* * *
“Yaay, Fluttershy! You’re doing it! Woohoo!”
She flapped her wings with growing confidence. Her head craned up as far as it would go, and her hooves dangled behind her. Trent swam lazily ahead, kicking his fins through the air as he pretended to backstroke across an invisible lake.
“Now I want you to try something real quick. I want you to kick your left legs backwards, and your right legs forward. Hard as you can. Okay?”
She kicked forward and backwards simultaneously, and the world began to spin.
“Eeeeee!” she squealed, as she spiraled along.
“Now do it again, but exactly the opposite. Left legs forward, right legs back.”
Her eyes closed as she kicked again. She cautiously opened them again to see the whole world upside down, but more or less stationary again.
“Good job!” Trent clapped.
“Ohh. Thank you!”
“Now, do you see that wall we’re about to painfully crash into?”
She did. She gasped.
“Right... I’ll take your moment of silence as a cognizant response, pursuant to my previous comment...”
“Just follow my lead. All of your legs, kick them back at the same time, and then forward once you’ve spun around. Just like me. Watch!”
He curled his knees to his chest, flipping backwards through half of a somersault. His legs straightened again, and he came to rest staring back at Fluttershy.
She kicked and rolled, angling her neck downward to follow the new orientation. The wall was nearly upon them, and she began to flap her wings instinctively.
“Ahh, very good.”
“Trent!” her voice rose with a hint of panic.
“You’re doing fine, don’t worry!”
“No, no! Trent!”
“What is it?”
“What? Oh Shi...”
Trent smacked into the bulkhead with a resounding bang, and then fell to the walkway above, landing with all the grace of an anesthetized cat.
“Oooh! Trent!” Fluttershy cried, as she vectored in to land. She kicked the wall, rebounding up to the underside to the ledge, and settled next to the supine pile of askew limbs.
“Are you okay?”
A semi-lucid groan came as the only response.
“Will you be okay!” She asked again, gently nuzzling his shoulder.
“Eventually... Owwww... You don’t mind if I lay here for a few minutes, do you?”
“I don’t mind. Um... You don’t feel any broken bones, do you?”
“No. Don’t think so, anyways.”
“Can you feel this?” Her hooves pressed gently along his shins and thighs.
“And what about... Ohh! Ohh no.”
“Ohh! It’s horrible!”
“What is it?”
“Trent! You’re bleeding!”
“Huh?” He tried to lift his head to look, but a hoof to his chest gently pressed him back.
“No, stay there. Let me think for a second. I know it looks bad, but I need you to stay with me,” she commanded.
As she trotted nervously in a tight circle on the narrow catwalk, Trent looked down and prepared himself for the worst.
The non-skid polycrete of the catwalk had thoroughly lacerated his trousers around the knees. Beneath that, the flesh was bruised, and lightly perforated with thousand tiny pinpricks. Blood oozed forth as semi-coagulated droplets.
“Ooh, that does look serious,” he said.
“What can we do?”
“Well, there is a medical facility, about thirty decks down,” he gestured with his thumb hooked towards the dark abyss. “Centerline, near the first beam.”
Fluttershy crept to the edge of the catwalk, looking down. The light from above did not reach all the way below. Strange shapes sent sinister shadows as spotlights strobed silently.
“Down there?” she asked quietly.
“Mmm hmm.” He laid his head back and rolled his eyes. “Don’t know if I’ll make it without an aspirin and a band-aid.”
As he tried to sit up, Fluttershy pressed him down again.
“Trent. Hold still. I have an idea.”
Fluttershy bit into Trent’s belt, and tugged him towards the edge of the catwalk. She trotted to the other side, and pushed in the small of his back until he slid under the handrail and fell off the ledge, floating freely in the bay.
“Oh.. Thanks...” he mumbled, slowly tumbling into the void.
Fluttershy dove from the catwalk, flapping her wings in tight controlled bursts until she was just underneath Trent.
“Now hold on tight!”
“Ahh...” He lay across her back with his arms around her neck. “You’re the best, Fluttershy.”
* * *
Twilight let out a surprised yelp as she dropped to the floor. The intruder towered before her, asymmetric and indistinct behind the patchwork camouflage. It let out a mirthful sigh in a feminine voice that sounded both vaguely familiar, and just slightly sultry.
The purple pony bolted. She headbutted the balcony door and burst outside, filling her lungs to scream for help. A glowing haze of magic gripped her hind legs firmly, and yanked them from beneath her. Her forehooves scratched frantically at the wooden planks, clutching a thick heavy object just before she slipped back into the bedroom.
The doors closed again, locking with an audible click.
She whirled to face the intruder, standing high on her hind legs. She hoisted the twenty pound cube of empirical observations - the bright red CRC Handbook of Alchemy and Magic - high overhead, tensing her body to throw it as hard as she could.
“Back off, lady! I’m a SCIENTIST!” An angry snort underscored her fierce narrowed gaze.
A light chuckle came from the hooded figure.
She froze briefly, stunned at the sudden familiarity of the voice.
“I have been looking everywhere for that, actually.”
The CRC tome zipped away from Twilight’s hooves, hovering gently beside the intruder.
The hood withdrew, revealing her mentor. Her head bore no crown, and her face was streaked with thick black lines over a patchwork of dark green and earthy brown.
“Twilight, my most prized student. I trust that we are alone?”
Twilight gulped. Her head nodded involuntarily with shocked obedience.
“I have had much on my mind lately. Many thoughts that simply must be shared...” She strode resolutely towards the quivering young unicorn, rustling quietly within her patchwork suit. Her head dipped close to Twilight, as their horns nearly crossed.
Twilight raised one hoof in meek objection, a placeholder for a lengthy rebuttal against...
She gasped suddenly. Her eyes went wide, her ears folded alongside her head, and a deep blush crept across her face.
“Hmm?” Celestia murmured. She looked up suddenly, casting her eyes about the wreckage of the bedroom. A long whistle escaped her lips as she turned slowly.
There was a short pause before she spoke.
“You know, Twilight,” she said evenly. “I have a book you may wish to borrow. It describes some very useful therapeutic exercises for relieving stress and tension.”
She turned back suddenly, giving Twilight a sly wink.
“I should know. It’s saved me a small fortune on new furniture lately. Ha ha.”
“Ohh my...” Celestia exhaled with a deep woof. “I wish my bed could end up like... Ahh... Excuse me. Twilight, my faithful student. You have my apologies for this sudden intrusion, but we have much to discuss.”
“Ohh. Is that what you’re here for?” Twilight asked in confusion. The relief in her voice carried a faint tinge of disappointment.
Celestia eyed her strangely for a moment, before giving a slight shake of her head.
“Yes, I’m afraid.”
She unhooked the clasps holding the patchwork suit around her body, and let it shuffle off to the floor. The colors of each ragged cloth faded back to the dull yellow of unbleached cotton. Her wings stretched majestically within the confines of Twilight’s bedroom. Feathers ruffled, and drops of perspiration flew from her flanks and chest.
Twilight could scarcely recognize her. Where her face was swatched with simple black lines and earthy colors, her body was a bedazzling tapestry of stripes and swirls. A canvas of dark pitch and light shades, with brilliant jagged streaks of red and yellow. Where her mane and tail once undulated with a palette of pastel hues, a hot glow of crackling embers radiated in their place.
“Does it suit me, still?” she asked carefully.
Twilight stared, mouth agape. She was at a momentary loss for words, wrestling with the mental image of a phoenix mating with a zebra, and the logistical challenges that implied.
“Princess! I.. I’ve never seen you wearing anything like that!”
“Ahh. It has been some time. Nonetheless, I must remind myself on occasion... Lest I forget my true colors.”
“Your true colors?”
“A figure of speech, dear Twilight.”
“What about that suit you were wearing?”
“Oh... That,” she pushed the lumpy mound of torn fabric with her hind hoof. “It breaks the outline and deceives the eyes.”
She waggled her hips with a mischievous grin.
“And it can add an extra ten pounds where you’d least want it.”
“It allows me to travel unseen, with only a slight enchantment imbued within it. No magic otherwise. The keen eyes of the Palace guard, and the ethereal senses of the court unicorns are left none the wiser.”
“But... I’ve never seen you wear that either!”
Celestia rolled her eyes.
“Why?” Twilight breathed.
“Because!” Celestia exclaimed hotly. She kicked the patchwork suit into a mound and collapsed onto it. “Because... Because.” Her voice grew soft and tailed off, as her head lay heavily across folded legs.
“Because what?” Twilight asked.
Celestia looked upward to her student. She blinked several times, her puffy eyelids wiping away the traces of tears from an unfocused stare. Eyes which bore weary witness to the march of time, yet steadfastly carried depths of wisdom, kindness, and comfort. Eyes which now simply stared back at Twilight, vulnerable and pleading.
The wild colorful patterns of her coat screamed with a predatorial ferocity. Yet, as she lay there in Twilight’s bedroom, atop a patchwork of rags, she looked frightened. Hiding behind the guise of war paint as a young colt might clutch a toy soldier for protection against the shadows lurking at the foot of the bed.
“Twilight... Have I been a fair leader?”
“Um... Of course! Princess, why would you even ask...”
Celestia raised one hoof.
“Have I been kind?”
Twilight’s earnest words fell upon deaf ears.
“And where my hooves step, and my light warms... Has Equestria been better for it?”
“Princess!” Twilight shouted.
Celestia jerked back slightly, shocked at Twilight’s outburst. Two purple hooves firmly clasped the sides of her head, pulling her eye to eye with her protege.
“I don’t even know where to start with you! First you nearly scared the living oats out of me, flying in here like that. You’re dressed up like it’s Nightmare Night, and you’re set out to win the most terrifying costume category. And now you’re asking me how I think you’re doing as the Princess and ruler of Equestria! It’s crazy! It’s completely unlike you!”
“Who’s the nicest Princess in Equestria!”
Celestia stared into Twilight’s raving eyes, inching backwards ever so slightly.
“Saaay it!” Her hooves shook Celestia’s head into a forced nod.
“I... I am,” she stammered.
“Who’s the fairest Princess in all the land?” she raised her voice.
“I am,” she sighed.
“Who rules Equestria, and has given us a thousand years of peace and harmony!?”
Celestia stared distantly for a moment, before shaking her head and blinking hard.
“That would be me.”
“That’s right!” Twilight hissed. “That’s you. The Sun Goddess and Princess of Equestria! None other!”
“Yes, Twilight. Now...”
“Now buck up and start acting like it! Don’t ever forget that we always look up to you, and that... Well, and that we will always love you!”
Twilight pulled her close, and planted a kiss to underscore her declarative ultimatum. Celestia’s eyes bulged from the sudden affection, staring wildly in every direction as the seconds passed with glacial swiftness. She backed away suddenly, just as she felt the slightest hint of tongue crossing her lips.
“Ooh my... Thank you, Twilight. Ahem...” She stood quickly, blushing furiously beneath the mottled paint.
“Princess...” Twilight’s voice had raised several octaves until it resembled a high pitched squeak. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve never seen you like... Like this, before.”
“I could easily say the same,” Celestia gasped.
The two stared intently in every possible direction except than at each other.
“So, how...” Celestia thought fervently for a moment. “...has Spike been?”
“He’s doing good! Ahh, ha ha. His usual fiery little self. Haven’t seen him since this morning, but I’m sure he’s, ah.. around here somewhere.”
“Ahh. Isn’t he starting his vacation today?”
“Yes! That too. You know how baby dragons can be sometimes.”
“Oh, of course!”
“Ahh... Has Princess Luna been doing well? I see she’s been busy writing a lot lately!”
“She has! It has really been.. pleasant to have her back!”
There was a long uncomfortable pause.
“Really?” asked Twilight.
Celestia sighed, rubbing one hoof against her head.
“Yes... I do love my sister. Even if she can be.. nevermind,” she shook her head lightly as she settled back down on the pile of fabric. “Twilight, we have something important to discuss, and I don’t have much time right now.”
“Why is that?” Twilight asked carefully.
Celestia held her head high this time. Despite Twilight’s boldly delivered words of encouragement, she still looked emotionally drained.
“Do you recall the letter that you sent last? Scarcely two days ago? You had very little information to go by, yet you felt that whatever was happening was important enough to warrant my immediate attention.”
“And now, I come to you.”
“Huh? What’s going on?”
“I do not know. I wish I did, but alas, I have very little to go by.”
“Why did I come to you? Because I trust you, Twilight. This matter must be treated with the utmost secrecy for now. That is why I made my way here unseen, and why I must return to Canterlot soon, before I am noticed to be missing.”
“And for what I’ve gone through to come here in secret, I should expect that my words, and the knowledge of my presence shall remain equally guarded.”
Twilight nodded. “Yes, Princess.”
“It does involve you, as well as the other Elements of Harmony.”
Twilight’s eyes brightened.
“Well, you can count on us, Princess! There’s nothing that we can’t handle,” she tapped her hoof on the floor, flexing her foreleg with confidence.
"Has Discord, the god of chaos, been released from stone imprisonment?"
"Outbreak of cutie pox?"
“Rampaging elemental apparitions that feed upon negative emotions and sow further dissent among once-peaceful societies?”
“Twilight, I said I don’t-”
“Has an elder god of cosmic evil arisen from its underwater tomb in an ancient sunken city?”
“Wait, what? I don’t even-”
“Has there been a national shortage of chocolate marshmallow swirl ice cream?”
Celestia’s eyes shot wide with panic. “Oh dear sweet Me, I hope not... Aughh... No!”
“Well,” Twilight scowled in confusion. “What could it be?”
“I do not know.”
“But... You said it involves the Elements of Harmony, right? The physical embodiment of a magical enchantment that will ensure the continued and peaceful existence of all Equestria?”
“Then... What do we need to do?”
Celestia sighed, and opened the satchel strapped to her flank. She pulled out a plain polished wooden box, and set it before Twilight.
“Nothing, I’m afraid,” she said as she opened the lid.
Twilight gasped, fixated upon the contents. Nestled within the velvet interior lay a golden tiara, beset with sapphire gems, and crowned with a pink ruby carved in the shape of a twinkling star. One of the six Elements of Harmony. Her Element of Harmony. Where it had once gleamed and glowed, now laid tarnished and dull. She upended the box, and the tiara fell, clattering to the wooden floor.
She swiftly placed it atop her forehead. Where the powerful bond of potent magic had coursed through her, was now merely a faint tingling. Only a trace. No different from any number of museum artifacts that only held a faint whisper of the torrential magic they once wielded.
Twilight began to shake. She looked back to her mentor, scarcely concealing the fear within her eyes.
“Who? Who could have done this!”
Celestia rested one hoof upon Twilight’s shoulder, steadying her with comfort and assurance.
“It is not a matter of who. It is a matter of what. And that, I do not know yet.”
“Something did this to the Elements of Harmony?” Twilight exclaimed in alarm.
“The Elements did this themselves. I have seen it happen several times along the span of my life.”
“No. They change.”
“Change into what?”
“Exactly what Equestria needs to survive.”
Twilight sighed. “I’m not sure I understand.”
“A candle may be all but invisible during the day, but a shining beacon within the depths of night. The Elements will present themselves as they are needed, but only where and when.”
“But why would they change?”
"Only to provide safeguard against that which threatens us all."
"But what is it?"
"I do not know, and we may not find out until it is upon us. This is not our fight to wage, dear Twilight. We can only watch, and help... And hide."
Twilight laid her head down upon crossed forelegs.
“Does it have anything to do with Trent?”
Celestia shook her head.
“No. Not him. Not that. I can not say with any certainty as to what this may entail, but I feel that the very obscurity of this may hint as to what we must face.”
“What is it?” Twilight repeated.
“The unknown...” Celestia said softly. “The future.”
* * *
Fluttershy beat her wings gently as she sailed into the abyss. The cavernous space narrowed steadily as she drifted downwards. Latent feelings of claustrophobia gripped like an invisible vise, squeezing tight as the walls crept closer.
Jagged shapes jutted ahead in the gloomy distance, as teeth within the mouth of a serpent. Cranes on inlaid rails held their burnished brass claws aloft, patiently poised to snatch their proximal prey.
The walls closed in, and her heartbeat raced. A steady thump that beat through her veins and hammered loudly within her head.
“It’s okay,” cooed a voice from behind her. Trent’s hands pressed firmly against her chest, cupped over the frightened staccato of her heart. “You’re doing great.”
The whispering echoed and reverberated from within the still dark depths. She glanced around furtively as they threaded through the forest of articulated steel towers.
“We’re almost there.”
Fluttershy nodded sharply through forced quivering breaths. Tiny beads of tears shook loose from her shut eyelids as she resolutely pressed forward.
“Are you okay?”
Her head nodded as if to say yes. The telltale trembling of her body said otherwise.
“Are you afraid right now?”
The answer caught in her throat. She shook her head quickly.
“We didn’t have to come this way.”
“No!” she asserted. “We have to!” Her voice trailed off in a whimper.
“It’s okay,” he patted her shoulder. “Really, it is.”
“Trent... I have to.”
“I understand. And I think you’re very brave for coming all this way, just for my sake. But I have something I need to tell you.”
She nodded quietly.
“First off, I’m going to be fine. It’s just a little scrape. We didn’t need to come all the way down here, but I’m glad you did.”
“We didn’t?” she whispered incredulously.
“It’s just a few scratches. I’m pretty sure I’ll live. But that’s not what’s important. I want to talk about what you did just now.”
Fluttershy spread her wings and the two drifted to a stop.
“Is it because I over-reacted?” she asked quietly.
“Yes!” he cheered. His voice echoed many times over, resounding as a booming crack and a dull whisper from the near and far reaches of the bay.
“Ohhh... I’m sorry,” she wailed.
“No, don’t be. I’m really happy that you did that for me, just because you thought I was hurt. But there’s something else you did that was really important. About the decision you made.”
“Well, that was it. You made a decision, and acted upon it.”
“But I made the wrong decision!”
“Who cares! You made the decision anyways, and that’s what counts.”
She couldn’t look back at Trent directly, but she wrinkled her brow in confusion regardless.
“What.. do you mean?”
“Come on. Lets keep going. I’ll tell you along the way.”
Fluttershy turned to look back at the steady glow from the far end of the bay. Ahead, through the forest of cranes lining the narrow trench, was nearly pitch black.
“Um, Trent?” she gestured at the inky abyss with one hoof. “Can you...”
“Hmm? Oh, yes. Of course.”
He pushed himself off from Fluttershy’s back, gesturing in the air for several moments with his free hand. He straightened out, posing with the martial concentration of a wizard preparing to summon the elemental forces of nature, arms outstretched as if commanding the heavens to rain fire upon an encroaching army that bore their weight upon the trodden land as far as the horizons.
“And the Lord spoke... LET THERE BE LIGHT!” His voice thundered throughout the empty cavern.
“Umm...” he tapped his fingers at empty air. “Light! Let there be some of it!”
Nothing but the echoes of a frustrated shout returned from the depths.
“Oh, come on!”
He tapped at the air with angry forceful strokes. The trench illuminated with a soft red glow, revealing a wide flat tunnel beneath them.
“And the Lord spoke... Close enough!”
Fluttershy looked strangely at him, shaking her head slightly.
“Um, Mr. Trent?”
“You have, um... Its just that... Your jokes are really weird,” she pawed her hoof awkwardly at the empty air.
“Nothing wrong with being a little bit weird. Anyways, lets keep going.”
Trent kicked his legs, but the fins had snapped in the crash, flapping uselessly. The ragged fabric of his pants rubbed against his bruised, abraded skin, and he hissed in pain.
“Ow... Um, a little help?"
“Oh, okay.” She hooked her legs under Trent’s arms, clasping firmly around his chest. “Where do you want to go?”
“I take back what I said about the extent of my injuries. Let’s go through here. Medical is next to the embarkation platforms, which are next to the runway below us.”
“Ow.” Fluttershy winced.
“I’m sorry. A runway is a long flat area...”
“Where the airplanes land?”
“Yes, exactly. How did you know?”
“Oh, well, when you said that, it made my head hurt. But just a little. It made me think about airplanes, and how they take off, and land.”
“Interesting. I never mentioned that.”
“No. But it made sense when you said it. Just a little bit.” Fluttershy spread her wings in alarm, suddenly looking from side to side, peering down the long narrow passage that opened up along the bottom of the trench.
“Airplanes go really fast when they land!” she gasped. “And they’re really loud and scary sounding too! Ohh, we shouldn’t go down there. We might get in the way!”
She darted towards the lip of the hangar, quivering softly as she stared down at the twin tracks of red lights.
“Well... That’s a rather good observation. I never mentioned anything about that, but it seems that you have a grasp on what this is for. Interesting. I say what it is, and you understand what it does.”
“Just a little bit,” she squeaked.
“It’s a good start. Anyways, you don’t have to worry. There won’t be any planes landing. We can go down there, and cross the embarkation platform into the medical bay. Won’t that be fun?”
She nodded nervously.
“Is that where people get on and off the airplanes?”
“Yes. Very good.”
“And is the medical bay like a hospital?”
“Yes it is. You’re getting the hang of...”
“Why is the hospital next to the place where the airplanes land?”
Trent paused. The innocent curiosity of the question prompted for a somewhat unpleasant answer.
“Well, sometimes airplanes carry a lot of people. And sometimes, those people might be hurt.”
Fluttershy was silent for a moment as well.
“Is that what ‘inbound with casualty’ means?” she asked slowly.
She half stepped, half fluttered past the edge of the hangar into the landing raceway. Her head swivelled back and forth, cautiously peering for the signs of a hulking high-speed aircraft barreling down the tunnel, as one might look both ways before crossing a railroad track. Trent gestured towards the stack of platforms set into an offshoot from the main raceway.
“There,” he said.
She nodded, pushing off, and ascending towards the flat runway overhead.
“I’m going to close the door.”
Alarms blared, three blasts in quick succession. Fluttershy winced at the noise, but didn’t panic. Below them, a pair of steel doors slid slickly from their smooth recesses, coming together where they had passed through just moments before. The bright glow of the halide arc lights winked out of sight, and they were left floating upside down above the raceway. The tracks of small bright red lights trailed off in either direction, casting their dim illumination.
“Was that scary?”
“Just a little bit,” she admitted. “But not really. Not anymore.”
She flapped one wing gently, flipping the world right-side up. The runway grew closer, and she angled into a swooping dive, arcing gracefully towards the stacked platforms.
“Is that where the airplanes.. dock?”
“Yes. Each one of those platforms can accommodate several.. airplanes.”
“And each one carries a lot of people, right?”
Fluttershy furrowed her brow with a hint of confusion.
“Then where is everybody?”
Trent was quiet for several seconds.
“I’m not sure.”
* * *
Twilight paced erratically about her bedroom, glancing at the dull golden tiara, and back to the knowing eyes of her mentor.
“Princess? You once bore the Elements of Harmony. Back when Nightmare Moon was banished.”
“What happened after that? Did the Elements of Harmony.. change?”
“It is not that simple. As I said, they take their form as they are needed.”
Twilight sighed forlornly.
“Then.. what happens to me? To my friends? Are we no longer important?” she asked shakily, rubbing one foreleg across round moist eyes.
“What happens to us?!” she pleaded.
“Ask yourself, what has happened to me, dear Twilight. The Elements do not chose their avatars on a whim, nor simply cast them aside.” She leaned close to her student. “So long as you remember what has been asked of you, and cherish that which has been given.”
Twilight looked puzzled.
“What has been asked of me? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“There is a certain foregone finality when the Elements choose those who will bear them. They ask for unwavering commitment, and they know the answer long before you even realize the question.”
“That you are willing to give your life in their service. Without fear or hesitation.”
Twilight’s eyes widened in horror.
“My... My life?”
“Your life, for so long as you lead it.”
She stared for some time, mouth agape. Her head slowly shook from side to side.
“No. No... I couldn’t. I wouldn’t have... Why? Why?!”
Celestia laid one hoof over Twilight’s shoulder.
“Why? Why would it ask that of me? Why would the Elements even accept me if I would never have agreed to something like that?” she breathed heavily.
“Because, my dear student. Your actions speak louder than your words. The Elements do not choose incorrectly.”
“But... My life?”
“Shall be long and fruitful, I should hope. Just as mine. So long as you bear the Elements for the sake of Equestria, the Elements will help to bear the number of your days.”
It was Twilight’s turn to speak. However, she simply slumped forward, landing heavily upon Celestia’s shoulder, cradled within her firm embrace. She stayed that way for several moments, sobbing softly.
“It will be okay.”
“No. I’m not ready for all of this. I never was!”
“Ssshhh...” Celestia patted Twilight’s back. “You have a calling in life. It is only asked that you fulfill it.”
She stared long and hard, slowly drawing in a breath to ask one simple question. One simple demand. One thought that bore the weight of a galaxy within a swirling constellation of stars.
“Do I have to die?”
Celestia shook her head.
“No, no. Forgive me Twilight. I did not wish to give you cause for concern. It is the purpose to which you devote your life, rather than a blind sacrifice. It is a pact that will endure... Until the end of Equestria. Until the end of time.”
“But, what about this?” Twilight prodded the wooden box. “It’s gone. The Elements have changed into something else. How am I supposed to...”
“It is not gone, dear Twilight. It is sitting here before me.”
“What?” she turned to look at the dull tiara.
One white hoof, streaked with dark lines and vibrant colors, turned Twilight’s cheek back to face her mentor.
“You don’t need that. It has served its purpose.”
“It is not an Element of Harmony. You are.” She tapped at the box. “This was no more than a crutch. An extension of yourself.”
“A candle to guide oneself through darkness. A match that ignites a bonfire. A spark. As I said, the Elements will present themselves as they are needed. When, where, and to whom. It dwells within everypony, but few ever realize it. Sometimes they just need to take that first step, and they will be met halfway.” Her mane and tail blazed brightly as she fervently spoke.
Twilight breathed deeply, still reeling from the sudden clarification.
“Will I live as long as you?”
Celestia swallowed hard, a lump in her throat that she stumbled over briefly, before finding her voice.
“Yes, I should think.”
“So long as you do not forget. So long as your faith holds strong.”
Twilight averted her gaze for a moment, glancing at the floor. One smooth white hoof touched beneath her chin, and lifted it to meet the wise and knowing look of her mentor.
“Buck up, kiddo,” she said sweetly. “Don’t forget that you will always have my trust, my faith, and my love.”
Twilight nodded quietly.
“You seem a bit apprehensive.”
“Yes,” she sighed.
“And you have good reason. Had you blindly accepted what I have said, I would wonder if you really understood it.”
“Sometimes,” Twilight spoke softly to the floor, “the most audacious thing you can do in life is to question it.”
She looked up nervously. Celestia’s smile did not waver.
“Those are wise words.”
“Trent told me that.”
“It sounds as if you’ve had much to talk about.”
Twilight wiped her eyes again, smiling as she sniffled.
“He’s given me a lot to think about.”
“I should hope to hear about it sometime,” Celestia smiled. “But I must be leaving soon. We will have to continue this later.”
“If you need me, or if there is anything I can do to help...”
They both stopped, glancing around the demolished bedroom.
“...such as providing a yearly stipend to pay for upkeep and replacement of Library furniture due to routine wear and tear...” She spoke evenly, crafting her words in the manner which a Palace accountant might use in casual conversation.
Twilight giggled deviously.
“Yes, that would be very helpful.”
“I daresay that’s another story I’ll need to hear about, but in good time.”
Celestia stood, looking down at the thick red CRC tome near her hooves, and back to the thin empty satchel that hung across her side.
“Can you send this by mail, when you get the chance?”
“Of course! Um... Do you mind if I finish reading it first?”
Twilight flashed an awkwardly sincere smile.
Celestia shook her head slightly in exasperated disbelief.
“Go outside sometime.”
“Yes, Princess,” she blushed.
“I’ll leave you to this... But remember what I have said. Always remember what has been given, and never forget what is expected.”
Celestia smiled warmly. The flaming embers of her mane and tail faded into the familiar rainbow of pastel hues. She leaned down to nuzzle the top of Twilight’s head as she made ready to leave.
As she turned to pick up the patchwork suit, a broken steel spring from Twilight’s bed slipped and rolled beneath her hoof, swiping its jagged tip across her leg.
“Oww!” she cried, holding her hoof close to her chest.
“Princess! Are you okay?”
Celestia stared at the tiny gash. It was only a scratch, but a thin line of tiny blood droplets had already started to seep out.
She stared for a moment longer, before rubbing it across her other leg. The hair quickly became slick and matted with a dull red.
“Your washroom. Allow me, please.” she spoke uneasily, still staring at the bloody stain.
“Of course,” she nodded. “It’s right there...”
Celestia darted into the bathroom, hurriedly opening the taps to the wash basin. She thrust her hoof under the hissing stream of water, scrubbing furiously at the tiny red tinged spot.
“Are you okay, Princess?”
Celestia’s head nodded silently, as if to say yes. The fervent washing of her foreleg said otherwise.
The torrent of tap water splashed loudly in the basin, drowning out the few words that Celestia quietly repeated to herself.
“I will not forget... I will not forget... I will not forget!”
“Did you say something?” Twilight asked.
The faucet handle twisted closed. The white hairs above her hoof were clean. She stood there for a moment, her foreleg held firmly before her, as she shivered slightly.
“No. Nothing of importance.”
“I’m pretty sure you’ll be okay,” Twilight offered helpfully. “I’ve had worse scrapes than that.”
“As have I,” Celestia murmured.
She turned quickly, leaving the washroom and striding swiftly back to the bedroom. She lifted the patchwork suit with her teeth, hurling it across her back, and shuffling her wings and limbs into its recesses.
“Will we be seeing each other again soon?” Twilight asked.
“Soon. But not like this, I should hope.”
Twilight watched quietly as Celestia finished donning the ragged patchwork suit. Each swatch seemed to be made of a different weave, imprinted faintly with patterns long since faded.
“I know you must have many questions for me.”
“I may have time for but one,” she stopped to turn and smile.
“Princess? What is that suit supposed to be?”
Celestia’s smile did not waver, though her eyes briefly lost their focus - staring far into the distance. She shook her head softly and turned to look back at Twilight.
“Pennants? You mean, like flags and banners?”
She swallowed hard, as she nodded.
“Oh... Well, that’s kind of interesting. I guess. Sounds like a fun craft project, or an interesting way to recycle older flags...”
“Ohh, yes, Princess?”
“I must go now.”
The purple pony nodded, opening the balcony door with a slight flickering of magic from her horn.
Celestia crept forward, shuffling softly within her suit. Her head swivelled slowly as she stepped back into the afternoon sun. She turned, one last time. Her face barely visible through the veil of the suit.
“Be strong, my little pony.”
And with that, she leapt from the balcony, landing below with all the noise of a falling leaf.
Twilight ran out to look, but she was already gone.
* * *