• Published 5th May 2013
  • 11,082 Views, 998 Comments

Triptych - Estee


When a new mission for the Element-Bearers (from an unexpected source) arrives three weeks after Twilight's ascension, she finds herself forced to confront a pair of questions: what truly makes an alicorn? And what happens if it goes wrong?

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Inspiration

There was a list Twilight had never written down, one where every entry was something she kept hidden from herself. None of the items on it had ever been checked off. Her subconscious read it every day before once again burying it beneath any possible waking notice. Twilight lived by that list and had, as of a little over three weeks ago, been adding to it without any true knowledge of having done so.

Of course, it wasn't the only one. Twilight had a love of schedules, of check marks, of virtually anything which would make the universe function in some kind of comprehensible order. It's all right for a train not to run on time in Twilight's world, but the conductor should be able to break down all the reasons for the delay and work to make sure none of them ever happened again. She had an affection towards things which were predictable and even more when that certainty of sequence sprung from nature itself, since that was a sign of the world trying to get it right. Ponies who wished to make a favorable first impression shouldn't give her flowers, but flower clocks. This species opens its petals at four in the afternoon and closes them at five, just in time for another to take over. Others make their move at night, adapted by centuries of natural background magic to receive nourishment from Moon, when there's a little less competition to worry about. Get enough different types together -- about three square yards to make it all work -- and you'll have something accurate to the quarter-hour: hardly perfect, but it shows nature is trying and Twilight would truly appreciate the effort, including that involved in gift-wrapping three square yards of earth and carrying it along in such a way as to make the presentation into a surprise.

(She spent a moon in her third year trying to make one herself, but -- unicorn. The 'dragons might be natural gardeners' theory also bit the dust.)

When Sun and Moon moved as they should, when equinoxes and solstices arrived on schedule, every time the stars marched across Luna's sky in the patterns they always followed, Twilight knew the world was a place where discord -- and Discord -- hadn't won. It made everything else that much easier to deal with. The universe wasn't necessarily orderly by nature -- but portions were, and those portions could at least try to organize the rest. She had yet to realize the true value of having a little chaos around -- certainly not to the point where she would have written a letter on the topic. It was a lesson Pinkie had been teaching her for nearly three years, and Twilight still hadn't realized there was even a class in session. Disorder, missed deadlines, things which came out of bucking nowhere, and chaos -- those could still throw Twilight for a loop, or at least send her into the groove for a good long pace.

And natural events going off schedule, or those which operated by no true schedule at all -- well, those weren't exactly in her comfort zone...


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They were watching what Quiet had assured them would be the last few minutes of the practice. The penalty rope was still being used. As was the backup penalty rope (although not on Twilight), and the backup to the backup, along with Applejack having taken out her lasso before doing the last series of knots herself. Hoofball was like that: a game where sixty minutes of supposed action could easily take place over four hours, much of which was occupied by the calling and enforcement of penalties from a rulebook which had, over the course of a millennium, reached the point where virtually nopony could actually lift it and most unicorns needed a double corona just to flip through the index. And in this case, it also had Applejack and the tiny subversive streak she typically kept hidden at the lowest level of her psyche -- the one which had chosen to peek out through her stress and whisper a few words into the ears of hogtied colts. "...an' he's only got the one pair of eyes, don't he? So the time when y'want t' retaliate for that last hit is when he's callin' one on somepony else. Jus' make sure yer standin' -- and Ah mean standin', don't want his attention at'tall -- nearby when that whistle goes off, a little out of his sight, an' then y'jus' move your hoof in an' out real quick..."

(Actual games work with a team of six referees, mostly so they can guard each other's flanks during their escape should the home team happen to lose. It does nothing to stop the penalties, but it does tend to add an extra thirty minutes to each quarter.)

Quiet missed (or at least pretended to miss) all of it, watching the children, calling slightly fewer penalties than would have been found on the professional level, and listening to Twilight. "Signs of Diamond Dogs? Strange... the only tunnels I know of are several gallops away, and they've never been known to poke their heads out for more than a second or two. They're well outside their territory." There was a minute-long interruption while more penalties were announced, enforced, and gleefully forgotten by most of the players. "I'll let the mayor know, though -- that's an extra hazard for anypony who heads into the wild zone, and the town should be aware of it. A one-sheet slid under the door of every home and business should do it."

Twilight nodded. "Rarity thinks there's a chance you've got exiles -- three of them." They'd discussed it on the way in: it wasn't as if the Dogs were likely to communicate with anypony -- and might not even approach one after what had happened to two of their number. But they were still out there, and could be more desperate than ever. Raid the town: virtually no chance. Take one more chance on getting a pony: unlikely -- but the odds weren't fully at zero for either. "Two males, one female, all adults. They don't know how to survive up here and the longer they're on the surface, the more panicked they might become. I just want everypony to be aware they're out there, before they try something stupid. But --" she sighed "-- there probably isn't much point to sending out more search parties to find them. They'll scent us before we see them most of the time -- and then they might just tunnel."

"And that is the voice of experience," Quiet noted. "Is there a story here, Miss Rarity? I hardly would have expected you to be an expert on the burrowers, especially given how limited their wardrobes tend to be."

"Most of them won't even consider my designs, not even after I spent half a moon on them! And trying to make something for hands... Celestia's shoes, no appendage should have that many joints, the gloves kept wearing out against the, oh, what was that word -- knuckles, and then they wouldn't trim their claws and you can imagine what that did to the tips..." Rarity took a breath, then tried two more. "Oh, yes, right -- there's a smidgen of story there, but I think we can save it for later."

Their host chuckled. "Somepony should probably be writing some of this down. I understand what you mean, Twilight, and I don't think the mayor will ask the townsponies for anything on that scale anyway. The Doctor was one thing -- this is another. And there really aren't many of us who go that far into the wild zone when apples aren't involved. Just alerting ponies to travel in groups for a while should do most of it."

Twilight hoped. It was a balancing act: make sure the locals knew about the dangers they had to be aware of without scaring them to the point where they could turn a potential innocent into a threat -- or something along those lines, anyway. Twilight also wanted her to feel secure enough to approach them, not hiding because there were ponies crashing through the woods in all directions. Maybe it was the search parties which flushed her out, just through having so many ponies in her area?

"I have been writing some of it down!" Rainbow Dash insisted with the slightly frantic tones of a pony who could see somepony else, one who was a little less wantonly cruel to the common comma, beating her to the copyright office. "Lots! I just need -- to polish some of it a little, that's all..."

Quiet's expression took on a faint layer of surprise. "A budding author? Well, keep it detailed, factual, and dry and I'll be sure to add a copy to my library. Add lies about scandal and sex if you want to sell two."

The brash tone was terrifyingly thoughtful. "Scandal and sex -- huh..."

"Dash, don't y'dare, Ah swear Ah'll get every rope on this field and make y'wish for the Running Of The Leaves because y'won't even tie for last any more, y'won't even get on the course 'cause y'won't be movin' --"

-- and the pegasus came down right in front of them, a scream of pain emerging as she contacted the ground.

One of the very rare metallic coats: a light touch of emerald across her entire body, a hue which extended to her eyes. White mane and tail. Adult. Half-covered in froth. And pregnant. Very pregnant. Almost as pregnant as it was possible to be without finishing -- which was the problem currently in progress.

"The doctor..." she gasped, "...they said he was here... please..." Her front knees buckled, and she made an effort to keep standing, to keep her belly off the ground. "...I need -- the doctor..."

The moment froze --

-- and the ice flashed into steam under the heat of action. "Right!" It was the first time any of them had heard Quiet seriously raise his volume and the reason for that was immediate: pain flushed his voice as the overexertion hit him. He kept going regardless. "Every colt and filly, practice is over, those of you with ropes and lassos get them off and then head home immediately! Twilight, I know you can lift her, carry her in, please... I cleared a room when I took him on as my guest, I knew this would happen several times before he had anything of his own again, it's on the second floor, look for the double-edged mouth-mounted parry blades and then take a hard left. Miss Dash, fly ahead, the Doctor is five rooms down from that, wake him up, I assure you he won't mind -- dear Celestia, she's fast. Madame, we're going to take care of you. I won't ask you to relax, but do know you're in the best hooves and fields available for all of Equestria, and there is no chance better than this one."

The pegasus squinted against the pain of the fresh contraction as Twilight's field gently raised her, looked down at the source. "...Princess?" There was an attempt at a midair dip. The belly didn't make it look any less awkward. "The Princess -- here?" Her eyes widened again -- and then, out of nowhere, "Please -- please bless my foal..."

Twilight blinked. ...what?

The pegasus, having clamped onto the idea, was holding on for dear life. Possibly two lives. "...you're here... you can make everything -- all right... please, bless..."

Twilight looked at Quiet. He returned the favor. No words arrived with the eye contact.

...okay... I always wanted to see the Exception at work and try to feel what Doctor Gentle was doing... at least, I did right up until I got a possible chance at it... "I -- I'll -- ask the Doctor if I can -- attend the birth?"

Another cry of pain. "...please..."

Twilight decided it was a course of action. It was something to do. It was anything which wasn't the word 'bless' and everything which was threatening to come with it. "Let's get inside, everypony! We've got a foal to deliver!" For a one-pony value of 'we'.

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As it turned out, Doctor Gentle could wake up fast: Rainbow Dash later said she'd never seen a pony go from prone and unconscious to standing and fully alert so quickly. ("Too much practice," he would tell them over dinner that night.) He'd asked her to leave the room while he made ready and emerged less than two minutes later, covered neck through tail in the largest garment any of them had ever seen on a stallion, dark brown with numerous large pockets scattered over its length, several of which were laden with weight. "Birthing garment," he'd explained in a hurry as they moved towards the makeshift delivery room, Doctor Gentle limping along at his best speed until Twilight finally decided to save a few seconds by adding him to her field, which he took with aplomb. "I never know what I might need and all of it has to be close..." More softly, clearly hoping the new arrival (floating some distance ahead) would miss it, "And I'm horribly short on supplies right now: nearly everything was lost in the fire and all I have is what I've been able to purchase in town or have shipped in at emergency speed within a few hours, this is sooner than I thought it would be..."

Spike was running alongside them, with the little dragon holding his nose. It gave an odd tone to the words. "I can send letters to some ponies, Doctor Gentle! If it would get things back faster!"

Doctor Gentle smiled as he looked down. "I'm not quite sure what you mean, young dragon, but -- does the garment smell that bad to you? It's an old one which was at the town laundry when I left. I suppose some stains never fully come out. All right -- Shining, you truly wish the Princess to attend? I have no objections."

"...bless..." the pegasus whispered.

They both took it as an answer. "Very well. We three inside -- I'm sorry, young dragon, but a sentient who emerged from an egg might not want to see this at this point in his life -- and everypony else, do your best to wait for us in whatever space you can find. We may be some time..."

The door closed, and it was just the three of them.

Doctor Gentle glanced at Twilight as she released him from her field. "This is a messy business, Princess. Have you ever been at a birth before? No? Without meaning to be indelicate, things can emerge which are not the foal, and I have no garment for you. I realize you may wish to observe, but I recommend doing so from a slight distance."

Twilight didn't have Rarity's mild rupophobia. She wasn't all that comfortable with the range of concepts presented by 'things' either. And deferring to those who were at the top of their professions was practically built into her hooves. "Yes, Doctor." Twilight took half a step back.

This upset the newly-named Shining. "...but -- bless..."

Another glance, this time with increasing awareness dawning in the Doctor's eyes. "I understand. Shining, I assure you the Princess is bringing her blessing to our mutual efforts simply by her presence: words will await your foal's arrival so she can give the child appropriate ones upon first sight. But if you need more --" clearly trying to calm the mother-to-be down, his expression both telling Twilight that and softly requesting it "-- Princess, would you --" visibly thinking fast "-- invoke a blessing field upon this room?"

Twilight, her own mind working at full speed, coated the walls with soft, passive, doing-nothing-whatsoever glow. Shining sighed with relief, and Twilight got her onto the birthing table.

Doctor Gentle exerted his own field, helped Shining get her hind legs into the padded cuffs before carefully closing them. "At least this came quickly," he softly told Twilight. "Quiet ordered it yesterday via the fastest pegasus he knew and kicked bits around to make certain it would arrive shortly after the Sun rose."

Whispering back, "Do you -- have enough?" Because the room was virtually empty. There was the long low birthing table with its padded surface, almost large enough for a pony and a half, with Shining occupying about two-thirds of it. A smaller table bearing a silver tray which had a few scant instruments on it, objects Twilight had never seen before and wasn't sure she wanted to see in action here: she wanted to observe the Exception (which this particular birth might not even require), not -- whatever those did and how and she already knew where. A tiny elevated bath filled with warm water, which Rainbow Dash had placed in the room some time before they'd entered: she could see the splash zone around it. Three small bottles and two larger ones. And stone walls coated by glow.

Just barely at the edge of her hearing, "I hope." Back to normal volume. "All right, Shining, let's see where we are..." His horn lit --

-- and it took Twilight a moment to see the strangeness, something which hadn't happened when Doctor Gentle had been eating dinner. "Doctor?"

He glanced back at her again -- then made the correct guess. "Oh -- yes, I know it's odd. The heads of the Equestrian Magic Society were the first to remark on it: I truly never noticed before they did, and it only happens when I'm doing this. The sparkles will return for every other spell, but when I'm on the verge of or actually using the Exception, they vanish. There doesn't seem to be any harm to it. I'm preparing -- relax, Shining, the Princess has never seen this before and asked for instruction, simply feel honored to become part of her education -- but I haven't invoked it yet. Your contractions are very close, Shining -- but you're nearly two weeks early, and your foal is rather on the large side. I suspect this one simply couldn't wait any longer. The presentation --" and he carefully moved his front hooves across the pegasus' belly, made just the lightest of contact.

All expression vanished from his face. He looked at Twilight.

And she knew. The presentation isn't right.

"-- can be dealt with," Doctor Gentle continued. "Princess -- please continue your blessing."

Possibly more than the presentation wasn't right.

Twilight -- couldn't do anything. She didn't know how to invoke the Exception. Couldn't feel the foal. Certainly had no power to bless. She could only watch and feel as helpless as she had after the Elements had failed against Discord, the inversion of her friends and absence of Rainbow Dash taking the only hope she'd had and leaving it as rubble scattered across gameboard ground. Just as weak and ineffective as she'd been making her way up the stairs to pack, defeated and looking only to find a place where nopony would ever see her greyed coat again.

She intensified the useless glow. Shining smiled as she blinked back tears of pain, looked happy.

If the foal dies -- if the foal dies and I couldn't do anything to stop it...

...wait! There was something! "Doctor -- Gromway's Combiner..." Weld her strength to his! If he could use the Exception with her power behind it...!

He blinked. "I -- know of it, Princess, but I do not know it. And I have never been sorrier for that gap in my education."

Which once again left her unable to do anything beyond adding a few more lumens to the light.

"Very well," Doctor Gentle said. "Shining, I will have to move the foal somewhat. There will be additional discomfort from the internal shifting, but it will simply feel very strange. I regret that I do not have the medicines I would need to take some of your pain away, but mares birthed long before there were foul-tasting liquids in bottles. I will do my best to ensure we all come through it together -- all four of us."

Shining bit back a scream. "I -- trust you, Doctor... I trust in the Princess..."

...don't... please don't...

The Doctor smiled -- and made it worse. "As well you should," he said, and gave Twilight another look, one she could clearly read and wished had never been written. This mare needed something to believe in right now, and a truly helpless Twilight was going to be it. "Princess, this is the time. Shining, I know how difficult it is, but you must try to restrain yourself from pushing for a time. Do your best."

The sparkleless silver glow around his horn intensified, reached the absolute limits of a primary corona -- but did not go further than that. The same hue surrounded Shining, most intense around her belly.

Twilight, who had wanted to observe (but never like this, never this, not with a life at risk), stretched out her senses simply because there was nothing else she could do. Tried to get the feel of that altered field.

Power. He's stronger than I thought he would be. But it's not a working -- and yet it is. This is the most basic manipulation of an object, but there's a twist to it. I can feel where the field has been warped, but not how. The difference is present and visible -- but how do you copy it? I know he's tried to teach it, and I know he's failed... Luna's tail, no wonder ponies come from all over Equestria, he's just about the only chance...

Another, much lesser layer of frustration. There was the twist to the field. It was right in front of her. And she had no idea how to even begin duplicating it. Spell copying was hardly instant for her in most cases: it had taken six hard hours of instruction and supervision before she'd found the key to Rarity's gem detector and -- well, as she'd found out two days prior, she'd never quite achieved the same level of refinement. The mark did mean something and, as with her too-fast-approaching Moon-lit appointment, there were times when it could mean too much. But Twilight's mark was for magic itself, and that meant she usually did get the sense of a unicorn's personal spells when she tried hard enough, could learn to replicate the feel with enough study and practice. It was just going to take a lot more than a single exposure for this once-impossible trick -- and there were only so many births she could attend while she was in Trotter's Falls. Only so many she wanted to attend if this one went wrong while an innocent mare trusted in her.

I know he's doing it. I can feel him strengthening his field over selected areas. He must be -- grasping the hooves, maybe? Inside. But I can't figure out entirely how. Just that -- it works. And it's a miracle. If there had to be a single exception to the differentiation rule, at least it's this one --

-- but is this a miracle that's going to work?

Doctor Gentle continued to concentrate. "Almost there, Shining," he assured the mare. "Incidentally -- a filly." That with a smile. "You can cut your name list in half now. A very large filly for a pegasus -- and yes, that means her size, gender and race: I can feel the wings..."

Shining was crying now, still looking at Twilight with that trust, still smiling. "I -- wasn't sure," she gasped. "Unicorn -- four generations back -- my Second Mother's side... couldn't be sure..."

"I remember," Doctor Gentle told her. "Now -- she is all right." (Twilight's heart soared, Shining's tears flowed faster.) "There has been some strain on her from the presentation, but she will be perfectly all right once she emerges. You'll simply wish to keep her from exercising too much for the first few days. A little more --"

(-- and that twist in his field seemed to widen, became a channel and Twilight could feel something moving down it, a rush of energy like none she had never sensed before, something she couldn't begin to identify beyond the surge of resonance, so much emotion present as to actually impact her without being the direct target, a burst of hope --)

"-- and push, Shining!" he told the mare, volume suddenly increased, eyes lit by emotion. "I have her from my end -- your part is now! Push with everything you have, and bring her to Sun!"

The mare screamed. Tried to kick, with only her uncuffed front legs moving. Pushed.

It was happening --

-- and then it had happened.

Twilight stopped trying to feel the Exception, which had just been released -- and as he had said, sparkles seemed to flow back into the Doctor's field as he gently moved the pegasus filly towards the little bath. Stopped watching Shining's face, even though it was the strongest expression of pure happiness she'd ever seen. Stopped trying to do anything other than prevent herself from vomiting all over the floor.

'Messy business' had been the understatement of a lifetime --

-- please tell me that isn't a placenta, oh please, oh Celestia and Luna, I learned about 'afterbirth' but I never thought I'd see it, and -- well, there's muscles contracting everywhere, so I guess some of the wrong ones would go along and -- the smell --

-- it took four slow breaths (taken through her mouth) for her to retrieve any idea of 'I may someday have a foal of my own' and jam it back into the mental folder where it belonged. A folder which had nearly been thrown away a thousand times over the last few weeks to begin with.

"She's beautiful, Shining," Doctor Gentle smiled. "I'll have her to you in a few minutes... I need to clean her and do the standard tests first, but I already know she's healthy. Princess, if you'd like to say hello?"

Twilight forced herself to approach the bath. (She still hadn't released the glow.)

And she was beautiful, now that some of the -- muck -- was being wiped away. The same metallic tint which was in her mother's coat had manifested here -- but instead of emerald, it was ruby. Emerald eyes, though, almost all pupil, blinking slowly as the mind behind them made its first attempt to reconcile the new environment. No mane yet, although there was a bit of tail hair: obsidian. And --

-- how did that...? Twilight pointed a hoof at the infant's neck, inclined her horn towards the bruises.

Doctor Gentle's voice dropped to a whisper. "Umbilical cord around the throat," he told her. "It was -- closer than I want to tell Shining right now. I had to unwrap it inside before bringing her out. This little one nearly didn't make it, Princess. Close -- too close... but here she is, and that? Is the only thing which matters. She will live: she simply needs rest for a time. A moment -- removing caps never stops being tricky..."

"Caps?" It was something to whisper back, something to try (and fail at) moving her mind away from the nightmare which kept pressing against her imagination. A stillbirth, strangled in the womb. A mother crying from something other than sheer relief and pure joy. A funeral among the clouds. But for him.

"These." He pointed his horn to each in turn: two hard-looking shells of slightly translucent tissue. "Only earth ponies lack them at birth -- and perhaps the crystal ponies do as well, I have yet to go and see -- but then, earth ponies don't need them. On a pegasus, they protect the wings from the stresses of the birth canal: for a unicorn, they protect the mother from the internal wounds which might be caused by a horn. A capless birth... almost unheard of, and never without consequence for mother, foal, or both. I've had -- two. One of each. They..." A shiver, the pain of memory made manifest. "...with Treylani, I very nearly lost her mother: the horn cut, and the internal bleeding -- in the end, both lived, but it was as much luck as anything I did. For Snowflake -- for those I have nearly lost, he ranks perilously close to Pinkie, and there was damage to his wings --"

"-- Snowflake?"

Doctor Gentle looked at Twilight more directly -- then figured it out. "Oh, yes -- he did move to Ponyville about two years ago: of course you've seen him. I hope he heard the news of my return in time if he was one who decided to be on his way, but I'll certainly be happy to see him should he arrive. He's one of mine, Princess -- one I'm very proud of. I truly never believed he would fly at all, but he somehow makes up for his birth injury with sheer strength and force of willpower. Not only a flier, but one good enough to get into the Wonderbolts Academy. He had no real intention of joining them, mind you -- he just wanted to prove that he could operate on that level. Snowflake took what many ponies would have seen as an insurmountable limitation and used it for personal drive. He's grown into an extraordinarily determined, resourceful, and intelligent young stallion." The warm smile of purest pride. "If slightly overexuberant."

Which made Twilight giggle, just a little. "I've noticed."

"Yes, most ponies within about three hundred yards do... well, caps generally fall away after a few days on their own, but it does no harm to remove them early. Mothers are divided just about exactly down the middle on whether to soak them off with warm water -- and there's a lot of care involved in the removal then -- or let nature take its course. Some even save the things. I asked Shining during her first examination -- too early to use the Exception for checking anything -- and she requested the removal." He diligently worked to remove the caps, his field exertions precise and gentle. "Look at this little filly, Princess. One of her two great moments of destiny passed, and she has no awareness of it. All she knows is that she's here -- and soon, she'll decide she's hungry..."

Twilight blinked. "I don't understand what you mean, Doctor." And didn't.

He chuckled as one cap came away, began to preen the tiny wing with a hundred times more expertise than Twilight possessed. "It depends on what you believe, Princess -- and some ponies believe in destiny. That there are things we are meant to do. Ponies we will meet, things which shall be achieved, events which cannot be stopped --"

a wave of color spreading across the sky, six cutie marks triggered on fillies all across Equestria, none aware of all the others, the invisible bond made long before the tide of time began to push us together

"-- and for some who believe that, birth is one of the two great moments. To arrive safely in this world is to be made part of fate's tapestry. She is here, and now her thread will begin to weave through the work and touch so many others. Oh, there are supposed to be other moments -- naming is a major one and personally, I've seen too many ponies with names suited a little too well for their jobs to suspect mere and frequent coincidence or simply taking one's own name as inspiration for a career path. If you think on it, you'll probably come up with many examples of your own -- myself included, although it took some time for me to realize --" hesitated, resumed more softly "-- what I was truly meant to do. But for the believers -- birth is the first of destiny's two truest touchstones."

I need to spend more time with the library's philosophy section. "What's the other?"

"The one you would expect," Doctor Gentle told her. "The manifestation of the cutie mark. Some take that more as confirmation of a destiny, but as I see it, it's as often the start of a new road as it is the continuation of an old one."

Which left a momentary bad taste in Twilight's mouth. The thought that she had been destined from birth to bear that mark and go through so much pain... no, on second thought, those books could arguably stay shelved for a while, presuming anypony hadn't already checked them out just to get the autograph. Still, there was a need to reply. "I understand, I think -- I mean -- Pinkie..."

A deeper chuckle. "Yes -- not a mark you'd expect to appear in a family of rock farmers, especially if you know anything about their practices and traditions." (Twilight didn't, and books on the subject didn't seem to exist.) "And -- not one they --" stopped himself. "Her tale, not mine."

Twilight pushed the curiosity back: there would be no more details from this party, and she knew it. But since they were on the subject... "Doctor -- what is rock farming? Pinkie never says, and I always thought it was just a colloquial term for mining."

"I always understood the same..." The second cap came away. "But they never practiced it while I was visiting her. I don't think they wanted me to see the entrance to their tunnels. Then again, Pinkie's father was so hidebound that he barely wanted me to see Sun and changed his mind on that issue every other second --" and another stop, but this one resumed after a single breath. "-- no, that I can speak about, at least for this," and his voice briefly went harsh. "Should his mine ever collapse on his head, I hope Pinkie never hears of it. And that I do. But those aren't thoughts for first minutes, are they, newest citizen?" He smiled at the tiny filly. "Cleaned and freed -- yes, there go the first flaps -- and merely bruised: no scars will come from that first misadventure. So now I believe it is time..."

And he field-carried the infant to her beaming mother, set the filly down in the light of glowing walls. "Hello, little one. This is your mother... and I am your very first friend... and this is Princess Twilight, who will now give you words of blessing."

Oh no.

She flipped through hastily-memorized imaginary pages, checked the phantom index three times before forcing herself to face a simple fact: Bark Leaves had never attended a birth in his life or collected a single quote from those who had. It was almost betrayal -- and now she had to think of something to say...

Horse apples.

Oh Celestia, don't say that.

I didn't say that, right?

No, nopony looks freaked out. They're just -- waiting. Shining looks happier than any pony I've ever seen in my life and she thinks I did something when it was all Doctor Gentle, she'll never believe anything else because she doesn't want to and she's waiting for me to say something and she'll just lie there with that look on her face for hours while I find the perfect blessing which won't do anything just like I couldn't do anything during the birth, oh Celestia, Luna, why...

They were waiting for her.

She came closer, leaned in, gently touched her glowing horn to the infant's forehead.

"May all your friends be true," she whispered, "and may you be a true friend to others. Let happiness find you wherever you fly and spread in the wake of your wings. Live free, live long, without pain. Leave the world a better place than you found it with memories given to all who knew you and tales of the joy you brought repeated for a thousand years and more. Live."

Shining began to cry again. "Princess..." she whispered. "I can't name her after you... no pony will ever be named Twilight again... but... Our Lady Of The Dusk And Dawn... Dawn..." She nuzzled her filly. "My little Dawn Sky..."

And Twilight had to leave, had to release her field and get out of the room before it all broke loose, found an empty hallway because it had been too crowded with everypony waiting in the corridor and they'd probably retreated to the nearest room instead, thanked Celestia for the momentary privacy --

-- and that was the Tartarus of it, right there.

How many times had she sworn by them? More for Solar than Lunar, of course: that was just a question of time. Swearing by Luna had caught on -- quickly. Very quickly. There was a second ruler to swear by and it added a certain variety to the oaths, so why not? It had become at least semi-natural within moons and, after that one Nightmare Night, turned into automatic reaction. But it wasn't just swearing by them -- it was, at times, entreating --

-- no, it was more than that. There were times when it was prayer.

Shining had called on her. And through Doctor Gentle's skills, through no effort of her own, it had all worked out and all it meant was that Shining would call on her again, teach Equestria's youngest pony to do the same, and it would march through time, moving ever forward and outwards...

...there are thousands of ponies or more who might believe the same and -- there are ponies out there who would usually swear by Luna's mane or the Princess' shoes who might right now be saying 'Twilight's horn' and I can't stop them from believing in me...

Luna keep us under your wings.

Celestia stand her watch.

Twilight bless my foal.

And in that moment, it felt as if there was nothing she would not have given up to change back.