• Published 2nd Dec 2012
  • 14,639 Views, 189 Comments

Crucible - Luminary



Equestria, beset by the changeling invasion, must deal with a dawning golden age. Without Celestia.

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Five - Twilight: Recrimination

Twilight oozed toward wakefulness to the time of a steady, rhythmic beeping. She considered that with glacial, muzzy speed.

Did Spike get one of those pegasus-charged clocks with the artificial buzzer? Or one of those newer ones that plugged into the far steadier electrical current from the dam near Ponyville? Twilight liked her old alarm clock. An earth pony one that wound by mouth or with telekinesis. It lasted nearly as long as the unicorn or pegasus-magic powered ones, was far more reliable, and Spike could wind it with his claws. Celestia had given it to her, ostensibly as a random gift, in her teen years, when she hit a phase of being a little full of herself about her magic. The lesson in the value of other tribes had been subtle, but deep. Besides, that one could be counted on to be loud enough to wake her. This one was practically lulling her back to sleep. It was just too quiet and even, following the beat of her heart.

She wasn’t waking until Spike called her for breakfast. Maybe not even then, if it wasn’t something particularly appetizing. The unicorn felt just too much like when she was wrapped up in Celestia’s wings. Warm, comfortable and perfectly safe. The thought didn’t cause the same flutter in her heart that it normally did though. It kind of twisted up her middle, instead. That was strange.

Rarity must have come over to visit, she could hear the mare somewhere nearby-ish. Odd how she hadn’t noticed before. Well, good, that would keep Spike occupied while she got more sleep.

“I’ve no excuse for it. I can only apologize, but that seems to be a meager thing. I fear I shan’t ever live down the shame of it. After all your kind words to me, no less! I’ve let us both down.”

Rarity’s voice was filled with woe. That alone didn’t exactly get Twilight flinging herself out from under the covers. She a pony that loved histrionics. Upon first meeting Rarity it had seemed a bit absurd to Twilight. That feeling remained, actually. That being said, Twilight wouldn’t change Rarity for anything. For all her passionate swings of mood she was a wise, collected and worldly pony.

Could a pony be both collected and passionate? Normally the question would have Twilight double-checking a copy of the dictionary. At that moment she was still just too warm and cozy. The happy, fuzzy feeling she got from thinking about her friend just fit along too well with that. Rarity was her very best friend for certain.

“...were just thinking! Honestly! I’m not the thought-police, Rarity.” Oh! She missed some of that while she was thinking. The second voice took longer to place. It wasn’t one of her friends, but it was very familiar. Someone from town? “I do, however, get to feel just how much my husband loves me. Can you imagine the confidence boost it is to get a taste of how he heats up a little when I walk into a room? Or to be entirely, one hundred percent sure, that he feels the same way about me as I do about him?”

Twilight tried to follow the conversation, but it all just seemed like too much work. Better to just sort of drift. She never really felt like this when waking up. Maybe she was really tired? Was it still the middle of the night? She certainly felt pretty sleepy.

Rarity was clearly halfway to outright hysterics. So, normal, in other words. “Oh! Please believe me when I say that I never would want to challenge that. That’s why I felt so terrible when I thought it! It was just a moment of foalish, insensitive fancy. Rational, proper parts of me are simply in awe of what you have. Your husband is a stallion of loyalty and fine taste. He would never stray.”

“Shining thinks you’re the most beautiful unicorn that he’s ever seen.” That strange voice again, in an even tone, mentioned Shining? Shining Armor? Her brother? Her very best friend? Twilight tried to focus, but it was just so hard. Her head wasn’t working right. It felt like it was filled with cotton, all soft and fuzzy.

There was a choking sound.

That unplaceable voice laughed lightly. It was a pretty thing, and much easier to follow than the words. That laugh was even more familiar than the voice. Cadance! It was her foalsitter. Her oldest and dearest of friends. Her voice had changed some since her youth, but not so much that she should have had trouble recognizing it. What was she doing in her library in Ponyville anyway? “I wasn’t bragging before. I know how Shiny feels about me. I don’t have to worry if he finds a mare beautiful. I don’t even have to worry that he liked leaning up against you as much as you did. Or that he thought you were pretty inspiring today.” Cadance’s voice softened. “I happen to share that opinion myself.”

“I...” Rarity didn’t get any further.

There was a rustle of pony feathers. The young alicorn’s voice cut Rarity off. “I think she’s awake. She feels diff-”

Oh forget it. Twilight couldn’t keep up with it. The conversation just seemed to be zipping by somehow, like when Pinkie Pie got the idea to use caffeine pills when baking. If it's important they’ll wake me up.

Twilight allowed herself to float back off into warm oblivion.

* * *

There was that beeping again. Just as slow and metronome-even as before. It wasn’t even waking her up. It was the talking again that did that.

“...looks pretty bucked up. Why’s she still out?” That somewhat scratchy voice was one Twilight knew. Rainbow Dash. Her heart blossomed with that contented feeling again. She liked Dash’s voice. It was very cool. Maybe even awesome. It was just very Rainbow Dash. Presumably all those were the same thing.

“Rainbow Dash! Don’t swear. We’re in a hospital. There’s sick ponies here!” That was Fluttershy. Her voice was so cute! Twilight always liked how it got when she was being protective of someone. She was always so much more confident, and you could tell she was trying to be loud, but her voice was still butter-soft and oh-so-kind.

“...burn and exhaustion. The doctors weren’t even sure why her horn didn’t crack from the heat of all that spellcasting.” Oh, the conversation had gone on ahead of her while she was thinking. That wasn’t normal, but Twilight found she couldn’t really conjure up the energy to worry about it. “...part of the brain. That can happen when a unicorn pushes themselves too hard. They don’t think that happened, thank Celes-- Um, thank heavens. But they have her on magic-restoring medicine. It makes ponies tired and really disoriented. So... um... that’s probably why she’s still sleeping. ”

Twilight’s insides twisted up again when Fluttershy started to mention Celestia. The talk of medicine made her forget about it instantly. Her brain churned up a few names out of nowhere. Salvia Magisterum. Atropa Equina. Amanita Lunara. Tabernanthe Etherum from the Zebra lands. Lophophora... something. The cactus they found when settling New Appleloosa. All magic restoring hallucinogens or entheogens that were turned into medicines for unicorns. Twilight briefly wondered what it said about unicorns that the things that restored their powers also made them go crazy. She could go crazy sometimes. When she felt the very opposite of how she felt at that instant.

Well, perchance that pondering of insanity wasn’t so brief. By the time she tried listening for her friends again, everything was silent except for that steady, almost hypnotic beeping. She let herself sink back down, the warmth seeming to reach up and physically swallow her halfway. It was sort of nice. Comfortable. She would have preferred hearing her friends again though.

* * *

The whole world was dead. The landscape of Equestria stretched out around her, all grey and black with ash. Smoke, not clouds, covered the sky.

Twilight was in Celestia’s own garden, in one of the highest courtyards tucked right up against the near vertical slope of the mountain. If it was any place less intimately known to Twilight she would never have picked it out. That heat-crumbled ruin of broken stone was where the Princess trained her in levitation. Her first successful teleportation had once nearly put her inside a cherry tree which was now nothing but a twisted, brittle stick of charcoal. By the pile of ash that used to be a thick, flowering hedge, she and Celestia had once shared a heaping pile of overripe cherries. They’d been unable to get the red out of the fur around their mouths and hooves, and Celestia was forced to go to a meeting with the Cervine ambassador afterward looking like she’d decided to become a carnivore. The diplomatic corps still called it Red Thursday.

Twilight Sparkle spared no real attention to the landscape. Her wide eyes were locked on the horror in front of her, unable to look away. The fire blackened bones of an enormous pony, easily twice the size of the largest stallion, writhed in the ash. It twisted and contorted in apparent agony. Delicate wing bones flailed uselessly at air and the ground. The single-horned skull stared right at her, the deathly rictus breaking as it opened its mouth to silently scream. The undying thing scraped uselessly at the ground, trying to pull itself toward her. Its horn flickered with dying magic. That beautiful, solar-gold magic. Twilight found herself frozen in place, body unmoving except for the wracking shudders that came as a sob tore itself from her throat.

Gracefully long, midnight-blue feathers passed between her and the sight of that writhing thing. Twilight flung herself to the side, burying her face into Luna’s chest, wailing. A hoof shod in strange metal awkwardly embraced her. Those soft, dark feathers enfolded her.

Twilight didn’t know how long she cried in her friend’s forelegs. It could have been minutes or hours. All she knew was that eventually she found herself slumped into the ash, numb, her insides feeling achingly hollow after the release of her sobbing. The ruins of the garden were empty except for her and the dark alicorn. She couldn’t remember why that was important, or why the place filled her with a quiet dread.

“Who did this, Twilight Sparkle? Dost thou remember?” Luna’s voice was brittle, but insistent. She hadn’t heard that tone before from the princess of the night. “Who harmed our Sister? Who didst thou do battle with? The guards reported seeing no enemy, or anything at all, our Sister’s display saw to that. But thou clearly witnessed it.”

Twilight blinked with confusion. “Is there something wrong with the Princess? I was fighting? Are you talking about the wedding?”

“Nay, not then, yesterday. Think. Focus. Who harmed Celestia?”

Twilight’s brow furrowed in concentration. There was no revelation. Her mind seemed sluggish and muddled. “I don’t... the changeling queen? They fought in the throne room, and...” The unicorn lost that thread of thought. She looked up helplessly at the goddess.

Luna huffed in frustration. “Thy mind is lost in either the Moon’s Agaric or injury.” The alicorn breathed a suffering sigh, and unfolded her wings. The tips of her pinions airily touched below the lines of Twilight’s jaw, and with infinite gentleness raised the unicorn's muzzle. “We shall have to wait, as much as it pains us. Let nightmares trouble thee no longer, dear friend. Rest with our blessing.” Luna lowered her head, touching a kiss to the top of Twilight’s nose. A soothing breeze passed, carrying the sweet scent of apple blossoms.

Twilight felt grass, cool with dew, touching her underside where only gritty ash once was. There was a new moment of blinking confusion, but it passed quickly. She was alone, but that wasn’t so unusual. She wasn’t far outside of the main streets of Ponyville, in a field close enough to Sweet Apple Acres to see the rolling hills covered in apple trees just beginning to flower. Warm sunlight shone down on her back. It was the very picture of idyllic peace. The colourful sight of ponies in the distance, in town and upon the roads, didn’t tempt her from moving from the field. Something told her she didn’t deserve to be with them. It was a bitter thought, and one she couldn’t explain, but it felt undoubtedly true. She lowered her chin down onto folded forelegs, her nose close enough to a nearby patch of honeysuckle flowers for them to at least sweeten the air. It didn’t help much, but it was calm, at least.

“Frowny Twilight isn’t much an improvement over Messy-Mane Twilight.”

The lavender filly lifted her gaze from the grass in front of her. She was quickly tempted to look away again, as she beheld a pink so garishly bright that it almost hurt the eyes. “Pinkie Pie?”

The poofy-maned earth pony settled down on her haunches nearby, and craned her neck down to bump Twilight’s cheek with the tip of her nose. “It’s not your fault, silly filly.”

“What isn’t? I...” The young mage felt moisture gathering at the corners of her eyes. She raised a forehood to brush at them in confusion. “I think I did something bad. I don’t know what’s going on.”

“You’re a good pony. That’s all that matters. We all go a bit loco-in-the-coco sometimes. Look on the bright side: At least your mane can’t get any straighter.” Pinkie raised herself to a more upright posture and nodded to herself resolutely. “What you need is some Pinkie-grade cheering up.”

Twilight folded her ears back. “I don’t think a party will fix things, Pinkie.”

“Well, parties fix me right up, when I’m feeling down. But Pinkie isn’t a one-trick pony. In fact, she’s got more tricks than Trixie. And that’s practically her name! What smart cookie librarians...” The party pony trailed off, as is suddenly reminded about something. She turned her head to reach behind her back, returning with a cookie delicately held between her lips. The earth pony placed it down on the back of Twilight’s foreleg and stared at her expectantly until the unicorn lowered her head to take a bite out of it. It was so full of chocolate chips that it fell apart after the first bite. It was sinfully rich and delicious. Pinkie continued on then, as if she had never stopped, apparently satisfied. “What smart cookie librarians need is a story. This is a great one that my Nana Pinkie told me.”

Twilight managed to offer her friend a glass-brittle smile. It was better than Pinkie trying to get her to play Pin the Tail on the Pony.

The earth pony rose up onto her hooves, bracing them far apart in a pose of wary action, looking left and right. “So, there Granny Pie was, not that she was a Granny yet, right on the edge of the balcony outside the palace ballroom. It was supposed to be a party to rub elbows with the other ponies in the Royal Archaeological Society, and meet the princess. There wasn’t supposed to be gryphons involved. Least of all him, the nefarious General Scar.”

Twilight stopped nosing after one of the fallen bits of the cookie. “Pinkie, that’s the opening scene to Daring Do and the Gryphon’s Goblet.”

Pinkie managed to look affronted. “Nuh uh. Mine’s better. And anyway, you love Daring Do, so win-win. Right, so, she knew she was in big trouble. An evening dress wasn’t the best thing to be facing a gryphon and his cronies in. But she wasn’t going to let that stop her, sure as her name was Pinkamena Constance Pie! Now, the thing about gryphons is...”

* * *

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Twilight woke with a start, her whole body jerking upward in place, to try to throw her upright. Her legs, both fore and rear, were abruptly stopped short. She fell back down to the soft, unfamiliar surface.

Beepbeep. Beepbeep. Beepbeep.

Her heart pounded in her chest. Her vision was blurred and washed out. Everything was a strange, ominous red-orange. The air had a chemical bite. Bizarre magi-technologies were complaining in a shrill symphony at her side, as they tracked her distress. Her head hurt so very badly. Her horn felt even worse. It was a sharp enough sensation that it was all she could do not to let out a sob.

Yellow and pink intruded on her unfocused sight. The unicorn tried to jerk herself away, but couldn’t, something that only engendered thrashing against whatever was holding her. Metal creaked discordantly. She hauled in a breath to scream. The familiar smell of grass and wildflowers came with that inhale, and sent instant relief filtering through her. She didn’t so much as twitch when that foreign shape lovingly nuzzled at her. Somehow that soft touch helped her calm, despite her horn.

“Shh. It’s all right,” Fluttershy cooed gently. The purple unicorn vaguely remembered strange, dreamy thoughts pondering how nice that voice was. It still was. It was beautiful, even if it was hard to fully appreciate at the moment.

She tried to talk, but her tongue felt swollen and parched in her mouth. Her words came out as a choked, pained croak that sounded horrible even to her ears.

There was a sound of water in some kind of container being disturbed. It made Twilight aware of a terrible thirst. She couldn’t imagine anything that would be better than a mouthful of water.

Fluttershy’s blurry face and mane came back into her sight again, something white in her mouth. The pegasus delicately placed a cold, wet cloth against her horn. Twilight hissed and nearly jumped again from sizzle of new agony, but a gentle butter-yellow hoof held her in place against the... bed? Floor?...with deceptive strength. After a second or two, the new pain ebbed away, and a share of the old started to numb away with it. Her body started to relax again. “It’s okay. We’re here. We’re taking care of you.”

“Just relax sugarcube. Ain’t no reason for you to be up yet. Close yer eyes,” another less distinct, but still familiar orange blur at the edge of her vision advised in a drawl. Applejack’s advice suddenly felt very, very good. She was so terribly exhausted. With Fluttershy’s hoof stroking her mane oh-so-gently, she allowed sleep to claim her again.

* * *

Beeep.

Beeep.

Beeep.

The monitor seemed to drone on at a snail’s pace. Every sound stretching out.

“Should’a seen her eyes.” Applejack’s richly accented voice was unmistakable, even if she did seem to be talking slowly. “Still glowin’. Shouldn’t they have stopped that by now?”

“Um... the doctors said that there’s some damage. Her eyes were open the whole time that the Princess was using her magic. B-but they don’t know why they’re still all... white. It’s sort of scary.” Twilight could practically hear the pegasus cringing.

“Are you kidding? It’ll actually be sort of normal for me. It’s the first thing I remember seeing, after I got out of that cozy egg.” Spike. A tension that the injured unicorn hadn’t even realized she was feeling suddenly released, upon hearing his voice. She felt the sudden urge to burst into tears, grab him and not let go. “Even after all these years, sometimes a part of me still tells me that it’s what a unicorn is supposed to look like.”

“I’ve never seen a unicorn who could sustain a surge for more than a few minutes. Who knows what the effects will be?” Luna’s voice was a welcome thing too, even if she was obviously trying to sound ‘normal’ again, and it turned her meager focus away from Spike. Twilight tried to struggle toward some measure of real awareness. It was like pulling oneself up a mountain with one weary hoof. The unicorn wasn’t even sure why it was so important. She had something to say? An apology? An admission? About what? “For myself, I consider it a hopeful thing. The greatest risk would be Twilight burning out her magic. Clearly it still flows strongly within her.”

Just the effort of trying to open her eyes or move her lips exhausted Twilight. She lay still for a moment, to gather her strength. Consciousness flitted away in the meanwhile.

* * *

Waking up to the feeling of sharp claws pricking at one’s skin would have been a nightmare for most unicorns. As a rule, ponies didn’t react all that well to predator species. Most especially not in their bed when they’re sleeping, unsurprisingly. For Twilight, it was a happy event. Spike’s scaly snout nosed itself up against her cheek in a very equine gesture of affection.

“Please be okay, Twi,” his voice was a whisper. The reason for his quiet tone was audible enough. Twilight could hear the deep, even breathing of sleep around her from several ponies. One, at least, was Rainbow. That mare spent practically half her life napping in public, and as such everyone in Ponyville was intimately familiar with her sleep habits. When she was on a cloud, she had the cutest, most ladylike little snores. Twilight and Rarity had giggled about it one morning over tea, early on, when they’d both agreed that Rainbow would probably prefer to sound like a badly tuned steam engine than be cute. Well, put that same pegasus on the ground, as she’d found out later, and she belted it out like a rusty sawmill. They didn’t allow clouds in hospitals.

The unicorn blearily opened her eyes. It was harder than it should have been, as the lids of her eyes were unpleasantly gummy and almost glued together. The room wasn’t exactly dark, as a certain amount of orange light filtered through blinds drawn across the window, but it was comfortably gloomy. Her vision didn’t appear to be any better, even if her brain seemed to be functional, for once. Her friends were fuzzy spots of familiar colour, and even Spike, practically right in front of her face, lacked detail. He instantly noticed her eyes opening, which wasn’t surprising. Not even her diminished vision missed the fact that the immediate area lit up as she opened her eyes. The effect was strange, and confusingly impossible. If her eyeballs really were glowing so brightly, she shouldn’t have been able to see a thing. The backscattered glare should have completely dazzled her, not just made things blurry.

“Twilight, you’re awake?” There was a note of excitement and relief in her brotherly assistant’s voice. For all he tried to play things cool and sarcastic, he was such a big softie inside.

The unicorn didn’t even try to talk. Her tongue still felt like a kitchen sponge that had been left in the sun for a week. To make matters worse, she couldn’t seem to get her forelegs to actually do anything. It wasn’t all that much easier to turn her head. The wave of dizziness that followed the small movement was intense. Still, with effort, she managed to give Spike a nuzzle not so different from the one he gave her a minute before. Weariness settled thickly over her, though the way Spike squeezed her tighter made it worth it even so. She hadn’t felt so worn out since running from that hydra in Froggy Bottom Bog.

All from turning my head?

There wasn’t any warning. Twilight's thoughts winked out, as if someone had just flicked off a switch.

* * *

Twilight sat at the center of a great pulsing web. She couldn’t see it, exactly, but she could feel it, stretching out near and far through a great emptiness. It was a thing of endless complexity, overlapping and radiating, thick in places and thin in others. The threads weren’t sticky silk, but things spun of warmth and welcome and need. It was a pleasant web to be captured in, really.

Somewhere off in the distance were entities dark and brooding. They sat in the thickest part of the web and gorged on the strands like bloated, shadowy ticks. The pattern was always so much thinner and colder near them. Their presence made the unicorn quiver in base fear and try to burrow down into the warmth of the strands around her.

Submerged into the embrace of that web, it was easy to forget about those distant, tumorous creatures. Everything was peaceful within, as if the whole world was singing a loving, gentle song to her. Aches, which she only noticed by their sudden absence, melted away, and any sense of time or place went with them.

* * *

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Twilight felt something cold touch her lips. A drop of water struck her tongue. It felt like it might not have been the first. Her tongue felt less like gummy sandpaper than she remembered. The purple unicorn’s eyes fluttered open. The room was still orange-red. Without shock and panic running riot through her, and with her consciousness feeling rather less fragile, she could puzzle out what was happening. She was in a hospital room. In a recovery bed. The light of sunset was streaming in through the windows. Had it been a whole day since she was last awake? She felt too different for it to be just a few minutes after her last foray into wakefulness.

Of course, the fact that there were flowers everywhere was a rather notable difference. There were colourful bouquets and pots scattered on every available surface. More were stacked up against the back wall. There must have been dozens of them. Twilight couldn’t make out many details, but the colours were deliciously vibrant. It sent a pang of hunger through her belly.

Her tongue darted out to collect the moisture on her lips. It encountered a small chip of ice there that didn’t budge when she touched it. She looked down her muzzle as best she could to try and focus on it. It was all still blurry, but the little transparent shape was gripped in a far clearer sky blue aura. That made sense. A unicorn didn’t see magic with sight, exactly, so blurred vision was no impediment. The lack of distraction probably even helped. The familiar aura seemed to show far more fidelity than usual. She could pick out the individual threadlike flows of force holding that ice. She searched the room for white and purple and found it a moment later, sitting to her right. A beacon of magic shone at the apex of that smear of colour: Rarity’s ignited horn.

“Welcome back to the world of the waking, darling. I see the talk of your eyes was no exaggeration.” Rarity’s rich, cultured voice was just as welcome as those of her other friends. Somehow her damaged vision made hearing them that much more important. Rarity made a contemplative humming sound. “It’s very striking. Mysterious, which every mare should strive to be, but perhaps a tad intimidating. In any case, I’m glad you came to when you did. I’m afraid I’ve found myself drafted into work around the palace, I haven’t been able to spend nearly as much time at your side as I might have liked.”

“Rarity,” Twilight began, testing her voice. It sounded a lot better than last time. Hoarse, even raspy, but serviceable. The white unicorn leaned forward to better hear her. “If you try to steal Shining Armor, I’m going to kick your flank so hard.”

There was a certain satisfaction when Twilight heard the noise of a paper cup full of ice chips being dropped. Hasty blue telekinesis stopped the cup’s fall, but ended up crushing the flimsy thing instead, sending blurred ice-chip-shadows fountaining up. “You heard that?” Rarity hissed, voice barely above a whisper. It rose somewhat to a tone of more normal Rarity-esque melodrama. “Oh, sweet Sisters, this has instantly become the most humiliating day of my life. Oh pleasepleaseplease let us talk about this later. It was no small task to shoo the others off to get a meal, since none of us felt it was right to partake of any of the lovely flowers that you’ve been getting from ponies across Canterlot, but they’ll be back soon.”

Twilight tried to raise a hoof about halfway through Rarity’s, well, whining, to make a dismissive gesture, but soft medical restraints were apparently wrapped just above each fetlock. “I wasn’t really serious, Rarity. I know you’d never do anything like that. Honestly, I just figured I misheard.” The purple unicorn found herself giggling. The quality of that sound was less than smooth, but it made her feel worlds better, even factoring the ache the movement caused in her head. “You like Shiny? You are the most unlucky pony with crushes.”

“Twilight, please! This is not the place for it. It wasn’t the place for it when Cadance spoke with me about it either, it seems.”

“Sorry. Could you get these things off my hooves? I can’t see well enough to do it myself.”

“Oh! Certainly dear.” Twilight could feel her friend begin to manipulate the restraints. She levitated a new ice chip over at the same time, which Twilight gratefully accepted. She was still thirsty. It afforded Twilight a moment of silence to admire her fashionista friend’s skill with telekinesis. She was opening all four restraints, while holding a cup and bringing over another ice chip to give her. Rarity might not be ready to lift any Ursa Minors, but the pony could multitask like few others. She even spoke while doing it, offering change of topic for embarrassing questions, no doubt. “Princess Luna herself came to check on you with me this morning. The scene we saw! Let us just say that Rainbow Dash’s heart was very much in the right place, but some things should really be left to unicorns, for dignity’s sake. Imagine walking in to find that the others had somehow convinced Rainbow to feed you ice chips, which, of course, for a pegasus requires lips.”

Twilight’s cheeks heated. Rainbow had been kissing her!? Or at least it had looked like that to Princess Luna? She resisted the urge to use her recently freed forelegs to pull the covers up over her face to hide.

Rarity either didn’t notice her embarrassment, or continued along anyway, voice sing-songy as she gossiped away, “It was all entirely innocent in intent, of course, at least on Rainbow’s part. But the Princess nearly fell over in shock, which I suppose was the final straw for our friends. They were all just in stitches. Poor Princess Luna was so scandalized that she said something about checking on Celestia and positively took wing. Dash has vowed revenge, of course. Let’s hope that this prank war won’t end up with another stern lecture from the local fire marshal.”

Twilight didn’t even hear Rarity’s words after Celestia. The lavender mare felt her stomach drop out from under her at the mention of her mentor. It took several seconds to clear the cobwebs from her mind and wrack her memories trying to figure out exactly where that sinking feeling came from.

Blinding light. Fire. Panic. Magic bursting out of her.

Twilight’s luminous eyes opened wide, she tried to flip over onto her hooves, but just ended up getting tangled in tightly fitted sheets. “Ohnononono! Celestia! Where is she!?”

“Twilight? Well, she’s still in her chambers I suppose. I haven’t heard of Luna allowing her to be...”

Light gathered in Twilight’s horn, and she flashed out of existence a split-second later.

“...moved,” Rarity completed, uselessly. “Oh, horseapples.”

* * *

Twilight came out of nonspace rather disoriented. For one thing, her horn stung like it had been hit by lightning. A sharp, electric kind of pain. For another, she wasn’t where she should be. A spell had tried to catch her and bounce her exit destination elsewhere. At some point in the nontime of the transition, she had noticed and worked to negate it. It was better to not actually think about what went on Outside. The mind had no real way to puzzle it out logically. Obviously it wasn’t entirely successful, since she found herself standing on the small table in an equally small room. Maybe one of the palace servants’ rooms. Twilight got the impression that the pale lilac blob nearby was a pony staring at her in shock. A white object seemed to be balanced on his or her hoof. A cup, probably, judging by the fragrance of tea in the air.

“L-Lady Sparkle?” It was a mare’s voice, but not a familiar one. “Is that you? What are you doing in my room?”

“Twilight is fine. I’m not a Lady.” The response came entirely on automatic. She’d spent her whole early life saying the same thing over and over again. Technically, she supposed, she did warrant a noble’s title of some kind now that her brother was a prince. It still didn’t feel right though. The nobility used their titles like clubs, for the most part. It was just... unfriendly. “It was just a little teleportation accident, sorry!”

Stupidstupidstupid! Celestia’s chambers have a TeleNot enchantment. What was that blasted spellkey? She couldn’t for the life of her recall the sequence Celestia had given her so many years ago. Even Twilight herself knew that if she took a moment to calm down and think rationally, it would come to her. She’d known it during the ‘tardy’ incident too. That didn’t make it any easier to actually accomplish. I can remember the scientific name of a bunch of rare plants while half conscious and drugged, but I can’t remember a simple magical key? I don’t have time for this!

“Sorry again!” she called to the mystery pony whose snack she had interrupted. She gathered power into her horn, structuring the magic into a metaphysical spear. That pain redoubled. It would have been enough to break her concentration, if not for the adrenaline that had been running thickly through her veins. It never occurred to her to simply teleport outside of the room and knock on the door, as she would have for anypony other than Celestia.

Instead Twilight arrowed Outside of proper space with all the unstoppable magical gravitas of the Canterlot train barreling down the mountain.

Twilight exploded into reality in Celestia’s room with a resounding crack. Motes of multicoloured light poured off of her like smoke, the residual magic of a dozen shredded enchantments. The walls crackled with static. It hadn’t been a clean slice through those wards. She had simply brute-forced her way through. The unicorn collapsed almost immediately with a pained cry, forehooves rising to her poor, overstressed horn. Her only comfort was that, while it certainly felt like a none-too-sharp, electrified icepick had been driven into her skull, it didn’t appear as if the tool was an actual, physical object jutting from her forehead.

Some part of her might have noticed the shouts of surprise, and the clank of armored movement, but it certainly wasn’t something that reached her fraying conscious mind.

* * *

It was minutes before Twilight improved to the point of merely groaning and clutching an ice pack to her burning horn. As soon as she could think properly again she threw herself onto her hooves. Her stomach threatened to do a bit of throwing itself, as the world spun from the sudden motion. She filed moving quickly under ‘Poor Idea’, right alongside magic.

“Miss Sparkle, are you feeling better now?” Asked a smear of white to her left. Well, that particular blur was probably the one who spoke, anyway. There was just too much white in the room to be sure. A lot of it was vaguely boxy shapes of medical equipment. Presumably one of them was the princess. There were a lot of ponies in the room too, ambulatory splashes of bright or pastel colours.

“Can you take me to the Princess please? I can barely see.” She was sure her vision should be a concern, but it was one that would wait, just like the formalities of small talk with, presumably, doctors.

There wasn’t any argument. The stallion led her gently, making no rush. He was clearly used to dealing with the injured. Celestia’s bed was easier to make out from a different angle, but Twilight wasn’t up to the task of really picking out anything. The princess was a splotchy white blur. A bit of pink, presumably part of her tricolour mane, helped to single her out. It was enough that Twilight could get her forehooves on the bed and lean in to nuzzle her mentor’s cheek. Emotion seemed to gather in her throat as a lump. She was sure her voice was thick with it when she spoke, “She’s sleeping? Is she okay?”

The doctor moved up closer to her, his voice lowered to the point where she had to swivel her ears toward him to really make out his words. “We’re trying to keep things quiet, Miss Sparkle. But it’s very, very bad.” Twilight’s heart skipped a beat. She couldn’t force herself to speak to inquire further. She didn’t really want him to, but the stallion continued, “I don’t know how she’s alive. Literally, I don’t have any medical clue. The surface burns were bad, but treatable with proper surgery and magic. Her insides...” The doctor trailed off. His own voice was getting somewhat thick, but he gathered his control, and kept a professional tone when he resumed, “I’ll spare you the details, Miss Sparkle, but there isn’t much left. She’s septic, her blood is filling with poison that it can no longer clear. But, she’s still with us, somehow. She’s even healing, slowly. But how long can even a god exist on magic alone? I... just don’t have any idea. Hopefully long enough.”

Twilight was silent as the doctor spoke. She didn’t even dare to take a breath. She can’t die! She’s Celestia! The emotion in her had gone cold. Empty. She couldn’t think. It was like being drugged all over again. She pushed herself off the bed’s surface, hooves going back on the floor. She didn’t dare touch Celestia anymore.

“We wouldn’t even have this much hope without Princess Luna. She’s the one who dug out everything that was destroyed before it could fester. Nopony I know could have brought themselves to do that to the Princess.” Twilight felt sick. It was better and worse than the emptiness. Something must have showed on her face, because the stallion suddenly stopped. Normal ponies were intensely squeamish even at the best of times. Doctors were at least trained and desensitized. “Sorry. Nopony is thinking straight, myself included. Our slim chance isn’t just thanks to her, but to you, as well.” The unicorn filly followed the movements of that white blur with dull disinterest as it sank to the ground. His muzzle touched her hoof. She jerked it back in surprise, to hold it along her body.

He’s bowing to me?

“Thank you, Twilight Sparkle. From me. From every pony in Equestria, for being there to try and protect her. Luna told us about your heroism.”

The wrongness of that statement felt so foul that it almost made her gag. This doctor was thanking her! Luna was touting her courage. Her friends had held a loving vigil at her bedside. Spike... Spike, for whom Celestia was like a mother, had been all but praying for Twilight's recovery.

Couldn’t they see the sin of it? It felt so tangible to her that she couldn’t believe that the rot wasn’t seeping through her skin like tar.

She had gone crazy. She had taken her most wondrous gift and turned it toward murder and violation. She had forced her way inside Celestia with it and shredded her to bits. Everything had been strange and hazy, but the memory strengthened with every second she managed to focus on it. She could recall reaching into that river of glorious, holy light inside of the pony she loved more than life itself. The metaphysical warmth of it had been like nothing else, all purity and cleansing. It was like someone had taken the very feelings she had felt whenever she was around the alicorn and made them into a fundamental force, measurable and quantifiable. Then she tore and clawed, breaking that perfect, flowing energy into something too raging and hot to be simply called fire. Why? She didn’t even know. It didn’t matter.

She had killed the heart of Equestria, and her own with it, and here this pony was grovelling in thankfulness for it.

“Stop it. Get up," Twilight croaked.

“Of course.” There was a warmth to the doctor’s voice, as if he thought she was just being bashful, but he rose to his hooves. “We’re doing what we can. Teams of the very best unicorn doctors we have will be arriving from all over Equestria soon. We’ll be using full six-pony arrays of the most skilled medical spellcasters we can find. All we have to do is keep buying time. When you feel up to it, I know we would be honored to have Equestria’s premier wizard in one of those spots.”

Twilight visibly recoiled. The thought of letting her killing magic so much as touch Celestia was horrifying. She could all but picture Celestia’s perfect, beautiful self shrivelling at the merest brush of that tainted talent of hers.

“I... no... I can’t...” Twilight stammered, tears blurring her vision further.

“It’s all right if you don’t know the spells. Just having access to your raw strength will...”

“NO!” Twilight screamed, voice cracking, “I can’t! I did it!”

“Pardon?” asked that very confused doctor. The room suddenly went still, everyone turning to look toward the strange outburst.

“I did it to her! I wasn’t saving her!” Twilight wailed. If anything, the room became more silent still, all the ponies holding their breath. Only the unfeeling droning of arcane technology beeped on, unaware. Doubtless, to a pony, they were thinking that they misunderstood her.

Twilight’s horn fizzed and flared. A flash of purple light filled the room. When the light faded, she was gone.

* * *

Blood Orange prodded his lunch with a hoof. One of his clan’s namesake fruits rolled lazily on the tabletop in response. The Royal Guard watched it with a certain sorrow. He didn’t want to waste it. It was as sweet and fragrant as any other produced by Equestria’s premier clan of earth pony orange growers. On some level the guard knew he should be hungry, but who could eat at a time like this? Somewhere above him a goddess lay broken. Maybe he should just nibble at it over the next few hours? Maybe it would cheer him up? It wasn’t like there was anything else to do while watching the palace dungeons. It was exceedingly rare that they were actually used. They were certainly empty now, leaving Blood Orange with endless hours to ruin his own mood.

A long sigh was cut off midway by a sudden flash from the cell hallway. The surprise alone powered the stallion to his hooves. Earth pony strength meant his armor didn’t even slow him. Blood Orange stopped himself before charging off, taking a moment to consider things. The dungeons were empty. He was mostly here to make sure tourists didn’t wander in. Then again, there was only one entrance, and nopony could have entered it to be creating any flashes. On any other day, the former points might have outweighed the latter one when determining his course of action. Today he grabbed his spear in his mouth and carefully set off toward the cells. He’d risk scaring some lost noble or pranking filly.

The first cell proved empty. It was easy enough to see that at a glance. Everyone always thought dungeons should be dark and dank. The Palace dungeons were bright, and perhaps some of the most expensive rooms in the palace, primarily because they were plated entirely in rose gold. The copper in the alloy conducted both magic and a potentially pissed off pegasus’s lightning. The gold, supposedly, couldn’t be destroyed with magic. Other than that, there was a soft, clean bed on a raised section of the floor, a sink, and a toilet. Magical white lights shone from behind gold mesh screens. There wasn’t anywhere to hide.

The second cell contained the presumed source of the flash. A lavender-coated unicorn was in the center of the room, settled onto her haunches, a hoof raised to her horn, as if it pained her. Blood Orange had been around the palace long enough to identify the filly as Celestia’s pupil and one of the Elements of Harmony. He immediately spat the spear quietly to the side, so it would lean back against his shoulder. “Miss Sparkle?” He ventured.

The bleak look the filly wore was heartbreaking. Her eyes shone with an odd internal light, not so different from the room’s illumination, but there was no mistaking the hopeless pain in them. Glistening paths of moisture were visible on her cheeks. The Guard immediately started forward, to offer comfort. The events of the last few days were bad enough for everyone else. Supposedly the Princess was like a mother to the filly. She’d been injured trying to protect Celestia, seemingly to no avail. Besides, she was one of his hero second cousin’s friends.

“Close the door.” The filly’s words stopped the stallion in mid-step. They were devoid of any emotion. A shiver traveled along his back from mane to tail. “Let my brother and Luna know. I wasn’t fighting the bad guys. There was nopony to protect the Princess against. It was me. I killed Princess Celestia.”

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