• Published 22nd Jul 2012
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Rites of Ascension - CvBrony



Twilight makes a new spell and starts the gears of fate with her ascension to alicornhood. (Writing started before Season 3.)

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Stone, Wheat, and Oats

“Ready, everypony?” Twilight grabbed hold of the safety rail with a big fat smile on her face. “Here we go!”

The charioteers pulling them kicked out into high gear, hovering barely a meter over the rocky, snowy surface as they rocketed up the mountainside. As they climbed, the warm late-spring air peeled away and surrendered to the thinner crisper air of the higher altitudes. The snowcap popped into view under them, and for a moment, everypony in the chariot was weightless. Limbs dangled in the air, wings were tucked onto sides, and it was as if the planet was breathing out, pausing in its gravitational kiss.

Then the chariot returned to gravity’s inexorable embrace. The charioteers flapped their wings shut and pointed themselves at the ground, then with a single, synchronized, mighty flap, they were screaming towards the hard, crunchy ground. The wind ripped past them ever faster, stinging them with invisible needles and sucking the moisture from their mouths and eyes.

A moment later, the pegasi levelled off to the whoops, laughs, and hollers of their three passengers, who had collapsed all over each other in the back of the chariot.

Twilight let the giggles simmer as she rolled around on her back in the center of the little pile of friends. When the giggling fit finally faded, she stretched out as far as she could, however little that was where she was sitting, and again noted that even her subtle movements could rock the little chariot they were in. It had been her idea, as the only pony on the trip without wings, to turn their vehicle into a mini-rollercoaster, and it was quickly embraced by the others.

“Wow.” Spike clung onto the edge of the vehicle, looking out at the scene below. “So much wheat…”

“Yup!” Twilight joined him and put a foreleg across his back. “Everypony, welcome to the Hinterlands, the breadbasket of Equestria!”

Wheat and oats were the key economic driving factors in the Hinterlands, and it showed. A golden field stretched out nearly as far as Twilight could see, even as high in the air as they were. Little silos dotted the landscape like leopard spots, each collecting the grain that would feed Equestria. A few scattered railroads and depots helped in this, all either going to cities for processing or consumption or to fields even greater than those in front of Twilight.

Behind them were the mountains they had crossed to reach the Hinterlands, ahead and in the far, far distance was the mountain range bordering San Palomino, and to their left was the city of Hearthfire, the Duchy’s oceanside capital.

“Hang tight,” one of the charioteers said. “Adjusting vector!”

Twilight clung to the rail along with her friends, cheering as they fell and banked to the left. The city came into view in seconds, along with the sapphire blue of the vast, great ocean. Hearthfire was built on the edge of a cliff, and there were buildings clumped together all along the face as well as the more gentle slope to the south. Most were made of simple wood but had expressive, sloped, and curved terracotta roofs. Unlike the large cities in other Duchies, this one did not have expensive paved roads. Most were mere dirt, though a few in the center were stone.

A large tower rose above the rest at the highest point of the cliff, and it was the highlight of a tiny compound that was Duke Buckheart’s traditional residence. Princess Platinum’s castle was somewhere to the north, and was maintained by the Duke's family.

As they flew just over the rooftops, Twilight could see ponies and minotaurs go about their daily lives. Many were hauling wheat or other crops, or selling it in a collection of tiny markets. Some others were calling out to shoppers about other goods, like wool and blankets that were hoof-stitched and dyed in traditional colors. Chickens, sheep, and pigs ran loose in the streets and parks, tended to by nearby masters. Foals played in the city freely, often with a dog or puppy close by.

There was a folksiness to it all that sang a similar tune to Ponyville, and the comparisons ran even deeper than that. Very few pegasi or unicorns were anywhere to be seen, with nearly the entire pony population made up of earth ponies. Minotaurs actually outnumbered the winged and horned varieties five-to-one, as they had long ago aligned with Smart Cookie after she had taken over from Puddinghead. This was their home.

The chariot made another slight left to the tower, then came to a gentle landing on the outside of the compound. Well, as gentle as one could expect on such a road and such a small chariot. Twilight, Rainbow, and Spike all hopped off, all three already weighed down with travelling bags.

“Thank you, Sirs!” Twilight gave the charioteers a curtsey, then waved them off to go rest in town. The sun was already a couple of hours from setting, and they had to have been tired. She shielded her face from the dust that was kicked up in their wake and waved her hoof about to clear the air. When it did, there was an earth pony mare with golden eyes standing before them.

“Greetings to you, Lady Sparkle!” She bowed deep and took off her hat. Her mane was grey, and her coat a light clay brown. As she stood back up, the warm, simple, bark-thread clothes on her body noisily stretched and scrunched. Much of it was a natural brown, while the hat and a strap around her chest was dyed white. “My name is Day Lily, and I am the Duchess-in-wings for the Hinterlands. Celestia told us you were coming. I welcome you to our humble city with an open heart.”

“It is a pleasure, Day Lily!” Twilight bowed back, uncertain when her travels would next provide her with a welcome like that. “I've long wanted to see the Hinterlands with my own eyes. Before, I had only seen its wheat fields by train.”

Day Lily chuckled. “Then I am afraid, my Lady, that you have then seen most of what we have to offer. We are not a wealthy Duchy, but what we lack in bits we make up for in kindness and friendship.”

“Sounds like Twilight's kind of place!” Spike gave Rainbow a hoof bump. “But what's a ‘Duchess-in-wings’?”

“It means that when her father passes or otherwise steps down from his position, she has already been selected to succeed him.” Twilight pulled out one of her checklists from her saddlebags and gave it to Lily. “I would very much like to take a quick tour of the city before we go on our way, but I also need some supplies. Do you think you could help me with these?”

“Of course! Let's see here…” She examined the list, breezing through it then tucking it away in her hat. “I don't think any of this will be an issue. Most of it is pretty standard gear we sell to ponies looking to move to, or through, the desert.”

“I bet that's getting the Duchy a nice bit of extra scratch.” Rainbow hopped a couple meters into the air, seemingly scouting the road ahead before going into a mid-air backstroke. “San Palomino’s population is booming, and not just ‘cause the desert is romantic, if you get my meaning.”

“Yes and no.” Day Lily signalled them to move down the road, and the group started a walk up the hill. “Too many here are leaving home to seek a fortune in the arid expanse. The temptation of bits is hard to deny.

“But most never find that fortune. Some lucky few find their way home before it's too late, but many sink into debt so deeply that they can never afford to leave. And when they go, we have fewer workers to care for the land. Food prices therefore rise, which helps those who stay, but also means that it costs more for ponies elsewhere.”

“There's no easy answer, I’m afraid.” Twilight watched a pony dig into a giant bowl of oatmeal, thinking about the journey that the Hinterlands’ oats make to all corners of Equestria. “I'll look into it, see if I can catch Celestia’s ear. But this is an entrenched, systemic problem. I can't promise an easy or fast solution.”

“At this point, Twi, I think you could put that line on a form letter.” Spike spread out his wings in a stretch. “You've said that how many times this last year?”

“Good point.” Twilight said, tripping a little over a rock in the road that absolutely appeared out of nowhere and in no way was the result of her being surprised over Spike's huge wingspan. The latter idea was just silly, because she'd seen it before and thus should have logically been expecting it. After she was done fooling herself and convincing her internal subcommittees to over-ride her memories, she continued, “Still, I'm happy to push the issue, and I'm certain my sister would lend support to you in the Council.”

Day Lily laughed. “Oh, but if the others in the Council would be so friendly! But no, Lady Sparkle. I appreciate the offer, but there are things that I must learn to do for myself.”

“If you insist. I'm still willing to-- Oooooh!” Twilight bolted ahead, galloping to the top of the hill. There was a pristine ocean filling the horizon's canvas with a brilliant blue, but Twilight didn't even give it a second thought. What she was focused on, were rocks.

She ran her hoof over the wide, smooth, squat one, then noticed the “No Touching” sign and hoped it didn't apply to Grand Mages. The boulder next to it was a tall, pointed granite that reached three stories in the air. “Guys, look at this! This is where Chancellor Puddinghead, Princess Platinum, and Commander Hurricane signed the Windigo Ceasefire! History in the earth itself!”

“I had heard she was an academic.” Day Lily glanced over to Spike and Rainbow. “Is she always like this?”

Spike snickered. “You have no idea. Considering what that is, this reaction is abnormally calm!”

Twilight blew a raspberry at them.

“Ohmigoshohmigoshomigosh! It's Rainbow Dash!” An earth pony colt leading a quintet of foals raced towards Rainbow as fast as their little legs could carry them, quickly surrounding their target of adoration quicker than any foes had ever managed. “It's you! It's really you! I saw you in Manehatten in the Wonderbolts Derby last year! I was in the third row, did you see me?!”

“You guys go do what you need to. I got this.” Rainbow ate up the attention like a hog at a buffet. “I sure did, squirt! I think you had a pennant, maybe?”

The foals’ haunches all hit the ground in awe.

“I did, I did! Ohmigosh, can I have your autograph?!”

“You bet!” Rainbow fished a picture out of her bag. “I always keep a few of these ready in case I meet a fan!”

Twilight noticed Spike's look of “Yeah, to feed your ego” and whapped him on the head.

“Ow! I didn't say anything!”

“You were thinking it. Come on, let's go take a look at the tower. I wanna see what Clover the Clever saw when they were here making history!”

The tour went on from there, with Twilight taking notes like there would be a test later. Rainbow and the foals were always close behind, with the pegasus hero doing a bunch of smaller, safer tricks than her normal repertoire to blow their little minds with.

The tour ended at a large park overlooking the tallest point of the cliff, complete with benches, with a view of the sun setting into the mountains to close the day.

“Your supplies should be ready shortly, Lady Sparkle.” Day Lily took a long sip from her cup of butter tea. “I must say, I'm quite pleased at your enthusiasm for my home! As well as the hospitality your friends are showing our foals.”

Rainbow was off bouncing a soccer ball on her head a few hundred times in a row with a giant grin on her face, and the foals were counting each and every hit into the air out loud.

“Rainbow loves her fans as much as she loves flying.” Twilight took a sip of her tea. “They're loyal to her, and she's loyal to them. Eternally. Hmm?” She felt a small poke at her side, and found a tiny unicorn filly with a pen in her mouth.

Day Lily leaned over to see, too. “Looks like you have your own fan here! We don't have many unicorns, so many of our young of your tribe don't get the education they deserve. More than a few look up to you, seeing how great they could become one day.”

“Hey, there,” Twilight said as gently as she could. “Did you want an autograph, too?”

The filly nodded.

“Spike!” Twilight called out to her brother, who was leaning on a rail and watching the darkening ocean to the east. “Could you come here for a second?”

Spike jumped a bit, startled from his name being called all of a sudden. Still, he composed himself and came over. “What did you need, Twi?”

“Send a message to Luna for me, and ask her to see if the Castle Press Corps has any pictures of me floating around that I can use for an autograph. After all the years I've spent in the castle as the Princess’ student, they have to have at least a few floating around.”

“Auto–” Spike caught a glimpse of the tiny filly with a pen in her mouth. “Oh! Sure, can do!”

Twilight gave her fan a pat on the head. “Go play for five minutes or so, okay? We should have a picture I can use by then.”

The filly beamed and nodded, running off to the other foals with the pen still in her mouth.

“I believe you just made her decade. Maybe even her future cutie mark!” Day Lily laughed. “I do wish we had more unicorn teachers here.”

“I could maybe help with that, you know. I know I'm not the most liked with the Council, but I do have the Princess’ ear, and hiring some teachers is much, much simpler than manipulating macroeconomic systems.”

Day Lily sighed. “Perhaps I should take you up on that offer. My father is stubborn and wouldn't hear of it unless Her Highness brought it up to him directly. If I was Duchess, I'd just get it done myself.”

“But you are not Duchess yet, dear sister.”

Twilight turned to the sound of the smooth baritone, finding an impressively tall earth pony stallion. His coat was a chocolate brown, and his mane a grey counterpoint. His suit would have been worthy to show in Rarity's boutique, and featured a black bark-thread coat, burgundy shirt, and black ribbon tie.

“Lady Sparkle, meet my little brother, Marquis Earthen Pride.”

Twilight got up to bow, but froze and looked the stallion up and down. Though a stock pony, he was taller than even Big Macintosh. “Little brother?”

The siblings shared their chuckles. “Indeed, Lady Sparkle.” Pride hadn't missed a beat. “It is good to finally meet you. I had intended to arrange a meeting earlier, but my days are as busy as ever, given my father's failing health. It is good that you made a visit, as I have very much been interested to see what kind of mare you were.”

“Everypony keeps saying stuff like that.” Twilight sat back down. “Really, I think my actions to date speak for themselves.”

“Indeed! I was initially quite worried that you did not have the courage that it takes to help rule a nation, especially one as large as Equestria. It is not easy for most ponies to make the decisions that need to be made. Looking at you now, without knowledge of your exploits this far, my fears would only deepen.”

Twilight raised her eyebrow. “Oh? And what do you think given that you do know what I've done so far?”

“That you are a great source of contradictions. I can see the kindness, the willingness to spread happiness that your status as an Element of Harmony requires. Yet your actions in Zebrica also show that you are willing to do what must be done, regardless of personal cost. This comforts me greatly.”

Twilight glanced over at Day Lily, but found her expression unreadable. “Out of curiosity, Marquis, what would you have done if I hadn't met your expectations?”

“Fought to discredit you and remove you from power, as that would have been within my abilities as Marquis. If I was Prince, my actions might have been more… severe.”

Twilight blinked. “Seriously? You're telling me this why?”

Earthen Pride's expression grew grim, yet somehow proud. “Because honesty, dear Element, is truly a wonderful policy. It's a fact that in politics, one must be deceitful from time to time at a minimum. Telling the truth and being open more often than not means your enemies start pulling their manes out looking for your lies and weaknesses. They can't comprehend such truth.”

Twilight folded her forelegs. “I have to say, that's a damning indictment of the Council if I've ever heard one. Going to have to remember that one.”

“I personally think a larger indictment would be their cowardice. They are unwilling to make personal sacrifices, but sometimes, leaders must shed blood and life for the sake of their followers. It is by that strength that, someday, I will be Duke.”

Twilight froze mid-sip, caught in between waves of hate blasting by her from both siblings. “I, um, really appreciate you taking the time to meet with me, Marquis Pride. Perhaps I'll see you in the castle someday?”

“Oh?” If what he was before was grim, now Pride was gruesome in his stare, mixed with a more than a little stoic. “Afraid of a little spat going on between siblings? The mare who faced Discord?”

“Oh, give me a break.”

All three turned to Spike, who was leaning against a railing.

“Yeah, I heard you over here. I may not be a pony, but I'm not deaf. And Twilight is right to not take sides. This isn't something that'll make or break Equestria if not dealt with immediately, unlike Discord, and she barely knows you two. It'd be idiocy, not cowardice, to take a side. Besides, common etiquette says you two are the jerks for bringing it up in front of her.”

“Well, now. Called out to the carpet by a dragon, of all things.” Pride tightened his tie while his long mane hid some—but only some—of his blush. “You keep interesting, and insightful, company, Lady Sparkle. I believe I shall leave things at that. Good talking to you.”

The sound of Spike receiving a message thankfully and forcefully occupied where an awkward silence would have been as the Marquis walked away, and Twilight wouldn't have it any other way. “Pardon me, I think there's a filly that wants my autograph.”

“Of course, Lady Sparkle.” Day Lily said with a bow.

Twilight got up and trotted over to the group of foals, zeroing in on the filly at the outside, pen still in her mouth. Like the others, she was rapt in attention with how Rainbow was somehow hitting the ball high in the air, doing a mid-air backflip, and managing to be in position to hit the ball again. Twilight had to silently admit to herself that was really impressive.

Shaking her focus from the spectacle, she took out her own pen and tapped the filly on the shoulder the same way she had to her. “Who do I make this out to?”

The filly froze for a moment, then dropped the pen out of her mouth with an interrupted syllable. “Eep!” She dove for the pen, but it was too late. It sank a quarter inch into the pile of dust. She nudged it out of the dirt with her nose, and opened her mouth to pick it back up.

“You don't know how to use your horn yet, do you?” Twilight asked, laying down to be eye level with her.

The filly sniffled and shook her head with tears forming in her eyes.

“Hey now, you don't need to cry. I had some trouble with it when I was young, too!” Twilight left out the part about turning her parents into potted plants. “Here, let me teach you what the Princess taught me. First, close your eyes.”

The filly did so, squeezing out a few more tears.

“It's okay. You just need to be taught. Don't be afraid. Fear is born of ignorance, and learning banishes the darkness of fear and hate. Remember this, and repeat: Magic is the source of life, and the horn gives us control over the cosmos around us. My power is one with the universe, and the universe is under my command.”

“My… Magic is the source of life, and the horn gives us control over the… the cosmos around us. My power is one with the universe, and the universe is under my command.”

Twilight placed a hoof over the filly’s fetlock. “Good. Now, imagine you're on a rock in an ocean. It's a tiny island, just big enough for you to stand on. There's a storm all around you, and the waves are huge. The pen is floating on the waves, and you want to make it float in the air. Here's what you do.

“Repeat the mantra again, and this time, imagine the ocean blasting the pen into the air like a geyser. Just a big squirt gun forcing it up from underneath the water.”

The filly mumbled the words and put her ears down. The pen didn't move.

“Try again, and remember, you have to believe, you have to put all your mind into it. Also, this time, imagine yourself raising your hoof with the water. Or, imagine your horn pulling down a funnel cloud from the sky to lift the pen. Believe, and say the words.”

The filly shook and swallowed, but nodded and tried again. “Magic is the source of life, and the horn gives us control over the cosmos around us. My power is one with the universe, and the universe is under my command.”

“Good! Now say it again, keep thinking about the ocean!”

“Magic is the source of life, and the horn gives us control over the cosmos around us. My power is one with the universe, and the universe is under my command.”

“Again!”

“Magic is the source of life, and the horn gives us control over the cosmos around us. My power is one with the universe, and the universe is under my command!”

“Again! Believe it!”

“Magic is the source of life, and the horn gives us control over the cosmos around us! My power is one with the universe, and the universe is under my command!”

“Great! Now, take in a breath, and open your eyes.”

The filly cracked open an eyelid, and got to see what Twilight had been watching. There, in front of them, was a pen floating in a faint yellow glow.

“See?” Twilight said. “You can do it. You just needed to be shown how.”

To say that the filly's eyes and face lit up like a firework was like saying Canterlot was a minor architectural achievement. Happiness didn't come in such a concentrated form even when Pinkie was giving it out. “Yes! Yesyesyesyesyesyesyes!” The filly dropped her pen but just kept dancing and bounding around Twilight in an awkward little dance.

Heh. Okay, now that I see what I look like when… Naw, I can't be embarrassed. Not at something so happy. “Okay, okay, you can settle down. I still need to give you an autograph, remember? Who do I make it out to?”

“Oh, right!” The filly went back into a sheepish ball and made little circles in the dirt with her hoof. “My name is Tiny Twinkle.”

“Alright then. ‘To Tiny Twinkle, my number one fan, and the first pony to ask for my autograph, always remember: Friendship is Magic! -Twilight Sparkle’”

She gave the picture to Twinkle, who named and hugged it like a long-lost parent. “Thank you so much!”

“You're quite welcome! Go, show your friends! Have fun!”

“I will! Thank you!” Twinkle picked up both her picture and the pen in her mouth and ran off, in far too much a hurry to use her horn.

That's okay, though. She knows how to use it now, and the rest will come in due time. Twilight stood up and returned to the benches, which were now being lit from lamps, as the sun had mostly set.

Day Lily clapped her hooves together lightly. “That was most impressive, Lady Sparkle. There are adult unicorns here that never really master their horns. That you so easily taught her is unheard of here.”

“I had the best teacher in Equestria. One that knows more about magic than anypony else alive. But that only makes the need for magic and flight instructors here more important. I'll make sure to send my recommendations to Celestia before we leave. Again, I can't promise anything, but I will try.”

“If anypony can get past my father's protests, it's the Princess. I appreciate it.”

“A wise mare once said, ‘If your plan is for one year, plant hay. If your plan is for ten years, plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years, educate children.’” Twilight's eye caught a cart of supplies being pulled by a pair of pegasi wearing expensive all-hour sunglasses, which adjusted light levels to optimal no matter how bright or dim the sky. Guess there being a shortage means good pay for pegasi here… Hmmm…

Day Lily bowed, motioning to the cart. “Lady Sparkle, your supplies have arrived. Where did you need them sent?”

“We're heading to Minotas, the minotaur village.”

“That's a nice hour’s trot outside the city, and it's already dark. Would you like me to get you a room for the night?”

Twilight shook her head. “No, we've got a schedule to keep. The cart is small, but it can fit Spike and me easily enough. If we fly, we should get there in ten minutes, even at a leisurely pace.”

“As you wish. In that case, I will leave you to your mission. Safe journey, Lady Sparkle.” Turning to the pegasi, she said, “You two, follow the Grand Mage's instructions.” Day Lily bowed to Twilight once more, and left towards the tower.

“Rainbow, Spike, time to go!”

There was a sound as if a large group of foals were crying out in disappointment and were ready to protest much more loudly.

“Sorry, guys, but I'm betting your parents are thinking it's time for you to get inside anyway.” Rainbow gave them hugs and waves goodbye, then watched them walk together into the city. She didn't stop watching until they were well on their way, and Spike had arrived well before her. “I take it we're heading out?”

“Yup. You two will fly next to the cart here, while I fly in it. We'll get to Minotas in just a few minutes.”

“Um, Twilight?” Spike unfurled one of his wings. “You do realize that I haven't actually flown with these things yet, right? And that I can really only glide?”

“You'll be fine.” Twilight lit her horn and felt around the cart with her magic, finding the rope and tossing it to her Captain. “Rainbow here will pull you along for lift and make sure you don't crash and burn. Just hang on to the rope and keep confident. It won't take long, and you'll get some practice!”

“Hey, I get it!” Rainbow tied one end around her belly. “It'll be like a giant kite!”

“Okay, but if I do crash and burn, I'm going to be real disappointed. I always figured I'd get to go out while gorging myself on a mountain of gems.”

“Oh ye of little faith. Trust me, Spike!”

Spike pointed a claw at her. “You said something awfully similar just before you blew a new crater in Sweet Apple Acres.”

“Well, this time I'm not trying something even remotely impossible, so it'll be fine.”

The two cart pegasi looked at each other, and one of them made a little circle motion with his hoof near his temple.

“Come on, we've already burned away our daylight.” Twilight hopped in the cart, nestling herself in between the bags of supplies. “Fly gentle, good Sirs. I'm unsecured back here, and Spike just grew his wings a while ago, so he's new at this. And yes, I'm serious: most dragons don't have their wings at birth; they grow them later. Now quit chatting and let's go!”

The other pegasus made the circle motion, and both took off, with Rainbow and Spike close behind.

“Whoooooooooooaaaaaaa! Rainbow, slow down!”

“No, you mean, ‘speed up!’” Rainbow shouted back.

“Whoooooooooooaaaaaaa!” There was a pause. “What the…”

Twilight giggled as she watched. They were already a few hundred meters over the ground, sailing through the night. Spike had his wings stretched out as far as they could go, and Rainbow was pulling him along just as she said. At the start, he tumbled over and over while hanging on to the rope for dear life. Then, Rainbow sped up, and he straightened out.

“Rainbow is right, Spike! You needed to speed up! If you're unstable, you lack lift, so you need more speed, more air going into and over your wings!”

“Whoa…” Spike lit up every bit as much as the foals from earlier. “Guys, I'm doing it! I'm flying!”

And one day, I'll join you, Spike. Twilight tossed her mane over her shoulder and felt the tingle snake up her body as the cool night air took her in its caress. Until then, there's always the chariots.

“I don't believe it! I never even thought I'd get wings, and I'm flying!”

Rainbow pulled him off to the left, then right, letting him feel the turns. “It's something, ain't it? And it's all yours!”

“Whooooooooooo! Faster, Rainbow!”

“Oh, you want fast? I'll give you–”

Twilight shot a telekinetic bolt across Rainbow's muzzle. “No you won't! First time flyer, no stunts!”

Rainbow sighed. “Spoilsport.”

“My little brother, my mission, my responsibility. And he's still on medical leave to recover from growing those wings. No risky flying.”

“Okay, okay.” Rainbow banked to her left, slicing through the air like a knife. “I think I see the village, anyway. Adjust vector, three-forty mark three-hundred.”

The cart pegasi looked at each other. “What mark what? What's a mark?”

The Wonderbolt practically gagged. “Ugh. You guys wouldn't last ten minutes in Cloudsdale or Canterlot. Just, fly to the village.”

Onwards they flew under the stars, landing in the outskirts of a village of maybe a few hundred minotaurs. Small, rounded homes with decorative, swooping red frames dotted the area. Fire pits roared and crackled both in and outside the houses, seasoning the air with a salty smoke. Wind chimes jingled over many of the doorways, and denizens could be found carrying any variety of objects and goods from place to place. At the far end was a small train station.

“Look out below!” Rainbow tucked herself in underneath Spike as they landed, soaking the impact like a very squishy sponge. “Oof. Ow.

Twilight facehooved. “You could have just lowered him down. With the rope.”

“Yeah, but—ow, that's sore—where would the fun be in that?” Spike stood up and brushed the dust off his knees. “Besides, I'm fine.”

“Is Rainbow?”

“I think I need reinflation,” Rainbow wheezed.

“Suck it up, Dash. We still got work to do tonight.” Twilight helped her up, but was careful to be as not gentle about it as possible.

Ow.”

Twilight gave her a snark-infused slap on the back. How that was possible wasn't to be brought up. “Come on, the building we need should be that big one over there. Sirs, you can just leave our supplies next to it. We'll take care of it from there.”


“Hello?” Twilight asked, shouting into the dark hall. There was just enough light to see that it was big; certainly larger than a normal house. Her hoof stepped on a tool of some kind, which made the metal scrape across the wooden floor. “We're looking for Weaponmaster Blade Forge. My name is Twilight Sparkle; he's expecting us. Anyone here?”

A match scraped and lit, and a hand dipped it into a pipe. The figure puffed it a couple of times before standing, towering over the ponies every bit as easily as Celestia, if not more so. The fire behind him roared to life from nothing, twisting in a vortex and climbing up through the hole in the ceiling.

The light revealed the forge’s form, with stations and tools everywhere. There was a mess, but no lack of subtle organization, not to mention the soot leaving behind the stories of use.

“You have found him,” Forge half-mumbled from the pipe in his mouth. “So, you are the fabled Grand Mage. And you do not come alone. That is a complication.”

Twilight looked to Rainbow and Spike behind her. “How, exactly, is that a complication?”

“In order to create your new blade, I must speak to you alone.”

Why is everyone I meet all ‘I want to talk to you alone?’ Seriously, I'm the Grand Mage. I'm supposed to have guards! “Alright, fair enough. Spike, Rainbow? Step outside, please.” She gave them an extra glance meaning, “Stay in earshot.”

“Again? This is starting to get annoying.” Rainbow stuck out her tongue at the minotaur, and Spike followed suit before heading outside.

Twilight lit up her horn and cast a simple light spell, washing the darkness away to uncover the tan minotaurs coat and thick, black apron. “I don't like having conversations with creepers hiding in the shadows. If you want to talk to me, you'll treat me as an equal, not a foal asking permission from her teacher.”

Forge puffed his pipe. “Interesting. Celestia never mentioned such fire.”

“I've met a number of important figures over the past year. Those that approach me warmly I don't generally have a problem with. You, however, used theatrics in an attempt to intimidate me. It makes me wonder about your motives, and this is my way of evening the playing field.” Twilight brushed her mane to the other side with a hoof. “What did you need me alone for?”

“She never mentioned fire, but she did mention insight. Well done.” He stepped over to one of the forges and lifted out a well worn, beaten up hammer. Ashes and embers wafted away from its resting place, spreading yet more dust throughout the hall. “I was hoping to intimidate you so I can get a deep honesty to the reason why you seek a bonded blade, alicorn ascendant.”

The logs in the fire weren't the only things smoldering now. Twilight's vision burned only slightly hotter than the black fire waking at the tip of her horn.

“Do not be so worried, Lady Sparkle. Celestia had no choice but to tell me. I created your armor so that its greatest attribute would be adaptability, at Her Highness’ request. Without that, its bond with you would have broken upon your ascendancy, as it was created when you were only a unicorn.

“Now, however, anything I make for you must start as an alicorn’s weapon. Any attempt to create a bonded artifact expecting only unicorn magic would inevitably lead to a failure. Square peg, round hole.”

Twilight pulled the core out of her saddle bag. It shimmered brilliantly in the red light of the fire, twinkling in its clear crystalline form. “This is what you have to work with.”

Forge picked it up and eyeballed it, then held it up to the light like a prism while chewing on his pipe. “This is it? I'm not sure I can fashion a bonded blade out of such a dinky thing.”

“Princess Celestia asks that you give it your best effort, and accepts that it may not work out. You'll be paid the same fee, either way.”

He clamped onto it with tongs and plunged it into the flame, then turned it slowly to allow the fire to taste each facet. “And what do you request me to do?”

“I'm honestly not sure I trust you yet. Celestia does, but I would have appreciated it if you had been forthright from the start. Again, I ask you, why the theatrics? Why try to scare a pony you know is an alicorn?”

Forge held the crystal near a dry leaf on the dirt floor, setting it alight without touching it. “Good fire response.” He set the it aside in a bucket of wet sand, then emptied out his pipe.

“Mr. Forge?” Twilight pressed.

“I need to know, Lady Sparkle, why it is that you fight.”

Twilight raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

“I spoke clearly, I believe.” Forge plodded over on his heavy hooves to a locker, then opened it and pulled out a sword nearly as tall as he was. A yellow, triangular gem crackled with power in the hilt, though rust had feasted on the blade’s edge. “A bonded blade isn't a mere bauble like a mass-produced cored cannon. It is an extension of the will of its master, a soul welded onto the side of its chosen one. Its form is an expression of the desire of the one who wields it.

“So I say again, Lady Sparkle. Why is it that you fight? Why put yourself in danger? Surely there are ponies better suited for this core than a librarian whose heart is planted firmly in the soil of a small village. Why are you worthy?”

Twilight sat down with a smile. “I'm an alicorn ascendant and the Element of Magic. Protecting my ponies, and helping them thrive, is what I do. If I couldn't or didn't do that, it would be a violation of my existence.

“Being an alicorn isn't some mere title like a Duke or a Count. We are the collective desire of our ponies for leadership and protection, manifested through our magic. We are linked to them inexorably, fused with our nations.”

Forged smiled. “Celestia did not mention such eloquence. You will have your weapon to protect your ponies, provided this crystal proves sufficient. I'm still not certain if I can work with such a small one, but I will try. The only other thing I need from you is a sample of your magic.”

“And how do I do that?”

The Weaponsmaster clasped his hands on the gem, even as it burned him. A faint light rolled over his fingers. “Just hold still.”


“Bzzt.”

“Ow!”

Twilight grinned from Rainbow jumping out of her seat and into the air from her little static shock. It almost made the impossibly frizzy mane worth it.

“What the hay, Twilight? And, well, what the heck happened to you? You look like you just spent an hour in a clothes dryer.”

“Side effect of the bonded blade sampling process. He had to take a piece of my magic, and this,” she said, motioning to her ridiculous state, “was the result. Should go away on its own in a bit. It's really just static.”

More crackles paraded over her coat as Spike ran his hand over her back. “Freaky. This is what Celestia did when you were a filly?”

“Yup.” Twilight sat down on the log next to them and warmed her fetlocks by the roaring campfire. Various minotaurs were around, though none within direct earshot. Most were doing various chores, and more than a few were tending to vegetables on grills well enough to make her mouth water. Regardless, she put up a muffling shield. “Although, apparently it was Weaponsmaster Forge that made my torc, Aurora. The Princess just took the sample for it. At first I thought it a little creepy, but now I understand. She was planning ahead.

“As it all actually happened, I got to keep my foalhood and even most of my young adulthood. But if the threats became too great, she could have given Aurora to me earlier. It was a smart hedging of a bet, really.”

“If you say so. Your body, after all.” Rainbow’s stomach growled loud enough to scare some of the timber wolves in the distant forest. “How much do you think I'd have to pay these guys to get some of what they're making?”

“Did you want some?” A female minotaur asked while stepping over to them. “Sorry if I startled you. I could hear your stomach from over there, even through the shield. My name is Valley Forge, I'm Blade Forge’s daughter and apprentice.”

“Yes, please.” Spike and Rainbow both said the instant Twilight dropped the shield.

Twilight had more restraint, though only just. “So long as it isn't a trouble, Ms. Forge. “

Valley sat on her knees, wiping her hands on her heavy gray apron. “Not at all! Especially since you represent our best client.” She waved at one of the other minotaurs, then pointed at the trio. “Rumour has it that you're ordering a bonded artifact. I hope my father lets me help. We haven't had many orders for those lately, and without practice, I'll never learn how to make them myself.”

“I can't comment on it too much, I'm afraid. But I do hope you get that experience. It should be a challenging order regardless.” Twilight gave her a wink.

“I'm glad! Nothing ventured, nothing gained, after all!”

A large number of minotaurs began to gather nearby, eventually crowding around the fire with the two ponies and dragon. Food and beer soon followed, the former of which was simple fare, yet was also more delicious than grilled vegetables had any right to be.

Twilight and Rainbow both scarfed down a disproportionately large amount in record time, and on each plate, butter, lemon, and seasoning tangoed with the freshest of fare all the way down their stomachs. The lagers only seemed to add to the mix, playing the accompanying music for their taste buds.

Spike was more reserved, but that was more likely due to his different taste buds, and it was not lost on their hostess.

“Spike, was it?” Valley held up a tray of something just below her ample bosom. “I've heard that cores are a delicacy for dragons. If you like, I have some here you can have.”

“Whoa! Really?!” Spike shot up to his feet and grabbed the tray, which was filled with blackened, varied gems. Most of them were small, but nonetheless valuable.

“That's quite generous of you, Ms. Forge.” Twilight yanked on Spike's tail. “Are you sure it's not a bother? That can't be a small amount there. It has to be worth a fortune.”

“Nah, they're all broken.” Valley held one up to her eye, turning it until a large crack shown. “We make a lot of custom cored weapons here, and apprentices break a lot of them before we really learn our stuff. Once they're this damaged, there's not much to do but to either grind them into powder or throw them out. But if Spike would like them, I see no reason not to share!”

Twilight let go of Spike, who immediately went to town on the pile of crystals. “In that case, I don't see why not either. Celestia did say he needed to have an exceptionally healthy diet for a while, and for him, that means gems.”

“Lots and lots of gems!” Spike said in between chews.

“It does not mean a lack of manners, young drake.” Twilight pulled the tray away and held it aloft with her magic. “Chew, swallow, and thank our host.”

A few tremendous chews later, and Spike bowed to the ground. “Thank you very much for your hospitality!”

“That's be–”

“Can I eat now?”

“Hugh.” Twilight rolled her eyes and gave in, giving him back the tray. “I am sorry for him, Ms. Forge.”

Valley just laughed. “Oh, it's quite alright. We aren't so formal here. Everyone knows everyone else, after all. And please, call me Valley.”

“Okay then, Valley.” Twilight tilted to the side to peek around her, watching as other minotaurs were setting up large bales of hay to her far left and right. “Do you mind if I ask what's going on?”

“Not at all! We're about to have our evening fights.”

“Fights?” Rainbow asked during her two second break between mouthfuls of food and lager. “What kind of fights?”

“Well, each of us tends to specialize in a particular kind of weapon and/or armor.” Valley pointed to a rack of gauntlets being brought in. “But to understand how best to make them, we have to know how best to use them. So, each night one class of armament makers will spar with our latest versions to figure out how to make them better.

“No one ever dies, though we can get hurt, but that's just part of the job. We train in both fighting and forging. At least, those of us who make weapons and armor, which is most of us. But we still have farmers, cooks, and several other professions, too. They don't fight very much, but we all work out with our martial arts. Would you like to watch?”

Twilight glanced up at the stars and moon, tracing its position in the sky. “We still have a couple hours before the train gets here, so I don't see why not.”

Dinner passed quickly, with minotaurs forming small groups on blankets rather than gathering in one big table like gryphons. A few either ate beforehand or skipped it altogether while warming up with various forms of fighting practice.

When it came time for the fights, a single black minotaur took center stage, while many others of both genders lined up on either side. Somewhere off in the distance, a gong resounded throughout the valley, and another minotaur jumped in to the challenge.

He came in with a furious, fast downward lunge, only to be blocked by the first. A flurry of punches slammed into the attacker, each with an extra blast of magic from the gauntlets that sounded less like armor plating and more like cored cannons. Every punch knocked the attacker a few more inches into the air, until a kick cleared him out of the area.

There was no announcement of a winner, nor break in the action. Another minotaur, seemingly at random, just lept into the fray. She, too, led with punches, but hers were faster, either slapping away attempts to block or weaving around them altogether. Several hits connected.

The male fought through the pain, ignoring it all and delivering a single, powerful hit of his own to her mid-chest, just under her breasts. She lifted off the ground, only to have the male slam her down on her back, sending her to the ground.

A third challenger, also female, hit the so far champion before he could even turn around, cracking him on the forehead with two fists merged into one from the magic from the gauntlets. A swing and a second hit knocked him back, followed by the separation of the fused gauntlets and another pair of hits.

The challenger then grabbed the champion by the wrist, spinning him around so his back was exposed. An uppercut lifted him clear off the ground, after which the female kept up the pressure to flip him over her head like a chef flipped a pancake, albeit with far more pain upon impact.

The fight continued thus, with each new succeeding champion instantly faced by a challenger, until one stood victorious, after which it all started again in seconds.

“Hey, Twilight?” Spike poked her in the leg. “Could I ask a favour?”

Twilight swallowed her piece of grilled pepper. “What is it?”

Spike twiddled his fingers around and looked away from her gaze. “I… I want to stay here. While you're on your mission.”

Twilight blinked. “Why? I'm sure we can have the discarded cores delivered.”

Spike sighed. “It's not that, Twilight. I want to stay because they can actually teach me how to fight!”

“Um, Spike, you were there with me when Luna put us through the wringer. She taught us already.”

Spike shook his head. “She doesn't know how to fight like they do.”

Rainbow almost squirted beer out her nostrils. “Yeah, right. No offense to these guys, but Luna's an alicorn. She'd mop the floor with all of them.”

“That's not what I mean! Just, well, look at me!” Spike stood up, motioning to his body. “I'm a biped! So are they! They know how to fight on two legs! Luna's powerful but she's got no clue what it's like for me. They could teach me to really fight like I should be as a bipedal dragon. Please, Twilight. If nothing else, it'll make it so I can protect myself better!”

“I don't know…” Twilight's stomach twisted into a knot, but not from the food. “I'm supposed to care for you. What happens if you get hurt? Celestia said you're weaker than normal right now, and these guys play rough.”

“Not really.” Valley put her ears down when they looked at her. “Sorry, couldn't help but overhear. And training is different from fighting. I'm sure he could find someone here to train him without hurting him, and these sparring matches are for weaponsmiths. Sparring in training is far less brutal.”

Twilight's mind and tongue waged a war over what to say, drawing to a stalemate. “I still just don't know. It still seems too risky.”

“What if I ask Celestia first?” Spike pulled out a piece of paper and a pen. “She's gotta know about this place, and knows what I can and cannot handle. If she says no, I'll go home, no argument.”

The battle over words waged on in Twilight, but this time, logic overpowered everything. “Okay, that's fair. And we are in range of a leyline, so you can get help quickly if need be. But don't strain yourself, and update Celestia every day with what you're doing. Every exercise. If she says don't do something, I don't care what wisdom they try to impart to you here, you listen to the Princess. She knows more about dragons than everypony else combined. Clear?”

“Crystal!” Spike saluted.

Twilight dragged him into a big hug. “And don't you dare get drunk here. You do and I'll make you regret it.”

“You got it. I love you, big sis.”

“I love you, too, little bro.”

Author's Note:

Just made it in time for April. Moving is almost complete so hopefully May won't be as crazy.

There may be significant edits made to this chapter post-release, though the basic story will remain the same. Things have been so nuts lately it's probable that I screwed up big in this chapter on something. Well, here goes nothing.

Thanks again for reading, and enjoy! :)

-Cv

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