• Published 31st Jul 2013
  • 15,275 Views, 2,038 Comments

The Advent of Applejack - Mister Friendly



Applejack has yet to truly know what it means to be a changeling...

  • ...
39
 2,038
 15,275

Chapter 14: Trojan

Deep within Canterlot, in a secluded corner of a royal library, Twilight yawned wide enough to pop her jaw on both sides; the biggest in a long, ever escalating series of yawns that’d been stretching on for hours, one for every book or document laid out before her, and that had become quite the list itself.

Stacks of tomes of all sizes stood precariously tall all around her, waiting for the slightest nudge to send them toppling over. The desk she’d been sitting in front of had practically become one with the mounds of literature, with only the table top visible at all and only because it was currently being put to use and thus warranted being cleared off periodically.

Twilight had started the night with a brand new ivory white candle to light her work. Now, that same source of light was little more than a sputtering spec of fire amidst a molten pool of wax sitting in a small basin. The magically gifted alicorn had long since forgotten it was there, only to be reminded whenever wax threatened to seep onto her reading material. Instead, Twilight kept her progress lit by hornlight. But even that was taking its toll on her.

Twilight blinked a couple of times, squeezing her eyes shut tight for a moment before forcing them open again. All-nighters weren’t unfamiliar territory for her, but that didn’t mean her body was impervious to their effects. Concentration was coming at a higher cost to her, and she was finding it harder and harder to find a comfortable position to sit in that wouldn’t lead to a narcoleptic face plant into whatever she was reading.

“Okay, focus Twilight,” she berated herself, slapping her cheeks. “Applejack’s depending on you. Just gotta keep going… something has to turn up…”

The problem was, nothing was turning up.

Usually, there was some sort of excitement that kept her invested in her work. A discovery of some kind would pique her interest. A revelation would breathe new life into her taxed faculties. She’d race to follow the new lead, and the next and the next, until she looked up and realized the sun was coming up again.

But on this occasion, she was faced with a different kind of all-nighter. She had to consciously force herself not to nod off as she cross referenced, studied and pondered for hours on end, all in relative silence. This time, she still felt like she was stuck at square one, chasing herself around and around in circles.

For eight hours she’d been reading and translating, and apart from a new appreciation for the complexities of ancient earth pony pictography, she had little to show for it; infinitely less than she needed. It had become grueling, tedious work, and more and more she was struck by the sense that she was simply spinning her wheels fruitlessly.

There has to be something here about changelings, she thought to herself, a little desperately, looking back and forth. Or… or something relating to them. A story, a curse, something. Hay, at this point I’ll take myths and legends…

A flash ran through her mind like a knife’s edge; a memory of a black form lying crumpled on the ground, cracked and ruined horn still hissing with angry changeling fire. The very air around her boiled with raw magic, her eyes half open, but unseeing…

Twilight shivered, and hugged herself for a moment until it passed. That whole terrible event had been one of the worst things she’d born witness to in a very long time, perhaps ever, and it was something she was doing everything in her power not to have pester her at the moment. It was unproductive, and right now, she had to be as productive as equinely possible, for her sake.

There has to be something here, she reiterated, this time firmer than before. She looked up at the towering shelves. Each stood so tall they vanished beyond the reach of the candle’s pitiful flame, fading into utter darkness overhead. From where she sat, it was like the shelves went up and up into forever, an endless source of knowledge she’d never be able to explore completely.

This was the Canterlot Royal Archives, a place as ancient as it was disused. There were tomes here as old as Equestria itself, carefully preserved inside locked display cases, and grimoires best left forgotten in their complex vaults. There was knowledge here, both archaic and modern, mundane and eldritch. Half of the books in front of Twilight were merely transcripts of the real things, the originals too delicate to touch, let alone read through. Or, in some cases, too dangerous too read through.

One – a book bound literally in carved slabs of blackest obsidian and filled with pages that felt unsettlingly like living skin, warmth and all – sat pushed slightly off to one side on her desk. It was firmly shut and covered over with a strip of cloth, namely because the imagery inside had started to make the shadows around her dance and sing.

But she couldn’t quite bring herself to put it back into the vault from whence it came. Not because of anything it held in particular, but because of some nagging feeling in Twilight’s head. A bad… bad feeling that she routinely tried to pass off, only for it to inevitably come back with those same three utterly annoying words.

But what if…?

Twilight glanced at the black grimoire, unease plaguing her. No – no, she had to put her hoof down.

Before she could let doubt undermine her again, her horn glowed. The grimoire rattled, as if attempting to resist her, and with a pop, it vanished, reappearing safely within its secured vault once more, hopefully never to see the light of day again.

No, that wasn’t the answer, Twilight thought, more convicted than she'd been in hours. Changeling magic is totally different from… that.

But what if?

Twilight ground her teeth and shook her head. No, that suspicion was baseless. She’d… felt that particular kind of magic before. The black, needling taint of it, the burning sensation in her very being… no, that magic and the kind demonstrated by changelings felt worlds different.

Then why was this feeling tormenting her?

Something was at the back of her mind – a thought that hadn’t fully taken form, like a word on the tip of one’s tongue. She felt like she was on to something, and she’d learned over the years that her intuition was never far from a mark, at the very least. The trick was figuring out what it could be.

She looked back up at the towering book shelves. That wasn’t the answer; she was determined on that point. But it wasn’t her only lead, either.

Twilight knew one thing for sure; if Applejack’s mother would go anywhere to learn something, it would have been here. At the time, there was no greater source of information in the public eye. It was infeasible to think that Carnation had not at least visited the Royal Library at least a few times if she was looking for something.

And if what little information Applejack had told about them about her mysterious birth mother was correct, Twilight would bet her first edition copy of Stars and Spells: the Biography of Starswirl the Bearded that Carnation had left something for her daughter to find. And she’d never make that bet on anything but a sure thing.

But the million bit question remained; what was Carnation looking for? The most basic question… and she didn’t have the faintest clue what it might be, only that something brought her to Equestria. Something had caused her to undertake a journey all other changeling queens passed off as being nothing but suicide. Carnation had to have known something before ever coming here; something tangible enough to cause her to ignore the warnings of all of her peers.

But what?

Twilight groaned, her head flopping down onto the desk in front of her. And so she went in a circle again… Carnation came to Equestria for a reason, and Twilight needed to find that reason, but in order to find that reason she needed to know what drew Carnation to Equestria in the first place…

Her only conclusion was that somewhere, buried in Equestria’s history, there had to be some connection to changelings. An unexplained account, some unidentified sickness or spell, something. But where could it be?

Where am I supposed to go? What am I supposed to do? If… if I’m too late and Applejack…

Another memory went screaming through her mind; a towering black figure, a victorious, supremely smug smile on her face as she and her friends were hauled into a ruined wedding hall…

But as quick as despair started to set in, defiance boiled up to counterbalance it. No, that was not how Applejack was going to be! Twilight was not about to let one of her best friends play into the schemes of that changeling queen! She would not let her interfere with their lives again!

Twilight sat up straighter, her eyes casting upwards towards the wall of books in front of her. There was a trail here to follow; she knew it. Regardless of whether Carnation herself left that trail, the facts remained unchanged; she’d come to Equestria for something, and she'd found it, evidently. And if Carnation could find it, Twilight could, too, even if she had to sift through every urban legend and myth to do so.

What she really needed to do was talk with Celestia. There wasn’t a pony alive who knew as much about Equestria as she did, nor a pony wiser. If Carnation’s secret was one of Equestria’s secrets, then she knew exactly who could fill in the blanks.

They’d already talked at length on the subject, true, but maybe if she picked the immortal princess’s brain a little more…

The more she thought it over, the more it sounded like the best option. That, or try her luck with another speed-reading spell and hope it didn’t leave her cross-eyed again.

Bolstered by her second wind, she jumped up, her mind made up… only to pause as something caught her attention; something outside of her self-contained little bubble.

Somewhere out in the many aisles of bookshelves, but growing louder by the second, she could make out the faint click of hooves on marble floor. Kinked muscles forgotten, Twilight looked this way and that, suddenly more alert than she’d been for hours. There’d been too many recent events to simply brush off even small details as happenstance. Few ponies ever came back this far into the archives intentionally. Most nobles usually had their own private libraries for perusing, and it was a rare pony indeed who Celestia allowed into this particular section of the archives.

But sure enough, the motion ward Twilight had set up in a two aisle radius around her started buzzing through her horn; her ears weren’t deceiving her. Somepony was approaching from behind. More importantly, nopony was even allowed into this section of the archives without explicit permission from Celestia herself, and the one approaching did not sound like they were accompanied by a long-legged princess’s stride like they were supposed to be.

Defensive spells flashed through her mind automatically, weariness forgotten. A whole slew of protective hexes and incantations she’d committed to memory – partially at the insistence of Shining Armor – jumped to the forefront of her mind, ready for use. Whatever was coming, if it proved unfriendly, it was about to have the single worst day of its unfortunate life.

And if she couldn’t do that, the owners of the dozens of pairs of blue eyes cracking open all around her surely would.

A hiss ran through the rousing mob of thirty or so drones as they rose – all but one, anyway, who had to be woken up by a hard swat on the nose from her neighbor. They straightened up from open book pillows and empty bookshelves, and proceeded to silently bristle at whatever was foolish enough to approach unannounced.

Twilight frowned up at them. They’d followed her from Ponyville, insisting to help with the search for answers to their queen’s plight. But it was still disconcerting how quick they all were to bare their fangs. Then she turned her head, wary for whatever was coming. Perhaps this time, their instinctive wariness was justified…

Or maybe it was aimed at a rather disheveled mare wearing huge spectacles, who came trotting around the nearest corner and immediately jumped in fright.

“Oh d-d-d-dear,” the mare stuttered, jumping when she caught sight of Twilight facing her. “I-I’m ever s-so s-s-sorry, I didn’t mean to st-t-startle you.”

Twilight blinked, and almost dropped her guard. Almost. “Can I help you?” she asked, not taking her eyes off the fidgety pony.

The intruder looked somehow worse than Twilight felt. Her mane was unkempt and tied back in a rough ponytail that was coming loose, spilling locks of curly brown hair over her golden eyes. She was wearing a collar and bowtie, both of which were hastily done up and uneven, the bow swinging slightly around her neck. The mare’s spectacles – huge, perfectly round things that seemed almost impractically big and were held together by a fat splint of tape – sat unevenly on her face, one side riding up so high she could almost see under it while seeing over the other.

She may have looked harmless, but one fact still rang clear in Twilight’s mind; Celestia was not accompanying her, and if the princess herself wasn’t showing her in, she wasn’t supposed to be here. On top of that, the enchantments barring the old archives from the newer sections were not to be trifled with, either. Twilight knew that for a fact, having tested it on more than one late night jaunt through the library as a filly.

And yet, here she stood, mane unsinged, body un-transmogrified into a dumpy toad, no legion of Royal Guard stallions bearing down on her. That, in and of itself, was raising some red flags.

“I’m ev-ver so sorry to interrupt,” the mare blustered in a squeaky voice. “I was t-t-told I could find P-P-Princess Twilight Sparkle here and I got lost and ooooh… D-d-do you know where –”

Before she could even finish, her eyes fell upon Twilight’s wings, then her horn. Then back to her wings, then her horn. As quick as a flash, she straightened up as if electrocuted, looking like she’d just received the scare of her life.

“OH! My Ap-pologies Your H-Highness!” she gasped. “It’s been one of those d-days.” She chuckled nervously, ruffling her mane – which of course freed more strands of hair.

Twilight blinked. This mare was making it exceedingly difficult to keep on guard, but she wasn’t ready to write her off just yet. “Um… who are you?” she asked, disregarding the pony’s previous comment.

“Oh, right,” the mare muttered, then straightened up and smiled. “I’m sorry to bother you. M-m-my name’s Peony. P-Princess Celestia told me I could f-find you here.”

Celestia knew she was coming and hadn’t undone the spells for her? Unusual, very unusual. “Okay, Peony,” Twilight said, eying the nervous mare uncertainly. “Second question; you’re a changeling, aren’t you?”

To that, Peony’s eyes about bugged out of her head. “W-w-what?! How d-d-did you know?! I th-th-thought I was b-b-b-being so careful!”

Twilight couldn’t help but crack a grin despite herself. Peony had at least come clean, so either she was wildly lucky yet incompetent, or gifted and peaceful. “Well, apart from the Royal Guard, only changelings call me ‘Your Highness’. Also, you kinda just told me.”

From the look on the faux-unicorn’s face, Twilight’s words completely stumped Peony. “Oh,” was all she managed to say. A moment later, she recovered, and looked at Twilight, clearly impressed. “I’ll… I’ll have to remember that. You really are a clever p-p-pony,” she said.

Twilight flashed an appreciative smile. “I try to be.”

Peony gave a nervous smile back. “Well, you are correct. I am a changeling.” Then, she swiftly straightened up and threw a crisp salute, still smiling awkwardly. “Agent Peony, at your service! er… if anypony asks, you d-d-didn’t hear that from me.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. Somehow, Peony didn’t strike her as the secret agent type. “And why were you looking for me?”

“Oh! Right,” she squeaked, jolting as she remembered. “P-Princess Celestia wanted to see you in the main dining hall. She s-said something about your f-f…” She took a breath, “your friend arriving from Ponyville a little while ago,” she finished, slower this time.

Twilight blinked. Her ears perked up. “Applejack’s here already? Princess Celestia only just sent the summons less than half an hour ago. Wait, what am I saying! Is she alright? She hasn’t gotten worse, has she?”

Peony gave her a mildly helpless look, wilting under the barrage of questions. “I am j-just repeating what I was t-t-told.”

Twilight had to force herself to settle down. “Right, okay… if Applejack got here so fast, maybe she’s feeling better. That’s a good thing!” She smiled to herself, nodding, then glance up towards Peony. Her dubiousness was coming back. “And… Princess Celestia sent you to tell me about that?”

she nodded with a smile. “Yes she did. I was headed this way, anyway. B-busy day today, very busy. N-Nobles already queuing for the Day Court, loooooots of commotion. Almost reminds me of… uh, n-nevermind. Do you p-p-ponies ever have a quiet day?”

Twilight’s insides squirmed and she grimaced. “On occasion.”

Peony looked at Twilight questioningly for a few seconds. Then, she glanced behind her. “Wow,” she intoned softly, sounding awed. “Th-That’s a lot of b-b-books you’re reading.”

Twilight fidgeted. Was she being judged? Or praised? “Well, there’s a lot to do. You know, because of all that’s going on back at Ponyville.”

Peony just nodded, as if she understood all-too well. “Is there any way I c-c-can help?”

Twilight couldn’t restrain a smile. Yes,Peony was definitely one of Applejack’s changelings; always willing to offer a helping hoof, even when the matter concerned them little. Then again, said a cynical part of her mind, it could just be their strategy for endearing themselves to others in the interest of survival. Changelings certainly had the capacity to be so calculating and adaptive, and their ability to switch from one method of garnering love to another so fluidly was uncanny.

But then she pushed the thought away and stood up. All this cynicism wasn’t good for her. “Not unless you could tell me how to reverse whatever’s happening to Applejack, or what Carnation was looking for here in Equestria in the first place.”

Peony blinked. “C-Carnation? You m-mean Queen Ap-p-plejack’s mother? I’m sorry, I wasn’t a part of her hive. Not that q-queens share very much with their drones, but…”

Twilight wasn’t terribly disappointed by that. It wasn’t like she’d had high hopes on a positive response anyway; it’d been rhetorical, actually. If she thought it would be that easy, she would’ve stayed in Ponyville and grilled the long-time Ponyville changelings for information instead.

“But if I had to guess,” Peony went on suddenly, catching Twilight by surprise, “she might have been looking into the princesses.”

Twilight blinked. “Really? Why?”

Peony shrugged, pushing up her glasses on her face. “Well, queens and alicorns aren’t that different from what I’ve seen. M-maybe she wanted to know what m-makes them different. B-b-but what do I know? Queens d-d-don’t really… share with us. But if Queen Carnation felt it was imp-p-portant enough to tend to it herself and not send changelings to do it for her, it c-couldn’t have been a small matter.”

Twilight stroked her chin. That was something she hadn’t considered. She’d been focusing so much on Carnation; what if it was her drones that handled part of the searching? But to look into Alicorns… Why? She allowed her mind to wander down that train of thought for a bit.

Aside from stature, how were queens and alicorns related in any way? Could Carnation have been looking into harnessing alicorn magic for something? It was certainly something to think about, even if it was a troubling thought. Down that way was leading her back into that territory again…

What if…?

Twilight shook her head. No, no, don’t get ahead of yourself. First thing’s first; I’ll have to send a message to Ponyville, see if Roseluck knew who all Carnation would trust with this kind of thing. Her operatives wouldn’t be clumsy enough to leave their names behind in the log-in ledgers… unless they did it intentionally. It’s a longshot, but after tonight, I’ll taking what I can get…

“Thanks,” Twilight said, flashing an appropriate smile while already halfway through her plans for the imminent future. “That may be just what I needed. Maybe it’ll lead me to something to help us save Applejack.”

Not that there’s much written about alicorns to begin with, but still… It’s something.

Peony, however, hesitated, looking even more fretful than before. “B-b-but, Princess Celestia…”

Twilight almost smacked herself in the face with a hoof. “Oh. Right. Sorry. Let’s go see what Princess Celestia wants.”

“Oh, y-you go,” Peony insisted, putting up her hooves. “I’ve g-got some more errands to run. Busy day, very busy…”

“Oh… okay,” Twilight responded, a little thrown off, but not by much.

But as she started to trot away, she couldn’t help but glance over her shoulder at the strange changeling. Something about her still perplexed Twilight, and she couldn’t help but notice how every single drone that had accompanied her had fled without a trace just at the sight of her.

~~***~~

The whole way through the halls of Canterlot, Twilight’s head was in a fog. Even without reading materials to work with, her brain continued to puzzle and puzzle over a great many things, even if it felt like she was doing so with a fair bit of sludge clogging her brain at the same time.

Sleep was the furthest thing from her mind, though her body wasn’t quite of the same opinion. Her head throbbed in protest, but she persisted in her musings. Changelings queens and alicorns… Changeling queens and alicorns… Was there a connection? Was there something of value there? What could an alicorn possess that would interest Carnation so much that she’d come hundreds, if not thousands of miles through uncharted, inhospitable territory just to find it?

Come to think of it, I don’t really know all that much about alicorns, myself, Twilight mused with no small measure of chagrin, given her current status. Almost all the books out there are just theories, legends and educated guesses.

Twilight paused to gaze out a nearby window, across the manned battlements of the castle and across the fortified city. I wonder… if Celestia keeping it hidden for a reason?

Just as quickly, she was shaking her head with a snort. Ugh, again with the cynicism… Come on, this is the princess; I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for it. Twilight nodded to herself, happy with her assessment, and continued on her way. If I ask nicely, I’m sure she’d tell me.

“I could never do such a thing!”

Princess Celestia’s exclamation about made Twilight jump right out of her skin. The shock in her voice was more than enough to snap Twilight back to reality and look around while feeling like she’d just received an electric shock.

She found herself standing in front of two large double doors, a mainstay for most entryways within the castle, she noted. They had been thrown open wide, beyond which stretched an immense dining hall big enough to undoubtedly seat half of the population of Ponyville without crowding – and that included its many new buzzing residents. Great stained glass windows flanked either side of the hall, filling it with all manner of colors from across the rainbow. Each window bore a different pattern, from a valley filled with nothing but roses, to a river bend, to a field filled with frolicking ponies.

Placed in the center of the room, looking completely dwarfed by its surroundings, stood a rather quaint banquet table, one that Twilight could’ve sworn was nearly half as long as it’d been the last time she’d seen it. Then again, when one lived in Canterlot for any length of time, one learned that not everything was as it appeared, especially if it was in the princesses' possession.

Sitting at the head of that table was Celestia, who appeared to be enjoying a steaming cup of tea, half a cleared platter of small bite-sized sandwiches, and a bowl of strawberries. She was looking to her side, toward a stallion wearing a stately suit who merely gazed at the diarch with an impassive stoicism worthy of any Royal Guard. For some reason, Celestia was looking at him with a mildly horrorstruck look, as if she’d just been informed that the pantry had run out of her favorite cakes. It was one of the few times ever that Twilight had actually seen her flustered.

“I’m afraid so, Your Highness,” the stallion responded humbly. “The communique was quite clear.”

Celestia sighed – actually sighed without any attempts to disguise it – and sagged slightly. “As… generous… as the Sultan of Saddle Arabia’s offer is, I cannot possibly accept two entire legions of his finest soldiers as a personal guard. To even suggest such a thing… No, no, please send a message to His Imminence politely declining his offer. Saddle Arabia has more than enough need for them, as I recall.”

The stallion didn’t bat an eyelash. “Very good. I shall simply rephrase the missive we sent to the Griffon nation as well. Is there anything else you require, Princess?”

Celestia took a deep breath composing herself. “More tea, I think,” she said. “Today promises to be a very… tiring day.”

“Very good.” With that, the butler bowed and excused himself.

Celestia exhaled through her nose, looking slightly forlorn – until she spotted the lavender eavesdropper standing in the open doorway of the dining hall.

“Twilight! It is good to see you,” she said brightly, smiling now. “Please, have a seat.” She gestured to the chair beside her – one laden with its own selection of untouched sandwich platter and steaming cup of tea.

Twilight continued to frown inquisitively at Celestia, even as her body automatically moved along to follow her mentor’s offer. “What was that about?” she asked.

Celestia’s smile screwed up slightly, becoming almost beleaguered. “Ah… so you heard that. I’m sorry you had to.” She then sighed. “It’s nothing, I promise. Just overly concerned parties being… overly concerned.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Two legions of soldiers is ‘overly concerned’?”

Celestia actually chuckled at that. “Honestly, you lose one small scuffle with someone a few months prior and suddenly you’re incapable of protecting yourself.”

Twilight couldn’t help but bite her lip as she took her seat. “But… you did lose …”

“Twilight. There’s no need to worry about me,” Celestia said, and the gentle but firm finality in her voice left no room for further questioning.

“O-okay, princess… if you say so,” Twilight mumbled. She fidgeted, hastily trying to shift gears, before remembering something. “Oh right, I was wondering if I could ask you something.”

Celestia smiled back at her, jumping quickly at the change of topic. It was a familiar, indulgent smile, one Twilight had been given a million times before in her quest for knowledge. “What might that be?”

Twilight carefully took her seat… but hesitated. Now that she was here, she was having trouble phrasing her question. How exactly to broach the subject…?

“I was… wondering… theoretically speaking… what’s so different about alicorn magic from, you know, normal magic?” she asked

Celestia paused at that. Clearly that hadn’t been anywhere on her considerable scope of possible subjects. Her hesitation was only momentary, however, before she arranged her expression into one of puzzlement. “Should I assume this has something to do with Applejack?” she asked.

Twilight fidgeted. “Well, yes. But I also wanted to know because, well… I don’t, and considering I am one…”

She then redirected her gaze back to Celestia, looking tentative. “I just assumed it was a combination of all three tribes of ponies’ magic wrapped into one.”

Celestia cracked a smile at that and chuckled. “Yes, well, we certainly aren’t limited in the scope of what we can accomplish,” she commented, “but it is much more than that alone.”

Twilight looked at her, but said nothing. She just waited for the lecture, like she always used to during Celestia’s many lessons. The sight of Twilight sitting there with rapt attention certainly warmed her mentor’s heart.

“As you know, Twilight,” Celestia began, “there are two kinds of magic in this world. There is the magic of harmony, or simply ‘magic’ in this day and age; magic that works in harmony with its environment. Then there is dark magic, magic that takes for the betterment of the individual, often at the cost of those around them. All forms of magic can be categorized into these two forms. All magic, save for one; alicorn magic.”

Celestia looked up towards the windows, lost in thought. “Alicorn magic is neither good, nor is it evil. It is, in the simplest terms, responsibility made manifest.”

Twilight cocked her head. “Responsibility?”

Celestia nodded. “Alicorn magic does not come from within us, Twilight. It is catalyzed by some exterior force.” She glanced towards Twilight with a smile then. “In a way, I suppose changeling magic is very reminiscent of alicorn magic. However, alicorn magic depends on a connection above and beyond just cutie marks. You proved yourself worthy of that higher form of magic when you yourself became an alicorn and the Princess of Friendship.”

She then leaned closer with a knowing grin. “Do you understand what I am getting at, Twilight?”

Twilight frowned down at her hooves, though her scrunched brow did little to hide her look of wonder. “That… my connection is… friendship?” she asked, looking up.

Celestia nodded. “Yes. More specifically, your friends. It is because of the bond of friendship with your friends that you achieved your destiny. That bond is where your power comes from, and why the Elements of Harmony respond so readily to you all.”

“Then,” Twilight started, sitting up straighter, “then does that mean your connection is the sun, and Luna’s the moon?”

Celestia chuckled. “Close, but it goes beyond that. I bring the day in all its facets, and Luna safeguards the wonders of the night. That is where our bond is. Control over heavenly bodies is just a perk, I assure you.”

“So then,” Twilight said. She was starting to wrap her head around it now. “Princess Cadance’s bond is love, right?”

Celestia’s warm smile answered her question. “Correct. An alicorn’s connection to whatever they represent, whatever virtue or power they embody; that is the source of alicorn magic. In the right hooves, it can be a powerful source of change or betterment for us all.”

But even as Twilight started to grin, her mind wrapping around a new concept, a dark cloud fell over Celestia’s face. “But in the wrong hooves, it causes nothing but despair. Many have tried to recreate alicorn magic over the centuries,” she said. “You have seen the result yourself when you faced King Sombra. Power of that magnitude must be earned. When it is not… it corrupts. Consumes. I have seen that very outcome more times than I care to recount, reached by ponies too full of fear, hatred or ambition to ever understand the forces they were meddling with. Never has such a pursuit ended in more than tragedy.”

She looked over, holding Twilight’s gaze. “From what I have seen, changeling magic displays all the hallmarks of alicorn magic gone awry. I had hoped my assessment was incorrect, and I still do, but… If it is indeed the case, the situation could be much, much worse than we feared. The loss of Applejack's heart could be the catalyst of something far more terrible than a mere lack of empathy.”

Twilight couldn’t even wrap her head around that notion. How could their current predicament be any worse than it already was? "What do you think could happen?" She asked out of sheer morbid curiosity.

Celestia glanced at her, and just by the grim look on her face, Twilight could tell she knew she wasn't ready to hear it. "Dark magic, Twilight, has one telltale characteristic, no matter what form it takes," she said, keeping her voice low. "And that characteristic is hunger. A hunger for more power, more authority... Just like the Queen who attacked us at your brother's wedding. If Applejack were to give in to that darkness as well, there is no tell what she might be driven to do."

Twilight gulped. She felt nauseous just at the thought. Dark magic... Could it really be dark magic, the source of that nagging suspicion in the back of her mind, that was to blame? She hoped not. Oh did she hope not...

“Well, it was just an idea,” Twilight said, waving a dismissive hoof and chuckling awkwardly to ward off the sudden gloom. “Eh-heh... heh... why do changelings have to be so dang secretive?”

“Soon as y’all find an answer fer that, let me know,” said a voice from the open doorway. “Ah’d like ta know it, myself.”

Standing just inside the dining room stood an amber-maned changeling who was poking her head in just as cautiously as ever. “Beg pardon,” Applejack said as she trotted forward. “Ah hope Ah ain't interruptin’ nothin’.”

Twilight just stared. Whatever train of thought she’d been on derailed quite spectacularly as she saw her friend, up and walking, no longer bedridden. Applejack looked towards Twilight with a half-cocked bemused grin, exposing one of the pearly white fangs in her mouth more prominently than the other.

“Howdy Twi’. Been up long?” Applejack asked her. She recognized the signs of when Twilight was preoccupied.

Twilight sat in her chair for a long period of time, her mouth simply hanging open in shock. “A… Applejack,” she gasped.

That unlocked her limbs. “Applejack! You’re alright!” she cheered, jumped from her seat, and sprinted across the room like a filly on Hearth’s Warming Day. Ten feet from her friend, however, she paused. It was only then that she actually took in Applejack’s appearance.

She looked tired, terribly tired, like Twilight wasn’t the only one who’d gotten no sleep last night. Applejack hid it the best she could; she stood up straight, she smiled warm as always, but… There wasn’t the usual flash in her eyes anymore. They just looked dull and weary, like her heart wasn’t into the smile she was giving, not completely.

The nasty cracks and fissures across her forehead and horn seemed to stand out much more prominently under the light cast by the great arch windows, making them look like they’d somehow grown deeper and longer since she’d last seen them. Just the sight of them sent a chill down Twilight’s spine. At least she could take solace in the fact that no new ones had opened up since she’d seem Applejack last, but it was only a small comfort.

“You… are alright. Right?” Twilight questioned, worried now.

“Ah’ve been better, Ah ain’t gonna lie” Applejack said, and she at least sounded normal, “But Ah’ve had worse.”

Twilight gave her a dubious look. Somehow, she doubted the authenticity of her friend's statement, but she let it slide. She continue to take in her friend’s condition for a little while longer, but then broke into a bright smile. “Well, it’s good to see you up.”

“I’m glad to see you doing better, as well,” Celestia said with a kind smile. “Twilight was overjoyed when we received Pinkie Pie’s letter informing us of your recovery a few hours ago,” Celestia told Applejack. “Ever since then, we’ve been making arrangements to have you brought to Canterlot.”

Applejack cocked an eyebrow. “Ya have?”

“Of course!” Twilight said brightly. “Well… I can’t take credit. I’ve been digging through the library for anything that might help. But! With you here, we can put both our heads together to save your heart! And right now, there’s no place safer than Canterlot.”

“So Ah heard,” Applejack noted. “Seems like y’all have pulled out the big guns.”

“A precaution, I assure you,” Celestia commented. “Now would be a most inopportune time for a repeat of the events of Princess Cadance’s and Shining Armor’s wedding.”

Applejack and Twilight both nodded in understanding at that. They understood that feeling all-too well.

Celestia then gave Applejack an apologetic look. “I feel I must also apologize for throwing Discord at you unannounced. Time is of the essence, otherwise I might have sent a chariot, or brought you by train otherwise, and he was the only one who could reach you in a timely manner. Still, I am surprised that Steel Shod did not receive my notification of Discord’s arrival.”

Applejack’s expression turned sour at the mere mention of the captain’s name. “Ah’m sure he did. He’s just been more preoccupied with his own business to notice.”

Twilight glanced questioningly at her, but Applejack neatly avoided her eye. Celestia, however, sighed, lowering her head slightly as if in resignation. “I see…”

Twilight glanced at Celestia, back to Applejack and back again. “But you’re here now!” she enthused, trying to banish whatever dark cloud the current topic had dragged in. “With you here, I can monitor your symptoms and find a way to counteract whatever’s happening to you!”

Applejack smiled at her, but Twilight could tell it was only a token gesture. They both knew she was only trying to stay positive.

“I am kind of surprised not to see Rainbow with you, though.” Twilight commented, scanning the doorway behind Applejack as if expecting to catch sight of the rambunctious pegasus. “The two of you have been practically glued to the hip for months, and ever since we learned about this, uh, maturing process of yours, she hasn’t left your side for anything.”

A look crossed Applejack’s expression then. “It wasn’t my idea, Ah can tell ya that. Discord didn't exactly hang around ta take on more passengers.”

She sighed, looking down at the table. “Ah sure hope she’s doin’ alright…”

~~***~~

Rainbow Blaze was sitting at home, enjoying a rare afternoon off from work. He had a newspaper open and was idly reading the centerfold, though he didn’t really pay any attention to what his eyes were taking in. Not like it was worth noting, anyway; more celebrity gossip, further changeling outrage, same old, same old.

In truth, this was the first time he’d been back in Ponyville in over a month. The life of a Chief Weather Coordinator could be a taxing one – on himself and his family. So every chance he got to visit his wife and daughter back in Ponyville, he did so without hesitation.

Of course, the house was empty. Firefly was likely off neck-deep in her own branch of the weather service, and Rainbow Dash, being the free spirit she was, could’ve been anywhere from here to the Crystal Empire by now. It being midday, he wasn't expecting to see either of them for hours still.

But even with most of a day to kill, Rainbow Blaze waited patiently, a little smile on his face and gleam in his eyes, ready to surprise his beloved family with his surprise return.

As unusually quiet as the expansive cloud house was, Blaze heard the commotion outside all the way from the living room. He peeked up over his newspaper, through the artfully constructed cumulus archway and towards the stormy purple door expectantly, when –

The door flew open so violently it fractured, dislodging whole chunks of fluffy cloud stuff and scattering them across the entryway space. As if that wasn’t alarming enough, in tumbled a mass of writhing and kicking limbs, some blue, some pink.

Rainbow Blaze’s smile disappeared as he watched the lights of his life, his wife and daughter, brawling on the brand new cirrus rug in the entryway.

Dash tried to make a break for it at one point, prying herself from her mother’s grasp – only to immediately be grabbed again, this time around the neck by a pair of iron-hard hooves.

“Not calling or sending a letter telling me where you were!” Firefly was roaring as she strangled her only child with the crook of one foreleg. “Running off into the Everfree and staying out all night without my permission! You have some real nerve, Rainbow Dash!”

“I’m… sorry… I… forgot…,” Rainbow wheezed as Firefly locked her elbow around her throat in a headlock.

“Be quiet!” Firefly bellowed furiously. “Bad little fillies deserve to be punished!”

“Ne… need… air…!”

“Bad fillies don’t get air! And don’t you dare pass out or it’s ten laps around Ponyville with a wing tied behind your back!”

It was around then that Rainbow Blaze politely cleared his throat, looking bemused – and slightly worried – over the scene in front of him. Firefly snapped her head around swiftly, her eyes zeroing in on the stallion sitting cross-legged on the couch with a newspaper in his lap.

The transformation was as swift as it was startling.

Firefly’s face lit up like a Hearth’s Warming tree just at the sight of him. “Baby!” she cried, and in an instant she’d launched herself at her husband, half-dead daughter left forgotten in a heap on the floor. “I didn’t know you were in town! You should have told me, I would’ve prepared something!” Firefly said happily as Blaze caught her in a big hug.

“I wanted to surprise you, honey,” Blaze chuckled, and planted a kiss right between his wife’s eyes.

“Ugh… gag me…,” groaned Dash from the other room.

Firefly stiffened, going totally still for a moment before throwing a dangerous look over her shoulder. “Oh honey… that can be arranged…,” she murmured sweetly.

“Now, now,” Blaze chastised patiently, restraining his wife. “Firefly, honey, what have we discussed about disciplining Dash?”

Firefly refused to meet Blaze’s expectant smile and grumbled to herself – something about no corporal punishment and concerning the neighbors.

“That’s right,” Blaze chortled. “Now, why don’t you go get us something to drink. Rainbow Dash?”

“Yeah, dad?”

“Go to your room.”

Rainbow picked her head up and gave him a petulant look. “But Daaaad! I have to catch up to Applejack before—”

She immediately shut up when she saw her father completely let go of Firefly again in the same way a handler releases an attack dog from its leash. Though, ponies usually didn’t do so with such a benevolent smile on their faces.

“I’mgoingtomyroombye!” she yelped, and up the stairs she shot. A moment later, they both heard the door upstairs slam shut.

“Really, that filly,” Firefly seethed angrily, putting a hoof to her forehead. She slumped onto the couch beside Blaze. “I don’t know where we went wrong with her. She was out all last night, and just today, she went into the Everfree of all places! That isn’t a place for a little girl! I keep telling her and telling her, but she never listens!”

Blaze listened patiently, waiting for her to finish, then said, “Dash takes after you, dear. You know that.”

Firefly groaned and leaned her head back against the backrest. “I know! That’s the problem! Ugh, why couldn’t she just be a cute, sweet little filly like all the others and stay out of trouble… I mean, I tried! I really did! I bought her all those dresses and dolls and, blech, everything, but she’s just so dang stubborn! What’s so wrong with living a safe life, huh?”

Blaze fought back a grin. He really didn’t have the heart to tell her that it was probably her spartan methods that was responsible for Rainbow’s intense dislike for all things cute and frilly, the opposite goal for what Firefly had in mind. When it came to ingraining things in a young filly, taking a drill sergeant's approach to education might not have been the best one. He just held his tongue and let her vent, instead. She’d figure it out, someday.

Firefly sighed again, flopped forward and scooted down to put her head in Blaze’s lap. “The scary thing is, I’m one-hundred-percent sure she spent all that time with that changeling friend of hers.”

“What’s so bad about that?” Blaze inquire, stroking Firefly’s mane with a hoof.

Firefly mumbled to herself for a moment, then said, “Nothing, really… She just… she needs to hurry up and kiss her already. Those two are driving me up the wall!”

Blaze belted out a hearty laugh that could’ve easily been mistaken for thunder to anypony walking down below.

“I’m serious!” Firefly shot, though she was smiling as well. “With all the time they spend together, how are they not an item?”

“Well,” Blaze chuckled, still stroking her mane, “if I recall, it took us a while to figure it out, right?”

Firefly frowned at him and jabbed him in the side. “No, it took you a while, blockhead. I was the one bouncing signals off you for months!”

Blaze laughed again.

“I’m just worried,” Firefly muttered, settling down.

“What for?”

“You know what for. We joke about it, but what if…? Our baby and a changeling…? What if all those rumors are true?”

“Our ‘baby’ is a grown mare now, ‘Fly. We’ll deal with it when it happens,” Blaze said evenly. “But I seem to recall one of us saying how much she takes after the family blockhead. Anyway, how about that drink?”

~~***~~

Rainbow grumpily paced her room, if only to give her hooves something to do. If she didn’t do that much, she was liable to go mad on the spot.

Around and around she went, stopping only at her bed before pulling a one-eighty and stomping off in the opposite direction.

Grounded, at a time like this… life could really suck sometimes. She knew she couldn’t afford to just sit around doing nothing, but her options were somewhat limited. Next time, her mother might resort to pressure points, and that was a scary enough idea to keep Rainbow put. At least, for the moment.

“Stupid Mom, not listening,” she grumbled to herself, then paused and glanced at the door. No sounds of imminent death made themselves known, so she resumed her heated muttering. “Doesn’t she know this is an emergency? Ugh…”

She petered out for a moment after kicking the wall halfheartedly. It didn’t really solve any of her problems, but it made her feel a little better. The hole she’d punched resealed itself within moments, hiding the evidence of her outburst. That was one of the nice things about having a house made out of clouds. Otherwise, her room would look like it’d been made out of Swiss cheese.

“I wonder what Applejack’s doing right now?” she mumbled to herself. Then she smirked weakly. “Probably wandering around like a lost filly without me. Yeah… she can be pretty hopeless when I’m not there.”

The smirk didn’t last long. Pretty soon, she found herself looking out the nearby window and staring blankly out across the rolling fields of green, out towards the distant mountains on the horizon. She wondered idly which one was the Canterhorn. Could she be looking in Applejack’s direction and not even know it? Who could say?

She sighed again. “Pretty hopeless…,” she mumbled to herself.

A puttering sound caught her attention.

She looked up, snapping out of her dreary thoughts as a green shape drew closer, motoring along on a tiny propeller fixed to the top of his shell.

“Oh, hey, Tank,” Rainbow greeted with a smile.

The airborne turtle – or whatever it was Fluttershy kept insisting it was – oh so slowly turned to regard her, a questioning look forming on his face.

“No, I’m stuck inside today,” Rainbow grumbled, folding her hooves across her chest. “Stupid Mom… If she’d just listen to me she’d get it, but nooo…”

Tank blinked slowly at her.

“Don’t give me that look,” Rainbow shot. “It’s not like I have a choice; Mom’ll kill me if I run away again! For real this time. I don't know what I did to make her so mad, but she'd catch me before I made it halfway to Canterlot.”

Tank tilted his head to one side.

Rainbow glowered at him. “Hey, I am not wimping out. If it were up to me, I’d be long gone by now! Applejack needs me! Who’s gonna save her flank when she gets herself into trouble, huh?”

Tank just hovered at her shoulder, gazing at her with those big soulful eyes of his. Rainbow huffed then turned away, avoiding his gaze. “Yeah, okay, maybe she can handle herself. But that’s a real big maybe, and I’m not going to just sit around banking on a maybe.”

Of course, turning away from tank only pointed her in the direction of the open window, and the distant maybe-Canterhorns. And the distant location of Applejack, far out of her reach…

She groaned to herself and resumed her pacing. “Think Rainbow, think… We gotta come up with a plan. Applejack needs you…”

Tank hovered in the middle of the room, ever the silent fount of knowledge, rotating slightly to follow Rainbow’s progress around the room. She continued in tense silence for a long time. Occasionally Rainbow would glance out the window, then speed on with a frown. All the while, Tank just watched passively, until after nearly ten minutes, Rainbow slowed to stop.

“Tank,” Rainbow muttered at last, to the floor. “Can… can I ask you something?”

Tank just stared at her.

“Applejack… Applejack’s the one who needs me… right?” she asked.

Tank tilted his head even further, bobbing up and down slightly in the air as his propeller cap puttered away.

Rainbow remained quiet for a long time, as if waiting for an answer, though she never looked up for it. Then, she shook her head. “Forget it,” she grumbled to nopony in particular and started moving again.

~~***~~

Applejack stared out of one of the gigantic arched windows, trying to make out the sky through the stained glass edifices. Aside from the flitting shadows of birds, however, there was nothing to see. Meanwhile, Twilight and Celestia exchanged a silent look, one shrugging to the other. “I’m sure she’s doing fine,” Twilight insisted. “She’s probably catching up on some sleep right now, knowing her.”

Applejack’s expression screwed up for a moment, then she returned her attention to Twilight. “Yer… probably right. Guess Ah’m just so used ta havin’ her around it’s strange when she’s not.”

Applejack settled into an unoccupied seat across from Twilight, though she still looked lost in thought. At the same time, Twilight sat down as well, though the meal in front of her was all-but ignored now.

Twilight smiled understandingly. “A little time apart might do you two some good. Now… Pinkie mentioned you girls were going on an adventure.” There was a disapproving frown on her face, but she withheld her chastising comment.

Applejack nodded, completely unrepentant. “Yup.”

“Find anything useful?” Twilight asked, again keeping her first thought to herself.

Applejack nodded again. “As a matter of fact… ugh, but it ain’t gonna do us much good back in Ponyville.”

She sighed and started counting off on her hooves. “Agave, Bumblebee, Ma’s diary… Discord kinda left it all behind when he snatched me up and brought me here.”

“Well,” Twilight said, not quite listening at first, “we might be able to arrange to have a carriage pick them u—did you say your mother’s diary?!”

Applejack winced at Twilight’s sudden outburst, cringing back slightly. There were likely ponies in adjacent rooms who'd heard that. “Uh, yeah,” she responded. “Rainbow and Ah found it out in the Ever—”

“And he just LEFT IT BEHIND?!” Twilight roared. The vein in her forehead was throbbing now, fire in her eyes. Which, coincidentally, had constricted with fury. “As in, something that could solve EVERYTHING?!”

A whole night. One entire night of fruitless searching. She’d pushed herself to her limit and then pushed herself some more, all to find a lead. And Discord had just happened to completely overlook the very thing she’d bled for. Figuratively speaking, of course, but that was beside the point. He’d just left it! Oh, no, no, no, this wouldn’t do at all, she thought to herself.

“To be fair,” Applejack put in in a small voice, “he kinda didn’t know it was—”

“Hold that thought, Applejack,” Twilight interrupted swiftly, and with a sudden burst from her horn, she was gone, leaving only a circle of char on her chair and a wave of heat that washed over the room.

Celestia glanced at the spot and sighed before taking a bite of a sandwich.

“Uh,” Applejack started, “Where did she…?” when she cast her eyes over towards Celestia, she noticed her holding up a gilded hoof.

Applejack blinked, confused. She opened her mouth again, when all four walls of the dining hall trembled with the force of a distant rumble.

Applejack looked up at the ceiling, her eyes wide as dust cascaded from the stone overhead. Celestia didn’t even bat an eyelash; she just took another dainty sip of her tea, as benign as ever.

“What in tarnation was that?” Applejack asked, turning towards Celestia.

The diarch merely gave a small smile. “I imagine that was Twilight convincing Discord to retrieve that diary,” she said. “On a related note, Princess Twilight has been up all night and she is a little… frazzled. It would be best not to agitate her right now.”

Applejack started to say something, but was again interrupted; this time by Twilight rematerializing right beside her.

Her mane was a windswept mess, her body sticky with bits of cotton candy and ominous patches of soot. She had the biggest, most winning smile she could possibly have, however, as she hefted Carnation’s diary in both hooves for all to see.

“Got it!” she panted exuberantly. “It turns out Discord can be reasonable! All it takes is enough kinetic force to propel him at the ground at mach two! Who knew! Oh, um, Princess, there might be a teensy weensy bit of an uproar over the state of the western gardens. Just, um… just a heads up.”

Applejack quickly reminded herself never, ever to get on Twilight’s bad side. Unfortunately, she might end up doing just that when she noticed something.

“Uh, Twi’,” Applejack started with the utmost care, “Ya forgot the key.”

Twilight froze.

“There’s a key?”

“Yep.”

“Hold that thought.”

~~***~~

“Next!”

The gatekeeper’s voice was barely even audible over the din of the crowd, and yet the delay was hardly noticeable. In front of him was… well, it wasn’t quite a crowd anymore. It was right on the cusp of devolving into an unruly mob.

A huge gathering of multicolored ponies stretched out all the way from the train station down the hill towards Canterlot’s main gate, under which he stood. There must’ve been over a hundred, possibly two hundred individuals all cramming together, trying to get into Equestria’s capital at once. On a normal day, that wouldn’t have been an issue. The wizened old gatekeeper had seen masses much larger than this, particularly on the holidays, come and go with ease.

Then again, on a normal day, the main thoroughfare wasn’t choked by heavy barricades.

Instead of the clear path beneath the grand archway into the city, a path wide enough for a full grown dragon to stroll through without issue, heavy steel-reinforced blockades had been set up like an ironclad levy against the rising tide of ponies. Now, there were only four narrow channels between the mighty barriers only wide enough for one pony at a time to pass through the layer upon layer of security.

Magical scans, personal effects searches… The gatekeeper had never seen such stringent security, and for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out why. Granted, he wasn’t a very in-the-know pony to begin with, not having much reason to venture from the gatehouse anymore. Perhaps it had something to do with the shimmering pink dome encasing the city like a dish cover, or the many, many guards out on duty today. All the gatekeeper knew was that a bunch of burly stallions had turned up yesterday, hoofed over some very official looking orders, and took over from there.

Not that he was complaining. With things out of his hooves, it wasn’t him the impatient masses were shouting at.

But he couldn’t help but wonder why all of these ponies were here in the first place…

~~***~~

“Alright!” Twilight declared at long last. She slammed her hooves down on either side of Queen Carnation’s diary; the vessel of all the answers she’d spent hours upon fruitless hours trying to attain. And now it was HER’S! “Now we’re getting somewhere!”

“Uh-huh,” Applejack mumbled, leaning away as un-surreptitiously as possible in the interest of personal safety. That was a very fiery gleam in Twilight’s eye.

Celestia watched in polite silence as Twilight tried in vain to twist the wooden key in the book’s lock, but no matter what she tried, it did not budge. It took a helping hoof from Applejack, a flash of brilliant green light, and finally the book laid dutifully open. She watched in fascination along with them as the pages fluttered with a mind of their own, settling again about a third of a way through the book.

She allowed them to pour over the book without comment while she finished the last of her tea. A few extra minutes for them couldn’t hurt…

The moment she sat her porcelain tea cup down, a knock sounded on the double doors across the room.

Celestia glanced up – the only one to do so – and noticed a brown-coated guard making his way as unobtrusively into the dining hall as possible. When he caught Celestia’s eye, he stood up straight and saluted.

“Your Highness,” he spoke up loudly. His voice succeeded in silencing Applejack’s and Twilight’s banter as they looked up in unison. The guard, however, paid them no mind, and instead stayed focused entirely on Celestia.

“My apologies for interrupting, but representatives for the noble families have finished arriving.”

Celestia had to restrain a sigh. It was a hard thing, but a millennium of practice made her quite gifted at internalizing such negative displays when she had a mind to. “I see. Thank you, sir guard. Tell the court to expect me shortly.”

“Yes, princess,” the guard said humbly, then politely backed out of the room once more.

Twilight and Applejack watched him go, confusion building on their faces, until they turned towards the other princess in the room.

“Princess Celestia?” Twilight inquired uncertainly. “What’s going on?”

Celestia didn’t answer immediately. She stared off into space, lost in thought for the briefest of moments. Then, she turned to give her pupil a reassuring smile. “Nothing you need to worry about, Twilight,” she responded. “But I’m afraid I must excuse myself for the moment. There is some business I must attend to.”

She dabbed at the corner of her mouth with a napkin – though it was an unnecessary gesture – and gracefully rose from her seat. Both Twilight and Applejack observed her with some apprehension, but said nothing as she departed. Just beyond the double doors leading out of the dining hall, they saw two guards fall into step behind her as she swept away, and vanished from sight.

“Did… that strike ya as a might bit odd?” Applejack inquired, arching a chitinous eyebrow.

Twilight only frowned to herself, a nagging sensation in the back of her mind. The Day Court? At this hour? That’s pretty unusual… Celestia usually only holds it in the morning, unless something urgent comes up. Something’s not right here.

She was so deep in thought that when a hoof touched hers, she about jumped to the moon and back. When she sharply whipped around, she saw Applejack giving her a half-cocked smile.

“Ah know that look,” she chuckled. “Go on, git. Ah’ll be just fine here.”

Twilight bit her lip. “You sure? I’d hate to just leave you here…”

Applejack rolled her eyes in response. “Twi’, Ah’m readin’ a book in supposedly the safest place in the whole of Equestria,” she pointed out. “Ah’d really be doomed if Ah couldn’t accomplish that much myself. You go see what’s goin’ on and Ah’ll be right here, promise.”

Twilight still waffled for a bit, looking torn. It took her a second, but eventually she made up her mind.

With two bright purple flashes, she conjured two objects and dropped them onto the table in front of Applejack before pushing each in turn towards her as if she wouldn’t know what they were, otherwise.

“Quill. Notepad. Take notes and we’ll go over whatever you find when I get back,” she commanded. “Don’t leave out anything."

Applejack dutifully took up the feathered quill from its inkwell and nodded. “Ah get it, Ah get it.”

All the same, Twilight continued to stare hard until Applejack made a show of dipping the quill in its accompanying inkpot and quickly jot something down.

Twilight nodded then, before she quickly turned around and sprinted away, giving chase to the Princess of the Sun.

~~***~~

Twilight knew Canterlot Castle well enough, having spent most of her youth walled up inside it. More importantly, however, she’d like to think she knew her mentor to some degree.

After taking two hallways at a sprint, much to the astonishment of a pair of maids, and taking a spiral staircase perhaps quicker than was strictly safe, she found herself racing down a high-ceilinged promenade. To her left, the wall dropped away completely, letting in the cool mists of a roaring waterfall waft through the air. There were at least a dozen guards stationed here, maybe more – far more than was typical along Celestia’s favorite path to the court. The sky beyond the waterfall shined with an otherworldly pink light, a minor distraction that only caught Twilight’s attention for a moment.

What she was more focused on, however, was the ethereal tail and mane directly ahead of her.

“Princess!” she called out as she sprinted closer.

Celestia stopped, then threw a surprised look over her shoulder. “Twilight? Is everything alright?”

It was at this point that Twilight’s familiar sense of nerves caught up with her, and they were quick to remind her of the fact that she was about to butt into business that was none of hers. Crown or no, wings or no, she knew she’d never outgrow that familiar sense of a foal standing in the shadow of a mare – a child before an adult.

Of course, now it was a little late to back out. She was already committed.

“N-no! I mean, maybe, I mean…,” she flustered, steadily turning pinker and pinker the more words flew out of her mouth like escaping pigeons.

By the time she eventually spluttered into silence, Celestia had turned around to face her, a questioning look on her face while she waited patiently for Twilight to collect herself – a nostalgic ritual of theirs, she had to admit.

After a few calming breaths, Twilight straightened up with an inhale, and said, “Princess Celestia, is everything alright? You usually aren’t summoned to the Day Court in the afternoon unless it’s for something important. Is something going on?”

Celestia’s smile was half proud for Twilight having deduced that, and half disheartened that she had deduced it in the first place.

“Would you like to accompany me to find out?” she asked.

Twilight paused, eyes big. Only once in a great, great while had Celestia ever allowed her to attend the Day Court. Her reasoning: Twilight was too young. For what, though, Twilight could not understand.

It had been simple enough, even boring at times to hear one pony after the next bring their grievances or propositions before the Equestrian Monarch, things considered too major or too inflammatory to be handled by somepony else, or through paperwork. Celestia didn’t make a habit of inviting Twilight, not unless she felt there was a lesson to be learned. But for some reason, Twilight was getting the distinct impression that that wasn’t the case this time. At least, she didn’t think so.

“Alright,” she said, then seeing the quirked eyebrow she got, Twilight straightened up. “Of course! It would be my pleasure!”

Celestia chuckled, cracking a smile. It did not lost long, however; by the time she’d turned round and Twilight had caught up, it was gone again. Twilight couldn’t help but notice this, but her lips remained sealed.

“In truth,” Celestia said, “I had intended to have you and Applejack join me today. This was part of the reason why I wished for her to be brought here once she’d woken up. I feel that today’s proceedings will involve her directly, and I do not wish to exclude her from today’s proceedings.”

Twilight’s eyes grew wide. “Really?”

Celestia nodded, but didn’t look down at her. “Tell me. Was the one who dislodged you from the archives a disheveled mare with a terrible stutter?” she asked.

Twilight blinked. “Peony, yes. Now that you mention it, I was meaning to ask you about her.”

Celestia nodded again, though she didn’t seem to be paying much attention. “Truth be told, I have only seen her on two occasions, one of them being today. Her line of work makes her a very… unsociable sort.”

Twilight looked up at her, worry eating at her now. “What does she do, exactly?”

Celestia finally turned to glance at her. “She,” she said, “reports directly to the Spymaster. Beyond that, I do not know.”

Twilight’s eyes got huge. There was that name again; Spymaster. Perhaps her wariness of the quirky mare had been well justified.

“For her to appear just to volunteer to retrieve you,” Celestia muttered, more to herself now than Twilight, “I’m sure there is meaning in that. The Spymaster has a very… unconventional way of sending messages to me, and I am sensing that this is one such message.”

A sense of unease now took hold inside Twilight. “Do you think I should go get Applejack as well?”

Celestia thought about it long and hard before finally shaking her head. “No, it would be best if she focused on her own circumstances at the moment. The sooner she figures out a way to overcome the darkness growing inside her, the better for us all. But if you wish to accompany me, I won’t object.”

Twilight processed all of that for a moment while frowning to herself. Celestia didn’t notice – at least openly – and instead continued on.

“I must ask one thing of you, Twilight,” Celestia said. Her tone alone would have given Twilight pause on a normal day. Very rarely did the kindhearted princess ever employ such a serious tone, save for the most important matters.

“What would that be?” Twilight asked.

Celestia glanced at her where she stood safely sheltered in her shadow. “Whatever transpires today, whatever is brought up, I must insist that you do not speak. This is not a matter I wish to get you entangled in.”

With those grim words, the pair passed through a set of double doors into one final hallway as they swung shut behind them with an ominous boom.

~~***~~

Thunderlane craned his neck over the crowds of ponies, a look of agitation on his face. It felt like they hadn’t moved any closer to the front gates, and he’d been standing in line for hours! Any minute now, the Day Court was going to start, and they’d finally have a verdict, for sure this time, and he was stuck outside of the city, watching from afar as hundreds tried to squeeze in four at a time.

He had half a mind to simply take to the air and sail straight over that stupid wall. He would’ve done it, too, if he hadn’t seen what’d happened to the last pair of pegasi that had tried. After that, he and every other pegasus was all-too happy to follow procedure.

Well… maybe not too happy.

“Ugh, this is taking forever,” he complained. “Can’t they speed this up any? We’re gonna still be out here tomorrow… Errr, What’s taking them so – oof!”

Thunderlane stiffened as yet another body bumped into him roughly. All this open countryside outside of the gates, and ponies were still smashed body-to-body.

He threw an angry look over his shoulder, intent on snapping at whoever the careless jerk was, but already they were slipping away into the crowd. He just huffed to himself as he watched her silver mane glint in the sunlight, then vanish amongst the crowd as it moved towards the gate.

~~***~~

The throne room of Canterlot Castle was astonishingly crowded. The seat of Equestrian power was an area of privilege; few ponies were allowed entrance on a whim. Rarely was the spacious hall filled with more than Celestia, on occasion her sister, and a handful of personally selected guards. Ponies would come and ponies would go, normally bothering Celestia a group at a time with their qualms and issues.

Today, however, was different.

Bodies stood wall to wall opposite Celestia’s throne. Everypony stood as close together as possible without being impolite, but there were more than a few daggers shot at neighbors in order to keep them in line. As soon as Twilight saw the well-dressed aristocrats leading the crowd, she couldn’t help but wonder if accepting Celestia’s invitation was a good idea. Even she could feel the tension in the air; the furtive whispering, the many motionless bodies, the keen eyes watching for any sign of the ruler of Equestria.

“Now entering Princess Celestia and Princess Twilight Sparkle,” belted out a royal crier, causing Twilight to jump. It hadn’t helped that he’d shouted it almost right in her ear.

The hall went dead quiet. It was disconcerting, even unnerving to Twilight how so many could fall so silent, their eyes watching every move she and Celestia made as they entered from a side door, calmly strode around the tiers of fountains at the base of the thrones, and proceeded up the ramp towards them.

There should’ve only been two thrones awaiting them; a golden, high-backed chair adorned with a blazing sun on top and a black and blue-trimmed mirror of the other topped by a crescent moon. Both of those were present, but Twilight couldn’t help but notice the diminutive, ordinary-looking chair placed on the left of Celestia’s throne whose only marking was a pink star affixed to the backrest.

Twilight glanced at Celestia for an explanation, but she merely shook her head minutely; it would have to wait until later.

Twilight awkwardly took her seat, feeling kind of silly and abashed all at the same time. This was the first time she’d ever actually sat on a throne in front of subjects. It was somewhat surreal, and far more intimidating.

Celestia didn’t seem to have nearly the same difficulties. She sat gracefully, took a moment for herself, then regarded the amassed group waiting impatiently for her to utter her next words.

“This court is now in session,” she stated. She said it with an almost tired resignation, as if already well-aware of what the subject matter for today would be, and yet resigned all the same to hear it. “Would the first speaker please step forward?”

Twilight glanced at Celestia, fighting back the urge to nibble her lip. When Celestia remained focused ahead, she forced herself to turn around, just as a stallion pulled himself from the crowd and stepped forward.

He was a big fellow; well built, as if carved from a block of rhinestone. He straightened up, puffing out his suit jacket like some kind of overgrown pigeon. It didn’t help that he fluffed his wings slightly, as well.

“The floor recognizes,” bleated out the crier, again making Twilight jump. He’d taken up position on the tier beneath her seat, unbeknownst to her. “Sir Canterbury Esquire, representing the Haberdasher family!”

“Princess Celestia,” he spoke, giving a slight bow. “I was under the impression that we would be graced by the presences of your sister and niece as well.”

Celestia nodded in confirmation, but did not smile. That fact alone seemed to be putting the crowd of nobles on edge. “Princess Luna, Princess Cadance and Queen Applejack are, unfortunately, indisposed at this moment due to urgent business. My sister wishes to extend her apologies to you all, but as you are all undoubtedly aware, the powering of Canterlot’s protection requires more than the average unicorn can accomplish.” She glanced out one of the nearby windows and towards the shimmering barrier doming the whole of Canterlot. “My sister is required to remain with the wards for the time being. For now, myself and Princess Twilight shall preside over this court.”

For some reason, that didn’t seem to sit well with the congregation, something Twilight couldn’t help but note. Quite a few exchanged dark looks, as if questioning their chances already. That struck Twilight as being rather odd, given how fair Celestia was.

“Very well then,” Sir Canterbury stated seemingly without losing heart at all. “We shall simply have to rely on your and Princess Twilight Sparkle’s judgment in this matter.”

Celestia inclined her head appreciatively. “Thank you. On that note, am I to understand that you and your associates have reached a new proposition for me to look over?”

“Indeed we have,” Canterbury stated. “However, we wish to add a new topic as well.”

Celestia arched an eyebrow curiously. Twilight noticed, and couldn’t help but think that she’d somehow been taken by surprise. Such a thing couldn’t be possible… right?

“Very well then,” she said without missing a beat. “Let’s hear it, shall we?”

Sir Canterbury turned and motioned towards a mare standing behind him. She bustled forward, hooves full of parchment; not a good sign, as far as Twilight was concerned. By the looks of it, these ponies had a lot to go over. “First off,” Canterbury began while his assistant went through sorting the many papers in her hooves, “We wish to once again implore you to reconsider your stance on the recent changeling… presence within Equestria.”

It was at that moment when a great number of things suddenly made sense to Twilight. Celestia’s wish to subtly exclude Applejack from the proceedings at the first opportunity, Celestia’s resignation, and her strange request for Twilight to remain silent. She knew the kind of outburst Twilight would have fielded if she’d figured out that this was yet another attempt to cast out the refugee changelings taking shelter in their borders.

Why had she not seen it coming? Maybe it was because her mind had been elsewhere. But now that it was front and center, Twilight found herself dearly wishing that she hadn’t taken Celestia up on her offer.

In fact, it was only her promise to Celestia that kept Twilight from saying anything at all. She tensed, but forced herself to relax a moment later. She knew Celestia had seen it, because her response was somewhat delayed, as if she’d been distracted.

“We will hear your arguments,” Celestia stated evenly. How she stayed so cordial, considering she must have heard this particular discussion a hundred times in recent months, was awe-inspiring to Twilight.

Canterbury glanced behind him again. This time, he caught the eye of an equally burly stallion, though for significantly different reasons.

The stallion in question was pudgy, even roly-poly in appearance. Age had bleached his mane snow white, though he still had a fairly full head of it. Twilight watched him waddle forward with a big, pleasant smile on his face that gave him something of a grandfatherly warmth. So why a chill ran down her spine, she did not know.

“The floor recognizes Sir Bullion XXI, head of the Bullion estate,” barked out the crier, who turned somewhat sheepish under Twilight’s scathing glare.

Bullion stepped forward to take his predecessor's place and smiled up at the two royals sitting over him. “Princess Celestia, Princess Twilight Sparkle,” he said, bowing graciously to each in turn. “A pleasure as always, even if the circumstances today are anything but pleasant.”

Celestia politely responded to Bullion’s smile with one of her own, causing Twilight to scramble slightly to do the same. “Sir Bullion,” Celestia said, sounding almost amused for some reason. “I thought you might make an appearance today.”

“But of course!” chortled the stallion. “What kind of pony wouldn’t appear for something he himself arranged?”

Celestia nodded, ceding the point. “I suppose that is true. So then, may I be so bold as to assume that this matter is indeed related to deportation of our changeling population?”

“Clever as ever, my dear princess,” Bullion said with a brilliant smile and a wink that unnerved Twilight.

There was something about his attitude that confused Twilight. His chipper demeanor clashed entirely with the dark cloud hanging over the room. His was the only smile amongst the nobles, who all wore similar masks of grim determination that made the guards flanking the room look positively jovial by comparison. And yet, he was presenting something of utmost seriousness while casually conversing with Celestia.

It’s almost as if he’s not taking this seriously at all, Twilight pondered to herself, But why? If he’s so convinced he can’t win, why bring it up?

“I’m afraid I must bend your ear once again,” Bullion said. He even sounded almost apologetic. “But I must keep trying until you see our reasoning.”

Celestia smiled back. “Your reasoning has never been in dispute, Bullion. You and your associates have raised valid concerns in the past, which I continue to address. What actions you would take, however, are.”

“Fair enough,” Bullion admitted, “but surely by now you can see that some sort of action must be taken.”

A murmur of agreement ran around the room, loud and clear.

“Three times now,” Bullion stated, still smiling, still warm, but something in his tone had shifted. “Three times Equestria has been attacked by changelings, and three times there has been considerable damage with nearly catastrophic consequences. One very nearly toppled the entire country in one fell swoop and even brought harm to yourself! Surely you cannot deny the risk these creatures pose, and yet we continue to let their kind into our country, largely unfiltered, believing one inexperienced mare can keep them all under control."

Twilight bristled, but kept her cool. She knew exactly who this 'inexperienced mare' was, and she didn't take kindly to others insulting her friends.

"Every day more changelings of questionable allegiance make their way through our stopgap defenses on the border with the Badlands," Bullin went on without missing a beat, "perhaps far more than we know.”

Bullion reached behind him, beckoning with a hoof until the paper-laden mare fished out a document and handed it to him. With a flourish, he produced a golden monocle and sighed down his muzzle at the piece of paper.

“At the last census, we estimated that there are already over two thousand changelings in Equestria, and while the rate of increase has dropped off sharply, it has not stopped. How can we verify that these migrant changelings are these ‘queenless’ drones and not deceptive double agents? Simple put; we can’t. And there are concerns that that number could be as much as double our figures and we have no way to knowing. The fact that such uncertainty exists alone should be cause for concern.”

He took a step forward, discarding the document for the mare to hastily snatch out of the air. He was clearly reveling in being the center of attention. He looked around, meeting the eyes of his supporters as if he were trying to convince them, not Princess Celestia.

“According to estimations, it will be another two, perhaps three years before we can call the Badlands border acceptably secure. Years, in which innocent ponies across Equestria will remain in danger needlessly. And even then, we cannot guarantee the Changeling Court will not find some other way to breach our territories to continue their quarrel with Queen Applejack and her associates.”

Bullion circled around the room while he talked, until he was once more facing Celestia.

“Your Highness, surely you understand that there is considerable risk being placed upon your subjects. As long as Queen Applejack and her hive remains in Equestria, the Changelings Court will remain bent on lashing out against her – and us as consequence.”

He raised a hoof then and waved it around. “Let me ask you something, Princess Celestia; if you were locked in a cage with two wolverines, would you simply sit by as they fought each other to the death and hoped they eventually made peace before they slash you to pieces by coincidence? No; you would find a way to escape, would you not? I know I would; it is basic instinct. Yet, right now, we are the ones trapped, and Queen Applejack and the Changeling Court? They are the wolverines. They will continue to butt heads until one is torn to shreds, and the longer we remain in the crossfire, the greater the collateral will become. Surely ponies as wise and learned as you two see that.”

Bullion turned then, and focused on Twilight. It was like he was expecting an answer from her, and he would not proceed until he got it. Twilight was just starting to feel uncomfortable when Celestia spoke up again.

“As I have said in the past, Bullion, your concerns are not unfounded. But you are mistaken in believing that the Changeling Court’s ire rests solely with Queen Applejack. Queen Chrysalis’ attack came at a time before her emergence, and she made no attempt to disguise her intentions. While presently Applejack is their primary focus, The Changeling Court has been very clear in its desire to dominate Equestria for their own ends. We will always be the Court’s target, with or without Applejack’s presence here. That will not change should Applejack and her hive be expelled; if anything, it will remove our only weapon to combat their threat with; knowledge.

“As you said, it will be a few years yet before we may consider the south acceptably cut off from Equestria. But that timeframe would increase tenfold without the aid of changeling counter-operatives. Without their knowledge of tactics, behavior and spellcraft, Equestria would be just as defenseless as the day Chrysalis attacked.”

Bullion’s expression didn’t change; he’d heard this argument before. Many times, in fact, as had most of the nobles and their representatives at his back. “So then, the only solution is to risk innocent lives while we remain on the defensive? Is that it?”

For one of the few times in living memory, Twilight witnessed Celestia’s expression contort as if she’d just been stabbed. “Do you believe I do not know the price?” Celestia countered, her voice as smooth as ice. “I know better than anypony here, about those who put their lives on the line for the sake of our safety. It might surprise you to know that not all of them are ponies.”

Bullion weighed Celestia’s expression, and for once his smile faded into a look of sympathy. “Then, what if I proposed a different kind of solution?” he asked.

Wary curiosity flashed across Celestia’s face at that, here and gone so fast very few ponies present even witnessed it. Twilight saw it, as did Bullion.

“What are you suggesting, then?” Celestia asked, but there was something… different in her tone, something Twilight had never heard before, and thus had no way of describing what it actually was. But whatever it was, it caused the hairs on the back of her neck to stand on end. It sounded almost like… a warning.

Bullion smiled again, holding Celestia’s gaze as he said, “That we reactivate the Trojans.”

Whispers broke out like a swarm of released bees, buzzing through the air as nobles and aristocrats of all calibers suddenly bent in towards their nearest neighbor.

The whole room was alive with sudden energy. Those who seemed to be in the know watched Celestia’s every reaction carefully with baited breath. Those that weren’t quickly tried to be.

Twilight sat on her throne, a slight frown on her face. She knew that name… She’d seen it in history books mentioned here and there. But for the life of her, she couldn’t recall where she’d read it, or why. Whatever it was, it must have been very old indeed.

She instinctively turned towards Celestia, puzzled, to find her sitting still as a statue on her throne. There was no shock on her face. No surprise of any kind. There was only a well-hidden look of sad confirmation. She’d known this was coming, Twilight realized, and for the first time ever, she truly looked over a thousand years old.

“I,” Celestia said, and her voice immediately brought the squabbling murmurs to a stop, “deny your request.”

Something flicked across Bullion’s expression, then. Was it exasperation? Twilight wasn’t sure. Then, he happened to catch sight of the confused look on the purple princess’s face.

He paused, thinking fast, then redirected his attention towards Celestia. “Your Highness,” he chortled, speaking now as if to a petulant child, “There is a limit to how many denials you can expect us to endure. Of all of them, how is reinstating the Equestrian military such a bad thing?”

“The Equestrian military?” Twilight said to herself, frowning. As far as she knew, no such entity existed, or had existed. The Royal Guard was no army; it was a peacekeeping force, not an actual militia, but it had been all Equestria had had for… well, forever.

“Indeed,” said Bullion, now speaking to Twilight – much to her surprise. “Long before the Royal Sisters were appointed the rulers of Equestria, the three tribes came together to form a military to protect this fledgling country through some of its darkest years. It was one of their first cooperative ventures together, in fact. That military was known as the Trojan Coalition; a fighting force made up of unicorns, earth ponies and pegasi with the explicit goal of striking at Equestria’s enemies in the name of national security, to end sustained threats that could never see reason. It was proposed by an earth pony, no less, after which the Coalition was named upon the successful counterattack that threw the griffon nation clean off our lands.”

"Which is why there continues to be enmity between our two nations to this day," Celestia countered coolly.

Bullion turned back towards Celestia, his expression subduing. Celestia met his gaze with a carefully neutral expression of her own, much to Twilight's unease. She knew that look now; she’d withdrawn, keeping her true emotions private to the utmost degree. All she showed them was a stony countenance neither hostile nor benevolent. "There is a reason why I dismantled the Trojan Coalition after the fall of the Crystal Empire," she stated. "Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. Such a thing undermines the very foundation this country was built upon."

Bullion sighed, wiped off his monocle on his lapel, then carefully stowed it away in his breast pocket. "Your Highness, there comes a time when we must ask ourselves what is worth saving, and what is worth sacrificing. The Court is not going to go away, and the longer they are allowed to plot against us, the greater chance they have of finding a way to overwhelm us."

He turned around trading Celestia's unresponsive gaze for the looks from his supporters.

“With the Trojans,” Bullion went on, “we could end the threat posed by the Court once and for all without dislodging our myriad refugees. For now, anyway. With an actual military, striking out beyond our borders would not be out of the question anymore. We could bring the fight to them and stop their belligerence against us.”

Murmurs of agreement ran through the crowd like a wave. The sound bolstered Bullion, bringing his smile out stronger still. “We would be ready for any threat, not just that posed by the changelings. Your student and her friends are capable, I will give them that. But for how long? And what happens after they’re gone? What happens if one of them, let’s say… slips?”

The breath caught in Twilight’s throat. Suddenly, she was focusing hard on Bullion, much to his satisfaction. “Just one weak link; that’s all it would take. And then what? What happens to Equestria when its one line of defense shatters? Or, worse still, turns against her? What do we do then, Princess?”

Twilight couldn’t help it. She was starting to rise before she was even consciously aware of it, a fire in her lungs and on the tip of her tongue… only for her mouth to remain shut. Her legs stayed locked in place, denying her attempt to shoot upright. Confused, she looked down, then to her side – towards the disapproving stare of Princess Celestia. Only a faint shimmer of magic danced across her horn, too little to be visible against the glare of the sun pouring in from the windows. And yet, it was enough to lock Twilight in place.

She shook her head ever so slightly, then turned back towards Bullion, her expression just as even as before.

"The fact is," Bullion said with a smile, "Equestria is vulnerable. You said it yourself, Your Highness; this is a land of harmony. The far south is not. If we cannot expect them to play by our rules, it seems only fitting that we would play by theirs. And the longer we go without doing anything, the greater chance of something even worse befalling our country. We need a solution, fast, before the Court makes its next move."

Ponies all around murmured their agreement. A few stamped their hooves enthusiastically. Celestia continued to look on solemnly, surveying the room. Twilight could only look at Celestia, her gut twisting into knots.

~~***~~

"So... it really has come down to this."

A pair of hooves steepled together as a stallion leaned forward on a round wooden table. His keen eyes stayed fixed on the large glowing orb resting in a cradle in front of him. In it, the scene in the Canterlot throne room shined back at him, coalescing inside the heart of an emerald fire.

He watched mutely as ponies applauded the fat stallion's speech while two princesses looked on in silence. Neither seemed to have a response ready and waiting. His eyes, however, only searched Celestia and Twilight over for a moment. The majority of his attention stayed riveted on the rotund stallion drinking in the support of his followers. He watched him, scrutinized him from afar.

"This is starting to become a predicament," he noted. "Perhaps a little friendly reminder is in order." With that, he carefully rose from his chair and trotted towards the door of his dimly lit office. He reached out and pushed it open with barely a whisper of sound.

A disheveled, looking mare was waiting for him on the other side. She merely gave him an inquisitive look, cocking her said slightly. "Y-you heading out?" she asked tentatively.

He nodded with a kind smile. "I wouldn't want to miss all of the fun," he said. "I trust I can leave the matter of Her Highness to you?"

His associate smiled and saluted. "Yessir!"

"Good. Now then, shall we go cause a scene?"

"Yes sir, Mister Trochanter, sir!"

~~***~~

Thunderlane groaned aloud, not bothering to keep his voice down. It wasn’t like his sentiment was alone amongst the gathered crowd. He’d finally made it within the shadow of the great archway leading into Canterlot, yet he was still at least thirty ponies away from actually getting in. That was thirty too many, as far as Thunderlane was concerned. His legs were tired from standing all day, his patience was about shot, and to top it all off, he was surely late for the day's main event, making all of this virtually a wasted effort. By now his family was probably worried sick to boot. Ponies all around him were just as fed up by the monumental delay. They only got more agitated with the end goal so close, yet so far away.

As he just stood there, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with other short-tempered ponies, Thunderlane case his eyes around just for something to do. As he did so, however, he couldn’t help but notice a familiar head of silvery mane just a short distance ahead of him.

He glared at the tall, midnight blue mare, who had clearly cut ahead of him after knocking him aside. The nerve of some ponies, mares especially… If he could’ve forced his way forward, he would have gladly given her a piece of his mind. But at that point, nopony was willing to give up their place in line. So, he just stared daggers at her and pretended to squish her head between two feathers a few times.

Unexpectedly, she turned her head towards something off to Thunderlane’s left. He swiftly put down his wing, just in case, but when he realized she wasn’t looking anywhere near him, he curiously turned to follow her gaze.

She was looking straight at another mare, who didn’t seem to notice the look she was getting. She just stood at the head of the line, stiff as a board, head straight ahead.

“Next!” shouted one of the Royal Guard.

Four ponies stepped forward, including the tense mare. Thunderlane watched her with some curiosity, craning his neck to get a better visual. Halfway towards the first checkpoint, she stopped dead. Two nearby guards noticed, but only gave her tired looks. They’d been dealing with too many ponies to muster up enough juice to care anymore.

“Lady, please move forward,” one drawled, only giving her a token glance.

But the mare did not move. She just stood in place, not even batting an ear.

“Hey lady! Get a move on, will ya!” shouted somepony from the crowd at her back. “Yer killin’ us! Come on!”

The two dull-eyed guards finally turned to give her their full attention. “Ma’am, you need to move forward,” one of them insisted.

The mare didn’t respond. Both stallions eyed each other, then very casually – so as not to raise an alarm with the masses – took hold of their spears. “Ma’am?”

Finally, the mare reacted. She turned her head slowly, as if only half paying attention. “I’m sorry,” she said dully, “I’m afraid I might have something in my saddlebags. I forgot all about it until now.”

There was no inflection in her voice, no trace of concern of any kind. If she was nervous about whatever she had in her bags, it wasn't showing in the slightest. For some reason, that caught Thunderlane's attention, and he couldn't help but eye her carefully from afar.

Again, the guards glanced towards one another. Several more were turning their attention towards the scene now, but nopony made any sudden moves.

“What do you have?” one of the guards inquired carefully.

“Something from my home,” the mare said dully, then reached for her saddlebags.

“Hey!” one of the guards shouted, tensing, but it was too late. “Get your hooves where we can see them!”

The mare was only too happy to oblige. Only, now she was holding something in them.

Thunderlane couldn’t see from where he was standing, but it looked like some kind of pea pod, or maybe a leaf. More disconcerting was the way it was puffing like a pressure cooker.

“Here,” the mare said emotionlessly. “Try some.” With that, she lobbed the pod directly at the barricades.

Two guards were quick enough with their horns to charge spells and fire them at the oncoming object. That, however, proved to be the absolute worst thing they could have done.

The next thing Thunderlane knew, he was being bowled over by a mighty explosion that shook the earth. There were no flames, only dust and a wall of concussive force that sent everypony flying on a cloud of puffy white spores.

Thunderlane blinked up at the sky in confusion, not entirely sure how he’d ended up on the ground, or ten feet away from where he'd been standing. Ponies were running in every direction, away from the cloud of white fluff that had erupted over their heads and the dust that had been thrown high into the sky. Screams filled in whatever a high pitched ringing couldn’t in his ears as he righted himself and turned towards the gates.

The barricades were gone. Only twisted wreckage remained where it’d been blasted against walls and deep into the dirt from the force of the blast. The gate still stood, undamaged save for a layering of powdery white spores. Royal guards were staggering about, some groaning on the floor, others staggering about, looking concussed.

Not far away, Thunderlane spotted the mare that’d caused the explosion, lying prone on her side in a heaped pile of twisted metal, unmoving.

By the time he righted himself and got to his hooves, guards were pouring in from inside the city. At least a dozen came out of nowhere, all fully armed and ready for action, with still more forming ranking behind them. within moments of the blast, the entire scene was locked down behind a phalanx of spears and crackling horns. What the reinforcements came across, however, wasn’t the scene of an attack, but the aftermath of destruction.

“Get some healers down here!” one of them was barking out, waving a hoof. “I want the injured inside and the debris all cleared ASAP! We are closing this gate!”

Thunderlane started to lurch forward. The gate… His family was inside the city. If he was locked out...

A groan caught his attention.

He turned to his right, and found an elegant, midnight blue mare lying crumpled on the ground beside a pile of shattered defenses, her face twisted in pain.

Thunderlane’s heart thudded painfully in his chest at the sight of her. He immediately turned towards the gate and started waving his hooves in desperation. “Hey! Hey, there’s somepony hurt over here!” he shouted.

Ten heads snapped in his direction. Guards rushed in from every direction through the settling dust and milky white tufts descending from the sky.

Within minutes, ponies bearing coats with bright red crosses were bustling throughout the scene, gathering up the injured, and after carefully loading them into ambulances, quickly sped them deeper into the heart of Canterlot as the portcullis on its front entrance slammed shut with a resounding crash, sealing the city as a whole from the outside world.

Author's Note:

So... a looot going on in this chapter. I tapped into a bit of my own headcanon surrounding alicorn magic and dark magic for this one, which is relevant, I assure you. And we get to see Trochanter for the first time, so... bonus deal! Actually, there was supposed to be an additional scene that, I admit, got a little 2spooky4me... So! It'll be in the next chapter! Ain't I nice!?
Half of this chapter has actually been sitting on my computer since December, as well as a portion of the chapter after next.
So, let's get down to business.


For my take on Rainbow's parents, Firefly was once somewhat of a delinquent tomboy with a fiery temper. She straightened up, however, and ran with the Royal Guard for a few years, then took a spin with the Wonderbolts, which is where Rainbow gets her undying love for the group, thanks to her mother's retelling of her many daring exploits over her career. She retired when she had Rainbow and instead took up weather management where she makes excellent use of her drill sergeant days.
Rainbow will never openly admit it, but she idolizes her mother, much to Firefly's horror. She desperately doesn't want her baby girl to lead the same kind of life she did, though the ironic thing is her methods only reinforced Rainbow's dislike of things too girly.
On the other hand, Rainbow can't stand how overbearing her mother is, due in no small part to Firefly refusing to see her daughter as an adult. The only reason Rainbow is still living under her is, hey, her acceptance into the Wonderbolts can be just around the corner. Why sign a year-long lease for some lame apartment she'd barely get to use? That's her view on it, anyway.
Dash's father, Rainbow Blaze, is the mellow voice of reason in the family, as well as being the secret power behind Firefly's throne. He knows exactly how to keep order in his house without ever having to raise his voice. Despite Firefly's history, she's head over hooves for him, and is at that point in her life where she just doesn't give a hoot what others think about it. He met Firefly during her time as the previous Wonderbolts captain, during which time he was part of the weather management troop responsible for giving the Wonderbolts the best possible conditions for their shows. Compared to the high-stress job of controlling the atmosphere down to the faintest breeze and most minuscule shift in ambient temperature, dealing with two hothead mares is pretty much a vacation for him.
Blaze may be laid back, but god help anypony who lays a hoof on his family. Dude could scare the fangs of a hydra.


So! Coming up in Canterlot, the land of the eternally safe; things continue to be totally safe! I mean, what's the worst that could happen, right? Pfft.... pffffffffft...

Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!
Join our Patreon to remove these adverts!