• Published 25th Aug 2018
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Sol Dilemma - Andromidus



They all say we have a destiny among the stars. Sometimes, some destinies are just more literal than others.

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Chapter 3 - "A Solar Battery"

Sol Dilemma - Chapter 3

“A Solar Battery”

“I've picked up a ghost distress signal nearby.”

Valia perked up, posture straightening out. “Distress signal? Did they say what for?”

“Ye… no. I'm not sure if they omitted something… or it's because of the darkness in the area interfering with the message.” Data activated the transmat, an orange and white sparrow materializing. “Either way… we should go check it out.”

“Can it wait? I think I can still salvage this data file…” she responded, hands hovering carefully above the ancient server rack. It hung precariously over the edge, tethered to the ground by a thick, heavily frayed cable. If they had gotten here any later, the thing might have already vanished into the chasm below. She took a deep breath and stuck her hand in. With the precision of a trained surgeon, Valia unhooked the disk from the slot and pulled it out.

The warlock sighed and digitized the file for safety. It vanished in a swarm of white particles, depositing itself into her inventory. There was a loud creaking noise of bending metal, and the snapping of wires. With her instincts flaring, she leaped backward, away from the edge.

Looking up, she got to witness the server and some tiles suddenly drop over the edge. She held a hand to the ground, in anticipation of a larger collapse. When none came, cautiously, she approached the edge, meticulously closing in as to not to disturb the floor. As her hand gripped the floor for leverage, she peered over. She whispered a swear as she looked at the now suspended server rack. It was angled sideways by a rusted girder and four very resilient wires. That also meant the external access side was now…

This actually became impossible, I can’t get this out in time… the Tower is too far… those cords can’t hold it for long… She hissed in her head. Her ghost was too chunky to move into the rack to pull it out. Speaking of dead people…

Data stared at the precariously hanging object. “Ah, that was pretty close. Are you alright?”

“Fine. I can come back, but the hardware can’t,” she replied. “And it looks like I'll have to make do with what I got… trying to go to it now only looks like wasted effort.”

“Perhaps if we had a hunter… they are pretty nimble,” Data muttered.

“Maybe. I should've asked around for a hand.” Valia dusted her robes off, before walking to the parked sparrow. Wrapping her hands around the handle, she gently guided it outside. The mountainous region here was desolate, and crawling with Fallen, but had a treasure trove of golden age things if you knew where to look. “Who’s here anyway? Why would someone be out this far? There’s almost nothing here.”

“Not sure. But we’ll see in a couple of moments.”

The Himalayan mountain range was a name mostly forgotten, lost like so many others in the Collapse. When Valia had seen what it looked like in those better times, she vehemently agreed with the other warlocks that the name coined during the dark age would stick. That mountain range was beautiful, but this…? Calling them by the same name would be a mockery.

So it went down in the books as, “Skyrend”. A most fitting name. Characterized by the six ugly scars that ran themselves down the entirety of the mountain, it was as if the sky had been sheared into and gutted.

It was a popular theory among the warlocks that there was a golden-age experimental power facility embedded deep within the mountains. They suspected it had to do something with geothermal energy. Valia was here today to prove that theory. She was hoping the disk she found would be enough to support the claim. It was already looking good solely from the fact that there was a place in the mountain to even salvage something from.

As the pair exited the from the dilapidated entrance, the warlock ignited her hoverbike. Data vanished into Valia’s head as the start of the sparrow engines kicked up the dirt and snow. They thundered down across the mountain road, swerving around boulders and dangerous gaps in the path.

Valia frowned as she noticed the obvious missing space where part of the road was half an hour ago. Cracking her neck, the warlock revved the engine and activated the boosters. The space between them was closing now, the end growing ever closer. She squeezed the handles tighter and practically threw her body backward.

Angled up, they shot across the divide, trailing snow behind them. Valia landed on the other side with a grunt, sparrow dipping further than she was prepared for. “How much farther until we reach the signal!?” she called out, wind muffling her question.

Data murmured to himself in her head. “Maybe about three-hundred to… uh… the signal’s moved.” Valia could feel the look of confusion. “Two-hundred meters… northwest. I think something is going down, we need to hurry!”

“Understood!” She shouted, pulling back on the handles and shifting her weight to the right, creating a cloud of snow with her sharp maneuver. The engines roared from the stunt, close enough that they were melting the ice beneath. “Have Huntsman’s Sigil at the ready!”

As she catapulted herself in another direction, the wind whipped around her and her robes caught the air almost heroically.

Around a ridge, a Fallen Skiff came into view, jammed into a crevice. Valia left a steady grip on the left handle and raised her right hand.

An elegant steel rifle with wooden furniture flashed into existence, with intricately carved animals adorning the sides of the gun. She smiled as the metal reflected the sparrow exhaust beautifully, and aimed her favorite scout rifle’s reticle to head level. One unfortunate Dreg had the luck to be the first in her sights.

Three echoing cracks, and one violent removal of a head.

The now skull-less Dreg slumped to the floor, dead. A surprised captain and three of his subordinates approached the scene of their deceased comrade, weapons raised. Valia licked her chops and jumped off the sparrow. Her rifle pointed at the secondary fuel tank..

The Fallen never saw it coming.

Four mangled corpses, left in a glimmer fueled fire, the metal twisting and turning, distorting beyond recognizability.

It still had yet to breach through emergency primary fuel shell.

THOOM.

The chasm shook, displacing years of built-up snow and ice. Valia howled a swear and summoned a rudimentary towering barricade. It flickered constantly, a testament to her inexperience in using titan-styled light spells. “Brace yourself!” she screamed, as the mass tumbled into the clearing where the Fallen transport sat. The skiff was swept away in a frozen river, disappearing in a cloud of white, swallowed by the earth.

Debris slammed against the towering barricade, each impact sending ripples around its structure. Cracks splintered around it, threatening to give out at any moment. Unlike a titan’s true barricade, she had no way of telling whether or not her spell would give. All she could really do at this point was hope and pray.

The ground continued to rumble for another minute or so before the avalanche ran out of fuel. Sloppily getting to her feet, she stared at the expansive white before her. “So. Where's the signal now? Don't tell me they got swept away in all of that!”

Data hummed, as he examined the directions. “Hah… well, we don't have to go searching for them, but we did bury the location…”

“Damnit, why didn't you tell me?” she responded, holstering her rifle. Just like the disk, it too vanished in a shower of lights.

“You didn't give me a chance to,” he coughed.

Valia frowned. “Right. It shouldn't be too hard to dig them out.” She aimed her right palm at the snow. “Where are they?”

“Moment,” he chirped. Floating over to a small mound in the snow. “A little to the left here. I'll ping a marker for you.” A small red blip appeared underneath the ghost.

Valia channeled the solar light through her body and into the fulcrum: her palm. It coalesced into a beam of intense heat, melting everything in its path. Soon enough, a dripping tunnel of ice had been carved through, revealing a superheated steel door. The warlock curled her fingers in but kept the lower palm free of obstruction. Hand flush with the weakened metal, she forced light into her strike.

The metal bent inward and exploded, showering bits and pieces along with some sparks into the room. There was now an opening into the underground facility—albeit a tight fit. A second light-infused jab would fix that. Smoke curled around the entrance as Valia ducked her way inside.

“D-Don't come any further! I've… I've got a… ah… a gun and… and I'm not afraid to use it!” A shrill voice cried, shaking uncontrollably.

Valia rolled her eyes. “Relax. We took care of your little Fallen problem. They shouldn’t be bothering you two anymore.” She looked around at the old hallway. “Unless there are other pairs here…?”

The honey-yellow ghost floated down, shell shaking for a negative. “I… I’m the only one here… I’m actually… lookingformyguardianhereandIdidn’tmeantogetintosomuchtrouble!” She belted off, words incomprehensible.

Data buzzed. “I only caught, ‘looking’, and ‘trouble’, from all of that. Calm down, we’re all on the same side here.”

“I don’t really want to say it again…” she mumbled, hovering above a shelf. “It’s embarrassing.”

“You’re ashamed to not have found a Guardian sooner, correct?” Data queried.

The unnamed ghost sputtered. “W… What!? How did you guess!?”

Data chuckled and bumped a spine reassuringly on his fellow ghost. “All of us ghosts go through the same thing. It takes time to find the right match.”

“R-Really!? Oh. Phew. I honestly thought I was a worthless ghost. Especially since…” she admitted. “Since I almost got captured.”

Valia clicked her tongue. “That's said and done.” She ran a hand against a piece of cooled metal. “Why were you here?”

“I was pretty sure I found my Guardian! But I think I must've tripped some Fallen alerts and brought them here.” She zoomed over to a glowing console. “I've been trying to unlock this for some time now. I probably would have opened it, if they didn't show up to try and take me. I kinda started panicking… and locked myself out.”

Valia followed to look at her work. The screen displayed a red-maroon lock and an error message, saying to call for a technician or to wait a couple of hours to try again. She glanced at the side of the computer and smiled. This terminal had a maintenance panel that she knew how to abuse. Summoning a drill, she began unscrewing.

“Ah. Well, while she does that, I'll call for our jumpship to extract you two once you're done bonding,” Data said idly, reminiscing about past times. “Most recently resurrected Guardians perish on the journey to the Last City. Or the ghosts fall before they can accomplish their task. You were lucky we were here…” Data narrowed his one eye. “We didn't properly introduce ourselves, did we?”

The honey-yellow ghost smiled sheepishly. “O-Oh. I'm Amber.”

The warlock hiked a finger to herself, still splicing wires. “Valia Nore, and that’s Data.” The ghost did a bow to the best of his ability. “Pleasure to meet you… and… you’re welcome.”

The screen flickered to an opened green lock and the door beside it hissed, gas escaping from the millennium-old confines. Valia flicked her eyes to the information displayed on the computer. “So your Guardian’s in there? How're you sure it's the real deal?”

“Mhm. I know it… in my… er… processors? I've got a feeling. That's all I can really say.”

Valia nodded and silently read off the monitor. Caz Jo’arren. 26. M. Volunteer subject thirty-six. Cryo-chamber status: error. She watched the vault-like door crank open. Something rushed out and began the buildup of a warm feeling in her. It was unlike any fire she had ever guided.

She watched Amber hover over a shriveled, mummified corpse.

There was no anger.

Her shell disengaged and opened up.

No familiar hatred that could melt steel.

Brilliant light began to flood the small room, whirling around the room, something one could relate to a small tornado. She gasped and kneeled over, buckling from the raw power that was being exerted. As she sat on her knees, there was only one intense feeling that swirled inside of her: hope.

The light at the end of the tunnel.

The next sunrise after a long night.

She was about to witness the birth of a Guardian.


I flailed awake, gasping for air.

What…? What happened? I thought, eyes slowly adjusting to the brightness of wherever I was. I gently rubbed my eyes to wash away the weariness of sleep. When did I fall asleep? I tapped a hoof to my forehead, as I felt the dissipating effects of the sleep headache I had grown accustomed to.

As that faded away, I flopped flat onto my resting surface.

Even if I was pseudo-blind at the moment, I was certain I wasn’t sleeping in my home. The biggest takeaway being the bedsheet and the blanket, which were considerably starched and very uncomfortable. Mom abhorred things like that. If it wasn’t sufficiently fluffy or basically on the level of a pegasi cloud bed, it was back into the wash with fabric softener. And sure, that meant waiting extra long for laundry to finish, but I think it was well worth the wait.

I stretched my sore limbs out. Why am I so sore? Scratch that, why is it so bright? Wasn't it late afternoon… during… during… oh no… With a whip of my head, I sent the blanket flying off, and I scrambled out of the bed. However, my little stunt caused me to catch a hoof on the falling fabric and change my trajectory to that of the shiny linoleum floor.

I groaned, rubbing my snout as I used the side of the bed to prop myself up. My sleep induced haze had cleared up, most likely from the shock of smacking headfirst into the floor.

I squeezed my eyelids shut one last time, and stared at the place to where I had… been taken to. It was a clean white room, simply decorated with some color. There were two chairs and a small couch, along with… with an unused crystal monitor on a stand…

There was a curtain half-drawn around the bed…

The windows used hard plastic blinds…

The smell of medicine and antibiotics hung in the air.

I'm in a hospital. I blinked. Who… no… what am I doing here? Why can't I remember anything? What happened back at the CSGU? I froze. No… nononononono! Don't tell me I caused an accident and failed!

I heard the doorknob twisting, and before I could react, a pony stepped in.

She had a clean white coat, and flowy pink hair, tied into a bun. On top of that, she wore a nurse cap. “Oh. I was wondering when you would wake up. Your mother has been very worried about you. Also gave the doctor a fright when you wouldn't rouse, either,” she chuckled. She unhooked a clipboard from a nearby wall. “Do you still have any lingering effects? Headaches? Hornaches? Burning sensations?”

“I… uhm… no…” I pat myself down. “I feel… okay.”

“That’s great,” she murmured. “You have a couple of visitors coming soon, so I suggest you freshen up.” She pointed a hoof to a door. “That’s the bathroom if you don’t already know. Do you happen to need any help?”

“N-No. I can do it on my own… thank you… though,” I stammered out. She nodded and hooked the board back onto its original place.

She left without another word.

I glanced at the words written on the paper. Sunny Skies, it read. I guess she really isn’t one for conversation. I sighed and made my way to the bathroom. I could really use a shower or something.

I turned it on.

I jerked back in realization for my mistake at setting it to cold, only to tilt my head in confusion as the supposedly “cold” water pelted against my coat. It felt relatively cold, but I wasn’t bothered by the temperature.

At all.

This is weird. I turned the handle further up to test. In gradual increments, I kept turning the heat. Eventually, it reached the point where I was pretty sure a pony would be boiled alive if they stepped into the shower. The steam was visible as it rose into the air.

Strangely enough, it still felt as pleasing as any hot shower would be. I hovered a hoof over the knob, before deciding on turning it back to normal. As nice as this was, I didn't want to end up tripping over myself because there was so much steam.

Grabbing a bottle of shampoo in my magic out of reflex, I gasped as it almost flew out of my grip. The aura that surrounded it was… broken. It flickered and crackled, failing to form a uniform shape strong enough to make a proper hold.

Then it exploded, sending magical sparks around me. The bottle clattered to the floor, and I slammed onto the floor.

Groaning, I elected to instead use my hooves to clean up.

After that hiccup, I shook my body to dry it as best as I could and tentatively stepped out of the shower. There was a neatly folded stack of towels sitting on a rack. I took one and finished what my shake couldn't do.

I made an embarrassingly sloppy fold and placed the wet fabric next to the stack. Waiting patiently on the other side happened to be my mom in full armor, sans helmet, which hung off of her side. Bags hung under her eyes, which looked pink. A sign of sleep deprivation. There was another pony behind her… and I had to crane my neck up to…

Sweet Celestia, it’s Princess Celestia! My mouth hung open, and I began shaking in fear. Don't tell me the event I can't remember was enough to warrant the Princess’ attention! I turned to look at mom, still holding the droopy, tired expression. Did she miss sleep because she was defending me!? IS THE PRINCESS HERE TO TAKE ME AWAY!?

“Guard Cascade, I think I broke your daughter,” she giggled.

Mom just sighed. “...hey squirt. How ‘ya doin’?” she asked, trotting over to me and giving me a tight hug. “I should've been there with you. Helped curb the outburst before it got out of control.”

“I had another outburst? Is that why I can barely remember what happened yesterday?” I questioned quietly, returning her embrace. I looked to the princess, who smiled back at me. “I… I didn't do anything bad… did I? I didn't hurt anypony, right?”

“Besides nearly giving me a heart attack? No.” Mom had an amused look. “Well, you did also reduce an entire hallway to molten slag.”

“I… WHAT!?” I screeched. “I'm… in trouble aren't I? That's why the Princess is here, to take me away? I don't want to go to the dungeon, Mom!”

To my surprise, her royal highness was the first to laugh. “Hahahaha! What an active imagination, my little pony. The damage done to that part of the school was superficial. Honestly? Nothing but a little bit of magic and construction work, and it shall be like nothing ever occurred.”

“I'm not getting sent to the dungeon for annihilating public property?”

“Of course not! If we had to arrest a pony for doing that, we’d be up to our horns corralling foals,” Mom cut in. “And I'm pretty sure Princess Twilight would be in there for life, with all the damage she’s caused.”

“There is no need for worry, either. I abolished the dungeons almost eight-hundred years ago. I decided to replace them with rehabilitation centers so that we could help criminals change. The prisons did not exactly create the best atmosphere for that.” Her highness’s smile deepened. “I wonder why modern ponies still believe in them. Certainly confused my sister when she first came back…”

“I… really?” They both nodded. “Th-Then, if you don't mind me asking…” I turned to face the diarch, “Princess Celestia, what… um… are you doing here?”

She tapped a hoof to her chin. “Yes, I do wonder that as well. Perhaps—”

Mom coughed into her fetlock. “Princess.”

“Bah. You guards are no fun.” She sat on her haunches and tapped her forehooves together. A gilded scroll flashed into the open frog of her hoof, balanced perfectly on its side. Her horn lit up and a spellblade sliced through the wax seal. Mom raised a brow but said nothing, as she watched her unfurl the paper.

The princess mumbled some words, eyes quickly scanning over the contents. She smiled and curled it up. She presented it to me. “I prefer to see their reactions when they read this.” She said to my mom, who looked even more perplexed.

I carefully grabbed the scroll and opened it up. Deep breaths. In fancy golden letters, it read:

Greetings, Sol Dilemma.

I, the solar diarch of Equestria, Princess Celestia, have chosen you for one of the most prestigious positions available to a pony.

I do wish that the selection was done on mostly merit, but I can safely reaffirm that if that was so, you would qualify.

Instead, I have chosen you for your affinity, a connection to an element which I once thought impossible, disproven only by myself truly.

Know that I am not mistaken. A long time ago, I once found another who I surmised could do the same as you. I spent years cultivating her abilities and training her mind to attempt to draw it out. She was capable of great feats, but not the one I had been hoping for.

It also appeared that she had been led astray by my way, and she succumbed to darker desires. I shamefully admit that this would remain a black mark on my memory and my ability as a teacher. To which I vowed never to fail another, just like I did her.

Why would I be telling you this?

I believe for this position I am about to offer you, it should be built upon strong foundation, and secrets such as this—that could jeopardize the relationship I intend to encourage—I do not intend to keep. At least, not any longer.

A recent student of mine taught me that.

But I digress.

After the event of my fallen student, I vehemently believed I would never find a pony who could channel the same energy I could.

But now, it seems I was proven so very wrong in believing no other living creature could control the wrathful nature of the solar flames.

You are a smart pony, Dilemma, and I'm sure you've been able to piece it together.

I would like to ask you to be my personal student.

I looked up from the letter, mouth agape. I was opening and closing in an attempt to form words or any intelligent thoughts. “Uh… muh… wha… huh?”

I was feeling light-headed for some reason. Maybe I should just… sleep it off. I would probably think better after a good nap.

Yeah.

The last thing I witnessed was the princess saying, “Hm. I expected a different reaction.”

“I'm quite excited! Up until this point, I never really had anypony to relate with,” Princess Twilight said. “The only other student… er, tried to enslave a school.”

I think she might've noticed my bewildered expression because she immediately followed up with a reassurance.

“Hah, well, um, we’re on better terms now. Our talks get… progressively less awkward, that’s for sure.”

“Twi, she hasn't said anything for the past half-hour,” Spike pointed out. “You dominated basically the entire conversation—if we can still call it that—and rattled off on tangents. Plus, I'm pretty sure she’s acting like the way you did to Celestia back when you were her student.”

“W-What? Why didn't you stop me?”

He shrugged. “It was informative. I also thought it was kind of funny.”

“Spike!”

“What? You say some silly things even I didn’t know!” he retorted, arms spread defensively. “And I’ve lived with you for all my life! I know a thing or two.”

She sighed and shook her head. “I… nevermind.” She turned to face me. “So… aha… I apologize for that.” Princess Twilight did a double take. “Wait, you see me like that?”

“I… yes… you’re a princess. Mom always told me to respect the royalty,” I automatically responded.

Twilight nodded in understanding. “But that's fine. We’re a part of an exclusive club made of three ponies! That has to count for something, Dilemma.”

I tilted my head in confusion. “You’re still a princess, Princess.”

Spike laughed. “We can work on that later, Twi. For now, let’s show her her new place!” He stopped at the foot of the long flight of stairs and frowned. “Forgot about that. Twilight, why couldn’t we have had an elevator installed?”

“To quote a great pony: ‘Stairs are great. Stairs build character. Stairs are the steps upon which we have built our great civilizations. I really like stairs.’ I believe he was named Sombrero or something. Strange that I can’t remember.”

Spike huffed. “I think this ‘Sombrero’ should rethink his stance on stairs.” He followed the curve around the tower. “I hate stairs. They’re dumb.” The dragon complained the whole way up the flight, airing his grievances about stairs. I think I agreed with his sentiments. How did Princess Twilight do this every day!?

We reached the top, where both Spike and I let out a sigh of sweet relief. Princess Twilight, on the other hoof, rolled her eyes and loudly exhaled. “It wasn’t that bad.”

“Pfft. Whatever. Let’s just see what Celestia did to spruce up our ol’ abode!” he cheered, shoving the doors wide open. He gawked. “Okay. I was… huh. She worked fast.”

The room was round in design, surrounding a circular bed situated in the middle. A curved desk walled off most of the bedside, leaving a small portion open to climbing into the bed itself. Empty shelves lined most of the walls that didn’t already have a window or painting. Potted plants that complemented the accent perfectly were selectively dotted alongside the decor.

Even a coat of arms hung above the entrance.

But really, the most jarring thing was how modern everything looked.

The scene change from Canterlot Castle to high rise suite in Manehattan was pulled off so beautifully.

Spike whistled, “Moondancer should seriously regret giving this place up. It looks so… sleek. I think I prefer this to the castle, Twi.” He turned to face me, silly grin on his snout. “Do you need a number-one assistant, perchance?”

Princess Twilight gave him a light bop on the spine. “Oh, hush. Don’t bother her about this.”

He laughed and shrugged. “Offer’s still on the table, Dilemma, if you wanna take it. In the meantime, I’m going to go check upstairs. I wanna see how much Celestia changed.” He jogged to a transparent crystal staircase, mumbled something about stairs, and ran up. Twilight looked amused and began following him.

I was now sorta-alone in the room.

“I can’t believe all this happened because I was so worried about being magically inept.” I slipped out. I brushed a fetlock along the silky sheet. “I wonder how Princess Celestia is going to react when she learns I struggle with basic levitation.”

“You’re struggling with basic levitation?” A certain alicorn asked. My snout soured immediately as I spun to face a confused purple pony. “But… I saw what happened… no, felt what happened back at the school that day!”

“Princess Twilight!? I thought you were checking something upstairs?” I struggled out.

She began approaching. “Yes, just only to make sure Spike was behaving. He can get overexcited about new things.” She shook her head. “Enough about that. What did you mean earlier?”

If I feigned, would that work? No… not really. Princess Twilight is far from stupid. I wilted. “I… mean what I said. I haven’t been able to do any magic.”

She pursed her lips and paused. “Any magic? That doesn’t make sense. You were overflowing with it… and…” She lit her horn, a casting circle forming around her. Sigils lifted up and burned the same color as her aura. Her eyes became wider than I thought could be possible. “You… you don’t have any magic in you? That shouldn’t even be possible… I…”

With a crack of lightning and a flash of light, Princess Twilight vanished as she completed a quick-teleport spell.

Spike also happened to be coming down at the same time, holding a book. “Hey Twi, I just found your—” The sudden change in brightness caused him to hold up a claw to protect his eyes. However, that also meant turning his attention elsewhere for a split second.

And in that split second, he missed a step.

I watched him painfully tumble off the stairs, expressing his immense hatred with each impact on the ground. “Spike… are you okay?” I questioned. I trotted over to him, picking up the dropped book. I hoofed it back to him.

He took it back with a swipe of his claw. “I hate stairs so much.” He dusted himself off and fixed a small crease on the page. “I’m going to petition to the princesses to install elevators.”

I laughed just as another teleportation spell snapped behind us. This time, instead of just Princess Twilight, a concerned looking solar diarch had accompanied her. “Twilight tells me you don’t have any magic running through you… I trust my fellow princess but…”

She cast another thaumic observation spell.

And she received the same exact outcome.

“I couldn’t believe it either. A pony running without any magic in them… that doesn’t happen unless…”

Spike finished it for her, “Unless they’re dead, right?”

Princess Celestia nodded, “Yes, that should be the case, but I can feel the life force flowing through Dilemma.” She hummed to herself as she paced around me. “Maybe if I tried something…”

I felt the same spell used again for the third time. The difference being this time, instead of casting it, the Princess expanded her circle and began dissecting the internals. Twilight moved closer and began inspecting her work.

I watched as magic was ripped out of the frame and replaced with strange… fiery substitutes. Those seemed to be out of place, as they failed to properly conform to the spell’s confines. What is the Princess doing…? They writhed like tentacles, whipping out. Princess Twilight even backed off a little bit, certainly surprised by the erratic nature.

Then the princess aimed it at me.

The crackle of energy and beam of light was certainly enough to scare me. I yelped and instinctively tried to dodge out of the way, but I stopped in my tracks when a familiar aura surrounded me and held my body down. Struck by the spell, I hissed. It wasn’t uncomfortable but felt particularly intrusive as it searched.

Strangely enough, I even started to float off the ground.

It continued this way for ten more minutes, as I shifted in irritation. Eventually, the spell wavered and I was dropped to the floor, exhaling a sigh of relief on my descent.

I rubbed a sore spot on my side and looked up to see a speechless Princess Celestia. “I… I thought—that can’t be—it should be…” She held a hoof to her chest and took a deep inhale. As she breathed out, she bowed her head. “Impossible.”

“Celestia? Wh-What’s impossible?” Princess Twilight said as she placed a fetlock on her fellow’s shoulder.

“I considered it.” Her eyes looked back down to me. “I considered it, for just the briefest of moments… when I first saw Sol Dilemma… that it could be.”

“Be what?”

“That the magic that flows through her… is closer to mine than I ever thought it was.” She shifted to face the smaller princess. “I never taught you about this because I simply thought it irrelevant. There are multiple classifications and divisions in magic,” – Twilight whipped out a small notebook and quill – “spanning various trees and schools. However, magic itself on the otherhoof can be divided into two. Into modern magic, and primal magic.”

“Modern magic—or simply magic—is what we frequently use these days. Magic is conforming, obeying structure and law, calculable through math. It can be easily molded into a rigid constitution and utilized most effectively that way. Plainly said, it is predictable.” She raised a hoof and an orb of light dropped on top of it. She sat down and raised her other foreleg, summoning a ball of flames. “The same cannot be said about primal magic. It can be erratic, unpredictable, and most importantly, relies solely on thought and will. Most creatures have a level of primal magic in them, but it is often so negligible, most do not notice.”

She conjured an image of two famous ponies, the element of honesty and the element of kindness: Applejack and Fluttershy. “Interestingly enough, earth ponies and pegasi display levels of primal magic. They are minor things, such as an increased connection with the earth, or assistance with flight and the weather.” She paused. “Unicorns seem to lack that… special connection. Modern and primal abhor each other, and from what little research we do have, we know that modern magic won out in an evolutionary battle. If it was rare three millennia ago, it is almost non-existent now.”

“But what really seems to baffle those who search into the history of this magic, is how it managed to lose out. There was no reason for it to, it was certainly much more powerful than modern magic in raw strength. In all respects, it should have succeeded—yet here we are.”

Princess Twilight raised a hoof to catch everypony’s attention. “Is there any other material on this?”

The solar diarch giggled. “Of course Twilight. I must say, they’re quite thin and frail. Do be careful. You can find it in my chambers… on shelf three, I believe.”

She “eee’d” and warped away in a ball of smoke. Only to return seconds later, to grab an alarmed-looking drake from his seat on a pillow. “Sorry, need your help.” She nodded to us and disappeared once again.

“So is that why I couldn’t use my magic earlier?” I rubbed the underside of my barrel, getting a feel for my body. “I have primal magic?” I took a moment to think. “And that's overwriting my regular magic?”

The princess nodded in confirmation. “Yes. That would explain your lack of ability to use it. But, do not fret. Your gift of a primal power is nothing short of amazing… and to share the very same element as I? I would say my sister would be playing a trick on me.”

“Oh.” I had no idea how to respond to a compliment from the princess herself.

She lit her horn and unlocked the entrance. “I realize it's growing late, but if you would be fine with it, I would like to head to the training grounds together,” she announced. “Although, if you are feeling tired, there is no need to push yourself for my sake.”

I'm not feeling that tired. I had a nap in the early afternoon, after all! “I would love to!”

“Are you certain? It is completely understandable if you wish to rest. I am not trying to guilt you in any way,” she reassured. She stopped and looked to the ground, briefly mulling something over. “Let me try this. As your princess, I implore your next answer to be one of the heart, no lies.”

I briefly looked to the left, briefly considering lying to her. Before I squash that down faster than it came to mind. “Well… I’m sorta tired. But not tired enough that I'll tumble off to rest if I close my eyes.”

“Very well.” She stood up.

“We’re not going to teleport there?” I asked.

“It would certainly be faster, but I think you should get a feel for the castle.” She trotted to the door. “If I'm not mistaken, you were led directly to your room and nothing else?”

I gave my confirmation in a hesitant nod. “Princess Twilight did make a small detour to give me a brief overlook of the royal archive. Other than that, I only really know of the guard’s area… maybe the barracks? All because of my mother… being a guard and all.”

“Ah. I was hoping to have an excuse to spend extra time, but alas, I've been beaten to the punch.” She gave a quiet laugh, “I suppose we’ll just have to make the most of our time.” She walked to the edge of the top flight, craning her long neck back at me. I “oh’d!” and shot up to catch up with the princess.

“Is it safe to assume you want to test the extent of my magic at the training area?”

“Yes. I want to see what you can do, and where we should start from in your training and study,” Princess Celestia replied. She stared at the daunting walk back down the steps, and my obvious disdain for them. “You can ride on my back if you wish.”

My eyes widened and my mouth gaped further than I thought even possible. The princess had suggested something that baffled my young mind. Scratch that, would've baffled anyponys’ mind.

I returned her stare with an incredulous expression. Then she did something else that sent my image of her reeling off the rails. She snort-giggled in the most un-princessly manner. Which then broke out into full-belly laughter. I was at a loss for words. “Whaaaa…?”

“Oh my, you…! You remind me so much of Twilight back when she was my student! The resemblance is uncanny, it’s hilarious!” Her laughter was infectious, and I joined in with her soon enough. She wiped a tear from her eye, the remnants of our hysterics dying off. “I'm not all that different from the common pony, my student. I suppose my long life and position have seemed to elevate that to one of a goddess. I must tell you, I am far from one.”

“I-I mean… you’re—”

She stopped me there. “The princess of the sun? Co-ruler of Equestria? The dawnbringer? I have many titles, Sol Dilemma, but they are just titles. I am just an old mare with a lot of magic. It certainly took Twilight a long time to realize that. Which is something I hope to remedy with you.”

“Oh…”

“So don't be afraid of a simple backside now.”

Reluctantly, I gave her my okay.

As I was hoisted up, I managed to catch the faint smile of elation before it disappeared behind her prismatic mane. I wonder what that’s for? Probably nothing. As we made our way down, I couldn’t help but go back to our talk on magic earlier.

“Princess?”

“Yes, Dilemma?”

“So earlier… you implied that you also had primal magic? But I’ve seen you pull off those complex spells! Didn’t you say the two don’t mix?”

“They don’t. Over my long life, I’ve had practice in using it like modern magic. It was… an arduous process, but incredibly rewarding once I managed to master it.” She bashfully looked off to the side. “Though… I must admit, I was quite jealous of my ex-student for quite some time. Her gifted affinity with modern magic… catapulted her through spells I took years to overcome.

“So all of your spells… they’ve all used primal magic to power them?” I gasped. “Doesn’t that mean all of them are really powerful!? Are you going to teach them to me!?”

She grinned. “Very astute, my student. But not so fast. Remember how I said that primal magic can be… quite unruly?”

“How it’s erratic...”

“So I would prefer to teach you control before we do anything regarding something as advanced as spellcasting. It’s clear I need to reteach you the basics. Primal levitation is very different from what you’re used to.”

“Really…? I wanted to cast all the cool spells!”

“When you’re ready for them, you will. Foal steps, Dilemma, foal steps.”

As the conversation tapered off, I switched to observing my surroundings with a newfound curiosity—everything looked so different from this height. Tapestries didn’t look so tall, stained windows appeared to actually form events rather than the skewed images I perceived, even the height of the halls didn’t give off such a daunting impression. We passed by guards (some who I recognized) and castle staff, with a wave of a hoof and a smile.

I like feeling tall.

“Sister! I was wondering if you could—” The speaker spotted me atop the princess’s back. “I am not interrupting anything, am I?”

“Not at all. We were just making our way to the training grounds.”

“I see. I can spare some time to join you for the walk.” The princess nodded and continued her timely gait. “You know, ‘Tia…” Princess Luna started, “This is the third student you've taken on, you greedy mare. Leave some prodigies for the other princesses!” She winked an eyebrow at me.

Princess Celestia rolled her eyes. “Perhaps you should also become much more proactive in searching for one. I hear a ‘gut feeling’ is also helpful.”

“You and your mild bouts of clairvoyance! If half of them weren't useless or farces, I would actually listen!” she fumed. Her voice suddenly turned to mimic her sister’s, “Oh, Lulu! Tomorrow, there shall be an attempt on my life by my favorite delicacy! The horror! The horr—”

“We get it,” the ever-regal solar diarch groaned.

“Of course you do.”

“So what brings you here, Lulu? Or did you come here just to embarrass me in front of my student?”

She snickered. “That was simply a positive addition to the conversation.” Her expression hardened. “No, I just wanted to talk about an anomaly I encountered during my nightly patrols. I wished to catch you before I headed to night court.”

“Anomaly?”

“Mhm. There… has been a dreamer.”

“Oh?”

“My duty as the mistress of the night is to ensure that rest is pleasant. But… this dreamer… has been out of reach for the longest time. I have met evasive ones before, but this pony…” She sighed. “I'm at a loss. All I can do is watch them suffer, while I sit around completing nothing. It is… depressing.”

“Have you tried any of the more invasive procedures?” Princess Celestia asked, having stopped to face her other. “That can be quite the touchy subject, but it is better than doing naught.”

“I've tried one of them. That caused the dreamer to wake up instead.”

The solar diarch clicked her tongue. “We can discuss this later. We both have things to get to.”

Princess Luna had a forlorn, but understanding countenance. “Yes, yes, we can continue this later. I am also certain that the topic is not for everypony’s ears. If that is all, you can see me at court.” She gave me a curtsy. “Sweet dreams, Sol Dilemma, I wish you a fortuitous practice.”

I hadn’t even noticed we arrived at the grounds.

Carefully, Princess Celestia lowered herself to the ground, giving me a safe distance to jump off of. I stared in awe at the surroundings. “Did we go outside?”

“Nope!” she beamed, eerily similar to a hyperactive filly. “This has been a personal project of mine. Before I was crowned as a princess, I traveled most of Equestria, and in my journey, I came across the most efficient way to improve control.”

Princess Celestia had cultivated a zen garden room in the castle.

“I made sure to take in as much detail as I could. As much as I needed to recreate the same calming atmosphere the original had. But the habitat that Canterlot provided… was not suitable. So I improvised with a pocket dimension spell, bolstered with some of Starswirl’s mirror research.”

A curved tree was the off-center of the garden, left in a calmly flowing pond, which itself moved throughout the entire room. Finely-cut wood bridges connected the islands carved out by the pond. In the southern portion of the room stood a proud pavilion.

“I was left with a room in which I could freely mold to my needs. I nursed the right temperature, magicked the correct soil, ordered, imported and personally planted each plant from Neighpon.”

Poofy bushes dominated some areas of the impossibly soft-looking grass. Small reeds poked out from the banks of the pond, rustling ever so quietly. Flowers in constant bloom dotted the roomscape with their shades of pink and white.

“But something was missing. So I conjured the illusions of the neighponese mountains. I added the sounds of nature to wrap it all up.”

The wind blew, loud enough to be heard, but not strong enough to disrupt. Animals warbled and chirped, adding a background alongside the sounds of flora.

She crossed the midpoint of the bridge and patted a seat next to her. She beckoned for me to join her. “It's quite lovely here, isn't it?”

“Yes! It's so pretty.”

“It's quite peaceful, wouldn't you agree?”

“Yeah...?”

“Dilemma, I would like you to clear your mind. I want you to mimic the garden as best as you can. Do not care about anything else besides this right now, alright?”

“A-Alright.” Listening to her instructions, I took a deep breath and eased my expression. Any other thought became irrelevant, any other worry became meaningless. The only sounds I could hear were my soft exhales and the trickle of water.

I wasn't sure how long I was waiting. Be it minutes or hours, I laid still.

The world could burn, and I wouldn't notice.

Even the sudden noise from the princess failed to startle me. “The thing about primal magic is that it should never be used the same way modern is. Doing so would put you and anypony around you at risk.”

Inhale.

“Picture it not a force to tame—which is impossible to accomplish—but rather, something to befriend. It is a part of you, therefore it is you. You do not control yourself like a disobedient pet, now do you?”

Exhale.

“Your focus should be on building a… ‘relationship’ of sorts, with your primal magic. Bridge the divide.”

Inhale.

“For now, I simply want to draw out your thaumic resonance. If your mind is clear, this should be of no difficulty.”

Exhale.

“A moment of emotional instability often gives off the strongest measure. Try and think of something that could cause that.” I could feel the pressure of a wing laid over me. “Do not worry. I'll be here to drag you back before you go too far.”

Inha… inhale.

I thought back to the times when things went wrong. Whenever I lost control of a situation and let my emotions take the better of me. I shuddered and almost broke myself out of the serene trance I placed myself in.

Exhale.

“Take your time. We're here not to rush anything.”

I absently nodded and tried again.

The anger and sadness of failures. The air sparked.

The fear and longing for acceptance. A hiss of condensed energy echoed.

“That’s it, keep going.”

Inhale.

Remembering exactly what happened at the school before I had been knocked unconscious. A slew of emotions came rushing forth. Solar magic roared alive, free of its cage.

“I want you to hold this for as long as you can. Will it to remain this way.”

Unable to properly send her a confirmation, I stuck to simply abiding by her orders. Which was difficult on its own. My concentration was wavering. I wasn't aware how tiring it was at trying to keep magic flow constantly going. It felt like at any moment would be my last.

Grasping the intangible… was… hah

I collapsed, solar magic dispersing into the air.

I looked up to see the pleased face of a sun princess. “That was beautiful, Dilemma. I'm more than certain you've earned a rest.”

“But Princess Celestia, I barely managed to hit a minute,” I groaned, “and I'm already tired and sore! I mean, that wasn't even any real spellcasting!”

In a motherly tone, she replied. “Foalsteps, my student. Master mages are not made in a single day. The more we come back to practice, the better you shall become at control.”

“O-Okay.”

“We can take a break and try again later.” She waved a hoof at the pond. “At the meantime, would you like to try some of the water? It's quite refreshing.”

I still can’t believe it’s been a month since everything happened. Who knew that outburst would lead to so much change in my life? Learning that I have basically extinct magic running through my mana, living in the castle as the student of the princess…

A satiated smile took my face. It’s like a dream.

“Congratulations, Dilemma! You seriously went above and beyond. Really. You smashed my expectations into… uh… oblivion,” Dapper cheered, clapping his hooves together. “Er… Dilemma?” He waved a hoof in front of my eyes. “Equus to Dilemma…?”

CRASH

“HEEEEERE'S MAVERICK…!” announced a certain pegasus. Our heads snapped to her, right as she barreled into the both of us. We were sent tumbling further into the hall, stopping short in front of a pair of stone-faced guards. “Hah-hah! That was epic.”

“Why must every time I see you, Maverick, I end up getting hurt somehow?” Dapper complained from his position at the bottom of the pile.

“Pain builds character!” Maverick shouted, smiling all the while. She dusted us off with her tail and propped us on our hooves. “Up and at ‘em soldiers! We have a party to attend!” she saluted at us (and also the guards), and began marching down the hall towards the ballroom.

I reaffixed the saddlebags and quickly sped up to keep pace with the filly. Trotting a safe-ish distance behind her, Dapper spoke up. “So it takes you a whole week to actually find time to celebrate becoming the princess’s student? What took you so long? Don’t tell me she already dumped a bunch of homework on you!”

“No! That would be scary,” I huffed. “It’s just that everything got really busy after her request to become her student. Moving my stuff to my new castle room, getting situated in this place, and the Princess wanted to get started right away with my magic training.”

“Training? What kind of training?”

I bit my lip. I didn’t want him to know or misinterpret anything about my inability to control my magic properly. “Well, she wanted to start off with teaching me methods to help better my control over magic, so… so the harder stuff gets easier!”

“Huh, really? That’s pretty cool. Most of the teachers at the school can be so boring!” he explained. “Well, all except Missus Hopper! She always knows how to make the boring stuff fun. It’s crazy.”

“I heard ‘boring’, who’s bored? We can’t have that before the party!” Maverick jutted in.

“Nothing. We were just talking about our teachers.”

Maverick “pfft’d”, and rolled her eyes. “Really? That’s boring.” She caught her tongue. “Wait. OH NO, NOW I’M THE BORED ONE!” She looked like she was about to scream.

Dapper stuck a hoof in her mouth. “We’re in the castle, Maverick! Show some tact!” He gave me a deadpan stare. “Is she like this every time there’s a party going to happen? This is pretty crazy.”

“Yeah… but it’s usually only for her friend’s parties.” I shook my hoof side-to-side in a “so-so” manner. “You should’ve seen her during my last birthday party.”

“I don’t think I really want to.” He gave me a confused tilt. “Wait, you mean us? We’re her only friends.”

Maverick pushed the hoof out of her mouth. “I’m still here ya’know. Stop talking like I ain’t.” She had a sudden look of realization on her face and brought Dapper closer. She whispered something into his ear, while he nodded all the while.

“Um.”

“Sorry, uh, gotta go.”

“Both of us.”

“Yeah.” They finished at the same time. And ran off in opposite directions. I wonder what that was. For the first time in an entire week, I was alone—except for the guards, but they were on duty and didn’t really count.

I guess I was just going to have to go to the party myself.

The castle itself was quite large, so much so that one could get lost if they really didn’t know where they wanted to go. That’s why one of the first things Princess Celestia had me do for homework (or schoolwork? I lived in the castle now, after all) was commit the layout of the castle to memory and quiz me on it. That way, I didn’t accidentally starve to death in a broom closet or something.

The ballroom that had been set aside for my party was on the east wing of the castle, furthest point, overlooking the rest of Canterlot.

I was currently halfway there.

The castle still seemed to have a level of charm to it, still grandiose as the day I saw it. That would probably wear off the longer I woke up inside its walls.

I hummed to myself as I practically skipped to the location. I was pretty excited about it, considering most of my week had been mundane. The nightly sessions where Celestia trained me for controlling my newfound abilities were nice and all, but being young and impatient, I really wanted to do the things I’d watch the guards do, what the battle mages whipped out or even some ease-of-life spells.

Anything was better than doing the breathing exercises. But I understood the necessity. I was lucky that part of the school had been empty, the students all sent home because of the tests. I didn’t want the knowledge that I had injured anypony, under my control or not.

That was a weight I didn’t want to add onto my already loaded back.

I sighed, laying a hoof against the door. I pressed against it, trying to open it. I cocked my head and tried again. This time, it worked, and opened up…

…to an empty room.

What?

I glanced at spotless hardwood and darkened interior, moderately brightened by the window panes. I closed the door in disbelief. I was pretty sure I had gone to the correct room… right?

I checked the plaque layered on the door itself, reading “E-2”. That was the room the princess had given me the invitation for. Or maybe it was E-3? The Princess’s squiggly writing was hard to tell sometimes. I grabbed the paper out of my saddlebag and squinted.

Just to double check I wasn’t insane, and incapable of reading fancy equuish, I pushed the door open again—

“SURPRISE!” A chorus of voices rang out. A loud pop, followed by a larger bang, sprayed confetti everywhere.

Being a naturally flighty pony, I jumped in surprise, yelping in fear. My horn flared, and I could already feel the primal magic pouring out. I tried to stop it but failed miserably.

To my chagrin, it didn’t come out as a molten fireball. A ring of… heavenly light poured out around me, solidifying into a swirling vortex. Sitting in it made me feel… so good. Like my fears were washed away, any wounds cast upon me would vanish immediately… I felt alive.

“Wow! That is the first time I’ve ever seen anypony cast a spell like that when they get startled!” A bubbly voice spoke up. “That’s going in the picture books. Snap!” A flash of light told me somepony used a camera.

Princess Celestia was the first to approach. “Dilemma… where did you learn this? This is… an incredibly advanced healing spell… I haven’t even seen something like this before…”

“Where did you learn this? Healing spells are only ever taught to trained unicorns, misuse by an ill-prepared pony could cause damage to the body… trigger cancer cells to proliferate faster than the body can remove them… generate tumors… the list is endless.” Princess Twilight cataloged. “And I’m analyzing the structure of the thaumic weaving, and I’m at a loss for words…”

“Twi’ at a loss fer words? Gosh, that’s somethin’ I’d never thought I’d hear, ” an orange pony piped up.

“Snap!”

Another orange pony walked up, with hair that looked like flowing fire. Her horn lit up, and she cut a vicious gash on her fetlock. My eyes widened in shock at the self-induced affliction. So did a couple of other ponies in the crowd.

“Sunset, darling! A… ah… oh my, where’s my couch?”

“Sunset are you crazy!?”

“Trixie does not approve, but wants to see what happens… what a strange predicament.”

“Sunset” trotted past the narrow-eyed princesses and stuck her hoof in the circle. We all watched in amazement as blood flowed back into the cut. White energy swirled around the wound and scattered shortly after to reveal there had been no laceration. She barked a laugh. “That’s an awe-inspiring spell.” Her horn flashed briefly. “No restorative damage, fixed to the peak of perfection. It feels better after than before.”

She spun around and gave a toothy grin. “Equestria’s made you ponies delicate. Try spending some time on the other side with me.”

“Sunset, we don’t just cut ourselves open, waltz into an untested spell field, and hope for the best!” Princess Twilight shrilled. “The consequences—!”

“Bah.” She flicked a hoof noncommittally. “There’s no progress without risk.”

A lighter purple unicorn leaned from the group. “Sunset, that was a lot of risks, and a lot of undefined success. I agree with you, but I like to know my chances. That’s why we have testing procedures and processes.”

“Too long, it could—” The vortex vanished, spell starving itself as the magic stopped flowing. “There you go! At any moment. Who knows if we could reproduce the same spell again? It’s clear this thing could basically revolutionize Equestria’s (and maybe the world’s) medical facilities!”

“Trixie agrees. She didn’t understand a good half of the spell sequence… or whatever happened right there, but the benefits do outweigh the negatives.” Oh, I remember her! She’s the stage performer. Her shows are pretty neat.

“That’s not the point, Shimmer, Lulamoon! Sure, it’s great we found out it could basically knit flesh back together incredibly fast, and much cleaner than the best surgeon on the planet… but it’s the way we came to that conclusion!” the lighter purple unicorn shot back. Her tail whipped back and forth, a clear sign of agitation. “We care about you as friends! Putting yourself in harm’s way—”

“ENOUGH,” Princess Luna’s voice bellowed. “We came here to celebrate Dilemma’s position as my sister’s student. Not to tear at each other like a vicious pack of Timberwolves!” She stomped her hooves. “Do so at another time, at any other place, I could care less, but not here! Act like the responsible mares befitting of your stations!” Her lips curled. “Oh stars, that felt good.”

The room was deathly silent now. Even the jukebox seemed to shut up for fear of its life.

Sunset wilted. “I… I apologize to everyone for my… thoughtlessness. It seems my time on the other side has had a great deal in influencing my way of thinking.” She curtsied to me. “You as well, for causing such a scene at your party.”

The ponies all said their apologies. Rarity, unfortunately, still looked passed out on her couch. Hoof held on her crown.

I raised my foreleg and pointed to her. “Should we…?”

Pinkie shook her head. “She’ll be fine. Give her… two minutes tops. Tops. Tops!? That reminds me! I’ll be back everypony!” she shouted, vanishing in a pink blur out the side door. The other ponies paid it no heed as they began conversing amongst themselves.

The side door burst open again, however, it was two foals instead of a mare. “Did we miss the surprise!?” Maverick asked, scanning the already-spent party favors.

Dapper slapped his face. “I told you to take the left two turns ago.”

Some of the ponies chuckled while the some greeted them. I joined up with my small group. “So does anypony know why there are so many ponies here?”

Maverick jumped up and down. “Oh! Uh, Pinkie told me that a party couldn't be a party with just four ponies, so she invited her friends to spice things up.”

“We’ve got heroes here. Everypony else also has a background of some merit, it kinda makes me feel inadequate…” Dapper murmured.

Maverick rolled her eyes. “Don’ worry. We're here for ya’.” Her stomach rumbled. “Whoops. Forgot I skipped breakfast.”

“Why? Isn't that the most important meal of the day?”

“Yeah. But I wanted to eat all of the new foods here! So I saved space in my belly for all of them!”

“Only you, Maverick. Only you.” I tittered.

Her eyes lit up. “Do you want to try talking to the other party goers!?”

Dapper chuckled awkwardly. “I mean… I dunno. W-We really don't have to.”

“It'll be fine.”

Maverick pushed along the stammering colt to the first set of ponies, consisting of three unicorns and an alicorn.

“—did you remember? I caught a glimpse, but I really couldn't see it too well.”

“I stared at it for a good long while, Starlight, and I still couldn't understand it. We could probably pull it from my memories… but I don't know. The intricacy of weave is beyond me.”

“We can— Oh. Hello!” The lighter purple pony greeted. “I guess we didn't really get a chance to introduce ourselves. I'm Starlight Glimmer.”

“Greetings, I am the Great and Powerful Trixie Lulamoon! I was hired for the entertainment today. I hope I can knock you off your hooves with my grand displays of magic.”

“Sunset Shimmer. Pretty sure I made quite the first impression, huh?”

Dapper tapped my shoulder. “What did she do?”

“Cut herself open and then healed it with a spell.”

Maverick looked stupefied. “That’s so hardcore.”

“See, look! Somepony does appreciate the things I do.”

Starlight coughed. “Don't encourage her.”

Princess Twilight dismissively shook her head. “So what brings Dilemma and co.?”

“We’re here to establish friendships! Well, that's what I want. I'm not sure about Dapper or Dilemma.”

I did have something to ask Princess Twilight. “Princess…? This is your last day at the castle, right?”

She had an awkward smile on her face. “Just Twilight is fine Dilemma! And yes, I'll be heading back to Ponyville after today.”

I nodded and placed my saddlebag on the floor. I opened the flap and rifled through it. I carefully unwrapped the golden gem from its protective cloth and lifted it out. The ballroom lights reflected off the immaculately shiny surface, creating a brilliant sheen.

I heard a sophisticated gasp. “Darlings, I just had the strangest dream that Sunset stabbed herself! I also saw the most beautiful jewel…” Rarity said, sitting up. She turned to face us and spotted the dodecahedron. “I think I'm still dreaming.”

Princes—Twilight closed in on it. She spared a glance at her friend. “No, this is real. Tangible. It's also so finely cut I would deem it a magical conjuration. But it's not.” She laid a hoof on it. “I can feel the magic inside. What is this? Dilemma... you're just a bag of mysteries… what are you showing me this for?”

“I heard you're one of the best magical researchers in Equestria… I saw some of your theorems and postulates, along with your analysis on many different schools of magic.” I paused. “So if anypony could crack it, you could.”

“This is a magical artifact?”

“I think. It's sort of like an enchanted safe without any doors.”

“I-I see.” She grabbed it in her magic. “Where did you acquire it?”

Almost automatically, and in the most nonchalant voice possible, “Mom says they recovered it in the crash that orphaned me.” The alicorn and the two unicorns looked uncomfortable. Starlight, however, has a look of understanding drawn on her face. “It's fine. I was way too young to even remember them. I have a loving family anyways, so I think it's good enough.” It's not. It never will be. There will always be a hole that can never be filled.

The group nodded in understanding. I could tell Starlight was skeptical about my statement.

Twilight smiled. “I'll be happy to look this over for you. Would you two be willing to help me?” she asked the two ponies on her left.

“S-Sure,” Sunset faltered a little.

With zero hesitation, Starlight agreed. “Certainly.”

“Hey, everypony! Guess who's back with all the food!”

Maverick perked up from the conversation and locked onto the trays of delicacies being carted in. Her wings flared out and her glare hardened.

I know that look.

She was a mare on a mission.

“Sister. I think before today, I have never seen a foal who could so gracefully match you all those years ago.” Luna stopped to think. “If we slapped on an illusion spell, nopony could say she wasn't exactly like baby ‘Tia.”

The solar diarch chuckled. The pegasi general’s younger sister certainly lived up to her name. “It was certainly quite the event to watch.” She lifted herself up from her seat and scooched it closer. “I do apologize for not setting up the meeting earlier. I have gotten swamped with Dilemma’s acclimation. Have you had any luck?”

“It's understandable. And to answer your question, no.” She sighed and conjured a pillow for her head. “Their defenses have remained stalwart as ever. Only one of the invasive spells managed to accomplish anything. Even then, it was at the cost of twisting… twisting it into a nightmare.”

“...” Celestia had feared it coming to this. Even three years after her return, her sister still blamed herself for all her crimes. She had the right to feel guilty, after all. But her younger sister served her time, and all those she wronged had forgiven her.

“And so what? What separates me from her, ‘Tia? All Nightmare Moon was… was just a mask. I was still me.”

It still seemed those wounds wrought a millennia ago still seemed fresh as the day they had been cut. Celestia wrapped a fetlock around her sister’s. “You've paid your dues, Lulu.”

“I… I know.”

The elder sister moved to envelop her sibling in a tight hug. There was no sobbing. No tears shed. Just a tight embrace between family.

“Did you learn anything about our mystery pony?”

Luna audibly choked back a sob. “No, and that's what frustrates me the most. I willingly inflicted harm on another sentient creature and got practically nothing out of it. Just fragments!”

“What did your fragments depict?”

The dark alicorn slumped. “I never bothered checking. I-I cried myself to sleep, ‘Tia… I thought… I thought I was going back.”

“That’s alright, Lulu. It’s in the past,” she murmured, embrace never faltering.

“H-Here. I saved them. Let me look it over.” Her eyes glazed over as the spell activated and her consciousness was whisked away. Only moments later, life returned to her eyes and she gulped in lungfuls of air. She hacked, toppling out of Celestia’s grip.

“Sister!”

Luna held a hoof to stop Celestia. There was a fire brimming in her eyes. “I’m fine. But that dreamer? They’re our key, ‘Tia. I saw them. I saw legions of those nasty Tartarus-spawn... and they were there. The dreamer has answers we desperately need.”