• Published 1st Oct 2020
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Equal Opportunity Ascension - Cast-Iron Caryatid



Twilight Sparkle is a bit underwhelmed with her ascension to alicornhood and, after a disastrous coronation ceremony, it becomes clear that something is missing. It'd be a shame if somepony else got to it before she did.

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Chapter 15

Third week of spring, Year 52 After Chaos Era

The city outside the walls of the castle continues to grow in spite of my sister’s warnings, leaving me little choice but to prowl the nights in their defense. Thank the stars that the Tree of Harmony happened to be located in such a defensible location, or there would be no watching over it. Already, its power has waned and what was once a wide open glade miles across has receded to a size barely befitting of a small hamlet. I fear there may come a time when we must return the elements to the tree, though Celestia assures me that the tree is recovering and the two will soon balance out. She may be right, but it is clear to me that she covets the symbolic value of the elements as much as she does their use, else she would not object to the idea of sequestering them away instead of keeping them in that gaudy display, nor laugh at me for ‘suggesting that we might unpick an apple.’

There is little I can do about my sister’s questionable taste in artwork, however, so I must turn my attention instead to the other side of the equation. Without the magic of the forest encroaching on its power, the Tree of Harmony would no doubt recover in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take, faster even than if I could convince my sister to return the elements from whence they came.

It is unfortunate, then, that even with the magic of the forest closing in on us and providing ample opportunity to research it, no progress has been made in locating any locus or focus upon which it is concentrated. It is clearly there, and just as clearly not fading with time. If anything, it grows stronger, as seen in its ongoing struggle against the power of the Tree of Harmony. If this magic truly is of an alicorn as we suspect, then whatever did this must have been vile indeed to leave not a single horn or hoof or bone to which the power would be drawn to after all these years. If I was asked how I would accomplish this, I would arrest the questioner and throw them in the dungeons, of course, as such would be a sign of a very worrying mind, but purely theoretically…

First, one would have to kill the alicorn in question, which, while not impossible, certainly is not easy. Actually—no. First, one would need to capture an alicorn and drain them of their lifesblood, allowing them to recover between each letting until one has enough of the material to water a forest.

Then, one would do so.

I said it was vile, not complicated. Likely, the alicorn in question would have been cremated as well, possibly after having been drowned in the mixture. Cremating a pony so submersed would require a spell not unlike that which Celestia uses to replicate her sun, but it would be possible and the symbolical weight of an alicorn's own blood is the only thing I can think of that might anchor and prevent their magic from dispersing.

Regardless, it is all a matter of semantics on a subject that does not bear speaking about in the first place.

Alas, such conjecture is not actually helpful. Unless we can find some source upon which the magic of the forest resonates, I can think of no other way to free the lingering magic of this once-alicorn than to uproot every tree, brush and sprout—and the soil and loam as well—and do… something with it. Burning would not likely work, as it is the element of life associated with alicorn magic to begin with, but simply isolating it and leaving it to rot might simulate a proper ‘death.’ Sadly, such a feat is beyond even Celestia and I, and even with a thousand thousand ponies to do the job, I fear the forest would not go quietly, nor do we know to what extent the roots of the Tree of Harmony extend. It is possible that in culling the dark, we might also destroy the light.

“Well, that was morbid,” commented Twilight as she gently closed the stiff, dry pages of the old journal and dropped her head back onto the pillow of her bed. The journals, of which Princess Luna had provided several, were the most interesting and enlightening part of the collection, though they were dwarfed by the sheer volume of notes in various forms on everything from timberwolves and other magical and malicious life of the Everfree to page after page of entirely subjective readings that were more like gut feelings about whichever part of the forest that the princess had visited each day.

Also included was a small, string-bound collection of observations on the Tree of Harmony before the elements were removed from it, ostensibly by the alicorn who Twilight was a reincarnation of. While informative in their own regard, these notes were also the most disappointing. Not only did they lack any real aspiration to any level of scientific rigor, but they were also almost entirely impersonal, telling little about the mare who had penned them other than the fact that she had evidently had much better hornwriting than Twilight and her illustrations of the local flora and fauna were on a level that few could ever aspire to.

It was a little embarrassing to feel so called out by a few scraps of parchment from before the founding of Equestria, but it just seemed to be another reminder of all the things this alicorn had that she didn't.

Like functioning wings and the ability to grow a tomato.

Then again, it also served to highlight just how different she was from this supposed previous life. Sure, she might feel a little bad that she’d had Spike do a solid eighty-percent of her writing since he’d become capable of holding a quill, but she also couldn’t actually imagine herself as the calm, elegant and serene lady who had left the Crystal Empire to sit in fields of flowers and draw ladybugs and daffodils.

What little information the notes did include involved reading between the lines like that, though there were a hoofful that were a little more direct, including one of the Crystal Castle with a tiny little dot with wings on the top, labelled ‘hornface.’

And that just represented the whole thing, didn’t it? All in all, the relevant information was exactly as Princess Celestia and Princess Luna had described, mostly useful as a list of things that had already been tried and done, and yet… actually reading the notes and journals for herself and seeing these illustrations was an entirely different experience than having them all summarized in a few sentences.

Twilight fell asleep that night thinking about flowers and blood.

***

It wasn't until Twilight was hanging her head over a bowl of cereal and grumbling about the lack of blueberries in the library when she realized that there was something else that had gone conspicuously missing.

No, not her research or anything that Sunset Shimmer might have taken while she’d been alone in the library; Twilight had made sure of that. It was actually just about the opposite.

“Hey, Spike,” she said, getting the attention of the young dragon who was seeing to a skillet of small rocks and gemstones the size of peas that were popping and cracking from the heat. “Why wasn’t there a Pinkie Pie party for Sunset last night? There should have been plenty of time for her to get one ready.”

Spike shrugged, taking a moment to focus on tossing his rocks, making a racket like a bucket full of nails falling down the stairs. “Something about turning it into a housewarming party after Rarity got the mayor to fork over the deed for the building where the old bakery was.”

“That mare…” Twilight said with a fond shake of her head. “There really is nothing she won’t do, is there?”

“Err, well,” Spike said, letting his rocks sit there popping as he scratched at the back of his neck. “She did say something about needing more firewood to throw a proper housewarming, but I think she was joking.”

A few bites of cereal later, Twilight asked, “So, when you say the old bakery, you mean—”

“Directly across the street, yes,” Spike confirmed.

“Thought so.”

***

Twilight wasted no time in finishing up her breakfast and heading across the street to check on Sunset Shimmer.

If Twilight had expected Sunset to be half asleep and moping around at being forced into this situation, she would have been disappointed. What she got instead was a happy, smiling mare with a handkerchief over her red and gold mane levitating a ratty old broom with less than half of its bristles remaining.

“Great,” Twilight mumbled under her breath as she stood in the door. “She’s a morning pony.” Twilight wasn’t exactly not a morning pony since you really couldn’t be one when you were the princess’ personal student or just wanted to keep a proper schedule, but it looked like Sunset Shimmer had entirely embraced and weaponized it.

“Oh, hey there, Twilight!” Sunset Shimmer beamed like the absolute picture of open friendliness.

Twilight couldn’t help it, and said, “You seem happy,” as she looked around the room, taking it in. She may have seen it from the outside nearly every day since she’d moved to Ponyville, but she’d never so much as taken a peek in the window.

Her first impression was that it was… small. Compared to Sugarcube Corner, which was nearly twice the size, it was downright cozy, the space behind the counter dominated by two massive wood-fired ovens made entirely of stone.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Sunset Shimmer asked as she levitated a full dustpan up and emptied it… into one of the ovens?

A moment later, Sunset Shimmer lit her horn and Twilight was blinking spots out of her eyes in the same way as when Princess Celestia had destroyed the mirror back on that first night in the Crystal Empire.

Twilight gaped, rubbing the spots out of her eyes. “That—that wasn’t…?”

“Celestia’s sun spell?” Sunset Shimmer said with a knowing, prideful smirk. “It’s how I got my cutie mark, you know.”

No, Twilight hadn’t known that. Like with everything she’d read last night, there was so much that a few sentences of summary just didn’t tell you.

That wasn’t why her heart was beating at a gallop, though.

‘Cremating a pony so submersed would require a spell not unlike that which Celestia uses to replicate her sun,’ Luna had written, and that terrible image hadn’t left her all night.

So, of course Sunset Shimmer knew the spell.

“Is something wrong, Twilight?” Sunset Shimmer asked, seemingly full of earnest concern.

Twilight swallowed and shook her head. “N—no, it’s nothing. I was just… err… remembering how seeing the princess raise the sun at the Summer Sun Celebration is what got me interested in magic in the first place.”

Sunset gave Twilight a look of mild disbelief, then said, “Well, okay, then!” and turned back to her work.

Twilight watched Sunset work for a short while, her frown growing until she let out a sigh. “Give me that for a second,” she said, grabbing the broom from Sunset with her magic. Sunset let her take the broom, cocking her head in curiosity at what Twilight was going to do.

Twilight, for her part, scanned over the room, looking for something appropriate. What she found was perfect—an old broken chair with straw stuffing poking out the side. Retrieving a hoofful of the stuffing, she levitated the two together and hit them with a spell.

She handed the seemingly brand-new broom back to Sunset Shimmer, who took it and looked it over.

“Uhh, thanks?” she said. “What spell is that?”

“It’s one of Rarity’s, actually,” Twilight said. “I’m sure she’d teach it to you.”

Sunset went slightly pale. “No, no,” she insisted, glancing at the door as if to make sure that the fashionista in question wasn’t going to show up out of the blue. “A permanent repair spell like that? I can’t do something like that. I burn things—that’s all. Not all of us can have a cutie mark in magic as a whole.”

Twilight wasn’t so convinced. “Really?” She said, feigning her own innocence and not doing half as good a job at it. “I thought that turning yourself into a crystal pony like that would have required a lot of skill.” She hadn’t been planning on pressuring Sunset, but after such a statement, she couldn’t help it.

To Twilight’s surprise, Sunset openly scoffed, and it seemed genuine. “That? Hardly,” she said, waving the very idea off with her hoof as she continued sweeping. “That artifact is like an orphaned timberwolf puppy; it’ll follow just about anypony—then it gets its claws in you, gets attached and starts growing.”

“…I don’t think that’s how timberwolves work?” Twilight said, and somehow the two of them got into a debate on various magical creatures, none of which Sunset Shimmer had actually seen, having grown up in a big city on the top of a mountain.

All in all, it wasn’t a terrible way to spend a morning.

***

It was nearing lunchtime when Spike came looking for Twilight and was surprised to see them chatting amicably as the two of them cleaned up the old bakery, Twilight showing off various spells, always having something for the occasion.

This all stopped when she saw him.

“…Oh—uhh—hey, Spike,” Twilight said, self consciously setting a scrub brush down in a bucket of soapy water and glancing at Sunset.

Spike didn’t seem to know what to say, so it was a relief when Sunset suddenly perked up. “Hey, that’s right!” she said, suddenly seeing Spike in a new light. “Spike can send letters to the princesses, right?” she asked, directing the question at Twilight, who nodded. “Do you think he could send something to Princess Celestia for me? I have to tell her how things are going and where I’m staying.”

Twilight and Spike shared a look, and he shrugged. “I don’t see why not,” Twilight said, curious to know what she was going to say.

Sunset almost seemed too eager as she cleared her throat and said, “Spike, take a letter,” in an eerie mimicry of Twilight.

“Dear Princess Celestia,

“I have arrived in Ponyville and everything is going well. Things were tense with Twilight and her friends at first due to a misunderstanding, but once everything had been explained, they all opened up.

“Fluttershy says I’m fine, by the way. I told you that whole thing on the train was blown way out of proportion, didn’t I?

“Anyway, after a rough start, we all came to an understanding and Rarity took me to see the mayor right away to get me situated in the city post-haste. Unfortunately, they were all out of libraries, but Rarity did manage to find me an old bakery with two great, big ovens and a modest apartment upstairs. I’m not sure if a bakery is what I’ll actually use it for unless there’s a specialty market for sun-baked goods, but whatever I do, it’s likely to involve a lot of fire, so the ovens are a safe bet. With some work, I could even convert them into forges if I decided to go that route, so I have plenty of options! You know me—as long as I can burn things, I’m happy!

“Of course, I say that Rarity found this place for me, but as it so happens, it’s actually directly across from the library. Yes—Twilight’s library! What are the chances? She actually came over this morning and has been helping me clean this place up—and, of course, she’s even letting me use Spike to send you this letter; I’m grateful… and also a little bit envious, to be completely honest. We filled the time cleaning talking about all sorts of magical subjects, and it’s just amazing all the things she can do. I guess that’s what it means to have a cutie mark in magic, huh?

“Anyway, that just about covers everything that’s happened since my last letter, though this one should arrive a little faster and with a little less jam on it than my last couple. I can’t believe some of the ponies that are allowed to deliver mail. Is there something about the profession that attracts strange and unusual ponies? I swear that mare in Vanhoover was a basketcase. On account of all the baskets. Seriously; nopony needs that many baskets.

“Your student once again,

“Sunset Shimmer

“P.S. Oh! I almost forgot! Pinkie Pie said something about throwing me a combination welcome-to-Ponyville-I-hope-you’re-not-a-meanie-pants and house-warming party! How cool is that?

“Okay, I’m done,” Sunset decided after a short pause, but just as Spike was rolling up the letter to send it, she stopped him. “Wait! Hold on a sec. Lemme see that,” she said, walking around behind Spike to look over his shoulder.

Spike opened the letter back up and let Sunset read it, giving Twilight an uncertain look.

“Okay,” Sunset said, pointing with her hoof. “That’s a semicolon and that should be an em-dash. That too. Good, you got the ellipses. Oh, put hyphens between all those words.”

“Really?” Spike said, but made the corrections anyway.

“Don’t question it,” Sunset said. “Dropping semicolons and em-dashes everywhere might not be proper for an essay, but it’s how ponies talk. It’s how Twilight talks.”

Twilight blinked as Spike looked to her in question. “Err—I mean—I don’t do that, do I?”

Sunset Shimmer snickered, earning her confused looks from the other two.

“Forget it,” Sunset said and went back to scanning the page over to make sure she hadn’t missed anything. Shortly, she nodded. “Okay, that should do it. Go ahead and send it.”

Shrugging, Spike rolled the letter back up and did as he was told.

“Thanks, Spike,” Sunset said, ruffling his dorsal spines with her hoof. Suddenly, she had a thought. “Hey, I don’t suppose you’d mind sending something to Princess Cadance?”

“Can you do that?” Twilight asked Spike.

“I think so?” he guessed.

“Cool,” Sunset Shimmer said with a grin. “Come to think of it, Princess Celestia has her own version of that spell in order to send letters back, doesn’t she? I bet I’d have no problem learning that, considering it involves burning things.”

“What is with you and burning things?” Spike asked. “Are you some kind of pyromaniac?”

“Spike!” Twilight said with a gasp. “That’s something I’d expect Rainbow Dash to say.”

“Well, she’s not here, so somebody had to say it,” Spike defended.

“Says the dragon,” Sunset said with some snark.

“Hey,” Spike said, acting offended. “I learned early on that fire is a sometimes thing.”

Suddenly, Sunset crushed Spike in a bear hug. “Oh, you poor, poor thing!” She looked to Twilight with naked hurt in her eyes. “Twilight! How could you?! Depriving a dragon of his chance to burn things! I mean, by the time I was his age, I’d burned down my wing of the castle three times! You’re like those people who try to feed their cats vegetarian diets—it’s cruelty!”

“…No, but seriously,” Spike wheezed out, stuck in Sunset’s grip. “What’s the deal?”

Suddenly, Sunset let him go, dusted herself off and cleared her throat. “It’s a gift,” she said, as if that explained everything.

Twilight raised an eyebrow at her.

“I mean that,” Sunset Shimmer said, turning to show her flank and her two-toned sun cutie mark. “It’s my gift. My special talent. You wouldn’t prevent somepony from expressing their talent, would you?”

“You know, that’s a good point,” Spike said, thoughtful. “I mean, what would you do if a pony had a cutie mark in—”

Twilight coughed, interrupting Spike. “I don’t know how you were going to finish that sentence, Spike, and for both of our sakes, so long as we move right on to Sunset’s second letter, I’m not going to ask.”

“Err—that’d probably be best, yeah,” he said, looking away.

Sunset looked briefly disappointed, but rallied quickly. “Right, then!” she said, clapping her hooves. “Spike—take a letter!”

“You know you don’t have to say it exactly like that every time, right?” Twilight asked.

Sunset flat out ignored her.

“Dear Princess Cadance,

“How are things in the frozen north? It’s hard to imagine anypony living in that kind of place, but from what I saw, you don’t have any problem staying warm at night, do you?

“You lucky mare.

“I know that we’ve had our differences, but, honestly, I regret that now. If I’d known that all it took to make you act like a real person was to get you sleep deprived, I’d have been your wingmare every night of the week.

“And maybe done what I could to get you drunk.

“You have no idea how good it felt to see you get Celestia to make that face. For that alone, I will forgive you for all of your… you-ness.

“Your Best Friend Forever,

“Sunset Shimmer.”

By the time Sunset was done dictating the short letter, Twilight’s face was red. “I—wha—you—!”

“Okay, Spike,” Sunset said. “Send the letter.”

“Sunset!” Twilight shouted, aghast. Quickly, she turned to Spike. “Spike, don’t—”

Spike sent the letter.

“Spike!”

“What?”