Rites of Ascension

by CvBrony

All Aboard

“Don’t worry about being too rough. Just do it!” Celestia whispered in Twilight’s ear as the crowd hushed.

With a deep breath, the Grand Mage of Equestria took aim at her target and charged her horn. The projectile hovered in midair, shimmering with her magic before launching forth like a baseball heading for a home run. A second later, it hit the target, shattering it into a thousand pieces, glass shards and champagne glittered in the air like stars as they rained down the ground far below.

The crowd erupted in cheers as dock workers, soldiers, sailors, nobility, and all sorts of other ponies applauded the christening of the newest ship of the Equestrian Air Fleet: The HMS Bellerophon.

Twilight couldn’t help but smile and cheer from the tingly feeling of joy that was spreading throughout her body. She was on a stage with her mentor, doing a job that Celestia normally did. She felt a little bit like a teenage filly getting to try a sip of alcohol, although she couldn’t help but also feel a little awkward. Luna, who was right beside her, had less military authority than she did.

Celestia stepped up to a podium and waved to her ponies. “And with that, our new warship is ready for service!” She yelled out without even needing a microphone. “Sailors, you have trained and honed your skills for a long time now. At last, it is time to put those skills into practice! Admiral, the ship is yours!"

"By Your Majesty's command!" A mare in front of the assembled sailors bowed, then snapped around to face the crew. "Crew, to stations!"

A small formation of soldiers on the dock turned and snapped a salute, all shouting “Aye-aye!” before turning back and marching in unison up the ramp and into the ship. A second group followed them, doing the same thing before the next group. Each batch was progressively lower in rank, until the entire crew had boarded.

The Admiral stepped up to the podium and the microphone, spreading out her blue wings and lighting her horn while her silver mane blew in the wind. “This is Admiral Tempest. Commence engine start!”

A winged unicorn… Just like Cadence, and one of only a few dozen in existence, Twilight thought, shifting a bit in her seat and noticing something on Silver Tempest’s back. Is… Is that a katana?

She closed her eyes and pulled at her wellspring, shifting to her magic sight. There were two very bright points of light in front of her. One was Tempest’s bright dual-magic wellspring, and another was buried in the hilt of the sword. Not just a katana! That’s a bonded blade!

A buzzing sound carried through the air for a moment as power flowed into the ship’s turbines, and was then replaced by the roaring whir of the engines of the world’s largest and most powerful airship.

Tempest turned and bowed to the Princess, and Twilight noticed the four red bars on the sleeves and shoulders of her odd, black uniform. It’s somewhere in between a martial arts uniform and a kimono… I guess generals get the privilege to fully customize their uniforms.

“Your Highness! Your ship stands ready! What are your orders?”

Tempest’s words were part of the standard ceremony, but Twilight felt they were spoken strangely. It was more aggressive than normal, but that aggression was not directed towards the Princesses.

Celestia smiled, her position at the podium having her stand towering over the Admiral even more than normal. “Prepare your ship, Admiral. At oh-eight-hundred hours tomorrow, you set sail!”

“At once! All crew, prepare to take on supplies! We sail tomorrow!” She jumped into action, barking orders as ponies scrambled to begin loading the ship with all the supplies it would need for its extended mission.

“She is a sword eager to be used,” Luna commented as her sister made her way towards the Nobles' tents. “Young and brash. Talented, no doubt, but she still has much to learn.”

“I can’t help but feel I have even more to learn,” Twilight sighed. “This is going to be a tricky mission. I’m not sure how I’m going to remain ‘undetected’ while figuring out where that bonded core came from. If I’m spotted—”

"As Tia no doubt told you, even if you are found out, Zebrica is incapable of posing a threat to Equestria. President Malkia could scream and holler, but little else. Also, if you feel it a lost cause, the source of the gem isn’t something that will save or break us. You may abandon it without fear.”

“Maybe...” Twilight took in a deep breath. “I just really don’t like going into something expecting to fail. I like to have a plan to succeed.”

Luna smirked. “Often times, soldiers like to say ‘failure is not an option.’ This time one of your objectives may be such a wild goose chase that success may not be an option. You needn’t worry. Tia and I are fully aware of this fact.”

“Mmm…” Twilight groaned a little, looking off to the hills in the distance. Fall had come in full swing, painting Canterlot Valley in colors seen only once per year. Hues of gold, crimson, and auburn dotted the landscape inbetween large patches of green grass and fields of crops already harvested. A strong breeze blew through her mane and caressed her ears, but unlike prior years, she didn’t feel its icy sting at all. Though she hadn’t learned to shield herself from wind with her pegasus magic yet, her new, thicker coat was all it took to protect her. Only in her eyes and nose could she still feel the bite of the oncoming winter.

Luna stepped up and joined her with a wing around her back. “‘Tis my second favorite season, after winter. Not so much for the anticipation of snow and the delicate, soft hues of a winter night, but because of the sheer brilliance of the color and the crispness one feels when breathing in. Such weather always gets me in the mood to paint with colors I normally only rarely use.”

“Pardon me, Your Highnesses.”

Twilight’s ears perked at the new voice behind her and she turned around to find Admiral Tempest. I didn’t hear her approach…

The Admiral bowed deeply. “I apologize for interrupting, but I was wondering if I could speak with the Grand Mage privately… with permission from both of you, of course.”

Luna nodded. “I’m sure there’s some alcohol somewhere with my name on it. In case I can’t see you off, Twilight, good luck on your mission. Stay in touch when you can.” Luna jumped into the air and flew off to the nobility's reserved refreshment table.

“Lady Sparkle? Would you please follow me?” Tempest turned, motioning to a more private area behind the stage wall.

Twilight lifted an eyebrow, but relented and followed. What’s her deal?

Once they were out of sight, Tempest began to speak. “Lady Sparkle, are you aware of the current state of Equestria’s navy?”

Twilight shook her head. “I’m not certain I am to the extent you’re expecting. I know that our naval fighting force is very limited compared to our land and pegasi forces. This is mostly due to the fact that our only potential rivals over the oceans are so far away a sea-based assault would be impractical at best. The Gryphons also have no navy to speak of, so most ponies saw little point in spending bits on a large naval force.”

“You are correct, Grand Mage.” She turned and stopped in front of a cave leading to the other side of the mountain and Canterlot proper. “After the airship that carried the prior Princesses and Princes of Canterlot and the Lost was destroyed, Equestria mostly ceased investing in ships, whether they traversed the oceans or the skies. Except for Neighpon.”

“And the Bittish Isles, don’t forget. They’re both island Duchies. Marelaysia has a bit of a vested interest as well.” Twilight lifted her journal out, checking her notes on the Bellerophon. “And we’ve certainly restarted spending as a nation. Something like sixty million bits so far, not counting training sailors in its operation.”

Tempest nodded. “It’s about time the Council realized the value of these ships as weapon platforms, and I believe we have your brother to thank for that. We’re behind where we should be, but at last there is at least some progress. The issue most heavy on my mind right now, though, is that of experience.

“To be frank, Equestria’s navy does not have anypony whom I feel is qualified to captain the Bellerophon. Not yet, anyway. As such, I have taken command of her myself, and selected an executive officer I believe may have potential.”

Twilight’s jaw dropped a little. “That’s… highly unorthodox. I don’t know much about military procedure, but that can’t be normal.”

“It isn’t. I had to obtain special permission from Her Highness Princess Celestia in order to do this. However, I believe that with better training, we may yet transform our navy into a respectable force, and I am… uniquely qualified to lead this effort.” She lifted her katana and pulled it slightly out of its sheath, staring at the silvery reflection in the blade.

Tempest continued, “I grew up in Neighpon, and my family owns many ships. I’ve spent more time on a deck than on soil or cloud. I killed my first pirate at age fifteen. Sailing is my life, Lady Sparkle. Trust me when I say I have a level of authority on this.”

Twilight shuddered. Taking a life at fifteen… I can’t even imagine… “Okay, I’ll trust you on it. I take it that you’ll be the commanding officer during my mission?”

The Admiral shook her head and sheathed her sword. “No. You are the commanding officer for the mission. I am the commanding officer for the Bellerophon. You tell me what needs to be done, and I will issue the commands needed to the ship and crew to see it through.”

Some wind blew through the tunnel entrance, filling the air with a slight dankness that Twilight wrinkled her nose at. “Sounds good to me. The only experience I really have with airships is my little hot air balloon, and that’s a far cry from a warship. I’d honestly much rather leave command of the ship itself in your hooves.”

Tempest turned away and spread her wings, viewing Twilight through a corner of one of her emerald green eyes. “Then there's only one more thing I need to know."

Twilight froze still as Tempest leaned in close, their muzzles almost touching as Tempest stared into her eyes."Um, what are you--"

"Hush," Tempest hissed. "I need to know. Tell me, why are you here?"

"Um, because Celestia gave me this mission."

"No, not that. Why are you here? What drives you? What does your heart feel that makes you put yourself at risk? Do not speak, show me with your eyes..." Tempest tilted Twilight's head up as she gazed, examining her from several angles. "Yes, I see now. So many possibilities. I think, Lady Sparkle, that we’ll get along just fine. I look forward to working with you. Until tomorrow.”

She flapped her wings and took off into the sky, leaving Twilight to watch her soar back down towards the ship. I wonder if any of the other Generals are that, well, eccentric. I suppose one needs to be exceptional in both skill and personality to go that far up the ranks… Hmm? A trickle of pebbles and dust fell down the cliff face behind her. What's that?

Her eyes snapped to the sight of a pony’s head poking over a rampart above her, and as she squinted she could just barely make out a light blue coat and a large purple hat. Is that… Trixie? What’s she doing outside of the war room? Twilight looked around, checking for an easy way up. Hmm… Wards should be minimal out here.

She lit her horn, pushing a substantial amount of energy into it as the targeting portion of the spell resolved itself, finding a landing point. A crack went through the air as she shifted up to the ramparts in a flash of purple light, her hooves clopping on the stone after dropping a few inches.

“Twilight? Is that you?” Trixie asked.

Twilight was busy holding her head and shaking off the inevitable nausea from teleporting that far, but did manage to open her eyes to find Trixie in a wheelchair. “Ugh. Yup. Me. At least, I think it’s all of me. I’m always a little nervous I might leave a piece behind when I teleport this far.”

“You…” Trixie's eye twitched. “You can teleport?”

Twilight rattled her head, getting her bearings again. “It was one of the first spells Princess Celestia had me learn, though it was years before I could use it. Still, I can say it's the first spell I've truly mastered inside and out. Not that I can go very far. It’s nothing like what the Princesses do.”

Trixie took off her hat with a hoof and slumped down. “Trixie… I’ve been trying to master that spell for ages…”

Twilight walked up to her and sat down, leaning against the rampart. “It’s not easy, but I’ve had a lot of practice at it now. Though, I have to ask, why are you up here instead of in the war room?”

Trixie wheeled herself back over to the rampart wall and looked out to the docks below. “It's been weeks, Twilight Sparkle. I’m grateful for your protection, but honestly, I needed some fresh air. Or at least air that didn’t smell of stale coffee.”

Hey, coffee is one of the best smells ev— okay let’s not judge her too harshly based on that. She did say 'stale.' “I can understand. It must feel good to get out of the war room after all this time. How are the legs healing?”

The sound of hoofsteps approached, and Twilight turned to see a guard marching along the rampart, stopping every so often to look over the edge and scan the countryside.

Trixie sighed and waited for the guard to pass before continuing. “They’re… healing. Slowly. Trixie’s doctor in the castle brought in some kind of potion to help. I’m sure you’ve heard normal healing magic doesn’t work with me anymore.”

Twilight swallowed the lump in her throat. “I did. It must be awful. Trixie, if you need to talk or anything, I—”

Trixie lifted a hoof to stop her. “Trixie… does not wish to speak of this here. The Night Guard is everywhere. Trixie, I, need someplace more private.”

Twilight smiled and nodded. “I can help with that. Follow me.”

“Wait, are we even allowed up here?” Trixie squirmed in her wheelchair as Twilight levitated it up the long staircase. “Trixie is sure we’ll get in deep trouble if we try to pass those guards…”

Twilight laughed a little, keeping her magic focused on the gem in Trixie’s chair to keep her telekinetic field active. “Trust me, we’ll be just fine,” Twilight said, a chuckle still going as they breezed past the guards.

“B-But we’re in the highest part of the castle by now! I-Trixie heard this is where the Princesses keep their private chambers! If we intrude, Trixie’s protection will be revoked and she’ll—”

“Trixie, you’re going back into third person. Relax. I’ve got the run of the whole castle. I practically grew up here. As long as you’re with me, the guards won’t trouble you.”

Trixie was still shaking some, but she settled back in her chair and nodded. “Tr—I’ll trust you, Twilight Sparkle.”

Twilight shook her head, going up the penultimate set of stairs. “That’s another thing. You don’t need to use my full name. If you really want to be formal, use ‘Lady Sparkle,’ but I’d prefer it if you’d just use ‘Twilight.’”

“Trixie is…” Trixie sighed. “Very well, Twilight. But, where are you taking me?”

Twilight smirked while going up the last set of steps. I guess this is how Celestia and Luna feel when I’m freaking out over something trivial. “You’ll see.”

Trixie’s eyes grew wider and wider as they approached the top of the stairs and stopped in front of the large double doors to Celestia’s chambers, the sun carved into them making it explicitly clear as to what they were.

Trixie swung her head around to face Twilight. “Y-You can’t possibly be serious! There!? We’ll get put in the dungeon for sure! Trixie shouldn’t even be this close to them!”

Twilight’s grin grew threefold. “No, not there. I mean, I could use that, and I’ve been in there plenty of times. I am her personal student. But, there was another place I had in mind.” Twilight turned Trixie’s chair to the right, showing her a different set of double doors with a different cutie mark emblazoned on them.

Based on her expression, Twilight was sure that, were it physically possible, somepony near the base of the mountain would’ve been hit on the head with Trixie’s jaw. Yeah. This is definitely what Celestia feels like when I’m freaking out over something silly.

“Trixie doesn’t believe it… They gave you your own quarters? Here!?”

Twilight gently pushed Trixie’s chair down the hall towards her room. “One step down, as a representation of my distance from the Sisters,” Twilight noted, lowering the chair gently. “Luna decorated it personally.”

She pushed the doors open and wheeled her in, watching her guest’s face with far more amusement than should be legally possible. “I have to say, she outdid herself. I’m finding new little details all the time.”

“T-T-Trixie is… is…”

Twilight parked the wheelchair, then ran up and dived into her cloud bed, sending a few tufts into the air. “Yup! I was pretty much the same way when I saw it. I know you’re an earth unicorn, but if you have time, learn the cloudwalking spell. Cloud beds are honestly worth it.”

Trixie grabbed her face with both hooves and sighed. “Okay, Trixie admits it. She is… jealous. Severely jealous.”

Twilight stood up and shook off the bits of cloud on her. “I didn’t intend that. Honestly, I was trying to make to feel welcome, included. But, if it makes you feel better, I’m about to spend most of the next week or two cooped up in an airship. Still, this room is private, Trixie.” Twilight lit her horn and closed the doors before laying down on the floor in front of her guest. “I’m here to listen to anything you need to say.”

“Right now I just want to tell you how much I hate you.” Trixie glared for a moment, but seemed to give up right after. “But I can’t. The only reason Trixie isn’t dead or worse is because of you.”

Twilight put her ears down. “You really don’t know anything about the ponies after you?”

“Other than their penchant for illusions? No, Trixie does not. It’s been… Celestia, I don’t even know anymore. Years. I was caught once, but broke free and ran. I don’t intend to ever be captured like that again.” Trixie rubbed her hoof over her cast, staring at her legs.

Twilight sat up and put a hoof on the chair. “I don’t intend to allow it, Trixie. We’ll figure out what’s going on. I want you to be able to go back to doing your shows someday.”

Trixie rolled her eyes. “I’m so out of practice, I don’t even know if I can.”

Hmm… Twilight folded her forelegs and tapped her chin with a hoof. “Why not try now? I’m willing to watch if you don’t insult me.”

Trixie scoffed, then winced and rubbed her cast. “I appreciate the gesture, Twilight Sparkle, but Trixie’s cart is back in Hoofington and probably taken away, destroyed, or impounded by now. All of her things are there. All I have is my hat and cape, and I don’t have anything to pull out of either at this point.”

Twilight smiled. “I’m the Grand Mage of Equestria, and we’re in my private chambers next door to those of the Eternal Sisters. Something tells me I have the pull to get some magician’s materials on short notice. Just give me a few minutes.”

“Is this your card?” Trixie pulled out a card from the top of the deck and showed the three of clubs.

Twilight shook her head. “Nope.”

Trixie smiled with an aggressive, mischievous grin. “Then how about the card behind your ear?”

Twilight blinked and instinctively reached up with a hoof. “Behind my—” Her words died in her mouth as her hoof found something and pulled it down to check. “Queen of diamonds… That’s it! How did—”

“Sleight of hoof, misdirection, subtle illusions… It all adds up. Trixie must admit, it feels good to do this again. Do you know how I got started with magic shows?” Trixie took all the cards and started to shuffle.

“No, I don’t. Maybe you saw a magician as a foal? That’s kind of how I knew I wanted to study magic. I saw Princess Celestia raise the sun.”

“I’m afraid not everypony lives as blessed a life as you, Lady Sparkle. I was born in a small Roan village. My mother drank our money away, and I never knew my father. So I started to pick ponies’ pockets. Eventually, Trixie got caught doing so at a travelling carnival, and the ringmaster took pity on me. Showed me a few things. After that, I ran away from home to join the act.”

Twilight cringed. “Oh. I’m so sorry…”

Trixie flourished the cards, adding new and more complicated moves with each shuffle. “I ate better with the carnival ponies than I ever did with mother, so I don’t regret it. It’s the distant past, Twilight. Trixie has other concerns these days.”

“I understand. How are your legs? Will you be able to walk again soon?”

The cards scattered in an eruption of plastic. “Probably… The doctor says that as long as I take the potion and stay off of them, Trixie should be walking again when you get back from your trip. And, provided there isn’t nerve damage, although the pain is a good indicator things will still work.”

“That’s some good news, then. I was going to see if I could find any better potions in Zebrica while I’m there, but it sounds like you’ll be okay. Do you have everything you need otherwise? I’m sure I can arrange it so that the Canterlot Library will send you whatever books you want.”

“You’ve been more help to Trixie than she deserves already,” Trixie said, picking up her cards. “If anything, it’s just frustrating not having anything left to do. I already gave my spell to RGIS. I don’t have much else to offer.”

“What about improving your spell?” Twilight asked. “Right now it detects the illusions, but it only tells us what direction they’re in. What about something to see through them?”

Trixie shook her head and put away her cards. “Impossible! At least, not without knowing the basic structure of their illusions. Trixie has gone through every illusion spell out there, Twilight Sparkle. They’re using something completely different.”

Twilight closed her eyes for a moment. Hmm...

‘Yes. This is absolutely magic borne from Lady Optika’s illusions. How in Equestria anypony knows of those is beyond my ability to guess, but I’m certain of it. They used to use large, heavy crystals on tripods to help amplify their abilities over a larger area. Lady Optika herself didn’t need them, of course, but her followers made extensive use of them and similar devices…’

“What if…” Twilight started, then rechecked her thoughts. “What if there were a way to figure that out? I've tried researching it myself, but I haven’t had time to really dive into their private library, and it's such a mess, the one time I tried I couldn't really find anything on it there anyway. But Luna seemed to have some knowledge of these illusions already. I don't know how much she knows, but if I can convince her to share her knowledge, would it help?”

Trixie’s eye twitched. “You… you have access to the Princesses’ private library?”

Twilight tapped the gem in her torc. “Grand Mage, personal student… Like I said, I basically have free run of the castle. If I was able to get that information for you, could you try working on that spell?”

Trixie leaned back in her chair and held her head like she had a headache. “I… probably could. But… Twilight, if I asked you a question, would you answer it honestly?”

Twilight nodded. “As best I could, but I have a high security clearance now, so there may be some things—”

Trixie stomped her forehooves on her chair. “Did the Princesses choose you to be the next alicorn?”

Twilight froze still, unable to so much as blink.

“I see. Dammit all, Sparkle, you get all the luck.” Trixie slammed her wheelchair again. “It’s been, what, how many thousands of years without anypony becoming an alicorn? And they just choose you?”

Twilight’s nostril twitched ever so slightly. Crap. Crapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrapcrap… Do damage control or Luna will lock her away to keep the secret safe. “Wait, Trixie, it’s not that simple. I wasn’t chosen. I just…”

“Then what, pray tell?” Trixie scoffed. “They’ve certainly showered you with gifts. Honestly, after I saw what you did to the Ursa, I suspected it. Then I started noticing things in the war room, like how those two pervert twins refused to even consider aiming their lechery at you. I told myself I was being paranoid, but they’re treating you like a Princess already. And you’re already walking on clouds without a cloudwalking spell, and yes, Trixie can tell. She has a finely tuned sense of magic. There are wards that we passed that should have cancelled that spell, and you never recast it. I'd have noticed. There's this static feeling whenever somepony uses that spell."

Twilight shook her head. “It’s not about being chosen. It’s about magic. A pony whose wellspring crosses a certain size threshold starts the change. It has nothing to do with being chosen by the princesses. I’m an ‘alicorn ascendant.’ It’ll be years before I fully ascend.”

Trixie cringed, then flopped down in her chair, burying her face in her forelegs. “Ugh. Wonderful. So much for ‘great and powerful.’ What a crock.”

Twilight took in a deep breath and let it out. “Nopony is saying you aren’t powerful, Trixie. In fact…” She shifted briefly to her sight to confirm her theory. “Your wellspring is quite large. Not as large as it needs to be for an ascension, but even so, I’d say you’re maybe a tenth of the strength of my brother. That doesn’t sound like much, but considering he’s far and away the most powerful unicorn known other than myself, that’s still saying something. You are powerful, Trixie.”

“But not as powerful as you,” Trixie mumbled.

“Well, no, but…” Think, Twilight! We were so close to making her a friend! Think! “But will it really matter? If I ascend, surely ponies wouldn’t try to compare us anymore, right? Nopony expects a unicorn to be a match for an alicorn…”

Trixie blinked, her stare going wide. “Trixie didn’t think of that. If the rivalry vanished…”

Twilight smiled. Yes, keep going… “You’d be judged on your own merits again, not in comparison to me. It might take a little time, but in the end, I’m sure you’d have your name in lights again. I’d even be willing to help that along.”

Trixie sighed. “Okay, Twilight Sparkle. You win. Trixie forgives you, but she’s going to hold you to that promise.”

“Does that mean you’ll keep this a secret?” Twilight swallowed. “There are ponies out there that would really go after me if they know what was happening. And, honestly, I'm already going to have to tell Luna and RGIS that you know. It's going to take some convincing to stop them from keeping you in the war room until I'm crowned."

Trixie held up one hoof and crossed her heart with the other. “Of course. Trixie swears on her power and her life that she will never reveal that secret. Trixie knows what it is like being hunted. She wouldn’t wish that on anypony. Trixie is also sure that if she spilled that secret, she’d be hunted by the princesses as well as these illusionists, and Princess Luna already placed some kind of tracking spell on me. Trixie would be dead for sure! And… I’ll keep working on the third person thing. It’s difficult, separating myself from my old stage persona. After Ponyville, the two have... They aren't different, anymore.”

“The masks we wear…” Twilight got up and stretched her back. “I know some other ponies that have similar trouble. Ever consider just trying a different persona? Maybe, ‘Trixie the Great, Powerful, and Affable?”

“Ha! Don’t press your luck, Twilight!” She thrust a hoof in Twilight’s direction as a loud grumble emanated from her stomach. “Although, at the moment I appear to be ‘Trixie, the Great, Powerful, and Starving. I should get to the mess hall before they close down lunch.”

Twilight shook her head. “Come on, let’s go to the royal dining room. I’ll have the royal chefs make us something. Perhaps a classical Roan dish for a taste of home? And I'll poke them to be quick about it.”

Trixie chuckled, lighting her horn to control her wheelchair. “At this rate, you’re going to spoil me. Not that I mind, though. But what I really want is that information on their spells.” She tilted her hat forward and grinned like a hungry predator. “It's high time Trixie showed these phantoms what it means to be in the spotlight!”

“Okay guys, everything packed and on the ship?” Twilight checked the final box on her list and packed it away before the breeze on the dock could take it to some faraway land.

“All set, Twi.” Spike gave a little salute then banged his chest plate with a fist. “Even tested the new cushion-fall spell in the armor. Works like a charm. I bet I could jump right out of the ship and not get a scratch.”

“Well, let’s not test that theory just yet, okay?” Twilight said with a smirk. “You ready, Rainbow?”

“Yeah, but I think you’re rubbing off on me with this whole ‘forgetting to get a manecut’ thing.” Rainbow spat, presumably to get some hair out of her mouth. “Think the ship has a barber?”

“A basic one, I think. It is meant to be deployed on extended missions. Well, if that’s all, then you two get on the ship. I need to see Celestia one more time before we take off.”

Her two guards saluted again and started up the ramp, leaving Twilight to herself on the dock. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. There were tons of ponies and activity, but they paid her no mind in their hustle and bustle to get the ship ready for its first mission, which she would be in command of.

With a dry throat, Twilight swallowed and started a trot back up the ramp to the castle itself. She only got as far as a high rampart, however, before Celestia flew down and landed in front of her.

“Ah! Hello, Princess. Come to see us off?” Twilight said with a bow. “I expected to meet you in the war room.”

“I figured I’d save you the trip.” Celestia smiled. “Besides, I was giving a certain somepony a ride.” The Princess waved her hoof then tapped on the ground, and a small chariot came in for a landing next to her, carrying Ponyville's only zebra.

<<Zecora! It’s good to see you! Are you excited about getting to visit your home?>> Twilight said using the Zebrican dialect she’d taught her.

<<… No, I can’t say that I am.>> Zecora lowered her ears. <<I did not leave under joyous circumstances, and truthfully, I cannot consider it a ‘home’ anymore. But I also cannot refuse such an earnest request of help from my friends.>>

<<Celestia told me you didn't leave under the best of circumstances. If you want, you can just give me a list, and descriptions or something, and I can—>>

Zecora walked towards her and put a hoof on her shoulder. <<Were it not for you, I never would have found a place I could call ‘home.’ Also, I understand you’re looking for something else and may need to ask my people about it. I can’t let you do that alone. If a zebra there sees both of us instead of a unicorn by herself, you might get a... warmer reception.>>

Twilight reached out and gave her a small hug. <<Welcome aboard, Zecora.>>

<<Thank you, Twilight, my friend.>> Zecora smiled a little before walking down the ramp behind her with Celestia, the pegasus soldier from the chariot carrying her things.

Twilight had fully intended to watch her leave for a couple more seconds and wave, as she knew Celestia would as well. She did not count on her entire world going dark coupled with a tense grip on her head and a low, bass growl of a voice behind her saying "Don't move. Just guess."

This interruption had a physical form, and judging by the presence of armor pressing on her back, it was a pony.

She elbowed it in the stomach, then grabbed its leg with her hooves and tossed it in front of her, slamming it on the ground and stomping on its chest. The last part would have worked brilliantly if not for the gray-purple cat-eye gem that roared like a puma and projected a shield in front of her hoof.

"Not bad, Twily!" Obsidian Armor held up a hoof for help up. "Good reaction, though you shouldn't let me sneak up on you like that."

Twilight laughed as she grabbed him and pulled him to his hooves. "Night Guard and their crazy hiding abilities. I swear, Shiny, someday you're going to try that and I'm going to actually hurt you without thinking about it."

"Oh, that'll be the day. Cady wouldn't ever let me live that down. But, I think I have a long time before that happens. Besides, I'm not the one you should be worried about. Remember to keep practicing on this trip, and reach out to the crew. Keep making friends like you always do." Obsidian pulled her into a hug, which Twilight returned.

“That's the plan, BBBFF. You here to see me off?”

“Yep. And I have a going away present for you.” He reached into a compartment in his armor and took out a small blue book. “Take a peek.”

“Ah, my brother, always knows what to get me for a trip.” Twilight lifted it out of his grasp and opened it up. There was no index or preamble, nor printed letters. Everything was scribbled in with a unique style of hornwriting: his. Magic symbols started almost right away, and the assembled spell took shape in her mind. “Barrier spells?”

Obsidian looked around, seemingly checking for eavesdroppers. “Not just any barriers. My barriers. The personal ones I use when I go into combat. Well, a few of the layers, anyway. I haven’t kept written notes on them in ages, and mine are highly personalized, so these took a bit to put together, and they’re still very incomplete. But, I included the most important basic layers, including the inertial processing submatrix.”

Twilight’s jaw dropped. “Inertial pro… Wait, you don’t mean the layers that—“

“Yeah, those. Once you have them fine-tuned, you could get hit with a locomotive and survive like you’d only been shoved. See this area here?” He turned to a page in the middle of the book. “Right there. It controls how your velocity and acceleration interact with how you get hit. Sure, it might look like you just got tossed into a mountain at barely sub-sonic speeds, but that’s because the shield absorbed, stored, and slowly released the energy at a safe rate. If you collide with something, it’ll transfer the energy into that. It’s saved my life hundreds of times, and now, it can save yours.”

“Shiny… You never give this out! When I asked about it you said it was classif— Oh…”

Obsidian laughed. “Yes, little miss Grand Mage, you have security clearance now. Although it wasn’t really ever classified, just something I didn’t give out. Not even the other Generals have the knowledge in that notebook. After all, the less others know about my shields, the more of an advantage I have. I also put some other tricks I have up my sleeve in there, so, protect that thing, will you?”

Twilight stuffed it in her saddlebag and put a seal on the flap. “I’ll memorize it and burn it right away. If they want the ashes, they’ll have to climb in the Bellerophon’s reactor. The several-thousand-degree, thaumatically radioactive reactor.”

“I don’t think you have to go that far, but knowing you…”

“Hey, you’re my BBBFF. I’m not going to let—“

“—Anything happen to you,” Obsidian finished. “That’s my line, little sis, but thank you.” He leaned forward and gave her a hug, squeezing her hard enough to knock the wind out of her. “You take care of yourself, okay?”

“Yeah.” She gasped, refilling her lungs. “You too.”

Twilight stretched out on her plush, red velvet bed inside the special royal chambers of the Bellerophon, listening to the airship’s turbines thrust them through the sky. This bed is just like Celestia’s. It’s not quite a cloud bed, but it’s still more comfortable than a glorified cushion has any right to be.

“Hey, Twi, is it okay if I take a nap?” Rainbow rolled over and yawned. “Not like there’s much else to do here.”

Twilight nodded and yawned, too. “Yeah. Just, don’t sleep too much. We’re going to be here for a while, remember.”

“I brought the cards,” Spike said, pulling out a deck and leaning back against a locked-shut bookcase. “It’s something at least. Thanks for letting us bunk with you, Twi. I wasn’t looking forward to being crammed in there with the other soldiers. No offense to them, but, well...”

“No problem.” Twilight chuckled. “This room was meant for Celestia, after all. And I think the three of us put together are about her size. Maybe.”

“Heh. Yeah, there are some advantages to being short. Aerody-namic!” Rainbow flopped over on her back, then crawled under the cot’s blanket.

Spike shuffled the cards over his head. “Pfft. You’re not the ones who are supposed to grow ten stories tall. You have any idea how awkward that’s going to be?”

“Pardon me, Grand Mage?” A metal clanging sound came from the hatch-like door, the sound of a hoof tapping it. “It’s Admiral Tempest.”

Twilight lit her horn and opened the door, letting the admiral step in and bow.

“I apologize for bothering you, but I wanted to inform you that we’re currently nearing Manehattan. We’ll be over the sea by the end of the day. Also, I felt that it would be a good time to introduce you to the special teams onboard the ship that will support you on the mission.”

“Sounds good to me,” Twilight said, standing up and stretching. “It’s going to be a long trip. May as well make some friends. Rainbow, Spike, do you two want to come?”

“Nap is priority right now.” Rainbow yawned. “Spent a lot of time flying around a while ago. Need to recover some energy.”

“I’ll pass for now, too. I think I should head down to the cargo bay and practice.” Spike pulled out his halberd. “It’s been too long since I did. I think I’m getting rusty, and Celestia said there’s no leyline where we’re going.”

“Suit yourselves. Admiral? Lead the way.” Twilight and Tempest stepped through the hatchway and walked down the hall, their hooves clanking on the metal grating under them as they walked.

“There’s a secondary bunk area down here, meant to hold specialist teams for just this type of mission.” They stopped at another hatch, and Tempest opened it up.

“Captain on deck!”

They hadn’t even managed to set a single hoof inside before the yell, and by the time Silver had been halfway through the opening, all of the ponies were standing at attention with a salute.

“As you were.”

Twilight ducked into the room as the Admiral’s orders were given, and she looked around. The far wall was painted military black, which meant it had a tinge of green. Yellowish fluorescent lights didn’t do much to make the place any more cheery. A series of bunks, hooflockers, and equipment lockers were laid out to form two individual alcoves. She caught a glimpse of some Day Guard armor in the far one, and a look in a mirror on the wall confirmed the presence of at least two pegasi.

Directly in front of her, however, was a group of ponies of a very different sort that she had never seen before.

“Lady Sparkle, meet some of General Nocturne’s elites.” She pointed with a hoof to the group of ponies, six soldiers strong, all of them in dark camouflage armor.

The group didn’t quite look like Night Guard. They lacked the bat wings and feline eyes, but one could be forgiven for thinking they were under Luna’s charge. Each one had a dark coat of hair and dark manes to go with it. Most of them had been cleaning weapons, armor or other supplies. There were two of each tribe of varying ranks, but only one officer, a unicorn, who was stepping over towards Twilight.

“Lady Sparkle? I’m Lieutenant Precision Strike, first in command of the Spec Ops Team Jungle Thunder.” His lime green eyes were practically beacons compared to the rest of his colors, to say nothing of the dark bulkhead behind him. “We’ve been assigned here to make absolutely certain no harm comes to you. The Day Guard jocks over there can fly you out of anything, but we’re the ones that will provide the exfil route if things turn sour.”

Twilight cringed. “I appreciate the sentiment, Lieutenant, but I’m hoping it won’t come to that.”

Strike smirked. “Well, you see, Lady Sparkle, we in Spec Ops always expect trouble. Hoping for no trouble gets you trouble.” He turned to the ponies behind him. “In fact, those in General Nocturne’s Army have a little saying about hope, don’t we?”

Their response rang out in perfect unison. “We’re damned! We’re damned! No hope for heaven!”

Twilight rubbed her ear. “Cheery…”

“It’s actually a reference to an old Roan proverb, Lady Sparkle.” Tempest cleared her throat. “Una salus victis nu—”

“Una salus victis nullam sperare salutem.” Twilight finished the line for her. “The only hope for the doomed is to not hope for safety. In other words, to accept one’s fate and abandon all hope and fear.”
The unicorn Corporal mare next to him exposed a Cheshire smile. “Well, what do you know? Always heard she was smart.”
“The Captain’s little sister and Celestia’s personal protégé? I expect nothing less.” The Lieutenant gave her a proud smile. “If she has even half the wellspring of her big brother, General Blueblood had better watch out. She'll take his number two spot for largest wellspring in just a few years.”
A nervous, sheepish chuckle escaped her lips while she rubbed the back of her head with a hoof. “Actually, mine is larger. Like, four or five times larger.”
If not for the shuffling activities of the day guard in the other alcove, one could have heard a pin drop on a pillow as the wide-eyed team was stunned into silence.
Aw, crap. I hate it when they do this… Actually there’s a small part of me that kind of likes it and that disturbs me even more. Twilight cleared her throat, racking her brain for a response. “But, I don’t have anywhere near the level of training Shining does, and my horn is like a squirt gun compared to his.”
The soldiers seemed to relax a little at this. The key word there, however, was ‘little.’
“Well,” the Lieutenant said through a sigh. “At the very least you seem to be far more laid-back than he ever was.”
“Chuh. Tell me about it,” one of the other soldiers, an Earth Pony Sergeant, said as he shivered. “The Captain was the toughest, hardest, meanest, strictest CO I’ve ever had. He makes General Blueblood look like a tourist on holiday.”
Twilight's jaw dropped. “You’ve got to be kidding me! I know Shining! He helped raise me! There’s no way he was that bad!”

Two rows of soldiers snapped to attention in perfect unison, standing at the ready for the inspection of their barracks. Recruit Precision Strike was among them, face as unflinching as he could make it given the rumours he had heard.
One by one, the unicorn commander examined each pony’s space, his face growing more sour with each passing glance. As he arrived at Strike’s bed, he held up a hoof, and gently tapped it on the blanket.
Almost every muscle in Strike’s body tilted as he gave a salute, no thanks to his heart, which decided to stop working altogether. “Sir!”
“Care to explain why your bed doesn’t meet regulations?”
A little coin floated in Shining’s magic, waiting in front of the unfortunate soul’s face.
“Heads you lose, tails you lose,” the demon said through clenched teeth.
I’m going to die…
The coin flipped up into the air and landed on the bed with a whump, showing heads up.
“You. Lose.”
At this point, the only thing Strike could see were the two furious eyes of most righteous evil.
I’m… Going to die… Strike reached up to give another salute, this time shaky and weak. “Sir? Is there something —”
He snapped his head to the other bed, flicking the coin at it. It bounced off and hit the floor. "Your bed should be made so tightly, the coin bounces. Heads you lose, tails you lose."
Mother… Strike squeaked softer than any mouse in history.
Shining lit his horn again, casting a spell on the other bed. A magic circle on the bed appeared out of the ether, reacting to and dissolving in the hellspawn’s magic. Whatever enchantment had been there was now thaumic waste.
The coin flipped again. It was tails.
Cerberus’s master was in the other soldier’s face. He didn’t move from Strike to the other pony, yet somehow, he was just there, and defying all rules of physical reality, he was somehow angrier.
“And you lose even more.”
There was now a puddle on the tile.

“Oh come on!” Twilight stomped a hoof. “There’s no way he was that bad!”
Everypony looked at each other.

“Now listen up! My name is Lieutenant Armor! I serve the Princess under the command of Grand General Blueblood!" The wraith in the guise of a pony snapped his attention to some random poor soul. "It is not normal for a Lieutenant to be assigned to drill even the most promising of recruits! So, do you know why I'm here instead of a Drill Sergeant, Recruit Trashbin?"

"Sir, that's not my name, Sir!"

”Are you calling me a liar, Recruit Trashbin?”

A pony in the corner of the room started to chuckle, but by the time he got to his second laugh, Armor was there, and his soul was forfeit.

"What are you laughing at, Recruit Latrine?!"

Latrine's lip quivered. "I'm-I'm not--"

"You are now! So perhaps you'd like to answer the question! Why, Recruit Latrine, is a Lieutenant here instead of a Sergeant?"


"It's because somepony up in command doesn't think my leadership is worth a damn, so they're having me prove otherwise by giving me a group of colts that aren't even fit to eat out of the base dumpsters!

"So, it's up to me to turn you sacks of afterbirth into killing machines brave enough, tough enough, and lethal enough to go up to the Gryphon King and bend her over your lap! And the first step in doing that is to make this barracks sparkle like a diamond in an outhouse pit!"

"Typical stick-brain."

A flash of light overtook the entire barracks, squeezing the recruits like an anaconda and lifting them all into the air.

"Who said that?! Who bucking said that?!"

Strike struggled against the telekinetic field to no avail, even when he tried to disrupt it with his own magic. None of the others were faring any better. The pegasi being caught he could understand; their main defense against telekinesis was their speed, but unicorns and earth ponies could normally stop hostile telekinesis from holding them easily. Yet, this God of Tartarus was crushing them all in blue light as he walked past, releasing them one by one.

"Wasn't you, you're too much of a wimp, no, no, no, aha!" He had stopped at an earth pony who would no doubt be roasted over a volcano to serve some unholy master. "Recruit, do you know how large my wellspring is?!"

It looked like the stallion, possibly soon to be gelding, was getting crushed like an empty soup can. "Sir, no Sir!"

"Can you judge anypony's wellspring size or output by looking at them?!"

"Ack! I mean, Sir, no Sir!"

"That's right, Recruit! So every single enemy bastard you come across you treat like mother-bucking Nightmare Moon herself and you kill, kill, kill! Now, what was it you called me? Stick-brain? Well, guess what, dirt-lover, I am a stick-brain! I am the most powerful stick-brain this side of General Blueblood, and I've insulted more ponies than you have hairs in your mane, with language more foul than the stench that comes out of your momma after she sleeps with her diamond dog lover! If you want to get in a tribalist pissing contest I will leave you dizzier than a cloud-humper in a centrifuge!" The recruit dropped to the ground like a sack of rocks.

"Everypony other than Recruit Dirtnap over here, get down on the floor and give me push-ups!"

"How ma--"

"Recruit Dirtnap! Sit on your bed!"

Dirtnap's eyes tried to retreat into their sockets. "Sir?"

"Recruit Dirtnap, are you deaf?!"

Dirtnap's butt missed the bed, twice, before finding a spot.

"Good, now..." He turned back to the rest of the recruits. "Everypony, you will do push-ups until Recruit Dirtnap gets tired! Am I understood?!"

Strike and the rest of the group started repeatedly kissing the concrete floor. "Sir, yes Sir!"

"Damn right I'm understood! Listen up, all of you! Look to your left! Look to your right! Let your heart fill with fear knowing that these ponies will one day be responsible for your very lives! If one of you screws up, the rest of you will suffer! This is as true here in Basic as it is in the field!

"Therefore, I do not care what your tribe is! I do not care if you have a noble pedigree dating back to when Celestia was a bouncing baby foal or if you are a bigger mutt than every dog in a pound put together! You are all worse wastes of space than plastic banana slicers bought by senile old grandmothers, and you are all going to work together like you've been BFFs since the womb, or I will have no trouble drumming you out of my precious Army and leaving you broken in a ditch to walk home!

"Give me a 'Sir, yes Sir' if you understand!"

“Sir, yes sir!”

“I must be getting old! I couldn’t hear a damn thing you said! Now, all of you, say it again like you deserve to serve the Princess!”
“Sir, yes sir!”
“That’s not how we do it in this army, soldiers! When I give you an order, you say ‘Sir, yes sir!’”
How can he be louder than all of us put together!? Strike swallowed what might be his very last swallow of all time.
“Now, we’re going to do this once more!" In an instant, the Drill Sergeant of the Gatekeepers of the Underworld vanished and reappeared next to the pony that had made the puddle earlier. "Recruit Bedwetter! Did you know that the road to Tartarus is paved with the bleached bones of recruits that don’t live up to my standards?”

“Sir, yes sir!”
“Well, Cerberus’s balls, I think I actually heard you this time!” He strode to the door, stopping to address them. “Once you are done with push-ups, you sorry sacks of donkey sweat have fifteen minutes to clean like your lives depend on it! However! Bedwetter, you will clean your mess and Recruit Dirtnap's bunk! So help me all, you sorry lot, if I find one speck of dust I will clean and bleach this place using your heads as mops!"

Whether or not a flash bang grenade went off when the door slammed shut, nopony knew for certain.

Now Twilight’s eye was twitching. Not her eyelid, although that was doing a mamba too, but her eye. “I’m going to have to have a little chat with my brother when I get home…”
“No.” Strike shot her a look so sharp Twilight could practically feel the hairs of her mane slice off. “He was completely right to do what he did. Because if we couldn't survive that, couldn't overcome it, then we never would have lived to even see real combat, much less survive it. Hell, with that kind of weakness, we would've gotten our fellow soldiers killed too. He understood that. I didn't. At least, not then."

“But he —”
“-- Led units with the highest readiness and competency scores in the history of the military. It’s why he shot up the ranks so fast.” Strike took off his beret and rubbed a hoof through his short mane. “Yeah, he sucked, but damn if he wasn’t effective.”
Twilight rubbed her temple. “Still…” After a few seconds of contemplating her options she decided to simply go with a groan. “Let’s… let’s just change the subject, shall we? What do you think of our mission? How much have you been told?”
Strike saluted. “Collect some plants, find the source of the gem. Intel doesn’t anticipate significant problems with the plants, as they grow in a sparsely populated area. The gems could be somewhat trickier.”
“That’s… More or less accurate. Since they appear to be easier, I’m thinking we should do the plants first.”
“No complaints here.”
“The gems…” Twilight rubbed her forehead. “Honestly, I’ve been trying to think of a way to pull this off, but I have yet to come up with anything solid. It’s just a really, really big area to search. We could be out here a while. Or, I could trip over it as soon as we land on the beach. I honestly have no. Freaking. Clue.”
Corporal Calibre put her foreleg over her and the other ponies. “Whatever you need ma’am, and however many guns it takes, we’re here to help.”
Twilight let out a snicker. It was bad to assume that this would simply end in violence, but that was still a little funny. “Thanks, guys. Dismissed.”
“Ma’am!” The entire group saluted and went back to what they were doing.
Twilight looked around, finding that Admiral Tempest still hadn’t yet returned. Might as well say hello to the day guard ponies. She walked a little off to her left, and poked her head around the corner. “Hello, gentlecolts.”
The two ponies dropped the things in their hooves, letting them hit the ground as they swung around into an attentive salute. “Greetings, Your Majesty!”
Twilight was about to comment on the whole Majesty thing again, but she couldn’t help but see something odd. The pony that had spoken was off somehow. It took her a moment, but she finally saw it: a gentle, mischievous smirk in the corner of his mouth.
“Wait a minute… Cloud Burner? Is that you?” Twilight took a tentative step forward, trying to see through the glamour spell.
The smirk grew into a full-blown smile. “Well done, Twily! It’s been a while!”
Twilight returned the smile as a weight lifted off her shoulders. “It has! I haven’t seen you in… What, a couple of years? How have you been?”
“Oh, can’t complain. Although I actually saw you plenty, you just couldn’t tell. Glamour spell on the armor and all that. Plus, you know, they frown on moving when we’re stationed in the castle, so I couldn’t really say hello. Although, since I’m saying hello now, we should probably explain some things to Sea Lance here.” Cloud Burner motioned over to the other Day Guard.
Twilight hid a giggle behind a hoof as she sat down. “It’s okay, Sea Lance. Cloud Burner and I go way back. He helped take care of me and Spike when I first moved into my tower in Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns, since I was rather young and shy. Also, I’m not as strict as Celestia. You can relax, or, at ease, or whatever. I’d very much like to be friends.”
Sea Lance practically melted, his relief was so palpable. Twilight could actually see little drops of sweat fly when he wiped his brow. “Thank Celestia! I thought we were going to get tied up and tossed out the side hatch!”
Can’t… Resist… “Well, if I did that, I wouldn’t have anypony to haul my tiny unicorn butt into or out of certain, fiery death!”
Sea Lance blinked. “I honestly can’t tell if she’s joking or not.”
“She’s not just joking, Lance. She’s snarky! I’m pretty sure her wellspring is one third pure, unadulterated snark.”
“Heh. I’m pretty sure if my mother were here, she’d say ‘that explains a few things.’ But, anyway, it’s good to know that you’re on this mission. Maybe in the future we’ll get to work together again!”
“Uh, heh, probably not.” Cloud Burner took off his helmet and set it down, sighing wistfully. “This is a last hurrah for me. I’m retiring. Going home to Cloudsdale.”
Oh! Twilight stood frozen for a moment, looking in vain to Sea Lance for a clue as to what to say. “I am… Shocked, honestly. I didn’t know you were that old. You certainly don’t look at it, but then…”
“Glamour spell, yeah. I’m not that old, really, but I am starting to get up there. I was smart with my savings so I’m taking off quite a bit early. It’s not easy keeping up the Day Guard routine as you grow older. But at least I get to play with the new toys before I go.”
Twilight looked around the room at the various articles they had spread out over their cots, but found them all rather familiar. “New toys? Like what?”
Sea Lance looked at her. “They haven’t told you yet?”
Twilight shook her head. “No. Historically, Grand Mages traditionally rely on our smarts, intuition, magic skills, and our ridiculous wellsprings. What kind of new toys did they give you?”
“Better to see them in person! Come on, let’s go down to the launch bay. Newbie, you stay here and finish sorting our gear.”
“Sir!” He saluted.

Twilight watched as Cloud Burner signed off on a particularly large hoof locker and dragged it out to the middle of the bay. “And this is the first of our new little toys.” He put a key into the lock, and each of the seals around the lid popped open, revealing a brand-new set of guns designed to be mounted on the back of a pony.
Twilight put her front hooves on the side of the container and stared at the equipment inside. “This doesn’t look like the Cloudsdale guns I saw earlier.” She ran her hoof across the barrels, noting that each side had two guns instead of just one. The harness seemed much heavier, too.
“That’s because it’s not. A good chunk of the military went with the Cloudsdale models, because they’re light, fire really quickly, and are easy to use. They are especially good for pegasi. The Day Guard, however, has a higher standard for fitness, so we ordered these earth pony models from Westphalian Defensive. Even the pegasi are going to use them. They only fire in bursts to keep from overheating, but they pack a hell of a buck.”
“And hopefully we won’t need to use them.” Twilight made a mental note of the image of the company’s logo. Just like the Cloudsdale guns, it was located in between the barrels on the harness.
“True, but better safe than sorry.” Cloud Burner reached down and pulled the guns out, mounting them on his back with a groan. “Ooofa! And this is one of the reasons why I’m retiring. Ouch. These things are freaking heavy. I’m not a spry young foal anymore, dammit.”
“You don’t have to put it on the rest of the way just to impress me, Cloud. I believe you. Want me to help put that away?” Twilight lit her horn.
Cloud Burner held up his front hooves and shook his head. “No! Don’t touch it, there’s a security spell on it. Unauthorized TK will send a feedback pulse down to your horn and try to blow it out. I’ve seen what happens when ponies do that. Trust me, you don’t want that to happen.”
Twilight shuddered as an image of Celestia during the changeling attack replayed in her mind. “In that case, I’ll leave it to you.”
“Good call.” He took the apparatus off his back and dropped it into the chest with a ‘fwump’. “The other new toy is considerably lighter. Here.” He made a click and whistle sound and waved at one of the other ponies in the bay, who trotted over with a cloth helmet. On the side of the helmet was a strange, small tube with a metal-tipped end.
“That doesn’t look especially protective…”
Cloud Burner chuckled. “No, it’s not supposed to be by itself. You’re supposed to put it inside your helmet, or take off the cloth and wear it by itself. Here, take a look.” He showed her the inside, which had a foam-covered part next to where the ear was supposed to go. “This thing here is a speaker, and the other little doodad next to your mouth is a microphone. When you press your ear, it trips a switch and anything you say in the microphone is transmitted over a range of a couple of kilometres to everypony else with one of these.”
Twilight shook her head. “That’s impossible. Radiant magic in the environment scatters the signal. I performed the experiments on the radio waves myself in school.”
“I know. Neat, isn’t it? Some hotshot egghead found some type of crazy spell and stuffed in it a crystal core that lets it cut through the interference. A pretty short range, granted, but still invaluable.”
Twilight glared at the device as she sat down and gnawed on her hoof. “I suppose, in theory, one could boost the signal strong enough. Maybe with an adaptive matrix to blend in with the ambient magic… I hadn’t considered this before. Kinda wish I had now.”
“Command has come up with a whole new language of code phrases to memorize when you’re speaking over these, too, which is a bit annoying, but all the same I have to say, I’m rather jealous of all these foals coming in with the new gadgets. Maybe not so much the extra heavy guns, but these radios? Man I wish I had these. At least I get to use them once.”
Twilight picked up the radio in her magic and put it on her head, the top curling up a bit from her horn. “So, what, you just press this and talk into it? Testing, testing…”
“Bellerophon control on station. Submit request.”
Twilight jumped back, not expecting someone to actually answer her. “Um, sorry! Just, ummm… testing the equipment?” Crap, I’m going to get in trouble. No, wait, maybe not. “This is Twilight Sparkle, by the way.”
“Roger that. Bellerophon control out.”
Twilight exhaled in relief as she took off the radio. “Almost really messed up there.”
“Snrrrk!” Cloud Burner failed to hold back his laugh. “Twily, you’re the Grand Mage of Equestria. Shoot, even when you were just a student, you were Celestia’s student. Short of deliberately committing a felony, you’re basically untouchable. Always have been.”
“Easy for you to say! You didn’t have to face Celestia personally when you screwed u— wait, right, day guard.”
“Yeah, and we weren’t all but raised by her. Relax, Twily. You’ll be fine.”
“Everypony keeps telling me that. I keep telling me that. At some point, you’d think I’d listen to me.”
“Well, it’s either that or be a nervous wreck all of your life. But again, you are Grand Mage, so if you want to be a nervous wreck, we really don’t have the right to say no. We just have to deal with it.”
Twilight smiled. “Well, if I have to deal with it…”
“Now, that’s the spirit. Come on, let me buy you some coffee.” Cloud Burner turned to leave.
Now it was Twilight’s turn to hold back a laugh. “We’re on a military ship. The coffee is free for all personnel.”
“Yeah, and it tastes like it was worth every bit.”

“So, what are you reading?”
Twilight took a sip of her coffee and looked up at Cloud Burner, her gaze passing just over the notebook. “Can’t really say. Classified spell book.”
“Oh. I see.”
Actually, brother, you’re really onto something here. You might not notice it, but I think there is a basis here for a medium-range teleport. Nothing like what the princesses do, but beyond what I currently have. She turned the page. The problem is keeping the transit path stable. Anything that I try to teleport will be reduced to ambient energy.
Wait, no, there’s another problem. By doing it that way, the path bell becomes asymmetrical, pointing in the wrong direction. As soon as the first few atoms pass through, the whole thing collapses, even if the structure is otherwise sound. It could also seriously disrupt similar spell structures near it…
“So… Studying then, I take it? It always was your thing... ”
Twilight blinked and shook herself out of the daydream. “I’m sorry, Cloud Burner.” She set the book down. “I’m just trying to get this thing memorized as soon as possible. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
“Not at all, not at all. Again, it is not my place to question what you do. It’s a thing about being in the day guard over the royal guard or any of the other honour guards. No matter how high up you go in rank, the princesses always outrank you. You’re there for them. Although…”
Twilight kept her face still, but only just. Cloud Burner was fidgety and nervous-looking as he scratched the back of his head and twitched his wings, the very opposite of what you’d expect of someone in his position. “Is something wrong?”
“Not really, it’s just that…” He made a face like he had just bit into a lemon. “Heck with it. Okay, this is way out of line for me, but I’m retiring anyway, so… Would you like to get dinner sometime? I mean, after the mission. Of course it’s going to be after the mission, Cloud Burner, you big dummy. I just meant that, I know this nice little restaurant, actually my family owns it, and…”

“I bet you’ll get asked out more than a few times in your future journeys. Some stallions are attracted to power, after all. Why, I’m surprised your treehouse door hasn’t been banged down by suitors already!”

Aw, crap. She was right. How do I… Well, there’s really no other way. Honesty is the best policy here. “I’m very flattered, but I’m afraid I’m not interested in seeing anypony right now.” Twilight rubbed her forehead as she inhaled through her teeth. “Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I’m just not romantically inclined. Most ponies are, I get that, but romance really isn’t something I’ve ever been interested in.”
Cloud Burner’s odd combination of facial features looked relieved, disappointed, and astonished all at once. “You mean you’ve never been on a date? Or thought about it?”
Twilight shook her head. “No, some ponies are heterosexual, some are homosexual, some are bisexual, but I’m really none of the above. A better term to describe me might be asexual. I very much like having friends, but I don’t like taking it beyond that.”
For all the noise and clanging dishes in the mess hall, it may as well have been utterly silent for all the awkwardness that the space had gathered around them.
“You aren’t going to tell Celestia—”
The tension melted off of Twilight’s shoulders. “No, I won’t. You’ve been so nice to me over the years that I’ll let it slide. Especially since you backed off when I said no. You are a very kind, sweet stallion, and you were a perfect gentlecolt about it. In fact, Celestia mentioned that I would probably be hit on a lot more as Grand Mage, but if everypony is as polite as you, it won’t be a problem.”
“I…” Cloud Burner shrunk down a little. “I don’t think I can speak for any other stallions…”
“Don’t worry. I won’t hold any of them against you.” Twilight smiled as she took a drink of her coffee. “I will, however, be holding them to your standard of politeness. Failure means Rainbow gets to do the rejecting.”
Cloud held his belly with laughter, probably imagining what that would mean. “Well, all the same, if you’re ever in Cloudsdale, look me up. We can get some real coffee. As friends.”
He held out his hoof, and she gave it a bump.
“I’d like that.”