“Now, brace yourself.”
Twilight grabbed onto the provided railings with both hooves, locking them in place and clenching her teeth as she heard the drill spin up. This was the moment that every filly dreaded when their parents warned them not to use too much magic. For all the scare tactics of all the parents the world, actually experiencing it first hoof was far more terrifying.
As the blade sank into the cast, it felt more like a jackhammer on her skull than a sharp edge. Despite that, she had to keep absolutely still so it wouldn’t simply bisect her now-supposedly-healed horn. She wasn’t sure how long it took, as looking back it didn’t seem all that long, but someone had forgotten to tell her heart that.
“There we go.”
Right as the doctor said those words, the two halves of the cast fell off of Twilight’s horn like a pair of bad apples--only these shattered once they hit the ground.
Twilight looked up to her now free horn, giving it a gentle stroke as the organ at its base throbbed in pain. There were still little bits of the magic plaster stuck to it; tiny barnacles that were affixed to her and would disrupt her magic if left alone. Fortunately, the nurse next to her was prepared with a file and began scraping them off, although that only made it hurt worse.
“Now, I want you to use a light touch with your magic for the next few days. Single item telekinesis only, and only light objects at that. You should have full use of it again in another month or so.” The doctor lifted up a brush and swiped across her forehead, clearing away some of the dried plaster that had embedded itself within her coat.
Twilight turned to look at the mirror in the doctor’s office to get a better view of her horn. The pain was quickly subsiding, and her head felt a few pounds lighter. Although, this was most likely because it really was a few pounds lighter. Something else, however, still struck her as amiss.
Is it… Longer? Twilight ran her hoof along the length, finding that not only did it feel longer, but the tip was sharper as well.
“Ah, yes. Her Highness told me she used some powerful healing magic on you when you were being offloaded from the Bellerophon, and that this could be a side effect.”
Or she was covering for me and my alicorn ascendant butt… Twilight thought to herself.
When the last little bits of plaster were filed off, the doctor signalled the nurse to place the metal implement she was using on the table at the side of the room.
“Now then, Lady Sparkle, let’s try a test, shall we?” The doctor adjusted his glasses and picked up the clipboard. “Use your magic to lift the file and slowly bring it over to you.”
Twilight nodded and braced herself for the inevitable pain as she lit her horn, and just as she had expected, the pain came. Unlike before, however, it faded almost as fast, the magic once again flowing freely through her mind. With the tip of her tongue sticking out, she turned her focus to the file, and put her field around it.
Thud! “Ow!” The file nailed her in the chest like someone had thrown a medicine ball at her. What in the…
“Oh my!” The doctor put his clipboard down. “I’ve never seen that happen before. A field that’s stronger after one’s horn has been in a cast for weeks?”
Crap. Twilight gave him a nervous chuckle. “Well, it’s always been strong, I guess I just don’t remember my own strength…” Please buy it please buy it please buy it please buy it…
“I, well, in that case…” He picked up the file and put it back on the table. “Let’s try again, but more gently this time.”
Crap. Twilight took in a deep breath and lit her horn again, this time trying to slow the magic down. Nice floodgate. Gentle floodgate. No launching metal implements at my head. The file jiggled and shook, but was slowly encased in her magic and lifted into the air, drifting ever so gently into her hooves.
“Splendid! Why, I don’t think I’ve seen such a recovery! Perhaps we should have taken your horn cast off sooner… Oh well, no harm done. Quite the opposite, it seems. Tell me, overall, how do you feel? Anything?”
“A little sore, but it seems to be going away. Although…” Twilight leaned over and looked in the mirror again. “The short mane is still bugging me. I mean, look at me! I look like a guy! Like… Like… Like my name should be Dusk Shine or something…”
There was a small pause as the room fell silent.
“Actually, strike that. That would be a terrible name for me as a guy. Just…” Twilight rubbed her head, headache starting to return. “Forget I said anything.”
“Of course, of course. Patient confidentiality, and all that.” The doctor winked at her. “But, I think I’ve seen all I need to see. Is there anything else you're worried about that you need to ask me?”
Twilight hopped off the examination bed, and stretched her shoulders. “No, I think I’m finally starting to feel more like myself. Thank you, Doctor.”
“My pleasure, Lady Sparkle,” he said with a bow. “By the way, if you’re done, Princess Celestia said she wanted to see you in the war room.”
He shrugged. “I have no idea. I don’t plan how or why to send soldiers to get injured. I just patch them up when they get back.”
“Right. Of course. I’ll just get going then…”
Twilight walked out the door, making her way through the winding hallways of the castle hospital and towards the portal she hadn’t been through in over a month.
Why is she asking me to go there? It’s not like I’m ready to go back out in the field yet… Although, come to think of it, given what she’s training me to become, I suppose I need to keep myself apprised on new events. It’s probably some kind of intelligence briefing, not that I can do anything right now.
Her hooves stopped just before she reached the portal, instead trotting over to a nearby window to look at the faint outline of her reflection. Doesn’t matter how many times I brush it, the mane won’t look right until it gets longer. At least I have enough of a coat that I don’t look naked. She gave up on fixing it for the time being, and stepped through the vortex.
The other side was much as she expected. Ponies were in overdrive due to the war, just as they were after the siege of Canterlot. Yet, despite how busy they must all have been, she knew that in just a moment, there’d be a loud yell announcing her arrival, and they’d all stop and bow.
Just as she predicted, all activity in the room ceased. What was once a dull murmur of constant talking became a void without sound, and all the ponies stopped to look at her.
But there was no announcement. There wasn’t a single pony saluting, or bowing. Instead, there was only silence, save for one particular pony. That pony was clapping. Then there was a second pony clapping, and the third and fourth and twelfth. The entire floor of the war room had erupted in cheers and applause, whistles and hollers; a storm of joy that threatened to shake Canterlot right off its mountain.
Given how thin her coat was right now, Twilight was fairly certain that she was no longer purple; she was beet red.
One step at a time, she made her way through the crowd, bowing, nodding, waving, and any other acknowledgements she could think of as she desperately tried to guess where Celestia could be.
Fortunately, the cheers died down on their own well before she made it to her mentor, and her walk turned into just that: something to get her from point ‘a’ to ‘b’. One thing did, however, stand out to her on her way; The door to the captain’s office was open.
Thus, it was begging her to knock on it. “Hello? Is there someone in here?”
“Whoever that is had better grow a spine and knock like a soldier.” The door between her and the gruff voice slammed shut, followed by a somewhat more muffled, “Now, try that again!”
Twilight lifted her hoof to comply and froze just before the keratin made contact. Wait. What the heck am I doing? She rolled her eyes at herself and flung open the door, trotting inside like she owned the place, as there was a legitimate argument to that being the case.
“Whoever that is is about to d— Oh. It’s you.” The short stallion adjusted his glasses and sat back down in his chair. “I was wondering what all that useless commotion was about outside. So, you decided to join us here in the land of the not-lazy.”
“Sorry, getting hit with an explosion larger than any Equus has seen in four thousand years just takes everything out of me.” Set Snark to maximum. She pulled out the chair on the other side of his desk — Shiny’s desk — and sat down. “It looked like someone was in here, and I assume from the fact that you’re sitting in the captain’s chair, along with the emblem on your shoulders, that you are who Celestia selected to be the next captain.”
“If you think that impresses me, you’re mistaken. But yes, I am the one they coerced out of retirement to fix your brother’s mess.” He waved his tan hoof across the desk to the myriad of papers strewn across it.
Twilight glanced down and scanned the documents upside down, but found the most interesting thing was not the words on them. Being very careful not to use too much power, she lifted up a few of the graying, dark brown hairs from his mane that were left on top of the sheets. “This suggests that you weren’t actually doing anything with these. I think you’re keeping them here to make Shiny look bad. That or you just like to complain.”
She smiled at him. “I can empathize the with latter.” The smile vanished. “But not the former.”
“Believe me, young miss, after the siege, your brother doesn’t need my help to make him look bad. But that’s neither here nor there. You came to introduce yourself to the new Captain. Well, here I am, so let’s get this over with.” He stood up on the chair and swung his flank over, showing her his Cutie Mark: a pair of rapiers striking each other. “My name is Captain Duel Strike, Baron of the Bittish Isles, and I like whores.”
Twilight’s face froze. Not necessarily because she lost control, but because there was no way on earth she could think of an appropriate expression to have after hearing that. “Excuse me?”
“You’re going to hear about it eventually, so you might as well hear it from me. One of the reasons I was passed over in favour of your brother is because of my predilection for a specific vice. More accurately, it’s because I was caught.”
Twilight’s face still hadn’t changed expression.
He ran his hoof down his neck, messing up his already unkempt mane. “I’m an old stallion, Grand Mage Sparkle. I don’t give a diamond dog’s ass about what ponies think of me, so you can expect me to be as blunt as possible, and yes, the Princess knows me and my reputation very well. I was pulled out of retirement for this, so the worst they can do is fire me and I go right back to what I was very happy to be doing. So threatening to talk to Celestia about me is useless.”
Crap. Twilight rubbed her temple. “And why the hostility? This isn’t exactly a great way to make friends.”
“Ah, but I’m not interested in making friends. You get to experience pure, unfiltered Duel Strike.” He leaned forward and put his forehooves together. “Like I said, I don’t care what ponies think of me. In the end, the reaper takes us all…” He narrowed his gaze directly into her eyes. "Except, perhaps, you?”
She folded her forelegs and stared back at him. “I really wish she hadn’t told you that.”
“Comes with the job. A captain must be aware of all the angles to make the best possible decisions. If nothing else, Grand Mage Sparkle, I will admit this: it was your brother who taught me that. Now, I believe Celestia is waiting for you, but there is one last thing before you go.” He reached into his drawer and pulled out a small case, setting it down in front of her. “Compliments of the Inner Council.”
Twilight picked it up with her hooves, testing its weight. “From the Council? It’s not a bomb, is it?”
Duel let out a series of sharp laughs. “No, I don’t believe so, although I wouldn’t put it past a few of them. Now, if you’ll excuse me,” he said, collecting the papers on his desk. “It appears I need to find something new to complain about now that you’ve seen through me. Go! Her Highness is waiting for you in the main map room. Get! Out!”
Twilight grumbled but left the office as she had more important things to do. The first of these was to investigate the case. She picked it up and spun it around in her magic, orienting it towards her and popping it open.
The case hit the ground, but its contents were narrowly saved.
This… This is why they were clapping. Her telekinetic field faded away, leaving the small object to rest in her hooves. The Order of Unity… The medal had a heavily stylized sun and moon imprinted on the metal, attached to a blue and gold ribbon. In the Equestrian military, there was no higher honour, save knighthood, which she was technically ineligible for anyway as Grand Mage was an even higher noble rank.
Gently, she placed the award back in its container, and closed the lid. I don’t deserve this… She sighed. But I also don’t know what it would mean politically if I tried to reject it… Guess I don’t have a choice.
She continued through the halls and down towards the map room, her hooves plodding along the carpet. She didn’t even notice the passage of time until she had arrived at the doors the map room. With a deep breath, she pushed the doors open to reveal the Princess, along with a multitude of ponies going over documents and making changes on various maps on tables and across the walls.
“Ah, you made it, Twilight. Tell me, did you meet the new—”
Twilight held up the little case with the medal inside.
“I see. Try not to let him get to you. Come, pull up a chair next to me.” The Princess moved a little to her right, patting the ground next to her with a hoof.
Twilight wordlessly complied, picking a chair across the room and floating it over. Neither Celestia nor the dark pony next to her were using chairs, but Twilight was shorter than either of them and wouldn’t have been able to see on top of the table without it.
She sat down, now in between the two ponies, but paid no mind to the table. Instead, she put the medal in front of the Princess. “Tia, I don’t know if I—”
“If you’re about to say that you don’t deserve that after what you pulled off over there, I will take that medal out of its case and pin it to your flesh.”
Twilight turned around to face the stallion behind her, the unicorn whose coat was roughly the same dark blue as a powerful thunderstorm cloud, and whose camouflage uniform bore four stars on its shoulder.
“A bit too curt to be proper around our Grand Mage, but I agree with the sentiments.” Celestia put a wing over Twilight’s back. “My student, allow me to introduce you to General Nocturne, leader of Equestria’s Special Forces.”
The stallion snapped off a salute. “Ma’am! It’s a pleasure. The Lieutenant told me all about what happened in Zebrica.”
“I…” Twilight scooted back in her chair. “I suppose everybody’s heard about it by now. I kinda wish it wasn’t that big a deal.”
“You have to excuse my student, General Nocturne. She can be humble to a fault.”
Twilight felt that she was shifting colour back to red. “So, um… What’s going on over here…” She turned to look at the table, finding a large map of the area between Zebrica and Saddle Arabia with pins denoting what she assumed to be the front lines about 100 km inside of traditional Saddle Arabia territory.
“It doesn’t look like it’s going well…” Twilight tried to find something else to add, but the words all died on her tongue.
“Actually, up until this morning, I would have considered this to be among our best case scenarios.” The General pointed at a stack of binders, each labelled with “Plan Eventuality” and a number. “The Equestrian military is superior to the Zebrican one, but outside of our new airships we can’t really project that power across the ocean, and the Saddle Arabian military is woefully outgunned.”
The General picked up a pencil in his orange hued magic and pointed out several small red X’s on the map behind Zebrican lines. “But the zebras have a weakness too, and that’s in their supply lines. They’re short on food, and with Luna’s efforts to confound the Wavu, they’re running low on munitions as well. My teams have been hitting their supply points, and if this keeps up, pretty soon they’re going to have to resort to throwing rocks at the horses.”
“So what happened this morning?” Twilight asked, trying to keep the topic nailed down.
Celestia made a strange face, Twilight surmising it to be a rare glimpse of true frustration from her mentor. “I received a communiqué from the Gryphon Ambassador. The Gryphon King has made it known that she feels that our actions are those of a bully, and if we do not withdraw, there will be ‘consequences.’”
“Oh…” Twilight slowed down in her chair. “So we’re looking at another war… Unless it’s a bluff?”
“Gryphons don’t bluff, Twilight.” Celestia picked up one of the pins over the ocean, and moved it into deeper waters. “I’ve spent most the day trying to determine a strategy that will buy the horses time, while still making the gryphons hesitant to intervene.”
Twilight folded her forelegs and rested her chin on a hoof. “This still strikes me as strange. Most gryphons despise bullies, and if anything it was Zebrica that was acting like a giant bully. Why not go after them? Why us?”
“The running theory, Ma’am, is that gryphons like to be the ones who decide who’s being a bully. Hypocritical, maybe, but it would fit within the cat-birds’ mindset.”
“Maybe, but…” Twilight bit down on her hoof. “I don’t know. This just seems really strange for them. Was this message meant to be from the nation as a whole, or just the aerie that the king is from?”
“As a whole, although we haven’t been able to ascertain the feelings of the Crown Princes of the other aeries. I’m hoping that at least one of them will find this as odd as we do. If so, we can—”
The door slamming open interrupted the Princess, and the panicked-looking young soldier clambered up to the table. “Your Highness! I have an important dispatch—”
Celestia held up a hoof. “I gathered as much, my little pony. Though, I must ask why were you running.”
The smile she gave him was so warm and radiant Twilight couldn’t help but wonder if there weren’t a legion of cats out there about to fight over the rights to take a nap on that spot. This did not stop the young soldier's legs from shaking in her presence.
“Um, I was told it was urgent, your Majesty, and I—”
“Private.” The general reared up, placing his forehooves on the table and scaring little pony half to death. “When delivering a communiqué to a higher ranking officer, you do not run unless there is a grave, imminent danger to said officer, or to the facilities the officer is in. Do you understand?”
The pony nodded, jaw agape.
“I can’t hear that response, Private.”
“Sir, yes, Sir!” He snapped to attention with a salute, but failed to change his face to anything but one of terror.
“Good. Now let’s have it, and get out of my sight.” The general snatched the file out of the private’s hooves and laid it on the table. “Dismissed.”
The private saluted again, and began to scramble away, before freezing in place and correcting his gait to a slow walk.
Nocturne adjusted his cap. “Shining got things started, but we still have a long way to go to become a true professional military. Tell me you’re making the new Captain keep the reforms in place, your Highness.”
“And expanding them. I made it quite clear that those are no longer Shining’s reforms, but mine.” Celestia picked up the first of the papers. “Oh my. Well, this is somewhat interesting.”
“What is it, Princess?” Twilight leaned over to peek at the paper. “New troop positions?”
“To say the least.” Celestia lit her horn and picked up a series of pins and the Zebrican frontline, removing them from the board. She then added a bunch of new Saddle Arabia pins and placed them on the opposite side of the front lines.
“You’re kidding me…” The general picked up the papers, seemingly verifying them for himself. “They broke through? That’s a huge gap! How did—”
“According to the report, a very large group of Zebrican soldiers along the front lines turned tail and ran after they discovered their weapons were not working, giving Saddle Arabia a prime opportunity. The work of an intelligent Equestrian saboteur, perhaps?”
Celestia gave her a wink, and Twilight’s blush came back.
“With this, we may not need to worry about the gryphons after all.” Celestia picked up the Equestrian special forces team pins from the table, removing them from play. “Backing away like this will still come with a significant political cost, leaving me not far ahead of where I was, but it’s one I’m willing to pay.”
The general nodded. “Unless the Zebrican military can pull a miracle out of their hat, this is it. They’re toast. Should I give the orders?”
“Make it so, but keep your forces on the continent and tell them to stay out of sight until a peace treaty is signed. Just in case.”
He went into a deep bow, then walked off to parts unknown.
Twilight put her head down on the table. “That’s what you have to do, isn’t it? Prepare for every contingency, even when you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“It is indeed. Being a Princess isn’t easy, Twilight; nor is being Grand Mage. But you are new to this, so nopony is expecting you to be able to do what I do.” Celestia motioned to the room around them. “Leave all this, the wargames and politics, to me. Ask questions whenever you wish, but trust in my experience. In the long run, I have faith it will all work out.”
Twilight ducked down and shuffled towards her mentor, close enough to feel her radiant magic.
“I was originally going to brief you on the new development with the gryphons, along with my short-term plans for dealing with them, but thanks to your sabotage, I have to rethink them all over again. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you. I suppose some additional congratulations are in order, Twilight. You may feel that you are the cause of this war, but in truth, your quick thinking in the Wavu warehouse just put a swift end to a war that promised to be a massacre. If I had a more prestigious medal to give you, I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
“Mrglefrgle” was the response from Twilight’s alicorn-coat-buried muzzle. Roughly translated, it meant “Stop embarrassing me,” and the Grand Mage silently prayed that Celestia understood her.
“Since we’ve finished a bit early, I’m going to let you go on your way. However, I’ve been told that amongst the many ponies and provisions Luna has been teleporting all over the world lately, is a particular unicorn stallion that’s very eager to see you.”
Twilight groaned again. “Not another suitor…”
Celestia froze for a moment. “Another suitor? Twilight, I never sent any…”
“Oh…” Twilight hit herself on the head. “Sorry. It’s just that ‘very eager to see you’ is a line my mom uses when she wants me to meet some noble looking for a wife, and I had a pony hit on me earlier…”
Celestia leaned forward, her face suddenly deathly serious. “This ‘suitor’… He didn’t hurt—”
“No, no, nothing like that. He was honestly very polite about it and took it graciously when I turned him down, although he did ask me to not tell you who he was.”
The Princess’s demeanor shifted back to its usual cheerful self. “So long as he was polite, he has nothing to fear. Let me know if one of the nobility decides to get pushy, though. There are certain protocols in place for courtship of a pony at your rank, and although I personally don’t like them enough that they’ve halfway fallen out of use, I can still use them against an offender.”
“I will. I’m honestly not looking for any…” Twilight’s tongue rolled around in her mouth as she thought of how to word it. “Romantic entanglements right now. Not that I ever am. I mean, I really only look for friends, but if I was to start looking for romance, doing so while Equestria is about to collapse around me and everything and its mother is out to get me is not the time to do it.”
Celestia rubbed her student’s head with a wing. “I sympathize completely. Actually, the stallion I was speaking of was your brother.”
“Shiny’s here!?” Twilight all but jumped out of the chair. “Where is he?”
“Well, he should be here soon. He wanted to meet you in the Royal Courtroom. Do you remember the pony you arrested for those unsafe buildings? His sentencing is today, and Shining, or should I say Obsidian, figured you’d want him to be there with you for that.”
A small wave of memories barged into the forefront of Twilight’s mind. “Oh… I didn’t even know that was today…”
“To be fair, you are recovering from nearly dying, so you’re officially excused from your duties. I imagine Spike is more concerned with keeping you happy and healthy than up to date on your schedule.”
“He and Rainbow have been training like crazy lately. In fact, they’re both outside doing that right now. I think he’s trying to ‘make it up to me.’ About the fact that he couldn’t protect me. We’re all kinda shaken up, but it helps that we can talk it out. Or in Rainbow’s case, fly it out.
“Shining, though, I really missed him. I know he’s been on some kind of deep cover thing, but still…”
“I’m sure he’s every bit as eager to see you as you are to see him. Go. I’ll hold things down over here.”
Twilight gave her a quick hug and started out the door. "Let me know if there’s anything I can do," she said before exiting. She knew what the response would be, but it felt wrong to not at least leave the door open to help.
Before long she was back in the castle proper, walking through the halls and regarding the tall, stained-glass windows brightening the rooms with their multi-hued displays.
As she passed one of them, a bright flash of light made it even more colourful than normal, causing her to walk up to it and open it. Far up in the sky was a little dot moving around making bright flashes of rainbow-tinted light.
"Dash…" The name left Twilight’s lips with but a whimper as she regarded her friend soaring high in the sky. Her friend had spent every waking moment either caring for her, guarding her, or training herself like she was back in boot camp. She only managed to steal one or two glances of this training, each time finding both Rainbow and Spike pushing themselves every bit as hard as Luna had.
She put her head and forelegs on the ledge with a sigh, feeling a squeezing in her heart. “They shouldn’t have to do that…”
“No. No they shouldn’t.”
Twilight turned around, finding the source of the familiar voice: her brother, looking fairly ragged but otherwise no worse for wear.
No words had to be exchanged as they rushed to each other and embraced, her thin coat pushing up against his cold armor. The moment hung in place, the both of them fighting back tears and failing.
“I am so, so proud of you, Twily. So proud. And I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there.”
“You were there.” She sniffled. “You were right there with me. Your spell. Your shield. It saved me. I never would’ve survived without it…”
Whether Obsidian’s coughing sound was a near breakdown into tears or appointive laughter, Twilight couldn’t tell. “You know I had to fight myself to allow you to see that? Cadence had to yell at me, too.” He squeezed her tighter than ever. “I should’ve shown you so many years ago…”
“It’s okay. I’m still here. And I understand why you kept it secret. Don’t worry. I destroyed the pages, just like you asked.” She broke the embrace, but kept a hold of him at the shoulders. “Besides, you’re back, and I have a little time. Maybe you can show me more!”
Obsidian rubbed the back of his neck. “Actually, pretty soon I’ll have to go back on tour with Cadence. But I do have a little time, at least. And maybe when you’re better I can talk Luna into teleporting me back for a day or two, maybe teach you a few of my moves.”
Twilight relaxed, bringing her hooves back to the floor. “I’d like that. I haven't actually lost a fight yet, but they were all close calls. Feels like I'm just barely making it, you know?”
Obsidian draped his foreleg over her shoulders. “I know what you mean. Besides, you have a little more experience now, and I think you’re ready for some more advanced tricks.”
Twilight instinctively went to brush her mane out of her eyes, momentarily forgetting that it was too short for such a thing. “I kinda wish I had known that from the start, but only had so much time…”
“You cannot teach a student something they are not ready for. I learned this the hard way. If you try, they usually wind up hurting themselves. But, like I said, I think you’re ready for some new stuff.”
Obsidian gave her a poke in the shoulder, causing Twilight to scoot away as he somehow found that one little spot for which she was supremely ticklish; a spot no other pony had ever been able to find.
“Okay, okay!” She laughed, blocking him with her hooves. “I give!” As her brother backed away with a smug little grin, she rubbed her shoulder, reminding herself of something completely absent: Aurora.
“Hey, Shiny, do you know what they did with my torc? Celestia said my armor was damaged, and they needed to repair it, but I'm not sure what that really means for something like that."
Obsidian rubbed his chin. “That torc of yours is bonded armor. It will need time to heal, just like a pony would. Odds are they have it in the Royal Forge downstairs. There’s a special furnace there… Well, it’s not really a furnace. It’s kind of a chamber. The walls are reinforced and warded, and when they seal it up, they carefully vaporize solidified magic until the whole space is nothing but very high density ambient magic. The bonded artifact is left in the middle of the room.”
“How in the world is that supposed to help?” Twilight made a mental note to read up more on bonded armor. I really should have studied this…
“It’s not exactly common knowledge. You won’t find it in most libraries.” He reached over and mussed up her short mane. “But from what I understand, bonded artifacts are able to kinda ‘eat’ ambient magic, as long as said magic is either completely neutral and colourless with regards to its elemental type, or closely aligned to that of its owner’s. Since it has its own wellspring, it will still recover on its own given time, but this way is faster.”
“Oh. At least this means she’s probably okay.” Twilight looked down at the floor, not so much at the tiling itself, but at her mental image of the downstairs Forge.
“She?” Obsidian asked. “You mean your torc?”
“Her name is Aurora. I finally got her to talk to me just before…”
The silence finished the sentence for her.
“I see. If you like, I’d be happy to take you down there.” Obsidian motioned with his head towards the staircase leading down. “Although we really should be there for Plinth’s sentencing. Politically, it would send a strong message. But there’s nothing wrong with heading to the Forge afterwards.”
“I don’t know…” Twilight closed her eyes, stroking her chest with a hoof at where Aurora’s gem core was supposed to be.
Twilight’s eyes shot open. Aurora, is that you? She mentally ‘talked’ to her.
“It’s me. Like I said, it kind of hurts to talk like this, but you’re close enough that I can feel you. I think I’m where Obsidian said. There’s a lot of magic around me. It’s helping. But I can’t really see. I don’t actually have eyes, so I have to use yours.”
But you’ll… You’ll be okay?
“Yes. I’m still damaged, and I was unconscious for a long time, but I think I’ll recover. Just, give me some more time. You can make sure the bad guy goes to jail. I’m not ready to be worn yet anyway.”
Okay… I suppose… Twilight rubbed her chest again, feeling like she had been stabbed. Rather, she just stabbed Aurora. In her heart, she knew Aurora meant it, and that there was no point to try and ‘bust her out’ of her metaphorical hospital room, but it still felt strange.
“Don’t be sad. The magic around me is so strong… I don’t think you’d be able to see me anyway, it’s probably very bright. Besides, just having you close means I can feel you here.”
If you’re sure…
“Twilight? Are you okay?” Obsidian was tapping her on her shoulder.
“Sorry, Aurora just got in touch with me. We can kind of… It’s actually a little like telepathy. That or I’m just hearing voices in my head and going completely crazy.”
“I understand. Princess Luna has both a bonded torc and blade, and I’ve been able to ask her about them. Shoot, I was supposed to get some bonded armor when I became Captain, but we didn’t have any cores to spare. At least I had my shields to get me by.
“So, which shall it be? The Forge, or the courtroom? I’ll follow you.” Obsidian motioned to both paths.
“I suppose we should go to the courtroom. Aurora says she’s okay.” Twilight started towards the courts, still feeling a bit of shame that was hanging her head low.
“Attention. Court will resume in approximately fifteen minutes. Please be advised, press are not allowed in the courtroom at this time. Thank you.”
Twilight took in a deep breath and sighed, leaning against the seatback in the courtroom’s visitor’s section, and staring up at the tall, gold-painted ceiling. Across from her, in the defendant’s seat, sat the pony she’d arrested several months ago for defrauding the crown and building a number of unsafe schools and orphanages. The defendant’s lawyer and the prosecutor were also there, but the number of other ponies inside the courtroom was strictly limited due to the case’s high profile in the media.
“You sure you’re okay?” Obsidian leaned in against her, speaking softly enough that only she could hear him. “I can handle this on my own if you need…”
“I’m sure,” she whispered back. “I think… I think Aurora wants me to be here right now, and she might be right. I want to see this. I want to see that I’ve done at least one good, solid thing during my time as Grand Mage so far. Something I can say was a clear victory.” Twilight looked over to Plinth and glared icy daggers at the back of his head. “Something I can be proud of.”
“I’d say you have plenty to be proud of already, but you’re so stubbornly humble that I doubt you’d listen. In fact, I know you don’t see it that way, but you should be especially proud of what you did in Zebrica.”
Twilight scoffed. “You weren’t there. I was so close. If I had caught that ring, I could’ve—”
Obsidian lit his horn, casting a spell that projected barrier after barrier around them, eventually sealing them off from the rest of the room in an eerie, indigo glow. “There. Complete privacy. You can say whatever you want now.”
Twilight’s head dropped even further. “And I almost said that in an open court… I swear, I’m as bad as Applejack sometimes.”
“I think they were paying more attention to their last-minute, last-ditch defence, but I still wouldn’t worry about it. Now, what were you going to say?”
“I was going to say that I’d almost caught this ring, the one that had all the bonded gems. But it was just moving too fast… If I had caught it, there wouldn’t have been an explosion at all.”
“That’s not the way you should be thinking. Granted, it’s completely natural to think like that, but if you let it go too far it’ll eat you alive.” Obsidian reached out with a hoof and turned her head, linking their gazes. "Trust me. I’ve been there. In fact, I was there very early on in my military career.”
“You were? But I don’t…” Twilight sighed, her mind catching up. “Let me guess. It was classified, and you couldn’t tell me about it. But now you can, and you’re going to make me listen.”
“Bingo. Story time. But first… Give me a second here.” He let his horn again, sending a little magic into the gem in the centre of his Night Guard chest plate. “Testing… Test— , here we go.”
His voice cracked and returned to what was before he donned the mantle of High Cardinal and became Obsidian Armor. Despite still looking like a terror of the night, he sounded like the Shining Twilight always knew.
“Where was I,” he coughed, his voice still cracking. “Do you remember where I was first deployed to?”
Twilight nodded. “Yeah. Some island in Marelaysia.”
Obsidian gave her a light noogie. “And do you know what’s in Marelaysia? I mean, aside from tropical diseases, absolutely obscene amounts of humidity, and the best beaches anywhere.”
"Marelaysia has any number of unique landscapes, flora, and fauna. I'm afraid you're going to have to be more spe—"
"Typhoons," Obsidian answered for her. "Lots of them. Around a couple dozen each and every year. The locals generally know how to deal with them, but there's always something unexpected. The main issue is that they're too far away and too poor to afford real weather control, so they rely on a few local daredevils to provide reactionary coverage; dealing with stuff as it comes rather than planning everything out. Only problem is, typhoons are much too large to simply 'deal with.' I found that out the hard way."
Twilight's head jerked back. “That’s right, I remember you writing about having to hunker down in a shelter… You weren’t in a shelter, were you…”
“I was eventually. The stuff before that? That’s the stuff that was classified. See, me and my buddy Arctic Snow just got stationed there with a ton of other baby-faced recruits fresh out of BASIC—"
Twilight laughed. "You? Baby-faced? Sorry, BBBFF, but I think Cadence would say you've always had a lantern jaw."
Obsidian smiled. "Good to hear you laugh again, sis. Anyway, we were there for a day and already we knew we had the worst base commander in history. Huge flank-wipe. What's worse, he goes and gets sick and drunk, not sick drunk, but tropical-disease sick and drunk on our third day when a category four typhoon gets spotted flying at us like a Wonderbolt. We've got a few hours tops before it makes landfall, and the commander is KO.
"To make matters worse, most of the command chain were coming down with symptoms. In other words, all the ponies that were there before us. So Arctic and I stepped up. He took flight with the local weather pegasi and the other pegasi recruits and did his best to lead them in the air. While they fought the storm head-on, I hit the town to move everypony to shelter as best I could."
Twilight put her ears down. "Sounds... awful. What happened?"
Obsidian took in a deep breath. "Arctic and his team somehow knocked the storm down to a category two. We lost around twenty ponies, all civilians on the ground."
She pulled him tight in a hug. "I'm sorry..."
"The thing is, we found out later that normally a cat-two storm results in around forty casualties. Cat-fours are in the hundreds. Also, usually at least one pegasus dies fighting a storm like that, but Arctic kept them all alive. Not to mention that you're extremely lucky to knock a category-four down just one level, never mind two. Command thought it was a damned spectacular success and gave Arctic a medal and me a written commendation, then classified much of the incident to protect the commander from outrage from the locals."
Twilight winced, finally understanding his message. "Ponies still died, but you saved some. You're saying I should think destroying a whole town a success, brother?"
He gave her a light nuzzle. "Twily, I'm saying you should view it as saving Zebrica, Saddle Arabia, and even Equestria, not failing to save the one that was lost. Those pegasi that went up there? They do it time and time again, every single typhoon. They're bigger heroes than any of the generals, and all they're doing is trying to get the fatalities down. They're sad when they lose anypony, yes, but they keep going, because they understand what would happen if they didn't. That's what it means to serve."
He lifted her chin with his hoof and turned her gaze directly into his. "With things like this, don't beat yourself up over who you couldn't save. Remember them, yes, but remember that you did save ponies. Lots of ponies. Over and over again, you've stepped up to defend Equestria and beyond. You're a hero too, Twily. Don't ever let anypony tell you otherwise, especially Twilight Sparkle."
She grabbed him, pulling him into a deep hug and letting her tears fall on his back.
"It'll be okay, Twily," he whispered. "We're all here for you."
“Thank you,” she sniffled, feeling the weight ease off of her back. “Thank you so much…”
Minutes passed with her simply resting there, recollecting herself. Obsidian had even took out a neckerchief to help dry her eyes. When they finally dropped all the shields, the court session was about to begin.
Twilight leaned back in her seat, staring up at the judge’s position with curiosity. Since she was the one who arrested him, one of the Royal Family would have to be the pony to ultimately pass sentence. Since both of the alicorn Princesses were busy, that left the Royal quarter, and since her brother was next to her instead of presiding, that left only one possible judge left in her mind.
I’ve never seen Cadence in a court setting before… I wonder how she runs — no. Twilight’s eyes went wide as she noticed the particular throne being moved in position. It did not bear the seal of Celestia, or Luna, nor the seal of the Duchy of the Lost. Instead, the seat gilded in rose gold bore a seal that was entirely different: the Duchy of Canterlot.
“Blueblood’s going to be the one to pass sentence!?” Twilight hissed in a whisper at her brother. “He hates me! Why isn’t Cadence doing it?”
“Cadence’s, or rather our Duchy was the one defrauded by this stallion. Both of us are too close to the case to meet impartiality standards.” Obsidian said, his voice returning to the Night Guard bass. He even ran his hoof along Twilight’s back, presumably to reassure her.
It didn’t work.
“Yeah, but… It’s Blueblood!”
“He did try to reconcile with you, Twilight.”
“Yeah, because his own butt was on the line. I didn’t buy that for a second.”
“Actually, I hear he had a ‘come to Celestia’ moment with, well, Celestia. I’m honestly not worried.”
“But if he—”
“Twily.” He covered her mouth with the tip of his hoof. “Relax. If Blueblood screws this up, we’ll go to Celestia together and demand an appeal.”
Twilight took in a deep breath and let out a fake, exasperated sigh. “Fine. I’ll give him a chance.” She folded her forelegs. “One chance.”
“Attention! Attention! Court is now in session! All rise for his Honourable Highness, Prince Blueblood.”
Pfft. Honourable. Twilight rolled her eyes as she stood up along with her brother. Neither of them technically had to afford him such an honor, but even in Twilight’s inexperience, she knew that not doing so might cause a political kerfuffle.
“Okay then, let’s get this underway, shall we?” Blueblood said as he strode in and plopped his rear down on his ill-deserved throne. “I’ve been reading the case notes. List of charges is fairly hefty. I understand, however, that there is a plea agreement in place?”
The prosecutor, an earth pony mare, bowed her head. “Yes, Your Highness. The prosecution is satisfied with the arrangement.”
“And you, Mister Plinth,” Blueblood said, turning slightly in his throne to face the stallion. “I assume that your lawyer has advised you as to what accepting a plea agreement entails? That by doing so, you are admitting complete guilt to these crimes, which will forever be on your record? That you will be incarcerated for the agreed-upon time, without a possibility of parole?”
Plinth stood up and bowed his head. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
“I see…” Blueblood twirled his gavel in his magic and stroked his chin. “Prosecutor, I am led to believe that there are continuing obligations for Mister Plinth as a part of this plea agreement?”
“Yes, Your Highness. The defendant has agreed to continue to supply the government with information regarding his criminal ties in exchange for leniency in sentencing.”
“Indeed, but…” Blueblood made a face at the documents before him, one that Twilight had seen and made many times before: one of disgust. “Only five years? For a list of charges including attempted murder of a peace officer? I must admit, I’m a little curious as to how you arrived at that number.”
“Five years!? That’s it!?” Twilight shot up, slamming her forehooves down on the backrest in front of her. “That stallion endangered thousands of lives, shot at me, shot a police sergeant, defrauded the government, and you’re only giving him five years!?”
“Order! Order!” Blueblood slammed his gavel down. “Grand Mage Sparkle, I appreciate where you are coming from, but please, allow me to conduct my own courtroom.”
Plinth leaned into the defence’s microphone. “Your Highness, I request a mistrial! She’s clearly out to get me!”
His lawyer shoved him back down into his seat. “My apologies, Your Highness. That outburst was not made with my recommendation.”
Blueblood slammed his gavel down again, setting it aside only after the courtroom had fallen into silence. “Mister Plinth, you request a mistrial?” he asked, eyebrow raised and voice full of incredulity. “To be frank, you are already trying my patience. If I toss this to another one of the royals, it would mean passing it to Princess Cadence, seeing as both of the eternal sisters have already passed on the opportunity to oversee this hearing. I rather doubt you want the one who you’ve defrauded to make this decision, don’t you agree?”
“He does agree, Your Honor,” the lawyer answered for him before he had a chance to open his mouth.
“Very good. Now, prosecutor, I ask you once again. Is the prosecution satisfied with this plea agreement?”
“Um…” The mare wiped some sweat off her brow. “Yes, Your Majesty. Given the value of the information, and—”
“Well, I am not satisfied.” Blueblood banged his gavel nearly hard enough to break it. “I’m not about to toss a light sentence at somepony who attempted to murder a de facto member of the Royal Family, whether they realized who was on the other side of the door or not!”
“Your Highness, please!” The defence lawyer bowed down low. “The value of the intelligence my client is providing—”
“Is utterly insignificant compared to the lives of the Royal Family.” Blueblood’s gavel came down again.
Twilight wasn’t sure what kind of face she was making, but she was sure it wasn’t appropriate for a courtroom setting. Somehow, Blueblood is managing to be both on my side and completely full of himself. I don’t know if I should be disgusted or impressed…
“Foible Plinth, as you were arrested by the Grand Mage, your guilt is automatically assumed. In addition, the evidence available leaves me no room to doubt your culpability. As such, I hereby sentence you to seventy-five years at the Stalliongrad Remote Incarceration Complex."
“Your Highness!” The prosecutor called out, reaching up with a hoof like a foal trying to ask a question of its teacher. “The intelligence provided is important! We need—”
“If the convicted continues to provide intelligence as demanded of him, and maintains good behaviour while he’s incarcerated, I will allow parole in twenty-five years, and provide the additional protection measures as outlined in the original plea agreement. Failure to comply will mean being held with the general population.”
“But—” both lawyers cried out, only to be silenced by the final fall of the gavel.
“I have made my decision, and it shall stand. Court adjourned.” He got up off of this throne and left the room through the judge’s door, leaving the courtroom in silence, save for the bailiff coming to escort away the condemned.
Twilight sat there, utterly silent as all the other ponies eventually left her alone with her brother.
“I told you to give him a chance.” Obsidian stood up, motioning for Twilight to follow him. “There was no way Blueblood wasn’t going to throw the book at a pony in a case like this.”
“How?” Twilight stood up to move, but it was more automatic than a conscious desire. “How did you know? Was it just to get on my good side? Does he know about… You know…”
Obsidian shook his head. “I doubt it. But what you’re forgetting, is that this was a case involving orphans. Cadence and I are the Royals of the Lost, but Blueblood lost his parents, too, when the Valentia was destroyed.”
Twilight froze in place, everything becoming as clear as crystal in an instant. “Blueblood is an orphan too…”
“Exactly. He’s a complete, egotistical jerk, don’t get me wrong. Absolutely full of himself. Genuinely thinks he’s better than anypony else save Celestia. But he’s also not completely without compassion. When it comes to governing, at least.”
“I suppose I can accept that much,” Twilight grumbled. “Still feels really weird to think of him as anything but completely self-absorbed. I still can't see how this is anything but a political disaster. He completely torpedoed any idea that he was impartial.”
“Therein lies the genius of giving Blueblood this particular case. It's because everypony already knows he's a complete jerk. They expect him to be a complete jerk. It would be news if he wasn't. As it is, this is just normal. Barely newsworthy at all. The results of this will be on page B20 of the papers, buried under a story about a rescued puppy finding a permanent home.”
The light of dawn hit Twilight in the face like a kick from a draft stallion. “Wait… That means… Blueblood is Celestia's bulldog! He can be as belligerent and rude as he wants, even as he pushes for Celestia’s policies, and there's nothing the Council can do about it! If they complain, to everypony else, it's just Blueblood being his typical self! There's no political traction to the story!”
“Bingo! Welcome to realpolitik. Perception, expectations, the news cycles, phrasing, it all trumps reality in the game of popular support. It's insane, but it's how the world works. Somepony complains about Blueblood being a douche to the press, and everypony rolls their eyes and asks what else is new. At the same time, though, he's fighting tooth, hoof, and horn for Celestia, and for his Duchy.
“Like I said, there was no way in hell he was going to let Plinth off light. A pony that endangered orphans and managed to dig his corruption in deep in Canterlot? He was doomed, pure and simple.
“So don't be too hard on Bluey. Give him a chance to show his good side. It's there, just buried.” Obsidian gave her a little nudge to get her walking again. “After all, isn’t forgiveness a cornerstone of friendship?”
“Yes, but…” Twilight was about to say she didn’t want to be friends with him, but an image of a very disappointed looking Celestia popped into her mind. “But nothing, you’re right. I’ll give him another chance, it’s just… I’m honestly not holding out much hope.”
“I’m not asking you to be unrealistic, just open-minded to adjusting your perceptions a little. But hey, that’s enough drama for one day. Come on, let’s go visit the forge, and then we’ll get some coffee at Donut Joe’s and talk about magic. Just like old times. Rainbow and Spike can come, too. I’d drag Cadence along, but she’s off doing some Council stuff.”
“I think… I think I’d like that.” Twilight said, stretching. “I think I’d like that a lot.” Her mind drifted a bit, reminding her of one of her newest friends. “Can we invite Trixie, too? She’s also been through alot, and could probably use it.”
“You’re the Grand Mage, Twilight. Whatever you say, goes. Even if it means the kitchen has to make that disgusting cayenne-spiked coffee of yours.”
“Shows what you know. My coffee is awesome.” Twilight giggled and stuck out her tongue at him. “Still, thanks Shiny. For everything.”
“Anytime, Twily. Anytime.”