• Published 1st Oct 2020
  • 1,851 Views, 297 Comments

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 4

Wandering through the Crystal Castle at night was a unique experience. The crystal walls were just barely translucent enough to give the whole place an ethereal glow that was accentuated by the moonlight coming in from large windows, reflecting and refracting to fill the space and chase away dark corners. It was refreshing, and she found herself considering ways to get more light in the library basement back home.

The quiet was nice, too, after a day in close quarters with all of her friends, though it struck her as a bit odd, too. There simply weren’t the amount of guards that she had come to expect from a castle, and the guards that she did come across weren’t crystal ponies, but Celestia’s royal guard doing random patrols. Twilight supposed that the crystal ponies were all fairly well-behaved… though maybe that description was a little too on-the-nose, considering the likely cause for the lack of defiance in the crystal ponies.

She would be very interested to see a chart of crime in the city in five years’ time, especially before and after the Equestria Games, which, as Cadance had said, would bring a lot of attention and trade to the isolated Crystal Empire.

Twilight realized that she had come across something different when she noticed two guards who weren’t patrolling, but were standing guard instead.

It wasn’t a great mystery, of course. In hindsight, it was obvious that Princess Celestia would also be put up in a guest room while she was here, it was just… strange to actually picture her in a room like any other pony.

It was stranger still to have her suddenly open the door and walk out looking tired, downtrodden and wearing a nightcap.

If it was any consolation, Princess Celestia seemed just as dumbfounded to see Twilight and spent a short amount of time blinking in stunned surprise before straightening up and putting a smile on her face. “Twilight,” she said warmly. “I didn’t expect to see you up at this time of night. Are you alright?”

“Oh—um—I’m fine, Princess,” she said, stepping back and shuffling her hooves. “I just went to bed a little early.”

“Ah,” Princess Celestia said with an understanding, if slightly melancholy smile. “If only I were so forward-thinking. Glancing down the hall, she gestured with her horn and said, “Why don’t you come walk with me? I have someplace that I need to be, and I am already late as it is.”

Twilight blinked then quickly hurried behind Princess Celestia, who had already begun to make her way off into the castle without waiting for a response, which was unlike her. What could she possibly have to do somewhere in the castle at two-thirty in the morning? Princess Celestia didn’t appear hurried, but her long strides force Twilight into a slight canter to keep up—something she hadn’t had to do since her foalhood, when no amount of mincing steps on the princess’ part could match their gaits.

The nostalgic feeling made it all the more rather jarring, then, when the princess said, “You do know that you do not need to call me ‘princess,’ don’t you?”

Twilight did know that, yes. She’d thought about it during the greeting the day before, when she had almost bowed to her as well, but… well, she supposed this was as good a time as any to say it. “I know, but it’s difficult. I don’t… really feel like much of a princess.”

Princess Celestia’s lips tightened, even as she turned down another hallway. “That’s not…” she said, and sighed. “Twilight, I don’t just mean because of your title. You—” She cut herself off when she came across a short hall ending in two large, double doors and stopped walking. The doors looked much the same as any other in the Crystal Castle, but to Princess Celestia they were clearly significant.

Princess Celestia approached the doors with an uncharacteristic wariness, as if she wasn’t sure what she would see on the other side. Twilight waited back as the princess opened the door and… nothing happened. Princess Celestia let out a breath she’d been holding, and walked inside, checking around the room to ensure that she hadn’t missed anything.

Twilight idly followed at her own pace, mirroring her mentor’s actions out of curiosity, but there was nothing special about the room that she could place. It was full of various artworks—pottery, paintings, a slightly creepy statue of a foal and so on—but they were nothing she wouldn’t have expected to see in a similar room back in Canterlot.

“Are you expecting something here to be stolen?” Twilight asked, turning back to Princess Celestia, who had seated herself in front of a large mirror.

Princess Celestia shook her head. “No, I’m hoping for the opposite, in fact.”

“Now, this I would like to hear,” said a voice from the door, which had been left open.

Both Twilight and Princess Celestia turned to discover not only Princess Luna, who had been the one to speak, but a very very tired and bedraggled Cadance, who clearly hadn’t been consulted about her presence here at this hour of the night.

“…Luna?” Princess Celestia asked, unintentionally revealing that she was not actually much better off than Cadance.

Princess Luna led Cadance into the room and they both sat, making something of a circle with Celestia and Luna. “I felt you awaken and thought to offer you some company,” Luna explained. “When you encountered Twilight in the hall, however, I knew that the time for a conversation long due had come and I gathered Princess Cadance so that we might all be involved.

“This, however,” she said, looking all around the room, settling on the mirror that Princess Celestia had seated herself in front of. “This, I know nothing about, and I would very much like to.”

Princess Celestia gazed longingly into the mirror, sighed and said, “Very well, but it is not a story that I am proud of. As you all should know, Twilight is not the first filly that I have taken as my personal student.”

“Oh, great,” Cadance muttered, raised her hoof and said, “I’ve heard this one already, can I go back to bed?”

“No,” Princess Luna immediately said.

“Drat,” Cadance cursed flatly.

Princess Celestia shook her head and continued. “Before Twilight, I had a student named Sunset Shimmer. On the surface, she was very similar to Twilight; studious, driven and eager to please.”

Twilight shifted uncomfortably and fought off a blush. That wasn’t exactly how she’d like to be described, but it wasn’t inaccurate.

“Let me guess,” Luna said, crossing her arms. “The pony that she desired validation from was you, but she never got it until she did something horrible.”

Cadance faux gasped. “How did you know?”

“It is a familiar story,” Luna deadpanned.

Princess Celestia looked hurt at Cadance’s flippancy. “Cadance? I thought—”

“Hey, I was dragged out of bed with Shiny for this,” she said. “Do I wish that things had gone differently back then so that we could have gotten along? Yes. Have I gotten over it? Also yes. Do you have an eerily repetitive problem with ponies close to you suffering from mental breakdowns because they desire your approval? So very much yes. You’re just lucky that all Twilight did was mind-control a town when she had her breakdown.”

Twilight shrank in on herself, not feeling very well represented in this conversation, which wasn’t helped by Princess Celestia suddenly looking at her like she’d never seen her before.

“Can we get on with the actual tale and how it involves this mirror? Luna asked.

“I… yes, of course,” Princess Celestia said and paused to collect herself. Twilight expected her to draw herself up and sit straighter, but if anything, her shoulders actually drooped a little.

“It may be tempting to liken Sunset Shimmer to some of my other failures, but the truth is a little more complicated than it appears on the surface.

“You see, Sunset Shimmer came to me at a low point in her life, having just lost her parents to illness. She wasn’t the first orphan that I had taken in, so when she began showing signs of being prideful, arrogant and aggressively independent as many ponies who have gone through trauma at a young age do, I believed that I understood her, and placed her in a box.”

Princess Luna gasped in horror.

“A mental box, Luna,” Princess Celestia said, covering her face with one hoof. “I mentally categorized her… incorrectly. I hadn’t understood her at all, and that was how and why I failed her.”

“Oh,” Princess Luna said. “Carry on.”

“I treated her the same as I had many of my previous orphaned students. I was strict when she acted out and allowed her free reign when she behaved. In hindsight, this was the worst thing that I could have done.

“At the time, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t get through to Sunset. Why it seemed like all that I could do was push her away. It wasn’t until I talked to Cadance after the fact that I began to understand.

“Sunset Shimmer was most of the things that she showed to the world with one exception; unlike the orphans that I had taught before, independence was a burden that she shouldered out of necessity, but wished dearly that she could throw off.

“The one role she actually needed me to take was the one thing I failed to be for her—a mother.”

There was a moment of silence before Twilight spoke up, needing to ask, “Um, princess? No offense—I mean, that’s… tragic and all—but isn’t that basically what Luna said?”

“On the contrary,” Luna said. “I find the fact that ‘orphaned foals need love’ is a new concept for my sister extremely enlightening…”

Princess Celestia grimaced, but said nothing.

“So—um—the mirror?” Twilight asked, gesturing at it.

Princess Celestia whipped her head around to look at the mirror, but was disappointed when it remained just a mirror.

“I just meant, are you going to explain it?” Twilight clarified, even more curious now.

Princess Celestia was no longer in the mood. “The mirror is a portal to another world that only opens once every thirty moons,” she explained plainly and simply. “When things got really bad between Sunset and I, she became convinced that I could make her an alicorn and demanded that I do so. When I refused and threatened to dismiss her as my student, she refused to back down, so I had the guards escort her out of the castle. She chose instead to exile herself through the mirror. Every thirty moons since then, I have stood vigil over the mirror as best I could for the three days that it remains open, hoping that she will return.”

“I… see,” Twilight said, not quite sure how to take that.

Princess Celestia cocked her head in question at Twilight’s tone. “Is there something wrong?”

“Well,” Twilight said, scratching her neck. “The thing is… she wasn’t wrong, was she?”

Princess Celestia blinked. “I’m not sure what you mean, Twilight.”

“Just… you could have made her into an alicorn, couldn’t you?” Twilight elaborated, hoping that Princess Celestia would be honest with her. “I’m not saying it would have been a good idea, but you could have.”

“Hold,” Princess Luna interrupted. “I believe that this is the conversation for which I fetched Cadance.”

Twilight wasn’t quite sure why Princess Luna felt the need to declare that until she turned to look and realized that Cadance had fallen back asleep, and from the drool coming off the corner of her mouth, had likely done so some time ago.

Princess Luna approached the sleeping princess and gave her a poke.

Cadance groaned, said, “Not now, Shiny. I have gumdrops in the morning,” and turned over.

Luna pursed her lips in consternation, then cleared her throat loudly.

Cadances’s eyes shot open, and she scrambled away from Luna, shouting “I’m up! I’m up!”

Nopony said anything.

Cadance composed herself, walked back to where she’d been and sat down with grace and poise, pretending none of that had happened.

After a few moments of awkward silence, Cadance asked, “So, where were we?”

Princess Celestia turned back to Twilight. “I don’t know why you think that I could have made Sunset Shimmer an alicorn. I am not all-powerful.”

“Then why did you lie to me?” Twilight asked.

“I never claimed—”

“You fed me some line about ‘creating new magic’ that a foal out of magic kindergarten could poke holes in,” Twilight said with a huff. “I’m insulted.”

“Is that what you told her?” Luna asked, disbelieving. “I concur. That was not your most well-thought-out move, sister.”

“Wait, so you did lie?” Cadance asked, looking to Princess Celestia for answers.

Princess Celestia closed her eyes, took a breath and let it out. She addressed her answer to Twilight. “I… did not wish to burden you with living up to a legacy that you have only the most tenuous of connections to.”

“Irony is a vengeful mare, is she not?” Luna said.

Twilight… wasn’t really sure what kind of excuse that was supposed to be. As much as she didn’t feel like a princess, becoming one should have been a sign that she was ready for more responsibility, not a reason to hide something from her. Whatever it was, she would prefer to know. “What’s going on? What legacy?” she asked.

Princess Celestia opened her mouth to speak, then looked at Princess Luna. “Am I going to be able to tell this one without being badgered with interruptions?”

“We shall see,” was Luna’s response. “You cannot make too long a story of it as there is very little we know, but I do not doubt that you will try.”

Princess Celestia shook her head and turned back to Twilight prepared in her mind what to say. She looked at Luna, pursed her lips, and continued to think. She did this several times, internally hemming and hawing before she finally gave up.

“Oh, fine,” she said with a huff, rolling her eyes. “Princess Amore was actually an alicorn, Cadance is her reincarnation and Twilight is the reincarnation of her sister.”

Twilight blinked. “That’s it?”

“As I told you when the Crystal Empire had first returned, there is very little that we actually know about it,” Princess Celestia said, keeping an eye on Luna. “What we do know is that Princess Amore’s sister left the empire and traveled south to live alone. We do not even know her name.”

“Somewhere around Ponyville, maybe?” Twilight asked slightly sarcastically.

“Yes and no,” Princess Celestia said cryptically, earning a look from Princess Luna. “She lived in what is now the Everfree forest. It was she who first discovered the Elements of Harmony, and it was her notes that led us to them.”

“Her notes?” Twilight asked. “Not her?”

Princes Celestia nodded, not needing to explain.

“I see.” Twilight was… disappointed—both in Princess Celestia and the little information she had. “So, after all this, we’re still no closer to understanding why I seem to be only one third of an alicorn.” Twilight sighed and looked up to her mentor. “I wish you’d just told me the truth in the first place. It’s not like I would go off the deep end obsessing over what some vague story of a previous life says about me.”

Princess Luna cleared her throat. “My sister seems to have—”

“I was getting there!” Princess Celestia whined, snapping at her sister. “I stopped because we were taking a moment of silence for the dead.”

The look on Luna’s face said exactly how much she cared for that excuse.

“We do know—or at least strongly suspect—why it is that your magic seems to be incomplete,” Princess Celestia told Twilight. “I had expected that the situation would have sorted itself out when you ascended. Clearly, I was wrong, and for that I apologize.”

“What situation?” Twilight asked, exasperated.

“Twilight,” Luna interrupted, gaining her attention. “What is it that makes the Everfree forest so unnatural?”

Twilight was thrown a bit by the apparent change in subject, though it was about the Everfree, so it was probably related. “Well, as it was introduced to me—” Twilight faux-gasped, and said, “‘The plants grow, animals care for themselves and the clouds move, all on their own.’”

Luna directed her sarcastic eyebrow at Twilight for that.

“…Sorry,” she said, apologizing for the dramatic recitation. “That’s how they said it at the time. I wasn’t impressed either.”

Neither Princess Luna or Princess Celestia said anything, and Twilight went over what she’d just said. “Wait, you’re not saying that the reason I don’t have any pegasus or earth pony magic is because it’s still out there?” Twilight asked incredulously.

Princess Celestia nodded solemnly. “We could tell as soon as we came across the forest that its magic was not only much like ours, but that something terrible had happened to its source. We settled there both to protect the Tree of Harmony and in hopes of someday unraveling the secrets of the Everfree.”

“The tree of what now?” Twilight asked, shoulders drooping.

“The Tree of Harmony is the source of the Elements of Harmony,” Luna explained.

Twilight looked away from the two princesses sitting across from her. “…That seems like something my friends and I should have been told about,” she said, concerned at just how many things she hadn’t known before today.

“Well… Perhaps,” Luna said, having apparently been complicit in keeping that particular secret if her posture and pawing at the ground with her hoof was any sign.”

“No, I mean we really should have been told,” Twilight insisted. “For all any of us knew, that could have been the ‘back where it all began,’ from Discord’s riddle when he took the Elements of Harmony before we could use them.”

“Ah, well, if that is the case…” Luna said, looking to Princess Celestia, since Princess Luna hadn’t been there.

Princess Celestia coughed uneasily. “Actually, what he said was ‘back where you began,” she said, giving Twilight an apologetic look.

“…Oh.”

“But you may have a point,” Princess Celestia added hastily. “It is true that there may come a day when you need to know more about the Elements of Harmony when Luna and I are not around to help you.”

“There’s more?” Twilight asked, sounding dismayed.

“Ah, no, actually,” Princess Luna admitted.

Twilight’s eye twitched, but she eventually settled down on the side of letting it go. “Well… That’s a relief,” she said and took a deep breath.

“Now,” Twilight continued with a certain edge to her voice. “Can we go back to the part where my pegasus and earth pony magic is just sitting there and you’re telling me this now, when we’re about as far as it’s possible to get from it and still nominally be in Equestria?”

It was entirely unlike her, but Twilight was actually mad at her mentor right then. “I get that you didn’t want to tell me about some alicorn I might have been in a past life—I don’t agree with it, but I understand it—but couldn’t you have at least dropped me a letter in the weeks it’s been since then so I wouldn’t have been tearing my hair out trying to figure out what was wrong with me?”

“I—” Princess Celestia was spared from having to explain herself by the loud crash of a vase shattering on the other side of the door followed by a harsh expletive and the clopping of hooves down the corridor.

In the silence that followed, Cadance snored.