The Solar Court was bustling to and fro, ministers and aides going about their business with a studied, practiced energy. Yet anyone with knowledge of the court would notice instantly that things weren't as they should have been. There was a nerviness to the proceedings, unease flourishing within the too-fast walks, the tight maneuvers of the soldiers, the very faint stammers in the mouths of those who came up to Celestia. Loss and devastation had begun to work their toll upon even the sweet and the elite ponies of Canterlot.
Luna sat beside Celestia; both sisters had decided they could not afford to sleep while Reiziger was yet at large. Now they turned their heads downward as one pony approached them; it was a pegasus in armor, bearing some strain from a longish flight. “Thy report, Lieutenant Silver Shoes?” asked Luna.
“Well, my princesses,” said Silver Shoes, “there wasn't much to salvage from Manehattan. We got out everything we could- gold reserves, bank notes, the artwork from the museums that were intact- but all told, not a lot to bring back in the first place.”
“I see,” Celestia remarked.
“Um, beyond that, princesses, the island... there's... there's stuff on it, princesses.”
Both of them raised their eyebrows. “Elaborate,” said Luna.
“Well, you know the blackness in the path of Reiziger's destruction? We initially thought it was just scorch marks, but it's... it's spreading, your highnesses.”
“Spreading?” said Celestia.
“It's creeping up the buildings near it, and it seems to weaken their structural integrity as it does. Several of them collapsed as we were salvaging; we heard and saw them.”
Celestia sucked in a breath. “I see. Have you anything else to report, lieutenant?”
“Only that it also seems to be eating the corpses on the island. Just as well; there are too many of those to remove, and many of them belong to the Enemy.”
Celestia hid her wince and nodded. “Thank you, lieutenant. You are dismissed.” Silver Shoes bowed low and then departed. Celestia rubbed her temple with her hoof. “He is like a disease,” she said.
“A cancer,” said Luna. “I believe that is what Lord Fëanor called him.”
“And he's been right.”
“Let us hope that thou art right about the Elements of Harmony, then- and that they can achieve the power they need quickly.”
“I... I know I'm right,” said Celestia, nodding to herself. “Yes, the Elements will prevail, I'm certain.” A pony with white fur and reddish mane trotted up to them next. “Minister Berry Bright, good to see you.”
“Yes, your highnesses,” said Berry Bright, and bowed. “My Princess Celestia, I have presented your proposal to the Royal Guard's High Command.”
Berry Bright began to fidget. “They will of course go along with your designs, but they have some reservations. Specifically, they don't want to disrupt the function of the Guard by putting non-ponies in command positions.”
“If the deerfolk are to fight alongside us, it is better for them to be fully integrated into the Royal Guard's command structure. That means that deer with requisite training and experience should be allowed to have command over ponies. It only makes sense.”
“They understand that, my princess. But they worry that members of the guard will be uncomfortable with it, and that it will affect their performance in battle.”
The throne room guard was changing, then. The early morning shift was leaving through the massive double doors to make way for the noontime group. One of the white unicorns stopped at the door, to keep on listening.
“The guardsponies in Manehattan did not seem to mind fighting side-by-side with deer,” said Luna. “I believe this imagined prejudice exists far more in the minds of the generals than in the normal soldiers. And if they have such a mindset,” Luna's eyes flashed, “perhaps they do not deserve their lofty perches?”
Berry Bright became uneasy; many of the royal ponies did in Luna's presence. “Oh, o-of course, My Princess Luna! No, you're absolutely right, prejudice has no place in the Royal Guard.”
“Then the order is given,” said Celestia. “The deerfolk of the Shimmerwood will be integrated into the command structure of the Equestrian Royal Guard. I shall have a formal announcement in three days time, right here in Canterlot.”
Berry Bright bowed low. “As you command, your highness.”
“You are dismissed.” With that, Berry Bright left. The guard who lingered at the door now left as well.
“So that is what thou hast been cooking up,” said Luna. “Integrated command structure? A fine idea.”
“It only makes sense,” Celestia responded. “If the deer are to fight alongside us, they should form a single unit with ponydom. We cannot let our past or our prejudices cloud the effective use of all our resources.”
“Very true,” said Luna. She smiled. “Do I see more hope than before on thy face, Tia?”
Celestia smiled. “I am hopeful. I believe the sunshine is coming soon. So we must stand strong against the dark.” She glanced up then, and readied to receive the next court business.
Twilight Sparkle dove into the brilliance of the Element of Magic. She felt herself pass through each level, but that passage just revealed how much more depth there was each level down. She felt the cosmos singing, felt all of creation pulse and echo to the whispers of the magic that infused it. Part of her wished to stop and look around, observe the wonders she was witness to. But she kept going. There was so much more to see and touch and feel.
“The universe has magic at its edges and its center,” Fëanor said, stalking round her. “It is both framed and centered by the forces of reality. More than that, the magic in all things links them together, forming a network, a web, that transfers power from one end of the cosmos to the other.”
“I... I can feel it!” Twilight cried, eyes open and glowing. “I can feel the way everything links together. If you touch one thing, push on one thing, everything else in the universe changes!”
“So then you realize how even the smallest magic can have enormous consequences. The simple blooming of a flower can destroy a galaxy. All things ripple and change in synchronization.”
Twilight's eyes kept glowing- and the glowing spread. It flowed out of her eyes onto her head, then down her neck, then all across the body. She kept on diving, kept on pushing deeper, further, faster. She started lifting off the ground and floating gently, hovering now up and down.
Fëanor noticed this, and grinned. “Now, Twilight, aren't you more powerful than any flower?”
“I... I am!”
“Aren't you more worthy?”
“Aren't you more magnificent?”
“Then make yourself known!”
Twilight's horn erupted with a burst of whitish light. Her eyes went wide. She willed, and for an instant, all the cosmos shook. The stars went off their tracks, the planets orbited in wrong directions, all that was and all that is and all that will become all became thrall to her cry of importance. Somewhere, beyond the fabric of existence, perhaps even the Wills That Draw the World looked up from their unending pencil work and said, my, what is that? The grass grew long around her, the trees erupted with new, fresh green leaves. And her whole body became swallowed up in brilliant white, shifting, growing, blooming in a sphere that spread forever outwards to the edges of infinity.
Fëanor drew back as the white light enveloped him. “That is enough, Twilight. You've gotten their attention.”
The magic was cut off. The white light slowly shrunk away, until the only thing that glowed was Twilight's body. Her figure shone a moment more, and then the light receded, setting her down gently on the ground. She smiled at him. “I did it!” She shook her head. “Oh, I feel kind of funny.”
Fëanor stared at her with wide eyes. Then he smiled. “Excellent,” he whispered. “I wondered when that was going to happen.”
“Did you say something, Fëanor?”
“Merely marveling at how powerful you have become. You are ready.”
“Ready to defeat Reiziger with the Elements of Harmony?” said Twilight happily.
“Ah... yes, of course,” said Fëanor. “And on that note, I believe we have done enough training for today. You should get back to Ponyville.”
“Okay! Thank you so much, again, for all of this, Lord Fëanor!” She smiled and nodded, then turned round and trotted from the clearing.
When she was gone, Fëanor grinned broadly. “No, Twilight Sparkle- thank you.”
Twilight hummed contentedly as she went back to Ponyville. She still felt funny, as though the world was not quite the same color as before. Truthfully, however, she did not mind. Indeed, she felt good, somehow- better than before. If she had not been so intensely focused on this feeling, she might have noticed other strange things, like how her hoofsteps seemed to cover more ground than before, or how her eyes had gotten higher off the ground. “Ah,” she said, reaching Ponyville, “home sweet home.” She trotted into town. “Hello, everypony!” she cried, at some passing mares and stallions. They stopped- they ran into each other, so quickly did they stop. They stood and gaped at her as she walked by.
“Hey Twili... Twi...” Bon-Bon stopped and stammered.
“Oh, hey Bon-Bon! How's Lyra?”
“She's... um, she's fine, and... wow,” Bon-Bon began to back away.
“Uh, is everything all right?”
“It's just... you're... you...” Bon-Bon fidgeted. “I've gotta go.” She galloped off.
“Huh. Weird,” said Twilight. She trotted for the center of the town. Everypony stopped and stared as she went by, though she was in too good a mood to notice. She saw- “Pinkie! Oh, I'm so glad you got back safe!”
“I sure did!” cried Pinkie Pie, bouncing up and down. Her back was still all bandaged up. “I- holy moly, Twilight! What happened?”
“Something happened to Twilight?” Rainbow Dash cried, flying down. “What's wrong? I'll- whoa!” her eyes went wide.
“Twilight, whatever happened?” Rarity exclaimed.
“Did it hurt? What did it feel like?” Fluttershy asked, trotting up.
“Tarnation, Twilight! How'd you manage to do that?” Applejack cried.
“Okay, okay, what's going on?” snapped Twilight, stomping down with her left hoof.
Her five friends shared a glance. “Well, darling,” Rarity said, conjuring a mirror, “see for yourself.”
Twilight looked upon herself, and was amazed. The pony in the mirror did not look like her. Oh, she had her colors, the same lavender coat, the same dark purple mane and tail with bright pink streak run through them. Even the same purple eyes. But this pony... this pony was tall. She stood more than a head taller than all her friends now. What was more, her proportions had changed greatly. Her legs had lengthened, and grown graceful. She'd lost every last hint of her old chubbiness; she now possessed a beautiful lean torso, swelling into a strong but polite chest. Her neck had gotten longer, and on top of it her head had lengthened, ending with a new and longer, far more graceful snout. Her mane and tail had even lengthened. The only thing that had not changed were her alicorn wings; in fact, with the changes to her body, they now looked like they fit better upon her, being in better proportion to her new shape. “I...” she at first barely recognized herself. Then she realized what- who she reminded herself of. “I... I look like Cadence.”
“You look stunning!” Rarity said. “But however did you manage to make it happen?”
“I guess... I was myself this morning, but- Fëanor!” Her jaw dropped. “His training... how much stronger I've gotten! I must have become powerful enough for it to affect my body. I'm... I'm becoming more of an alicorn, more like Princess Celestia!”
“My goodness,” Fluttershy whispered. “Do you feel all right?”
“I... actually, I feel great,” said Twilight. “I feel... freer, somehow.” Her ears drooped. “But I never wanted this to happen!”
“Y'know, you ain't the only one goin' through some changes,” Applejack said. She brushed her bangs aside to show her small horn nub. “This thing's startin' to get on my nerves. I reckon it's gettin' bigger.”
“Oh, are we talking about this now?” Rarity asked. “Because I've noticed my horn getting longer. And I seem to have gotten taller- my dress hems aren't as close to the ground as they have been.” Sure enough, Rarity seemed bigger, very faintly.
“Are we all changing?” Dash cried, hooves against her head. She glanced off to the side. “Hey, Carrot Top!”
“Um, it's Golden Harvest, actually.”
“Whatever. You're totally average in every single way!”
“No, we need you! Come here!”
“Um, okay,” Golden Harvest trotted to the six.
“Stand still!” said Dash. “Now everypony compare themselves to her.”
They did so, and were stunned at what they found. All of them had gotten taller. Some more than others- Applejack and Rarity had grown the most, then Pinkie, and last Fluttershy. Even Dash, who naturally was shorter, was now taller than an average pony. Fluttershy, for her part, was now leaner, and when she stood right next to Twilight they could see a similarity in their physiques.
“We're all changing,” Twilight said. “The Elements really are growing more powerful in us.”
“Amazing,” Golden Harvest said. “You're all getting-”
“That's enough, Carrot Top, we don't need you any more,” said Dash. Golden Harvest's ears drooped, and she sadly walked away. Dash grinned. “I don't know about you girls, but this pony doesn't mind getting taller one bit.”
“We're gonna be super beautiful and magical alicorns!” Pinkie cheered, bouncing up and down.
“What's the matter, Twilight?” Fluttershy asked.
“It's just... all this change. I don't know if I like it.”
“But it's gotta happen!” Applejack said. “If we don't get stronger, we'll never be able to summon the Rainbow!”
“I know, I know,” said Twilight, pacing back and forth. “But...” her eyes now brimmed with tears, “I love the way things were. I love when we were just... when we were just ponies. When we were just friends!”
“But dear, we've never been just ponies,” Rarity said, “at least, not since we met you.”
“We became tied up with the Elements of Harmony on your very first day in Ponyville, remember?” Fluttershy asked.
“But... but... it was never just about that!” Twilight said. “We didn't just become gods and fight dark lords and learn ancient secrets. There were parties, there were games, there were pets, there was... fun.” She sat down, ears drooped low. “I miss it, especially because it's never coming back.”
“It'll come back when Reiziger's gone, though,” said Dash.
“No, it won't,” said Twilight. “We've changed too much- we've come too far, we've seen and done too many things, to ever go back to the way things were. Equestria has changed too much for it to go back to the way it was, either. It's like... like our lives are a story, but ever since the Shimmerwood burned, it's gotten a new writer. And now however that story was going- however it was originally supposed to end- it's different, and there's no going back to the original storyline.” She sighed, then sniffled. “I miss the old story. I miss when things were simple.”
The others did not know quite what to say. There was a long and discomforting silence. Pinkie, finally, took one deep breath. “Okay!” She began to bounce in place. Music filled the air.
“A song? Now?” asked Dash.
“Yep!” cried Pinkie, and then she began to belt:
It's time to...
For the better!
Change, cause that's what ponies say!
For the better!
Because the future is better off that way!
When I was feeling sad and lonely,
My Nanna Pinkie told me,
“Fate just wants what's best for you!”
So if you're worried sick and things
Are turning towards the strange,
Relax because the world's about to change!
For the better!
Change, cause that's the only way!
For the better!
Cause nothin' in this world can ever stay!
You know that oceans once were puddles,
And mountains just were hills!
But things grow up and things grow old,
Like little towns to Ponyvilles!
It's just the way of life and love,
Don't mourn what's gone away,
Cause what comes next is better, all the way!
For the better!
Change, get up and seize the day!
For the better!
And don't you worry 'bout what ponies say!
“Pinkie, I...” Twilight started. “I understand what you're saying, and I do accept that things have to change, it just... it makes me sad.”
“But some things won't change, Twilight! We'll always be friends!”
“Yeah!” said Applejack. “If'n we're all getting' powerful and magical, we'll all be together.”
“And once we beat Reiziger, we can keep growing and learning as friends!” cried Dash.
“We'll never abandon each other!” Fluttershy cheered.
“And we shall always be each others' very best friends,” Rarity said brightly.
“I...” Twilight looked upon the five of them, smiling eagerly upon her. Their love and good mood proved infectious. She smiled wide. “I guess you're right!”
“That's what I'm talkin' about!” Pinkie cheered. “Now everypony!” And so the five of them joined up in one great chorus, as all of Ponyville began to dance and flip and spin:
For the better!
Change, so everyone can say:
For the better!
I'd never have it any other way!
“That's right!” cried Twilight. “I'd never have it any other way!”
As the music stopped the six of them drew up in one great hug.
“You girls are the best friends anypony could ask for!” Twilight cried.
“Well, I guess we do try,” said Fluttershy.
“We're unbeatable!” cried Dash.
“As long as we stick together, anything is possible,” said Rarity.
“I reckon ol' Reiziger's got nothin' to say to that,” said Applejack.
“Yeah! Super best friends forever!” Pinkie cheered. She sneezed then, and pulled out of the hug to wipe her nose. But she jolted in surprise when she looked down upon her hoof. Her snot was black.
“The changelings lost in Manehattan must be replaced,” said Reiziger upon his throne.
“I... I understand, my lord,” said Metamorph. “I do wonder, though-”
“Are you questioning me, lieutenant?”
“No, no, no, I swear,” said Metamorph, wincing as the shadows rose around his master. “It's just... my lord, surely you must have realized that these newer, quicker-growing changelings are somewhat... lacking, compared to the old stock?”
“Of course I have noticed,” said Reiziger. “The ones that grow quickly are essentially mindless. They operate wholly by smell and telepathy, and know only how to breed and feed and kill. Did you think I was not aware of this? It is all known, and I find it acceptable.”
Metamorph's heart broke a bit to hear this, but he hid it. “I... I understand, my lord. But you must realize that such drones are useless for more complex tasks.”
“A good point. Henceforth I am pulling the remaining old stock changelings from combat duty. I shall reserve them for espionage, assassinations, and command positions.”
“That seems wise, my lord.”
Reiziger and Metamorph looked up. A snow white Royal Guard pony came flying cross the throne room upon tattered, greenish wings. He touched down in front of the steps before the throne, and with a shimmer he resumed his natural changeling shape.
“My lord,” he buzzed, “I bring news from Canterlot, news I believe will be of great interest to you.”
Reiziger and Metamorph shared glances. “Go on,” said Reiziger.
“Princess Celestia is preparing to integrate the command structures of the Royal Guard and the deerfolk of the Shimmerwood. In particular, she is putting into place a system where deer would command ponies, if they had the necessary qualifications.”
“Oh really,” said Reiziger, a smile crawling out across his face. “And the ponies are still ignorant of that, aren't they? They don't know?”
“No, my lord.”
“Ha ha! Ahaha! She's going to put deer in charge of ponies, and the ponies don't know!” Reiziger threw back his head and laughed again. Then he turned toward his left and shouted, “Trixie!”
“Y-Yes, my lord?” came out the voice from in the dust. Trixie rolled and writhed within the filth, blue coat stained, red eyes wide and manic.
“Are you familiar with the game of chess?”
“W-Well, not especially, my lord,” said Trixie. “We haven't really- I, I, I haven't really played much,” she hit her head with each sharp 'I'.
“It was invented by the mammoths during the last ice age, to keep themselves amused during the long, dark winters,” Reiziger said. “It has been played and studied for thousands and thousands of years. Mammoths, pronghorns, dragons, deer and more have explored the theories and the strategies of chess. Entire libraries have been written about the game.”
“A-All right, my lord.”
“One of the consequences of this long scholarship is a lengthy list of set strategies. At the core of these strategies are a predetermined move, or set of moves. These are known as 'sequences.' They can be very powerful, and very useful, in the hooves of a skilled master. However, when a master is playing another master, he must be aware of the fact that the other master knows all the sequences just as well as he does. Therefore, he cannot simply deploy them carelessly. He must be deliberate and choosy on when in a game he makes use of them, to ensure their maximum effect.” Reiziger's head tilted to the side. “Do you understand?”
“We... we think so- I think so, my lord,” Trixie hit her head again. “So there's a set of moves you've been waiting to use in the war?”
“Yes,” said Reiziger. “There is a sequence I have been keeping tucked away in the back of my fur. I had thought I would be using it later on, as a sort of penultimate blow to truly break the ponies' spirits. Now, though, I believe I shall be deploying it much sooner.” His eyes began to burn. “Yes, much sooner indeed...”