“And then, Daring Do raised the golden scepter up, holding it above Ahuizotl’s battered head, ready to deliver a final blow, but stopped, the memory of—”
“Mmmmm…” Twilight groaned. Something hurt. No, to be more accurate, everything hurt. Her skin felt like it had been dipped in molten lead, she could feel a thudding pulse behind her eyes, and her head… Her head felt like it was in a vice, but one that used the edge of axes instead of flat slabs of metal while an anvil weighed down on it. Her throat felt like something had been stabbed into it.
Her ears hurt, too, but that’s not all they were doing. An incessant twitching she couldn’t control jabbed additional needles down in her eardrums, while vague sensations that felt like words drummed on them like a timpani.
“T-Twilight? Was that…”
She groaned again, although this time there was a pinch of a wail in it. Whatever was touching her skin felt like it was trying to embed itself in it. That attempt to open her eyes failed, as if her eyelids were sealed shut with cement. Time and again she tried, finally breaking through as something like sand tumbled down her muzzle. The bright arc of white seared through to her retinas, slowly fading away to just more white. Eventually, however, she could make out a blotch of cerulean blue, and an even smaller blotch of various colours.
“Omigoshomigoshomigoshomigosh! Doctor! Twilight’s awake! Twilight’s awake!”
The sound of clopping hooves disguised as cannon fire galloped away from her before exploding yet again after some kind of odd clicking sound.
“Dooooooooooctoooooooooooor! Get your fat flank over here! Twilight’s awake!”
More hoofsteps followed, this time firing faster and growing closer, flowing to either side of her. A slight, tingly glow washed over her body for a few moments.
“Excellent. Her vitals are weak, but stable. Now that she’s awake, we can be certain she’ll recover.”
“That means she should be okay, right? I mean, completely okay?”
“Given time, yes. She was lucky to receive medical care when she did. Although, I’m still worried about her horn. I’ve never seen such damage.”
“Her horn will heal in time.”
“Mmmmm?” Twilight groaned again, this time eking out a tone that implied a question.
That was a nice word. Twilight knew she liked that word. At least, she liked it when it didn’t drive an ice pick into her ears.
Another blotch of light, pastel colours stepped into view, and the tingling feeling repeated itself.
“She’s awake, but still requires much more healing. She certainly isn’t in any kind of shape to talk… Twilight, if you can hear me, rest. Don’t try to talk, don’t try to move. And above all, don’t worry. You are safe now.”
Twilight pried her lips open. “Ssssssss…”
“No, I said not to speak. Nor move.”
Twilight forced herself to nod, ever so slightly.
“Princess, can’t you do anything to help her? Look at her! I don’t even have a horn and I can feel my head splitting just from looking at that!”
A couple of seconds passed, and Twilight felt a cold chill rush into her veins, dissolving away the pain as it moved, but also taking away her ability to keep her eyes open.
“Twilight, I just gave you a healing potion. It’ll probably make you very sleepy. Try not to fight it. Go to sleep, and we will talk when you’re finally ready.”
Twilight nodded again, her inner ears telling her she was spinning in a vortex. Before long, the vortex pulled her down and everything turned silent.
Something was twitching. Twilight was fairly sure it was her right forehoof, but her body had a history of lying to her. Still, given the consistency of the data being presented, she felt that at least this time, it was not a lie.
“Good morning, my student.”
The sound of the teacup hitting its saucer punctuated the sentence, and Twilight forced her eyes open to see Celestia smiling at her.
Am I dead? Twilight thought. Am I in the summer lands? But if Celestia’s here…
“It is good to see you back in the land of the living, Twilight. You gave us quite a scare.”
I’m alive? But then… A wave of recent memories crash into her, including one that loomed over her like the darkest of shadows: the mushroom cloud. Her leg started to jolt as she tried to stand, but they only flailed helplessly before being restrained by a golden light.
“Easy! Easy! You’ve been in a coma for nearly a month now. We weren’t certain when you’d wake up.”
“Eq… essss… Ta…” Her throat was as dry, but she managed to hiss out those words, if you could call such sounds that. She could make out a change in her mentor’s features, and her heart sank as he prepared for the worst.
“I have good news, and bad news. The bad news is, the Zebrican town, and the smuggling base you encountered, were both destroyed. In addition, several towns nearby were either destroyed or heavily damaged. Casualties are in the hundreds, if not thousands.”
Twilight whimpered, and shook her head. That wasn’t what she wanted to hear about.
“However, you succeeded in destroying the portal before it grew too large. Equestria did experience a slight tsunami, but it was only a meter high. Damages are at the tens of millions of bits, and climbing, but it is much, much better than it could have been. RGIS estimates that the number of lives you saved is nearly half a billion, at a minimum. The Dukes of the Bittish Isles and Marelaysia have spent the last week and a half yelling at Charlemane to award you the Order of Unity.”
Twilight melted into a puddle, finally recognizing the fact that she was in a hospital bed. I did it… I think… I think I can go back to sleep now.
“Unfortunately, you obviously suffered some great injuries as a result. You’ve blown out your horn severely, there are second-degree burns on over half of your body, third-degree burns on a remaining thirty percent, and even your armor has been severely damaged and has been sent to the Royal Forge for repair. This having been said, given the size of the blast, and Rainbow’s report on how close you were to it, it’s a miracle you survived at all.”
Twilight looked up at her horn, finding it encased in something suspiciously like cement, and wrapped with bandages and a magic inhibitor. She knew she shouldn't quite speak yet, so she just looked at her mentor, and interpreted the movement of the blur in her eyes as a nod.
“Your horn will heal, given time. If you had been only a unicorn, it would have been a total loss. However, your earth pony magic will facilitate its healing, as will your journey to the summits.”
A gilded hoof gently stroked down her foreleg.
“That’s not to say you’re healed yet. Even with healing magic, and your own earth pony magic aiding it, you will probably be spending the next couple weeks or so here in the hospital. After that, you will probably need another few weeks for your horn to fully heal. As of now, and until I feel you are fit to return to duty, you are on mandatory medical leave.”
Somewhere, something in the back of her mind told her she needed to groan and complain, that there were things she needed to do. Yet, all her body could muster was a deflating sigh.
“I know it’s frustrating, but all of your friends have already been here to visit, including your parents on special authorization from the crown. Rainbow and Spike, of course, are nearby and will be at your side while you recover, and even Trixie has volunteered to help you. I have little doubt that the rest of your friends will visit frequently as well, and your brother has assigned the Night Guard’s very best to watch over you. Oh, and I do have one other small bit of good news.”
Twilight’s ear twitched and rotated, pointing itself that Celestia to listen closely to what it so desperately needed to hear.
“The Bellerophon’s crew did a quick search for survivors after recovering you and fighting off a wave of wyvern patrols. There was one ship on the river that was at the edge of their sight, sailing north, and sadly out of reach for interception so we don’t know their status. More importantly, they found three little zebra foals injured, but alive, in the caldera where the ship had once been hiding. Zecora has adopted them, and I hear she and Applejack are working together to build a larger home closer to the edge of the Everfree.”
An image of some foals racing passed in the wheelbarrow replayed in the back of her mind.
Celestia chuckled, taking another sip of her tea. “I do hope Ponyville is ready for the next generation of Cutie Mark Crusaders…”
Some warmth welled up in Twilight’s throat as she drifted back to sleep.
Something was different this time. Twilight was waking up once more, but now she knew exactly where she was. In a hospital bed, in the castle’s mini-hospital, her horn bandage deadlocked, and tubes sticking out of everywhere.
After a few moments of trying to get back to sleep, she decided it was futile and opened her eyes and sat up. The reality presented before her was different than she expected. She was almost right, though now she didn’t quite have tubes sticking out of her everything. Rather, she was down to a simple IV. Most notably, however, was that she had no hair. Not a mane, not a coat. She was nothing but skin.
Celestia said I suffered burns… I guess they had to shave whatever was left. Ugh. How long have I been out? Feels like… Actually, there is no way I can hope to be accurate while finishing that sentence. She tried to groan and mutter something else to herself, but her throat had decided to do an impression of the San Palomino desert. All that came out was a whispered, “Water…”
Defeated, she laid back down and closed her eyes. I’m still kind of exhausted, but I’m also tired of sleeping. A few moments passed, and her desire to sleep quickly waned. Her muscles were weak, but her brain was quite clearly not having any of this sleeping business. Maybe I can—
Tink tinktink tink…
Her ear twitched, a soft noise interrupting her thoughts. When she opened her eyes again, there was a glass of ice water on the nightstand next to her bed, along with a note.
Should you need anything, simply speak it, and it shall be my honor to retrieve it for you.-Cardinal Bloodmoon
At least my vision is back to normal. Wait… Cardinal?
I have little doubt that the rest of your friends will visit frequently as well, and your brother has assigned the Night Guard’s very best to watch over you.
The Night Guard’s best… At the top of the ranks of the night guard was Luna, followed by her brother. Just below that were three cardinals, one from each tribe. Aside from Obsidian, they were the highest-ranking and most powerful ponies under Luna’s command, and there was now certainly one in the room with her, hiding. She tried to tug at her wellspring to use her magic sight, but that only resulted in a disproportionate amount of pain. Wherever he was, he wasn’t about to be found anytime soon.
It’s a little unnerving, but these ponies are under Shiny’s orders. They’ll keep me safe. She grabbed the glass with her hooves and downed the entire thing in a single go, then wiped her lips and cleared her throat. “Ahhhh… Much better. I can actually speak now.”
She did another scan of the room, noticing all the bouquets of flowers and other assorted gifts and cards scattered about. Each new one she saw forced more and more tears to well up in her eyes. Her vision focused on one of the nearby cards, but it was too far away to read. Once again, she reached for her magic and received an awful lot of pain for her trouble.
“Um, could you bring some of the notes over? I’d like to read them…” She had voiced to request, but as she waited, no pony appeared to deliver them. Wait, the water was delivered when I wasn’t looking… “Oh come on, you’re not really going to make me close my eyes to get these, are you?”
“Not if you don’t want to.”
Twilight jerked her head hard enough to rock to the bed, after a Night Guard pegasus stallion stepped out of a subtle shadow on her left. “Jeez! Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”
His smile softened his blood red eyes. “Of course not, although if you were to have one, you’re in the best possible place.” He flicked his hoof through his crimson mane, its wavy form flowing down to his shoulders. A black jacket, red vest, and white undershirt all covered a layer of thin armour. Most notable, however, were the two dark chains sticking out of his shoulders, as if they were embedded directly into his body.
Twilight laid back down in the bed, now significantly more tired. “Just, could you give me some of the cards, please?”
“It would be my pleasure.”
A small pile of documents was dropped on her lap a few seconds later, all opened and ready for reading.
“There you are. Oh, here, let me make this easier for you.” He reached down and pulled some lever under her bed, and lifted up the top third of the mattress, moving her into any easy sitting position. “That should be more comfortable.”
Twilight covered up her chest with a blanket, locking it down under her foreknees. “Thank you,” she said simply, and opened up the first card.
What you did back there was some kind of amazing. On behalf of Team Jungle Thunder, it was an honor to serve you. From here on out, consider yourself an honorary member of our little group.
Wishing you a quick recovery and all the best,
Lieutenant Precision Strike
Inside the card was a glossy photo of the entire team in the Bellerophon’s launch bay. Gently she grabbed a hold of both, moving them over to the nightstand next to her, being careful not to set the cards in the condensation from her water glass.
Get well soon. When you’re ready, feel free to stop by whenever you like. Sky Vineyard is the best restaurant in all Cloudsdale. Granted, I'm a little biased, but still. We'd be honoured to host a hero like you.
Get well soon,
Inside was a picture of a large pegasus family posing outside of a cloud building. In the center of the group was a pony that looked like it could be Cloud Burner, though there was no glamour spell on him, so she couldn't be sure. What must have been family members surrounded him, both young and old.
"I'm glad he made it home. He deserves a nice retirement." Twilight picked up the next card.
I’m so sorry to hear about what happened. I wish I could’ve been there to help, but it sounds like I wouldn’t have been much aid to you this time.
I never know where I’m going to be more than a week in advance, but if you take this to any of my boutiques, one of my master designers will craft a brand-new dress just for you, and if I’m in Canterlot anytime soon I’ll swing by myself.
From the card fell a golden ticket. Twilight lifted it up in her hoof, finding it was lighter than any sheet of paper she'd ever felt.
“Impressive,” Bloodmoon cooed. “That’s actual gold leaf. A tenth of a micrometre thick! Five hundred sheets of that would only amount to the thickness of a single sheet of paper.”
“Yeah…” While Twilight had already known that, if Bloodmoon hadn’t said it, she might’ve. This was the world’s ultimate coupon. On it was etched a fancy design with Rarity’s Faerie Tale Boutique logo, her stylized signature, and a unique alphanumeric code. “One complimentary masterwork…”
There was a soft click as the door to the room opened, revealing a blue Pegasus stepping out of the dark void of an anti-candle.
“Twilight! You’re up!” Rainbow shouted zooming over and putting both forelegs around her, followed shortly by a pair of purple scaly arms.
“We thought we lost you,” Spike said, his eyes starting to drip acid on her again.
“Guys…” Twilight embraced them both, their bodies a welcome warmth against the chill of the hospital air on her bare skin.
“I am so sorry, Twilight!” Rainbow said as the both of them broke the hug. “I looked everywhere for you after the blast, and there were these wyvern’s, and then I thought I —”
“Rainbow, it’s okay.” Twilight looked her right in the eyes. “You did the right thing. I don’t hold any of this against you. If I hadn’t missed catching that rig with the gems —”
“No!” Spike snapped. “None of that! No self-recriminations! We’re here, we’re alive, and half a billion ponies are alive, that’s what matters. That flank wipe Mipaka and all his flank wipe followers can celebrate getting blasted to individual atoms all they want, but we are here, alive, and we have every right to celebrate that fact. Period!”
Twilight held her head low, folding her ears back. “It’s not that simple, Spike, but I appreciate the thought, and I agree enough that I won’t dwell on it right now. For the moment, I’m just happy to see you both again.”
Spike deflated in the face of her stubbornness. “Fair enough. I’ll take it. Did you need us to get you anything?”
Twilight looked down at her hairless body. “Maybe a coat growing potion? Zecora has something like that, right?”
“Yeah, she said that when you’re awake and able to eat she’ll come by and give it to you. She said you have to be able to tolerate solid foods.”
“That will be a while yet, I’m afraid.” Bloodmoon picked up a nearby clipboard. “The doctor told us that when you next awoke, he wanted to start you with fluid. If you try to eat anything solid or rich as you are right now, your digestive system will go into a state of shock. As degrading as this fact is for somepony of my stature and glorious lineage, I have experienced this, and can assure you that it is not something you wish to be visited upon you. Appendicitis is forgiving compared to it.”
Twilight cringed. “Yeah, I think I’ll wait on that. Some broth might be good, though. I am starting to get a little hungry.”
“That is good news. It means your systems are starting to regain control, and vegetable broth is a good start. I shall inform the doctor and allow you to spend time with your friends.” He didn’t so much leave the room as vanish in a puff of smoke.
Rainbow didn’t waste a second more. “Twilight, I’m sorry. I couldn’t…”
“No! None of that!” Spike got in her face with a claw. “I’m putting a twenty-four hour minimum moratorium on all extraneous apologies and self-deprecation. Twilight’s alive, and we’re happy about that, end of discussion.”
Twilight leaned back in her hospital bed and buried her head deep in the pillow. “Ordinarily, I’d be the first to defy that rule and engage in a rebellious depressive cycle, but I might just be too tired for it.”
“Did you want us to leave you alone?” Rainbow asked.
Twilight shook her head, rolling it from side to side on the pillow. “No. I’m tired, but I’m also tired of sleeping. I’ve been sleeping for, what, weeks?”
“Closer to a month and a half.” Spike reached over and tucked her blanket in. “You had us really worried for a while. Did you need anything else? I’d be happy to get it for you…”
Twilight closed her eyes and tried to melt into the mattress. “I could probably use another blanket. I’m cold and I don’t have my coat anymore. But what I really need is an update on what’s going on. What’s happened since I’ve been back?”
Spike nodded and dashed off to the closet, leaving behind an even more worried Rainbow.
“I hardly know the first thing about politics and even I know things are seriously messed up.” Rainbow put her forehooves on the bed and rested her head on them. “Zebrica used the explosion as an excuse to start a war with Saddle Arabia.”
Spike covered her with a another blanket as she slumped down deeper into the mattress. “It’s actually a bit worse than that,” he added.
“I don’t know if I want to hear this…”
“Perhaps…” Princess Luna stepped into the room from the dark void outside. “However…”
“Let me guess.” Twilight shivered, knowing the words were coming next. “There are some things I have to know, even if I don’t like it…”
A burst of green smoke erupted in the floor of the throne room, hissing and swirling into a disc over the heads of all those present. Magic and unnatural wind brought the mist tighter together, coalescing into a single smooth surface that bore the image of President Malkia.
“Princess Celestia,” the image spoke. “I’m told you have urgent news to tell me. This had better be true. In case you hadn’t noticed, I have a war to fight.”
Princess Luna’s mane bristled at her exclusion. Nearly 10,000 years old, and she was as unimportant as the other myriad of ponies scattered throughout the throne room. Rainbow, Spike, Charlemagne, Raven Quill, Pulsar, assorted nobles, day guard, and even a pair of invited news ponies armed with a motion picture camera.
She was lumped in with them, and her ego was not happy. Without her, there wouldn’t have been an Equestria. Well, there might have been, but certainly not as it is now.
“I can assure you, Madam President, that this is a matter of utmost urgency.”
The image and the smoke clarified as the dust particles condensed, giving them a clear view of the office behind the zebra, the sun lighting her from the side thanks to a large set of windows.
“Very well.” The image moved slightly, as if the rest of the pony attached to the floating head was sitting down. “You have my attention.”
“Thank you.” Celestia dipped her head slightly. “It concerns the explosion off of your southwestern coast. Saddle Arabia did not cause it.”
The president raise an eyebrow, a subtle sneer barely escaping her lips. “Then just who did?”
“That is a complicated question to answer, but if you are willing to spare the time, I can provide full context, and perhaps put your mind at ease.”
Oh, that little smile. It took every measure of Luna’s not inconsiderable discipline to prevent from rolling on the ground with laughter. She didn’t completely know what her sister had planned, but their conversations had revealed an inkling, which is more than what she usually received. So, progress was progress.
At the same time, that little smile meant something special. Either Celestia was about to absolutely destroy this mare, or something altogether unexpected would happen and the other horseshoe would drop. Either way, the words about to be spoken would be front page news for weeks on end.
“I have grave doubts as to whether or not you could put my mind at ease, alicorn Princess. Yet, this is not something I can ignore. Please, proceed.”
“Very well.” Princess Celestia cleared her throat. “That area has had my intelligence service’s interest for some time. A while ago, we intercepted a powerful, but damaged, bond class core being traded on the black market. Evidence led us to a chain of transactions leading to that region. Since such cores have been very rare lately, we naturally launched an investigation. Ultimately, I chose to send Grand Mage Twilight Sparkle to lead this investigation. She found two very disturbing things.”
“Let me get this straight. You sent your agent into my nation to conduct an illegal investigation?” Malkia locked eyes on Celestia, an angry fire behind them unmatched even by Bismare and Charlemane.
No, Luna thought to herself. That’s not just anger. I’ve seen that look in the mirror countless times. That’s hatred. Jealousy. It doesn’t matter what Celestia says, this war is going forward regardless.
“I regret, Madam President, that this may cause a rift between our nations. But I’m willing to accept that if it averts this war, especially in light of what was found. You see, Twilight discovered an especially odd, impoverished village founded and controlled by an eccentric doomsday cult. Somehow, this leader, Mipaka, used the medicinal wealth of the herbs around his village to fund expeditions to recover bond class gems from all over the world. By the time she was able to determine what, exactly, these gems were being used for, it was too late. Mipaka had opened a portal into what a prior Grand Mage called ‘The After.’”
“And that’s supposed to mean something to me?! You sent an enemy agent into my sovereign territory and—”
“And she averted a catastrophe the likes of which the world would never have recovered from. This portal, first developed by Grand Mage Starswirl the Bearded, is an all-consuming sphere. Once it is open, it begins feeding on the ambient magic inherent in the environment until its own size grows so large that it cannot eat enough to sustain itself. After that, it detonates.”
Malkia’s breathing slowed, and she ran her hoof over her mane, flattening it back down. “So you’re saying the explosion was actually caused by this, Mipaka?”
“Mostly, yes. However, if it was allowed to simply grow, it would have enveloped the entire continent. I don’t know how this Mipaka managed to discover the knowledge of one of our old Grand Mage’s, but we were very fortunate that the current Grand Mage was there to force a premature shutdown. Had she not acted, both your nation and Saddle Arabia would have been wiped off the map, and Equestria would have suffered great losses.”
If Luna looked carefully, she could almost see the little bits of enamel being ground off the president’s teeth. “I see. Thank you for shedding light on this mystery, Princess Celestia.”
“You are most welcome.” Celestia raised a hoof to her chest, and gave the president a slight nod. “I trust this means that the war between Zebrica and Saddle Arabia is to be cancelled?”
“I’m afraid not. My citizens are crying out to me, clambering to give them a war, and I intend to deliver.”
“They are only demanding it because you sold it to them,” Luna spat, not hiding a single drop of the acidic disgust in her voice. “Neither you nor they know anything of war!”
“I will not be spoken to like that, you groveling upstart!” The clouds around the president’s image swirled in the smoke at the outburst. “Know your place!”
“My place?” Luna stomped her hooves on her throne as lightning arced pass the stained-glass windows, rattling them with their roar. “My place is here, leading my nation, even fifty thousand years after the reaper comes and sends your soul to—!” A gilded hoof press lightly against her chest, and she looked up at her sister, whose pleading magenta eyes stopped her entirely.
“Please, Sister, let us not allow this to devolve into a shouting match. After all, there is one more thing to discuss.”
There was that smile again. Luna let out a sigh, surrendering once again to her sister. “Very well, Tia. But you know I’m right.”
“You speak of something to discuss, but I am done talking. My nation—”
“Needs you to listen to what I have to say,” Celestia finished for her, an unusual glare flashing across her face. “The other thing that my Grand Mage found was a sophisticated, organized smuggling ring for Equestrian weaponry. Weaponry marked and labelled for shipment to your military in vast quantities. This, Madam President, is simply unacceptable. I demand the immediate cessation of all hostilities with Saddle Arabia, and the return of all Equestrian enchanted and cored weaponry. I will not allow you to use the fruit of my ponies’ labours in your plans for conquest.”
“Your ponies!? My zebras have the right to defend themselves, Princess. And it is my job to give them the means, which I have done, and for that my citizens are grateful. I will not kowtow any foreign powers, not even yours.”
If Luna didn’t know any better, she’d say that Celestia looked genuinely crestfallen. She could see her torc slide slightly against her chest, her ears lower, and even her wings droop slightly.
However, Luna did know better.
“I am very sorry to hear that, Madam President.” Celestia waved a hoof at her senechal, who brought over a scroll which Celestia then dutifully signed. A small flash of light followed as the scroll was enveloped in a golden smoke that slithered its way out of the window.
“Unfortunately, I too cannot ‘kowtow’ to a foreign leader. Compromise and understanding can be a wonderful thing, but these demands are not something I can bend on. Therefore, I must take action.”
Thunder and light roared through the room once again, this time not from an outburst from Luna, but from something happening outside of Malkia’s window.
“What— what was that? What was on that scroll!?”
Luna fought back against the smile growing on her face with all her might, but she was losing the battle. “If I had to take a guess, Madam President, I would imagine that it is the Michaelides, sister ship of the Bellerophon, turning your capital’s docks and shipyards into driftwood. Am I correct, Sister?”
“Just so, dearest Luna.” Celestia stood up and stepped off of her throne, approaching the gaseous image of the president. “I told you, I cannot allow these weapons to be used against our allies, and I am willing to go to great lengths to right this injustice.”
Malkia spat a series of ineffective curses at the further explosions going off behind her before turning away from Celestia, and towards Charlemane. “You! You told me—”
“I told your ambassador, not you, that my honest assessment of the political reality would be that Equestria could not intervene in a war between Zebrica and Saddle Arabia. I did not know you were smuggling weapons and promoting illegal activities within Equestria.” Charlemane trotted up to the image to stand beside Celestia, his hoof steps bearing as much of the weight of destiny as the alicorn’s. “The Empyreal Hall will not tolerate such a subversion of our authority! Her Highness is acting with the full approval of the Council.”
Now that is unexpected. Luna stood up as well to join her sister, the words being spoken by Celestia and Charlemane swishing around in her ears like a fine wine would in her mouth. “You wanted a war, Madam President? Then you should celebrate, because you are being given one. Art thou ready to bear the consequences of thy actions? For we are ready to deliver them.”
Screams and shouts were heard behind Malkia as what appeared to be one of her assistants opened a door to her room and shouted something in Zebrican to her, followed by another blast of thunder and the shattering of glass that forced the President to duck and cover.
“This… This is impossible! There is an ocean between us!” Her head looked like it was about ready to reach through the portal and bite them like a rabid dog. “You have no way of getting your army here! We have twenty times as many ships!” The lights above her flickered and failed, darkening even the gas that held her image. “What? What’s going—”
“That's for me to know and you to wonder about.” Celestia’s smile had completely vanished, and it had been replaced with a steely gaze that signalled to Luna that the coup de grace was coming. “As for your Navy, you do have more seafaring vessels, but few of them are capable of flying, much less presenting a threat to a Bellerophon class warship. Naponion has already run the simulations. Equestria does not go to war and seek to win, Madam President.”
“Rather,” Charlemagne continued for her, “we win first and then go to war. We need not send an army, we need only enable a victory for our allies. Our ships shall come, and then Saddle Arabia will march its forces over the craters that were once your soldiers.”
Luna felt a gentle tap of her sister’s primary feathers on her back, giving her a subtle signal of what to do. She stepped up to the source of the mist, a pile of dust burning and fizzing on the floor.
“Madam President,” Celestia began, using a tone and volume just short of the Royal Canterlot voice. “Should you wish to cease this war and start negotiations, whether it is to protect your pride or to prevent a cataclysmic loss of life, you need only announce a ceasefire with Saddle Arabia. Until then, I’m afraid, our military operations will continue.”
Princess Luna stomped on the small pile of dust, stamping out the fire and killing its magic.
Malkia’s image flickered and faded, her voice growing distant like a shout over a mountain. “No! You can’t just— I won’t let you!”
“This meeting is concluded.” Celestia spread her wings, blowing away the smoke with a single flap and returning the colours in the throne room to normal.
The two alicorns returned to their thrones, and Charlemane returned to his place beside them. A heavy silence weighed down on everypony present, history being written by the thoughts and feelings of their souls, along with a furious scribble by a lone pegasus mare reporting for the Canterlot Chronicle.
“Miss Print, did you get all that?” Celestia asked, her trademark warm smile returning as she regarded her subject.
“Hmm?” Verity Print looked up, and jumped up and place in surprise before bowing deeply. “Yes, your Majesty! Thank you very much for inviting me to this —”
“Not a problem, Miss Print. However, the Crown must now discuss matters of state, and I must ask every pony, save my sister, Chairpony Charlemane, Captain Dash, and Spike to leave the throne room.”
“Oh! Right, of course.” She bowed again, practically grabbing the camera pony beside her by the shoulders. “Viewfinder, shut that thing off and get going!”
The stallion shook down a nervous swallow as if he was turning away from the gates of Tartarus itself. Slowly, however, he packed up his camera and the two left the throne room, along with a host of other ponies, leaving only the princesses, the chair pony, Rainbow Dash, and Spike.
“Well…” Spike sat down, shaking slightly. “That was a thing. Why did you want us to stay, Princess?”
“You two are here as Twilight’s proxy.” Celestia took in a deep breath. “And there are other details we have to go through in this briefing. Speaking of, Luna, I would like your Night Guard to lead the investigation into routing the Wavu.”
There was a pregnant pause, and it gave birth to a whole litter of little pauses.
“Sister, is something the matter?” Celestia asked, like what she had said earlier was the most normal thing in the world. “I would have thought you would be most eager for something like this.”
Luna didn’t respond with words, but her expression and subtle lean to look over at Charlemane must’ve asked the question for her.
“The Council is willing to grant you an exception in this case, Your Highness.” Charlemane walked up to her, for all the world acting like he was taller. Like he was her superior. “I know the Duchess of Shanghay in particular has been voicing complaints over this group for some time.”
“Then I almost don’t want to do it.” Luna stood up in an attempt to remind the stallion — and perhaps herself — of their proper places. “That still begs the question, why me?”
“I’m afraid RGIS is going to have their hooves full with this endeavor, seeing as now they are both responsible for internal intelligence security issues as well as the external war. They will be stretched to their limits. And I’m afraid my student will need some time to recover from her injuries, so I can’t ask her to do it either.” Celestia leaned over and brought her sister into a hug, putting her mouth next to her ear to pass along a whisper. “Plus, I need somepony to hunt for a link from the Wavu to Cloudsdale Armouries. Doubtless they are going to be scrambling to cover their tracks.”
Luna looked down at the ground with a morose wavering in her legs, despite the fact that every fiber of her being want to shoot Charlemane the most vicious look. And Cloudsdale armouries is majority owned by the Duchess of Cloudsdale… “Very well, sister. It would be my honour to bring these thieves into the light.”
“You have to be kidding me! Celestia actually declared war on them!? I’ve been trying to avoid a war!” Twilight tossed away the covers in front of her and started to climb down the bed. “I’ll go talk to her. Maybe there’s still time to —”
“Twilight, the opening shots were fired weeks ago.” Luna nudged Twilight back into the bed and tucked her in. “Celestia is only trying to end it as swiftly as possible.”
Twilight grumbled and sank into the covers. “I'd prefer it if there was an option that didn't involve turning a large war into a giant one. This reeks of… of… well, I’m not quite sure yet, but it reeks!”
“Reeks of politics, you mean.” Rainbow ruffled her feathers. “Somepony’s going to get rich off of all this.”
“Yeah, that. And what about you?” Twilight pointed a hoof at Luna. “I think it’s fairly obvious that the Council granted this so-called exception just so that you and Shiny would be busy with the Wavu instead of going after them.”
“Huh.” Spike stroked his chin with his claws. “I never thought about it that way.”
“I have no doubt that you’re correct on this, Twilight Sparkle. This was masterful political manoeuvring.” Luna rubbed her forehead with a hoof. “If I deny the request, I look weak, and my efforts to regain my full authority will be set back decades. If I take it and fail, the same happens. If I take it and succeed, then I eliminate an enemy of the Council for them. However, if I succeed, at least I will gain a small win in the eyes of the ponies, and regardless of the politics, Sister was right. This is a problem that needs to be dealt with, and the night guard is the best available tool for the job.”
Bloodmoon wandered back into the room just in time to see Twilight grab one of her pillows and bury her face in it to muffle her frustrated yell.
“Oh my. It sounds as if somepony has heard the bad news.” He set down a bowl of vegetable broth on the sliding tray next to her.
Twilight let her forelegs flop down to her sides, and the pillow soon followed. “I think I’m starting to hate politics.”
Rainbow snickered at her. “Welcome to the club. Meetings are every Tuesday at six, and dues are collected at the first of the month.”
Spike gave the captain a playful nudge with his elbow. “Yeah, and you’ll get your membership card in 6 to 8 weeks.”
“I’ll bring the refreshments,” Luna added with a smile.
Twilight wanted to be angry with them, but they were right, and she was really only angry at the circumstances. She took in a deep breath and scooted the sliding tray over so she could get at the broth. “Still, I can’t help but wonder where that leaves me.”
“In a hospital bed, being looked after by myself, and the other cardinals.” Bloodmoon grabbed her water glass, and started to take it out the door. “I will get you a refill. In the meantime, I suggest you do your best to keep your mind off of the situation. There is little you can do about it at the moment, other than place your trust in the princesses.”
Twilight tried to pick up the spoon as the Pegasus had done to her glass, but after a second it simply fell back to the tray. “And that might just be the hardest thing of all. This…” She took in a deep breath and sighed. “This is a disaster…”
“This is a disaster…” Charlemane grumbled aloud, slipping into the seat in the meeting room. “An absolute disaster all the way around.” He waved a hoof at one of his servants, who brought over the document packet he had requested. The folder plopped against the fine mahogany table, and opened to reveal the intelligence trove that was so vexing him.
“Are you sure there’s no way out of this?” Duchess Suisaiga kept her gaze firmly affixed to her reflection in her tea. “We’re basically giving the Princess a clean win. A war will certainly galvanize her support. Although, if it leads to peace in the long run, I would certainly support it, as the Princess really isn’t so bad, but still… It feels like a lot of our efforts would be going to waste. Couldn’t we try something else?”
Badlands shook his head and ran his dusty, tan hoof through his short, black mane. “No, he’s right. She’d absolutely override the rest of us, and would come out looking like a glorious general for doing so. If we don’t go along, we look like cowards. Is there any way we can go after Twilight for this? Seeing as she did commit a crime by infiltrating Zebrica —”
Charlemane cut him off with a wave of his hoof, and then adjusted the light switch to make one of the larger rooms in his castle somewhat brighter in the midst of the deep night. “That might have been an option, had the mission not been personally approved by the chair pony of the Council. All Celestia would need to do is point that out, and it would all backfire.”
“Well, damn. This bucking sucks.” Badlands slammed his hoof on the table.
“I’ll thank you not to do that.” Charlemagne picked up the other stallion’s glass and splashed its contents all over its user. “This is a Mastercraft table, not the salvage scrap you have at home.”
“Aw, man, not the jacket!” He whined, trying to wipe off the strange black fabric with his hooves.
“I don’t see what the problem is.” Bismare took a long sip of her wine. “There’s nothing that says we have to go along with Celestia on this.”
“Speak for yourself!” Xìngyùn yelled, stepping into the room and to her seat. “I, for one, fully support the Chairpony’s plan.”
“Because it gets Luna to deal with your Wavu problem,” Bismare muttered inside her glass.
“This is true, but I don’t think that makes her any less right.” Suisaiga put her head down on the table and glared at Xìngyùn. “Although I cannot believe I’m agreeing with her…”
“Just because none of you have the courage —”
Charlemane slammed Bismare’s glass back onto the table. “Drop it, Duchess. You’re outvoted.”
Bismare’s haughty laugh was like a monkey playing piano on his nerves. “What’s the matter, chair pony? Out of ideas? Why, at this rate, I’ll be taking your position in no time!”
“Not yet, you old hag.” He spread out the papers from the folder in front of him, and pulled out his pen. “We aren’t finished. Not by a long shot. I still have favours to call in. In a year, this will all turn out to be a wash.”
“Oh, now that I’d like to see! Tell me, how are you going to —”
“All in good time, amateur. For now, we have a more pressing concern to discuss. Duchess Artfeather.”
The name of the Duchess of Cloudsdale captured the attention of the room instantly.
“What about her?” Badlands asked, still shaking booze out of his feathers. “Come to think of it, I haven’t seen her in a while…”
“The Chairpony probably means all the disturbances and unrest in Cloudsdale lately.” Suisaiga held her nose and scooted away from the Duke of San Palomino. “Last I checked, Artfeather hasn’t done anything about them yet.”
“Actually, it’s worse than that.” Charlemane slid some the papers to his colleagues. “The weapons that our Grand Mage intercepted in Zebrica were manufactured by Cloudsdale Armouries, and if the intel is to be believed, there was a massive quantity of them shipped.”
“Oh, hell.” Badlands rubbed his throat. “Artfeather, what the buck are you doing?”
“Giving Westphalian Defensive some future contracts, it seems.” Bismare looked like a foal at Hearth’s Warming rubbing her hooves together like that.
“Is there any possibility that these are forgeries?” Xìngyùn looked like she was biting her tongue between sentences. “It is possible to manufacture knockoffs of these sorts of weapons…”
“No. Remember, the Grand Mage discovered that these were being shipped to Zebrica via a smuggling ring, which implies that they were manufactured here in Equestria. Even if they were counterfeit, then they are so good that the only way they would have been able to pull it off is with support from company engineers.” Charlemane stood up, placing his forehooves on the table. “Nobles, distance yourselves from this company, and from Artfeather. When the hammer falls, we are cutting. Her. Loose.”