have you been doing this whole time?! Why hasn’t Princess Luna ordered you to go and find her!”
Shining Armor held his ground. Their simmering discontent with each other suddenly blazed back to life. “Princess Luna has left me in charge of the situation here while she tends to other important matters.” Before Twilight could properly wind up for another tirade, her brother plowed on. “We’ve been rescuing ponies that were caught on the castle grounds. Do you have any idea how many civilians were in the castle for the festival? Injured have filled every hospital in the city to overflowing and we’re still pulling out bodies. The last thing my men need is the princess’s star-struck student out there making problems in the middle of a disaster area.”
Just as Twilight was reaching her breaking point, a dark brown pegasus guard trotted into the room. Shining Armor let out a disgusted sigh and pushed around his sister. He didn’t bother with a salute. “Tell me you have something to report this time, Mayweather. Has there been any sign of Princess Celestia?”
“No, Sir. The magisters still haven’t gone any deeper into the ruins of the castle. The flight squads can’t get any closer, either. Magical burns have already put over a dozen into the infirmary. They've reported very strange...things in the ruins. We can't really investigate, either."
“That does it. No more low-altitude flyovers until the magisters can protect the guard. I can’t lose any more men when they could be helping comb the edge for survivors. I want you to take a squad and clear out the non-military traffic as well. No pony gets close to the ruins. Understood?”
The pegasus saluted. “Understood, Sir!” He was gone in a flourish of feathers moments after receiving his orders.
Twilight wasn’t going to linger either. She resolved not to look at her brother as she gathered up a few things from her old closet. An old saddlebag, her spare looking glass, and a few of Fluttershy’s extra bandages magically flew into the bags which then settled on her back.
“Come on, Rarity. We’re going.”
For a moment the white unicorn looked torn, but Twilight hobbling out the door made the decision for her. Twilight heard Rarity say her goodbyes to Fluttershy and, disturbingly, to her brother as well. Soon they were walking toward the house’s kitchen. Twilight didn’t see her parents anywhere and was glad for it; they didn’t need to see her and Shining Armor fight right now. They gathered water and food without speaking, but with all the noise the guards were making in the house it wouldn’t have made a difference if they wanted to talk or not.
Besides, Twilight felt rather talked-out after unloading on her brother. He had deserved it for being an overprotective knucklehead, but he was still her BBBFF. The comment about being “star-struck” had stung, though, if only because Twilight thought her brother wasn’t being serious enough about looking for the princess. Uncomfortable memories of the last Summer Sun Celebration forced their way through Twilight’s mind. Celestia hadn’t believed the threat back then – had laughed it off – but a disaster had happened. Why was it that sometimes Twilight felt like she was the only pony that worried for the princess’s safety, up to and including Celestia herself? Even Luna, the princess’s own sister, had gone off somewhere and for what? Important matters? What could possibly be more important than finding Princess Celestia?
The pair of unicorns weaved their way through the crowded entrance of Twilight’s old home and found the massive walkways just as cluttered with guards and other ponies. It was easy to see why: in the distance what was once Canterlot Castle was now a blank wound on the city’s skyline. Only a few buildings could rival the castle in terms of height – with it gone, the entire city looked wrong. Broken.
“Twilight, Dear, are you alright?” Rarity whispered. Twilight blinked and found that her eyes were wet. Her friend had herded her out of the main thoroughfare and off to the side of the walkway.
“I didn’t realize how much it would hurt,” Twilight answered. “I grew up here, Rarity. I love Ponyville, but Canterlot is my home. To see it like this…”
Rarity nodded. “Not even Discord did this to Canterlot.”
Twilight felt a cold hatred settle in her chest when she heard that name. “You’re wrong. He’s the one that put the spell on the Element chamber that started the explosion.” All of this was Discord’s fault. Every single brick that had been broken might as well have been by his own paws. He had even brought Celestia low. For that, Twilight despised him; because of his scheming, her mentor was in danger.
Twilight took a deep breath of air and let it sit in her lungs. It tasted like ash in her mouth, and she wanted to go on. “Sorry, I’m alright now. Let’s go, Rarity.”
“Perfectly fine. I can imagine how you feel,” Rarity said as they began moving again. “Why, I cannot imagine what I would be thinking if my boutique were ruined or Sweetie Belle was missing. You’re handling it better than I think I would be.”
The devastation was worse the closer to the ground the pair walked. Crowded skyways melded into even more crowded city streets where ponies of all classes, ages, and types were trying to move about. The Guard was doing its best to keep ponies from milling about, but there were always enough curious to make things difficult. For the longest time they simply followed the stream of gold-suited stallions toward the castle. Twilight had walked these same steps hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times over her life, but never had her hooves been as heavy as they were now. They only stopped once when Rarity wanted to point out which hospital Applejack was in. A momentary ease settled Twilight’s nerves; Canterlot General was the best hospital in the city. She knew that her friends would be well served there.
Twilight’s emotional reprieve did not last. Even at the brisk pace she was taking her hooves where hitting stones in the road that were familiar to her. Dips and bumps, potholes to be avoided – each one intoned how close she was to the castle. Even now, flat on the ground, the shadow of the great spires should have been cast on the road by the bright moon overhead. They weren’t, though, because Canterlot was broken. The air was thick with still-settling dust and the buildings strewn with rubble from castle.
She had made it to the unofficial line between what was the castle and what was the city. Buildings were only allowed so close to the moat. Rarity said something, some unimportant verbalization of what she felt, but words failed Twilight. It was one thing to not see the familiar towers in the cityscape or to watch something unfold from hundreds of feet in the air, but this was different. The sheer devastation before her, of everything Twilight had ever held dear, pulled fresh tears from the unicorn.
Twilight mentally counted off the steps in her head as she forced her legs to move over the drawbridge and into the ruin that was Canterlot Castle. They passed under one of collapsed gates and Twilight’s knowledge of the place collapsed. Nothing was as it should have been. Even without the stone walls, the purple unicorn thought she would be able to remember where everything was by the pattern of the stone underhoof. Now, though, she realized that was naive. Discord’s spell had done more than push down walls – it had wiped the castle clean from the rock of the mountain. Since Canterlot had been built up and over the side of the mountain, it seemed like there was a massive bowl that held all of the shattered bits of the castle.
However, it was a bowl filling with water from the mountain river and crackling with energy. Twilight had felt it minutes ago as they got closer to the castle, but this close the feeling was stifling. Rarity, Twilight could see, was sweating through her coat. The cloud that had settled over ruins wasn’t pure magic, since magic had no visible form when it wasn’t being channeled, but instead was steam.
“At least we don’t have to worry about the place flooding,” Twilight intoned. She had a mystery in front of her that was rapidly working itself out in her head. It was a distraction that the unicorn was grateful to have in order to get her emotions in check.
Rarity was panting in the artificial humidity and her mane was losing its trademark bounce. “What’s causing it? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this before, Twilight.”
Twilight had, though. She had grown familiar with this magic for over twelve years.
“It’s Celestia. This is what her magic feels like when she lets it sit,” she explained. “The heat is turning the water into steam because there’s so much of it saturating the place. Come on, we can ask the guards at the bottom what their progress is.”
They carefully picked their way down the ruined pathway that someone had cleared to get to the bottom of the bowl. Unlike the city, down here the only ponies around were wearing medical badges or were guards. There were ponies being carted off into town or being treated all over the clearing. More than one of them had wounds that made Twilight’s haunch seem like a triviality.
More than a few weren’t moving.
“Twilight? Twilight! Is that you?!”
The two unicorns heard the sudden shout and, thunderstruck, watched a tiny, light-purple dragon come running toward them from the wreckage.
Twilight hadn’t felt such relief since waking up in her bed. She trotted up to her assistant as quick as her legs could hobble. She scooped him up with her magic and twirled him around, looking him over for any kind of injuries.
Rarity was far less kind. “Spike! You promised us that you were staying with Applejack at the hospital!” She stormed up to the little dragon and poked him on the nose with her hoof. “You lied to me, Spike!”
“I didn’t! I did stay at the hospital, but…but…” He looked over his shoulder, back down the way he had come.
Twilight followed his gaze. The place where they were standing had been cleared of rubble, likely to serve as some kind of staging area for the wounded, but it tapered off near the end into a long, winding path. There was something back there – something powerful. “What were you doing here, Spike? What was so important that you left our friends?”
“They needed help finding Princess Celestia. Sol Shard came and got me from the hospital.” Twilight knew that name. Sol Shard was a magister in the court and one of Twilight’s old teachers at the princess’s school – though certainly far from her favorite. “I’ve been sending Princess Celestia letters so they can follow them to her.” His expression fell. “It hasn’t been going too good, though. We haven’t found her yet.”
Twilight let the dragon down. She wanted to be angry that he had been foolish enough to risk coming here. She wanted to be furious that Sol Shard had taken her assistant, who was little more than a child, into a war zone like this. The anger, though, was slipping away. Spike’s dragon magic was the best way to find the princess in this wreckage. If Spike had been there when she’d woken up, Twilight probably would have had him do the same thing.
He had been trying to help in his own way. “We’ll find her, Spike. It’s why I’m here. Can you show us where Sol Shard is now?” Twilight could feel Rarity’s disapproving glare on the back of her head, but she was desperate.
At least the bodies were behind them now. Spike led them down the narrow path into the ruins, past unicorn guards and volunteers who were furiously moving rubble and expanding the clearing while looking for survivors. Twilight watched them pull two ponies out of an upturned tower, both alive, before the walls of rock and rubble hid the clearing from view.
The atmosphere became heavier and heavier the further in they went. Celestia’s magic was something Twilight had always taken comfort in. Whenever the princess had cast a spell a feeling of warmth and calm accompanied the threads of magic that wove it. That wasn’t the case here. The heat of the sun was closing in on her, licking her skin with its overbearing fierceness.
“When I reached Celestia inside Discord’s spell, I felt this kind of pressure,” Twilight whispered. The memory was skittering through her brain and she let herself talk to give it an outlet. She wondered if Spike or Rarity felt so uncomfortable. So out of place. Something had claimed this ruin for its own and anyone who set foot here now was an intruder. “There was a magical backlash against my scrying spell and something didn’t like it. It hurt so much…”
Rarity flicked her ears forward. “Darling, are you saying that Princess Celestia hurt you on purpose? I admit my own magical shortcomings compared to you, but couldn’t it have been simple magical strain? You were completely drained when I first saw you.”
That was the easy explanation. Magical strain could bring on something like a severe migraine if you pushed past those limits. As eager as Twilight was to jump at the safe option, though, it didn’t sit right with her. This strange, warped magic that was now filling the air had been the same magic that had backlashed at her. She wouldn’t worry Rarity or Spike with that, though. Whatever was happening with the princess would be fixed just as soon as they found her.
Suddenly, a great flash of lightning arced through the sky. Twilight and Rarity both instinctively ducked their bodies, but Spike kept plodding along as if nothing had happened. As the rumbling of thunder faded, Twilight’s ears picked up faint sounds of chatter from just around the next bend in the narrow pass. Spike disappeared around the corner, and Twilight struggled to keep up.
When she rounded the corner she was met with an incredible sight: four unicorn magisters, denoted as such by their flowing robes, were pulling massive amounts of magic straight from the air. In motion, the magic lit up the steam-darkened ground enough that Twilight could make out each of their faces, stony in concentration, as they bent Celestia’s errant power into a single, massive thread of magic that fed directly into each of their horns.
“If you don’t want to be flash-fried, you better duck and cover!” the oldest of them, Sol Shard, shouted over the roar of the magic. Twilight, Rarity, and Spike leapt behind a piece of wall. Sol Shard broke his focus and jerked his head away from his fellow magisters a moment before a massive bolt of pure lightning exploded from the tip of his horn. It branched into the air like a glowing tree of fire, up through the steam cloud and into the sky.
Spike was the first to move out of cover. He walked up to the panting unicorn and yelled something into his ear that Twilight didn’t catch. A moment later Sol Shard tapped his fellows on the shoulder and the light faded as the immense siphon spell wound down.
Sol Shard was still the same stallion Twilight remembered. He walked over to the new arrivals with an even, slow gait that fit his advanced age. Twilight had thought him elderly when she first started at the princess’s school – now he was certifiably ancient. A smile from him was accented by several loose flaps of skin, and his spectacles were so sunken into his face that it seemed like they were a part of his body. Despite his age, though, his spell work remained superb. Even in retirement the princess had ensured he remained close to the court.
Twilight met the magister halfway and gave him a curt nod of respect. “Your work is as breathtaking as ever,” she greeted with a forced smile. Maybe he had mellowed out in the last year? There was always the chance.
“Of course it is. The day I cannot create a simple magical siphon is the day I let them put me in the ground,” Sol Shard responded, dashing Twilight’s hopes. Unlike most elderly ponies, Twilight suspected that Sol Shard had never come to terms with his age. He was brash and prickly, just as Princess Celestia had once told Twilight he’d been since his youth. “Having to carry these three,” he motioned to the other magisters, “on my back is another thing entirely. How can I be expected to magically drain this area when I have to maintain the spell, just about teach them how to breathe, and entertain any random fillies that bother me?” He gave Twilight and Rarity undisguised looks of annoyance as he spoke, which Twilight countered with an ever-tighter smile.
“We’re here to help find the princess, Sir,” Rarity said.
“You think you can do this? I’d be shocked if you could levitate a pebble.”
Twilight gaped at the insult. Sol Shard had been rude for as long as Twilight had known him, but to just verbally berate someone he’d never even met?
When she opened her mouth to tell the old codger off, though, Rarity stepped in front of her. The pale unicorn opened her saddlebag and pulled out a bottle of water and a small towel, which she floated over to Sol Shard. “I know I cannot help with the spell work, but I can help the casters, at least a trifling bit.”
Sol Shard looked at the items with deep suspicion. Amazingly, he plucked them out of Rarity’s magical grasp and downed half the bottle in a single hit. “It’s been hours since I’ve had a drink of anything. The guards are happy to use me for the spells, but then they forget that I’m up here.”
“Of course they do, Darling.” Rarity turned back to Twilight with an easy smile, ignoring the way her friend was gawking. “Twilight, could you be a dear and give some water to the other gentlemen? I’m sure they need a break as well.”
Summarily dismissed, Twilight skulked over to the other magisters to practically toss water bottles at them. What was Rarity doing? Wasn’t she mad at the old goat? But, no, she was over there talking to him, even going so far as cleaning his glasses with one of her nice handkerchiefs.
Gods, but her leg was hurting. Twilight shook her head and decided to let Rarity do whatever it was that she wanted. Right now Twilight had a bandage to change. She hobbled up to a large stone and braced herself against it so she could completely lift her leg. The old bandage was soaked through with blood. Twilight cast a glance around for Spike; he was with Rarity and Sol Shard, so he wouldn’t have to see her like this.
Her haunch was badly inflamed. Twilight didn’t have the same expertise with bandages as Fluttershy did, but she wiped away the oozing blood and re-wrapped her entire haunch with gauze and strips of cloth. Hopefully it would hold together until she found Princess Celestia.
It had to.
“Why are you still sitting on your flank, Sparkle? Tired from just taking a stroll down here?” Twilight hastily pulled back on her saddlebag before Sol Shard and Spike could see the worst of the bandages. Sol Shard was going back to the other magisters while Rarity and Spike plodded up to her.
Twilight didn’t let Rarity say anything first. “Why are you sucking up to him? He’s a…a…”
“A horrible, bitter, rude old boar of a stallion? Why yes, yes he is.”
Spike and Rarity shared a laugh while Twilight sputtered. “Then why were you being so nice to him?” she asked.
Rarity rolled her eyes. “Because he deserves it, Twilight. He might be insufferable, but did you know he’s been draining the magical fallout down here for hours without resting? You realize that it was because of that we were able to find Applejack and Rainbow Dash, yes? They were trapped in the ruins for a good half hour until guards were able to dig them out.”
Of course they were. Twilight rubbed her forehead and groaned at her own stupidity. She had seen the ponies working at the edge of the ruins to get survivors out, and without Sol Shard and the rest draining away the worst of the magical excess going would be much slower.
“I’m an idiot,” Twilight muttered.
The white unicorn gave her friend a chastising look. “You most certainly are not, Twilight! Do not let me hear you disparage yourself like that! This is simply the most stressful night anyone could have imagined; tempers will run hot and you’ll overlook things in the heat of the moment, but you will never be an idiot.”
“This is why you came with me, wasn’t it?" Twilight realized. If it wasn't the worst possible time for it, she would have wrapped the other unicorn up in a hug. "To help with things like this?”
Rarity smiled innocently. “Well, you might have a habit of letting the small things sabotage you. I may not have your magical talent, Twilight, but there are things I can do to help lighten your load.” Rarity motioned for them to walk over to the magisters. “I’ve discussed it with Sol Shard and he agreed that finding the princess is the most important thing right now. He has an idea on how to find the princess that I think you might like.”
The four magisters had opened up a wider clearing by the time Twilight reached them. Sol Shard grunted when Twilight caught up with them and finished the rest of his water in a single swig. He looked to Rarity. “I still say this is a waste of our resources,” he said, “but your friend make a convincing argument, though I still think we should use a guard or one of these bumblers for it.”
“Rarity said you had an idea, Professor. What is it?”
Sol Shard snorted. “Oh, back to ‘professor’ now that you’re getting something you want?”
Twilight felt Rarity give her a subtle tap from behind and unclenched her teeth. “Finding Princess Celestia isn’t just what I want. It’s for the good of everyone,” she replied, as evenly as possible.
“Just because your personal desires intersect public ones doesn’t mean that—”
Rarity coughed. Loudly. “Do you not think that all of us would be better served by moving as briskly as possible? We can all argue later when Princess Celestia is back safe and sound.”
With a grunt, Sol Shard backed down. Twilight had never seen the old unicorn retreat from one of his tirades before. Just what had Rarity said to him?
“Fine, fine. Just make sure you listen well, Sparkle. You remember how to listen, right?” Before she could answer, Twilight found herself levitating over to the group of magisters. “We’re going to localize a magical repellant on you so that you can make it through the ruins without getting cooked. You follow the dragon’s letters to their source and bring Celestia back. Simple, right?”
“Why didn’t you do that in the first place if you could?” Twilight asked. She watched with growing trepidation as the other three magisters started lacing the air around her with magic. It was wrapping around her in thick threads, weaving and knitting before her eyes.
Sol Shard’s horn lit as well. Twilight yelped when she felt the tightly-packed magic tether itself to her horn. It was always unsettling for a unicorn to feel the magical touch of another, and Sol Shard had basically just pushed four different magical signatures into her horn. It meant that she was controlling the spell they had created around her, though.
She landed on her good legs when Sol Shard’s magic didn’t support her up any longer. The old unicorn looked even wearier than he had after releasing the magical siphon spell.
“Because,” he panted, “as much as it pains me to admit, you know Celestia’s magic better than any of us. You have to adjust the repellent spell yourself to match the magical density you’ll encounter as you go deeper into the castle ruins. It has to be a unicorn that can recognize Celestia’s magic instinctively and adjust on the move. Think you can do it?”
Twilight looked over her shoulder at Rarity and Spike. The little dragon was grinning at her and he already had out a quill and paper. There was worry in Rarity’s eyes, but also an eagerness that she hadn’t disguised completely. She wanted this nightmare to end as much as Twilight did.
“Absolutely, Professor,” Twilight said. She took a deep breath and stepped past the wiped magisters. “Spike! Take a letter to the princess.”
“What do you want me to write, Twilight?”
Twilight focused on the feel of Celestia’s magic in the air and adjusted the repellant spell. It buzzed, just above her skin, and suddenly all of the heat and pressure was gone. She could feel the slight night chill in the air and the gentle mist of the steam sifting through the ruins.
“Tell her that help is coming, Spike.”
She was gone into the ruins the second a cloud of glittering pink smoke zoomed over her head.