• Published 20th Dec 2012
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Cultural Artifacts - Dan_s Comments

A little piece of Earth arrives in Equestria, a human and it's home. The citizens of Ponyville and Princess Luna struggle with this newcomer, as it struggles with them.

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26) Hero of Saratoga

Dan's Comments

Cultural Artifacts - Hero of Saratoga

DISCLAIMER: My Little Pony is the property of has bro, Inc.

Day 44

Luna watched Celestia gliding in to a gentle landing. The cloud of Wonderbolts and Pegasi guards both Day and Night accompanied her.

"Please take her to the doctors," Celestia said to Spitfire, "The doctors in Dodge Junction weren't able to help." She carefully moved the dehorned unicorn to a stretcher, she nuzzled the fallen creature before watching them guards carry her off. Celestia looked at Luna, and Luna shied.

Only Selene landing on Celestia and eliciting a smile with her cry of, "Auntie!" told Luna that she wasn't the source of Celestia's fury.

It's still faux-Celestia, Luna realized as the Big Guy in Celestia's form nuzzled Selene, The pony he'd done more than I to bring into this world. I might have been a busy mother, but the child's father was available and obviously ready to help. And probably more experienced with children than I was.

"What happened?" Luna asked, as shied again as faux-Celestia's gaze fell on her.

The Big Guy reined in his temper and let Celestia's natural calm reassert itself. "They cut off her horn, smeared it with some tar or pitch from a nonmagical area where their base is, and have her convinced that she's lost all ability to touch magic. They sent her to deliver the message that any 'Mamby, pamby Royal lapdog who wanders in here will get the same'," faux-Celestia said in a clear voice. The guards bristled at this. Faux-Celestia wasn't through, "So I am not going to risk my troops, or yours, Luna."

"Your Highness!" one of the younger guards burst out, then practically withered as faux-Celestia smiled at her.

"I am gratified you would risk never flying again, to prove your loyalty to the crown," faux-Celestia said, "But that wouldn't be fair to demand of you. Love would not set such a test for loyalty."

Even the more experienced guards had trouble keeping their stoic mien.

"So, sister, what are you going to do?" Luna asked as she walked down steps to the throne.

"First, I am going to usurp your Night Court and your courtiers," faux-Celestia said gravely, then grinned, "With your permission of course."

"You have it," Luna said, "What is your plan?"

"A proclamation that will gladden their hearts, then, dinner and a movie," faux-Celestia said.

"This is payback, isn't it?" Luna whispered.

"You have no idea," faux-Celestia said darkly.
Day 45

Twilight stared at the letter. The cool of the library's floor was very restful, and it helped bring the universe back to the rational, reasonable place it always had been when dealing with Princess Celestia. " 'Please read the royal proclamation below to the Big Guy, and provide a translation for him and the others to reread at their leisure.'"

"The proclamation is easy, but I've never heard of this concept in Equestrian law," Spike said as he read over Twilight's shoulder, "I don't know how to translate it."

"I can't imagine what would have possessed Princess Celestia to do this," Twilight said.

"The Big Guy should be up," Spike said, "I've got the translation, so we can deliver it."

"How did you translate it that fast?" Twilight said as she stood.

"Practice," Spike said, as he opened the door, Pinkie raced in.

"Good, you're off to help the Princess," Pinkie said and started shoving Twilight towards the door. "I was hoping she would have told you about the duel tomorrow sooner, and gotten your help with the weapons, but better late than never."

"What duel?" Twilight shouted.

"Whoo?" Owlicious asked.

"I was getting to that," Pinkie said, "The Colonel-General griffon. It'll be something like Ponyville has never seen. A battle that historians will read and reread forever!" Pinkie leapt up to a backdrop of the Equestrian flag. "Relax Twilight, it was just a quick dream sequence," she said and grinned. She took a triumphal pose. "The mightiest of all ponies, against the most capable and cunning griffon in three generations! Feel the heart-rending terror as the Solar Diarch faces the Colonel General! Thrill to their cunning strategies! Marvel at the raw power of their attacks! And all right here in Ponyville!" Pinky jumped down and shoved Twilight and Spike out the door. She closed and locked it behind her.

Twilight looked from the door, to Spike, then back. "Has everypony in this whole town, in this whole country suddenly gone crazy?" Twilight demanded.

Pinkie hugged her. "It's not us," Pinkie said and gasped, "It must be you! Sisters!" She hugged Twilight, and gently eased her to the ground. "Poor Twilight, she really needs to learn to relax."

"You locked the door from the inside, how are you going to get back in there?" Spike asked. "How are we going to get back in there?"

Pinkie considered, then, opened the door. "The locks don't really work. I think you need to fix that."

Twilight stood in the Big Guy's living room, for once, the backdrop of books didn't distract her. " 'And so I, Princess Celestia, Solar Diarch, with full ascent of Princess Luna, Lunar Diarch, declare the bandits of the Baltimare Wood outlaw. Freed of my protection before the law.' There's a whole set of seals to mark it as authentic, and a postscript. 'Dear Sir, one riot, one ranger.' I don't think I know what that means."

The Big Guy extended a hand. Twilight hooved over the proclamation. The Big Guy set it on the table beside Spike's translation. His eyes darted over the words as he compared the words. Celly and Woona also peered at the documents.

Twilight had absolutely no idea why it seemed to have shocked the Big Guy so much. I guess the reports of him really going mad are true, Twilight thought, I just hope he doesn't' do something particularly foolish. She looked at all the books that were finally in reach of her hooves and understanding.

The Big Guy stood up suddenly.

Can he hear my thoughts? Twilight wondered, until the Big Guy began pacing. He wasn't making any sounds, but Twilight could imagine the deliberation going on inside his head. With Discord in there, I can imagine the debate.

The figure walked out of the room, pacing further in the family room. Celly sighed and stood up to follow him. But he reentered the room and sat back down. He wrote carefully on Twilight's translation: 'Thank you Twilight Sparkle, no reply.' He handed her the paper and walked back deeper into the house.

Twilight sighed, took a longing look at the books, and left for the library.

"So did you talk with him?" Rainbow asked as she swooped down. "I heard there was gonna be a need for real heroes. So when are we breaking out the Elements and going down there to show these bandits who's the toughest?"

"Never," Twilight said, "Their base is a magic dead zone. No power, it may even prevent the Elements from acting. I honestly thought Celestia was suggesting to the Big Guy that he go down and deal with them."

"Him, alone, that's not fair!" Rainbow insisted, "There's got to be over a hundred of them."

"So, he'd have them outnumbered?" Twilight asked.

Celestia would have preferred insane chortling, teasing or some other indication that he was enjoying her being hoist by her own petard. "Discord, aren't you going to say anything?"

"Your fears are groundless," Discord said, "Beyond that, no."

"I would think you'd be taking full advantage of my horror at this. I know exactly what's going to happen," Celestia replied.

"On the contrary, your Highness," Tom said, "You haven't a clue what is going to happen. And I'd like to point out, that those bandits have been in operation for years. This is not his fault, but yours. Years of benign neglect are needed for a problem to become this bad."

Celestia blew out a breath and looked around the mental landscape that wasn't hers.

"But he is now legally free to do whatever he wants," Celestia pointed out.

"Au contraire," Discord said, "He was free to do that the instant you switched places with him. You are now free to do whatever you want. And more important, the Ponyville Monster may be coming to get them."

"That won't have as great an effect as you surmise," Celestia said.

"I think you'll find what he can do exceeds anything you can imagine, even staying within the parameters you've set for his behavior," Discord replied, "You are also forgetting one other thing. But, I'll tell you that later. Bye." Discord vanished.

Celestia blew a strand of mane out of her face. "Great."

"A duel?" faux-Celestia asked. 'He' shook his head in frustration. "After all your hectoring about keeping up appearances, when were you planning to tell me about this? After it was over?"

"Things have been confusing," Luna protested.

"Great," faux-Celestia said and rolled his eyes, "Now I have to decide whether I want to win or not, as well as how to insure it doesn't look too blatant whichever way it goes."

"You'd throw the contest?" Luna asked aghast.

"Of course I might," faux-Celestia replied, "Do you actually think any of those people could hold me against my will? Neither the Heer nor the People's Liberation Army could catch me. Nothing on Equestria is a patch on them." Faux-Celestia paced a bit as Luna stared in growing outrage.

"You have to win, or do you best!" Luna insisted.

"Why?" faux-Celestia asked, obviously perplexed, "This is politics, not combat. The victory or defeat, and the margin all will influence the event. If I march over and crush someone too thoroughly, I run the risk of being accused of cruelty. If I win by too small a margin, the opponent, or others can legitimately demand rematches wasting my valuable time defending the victory. If I lose by a small enough margin then I or my supporters can challenge, using up the other side's time and effort defending a slim victory. If I make their victory look like a curb stomp on an overmatched opponent, or their reaction particularly inappropriate or unseemly, then they will have the victory at the cost of their reputation and the good will of those around them. It's not so easy as using my full talent to defeat an opponent. Do you understand?"

Luna could only stare incredulously at the creature inhabiting her sister's body. "You're assuming that the contest is yours to lose, rather than a struggle," Luna said.

"Look, if it makes it any easier to understand, it is mine to lose. Considering pony palates, a fairly skilled human beating any Equestrian in a cooking contest is simplicity itself. If your 'master chef' is any indication, all I need do is collect some mud with a bit of clay in it, season it until my eyes bleed, caramelize it with sugar or honey, arrange it in a tasteful fashion, then serve it. Instant victory."

Luna bristled, then exhaled and relaxed.

Then Selene piped up, "So what do we do?"

Faux-Celestia nuzzled her niece/daughter. " 'We'? We aren't doing anything, little one. I'm doing all the doing that needs doing," faux-Celestia said and grinned at the foal.

Selene giggled at that, and the tickling.

Then faux-Celestia focused on Luna "You still haven't figured out which side you want to come down on. Just understand that deciding not to decide is a decision."

"I know which side I am on," Luna answered, then turned suddenly at Selene's whimper. She nuzzled her foal, quieting her nervousness, and her foal's. When she turned back, faux-Celestia had departed.

Pinkie was watching as her 'party team' set up the decorations for the contest. The Big Guy had arrived earlier to help with some of the more difficult knots, then had left as suddenly as he had appeared. I wish I knew if he was getting better, or worse, Pinkie thought, then considered, I also wish Twilight would tell us what was in that letter she took to him. She seems kind of shocked by it all.

The griffons were setting up in Glory's kitchen. Celestia hadn't arrived, so the assumption was that she was using the kitchens in Canterlot.

Pinkie looked it all over. She shook her head to close out any gloomy thoughts but her pinchy knees had been getting steadily worse. Pinkie sense says something scary is about to happen. But nothing's happened all day, she thought, I'd feel better if this was a dozy.

She spotted Applejack looking at all the activity. "Hey Pinkie, any idea what the entries are gonna be?" she asked.

"The griffons are being very tight beaked, and Princess Celestia isn't even here," Pinkie said. She looked at the clear sky. "And I don't think she's going to make a late arrival."

"The contest isn't until morning tommora," Applejack said, "She doesn't have to be here until them. I don't think she trusts alla us ta keep a secret," Applejack said and winked.

"I can keep a secret," Pinkie said, "It's just, difficult."

Applejack smiled. Then she sighed as she scanned the skies. "Why does it feel like a thunderstorm's comin'? I mean, this is Celestia fer frogs' sake. The griffons aren't gonna toss a net on him and drag him away."

"I think I can guarantee that," Pinkie said and smiled at her friend's worried expression. "The griffon in charge just wants things to evolve."

Applejack nodded. "Well, I hope they don't have so much that everypony gets full on it. I'd like to sell some treats to the spectators."

Pinkie gasped and ran off to tell the Cakes to do the same.

Celly had been worried about him as the Big Guy sat on the patio and looked at the crystals that made up the cavern. He's been this way after he verified the team was packing up something in Nistag's lab, Celly thought as she walked out quietly and sat beside him. After a short while when he didn't react to her presence, she draped a wing over him. She was rather surprised when he nearly jumped.

"Sorry," he said, "A lot on my mind."

"I'd say," Celly said, "Care to share?"

"The Celestia we saw in the crazy house. She evidently tracked this universe down, and found her way into my mind," he said.

"From what Discord said, that's the last thing any Celestia should do," Celly said, "Discord warned us about that. It's one reason Woona and I haven't traipsed through your thoughts like they have." She nuzzled him, then looked at his strange expression, "What you wanted us stomping through your private thoughts like they were a walk-in closet?"

"No," he said, "It's just that, I never thought Discord would react that way."

"Well, I doubt he'd ever use the 'f-word' but he is trying to be your friend," Celly said, "Didn't you know that?"

"Yes," he said then stared at the walls, "Why do you think she did it?"

"That's easy," Celly said, "I used to be her, remember. She loves her little ponies, anything that can harm them has to be tested. Find out where it snaps and that's how much leash you allow it. Your problem is that she, I, was so used to being the only trickster, that when you don't quantify easily, she gets nervous. A thousand years of practical experience means she can usually predict the behavior of anything on Equestria after a little observation. Discord was before she got the experience, and she completely missed Luna's growing feelings of alienation. So she has to put everything in a nice, tight, little box. Ponies go in rather easily. Except the few exceptional ones like Twilight. And trying to fit herself into the box that Celestia keeps trying to stick her in is one of the reasons Twilight is so, inconsiderate. She's desperate to be what Celestia requires, but at the same time she wants to break out and just soar. I did that to Twilight in my homeland." Celly bowed her head. "That's probably what got her killed."

"What!?" he said.

"Well, she was caught by Sombra, and rather than doing what her instincts told her to do, she tried to imagine what I'd want her to do. That second or two of hesitation let him kill her, and all the Element Bearers. I've never forgiven myself for that. It's why I keep telling you to be patient with Twilight. Normally the two great forces in her life don't reinforce themselves so totally. But all that knowledge. She desperately wants to lay it all out like a garland at Celestia's hooves. To finally do something that she can consciously accept has won her Celestia's acceptance and love."

He turned to face her, his shock easily read on his face. "Rescuing Luna from Nightmare Moon, facing a dragon with only her friends, battling Discord without Celestia's help, all of that isn't enough to convince her? She has a stain glass window in Canterlot for facing Discord!" he said.

"Preaching to the choir, reverend. My Twilight never said anything to me about it. Somehow she's decided she has to be twice as good as Celestia to ever be considered her equal, or just worthy," Celly said and shook her head sadly, "No matter how hard she tries, she knows in her heart it won't be enough. Nobody seems to be able to convince her of it, and when I tried it with mine, it was as if she'd failed by not keeping her problems to herself."

He turned away from her and his shoulders began to shake.

"Hey, don't cry," Celly said as she wrapped her wings around him, "You've been a lot more patient than others, and explained that lots of the knowledge you have is a double-edged sword. Twilight understands. Aw, please, don't cry."

The Big Guy waited in the shadows outside his home, in Celestia's form, for Trixie to arrive. She was punctual, like clockwork, he thought as he waited, And with Luna lost to her worries about what else I'll do, it's time for the next piece.

The showmare appeared, and looked around worriedly, as if sensing something out of place. She nearly panicked as faux-Celestia unfolded out of the shadows.

"Please come with me," the Big Guy said.

Trixie bowed her head and worriedly followed the Solar Diarch. Faux-Celestia let her pass, and closed the door to the corridor. They were on the long staircase. One door leading up to Canterlot, the other leading down to a door he intended to go through. The third back home was closed and locked for the moment.

"I know you aren't Trixie, the same as I know I'm really the Big Guy in Celestia's form, so do you want to come clean?" he asked as the mare stared in horror at him.

"You must be mistaken," the Trixie imposter said, "I am the great and powerful - "

"Fraud," he said, "You are an excellent mimic, you have her mannerisms down pat. But you don't smell like her, and I know for a fact that she can't teleport that distance." He sat the body he was in down, and stared at the imposter. "I am very grateful for the help you've given me. But I really think you should tell me what's going on. Then we can help each other."

He was suddenly facing a huge, flaming beast. He yawned and raised an eyebrow. An instant later Trixie was back. "You also talk in your sleep," he told her.

Trixie fell to the stairs and covered her head with her forelegs. Moments and a flash of green fire later, she was a chitin-covered, fanged and horned creature with holes in her legs and wings. She cringed, as if expecting a blow, then slowly uncurled. "How can you not be afraid of me?" she asked, "You really are the Big Guy in there. How?"

An empath, he thought, And a powerful one.

"Because the only two ponies who've actually hurt me, are the form I wear, and her sister," he answered, then leaned forward and gathered the creature in. As soon as she had firm contact, the Trixie-imposter relaxed as if tranquilized, or medicated. "And because she had to take from me the one last thing that was mine. My identity. If even that is dependant on her whims, then it is time for me to leave. I want you to come with."

"You don't understand," the bug-pony said, "There's an attack, an invasion planned. And the seers have seen you destroying the queen who leads it."

"Well, too bad for Celestia and too bad for the seers. I think I intend to spend some time else where. Let the invasion happen. I don't intend to remain within their highnesses' reach."

"They can go anywhere in Equestria. As rulers or with their influence," the bug-pony said, and sighed as she snuggled against the Big Guy.

"Oh, that's another misconception I intend to disprove," he told her, "There are places she may be able to go, but will refuse to go. Trust me."

He felt her nod as she rested in his arms.

Celestia felt more than a little guilty about 'pony piling' with all these ponies who thought she was someone else. I guess I was jealous. 'The Ponyville Monster' could be cuddled and hugged, but not the all-beloved Princess Celestia.

"And just to whom are you justifying your actions?" Discord asked, "Yourself, or practicing to apologize to him?"

I don't think I can ever apologize for this, Celestia admitted, I had thought to help, but I never considered this would happen.

"You'd better be praying he can undo it. That body you're in is magically dead. Even with the Alicorn Amulet, I get the boost, not him."

Surely Twilight and Luna will teach him, or perform the spell themselves, Celestia replied.

"Why would they, at the word of the Ponyville Monster? You may have surrendered the throne to him for the rest of your life," Discord offered and grinned. "He rules Equestria, thanks to you. What happens is no longer your responsibility, but his."

You can't mean that! Celestia gasped, He wouldn't keep it! Luna would never allow it. The court would notice something was amiss! Celestia told him.

Discord scoffed. "Then why isn't Luna here fixing the problem? You're assuming that he even told Luna. The court, you've played enough pranks on them that they might not even notice. You, personally, invited the ponies who wrecked the last Grand Galloping Gala. You embraced the 'beep' joke and spread it to the court. You accepted the griffon's ridiculous challenge," Discord said, "Do you honestly think that if he doesn't force something too out of the ordinary that anypony will call him out? You know your ponies better than that. You've read the lips of many of the ponies, have any of them been shouting that Celestia has been replaced? They'll follow the alpha mare as long as she leads approximately where they are willing to go. You have been out-gambitted by a master, my dear Celestia. You are free from your crown, congratulations. You had better hope he really believes in this 'life-affirming chaos' stuff, because your power combined with his intellect and ruthlessness, there is no force on Equestria who could stand against him. Even me at full power."

"Have any of them been shouting that the Big Guy has been replaced?" Tom added.

Celestia suddenly felt sick to her stomach. He wouldn't hold the throne, just to punish me, would he?

"No, but to prevent you and your sister from meddling with him, he just might. Remember, he thinks you'll punish any misstep by plugging a sun in his guts. Now that you can't do that anymore, he doesn't have to put up with any of your or Luna's games. He might just stick a sun in you and take care of the problem."

Celestia was staring in horror at Discord now.

"Face it 'Sunny', you're both just random enough to easily pass for the other. I think that's one reason you hate him so much, and Luna is so smitten."

And that you're in love with him too? Celestia added.

"A hit! A palpable hit!" Tom said as Discord fumed at both of them. "But 'Tia, you are right, he is greatly to be feared. But not by your ponies. If he strikes, it will be at you and you alone. Giving him the legal and magical means to do so was not wise."

I didn't even think I was doing it, Celestia admitted.

"Or, he might be merciful. Confine you to a tower in Canterlot." Discord put on a Celestia wig. "Even though this creature is a threat to ponies, and me especially, I shall show him mercy. Cue applause." Discord pulled off the wig. "But I'm really Celestia!" He put on a Luna wig. "She is, she really is." He replaced the Luna wig with the Celestia one. "Luna, this is no time for jokes, the poor creature needs to be treated, not punished or encouraged. Cue applause."

Celestia stared at him as the pieces fit together perfectly.

"Well, I'll let you get some sleep. Big contest tomorrow," Discord said, "Say, you don't suppose he'd just throw the contest and let the griffons take you, do you?" Discord shrugged and walked away.

It seems I did not think this through, Celestia thought.

The stage manager looked at the Exhausted yet Triumphant Trixie and Igor VonStrong walking towards their dressing room. She rubbed her eyes. I could have sworn those two went in there a few minutes ago, she thought, I should get a decent night's sleep. She picked up her papers and headed to her office.

The pair entered the dressing room, where Trixie and Igor jumped to their hooves to confront the second Trixie and Igor. A flash of green fire and the newcomers were revealed as Celestia and a strange, bug-like pony.

"Sorry for the subterfuge, but it was the quickest way to get in here," faux-Celestia said, and removed a few maps from her saddlebags. "I charted their base, I wish I could have used my camera, but that would have been problematic. The prisoners are here, the main barracks here, and this is my best estimate of the anti-magic field."

"Do I want to know how you determined that?" Trixie asked.

"Trying to fly over it, and knowing when aerodynamics overcame the power of magic. I've never done a halo jump, but I kept my speed up so I coasted across the border and back where magic held sway."

"Idiot," Trixie mumbled under her breath.

"Here," Blueblood said as he pointed at a place where the prison compound drew close to the edge of the barrier. "This is a hill, right?"

"Yes," faux-Celestia said, "Going to use it for cover? It's pretty steep, but its alluvial, going to drive a mine straight under their camp and tunnel up to the prison?"

Blueblood looked shocked.

"I may know the technique, but I doubt I could pull it off. Besides, somebody has to distract them from the prison. I suspect that Celly, Woona and others will still have a lot of magical potency. They can lead the distraction."

"You'll have a problem here," Blueblood pointed out, "This used to be an old fort. If the bunkers underneath are in good repair, they could shelter under there, and they will be costly to dig out."

"I think I have a way to deal with that," faux-Celestia said, "I may need a movie to test my theory. Then flash-bangs and smoke charges will do all the fighting for us."

"Even I'd like to see that," Trixie said, "But what do you need from me?"

"I need my approach to be as terrifying as possible. I don't intend to go in as anyone but myself," faux-Celestia said, "I want to keep the blood spilled to absolute minimum. While this may be necessary, I have no doubts that I'll pay dearly for this."

"That's not fair," Trixie protested.

"Celestia has to look after the entire pony race. Having a renegade solve a problem is useful, but while being personally grateful, the renegade will have to be officially punished." Faux-Celestia grinned at Blueblood. "Like a certain stallion who gave her Highness a list of and leverage over the entire cabal."

"This isn't punishment, this is freedom," Blueblood said and grinned at Trixie.

"Very well. I have plans in place. Discord's little trick when he was fully realized went deeper than most people realize. He slipped me a few aces that anyone else would see as disasters. I'll be evaluating those while things stabilize in Equestria."

"Not to be a nudge, but the 50-ton dragon in the room," Trixie said and nodded to the bug-like pony.

"She's a changeling. A natural shapechanger," faux-Celestia said, "She feeds on emotions. Generally the emotions directed at the person they're impersonating." Faux-Celestia chuckled. "Can you imagine the power load that some changeling impersonating Cadence would get? I think half the country is in love with her, and every diplomat and most of the people in the cities she visited."

Blueblood laughed. "I can see that. The changeling might be as powerful as Auntie Celestia, especially if Shining Armor is as taken with her as he seems to be."

"Well, you boys have a lot to talk about," Trixie said, "We girls need to chat." Trixie escorted the changeling off to a corner.

"On this planet, is a girl being that polite to someone she's furious with . . . ?" faux-Celestia asked.

"As long as the broken bones don't poke through the skin there's very little blood," Blueblood, he glanced at the changeling apologizing to Trixie, and spoke quietly, "If you have her powers, there's a staircase off her private quarters. Whatever you do, don't go through the door at the bottom. Even if you think you're rescuing someone, or something else, don't go in there."

"I accept your advice. Where'd you get involved?"

"I was the typical, royal idiot. Then I decided that rules didn't apply to me, so I went through the door. I don't remember much, but when I woke, three days later, I was considerably more intelligent, I was also the coward I am now. Rumor is that his encounter with what's in there drove Discord insane."

"He's not insane. Warped yes, insane no. Have you ever heard of the Seekers?" faux-Celestia asked. "I've heard rumors about them."

"That would make sense, they are the ones who supposedly created the world," Blueblood said, his dread tinging his words, "They have either no understanding or little care for the day-to-day life of ponies. Have you legends of such creatures?"

"Legend and religion often have creatures who fit that description. They have little interest in us, as we have little interest in ants."

"Well, they may have given Aunt Celly the Elements, to let her deal with whatever they'd give to Discord, his power and his insanity or randomness. Why they didn't just take it back, I don't know. So their motives are hard to fathom," Blueblood said and glanced at Trixie quietly lecturing the bug-pony, who was reacting as if Trixie were physically beating her.

"Is that the only place to contact them?" faux-Celestia asked.

"No, that's a door to their realm. There may be other doors. Why?" Blueblood asked.

"I don't want to tell you, because you could tell someone else, and then the jig is up," faux-Celestia said, "But I suspect that a particularly odd pattern he set up may have that as linking element."

"This has something to do with escaping Celestia's reaction to you dealing with the bandits?" Blueblood asked, then he smiled, "Keep your secrets. I don't need to know, but don't take what Discord says as gospel. He has to twist his words. I doubt he can give a straight answer, unless that would do the most to disturb the hearers."

"I think he's afraid of doing that to me, for fear I'll do it back." Faux-Celestia glanced at the two returning Trixies. "Cheese it, the cops."

"You two seem to have come to an accommodation," Blueblood said.

"You knew it wasn't me?" one of the Trixies asked.

Faux-Celestia leaned over and sniffed each Trixie. "Yes, Trixie, I could tell, but I also had Discord explain what she was. And frankly, someone considerate enough to look after me that way was welcome."

The other Trixie flashed in green fire and stared in amazement. "How could you tell? My scent is the same as hers."

"She didn't know that's what tripped you up before, so she was confused when I sniffed her," faux-Celestia said, "Okay, let's flesh out the plan a bit, then you can get some sleep."
Day 46

"What is that soup?" Luna complained as faux-Celestia left the kitchen she'd chased all the cooks out of hours earlier, "Are you trying to lose on purpose?"

Faux-Celestia stared at her. "Hey, I'm no Joe DeFrates, but this is good stuff. Besides, what is he going to open with? Muffins, cupcakes, pies? Where's the palatable entries? Where's the sharp cheeses? Where's the flavor that doesn't come from the sauce or the seasonings? I'm beginning to understand why nouveau cuisine was such a rage, fresh ingredients, just a hint of seasoning, and let the natural flavors blend."

Luna's ears folded tight against her skull. "You make marching to your defeat sound like a religious experience."

"Oh, that door at the bottom of the staircase."

Luna froze at faux-Celestia's offhanded tone.

"You ever been in there? I hear some fascinating stories about it," faux-Celestia said, "It's something to think about." Celestia's form grinned, but Luna could barely contain herself.

"It's dangerous," Luna managed, "You should stay out of there. I thought Discord stayed with the Big Guy's body."

"He did. I think he was looking forward to spending time with Celestia without anyone interfering."

Luna closed her eyes. "That is not an image I wanted in my mind," she said, "I must thank you for placing it there."

"Oh don't worry, they're probably just talking. And I'll seal that door. With your permission of course."

"Of course!" Luna said, "Whatever possessed you to think going in there was a good idea?"

"It's my room now. You're right. If I'm to be Equestria's new ruler, then I should act the part." The door closed before Luna could imagine a reply.

Luna ran back to the counting houses and practically ran over the dignitaries to get the Sir Eagle Belle's office. "Sir Belle!"

The old bureaucrat looked at the disheveled princess. "Highness," he said and bowed.

"Sir Belle, Celestia is not whom she normally is. She has been possessed. She's actually the Big Guy," Luna said, avoiding the Royal Canterlot voice only barely.

The old pony sighed and smiled. "I know I am disobeying a direct order, but I think the joke is too cruel. Your sister, the Princess, Solar Diarch, kindest, gentlest of ponies, who could not bring herself to slay her corrupted sister, or Discord, or Sombra, or a host of others, stole the identity of `the Ponyville Monster` and has let him loose on all of Equestria?" he asked, "Oh woe is me, he may begin eating the servants, and the nobles." He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "She's chastising you for not visiting your friend. Especially when he most needs a friend himself."

Luna stared at the old pony.

"I agreed that you should go out there, but this office will not fray the bonds of the Diarchy to accomplish that," Sir Belle said, "After all, how would a biped suddenly master walking on four legs, and flight, in an afternoon. All reports are that when the Big Guy was transformed into an alicorn, he could barely stumble around, and flight was impossible. Your sister's puckish humor is well known, and rightly feared. Many nobles who thought they had the upper hand in some dispute, suddenly found the tables turned, and not only they, but their coconspirators, even their entire dossier of ideas became laughing stocks in an instant. From portfolio to pratfall, and no one saw it coming."

"You think this is all some trick of Celestia's?" Luna asked.

The old pony nodded. "It has all her hoofprints all over it. This one's a bit more elaborate than usual, a tribute to your more discerning eye, but it still is Classic Celestia. I believe you're worried over the wrong thing. What's the surprise she's plotting? That's what you should be worried about."

"Thank you," Luna said.

I'm not going to get any help here, she realized and then understood, Or anywhere else, they all 'know' it's a prank, on me. They're all too busy waiting for the payoff to think it can be anything but.

Luna headed back to the throne room to address the issues of the day.

Celly had been a bit disturbed by the Big Guy's mood swings. But I was told to expect this, she reminded herself as he 'stalked' her wearing a Discord-like grin, Okay, manic state.

Then he pounced, and somehow found all her most ticklish spots.

"Woona! Help me!" she squealed through her laughter as she staggered under his weight and her buckling knees.

Her sister, loyal to the end, cleared away the breakables, and launched her own attack.

"I am betrayed!" Celly squealed as she collapsed to the carpeted floor.

Derpy had not expected Celestia of all ponies to arrive at the post office. The others murmured as they bowed to their ruler. Celestia nuzzled the mail mare. Many in the room commented quietly on the familiarity.

"Derpy Hooves, I can't go into details, but I think you will need to take a vacation. Say three weeks, starting in three days."

"Highness," Derpy said, raising her head, "Take Dinky out of school?"

Celestia nodded. "Please trust me," she said.

Derpy nodded. Celestia smiled and left. As everyone stood up Derpy looked around.

"That was spooky," the postmaster said, "What are you going to do?"

"Put in for three weeks' vacation," Derpy said, "I get the feeling that wasn't a royal suggestion. I'll make arrangements with Miss Cheerilee after work."

The postmaster nodded.

Celly lay on her back, her wings extended. She'd managed to tangle Woona up in her mane and tail, and let them 'attack' while she'd concentrated her hooves on first futilely searching for the Big Guy's ticklish spots. He didn't have any. Then trying to bind up his hands and feet, but he always found some wiggle room to find her ticklish spots. She'd finally simply outlasted him.

Now he lay on her chest, cradled in her forelegs. His breathing was rapid, and while he felt like a furnace against her, he was shivering. She'd slackened her grip on Woona when it seemed less likely her sister would resume her attack and so she could wrap her mane around him to keep him warm. Woona slipped loose of the enfolding coils of her sister's tail and lay down beside her.

"You didn't do anything wrong," he told Celly, as he stroked the sides of her neck, "Not in not seeing what was happening. You are responsible for seeing that it doesn't happen again. But after Sombra, and Discord, and all the rest, you were not in a place physically or emotionally to deal with what Luna was going through. You were going through it too. Luna tried to be more than she ever had been, and you closed everything that hurt you out," he told her.

Celly shut her eyes, trying to hold back the tears. They told us he needed to talk about it, and might go dredging up some of our bad memories. But not that one, she thought, Please.

"Woona, you were desperate to see what you wanted. That you weren't appreciated. But while all your ponies ran and played in Celestia's sun, they trusted you to guard their night and their dreams. After how long under Discord's thumb, they were offering you the greatest show of trust they could."

Woona sniffled but said nothing.

"Not seeing it was not your fault. You didn't have anyone you thought you could trust. It took you both a long time to realize what you were turning away from. You can't keep blaming yourselves for mistakes made when you didn't know any better."

Celly hugged her two dearest ones and let the pain of all the old memories wash over her.

Pinkie couldn't help herself. She fell over sideways and started laughing uproariously. The Cakes, who had managed to keep a straight face, gave up and joined in. The Big Guy inside Celestia's form tried his best to look confused as the ponies completely lost it. The chef's hat that contained 'her' mane to keep hair out of the food they were preparing garnered a hoof-pointing from Pinkie as the mare's hysterics continued. The tall cylinder and poofy top was standard, but there was a huge amount of mane to contain, so the dimensions were greater than usual.

So the hat make it look like a mushroom is growing out of my bald head, he gathered from Pinkie's gasping explanation.

"What in tarnation's the ruckus!" Applejack shouted as she entered with Rarity and Twilight.

The Big Guy duplicated Celestia's 'hurt puppy' look, and directed it full force at the three arrivals. Twilight looked spectacularly nonplused. Applejack looked like someone had just kicked her someplace particularly sensitive. Rarity alone was maintaining a straight face.

But the last time I heard anything like that, he thought of the noises the fashionista was desperately trying to stifle, Was when I was teaching my niece to drive a stick shift.

Rarity broke and ran for it. Outside, her laughter and unladylike snorts echoed off the other buildings.

Applejack just stared with the screwed up expression on her face. Twilight looked half way to apoplexy or death by embarrassment.

"I think I look very pretty," the Big Guy said, as Celestia in his body and the rest of his group entered Sugar Cube Corners.

The Celestia in his body stared open mouthed.

I don't even want to imagine what this is doing to Discord, he thought.

Hotaru wound up on the floor laughing fit to die. Celly and Woona started doing Applejack impersonations. The Apples looked at who they thought was Celestia, then at each other, then backed out of the building.

He walked over to his body, tapped gently on the side of his head with Celestia's hoof. "Hello, anypony home?" he asked, then pushed the body over, catching it as it collapsed, to lower it to the ground.

Poor Twilight was still staring at Celestia's form. The mare had sweat pouring down her face.

She looks like she's just chugged a bottle of tabasco, he thought.

"Don't you like my hat?" he asked as plaintively as he could, trying to make Celestia look absolutely melancholy and miserable.

Twilight's sweat doubled, honesty warred with admiration and loyalty. There was no hope for her. Her eyes rolled up and she collapsed.

Satisfied, he took a careful path back to the kitchen to complete preparations for the contest.

The Colonel-General had seen many sights in his life. Thought I was long past one that could make me lose my composure, he thought, but nearly dropped the tray of muffins and cupcakes he'd been carrying to the open-air preparation table.

He managed to get the tray on the table before he collapsed to the ground. He laughed there until he was wheezing. That's going to make decorating cupcakes difficult! he thought and focused on the image as a stratagem. He couldn't hold it and started laughing again. I don't care if it is a strategy. The sight of dread Celestia, seeming ly shaved bald and waving around a giant mushroom is too much.

He managed to help Glory and Mystery place the remaining pastries and the icing on the table. That neither had been reduced to giggles told him of their iron discipline and the effectiveness of the Imperial Guard' training of both nations. Nothing could break their stoicism, but Celestia doing her preparation with that preposterous hat was near their limits.

The sight of the spectators, and the judges trying to keep a straight face, only to fail, then remember just whom they were laughing at and sober up, only to fail again, didn't help. Celestia was humming a tune and bobbing her head in time with it, only worsened the effect.

"That's a dirty trick," Sveti managed, trying to bury her mirth in fury, and failing.

"All's fair," he replied as he lowered his gaze and concentrated on the pastries, the icing, and the patterns he had to put on them. Listening to the ponies one by one and in small groups slowly blowing their gaskets made the job terribly difficult.

Not surprisingly, Celestia finished first. Her offering was different for the ponies at the judging table, and for the griffons. The Cakes, Bonbon, HollyHock, Zecora, Mystery and Sveti were the judges. All had a reputation for honesty and straightforwardness.

Although a certain bias, can be expected, from both sides, he admitted as he looked at Celestia, her hat still and her expression somber, as she served. That alone sobered the judges. Her Solar Highness does not serve, but she's doing a masterful job of it, he admitted.

The ponies received a salad: lettuce, onions, olives, corn chips, and a sprinkling of cheese. The dressing and the scent of it intrigued him. It seemed to be a bean soup, but the scent of cumin reached his nose. I don't know of any pony recipe using that, he thought as he tried to make the patterns of icing aesthetically pleasing as they would be delicious.

The griffons, and Zecora at her request, received a bowl of the soup, a small condiment tray of corn chips, shredded cheese, lettuce, olives and onion.

The staple for the one is the condiment of the other, he thought as he completed his first batch, Clever. The smell was still tantalizing him, and set his mouth to watering. He looked up to see Celestia setting up a small table, with a serving for him. She nodded, setting the hat to bobbing, and selected one of the decorated cakes that he hadn't yet arranged on the platter for the judges.

"This is delicious," Celestia commented as she took a bite of the cupcake. "A masterwork."

Then why do I feel like I've just been awarded third? he thought and looked at the stunned looks on the judges. Every single one of them.

Mr. Cake was the most honest, he dug into the salad like a starving fledgling, enjoying every bite. At the other end of the table, Sveti caught his eye and shook her head slightly.

So I've already lost, the old griffon thought, Well, I shall go down with the banners flying.

Celestia had exchanged the ridiculous hat for a mane net, and was serving seconds to the judges, then walked out to the audience and began giving them samples. The poor ponies just stared at her in utter awe.

He delivered the tray of muffins and cupcakes to the judges. They oo'ed and ah'd at the pretty arrangement, and they each sampled a bite here and there, and savored each morsel. But the writing is on the wall, he thought as he returned to the preparation table, and then moved down to sample. He tried a spoonful of the material. He looked and it the deep red-brown and considered the gravy that could possibly produce that color. He smelled the tomatoes, and the meat. But beans? What could possibly make it smell so good? he thought then tasted it. He stood and stared into the distance. The small dollop resting on his tongue, igniting nerve endings like the bows in a firing squad. There's nothing on Equestria like this, he realized, and looked at the Big Guy enjoying a large bowl of the stuff. The griffon smiled. Yes, nothing like it on Equestria.

He added some of the other ingredients and realized he'd been handed a tremendous boon to the Griffon nation. We've got plenty of beans, and a griffon can survive on them and a little meat, but no griffon would do that. Until now. Enough meat to give it a flavor, but not even enough to put off a pony. And beans to fill it out. Even I can figure out the ingredients. He waited until Celestia turned to acknowledged him. He bowed low, admitting his defeat, and putting his fate entirely in her hooves.

She bowed just as low, basically declaring it a draw, despite having delivered as devastating a defeat as was possible without physically killing him.

He looked at the ponies and others around him. He returned to the table, simply laid out a layer of icing on the cupcakes, and took the cupcakes and muffins first to the judges, then to the audience. The compliments rolled in.

But this is a school champion against a seasoned professional, he thought, I never had a chance, but by declaring a draw, the two of us will work it out.

The collection of ponies and others had clustered around the theater. To the Colonel-General's chagrin, the Big Guy in Celestia's form had revealed he had cases of canned versions of the chilli he'd prepared for the contest. Twilight was staring at whom she thought was her mentor with a worshipful gaze.

"The griffons have always had problems with food shortages, but suddenly they have a new food source that lets their poorest eat food they would have turned up their noses at," Twilight said, her enthusiasm for the subject making her friends and even the griffons' smile.

"Better," Mystery added, "By 'stealing' the secret from Princess Celestia, he can put his loss off as wresting secrets from the ponies. That should soften the blow of him having challenged and lost."

Twilight's brow furrowed. "That doesn't make any sense," she said.

"Politics, darling," Rarity said, and nodded, "I almost think you two worked this out in advance. When it's revealed that it came from the Big Guy, it'll make it even more valuable."

"With the ability to translate," the Big Guy as faux-Celestia said, "Those cook books will suddenly become a hot item. Perfect for Bonbon and her 'strange' marefriend to work on."

The pair blushed under the praise.

"Do you know what this cinema is about?" Sveti asked.

"I think it's about ships," faux-Celestia said, "The title is The Enemy Below, maybe it's about underground monsters." The cinema began playing.

"Nope," Rainbow said, "It's about ships. Do you suppose we'll see if they know about sea-ponies?"

"Well, it's easy to tell who are the officers, they have so much nicer clothes," Rarity said.

Dinky stared at the subtitles, mouthing the words. "What's a feather merchant?"

"You can read that?" the Big Guy in Celestia asked before Twilight could.

"Sure," Dinky said happily, "It's like a game."

The Big Guy in Celestia nodded.

He watched the ponies watching the movie. As the ship's alarms in the movie sounded the ponies perked up as the crew ran to their battlestations. The griffons were more sanguine about the activity. Here it comes, the Big Guy thought checking his wings. If I'm right, well, just a little time to wait.

"Their boat's sinking!" Fluttershy gasped.

"I think it's supposed to," the Big Guy inside faux-Celestia said. He noted the odd look Celestia in his body was giving him. "Submarine means underwater. That may be the u in U-boat, underwater."

"How are they gonna fight a boat like that?" Rainbow Dash asked, "It's cheating."

"How is a boat like that going to fight a surface ship?" the Colonel-General asked, "I think we may find out."

"The word Class, it was printed differently," Twilight said, "People with different languages fighting. Wait, they have the same language, just spell the words differently, but use the same letters."

Good ole' Twilight, he thought, Misses the point to focus on what catches her eye.

"How many languages are there on his planet?" Twilight asked. She cringed as the torpedoes were fired on screen.

They watched silently. Until the first depth charges fired. When they detonated, he had every pony in the room under his wings or behind him, if they couldn't climb into 'the Big Guy's' lap. Even Celly was trying to occupy that very crowded piece of real estate.

"Wouldn't an explosion underwater crush the ship?" Twilight asked.

"Shut up!" Rainbow insisted.

Why is he doing this? Celestia asked Discord, her own terror at the spectacle unfolding was nearly as great as her ponies'.

"You were the one pointing out that the location had an old fortress with catacombs," Discord said, "Filled with zomponies and giant dragon skeletons? Woooo!"

No, Celestia replied, Wait, he's going to depth charge them? That's horrible!

"Better that a frontal assault against an entrenched enemy?" Discord asked, "Look at how terrified even the griffons are. And they're only watching a recreation for the cinema. Imagine how their resistance will crumble facing that directly."

It's still terrible, Celestia thought, But, given the only other possibilities available to my troops, I guess it is the best of bad ways.

"Isn't it amazing, completely freed of all threats to his safety, and having the political position to legitimize whatever action he takes, he still respects your rules and wishes. It's almost like you've got nothing to worry about, but that's silly, isn't it."

Yes, silly, Celestia said, glaring at Discord.

"Oh, someone finally cracked, and on screen before the audience did," Discord said, directing Celestia's attention back to the cinema, and her overfull lap of shivering ponies.

The Big Guy, still wearing her form, sheltered everyone else either under her wings, or behind her bulk. The Big Guy watched the crowd, rather than the cinema.

The ponies uncurled to watch the submarine's captain stifle the young man's terror. And then select a record to play and sang along with the crew.

Except he isn't just heartening the crew, Celestia realized, He's still fighting. He's still defiant. 'Good try, but you didn't win.'

"An important aspect that neither you nor your sister seem to realize," Discord pointed out, "That it is possible to have two clever, resourceful, considerate men of superb character, completely capable of ruthlessly trying to kill each other. Captains Murrell and Von Stolberg are such men. You might want to consider that there are others with these same characteristics."

Rub it in why don't you? Celestia thought and continued to watch the cinema.

The rescue of the wounded human by both captains working together, then the two crews practically dragging the captains to safety warmed Celestia's heart, and drew the ponies from their hiding places to watch. And loved it when 'Celestia' rewound it so they could watch the scene again. They grew somber again as the ships blew up, and then at the funeral scene.

The ponies and the griffons were pensive as they said their good-byes.

The other war films were too spread out, too many things happening to too many people, Celestia thought, This was personal. Two men, wielding their ships and their crews like weapons. Yet, they weren't exactly friends at the end. They could at least live with each other.

"Perhaps the lesson?" Discord offered, "There doesn't have to be instant friendship, but there can be a duty to greater things."

Are you suggesting letting him keep the throne? Celestia asked, I can't do that. I can't do that to my ponies.

"You say his terrible mistreatment of them?" Discord asked, "He fed them meat and they enjoyed it!" Discord shrieked in terror.

That really is annoying, Celestia said.

"You stole his home, his friends, and any hope he had of family from him, and he hasn't put a little sun in your guts, which would cement his position as Solar Diarch, by right of conquest if for no other reason," Discord told her, "I don't think he's going to hurt your little ponies to get at you. I think he's going to make them very happy, and that's how he's going to stab you in the guts." Discord yawned, interrupting Celestia's question. "Well, time for sleep, see you tomorrow." He and Tom vanished, leaving Celestia alone with a very large number of uncomfortable questions.

She glanced around the mental landscape nervously for a few moments. The shadows are not closing in on me, she thought as the ponies led her to the bed to settle in for a night's sleep. She briefly considered the likelihood of any of the Canterlot elite looking after her this way, and found herself tightly hugging Derpy when she realized, My sister hasn't charged in to 'my rescue'. She has to know, she has to!

The changeling moved towards the perimeter of the magic dead zone. Her disguise began fading moments after passing the boundary.

Faux-Celestia sighed. "So much for slipping in and spreading dissension and chaos that easily," he said as the bug-pony despondently walked back. "It isn't your fault," he told her.

"It should work," she replied, "But in there, it's like I forget how to hold it."

"My strength is greatly diminished," Faux-Celestia said, "An alicorn is still much stronger than an Earth Pony, but nothing like outside. I wonder if even Celestia knows how physically strong she is."

"I wouldn't know," the changeling said and looked around, "Don't they patrol the forest?"

"No," faux-Celestia replied, "They aren't a government, or a military, just a pack of bandits. This dead spot is too far to walk to, so they don't have guards on it, and their pegasi don't like to fly at night over territory where their wings are intermittent."

"Got it all figured out," the changeling said.

"No. I want to know why the doors open to where they do. Once I know that, I'll solve the riddle Discord left for me," faux-Celestia said, "Until then, I deal with what I can."

"Well, unlike you, I need rest and sleep, and -" the changeling ended her statement with a contented sigh.

"Seems you can feed in one of these dead zones," faux-Celestia said as she gathered the small bug-pony in her wings. "Very interesting. Very interesting."

Discord felt several of his tail spikes fly off as Celestia whirled him around his inner sanctum. Her grip on his throat with her teeth held as she practically ran and flew in place, circling faster and faster.

Then she let go. He sailed through the door she had blown off the hinges to enter the sanctum, and crashed into the ceiling outside so had he shattered on impact.

"Billions and billions of pieces," Discord said as he reassembled himself.

"Genius idea, after rubbing her nose in it that in a world where friendship is the ultimate magic, she only has friends when she 'borrows' them from her student or steals them from her enemy, to remind her that even her sister hasn't tried to rescue her," Tom said, "You know how unstable things are, especially her emotions."

"Oh hush, I'm having fun," Discord said, then sighed and smiled as Celestia screamed in raw rage as she charged, "She's so beautiful when she's passionate like this."

"She is doing her best to kill you," Tom said.

"It's such fun to let her try," Discord replied and watched in rapturous joy as she rammed her horn through his chest and knocked him to the ground.

"I must remember to explain the 'good attention/bad attention' part of relationships," Tom said, "Oh dear, that's got to hurt."

Luna had finally decided to go where she realized she should have gone the instant faux-Celestia had revealed the situation. Now she stared in horror. I saw a pair of mantises mating, when I was little. That had a savage beauty, this, this is unbelievable, she thought as she stared.

Discord was pinned to the ground by Celestia's hooves and between screams of pain, was shouting at Celestia 'Is that your best? Is that all you got? Is that all your anger at what I did to all your ponies amounts to? What I did you your Element Bearers? What I did to Twilight?'

Celestia drove her horn into him again and again, then ripped pieces of flesh from his body with her teeth and horn, and swallowed them.

Why is he laughing? Luna wanted to scream as she watched her kind and gentle sister reduce Discord to a skeleton, then began crunching up the bones left behind. This can't be happening, this can't be happening, this can't be happening, this can't be happening! Luna squeezed her eyes shut and told herself. When the sound died down, she looked at her fellow Diarch. Celestia stared right at her, Discord's tooth in her lip, as if she were trying to impersonate him. Then the tooth disappeared into Celestia's mouth and the crunching sounds as she slowly chewed it were the only noises in the entire place.

Luna turned and fled. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she ran. She wasn't sure when she'd transitioned from waking to sleep, but she found herself thundering down the corridors of Canterlot. The few ponies with business at that late hour hastily got out of her way.

Even the door wardens knew enough to get the massive portals warding the throne room out of the Lunar Diarch's way. Luna continued her charge. She did care who was really in the body, it would be better that Celestia wasn't in there.

"It was a dream! It was a dream! It was a dream! It was a dream!" Luna shouted as she burrowed beneath faux-Celestia's wing.

"Of course it was," faux-Celestia said, a comforting mix of Celestia's soothing tones and the Big Guy's confident mastery of any situation.

"It was a dream! It was a dream! It was a dream! It was a dream!" Luna could only manage as she tried to hold any touchstone in her reality.

"Night Court is in recess," faux-Celestia said, "Corporal, please rouse Captain Armor and Princess Cadence, have them brought here, and bring Selene Dreamer here. She's probably worried about her mother." She nuzzled Luna. "There, there," she said, "It was a dream, and a bad one, but I'm sure we can work it out. We can work it out."

Luna simply broke down in sobs as she tried to deal with what she'd seen, what Celestia had become.

Discord stepped out of the shower. "Ah the things I do," he said as he dried himself off.

"Taking such extreme chances is not perhaps the best route," Tom said, "You could actually have been killed."

"I would have returned to the rest of me," Discord said, dismissing the concern. "You worry too much about the wrong things. Ah good, I don't smell like pony flops anymore."

"What pray tell should I be worrying about?" Tom asked.

"What affect it had on her," Discord said as he stepped out of his sanctum. He paused a moment to restore the door Celestia had smashed off its hinges. Then he set off to search.

"There." Tom spotted the flash of white in one of the deeper shadows.

Discord waved him back and approached alone.

"Please stay away," Celestia said, more whimper than speech.

He stifled the urge to reply 'or what' with liberal application of a jar of herring, cream type. "I'm not going to hurt you," he said instead, and rolled the jar away from them as he sat down.

"I -" Celestia said

"You most certainly did. And you looked absolutely beautiful doing it too," he said, "All you did was forget one little thing. But we can do that now."

"What?" Celestia asked, trying to pull herself deeper into the corner, deeper into the shadows.

"My forgiveness," he told her and hugged her gently. "I forgive you for what you did. For what you've wanted to do for so long. For what I perhaps entirely deserved."

"Forgiveness?" the trembling alicorn asked.

"Yes, I need to ask yours as well. The currents of this place are deep and strong. Anger, love, fear and joy all run not in the little streams that ponies experience, but in torrents that could scour away mountains. I let you transfer here knowing that, because I thought it would do you some good," he said, "I hope it has. And I've watched you give Celly and Woona lesser versions of what you're going through. But letting it happen, because I wanted it to, was rather cruel."

And I also apologize for not being there to help you weather reaping what you have sown, Discord thought as Celestia cried her eyes out, I have got to get her out of this place. A little was helpful, too much is going to drive her mad.

The small collection of ponies surrounding Luna kept the Lunar Diarch quiet and safe. Cadence had carefully sandwiched Selene Dreamer between her self and Luna. Luna was pressing hard again Celestia's side, and the Solar Diarch's wing was draped over the entire trio.

Shining Armor sat on the other side, a bit embarrassed at being included as a witness to this. He steeled himself, and addressed the Solar Diarch directly. "What she said, about you not being who you were, about tearing Discord to pieces, about, all of it," he said in low tones to not awaken the sleepers, "What is that about?"

"I had a similar nightmare. You heard the reports that I told the court that I was our alien visitor. I believed it wholeheartedly. The currents in his mind are stronger than we're used to. It swept me away, until I could focus again on who I was and my responsibilities. Luna thought my inexperience was causing my behavior. It seems she did worse that I did. What is remembered, and what actually happened will be a bit muddled."

"I'd recommend staying out of there, until things get more settled," Shining Armor said.

"That is not what we do for our ponies," Celestia chided him.

"As Bonbon correctly asserted, he is not a pony. Highness, treating him as such continues to be a disaster," Armor said.

Okay, I'm pushing the line here, Armor thought, But if I can't tell them the truth, who can?

"If what she said were true. That somehow we had switched places. How would anypony tell?" Celestia asked nervously. "I wonder, because if the disorientation lasts, for as long as it did for me, and for Luna, what if something else stayed with us?"

"I think everypony would know whether it was or wasn't you," Armor said.

The things she comes up with, he thought.

"Thank you, Captain, most reassuring," Celestia said.

"One other thing," Armor said and glanced at Selene, "The report of uh, close quarters combat. Luna seems very disturbed that the battle took place during the dismemberment."

"Fog of war," Celestia replied, "Luna is assuming the battle took place."

Armor struggled with himself for a moment. "Highness, this is perhaps above my pay-grade, but to help Luna, are you saying the campaign could not have been waged as described?"

"Captain, both you and Luna are assuming that before a decisive battle took place, there would have been extensive skirmishing required. I can assure you," Celestia paused to blush, "If the army was mad enough to arrive in full battle array, Discord would have little trouble getting his heavy maneuver divisions from column to line in a hurry. The rumors that these campaigns were fought in the pre-Classical days I leave to rumor, but I will assure you that intelligence was available that Discord was both a master strategist and superb tactician. It was attempting to fight a war on multiple fronts that reduced his combat power."

Armor nodded.

"Oh, Captain Armor," Celestia said.

"Yes Highness?"

"Do work on your skirmishing, expertise with the vedettes is always appreciated," Celestia said regally, and smiled.

Armor nodded.

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