There was a sound. That’s all she knew. A sound. Unimportant. The visions before her, everything in her mind, that’s what was important. Whatever the sound was, it would—
There was a different sound. A whisper. It still wasn’t as important as everything else that was happening. It couldn’t possibly be.
It was someone calling her name. There was also movement, along with a slightly cold feeling on her shoulder. Maybe this did warrant investigating…
“Twilight, wake up!”
The basic, semi-comprehending sound emitted from Twilight’s throat was all she was capable of at that second. As her vision returned to focus, she found herself in her chambers in Canterlot, lying down on her cloud bed. In front of her was a pony that she was always happy to see, a pony that she looked up to and respected. However, secretly, it was also a pony she was somewhat frustrated at. This is because said pony was, by definition, a morning pony.
“Celestia? What’re… Hmm?” She tried to speak, but her muscles still contained far too much lead.
“I’m terribly sorry for barging in and waking you, but since this is going to be your first day back as Grand Mage, I thought you might like to watch me raise the sun!”
Lead? What lead? Her body was clearly made of electricity as she shot up with a jump, nearly as awake as she would be with a giant pot of coffee. “Sun? You want me to help, I mean want me to watch you raise the sun? I’d be honored!” She forgot herself, dropping into a bow.
“Watch, yes,” Celestia laughed politely, pride showing through in her voice. “I know you are eager, my student, but the sun is a somewhat more difficult body than the moon. You should wait until later in your ascension before attempting to move it. Despite this, as you are now an ascendant, you’re more than welcome to join Luna or myself as we perform our celestial duties, although I know you usually aren’t up in time for dawn.”
“Um, maybe I can change!” Twilight said as she dashed over to her closet, tossing the cloud to the side and pulling out her notebook. “I’ve been reading up on sleep cycle studies, at least I was a couple of years ago, and there may be some ways I can adjust my circadian rhythm. Of course, alicorns don’t have to sleep either, which means that eventually it may not matter, and—”
Twilight snapped her mouth shut instantly, only narrowly avoiding doing the lip zipping routine that Pinkie Pie had practically trademarked as her mentor lowered her head down to her level.
“My student, you need not worry about such things just yet. In the future, I’ll be very happy to teach you how to raise and lower the sun. In fact, I very much look forward to the day where you can join us for a Summer Sun Celebration.”
Twilight squeed. She couldn’t help it.
“However, until then, relax. You need only join us when you’re awake and have the time and desire. Okay?”
“Okay…” Twilight fidgeted in place, alternating which foreleg she put her weight on. “Um… Do you think I could…”
“Yes, you can take notes. Come, Luna has already lowered the moon. We shouldn’t keep our ponies waiting.”
Twilight nodded and followed her mentor out of the room, for all the world looking like an excited foal following a parent. Of course, given the high difference between them, this wasn’t especially difficult.
As she left her room and closed the doors behind her, Twilight had to remind herself that this wasn’t just a dream. That was her room, given to her by Princess Luna, and they really were official, Royal chambers next to the eternal sisters’ meant just for her.
The pair moved down the hall and into Celestia’s chambers, twilight walking at a trot to keep up with her teacher’s long legs. So many possibilities and futures ran through Twilight’s mind at the same time that, when she arrived at the balcony, something strange happened. She wasn’t seeing the sky like she should have. Rather, she was seeing the floor. A second later, she was kissing it.
“Ow.” She pushed herself up off the marble, rubbing her lips and cheek in pain. Way to ruin the moment, Twilight.
“I was going to say that after this you are free to return to sleep, my student. However…”
Twilight finished walking the last few steps her moment of equilibrium deficiency had interrupted. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s happening. I’m so wired at this point you could probably plug me to the wall and light the whole castle.”
“Well, I think I’ll leave that job to Canterlot Hydroelectric for the time being.” Celestia gave her a wink. “But I’ll keep that in mind in case we ever need a backup generator. Now then…”
Celestia’s horn blazed to life, creating a large, exceptionally bright magic circle around her on the floor, already filled with inscriptions. “I don’t normally need this when I’m raising the sun, but I’ll use it while you’re here, as it may help you to learn.”
“It will!” Twilight tilted her head to get a better view of the golden symbols. “It’s smaller than the one Luna used, but the density here is astonishing. How are you keeping it stable? Is it—”
Brilliant, golden light filled her vision, overtaking everything for a few fateful ticks of the clock. What she saw when it faded was not the glory of the alicorn of the day, but an arc of light racing across the sky. Part way to the horizon, it split and broke up into a million smaller beams, then converged on that hint of light over the horizon.
The sun had risen.
“Sister!” Blue mist and stars shimmered into existence behind them, heralding Princess Luna’s arrival. “Sister! That wasn’t…”
“No.” Celestia’s voice was as dark and dire as night. “That wasn’t me.”
The two alicorns regarded each other, Luna’s eyes filled with shock and fear, and Celestia’s with concern and ire. Twilight could only look on in awe as the silent messages passed between them, saying more in a second she could hope to in a year.
“The library,” both said, taking off out of the room fast enough to drag Twilight along in their wake. Thankfully, it wasn't enough to knock her down the stairs, albeit only barely. After sliding to a halt, Twilight pushed herself to her hooves, taking off after them.
She passed through hallway after hallway, and although she knew where her destination was, it wouldn’t have mattered in this one instance. She didn’t need to stop for directions, or worry about getting lost, or forgetting where the princesses’ private library was. She needed only to follow the trail of destruction the two alicorns had left in their wake: torn curtains, smashed vases, destroyed furniture.
Her hooves slid on the tile leading up to the secret door that she found swung wide open. Down the wooden, circular staircase she went, the column of light in the centre guiding her way. Inside the library, she found Celestia and Luna tearing through their bookshelves faster than she’d ever done herself.
“What are you looking for?” she asked, picking up a few of the tomes in her magic. “What happened back there? Can I help?”
“Somepony other than us raised the sun, Twilight.” Celestia tossed a half a dozen manuscripts behind her. “The only place in the world where that knowledge still resides is here, in the library.”
“We’re trying to find the Astral Codex.” Luna picked up an entire bookshelf in her magic, shaking the books out of it. “That book is the last surviving copy of the original spells the sun raisers and moon raisers used to control the sun and moon in the pre-discordian era. I could have sworn that it was still here after the siege, and that the attackers never managed to steal it.”
“And if it’s not here?” Twilight asked. “What’s it look like?”
“It has a glowing sun and moon on the cover.” Books swirled around Luna as she checked each and every one with assembly line efficiency. “If they have managed to steal it… I don’t even know if I want to think about what might happen.”
“I’d honestly be more worried if they didn’t steal it. It would mean they were able to gain the knowledge through some other means, and that’s an unknown I don’t want to contemplate.” Celestia slammed her hoof into a shelf, knocking all the books down. “Dammit, Luna, didn’t I ask you to reorganize this place?”
“You mean organize it to begin with? You had a thousand years while I was gone, sister.”
“I was busy being the only pony to run the country and, I don’t know, control two major astral bodies by myself! What have you been doing the past decade and a half?”
“Well, what were you even thinking asking me to do this? You know how I am! My idea of organization is dinner, then lunch, and then breakfast. This isn’t a job for me! This is a job for her!” Luna thrust both hooves in Twilight’s direction. “She’s the librarian!”
“Then why didn’t you have her do it?” Celestia asked through clenched teeth.
There was a pause as Luna sat there wide-eyed. “You’re the one always talking about how she is ready or not ready for something!”
“Just tell her not to read any of the books!”
“Her? Not read a book? Do you have any idea who you’re talking about?”
Celestia took a step towards her sister, pounding her hoof into the floor and cracking the stone. “She wouldn’t do it if you’d only tell her that!”
Luna mimicked her sister, creating another crack in the floor and stepping closer. “Gee, it must be so nice to have a student who practically worships the ground you walk on! Not to mention that you should be the last pony talking about actually telling somepony something!”
“Um, princesses?” Twilight squeaked, holding a book in her magic.
“She does not worship me, she just wants me to be proud of her!”
“Princesses?” Twilight squeaked even softer.
“Well, maybe she’d know that you are if you’d just open up once in awhile, you fat, fiery-flanked cow!” Luna took another step closer and stuck out her tongue at her sister. “Nnnyeh!”
“F-fat fi— ! Who do you think you’re talking to, you drunk, hyper-violent tease!”
“Oh, you want to like that? Fine! Nnnyeh!” Celestia stuck her tongue out too, and took another step forward.
The gears in Twilight’s mind ground to a halt.
“Nnnyeh!” Another step forward.
“Nnnyeh!” And another.
“Nnnyeh!” Another, bringing the entire world to a frozen standstill.
Not even outside the confines of the library could anypony be doing anything anywhere. In Twilight’s mind, the whole planet must’ve stopped, every creature great and small suddenly feeling as if something terrible had happened. Worse than Discord escaping. Worse than a cataclysmic parasprite infestation.
So. Much. Worse.
The princess’s tongues were touching.
For that one moment, every molecule in the room stood perfectly still, yet trembled in anticipation of the horror about to be unleashed. Tartarus might open. The universe could collapse. A black hole could open under their hooves. As the two princesses’ eyes opened and focused on their mouths, the world came apart.
At least, that was Twilight’s theory, given how much screaming had just flooded into the room.
The two diarchs flailed their forelegs while unleashing a torrent of sounds from their lungs, shaking the entire library and letting up only to take in more air.
Celestia was dragging her tongue down with the sides of her gilded hooves, while Luna was busy scraping hers on the various dusty tomes of the nearby bookshelf.
“How could you let this happen?!” Celestia said through the screams, disappearing for a few seconds and reappearing with a bucket of what smelled like seawater, dumping the entire thing in her mouth and gargling.
“Can’t… Get… Clean!” Tears streamed down Luna’s face as she reached the end of the bookshelf. Her foreleg extended wide to her side, pulsing with a dark indigo light. A long, dark, slender blade with a jagged guard and a moon-shaped gem set in the end of the hilt appeared out of the ether and swung around in front of the night Princess’s face, directly above her tongue.
“What—!” Celestia spat out the salt water onto the floor. “What are you doing? You aren’t—”
The blade came down.
A tongue hit the floor… without the rest of the head.
Twilight jumped to Celestia’s bucket, dry heaving inside it.
“Why? Why would you do something like that?” Celestia started dry heaving as well. “That’s disgusting!”
“Eeehhh ould’n et et leen!” Luna screamed, blood dripping from her mouth.
“But why?! How does that help anything?!” The Princess of the sun grabbed Twilight’s bucket away from her, the sound of something wet splashing down inside of it came a second later.
“I couln’t et et clean!” Luna cried out, mouth open as the tongue began to reform in front of them.
Twilight stole the bucket back and heaved.
“I said, I couldn’t get it clean!” Luna smacked her lips, spitting out some more blood. “Oh, thank the stars! That’s better!”
“How?! How is cutting off your own tongue in front of my student better?!”
“Because this tongue hasn’t touched yours!” Luna pointed at her mouth, showing off a tongue that looked like it had never been cut. “Here, let me…” She picked up the blade again.
Celestia covered her mouth with one hoof and held the other out to keep her sister at bay. “No! Get away from me with that thing!”
Twilight flopped to the ground, the room suddenly turning into a merry-go-round.
“See!? Look what you did to my student! Now put that thing away! How did you even get that? The Council made me seal that away right after you came back!”
“Pfffft.” Luna rolled her eyes. “And the very first thing I did after that was break the seal to get her back!” Luna grabbed her sword, hugging it like it was a stuffed animal. “You really think I’d let the Council keep Selene away from me? You and she are all I have left from the old times!”
“Merrrrgle… Urp…” Twilight swallowed, forcing the acid back down.
“Fine, just, don’t let any of the Dukes see that! And put her away before you make Twilight vomit! Again!”
“Okay, okay… It’s just that…” Luna took in a deep breath and released a heavy sigh. “I’m sorry, Sister. I shouldn’t have said any of that.”
“I’m… I’m sorry too, Sister. We both… We both overreacted. Can you forgive me?”
The two stepped towards each other, this time with their tongues firmly in their mouths, and shared an embrace.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to cut off your tongue?”
“Very sure, Luna. Let’s… Let’s just focus on finding the book. I need to know if it’s still here.”
“It’s over there…” Twilight waggled her fetlock, barely able to move from her spot on the ground. At least the ceiling wasn’t quite so spinny right now.
“Wait— Twilight, you saw it?” Celestia dashed over to her, helping her up with a healing field and some telekinesis. “Show us.”
Twilight shuddered at the sudden movement, but nodded and allowed Celestia to place her upright on the ground. She carefully stepped across the floor, avoiding the various fluids that had spilled on it and taking them to where she had found the book in question. “Here. Is this what Luna was talking about?”
“Yes, that’s it! I knew it was still here after the Siege!” Luna lit her horn and pulled the book out of its resting place and into her hooves. Despite its age, it was in flawless condition. Ancient magic was worked into the cover, giving it an eerie astral glow. “See?”
“Damn.” Celestia sat down behind her sister, looking over her shoulder. “This just raises more questions.”
“Uh-oh.” Luna gnawed her lip. “I think we have a problem…”
Twilight and Celestia looked at each other.
“Problem?” Twilight asked. “But we have the book…”
Luna reached out with a hoof and opened the cover. Though the pages were there, their centers had been all cut away. Every piece of text had been removed, leaving only a hollow space inside the book. “After the raid, I… I didn't think to check the books still on the shelf.”
“This… This is a problem. But it explains a few things.” Celestia’s right wing twitched like someone was trying to scratch it. “I hate to admit it, but this was actually extraordinarily clever. This must have been their real target in the raid on the library. Maybe the entire goal of the entire siege. Everything else they took was simply to disguise this one missing thing, and if they managed to snatch anything valuable along the way, all the better.”
“She’s right.” Twilight held her aching stomach. “Why stage a coup against the diarchs that control the sun and moon? It’s suicide, unless you had an alternate way of doing it.”
“So what do we do now?” Luna put the book away in its spot. “We can’t just shuffle around the sunset and sunrise times. The effect on the weather would be catastrophic, and Cloudsdale’s in no shape to keep up with fixing things. We can’t just let them keep doing this. Ponies are bound to figure out something is strange if they keep seeing the Lance coming from somewhere other than Canterlot.”
Celestia closed her eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Twilight was about to ask what to do when they snapped open again, clear and confident as ever. “For the moment, we don’t have to do anything. I do not believe they will attempt this again anytime soon. We’ll carry on as if nothing’s happened, only discretely asking key, trusted members of the RGIS to investigate the origin point of the Lance. Not even the Council needs know of this.”
“Stop!” Luna flared out her wings, her voice sounding like thunder. “You always do this. You always make these plans, and expect me to follow along without explaining why we're doing what we're doing, which means I have to guess, and when I'm wrong, you yell at me for doing something that screws it up! Well, guess what, Sister! I’m not letting you get away with it here. No. Absolutely not. You are explaining yourself, right here, right now, to both me and the next Princess of Equestria. We are more than allies or friends. We are your partners, and partners share!
“So, you tell us what you’re thinking right now, or I swear I will cut out your tongue here and now, and Twilight can just deal with it!”
Twilight reached over for the bucket again, but was stopped by a metal-clad hoof.
Celestia nodded and sat down. “Very well, Sister. I shall shed light on my thoughts.” Her chest expanded as she took in air, the princess’s mighty lungs filling to a degree Twilight had never before seen.
“Based on what we know, and the fact that leads are so hard to obtain, the Barons themselves are likely a very small core group. They use a geas to help make up for this fact, but the limited availability of the psy ore required to maintain such a spell over great distances and over a long term period means that the group of ponies under their control must also be relatively small. Likely less than five thousand individuals. The rest are comprised of two groups. The first are corrupt officials, most of whom probably don’t even know who they’re working for, and are simply accepting bribes for things that appear to be relatively benign on the surface. The second are innocent ponies, carrying out seemingly legitimate day-to-day business that they have no idea is helping aid a rebel group.
“However, the geas has demonstrated an ability for extraordinarily fine control over an individual pony, even allowing them to cast specific, complex tasks while under its control. Most likely, the use of the sun raising spell was a test to make certain that they could actually do it, especially with ponies under their mind control.
“Although they were successful, the spell requires ponies with very large wellsprings. In fact, it drains a pony’s wellspring far more than the magic script would normally indicate; a fact I doubt they were aware of. I also find it highly improbable that they would have been able to hire sufficiently talented and powerful unicorns to perform the ceremony willingly without us finding out. Given the small sample size of individuals they must have available to them, it is extraordinarily probable that some, if not most of the unicorns they were controlling to pull this off are currently in a dire medical condition with severely blown out horns. Said ponies couldn’t do this again if they wanted to.
“In addition, as you’ve noticed, the Lance is extraordinarily bright and easy to trace when you know it’s coming. Even if they moved around after each use, we would eventually be able to track where it is originating from, either via heat map or some other means. It would be an invitation for the Royal Guard to come calling.
“So yes, this is a bad thing, but I don’t believe it to be something that we have to worry about happening on a regular basis, nor do I believe it to be something that we are capable of responding to immediately. For now, we try to track the general location, but to prevent panic, keep everybody else in the dark. Metaphorically speaking.”
Celestia stopped, at last taking a breath as the air from her lungs had apparently finally been exhausted. “Is that a sufficient explanation, sister?”
Luna blinked and looked over to Twilight, who was otherwise every bit as still and stiff at the display of Celestia’s intellectual prowess. “Did you know that even before we ascended she could hold her breath underwater for six whole minutes?”
Twilight shook her head.
“It’s true! I don’t know what’s larger: her lungs or her stomach. I’m pretty sure she’s forsaken all the other organs in her chest for just those two. I mean—”
“Sister! You wanted an explanation. There it is. I’m not upset over you asking for it. I promised I would provide it whenever you asked, and I did. But could you please leave the comments on my weight out of your response?”
“And, what, you just thought all that up in those few seconds you had your eyes closed?”
“Yes, Luna. Yes I did. This is what I do.” Celestia rubbed her temples with the tips of her forehooves.
Luna glared at her sister with her eyelids half closed. “Seriously?” She sighed. “That’s it! I’m out.”
“Nope.” Luna turned around and began to walk out the door. “I shan’t even attempt it. ‘Tis no chance I can compete with such a thing as that. I’m going to my room. Come and get me when video games are reinvented.”
The door to the staircase slammed shut, leaving Twilight and Celestia alone in the dark, soiled library.
“No.” Celestia stepped over to Twilight and put a wing over her. “No, leave her be. She’ll be okay in a few hours, and we’ll talk it out. It’s my fault, really. I should have been more… gentle to her ego. Especially given how fragile it already is. Let’s just go get some breakfast.”
“Oh. Okay.” Twilight looked off to the mess they had left, her whole body shaking as she struggled, unable to quite absorb all that had happened. “Shouldn’t we clean that up first?”
“I’ll have Luna get to it later. Probably. After that, when you find some down time maybe I’ll have you organize this place. Maybe then we can figure out exactly what we do and do not still have here. For now, I think a meal is more important.”
“Um… But what about that?” Twilight pointed over to where Luna’s severed tongue lay on the ground. “Is it really okay to just leave it there?”
Celestia shook her head. “Give it a few more seconds…“
A fountain of sparks shot up from the flesh lying on the ground as the tongue caught fire, blue flames immolating it and reaching up to the ceiling.
Celestia's words from the Glass Desert echoed in her mind. “Just like dragons, our magic burns when we die; the flames shoot dozens of kilometers into the sky.”
“When a piece of our bodies is forcibly removed from the rest, the separated tissue eventually dies and catches fire just as our bodies would were we to be killed. Fortunately for my sister, ascended alicorns regenerate from their wounds exceptionally fast. Even if you remove an entire limb, we are whole again in minutes, or seconds if the wound is small enough. Luna’s regeneration is much faster than most, though that has its own trade-offs.”
Celestia nudged Twilight to move with her wing. “Come, let’s get some food in you. I know this whole thing has been a major shock to your system. Breakfast, coffee, and some conversation will surely help.”
“Yeah… Yeah I think you’re right.” Twilight followed her mentor up the steps, and away from the scene of what was surely destined to be one of her strangest memories. “Princess?” She asked, closing the door to the library.
“Yes, my student?”
“What are ‘video games’?”
Twilight rounded the corner, sipping her coffee as she opened the door to the briefing room. Inside, along with Celestia, she found two faces she didn’t expect.
“Auntie, I must protest! Sending the Grand Mage on such a frivolous exercise while there are riots in Cloudsdale is an obvious waste of resources!” Blueblood stomped his hoof, then paused to adjust his mane. “We cannot afford further delay! If Cloudsdale gets any worse…”
Charlemane waved him off with a hoof. “I have every confidence in the city’s police force to complete their tasks, Your Highness. Besides, we are redeploying some of Blaze’s units to the city, are we not?”
“They won’t get there for days! Cloudsdale is a powder keg now. Who knows what could happen by the time they’re on station? And don’t even get me started on the news! The reporting film reels they’re playing in theatres now are tearing us to pieces!”
“We, including the Council, don’t forget. Artfeather hasn’t exactly come out looking like a saint.” Charlemane stood up straight, adjusting his cravat and looking down at the Prince as one would a foal. “There’s more than enough blame to go around, and—”
“Ah, there you are, my student!” Celestia calmly sipped her tea, essentially ignoring the two ponies next to her. “Please forgive the intrusion. We are simply discussing your next assignment.”
Twilight opened her mouth, only for the argument to continue without her.
“An assignment that I think is a waste of—”
“I understand where you are coming from, Nephew. In fact, on many of your points, I agree. However, Gryphonia’s recent actions strike me as both strange, and alarming. Given that the Crown Prince has extended an open invitation for Twilight to visit him, I cannot help but feel that her propensity for making friends may just turn things to our advantage. The three aeries aren’t, in my experience, as unified as they would lead others to believe.”
The Prince stepped back as if struck, and rubbed his forehead as if there had been an actual wound there. “And meanwhile, Cloudsdale could burn.”
“Cloudsdale is made of clouds, Your Highness.” Charlemane chuckled. “Clouds that, by definition, don’t burn.”
“It was a metaphor, you ingrate! Argh…” Blueblood and turned to Celestia, pleading with his eyes. “Please Auntie, won’t you reconsider?”
Celestia shook her head. “I’m sorry, Nephew. I do not know why you have taken such an interest all of a sudden in where I send Twilight, and your counsel is appreciated, but I have made my decision. Twilight is going to Gryphonia.”
“An astute, wise decision, Your Highness.” Charlemane said.
Blueblood looked like he wanted to scream, but was drowning under Celestia’s calm, watchful gaze. “Very… Very well, Auntie.” He bowed to her, then turned to leave. As he passed by Twilight’s side, he whispered, “I’m sorry. I tried.”
She gave him a nod in return, but didn’t know if he saw it.
Charlemane was following close behind, but stopped before passing her. “Grand Mage, before you leave, would you be so kind as to see me in my office?”
“Of course, Chairpony.” Twilight gave him with polite nod, too, at the behest of the training her mother had ingrained in her more than out of any real desire, and waited for the stallion to leave before speaking up again. “Well, that was a thing. So, Gryphonia over Cloudsdale, I take it?”
“Blueblood isn’t wrong, per se, but as I said earlier, this is an opportunity that I do not wish to pass up." Celestia glanced over to where Charlemane had been sitting. "In addition, there is another element at play here that I did not wish to discuss with either of them.” She lit her horn, opening the door just long enough for Intelligentsia and one other pony to step through.
“Trixie? What are you doing here?”
“Well…” Trixie winced, bowing her head toward Celestia. “She asked me to…”
Intelligentsia wasted no time marching around them and behind the desk. There, she put up a map of the Arendal Aerie, along with the pictures of a few gryphons. “Simply put, Twilight, we have a lead on the illusionists.”
“And it’s one I’d like to keep Charlemane out of the loop on, if I could.” Celestia finished her tea and put the china set off to the side. “He doesn’t know about this group yet, and I prefer it stay that way.”
“Of course, Tia.” Twilight walked closer to the desk, looking over the pictures Intelligentsia had put up. “I take it, then, the lead is in Gryphonia? Why would they be operating there?”
“We don’t know. Yet. However, a pony working in the aerie capital, Gryphonhelm, was recently airlifted by medical chariot back to Germaney. The gryphons weren’t certain what was wrong with him, but it didn’t take our doctors long to figure it out. Thaumatic contamination poisoning.”
The Lieutenant put up another picture, this one of the stallion in question, and it sent a chill down Twilight’s spine. If Trixie’s shudder was any indication, she felt the exact same way.
Intelligentsia yawned, “He’ll live, but only just. Given the loss of hair, the unexplained bruising, bleeding, and deterioration in his horn, we suspect he was poisoned with long-term, low-dose exposure. Exactly the kind of thing we are looking for. It’s highly probable that another one of the amplification tripods is present somewhere he frequented. We—”
There was a knock at the door, and Rainbow and Spike made their way inside.
“Good, you two are here. You will need to hear this.” Intelligentsia lit her horn and shut the door behind them.
“Sorry about that,” Spike said, taking a bite of a candy bar. “We had to wrestle a vending machine into submission.”
“We ordered the same thing twice and the candy still wouldn’t drop!” Rainbow grumbled, showing Twilight the bent candy bar in her saddlebag. “Seriously, it was — wait, why is Trixie here?”
Spike took a step back, eyes wide at the strange mare in the room.
“Because she’s supposed to be.” Intelligentsia cleared her throat. “As I was telling Twilight, we have a lead on the illusionists, and it’s in Gryphonia. You four will be going there, ostensibly to accept an invitation on behalf of the Crown Prince for a social visit. While you are there, Trixie will use her new detection spell to try to locate any possible illusionist activity, and hopefully disrupt it.
"To that end, here." Intelligentsia pulled out a device from her pocket and tossed it to Spike, who caught it one-handed. "It's a miasmometer. It'll tell you how contaminated the area you're in is."
Spike poked a few buttons on the device and made it beep. “I don’t know. We nearly got our butts kicked last time. What are we going to do if there are more of them?”
“My spell should, in theory, be able to highlight the illusions for everyone.” Trixie moved from the side of the room and turned to face both Rainbow and Spike. “If we know what’s real and what’s not, we might be able to find the source of the illusions and break it. Also…” She dropped her head into a deep bow.
“I need to say this before we go any farther. Spike, Rainbow, I deeply, deeply apologize for what I did in Ponyville, and all the things I’ve said since. I know that we haven’t had a chance to interact much since you rescued me, and I want you to know that it is appreciated. I promise, Trixie won't ever act that way towards you again. I—”
“Eh.” Rainbow shrugged. “I was over that a long time ago. But, here on out, you’d better stay on the straight and narrow. You hurt Twilight again, and I promise the illusionists will be the last thing you’re worried about. Clear?”
“Ditto.” Spike folded his arms.
“Guys, I’ve been working with Trixie since I left the hospital.” Twilight stood beside Trixie, putting a hoof on her shoulder. “Trust me, we’re friends now. It will be okay.”
Rainbow held up her hooves in surrender. “I trust you, Twilight. You say to work with Trixie, to give her the benefit of the doubt, and I’ll do it. The old stuff is water under the bridge on your say-so.”
“Ditto again,” Spike said.
“Thank you.” Trixie dropped into another bow. “I promise, I’ll do my best to keep us all safe.”
“Ahem!” Intelligentsia tapped her hoof on the desk. “If we're all done with the lovey-dovey stuff, could we continue the briefing?”
“Lieutenant.” Celestia said, voice as sweet as a song. “Do not interrupt them. Friendship is not only important for harmony, but is especially important to my student, who is your superior. If they wish to take time to mend their fences, we should allow it.”
Intelligentsia backed away, legs shaking as she supplicated herself. “My sincerest apologies, Your Highness. I’m just—”
“Overworked, I understand. I’m pushing the new Captain to train additional analysts to take over some of your workload.”
“What!?” Intelligentsia jerked up, grabbing one of her stacks of papers. “You can’t! I mean, I’m the only one who—”
“That, my little pony, is precisely the problem. You are taking on far too much work. What you have on your plate cannot be completed by a single pony alone. No pony is more grateful for your service than I, but if Shining Armor had any one true fault, it was his stubborn refusal to trust other analysts. As such, seeing as we expect a ceasefire from President Malkia any day now, as soon as the war is over I want you to select some ponies whom you think have potential. Train them, and spread your work out.”
“That’s an order, Lieutenant.”
Intelligentsia’s jaw quivered as she slowly placed her papers back on the desk, resting one hoof on them and leaning on it. “I understand, your Majesty. Forgive me.”
Celestia waved a hoof. “You are forgiven. In fact, why don’t you take a short break. I will finish the briefing for you.”
Intelligentsia nodded, never opening her eyes. Instead, she simply took a deep breath and left the room without another word.
“Honestly, that mare will work herself to death if you let her,” Celestia said, the calm in her visage breaking down to one of worry.
“Look who’s talking, Tia.” Twilight walked up next the Princess, sitting down next to her. “You’re just as bad.” Although, still, thank you, Intelligentsia.
“I’m an immortal alicorn that doesn’t need sleep.” Celestia gave her a wink. “Now, your destination will be slightly outside of a leyline due to disruption from a mana krene, a kind of hot spring of magic which saturates the area. The good news is that, should you need help, it's only a short flight to get back in range. In addition, since you are expected, Luna will teleport you and the chariot most of the way. From there, the gryphons will escort you into the city.”
“Spike did bring up one important thing, Princess.” Trixie lit her horn, projecting the image of one of the ponies from the alley. “What do we do if we are attacked? You have to understand, these ponies are evil…”
"First and foremost, I'm issuing you one of these." Celestia pulled out a small device attached to a strap, almost like an oversized watch, and set it on the table. "This is a camouflage shield generator. It's a prohibited construct from the Nightmare Rebellions, one of the last ones remaining."
"Tia... " Twilight breathed, poking it with a hoof. "Didn't you say you destroyed everything like this?"
"I kept a few of the more benign items around, just in case, but we haven't made any new ones since then. This is a one thousand year old artifact, so I'm not sure how reliable it will be, but should you need to escape, use it. It will render you nearly invisible for a short time. I'm afraid, however, that this is the only one of these we have, so keep in mind only one will be able to flee in this manner."
"Heh. Fighting illusionists with illusions!" Rainbow gave Spike a hoof bump. "I like it!"
“There is another option available as well, and that is to simply ask nearby gryphons for help. They have a strong code of honor that is deeply ingrained into their psyche. They won’t be able to resist rushing to help after hearing the cry of a pony in danger.”
“Then explain Gilda.” Spike snapped his fingers and pointed at Dash. “These two were damn near at each other’s throats, and last I heard, she wouldn’t return your letters.”
Rainbow’s mane bristled as she stomped her hoof. “Gilda’s a bitch. I have no idea what her deal is.”
“Rainbow!” Twilight pulled her over. “I know you two had a falling out, but—”
Celestia raised a wing and flapped it, sending a crack through the room. “Please, Rainbow, watch your language. Normally, I’m not so reserved about it, but there is an additional complication regarding Gilda that you need to be made aware of.”
The group shared a look.
“Complication?” Twilight asked. “I don’t know if I like that word.”
“That is understandable. I’m afraid that Princess Gilda has re-assumed her place as next in line under King Morvana.”
Twilight’s group didn’t need to share a look. The silence between them that spoke volumes all its own.
“I am not surprised you all were unaware of this. When Gilda was very young, King Morvana more or less disowned her. A young couple originally from Prince Ragnar’s aerie offered to take her in, and raised her in Cloudsdale, hiding her lineage. For some unknown reason, the King has decided to re-accept her into her family. It may be because the King has yet to conceive an heir with which to replace the Princess.”
“Oh, hell.” Rainbow’s wings drooped down to the floor. “Gilda is going to be the next King? She hates my guts! She might declare war on us just because of that!”
Twilight’s head jerked up, a connection flaring in her mind. “That’s why you ordered the construction of the Bellerophon, isn’t it? Normally, it’d be too big of a giveaway to contractors to so easily justify. But you were hedging your bets. With a fleet of those ships, suddenly a war on Equestria becomes far less feasible.”
Celestia closed her eyes and lowered her head. “You are correct, my student. Princess Gilda has, I believe, suffered a kind of psychological break down. When a gryphon experiences this, the chains binding them to their normally strict code of conduct shake loose. Their point of view twists to become more selfish, and they become very dangerous.
“Fortunately, the lines of succession between King to King in Gryphonia are not as clear-cut as they are, say, for our Royal family. There is a reasonable chance that Gilda will never become King, but rather, one of the princes from the other two aeries will. Since Morvana’s family has ruled Gryphonia for nearly 500 years, however, I felt it prudent to take precautions.
“In any event, this is why I feel you should be careful with your language regarding Princess Gilda. While I know that there are many in Gryphonia who are not a fan of her, and it does not strike me as likely that the King or the Princess should be there, it would not do us any good for our Grand Mage’s party to be disparaging her. Understand?”
“Absolutely.” Twilight turned to her team. “Let’s try to avoid a discussion of politics on this trip, shall we?”
Rainbow and Spike saluted, while Trixie bowed her head.
“Any other advice, Princess?” Twilight asked.
“Yes! If possible, try to have a little fun at some point.”
Twilight looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. “Have fun? Cloudsdale’s in danger, we are at war, and this strikes me as a high-stakes diplomatic—”
“The war is almost over, we’re reshuffling our forces to deploy General Blaze to Cloudsdale, and this is anything but a high-stakes diplomatic mission. Prince Ragnar is my friend. You are not negotiating any contracts; in fact, I forbid you from doing so, which will give you all the cover you need should some gryphon attempt to. All the Prince wants to do is get to know you, and perhaps see how you handle your alcohol.”
“That’s not good.” Rainbow put her wing over Twilight and leaned into her ear. “Watch the mead. Trust me. You can’t taste the alcohol, but its proof is somewhere between wine and hard liquor. And they serve it in steins.”
“Yeah… I might… I might just have to disappoint them.” Twilight sent a thank you to Rainbow in her look. “They have water in Gryphonia, right?”
“Really?” Trixie took a step forward and tilted her head. “The great Grand Mage Twilight Sparkle can’t handle her alcohol?”
“More like, doesn’t drink ever. She has a rule: maximum one drink per diem.” Spike stood up straight next to Twilight. “Honestly, I’m proud of her. Some of the girls in our group pushed her to try more, and she held firm. It takes strength to push back against peer pressure like that.”
“Thank you, Spike. I don’t think I would have been able to do it without you supporting me. But from the sounds of things, I take it you have more experience with it, Trixie?”
“Pfft,” Trixie scoffed. “I grew up with a travelling circus. Just because they don’t sell alcohol in the concession stand doesn’t mean there wasn’t any. Half the performers were drunk on stage every single night. It took one of them three weeks after we first met to remember I wasn’t a customer because he never stopped drinking in that entire time. And, I admit, after a successful show Trixie likes to… relax. So, yes, I have experience with it, and I don’t think I should be ashamed.”
“I‘m not saying you should be ashamed of it either. In fact, if you like, you can have any of the mead they give me.”
Trixie blushed and tried to hide some of her face under her hat. “I appreciate the offer, but Trixie needs to be able to cast the spell… Although gryphon mead is very good…”
Celestia put a hoof over her mouth as she chuckled. “Oh, that it is. But I don’t think you’ll have too much trouble, Twilight. If nothing else, just wait to finish your ascent. Then, you can go back and drink them all under the table without even trying.”