Twilight checked again, just to be sure. The plate was still inexplicably, unmistakably, tragically, empty. She looked up at the matronly unicorn in front of her, eyes growing wide as her lip quivered.
Aunt Starseeker chuckled. “Nice try dear, but you only get one cookie with lunch.” A purple glow whisked the plates away. “Why don’t you go back to your reading?”
Aww. But they’re so good when they're fresh. Twilight slunk over to her favorite reading nook. I guess my cutie mark won't be in getting cookies, either.
She was trying to choose between reading Petriculture or Lost Cities when her ears flicked over towards the door – there were hoofsteps coming up the walk. She scrambled to her hooves as the handle rattled, and her face lit up when she saw who was standing in the doorway.
“BBBFF! You’re back!” Twilight barreled up to him and bounced up and down around his legs. “I missed you so much,” she said, wobbling a little as she reared up to try and reach him.
“Hey Twily!” he grinned back down at her. “The exercises got cut short, so I made it back early.” He swept her up into a hug as she squealed. “How’s my LSBFF?”
Aunt Starseeker cleared her throat in the next room, and Shining looked over in surprise to see her regarding them both with a twinkle in her eyes.
“Shining! All that guard training has done you well – you’re filling out.”
Twilight pouted as Shining set her down and turned to the mare. “Aunt Starseeker! Good afternoon, I didn’t realize you were here.”
Starseeker flicked her tail. “Sis and Night Light are out tonight, so I was just keeping an eye on Twilight until Cadance could come by after her classes.”
“Oh, right – the wedding. Wait, Cadance is coming over tonight?” Shining stood up a little straighter, a silly grin spreading over his muzzle.
“I know that look.” Starseeker’s smile turned mischievous. “And she is an awfully cute mare. A candlelit dinner works wonders at this stage, you know.” She winked and leaned over to him, lowering her voice to where Twilight had to strain to hear what she said. “Just tire Twily out first – Cadance said she'd be running late, and you can impress her with your foal handling skills.”
Twilight cocked her head and frowned. Why does auntie want to tire me out?
Shining's cheeks had taken on a rosy hue as he stepped back, sputtering. “That's – I don't know what you're talking about.”
“Oh, I’m sure you don’t.” Starseeker laughed as she sashayed to the door. “Okay then! Shining, since you’re home early, I’ll leave Twily in your hooves. Tell sis ‘hi’ for me when she gets back. ~Have fun~.”
Shining made no move to reply, staring after her with an odd look on his face.
“We will, auntie. Bye!” Twilight waved.
The door clicked shut and a hush descended, the moment stretching out until Twilight nudged Shining’s leg. “So why does auntie want to tire me out?”
Shining jumped as if stung. “Uh, what do you mean, Twilight?”
Twilight scrunched her face up in confusion. “Isn’t that what she just said?”
“You hear– oh, uh,” his ears wilted as he shuffled from hoof to hoof. “She was talking about guards and how if you want to, um, they have all sorts of tests and things that you need to study really hard for. And you get tired.”
Guard study? Twilight’s own ears sprang up and she looked up at Shining eagerly. “Oh, that's great!” She pranced in place briefly. “So what should we do? Do you want to help me study cantrips?”
His muzzle curled into a lopsided smile. “Err, maybe a different sort of practice. It’s a really nice day – let's do something outside instead.”
Two player tag quickly got old, but Twilight did win at least one of their laps around the house, though she suspected that Shining might not have been trying his hardest. The water fight was better, though, and he never could beat her at hide and seek. The sun was low in the summer sky when he finally called an end to their afternoon.
“Okay Twily, let's go in and make some dinner.”
Her stomach growled. “Good! I’m really hungry. But Mom said there were leftovers.”
“Well, you can have those if you want, but I’m in the mood for something else.”
Twilight darted into the kitchen ahead of him, tugging down an apron that enveloped her more like a collapsing tent than a piece of apparel. Her head poked up through a gap in the fabric, and she grinned at him as he caught up.
Shining chuckled. “Yes, you can help.”
After extracting her and getting a more appropriate piece of kitchenwear, Shining set out the ingredients and started chopping up veggies, while Twilight mixed the dough as he directed. She went back to her reading as the dough rested, but it still felt like only moments had passed before two steaming plates of pasta sat on the table.
Twilight wolfed down an enormous plate, pausing only to look questioningly at Shining's relatively meager portion.
“You’re not hungry?”
“I had a big lunch,” he said, though he was cleaning his plate almost as thoroughly as she was.
“We made too much. There’s still a lot left on the stove.”
Shining's gaze lingered on the pots a few moments, before he pulled it away. “It's okay. I’ll leave it out for now, in case I want more later.” He glanced up at the clock. “It’s about the time that good little fillies should be getting to bed.”
“Aww,” she pouted. “But I didn't get any dessert.”
Shining rubbed his chin with a hoof. “I don’t know, you had an awfully big dinner–”
Twilight’s ears drooped and her eyes went wide.
“–and it’s getting late–”
Her lip quivered.
His ears drooped. “Fine, but nothing too big.”
Her one allotted chocolate chip oatmeal cookie vanished distressingly quickly, but Shining was adamant. Even after adding a sniffle and watery eyes, Twilight still found herself hustled upstairs.
“Okay, time for bed.”
“But it’s too early. I’m not sleepy yet,” she drug her hooves on the carpet. “Didn’t auntie tell you to tire me out?”
Shining sputtered. “That's not –we had a busy afternoon. Little fillies need their rest. Just lay down and relax for a bit and you'll fall asleep.”
Twilight planted herself atop the bed, ears flat. “But I'm not a little filly anymore. I'll get my cutie mark any day now,” she said, pawing the covers. “I wanna study. Or play some more. You could show me some magic.”
He looked at her seriously. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. It’s…” He paused for a few moments, before suddenly grinning. “It’s not safe – the floor is lava.”
“Lava!” she gasped, eyes widening as she looked down at the suddenly treacherous surface. Embers flared and she squeaked, burrowing under her blankets for safety. A moment later her face scrunched up and she poked her head back out to peer at Shining. “How can you still be standing in it, then?”
His eyes darted about the room, like her dad’s often did when he was playing cards. “Well… I’m a grown up pony, and my special guard training protects me. You’re just a little filly, though. It’s not safe for you.”
She stuck her tongue out at him and pouted for a few moments, at least until he made a funny face back, and she couldn’t help but laugh.
“That’s no fair!” she protested, between giggles.
“Even the Guard doesn’t always play fair.” He grinned, planting a kiss on her cheek, before tucking her in and quietly closing the door.
Twilight snuggled into her blankets and tried to relax as Shining had suggested, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get comfortable. Her hooves ached a little, but she wasn’t really tired, and as the minutes passed she just kept tossing and turning.
I’m thirsty. Twilight’s muzzle curled into a pout. And I still want another cookie. The picture sprung into her mind, unbidden, the jar a shining beacon atop the kitchen counter. Beckoning. But the floor is lava.
She nosed her covers down just a bit and stared down at the molten surface. The room was dark, but the churning rock below gave off an eerie orange glow. The lava had calmed a bit, the embers dwindling, though the surface still hissed and bubbled. Above, the air shimmered and wavered in the heat and, even up on top of the bed, Twilight started to sweat a little.
She squirmed around further. He never said I couldn’t have a cookie, just that it was dangerous. But he’s going to be a guard, and they face danger all the time. They’re brave – they wouldn’t let some dumb lava stop them from getting their cookies. Oh! What if this is some kind of test? A test of bravery! She sat up, eyes shining. I’m a big filly now – I’m not afraid. I can do it! I’ll get the cookies, and show Shining, and he’ll be so proud!
With that thought, Twilight tossed the covers aside and climbed to her hooves. She narrowed her eyes, peering across the room and tracing a route to the door. It would be tough, but she would be tougher.
For the first step, she carefully climbed onto her nightstand, wary of its wobbly legs. From there it was just a short leap to the top of her desk, hooves scrabbling to keep her from slipping off.
Once there, she walked over to the center, where Captain Smarty Pants was scrutinizing her groundbreaking magical research.
“Captain Smarty Pants.”
Smarty Pants immediately gave Twilight her full attention.
“Good work on your important magical analyses, but I need your help with something else now.”
Smarty Pants waited patiently for her to explain further.
“I am on a vital mission to secure the cookies, and you are my number one Captain. Will you accept this challenge?”
Smarty Pants was as eager as always.
Twilight nodded happily and carefully seated Smarty Pants on her back, where she wobbled, but didn’t fall.
First things first, she had to get over to the door. Twilight plucked the cushion from her desk chair in her teeth, gave it a few swings, and then lobbed it at the door. It fell just short – but that was okay. She wasn't sure if she could jump the whole way anyhow.
She crouched down on all fours, shaking her haunches as she gauged the distance. Once she had made her estimate and was sure that Smarty Pants had a good grip, she took a deep breath and leapt over the expanse of boiling stone.
The heat seared her belly, but she made it – barely. There was a small splash as the cushion slid beneath her and she teetered on the edge of the stuffed fabric, but somehow she kept her balance. This close to the lava, the heat was a physical presence and the air stank of sulfur, with an acrid bite that made her eyes water.
Twilight had backed away to to the center of the cushion, when she heard a knock at the front door, followed by a quiet conversation downstairs.
Hoofsteps came up the stairs, and Twilight looked around her room frantically. Now that she was on the floor, her bed and desk were both too high to reach. She could make it to the closet, but there was no way to get back out and up to the bed. She bit her lip.
“Twilight, are you awake?” Cadance called out softly.
Nonono. She can’t see me like this.
“No! Err, yes. Wait! You shouldn’t come in here…” Because? “…because.”
A pause. “Really?”
Another, longer, pause. “Well if you're sure. But there's just one thing I have to make sure of first. Sunshine sunshine—”
“—ladybugs awake. Clap your hooves and do a little shake.” Twilight joined in, finishing with a flourish.
There was a giggle from outside. “Okay then, Twilight. Have it your way. Call if you need anything, okay?”
“Okay,” Twilight said, listening as the hoofsteps moved away.
Only when they had faded completely did she let herself relax, but something felt off.
Oh no! Her head whipped around and she stifled a gasp, lip quivering. Captain Smarty Pants lay motionless in the lava, just hooflengths away from the safety of the cushion. Twilight’s magic flickered to life and gently lifted Smarty Pants out, but from the way her Captain's body hung limp in the magenta glow, Twilight could tell that she was already too late.
Smarty Pants! She almost cried out, but bit her tongue. No! I forgot for just a moment, and shook too hard, and now… She scrubbed at her eyes with a hoof. My faithful Captain, I will remember your bravery. I can’t mourn now, but I will not let your sacrifice be in vain!
She steeled herself and nudged open the door. The lava bubbled ominously, but the carpet mat outside her door had held up to the shifting liquid stone, and beyond it a line of low bookcases ran down the far side of the hallway until it met the stairs. With one last look at Smarty Pants, Twilight gathered herself and leapt.
She landed at the edge of the mat, but wasted no time in moving on, as she could feel the flimsy carpet crumbling beneath her hooves. A few steps and another leap and she was scrambling to relative safety atop the lowest shelf. Looking back, a chill ran down her spine as she saw the effects of her passage, the mat now split into a dozen sinking pieces.
Twilight took a deep breath and turned back to the bookshelf. Leaning out precariously, she carefully began her ascent, the heat fading as she climbed. Gaining the top, she picked her way among the various pictures and memorabilia, ears twitching at the low murmur of conversation from downstairs. The dust tickled her nose as she squeezed between grandpa Swiftspark‘s portrait and her dad’s old aether-sculpting trophy.
Nooo, not now! She scrunched up her muzzle and tried to clamp her hooves over her mouth, but it was too late.
Twilight froze, barely daring to breathe in the sudden silence. The scrape of a chair stood out like a candle in the midnight woods, followed by a brief clatter of hooves.
“Twilight is that you?” Cadance called up softly.
She shrunk down among the shadows. A mouse would have been proud.
The tone of quiet worry almost drove her to reply, but she held her tongue. Shining’s voice chimed in instead, and at his hushed words the hoofsteps retreated.
It felt like an eternity before Twilight heard their conversation resume, and it was as long again before she gained the nerve to move on, mouthing a silent apology to grandpa Swiftspark as she left. She managed to make it the rest of the way without further incident, until she stood at the edge of the bookcase that ran up against the bannister.
Below lay the stairwell, and she sat back and eyed it critically. The lava pooled and flowed down the steep incline, hissing as the fiery cascade covered every square inch of the passage. The posts were set directly into the liquid flow, offering no help. That left… The Rail.
Heart pounding, Twilight walked over and crouched down next to the railing, carefully extending a hoof to the far side and then shifting her weight over until she was practically embracing it. The smooth wood was pleasantly cool against her belly, and her nose wrinkled at the smell of old varnish, but it was hard to focus on anything besides the yawning void past the railing. The lava far below filled the air with a sullen red light, and the pungent fumes rising from it danced hypnotically in the air, making her vision swim.
She shook her head to try and clear it, her tail flicking nervously as she inched backwards, twisting to follow the bannister as it curved around and bent down to descend with the stairs. Her rump passed the bend and she paused, waiting.
She took a deep breath and tried to relax, squirming back a little further. As her barrel cleared the bend, gravity finally took over and she began to slide down. This is kind of fun, she thought, feeling the smooth wood move beneath her fur. She relaxed a little further and picked up speed, sliding faster and then faster still. Too fast!
A shriek threatened to squeeze its way up her throat, but she clamped down on it and gripped the rail with all her strength. It might have helped, but the end of the railing was still coming up far, far too quickly. She spotted salvation off to her side, leaned over and kicked off.
There was an instant of vertigo, and then a whump as she struck the overstuffed recliner she’d been aiming for. The room spun as she felt the chair totter on two legs before bouncing up against the wall and rebounding with a thud, followed immediately by another crash as the chair righted itself.
“What was that?”
Still dizzy, and with not a second to spare, Twilight burrowed into a throw blanket, as the recliner continued to rock guiltily. Two sets of hoofsteps approached.
Cadance sounded concerned. “Is somepony here?”
Shining replied with more confidence. “It looks like one of the pictures fell down and hit the recliner.”
“Oh. I hope nothing’s broken.”
“No, it’s probably fine.” Shining sounded nonchalant. “That happens whenever somepony leans back too far. Dad should have moved the painting ages ago – I’m not surprised the hook finally gave way. Don’t worry, I’ll explain it to them.”
“What about Twilight? I should check on her.”
Twilight bit her lip. Oh no!
“Wait a second. Twily might have woken up, but if she hasn’t, we should let her sleep.”
There was a long pause – Twilight tried to hold her breath.
Finally, Shining broke the silence. “I don’t hear anything – let’s finish dinner. We can clean up and check on her afterwards.”
Twilight wanted to cheer. Thanks BBBFF. You’re the best!
“Unless you want to have dessert first,” he added.
Twilight’s mouth gaped wide. Treachery!
A few moments later the hoofsteps retreated and Twilight poked her head out of the blanket, ears flat against her head. Her eyes narrowed as she looked over towards the dining room. More dessert? Shiny! No fair!
Around her, the living room was empty and dim. The lights were turned low, and the lava here was cooler, quieter. Apart from the base of the lava stairs and a few burbling pools, it had mostly crusted over, forming a patchwork of black slabs with angry red cracks running between them. A brighter, flickering light spilled out from the dining room, along with the low voices of Cadance and Shining.
Are they having dessert now? Twilight thought, getting up, and moving to the edge of the recliner. Actually getting off proved tricky; it took her a little bit to find the balance point and then she had to shift her weight to the end table slowly enough to keep it from creaking. Then came picking her way across the cluttered surface, before repeating the procedure in reverse on the second recliner. From there she found that she could barely reach the top of an old trunk that ran to the edge of the doorway.
Perching on the trunk lid, Twilight peeked in on the dining room, eyes widening at the sight. The room was lit by a brace of flickering candles, with Shining and Cadance both seated at the table, and Shining was eating dinner again! But at least it wasn't dessert. He didn’t have the cookie jar, so she knew it still had to be in the kitchen.
She cocked her head, bemused. Shining didn't seem to be paying much attention to the food, from the way he kept looking at Cadance. They were speaking quietly, but she could make out that Shining was recounting his recent exercise, and how his team had been winning until a musical went out of control and forced them to cancel everything. It was more interesting to watch his ears dance whenever Cadance said something, especially with the way his hooves kept fidgeting. Twilight almost giggled, but she stopped herself just in time.
One of Cadance’s ears twitched in her direction and Twilight froze. Fortunately, Shining said something that got her attention long enough for Twilight to pull her head back.
She pondered her predicament. I'm safe for for now, but there's no way to get through the dining room without them seeing me. I'll have to go around to the other kitchen door.
Retracing her steps to the first recliner was painstaking but straightforward. The trouble lay afterwards. Although the kitchen was just on the other side of the stairs, the stairwell itself was an impassable fiery torrent, and the floor around it held nothing but lava. Twilight shifted her focus to the far side of the room, and a smile slowly returned her muzzle. The collection of seats, tables, and ledges looked like a workable path, so long as she could get there.
Her good mood faded somewhat when she dropped her eyes to the floor. There was a rug between her and the far side that looked mostly intact, but it was much bigger than the one upstairs, and this close to Shining and Cadance, she would have to be more careful. Jumping down, she minced across it as quickly as she dared.
The heat was all-encompassing and the pungent sulfur smell would have turned back a lesser filly, but Twilight pressed on. Though stronger than the previous mat, she could feel the material give beneath her weight, and she gritted her teeth as the heat penetrated her hooves. The hot, acrid air made it hard to breathe, and it seemed like an eternity before she finally leapt up to the safety of the sofa on the far side.
Hothothothot. She danced in place a bit before dropping to her belly and blowing on her front hooves to try to cool them off. After a few moments, the discomfort faded, and she looked back the way she came.
Twilight winced at the sight. At least this time the rug hadn’t fallen apart, but her hoofprints glowed in an an accusing crimson line, each one surrounded by a spiderweb of cracks. She pawed the cushion nervously. If anypony sees that, they’ll know where I went right away. I’d better hurry.
Closer by, she noticed where her scramble up the couch had left left little black marks on the fabric, and bits of the crisped rug were still stuck to her hooves. I don’t want to get in trouble for making a mess, she thought, carefully rubbing the soot and debris off before she stood up.
Crossing the couch she hopped over to the mantle, pausing to enjoy the relief of its cool stones, although the thought prompted a quiet giggle. Fireplaces are supposed to be where you get hot, not cool. She was on a mission, though, and after just a few moments of rest she moved to the lounge chair at the far side of the mantle. A quick hop had her up on the seat cushion, and from there she was able to scramble up the back of the chair.
Perching on the top, Twilight could just reach the windowsill opposite the stairs, which provided a precarious path to the back door and the clump of greenery beneath it. Partway across, though, she found her attention drawn to the shadowy world outside.
The house across from them was a dark silhouette, the small garden in between painted in shades of silver and blue, with just the faintest blush of crimson left on the rim of the sky. A full moon hung just over the horizon, and the first stars were starting to appear. The quiet peace reached out to her, almost enough to make her forget about the cookies. Almost. She shook herself free from the reverie and moved on.
At the far of the windowsill she dropped down to the base of a large potted plant. The smell made her lick her lips, but she wasn’t here for condiments. Instead she made another short hop, this time down to the mat in front of the back door.
The back mat was made of sturdier stuff than the others, and still held firm against the molten tide, long enough for her to clamber up onto a footstool at the entryway to the kitchen, at least.
She leaned out from the stool, her face screwed up in concentration as her horn sparked and then flickered to life. An answering glow encased the handle of the kitchen drawer and with a grunt of effort, the drawer inched open. Twilight repeated the effort twice more, before sitting back and smiling at her handiwork, the partially open drawers forming a makeshift staircase up to the top of the counter.
Gingerly she stepped onto the first drawer, which slid back and forth alarmingly under her weight, but held. Picking her way carefully to avoid the betraying clink of any kitchen utensils, she slowly crept up to the lip of the countertop.
The dining room was just barely visible from here. Shining was still seated at the table, though Cadance had gone off somewhere. More importantly, the cookie jar was at her hooftips. A huge grin spread across her muzzle as she stretched out just a little bit further and—
“Eeep!” All her muscles locked up as a teal glow lifted her up into the air and spun her around face to face with a grinning foalsitter. “But you’re standing in the lava.” Twilight pointed her hoof.
“Oh I am, am I?”
“Uh-huh. Shining said so.”
Said BBBFF had dropped his fork, and now wore the expression of a pony hearing crackles while crossing a frozen lake.
Cadance looked at him for several long seconds before smirking. “I guess that makes me a lava monster then!” she declared, darting in at the defenseless filly.
“Oh no nononooo-eeeeee,” Twilight squealed before her protests dissolved into sputtering giggles as Cadance blew raspberries on her stomach.
Twilight squirmed, all four legs flailing helplessly in the air. She wasn’t sure how long it was before Cadance finally relented, chuckling as she gasped for breath. She still hadn’t quite recovered when Cadance’s ears flicked over towards Shining, and Twilight followed her gaze to see him fidgeting at the table. He started to get up, but Cadance gasped and held up a hoof.
“No, stop! What are you doing?”
He froze in confusion.
Cadance grinned like a cat spotting a fresh saucer of cream.
“The floor is lava.”
Shining looked down at the fiery slabs of rock beneath him for a moment, then back up at Cadance.
“Special guardspony training?” he ventured, extending a hoof.
“Not on my lava you don't.” The rock around her hooves burst into an incandescent frenzy, spreading in a roiling wave until the whole room was a seething cauldron. Cadance stuck her tongue out at him. “Try again.”
Shining was too busy scrambling onto his chair to reply, and once there he just stared at her with his mouth open, breaking into a sweat as Cadance returned his scrutiny. The greatest foalsitter in all the history of foalsitters then turned to Twilight. “For such a brave explorer, I think a cookie is the only appropriate reward.”
“Really?” Twilight’s eyes shone, before her face fell. “But you’re a lava monster.”
Cadance chuckled. “Fear not – after such an arduous journey, the heroic adventurer has won her prize and may ride the lava monster safely.”
It was true, Twilight discovered, as the magic deposited her on the monster’s back. Its wings were surprisingly soft and hardly smelled like molten rock at all. She settled in between them and the promised cookie floated into her hooves, its delectable scent filling her senses as she opened her mouth.
“Now, now, Twilight. Lava monsters don’t like crumbs in their coats.”
The brave guardian Twilight cradled her hard-earned trophy carefully, shielding it from any threat on the perilous journey to come.
“Wait, so what am I supposed to do? Just stand here?”
Cadance glanced over at Shining, still perched awkwardly atop his chair. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.” Her expression turned mischievous. “Or were you planning on copying your little sister?”
Shining blinked twice before turning pale, then red, finally settling for an expression like he’d been hit in the back of the head with a board.
Thus, the great hero Twilight returned to her domain in triumph, priceless treasure clutched in trembling hooves as she sat astride a mighty monster.
…Even if it wouldn’t stop giggling.