It was a field so wide it seemed to stretch forever in all directions, flowing out with fresh grasses and crystal clear streams while a distant but loud, thunderous rumble resounded throughout the grasslands. The sun’s bright warmth saturated Twilight’s vision, blurring everything a little as she squinted, yet that didn’t stop her from taking in all that was around her. Her legs pumped as she ran through the wide-open space, but they only barely touched the ground. She was more hovering than galloping, which made the feeling all the more invigorating.
“Excellent, my student! Come, keep up with us!” Celestia shouted, running alongside her. On the other side, Luna ran, too, laughing and smiling. The three rushed through the grasses, leaping whole bodies of water as they came. With a blink, she noticed something very briefly in the corner of her eye, and then suddenly they were everywhere. Millions, if not billions, of her little ponies, keeping perfect pace. The roar of hooves and beating of wings filled the air, drowning out all other sounds as if they were underwater. She could see them, or rather their forms, all around her, but their colors and cutie marks were all smudged together. Although they surrounded her, the ponies never got too close, giving her plenty of room. Only the two Princesses ran next to her.
With a small smile, she got an idea and quickly changed her direction, speeding up.
The ponies matched her, following precisely, even the Princesses.
Each quick, little change she made, the whole herd made the exact same turn. It was glorious, liberating even. Her smile grew wide and open as she laughed and hollered, happier than she could ever remember being while the light bloomed to fill her vision…
Twilight Sparkle groaned and opened her eyes just a bit, slamming them shut an instant later from the shock of having woken up.
As far as she was concerned, there were three types of sleep. The most common type was when it was either too short or too light to achieve any level of real rest. The second most common type, even if it was sadly all too rare, left her refreshed and ready to face a day. Finally, there was the deepest, most entrancing form of sleep. This kind was where various factors managed to align themselves in a manner as to create such comfort that it rendered her body unable to do much of anything except long for a return to this state.
It was this third type that Twilight awoke from on this glorious day, deep in the sheets of Celestia’s bed. She could still feel her mentor’s wing over her despite her fellow alicorn not being present, a fact which she felt broke the sacred contract of supreme sleep she felt the universe had given her for the night. The incredibly intense morning sun was also breaking this most holy of contracts as it utterly bathed Celestia’s chambers in the purest light, leaking through her eyelids.
“When I become a princess… If. If I become a princess, because I’m definitely not resigning to that yet, nope, no way, still a big ‘If’… could I make a law that states the sun isn’t allowed to be bright until 10AM? Because that’s awfully tempting right now.”
She turned over a full three hundred sixty degrees as she further wrapped herself in Celestia’s fine silk sheets and attempted to return to the most blessed dreamland she’d ever visited. Her body, however, seemed to have other plans entirely. A vibration moved through her back for exactly two seconds. The frequency was very fast and tickled like a bunch of parasprites rolling up her spine.
This traitorous movement from her backside did not go unnoticed, but it did go ignored as she cuddled deeper into Celestia’s bed. She was utterly bound and determined to get back to sleep.
Until the vibration came back and actually did tickle her.
She grimaced as she stifled a laugh and opened her eyes back up. This was hopeless. “Alright, body, I’m up! I’m up!” she said to nopony, forcing herself out of the cocoon she’d made in the sheets. Slowly, she stretched out all her muscles to get ready for the day. Celestia had to work long into the night, so Twilight had used her more comfortable bed. Groggily, she stepped into the Princess’s bathroom, which was adjacent to the main room.
It was a little awkward maneuvering, truthfully, and brought what was happening to Twilight back into her main focus. The white porcelain and gold-laden, well, everything in the room was barely a distraction from the other overwhelming feature; every single piece in it was sized specifically for Celestia’s massive body type. To brush her teeth, she had to put her forehooves way up on the sink to just barely see herself in the mirror. To shower, she teleported herself into the tub rather than risk awkwardly stepping over the high rim. The tub itself was also easily wide enough for Celestia to lie down in: it was practically a swimming pool to Twilight. She wasn’t even about to contemplate the toilet. That could be solved with any of the public restrooms in the castle.
Yet, all that just constantly reminded her of one simple fact: it was highly likely she’d wind up just as huge in less than ten years. All the bright, reflective gold-leaf trim in the world couldn’t overcome the nerves she felt from her future staring her in her face. She’d never felt so relieved to be done with her morning routine.
As she stepped back out into the light beaming into the main room, the drowsy remnants of the night drained away with record speed, her energy returning. She breathed in deeply, and the air itself felt charged as it filled her lungs. She could even feel power warming her hooves as she felt the floor below. Whatever this new wind was, she liked it a lot. Nothing could even slow her down as she confidently took her first steps towards the giant double doors. Well, nothing except getting tickled again by her own body.
Her nose fell just short of kissing the floor below as her knees buckled from the sensation. Whatever this was, it was annoying beyond all reason and had to be stopped. She lifted herself back up and away from the compromising position and resumed her movement towards the door. Just before she got there, she noticed a piece of parchment stuck on the handle. Parchment on the outside of the door would be from a servant; since it was on the inside of the chambers, this must be from Celestia herself.
I moved your torc to my closet. When you wake, put it on and go meet your brother in his office. I want you to be at the general’s security briefing today. It will help you get up to speed.
Also, I want you to wear your torc anytime when you’re outside of our chambers, just in case anypony tries anything again. You can make it stay in torc form by being careful not to put any power into the gem in the center. That may take some getting used to.
The note struck Twilight as oddly informal for the Princess, but considering her new status and what Celestia had shared with her, it made a bit more sense. Regardless, orders were orders. She turned with a trot towards Celestia’s closet and then froze.
“Celestia’s closet.” She had to say the words out loud because they were just that important. The little room behind the door in front of her was perhaps one of the castle’s biggest secrets. For all she knew at this instance, it could be a portal to a place the size of Ponyville, holding a multi-millennial lifetime accumulation of clothing. Feelings from her first lesson with Celestia came rushing back to her as she gingerly opened and walked through the door to who-knew-where.
Torches lit automatically as she tip-hooved into… a walk-in closet. A few dresses were hung up, but there was nothing particularly special here; it was just a closet with a few large shelves and drawers. Two more steps into the closet and more torches lit the end of it. Now there was something special.
At the end of the closet was a magnificent golden dress arranged on a ponyquin so large it could only be modelling an alicorn. It shone so brightly in the torchlight Twilight had to avert her eyes or be blinded. A few steps closer let her see, through shielded eyes, that the reason it was so reflective was that the entire thing was made out of gold leaf. She couldn’t have even guessed as to its weight, there were so many layers. Enchantments and runes were etched directly into the metal. She hazarded a guess they were to increase durability, since gold leaf was notoriously fragile.
Rarity would either have a field day gushing over this thing or faint at the mere sight of it, and Twilight wasn’t sure which because it reflected too much light to get a good enough look at it.
She shook her head a little and focused on the much smaller ponyquin in front of her that held her torc. She really, really hated this part despite only having done it once before. Carefully, she lifted it up with her hooves so it wouldn’t send her flying and placed it gently around her neck. The cold, dark metal warmed a bit at the contact with her body, and the gem in the bottom center began to glow.
She yanked back on her magic and tried to completely stifle it, but the gem wasn’t having that. It actively pulled on her power, and before long, Twilight gave in and submitted to her unfortunate fate. The gem quickly absorbed magic from her body, and the wave of power she was already intimately familiar with washed over her body with its extreme chill and gut-wrenching nausea. She dropped her stance to get close to the ground and avoid a huge fall.
Panting, her muscles finally relaxed as the process completed. Whew. At least this time wasn’t quite as bad. She stood up in her full armor, trying to stretch in it. As before, its great weight and stiffness was completely overcome by its built-in magics, encumbering her very little and offering her nearly the full range of her movement. Annoying and even painful though it was to put on, once done, it was quite comfortable. The tickling in her back wasn’t, though, and it not only came back but did so under the armor which seemed to just make it worse.
Twilight shook it off and left, pausing only to realize that she just gotten to see in Princess Celestia’s personal closet. When she got to the chamber exit, she was smiling so wide she thought her grin might hit both sides of the door on the way out.
Trotting at a comfortable pace, she flung open the right of the double doors and exited the chambers, getting about halfway out before the powerful vibrations returned, painful instead of playful this time.
“Dammit, would you stop that!” she yelled to nopony in particular. Nopony in particular, this time, took the form of three construction unicorns working on the wall to her left that were now staring right at her.
“Oh, sorry,” she said sheepishly. “I didn’t mean… Wait, what are you ponies doing? This is a secure area. Or it should be.”
The blue one off to the side of the other two spoke. He was clearly a supervisor based on his dress and demeanor. “Um, construction orders, ma’am. We’re supposed to be here.” He floated a document over to Twilight, which she picked up with her own magic.
The security certificate checked out, but these three were still far too nervous, and Twilight gave them a bit of a glare looking them over. She had a right to be nervous, given recent events.
“Looks like this checks out, but I’m still going to ask about it downstairs. That okay with you?”
The three nervously nodded under Twilight’s watchful gaze before returning to work. A spell blazed from one of the unicorns’ horn, drilling into the wall and destroying the ward on the large concrete-like brick. As the spell worked, Twilight stood frozen as a shot of pain ripped through her back. Just as the pony finished, the pain left her, and Twilight made the connection. It’s the spell they’re using! I can feel it! She spun around to face the ponies.
“What the hay are you three doing?!” she yelled.
The unicorns stopped and turned around, more nervous than before. The supervisor even swallowed before answering.
“The construction order said the wall needs to be removed. We need to break the wards on it before we can do that.”
“Wall removal? That’s fairly extreme. What for?”
“We don’t know. Different groups do small pieces of work in the castle. We don’t know, and we’re not supposed to know the whole plan! Honest!”
Twilight raised an accusatory hoof at them. “Then why are you three so nervous?” She blinked once and then looked at her armored hoof. “Oh. Angry, yelling, heavily-armored Grand Mage walking out of the Princess’s chamber. Right. Sorry, carry on, but I will be checking with the Guard anyway.”
She quickly turned away so they wouldn’t see her blush. Looks like that paper already solidified my reputation. My parents must be worried sick, she thought, running down the stairs of the tower. Whenever I’m in this armor, I’m going to have to remember that, in most respects, I’ve got the same authority as Celestia herself, not to mention the fact that I look prepared for a fight. It’s bound to make ponies nervous.
Even reaching the war room was proving to be a nerve-racking experience. Although the sensation in her spine faded and disappeared as she got farther from the ward-breaking ponies, the others still gave her nervous looks. She could almost feel them staring at her. That alone wasn’t enough to unnerve her, though. Ponies stared at Celestia’s pupil all the time. It wasn’t the same here. This was fear.
What’s going through their minds? she wondered. ‘Look out, here comes the prodigy of Celestia. Who knows what she’ll do?’ At least the normal castle ponies weren’t looking at her like that. They knew her well enough; it was only the temporary help that was so nervous.
As she rounded the corner towards the war room, oddly eager to be surrounded by military ponies, an urgent need sprang to mind. Something she absolutely had to do before going any farther.
She went around another corner and ducked in a public restroom.
Shining Armor was late. That wasn’t entirely unlike him, but most of the memories Twilight drew from came from before he joined the military. It was enough to make her restless and start rooting around his desk for spare paper. Twenty minutes later and she had finally completed the new spell formulation for the creation of solidified magic that crossed her mind after breaking half of Sweet Apple Acres’ windows.
She was about to roll it into a scroll and send it to the Princess when she remembered that Spike wasn’t there at the moment. Chuckling at her mistake, she went back to triple-check her work, yet found herself thinking more about its implications than the accuracy. This wasn’t some minor discovery, after all.
She sighed and slumped down in Shining’s chair. For a Guard Captain, he still kept his office spartan. His chair didn’t even have wheels or cushioning. Frustrated, she kicked it away and took a spot on the hardwood floor instead.
Papers laid out around her, she redoubled her efforts to triple-check, but again had her thoughts drift. Currently, solidified magic was used as fuel in large-scale generators and engines for airships in particular along with other industrial applications. It had to be stored carefully, or it could destabilize and detonate. More importantly, it was hugely expensive. To make a single rod of it took days of work from several unicorns, each of whom needed to have significant control over their magic.
This new method could be as much as ten times faster and drastically easier. This was the kind of thing that could send Equestria’s current Industrial Revolution into overdrive. The consequences to the economy and the entire nation would be drastic, and it was all in her hooves.
“This is way over my head. I need guidance from Celestia.” Resigned, she picked up the papers and poked her head out of her brother’s office. She looked around a little bit, her head low, and and finally walked out, convinced that there wasn’t a random guard that was going to yell “Royalty Arrived” in her ear again.
She kept low to the ground, moving around more like a cat than a pony. She managed to get in silently only by asking a castle guard to go in first and ask the war room door guard not to yell. Ducking around a corner, she found her second attempt to be less than successful as she came nose to nose with another guard.
Time slowed down, and the rest of the world waited as she watched his lungs fill up. Without even thinking, she rushed her hoof up and put it in front of his mouth. She shrunk a little lower and pleaded with her eyes, even putting her ears back on her head. His eyes darted around the room, leaving Twilight to wonder what he was thinking and whether training would win out.
Somehow, someone must have been looking out for her, as he relaxed his shoulders and nodded. Twilight practically flopped to the ground in relief. She still wasn’t used to the idea of ponies bowing to her, and her legs quivered in relief from not having to go through the entire floor of the war room doing it at once. She even gave him a small hug! Leaving the guard and his appreciative, yet goofy, grin behind, she set about searching for her brother, Celestia, or somepony else who could help.
She stood up sharply when she came to ‘her’ area, one of the most unnerving places in the whole world. The place where, for the last several years, probably since the war room was built after the changeling invasion, threats to her person were tracked and thwarted.
And the mare leading the team, Intelligentsia, just spotted her.
“Your majesty,” she said, bowing and causing the other two soldiers around the table to bow as well.
Damn, almost got away with it, she thought. “Please don’t bow, guys. I’m not comfortable with it. Or with being called ‘majesty.’”
Intelligentsia smiled. “Then you should probably issue a decree about how to address you. Grand Mages get to set their own addressing protocol until their final ascension. At that point, though, I’m afraid you may have to get used to it.”
She sighed again. “I have ten years before that happens. Let’s… go slow, please?”
The analyst smirked a bit. “You don’t have to ask. You outrank everypony in this room. To us, your word is a command that must be followed. For the Royal Guard, your rank is equivalent to ‘Captain,’ and in the regular military, it’s akin to ‘Grand General.’ The Day Guard will probably react about the same, but the Night Guard’s a different story, so be careful with them. They won’t be disrespectful… Well, probably anyway. They’re a rough lot, and they answer only to Princess Luna. Not even Celestia can give them orders.”
“I know all that.” She nodded, swallowing. “And it’s amazingly nerve wracking. I have no trouble leading my friends, but they want to follow me because I’m their friend. And on top of that, you’re all military ponies. If I give an order and screw up, ponies could get hurt.”
“Aye, ‘tis a risk,” one of the two Scotsponies spoke up. Twilight wasn’t sure if it was Double Blind or Feint Indication, but the other continued.
“An’ we already know all ‘at. We’d dae it anyway. It’s part ‘n’ parcel of th’ job.”
Twilight shook her head. “Still. I have to consider so much more now. Even fighting Discord, it was… It was like a pass-or-fail test. If I failed, then Equestria fell. What Celestia does is so much more complex. Even successes could lead to deaths. The decisions she has to make on a day-to-day basis, it’s just unreal.”
Intelligentsia walked up to Twilight and put a hoof on her shoulder. “Try analysing thousands of intelligence sources to find subtle clues hinting at threats to Princess Celestia’s prized student and devising ways to thwart them without said student ever finding out.”
Twilight cringed a bit. “I guess I’m preaching to the choir a little bit.”
“It’s honestly just a relief to know I don’t have to hide it from you anymore. But I’m sure you’re not here to just blow off steam. Was there anything we could help you with?”
Twilight perked up a bit. Help, that’s exactly what she needed. “Yes, actually!” She floated her new spell sheets over to her. “I need to know if it’s a good idea to publish this or not.”
“What is it?” one of the Scotsponies asked.
“It’s…” Twilight blinked. “Sorry, but which one are you?”
The two laughed together.
“I’m Double Blind,” one said.
“I’m Feint,” continued the other.
“Lying to the Grand Mage is an offense punishable by court-martial, dishonorable discharge, and imprisonment,” Intelligentsia quipped without even looking.
The two blinked. “Haw did ye know we were lying?” Feint asked.
“You just told me,” she deadpanned.
Both of them folded their ears back against their heads. “Sorry, ma’am,” they said in unison.
Twilight just rolled her eyes. “Eh, it’s not like anypony other than Intelligentsia could tell.”
The Lieutenant flipped a page in the bundle of papers. “Call me ‘Gen’ if you like. The Captain does.”
“That would actually bring me a lot of comfort, Gen. And thank you. For protecting me all these years.”
“It’s what we do, lass!” Feint smiled.
“Aye! Bein’ in th’ military is about protectin’ those ‘at need it. An’ ye needed it.”
Twilight lifted up a bit as if a weight had been taken from her. “I can’t believe I had ten ponies dedicated just to protecting me. It’s an honor, really.”
“Well, ten analysts.” Double motioned to the paper-covered walls. “The actual team in Ponyville protectin’ th’ Elements is a lot larger.”
“Wait, wait.” Twilight held a hoof up. “Hold on. There are more than ten ponies, ten Royal Guard, in Ponyville, right now?”
“Well,” Feint hesitated. “If ye really want tae know, there are one hundred fifty undercover Royal Guard stationed in Ponyville at this time, up from one hundred forty-five last year.”
“It takes a hundred and fifty ponies to protect us in Ponyville!?”
“Now, aye.” Double Blind pulled out a map of Ponyville and laid it out on the table. “They aren’t jist guards, though. They’re monitors. They go undercover an’ really watch th’ populace, looking for things ‘at are out of place. Each one looks like an ordinary citizen, but they’re checkin’ for things loch keywords in conversations, gaits, strangers, all sorts of things.”
Feint picked up the thread. “Each one is situated at a key location tae be able tae monitor an’ intercept potential threats. Many are pegasi,” he noted, pointing at various blue dots scattered about. “But we dae fae unicorns an’ earth ponies present as well. It started out with a much smaller team, but as th’ town’s grown, we’ve needed tae add more. It doesn’t look like it, but Ponyville’s honestly a more secure place tae live right noo than Canterlot, except for th’ castle itself.”
“But what about Pinkie Pie! She’s in Manehatten! And Rarity! She travels all over the world!”
Feint rushed over to her. “Hey, hey, relax. We’ve got it. There’s anither team of analysts dedicated tae th’ other Bearers, and let me tell ya, they aren’t in anywhere near th’ same level of danger. There’s anither field squad that follows Pinkie, an’ Ah hear that’s a huge challenge in an’ of itself.”
“And Rarity?” Twilight voice had far more force in it than she had anticipated.
“Her fencin’ skills aside, Rarity contracts out tae a reputable private security firm for protection. She’s in good hooves, Ah can promise ye.”
Twilight’s teeth ground together while her mind almost desperately searched for some kind of flaw, some avenue of vulnerability to her friends. Several seconds later, she relented and sighed, dropping her shoulders. “Alright, I trust you. I’m just, you know, worried about them.”
“Completely understandable, lass. Th’ last few weeks notwithstanding, we’ve got a good track record sae far. They’ll all be jist fi—”
A loud thump coming from Intelligentsia’s hoof hitting the table interrupted Double Blind, and the other three ponies looked at her with not a small amount of worry, especially Twilight. She was straining to keep herself upright by leaning on it but failing just a bit. Even the orange glow of her magic was flickering.
“Lieutenant? Are ye alright?” asked Feint, walking up to her.
“Twilight.” She coughed and swallowed, shaking the papers a little and turning the page to face their author. “Are these estimates accurate?”
Twilight blinked. “Well, I haven’t run a full analysis yet, and there are a lot of variables that can affect things, but I’d say it’s within at least one point five sigma.”
The color ran right out of Intelligentsia’s face.
“Um, what’s a sigma?” Feint asked.
“Pfft. Ye ne’er studied, did ye?” Double Blind groaned.
“What? Ye two are th’ math ponies. I’m psy-ops. Sae what’s a sigma?”
“What she means,” Double said, reaching over and putting on some glasses, “is ‘at whatever she’s estimatin’ in those papers will be within er guesses at least eighty-six percent of th’ time.”
“Oh come on,” he snorted. “There’s nae way under Celestia’s sun ye jist knew ‘at number off th’ top of yer head.”
“‘Course Ah did. I know how tae do math. You’re th’ one who couldn’t calculate yer way out of a paper bag.”
“Enough!” Intelligentsia screamed then straightened and composed herself. “Ma’am, I’m afraid I can’t advise you on your discovery in terms of whether to publicly release it. If you weren’t the Grand Mage and this was a more casual conversation, I’d advise you to start up your own company. You’d be rich beyond your wildest dreams in weeks. As it stands, I have to recommend you pass this on to the Princess.”
Twilight sighed. “I was afraid of that. Does anypony know where she is?”
“Aye,” Double replied. “She’s in a cooncil hearing with yer brother. They’re investigatin’ th’ coup attempt.”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “Well, crap. That explains where Shiny was at instead of at our scheduled meeting. And I suppose I’m now legally able to wander into that, but it would be kind of rude to do for something like this.”
Intelligentsia smiled. “Now that I can help you with. Just give me a few seconds…”
An orange light swirled around her horn and the bundle of papers, now wrapped into a tube. Twilight recognized it as a weak seal with a built-in magical ‘signature.’ It would keep the bundle together, but it wasn’t meant as a lock. Rather, the signature was meant to be complex enough to be exceedingly difficult to forge. If anypony got ahold of the papers, they could easily open it but wouldn’t be able to restore the seal in a way that would have anypony that knew Intelligentsia’s seal believe it.
“There. Now then.” She picked up the bundle and walked out of the alcove, waving towards the exit.
“Smuka la dolat! Shimmel!”
Twilight scratched her head. “That doesn’t sound like any language I know…”
“Tha’s ‘cuz it isn’t!” Double interjected.
“Yeah, there’s spells on each alcove here for privacy,” Feint continued. “A lot of stuff that we work on is need-to-know, sae if you’re to far out of th’ alcove you can’t tell what we’re sayin’, or vice versa. It all jist sounds like background noise, or scrambled speech if it’s tay loud. Only thin’ ‘at gets through is th’ room guards’ yell ‘cause of a spell on ‘em. In fact, we gab about your ascension here from time ta time, but of all th’ war room ponies, only th’ ten of us know about it.”
“Hmmm… What about when I came here right after the attack?”
Double smiled. “Gud question! Th’ spells can be shut doon for disasters sae we can all communicate easier. Other things took priority ‘at day, I’m afraid.”
Intelligentsia stepped back in, an armored pegasus guard member in tow. “Officer, introduce yourself.”
His wing snapped into a salute. “Ma’am! Straight Shot, officer second class, ma’am!”
“Very good! Now then.” She put Twilight’s notes into a small compartment in the guard’s armor. “Straight Shot, here are your orders: you are to take these to the Princess’ chambers, and wait there for her until she returns to them. When she does, you are to deliver these papers to the Princess and state that they are from our Grand Mage and they need to be reviewed at her earliest convenience.”
“Actually.” Twilight put a hoof up. “Just when she has the free time. I don’t think it’s important enough for her to drop other things for, given what’s going on.”
“Fair enough,” Intelligentsia replied. “Now then. You are not to make any detours. You are not to show the papers to anypony, no matter what, and you are not to discuss what your mission is with anypony else. Is that clear?”
His wing snapped into another salute.
“Very good. Get moving.”
After he left the alcove, Twilight couldn’t help but ask, “Why all the strictness?”
Intelligentsia shook her head. “You just outlined a way to make solidified magic a couple orders of magnitude faster and cheaper than current methods, Twilight. That’s explosive stuff, even if it’s made of paper. We’re talking about taking an expensive source of magical power storage and making it cheap. Airships will be able to operate at a fifth the current cost if not less.”
The two stallions in the room stumbled back.
“Bloody heel!” Feint choked. “So, what, our Grand Mage upends civilization in ‘er spare time?”
“It sure seems that way.” Gen smirked. “Imagine what she’ll do once Luna trains her.”
Double’s jaw was just hanging open while his doppelganger kept going. “Buck me. Tha’s it, I’m gettin’ outta th’ stock market for good.”
Twilight rolled her eyes. “That still doesn’t quite answer my question, though. You were abnormally specific to Straight, far more so than I would have thought.”
The analyst took off her uniform hat and stretched. “Have you ever gotten caught for breaking a rule, even though everypony around you was doing the same thing?”
The ascendant shuddered. “Oh, yes. Definitely. I remember this one time back when I was a filly at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns. They had just put in this new cafeteria, and it had one set of doors you were only supposed to use to enter and one set for an exit. But, there weren’t any signs, so I didn’t know. This one group of older fillies, teenagers, walked right in the cafeteria through the exit doors, saying hello to the vice principal as they did it. He waved at them and said hello back. When I tried to go in after them, I got yelled at, saying I couldn’t break the rules just because I was the Princess’ student. I mean, come on! I’m smart, not psychic!”
“Just the kind of example I’m talking about!” Gen smiled. “Straight Shot is like that, only taken to an extreme. Whenever he breaks the rules, even slightly, he’s always caught in one way or another. So his personality is as by-the-book as you get. Your papers are in excellent hooves, Twilight.”
Feint chuckled. “If those fillies were ‘at much older, Ah can think of a reason he let them in.”
Twilight could feel her eyes go wide at the realization. “Ugh! EW! I didn’t even think of— That just makes it worse!”
“Perverts are everywhere, lass,” Double laughed. “Best git used to it.”
“Perverts, you mean males, right?” Gen quipped.
“Hey now!” Feint protested, grappling Double by the shoulders. “It’s not fair ta judge all stallions based jist on Dub ‘ere.”
“Whit!?” He slapped his forehooves off of him. “Two words, Feint. Mint. Toothpaste.”
“That’s jist an unfounded rumor!”
“Yeah, ‘cause I know ye use cinnamon toothpaste!”
“Ahem!” Intelligentsia barked, silencing them then dropping into a bow at something behind Twilight. “I am sorry about them, Your Highness.”
Twilight froze and slowly turned around. Princess Luna had indeed stepped into the alcove along with a rather large, older stallion she didn’t recognize at first. His uniform, however, told her exactly who he was. The white shirt with red stash, gold tassels on his shoulders, five gold stars on the left side of his chest, and the scimitar on his side could only add up to one thing: this was Grand General Blueblood, grandfather to the Prince, a Count of Canterlot, and the supreme commander of all the Equestrian military, answering only to Princess Celestia herself.
She took a cautious step back, uncertain of exactly what to say to him. His grandson had made it extremely clear that he thought she was undeserving of being Celestia’s student along with other feelings of indignation based on her family’s nonexistent nobility status. This stallion, however, was more of a mystery. She knew he was old, at over a century, but was still an immensely powerful mage. She also knew his somewhat-long facial hair was kind of silly with his sideburns meeting his mustache in a curve. His white coat and totally grey mane gave him the true appearance of an aged noble, but the few times they had interacted was when she was a filly, and that was barely even small talk and only a couple of sentences at that.
Fortunately, Luna broke her concentration with a laugh.
“Ha! ‘Tis quite alright, Lieutenant. I got a good laugh from it, and—”
“Is that a bonded artifact!?”
Twilight’s jaw dropped open. Grand General Blueblood had just interrupted Princess Luna, and she did not look pleased. She was so stunned it took her several seconds to realize the general wasn’t talking to the Princess, he was talking to her!
“Oh, um.” She coughed, trying to catch up to the actual question. He was plainly looking at the gem embedded in her armor, and something clicked. “Yeah, it might be…”
Luna swatted the general upside his head with a forehoof. “We wanted her to figure it out on her own!”
Twilight swallowed. Bonded artifacts were among the rarest and most powerful of magical artifacts. Before, she had assumed it was a cored artifact with extensive enhancements, given the gem power source, but bonded artifacts also used ultra-high-quality gems as a core. “Wait.” She held up a hoof. “I thought bonded artifacts were empathic with their owners, and had to be made using their owner’s own magic. That’s how the bond is formed.”
“You are correct,” Luna said, rubbing her temple. “That torc was created for you when you first became Celestia’s student. She took samples of your magic as you slept. It’s been in storage ever since, although, over the course of time, both Sister and myself have been adding extra enchantments. The time spent apart from you meant it would take a while for the connection to really establish itself, but we hoped it would happen faster and more naturally if you discovered it on your own. A luxury which we don’t have anymore.” She glared at Blueblood, who was still intently staring at the gem.
“My apologies,” he replied, not even turning his head. “My great-grandfather owned a bonded blade. I still have it. It’s extremely rare to see a new one.”
Twilight covered the gem with her hoof to get him to stop staring. “I’m not surprised. They tend to be powerful and kept out of sight by their owners unless they need them. I’ve read about them, but never seen one before. Not even in a museum. Or at least, I thought I hadn’t seen one before. It’s hard to believe I’ve ‘had’ one all this time. And I wish I knew how to make it stop deploying whenever I put it on.”
“Well,” Luna coughed. “Technically you’ve seen another before. My torc is, indeed, a piece of bonded armor, made to replace the armor you shattered with the Elements of Harmony. And, since the secret is out, I suppose I can let you in on another secret. Your torc will grow and change as you do, and your connection with it, as it develops, will let you command it more easily. For now, though, you can force it into dormancy by yanking back hard on the power it takes from you.”
“Wait, what?!” Twilight protested. “Wouldn’t that just break the gem?”
“Bonded artifacts are considerably more durable than mere cored weapons.” The general was still staring a bit. “Cored artifacts are physical things housing pre-made spells with a trigger and a power source. Powerful, but rudimentary compared to what you’re wearing. It will take a lot more than that to break your torc. I’m honestly surprised they gave you yours already, given how little the Princesses use theirs. Luna’s is real, but Celestia only rarely dons her real torc.”
“That, General,” Luna sneered at him, “is because when Tia deploys her armor, even accidentally, she vaporizes everything nearby.”
Twilight swallowed. “Everything? But then will—”
“No, your torc is perfectly safe for those around you, Twilight. You do not yet possess enough power to be so passively destructive. In fact, there’s no way to even tell if it will ever be destructive at all. It is utterly unique to you. As for the matter of it deploying automatically, that is odd, but also fixable. Here, allow me.” Luna knelt down and pointed her horn at the deployed torc’s gem and started siphoning some power out of it.
Twilight jumped a little at the light and the cold feeling as if her armor had turned to glowing ice water and was flowing back into her torc. Just a couple of seconds later, it was over, and her torc rested undeployed on her shoulders while a strand of purple magic spat out of the gem before fizzling into nothingness. She got the feeling the torc didn’t much like that, but she didn’t care. She was finally able to wear it without looking like she was ready to walk into a war zone.
She dipped into a quick bow. “Thank you, Luna!”
“Huzzah! She called me Luna!” the Princess said with a laugh, putting a hoof on her shoulder. “We’ll make an alicorn of you yet!”
Twilight smiled and then jolted a bit in shock, remembering Blueblood was within the alcove’s borders.
Luna looked up at Blueblood for a moment and then turned back to Twilight. “Yes, he knows. The other generals do not nor does most of the council. More to the point, though, he’s here because your brother is going to be extremely busy in the near future. The council has launched a thorough and aggressive inquisition into the attack on Canterlot, and I’m afraid Shining Armor is going to have to devote nearly all of his time to that. As such, Grand General Blueblood here will be temporarily taking over the Royal Guard so Shining Armor can focus. While we train, I will be providing the briefings he was to give you, summarized to save time.”
“Oh. Okay. I hadn’t realized things were getting that serious.” She squirmed a little in place over worry for her brother.
“I’m afraid so. As I understand it, he was the first non-noble to lead the Guard in hundreds of years. I hear it caused quite a bit of an uproar when sister chose him.”
“That is an understatement!” Blueblood stomped a hoof. “Celestia defied the Council to have him installed. Regardless of his marriage to a princess, I’m afraid they will not be gentle.”
Luna nodded. “Perhaps. Sister is confident in him, though, and she should be able to shield him politically.”
“Um,” Twilight scuffed a hoof on the floor. “Aren’t you confident in him, too?”
“Indeed I am!” the Princess yelled. “However, I do not have any vote nor any say with the council in military matters. Also, if you were seeking endorsements, I would imagine that getting a cheese sandwich to vouch for him would do more good than Us. We are only a nine-thousand-year-old alicorn with incomparable combat experience. The pampered council of hedonists does not consider Us to be a worthy source of consult. Nay, they cower before Us like mewling foals, demanding that We have no military command, save our meager Night Guard! Tell us, how are We supposed to protected Our beloved ponies in the nighttime with a pittance of fifty soldiers!?”
The Grand Mage chuckled nervously. “Sorry. I forgot about your… status.”
Luna’s wings went a little limp. “Forgive me, Twilight. You do not deserve such, most of all from me. I am merely frustrated, nothing more.”
She nodded. “I understand. It’s never simple, I guess.”
“No, never,” both the Princess and the General said in unison, looking briefly at each other afterward.
Blueblood broke the awkwardness first by turning to leave. “I shall see you later, then, Grand Mage. I look forward to seeing how you perform as a leader.”
“Careful, General.” Luna warned. “You’re going to be bowing to her and calling her ‘Majesty’ within a decade.”
“Indeed,” he said, walking away.
A few more seconds passed before anypony said anything more.
“Who went an’ stuck a bug up his butt?” Double Blind asked.
“Blind!” Gen snapped while Luna laughed.
“Proper context is required, I suppose. When I returned as Nightmare Moon, one of my first actions was to humiliate him in front of his troops. Classified though the event is, he’s never quite forgiven me. Still, we are wasting time here. Twilight, if you would accompany me? You have much to learn and little time to do it in.”
Twilight chuckled a little. “Luna, you just basically described my whole life.”