• Published 24th Jul 2012
  • 3,761 Views, 145 Comments

Darkened Shores - Silver Flare

An adventure that takes the Mane 6 around the world to face the what destroyed the alicorn homeland.

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01: An Idle Inquiry

“Go! GO!” Twilight Sparkle shouted at her friends as they sprinted through the streets of Canterlot. The solid stone beneath her hooves began to tremble, threatening to pull her hooves out from beneath her. Everyone stopped and braced themselves as the shield surrounding the city crumbled in a roar of shattering magic. When the shaking stopped the paniced friends kept running, only now their staccato hoofbeats were punctuated by the high-pitched, insect-like whine of changeling wings hurtling towards them. Black creatures crashed into the streets and sidewalks all around them, snarling and hissing as the ponies ran by.

At the crest of a flight of stairs Twilight skidded to a stop, and her friends piled against her from behind. They stood in front of a wall of changelings. Fangs glistened pearly white against shiny onyx carapaces. There were so many, and they stood between Twilight and Canterlot Tower, where the Elements of Harmony were kept. They had to get through somehow, but Twilight was filled with a hopeless dread. She knew there was no way to win this one.

“Looks like we’re gonna have to do this the hard way!” Rainbow Dash sounded confident as she slammed her hooves together and darted forward, but the pegasus pulled up short in confusion as she wound up facing an exact copy of herself. Twilight felt sick. She knew what would happen. Twilight stepped out of the way as her friend was flung across the concrete. “How did sh. . .?” Dash gasped in a sick sort of awe as several more changelings flashed a sickly green, reappearing as exact replicas of Rainbow Dash, grinning from beneath identical, spiked manes.

“They’re changelings, remember?” Twilight said.

“They’re changelings, remember?” Chorused half a dozen Twilights in unison. It made the fur on Twilight's neck stand on end. She shuddered.

“Don’t let them distract you! We have to get to the Elements of Harmony! They’re our only hope!” At that, Twilight Sparkle swallowed her fear and launched herself into a sea of changelings. It was an absolute nightmare. She found herself confronted with images of her friends, and they all tried to hurt her. She wound up kicking an Applejack in the face, and punching a Rarity across the jaw.

She turned and blasted a Rainbow Dash with her horn, purple magic catching the changeling and flinging it far away. At least, she hoped it was a changeling. A Fluttershy pounced on Twilight’s back, and Twilight knew that couldn’t be the real Fluttershy. Twilight rolled with the other pony’s momentum and kicked the Fluttershy into another pony.

Twilight spun and found four other Twilight Sparkles leaping toward her. She blasted two out of the air before she found herself slammed onto her back, kicking desperately to keep their teeth and hooves at bay. One pinned her arms as the other leveled its horn at her neck, tensing for a vicious headbutt. Twilight rolled her hips up and bucked the other Twilight in the face with both hind hooves. She heard something snap, and she felt a moment of nausea as she contemplated the damage she’d just done. She didn’t hesitate to keep up the attack, however. As fast as thought, she lifted the other Twilight off of her with magic, trapping her in the faint purple light of her telekinesis spell.

Once the real Twilight rolled to her hooves, she considered her enemy for a moment. It looked exactly like her in every detail. The hooves, the mane, even the six stars that made up her cutie mark were replicated perfectly. The only difference was the expression on her face. The changeling Twilight’s radiated hate and fury. It shocked Twilight to the core to see that expression on her own features. The sight of it cut her to the core, and she couldn't say why.

Then, Twilight remembered her friends. They might already be hurt, or. . . or something worse. With a snarl and an effort of will, Twilight slammed the imposter hard into the ground once, twice, three times, and then let the stunned creature tumble onto its back. She pounced on it, and with an entirely different spell peeled its glamour off like the skin of an orange, revealing the dazed and dizzy monster underneath.

Twilight leapt off the changeling and turned to face a sea of imposters. Her horn burst into a purple light so bright it was blinding. She grit her teeth together, planted her hooves, and with a cry sent out a shockwave of force that radiated out in all directions, peeling back her friend’s fake faces and exposing the lies beneath. When she finished her spell, she stood, head drooped and panting in front of a sea of black, snarling, fanged grins. Not one of her friends was to be found. Not one speck of color remained. They were gone.

Twilight felt something precious inside of her snap. All of her fear turned instantly to hatred and boiling anger. She no longer wanted to make it to the Elements of Harmony. She only wanted to hurt these creatures that had invaded her homeland, destroyed her city, ravaged her brother’s wedding and done something terrible to her friends. She wanted to kill them. And as they leapt for her throat, Twilight Sparkle began to do exactly that.

With searing magic she burned them to ash and cinders. Pain radiated through her skull while her horn glowed like a furnace. And as part of her felt a savage and alien glee at wielding her power, another part of her was horrified and sickened at what she’d become. Now the hatred and fury of her attackers was mirrored exactly on her own face. Now. . . now the changelings could mimic her perfectly.

Twilight woke up gasping from the nightmare, barely choking back the scream of horror she’d been about to make. It was late, the only light filtering through the window shed from a thin sliver of moon, and what few stars managed to peek from behind the clouds. The castle was quiet, with the exception of soft breathing scattered around the spacious and elegant room the Princess had offered them for the night. She lay very still, exhausted as much from the craziness of the day as from her nightmare.

Her brother’s wedding had ended up being a joyful occasion, and Twilight had downed more sarsaparilla than she’d really meant to. Her head was pounding. She hadn’t slept much the past few days anyway, and what little sleep she could get was troubled. Twilight spent some time mentally reviewing books long known to her, and reciting poems she had memorized in the hopes of lulling herself into slumber. Not that it helped. Her mind raced along for no reason, quite alert, almost as if afraid to let go of the present. Or afraid to slip back into her dream.

Twilight began listening to the sounds of her friends around her. Applejack snored quietly in the closest bedroll to her, next to Spike. Rarity made the occasional small murmur, and Fluttershy across the room was almost impossible to hear, especially next to Pinkie Pie. Twilight rolled her eyes in the dark. That pony couldn’t even sleep quietly! Pinkie Pie twitched and moved, tossing her covers about. She made some clarifying remark about a stepladder, and then tossed again before settling down into less fitful dreams.

Twilight smiled softly in the dark. But only then did she notice she couldn’t hear Rainbow Dash at all. As an experiment, she sighed and then turned over. And just as she thought, she heard a stirring from Dash’s direction. “Can’t sleep either?” Twilight asked softly.

“Hmpf.” Rainbow Dash was quiet, but she sounded annoyed. “I just can’t seem to get comfortable.” She let out a long-suffering sigh. “And if Pinkie doesn’t pipe down, I swear to Celestia's plugged-up shower drain I’m going to drop her out a window.”

Twilight stifled laughter, only a few hushed snrks sneaking out her nose. “Yeah, she is. . . different. I’ve never met anypony quite like Pinkie.”

“I’d hope not.” Rainbow Dash countered. “One Pinkie Pie is pleeeen-ty.”

Their laughter drifted softly through the thick darkness, making Spike stir a bit. Twilight noticed that, for a few moments at least, the dark didn’t seem so dark. Silence stretched on for a minute, and then two. Just before Twilight bid her friend good night, she heard Dash yawn, and then say in a much sleepier voice “Hey, Twilight?”

“Yes Dash?”

A pause. “You remember a couple of years ago when Luna was the Nightmare and she threatened to make night last forever? And we stopped her?”

Nightmare Moon. Before Princess Luna was freed from her hatred and jealousy and spite, she was a force to be feared. Twilight shuddered at the memory of her dark power. She had been entirely outmatched, outsmarted and found herself helpless as the Elements of Harmony were destroyed right in front of her. Only her friends had enabled Twilight to surpass herself and prevent night eternal. “I remember.”

“You said Luna had been banished to the moon for, like 1,000 years or something.” Rainbow Dash yawned again, longer than last time. She was clearly struggling to stay awake to speak her mind, and it was equally clear she was losing. “So, I mean, just how old is she?”

Twilight lay still in thought for a minute. The ancient stories and texts clearly stated that the battle between the two sisters happened 1,000 years in the past, and they called Princess Celestia and Princess Luna both by name. Twilight realized that she’d never really questioned it before. She’d assumed her luminous mentor and her dark counterpart were as constant and eternal as the very ground she walked upon. Yet, if they were truly immortal, if they never aged with the passing of time. . . what did that make them, she wondered.

“I. . . I don’t know.” She offered. But Rainbow Dash’s only response was the soft and slow breathing of deep sleep. Twilight was left alone with her thoughts, further from sleep than ever. Her troubled eyes caught the reflection of those few stars and the crescent moon as she wondered what else she didn’t know.

Twilight Sparkle squinted at the morning sun as it peeked over distant buildings, filtering through trees and gleaming off the spires of the castle in a majestic panoply of radiant color. Princess Celestia had truly outdone herself this morning. She shifted her weight impatiently as she waited for Spike to bring their carriage up to the side of the road.

Rainbow Dash stretched and yawned, “I wasn’t expecting that wedding to be nearly as much fun as it was. I figured the music would be super lame, but it was actually pretty cool.”

Pinkie Pie bounced in place. “Yeah! And the yummilicious cake! I ate sooooooooo much cake!”

Rarity sighed contentedly. “Weddings truly are magical, aren't they? At least when they aren’t being crashed by unrefined imposters.” She glanced towards the hovering pegasus. “I thought you were going to say your favorite part of the wedding was head-butting changelings.”

Dash chuckled a little, but she shook her head at the same time, her rainbow-colored mane swaying with the morning breeze. “Hey, I'll put a hoof through anypony or anything that tries to hurt my friends, but I can’t look back and say I, like, enjoyed it or anything.”

Applejack agreed. “Ain’t that the truth. Rough-housing with siblings or playing a game can make it seem like fun, but real violence kinda makes me feel sick.” Fluttershy and Rarity nodded along with her. “Still and all Rainbow, you can really handle yourself in a tussle. Y'know, for a lightweight pegasus.”

Rainbow Dash swelled a bit with pride. “Yeah, I can totally handle myself. But in a fight like that, I’d want Twilight’s magic by my side any day. Did you see the way she was throwing changelings around? It was so awesome.

“Not only that,” Rarity noted, “But Twilight could reveal their true forms. I simply must learn that spell for the future. Would you mind teaching me sometime, Twilight? Perhaps over tea?”

Twilight hadn’t noticed her friends were talking to her. The unicorn was squinting back towards the castle, where Princess Celestia now stood with a pair of royal guards by the main entrance. “Um, hang on a second, everypony. I’ll be right back.” With that, Twilight turned and trotted back up the path.

Applejack sighed. “Anypony else notice how quiet Twi’s been all mornin’?”

“Why yes.” Rarity said. “She just hasn’t been herself lately.”

“Um,” Fluttershy mumbled from behind her mane. “She seems worried about someth. . .”

Pinkie Pie popped up in between them, inturrupting. “It’s like she’s worried about something! Or maybe she pulled a muscle while dancing last night! Or she ate too much cake. . .”

Fluttershy's brow creased in a delicate frown. “That's what I was just. . .”

“Oh!” Pinkie's bouncing gave her a clear view past all of her friends. “Here comes our ride!”

Just as the carriage pulled up to the side of the road and the five friends picked up their bags and began loading them up, Twilight made it to the front door of the castle. She bowed to the Princess, who nodded kindly back. “Twilight Sparkle, my best student, aren’t you heading back to Ponyville with your friends?”

Twilight blushed faintly from the compliment. “Yes, Princess, but there was something I wanted to ask you first.”

Celestia’s eyes darkened with worry for only an instant, like a flicker of lightning. But it was gone so quickly Twilight felt certain she’d imagined it. “Yes? What is it?”

“Um, the ancient texts, the ones containing the prophecy about Luna and the stars aiding her escape. . .” Twilight stammered as Celestia became as still as a statue. Her mane and tail were the only parts of her that moved. “Well, I mean, those texts mention both of you by name, and. . . well, I was just wondering. . .” She became more nervous the longer Celestia neither moved nor spoke. “Not that it’s possible, but. . . I mean, you don’t look that old. . .” Twilight gathered her courage and plowed ahead. “So. . . just how old are you? Um, age-wise.”

Princess Celestia’s eyes darkened again, and this time they stayed dark. “You should know that it’s impolite to ask a lady’s age.”

Twilight was hurt. To be honest, she was a little scared too. She’d never seen an angry side of the benevolent Princess Celestia before. At least, she'd never in her wildest dreams imagined that ire being directed at her. She felt a chill run through her, from her horn down to her hooves. But. . . then Twilight felt a tiny spark of anger. She knew without a doubt that Celestia was hiding something from her, probably from everypony.

She grit her teeth and pressed on. “My apologies, Your Highness. I merely assumed that asking questions was a part of the learning process.” Twilight was shocked to hear the accusation in her own voice. “Something you taught me, I might add.” Twilight’s eyes were steely, but inside she marveled at her own audacity. To speak to the ruler of Equestria in such a manner! The quavering feeling in her stomach intensified.

Twilight watched as Princess Celestia grew furious without moving a single muscle. It was all in her eyes. “Indeed, my student. Yet the seeking of knowledge can be very. Very. Dangerous.” Her voice was a frigid and empty wasteland. “Now go. Your friends await.” Without waiting for a response, Princess Celestia turned and walked back into the castle, so she couldn’t see the tears welling up in Twilight Sparkle’s confused eyes. Even the guards exchanged concerned glances.

Twilight felt as though her heart was breaking. She’d always felt close to the Princess, honored and cared for, as though Celestia found her special. Maybe more special than anypony else. As she tried to figure out how things went so wrong so quickly, she suddenly considered that maybe she wasn’t so special after all. Maybe Celestia made all of her students feel like they mattered. She swallowed hard as the thought hit her.

Twilight fought herself back under control. She wasn’t going to make a fool of herself here. She was going to march over to the carriage, climb in, and ride home with her friends. She wiped her violet eyes and blinked them clear, shook herself off, then turned and headed back down the walk to where her best friends waited.

Spike was wearing the little tux he’d worn to the wedding. “C’mon Twilight, the sun’s already up. We should be. . . Twilight, are you ok?”

“I’m fine, Spike, really.” She tried to give him a smile, but only managed a bit of a grimace. “I’ll explain everything later. I promise.”

Spike glanced back up towards the castle before returning his concerned gaze back to Twilight. He opened his mouth as if to ask another question, and then seemed to think better of it. Instead he gave her a reassuring smile. “Ok Twilight.”

She smiled gratefully, and then clambered into the carriage as Spike began giving directions to the pair of stallions in the pulling harnesses.

Twilight stepped into the carriage and closed the door behind her, and then she turned to face her friends. Immediately Fluttershy gasped, “Oh Twilight, what happened?” All of her friends looked concerned.

“There’s no hiding things from you ponies, is there?” Twilight asked with a grumble and a bit of false bluster as the carriage began moving.

“Of course not darling!” Rarity cooed. “We’re your friends. Good friends can always tell when something's wrong. Whatever's the matter?”

The rest of her friends waited in silence. After a steadying breath, she took the open spot on the cushioned bench between Fluttershy and Applejack. “I want to tell you all what just happened, and I want to tell Spike as well when we get back to Ponyville. But I think it’s important that nopony else hears about this, just in case.” Twilight looked everyone in the eyes. “And I really mean nopony.” She stopped to glare at Pinkie Pie.

“What?” Pinkie glanced around hurriedly. “Why is everypony looking at me? I can keep a secret!”

Rainbow Dash chuckled. “Yeah, I met a donkey in a toupee who says otherwise.”

“I was trying to find him a new hairpiece!”

“You practically shouted to the whole village he was bald!”


“Now settle down y’all.” Applejack interjected. “I think I have a solution that’ll make everypony happy. How about we all Pinkie promise?”

“Cross my heart and hope to fly. Stick a cupcake in my eye.” Everyone chorused. Hooves were drawn over ribcages, limbs were flapped like birds, and around the carriage hooves were stuck somberly into left eyes. Despite herself, she smiled a little.

“See sugarcube? You can tell us anything.” Applejack put an arm around Twilight. “Now let us know what happened. What in all of Equestria did the Princess say to upset you?”

Twilight sighed. “Well, it started when I asked how old she was.”

Pinkie Pie burst into giggles. Rarity looked shocked, and she asked Twilight, “But, you do know it’s impolite to ask a lady her age, right?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. “That’s exactly what she said.”

“Oh, I see now.” Fluttershy’s voice was soft, but it stilled everyone else into listening. “Twilight, you were trying to find out what Princess Celestia and Princess Luna really are.”

“Yes.” Twilight continued, nodding, her bangs swaying across her forehead. “It's a deep question! Dash brought it up last night.”

The pegasus was startled from an intanse bout of digging a front hoof into an ear. “I did what now?”

“You asked the question.” Twilight continued earnestly. “The ancient prophecies implied that both of the royal sisters were around at least a thousand years ago! There’s more to the history of Equestria than they’ve told us. I mean, will they both live forever? Have they both lived forever? Where's the rational explanation!?!

Applejack interjected. “While we’re questionin’ authority, what exactly are they anyways? Are they unicorns or pegasii?”

“Oh, I know this one!” Rainbow Dash interjected. “They’re called alicorns.”

“Sure, but what’s an alicorn, then?” Applejack shot back.

“I don’t know.” Dash looked thoughtful. “I mean, Celestia and Luna are the only two I know of. Except I just got to meet Cadence a few days ago, so I guess that makes three.”

Twilight added, “Don’t forget about Chrysalis and her changelings. They may not be ponies at all anymore, but every one of them I saw had wings and a horn. And a grasp of magic.” She shook her head. “I’ve read most of the histories of Equestria in the library in Canterlot, but none of them ever mentioned alicorns except in passing. It’s like there’s some huge conspiracy to cover up where they came from.”

Rarity looked nonplussed. “The Royal Princesses of Equestria are special. Maybe they are forces of nature given form, rather than proper ponies.”

“Maybe.” Twilight continued, “But when I pushed her for an answer, she became furious with me. I’ve never seen her so angry before. Then she just stalked away. . .” Fluttershy put an arm and a wing around her friend and lay her head against Twilight’s shoulder, consoling her.

“Everything will be alright sugarcube.” Applejack hugged her friend from the other side. “We’ll figure this out.”

Twilight almost didn’t want to know anymore. She wished she hadn’t said a word to the Princess. The thought that the Princess was somehow disappointed in her twisted her stomach into sick knots. Yet at the same time, the dull ache in her heart was slowly fading into the background as her friends gave her reassurance and sympathy. She smiled again, and this time it didn't fade.

Five afternoons later, Twilight Sparkle stuck her head out the front door of the Ponyville library. The sky was overcast without being completely clouded over, since the next storm wasn’t scheduled for another couple of days. The subtle scents of the flowers growing around Ponyville wafted past her nose. As she trotted out her front door and closed it behind her with a small effort of magic, she glanced at Spike riding along lazily on her back. “Okay, you’ve got quills and parchment? We’re going to head over to Sugar Cube Corner to help Pinkie gather up supplies for June Bug’s birthday party, then we’ll slip over to the town hall to see if the Mayor has any old records we can browse through.”

Spike was wide-eyed with excitement as he leaned forward to respond. “Yeah, maybe there’ll be more clues about Princess Celestia in there.”

“Shhh Spike, not so loud.” Twilight felt as though they weren’t alone, but when she glanced around she didn’t see anyone else nearby. “We're just calling it 'research.' But Granny Smith says Princess Celestia had a hoof in the founding of this village, and I need to know for sure.”

They rounded a corner and nearly bumped into a grey pegasus trotting in their direction. It took a moment for the mare to speak. “Hello Twilight! Hello Spike!”

“Oh. Hello D—ooff” The grey mare gave Twilight a big bear hug before continuing down the street, dandelion-colored tail swishing as she walked.

Spike’s smile was faintly amused. “I think that mare is kind of. . . special.”

“Yes she is.” Twilight agreed with genuine warmth. “She’s one of the nicest ponies I know.”

The smells of grass and subtle flowers were pushed away as the scent of the bakery hit them both full in the face. They turned a corner, and Sugar Cube Corner sprang into view, the only store in Ponyville to look like a giant gingerbread house. It smelled like vanilla and cinnamon and nutmeg, all fresh from an oven. Spike’s mouth began to water. “Hey Twilight, maybe we should have some snacks on hand when we go talk to the mayor. You know how tough it’ll be to browse through old, musty papers on an empty stomach.” His voice sounded hopeful.

Twilight giggled. “Oh Spike, we just had lunch two hours ago.”

“Yeah, but we didn’t have danishes for lunch.” Spike threw himself dramatically over Twilight’s back. “They’ve got danishes filled with cherries Twilight. And then sprinkled with cinnamon and drizzled with frosting.”

Twilight laughed some more. “Ok junior salesman, we’ll grab a couple before we leave.”

She nudged the front door open gently, and saw Pinkie Pie securing a container of cupcakes all decorated with light green frosting and placing them in a brightly colored bag. Pinkie bounced over to the doorway. “Hey you guys! You got here just in time! I need a hoof carrying the cupcakes, the mini-cupcakes, the actual cake and the punch bowl down to where the party’s going to be!” She gestured at three other brightly-colored bags. “Oh, and I’ll need to stop and get streamers, confetti, flowers, and the fruit punch! Spike, can you carry the balloons?”

Spike turned away from the bakery counter to stare up at what must have been fifty balloons of various shapes and colors. He shook his head. “I don’t know, Pinkie Pie. I don’t think I weigh enough to get those down the street.”

Pinkie giggled, “You might be right Spike. I guess I’ll take those.”

The various bags floated into the air in front of Twilight. “I’ll carry these.” Twilight said. “Spike, you can carry the punch bowl.”

“Just a second,” Spike turned to the counter. “We need two cherry danishes, please. To go.” Spike said, rocking back and forth on his heels.

As they left Sugar Cube Corner, with Pinkie Pie bouncing in slow-motion thanks to all the balloons tied around her midsection, Twilight noticed a subtle change in the town. Every pony in the market area was standing still. Carts had stopped, and a low murmur had begun as ponies took turns glancing down the main road through Ponyville. Twilight turned to look back the way she’d come and dropped the bags she’d been levitating. “Spike. . . Pinkie. . .”

Pinkie Pie dropped slowly to the ground after a particularly high bounce. “Wheeeee! What is it, Twi. . . oh!” Pinkie gasped as she turned around.

Princess Celestia walked through the center of the town, without guards and without fanfare. Startled ponies dropped to one knee and bowed as she passed, but she barely nodded to acknowledge her subjects. She was headed straight towards the three of them. Twilight once again felt that twisty sensation in her belly.

Over the last few days, she had built up her resolve to find out what the Princess was hiding, and had pushed her doubts firmly aside. But watching Princess Celestia stalk closer, with her mane and coat seeming to radiate light of its own, seeing her beauty and stature once again, Twilight felt ashamed of her insistence. She was certain something terrible was going to happen, and it would somehow be all her fault.

“Pardon me, but I would like to speak to my student alone.” Princess Celestia’s voice was kind, but had a fine edge hidden beneath it. Pinkie Pie took the hint.

“Okey dokey lokey!” Pinkie grinned at Twilight, entirely oblivious to her friend's look of alarm, and gathered up most of the bags Twilight had dropped with her mouth. “C’mon Shpike, let’sh shake a leg!” Then she trotted off to talk with Rose at the flower stand.

Spike tried to glare at the Princess in Twilight’s defense, and found that he simply could not. He settled for a pleading look he hoped meant ‘Please take it easy on her.’ Then he placed a reassuring claw on Twilight’s shoulder, and then hurried to catch up with Pinkie.

Celestia turned and walked towards the park, away from the houses of Ponyville and anyone who might listen in. Twilight swallowed hard, and turned to trudge along behind her. What had she said wrong? What was she so angry about? She couldn’t remember feeling this sick to her stomach in her whole life.

After a few minutes of silent walking, Celestia led her through a small grove of trees, then she turned and glided up a hill only to stop at the top and gaze off into the east. Twilight came and stood next to her, staring at the ground between her hooves. She wanted to tell the Princess she was sorry she’d offended her at the castle. She wanted to explain herself, and she wanted so badly to bridge this rift between herself and her teacher. But no words would come out past the lump in her throat. So she waited in miserable silence as the sun slowly began to set behind them and their shadows began stretching toward the edge of the world.

Finally, without glancing away from the horizon, Princess Celestia spoke. Her words were slow and heavy, filled with a resolute sorrow. “Twilight, just how many students do you think I have?”

Twilight’s gaze snapped up to Celestia’s face, but all she could see was a deep sadness there. The question caught her completely off guard. She couldn't fathom what the alicorn meant, or where she was going with the harmless, but seemingly loaded question. So she said nothing and waited.

“Did you think I had ten students of my own? Thirty? Fifty?” Twilight shook her head in confusion as Princess Celestia continued. “No. Twilight Sparkle, you are my only student.” Celestia sighed once, and her gaze hardened. She turned her ancient gaze upon Twilight. “I am sorry I spoke harshly to you at the castle. Over the years I have become adept at. . . turning aside questions like yours.” She smiled sadly, and her eyes softened. “But I will tell you the truth. I will tell you everything, even if the answers place you in grave danger. Because the truth is, I’m afraid that I need your help.”

She had to lick her parched lips before she could respond. “M-my help?” Twilight asked in confusion. “With what?”

“Not just your help.” Princess Celestia drew herself to her full height. Her long, elegant horn caught the dimming light, and it gleamed like an upraised sword. “Gather your friends and meet me in the library. I will explain what I can.” She glanced up towards the clouds. “And you can help her get everypony together, right Rainbow Dash?”

Celestia’s horn glowed briefly, and a particularly low-hanging cloud disappeared with a poof, leaving a startled and flapping Rainbow Dash hovering within earshot. “Ummmmm, eheheheh. . .” The pegasus blushed a deep shade of red. “Sure. Of course. Anything you say, your Highness.” Dash grinned abashedly, and then shot off into the distance.

Twilight watched her leave, and then nodded once. “Of course, your Highness.” She hesitated, then gave Celestia a quick hug before turning and galloping back down the hill towards town. Maybe things weren't as bad as they'd seemed. Maybe celestia still thought of her as a good student. In fact, hadn't she said. . . only student? Despite Celestia's grim intimations of danger, Twilight nearly leaped for joy. She already knew she'd offer whatever help the Princess might ask for.

Meanwhile, Celestia stood atop the hill a minute more, quietly allowing herself to feel the fear and dread she’d been hiding as the setting sun limned half of the world in a fiery red. She touched her leg where the young, trusting filly had just hugged her, and she shuddered. Her shoulders and wings drooped, as though under a heavy weight, and her sigh seemed to come from the very tips of her hooves.

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