• Published 9th May 2020
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For the Mare Who Has Everything - GrassAndClouds2



An extremely wealthy and powerful member of Luna's Night Court who is nearing the end of her life resolves to obtain the secret of immortality, no matter the cost

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5. A Binder of Letters, A Choice of Loves, An Alicorn’s Warning

Puissance violently jolted awake, almost flinging herself across the hard metal floor, and gasped for air against the horrid frigid pressure that was crushing in against her barrel. It was cold, it was colder than anything she’d ever felt, colder than when that cursed windigo had frozen her in a solid sheet of ice, and she didn’t know how to stop it or whether she would just have to endure it for the entirety of the terribly short portion of life she had remaining—

Her vision finally began to resolve, revealing dim shadows and endless shelves that could have held anything: trash, or rot or long-dead corpses. She let out a high-pitched whinny of terror as she tried to get up, overbalanced, and crashed down onto the shelves behind her, dropping several objects on her head and body. One was a little doll, and the sight of such a strange thing in such a dark place terrified her all over again.

Then she finally remembered. She had flown in her airship directly to Sentimental Valley, refusing to sleep despite her exhaustion and instead pacing her luxurious quarters until her hoofprints were worn into the exquisite imported carpet from… from… from somewhere she would surely remember in a moment. As soon as the ship had stopped she had ordered her staff to wait behind while she went into the warehouse herself. Once there she had looked up the location of Red Rose’s things from the records in the front office and then gone straight to the specified location, making her way through row after row of the various knickknacks ponies had been sending to Puissance over the last fifty years. After what felt like far too much walking she’d finally found Red Rose’s beggar’s bowl, her headscarf, a binder of those silly letters Rose had sent her for years detailing minor good deeds Rose had done and trivial ponies she had befriended, and next to them, the precious Golden Horseshoe. So she’d taken what she’d come for, sagged with relief, and decided to sit down for a moment to catch her breath…

She’d fallen asleep. That was all. She wasn’t dead, she wasn’t dying, she was just tired. Puissance managed a sort of jerky half-nod to herself and began picking up the dropped things. It wouldn’t do to leave her things on the ground; they were hers and thus must be maintained, burnished, treated properly. That was the Optiebeurs-Golo way.

One of the objects she’d knocked down was Red Rose’s beggar bowl. She picked it up and took a moment to just look over the simple wooden construction. Red Rose had once been quite wealthy, Puissance mused, and yet when she died, this was her most valuable possession. A silly little bowl that anypony at all could afford. Of course, that was what happened when you joined a sect and took a vow of poverty. You would spend the rest of your life with nothing of value, just tiny trinkets which would end up in this, the least of Puissance’s warehouses. Puissance, by contrast, had innumerable objects which were worth thousands of times what the bowl cost.

And which, she thought distantly, were also stuck in her warehouses. Nicer warehouses, yes, with carpets and cafeterias and soft lighting and docents to tell you their history and lineage. But when you stripped out all the trifles, they were in warehouses nonetheless.

She tried to stop thinking along those lines, but the thoughts kept coming. Red Rose, she realized, hadn’t lived in dusty warehouses like this. She had lived the little life of an impoverished mare, supporting her friends, doing charitable deeds, and finding spiritual fulfillment. Puissance had made many friends and done many deeds too, of course, and far grander ones. But all for the sake of putting another thing in another warehouse… so she could spend more time in more warehouses looking at her things.

Puissance’s gaze swept around the poorly lit room, with countless rows of shelves laden with worthless sentimental junk she had barely ever looked at, and for a brief-heart stopping moment, she wondered what it was she had done with her long, privileged life.

And then she thought no more, because she was running as fast as she could, racing to get out of the horrible building she found herself stuck in. Shelves raced past her on either side, stretching so far out that they seemed to converge in the distance as if she was running into a net that would trap her and keep her forever, like a grave, for a grave is just the place you go after you finish living your life, and she had spent decades in graves just like this, polishing and primping her headstone…

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of running, she saw the distant light of the front office. She raced towards it, smashing through a small table of things that had been taken out for cleaning, and knocking the janitor aside when he poked his head out to ask if she was okay. Then she reached the front doors and crashed through them, literally knocking one off its hinges, and burst out into a bright autumn day that froze against her like a winter blizzard, and—

“Granny Pu?”

Her gaze swiveled. She saw Scepter there with one of his bodyguards-slash-babysitters, looking at her curiously. She couldn’t say why, but suddenly she wanted nothing more than to hold him in her hooves and wrap him close, so she changed course to swoop down upon him. He let out a pleased squeak as Puissance grabbed him up and tucked him into a big hug before falling to a heap in the grass. “Granny Pu!” said Scepter, returning the hug. “I missed you!”

“Yes, dear,” Puissance said. Her great-grandcolt seemed so warm, and when she held him, it was like the ice that had formed around her heart was starting to melt. She could breathe again. She could think again. “Your grandmother missed you too. You know… you truly are a wonderful colt.”

Scepter brightened. “You’re great too, Granny,” he said. “Hey, did dad tell you? A few of my friends and I in school decided we wanted to be entrepen… uh… business-ponies like you talked about on the beach. So we pooled our allowances and we’re starting a surf school business! We’re gonna teach tourist ponies how to surf!” He paused. “That’s why I’m here; I thought you might have a cool trinket we could use for a logo or something, and dad said you probably wouldn’t notice if we borrowed one from this warehouse.”

Normally, Puissance’s first reaction to Scepter’s new ambition would have been to give him all sorts of advice—for getting licensed, for buying out competitors, for discretely contacting newspapers to preemptively ensure that any negative reviews of the surf school would never be printed. But Puissance found she suddenly cared about none of that. “It sounds like a lovely idea, dear. Tell me when it is set up, and I will come to the beach to see it.”

“Great!” Scepter paused. “This is a long hug.”

Puissance just drew him in closer.

“…are you okay?” Scepter asked after a minute. “Are you scared?”

“I…” The words hovered on Puissance’s mouth before she dismissed them. She would not tell a foal she had been scared, not even for a moment. She had her dignity. “No, dear. Your grandmother is just… very tired. She has been working hard on an important project that has taken her all over Equestria.”

“Really?” Scepter wriggled a little bit. “What project?”

Puissance thought of the Golden Horseshoe that was now in her saddlebag, the one that she’d managed to finally recover from Naqah. “Just a project.”

“Hmm.” Scepter tilted his head, inadvertently scratching up against Puissance’s barrel. “Well, I don’t like it. I think Luna is working you too hard.”

The Vicereine couldn’t help but laugh at her heir’s genuine indignation. “Do you think I should ask her for a vacation?”

“Yeah! Or I’ll tell her if she shows up in my dreams again.” Scepter giggled. “You’re a really good Granny Pu. You've done all kinds of amazing things! You shouldn’t have to work so hard now!”

Puissance said nothing.

“Maybe if you ask her she’ll let you take a break,” Scepter continued. “And then we can do lots of fun stuff together! Like, we can do our weekly days out every day!” The joy in his voice was like a warm blanket around Puissance’s body. “We can go through the gardens, and go to the beach, and you can show me business stuff and fancy art and I can show you the really cool comic books and this trick my friend taught me for drinking ten sodas at once without getting sick…”

The Golden Horseshoe in Puissance's saddlebag suddenly felt very heavy, and though Puissance opened her mouth to reject the offer, she paused before she said anything. What if, she could not stop from thinking, she truly could not find the fourth Horseshoe? What if she took her last few months, or weeks, or however long she had, devoted them to this quest—flying to forsaken caves in Nulpar, battling unhinged cultists in distant woods, crawling through dusty warehouses—and died before she finished, falling cold and alone in some distant spot? If there was no hope, if there was no fourth Horseshoe, did she really want to waste the last remnants of her time in the sun, the last few drops of what had once been a long and glorious life, a million miles away from her family or anypony who loved her?

What if she just stopped? Accepted that, if the fourth Horseshoe really existed, she almost certainly couldn’t find it? She could stop, and retire, and love her great-grandcolt. Maybe even reconnect with her family, yes, they were all a bunch of ungrateful fools who didn’t know what she’d done for them, but perhaps if she stepped out of the way, let them exercise their share of power, they could grow closer. She could be invited to family events without having to first threaten to disinherit the hosts. She could discuss her grandson Banner’s old hobby of fishing (wasn’t he taking that up again?) or her daughter Regalia’s brilliant fashion sense, or… or anything, really. She could stop.

For the first time in her life, she could live.

But to stop would require abandoning her hope of living longer, of accepting that she, a mare who had everything, would someday very soon have nothing. She would never again be able to visit Neighpon to see its cherry blossoms, or watch a Cavallian parade honoring her for her many achievements, or track down a famous work of art that she needed to complete yet another gorgeous collection. And of course, if she died she couldn’t watch Scepter grow up and keep him on the proper path. She wouldn’t even be able to stop him from sneaking out of a politically-important wedding to go photograph flowers, as he’d tried to do last year before she’d caught him.

“Granny?” asked Scepter. “What are you thinking?”

“I…” Puissance felt frozen, not by cold, but by indecision. Stop or go? Give up her quest, or pursue it and risk letting it consume the rest of her life? She hugged her great-grandcolt closer and smiled slightly as he warmed her. “I think I will…”

“Vicereine.”

Puissance swiveled to see her two secretaries trotting up behind her. She frowned. “I thought I told you to handle my affairs in Canterlot.”

“Yes, Vicereine,” said Perfect Precision. “But you also told us to give you any news on the Golden Horseshoe project. When such news came, we hired a chariot and pursued you at once to tell you.”

The reason didn't make a lot of sense, but the Vicereine ignored that as her heart began to beat faster. Could it be…? “Well?”

“Based on my magical research, it should be possible for Moondancer to locate the fourth Golden Horseshoe given the other three, since they are all powerful artifacts from the same magical set.” Perfect Precision removed a book from her saddlebag. “The spell is enormously complex, but doable. Moondancer should be able to adapt her laboratory equipment to perform it.”

And Puissance grinned. She didn’t have to choose after all! She’d get the fourth Horseshoe, win eternal life, and then have as much time as she could want to play with Scepter and monitor his growth. For that matter, she didn’t need to just acquiesce to her family’s eccentricities. She could live long enough to make them understand that she was right, they were wrong, and if they just listened to her they would live far happier and more productive lives than the alternative.

“What’s a Golden Horseshoe?” Scepter asked.

Puissance lifted him up and smiled at him. Why keep the secret now? She was within inches of doing what mortal ponies had sought to do for millennia, but which only she would manage. She could let her most precious heir in on the surprise. “A set of very powerful magical artifacts. They will enable your Granny Pu to stay with you for a long time.”

Scepter brightened. “That sounds cool! Can I see them?”

“I don’t see why not.” Puissance helped Scepter clamber onto her back, then nodded at Perfect Precision. “Get us transport to Moondancer’s lab at once. Also, contact my estate and have my bodyguard meet us at the lab.”

“Yes, Vicereine.”

Precision trotted off to obey and Puissance had a skip in her step as she went to the road. She didn’t need to worry about some stupid nightmare she’d had in a dirty old warehouse—and, in fact, she should look into tearing that warehouse down and putting up a bigger, grander one, maybe making it into a real museum which showed off the objects she’d gotten from common ponies who were wise enough to love her. All she needed to do was get that last Horseshoe, and then settle in to enjoy her eternity and all the wonderful treasures it would offer.

###

“Moondancer!” called Puissance as she cantered into the laboratory, Scepter riding on her back and gaping in awe as he stared at all the fancy machines and intricate equipment. “Moondancer, where are you? I have a job for you.”

Moondancer poked her head out of her office, revealing that there were at least half a dozen clipboards floating near her. Puissance could see spells and machines being monitored by labcoat-wearing ponies in the other rooms, though the central area seemed largely free of activity. “What is it?”

“My secretaries have found a way for you to find the fourth Horseshoe.” Puissance looked back at Perfect Precision and Precise Point, who had followed her in. Solar Flare, who had apparently gotten Puissance’s message to meet her, rushed in a few moments later covered by her cloak. “You are to use the spell they found and the three Horseshoes we have on hoof to locate the fourth.”

The archmage sighed and then trotted forward to read the paper that Perfect Precision hoofed over. Her eyes flicked across the text, and then she shook her head. “This spell is already refined. It does not need further development,” she said in a voice that sounded almost bored.

Puissance exchanged an astonished glance with her secretaries. “We know,” she said at last. “That is why we want you to use it.”

“And I want to pioneer new developments in magic.” Moondancer gestured with a hoof at the lab rooms around them. “You hired me to recreate a spell of Star Swirl’s that had been lost for centuries, which nopony less brilliant than him could create. You also said that, until you obtained the materials I would need to perform my recreation, I could use this equipment for my own work. I am doing so, and am refining over a dozen spells of my own devising. When they are published, they will serve as further evidence that I am the greatest crafter of magical spells since Star Swirl.” She turned on her hoof. “Why would I spend my time casting some spell whose technique is already well-established, just because it would help you? That’s the kind of thing a friend would do, and I learned at the Academy of Magic that friendship isn’t real. I have no interest in wasting time on magic that will not benefit me.”

"If you don't cast that spell, we can't get the material you need to recreate Star Swirl's work," said Puissance slowly. "You will be unable to prove your abilities on the most difficult spell of them all."

"I know how badly you want me to cast that spell, so I am sure you can find some other way to get the fourth Horseshoe--one that doesn't involve taking up my time." One of the machines began to flash orange and Moondancer made another set of notes on her clipboards. "Once you find it, bring it to me and I'll cast my recreation of Star Swirl's spell, but until then, I will continue with my own work."

Nopony had ever spoken to Puissance this way, and she felt a nugget of cold fury building in her chest. "You will cast any spell I want you to cast," she ordered. "When I want you to cast it."

"No."

Puissance began to turn a slight shade of red. “I pay your salary,” she hissed. “I fund the lab in which you work.”

“And you will continue to pay me and fund it, because if you fire me you will never be able to cast the spell with the Horseshoes,” said Moondancer in the same disinterested tone.

"The laboratory notes you have been making are work-for-hire and thus my property, as per our contract, and I could hire--” Puissance began before cutting herself off. As tempting as it was to coerce Moondancer's assistance by threatening to replace with her hated rival Twilight Sparkle, it wasn't a viable option, and Moondancer probably knew it. Twilight was confined to Ponyville and was under the direct supervision of one Trixie Lulamoon, meaning that any efforts to involve Twilight would be likely to result in Trixie learning of those efforts. Luna may have accommodated Puissance's research into immortality thus far, but the Alicorn had a bizarre soft spot for the showmare and might order Puissance to stop if Trixie complained hard enough. Trixie even had the Right of Approach now, so Puissance couldn't keep her away from Luna, and Trixie was also easily influenced by her 'friends' like that ridiculous Cheerilee pony who hated Puissance for absolutely no legitimate reason. It wasn't Puissance's fault that the small-minded teacher couldn't see the benefits of her educational scheme--

But that was another topic, one best addressed after Puissance had become immortal and enabled herself to maintain personal control of the nation's educational system long after Cheerilee and all who knew her were bones in a grave. For the moment, she had to deal with Moondancer. “I could hire any other pony,” Puissance corrected herself. “To complete your work. And the pony to finish this project would, I fear, receive far more credit and acclaim for the procedure than the pony who began it, even if the one who began it did in fact contribute more.”

“You could try.” Moondancer levitated a thick stack of papers that were laden with dense, scrawling writing Puissance couldn’t begin to understand even with the magic training she’d been taking. “But I have ensured they are completely incomprehensible to anypony who isn’t me. It’s standard practice among magic engineers and archmages.”

For a moment Puissance was almost overcome with rage, and she wanted nothing more than to advance across the room and throttle Moondancer. But if she did, Moondancer would never make her young, and she would die and lie cold forever…

“Wait,” said Precise Point suddenly. She walked past Puissance on her left while Perfect Precision mirrored her on her right. Solar Flare trotted up behind Puissance, and Scepter watched the argument from atop the Vicereine’s back with a puzzled expression. “Even if you do not want money, Moondancer,” added Precise Point, “we could pay you something else.”

“I told you,” began Moondancer “that I don’t need your payments. I can summon whatever I want or need. What can you offer me?”

“Anything,” growled Puissance. The world seemed to have narrowed to just herself and Moondancer, with reddish shadows surrounding them. “What do you want?”

But then Precise Point shook her head. “With respect, Vicereine, that is not the right question.” She turned back to Moondancer. “What do you love?”

“Yes,” said Perfect Precision. “What do you love?”

“Love?” Moondancer turned back around to face the others. “What I would love is to finally get the respect I deserve. To finally be appreciated as a top-level mage. Not second-banana to Twilight Sparkle, of all ponies! I was smarter than her, and I would have won valedictorian if she hadn’t betrayed me. I am going to prove that I am her superior!“

Precise Point inclined her head. “That can be arranged.” And then she and Perfect Precision trotted back to Puissance and whispered something in her ears.

The Vicereine listened, then smiled. “Ah, yes. Thank you.” She looked at Moondancer. “Are you familiar with the Grand Register of Archmages?”

“Of course,” said Moondancer blankly. “It is an award given to the most powerful mages in Equestria, and before it, Old Unicornia, but it is so hard to get that it is only awarded once every ten or twenty years. Star Swirl the Bearded is the most famous pony to receive the award; others were Clover the Clever and Red Magician. To obtain it a pony must work as a practicing mage for at least forty years, publish a certain number of new spells and inventions that have been certified as meritorious by the Academy of Magic’s scholars, and as a capstone, perform at least one novel spell which approaches in complexity or power the kind of magic Princess Luna can do.”

“Under normal circumstances, yes,” said Puissance as she approached the archmage. “However, there is an alternate path. The ‘forty years’ requirement may be waived if, in the opinion of the Academy of Magic, the pony in question performs a spell which does not just ‘approach’ the level of an alicorn but actually surpasses that level. Nopony has ever been found to meet that standard, but it is right there in the rules, just waiting for a pony who can surpass the alicorns themselves.” She bent down a little to whisper into Moondancer’s ear, speaking so quietly not even Scepter could hear. “And Princess Luna has made it clear to me that she is not able to make a pony immortal.”

Moondancer’s breath caught in her throat. “Well, yes… but a pony also needs sponsors. Somepony in the nobility, and then ponies in the Academy or similar institutions. Surely Twilight will have her Viceroy parents prevent anypony else from sponsoring me so that nopony will know I surpassed her. That's just the kind of selfish mare she is.”

“Do this for me and I will sponsor you myself, Twilight's House notwithstanding, and also use the immense leverage I have at my disposal to ensure others do so as well.” Puissance paced around Moondancer. “You have the requisite new spells and inventions. You need not worry about the timespan requirement. If you can find the fourth Horseshoe and then cast the spell you say you can cast, you will become the youngest pony in Equestrian history to enter the Grand Register of Archmages. And whenever anypony ever brings up the name of Twilight Sparkle, you can honestly say that if she works very hard, she might possibly catch up to where you are now… after she completes the forty-year working period which the Grand Register requires of lesser talents such as hers.”

Moondancer stood as still as if she too were frozen. Puissance backed up, smiling brightly. Then Scepter whispered in her ear, “I don’t get it. What just happened?”

Puissance gently pat Scepter with a wing. “She wants something and I want something, dear, and I’m helping her understand that if we work together we can both get what we want. It’s called business.”

“And she wants to be on the Grand Register thing?” Scepter tilted his head. “What do you want? I mean, what is she working with you to do?"

“Find the Golden Horseshoes, and as I said, use them to help me be able to play with you for a long time to come,” said Puissance obliquely. “You need not worry about it.”

“Oh. Okay.” Scepter looked at the secretaries. “You should pay those two ponies more, Granny Pu. They don’t eat enough. They’re super skinny!”

Puissance shushed Scepter, but she decided that when this did work out and she became immortal, she would indeed give them—and Solar Flare—a hefty bonus. Perhaps then they would stop whatever strange diet they were on and indulge a little.

Moondancer seemed to come back to herself, and for the first time since meeting her, Puissance saw a smile form on her face. “Alright,” she said. “I will do it. I need the three Horseshoes, the spell components listed in that document, and… and maps. Lots of maps. And trained cartographers. This spell will produce pictures showing the way to where the Horseshoe is, so we’ll need cartographers who can look at it and see if they recognize the locations.”

Puissance turned back to her secretaries and Solar Flare. “There is a university three blocks from here with a geography department. Get her what she needs.”

The trio ran off, Moondancer began setting up equipment for the spell, and meanwhile, Puissance showed Scepter around the laboratory. She herself didn’t know what many of the machines did, but Moondancer had several assistants, and they proved a lot more willing to explain the various experiments than Moondancer had been. Scepter was amazed, and by the end of it he was asking Puissance if there were maybe after-school classes he could take to learn more about some of the super-cool magic things going on in the lab. Puissance agreed and decided she might even take some more classes herself to become a true magical expert. Why not? She was about to have all the time in the world.

It took less than an hour for Monodancer to set everything up and for Puissance’s servants to return with a small army of cartographers, lured away from their actual jobs by the promise of vast payments. Moondancer directed ponies to open up the maps, starting with those nearest their current location, and explained how she would be projecting images as her spell tracked down the Horseshoe. When everything seemed ready Moondancer did a quick trot around the laboratory area while spreading out a few more maps, including hanging one over the muzzle of a new pony who had just entered the room.

Puissance recognized the new pony a half-second before the others. “Princess Luna!” she gasped. Then she wheeled on Moondancer. “Do not drape a map over the muzzle of Princess Luna!”

Moondancer, who hadn’t seemed to recognize the princess, blushed, but Luna just smiled and used magic to levitate the map over to a storage cabinet. “It is no matter.”

Solar Flare backed a few steps away from Luna, but if the alicorn was looking beneath her cloak and forming comments on her appearance—or the Alicorn Armor she wore—she did not make them. Instead, it fell to Puissance to speak. “Your Vicereine greets you,” she said with a bow. The other ponies mostly did too, even Moondancer after a few moments. The only pony who didn’t was Scepter; the foal seemed more interested in gawking at the alicorn than bowing. Puissance quickly thrust out a leg and nudged him down. “May I ask why you are here?”

“You may.” Luna smiled gently. “I was worried about you. I heard reports you had suddenly left Canterlot in an agitated state.”

Scepter gasped, but Puissance waved a hoof as she rose from her bow. “Just a small miscommunication that has since been resolved.”

“I see.” Luna looked around the laboratory room. “Am I interrupting something?”

“We’re about to use magic to find the fourth Golden Horseshoe,” said Moondancer.

The alicorn looked surprised, and Puissance wondered if perhaps Luna hadn’t thought she could really do it. “Fascinating. May I watch?” Luna asked.

“Of course,” said Puissance, as if there was any other answer to give the nigh-omnipotent monarch of the land. “By all means.”

Luna nodded, and then Puissance turned back to Moondancer, whose horn started to glow. “Let’s begin,” the archmage called. “First picture coming… now.”

Her horn glowed with a piercing red light, bright enough to force Puissance to look away lest she be dazzled. She noted that the other ponies were turning away too, except for Luna, and she made sure to cover Scepter’s face with a wing so he didn’t hurt his eyes. It took almost a full minute for the light to fade. When it did, Puissance glanced back to see the three Golden Horseshoes she already had were glowing and floating in a large triangle, within which an image of a mountainous forest appeared.

“I recognize that place,” said one of the cartographers. “It’s the Foalsome Forest.”

“Agreed,” said another. “The south part of the forest, actually. Near the big waterfall.” He marked a spot on the map just outside the boundaries of Califurlong proper. “Here.”

“Second picture,” said Moondancer, and cast again.

Slowly but surely Moondancer advanced her magic in a very rough line towards wherever the Horseshoe was hidden, and every time the cartographers identified the locations shown in the space between the Horseshoes. Some of the locations were very hard to identify, such as a few that were just empty plains or motionless lakes, but that was why Moondancer was moving so methodically; the cartographers knew the pictures were in a rough line, so even when they were not familiar with an area they could peruse the maps closest to the last location and find the most likely landmark now being depicted. At two points Moondancer had to stop and gulp down bottles of purified concentrated ether which Puissance had stocked the lab with, but at no point did she seem ready to give up, and no matter how much magic she expended she refused to let herself fall.

“This is so cool!” said Scepter when the image resolved on a beautiful mangrove forest. “Magic is awesome!”

After what felt to Puissance like hours, though she could not truthfully have said how long it really took, Moondancer suddenly straightened. “We are getting very close,” she said. “This might be the location.”

Puissance knelt over the maps. They were near the north-eastern border of Equestria, or possibly just beyond it; the cartographers had been unsure. “Then cast,” she said.

Moondancer did so, straining with effort, and the Horseshoes once again floated up into a triangle formation to reveal a picture. This time they showed a windswept mountain with a little shelf leading into some kind of cave. Some distance below the shelf was a tiny hamlet, and there were also smaller mountains surrounding it.

“I think that’s the Skyshaper Peaks,” said the lead cartographer. “It’s the right general location, based on the previous pictures. And look at the color of the stone.”

“And the foliage.” A second cartographer pointed to some trees whose trunks seemed strangely curved. “Those are only found near the Skyshapers.”

“But that range is twelve hundred miles long,” added a third. “Where in the Skyshapers is it?”

Puissance turned to the ponies around her. “Somepony take a photograph of that image before Moondancer loses it. You, Moondancer’s assistants. Go to the nearest libraries and take every book you can find on the—“

Solar Flare blasted out using the full speed of the Alicorn Armor, creating a miniature sonic boom as she went. Luna blinked, but before she could say anything the cloaked pegacorn returned with three dozen books floating behind her.

“Wow!” yelled Scepter. “You’re fast!”

“How intriguing,” said Luna quietly. Puissance tensed, but the alicorn raised no questions about how the cloaked pony had done that. “Shall we begin looking through the books?”

A laboratory assistant took a photograph of Mondancer’s image while the other ponies began going through the texts, with even Luna participating as they all worked to find the exact location Moondancer had shown them. Scepter scampered over next to Puissance with one of the books, a thick and heavy tome, and flipped it open. “It’s okay if I help, right?”

“Of course, dear,” said Puissance, tucking him under a wing while they searched. In the corner of her eye she thought she saw Luna smiling, but when she looked up the alicorn’s face was a neutral mask as she went through her own book. Puissance frowned, then returned to her work.

In about ten minutes Puissance flipped a page and saw an image that exactly matched Moondancer’s, including the cave, the shelf, and the hamlet. “Found it,” she called. “It says that mountain is called Mount Golem by residents of its hamlet, though apparently nopony knows why.”

“Hmm.” Luna inclined her head. “You know… centuries ago, when Red Magician was alive, he was said to have worked on building golems in some secret laboratory deep in the mountains. Nopony knew where he built it, but when he was done he also hid some of his more precious and powerful magical artifacts within that same hideout. He called it his Deepest Dungeon. Perhaps this is its location.”

“That would explain the mountain's name,” mused one of the cartographers. “And would also explain why such a powerful artifact happens to be there.”

Scepter gasped. “So the fourth Horseshoe thingie is in his deepest, darkest dungeon?”

“Just his deepest,” said Luna absently as she came over to look for herself. “Red Magician’s darkest dungeon is a different one; it’s a couple hours south of Canterlot. It’s actually very nice, except that he couldn’t get the lighting system to work.”

Puissance tried to ignore the jabber. “Regardless of what it is called. We know where it is. Now we can go there.”

“It says that there are rumors Red Magician set up traps, spells, and monsters to ‘keep out the unworthy,’” read Scepter from Puissance’s book. “That sounds scary.”

“I’m not worried.” Puissance glanced at the cloaked Solar Flare, who nodded. Solar Flare in the Alicorn Armor, Puissance was sure, could beat any centuries-old trap by Red Magician. “We can leave at once.”

“No you can’t,” said the cartographer. Puissance swiveled to glare at him and he quailed. “Er… sorry… but there’s a problem. This part of the Skyshaper Peaks is technically in the demilitarized zone between us and the griffins. Under the terms of our treaties with them, only so many ponies can go there per year, and only under certain conditions, and only with the approval of our respective Head of State.” He paused. “Meaning Luna.”

Puissance decided not to snap that she knew perfectly well who the monarch was. She quashed down her feeling of sudden terror—that Luna would pull her support now, on the cusp of success, and condemn her to death—and turned to her monarch. “Princess,” she said, only to take a step back when Luna fixed a strangely inscrutable gaze on her. It was like she was trying to peer into Puissance’s soul, and Puissance found she did not like that. “Princess, your Vicereine asks… your Vicereine implores…”

Luna said nothing.

And then Puissance bowed. “Your Vicereine begs for permission,” she said. “Please, Princess Luna. After 50 years of service your Viceriene begs…”

“Puissance,” whispered Luna. The vicereine looked up to see Luna extending her hoof, like anypony would do to help a fallen friend. “Rise, Puissance. I will not make you beg.”

Puissance got to her hooves, acutely aware that everypony was staring at her. “Thank you,” she said, somewhat lamely.

“Now, let’s see.” Luna tilted her head. “Shortly after my sister’s… return… a small detachment of griffons entered the demilitarized zone. That detachment included their more aggressive leaders and also those leaders’ heirs. They were clearly hoping that we would be too weakened from the Battle of Canterlot to defend Latigo, thus enabling them to break it into chunks and set up their sons and nephews with their own fiefdoms. When we proved able to block them, they told us that they weren’t attacking but were just ‘training a few of their heirs for operations in the field.’ She nodded. “We accepted that explanation, which means we can demand parity. I cannot send a full military contingent to excavate the site. That could be seen as an act of war. But a few ponies could go using the same excuse that the griffins had used.”

“I will leave at once,” said Puissance. “And I will represent to all who ask that I am training heirs—“

“No,” said Puissance with a smile, “You will actually bring heirs there to be trained. We must be honest with the griffins.” She looked at Scepter. “How would you like to go on an archeological dig with your grandmother?”

Scepter brightened. “That would be awesome! But, um… what about the monsters?”

“The hamlet seems okay,” said one of the cartographers. “And it’s right outside the dungeon. How bad could the monsters be?”

“And my bodyguard will protect you,” said Puissance with a nod towards Solar Flare. She had no idea why Luna wanted Scepter to go on this dig, but she didn’t care. It might even give her the chance to train him without his pesky father undercutting all her decisions. “She has defeated a hundred-cow army in less than a minute. She can handle an old monster or two.” Then she turned to Luna. “Then I will take Scepter with me—“

“And Trixie too,” said Luna with a smile. Puissance opened her mouth to object but Luna raised a hoof. “As I’m sure you know given… recent events… I see Trixie as one of my heirs, and I am very keen to continue her training. I am confident you would have much to teach her, especially given the variety of challenges which may present themselves on this dig, and I can promise you that she will enthusiastically assist your efforts to the best of her abilities. And after all, if we want the griffins to believe we are training heirs we must bring multiple heirs to train.”

Puissance sighed to herself, but there was no alternative. “Very well,” she said. “Do you wish me to take anypony else?”

“I can think of a few possible options,” Luna said. “But you need not wait for them. Gather the ponies you wish to take with you and leave for the Skyshaper Peaks. I will contact Trixie and anypony else I feel could assist you, then send them there independently.”

“Thank you,” said Puissance, already making the list in her head. Herself and Scepter, obviously Solar Flare, Moondancer—so she could cast the immortality spell the very moment they obtained the fourth Horseshoe; why wait until the return to Califurlong?—and maybe a few others. She recalled a pair of mercenaries Solar Flare had once mentioned, with names something like Silly Shimmer and Lightning Dolt. They weren’t military, and there were just two of them so they wouldn’t offend the griffins, but if they were genuinely capable and quickly available they were a possibility.

Luna turned to leave. “I will let you begin. But, one more thing. Puissance?”

“Yes, Princess?” Puissance hurried to her side. “What is it?”

The alicorn turned back to look at her, and there was still a smile on her face, but her gaze was deeply serious. “Artifacts like these sometimes come at an unduly high price,” she said quietly. “I truly do not know what will be waiting for you in the Skyshapers. Or if this… ritual… you intend to cast may have side effects. But if the cost is too high, I trust you will remember what is truly valuable.”

“Of course,” said Puissance, and she realized she felt less troubled than she had in a long time. After all, she’d heard that speech from so many ponies before. ‘Don’t pay more than you can afford,’ they all said. But they didn’t know her.

She was the mare who had everything. She was the mare who could afford anything. And no matter what price the Skyshapers and Star Swirl’s magic exacted, no matter what price eternal life…

She knew she could afford it.

Author's Note:

This chapter takes place a few days before the Golden Horseshoes story.

Being the changelings assigned to follow around Puissance must be hard, since she's so stingy with her love. No wonder they're so thin. But I suppose someone has to follow her around and learn where she keeps all of her most powerful artifacts and assets just in case a certain changeling queen wants them for herself (or at least wants to break them and stop Equestria from using them against her swarm). And, of course, helping Puissance stay on her self-destructive path and thus increasing the odds that she'll flame out and her province will go to a less-experienced heir is also a very important task.

All references to Darkest Dungeon and Jim Thompson's The Getaway are intentional. :-)

The epilogue will be published tomorrow!